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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Terrytoons Double Bill (Part 1): THE MAGIC PENCIL (1940)

The Magic Pencil
Director: Volney White
Music: Phillip Scheib
Release Date: Nov. 14, 1940

Before Heckle and Jeckle, before Mighty Mouse, and way before Deputy Dawg, there was Gandy Goose. For those who can remember seeing Terrytoons on television or in theaters--in vibrant color or grainy black and white--he hardly needs an introduction. But he does need a home, and has found one here at The Home For Orphan Toons.

Foolish but possessed of a wild imagination, his strange dreams provided fodder for most of his appearances. He was certainly the most promising character Terrytoons had created up to that time--before his first appearance in 1939, Terrytoons really had no star characters to speak of--unless you consider Farmer Al Falfa or Kiko The Kangaroo "star characters."

Though THE MAGIC PENCIL was not Gandy's first cartoon, it was the first to team him with the Durante-ish Sourpuss, a minor character previously seen in the color "one-shot" THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT. Say what you will about Terry, he knew a good thing when he saw one--and they remianed teamed for the remainder of their appearances (including a series of army adventures during WWII).

Like many cartoon characters of the classic era, Gandy's personality was "borrowed" from a radio comedian--in this case Ed Wynn--but whether entirely original or not, I must admit I have a soft spot for the little goofball. (According to the mostly reliable Leonard Maltin, Gandy's voice was provided by Wynn imitator Arthur Kay. I'll explain the "mostly" later on...)

Onetime Terrytoons employee Ralph Bakshi apparently had fond memories of Gandy as well: Bakshi's "Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures" series in one stroke parodied not only Gandy, but Marvel's revised Captain America origin story from the '60s. In the cartoon, Gandy is thawed out after having been frozen in an iceberg since World War II (like Cap) and has a little difficulty adjusting to the present, spending most of his time pining for his lost sidekick (also like Cap).

You might want to check out the copy of that particular episode ("The Ice Goose Cometh") on YouTube as a sort of refresher course.

Back already? Great. Then without further delay (I hope) I present to you THE MAGIC PENCIL:

The copy I was able to obtain (courtesy of Jerry Beck) was taken from a 16mm release print intended for home movie projectors. As such, there are no animator credits in the opening titles (there may not have been in the original print, but I have no way of knowing.) We open with a still of our "star", Gandy, with his name superimposed, which immediately dissolves to the title.

References to 20th Century-Fox, the studio's distributor, have been edited out, blacked out, or both.

We open with Gandy listening to lively swing music on the radio, clapping along and doing a silly little tap dance. The camera follows Gandy as he dances to the left, right in front of Sourpuss, who is seated and trying to read a newspaper. Annoyed at Gandy's noisy tap-dancing, he puts the paper down and yells "Quiet!"

Sourpuss is a black cat with a white face in this cartoon, quite different from his appearance in the color cartoons of this period. In those, his head and ears are a pale brown and his face a sort of beige.

Sourpuss kicks Gandy across the room toward the radio--Gandy bumps into it, knocking off the flowerpot perched on top. It falls, hitting Gandy on the head, which stuns him: his eyes cross a bit. (Kind of a natural expression for him, at that).

The music stops, and we hear an announcer's voice: "This is station W-A-K...now remember, boys and girls, all you have to do is send in 2000 box tops, and ten cents, and you will receive a magic pencil." The scene shifts to reveal the announcer in front of the microphone--a portly fellow with slicked hair and a pencil mustache. Sort of an Oliver Hardy type: he even has the same delicate gestures as Hardy--rather fey. He's holding the aforementioned pencil, which doesn't look all that "magical" at first glance. But this is a cartoon, after all...

Cut back home to Gandy, who says to the disembodied voice on the radio, "Did you say a magic pencil?"

The announcer replies "Yes, a magic pencil." (Why was that gag funnier when the folks at Warner's did it?) Gandy yells "Oh boy!", pumping his fists in the air.

We cut to a shot of the kitchen cabinet, which Gandy approaches from camera right. He pulls out a sizeable pile of cereal boxes and starts tearing the box tops off furiously, flinging them behind him. (Wait..that little cabinet can hold two thousand cereal boxes? What is it, a portal to another dimension? More importantly, where can I get one like it? The storage space in my apartment is pathetic).

