Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: Seeing Ghosts (1948)

For the month of October, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is taking part in an annual internet celebration known as the Countdown to Halloween. This is the fourth year that I have participated in this countdown, but the first with my Cel Bloc site. To find out more about the Countdown to Halloween, and to see a list of participating websites and blogs, go to http://countdowntohalloween.blogspot.com/.

Seeing Ghosts (1948)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
TC4P Rating: 5/9

It is very easy for me to want to rate a particular cartoon a little higher than I normally might simply because it has one or two factors that may register with me on a personal level. We all do this to in one way or the other. This person may like romances more than that person, who happens to prefer horror films, while their friend may like adventure films, and so each one is probably going to be a little more attuned to the nuances of the genre they prefer, and get wrapped up in little things that the rest of us probably wouldn't even notice or care about at all. Or not... sometimes blind faith to a particular type or genre means not really having a critical eye in the least, and just automatically loving every single bit of product released in that category. I have known people who have done it both ways.

This can extend to actors – such as thinking all of the films of Johnny Depp or Heath Ledger (merely examples) are just a little better across the board than those of other actors, and so you will probably rate them higher in your book. This can also extend to specific elements, like certain cars or animals or buildings.

We all make allowances in this manner in some way. For me, given that I have a blog devoted to the subject, sharks would be one of those elements that get me wound up even more when they show up somewhere, since I am constantly looking out for shark appearances in all manner of films. Monsters of all types, gorillas, elephants, dinosaurs, old Hollywood cameos, filmmaking, Christmas, baseball... these are trigger categories for me, and I probably have many more, because I am a bit obsessed when it comes to these things. And ranking very high on this list are the trappings of the Halloween holiday season: ghosts, haunted houses, black cats, autumnal weather, witches, jack-o'-lanterns, and of course, monsters, monsters, monsters.

This obsession is why I post throughout October for this Countdown to Halloween, why I collect so much crazy junk, and why I watch monster and horror films year 'round. I am one of those people who quite literally never really stop celebrating Halloween throughout the year, or if you want to look at it from another angle, never really start celebrating it because I act the same way every single day. But I am not someone who is comfortable walking around in Halloween drag constantly. That is too far out of my comfort zone, and there are other people for whom that is either a blessing or a necessity, but it's not me. I'm just a guy with a penchant for monster t-shirts, but no fangs or tattoos or even rudimentary costuming. I don't want to be perceived as creepy or scary, but just as a guy who really loves monster movies.


Truth be told, though, I am not as wrapped up in all elements of the holiday as I used to be. I don't dress up in costume anymore, not since I left Alaska, and it is chiefly because I don't have the annual Halloween party with friends to attend at hand. I have a smattering of friends down here, but nobody with whom I socialize on a regular basis, apart from the wife and her family. We will be attending a Disneyland Halloween Party tonight, but even though a great many people in attendance will be dressing up, I do not plan on doing so, nor have I thought out any form of costume. We discussed costumes briefly, Jen and I, but nothing really took, and then time just really got away from us. So, it will be a Universal Monsters glow-in-the-dark t-shirt and maybe my baby monster beanie (an option) but otherwise, just "Your Friendly Neighborhood Boogieman" as usual.

Now, I said that I watch monster and horror films year 'round, but that does not mean that when the Halloween season approaches, that I don't adjust the level of frequency of these films up slightly. Normally, I do at a very high volume, though due to time constraints with the increased amount of writing I have taken on in recent months, both online and off, it hasn't happened this year (but this is a very, very good thing for me, so don't fret). Naturally, when I get closer to Halloween, and especially on the day off, I am very fond of watching collections of Halloween-oriented cartoons that I have accumulated over the years, or have found online.

As I set up in my initial premise, certain elements can make you wish to rate a film higher than you might normally, and I am prone to doing this at times when it comes to films that feature the elements that I mentioned earlier that are mainstays of a "Halloween" cartoon: ghosts, haunted houses, black cats, autumnal weather, witches, jack-o'-lanterns, and monsters. (Technically, "monsters, monsters, and monsters" is what I said.) One can be easily led by the merest inclusion of any of these elements into thinking a cartoon is probably more worthy than it actually is, though not always. Many times, a good cartoon is simply a good cartoon, and you have to take it as such.

Would that I could say that, ultimately, about Seeing Ghosts. One of those shorts that almost seems better than it actually is, Seeing Ghosts initially fulfills, fairly well, everything that one might want from a Halloween cartoon, mostly in its opening couple of minutes. However, once the film's dull, personality-free main characters are introduced, Seeing Ghosts meanders into dull action and barely conceived "gags" (if such they actually are) that squanders the opportunity built up at the front of the cartoon.

Seeing Ghosts was released in 1949 and was directed by Terrytoons studio regular Mannie Davis. The film is only an example of average output from the company, which is to say, technically competent, but never really attempting to shock anyone by doing anything too original or by breaking new ground.

High on a hill during a windstorm sits a lonely looking house. There is a path that winds up the hill, and at the bottom of the path we see a For Sale sign encircled by leaves tossed up by the winds. A closeup on the sign reveals a black cat cautiously sniffing about on the ground, and it seems he blocking part of the sign. As he passes, his tail moves to reveal two more words underneath For Sale that tell the deeper story of why the house has not sold as of yet: Slightly Haunted. There is a cut to a closer exterior of the house, and we see numerous ghosts flying in and out of the windows underneath the moonlight. The scene cuts again to a view from the rooftops of the moon itself and a bat flies in front of it. He seems to be backlit by the orb, and we can see the skeletal frame of his body as he cheerfully glides in midair briefly.

