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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Toons In Swing Time: Part Three

From The Sublime To The...Gross (Milt Gross, That Is): JITTERBUG FOLLIES (1939)

The original Count Screwloose (above left) and the
animated version (above right). (Images from Don
Markstein's Toonopedia and YouTube, respectively)
(Edited 6/9/08 to correct a mind-numbingly dumb error--R.)
Jitterbug Follies
Release Date: Feb. 25, 1939
Director: none credited (though possibly Milt Gross himself)
In Short: Count Screwloose tries to con the yokels with a phony jitterbug contest--which he's forced to actually put on. Now we know what killed vaudeville...

To paraphrase a saying I've used once before, some cartoonists draw funny things; others draw things funny. Milt Gross did both.

His influence reaches across decades, most notably in the work of Mel Brooks. (The former Melvin Kaminsky no doubt read Milt's strips as a boy in the Bronx). Bob Clampett and John K. were inspired by him.

He could do anything--comic books, strips, animation, humor columns, radio scripts. He even pioneered what would later be known as the "graphic novel": She Done Him Wrong, which he describes as "The Great American Novel, And Not A Word In It--No Music, Too..."

The Yiddish-inflected dialogue of such Milt Gross creations as Nize Baby might confuse some young folks these days, but a person need not understand Gross to appreciate him. Every stroke of his pen radiated humor--you'll find yourself laughing even if you're not sure why. His characters looked funny, eyes perpetually crossed. Gross' loose, scribbly drawing style seemed to reflect the out-of-control nature of the strips themselves.

He created comic strips at an astonishing rate: And Then The Fun Began, Dave's Delicatessen, Looey Dot Dope, Phool Phan Phables, Nize Baby, Otto and Blotto, and one that would earn him a kind of cult status in comic-strip and animation history, Count Screwloose of Tooloose. It would be the good "Count" who'd prove to be his most lasting character, appearing in one form or another until 1948.

Created as a Sunday strip in 1929 for the New York World, its premise was simple: "Count" Screwloose, the ever-resourceful inmate of the Nuttycrest lunatic asylum, would regularly bid goodbye to his Napoleon hat-wearing dog Iggy

These panels from He Done Her Wrong (1922) only give us a glimpse of the craziness and bawdiness the young Milt Gross was capable of. (Images from Amazon.com)

(not J.R. the Wonder Dog, which was created for the animated cartoons) and escape over the wall--only to discover that the world outside the asylum was even crazier. Inevitably, he'd jump back over the wall to the relative safety of the "nut house," telling his dog, "Keep an eye on me, Iggy..."

Count Screwloose escapes again, in a comic-book
story from the late '40s. (From John K.'s blog)

The Count's methods of escape were typical Milt Gross: once, he hopped onto a fellow inmate who believed himself to be a window shade; when the human "window shade" popped up, he propelled the Count over the wall on another adventure.

Animation was the next logical step for the character; indeed, when Gross replaced the "blink and you'll miss him" Harry Hirschfeld as supervisor of MGM's new animation department in early 1938, he'd already had past animation experience. Not with Count Screwloose, but with "Mr. Phool Phan", one of his earliest creations. As a 20-year-old assistant to Thomas A. "Tad" Dorgan (the cartoonist who, according to legend, gave us the term "hot dog") Gross created the strip about an insanely obsessed sports fan for Hearst's New York Journal in 1915. It appeared in animated form two years later, produced by John Randolph Bray. Gross wrote and directed the cartoon; it didn't materialize into a series, however, and today is almost completely forgotten.

With Gross now at the helm of the MGM cartoon department, a series of cartoons featuring Count Screwloose was a foregone conclusion. Much to the consternation of producer Fred Quimby, who despised Gross and his style of humor. Still, Gross represented a new and promising change in direction for MGM's cartoons, and Quimby knew it. Milt's nutty style was 180 degrees removed from the storybook, Disneyesque approach of Harman and Ising.

