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1979: Albert's (in Omaha) is lit!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ahhhhh, Yes!

Before it vanishes, as it has other times, do yourself a favor and spend some entertaining time immersed in the scholarly pages of The Warner Brothers Cartoon Companion by Eric Costello.

I can't mention it without bragging that I -- yes, I! -- once had the privilege of serializing this groundbreaking reference in the pages of a monthly cartoon APA (private magazine that went out to the contributors). Once I learned that Costello was doing this, and having seen it, I got his permission to run a few pages of it each issue, with the intention of turning the text files over to him afterward, so that he wouldn't have to type the thing over another time, and could get it published somewhere reputable. My term of office expired before it was completely finished, but by then (or soon after) he took the show to the net where it could be appreciated by a wider audience.

So. You might ask what this wonderful thing is? (I pause while you ask.) It's a guide to all the puzzling references, in-jokes, catch-phrases and ad jingles that enlivened the classic Warner Brothers cartoons, and which now confuse and confound audiences, even as their kids are shouting "TURN OUT THAT LIGHT!" or asking "Was this trip really necessary?" Radio jokes, ration coupons, opaque slang, Texas trivia, aspects of Hollywood stars, and other detritus of the collective unconscious are aired and explicated herein.

A note of caution: It comes and goes. It seems that no sooner has Mr. Costello found a home for this indispensable repository of knowledge than something happens leading to a 404 NOT FOUND message. A Google search will show you all manner of no-longer-viable WBCC locations. We recommend saving the whole thing to your hard drive, and maybe converting it to some format in which you can carry it with you wherever you go. It's that good. Samples:


The Last of the Red-hot Gobblers. A caricature in The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (Tashlin, 1937) of Sophie Tucker.


One of the many advertising slogans for Lucky Strike cigarettes. Daffy-Duck-as-Danny-Kaye mentions the slogan in Book Revue (Clampett, 1946). The Christopher Columbus character in Hare We Go (McKimson, 1951) yells the phrase in exasperation at King Ferdinand while attempting to prove the Earth is round. Henery Hawk also used the expression when confronted with a fine specimen of alleged chicken tail.


Cigar-smoking character actor with a dour face who was well-known and often imitated. His movie appearances include 42nd Street, Golddiggers of 1933 in which he played the producer, the live-action Alice in Wonderland as the Caterpillar, and Wake Up and Live.

Caricatures of Sparks appear in:

  • Hollywood Steps Out (Avery, 1941) greeting the table of stonefaces
  • Malibu Beach Party (Freleng, 1940) being buried in sand by Baby Snooks/Fanny Brice
  • Slap-Happy Pappy (Clampett, 1940) indicating his joy (?) at the news that Eddie Cackler (caricature of Eddie Cantor) is going to be the father of a boy
  • Fresh Fish (Avery, 1939) as an old crab

It is quite possible that the Rip Van Winkle character in Have You Got Any Castles? (Tashlin, 1938) is a Sparks caricature as well, given the character’s voice.

These are three successive entries, taken from the page I had it open to when I started this. I can't promise that the internal links work, but it gives you the names and the meanings -- there's enough there to satisfy your curiosity and make you want to watch all the cartoons again.
re: re-re-re-re-reading

Every day, I read just a few more pages of Jules Feiffer's America. This is the 25th anniversary collection of his comic strips. Inimitable, though often imitated, they are amazingly concentrated and powerful stuff.

Feiffer was already an experienced professional who had worked for Will Eisner by the time he hit the ground running during the Eisenhower administration. His drawings shimmered from one style to another briefly before settling into a style so direct and unvarnished it sometimes seems like no style at all. Though famous for his talking heads, his action drawings are full of life, especially his dancers (male and female), caught at moments of poise and release, like key drawings by a great animator.

Typically existing for about eight panels, his characters breathe nervous life. He sets up small slices of them speaking to us, panel leading to panel, until they have unwittingly revealed their hearts. Sometimes they are us, and the recognition is not always comfortable. Sometimes they are the evil others, only they look and sound a bit more like us than we would like.

They are history lessons for moderns who think the 50s were a sitcom, the 60s were a love-in, and our current problems are something entirely new and novel. His Eisenhower-era strips are insightful, and I'd read many of them so often before that I can't recall them being a revelation. His Kennedy strips are a jolt of cold water to Camelot fantasists. His JFK was vital, sharp, alive, and also shallow and poll-driven. Feiffer stuck it to him mercilessly, depicting him as a choreographed dancer "doin' the Frontier drag." LBJ was a shining knight until he revealed too much of himself; then he was a particularly disappointing political hack. Nixon -- well, we all know Nixon. So did he. Jerry Ford? "Shut up and ski, Jerry." Carter was Jimmy the Cloud.

I haven't been quoting (except for Jerry) because if I start, I won't stop. It's all too good.

I can't recommend this 25th-anniversary collection too highly. It's been more than 25 years since it came out, and I wish he'd do a follow-up. I don't know if reading all his strips in order without the filter of the creator choosing what to include would match the impact of this set, but I'd be willing to find out. Fantagraphics has started the ball rolling, and the volume they've done calls to me from the store shelves. Would that I were wealthier.

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