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Friday, April 27, 2007

Tex Avery Gives Us "The Straight Dope" in UNCLE TOM'S CABAÑA (YOWSUH!)--1947

Uncle Tom seems quite...interested in Little Eva's dancing in the original theatrical movie poster...
(Thanks to puzzlesdirect.com)
Uncle Tom's Cabaña
Release Date: July 29, 1947
Director: Tex Avery
Music: Scott Bradley, Imogene Lynn (vocals)
In short: The story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin"--the way it "really" happened...

"One o' them Hollywood cartoon companies..."

With the fate of the "Censored 11" on this blog hanging in the balance for the time being, it's only appropriate to take a slight detour to 1940's Culver City, to take a look at a Tex Avery rarity from MGM.

Parodying a classic of literature as hoary as Uncle Tom's Cabin seems a bit dated even for 1947, and in the hands of anyone but Tex Avery, redundant--but for Tex, that was precisely the point. To him, the more ossified the source material, the better. He'd already mangled the fairy
tale--or Disney's re-invention of it, anyway--in such cartoons as CINDERELLA MEETS FELLA (with Egghead as the unlikeliest of Prince Charmings) and LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD at Warner's. At MGM, he gave audiences a Red Riding Hood the likes of which no one had ever seen, with a Wolf who still wanted to pursue her (to use the politest term possible) but for reasons decidedly not G-rated. The mawkish and melodramatic "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was just too good--or bad--to pass up. And with that story, he was treading on familiar territory.

He'd already taken aim at the story once before, for Leon Schlesinger (UNCLE TOM'S
BUNGALOW, 1937) but the maddeningly even pacing of the '30s Schlesinger cartoons made it something of a misfire. (Although he did give us the immortal line, "My body may belong to you, but my soul belongs to Warner Brothers!")

Ten years later, under the banner of a new studio, his comic timing sharper than it had ever been, the time couldn't have been better to revisit old material. Only this time, he makes a direct hit.

All the Avery trademarks are there: non-stop action punctuated by a jazzy Scott Bradley sound track, cuts so quick they pass by in an eye blink, visual hyperbole stretched to its most ridiculous--and funniest--limits. Not to mention a generous helping of sex, just barely slipped under the Hays Office radar. 1947 was a particularly good year for Avery--he released KING SIZE CANARY that year, generally considered to be his masterpiece. As with KING SIZE CANARY, UNCLE TOM'S CABAÑA starts slowly, but like a pebble rolling down a snow-covered hill, grows and gains momentum until it bowls the viewer over. We hardly have time to breathe by the time the film reaches its high point.

In the decade separating the two versions, the change in style and attitude coudn't be more obvious, especially toward the characters. Little Eva, portrayed as a chatty six-year-old in the Warner's version ("I'm in the first grade, an' I got a dolly, an' a teddy bear, and I can spell
"cat"--c-a-, c-a--well, anyway, I can spell "dog...") is no adorable little innocent here. She--like Avery's cartoons--had grown up, her little shoes filled by none other than Avery's "Red" from RED HOT RIDING HOOD, SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA and WILD AND WOOLFY. Albeit in more clothes than we had seen her in before, or since.

Little Eva (Red) struts her stuff in this Preston Blair animation sketch..

Save for the first fifteen seconds or so, the mythical Old South of the original story is nowhere to be seen--this was 1947, after all, so while Uncle Tom still has his cabin, it's in the middle of a towering urban landscape. Little Eva lives in the requisite antebellum mansion, but perched atop a New York-style skyscraper--her own little Tara-On-The-Hudson.

Simon Legree is still evil, so proud of his treachery he advertises it (signs on his downtown office building read "OLD LADIES TRIPPED, KITTENS DROWNED") but here he's also lecherous, proving an able stand-in for Avery's Wolf as he drools over Little Eva/Red. He and the Wolf could, in fact, make pretty good drinking buddies.

But before I get too far ahead of myself, let's visit UNCLE TOM'S CABIN--er, CABAÑA, as only Tex Avery could tell it:

We can see the opening titles superimposed over the traditional "Old South" background of mansions, cotton fields and steamboats--much like the opening seconds of the Bugs Bunny cartoon MISSISSIPPI HARE, but at night. The camera tracks over this landscape and zooms in on a lone little cabin in the midst of a vast field. Take a good look, should you get a copy of this, because that's just about the last connection to the original source material we're going to see in this cartoon.

Uncle Tom (here voiced by Charlie Correll, one half of AMOS 'N' ANDY) sits on the front porch of his cabin, surrounded by little black children lying on the ground in front of him. This "Uncle Tom" isn't quite the kindly, bowed old gent we're used to--in another, more subconscious connection to AMOS 'N' ANDY, he looks very much like an animated Andrew H. Brown, down to the big cigar, battered derby hat, and cocky attitude. Like more traditonal depictions of the "Uncle Tom" character, however, he has a fringe of white hair on the sides of his head and thick white eyebrows. He sits tilted back against the wall, and blows a bit of smoke from his cigar.

(Cut to medium shot). Picking up one of the children and putting him on his knee, he starts to tell his story, as Scott Bradley plays "Old Black Joe" on the soundtrack:

"Well now, chillun," he begins, "tonight ol' Uncle Tom's gonna tell you the real true story about 'Uncle Tom's Cabin...'" He absently flicks ashes from his cigar, seemingly on the child's head!

Uncle Tom turns his head from left to right as he addresses the off-camera children: "..Now, this is the first one o' them Hollywood cartoon companies ever got the straight dope on this Uncle Tom stuff. This is the way it really happened...once upon a time, in the big city..." (Fade to cityscape, presumably New York) ...live a character name Simon Le-gree." (Camera zooms in on office building, then fades to a shot of the entrance).

(V.O.:"He was sho 'nuff a scoundrel...") A marble sign above the door reads LEGREE BUILDING: LOANS, MORTGAGES AND CROOKED DEALS--on the left of the set of double doors, we see a sign proclaiming WIDOWS EVICTED, DOGS KICKED. On the right, it says OLD LADIES TRIPPED, KITTENS DROWNED. Etched into the walkway is a sign reading WELCOME SUCKER, in huge black letters. Refreshing to see truth in advertising for once...

The camera pans upward, then dissolves to Legree's office. We see Legree for the first time, in a black suit with tails--he has slicked hair, a waxed mustache, and even pointed ears--presumably to make him look more evil. Instead, he more closely resembles a cross between Bob Clampett's "Dishonest John" and an attendee at a Star Trek convention. (One anonymous poster to an online animation bulletin board I visited actually refers to him as "Dishonest John," apparently unable to distinguish between Avery's characters and Clampett's).

(V.O.:"That no-account crook was just rolling in dough...") If you know Avery cartoons at all, you know what's coming. Yep, money's strewn ankle-deep on the floor, and he leaps into the pile and rolls in it, as Bradley plays "Happy Days Are Here Again." Not only does money litter the floor, but one can see bags of it strewn randomly throughout the room, and on every available surface.

(Cut to medium shot of Legree, sifting coins through his fingers. V.O.: "And on top o' that, he was two-faced...") Right again--when we see him in profile, he literally has a face on each side of his head. For you Roman mythology buffs, something like the god Janus.

(Cut to Legree walking camera left, full-figure. V.O: "But he sure was powerful...") Legree walks up on top of a desk, then back down to the floor, his legs lengthening and shortening
accordingly--like the "bridge gag" we saw in THE MAGIC PENCIL.)

(V.O: "Why, he done own that whole town--'cept for one little spot...") Legree continues walking screen left as the camera follows, then stops when he comes to a wall map, which shows one lone tiny square of land. He circles it with a pencil.

(Cut to close-up of circled area on map. V.O: "...And that was your Uncle Tom's cabin!")

(Dissolve to an impressive aerial shot of downtown, as the camera zooms down toward a tiny plot of land between two skyscrapers, with an equally tiny shack on it. Dissolve to Uncle Tom, tending his crops. V.O.: "I was sure happy...") Undoubtedly the most impressive scene in the picture-- nothing better illustrates to me the difference between cartoons of the Golden Age and today. Rarely will one see a camera angle so unusual in any of today's animated product, not even CGI.

(Cut back to Legree in his office, as he draws an "X" through Uncle Tom's property on the map).

