Saturday, 25 January 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons - Totally Oz-some!

I just learned that legendary Canadian cartoon voice actor, Larry Mann, passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Larry had great pipes. You hear his work and wonder how he could've voiced anything beyond a couple of days. That screeching, scratchiness made you think he may have smoked 80 cigarettes a day - which would've been surprising considering he lived into his 90's.

Larry is best known for his work as Yukon Cornelius in the Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer special.

But that's not his best work. His finest moments can be found in an under-appreciated animated gem called Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz.

If you're Canadian of a certain age, you will undoubtedly remember its catchy theme song.

Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz originally aired in 1961, but it wasn't uncommon for me to watch this early Saturday mornings in small town Manitoba during the 1980's. Several 5 minute shorts would get lumped into half-hour installments. It was Can Con, you see - presumably a cheap way to meet necessary Canadian TV standards. But at the time, I didn't know any better and quite enjoyed it. Still do, in fact.

Oz's Canadian connection came from Crawley Films, an Ottawa-based animation house. The American company that received title credit was Videocraft International. Prior to Oz, Videocraft had released a stop-motion program called The New Adventures of Pinnochio, which never really caught on in the States at the time, but also found new life 20 years later on Canadian TV. (you may also recognize its catchy theme song)

Tales of The Wizard Of Oz never really caught on at the time either. And Videocraft International wouldn't find success until later, once they were renamed Rankin/Bass Productions and became synonymous with holiday classics like Rudolph, Frosty The Snowman and more.

Oz was Rankin/Bass's first foray into traditional cel animation, and at the time, it was a big deal for Canada. It was viewed as a stepping stone for us to enter the international animation mainstream, as this 1961 article from the Montreal Gazette trumpeted. Still, despite those high regards (as you can tell by the photos), the crew and surrounding digs were rather modest.

CBC Radio recently conducted an interview with some of the original show staffers, including Barrie Nelson, Blake James and Sandy Crawley, who also hinted at less-than-luxurious working conditions.

Larry Mann, who I mentioned above, played both Rusty Tin Man and The Wicked Witch - with seemingly painful exuberance. What a great voice to animate! No wonder those guys loved doing the Witch-centric episodes! 

As I looked at Larry's photo above, I thought it ironic he didn't voice Socrates Strawman, who at times sounded like a different Larry - the one from The Three Stooges. Strawman was voiced by Alfie Scopp.

Rounding out the voice cast was Paul Kligman, who played the cowardly Dandy Lion ("Ma-Maaaaaa!") and Carl Banas as The Wizard, who was basically doing an impersonation of W.C. Fields. It's unknown if this was a knowing jab at the film version of The Wizard of Oz, which was originally supposed to star W.C. Fields as the Wizard. 

This wonderful voice cast is what really made the show. But I also enjoy the UPA-style of design in the characters (limited animation with appealing use of solid colours) and abstract backgrounds sometimes consisting of nothing but a colour swatch. 

Check out the scenery in 'The Golden Touch'. Aside from a few interactive furniture items, there's nothing else really there but the marble colour scheme.

I also loved the colourful title cards, with that great font that did whatever the hell it wanted to. 

I shouldn't have alluded to the fact that Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz was a failure. It had moderate success at the time. It had its own toy-line and a comic tie-in, for example. There was even an hour-long special released on NBC in 1964, 3 years after the cancellation of the series, called Return To Oz, which reunited the original cartoon cast with their respective voices and show-runners. Still, Oz would never attain the globally recognized status that Rudolph would.

Oz is far more specific in its source material. It doesn't have the benefit of built-in backing from one of the most popular annual holidays. Hell, kids nowadays wouldn't even know The Wizard of Oz as a movie! And even if they did, they may not even make the association with the characters anymore, which were altered ever-so-slightly so as not to offend MGM copyright lawyers. (notice for example, that's it's the Strawman - not the Scarecrow)

But I think there's a group of Canadians out there like me, who grew up on this and still regard Tales Of The Wizard Of Oz as a minor classic - even if they didn't have any particular fondness for the source material. True, it's easier to enjoy a show when you only have 2 or 3 channels to choose from. Do you think The Littlest Hobo could've endured in an over-saturated TV line-up like today? Doubtful. Whatever the case, I think we just recognized a great theme song and a funny voice when we heard it. So let's not over-analyze it, and get back into some actual cartoons, shall we? R.I.P. Larry Mann. Canada rules. So on and so forth.

In this first episode, Socrates somehow ends up fighting a kangaroo under the tutelage of Rusty in 'Boomer Rang'. When Rusty gets crusty, I can't help but compare him to Futurama's Bender.

Here's a great showcase for Larry Mann's The Wicked Witch in 'The Count'. There's an air of South Park to Larry's voicework as The Witch, isn't there?

The Witch is almost over-shadowed though by the hilarious voice of The Count himself! 

Larry also steals the show as the (such a stupid!) mayor of Topsy Turvy Town in 'An Optical Delusion'.

The Wizard further establishes himself as quite the crackpot, as he accidentally discovers 'The Sound Of Munchkins'.

If there are any comparisons to be made to the film version of The Wizard of Oz, you won't find it in this random, meandering episode called 'The Cultured Lion'.

You likely wouldn't have watched 'Chowy Mein' in the 1980's, as people started to realize how horribly racist they had been 20 years earlier. That said, we probably shouldn't be watching it now either.

And then there's 'Get Out The Vote', which should remain a relevant little skewering of politics for many years to come.

What an Oz-some little show, huh? And there are still about 100 episodes left for us to watch!

I may need to re-title this blog as 'Saturday Afternoon Cartoons' at some point in the future.

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