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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

RIP Joe Barbera (1911-2006)

I should know better than to nap in the middle of the day. I usually wake up feeling like Rip Van Winkle.

I keep odd hours, often writing or drawing until the first sign of dawn. Or engaging in my all-time favorite pasttime, watching cartoons. Meaning, of course, I spend my days in bed. I missed 9/11 that way, though in that instance I suppose I should be grateful.

At about two o'clock yesterday afternoon, I went to lie down. When I awoke at about eight that night, I turned my computer on to discover I was the last person in the known universe to learn that an animation legend had left us. One of the last animators, indeed, to be worthy of the phrase.

Once again, I was a day late and a dollar short, Much as in 1990, when I came within a hair's breadth of meeting Joe Barbera.

At the time I was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I attended college. A cartoonist friend of mine informed me that Barbera himself would be speaking at a gallery in Denver, and wondered if I'd like to go. Silly question--my feet didn't touch the ground for the rest of the day. An aspiring cartoonist myself, I was foolish enough to believe he'd be taken with my work, perhaps even offer me employment. In the back of my mind I knew that was as unlikely as my being crowned the Queen of Sweden, but I would be able to to at least talk to the man who created some of my earliest cartoon memories. He'd get a kick, I thought, out of hearing about my old southern granddaddy, who loved The Flintstones and would bellow "YABBA DABBA DOO!" as loudly as he could--much to my consternation.

I cut class that evening to make the hour-long trip, only to discover Barbera had bowed out, and sent a fellow named Iraj Paran instead. To this day, I don't know exactly in what capacity Mr. Paran worked for Hanna-Barbera, but he dutifully answered my frequent--and in retrospect, annoying--questions. He even looked at my artwork. He wasn't impressed, to put it mildly.

I thought I might get another opportunity to meet Barbera someday--but "someday" never came.

The best I can do now is share my thoughts on his life and work.

I must admit I have mixed feelings about Joe Barbera's output, prodigious though it was. To me, he was very much like the proverbial little girl with the curl--when he was good, he was astoundingly good, and when he was bad--well, let's face it, he could be dreadful. He represented both the pinnacle of animation's Golden Age, and the depths of Saturday-morning inanity. The same man who, with his partner Bill Hanna, had garnered an unbelievable seven Oscars (only Walt Disney had a longer streak) also gave us GOOBER AND THE GHOST CHASERS and FRED AND BARNEY MEET THE SCHMOO.

Yet had it not been for Joe Barbera, there might not have been much TV animation to speak of, good or bad. In 1957, he ventured into territory where only Jay Ward (with his CRUSADER RABBIT series) had dared to tread before him. He might not have been the first to make animation for the fledgling medium, but he made it profitable--and for a few wonderful years, entertaining. Until, that is, the networks and the watchdog groups cast their ever-lengthening shadows.

His detractors called him derivative, his characters merely cobbled together from popular personalities. The last accusation in particular is the most amusing, since the same could be said for most animated characters of the Golden Age and beyond, Bugs Bunny is equal parts Groucho Marx and the Dead End Kids. Daffy Duck incorporated the mannerisms of comedian Hugh Herbert (the "hoo hoos"). The Our Gang shorts inspired Porky Pig. And other animation studios directly copied Warner's, who themselves began by imitating Mickey Mouse (Bosko). The source of inspiration matters less than what the animators did with it--and Joe Barbera did some wonderful things.

He could be classy--MOUSE IN MANHATTAN is as well-choreographed as any live-action Gene Kelly film. He could be bizarre, as with BABY PUSS (of which I've already written in great detail). He could generate mock suspense--who can forget, in DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR. MOUSE, how menacing Tom looked after swallowing his home-made concoction--only to shrink the size of a gnat a fraction of a second later.

And he could be funny. God, he could be funny. And knew enough to surround himself with funny people, like ex-Warner's staffers Mike Maltese and Warren Foster. I'm a lifelong fan of THE FLINTSTONES, and I can tell you it never got funnier than it did midway through the first season, in the episode "The Hot Piano." Fred, for once, remembers his wedding anniversary (because it falls on trash day, naturally) and plays dumb--easy for him--while Wilma drops every hint short of, in her words, "rice and old shoes." (Such as singing "Here comes the toast, here comes the toast..." when bringing him his breakfast).

He takes the fifty bucks he saved up to the local music store, where he engages in a Jack Benny-like exchange with the store owner. Try and keep a straight face during the scenes in which Barney and the store owner pound out an ever more overblown arrangement of "In The Merry Month of May," while Fred does a slow burn that would do Edgar Kennedy proud.

The writing, as with all the early Hanna-Barbera product, was the snappiest of any program of the time, I'm rather fond of this exchange, between Barney and "88 Fingers Louie", a hood specializing in stolen pianos:

BARNEY: Does it have a guarantee?
LOUIE: Yeah, I guarantee it's a piano....

When asked why he sells his pianos out of a van in an alley, he explains, "I eliminate the overhead and pass the savings on to you!" Great stuff...

This week, I intend, as time permits, to post reviews of what I feel is the best--or the most unusual--of Barbera's work.

I never got to say this to you personally, Joe, but thanks for all the laughs. A tribute in a blog is far less than you deserve.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

"Don't Eat At Joe's": JERKY TURKEY (1945)

The original content has been edited for inexcusably moronic typos--R.)

This little stream-of-consciousness essay developed out of a desire to do something special for Thanksgiving, but circumstances took a decidedly different turn, as you may already know. So here for your consumption is a little Thanksgiving "leftover," in which Tex Avery takes on Thanksgiving. And I take on Tex Avery.

Tex Avery is the reason I love cartoons.

No surprise there. Tex Avery is probably the reason most cartoon fans love cartoons. Let me revise that statement: Tex Avery is the man who made me want to do more with cartoons than simply watch them.

And I had the good fortune to be introduced to his insanity in the unlikeliest of places.

Sierra Vista, Arizona didn't have much going for it in 1973--just a dusty, slightly dumpy little Army town that had popped up like a blemish around nearby Fort Huachuca in the mid-1950's. When I arrived there with my family at the age of eleven, it could boast a population of barely 10,000 and a once-weekly newspaper. Not to mention countless tumbleweeds, and a few thousand locusts, who descended on the town annually like tiny winged Shriners.

Nestled as it was among the Huachuca Mountains, even other communities in the state were barely aware of its existence. But that isolation would prove to be its greatest asset.

You see, the mountains made television reception impossible, unless you had a roof antenna the approximate size of the Eiffel Tower. Or what was then known as Community Access Television (CATV). In other words, cable.

You can guess what most people in the community chose--including my parents. We'd already experenced three TV-less years in Germany, and frankly wanted to look at something besides the dust bunnies under the sofa. So cable we got.

To say my prepubescent mind was stunned would be an understatement. I could actually find something on all twelve VHF channels--something other than snow, that is. And that something was usually cartoons, carried on stations as far away as Phoenix and Los Angeles. Hours and hours and hours of them--if I couldn't find something I liked on one channel, I surely would on one of the other eleven. In that pre-internet, pre-videotape, pre-DVD Jurassic era of mass entertainment, that's really saying something.

For a kid with CP who couldn't run around outside with flesh-and-blood friends (and didn't want to--I'd been plopped right in the middle of the blazing desert, after all) those ink-and-paint characters became my playmates.

Granted, some were more entertaining company than others: the first thing I remember seeing when I turned on the set was an almost hallucinatory little piece of film featuring a character named "Betty Boop." She had just run away from home into a cave filled with sights that made no sense: a ghost walrus sings a song called "Minnie The Moocher," although there was no one named "Minnie" in sight. Four ghost kittens suckle a ghost cat until it's a desiccated shell. All in rather ugly, garish color.

Unknown to me at the time, I had not seen a *real* Betty Boop cartoon, but a "colorized" imposter, hand-retraced and splashed with paint by dutiful little Korean "artists." I wouldn't see the real thing (in glorious black and white) for at least another fifteen years.

But they were drawings, and they moved--and for a while, that was enough. Until I saw something by a fellow named "Tex Avery."

One afternoon I stumbled upon a cartoon called SCREWBALL SQUIRREL--at first glance, there was nothing "screwball" about it. A nauseatingly cute, Disneyesque squirrel skips along, picking up acorns and depositing them in his little basket.

He comes upon a considerably goofier-looking squirrel with a distinctive sinus condition. When asked just what this picture is about, our cute little friend explains his name is Sammy, and the picture is all about him and his friends, the "cute little creatures of the forest." The goofy squirrel slaps his head and groans, "Oh, no! Not that! Not that!!" (He's psychic--that's precisely what I'd been thinking).

As the fuzzy-wuzzy little squirrel drones on, his goofy conpanion leads him behind a nearby tree--and proceeds, unseen, to beat the living bejeezus out of him. Re-emerging, the goofy squirrel says to us, "You wouldn't have liked that picture anyway..."

A cartoon character had just staged a coup d'etat and taken over the picture. That's entertainment--and it made me love Tex Avery forever, enough to want to know more about him. And eventually, the fellows he worked with, like Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson and Preston Blair. And all the people they worked with, and so on, and so on....I was hooked, gone, corrupted beyond redemption: I had become a toon fanatic.

All because the U.S. Army had deposited my family and me in the middle of nowhere.

Maybe I should write a thank-you letter to the Pentagon...

JERKY TURKEY, released in April 1945, shows the Avery style still in a transitional stage, but already speeding toward the full maturity he would exhibit in KING SIZE CANARY. This cartoon is a curious mixture of Avery styles, resembling a machine-gun version of his Warner's spot-gag shorts in the first minute or so, with joke after joke after joke fired at us in rapid succession. It then switches gears faster than a hopped-up Ferrari, to become more like the wild chase cartoons for which he had become known at his newly-adopted studio

Like SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, this cartoon is an "orphan toon" only in the broadest possible sense, by way of overzealous editing. Yet even less than fully intact, JERKY TURKEY has been a Thanksgiving staple on television for decades, as much as football and the Macy's parade.

Hitting theaters just five days before Franklin Roosevelt's death and exactly a month before V-E day, JERKY TURKEY is crammed with wartime gags, at the time still very much a part of the Avery arsenal. It would also be one of his last of that genre, ending a series of cartoons that began with Avery's first MGM release, THE BLITZ WOLF. As with a Thanksgiving meal, you go away from it feeling stuffed, but satisfied.

The roaring MGM lion dissolves to a title card showing our main character chasing after a turkey with an axe. It then dissolves to another card, in which the tables are turned and the turkey wields the axe. Preston Blair, Ray Abrams, and Ed Love are Avery's "usual gang of idiots," to borrow a phrase from MAD magazine. Blair in particular was instrumental in defining the look of this cartoon and others in the Avery unit from 1942 to 1945. Thanks to his later instruction books, Blair's scenes are instantly recognizable.

