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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The Lion In Black and White, Part Two

Ach! Der Captain Is Having A BLUE MONDAY (1938)

Review-Synopsis by Rachel Newstead

Blue Monday
Release Date: April 2, 1938
Director: Bill Hanna
In Short: Cap's having a bad day--but when he faces off against household appliances, he learns things can be far worse...

In his entire career Bill Hanna never once put pencil to animation paper, yet for years he was considered one of the top animation directors in the business. The shelf full of Oscars in Fred Quimby's office would attest to that--he and his collaborator Joe Barbera would bring in seven of them, a total exceeded only by Walt Disney.

Yet long before he met Barbera, he'd already come close to perfecting his skills. Others may have drawn better than he, but Bill Hanna was the master of the exposure sheet, that graph-like piece of paper that times every action, every syllable of every word of dialogue, down to the single frame. As any comedian will tell you, timing is the difference between a good gag and a gut-bustingly funny one, and Hanna knew that instinctively. It did help, however, that he had two of the best teachers he could possibly ask for.

Hanna drifted into the Harman-Ising studio around 1932 as "basically a cel washer", according to an account in Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons. It was anything but easy work, but in the depths of the Depression, better than anything else available--and there wasn't much available. Eager to learn, it didn't take him long to move into other aspects of the business. As he recalled, "....I used to get in there early and sweep and wash cels. That didn't keep me busy, so I painted cels...." (Barrier 289).

He soon became the head of the inking and painting department, gradually moving from there into timing the cartoons. Hugh and Rudy had been among the first (if not the first) to use exposure sheets to synchronize sound, using a rudimentary version of them while making BOSKO THE TALK-INK KID. Hanna, who had some background in music, merely adapted that knowledge to the timing of animation (as had colleague Friz Freleng). Hanna later said:

"...and I used to get [the songs] down on bar sheets and do the timing....they had
exposure sheets, but they didn't know how to put the notes down and get the values,
like a sixteenth note, an eighth note, a quarter note...all of that, which I understood....
(Barrier, 289).

As Harman and Ising's schedule became more hectic, they gradually transferred more and more control over the timing of the cartoons over to Hanna. By the time he followed them to MGM, he was accomplished enough to direct an entire cartoon (he was the uncredited director of the 1936 Happy Harmony To Spring).

Though initially loyal to his bosses after they'd parted with Leon Schlesinger, Hanna nonetheless jumped at an opportunity to direct at the new MGM cartoon studio in 1937--along with fellow employees Carmen "Max" Maxwell and Bob Allen--while still technically in the employ of Harman and Ising. According to Barrier, he merely followed the example set by his employers: Hugh and Rudy had done the same thing while working for Disney. They were, in part, responsible for Disney's loss of his Oswald the Rabbit character to Charles Mintz; while still working for Walt, they helped Mintz set up a studio where they could make Oswald cartoons without Disney's involvement.

As a new director in a new studio, Hanna was charged with the CAPTAIN AND THE KIDS series; he was as enthusiastic about it as Freleng had been, but as we'll see, Hanna did far better than expected at that disagreeable task, giving what otherwise would have been "one-note" characters a sense of life. The characters--and even some inanimate objects--do more than move. They breathe. They think.

This is "Cap's" cartoon, all about his frustrations with the ordinary--such mundane things as putting on pants and shoes, or dealing with balky household appliances with a mind of their own. Both fate and machinery conspire against poor Cap in this cartoon--with the usual cataclysmic results. Thanks to Bill Hanna's timing, we can not only take delight in seeing it coming, but feel Cap's pain as everything--literally--comes crashing down around him.

"No buttons on der ding-busted pants!!"

As the scene opens, the Captain is engaged in his favorite pastime: sleeping. He's lying in bed, covers down and long underwear exposed, snoring away. Ah, but it's too good to last: the alarm goes off--rather loudly and violently, in fact--and for a second or two the scene shifts to Mama downstairs yelling, "Captain! It's time to get up!"

