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Postmodern Village
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Arbeit Made Free, Or Of Mummies and Men
by Marcia Anthony-Meadows

Film historians are constantly finding buried treasure in hall closets, salt mines and other out of the way places, but these films are rapidly deteriorating. One of the latest discoveries was uncovered in a Belgian nunnery and marks what is believed to be the entire animation output (still in existence) of the D.I. Arbeit Studios. The recent re-release of these on the web, at least to an intimate group of film buffs, is a pirate's treasure of golden era animation and deserves a wider audience. An enthusiastic audience is rediscovering these classics, but often has no background to appreciate their historical context.

Arbeit Studios, founded by Duncan "Ignoble" Arbeit, and often just called Arbeit since the man and the studio were inseparable, began in 1926 at a crowded dinner table. It was rumored Arbeit lost the challenge of coming up with the most repulsive sexual scenario involving President Taft. (The winner, Arbeit's best chum C. Frederick O'Toole, reportedly said something involving Arbeit's mother, marionettes, six pounds of goose feathers, a partially skinned pig and brown gravy, not red eye, which made it so gross.) As punishment for his lame attempt -- it merely involved a walking cane -- he was forced to start a film studio to amuse his friends. This is what the leisure class did back in the day, it seems. The first output was not animation, but a documentary short entitled "Why Harold Will Never Marry" and featured footage of the Pasadena Princess Beauty Contest. Response was positive, especially for the director's cut, which featured friend Harold Edwards talking two of the contestants into doing their Clara Bow imitations. Harold starred as the USC football team. It was a hit on the stag film circuit.

While Arbeit never gave up making stag films until his death, and the studio's subsequent failure, in 1956, he did develop a love of animation. Always a frustrated scribbler, along with O'Toole and Edwards (the now-married Harold), Arbeit and friends turned the bulk of their attention to the new art form. O'Toole created a plethora of monsters that never took off while Arbeit and Edwards assisted with storylines. In all, 41 cartoons starring their three stars were created. The Belgian nunnery yielded 37 shorts; the others are presumed lost.

Mimsie the Manic Mummy is the character that received the most attention from Arbeit Studios. In her we see the frantic energy of a Tex Avery or Bob Clampett character. Mimsie breaks the mummy stereotype; she is full of life, vibrant. Her gauzy arms and legs don't flow, but jump. She is, as the kids used to say, a spaz. In "Mum's the Word," her first talkie and the sixth of her 19 cartoons, we hear Mimsie's voice and it matches her hyperactivity. She is squeaky and speedy.

Mimsie often finds herself in absurd situations, not difficult to believe given the writing of Arbeit, Edwards and O'Toole. Only a few featured her in what one might imagine a plausible (or predictable) mummy plot: rescuing people in Egypt from killer sphinxes, moving pyramids or various plagues. No, Mimsie was an annoyer of the Establishment, often donning a flapper dress over her wrappings, getting drunk in speakeasies (the only time she slowed down), threatening to get a job, setting records for the first female mummy to do whatever. In short, she was an animated rich girl, much like the ones Edwards had supposedly stopped trying to bed.

The Mimsie shorts were quiet successes, showing mostly in private country clubs for the young rich kids who wanted to stick it to Daddy while drinking his bootlegged bounty. One country club attendee owned a network of radio stations and thus a corresponding radio show (Manic with Mimsie) aired for a brief time, featuring the voices of the cartoon players May Venture and Chaz Ellington II. Both would go onto long careers with Arbeit.

Ellington played bit parts in the Mimsie cartoons, but made his mark as the voice of Carruthers the Carousing Cadaver, who appeared in nine cartoons. Carruthers played on the growing interest (and fears) with medicine and science following World War II. "Abracadaver" features Carruthers on a typical rampage: he is violent, drunk and bitter. He doesn't want to be a cadaver. He wants to be alive; if not alive, he wants to be buried like a good Christian. To deal with his anger, he walks the hospital over and over, begging for help and stabbing anyone who won't listen to his pontifications about medical experimentation. "Abracadaver" is the last of the series, featuring a magician who finds the solution to Carruthers' problem. Previous foils such as Adolf Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woodrow Wilson could not find a satisfactory resolution for Carruther's dilemma, but made for some madcap romps in the meantime. These were not a highly popular series, due to its moralizing tone, but Ellington's vocal work was still praised. He considered offers from MGM and Warner Brothers, but they wanted him to work far too hard and, frankly, he didn't need the money.

How these sometimes perverse, usually risque, cartoons made their way into a Belgian nunnery's broom closet is perhaps more interesting than the cartoons themselves. The exact story has multiple variations, but the gist is that O'Toole visited Belgium on holiday and persuaded a young nun, as was his way, to store the films as an off-site back-up. When O'Toole told the story, there would have been more to it, something involving a velvet nun's habit, a magnum of champagne, six pounds of goose feathers and a zombie named Zarathustra. That's what makes these cartoons so timeless.