We open on a long shot of a fairly accurately-rendered wooden sailing ship bobbing up and down over the waves. All pretense to historical fidelity ends, however, when a title appears below the ship: "Landing Of The Pilgrims, 1620 7/8." It's shredded beyond all repair when we dissolve to a closer view of the nameplate on the ship's bow: YE MAYFLOWER, built by "Henrye J. Kiser Construction." (Henry J. Kaiser, by the way, was a well-known shipbuilding contractor of the era, supplying America's warships during WWII).

Not content to leave us with one topical gag, Avery piles them on as the camera does a long pan to the left, along the length of the ship. (The "C" card on the ship's hull, a reference to wartime gas rationing, is only the beginning.) The camera moves slowly at first, to show us a motley-looking group of Pilgrims lounging around, leaning against the masts and the rope ladder, and so on. The sharp-eyed viewer might notice a string of three or four individuals in the background with their backs to the camera, apparently heaving their lunch over the side (some traveled by ship and others "by rail", you might say).

Despite having seen this cartoon dozens of times in the last thirty years, I'm ashamed to say I'd never noticed that little detail before. Though I suppose, with cartoons like Avery's, I shouldn't be. Like the AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN features of decades later, more things occur than can be seen in one viewing. (It's easy to see who inspired Abrahams and Zucker). Thank goodness for the "pause" button...if ever there were an excuse to get a big-screen TV, moments like the above would be it.

Another, more surprising little tidbit unearthed in freeze frame: the ship is painted loosely, almost impressionistically, with little blending. Very unusual for an era noted for painstaking background detail in animation.

The camera goes out of its slow pan and jerks suddenly toward the other end of the ship, to reveal a contemporary Navy gun crew (labeled, appropriately, "Ye Navy Gun Crew", consisting of sailors wearing WWII-era uniforms and helmets) surrounded by anti-aircraft guns. To punctuate the gag, Scott Bradley plays an upbeat version of "Anchors Aweigh" on the sound track--which he continues as the camera trucks back to a long shot, revealing the Mayflower in the midst of a similarly anachronistic fleet of destroyers and aircraft carriers. In yet another heretofore-unnoticed detail, the stern of the ship is painted in camouflage...

The scene dissolves to a close-up of the main mast; the camera trucks upward to "Ye Crow's Nest" (with real crows, no less. What do you expect in an Avery cartoon, subtle jokes?) The lone human lookout peers through his spyglass, does an excited take and yells in a loud, raspy voice, "LAND HO!" (His lips distort into an exaggerated "O" shape, revealing lots of teeth).

Cut to a shot of the scene in the spyglass, which according to the label is a view of Plymouth Rock. This being an Avery cartoon, however, we soon discover it really IS a "Plymouth Rock"--a gigantic stone rooster, that is. The camera jerks right--which tells us immediately a joke is coming--to reveal a billboard with the perennial wartime admonition, WAS THIS TRIP REALLY NECESSARY? (Which Bradley accompanies with the song "Where Do We Go From Here?").

We iris into the next scene, which reveals a Pilgrim village exactly one year later (1621 7/8). "Villages" would probably be a more appropriate term: two identical communities, literal mirror images of one another, separated by a path down the center. On the left dwell "Ye Democrats"; on the right, "Ye Republicans."

The above is, of course, a semi-reworking of a gag in an Avery Warner Bros. picture, showing different Thanksgiving dates for Democrats and Republicans. It's a roundabout reference, not only to the friction FDR had with Republicans (some things never change) but his ill-conceived effort to stimulate the Depression-era economy by moving Thanksgiving up one week, to allow for more Christmas shopping time. It proved largely unpopular, and not all states adopted the measure. With Avery's sense of hyperbole, different holidays for each political party easily escalated into entirely separate communities.

The communities are so identical the people on both sides move in unison--obviously the animation was "flipped" and reused--creating a rather amusing, almost robotic effect. Those Pilgrims were even more conformist than we thought...

We dissolve to one of two favorite gags of mine in this picture (we'll discuss the other one soon enough)--a long line of various and sundry goofy Pilgrim characters, which on closer inspection are caricatures of MGM animation staff members standing at the corner of "Ye Hollywood" and "Ye Vine". I recently wrote Jerry Beck asking for their identities, so I'll let him field that one:

According the Martha Sigal, who worked in MGM's Cartoon Department in the 1940s... The pilgrims are Irv Spence (the heavy grumpy one), Mike Lah (the short mustashioed one), Heck Allen (the tall blond one) and Tex Avery (the heavy one wearing glsasses).

The camera pans right to reveal they're waiting in line for cigarettes at "Ye Cut-Rate Drug Store." Somehow I think the animators were drawing on personal experience there...

Avery used the "Hollywood and Vine" gag in a number of cartoons from this period, usually as a hangout for his oversexed Wolf. That corner was apparently disreputable even in the 1940's--in other words, the gag implies, a perfect spot for Avery's animators.

The camera does another lightning-quick jerk to the right (why didn't Avery just put up a road sign saying GAG AHEAD, NEXT EXIT?) revealing a man sitting under a sign reading, "Ye Town Crier." He's crying, all right--literally, even sounding like a bawling infant. Why is he crying, you ask? We find out when he produces a slip of paper labeled "1-A." (For you folks not old enough to remember the draft, "1-A" was the draft board's designation for those fit for military service).

But Avery's not done with the gags yet--we get another camera jerk to the right, revealing a modern (1940's) trailer covered with patches, amidst a snow-covered (and trash-littered) landscape. Come to think of it, it would fit into a present-day trailer park quite well. Its lone window is cracked. A license plate on the hitch reads OKLAHOMA 4-F ("4-F" is another draft designation, the exact opposite of 1-A. Appropriate when you consider the sorry specimen who lives there). A clothesline is attached to the trailer on the left of the screen: we see, among other things, a pair of overalls with the label "Lockheed Department 37." (Lockheed, of course, being the place they built all those Flying Fortresses and other war planes).

We dissolve to a shot of the trailer's front door, which reveals (finally) the unlikely "hero" of this picture: a fat, dumpy, and rather dense-looking pinhead (literally). He's essentially a white version of "Heel-watha" in Pilgrim garb, right down to the bulbous nose covering his mouth and the Bill Thompson Droopy-like voice. He's shaped a bit like those "Bop-'Em" bags you might have had as a kid--narrow at the top, wide at the bottom, with tiny feet. Carrying a musket over one shoulder, he says to the audience, "I'm going to shoot ye turkey for ye Thanksgiving..."

Only Avery would take this long to reveal the star of his picture, which gives us a pretty good idea of the regard in which he held his characters. Or lack thereof--for Avery, the gags came first, last, and always. Even character voices weren't sacred--he thought nothing of using the "Droopy" voice for other characters, just as he had tried out Arthur Q. Bryan's "Elmer Fudd" voice on the star of the Warner's cartoon DANGEROUS DAN McFOO.

The pilgrim turns to the right and skitters along on his tiny feet to "A-Hunting We Will Go" on the sound track...the scene dissolves to show a large rock, from which the pilgrim emerges. We cut to a medium shot of the pilgrim, who has taken from his pocket what's marked as a "Turkey Call." When he takes a deep breath and blows, the turkey call inflates, and proceeds to sprout fingers, which it uses to whistle. It then sprouts a mouth complete with teeth and a tongue, yelling "HEY, TURKEY!!" (If you didn't see that one coming, tell me so I can come over to your house and whack you upside the head).

The call nonetheless had the desired effect, as the camera jerk-pans right to an exterior shot of a large cabin, "Ye House Of Seven Gobbles" (a reference to the book--and movie--"House of the Seven Gables.") The dormered windows on the house are even numbered for our convenience.

Cut to a medium shot of the open front door (located to the right of the screen), from which emerges our co-star, a Jimmy Durante caricature turkey. He has three hairs sticking out of the top of his head and a "schnozzola"-like beak containing crooked, broken teeth.

"Well, whaddaya know! Anudder customer!" the Durante turkey says, chuckling. He figures he's hooked a live one (and he's right). As the camera follows, the turkey exits out the back of the cabin toward a canvas backdrop with a tree painted on it. Raising the backdrop like a curtain, he reveals a sizable building behind it marked YE BLACK MARKET. (Which, as you no doubt have figured out by now, is another wartime reference). Naturally, the building is actually black (what other color would a black market be, after all?)

In long shot, we see the turkey quickly run inside the "black market" building; in medium shot, he sticks his head out the front entrance, yelling "GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!" in a raspy voice similar to the "turkey call."

Our hapless hero the pilgrim zips into frame from the left, frantically looking around for the source of the noise, his musket aimed and ready to fire. The turkey, whom we now see has been hiding around the side of the building, says "Hey, Junior! Ya wanna buy a hot turkey?"

The pilgrim, clearly the "Elmer Fudd" in this pair, asks, "Is it fresh?"

Cut to a medium closeup: "Is it fresh! Look at that white meat!" the turkey replies, opening his feathers like a vest to reveal a vast expanse of breast meat (and you thought they didn't show bare breasts in cartoons..heh heh!) "Look at that dark meat!" (he raises his leg feathers up like a pant leg to reveal a "drumstick" about five times the normal size of his leg). "Feel the material on that wing!" (He pinches his arm when he says this).

Reaching underneath the feathers on his chest as if he had an inside pocket, the turkey produces a gargantuan wishbone, remarking, "Look at that wishbone!" Leaning toward the pilgrim, he asks, "Ya wanna eat it here, or take it wit' ya?"

The camera cuts to a full-body shot as the pilgrim, not knowing what to make of this inexplicable generosity, stammers, "Well, I...don't.--"

Interrupting the confused pilgrim, the turkey leaps up toward his face, almost cheek-to cheek with him, and says, "OK, Junior, I'll wrap it as a gift!!"

Morphing into a massive blur, the turkey streaks inside the black market building. Cut to an interior shot, showing the turkey at a butcher's counter; he grabs a roll of paper and leaps onto it, unzipping his feathers like a suit. (And revealing the blue striped boxer shorts he's wearing underneath).

In a particularly funny bit of business, the turkey scratches his bare sides and back to the sound of scratchy violins on the sound track. Rolling himself up into the paper along with his discarded feather "suit", his two arms emerge from the bundle and grab a length of ribbon, tying it around himself. He cuts, then splits the ribbon lengthwise with the scissors, to make a nice fancy bow.

