Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Baby Bottleneck (1946)

Baby Bottleneck (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1946)
Dir.: Robert Clampett
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9


While visiting Zootopia twice upon its release at our local theatre, Jen and I were subjected cruelly to several trailers for upcoming films of variable quality. Amongst these long-running torture devices was a preview for a future Warner Bros. feature titled Storks. My friends can have all the babies they want; that is fine. But speaking for ourselves, neither one of us cares a whit for babies, or the ridiculousness of "baby culture". We are not the ones to ask if we would like to hold your newborn. When the kid can amble about and hold something close to an actual conversation, then call Uncle Rik and Auntie Jen, but not before then. So, the "wacky" antics taking place in a factory that seems to manufacture and prepare newborn brats for their trips via stork into the arms of their parents was pretty much lost on us.

That said, the animation looked fine, the film carries the Warner Bros. pedigree, and Kelsey Grammar's booming, pretension-soaked voice as the stork narrating the trailer seemed like appropriate casting. Plus, though unknown to me the first time I saw the trailer, the co-director and writer is Nicholas Stoller, who still has some cachet with me because of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Muppets Most Wanted. (I will ignore the underwhelming Neighbors for the time being.) And the other co-director is Doug Sweetland, who gave us the magnificent Pixar short, Presto (the one with the magician and the rabbit in the hat). However, forcing a supposedly cute, giggling, red-haired baby on us after the title is displayed at the end of the trailer did nothing to make me any more excited about seeing the film. It is more than likely that I will end up seeing Storks anyway, though, since I usually end up seeing most major animated feature film releases at some point.

So, my initial (and secondary) reaction to the Storks trailer is really not all that important in regards to my seeing it, but there was something that I did notice while watching it that I feel should be mentioned. In the teaser trailer, the Grammar stork (well-dressed in pressed shirt and tie) regales us of the importance of the stork's unique relationship to human infant deliveries throughout history. As he continues to bluster through his speech, swearing how his factory will not falter in their aims and goals, a skinny, red-haired girl struggles to keep a succession of giggling infants from falling off a conveyor belt in the human infant factory. Her ceaseless but panicked devotion to this task is completely reminiscent of I Love Lucy and the famed chocolate assembly line routine, except this particular red-haired girl never tries to stuff several babies in her mouth like Lucy did with the chocolates. But the inspiration is clear. Or is it?



Because Storks is a Warner Bros. film, and because it is animation, and finally because it deals with a baby assembly line run by storks, isn't the real inspiration for this upcoming film actually Baby Bottleneck? Second question: do you remember -- or even know -- what Baby Bottleneck is? 1946. Bob Clampett classic. Baby factory. Storks go on strike. Daffy Duck and Porky Pig are brought in to run the place. Things go crazy on the assembly line. Raymond Scott's Powerhouse is played relentlessly as the machinery goes nuts and chaos reigns supreme.

Yeah, that Baby Bottleneck. I am sure you have seen it at some point. If you haven't, I assume you must be of a certain age, but definitely not of the same certain age that I am. I saw this film a lot over several decades, and in my natural course of things, I just automatically assume that others out there have the same influences as me. How could you not? Well, that is just a silly concept from the start, because such a thing is well nigh an impossibility. Even my little brothers, who saw most of the same things and heard much of the same music I did growing up (even though we were each separated by a few years in age), don't love and don't dislike all of the same things that I do.

I often tend to write like my readers, even brand new ones, are all on the same page as I am. I automatically jump to the conclusion that everyone has the exact love for a film like Baby Bottleneck that I do, and grew up seeing it dozens and dozens of times as I did. As a result, I can sometimes seem as if I am blind to the fact that others may feel differently or have never seen a film like Baby Bottleneck. And, more and more, I should expect that to be the case, given that much of the internet audience is very often younger than I am. There are entire generations that need to discover these films for themselves, and I should welcome them in to the fold.

So, perhaps I should write about Baby Bottleneck with the approach that I will hopefully hit a goldmine of younger readers who have never seen the film before. They will see the graphic on Twitter, click on the link, read or at least skim this article, convince them that they simply must see this film at once, watch the film, then watch the film forty straight times, and become Bob Clampett fans for life. It's a reasonable assumption, because if they didn't become Bob Clampett fans for life, then they surely must have something broken inside their pathetic little shells. (Well, there I go again...)

Before my inner workings blow a gasket, let's discuss the film itself. At the start of Baby Bottleneck, after the credits flash by over a nicely decorated title background showing a baby rattle, toy block, and rubber ball, we see the front page of the Daily News, where the headlines are read by a narrator. In his newsman-style tone, he reads: "Unprecedented Demand for Babies Overworks Stork." It is now that I should point out that Baby Bottleneck was produced by Warner Bros. in 1946, at the start of a period known famously as the post-World War II baby boom. If you are wondering where the generational term "baby boomer" came from, this is it. If you aren't my age or older, then it is possible that your parents are baby boomers. Or your grandparents.

A lot of economic and social specifics are applied to the reasoning behind the uptick in births beginning in 1946, but what it really boils down to is: everybody in America was super-horny after the war ended. Soldiers leaving the European and Pacific theatres; women leaving the industrialized war machine workforce and returning to their homes as housewives again. My own mother was born in 1945, missing the distinction of being a baby boomer by a year, and I barely got in as one being born in 1964. I'm not proud of the designation; I never have been. I've always liked to point that out since I have tried hard to not actually behave like the stereotypical boomer. Sure, I have a penchant for misplaced nostalgia and a taste for trivia, like any boomer. But otherwise... no 3.2 kids for me. No worshipping of the Reaganite '80s and trickle-down economics. No home owned in the suburbs. No midlife crisis red Corvettes. Doesn't make me any better or worse. It just wasn't my idea of life.

