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Monday, June 30, 2008

Sufferin' Cats! Kevin's Review of Hugh Harman's THE ALLEY CAT

Getting "That Ol' Feelin'"?: THE ALLEY CAT (1941)

Review by Kevin Wollenweber

I have always been a cat-lover. Even though I do not presently own one, cats I’ve “met” at others’ homes have neatly gravitated to me and we seem to have an immediate “communication” or rapport. So it is certainly understandable that I’d like the 1941 classic cartoon from MGM directed by Hugh Harman called “THE ALLEY CAT”.

At the time of this cartoon’s regularly being shown in heavy rotation on early morning kids’ TV, a la “THE EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW”, a local staple of our ABC-TV affiliate here in New York, just before the all-important morning newscast at approximately 9:00 a.m., our family had a cat, and we were kept awake at times throughout the nights with many a musical offering by amorous alley cats, so I took to this cartoon immediately, even though there is really nothing to like about the cartoon’s title character. You really can’t figure out just why the beautiful and pampered female cat likes him so much. He can’t even seem to carry a tune all that well and he spends most of the cartoon nastily taunting the snarling bulldog or tearing apart the house by accidentally lighting his tail ablaze when getting too close to the fireplace and then getting the fishbowl caught on his rump and leaping to the ceiling trying to shake it off…

…But I’m getting ahead of the story, as Jay Ward would probably tell me if I were narrating this thing.

The cartoon opens inside a spacious townhouse where the only human that we meet is a bored and ver-ry British butler (or should I say, “but-lah”?), carrying in a bowl of food for someone, namely the equally bored and sleek and white kitty cat who, when asked “will there be anything else, M’lady?”, slowly picks herself up to only purr “nooo!” The butler moves to leave the room, but not without showing his hint of anger over having to wait, hand and foot, on a cat by giving out with a disdainful snort before slamming the door behind him. Miss Kitty turns away from that scene as well and goes to check something outside. Can we guess what that is?

It is so obvious as Scott Bradley’s score gets brassier and jazzier and we see our “hero” (dubbed Butch by the animators, although not called at all by that name anywhere in the cartoon) emerge from the alleyway, checking garbage cans for food that the neighbors have tossed out, even bopping around to the music if I remember correctly. He is the most unlikely of heroes, though, because, when he notices the Persian cat glaring out at him from the balcony, he tosses away the fish he was about to devour and yowls, in what has to be the coarsest catcall I’ve ever heard, “Boy oh boy! Hi, baby!” She purrs back her “helloooo” which launches old Butch into his signature song…if you want to call this singing:

“I saw you last night and got that oooool’ feelin’…”

With his female companion singing along on key with “meow meow meow meow”, he continues to garble the words so bad that one needs an original version of this song to actually find the correct lyrics. I would go on record as saying that, perhaps, DONALD DUCK or YACKIE DOODLE could have vocalized this better!! This rouses the butler angrily to the window, just as a covey of the alley cat’s feline buddies begin to harmonize quite nicely, too, and he shoes the lot of them away with yells like “Fssst, I say, you cats, stop making all this noise!” When this fails to startle them, he sends out his secret weapon, the very large bulldog. “Rover…Rover…I say…cats!!” The dog hears these excited monosyllables and it takes time to register, but he tears off after the cats who, en masse, go flying away from the fence and the chase and battle of wits begins. The dogs stops in front of the alley cat and attempts a roaring bark which comes out as mere yelps of a dog you would think is much smaller than this, sending Butch into gails of gravelly laughter “tough guy, eh?” he taunts and swipes his claws at the dog’s head as the dog leaps up trying to snap at the cat.

Butch doesn’t just let it go at that. Surely, he has to play a couple of really painful tricks on the dog, at one point taking a hot light fixture from one of the poles in front of the house and dropping it on the dog’s head. The explosion sends the dog running for cover back into his house, sending the cat into further hysterics, calling up to his girl on the balcony, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet, baby!!” He goes to a nearby pail and grabs a perfume bottle, filling it with a heavy and pungent dose of ammonia or some such smelly vapor and proceeds to leap onto the doghouse roof, knocking on the roof and calling “Well, does little Rover wanna come out and play?” He pulls the bulldog up by his snout, claws bared…ooh, does that hurt! The dog is now angry again and ready for some sort of attack, but not for long. As the dog rushes up to mere inches in front of the cat, he gets a face full of something so powerful that it nearly knocks him out or makes him reel dizzily, almost dangling in midair before Butch sprays him again and, with his paw, pushes him lightly down on the ground over on his back, fast asleep! “Awww” the alley cat mocks, seeing the dog totally comatose on the lawn.

His attentions are turned back to his kitty love above, who now throatily yowls, in a barely recognizable Mae West impression, “come up and see me sometime”, sounding, instead, more like her aroused boyfriend. She’s definitely in heat!! Butch howls, leaps into the air and, in the space of a few frames and seconds, blasts off through the front door of the house and straight up to the upstairs area where Kitty is waiting with the door opened. Butch sails past and, as the camera moves toward the couch, he is sitting there comfortably smoking an expensive cigar. Wow, this guy wastes *NO* time! “Well”, he says, “what’s cookin’ sister?”

Geez, I wonder which animator’s alter-ego *THIS* is!

He then decides to clumsily entertain his ladylove by dancing to a great Latin rhythm of the usual song, “La Cucaracha”, but he dances too close to the fireplace, setting his tail on fire. This is good for the audio of the cartoon because the action starts up now, even with Bradley’s score percolatin’ as well underneath. Butch yowls and leaps into the air looking for something to put out his flaming behind. He wedges himself into the fishbowl, but is again driven mad trying to release himself from it. He again leaps into the air, this time hanging from the ceiling and ripping it to shreds as he hangs on and tries to shake the bowl loose. While all this is happening, out in the darkness, the bulldog is coming to and hearing the commotion. He groggily makes his way into the house just as Butch rips his way across the ceiling to where the bulldog is unfortunately right under him…and this is where the claws lose their grip on the ceiling and the cat and fishbowl come tumbling down on top of the dog with the fishbowl breaking over the dog’s hard head! I dimly recall the intercutting of inside and outside scenes here as being quite good, climaxing in the afore-mentioned crash as the cat falls from the ceiling.

The chase is on…and forgive me if some of the finer details are forgotten here, but the cat seems to evade the dog’s attacks, sending the dog crashing into a wall or tumbling into a suit of armor that Butch fills with hot coals that send the dog flying up into the air. As this occurs, the butler (geez, I wondered where he was all this time) is now aware of the commotion and is calling for his dog, who crashes down in a heap on top of him. The dog is not done chasing the cat, though, and the beast tries to leap forward, not realizing that he is caught in the butler’s suspenders. Once ripping free, the dog continues the chase, knocking over pictures and vases or whatever is in his way up and down the stairs!

The butler, meanwhile decides to grab his pick ax and get rid of this intruder himself. The chase had gone through the wash cycle in the nearby tub and now escalates through the rooms as the butler enters swinging the ax and trying to hit the cat as the cat and dog go running in circles around where the butler is nervously standing, but can you kids guess what happens next?

Yup, the ol' faithful bulldog gets it in the head, but as is the case with cartoon characters, he is merely stunned for a few seconds and ends up turning on the evil butler with the ax in his hand, snapping angrily at his pants and ripping them to shreds and sending the two crashing through the plate glass window and off down the street as the alley cat continues singing to his ladylove, inviting his pals in for a last chorus as the iris closes. Aw gee!