But the Count wouldn't reach the screen without a few changes. The drawing is slicker, lacking the scribbly spontaneity of the strips, yet still capturing the essence of Gross' style. The lunatic-asylum premise was dropped, as was Screwloose's canine companion Iggy. (Why is uncertain, but it could have been at Quimby's insistence.) The animated Screwloose would be less of a clueless innocent and more of a cynical con artist. In JITTERBUG FOLLIES, his first outing, he's a tramp who hits on the idea of bilking the locals out of their money, in the form of a bogus jitterbug contest. To match his new demeanor, Screwloose received the requisite wiseguy Brookynese voice, courtesy of an uncredited Mel Blanc. (I'd always pictured the strip version as sounding more like Ed Wynn).

His new sidekick, J.R. The Wonder Dog, would carry the burden as the "zany" one of the pair. Cross-eyed and loose-limbed, with seemingly no bones at all, J.R. most closely embodied the style and spirit of Gross' comic strips. J.R.'s high point would come when the panicky Count substitutes him for a contestant in serious danger of winning Screwloose's stolen proceeds--a fan-dancing ostrich. These scenes would prove frustrating for the animators; as related in Maltin's Of Mice And Magic, animator Bill Littlejohn--tired of hearing complaints that J.R. was not animatable--did 100 feet entirely by himself to prove it could be done. He outdid himself, as it's by far the funniest scene in the picture.

Unlike the first two cartoons discussed here, JITTERBUG FOLLIES is less a tribute to swing than a wholesale dismantling of it. With the exception of one rousing showpiece number, there isn't a note of swing to be found--but in this case it hardly matters, since it's merely an excuse for Gross to unleash his insanity. And we don't have to break out of--or into--the loony bin to look.

"The Citizen's Committee On FAIRRRR PLAY...."

"Come on you jitterbugs--get in and swing! Count Screwloose and J.R. The Wonder Dog present the $10,000 swing talent contest! Get in line, you 'gators!' Come on you rug-cutters! Get the $10,000 prize for the winner of this big contest!!" a breathless narrator says, while the camera first zooms in on a close-up of a theater marquee with our heroes' pictures--and names--in lights. We then dissolve to a long tracking shot of a rather motley assemblage of contestants that only the mind of Milt Gross could put together: a goofy-looking man and woman (the man, for reasons known only to him and Gross, has his entry fee in his mouth); a trained seal; three identical-looking, but different-sized fellows with mustaches and sports caps; two circus acrobats; a store dummy with a $9.95 price tag; a tuba player; a "trucking" Indian squaw complete with papoose on her back (her husband, meanwhile, is in a baby carriage in front of her) and one fellow with a bristly mustache and a derby hat. (The man and woman at the back of the line are actually the most normal-looking of this bunch).

The derby-wearing fellow at the front of the line approaches the ticket window, where the good Count is waiting to take his money. Take it he does, but the guy gets no ticket--Screwloose instantly slams down the SOLD OUT sign. But not, of course, before J.R. emerges to relieve the poor goon of his hard-earned buck--and a few dozen more from his pockets.

When the box-office door slams down again, the unfortunate victim of this larceny yells "HEY!" and angrily pounds on the door. His protests are to no avail, though, fading to muffled yells as the camera cuts to the interior, where Screwloose and J.R. are gathering up their ill-gotten loot. (We see J.R. kicking the money into a large carpetbag-type valise). "C'mon, c'mon," Screwloose impatiently says, "we gotta get outta town before the cops gets wise!" Coins are flying everywhere as the Count hurriedly catches them--only to be interrupted by a pounding on the door.

Quickly hiding the huge bag under his vest, Screwloose says, "Whozzat?" Cut to the door, in danger of being knocked off its hinges by whoever's outside. The door bursts open to reveal a hulking thug of a guy with a very official-looking badge. He's apparently been in quite a few battles, as he has a hook for a right hand. He also would have dwarfed Disney's Peg Leg Pete.

"This is the Citizen's Committee on FAIRRRR PLAY!!" he bellows. He takes three huge strides toward the camera until his badge entirely fills the screen: the words "Fair Play" on the badge enlarge and quiver as he says them.

Cut to a medium shot showing Screwloose, J.R. and the official; J.R. cringes, with his paws over his head. The brute lets go of his suspender, on which his badge is pinned, with a SNAP!

"Dis contest is on da level," the official says, taking his hook and lifting the runty Screwloose up by the collar. "Ain't it?" When the big lug lifts Screwloose in the air, the bagful of money hidden underneath Screwloose's vest spills out all over the floor.

"Why sure...sure...this is an honest contest, boss, why would ya think it isn't? It's on the up and up, absolutely, 100%...." Screwloose babbles as J. R. crawls between the official's legs and tries to make a getaway. "It's on the level," Screwloose nervously continues.

"Sure, it's on the level," another brute with a stocking cap says. He's just come through the doorway, holding J.R. by the tail with an enormous pair of tongs. "Nobody's skippin'!" The bag with the money drops on the ground; the big goon, meanwhile, flings J.R. through the doorway with the tongs.

"Well, den..." the "Fair Play" official says. "On with da contest!" The stocking-capped goon grabs Screwloose with the tongs this time and carries him through the doorway and onto the stage, depositing him underneath the spotlight. Resigned to M.C.ing, Screwloose tries to sound upbeat:

"Ladies and gentlemen," he begins. "The foist entry in the ten thousand-dollar swing contest..."

We don't hear the rest of what he has to say, as the camera cuts to the two goons in the balcony, their impossibly huge guns trained on poor Screwloose. We cut to a couple of goony-looking penguins: one with a straw hat, the other with a cigar (Otto and Blotto, two other Milt Gross comic-strip creations) as they walk over the heads of the annoyed audience, step on their faces, and hop onto the edge of the stage to immediately heckle Screwloose. (Muttering "gangway, gangway, outta the way" all the while). In an Avery-quick cut to an alley outside, we see them get tossed out the rear exit. They hit a light pole and land in the trash can underneath. Trash scatters around everywhere.

Cut back to Screwloose onstage: "As I was saying, introducing that lovely little songstress, Madame Lizzie Swish!!" The camera follows the spotlight over to the wings.

"Lovely" and "little" Lizzie Swish definitely isn't. She's a hippo--hideously large even by hippo standards--with a mouth that would put Martha Raye to shame, and a falsetto singing voice that could peel paint. She's wearing a gown with a ridiculously long train--and minces out on stage to mercilessly assault our eardrums. The higher--and louder--her screechy notes get, the worse she sounds--she tries to walk across the stage with a seductive wiggle, and fails miserably. Turns out, she's walking that way because her dress is stuck. Otto--or is it Blotto, I have no idea who's who--comes on stage and helpfully frees her with a pair of garden shears, which sends her recoiling out of frame camera left.

After Lizzie's inevitable off-camera crash into the orchestra pit, Otto/Blotto throws the shears over his shoulder like a rifle, and marches across the stage as military music plays on the sound track. The remains of Lizzie's dress resemble a tent; the other of the insane pair of penguins emerges from the "tent" to join the first one on stage. They decide to do a little performance of their own, a parody of a maudlin old Victorian-era ballad ("Bingen On The Rhine"):

A soldier of the legion,
Lay dyin' in Algiers,
<offstage gunshot--one of the penguins falls to the ground>
Beneath the spreadin' chestnut tree,
He had too many beers....

To illustrate the last line, the penguin still standing removes his hat, which conceals a mug of beer, which he smashes on the prostrate penguin's head. The other penguin rises to assume a fighting pose, hopping up and down.

The breaking waves dashed high upon,
The stern and rockbound sand,
The "muskles" of his brawny arms,
Played "Alexander's Ragtime Band".....

On the next-to-last line, the penguins do a bodybuilder pose--their tiny biceps rise with a "pop."

In mid-song, however, Lizzie decides she's going to give her act one more go, and drowns them out from offstage with her screeching. The two penguins scream at each other over the racket:


The penguin on the right marches off toward the right of the screen; he enters the "tent"--from it, inexplicably, emerges an anti-aircraft gun. As the other penguin lies on the floor holding his ears, the gun fires off a huge shell, presumably silencing poor Lizzie permanently. They try to resume their song, only to be booted from the stage again, in a repeat of the earlier "alley scene." (Even MGM felt it had to cut corners during this period).

Cut back to Screwloose on stage: "Presenting Mother Goose, the senstion of the show woild, in "Mother Goose Goes To Town"...."

