I love you, Netflix.
To those of you wondering "Where the heck is Bosko already?" Well...there are extenuating circunstances, you might say.
Bosko and the Jazz Frogs will have to "take five" while I devote this week to some long-unseen Warner's classics. Read on and you'll understand why.
When the latest four-disk set of the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION was released less than a week ago, I moved it up to the top of my Netflix queue so fast the Road Runner couldn't have caught up with it. Saturday morning, I found three lovely little disks in my mailbox--so you can guess how I spent my weekend.
Beats having to pay the prices they're charging at Amazon...
To those of you just emerging from a five-year coma who haven't heard of Netflix yet, it's an online DVD rental service in which customers pay a flat fee to have DVDs mailed to them. No late fees--one can keep them indefinitely. Depending on the payment plan, a person can rent one, two, three or even four DVDs at a time. Once returned,the customer will get the next one, two, or three disks on his or her personal list, or "queue." (Custumers upon signup are urged to maintain a backlog of at least five titles).
I'm on the three-disk-at-a-time plan at the moment--budget considerations make it imprudent for me to go any higher--but sets like this are making me seriously consider an upgrade.
To say the least, the LOONEY TUNES GOLDEN COLLECTION IV is a toon geek's paradise. While some initial fan grousing made me a bit apprehensive (some complained about what they felt was an overabundance of Friz Freleng cartoons, and Speedy Gonzales cartoons in particular) there's a pretty fair balance between old favorites (Frank Tashlin's NOW THAT SUMMER IS GONE and THE CASE OF THE STUTTERING PIG) cartoons that haven't been seen in years (FORWARD MARCH HARE, KNIGHT-MARE HARE, GREY-HOUNDED HARE), rarities (the Chuck Jones-directed military films 90-DAY WONDERING and DRAFTY, ISN'T IT?) and the outright banned (MISSISSIPPI HARE, SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT) to keep a toon fanatic like me mesmerized. And provide me with a wealth of blog material, no less.
All the more amazing is this: access the main menu on disk one, and you will be greeted with a decidedly un-PC image of Bugs in blackface, from SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT. Not buried in the background, but right there for everyone to see. Jerry Beck, a consultant on this project, has apparently been successful in persuading Warner's to listen to us fans who want to see "orphan toons", even if preceded by the usual disclaimer. Which, thankfully, is a bit less intrusive on this set. Frankly, it's about time.
Therefore, for a site such as this, it seems only appropriate to begin with that very cartoon, the one placed boldly front and center: Friz Freleng's overlooked SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT.
This cartoon and I have a good deal of personal "history." Or, I should say, it and my South Carolina-raised mother do. Most cartoons she barely tolerated--this one she loved, if only for the scene at the Mason-Dixon line, as Bugs crosses instantly from Mad Max-like devastation to a land straight out of GONE WITH THE WIND: riverboats, magnolias, antebellum mansions and cotton fields. Watching it became an event of sorts, one of the few things were could share.
So Mom, if you're reading this, this is for you...
Released on May 2, 1953, this is a fairly typical Bugs Bunny/Yosemite Sam entry, filled with gags we've seen, or will see, in other Freleng cartoons. I'll note those as I come to them. It's also, in a sense, not a true "orphan toon": it has seen more airplay both on Saturday morning and local afternoon television within than is typical of the cartoons presented here. But I can guarantee one thing: unless you're my age or older, you haven't seen as much of it as you think.
As we see the main title, we hear the song "Are You From Dixie?" on the sound track (a fairly common theme Stalling used for cartoons set in the South). Freleng's usual suspects animate this cartoon: Virgil Ross, Art Davis, Manuel Perez, and Ken Champin. At least those are the ones credited, which as any Warner's devotee knows, does not necessarily reflect who actually worked on it.
The first shot we see is of a white picket fence which, as the camera pans to the right, is revealed to be smack in the middle of a farm landscape so devastated as to make the Dust Bowl seem like a minor heat wave. A discarded plow, apparently not used for ages, occupies one corner in the background. The only thing that looks even remotely alive in this endless semi-desert is Bugs, whom we see in medium shot bending over, picking and tossing aside some pretty sorry excuses for "carrots," which look as if they could benefit from a little Viagra.
He remarks, "Ugh! What carrots!" Picking up one particularly anemic one, he says, "Look at this tired specimen!" The "tired specimen" promptly flops down in his hand like a piece of wet linguine.
The camera switches to a "bird's-eye" of Bugs as he continues looking for a decent carrot (to no avail). There's a discarded newspaper lying just to the left of him: the headline is readable, but we'll get to that in a minute. Bugs complains, "I haven't seen a decent carrot for months around these parts!"
He happens to notice the discarded newspaper, and his eyes immediately light upon the headline: RECORD CARROT CROP IN ALABAMA. The headline is accompanied by an image of a mustachioed farmer holding a carrot nearly as tall as he is. (I looked long and hard for inside jokes here, such as the farmer bearing the name of one of the production crew, but no luck).
Bugs reads the headline aloud, then exclaims "Alabama!? Then I'm Alabamy bound!" (A reference, in case you didn't know, to a popular song dating back to the twenties). He triumphantly marches off into the distance, singing "Dixie."
Cut to the next shot, taking place an apparent loooong time later. Still in the midst of miles and miles of ruin (apparently we're supposed to believe all the cities have been anihlated--there isn't a sign of civilization anywhere, except for some tumbledown telephone poles) Bugs trudges along toward the camera, a step at a time, ears drooping and perspiration flying. In between bouts of panting and wheezing, Bugs still sings Dixie, albeit with considerably less enthusiasm: "Away...away...away...down South...in Dixie..."
He pauses as the camera switches to a medium shot, as he remarks, "I wonder why they put the South so far south?"
No sooner has he said this than he discovers he is, indeed, right at the fabled Mason-Dixon line, as the sign conveniently says. It's rendered quite literally here--the cracked desert of the North stops abruptly at the line, replaced by green grass and scenes that look like outtakes from GONE WITH THE WIND: a paddle-wheel steamboat chugs along the river in the background to the left of the screen, surrounded by views of magnolias and luxurious plantations. Is it any wonder my mother loves this?