There are so many elements of this cartoon that smack of Hanna-Barbera intrusion. Didn’t we see an envious butler and his dog in a much later “TOP CAT” episode in which Benny the Ball is mistaken for some rich cat and those alley cats invade the good life for a while? Also, that hormonal howl of the alley cat taking up his lover’s invite sounds mysteriously like those yowls that Joe Barbera is said to have produced as vocalizing for Tom getting pinned on any part of his body by Jerry in their usual battles of wits. Just listen to a cartoon called “THE MILKY WAIF” and you’ll see what I mean. As far as I know, this is the first time we hear this howl in an MGM cartoon, so it is possible that Joe Barbera (or was it Bill Hanna) premiered it here? It has also been a running gag in some Hanna-Barbera cartoons that the lead character is not always what he or she seems. So it might be an H/B-ism for the alley cat to be such a loud-mouthed, gravelly-voiced and almost unappealing boorish young male instead of the usual golden-throated romeo that we’ve come to expect in animated vehicles like this.

My only other comment is that the four-part barber shop quartetting covey of alley cats reminds me of a similar scene in Disney’s much later “LADY AND THE TRAMP” in which a covey of dogs serenades the two lovers (or friends). Maybe, if we get another fantastic Scott Bradley double-CD set of scores similar to the fantastic TOM & JERRY AND TEX AVERY, TOO set, the consultants can find that bit of singing and include it in its entirety. It is fantastic and I’m sorry that the action is taking place while the cats are in good harmonics, here.

What can I say, I love cat cartoons! “Meow meow meow meeeooooow!” Check it out yourselves on YouTube. It is posted there, and let’s hope that a complete HAPPY HARMONIES set comes out real soon.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Orphan Toon Musings 5: Those Wonderful Local Cartoon Shows

"Skipper" Tom Hatten of KTLA-Los Angeles and
friend, who inspired many a young viewer to
become interested in animation (like
this blog's Humble Toonkeeper, Rachel)
--image from LATVLegends.com
The very best of the very worst: Sam Singer's
Courageous Cat and Minute Mouse
(Image from ToonTracker.com )

(Note to readers: The review of "Landing Stripling" I'd originally intended to post is temporarily grounded, while I recover from an allergy attack brought on by the miserable Wisconsin weather. Kevin, meanwhile, has stepped in with this wonderful look at local cartoon shows of the past--Rachel)


By Kevin Wollenweber

Well, apparently, last weekend, there was this lengthy celebration of WPIX-TV, once our local Channel 11 and now a CW super station. I missed most of the hoopla, but I do have my memories of it and a lot of kids’ television back in what I still consider the heyday. If it wasn’t for the short-sightedness of TV executives, thinking that anything cartoon is automatically for the little ones, most of us would probably never have seen most of the cartoons we talk about on our blogs.

What I wouldn’t give, now, to see a program that devotes itself solely to the earliest LOONEY TUNES and Paul Terry cartoons, along with guilty pleasures like “COURAGEOUS CAT & MINUTE MOUSE”, “Q. T. HUSH” and even “SPUNKY & TADPOLE”, perhaps the strangest of these cheaply knocked-off chapter-type adventure cartoons, this time about a boy and his clueless teddy bear who, for some reason, is given the name Tadpole. Of course, that is not the only question mark that one has when watching the series, but hey, one has to have grown up watching local kids’ TV to know how much fun seeing even these strange little cartoons is again.

Checking out the last half hour of the special retrospective on the programming over the years of the former WPIX-TV, I was reminded, even if I didn’t see the representations throughout that finale, that it was on Channel 11 here in New York/Long Island, that I’d seen “THE WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW”, hosted by his creator in the theatrical age, Walter Lantz. The animator must have wanted to have a kind of rapport with kids that the other Uncle Walt had and, so, guided his viewers through the inner workings of an animation studio with dialogue that seemed so over-rehearsed and contrived, but hey, for those of us who had never visited such a place, this was a good way of learning how cartoons were made. I’m sure that this kind of background might have caused the mor artistic among us to start attempting our own drawing style and even creating flip books. I know that I had tried, with limited vision, to create a moving character in the flip book style, but this never worked out. I guess it was easier on see-through cells, but it sure was fun trying.

I was also reminded that WPIX-TV was possibly the home for the direct-to-syndication cartoons like WALLY GATOR, TOUCHE TURTLE and LIPPY THE LION. Gee, whatever happened to the proposed DVD volume that was due to come out earlier this year on those three characters? While I wouldn’t count these three as large a priority as “QUICK DRAW MCGRAW”, I still would have welcomed that set.

Television was wonderful when it was local. I was a choosey TV watcher, although I did spend way too many hours in front of that old black and white box. My day began, as those of you have heard from me too many times now, with “THE EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW”, on our local WABC-TV affiliate, the stellar cartoon lineup that featured a hodgepodge of MGM and Van Buren cartoons wedged in between episodes of “COURAGEOUS CAT & MINUTE MOUSE” or “Q. T. HUSH”, TV cartoons created by Sam Singer, one now dubbed the Ed Wood of the cartoon industry for very good reasons. These toons were created with the credo that “kids will believe anything”. Courageous Cat, a kind of “BATMAN” parody, could do anything with his trick gun *EXCEPT* shoot bullets. It’s a hip idea, but it really was an over-the-top use of cartoon license, perhaps to avoid outcries of too much senseless violence in animation due to gunfire and other implements of destruction, but throughout the series, there were many, many incidents of senseless violence without gunfire, as well as all sorts of strange impressions of the world in turmoil, very few of them now deemed politically correct!!

Dal McKennon, the one time voice of young Gumby for Art Clokey Productions, did almost all the voices. I wish I knew who the other voices were as I always enjoyed the voices of the gangster called the Frog and his extremely dopey assistant, Harry (“Duh, I like ba-nan-as”) Ape. I’ve been told that WPIX-TV did pick up “COURAGEOUS CAT” for afternoon broadcasting, but I somehow missed this, thinking that they left WABC-TV for that big cartoon data base in the sky that we’re all waiting to see come back down to earth, someday, in the form of DVD releases. Actually, the entire “COURAGEOUS CAT” series is put on DVD, in four volumes, from A&E Home Entertainment, if anybody cares, but for a rather hefty price…and not even restored. One wonders, though, whether these prints featured on this set make up the only existing source material that remains. Some opening credits look as if they were horribly spliced together from previous stories. Everything about these productions smacks of shortcutting, although I’d sure like to know where they got all the stock music used for this series. Surely, the opening theme should have been found for a CD released years ago called TOON TUNES—50 GREATEST CARTOON THEMES. Play the theme for anyone, and you’ll perk up even the biggest negative critic of the Sam Singer cartoons. It is considered his Citizen Kane.

But the big deal about that “EARLY BIRD CARTOON SHOW” was the inclusion of just about every MGM cartoon ever made, including the MGM version of BOSKO. Yes, they even regularly aired “HALF-PINT PYGMY”, a Tex Avery cartoon in which his GEORGE & JUNIOR characters, inspired by Steinbeck’s George and Lenny from the novel, OF MICE AND MEN, go on a “hunt” for pygmies, seeking out the littlest one. This was back when TV used to air old film, not even videotape or kinnies. I remember the afore-mentioned cartoon breaking right in the middle, and I recall another time when someone accidentally ran a cartoon in reverse. I don’t recall its title, but it was a ROBIN HOOD sendup; might have been a Van Buren?

In the afternoon, for me, I began at the stroke of 12:00, with “POW-WOW THE INDIAN BOY” which I believe was on WPIX, also featuring some post-Code Max Fleischer cartoons featuring BETTY BOOP. I recall having to wait until 3:00 for anything further that I liked. Among these were some shows on our local WNEW-TV, Metromedia channel 5, with creative hosts like Soupy Sales and Sandy Becker, who would go on to voice Mr. Wizard the Lizard for Total Television’s TUTOR (or TOOTER) TURTLE, which was part of the “KING LEONARDO’S SHORT SUBJECTS” cartoon series. Later, we’d gotten some interesting new imports in the form of anime like “ASTRO BOY”, “KIMBA THE WHITE LION”, “GIGANTOR” and “SPEED RACER”. The first appeared on WNEW-TV and the last three all were part of WPIX as far as I can recall!