Inside the house, spooks continue to flit about, sometimes in tandem with the lilting but haunting music. A bunch of ghosts are then seen sliding happily down the bannisters of a long staircase, and then several disembodied pairs of gloves pick up a bunch of instruments and start bashing out a swinging musical number. At a busted up piano in the corner, we see not only gloves, but an entire suit and happy, but no body within it, as it plinks along barrelhouse-style on the keys and then reaches for a draft of beer sitting on top of the piano. Lifting the giant mug, it pours the beer straight into the collar of its shirt. The invisible bass player (also with a floating derby) plunks along, and then numerous pairs of quite visible ghosts are seen dancing together. Other ghosts stand in a line and clap their hands in time with the music as a pair of skeletons dance a shuffle across the floor of the room. A lone ghost motions in pantomime to ask a dressing dummy for a dance, and then picks it up and whirls it into action, spinning it wildly at one point.


Enter our protagonists, a house decorator who at first is reminiscent of Practical Pig from The Three Little Pigs at the rival Disney studio, and his canine pal, a small brown pup who rides shotgun in the pig's red, equipment-laden jalopy. The ghosts all peer out the window as the car makes it way up the driveway, and while they seem shocked at first, their faces turn angry on a second glance, once they realize what is being done. The pig steps out of the vehicle with the dog behind him, and nails a sign reading Sold to the column by the front door. "Sold!" say the ghosts in unison, and then louder and louder, "Sold! Sold! Sold!" They skedaddle as the pig opens a very squeaky door to make his initial entrance into the house.


The pig cups a hand to his mouth and says meekly, "Hello!" and a light echo returns to him. He looks at his dog, and then says louder, "Is anybody there?" and the immediate response from every single unseen ghost in the house is a resoundingly booming, "NOOOO!" The pig jumps in shock, but is not half as shocked as his pooch, who turns into a whirlwind and throws his entire body around his master. They both run out of the house, and the dog loses the pig, who has hidden behind a gravestone in the cemetery adjacent. He peers around the stone and sees his one shadow looming on the wall behind him, and jumps in fear. He crouches down the second time and looks again, and once more jumps when he sees his own shadow. The third time he picks up a rock and turns to face whatever it is, but is scared again when the shadow is also holding up something.

Just as he is about to look a fourth time, his dog walks up, and he realizes that the shadows were just him all along. Together, they start to stride out of the cemetery, but the dog's tail wags and tickles the pig's rear end, causing the swine to jump in fear yet again. He takes a full-armed swipe at his pet to warn him against doing such things. Re-entering the house, the door slams shut hard behind the house decorator, but even though he is scared at first, the ghostly figure of a beautiful blonde woman appears before him and walks across the room. He starts to follow her, holding his arms in front of himself in the manner that she is, but she turns around suddenly, causing him to turn too. Now following the pig, she turns yet again and walks straight through a nearby door. The pig looks through the keyhole, but a ghost pops up behind him and kicks him in the butt, sending the pig crashing through the wood of the door.

Picking himself up slowly from the floor, the pig notices a ghost in an old-timey swimsuit swimming through the air above him. The ghost turns and says, "The water's fine, isn't it?" and then swims away. Behind him, another invisible figure pops up wearing a smoking jacket, gloves, top hat, and slippers. He holds a cigarette holder in his teeth, which you can also see fully as he speaks. "Are you the house decorator?" the figure asks of the pig, who nods in the affirmative. The ghost tells him to shake, offering its hand out to the pig, who can only reply, because it is so very, very true, "I-I-I am sh-shaking, m-mister!" As they shake hands, the ghost disappears, and the pig is left holding an empty glove in his hand. He throws it to the ground, but then the glove stands up on the tips of its fingers and walks away.

The glove walks up the pig's paint bucket and dives into it. The pig runs up and grabs the paintbrush. He swishes it about trying to find the glove, but all that happens is that two big green ghosts fly out of the bucket laughing wildly at him. He picks up the bucket and walks to his ladder, and then goes up the first few rungs. Strangely, the bottom part of the ladder seems to close up behind him as he climbs. The ladder shoots up and he ends very high in the room. He starts to paint the dirty green walls a golden color, but as the paint washes down, a window – or at least a certain portion of a window – appears magically before his eyes. He is shocked, but even more shocked when he paints more with the gold color and the rest of the window appears. While looking through the window makes it look like it is a blue sky day (even while it is nighttime), a ghost opens the window and it looks as if he is peering through a golden window (its an odd effect). The ghost says, "Hello!" and then slams the window shut. The window totally disappears leaving only the gold-painted wall, and the pig leaps into the air and falls all the way the floor, smashing hard into it.

Another ghost strides into the room and right past the pig, almost in a mocking and daring fashion. The decorator picks up a board and goes to strike the ghost with it, but naturally, his swing goes right through the apparition. He is about to try again, but the spook turns and grabs the board and snaps it into two over its knee. The dog walks up behind the pig again and once more scares him. The pig tells the canine to go away, and then peers into the next room. But the dog sees something coming and runs away, leaving the pig's back turned as a skeleton walks up and pokes him on the shoulder. "Go away," says the pig, but the skeleton pokes again. The pig reaches back and feels something strange, and pulls his hand forward to reveal that he is hold a shinbone with a foot attached to it.

He turns around, sees the skeleton, and wastes no time in speeding away! He runs so fast that as he passes the dog, his pet is pulled in his wake and they head all the way up the stairs. The pig locks himself in a trunk in the attic and the dog sits on top of it, but a ghost appears over the trunk and the poor pooch finds that he is trapped inside the somewhat elastic spook as if he were in a plastic bag. With a mighty leap, he frees himself of the trap, and it is just enough to force the ghost into the trunk. There is a rumble inside it, and the pig finds he must make his escape as well. Speeding back down the stairs, the pair crash from step to step, making enough noise to make a group of skeletons sleeping underneath each one to pop and say sharply in unison, "QUIET!"