His bare feet emerge from the bottom of the bundle, and he hops from the counter. We cut to an exterior shot, with the Pilgrim standing in front of the building. In a bit of typical physics-defying Avery logic, the turkey lifts himself up while still in the package, hangs in midair for a couple of seconds, then deposits himself in the Pilgrim's arms. He says "Here ya are, pal, happy T'anksgivin'!"

Cut to a close-up shot of the Pilgrim carrying the package over his shoulder, moving from the right of the screen to the left. As he does, we catch a glimpse of a sign attached to the package reading, USE NO HOOKS.

Note: I'd appreciate input from readers as to the identity of the song playing on the sound track during this scene. I only know it's an old folk song...

Unknown to the oblivious-as-usual Pilgrim, the turkey's arms emerge from the bundle, holding a cannister of gunpowder. Pulling open the back of the Pilgrim's pants, the turkey pours in an emormous quantity of the gunpowder (enough to make the Pilgrim's pants drag the ground) strikes a match, and....

....the resulting huge explosion lasts for about twelve frames (half a second), consisting of alternating flashes of red, yellow and black. The smoke clears to show the turkey marching in front of the Pilgrim, dressed as one of the figures in the "Spirit of '76" painting, complete with head bandage. He plays "The Girl I Left Behind Me" on a fife. The Pilgrim, meanwhile, marches behind him, with a bandage on his left foot and right arm, his gun tucked under his left arm like a crutch. There's an enormous hole in the back of his pants, and we can see that he and the turkey apparently get their boxer shorts from the same store--they're identical to the ones the turkey has on.

When the battered Pilgrim finally realizes he's been had, he grabs his musket and beginis firing it at the now off-camera turkey like a modern machine gun, oversize shells spewing in every direction. Cut to a full-figure shot of the turkey, still playing the fife as bullets zing around him. He does a quick take and runs toward the left of the screen, as the camera follows him. Reaching an area marked "Fox Hole", he dives inside, only to be tossed out again by its inhabitant, a real fox (what else?) The fox hitches up his chest with both hands (an old cartoon gesture for "determination", dating back to the twenties Oswald cartoons), spits, then drops back into the foxhole, slamming a wooden door. The "Fox Hole" sign turns around to reveal NO VACANCIES written on the other side.

Cut to a medium shot of the turkey, who looks disgustedly in the direction of the foxhole. Turning his head toward camera right, he does a startled take, as the Pilgrim runs into frame in about a half-second. He edges up so close to the turkey that the turkey's head ends up inside the barrel of the musket.

Before the Pilgrim can do anything, the camera pans suddenly left as we hear a slow, loping piece of music on the sound track. A bear walks along in time to the music--he's wearing one of those "sandwich board" advertising signs, on which is printed EAT AT JOE'S. (Every diner owner named "Joe" must have been grateful for the free advertising--that gag is in a lot of cartoons).

Avery used this sort of gag frequently, interrupting the action as an incongruous character passes through for no apparent reason. He used it to good effect in LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD and BELIEVE IT OR ELSE; it even influenced Chuck Jones, who used a similar bit in THE DOVER BOYS.

The momentary distraction over, the turkey goes into a fast, whirling run, zipping out of frame. The scene dissolves to a shot of the Pilgrim on the left of the screen, facing right and standing behind a hollow log with his musket ready to fire. He leans his musket against the other side of the log. Unknown to the Pilgrim, however, the turkey is hiding inside: he grabs the musket and quickly reverses the barrel, then puts the musket back in its former place.

The Pilgrim reaches for the musket, not knowing that the barrel is now pointing striaght toward him. He looks toward the left of the screen while the turkey sneaks up behind him and hits him in the rump with a two-by-four. He turns to face the turkey, who's standing on the log, and attempts to aim the musket at him. The turkey blows him a "raspberry" and exits to the right of the screen. The Pilgrim fires, with the gun inevitably going off in his face.

We cut rapidly to a shot of another hollow log, from which the turkey emerges. He does another startled take as the camera pans left, showing what appears to be the Pilgrim, sans head. The Pilgrim's hands open his coat, from which his head pokes out. Annoyed by now, the Pilgrim pops his head through the collar of his suit and sets off in pursuit of the turkey. The camera pans right to show three feathers sticking out from behind a log, which seems to be the turkey ("seems" being the operative word here). The Pilgrim grabs the feathers, only to find they're attached to an Indian; the Indian jabs his finger in the Pilgrim's nose, saying "Who...you?"

The flustered Pilgrim can only stammer, "W-why I'm just a hunter...a turkey..a gun... uh, Thanksgiving..." While he says this, he nervously "mimes" the actions of marching and hunting, and waves his hands aimlessly in the air.

He zips out of frame camera left, so quickly his dentures don't have time to catch up with him. They remain in front of the tomahawk-wielding Indian, suspended in mid-air, still stammering..."uh, I'm just a Pilgrim...ooh, pardon me!" The dentures then zip out of frame.

Cut to a shot of the toothless Pilgrim--the dentures enter his mouth from the right of the screen with such force his hat spins.

Cut to a full-figure shot of the Indian, who turns and bumps into another Indian, whom we see only from the side. The first Indian asks "Who you?", to which the other Indian replies "Me..half-breed!" He turns to the audience to reveal he's literally "half and half", sort of like the Batman character "Two-Face": his left half is white with blond hair, and clothed in a 1940's-era suit and tie. The right half is his Indian half, with braids, feather and buckskin. The hand on his "Indian" side produces a sign saying, HEAP CORNY GAG!

This gag, of course, quickly disappeared from the cartoon in showings after the late seventies--to my never-ending disappointment. It's the best gag in the picture, and my favorite (probably because, like our ethnically confused friend, I'm also a "half-breed" Indian). Some showings have eliminated everything involving both Indian characters.

Cut to a medium shot of the Pilgrim: the turkey zips into frame, grabs the Pilgrim's nose, pulls it and snaps it as if it were a fake rubber nose attached with string. (Repeating a gag from BIG HEEL-WATHA).

The camera follows our heroes as they run to the left, the Pilgrim's musket drawn. The turkey's running in mid-air, hovering just inches above the barrel of the musket.

The turkey hops back on the ground with the Pilgrim in close pursuit--a little too close, enough for the turkey's rear end to get caught in the barrel. The Pilgrim scoops him up and fires, releasing a hail of bullets--the turkey has barely enough time to escape.

Cut to a medium shot of the fleeing turkey as bullets burst around him like artillery shells. This must be a Preston Blair scene, as the turkey is in a classic textbook "fast run" right out of Blair's book on animation. I haven't seen all of the first edition of Blair's book, which contained actual MGM animation drawings, but it wouldn't surprise me if this very scene were included.

The turkey skids to a stop, spins, and appears in a Superman suit: the bullets merely bounce harmlessly off his chest. He whirls again, zipping out of frame to the left.

Cut to a long shot of the Pilgrim and turkey running along an anachronistically modern highway with an equally anachronistic stop signal. They skid to a halt at the intersection as our friend the "Eat At Joe's" bear returns, crossing in front of them to the same loping musical score.

As soon as the bear passes out of frame and the sign switches to "Go," the chase is on again, We cut to a medium shot of the turkey, still scrambling along the highway toward the left of the screen, until he reaches the end of a cliff that would make Wile E. Coyote nervous--there must be a drop-off of about a thousand feet. A sign where the road abruptly cuts off reads END OF PAVEMENT (no kidding--the guy who put that there must be the one who puts up all those "Dip" signs next to Grand Canyon-sized drop-offs). The turkey calmly leans against the sign as the hapless Pilgrim blunders forward--and over the edge. Classic Avery split-second timing, as this takes no more than about eighteen frames.

Cut to a medium shot of the Pilgrim lying in the snow--this being an Avery cartoon, he's unscathed when he should be a hundred-foot spot on the landscape. He does a quick take while the camera does another jerky "Joke Warning" pan to the left: we see a long, winding, mountain road, along which a figure approaches the camera. It's the turkey, naturally--the camera pans the opposite direction to reveal a brick wall, as the Pilgrim attempts the old "Phony Background" gag. He paints a quick landscape on the wall only to discover the turkey can run right into the scene. Figuring he can do it too (he should know better--doesn't he watch cartoons?) the Pilgrim backs up a bit in anticipation, and speeds off. Of course (as if I had to explain it) he instead crashes headlong into the wall. When he peels himself free, the painted lanscape literally covers him from head to toe.

The turkey zips into frame from the right, remarking "Ha hah! Funny joke!" He grasps the Pilgrim's hand and shakes it, causing the Pilgrim's head to ratchet upward like a tire jack. When it rachets down again, we cut to a shot of the turkey running, bouncing left to right off a rock, into a barrel, then a log, and into a hollow tree. It's not much different from a gag in Avery's ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW, in which Bugs leaps in and out a series of holes like a demented "whack-a-mole."

The Pilgrim enters the frame, jerking his head around wildly as he looks for the turkey. He actually splits into four to search all the hiding places at once, something we've seen in Avery's Screwy Squirrel cartoons.

The turkey--in extreme long shot--sticks his head out of the hollow log and whistles for the Pilgrim, who "pulls himself together" and heads off in pursuit. They run through the log and up a tree, as the camera pans right.

Meanwhile, we see the "Eat At Joe's" bear again, disinterestedly leaning against the tree...

Cut to a bird's eye view from the top of the tree--it's a high one. Very, very high, making the ravine over the cliff look like a pothole. The turkey reclines on the topmost branch as the pilgrim inches his way up. We cut again to a medium shot of the tree branch, which the turkey is rapidly sawing, to Scott Bradley's rendition of the "Irish Washer Woman's Jig" on the soundtrack. Instead of the branch breaking loose and sending the turkey plunging to his death, however, the tree falls, leaving the turkey and the branch suspended in mid-air. (Now you know who originated that bit).

The turkey removes his feathers to reveal a striped bathing suit underneath; he does an elegant swan dive off the floating tree branch, In a pair of quick cuts, we see the turkey from an arial shot falling downward, then move to a medium shot of a tank of water, which the Pilgrim promptly moves several feet to the left.

The turkey stops in mid-air to the sound of screeching brakes (repeat after me: "This is an Avery cartoon...") moves sideways until he's just over the tank, and drops in. Cut to a close-up shot of the Pilgrim as he takes a baseball bat and prepares to club the turkey--the turkey surfaces, pretending to "shoot" the Pilgrim by making machine gun noises, spitting water in his face.

