Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Shark Film Office Special Edition: The Wreck of the Hesperus (1944)

[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with another of my websites, The Shark Film Office, about cartoons that feature sharks in them. You can read the reviews on either site, but please do visit the other one if you like the content I have to offer.]

The Wreck of the Hesperus (1944)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
TC4P Rating: 6/9
Species: cartoon sharks, a small but very hungry pack of them.

Sharks versus Mighty Mouse? Say it IS so! It is!

The 1944 short, The Wreck of the Hesperus, was the eighth Mighty Mouse short churned out by the Terrytoons studio from October of 1942 through December of 1961. When I say "churned out," I mean it; they knocked out eighty of these babies in that span. [OK, technically, the first 77 were released theatrically through 1954, and the final three were completed later in the decade for television, but that means they crammed even more Mighty Mouse into a still smaller time frame. That can be either more impressive or sad, take your pick. I choose to go with "they kept animators employed and there was a market at the time".]

Surprisingly enough, The Wreck of the Hesperus was the first of the series in which the lead hero is finally named Mighty Mouse, having been called Super Mouse from the very beginning. [TV prints of six of the first seven films, excluding The Lion and the Mouse, were voice-dubbed over so that the Mighty Mouse name appears instead.]

What you won't find in this film is the what would be considered the classic Mighty Mouse costume: a yellow suit, a red cape with matching boots and shorts, and his tiny hands clad in white gloves. That wouldn't be in place until the fifteenth film, The Sultan's Birthday, and until then Super/Mighty Mouse's costume leapt all over from film to film as much as the mouse did. In this film, the colors are almost a dead-on match for Superman's famous colors: the red cape, boots and shorts are in place, as are the white gloves, but the rest of the suit is blue with a yellow belt.

As the title would tip one off were one poetically intrigued, the film is an adaption of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous 1842 poem, which once served as a standard in English classes (it was for me), which tells the tale of a rather horrid tragedy at sea. Caught in a furious storm, the captain of a ship lashes his daughter to the mast so that she won't be tossed overboard to perish in the ocean. (Such things did occur, as this poem is most likely based on a couple of real life incidents.) But the storm is so terrible that the captain freezes to death at the wheel of his own ship, and the craft is eventually smashed to pieces in the tempest. Later, the daughter's body is found washed ashore, still tied to the mast.

Death and destruction, gore and mayhem... Happy fun times for a cartoon featuring a super-powered mouse, say I!

Naturally, members of the Terrytoons staff remembered the epic tragedy and felt it was a perfect opportunity for their Mighty Mouse character to swoop in majestically and, ahem, turn the tide, as it were. I do not know what inclination led them towards attempting to adapt a classical poem, but it seems clear from examining the evidence of the seven preceding films in the series that they were trying almost anything they could to instill some life into this still nascent but rather unformed series.

The primary problem with the series early on (and some would say throughout its run) lie in its basic structure. Let's say you establish a Mighty Mouse story with a running time of around six minutes. The first minute or so introduces the setting (often a small town or village) and how happy the protagonists – generally, mice, cute beyond measure – are in this situation. The next minute sets up the antagonists – most often a gang of ravenous or just plain bullying cats – and how rotten things have turned for the mice since the cats arrived. The next two minutes show the battle between the mice and the cats, or whatever sides have been taken in that particular episode, which usually leads up to a moment of extreme tension where the deus ex machina is introduced, here given form in the zero personality form of the early version of Mighty Mouse.

This was exactly the problem with the bulk of the early Mighty Mouse shorts: their hero. In some ways, it is the exact same problem with Superman: he is just too relentlessly powerful and godlike. When Mighty Mouse comes to save the day, it is a foregone conclusion that we won't learn much more about him, of course, since he arrives so late in the cartoon that there is time for little else but the proper heroics to correct that episode's jam. From film to film in the early going, we know nothing about Mighty except that he is immensely strong, is invulnerable to almost anything, and (especially early on) can shoot electric sparks from his fingertips which sometimes make him appear as if he can manipulate objects or persons. There are no real (or even facile) attempts at character development, and hardly any dialogue on his part; Mighty rarely speaks a word to anyone, and he doesn't trade quips back and forth with the villains.

This would all change later in the series when the direction turned to its more fondly remembered operetta form, which featured later regulars, Mighty's sweetheart Pearl Pureheart and his main nemesis, Oil-Can Harry, These were the shorts where everyone – including Mighty Mouse – sang the bulk of their lines. In the first such example, A Fight to the Finish (1947), the cartoon opened up as if it were a middle chapter of a long-running serial, with a cliffhanger where Mighty and Pearl are in peril, and then as the story veers towards another cliffhanger near its end, the narrator displays impatience and has Mighty sum up the action right away so we aren't left hanging. Mighty also starts to be seen earlier in other cartoons in the series around this time, such as in the Swiss Cheese Family Robinson, where he is seen catching some rays on the beach at the beginning, and then the story unfolds until he is eventually summoned to the rescue by a message in a bottle. While these shorts are far more fun, such changes come around the halfway mark in the series.

This early on, however, Mighty is pretty much just a small guy who comes in near the end of a cartoon to beat up on some bigger, meaner guys and make the kids in the audience feel like someone has their back. He is short on character but long in power. Unfortunately, the violent displays of action in the back third of most of the cartoons don't nearly make up for the rather routine set-ups in the front two-thirds. I say "most of the cartoons," because of course there are examples where Terrytoons was trying a bit harder. The Wreck of the Hesperus is clearly one of those attempts.

Surprisingly, the cartoon remains fairly consistent with the tone of Longfellow's poem for its few couple of minutes, and actually uses ten of its first eleven stanzas in setting up the story. (There are 22 stanzas in total in the poem; of the cruel fate of the second eleven of them, we shall speak in a while.)

The action begins with a ship sailing amongst icebergs, and the first stanza describes exactly what we see:

It was the schooner Hesperus, 
      That sailed the wintry sea; 
And the skipper had taken his little daughter, 
      To bear him company.

