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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Swing Shakespeare: ROMEO IN RHYTHM (1940)

Maintaining a blog such as this one is often a demanding, time-consuming task: one review can comprise as much as eight hours of work, not counting proofreading (I've been known to correct errors in these entries as for as long as four days after they're first posted). With that in mind, it's usually a good idea to have a review or two in reserve--and fortunately, I do.

To whet the appetites of the growing number of readers, I've decided to take a break from the Bosko Trilogy for a short time and post the often-discussed, long-promised ROMEO IN RHYTHM here. This easily qualifies as my all-time favorite example of Hugh and Rudy's work; as with most of the Harman-Ising cartoons I love, it defies expectations as to what a "Harman-Ising" cartoon should be. And for good reason...

As you already know if you've been following along, MGM, figuring they could produce cartoons more cheaply if they did them themselves, set up their own studio in the summer of 1937. In what must be an unwritten rule of animation production, the studio brass installed as head of the new cartoon division a man with no knowledge of, or interst in, cartoons: Fred Quimby. They could just as easily have "installed" a potted plant for all his involvement in the venture--if they had, they might have avoided the disasters of those first few months.

Noting that THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS was a popular comic strip, and that Warner Bros. cartoons were beginning to gain notice, Quimby's first move was to announce a slate of animated CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons. His second move was hire the already-venerable Friz Freleng away from Leon Schlesinger to direct them. Strike one and two.

Freleng hated THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS. Hated it. With an all-consuming passion. Calling the main characters of Hans and Fritz "the meanest little bastards in the world," he expressed extreme doubt (to put it politely) that the characters could make the transition from the comic page to the screen. Think a moment. How many comic strips, besides PEANUTS, proved to be as successful in animation as in strip form? I'll wait....

Exactly. While I personally feel the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons were a worthy first effort, movie audiences of the time apparently didn't. Freleng ran screaming back to Leon after a little less than two years, making the classic YOU OUGHT TO BE IN PICTURES as his act of contrition.

One has to give credit to Quimby, though, for wanting to buck the current trend in animation--that is, to slavishly imitate Walt Disney. He instead brought in an influx of New York talent, among them Jack Zander*, Bill Littlejohn, and a former bank teller from Brooklyn you probably never heard of named Joe Barbera. And placed strip cartoonist Milt Gross in charge of this New York nuthouse, to create a series of cartoons based on his "Count Screwloose" character.

Strike three.

The "series" of cartoons turned out to be just two: JITTERBUG FOLLIES and WANTED, NO MASTER. While great cartoons (particularly the former) audiences just didn't warm up to the character. Gross' humor translated better to the screen than THE CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS had, but he may have been a little too New York (read: "too Jewish") for most audiences. He lasted less than a year--Quimby, figuring he'd do better with another New York cartoonist, brought in Harry Hirschfeld, who ended up not staying long enough to do anything of note. (Note: I've since learned I got the order wrong here. Hirschfeld came first, but didn't last long enough to make a single cartoon. One wonders what he might have done--an animated version of his "Abie The Agent," perhaps?)

In desperation, Quimby did the only thing he could do--re-hire the most profitable team MGM had to date: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. With some important differences.

First, they would be independent no longer, but mere studio employees. Second, they would have to work with this new, somewhat raw, New York crowd of animators.

ROMEO IN RHYTHM, from 1940, shows much of this new influence, combining Hugh and Rudy's already-existing love of jazz with a rougher, urban sensibility. While the cartoon opens in a typical Harman-Ising pastoral setting (a cornfield) this is no bucolic fantasy, but a true MGM musical on par with anything Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, or even Gene Kelly produced. It practically shouts to the world that it's an MGM cartoon, filled with references to the studio's current films (as you will see shortly).

So let's bring the house lights down while I bring you the review/synopsis of ROMEO IN RHYTHM...

Hi Kevin,

Years ago, I would have choked rather than say this about any Harman-Ising cartoon, but ROMEO IN RHYTHM is an absolute joy to watch. Unlike the somewhat overdone raucousness of SWING WEDDING, this is a subdued, one might even say sweet, tribute to black music and culture. A sort of animated CARMEN JONES, if you like. While the principal players being caricatured as crows might bring howls of "racism" now, one can easily forgive such a practice in this cartoon--indeed, it seems perfectly logical. One would expect crows, if they could talk, sing and dance, to put on a show such as this.

