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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Orphan Toon Musings 6: "Beware Of Animated People"


By Kevin Wollenweber

Upon reading and re-reading Rachel’s addendum(?) to my review from mere memory of Hugh Harmon’s “THE ALLEY CAT” (nice, job, Rachel, and thanks for going through the trouble of pointing out all those quick bits of visual that I had missed!), I was thinking of how else that both the HAPPY HARMONIES series and the cartoons that Hugh and Rudy had done for MGM upon their return had, at times, focused upon gags and visual instead of just making a “video” of a then popular song. While the best of anything done by Harmon and Ising had come from the first Warner Brothers animated series, LOONEY TUNES or MERRIE MELODIES, specifically because the cartoons were great musical fun, there were HAPPY HARMONIES efforts, aside from Hugh Harmon’s BOSKO, that had almost nonstop action sequences that went far beyond the musical element that the series title would suggest. Okay, we’re not talking action of Tex Avery or Robert Clampett proportions, but it is action, nonetheless, and, to my mind, these bits and pieces made their respective cartoons watchable and enjoyable and, yes, even exciting.

How often have I ruminated on how a cartoon like “CIRCUS DAZE” would be still shown today if Ising’s Two Pups (who were never given names) were the stars instead of Bosko? Oh, I’m still as big a fan of the MGM Bosko cartoons--as we’ve both said we are--but there are times when one cannot help but wonder why Hugh took an agreeable character like Bosko and turned him into a black stereotype. He did give li’l ol’ Bosko an appealing kid’s voice for the grand finale, the much beloved Bosko “trilogy” (and we’ll both talk further about the remaining entries in that series within a series soon enough) but it was a perfect addition given to the characterization of Bosko, done too late. It was unfortunately part of Bosko’s swan song!

In each of their cartoons, “TWO LITTLE PUPS”, “PUPS’ PICNIC”, “PUPS’ CHRISTMAS” and “WAYWARD PUPS”, we follow these pups as they are lured away, by their own mischievous curiosities, from their human owner, usually a long-legged woman who also remained nameless and characterless (except that she was a stunning bit of animation to watch) and into some sort of pseudo-adventure. In one of my favorites, the pups, on an outing with the human family, oddly dressed to the nines instead of dressed down to go on a picnic as we’d do today, wander away from the picnic grounds after the female human admonishes one of the pups for sniffing around the food before lunchtime. As she pats the one considered such an angel, the cute little innocent sneaks a whole sandwich in one loud gulp before they both scamper away, only to hear the distant barking of hounds and rushing horses, carrying a band of fox hunters who come crashing through the scene. Forgive my naiveté, but I’m not aware of any picnic area so close to spots were hunting is freely allowed. This family must love to live dangerously!!

The remainder of the cartoon is taken up with the pups getting embroiled in the chase. The hounds chase after the fox, the fox enjoys terrorizing the two pups and the battle of wits is on as some of the dogs clearly don’t like the two pups spoiling their fun. There are nice uses of music throughout this toon here, although I’d need a good music historian to identify some of the more familiar bits of music that appear on occasion throughout this cartoon. While I like the debut cartoon in the TWO PUPS series, the self-titled one created in 1935--in which the thin premise of the cartoon is just following the pups as they decide to stop their tug of war with a sock that they stole from a clothesline long enough to go chasing and scaring the feathers off a hen--I like “PUPS’ PICNIC” because there is more of a nicely padded lead-in to the action, and a nice end gag. One that actually ended up in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, a very early YOGI BEAR in which a picnicking family end up with Yogi riding in the trunk--unbeknownst to the family, whose kid has become attached to the bear playing cowboy and continuously shouting nothing more than “bang bang bang bang bang!”

In “PUPS’ PICNIC”, though, the pups, angrily called to get in the car as the cartoon closes, sit barking at something hanging off the back of the vehicle and, as the camera lets us know, the fox had escaped the bullets and left the hunting and camping grounds for more “civilized” surroundings, lounging on the rear of the car as the family drives off back home.

Another favorite from this series is “WAYWARD PUPS”, perhaps the first cartoon that introduces us to a cat with a scratchy voice similar to that of the protagonist in the cartoon we both reviewed previously. It opens with the pups, playing with a balloon they had found, until they annoy the cat who begins berating the pups: “Hey, what’s goin’ on here?...Little hoodlums!” (NOTE: the rest of this dialogue, where I left the ellipsis, is unfortunately sooo garbled by this squawking voice that I can’t make it out, but the cat is mad!) As the cat says his last bit of dialogue, he backs up too far and into the balloon which bursts, scaring him into leaping into the air and rushing through the rooms of the house, breaking dishes and other valuables and finally crashing in a heap in the middle of the mess. He then hears the voice of his mistress “Hey, what’s going on in here? If there’s anything broken in here, I’ll…” The cat hears this and runs off, but the curious pups start sniffing around the kitchen and, sure enough, the door to the kitchen opens up and guess who Madam finds amid the broken relics?

The pups are put out angrily by the woman for the night for doing what she thinks they did, as the cat gleams out the window at them, snickering “Well, tough guys, eh? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!” As if the cat’s smug laughter prompts all things evil in the night, the wind starts blowing and the pups are suddenly aware that they are out in the cold and, while still remaining curious, they also realize how alone they suddenly are, sniffing around the neighborhood to see where they can crawl in for the night. This search brings them to the junkyard and a truly ugly bulldog, mud caked to his jowls and chewing on a bone. Not letting anything stop the curious pups, though, one of them starts a tug of war with the dog and his bone until the bulldog pulls himself up on his four legs, revealing that he’s chained to his house. He suddenly begins roaring with a growl that is actually the roar of the then current MGM lion, and the battle of wits and chase that lasts throughout the rest of the cartoon is underway!! I must say that, in this cartoon, there are some nice moments that show how ominous the night and urban setting must seem to these little creatures.

As the bulldog starts chasing the pups through the streets, doghouse bouncing and bumping along beside them, all go rushing out into oncoming traffic and it really looks as out of control as one might have seen in an older Max Fleischer BETTY BOOP cartoon called “MORE PEP”. Pudgy gets this adrenalin-inducing formula that sends him rushing about and performing more acrobatic tricks per second than any of us could do in a day! The Substance somehow gets away from the safety of its laboratory and wafts out over all of Manhattan, where every living creature throughout the city landscape starts rushing around at top speed!! What Harman and Ising had tried to do at times was lend a sense of realism to their cartoons, occasionally letting their animators run wild despite some or many inconsistencies. But there were always some nice hints of regular cartoon fun amid the impressions of life that seemed alarmingly real, sometimes, as Rachel and I have pointed out in the past, at the expense of what could have been some wilder comedy. Yes, this is one of those Harman/Ising efforts in which the accurate realism is jarringly put in with the more rubbery and strictly toon-oriented; note the running gag in which a clown-like dog-catcher tries to scoop the little pups up with a very small net. The only thing that truly makes him as ominous as the night into which the pups are thrown is his somewhat evil laughter, kind of like these imagined specters that would be scaring the OUR GANG kids just for the fun of it in some of the more outlandish Hal Roach shorts of the early-to-mid 1930’s.

Imagine, for example, if Harman & Ising did use some live action footage to augment the escalating comedy in any of the cartoons that seemed to squeeze as much out of one gag as it could, like “CIRCUS DAZE” in which real stunt folks and comedians could have been featured to show that the fleas perhaps invaded the surrounding community?

This brings me to animated people. Yes, these beings did permeate some live action films between the mid-1930’s through the 1960’s (think of some of the OUR GANG comedies to which I’m always giving honorable mention, or the live action comedies of Frank Tashlin who was said to direct his cartoons like live action and his live action like cartoons). Yet, as I was suddenly made aware of a new or forthcoming series of DVD compilations of old classic TV commercials, I was reminded of how many “animated people” lept about, jumped and rushed through these.

