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Thursday, April 12, 2007

A Terrytoons Double Bill, Part 2: Today's Lesson--Don't Give Two Cartoon Magpies THE POWER OF THOUGHT (1949)

The Power of Thought
Director: Eddie Donnelly
Release Date: Jan. 1949
In short: Heckle and Jeckle become self-aware, and try out their newfound power...

Cartoons at their best have always acknowledged the magical nature of the medium. If the artist can draw it, it can happen.

The earliest animators knew this, even before Gertie The Dinosaur bounded on-screen. In the experimental animation of Emile Cohl and J.S. Blackton, one object would morph into another in stream-of-consciousness fashion. The animated versions of Winsor McKay's comic-strip characters inexplicably changed shape and form, stretching and contracting like putty. In an early J.R. Bray film, THE ARTIST'S DREAM, the artist's creation (a cartoon dachsund) gorges on a plate of sausages until it bursts.

Throughout the twenties and into the thirties, impossibility reigned. Max Fleischer took us into nightmare worlds with hallucinatory fantasies like BIMBO'S INITIATION and MINNIE THE MOOCHER. In the former, a knife blade perilously close to Bimbo's rump sprouts eyes, a mouth, and a tongue as it licks its lips in anticpation. Should Betty Boop's dress come close to falling down (and it did quite a lot) a screen might come to life and discreetly "walk" in front of her to protect her modesty.

Even Disney's early films played with the possibilities of the medium--he had made his name with films in which a live-action little girl cavorted with pen-and-ink drawings, after all. In an early Mickey Mouse cartoon, THE BARN DANCE, clumsy dancer Mickey continually steps on poor Minnie's feet, his own feet growing with every step to illustrate his awkwardness. Her poor legs stretched hopelessly out of shape, Minnie merely snips off the excess with a pair of scissors, and ties the ends in a knot.

But Disney eventually chose to concentrate on personality and "realism", and by the mid-thirties even the Fleischer cartoons had followed suit. While this did a great deal to make animated characters seem like living, breathing individuals, it also stripped animated cartoons of the one great advantage it had over live-action. It took a rebellion by the likes of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett for cartoon studios to relearn how to be "cartoony."

Not Terrytoons. For them there was nothing to "relearn", since they'd never abandoned their now quaint "anything can happen" style. The studio existed in a sort of vacuum--their stories, gags, drawing style and even music stayed remarkably the same, year after year.

On the one hand, this attitude nearly doomed the studio to stagnation, on the other, it had the unexpected benefit of making Terrytoons a "time capsule" of sorts, preserving the freeform storylines and nonsensical animation of the silent and early sound eras. (As we've already seen in THE MAGIC PENCIL.) There seemed little reason to change: Terry generally ignored industry trends unless--naturally--they made money.

In the mid-forties, characters like Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker were doing just that, so it didn't take long for Terry to put his own spin on them. Given a vague directive to do something involving "twins", Terry's artists came up with two wisecracking magpies, soon to be named Heckle and Jeckle. Strangely, in what's generally regarded to be their debut cartoon, THE TALKING MAGPIES (1946), the main characters are an unnamed magpie and his wife "Maggie", whose constant arguing disturbs neaby Farmer Al Falfa. They soon vanish from the story, and two other unnamed magpies take over.

They were, however, officially named later that year and launched in a series of their own. The majority were undistinguished: if Woody Woodpecker was an imitation Bugs Bunny, Heckle and Jeckle were an imitation Woody Woodpecker--split in two at that.

The ones that stood out, however, combined the raucous, wiseguy sensibility of the Warner's and Lantz cartoons with the freewheeling impossibility of the silents. THE POWER OF THOUGHT is one such cartoon: it dawns on Jeckle (for the record, Jeckle is the one with the British accent) that as cartoon characters, he and Heckle can do anything they think of. With great power, in this case, comes disaster, as they run afoul of a bulldog cop--who soon beomes their unfortune victim. For awhile, that is.