Scott Bradley really rose to the challenge here--the score is perhaps the liveliest of any in the Harman-Ising era, and foreshadows the wonderful jazzy, brassy scores of the Tom and Jerry cartoons of the forties. One can sense that a changing of the guard is about to occur. The scene opens at night, in (where else?) a cornfield in moonlight--the crow audience is shown in shadow. The camera trucks toward a scarecrow, under whose rags is concealed a crow-sized stage. Two crows part the curtains to reveal a sign reading: THE BLACK CROW LIGHT OPERA COMPANY PRESENTS...ROMEO AND JULIET.

Like "West Side Story" a couple of decades later, however, this is a contemporary musical retelling of a classic Shakespeare story: the stage set is a back alley showing a ramshackle balcony on an equally ramshackle building, with trash cans sloppily lining the alley below. We see our hero "Romeo" tiptoeing behind a fence to meet his lady love, to a brief snatch of the Sextette from Lucia de Lammermoor on the sound track. The track quickly switches to swing when we get our first full look at our Romeo--he's really gotten into the part, dressed in true Shakespearean fashion in a floppy cavalier hat and ruff, and carrying what looks like a lute.

Our hero says "What light, through yonder window shines! It's Juliet!" We see our "Juliet" behind the windowshade of her apartment, in shadow, preparing for the romantic evening. She's putting powder on her face, and applying perfume. A fly can be seen buzzing around her bedroom, and in a nice little comic bit, she uses the perfume to make short work of the fly.

Continuing to wax poetic, our hero says:

How I'd love to be that powder puff,
That pats her lovely cheek, And to be that 'atonomizer',
That makes her smell so sweet...

(a little editorial note here. I know you heard one word as "economizer", but given that spray perfume bottles like the one described above are called "atomizers", I suspect the Romeo crow malapropized the word a bit, so that it came out "atonomizer.")

As our Juliet plucks her eyebrows, "Romeo" plays a little game of "she loves me, she loves me not" with himself, acting as if she were plucking the petals of a flower. She tugs on one particularly stubborn hair while Romeo says, "She loves---she loves--she loves--she LOVES ME!" Delighted, Romeo says, "L'amour, toujour, l'amour...that's the stuff, buddy!"

Here he starts playing his lute (like a modern guitar) and breaks into song when he calls her. We hear the first bit of rhyming patter between the two of them:

ROMEO: Flat-foot Julie, ain't you comin' down?
JULIET: Who's dat down there, snoopin' round?
ROMEO: It's Romey, honey, I wants to woo...
JULIET: Well, okay, honey, 'cause I does too...

He then breaks into a pretty decent rendition of the Freed/Brown song "You Were Meant For Me," while she swoons, "Ah, good ol' Shakespeare!" and "Swing it, Romey darlin' swing it!" Romeo is really getting into the spirit of the number, banging his feet on the lids of the trash cans in time to the music.

Our Juliet, meanwhile, is reclining on the edge of the balcony sniffing a potted rose, saying, "Ah, what's in a rose!" Unfortunately, she lets loose of the plant, which hits our hero on the head mid-song. He falls amidst the clatter of trash cans and junk, down into the cellar.

Emerging, he's wearing the junk in such a way that he resembles the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, even carrying his lute over his shoulder like the Tin Man's axe. He of course sings, a bit woozily, "We're Off To See The Wizard," a nice little nod to the then-recent movie. He clatters forward, tripping and running headlong into a telephone pole.

Resuming "You Were Meant For Me," when he gets to the lyrics "I'm content, honey, the an-gels-must-have-sent you..." he shakes his foot to every syllable in an attempt to knock loose the piece of junk still stuck to it.

But before he's finished with his song, he receives another unwelcome distraction in the form of a newspaper hit to the head--delivered by a crow on a bicycle yelling "Morning paper!" His face gets shoved back into the junk, and he ends up with a funnel on his beak. Attempting to resume his number, he tries to sing, but the funnel on his beak causes nothing but a "honking" noise to issue forth. He remarks, "Ain't this a mess?"

He tries yet again to resume the number--only to be interrupted again. This time it's by the milkman, who's warbling "I'm An Old Cowhand..." Romeo waits in frustration as the milkman noisily gathers up the milk bottles and leaves.

As Groucho would say, "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude..." The milkman here looks amazingly like Heckle--or maybe Jeckle--of Terrytoons fame. More than the other crows do, actually, since he's about the same proportions as the Terrytoon characters. He even sounds like the Brooklynese magpie of the pair.

Our Romeo tries to sing yet again--he's persistent if nothing else--and is unfortunately interrupted again, by a pair of dogs who run underneath him with cans tied to their tails. This flips our poor Romeo up into the air slightly--the scene switches to a close-up of the dogs as they exit: we discover they have a sign trailing them which reads "Just Married."

Sure now there'll be no more interruptions, our Romeo continues with his number, his Juliet singing along. But just when he gets to the lyrics, "Nature patterned you and when..she..was..done..." the music on the sound track shifts to a jungle theme. We see a group of crows who are inexplicably on safari in this urban background, carrying equipment on their heads like African natives. The lead crow is wearing a pith helmet and a Spencer Tracy mask.

While Romeo stands leaning on his lute in disgust, the Tracy crow asks him, "Pardon me, Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" (Another topical nod to a recent movie, "Stanley and Livingstone.") When it's clear from Romeo's expression that he's NOT Dr. Livingstone, the Tracy crow tips his hat and says, "Oops..sorry, old chap.." and continues onward. A tiny crow brings up the rear, bearing a bundle that's at least ten times as big as he is, and teetering unsteadily with every step. He remarks to Romeo: "I sure wish you was Dr. Livingstone--I'm tired!!"

Our hero has had enough. He kicks his lute in anger (which, in yet another indignity, bounces up and hits him in the head), and goes into what has to be the highlight number of the cartoon, "You Got To Be Alone To Woo..."

If you want to do a little fancy wooin',
If you want to play the part of Romeo,
You has got to have seclusion from intrusion,
You has got to have a lonely place to go..."

As he sings the following,

Now, you can't make love in Coney Island
I say, brother, don't come up here to bill and coo...

...the scene dissolve-wipes from the balcony set to--I'm not sure there's a name for this sort of thing, but you know those poster-board things with a hole at the top to put your head through? They have funny cartoon bodies drawn on them, and people have gag pictures taken in them at Coney Island? Romeo and his Juliet are in one of those things, against what looks like a cardboard beach backdrop, with cartoony people looking on. The crow lovers' heads bounce along to the music as Romeo sings.

As he sings,

And love can't find a l'il ol' goldfish,
Not with all these people peekin' through...

The scene dissolves to a different poster board and backdrop, so that they appear to look like goldfish in a bowl, being gawked at by pet-shop patrons.

When he sings,

And how the subway crowd,
Is gonna laugh real loud,
When a guy tries lovin' his miss...

...the scene changes, appropriately, to a backdrop of a crowded subway, and our pair look like passengers squeezed into the car.

When he continues with,

And the very last row,
In the movie show,
Is the main attraction when you're stealin' a kiss...

..the stage backdrop changes to fit that scene as well. The final scene in the song shows them in what looks like a jalopy against a supposedly secluded outdoor backdrop, as Romeo sings,

When you're parked in your car in the moonlight,
At last you're alone, just you two...oops!

The lights come up to reveal they're really on stage at the Hollywood Bowl!--as Romeo sings,

You're parked in dat hole,
called de Hollywood Bowl,
You got to be alone to woo...

As he finishes his song, the scene dissolves back to the balcony set, where Juliet tells him, "Well, Romeo honey, you IS alone!" Indeed he is--climbing a ladder to the balcony, he exclaims, "Sweeeetheart!" and is just about to kiss his Juliet at last when...

Juliet's alarm rings. Frantically, she stops and says, "I's late for work, honey!" Grabbing a corset from the clothesline, she runs back inside, saying "Forgot my gloves!"

What follows is a flurry of activity seen in silhouette from behind the windowshade: she takes off her "Juliet" costume, puts her corset and a dress on, quickly downs a donut and a cup of coffee, runs into the bedroom to check her hat, then scrambles downstairs.