This is the first time in the Mighty Mouse series where those needing rescue are human beings and not mice (though there are mice on the ship who get some screentime and will eventually be rescued, they are not the primary focus for once). Instead, we get a normal-sized sailing vessel upon which we meet, in turn, its three passengers. The second stanza of the poem is skipped in this case, the one in which the daughter's eyes, cheeks, and bosom are described, and instead we get a visual of a pencil-thin blonde with a kewpie doll's head far too large for her body to support it. The wind blows her skirt up so her white bloomers are revealed, and she sits down as the her father is introduced...

The skipper he stood beside the helm, 
      His pipe was in his mouth, 
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow 
      The smoke now West, now South.

Indeed, the wind does change direction, and the smoke from his pipe blows ahead of him as announced in the poem. From high up in the crow's nest, we are introduced to the third human character...

Then up and spake an old Sailor, 
      Had sailed to the Spanish Main, 
"I pray thee, put into yonder port, 
      For I fear a hurricane.

As he spies the horizon far ahead, he rushes down the mast to rush the wheel and tell the skipper of their bad fortune. He is clad all in blue, with a sailor's cap and a peg leg. The old sailor continues as we are shown first the face of the man in the moon in the sky, and then the moon in an eclipse, as if someone has pulled the blinds on it...

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring, 
      And to-night no moon we see!" 
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe, 
      And a scornful laugh laughed he.

In the sky above, the clouds form into a huge figure with a frosty beard and hair that blows cold air down upon the sea...

Colder and louder blew the wind, 
      A gale from the Northeast, 
The snow fell hissing in the brine, 
      And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain 
      The vessel in its strength; 
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed, 
      Then leaped her cable's length.

The ship is tossed about in the ocean, as it climbs one mountainous wave after another. The skipper, fearing the worst, tries to rush his daughter to the only safety that he can envision for her...

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughter, 
      And do not tremble so; 
For I can weather the roughest gale 
      That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat 
      Against the stinging blast; 
He cut a rope from a broken spar, 
      And bound her to the mast.

A buoy is show bouncing in the waves, its bell clanging while the storm rages about it. The daughter, who seems to have come somewhat loose from the seaman's coat her father bound her in seconds ago so that her upper torso, rather lightly clad, juts forward from the ropes that bind her, cups a hand to her comely ear and asks in her innocent confusion...

"O father! I hear the church-bells ring, 
      Oh say, what may it be?" 
"'T is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!" — 
      And he steered for the open sea.

The skipper veers the ship through iceberg after iceberg in an overhead shot. The nautical figurehead on the bow of the ship, which is itself the model of a very lovely but scantily clad woman, comes to life momentarily and reaches through a porthole at the bow and pulls out a fur wrap to keep herself warm. On the deck, as the skipper steers, the wheel comes loose and spins away. When he tries to recapture the wheel, a rogue wave sends him running back along the deck. It throws him against a mast and then upwards, where he hits his head on a bell, and then he drops back down to the deck unconscious.

Somehow, far below on the sea floor, an octopus manages to see this and laughs in time with the music on the soundtrack. He then rushes into a cave and brings out a tablecloth that he lays down on a large table. He zips back to the cave and comes out with eight plates. Three large sharks arrive at the table to see the plates laid out and lick their lips (well, if they had lips). The sharks are seen breaching and leaping after the ship, whose sails are now tattered and torn from the storm's attack.

Onboard, mice inside the ship are sent scurrying. Two sit atop a box of doughnuts and hand them out to mouse after mouse, for use as inner tubes in the water. Each mouse floats away and then out through the porthole at the bow and into the ocean. The ship is now almost entirely submerged by this point. The daughter, still lashed to the mast, sticks up out of the ocean and watches as the three sharks chase her father round and round through the water. The daughter then speaks one of the more famous lines, which most often is considered to refer to the sound of the storm-driven waves beating against the shoreline...

"O father! I hear the sound of guns...!"

The skipper and the sharks continue their furious pace, spinning about and about in a tight circle at her feet, as there are no such sounds to be heard. But the daughter, craving attention for her next big line in the poem, pleads in an overly dramatic voice to her father again...

"O father! I hear the sound of guns...!"

This time, at her continued insistence, the skipper and the sharks stop cold in the water, all four of them staring at her in a very concerned manner to her words...

      Oh say, what may it be?"

She points behind them as she asks this, so the skipper and the sharks all turn their heads to look and the skipper says...

"Some ship in distress, that cannot live 
      In such an angry sea!"

It is interesting to note that at this point, the cartoon skips the next six stanzas. Had they continued on with the tale as told by Longfellow, the daughter would have then asked a third question, and then the story would turn truly morbid: "O father! I see a gleaming light/Oh say, what may it be?"/But the father answered never a word/A frozen corpse was he. The poem's next few stanzas then go on to describe in greater detail just how frozen a corpse the father/skipper now is, and then the daughter's subsequent praying and vision of Christ, who stilled the wave/On the Lake of Galilee. Then the ship's journey towards its doom amongst the rocks at the reef of Norman's Woe is recounted. But the cartoon leaps ahead of this morbidity to instead set up its reason for even being made.

Following the skipper's second response to his daughter, he and the sharks pick up their previous chase, round and round in endless circles, and the storm rages onward. We are then shown a lighthouse surrounded by rocks, where three of the mice riding on the life-saving doughnuts crash hard onto the base of the lighthouse. A mice comes out of the lighthouse bearing a lantern and they tell him about their plight. The light-mouse (see what I did there?) runs inside, though fighting hard against the winds, and rushes up to the top to turn the tower's lantern towards the shipwreck. The wind blows the beam of light backward, but the beam, with what looks like fingers at the front edge of its light, pulls itself forward to land on the ship flailing against the waves and the rocks. 

The narrator picks up the poem again far down the line in its eighteenth verse, somewhat changing the meaning to focus on the beam from the lighthouse hitting the wreck, rather than on the ship crashing to its death.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves 
      Looked soft as carded wool...

At this point, in the middle of this stanza, the story (and the narrator) gives up the verse of the poem entirely. The next line, But the cruel rocks, they gored her side/Like the horns of an angry bull, is discarded in favor of a newly invented line that introduces the cartoon's hero instead...

But the maiden's plight, called for a knight
      Fearless and powerful!

