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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

RIP Joe Barbera (1911-2006)

I should know better than to nap in the middle of the day. I usually wake up feeling like Rip Van Winkle.

I keep odd hours, often writing or drawing until the first sign of dawn. Or engaging in my all-time favorite pasttime, watching cartoons. Meaning, of course, I spend my days in bed. I missed 9/11 that way, though in that instance I suppose I should be grateful.

At about two o'clock yesterday afternoon, I went to lie down. When I awoke at about eight that night, I turned my computer on to discover I was the last person in the known universe to learn that an animation legend had left us. One of the last animators, indeed, to be worthy of the phrase.

Once again, I was a day late and a dollar short, Much as in 1990, when I came within a hair's breadth of meeting Joe Barbera.

At the time I was living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where I attended college. A cartoonist friend of mine informed me that Barbera himself would be speaking at a gallery in Denver, and wondered if I'd like to go. Silly question--my feet didn't touch the ground for the rest of the day. An aspiring cartoonist myself, I was foolish enough to believe he'd be taken with my work, perhaps even offer me employment. In the back of my mind I knew that was as unlikely as my being crowned the Queen of Sweden, but I would be able to to at least talk to the man who created some of my earliest cartoon memories. He'd get a kick, I thought, out of hearing about my old southern granddaddy, who loved The Flintstones and would bellow "YABBA DABBA DOO!" as loudly as he could--much to my consternation.

I cut class that evening to make the hour-long trip, only to discover Barbera had bowed out, and sent a fellow named Iraj Paran instead. To this day, I don't know exactly in what capacity Mr. Paran worked for Hanna-Barbera, but he dutifully answered my frequent--and in retrospect, annoying--questions. He even looked at my artwork. He wasn't impressed, to put it mildly.

I thought I might get another opportunity to meet Barbera someday--but "someday" never came.

The best I can do now is share my thoughts on his life and work.

I must admit I have mixed feelings about Joe Barbera's output, prodigious though it was. To me, he was very much like the proverbial little girl with the curl--when he was good, he was astoundingly good, and when he was bad--well, let's face it, he could be dreadful. He represented both the pinnacle of animation's Golden Age, and the depths of Saturday-morning inanity. The same man who, with his partner Bill Hanna, had garnered an unbelievable seven Oscars (only Walt Disney had a longer streak) also gave us GOOBER AND THE GHOST CHASERS and FRED AND BARNEY MEET THE SCHMOO.

Yet had it not been for Joe Barbera, there might not have been much TV animation to speak of, good or bad. In 1957, he ventured into territory where only Jay Ward (with his CRUSADER RABBIT series) had dared to tread before him. He might not have been the first to make animation for the fledgling medium, but he made it profitable--and for a few wonderful years, entertaining. Until, that is, the networks and the watchdog groups cast their ever-lengthening shadows.

His detractors called him derivative, his characters merely cobbled together from popular personalities. The last accusation in particular is the most amusing, since the same could be said for most animated characters of the Golden Age and beyond, Bugs Bunny is equal parts Groucho Marx and the Dead End Kids. Daffy Duck incorporated the mannerisms of comedian Hugh Herbert (the "hoo hoos"). The Our Gang shorts inspired Porky Pig. And other animation studios directly copied Warner's, who themselves began by imitating Mickey Mouse (Bosko). The source of inspiration matters less than what the animators did with it--and Joe Barbera did some wonderful things.

He could be classy--MOUSE IN MANHATTAN is as well-choreographed as any live-action Gene Kelly film. He could be bizarre, as with BABY PUSS (of which I've already written in great detail). He could generate mock suspense--who can forget, in DOCTOR JEKYLL AND MR. MOUSE, how menacing Tom looked after swallowing his home-made concoction--only to shrink the size of a gnat a fraction of a second later.

And he could be funny. God, he could be funny. And knew enough to surround himself with funny people, like ex-Warner's staffers Mike Maltese and Warren Foster. I'm a lifelong fan of THE FLINTSTONES, and I can tell you it never got funnier than it did midway through the first season, in the episode "The Hot Piano." Fred, for once, remembers his wedding anniversary (because it falls on trash day, naturally) and plays dumb--easy for him--while Wilma drops every hint short of, in her words, "rice and old shoes." (Such as singing "Here comes the toast, here comes the toast..." when bringing him his breakfast).

He takes the fifty bucks he saved up to the local music store, where he engages in a Jack Benny-like exchange with the store owner. Try and keep a straight face during the scenes in which Barney and the store owner pound out an ever more overblown arrangement of "In The Merry Month of May," while Fred does a slow burn that would do Edgar Kennedy proud.

The writing, as with all the early Hanna-Barbera product, was the snappiest of any program of the time, I'm rather fond of this exchange, between Barney and "88 Fingers Louie", a hood specializing in stolen pianos:

BARNEY: Does it have a guarantee?
LOUIE: Yeah, I guarantee it's a piano....