Getting back to the start of Baby Bottleneck, people are getting their rocks off like mad and causing problems for the stork. Not storks... stork. Singular. Apparently, there is one stork responsible for delivering ALL of the world's babies. Well, no wonder he is exhausted. (People can't keep it in their pants for a second, which is doubly amazing since so much of the world is just too damn ugly to be allowed to do it. But I digress...) The stork in this film is about as close as you can get to a Jimmy Durante type, with a very bulbous and enlarged beak. We find this particular bird at -- where else? -- the Stork's Club nightspot, where he is pretty much a puddle on the floor underneath a nightclub table. Drunk off his derriere, the stork swings and attempts to pour a bottle of hooch unsuccessfully into his glass, while mumbling out loud -- in a very Durante-like voice and vocabulary -- to anyone that can hear him. "I'm mortified! I'm disgust-i-pated! I do all the woik and da fadduhs get all da credit! Ummm-briago!"

Our narrator returns to read the next portion of the paper: "Inexperienced help being used to make emergency deliveries." We next see a rather dopey looking pooch who is able to remain aloft high in the air through means of a propeller tail. In his mouth, he grips a pair of baby-bearing bundles that are tied together, and another such pair in his front paws. Tied to his collar is a string that allows him to pull a toy airplane behind him with another baby animal in its cockpit and another paired bundle hanging from the plane. The string continues from the back of the tiny plane across the screen to a small baby animal sitting on a wooden baby scooter that is pulled along through the air behind the whole lot.



A quartet of crows grip tightly to the trunk, tail, and ears of a sweet baby elephant. Next, we spy a pelican that has been pressed into service. He walks past us with his prodigiously sized mouth full of several other babies (none of them fish I might add, or there could be trouble). The pelican is only able to move along through a helpful red balloon that is tied to his tail-feathers and a small wagon riding beneath his filled mouth. Directly behind the pelican is a tiny mouse who is seen dragging along a baby rhinoceros. The mouse, straining with all his might, stops to pant several times in a hurried and exaggerated fashion before taking up his bundle again.

The narrator read, "Naturally, some slight mistakes have been made," and so begins a series of mismatched familial pairings brought on by the disappearance of the stork. A mother goose has been handed a baby skunk, and has to clothespin her nose closed to escape the noxious fumes emanating from her false child. A baby kitten is delivered to a mother duck, who implores the kitten to take swimming lessons in the pond next to them, quite against the basic instincts of her false offspring, who hisses and fights in a desperate attempt to remain dry. "Baby gorilla to Mrs. Kangaroo" reveals just that: an enormous, furry child who beats the spectacle-wearing marsupial several times in the head, much to the mother's dismay.



A baby hippo is delivered to a Scotty dog, who sits in a rocking chair singing "Rockabye, Baby" to the gargantuan child until, with the line "When the bough breaks," the rocking chair shatters under the weight. The Scotty, with the usual brogue, sticks his snout out from under the hippo's bottom and finishes singing, "The cradle will fall!" A baby alligator is delivered to a mother pig, and the reptile, not realizing that it doesn't need milk from its mother, seeks to find an open teat on the mother pig, though the other piglets keep closing their bodies together and make it impossible. The gator then uses his elongated body to push and stretch out a gap in the middle of the hungry piglets, but just as Baby Gator is about to snap down hard on his mother, she stops him. [At this point, there is an odd cut that occurs in all known versions of Baby Bottleneck, where the film jumps to the next scene just as the mother pig is about to say something. According to director Clampett in an interview conducted years before his death, the line was supposed to be "Uh-uh! Don't touch that dial!" but it was actually cut by the censors for whatever reason they felt was appropriate. The scene is now considered to be lost.] Finally, a father mouse has to deal with being the papa of a baby cat. (Different from the "baby kitten" we saw earlier with the mother duck exactly how?) The baby cat seems to be torn between catching his father and just batting at him in a way that is clearly frightening to a lifelong cat-fearer.

It is finally revealed by the narrator/paper that "Porky Pig to Handle All Stork's Problems," with the additional phrase, "Appoint Daffy Duck Assistant Traffic Manager". We see an outside shot of the Storks, Inc. building, a big blue tower that confusedly (it must be a mistake), as the camera zooms in ever closer, shows the small, silhouetted forms of numerous storks flying off in all directions with baby bundles clasped in their beaks. (Wasn't there just one stork and isn't he on strike?) 



At a bank of several upright, candlestick telephones, Daffy Duck, resplendent in a clerk's cap set at various odd angles throughout the picture, leaps from phone to phone and answers the calls of worried, prospective fathers, some of them quite famous. "No, I'm sorry, Bing! You've used up your quota!" and "Oh, oh yes, Mr. Cantor! You say you haven't got that boy yet? Well, if at first you don't succeed...!" Finally, there is a call from a famous father from the Great White North. "Who? Mr. Dionne?" (He being the father of the famous Dionne Quintuplets of Ontario, the first known identical quintuplets in history, who were confiscated from their parents by the Canadian government and exploited for the first nine years of their lives.) At Mr. Dionne's most likely outsized request, Daffy responds, "Mister Di-onne! Puh-lease!" with extra spitting at the end. The calls continue hard and quick, and Daffy slowly starts to lose his once happy composure, finally yelling "QUIET!!!" at everything around him.

