Are there five?
Yeah – After much thought, I decided there are indeed five Columbia Screen Gems films produced during the 1940s, after the passing of Charles Mintz; during the tumultuous wartime era, that are decent shorts that somewhat stand the test of time.
Because as they were generally unavailable for view, or review – or any critical study – for many decades, the Columbia Screen Gems shorts had a better reputation than the more easily accessible Terrytoons and Famous Studios product which were – in comparison to Disney, Warner Bros and MGM – judged to be inferior entertainments.
But that reputation – bolstered by the fact such names as Frank Tashlin, John Hubley, Dave Fleischer, and even Bob Clampett, who walked in and out the studio doors – was over blown. Now that more of the films are available to see (thank you MeTV), its true colors have emerged.
Personally, I feel there is a lot to like in the Columbia cartoon library. The animation is solid. Character designs are a lot of fun. The stories occasionally take big risks. But there is something missing. I think its a point of view – a P.O.V. – that even when a strong creator like Tashlin or Hubley took the reins there, maybe it was the budgets, maybe it was the crew, but something did not click.
Charles Mintz passed away in December 1939, by which time his studio was owned lock, stock and paint-barrel by Columbia Pictures. After that, no one at the parent company had any idea what to do – they just knew they needed to continue supplying cartoon shorts to theaters. Mintz left them without any “star” characters as Scrappy and Krazy Kat were now past their “sale date”.
Hiring Frank Tashlin was a wise move… and he gave them something they sorely needed: two headliners, The Fox and Crow. So let’s start there. Here is my list in chronologic order. These are cartoons you can show non-cartoon buffs and not be embarrassed. Please feel free to defend your own choices in the comments below.
THE FOX AND THE GRAPES (1941) Directed By Frank Tashlin
This is as close as any other studio ever got trying to do a “Warner Bros. Cartoon”. Of course this has Tashlin at the helm and he knocks it out of the park – with a film that reinvents the spot-gag cartoon (Jones has said this film inspired the format of the Road Runner Coyote shorts). In addition to Tashlin, we have Mel Blanc creating two new vocal characterizations – giving this film a little more enthusiasm than his previous roles at Screen Gems.
SONG OF VICTORY (1942)
The only film that has both Frank Tashlin and Dave Fleischer in the credits. Obviously a transitional picture for the outgoing Tash and the incoming Dave. Far from the best wartime animated analogy out there – (McCabe’s The Ducktators nails the same basic idea) it does have some effective moments… now if we could only see it restored.
WILLOUGHBY’S MAGIC HAT (1943)
A bizarre little classic. Even though they produced a sequel or two, the character went no where – didn’t even make the comic books. This first one (there were three; one sequel in black and white, another in color), directed by Bob Wickersham, features that nifty pre-UPA experimental art direction that John Hubley and Zack Schwartz were pushing. I can’t imagine what audiences in 1943 thought of these Columbia Phantasy cartoons – but eighty years later they look rather daring.
POLAR PLAYMATES (1946)
This one is a surprise. A beautiful little short – filled with appealing characters (designed by Charles Thorson) in a cute little story – ably directed by Howard Swift. And the characters DID make it to the comic books – “Polar Playmates” appeared in the first issue of DC’s Real Screen Funnies (1945) and were a regular back up feature for (I think) the first 40 issues. This film makes me wonder what could have been at Screen Gems, if only…
Another one that works. And its somewhat original – for once, I doesn’t feel like a Warner cartoon, or Lantz, or any other studio. It’s its own thing. And its about a male contemplating suicide over an unrequited love. Wonderfully narrated by Gerald Mohr (whom you might recall as the narrator of Baby Weems (1941), or Reed Richards in Hanna Barbara’s Fantastic Four (1967) – the Scorpion in Republic’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), or radio’s The Whistler, I could go on).
Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Tollbridge Troubles, Woodman Spare That Tree, Way Down Yonder In The Corn, Tito’s Guitar, The Disillusioned Bluebird, He Can’t Make It Stick, The Vitamin G Man, Professor Small and Mister Tall.