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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

The Best-Laid Plans....

If there's one thing I should know better than to do, it's commit myself to any specific schedule of posting to this blog. I had promised a review/synopsis of the first of the "Bosko Trilogy" long before this, and instead have taken an entirely unintended vacation. I can only say it's because of my perfectionist nature: I had started, and re-started, the introductory paragraphs at least three times. Nothing goes here that does not reflect my absolute best writing (even this post is a second draft, the first having been discarded yesterday afternoon).

Writing for a blog like this has proved a formidible challenge, since each entry is, in effect, the equivalent of a magazine article. I must say I have a renewed respect for newspaper reporters, who can and do compose lengthy articles daily.

To put it bluntly, it's damned exhausting.

I've devoted my nights to it, at the cost of my health and sanity. So I've spent the last couple of days getting some badly needed sleep. I can only be glad that Kevin is not a taskmaster, and understands when I "disappear" for a few days. I beg that you, and anyone else who comes across this blog, will be equally understanding.

I am, however, not posting at this ungodly hour of the morning merely to make excuses for my absence.

In yesterday's entry in his Cartoon Brew blog, Jerry Beck writes about a cause near and dear to my heart. (I can only hope the link works--as with blogging, I am very new to HTML code).

Incidentally, I feel obligated to tell you I made a mistake in an earlier post. I posted a link to Jerry's Cartoon Research site, itself an excellent source of animation info, and mistakenly referred to it as the link for his blog. His blog is actually here.

Think you've seen all of Disney's FANTASIA? Well, not if you've seen it in the last three decades or so.

The "Pastoral Symphony" sequence (for the uninitiated, the one with the centaurs) originally contained a scene of black centaurette attendants. Due to its controversial nature, that scene has been excised from more recent showings of the film.

The print Jerry writes of in his blog contains footage of the excised scene, in its entirety--a must for the serious toon historian with an extra $1500 in his pocket. Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people.

His post could not be better timed, however, as it gives me an opportunity to "out" myself, as it were. If you've been paying close attention, you may have noticed I have a particular attraction to cartoons rarely seen in these more "enlightened" times, for much the same reason as the edited scene in FANTASIA.

Like Jerry, I feel classic animated films should be seen complete and uncut, objectionable scenes and all. Hence my historical interest in cartoons such as CIRCUS DAZE and THE OLD HOUSE; I should say, though, that my interest in these cartoons goes beyond the merely historical. I honestly feel that these are wonderful films.

While I most certainly do not condone racism in any form, neither do I condone allowing classic animation to rot in a vault merely because of changing attitudes. THE OLD HOUSE, CIRCUS DAZE, the upcoming "Bosko Trilogy" and similar films have much to offer despite images that may be distressing to modern eyes. They're masterpieces of comedic timing and personality animation, whose main characters just happen to be black.

My interest in such cartoons began with an online glimpse at what has to be the Holy Grail for animation collectors, Bob Clampett's indescribably brilliant COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS. It's been called the best cartoon nobody's ever seen, good enough to merit a Top 10 spot in Jerry's book THE FIFTY GREATEST CARTOONS EVER (if you don't already own a copy, I strongly urge you to go to amazon.com and pick one up). An all black parody of the then-recent SNOW WHITE, it is a feast for the eyes and ears--Looney Tunes on rocket fuel. Even in a grainy, low-bandwidth copy it crackled with energy, an animated exercise in perpetual motion. It succeeds not in spite of the black characters, but because of them: the theme provides an excuse for the liveliest, jazziest music ever heard in a Warner Bros. cartoon, and some of the best black vocal talent of the era (featuring the likes of Ruby and Vivian Dandridge, as well as Zoot Watson as the Prince).

Yet because of those black characters, it has been relegated to cinema oblivion, becoming what I call an "orphan toon." (If you ever wondered where this blog's name came from, now you know). It doesn't deserve this fate, and neither do any of the other cartoons here.

Look at it like this. Any film, any time, anywhere, is bound to contain something irritating and offensive to someone, be it excessive sex, violence, or even ideas one finds abhorrent. Individuals have the right to avoid such films if they wish, and parents have the right to prevent their children from seeing them.

When they treat the rest of us like children, however, by deciding for us what is acceptable to see, that is where I must draw the line.

And in the words of that great philosopher Forrest Gump, "That's all I have to say about that..."

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Friday, October 27, 2006

"Dem Cookies, Dem Cookies": The "Bosko Trilogy" (Introduction)

In 1937, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising's three-year association with MGM was coming to an end. For the moment.

They'd always had a sort of "love-hate" relationship with the studio. On the one hand, MGM considered the "Happy Harmonies" a vast improvement over the output of Ub Iwerks, whose Flip The Frog and Willie Whopper never quite connected with audiences. On the other, they grew increasingly distressed over the ever-rising budgets and increasing running times. Some Harman-Ising cartoons had run as long as nine minutes (Maltin in Of Mice and Magic says eleven, so I'll defer to the master on that point). In 1937, MGM opted not to renew Harman and Ising's contract, deciding instead to open their own studio and produce cartoons at considerably lower cost.

But Harman and Ising still had a few cartoons to go before their contract was up, and filled it by producing three Bosko cartoons which on the surface seemed virtually identical: BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, BOSKO AND THE CANNIBALS and BOSKO IN BAGHDAD. For the sake of convenience I'll refer to them as the "Bosko Trilogy" or the "Jazz Frogs Trilogy" (for those with a particularly cynical bent of mind, one could probably call them the "Contractural Obligation Trilogy.")

ADDITIONAL NOTE: Kevin says this about the "Contractural Obligation" comment:

In actuality, I know so little about the careers of Hugh Harmon and Rudolph Ising that I don't know for sure whether they really had done these last three similar cartoons as a way to get out of their contractual obligation, or whether there really *WAS* a contractual obligation. I just assumed this as well since I know that musicians sign a contract to produce a certain number of albums on the company label.

Well, I admit I was trying to be funny with that comment, Kevin. I made my assumption from what Barrier says in his book, Hollywood Cartoons. He says Harman and Ising's contract with MGM was terminated in mid-1937, and according to Maltin, MGM's own studio under Fred Quimby was established by August of that year. Harman and Ising's Bosko cartoons were the last released before they and MGM parted ways, and appeared well into 1938, long after MGM's own studio had been set up. It seemed only logical, given the seeming rushed nature of the cartoons and the time they were released, that they were done to fulfill the contract. But as Bugs Bunny says, "I could be wrong, y'know..." Rachel.

For these cartoons, Bosko received yet another overhaul: he became younger and more innocent, with a livelier imagination than ever before. This Bosko was a pint-sized Walter Mitty, who imagined himself in fantastic settings despite his "mammy"'s warnings not to "go lackadaisin'." A real child's voice was used to convey this new innocence--no longer just "Bosko", he was now "L'il Ol' Bosko." Honey, and even Bruno, were now gone (poor Honey--we hardly knew ye).

All three of these cartoons have the same basic plot: Bosko's "mammy" sends him off to his grandma's with a bagful of fresh-baked cookies--and a warning not to let his imagination run off with him. It inevitably does, and he inevitably encounters what Kevin and I have dubbed the "Jazz Frogs"--large humanized frogs who turn out to be quite familiar. There's a Bill Robinson caricature frog, a Louis Armstrong caricature, a froggy Cab Calloway, and a Fats Waller caricature (who never misses an opportunity to bellow his trademark line, "What's de matter wid him??") Depending on Bosko's fantasy of the moment, they could be pirates, cannibals, or even Arabs. In whatever guise, they have but one objective: to get "dem cookies."

The frogs had been seen before, in the 1937 SWING WEDDING. One has the sneaking suspicion they were recruited in these cartoons so Harman and Ising could do what they always did with abandon--reuse earlier animation.

To be fair, while the cartoons have the appearance of being "cheaters", each has distinctive highlights, endearing little bits of animation, that make each of them stand on their own. In BOSKO IN BAGHDAD, for instance, Bosko manages to furtively sample one of the delicious cookies while his mother has her back turned--a typically childlike, charming and very real moment. In BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, the "Jazz Frogs" are playing their number in such a frenzy that one frog appears to be "milking" his trumpet--an uncharacteristically screwy bit of business for a Harman-Ising cartoon.

Rather than review these cartoons in release order, I'd like to start with the last, and perhaps best, of the three: BOSKO IN BAGHDAD, from 1938. More, much more, to come...

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

Mama's Got A Brand-New Blog

...or the blog has a brand-new name, anyway.

When I thought the blog was primarily going to be a private "thing" between Kevin and me, the original name, "Conversations With Kevin", seemed okay. What changed my mind? One word--Google.

I Googled my own name today to see if the blog had made it into the search engine. Nothing. Nada. Zip. Squaddoo.

I Google Kevin's name, and lo and behold, there we be!

Now, it's not an ego thing (not entirely, anyway) but I would like people to know that this is my blog as much as it is Kevin's. As I said in an earlier post, I had misgivings about the original name from day one for the confusion it would create. Well, that shouldn't happen anymore.

