Monday 28 September 2009

Top Cat! Starring the Voice of ... Who?

A note from Yowp: Today is Arnold Stang’s birthday, so this post is in honour of the occasion. Your friendly Yowp wishes him many more filled with good health.

Some voice actors are so right for the characters they play, you wonder how anyone else could possibly have been considered for the roles. You can picture Joe Barbera in 1960, looking over ideas for The Flintstones, simply picking up the phone, calling Alan Reed and telling him “You’re perfect for Fred. Come over and voice him. See you at 1:30.”

It’s not that simple, of course. There are auditions. And in the case of The Flintstones, it’s surprising to think that Alan Reed and Mel Blanc were not the first choices for Fred and Barney, and they re-did dialogue tracks that had been recorded by Bill Thompson and Hal Smith in the roles.

Barbera had the same problem with another cartoon. And, again, it’s difficult to picture anybody but Arnold Stang playing the Sgt. Bilko-esque character. But Stang wasn’t the first choice. He wasn’t even the second choice. The actor originally hired was someone you likely have never heard of. That’s because he never, before or since, provided a voice for an animated character. A syndicated column by Robert E. Stansfield dated May 28, 1961, fills us in.

Michael O’Shea had been slated as the voice of the new fall entry, “Top Cat,” a “family entertainment” cartoon feature slated for prime evening time this fall. However, he is out because of other commitments and is being replaced by the voice of Arnold Stang. Stang is already the voice of “Herman, the Brave Mouse” on a current cartoon show. Another cat lined up for fall is Maurice Gossfield [sic], the Doberman on Phil Silver’s [sic] Army comedy series; and Allen Jenkins is the voice of a police officer (a cartoon human). Three cartoon cats are still hunting voices.

Stansfield (or his source) was pulling a few punches. Another article of the same time quotes Hanna-Barbera Productions as saying O’Shea was up for a live-action role. But Alan Dinehart, who started with Hanna-Barbera on The Flintstones, and whose credits include the immortal and highly-respected Super President and a much-beloved animated version of Mr. T., soon gave a different published version of why the man who played the puss got the boot. This is from a syndicated column of Saturday, September 23, 1961:

Viewing TV With Hal Humphrey
Cartoon Shows On TV Bread and Butter To Many

Hollywood—“I like this job because I don't have to deal with the stars—if he gets tough I just erase him,” says Alan Dinehart, who has the unique job of directing “The Flintstones” cartoon series (Fridays, ABC).
Dinehart is joking, of course. Actually his work is doubled because he is working with two stars. There is the one the artist puts on paper and the flesh-and-blood character who furnishes the voice.
After sitting in with the writers and artists, Dinehart moves into the recording studio where the voice actors are matched with the animated action.
He has had his troubles finding the right voice for the title role in the new cartoon series, "Top Cat," which goes on ABC (Channel 13) Wednesday at 8:30 p.m.
Actor Michael O'Shea was first for the job but didn’t read fast enough, according to Dinehart.
Took Too Long
“Instead of the normal three hours to do a half-hour episode, it was taking O’Shea six hours, so we had to drop him,” Dinehart explains.
Daws Butler, who does most of the voices for “Huckleberry Hound” and “Yogi Bear” (two other Hanna-Barbera productions), was called in. He could not hit on a voice which had enough of its own character to suit Dinehart.
Now Arnold Stang, one-time stooge for Milton Berle, is Top Cat. Maurice Gosfield, who did Doberman on Phil Silvers’ “Bilko” show, is the voice for Benny the Ball in “Top Cat.” Allen Jenkins’ voice will give life to one of the cats.
These are pretty big names, and you might ask how come they are willing to bury their identity behind a cartoon character? The answer is brutal, but simple. Nobody was knocking down their door with offers to do anything else.
Dinehart, himself, says this is why he is directing cartoon characters instead of live people. He started out in the footsteps of his father, the late Alan Dinehart, Sr. After a short whirl at acting on the Broadway stage and a five-year stint in World War II, young Alan (he’s 44 now) became one of TV’s pioneer directing talents.
His most fruitful job was directing the Alan Young comedy series on CBS in the early ’50s. It gave him a reputation for being an exceptional comedy director, but when comics began dropping off TV like autumn leaves, Alan Dinehart dropped, too.
“I ‘got religion’ and went with an advertising agency and met some great fellows,” Alan recalls. “I remember one who had three vents in his suitcoat—I mean on each side!”
Had Enough
Dinehart left that rarefied atmosphere of Madison Avenue when he was asked to supervise the “Arthur Murray Dance Party.” That was carrying comedy too far.
Joe Barbera called him in New York and offered him a job with the thriving Hanna-Barbera cartoon factory.
“I confess I wasn’t thrilled but when Joe said ‘The Flintstones’ was about Stone Age and then offered to pay my expenses to Hollywood, I was hooked.”
Although a huge commercial success (big ratings) its first season, “The Flintstones” was considerably less than an artistic smash. Dinehart says it is much improved this season, and he hopes the humor will be a bit more adult.
As might be expected, the Hanna-Barbera success with “The Flintstones” not only is giving birth to “Top Cat,” but other cartooneries are coming up this fall with “Bullwinkle,” “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and “Calvin and the Colonel” (with Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll of Amos ‘n’ Andy).

