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(by Noell Wolfgram Evans) In the 1950s and 60s America was scared of monsters. Monsters; death; the occult have all been a part of the fabric of humanity since humans first stepped onto the soil of Earth. In the 1930's in America our interest in monsters grew tremendously thanks to pulp magazines, radio programs and horror movies, particularly those released by Universal Pictures. Even animated films, in a way, got scary.
Frankenstein's Monster made a number of appearances in Warner Brother's cartoons, Bugs Bunny went up against Gossamer (the red haired monster) and several of the Warners 'heroes' were put up against Jekyll and Hyde type of characters. UPA gave us a unique look at 'The Tell Tale Heart' while Disney spent time on the dark side with such works as the Silly Symphony 'Skeleton Dance'and the animated 'Legend of Sleepy Hollow'.
This love affair the public had with the macabre though soon gave way to other interests such as the wild west, outer space and television. When television first took hold in the 1950's, film studios were fearful of the new competition and fought against it. Over time though they came to understand and accept that it was here to stay and perhaps the two could exist and work together.
And so it was that in 1957 Universal Studios decided to package together their horror films from the 1930s and 40s and 'syndicate' them to television. For many people, viewing these images provided their first exposure to these stories while for others watching these movies was a dark trip down memory lane. Whatever their reason, people took strongly to these broadcasts and monsters were again large in the public consciousness. Thanks to the repetition of a television broadcast this following would only continue to grow and gather steam. And so it was that by the mid-60s, classic movie monsters were a big business. Television, toys, models, costumes and feature films all were permeated with monsters. Animation was not far behind.
One of the earliest animated spooks was Casper the Friendly Ghost. Casper was originally created by Seymour Reit and Joe Oriolo in the 1940's to star in a Famous Pictures theatrical short. This story of a ghost who didn't want to scare anyone was surprisingly popular and Casper went on to star in several other cartoons over the next few years before fading away. In 1963 Casper was brought back to 'life' for a completely new set of adventures in 'The New Casper Cartoon Show'. This television incarnation of Casper featured him in the Enchanted Forest along with his friends Wendy the Good Little Witch and Nightmare, a talking horse who also was a ghost.
During the time that monsters were on the rise in television, so were the team of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. They had been two of the most successful theatrical cartoon producers and were now applying their talents to television. By 1964, thanks mainly to 'The Flintstones', they had found their place and were well in the midst of trying other topics, including horror. In 1965 they released 'The Winsome Witch'. The story of a witch who used her powers only for good was a bit too saccharine and the show only lasted two seasons. Monster 'blandness' was not just a problem for Hanna Barbera, many studios had issues in properly fitting horror characters into traditional cartoon surroundings. In 1965 Hal Seeger tried to jump on the bandwagon with 'The Milton The Monster Show'. The star of course was Milton, a massive Frankenstein's monster fellow who had a near continuous cloud of smoke hanging above his head. The adventures of Milton and his monster friends never broke out and the show lived a quiet and short life.
Undaunted, the studios continued to search for the magic mix of Halloween and animation. In 1966, Hanna Barbera came back with 'Frankenstein Jr. and The Impossibles' a two-part show with the first half being made up of the adventures of Frankenstein Jr., a 30-foot tall Frankenstein's monster style robot who was created by boy inventor Buzz Conroy. Although the monster here was 'friendly' this show came under intense pressure from various watch groups for the amount of violence that it allegedly showed and in 1968 it was pulled from network rotation. 1966 also saw the well-known production team of Rankin/Bass enter the field with 'King Kong'. Rankin/Bass were already a successful force in animation, thanks in large part to the production of 'Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer' (1964). At this time they were looking to branch into other areas and saw King Kong as the perfect vehicle for this. Rather than use their popular animagic (a stop motion) technique, they decided to go the hand drawn animation route in telling this tale of Kong. The series found a friendlier ape living on Mondo Island with a number of people, including the Bond family. Kong had taken a special liking to the youngest Bond, Bobby and most of the episodes consisted of their adventures fighting the evil Dr. Who. The series lasted three years and while it was Rankin/Bass' first foray into 'monster animation'; it would not be their last.
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass had first met each other in the mid-1950s as they were working on separate projects for a mutual client. This chance meeting turned into an immediate friendship and in 1955, a partnership as the two opened Videocraft International. The bulk of their early work consisted mainly of television commercials. While it was work that they enjoyed, the two also had dreams of producing television programs as well as feature films. It was with these thoughts that in 1961 they renamed the company Rankin/Bass Productions and refocused their goals. Goals that they started to reach almost immediately with the production of Rudolph.
