I have two reasons to celebrate today:
First amd most important in my financially-strapped life, today's the day I get paid. No more living on pasta covered with cream of mushroom soup. For awhile, anyway.
Second is the completion--finally--of the first "Bosko Trilogy" review. When I say I'll do something, I do it. Just don't ask me when.
January 1, 1938 didn't herald a new beginning, but the end of an era.
Released that very day, BOSKO IN BAGHDAD came, and went--not just the very last cartoon in the "Bosko Trilogy", but the very last Bosko cartoon ever. Not that anyone noticed, or cared; the industry was too blinded by the bright Technicolor glow of Disney's latest stroke of genius, the animated feature SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS.
Once free of MGM, Harman and Ising simply moved on to other projects, taking what freelance work they could (ironically, even completing a couple of cartoons farmed out to them by Walt Disney). Within a year and a half, they would be back at MGM, but their onetime star character would not. It would take early television--and the generation of budding animation fans who grew up in front of it--to revive interest in him.
It really shouldn't have happened that way. But the Bosko series came to an end just as the character, and the cartoons in which he appeared, seemed at their most promising. Looking at BOSKO IN BAGHDAD, one can't help but wonder why.
A knowledge of the first two cartoons in the series is probably helpful, but I chose to start with this cartoon because of certain little bits of business that set it apart from the other two. What are they? Wait and see...
The cartoon opens, as do all three in the trilogy, with the shot of a black man's hand opening a storybook, on which the cartoon's title is printed. The opening lines of the story dissolve to a shot of a grinning little Bosko (looking all the more cute in freeze-frame, with rounder cheeks and a larger head than in cartoons before the trilogy) who's watching his "mammy" take a batch of fresh-baked cookies from the oven. His mother, like the black maid in the later TOM AND JERRY cartoons, is only seen from the neck down. She even looks a bit like the black maid, right down to the striped stockings. (Dare I suggest that this might be where Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera got the idea for their character?)
Little Bosko holds a paper sack, ready to receive the cookies as they come out.
The mother was a recent addition, taking over Honey's role of setting up the plot--as with the imaginary frogs, she gives Bosko someone to talk to in these solo outings. A shame, since Honey was the ideal companion for him, acting as his conscience (and in such films as THE OLD HOUSE, the voice of the skeptic).."Mmm-mmm! Dose cookies sho' smells presumtuous!" his mother says. "Dey looks presumptuous...why dey IS presumptuous!"
I have to admit I found the dialect and the malapropisms a bit cringe-inducing, considering how minimal it had been in other cartoons, but this is Bosko's cartoon, and the mother plays only a minor part in it.
Next comes the scene I truly love, and have written about before here. Bosko, mischievous little kid he is, sneaks one of the cookies out of the bag as his mother looks away, telling him, "Now you go straight to Grandma's..."
The scene wipes to the exterior of the house, where Bosko is on the front stoop. His mother gives him the inevitable warning, "Now don't let your 'magination go percolatin' off on any wild goose chase!" (Though we know better, don't we?) With a "Yes, mammy!" he's on his way.
The scene takes place at night, and there's a large lantern beside Bosko. Looking at this in still-frame (something I do a great deal, so I can write and come back to the scene when necessary) I noticed the subtle highlights on his shoes and clothes, cast by the yellow lantern light--there are white highlight marks on his pants that look like they were rendered with a dry-brush technique. Hardly an assembly-line 'toon, this...
As in the two previous cartoons in this trilogy, Bosko goes off to his grandma's half-singing what is now his trademark chant...
Straight to grandma's, here I go,
To take de cookies to her front do',
The hen wid de cackle, the cock wid de crow,
Straight to grandma's here I go...
Before he completes his little verse, however, he's interrupted by the croak of a little frog, which--as anyone who's seen the first two cartoons knows--sets his imagination to "percolatin'..."
Now somewhat wary and a bit fearful in the midst of the darkness, he tiptoes along, slowly chanting, "Straight...to..Grandma's..here...I...go..." He could very well encounter another eerie house, for all he knows.