It’s understandable Daws would have been pulled from the role. He was already doing a Phil Silvers-type voice for Hokey Wolf.

Dinehart may not have had much choice but to reveal why O’Shea found himself fired. Arnold Stang himself talked about it in a syndicated column interview by Jack Gaver, dated June 16, 1961, though Stang shows his class by not naming names:

“They tried a couple of other voices for T.C. — in fact, one actor finished five episodes — but they decided they didn’t reflect the character of T.C. properly, and I was asked to take a shot at it. So, we started all over from scratch.”

Colourful characters seem to have hung around the world of animation back then, and O’Shea was no exception. Let’s check our newspaper clippings about Edward Francis Michael Patrick Joseph O’Shea:

March 19, 1947: O’Shea’s wife filed for divorce, citing desertion. He married Virginia Mayo on July 8. In 1951, his ex sued him for $25,730. He tried to get a reduction in alimony the following year.

June 10, 1953: “Michael O’Shea will be able to vary the monotony of his appearances in court (alimony troubles) by appearing in a movie for a change.”

August 24, 1959: “BRISTOL, Pa. (AP) – Actor Michael O’Shea was arrested Monday after allegedly displaying a pistol in defense of his actress wife, Virginia Mayo, during an argument over the air conditioning in a restaurant here.”

O’Shea died of a heart attack in his New York apartment on December 5, 1973.

Getting back to Top Cat’s voice, what’s surprising is there’s no mention in any of these stories of a talented mimic and former radio actor who could do a pretty funny Silvers-like voice. In fact, Joe Barbera used that very actor and voice in the 1960-61 season of The Flintstones. The voice belonged to Jerry Mann, who played a variety of characters in several episodes that year, but is mostly forgotten because the show’s original end credits were replaced when it went into syndication decades ago. Cartoon producer/writer Mark Evanier speculated in a Usenet conversation in 2000 it was “conjecture” that Mann auditioned for the role. If so, Mann was evidently not acceptable or available—he didn’t die until December 1987—or perhaps ran into outside politics as Lucille Bliss did twice when she landed title roles in Ruff and Reddy and The Jetsons. But that’s a story for another time. And we’ll tell you a little more about the always enjoyable Arnold Stang as the most effectual T.C., too.

Happy Birthday, I Theen’

My favourite H-B show debuted on North American TV on this day (the internet notwithstanding, I can find no contemporary record it aired any earlier).

