Saturday, 24 August 2019

AND ALL I HAVE TO DO IS ACT NATURALLY [194]


For the life of me, I cannot remember how I tripped up on this cartoon, but here it is, it exists, and I must now deal with that fact: the Beatles had their own Saturday morning cartoon series in the United States, made from 1965 to 1967, and it looks bloody awful.


The idea for “The Beatles” came from Al Brodax, a TV producer with a track record of developing new programme formats who, in 1960, joined King Features Syndicate, a company which syndicates content to newspapers like columns, puzzles and games, and comic strips. “Popeye” was the first of their strips to get a new series on television, with Brodax overseeing 220 new shorts between 1960 and 1962 – these are the ones where Bluto was renamed “Brutus,” when they thought they didn’t own the character, but actually did. These were followed with a revival of “Krazy Kat,” “Beetle Bailey” and “Snuffy Smith,” but seeing The Beatles perform on “The Ed Sullivan Show” defined the rest of Brodax’s career.


Unfortunately, the animation style of “The Beatles” is mired in the funk of limited animation that affected the reputation of Brodax’s productions of “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat.” The head of animation for the series, George Dunning, had experience in using limited animation to great stylistic effect when working for the famed animation company UPA - they of “Gerald McBoing-Boing” and “Mr. Magoo” - but their modernist ambitions were traded here for a more realist style that, in the face of the glut of Hanna-Barbera cartoons, looks cheap, jerky, and arguably unfinished.


The storylines themselves are, well, not really there: each half-hour show is built out of a number of 5-6 minutes shorts, again much like “Popeye” and “Krazy Kat,” and are animated around a song. The Beatles arrive somewhere, and things happen – John fights a bullfighter to “When I Saw Her Standing There,” while the band are shown where leprechauns keep their gold to “Do You Want to Know a Secret.” Characterisation was also kept simple: John was the squared-jawed leader, Paul his pretty deputy, George is dry and witty (with a slightly Irish accent), and Ringo is as dopey as hell. Brian Epstein even made an appearance in one episode, but he was drawn to look like Al Brodax. 


The Beatles did not provide their voices: Paul Frees, of “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” voiced John and Paul, while the British comedy actor Lance Percival took George and Ringo. The band themselves originally disliked the series, but it appeared to grow on them later. What didn’t help was how the series froze them in time as lovable mop-tops in navy blue suits, especially as their music and style developed incredibly quickly: once reruns of the series had ended in 1969, “Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “The White Album” and “Abbey Road” had been released, and their early work is almost that of a different band. What is more, the network showing the cartoon, ABC, now had their own legally distinguishable version, named “The Monkees.”

Giving Al Brodax and George Dunning the last film of The Beatles’ contract with United Artists would have been admission that they simply did not care what was produced – good thing that, without the confines of TV animation, they delivered “Yellow Submarine” instead.

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