In about half a second, the Pilgrim produces a weapon marked "Ye Bazooka": the turkey upon seeing this does the wildest take in the picture--his eyes bug out and leave his face, traveling down the length of the weapon and back again. The Pilgrim fires, narrowly missing the turkey as he dives back into the tank. Tossing "Ye Bazooka" aside, the Pilgrim decides to jump into the tank after the turkey and throttle him with his bare hands. As soon as he puts his hands around the turkey's throat, he's interrupted by (guess who?) the "Eat At Joe's" bear--still wearing his sign, no less--who calmly climbs out of the tank and walks off camera right, as the confused Pilgrim and turkey look on.

Cut to a close shot of the Pilgrim and turkey, still in the tank. The turkey leans forward into the Pilgrim's face, in true Durante style, and says, "Listen, Junior--you ain't never gonna catch me! Derefore, why don't we eat at Joe's?" The Pilgrim, who's clearly had enough, agrees: "All right--we'll eat at Joe's..."

They take their positions behind the bear, copying his slow, rhythmic walk. The camera pans right to reveal "Joe's", one of those classic converted-railroad-car diners so popular when this cartoon was released. There's a sign on one side of the door reading "Steaks", and on the other side reading "Chops."

The bear opens the door to the diner, followed closely by the turkey and the Pilgrim. The moment the door closes, an immediate ruckus ensues, that we can hear but can't see. The camera vibrates, indicating one lulu of a struggle.

The bear emerges from the diner, alone. He's wearing a bib, and picking his teeth: we get a pretty good idea of what became of our poor heroes. Sure enough, when the bear turns around, we see a sign on his back which reads: I'M JOE. (Hey, the advertisement said "Eat at Joe's"--it didn't specify who'd be doing the eating.)

Cut to a shot of the bear walking along as he continues to pick his teeth. The camera closes in to reveal an "X-ray" or "cutaway" view of the bear's stomach, revealing our poor friends the Pilgrim and turkey--apparently devoured whole--crammed inside. They're sitting with the hands under their chins, annoyed, as they bounce along. The Pilgrim produces a sign, the payoff gag: DON'T EAT AT JOE'S. Good advice to ponder as we iris out.

In reviewing this cartoon, I could not help but realize how basic, even juvenile, Avery's gags were. You or I could probably have done as well. The secret of Avery's genius, however, lay not in the sophistication of the jokes, but in their presentation. Avery is not, according to the classic definition of a comic versus a comedian, a person who says funny things, but a person who says things funny.

Joe Adamson, in his book on Avery, gives two perfect examples, both from THE SHOOTING OF DAN McGOO. When the pompous narrator solemnly describes one character as having "one foot in the grave", we see it's literally true, as the poor slob drags an entire cemetery plot with headstone on his right foot. When he calls for "drinks on the house," the saloon patrons dutifully head to the roof to continue drinking. Reading this, they seem trite; but one look at how ridiculous the characters appear when carrying out these pedestrian gags can put a person in hysterics. Avery was a visual comedian in the same sense as Chaplin or Keaton; he merely chose the pencil over pratfalls, creating animated characters to carry out his bidding. And like Chaplin and Keaton, his influence had a ripple effect on entertainment, affecting it to this day.

What better definition of "genius" could there be?

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Blog, Interrupted

Unknown to most people on my side of the pond, the BBC started regular television broadcasts in November of 1936 from the Alexandra Palace in London, getting the jump on--well, everybody in the world, including the U.S. They continued smoothly along for over three years, pioneering forms of television programming we would not master for at least another fifteen years: talk shows, variety shows, quiz programs, and the like. Only the start of World War II would knock them from their pedestal, as the government put an abrupt halt to TV broadcasting (the transmission towers were a potential homing beacon to enemy planes).

You may wonder what this has to do with anything, particularly my sudden disappearance for three weeks. Don't worry, I'm getting to that.

Two days after the German invasion of Poland, a television presenter introduced a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Halfway into the cartoon, London's few hundred television screens went black--and stayed that way, until June of 1946.

When regular broadcasts resumed, they did so at the exact point they left off--in the middle of the Mickey Mouse cartoon. As the animated images faded from the screen, they were replaced by a shot of the same announcer from 1939, now noticeably older and grayer.

His first words? "As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted...."

(Note: As I suspected, this story is apocryphal, according to an online BBC history site. But why let the facts get in the way of a great opening?--Rachel)

Considering what has happened since before Thanksgiving, I rather wish I had the British gift for wit and understatement. I have no clever words for my three-week vanishing act. I was simply tired--tired and frustrated.

If ever there were a stumbling block to my keeping a steady supply of reviews flowing into this blog, it would be the complete lack of an efficient note-taking method. Up to now, I had two primary means of doing so, neither of which worked. I could view a few seconds of videotape, pause, turn my wheelchair around, type, turn, view a few more seconds, pause, turn and type.

Or I could sit in front of the TV screen with a legal notepad on my lap, scribbling handwritten notes until my wrist went numb. You can guess how successful that was. When it takes eight hours to write a review/synopsis of a seven-minute cartoon, it's clear one's methods need a serious overhaul.

"So why didn't you record your notes?" you ask. Believe me, I tried. I have no less than three recording programs on my computer. Two days before Thanksgiving, brimming with enthusiasm, I started making audio notes for MISSISSIPPI HARE.

Halfway through, my computer crashed, destroying all my data. I start all over again; an hour later, I had slogged through the entire seven minutes.

But the recording, a half-hour long WAV file, was too large for my wreck of a computer to handle. Hence, crash city.

When it happened a third time, my nerves and my exhausted brain could take no more. I resolved to take a vacation from reviewing, and anything else to do with the computer except the occasional game of Yahtzee. After I stopped screaming, that is.

But I'm back now, with a brand-new analog microcassette recorder, which has sped up the process immeasurably. Analog recorders don't crash, after all. Over the weekend, I have compiled notes for three cartoons (MISSISSIPPI HARE, JERKY TURKEY, and the Private Snafu cartoon THE GOLDBRICK) and should have at least one of those three posted today.

I can only pray there will be no further "interruptions."

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Monday, November 20, 2006

It's Looney Tunes Golden Collection IV Week: A Taste Of SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT (1953)

I love you, Netflix.

To those of you wondering "Where the heck is Bosko already?" Well...there are extenuating circunstances, you might say.

Bosko and the Jazz Frogs will have to "take five" while I devote this week to some long-unseen Warner's classics. Read on and you'll understand why.

When the latest four-disk set of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION was released less than a week ago, I moved it up to the top of my Netflix queue so fast the Road Runner couldn't have caught up with it. Saturday morning, I found three lovely little disks in my mailbox--so you can guess how I spent my weekend.

Beats having to pay the prices they're charging at Amazon...

To those of you just emerging from a five-year coma who haven't heard of Netflix yet, it's an online DVD rental service in which customers pay a flat fee to have DVDs mailed to them. No late fees--one can keep them indefinitely. Depending on the payment plan, a person can rent one, two, three or even four DVDs at a time. Once returned,the customer will get the next one, two, or three disks on his or her personal list, or "queue." (Custumers upon signup are urged to maintain a backlog of at least five titles).

I'm on the three-disk-at-a-time plan at the moment--budget considerations make it imprudent for me to go any higher--but sets like this are making me seriously consider an upgrade.

To say the least, the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION IV is a toon geek's paradise. While some initial fan grousing made me a bit apprehensive (some complained about what they felt was an overabundance of Friz Freleng cartoons, and Speedy Gonzales cartoons in particular) there's a pretty fair balance between old favorites (Frank Tashlin's NOW THAT SUMMER IS GONE and THE CASE OF THE STUTTERING PIG) cartoons that haven't been seen in years (FORWARD MARCH HARE, KNIGHT-MARE HARE, GREY-HOUNDED HARE), rarities (the Chuck Jones-directed military films 90-DAY WONDERING and DRAFTY, ISN'T IT?) and the outright banned (MISSISSIPPI HARE, SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT) to keep a toon fanatic like me mesmerized. And provide me with a wealth of blog material, no less.

All the more amazing is this: access the main menu on disk one, and you will be greeted with a decidedly un-PC image of Bugs in blackface, from SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT. Not buried in the background, but right there for everyone to see. Jerry Beck, a consultant on this project, has apparently been successful in persuading Warner's to listen to us fans who want to see "orphan toons", even if preceded by the usual disclaimer. Which, thankfully, is a bit less intrusive on this set. Frankly, it's about time.

Therefore, for a site such as this, it seems only appropriate to begin with that very cartoon, the one placed boldly front and center: Friz Freleng's overlooked SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT.

This cartoon and I have a good deal of personal "history." Or, I should say, it and my South Carolina-raised mother do. Most cartoons she barely tolerated--this one she loved, if only for the scene at the Mason-Dixon line, as Bugs crosses instantly from Mad Max-like devastation to a land straight out of GONE WITH THE WIND: riverboats, magnolias, antebellum mansions and cotton fields. Watching it became an event of sorts, one of the few things were could share.

So Mom, if you're reading this, this is for you...

Released on May 2, 1953, this is a fairly typical Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam entry, filled with gags we've seen, or will see, in other Freleng cartoons. I'll note those as I come to them. It's also, in a sense, not a true "orphan toon": it has seen more airplay both on Saturday morning and local afternoon television within than is typical of the cartoons presented here. But I can guarantee one thing: unless you're my age or older, you haven't seen as much of it as you think.

As we see the main title, we hear the song "Are You From Dixie?" on the sound track (a fairly common theme Stalling used for cartoons set in the South). Freleng's usual suspects animate this cartoon: Virgil Ross, Art Davis, Manuel Perez, and Ken Champin. At least those are the ones credited, which as any Warner's devotee knows, does not necessarily reflect who actually worked on it.

The first shot we see is of a white picket fence which, as the camera pans to the right, is revealed to be smack in the middle of a farm landscape so devastated as to make the Dust Bowl seem like a minor heat wave. A discarded plow, apparently not used for ages, occupies one corner in the background. The only thing that looks even remotely alive in this endless semi-desert is Bugs, whom we see in medium shot bending over, picking and tossing aside some pretty sorry excuses for "carrots," which look as if they could benefit from a little Viagra.

He remarks, "Ugh! What carrots!" Picking up one particularly anemic one, he says, "Look at this tired specimen!" The "tired specimen" promptly flops down in his hand like a piece of wet linguine.

The camera switches to a "bird's-eye" of Bugs as he continues looking for a decent carrot (to no avail). There's a discarded newspaper lying just to the left of him: the headline is readable, but we'll get to that in a minute. Bugs complains, "I haven't seen a decent carrot for months around these parts!"

He happens to notice the discarded newspaper, and his eyes immediately light upon the headline: RECORD CARROT CROP IN ALABAMA. The headline is accompanied by an image of a mustachioed farmer holding a carrot nearly as tall as he is. (I looked long and hard for inside jokes here, such as the farmer bearing the name of one of the production crew, but no luck).