Maybe she ought to have sent a thank-you letter to Hawley Pratt and Irv Weiner while she still had the chance.They created this background in unusually painstaking detail for an early-fifties Warner's cartoon This was an era, after all, when shortcuts started to creep into Warner's animation (and I wouldn't be a very good reviewer if I didn't point them out, would I?)
With a faux Southern accent and clasping his hands to his chest in a somewhat effeminate manner, Bugs exclaims, "Well, shut mah mouth and call me cornpone--if it ain't the i'il ol' South!!" (A little side note here: some of the facial expressions and poses look so highly distorted as to almost be that of Rod Scribner and/or Emery Hawkins--but then, they worked for McKimson, didn't they?)
Bugs, re-engergized, marches across the line, singing "Ah's comin', ah's comin' but my head is bendin'--"
He's rudely interrupted by a gunshot coming from off camera to the left of the screen. Bugs ducks, and as a result the bullet barely grazes his ears. Bugs completes the last word of his song in a basso voice: "Loooow!"
It doesn't take us long to discover where the ruckus is coming from. For the first time we see Yosemite Sam, standing atop a sand fortification in full--if slightly frayed--Confederate uniform. A cannon is just to the left of Sam, while a Confederate flag is to the right. Sam, as always armed to the teeth, brandishes a sword and a pistol.
Yelling "CHAAARGE!"--his tiny body suspended in mid-air--Sam rushes off the right of the screen toward the borderline, bullets flying. Poor Bugs is sent scrambling back over to the Yankee side of the line, where he dives behind a rock.
Sam follows, bellowing "Git back there, ya danged Yankee!" He's so caught up in his pursuit, however, he fails to realize he's just crossed over onto the Northern side--when he does, he skids to a stop.
"Great horny toads! I'm up north!" he says, making a hasty retreat toward his side of the line. Hopping up and down on alternate feet as if someone has just applied a match to them, he adds, "Gotta burn my boots--they tetched Yankee soil!"
I think we know now why a lot of Confederate troops were barefoot by the end of the war, don't we? And even at age twelve, I thought he was incredibly generous to refer to that stuff on the Yankee side as "soil."
Cut to a shot of a white flag emerging from Bugs' hiding place behind his rock. Sam commands, "Lay down yer arms and step forward, Yankee!" Bugs does, taking his place on his side of the boundary line, still waving his flag.
He starts calmly chewing on an uncharacteristically healthy-looking carrot (where'd he get it? He couldn't find a decent one up North, remember?) as Sam keeps his weapons trained on him. Still his normally cocky self (especially considering he's been repeatedly shot at) he says, "What's the hassle, Schmassle?"
Cut to a close-up of Sam, who says, "My orders from General Lee is to hold the Masey/Dixie line!" Bringing his weapons a bit closer, he says, "And no Yankee's a-crossin' it!!"
Cut to a close up of Bugs, who says, "General Lee? Why, The War Between The States ended almost ninety years ago!" (And Sam's still kicking? Must be that fresh Southern air. Or pure bullheadedness, knowing him.) One can't help but think of the Laurel and Hardy movie "Blockheads," in which Stan plays a WWI soldier still marching in the trenches years after the war ended. Of course, Stan could plead stupidity--come to think of it, Sam isn't all that bright either.
Incidentally, isn't it interesting how Friz uses the Southern term for the Civil War? (There are people in the South to this day who refuse to refer to it as a "civil war," on the premise that it was a war between two separate nations). Who'd have known the Kansas City-raised Friz would have Southern sympathies? Or maybe Warner's was just afraid of offending its Southern movegoers?
Where were we? Oh yes--Sam says "I know, clockwatcher! But until I hears from General Lee official, I'm a-blastin' any Yankee that sets foot on Southern soil!" (He's going to have a long wait, considering Lee died in 1870).
Pardon my interruption again. The IMDB (which a dear friend of mine has dubbed the "I.M. Dumb") mistranscribes the above line as "I ain't no clockwatcher!" The closed captioning is somewhat different, rendering it as "I'm no clockwatcher!" Trust me, I've watched this enough times to tell you they're both wrong. Now back to the cartoon...
Sam screams, "SO SCRAM, YANKEE!" and sends Bugs back to his refuge in a hail of bullets, having apparently been supplied with enough ammo to last nine decades.
Remember when I said if you've seen this cartoon in the last couple of decades, you haven't really seen it? Well, here's what you've been missing:
Sam marches back and forth, camera right to camera left. As he makes his final turn toward the camera he stops in surprise, remarking "It's one of our boys..."
"One of our boys" just happens to be Bugs, who passes in front of Sam dressed as a slave (in Jolson-like blackface, yet--this is what we see on the main menu) and strumming a banjo. He's dragging his feet and singing in a Stepin Fetchit-like drawl, "Oh, de sun shines bright on my ol' Kentucky home..." The restoration on the DVD makes Bugs' disguise look especially garish.
Sam, looking oddly pleased (considering his background) to see what he thinks is a black man, says, "Hey, boy!" (Ouch! Did he have to say that?) "How 'bout makin' with somethin' peppy on that thar skid box?"
Bugs slowly raises his head and drawls, "Yowsuh.." and immediately launches into a rousing rendition of "Yankee Doodle," in his normal voice. (A variation on that gag, incidentally, had already used in a Chuck Jones Charlie Dog cartoon, DOGGONE SOUTH--but then, Chuck seemed to get along with Friz better than with the other directors, so this "cross-pollenation" of gags between the two of them comes as no surprise).
Sam, incensed, runs up to Stepin Bugs, pointing his sword at him. "Yankee Doodle?! Yooou traitor..."
Before Sam has time to do anything, however, Bugs proceeds to confuse him by placing a whip in his hand and pleading,"Don't whip me massa! Don't whip dis tired ol' body! Nooo!" He emphasizes his mock-fright by running in circles, cowered with his hands covering his head. (Call me twisted, but I love this scene. Not to mention what follows...)