So spread the word--and bring your friends. I wanna see comments! It's awfully lonely in here...

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More Observations on Bosko from Kevin

You know, I'm really beginning to sympathize with the Luddites. Technology bites.

To keep people interested during my search for the elusive "Jazz Frogs" trilogy (which I finally found last night after about a three-hour search) I decided to post my review of ROMEO in RHYTHM here--a Harman-Ising cartoon from 1940, probably the single best musical cartoon they'd ever done. It certainly deserved a nod from the Academy, more than THE MILKY WAY from the same year.

But my ancient wreck of a computer had other ideas. When I had the review in "edit" mode, my computer decided line breaks weren't necessary, so I spent about an hour putting them back in. Before I was even halfway through, my computer decides to crash.

I was so exasperated, I decided to spare myself the aggravation and give up for the day. Hence, no post yesterday.

But Kevin has some insightful observations of the Bosko cartoons (and other matters) that truly deserved a place here. ROMEO IN RHYTHM can wait--and the first of the "Bosko Trilogy" WILL be up tomorrow, should the computer gods look upon me favorably.


Thanks for putting a message up on the TERMITE TERRACE list. I'm back up and I'll post something on the list just to hopefully get something going, although I just can't find any bites on those HAPPY HARMONIES. I've tried for years, relating over and over again that there is so much more to the BOSKO cartoons--and your descriptions of "THE OLD HOUSE" have confirmed this for me, because there are so many visual tricks that put these far above any of the other HAPPY HARMONIES titles. Like I've always said, it is a real shame that Hugh Harmon humanized his character, because the gags here are fantastic and the animation, of course, is top notch. Between my memory and your eyes, I'm sure we could go further and point out key moments here that feature what we see as award-winning animation.


You know, I really should be thanking you, because it was in giving these cartoons a second look that I realized how wonderful these cartoons really are. I think those of us who can see really take our vision for granted--we look at things, but don't really see them. My initial view of the Harman-Ising cartoons was based on such superficial observation. Looking at them again forced me to notice things that put the cartoons in a new light--the use of color and shadow, the sense of timing, the poses and other subtle little personality quirks. Harman and Ising have been dismissed for decades as mere Disney imitators, but they obviously learned more from their old boss than is generally acknowledged, particularly when it comes to personality animation. I'd already mentioned the haughty pose Honey takes when berating Bosko, and the charming scene of her laughing. Of the two, she is perhaps my favorite character, and the one with the most personality. Babs Bunny was right...

Unknown to me for years, I was only seeing a small fraction of Harman-Ising's actual output. It's rather a shame they saved their wildest stuff for cartoons few people would end up seeing (though I'm sure they never dreamed their cartoons would arouse the controversy they did.

Which raises the question--Harman and Ising had been interviewed numerous times in later years. I'd be interested to know if they had any comment to make on the redesigned, more controversial versions of Bosko and Honey.

Well, I've said to others that, if these were on DVD professionally, I'd really just disappear, having gotten what I wanted; and, to an extent, that is true, although I know there will always be favorites that I would struggle, however I can, to get out on DVD. It is like the overall chore of trying to change the minds of those at the top that animation is just kid stuff or nostalgia for all the wrong reasons. In some cases, yeah, this is true, but what's wrong with trying to make money on this stuff as opposed to letting it gather dust?

Precisely. Personally, I don't care why people choose to see something worthwhile, as long as they see it. It'll be out there--if certain pseudo-sophisticates want to view it as camp and sneer at it, who cares?

By the way, your description of Honey is so perfect. In my alternate universe, I might have wanted to see an episode similar to the "TINY TOON ADVENTURES" in which Babs Bunny is looking for a female role model in classic cartoons. While she glosses over BETTY BOOP and a handful of others, she does happen upon Honey who, when found, looks nothing like her adorable self in this and other MGM cartoons, and I guess you can understand why, but I think I would have run with this and there could have been some points lightly made about aging performers (hmmm, how old would Honey be now if she were a live actress?) and the changing times and even a joke about new configurations as the way we look at old cartoons changes as well.
My version of that Tiny Toons story (in which Babs Bunny "rediscovers" Honey) would probably have been a parody of SUNSET BOULEVARD, with her as a Gloria Swanson-style recluse, and Bosko staying loyally beside her. And patiently putting up with her complaining over how her mid-thirties "makeover" ruined her career. ("I haven't been able to show my face in public for fifty years!")

The aging Honey could have been looking at an imagined photo album (actual stills from the Harmon cartoons, in both black and white and color) and a remark could have been made once the camera flashes for a second on her MGM incarnation with her shaking her head as if to say "that'll never do; too controversial!" I'm thinking of a similar situation found in an episode of BEANY & CECIL in which Dishonest John was giving Cecil a makeover as he prepares to answer a call from a movie studio exec who wants him to star, basically, as himself. Ol' DJ, at one point, splashes red, white and blue paint on Cecil, only to say "No, no, let's not get controversial", referring to not wanting to use the colors of the U.S. flag for fear that it would be misrepresenting the flag.

You know, I think I like your idea better. You hear that, Warner's? Hire this guy!

But "THE SEARCH FOR HONEY" would have to be an "adult" cartoon, perhaps shown in the middle of the night on Cartoon Network, even though the jokes would not be racial but pokes at the fact that such old caricatures are so overly controversial now.

You know, when I talk about such controversies, I think back to a small snippet of an OUR GANG comedy in which the kids were holding an Arbor Day show at their school. In the play, each little kid, familiar to us all, was to recite a line to show their role in making plants and trees grow. Time came for Buckwheat to do his bit and he, like some kids do, forgot what he was supposed to say and looked nervously out into the audience. I believe it was Hattie McDaniel who was playing his mother, and she just did an exasperated take and recited his lines for him to which he smiled and replied "Yeah, that's it!" That moment had almost nothing stereotypical about it in the sense that Ms. McDaniel did not do an exaggerated pose but just told her little one his line in a way most mothers would impatiently prompt their child as you would imagine he must have been coached again and again the night before! It is a cute moment and nothing to be ashamed about!

I noticed the same thing, and aside from some embarrassing moments in the later MGM films (such as the scene of Buckwheat turning white, as Bosko had done, that I made note of in this blog) the Our Gang films pretty much presented Buckwheat as being like any other kid, and we forget that in the Hal Roach version, he was the equal of the rest of the gang. No mention was made of his color--it didn't matter to them.

Moments like this are what I'd like to believe that Hugh Harmon ultimately wanted his MGM Bosko to take on, but the "realism" never quite took that strong a hold at MGM, not even in a series of cartoons that were kind of Disney-like or looked as if they were storybook illustrations come to life. I've always said that antics in "THE OLD HOUSE" were right out of earlier OUR GANG films, with cartoony moments being funny little situations in which Bosko is reading to Bruno from his ghost stories book, only to have Honey sneak up behind and scare him--man, that's right out of one specific story in which Joe Cobb and Chubby decide to try and scare the younger kids while hiding in the brush! A better example could be found in a later OUR GANG comedy called "LITTLE SINNER" in which Spanky and Buckwheat are deciding that they'd rather go fishing than go to Sunday church service. The two are hesitantly ambling through the woods to the fishing spot when they hear noises of the birds in the trees that scare them into running off, and the visuals often exaggerate the takes of both kids, because they are so small and have that gift of body language that makes the double takes so funny; so Hugh Harmon no doubt has seen either of these films and adds this element to this BOSKO cartoon since he now has opportunities to make his key characters into OUR GANG-like kids.

You know, MGM did eventually gain the rights to Our Gang from Roach (I'm afraid I don't know the legal reasons for the changeover) and the films were never quite the same. They became less about the antics of "real" kids and more mini-musicals. In the Roach films, if the kids put on a show, it looked like it was being put on by kids, and they sounded like kids. Roach wanted to avoid using "show children", and that's ultimately what they became.

But I think you're right about that aspect of the Boskos--they're certainly what Hal Roach would have done if he'd been running an animation studio. Harman and Ising's films were a bit schizophrenic that way: painstakingly realistic on one hand, while retaining a level of cartoon impossibility. Which is why it's so jarring to see Bosko endure a fall that would surely kill him--if it were a Tex Avery short, we'd know the character would be in one piece in the next scene. In Harman and Ising's realistic world, we're tricked into one set of expectations, and they throw us a curve. Even having Bruno talk, however briefly, seems a bit out of place.

That contradiction worked better for folks like Tex Avery--characters doing crazy things over Disneyesque backgrounds. He was able to do it because the characters were so surreal to begin with. We don't empathize with Screwy Squirrel or Droopy, but we do with Bosko and Honey.

