Today, a World War II training film produced by the Army Air Force animation division, The First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU): Elementary and Pylon Eights (1944) – one of a “Lazy 8″ series – featuring the characters “Wilbur Right” and “Wilbur Wrong”.
This complete 16mm print recently came up for auction on Ebay, and the characters turn out to be the creation of Gus Arriola (1917-2008), creator of the comic strip “Gordo” (1941-1985). In Arriola’s biography, Accidental Ambassador Gordo by Robert C. Harvey and Gus Arriola, published in 2000 by the University Press of Mississippi, Harvey explains the creation of the characters Wilbur Right and Wilbur Wrong:
“Among the animation projects Arriola worked on (for the First Motion Picture Unit) were films teaching cadets in flying schools the correct procedures. For these, he created a couple of cartoon characters, Wilbur Right and Wilbur Wrong. The animated figures were superimposed on live-action footage, demonstrating the right way to do something as well as the wrong way and its consequences.”
There is also a production story that seems to touch on the making of this particular entry in the Wilbur Right and Wrong series, “Lazy 8’s”:
“Arriola spent most of his three year tour of duty in California, but once he went with his director (perhaps Frank Thomas?) to Randolph Field in Texas. The director wanted to interview the head of pilot training on the AT aircraft. ‘They took us up for a demonstration,’ Arriola remembered with a rueful grin. ‘And they did all kinds of acrobatics–lazy eights and different dives and loops and all that. Luckily the trainer had a greenhouse cockpit cover, and I slipped it back so I could get my head out. They had to wash the side of the plane after we landed.’ He chuckled.”
Arriola’s comic strip “Gordo” was launched in November of 1941; In December, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, and Gus found himself drafted by 1942 and “Gordo” was put on hold for awhile, until Gus settled at the FMPU and could go home nights. That’s where he found time to continue the Sunday page for the duration.
Gus Arriola had quite a background in animation, starting in 1936 at the Charles Mintz studio, then working at the newly-formed MGM cartoons studio, working at first with Milt Gross. When Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising came on the lot as producers, Gus did assistant animation at first, then joined the story department and did boards and character models on shorts like The Lonesome Stranger, where the nascent Gordo was developed as a barrel chested Mexican bandit. To make the bandido into Gordo, Arriola just slid his chest down into his stomach, and gave him a big sombrero. Gus also designed the little weed character in Dance of the Weed, which Mike Lah animated, and Ivan Scavinsky Scavar, from Abdul the Bulbul Ameer, which Irv Spence and George Gordon animated. After a stint as an assistant, Gus never became an animator and thought animation too precise a profession. He preferred to design characters and draw storyboards.
It’s unclear who were the animators on “Lazy 8’s”, but Frank Thomas may have contributed, perhaps Amby Paliwoda, and other draftees who served at Fort Roach. The animation is a funny combination of full and limited, when Wilbur Wrong looks all around himself in the cockpit as a safety check, the blurry multiple heads are handled in a cycle, when Wilbur Wrong’s plane crashes, it falls apart in a burst of parts with full animation.
Also handled in full animation are some gags in “Lazy 8’s ”which are expanded barnyard humor, as an alarmed cow with a big trailing udder tries to escape the low-flying propellor of Wilbur Wrong’s plane. The subtext of this business is the old washerwoman cliche; “Don’t get your tits in the wringer”.
It’s clear that the Snafu cartoons were an influence on Arriola’s character design of the two Wiburs, and that the vulgarity and sexy suggestiveness were appropriated from the Snafu series as well. Wait until you see what the animators did with Arriola’s ideas for the cows udder! It’s unique. There’s also a beautiful scene that’s a pan set-up over photostats as Wilbur Right’s plane flies from one wall chart to another.
The film also features a live-action on-camera narrator – character actor James Seay as the flight instructor – shot on sound stages at Fort Roach (Hal Roach Studios) in Culver City.
We have no idea of how many films were in the Wilbur Right and Wrong series, as the preservation record of the FMPU’s cartoon training films is very scant. The print we are using here is a 16mm original from 1944, in remarkably good condition for it’s age, we can only guess at what happened to the original negative for this subject. One of the only films from the FMPU era that has wide circulation is Camouflage, a two-reel color subject directed by Frank Thomas, some of the cels have survived from Camouflage as well. It’s fortunate that 16mm film was diacetate and triacetate safety base, as these training films were shipped all over the world, and a few prints have survived to this day.
I love the early Gordo strips that resemble Arriola’s early character designs for MGM cartoons, here’s the first few dailies from 1941 (click to enlarge):
Mark Kaulser blogs regularly at Mark Kausler’s CatBlog. (Special Thanks: Ed Hulse and Steve Stanchfield)