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Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Lion In Black and White

It's Der Ding-Busted Captain and The Kids In MAMA'S NEW HAT (1939)

Review-Synopsis by Rachel Newstead

Mama's New Hat
Release Date: Feb. 11, 1939
Director: none credited (see Concluding Thoughts)
In Short: When the kids' gift for Mama gets destroyed, they "borrow" another. But the rightful owner won't give it up so easily...

It was the first comic strip worthy of the name, creating a visual shorthand for "the funnies" that's still used today. Born at the end of the 19th century, it's still in newspapers--if not nearly as many as in its heyday. For more than sixty years, it appeared in two different versions--distributed by two rival syndicates--thanks to one of the strangest legal loopholes in history. It made the transition to theatrical animation not once, but twice--neither of them successfully.

The Captain and the Kids--or to use its proper title, The Katzenjammer Kids--was the creation of 20-year-old German-American cartoonist Rudolf Dirks, first appearing on Dec. 12, 1897 in William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal. Loosely based on a series of children's stories Dirks remembered from his childhood (Wilhelm Busch's Max und Moritz) Dirks' Americanized version was nowhere near as stern, violent or moralistic as Busch's stories--but filled with the sort rough, vaudevillian slapstick that was almost as bad. Ron Goulart in The Funnies suggests it was heavily influenced by the eye-poking antics of Weber and Fields (who apparently inspired The Three Stooges as well). As a strip with German characters created by someone of German extraction, it proved quite popular among immigrants, many of whom were already familiar with the original Busch stories. The name "Katzenjammer", meaning literally "the yowling of cats" perfectly described the chaos occurring within the strip. Objects were continually hurled through the air, and figures were constantly in mid-run: the strip was "animated" long before it ever reached the screen, thanks to Dirks' loose, quick drawing.

From the beginning, the strip featured the little hellions Hans (the dark-haired one) and Fritz (the blond one), along with Mama Katzenjammer, who more often than not was seen spanking them at the end of every strip. (There was also a Papa Katzenjammer originally, but he disappeared after the arrival of the Captain.)

The Captain arrived--having been shipwrecked--around 1905 as a boarder, followed closely by the Inspector (originally a truant officer sent to rein in the kids, but who for some reason stayed.) It would be these two characters who would bear the brunt of Hans and Fritz's constant pranks from then on.

Why it came to be known as The Captain and the Kids is a rather strange, complicated story. According to the "official" account given by United Feature Syndicate years after the fact, around 1914 Dirks decided he wanted to take a year off to travel and paint. The Journal agreed on the condition that he create a backlog of strips to cover his absence; this Dirks attempted and found impossible, and embarked on his vacation without official approval:

....Cablegrams and Journal correspondence followed me all over the continent requesting
that I send in more drawings. I mailed in Sunday pages for about six months. Then I
accepted an offer from the
New York World on the condition that I would not begin until
my contract was cleared with the
Journal. Meanwhile, the latter paper sought to
secure a restraining injunction against my working for the Pulitzer interests. When the
case was heard, I was declared the loser. My appeal, however, brought a reversal of
that decision, allowing me to work for the
World but leaving the title of The Katzenjamer
Kids with the Journal. (Goulart, pg. 53)

A much simpler--and more likely--explanation would be that the World offered Dirks substantially more money. Deserting a Hearst paper for a Pulitzer one was an unusual move, as the traffic of cartoonists usually went the other way. Dirks would not have jumped ship, surely, unless he were to be well-compensated.

The injunction and court decision were certainly true, leading to an odd compromise: the Journal would hire a new artist, Harold Knerr, to draw his own version of the strip as The Original Katzenjammer Kids (to let readers know theirs was the "real deal", when in fact the opposite was the case). When Dirks' version of the Kids first appeared in the World, it contained no title (Dirks originally identified them by the German-inflected "Here Dey Iss!") In early 1915, he began calling the strip Hans and Fritz; during World War I, in response to the rabid anti-German mood of the time, the name was changed to The Captain and the Kids. (Goulart suggests it may have been

because it sounds like "The Katzenjammer Kids", if one says it fast enough). That name stuck, and under that name, it would make it to the screen in the early days of the MGM cartoon studio.

The Hearst version had already done so--in 1916, Hearst created the International Film Service, through which he would commission animated versions of his strips--such as Krazy Kat and Bringing Up Father--in addition to The Katzenjammer Kids. (Animated by Earl Hurd, under the supervision of J.R. Bray). They did not prove profitable, however, and the IFS quickly folded.