So, as we celebrate, in our own way, the memories of the existence of WPIX-TV and local TV in general, we should recall the joys we got out of twisting that dial and know that television was such a great place to find old films of all kinds.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Two Unscheduled Flights of LANDING STRIPLING (1962): Part One--Kevin's Review

Foreword from Rachel

We here at the Home For Orphan Toons can't resist a challenge, and today, Thad Komorowski provided us with one. Any cartoon Thad hates that much is definitely worth a second look.

Kevin and I would be the first to admit that the Gene Deitch Tom and Jerry's are animation's equivalent of the crazy relative the family won't talk about--and it's not hard to see why. The animation is odd, the character designs and sound track even odder: Tom and Jerry on a heavy dose of hallucinogens.

But in a few of those thirteen cartoons, those very qualities are what make them worth watching. Today's spotlight cartoon, Landing Stripling, is one of them.

Despite the title, Kevin's review is less that of Landing Stripling than of the Gene Deitch approach to Tom and Jerry in general, but I will follow tomorrow with my own thoughts on Gene Dietch, and a more comprehensive look at Landing Stripling.


By Kevin Wollenweber

I like cartoons, almost any cartoons, especially all or most of these made during the first golden age, that of the very inventive and sometimes iconoclastic theatrical period, when animators indulged their artistic sense and ran with at while the major studios paid the sometimes exorbitant bills.

They created most of these cartoons, perhaps, in hopes that they’d be seen as legitimate filmmakers--as we all know that they should be truly seen.

There are times when an animator from another studio would “visit” the home of a specific character or animator and take charge of that animator’s work or character’s flagging series and attempt to breathe life into it. I continuously wonder why Gene Deitch took over the TOM & JERRY series. The resulting short-lived reincarnation that happened really wasn’t at all about the series as we had come to know it through the eyes and ears of the duo’s original creators, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera.

There were reasons why those who even liked the H/B versions of the 1940’s can grouse about how the series did fall into such a formula, a formula that would be somewhat reworked for the PIXIE & DIXIE series for television’s “HUCKLEBERRY HOUND SHOW”--the only difference being that the characters talked. I am so delighted that the theatrical Tom & Jerry did *NOT* talk. This is what made the cartoons interesting to me as a kid. I’d seen some of the earliest Hanna-Barbera talking animal characters *BEFORE* I had ever seen my first TOM & JERRY cartoon; so what a refreshing change to see the actual characters for the first time in a theater!!

The Hanna-Barbera creations were so fantastic to look at and could even be funny at times and, yes, they did occasionally jump out of formula and come up with a handful of titles that were strange as well as funny, like “PART-TIME PAL”, “SLEEPY-TIME TOM”, “BUSY BUDDIES”, “MOUSE IN MANHATTAN” and even “LONESOME MOUSE” in which they *DO* exchange words for a short portion of the title.

Gene Deitch had approached the cartoons with absolutely *NO* regard for the original and, while such an attitude would normally put me off, I think it is a welcome twist. So Deitch’s attitude is one of “anything goes”!

Hey, he began his short series with a title like “THE TOM & JERRY CARTOON KIT”. This is something that I truly wish that Hanna-Barbera themselves had attempted, but then, I guess that the duo wanted to market the characters to kids and, so, could not make any of the cartoons look as if the series was out to promote violent toys manufactured to its intended audience.

But this is why I like the Deitch title. This cartoon alone must have inspired NATIONAL LAMPOON to come up with a truly grotesque and bloody TOM & JERRY parody of their own called “KIT ‘N’ KABOODLE”, in which the two characters attack each other with dangerous implements of destruction and we actually *SEE* the end result as the anatomically correct characters chop each other to bits amid the panels. While the Gene Deitch cartoons are not as violent and contain as much actual blood-letting as the Hanna-Barbera originals, he and his Czechoslovakian animators almost poke fun at two characters being aimed at kids (with all the violence inherent in the original creations) almost as if to make a statement that theatrical cartoons were not just for kids anyway, even if they seem to be aimed directly at that audience!

So Deitch imagined a world where you would sell the most surrealistically violent toys to kids with all the zeal of the cartoons, like the way Disney created theme parks around his cartoon characters—and we all know how questionable that kind of marketing could be at times!

This essay of sorts is not really aimed at any one of the cartoons in Deitch’s series or version of the characters, but instead, this is my cry or open letter to those at Warner Brothers, who now own the series as part of the classic MGM library, to listen to those of us who want to see a disk collecting *ALL* of the titles created during this period with even some background about the Gene Deitch years, if indeed there is anything worth telling about it. I just think the cartoons are strange enough to stand on their own, and I would go so far as to say that I think that Deitch had meant for them to clash loudly with the originals--even at their final stages, before Hanna-Barbera found themselves without a studio and turned to television for a home.

If you look at those earliest TV efforts, you might see animation nearly as bad at times. Of course, though, Hanna-Barbera still had that impeccable sense of timing when it came to a gag; oh, they would miss the timing on occasion due mostly to the limited budget, but the voice actors would pick up the slack there. Deitch just didn’t care and, so, decided to make cartoons that said that animation needs to take some new chances. The era of Deitch came on as abruptly as that of Tex Avery, but he was saying more that animation should not stay in one place. He did what his own budgets would allow and these things are worth taking a longer look at. Sure, I sometimes wish that Deitch had created some one shot cartoons, just as Chuck Jones would create other cartoons outside of the TOM & JERRY series that *HE* had done, so we could see what he was really capable of.

As Thad Komorowski points out, Deitch did do some quality work at the Paul Terry Studios; we know that he is capable of better, but he never saw his time spent at MGM as being some sort of opportunity, unfortunately. Perhaps, if he had taken the reigns and saw in-roads to do with animation as he always may have wanted at a studio that might have allowed for a bigger budget if the cartoons, themselves, had quality to them, the TOM & JERRY series might have been given its due.

Instead, I like their senselessness and most absurd uses of cartoon license ever to be put to film, predating the Sam Singer “COURAGEOUS CAT” series for TV. Worst cartoons ever? Well, not always, but the Gene Deitch TOM & JERRY series is a jarring parody of the accepted norm.


Saturday, June 14, 2008

It's Only The Beginning, Folks: The First Looney Tunes, Part 2

What Do We Do For An Ending?: RIDE HIM, BOSKO (1932)

Review-Synopsis by Rachel Newstead

Ride Him, Bosko
Release Date: Sept. 17, 1932
Animators: Isadore (Friz) Freleng, Norm Blackburn
In Short: In a typical Western town, typical Western villains endanger Honey. Will Bosko pull off a typical Western rescue? Maybe...maybe not...

The Looney Tunes series had come a long way in two years, and the only thing keeping it from going any further--as far as Hugh Harman was concerned--was money.

