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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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2 comments:

Marvin Kaye said...

Beautiful job! "The Old House" is a classic, and you've recounted its plot quite well.

My father used to run this for me when I was a kid (back in the
1940's!) He only had a black and white version, which I now own. Only recently did I finally see it in color on YouTube, though some of the details were obscured. They just removed it, unfortunately.

The object that thumps to the floor and frightens Honey when she first enters the house is a large framed portrait, possibly of George Washington, though I can't say for sure.

All best,
Marvin Kaye

Rachel Newstead said...

Marvin,

Thank you for your kind words--I have to admire the patience of those willing to slog through these incredibly long posts in order to comment. I must be doing something right.

My esteemed co-contributor Kevin read your comments as well, and has this to add--and as always, expresses himself far better than I:

"Yes, this cartoon is amazing to watch. I’ve posted comments on various forums on how we should make sure that the cartoon is officially released by its original source in prints as restored as humanly possible. While Youtube and its ilk are free forums, often, there are prints floating around of very questionable quality and, sometimes, there are people posting other such equally questionable dialogue amid those cartoons that proves the source of the prints rather unsavory in nature. These cartoons are of their time and are interesting curiosities, and I’d love to see them ignored by those who might be angry with such postings. After all, reasons that I would like to see the cartoon released is, well, so I and other obsessive animation collectors could own reasonably good copies. The films are artistic in many cases, and we should get to see them again, without all the other baggage. This won’t happen if people are going to continuously anger executives of the various companies who are skittish about releasing these cartoons to the general public in a world that automatically dubs all things animation as kids’ entertainment.

Thankfully, the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION sets have a disclaimer, and they are doing a good, responsible job of maintaining these films instead of obliterating them. They own original masters of all the BOSKO cartoons, from LOONEY TUNES to HAPPY HARMONIES and, maybe, if society learns to behave themselves, we’ll get to see these films completely restored in proper context. I know that I, for one, would love to have a complete HAPPY HARMONIES collection, with all the titles in the series—yes *ALL* the titles, including many of those that we’ve seen so often in heavy rotation on local and cable TV stations many years ago and today. Now that all or most cartoon networks are falling on harder times, it is possible that the DVD shelf may be the only place we can see these films, and that is a plus for us, if the original owners of the films would allow.

At least we’ve got hopes for the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION sets, and I’m holding out a small dim ray of hope for the MGM cartoons as a whole, although the shoddy releases of TOM & JERRY cartoons have almost drowned those burning hopes entirely. But never say never!

Kevin Wollenweber.”