Monday, March 28, 2011

Snap! Crackle! and Pop! (Culture)

They have been a part of our popular culture for over seven decades; three energetic gnomes who are likely the most famous of cereal pitchmen.  Snap!, Crackle! and Pop! were created by prolific and well known commercial artist Vernon Grant, who provided illustrations to countless books and magazines throughout much of the 20th century.  He first created Snap! for Kellogg's in 1933.  Crackle! and Pop! were added in 1939 as seen in the above vintage advertisement.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Vintage Headlines: Adult Cartoons circa 1960

Lest you think that The Simpsons and Family Guy were groundbreaking in regard to being animated fare targeted at grownups, realize that over fifty years ago, a certain stone-age family was initially targeted to an adult-based demographic.  The Flintstones debuted in prime time in September of 1960, and then television reporter Ray McConnell made these interesting observations in response to the show's premiere:
SUBURBIA IN THE STONE AGE: A thousand years from today "The Flintstones" may be evidence of history, goofed-up, or of science fiction, also goofed-up but an eerie, prophetic caricature of life after The Bomb fell. TV fans will get a chance to make their own guess about this tonight when "The Flintstones" comes on ABC-TV and Channel 7 as a weekly cartoon comedy designed for adult viewing. It is television's first animated assault, outside the commercials, on adult funnybones. The cartoon series has been created by Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera, who tailored "Huckleberry Hound," "Quick Draw McGraw" and "Rough 'n Ready" for the TV tube. These were kid cartoons, primarily. The Flintstones are something else. Their fanciful out-of-kilter world is the Hanna-Barbera answer to what they believe is an adult demand for an adult cartoon. (Who demanded this? I didn't).

It goes something like this: With their pals, Barney and Betty Rubble, Fred and Wilma Flintstone bumble through life in Bedrock (Pop. 2500), the seat of Cobblestone County. They are average couples, with the same problems, foibles, ambitions and frustrations of any couples anywhere, anytime. The difference is that the Flintstones and Rubbles live in hollow boulders and wear bearskin kilts. .It's a version of Suburbia in the stone age; a homily of life among cave dwellers — in the light of some modern improvements. But whether the time is 25,000 years ago, or a couple of hundred years hence, is your guess as much as anyone's.
Another article from the same time quoted both Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera on the show's intended adult appeal:
"We had so much success our other cartoon characters —'Quick-Draw McGraw" and 'Huckleberry Hound' — and there was so much adult public reaction and acceptance that we decided to try an adult cartoon series." says Joe Barbera.

"Older people just took a liking to 'Quickdraw' and 'Huck'." Bill Hanna asserted. "Joe and I thought that possibly a cartoon series with an adult approach might be something that would please the oldsters."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Freeze Frame! - Claude Smith Proprietor

He was the proprietor of the General Merchandise store in the 1945 Droopy cartoon Wild and Wolfy.  But just who was Claude Smith in real life?

Claude Smith was already a veteran of the animation industry when Wild and Wolfy was released in 1945.  He began working at the Walt Disney Studios as early as 1933.  He was a casualty of the fallout from the Disney Studio strike in 1941, but quickly landed at MGM where he did character layouts for Tex Avery for a number of years and assisted Avery specifically on Wild and Wolfy.  Smith ultimately became well known as a cartoonist, publishing predominantly in Playboy and New Yorker magazines well into the 1970s. 

A Claude Smith cartoon from New Yorker, published May 15, 1948.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Greetings from the Rockets at Kennywood

Kennywood Park in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania is a distinct landmark of my boomer youth, as it is to many Pittsburgh natives of my generation.  The Rockets debuted at the park in 1940 and were likely inspired by the popular Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials of that era.  The circle swing ride mechanics actually dated back to 1925 when the attraction was located in a different area of the park and featured seaplanes as the ride vehicles.  The Rockets circled above the Kennywood Lagoon for the last time in 1978.

The postcard dates from the early 1950s.  The back-side description reads:
"The Nation's Greatest Picnic Park" One of the largest and finest amusement parks in the United States. A wonderland of pleasure for the entire family with every kind of outdoor amusement device including a mammoth crystal clear swimming pool and beach. Not to visit Kennywood is not to know Pittsburgh.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Windows to the Past: The Smiling Irishman

We couldn't resist posting this particular Window to the Past as we fast approach this week's Saint Patrick's Day Holiday.  The photograph dates from 1946 and showcases a Los Angeles entrepreneur know as the Smiling Irishman.  The image is from the UCLA Library Digital collections.

Monday, March 14, 2011

We Are Experiencing Technical Difficulties

Please stand by.

Our primary computer is undergoing repairs.  We hope to return to our normal publishing schedule later this week.  Our apologies for the inconvenience and our thanks for your continued readership and support.

