Saturday, 16 February 2013

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Pardon My French!

As I was posting about Pepé Le Pew last week, I started remembering all of these American cartoons that had French influence, and figured with Festival du Voyageur underway, it'd be a good time to watch them. Some, like the above commercial and a few of the films below, involved nothing more than the verbal addition of a 'zee' instead of 'the'. Others, even though they still played 'zee' language for laughs, could still inject a little culture into the mix.

Before we get into the mangling of a once-beautiful language, let's highlight why American cartoons owe a lot to the French. For one thing, cartoons wouldn't even exist if it weren't for Émile Cohl.

Émile Cohl (Courtet) is credited as being the "father of the animated cartoon". Born in Paris, the son of a linen seamstress and a rubber salesman, Émile had more artistic leanings than his parents did, as a puppeteer, caricaturist, playwright, toy-maker and comic illustrator. But he is most renowned for a 1908 film called Fantasmagorie, which is widely considered to be the first fully-animated film ever made. It showcases a glowing stick-figure clown, styled similar to images you'd see in a fantasmograph, which was a 19th century lantern that projected floating images onto a wall. Cohl had a significant history in animation, including other short subjects and a series called 'The Newlyweds'. But after a stint in the war he was forced to live in poverty, as live action films became more popular and more affordable to make.

So the French helped to make Saturday mornings better for all of us. And this is the way we paid our respects, yes non?

Prior to reminding you of Hanna-Barbera's Powerful Pierre, it is with much guilt I admit this space once showcased Alexander Alexeiff and Claire Parker's haunting pinscreen film, Une nuit sur le mont chauve. (Night On Bald Mountain) That is, until I deleted it. It took 2 years for them to make that 8-minute film back in 1933, opening to rave reviews in Paris. But it only took me 15 minutes to deem this 'Uckleberry Hound cartoon to be more important. It isn't that it's more culturally relevant, to be clear. It just fits the theme of this blog better. These ramblings are for the Cap'n Crunch crowd - not the Müslix masses. I want to give you some history and perspective, but not at the expense of fun. So by all means, YouTube Alexeiff and Parker's work. But do it tomorrow. Still, I promise we'll try and class this post up a bit shortly, so bear with me.

While we're discussing Hanna-Barbera, ever heard of a character called Toot Sweet? Snooper and Blabber took several of his cases - 3 to be exact. (Poodle Toodle-oo!, Fleas Be Careful and Flea For All)

Toot Sweet was hardly an original. Tex Avery had fleas (pun intended) six years prior while he was working at MGM. The Flea Circus showcased a mostly-French cast, centered around stars Fifi and François. You may recognize François as the voice of Droopy. (Bill Thompson)

Also at MGM during this period, Hanna-Barbera had much classier output in Tom & Jerry cartoons that contained actual (!) French and some proper cultural acknowledgement, specifically Alexandre Dumas' 'The Three Musketeers'. This series featured Jerry and his sidekick, Tuffy (who shares the same voice as Fifi from The Flea Circus) and their adventures as the King's Mousekateers. There were 4 cartoons in this series - The Two Mousekateers, Touché, Pussy Cat!, Tom and Chérie and Royal Cat Nap. The second one, Touché, Pussy Cat!, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1954.

I mentioned Pepé Le Pew above. One of my favourite cartoons of his (and his last), Louvre Come Back To Me!, is less about stalking cats and more about wreaking (reeking?) havoc in Paris' Musée du Louvre. Great gags involving many famous pieces of art, and funny character designs for the locals.

In 1965, brought upon by the success of 'The Pink Panther' (both the movie and cartoon character), the film's lead, Inspector Clouseau, was given his own animated likeness, starting with the opening of feature film, 'A Shot In The Dark', and continuing in his own cartoon series called 'The Inspector'. The first film (in a series of 34) was directed by Warner Bros legend Friz Freling, who also directed the first Oscar-winning Pink Panther short. The Great De Gaulle Stone Operation was shown in theatres before screenings of the James Bond film, 'Thunderball'. The theme music for this and every Inspector cartoon was the same written for 'A Shot In The Dark', by Henry Mancini. Stereotypes abound in this one! And not just for the French!

In watching these, have you picked up any French yet? If not, this episode of 'Dexter's Laboratory' could teach you a thing or two. Actually, it'll only teach you one thing. A single solitary thing.

After all of that, we'd be remiss if we didn't take time to highlight a few legitimately French films that fit within the contexts of our Saturday morning. I have 3 great cartoons in mind.

The first is a feature film, which I can't post here. Also I don't have enough cereal to cover that kind of time commitment. So when you get a chance, download/rent/buy 'The Triplets of Belleville' by Sylvain Chomet. It's a fun film with fantastic cartoony characters and animation. His most recent movie, 'The Illusionist', is also great. He does wonderful things using traditional animation, which you don't see much in this Shrek-saturated world. Both movies are definitely worth a look (and a freeze-frame or two). While you're waiting for it to download, or if you've already seen the movie, check out this bizarre short he made with a comedy troupe called The Franz Kafka Big Band.

Here's another short with great character design by Nicolas Marlet, who also worked at Dreamworks on 'Kung Fu Panda'. The Oscar-nominated French Roast, directed by Fabrice O. Joubert, is proof that in the right hands, a computer-animated film doesn't have to lose its cartoony appeal. I'm talking to you, Shrek.

And of course, there's the Canadian-classic, The Sweater, by Sheldon Cohen. Regardless of your team of preference, The Sweater is a sweet story about the pressures of childhood, and a proud celebration of our country and the unique culture therein.

Oh hey, speaking of "The Rocket" - did you know Rocket J. Squirrel's buddy, Bullwinkle, was originally French Canadian? Creator Jay Ward intended him that way, in a story pitch for 'The Frostbite Falls Review', which featured a cast of animals who ran a TV network. The series would later evolve into 'Rocky And His Friends', then 'The Bullwinkle Show', where the moose seemed more...Minnesotan?

It's too bad I had to introduce that Bullwinkle fun-fact. Now we're stuck in Minnesota. Maybe I should do a post about Minnesotan cartoons? We could discuss Minneapolis-born Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, and the 1980 movie he wrote where he sent Charlie Brown...TO FRANCE!!! We're back, baby!

Okay, how do you say "quit while you're ahead" en français? Ah, this is close enough...

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