Waving to the flabbergasted Romeo, she says, "Goodbye, goodbye, 'til we meet tomorrow/partin' is such sweet sorrow!"

She runs off, knocking over Romeo's ladder--with him still on it. He quickly grabs the balcony rails before he falls. Saying frustratedly, "Partin' is such sweet sorrow!" our Romeo holds his nose (do crows have noses? Well, nostrils anyway). and dives down into the pile of junk below. The last thing we see is several tin cans being knocked in the air, while Romeo's hat floats downward. Iris out.

You mentioned Scott Bradley's score at the end, with the fast version of "You Were Meant For Me." That reminded me there was a small snatch of original Bradley music in the scenes in which Juliet is changing clothes, that sounds oddly similar to the one used for the earliest Tom and Jerrys. If you remember the theme used for the opening credits of PUSS GETS THE BOOT, you know which I mean. Until I saw this cartoon, I was unaware that theme had been used for anything but the early Tom and Jerry cartoons.

As I said in the beginning, we get the idea that a changing of the guard is not long in coming, and even the use of that music seems to predict that. Assuming ROMEO IN RHYTHM came out before PUSS GETS THE BOOT, that is--I'd have to look at the Maltin book for the production order. You had also wondered what effect Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera had on Harman and Ising's timing. The answer I originally planned to give was that I suspected Harman and Ising had more of an effect on Hanna and Barbera's timing than vice-versa, at least until Tex Avery came along: after all, Hanna had been timing director on TO SPRING, as you aptly pointed out, and had learned how to time cartoons at the feet of Rudy Ising. Also, PUSS GETS THE BOOT is still planted very firmly in the style of Rudy Ising, though Bill and Joe were the actual directors.

Having taken a good look at the final scenes of this cartoon, I'm no longer certain my glib answer was truly on the mark. Like LONESOME STRANGER and parts of THE OLD HOUSE and CIRCUS DAZE, ROMEO IN RHYTHM has moments in which the tempo gets ramped up rapidly for short stretches. Hanna (not to mention his then-new partner Barbera--R.) might have had an effect on the timing after all--when not forced by the storyline of the cartoon to stick to a more Disneylike pacing, he could have a good sense of comic timing.

My alternate theory, which I've written of before, might also be somewhat true: the influx of New York people during the Milt Gross era might also have sped things up and forced Hugh and Rudy into more contemporary pacing and storylines. Even taking into account such cartoons as CIRCUS DAZE, this cartoon is atypical of Harman and Ising on so many levels.

For one, it's contemporary and topical: sure, they had made topical references in cartoons before, as with the animated Roosevelt in BOSKO'S PICTURE SHOW and the celebrity caricatures of TOYLAND BROADCAST. But those were brief snatches: Hugh and Rudy's cartoons tended to exist in a timeless fantasy universe. Even TOYLAND BROADCAST had fantasy elements, with its toys come to life.

But not ROMEO IN RHYTHM. The music, the characters, and the pacing clearly placed the cartoon into the "here and now." (In 1940, that is). Moreover, this cartoon more than any other announced to the world that this was an MGM film. Very aggressively so, in fact, as much as any Gene Kelly musical. I cannot for the life of me remember such liberal use of music from other MGM films, and references to said films, in any of the other HAPPY HARMONIES.. Their HAPPY HARMONIES before this could well have been the product of any studio--one could not fathom merely by looking at them that they were done under the auspices of the MGM lion, unless one saw the opening titles. This cartoon changed everything, and they would never turn back.

I honestly can't see why anyone would object to this cartoon for any reason. The racial inferences are gentle, and Harman-Ising resorted to their usual trick of casting the principals as animals to both justify and blunt the harshness of the caricature. This is a great cartoon by anyone's standard, and I imagine the music cannot help but win over even the most sensitive. It is second only to COAL BLACK in its use of music to energize the cartoon, and for that reason, deserves not to be forgotten.

*(Correction: Jack Zander, I found to my embarrassment, was a California animator who had worked with Bob McKimson at the aborted Romer Grey studio in 1930, on a character called "Binko The Bear Cub"--yet another Mickey Mouse clone.--R.)

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