Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on Betty Boop Vol.4...


With a little more than a month to go before the fourth volume of Olive Films Betty Boop Essential Collection series, I thought I might as well give my thoughts on what I understand will be the final volume in the series. As you all know the series began almost exactly a year ago amidst some controversy. The overall selected list of cartoons that was claimed to make up the proposed series contained many omissions which appeared random in nature. Some Betty Talkartoons were included on the list, such as THE ROBOT, while others, like MYSTERIOUS MOSE, were conspicuously absent. Now it appears that list is mostly moot since there won't be a volume 5: A real  shame in leu of any other company picking up the slack. But more on that in a bit.


The list of cartoons appearing on volume 4 is, of course, in keeping with previous volumes: about one part pre-code Bettys with two parts post code. Amongst the selections is one essential we all knew was going to be there: Roland Crandall's brilliant SNOW WHITE. Another, RED HOT MAMMA, can be considered amongst Betty's precode bests with STOPPING THE SHOW and PARADE OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS good examples of the Fleischers at the peak of their surrealistic golden age.

Image from from Mel Birnkrant's Mouse Heaven site

Two others, while not exactly essentials, are quite good none the less. The polynesian themed ZULA HULA is, in my opinion, one of the best Grampy cartoons and a rare example of spirited (if ignorant) joi de vivre  and wildness in animation overcoming the practice of stereotyping which, as a general rule, I'm not crazy about. It's good but I think bested by A SONG A DAY (a cartoon not appearing in the series) which I consider Grampy's best cartoon. Oddly it seems the cartoon that introduces Grampy, BETTY AND GRAMPY, won't be appearing in the series at all. Mystifying. I'm no huge fan of Pudgy but RIDING THE RAILS is probably his best cartoon with a contagious score and many other clever elements to keep it going.

Grampy model sheet from Ryan Englade collection

From there things slide downhill somewhat. POOR CINDERELLA bears the distinction of being Betty's one and only color cartoon. It has some nice elements, in color, layout, funny drawing, animation and it's striking use of the turntable camera, but overall seems a bit out of whack compared to Betty's earlier demented fairy tale fare like MOTHER GOOSE LAND. Personally I've always regarded this as an experimental pilot for a series that became better with subsequent entries: The Color Classics-a series long overdue for DVD/blu release.


German poster for The Color Classics

SALLY SWING is a handsomely animated and designed film (with a problem soundtrack 'flutter' at the beginning which they will hopefully be able to address) but no real 'swing' per se - at least in the manner of I HEARD or OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN.  WHEN MY SHIP COMES IN is a pleasant but totally forgettable entry in Betty's immediate post-code cannon. Following that are two more cartoons featuring Fearless Fred: Fleischer's non-threatening post code replacement for the lecherous Bimbo. SHE WRONGED HIM RIGHT and THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT A SOLDIER are among the weakest in the  series  - surpassed only by Betty's disastrous team ups with The Little King and Henry.  The only distinction of PUDGY THE WATCHMAN is that a marked storyboard survived from it's production (at one time in Ryan Englade's collection) allowing us to know definitively who animated what. Other than that it's an utterly forgettable cartoon* With so many other note worthy Betty cartoons unrepresented it is perplexing why they would choose these if this is to be the last in the series. No MASK-A-RAID? No DIZZY RED RIDING HOOD? No CRAZY TOWN?

*this may sound a little harsh. The cartoon does contain some funny animation by Johnson, Walker and Feuer (particularly of the drunken cat)  but yet still manages to be a forgettable entry. Perhaps it's because the cat's anarchistic personality is so much stronger than Pudgy. The cartoon's pace is pretty uneven also. Whatever the case, PTW is no match for Betty's unrepresented pre-code material. 