Even "CIRCUS DAZE" is an OUR GANG scenario. The Roach comedies had actually done a film called "THUNDERING FLEAS" which is almost the same film, only the fleas jump out of the tent and follow the kids and their dog back to an older sister's wedding with wild results. Of course, no one would expect Roach to attempt to show animals and acrobats running amuck at a local circus, right? But there was an actual bit of animation within this silent two-reeler; the image of a local statue suddenly seized with wanting to vigorously scratch once the fleas swarm over him. The fully cartoonized statue leaps up and runs off!!

My memory is fuzzy on this one. Weren't the fleas animated as well?

Even the way you describe the filming of the antics in "THE OLD HOUSE" remind me of something that Roach would have tried if he could have rigged such a set, but hey, Bosko falls through too many loose floorboards and I wouldn't expect a real little kid to endure that sort of timing. Yet, Roach could have looked at more than a few Harold Lloyd comedies, the sections in which Lloyd is suddenly dangling atop a high rise building. There is enough action throughout "THE OLD HOUSE" to suggest this kind of imagined realism, and I always mention those scenes in which we follow Bosko or Honey falling through to another section of the house as if they were sliding through mazes.

The stuff is great. I mean, what more can I say?


Great observations in this letter, Kevin. It'll surely tide the folks over until I can get those reviews up. As always, stay tuned...

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

THE OLD HOUSE: Kevin Wollenweber Responds

Yes, Virginia, there is a Kevin Wollenweber.

It occurred to me that naming this blog "Conversations With Kevin" would likely create confusion for first-timers: they're bound to think I made up Kevin, or worse, that I'm Kevin. Let me assure you he's quite real: I don't have any imaginary friends. Too high-maintenence.

I named it what I did because that's precisely what it is: conversations with my friend, Kevin. This blog was originally intended to be our private sandbox at first, but we both came to feel that the general public needed to be let in on our private discourse on classic toons.

Actually, my original intention was to have him be a co-contributor to this blog, as my friend Jerry Beck is with Amid Amidi on Cartoonresearch.com. Alas, that proved to be impossible, for reasons too complicated to go into here.

In short, him Kevin, me Rachel. Got it? Good.

Kevin had some incredibly nice things to say about yesterday's review of THE OLD HOUSE (partly undeserved, considering some of the typos and other minor errata) but here's some of what he had to say:


You mentioned the beauty of the lightning flash as Honey hesitantly moves up the rickety porch toward the door and how you wish you knew what this toon would look like as a full and clean restoration; well, to get a possible better handle on the actual cleaner look of the lightning flash, it is possibly better to consult my direct-from-laserdisk copy on VHS of "BOTTLES" from the HAPPY HARMONIES collection. Not only do we get a reuse of scoring that appeared in "THE OLD HOUSE", we get thunder and lightning to add to the eerie impression of the chemist's abode, even though all he ever says is "Well...heh heh heh...bless my soul!" In fact, the eerie dream of the poor chemist being chased through the darkened house by a pair of scissors that snip at his throat might be close enough to the rarely shown BOSKO cartoon to give you a kind of idea of what "THE OLD HOUSE" would look like if transferred to DVD from original 35-milimeter print or master negative.

Letting Harmon/Ising run wild at MGM was not entirely a bad thing, although it cost the studio twice as much as, perhaps, a Tex Avery cartoon of later years.

Beautiful stuff!

And I have to like the clattering sound given to that skeletin as it is sent sailing off on its own as Honey dislodges herself from it in terror and Bruno sees it as he moves along the squeaky floorboards. The sound effects are amazing here as well, and I guess all that is what made this cartoon genuinely scarey to me years ago!


Well, it wasn't so much the "beauty of the lightning" I was describing (one hears that more than one sees it) as the look of the skies when the storm broke. Even on a blurry, nth-generation copy it looked impressive: one of the many reasons this cartoon deserves a better fate than languishing at the bottom of a discount-video bin.

I'm going to have to give BOTTLES another look (and of course, post my impressions of it here) in a future review. I'd like to continue with the Boskos at this point, but rest assured, BOTTLES will be given its due very soon.

As for the sound, I'm ashamed to say I paid less attention to that than I did to the visuals (one of the drawbacks of being dependent on one's eyes, I suppose). As I've often said, that's why we work so well together, and why your input is so vital to this blog. But you're right--the sound effects contribute greatly to the mood of the cartoon (as does Scott Bradley's score--he's probably the best overall musical director in animation history. Though Carl Stalliing does give him some serious competition). I did notice the clattering of the skeleton, though, and how in a subtle way, it contributed to the menace of the scenes. Squeaking doors, creaking floors and rattling bones scream "haunted house", whether in this cartoon, a classic Universal horror film, or even a Roger Corman cheapie. Harman and Ising obviously knew that very well.

When you spoke of consulting other, clearer Harman-Ising cartoons to get a better idea of how certain scenes looked, a crazy idea occurred to me. Perhaps Harman and Ising's liberal recycling of animation might lead to the salvation of some of these cartoons, should someone (I'm talking to you, Jerry Beck!) decide to one day restore them. Can't find a decent copy of a scene you want in THE OLD HOUSE? Find it in BOTTLES--or perhaps even similarly themed cartoons like THE BOOKWORM. It's bound to be there. What you would end up with is something not so much "restored" as "reconstructed", but hey, audiences would at least get an idea of what these cartoons looked like when they were new. Talk about turning a liability into an asset.

Harman and Ising did indeed spend lavish amounts of money to improve the look of the cartoons, much to MGM's chagrin. As I understand it, they were constantly over budget, which led to their being let go in 1937 (and the subsequent formation of MGM's own cartoon studio). Ironically, they were not long afterward hired back as employees after the fledgling studio's early efforts tanked (though they were really quite good, most of them. You can bet I'll talk about that later). I suppose the MGM brass felt they could keep a tighter rein on them that way. Despite the increased control, Harman and Ising managed to do some of their best work during this later period (ROMEO IN RHYTHM, MILKY WAY, and LONESOME STRANGER, to name just a few).

I know I'm putting myself on the spot for this, but for my next entry I'd like to concentrate on the "Jazz Frogs" trilogy of Bosko cartoons--the final three Hugh and Rudy did in 1937-38 (BOSKO IN BAGDAD, BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, BOSKO AND THE CANNIBALS. ) They're all "cheaters", in a sense: Hugh and Rudy ground them out to fulfill their MGM contract, but they're still a fitting "swan song" for an unjustly ignored character. As always, don't touch that dial...

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Monday, October 23, 2006

"There Ain't No Spooks Nowhere": THE OLD HOUSE (1936)

OK, I admit it, I'm not the best blogger in the world.

"Now, on to THE OLD HOUSE," Kevin writes. Well--ahem!--I had every intention of doing a review and synopsis yesterday. But it was Sunday during football season, and I'm a diehard Denver Broncos fan. Hey, I lived in Colorado for sixteen years--you can't live there that long and not be a Broncos fan. I think it's a state law. Besides, they had won four games in a row with no offense to speak of, and I had a chance to see them win a fifth. I couldn't pass that up...

If it's any consolation, Kevin, divine justice for my laziness occurred in the form of a blinding headache, which grew so intolerable by the middle of the third quarter I had to sit out the rest of the game in a darkened bathroom. Well, my sinuses and the lousy Wisconsin weather were factors, too, but I'm sure the Almighty had His hand in it somewhere. Denver won 17-7, so that at least diminished the agony somewhat.

Well, the headache's gone now, it's the middle of the night, it's quiet, and I'm well fortified with caffeine courtesy of Instant Maxwell House. So on to the next cartoon, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising's long-forgotten little gem, THE OLD HOUSE.

In the short time I've been collecting, I've accumulated no less than three copies of this cartoon, and was fortunate to come across the clearest copy of the three. It's not without it's flaws, however. Obviously taken from a 16mm syndication print, certain titles are blacked out, and the bottom of the frame is rather gracelessly lopped off in the introduction. But it's less dark and grainy than the other versions I have, which made it the perfect review copy.

The opening title is lettered on an old wooden sign, swinging in a thunderstorm as lightning flashes, ideally setting the mood. The scene is rendered so well, one can hardly believe Harman and Ising were still doing crude little "rubber house" characters a scant year and a half before. The scene shifts to introduce our cast: first, Bosko, who solemly intones the words, "The goblin's gonna get ya, if ya don't watch out..." His name is printed underneath, but it's hard to see in this copy. Considering the era, this version of Bosko is a fairly mild caricature of a black child: he lacks the oversized white lips of his Warner Bros. incarnation. His lips still look something like a white circle around his mouth, but they're much smaller and far more subtle. He's wearing blue overalls with one strap buttoned, and an oversized straw hat.

We then see Honey, who in this incarnation wears a cute little yellow dress, and her hair is in small pigails tied with ribbons. She's seen laughing, and says, "Who believes in spooks, anyhow?" An ominous shadow destroys her confidence, however, and she screams, fleeing in terror. She, and Bosko, are rendered in loving detail, to the extent of having highlights on their dark-skinned faces.