When asked why he sells his pianos out of a van in an alley, he explains, "I eliminate the overhead and pass the savings on to you!" Great stuff...

This week, I intend, as time permits, to post reviews of what I feel is the best--or the most unusual--of Barbera's work.

I never got to say this to you personally, Joe, but thanks for all the laughs. A tribute in a blog is far less than you deserve.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

"Don't Eat At Joe's": JERKY TURKEY (1945)

The original content has been edited for inexcusably moronic typos--R.)

This little stream-of-consciousness essay developed out of a desire to do something special for Thanksgiving, but circumstances took a decidedly different turn, as you may already know. So here for your consumption is a little Thanksgiving "leftover," in which Tex Avery takes on Thanksgiving. And I take on Tex Avery.

Tex Avery is the reason I love cartoons.

No surprise there. Tex Avery is probably the reason most cartoon fans love cartoons. Let me revise that statement: Tex Avery is the man who made me want to do more with cartoons than simply watch them.

And I had the good fortune to be introduced to his insanity in the unlikeliest of places.

Sierra Vista, Arizona didn't have much going for it in 1973--just a dusty, slightly dumpy little Army town that had popped up like a blemish around nearby Fort Huachuca in the mid-1950's. When I arrived there with my family at the age of eleven, it could boast a population of barely 10,000 and a once-weekly newspaper. Not to mention countless tumbleweeds, and a few thousand locusts, who descended on the town annually like tiny winged Shriners.

Nestled as it was among the Huachuca Mountains, even other communities in the state were barely aware of its existence. But that isolation would prove to be its greatest asset.

You see, the mountains made television reception impossible, unless you had a roof antenna the approximate size of the Eiffel Tower. Or what was then known as Community Access Television (CATV). In other words, cable.

You can guess what most people in the community chose--including my parents. We'd already experenced three TV-less years in Germany, and frankly wanted to look at something besides the dust bunnies under the sofa. So cable we got.

To say my prepubescent mind was stunned would be an understatement. I could actually find something on all twelve VHF channels--something other than snow, that is. And that something was usually cartoons, carried on stations as far away as Phoenix and Los Angeles. Hours and hours and hours of them--if I couldn't find something I liked on one channel, I surely would on one of the other eleven. In that pre-internet, pre-videotape, pre-DVD Jurassic era of mass entertainment, that's really saying something.

For a kid with CP who couldn't run around outside with flesh-and-blood friends (and didn't want to--I'd been plopped right in the middle of the blazing desert, after all) those ink-and-paint characters became my playmates.

Granted, some were more entertaining company than others: the first thing I remember seeing when I turned on the set was an almost hallucinatory little piece of film featuring a character named "Betty Boop." She had just run away from home into a cave filled with sights that made no sense: a ghost walrus sings a song called "Minnie The Moocher," although there was no one named "Minnie" in sight. Four ghost kittens suckle a ghost cat until it's a desiccated shell. All in rather ugly, garish color.

Unknown to me at the time, I had not seen a *real* Betty Boop cartoon, but a "colorized" imposter, hand-retraced and splashed with paint by dutiful little Korean "artists." I wouldn't see the real thing (in glorious black and white) for at least another fifteen years.

But they were drawings, and they moved--and for a while, that was enough. Until I saw something by a fellow named "Tex Avery."

One afternoon I stumbled upon a cartoon called SCREWBALL SQUIRREL--at first glance, there was nothing "screwball" about it. A nauseatingly cute, Disneyesque squirrel skips along, picking up acorns and depositing them in his little basket.

He comes upon a considerably goofier-looking squirrel with a distinctive sinus condition. When asked just what this picture is about, our cute little friend explains his name is Sammy, and the picture is all about him and his friends, the "cute little creatures of the forest." The goofy squirrel slaps his head and groans, "Oh, no! Not that! Not that!!" (He's psychic--that's precisely what I'd been thinking).

As the fuzzy-wuzzy little squirrel drones on, his goofy conpanion leads him behind a nearby tree--and proceeds, unseen, to beat the living bejeezus out of him. Re-emerging, the goofy squirrel says to us, "You wouldn't have liked that picture anyway..."

A cartoon character had just staged a coup d'etat and taken over the picture. That's entertainment--and it made me love Tex Avery forever, enough to want to know more about him. And eventually, the fellows he worked with, like Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, Bob McKimson and Preston Blair. And all the people they worked with, and so on, and so on....I was hooked, gone, corrupted beyond redemption: I had become a toon fanatic.

All because the U.S. Army had deposited my family and me in the middle of nowhere.

Maybe I should write a thank-you letter to the Pentagon...