The pig and dog hid their heads under a couch in the living room, but another ghost lights the fuse on a large stick of dynamite and places it behind them. The decorator turns to see the dynamite and runs, but the dog thinks it is a game and grabs the TNT and chases after the pig. The dog tries to give the pig the stick of dynamite, and the pig panics and throws it away, not thinking that, of course, the dog will think they are playing fetch and will bring it back again. Once he throws it, the pig whips through the door and holds the door shut, but the dog leaps out a window and presents him with the TNT. This time, he opens the door to the house, throws the stick inside, and then slams the door shut. The dog actually follows him down the hill, where they both hide to await the explosion. The house goes up in a huge blast and is blown to splinters. Then the pig sees what is coming out of the blast: all of the ghosts come floating down from the sky, suspended by spectral parachutes. Their chutes disappearing as they alight on the ground, the spooks start giving chase once more to the pig and the dog, and the film comes to a close.

Not a very satisfying resolution to a not altogether enjoyable cartoon, but I don't think the pig and dog team ever really fit in very well to the scenario anyway. For a house decorator, except for the painting sequence, he doesn't really try to do all that much in the way of his job. The dog's inclusion in the antics almost seems like an afterthought. The pup never really gets a solo moment with the ghosts apart from the "plastic bag" moment, and it almost feels like he was added just so they had a reason to do the fetch gag with the dynamite.

But Seeing Ghosts does have that marvelous beginning. The first couple of minutes have ample Halloween atmosphere, and the bit with the For Sale sign and the black cat is a nice intro leading to the ghosts. You could argue that the ghost and skeleton gags during the dance sequence themselves have been done equally well and even far better in many cartoons, but since when was watching ghosts enjoy themselves at a swingin' party a crime?

That is exactly the hitch with a film like Seeing Ghosts. I find it extremely disappointing by the end of the cartoon, especially since two-thirds of the running time is spent with a couple of quite forgettable characters. And yet, I cannot dismiss it outright, because the ghost sequences and especially that opening are rendered well enough with spooky flair and fun that the film must be included in any annual Halloween collection just so one can take in the atmosphere.

As I said, we all make allowances in some way. It all depends on what you like...

RTJ


*****

And in case you haven't seen it:


Friday, October 21, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: The Haunted Ship (1930)

For the month of October, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is taking part in an annual internet celebration known as the Countdown to Halloween. This is the fourth year that I have participated in this countdown, but the first with my Cel Bloc site. To find out more about the Countdown to Halloween, and to see a list of participating websites and blogs, go to http://countdowntohalloween.blogspot.com/.

The Haunted Ship (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Mannie Davis and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Part of the joy of continuing this experiment has been rediscovering for myself cartoon characters with whom I was fleetingly familiar, but had discounted because they weren't as famous or prevalent as other characters. It has been a distinct pleasure to reunite my eyes with Van Beuren's Tom and Jerry, the human tall guy–little guy combo which starred in a couple dozen films in the early 1930s, though some of the films are much better than others in the series.

I will be utterly honest in my assertion that I was not aware that the original Tom and Jerry (who had their semi-heyday long before MGM's cat and mouse came along) had morphed from an even earlier Van Beuren team: Waffles the Cat and Don Dog. Starring in a handful of Van Beuren's Aesop's Sound Fables, Waffles, the more excitable of the two, and Don, the short, cool breeze who fears nothing, are close enough to their human descendants to have caused me to do a double-take when I first viewed their first film, The Haunted Ship, from 1930.

With a beginning strikingly reminiscent of the some of those Tom and Jerry shorts, Waffles and Don start out buzzing through the skies in a plump little airplane, that seems about as able of flight as a Vienna sausage. Don sits nonchalantly on the tail of the plane and casually lifts his hat to us, and Waffles, who is ostensibly the pilot because he occasionally maneuvers a small steering wheel, is more concerned with playing the entire plane's body as if it were a vibraphone. He runs two mallets back and forth in musical fashion over the exhaust pipes, the wings, and even off the whirling propeller, happily playing away, pretty much oblivious to any need to guide the plane along its way.

However, in the skies overhead, a nasty-looking cloud forms a grimace filled with evil intent, as it blows wind and lightning down on the chubby plane. Waffles blows too, not wind and lightning like the evil cloud, but a trumpet instead, as he carries his jazzy tune over from bashing the parts of the plane to playing an actual musical instrument, while his diminutive buddy Don does a neat tapdance upon the tail of the plane, displaying a daredevil's lack of fear of heights. At one point, Don even dances off the edge of the tail into midair, and then shuffles backwards to safety, with nothing more than mild surprise that we went a tad too far. However, we see the cloud overhead, where its top edge has now formed into the shape of three working figures who pump and bucket the rain through the cloud and down onto the inhabitants of the plump plane.

Waffles and Don have taken to rowing their plane through the rain, but another lightning strike causes their paddles to disappear, and a third strike has Waffles yowling and hiding in the cockpit. A body made of lightning lands on the wing, and after the fear-ridden Waffles points it out, the pugnacious Don wallops the lightning-figure on the head and knocks it off the plane. But they are nowhere near to safe yet. The pair zoom off as fast as the little plane can go with the lightning-figure running through the air after them. They hop the next cloud that they meet, yelling "Hey!" and landing back inside the plane. The lightning follows, and when they meet the next cloud, they leap and yell "Hey!" again, but land on top. They fall into the cloud, and the lightning leaps inside for the fight. The plane, now wrecked, falls down towards the ocean with the pair inside it.

