The Ub Iwerks Collection

D V D   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

The name Ub Iwerks will forever be tied to Walt Disney. After all, it was Iwerks who animated virtually every frame of the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Plane Crazy" (1928). And years later, it was Iwerks who developed the technology that allowed for the combination of animation and live-action in Disney classics such as The Three Caballeros, Song of the South, and Mary Poppins. In fact, Iwerks won two Academy Awards for his work with Disney. However, throughout the '30s, Ub Iwerks forged a career and identity separate from Walt Disney. Beginning in 1930, he ran his own cartoon studio named Celebrity Productions, and the cartoons that he produced were widely distributed by one of the world's largest studios--Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. However, mention the names of Iwerks' two main cartoon characters, Flip the Frog and Willie Whopper, and you'll most likely get blank stares, except from cartoon aficionados.

A new, aptly-titled two-disc DVD set from Image Entertainment, Cartoons That Time Forgot: The Ub Iwerks Collection, Vol. 1 & 2, allows us to experience these rare cartoons from Ub Iwerks. These cartoons almost never play on television, although several of the cartoons have acquired cult reputations over the years. A grand total of 58 cartoons fill these discs. That adds up to over seven hours of cartoon viewing. This is not a complete collection of Ub Iwerks cartoons, but it's about as comprehensive as we could ever hope for. Only about 19 of Ub Iwerks' Celebrity Productions cartoons are missing from this set.

Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney met as early as 1919 when they were both teenagers working at Kansas City Ad Company producing short animated commercials for local merchants. When Disney set up his own company in 1922, Iwerks was one of the first people he hired. And when Disney moved his operations to California in 1924, he asked Iwerks to follow him. But when Disney's distributor, Pat Powers, offered to provide the financial backing for Iwerks' own studio, Iwerks jumped at the opportunity.

Flip the Frog was Iwerks' first creation. He made his debut appearance in "Fiddlesticks." In this cartoon, Iwerks supplied Flip with a bow tie and buttons, but there is no mistaking that Flip is a frog. When he first appears in "Fiddlesticks," Flip hops on all fours from one lily pad to the next as he crosses a pond. And he doesn't talk. He croaks. Powers was disappointed when he saw "Fiddlesticks." He immediately requested that Iwerks give Flip more human characteristics. Powers was likely responding to one of the crucial failings of many early '30s cartoon characters: lack of personality. Iwerks heeded Powers' request. The next time out, Flip wore shoes, gloves, and pants, and he walked upright. He still didn't talk much. In fact, Flip would never become a big talker in his subsequent cartoons. In "The Village Barber," for example, he sings as part of a barbershop quartet, but he doesn't sing words. He sounds like a tuba instead. Iwerks would continue to modify his creation until Flip looked more like a little boy than a frog.

Whereas most Hollywood fodder of the '30s was designed to make the audience forget about the depression, Flip the Frog constantly ran into money problems. In "The Room Runners," he tries to sneak out of a hotel without paying his bill. In "What a Life," he panhandles on the street. And when he does have a job, as in "Laughing Gas" where he's a dentist, his office walls are badly cracked. In these cartoons, Flip becomes a resourceful, plucky character who frequently must struggle to survive.

The Flip the Frog series contains some of the best looking cartoons of the early '30s. The animation is clean and smooth, with nice shadings and watercolor-like effects. However, weak story construction hampers most of the cartoons. Cartoons that get off to good starts frequently lack adequate build ups. Gags are loosely strung together without a strong sense of direction. In "The Cuckoo Murder Case," Flip encounters Death leafing through a ledger. When he flips the next page, Death reveals a picture of Flip. Apparently Flip is next on Death's list. But the cartoon is only seconds from its end at this point. Disappointingly, there is little time left for anything to happen with Flip and Death. Or "Techno-Cracked" offers a promising situation: Flip builds a "mechanical man" to do the chores around the house, but Flip quickly discovers he has little control over the robot. Unfortunately, all the story's imagination went into the premise (which prefigures Disney's "Sorcerer's Apprentice") with little left for the ensuing scenes.

The best Flip the Frog cartoons frequently contain surprisingly ribald comedy. In "The Room Runners," a policeman chases Flip until his quarry stops and peeks through a keyhole. As the policeman and Flip trade time at the keyhole, a point-of-view perspective shows us the object of their attention: a naked woman toweling off after a bath. And in "The Milkman," a sleepy Flip walks into a barn to milk the cow; however, he walks into the bull's stall by mistake. We can't see what happens, but we can hear it: "Ouch!" yells the bull. "Let go!"

"Funny Face" is one of the most imaginative Flip the Frog cartoons: Flip gets dumped by his girlfriend (who in close-ups is a dead ringer for Betty Boop) for a Freddie Bartholomew look-alike. So he goes to Dr. Skinnum to get a new face. When he walks in the office, he's confronted by a wall full of masks that make fun of him: "Look at the guy with a funny face, funny face," they sing. "He is a disgrace." Each mask then urges Flip to choose it as his new face. ("Funny Face" may represent Iwerks' own criticism of the multiple face lifts that Flip endured.)