JERKY TURKEY, released in April 1945, shows the Avery style still in a transitional stage, but already speeding toward the full maturity he would exhibit in KING SIZE CANARY. This cartoon is a curious mixture of Avery styles, resembling a machine-gun version of his Warner's spot-gag shorts in the first minute or so, with joke after joke after joke fired at us in rapid succession. It then switches gears faster than a hopped-up Ferrari, to become more like the wild chase cartoons for which he had become known at his newly-adopted studio

Like SOUTHERN FRIED RABBIT, this cartoon is an "orphan toon" only in the broadest possible sense, by way of overzealous editing. Yet even less than fully intact, JERKY TURKEY has been a Thanksgiving staple on television for decades, as much as football and the Macy's parade.

Hitting theaters just five days before Franklin Roosevelt's death and exactly a month before V-E day, JERKY TURKEY is crammed with wartime gags, at the time still very much a part of the Avery arsenal. It would also be one of his last of that genre, ending a series of cartoons that began with Avery's first MGM release, THE BLITZ WOLF. As with a Thanksgiving meal, you go away from it feeling stuffed, but satisfied.

The roaring MGM lion dissolves to a title card showing our main character chasing after a turkey with an axe. It then dissolves to another card, in which the tables are turned and the turkey wields the axe. Preston Blair, Ray Abrams, and Ed Love are Avery's "usual gang of idiots," to borrow a phrase from MAD magazine. Blair in particular was instrumental in defining the look of this cartoon and others in the Avery unit from 1942 to 1945. Thanks to his later instruction books, Blair's scenes are instantly recognizable.

We open on a long shot of a fairly accurately-rendered wooden sailing ship bobbing up and down over the waves. All pretense to historical fidelity ends, however, when a title appears below the ship: "Landing Of The Pilgrims, 1620 7/8." It's shredded beyond all repair when we dissolve to a closer view of the nameplate on the ship's bow: YE MAYFLOWER, built by "Henrye J. Kiser Construction." (Henry J. Kaiser, by the way, was a well-known shipbuilding contractor of the era, supplying America's warships during WWII).

Not content to leave us with one topical gag, Avery piles them on as the camera does a long pan to the left, along the length of the ship. (The "C" card on the ship's hull, a reference to wartime gas rationing, is only the beginning.) The camera moves slowly at first, to show us a motley-looking group of Pilgrims lounging around, leaning against the masts and the rope ladder, and so on. The sharp-eyed viewer might notice a string of three or four individuals in the background with their backs to the camera, apparently heaving their lunch over the side (some traveled by ship and others "by rail", you might say).

Despite having seen this cartoon dozens of times in the last thirty years, I'm ashamed to say I'd never noticed that little detail before. Though I suppose, with cartoons like Avery's, I shouldn't be. Like the AIRPLANE and NAKED GUN features of decades later, more things occur than can be seen in one viewing. (It's easy to see who inspired Abrahams and Zucker). Thank goodness for the "pause" button...if ever there were an excuse to get a big-screen TV, moments like the above would be it.

Another, more surprising little tidbit unearthed in freeze frame: the ship is painted loosely, almost impressionistically, with little blending. Very unusual for an era noted for painstaking background detail in animation.

The camera goes out of its slow pan and jerks suddenly toward the other end of the ship, to reveal a contemporary Navy gun crew (labeled, appropriately, "Ye Navy Gun Crew", consisting of sailors wearing WWII-era uniforms and helmets) surrounded by anti-aircraft guns. To punctuate the gag, Scott Bradley plays an upbeat version of "Anchors Aweigh" on the sound track--which he continues as the camera trucks back to a long shot, revealing the Mayflower in the midst of a similarly anachronistic fleet of destroyers and aircraft carriers. In yet another heretofore-unnoticed detail, the stern of the ship is painted in camouflage...

The scene dissolves to a close-up of the main mast; the camera trucks upward to "Ye Crow's Nest" (with real crows, no less. What do you expect in an Avery cartoon, subtle jokes?) The lone human lookout peers through his spyglass, does an excited take and yells in a loud, raspy voice, "LAND HO!" (His lips distort into an exaggerated "O" shape, revealing lots of teeth).

Cut to a shot of the scene in the spyglass, which according to the label is a view of Plymouth Rock. This being an Avery cartoon, however, we soon discover it really IS a "Plymouth Rock"--a gigantic stone rooster, that is. The camera jerks right--which tells us immediately a joke is coming--to reveal a billboard with the perennial wartime admonition, WAS THIS TRIP REALLY NECESSARY? (Which Bradley accompanies with the song "Where Do We Go From Here?").

We iris into the next scene, which reveals a Pilgrim village exactly one year later (1621 7/8). "Villages" would probably be a more appropriate term: two identical communities, literal mirror images of one another, separated by a path down the center. On the left dwell "Ye Democrats"; on the right, "Ye Republicans."

