Van Beuren Corporation (1933-1934), Thunderbean Animation (first quarter 2007), single DVD-R disc, 95 mins plus supplements, 1.33:1 original full frame ratio, PCM Digital Soundtrack, Not Rated, Retail: $14.95
Otto Soglow’s comic strip comes to life via the Van Beuren Studio, and this collection includes the complete series: all ten Little King cartoons, and two pre-King Sentinel Louie shorts plus the Fleischers’ 1936 Betty Boop appearance, restored from original 16mm and 35mm prints.
The Sweatbox Review:
For every whizz-bang CGI extravaganza released to theaters these days, there’s classic, quality cartooning from animation’s pioneering days laying nearly lost and forgotten in some attic, kept away from mass release by over zealous rights holders, or the private preserve of the privileged collectors able to store and screen film prints of these for their own, exclusive enjoyment.
Thank goodness, then, for the likes of Ray Pointer’s Inkwell Images and Steve Stanchfield’s Thunderbean outfits. These two animation enthusiasts have done more out of their own pocket to bring really vintage, important animation to wider audiences than even the biggest, well funded corporates, and their efforts should be applauded no end. Going back even as far as the caveman days of VHS, Ray produced retrospective documentary compilations of the pre-Oswald work of Walt Disney (years before Disney themselves made some of the Alice series available) and lengthy programs featuring painstaking reconstructions of Max and Dave Fleischer’s Koko The Clown and Out Of The Inkwell cartoons. Filling in a gap by concentrating on slightly later years, Steve Stanchfield had been first out of the gate to create tapes, and now DVDs, filled with obscure 1930s character series, such as the Cubby Bear collection, Aesop’s Fables, a World War II animation compendium and nothing less than the best pre-official Warner Bros. Popeye disc on the market.
Stanchfield previously struck a deal with Makinac Media for a handful of his titles to be duplicated and distributed professionally through outlets such as Amazon, but has since resumed to his own direct sales. What’s great is that Steve keeps pumping these discs out, and concurrent with this release is a second volume of his Cultoons series of rarities. Although I have all of the other Thunderbean releases, I missed the ever so limited Felix The Cat disc, which was recalled when Steve claimed he was unhappy with some of the mastering done on the title, and so jumped at the chance to cover this latest collection, The Complete Animated Adventures Of Otto Soglow’s The Little King, to give it it’s proper moniker.
A native New Yorker and fan of the Winsor McCay and George Herriman strips, Little King creator Otto Soglow had his first illustration published aged just 19 and became a master of the satirical caricature, landing work at The New Masses, a popular arts magazine. By the late ’20s, Soglow’s strips were being placed in The New Yorker, with The Little King introduced as a recurring feature in 1931. What set the King apart from other royals was his kind nature, penchant for fun and willingness to join in with the common folk instead of carrying out his tiresome majestic duties. The pure gags and minimalist design helped the King gain popularity through 1932 and an animation series was suggested, perhaps spurred on by the amazing success of Segar’s Popeye, who was in the process of becoming an instant screen star in his own Fleischer-animated series.
Soglow’s alternate strip, which ran above The Little King in the Sunday papers, featured a plump palace guard character named Sentinel Louie, and when the Van Beuren Studio was contracted to translate Soglow’s characters into animation it was decided, for various reasons, to try out Louie first (for some reason as “Sentinel Louey”). These two initial cartoons joined the established Van Beuren Aesop’s Fables series, where they would slot in to the programs where theaters were already playing the Fables. Appropriately, this Thunderbean disc begins with these two Sentinel Louie cartoons. As Steve discusses in his liner notes, it’s hard to tell which of AM To PM and A Dizzy Day were made first. Both released in early 1933, the Van Beuren style is evident in the first film, but less so in the second.
