Today’s breakdown is an MGM cartoon featuring Barney Bear!
By the mid-‘30s, as MGM discontinued their Happy Harmonies series, they attempted to rectify their lack of continuing star characters by adapting newspaper comics, such as Rudolph Dirks’ Captain and the Kids and Milt Gross’ Count Screwloose. While both series were generally amusing, they were too brief to make a lasting impression. The Bear That Couldn’t Sleep, released June 1939 and made under Rudy Ising’s unit, featured an unnamed bruin and his failed attempts to hibernate during the winter.
The bear’s sleepy nature is often attributed to actor Wallace Beery’s burly physique and to screen comedian Edgar Kennedy, who is regarded for his pivotal role in frustration comedy in several classic Laurel and Hardy films and RKO’s Average Man series. However, producer Fred Quimby, and few of Ising’s colleagues, agreed that the lumbering bear was actually based on the director’s own tired disposition. Ising was known for his “sleeping problems;” while at the Disney studio, he was fired on March 1927 for sleeping while he operated the animation camera.
In Ising’s approach to the character, Barney plays foil to the conditions that occur around him. He is often overshadowed by the side characters’ actions, like the titular beavers in this cartoon. Ising hadn’t adapted to the brash style of characterization that emerged in the early 1940s; therefore, Barney’s personality was unsuitable to breakneck violence. Ising continued to direct the Barney Bear series until 1942, when he left MGM to head the Army Air Force’s animation unit. George Gordon briefly handled the series, but left the studio in 1943. At that time, MGM ceased production of Barney Bears altogether. During the hiatus, the character continued in a different medium, as Carl Barks reluctantly wrote and drew stories of Barney (with co-star Benny Burro) for Dell’s Our Gang Comics from 1944-47, although Gil Turner ultimately scripted the stories during the last period.
Barney’s series revived when Mike Lah and Preston Blair began directing as a team in early 1946, though Lah claimed to have directed an earlier 1945 entry, The Unwelcome Guest, which is often credited to Gordon. The series ended abruptly, as the Blair/Lah unit dissolved after three cartoons, due to cost overruns and an executive decision to reduce directorial units.
Dick Lundy filled Tex Avery’s directorial slot when he left the studio on a sabbatical around May 1950. Lundy admired Barney’s affable personality and wanted to differentiate from the frenetic pace of Avery and Hanna-Barbera’s cartoons by loosening the speed. The resulting films show these more laconic ambitions, but there is some great timing and humor in the cartoons, often in the Avery vein. Wee Willie Wildcat (1953), Cobs and Robbers (1953) and The Impossible Possum (1954) are standout entries that are perfect for a character like Barney. When Avery returned to MGM around October 1951, he resumed directing, and the studio produced no more Barney Bear cartoons.
While Bear and the Beavers promises great comic potential, it is marred by Ising’s Disney-esque approach to story and timing. The cartoon details its plot through the unnecessary courtesy of storybook pages. The cartoon could easily ensue without them, since there is primarily no dialogue. The cartoon’s climax is fairly weak: after Barney deprives the beavers of their firewood, they demolish Barney’s home. Sluggish timing is the culprit. If such an action played to an exaggerated degree, instead of the organized fashion, as seen here, the results would have paid off better. Scott Bradley’s musical score is nicely done, despite the cartoon’s shortcomings.
Ising casts his character animators for The Bear and the Beavers in individual sections, while Al Grandmain handles many of the effects. Pete Burness tackles the beavers discovering their missing woodpile and their planned vengeance outside of Barney’s house. Fascinatingly, Burness is also credited with the storybook transitions. In addition, Carl Urbano animates Barney inside his home, basking in warmth and his reactions to (and the aftermath of) his destroyed home. Mike Lah animates Barney’s failed attempts, consternation and his plans to steal the beaver’s firewood. Paul Sommer animates the meatiest portion of the cartoon — the beavers marching over, brandishing weapons, and their destruction of the bear’s abode. Ray Abrams animates only two shots in the cartoon, both involving diligent activity as the beavers stock up on firewood.
Enjoy this week’s breakdown video!
(Thanks to Mark Kausler, Michael Barrier, Frank Young and Thad Komorowski for their help.)