The above is, of course, a semi-reworking of a gag in an Avery Warner Bros. picture, showing different Thanksgiving dates for Democrats and Republicans. It's a roundabout reference, not only to the friction FDR had with Republicans (some things never change) but his ill-conceived effort to stimulate the Depression-era economy by moving Thanksgiving up one week, to allow for more Christmas shopping time. It proved largely unpopular, and not all states adopted the measure. With Avery's sense of hyperbole, different holidays for each political party easily escalated into entirely separate communities.

The communities are so identical the people on both sides move in unison--obviously the animation was "flipped" and reused--creating a rather amusing, almost robotic effect. Those Pilgrims were even more conformist than we thought...

We dissolve to one of two favorite gags of mine in this picture (we'll discuss the other one soon enough)--a long line of various and sundry goofy Pilgrim characters, which on closer inspection are caricatures of MGM animation staff members standing at the corner of "Ye Hollywood" and "Ye Vine". I recently wrote Jerry Beck asking for their identities, so I'll let him field that one:

According the Martha Sigal, who worked in MGM's Cartoon Department in the 1940s... The pilgrims are Irv Spence (the heavy grumpy one), Mike Lah (the short mustashioed one), Heck Allen (the tall blond one) and Tex Avery (the heavy one wearing glsasses).

The camera pans right to reveal they're waiting in line for cigarettes at "Ye Cut-Rate Drug Store." Somehow I think the animators were drawing on personal experience there...

Avery used the "Hollywood and Vine" gag in a number of cartoons from this period, usually as a hangout for his oversexed Wolf. That corner was apparently disreputable even in the 1940's--in other words, the gag implies, a perfect spot for Avery's animators.

The camera does another lightning-quick jerk to the right (why didn't Avery just put up a road sign saying GAG AHEAD, NEXT EXIT?) revealing a man sitting under a sign reading, "Ye Town Crier." He's crying, all right--literally, even sounding like a bawling infant. Why is he crying, you ask? We find out when he produces a slip of paper labeled "1-A." (For you folks not old enough to remember the draft, "1-A" was the draft board's designation for those fit for military service).

But Avery's not done with the gags yet--we get another camera jerk to the right, revealing a modern (1940's) trailer covered with patches, amidst a snow-covered (and trash-littered) landscape. Come to think of it, it would fit into a present-day trailer park quite well. Its lone window is cracked. A license plate on the hitch reads OKLAHOMA 4-F ("4-F" is another draft designation, the exact opposite of 1-A. Appropriate when you consider the sorry specimen who lives there). A clothesline is attached to the trailer on the left of the screen: we see, among other things, a pair of overalls with the label "Lockheed Department 37." (Lockheed, of course, being the place they built all those Flying Fortresses and other war planes).

We dissolve to a shot of the trailer's front door, which reveals (finally) the unlikely "hero" of this picture: a fat, dumpy, and rather dense-looking pinhead (literally). He's essentially a white version of "Heel-watha" in Pilgrim garb, right down to the bulbous nose covering his mouth and the Bill Thompson Droopy-like voice. He's shaped a bit like those "Bop-'Em" bags you might have had as a kid--narrow at the top, wide at the bottom, with tiny feet. Carrying a musket over one shoulder, he says to the audience, "I'm going to shoot ye turkey for ye Thanksgiving..."

Only Avery would take this long to reveal the star of his picture, which gives us a pretty good idea of the regard in which he held his characters. Or lack thereof--for Avery, the gags came first, last, and always. Even character voices weren't sacred--he thought nothing of using the "Droopy" voice for other characters, just as he had tried out Arthur Q. Bryan's "Elmer Fudd" voice on the star of the Warner's cartoon DANGEROUS DAN McFOO.

The pilgrim turns to the right and skitters along on his tiny feet to "A-Hunting We Will Go" on the sound track...the scene dissolves to show a large rock, from which the pilgrim emerges. We cut to a medium shot of the pilgrim, who has taken from his pocket what's marked as a "Turkey Call." When he takes a deep breath and blows, the turkey call inflates, and proceeds to sprout fingers, which it uses to whistle. It then sprouts a mouth complete with teeth and a tongue, yelling "HEY, TURKEY!!" (If you didn't see that one coming, tell me so I can come over to your house and whack you upside the head).

The call nonetheless had the desired effect, as the camera jerk-pans right to an exterior shot of a large cabin, "Ye House Of Seven Gobbles" (a reference to the book--and movie--"House of the Seven Gables.") The dormered windows on the house are even numbered for our convenience.

Cut to a medium shot of the open front door (located to the right of the screen), from which emerges our co-star, a Jimmy Durante caricature turkey. He has three hairs sticking out of the top of his head and a "schnozzola"-like beak containing crooked, broken teeth.