A matronly woman in Mother Goose garb starts singing "Sing A Song Of Sixpence"--we're led to believe we're going to get a standard nursery number. But this is Milt Gross we're talking about, not Walt Disney--so instead, on the line "four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie", we see the huge prop pie behind her open up to reveal the "blackbirds". In the only inarguably politically-incorrect scene in the entire picture, they turn out to be black musicians rendered in minstrel-show caricature. "Mother Goose" continues singing:

When the pie was opened,
They all began to sing <musicians: "Mi, mi, mi...">
And then they got the jitterbug,
And all began to swing....

Oh, well--at least this is a legitimate swing number. The musicians start their brassy riff as "Mother Goose" sings:

And the bug flew on 'cause they turned him loose,
Bit yours truly, Mother Goose...

Again, because this is Milt Gross we're talking about, we discover "Mother Goose" is no kindly old lady: she strips off her costume to reveal herself as a buxom chanteuse worthy of Tex Avery's "Red."

On the lines "Ask the sheep and cow and corn/Big Boy Blue come blow your horn," she pulls a pair of legs out from under a haystack, which belong to our "Big Boy Blue." He starts playing a trumpet riff--or appears to. It's quickly revealed his horn has a phonograph record attached. He replaces the needle when the record briefly skips, looking at the audience with a goofy self-satisfied expression.

Our red-hot Mother Goose continues to sing:

Tommy Tucker got bit too,
Singin' for his bowl of stew...

She points off camera--it follows to reveal a little fellow in a Buster Brown getup. But this is no adorable tyke: he growls in a raspy bass voice "Darling, I am growing hungry...!" The audience obliges, throwing all manner of food items at him from offstage, which completely buries him. He takes a pair of chicken legs and drums a Gene Krupa style beat.

Cut to a skinny, Olive Oyl-ish woman "trucking" along as we hear the lines, "Mother Hubbard's doodlin' now/jitterbug just told her how..." But when she goes to her cupboard, instead of finding it empty she stumbles upon our friends Otto and Blotto, who try to resume their number for the umpteenth time. But before they can finish, they're given "the hook" and are pulled off stage right. (At least the animators didn't use the alley scene a third time).

Next we see a house-sized shoe bopping to the rhythm...I don't have to tell you all who that is...

The woman in the shoe got bit,
Now she's razzmatazzin' it....

Cut to a plump woman at a piano, pounding out a jazz rhythm with the aid of her endless brood of kids.

Simple Simon got bit and,
Thinks he's Benny Goodman's band....

Our "with it" Simple Simon is a one-man band, actually, playing like he's hopped up on amphetamines. He's destroying the instruments more than playing them.

For the conclusion of the number, we cut quickly to various shots of the black musicians from different angles, then a long shot of "Mother Goose" strutting her stuff.

The curtain comes down to riotous applause, pleasing just about everyone--except for Screwloose and J.R., of course, who boo her from the wings. They interrupted by a ganglier-than-usual ostrich, who demurely says, "I'm next--aren't I?"

The fit-to-be-tied Screwloose stalks out on stage and disgustedly introduces the next act: "Zaza <at least that's what it sounds like> the fan-dancin' ostrich! Nyahh!"

The ostrich does her ballet-style number to a surprisingly positive reaction--we cut to reaction shots of audience members jumping up and down in the balcony. Hats and confetti fly through the air; the two goons we saw earlier in the cartoon fire off their enormous machine guns, whistling and cheering wildly.

Meanwhile, the Count nervously paces: "An ostrich, an ostrich--a fan-dancin' ostrich is gonna win da contest! AN OSTRICH IS GONNA WIN DA CONTEST!!" But his hopes haven't completely died: he looks over at J.R., who's doing a handstand, and gets an idea he hopes will save his illicit fortune. "Ostrich??" he says, as J.R. is replaced by a fantasy image of J.R. in ostrich get-up. "Hey!" he says. "Maybe an ostrich is gonna win the contest! Yeah, I got it--an ostrich is gonna win dis contest!!" Running over to a trunk full of theatrical props and costumes, he assembles an ostrich costume for J.R. out of a ceramic ostrich head (which covers his rear) and some bits of cotton (which cover his head).

Cut to just offstage: as the real ostrich takes her bows, Screwloose cuts some sandbags loose, which land on her and send her plummeting through the stage floor. Pushing the disguised J.R. toward the stage, he says, "Get out there, Zaza!!"