(V.O: "But Mister Le-gree was figurin' on foreclosin' the mortgage on my cabin, so he could own the whole town.") Legree takes his incredibly broad-brimmed hat off a hook on the wall to his right, turns and puts the hat on his head--in a bit of exaggerated movement only Avery's unit could acomplish, for a moment it seems almost to stretch over his entire torso, then snaps back.

"He was sho' a low-down snake..." Uncle Tom continues. As if on cue, Legree's body stretches to become serpentine, as he slithers on the floor among his piles of money. The camera follows him to the left as he slithers out the door.

(Legree slithers out into the hall, then stands as he comes to a door on the other side. V.O.: "Of course, the first thing he do is go for them bloodhounds...")

And of course, they literally are "blood" hounds--just after the camera cuts in closer to show Legree opening the door, it cuts again to show the dogs in hospital beds, hooked to IV's, pumping a rubber bulb with their paws. (A sign above them reads RED CROSS BLOOD BANK). This
indicates the cartoon, though released after World War II, had its genesis in the last days of the
war, as blood donations were highly encouraged then. Scott Bradley even accompanies the scene with a little bit of patriotic music ("Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean.") So much for my belief that Avery's last wartime gags were in JERKY TURKEY.

In an abrupt, instantaneous cut, we see the city in long shot, with Uncle Tom's tiny home among the towering buildings. A red helicopter lands in front of it. (V.O.: "So he come after me

(Cut quickly to a view of Legree and Uncle Tom in medium shot. Legree gestures wildly, shakes his fist in the air, then literally sticks his nose in Uncle Tom's face, jabbing him in the chest with his finger. He mouths words, but we can hear no dialogue. Then again, we don't need to--he's obviously pretty irate. V.O.: ..."And he say that if I don't have the money by twelve o'clock tonight, he gonna take my little cabin...")

Legree pounds Uncle Tom on the head with his fist, squashing poor Uncle Tom's head down into his body as we hearthe last few words of the naration.

(Cut to the interior of the sparsely furnished cabin, where Uncle Tom sits dejectedly, his right arm slung over the back of the chair, his left elbow on a small table with a checkered tablecloth. He rests his head on his left hand. V.O.: "Oh, me--worry, worry..."). Scott Bradley, ever helpful, plays "Hearts and Flowers" on the sound track. (V.O.: "I didn't have a penny...")

Uncle Tom turns one of the pockets of his overalls inside out--not only is the inside of the pocket full of holes, but a swarm of moths fly out, illustrating his distressed financial state. (He casts a pathetic --yet somewhat funny--glance toward the audience.)

He turns and puts both elbows on the table as we hear the voice over: "And starvation was staring me in the face.." The camera pulls back to reveal a Grim Reaper-like figure across the table from him, reworking (or stealing) a gag used not only in the Woody Woodpecker cartoon PANTRY PANIC, but Norm McCabe's DAFFY'S SOUTHERN EXPOSURE for Warner's. But as with anything else Avery put his hand to, it comes off funnier in this cartoon.

Just above and behind the Grim Reaper figure, by the way, we can see a little shelf with a can on it, covered with cobwebs. More proof that poor Uncle Tom's in dire straits...

(V.O.: "But I got one last hope--my only friend, Little Eva..."). Uncle Tom walks slumped over to the right of the screen--the camera speeds past him in a patented Avery "jerk-pan" (see the
JERKY TURKEY review from December '06). We see two phones--the small one on the left has a sign above it that says "Local", while the absurdly elongated one on the right says "Long
Distance"--another reworking of an earlier gag, this time from Avery's own RED HOT RIDING
HOOD (the short and tall cigarette girls selling "Regular" and "King Size" cigarettes.) Uncle Tom enters the frame and picks up the "Local" phone...

(Cut to an exterior view of a skyscraper as the camera pans up its endless stories. V.O.: "She
got this scrumptuous southern penthouse, you know...")

The camera continues upward until we see a long shot of Little Eva's home on top, looking like a piece of the GONE WITH THE WIND set grafted onto the Empire State Building: complete with magnolias, a fountain, and a columned portico.

(The camera zooms in, then cuts to the interior to show Little Eva, a.k.a. "Red," in her boudoir.)

She's wearing the expected anachronistic "southern belle" flowing dress. She picks up the receiver on her phone, which is sitting atop a little end table with a gauzy pink lace material around it. Her vanity table is just to her left. Uncle Tom, in voice over, adds the aside, "and that
ain't all she got, neither..." (Remember that statement, because I'll be coming back to it in my closing remarks).

(V.O: "She say she come right over...but we can't figure nothin' out.") During the narration, the scene wipe-dissolves to show Eva and Uncle Tom inside his cabin, with Tom seated in front of an upright piano. Little Eva stands next to it toward the left of the screen. Uncle Tom's dejected
expression hasn't changed: he sits with his head cradled on one hand while he idly plunks a few keys with the other. Little Eva echoes Uncle Tom's body language, with the exception that she appears deep in thought.

(V.O.: "Yeah, I was sittin' there, worryin', foolin' around with the pie-ano...") Uncle Tom stops pecking at the keys and launches into a lively boogie tune. Eva, getting into the spirit of the
moment, starts dancing. The camera follows her across the room as she continues her dance
(the cabin appears to be twice as large inside as it did originally, thanks to cartoon magic. She needed room to dance, so there it was). The camera pans back to Uncle Tom at the piano, his expression changed dramatically. He has an idea! ("When all of a sudden it come to me..." the
voice-over says.) His mouth is in a wide-open grin as he slams down hard on the keys. (V.O.:
..."the big idea!!")

The "big idea", as he tells us, is to open his little cabin to paying customers, remaking it into
"Uncle Tom's Cabaña!" ("Yowsuh!"). He says in voice-over, "We done turned that cabin into a
nightclub--the place was packed!" We see an exterior shot of the transformed cabin at night, with a blinking neon sign proclaiming the establishment's name in lights--underneath, in smaller letters, are the words "Dining and Dancing." Cars pop up into newly-constructed parking lot from out of nowhere, multiplying in a pixilated sort of effect. Scott Bradley contributes a lively version of the "Tiger Rag" as the scene wipe-dissolves to show a poster of Little Eva: if you look closely--very closely--you can see a small blinking sign in the background that reads, "No Dogs Allowed...Wolves Welcome." (Good one, Tex. Too bad your Wolf didn't get an invitation. But as I've already mentioned, he had a more than worthy substitute).

Bear in mind, this is all in the space of a couple of hours, supposedly. Money can indeed work miracles, especially in a cartoon.

(V.O., as we cut to a scene of a dinner-jacketed Uncle Tom behind a counter, pulling in huge
piles of money and stuffing it into a cash register: "We was really coinin' [or was it "cornerin'] the dough!")

(The camera pans right. V.O.: "'Course, Uncle Sam was gettin' his share..." We literally see the
figure of an ecstatic Uncle Sam, as he rakes money into a bag marked TAX $$. Bradley, of
course plays "Yankee Doodle").

Cut to a shot of Legree looking at the nightclub through a telescope pointed out of his office window. (V.O:..."But Legree wasn't gettin' his...and he was gonna do somethin' about it!") He throws down his telescope disgustedly, turns and stomps off through the piles of money carpeting the floor. (Cut to Legree outside the window of the cabin, where he grabs himself by the seat of the pants and lifts himself up to sneak inside).

(V.O: "Next thing I know, he got me tied to that powder keg and lightin' the fuse..." We see the interior, with Uncle Tom tied to gigantic barrel of gunpowder about half the size of the room, while Legree holds the fuse. He lights it and zips out of frame to the right.)

Cut again--bear with me, this is an Avery cartoon--to a shot of Legree grabbing the cash register, hiding it under his cloak, and tiptoeing away. (V.O: "And he done take every penny of that money and get out of there...")

(V.O.: "But he done forgot somethin'...it was Little Eva.") Legree turns when he hears off-camera applause--the camera pans right to the stage, where Little Eva makes her entrance, carrying a parasol. (Cut to a shot of Little Eva as the camera zooms in closer).