Curious? Then read on the for synopsis of THE POWER OF THOUGHT:

(Note: I know Heckle and Jeckle never addressed each other by name in the classic Terry
cartoons--but did in the later, Bill Weiss installments. Since I have to differentiate the two
somehow, for the purposes of this review, the British-accented one is Jeckle. That's my story and I'm sticking to it...R.)

The opening titles on the tape I have, I suspect, were not the originals--they look like the standard TV release titles in which Terry's name is missing (Terrytoons of this period were usually prefaced by a title that read "Paul Terry Presents.")

The title cuts alarmingly quickly to Jeckle lying in bed, which makes me believe there had been some rather clumsy editing. He sits with his legs crossed, dangling one foot. The scene cuts to a medium shot to reveal Heckle, who's sleeping in the same bed. Jeckle shakes him to wake him up. "You know, I've been lying here thinking," he says.

"With what, chum?" replies his eternally sarcastic friend.

We go back to a closeup shot of Jeckle. "Brains, old boy, brains..." Jeckle says, pointing to the top of his head.

The scene changes again, to a medium shot of the two of them. "Well, what have you been thinking about?" Heckle says.

Lounging with his hands behind his head, Jeckle says, "We cartoon characters can have a wonderful life, if we only take advantage of it. We can do anything we think of!"

"What do ya mean, chum?" Heckle says.

"Well, supposing I want to be a mouse," Jeckle replies. "Click! I'm a mouse..." As he says this he snaps his fingers, and indeed transforms into a mouse, with what might be called a "morphing" effect now. Mouse-Heckle then says, "Supposing I want to be myself again. Click! I'm myself again." He snaps his fingers, and turns back to his old self. He turns his head to the left of the screen and leans back with a self-satisfied smile. "Go ahead, give me something hard to do!"

More than up to the challenge, Heckle says, "OK, I like music. I bet you can't be a one-man band..."

"Why, of course I can," Jeckle says, and shrinks until he disappears.

He reappears--seeming to "grow" from out of nowhere--in the next scene, his arms raised like a conductor. I rather liked this effect, since it's a bit smoother than an abrupt cut in which he suddenly appears. "Ready?" he says.

A piano appears in front of Jeckle...we see him from the back of the instrument as he pounds out a simple boogie vamp. The piano disappears, seemingly absorbed into the floor. A trombone takes it's place, and Jeckle continues the boogie melody, his trombone pointed up in the air toward the right of the screen. He turns around briefly and faces the viewer holding a violin. It then dissolves to a set of drums, and Jeckle plays a lively drum solo.

Heckle, still in bed, jumps up and the camera follows him to the right as he starts to dance. This scene, incidentally, left me wondering if the scene had been retraced from earlier (possibly Mighty Mouse) cartoons, as the dance he was doing looked vaguely familiar. We cut back to Jeckle on drums--then back to trombone, then a trumpet, and back to drums again. (A missed opportunity here--he could have split into several versions of himself and done a really frenetic number, Tex Avery-style).

Cut to a medium shot of the bed as our heroes hop back in, emerging from the right of the screen.

"Say, that's great!" Heckle says, "How do you do it?" Jeckle just shrugs slightly and says, "I just think about it, and then it happens."
Above: Jeckle, the one-man--uh, magpie band....

We hear a dramatic chord on the sound track as Heckle says, "Do you suppose I could do it?" he says, pointing to himself. The wheels are definitely turning.

"Certainly--what would you like to do?" Jeckle asks.

Jeckle places his finger on top of his head, thinking for a moment. "I think I'd like to take a bath," he finally decides. With a snap of Jeckle's fingers, the scene changes and we find them both in a bathtub.

"Boy, this is grand!", Jeckle says, testing the water with his finger. "And just the temperature I like, too!" The camera angle changes slightly, to a three-quarter view of the tub, as he's saying

Jeckle says, "Would you like to go for a swim now?"

