There must have been something in the water, or some favourable conjunction of stars that shone down on Kansas City, Missouri in the 1920s. How else can one account for the pre-eminence of Kansas City men in the field of the animated cartoon? There had been, and would continue to be, important figures from elsewhere, but Kansas City trumped the rest of the United States when it came to talent. Consider this roster:
There was Walt Disney, the leader. Though a poor animator, he had the drive and the charisma to attract the best. By taking frequent risks he built up a company that remains a powerhouse to this day.
There were Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising who, as a team, founded the cartoon studios at Warner Brothers and, later, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Their work, especially at MGM, came closest to rivalling Disney in terms of exacting and complex animation.
There was Isidore 'Friz' Freleng, who was one of the finest cartoon directors ever. Sylvester and Tweety, Yosemite Sam and many others grew out of his fertile imagination.
And there was Ubbe Eert Iwwerks (1901-1971), Walt Disney's right-hand man, who would lead the spearhead of the Disney empire - sometimes from out front, sometimes behind the scenes. It was Ub Iwerks1, who helped create Mickey Mouse, whose ingenious skills helped make Disneyland and Walt Disney World a reality. But Ub had his own cartoon studio for a while, a fact that is often forgotten.
Silent to Sound
Ub was there at the start, when Walt Disney went into business for himself, as the Laugh-O-Gram Company in 1922. Their first animated films were crude, and profits were usually nonexistent, but surrender was not in Walt's vocabulary. They hit their stride with the Alice's Wonderland series (also known as Alice in Cartoonland), which combined cartoon characters with live-action film of a little girl, the titular Alice. The novelty, and free-form storytelling typical of the period, caught on. Walt moved the company to California, and the others followed one by one.
In 1927, after the Alice series began to wind down, Walt and Ub created a new character - Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald had more personality than the cartoon characters in the Alice comedies - sort of a first step towards Mickey Mouse. That step was rushed, when Charles Mintz, who distributed the Oswald cartoons, took the character away from Disney and gave the rabbit to another company. What to do? Ub came up with a cartoon mouse, which Walt named Mortimer; Walt's wife dissented, and suggested Mickey instead. A star was born.
Times were still tough, and talented staff in short supply. Ub sometimes animated entire cartoons (roughly seven minutes of animation) by himself - thousands of drawings per cartoon.
Steamboat Willie (1928), the first Mickey Mouse cartoon with sound, was largely Ub's work. When Disney inaugurated a second cartoon series, the Silly Symphonies, Ub was again hard at work. And The Skeleton Dance (1929), one of the most famous Silly Symphonies, was entirely animated by Ub Iwerks.
But all work and no play, as the saying goes, makes Ub overworked. Disney's increasing demands for more and better work wore on Ub's nerves. When Pat Powers, an independent distributor of films, approached Ub with the chance to run his own animation studio, Ub took the chance. In 1929, with Mickey and the Silly Symphonies already dominant in the field, Ub walked away to try it on his own.
As impressive as the group that came out of Kansas City was, Ub recruited an equally outstanding crew to work at his studio. At its peak, the Iwerks studio employed people such as:
James 'Shamus' Culhane - a masterful animator whose most famous work appears in the Disney features Snow White and Pinocchio.
Grim Natwick - already famous for having played a major part in creating Betty Boop, star of her own series at the Fleischer Brothers studio, Grim would become an icon on the animation world.
Carl Stalling - the musical genius who, with Scott Bradley of MGM, really defined what cartoon music should be. Stalling worked for Iwerks, Disney, the Van Beuren studio, and, most famously, Warner Brothers.
Steve Bosustow - an animator at Iwerks, Bosustow later started UPA, the studio that brought Mr. Magoo to the world, and helped create radical change in the animated cartoon world in the 1950s.
Ben 'Bugs' Hardaway - story man who would later, at Warner's, lend his nickname to a certain bunny you might have heard of.
Frank Tashlin - who would later direct cartoons, and live-action features.
And there was a kid washing cels (the celluloid sheets on which the animation drawings were inked) named Charles 'Chuck' Jones, who would Join Friz Freleng and Carl Stalling and Frank Tashlin at Warner's. Just these people alone would be enough for a great animation studio.
Flip the Frog (1930-1933)
Flip (37 cartoons) is a standard cartoon character in the early 1930s mode: he hops around cheerfully, gets into all sorts of scrapes, and has very little personality. Ub and his staff tried to make Flip into a star. They revised Flip's appearance several times, to make him cuter. They were not averse to putting Flip into surprisingly mature situations: two Flip cartoons, 'The Office Boy' and 'Room Runners' contain surprising amounts of sexual humour and near-nudity. Characters in Flip the Frog cartoons were not above saying 'Damn' now and then - something that startles American audiences even today. These things did draw the public's attention, but not favourably. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which distributed the Flip shorts, watched the profits decline.
The quality of the animation varied as Ub hired more people to work with him. Perhaps the best Flip cartoon is 'Spooks' in which Flip takes shelter from a storm in a haunted house. The animation is smooth and accomplished, the gags well paced.