"Well, whaddaya know! Anudder customer!" the Durante turkey says, chuckling. He figures he's hooked a live one (and he's right). As the camera follows, the turkey exits out the back of the cabin toward a canvas backdrop with a tree painted on it. Raising the backdrop like a curtain, he reveals a sizable building behind it marked YE BLACK MARKET. (Which, as you no doubt have figured out by now, is another wartime reference). Naturally, the building is actually black (what other color would a black market be, after all?)

In long shot, we see the turkey quickly run inside the "black market" building; in medium shot, he sticks his head out the front entrance, yelling "GOBBLE GOBBLE GOBBLE!!" in a raspy voice similar to the "turkey call."

Our hapless hero the pilgrim zips into frame from the left, frantically looking around for the source of the noise, his musket aimed and ready to fire. The turkey, whom we now see has been hiding around the side of the building, says "Hey, Junior! Ya wanna buy a hot turkey?"

The pilgrim, clearly the "Elmer Fudd" in this pair, asks, "Is it fresh?"

Cut to a medium closeup: "Is it fresh! Look at that white meat!" the turkey replies, opening his feathers like a vest to reveal a vast expanse of breast meat (and you thought they didn't show bare breasts in cartoons..heh heh!) "Look at that dark meat!" (he raises his leg feathers up like a pant leg to reveal a "drumstick" about five times the normal size of his leg). "Feel the material on that wing!" (He pinches his arm when he says this).

Reaching underneath the feathers on his chest as if he had an inside pocket, the turkey produces a gargantuan wishbone, remarking, "Look at that wishbone!" Leaning toward the pilgrim, he asks, "Ya wanna eat it here, or take it wit' ya?"

The camera cuts to a full-body shot as the pilgrim, not knowing what to make of this inexplicable generosity, stammers, "Well, I...don't.--"

Interrupting the confused pilgrim, the turkey leaps up toward his face, almost cheek-to cheek with him, and says, "OK, Junior, I'll wrap it as a gift!!"

Morphing into a massive blur, the turkey streaks inside the black market building. Cut to an interior shot, showing the turkey at a butcher's counter; he grabs a roll of paper and leaps onto it, unzipping his feathers like a suit. (And revealing the blue striped boxer shorts he's wearing underneath).

In a particularly funny bit of business, the turkey scratches his bare sides and back to the sound of scratchy violins on the sound track. Rolling himself up into the paper along with his discarded feather "suit", his two arms emerge from the bundle and grab a length of ribbon, tying it around himself. He cuts, then splits the ribbon lengthwise with the scissors, to make a nice fancy bow.

His bare feet emerge from the bottom of the bundle, and he hops from the counter. We cut to an exterior shot, with the Pilgrim standing in front of the building. In a bit of typical physics-defying Avery logic, the turkey lifts himself up while still in the package, hangs in midair for a couple of seconds, then deposits himself in the Pilgrim's arms. He says "Here ya are, pal, happy T'anksgivin'!"

Cut to a close-up shot of the Pilgrim carrying the package over his shoulder, moving from the right of the screen to the left. As he does, we catch a glimpse of a sign attached to the package reading, USE NO HOOKS.

Note: I'd appreciate input from readers as to the identity of the song playing on the sound track during this scene. I only know it's an old folk song...

Unknown to the oblivious-as-usual Pilgrim, the turkey's arms emerge from the bundle, holding a cannister of gunpowder. Pulling open the back of the Pilgrim's pants, the turkey pours in an emormous quantity of the gunpowder (enough to make the Pilgrim's pants drag the ground) strikes a match, and....

....the resulting huge explosion lasts for about twelve frames (half a second), consisting of alternating flashes of red, yellow and black. The smoke clears to show the turkey marching in front of the Pilgrim, dressed as one of the figures in the "Spirit of '76" painting, complete with head bandage. He plays "The Girl I Left Behind Me" on a fife. The Pilgrim, meanwhile, marches behind him, with a bandage on his left foot and right arm, his gun tucked under his left arm like a crutch. There's an enormous hole in the back of his pants, and we can see that he and the turkey apparently get their boxer shorts from the same store--they're identical to the ones the turkey has on.

When the battered Pilgrim finally realizes he's been had, he grabs his musket and beginis firing it at the now off-camera turkey like a modern machine gun, oversize shells spewing in every direction. Cut to a full-figure shot of the turkey, still playing the fife as bullets zing around him. He does a quick take and runs toward the left of the screen, as the camera follows him. Reaching an area marked "Fox Hole", he dives inside, only to be tossed out again by its inhabitant, a real fox (what else?) The fox hitches up his chest with both hands (an old cartoon gesture for "determination", dating back to the twenties Oswald cartoons), spits, then drops back into the foxhole, slamming a wooden door. The "Fox Hole" sign turns around to reveal NO VACANCIES written on the other side.

Cut to a medium shot of the turkey, who looks disgustedly in the direction of the foxhole. Turning his head toward camera right, he does a startled take, as the Pilgrim runs into frame in about a half-second. He edges up so close to the turkey that the turkey's head ends up inside the barrel of the musket.

