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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 clich├ęs 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.


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