May 21, 2015 posted by

Hugh Harman’s “Winky the Watchman” – and How to Do a Great Commentary Track

I really wish Hugh Harman had made a feature film instead of the educational films his studio produced over the years. The production values in their mid-40s productions are quite beautiful, looking far better than one
would expect for the message.

winky-titleWinky the Watchman is one of my favorite oddities. Many years back I bought an old black and white Pictoreel print of the film, knowing full -well it was really in color (because it looked like it would have to have been produced in color from the tonal range in the film). A handful of years later I finally saw the film in color. Many of the prints of the film are actually in Ansco color or Kodachrome. There’s a really nice Ansco print sitting in my basement, soaking for many years in an attempt to make it less warped. I think it’s’ a losing battle! The film appears on Thunderbean Cultoons, Volume 2.

Winky seems to have some kinship to Gabby from Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels. Maybe it’s Gabby’s younger, better looking but just-as-dumb brother.

winky-250It’s fun to see B-movie actor Ralph Byrd (Dick Tracy) as the dentist in the film, and Janet Burston (from MGM’s Our Gang) as “Mary”. Can anyone ID the rest of the cast?

Winky, it turns out, IS a colorful little film, and it has a very colorful (and somewhat hidden) history. Mark Kausler was kind enough to do an excellent commentary for it. Mark consulted Hugh Harman’s papers on the production of the film, offering a well constructed and informative mini-history of this educational short. He was the perfect person to ask; I find it to be a fascinating little look into how behind the scenes negotiations happened, and how Hugh really tired to make the most of this particular production.

winky-badumsAs Mark notes, the film was shot in Technicolor. I really hope that someday a 35mm Technicolor print shows up on the film… I love to see it looking as good as it can. There’s some really fun animation of the ‘Bad-uns’ characters, with their floppy little arms and giant mouths. I especially like the little scene where Winky changes his own ‘gears’ mid-air- really cute poses and timing here and throughout the film. There’s a hint of Famous Studio-style designs throughout the film…. what studios do the designs remind you of?

Thunderbean has been lucky to have some really great commentaries over the years- I have to admit that I usually watch the cartoon and only sometimes get around to listening to the commentaries myself, so I always want the ones on the discs we do to be interesting in some way. Mark does a great one in that it isn’t married to the film itself, but rather makes a nice and informative listening experience with the film as a side reminder. Here’s the film, and the film again with Mark’s commentary. Enjoy!

Without Commentary:

With Commentary:


  • The animation where Winky talks to the “Good-uns” looks like Warner Brothers animation, particularly in how the Good-un’s mouth is animated.

  • I have to admit that I almost never listen to commentary tracks. It’s always my intention to go back and do so, but that rarely seems to happen. It’s a matter of lack of time rather than lack of interest, though. I admire an intelligent, informative commentary track and am always glad to see them included as a bonus feature. And I have every intention of actually listening to them. Someday, when I get the time.

    • I like commentary tracks. Mark’s history involving Winky’s distribution/licensing over the years is pretty interesting itself.

  • That warped print in your basement came from the Buffalo School System’s library, via my father-in-law, who worked A/V for the board of ed. He always maintained that the cartoon was pulled from the library because the Bad ‘Uns were shown as being black, so it was a negative racial stereotype. Was it really? I’ll never know for sure.

    What a heart-breaker it was when I pulled it off the shelf one day and found that my once near-pristine print had turned into ribbon candy. Sorry to hear it hasn’t (yet?) come back from the dead.

    And, yes, Mark’s commentary track is one of the most informative cartoon commentary tracks EVER!

    • Considering the Bad-uns don’t speak in any black dialect, I doubt it. The just look like trolls or something from a fairy tale. Also when one imagines tooth rot, they imagine them turning black.

      The Good-uns kinda look like Klansmen, though I’m going to assume that’s accidental.

  • “[W]hat studios do the designs remind you of?”

    I thought of John Sutherland when I first saw this cartoon and after listening to Mark’s peerless commentary, I can see why. A bunch of the guys he’s credited (Gordon, Gillespie and Nevius, to name three), ended up at Sutherland a few years after this was released.

  • Reminds me of “The Lost Dream”.

  • So surprised to hear that Janet Burston was a small part of this film; while I don’t like the MGM OUR GANG comedies as much as I like the Hal Roach entries, I still occasionally pull the set of them out from the Warner Archive and enjoy them again, especially the overly elaborate and sometimes misguided “let’s put on a show” entries like “CALLING ALL KIDS” where Janet does her impression of Carmen Miranda! I agree that Hugh Harman should have had his shot at making a full-length animated feature. Those lost opportunities stem from the fact that all other studios had an animation department as an after-thought; so, unlike Disney, the animation was not the prime bread and butter of the studio, despite the fact that MGM’s budget allotted the cartoons was perhaps the largest of all such studios. When I remember what went into cartoons like “THE BOOK WORM” and “THE LITTLE MOLE” and even the HAPPY HARMONIES chaos like “CIRCUS DAZE”, I can imagine at least a combination live action/animation feature. Ooh, the delightful marriage that might have been created between Hugh and Rudy and Hal Roach!! Just run “THUNDERING FLEAS” (silent OUR GANG comedy) and “CIRCUS DAZE” (1937 HAPPY HARMONIES entry, the first released that year) and you might see what I mean. Certain aspects of “WINKY THE WATCHMAN” remind me of Max Fleischer’s “GULLIVER’S TRAVELS”, and I remember the Fleischer film reminding me, at first look years ago, of a vintage MGM cartoon until I listened closely to the sound effects. But the characters skulking, sometimes in shadow, around the corner in the Fleischer film seemed so like an MGM cartoon. There is even a sound effect or two reused here from the HAPPY HARMONIES series, and of course George Gordon did work with Hugh and Rudy on some MGM spectaculars, but I guess we can only dream and be inspired by what a real strange and surreal Harman epic might have been with all the comedy and pathos of great films of the period as inspiration. Thanks for the Kausler post; I hadn’t found that commentary on the disks themselves. I almost wish that Scott Bradley scored it.

  • Could be that the “Good-uns” are gold in color to symbolize the use of gold in dental fillings, etc? I’m guessing Clarence Wheeler did the music, as he did EASY DOES IT. While WINKY was made as an educational film but could be marketed as an entertainment short, EASY was strictly an industrial project, with too many product mentions to ever be used for anything else. Its half-hour length would also work against it for “home movies.”

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