Before the Pilgrim can do anything, the camera pans suddenly left as we hear a slow, loping piece of music on the sound track. A bear walks along in time to the music--he's wearing one of those "sandwich board" advertising signs, on which is printed EAT AT JOE'S. (Every diner owner named "Joe" must have been grateful for the free advertising--that gag is in a lot of cartoons).

Avery used this sort of gag frequently, interrupting the action as an incongruous character passes through for no apparent reason. He used it to good effect in LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD and BELIEVE IT OR ELSE; it even influenced Chuck Jones, who used a similar bit in THE DOVER BOYS.

The momentary distraction over, the turkey goes into a fast, whirling run, zipping out of frame. The scene dissolves to a shot of the Pilgrim on the left of the screen, facing right and standing behind a hollow log with his musket ready to fire. He leans his musket against the other side of the log. Unknown to the Pilgrim, however, the turkey is hiding inside: he grabs the musket and quickly reverses the barrel, then puts the musket back in its former place.

The Pilgrim reaches for the musket, not knowing that the barrel is now pointing striaght toward him. He looks toward the left of the screen while the turkey sneaks up behind him and hits him in the rump with a two-by-four. He turns to face the turkey, who's standing on the log, and attempts to aim the musket at him. The turkey blows him a "raspberry" and exits to the right of the screen. The Pilgrim fires, with the gun inevitably going off in his face.

We cut rapidly to a shot of another hollow log, from which the turkey emerges. He does another startled take as the camera pans left, showing what appears to be the Pilgrim, sans head. The Pilgrim's hands open his coat, from which his head pokes out. Annoyed by now, the Pilgrim pops his head through the collar of his suit and sets off in pursuit of the turkey. The camera pans right to show three feathers sticking out from behind a log, which seems to be the turkey ("seems" being the operative word here). The Pilgrim grabs the feathers, only to find they're attached to an Indian; the Indian jabs his finger in the Pilgrim's nose, saying "Who...you?"

The flustered Pilgrim can only stammer, "W-why I'm just a hunter...a turkey..a gun... uh, Thanksgiving..." While he says this, he nervously "mimes" the actions of marching and hunting, and waves his hands aimlessly in the air.

He zips out of frame camera left, so quickly his dentures don't have time to catch up with him. They remain in front of the tomahawk-wielding Indian, suspended in mid-air, still stammering..."uh, I'm just a Pilgrim...ooh, pardon me!" The dentures then zip out of frame.

Cut to a shot of the toothless Pilgrim--the dentures enter his mouth from the right of the screen with such force his hat spins.

Cut to a full-figure shot of the Indian, who turns and bumps into another Indian, whom we see only from the side. The first Indian asks "Who you?", to which the other Indian replies "Me..half-breed!" He turns to the audience to reveal he's literally "half and half", sort of like the Batman character "Two-Face": his left half is white with blond hair, and clothed in a 1940's-era suit and tie. The right half is his Indian half, with braids, feather and buckskin. The hand on his "Indian" side produces a sign saying, HEAP CORNY GAG!

This gag, of course, quickly disappeared from the cartoon in showings after the late seventies--to my never-ending disappointment. It's the best gag in the picture, and my favorite (probably because, like our ethnically confused friend, I'm also a "half-breed" Indian). Some showings have eliminated everything involving both Indian characters.

Cut to a medium shot of the Pilgrim: the turkey zips into frame, grabs the Pilgrim's nose, pulls it and snaps it as if it were a fake rubber nose attached with string. (Repeating a gag from BIG HEEL-WATHA).

The camera follows our heroes as they run to the left, the Pilgrim's musket drawn. The turkey's running in mid-air, hovering just inches above the barrel of the musket.

The turkey hops back on the ground with the Pilgrim in close pursuit--a little too close, enough for the turkey's rear end to get caught in the barrel. The Pilgrim scoops him up and fires, releasing a hail of bullets--the turkey has barely enough time to escape.

Cut to a medium shot of the fleeing turkey as bullets burst around him like artillery shells. This must be a Preston Blair scene, as the turkey is in a classic textbook "fast run" right out of Blair's book on animation. I haven't seen all of the first edition of Blair's book, which contained actual MGM animation drawings, but it wouldn't surprise me if this very scene were included.

The turkey skids to a stop, spins, and appears in a Superman suit: the bullets merely bounce harmlessly off his chest. He whirls again, zipping out of frame to the left.

Cut to a long shot of the Pilgrim and turkey running along an anachronistically modern highway with an equally anachronistic stop signal. They skid to a halt at the intersection as our friend the "Eat At Joe's" bear returns, crossing in front of them to the same loping musical score.

