Friday, March 23, 2012

Soda Squirt (Celebrity Productions, Pat Powers, Ub Iwerks, 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Earlier in the day Charles and I had run an download that was even weirder: Soda Squirt, apparently the last of the Flip the Frog cartoons Ub Iwerks turned out during the early 1930’s. To recap: Iwerks had been an associate of Walt Disney in his early days in Kansas City and had been a much better artist; he’d come out to Hollywood to join Disney at his first company, Laugh-O-Gram, to work on the Alice’s Adventures in Cartoonland films (Disney’s early one-reelers in which a live-action girl played Alice fooled around with animated characters; the process work was no problem since Alice cavorted in front of a white screen, so it was easy enough to double-print her into animation that was also done on a white background) and then the more complicated Oswald the Rabbit movies. When Disney lost the rights to the Oswald character in a fight with his distributor and he had to come up with a replacement, pronto, it was Iwerks who actually designed the replacement, Mickey Mouse. Disney cut a deal with one of early Hollywood’s shadiest entrepreneurs, Pat Powers, for distribution and the use of his sound system to make Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon and the film that put Disney on the map. Then Disney and Powers had a fight over royalties, and Powers, deciding that Iwerks was the more talented of the two, offered to back Iwerks in a cartoon series of his own if he quit Disney, and Iwerks accepted and started a new series with a character called Flip the Frog. (It’s an indication of Iwerks’ design priorities that Oswald the Rabbit, Mickey Mouse and Flip the Frog look so similar despite the real-life differences in appearance between rabbits, mice and frogs.)

Iwerks’ career as an independent lasted four years and ended with Soda Squirt, credited here to “Celebrity Productions, Inc.” but apparently actually distributed through MGM (!), following which his studio closed down and he returned to Disney, where Disney never forgave him for his prior disloyalty and kept him deep in the background, allowing him to work on technical innovations (like the famous Multiplane camera which created the illusion of three-dimensionality in animation and allowed the use of tracking shots in cartoons for the first time) and occasionally loaning him out (he was the main special-effects person on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds) but never really trusting him again. Soda Squirt is an astonishing movie in which the opening of Flip’s soda parlor manages to attract a wide variety of (well-caricatured) movie stars of the period, including Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton, the Four Marx Brothers (who whip out four straws so they can simultaneously drink out of the same soda glass), Mae West (who quite naturally attracts the libidinous attentions of both Harpo and Flip!) and a rather queeny blond man who’s the recipient of one of Flip’s wildest concoctions which turns him into Mr. Hyde as Fredric March played him in Paramount’s 1932 film — only a can of something labeled “Pansy Spray” turns him back into the effeminate creature he was at the beginning (looking nothing like Fredric March as Dr. Jekyll). I hadn’t realized there were any such things as “‘Pre-Code’ cartoons,” but here was one!