So, a happy 50th birthday to The Quick Draw McGraw Show and Quick Draw McGraw, Baba Looey, Snooper, Blabber Mouse, Augie Doggie and Doggie Daddy.

And a thanks to everyone who had a part in creating it. Especially Doug Young, the voice of Doggie Daddy, who is enjoying life apparently down the I-5 from me in Seattle (he’s the tall one in the poor quality picture above, with Don Messick and Daws Butler).

Saturday 26 September 2009

Yogi Bear — Baffled Bear

Produced and Directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
Credits: Animation – Ken Muse (Mike Lah, uncredited); Layout – Dick Bickenbach; Backgrounds – Fernando Montealegre; Dialogue and Story Sketches – Charlie Shows and Dan Gordon; Titles – Art Goble; Production Supervision – Howard Hanson.
Cast: Narrator – Don Messick; Yogi Bear – Daws Butler.
Production E-13, Huckleberry Hound Show K-009.
First aired: week of Monday, November 24, 1958.
Plot: Yogi’s forest is replaced by a freeway which he fruitlessly tries to cross.

The Yogi Bear that people think of is Yogi Bear, Sitcom Star. Every week it was, more or less, the same situation. Yogi, residing in scenic Jellystone Park, tried to outwit Ranger Smith and nab a pic-a-nic basket or five, with little Boo Boo as a friend/conscience. Writer Warren Foster managed to wring enough variations on the theme to create memorable and very popular cartoons.

But all cartoon series evolve and that’s true of the genial bruin. Many of Yogi’s animated adventures in the first season of The Huckleberry Hound Show, when his popularity at least equalled the star’s, do not involve sidekicks, national parks or thatched-straw hampers of goodies. And a number of the earliest ones don’t follow the sitcom format at all. They are spot-gag shorts, a venerable format used by great minds like Tex Avery (Cross Country Detours at Warners, or Car of Tomorrow at MGM) and no-so-great ones (whoever inflicted the world with Columbia’s Tangled Travels).

Disney had spot-gag success in the 1940s with Goofy, putting him into a funny series of ‘How To’ shorts, with an off-screen narrator providing instructional comment that set up a gag wherein things fall apart for The Goof. Writer Charlie Shows tried doing the same thing in a few early Yogi Bear cartoons with mixed success. One of those efforts is Baffled Bear.

The concept is a good one and this could have been a terrific satiric cartoon, but it suffers from two things. It takes forever for the spot gags to start happening. And the gags are, unfortunately, not all that strong, let alone a commentary on how post-war freeways changed lives.

In fact, the cartoon kind of switches in mid-stream. It opens like it’ll be a fairy tale parody (not unheard of in cartoons), complete with an opening shot of a book and Don Messick’s narration telling a story.

Yogi beds down in his home, “which happened to be the giant trunk of a redwood tree,” after taking “a last look at his beloved forest.” You’d think this would be a cue for the viewer to see the forest that the bear sees, maybe even a pan over one of Monte’s pleasing backgrounds like so many other cartoons, but all we get is (ho-hum) a stationary Yogi blinking. The bear then curls up on the dirt to sleep.

However, while Yogi snoozes over the winter, the forest is chopped down and replaced with a freeway, as Don Messick drops his voice a bit to intone “Saws started sawing. Steam shovels started shovelling and dump trucks started dumping.” This is about the only time Don’s real-nice-guy sound doesn’t quite work; the ridiculousness of words might have been emphasized and thus made funnier with some real portentous voice reading the script.

I love Monte’s snow-covered evergreens and shades of blue.

Anyway, by the time Yogi ends his hibernation to walk outside his tree, we’re at the 2:40 mark of the cartoon (including titles). Shows and Barbera (or whoever) take a third of the cartoon to get to the meat of our story and the real start of any gags. A better set up would simply have the freeway instantly pop up, Yogi come out, and cram in as much spot gag fun as possible.