The scene changes again to feature Bosko's dog, Bruno, also more realistically rendered in this "new" version as a brown and white hunting dog. He sniffs along, only to be frightened off by eerie laughter. (He clearly sees something, too, but we don't. I'm not sure if that was intentionally done, or if it was a flaw in the print).

The scene dissolves to show Bosko and Bruno in a grassy meadow beneath a large tree, which, in contrast to the opening, is in bright sunlight; Bosko is reading a horror story to his dog Bruno, the book spread open on the grass between them. As is typical in Harman-Ising cartoons of this era, he speaks in rhyme:

"...and when he passed the haunted house,
They got 'im quick, like that,
The only trace they ever found,
Was just his little hat...
Goblins musta got 'im, sure,
Ain't no bit of doubt,
The goblin's gonna get you,
if you don't watch out..."

While he's giving his dramatic reading, we see that his little friend Honey is skipping along on the path behind the tree. Hearing Bosko, she ducks behind the tree and decides to play a little trick on him. Suddenly, she yells "BOO!!", causing both Bosko and Bruno to jump a foot off the ground and scurry for cover. (When I freeze-framed this scene, I could clearly tell they'd gone into a fairly wild take--Bosko's eyes even crossed).

As they both poke their heads out of Bruno's doghouse, Honey doubles over in laughter, then throws her head back (a bit of animation which always made her look adorable to me) and berates Bosko, also in rhyme:

"Goblins musta got 'im, sure,'
Who believes in that??
Bosko, I'm ashamed of you,
You're a scaredy-cat,
Here I go to Grandma's house,
Not a-scared a bit,
Pass right by the haunted house
And never think of it..."

She goes into the signature song of this cartoon, "There Ain't No Spooks..." A dangerously catchy little tune, that. I'd just be careful who I sang it in front of if I were you.

"I ain't scared of spooks because,
There ain't no spooks nowhere,
Goblins never bother me,
Because they aren't there..."

On the last two lines above, Honey puts her left hand on her hip in a haughty pose...

BOSKO: What if you would meet a ghost?
HONEY: Ha! I bet he'd be scared the most...
I ain't scared of spooks because,
There ain't no spooks nowhere!"

Skipping off down the path, she continues her song:

"There ain't no spooks,
There ain't no spooks,
There ain't no spooks nowhere,
There ain't no spooks,
There ain't no spooks,
There ain't no spooks out there..."

But no sooner has she sung these words, than the sky suddenly turns gray and dark as storm clouds move in. This scene in particular is one of the reasons I wish this film would get the loving restoration treatment given to the Looney Tunes cartoons. In freeze-frame one can see blues and golds among the gray clouds which probably looked dazzling when the film was new (if the striking color of TO SPRING is any indication).

Cut to a scene of a dilapidated yet still-imposing house surrounded by a fence that has almost entirely fallen down. The gate flaps open and closed in the wind as leaves blow everywhere. The yard is overgrown and surrounded by trees bare of leaves. In a way, the scene is reminiscent of the opening shot of Disney's THE OLD MILL, which would come out a year later.

The camera trucks to a long shot of Honey, still skipping along the path. Large trees dwarf her; they look gnarled and threatening, much like the ones in SHOW WHITE during the scenes in the woods. As the storm worsens, Honey runs back and forth across the path in search of shelter--and spies the old deserted house.

She runs up the steps, and a gust of wind catches her dress, blowing it over her head (a bit of reused animation, from THE LOST CHICK). A shutter bangs against the wall behind her. As the cobweb-covered door creaks open, she slowly walks in the other direction, but is forced inside by a sudden clap of thunder.

Cut to an interior shot, as the door slams behind her. The room is almost completely dark, but we can see she's surrounded by broken railings and old furniture covered with sheets. Dusty paintings adorn the corridors. A broken mirror lies haphazardly in one corner. She slowly, nervously tiptoes through the house and hesitantly resumes her little song, but can't help but remember Bosko's warning, "The goblin's gonna get ya if ya don't watch out!" (We see an image of him above Honey's head saying this). She's interrupted by the sound of a grandfather clock with a shattered glass pane, chiming the hour (if the house is abandoned, who kept the clock running? "Cartoon logic" at work). The clock's hands, which were set at 11:00, flop down to the "6:30" position.

Honey is suddenly startled by the sound of a large falling object that narrowly misses her (impossible for me to discern in this print. If anyone can tell me what it is, please let me know in the Comments section).

The windowshade on a window behind her snaps upward and flaps loudly, sending her screaming, and stumbling backward into a large pipe organ, which releases a large swarm of bats. Running off down a corridor, she attempts to open a door, but the knob comes off in her hand. Now really terrified, she vainly beats against the door.

Cut to the outside. Bruno, who hears her screams, tugs on the chain tying him to his doghouse. Bosko is seen running at incredible speed toward the sound (masterful animation--he moves so fast he blurs at the edges. This gives lie, I think, to the belief that Harman-Ising's cartoons are uniformly slow and plodding). Cut to an exterior shot of the house: Bosko bounds up the stairs and hits a loose board, which sends him bouncing back down, one stair at a time. Opting instead to go into a side window, he runs in place atop the cellar doors, and falls in the cellar.

It's so dark in the cellar we can only see Bosko's large eyes. This, unfortunately, is a gag that might make certain folks uncomfortable, since it plays on the "joke" that black people can't be seen in the dark. (I'll comment more on that aspect of the cartoon later in the post).

Striking a match, Bosko looks around for a way out. In the process he inadvertently gets his clothes tangled in a metal hook, which pulls a string connected to the turntable of an old windup Victrola (which makes a scratchy WRROOOR sound as he moves). Every bit as frightened as Honey, he zips up the stairs at light-speed (we only see a cloud of dust).

The camera follows Bosko as he rushes up three flights of stairs, and up a ladder into the attic. Looking warily behind him, he unfortunately has no idea where he's going. He falls off the top of the ladder through the rotted floorboard and into a bedroom, containing a bed with nothing but the bare springs (the famous BWOOORNG sound you hear in so many Harman-Ising cartoons, Kevin). A shower of debris comes down with him. One wonders why poor Bosko doesn't get killed, or at least seriously hurt.

Caught in the springs, he bounces several times until he plummets down a dumb-waiter. (Someone up there is really looking out for this kid--he still doesn't get hurt). Meanwhile, we discover that poor Honey has been hiding inside a dressmaker's dummy. When Bosko comes up with a BWOORNG! out of the dumb-waiter, he's caught in a sheet, looking for all the world like a menacing "spook." This of course sends Honey into hysterics--still inside the dressmaker's dummy, she runs off to the left of the screen. She unwittingly runs into a fireplace, knocking off a moose head from the mantel and running off stage right.

Bosko, still in the sheet, slides down a bannister and bounces all the way to the next floor--where Honey just happens to see him. He too falls into the organ, which issues a cacophonous sound. Spying Honey barreling toward him (and the viewer) in the combination moosehead/dressmaker's dummy get-up, he runs off stage left, "boinging" with every step.

Honey has of course run off in the opposite direction, being as scared of Bosko as he is of her. The dress fabric on the dummy tears off in the process; the bare frame shows, making her look a bit like a bird in a cage. She falls through a grate, and we see the following in a series of quick cuts:

1. The somewhat blurry image of Bosko's sheet coming toward the camera
2. An exterior shot of an open window as the wind howls. We also hear spooky laughter, which unknown to our heroes, is comimg from the radio)
3. A montage of Bosko's sheet coming toward the camera toward the left, while Honey flees toward the right (again reusing earlier animation, I suspect).

Cut to Bruno's doghouse--he's still trying to get loose, remember? He strains valiantly to free himself, almost destroying his doghouse in the process. Finally breaking free, he runs off to rescue Bosko and Honey, only to get his dangling chain caught in the nearest tree (we again hear the trademark BWOOORNG! sound--Hugh and Rudy must have loved that sound effect). Confused, he runs around in circles for a moment before he resumes the rescue.

Cut to the interior of the house. There is, inexplicably, a skull on a desk inside (makes you wonder what went on in that place, doesn't it? Probably just a doctor's office--Dr. Frankenstein's, I'm guessing). Honey emerges timidly from a door to the left, completely unaware she has her dress caught in a skeleton on a wheeled dolly. Meanwhile, Bruno pokes his head in the front door, and guess what he sees?

You guessed it. Honey tiptoeing along trailing the skeleton behind her. As Bruno approaches a staircase, he sees the skeleton, now free of Honey's dress, bouncing down the stairs. So frightened his ears stand up, he runs off to the left, only to freeze in midair (done by holding one pose for about half a second) as he sees Bosko coming toward him in the sheet. Still "boinging", no less. He then proceeds to run BACKWARDS (a clever way of reusing animation, this time in reverse). It's a nice little effect, since it creates the illusion of stopping the film and reversing it for a few seconds.

Cut to upstairs. We see Honey jumping on a plush chair and diving into an old dresser. Bosko "boings" up the stairs into the room and collides with the now-empty dressmaker's dummy. Emerging from the bottom drawer, Honey sees it was Bosko all the time, and vice-versa. She and Bosko both laugh at how silly they'd been.