(Cut back to Legree. The cash register he'd been carrying swells under his cloak as he looks
lustily off-camera. The cash register drawer bursts open, spilling its contents all around Legree.) I hadn't made the connection when I first saw this, but a fellow online reviewer happened to comment this was perhaps Avery's wildest erection gag to date. I have to admit he's right.

To the sound of a horse whinnying and galloping, Legree runs offscreen camera right--we cut to him atop a table where he stiffens into the pose of a hunting dog who's just spotted his prey. His head's flattened, making his pointed nose resemble an arrow, while the tail of his coat resembles a real "tail." Accompanied, of course, by a nice "boing!" on the soundtrack. Tex was anything but subtle.

(Cut to a medium shot of Little Eva, who looks somewhat disdainfully in Legree's direction.)
She starts to sing a slow, sweet rendition of "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny..." As she gets to the line "That's where the cotton and the corn and taters grow..." we cut back to Legree, who levitates up to the ceiling with a stupefied look on his face. We cut back to Eva as she sings the next line, then to Legree, who's attempting to pour salt on a stalk of celery. He's so entranced, though, that he gets a little mixed up--he shakes the celery and takes a big bite out of the salt shaker. He opens his mouth to reveal his teeth crumbling to pieces.

Suddenly, Eva tosses down her parasol and launches into a swing version of the song. Legree attempts to light a cigar, but instead lights his nose. Unfazed, he pulls a "Lucy Ricardo," merely removing his flaming nose and snuffing it out in the ashtray.

We make another couple of quick cuts from Eva back to Legree--this time, he's got a plateful of ham and several slices of bread on the table in front of him. Intending to make a sandwich, he instead butters his own hand, puts a slice of ham on it, places his other hand on top of that, and proceeds to munch on his own fingers all the way up to the elbows.

We make yet another couple of cuts from Eva back to Legree, who this time is trying to slice the pie in front of him. Instead, he takes an enormous pie-shaped slice out of the table and chomps on it.

Little Eva finishes her song with a flourish, kicking and flinging up her skirts, ending her number with by sliding on her knees to the edge of the stage. (A real testament to Preston Blair's animation abilities here--she was never quite this spirited in the other "Red" cartoons.)

(V.O.: "Wow! That done it!") Legree goes crazy with desire, smashing dishes over his head and for some reason known only to him, pours an entire bottle of ketchup on himself. He proceeds to pick up the table--now miraculously whole after Legree cut a chunk out of it--and slam it down on his head several times.

He runs up on stage toward Little Eva as we hear galloping noises on the soundtrack, only to race past her and grab a support beam. He breaks off a piece of it and starts to kiss it passionately, then runs off with it in the other direction. Realizing what he's just done, he stops, throws the beam down and disappears from frame, only to return a half-second later with the right quarry--Little Eva--this time. (V.O.: "Now he gon' get the gal...")

(V.O.: "That's what he thinks...") Cut to Legree running toward the door, only to find Uncle Tom waiting for him when he opens it. Uncle Tom clobbers Legree with a huge mallet (surprisingly few mallet hits here for an Avery cartoon) sending him through the floor. Legree's head pops up as the camera zooms in closer--it closely resembles a large tack.

Meanwhile, we return to the present, where Uncle Tom is still regaling the children with his story.

The child on his knee says, "But Uncle Tom, why wasn't you blown up on that powder keg?" (What happened to Little Eva, for that matter? Legree was still carrying her when he got clobbered.)

"Why, that was nothin'!" he says, waving his hand. "That sweat pourin' off me just naturally put that fuse out!" Before he finishes saying this, we cut back to a shot of him tied to the powder keg--he's sweating so profusely the liquid's halfway up the wall, soaking the fuse.

(Cut to a shot of Uncle Tom, on the left of the screen, with Legree on the right. V.O.: "Then
Legree came at me with that machine gun..." The bullets, surprisingly, bounce harmlessly off him as he stands in the doorway with a hand on one hip).

Midway through the shooting, the listening child interrupts, and we cut abruptly back to the present. "But Uncle Tom," the child says. "Didn't dem bullets kill ya?"

"Why, of couse not boy..." Uncle Tom says. He flicks the ashes off his cigar and we fade to black
for a second. We then dissolve back to Uncle Tom standing in the doorway of his cabin, bullets still flying off him. "I had on my 'Superduperman' suit!" He opens his shirt to reveal red flannel long johns with a large "S" imprinted on them, as the bullets continue to bounce off harmlessly.

We make another quick cut (V.O.:"Then he tie me on them railroad tracks, and the train run over me!") Then another (V.O.: "Then he throw me in that sawmill!"). Here we see Legree pulling the lever to operate the huge buzz saw, which literally saws Uncle Tom in half. The train sequence is especially good here, if only for his grimace as the train literally runs over him.

--"but Uncle Tom," the child interjects as we cut back to his front porch. Uncle Tom scowls at the interruption. "Don't bother me now, boy, I'se really goin'!" (My second-favorite line in the picture, in case you were wondering. My favorite? You'll soon find out).

He resumes his story, which builds to its ridiculous climax with a series of cuts no longer than about three seconds each. He says, "Then he shove me off that cliff...then I jump on that camel...then he chase me with that elephant...then he throw me to that alligator..and here come that steamroller...and that P.T. boat..."

The sequences accompanying the above are textbook pieces of classic animation, worthy of study by contemporary film students. We see:

a) Legree on the cliff, in extreme long shot, at the very top of the screen, as he tosses Uncle Tom over...

b) a long shot of the two of them running through the North African desert on camels that resemble dromedary versions of the horses from WILD AND WOOLFY: spindly, knobby legs with huge feet, narrow, almost pinpoint heads and huge snouts. Legree pounds Uncle Tom with a mallet that frankly, would be too heavy for him to lift in the real world--it's twice as big as he is. There's some classic "squash and stretch" on Tom as he flattens and straightens out with every blow, while Legree seems suspended in midair as he clobbers Tom.

c) Legree standing on a goofy-looking elephant at full gallop--the elephant has a body like a gray
beach ball, and feet that look too small to support it. Legree sends an unbelievable hail of bullets
down on Uncle Tom.

d) Uncle Tom being thrown right into the mouth of an enormous alligator, which seems about three times as big as any actually on Earth...he literally rolls down the creature's throat, and the beast's enormous mouth snaps shut like a living valise--perhaps the only instance in which a person being eaten alive seems funny.

e) A steamroller which takes up most of the frame, as we're looking from Uncle Tom's eye level.
He's literally flattened like a piece of paper on the pavement, cartoon-style.

f) An extreme long shot of a PT boat chasing after the swimming Uncle Tom, its huge guns trained right on him. Yet another indication this project began in the closing days of the war. (Or maybe Legree was just able to get Navy surplus...) The boat is, of course, seemingly twice as large as any actual PT boat.

Cut back to the present with Uncle Tom still going, gesturing with his arms as the child on his lap looks increasingly incredulous: "And then them rocket guns, an' them 'bay-zookas'...an' them machine guns, an' them alligators, then all of a sudden..." (The camera pans down toward the child, who shakes his head in pity and disbelief--then the scene fades out.)

(Note: Kevin has since informed me that our skeptical little friend was voiced by veteran radio performer and voice artist Sara Berner.-R.)

When we resume, we see the exterior of an enormous-beyond-enormous skyscraper, which the tiny figures of Legree and Uncle Tom scale like spiders crawling up a wall at about 700 mph.
(V.O: "Then he chase me up that 'Umpire State Building', and pushes me right off the top...") On the words "pushes me right off the top", the scene cuts to another extreme long shot of Legree and Uncle Tom atop the building. It cuts again to another "bird's eye" view, even more impressive
than the first one earlier in the picture, as Uncle Tom rapidly moves away from the viewer toward the ground. This may have been reused in DROOPY'S GOOD DEED, in the scene in which the bulldog, in baby get-up, plummets from the top of a building.

(V.O: "Then I fall down fo'teen miles and hit on the pavement!!") As he says this, we cut to a shot of Uncle Tom hitting the sidewalk with a bounce, arms and legs splayed out. The sidewalk
appears made of rubber, much as in THE CAT THAT HATED PEOPLE.

Here we get perhaps the best line in the picture, and my favorite: "And right there is where I gets mad!!" After all that wild exaggeration, the ultimate Droopy-like understatement.