Bugs reads the headline aloud, then exclaims "Alabama!? Then I'm Alabamy bound!" (A reference, in case you didn't know, to a popular song dating back to the twenties). He triumphantly marches off into the distance, singing "Dixie."

Cut to the next shot, taking place an apparent loooong time later. Still in the midst of miles and miles of ruin (apparently we're supposed to believe all the cities have been anihlated--there isn't a sign of civilization anywhere, except for some tumbledown telephone poles) Bugs trudges along toward the camera, a step at a time, ears drooping and perspiration flying. In between bouts of panting and wheezing, Bugs still sings Dixie, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm: "Away...away...away...down South...in Dixie..."

He pauses as the camera switches to a medium shot, as he remarks, "I wonder why they put the South so far south?"

No sooner has he said this than he discovers he is, indeed, right at the fabled Mason-Dixon line, as the sign conveniently says. It's rendered quite literally here--the cracked desert of the North stops abruptly at the line, replaced by green grass and scenes that look like outtakes from GONE WITH THE WIND: a paddle-wheel steamboat chugs along the river in the background to the left of the screen, surrounded by views of magnolias and luxurious plantations. Is it any wonder my mother loves this?

Maybe she ought to have sent a thank-you letter to Hawley Pratt and Irv Weiner while she still had the chance.They created this background in unusually painstaking detail for an early-fifties Warner's cartoon This was an era, after all, when shortcuts started to creep into Warner's animation (and I wouldn't be a very good reviewer if I didn't point them out, would I?)

With a faux Southern accent and clasping his hands to his chest in a somewhat effeminate manner, Bugs exclaims, "Well, shut mah mouth and call me cornpone--if it ain't the i'il ol' South!!" (A little side note here: some of the facial expressions and poses look so highly distorted as to almost be that of Rod Scribner and/or Emery Hawkins--but then, they worked for McKimson, didn't they?)

Bugs, re-engergized, marches across the line, singing "Ah's comin', ah's comin' but my head is bendin'--"

He's rudely interrupted by a gunshot coming from off camera to the left of the screen. Bugs ducks, and as a result the bullet barely grazes his ears. Bugs completes the last word of his song in a basso voice: "Loooow!"

It doesn't take us long to discover where the ruckus is coming from. For the first time we see Yosemite Sam, standing atop a sand fortification in full--if slightly frayed--Confederate uniform. A cannon is just to the left of Sam, while a Confederate flag is to the right. Sam, as always armed to the teeth, brandishes a sword and a pistol.

Yelling "CHAAARGE!"--his tiny body suspended in mid-air--Sam rushes off the right of the screen toward the borderline, bullets flying. Poor Bugs is sent scrambling back over to the Yankee side of the line, where he dives behind a rock.

Sam follows, bellowing "Git back there, ya danged Yankee!" He's so caught up in his pursuit, however, he fails to realize he's just crossed over onto the Northern side--when he does, he skids to a stop.

"Great horny toads! I'm up north!" he says, making a hasty retreat toward his side of the line. Hopping up and down on alternate feet as if someone has just applied a match to them, he adds, "Gotta burn my boots--they tetched Yankee soil!"

I think we know now why a lot of Confederate troops were barefoot by the end of the war, don't we? And even at age twelve, I thought he was incredibly generous to refer to that stuff on the Yankee side as "soil."

Cut to a shot of a white flag emerging from Bugs' hiding place behind his rock. Sam commands, "Lay down yer arms and step forward, Yankee!" Bugs does, taking his place on his side of the boundary line, still waving his flag.

He starts calmly chewing on an uncharacteristically healthy-looking carrot (where'd he get it? He couldn't find a decent one up North, remember?) as Sam keeps his weapons trained on him. Still his normally cocky self (especially considering he's been repeatedly shot at) he says, "What's the hassle, Schmassle?"

Cut to a close-up of Sam, who says, "My orders from General Lee is to hold the Masey/Dixie line!" Bringing his weapons a bit closer, he says, "And no Yankee's a-crossin' it!!"

Cut to a close up of Bugs, who says, "General Lee? Why, The War Between The States ended almost ninety years ago!" (And Sam's still kicking? Must be that fresh Southern air. Or pure bullheadedness, knowing him.) One can't help but think of the Laurel and Hardy movie "Blockheads," in which Stan plays a WWI soldier still marching in the trenches years after the war ended. Of course, Stan could plead stupidity--come to think of it, Sam isn't all that bright either.

Incidentally, isn't it interesting how Friz uses the Southern term for the Civil War? (There are people in the South to this day who refuse to refer to it as a "civil war," on the premise that it was a war between two separate nations). Who'd have known the Kansas City-raised Friz would have Southern sympathies? Or maybe Warner's was just afraid of offending its Southern movegoers?

Where were we? Oh yes--Sam says "I know, clockwatcher! But until I hears from General Lee official, I'm a-blastin' any Yankee that sets foot on Southern soil!" (He's going to have a long wait, considering Lee died in 1870).

Pardon my interruption again. The IMDB (which a dear friend of mine has dubbed the "I.M. Dumb") mistranscribes the above line as "I ain't no clockwatcher!" The closed captioning is somewhat different, rendering it as "I'm no clockwatcher!" Trust me, I've watched this enough times to tell you they're both wrong. Now back to the cartoon...

Sam screams, "SO SCRAM, YANKEE!" and sends Bugs back to his refuge in a hail of bullets, having apparently been supplied with enough ammo to last nine decades.

Remember when I said if you've seen this cartoon in the last couple of decades, you haven't really seen it? Well, here's what you've been missing:

Sam marches back and forth, camera right to camera left. As he makes his final turn toward the camera he stops in surprise, remarking "It's one of our boys..."

"One of our boys" just happens to be Bugs, who passes in front of Sam dressed as a slave (in Jolson-like blackface, yet--this is what we see on the main menu) and strumming a banjo. He's dragging his feet and singing in a Stepin Fetchit-like drawl, "Oh, de sun shines bright on my ol' Kentucky home..." The restoration on the DVD makes Bugs' disguise look especially garish.

Sam, looking oddly pleased (considering his background) to see what he thinks is a black man, says, "Hey, boy!" (Ouch! Did he have to say that?) "How 'bout makin' with somethin' peppy on that thar skid box?"

Bugs slowly raises his head and drawls, "Yowsuh.." and immediately launches into a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle," in his normal voice. (A variation on that gag, incidentally, had already used in a Chuck Jones Charlie Dog cartoon, DOGGONE SOUTH--but then, Chuck seemed to get along with Friz better than with the other directors, so this "cross-pollenation" of gags between the two of them comes as no surprise).

Sam, incensed, runs up to Stepin Bugs, pointing his sword at him. "Yankee Doodle?! Yooou traitor..."

Before Sam has time to do anything, however, Bugs proceeds to confuse him by placing a whip in his hand and pleading,"Don't whip me massa! Don't whip dis tired ol' body! Nooo!" He emphasizes his mock-fright by running in circles, cowered with his hands covering his head. (Call me twisted, but I love this scene. Not to mention what follows...)

Instantly, Bugs exits to the right of the frame and re-emerges in an Abe Lincoln getup, complete with a long tubelike coat reaching to his feet, and matching stovepipe hat. (No pants, strangely enough.) In a deep, resonant voice, Bugs admonishes Sam: "What's this I hear about you whippin' slaves?"

Poor Sam, throughly flustered by now, can only stammer, "But-but-but-but-but..."

Bugs interrupts him, handing him a business card: "Never mind the 'buts.' Here's my card--look me up at my Gettysburg address!" (Yuk yuk! And you thought only Tex Avery did cornball puns).

To those "special features" weirdos like me: if you choose to listen to the "music only" track, you can hear a few quick bars of "Hail To The Chief" on the soundtrack in this segment.

Cut to a shot of Bugs walking away from the camera, in a waddling, almost Chaplin-like walk (in that outfit, how else could he walk?). We--and Sam--see his tail pokiing out from the back of his coat.

Yet another reused gag here--Freleng always thought that if a gag worked once, it should work multiple times. It's taken from an earlier cartoon with Daffy and Elmer Fudd. Daffy cons Elmer into thinking he had saved Daffy's life, and promises to be his slave. Daffy also resorts to the Abe Lincoln bit, adding instead of the "Gettysburg Address" line, "Well, see that ya don't...bub!" Both Kevin and I feel the bit is actually a good deal more logical--and funny--in SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, since the context is more appropriate.

Realizing he's been had, Sam's pupils narrow in shock. He goes into one of his patented temper explosions ("OOOOOH!!") and jumps up into the air yelliing "CHAAARRGE!" He disappears stage left as the scene shifts to Bugs diving into a hollow tree. In the version most people saw, everything from Sam marching along the border up to Bugs diving into the tree is typically cut, making the viewer think Bugs jumped all the way from his side of the line into the tree. I know rabbits can jump, but wow...

I should really call the viewer's attention to a minor, but stunning background detail here. Behind Sam as he's having his temper tantrum is not only a scene of meticulously-rendered cotton fields, but a gnarled tree with some of the roots showing--a nice realistic touch in contrast to the cartoony characters.

He re-emerges in the next scene from the right, and reaches the tree containing the concealed Bugs, Sam yells, "Awright, ya fur-bearin' carpetbagger! I'm a-givin' ya one second to come out before I BLOW you out!!" A second later, he pulls a bomb from his coat: "Time's up!" (My, but he's a literal cuss, isn't he?) and tries to light the fuse. Bugs, of course, pokes his head out of the tree and promptly blows the fuse out.

Sam, naturally, figures he'll go a few feet further back and try again. But this time, an approximately ten-foot straw emerges from the tree, and the fuse is blown out yet again. (Sound familiar? We'll see this same gag in THE THREE LITTLE BOPS, four years later). Sam lets out another "OOOOH!" of frustration and goes even further--a little too far. Before he can get back to the tree, the bomb explodes in his hands. When the smoke clears, we see him, jumping up and down, his clothes in tatters, yelling "OOOH! I HATE THAT RABBIT!!"

While Sam is pondering his next move, we cut to a scene of a tent, from which Bugs emerges in a full Confederate general's uniform (well, not quite. There's still no pants). He's wearing a fake bushy moustache, and has a cigar hanging from his mouth. An oversized sword sits in a scabbard at his side, dragging the ground as he walks.

Sam bends over to pick up his hat--he's bald, it turns out--turns and spies the Bugs/General. "General Brickwall Jackson!" he exclaims. Saluting, he says, "Suh..."