No one held out much hope for the attempt to adapt Dirks' version to animation some twenty years later--least of all Friz Freleng, lured from Schlesinger by Fred Quimby to direct the series. (As I recounted in my review of ROMEO IN RHYTHM some time back). Joe Barbera would later refer to them as "animated Huns"; in interviews late in his life, he would say it was the worst possible timing to debut a series with characters speaking in mock-German dialect just as Germany was about to lead Europe into another war.

A good point, certainly--audiences gave the series a cold reception, and the series was stopped after just 13 cartoons (two of which, PETUNIA NATURAL PARK and THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS, were filmed in Technicolor--the rest were originally released in sepiatone to cut costs). The strip, however, was still widely popular during this period, due to the inexhaustible imagination of Dirks. In the years since the move from Hearst, the family found a new home in the "Squeegie Islands" (with the expected stereotypical island natives) and a new recurring menace in the form of one Long John Silver. He would, in fact, figure prominently in the animated series (perhaps best of all in THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS) even though the island locale was not a feature of the MGM cartoons.

MAMA'S NEW HAT was the last of the series, and quite possibly the best. As was typical in the MGM version of Cap and family, the kids' demeanor has been softened here. Far gentler than the feral brats of the early comic strip, they create havoc not out of meanness or spite, but because they simply wanted to do something nice--buy their Mama a new hat for Mother's Day. Of course, what happens is a perfect illustration of the saying, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions..."

"My little angels..."

We open with a view of a sign in a store window: MOTHER'S DAY--BUY HER A GIFT. This fades to a display window showing various household items: pots, pans, a washboard, dishes and so on (ve-e-e-ry funny, guys--my mom would kill me if I gave her something like that). The camera tracks past another display window showing various hats for sale; we see Hans and Fritz emerge from the store with a gift-wrapped package, presumably one of the hats. (If they know what's good for them). Hans skips along ahead of Fritz with the package, but fails to see the brick on the sidewalk in front of him. He trips and....falls right into a huge mud puddle in the street. He juggles the package in the air to try to keep it from falling in, but at that moment Fritz falls right on top of him--and the package. They emerge covered in mud, and the package is a soggy, ruined mess.

As the boys don't have the money for a replacement, they're stuck for an alternative--until they hear the whinnying of a horse off-camera. They see an old nag admiring herself in a mirror, wearing a hat which--by a lucky coincidence--just happens to be identical to the one the boys intended to give Mama. The horse bats her eyes and adjusts the hat here and there, picking up the hat with her ears and moving it to a new position. Cut to the boys, still in the mud puddle: Fritz starts whispering to Hans, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what they're planning. They sneak up over to the horse, trying to appear nonchalant; Hans points off-camera to try to divert the horse's attention and makes a grab for the hat. The horse notices, and the boys return to their nonchalant pose. They back up slowly, then zip around the corner, so fast the letters from the store sign fall off the window.

The horse eyes them skeptically and resumes admiring herself in the mirror. The flower on the hat droops--turns out the boys switched hats, giving her the ruined one they bought for Mama. becoming angry, the horse throws the hat down, stomps on it, and goes off in pursuit of the boys at full speed. She pursues them around a corner....

....and we cut to a shot of the horse charging down the middle of the street at full gallop. But the camera pans over to a sign saying THIS IS NOT A THROUGH STREET, so we know that disaster's ahead for the horse. Avoiding one potential disaster, she gallops furiously off in the other direction (a slight corner-cutting move here: it's just a "flipped" image of the previous running sequence). Skidding to a stop, she starts sniffing the ground like a bloodhound.
Fade to the boys and Mama at home: "Aaaah, ain't dot sweet--buy Mama a new hat for Mama's Day!" she says. "My little angels!" As she says this, little halos appear over the boys' heads as they bashfully stand there. In a nice little "impossible" cartoon gag, she lifts up the halos and kisses each boy on the head.

Mama turns and admires herself in the mirror: "Mmmmm....not so bad," she says. She imagines herself as glamorous; for a moment her reflection in the mirror transforms to an image of Greta Garbo.

"Vait until I show Mrs. Hamburger my new hat--vill I burn her up!" she says to the boys, grabbing her parasol.

We wipe-dissolve to the outside as Mama comes down the stairs, then cut to the horse, still sniffing around in pursuit of the stolen hat. (She even sniffs a fire hydrant, like a dog, only to be scared off by the sound of a yelping dog from off-camera). She skids to a stop and continues sniffing along the ground--at that moment, Mama happens to pass by in the distance. Cut to a closeup shot of Mama--the camera tracks in closer on the hat. The horse sees it, and happily gallops off after it. She follows closely behind Mama, trying to grab the hat with her teeth; but before she can snag it, Mama disappears down an open manhole. Strangely, Mama doesn't even notice. The camera tracks over to a loading platform coming up from underground, from which Mama emerges.

The horse then appears in front of Mama, and the two of them go into a sort of dance-like routine as the horse tries to grab the hat and Mama ducks. (To the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance" on the sound track). Mama goes underneath the horse to escape her, only to have the horse move in front of her again, snapping at the hat. They whirl around in a brief tussle; the horse ends up with the hat on her head--for the moment. They whirl around again, and this time Mama has the hat. Mama runs off camera....

...and we dissolve to a shot of the horse running after her at full speed, then to a long shot of Mama and the horse running along the road beside a picket fence, back toward Mama's house. (Fairly fast timing for this era). We cut again to a view of the open doorway from inside as Mama runs toward it. She slams the door just as the horse hits it. Cut to the horse outside--her head vibrates with a "boing" sound from the impact with the door.

The horse pounds on the door with her hoof, then runs off to prepare to run inside. Mama opens the door as the horse barrels through the living room, up the stairs and out of of one of the upstairs windows (a gag used in more Warner's, and later MGM cartoons, than I can count. Tex Avery would use a similar gag in SWING SHIFT CINDERELLA--only a good deal faster). We don't see the horse do this--the camera follows from outside, and we hear the galloping and racket on the sound track.

The horse lands on the roof of the neighboring house and slides slowly downward, kicking up roofing tiles as she goes. We cut to a shot of Mama's open cellar door--the horse falls through, landing in the basement. Various pots and other junk fly up through the door as the horse lands.

Dissolve to a shot of the horse creeping up the basement steps as she heads into the kitchen, accidentally hitting an empty milk bottle in the doorway in the process. The milk bottle bounces down the stairs--as we cut to a shot of the doorway from the kitchen, the horse cringes in anticipation of the inevitable impact--it doesn't crash right away, so she stands listening with her ear pointed toward the doorway. When it finally does crash, the startled horse jumps through the air onto a cabinet. Sighing in relief, she climbs down and continues her pursuit as the scene fades.

The next scene shows the horse sneaking toward the kitchen door as Mama comes through wearing the hat--quickly, the horse hides with her back to the wall. She again snaps at the hat, but the surprised Mama ducks. The chase is on--but the horse is having a bit of difficulty, as her hooves get caught in the area rug in front of the door. She rolls up more and more of the rug as she scrambles to get free, pulling Mama with her. Once freed, the two of them start off after one another again.

Cut to a scene of the horse chasing Mama through the living room and up the stairs, with Mama scrambling on all fours. When she reaches the top just ahead of the horse, she slides down the bannister. She sails through the air and into the hallway, where she and the horse pursue each other around and around a set of two doorways (also similar to a gag Avery would later use). They continue this routine several times until Hans and Fritz emerge from a center door with a cane to trip the horse. The horse trips and falls, but Mama's still going, running right over her. The boys quickly snatch the horse and pull her inside the room.

The boys, taking the pose of a fashion designer, then are seen trying to bribe the horse with alternative hats (the dialogue, which is speeded up, is almost indecipherable on this copy, so I'm not going to attempt to transcribe it here). The horse stares in the mirror as the boys put a variety of hats on her head, all of them more ridiculous than the last. (One bit of animation, in which the horse lifts an overly-large hat from her eyes with her hoof, looks like it was retraced in GALLOPIN' GALS). One of the samples is a Napoleon-style hat; the horse strikes a goofy Napoleonic pose while "La Marsellaise" plays on the sound track. (Mama owns that? Must really belong to the Captain, I'm guessing). It's quickly snatched form her head and replaced with a cowboy hat as the music switches to Western-style, then by a football helmet as "fight song" music plays (if that's Mama's, she has an interesting past). One of the boys waves a pennant over the horse's head.

Note: Kevin, ever helpful, with ears far better than your humble toonkeeper's, says the dialogue Hans and Fritz say as they're trying hats on the horse goes as follows:

“Would Madam care for the latest from Pah-ree?”

…And then another hat…

“Or maybe you would prefer a Suzanne Pah-poo cree-a-shun (creation)”

…And another…

“a Napoleonne…”

…And another…

“…Buck Benny?”

…And another…

“…Or should you ever go to college,…”

Thanks, Kevin. Because I missed that particular bit of dialogue, I failed to make note of the "Buck Benny" line (a reference to Jack Benny's then-current movie Buck Benny Rides Again).