Porky mans (or is it "pigs"?) the Control Room monitor board. Using his microphone like he is an air traffic controller, Porky calls the various flights leaving the facility for status updates. "Come in, Royden Stork... Come in there, Storky..." he says, invoking the actual name of one of Jimmy Dolittle's pilots in the famous Dolittle Raid over Japan in World War II. Sure enough, Porky next says, "O.K. for takeoff, Jimmy Doo... doo... eh-da eh-da eh-da, doo.. Do-quite-a-little!" Another clerk in the factory, a dog character, strides in by smashing a hole through the door to show Porky his latest invention that will help the company. "It'll speed up deliveries one billion percent! It's a Luuuuu-lu!" The dog has a large firework strapped about his waist, which he lights in anticipation of rocketing out the window. But, of course, it explodes instead, leaving him nothing but a charred, smoky mess. "Well, back to the drawing board!" he proclaims, and struts back out of the Control Room.

An alarm goes off, and Daffy yells out, "FULL STEAM AHEAD!" Porky is standing next to a conveyor belt upon which are sitting the babies of several species of animals, including a dachshund and a very Tweety-like canary bird. He pulls a lever to start the machinery, and the babies shoot forward on the belt. A large baby hippo wearing a pink bow and bonnet set is screaming wildly, but then stops when it turns to look at the camera, and paraphrases Lou Costello's famous line by saying coyly, "I'm only three and a half seconds old!" She then continues to cry at the top of her lungs.

A hand comes out of the machinery to flip babies with a spatula after another arm pats them with a large powderpuff. Another pair of machine hands ties diapers onto the babies, but is stymied when it comes to doing up a turtle child. It pauses, and the box from which the arms shoot out briefly gets a face of its own. It taps its head and considers the situation, then has a light bulb and the word "IDEA" appear above it, before it pops open the turtle shell, gently places the turtle inside onto the diaper, pins it (with the biggest safety pin imaginable), and then puts it back in the shell. A large egg is also diapered, and then another another egg gets the powder treatment.



Next comes the milking station, where each baby's tummy is filled up to capacity by a gasoline-style nozzle. Baby after baby gets fed, but once again, there are complications because of the turtle (who also, like the baby gator does not require milk). The nozzle goes straight into the turtle shell, and milk spills out of it in several places. Finally, the turtle shell pops open, as an angry young turtle uses a bucket to bail out his home. He curses wildly at the milk station machine as he does so.

A very shapely dress mannequin is next in line, which picks up each succeeding baby and pats it on the back until it gives a satisfied burp. The third recipient of this behavior is one of the eggs, which too gets patted, but when the burp comes out, a large bump appears at the top of the egg.



More babies get fed, but one of the babies is turned over the wrong direction, and gets sprayed in the rear end instead. This causes the Control Room monitor board to display the word "TILT" in large red letters, and for all manner of alarms to go off at the same time, frightening Porky into immediate action. He reverses the machine, sending the sprayed baby backwards along the belt and into a washtub. The baby is scrubbed and hung on a line to dry.

Porky starts to check the delivery tags for babies about to be sent out to their parents. There is one for Akron and another for Hollywood, but suddenly, a stray egg seems to have no tag. Porky calls Daffy to his side and asks him to sit on the egg to find out to whom it belongs. Daffy (whose cap by this point has reached comically large proportions in relation to the rest of his body) wants nothing to do with this. "Oh, no-no-no-no! Sitting on eggs is out! O-W-T! Out!" He turns his back to Porky in protest, and strides off singing, "You must have been a beautiful baby!" Porky runs up and grabs Daffy by the throat, orders him to sit on it, and tries to push his butt down onto the egg. Daffy bounces his butt all over the place to avoid touching the egg, and finally, he climbs on top of Porky's head, screaming "Sufferin' Succotash!" in the manner which we normally attribute to Sylvester the Cat. (Same voice actor, Mel Blanc, and there are always similarities in both of their voices anyway.)



Daffy leaps off of Porky's head, and then pushes him backwards towards the egg. Porky, too, tries as hard as he can not to actually touch the egg, which results in his bending completely backwards in an arch over the egg, held up only by the tip of his tongue on the ground. Daffy takes advantage of this, making his distinctive "Woo-hoo" noise over and over and jumping up and down on top of Porky's arched belly. Daffy pulls out a large board and smacks Porky on the rear end, and then capers in front of the egg before running away. 

But Porky grabs one of Daffy's legs, and the duck's leg gets pulled out to about a hundred times its normal length. At one point, Daffy runs out one door and through another, doubling back to see that his foot still remains in the pig's clutches. When Porky lets go, there is a slapping noise as the foot snaps back into his body, coiling up momentarily like a spring, and then spilling out limp onto the floor. As Porky charges the duck, Daffy tries to reel his leg back in to his body, but doesn't have enough time. He leaps onto the conveyor belt and takes several awkward steps in his run forward, one foot on the belt, and the other farther down on the ground due to the extreme length of the leg. Finally, as Porky nears him, Daffy doffs his cap, pulls a feather on top of his head, and the leg snaps back to its normal position.



Just then, Porky and Daffy react in fear as they realize they are trapped in the baby preparation machine. Porky's clothes get caught and shredded in the gears of the machine, and his pink and naked body looks like nothing more than a newborn infant. As they start to go through the normal steps of the machine -- powdering, diapering, etc. -- their attempts to escape cause the machine to go into overdrive and confuse it into thinking the pig and the duck are part of one baby. It bonks Daffy on the head with a small hammer and slaps a baby bonnet on his head. The machine's unit hands then smash Porky and Daffy together and diaper and pin them in place, with the pig inside the diaper with his legs poking out, and with Daffy as the top half of the body.