It seemed like this series was doomed from the start: first with it's random selections, which seemed to suggest someone who had never even seen all the cartoons, to the quality control breakdown which resulted in two volumes compressed to an incorrect aspect ratio. Add to that the steep price, short running time and cover art which suggested public domain (in fairness though, I should say Volume 4 is an improvement) it's hardly a wonder the series should be stopping short. Personally I'm a believer in 'better this than nothing', and I do think the films on volume 3 are the best looking Betty Boop ever on the market and am looking forward to volume 4,  but it's a shame that it couldn't have been handled better from the start. IMO the material should have been sorted chronologically (a format the fans seem to prefer) and split into two or three sets of perhaps 3-4 discs a piece.  This might have helped bring in more of the 'merely curious' by offering a better value as opposed to only the hardcore fan who will pay whatever is asked for a small selection.  I feel bonus features are not necessary with material of the quality of Fleischer cartoons but, if something must be included, I would have chosen other films in Paramount's short subject library (of which the Fleischer cartoons were a part) which featured some of the musical acts which appeared in Betty Boop cartoons. Such examples as CAB CALLOWAY'S HI DE HO  or MUSICAL DOCTOR with Mae Questel and Rudy Vallee. But this is beside the point.  It's my hope another company can step up to pick up the slack and, hopefully, give us a less miserly release of Fleischer cartoons.  There certainly is a lot more untapped material and a fan base desirous of seeing it out there. It'd be a shame to see the Paramount Fleischer cartoons go back to their 'holding pattern' where they've already been, unseen by anybody, for decades.

Boop-Oop-a-Toot. Betty and weird bug drawn by me 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Betty Boop: Vol.3



After emerging from my mailbox home, disc firmly in teeth, it occurred to me I was due to give my thoughts on BETTY BOOP THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION VOL.3. Just stop sticking in those cardboard mailers-they really hurt!


First off I should say, if you are trying to decide on one of the (somewhat pricey) three issued volumes, you should absolutely knuckle down and buy this. Of the 12 cartoons on the disc four really are essential, not just among Fleischer cartoons but animation in general. Two or three others are really good examples of Fleischer at it's surrealistic peak and the rest, perhaps not on anybody's top ten, but still retaining the high production values the Fleischers maintained unwaveringly until almost the end. Of Betty's jazz cartoons it contains four (the essentials) of the five. Crandall's masterpiece SNOW WHITE will undoubtedly appear on a future volume. 


Now I should say I've seen these cartoons a gargoonian amount of times. So, my point of view isn't someone just discovering these for the first time but someone who's all too familiar with all the rotten ways Betty Boop has entered the DVD marketplace over the years. 


When I first made comparison between the earlier issued laserdisc/VHS version and Olive's latest volume I was concerned that the stretching which so badly marred Vols.1 & 2 was still present though perhaps not as pronounced. Further inspection however revealed that what I was probably perceiving as stretch was in fact an element embedded in the now unbelievably poor looking transfers made for that earlier Republic release. For example, compare the same frame of I'LL BE GLAD WHEN YOU'RE DEAD YOU RASCAL YOU from both Olive & Republic versions by clicking the below image and scrolling back and forth with your mouse wheel. 



Yep, there's something wrong alright-and it's not with the Olive version. Not only were they cropped but it seems as though those old Republic transfers were photographed at a slight angle to the 'platen' (not quite straight on as a scan will give you) as well as slightly tilted. Whatever the problem was (I'm no video expert) it looks messed up. Comparing the two versions show what a good job looks like: it makes the previous version look obsolete.



Frankly, it's dazzling. Shots like the above previously ruined by DNR, over-exposure, interlacing and about every other problem now read crystal clear in a way not seen outside of a film archive in decades! I don't want to spoil things by posting too many grabs but there are some mind blowing things on this disc: detail in backgrounds of MINNIE THE MOOCHER I never noticed before, the top of the studio wall visible (!) in the live action intro to I HEARD and many others!