The skipper climbs up the mast to where his daughter is still suspended by her bonds, as the hungry trio of sharks leaps underneath them, each ferocious leap edging them nearer to the doomed pair. Back at the lighthouse, the light-mouse watches everything through a telescope. The mouse is visibly upset by what he sees and starts to spin in place. As he stops his spin, he has changed from a plain brown mouse wearing no clothing at all to a more familiar black-furred mouse wearing the Superman-style outfit I described earlier. As he does, the narrator shouts on the soundtrack...

This... is a job for... MIGHTY MOUSE!!!

After the attendant fanfare, the nigh unstoppable Mighty Mouse zooms towards the beleaguered ship, blasting his way without pause through wave after thunderous wave. The sharks loom dangerously close to the skipper and his daughter, with one shark finally deciding that leaping is not doing the trick, so he starts to shimmy up the mast towards them with his pectoral fins wrapped about the pole. But Mighty Mouse arrives in the nick of time (as he tends to do) and punches each shark powerfully on their noses, one after the other. He then flies fast enough around the fish to create a bright red contrail that picks up a full half dozen sharks in his wake, as if they were hooked by the mouths on a fishing line. He flies with his catch up into the sky, and when he has reached an appropriate amount of altitude, he then snaps the contrail like a whip past him and the sharks are sent flying out of sight!

Mighty ties his red contrail to a large cleat on the deck near the bow of the once doomed ship, and with a likewise "mighty" tug pulls the craft free of the stormy sea. He drags the ship high through the air and flies it all the way to New York City. The old sailor, the skipper, and the daughter all cheer wildly from the bow, as the comely figurehead holds out an American flag in victory. A huge ticker-tape parade is held down Broadway as thousands fill the street to cheer. In a long convertible, the skipper and his daughter ride in the front seat, the old sailor and the figurehead (still wearing her wrap) ride in the middle seat, and Mighty Mouse rides up on the back edge of the car. Behind the vehicle, smiling, cheering mice run after their hero, waving their arms. THE END.

In the preceding seven films in the series, there were slight attempts to wiggle the formula a bit, but all but one of them never really got away from the basic "mice vs. cats and then Mighty saves the day" template. The second film, Frankenstein's Cat, did have a horror element, a mechanical monster in cat form that goes after birds and mice, but despite the neat trappings perfect for a Halloween cartoon fest (more on this film in the future), it is still tied to then-quite new formula. The fourth film, Pandora's Box, works in the famous mythical box, but mixes it up with fairy castles, cats with bat wings (who would reappear in later films), and witches, so that it makes another fun Halloween film, but it still hews close to the Mighty cookiecutter form. The chief thing making these early films watchable is that the action is really fast, loaded with gags (however moldy), and the design is pretty endearing if you don't gag on utter cuteness. (And sometimes I quite like super cuteness...)

It is the seventh film, the one that directly precedes The Wreck of the Hesperus, where they really tried something different. The Lion and the Mouse is a direct take on the classic Aesop's Fable, but this time, the mouse tries to hide inside a discarded bottle of hard cider lying on the floor of the jungle, and gets really drunk. The lion takes pity on him and releases him, and when a hunting safari arrives to capture the lion, the drunken mouse get his Irish up and somehow turns into Mighty Mouse. He saves the lion from a trap, hunters, and their dogs, and they both return to the bottle of hard cider and crawl inside... quite literally. The short is a bit more Warner Bros. in style, almost early Chuck Jones but not quite, than the other Mighty Mouse cartoons, and I do wonder if it was influenced even the slightest by Jones' then-current series of Inki shorts.

But in The Wreck of the Hesperus, with the switch of focus to human victims, and a leap into classical literature, it is the first true taste that perhaps they were desperate to find something – anything – to make this series hum along in a different fashion. Were they successful? Well, it is odd to take such a tragic story and turn it into a happy tale involving a super-powered rodent. But then again, there are other examples. In the following year, Tex Avery would take Robert W. Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew and add Droopy Dog and the Wolf to it, and come out with The Shooting of Dan McGoo. The story in McGoo is altered even further from its source material to the point that McGoo, played by Droopy, doesn't even get shot. While it departs from Service into a standard Avery gag-fest, a standard Avery gag-fest is usually miles above what anybody else was producing, and thusly, The Shooting of Dan McGoo is considered to be one of Avery's great cartoons.

You can also look at the whitewashing that most modern filmmakers, especially Walt Disney, have done to Perrault, Grimm, Andersen, etc. in adapting their classic "fairy tales" to the modern sensibility, both throughout the twentieth century and into the more politically correct times of this century, and realize there is nothing different about what is done in this film in those terms. It is merely to gain the basic structure of a story (and even its setting in verse, in this case) in the public domain, and then artistic license is allowed to take over for the remainder of the film.

And who wants a frozen corpse of a father in a Mighty Mouse cartoon? Well, OK, deviants probably wouldn't mind it (and I am squarely in that camp, depending on my mood at any given time). But I will accept a trio of grimacing, hungry sharks (who are not mentioned at all in the verse of the poem) – and even a goofy, table-setting octopus – over a couple of gruesome deaths in this case.

As for those sharks, I think they are pretty groovy. From the second they arrive on the screen, I am sold on their appearance and their purpose in the film, as they lick their chops in anticipation of tasty sailor stew. There is no real difference between each one of the sharks (until the contrail scene, where we get a half dozen, we actually only ever see three of them), and they seem to react in tandem to everything. As a trio, they do the job. They add the menace for which they meant, but they also get a couple of neat comic moments in the film. During the scene where the daughter mentions the "sound of guns," and she resorts to intentional overacting to get their attention, the look on the sharks' faces is absolutely wonderful as they seem to forget their regular intent and get caught up in her big theatrical moment. Likewise when they turn to see where the "sound of guns" is coming from (though there isn't any sound to be heard at all), and then wait while the skipper delivers his big ironic line from the poem (in which he mentions a separate doomed ship to divert her from their ultimate fate), before collapsing back into the chase for dinner as before. And in the scene just before Mighty arrives, where one shark slowly creeps up the mast by shimmying instead of leaping like the others is a really nice touch.

Does the Terrytoons version of The Wreck of the Hesperus work as an adaptation? Not really. It discards half of the poem, especially the second half where the true drama of the story lies. As a spoof of a literary classic? Partially, but not nearly as well as Mad Magazine's adaptation in the 1950s where Wally Wood really put it through the wringer. (You can find it online.) I grew up reading this version, and read it long before I ever read the real one (though technically, the verse is not changed; all of the humor lies in the images that accompany it), and I love it to this day. 