They (and for the moment, we) think all is well, as they resume the "There Ain't No Spooks" song and skip off together, hand in hand. But wait...

Cut to a shot of the skeleton, moving seemingly under its own power onto the dumbwaiter below.

Honey, laughing so hard she doesn't see she's heading dangerously close to the dumbwaiter, tumbles down it, which brings the skeleton up in her place. As the skeleton takes Honey's place beside Bosko, he unwittingly grabs its bony hand, saying "C'mon, Honey!!" Honey, however, runs up a stairway in front of Bosko and....

...when she sees Bosko's got the skeleton in tow, she screams and runs off again, stage left.

Bosko turns and sees the skeleton he's been dragging behind him; his reaction is liable to evoke gasps from even the most thick-skinned viewer. His face literally tuns WHITE from fright (as open-minded as I am, even I wish they hadn't used that gag) and stands rooted to the spot. He's so scared his feet are literally glued to the floor--when he pulls his feet loose, he runs off, taking pieces of the floorboards with him.

(Additional note: I've seen gags identical to the one above in Our Gang films, aired in the middle of the day, as recently as the eighties. It was one of the later MGM films, in which the gang puts on a minstrel show, of all things. At the sight of all those kids in blackface, bandleader Buckwheat turns white. Kids presumably saw that, and can probably get that on video even today. Seems strangely inconsistent to bury this cartoon while making the even more offensive live-action short available, doesn't it? We now return you to our scheduled program...)

Kevin once informed me, incidentally, when he first saw the "Bosko-turning-white" gag on a black-and-white screen, the image actually looked frightening to his seven-year-old eyes! I don't doubt it--I used to be terrified of the Warner Bros. logo popping up on screen...
The description of the scenes that follow are taken from a recent correspondence between Kevin and me. Forgive me if the margins look a bit odd...

"...Bruno sees the skeleton that Bosko had been unwittingly pulling along behind and runs off to the right. The force is so great, he momentarily pulls the skeleton along with him for a couple of feet; the skeleton then falls through the floorboards into a Murphy bed (you know, the kind that fold up into the wall) in the room below.

The bed, for a moment, folds up, revealing that Honey has been hiding underneath. The noise causes her to scream and flee from the room. Bosko, having heard her, runs in, The force of Honey leaving has caused the bed to fold down again, and Bosko sees the skeleton lying in bed. He runs and hits the door--failing to get out that way, he decides to go out a side exit. (Additional note: I forgot to mention this before, Kevin, but when Bosko came into the room, the plaster on the walls literally crumbled around him, leaving the bare frame. Which is why he was able to get out even with the entry door closed).

Bruno, meanwhile, has run into the room, not realizing the skeleton is lying in the bed. After he mumbles "and make me a good dog!", he jumps in bed with the skeleton. When he sees it, he does a startled take, jumps about a foot in the air, and comes back down, which causes the bed fold up into the wall again--with him and the skeleton still in it.
We then see Bruno crash through the bottom of the bed, with the skeleton (which is now caught on Bruno's chain) trailing behind him. I'm guessing that was the sound you heard. Both he and the skeleton crash through the door and head down a long corridor toward a staircase. The skeleton breaks free of Bruno's chain as Bruno rounds the corner. It shatters into a number of pieces--we see the bones, and the skull, bouncing down the stairs toward the camera.

(Note: As you've no doubt guessed by now, Harman and Ising LOVE this trick, propelling things straight toward the camera. Ub Iwerks--in a strange coincidence--once used that move, in the opening scene of the first Silly Symphony, THE SKELETON DANCE. Since Harman and Ising were onetime Disney employees, it raises the question of who learned what from whom...)

"...We then see Bruno running down the end of the stairway and down another corridor. He runs through a curtain and underneath a table containing a radio, which inexplicably is still functional. (Strange, considering the house has probably been abandoned for years, perhaps decades--you wouldn't think there would be a radio at all, let alone a working one. Perhaps some college kids used the house once, and left the radio behind...)"

You see, Bruno, when he ran under the table, inadvertently turned the radio on--when he hears a cackling feminine voice scream "It's a night for MURDER!" he runs off stage left, adding the curtain to the growing number of items he gets tangled in. The skull from the long-discarded skeleton bounces down the stairs (I thought it did that already!) and lands on top of the curtain rod, making the whole curtain/radio/Bruno combination look like some spectral creature. Meanwhile (yes, again "meanwhile"...)

...Bosko and Honey, hiding in a rolltop desk this time, see the BrunoThing coming toward them. Exiting out the back of the desk and down the stairs in a split second, Bosko grabs a loaded rifle (!) and fires at poor Bruno. (A child using firearms? You'd think people would object to that more than the racial images, actually). The kick from the gun propels Bosko and Honey through several rooms and out the front door. They land outside, where the storm has since subsided and the sky is once again sunny. As the "BrunoThing" falls out of the house's upper window, Bosko shoots again, blowing curtain, skull, table, and radio off poor Bruno. (Brother--I would hate to be Bosko's dog! That's probably the sixth "Bruno" he'd gone through). He hurtles to earth like a plane going down in flames--with appropriate sound effect.

The remains of the radio, still working, land with him. A kindlier version of the cackling voice now intones, "That, my dear little kiddies, is today's spook story... and don't forget to eat Goodie-Goodies for breakfast..."

Yes, dear friends, the ruckus they heard was a radio play...the cartoon predicts the panic of "War Of The Worlds," in a manner of speaking.

Wow. First of all, congratulations if you made it this far. It was probably as tiring for you to read as it was for me to type (the things people do for friendship!). This cartoon was perhaps the first indication I ever got that Harman and Ising could pace a cartoon at anything faster than "stop." Well, CIRCUS DAZE was a surprise too, but even it was nothing like this. I've seen this cartoon more than a dozen times now, and there are details I still miss. (Yet Kevin, who hasn't seen it in years, can remember certain scenes as if he saw them yesterday. Life stinks...)

Why this cartoon escaped the notice of the Academy for 1936 is beyond me--it's quite clearly the equal of anything Walt had done at that point, and at times moved at a pace Walt would never have dreamed of. The timing is truly cinematic: Harman and Ising vary the tempo constantly for dramatic effect, and use more lightning-quick cuts than even the great Tex Avery had attempted at that time.

Hugh and Rudy faster than Tex? Imagine...my world is truly upside down. Trust me, if you haven't seen this, you haven't seen Harman and Ising. If anything, this seems more like it was done by their evil twins.

I'll be honest--this cartoon contains some things that are bound to make contemporary audiences uneasy. First, the characters--as I said earlier, this cartoon features the "redesigned" Bosko and Honey, retconned as little black children. This wasn't an arbitrary decision: Bosko, as originally conceived in 1929, was clearly a black stereotype. A little animation history lesson to put things in perspective:

After Hugh and Rudy found themselves unemployed following the Mintz/Oswald mess, they decided to strike out on their own. They approached Leon Schlesinger, then head of Pacific Art and Title, with a novel idea--"all-talking, all singing, all-dancing" cartoons. Yes, their old boss Walt Disney had scored big with STEAMBOAT WILLIE not long before, but Mickey and Minnie at that early stage communicated in squeaks and squawks, not words. Harman and Ising had something new--a character who actually spoke. A character named Bosko. Who, not too coincidentally, bore a striking resemblance to their old boss' star character.

Harman and Ising made a pilot film, BOSKO THE TALK-INK KID (playing on and parodying Al Jolson's THE SINGING KID from the same year). It featured what would be the first Looney Tunes star, who to some degree must also have been inspired by Jolson. In it, Rudy Ising appears on camera drawing his creation--and it immediately converses with him. "I's Bosko, that's who I is, ain't nobody else except but!" he says by way of introduction. He sings (badly, it turns out), he dances, and plays the piano (also badly). Harman and Ising had the makings of an interesting character, but they made no bones of the fact it was a black character. In subsequent Looney Tunes, Bosko lost that aspect of his personality, becoming little more than a cheery Mickey Mouse imitator. The dialect began to be used less and less, and was eventually abandoned altogether. Harman and Ising would later deny the character was intended to be black at all, saying it was supposed to be a "little inkblot sort of thing." But the move to MGM brought the character back to its roots, so to speak. Bosko was black again, complete with the minstrel-show dialect.

The setting is also liable to give people pause: Bosko and Honey seek shelter from a storm in an eerie old abandoned house. A house seemingly full of "spooks", despite skeptical Honey's protestations to the contrary. The cartoon thus seemingly plays into the stereotype of blacks being afraid of ghosts. Whether Harman and Ising had intended the association is open to question, however. Little kids, no matter what their ethnicity, are bound to be scared to death in a creepy old house. And events seemed to conspire to confirm every one of their fears. Had Bosko and Honey been white kids, their fright would have been considered perfectly understandable.

