Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Bandmaster Part 2

I have an odd fascination with the Lantz studio. By all accounts, Lantz himself was a nice man who was pleasant to work for. I've never heard or read a bad thing about him, though Tex Avery and Jack Hannah both complained about the economics of the studio.

While Lantz was a good boss, he didn't influence his cartoons the way other studio heads did. Because the Lantz studio only had one unit in the 1940s, the studio's output changed radically whenever there was a change of director. From Burt Gillett to Alex Lovy to Shamus Culhane to Dick Lundy, there's a wide variety of styles and approaches.

Our impression of the Warner Bros. cartoons is based on the range of directors' styles, but imagine how we'd think of that studio if all the cartoons were directed by Bob Clampett and then later by Friz Freleng. That's a pretty big change, but at Lantz, it was the standard.

Dick Lundy was a talented Disney animator who helped shape Donald Duck and later directed Duck shorts. He was certainly capable of making cartoons that were slickly drawn and timed. His Lantz cartoons may be, overall, the best looking cartoons the studio ever produced, though I'd never claim that they were the most entertaining Lantz cartoons.

Lundy, like Culhane, was saddled with Ben Hardaway as a story man. Hardaway was a gag machine. He never cared much for characters' personalities or building a succession of related gags. If he found a gag funny, he stuck it in whether it fit or not. Lundy worked to make the gags flow smoothly, but he couldn't get them to make sense.

Why is there a two-headed musician? How can Andy fall for so long in scene 18 when the platform looks to be no more than a few feet off the ground? Why are some performers human and the rest animal? How did the drunk get on the high wire? How does the Count, who starts out diving inside the tent, get outside it in scene 50? Nobody at Lantz seemed to care.

The lazy story work is disappointing as this cartoon was made 12 years after The Band Concert. Compare the stories. In the Disney short, there is a well-defined conflict between Mickey the conductor and Donald the heckler. When the storm hits, the musicians struggle to continue to play regardless of the absurd circumstances they find themselves in. That's a simple structure, but it's enough to organize the events and gags in the cartoon so that they make sense. The Bandmaster has no sustained conflict between characters and no large event to organize it. Lundy is left with choreographing the action to the music track, which he does well but which doesn't provide enough structure to save the cartoon. With the exception of Andy Panda himself, the other characters appear or disappear as needed for the random gags.

Had Lantz hired a better writer or if Lundy had a stronger personality as a director, their cartoons would have been better. Instead, they're handsome but generic.


Thad said...

I agree with everything you wrote. I don't see a whole lot in Lundy's other directorial work that suggests he was completely tied down by Hardaway's gags (though I think his Barney Bears were the best with that character). I REALLY feel bad for Culhane getting saddled with him though. Take 'CHEW CHEW BABY': there's some really strong characterization with both Woody and Wally Walrus in the first half. Then it all falls apart with random gags and that stupid "three woodpeckers" line. Just about anyone else would be preferable to Hardaway.

Ironically, the writing did become more coherent in the 50s at Lantz with Mike Maltese, Homer Brightman, and Dick Kinney, but the animation got to be so stiff it didn't matter any more. I still love 'em though.

Martin Juneau said...

I have a kind admiration for the Lantz cartoons especially about their copyrights decisions and how it was a TV favourite over the end of the 20th century. Instead to be lost or abandonned like it's the case with Famous, Terrytoons and even Columbia as well they are in only collector's hands, they survived in TV, Video and DVD over the last 20 years. Since i was a kid, i still fall in love with his cartoons, how he was made despite their pity business and how they changed over the years.

One thing i can't stand over their cartoons tough is the mid-60's cartoons (If you don't count the Sid Marcus' efforts when they was pretty decent.) with the Beary Family and when Chilly talks. I watched a lot over the last days and they are boring, badly timed and we can see how they was tired to make cartoons. Poor Lantz, he was obligated to count to Paul J. Smith until the close of the studio.