(V.O. "And I grab up that Umpire State Building with Le-gree up there on top! Then I throws him clean over the moon!") The camera follows the building's flight through the air as it arcs toward the ocean and lands with a splash.

(Dissolve back to Uncle Tom and child on porch) "And that was the end of Mister Le-gree!" Uncle Tom at this point takes a self-satisfied puff of his cigar.

The child who's been sitting through this snow job the whole time says, "Uncle Tom, are you sure all you been tellin' us is the truth??" Giving the child a momentary scowl, Uncle Tom takes the child off his lap. He says, "Now wait a minute there, boy...(at this point we cut to a shot of him and the rest of the children gathered around him--Uncle Tom points at the child who'd been on his lap) .."if it ain't the truth, I hope that lightnin' come down and strike me dead..."

The cosmos, which apparently has some credibility problems with Uncle Tom's story also,
complies. We cut to a shot of storm clouds as a lightning bolt issues forth. The scene again cuts to the bolt of lightning hitting Uncle Tom square in the back, killing him on the spot. A ghost version of him with angel wings and robe (complete with ghostly cigar, no less) rises from his
lifeless body, playing a harp. The camera zooms in on the small child who'd been on Uncle Tom's lap, who delivers the payoff line: "Y'know, we lose more Uncle Toms that way!" With that, we bid farewell to a great storyteller (if not, perhaps, a truthful one) and iris out.


Tex Avery's portrayal of black characters has always been somewhat problematic, prompting some--admittedly, even me at times--to wonder if he was indeed racist. His jungle natives in THE ISLE OF PINGO PONGO at Warner's, and HALF-PINT PYGMY at MGM, are the most extreme caricatures of black people imaginable: pinheaded, with lips that would surely make them too top-heavy to stand. There's also the thorny little matter of his Texas upbringing--surely, some believe, the prejudices of the people around him had to have rubbed off just a little.

Of course, in making that assumption, we're guilty of a bit of prejudice ourselves, in assuming that just because a man comes from an area in which prejudice predominates, he must himself be prejudiced. So did Elvis Presley, and he loved black culture and music--as did Elvis' mentor, Sam Phillips.

Having seen interviews done with Avery toward the end of his life, however, I'm forced to conclude he was incapable of such behavior--he was far too gentle and soft-spoken a man to practice such extreme hatred. Beloved by everyone who had the privilege to know him, there is absolutely no account, anywhere, of him expressing anything close to animosity toward other races.

Though really, if one wishes definitive proof, one need look no further than his cartoons
themselves, especially this one. In some respects it's surprisingly progressive for the era--though still caricatured, Uncle Tom and other black characters aren't the google-eyed, white lipped monstrosities of earlier such cartoons, and are certainly less extreme than those of Clampett's COAL BLACK. Uncle Tom himself could have fit well into a FAT ALBERT cartoon of the seventies, sharing characteristics with that show's character "Mudfoot"--including his tendency to tell wild stories. A credit, certainly, to Preston Blair's Disney-influenced character design in particular.

Further, and even more shocking for the time, Uncle Tom is friends with a white woman--and even goes so far as to express an interest in her--ahem!--attributes: "And that ain't all she got,
neither..." Behavior that would surely have gotten him killed had he been a flesh-and-blood
individual in the South of the day. Even if it all turns out to be Uncle Tom's fantasy, it still
represents a step forward for the time--yet overlooked by just about everyone, critics and fans

Uncle Tom is also surprisingly human (that is to say, flawed like the rest of us--something that,
incidentally, has nothing to do with race) coming across as a sort of humanoid version of Foghorn Leghorn--with a little bit of Tex Avery himself thrown in, not to mention every grandfather we've ever known. He shares Avery's love of Texas-sized tall tales, giving us a story second only to the previously-mentioned KING SIZE CANARY in its speed and exaggeration. In the scenes in which Uncle Tom goes through a rapidly-escalating series of perils, it might even have surpassed it.

Charles Correll deserved a lot of credit for giving personality to what might have been a
one-dimensional character--though a white man, here was someone with--at the time--nearly
twenty years of radio experience, who know how to make a character come alive through voice
alone. And one who didn't merely say funny things, but say them in a funny way--much like Avery himself. As for the black dialect, it may surprise some people how restrained it is--Uncle Tom says "these," them," there," and "those", not "dese," dem," dere," and "dose." While his grammar isn't perfect, having him speak the King's English perfectly would have been as out of place as it would be with Popeye.

Finally, critics of this cartoon seem to forget that it's a parody, meaning everything--and I do mean everything--is subject to ridicule. Race stereotypes here are presented only to be shot down and given a contemporary spin, as with anything else in Avery's cartoons. In other words, Avery kids the image of black people presented in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," not black people themselves. The same, perhaps, could even be said of his more grotesque caricatures--the blackface gags common to his cartoons, for instance. To his mind, the more extreme something was, the funnier it was--and that included characters as well as actions. Visual exaggeration was his business, almost a mission--and as we've seen, there weren't many who could do it any better.

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Kevin's View: The Shimmering, Glimmering Jim Tyer

Jim Tyer's twisted sense of anatomy and movement
is clearly
evident in the above sequence


The recent "Terrytoons Double Bill" prompted some fascinating insights from Kevin on the strange, almost ethereal nature of Terrytoons animation. In my review of THE POWER OF THOUGHT, I put forward the theory that Terry's animators existed in a sort of time warp, retaining the straight-ahead, unpredictable style that by the 1940's was considered "old hat" at most studios. Seeing some of the earliest efforts produced by Amadeé Van Buren only confirmed it for me--in such cartoons as the 1929 SUMMERTIME, there existed an almost total disregard for such things as weight or dimension--characters would thrust their heads toward the camera from across a room, appearing for seconds at a time to be horrendously off-model (assuming there was even such a thing as "off-model"--or on--in that era) only to snap back a moment later. Such a glaring disregard for anatomy and logic seems careless to our modern eyes, but it gave those early Van Buren cartoons an "otherworldliness" rivaled only by Fleischer.

Paul Terry, who had worked for Van Buren on the AESOP'S FABLES cartoons as a director in the 1920's, carried that sense of animated characters as "pure cartoon" with him when he struck out on his own, and he imparted that attitude to those who worked for him. No one exemplified that feeling of "anything can happen" quite like his key animator Jim Tyer, whose characters often seemed as if they had no anatomy at all, floating effortlessly through the animated landscape. Model sheets merely served as a "suggestion" for Tyer, who would adhere to them--or not--as his whim dictated.

Kevin elaborates on that devil-may-care quality in Tyer's work in this installment of KEVIN'S VIEW. Though his comments are brief, he gets at the heart of what made Terrytoons visually unique:

Kevin's View
by Kevin Wollenweber

It (THE MAGIC PENCIL) kinda brings back memories of Terrytoon art. Yes, even Paul Terry's cartoons could be somewhat magic. I'd like to someday talk to John Kricfalusi and find out just why he likes Terrytoons. I have my own vague reasons-vague, because I can't outline actual scenes as to why I like some of the visuals in a Terrytoons cartoon.

There is this almost chilling thing that happens sometimes in a
Terrytoon-it often happens a lot more fluidly at other studios when a character has high voltage driven through him. Remember that BUGS BUNNY cartoon in which Bugs believes that dogs who are racing are after a real live rabbit and he goes to somehow caress the electronic bunny, only to get a sizzling dose of high voltage sent through him? Well, Terry would do this with characters at odd moments, and most of those moments don't have anything to do with high voltage but might represent a character suddenly getting angry or just suddenly feeling strangely.

Somewhere, there exists a print of a PERCY & ROQUEFORT cartoon in which Percy, the cat, comes in contact again and again with catnip and has this strange reaction, and this includes the most surreal shimmering. I wish someone knew what you call this technique. To some it might appear to be a cheap shortcut or an instance in which the animators in question didn't know what they were doing because the effect looks a bit jumpy, but it is no doubt meant to be that way as a kind of surreal slow burn. It must be an interesting effect to freeze and examine, frame by frame, like those riveting Tex Avery takes.