Hearing the hoot of an owl, he glances behind him and says nervously, "Who dat?" His eyes grow wide, and his face seems more caricatured than it did in the opening scenes, like a mild version of a Tex Avery take.
The owl "whooos" again, causing Bosko to remark, "Who dat say 'who dat' when I say 'who dat'?" (A line, oddly enough, that GONE WITH THE WIND actress Butterfly McQueen uttered in one of her films, to her unending embarrassment). For Bosko, a child, it's a bit more forgivable.
Bosko does an even wilder take at another strange sound, jumping up off the ground with his arms in the air--with a great deal of "stretch" at that. As with the take in THE OLD HOUSE (right after Honey yells "Boo!") his reaction looks surprisingly "cartoony" for the normally naturalistic Harman-Ising cartoons of this period. Of course, this is far more apparent when one slows down or freezes the scene. Yes, folks, Harman and Ising could do cartoon exaggeration when they wanted to, and if one cares to take the time to look.
Of course, it's only the little frog again. "Doggone, Mr. Frog!," Bosko says. Turning up the flame on the lantern in front of him on the right of the screen, Bosko remarks, "I wish I had me a real, magic 'Rabian flyin' carpet, so I wouldn't have to walk through these dark, old woods..."
As he says this, the smoke from the lantern flame grows into a tremendous cloud, which coalesces into a gigantic, turbaned, frog genie: the first of the "Jazz Frogs" we encounter in this cartoon. He speaks in a Louis Armstrong voice, saying:
"Yeah yeah yeah! You talk about you want a carpet! You want a magic carpet! You want a flyin' carpet! Well, boy, you got one--NOW!"
As he speaks the scene shifts from a "birds-eye" view of Bosko gaping open-mouthed at the genie, to a "worms-eye" view of the genie looking down at Bosko. We see him as if we were Bosko standing there looking at him.
With a "POOF!" from the genie and a curling wisp of smoke, the magic carpet appears. "Hold on, swing out now!" the genie bellows as Bosko steps on the carpet (stumbling a bit and falling on his backside in the process, cookies in hand). Taking out a trumpet, the frog genie plays a jazzy series of ascending notes and literally "blows" him, Bosko and the carpet through the sky. Bosko continues to look at him in wide-eyed wonder.
The carpet ripples up and down as it moves through a starry night sky, and Bosko has some difficulty maintaining his grip. The stars look literally like solid, shimmering glass or jewels--one sees a large planet (or perhaps a very close view of the moon) in the background in the upper left. The scene is very similar to THE MILKY WAY two years later, and one can't help but wonder if some footage and backgrounds might have been reused. The scene quickly changes to that of minarets poking above the clouds--they're in Baghdad in an instant!
They swoop down into a city of onion-domed buildings that reminded me a bit of the later ABDUL THE BULBUL AMEER, with the exception that these buildings are all white.
They land in a long rectangular pool in front of a palace, the carpet skipping across the water like a flat stone.
"All right! Dere you is! In little ol' Baghdad!" the genie tells Bosko.
Leading Bosko by the hand down a long entryway (flanked by columns that look more Roman than Arabian) into the palace, the genie says, "We're gonna see dat ol' Sultan--he's gonna be mighty glad to see you...heh heh heh! AND DOSE COOKIES, TOO!" Bosko has a little bit of difficulty keeping up as he's dragged along...
Reaching the door, the genie knocks: the scene shifts to a Stepin Fetchit caricature frog, moving slowly (naturally) mumbling "Doggone! Somebody always wantin' to see the sultan! Just when I got the misery in my feet..." (The Fetchit frog is in all the Bosko Trilogy cartoons, and is even the groom in SWING WEDDING).
The genie, though, opens the palace door himself, slamming the Fetchit frog behind it. "Knock knock!" says the genie..."Who dere?" says the Fetchit frog, poking his head through the peephole.
"Never mind that 'who dere'--HE'S GOT COOKIES!" the genie answers. Since we know the Sultan is bound to have a craving for cookies, especially those intended for a certain little kid's grandma, we're not surprised they easily gain entry.