Thinking fast, Waffles and Don pop open a trap door and climb down an escape ladder in its rear, both wearing life preservers. They leap from the ladder and splash into the ocean, but as the plane nears impact, they climb up the ladder and back into the craft, perhaps thinking that it might float on the surface. The plane, however, sinks below the waves once they climb back inside, and so they drift down to the bottom of the ocean, where a dapper-looking walrus sings to them in the heaviest of baritones of impending doom: "Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, so beware! Be---ware!" As the shanty-singing mammal departs, Don blows him a quick raspberry, which forces Waffles to knock Don in the head with a hammer for his rudeness.



The pair leave the confines of their downed and drowned plane, and make their way to a sunken ship which bears the name "Davy Jones" upon it. They dive through a window and into the hold where they discover vast amounts of treasure. Their joy is cut short suddenly by a piercing noise of a slide-whistle and a door which opens on its own accord. A question mark appears above Waffles' head and then zips around to Don's tail, where it pokes him and pushes the duo towards the now closing door. (Kind of a reverse variation on a Felix-style gag.) Another whistle whines, the door flies open, and a huge black octopus ambles threateningly through it, and then moves towards the camera until it crowds out most of the frame, and then swims out of the shot. As they reach for the door again, another fearsome monster fish with a lion-like mane and jaws, slides out from underneath some furniture behind them and slinks off to not be seen again. [Note: The animation for these creatures would be used again, notably in the later Tom and Jerry underwater short, Rocketeers, in 1932.]

They step swiftly into the hall, where Waffles is confronted by a floating skull. He is absolutely chilled by the site, and yowls and screeches in place but Don merely rocks back and forth calmly on his heels. Waffles twirls about to hide his eyes, but another skull pops up in the porthole behind him, scaring the yowl-ready Waffles yet again. Don, meanwhile, only scratches his head in boredom. The skull disappears, but a large anchor chain nearby them starts moving and rattling about, and it is discovered that the arm of a skeleton is pulling it. Don, ever the calm one, pulls out a hammer and casually wings it at the bones, causing the skeleton's hand to drop the chain and disappear from view. A fish swims towards the camera, getting larger and larger and then turning, showing that its full size easily dwarfs the pair of them, and Waffles continues to shiver uncontrollably. Then a trapdoor opens under their feet!

Waffles and Don find themselves sliding down a huge staircase. A tremendous dragon-like eel, then an an odd combination of eel and ray, and finally a shark with a strange style of dorsal fin glide past them from opposite directions, causing Waffles to leap back and forth in utter fear. Finally, the fraidy cat discovers a bell, which naturally has has to ring. The call for service brings a pair of skeletons down the stairs: one whose bones are the normal bleached white, and one with entirely black bones (but a white jaw, most likely a nod to blackface makeup, to make the skull appear as if it has large lips, and therefore a racial joke). The skeletons dance in practiced formation at the bottom of the stairs and salute in attention, but Waffles pushes Don into the skeletons, and the head falls off the white one's shoulders.



As Waffles makes his escape, Don picks up the skull and hurls it all the way down the hall until it hits Waffles in the head and knocks him flat. When Waffles comes to and sees the skull floating above the floor, he jumps clear out of his clothes and reenters them through his pants legs. He starts to berate Don, but an eel breaks up his complaints when it slides out of a hole in a barrel behind Waffles and swims through his legs. Then all of the cabin doors in the hall open up, revealing a waving, dancing skeleton in each one. Waffles and Don run away from the hall and enter a bar-room. Waffles, however, runs into the wall and hits his head, and since he is all shaken up, Don laughs at him and places him at the piano. Reluctantly at first, Waffles starts banging out a tune on the keys, and Don picks up two mallets and uses a sleeping crocodile for a vibraphone.

Waffles and Don continue to play as four drunken sea turtles stand at the bar and slug down one more shot each, and then join together to sing the old standard Sweet Adeline in swell four-part harmony.

"Sweet Adeline,
(My Adeline,)
My Adeline, 
(My Adeline,)
At night, dear heart, 
(At night, dear heart,)"

At the start of the second line, a fat catfish embellishes the song with a Gershwin riff played through a clarinet formed from his lips, while two happy starfish caper by his tail.

"For you I pine. 
(For you I pine.)
In all my dreams, 
(In all my dreams,)
Your fair face beams. 
(Your fair face beams.)"

Soon, we see another crocodile with his mouth agape, and a frog, who may be meant to resemble Harpo Marx though it bears no wig, has several strings wired through the croc's teeth and plucks at them for a harp solo.

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline!
(Sweet Ad-e-liiiiiine!)"

When the turtles finish their verse, their tongues hit the floor in drunken reverie (they make a "Nyaaagh!" sound and pass out) and Waffles and Don carry off the tune with an extended vamp in a tango style. Fish sway all about them, and a lobster wields its claws like castanets, until its shell drops to its tail and its polka-dotted underwear are revealed. Two smiling eels dance to the beat, and a ten-limbed octopus shuffles its three pairs of feet while waving its four gloved hands. Don does a tap dance, and we see many fish out on the dance floor take up his lead. The turtles revive themselves, crawl out of their shells completely naked, each with a cute bellybutton, dance a quick jig and then reprise the final line of Sweet Adeline.

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline!"