There’s no doubting that the animators were trying to emulate Soglow’s strip more closely than simply animating the characters their way, but they also had to infuse them with movements that would work on the screen and allow them to animate under the time and budget constraints. What isn’t hurt, however, is the storytelling, and the gags are as great as anything from this era. As with the strips, they’re less slapstick and more subtle, taking their time to build but providing bigger laughs (the statue that “grows” and ages when watered, for instance). The staging is elaborate, especially The Mysterious Mr Zoot’s chequered suit, which animates over every frame and even “blows cold” when the wind comes in the first cartoon, and the exchanging of standard-issue moustaches when substituting the guard in the second. The punching the lights out of a screaming woman just to clam her up anticipates the similar Zucker Brothers humor in Airplane! by over 40 years!
The Little King himself makes his debut in The Fatal Note and it’s clear even from the opening frames that this was intended to be An Event. An entire town of folk are animated professing their love and admiration for their King and, after a suitably pretentious build up, the reveal of their ruler playing in his royal bubble bath brings a big smile. There’s even a good stab at plot, setting up a villain who’s out to rob the Little King of his crown in a way that doesn’t seem generic even now. After not being too wowed by much of the Van Beuren output (mainly the Rainbow Parade series of Silly Symphony knock-offs), the work here was a revelation. The layouts, though plain, are nicely detailed, while an exciting sword fight up the palace steps features some of the smoothest three dimensional perspective cartooning I’ve come across in “second tier” studio animation, even if they do get maximum usage out of it four times.
Just one cartoon into his cinematic life and the Little King was already being used to promote government initiatives, as seen in Marching Along, in which the Kingdom is almost lost to the Great Depression before Roosevelt’s New Deal concept is introduced to stave off starvation. Though the King ostensibly remains a mute pantomime character throughout, fantastic in these cartoons is the music, with entire plots performed through songs with very witty lyrics. The Little King is off to Africa next, in On The Pan, where encounters with a Jimmy Durante type eagle and – popular at the time, of course – cannibals makes this a hot potato cartoon in this day and age. Without having to answer to jittery studio distributors, Stanchfield is free to include these cartoons without the standard disclaimers (though he has done so on other releases) and there’s nothing too sensitive to get heated about considering the archival nature of the material and the typical stereotypes portrayed.
Perhaps the most well known of the Little Kings is Pals (also known as Christmas Night), due to perennial television exposure. Showing his good will to all men, the King befriends two hobos and sneaks them back into the palace to grant them a luxurious festive holiday. It’s certainly a sign of the times when even low-budget studio fare is as fluidly drawn in full animation as opposed to the corners cut by later limited animation, and Jest Of Honor, the first of the 1934 cartoons, is a good example of this. The King leaves his Kingdom for a trip overseas to the Big City, where he’s greeted by an authentic-looking tickertape parade, but messes up when he’s caught munching hot dogs during what should be his big speech! In Jolly Good Felons, the King is off for a royal prison visit, though the inmates turn out to be as crazy as he is! There’s some wonderful detail again in this short, with each of the prisoners given their own look and personalities (leading to some moments that must have slipped by the censors).
At this point, I was finding myself to be quite a fan of these cartoons and found I could continue through them all in one sitting, something that reviewing collections like these can be prohibitively overwhelming. Part of the appeal is seeing something one truly hasn’t ever witnessed, but I just loved the fact that each of these shorts were sharp, funny and different! Had the series continued, there may have been more repetition, but it’s held in check throughout these ten cartoons, perhaps as a consequence of having a mind like Soglow as direct inspiration. It’s the turn of the Little King to be paid a visit in Sultan Pepper – a title if ever I saw one – when a whole harem descends upon the palace. The King is shown to have a very cheeky side to him here, and the gags involving the Sultan’s girls are certainly risqué in a knowing way, sneaked under the Code’s radar.
The King is off to a carnival in the well animated but routine A Royal Good Time, which merely acts as a set up for a continuous stream of circus performer, sideshow and fun fair sight jokes before the required chase sets in. More interesting, though slightly bizarre, is Art For Art’s Sake, whose title could be a swipe at MGM’s famous motto, but which certainly does feature more of the surrealism the Van Beuren Studio was known for. Some odder than usual looking characters journey to the King’s museum where he, for reasons probably attributable to his playful sense of humor, he proceeds to vandalize the exhibits. The last of the Van Beuren cartoons, Cactus King is a justly elaborately animated one to go out on even though the setting – Cowboys and Indians – is tried and true. After an stunningly animated railway train sequence opening, the cartoon resorts to the usual generic plotting suggested by Old West situations, though uniquely all sides are seen to be friendly to each other and all are astounded by the Little King’s rodeo riding dexterity before a final, exciting chase kicks in.
