BOOTLEG FILES 645: “Tetched in the Head” (1935 animated short film featuring Barney Google).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A semi-lost film.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not until the original version is located.
In 1930, Columbia Pictures was a relatively minor player in the Hollywood scene. The studio’s cred received a boost that year when it signed an agreement with Walt Disney to distribute his popular animated short films. However, in 1933 Disney ended his relationship with Columbia due to a financial dispute.
The loss of Disney was a setback for the studio, which wanted to expand its output within the financially lucrative animated short films sector. The studio offered animated shorts from the Screen Gems studio owned by Charles Mintz, who produced Disney’s silent film output in the 1920s and screwed Disney out of the rights to his creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Mintz’s work for Columbia was woefully inferior to what Disney was offering: an enervated film version of the “Krazy Kat” comic strip, a dull series based on the misadventures of a boy named Scrappy, and a hodgepodge series of mostly uninspired Technicolor cartoons lumped under the umbrella “A Color Rhapsody.”
In 1935, Mintz and Columbia seemed to strike it rich when Billy DeBeck, creator of the popular “Barney Google” comic strip, agreed to have his characters adapted into a series of Technicolor shorts produced by Mintz. In concept, it seemed like the right fit: a jolly ne’er-do-well with a penchant for gambling and a talent for getting into mischief, Barney Google was, according to comic historian Bill Blackbeard, a “goggle-eyed, mustached, gloved and top-hatted, bulbous-nosed, cigar-chomping shrimp” – the perfect image for a comic strip.
Alas, the Barney Google character would not be the hit that Columbia and Mintz needed – only four Technicolor cartoons were made before the series came to an abrupt halt in 1936. Today, the original 35mm Technicolor versions of the four Barney Google films produced by Mintz are considered lost. King Features Syndicate, which owned the distribution rights to the comic strip, had a contract with Columbia that required the destruction of the film materials 10 years after the theatrical release. Columbia maintains 16mm black-and-white prints in its vaults, but it is not able to re-release them commercially.
However, the Barney Google films were released to the home movie market during the late 1930s, albeit in truncated and silent black-and-white versions. In 2007, British animation film collector Lee Glover reconstructed the first of the Barney Google cartoons, the 1935 “Tetched in the Head,” from three different prints. This work is missing a few seconds of footage along with the original soundtrack – intertitles were added for the home movie market versions. The resulting work is not a rediscovered classic, by any stretch, thought it is fun to see just where the Mintz adaptation went awry.
“Tetched in the Head” – the title is a catchphrase from the comic strip – opens somewhere in hillbilly country where the diminutive Snuffy Smith and his oversized wife Lowizie are outdoors. Snuffy is a lazy bum and Lowizie is excessive in catering to him, going as far as to uproot a tree and place it next to Snuffy where he is napping so he can be in the shade. She even interrupts her laundry duties around an oversized washtub to gently swat away flies taking nest on Snuffy’s nose.
Barney Google comes riding in on his horse Spark Plug – and you know it is Spark Plug because he is wearing a blanket with his name on the side. Barney gets off on the wrong foot by questioning why Snuffy isn’t interested in working, and Barney’s presence is not welcomed by Snuffy and Lowizie’s six infant sons – they are initially seen sleeping on a crib made from a sliced log. The kiddies take an instant dislike to Barney and start shooting at him when he pulls out a tiny blackboard and tries to teach them math. When Barney takes one child and starts spanking him, massive Lowizie grabs Barney and starts spanking him. Barney winds up in the washtub and on the receiving end of Snuffy’s rifle. Barney jumps on Spark Plug to exit, but the horse jumps out of his blanket and gallops off alone, leaving Barney to chase after him while encumbered in the blanket.
It is impossible to give a proper judgment of “Tetched in the Head” because the surviving material is a faded monochrome shadow of what must have been a rich-looking Technicolor visual style. And the absence of the soundtrack makes it impossible to understand whatever funny dialogue was exchanged between the characters. The slapstick in the film is typical for the era, but it has no relation to the situational comedy that made the DeBeck comic strip so popular.
But, then again, DeBeck’s creations were never easily adapted to the big screen. A series of live-action shorts based on Barney Google were made between 1928 and 1929, but they were mostly ignored during the period when silent films were being phased out. Monogram Pictures produced two live-action features in the mid-1940s, “Private Snuffy Smith” and “Hillbilly Blitzkrieg,” but no one really cared for them. Paramount Pictures did a one-off Technicolor cartoon in 1946 based solely on Snuffy Smith called “Spree for All,” but that film was also lost for years thanks to King Features’ insistence on destroying the prints after the theatrical run – a black-and-white print was located in France. And the less said about the badly-made early 1960s television series based on DeBeck’s characters, the better.
Lee Glover’s unauthorized reconstruction can be found on YouTube, which is the only way one can see “Tetched in the Head.” And unless stray prints of the original Technicolor cartoons from the series are found and commercial re-release can be negotiated, this is the only way we will ever be see this film.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.
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