Disclaimer: This site contains racial imagery that may be offensive to some. We, the owners of this blog, include it not only for the sake of preserving these artifacts of our history, but to call attention to the brilliant people who contributed to them--including actors, comedians, and musicians of color

Friday, May 23, 2008

Toons In Swing Time: Part Two

"As Easy As Rolling Off A Log": Loving KATNIP KOLLEGE (1938)

Katnip Kollege
Release Date: June 11, 1938
Directors: Cal Dalton, Cal Howard
Music: Carl Stalling, Johnnie "Scat" Davis, Mabel Todd
In short: An awkward "square" gets "the rhythm bug"--and the girl

In part two of an ongoing series of swing-themed cartoons, we again prowl the halls of another unusual college, this time courtesy of the boys of Termite Terrace.

Funny thing about good cartoons. Some I love instantly; others stealthily work their way into my heart, wearing down my resistance until I love them in spite of myself.

The Harman-Ising cartoons fall into that rare latter category, as any regular reader of this blog should know. So too does today's cartoon, which took close to three decades to work its charms on me.

As a typical dumb twelve-year-old, I didn't know much about cartoons (yet), but I knew what I liked. Humor, and lots of it, preferably coming at me at a thousand gags a minute. But wide-eyed, happy 1930s cartoon animals staging mini-musicals? Feh. Give me Tex Avery, and save the singing cats, mice, dogs and squirrels for the kids.

Not that I didn't like "old" music--I, as that same dumb twelve-year-old, grew enchanted with ragtime the moment I heard Eubie Blake play Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag." Cartoon music, however, was something I took for granted; something that settled nicely into the background, complementing the flickering images onscreen. It should not--I so smugly believed--be the sole reason for the cartoon, if it was going to keep me from flipping that dial.

So it was with KATNIP KOLLEGE--at first. It carried too much of the taint of "late '30s Merrie Melodie" for my taste, that awkward transitional period before the Warner Bros. cartoons really started to get funny. When music was pervasive and relentless, not melting unnoticed into the subconscious as it "should" have done. The involvement of Cal Dalton, one of my least favorite Warner's directors, certainly didn't earn it any points in my book, either.

It's perhaps the ultimate irony, then, that KATNIP KOLLEGE would eventually become one of my all-time favorite cartoons, as it's practically an allegory of my own experiences (and frustrations) with it over the years. Like the cartoon's little Harold Lloyd-ish protagonist, I didn't "get it" for the longest time, only to be bitten by the "rhythm bug" in the form of the driving beat of Gene Krupa.

Sometime in my thirties--I'm not sure precisely when--I first heard an old recording of the Benny Goodman orchestra's "Sing, Sing Sing", a key feature of which is the throbbing rhythm of drummer Krupa. It had life, it had energy, it made me want to move, a feeling I hadn't experienced since the day I heard Eubie Blake so many years earlier. I would be hopelessly enamored of swing, any "big band" music, from then on.

It's only natural my newfound love would force me to re-evaluate the cartoons I had scorned for so long. I had for many years been fascinated by the hallucinatory visuals of the Fleischer cartoons (even if I didn't quite understand them); now I began to notice the music as well, and to my surprise found it far better than I'd remembered. People, animals, even buildings bounced along to the incessant rhythm, giving the cartoons a brightness that belied the gray, smoky backgrounds. Objects would, more often that not, sprout legs and dance along. Even Fleischer's Popeye fell under the influence, often humming the background music as he went.

KATNIP KOLLEGE is the Leon Schlesinger studio's tribute of sorts to those musical Fleischer cartoons of old--perhaps more so than Fleischer's own SALLY SWING. SALLY SWING is energetic in isolated bursts; KATNIP KOLLEGE grabs the viewer from practically the first frame and doesn't loosen its grip until the very end. At the same time it's very much a departure from Fleischer; at times it seems as if they're saying, "You folks in New York did some pretty good stuff in your time, but now it's our turn. Look what we can do!"

The cartoon even seems to poke fun, in a gentle way, at the bygone era of Betty Boop--as when our little hero, when pressed to come up with his "lesson" for the day, responds with every Jazz-Age musical cliche he can muster: "Uh, Charleston....razzmatazz, um, vo-de-o-doh, and boop-boop...a-doop..." Intentional or not, the folks at Termite Terrace were making it known that Fleischer's time in the spotlight was over.

There's a certain sweetness here one doesn't normally see in Warner's cartoons of this era--save for the early directorial output of Chuck Jones--but without being cloying, as was unfortunately the case in some of Jones' first efforts. Sweetness done right makes us care about the characters--by the end, we're cheering for the little guy as he finally becomes the hit of the campus.

How? Well, for the answer to that, you'll need to enroll for a musical refresher course at KATNIP KOLLEGE. Don't be surprised if the "rhythm bug" bites you, too.

"Boy, is that corny!"

We open on a shot of the exterior of the venerable institution, apparently made to feline proportions: it consists of a large wooden barrel, with "columns" made of discarded tin cans. Two cats, supposedly students, arrive in their jalopy. They emerge from it with the car still in motion, rushing inside the building. One of the two cats pauses to hold his hands over his ears to await the inevitable off-screen crash.

I'm working from a "Blue Ribbon" reissue print for this review--my memory of the restored version on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection is spotty, but I believe it originally started with a tracking shot of the students as they drive up to the entrance.

(Dissolve to interior, hallway). The camera tracks down a long corridor past various classrooms, labeled "Psychology," "Biology", and so on. One particularly lively one has loud swing music issuing from it, loud enough to make the door flap open and closed: we've found the "Swing-ology" class. The door flaps in rhythm, as if made of rubber.

(Dissolve to interior of class). The students inside are seated at old-fashioned school desks (made of sardine cans), but there's nothing old fashioned about anything else: the students are clapping along in time to the jazzy music on the sound track. Everyone, that is, except one little fellow with a porkpie hat and Harold Lloyd glasses--he's struggling with the rhythm, consistently off the beat. This, as you might have guessed by now, is our hero.

With the sound of a few notes of "Shave And A Haircut," and a couple rings of a bell, our professor appears--class is in session.

(Cut to front of class). We see a blackboard with a few random musical notes on it and a stick-figure representation of our teacher, among other things. Our "hep" professor, in cap and gown, rises on a platform coming from underneath the floor, like Paul Whiteman. He does a "pecking" move in time to the music as our students respond with a scat-sung greeting:

Good morning to you, dear teacher, <scat>
Good morning to you (we really mean it)
Good morning to you (don't mean your sister)
Cuckoo from nearby clock: I mean you're really in the groove...<book comes from off-camera to hit bird>

During the song, the professor lifts up his robes and dances--even his stick-figure representation on the blackboard joins in. During the "don't mean your sister" line, a book is lowered to reveal it's being sung by two boy cats and a girl, apparently engaged in something other than studying.

The professor, with a voice patterned after Bing Crosby, addresses the students in rhyme: "OK, Mr. Jones, you may/recite your history for today..."

"Mr. Jones" complies, launching into a rendition of "Let That Be A Lesson To You:"

Oh, Columbus was the discoverer of America,
Who set asea in 1492...

As he sings, the scene cuts to several students acting out the song by pretending to be sailors rowing a boat--one is perched atop a desk like a lookout, while several others are "rowing" with rulers.

But the good queen Isabella, found a more attractive fella...

Cut to a scene of a large, bully-type cat, who dumps a wire wastebasket on a smaller cat's head. The smaller cat looks a bit as if he's in a cage, so he ends the song in a raspy bass voice, with the line "and Columbus wound up in the juggeroo"...

The professor finishes off the number by banging on a series of pots and pans like drums, remarking, "That's a killer, son, that's a killer." Next, in rhyme, he says, "Next comes Miss Kitty Bright/Let's see if you did your homework right..." and gives her a drum-beat "vamp" as she starts her number.

"Miss Kitty Bright" (Mabel Todd), a feline co-ed with letter sweater and beret, is certainly up to the challenge, belting out the next stanza of the song, hips swaying in time. She's something of a kitty Betty Boop, you might say, making the Fleischer connection even stronger:

Oh, Napoleon was the fightin'-est man you ever saw,
Everybody that he fought with he subdued,
But the king-a and the queen-a,
Sent him off to St. Helena,
Just because they didn't like his attitude...

As she sings, the student in front of her gets up and "trucks" along, puts his hand in his coat and gives us a cross-eyed goofy expression (He looks a bit like the stereotypical "loony" with a Napoleonic complex.) We get a quick cut as she's singing to the professor, so engrossed in the music he doesn't see the tack someone placed on his chair. He sits and yells "OHHHHHH!," which acts as the cue for the chorus as we cut back to the clapping students:

Let that be a lesson to you,
Everybody meets his Waterloo,
He wasn't too big to end up behind the eight ball,
And remember, buddy, there's still a lot of room for you!

