Wednesday, December 26, 2007

TALL AND SMALL Holiday Wishes

I hope everyone is enjoying a nice Holiday week; my usual procrastination resulted in lots of hectic last-minute Christmas activity and a few missed opportunities I am still catching up on. One gift that came my way this year was a bit of animation history I have been heretofore ignorant of; thanks to Thad Komorowski for filling in my education.

Thad has had this illustration on his ANIMATION I.D. site for some weeks now piquing me to ask him what cartoon it is from. He obliged by telling me it's from PROFESSOR SMALL AND MISTER TALL, an obscure Columbia cartoon that I doubt I have ever seen. We used to see a lot of Columbia cartoons when I was very little, but I mainly remember the Fox & Crow. SMALL & TALL was released in March 1943 about seven months after THE DOVER BOYS and it bears some similarities to it, mainly in character design (possibly by T. Hee or at least T. Hee inspired) and the use of John McLeisch's voice (narrator of DOVER BOYS and many Disney shorts of the time). You can see the highlight of the short HERE in Thad K's generous daily motion files, and I was able to get my hands on a copy of the complete cartoon just before Christmas.

Leonard Maltin calls SMALL & TALL "painfully unfunny" in his always reliable book OF MICE AND MAGIC, and though I admit a general audience would probably be bored or baffled by it, I love it. It is far more experimental than even DOVER BOYS and the stylization is a harbinger of things that won't be mainstream for several more years. The characters are absurd and the dialog is inane, pretty much everything about the sensibility of the cartoon seems to come from another universe. Maltin's book also quotes co-director John Hubley indirectly referencing the cartoon as full of unusual techniques for the time. The familiar and haughty McLeisch provides the voice for Prof. Small and an unknown provides the understated squeakings of Mr. Tall.

Here's a synopsis: Prof. Small (who is unusually tall) appears to be the conductor on a passenger train, along with Mr. Tall (who is extremely small) acting as a sort of refreshment "butcher". When they break a mirror on a vending machine, bad luck ensues, causing the train to dissolve and leaving them deserted in the middle of nowhere. They ultimately come upon a 'ghost town' inhabited by an insane ghost (who bears a strong resemblance to the Henry Syverson figures I love so much and does a mean Hitler impression). They escape the ghost but are ultimately staggering through the scorching sand parched and frustrated. (Mr. Tall is semi-successfully trying to vacuum the sand at one point with a vacuum cleaner but Prof. S assures him that there is no electricity, so they turn the vacuum off). Tall manages to re-glue the mirror and suddenly they are deluged with rain, money and a limo, replete with gorgeous dames to caress them in the back seat. (The dames are very sophisticatedly drawn and are less "objectified" than the typical Fred Moore/Preston Blair type). Tall attributes their fortune to the mirror, which Small scoffs at and smashes again, causing all their blessings to vanish. The final scene shows him still dismissing superstition even as he helps Tall try to re-assemble the mirror.

The cartoon was jointly directed by John Hubley and Paul Somer and it feels like what it is: a UPA cartoon that hasn't found it's feet yet. That's a plus in my book, because the very uneven quality is what makes it entertaining to me. Like DOVER BOYS, it is an experiment in humor that doesn't derive from obvious physical gags and tries to find character subjects that are not typical. (By the time UPA shorts hit their stride, they were a lot less entertaining in my opinion, but I know I am in a minority on that score). Thad also assisted me in seeking out the one and only sequel: RIVER RIBBIN'(1945) featuring Small & Tall as riverboat captains dueling the wacky ghost in an aquatic race. Somer directed alone and though the gags are weird and the voices the same, the visual style has lurched backward, looking for all the world like an entry from the late 1930's. Even the character designs have devolved into formulaic throwbacks to GULLIVER'S TRAVELS' Lilliputian characters. Something in the management at Columbia seemed to invite experimentation and then squash it almost as quickly. Some of their cartoons are very innovative, but nobody of note seems able to stick around long enough to stem the tide of mediocrity. Too bad.

For someone at my age who has spent so much time gawking at printed and animated cartoons it is always a thrill to come across something old that's completely new to me. I have to thank the internet in general as well as Thad K and Shane Glines for continuing to share their interests in the obscure and unsung with us. As another year closes, such things are sources of enduring inspiration to cartoon geeks of all ages.

9 comments:

Marcos Mateu said...

Will, Merry Season and a Happy New year to you and your family!
All the best.

Jerry Beck said...

It took me several viewings to "get into it", but Professor Small and Mr. Tall is now one of my favorite Columbia cartoons. I love the dialogue (and voices by McLeish) as much as I enjoy the then-experimental visuals. Another good one from Sommer & Hubley at this time is THE VITAMIN G-MAN. If Thad doesn't post it I can send you a DVD.

chrisallison said...

Great Holiday find, Will. Do you have a DVD copy of this cartoon? It might be worth it to donate a copy to the ASIFA Archive (admittedly, because I'd like to see it). There were some great parts in there (especially the subtle part where Tall removes Small's hand off his shoulder haha).

Michael Sporn said...

You're right, it's an interesting short. It always seems to have one foot in the future and one foot in the past. With a look at the sequel, I wonder if Paul Somer kept it anchored in the past? I don't know very much about him, I'm sad to say.

Will Finn said...

Thanks Marcos, to you the same.

Jerry, I may take you up on the offer. There are many tantalizing titles in their filmography. BTW I got your amazing HB book for Christmas, it is fan-tas-tic!!! Thanks for all the early years ephemera.

Chris, I am going to check in at the Archive this week hopefully and compare notes there...

Michael, i think the uneven blend of the elegant, the surreal and the stupid is what makes it irresistible to me, which probably says a lot about my personality...
it's hard to know if Somer was the traditionalist, but in his defense he is credited with directing THE ROCKY ROAD TO RUIN (the Columbia DOVER BOYS ripoff) and it is almost as stylized and weird as PROF S & MR. T. I wonder if it was upper management at Col. that continually dragged things down? If anybody knows anything about Paul Somer, we'd all love to hear it...

Weirdo said...

Very cool visuals, but the gags leave something to be desired. To me, Hubley wasn't that good at it. he's great at design, but he would require someone like Tashlin or Jones to give his cartoons some comedic edge. Was Tashlin still at Columbia when they made this, or was he back at Warner Brothers?

Floyd Norman said...

Hey Will,

I worked for Paul Somer back in the seventies. I knew he was a veteran who had done a lot of stuff in his career. He was a nice old guy, and I wish I had gotten him to talk more about his years in the business.

Anyway, Paul was an "old school" director, and I enjoyed animating for him.

Will Finn said...

Weirdo, I Tashlin might have been gone at this point.

Floyd--Thanks for the update. Was Somers doing commercials at the time or series TV?

I think what I like best about PROF. S & MR T is that it has kind of "Waiting for Godot" absurd quality to it. But stupider.

Floyd Norman said...

We were doing series television, Will. Some pretty forgettable stuff back in the seventies. I'm sure Paul had directed much better shows in his long career.

In a way it was a shame so many veteran shorts directors ended their careers doing TV crap. But, what the hey. It was a job, I guess.