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Thursday, October 26, 2006

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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