The background is surprisingly detailed..the genie and Bosko pass through an area with what looks like wrought-iron grating, and there are numerous draped archways all around them. "But I'm takin' dese cookies to my grandma!" Bosko vainly protests.
"De Sultan" (we know he is because there's a sign on a pedestal beneath the throne saying this) says, "Well, what do ya know...man comin' down the aisle dere--why, it's ol' Fog Horn the genie! Yeah, I believe it is! Whatcha say there, Fog Horn?" The Sultan is an obvious Fats Waller caricature (with the trademark rolling goggle eyes) who has a piano perched alongside his ornate throne (on second viewing, it looks more as if the piano is built into the arm of the throne. He's playing a jazzy number as he chats away (I'd be interested to know who did the piano score for this). There's a bit of dialogue that sounds something like this (forgive me if it isn't quite accurate--the soundtrack is a bit muddy in spots):
"What d'ya say there, Sul?
""Well, whatcha know there, Sam?"
Well, all right, let's jam! But lemme tell ya somethin' (he learns in closer) "that ol' man's got cookies!"
The Sultan says, "You don't TELL me.." (was this a Waller catchprase also?) "Well, get dose cookies, boy--for the whole palace..."
Bosko, getting an idea what's up (after all, he's been through this for two cartoons already) starts to sneak off stage left, but the genie stops him: "Look here, boy, de Sultan, he say he's gonna give you de WHOLE palace, if you'll only give him, SOME OF DOSE L'IL OL' COOKIES!"
Bosko is standing, by the way, in front yet another piano next to a reddish-purple drapery--this Sultan guy apparently has a thing for pianos...
Hearing "de Sultan's" request, Bosko stammers, "B-b-b-but, dese my grandma's cookies!"
The Sultan says, "Yeah, watch this!" and claps his hands--on cue, a frog servant starts beating on a large drum, alternately tapping on it with his feet and arms, and bouncing on it with his rump. The scene changes to show a spray of water shoot up from an ornate fountain. It can be seen in the lower right of the frame, behind a curved stairway flanked by scrolled columns that look a bit like something out a Maurice Noble background. A harem of frog dancing girls in traditional costume start dancing down the stairway from the right.
Elbowing the Sultan, the genie says what sounds like. "Look at dat dere, boy!"
Cut to a close up shot of the harem girls dancing in a spiral in front of the camera, their diaphanous garments swirling---really a beautiful piece of animation.
The genie remarks, "Boy, you ain't saw nothin'.." which the Sultan, still playing completes: ..."yet!!" The Sultan claps his hands again, signaling two harem girls to open a drapery in front of a large entryway, revealing a Bill Robinson stand-in servant frog, dressed in a vest, shirt, long coat, bow tie and turban. He taps over to the Sultan's throne...
Figuring he might try tempting Bosko a little, the genie says, "Watch this, boy! POOF!" and with another swirl of smoke, a pile of fresh fruit appears in front of Bosko, at least three times as big as he is. Bosko whistles, throroughly impressed.
Cut to a shot that's quite visually impressive--we see the reflection of the Bill Robinson frog in the polished floor as he taps along, a very detailed and convincing piece of artwork which must have taken a great deal of time. He grabs an apple and stands, arm out, one leg crossed in front of the other, getting ready to present it to Bosko. He taps over to Bosko with the apple, who dances away, head turned and holding his palm out in a gesture of refusal, with an aloof expression, lower lip jutted out. This action repeats itself as the Bill Robinson frog presents Bosko with an orange (another sneaky Harman-Ising animation shortcut).
Thinking a bit, the Bojangles frog decides to pull out the heavy artillery: he takes a rag and polishes a watermelon as he would a pair of shoes. Taking a lage knife and slitting the watermelon open, he takes half of it and dances over to Bosko, camera right. It's a particularly succulent watermelon, dripping juice all over. Bosko starts to dance away, but...