The machinery then shoots the now conjoined pair into the delivery room, where they are dropped into a delivery bundle, and then shot off into wild blue wonder in the beak of a stork-shaped rocket. We see the Earth from space with the continent of Africa highlighted by text on its surface. Next, a mother gorilla is shown knitting patiently next to a rocking cradle carved out of a tree trunk. She hears the rocket and then the whistling drop of something coming in her direction, and she knows it must be her baby. She picks up the cradle and tries to position it to best catch the infant, but the force of the fall causes the Daffy-Porky to smash through the cradle and into the ground.



Dazed and disoriented, Daffy starts crying when he sees his "mother". The gorilla picks him up gently and places him in a crib made of banana leaves. As she looks down at her baby, she is shocked to see Porky peek out from under the diaper with his big eyes, and when he says, "Boo!" she instantly leaps away. Calmly picking up her telephone and calling the local radio station, the mother gorilla (voiced by Sara Berner) says, "Mr. Anthony? I have a problem!" She starts crying wildly with a large open mouth. Iris out.

Like many of the Warner Bros. shorts of the '30s and '40s (and especially the wartime ones), Baby Bottleneck is rife with references specific to its time, most of which I have mentioned as I went along. The Mr. Anthony gag at the end is a nod to one Lester Kroll, who under the name of John J. Anthony (derived from combining the names of his sons) dispensed common sense advice to those who needed help (sometimes psychologically) on several radio programs in those days, including his most famous outlet, The Goodwill Hour.

Also, well used here is Raymond Scott's swinging composition Powerhouse, taken from its jazz band settings and given the full orchestral treatment by Warner Bros. house composer Carl Stalling. Powerhouse was used many times over here and there by Stalling from the late '40s and through the '50s, especially any time that large machinery or a factory is included in a plotline, but when I think of the film where it used most effectively of all, it is Baby Bottleneck. So powerful is my connection of song to film that even when I listen to the original version of the song, absolutely unconnected to Warner Bros. cartoons, I immediately bring Baby Bottleneck to mind.

But while then-current references and swing music may add some personality to the proceedings, what makes this film truly special are those elements that Bob Clampett showed us in cartoon after cartoon in his Warner days. A massive amount of gags crammed into a six-minute-plus short, one after the other without a discernible break to catch one's breathe. An exquisite sense of speed; not just comic timing and pacing (both of which Clampett had in spades), but a real talent for showing the immeasurable swiftness of his characters or other objects. Of having his characters move swiftly in and out of surroundings and of not just being merely "animated," but actually creating what appears to be real motion as we would normally perceive it in our three-dimensional world. On top of this, add a sense of humor so outrageous that no gag is beyond him, even being able to give his audience a taste of true surrealism (Porky in Wackyland, as his most famous example) or for allowing us the chance to believe that Daffy Duck's leg is capable of stretching to ridiculous proportions. And that he is able to set it back into place through the pulling of a feather on his head.

And about that leg... Clampett may be my favorite Daffy director. As much as I love the way Chuck Jones employed him in concert with Bugs over the years, that version of the character, despite the variations of gun blasts to his face and the redrawing of his body by unseen hands, still was largely achieved through smart but still rather staid posturing and some keen writing (as well as Blanc's vocal artistry). In Clampett's hands, Daffy is a far different duck, almost totally unhinged. It's somewhat akin to the early Martin and Lewis films where Jerry Lewis is this manic ball of energy that you swear is going to explode at any second. We can argue about whether you find him funny or not (for me, earlier is better), but Lewis -- on a physical level and as pure energetic will -- is a force of nature in many of those films. Here, too, Daffy is almost unstoppable until the circumstances of the story get in his way. He zips here and there, answers multiple phones simultaneously, stretches and twists and leaps and hops and dances. His every movement is as rubbery and unconfined as possible, aided greatly by the fact that Clampett and his animators seem to have given him about 2000 different facial expressions in Baby Bottleneck. His is the manic and bouncy Daffy that I love the most, contorting his body wildly while "woo-hooing" his way into my heart.

What is unlikely to do anything remotely concerned with my heart, apart from causing to cease beating, is Storks. Since I started writing this piece, I have since seen a full trailer for the film, and it veers wildly away from the baby factory concept (though that still seems to be the main setting) and has a great many more characters involved in the shenanigans in the film, none of which seemed particularly interesting to me. I will still probably end up seeing the film eventually, but I will probably not be that excited about doing so. Mainly, it's the babies in the trailer, each one designed to exude the maximum cuteness to the audience, and all of it fails to work on me because I do not find human babies cute the least little bit. This probably proves that I was never meant to be a dad, that is for sure, and the course of my life -- even with two marriages -- has proven that to be a fact.

And so my initial theory that perhaps Warner Bros. was "ripping off" (a term that I despise actively, but purposeful here) their own Baby Bottleneck and the late Bob Clampett? Probably misplaced, but I am going to keep a wary eye out when I do see the film. If there is even the slightest nod to Baby Bottleneck -- a drunk stork, a stork strike, a visit to the Stork Club, a pig and a duck working somewhere in the background -- my suspicions will be roused anew. And if they work in a quick bit of Powerhouse, then the truth will be known.

RTJ

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Springman and the SS [The Chimney Sweep; Pérák a SS] (1946)

Springman and the SS [The Chimney Sweep; Pérák a SS] (1946)
Dir: Jirí Brdecka and Jirí Trnka
Cinema 4 Rating: 7/9

We all have our blind spots. Even when we like to think we know more than a little bit about something, there are always areas in which we could learn even more. 