It's easier said than done, as the phony Zaza has a little trouble maintaining his balance; he stumbles across the stage upside down--or downside up--poking his head out from underneath the cotton fluff to give the audience a few furtive glances. He stumbles in the direction of the curtain: one of the two penguins happens to be there, and trips him with well-placed cane. J.R. crashes stage right, only to re-emerge doing a hoochy-coochy move with his "rear"--or is it his front? He clumsily dances off stage to the right--emerging yet again, he again dances right in the path of one of the penguins, who again trips him.

This time, J.R. stumbles off the stage and into the audience, where he gives a snooty-looking society matron a deranged wink from underneath his cotton fluff. He stumbles over the heads of the musicians in the orchestra pit and finds himself caught between a drum and a set of cymbals. Propelled back on stage by the momentum, he momentarily loses his disguise--it reassembles itself, but not quickly enough to fool Otto and Blotto, who appear with a basket full of hot dogs. J.R. naturally pursues them, leading the two penguins to yell "FAKE! FAKE!" J.R. is too engrossed in eating the hot dogs to care about the boos coming from the audiences--he sucks them out of the basket like spaghetti, dragging a cat along which somehow got tangled in them (don't expect logic in a cartoon like this, folks). J.R. and the cat do what cats and dogs inevitably do--they get into a knock-down, drag-out brawl right there on stage, dissolving into a tiny whirlwind. Into which, naturally, our two goons up in the balcony fire a stream of bullets.

J.R. briefly emerges from the mini-tornado and declares himself the victor, paws hoisted above his head in self-congratulation. He's a bit premature in his celebration, though, as he ends up being sucked back into the vortex by the cat. (A gag very similar to this one appeared in Hugh Harman's ABDUL THE BULBUL AMEER a few years later: Gross did leave a legacy of sorts, despite what the histories say).

Meanwhile, Screwloose struggles his way through the hail of junk being hurled at him by the audience to try to retrieve his dog; he sticks his cane into the vortex hoping to snag J.R. by the collar. Which, naturally, only succeeds in his being sucked in as well.

The cat hurls Screwloose from the whirlwind out into the alley, followed closely by J.R. They're seen hastily struggling to climb the alley fence; the scene dissolves to the two of them trying to hop a freight car out of town. Where, it so happens, they run across our friends Otto and Blotto, who reprise their number one final time before the iris out (forgive me if I misheard any of the lyrics):

His comrade bent to listen,
He softly whispered, "Dean,"
Don't sit on the billiard table 'cause,
You're wearing off the green....

As the two of them dance an Irish jig inspired by that awful pun, we bid goodbye to Milt Gross' twisted universe. Audiences of the time didn't know it, but they'd only have one more opportunity to visit that funhouse-mirror world before Gross himself was shown the door.


In analyzing Gross' brief but glorious tenure at MGM, the one question that continually comes to mind is "What happened?" He had everything going for him--several newspaper comic strips running simultaneously, a writing stint for radio (an adaptation of one of his "family" strips, That's My Pop) and an opportunity to produce animation for a studio considered by those both in and out of Hollywood to be the Tiffany's of movie-making. Hiring Gross should have been a tremendous creative and public-relations coup for Fred Quimby--the equivalent of bringing in The Far Side's Gary Larson to run an animation studio.

The time was certainly right--in the late thirties, thanks to a fellow named Avery over at the Schlesinger studio, theater audiences began to see a whole new "screwball" style of animation. Daffy Duck had already hopped and "hoo hoo-ed" his way through PORKY'S DUCK HUNT; a primitive and insane version of what would become Bugs Bunny would follow soon after. In other words, the very sort of characters and humor Milt Gross had been known for on the comic pages for some twenty years--they just hadn't been seen in animation before. What could make more sense than to bring in the one who started it all?

Things, however, were not as perfect as they seemed; Gross, far from being at the peak of his talents, was actually in a creative tailspin by 1938. His comic-strip work, while still prolific, was becoming unimaginative, and he began to farm it out to other artists (such as Bob Dunn, who would later take over Jimmy Hatlo's They'll Do It Every Time). As Ron Goulart says in his book The Funnies:

He left the New York World in 1930, having already abandoned the use of dialect
in his comic strip work, to draw a new version of the
Count Screwloose Sunday page
for King Features. In addition, he drew a comic strip that alternated three uninspired
single-gag premises:
Draw Your Own Conclusions, I Did It And I'm Glad, and The Meanest
Man In Town.