Maybe it didn’t happen that way because Shows couldn’t come up with a pile of spot gags and had to fill the seven minutes in other ways. We get a couple of the same gags over. He must have felt Yogi getting flattened by a car was hilarious because we get it twice. Twice we get a gag which ends with Yogi being treed by a small car that has eyes for headlights and snaps at him with its hood (the animation is re-used). And about this time, the storybook-style narration changes to a “how to” style narration.

My favourite visual part of the cartoon comes at the point where Yogi is sauntering across the freeway, stopping cars. Not for the animation of the cars screeching to a jagged stop, like you might find in a theatrical, because there isn’t any. All we get is a background of cars with Yogi in a walk cycle from right to left. What I like is Dick Bickenbach’s design. The cars have a look of, say, a ’58 Fairlane or a ’53 Crown Victoria, but they’re not. Bick just incorporates car design elements of that era. He didn’t get as ridiculous as cars actually were back then because the backgrounds aren’t supposed to distract from the foreground.

At first, we’re told Yogi is just trying to cross the super-highway. But then, inexplicably, the narrator informs us “A hungry bear will try anything once.” Hungry? Oh, that’s why he’s trying to get across the freeway. That information suddenly comes out of nowhere. Yogi crawls along a branch over the road, the branch snaps, and Yogi lands in the middle of cars coming at both directions. Here’s what Ken Muse does next.

Next, our hero comes up with “a patented balloon-o-copter ... Not bad, dad” (Shows loved rhyming two-somes like that). But, for no reason other than plot convenience, the balloons break, Yogi zips down out of sight, leaving nothing but an animation-saving background on screen for about five seconds.

Yogi lands on the road and pretends he’s dead to avoid being hit. Instead, he’s flattened again, this time by a steam roller. The scene is animated by Mike Lah, you can tell by the teeth and the mouth movements. Next, Yogi disguises himself as an old woman in a wheelchair to get across but is chased up the tree by the little car. You can tell the tree animation is recycled because Daws Butler says “Down, boy!” but Yogi’s lips don’t move, just like before.

The bear decides to build a wooden bridge over the highway as the same three cars pass underneath three times. A moving van doesn’t.

The wind-up gag has Yogi exclaiming “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” as he takes advantage of the drivers by opening a gas station. The storybook now returns, with the narrator parodying an ad slogan “Stop in at Yogi’s Super Service Station. Tell him I sent you.” Yogi is, for some reason, drawn with a light brown mask around the eyes like in the first cartoons of the series. As it's just one drawing, Bickenbach may have been responsible.

The Capitol Hi-Q and Langlois Filmusic libraries are put to good use here. The fanfare-opening music during the construction sequence is perfect, and the hiccupping comedy walker music by Jack Shaindlin brings the cartoon to a fitting end. We get the full version of Shaindlin’s Grotesque No. 2. There’s even one of Spencer Moore’s short bassoon scales which found a home in a bunch of the early cartoons.

0:00 - Yogi sub main title theme (Hanna-Barbera-Curtin-Shows)
0:26 - ZR-51 LIGHT ANIMATION (Geordie Hormel) – Yogi goes into tree.
1:00 - L-1139 ANIMATION COMEDY (Moore) – Yogi snores.
1:16 - EM-147 DOCUMENTARY MAIN TITLE (Phil Green) – Tractors and steam shovels at work.
1:39 - TC 202 ECCENTRIC COMEDY (Loose-Seely) – Yogi snoozes; wakes up; hit by car.
3:02 - LAF-10-7 GROTESQUE No 2 (Shaindlin) – Yogi inside tree, newspaper gag, branch gag, balloon gag, Yogi plays possum.
5:43 - L-1158 ANIMATION COMEDY (Spencer Moore) – “Most motorists have a sense of fair play”
5:48 - LAF-25-3 bassoon and zig-zag strings (Shaindlin) – Steam shovel runs over Yogi, wheelchair bit, Yogi hit by van, Yogi pumps gas.
7:10 - Yogi end title theme (Curtin)