Instantly, Bugs exits to the right of the frame and re-emerges in an Abe Lincoln getup, complete with a long tubelike coat reaching to his feet, and matching stovepipe hat. (No pants, strangely enough.) In a deep, resonant voice, Bugs admonishes Sam: "What's this I hear about you whippin' slaves?"
Poor Sam, throughly flustered by now, can only stammer, "But-but-but-but-but..."
Bugs interrupts him, handing him a business card: "Never mind the 'buts.' Here's my card--look me up at my Gettysburg address!" (Yuk yuk! And you thought only Tex Avery did cornball puns).
To those "special features" weirdos like me: if you choose to listen to the "music only" track, you can hear a few quick bars of "Hail To The Chief" on the soundtrack in this segment.
Cut to a shot of Bugs walking away from the camera, in a waddling, almost Chaplin-like walk (in that outfit, how else could he walk?). We--and Sam--see his tail pokiing out from the back of his coat.
Yet another reused gag here--Freleng always thought that if a gag worked once, it should work multiple times. It's taken from an earlier cartoon with Daffy and Elmer Fudd. Daffy cons Elmer into thinking he had saved Daffy's life, and promises to be his slave. Daffy also resorts to the Abe Lincoln bit, adding instead of the "Gettysburg Address" line, "Well, see that ya don't...bub!" Both Kevin and I feel the bit is actually a good deal more logical--and funny--in SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, since the context is more appropriate.
Realizing he's been had, Sam's pupils narrow in shock. He goes into one of his patented temper explosions ("OOOOOH!!") and jumps up into the air yelliing "CHAAARRGE!" He disappears stage left as the scene shifts to Bugs diving into a hollow tree. In the version most people saw, everything from Sam marching along the border up to Bugs diving into the tree is typically cut, making the viewer think Bugs jumped all the way from his side of the line into the tree. I know rabbits can jump, but wow...
I should really call the viewer's attention to a minor, but stunning background detail here. Behind Sam as he's having his temper tantrum is not only a scene of meticulously-rendered cotton fields, but a gnarled tree with some of the roots showing--a nice realistic touch in contrast to the cartoony characters.
He re-emerges in the next scene from the right, and reaches the tree containing the concealed Bugs, Sam yells, "Awright, ya fur-bearin' carpetbagger! I'm a-givin' ya one second to come out before I BLOW you out!!" A second later, he pulls a bomb from his coat: "Time's up!" (My, but he's a literal cuss, isn't he?) and tries to light the fuse. Bugs, of course, pokes his head out of the tree and promptly blows the fuse out.
Sam, naturally, figures he'll go a few feet further back and try again. But this time, an approximately ten-foot straw emerges from the tree, and the fuse is blown out yet again. (Sound familiar? We'll see this same gag in THE THREE LITTLE BOPS, four years later). Sam lets out another "OOOOH!" of frustration and goes even further--a little too far. Before he can get back to the tree, the bomb explodes in his hands. When the smoke clears, we see him, jumping up and down, his clothes in tatters, yelling "OOOH! I HATE THAT RABBIT!!"
While Sam is pondering his next move, we cut to a scene of a tent, from which Bugs emerges in a full Confederate general's uniform (well, not quite. There's still no pants). He's wearing a fake bushy moustache, and has a cigar hanging from his mouth. An oversized sword sits in a scabbard at his side, dragging the ground as he walks.
Sam bends over to pick up his hat--he's bald, it turns out--turns and spies the Bugs/General. "General Brickwall Jackson!" he exclaims. Saluting, he says, "Suh..."
With Sam completely fooled, the "general" barks out orders, chomping on his cigar: "Forward HARCH!" The camera cuts to a shot of Sam as he marches to the right of the screen. Bugs yells "Left...FACE!" and Sam complies, marching away from the camera.
When Bugs says, "Aboout...FACE!" Sam turns, marching toward the camera this time. The orders come out even faster: "Right MARCH!!", which causes Sam to march to the left of the screen. Immediately, Bugs barks "To the rear, MARCH! and "Double time, MARCH!" with Sam following instructions to the letter, this time going back towards the right.
Sam marches up a plank right up to the edge of a well (you can pretty well guess what's going to happen, can't you?) as Bugs, seated on a log half out of uniform, filing his nails, says "Company...HALT!"
Sam stops, relieved but sweating. The camera switches to an overhead shot of the interior of the well as a pebble falls in the water. Ooooh, it's a deep one...
Bugs barks one final order, which is (you guessed it!) "Faaall IN!" Which, of course, Sam does with a splash--he's trained to follow orders, after all. We cut to a shot of Bugs, still on the log filing his nails. Some of the water splashes into the frame. As with most postwar cartoons, by the way, these quick cuts are rather frequent, implying action rather than showing it, rarely if ever showing more than two characters per frame--one if possible.
Bugs. now sans uniform, marches away from the camera toward a "Tara"-like Southern mansion in the distance. He's singing "Yankee Doodle" again, substituting the word "carrot" for "feather" in one line: "stuck a carrot in his hat and called it mararoni..."
The scene cuts to a shot of Bugs heading toward the camera, with Sam emerging on the left of the frame, in hot pursuit. (With Sam, there's no other kind of pursuit). Bugs heads quickly toward the mansion and ducks inside, with Sam close behind. (I love how Bugs just takes for granted the place would be unoccupied).
Sam pounds on the door and is greeted by Bugs in full "southern belle" drag (it wouldn't be a Bugs Bunny picture unless he's in drag at least once). He's wearing a long blue dress and a blonde wig. Echoing Sam's earlier line, Bugs says in a falsetto voice, "Oh! It's one of our boys!"
The camera shifts to a view of Sam, from a vantage point just behind Bugs' shoulder; Sam removes his hat as he stands in the doorway. "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, sorry to have to intrude," he says, "but there's a Yankee about..."
The scene shifts back to the exterior as Bugs/"Scarlett" feigns shock, clasping his hands. He gasps, "A Yankee? How terrible!" Stalling, as always, has the appropriate music for the conversation, playing "Jeannie With The Light Brown Hair" on the sound track.