With the last note, the catfish swings a bottle into the head of the baritone turtle. A full crowd of sea creatures go crazy with their applause and laughter, but the noise is enough to wake up the spirit of Davy Jones, and his captain's hat-wearing skeleton hops out of his locker looking for trouble. Waffles turns a passing turtle into a squeezebox and Don plays off the heads of three eels to start the next number, but Davy Jones intervenes. "Who are you?" a shaking Waffles the Cat asks of the skeleton, and the reply comes back, "I am Davy Jones!" Waffles splits immediately, with Davy Jones fast on his heels, but Don, who is not afraid of anything apparently, follows them and sticks his mallets into Jones' bones and sends the captain crashing into Waffles. The two of them tumble head over heels together for some distance. Outside, we get a very detailed shot of the deck of the haunted ship from above (but slightly off center) as vast numbers of sea creatures spill out of the hold and swim up towards the camera and then past, followed by Waffles and Don, who in turn are still being chased by the evil Davy Jones.



Inside the bar, the four turtles are still piled in a heap on the floor, but they revive long enough to sing:

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline! Sweet Ad-e-liiiiiine!"

Their open mouths crane forward to take up the entire screen, and we can see their uvulas shaking with the final held note. Staring straight down their gullets, we see the iris out.

When I started to watch this cartoon, I immediately thought I was watching a Tom and Jerry short, and it took me a few seconds to realize that I was dealing with a cat and dog act. But their personalities are almost the same as the human version, though if anything, Don is an even cooler customer than Jerry, though both seem to always be itching for a fight. Tom is as much a flustered 'fraidy cat as Waffles, though in Waffles' case, he quite literally is such a creature (being an actual cat, you know... well, an actual cartoon cat).



The film itself, with its concentration on small character work rather than extensive gags, is quite enjoyable, in fact, I find it to be one of the more satisfying of the hit-and-miss Aesop's Fables series. Certainly, many of the elements are repeated in later, arguably better Tom and Jerry shorts, but the sequential progression of the story actually moves along with few bumps, being a lot smoother than, say, some similar shorts from the company's same period. And there is a spooky enough atmosphere inside the ship to make this necessary for an annual Halloween revisiting. That final shot with the sea creatures flying out of the hold is certainly a unique one so far, though it does display a lack of true resolution in the story. The musical sequence stands out even larger, and I especially love the concentration on the singing drunken turtles. Somehow, their design reminds me an awful lot of Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle.

But not as much as Waffles and Don remind me of Tom and Jerry. Sure, Waffles has a tail and Don's hat is different from Jerry's, but if you squint, you could easily miss that the former are a cat and dog (except for Waffles' annoying habit of yowling). What I didn't miss is the fact that I have spent most of my life missing out on this excellent entry in Aesop's Fables.

I have a feeling I will be diving back down to The Haunted Ship again every Halloween.

RTJ


*****


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


[Note: The original version of this article was posted on June 2, 2006, but has been given a drastic revision and updated with new photos and a video link on October 19, 2016.]

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: Lonesome Ghosts (1937)

For the month of October, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is taking part in an annual internet celebration known as the Countdown to Halloween. This is the fourth year that I have participated in this countdown, but the first with my Cel Bloc site. To find out more about the Countdown to Halloween, and to see a list of participating websites and blogs, go to http://countdowntohalloween.blogspot.com/.

Lonesome Ghosts (1937)
Dir.: Burt Gillett [uncredited]
TC4P Rating: 8/9

Ask me which Disney cartoon short my brothers and I saw the most as kids, and there could be only one real answer: Lonesome Ghosts. OK, we didn't really see the full cartoon an awful lot as kids, maybe a few times on TV here and there, but we still saw Lonesome Ghosts far more than other Disney cartoon.

Because we had a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer in our house.

If you don't know what a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer is, then you missed out on a prime joy of the '70s. It was a toy that looked pretty much like a small movie camera, and if you needed an impromptu laser gun for a space battle in the middle of the afternoon, you could use it for that too, because the design wasn't too far off of that of a blocky phaser. The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer came with a long cassette that had a short clip of either a feature film, a television show or, most often, a cartoon short on it. The first Movie Viewers were released in 1973 and were sold through 1985. Scores of titles were released for the device, including many Disney, Warner Bros., Sesame Street, Pink Panther, and Spider-Man titles. There were even special editions of the Fisher-Price Movie Player marketed to fans of Snoopy or as a tie-in for Disney's The Black Hole when it was released.

The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer in our house belonged to my brother Mark as far as I can remember, as he would have been either five or six when it came into house, probably as a Christmas present. Or a birthday present. It doesn't matter, since both occur on the same day for him. (Yes, my brother is actually Jesus.) My brothers can correct me if I am wrong here, but I do not recall if we ever had any other titles for our Movie Viewer besides Lonesome Ghosts. The reason we even had Lonesome Ghosts was because it was the default cartridge that came with the basic player for most of its run as a retail product. Looking online at a list of released titles, I do not see any others that I recognize as having been owned in our household. 


My relatively recently acquired Fisher-Price Movie
Viewer and Lonesome Ghosts cartridge.
What I do recall is sitting for hours watching the tiny, edited snippets of Lonesome Ghosts endlessly, first forwards for a few revolutions (the thing would keep playing in a loop as long as you cranked, a genius idea) and then backwards for a few revolutions (another genius idea in its construction), and then back and forth over each scene in the clip. I know my favorite moment was watching Goofy stick himself in the ass with a straight pin thinking his butt is a ghost, and then watching him go crazy inside of a vanity dresser after he sticks himself.

Whether we had any other tapes or not for the Movie Viewer, what I do know is that a bond was formed between myself and Lonesome Ghosts since childhood because of that machine, that in many ways goes beyond most other Disney cartoons. Last year, with such fond memories of the Movie Viewer and the Lonesome Ghosts cartridge in my head, I decided to look about on the internet to see just what one might run for on sites like Ebay or Amazon. Surprisingly to me, not too bad, and within the hour, I had ordered a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer with an original LG cartridge for less than $20, shipping and handling included, off of Etsy, a site that I had never used or really looked at previously. Some antique business in Georgia had one, and by all means, it was going to be mine.