The scene dissolves to show Gandy walking along carrying the enormous bundle of box tops: some in his arms, some on his head, some on his feet, and even a few on his feathered rump.

Cut to a shot of the radio--as Gandy approaches from the left, the radio starts to suck the box tops through its speaker, as if the speaker were a "mouth". Come to think of it, the radio does look vaguely human--it's one of those console types with two knobs at the top and the speaker at the center, and resembles a "face."

We cut again to a shot of the radio station and the Hardyish announcer. He's immediately splattered with Gandy's box tops, which come at him from the microphone as if they were playing cards flung in his face. They fall all around the announcer and scatter on the floor. The scene changes to a close up of the genial announcer, who says "Thank you!"

"And here is your magic pencil," he says. To a "boing" sound on the sound track, he reverses Gandy's little trick, shoving the pencil through the microphone, causing the mike stand to vibrate as the pencil starts its journey through the wire to Gandy's house. (Say, that's better service than Acme--certainly better than I got. When I was six, I pestered the mailman for six whole weeks before I got my Quisp doll.)

And did anyone notice Gandy didn't shove the dime through? It was 2000 box tops and ten cents, remember? He cheated them!

The radio, now even more human-like, "coughs" a bit before it ejects the pencil through the air into Gandy's waiting hand. Sourpuss, now curious, approaches Gandy from the left of the screen, yelling "What is that? What is that??" as he points toward the pencil.

The scene cuts to a close up of Gandy, who says, "It's a magic pencil..."

In another cut, we now see a closeup of the skeptical Sourpuss, who scoffs, "A magic pencil..." then laughs, throwing his head back. He isn't skeptical for long, though, as Gandy stands on his tiptoes and begins drawing in the air. Immediately, an egg appears, hovering in the air where Gandy drew it. Sourpuss leans underneath it to examine it more closely, one eye closed.

Naturally, it breaks open, and the yolk drops down on poor Sourpuss--who yells "Oh!" in surprise and frustration. Having done its job, it disappears as Sourpuss wipes the yolk off his face. Maybe he should have waited--then the yolk would have disappeared too. Or maybe not, since the laws of the cartoon universe seem to favor Gandy.

The scene changes to an exterior shot as Gandy emerges from the front door of the house and out into a meadow with a few trees. Gandy looks around him and laughs his trademark Ed Wynn-like silly laugh. He turns to draw something in the air again, this time a saxophone.

Sourpuss, who's been watching from the window, clearly expects something a little more useful (money, a car, a yacht, anything but a musical instrument). He yells "Oh!" at Gandy's seeming stupidity, slapping himself in the head in frustration. Jumping through the window, he lands on the ground and stands rigid, fists clenched.

We cut to a scene of Gandy dancing and playing "Swanee River" on his sax as Sourpuss sneaks behind a tree to observe. Musical notes emanate from the saxophone and begin to morph into swans as Sourpuss stares amazed.

We cut again to a scene of the now fully-formed swans as they "honk" to the rhythm of Gandy's music, hopping into the lake. Cut back to Gandy--as the last of the swans coalesces and walks off, the saxophone sprouts legs and walks off behind it, camera right. Gandy disappears from frame, camera left.

Sourpuss, meanwhile, emerges from his hiding place behind the tree and heads toward the viewer, looking stupefied in Gandy's direction. The scene changes to show Sourpuss creeping along the ground on all fours after the swans and the humanized saxophone. The sax, having noticed him, turns and emits a "honking" noise, which startles Sourpuss. He jumps in the air, eyes bugged out. Yelling "Oh!" again, he runs off to the left of the screen.

In the next scene, Sourpuss emerges from the right of the frame. Furious, he grabs a plank with which to clobber Gandy--but before it can reach Gandy's noggin, the nervous Gandy draws a spring in midair. The board hits the spring and recoils, smacking Sourpuss six or seven times in
the head. Sourpuss vibrates from the impact as we hear the ubiquitous "boing" on the sound track.