As soon as the bear passes out of frame and the sign switches to "Go," the chase is on again, We cut to a medium shot of the turkey, still scrambling along the highway toward the left of the screen, until he reaches the end of a cliff that would make Wile E. Coyote nervous--there must be a drop-off of about a thousand feet. A sign where the road abruptly cuts off reads END OF PAVEMENT (no kidding--the guy who put that there must be the one who puts up all those "Dip" signs next to Grand Canyon-sized drop-offs). The turkey calmly leans against the sign as the hapless Pilgrim blunders forward--and over the edge. Classic Avery split-second timing, as this takes no more than about eighteen frames.

Cut to a medium shot of the Pilgrim lying in the snow--this being an Avery cartoon, he's unscathed when he should be a hundred-foot spot on the landscape. He does a quick take while the camera does another jerky "Joke Warning" pan to the left: we see a long, winding, mountain road, along which a figure approaches the camera. It's the turkey, naturally--the camera pans the opposite direction to reveal a brick wall, as the Pilgrim attempts the old "Phony Background" gag. He paints a quick landscape on the wall only to discover the turkey can run right into the scene. Figuring he can do it too (he should know better--doesn't he watch cartoons?) the Pilgrim backs up a bit in anticipation, and speeds off. Of course (as if I had to explain it) he instead crashes headlong into the wall. When he peels himself free, the painted lanscape literally covers him from head to toe.

The turkey zips into frame from the right, remarking "Ha hah! Funny joke!" He grasps the Pilgrim's hand and shakes it, causing the Pilgrim's head to ratchet upward like a tire jack. When it rachets down again, we cut to a shot of the turkey running, bouncing left to right off a rock, into a barrel, then a log, and into a hollow tree. It's not much different from a gag in Avery's ALL THIS AND RABBIT STEW, in which Bugs leaps in and out a series of holes like a demented "whack-a-mole."

The Pilgrim enters the frame, jerking his head around wildly as he looks for the turkey. He actually splits into four to search all the hiding places at once, something we've seen in Avery's Screwy Squirrel cartoons.

The turkey--in extreme long shot--sticks his head out of the hollow log and whistles for the Pilgrim, who "pulls himself together" and heads off in pursuit. They run through the log and up a tree, as the camera pans right.

Meanwhile, we see the "Eat At Joe's" bear again, disinterestedly leaning against the tree...

Cut to a bird's eye view from the top of the tree--it's a high one. Very, very high, making the ravine over the cliff look like a pothole. The turkey reclines on the topmost branch as the pilgrim inches his way up. We cut again to a medium shot of the tree branch, which the turkey is rapidly sawing, to Scott Bradley's rendition of the "Irish Washer Woman's Jig" on the soundtrack. Instead of the branch breaking loose and sending the turkey plunging to his death, however, the tree falls, leaving the turkey and the branch suspended in mid-air. (Now you know who originated that bit).

The turkey removes his feathers to reveal a striped bathing suit underneath; he does an elegant swan dive off the floating tree branch, In a pair of quick cuts, we see the turkey from an arial shot falling downward, then move to a medium shot of a tank of water, which the Pilgrim promptly moves several feet to the left.

The turkey stops in mid-air to the sound of screeching brakes (repeat after me: "This is an Avery cartoon...") moves sideways until he's just over the tank, and drops in. Cut to a close-up shot of the Pilgrim as he takes a baseball bat and prepares to club the turkey--the turkey surfaces, pretending to "shoot" the Pilgrim by making machine gun noises, spitting water in his face.

In about half a second, the Pilgrim produces a weapon marked "Ye Bazooka": the turkey upon seeing this does the wildest take in the picture--his eyes bug out and leave his face, traveling down the length of the weapon and back again. The Pilgrim fires, narrowly missing the turkey as he dives back into the tank. Tossing "Ye Bazooka" aside, the Pilgrim decides to jump into the tank after the turkey and throttle him with his bare hands. As soon as he puts his hands around the turkey's throat, he's interrupted by (guess who?) the "Eat At Joe's" bear--still wearing his sign, no less--who calmly climbs out of the tank and walks off camera right, as the confused Pilgrim and turkey look on.

Cut to a close shot of the Pilgrim and turkey, still in the tank. The turkey leans forward into the Pilgrim's face, in true Durante style, and says, "Listen, Junior--you ain't never gonna catch me! Derefore, why don't we eat at Joe's?" The Pilgrim, who's clearly had enough, agrees: "All right--we'll eat at Joe's..."

They take their positions behind the bear, copying his slow, rhythmic walk. The camera pans right to reveal "Joe's", one of those classic converted-railroad-car diners so popular when this cartoon was released. There's a sign on one side of the door reading "Steaks", and on the other side reading "Chops."

The bear opens the door to the diner, followed closely by the turkey and the Pilgrim. The moment the door closes, an immediate ruckus ensues, that we can hear but can't see. The camera vibrates, indicating one lulu of a struggle.