While I know some people, even friends, who will never admit that they didn't know something, I would rather not come off that way. While I am as careful with research as I can possibly be, and try to read up on subjects before I write about them at length, I know that there are certain areas, even in a subject such as animation or cinema where I would like to consider myself fairly well-versed, I can always turn around and run smack into a corner that I never considered before.

Consider the animated films of director Jirí Trnka to be one of those corners.

I certainly know the name, having run across Trnka briefly mentioned in numerous books on the history of animation or film. The Czech filmmaker, who chiefly thrived from the late '40s to the early '60s, is cited in numerous sources, his animated puppet films of particular interest. In my life, I have definitely run across the title of Trnka's first feature length film, The Emperor's Nightingale [Cisaruv slavík, 1949), before, chiefly due to Boris Karloff having done the narration for the Western release version of the film. However, even with my Karloff fandom, I have yet to actually watch The Emperor's Nightingale. (I shall be rectifying this soon.) I am also fairly certain, from looking at clips briefly, that I have seen a later short of Trnka's, Song of the Prairie (1964), but "fairly certain" doesn't cut it with me. I would have to actually watch the film anew to consider myself to have seen it. (Another situation I shall be rectifying.)



Usually when I post about individual films here on the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, the films are -- not always, but often -- personal favorites or shorts which I consider to be of importance or interest to both myself and my readers. In many cases, I have seen a cartoon short numerous time, sometimes even dozens of times (in the case of films with which I grew up watching them) before I write about them at all. Like most of the internet, there is a drive for me to write about films with a certain popularity as well; the films can even have a smaller cult following at times, but there is general a wish to stick to known subjects in order to get people to stop by the site and spend some time here.

So, let's use this time on the website a little differently on this go-around. I am going to be educating myself this time, by writing about a director of whom I only know fleetingly little, and about one of his films that I have only just watched for the first time yesterday. As a matter of fact, until yesterday morning when I happened upon this title while seeking out a different short by the same director, I didn't even know this film existed. I am going to discuss one of Jirí Trnka's earliest efforts, Springman and the SS, also known as The Chimney Sweep [Czech title: Pérák a SS], a film he conceived and co-directed with Jirí Brdecka in 1946, not long after the close of World War II. If this is your introduction to Trnka as it is mine, then I hope you will enjoy this time spent with me while I muse upon my initial look at his work.

You might not see the importance of reviewing such a film as Springman and the SS in 2016, seventy years after it was released. The title, the date of release, and the country of origin of its creators probably betray instantly to even the novice that the film likely has to do with Nazism, and yes, indeed it is built around that very subject. But all I that I can see, after having watched the film, is that there is nothing but importance in making sure future generations see films of this type. Art that seeks to make the public aware of the dangers of fascistic states and totalitarianism, stress the importance of the freedom of the individual to live their own lives free of state oppression, and of the need to speak our minds and hearts freely without consequence or threat of imprisonment, torture, and death. It would seem to me that such art is of the most critical sensitivity and should be illuminated most fully.

If this all seems like far too weighty concerns for what many would consider to be a mere "cartoon," then I am guessing that you don't consider animation to be as flexible an art form as any other media, and probably think all "cartoons" are for children. If this is so, as I have mentioned before on this blog, then I feel sorry for you, because you have your head lodged squarely up your keister and there is little hope for you. However, since you have read this far, or have even take the time to visit a blog which is expressly about animated films, it is much more likely that you do have an appreciation for the art form, and are aware of just how far reaching and varied animation can be when applied in whatever direction, adult or childlike, and whatever subject that the filmmaker chooses.

Let us review the film at hand. Over the opening credits of Springman and the SS, we hear the insistently booming horns of marching music, while the title cards flip past casually, each one showing a different European country or city -- such as Holland or Paris -- where a particular landmark of that location has been festooned with the ominous black flag bearing the logo of the SS (members of the Nazi organization known as the Schutzstaffel). Once the credits end, we are shown an empty boulevard with buildings on either side. A marching band crammed together tightly in a pack crawls from the horizon mark towards the camera in time with the music. At the middle front of the pack is a bearer carrying a Nazi standard. The sides of the boulevard are crammed with tight housing, and in a nice style choice, the buildings are not drawn but images of real structures. The camera zooms haphazardly towards one of the windows in a brief series of jagged steps and then focuses on a well-dressed man who thrusts his body through the window.



The man has a very high collar that swallows his chin so that he always looks rigid and uncomfortable, his hair is slicked to the sides perfectly, and he wears pince-nez, which give his eyes an oblong appearance in opposite directions, the effect being that each eye seems to be desperate to get away from the other. He also has a ridiculous little rectangle of mustache below his nose. We realize the man is an utter jerk already, and in fact, the man looks remarkably like Adolf Hitler himself. I may be doing a misread here, but although everything that happens because of the man or to the man during the course of the film can be seen as direct satirical criticism of Hitler (both in looks and action), I am not sure it is actually supposed to be Hitler himself. Hitler would have had others do the things the man in the film does; he was about the attainment of power after all, not in performing rote functionary busywork. Delegation was a major part of his power structure. I believe the man in the film is simply a collaborator who has adopted the Nazi lifestyle so rigidly that he himself grows flush with power throughout the cartoon. [For the duration of my recap of the plot of Springman and the SS, I will refer to this character as first "the man" and for the bulk of it as "the spy".]