There's also the unfortunate negative connotation of the word "spook"--though in this cartoon, the word refers to actual ghosts, and is not a racial slur. Put all these things together and the circumstantial evidence is pretty damning. So the cartoon--unfairly, I think--gets a bad reputaton.

The dialect? Well, we must put that too in perspective. The most popular radio show in the country at the time, AMOS AND ANDY (popular with both whites and blacks of the time, by the way) featured characters who mangled the English language mercilessly, far more than Bosko and Honey do. By comparison, the use of dialect in this cartoon is subdued.

Harman and Ising were extremely canny in their use of racial stereotypes. The "black" characters were usually portrayed as fantasy types: the "jazz frogs" in SWING WEDDING, for instance, which will be examined in a future entry--or kids in situations that could be written off as universal. Wreaking havoc in a circus, tramping through a "haunted" house, engaging in Walter Mitty-like fantasies (as happens in the final three Bosko cartoons made) and so on. Sometimes they were toys, as in TOYLAND BROADCAST or THE OLD PLANTATION. In doing so, they could easily say to those who objected, "Hey, these characters aren't real..."

The cynic will likely say that Harman and Ising were implying that blacks were "non-human" or "childlike", but in doing so, risks reading too much into Hugh and Rudy's intentions. In a sense, making the same mistake Bosko and Honey did, and seeing hobgoblins that aren't there. Truth is, we'll never know for sure, and should instead take these cartoons at face value, and see them as the wonderful little mini-musicals they are.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Harman and Ising Re-Examined

Kevin and I have a special place in our hearts for the characters of Bosko and Honey. And Bosko and Honey. Confused? Read on...

It was an almost Pavlovian reaction: from the time I first saw cartoons containing the names "Hugh Harman", "Rudolf Ising", or both, I would reflexively groan. In fact, it got so I would groan if I saw the MGM lion come up on the screen, and didn't immediately hear the jazzy Scott Bradley scores signaling that Tex Avery insanity was about to start.

I was twelve years old when I first saw their cartoons, and immediately pegged them as "kid stuff": slow, plodding, pseudo-Disney fairy-tale nonsense. Syrupy and sentimental--way beyond my "sophisticated" tastes. And they lasted foooreeeverrrr. Or at least seemed to.

When I discovered Harman and Ising had done the earliest Looney Tunes as well, my original assessment didn't change much. Pleasant little musical pieces, some of whom starring a little inkblot character (or blatant black stereotype, or blatant Mickey Mouse ripoff, depending on whom you talk to) called "Bosko." I was developing an interest in animation history by the time I first saw these cartoons, so they were an interesting historical curiosity, but nothing more. I couldn't get past the fact that Hugh and Rudy reused animation so blatantly--they couldn't show an action just once. It had to occur at least three times.

Kevin, however, has an unbounded enthusiasm for all things Harman and Ising. When he first told me this, I shook my head in stunned disbelief. "You like THEM?" I said. "Their cartoons couldn't move any slower if they ran the film backwards!" The nasty adjectives flew off the keyboard--it was my first opportunity to use the word "cloying" in a sentence. I was pleased.

Kevin was unmoved. As a way of saying, "I'll show YOU..." he sent me a tape that was essentially a "best of Bosko" collection. But not the Bosko I knew.

You see, there was another Bosko. When, in 1933, Harman and Ising left Leon Schlesinger to produce cartoons for MGM, they took their "star" characters with them. Bosko and his girlfriend Honey could now be seen in color--of a sort. It was two-strip Cinecolor, which basically registered variations of blue and orange. But it was color, and looked more vibrant than anything they did at Warner's.

But in 1935, the old-fashioned "rubber hose" style was giving way to more realistic-looking characters, and Harman-Ising redesigned their characters accordingly. The first cartoon I saw came from this period, one called CIRCUS DAZE.

I had never seen this cartoon, and for good reason. This Bosko and Honey had been "reborn" as cute little black children, who spoke in "Amos and Andy"-style dialect. Consequently, it and cartoons like it were no longer welcome on TV. But Kevin remembered them, from a childhood spent staring at a grainy black-and-white screen. He'd never seen them in full color, and wanted my reaction. To put it mildly, a reaction he got.

It varied from pleasant surprise to admiration to mind-numbing amazement. Kevin's fuzzy descriptions, dimmed by the passing of several decades, hadn't quite prepared me for what I saw. His descriptions of non-stop action I originally dismissed as a mixture of nostalgia and selective memory. But what can I say? Kevin was right.

What I saw on-screen mroe closely resembled the breakneck action of a Tex Avery cartoon than anything by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. For the detailed descriptions Kevin wanted, I found myself having to go through certain sections frame-by-frame (thanks to my mother for giving me a top-of-the-line VCR).

From the first few seconds, I could tell what I was seeing was not "typical" Harman and Ising. CIRCUS DAZE starts with a montage of images: a close-up shot of a "test-your-strength" meter; the waving arm and nonstop patter of a side-show barker dissolves to a shot of a hot-dog vendor cheating customers (sticking his finger in a bun and slathering mustard on it, so unsuspecting patrons found themselves holding a weiner-less bun). An elephant charges straight toward the camera (a typical feature of Harman-Ising cartoons, in which an object --or a character's entire mouth--rushes toward the camera, filling the frame).

The plot is deceptively simple--Bosko, Honey, and their dog Bruno spend a day at the circus. But once Bruno goes off in pursuit of an elusive flea, and unwittingly crashes into an entire flea circus, chaos reigns. The swirling, tornado-like cloud of fleas take to poor Bruno like--well, fleas to a dog. He bites and writhes and scratches his way to the center ring. He hides in a cannon, only to be shot from it, inches ahead of the fleas. Landing on top of the band below, he and the fleas are ejected from a tuba with a resounding BLAAT--now the clowns, the band, the entire circus are in a writhing, itching frenzy. There's a jarring image of an almost photorealistic elephant rolling and scooting along, even standing on its hind legs and scratching with its forelegs, to fend off the biting insects. Jarring not simply because it looked painful, but because of its impossibility, particularly for such a naturalistic-looking elephant.

And much of this takes place in a span of less than a minute. *This* is Harman and Ising, whose idea of a "gag"--as Leonard Maltin says--is a character running into a door?

As you might expect, my view of Harman and Ising, and their cartoons, changed instantly. I even began to look at their more slowly-paced, Disneylike cartoons with new eyes. I was dazzled by the breathtaking palate of TO SPRING; by the beleaguered "Papa Bear" attempting to fix a roof in a driving rainstorm, the roofing tiles crashing like waves against the shore. I even began to wonder what the fuss over the "redesigned" Bosko and Honey was about. If one ignored the dialect, they seemed like real kids, not caricatures.

I can now honestly say I'm a "born-again" Harman-Ising fan, I might have been one far sooner, had nervous censors not prevented me from seeing the above-mentioned cartoon for years. But that's a subject for another day.

Kevin deserves a full, scene-by-scene review of CIRCUS DAZE, and he'll get one, when I can find it. Easier said than done if you know my "filing" system. For now, I'd like to express my newfound enthusiasm for Harman and Ising with another Bosko cartoon from about the same time, one you might still see on certain public-domain tapes: THE OLD HOUSE. Stay tuned...

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

"A Bad, Bad, Naughty Little Baby"

The following is from a letter regarding my review/synopsis of one of the odder early Tom and Jerry cartoons, a 1943 entry called "Baby Puss." Why so odd? You'll find out...


I had intended to do Lantz' BARBER OF SEVILLE next, but you don't have
to hit me on the head with the proverbial cartoon mallet--I can take a
hint. You want BABY PUSS, so that's what you'll get. I have *recorded*
notes this time--unless I have to totally wipe the hard drive, I'll have
something to refer to if necessary.

I'll also try to answer the questions you addressed in your letter as I
come to the appropriate scenes.

A little background information first. This, like ZOOT CAT and other
early Tom and Jerrys, was animated in large part by Pete Burness (Ray
Patterson, Irv Spence and Ken Muse are also credited). I only wish I
could tell you who did what scene, though I suspect Spence did the dance
sequences, as in ZOOT CAT. It was released, oddly enough, on December
25, 1943--Christmas Day. It's not the best Tom and Jerry entry of this
period, but it sticks out in my mind for the oddest of reasons, that
being that it's the only cartoon I know of in which a diaper is
realistically rendered. In cartoons, usually you see the caricatured
"one-pin" variety or something that looks like white shorts. The one Tom
is wearing has two pins, the stress lines are all in the right places,
and it even sags properly when Tom stands. There's even a gap in the
legs, something one would expect to see in a cloth diaper. Harman and
Ising's "hyper-realism" obviously still has its hold on the
Hanna-Barbera group--Tex Avery's influence had yet to permeate the
entire studio. The action takes place in an equally realistic child's
bedroom, complete with dollhouses, a rocking horse, a doll bed and even
a changing table with a scale. Normally this would seem superfluous,
but it's part of the cartoon's charm. To match the realism of the
drawing, the cartoon is also rather evenly paced--earlier frame-by-frame
checks showed it was mostly shot on twos, which would tend to even out
the timing.