Sam says, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to search your premises..." Rushing inside, we move to an interior shot, in which Sam is readying his pistol while Bugs stands in front of a closet door. Like so much of this cartoon, this scene should really be viewed in freeze-frame: the momentum has Sam in midair ready to fire, while Bugs' skirts are blowing up around him.
Sam frantically looks around for a moment, as Bugs says, "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Figuring he's got the goods on the "Yankee" at last, Sam says, "Ah HAH! So THAT'S where he's hidin'!"
Gently nudging "Scarlett" aside, Sam says gently, "Sorry, Scarlett ma'am, but I got to do my duty...Bugs, meanwhile, has his hands clasped close to him and has a worried expression. As he prepares to throw open the closet door, Sam screams, "OK, YANKEE, STICK 'EM..."
He opens the door to reveal a huge cannon, which goes off in Sam's face as he completes the sentence..."up!"
(Reused gag alert: we've seen this in BUCCANEER BUNNY. For that matter, we've already seen a variation on the "He's not in here!" bit in Freleng's BUGS AND THUGS).
The scene shifts again to another shot of Bugs in front of a closet, which looks like a "flipped over" version of the first scene. "He's not in here! He's not in here!" Bugs says again.
This time, Sam's a little less willing to go through the routine. Frazzled and still smoldering, Sam says, "I'll just take your word for it...ma'am..."
We return to an exterior shot as we see what looks like a Confederate cavalryman on horseback emerging from the upper right of the screen. Or is it?
Nope. It's Bugs, who magically changed into an entirely different costume and has somehow secured a horse in two seconds. A considerable distance away from the house, at that.
Bugs crawls up the stairs to the house, seemingly exhausted. He's wearing a Confederate tunic and a bandage on his head, for effect. He pants, "Colonel...the Yankees...the Yankees..they're in...Chattanooga..." and "faints." (Yet another scene used in DOGGONE SOUTH, with a somewhat different twist. Charlie Dog, playing the exhausted soldier, adds "Chitlins forevah!" before he passes out). Sam yells "Chattanoogy?" and takes the "soldier's" horse, riding off into the distance camera right, screaming "CHAAARGE!" all the way.
The Yankees are indeed in Chattanooga--the Yankees ball team, that is. They're playing an exhibition game against the Chattanooga club, or so the banner says.
The camera pans down from the banner to a shot of Sam in front of the Yankee dugout, his pistol aimed right at the terrified team members. We don't see their faces, just the whites of their panic-stricken eyes in the darkness. (Um, they don't have security at these ballparks?)
Sam warns them, "The first dang Yankee that steps out of that thar dugout get his head blasted off!" To coin a phrase, that's all. folks...
If there were any advantage to growing up in a hole-in-the-wall military town like Sierra Vista, Arizona, it would be that it gave me the opportunity to view some, shall we say, eclectic programming.
KZAZ (now KMSB) in nearby Nogales, just this side of the Mexican border, was in the seventies a dumpy little station that couldn't have had much more wattage than the average light bulb. But it somehow landed on our cable lineup. Desperate for any kind of programming to fill airtime, it would put on just about any scrap of film it had. Want to see THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES in Spanish? You'd find "Los Beverly Ricos" on KZAZ, at noon every Saturday. Believe me, it has to be experienced to be believed.
It aired its share of cartoons, from a backlog so old it must have been one of the original theatrical cartoon packages left over from the mid-fifties. I don't think they even bothered to see what was on them half the time. So sometimes, a few cartoons would slip through that would have sent parents' groups into apoplexy--if they were among the handful of people watching. Fortunately, not many did.
Consequently, I got my first indication I might not be seeing everything the classic cartoon studios had to offer when I got the once-in-a-lifetime oppoortunity to see SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, uncut and un-PC. I'd seen it before, of course, or thought I did. But suddenly...
...an unbelievable scene of a blackface Bugs snapped me out of my toon-induced haze. I'd have given my arms, my legs and a sizeable chunk of my cerebral cortex to have been able to afford the earliest home video recorders at that point. Thanks to DVD technology, however, I'll never have to resort to such severe bodily mutilation. As soon as the opening titles flickered on the screen, I was instantly transported to that moment in an Arizona living room.
Some cartoons, like ROMEO IN RHYTHM, are musical delights that deserve a second look. Others have less going for them, but deserve to be seen for historical reasons, if nothing else. SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT would fall in the latter category. Aside from some occasionally cutting satire of Southern cliches (even the unfortunate "Bugs in blackface" scene could be viewed as that if one chooses to be charitable) there's little to make this cartoon stand out from any of twenty or thirty other Freleng cartoons from this period. It's still very solidly done, however, and is an ideal example of Freleng's style circa 1953. His backgrounds would become sparser and more stylized eventually--nowhere near as lush as the ones in this cartoon. (To their detriment, I think). Racial stereotypes of the kind presented here would also quickly vanish after this cartoon was made. In a way, it's one of the last of its kind, and for that reason deserves at least an honorary place here in the Home For Orphan Toons.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. I love you, Netflix.
Tags: Southern+Fried+Rabbit, Friz+Freleng, Bugs+Bunny, Yosemite+Sam, Confederate, racial+stereotypes, censored
Monday, November 20, 2006
I love you, Netflix.
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
While we're on the track of Seussian stories and children's versus adult animation, perhaps you remember the story of HORTON HEARS A WHO. I sometimes feel like Horton The Elephant (some might suggest a physical resemblance as well, but they'd better not to my face), or perhaps even the tiny Whos, trying to convince a stone-deaf world of the existence of something outside their limited experience. That classic animation, even that of Disney, was never intended for children alone. It was adults who made "Who's Afraid Of The Big Bad Wolf?" an anthem of the Depression, adults who made the phrase "What? No Mickey Mouse?" a national catchphrase (and a popular song). Adults made Bugs Bunny an honorary member of the Marine Corps in WWII, and painted his image on the nose of fighter planes. And most importantly, adults made the films, as much for their own amusement as any child's. I'm hoping to be the voice, that one tiny "YOP," that sends this message to the outside world.