Like Kevin, when viewing these cartoons as a child, I was at a loss for words to describe what I was seeing when viewing a Tyer scene. "Shimmering" is perhaps the best term I've heard--when Tyer's characters would go into a take, they would do precisely the opposite of what Avery's would do in that situation--instead of stretching like putty, they'd seemingly contract into themselves, literally shrinking for perhaps a quarter of a second, just long enough to be perceptible. Then, just as quickly, they'd resume their original form, much like the characters in the Van Buren cartoon--except that Tyer was doing this in 1950.

Kevin makes comparisons to Tex Avery, but I would go further and compare him to Rod Scribner at Warner's. Scribner, as you've no doubt seen in such cartoons as GRUESOME TWOSOME and THE HEP CAT, liked to vibrate his characters to a stop, exaggerating the laws of inertia and giving them a "cartoony" spin. Tyer could do this well--
Mark Myerson, in his 1990's APATOONS article on Tyer, uses the fight scene from the 1945 Popeye cartoon SHAPE AHOY as an example of Tyer using such a technique logically, for dramatic effect.

But Tyer didn't always use such techniques logically, particularly in his years at Terrytoons. The "ladder" scene in THE POWER OF THOUGHT is almost certainly Tyer's, for when Heckle causes a fireman's ladder to issue forth from his bare hands, it vibrates as it goes up, almost as if it were straining to expand. Illogical, yet logical at the same time.

The Rod Scribner Project blog, while being generally complimentary of Tyer, criticizes his seeming lack of control in comparison to Scribner. Though, as the frames below illustrate, Tyer knew precisely what he was doing, adding vitality to what in anyone else's hands would have been a rather mundane "sneak" cycle. Note the limbs seem as if they're dislocated, yet this quirky little sequence couldn't better describe Percy the cat's emotions. Viewed in motion, the expansion and contraction of his body creates precisely the shimmering effect Kevin speaks of:

In all, Tyer's animation sequences more often than not lifted Terrytoons above the commonplace, "shimmering" like the animated jewels they were.

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(Edited 4/23/07 for spelling and minor "tweaking" of content--R.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Introducing The Censored 11--Or Maybe Not?

Kevin and I rarely have a disagreement, but we did have a mild one this evening, over one simple question:

In an age when even the rarest cartoons can be downloaded--legally or not--from sites such as YouTube, what exactly constitutes an "orphan toon?" One rarely seen by the public? One widely seen, but in edited form? (Such as DROOPY'S GOOD DEED or JERKY TURKEY). One that has yet to be restored--or likely, never will be? It's a question I've mulled over for quite some time, but one I've never fully addressed until now.

I had intended to post a review and synopsis of Bob Clampett's COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS. Whether it's truly the greatest cartoon ever made is of course open to debate, but in your humble administrator's opinion, it's certainly the best Bob Clampett ever made, a convergence of the young Clampett's animation skills at their peak with the brashness and "can do" spirit of the years during the Second World War.

I've long felt that no blog such as this one would be complete without a discussion of the Warner's "Censored 11", the infamous list of cartoons withdrawn from general circulation by United Artists in 1968. COAL BLACK in particular has been a cause celebré for animation historians and fans alike, becoming the Toon That Will Not Die. Yet its very visibility gave Kevin certain reservations, as he says here:


You know, I hadn’t ever thought of even doing the “Censored 11” from Warner Brothers because I was (and am) so sure that Jerry Beck & company will eventually get to them now that the status of the Warner Brothers cartoons are sealed for adult enjoyment. I know that you wanted to discuss these, but I do see this light at the end of the tunnel, and the Warners cartoons, even at their most controversial, will no longer be “orphaned”. I was instead thinking so much of the BOSKO toons because, for some reason, I think that these will be a little harder to get to DVD, because the HAPPY HARMONIES in general are not the most beloved cartoons around, not even like the Tex Avery and the TOM & JERRY titles from Hanna-Barbera; the same goes with the CAPTAIN & THE KIDS titles.

In fact, the mere fact that a goodly portion of the censored 11 are on youtube and elsewhere illegally means that so many people know about them and are giving them a kind of pirated home that, in that sense, they are no longer orphaned.

Then again, this could also be said of most of the LOONEY TUNES BOSKO titles as well and I *DO* think that these should be discussed because there are some terrific little bits throughout the series. I still think that the 1930’s Warners cartoons will be orphaned titles because, again, they are not as high a priority on the restoration list. I like to do or, more accurately, read others’ write-ups of the BOSKO cartoons done in an enthusiastic way, but one of the reasons why I like the fact that you’ve continued this blog on your own so diligently is that your viewpoint is one of enthusiasm, not the usual “I hate Harmon/ising and their insignifigant Disney chlones” rant that I hear all too often. Yeah, I guess that we could all come up with a case for that other viewpoint, but these cartoons still remain close to my heart, sometimes for reasons I can’t quite identify. But I have shown guests the laserdisc print of “DANCE OF THE WEED” and they were absolutely impressed. Why? Because it is an impressive cartoon in every way, including its wonderful score which allows the musical instruments to add life to the images, like the violins screeching like the whirling wind that blows the dainty flowers this way and that.

If the wonderful consultants now working on cartoon collections at Warner Brothers with that familiar disclaimer on them are putting together a HAPPY HARMONIES collection as we speak, then I’ll discontinue my rant, but these are lost treasures that , to me, have so much artistic merit. Even the Milt Gross cartoons are wonderful in that there were only two made!!

So, while I hope you do write an essay on “COAL BLACK” or “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS”, obviously pointing out spots where there are reused bits of animation from other well-known Clampett cartoons, I think some of this stuff is so familiar to everyone that…

Aw heck, go ahead and give your slant on this group of films. I would love to read a clear writing on “TIN PAN ALLEY CATS” and, maybe, you can one day do a rather lengthy essay on the differences in comic retellings of the “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN” story. Actually, that could almost be a book by itself; when you think of it, just about every cartoon studio had its retake on that story. I realize that this book, by harriet Beecher Stowe, was incredibly popular, but no one ever made a live action movie of this story. There is no major motion picture around this tale of racial injustice and life in segregated times, but every cartoon studio did their incredibly shocking parody of it!! I never thought about it until just now, but yes, one could neatly examine all the parodies of this story, from Hugh & Rudy’s “ON THE TRAIL TO HALLELULIALAND” and “THE OLD PLANTATION” to Tex Avery’s “UNCLE TOM’S BUNGALOW” and “UNCLE TOM’S CABANA”. Yet, now, I wish I had the actual book in front of me as well for reference so we know just how much the story was stretched or condensed. I know there is more to the slice of life, there, than what the cartoons chose to mock.


Though Kevin relented and eventually gave his blessing to posting reviews of COAL BLACK and other Censored 11 cartoons here, he did have a valid point, one for which I have no easy answer. Which is why I've decided to leave it up to you, the readers:

Do you want to see reviews of Censored 11 cartoons here? I'd be interested in hearing your answer, whatever it may be. Send your comments to Kevin and me here:


The best responses will be posted in a future entry--so get those nimble little fingers busy...

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Toon Gothic: The Sad Case Of FINNEGAN'S FLEA (1958)

Stills courtesy of Jerry Beck

Finnegan's Flea
Director: I. Sparber
Release Date: April 4, 1958
In short: The tragic tale of a hapless ex-con who befriends a singing flea

Let's play a game, shall we?

Try to imagine what cartoons would have been like had Alfred Hitchcock taken over an animation studio, hired Rod Serling to write the stories--maybe had Charles Addams freelance a gag or two. I can't say for sure, but I imagine they'd be much like the output of the Paramount/Famous studio from the mid-'50s to early '60s.

It's probably overly simplistic to divide classic American animation into two separate, distinct schools of thought--the "New York School" vs. the "Hollywood School"--especially since there was so much overlap between the two. There's no denying, however, that the New York studios had that certain something, that determination to see the dark, gray clouds lurking behind the bright Technicolor rainbow, that set them apart from their Disney-influenced counterparts on the other coast. To put it mildly, these people would have kept Freud's appointment calendar full for years.

What "edge" the California-produced cartoons did have came to some degree from transplanted New Yorkers like Mike Maltese and Joe Barbera, who broke Warner's and MGM respectively from their massive case of "Disney envy." (Though both MGM and Warner's did get a great deal of help from a certain Texan who shall remain nameless). Both studios developed a brassy, smart-aleck approach to cartoons--but even these were tempered a bit by California cheeriness.