As expected, this has little effect on Cap. When the alarm rings again, he's barely aware of it, mistaking it for a telephone ("hello, hello--yah, dis is der Captain...."). He's roused out of his stupor only on the third ring--and he's not pleased. He flings the alarm clock on the floor, but (unknown to him, naturally) it lands in his pants, which are hanging on the bedpost at the foot of the bed.

Grabbing the pants and still not fully conscious, Cap methodically puts them on--one leg, then another--and pulls them up around him, only to hear the ringing of the clock from behind him. He jumps slightly and turns to his right--nothing. It rings again; this time he looks to his left--nothing. When he sits down, he jumps back up when he feels the still-ringing clock rattling around in the seat of his pants. He stumbles around with one leg in the air trying to twist the pants around and succeeds in shaking the clock out through the pant leg. Heaving a frustrated sigh, he puts on one shoe, then another, only to find that the clock has now taken residence in his left shoe. Juggling both shoe and clock in the air for a moment as the clock continues to ring, he throws the clock off-camera--or thinks he has. With an annoyed expression as we hear an off-camera crash, he goes to put his shoe on again, only to discover he's trying to put the clock on the bottom of his foot.
Above: In this series of stills, we can see how Bill Hanna's timing mines humor from the "simple" act of putting on a pair of pants--simple for anyone but Cap, that is...

Cap disgustedly tosses the clock to the floor; this time it doesn't land inside any other articles of clothing, fortunately. Since putting on his shoes didn't prove very successful, he decides to forgo that for a moment and button his suspenders. He tries once, only to have it snap back in his face; the same thing happens when it tries it again.

He quickly discovers why--the button on the waistband has fallen off. "So," he says, his temper gradually rising from "dormant volcano" to "nuclear meltdown": "no buttons on der pants!! Dot's it! Dot's all der troubles! Dot's der whole troubles! No buttons on der pants! VOT KIND OF A HOUSE IS DIS ANYVAY?! MAMA!"

As he screams, he holds up his buttonless, suspenderless pants with both hands, storming out of the room. Cut to a shot of him heading down the hallway toward the stairs, still bellowing "Mama!" At this point, he's pretty much forgotten he also has only one shoe on. (Heaven and Hanna only know where he threw the other one). He's also quite unaware that the alarm clock he threw away is right in his path--he tumbles down the stairs, creating a rising cloud of dust when he lands.

Cut to Mama at the stove in the kitchen as Cap tumbles through the kitchen door. Turning toward the half-dressed, apoplectic figure on the floor, she says, "Hmmm...good morning, Captain? Vot's der trouble?"

"'Vot's der trouble?'" he thunders back. Vot's der trouble--der WHOLE DOD-GASTED HOUSE IS DER TROUBLE! No buttons on der pants..." (he grabs a handful of buttonless pants to emphasize his point). He's so beside himself he sputters almost incomprehensibly, gesturing in the air: "Der clock...and den...NO BUTTONS ON DER PANTS! Der window and der... and de..de..NO BUTTONS ON DER DING-BUSTED PANTS!"

Slamming his fists down on the table (only slightly disturbing the pancakes Hans is absorbed in eating) Cap says, "Vot kind of a house is you running anyvay? Slamming his fist down again--which deposits Hans' pancakes on top of Cap's head--he screams, "Vot kind of a housekeeper is you? I-I-I was...the clock...d-d-d-...he babbles as Hans merely continues to eat his pancakes from the top of Cap's head. (Obviously a child for whom these morning tirades are as much a part of the morning routine as brushing his teeth).

Hans stuffs several of the pancakes in Cap's mouth, but that doesn't silence him--it doesn't even slow him down: he continues to unintelligibly mutter and fume as he raises his fists in the air (which, of course, sends his pants down to his ankles).

Cut to the front doorway as Mama hands the kids their school books and shoos them out the door: "Come, come, kiddies, qvick, qvick, off to der school...and remember, good mit divisions!" (I've played this line three times and that's what it sounds like to me...maybe Kevin can come to the rescue again). She swells her chest as she prepares to really let Cap have it.

But Cap isn't ready to listen to anything. "Dot's der last straw!" he rages. "No buttons on der pants...." <he pauses only a moment to pull his buttonless pants back up> "Vot kind of a housekeeper is you? Vot kind of a house is you running anyvay?"

For Mama, them's fightin' words. Cut to Mama standing face-to-face with Cap as she jabs him in the chest. "Well, 'Mr. Wisenheimer', if YOU don't like der way I'm running the house, den YOU run it!" she yells back, jabbing his bulbous nose for emphasis. She then shoves a broom into his hands, plops a dusting cap on his head, and throws her apron on top of that before she stalks out of the room.

To the sound of military music on the sound track, the Captain stalks after her, broom in hand; marching to the front door, he yells after her, "Vell all right! I VILL run it!!" Slamming the door, he shatters the window, sending shards of glass everywhere (that should give you an idea of the catastrophe to come).

Cut to a view of Mama on the sidewalk through the broken window: "And remember, vise guy...dis is der vash day!" Cap merely pulls the shade down and growls. "By Jiminy, I show her how to run der dod-spotted house!" he remarks as he marches toward the staircase. Calling upstairs, he yells, "Inspector! Inspector!"

We hear Cap speaking as we fade in to a shot of him and the Inspector standing in the upstairs hallway. He's handing the Inspector a number of cleaning implements. "Yah, dot's vot I said!" Cap tells him. "Today I'm running der house! So get busy!" (Well, he knows how to "delegate", that's for sure). Cap snaps into a stiff military pose and leaves the poor Inspector to his task, heading back downstairs. (Note: the vacuum cleaner in the background near the railing already looks as if it has a human face--anyone care to wager on the likelihood of its devouring the poor little Inspector? I'm laying even money.)

The Inspector timidly inspects the vacuum cord--as if he's not quite sure what to do with it--and plugs it into the wall. The machine, easily twice his size, immediately starts up and creeps toward him, sucking up every object in its path (including a feather duster lying in front of it, and a good portion of the rug). Cut to a medium side view of the Inspector and the demon machine as it edges toward him--he nervously kicks it, hoping that'll stop it. No such luck. He backs away slowly, then breaks into a run as the vacuum goes on the loose. Unfortunately, his avenue of escape is blocked by a wall.

Now the insane machine tries to suck the beard off the Inspector's face, followed by his shoe. Cut to a shot from the vacuum's point of view as the Inspector continues to stand with his back toward the wall. Everywhere he tries to go, the homicidal vacuum follows. It grabs ahold of his beard again: the Inspector frees that, only to lose both his shoes. Thinking a peace offering might help, he presents the vacuum with a bouquet of flowers from a nearby vase (I love this bit, incidentally--it shows just how simple-minded the Inspector is). It does no good--it merely sucks that up along with everything else--and almost takes the Inspector's arm with it. The same goes for the vase the little guy desperately offers--and the umbrella. (Do I sense a pattern developing?) Not content with those mere trifles, it next goes after the Inspector's coat--the Inspector runs frantically in place trying to get out of its grasp. He pulls free--for the moment--and stands in the corner panting heavily as we fade to...

...the washing machine downstairs, putting away to the "Irish Washer Woman's Jig" (it looks like one of the earliest electric models popular at the time, essentially an open tub with a wringer). Quite obviously Cap's handiwork, since various articles of clothing are spilling out from underneath the closed lid. (It wouldn't surprise me if he sat on it to get it closed, as with an overstuffed suitcase.)

Speaking of "overstuffed," our self-satisfied Captain stands proudly with his hands on his hips, remarking "By Golly! Dot's what I call 'housecleaning'!" (I had a few words in mind, too, but not that). Cut to a shot of Cap walking over to the sink. There are enough dishes for two families in the sink, and Cap's going to stack every single one of them in one neat little pile--tower, really--while he turns on the water. It's not quite so easy, though, as the massive stack stubbornly refuses to stay put, threatening to topple over at any second. Keeping one hand on the quivering, ceiling-high stack of plates, he quickly turns on the water with the other. Once accomplished, that hand zips back to add reinforcement to the Leaning Tower Of Dishes. There's only one tiny little matter Cap forgot, though--the soap.

