Freeze Frame Friday 2/12/10: Smear Animation–in 1937?

12 Feb

Still from Fella With A Fiddle

Is this the first instance of "smear" animation? From THE FELLA WITH A FIDDLE (1937)

by Rachel Newstead

Unless they’re truly serious in their devotion to animation, fans seldom take notice of the single frame:  even the more serious-minded sometimes complain that single images in a blog don’t do an animation sequence justice. Perhaps, but they can reveal things about a cartoon we never realized were there, Another still from FELLA WITH A FIDDLEand can sometimes change our presuppositions about the cartoons of a certain period.

When Kevin and I discussed possibilities for future Freeze Frame Fridays recently, one cartoon kept coming up: The Fella With A Fiddle. I’d always considered it a pleasant enough cartoon, from the era of upbeat little musical numbers and goggle-eyed mice, and an average one for Friz Freleng. It never occurred to me that it might make suitable material for this column, until Kevin reminded me of one scene in particular. A scene I’d always liked–but now, I realize why.

A parable of greed told by a wisened grandpa mouse to his grandkids, The Fella With A Fiddle features a blind “beggar” mouse–in fact quite rich and quite able to see–who sings the title song on the street corner as he plays a fiddle, naturally. (In this transitional era, the Merrie Melodies directors had to at least pay lip service to the directive that a Warner song be featured).

The mouse’s scam is never actually exposed in this cartoon, but he does spend a considerable portion of it trying to confuse a skeptical sourpuss of a tax assessor (voiced, of course, by all-purpose villain Billy Bletcher.) It’s these scenes that elevate the cartoon above the typical mid-thirties cartoon, and earn it a place in our gallery of stills.

The mouse, whose home appears to the outside world as a tumbledown little shack, actually lives in impossible splendor inside. Through a series of levers and revolving trick walls, he can hide his opulent furnishings once the mean old tax assessor comes by.

In the stills shown here, the trick walls and furniture appear to be possessed, changing back and forth faster than the poor tax assessor can blink. The confused official whips his head back and forth at the goings-on, not quite sure what to make of the situation.

A funny scene, and a rather fast one for 1937, but something else caught my eye when I saw it in freeze frame. As the tax assessor mouse’s head goes back and forth, he smears from pose to pose. Just as in Dover Boys, or any of the other Chuck Jones cartoons of the decade to come. This didn’t make any sense, until I found there was a common factor between this cartoon and those later ones.

Ken Harris.

I don’t take much stock in information I glean from YouTube, usually, but the person who uploaded the copy I used for today’s post referred to this as the “first screen credit of Ken Harris.” I have to admit I was skeptical, as I don’t remember reading anything about Harris having worked for Freleng, but seeing the frames above convinced me. They’re too similar to what he would later do for Jones not to be his, and if they are, he in those few frames took animation a giant step forward. And far sooner than most of us might have imagined.

(Added more images to better illustrate scene.)

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