When the cartoon opens, we see a little girl presumably about five years
old--or only part of her, since she's shown from the chest down like the
black maid--yelling at Tom, who's apparently fled to hide under a
dresser: "You is a bad, bad, bad naughty little baby, runnin' away from
your mama like that..." She's wearing a yellow dress with the puffed
sleeves that were popular in that era, plus white ankle socks and Mary
Jane shoes. You asked in your last letter if she looked imposing, and
she certainly does in this scene, almost as much as the maid in other
cartoons. Nothing at all like skinny, sweet little Agnes in NASTY
QUACKS--the girl in BABY PUSS is a more realistically-proportioned
kindergartner, complete with pudgy hands and fingers. Strange,
considering I always pictured Tom as being about four feet tall on two
legs, and here he seems to be more realistically cat-sized, at least in
the scenes with the girl. I'd say that if he stood on two legs, he'd
look the little girl straight in the chest. The rest of the time he
looks relatively normal, but then, most of the cartoon is from his point
of view.

She drags Tom out from under the dresser by the tail, and we see for the
first time he's wearing full baby regalia--a pink bonnet, blue booties
on each of his four feet, and the aforementioned diaper. As she pulls
him along, he has his head propped on one "arm" and wearing a disgusted

In the next scene she's carrying Tom in the clumsy way most kids carry
pets, with one hand under his "armpits" and another under his ankles,
with his middle sagging so low it almost hits the ground. She carries on
in an obvious imitation of her mother--to me, it sounded like "I'm
telling you, Nancy, it ain't the work, it's the worry..." (Note: I have since been informed that the actual dialogue is "Land sakes, it ain't the work, it's the worry!" Thanks, Kevin). It does make
one wonder what sort of mother this kid has. (I'm guessing a 40's "Rosie
the Riveter" type.) She must be both a holy terror and extremely
indulgent, since the child's room is filled with so many toys, realistic
baby furniture, and stacks of real diapers. (A particular overindulgence
at that time, since cloth was in short supply during the war). Then
again, the kid could be "borrowing" stuff from a little brother.

She slams Tom into the doll bed with the force of a wrestler, tucks the
blanket around him, and shoves a full milk bottle into his mouth. After
declaring she's going out to "buy a new girdle", she stomps out.

As soon as she leaves, Tom kicks off the blanket and decides to sample
the milk--he takes the nipple off the bottle, guzzles some milk, then
puts the nipple back on. He's slowly getting into this "baby" routine,
amusedly hitting the little mobile on the cradle and sucking on the
bottle with his legs in the air, "goo-gooing" and "da-da-ing" all the while.

Meanwhile, Jerry happens by, peeking around the corner of a dollhouse.
He hears Tom "goo-goo-ing" away and slips under a rocking horse for a
closer look, leaning on the rocker. Seeing Tom in full baby mode,
contentedly sucking his bottle, Jerry slaps himself in the face a few
times to make sure what he's seeing is real--he can't believe his luck!
A prime opportunity to make fun of the big dope, which he does. Going
over to a nearby kiddle record player, he starts the record
(appropriately, "Rock-a-Bye Baby") and lies on his back imitating Tom
and sucking his thumb. Tom, naturally, is infuriated by this teasing,
chasing Jerry all over the room and into a dollhouse--Jerry slams the
tiny door in Tom's face before Tom can get to him, hanging a "Measles"
sign on the door.

Opening one of the tiny windows, Tom peers in on Jerry, who is in a
little bathtub pretending to take a bath. Jerry's humming Cole Porter's
"How About You?" Seeing Tom, Jerry emits a feminine-sounding scream and
hits Tom several times with his little bath brush. (Accentuated with
appropriate violin "plunks" on the sound track).

Jerry then runs down the little stairs into the dollhouse's bedroom, and
gets into the little bed. A doll lying next to him suddenly sits up and
says, "Mama!" This gives Jerry an idea....

He emerges from the dollhouse dressed in the doll's outfit (floor length
pink dress, large hat, parasol, and frilly underwear) sashaying to the
tune of "Strolling Through The Park One Day." Tom is momentarily taken
aback and watches Jerry blankly. But Jerry's ruse is discovered when his
dress slips off; Tom puts his paw on Jerry's tail, but Jerry escapes and
runs back into the dollhouse.

Tom, determined to get him, tries to pry the roof off the dollhouse. He
almost succeeds when the girl re-enters, yelling "Baby!" This startles
Tom--he drops the roof on his head and for a moment, it's stuck in the
dollhouse. Once he's free, the girl scolds him, telling him to stay in
his bed this time or she'll make him taste castor oil..."and it'll taste
awful bad, and that ain't good!" (A sly reference to a popular song of
the day). She slams him in the bed, tucks the blanket around him, and
leaves (reusing the earlier animation).

Deciding to ignore Jerry, Tom goes back into his baby routine--but
Jerry's not through with him. Still dressed in the doll's frilly
underwear, he sneaks over to an open window and attracts the attention
of three alley cats in nearby trash cans--one black cat, one orange cat
and one short beige cat (whose names, I later found out, are Butch,
Meathead and Shorty, though they're not referred to by those names
here). Jerry strikes a provocative pose, sticking one frilly leg out.
You hear a wolf whistle on the sound track, but it's unclear where it
comes from.

The cats start to chase him, but when they come to the window, they stop
when they see Tom, who is oblivious to everything. He's suddenly
startled and disoriented by their singing "Rock-A-Bye Baby", and
thrashes around a bit before regaining his composure. Cut to a scene of
the three cats: the black and orange cat are singing while the orange
cat is rocking the smaller cat in his arms, in an attempt to mock Tom.
They end the song by having the orange cat flip the little cats lips
with his fingers (sort of a "blblblbl" sound done to the tune of the music).

Furious, Tom, stands up in his cradle, his face beet red. He runs over
to the three cats and stands over them threateningly. He's anything but
intimidating, though: the cats simply go "Ah-GOO!" and Tom is suitably
cowed, shrinking back slightly.

The black cat shoves Tom's entire head into his diaper and kicks him all
the way from the window back to his cradle. Once there, Tom timidly
pulls the covers up to his chin and puts the bottle back in his mouth.
He's sort of between a rock and a hard place, not sure whether to fend
off the intruding cats or obey the little girl. The black cat says
"Rocky-bye?" and proceeds to violently shake the cradle. He then grabs a
significant portion of Tom's cheek, says "Kootchy koo" and shakes Tom's
face every bit as violently, Tom's bottle still in his mouth.

Taking the bottle from Tom, the black cat takes the nipple off, drinks
the rest of the milk, discards the bottle, then puts the nipple on Tom's
nose. In a wonderful bit of cartoon impossibility, he blows on the
nipple and inflates Tom's head, which then deflates and fills the nipple
with air. The black cat pops the inflated nipple with a pin, which sends
Tom spinning head over heels in the air and back into his cradle.

The black cat then decides to play "Ups-a-daisy" with Tom, throwing him
high enough in the air to hit the ceiling. He hits it so hard he knocks
some plaster loose. Landing on the floor on his rear, Tom bounces into
the black cat's arms, and gets thrown to the orange cat. The orange cat
kicks him to the little cat, who kicks him straight into the fishbowl,
rear-first. Tom's diaper is now soaked--he climbs out of the fishbowl,
shakes a little water off his leg, and holds up a portion of the soggy
diaper with a distressed expression on his face.

The cats say mockingly, "Aww..he fell in the fishbowl," making "shame,
shame" signs with their fingers. Deciding a diaper change is in order,
the little cat runs over to Tom with a baby carriage (to the sound of
sirens on the sound track) and pulls him in.

He rushes Tom over to the changing table, and flips Tom onto it (Tom
lands with his rear in the air). The black cat is wearing a bib over his
mouth like a surgical mask, and calls out instructions to the other two
cats like a surgeon:

"Anesthetic!" (The little cat hits Tom with a huge mallet--Tom goes
unconscious and his rear end drops down with a slide-whistle sound.)

The black cat calls for "Powder!" and then "Oil!" which he applies to
Tom's bottom.

"Diaper!" The black cat says. The orange cat responds, "Diaper!" and is
promptly hit in the face with the soaked one Tom was wearing.

Sliding the dry diaper under Tom, the black cat says, "Safety pin!" He
quickly folds and pins the diaper onto Tom, then jabs the extra safety
pin into Tom's rear. Tom, startled out of his stupor, screams, whereby
he's clobbered again by the little cat with the mallet.

The black cat then says "Forceps!"--the "forceps" turn out to be a pair
of pliers, which he uses to remove the now-destroyed safety pin from
Tom's rump. He then pulls some rubber pants on over the diaper and puts
Tom in a sitting position on the table, pulling the rubber pants out far
enough to accommodate the goldfish the little cat promptly throws in.