...stops, for an instant, to sample the luscious watermelon (another un-P.C. moment, I admit, but I have to say that watermelon looked real enough to tempt ME). It probably looked even better when the film was in pristine condition. One can hardly blame poor little Bosko's moment of weakness.
But when he remembers the bag with his grandma's cookies, he regains his resolve: his body stiffens to attention, his chest juts out, his shoulders go back, and he defiantly yells, "NO!" He stamps his foot, looking a bit like Shirley Temple with that gesture, which suggests to me they might have rotoscoped a bit of a Temple film (even though Temple made films for a rival studio, could they have made a deal with Fox to get a short segment? I wonder...) In freeze-frame, the Bill Robinson frog registers wide-eyed, open-mouthed shock.
Throwing the melon up in the air in frustration, the Robinson frog yells "OWWWW!" while the Sultan and the genie join him. The Sultan, of course, adds the trademark Waller line, "WHAT'S DE MATTER WID HIM??" The melon lands and splatters all over the Sultan's head. He gets worked up into a frenzy, and the scene I have freeze-framed at the moment shows some blurred, or perhaps "smear" animation of the Sultan's head right after he erupts in fury. Yet another thing I didn't think Harman and Ising did. The Sultan starts playing the piano wildly, and both he and the genie start up with what has proved to be another recurring bit of theme music in these cartoons:
Sultan: "We can't have no Grandma's cookies today, Ow!
Genie: No Grandma's cookies, so de little man say...
Eenie, meenie, miney, mo..."
The Sultan then plays a strange little game of "eeny meenie miney mo" with the genie ,looking as if he's poking his finger in the genie's mouth and counting his teeth (?) The Sultan resumes his anguished playing, yelling what sounds like "Ooow! Cookies now!!"
The genie stands over Bosko, a little more threatening now. "Now is you, or is you ain't, gonna give us some o' dose l'il ol' cookies?"
Bosko responds with a delightful bit of wordplay (not to mention confusing--I've had to go back to it several times): "if you was my grandma, and he was me, and you was him, and he was you..."
The genie responds, "You mean, if he was you, and you was he, and I was him, and..." He's clearly getting more flustered and confused by the second (as am I trying to write this!) and dissolves into a babbling mess. face cockeyed and eyes crossed.
The Sultan, yowling his "What's de matter wid him?" line again, pulls a large lever to the right of the screen. As Bosko echoes the Sultan's line, he discovers the stairway under him is moving backward, a bit like an escalator or a moving sidewalk. He moves past a long procession of frog attendants beating on large drums. Behind little Bosko is what appears to be a large wooden drawbridge-like door, with spikes piercing through it. The door retreats into the floor, ceiling and walls...
Cut to a shot of a huge conveyer-like mechanism, with a four-foot high bottle of castor oil and an equally large spoon (which looks to be about five times too big for poor Bosko's mouth). Two frog attendants turn a huge crank which tips the huge bottle, pouring the awful glop into the enormous spoon. Bosko, in a mixture of surprise and dread, says, "Oooo!! Castor oil!!" For a second or two, his face turns a sickly green.
Kevin is particularly fond of this scene, by the way, and we've discussed it at length in the past. He compares the conveyer gadget those in a Max Fleischer cartoon, considering it the equal of anything Max ever dreamed up--and I have to agree. Hugh and Rudy obviously did study and learn from their competition, I think.
The genie grabs a three-foot long clothes pin and points it toward Bosko: the scene briefly cuts to a shot of the conveyer belt from below, as the castor oil dribbles a bit from the huge spoon into the machine's gears. (So that's how they lubricate the thing!)
The shot changes again to Bosko, the huge clothespin on his nose, gaping in fear at what's ahead--though still resolutely clutching the bag of cookies. As the huge spoon edges ever-closer to Bosko's mouth..
...we cut to a shot to the genie and the sultan: the genie says, "Give 'im the works, boy!!" The Sultan pulls another large lever, but before he can deliver the nasty dose, Bosko breaks free and tap-dances backward along the conveyer. Cut to another shot of the frog slave-attendants, beating the drums to a jazz rhythm this time. (Another possible Fleischer tribute, by the way--the frog attendants are hooded, much like the secret society members in BIMBO'S INITIATION).