Cut to a medium shot of Sourpuss chasing Gandy--Gandy holds up both hands and skids to a halt. Brandishing his pencil, he draws a "stick figure" blonde cat girlfriend for Sourpuss, who exclaims "Aaaah!" (the voice sounds a bit different here). Elated, Sourpuss shakes Gandy's hand so violently that Gandy vibrates up and down toward the viewer. He recovers his bearings only to do a take at what he sees off screen.

Which is, of course, Sourpuss, who's dancing cheek-to-cheek with the girl cat. As the scene changes, they dance into frame from the right, while Gandy on the left begins drawing a stick figure body holding a cane--he stands on the cane for a short time so he can finish the figure, which is about twice his height.

The figure, as we soon see, is a stick figure "villain"-type cat with a handlebar mustache and a bent top hat on his head--sort of a feline Snidely Whiplash. He wears a little "butterfly" collar and spats.

Cut to a shot of Gandy running toward a wooden fence--from camera right--to watch the "fun" ensue, laughing his silly laugh at what's about to happen.

Meanwhile, the villain cat watches--twirling his mustache like a true classic bad guy--as Sourpuss and the girl cat waltz along. He takes his cane and raps Sourpuss on the head. Sourpuss goes into a fighting pose, fists raised, but the villain merely hooks him with the cane and spins poor Sourpuss through the air. As Sourpuss hits the ground, the grinning villain tips his hat to the girl cat, who looks surprised and frightened. Grabbing the girl cat's stick-figure body with his left hand, the villain starts to walk off.

"Put 'em up!!" Sourpuss yells, resuming his fighting pose. The villain ignores him and keeps walking, hitting Sourpuss in the face with his cane, then disappearing from the frame camera right. Sourpuss flips through the air and lands on his rump (punctuated by a kettle drum "thump", a slide whistle, and a bell on the sound track--Terrytoons' sound effects were somewhat old-fashioned for 1940, though they still had a rough sort of charm).

The scene jumps abruptly to the villain running along with the girl, as she pummels his head to
the sound of drums. It abruptly cuts again to show Sourpuss, still on the ground with his hand under his chin. Gandy appears from the left of the frame.

Sourpuss suddenly jumps up: "Do something! Do something!" he screams at Gandy. Gandy runs off to the right of the frame and re-emerges in the following scene, in which he's running toward an old wooden shack. He quickly takes his pencil and draws a car body and wheels on the side of the shack, which instantly transforms into a working car. Gandy opens the door and steps inside, followed closely by Sourpuss. We hear the sound of a motor as the door of the shack breaks free and the car drives off--leaving behind a door-less shack.

(Had the animators done this gag ten years earlier, the shack might have been an outhouse.)

The scene dissolves to show a sawmill (he's a villain--where else would he go?) in medium shot, with logs approaching down a wooden ramp from the top left. It dissolves again to a different angle, this time showing the logs dropping down toward a conveyor belt, something like toothpaste from a tube. We then shift to a long shot of the villain and the girl running along a series of hills and valleys--in a dead-on reworking of a Tex Avery gag, the villain's body lengthens as he runs down into the valley, shortening again as he runs up the next hill.

The scene cuts to a long-shot exterior of the sawmill--the villain approaches and heads inside, slamming the door. Cut to the interior: the villain puts the recalcitrant girl down, removes his hat, bows, and produces a pearl necklace from his hat for her. All the while he has a sinister leer on his face (come to think of it, wouldn't most guys in this situation?) The girl naturally refuses, shaking her head and striking an aloof pose, hands on hips (well, she doesn't have hips, exactly, but where they would be if she had them). The villain leans forward, snarl on his face, one eye closed.

Not one to take "no" for an answer, the villain shakes the necklace in front of her and hands it to her--she takes it and examines it under a jeweler's eyepiece. Discovering the necklace to be a cheap fake (which you can tell from her startled "take" reaction) she throws the "pearls" back in the villain's face, resuming her hands-on-hips pose. This gal is apparently as materialistic as he is...she learns quickly for someone who's been in existence for only a few minutes.

The camera pans left to reveal an enormous buzz saw--the villain points toward it as the girl screams. He doesn't take rejection lightly, this guy...but then, you could pretty much see this coming, couldn't you?