In 1966 producer Joseph E. Levine had thoughts of merging the popularity of monsters with the golden touch of Rankin/Bass and he signed them to a feature film contract. What he got was not a quickly produced exploitation film but rather a lovingly crafted animated musical. The animagic 'Mad Monster Party' (1967) told the story of the Worldwide Organization of Monsters gathering together for the retirement of Baron Von Frankenstein. On this occasion, the Baron would announce that his non-monster nephew Felix would now head the group. It's an announcement that causes much dissent amongst those in assembly and the entire group spends the rest of the ninety-minute film trying to sort it all out.
Arthur Rankin, Jr. wrote the story and then turned it over to Len Korobkin and Harvey Kurtzman (a writer for Mad Magazine) who turned it into a screenplay while Jules Bass worked with Maury Laws in creating the musical score. The jazz based music and songs fit in perfectly with the times and, while hinting at parody towards what would be found in a spy film of the day, they remain as something more than just a curious relic of the era.
With story and songs complete, they now needed a look for the picture and in a fit of inspiration they turned to another man of Mad Magazine, Jack Davis. Davis was the perfect man to turn to as he had started his career drawing horror comics for EC in the 1950's. He was able to use these experiences perfectly in creating the film's modern approach to the classic horror characters and settings. Once this was established, Don Duga and Paul Cocker took Davis' work and turned it into a series of meticulous storyboards. This was a key point in the production, as scenes had to be meticulously planned out because the actual animation was not being done in an easy to supervise location.
In 1958 Rankin took a tour of Japan and along the way visited several animation houses, including Toei Studios. He was impressed by their quick production and unusual animation techniques and saw in these elements something that could be a great benefit to his companies work. Upon returning home, he contracted Toei to do the physical animation of the Rankin/Bass stories.
The last piece of the Mad Monster Party puzzle was signing the voice talent. In a serendipitous bit of casting, they were able to convince Boris Karloff to step in as the voice of Baron von Frankenstein. Who better to give life to this version of Frankenstein than the man who starred as the original Frankenstein's Monster in the movies? His legitimate acting ability and horror movie pedigree leant considerable weight to the production. Boris was joined behind the microphone by Phyllis Diller, Gale Garnett and Allen Swift.
Around this same time (1966 to be exact) another animated fright fest came into being. While more nostalgically entertaining than legitimately scary, 'It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown' has taken a place in our minds as the Halloween animated program. Directed by Bill Melendez, the Emmy nominated show is a meditation on faith and devotion shown through Linus' unwavering belief in the Great Pumpkin. The scares come in the literalization of every child's nightmare when Charlie Brown gets rocks during trick or treat.
Three years after 'The Great Pumpkin' first aired, another cartoon with a dog for a star would appear and its mixture of horror and hi-jinks would influence animation for the next three decades. In 1969 Hanna Barbera had a concept for an animated horror series, which they took to Fred Silverman, an executive at CBS. Titled 'House of Mystery' the show revolved around a group of teenagers who solved mysteries. Silverman immediately ok'd the concept and pre-production began. As this started, the name changed to 'Mysterious Five' and a dog was added into the mix. As the premise continued to be worked it started to become apparent that the character of a dog here could have the all-important marketing potential. Writers Ken Spears and Joe Ruby started to build the dog more substantially into the plot and finally Silverman had a solid show, now called 'I'm S-s-s-s-scared', to take to his board in New York City. The board at CBS took one look at the storyboards for the program and vetoed the entire series under the fear that it would be too scary and intense for children. As legend has it, Silverman was flying back to California to break the news to the team and as he tried to relax, he plugged into the airplane radio system. The soothing sounds of Frank Sinatra singing 'Strangers in the Night' floated out of the headset and as Sinatra came to the scat refrain, Silverman shot out of his chair with a newfound excitement. If you are unfamiliar, this section of the song goes ' scooby dooby do '. Silverman knew what needed done.
Arriving home, he put the focus of the show completely on the dog and named him Scooby Doo. Voice artist Don Messick gave Scooby a half-human/half animal voice, the comedy element was heightened against the horror and a star was born. 'Scooby Doo, Where Are You?' debuted in 1969 and has remained on TV, in one incarnation or another, ever since.
These shows and films are just at the top of what has become a long and continually growing list of animated monsters. Over the years many more creatures and ghouls have crossed our screens including Fangface (1979), The Groovie Ghoulies (1970), Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1969), The Galloping Ghost (1978), Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973), Halloween is Grinch Night (1977), Ghostbusters and The Real Ghostbusters (both 1986), AAAH!! Real Monsters (1994), Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and Monsters, Inc. (2001). We now thankfully have an animated monster to match everyone's needs and desires. So as you turn your lights out tonight sleep tight knowing that somewhere, there is a ghoul for you.
Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife and daughter.
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