Directed by Burt Gillett, Lonesome Ghosts was officially part of the Mickey Mouse series of shorts, but was also part of an unofficial subseries within the Mickey series that featured Donald Duck and Goofy as full partners with Mickey in whatever endeavor they happened to be on for that cartoon. Boat Builders, Moose Hunters, The WhalersClock Cleaners... you name it, these three could mess it up, though sometimes they came out on top in the end.

Lonesome Ghosts begins with some some quite haunting intro music and an almost impressionistic title card, where he see the silhouettes of Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse cautiously walking through the night (Mickey even has a single figure held up as if to hush his companions). Above them looms what could be (or definitely is) the outline of a tremendous spectral form, but except for what could be interpreted to be fingers on a pair of hands (one low and one raised high behind a possible head), it is almost worthless to waste time trying to determine exactly what form of ghost this is, as it seems draped over a series of large trees or hedges (equally ill-defined though lovely) in the background.

The very first shot of the film proper is of an old, battered house almost shivering in the chilling wind that blows across its frame and causes its shutters to swing and slam shut over and over. Surrounded by snow-draped trees in a wintery setting, the house and the scene instantly brings to my mind other Disney cartoons of much renown, where inclement weather or an ominous setting played the role of a central character, such as The Old Mill and The Skeleton Dance. (I say it brings to my mind such films, but in real time, this film was only released about six weeks after The Old Mill was released.)

Inside the house, as the shutters continue to clatter, a clock chimes the hour, and we hear the wild howl of a ghost as he yawns in utter boredom. Sitting next to him on the floor is a book of ghost stories. He and his other three ghost pals are tired of sitting around – one sits next to an empty goldfish bowl and is fishing with a hook inside a can of sardines – without anybody to scare. As they scour the papers, one of them spies an ad in the classifieds section of the newspaper. "Get a load of this, fellers!" he says, and they tumble over themselves trying to do so. "NOTICE!" the ad reads, "We Exterminate All Kinds of GHOSTS -- DAY AND NIGHT SERVICE -- Phone Gooseflesh 9000." One of the ghosts says, "Wise guys! Let's get 'em over here!" The others chime in: "And have some fun with 'em!" "We'll scare the pants off of 'em!" When the last ghost says this, his bottom half drops off so that he has to pick it up again, almost like a pair of pants.


The ghosts start yowling and fly to their phone. The next thing we see is the outer door to the office of Ajax Ghost Exterminators, where a "BUSY" sign has been hung on it. Busy indeed... inside, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse are each fast asleep and snoring away. Mickey and Donald have their feet propped up on the desk, while Goofy's legs are crossed. In the background, we can see signs that promote their prowess in the ghost hunting field: "All Types of Homes De-Ghosted – Work Guaranteed" and "We Chase Ghosts By Day, Week or Month". There is even a diploma from Ghost College on the back wall behind Goofy. We also see the assorted paraphernalia of their trade hanging off hooks on the wall or leaning against it: butterfly nets, axes, a Flit gun, a blunderbuss, a shotgun, a large mallet, a club, and a deerstalker cap.

The candlestick phone between the trio rings once and they ignore it. So the phone rings even louder the second time and it awakens them all with a shock. They seem amazed they have even gotten a call (business must be really bad) and they fight over answering it. When they are done, Goofy has the receiver while Mickey has the speaking part, and poor Donald's neck is wrapped up several times by the cord in the middle of them. The ghost on the other end affects a woman's voice and asks, "Do you chase ghosts?" and Mickey answers (a bit nervously, due to the shock of needing the job, not being scared), "Y-y-yes, ma'am! Yes, sir! I'll say we do!" The prank-playing ghost responds with "We-ell, this house is full of ghosts. Listen..." The four ghosts then start making the expected sounds of ghosts in a dwelling to convince the ghost hunters to come over to do their job. He (she) then tells them to come quick to the old McShiver Mansion, and the boys don't even question the situation for a second because they are too overjoyed to have a customer at last.

Arriving shortly at the mansion, Mickey (holding a shotgun) knocks on the door and listens through it for an answer. He knocks harder and then there is a perspective shot from inside the house as we see the door come off its hinges and crash to the floor, quite interrupting Mickey's announcement that they are "from the Ajax Ghost Exterminator Company". As Donald, holding only a small butterfly net, steps into the house, he is bumped by Goofy. The duck squawks loudly, and tells his pal to watch where he is going. The three start to tiptoe into the house across the entire door, but once all three are fully on it, the door starts to rise up on Mickey's end. When it gets about halfway up, however, it reverses direction and drops, the three of them go flying off, and the direction whips up into the door frame from its opposite end so that the side of the door that was once facing out into the world is now inside.

As the three hit the floor, Goofy, who had been carrying the most in the way of equipment, is assailed by nearly everything he once had in his hands as it rains down towards him and his pals. He manages to avoid everything except a mousetrap, which snaps shut hard around his nose. He gets it off his nose and it snaps shut next on his hand, but he pays it no mind, since the nose was certainly going to be the worst of that situation. The ghosts start making a ruckus somewhere in the house, and while Donald and Goofy act scared at first, Mickey reasons that they can get the spooks. "We'll separate... and surround them." Not the best plan, Mickey – separation of forces is usually deadly in horror film situations – but this is a cartoon, and it has to get somewhere eventually. And so the three shake on the plan, gather their weapons from before (Goofy picks up an axe), and they make their leave in individual directions.

