Cartoon characters 

22 February 2016 tbs.pm/8621

Television devours. The medium has lots of hours to fill and an audience desperately hungry for brand new material that they’re already comfortable with. It should be no surprise to anybody when television begins to plagiarise itself, remaking old formats under new names or ‘rebooting’ an old name into a new format. It was ever thus – and before television had its own history to cannibalise, it was happy to devour the movies.

In the 1920s, the cinema was in exactly the same position – lots of films needed for an audience ever hungry for new sameness. The solution for the new movie industry was to look to its predecessor – vaudeville or variety from the stage – turning comedic and slapstick acts from live stars to 16mm stars, while also stripping away much of the more smutty material usually found on the stage.

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The Three Stooges had begun as a standard vaudeville slapstick act in the 1920s. In 1930 they made the leap to the big screen, starring in theatrical shorts as well as nine feature films. The act’s line-up began on stage with Ted Healy (1896-1937), Moe Howard (1897-1975) and Shemp Howard (1895-1955). This grew to include Larry Fine (1902-1975) and Fred Sanborn (1899-1961). The line-up would vary over the next 40 years, with Shemp leaving and being replaced by Jerry “Curly” Howard (1903-1952), then vice-versa a decade later; Joe Besser (1907-1988) replacing Shemp; “Curly Joe” DeRita (1909-1993) replacing Besser; Ted Healy was gone fairly early, and Fred Sanborn was never really a full-time Stooge anyway.

The Three Stooges came to television’s attention in 1948, becoming reliable guest stars to fill out the roster of variety programmes that were popular in the United States at the time. Their 1930s cinema shorts were just the right length for television to repackage for children, which led them to a resurgence in the cinema, producing full-length films for the Saturday morning kids’ clubs most cinemas ran.

In the late 1950s the Stooges first live action and animated TV pilot film was called Stooge Time, followed in 1960 by Three Stooges Scrapbook, a half-hour colour TV pilot with the Stooges being Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Joe DeRita. The first part of the pilot also starred Emil Stika (1914-1998), who had also played supporting roles in the Stooges theatrical shorts.

Scrapbook was released to cinemas in two parts, the first, live-action part lasting 15 minutes, whilst the second part, running for 7 minutes, featured an animated cartoon entitled The Spain Mutiny featuring the characters sailing with Christopher Columbus. This gave producer Norman Maurer (1926-1986) the idea to produce a Three Stooges live action/cartoon series for TV in the mid-1960s. The 1965 series was called The New 3 Stooges, featuring 156 cartoon segments directed by Lee Orgel (1925-2004), with Norman Maurer producing 41 live action sequences that appeared before and after each 4-minute cartoon – thus each short film ran for 7 minutes, ideal for packaging into linked children’s television slots.

The series theme tune was a catchy jaunty march with flutes and percussion for the opening titles, with a jazzed up version for the end credits – some of the background music was good enough to be chosen to accompany BBCtv trade tests. Supporting live-action players included once again Emil Sitka, Margaret Kerry (born 1929), a former dancer, and Tiny Brauer (1909-1990). Moe, Larry and Curly Joe also provided voices for their animated characters, together with Paul Frees (1920-1986). This series was first shown on ATV Midlands when the cartoon segments were shown as part of the Topo Gigio Comes to Town package from October 1966 at 5.25pm.

The Stooges animations were well enough received to inspire television to further search through the archives for similar reboot material. Filmation made a half-hour pilot featuring the animated Marx Brothers called The New Marx Brothers Show, which failed to sell – the intelligent wordplay and smutty humour the originals failing to translate into the kiddie bloc.

More successful was Hanna-Barbera’s 156 Laurel and Hardy cartoons for Larry Harmon (1925-2008) in 1966. Both Stan Laurel (1890-1965) and Oliver Hardy (1892-1957) having died, Larry Harmon took Laurel’s voice role and Jim MacGeorge (born 1928) took Hardy’s. The episodes were very much an easy parody of the original Laurel and Hardy shorts, the characters also cut down to their bare essentials, but the series was still popular with children, seeing such comedy for the first time, and their grandparents, happy to be reliving their favourite shorts of their own childhoods.

Hanna-Barbera also produced 39 episodes of The Abbott and Costello Cartoon Show in 1967, featuring Bud Abbott (1897-1974), with Stan Irwin (1920-2015) replacing the late Lou Costello (1906-1959).

It’s interesting to note which acts television didn’t choose to revive this way. Harold Lloyd (1893-1971) had been one of the biggest silent slapstick stars but his career withered with the arrival of the talkies. He briefly moved to radio before retiring altogether, his silent shorts kept from television until his death as Lloyd futily tried to protect his beloved movie trade.

Buster Keaton (1895-1966) was another surprising omission, his silent material failing to translate to animation very well and lacking a known talkie character to be picked up by television. Unlike Lloyd, Keaton did find work as an actor on television, including a fine and spooky silent/talkie role in an episode of The Twilight Zone and making a useful sideline appearing, usually silently, in various commercials.

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), especially in his tramp character, would have seemed idea for an animated reboot, were it not for Chaplin finding himself blacklisted in Hollywood for his anti-facist beliefs and exiling himself to Switzerland. The US networks of the 1960s were unlikely to want a ‘communist’ on their books, even in animated form.

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