As for the audio, I will say it is also an improvement over all previous video versions with fuller body and resonance within the context of very early sound recording. That said, the soundtracks to MINNIE THE MOOCHER and HA! HA! HA! retain the distortion audible in the earlier Republic release. A strange thing since BETTY BOOP'S UPS AND DOWNS (on Vol.2) had it's audio corrected. In the case of MINNIE THE MOOCHER this may be as good as it ever sounds (though it certainly bears investigation) but there are certainly better sounding versions of HA! HA! HA! out there. Likewise with BE UP TO DATE. For those of us who've already grown comfortable with the distortion (from earlier versions) it's no biggie but for those checking these out for the first time you will need to adjust your eardrums a little for these. Would have been nice if someone had quality controlled this: the distortion is significant. I should have mentioned in one of my previous posts at least.  I once played MINNIE  for someone who had never heard it before and they thought they had a punctured speaker! Still, beggars can't be choosers.



So, overall, a much better job than Vols. 1 and 2. I see recently that King Features has designed some alternate covers for Vols.1-3 featuring the work of the talented Stephen Destephano. The Olive covers are terrible so perhaps this may be the way we will see them in the future. Personally I'm a booster for original vintage artwork gracing the covers. Many Fleischer promotional drawings survive to this day so there's no shortage of images to choose from. Betty even had an official logo that appeared on all kinds of merchandise through the 30's. Either way it's better than what they are using currently: looking a bit like the cover of that spanish text book you lost in the eighth grade. As to Paramount stepping up and correcting the video problems that effected Bettty Boop The Essential Collection Volumes One and Two (Thanks Thad!), I hoist my best jug of corn drippuns in your general direction! Thank-you!!!


Thursday, January 2, 2014

A bit more on Betty Boop

Happy New Year all! By now you may have realized I sort of view this blog as lawn sculpture: beautifully decomposing into toxic goo with each passing day. But before I allow the elements to take hold again there's still some left over business stuffed in that shoe box with the crumpled bank receipts, pizza menus and 2 for 1 bagel coupons. Wait, 2 for 1 bagels?!


First off is Volume two of The Betty Boop Essential Collection. Thad K, who broke the story of the goof which rendered our Betty with a head more like a pancake, kindly sent along his own transfers reformatted in something closer to their correct aspect ratios. It certainly helped antidote the original problem which was making me kind of crazy. So, for that I hoist my finest roast pigeon to Thad: thank-you for taking pity on my eyeballs!


That said, I would not call these 'fixed aspect ratios'. I noticed, when the above image was posted to Facebook with the heading 'fixed ratios', how narrow Frederic March's face seemed. So, I decided to compare three versions of BETTY BOOP'S PENTHOUSE: The Olive disc I purchased, Thad's redux version (based on a copy he purchased), and the old Republic version from the VHS set I bought years ago. What I discovered were images which were distorting vertically as well as horizontally. If you click the first image below and scroll between the series of three using your mouse wheel you'll see what I mean.

Olive

Thad

Republic

Personally, I don't care: I'm glad to have these cartoons looking closer to their correct aspect ratio than what we got from the first two Olive discs.  Everything I've read from Thad backs up that his disc was only a best guess done as a kindness to fans who were upset by the problem.  So it should be clear that these are not actually fixed ratios. My instinct, totally unverified by anything, is that the Republic set is the closest to showing the proper proportions of the characters, BG's etc. (neither stretched nor squashed) but that the image, as seen above, was cropped randomly to fit Academy Ratio. 

'Poor Cinderella' is a title appearing on Olive's master list of Betty Boop cartoons  appearing in their Essential Collection. However, many others, including the brilliant MYSTERIOUS MOSE, were left off for reasons unknown.

I've noticed some people asking if  the aspect ratio differs only on the pre-code Bettys or whether all of them are effected: a logical question since Fleischers changed formats early in their run.  Personally I didn't notice anything funny on Olive's release of THE FOXY HUNTER (1937, long after Fleischers had standardized their release format) until I scrolled it (as you can do below) with the same frame from the earlier Republic VHS. You will see there is indeed squishing occurring. So it is not a problem exclusive only to the pre-code Bettys.