We then fade to a montage of the various hats being tried on and rejected--pretty ambitious and Harman-Ising-like for cartoons supposedly done on the cheap. The scene then dissolves to a shot of the horse looking like an equine Mae West, with a large plumed hat, a corset, and boots (on all four feet). She exits through the wrong door, however, and we hear an off-camera splash. Cut to a shot of the horse in the bathtub with a confused Captain. Cap swats at the horse and misses; the horse goes underwater and re-remerges behind him as he looks down into the water; she pushes him down and a stream of bubbles come up as the Captain gasps for air. He comes up again with the bath brush on his head--he takes it and scares the horse out of the tub, waving the brush at her.

The horse scrambles to keep her footing on the wet floor and crashes through the closed door, landing in the hallway. Meanwhile, Mama is still running around and around in circles, in one room and out another, as she was when the horse was chasing her. The horse stands just outside the second door as Mama comes through, snapping at the hat--this time she manages to grab it, flipping it onto her head. As Mama comes through the second door and notices what's happened, the horse gallops off-screen, and the scene cuts to the living room.

The horse quickly ducks into the coal chute, followed closely by Cap in his bathrobe--Cap tries to follow, but is a little too hefty, getting himself stuck. Cut to the basement--the horse slides down the coal chute and through the air toward a nearby wall, where she crashes. She knocks loose a can of glue which empties on her rear end. She doesn't notice, because she's too busy trying to get the coal bucket off her nose. We cut quickly to the still-stuck Cap, then back to the horse, still trying to remove the bucket. In doing so, she kicks the wall behind her, which dislodges an old electric fan from the shelf, which attaches itself to her glue-covered rear. She manages to get the bucket loose, but the momentum propels her into the coal bin, fan still attached. The horse, now covered in coal, blindly reaches up and turns on the main electrical switch, which immediately starts the fan. This creates a black whirlwind which sends coal everywhere, including through the coal chute where Cap is still struggling to free himself. Coal shoots through the living room as an astonished Mama looks on.

She tries to free Cap herself, pulling on his legs as coal continues to fly around. Meanwhile, down below, the force of the fan has made the horse rise in the air, lifting her out of the coal pile. She gets propelled through the coal-chute opening and backward toward a living-room table. The combination of the fan and table resemble an airplane (recalling a gag involving Bruno in THE OLD HOUSE) and zooms just over Mama and Cap's heads. We then cut to a quick shot of the horse zooming through the air past the stairs--backwards--and another of Mama and Cap quickly trying to get out of the way. But rather than swoop over their heads, the horse comes up underneath them--they end up sitting on top of the soaring table as it zooms out of control.

They turn and head the opposite direction as we cut to the boys, who turn tail and head into the next room. Cut to an exterior window, which the horse crashes through--now Mama, Cap and the kids are along for the ride as the horse gains altitude.

Of course, the cord is still attached, and as they go further and higher, they pull the electrical wiring off the side of the house and nearby utility poles. The wires are pulled from the poles in rapid succession, which eventually causes a generator from the local power station to get pulled with them. The building is destroyed, while the generator gets stuck between two branches of a tree. The force frees it, and now the combination of horse, table, fan, and family has a generator trailing behind it. As the wire gets pulled taut, everyone falls to earth to the sound of an airplane in a crash dive. Mama, the kids, Cap, and the horse land in a circular clothesline, while the horse's hat lands on a tree branch just out of everyone's reach. The wire lands on the remaining intact power lines and starts to make sparks; this starts the fan again and propels them around and around in circles. They each try to grab the hat from the tree--like merry-go-round riders reaching for the brass ring--as the cartoon irises out. Maybe Hans and Fritz should consider getting Mama candy or flowers next Mother's Day...


Kevin speculated, in his response to my review of JITTERBUG FOLLIES, that Milt Gross was the uncredited director of MAMA'S NEW HAT. Given the way the cartoon builds to such a riotous, anarchic climax, this may well be true. If Gross did direct this cartoon, he succeeded in portraying utter chaos and destruction more effectively here than in JITTERBUG FOLLIES: it's more like an Avery cartoon than any MGM effort would be before the arrival of Avery. As with Tex's cartoons, it builds slowly until it reaches a level of all-out mayhem.

But it seems to me there are other influences at work. Friz Freleng was also at MGM at the time, and could easily have had input--the pacing throughout most of the cartoon is reminiscent of Warner's cartoons of the same period. It also not only looks forward to the era of Tom and Jerry (particularly the scenes of destruction inside the house) but backward to the era of Harman and Ising. (There are obvious parallels with Hugh and Rudy's MGM Boskos, as I've already mentioned). Those seeking a "missing link" between the old MGM and the new will find it here.