Friday, March 11, 2011

$50,000 Guaranteed!

The 1958 film It! The Terror from Beyond Space is a generally well regarded piece of science fiction cinema.  It was the inspiration for Ridley Scott's original 1979 Alien film and has even been the basis for a new series of comic books in recent months.

Its movie poster, pictured above, is a classic example of 1950s B-movie publicity.  To quote:  "$50,000 GUARANTEED BY A WORLD-RENOWNED INSURANCE COMPANY TO THE FIRST PERSON WHO CAN PROVE "IT" IS NOT ON MARS NOW!"

I am imagining a young Carl Sagan attempting to collect the $50,000 while earning his doctorate of philosophy in astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Very First Death of Superman

Comic book confessional: Although I consider myself reasonably well read and diversified in regard to classic superhero comics, my bright memories of youth tend to favor DC Comics, and most notably Superman.  In my tween years especially, I was a Superman aficionado, haunting yard sales and flea markets for old comic books that featured the Man of Steel.  Among the most coveted of prizes found on those expeditions were DC's specially branded Imaginary Stories, and Superman tended to be the star of the lion's share of those particular tales.

One of the very best Imaginary Stories, and a classic Superman story in and of itself, is The Death of Superman, originally published in Superman #149 from November 1961.  The story, written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel and illustrated by Curt Swan was an emotionally charged and rather serious affair, and not the usual kiddie fare that then Superman editor Mort Weisinger typically had his talent produce.

In the tale, a seemingly reformed Lex Luthor discovers a cure for cancer and a very forgiving and all too trusting Superman lets his guard down with ultimately fatal results.  The villainous Luthor betrays the Man of Steel and slowly poisons him to death with kryptonite radiation, and takes sadistic pleasure in forcing Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen and Perry White to view the execution firsthand.  Supergirl quickly emerges from hiding (she was Superman's secret weapon for a short time before being presented to the public) and brings Luthor to justice before a Kyrptonian court in the bottled city of Kandor.  Luthor is exiled forever to the Phantom Zone and Supergirl assumes her late cousin's mantle as earth's protector.

Although filled with the usual simplistic dialog and exaggerated melodrama that characterized the Superman comics of that era, The Death of Superman had moments of atypical intensity that could prove disturbing to both children and adults alike.  Superman's death scene is stretched over twelve panels, his agony prolonged through tortured kryptonite exposure while a gleefully sadistic Lex Luthor chews scenery with his boastful taunting and gloating.  A subsequent panel that shows a shocked Lois Lane kneeling over Superman's now cape-enshrouded head and torso is unsettling to say the least.

Unlike most comic book canon where the death of a central character is almost always a laughably transparent plot device that simply leads to resurrection, Imaginary Stories, and the degree of permanence they could impart, allowed for some weightier and more serious storytelling.  The Death of Superman is perhaps the best early example of such a dynamic and it certainly laid the groundwork for such future concepts as Marvel's What If? series and DC's own Elseworlds line.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Just Watched: Nobody Lives Forever

This 1946 noir gem has remained largely in the shadows but is a great showcase for John Garfield, cast as Nick Blake, a career confidence man returning from service in World War II and lured into a scheme by a number of former associates.  He unintentionally falls for his mark, a wealthy widow played by Geraldine Fitzgerald.  An excellent supporting cast includes George Tobias, Walter Brennen and Faye Emerson.  Los Angeles is the backdrop by way of some nice stock shots and atmospheric set pieces, especially the low-end Hotel Eldorado and the run-down, fog enshrouded pier where the story reaches it climax.  Rumor was that Bogart turned down the Blake part and that Garfield wasn't overly enthusiastic about taking on the role.  Any such indifference was certainly not reflected in his performance.

Nobody Lives Forever was produced in 1944 but Warner Bros. kept in on the shelf for two years, possibly as a means of extending their association with Garfield whose departure from the studio was at that time perceived to be fairly imminent. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Greetings from the AMF Monorail

We recently featured a post that showcased Archie's comic book adventures at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair.  Prominent in that article was a panel excerpt that showed Archie and the gang riding the AMF Monorail, one of the Fair's best remembered icons.  This postcard features an artist's rendition of the Monorail and included the following caption on the back side:

New York World's Fair 1964-65
''Peace through Understanding."
The AMF Monorail ride at the New York World's Fair provides every member of the family with an enjoyable new experience aboard the transportation of the future. While riding in silent air-conditioned comfort three stories above ground, passengers see and can photograph many scenic Fair sights during the eight minute trip. Many riders return for a night time view of the Fair. Shown is one of seven two-car trains which transport passengers to and from the spectacular eighty-foot high station.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The History and Mythology of Gower Gulch

It is Hollywood pop culture rooted in both history and folklore, born out of poverty row studios, aspiring movie cowboys, and a drugstore famous for its soda fountain and newsstand. Its geographical center was the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Gower Street, but the area, and what it represents, has become better known by its somewhat less than glamorous nickname--Gower Gulch.

