For many decades, a trip to a movie theater in the Detroit area promised more than just the feature film. It could also include extras like cartoons, newsreels, short comedies, travelogues, or other entertainments, both live and on screen.
If you went to see Betty Grable in Springtime in the Rockies at the Wuerth in Ann Arbor in April of 1943, you would have also been treated to the Walt Disney cartoon Donald Gets Drafted, the Pete Smith short film First Aid, and news about the World War II battle at Stalingrad between the Russians and Germans.
On Saturday, October 12, 2013, the Detroit Film Theatre and the Redford Theatre took me back in time to enjoy some of these cinematic appetizers.
In the afternoon, the DFT screened two programs of old cartoons in conjunction with the recently opened Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition, Watch Me Move: The Animation Show. They were hosted by Steve Stanchfield, Professor of Animation and Animation History at the College of Creative Studies, which is right across John R from the DFT.
That evening, I journeyed over to the Redford Theatre, where I saw six Three Stooges movies: Three Little Pigskins (1934), Uncivil Warriors (1935), Pardon My Scotch (1935), Disorder in the Court (1936), Brideless Groom (1947), and The Hot Scots (1948).
In some ways, the cartoons and the Three Stooges shorts were mirror images of each other.
The cartoons “drew” from real life situations to make drawings appear similar to humans, but with a humorous twist. The slapstick and absurdities of the Three Stooges movies seemed to bring cartoon logic to life.
Both entertainments were guilty pleasures as far as violence and meanness are concerned. As an adult, it’s hard to recommend that children watch movies in which cartoon characters are smashed and blown up, and in which grown men poke each other in the eyes and bang objects on each others’ heads. But kids of all ages roared with laughter.
Our familiarity with the characters and anticipation for their usual antics helped spice the fun. Even the names in the credits took on a special aura: Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Robert McKimson, Michael Maltese, Jules White, Felix Adler, and many others.
You could travel through time to see how casts and styles changed through the years. The Three Stooges shorts featured two 1940s laughers with Shemp Howard and Christine McIntyre, who in her own way plays the same role in later Stooges films that Margaret Dumont played for the Marx Brothers and Dorothy Lamour played for Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the road movies.
In the cartoons, you could see an evolution from richly detailed backgrounds and characters to a more basic, line-oriented style. I’m sure this change was driven by both aesthetic and economic motives.
The Return of the Stooges
The modern appeal of the Three Stooges might have started in the 1950s, when they began appearing on television.
“At the moment some old 2-reel comedies featuring the Three Stooges are the hottest thing on tv,” wrote Don Miller in the “Films on TV” column in the April 1959 issue of Films in Review.
“Packaged by a subsidiary of Columbia Pictures (Screen Gems), they are sold to local stations and are usually shown late in the afternoon. They have been flattening all competition, to the amazement of movie-trade pundits, for they have not only captured the kiddies, but also some adults.”
Miller also noted that the Three Stooges comedies helped resurrect the 2-reel comedy in the mid-1930s, after comedians of the silent and early Talkie eras had moved on to feature films or struggled to adapt to sound.
The first of the two DFT programs included cartoons from Walt Disney, who was a pioneer in the field of animation. This program also featured cartoons from studios like Universal and Columbia, and lesser known characters like Scrappy and Droopy.
“During the 20s, animated cartoons became a regular part of the program in movie theaters, but it was not until the coming of sound in 1928 that the screen cartoon came into its own,” according to the 2001 fourth edition of The Film Encyclopedia, by Ephraim Katz and others.
“For the next dozen or so years the art of film animation was dominated by the creative personality of Walt Disney with his ‘Silly Symphony’ series (Skeleton Dance, etc.) and such immortal cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and Goofy.”
The second DFT program focused on the cartoons of the Warner Bros. studio, which repeated Walt Disney’s success with creating memorable characters like Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, and Daffy Duck.
“The talent at Warner Bros. was amazing; much of the core team stayed at the studio from the 1930’s well into the 50’s,” wrote Steve Stanchfield in the DFT program notes. “Carl Stalling’s brilliant scores through hundreds of productions helped to accentuate the timing of the animation and mood. Somehow they remain timeless and as funny as when they were made.”
Now that I’ve gotten the analysis and history out of the way, let me say that it was a day of pure fun, and another example of how the Detroit Movie Palaces complement each other with unique entertainments.
Much more cartoon magic awaits area filmgoers in the next few months.
The animation related to the Watch Me Move exhibition continues until the end of the show on January 5, 2014. On November 16, Steve Stanchfield will make his third appearance as host of the Redford Theatre’s Animation Festival. And on Friday, November 29, the Michigan Theater helps you kick off the Christmas season with a collection of Warner Bros. cartoons.
Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.