The Sultan, desperately trying to get Bosko and the cookies, pulls the lever forward, then back, and forward, which sends the machine into a frenzy, dials spinning--as Scotty on STAR TREK would say, "she can't take much more o' this, Captain!" Bosko, meanwhile, keeps up with every maneuver, dancing furiously. We see what looks like smoke rising from his feet, though it's unclear whether it's the machinery, or Bosko's "hot dancing", that's the culprit. (Bosko's dancing does indeed set the pirate ship on fire in BOSKO AND THE PIRATES, which I'll discuss later).
A group of frog musicians claps along, clearly captivated. Bosko hops off the conveyer and onto a huge kettledrum which acts as a sort of conductor's platform. Becoming a mini-Cab Calloway right down to the dance moves, little Bosko conducts the orchestra and does his own version of the "Grandma's cookies" song, Calloway style:
You can't have no Grandma's cookies today, no!
No skeebadie bye, de ho de hi, de hey,
One can see the harem girls dancing behind him, casting huge shadows on the wall. I suspect this is reused, rotoscoped footage from the earlier SWING WEDDING. It's rather easy to tell, since they're not dancing in rhythm to the music, but at the same tempo as in the earlier film--the animation wasn't altered to fit the music for this particular cartoon.
The Sultan sings, "Eenie meenie miney mo, if he hollers let him go, cookies, cookies, cookies cookies, OW!" As he does this, he's clearly so agitated he tears his piano to pieces as he plays (another bit of reused footage, from the aforementioned SWING WEDDING).
Of the anarchic jazz sequences, Kevin once wrote that perhaps Hugh and Rudy, being midwesterners, didn't understand what these jazz guys were all about. I wonder about this, as they were from Kansas City, which had a pretty lively jazz scene in its own right. I don't think such wild scenes as the above (pre-dating the likes of Hendrix by decades) were meant to mock--Harman and Ising used references to jazz and jazz figures throughout their career,quite clearly loving the form and the people who made it (in one early Bosko entry, Honey belts out a dead-perfect Bessie Smith imitation). Perhaps they felt that in a cartoon medium, the music should seem even more otherworldly and out-of-control.
After the Sultan pretty much pounds his piano into kindling, the genie joins him, jumping up and down on the wreckage. WIth a "YOW!!" he jumps on top of the genie, who staggers a bit trying to carry him--in doing so, he stumbles near the conveyer himself, and--what else?--both end up trapped on the mechanism, heading dangerously close to the castor oil.
That's where the real fun of the film starts--Harman and Ising resort to the kind of cartoon impossibility they hadn't used since their early, "rubber-hose" days. As the frogs reprise the "Grandma's Cookies" number and struggle to get off the conveyer, they smash into each other, back to back, appearing for a moment to look like a two-headed creature. The Sultan peels free of the genie, only to be ground under a wheel like a log in a sawmill--he literally gets sawed into dust, then the dust reassembles again.
Bosko is still conducting all of this: a trombone slides between his legs, hoisting him in the air. He playfully "duels" with it as he conducts. Grabbing the trombone, he "pumps up" one of the frog musicians, causing the frog to burst like a ballloon--and fragment into ten tiny little frogs playing toy trumpets. Harman and Ising literally pulled out every animation trick in their arsenal--this one dated back to their earliest days on the Oswald films.
Cut to a shot of a frog musician playing four clarinets with his hands and feet, while two others frogs, their trumpets facing each other, alternately inflate and deflate themselves. Their horns balloon up, threatening to burst, only to let out a huge puff of steam.
Cut to a shot of Bosko conducting, doing the chassic "Whiteman pose" that Hugh and Rudy used again and again (looking over his shoulder at the audience). That same bit of business was used in TOYLAND BROADCAST, not to mention several Warner's cartoons that relied on Whiteman caricatures (WAKE UP THE GYPSY IN ME is but one of many).