Soon after the Van Beuren series ended, Otto Soglow transferred ownership of the character to William Randolph Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, who had an agreement with the Fleischer Brothers to produce the Popeye cartoons. The Little King turned up for one final screen appearance with the same character that had help launch the motion picture debut of Popeye…Betty Boop. It’s unknown why he only popped up once: one would wonder if this 1936 Boop cover wasn’t an attempt to replicate the introduction of a character who could then go on to carry their own series, much as Popeye himself had done in 1933. Then again the Fleischers were, at that time, about to embark on their short-lived feature film production plans (the results being Gulliver’s Travels and Mr Bug Goes To Town), with another comic adaptation, Superman, just around the corner. So it’s well possible that the idea of a series was broached, but dropped due to other commitments, or simply because the Van Beuren series had not set the screen alight commercially.
Whatever the reasoning, Betty Boop And The Little King marks an auspicious ending to the character’s screen appearances. Animated with by some of the finest hands outside the Disney Studios, the short is as handsome a cartoon as you’ll find in mid-30s Fleischer animation, complete with the stereoscopic three dimensional background miniatures the Studio was celebrated for. There is a claim that the cartoon could have been intended as a color picture event to follow the 1934 Boop cartoon Poor Cinderella, otherwise her only color Fleischer outing. Certainly the lushly designed backgrounds would support the notion, but on closer inspection the shading of the characters is more akin to the regular grayscale of the other black and white Boop or Popeye shorts of the time. In its bigger budgeted way it looks better than the previous cartoons, of course, but not so greatly enhanced, much to the Van Beuren crew’s credit, and differences in the King’s shape (he’s more rounded here) and a speech impediment make this footnote to the series an interesting curio.
Otto Soglow would continue to try out new characters and contributed the Little King strip to Hearst’s King Features publications until he died in 1975, at which point the King was laid to rest as well. This collection is a welcome reminder of a truly great strip character (that I had thus far been aware of in name and a few images only) who translated to animation incredibly well in cartoons made by an outfit whose work constantly gets an unfair reputation. Compliment enough should be that the earlier Van Beuren shorts remain as competent as the solo Fleischer “A Studio” cartoon, but it’s clear that with an inspiration like Soglow to please, they really tried to raise the bar with their Little King.
Is This Thing Loaded?
With the full series of 12 cartoons plus the Betty Boop extra, it would be understandable if The Little King didn’t come loaded with bonuses. But, then again, this is a Thunderbean disc we’re talking about here, and Steve Stanchfield surely knows how to draw on those in the know to clog up any extra disc space with plentiful information. Other discs in his Animation Classics Collection have featured commentaries with the likes of Jerry Beck, John Kricfalusi and Eric Goldberg, radio programs, advertisement films and behind-the-scenes promotional footage.
Here things are kept a little simpler, and again that’s understandable. So it came as a great – and welcome – surprise when I went to the Bonus Features and was presented with no less than seven choices of production notes, biographies, home movie release images and Soglow information galore – much of it plundered for the historical details provided throughout this review. Soglography is a Soglow biographical piece by Chris Buchman, highlighting his personal life pre, during and after the adventures of The Little King in great detail. Cartoonography, compiled by Buchman again, is a run down of each of the cartoons, with various images presented throughout including original Soglow panels which inspired moments in the animated series, and some thoroughly researched notes.
Stanchfield jumps in himself to provide Rediscovering The Little King Cartoons liner notes, encompassing a brief history of the strip and an overview of both the original cartoon series and the work involved in putting together this release, revealing that as many as up to four prints of a given title were often used to create the best available composite. He also explains that prints were sourced from around the globe, hence the British “U Classification” certificate and the RKO Radio Pictures logo left intact on some of the transfers for a truly vintage feel. More than anything, Steve exclaims that Thunderbean’s mission is to make cartoons such as these available so that they may speak for themselves and not remain hidden away with only written opinions to tell us how good or bad they are, and one can’t thank him enough.