The bear emerges from the diner, alone. He's wearing a bib, and picking his teeth: we get a pretty good idea of what became of our poor heroes. Sure enough, when the bear turns around, we see a sign on his back which reads: I'M JOE. (Hey, the advertisement said "Eat at Joe's"--it didn't specify who'd be doing the eating.)

Cut to a shot of the bear walking along as he continues to pick his teeth. The camera closes in to reveal an "X-ray" or "cutaway" view of the bear's stomach, revealing our poor friends the Pilgrim and turkey--apparently devoured whole--crammed inside. They're sitting with the hands under their chins, annoyed, as they bounce along. The Pilgrim produces a sign, the payoff gag: DON'T EAT AT JOE'S. Good advice to ponder as we iris out.

In reviewing this cartoon, I could not help but realize how basic, even juvenile, Avery's gags were. You or I could probably have done as well. The secret of Avery's genius, however, lay not in the sophistication of the jokes, but in their presentation. Avery is not, according to the classic definition of a comic versus a comedian, a person who says funny things, but a person who says things funny.

Joe Adamson, in his book on Avery, gives two perfect examples, both from THE SHOOTING OF DAN McGOO. When the pompous narrator solemnly describes one character as having "one foot in the grave", we see it's literally true, as the poor slob drags an entire cemetery plot with headstone on his right foot. When he calls for "drinks on the house," the saloon patrons dutifully head to the roof to continue drinking. Reading this, they seem trite; but one look at how ridiculous the characters appear when carrying out these pedestrian gags can put a person in hysterics. Avery was a visual comedian in the same sense as Chaplin or Keaton; he merely chose the pencil over pratfalls, creating animated characters to carry out his bidding. And like Chaplin and Keaton, his influence had a ripple effect on entertainment, affecting it to this day.

What better definition of "genius" could there be?

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Monday, December 11, 2006

Blog, Interrupted

Unknown to most people on my side of the pond, the BBC started regular television broadcasts in November of 1936 from the Alexandra Palace in London, getting the jump on--well, everybody in the world, including the U.S. They continued smoothly along for over three years, pioneering forms of television programming we would not master for at least another fifteen years: talk shows, variety shows, quiz programs, and the like. Only the start of World War II would knock them from their pedestal, as the government put an abrupt halt to TV broadcasting (the transmission towers were a potential homing beacon to enemy planes).

You may wonder what this has to do with anything, particularly my sudden disappearance for three weeks. Don't worry, I'm getting to that.

Two days after the German invasion of Poland, a television presenter introduced a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Halfway into the cartoon, London's few hundred television screens went black--and stayed that way, until June of 1946.

When regular broadcasts resumed, they did so at the exact point they left off--in the middle of the Mickey Mouse cartoon. As the animated images faded from the screen, they were replaced by a shot of the same announcer from 1939, now noticeably older and grayer.

His first words? "As I was saying, before I was so rudely interrupted...."

(Note: As I suspected, this story is apocryphal, according to an online BBC history site. But why let the facts get in the way of a great opening?--Rachel)

Considering what has happened since before Thanksgiving, I rather wish I had the British gift for wit and understatement. I have no clever words for my three-week vanishing act. I was simply tired--tired and frustrated.

If ever there were a stumbling block to my keeping a steady supply of reviews flowing into this blog, it would be the complete lack of an efficient note-taking method. Up to now, I had two primary means of doing so, neither of which worked. I could view a few seconds of videotape, pause, turn my wheelchair around, type, turn, view a few more seconds, pause, turn and type.

Or I could sit in front of the TV screen with a legal notepad on my lap, scribbling handwritten notes until my wrist went numb. You can guess how successful that was. When it takes eight hours to write a review/synopsis of a seven-minute cartoon, it's clear one's methods need a serious overhaul.

"So why didn't you record your notes?" you ask. Believe me, I tried. I have no less than three recording programs on my computer. Two days before Thanksgiving, brimming with enthusiasm, I started making audio notes for MISSISSIPPI HARE.

Halfway through, my computer crashed, destroying all my data. I start all over again; an hour later, I had slogged through the entire seven minutes.

But the recording, a half-hour long WAV file, was too large for my wreck of a computer to handle. Hence, crash city.

When it happened a third time, my nerves and my exhausted brain could take no more. I resolved to take a vacation from reviewing, and anything else to do with the computer except the occasional game of Yahtzee. After I stopped screaming, that is.

But I'm back now, with a brand-new analog microcassette recorder, which has sped up the process immeasurably. Analog recorders don't crash, after all. Over the weekend, I have compiled notes for three cartoons (MISSISSIPPI HARE, JERKY TURKEY, and the Private Snafu cartoon THE GOLDBRICK) and should have at least one of those three posted today.

I can only pray there will be no further "interruptions."

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