Meanwhile, the genie makes a mad scramble for the lever to stop the conveyer, He manages to grab it, only to be thrown back and forth several times (causing the conveyer to alternate between "forward" and "reverse.") This of course sends the poor Sultan bouncing back and forth on the conveyer like a rubber ball. He yells "Ooow! Stop this thing!" (Or so it sounds to my less-than-ideal ears).
The genie manages to pull the lever, but gets thrown backward from the momentum, knocking into the Sultan, who's propelled toward Bosko. Sliding to the spot where the drum on which Bosko was standing had been, he yells while Bosko tap-dances on his stomach: "Ooow! Dose cookies!" With a final "POOF!" from the genie, Bosko is transported back home.
"No sir," Bosko says, relieved to be back."Dey can't have my grandma's cookies!" He resumes his little "Straight to Grandma's" chant, It now appears to be almost dawn.
Hearing another "Whooo" from an owl, a terrified Bosko flees toward the waiting light of his grandma's front door. As he screams "Grandma, GRANDMA!!" (in very genuine terror) we fade out--and Bosko fades into animation history. So long, kiddo. You'll be missed.
When I first saw this cartoon more than a year ago, two things immediately came to mind.
First is how much things have changed in the past few decades regarding the safety of small children. Bosko's mother sends him off into the night, without the fear that something might happen to him. Imagine any mother doing that in this paranoid time. (Halloween was just a few nights ago, of course, and the local news programs were filled with reports of measures designed to keep potential sex offenders at bay. It makes my generation's worry about lunatics putting razor blades in apples seem naive).
Second was how difficult the background is to see. Yes, it takes place at night, but one wonders if the background would be more visible in a better print. I imagine something similar to SNOW WHITE, in which the trees grow more menacing the more fearful she becomes, seeming even to sprout eyes and arms.
By the end, Bosko had really blossomed as a personality--the one thing he'd been lacking for much of his short existence. Bosko didn't make things happen--things happened to him. He ended up being little more than an incidental character in his own cartoons, and it didn't take much for another character to steal his spotlight. This--ironically enough--was usually Honey, originally meant for little more than a secondary, Minnie Mouse-like role. Honey drove the plot, was the "brains" of the pair, and acted as Greek chorus to Bosko's stumbling. In CIRCUS DAZE, after chastising Bruno and telling him to "watch his step", Bosko unwittingly stumbles into an elephant's watering tank. "Bosko," Honey asks with a grin, "what's the difference between you and a fish?"
When he says he doesn't know, she tells him, "A fish is all WET, silly!"
"Well, I's all wet," Bosko responds.
"Well, I guess there ain't no difference!" Honey says, laughing.
Even in the early Warner's cartoons, Honey attracted the attention. In the very first Looney Tune, she expresses extreme displeasure at Bosko's saxophone playing. Deciding to drown him out, she dumps the contents of her bathtub into his sax--which causes mellower music to emerge. In BOSKO IN PERSON, she wows the audience with a Bessie Smith-style blues number (see above) while Bosko tries unsuccessfully to master the same tired old time step.
In THE OLD HOUSE, she displays a vast range of emotions, from smugness and childlike mischievousness, to glee, to terror and back again. Bosko, in his misguided attempt to save her, only worsened an already bad situation.
This started to change by BOSKO'S EASTER EGGS--he shows he's not above a little trickery, stealing the eggs from Honey's hen to replace the Easter eggs he smashed. Yet Honey again was the dominant character, acting as his conscience, in a sense.
With one important difference--his actions caused the situation, not those of Honey or some other character. He was coming into his own, and by the Bosko Trilogy, was fully fleshed out, with a vivid imagination and full range of emotions. Honey was gone, but he really didn't need her anymore. (Which of course in no way diminishes Kevin's or my fondness for the character.) One wonders what sort of character he might have developed into had he been around a few more years. We'll never know, but we at least have the films--and the memories.
Tags: Bosko+In+Baghdad, Hugh+Harman, racial+stereotypes, jazz, frogs, Bosko+Trilogy, review-synopsis, orphan+toon
Friday, November 03, 2006
I have two reasons to celebrate today: