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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.


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