I don’t know if everyone shares my fascination with flip books, but I’ve never outgrown my youthful fondness for them. In recent years I’ve tracked down a number of unusual movie-related examples, but I’d never seen or even heard of one featuring Harpo Marx, let alone Chico and Marilyn Monroe! Now, thanks to fellow pop-culture fan, cartoonist and illustrator Drew Friedman, I’ve been exposed to the amazing Flip-O-Vision series. There were sixty of these in all, which did require assembly: you had to cut the perforated images of a photo sheet and assemble the “book” yourself. Topps put some money and effort into this project, hiring notable show business figures and licensing footage of others, including Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Burns and Allen, Leon Errol, Jack Haley, Rudy Vallee, Victor Moore, and such odd choices as Johnny Weissmuller, Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, Bert Parks, Kay Kyser, Henny Youngman, and Leo Gorcey. They even offered such musicians and singers as Buddy Rich, Johnny Desmond, and The Ink Spots—though watching these performers in silence doesn’t seem to make much sense.
I’ve been collecting flip books for years, and have some unusual ones from the silent-film era featuring Clara Bow, in a promotion for her movie It, and Gilda Gray, touting Aloma of the South Seas. A company called Ideal Moving Pictures issued one with Conrad Nagel (misspelling his name Nagle) that features barely any movement at all! Max Fleischer and Paramount made some Betty Boop flips in the 1930s, which sell for big bucks today. In the late 1940s Grape-Nuts Flakes offered flip books as a premium and enabled kids to play with animated sequences featuring such MGM cartoon stars as Tom & Jerry, Droopy, and Barney Bear, as well as Walter Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker and Andy Panda. They must have distributed tens of thousands of these, as they are fairly common.
One of my prize purchases features a favorite comedian, Billy Gilbert, doing his trademark sneeze. I never thought about it being part of a larger series, which is simply dumb on my part: it was issued by Topps (the bubble-gum card people) under the name Flip-O-Vision, and this is the series that Drew Friedman chronicles in his recent blog post. Click HERE.
You can even watch the animation of Harpo in action HERE.
Flip books are still part of our culture. Warner Bros. used this venerable medium to promote its cutting-edge movie The Matrix in 1999, and there are delightful flips of the early Pixar features. In the 1960s and 70s animation festivals in France and Canada commissioned contemporary animators to create new, limited-edition flip books, which are highly prized. (An aged but still agile Otto Messmer even devised a cute piece of animation with Felix the Cat, the character he started drawing in the 1920s.) In recent years I’ve bought scenes from classic Disney movies, Tex Avery animation, and even retro releases of scenes with Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. It’s easy to find reproductions of early genre pieces including at least one with Charlie Chaplin.