As far as Leon Schlesinger was concerned, he'd given them more than enough. Indeed, the cartoons had been quite successful as they were, enough to launch a second series (Merrie Melodies) the year before. One is tempted to think of Schlesinger's reluctance to give them more as an indication of his legendary cheapness, but in fact by 1932 Warner Bros had been hit especially hard by the Depression--as a result, Schlesinger's per-cartoon budget became ever more meager. As Michael Barrier says:

As Warner Bros. and most of the big Hollywood studios sank in deep financial trouble in the early thirties, Schlesinger and Warner's amended their contract twice to reduce the amount Schlesinger got per cartoon in the 1932-33 season of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. He wound up getting $7300 per cartoon instead of $10,000, and when he signed a new contract with Warner's on 1 March 1933, he took another cut, to $6000 per cartoon. Had he continued with Harman and Ising and raised their payments, he would actually have lost money on each cartoon...
The easy-going Ising had been more accepting of the financial arrangements they'd made with Schlesinger. The more irascible Harman, who had by this time assumed sole control of the Looney Tunes series, was not--which usually resulted in loud and frequent arguments with Leon. This would, of course, eventually lead to their departure from the studio; one can almost see the tension between Harman and Schlesinger play out in those last few cartoons. With the Merrie Melodies now assuming the role once held by the Looney Tunes as Warner's musical "showpiece" series, the Looney Tunes could now be more gag-oriented--and Harman grew ever more ambitious. Three cartoons from that tense final year (Bosko In Person, Bosko's Picture Show, and Ride Him, Bosko) show a marked, at times astounding, improvement over the series' output to date: Bosko, no longer the carefree, whistling little character bouncing his way through nonsensical, plotless cartoons, was now either cast as a stage entertainer, or as the central figure in an actual story. We see the first faint signs of the Looney Tunes we'll come to know, such as celebrity caricatures: in Bosko In Person, Bosko imitates both Jimmy Durante and Maurice Chevalier; in Bosko's Picture Show, a newsreel segment shows an animated Durante being chased by none other than an ax-wielding Adolf Hitler! Even Ising's Merrie Melodies occasionally used what would become familiar conventions: I Like Mountain Music not only contains a rare caricature of Will Rogers, it makes use of the "magazine covers come to life" motif seen in Bob Clampett's ingenious Book Revue.

Even more familiar (and startling) is a technique which not only looks backward to Bosko The Talk-Ink Kid, but forward to cartoons like You Ought To Be In Pictures: the use of live-action footage, as we'll see in today's cartoon.

"Where men are men...nine times out of ten."

The cartoon opens with a coyote howling atop a mesa with the moon looming in the background; in true classic "rubber hose" fashion, the coyote's chest swells up like a child's balloon when it inhales. We see Our Hero Bosko riding his horse across the cartoon desert, playing his guitar and singing a popular song from the previous year (Nat Johnson and Fred Howard Wright's "When The Bloom Is On The Sage"). His noble steed doesn't seem all that co-operative--in fact, he looks half-asleep--so Bosko dismounts and gives the horse a little shove over a small hill before resuming his song.

While Bosko makes like Gene Autry, we cut to a title card that reads, "RED GULCH--Where Men Are Men, Nine Times Out Of Ten..." (For some reason I find that unbelievably funny, though I'm not quite sure what it means--and I'm afraid to ask.) It's way off-kilter for a Harman-Ising cartoon of this period, a line more suited to Mel Brooks than Hugh and Rudy--which of course makes it all the funnier.

We get our first look at the little town of Red Gulch in long shot; it's clear from the first moment this isn't exactly the safest place to be. We see a fellow in a sombrero chased out of an alley and past the saloon by an outlaw; a pig cowboy stupid enough to pass by the same saloon gets hit on the head by a bottle-wielding arm emerging from the door. The pig staggers a bit and falls unconscious in the alley. A long, tall dachshund cowboy also unfortunate enough to pass by gets hit with a hail of bullets, but rather than drop dead, he merely loses his midsection--and several feet in height. The now literally cut-down-to-size cowboy finally wises up and flees in terror.

The above scene strikes me as a milder version of the typical Lawless Western Town in Freleng's Bugs Bunny Rides Again--there, the gunplay was so frequent that bullets stopped at a traffic light to let other bullets fly past, and even innocent clothing-store mannequins had their hands in the air. But this is a 1930's cartoon, and while it could do the impossible as well as anything Avery, Clampett, or Jones did later, animation hadn't yet learned how to be absurdist. A very important difference, and one that would rocket Schlesinger's studio to the top of the heap in another ten years.

Enter Bosko and his horse--the horse exhales with relief and deflates like a balloon. Rather than tie him up, Bosko simply leaves the flattened-out remains lying there in the street (though it's not as if the horse were going to go anywhere--a horse thief would need a bicycle pump and some No-Doz to make off with him.)
Bosko meanwhile, enters the saloon in typical Western style (legs bowed out) and yells inside, "Howdy, fellas!" He's greeted by a stream of bullets from inside--if his friends treat him like that, his enemies might make him look worse than his horse. "Howdy, Bosko!" they yell back.

Bosko merely picks up the bullet-riddled hat that had been shot off his head (had this been an Avery cartoon, that ten-gallon hat would have been shot down to a pint and a half) laughs nervously, and steps through the saloon doors. Me, I'd have been in the next county after the second bullet.

As the scene cuts to the inside, we see a piano player, a fiddler and a banjo player providing the musical entertainment. Bosko, consummate performer he is, slides into frame in the next scene and does a nifty little tap routine. The piano player, meanwhile, performs some deft keyboard wizardry--slamming down on the keys, he flips the mug of beer beside him into the air and catches the contents in his mouth. This is some pretty potent stuff, though, and burns away most of the fellow's clothes. What remains looks a bit like frilly bloomers, which for Harman and Ising is an opportunity to do something they loved to do in those pre-Code days--a "sissy" gag. The piano player instantly sprouts rouge and mascara and strikes an effeminate pose, crying out "Whoopsie!" as he swishes off-screen. (With a propaganda message like that, Prohibition should have succeeded).

Bosko now takes over for the piano player, energetically shouting "Come on, boys" and giving the stool a bit of a spin before he sits down. He starts into a jazz number so lively the cards in the gamblers' hands start scatting along with him, as we see in close-up. The "joker" in the card hand adds his own throaty bit of singing before a pistol does him in.

Harman and Ising, as is well known by now, made generous use of recycled animation, and the scene that follows would be used in no less than two cartoons--one in a whole other studio. The crowd of people dancing to Bosko's rhythmic piano-playing will be retraced exactly in both Moonlight For Two (Schlesinger) and The Old Pioneer (MGM), one of at least two instances of such cross-studio reuse. (Harman and Ising would also use old Schlesinger animation in their first MGM release, Bosko's Parlor Pranks--a simple matter, considering those sequences belonged to them, not Schlesinger. He was simply the middleman, and wouldn't form his own studio until after their departure).

Cut to a title reading THE DEADWOOD STAGE (Free Wheeling). There had to be a stagecoach at some point--this is a Western, right?

As for the "free-wheeling" gag, your guess is as good as mine. I've never been able to trace the exact origin of it, though it's obvious it comes from a series of early '30s auto or tire ads. Anyway, it's "free-wheeling," all right--the wheels wobble around as if they're barely connected to the coach. (I wonder if that stagecoach company ended up designing grocery carts a couple of generations later?) Inside, Honey bounces around uncontrollably, but doesn't seem too bothered by it at first, but after a couple more serious bumps, she squeaks out, "Please! Be careful!" (I don't think I would have been nearly as polite after a few hundred miles of that).

And since this is a Western, you can't have a stagecoach without stagecoach robbers, which is exactly what we see in the next scene. They skid to a stop--the lead bandit and his horse sneak along the ground toward the stage. This scene and those that follow (a front view of the bandits in pursuit) will also be reused--not by Harman and Ising, oddly, but Schlesinger--in My Little Buckaroo a few years later.

The bandit stops at the edge of a cliff as we see the stagecoach pass by in the distance. He and his men gallop off in the other direction, presumably to "head 'em off at the pass" (I'm with Harvey Korrman--I hate that cliché!) Reaching the mouth of the canyon, heading 'em off is exactly what the bandit does--he pulls up right in front of the passing stagecoach and draws his pistols. The stagecoach driver merely takes the other path in the fork in the road where the bandit is standing, causing him and his horse to twist like a corkscrew as the stage goes by (one of many gags in this cartoon that could have been improved with a little more speed.). The horse and bandit lie there reeling for a moment--too long a moment--before taking off in pursuit, followed by the rest of his gang.

Cut to the stagecoach--the driver, being shot at from off-camera, keeps getting his hat shot off his head, only to catch it and put it back on. This too would be reused in My Little Buckaroo, but with a funnier twist: the Andy Devine pig character would replace his hat with a new one each time it gets shot off his head--a derby, a straw hat, and so on. (Yet another indication of how much funnier this could have been).

