Friday, December 07, 2007

The Little King and Steve Stanchfield

I've been remiss in not talking about this sooner. Steve Stanchfield's Thunderbean Animation has released a DVD of the complete series of The Little King cartoons based on the comic strip by Otto Soglow. The DVD includes the cartoons made by the Van Beuren studio as well as The Little King's one guest appearance in a Betty Boop cartoon. The DVD also includes two cartoons starring Sentinel Louey, another Soglow character as well as essays by Chris Buchman, Steve Stanchfield and Milton Knight which provide background on Soglow, the character and the making of the films.

The king is a childish character; typically he ducks official duties or protocol in order to pursue some fun. Soglow's style is very geometric, linear and flat. I have no idea if Soglow saw Emile Cohl's early animated films, but there's a resemblance in their design approaches and I'd guess that Soglow may have influenced Crockett Johnson's comic strip Barnaby.

The Van Beuren animation studio isn't one that attracts a lot of attention, but the cartoons have a quirky charm at times. The studio did not have a strong artistic direction in the early '30's, and while that resulted in cartoons that rarely hold together, it did allow for individuals to do some interesting work. Jim Tyer worked on this series, though you'll only occasionally catch glimpses of his mature style. Watching a Van Beuren cartoon, you're never sure what's going to happen or how characters will be drawn from scene to scene. Occasionally, the odd gags and the shifting designs add up to an interesting experience.

In some ways, Soglow's approach predicts UPA and it's surprising that the Van Beuren artists, not known for consistency, kept the design as consistent with Soglow as they did. The cartoons are also interesting from a content standpoint, reflecting the depression, the political unrest of the time, and the ethnic stereotyping typical of films in the 1930's.

I would never pretend that these films are essential viewing or even that there's a hidden masterpiece on this DVD, but there's a fair amount of interesting work here for anybody interested in animation history.

Where this DVD shines is in the presentation. Steve Stanchfield has produced many DVDs of public domain material and has done a better job of restoring films and creating special features than many studios that do official releases. It's clear that Stanchfield loves the films that he's releasing and he goes to great lengths to create a package that provides the best possible image quality, historical background and rare supplementary material.

So far, Steve has been restricted to public domain cartoons but he told me at the last Ottawa festival that he's tried to license cartoons from studios without any luck. It's a shame that a company like Viacom, which controls the Terrytoon library, hasn't had the foresight to license those films to Steve as he would provide an excellent product. I wish that every animation DVD was put together with as much care and respect for the material as those done by Steve.

1 comment:

Michael Sporn said...

Thanks for these comments. I love the dvds I have from Steve's collections; he certainly deserves kudos.

I also love Van Buren's product - such an odd group of films. I think immediately and affectionately of those "Rainbow Parade" films they did. Though I've only seen about four Little King films, I'm looking forward to the rest of them.

I remember interviewing Johnny Gentilella with Mike Barrier. Johnny was a runner in the studio - his first animation job, and he had total recall. Great chat. I believe Bill Littlejohn, and inbetweener there, also did his first animation on "The Sunshine Makers."