Willie Whopper (1933-1934)
Willie Whopper (13 cartoons) told 'whoppers', that is, tall stories, exaggerated accounts of his life and adventures. Like Flip, Willie's appearance was altered after the first few cartoons, in this case making him chubbier and more likeable. Willie's voice was performed by child actress Jane Withers, who had a long career in radio and movies. For all that audiences considered Willie an improvement over Flip2, he was less successful, and ended the Iwerks association with MGM. Metro hired Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising away from Warner Brothers and set them up instead.
ComiColor Cartoons (1934-1936)
Ub created this series (24 cartoons) as his own version of the Silly Symphony; one-shot (meaning no continuing characters were used) shorts, often adaptations of old classics such as The Headless Horseman or Jack and the Beanstalk. The quality of the work improved as time went on, but no major studio chose to distribute them. The last ComiColor cartoon, Happy Days was adapted from Gene Byrnes's comic strip, Reg'lar Fellars, and is a sad sign that the Iwerks studio was finally hitting its stride just as their money ran out. Finally the studio had to suspend production, leaving a ComiColor version of Oliver Twist half-drawn.
Porky Pig (1937)
After drastically cutting the staff, Ub began to produce cartoons for other studios. His two cartoons for Warner Brothers, Porky and Gabby and Porky's Super Service were made with the help of two Warner animators, Bob Clampett and Iwerks alum Chuck Jones. They are undistinguished Porky cartoons, notable only in that they spend a lot of time with Gabby Goat, a character created for these two shorts.
Gran Pop Monkey (Release date unknown)
Gran Pop Monkey (three cartoons) was a character created and designed by the English illustrator and cartoonist Lawson Wood. It is not certain whether these cartoons were ever released.
Color Rhapsodies (1937-1940)
Charles Mintz was producing cartoons at Columbia Pictures and hired Ub to help produce one-shot cartoons (13 all told) along the lines of the ComiColor shorts. Like most of Columbia's cartoon output, these aren't the best cartoons around, but they are pleasant and colourful.
A Note on Colour
A colour film is made from a negative which is in turn made from several other negatives. Red, blue and green are used, one to a negative, to produce the full range of colours. The first three-colour process was Technicolor, developed in the late 1920s. Before that, two-colour processes were used, which reproduced some colours well, others badly.
Disney had an exclusive contract to use three-colour Technicolor on his cartoons, so Ub Iwerks had to settle for lesser formulas. The only Flip the Frog cartoon in colour is the very first, 'Fiddlesticks', which utilizes an earlier Technicolor two-colour process. The two-colour Technicolor used red and a green-blue, and worked well enough.
Two Willie Whopper cartoons, 'Davy Jones Locker' and 'Hell's Fire' were produced in colour, using the two-colour (red and blue) Cinecolor process. The ComiColor cartoons also used Cinecolor. The Porky Pig cartoons were both in black and white. By the time the Iwerks studio began producing Color Rhapsodies for Charles Mintz, Disney had lost the exclusive with three-colour Technicolor, so that the Color Rhapsodies are the only Iwerks cartoons in a three colour process.
So, What Happened?
Why aren't the Iwerks cartoons more famous? The reasons are all too clear. Flip the Frog was not especially popular; neither was Willie Whopper. The Comicolor cartoons were independently distributed, so that no corporate giant owns them today; they fell through the cracks. Many talented people worked at Iwerks, but most of them were still learning the trade. Had they been able to continue working, and produce the sort of work that was appearing in, say, the mid-1940s, Iwerks cartoons would be treasured by more than a few.
The problem was not solely with Ub's staff; it was pervasive throughout the cartoon industry. The 1930s was a time of growth and development in the art of the animated cartoon. Watch a random sampling of cartoons from the 1930s and an equal number from a decade later and the differences are clear; the stories are sharper, the gags timed more effectively, the use of character animation and music has advanced exponentially. The Iwerks studio had the seeds of greatness but, in those days of the Great Depression, seeds had to be strong in order to survive.
After his studio closed for good in 1940, Ub did what was for many unthinkable. Walt Disney was known to hold a grudge against people who left him, but somehow this did not apply to Ub. Perhaps they were never as close as they once had been, but Walt and Ub worked together again until Walt's death in 1966. Ub rarely worked as closely in the animation department as he had before, instead working as an inventor and researcher to help develop new technologies. The blending of live-action and animation in Mary Poppins (1964) benefited from Ub's research, while calling to mind memories of the Alice cartoons. Ub worked outside of Disney as well, winning an Academy Award as part of the special effects team on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
Ub Iwerks was respected by all who knew him. During divisive labour troubles at Disney in the 1940s, the picketers would move aside to let Ub come to work; they would not delay or heckle him. Grim Natwick compared him favourably to Christ, though that might have been a slight exaggeration. What better tribute can there be than to have worked hard all your life, and earned the respect of your friends and colleagues?