In mid-pursuit, the trunk
that's been bouncing along on top of the stage for the last couple of minutes gets knocked off onto the ground--amid the bullets, the trunk opens and all the clothing inside gets up and heads for the hills. A corset flaps around and flies out of the scene (nice touch, guys). We then cut quickly to the second repeat of the front-view "bandits in pursuit" footage in only a ten seconds, then to a view of the stage in long shot traveling along a narrow path at the edge of a cliff.

The square dance sequence dances over to another studio: from Warner's (above left) to MGM (above right).

Through all this, poor Honey is still bouncing along inside, oblivious to what's happening. We cut to the exterior again--this time the stage driver hits a bump and gets thrown free--he hits a tree and slides down the narrow trunk (ouch!) and onto a pile of cacti (double ouch!). He lands on top of a steer skeleton--the sort of skeleton you see lying in the desert in every Western--which causes it to spring to life and head off into town with the stage driver astride it. Every couple of seconds, the steer skeleton lets out a "MOO" as it runs along--a cycle that runs about five or six seconds longer than it should. Harman's attempt to pad the picture is pretty obvious here.

Meanwhile, back at the saloon (I would have loved to say "ranch" at this point) Bosko's still playing and everybody's still dancing, until the stage driver runs in and yells "Hey!", pointing outside. Panting, the exhausted driver gasps as Bosko enters the scene, "The stage is robbed!" He finally collapses--or at least the upper half of him does--into his pants, which continue to stand there. As Bosko rushes out of the scene, the stage driver's arm emerges from the pants and grabs a mug of beer from the bar. Rather than come up out of his pants to take a drink, he simply pours the contents of the mug into them (another not-too-bad bit).

Cut to a long-shot view from the perspective of the alley outside--Bosko runs toward his horse (now miraculously inflated again) but ends up putting the saddle on the steer carcass the stage driver rode in on. (I never thought I'd type that sentence in a review). The steer gallops around a few times with Bosko aboard (another painfully obvious instance of padding) before tossing Bosko in the air--Bosko's horse merely comes up underneath him and catches him.

Now the chase is on, with another long cycle of Bosko and his horse jumping over the same rock twice. The scene cuts again to the "bandits in pursuit" bit of animation for a few seconds. Meanwhile, the stage is now going on driverless, and Honey finally gets clued in--her head emerges from a window as she cries "Help! Help! Bosko, save me!" We cut back to the cycle of Bosko chasing after the stage: just as we think he's going to catch up with it, however....

...the camera backs away to reveal three animators gathered around a drawing board watching the action: the one on the far left (Walker Harman) stands smoking a pipe. Norm Blackburn is on the other side of the table, while Rudy Ising sits nearer the camera, providing the "galloping" sound effects by slapping his thighs.

"Say, how's Bosko gonna save the girl?" Ising says.
"I dunno," Harman replies.
"Well, we gotta do something," says Ising.
"Let's go home," Blackburn pipes up.

"OK," everybody agrees. All three grab their coats and leave, while a confused Bosko stops and stares helplessly at the audience as we iris out. Since "How Dry I Am" is playing on the sound track at this point, one can surmise "home" is the last place these three guys are going. Poor Bosko, meanwhile, can only spend all night in a dark, empty studio wondering "Now what do I do??"

(My thanks once again to Jerry Beck, who provided me with the identity of the three men).

Concluding Thoughts

In Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin sarcastically suggests this "out of left field" ending reflected Harman and Ising's true attitude toward Bosko and their work in general. A cop-out? Maybe--but it's a great one. In that final minute, a routine Bosko story skyrockets into the realm of the "classic."

Perhaps it's for the best that the rest of the cartoon is a routine Bosko story, since audience expectations get completely thrown out of whack. Ride Him, Bosko has imagination, a quality only occasionally seen in early Looney Tunes. Maltin is at least partially right: one can sense Harman and Ising's growing boredom and frustration with doing the same old thing. The gags, though mild and a bit slow, are more frequent, with some scoring a direct hit (the "where men are men, nine times out of ten" line is just strange enough to provoke sudden laughter). It's as if they're desperate to be funny at times, throwing out everything they have in their arsenal to see what takes. This is their message to Leon Schlesinger, to show what they can do on a limited budget--and hint at what they might do with a little more.

They wouldn't get that chance, obviously, but they leave Schlesinger with a bang. The delightful Bosko In Person would follow in a few months, with a Bosko and Honey we'd never seen before, due to the expressive personality animation of the young Bob McKimson. Both it and Bosko's Picture Show will feature Bosko in his now-familiar role as an entertainer; the latter's alleged unprintable dirty word will leave audiences wondering and arguing for decades--which, no doubt, is precisely what Hugh and Rudy hoped

But true greatness would elude them while making cartoons for Warner Bros.; they would find it thanks to the lavish budgets of MGM and the music of Scott Bradley, culminating in the astonishing, Academy Award-nominated Peace On Earth. The cartoons made in that last contentious release season of 1932-33, however, show that their brief time at Schlesinger's wasn't a total loss.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Orphan Toons 2.0

Those repeat visitors to the blog who have been perusing the older posts will no doubt notice a few changes.

When Kevin and I first started The Home For Orphan Toons back in October 2006, I didn't yet have the capability to add graphics to my reviews--that wouldn't happen for another few months, when I finally found a way to make screen captures. Later on, I discovered to my dismay that some of my earlier, pictureless reviews--like ROMEO IN RHYTHM--were getting a surprising number of hits. Since I want to make this blog visually attractive as well as informative, I'm remedying that situation: I've added images to the ROMEO IN RHYTHM review, and will do so with the other all-text reviews as time permits.

As for more current entries, patience. I have plenty of reviews forthcoming, such as a look at another great early Looney Tune, RIDE HIM, BOSKO. As always, stay "tooned"...


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Orphan Toon Musings 4: Happy Birthday, Mom--I'll Bring The Gravy

Today is my mom's birthday, and in the time-honored birthday tradition handed down through the generations, I'm going to embarrass the hell out of her. (I told her I'd get her one day for having the entire wait staff of that Chili's sing "Happy Birthday" to me, and I meant it). As this blog is devoted to animation, I can think of no better place to tell the world how--incredibly--the Termite Terrace crew brought Mom and me closer together.

My mother hates cartoons--or so she claims.

I think it would be more accurate to say she dislikes most of them, and certainly didn't understand my love of them. Given that like most kids of my generation, I spent my Saturday mornings gaping at such forgettable schlock as Speed Buggy, Goober and the Ghost Chasers and Baggy Pants & The Nitwits, perhaps she had a point.

It's ironic, then, that so many of the best moments we spent together were spent around the TV, watching Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies.

I don't think Mom could ever bring herself to fully hate the Warner's cartoons--how could any self-respecting Southern lady openly dislike Foghorn Leghorn, after all? My Grandaddy, who loved that rooster with a passion and was so doggedly Southern he bled Confederate gray, would probably have disowned her.

She's always had a wicked, warped sense of humor, which she passed on to my brothers and me. I'd like to think that Bugs, Daffy, Porky--and yes, Foggy, had a hand (or paw, or wing) in shaping it.

Once in a while, she'd do something that never failed to send us three kids into spasmodic fits of laughter: at the slightest provocation, she'd put one finger on her head, stick out her tongue and close one eye. She'd accompany this odd expression with an even odder sound, which I'm sure she stole from a Warner Bros. cartoon: "FREEP!" ("Fearless Freep," after all, was the fellow Yosemite Sam forced Bugs to sub for in High Diving Hare). The finger-to-the head move comes from none other than Friz Freleng's Pigs In A Polka--remember the inane dance the two "frivolous" pigs did constantly? Growing up, my mom and her sister derived a great deal of enjoyment from doing the same dance.