Kevin, of course, feels the same way, and yesterday's essay stimulated a great deal of discussion between us--and as usual, we veered off into strange territory. With that in mind, I'm presenting two of our discussions here. As always, his comments are in italics...
On the subject of children's animation, Kevin has this to say:
> Oh yes, yes, yes, I have been saying the same thing for so long, too long!! According to Jerry Beck's blog, so many more than we actually realize agree with us, but you're absolutely right in your puzzlement as to how we can work to change the mindset that allows for MR. MAGOO cartoons to be slipped in with the kid stuff merely because it is an animated cartoon.
> I guess what is unsettling to those in and out of the business is that, now, with parental watchdog groups, there are cartoons specially designed for kids and cartoons specially designed for adults, whereas before, there were cartoons that could nicely appeal to both, even though the kids might be puzzled as to why Mom and Dad are laughing hysterically at the same cartoon that Junior is watching.
Kevin raises a good point, which time and space considerations prevented me from mentioning. Indeed, the "cartoons are for kids" attitude, along with the practice of "niche marketing", has created a strange schizophrenia in the animation industry over the last few decades. There are now cartoons for kids (DORA THE EXPLORER, ARTHUR, and any one of countless Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon creations) and cartoons ostensibly for adults (THE SIMPSONS, FAMILY GUY, SOUTH PARK). Even the wildly funny REN AND STIMPY creator John Kricfalusi jumped on the bandwagon, retooling his classic series Spike TV with off-color gags intact.
But there's a problem. The supposed "adult" cartoons (with the possible exception of the first few years of THE SIMPSONS) are every bit as juvenile as their preteen-targeted counterparts on Nick and Cartoon Network, replacing sacchrine storylines with snickering preadolescent sexual and "potty" humor. A storyline involving a gigantic turd becoming the symbol of the holiday season (the "Mr. Hanky" segments of SOUTH PARK) is funny on a very base level, but adult? Hardly.
Instead of catering to eight-year-olds, these cartoons cater to adults with the minds of eight-year-olds (ten-year-olds at best). So in reality, nothing's changed. The attitude has merely evolved from "cartoons are for kids" to "cartoons are for kids, and adults who think like them." As Kevin says,
> In this age when there are now cartoons specially designed with the age group in mind, we are realizing just how much kids are talked down to and also just how juvenile adult cartoons could be! While I've felt that "SOUTH PARK" can have that occasional brilliantly written episode that truly pokes fun at society in a way we all can understand, even if we are not white bread and Republican, you are also aware of just how stupid we all have become that our comedy is dumbed down to this. I mean, I was watching an episode of this show created by the same folks who gave us "FAMILY GUY" and it is amazing how easily everyone is categorized or stereotyped. Somehow, in those grand old days of animation, we saw stereotypes, but most of us knew that the pokes were at literature or Hollywood movies of the then present age, not individuals, although those bigoted among us could use characters to assault those of a specific race or disability, and this is how such characters as Bosko and Mr. Magoo have become objects of disgust to those of the present age. Yet, while watching the show in question, I thought about how gay people could easily get a bit miffed at being summed up as a very bad Paul Lynde caricature. I never saw the humor in Lynde's performances (and I, by the way, never had any idea of his sexuality at the time), but it seems as if, now, whenever homosexuality is mocked, there is his likeness in animated form!!
I learned in my college communication class years ago that stereotypes are a kind of mental "shorthand": the world is so complex, we can't resist the urge to pigeonhole and categorize things--and it's only a short hop from categorizing things to categorizing people. It's simply human nature. Cartoons, being a visual shorthand, borrow from these "categories" because they're instantly recognizable. Bugs Bunny is a stereotype--the Brooklynese "con man". Elmer Fudd is a stereotype: the childish simpleton, right down to his way of speaking ("Be vewwy vewwy quiet...") "Lenny" in the Screwy Squirrel cartoon LONESOME LENNY is a cartoon stereotype of a literary stereotype: the "mentally challenged" character in OF MICE AND MEN, a gentle and simpleminded hulk of a fellow who wasn't smart enough to know his own strength.
These stereotypes weren't deliberately malicious, but the people who created them knew audiences would understand them.
As Kevin already pointed out, stereotypes don't die--the target merely changes. And if there's one thing that separates the cartoon stereotypes of today from those of the past, it's the presence of malice. One gets a sense of deliberate mean-spiritedness in the stereotypes of AMERICAN DAD (the show to which I think you're referring) that wasn't there in the cartoons of the past. "Gays" or "gay-seeming" characters in that program, as you said, aren't just effeminate and flamboyant, they're nasty to boot--and completely unlikeable. The best example is probably the alien character, "Roger", who speaks with a vaguely Paul Lynde-ish voice, and is clearly meant to be a gay stereotype, even if it isn't explicity stated. But then, it doesn't have to be. By comparison, even the "sissy" stereotypes of the FLIP THE FROG cartoons come across as more "gentle kidding" than an out-and out attack.
Why did this happen? One simple reason: as a backlash against the oversensitivity and preachiness of cartoons of the seventies and eighties (and several of the more recent Disney films--POCAHONTAS, anybody?) We haven't gone forward, we've gone back.
Yet as Kevin says here, that's hardly the worst thing to happen to animation in recent years:
> Since we knew in the old days that kids might be watching the same cartoon while they were munching their pop corn (and I already discussed how much I miss the heyday of that), it seemed as if animators had to appeal to both and mostly succeeded. Thus, LOONEY TUNES characters are charming in their own way, while getting the best of obnoxious or childish hunters trying to prove their manhood. The comedy worked on so many different levels, even though that jabbing poke at social accepted norms were always there. Now, it seems that someone's blatant opinion is right in your face! The kids of "SOUTH PARK" always tell us "you know, we learned something today..." Okay, even that is a poke at many of those shows that were seemingly designed to teach us all a lesson, but now, even though that phrase is never used in the more recent episodes, there is still this subliminal hostility toward someone or some point of view.