This, being an MGM cartoon, is a musical cue. The fish writhes and
wriggles around in Tom's rubber pants to a samba beat, and the cats
break into a rendition of Carmen Miranda's "Mama Eu Quiero." While
singing, they kiss Tom condesendingly, poke him in the eye, then hold
his mouth open and squirt him with milk from a bottle, all in time to
the music. (Which you could probably fathom from the "boinks" and
"splats" on the sound track).

The next scene shows the short cat dancing around in full Miranda garb,
complete with lipstick, as he sings the number. The black cat provides
accompaniment by playing poor Tom's rubber pants like a bass, while the
orange cat saws on Tom's whiskers as if they were violin strings.

(A brief side note. There's something strange about that particular
scene, at least to me. The pupils in the orange cat's eyes are drawn in
such a way as to make him look glassy-eyed, almost robotic. It seems as
though a junior animator or painter committed the cardinal sin of
placing the pupils directly in the center of the eye. Which, as Frank
Thomas and Ollie Johnston pointed out in their book on Disney, makes a
character seem lifeless.)

The little cat, now minus the Miranda outfit, dances with a rag doll,
exclaiming "Look, I'm dancin', I'm dancin'!" (That line, by the way,
appears in a lot of cartoons of the time, leading me to wonder if it's a
radio or movie catchphrase of some sort.) The little cat tries to flip
the doll over his head, but is somehow flipped himself.

The number is in full swing when it's suddenly interrupted by the shrill
cry (off-camera) of "Baby!" Yes, the little girl is back, and the three
cats scurry out, leaving Tom hanging from a post on the changing table
by his rubber pants, to await the inevitable...

The little girl, seeing Tom dangling from the changing table by his
rubber pants, says, "This is the last straw which is breaking my back as
soon as it is turned..." (a heck of a mixed metaphor--wish I'd thought
of it). The goldfish apparently disappeared to God knows
where--presumably it escaped from Tom's pants when the cats scurried out).

The scene "wipe dissolves" to Tom in a high chair, his arms pinned by
the high chair's tray, as the little girl says, "You are a bad baby, so
now you have to taste CASTOR OIL!"

You asked me, I believe, how much of the little girl shows in this
scene. All we see here is her arm and hand as she's trying to force the
spoonful of the nasty stuff into Tom's mouth. One minor error here--the
little girl is wearing a bracelet in this scene, but in others in which
she appears, the bracelet is not visible, when it should be. There are
other similar details that are just a bit off, but I'll get to those in
a moment.

Anyway, Tom resists the little girl's efforts to force the spoon in his
mouth, but the scene cuts to Jerry, standing directly below him, with a
nutcracker. He clamps down hard on Tom's tail with it, causing Tom
to--of course--scream. The moment he opens his mouth, the little girl
shoves in the spoonful of castor oil. Tom immediately retches, breaks
free of the high chair (feet spinning in midair--a feature of Tom and
Jerry cartoons I've always liked) and runs to the nearest window, where
he apparently throws up. Jerry, watching all of this, laughs silently
(with appropriate "laughing" music on the sound track) until a small
drop of castor oil from the discarded spoon drips down into his mouth.
He too retches and runs over to the window with Tom. We see both of them
at the window heaving as the closing music starts, and the scene irises out.

To say the least, this is a strange little cartoon. Well, "strange"
doesn't begin to describe it, actually. This is cruel even by Tom and
Jerry standards; the animators appear to be acting out some private
fantasies of theirs, since there's a strong sadomasochistic element to
the whole thing. The cartoon is perhaps the only one in which there is
no sufficient motivation for all the torture Tom endures--he's just
minding his own business when Jerry decides to take advantage of the
opportunity to torment him. Jerry really comes off as a jerk here, which
is why I suspect a scene was added in which Jerry literally gets a "dose
of his own medicine."

Putting Tom in a diaper apparently posed a quandry for some of the
animators, who seemed not to know just what to do with Tom's tail.
Should it go inside or outside the diaper? In some scenes--for example,
the one in which Tom in sucking on a bottle with his legs in the
air--the tail *should* be visible, but isn't. Nor is it visible when
he's standing with his soaked diaper next to the fishbowl--but it
reappears when the little cat runs up and grabs him (he yanks Tom's tail
and pulls him into the carriage). It disappears again when Tom is
hanging by his rubber pants, but reappears in the castor oil scene (so
Jerry can clamp the nutcracker onto it, obviously). Whether that's an
omission on the part of the animators or inkers is hard to say, but it's
one they never caught.

There were a couple of scenes I forgot to mention--I did take notes, but
ultimately did the thing from memory, viewing scenes on which I was
uncertain. Minor stuff, but I figure you'd want to know what was going on.

In the scene just after the goldfish is deposited in Tom's rubber pants,
and the music cue starts, the black cat and the orange one start
plucking on Tom's whiskers (the guitar sound you hear on the track).

In one scene, the little cat is playing rattles like maracas, followed
by Jerry moving part of a curtain back and forth across his rear in time
to the music (in the way Latin dancers move a cloth back and forth, as
if they were drying themselves with a towel), I'd have to look again,
but I think this occurs just after the "Look, I'm dancin', I'm dancin!"

Ironically, Butch (the black cat) "plays baby" himself in a much later
cartoon, BABY BUTCH, though his motivations are different (he's trying
to get at a huge piece of ham he spies in Tom's refrigerator, and cons
Tom into "adopting" him). He gets subjected to some of the same
humiliations Tom endures in BABY PUSS--karmic retribution, in a sense.

If this cartoon has one redeeming feature, it's Scott Bradley's lively
score, which runs the gamut from old standards (we hear "You Must Have
Been A Beautiful Baby" when Tom is drinking from his bottle, and "Baby
Face" when he's being kicked into the fishbowl by the three cats) to
Latin rhythms. Like Stalling at Warner's, Bradley could match a scene to
the appropriate song in order to set the mood. Ultimately it makes the
cartoon far more energetic than it otherwise would have been, and blunts
the cruelty somewhat.

I hope I did an adequate job describing/reviewing this. Rather than
going on to BARBER OF SEVILLE, I'll move on to the long-promised ROMEO
IN RHYTHM, itself a wonderful showcase for Scott Bradley's music.


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Just What The Heck Is This About, Anyway?

If you don't know me, and I suspect that would be most of the civilized world, the premise for this blog might require some explanation.

My name is Rachel Newstead: I'm 45 years old, I live in Appleton, Wisconsin, and I love cartoons.

Perhaps "love" is too mild a word. I'm obsessed with them, I eat, sleep, and breathe them. From the time I was twelve years old, I could look at a five-second clip of a cartoon and tell you what year it was made, what studio made it and in some cases, who the animators were.

I was also a cartoonist of questionable success (not to mention talent) who created a strip you might never have heard of called "Aimee", about a little girl in a wheelchair. But more about that some other time.

For a large portion of my adult life, I figured I was alone in my cartoon obsession. I'd rattle off names like "Shamus Culhane" and "Friz Freleng" to my friends, only to be met with blank stares. Surely no one out there was as obsessed as I was, right? So I believed until I first saw Kevin Wollenweber.

If you remember the formative days of Cartoon Network, you no doubt have heard the name Kevin Wollenweber. In 1993, when the fledgling cable channel had been on the air hardly a year, Kevin so impressed the people at Turner Broadcasting with his frequent calls and letters about animation-related topics that they gave him the chance to host for a day. Hence, Kevin Wollenweber Day was born. For twelve hours, Kevin acted as M.C., hosting a slate of cartoons he personally selected.

So what's so special about this particular toon fan, you ask? Did I mention Kevin is blind, and has been for nearly thirty years?

I know, I know. "Blind toon fan" sounds as incongruous as "quadriplegic tap-dancer", but trust me, he is, with a memory for cartoons that put even me to shame. And a cartoon library that did likewise.

In 2002, I happened to "meet" Kevin online, courtesy of an e-mail list devoted to classic Warner Bros. cartoons, about which we both happen to be passionate. It wasn't long before we started exchanging frequent e-mails, to the extent that the list soon became "The Kevin and Rachel Show." In an effort to keep the other listmembers from going crazy, we decided to take our lengthy toon-related conversations offlist, and that worked splendidly. For awhile.

Recently, e-mail glitches on Kevin's end prevented my incredibly long reviews of cartoons from getting through. After unsuccessfully trying to send them in installments (frustrating for both of us) and as attachments, I remembered my heretofore-unused blog account. What better place for our back-and-forth toon discussions but here?

My letters to Kevin might seem unnecessarily detailed to the outsider--until you remember that Kevin can't see. In a sense I act as Kevin's "eyes," not only reviewing cartoons, but describing scene-by scene the details he unfortunately misses. A sort of "descriptive video service," if you will.

If you've stuck with me this long, rest assured the first of those reviews will be coming up very shortly. I hope I provide enjoyment not just for Kevin, but for anyone else who happens by.

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