With Sam completely fooled, the "general" barks out orders, chomping on his cigar: "Forward HARCH!" The camera cuts to a shot of Sam as he marches to the right of the screen. Bugs yells "Left...FACE!" and Sam complies, marching away from the camera.

When Bugs says, "Aboout...FACE!" Sam turns, marching toward the camera this time. The orders come out even faster: "Right MARCH!!", which causes Sam to march to the left of the screen. Immediately, Bugs barks "To the rear, MARCH! and "Double time, MARCH!" with Sam following instructions to the letter, this time going back towards the right.

Sam marches up a plank right up to the edge of a well (you can pretty well guess what's going to happen, can't you?) as Bugs, seated on a log half out of uniform, filing his nails, says "Company...HALT!"

Sam stops, relieved but sweating. The camera switches to an overhead shot of the interior of the well as a pebble falls in the water. Ooooh, it's a deep one...

Bugs barks one final order, which is (you guessed it!) "Faaall IN!" Which, of course, Sam does with a splash--he's trained to follow orders, after all. We cut to a shot of Bugs, still on the log filing his nails. Some of the water splashes into the frame. As with most postwar cartoons, by the way, these quick cuts are rather frequent, implying action rather than showing it, rarely if ever showing more than two characters per frame--one if possible.

Bugs. now sans uniform, marches away from the camera toward a "Tara"-like Southern mansion in the distance. He's singing "Yankee Doodle" again, substituting the word "carrot" for "feather" in one line: "stuck a carrot in his hat and called it mararoni..."

The scene cuts to a shot of Bugs heading toward the camera, with Sam emerging on the left of the frame, in hot pursuit. (With Sam, there's no other kind of pursuit). Bugs heads quickly toward the mansion and ducks inside, with Sam close behind. (I love how Bugs just takes for granted the place would be unoccupied).

Sam pounds on the door and is greeted by Bugs in full "southern belle" drag (it wouldn't be a Bugs Bunny picture unless he's in drag at least once). He's wearing a long blue dress and a blonde wig. Echoing Sam's earlier line, Bugs says in a falsetto voice, "Oh! It's one of our boys!"

The camera shifts to a view of Sam, from a vantage point just behind Bugs' shoulder; Sam removes his hat as he stands in the doorway. "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, sorry to have to intrude," he says, "but there's a Yankee about..."

The scene shifts back to the exterior as Bugs/"Scarlett" feigns shock, clasping his hands. He gasps, "A Yankee? How terrible!" Stalling, as always, has the appropriate music for the conversation, playing "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair" on the sound track.

Sam says, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to search your premises..." Rushing inside, we move to an interior shot, in which Sam is readying his pistol while Bugs stands in front of a closet door. Like so much of this cartoon, this scene should really be viewed in freeze-frame: the momentum has Sam in midair ready to fire, while Bugs' skirts are blowing up around him.

Sam frantically looks around for a moment, as Bugs says, "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Figuring he's got the goods on the "Yankee" at last, Sam says, "Ah HAH! So THAT'S where he's hidin'!"

Gently nudging "Scarlett" aside, Sam says gently, "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, but I got to do my duty...Bugs, meanwhile, has his hands clasped close to him and has a worried expression. As he prepares to throw open the closet door, Sam screams, "OK, YANKEE, STICK 'EM..."

He opens the door to reveal a huge cannon, which goes off in Sam's face as he completes the sentence..."up!"

(Reused gag alert: we've seen this in BUCCANEER BUNNY. For that matter, we've already seen a variation on the "He's not in here!" bit in Freleng's BUGS AND THUGS).

The scene shifts again to another shot of Bugs in front of a closet, which looks like a "flipped over" version of the first scene. "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Bugs says again.

This time, Sam's a little less willing to go through the routine. Frazzled and still smoldering, Sam says, "I'll just take your word for it...ma'am..."

We return to an exterior shot as we see what looks like a Confederate cavalryman on horseback emerging from the upper right of the screen. Or is it?

Nope. It's Bugs, who magically changed into an entirely different costume and has somehow secured a horse in two seconds. A considerable distance away from the house, at that.

Bugs crawls up the stairs to the house, seemingly exhausted. He's wearing a Confederate tunic and a bandage on his head, for effect. He pants, "Colonel...the Yankees...the Yankees..they're in...Chattanooga..." and "faints." (Yet another scene used in DOGGONE SOUTH, with a somewhat different twist. Charlie Dog, playing the exhausted soldier, adds "Chitlins forevah!" before he passes out). Sam yells "Chattanoogy?" and takes the "soldier's" horse, riding off into the distance camera right, screaming "CHAAARGE!" all the way.

The Yankees are indeed in Chattanooga--the Yankees ball team, that is. They're playing an exhibition game against the Chattanooga club, or so the banner says.

The camera pans down from the banner to a shot of Sam in front of the Yankee dugout, his pistol aimed right at the terrified team members. We don't see their faces, just the whites of their panic-stricken eyes in the darkness. (Um, they don't have security at these ballparks?)

Sam warns them, "The first dang Yankee that steps out of that thar dugout get his head blasted off!" To coin a phrase, that's all. folks...

If there were any advantage to growing up in a hole-in-the-wall military town like Sierra Vista, Arizona, it would be that it gave me the opportunity to view some, shall we say, eclectic programming.

KZAZ (now KMSB) in nearby Nogales, just this side of the Mexican border, was in the seventies a dumpy little station that couldn't have had much more wattage than the average light bulb. But it somehow landed on our cable lineup. Desperate for any kind of programming to fill airtime, it would put on just about any scrap of film it had. Want to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES in Spanish? You'd find "Los Beverly Ricos" on KZAZ, at noon every Saturday. Believe me, it has to be experienced to be believed.

It aired its share of cartoons, from a backlog so old it must have been one of the original theatrical cartoon packages left over from the mid-fifties. I don't think they even bothered to see what was on them half the time. So sometimes, a few cartoons would slip through that would have sent parents' groups into apoplexy--if they were among the handful of people watching. Fortunately, not many did.

Consequently, I got my first indication I might not be seeing everything the classic cartoon studios had to offer when I got the once-in-a-lifetime oppoortunity to see SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, uncut and un-PC. I'd seen it before, of course, or thought I did. But suddenly...

...an unbelievable scene of a blackface Bugs snapped me out of my toon-induced haze. I'd have given my arms, my legs and a sizeable chunk of my cerebral cortex to have been able to afford the earliest home video recorders at that point. Thanks to DVD technology, however, I'll never have to resort to such severe bodily mutilation. As soon as the opening titles flickered on the screen, I was instantly transported to that moment in an Arizona living room.

Some cartoons, like ROMEO IN RHYTHM, are musical delights that deserve a second look. Others have less going for them, but deserve to be seen for historical reasons, if nothing else. SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT would fall in the latter category. Aside from some occasionally cutting satire of Southern cliches (even the unfortunate "Bugs in blackface" scene could be viewed as that if one chooses to be charitable) there's little to make this cartoon stand out from any of twenty or thirty other Freleng cartoons from this period. It's still very solidly done, however, and is an ideal example of Freleng's style circa 1953. His backgrounds would become sparser and more stylized eventually--nowhere near as lush as the ones in this cartoon. (To their detriment, I think). Racial stereotypes of the kind presented here would also quickly vanish after this cartoon was made. In a way, it's one of the last of its kind, and for that reason deserves at least an honorary place here in the Home For Orphan Toons.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I love you, Netflix.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A Kevin Wollenweber "Two-Fer"

"Kid Stuff?"

While we're on the track of Seussian stories and children's versus adult animation, perhaps you remember the story of HORTON HEARS A WHO. I sometimes feel like Horton The Elephant (some might suggest a physical resemblance as well, but they'd better not to my face), or perhaps even the tiny Whos, trying to convince a stone-deaf world of the existence of something outside their limited experience. That classic animation, even that of Disney, was never intended for children alone. It was adults who made "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" an anthem of the Depression, adults who made the phrase "What? No Mickey Mouse?" a national catchphrase (and a popular song). Adults made Bugs Bunny an honorary member of the Marine Corps in WWII, and painted his image on the nose of fighter planes. And most importantly, adults made the films, as much for their own amusement as any child's. I'm hoping to be the voice, that one tiny "YOP," that sends this message to the outside world.

Kevin, of course, feels the same way, and yesterday's essay stimulated a great deal of discussion between us--and as usual, we veered off into strange territory. With that in mind, I'm presenting two of our discussions here. As always, his comments are in italics...

On the subject of children's animation, Kevin has this to say:

> Oh yes, yes, yes, I have been saying the same thing for so long, too long!! According to Jerry Beck's blog, so many more than we actually realize agree with us, but you're absolutely right in your puzzlement as to how we can work to change the mindset that allows for MR. MAGOO cartoons to be slipped in with the kid stuff merely because it is an animated cartoon.
> I guess what is unsettling to those in and out of the business is that, now, with parental watchdog groups, there are cartoons specially designed for kids and cartoons specially designed for adults, whereas before, there were cartoons that could nicely appeal to both, even though the kids might be puzzled as to why Mom and Dad are laughing hysterically at the same cartoon that Junior is watching.

Kevin raises a good point, which time and space considerations prevented me from mentioning. Indeed, the "cartoons are for kids" attitude, along with the practice of "niche marketing", has created a strange schizophrenia in the animation industry over the last few decades. There are now cartoons for kids (DORA THE EXPLORER, ARTHUR, and any one of countless Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon creations) and cartoons ostensibly for adults (THE SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY, SOUTH PARK). Even the wildly funny REN AND STIMPY creator John Kricfalusi jumped on the bandwagon, retooling his classic series Spike TV with off-color gags intact.

But there's a problem. The supposed "adult" cartoons (with the possible exception of the first few years of THE SIMPSONS) are every bit as juvenile as their preteen-targeted counterparts on Nick and Cartoon Network, replacing sacchrine storylines with snickering preadolescent sexual and "potty" humor. A storyline involving a gigantic turd becoming the symbol of the holiday season (the "Mr. Hanky" segments of SOUTH PARK) is funny on a very base level, but adult? Hardly.