Yes, in the pioneering days of TV animation, cartoon makers merely transferred to the small screen the approach that worked so well in theaters--appeal to everyone by making the humor work on multiple levels. Children got slapstick, while adults got clever wordplay--and in the BULLWINKLE cartoons, even political and social satire. Kids wouldn't laugh at the notion of the world economy collapsing from an influx of counterfeit box tops, but adults steeped in our material culture would.
There's a rule in writing: "show, don't tell." Cartoons like BULLWINKLE followed this to the letter. It didn't TELL us politicians were idiots, the Cold War was insane, bureaucrats were incompetent, admen were silly, and the military didn't know what it was doing. It SHOWED us, in the person of characters like Captain Peter Peachfuzz, Boris Badenov and tycoon Fiduciary Blurt.
In what's probably one of the funniest examples of what I mean, Rocky once ran for Congress representing a hillbilly district, promising each of two feuding families he'd get rid of the other one. He kept his promise by evacuating both families out of the state, where, as he said, they became some other state's problem. Bullwinkle responds, "You learn fast, Rock..."
Now imagine if he'd taken a SOUTH PARK approach:
ROCKY: Y'know, Bullwinkle, bureaucracy is really stupid, and it's time we stood up and took responsibility in electing leaders who know what they're doing. Bring back a little civic pride and...
(continues yammering for five minutes while Bullwinkle looks behind Rocky's back)
ROCKY: Whatcha doin', Bullwinkle?
BULLWINKLE: Lookin' for the lobbyist who's workin' your mouth...
> So how has animation evolved? I think not at all in many cases. Give me those grand old toons and leave the other stuff to whoever it was designed for!! I'll take something we can all laugh heartily at.
> And some of the best is still going unnoticed and rotting in vaults, sad to say.
> I guess I have no answer for all of this except to say that we are now a silent majority of sorts.
To that I can add nothing, so I'll be silent myself--for now.
No matter how far afield some of our discussions go, we always seem to return to the same subject--stereotypes in animation. Even when discussing something as seemingly innocuous as Elmer Fudd. Hey, Friz Freleng might have thought he was an idiot, but it's hard for Kevin and me to really hate poor Elmer. He was such a perfect adversary, and his rivalry with Bugs became so well established, that Chuck Jones was able to twist it, parody it, and send it soaring in new directions. There had to be something there ol' Friz didn't see.
This started innocently enough, as a discussion of Arthur Q. Bryan's vocal talents. Kevin says:
You said: "It's kind of a shame that noone could get Elmer's vocal quality exactly right after Bryan's death, not even Mel. And Hal Smith's version sounds particuarly odd."
Yeah, most of 'em were just attempting to imitate Bryan's work but not embracing the character quite the way Arthur had done. If you recall the character in Bryan's prime was really an overgrown child. Over the weekend, I was watching "CONFEDERATE HONEY" in which Elmer Fudd is put in the unlikely role of Ned Cutler, the dashing(?) leading man (hewwo"), which is hysterical because one would *NEVER* see Fudd as someone that assertive. Boy, I could just imagine how an EGGHEAD TO ELMER disk might be now. The GOLDEN AGE OF LOONEY TUNES sets did a nice job of this on laserdisk, but now we've got more examples of ways in which the LOONEY TUNES directors played with the Elmer Fudd persona, even giving him his own newsreel in black and white. When we see Elmer Fudd in "OLD GRAY HARE", we realize that Elmer never did much growing between the time he was a "wittwe bitty baby" to when he suddenly was very old with this Buck Rogers Lightning-Quick Rabbit-Killer in his hands, so we knew that it was fun to play with this character a lot!! Arthur Q. Bryan seemed to inhabit that role as no one else after him could. You somehow needed little inflections that only Bryan could give him, but the character was so great that others give nice tries just to keep the character alive.
I'm no actor, obviously, but I've heard actors say more than once that a person has to become the character for it to seem real. If the voice artist doesn't believe it to be real, the public won't either. Hal Smith, therefore, could only give an approximation, the graveliness of Elmer's voice without the childlike, whining quality.
Chuck Jones once said that Elmer's statement "Be vewwy vewwy quiet...I'm hunting wabbits..." is almost a cry. He's afraid someone's going to try to stop him (and "someone"--namely Bugs--inevitably does). Smith didn't understand this, couldn't understand--he'd never "met" the character before, in a sense. Neither had Daws Butler, another Elmer stand-in who didn't quite make the cut.. Mel Blanc, who had at least worked with Bryan for decades, could at least bring enough of an understanding to the character to do a halfway-decent approximation of the voice. But even in his case, that's what it was--an approximation.
His "TINY TOONS" successor, Elmira, someone who liked instead to "love" her adversaries to death by squeezing the life out of them with emotional enthusiasm, was interesting but not quite the way I would see a decendent of the original Fudd legacy. Maybe this was partially because I found most of the "TINY TOONS" voices somewhat annoying while the original LOONEY TUNES characters had their charm, even at their most obnoxious.
I didn't see Elmyra as anything like Elmer either--indeed, it took me a while to realize the connection. Again, we have a problem of lack of understanding of the characters--and in the case of TINY TOONS, the writers and voice artists had the added complication of being separated by time from the people who had done the original work. They only knew the characters as fading images on a black-and-white screen growing up, much as we had. So their portrayal of Elmyra was not so much based on Elmer, but a fan's misperception of who Elmer really was.
With Babs and Buster, they did the unthinkable--they split Bugs Bunny in two, trying to make Buster the calm, Chuck Jones-ish Bugs while making Babs more like the manic, Clampett Bugs--and succeeding in neither case.
Oh, and I've said it once, but it demands being said again (and you can post these comments on the blog), "ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW" is a cartoon that genuinely belongs on the GOLDEN COLLECTION sets, despite its political incorrectness. It features so much in the way of Avery-isms; even the soundtrack and sound effects are so close to what Avery would be doing at MGM. In scenes in which we watch the pint-sized hunter trudge through the forest looking for the rabbit with his rifle, we are aware of poses that only Tex Avery could devise, and Carl Stalling does a nice job here of giving this strutting its own individual soundtrack.
You know, another animation fan in his blog writes about the above cartoon at length, and I wish I had the link now, because it merits serious discussion. His primary objection was the lethargic, StepinFetchit-like portrayal of the black hunter--so lethargic he actually drags his rifle as he shuffles along. As usual, the writer misses one important point--that the character no more represented all black people than Elmer Fudd represents all whites. Essentially, he's a prototype Droopy (without Droopy's intelligence or magical ability to be everywhere at once), contrasted with the more energetic, wise-guy Bugs. The very idea is funny. Viewing this cartoon, I never saw the hunter as anything more than just another in a long line of moronic atagonists for Bugs--which is what I think Avery intended.
The more I sit through this cartoon, the more I really like it and would really love to see it restored. In fact, I wonder just what Avery's next cartoon direction was, because this almost seems as if it should have been the last film that Avery created before departing and going on to create "THE EARLY BIRD DOOD IT" and "THE BLITZ WOLF" for MGM. Think of how many agressive little men Avery created for that studio, including the little pilgrim in "JERKY TURKEY". So making the little hunter pint-sized had nothing to do with the race the character is. Avery just chose the Steppin Fetchit character as one to cartoonize as Bugs Bunny's protagonist. Otherwise, all other ideas are those that Avery may have duplicated in later hunting cartoons. "RABBIT STEW" could have been seen as "JERKY TURKEY" if this were created a few years later; in fact, I think a bear figured in *BOTH* cartoons.
Seeing ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW for the first time years ago (I was lucky enough to get a ratty little "Censored Cartoons" from Blockbuster, I too got the impression that it was a prototype for Avery's MGM cartoons. A dividing line, if you will, between the Warner's era and MGM. The chase scenes are certainly faster than anything he'd done up to that point: I'm thinking in particular of one scene in which Bugs jumps in an out of a series of holes. If I'm not mistaken, there's a similar gag in a Screwy Squirrel cartoon, and it also resembles the "door" chase gags in LONESOME LENNY and LITTLE RURAL RUDING HOOD.
The wild take (with Bugs' limbs flying apart) looks more like an MGM-era gag as well. (As Kevin notes below). Avery's Warner's takes up to that point had been practically sedate, and he usually reserved that level of cartoon impossibility for a "goofy" character like Egghead. (You may remember the scene in CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA, in which Egghead tips his entire head to the audience rather than just his hat).
Think of one specific element--Bugs Bunny screaming and splitting, for a fraction of a second, into body parts vibrating in midair, this was something like an MGM reaction shot. If done at MGM, Bugs would not have his surprised scream done by Mel; he would have had a woman's scream there, like the wolf at one time in "NORTHWEST HOUNDED POLICE".
You're right--that womanish scream hightened the silliness of the take. Mel really couldn't manage that.
While I realize this cartoon was made in 1941 and Bugs was still in his formative stages at this point, the take (while surprising) doesn't work, at least for Bugs. Of course, I base this on the Bugs I'm familiar with, the calmer rabbit of the late forties and beyond. For the insane (and relatively one-dimensional) characters of Avery's MGM years, it would have been ideal.
I think that the dice-rolling bit works on a different level. One could just think of this little guy as a gambling fool, much like any of those addicted to it in "EARLY TO BET". The delivery of the last line the hunter speaks, "Well, call me Adam", could have been better, but it is unexpected, and I find it hilarious to see Bugs trudging through the forest with the gun and clothing that the hunter once owned, in the same exact pose with the same look on his face--it's pure Avery!!
Yes, that gag sets up much the same situation as the "haunted-house" premise of THE OLD HOUSE. If Bugs had "cleaned out" Elmer Fudd, the gag would be considered funny by most people. But because it plays into a black stereotype (blacks addicted to shooting craps) people can't look beyond the stereotype to see it's a really good bit. Even Bugs' mocking of the hunter, imitating his body language while dressed in his clothes, is seen as racist by some people, who fail to realize that's something he's liable to do with any antagonist--and has. Think of all the times he mocked Elmer Fudd's speech. (In the "Duck Season/Rabbit Season" trilogy, among others).
There are also a lot more quick Avery gags per minute here, including that bit in which the hunter first tries baiting Bugs with carrots and you hear Bugs take the carrots and individually eat them, spitting one back out, complete with sound effects lines in the rabbit hole as Bugs chews and spits! I forget what the sign says, but after spitting, Bugs pops out with a sign, perhaps apologizing to the audience. After Avery left, animators still played with the audience in the same way, but it wasn't as immediate and funny as Avery doing it. The man had a good sense of timing.
OK, you've got me curious. I'll have to find a copy of that cartoon to see that gag, since it escapes me at the moment.
To the readers--thanks for staying with me through this little Kevin W. "two-pack." For now, I have to go shopping.
Tags: Kevin+Wollenweber, Rachel+Newstead, letter, Tex+Avery,racial+stereotypes
Monday, November 13, 2006
Like most people of my generation, I have fond memories of Saturday morning.
I literally grew up with the Saturday morning cartoon; its arrival in about 1963-64 coincides with some of my earliest television memories. I'd watch THE NEW CASPER CARTOON SHOW with my talking Casper The Friendly Ghost doll, advertised on self-same program (which didn't talk anymore after I took a screwdriver to his "voice box.").
Not to mention Beany and Cecil and later, Milton The Monster and Underdog (some fine cartoons which have themselves attained "orphan toon" status, but that's another story).
The season's new cartoons usually premiered around my birthday in September, so it was like a personal birthday present wrapped and delivered to yours truly, courtesy of ABC, NBC and CBS. (And yes, I'm old enough to remember when that's all the networks there were).
When I was eight years old, my parents decided I was old enough to have my own set, so they put their old RCA Victor black-and-white TV (vintage 1957) in my bedroom when they bought their brand spanking-new color one. That way, my parents could watch whatever boring old adult programs parents watched back in 1969 or so while I stared at a curved gray screen, eating my Lucky Charms (dry).
It was a bit of a challenge getting a decent picture (I swear, you had to adjust those "rabbit ears" just right, preferably sitting with one hand on the set) but once I got a clear image, I was in heaven.