Steadying the dishes with one hand again, Cap slowly inches along the counter toward the soap flakes, never once letting go of the tottering stack. He's actually successful, grabbing the box with one quick swiping motion. He shakes the box to see how full it is, for a split second letting go of the pile; his hand zips back in place just as the dishes are about to fall on his head. He's neglected to shut off the still-running water, though, and as he shakes the box a second time, the sink overflows onto the floor.

Before he can stem the rushing tide, though, we hear a pounding at the door and briefly cut to a hand knocking from the outside. Cut back to Cap, one hand still on the dishes, and spilling enough water on the floor to float the Ark. "Vait a minute!" he yells.

As if there weren't enough calamities already, we cut to a shot of the wall phone ringing. The pounding at the door continues--and Cap still hasn't shut off the water. "Vait...hold der...vait!" the now very flustered Captain yells again. Shaking the box of soap (which only succeeds in getting flakes all over the floor--there's so much water anyway, he might as well wash the dishes there) he absently moves his other hand off the dishes so he can better struggle with the box. Unfortunately, he happens to stick his foot in a nearby mousetrap. Naturally, when he grabs his foot in pain, he lets go of the dishes, and every single dish breaks over Cap's head--except one. Throwing aside the trap in frustration, he grabs for the one unbroken dish left in the house and angrily decides to smash it, too. But there's a reason it won't break--it's metal. When he throws it down, it simply bounces off the floor and hits him in the face.

Figuring that throwing it might produce better results, he flings it in the air; but like a proto-Frisbee, it does a U-turn near the ceiling and hits poor Cap in the head before he can get up from the waterlogged floor. Picking it up, he throws it toward the one place he figures it won't come back--through the kitchen window. Of course, he smashes even more glass in the process.

That proved no more successful than the first effort, as it comes back again to hit him in the head. As he lies on his stomach on the floor, he fails to notice his loose suspenders are getting caught in the washing machine's wringer. As he watches the stubborn plate clatter on the floor in front of him, he realizes his clothes are snagged. He tries to make a run for it, but once the suspenders stretch to their absolute limit, he can only helplessly run in place on a throw rug before being dragged back to the continually chugging machine.

He makes a break for it again, thinking he can get some leverage this time. He lunges for a nearby china cabinet, grabbing every available drawer. Every single one gets pulled out as he frantically grabs for them. Next trying the cupboard portion of the cabinet, he grabs ahold of the very bottom shelf, but only manages to bring the contents (as well as the entire cupboard) down on him.

His suspenders snap back, slamming into the washing machine and spilling out its contents--pants, socks, and unmentionables fall on him like rain. The machine then decides to exact its revenge on Cap for abusing it, and grabs him with the plunger mechanisms (used to beat the dirt out of the clothes). With both plungers stuck to the top of his head, he gets bounced up and down several times and knocked around before freeing himself from the machine's clutches. But it's not quite through with him--one of the plungers grabs ahold of his massive rear end and flings him around, upside down, like a rag doll. "Inspector! Inspector!" he screams.

Ah, yes, the Inspector--we forgot about him, didn't we? He's still upstairs, tussling with the vacuum. And by all appearances, losing: he's down to his underwear by now, and the infernal thing won't quit. He's still struggling to keep his beard from being sucked in. He fails--not only does his beard get sucked in, so does the rest of him (I'd like to know who manufactured that thing--it sort of makes the Oreck vacuum look pathetic).

Cut to a view of the vacuum "looking" down on the poor Captain in the kitchen through a grate in the upper floor. It's apparently no more pleased with him than the washing machine was, since it starts sucking up every item of clothing the washing machine had scattered about--then eventually Cap as the suction attracts his suspenders. Fortunately, the ceiling acts as a barrier. But Cap, not willing to leave "bad enough" alone, pushes on on the ceiling to free the suspenders, which have been sucked up through the grate--and pulls down not only the vacuum, but most of the second floor.