By 1933, audiences had grown bored with Flip, so Iwerks retired him for a new character, Willie Whopper. The Willie Whopper cartoons are some of the most underrated cartoons of the 1930s. Whereas lack of imagination frequently bedeviled the Flip the Frog cartoons, the Willie Whopper cartoons are all about imagination. These cartoons take the form of whopping yarns told by a mischievous boy named Willie: "Did I ever tell you how I won the national air race?" says Willie at the beginning of "The Air Race." "Hey did I ever tell you this one?" he says at the beginning of "Stratos Fear."

The best Willie Whopper cartoons contain the most outrageous stories. "The Good Scout," for example, begins innocently enough with some simple good deeds--such as when Willie helps an old lady across the street--but when Willie learns about a kidnapping, he comes to the aid of the victim by riding on a stream of water from a fire hydrant. It lifts him to the top of a skyscraper. But this is nothing compared to "Stratos Fear," where an overdose of gas at the dentist's office causes Willie to float like a balloon. He floats out of the office, through the stratosphere, and into outer space. There, he meets an alien scientist who has created a ray gun that will immediately process pigs and cows into cuts of meat. Will he next turn the ray gun on Willie? And what selection of meat might result? "Stratos Fear" is a wild, nightmarish journey comparable to some of the more outlandish Max Fleischer cartoons (such as "Snow White").

Like Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper underwent frequent redesigns. In "The Air Race," he's a small, thin boy; however, in "The Good Scout," he's very chubby. Ub Iwerks stuck with Willie Whopper for only a little over a year before he retired Willie.

While creating the Willie Whopper series, Ub Iwerks began work on another series--ComiColor Cartoons. These are the best looking cartoons produced by Iwerks. While these cartoons are frequently pleasant but bland, the series contains a few gems. "Humpty Dumpty" begins like a musical with two young lovers--Humpty Dumpty, Jr. and the Easter Egg--singing "Spooning in a Spoon" while a chorus of dancing eggs kick up their legs in the background. Our hero and heroine are menaced by the Bad Egg, who pushes Easter into a pot of boiling water. Humpty rescues her but now she's hardboiled: "Aww, scram," she tells the boy egg. In "Jack Frost," a bear cub runs away from home and meets a scarecrow who provides a scat vocal reminiscent of Cab Calloway. And in "Balloonland," we get a classic bit of fantasy--a world made entirely of balloons is menaced by the Pin Cushion Man. After he weasels his way inside the gates of the balloon city, he starts flinging pins left and right.

The ComiColor cartoons utilized the Cinecolor process. This was a two-color system that emphasized red and blue at the expense of green. So the cartoons don't contain a complete spectrum of colors, but the animation is meticulous. Iwerks also occasionally utilized a multi-plane camera--which reportedly he made from spare Chevy parts. This process allowed for impressive depth-of-field effects. But disappointingly, all these sequences in Iwerks' cartoons are throwaways. They occur without drawing much attention and they're over before you know it.

Music plays an important role in the Ub Iwerks cartoons. Every step by Flip the Frog is typically accompanied by a whack on a wood block while a jazzy beat sets the tempo. But whereas Max Fleischer brought in Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, the Mills Brothers, and other major musical performers, the Ub Iwerks cartoons receive less distinctive accompaniment. However, frequently the music is closely tied to the action in imaginative ways. In "The Village Barber," a spider dances on a piano keyboard. The keys he hits reflect his mood. When he spies a fly and begins creeping up on his prey, the keys that he strikes build in intensity. In contrast, the ComiColor Cartoons were typically designed as mini-operettas. In many cases, the characters sing their lines, as in "The Brementown Musicians," where a quartet of barnyard animals try to make a living by singing house to house. And in "Summertime," an orchestra sets the mood--as in Fantasia (which was still five years away)--while a woodland comes to life. A satyr struggles from his sleep, flowers dance, and turtles play tic-tac-toe.

While the Ub Iwerks cartoons occasionally contain inspired moments, few of the cartoons are consistently distinctive and imaginative. In Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin says, "The ten years away from Disney were the least rewarding and productive he [Iwerks] spent in the motion picture field." Iwerks true love was to conquer technical challenges. Story construction, editing, and characters didn't interest him. He was more interested in perfecting optical printing processes and matte work. Yet, his cartoons are still fascinating to watch, both for their limitations as well as their modest successes.

This two-disc DVD set is essentially the same as Kino International's 1994 five-volume VHS release--with the addition of six additional Flip the Frog cartoons that weren't available on VHS. The sequencing of the five-volume VHS set has been maintained on the DVD set even though the sequencing isn't always helpful in the new context. For example, if you want to trace how Flip the Frog developed through his numerous face lifts, you'll need to make your own chronological list and then shuffle the DVDs in and out of your player.


Cartoons That Time Forgot: The Ub Iwerks Collection, Vol. 1 and 2, are now available on DVD from Image Entertainment. Suggested retail price for each volume: $29.99.