I saw the premiere of "H.R. Pufnstuf" on that set, and the first season of some strange cartoon called "Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?" (Though I had my own odd notions of the premise. I used to think Scoob and the gang were trapped in "Horror World" and were trying to find their way home). As far as I was concerned, I had it made.
Had I known I was unwittingly contributing to a mindset that today poisons the thinking of not only the animation industry, but of those who buy and watch the cartoons, I might not have been so happy.
For you see, while the network executives danced around their offices in glee over the ratings numbers ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") parents were growing increasingly concerned ("My God, kids are actually watching this crap!") So the parents begat watchdog groups, forcing network "suits" and animation producers in fear of their jobs to favor more "kid-friendly" programming. Thus, the mantra from the 1970's on became "cartoons are for kids."
Never mind that for at least two generations before that, they hadn't been. The "classic" cartoons--the Bugs Bunnys, the Woody Woodpeckers, the Tom and Jerrys--were produced for a theater audience, in an era when you could see something before the main feature besides wide-screen commercials. There were no multiplexes, there was no "niche marketing." Just wonderful animated films--if the kids laughed, great, but it was the adults who paid for the tickets. So the cartoons were made primarily for them, with sly gags few kids would get. If you think Tex Avery had kids in mind when he made RED HOT RIDING HOOD--or any of his other cartoons, for that matter--you're seriously delusional.
Even the people who made the cartoons would admit two, three, and four decades later that kids had been at the bottom of their list of priorities: they made them for themselves first, their fellow adults second. Kids? Shouldn't they be out playing, or something?
But try to tell that to any cartoon producer today. Or the thoroughly-brainwashed young fans, for that matter. If you want truly adult animation, so the thinking goes, watch anime. Bugs Bunny? Feh! Kid stuff.
In my early years on the Net, I remember getting into a long, bitter online argument with an all-too typical otaku, who just couldn't conceive of American animation as anything but vapid, nursery-school, Disneyesque schmaltz. To this day I regret not pointing out that Osamu Tezuka, pratically a god among the anime faithful, was himself influenced not only by Disney, but Max Fleischer. Look at ASTRO BOY sometime, and I guarantee you'll see not only thinly-veiled tributes to PINOCCHIO, but scenes straight out of BIMBO'S INITIATION or MINNIE THE MOOCHER. The characters even look like refugees from a Fleischer short.
Yes, I wish I'd said that. I probably would have been able to hear that fanboy squirm.
Naturally I wasn't surprised when perusing the video collection at the local library, and discovering all the good cartoon videos were in the kids' section. I was, however, when I discovered some vintage UPA cartoons in there.
That's right, UPA, the studio that spawned the crotchety, stubborn--not to mention nearly blind--Mr. Magoo. That revolutionized animation styling throughout the industry. The studio whose output could be at turns whimsical, poignant and disturbing--often in the same cartoon. But there it was, a Gerald McBoing-Boing DVD. With every cartoon in the brief series, along with a classic Magoo, buried beneath "Veggie Tales" and "Dora The Explorer." Free from peanut butter- stained fingers, no less--I doubt any kid in the place had ever heard of Gerald McBoing Boing.
At the time, I had never seen GERALD MC BOING BOING or any of the subsequent sequels, and had hardly seen a Magoo outside of the abysmal later ones made for TV. And I hadn't even seen those in years. I had to watch that video. Immediately.
Just one little problem. At the time I had no DVD player, so I had to watch it there. The player in the adult library was unfortunately occuped, so I had to watch it in the kids' library, on their player. Not as easy as it sounds, believe me.
If you've never tried viewing anything in the kids' library without a kid to accompany you, I wouldn't recommend it. Be prepared to have the librarian's eyes boring into your skull, no doubt wondering if she should leave you to your video-watching or call the police. Consequently, after one quick viewing, I bid the place a hasty "adieu."
So that's how Mr. Magoo ended up in the kids' library. And he didn't even have to stumble in there accidentally--dimwitted adults put him there.
This little tale only serves to illustrate how thouroughly entrenched--and ridiculous--the whole "cartoons are for kids" attitude has become. It's so ingrained in our collective psyche that even obscure classic (and often very adult ) cartoons get buried beneath a pile of juvenile pap. If it's animated, the kids'll love it, right? In retrospect, I probably should have kept looking to see if they had UPA's TELL-TALE HEART in there. Now there's a film sure to appeal to the cookie-snatchers: "Mommy, I'm scared! That heart's beating all by itself..."
I know certain perceptive people reading this will be quick to remind me that GERALD MC BOING BOING was originally a Dr. Seuss children's story, and indeed it was. But the subsequent UPA cartoon veered rather far from Seussian territory, coming up with something quirky and even a bit dark. In short, very UPA. After all, the boy is not only rejected by his peers because he spoke sound effects rather than words, but by his own parents. He walks, dejected, up an endless flight of stairs (against a stark background of flat color) and resolves to run away, sneaking off into the dark night. Leonard Maltin compares the "staircase" scene to a similar one in a live-action film called THE FALLEN IDOL.
On that I'll just have to take his word, since I've never seen THE FALLEN IDOL, but his point is clear. GERALD MC BOING BOING is no kids' cartoon, as we've come to understand them. The filmmaking is very adult (as in "sophisticated", not "obscene") and the story took place in a cold adult world, albeit from a child's viewpoint.
The Magoo cartoon included on the video, featuring the original stubborn, ill-tempered early-fifties incarnation of the character, could hardly be called juvenile material, either.
But I know I'm preaching to the proverbial choir. I don't know anymore how we cartoon fans can overcome this decades-old misconception and put classic animation where it belongs--with the "big boy" and "big girl" videos. I can only suggest that if you see some wonderful old cartoons in your local library, and you don't have kids of your own, you might want to "borrow" a niece or nephew for the afternoon.
Tags: note+to+readers, UPA, Gerald+McBoing+Boing, library
Sunday, November 05, 2006
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.
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...
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.)
Tags: Romeo+In+Rhythm, Harman-Ising, racial+stereotypes, crows, Shakespeare, swing, orphan+toon
Friday, November 03, 2006
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