Olive

Republic

Dryness is something you have to get used to if you're a Fleischer fan. I was thinking today of the Popeye Laser Disc I purchased at top dollar years prior to WB's Popeye set. The hope was at least it would be less bad than what I had previously. That was dry. Compared to them days (with a recent release of Puppetoons, Thunderbean discs of Gulliver and Eshbaugh on the way and even Betty Boop) we're livin' in a paradise, buckeroo!  Personally I was getting worried the series might stop abruptly at Vol.2. So, the hope is they're quality checking the work this time around. Thad's redux discs are welcome but I would expect better from Vol.3 for which I'll be shelling out actual hard earned cash.  Of course I, like you, would prefer the mammoth no-frills box set of Screen Song cartoons (or Color Classics for that matter) for the binge weekend of a lifetime. 12 cartoons a disc, with months to wait between volumes, is pretty thin. But any action on the part of Paramount to do something beside sit on their gigantic back catalog of cartoons should be greeted with as much enthusiasm as possible. And as I wrote previously, the aspect ratio was the only real problem with the first two volumes and, aside from that, they have never looked or sounded better. So there is something to be enthusiastic about! We now return you to our regularly scheduled test pattern...


The Official Test Pattern of Uncle John's Crazy Town. Please Stand By...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Mixed Blessing...




First off, Paramount taking any interest in their animation legacy (which includes a rich trove from Fleischers, Famous and George Pal) is big news. The studio has been trounced badly in recent years mostly due to the manner in which the studio was taken from Max. But, for a long time it was a good relationship and the partnership resulted in many cartoons that are now regarded as classics of the genre.  Even through the lean years of the 40's Para still maintained two animation studios. So, for all the flack it is Paramount we must ultimately thank for the existence of the Fleischer and Famous cartoon films as we know them today. Animation history, from a home viewing perspective, has been much poorer for their absence. Now we have BETTY BOOP: THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION: the first release of authorized Betty Boop cartoons in over a decade.

The cover of Olive Films Betty Boop includes a slip case. I can see the cover designer was attempting to do something in the vein of the Betty Boop playing cards issued in the 30's combined with the look of the 'Definitive Collection' (which was illustrated by Leslie Cabarga) but yet it lacks the finesse to distinguish it from dollar bin cheapies: a mistake that could effect sales among non-fans IMO. Of course, collectors are the primary market (and a bigger market then credited) for a disc like this.

Bimbo playing card from a line of bridge sets issued at the time of the Fleischer Studios.

Betty Boop Platinum Collection was a bootleg some fans prefer as it uses as it's master a couple of non-DVNR'd Republic laser discs issued in the early 90's

I'm sure you've already read Thad's insightful review over at Cartoon Research but if you haven't click here. I can tell you my heart sank when I heard they had messed with the aspect ratio: the one mistake I didn't account for in my last post! That makes reviewing the disc a little tricky. I see some commenters over at CR can't see the difference so, below, is a comparison between an an original animation drawing from BETTY BOOP'S MAY PARTY (from Ryan Englade's Collection) and a frame grab from the Olive disc. If you click on the first image and then use your mouse wheel to scroll back and forth between the two you will see the squashing. An inker (or clean-up artist) would never mess with the volume like that (unless they wanted their scene thrown back).  Below that is a side-by-side comparison.







So, clearly there's something wrong. And yet it's a simple error that can be corrected. Let's not forget the mistakes of previous releases. Or have we forgotten the big stink over the AAP titles that slipped onto some of the early Popeye disc sets?  VCI's SOMEWHERE IN DREAMLAND DVD set claimed both that the set was compiled from the best surviving materials and that TIME FOR LOVE was a lost film. Neither was true but a later pressing of SWIDL corrected the error by including a good quality 16mm print of TIME FOR LOVE.  If Olive could do that for the aspect ratio problem for the BETTY BOOP: ESSENTIAL COLLECTION I would easily call this the animation disc of the year and worthy of the price tag even minus the bonus features.