The greatest irony of all, I suppose, would be that some of the fondest memories Mom and I would share would derive from one of the only two cartoons ever to make me feel uneasy. The first, of course, is Finnegan's Flea; the second is a cartoon which these days is almost as obscure: Chuck Jones' Chow Hound.

Chuck's most effective cartoons were parables of greed: it proved the downfall of the nameless construction worker in One Froggy Evening, who sacrifices his job, his life, his savings and his sanity for the sake of a temperamental singing frog. Jones' cartoons could also be profoundly psychologically disturbing--witness the slow, tortuous breakdown of poor Claude Cat at the hands of mice Hubie and Bertie in Mouse Wreckers. (The upside-down room was a stroke of brilliance--never was loss of sanity so funny). Chow Hound is both; a gluttonous dog passes off a poor hapless cat as the pet of several humans (and in one case, the rare "Saber-Toothed Alley Cattus" at the local zoo) and collecting the delicious meat the cat's inevitably lavished with. Though the cat dutifully turns over every single morsel to the dog (it's unclear whether the cat ever eats at all) the only things he gets for his trouble are a smack to the head, and the admonition, "What?? No "gwavy?"

A pretty neat arragement--for the dog. But the big oaf isn't satisfied. "Day in, day out, the same thing--it's too slow! I've gotta get some food!" he whines. Throwing the scam into Phase Two, he pretends to "kidnap" the cat from all its supposed owners, then "rescuing" it, collecting the reward and the praise.

Also a neat arrangement, if it stopped there. But it snowballs when the dog takes his windfall and buys his own meat market--and one doesn't have to see the cartoon to know what happens next.
The sight of the hideously gorged, bloated dog is nauseating enough--but Jones isn't through with him. The cat--and a mouse companion who up to now was also the dog's unfortunate stooge--utter that ominous (and universally known) final line. The terrified dog can only whimper in terror as gallons of gravy get funneled down his gullet--and we're left to ponder the unspeakable consequences at the iris out. A handy moral--signed, sealed and delivered--courtesy of Chuck. And a twist ending worthy of any Twilight Zone.

It's only natural the phrase would enter the lexicon of every middle-class family in the country, particularly mine and animator Eric Goldberg's. As in Goldberg's family, we couldn't have gravy served to us again without Mom intoning the fateful line, "This time we didn't forget the gravy...."

And I can't think of Mom without thinking of this cartoon. With that in mind, it's only appropriate that I, as my birthday present to her, give her the opportunity to see Chow Hound again for the first time in years.

One of these days, Mom, I'll be able to see you again. And when I do, I won't forget the gravy.


(Note: Mom's birthday is actually the 11th, but a Blogger time-stamping glitch put it under the previous day--I assure you, Mom, my memory hasn't deteriorated that much over the years..)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

It's Only The Beginning Folks: The First Looney Tunes

Bosko The "Mus-Ink-Al" Kid: HOLD ANYTHING (1930)

Review-Synopsis by Rachel Newstead

Foreword: In the podcast Kevin and I recorded last October, we discussed the musical versatility of our favorite 1930's animated character--the one and only Bosko. Certain cartoons didn't quite get the attention we feel they deserved, while others had to be eliminated in the interest of time; therefore, as a supplement of sorts to our podcast discussion, I'll be devoting the next few entries what I feel are the best of those early musical cartoons. Enjoy...

(Edited 6/9/08 to correct minor typos and change text size--R.)

Hold Anything
A Vitaphone Release
Release Date: Sept. 1930
Animators: Isadore (Friz) Freleng, Norm Blackburn
In Short: Construction worker Bosko meets secretary Honey and they make beautiful music together--out of everything they find...

There's a good reason the first "talkies"--whether live-action or animated--were musicals.

The movie Singin' In The Rain didn't exaggerate much--the "talking picture" at the dawn of the sound era was a clumsy endeavor, to say the least. The clichés we've all heard about this period of history pretty much hold up--the camera, once free to go just about anywhere, found itself locked in one position and isolated in a soundproof booth to muffle the whirring of the camera's gears. The primitive microphones had limited range: should a person move even a foot too far away, the sound engineer could miss a word or an entire line. Hence, like little wooden soldiers, cast members would cluster around the mike (clumsily concealed in a prop like a phone or a vase of flowers) and recite their lines. A few scenes like that in a row, and the novelty of actors speaking on the screen evaporated quickly.

Musicals, on the other hand, could be filmed like a stage play, with the microphones strategically placed for the best possible pickup--while giving the performers at least a little more freedom of movement. There were still severe limitations, but the audience at least had something interesting to look at--and listen to.

Animation wasn't bound by these restrictions, obviously--as in the silent era, a cartoon character could go anywhere and do anything. Early sound cartoons, nevertheless, had their own problems with dialogue--matching a cartoon character's mouth movements to the words on the sound track proved a challenge even for leaders in the field like Disney and Fleischer. In Fleischer's experimental sound cartoon MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME (1926) an animated dog tells the audience to "Follow the ball and join in, everybody..." Though these were the first words ever uttered in an animated cartoon, the impact of that historic moment was nowhere near what it should have been: the synchronization was so poor as to be nonexistent.

When making his third Mickey Mouse cartoon, STEAMBOAT WILLIE, Walt Disney chose to sidestep the issue as much as possible, instead concentrating on the things an animated cartoon could do that a live-action film couldn't. (An attitude toward animation he'd eventually shun, to the detriment of his cartoons--and for awhile, the industry in general). Thus, music would be the centerpiece, the main point of the cartoon--a musical score could be broken down into a series of beats (x frames per second) far more easily than speech. (There is speech in the cartoon, but brief--a parrot, voiced by Disney himself, taunts Mickey. All other "dialogue" is in squeaks or squawks). In STEAMBOAT WILLIE, therefore, music was everywhere, and could be produced by anything Mickey hit, prodded, poked, pulled or touched, be it a cow's teeth, a cat's tail, or even a sow's udders. The novelty of sound, combined with the "anything can happen" spirit of animation, became the recipe for a surefire hit.

Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising made considerable progress in solving the problems posed by synchronized speech--and marketed BOSKO THE TALK-INK KID as a showcase for it--but the subsequent Looney Tunes series would revolve around popular songs of the day (specifically, music owned by the Warners, in Warner Bros. films). What worked for Mickey Mouse would work equally well for Bosko: cartoons light on plot and heavy on music. And that music could, and would come from anywhere--or anything.

For this reason, the third Looney Tune ever released, HOLD ANYTHING, is perhaps the best of these early mini-musicals: a perfect combination of a catchy pop-music score and the total disregard for reality, anatomy and logic that made the cartoons of this era so much fun. Much about the cartoon hearkens back to STEAMBOAT WILLIE two years earlier: Bosko's regard for animals isn't much better than Mickey's (a goat serves as a handy musical instrument in both cartoons) but Harman and Ising take the idea out of the farmyard. This is the "Steamboat Willie" of the modern, urban age--a rivet gun provides a steady drumbeat, winches and pulleys become harps, and Honey's typewriter instantly becomes a piano when Bosko inserts some sheet music--which he just happens to be carrying. (It's a bit unusual for a construction worker to be carrying sheet music with him to work, to be sure--though in a cartoon in which literally everything is musical, it makes perfect sense).

It acknowledges the influence of Mickey in other ways as well--though it would be saying too much at this point to mention exactly how.

Bouncing, Decapitated Mice?

The cartoon opens with our little Bosko perched atop a high beam of a skyscraper under construction, characteristically whistling a merry little tune as he goes; his rivet gun provides a drumbeat accompaniment. (In this era, the line between music and sound effects was still quite blurred; musicians would provide the earliest effects, as musicians for studios like Terrytoons would continue to do as far forward as the late 1940's). Bosko pauses in his riveting just long enough to pound out some xylophone notes on a chain above him.