The man juts his body angularly through the window, and his right arm raises up stiffly in a Nazi salute, his nervous intent is clearly to be seen honoring the occupiers during the parade. When his hand goes up, however, his cheap paper shirt cuff flies off his wrist and onto the cobblestones of the street (also a filmed image and not drawn). The paper cuff bounces along until it is kicked upward by one of the marchers, where the cuff lands back where it started, upon the wrist of the fussy collaborator. As the oompah band reaches the camera, the Nazi swastika is jammed full force into our faces, and the camera cuts back to the man in the window, who adjusts his tie as he closes the shutters of his window, a very noticeable Nazi party button appearing on his lapel.



As he closes the curtains, though, we suddenly see his eyeball peering through a small crack in the curtains. (It is the one time where it is obvious that he is wearing spectacles of some sort, and as there are no temples to be seen on the sides of his face, I assume he is wearing pince-nez.) The camera zooms in on the eyeball, which shoots in every direction, imparting to us that this man is not to be trusted, as he is eagerly (though nervously) spying upon everyone. With his shoes squeaking quietly, he tiptoes in long steps away from the window to his desk. He pulls a spyglass from a drawer and walks back to the window. Looking out again, he spies a chimney sweep dropping a brush attached to a length of wire down a chimney across the street. Moving the spyglass downward, he spies an old woman whispering a secret into the ear of a comely young maiden. The maiden is shocked by what she hears, and the spying man tiptoes back to his desk and writes something in his ledger: "Jedna pani povidala".

According to the book, Prague in Danger: The Years of German Occupation, 1939-45: Memories and History, Terror and Resistance, Theater and Jazz, Film and Poetry, Politics and War by Peter Demetz [2008, Farrar Straus Giroux], "Jedna pani povidala" was a phrase meaning "a woman told me," used as a term of obfuscation, as most rumors were passed with a dose of intentional skepticism built into them during the German occupation. That the filmmakers have included this in the film is a marvelous joke, made literal by the inclusion of women actually passing the rumor.



The man returns to his spying and sees an old, bald man eating a cooked fowl for dinner in his home. The spy writes in his ledger, "Pan jedl husu na černou." [The rough translation I get online is "Mr. eating goose on black," which does describe what the basic action of the old man is, but perhaps someone better versed in the Czech language can help me out here.] The spy looks at the other side of his desk and sees a plate with the stripped bones of a fish sitting there. He jealously imagines a goose of the type that the old man was eating, but then it turns back into the skeleton of his reality. (Hitler would probably not be described as starving in any scenario, however fantasized, hence one of the reasons why I feel this character is not actually der Führer). Angered, he throws the fish bones across the room, where it lands underneath a cabinet. On the spy's wall, a portrait of Adolf Hitler gets angry as well, and his eyebrows knit into a deep furrow. The man cowers before this display, and gets onto his hands and knees to retrieve the bones. [Yet another reason why I feel the spy is not actually Hitler, no matter how closely his appearance emulates the dictator.]



As he reaches for the fish skeleton, which sits next to a chamber pot underneath the cabinet, the spy hears a drumming noise from the floor below his. He puts his ear to the flooring, and the camera zips downstairs to a blond man fiddling with what seems to be a radio dial. The spy grabs the chamber pot, turns it over (thankfully it is empty), and puts his ear to it for the echo. With each continued rumble of the kettle drum sound, the chamber pot bounces up and down against the spy's face. He imagines that the man is receiving a forbidden radio broadcast and rushes downstairs to spy further. The spy slinks like a low dog down the stairs, and thrust his face all about the floor nose-first, practically sniffing out his neighbor, until he decides he has found the proper door. He blows his whistle, but before he is even done blowing, a dozen members of the SS are lined up against the wall opposite him. The spy blows his whistle, and the Nazis get in formation, hold one of their number in their arms, and then use his hard head (because what else could it be?) as a battering ram to crash open the door.

Rushing into the room, the SS members find that the blond man is not acting very surprised at all. The villains see a radio sitting on a crate and seize it up as a group, but as they lift the radio, they find it is not actually a working radio at all but merely an empty frame concealing a quartet of white bunnies. The SS shrug their shoulders in unison and make to leave, but then, in a nearby birdcage, the blond man's pet canary starts whistling the tune to Yankee Doodle. The SS men leap to the challenge, smash the bird cage to the floor, and slap the tiny canary into irons, holding the poor bird aloft by each wing. The spy, tapping his foot impatiently, juts his unspeaking head at the quiet blond man (there is not a single intelligible line of dialogue within the film itself), and a panther-like snarl fills our ears. But the blond man protests his innocence by showing them his statue of Hitler sitting against the wall, which surely shows his support and approval of the occupation. The SS members immediately salute the statue and shout, "Heil!" but then a pot on the man's stove falls to the ground and makes the same drumming sound that so upset the spy initially. In a sign of sheer absurdity, the spy orders the pot to be confiscated on the spot. The SS men do so, and then depart, leaving the blond man smiling while leaning against his statue of Hitler.

Upon their departure, the blond man picks up the statue and moves it to his bed, where he starts to fiddle with a hidden dial on its lapel. The Hitler statue is indeed a secret radio. However, the spy is not done with the blond man, as he sneaks back into the blond man's apartment through a skylight like a snake and discovers the head of Hitler in bed with the blond man. The spy whistles the SS members back into the room, and it turns out that the evil sneaks were already hidden all over the apartment. They slither out from under the shroud on the statue's base, from behind pictures on the man's wall, and out of the workings of the stove. They all jump into the bed with a healthy length of rope, and bind and gag the blond man for easy transport. Hitler's bronze head still sits on the pillow in the bed, buzzing its faraway music, but the spy pulls out a hammer and smashes the statue to pieces. The SS marches down the street with the pot, the chained canary, and the bound blond man between them, and their signature music is blared along once again as they march.