This is the point that many of their shared adventures reach, where each star breaks off into a section designed to showcase their individual talents. Mickey gets the first solo spot, as he tiptoes into a room to find out several steps into it that he has been shadowed by an annoying ghost. The spook has stolen his hat and knocked on his head, and Mickey turns to greet the ghost with his gun. He goes to fire, but the ghost sticks his fingers in the barrels, and the shotgun explodes, leaving the two barrels completely limp and split about halfway up their length. The ghost zips off, and so Mickey throws down the gun in anger and zips off after the creep himself. The ghost heads up some stairs, and Mickey follows suit, but he is speeding after the ghost so fast that when the spirit reaches a door, Mickey has no way to stop himself from running smack into the door a couple of times (once on a rebound).

Mickey pulls on the door handle, and the door comes loose from the frame, and it looks like there is glue on the other side of it briefly affixing it to the wall. Standing on the door, Mickey hears drum and fife music, and the door whips open from its resting spot on the floor to reveal the ghosts rising up to perform a mocking version of a colonial march, using long red underwear attached to a broomstick for a flag. Standing in the corner, the ghosts do a quick tapdance and then leave the room, the last one waving his hat at Mickey as he closes a set of double doors behind him. Mickey pulls on both doors, and when they spring open, he is hit by a tidal wave of water. He is washed backwards, and when he tries to swim forward through the water, two of the ghosts are wearing old-style bathing suits, holding umbrellas, and riding surfboards on the waves. The third comes through in the same manner, and then the fourth, wearing an admiral's hat, rushes into view in a boat with an outboard motor. He spins circles around Mickey, creating a whirlpool, but then he and the water completely disappear, and Mickey is left spinning in midair, until he finally crashes onto the floor.

Next comes Donald's turn, and he is far more cautious (some would say outright scared) in his approach. He looks tentatively about the hallway into a room, but a ghost sneaks up behind him with a massive pile of dishes and smashes them into the floor behind the duck. Donald flees, and then hides under a chair that has, appropriately, a large sheet draped over it. Another ghost (or the same one -- hard to tell sometimes) sneaks in behind Donald carrying a large set of chains, and crashes them into the floor as well. Donald jumps and runs straight into the drawer of a bureau, but the drawer is ejected almost immediately and Donald flies inside the drawer across the room. He lands rather softly and then starts to look about, his anger rising in increments. The ghost pops up behind him, holding two boards this time, and whacks Donald on the rear end with a wallop! Donald screeches and yells, "What's the big idea?" He starts to do his trademark fist pumping and twirling, while asking "Who did that? Who did that?"

The ghost pops up and taps the duck on the tail, and Donald says yet another trademark of his, "Uh oh." The ghost hits him hard again. Donald implores the ghost to come out and fight like a man, so the ghost does. He throws up his fists and mocks Donald's style, but surprisingly, Donald lands a solid right square on the ghost's chin, sending the spook flying. Donald is so happy that he succeeded that he doesn't realize he is being set up for a fall. The ghost staggers back and Donald follows him, but the ghost falls backwards through the floor in what looks like water, so Donald catches himself so he too doesn't fall into it. 

But the hole created by the ghost disappears, and Donald is confused. He turns to the camera and declares, "Well, I'll be a son of a gun!" but then the spook pops back up through the floor in a ghostly pool and spits water in the duck's face. The exasperated duck shakes his head violently, quacking away in utter frustration, and as the ghost waves goodbye, pinches its nose, and floats back down through the floor, Donald leaps at it. All he ends up with is a headache from smashing face-first into the floor. "What kind of a place is this?" he yells. "They can't do that to me!" Donald picks up his hat and puts it back on his head, but it is still full of water, and so he ends up drenching himself again. He once again speaks directly to the camera, saying, "That's a fine how-do-you-do!"

The scene shifts to the third member of the team, Goofy, who paces along cautiously, holding his axe high above his shoulder. While he takes great, wheeling steps with his long limbs, he says a line that is used elsewhere in this series whenever danger is near, "Oh, I'm brave – Ah-hyuk! – but I'm careful!" As he takes another step, a ghost comes up behind him holding a ladle and a big sauce pot and starts banging it in Goofy's ears. Goofy shoots straight forward to the wall and starts tearing through the wallpaper trying to escape, and when he gets through the wallpaper, he starts tearing at the stucco inside the wall. As he does, the ghost reappears behind him and blows a trombone. Goofy runs around the corner and out of the room.

Looking back around the frame of the door, Goofy pretty much creates the entire Ghostbusters franchise by saying, "Ah-hyuk! I ain't-a scared of no ghosts!" He laughs, but as he does, the ghost drops down from the ceiling behind him, tapdances to the tune of Shave and a Haircut, and kicks Goofy in the rear end. The ghost zips to the bottom drawer of a vanity dresser, and Goofy pulls open the drawer to catch it. But the ghost pops out of an upper drawer and rattles a cowbell in Goofy's ear. Goofy stands up and puts up his dukes for a fight, but the ghosts darts inside the mirror of the vanity.

Goofy turns around, and then he and the ghost play out the classic vaudeville mirror routine, used time and again in silent films, Marx Brothers and other early comedians' films, and even I Love Lucy. The twist here is that the ghost looks nothing at all like Goofy whatsoever (their faces, noses, mouths, clothes, hats, and even colors are completely different), but Goofy is just slow enough to fall for the routine for a good while. At one point, the Goof turns to the camera, chuckles and says, "For a moment, I thought it wasn't me." The ghost perfectly mimics Goofy's every move for a while, but finally Goofy starts to get suspicious. "Something wrong here!" he says, and moves in to investigate. Looking behind the mirror gets another cowbell clanging. He starts to move sideways, and the ghost's actions take him in and out of the mirror, but still Goofy remains suspicious. Goofy starts moving up and down, but the ghost takes it too far, and Goofy has him figured out. "I know you," says Goofy while he points at the spirit, who is still mimicking his every move. "You're a ghost!"