Thousands of words have been written about the Fleischer studio--online and in hard copy--and their cartoons of the early '30s, which seemed part film noir, part opiate-induced haze. My favorite man to quote at times like this--Leonard Maltin--boiled down the Fleischer attitude to just three words: "gritty", "urban", and "ethnic." Even in the Popeye cartoons, one could almost see the grime coating the walls of buildings--everything was a vast array of smoky grays, dingy whites, and a generous amount of sooty black. The world the Fleischers portrayed in those cartoons was not some timeless, fairy-tale land, but one obviously affected by the Depression--shabby and worn.

Though Fleischer's successor, Famous Studios, has long had a reputation as a watered-down, emasculated version of Fleischer, more of the grittiness of the Fleischer days carried over than most people realize. If anything, it surpassed its predecessor in the area of "dark humor." One of the earliest Popeyes released by the newly-reorganized studio actually ended with Popeye murdering--unseen, thankfully--his irritating pest of a "friend", Shorty. (To the tumultuous cheers of cinema audiences, no doubt--Shorty was not the most appealing character ever created).

Critics like to point to the seemingly bland Casper The Friendly Ghost in particular to prove that Famous was Fleischer's without teeth. But dear friends, as we'll see in subsequent reviews, even our good friend Casper has a dark streak. For one thing, few people realize these days that in the earliest Casper entries, we were given glaring reminders that he was supposed to be a dead child--at least two early cartoons show him by his own tombstone. Not exactly kid-friendly. (Harvey Comics, in order to tone down this gruesome aspect of the character, later retconned Casper--he had been born a ghost. Somehow I think even a six-year-old would have a hard time accepting that as credible).

The Noveltoons and the later Modern Madcaps were generally a showcase for "one-shot"
characters, a way of "auditioning" characters that might click in series of their own (much as Warners' Merrie Melodies had once been). As such the artists and writers were given a little freer rein--whereas most of the established series degenerated into formula very quickly, the "one-shot" cartoons were a bit harder to predict. The line between "hero" and "villain" blurred, if it existed at all--particularly by the mid-Fifties. The protagonists were usually put-upon little nebbishes eager to escape their humdrum, Kafkaesque existences, who would go to the most extreme lengths to do so (one even went so far as to try to do in his nagging hulk of a wife--only to replace her with someone just as horrible).

Another example, GRATEFUL GUS--released the same year as today's spotlight cartoon--
concerns a bank teller who "borrows" some of the bank's assets and makes off for warmer climes (he took the bank's slogan "Let The 3rd National Bank Finance Your Trip" at its word). Eager to get away, he made the mistake of giving an overly cheerful little hobo a ten-spot in order to get rid of the pest, and would soon live to regret it. The hobo becomes the man's servile shadow from then on, to the man's inevitable downfall. The film's moral, if any from this period can be said to have any, is "no good deed goes unpunished." If, that is, you can call giving a homeless man stolen money a "good deed."

Today's entry, FINNEGAN'S FLEA, has been playing and replaying on the edge of my conscious mind like a persistent fever dream ever since I saw it for the first time--and, as it turns out, the last time--when I was six. Typically (and unfairly) dismissed as an inferior copy of Chuck Jones' ONE FROGGY EVENING, it goes further than Chuck would have dared. ONE FROGGY EVENING saddened me as a child. FINNEGAN'S FLEA nearly gave me post-traumatic stress disorder. If ever there were an argument that not all animation is for kids, this cartoon is Exhibit A. It plays something like an animated TWILIGHT ZONE episode--so much so one almost expects to see a caricature of Serling narrating.

So, as Serling might have said, submitted for your approval: consider the case of an ordinary man who meets an extraordinary flea...

We open with a medium shot of a shabby, unshaven-looking man behind a counter (drawn in the UPA-like style the studio had adopted by that time). He wears a battered hat and a trenchcoat held closed with a safety pin. His skin has a bluish tint. His wide eyes stare expressionlessly at the audience. A few strands of long, scraggly hair poke out from under the hat.

"Is he...dead?" an off-camera voice asks. The scene cuts to a long shot to show that we're in a neighborhood bar. The patron who asked the question is standing at the other end of the counter from the shabby, staring fellow. He's wearing a brown overcoat and hat.

"No, just frozen, he is--poor fella..." says the Irish-accented bartender, who has a round head with a small patch of hair in front, parted in the middle--a look a bit more appropriate to the 1890s than the 1950s. "Suffered a severe shock thirteen years ago on this very spot--and hasn't moved since..."

As he says this, the scene changes to a side view of the "frozen" man in question, in medium shot. An arm and a hand--the bartender's--emerges from the right of the frame and grabs the man's nose, opening his mouth. The bartender continues speaking, off-camera: "...And 'tis I who must feed him like a baby, and fetch him an occasional drop of the dew, to keep up his strength..." The bartender drops a whole pretzel into the man's mouth--presumably swallowed without chewing--and literally pours a mugful of beer down the unfortunate fellow's throat.

Cut to a long shot of the other side of the bar again. "Feed him?" says the incredulous customer. "If I wuz you, I'd throw the bum out!!"

We change to a close-up of the bartender, who looks up into the air, his hands clasped under his chin: "'Twas I--have mercy on me poor soul--who with only the best of intention, brought poor Finnegan to his present sad state." The camera pans left to poor "frozen" Finnegan, using the same shot we saw in the first few seconds. "For Finnegan was not always the poor derelict you see here...let us go back to the time of his youth, at Alcatraz..."

We dissolve into flashback as the bartender narrates. We see a long exterior shot of the infamous island prison. "...where Finnegan was doin' twenty years," the bartender continues. "To break the monotony, he got himself a hobby--knuckle-cracking. Specializin' in rhumba rhythms..." During the bartender's monologue, the scene dissolves to an interior prison corridor, and tracks closer to a cell door. It dissolves again to reveal a much healthier, pinker--and chubbier--Finnegan, whose head is completely bald. He's sitting on the floor--a fold-down bench and a sink are immediately to his right, the cell door to his left. The camera tracks closer as Finnegan cracks his knuckles--one at a time, over and over, to a lively rhumba beat--just as the bartender said. He continues this for several seconds until he hears something strange...

"The rhythm of the rhumba,
Has got a fascination...

A baritone voice Finnegan can't locate is singing along with his knuckle-cracking rhythm. "The cell's haunted!" he says. He jumps up and braces himself against the cell door. "It's the ghost of Novak who went to the chair!" He tiptoes to the right of the screen toward the still-singing voice.

Cut to a medium shot of Finnegan creeping along the cell wall. "Is that you, Novak?" he says nervously.

The scene dissolves to show a tiny flea among the stone blocks of the cell, jumping up and down to the rhythm of the song as he sings. He's portrayed in typical cartoon fashion as a little jumping dot. As he finishes his song with a perfect vibrato, his shape changes to something like a short,
wiggling piece of spaghetti. Finnegan's hand comes into the left of the frame and picks the flea up.

Cut to a medium shot of Finnegan, who holds the flea in the palm of his hand. "A singin' flea," he says, chuckling a little. "Very clever!" (Takes it pretty calmly, doesn't he? I'd be wondering if I'd finally gone "stir crazy.") "Hey 'Charlie,' know any other songs?"

Indeed "Charlie" does--he launches into a rendition of Maurice Chevalier's "Louise" (a Paramount song, naturally. All the popular music this flea knows, by a not-too-strange coincidence, is owned by Paramount. Wonder if they had him under contract?) As the flea sings, the camera follows as he bounces away from Finnegan, who's seated on the wooden bench. As the flea sings the last word of his song, he vibrates in mid-air, turning into wiggling spaghetti again. We then cut back to Finnegan, who has his hands clasped beneath his chin as he listens adoringly.

The flashback is momentarily interrupted--with a slow dissolve, we're back at the bar, where the bartender continues his narration. The scene switches quickly from a long shot of the bartender, the patron, and Finnegan to a repeat of the "feeding" scene earlier in the picture.

"And so, with Charlie to entertain him, Finnegan forgot his cares..."