The arrests begin to get more and more ridiculous as the spy becomes more and more enraged though paranoid as his power seems to grow. A dog on the street, after urinating upon an official Nazi structure, is arrested on sight. Two youths in a window throw a couple of banana peels on the sidewalk to prank an old man. When the old man passes by and slips on the banana peels, his attempts to not lose his balance remind the spy of a Cossack dancer, and the old man is arrested instantly as well. A shop sign showing a cutout of a man holding a trio of carpenter's tools above his head gets transformed in the spy's mind into the hammer and sickle logo of the Soviets, and he has the sign-man figure arrested as well.




Meanwhile, the chimney sweep has been diligently going about his duties. He has occasionally looked down at the world on the ground and seen the arrests and the parade, but has stuck to his work. Even when he sees that the arrests has gotten out of hand -- the parade that passes on their way to the SS headquarters has soldiers pulling wooden toy ducks and carrying entire lines of laundry -- he has continued working. As he is threading his brushline down a chimney, the brush pops out the stove in an apartment where a young couple are pitching woo to each other on a couch. The brush shoots across the room and gets caught in the couch cushions. It pulls the couch across the floor to the stove. When the chimney sweep pulls his brush back, he finds a spring from the couch is caught on the brush. He throws the spring over his shoulder and down to the street below, where it bounces on the cobblestones and then under the feet of various members of the SS parade. They are shot up into the air, one after the other.

This gives the chimney sweep, who has been watching everything quietly all along, a great idea. He threads his brushline back down the chimney and pulls another spring from the couch. He attaches the spring to his foot and starts to bounce in place. He sends the brushline back down to get a third spring, but this time, the young couple, who have already been interrupted in their lovemaking twice by the sweep's brush, pull on the brushline and yank the sweep down through the chimney and out of the stove. Now in their apartment, the sweep grabs another spring, and when they try to catch him, the springs on his feet now allow him to easily evade them. Enervated by his prowess, the chimney sweep (hereafter called Springman) bounces out the window and across the landscape towards the headquarters of the SS.

Landing high on the roof of the SS building, Springman peers down into the open grounds within the center of the building and sees the captives being marched sadly in circles. He removes a sock with a hole in it from his foot and throws it over his head, so that it becomes a mask with a single eyehole. He pounds his chest and emits a Tarzan-like yell. Far below on the ground, the spy sees this Springman and points him out to the SS members to have them capture him. Springman grabs the SS flag from its small pole (because what else would it have?), and does a little balletic taunt with it. The SS members are shocked, but not quite as much as when Springman blows his nose into the flag. But the SS have snuck up onto the roof during this routine, and they try to grab Springman en masse. The hero easily jumps out of their way, and after Springman leaps down from the roof, the spy orders each SS member to jump off the roof after him. After each jump, we hear a crashing sound from the ground far below (the sound is more like a gun being fired) and when all of them are gone (and done for, apparently), the spy carefully slithers down a ladder where he tearfully surveys the holes created by each man's fall.



But the Springman is still being chased by scores of SS members. He bounces back and forth across the screen with the Nazis in hot, zigzagging pursuit, but he always stays just out of their reach, taunting them nonstop with the SS flag still in his grip. Springman leads them back over the open holes created by the bodies of their fallen members, and several more fall into each hole in succession. There is a neat precision to their failure, too; after a hole is filled up completely, the next batch of SS continue their relentless forward motion into the next hole, and so on. Then Springman bounces back and jumps on their heads to smash them down for good. Soon, his confidence soaring, Springman is flying through the air in ever greater leaps. The spy calls for a huge fleet of cars to chase him through the city, while the spy himself continues to run along the street blowing his whistle over and over, like a manic caged bird.

There is then a absolutely unexpected cut to a park bench, where two male SS members are sitting down snuggled up to each other, holding hands in pretty much a romantic fashion. With the cars pursuing him, Springman lands in the middle of a fountain next to the SS couple on the bench, and we see another pair of SS members walking hand in hand along the park pathway, also in a seemingly loving manner. It's an odd bit of homophobic propaganda but it is in line with the rest of the film's attack on Nazis in general. At its lightest, it is a way of pointing out that an organization intent on declaring everything with which they didn't approve as deviant was just as guilty of their own, for lack of a better term for so it would have been then considered, deviances. Moving on, Springman continues to pose in the middle of the fountain like a statue, pretending the water is spraying out of him. The spy is not fooled, however, and soon, each and every car and SS member and even the spy are all piled up on the fountain in a mass of broken car parts, bodies, and rubber tires. Except for Springman, of course, because he leaped away at the last moment!

But the Nazi goons are not done trying to capture the Springman quite yet. The spy manages to spin out of the pile on the still moving gears and tracks of various cars, much like he was stuck inside clockworks, and whistles the SS members back into formation. They make a last ditch effort to capture the Springman, who is now sitting high up on a bridge. He suddenly realizes that the SS has him trapped on both sides of the bridge as they run at him from each direction. He leaps up high at the last second, and the SS clods run up onto each other, almost like a fountain, and off the bridge, falling to their assumed deaths in the water below. Springman managed to jam the ends of his springs into the bridge, so that he affected an early form of bungee-jumping to make his safe escape.

The SS troops defeated, the spy completely blows his top and throws himself furiously at the Springman, who continues to waggle the SS flag with great derision. Springman dodges the spy deftly, teasing the spy with the SS flag like a toreador at a bull, and the leaping villain ends up crashing loudly and endlessly through door after wall after door after wall... and so on... through a building. He ends up seated exhaustedly at the base of a bent lamppost, with a huge bump on his noggin. Swastikas swirl about his head in the manner of birds in other cartoons.



Springman stands above him calmly on the lamppost, and motions at the brain-addled spy in the style of a hypnotist. The spy wobbles his way up and over the lamppost, where Springman leads him into a open manhole. The spy comes out of another manhole, and he continues to meander up onto the base of nearby billboard featuring a man in the midst of shaving. The man on the billboard (a photo, just like the buildings and streets) reacts unfavorably (plugging his nose) to the strong sewage stench now emanating from the Nazi spy. He continues to wander aimlessly across the landscape, falling into this or tripping over that, and almost getting run over first by a speeding train and then a passing car obscured by the thick black smoke of the train. He finally crawls up onto the base of a statue of a soldier seated upon a large horse, and the horse's leg kicks the spy off into the horizon.



There is a break from the jail at SS headquarters, and everyone -- people, animals, and inanimate objects -- comes flying out of the building to their freedom from their oppressors. Springman leaps high into the air one final time while the crowds cheer his heroics on loudly. As he flies through the skies, he pulls the mask off his head, yanks the springs one by one off his feet and tosses them away, and then lands back at his work on top of the building. Smiling his broad everyman smile, the chimney sweep starts to thread his brush back into the chimney. However, the bravos from the crowd below distract his attention, and so he misses the chimney completely. The brush drops through the air on its line like a spider and ends up right between the faces of the young amorous couple, who choose the wrong time to lean in to kiss each other. Their faces get blackened by the soot on the brush, but they continue to kiss. The final title card reads "Konec" and the film is done.



There is a title card that appears near the beginning of Springman and the SS. In the English translated version, it reads: 

"During the German occupation, tales were told of a mysterious man who jumped about on springs and brought terror to the occupants with his jumps and springs. Our film is dedicated to this good ghost."



Indeed, there is a legend of a Springman who tormented the Nazis, and he was known as Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague. Tales of this urban legend have not only been written about in several history texts referring to the period of the occupation and World War II, but have led to other artistic efforts besides this animated short. There have been short stories, comic books, and comic strips published as well about this character -- most often portrayed fully as a hero -- and there are in his details parallels to other urban legends of supposedly supernatural beings who leap about and cause consternation to authority and confusion to the public. Most famous of all these characters -- at least to those who speak and read English -- is Spring-Heeled Jack, an urban legend that has existed and flourished in British society and myth for nearly 200 years in various forms.

While I have certainly had a good deal of exposure to the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack, I had never heard of Pérák, the Spring Man of Prague until I happened upon this film. I am very pleased that it is the first film of Trnka's that I have had the chance to see, as it was quite enjoyable and provocative, especially on repeat viewings. The animation style is quite impressive for what must have been a rather tight budget, and some of the effects are simply marvelous to behold. The human characters (the non-Nazi ones) have almost a doll-like simplicity that is appealing, though there are some very effective reaction shots shown for some of the villains that have far greater (and humorous) detail. The film itself runs around fourteen minutes, and I will admit that it probably could have used a bit of pruning, especially in the chase sequences. It does feel a tad long later in its running time. And maybe there is something that could be said about kicking the enemy while it is down, and actually vanquished at that time. But I can also understand the need to tell your audience that you will not let such a thing happen again in your country (though something quite like it rather did). The film is indeed propaganda, but it is propaganda on the side of true freedom.

Since watching Springman and the SS, I have gotten the chance to watch three other Trnka films. My favorite thus far, and possibly one of the finest animated films I have ever seen, is The Hand [Ruka], his final short, made in 1965, four years before his death. I will resist discussing The Hand until a bit later, as I feel it really does need to be more widely seen. There is great irony that comes out of that last film of his that would play against the funeral the state gave him, especially given that the film -- which is one of the most potent visual representations of the need for artistic expression and freedom I have seen -- was banned completely by the Communist state, who saw it as a direct threat to their rule.

For now, I want to leave Springman and the SS with the happy feeling that I have made a true discovery for myself. It is a joy that I come into less and less as I get older, as the films that I have seen pile up, the bulk of them being rather unworthy of anything but the most simple attention (if that). That there are still films out there like Springman and the SS and The Hand left for me to discovery in the world is a certainty. There is a whole world of international cinema and animation into which I have only barely begun to delve.

The question is whether I will get the chance to find these films that are worthy of my attention. There is a collection of Trnka's puppet films on DVD, but it is out of print and quite expensive in this country. It was only through the auspices of some daring souls on YouTube that I got to see these films finally. While I am concerned about artists' rights for the most part, I am not so concerned when that artist has been dead for 47 years. I care no more for his descendants receiving royalties than they would for the fact that my great grandfather's brother used to own orange groves in Anaheim, California before Walt Disney came along. If the descendants have made proper arrangements, then that is fine. Let them collect their checks. But generally, they will get nothing and I will get nothing. It's a very complicated issue, though, and I would hate for Warner Bros. and Disney characters to completely fall out of copyright so that anyone that came along could pervert the original material in any manner that they saw fit, most likely sullying our memories and the intent of such material.

But I feel that films like Springman and the SS and The Hand are in a special category. They are films whose message is timeless and should be studied in every art and history class possible. They go beyond mere entertainment (though they are certainly entertaining) and are true representatives of their time and place in history. They should be made available as widely as possible.

And if I have to resort to the low quality versions that I find on YouTube and archive.org, so be it. Regardless, these stories and their truths must be told. Again and again.

RTJ


*****

And in case, like me, you hadn't seen it...