The spook pokes him in the eye, and so Goofy lets loose with a wild swinging punch, but as the ghost deftly dodges the missile, it only sends Goofy crashing straight through the glass of the mirror. The ghost pulls Goofy's legs and it causes our hero to spin around and around with the mirror. Goofy ends up falling inside the dresser and then thinks his various limbs at certain points belong to his enemy. He grabs his own throat and starts to choke himself. His eyes nearly bulging out as his face loses its color. Goofy nearly passes out, panting, with his head hanging over the side of the vanity. But he opens his eyes to see a blue object poking around at the front of the vanity. Not realizing it is his own booty, Goofy thinks it is the ghost, and so he pulls out a long pin and pokes the blue object as hard as he can with it. "Yowwwwwch!" is the loud outcome that issues from Goofy's lips.

Of course, Goofy thinks that he has been stabbed, but doesn't get that he has done it himself. "Help me!" he yells, "They pulled a knife on me!" He starts to flail about inside the dresser, grabbing each of his limbs. "Help, Mickey! I got 'em! I got all three of 'em!" (I guess that he doesn't count so well either.) As he battles himself, the four ghosts show up and push the dresser out of the room and down the hall. The dresser hits the stairs and rattles down it, just as Mickey and Donald show up at the bottom to investigate Goofy's noise. The dresser chases them towards a pile of flour bags and barrels of molasses piled in the corner. Goofy's dresser hits the pile with force, and there is an explosion of flour and sweet stickiness that covers the trio from head to foot.

When the ghosts arrive in the room to see the result of their pranking, all they see is three frightening figures arising from the corner, their arms outstretched as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy try desperately to extricate themselves from the sticky situation. The ghosts, quite ironically, start yelling, "Ghosts! Ghosts!" and skedaddle from the premises. They smash through dishes, furniture, and anything else that stands in their way to get away from whatever is lurking in the other room. Finally, knocking over a chair, they crash through the window at the front of the house. The last that is seen of the ghosts as they whimper in fear towards the horizon is their footprints appearing magically in the snow outside. Donald is first to climb up on the windowsill to see their foes off. "So, you can't take it... you big sissies!" Mickey and Goofy join their duck pal on the sill as Donald laughs like a maniac. Iris out.

At nearly nine minutes in length, Lonesome Ghosts takes a leisurely amount of time in setting up the story, and allows the ghosts a few moments to establish more personality than these affairs usually allow such rather cookie-cutter characters to have. The effect of the glowing, almost ultra-dimensional ghosts against the supposedly "real" surroundings and characters of Mickey and his pals works well throughout the picture. As for the attention to detail in those surroundings, Lonesome Ghosts is a prime example of just how luxurious Disney could get in even a short release. That haunted house really does feel well lived in and used, and feels like spooks really did show up and scare away the owners badly enough that they would have left most of their belongings behind. 

Another aspect that I find a truly nice touch is the winter setting, which I feel may have been added just so they could have that final shot of the ghostly footprints in the snow. However it came about, a choice was made, and it works very well and adds impressively to the atmosphere of the short, even in the scene where the boys first arrive at the house, and especially in the opening shot of the house.

This is one of those cartoons from the period where Mickey Mouse's eyes had no apparent pupils whatsoever. Mickey had been through several redesigns – like many characters – and by this point, his eyes were all black – just strange, almost soulless black ovals, though I rather like the effect in several cartoons, especially in this one and in The Brave Little Tailor (1938). About a year and a half after Lonesome Ghosts, with the release of The Pointer in 1939, Walt Disney had Mickey redesigned again, this time closer to his modern look, with the standard large white oval eyes with the noticeable black pupils and eyelids that help provide more in the way of emotion. Those I honestly felt he was doing just fine with the all black eyes.

I started worrying about giving myself pinkeye and or some Georgia swamp illness that I might catch when the Fisher-Price Movie Viewer showed up from Etsy with the Lonesome Ghosts cartridge in tow. Of course, I got out all manner of germ-killin' wipes and bug-murderin' cleaners, and gave the toy's every possible edge and surface a rubdown. Finally I got to the point of actually watching the cartridge. The technical aspects of everything worked fine; the Movie Viewer has exactly one working part: a crank that you turn around and around, in either direction, forwards or backwards, to move the single gear inside the case that turns the matching gear on the cartridge. However, the film inside the cartridge was degraded just enough to make watching the short clip a little difficult. The colors were a little washed out and not nearly as vibrant as I once remembered. (I had always been impressed with the use of blues and greens in the short – an opinion formed from watching the Fisher-Price cartridge over and over again – something that I was reminded of when watching the version on the DVD again.)

But I had my Movie Viewer and I had Lonesome Ghosts (even though I had the full movie on both VHS and DVD already). That wasn't important. Having the Movie Viewer version was. When I told my brother Mark about my purchase, it turned out that he too had a nostalgic moment a while back, and had obtained not just an original Fisher-Price Movie Viewer with an original LG cartridge, but also the larger wall projector version of the Movie Viewer that we never had as kids (we had a View-Master Wall Projector, another item that I miss), along with a box of various cartridges for other cartoons.

It seems that the next time I am up to see him, we have a film clip festival at hand. It could last as long as twelve, fifteen minutes. If I bring the View-Master Wall Projector, a full half hour.

RTJ