On the last two lines the scene cuts to a shy little cat in the corner of the room (not our hero) who timidly trucks along with the music until he's noticed by the professor, who urges him to come forward. His attitude immediately changes, and he immediately dances over to the head of the class.

(Hidden gag alert: on the wall next to the student is a picture of a fellow in bell-bottom pants, but the picture is cut off at the shoulders, indicating it's a guide to what the "in" student wears. Yes, folks, kids wore bell-bottoms long before the '60s).

(Cut to medium shot of classroom, from the back. We see our hero in the center). Addressing our protagonist with the Harold Lloyd glasses, the professor chants:

Now, Johnny, let's hear your sonnets,
And make them sound like Kastelanetz...

(Note: Andre Kastelanetz, incidentally, was a Russian-born musician, composer and bandleader who pioneered "easy listening" music for the radio. He had a regular show on CBS at the time this cartoon was made. Since Kastelanetz was indirectly responsible for such later musical atrocities as Muzak, one would assume our professor would have higher expectations of Johnny).

Johnny, momentarily startled, nervously stands up and goes into the mumbled, outdated routine mentioned in the introduction. His awkwardness is obvious, as we see him looking down at the floor and shifting uncomfortably. Droplets of sweat fall from his forehead to the floor.

Cut to the professor, who shows his disgust with Johnny's "performance" by impatiently tapping his foot and slowly shaking his head. "Boy, is that corny!", he tells the audience. Growling, he yells to Johnny, "COME UP HERE!"

(Note: the song Stalling plays during Johnny's routine is called "You're An Education", a staple of Warner's cartoons of this era, even spawning a Merrie Melodie of the same name).

Growling again, the professor points to a spot off camera as Johnny shuffles off-screen. Johnny goes to a corner with a stool; when he sits down he presses a button, which raises the stool several feet and places Johnny's head underneath a waiting dunce cap. He's apparently done this so many times he knows the drill by now.

Ringing the bell, the still-annoyed professor says, "Class dismissed!" The students make fun of poor Johnny as they file out of class: "Boy, you swing like a rusty gate!" one girl remarks. "You ain't got rhythm!" another student says.

Kitty Bright, presumably Johnny's girl, tells him, "Here's your old frat pin! You can look me up when you learn how to swing!" She then goes into the cartoon's signature number, "Why, it's easy, as rollin' off a log..." as she leaves. Truer words were never spoken, as we'll soon find out.

(Fade to a late-night jam session. The title reads "That Night...") The cats start off their little musical soiree with a kettle-drum beat, which causes the moon to pop up in the sky. This cues their swinging little number, sung by three cat vocalists--one tall, one medium-sized, and one short--in front of a ladle acting as a microphone:

It was on the college campus that the kiddies ("kitties"?) had a session,
All the cats were there, 'twas a swingin' congregation,
Some had took to truckin' while the cats beat out a rhythm,
And others picked on peckin' 'cause the rhythm bug had bit 'em.

We get two quick cuts on the last two lines: first, a long shot of the students clapping along, and then another group lined up as they do a "pecking" move. It's an impressive scene, in which we see their cast shadows on the fence behind them.

They never had a lesson in their lives,
But rhythm's what they're keepin'...

We notice now that the two larger cats have hogged the microphone; the smallest of the three singers follows along off to one side with a disgruntled expression, his hands in his pockets. (This is one of the subtler personality touches that I found charming).

But when it comes to swingin' that thing,
It's as natural to them as sleepin' or eatin'....

We get a tracking shot of the musicians and dancers now--a boy and girl peck alternately back and forth.

(Hidden gag alert #2: As the camera pans past the musicians and dancers, we see a statue in the background: on the pedestal it reads "Professor Dalton, 1908"--a reference to the cartoon's co-director. One of the students is wrapped around the statue, pretending to dance with it.)

"The rhythm bug bit me! La de ah!"

The camera continues to track past the dancers to the exterior of the school; it moves in closer and the scene dissolves to the "Swing-ology" classroom. Poor Johnny is still there on the stool, alone, the only sounds being the ticking pendulum clock and the faint music from outside.

The clock, which irritates Johnny at first, becomes his salvation as he realizes it ticks in the same rhythm as the music outside. He pats his hands on his thighs as he finally gets the beat. More confident now, he starts "pecking"--by George, I think he's got it! Or as he says, "The rhythm bug bit me--la de ah!"