But as a Mighty Mouse cartoon (and especially as the first full Mighty Mouse cartoon sans the Super Mouse name), this version is certainly my favorite of the first eight cartoons in the series, and a nice reprieve from the endless mice vs. cats battling of most of the examples early on in its eighty-cartoon run.

And The Wreck of the Hesperus has cartoon sharks, who get to do a little bit more than just be big and mean and scary. What's not to like about that?



And in case you haven't seen it...

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Shark Film Office Special Edition: Codfish Balls (1930)

[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with another of my websites, The Shark Film Office, about cartoons that feature sharks in them. You can read the reviews on either site, but please do visit the other one if you like the content I have to offer.]

Codfish Balls (1930)
Dir.: Frank Moser
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Species: cartoon sharks, a gang of them with stunted bodies and sawblade-like dorsal fins.

Sharks in the early days of animation came in a wide variety of styles. I suppose that if one were to use the argument that if there are over 500 identified species of sharks in the world, why shouldn't there be that many species too in the animated shark world, only in a more fanciful sense. I guess that I would have to somewhat agree with such a musing. Why not indeed? In cartoons, mice, ducks, and cats and all other manner of animals speak like us, drive cars, fly planes, have dogs for pets, captain boats, wear clothes, and do everything else that humans do and that other normal animal species don't, so the rules for everything in the universe have already been turned topsy-turvy just in their initial conception. If something is called a shark but really doesn't look like a shark, does it really matter at all?

In my last Cel Bloc post, I wrote about the 1930 Terrytoons short, Salt Water Taffy, where I discussed how animators in the early days of the art form seemed to care little about what form a shark took on screen as long as they got across the basic idea that it was a shark of some sort. The shark in Salt Water Taffy had a full set of jaws with big pointy teeth, but he had a rather stubby body, a dorsal fin that I noted looked more like a mogul on a junior ski hill, and had a round black nose of the sort that you would normally see on the face of one of the Beagle Boys in an Uncle Scrooge comic book. Sure, it swam through the water and tried to attack a swimmer and was done in with cannon fire from a navy ship, but the shark was also released from a leash wielded by its owner, a super-grumpy octopus who strode along the ocean floor while wearing a sailor's cap and seven shoes on its tentacles.

Codfish Balls was released by Paul Terry a few months before Salt Water Taffy in 1930, by the same director (Frank Moser), and I would presume many of the same animators, though I have been unable to find information to verify that as of yet. This film, too, incorporates sharks into its plot – many, many sharks, it turns out – but except for a couple of common superficialities early on when they first appear in this cartoon (one of which disappears almost immediately), they are of a far different stripe than the shark that menaces the heroine in Salt Water Taffy.

The original opening credits on this cartoon no longer exist for the version available online, and instead has the replacement title card that was used when it aired as part of the syndicated TV show Farmer Al Falfa and his Terrytoon Pals back in the late 1950s. The cursive-style Terrytoons logo used in that card was then quite familiar to kids who watched The Captain Kangaroo Show as well for the adventures of Tom Terrific, which aired in daily installments on that series.

Codfish Balls is a pretty straightforward seafaring adventure, albeit with an animal crew but no matter, and we are introduced immediately to what appears to be a group of swarthy looking swashbucklers right from the start, as they sit around on the deck of their ship singing a couple lines from the sea shanty standard Blow the Man Down. While the pirates sing, a beefy dog with a peg leg dances along to the tune. A billy goat wearing pants while seated on a tricycle rides circles around the cabin on the deck of the ship, and is alternately pushed and chased by a rat. The rodent annoys him greatly, but every time he turns out to scowl at the rat, the little guy pushes the back of the trike forward giving the goat another burst of speed.

When they swing wildly around the corner of the cabin, the goat and rat run right under the dancing dog with the peg leg, and he spins in the air and falls on his keister as they speed away. They make another circuit around the cabin, and run under the dog again, sending him spinning to the ground anew. Infuriated, the dog picks himself up and confronts the goat, while the rat stands safely to the side. Without actual dialogue (there is little English spoken but a couple of lines and the song already heard in the film), the dog accuses the goat and then punches him hard, making him flip in place. He punches the goat twice more, and then the goat retaliates in the classic goat style, head-butting the burly dog in the chest. The dog sinks back unconscious against the outer wall of the cabin, and the ship that is tattooed on his chest sinks beneath the waves.

But the rat is not done with the dog. The dog revives himself and find that the rat has a large basket of eggs at his side, and the little pipsqueak starts throwing them at the face of the dog. Yolk starts pouring down over the dog's head as the rat chucks a couple of AAA Large at the mutt. From around the corner, another pirate with a peg leg – a cat this time – shows up, and the rat nails the cat in the face too, and then scrambles, appropriately, straight up the ratlines to the mast above. The angry cat grimaces at the rat, and one of his teeth rolls upward in his gritted grimace so he can stick his tongue – snaked, I must stress – out through the gap. The cat shakes his meaty fist upward in the rat's direction several times, and then hops towards the ratlines, balancing precariously on the railing of the ship momentarily.

The cat climbs up fast along the ratlines, and meets the rat along the yard atop the sail, where they engage in a frenetic sword fight. The cat uses his peg leg within the fight to parry the rat’s blows on occasion, and it soon seems that the cat wears the rat down. Finally, the pirate cat lunges for the rodent but gets caught in the sail, and the rat pounces on the opportunity to spank the cat in the rear end several times. Then, for some strange reason, both combatants leap off the sail and into the ocean.

Up in the crow’s nest, we see a large whale spouting in the far distance, and a different pirate cat manning the watch blasts an alarm on a horn to alert his fellow buccaneers. “Thar she blows!” he cries, and then it suddenly seems that perhaps these aren’t actually pirates at all, but whalers of the old school instead. On the main deck, another former-pirate-now-turned-whaleman blares back on another horn, and yells back, “Who she blows!” (at least, that is what it sounds like to me… you check it out; the soundtrack is very old, garbled, and loaded with distortion).