Meanwhile, a group of mice are busy putting up a brick wall--as with Bosko's riveting, it's perfectly in time with the music. The bricklayer mice plop the bricks down in 2/4 time as a group of hod-carrier mice climb the scaffold to supply the mortar, also without missing a beat. It's already apparent there's something awfully familiar about those mice....

Back to Bosko--he's resumed his riveting, this time accompanying the tune with a few plucks on the ropes of the winch that supports him. After that, his riveting takes on a military drum sound, to which the hod-carrier mice march along a a yet-to-be-completed brick wall like soldiers in formation. Again, they look uncomfortably familiar, and it's especially obvious when they turn to the side--they could easily be smaller cousins of Mickey. Close enough to make Walt turn purple with rage, no doubt. This scene would be retraced in Rudy Ising's 1932 Merrie Melodie IT'S GOT ME AGAIN--which ironically competed against Disney's FLOWERS AND TREES for the Oscar (and lost--maybe Walt got his revenge after all).

There are minor differences in the "marching Mickey clones" scene in this cartoon and the one in the Oscar contender--Harman and Ising, who must have incurred Disney's wrath for the scene in HOLD ANYTHING, made the ears of the mice larger in the later cartoon in the hope it would keep Walt off their backs. It's uncertain if they succeeded--the mice still look identical to Mickey from the side. They also differ in the end gag--in the first, one straggler mouse continues marching without realizing the others have left, and scrambles hurriedly after them. In the second, the straggler mouse loses his footing and falls into a spittoon (a common gag in the pre-Code era).

Other minor bits of business worth noting: first, as the Mickey clones march along the wall, their legs lengthen when they come to a section not fully built, and retract again when they hit a completed section of wall. It's a gag that would be used with some changes in THE MAGIC PENCIL at Terrytoons, and countless Tex Avery cartoons at both Warner's and MGM. If Harman and Ising were the first to do this bit, their influence on animation is greater than most people realize.

Second, at one point the mice march in place as the mouse on the left side of the column bumps the mouse next to him with his rump; the next does the same to the one next to him, and so on. Honey will do a variation on this gag, as we'll see in a moment.

Back to the straggler mouse for a moment--remember him? After the scene in which he runs after his fellow mice, he trips, which sends him plummeting downward. He lands on a saw Bosko's holding; Bosko just sees this as another opportunity to play some more music, and bends the tool like a musical saw--while the mouse bounces helplessly on top of it.

But that's only the beginning of the poor mouse's indignities--at one point, Bosko holds the saw sideways, sharp end up--the mouse lands on it and is momentarily decapitated. Now both head and body are at the mercy of Bosko's saw-playing, bouncing separately up and down, back and forth. The mouse's body makes a futile effort to catch up with its head, but Bosko bends the saw before body and head can be reunited. The headless body merely struggles pathetically like a mountain climber on an icy slope.

Finally, through sheer luck, the mouse's head gets flipped through the air and is reunited with its body; but Bosko, still unconcerned, continues to toy with him. It's a good thing this is only a cartoon--I don't think Workmen's Comp covers situations like this...

We take a break from this animated sadism to see a goat pop several handfuls of rivets into his mouth--for no reason we can immediately discern, because we're immediately taken back to Bosko with the mouse. Once Bosko lets the mouse go, the reason for the scene with the goat becomes evident: the mouse drops into the goat's open mouth just as the goat is about to gulp down a few more rivets. No matter. The mouse merely opens a "door" that suddenly appears on the goat's stomach, steps out to freedom, and "tips" his ears like a hat to the bewildered animal, no more concerned for the goat's welfare than Bosko had been for his.

In the meantime, Bosko up above yells to the two of them: "Hey! Bring up that beam!" Spying a nearby rope, the mouse gets an idea and looks toward the goat. The goat, having already been through enough with said mouse, wants no part of it and tries to sneak away. The mouse simply runs after him and drags the poor creature back into the frame. Tying the rope around the goat's midsection, the goat is converted--for the moment--into a handy winch. With a few cranks of the goat's tail, the mouse winds the rope around the goat's body, handily sending the beam up.

Bosko then hops from where he's been standing onto the rising beam, whistling once again. He accompanies his tune with a few plucked notes on the pulley ropes, as he had in the beginning of the cartoon.

But he's distracted from his little concert when he passes the window of a nearby office building, where secretary Honey happens to be typing a letter. "Hello, baby! What d'ya say?" (Quite the ladies' man, isn't he?) He then does a little dance for her on the beam.

Rather than take this as an unwelcome intrusion from a creep, as one would today, Honey instead giggles and applauds Bosko's dancing. Turning to the typewriter, she starts typing again--it's a little mash note, reading "GEE, YOU'RE SWELL!" (On company time, no less).

That's all the invitation Bosko needs--he does a little tap routine on the beam as it teeters precariously like an aerial seesaw. He plucks a few musical notes, which materialize in mid-air as literal, written notes, providing him a handy staircase with which to enter Honey's window (shades of Felix the Cat, who often turned such abstract symbols as exclamation points into useful implements, such as a baseball bat).

Hopping down from the window ledge, Bosko picks Honey up and seats her on the window sill, while he takes over her typewriter (I wonder what her boss thinks of all this?) Bosko gives the typewriter keys a few tentative pokes, then inserts a large sheet of paper into the machine. Sheet music, it turns out--when he presses the keys, the typewriter slowly plays the notes of the cartoon's highlight number, while Bosko types the song's lyrics, which replace the notes on the sheet-music page as he types.

When he hits the carriage return, the number begins in earnest--Bosko's able to play a full piano score on the machine, thanks to '30s cartoon magic. Honey dances along, swaying her hips. She bounces her hips off one side of the window, then the other as the full orchestra (from who knows where) joins in.

The scene changes to a shot of her on the ledge outside the window as she makes vocal sounds to Bosko's typewriter-piano accompaniment. Bosko joins in with some vocalizing of his own.

Down below, the goat--the pulley ropes still wound around him--decides he's had enough and blows a "raspberry" to the lot of them. Wriggling free of the ropes, he finds a pull cord which controls the release valve to a boiler. When he pulls on it, the three whistles on top of the valve blow in unison. He swallows the cord; liking how that tastes, he decides to go after the entire boiler.

Not a good idea, Mr. Goat--when he grabs the metal release valve, he's immediately filled with steam, expands and floats upward like a balloon. He climbs ever higher until he passes Bosko in Honey's office, still playing a hot number on her typewriter. Abandoning that, he reaches out for the goat's udders and floats out through the window. Landing back on his girder, he turns the steam-filled goat into a bagpipe-like instrument by squeezing the animal like a bellows, which produces a steam calliope-sounding rendition of the title tune. He punctuates that with brief little pokes on the goat's navel (a scene which makes me a bit woozy, I must admit--I cringe at the thought of anyone even threatening to poke my navel). I've personally never understood Hugh and Rudy's obsession with "navel" gags to begin with.

We return to Honey, who's obviously enjoying all this, dancing along and really getting into the spirit of the thing (even if the goat isn't).
Her anatomy is so pliable her torso can separate from the rest of her body when she swings out her hips, and reunite itself when the hips swing in the other direction--a bit like those old-fashioned kids' toys with a ball, cup and string.

Bosko continues to play the poor steam-filled goat until disaster strikes--the valve pops out of the goat's mouth, naturally releasing all the steam. The force of the steam escaping carries Bosko up in the air along with the goat, who bleats several times as it continues to expel the steam (I think I would, too).

Bosko, who had been on the goat's back, slips off but manages to grab its udders again--but this time is met with a shower of milk in the face (a gag used by Harman and Ising since their days with Disney--Ub Iwerks used it as well, in the first Mickey cartoon, PLANE CRAZY.) Momentarily startled, Bosko lets go and tumbles earthward; he hits a brick wall, but instead of being seriously injured, he merely shatters into tiny multiple versions of himself. (Another gag which dates back to Harman and Ising's "Oswald" days, and one which they would continue to use, incredibly, into the late thirties. One of the "Jazz Frogs" in BOSKO AND THE PIRATES has this happen to him).

