by Rachel Newstead
(Update 3/26/10): I’ve discovered, to my humiliation, that the information in this post is actually incorrect, according to animator Bob Jaques. More details in the correction here. )
Famous Studios never quite reached the same level of artistry and innovation as its predecessor Fleischer, but it did achieve a sort of “mini-Golden Age” in the period between 1942 and 1947.
I’ve always had a particular liking for the Famous cartoons of this period, the Popeyes especially, without understanding why. But I understand now.
Those years–from You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap in 1942 to The Royal Four Flusher in 1947–correspond to one Jim Tyer’s tenure at Famous Studios. Though often criticized for his “off-model” animation poses, Popeye and company never looked handsomer than in the years Tyer was animating them. There was a certain solidity, a dimension in Popeye, Bluto and Olive then than in any cartoon made after Tyer’s departure.
At the same time, these cartoons were some of the
funniest Famous ever made, funny on an almost subliminal level. Tyer’s wildly distorted poses imprinted themselves on some remote, inaccessible region of my brain and made me smile, without knowing just what I was smiling at.
Through the magic of freeze frame, we can lift the veil, so to speak: in the poses above, taken from The Island Fling (1946), we can not only see, but almost feel Bluto’s frustration as he puts the moves on Olive, only to have her notice the plate of liverwurst more than she notices him. His face grimaces, contorts, and snaps back again; his eyes cross and uncross. His fingers seem to dislocate themselves as he reaches out for her, becoming more like lobster claws. There’s no mistaking what’s on this guy’s mind–those few frames are packed with more personality animation than in ninety minutes of any Disney film.
As with Rod Scribner’s work under McKimson, it seems as though Tyer is being forcibly held back, as if a volcano were bubbling just beneath the surface. Tyer, unfortunately, never had the benefit of a Bob Clampett to allow him to let the full power of his drawings loose. All the more tragic when one considers how much they have in common.
Clampett loved the comic strips of Milt Gross; by all appearances, so did
Tyer. As we can see in the still at right, Popeye and Bluto are rendered insensible by the sight of blacksmith Olive’s “beauty.” Their stupefied faces wouldn’t look out of place in a Count Screwloose strip.
Tyer’s Clampett-like nervous energy would come to full fruition in the most unlikely place–the bottom-of-the-ladder Terrytoons, but certain “signature” techniques would become apparent as early as the Famous years. Take, for instance, the “shrink take.” At Terrytoons, his characters, when surprised, would seem to collapse into themselves for just an instant before expanding again. We see a more primitive example of it in this series of stills from Service With A Guile (1946): note how Popeye’s head, when reacting to the rapidly-expanding tire, narrows for a few frames before assuming its proper shape. It isn’t long enough to be perceptible at normal speed, but somehow we sense Popeye’s distress.
It’s no surprise that the Famous cartoons started their formulaic downhill slide upon his departure–of all the animators, he was the most adaptable, not one to be locked into a set mode of thinking for decades, as his colleagues at Famous and Terrytoons did. When Gene Deitch took control of the Terrytoons animation department in 1956, it was Tyer who most eagerly adopted the new, minimalist UPA-like style Deitch introduced. It was as if he had to wait for the world of
animation to catch up to him.