Animated Mix Tapes In The Age Of Digital

29 Aug

By Kevin Wollenweber

Well, actually, that title is rather misleading.  The format I now use, when I can, for “mixing” favorite cartoons from all studios together is DVD, but as some of you collectors and swappers know, this is extremely limited because each and every professional release made today is copy protected.  While I totally understand why this has to be so, it is disheartening, because there are so many great matches I’d like to make, being a kind of “toonhead” of sorts, but I cannot do so because the copy police are watching at all times!

I treat cartoons in much the same way as I treat music.  In fact, when the station was truly thriving or trying to be something more than what it has become (in other words, when it truly had a focus), Cartoon Network had inspired me to start mixing and matching favorite cartoons with a running theme that would morph and twist into sub-themes as the compilation continued.  In fact, I sent the station one or two such compilations, perhaps in mild support of them just being around with programs like Late Night Black and White or Toon Heads.

The latter show was always restricted because the station had to use the cartoons it owned–and even then, they would only use prints that they were allowed to air.  I, on the other hand, never said never to a good series of toons wherever the program took me.  The only way I was restricted was in the amount of diverse product there was or wasn’t on a given studio.  I think we’re all sadly restricted in the amount of Max Fleischer or Columbia cartoons out there, for example.  I don’t say that I’m aware of a lot of the finer historical points about these cartoons, but when I note these on YouTube, I can think of any number of familiar cartoons that I could segue into if I were running a toon festival–anytime, anywhere!

It is fun, but I only wish that I had an unlimited array of toon studios to pick from to make the blend interesting.

The one studio that has been nicely covered on older formats (like the long defunct laserdisk) is Warner Brothers.  I’ve always said that this particular toon library is so vast that one could stay locked into it and find some interesting couplets or triplets or on and on and on…

I have been busy going through old VHS tapes and transferring these to DVD.  The drudgery of doing this sometimes leads me to start mixing and matching to make it more entertaining for me, and I have to say that I just dusted off two double-disk sets of some terrific stuff.  If the various copyright owners would allow me, I’d sure love to screen these for an audience.  Yup, I’m that proud of ‘em.  However, those who know me know of my disability and this doesn’t allow me to check for glitches that would annoy the seeing-eye public.  That doesn’t stop me from doing this, though, just to have that elusive cartoon that has been altered forever or has still not shown up on home video totally and completely restored.

This copy protection issue has almost forced me to ignore the possibilities of adding Disney vintage cartoons to the mix, just to show how the other studios were either influenced by Disney and tried to outdo him, or were influenced by the cartoons and wished to lampoon them!  We all know how much of the latter there is, all the way up through TV animation.  My favorite of that early, stylized period for a then- new medium of television is Jay Ward’s take on the “Sleeping Beauty” story with a caricature of Uncle Walt as the bumbling prince who, instead of kissing the princess and waking her up, decides to turn the drafty old castle into a theme park around her!!  Add to that the sudden reappearance of the witch who claims to have put the beauty to sleep in the first place, coming back to make sure she gets her cut of the action!!

The prince tries every trick in the book to rid himself of the witch-locking her in the dungeon, tossing her in the river with her feet encased in cement and, finally, sending her into space on a moon rocket that he gets her to believe she’s won by becoming a co-administrator of the theme park. But she manages to escape from all such traps, just in time for both of them to discover that the novelty of the sleeping beauty concept is waning fast, and that the park isn’t bringing in as much revenue as it used to!

Here is where the ultimate zinger is attached, as we slowly learn that none of the principle players are at all what they claim, including Sleeping Beauty herself, who suddenly wakes up and tells us all that she wasn’t really asleep but just wanted to see what it would be like to make it in showbiz!!  Great stuff as only Jay Ward could write it.

For those of you who have bought or rented the various single-disk “best of” sets around Jay Ward cartoons, you have no doubt noted, as did I, that there are Bullwinkle puppet extras from the years when Rocky and His Friends had eventually turned into The Bullwinkle Show.  The puppet used to hilariously introduce each segment.  Since the Jay Ward show preceded Walt Disney’s “WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR”, the Bullwinkle puppet often made many references to Disney’s programs, and the barbs were also aimed at the network in general and all its programs, not just those that Uncle Walt brought to the table.