Thus ended the early, shakedown era of the MGM cartoon studio. It's a bit sad, really, as the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS animators were really starting to hit their stride. In THE CAPTAIN'S CHRISTMAS, they start portraying characters with real dimension--we discover in that cartoon that stock villain John Silver has a human side. He creates presents, Grampy-style, for the heartbroken Hans and Fritz when he thoughtlessly ruins the kids' Christmas after destroying their Christmas gifts in a childish rampage. As we've already seen, the kids aren't one-dimensional brats, either--the disastrous events of this cartoon are only indirectly their fault. They had no way of knowing how obsessed the horse would be in getting her purloined hat back, and they did have altruistic motives. While this seems a dramatic departure from the comic strip, by the thirties Dirks had started to make them less destructive and more philosophical--though still incurable pranksters. According to Ron Goulart, dialogue became more extensive--perhaps even too much so--as the kids would prattle on and on about their views of the world around them. At the same time, the action in this cartoon seems a pretty faithful translation of wild, early years of the comic strip--it's filled with the sort of action I always imagined the strips to have, and once it gets going, it doesn't stop.

As with KATNIP KOLLEGE, the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons were an acquired taste for me: my first experience of them came courtesy of the LATE NIGHT BLACK AND WHITE series on Cartoon Network in the nineties, and at the time I was less than impressed. They seemed, for one thing, too slow, too deliberate--but then, I hadn't yet seen them all. As I began to see more of them, however (particularly such wonderful efforts as THE WINNING TICKET, with its running gag of a woodpecker trying to attack John Silver's wooden leg) I began to appreciate them more. The voice work from the likes of Billy Bletcher as the Captain and Mel Blanc as John Silver, elevated the cartoons beyond the ordinary and made them a pleasure to watch.

Michael Barrier, unfortunately, wasn't similarly impressed. In his book HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS, he had this to say about the MGM cartoons of this period:

...[Director Bob] Allen in particular wanted Disney-style animation, but the animation
in the Captain and the Kids cartoons evokes Terrytoons instead: it is active, amiable
and utterly superficial, the sort of animation that speaks of haste and a
low tolerance for revisions. (288-89).

"Active" and "amiable" they are, but to compare them with Terrytoons is an unforgivable cheap shot--to both studios. Terrytoons, as we've seen in THE MAGIC PENCIL, was capable of imagination, and the animation of Jim Tyer made the cartoons far funnier than they would be in the hands of someone more "traditional." If the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS cartoons need be compared with any New York studio at all, I'd compare it with the Fleischer cartoons of this period, with their fluid animation, rich gray tones, detailed backgrounds, and their "anything can happen" approach. MAMA'S NEW HAT certainly has the best mechanical gag of any cartoon outside the Fleischer studio at the time, as we saw with the homemade "airplane" bit. Bill Hanna, Joe Barbera and Tex Avery would surpass this level of work in time, but these cartoons compare favorably with any of their era.

After this cartoon, Harman and Ising would return to the studio, gleefully jettisoning several works in progress by Milt Gross. But things wouldn't be quite the same--there was a new crew, and a new attitude toward cartoons which crept into Hugh and Rudy's work (as we've seen in ROMEO IN RHYTHM, released about a year and a half later). The CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS series was a noble experiment, clearing the path for Tom and Jerry, Droopy, and company--and the accolades MGM would receive because of those characters.

Though its time on screen was brief, The Captain and the Kids' run on the comic pages certainly wasn't--Dirks would continue to draw it until his retirement in 1958. It would be continued by his son John until United Feature Syndicate discontinued it in 1979. Ironically, it was the version begun by Knerr that proved the more durable--like The Captain and the Kids, it suffered through a couple of name changes: for a brief time during the First World War, Knerr's verison of the Kids briefly became Dutch, with Irish names! From 1918 to 1920, Hans and Fritz were Mike and Aleck Shenanigan, and the strip was known as the The Shenanigan Kids. After 1920 it would revert to simply The Katzenjammer Kids--its original title under Dirks--and is known by that title to this day. Since 1986, "The Katzies" have been drawn by Hy Eisman, a veteran of the King Features "bullpen". Though nowhere near what it once was (the slapstick has been toned down considerably) it endures, syndicated in 50 newspapers (and online). To last from the horse-and buggy era to the age of the internet is a pretty remarkable achievement for any cartoon; may the animated version live on in the hearts of new generations as well.

The Katzenjammer Kids today, as drawn by Hy Eisman (excerpt © King Features Syndicate)


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