Meanwhile, our heroes--remember them?--race along in their makeshift car in long shot toward the sawmill. We see them inside only in silhouette. The car, in a dandy little bit of speed animation for this studio, bends forward from the momentum, bending back as they screech sideways to a stop.

Emerging from the car, Gandy and Sourpuss run toward the edge of a cliff--but thanks to Gandy's magic pencil, that proves no obstacle. They spy a waterfall, with the sawmill behind it, across the expanse. As Sourpuss repeats his constant cry of "Do something!", Gandy does--he draws a series of stairs to effortlessly work their way across (this--give or take a few frames--is the scene one sees in Of Mice and Magic, by the way).

Gandy looks at Sourpuss and winks, jerking his thumb toward the stairs he's drawing. He climbs up each step as he draws, with Sourpuss bringing up the rear. They jump off the last step toward the sawmill's paddle-wheel, struggling to keep their footing on the rotating wheel. (They didn't plan that very well, did they?)

Meanwhile, in the interior of the sawmill, we see that the villain has tied the girl to a log which is heading rapidly toward the menacing buzz saw (how original...). The girl stuggles and pulls at the ropes. We cut to a closeup of the villain as he twirls his mustache and laughs evilly.

On the outside, our friends are still trying to get off the paddle-wheel. They hop on to the roof (why didn't Gandy just draw more stairs, an Arabian flying carpet, anything?) and slide off the other side onto the ground. Suddenly, Sourpuss does a "take" as Gandy quickly exits toward the lower right of the frame. The villain emerges from the left brandishing a cutlass--Sourpuss grabs his stick-figure body and whirls him around, dumping him on the ground (in a near-repeat of what the villain had done to him earlier).

The villain rises and assumes an attack pose, pointing his cutlass at Sourpuss. Sourpuss grabs a forked stick and assumes a similar fighting stance.

While they're parrying and thrusting, we cut again to the interior of the sawmill, in which we see the girl still on the log, dangerously close to the buzz saw. (My, but that's a long log--or a slow saw). As the log gets consumed by the saw, the girl frantically pushes herself down toward the end of the log. We cut back to Sourpuss and the villain, fighting underneath a tree, with Sourpuss standing upside down on the underside of the branch (hey, if he can do that, why the heck would he be so fascinated with Gandy's magic pencil? It'd seem a bit mundane, would it not?)

Sourpuss continues fighting, walking up and down the side of the tree several times as he fends off the villain's attack. Just as the worst happens--the villain knocks Sourpuss' "sword" out of his hands!--Gandy emerges from camera left with a rag, "erasing" the villain as the cowering Sourpuss stands with his hands over his eyes. (Hey, Gandy, where were you a couple of minutes earlier?)

"He's gone," Gandy says. Sourpuss, who's removed his hands from his eyes to confirm that Gandy is right, says, "Quick! The 'goil'!" He runs out of frame past Gandy toward the left of the screen, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

Cut to an interior shot of the sawmill's front door. Sourpuss opens it, looking around wildly. He runs toward camera left and emerges in the next scene running toward the girl on the log. He grabs at the ropes and hastily tries to free the girl. Gandy merely appears from the bottom of the screen and pulls the lever that shuts off the saw (again, where was he a moment ago? For that matter, why didn't Sourpuss think of that?)

Sourpuss frees the girl at last, carrying her outside. As the girl looks toward Sourpuss coyly, he declares, "She's mine!!" and starts to kiss her. Gandy, that spoilsport, incredibly unravels the girl, sucking the lines back into his pencil. Outraged (and who could blame him?) Sourpuss emits his trademark "Oh!" He comes toward Gandy in a menacing pose--if looks could kill, Sourpuss would be a candidate for the gas chamber about now.

Cut to a close-up of Gandy and Sourpuss. "Gimme that pencil!" Sourpuss shouts, wrenching it from Gandy's hand. Sourpuss throws the pencil--point down--on the ground, where it sticks.