BAMBOO ISLE Olive disc
BAMBOO ISLE Platinum disc. You can see from the above comparison that we are indeed seeing more of the frame instead of just cropping it off.  It's just  the wrong aspect ratio. Otherwise, the Olive disc is clearly the better image.

So, now the positive side. Except for the aspect ratio problem virtually everything else is better than we've seen before. One thing Olive does really well is author their discs. The Platinum set (taken from early Republic laser discs), by comparison, has a lot problems: bad interlacing, artifacting, blurry resolution, and the company's obnoxious logo in front of every cartoon among them.  I'm sure someone out there will point out the finer points of DVD authoring but the Olive disc step-frames (slow advance) better than anything I've seen and thus allows a look at the cartoons previously not possible.

The image resolution on Olive's BETTY BOOP'S RISE TO FAME is truly striking. You can practically read the note pad! Not that I'm lookin' at the note pad if ya know what I mean (A-HOOOOGA). So much for serious criticism.

The Platinum Collection version is actually from a dupey 16mm NTA print (Olive's is UM&M 35)

I can confirm too the Olive Betty Boops generally sound better than we've heard them before too. BETTY BOOP'S HALLOWEEN PARTY still contains the same distortion as it did in 'The Definitive Collection' set of the 1990's (a problem it shared with  BETTY BOOP'S UPS AND DOWNS) but nothing too awful. Many, like BETTY BOOP'S PENTHOUSE, have never sounded better. 


So, what could have been a total disaster is instead a first rate job with only one serious problem that can be easily fixed.  My hope is that they correct the problem for future volumes and, should they go to a second pressing (or a box set), fix the problem (by slight 'pillar' boxing) in the effected Volume 1 (and Volume 2?) cartoons then.  BETTY BOOP THE ESSENTIAL COLLECTION is not "unwatchable" as has been suggested but a job so close to being perfect* deserves to go for the gold. As far as the choice of cartoons: well, if I were picking my personal 'Essential' mix (keeping in mind I am a freak)  it wouldn't be all that different from what was chosen by Olive. Many are decrying the lack of bonus features. They would be nice but I felt the  Popeye documentaries and "Popumentaries" to be, for the most part, pretty lackluster and not adding anything so significant as to justify their expense. I personally never watch 'em. 

*-rereading this it sounds like I'm minimizing the error. The content has been severely altered from what the film makers intended and should be corrected.

EPILOGUE:

I know restoration of the titles is not on the minds of Olive or Paramount for these discs. That's fine by me but, if I were Olive, I'd ask Paramount to call in the favor from Warners for loaning out Betty Boop clips for their OUT OF THE INKWELL: THE FLEISCHER STORY documentary and get the "into the inkwell" footage that closed out many of the early Fleischer cartoons. They survived uncut on some of the early Popeyes such as I YAM WHAT I YAM. Heck, they restored the opening Para logo too. Be good to have anyways for any future Fleischer projects. And wouldn't it be great if I HEARD had it's beginning and ending back? Of course it was probably something more in line with a cheque delivered by courier rather than a favor. But, hey, a guy can dream can't he?


Title for I YAM WHAT I YAM



UPDATE: of course the original opening was probably along these lines though the Paramount logo did change slightly from year to year over this period. While title sequences of this era often showed moving clouds behind the logo I don't think that was the case here.  I believe it was as we see it (with stationary clouds) with only the logo dissolving on and off. Just my guess. But, like I said,  I'm happy with UM and M titles... 35mm Fleischer on DVD is a rare thing! More on the titles HERE.


MAY 2014-THIS JUST IN CLICK HERE





Sunday, June 2, 2013

Olive Films' Betty Boop


Only one grievance. Every Olive disc has so far made use of an original poster for the covers of their discs. It would be nice to see one used for this release also. This image is a little too close to the multitude of Betty PD issues that have proliferated through the years.