We dissolve back to the younger Finnegan in his cell, as Charlie bobs up and down singing "It's A Hap-Hap-Happy Day", sounding a bit like Al Jolson. The aforementioned song was a standard in Paramount/Famous cartoons, having been written for Fleischer's GULLIVER'S TRAVELS. Paramount/Famous used it so much it could be considered a "theme song" of sorts for that studio's cartoons.

As Finnegan sits on his bench, enraptured by Charlie's singing, an arm comes in from the right and snatches him out of frame. Charlie stops his singing and becomes still, alone in the empty cell. He jumps out of frame in the direction of the cell door. We cut to an exterior view, where the tiny flea watches Finnegan being dragged off.

"Then one fine spring morning, Finnegan walks out of prison a free man," the bartender/narrator tells us in voice-over. As he says this, we shift to a view of a guard's arm dragging Finnegan down the corridor (the arm is all we see of the guard--less to animate that way). Finnegan looks back toward his vacated cell.

"Charlie! Oh, Charlie..." he cries. We cut back to the flea sitting next to the bars on the cell door, as a tear falls.

"And so, Finnegan went back to the only trade he knew," the bartender says. In other words, pool hustling. Dissolve to the interior of a pool hall. It's very simplistically rendered--all we see are Finnegan, the table, and his mustachioed opponent against a simple red background. Finnegan's in "civilian" clothes now, in a green jacket and hat, while his opponent on the other end is wearing a brown vest and hat with a checkered shirt.

"Ah, but his hand had lost its skill," the bartender says, as we see Finnegan tearing the felt on the pool table when he tries to make his shot. Cut to the exterior, where Finnegan is the one
being "hustled"--out. He's given the "bum's rush" so quickly, his feet don't touch the ground for several seconds as he walks along.

Dissolve to a shot of Finnegan standing outside a brick building that's apparently a flophouse.

There's a sign on the building that reads ROOMS. Finnegan has his coat, now more ragged, pulled close to him. He has his hand out as a man with a white mustache comes into frame, gives him a dime, then passes out of frame. With enough money for the night, Finnegan turns around and goes inside. The camera trucks up for a quick shot of a red sign that reads BEDS 10 CENTS.

Dissolve to the interior. Beds are placed haphazardly in the large room inside--Finnegan's in the center, surrounded by a room full of snoring derelicts. He's lying sideways on a bare mattress,
fully clothed, his hat still on his head. He's using a newspaper as a "blanket." The camera trucks in closer, and the scene changes to a slightly different angle to show Finnegan asleep. As he's sleeping, we hear a voice--a familiar one--sing "It's A Hap- Hap- Happy Day." Yes, it's Finnegan's old friend Charlie...

Finnegan absently scratches himself, then wakes up to realize it's Charlie he hears. Sitting up on the mattress, he reaches into his coat.

"Charlie!" Finnegan says. We change to a close up of Finnegan cradling Charlie in his hands.

"Oh, Charlie, Charlie, how drab life has been without you!" We shift again to Charlie jumping down Finnegan's arm at the right of the screen, still singing. He hops onto Finnegan's newspaper "blanket," which just happens to be a copy of Variety. As the camera zooms in, we see a headline, TV IN NEED OF NEW TALENT.

"TV!" Finnegan says. "Charlie, this is our big chance!" He puts Charlie inside an empty matchbox and closes it.

Dissolve to the exterior of the "Less and Lesser Booking Agency". We see Finnegan through the window holding the matchbox as he approaches the booking agent's desk. This is pretty close to a direct copy of a similar scene in ONE FROGGY EVENING, if not as elaborately drawn. As with the scene in the Chuck Jones cartoon, we can see him talking, but can't hear him.

Cut to a closeup of the bald, mustached agent, who has a big cigar in his mouth. He's got his feet up on his desk and faces the audience. He has one eye open as he listens to Finnegan's spiel, which indicates he's either mildly interested or incredibly skeptical. "....And he sings, dances, talks, does impersonations....", we hear Finnegan say.

The agent completely changes his expression to one of excitement. He's much more easily convinced than Jones' hard-boiled agents. He leaps up, leans forward, looks in the general direction of the matchbox and says, "Where?"

"There!" Finnegan says just out of view, his arm pointing to the open matchbox. The agent looks again.

"'Him' who?"
"The kid is not here!" the agent says.

We cut to a medium shot of Finnegan on the other side of the desk, leaning over to look at the now-empty matchbox. He checks the inside of his coat--first one side, then the other. As he's doing so, he hears a voice singing Bing Crosby's "Please", Crosby-style, complete with "buh-buh-boos." Finnegan cups one ear to hear better--Charlie's outside.

Cut to a side extreme close-up view of the agent as Finnegan comes into frame from the right.

"It's him!"
"Him who?" the agent says again.
"'Him' Charlie!"
"Where?" the frustrated agent asks as Finnegan off camera left. Cut to an exterior shot of the two of them at a window facing an alley. "There!" Finnegan says, pointing down to an area just offscreen.

We cut again to show a dachshund, on whom Charlie has obviously hitched a ride, then again to show the frantic Finnegan and the agent as they run down the street after it. Finnegan runs off-screen to the left as the agent follows. The next scene shows Finnegan holding the dachshund belly up, as the agent looks on.

Cut again to a front-view closeup of the agent. "The kid is good, yes?" Finnegan says. "There's no denyin' it, no??" The shocked agent (his pupils have shrunk to tiny dots of surprise) rapidly nods "Yes," then "No," to Finnegan's questions.

Cut to a shot of the two of them and the dog as disaster strikes--Finnegan sneezes. "Where's Charlie?" the agent asks...Alas, he's gone again.

Dissolve to another scene, apparently a considerable time later, as Finnegan prowls the city calling "Charlie!" First we see him in a "worm's eye" view, with a skyscraper looming behind him.

We then cut to a fire hydrant as a shaggy brown mutt approaches. Finnegan emerges from behind it and says, "Charlie??"

Then again to a woman at a bus stop, with a tiny long-haired dog on a leash. We only see the bottom of the woman's dress as Finnegan crawls behind her toward the dog. "Charlie??" he says.The woman's high-heeled foot comes down hard on poor Finnegan's head.

Dissolve to a dejected Finnegan as he walks through a park, his hand holding his coat closed. He hears a voice singing...

"Here we are,
Out of cigarettes..."

Cut to a bum sleeping on a park bench, from which the voice seems to be emanating. Yes, it's Charlie.

Finnegan comes into frame from the right, pulls the still groggy bum to his feet, and strips the guy's coat off. "Charlie!" he says. As we cut to a shot of Finnegan running down the street with the bum's jacket, he says, "This is it, kid! The big time!"

We fade to black and fade in to a view of the "WTV" studio building, seen from the bottom looking up. The camera zooms in closer on the sign's bright orange letters.

Fade to the interior, as we hear Charlie singing an operatic aria to a roomful of TV executives.

There are about two dozen of them seated at either side of a ridiculously long conference table, as the camera zooms in closer. There are almost no background details--just a beige wall and a blue floor.

It just occurred to me..how did a bum like Finnegan get past security with what would seem to be a cock-and-bull story about a singing flea? Did Charlie perform for the guards?

We fade to a shot of Finnegan and the agent, who are at the far end of the table with what presumably is the network president. The president is a man with a head like a football, a little brown hat perched on top. He has a scowling expression. (I think network executives are required to have scowling expressions--it's part of the job description). Finnegan is seated to the executive's left, while the agent stands. Charlie is in his blue matchbox right in front of Finnegan.

We cut to a closeup of the executive as Charlie finishes his number. As Charlie hits a high note, he jumps up in the air, and gradually comes down as the notes get lower.

Cut to the beaming Finnegan and the agent, and then back to the executive, who smiles (though oddly, he still has the scowl) and says, "Bravo! Bravo!" He applauds lightly.

"Gentlemen, a star is born..." the executive says.

Cut to a closeup of the agent. "Fifty thousand bucks a show, or we don't sign!" he says.

"Make it seventy-five," says the executive, "after all, what is money?" (This is a TV executive talking? What is he, delirious?)

Cut to a shot of Finnegan and the agent, as the executive's hand comes into frame with a contract. The elated Finnegan signs.

Cut again, to Finnegan running down the street with Charlie, on top of the world. "C'mon, Charlie! Let's celebrate!"

