Dr. Toon: It Could Have Been

This month Dr. Toon plays the “What If” game to see how the world of animation would be different if in an alternative reality Dick Tracy was an animated star, Bob Clampett lived longer or Walt Disney never lost Oswald the Rabbit.

The fedora-sporting crimefighter, easily as iconic as Batman or Superman, never truly received his animated due.

The fedora-sporting crimefighter, easily as iconic as Batman or Superman, never truly received his animated due.

Every endeavor throughout history is, in hindsight, fraught with contingencies. All we have in reality is how Event A, the actual occurrence happened, and the consequences of that fact. Historians enjoy making educated guesses as to how the world may have changed if only Event X had happened, or if Event Y had not happened. Often, conjectures about how events may have turned out differently center on missed opportunities; the same is as true for the history of animation as it is for the history of civilization.

In this months column, I would like to play historian rather than fan, cultural analyst, or psychologist and offer some permutations of animation history as it could have happened. I should say at this point that these are not things I think should have happened; like historians who have never seen combat or ruled a nation, I have never produced a cartoon or run an animation studio. This is merely a thesis for the entertainment of those who love to play What If?

Case Number One: What if Dick Tracy had been seriously adapted for animation?

This might have been a significant event in terms of animation and popular culture. Dick (originally Plainclothes) Tracy made his newspaper debut on Oct. 4, 1931, during the heyday of bootlegging, G-Men and legendary criminal overlords. Created by Chester Gould (1900-1985), Tracy survived countless perilous adventures and rose to national fame. Dick Tracy and its large cast of friends, foes, and family captivated fans for decades while garnering many new ones along the way. The property prospered in the form of books, novels, comicbooks, Saturday morning serials and radio shows. As recently as 1990, Dick Tracy found life as a feature film (although little justice was done to the venerable detective). Yet, the fedora-sporting crime fighter, easily as iconic as Batman or Superman, never truly received his animated due.

An animated series did air in 1961 courtesy of the UPA studio, 30 years after Dick Tracys first appearance. One hundred and thirty of these short, desultory cartoons appeared on television and were mostly notable for Dick Tracys absence. The detective only appeared in opening sequences where he assigned cases to a stable of clownish deputies. Several of these were so racially stereotypical that the cartoons would not be suitable in todays politically correct climate.

In the Goodman alternate universe, Paramount becomes Famous Studios and adapts Dick Tracy instead of Little Lulu.

In the Goodman alternate universe, Paramount becomes Famous Studios and adapts Dick Tracy instead of Little Lulu.

In 1971, Dick Tracy returned briefly to animation on Archies TV Funnies. Filmation did a better job with the property, but time limitations kept Dick Tracy from its full promise. Gould became disillusioned with the UPA series and later wished that the series had mirrored the style of the actual comic strip. Well, Chester, what if it had?

Imagine a scenario that begins in 1942, shortly after Paramount Pictures ousts Max and Dave Fleischer and renames their operation Famous Studios. Paramount expects success, and in the Fleischers absence, examined what had worked before. It is determined that two of Fleischers biggest successes were adaptations from the comic print medium: Popeye and Superman. Instead of going with Little Lulu (as the Paramount brass did in 1943) they instead opt for Dick Tracy. With most of the Fleischers marvelous artists still on hand, Paramount puts up a lavish amount of money, as it did to fund the Superman cartoons. Famous Studios Dick Tracy displays the dark, urban feel that so many Fleischer cartoons were notable for, and realistic rotoscoped action complements outstanding special effects.

Famous does for the detective what Warner Bros. did for Batman in the 1990s. Dick Tracy draws rave reviews, great box-office play and becomes an animated classic. Gould is thrilled. Even years later, animated detective/mystery shows become a staple of Saturday mornings, eclipsing superheroes. Decades later, animation aficionados are viewing enthralling episodes on DVD and enjoying the artisanship that the Famous team was certainly still capable of producing.

It could have been.

Case Number Two: What if Bob Clampett had lived just six more years?

History tells us that Bob Clampett died in May of 1984 at the age of 70. At the time, Clampett was on a promotional tour for the video release of his renowned Perhaps Clampett hires young artist John Kricfalusi to work on Beany and Cecil and he creates two minor characters who become cult favorites  Ren and Stimpy. Courtesy of Spumco (left) and © Spike TV.