The ecstatic Johnny jumps off the stool and discards his dunce cap. He "pecks" a bit more as a bit of insurance and rushes out the door at full speed. The camera rejoins him outside as he speeds through the landscape, crashing the other students' party. Skidding into the scene, he hops on a hollow log where Miss Kitty Bright just happens to be sitting. To the absolute stunned silence of everyone present (including Kitty Bright), he pushes his porkpie hat forward on his head and starts to belt out the cartoon's signature number--suddenly, he's a swing virtuoso, with the voice of Johnnie "Scat" Davis:

As easy as rollin' off a log,
I found it easy, baby,
To fall in love with you....

We get a series of reaction shots as students from all over stop their, uh, "extracurricular activities," craning their necks and emerging from trees to see where this new voice is coming from.

For instance, let's cuddle,
I love to cuddle,
Get in a huddle,
It's easy with you....

As Johnny sings this, he does a dance move on the log which I believe is called "the yam"--it's similar to the step that Elmer Fudd would do a few years later in ANY BONDS TODAY. Soon, Kitty Bright herself stands atop the log and joins Johnny in the song as he sways with her (her expression of astonishment at Johnny's newfound ability is priceless, by the way):

I know that it's as easy,
As rollin' off a log,
It's awful easy, baby,
Doin' that the way you do....

It's easy, as rollin' off a log,
It's awful easy, baby, to make me think that,
You make me--you make me--think that it's true...

On the last line, she slips on the log as she sings and scrambles to keep her balance, all without missing a beat. Johnny may be good, but he still has a lot to learn from her. She continues,

'Cause I heard a few things, the things that you say...

Cut to a closeup of Johnny as he responds, "And if I do say/I love you I do, so help me it's true!"

On Kitty Bright's next few lines, "This love stuff has got me in a fog, the boys all say they love me/I wonder why they do..." her head, as if on cue, is shrouded in fog. Johnny sings the concluding line and grabs a trumpet from one of the other cats, giving us one heck of a solo--so energetic at one point Johnny's glasses come off his face and spin around.

The other cats, meanwhile, are really taken with Johnny and begin dancing to his trumpet riffs. He concludes, at a slower tempo:

Now what else could I do,
It's so easy, to fall in love with you!

On the closing strains, both he and Kitty Bright slip off the log. His glasses knocked askew, Kitty Bright smothers the unconscious Johnny in kisses as the cartoon fades out. We can safely assume she'll want his frat pin back.

The late 1930's were a time of experimentation for the Schlesinger crew, and this cartoon is a perfect example, having one of the most unusual histories of any they'd ever done. KATNIP KOLLEGE had its origins in a live-action Warner's short from 1935 called OVER THE GOAL--a somewhat pedestrian campus musical comedy of the time (or so I've read--the film is next to impossible to find). The musical numbers, to my utter amazement, were taken directly from OVER THE GOAL'S sound track. In essence, then, this cartoon is a "cheater" of sorts, but one of the most clever "cheaters" ever made--certainly above the usual quality of Dalton's work. He proved himself more than capable of picking up the mantle left by Friz Freleng when Freleng moved to MGM. In fact, he may have done a better job than even Freleng could have accomplished, and made a cartoon worthy of comparison to such Freleng masterpieces as RHAPSODY IN RIVETS and RHAPSODY RABBIT.

Kevin likes to refer to this period in animation as "the wide-eyed '30s". Nowhere is that expression more appropriate--literally and figuratively--than in KATNIP KOLLEGE. All the characters have large, expressive, goggle-like eyes in keeping with the fondness for rounded forms common to that era (a style that Frank Tashlin would perfect during this period.) It's an ideal blend of period, Art Deco-like drawing and the popular music of the day, with an optimism comparable to that of Frank Capra films. It seems naive and even--to use the professor's expression--"corny" now, but as with the most blatantly sentimental of the Capra films, we find ourselves rooting for the underdog. Or in this case, "under-cat."

Johnny's professor was wrong. Sometimes "corn" can be a great thing.



Anonymous said...

I loved this cartoon short.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the short, but the professor may well be patterned after Kay Kyser, the bespectacled swing band leader who ran "The College of Musical Knowledge" on radio and often wore those academe's robes. Does the character have a southern accent? Kyser was from Rocky Mount, NC.

Anonymous said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



Pokey said...

Good point, Anonymous 2, the Prof.is similiar to Kay Kyser. The prof.sounds like Bing Crosby though.