"Boy, I sure would," Jeckle answers. The camera angle changes back to the original medium shot, showing all of the bathtub and our two heroes within. Jeckle says, "Well, just lengthen the tub and go ahead..."

They turn to the right, assuming swimming positons. They swim along in synch with each other, the tub expanding as they go. (They'd have been a hit at the Olympics if synchronized swimming existed then). Eventually it expands beyond the confines of their home: we cut to an exterior shot as the wall cracks and gives way, and the stretching tub pushes through.

Cut to the sidewalk below, where a bulldog cop stands watch at a corner, twirling his billy club.
(You know, it's impossible to write that without making it sound dirty somehow...) A few drops splash down from the drain of ever-growing tub above him. (Accentuated by a slight musical trill on the sound track).

Looking up at our heroes just off-camera, the cop shakes his fist and yells, "Hey! What's goin' on up there?"

Cut to Heckle and Jeckle peering over the edge of the tub. Spying the cop just out of viewing range, Heckle raises himself up slightly and says, "Uh-oh!" They make a quick retreat back toward their apartment building, as the tub contracts back into the gaping hole in the wall. Once the tub is back inside, the hole in the wall seals up on its own.

Before the tub fully contracts, however, one end drops down, causing it to dump its entire load of water on the poor unsuspecting cop, soaking him. As soon as the hole seals up, we cut quickly to the now-drenched cop below. Shaking his fist at our unseen heroes, he says, "I'll come up and
get you for this!"

The view changes to Heckle, looking down at the off-camera cop from an open window. "Okay, Chief," he says, pointing down with his finger, "just take the elevator."

The confused cop asks, "What elevator?" He doesn't have to wait long for the answer, as a section of the sidewalk on which he's standing starts rising in the air. We briefly cut to a shot of the window as Jeckle zips inside, and the cop zips into screen from the bottom of the frame.

Jeckle's quick exit is a nice little bit of "smear animation," which comes as a bit of surprise to me. I didn't know Terrytoons attempted anything that unusual--I suspect that particular sequence must have been animated by Jim Tyer, whose oddball animation style made him that studio's equivalent of Rod Scribner. (Kevin has a few things to say about Tyer in a future entry). The piece of sidewalk on which the cop stands bends downward a bit from the speed, making the bulldog a little unsteady on his feet.

A couple of quick cuts here, as we see Heckle looking at the glowering cop from the interior of the building. He slams the shutter, the blinds and closes the cutain--then "folds up" the window, widthwise and then lengthwise, until it disappears. Then to the exterior, where we see Jeckle enter into the scene from around the corner. "How is it up there?" he asks mockingly.

Another quick cut, a "worm's eye" view of the cop, still hovering in midair. "Get me down outta here!" he screams, fists clenched. Then back to Jeckle below, who "wills" a lever to appear, then pulls it.

Back to the cop above, as he plummets downward at incredible speed. The piece of sidewalk heads down so fast, the cop is momentarily suspended in midair, flailing a bit before he lands back onto it. Crouched on all fours, he has a panicked expression as he peers over the edge.

The cop and the section of sidewalk hit the ground with such force they end up several feet underground. Heckle (or Jeckle, it's unclear at this point) slides a wooden box marked DISHES over the gaping hole. We see brief evidence of a rumbling underneath the box as the cop speeds back upward--breaking through it, he again rises several stories, struggling to carry about a dozen or so dishes. The section of sidewalk comes to a sudden stop--the deceleration causes the cop to flip head-over-heels through the air, but he comes back down on his feet, rescuing the dishes.

"Get me down outta here!" the cop repeats to his off-camera tormenters.

Back on the ground, Jeckle, standing to the left of the screen, says "You heard the gentleman..."

Heckle, on the right, immediately produces a fireman-style ladder, which rises from his two hands. It vibrates slightly as it unfolds.

Back now to the cop, still in midair, as the ladder emerges from the bottom of the frame. He steps gingerly off the floating piece of concrete with his left foot as he continues to balance the dishes.