The comic-strip version of Count Screwloose, in truth, was a similar "single-gag" character (the premise never varied in the slightest over almost two decades) and the transfer to animation actually did a great deal to flesh him out and put him in more varied situations. Unlike the confining premise of the comic strip, the animated Count Screwloose could have been adapted to every conceivable situation. In the last of the two Screwloose cartoons, WANTED: NO MASTER the Count is neither a lunatic nor a tramp, but a dim suburban bachelor whom J.R. tries to get out of the way by marrying him off. He'd made the transition from a mere prop for Gross' jokes to an "everyman" character.

Yet, as with Gross' other work of this period, JITTERBUG FOLLIES suffers a bit. There's almost too many things going on at one time--looking at a Gross cartoon is comparable to looking at the Airplane! and Naked Gun movies. (Just imagine the impossible position I'm in, trying to describe it all). One has to see them several times to catch everything (I've seen it at least a dozen times, and had never noticed the store mannequin in the line of prospective "contestants" before--nor, for that matter, the grown Indian in the baby carriage). He gives us a visual feast, but doesn't do quite enough with it--I can't help but feel the action should be going on even faster. But as I've said about other cartoons from this period, that revolution in timing was still a few years away--and the man responsible for it was, at the time, still working for Warner Bros.

Still, it's a perfect debut story for the character, and one can see elements later used by Mel Brooks. Consider the plot--a con man puts on a horrible, token stage performance in the hope of skipping off with the proceeds. Not all that different, really, from Brooks' The Producers.

Looking back, there was no way Milt Gross could realistically be expected to succeed--the job of pulling together a disparate, squabbling group of New York and California animators was too much for just about anyone, roughly akin to herding cats. Gross was just not temperamentally suited for it: while the "official" version of Gross' firing is that the staid Fred Quimby found Gross' work "beneath the dignity of MGM", the truth is a bit more complicated. Gross' story is the standard cautionary tale of what happens when creative people spread themselves too thin--when they try to do everything, they succeed at nothing. (A lesson Tex Avery would eventually learn as well).

According to Joe Barbera in his autobiography My Life In Toons, Gross was a micromanager--when critiquing an animator's drawing, rather than offer suggestions, he'd have the animator stand and watch while he redrew the drawings himself. Several months of this, in addition to loud, frequent battles with Quimby, naturally took its toll--and manifested itself in increasingly bizarre behavior. Barbera wrote:

[He was] becoming increasingly paranoid with each passing day. His office was
located directly above Fred Quimby's, and Milt soon discovered a grillwork heat register
against which he would put his ear in a struggling effort to make out what (if
anything) was going on in Quimby's office.

Milt started spending more and more of each day listening at the register. We all
knew when he'd come out of an especially protracted spell of eavesdropping because
the criss-cross pattern of the register would be engraved on the side of his face from
jaw to temple. From time to time, he would emerge from his office, thus imprinted,
loudly muttering over and over: "Can't hear the cocksucker. Can't hear what he's
saying. Can't hear the cocksucker...." (Barbera, 68-69).

This by itself sounds almost like a scene from one of Gross' cartoons, and could almost be dismissed as a humorous eccentricity, if not for what happened next. As Barbera said:

I returned from a rare vacation one evening to a frantic phone call from Dan Gordon,
who told me that Milt had finally popped his cork and was going through the studio firing
everybody. In context, that really wasn't a crazy thing to do, although he should
have started at the top...

Though Count Screwloose's time on the screen lasted only two cartoons, the character would live on in yet another medium--comic books. Though Gross' output slowed considerably following a 1945 heart attack (he had a lifelong heart condition) he would contribute Count Screwloose stories to several comic book companies in the late forties. A second heart attack would take his life in 1953, at the age of 58.

Of his precarious life, Gross once said, "Yeah, someday a waiter will find my head in the soup. Pick my head up by the hair and say, 'he's had enough.'" That would have been an appropriate, twisted end for someone like Milt Gross, but he did die doing what he loved--drawing. I personally can't think of any better way to go.


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