Bosko's multiple selves jump up and down on the brick wall, causing it to play a tinkly piano version of the title tune. He reassembles himself and gives his lady love Honey a little wave as the cartoon ends.

Concluding Thoughts

Audiences seeing this cartoon today, conditioned by decades of Disney-inspired "personality" animation in which we're meant to care about the characters, may find certain gags unsettling--even gruesome, as with the mouse's temporary decapitation. To audiences--and animators--of the time, however, these were merely pleasant little drawings in motion, a chance to revel in the unlimited impossibility of animation. Indeed, Disney himself once did, as in the aforementioned STEAMBOAT WILLIE, and other early Mickeys such as THE BARN DANCE. Or to be more accurate, his onetime right-hand man Ub Iwerks did; Mickey as Ub Iwerks envisioned him was more like a bratty, destructive little boy than the genial creature we've come to know. In that context, Bosko's seeming callousness is understandable--his fellow creatures are no more "real" to him than they are to us--if they're harmed, they resume their shape before long, so Bosko can go on his merry way. The artists had not yet forgotten they were making a cartoon, in which rules of propriety were meaningless. Tex Avery, then, was a throwback of sorts to those earlier days--his detached attitude toward his creations meant he could do anything to them, no matter how horrible (even "kill them off", as with Screwy Squirrel). And because we, too, felt no more for his creations than he, we let him do it--and laughed hysterically while he did it.

As already mentioned, the earliest Looney Tunes were promotional materials, in a manner of speaking--the product being the Warner Bros. music catalogue. HOLD ANYTHING in particular has a rather interesting history--its signature song is a lesser-known piece by the songwriting trio of Buddy DeSilva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, from their 1928 Broadway musical Hold Everything. Those three men, one could say, provided the musical accompaniment for the 1920s, as so many songs we now associate with the period are theirs: "Varsity Drag", "Button Up Your Overcoat", and even the unbearably maudlin (though still popular in its day) Al Jolson tune "Sonny Boy."

Conceived as a vehicle for future "Cowardly Lion" Bert Lahr, the stage musical from which this cartoon takes at least part of its inspiration is perhaps better known for the song "You're The Cream In My Coffee." It became a Vitaphone feature in 1930 with Joe E. Brown replacing Lahr (much to Lahr's anger--he particularly criticized Brown for allegedly aping his trademark mannerisms.) Only the sound elements (the original Vitaphone disks) survive today, though the film was said to have been shot in an early form of Technicolor. The cartoon that sprang from it, then, stands as the only surviving record of what could be done with that musical score.

Why Harman and Ising chose a minor song from the musical (which wasn't even used in the live-action film) as their cartoon's central theme is anybody's guess; perhaps the head office wanted the song promoted precisely because it hadn't been in the movie version. Whatever the reason, it was a perfect choice--the bouncy rhythm and cheery melody reflect the optimistic spirit the studios were trying to convey as the country sank deeper into the Great Depression. Despite the seeming gruesomeness already mentioned, there's a certain innocence (that "wide-eyed" quality Kevin and I have talked about before) that the music only enhances. It holds its own with Fleischer cartoons of the time, which were quirky in their own right--with the same cheerful disregard for logic.

The 24-year-old Friz Freleng would cut his teeth on cartoons like this--music and action are as perfectly integrated as anything he would do in years to come. In a sense, it looks forward to such Freleng cartoons as RHAPSODY IN RIVETS, in which the construction of a skyscraper proceeds in perfect sync with the score of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody. (There's even a brick-laying scene, though involving a single octopus rather than an army of tiny mice). Even in this freeform, plotless little cartoon, the Freleng sense of discipline is already evident.

Not a bad way to start off a fifty-year career.


Saturday, June 07, 2008

Orphan Toon Musings #3: Jeepers Creepers! It's...Mel??

Foreword from Your Humble Toonkeeper, Rachel Newstead:

Will Rogers said it better than I ever could: "It ain't what we don't know that hurts us--it's what we think we know that ain't so..."

The power of suggestion is an amazing thing--if we're told the same thing long enough, we begin to believe it, no matter how unlikely or implausible it is. And until just a short time ago, I'd have sworn before a Senate subcommittee that Pinto Colvig voiced the practical-joking ghost in the 1939 Bob Clampett Looney Tune JEEPERS CREEPERS. That's common knowledge, isn't it? Isn't it? I mean, who am I to disagree with every film and animation resource in the known universe?

So convinced was I that when Kevin wrote to me at 1:00 this morning suggesting otherwise, I attributed it to sleep deprivation on his part.

But now....I'm not so sure. He could be right.

Or is the power of suggestion merely pulling my mind the other way?

My communications professor in college had a term for this feeling: "cognitive dissonance." Or it could just be the cold medicine I took a few hours ago...

I won't try to make up your mind for you. Read what Kevin has to say and decide for yourself. Just don't blame the cognitive dissonance on me.

He's Not There!

By Kevin Wollenweber

Well, perhaps in the future, we should put up a full review for this cartoon, but there has always been a misconception about the ghost’s voice in the classic LOONEY TUNES cartoon, “JEEPERS CREEPERS”, starring PORKY PIG.

I’d read a post from a while back on a blog called RANDOM SEMICONSCIOUS MUSINGS (a fairly interesting blog, by the way) with all kinds of uncut classic cartoons to enjoy. The blogger, a fellow named Larry, emphatically states that the voice of the ghost in JEEPERS CREEPERS is Pinto Colvig.

While Colvig did do the occasional voice for the studio during this period, the voice of the ghost (especially when singing) is Mel Blanc, stealing Colvig’s thunder for the moment and doing the voice almost spot on.

I will go on record and say that Colvig might have been more entertaining as the voice of this ghost and would have added his own usual muttering inflections, even adding his own sound effects. Yes, you know that Pinto is on when you get that farting car noise when a character is taking off in some sort of rickety vehicle—you can hear this sound in so many of the cartoons that he took part in from his tenures with Disney and MGM as well. You know it is him doing this noise because you can hear him cough as the “voice” of the motor being choked. If you want to hear a tour de force performance by Mr. Colvig, seek out the performance as Old Doc Stork in one of my favorite MGM wartime cartoons, THE STORK’S HOLIDAY. You will hear this noise I’m referring to as well.

That Mel can almost ape a Colvig performance is truly a testament to his voice talents, but, as the saying goes, “close enough but no cigar!” If you’re in doubt, please, sit down sometime with both voices, Mel’s ghost in this cartoon and, perhaps, the voice that Colvig *DID* do for the lead character in that cartoon that featured The Hobo Jugtown Gadget Band or the voice of the lovelorn dog in another Warners toon—I’m sorry; it’s late and I forget its title right now. Only Pinto could neatly do Pinto, and I hate to see him misrepresented.

Don’t get me wrong; JEEPERS CREEPERS is a brilliant cartoon, and I like its often excised (on TV airings, anyway) ending gag as the iris closes. Hopefully, we will see it and other missing Porky cartoons on DVD real soon.

Postscript: So, is Kevin right? Well, I can only say this: I've always been able to tell when Mel does a "dumb" or "goofy" (with a small "g") voice, as it often tends toward the "Barney Rubble"-ish. To my ears, the ghost sounds closer to "Red Hot Ryder" in BUCKAROO BUGS--a classic "dumb" voice that's indisputably Mel's--than Colvig's Goofy. Indeed, as Kevin said, it's especially evident when the ghost is singing.

Judging from the comments on Larry's blog, it appears Kevin isn't the only one who disputes the accepted "facts." That's a great relief to me--I never liked suffering cognitive dissonance alone.