Perhaps Clampett hires young artist John Kricfalusi to work on Beany and Cecil and he creates two minor characters who become cult favorites Ren and Stimpy. Courtesy of Spumco (left) and © Spike TV.

Beany and Cecil: The New Adventures airs on ABC in late 1987 in a primetime slot rather than having a typical turn on Saturday mornings. The generous budget allows Clampetts wild sense of story and ability to stretch the boundaries of animation. Kricfalusis brings an outrageous sense of sexy, violent comedy tempered by his mentors experience. The two men forge a highly synergistic relationship.

Beany and Cecil becomes an outrageous series that blends Clampetts numerous, quirky characters and warp-speed direction with Kricfalusis postmodern narratives and retro styling. Clampett and John K. are under few censorship restrictions due to their evening slot, and the pair has a field day. One controversial episode in which a maturing Beany learns the facts of life creates a major stir, and the flap leads to greater ratings and recognition among the viewing public.

Clampett, at age 73, is enjoying the greatest popularity of his career. Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, two of his lifelong fans, ask Clampett to serve as an advisor on their latest film project, a live-action/animated movie called, Two fans, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, ask Clampett to serve as an advisor on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the money pours in from licensing and merchandising. © Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Two fans, Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg, ask Clampett to serve as an advisor on Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the money pours in from licensing and merchandising. © Buena Vista Home Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved.

Warner Bros. triumphant premiere of the first sound picture, The Jazz Singer, excites Disneys imagination. He informs Laemmle that he could, if given the chance, make the first synchronized talking cartoon short. Laemmle gives permission to proceed, and Disney, Iwerks, and Wilfred Jackson create Steamboat Willie in 1928. In this engaging cartoon, Oswald rescues his sweetheart Winnie Rabbit from the clutches of lusty steamboat captain Peg Leg Pete.

Universal planned to make a picture starring bandleader Paul Whiteman called, The King of Jazz. While the film was in production Whiteman agreed to provide a score for Walts cartoon. Playing over much of the action was a composition the bandleader later called Happy Feet, but the musical highlight was a concert played using barnyard animals as instruments. This lively sequence was synchronized to Whitemans arrangement of The Birth of the Blues. Walt had balked at using jazz, but Laemmle overruled him.

Steamboat Willie is a major hit, and Disney is asked to expand his capacities. Universal puts Technicolor at Walts disposal. The Universal cartoon studio undergoes a modest expansion, and one new animator, Norm Ferguson, contributes Oswalds dog Pluto to the cartoon cast. Iwerks comes up with an amusing character named Tony Frog. Regulars Clarabelle Cow and Horace Horsecollar join Oswald as well. Times are good and so is the money, but Disney finds he is chafing under Laemmles control.

Although the two have had a good relationship, a breach occurs in 1935 when Walt Disney petitions Universal for the funds to make a feature-length animated film. Laemmle was turning his attention to big-budget musicals after his success with horror films and preferred to play it safe with his cartoon department. Laemmles mind was on his extravagantly expensive musical project Show Boat. He did not believe, in any case, that an 80-minute cartoon would sustain an audiences interest.

In a fantasy world, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks (left picture) give Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios a big hit with Steamboat Willie (right) in which Oswald the Rabbit is introduced. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

In a fantasy world, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks (left picture) give Carl Laemmle and Universal Studios a big hit with Steamboat Willie (right) in which Oswald the Rabbit is introduced. © Disney Enterprises Inc.

Both Show Boat and Laemmles other major project, Magnificent Obsession, nearly sink Universal. Laemmle finds himself replaced by the more budget-conscious Robert H. Cochrane, who drastically cuts back the animation department. Disney takes the opportunity to sever ties with Universal and set himself up as an independent. Oswald, Pluto, Tony the Frog (who is now named Flip) and several other characters are lost, but, in 1937, Disney, Iwerks and Fred Moore another key animator who followed Disney from Universal create a saucy little mouse as part of a repertoire of new characters. Although the Disney characters are well received by the public, the mouse (named Mickey by Walts wife Lillian), develops into a superstar. Disneys fortunes are made and animations greatest studio is launched.

It could have been something like that.

This closes our little game of What If? in which some events are changed. Other things that were meant to be still come to be, albeit through a circuitous path. Still, I wonder What if Jay Ward had lived to become a head writer on The Simpsons?

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