The jabs aimed directly at Walt Disney stand out moreso, perhaps, because Disney and Jay Ward shared a career-both were animation producers and so felt they had to compete against each other, despite the fact that their styles of cartooning and entertaining are worlds apart.  The inclusion of the Bullwinkle puppet segments as special features on the “best of” disks is unnerving to collectors like me because I’m sure that many of us would so much like to see those now elusive fourth and fifth seasons of the Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends revamps of those Jay Ward years: with those puppet segments interspersed where they truly belong, not as some hidden away special feature on some compilations of entries that we already had collected for the most part on the season sets!!  While I had the rentals, though, I so wanted to record the puppet segments for myself and slip ‘em in where they belong if we ever do get the complete seasons, but of course, copy protection squelches that idea.

But, mostly, it is “playing toonhead” that I miss and, while making these “mix” disks to unload a lot of older VHS tapes gets interesting, it isn’t as interesting as it could be if I were allowed to totally explore the possibilities.  All studios were inspired, even in a competitive way, to either outdo the other or poke light fun at what the other was doing.  Jay Ward was, as I pointed out earlier, at the top of the list there.  There were even swipes at Hanna-Barbera in the dialogue of the characters in Fractured Fairy Tales.  In one such incident, in what I believe was a fracturing of “1001 Arabian Nights”, a character frantically looking for a blue flying rug in a rug shop which had everything but snarls at the clerk and says something like “what are you, a spy for Hanna-Barbera?”

But I’m not just referring to the mockeries here and insider barbs directed at the competition.  There are many interesting ways that the other studios respected each other or lent their style to the accepted Disney norm.  How often did I want to do an obvious segue out of the MGM cartoon, The Little Goldfish, to a cartoon that Harmon and Ising had made for Disney just before going back to the newly formed in-house studio at MGM, called Merbabies, or how many times would I have liked to run Dance Of The Weed (MGM) and Flowers For Madame (Warner Brothers) alongside Flowers and Trees or The Old Mill.  Those who sometimes lampooned Disney also had a respect for what the man accomplished with animation and film, even though it perhaps bothered them that the Academy never took other animated films beyond the accepted Walt Disney family values norm as seriously as legitimate filmmaking which we now realize that they all were!

The ultimate “toonheads” type of experience was once had at local movie theaters where there were Saturday matinees or, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, film festivals or sorts honoring the incredible history of the art form up to that point.  I remember summers spent going to weekly festivals of this type where the resident historian in charge would mix and match cartoons under a basic theme or, more often, honor certain cartoon directors or studios in lengthy two-part shows that were fueled by private collectors, not pirates!!  Animation history needs still to be told and retold so as not to be forgotten.  Yes, some of it now is firmly affixed to popular DVD releases that we all hope will still go on, but the entertainment companies still don’t quite grasp the need for this history to be fully unearthed, as if it were some shameful spawn that would have been aborted save for those who came to its rescue.  I know I like a job well done, and there are many of these.  We here at this blog certainly hope that the good jobs continue and, sooner or later, outweigh the half-hearted attempts at restoring old cartoons as if it all were nothing more than a bunch of misguided kid-sitters.

Let’s all keep hoping for the best and make note of good jobs when they do happen.  The festivals did help to get the word out there, as did “mix” tape swapping and, on occasion now, DVD swapping, but the sources are becoming fewer and fewer mostly because the opportunities have almost all but vanished.  There is still so much work to do, and I’ve known some of those involved in conscious efforts to dust off more vault items from studios already represented or, better yet, the studios that have not ever had their toon libraries unearthed in GOLDEN COLLECTION sets or whatever configuration one could imagine.  Not only is the history fast waning in some cases as years go by, but fewer and fewer classic cartoon compilations shows are being made for TV for either major networks or syndication.

Most times, the ones making noise about these old films are the ardent private collectors.  I hope we keep sounding off in positive ways and, maybe, we’ll all be able to collect our favorites and even mix and match for our own pop corn-feuled afternoons and evenings of great and wacky cartoon fun!!

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