Wait, it gets worse. (As impossible as it may seem). The vacuum--which like any demonic being, is apparently immortal--still runs, and it's landed right smack into the tub of the washing machine. With, of course, the predictable result--it sucks up every drop of the water, its bag expanding to the size of a weather balloon before it bursts.

Pieces of clothing and what used to be furniture drop down right in front of the camera. The finally-expired vacuum hangs suspended from some undetermined object up above that miraculously escaped the damage. When the hail of debris clears, the camera pans around the perimeter of what used to be the kitchen--it now looks like it could qualify for Federal disaster aid. And in the doorway, hands on hips, is Mama.

"Vell, Captain," she says. "Just vot kind of a house is YOU running?" Cap, who'd been blown by the explosion into the oven (his head poking up through the range top) can only blubber "No buttons on der ding-busted pants..." The Inspector, sitting on top of the stove next to him, dabs Cap's eyes with his beard--but when Cap tries to blow his nose on it, he quickly yanks it away as we gratefully exit this pathetic scene.

I suppose they can look on the bright side--they'll get maid service at the hotel they're going to have to stay in until the house gets rebuilt. And if Mama is smart, she'll insist the Captain buy a belt before she lets him back in the place.


As we've already seen, for most of the animators, the first two years of the MGM animation studio were an insecure, uncertain, tense period best left forgotten. Shakeups in management and conflict between contentious New York and California factions (each with their own vision of what the studio's creative direction should be) threatened to bring down the fledgling studio before it had a chance to really begin.

For Bill Hanna, on the other hand, it was a training period, a chance for him to learn how to make truly funny cartoons. His mentors Harman and Ising had never been laugh-out-loud funny, but he would make good use of what he learned from them--and his work would reach stellar heights once teamed with a born gag man like Joe Barbera.

Where Milt Gross got laughs out of things larger--and sillier--than life, Hanna (much like Chuck Jones at Warner's) would glean them from the subtle and the seemingly insignificant. Certain segments in this cartoon take an unusually long amount of time. The opening scenes in which Cap fumbles with his alarm clock, then finds himself fighting with it as he tries to put on his pants, then his shoes, then his suspenders, take well over two minutes. It didn't seem that long to me, since I was too engrossed in this poor fellow's plight. We've all had days we wish we could live over, days which, despite all efforts, just go completely wrong. The sequence works because it's just exaggerated enough to be funny, and just real enough for us to relate to it. Just watching the contortions Cap puts his enormous body through is funny enough.

It takes a skilled comedian to get laughs from a mute character, and Hanna did an extraordinary job with the Inspector, normally a very nondescript personality. He seems childlike here (though his size certainly contributes to that) almost a Laurel to the Captain's Hardy. (I could easily imagine Stan Laurel doing something along the lines of the "flower" routine with the runaway vacuum cleaner). Here, one can easily see the genesis of the sort of gags we normally associate with two other characters (also mute) that would later gain Bill Hanna fame--Tom and Jerry.

When the great Tex Avery finally arrived, and the direction of the studio veered back toward the larger and the more outrageous, Hanna was able to adjust to the new sensibility, yet retain the subtlety of timing in certain scenes that made you believe his characters were able to think. HEAVENLY PUSS comes to mind--the scene in which Tom is desperately trying to secure Jerry's forgiveness at the last minute is classic because it's almost Avery-like in its exaggeration, but subtle enough for genuine emotion to show through. Done too fast, the emotions in the facial expressions wouldn't have read; too slow, and the sense of "cartoony" exaggeration would have been lost.

Viewed from the perspective of one who's seen more than 50 years' worth of TV sitcoms, the "men take over the housecleaning chores" plot really seems like the most overused, contrived situation imaginable--and it was probably hackneyed even in 1938. But Hanna takes that old plot into new areas of absurdity; the damage Cap does to Mama's house makes what Ricky Ricardo and Fred Mertz do to Lucy's kitchen (burying it in a virtual tidal wave of rice) seem almost almost normal. Yet as absurd as it is, it comes across as the logical consequence of the Captain's windy pomposity, because we got to "know" him at the beginning. And we got to know him because Bill Hanna gave us just the right amount of time to do it.


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