A split second later, the pencil shoots up into the air like a rocket, trailing sparks as it goes. It climbs higher and higher into the sky until it finally explodes, releasing what looks to be three large burnt-out matchsticks, which coalesce into stick-figure drawings of

Revolutionary War figures (huh?) as they hit the ground. Two figures have fifes and another a drum, and they launch into a sprightly version of "The Girl I Left Behind Me." Gandy and Sourpuss, seemingly nonplussed by this--happy, even--march right behind them. Iris out.

You read right. It ends there.

I'm shocked. I'm beyond shock. I'm perplexed, I'm puzzled, I'm flummoxed. You name it, I feel it.

This is an ending?

Let me get this straight: Gandy creates figures that come to life, leads Sourpuss on a merry chase trying to save one from another, only to casually obliterate the very one they'd went through all that trouble to save? Just to get a rise out of Sourpuss?

They destroy the one thing that could have given them everything they could imagine, yet aren't devastated when it is? Not only are they no better off than they were before, they're now confronted with the unwelcome task of eating 2000 boxes of soon-to-be stale cereal. I rather expected Sourpuss to bash Gandy one, in an Oliver Hardy-like "Look what YOU made me do!" reaction.

But even Sourpuss doesn't seem too bothered. Gandy, of course, treats this as if it were one big joke.

Is that about right? I hope not. I'm sleep-deprived after writing this all night--I'd prefer to think I'd hallucinated this part.

Did the writers want to knock off early to play golf? Somehow I can't help but think their attitude toward their job mirrored that of Gandy toward his creations. Come to think of it, that may have been the point--whereas Disney might have pondered the implications of playing God, these animators tell us, "Hey, none of this is real, folks!"

Maybe they--and their characters--simply realized that in an animated world, a magic pencil is redundant.


(Note: This section mercilessly edited, flogged, and otherwise subdued 4/5/07, due to the author's perfectionistic nature. Carry on).

I suppose I should be more disappointed in Leonard Maltin, who must have been watching a different cartoon. His synopsis of THE MAGIC PENCIL in Of Mice and Magic reads as follows:

"Gandy acquires a pencil that makes drawings come to life. Greedy Sourpuss takes advantage of the situation, and eventually causes the destruction of the pencil..."
(pg. 139)

Sorry, my dear Mr. Maltin. Not even close. It probably should have happened that way, but it didn't.

First of all, I didn't see much evidence of Sourpuss being "greedy" or "taking advantage of the situation" at all. He might have enjoyed the girl cat Gandy created, but Gandy did it not because Sourpuss demanded he do so, but because he wanted to mess with Sourpuss' head.

Sourpuss might have been frustrated with the seemingly frivolous way Gandy was using the pencil, but who wouldn't be? All that power in his feathered little hands, the power to benefit others, not just himself. And what does he do with it? He plays the saxophone, creates swans, and enacts a stick-figure Victorian melodrama. Uh-huh. That's what I'd do, all right.

OK--to be fair, Gandy's an innocent. Not quite dumb, but naive. Still...

Further, the destruction of the pencil wasn't the result of Sourpuss' alleged greed. Gandy, remember, was hardly without guilt here. He had baited Sourpuss with the pencil, teased him with it, tormented him with it, for the entire cartoon. And wiped out his fantasy girl to boot. I'd have snatched it from him myself--then jabbed him in the eye with it.

I suppose I'm even angrier at Maltin for raising my expectations too high. His glowing review led me to expect Terrytoons' own version of MINNIE THE MOOCHER. Imagine the worlds that pencil could have created--worlds that could so easily have slipped out of the simple Gandy's control. Yet it remained surprisingly earthbound.

If you're expecting filet mignon, even the best hamburger in the world is going to be a letdown. The premise, combined with the unlimited medium of animation, where anything can happen and usually does, could have soared into the stratosphere. But like the pencil, it fizzled long before it got there.

That, sadly, is Terrytoons' fatal flaw. It's not that Terry's cartoons were bad, but that a good many of them were almost great. That's probably the greatest tragedy of all.

We see the same unfortunate pattern repeat ten years later with the next cartoon on the program, THE POWER OF THOUGHT. Better in many respects--far better--than THE MAGIC PENCIL, but not the legend it deserved to be. But more on that next time...

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