Yesterday on their Facebook page, Olive films  announced their first volume of officially licensed Betty Boop cartoons: Betty Boop The Essential Collection Volume 1. The journey of ownership of the Fleischer cartoons is a long and convoluted one but, needless to say, all the Fleischer cartoons (minus 'Popeye' and 'Superman') are now controlled by Paramount: a studio which in previous years has shown the least interest of all the studios in reissuing their extensive back catalog. Fortunately, in recent years, this attitude has started to change by an arrangement between Paramount with a small video distributor: Olive Films. Personally I've only ever seen one Olive disc, last year's release of 'The Space Children', and I am happy to report it was a beautiful transfer with a solid monural soundtrack!

frame grab from 'The Space Children' 

Refreshing news since lately some of the smaller video companies have taken to 'improving' their classic releases with disastrous results. For example, Kino's release of 'Bird of Paradise', a south seas picture from 1932, had it's soundtrack remixed into a kind of mutant stereo that rendered it practically inaudible. I read here the same company  made use of a kind of video 'restoration' on their  release of 'White Zombie' (also 1932) that comes off as highly amateurish and ultimately ruinous. Even Criterion's release of 'Island of Lost Souls' (another early Paramount film now owned by Universal) used either an inferior print to that used in the 1990's reissue or mishandled the new materials as to obliterate background detail, increase visible scratches and the coarseness of the film grain considerably. 

Charles Laughton sips tea in this frame grab from the Universal/MCA video tape release of 'Island of Lost Souls'. Note the window behind him.

The same scene from the Criterion release shows considerable scratches. And what happened to the window? 

*UPDATE*

Since I've made this post a bit of a rogue's gallery of bad re-mastering I thought I should add an example of DVNR: a system of image correction from the 1990's which was intended to remove dirt and scratches but, inadvertently wiped out lines and detail which were intended by the Fleischers to be seen. A more sensitive version of this must exist by now (over a decade since the last BB set) but, even so, would only be as good as the individual operating it. Unfortunately (or, actually, fortunately) I don't still have my atrocious ROAN 'restoration' of PD favorite' "Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe" to show here. There the dirt removal program was adjusted so objects which were white or light (like high lights, reflections, etc.) burned so hot as emanate a radioactive glow which swallowed anything near it. Nothing like watching a scene where half the actor's face has been melted off by the table lamp he sits next to!

 'Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle' from VHS volume "Pre-Code" with  DVNR. Note the 'erased' line on Bimbo's foot and on the right eye.


Same frame from the preferable non-DVNR "Collector's Edition" laser disc. 

Many on-line are decrying Jerry Beck's lack of involvement with this release* but I don't see this as serious problem. He knows the cartoons but how well versed is he in the technical aspects of film restoration? In that area Steve Stanchfield, also not involved, knows quite a bit more. It's safe to say there are others, working professionally within the industry, who understand the balance of restraint in the remastering of old films. Does the odd selection of titles indicate a list of prints in the best condition or is it for some other reason? Personally I will enjoy having 'Betty Boop's Penthouse' without the transfer flaw (a 'skip' following Betty's toweling off) that I understand is present on all the old Republic VHS and laser discs. Every Paramount DVD reissue I've seen has been a first class operation, be it 'War of the Worlds', 'Sunset Boulevard' or 'The Space Children'. Here's hoping Betty Boop will shine as well.

*-Thad made some good clear points on this on my FB page: "I don't think the problem isn't so much "Jerry Beck isn't involved with this release", but "Jerry Beck doesn't know anyone involved with this release," which does not bode well. Olive has put out some nice stuff (albeit, the Jerry Lewis discs are really expensive considering the grunginess of the transfers), so I'll just have to wait and see. Twelve cartoons for $19.99 though?  I'm still hopeful for a good job, however, even if it is a bit of a marketing misstep.