THUNDERBEAN THURSDAY
February 13, 2020 posted by Steve Stanchfield

Mutt and Jeff in “Playing with Fire” (1926)

You know, it’s funny; for weeks now I’ve been looking forward to doing a much deeper dive in these weekly posts; sadly, this week just won’t be one of those, but I did find an interesting cartoon to chat a little about. It’s an enjoyable little romp.

Both the Mutt and Jeff and Krazy Kat cartoons from the 20s may have the worst survival rate of any other series, ever. I find it strange that they are so completely missing, but, even to this day, once and a while one shows up – and its even better when one shows up in 35mm.

On the Mutt and Jeffs, luckily, many of the last cartoons made *do* exist, although many are hard to find. The 1925/26 series consisted of 26 cartoons; these were largely directed by Dick Huemer, who also animated on the shorts. Hopefully, someday sooner than later, the cartoons from these last two years will end up available in high quality versions. For now, at least viewable copies of some are around.

I bought a 35mm nitrate print of one of these Mutt and Jeffs, Playing with Fire from a collector in Australia many years back. We cleaned it up and released it as part of the Technicolor Dreams and Black and White Nightmares Blu-ray.

I hadn’t ever seen one of the shorts from this series in 35mm. From the excellent picture quality, it appears that this print was probably made directly from the camera negative (rather than making fine grain and dupe neg first). The things I noticed first was just how clearly you could see the ink lines; so much so that you can even see little mistakes in opaquing and inking throughout, from the scruffiness of hand-drawn and inked straw to various fire cycles. There’s a little character sequence that I especially enjoy around 1:20 in, where Mutt battles with a much smarter fire. The animation throughout this short is quite good, and funny. I wonder how successful the series was overall, and why it came to such an abrupt stop.

I’m sure many readers here will recognize Huemer’s posing throughout the film as well as his way of doing staggers with only a few drawings. I can only wish that someday all of these will show up in 35mm! “Bilbo Barpkins” did the work for me in posting the copy from the Blu-ray, so here it is in HD.

And, for fun, here is a video of the original film on a flatbed from the collector who sold the print to me!

Have a good week all!

9 Comments

  • When we came out with our DVD, MUTT AND JEFF: The Original Animated Odd Couple in 2005, we gained access to two 35mm prints from The Library of Congress, A KICK FOR CINDERELLA and DOG GONE. Seeing prints from an original source is certainly enlightening as it reveals some of the technical history of production. What this print reveals among other things is that “comp” colors were not realized. That was a series of shaded paints made to compensate for the darkening caused by placing cels over each other. Whenever a Hold Cel was used on the balance of the character while the head was animated, you see the head “flash” white. Also there seemed to be other places where there was flashing of paint due to either not using the same gray paint, or placing the cels on the wrong level, on top when it might have been one or two levels below.

    The inking at times does appear “shaky” and wobbly in places. This can probably be attributed to the fact that Animation Discs had not yet come into use. They came about around 1929/30 as all cartoon production licensed the Cel Process from Bray. Originally discs were developed as an inking tool to help speed up the process, allowing the Inker to rotate the cel without touching the wet ink with the heel of the hand. And being able to rotate the drawing being inked was an aid in making curves more gracefully and accurately.

    The sharpness also reveals some problems with the “opaquing” with the white paint. You see the paint “swimming” or “boiling” especially with the fire. Light paint like white, pink, and yellow always were a problem and needed a heavier application in order to appear solid. But there had to be an amount of interpretation as to exactly how thick the paint could be to pass since applying too thick would cause the cel to buckle and cause cel shadows.

    Lastly, indications are that 35mm Dupe Negs were rare for cartoons due to the nature of their distribution. In some cases 35mm prints continued to be made from the Camera Negative until there was no further circulation of the films. In some cases these negs were worn out in the process. This was the case with many of 35mm negatives to Disney’s ALICE COMEDIES, although Disney has some 35mm elements it is my understanding that they made negs from a positive prinst for preservation with digital backups. The most common “dupe negs” for MUTT AND JEFF would have been those made for 16mm prints, which is the form that most of them exist at this point in time.

    • That’s very interesting Ray – and the Mutt And Jeff 2005 DVD is a great watch!

    • Thank you for the thorough information! That is very interesting looking back at where animation was when this cartoon was made.

    • The first of those Alice Comedies
      Turn 100 in 2023.
      We have only three years to wait
      To see if Disney bakes them a cake,
      In honour of their first cartoon stars,
      Which we are still watching in our flying cars…

      ..And if they don’t, we needn’t blink,
      Since we still have Inkwel lImages Ink.

  • THAT’S a really good cartoon!

  • “Mutt and Jeff are NOT funny! They’re gay, I get it!” — Bart Simpson

    Back in the days of VHS, the colorized “Westward Whoa” seemed to be on every PD video collection I ever got my hands on. I quickly got tired of it (the scene where the bull kisses his wife good-bye really grossed me out), to the point where I wound up fast-forwarding through it every time. “Westward Whoa” was so ubiquitous that I thought it must have been the only Mutt and Jeff cartoon ever made. Little did I know that there had been literally hundreds of them, of which only a minority have survived to the present day.

    “Playing with Fire” is probably the best one I’ve seen. It’s fast-paced and contains some genuine laughs. I especially like the depiction of the extinguished fire’s ghost as an angel with harp and halo. Funny, you’d think fires would go to the other place when they die! (On the other hand, in “When Hell Freezes Over”, Mutt and Jeff have to keep the fire from going out.)

    • I agree! Westward Woah
      On VHS, got old fast, you know.
      Today I got to watch “Playing With Fire”,
      And my opinion of Mutt and Jeff just got higher.

  • The best thing about this cartoon was the hot jazz soundtrack which due to its clarity must be a more recent recording. As the host of Scratchy Grooves, a radio show dedicated to the music of that era, I’d love to know who it was by.

  • Runs too fast. You wanna go to “settings” on YouTube and set the playback speed to 75 percent to see it a proper (silent) speed,

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