EDITOR’S NOTE: This week Mark pulled out a set of early silent Paul Terry Aesop Fables cartoons from his collection of Commonwealth Home Movie prints. I also convinced him to jot down a few notes on each. For those who only know Paul Terry from his later color & sound Terrytoons, you might surprised how good the Terry films are during the silent era. Walt Disney himself was a huge fan. So, sit back and enjoy! Thanks, Mark! – Jerry Beck
The Dog and the Thief (1/26/22) is a very early example of the Aesop’s Film Fables series. I chose this print because it has the updated Aesop moral at the end, an expansion of “Beware of Strangers Bearing Gifts”, which starts out “And Today….”. The villian in the Fable is a Wolf and in the epilogue, a modern human railway passenger is tempted by a HUMAN “Wolf” who passes out cigars in an attempt to start up a crooked poker game. Aesop’s Film Fables were marketed to television in the 1950s as children’s fare, but Terry really designed these for adult audiences. When the Aesop animals get into a fight, there is usually black, inky blood that seeps from their noses and chests, like the Wolf character in this one. The dialog titles are done as dialog balloons, using italic and bold type faces to represent the tone of voice. Since these cartoons were originally produced full aperture, 35mm, Commonwealth TV’s negatives were reduced to 16mm using 35mm “Academy” aperture, which cuts off a lot at the top and sides of the frame.
So Al Falfa says near the beginning; “..and don’t let anything happen to our ducks.” (Words in italics were cut off.) And he also says further along: “We just need one more egg.” The animation in the earliest Aesops was extremely primitive, the Fables animators developed style and streamlining as they went along. The cat’s movements are very shaky, especially in the sequence where he dives in to the trough, to harvest duck eggs underwater! Animators like Frank Moser, learned to stylize the action more, and to produce drawings that had broader expression. One of the animators here was probably Nate Collier, who animated for Terry in 1922, after working on Mutt and Jeff and other early silents. He quit the business after only four years, terming the profession “tedious”, and moving along to illustrating books for Will Rogers and doing early comic strips. John Terry, Paul’s brother, was animating on the Aesop’s Film Fables in 1921 and 1922, but left the profession as Nate Collier did to originate “Scorchy Smith” for comic strips in 1930.
Day By Day In Every Way (3/22/23) was inspired by a 1922 to 1924 fad called “Coueism”. A phamacist named Phillip Emile Coué (accent over the “E”), studied the effects of mesmerism and hypnosis on human behavior and came up with the autosuggestion: “Day By Day In Every Way, I’m Getting Better and Better”. His theories were somewhat in advance of Christian Science, (and Andrew Carnegie for that matter) in that the 11 word phrase was thought to be a substitute for God, in that perfection in behavior could be achieved by repeating the saying over and over after a session with a hypnotist.
The barnyard cat gets a copy of Coue’s book and tries it on his fellow animals and Farmer Al Falfa, who is suffering from a cold in a sequence animated by Frank Moser. You will note that the animation has markedly improved since 1922, the poses are more dynamic, especially with the little cat; you can see the influence that the Fables had on Julius the Cat in Walt Disney’s Alice Comedies. This also has an early example of a Farmer Al Falfa dream sequence. The cat hits Al on the head and a little light bulb in front of him turns black. He then rides his scooter through the Universe, and comes up on a pinnacle with waves that form in to hands, reaching for him. Al Falfa dreams that a beautiful sea maiden is holding him, only to come out of the dream kissing the cat!
You will note that the dialogue titles in this Fable are full screen titles, with a little drawing in negative of the characters underneath the lettering. Very good looking on screen and easier to read than the old comic strip style balloons. This print is one of the rare Commonwealths that escaped having the titles snipped by TV stations than figured the kiddees couldn’t read the dern things anyway!
Springtime (5/12/23), is a well structured Fables comedy. It starts with a sequence of a wild monkey in a cage going crazy for want of his mate, and Farmer Al Falfa and Henry the Cat talking to a keeper about him. (Note that Al is patting the keeper on his shoulder in this scene, but he is patting it in mid air! Probably the animator changed the position of the keeper and didn’t change Al’s animation to match.) Al and Henry scope out the girls in their bathing costumes as Al declares “I Ain’t Seen a Good Figger Since I’ve Been Coming Here..”. He changes his mind when a real beauty dives in to the surf.