This location was central to a number of well known movie studios, including Columbia, Paramount, RKO and Republic Pictures. Located at the southeast corner of Gower and Sunset was the Columbia Drug Co., famous for both its soda fountain and newsstand. Both Columbia and Republic specialized in westerns during this time period, and aspiring actors, many of whom were actual working cowboys, would congregate in and around the drugstore, hoping to be selected by the studio casting agents who would frequent the area. Many of these hopefuls would come to Gower Gulch fully outfitted in their cowboy clothing and gear, and thus the moniker "drugstore cowboy" was born.
Gower Gulch as seen in Thank Your Lucky Stars

The area was idealized in the 1943 Warner Bros. film Thank Your Lucky Stars as a rustic colony of aspiring actors and entertainers, living in discarded movie sets. Eddie Cantor, Joan Leslie and Dennis Morgan portray three of Gower Gulch's resident hopefuls, with Morgan's character noting that he lives in the former jail set used in James Cagney's 1939 film The Roaring Twenties. Despite conjecture otherwise (specifically a citation-less Wikipedia entry), this fanciful interpretation appears to have had no factual basis; I could not find any documentation of an actual Hollywood community consisting of individuals living in thrown away set pieces.

But Gower Gulch was in fact a community of sorts, as Time magazine described in their review of Thank Your Lucky Stars, published in October of 1943. The writer noted, "Gower Gulch is not a fiction. Although nothing like Warner Bros. moonlit version, it is one of Hollywood's minor but more durable institutions."

While the Columbia Drug Co. has received the lion's share of the historical attention relating to Gower Gulch, it was in fact another nearby establishment that was considered to be the heart and soul of this community of drugstore cowboys. The Time article identified a small Sunset Boulevard watering hole called Brewer's as the focal point for Gulch citizenry. It was run by woman named Eleanor Lathrop, who was known as the "little mother of Gower Gulch." In addition, the article provided this background:
For ten years Brewer's has been the official gathering place for Western extras and bit men, whiskery old boys who are still vicariously chasing aborigines with General Custer, discarded circus clowns and weary stuntmen who congregate to drink beer and to execute competitive embroideries on the small glories of a past day. Demigods like Gene Autry, Bob Steele and Rex Bell drop in now and then. Nearly all the Western stars have been reflected in the booze there at one time or another, but the roster of names which have been most conspicuous and most chronic during the past decade includes Handlebar Hank Bell, Bear Valley Charley, Vinegar Roan, Tex Cooper, Foxy Callaghan, Curley Rucker.

Most of these men started as genuine cowboys. All of them fill the wide-open spaces between the horses in horse operas with masculine strength and silence. Many of them get an occasional line. Perhaps the most prosperous is Handlebar Hank, who owes his modest fortune as well as his name to his mustache. More often than not, these men and others like them are picked up by studios making Westerns without working through Central Casting —a dubious practice known as "casting off the street."
"Blackjack" Jerome Moore
Gower Gulch gained headlines and notoriety in 1939 when a disagreement between two of its citizens ended in an alleged murder. "Blackjack" Jerome Moore was accused of chasing fellow cowboy Johnny Tykes out of Brewer's and shooting him to death in a nearby parking lot. Ward was acquitted when witnesses testified that his actions were committed in self defense. According to one report, "Movie cowboys testified that Tyke was 'pizen mean' and that somebody 'had to shoot him.'"

The Gower Gulch locals elected their own mayor for the first time in 1939,  It was a closely watched contest at Brewer's, where a purchase would earn you a vote.  Veteran movie cowboy Jack Evans edged out his nearest competitor, a much loved pet dog named Tramp, by a slim margin of just 26 votes.

Gower Gulch is made reference to in a number of classic-era cartoons.  It is the name of a town in the 1950 Looney Tunes short All Abir-r-r-d.  A year later in Drip Along Daffy, Porky Pig sings a song entitled "The Flower of Gower Gulch."  And in the 1943 Disney cartoon Victory Vehicles, Goofy, dressed in drugstore cowboy finery, stands near the Gower Gulch Pharmacy.  A grade B western entitled The Kid from Gower Gulch was released in 1949, but bore no relation to the Hollywood locale.

Today, a small strip center located at the intersection of Sunset and Gower retains the Gower Gulch name.   It is the only tangible reminder left of the area's history and of the drugstore cowboys who were once the stuff of Hollywood history and legend.

Explore 2719 Hyperion:
Disney's Hollywood: Gower Gulch and the Drugstore Cowboy