We cut to the interior of a bar--which, as you've probably noticed if you've seen this, is the same bar in which we open the story--as Finnegan comes into frame from the left and skids behind the counter.

"Bartender, champagne!" Finnegan says. Between the words "bartender" and "champagne" we cut from a medium shot of Finnegan and the bartender to a closeup of Finnegan, his arms spread wide in the air.

The scene changes to a closeup of a bartender, who's still wiping the glass he was cleaning when Finnegan came in. He's got a smirk on his face. "Sure, now! And where would a tramp like you be gettin' money for champagne?"

Cut back to Finnegan on the other side of the counter. "Money?" he says. "I struck it rich! I got a gold mine! Here..." he holds up Charlie's matchbox and dumps the flea out onto the counter.

Ducking down so he's peeking just over the edge of the counter, he points to Charlie.

Cut back to the bartender, who's looking toward the left of the screen in the direction of Finnegan and Charlie. "A flea?" he shouts. We cut again to see the palm of his hand come down on the counter, crushing poor Charlie.

"Charlie!" Finnegan says. It proves to be the last thing he ever utters. His dreams shattered with one swat, he stiffens like a statue and goes into catatonic shock, assuming the frozen position he had at the beginning of the cartoon.

Dissolve back to the present-day, more disheveled-looking Finnegan. The view then changes to show Finnegan, the bartender and the customer in medium shot.

"...And so, for thirteen long years, has Finnegan stood at my bar--his hopes, his future wiped out
by a swat of this stupid right hand," the bartender concludes. As he says this, we dissolve to a closeup of the bartender. On the words "stupid right hand", the bartender waves his hand, looking at it with a contemptuous expression, gritting his teeth.

We cut to a repeat of the earlier "feeding scenes", as the bartender says, "But...on the other hand, Finnegan's stomach will never be empty. I'll be seein' to that!"

With that, we leave poor Finnegan and the guilt-ridden bartender, their fates intertwined for what promises to be eternity, as the cartoon irises out.

I only have one question--how did the bartender come to know Finnegan's story? Finnegan never had time to tell him.


As this cartoon is so often compared with ONE FROGGY EVENING, it's only fair I examine the differences.

While Chuck's cartoon was a tale of the perils of greed, there doesn't seem to be a moral of any
sort in FINNEGAN'S FLEA. Finnegan was just a poor schlub who found a friend and a way to improve both of their lives, only to have his one hope dashed through no fault of his own. As such, he's a more sympathetic character than Jones' unnamed construction worker, as we see he has a sensitive, compassionate side. Because Finnegan has a much easier time convincing others of the flea's talent than the money-blinded slob of Jones' cartoon did with Michigan J., we're fooled into thinking this version isn't as harsh, only to be slapped in the face by its utter cruelty in the end. As such, it has a much more profound effect psychologically, as we're driven to empathy not only for Finnegan's loss, but for the tremendous burden the bartender must carry with him. (Even if it's handled in a funny way).

It's also darker in the way it portrays Finnegan's life. Jones' construction worker had a job, which he threw away to pursue a pipe dream. Finnegan had nothing--he went from jail to a filthy flophouse and utter miserable poverty (which is potrayed with a surprising amount of realism for a simple cartoon--Finnegan's life isn't pretty). He actually looks as if he might escape it, and we end up rooting for the poor fellow even though we know how it ends. Jones' character had no hope of realizing his dreams--we knew it from the onset, even if we didn't know the outcome of the story, because we knew the guy would be done in by his own greed, and the laws of the cartoon universe. The frog would sing for no one but him, and he stubbornly refused to realize it. For the construction worker, the frog was a millstone around his neck he was gladly rid of. Finnegan lost the only friend he had, money or no money.

Jones' cartoon is an artistic masterpiece, fully animated and told entirely in pantomime. The only dialogue of any sort we hear comes from the frog when he's in full performance mode. The minimally-animated FINNEGAN'S FLEA has no such luxury, but even if it did, the dialogue and narration are necessary, as it helps us to know the characters. What the cartoon lacks in artistic quality, it makes up for in characterization. We care for these simply-drawn individuals, and for a little New York studio like Paramount/Famous, that's a monumental achievement.

Granted, the way Finnegan's fate is handled is ridiculously broad--we're led to believe this poor, shock-ridden soul could persist for years on pretzels and beer, without any of the...er, messier needs one would expect the bartender to have to attend to. (And the less we think about that, the better, believe me). Curiously, though, it's cartooniness doesn't detract from the emotion of the story. It's not ONE FROGGY EVENING--but in this case, that's a compliment.

In a way, writing this has been rather therapeutic for me, as it was proof, first of all, that I didn't dream this semi-nightmarish little film. Second, having seen it again for the first time in decades, I can watch it from a new, adult perspective, and see after all that it is in fact just a cartoon. Which is all the animators really wanted us to realize.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

An Open Letter To Filmmakers: Enough With The Live-Action Versions of Animated Films, Already!

I really shouldn't go to the Big Cartoon Database.

But to feed the huge, gaping maw that is this blog, I had to. I'm in the midst of writing reviews for two oddball little Paramount/Famous obscurities: GRATEFUL GUS and FINNEGAN'S FLEA. Well, "oddball" doesn't begin to describe these cartoons, but more about that later.

After learning of the death of Hawaiian entertainer Don Ho (whose song "Tiny Bubbles" made me want to scream--my dad had a tape of it that he played constantly) I picked up this disturbing bit of information about an upcoming live-action version of SPEED RACER.

I realize I'm only about the 3, 892, 425th person to say this (a rough estimate, I admit) but to quote Wile E. Coyote, "stop in the name of humanity!" Please!

I wasn't always opposed to live-action interpetations of cartoon characters--in fact, I once embraced them. Growing up, my introduction to the "Blondie" comic-strip characters actually came from old reruns of the 1950's TV series with Arthur Lake and Penny Singleton. If anything, I was a bigger fan of it than I ever had been of the actual comic strip, which says something about the abilities of Lake and Singleton. But that's about the last time the transition from pen-and-ink to screen actually worked.

I had even been initially excited years back when I first heard about the live-action FLINTSTONES, and that John Goodman would play Fred. If anyone were born to play a live-action Fred Flintstone, it would be John Goodman (though the animated version's original voice, Alan Reed, personified Fred even more). Then I saw the movie, and it finally occurred to me why such adaptations are a bad idea at least 99.8 percent of the time.

Why they don't work is simple--and yes, I realize that again I'm hardly the first to point this out--first, one can't make the transition from animated cartoon to live-action without losing something in the translation. Second, and perhaps most importantly, live-action versions of cartoons are an all too unpleasant reminder of how "unreal" the animated world truly is. Suspension of disbelief? Forget it--it crumbles into dust.

There are just some things that only "work" in animated form--that's why they're in animated form to start with. They can't be done in live action. In the animated realm, I can believe Fred Flintstone can drive to work in a foot-powered car, lounge on stone furniture, and operate a dinosaur crane. When I saw the live-action Fred doing the same things, it fell flat for me. Everything looked ponderous, ugly, and dull--in contrast to the the unlimited and unusual palette of the Hanna-Barbera cartoons, in which a yellow sky and magenta palm leaves hardly looked out of place.

There's been talk of a JETSONS movie, too. Care to imagine how the show's Rube Goldberg futuristic gadgets are going to look? I don't. And UNDERDOG, which takes place in a world in which humanized animals and humans interact, will fare even worse--especially considering they're going to use a "real" dog. Not that a CGI version would work any better. Imagine a four-foot "live-action" Mickey Mouse, and you see what I mean.

Scooby-Doo? The less said about that, the better. The ugly CGI dog in the live-action films, again, only worked against the fantasy element, not for it. Although I must say, Matthew Lillard is indeed "Shaggy" in the flesh. Sometimes even movie studios can get some things right.

Now we're getting SPEED RACER with living, breathing humans. Considering it was originally a manga, and then an anime series, and anime is generally grittier, and at least somewhat more rooted in cruel reality than the American product, maybe it'll work. Maybe. But I'm not willing to stake nine or ten dollars on it.

I more than anyone want to see old animated series preserved--just not like this.

Oh--the Don Ho connection? He apparently appeared in a direct-to-video Scooby movie. Why does the fact it's direct-to-video not surprise me?

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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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