Henry and Al don their bathing suits and try to impress the girls but they turn their beach umbrella around on them. Henry observes the girls looking at a bow-legged man and cooing :”What A Charming Figure.” Henry whispers to Al that “They Like the Bow-Legged Guys”, and Al wraps his legs around a barrel and cracks the bones to achieve the “look”. It doesn’t work. Then Henry notices the girls admiring a man with a deep tan, and telling Al “They Like the Sun Burnt Guys”. Al puts himself on a chicken rotisserie spit and burns himself to a golden black! Now Terry comes up with a touch not unlike a Max Davidson two reeler, as the wild love sick monkey breaks out of his cage and goes after Farmer Al thinking that the sun burnt farmer is a female simian. After going through that wringer, (inside the monkey’s cage) Farmer Al is prone and groggy on the beach as Henry whispers: “They Like the Knock-kneed Guys”. Farmer Al chases Henry, Fables Style, to the horizon.
Frank Moser did the last scene in the cartoon, and perhaps Fernand Horvath did the opening scenes of the monkey and the keeper. I wonder who did the bathing girls shots?
Burglar Alarm (6/6/23), features an early appearance of another major human character in the Fables, I call him “The Little Salesman”. He resembles Ichabod Crane, tall and skinny, a long nose, and very sneaky, furtive movements. He is a huckster and a master thief and criminal, the rube Al Falfa is always the Salesman’s patsy.
The Salesman’s pals in this cartoon are a convict cat and a mouse, who rob Al Falfa’s ice box, in a sequence animated by Frank Moser. Moser was certainly a master of “planned animation”, long before Hanna-Barbera, using a lot of master poses and animating in and out of them with a lot of separate arms, legs and heads to cut down a lot of excess tracing and painting. Moser’s drawing style came to represent the Fables in the 1920s, later he was rewarded for his tremendous output of footage by being made a Partner in the business.
The Fables used the Bray-Hurd cel system for the most part, except for some of the very earliest ones, which were done on paper. I love that “Snappy Cheese” character that tries to eat the mouse! The big finish with the Salesman, Cat and Mouse stealing Al Falfa’s whole house by hitching it to their tricycles is very funny and a complete humiliation to Al Falfa, as in most of the Fables. I like the Moral: “Beware of Small Concessions”, which can be taken as a cautionary statement about the small businessman.
Pace That Kills (6/7/23) Terry was the earliest to use this phrase as a film title – it was used by producer Willis Kent, five years later, as the title of one of his exploitation feature films, about cocaine addiction. Here the stuff that ups the pace of the action is illegal hooch sold by “Hen Hunk”, a Chinese Druggist as Bootleg “On the Side”. Of course, Prohibition was in force in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933 and Terry loved to do gags with drunken characters, especially when Farmer Al got hold of the Stuff in such Fables as The Fable of A Raisin and A Cake of Yeast, also produced in 1923.
In this picture the bottle of champagne has such tremendous carbonation that it blows the cat and the mouse sky high and chases the hog that opened the bottle half way across the state and into a sausage grinder. Terry sneaks in the dream sequence this time, as the cat becomes a member of the Fables volunteer fire department. It begins to look a bit strange when the cat’s fire hose turns in to a giant snake, but then he wakes up, only to see the mouse pulling on his tail. The moral, “Don’t Start Anything You Can’t Finish” certainly applies to the amped up champagne bottle, and the cat’s aborted dream.
The opening sequence, showing the cat and mouse puffing a cigar and blowing all sorts of rings and shapes in the smoke, including an elephant, a dachshund and a Charleston dancing little girl, was animated by Frank Moser, who also did the snake chasing the cat scene.
Best Man Wins (11/9/23), I picked this one because it features a mouse who is almost a “supermouse”. From the first scene, where this mouse beats up a cat, destroys a mousetrap, beats up a dog cop (who somewhat resembles “Offisa Pupp” from Krazy Kat) and K.O.s another sweater wearing dog down by the Wharf, he shows super strength. The gags with his muscles that come disattached from his arms, and his casual attitude when jumping rope, are the ancestors of future strong men and mice in cartoons, like Mighty Mouse, Popeye and Baby Huey.
I like the little visual jokes, as the street lamp hops in to the Hotel along with the rest of the frightened mice, much like the picnic benches coming to life in The Band Concert as they run from a tornado, a mere 12 years later. Of course there is cartoon blood present when the dog cop gets punched in the nose, and Terry turns the tables on his “supermouse” when the Fauntleroy mouse beats up “Soops” at the finish.
That’s it for this week. I have a bunch more I’ll be posting here in a few weeks. Till then, Happy Trails to You All…