Instead of catering to eight-year-olds, these cartoons cater to adults with the minds of eight-year-olds (ten-year-olds at best). So in reality, nothing's changed. The attitude has merely evolved from "cartoons are for kids" to "cartoons are for kids, and adults who think like them." As Kevin says,

> In this age when there are now cartoons specially designed with the age group in mind, we are realizing just how much kids are talked down to and also just how juvenile adult cartoons could be! While I've felt that "SOUTH PARK" can have that occasional brilliantly written episode that truly pokes fun at society in a way we all can understand, even if we are not white bread and Republican, you are also aware of just how stupid we all have become that our comedy is dumbed down to this. I mean, I was watching an episode of this show created by the same folks who gave us "FAMILY GUY" and it is amazing how easily everyone is categorized or stereotyped. Somehow, in those grand old days of animation, we saw stereotypes, but most of us knew that the pokes were at literature or Hollywood movies of the then present age, not individuals, although those bigoted among us could use characters to assault those of a specific race or disability, and this is how such characters as Bosko and Mr. Magoo have become objects of disgust to those of the present age. Yet, while watching the show in question, I thought about how gay people could easily get a bit miffed at being summed up as a very bad Paul Lynde caricature. I never saw the humor in Lynde's performances (and I, by the way, never had any idea of his sexuality at the time), but it seems as if, now, whenever homosexuality is mocked, there is his likeness in animated form!!

I learned in my college communication class years ago that stereotypes are a kind of mental "shorthand": the world is so complex, we can't resist the urge to pigeonhole and categorize things--and it's only a short hop from categorizing things to categorizing people. It's simply human nature. Cartoons, being a visual shorthand, borrow from these "categories" because they're instantly recognizable. Bugs Bunny is a stereotype--the Brooklynese "con man". Elmer Fudd is a stereotype: the childish simpleton, right down to his way of speaking ("Be vewwy vewwy quiet...") "Lenny" in the Screwy Squirrel cartoon LONESOME LENNY is a cartoon stereotype of a literary stereotype: the "mentally challenged" character in OF MICE AND MEN, a gentle and simpleminded hulk of a fellow who wasn't smart enough to know his own strength.

These stereotypes weren't deliberately malicious, but the people who created them knew audiences would understand them.

As Kevin already pointed out, stereotypes don't die--the target merely changes. And if there's one thing that separates the cartoon stereotypes of today from those of the past, it's the presence of malice. One gets a sense of deliberate mean-spiritedness in the stereotypes of AMERICAN DAD (the show to which I think you're referring) that wasn't there in the cartoons of the past. "Gays" or "gay-seeming" characters in that program, as you said, aren't just effeminate and flamboyant, they're nasty to boot--and completely unlikeable. The best example is probably the alien character, "Roger", who speaks with a vaguely Paul Lynde-ish voice, and is clearly meant to be a gay stereotype, even if it isn't explicity stated. But then, it doesn't have to be. By comparison, even the "sissy" stereotypes of the FLIP THE FROG cartoons come across as more "gentle kidding" than an out-and out attack.

Why did this happen? One simple reason: as a backlash against the oversensitivity and preachiness of cartoons of the seventies and eighties (and several of the more recent Disney films--POCAHONTAS, anybody?) We haven't gone forward, we've gone back.

Yet as Kevin says here, that's hardly the worst thing to happen to animation in recent years:

> Since we knew in the old days that kids might be watching the same cartoon while they were munching their pop corn (and I already discussed how much I miss the heyday of that), it seemed as if animators had to appeal to both and mostly succeeded. Thus, LOONEY TUNES characters are charming in their own way, while getting the best of obnoxious or childish hunters trying to prove their manhood. The comedy worked on so many different levels, even though that jabbing poke at social accepted norms were always there. Now, it seems that someone's blatant opinion is right in your face! The kids of "SOUTH PARK" always tell us "you know, we learned something today..." Okay, even that is a poke at many of those shows that were seemingly designed to teach us all a lesson, but now, even though that phrase is never used in the more recent episodes, there is still this subliminal hostility toward someone or some point of view.

Yes, in the pioneering days of TV animation, cartoon makers merely transferred to the small screen the approach that worked so well in theaters--appeal to everyone by making the humor work on multiple levels. Children got slapstick, while adults got clever wordplay--and in the BULLWINKLE cartoons, even political and social satire. Kids wouldn't laugh at the notion of the world economy collapsing from an influx of counterfeit box tops, but adults steeped in our material culture would.

There's a rule in writing: "show, don't tell." Cartoons like BULLWINKLE followed this to the letter. It didn't TELL us politicians were idiots, the Cold War was insane, bureaucrats were incompetent, admen were silly, and the military didn't know what it was doing. It SHOWED us, in the person of characters like Captain Peter Peachfuzz, Boris Badenov and tycoon Fiduciary Blurt.

In what's probably one of the funniest examples of what I mean, Rocky once ran for Congress representing a hillbilly district, promising each of two feuding families he'd get rid of the other one. He kept his promise by evacuating both families out of the state, where, as he said, they became some other state's problem. Bullwinkle responds, "You learn fast, Rock..."

Now imagine if he'd taken a SOUTH PARK approach:

ROCKY: Y'know, Bullwinkle, bureaucracy is really stupid, and it's time we stood up and took responsibility in electing leaders who know what they're doing. Bring back a little civic pride and...

(continues yammering for five minutes while Bullwinkle looks behind Rocky's back)

ROCKY: Whatcha doin', Bullwinkle?
BULLWINKLE: Lookin' for the lobbyist who's workin' your mouth...

> So how has animation evolved? I think not at all in many cases. Give me those grand old toons and leave the other stuff to whoever it was designed for!! I'll take something we can all laugh heartily at.
> And some of the best is still going unnoticed and rotting in vaults, sad to say.
> I guess I have no answer for all of this except to say that we are now a silent majority of sorts.

To that I can add nothing, so I'll be silent myself--for now.


No matter how far afield some of our discussions go, we always seem to return to the same subject--stereotypes in animation. Even when discussing something as seemingly innocuous as Elmer Fudd. Hey, Friz Freleng might have thought he was an idiot, but it's hard for Kevin and me to really hate poor Elmer. He was such a perfect adversary, and his rivalry with Bugs became so well established, that Chuck Jones was able to twist it, parody it, and send it soaring in new directions. There had to be something there ol' Friz didn't see.

This started innocently enough, as a discussion of Arthur Q. Bryan's vocal talents. Kevin says:

You said: "It's kind of a shame that noone could get Elmer's vocal quality exactly right after Bryan's death, not even Mel. And Hal Smith's version sounds particuarly odd."

Yeah, most of 'em were just attempting to imitate Bryan's work but not embracing the character quite the way Arthur had done. If you recall the character in Bryan's prime was really an overgrown child. Over the weekend, I was watching "CONFEDERATE HONEY" in which Elmer Fudd is put in the unlikely role of Ned Cutler, the dashing(?) leading man (hewwo"), which is hysterical because one would *NEVER* see Fudd as someone that assertive. Boy, I could just imagine how an EGGHEAD TO ELMER disk might be now. The GOLDEN AGE OF LOONEY TUNES sets did a nice job of this on laserdisk, but now we've got more examples of ways in which the LOONEY TUNES directors played with the Elmer Fudd persona, even giving him his own newsreel in black and white. When we see Elmer Fudd in "OLD GRAY HARE", we realize that Elmer never did much growing between the time he was a "wittwe bitty baby" to when he suddenly was very old with this Buck Rogers Lightning-Quick Rabbit-Killer in his hands, so we knew that it was fun to play with this character a lot!! Arthur Q. Bryan seemed to inhabit that role as no one else after him could. You somehow needed little inflections that only Bryan could give him, but the character was so great that others give nice tries just to keep the character alive.

I'm no actor, obviously, but I've heard actors say more than once that a person has to become the character for it to seem real. If the voice artist doesn't believe it to be real, the public won't either. Hal Smith, therefore, could only give an approximation, the graveliness of Elmer's voice without the childlike, whining quality.

Chuck Jones once said that Elmer's statement "Be vewwy vewwy quiet...I'm hunting wabbits..." is almost a cry. He's afraid someone's going to try to stop him (and "someone"--namely Bugs--inevitably does). Smith didn't understand this, couldn't understand--he'd never "met" the character before, in a sense. Neither had Daws Butler, another Elmer stand-in who didn't quite make the cut.. Mel Blanc, who had at least worked with Bryan for decades, could at least bring enough of an understanding to the character to do a halfway-decent approximation of the voice. But even in his case, that's what it was--an approximation.

His "TINY TOONS" successor, Elmira, someone who liked instead to "love" her adversaries to death by squeezing the life out of them with emotional enthusiasm, was interesting but not quite the way I would see a decendent of the original Fudd legacy. Maybe this was partially because I found most of the "TINY TOONS" voices somewhat annoying while the original LOONEY TUNES characters had their charm, even at their most obnoxious.

I didn't see Elmyra as anything like Elmer either--indeed, it took me a while to realize the connection. Again, we have a problem of lack of understanding of the characters--and in the case of TINY TOONS, the writers and voice artists had the added complication of being separated by time from the people who had done the original work. They only knew the characters as fading images on a black-and-white screen growing up, much as we had. So their portrayal of Elmyra was not so much based on Elmer, but a fan's misperception of who Elmer really was.

With Babs and Buster, they did the unthinkable--they split Bugs Bunny in two, trying to make Buster the calm, Chuck Jones-ish Bugs while making Babs more like the manic, Clampett Bugs--and succeeding in neither case.

Oh, and I've said it once, but it demands being said again (and you can post these comments on the blog), "ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW" is a cartoon that genuinely belongs on the GOLDEN COLLECTION sets, despite its political incorrectness. It features so much in the way of Avery-isms; even the soundtrack and sound effects are so close to what Avery would be doing at MGM. In scenes in which we watch the pint-sized hunter trudge through the forest looking for the rabbit with his rifle, we are aware of poses that only Tex Avery could devise, and Carl Stalling does a nice job here of giving this strutting its own individual soundtrack.

You know, another animation fan in his blog writes about the above cartoon at length, and I wish I had the link now, because it merits serious discussion. His primary objection was the lethargic, StepinFetchit-like portrayal of the black hunter--so lethargic he actually drags his rifle as he shuffles along. As usual, the writer misses one important point--that the character no more represented all black people than Elmer Fudd represents all whites. Essentially, he's a prototype Droopy (without Droopy's intelligence or magical ability to be everywhere at once), contrasted with the more energetic, wise-guy Bugs. The very idea is funny. Viewing this cartoon, I never saw the hunter as anything more than just another in a long line of moronic atagonists for Bugs--which is what I think Avery intended.

The more I sit through this cartoon, the more I really like it and would really love to see it restored. In fact, I wonder just what Avery's next cartoon direction was, because this almost seems as if it should have been the last film that Avery created before departing and going on to create "THE EARLY BIRD DOOD IT" and "THE BLITZ WOLF" for MGM. Think of how many agressive little men Avery created for that studio, including the little pilgrim in "JERKY TURKEY". So making the little hunter pint-sized had nothing to do with the race the character is. Avery just chose the Steppin Fetchit character as one to cartoonize as Bugs Bunny's protagonist. Otherwise, all other ideas are those that Avery may have duplicated in later hunting cartoons. "RABBIT STEW" could have been seen as "JERKY TURKEY" if this were created a few years later; in fact, I think a bear figured in *BOTH* cartoons.