Saturday 19 September 2009

Huckleberry Hound — Rustler Hustler Huck

Produced and Directed by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.
Credits: Animation – Lew Marshall; Layout – Ed Benedict; Backgrounds – Vera Hanson; Dialogue and Story Sketches – Charlie Shows and Dan Gordon; Titles – Art Goble; Production Supervision – Howard Hanson.
Cast: Huck, TV announcer, Cow – Daws Butler; Narrator, Rustler – Don Messick.
Production E-34, Huckleberry Hound Show K-006.
First aired: week of Monday, November 3, 1958.
Plot: Huck guards cows from rustler, who tries to get rid of him.

If someone wanted to water down Tex Avery’s Droopy and turn him into a TV cartoon, this is the one you’d get.

Other than Jack Shaindlin’s stock music substituting for Scott Bradley’s score, every aspect of this cartoon owes a debt to Tex. A less-chipper version of the Huck voice was used in Billy Boy (both by Daws Butler). The cartoon was laid out by Ed Benedict, who contributes some character designs like you might see in Deputy Droopy. Vera Ohman (who married production supervisor Howard Hanson) constructed the backgrounds in Cellbound. And while writer Charlie Shows didn’t work for Avery, he borrowed the ‘the bad guy can’t get rid of the good guy’ concept of several Droopy cartoons; in fact Avery used the idea in The Blow-Out (1936), his second short for Leon Schlesinger.

Of course, Avery’s pacing and shock-extremes are missing in this cartoon, so if you’re going to compare it with Tex’s work, it’ll fail pretty miserably (as do many theatrical cartoons). But if you look at it on its own, it features some great colour schemes, an oval-eyed villain (and oval-eyed cows), and a flat, sad-eyed version of Huck that’d never get made even a year later because someone would think it was off-model. So, there’s enough to enjoy.

A pan over a background as Don Messick narrates generally opens a lot of the first season Huck cartoons and this one’s no exception. The pan’s shorter than usual here, but the shaded mesas and the night-time shades of blue are really appealing.

After the pan, the camera trucks into the background and the shot dissolves into another pan shot of Huck watching TV. It’s a western. Not only is a bit of irony, but it’s a bit of satire about the ubiquitousness of westerns on TV in the ‘50s (why, it’s Avery once more; he used that as a running joke in TV of Tomorrow and elsewhere). And you’ve got to love the goofy TV-range-fan combination Benedict invented.

Huck’s anticipation of watching the Late Late Show is interrupted by bullets. “Rustlers again!” Huck remarks as he shuts off the set. Look at Huck’s mouth here. Two lines are all that’s needed to communicate Huck’s pissed off. You can’t get simpler than that. (Could this be Mike Lah’s work?) Incidentally, Huck’s naked except for a gun. Normally he’d be designed with clothes that allow the head and the body to be on separate cells with none the wiser.

Huck tells the rustler to drop the cow (which emits a closed-eye “moo” during a break in the dialogue) and the rustler obliges. On top of our hero. But, unusual for a Huck cartoon, that’s the last bad thing that happens to him. Animals, aliens, Powerful Pierre: Huck comes out the worst time after time, even in the end in a lot of cases. Not in the rest of this cartoon; the bad guy takes the pounding and loses. Like, you know, in a Droopy cartoon. And, even more baffling, there’s nothing in this short that explains why it suddenly happens. It’s a real hole in Charlie Shows’ narrative structure.

First, the rustler tries the cow-hidden-under-the-overcoat. The gag isn’t all that funny. All Huck does is realise the “stranger” is the rustler by spotting a tail protruding from the overcoat, pulling it off and firing at him. The design is the best part again, with the cow looking rather forlorn with the drooping eye-lids.