Out on the sea, the cat and the rat, who had previously been feuding on top of the sails, are now in a rowboat being paddled by the much smaller rat. The cat, who by his actions and authority is clearly the captain of the ship, though he doesn’t seem much different than the others aboard, bonks the rat in the head with every stroke as they row towards the whale. When they reach the mighty leviathan,  the cat captain cruelly places the rat onto a hook on the end of a fishing pole and angles it towards the whale. Since fishing for a whale with a pole and bait is clearly not normal operating procedure for whalers, this now makes me doubt my previous position where I changed my initial impulse proclaiming them to be pirates to one where they were whalers. Now this just makes these morons look like opportunists, and that takes them squarely back to just being pirates again. (Man, I have ever been watching too much of Cooks vs. Cons…)

The rat is not happy with this arrangement and squeaks angrily at this treatment as he dangles in front of the whale, who just sits in the water smiling away, seemingly without a care for what is happening. The cat, for his part, delights in dipping the rat into the water, and laughing merrily. But when the whale finally does open its mouth, it not only swallows the rat, but also the pole, the cat, and the entire rowboat, with a huge hungry scowl as its massive sharp, pointed teeth close down around everything in a single bite. We see a closeup of the whale thoughtfully and carefully munching its dinner, but suddenly a hatch opens up on the whale’s head!

The rat and the cat climb out swiftly, and then the pirate captain cat smacks the whale on the noggin with an oar. Dazing the whale, they leap into the water, but the whale gives chase through the waves. When the rat dares to swim in front of the cat, the feline reaches out and picks up the theme from when they first approached the whale, conking the rodent on the head to take the lead. The rat moves forward again, and the cat picks the rodent up bodily and places him behind once more. Regardless, the rat still manages to reach the ship first and climbs up a ladder. When the cat gets there, the whale grabs his tail and tugs on it painfully, but the cat gets free and climbs to safety as well.

When the cat reaches the rat again, he slaps the rodent in the face. The pirate then ties a blindfold over the rat’s eyes, pulls a knife, and pushes him towards the plank to walk to his death. They both stride out onto the plank – to the then quite familiar strains of the Civil War standard Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! playing on the score – and march all the way to the end of it, but as the rat has the excuse of still walking about blindly, we bear witness to a classic cartoon gag (you may recall Bugs Bunny pulling off a similar trick against Yosemite Sam in High Diving Hare, for example), as the rat continues apace and flips to the underside of the plank, walking normally as if there has been no change in his orientation, and marches straight back into the ship to the astonishment of the pirate cat.

With the rat safe inside again, isn’t it time some sharks got into the action, folks? Or, maybe if not sharks, how about something that – kind of, sort of – represents sharks even if they really do not look all that much like sharks? Sharks waiting for a buccaneer victim to walk the plank to gather an easy meal is a standard image of much adventure and pulp fiction. Sure as you can bet, just below the plank, we hear the ominous but familiar refrain of Mysterious Mose on the soundtrack as we see the snapping jaws of numerous hungry sharks in the water, waiting for a tasty rat meal. However, some of the sharks can’t wait that long to get a pirate snack. Several of them use a ladder to climb through a porthole inside, and then march through the bowels of the ship towards the deck to seek out their prey.

On the deck, the pirate-turned-whaler-turned-pirate-again cat captain has tied his would-be rat victim to the mast and is delighting in torturing him. Fate is clearly against him, though, as the thug turns around to see the big toothy grimace of one of the sharks, who really look more like rather stunted, sharp-toothed fish with sawblade-style fins on their backs than they do sharks, but it is clear their purpose here is in the role of a shark. In the part of the film that made me laugh out loud, the tough captain cat cries out in a rather high, girlish alarm of surprise, “ME-OW!” and runs away in fear, with the rat running away after him. They run around the cabin, and the sharks – varying between a dozen to upwards of eighteen in count – give chase in formation, three to a row.

When the sharks start to come out one by one through a porthole in the cabin, the mouse stands on top of the cabin with a board and smacks each one hard in the head in sequence. The sharks fall to the deck in a big pile as the rest pour throw the porthole and get smacked in turn. Somehow, the cat captain has ended up in the rear of the line and comes out to get smacked as well. The cat turns to look up at the rat atop the cabin, who by now has several sharks sneaking up on him from behind. Thinking quickly, the rat leaps onto the rigging and a dozen of the fish give chase after him up to the crow’s nest, where the rat hides on the other side of it and somehow traps all of them inside by closing the lid, basically canning all of the fish. (The crow's nest has a lid? Oh, cartoons...)

The rat leaps up and down in joy at the capture, but the pirates are still mad at the rat. The captain uses his pegleg to fire a cannonball at the rat (that’s a nice hidden weapon to have), and then calls over another pirate – a double amputee on crutches – and orders him to fire two cannonballs at him at the same time with both peg legs. (A doubly nice weapon to have in reserve…) The two pirates continue to fire wildly at the rat, who dances about merrily, easily avoiding their missiles. However, one of the balls finally hits the crow’s nest, which causes the bottom to burst open. The sharks all fall out from it into a giant pile right on top of the captain on the deck. The captain crawls out and shakes his fist in rage at the rat, who leaps down and lands hard on the captain cat’s head, and then both of them leap into the ocean. The sharks revive themselves and leap after the cat and rat, chasing them both off into the horizon. Iris out.

In Codfish Balls, we have a decently paced cartoon with plenty of action though little sense, but certainly with more of a through-line than Salt Water Taffy did. I joked about the pirates not seeming like pirates all the time, and that may be true, but who or what they are in an occupational sense is also not really all that important to the film. What matters is that a bunch of sailors are at sea on a tall ship, there are antics built first around the crew fighting amongst themselves, then their attack upon a whale, and then dealing with a concentrated attack by sharks.

Perhaps identity is an unintentional hidden theme behind this film. We have the pirates who may or may not be whalers, and then we also have the issue of the rat, who basically serves as the hero, even though he is kind of asking for a lot of what happens to him. I have decided to call him a rat in this description of the film's plot, but he might be a mouse. I mentioned how in Salt Water Taffy, the playful mice in that film, who sang and danced and swam about, were had unusually tall limbs for mice. I had mused on the notion that perhaps the length of their limbs had something to do with not wishing to be sued by Walt Disney for copyright infringement, though it was merely idle speculation on my part. I have no proof of this, any more than I have proof that the rodent in Codfish Balls is either a rat or a mouse. He could be a mouse; his facial design is exactly that of what I called mice in Salt Water Taffy, but he has much shorter limbs. The longer limbs on the other "mice" would actually lead me to believe that they were actually the rats, since rats are most often much bigger than mere mice.