Seeing ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW for the first time years ago (I was lucky enough to get a ratty little "Censored Cartoons" from Blockbuster, I too got the impression that it was a prototype for Avery's MGM cartoons. A dividing line, if you will, between the Warner's era and MGM. The chase scenes are certainly faster than anything he'd done up to that point: I'm thinking in particular of one scene in which Bugs jumps in an out of a series of holes. If I'm not mistaken, there's a similar gag in a Screwy Squirrel cartoon, and it also resembles the "door" chase gags in LONESOME LENNY and LITTLE RURAL RUDING HOOD.

The wild take (with Bugs' limbs flying apart) looks more like an MGM-era gag as well. (As Kevin notes below). Avery's Warner's takes up to that point had been practically sedate, and he usually reserved that level of cartoon impossibility for a "goofy" character like Egghead. (You may remember the scene in CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA, in which Egghead tips his entire head to the audience rather than just his hat).

Think of one specific element--Bugs Bunny screaming and splitting, for a fraction of a second, into body parts vibrating in midair, this was something like an MGM reaction shot. If done at MGM, Bugs would not have his surprised scream done by Mel; he would have had a woman's scream there, like the wolf at one time in "NORTHWEST HOUNDED POLICE".

You're right--that womanish scream hightened the silliness of the take. Mel really couldn't manage that.

While I realize this cartoon was made in 1941 and Bugs was still in his formative stages at this point, the take (while surprising) doesn't work, at least for Bugs. Of course, I base this on the Bugs I'm familiar with, the calmer rabbit of the late forties and beyond. For the insane (and relatively one-dimensional) characters of Avery's MGM years, it would have been ideal.

I think that the dice-rolling bit works on a different level. One could just think of this little guy as a gambling fool, much like any of those addicted to it in "EARLY TO BET". The delivery of the last line the hunter speaks, "Well, call me Adam", could have been better, but it is unexpected, and I find it hilarious to see Bugs trudging through the forest with the gun and clothing that the hunter once owned, in the same exact pose with the same look on his face--it's pure Avery!!

Yes, that gag sets up much the same situation as the "haunted-house" premise of THE OLD HOUSE. If Bugs had "cleaned out" Elmer Fudd, the gag would be considered funny by most people. But because it plays into a black stereotype (blacks addicted to shooting craps) people can't look beyond the stereotype to see it's a really good bit. Even Bugs' mocking of the hunter, imitating his body language while dressed in his clothes, is seen as racist by some people, who fail to realize that's something he's liable to do with any antagonist--and has. Think of all the times he mocked Elmer Fudd's speech. (In the "Duck Season/Rabbit Season" trilogy, among others).

There are also a lot more quick Avery gags per minute here, including that bit in which the hunter first tries baiting Bugs with carrots and you hear Bugs take the carrots and individually eat them, spitting one back out, complete with sound effects lines in the rabbit hole as Bugs chews and spits! I forget what the sign says, but after spitting, Bugs pops out with a sign, perhaps apologizing to the audience. After Avery left, animators still played with the audience in the same way, but it wasn't as immediate and funny as Avery doing it. The man had a good sense of timing.

OK, you've got me curious. I'll have to find a copy of that cartoon to see that gag, since it escapes me at the moment.

To the readers--thanks for staying with me through this little Kevin W. "two-pack." For now, I have to go shopping.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Silly Executives, Cartoons Ain't For Kids: Or How Mr. Magoo Ended Up In the Kids' Library

Like most people of my generation, I have fond memories of Saturday morning.

I literally grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon; its arrival in about 1963-64 coincides with some of my earliest television memories. I'd watch THE NEW CASPER CARTOON SHOW with my talking Casper The Friendly Ghost doll, advertised on self-same program (which didn't talk anymore after I took a screwdriver to his "voice box.").

Not to mention Beany and Cecil and later, Milton The Monster and Underdog (some fine cartoons which have themselves attained "orphan toon" status, but that's another story).

The season's new cartoons usually premiered around my birthday in September, so it was like a personal birthday present wrapped and delivered to yours truly, courtesy of ABC, NBC and CBS. (And yes, I'm old enough to remember when that's all the networks there were).

When I was eight years old, my parents decided I was old enough to have my own set, so they put their old RCA Victor black-and-white TV (vintage 1957) in my bedroom when they bought their brand spanking-new color one. That way, my parents could watch whatever boring old adult programs parents watched back in 1969 or so while I stared at a curved gray screen, eating my Lucky Charms (dry).

It was a bit of a challenge getting a decent picture (I swear, you had to adjust those "rabbit ears" just right, preferably sitting with one hand on the set) but once I got a clear image, I was in heaven.

I saw the premiere of "H.R. Pufnstuf" on that set, and the first season of some strange cartoon called "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" (Though I had my own odd notions of the premise. I used to think Scoob and the gang were trapped in "Horror World" and were trying to find their way home). As far as I was concerned, I had it made.

Had I known I was unwittingly contributing to a mindset that today poisons the thinking of not only the animation industry, but of those who buy and watch the cartoons, I might not have been so happy.

For you see, while the network executives danced around their offices in glee over the ratings numbers ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") parents were growing increasingly concerned ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") So the parents begat watchdog groups, forcing network "suits" and animation producers in fear of their jobs to favor more "kid-friendly" programming. Thus, the mantra from the 1970's on became "cartoons are for kids."

Never mind that for at least two generations before that, they hadn't been. The "classic" cartoons--the Bugs Bunnys, the Woody Woodpeckers, the Tom and Jerrys--were produced for a theater audience, in an era when you could see something before the main feature besides wide-screen commercials. There were no multiplexes, there was no "niche marketing." Just wonderful animated films--if the kids laughed, great, but it was the adults who paid for the tickets. So the cartoons were made primarily for them, with sly gags few kids would get. If you think Tex Avery had kids in mind when he made RED HOT RIDING HOOD--or any of his other cartoons, for that matter--you're seriously delusional.

Even the people who made the cartoons would admit two, three, and four decades later that kids had been at the bottom of their list of priorities: they made them for themselves first, their fellow adults second. Kids? Shouldn't they be out playing, or something?

But try to tell that to any cartoon producer today. Or the thoroughly-brainwashed young fans, for that matter. If you want truly adult animation, so the thinking goes, watch anime. Bugs Bunny? Feh! Kid stuff.

In my early years on the Net, I remember getting into a long, bitter online argument with an all-too typical otaku, who just couldn't conceive of American animation as anything but vapid, nursery-school, Disneyesque schmaltz. To this day I regret not pointing out that Osamu Tezuka, pratically a god among the anime faithful, was himself influenced not only by Disney, but Max Fleischer. Look at ASTRO BOY sometime, and I guarantee you'll see not only thinly-veiled tributes to PINOCCHIO, but scenes straight out of BIMBO'S INITIATION or MINNIE THE MOOCHER. The characters even look like refugees from a Fleischer short.

Yes, I wish I'd said that. I probably would have been able to hear that fanboy squirm.

Naturally I wasn't surprised when perusing the video collection at the local library, and discovering all the good cartoon videos were in the kids' section. I was, however, when I discovered some vintage UPA cartoons in there.

That's right, UPA, the studio that spawned the crotchety, stubborn--not to mention nearly blind--Mr. Magoo. That revolutionized animation styling throughout the industry. The studio whose output could be at turns whimsical, poignant and disturbing--often in the same cartoon. But there it was, a Gerald McBoing-Boing DVD. With every cartoon in the brief series, along with a classic Magoo, buried beneath "Veggie Tales" and "Dora The Explorer." Free from peanut butter- stained fingers, no less--I doubt any kid in the place had ever heard of Gerald McBoing Boing.

At the time, I had never seen GERALD MC BOING BOING or any of the subsequent sequels, and had hardly seen a Magoo outside of the abysmal later ones made for TV. And I hadn't even seen those in years. I had to watch that video. Immediately.

Just one little problem. At the time I had no DVD player, so I had to watch it there. The player in the adult library was unfortunately occuped, so I had to watch it in the kids' library, on their player. Not as easy as it sounds, believe me.

If you've never tried viewing anything in the kids' library without a kid to accompany you, I wouldn't recommend it. Be prepared to have the librarian's eyes boring into your skull, no doubt wondering if she should leave you to your video-watching or call the police. Consequently, after one quick viewing, I bid the place a hasty "adieu."

So that's how Mr. Magoo ended up in the kids' library. And he didn't even have to stumble in there accidentally--dimwitted adults put him there.

This little tale only serves to illustrate how thouroughly entrenched--and ridiculous--the whole "cartoons are for kids" attitude has become. It's so ingrained in our collective psyche that even obscure classic (and often very adult ) cartoons get buried beneath a pile of juvenile pap. If it's animated, the kids'll love it, right? In retrospect, I probably should have kept looking to see if they had UPA's TELL-TALE HEART in there. Now there's a film sure to appeal to the cookie-snatchers: "Mommy, I'm scared! That heart's beating all by itself..."

I know certain perceptive people reading this will be quick to remind me that GERALD MC BOING BOING was originally a Dr. Seuss children's story, and indeed it was. But the subsequent UPA cartoon veered rather far from Seussian territory, coming up with something quirky and even a bit dark. In short, very UPA. After all, the boy is not only rejected by his peers because he spoke sound effects rather than words, but by his own parents. He walks, dejected, up an endless flight of stairs (against a stark background of flat color) and resolves to run away, sneaking off into the dark night. Leonard Maltin compares the "staircase" scene to a similar one in a live-action film called THE FALLEN IDOL.

On that I'll just have to take his word, since I've never seen THE FALLEN IDOL, but his point is clear. GERALD MC BOING BOING is no kids' cartoon, as we've come to understand them. The filmmaking is very adult (as in "sophisticated", not "obscene") and the story took place in a cold adult world, albeit from a child's viewpoint.

The Magoo cartoon included on the video, featuring the original stubborn, ill-tempered early-fifties incarnation of the character, could hardly be called juvenile material, either.

But I know I'm preaching to the proverbial choir. I don't know anymore how we cartoon fans can overcome this decades-old misconception and put classic animation where it belongs--with the "big boy" and "big girl" videos. I can only suggest that if you see some wonderful old cartoons in your local library, and you don't have kids of your own, you might want to "borrow" a niece or nephew for the afternoon.

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