Recently down for a week to pick up some kultcha in the "hateful megalopolis," as R. Crumb described Los Angeles, I caught a recurring cabaret night of bad cartoons titled Cartoon Dump! hosted by Jerry Beck, an internationally known authority on animation. Frank Conniff, best known as TV's Frank from Mystery Science Theater 3000, was on hand in costume as "Moodsy," a clinically depressed owl. The slim comedienne Erica Doering played Compost Brite! the cute, lisping dumpster-diving elf who had retrieved from the garbage a bunch of stinky cartoons that the world might be well without. Beck and Company dug up some real lulus. Hard to top was the opening from the 1950s, Paddy the Pelican.
You knew you were in for it right from the cackling theme song, seemingly a version of "The Irish Washerwoman" performed by a demented Canadian goose in duet with an electric organ. The graphics and apparently improvised dialog was like something a brain damaged-child might have come up with if you handed him a microphone and a crayon. You owe it to yourself to leave a few bars of that "Paddy" soundtrack on a friend's cellphone. They'll be looking over their shoulders for months afterwards to see if there's someone stalking them.
There's some truth to Beck's judgment that Singer was the Ed Wood of TV cartoons; he later went on to develop Sinbad Jr., Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse, and a brain-roaster called Bucky and Pepito, all of which can be seen in the usual Internet places.
Were the kids of the 1960s all simpletons that they could have been interested--even fascinated--by such as that? Yes, we all were. If it moved, we watched it, library music, limited animation and all. Bad as Paddy is, and it is very very bad, it is but primitive made for TV cartooning. Now, in the remake of Funny Games, the two white-gloved killers, violent protagonists of a cartoon playing in their own heads, tended to drop the inside joke names of Tom and Jerry. I'm not convinced these two MGM funny-animals were dangerous enough to drive impressionable young men to murder. More homicidal feelings stirred up by the boredom of mid 1950s theatrical cartoons, generally made in the New York area, that are really among the worst of the worst. They were made fast by depressed animators to the dwindling market left after the Supreme Court broke up the film studios in 1948. In this lot of animated detritus must lie some of the worst animation of all time.
Consider the made for theater adventures of Heckle and Jeckle; cartoon expert Don Markstein says that Terrytoon owner Paul Terry considered these two birds the best creations that his studio came up with, and "considering the esteem in which Terrytoons are held, it's no great honor." Two homicidal birds, one with a fruity tea-drinking British accent, the other with a Jimmy Durante rasp, could have potentially been stars, but they didn't pick their targets well. They never had well-written plots, and their standard foe was a large and desperately unfunny dog who was more to be pitied than anything else.
The animator Shamus Culhane's candid, sometimes ornery, memoir Talking Animals and Other People claims that a friend told him that a job interview with Terry began like so: "We do s..t here, compared to the rest of the business, but it makes me a lot of money. If you don't like to do s..t, don't ask for a job." It happened that Gene Deitch, an intrepid animator, an Oscar-winner and father of a brilliant cartoonist in his own right, later came into Terrytoons' New Rochelle studios and made some intelligent and innovative cartoons that went on to the Oscars. But mostly Terrytoons were the kind of cartoons you watched while you waited for something else to come on.
In New York proper, Famous Studios was still forcing itself through the motions with a character who had once been as popular as Mickey Mouse. The Warner Brothers Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collectionshows what a Fleischer Brothers cartoon looked like at its best; the restored version of 1936's Popeye the SailorMeets Sindbad the Sailor (still, above)balances the hot-kiss-at-the-end-of-a-wet-fist graphic punch with delicate Maxfield Parrish-style coloring.
Compare this peak to the vast wide valley of late 1950s Popeye, with the once fluid character immobilized in a straight-jacket painted to look like a sailor suit. In his book Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin explains what happened. Popeye's home Famous Studios was dissolved, renamed as Paramount Cartoon Studios, and then, years later, hired out by a producer named Al Broadax to make 212 Popeye cartoons in two years. These last were released to theaters "where they must have looked particularly poor," Maltin says. Seeing reruns of theatrical cartoons, starring a Popeye who moved like a stroke victim, was part of the TV watching experience back in the day. Famous Studios was up to worse stuff for the theatrical market, such as the justly forgotten Honey Halfwitch: "she was drawn like a little girl, had the voice of a child, and the personality of a fire hydrant," judged Culhane.
Famous Studios made some fondly remembered cartoons, such as the Little Lulu series and Casper the Friendly Ghost. But certainly among the worst animation of all time are Famous Studio's adventures of Herman and Katnip (1947-1959). I once interviewed Mike Reiss of The Simpsons, who confirmed that it is this team of furry horror-clowns who were the real inspiration for Itchy and Scratchy. Made as ultraviolent ripoffs of Tom and Jerry, H and K savaged each other. Maltin, for one, remembers the finale of "Mice Meeting You" (1950) in which Katnip the Cat gets his tail plugged into an electric socket. The dimwitted Katnip never was gutted like Scratchy, but he went through his share of howling agony, usually orchestrated to a hot jazz soundtrack by the talented soundtrack composer Winston Sharples. These cartoons are mean and they hurt.
The 1950s was a fraught time in the animation racket, and some animators adapted brilliantly. Ex-Disney cartoonists formed UPA, which parlayed America's new fondness for abstract-expressionist art into moving pictures. Chuck Jones' use of negative space in the Warner Brothers' Road Runner series was thrifty as well as visually striking. Eventually Hanna-Barbera proved that people would concentrate on witty scripts and vocal acting at a significant sacrifice of visual style. The "illustrated radio" technique for animation turned out to be the wave of the future. As the line up at Cartoon Dump! proves, this low-budgeting paved the way for TV cartoons that looked like they were done in 1905, with deadline-wracked scripters babbling like crack babies on the soundtrack. Just as with the study of bad movies, the study of bad cartoons never ends; you start digging and you never quite reach rock bottom.