The piece of sidewalk wobbles slightly as he--just barely--makes it onto the top rung, dishes intact.

Unfortunately, the ladder comes apart--the rungs collapse on top of one another as he zooms downward, the camera following him all the while. On the ground, Heckle and Jeckle stare up gaping at the disaster about to occur. They duck and put their hands over their eyes as we hear an off-camera cymbal crash.Terrytoons still used musical instruments for the majority of their sound effects, even at this late date.

Cut to the dazed cop amid the debris of broken ladder and dishes. A cloud of dust rises in the air around him. He slowly rises and and disappears from the right of the frame, re-emerging in the next scene as he approaches the smug-looking magpies. He leans over them, fists clenched.

"Hey! What's this all about??" he shouts.

"We're cartoon characters," Jeckle says."We can do anything we think of. Just watch this..."

He proceeds to make a fist and waves his hand over it like a magician. He flicks his thumb, which immediately "lights" as if it were a match. Cupping his other hand and sticking his other thumb in his mouth, he sticks the flame down into his cupped hand and puffs as if he were smoking a pipe.

Jeckle casually blows some smoke as the dumbfounded cop looks on.

We cut to a close-up of the cop, who remarks, "Say, that's wonderful!" Unthinkingly, he flicks his own thumb, pointing to it with pride as it lights, not full aware of what he's just done. His thumb glows red-hot, and the heat quickly spreads down to the rest of his hand.

"Hey!" the cop shouts, when he realizes his entire hand has now burst into flame. As he waves it frantically to put it out, we go back to Heckle and Jeckle, who scramble around in circles yelling
"Water, water!!" Jeckle transforms into a hydrant as Heckle releases the water with a twist of a wrench.

Hydrant-Jeckle releases an enormous cascade of water toward the burning cop, the force of which sends the cop back what appears to be several yards.

We cut back to Heckle and Hydrant-Jeckle. Jeckle transforms back into himself and takes off with Heckle toward the right of the screen as the cop comes into view close behind them. We then move to a medium shot of Heckle and Jeckle running, then skidding to a stop. Jeckle morphs into a streetlight, which the pursuing cop instantly slams into, his momentum causing it to bend slightly. It snaps back, throwing the cop to the ground.

The streetlight morphs back into Jeckle, who says "See what I mean?"

The enraged cop tries to strike Jeckle several tmes with his billy club, but it has no effect, going through Jeckle as if he were transparent. The cop momentarily looks at his club, puzzled. As he does so, Jeckle suddenly disappears, and a set of footprints appear on the sidewalk from nowhere. The camera trucks right as the cop follows the moving footprints into an open grassy area. "I'm on the right track now", he comments to the audience.

How right he is, since a set of railroad tracks immediately appear beneath him. Oblivious, the cop continues sneaking along, then breaks into a run.

He skids to a stop, gaping in horror at the action off-screen. Cut to a shot of an anthropomorphic train--complete with "eyes"--barreling toward him. We cut to the cop, fleeing desperately to the left, then skidding to a stop again--hands over his eyes--as the train appears to run over him. He looks down to discover he's unharmed, and the tracks have disappeared.

Putting his hands on his hips, he remarks to the audience, "I don't get it!" He'll "get it," all right, as we cut to a medium shot of Heckle and Jeckle in a rowboat, "rowing" in mid-air. Jeckle sings "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" while Heckle rows, as we cut again to the cop. The shadow of our heroes' boat can be seen passing directly overhead. The boys' oars hit the cop on the back of the head, knocking him down. The cop goes into a fighting pose and draws his pistol, shooting at the
offscreen Heckle and Jeckle.

The bullets hit their rowboat, sending it falling and our heroes out of frame. One can see the two large gaping holes in the bottom as it plummets. Meanwhile, on the ground, the cop is still shooting into the air, only to be hit by the falling boat, which smashes to bits over his body.

The impact has forced the cop's Keystone Kops-style policeman's hat down over his eyes, almost all the way down to his bulldog jowls. He pulls the hat off his head and sits there in disgust. "It's about time I got some BRAINS knocked into my head," he says.