A collection of home movie box packaging and the various titles the cartoons were released as over the years is the focal point of Soglow On The Home Screen, Chris Buchman’s retrospective of the history of the series after the initial Van Beuren theatrical releases. Le Museé Royal (nice!), curated by Buchman, presents several options of its own, covering images from Soglow’s own New Yorker contemporary artists, the King being used for promotional items (including cigarettes!), merchandise, Soglow’s book illustration covers and a selection of strips and movie posters.
Best of all in the Museé is Zombie Surprize, a phonograph recording of Gene Kardos’ Zombie jazz track that cartoon composer Gene Rodemich adapted for the scores of the Little King cartoon On The Pan and the Van Beuren Aesop Fable, Rough On Rats. The music is typical of the time, possibly comparable to Raymond Scott’s more well known Powerhouse from 1937, but the transfer here is exemplary, accompanied by two stills from the respective cartoons that used the score. An excellent surprise indeed!
Finally, Milton Knight’s Jim Tyer And The Little King examines the extraordinary role that animator, director and storyman Tyer played in translating the King’s comic panels to full animation. Akin perhaps to the Disney animators of today taking on the artistic sensibilities of Gerald Scarfe for Hercules (1997), it was Tyer’s job to adapt Soglow’s style to the screen. A newspaper cartoonist himself, Tyer embraced the challenge, and certainly sounds like the man to thank in upping the quality of the Van Beuren crew’s staging in these cartoons and making them as good as they are.
Despite some misspellings and punctuation errors (actually fairly usual for small company output where proofreading is less stringent), the menus throughout are classy, as good as those created in well-funded studio fare such as the Walt Disney Treasures, and accompanied by cartoon score selections. Not easily found from any of the menus, Title 16 displays a page of credits for all that contributed to this terrific disc.
A standard black keepcase houses the nicely designed sleeve, which is in keeping with all the other Thunderbean releases.
Ink And Paint:
There were two factors that could have fared badly against The Little King coming to disc. The first is naturally the age of the material, and the second is the fact that Stanchfield doesn’t have the might of the Disney or Warner Bros. restoration teams behind him. The Fleischer cartoon is a slight cheat: it’s the same UM&M television print as seen on the Betty Boop Definitive Collection Two LaserDisc set and the transfer looks to be a straight port. Jest Of Honor is probably the least satisfactory in sound and picture, but otherwise there is nothing to fault here; image is just as good as one would expect from early 1930s material that has passed through many hands over the years and has been widely sourced to present the best available elements. Slightly windowboxed to present the entire original frame and progressively transferred, folks who seek titles like these out know what to expect, and I think will be pleasantly surprised here.
As impressed as I was with the images, the soundtracks hold up amazing well too. Anyone who has caught an early Mickey Mouse short – to call on a more mass distributed product as an example – will know how good or bad that age of material can sound. With some restoration work, Stanchfield here can lay claim to making his tracks sound as good as the best of them. Some minor frequency phasing or digital sampling could be picked up in Jest Of Honor and A Royal Good Time, but for every one of those there’s the likes of Jolly Good Felons, which sounds amazing, and overall I was blown away at the fidelity of the tracks, booming as they are and with very few breaks in them. The jaunty musical scores (by Winston Sharples, later in the series) come through very clearly, making the period songs a delight to listen to.
Easily my favorite cartoon in the bunch is the Little King’s debut The Fatal Note, though Jolly Good Felons and Cactus King both feature extraordinary work, especially considering the usual output of the studio behind them. Even the surrealistic Van Beuren tinged Art For Art’s Sake has its moments, and the final Fleischer picture, while more elaborate, shows that the earlier shorts – the bulk of this compilation – couldn’t really be bettered. A delightful surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with his majesty and suggest that, for anyone interested in what led to the Golden Age of cartoons, DVD collections like The Complete Animated Adventures Of Otto Soglow’s The Little King are essential.