But there is one true reason that I decided to go with the "rat" nomination for the rodent in Codfish Balls: the general identification with rats being at large on sailing ships. When I used the term "ratlines" earlier, it was to stress this link, as I called it out at that moment. While Mickey Mouse certainly had nautical adventures in his career, the difference between him and the rodent in this film is that Mickey is a fully developed and known character going into the story; he can be a mouse on a sailing ship because we understand going in that not only is he a mouse, but that he is an extraordinary mouse. This rat character has no given name within the film, nor do any of the characters, and we only know of him what we are shown from his first appearance within the film to his last. In Salt Water Taffy, given that the rodents were meant to be cuter and more readily identifiable as human in their clothes occupations, and language, I was more accepting of them as mice; here, though he is sympathetic and we root for him against the bullying cat, because of the setting and his scurrying actions aboard the ship, I only see him as a rat.

Getting back to my main purpose here, the sharks also seem to have an I.D. problem in this film. While they are drastically different from the shark in Salt Water Taffy, and even though (as I said before) this film predates that one by several months, there is a matching trait between them: a button nose. When the sharks are first seen in the water in Codfish Balls, snapping their jaws upward at the plank in anticipation of a rat dinner, they have a black button nose at the tip of their snout, just like the dog, cat, and rat have in this film, and just like the shark has in Salt Water Taffy. The difference here, though, is that those black noses completely disappear by the time the sharks decide to climb up the ladder and march into the ship. It has to be a mistake, and it may go totally unnoticed by someone – basically anyone else – that isn't running a blog where he is purposefully writing not just about sharks, but also about cartoon sharks. Sure enough, when I went back to watch and rewatch these scenes, the black noses are gone within second of the sharks first appearing in the film.

And then there are those fins along their spines. I mentioned they look more like sawblades than actual dorsal fins, and indeed they do. Maybe it was more to give them the impression of a tough haircut than anything else, but these fish really do not look like sharks one they are no longer snapping their jaws underneath the plank. This is not to say that I don't think they aren't pretty groovy. I like the way their jaws jut out as they sneer at the cat and the rat, and I like their creepy, determined march through the ship. I think they are terrific villains, and worthwhile opponents for anyone in an animated film. 

But do I think they are sharks, and not just some other form of big, scary fish? These guys seem more like oversized, ocean-going piranhas with razors on their backs to me. Hell, the enormous whale in this film seems more like a shark, with its giant fanged teeth and rapacious appetite, than these guys do, even if he has no dorsal fin at all. 

In a world where animated sharks are hard to come by, though, I will take all I can get. Sharks or sharky posers... whatever. Tell them to bring their friends.



And in case you haven't seen it...

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Shark Film Office Special Edition: Salt Water Taffy (1930)

[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with another of my websites, The Shark Film Office, about cartoons that feature sharks in them. You can read the reviews on either site, but please do visit the other one if you like the content I have to offer.]

Salt Water Taffy (1930)

Dir.: Frank Moser and Paul Terry
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Species: cartoon shark, this time with snubbed dorsal fin; appears to be the pet of an octopus and is on a rather undefined form of leash. Probably a dogfish.

Just as with live-action narrative films, there are far more animated films out there with sharks in them than you might think. The reasons one does not often think of such things, outside of a commonly held public disinterest in the animated state of sharks, are probably many, but there are probably a couple of main reason that really sum up why sharks are really second – and even possibly steerage – class citizens in the cartoon world.

The first is that until relatively recent, there have not been any really big, recognizable, regular cartoon characters that were portrayed by sharks. That state changed somewhat in the '70s after Jaws made everyone gonzo worldwide. Along with the insane amount of merchandising available, both official Jaws products and just simply anything with a shark upon it, television too had to get into the shark game. Suddenly, there were two competing Saturday morning cartoon shows called Jabberjaw and Misterjaw with sharks as the lead characters. However silly those leads were, and even with the fact that one shark talked like Curly from the Three Stooges, breathed air, and played drums in a rock band (Jabberjaw) and the other shark wore a vest, bowtie, and top hat and spoke with a kooky German accent courtesy of Arte Johnson (Misterjaw), both characters were still quite recognizable as sharks. Jabberjaw certainly looked like a great white shark, albeit a supremely klutzy and cute one, while Misterjaw was supposed to be a great white, but really just looked like a generic shark (he was entirely blue; Jabberjaw at least had the white underbelly).

But, in the animated screen of the movie theatres for several decades, sharks were supporting characters at best, and mere local color if they were lucky. And not even on a regular basis, just a part here, and a part there. Usually in a beach, fishing, or pirate adventure, if that was the story the main characters had gotten themselves involved in that time, and if so, there might be a chance that a shark would show up as the main villain or as the henchman to the villain. Or at least turn up in a film for a quick gag or two if it was that type of picture, such as the kind Tex Avery specialized in during his early years at Warner Bros. But a shark would never get called on to carry a cartoon, because frankly, who was going to have a shark in a lead role? In a hero's role? Or even in a sympathetic role? Not a lot of call for sharks as best friends, then or now. (Cue Anchorman 2...)

And then there was a problem that rather plagued early animated portrayals of sharks through the first half-century of the late, sometimes great, more often not so, twentieth: just what exactly does a shark look like? It's a question that you wish early animators asked more often, because what constituted a "shark" in the '20s and '30s would not pass muster today. To be fair, the wonders of undersea exploration did not really open up to the public until post-World War II, which on the big screen was represented through the work of filmmakers and diving pioneers such as Hans Hass and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Much of the ocean and its wonders were even more unknown to the general public than they are today, where we regularly hear that we have still explored only a fraction of the ocean's total depths. Well, it was even worse then.