The cop gets up on his feet--we immediately change to a closeup shot of his noggin. Right on
cue, a large hammer appears and raps him several times on the skull. The cop likes it, it turns out, as he has a pleased--if somewhat goofy--look on his face. "Do it again! Do it again!" he shouts.

The hammer complies, hitting him a few more times on the head. His head vibrates slightly as thoughts clearly enter his mind (more Tyer animation, perhaps?)

"That's it--now I'm thinkin'!" he says. We cut to an extreme closeup of the top of the cop's head, as we see the clockwork gears in his brain tick away in a "cutaway" view.

The inner workings of a cartoon character's

Now "enlightened," the cop throws his pistol off-camera past the left of the frame. In the next shot we see it's grown enormous--it fires shot after shot as it moves under its own power across the screen, from right to left.

We cut again, this time to a medium shot of the panic-stricken magpies as they're pursued by the gigantic firing pistol. Soon, instead of bullets, a bear trap emerges from the barrel of the gun, which not only grabs Heckle and Jeckle as it clamps down, but morphs into a set of "stocks" on a wheelbarrow, ensnaring our heroes.

"I say, what happened?" the perplexed Jeckle says. "Yeah, what happened?" says Heckle.

Cut one last time to a close up of the cop, who says, "I'm a cartoon character too--and I've been doin' some thinkin' myself..." The vindicated cop winks at the audience.

Ah, yes--unlike poor, simple Gandy Goose, the boys are left to ponder their careless use of power as the cartoon irises out.


"In one of these here cartoon pictures, a body can get away with anything," says the aged hillbilly of Tex Avery's A FEUD THERE WAS. The idea of the self-aware cartoon character was not new in 1949--Avery, Clampett and others had toyed with it in numerous cartoons--but to Avery, Clampett, et. al., it was nothing more than a throwaway joke. The artists at Terrytoons went one step further to build an entire cartoon around the concept--a fresh, clever twist for that time, particularly coming from the likes of Terrytoons.

I must say this cartoon is a pleasant surprise--in my dim memories of decades ago, this cartoon was quite lackluster, but it proved funnier and more rapid-fire than expected. Old studio hand Eddie Donnelly was no Tex Avery, certainly, but he did a more than passable job in executing the central premise. There was certainly faster action than I remembered, as well as more "extreme" poses and expressions. The cross-eyed, goofball look on the bulldog cop's face as he shouts "Do it again! Do it again!" is truly a sight to behold. This is THE MAGIC PENCIL done as it ought to have been, minus the faux Victorian melodrama, and with far more interesting characters. (Terry's curious obsession with Victorian melodrama parodies could probably comprise an entire post in itself). As I said in the introduction, it's Fleischeresque "old school" meets Warner's insanity--truly the best of both worlds.

THE POWER OF THOUGHT, like the postwar product of every other studio, shows the effect of cutbacks in production: fewer characters per frame, quicker cuts, having action take place off screen rather than on, and much more dialogue. Yet in Terrytoons' case, such cutbacks led to better cartoons, as the animators were forced to rev up the timing--they couldn't afford to linger on one scene very long. Terry's cartoons were now not only bizarre, but the weirdness came at you a mile a minute.

Yet I can't seem to shake the nagging feeling this cartoon needed something more. More of what, I can't be certain--more gags, faster pacing (though it was quite fast as it was, at least by Terry standards) more clever banter--maybe all of those things. The animators seemed at the same time to be restrained, yet champing at the bit to show what they could do. I suspect Terry's often unwelcome interference prevented this cartoon from being as funny as it could have been, but as it is, it's one of the rare standouts amid a flood of mediocrity.

It gives us a glimpse of the Terrytoons that might have been, had its artists been given as much control as those at Warner's, MGM and Lantz. (Much as the Gene Deitch cartoons would do
years later).

Not bad, old top, as Jeckle might have said.

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