“What”, you may ask, “are animated people?” Well, they are those who are either filmed in stop motion or whose images are air-brushed so that they seem so unreal and cartoon-like. The term was coined from an old GUMBY short by Art Clokey in which Mr. Clokey and, perhaps, a female companion were seen out on a picnic with odd things happening to them as they tried to enjoy their meal, like a lawn mower run amuck and nearly flattening Mr. Clokey…or at least that is how I remember it, with Pokey looking at the audience at the close of the film and warning “beware of animated people.”

But these silly little beings were numerous and, at times, intentionally or unintentionally very, very funny! They were their funniest when in commercials of the early-to-mid 1960’s and even beyond.

Some of my favorites of these “lost” bits of either stop motion animation or “altered photography”, the earliest special effect brought to my attention, utilizing the “talents” of live action people almost coming frighteningly close to imitating the antics of cartoon characters, included an ad for Mazola Corn Oil in which the “point” (ouch) to be made was “what if you, yourself, had to gather up all the good ingredients in this product? You’d be really tired!” We follow one woman as she walks briskly, with the “help” of what was once known as “undercranked” photography down street after street after street, seen mostly from the waist down, as the announcer asks the all-important question posed above. Even the props in this thing are wackily large, like ears of corn neatly standing in rows as if the woman were instead edging her shopping cart down supermarket aisles.

In perfect cartoonish timing, she scoops up the very large stalks and tosses them into her basket and continues, after a gesture that lets us know this was quite an effort, on and on gathering whatever else from the trees and surrounding areas, with the speed and accuracy of a lawn mower buzzing off row after row of overgrown grass. She gets back home, kicks off her high heels and falls in a heep on the living room recliner as if that is all the energy she’ll expend today. So when do we see the product? Well, I think it appeared in the corner of the screen as our shopper is seen finally whiping her brow with that perfectly comical look of exaggerated relief that only a great cartoon character can give to display exhaustion. That was the ad, nonstop rushing here and there at top speed and very little time at all focusing upon the actual product and just what it has that would save this poor woman so much time.

Another favorite was the Scope ad of the early 1970’s, or so it seemed, in which a very tired-looking woman is slowly going to her bathroom cabinet to freshen her breath. She opens the bottle of this product, takes a sip to gargle and, WOW!! Her eyes begin to flash, her hair stands up on her head and she’s suddenly transformed for the day…into what? Who cares? The ad made Scope seem like this sudden wonder drug that picks you up as it freshens your breath!! I always thought this was the funniest ad I’ve ever seen, and I’m so sorry that no one in the history of Saturday morning or classic filmmaking would create a series that did a lot of this kind of wild visual stuff.

Oh, there have been films, as I pointed out, from Frank Tashlin, and some of the screwball comedies, that had cartoonish humor. I seem to remember films like “WHO’S MINDING THE STORE” with Jerry Lewis and bits and pieces of “WHAT A WAY TO GO”. I’m sure there were other such titles, but maybe a full-length motion picture is a bit much to use this sort of cartoonishness invading the live action world without the intrusion of that live action world; yes, I’m talking an actual physical live action cartoon! One could attempt to do this more as a series of short subjects. I’m dimly recalling one such short film that was part of a larger program in which two neighbors start a fight, with one trying to stomp the other into the ground—yes, one of the actors really looks as if he is being stomped into the ground until nothing of him is left visible but his head with an astonished look on its middle American face!!

Oh, I know about CGI films like the “UNDERDOG” movie and all that, but I’m looking for surrealism, not necessarily just kid-friendly stuff, and the only place I’d really seen this kind of strange stuff is on commercials. And, yes, I do recall Hanna-Barbera’s “BANANA SPLITS” live segments, but these don’t really count since the “animated people” were just disguised as cartoon characters, not really literally timing their comedy as if they WERE cartoon characters.

Well, the point of this “rant” is that I might pick up those disks with classic commercials. I’d already bought the Thunderbean disk that featured some of the great classic animated commercials, some of these being the Jay Ward variety. I just wanted to point out that there are ads, perhaps done around the same time and even inspired by those animated cartoons or comedies of old that are like live action “comic strips” featuring some of the wildest animated people on earth. I don’t think any of them went on to become celebrities in their own movies or TV series, but the ads will always make their faces and/or legs or any other part of their anatomy memorable to us all.


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