I am pretty certain that you could ask nearly any school-age kid today to draw a shark and they would give you a fairly decent approximation of its general shape and its most commonly known features: the torpedo-shaped body, the jaws, the teeth, the pectoral fins, the rudimentary build of a tail area, and probably as prominent as the teeth would be the dorsal fin. (I've seen kids draw some crazy huge dorsal fins on sharks over the years.) I wouldn't hold your breath for pelvic and anal fins or second dorsals, but I think most kids would have the basic design down pretty well. And we all have an image of a shark drilled into our heads now, especially in the post-Jaws era. There can't be anyone that doesn't know what a shark looks like, right?

Pre-Jaws, pre-aqualung (not Jethro Tull, but Cousteau and his cronies), while sharks had certainly been scientifically catalogued for hundreds of years by that point, they were very much more creatures of mythic stature than anything else. They were known more by reputation than by physical presence in our lives, unless you happened to live either where they were regularly caught and sold, or liked to go swimming in the same places they did. Kids didn't cuddle up to stuffed shark toys in those days, but sharks were also not seen as monstrous killers, but more as a regrettable nuisance to be avoided when one took to sea. Then 1916 happened, when the series of famous shark killings in the Jersey Shore area occurred (five victims, but only four died, two of them inland), and suddenly sharks were headline villains du jour, especially the great white shark – for a long time considered to be the culprit, though it has been argued since that a bull shark was responsible for the three inland attacks in the Matawan Creek area. (That is my theory as well.)

While sharks definitely entered the public consciousness a bit more following such an incident, it doesn't mean that everyone got the memo. It doesn't mean that everyone took the time to do a little research into how sharks actually look or even that they really cared how they look. In a fantasy world where mice talk, fly planes, and fight giant cats with peg legs, does it really matter if a shark's dorsal fin looks more like a mere mogul on a ski hill than have a proper arch and come to a decent point? I don't find it unusual that a landlocked animator asked to draw a shark for a few seconds of a film would take massive liberties with the design of the creature, and just draw it in any manner that would work for the film they were doing. No one is going to these films for scientific accuracy, merely for pure escapism. Who cares if the dorsal fin is correct?

So that is where we are at the start of Salt Water Taffy, a 1930 short from Paul Terry's Terrytoons studio, directed by Frank Moser and Terry. It's a combination of sea-faring adventure and beach party flick, where a singing and dancing sailor sets up the action, disappears for most of the picture, animals of various species cavort in the waves and end up in silly hijinks, an octopus and shark show up to ruin the fun, and then the sailor rushes in to save the day and win the girl. If it sounds like fluff, that's what it is, but it is of a piece of many pictures of its day. If you can't find at least a little something to smile at in this, then you are in the wrong genre, buddy.

From the outset, we have to contend with that sailor fellow, who introduces himself to us aboard his ship (on which he seems to be the only sailor) via song, using the familiar tune of The Sailor's Hornpipe (which you probably know best from the Popeye the Sailor Man theme song):

“I’m Salty McGuire the gob, 
you’ll always find me on the job. 
When a ship’s in distress 
then who cleans up the mess?
Why, it’s Salty McGuire the gob!

We sail as we lead a rough life.
We eat our peas with a knife.
When the ocean gets rough,
that’s the time we get tough!
Oh, I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!”

In between the verses, Salty dances the traditional hornpipe, showing some fancy footwork, and when he sings about eating his peas with a knife, Salty demonstrates it immediately for us. (He's a true man of his word, that Salty!)

Elsewhere, a speedboat driven by a cat wearing a captain's hat zips along with eight other cats sitting in the back. The speedboat rides straight through a big wave and when it emerges on the other side, the eight other cats are left floating in the ocean while the captain and his boat speeds away. On the beach, scores of cats wave their arms in limited animation joy, with dim shouts of "Hooray" and "Woo hoo!" heard on the soundtrack.

A hippo waterskier, actually using a large plank of wood instead of skis, is being towed by a large, razor-backed fish. She flips off the board and does a somersault into the ocean. A monkey stretches out his comically long arms in a slow breaststroke but a bird passes over him and drops an anchor, for no logical reason, onto his head. The monkey sinks and we don't see him for the remainder of the film. An elephant cranks the engine on an outboard motor and the boat immediately takes off into the air, even with the elephant inside. The elephant eventually falls out of the flying boat but her skirt fills up with air around her like a parachute. She floats softly for but a few brief seconds, but then her skirt collapses, and she drops hard into the water.

Back on the beach, singing is heard emanating from inside a changing booth that sits atop a small cart. The booth stretches up and down, growing thinner and then fatter, as the unseen singer goes up and down the operatic scale. As each run reaches its apex, another piece of clothing is tossed out the window and onto a nearby clothesline. Then a lovely lady hippo emerges from the booth carrying a tiny parasol while she wears a one-piece bathing suit. She skips and sings "La la la" as she reaches the water’s edge. When she carefully dips a toe in, the tide rushes at her, so she runs backward playfully. When it goes out, she once more dips a toe, and then runs back again.

When the tide starts to leave, she leaps at the water, and ends up stranded on the beach, though, with her eyes closed blissfully, she thinks she is under the water, and she maintains a swimming posture while resting on her belly on the sand. A tall mouse passing nearby with a pair of oars takes the opportunity and strides up to the hippo. He climbs onto her back just as the tide rolls back in and uses his oars to propel her out into the ocean. He rows out to his boat, where he hooks a crane to the hippo and tries to lift her up out of the water, but her weight pulls down the entire boat and submerges it fully into the sea.

On land, another group of tall mice are holding a race on the backs of a group of turtles. One of them is a beautiful lady mouse wearing a swimsuit, who rides apart from the rest of the pack. Her faithful turtle steed ends up getting flipped over at one point during their ride. He acts frustrated as he climbs out of his shell to turn it back over, before climbing back inside it to continue the race. When they get to a small cliff at the water’s edge, three of the turtles and their riders leap into the water without pause. The fourth turtle, the one carrying the beautiful lady mouse, stops and then cranes his neck far out over the water so the lady mouse can use his head and neck as a springboard to dive into the water. When a boy mouse pops up near her out of the waves, the turtle turns his neck into a set of stairs so the boy mouse can climb up to perform his own dive. When the boy mouse does, he slams his head hard into the mud just underneath the too shallow water. His head gets stuck momentarily, and when he gets loose, the mud has formed a brick around his head, through which he blinks his eyes at the camera.

Ominous music plays as a large hat-wearing mosquito carrying a briefcase marches into the scene (he only flies briefly before picking up a nervous stride). He pops open his case to reveal a pencil sharpener, which he uses to sharpen his long, needle-like sucker. He stops his march again to open the case and this time use a razor strop, not just on his needle, but on his rear end as well. (Why? I don't know, since they have no stinger there.) In the distance is another supremely fat mosquito completely filled up and drunk on blood. He hiccups like a lush while the song The Bear Went Over the Mountain plays lazily on the soundtrack. The first mosquito runs up and rubs his hands in admiration over the fat mosquito’s belly. “Where did ya get it?” he asks, and the fat skeeter points to a sleeping elephant nearby.

While How Dry I Am plays on the soundtrack, the skeeter flies to the elephant and lands on his belly. He undoes the top of the elephant’s pants and lifts its shirt as well, and then circles around in the air a few times before determining the best space from which to suck blood. (Get your mind out of the gutter, you sickos.) Grabbing his nose, the mosquito turns his proboscis into a hand-drill to make a hole in the elephant’s tummy. After a few seconds of drilling, he pulls out a small can of oil to aid in the process. The elephant suddenly wakes up and smashes the skeeter with a single, swift blow from his trunk. The large mammal stands up and turns his back to the audience to fix his pants, turning his head shyly to the camera and fastens them finally to the tune of Shave and a Haircut.

We are whisked back to the lady mouse and the turtle, who are cruising along happily through the water on a joy ride. However, in this universe, octopuses are apparently evil and super grumpy and grumbly. And they also wear sailor caps and have a shoe on the end of all but one of their eight tentacles. They also apparently keep sharks as pets. I am guessing, in this case, that the shark is a dogfish (it does have a black button type of nose, entirely uncommon in actual sharks), since it seems to be on a leash held by the octopus as he strides along angrily beneath the turtle at the bottom of the ocean. We never see exactly why the octopus is so angry at the lady mouse. We just have to accept that he is, in the same way that we have to accept that the monkey that was pounded with the anchor in the head earlier didn't drown nor did the elephant who fell hard into the water after her skirt failed as a parachute nor did the tall mouse whose boat was submerged by the hippo earlier. We have to accept that none of these characters drowned to death, or else this film is far darker than one could ever imagine, and thus we also just have to accept that the octopus is either pissed about an earlier unseen transgression or he is just an all-day jerk.

The shark has a strange rounded bump of a dorsal fin, and certainly not what the modern viewer would perceive in their mind if they were told to expect a shark in this film. The octopus lets go of the shark's leash, and the snarling, snapping fish is allowed to swim free after the lady mouse and her turtle mount. The large shark rises to the surface, dwarfing the turtle, and frightening the lady mouse, who throws her arms up into the air and screams. But instead of riding off easily on the turtle, who is speeding along at a pretty good clip, she leaps to the side of the reptile into the water to swim directly in front of the shark (a tactical error, if you ask me).

Re-enter Salty McGuire the Gob, who has been watching the action from the deck of his ship through a spyglass. His craft changes directions by lifting directly up out of the water and spinning about 180 degrees, and Salty mans the cannon at its bow. In a perspective shot, he fires several shots at the shark as it swims in the distance. Three large cannon bursts are fired, each hitting their target, but it is the fourth one that does the job. Both the shark and the beautiful lady mouse are sent sinking unconscious beneath the waves. They both sink downward, but Salty dives in and rescues the girl and carries her to the surface. The shark continues to sink slowly until he finally lies belly up on the bottom of the sea floor, presumably dead.

Back on Salty's ship, the lady mouse comes to in her hero's arms and asks meekly, "Who are you?" He replies, "Me?" and then launches into a reprise of his opening song, this time with the lady mouse joining him in a dance...

"Why I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!
You’ll always find me on the job!
When the ocean gets rough,
that’s when I do my stuff
for I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!”

He dips the girl, she kicks her long mouse legs high in the air, and he gives her two hard, quick kisses. Iris out.

Salt Water Taffy is most episodic, mainly a series of blackout gags framed by the slight story of its sailor host, Salty McGuire the Gob. (And what is the deal with the absurdly long limbs on the tall mice in this cartoon? I guess to differentiate them from Mickey and Minnie to avoid a lawsuit from Disney?) As I mocked throughout the description, as long as you aren't too worried about closure surrounding the fates of certain characters, there isn't a lot to hang on about in this short. Silly, light fun for the most part apart from that drowning motif.

But there is a darker undercurrent to the picture and it involves its shark character, who seems merely like a pet, but unlike the monkey, the girl elephant, and the hippo, we do get to see the shark's fate – or at least a glimmer of it – through to what we presume is its end. (That grumpy octopus? Totally disappears once he unleashes the shark...) When the fourth cannon blast hits the shark and we are shown the long slow dive towards the bottom of the ocean by the shark and the unconscious lady mouse, the film shifts tone in a brief but jarring way. The intent of the animators is to show the heroics of Salty as he rescues the girl, but as they swim away, the camera follows the shark downward to the bottom, and dwells upon the giant fish as he flips about to lie prostrate upon the sand on the floor, belly up, a sure sign for its death.

They did not need to show this extension of the action sequence; after all, they quite noticeably did not show us the outcome of numerous other gags earlier in the film. But here there is such a focus upon the circumstances of the shark's demise that it is hard for me – and I certainly cannot speak for anyone who is not already attuned to feeling sympathy for sharks, whether or not they are considered villains or monsters – not to feel a little heartsick, not to get a little emotional in a film where otherwise I felt relatively nothing at all, not even laughter.

If there is anything that distinguishes Salt Water Taffy 86 years after its creation, it is this short sequence of the shark, that really doesn't look all that much like a shark as we would recognize one today, meeting its maker at the hands of a sailor mouse with ridiculously long limbs for a rodent of its nature. Since the shark represented a dog in the universe of this film, it is not hard for me to make an even further emotional leap in my mind. This turns Salt Water Taffy into a kind of Old Yeller of the 1930s for me. Luckily, the scene takes place underwater so nobody can see my eyes welling up with tears.



And in case you haven't seen it...