The flat-designed villain comes up with a unique way to steal the cattle. The colour in the initial shot setting up the scene is great; you can see how the moonlight is reflected in different colours on the rock in the foreground. The villain ties roller-skates to the dour-looking cows and shoves them past a sleeping Huck into a waiting truck (with an ‘HB’ license plate). Ah, but Huck is in the truck, too. With a gun to fire at the bad guy.

By the way, what’s with cartoon characters roller-skating with their hands behind their back? Ken Muse draws Yogi that way in Runaway Bear (though the title card for that cartoon does not).

An “old injun trick” is the rustler’s next move, disguising himself as a cow. But Huck thinks (or is he just faking being dumb?) that he forgot to brand the heifer and gleefully advises “This branding iron won’t hurt. Much.” This gives Charlie Shows a chance to add his obligatory ass joke as the hot iron sears through the cow costume, and the rustler runs away to the strains of Shaindlin’s On the Run.

Brushing up on an instructional manual while cooling off, the rustler reads what we can see on the screen—a page that says “Rule 1. Get Rid of All Cowhands.” So he uses a lasso to do so. Another Droopy gag follows, except the churn-it-out nature of TV spoils it. The talkative rustler drops Huck off the cliff, but the hound immediately, and illogically, walks onto the scene.

The timing of Huck’s return is great, but you know if Benedict et al were still at MGM, Avery would can the inane dialogue (Scott Bradley would do the talking), quicken the scene by at least three-fold, and then have an even more outrageous take by the rustler.

Another Shows-ass-gag and more Droopy in the next bit. The rustler ties Huck to an arrow and shoots him over the plane. But our hero immediately walks into the scene again and, well, Freud might have something to say about the finale. Huck’s walk is on ones, then the rest of the bit is on twos. Here are Marshall’s last 14 drawings:

Charlie Shows now tries a Dumb-Hounded-type build-up gag. (More Avery. Monotonous, isn’t it?) The bad guy nails Huck inside a box, put the box in the safe, and dumps the safe down a reddish-coloured well. But before the villain say “That’s that”, he spots Huck on top of the well, humming and drying off with a towel. Since this is an early cartoon, Daws is doing some generic melody instead of Clementine.

The climax gag comes as the rustler tosses Huck inside a conveniently placed rocket, runs to the control room to send the missile into orbit, but Huck is somehow standing next to him.

The rustler gives up. “You outsmarted me single-handed,” he remarks. Uh, not quite. Huck had help from his brothers, Ed, Ted, Jed, Ned and Fred, who all blink when their names are called out. Yes, multiple Hucks, just like multiple Droopys in Northwest Hounded Police by, yes, Tex Avery.

Daniel Goldmark, the fine author/musicologist, has identified a mystery cue for me in this cartoon by Spencer Moore. I don't have that Hi-Q "D" series reel in my collection.

0:00 - Huck sub main-title/Clementine theme (trad./Curtin).
0:26 - ZR-39 WESTERN SONG (Hormel) – Huck watches TV, sees bullets.
1:03 - L-31 SOMBER MOVEMENT (Moore) – Rustler drops cow on Huck, Huck looks around.
1:48 - LAF-25-3 bassoon and zig-zag strings (Shaindlin) – Rustler with cow in overcoat, Rustler pushes cows on skates in truck.
3:14 - LAF-4-6 PIXIE PRANKS (Shaindlin) – Rustler pushes in more cows, Huck shoots at him.
4:37 - L-1158 ANIMATION COMEDY (Moore) – Huck walks to cow to brand it.
4:42 - LAF-2-12 ON THE RUN (Shaindlin) – Rustler runs away.
4:55 - LAF-4-1 FISHY STORY (Shaindlin) – Rustler ropes Huck, tosses him in well, puts him on rocket.
6:43 - ZR-39 WESTERN SONG (Hormel) – Rustler quits, meets Huck’s brothers.
7:10 - Huck sub end title theme (Curtin).