Thursday, October 19, 2006

Countdown to Halloween: Boo Moon (1954)

Boo Moon (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1954)
Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

Paramount and Famous Studios jumped onto the 3D bandwagon in the early 1950s, as a great many studios and independent producers were quick to do as they searched for that always elusive, cinematic pot of gold. Taking their two most popular characters, the studio produced a pair of extra-dimensional cartoons in 1953; both, not coincidentally, were set in outer space (because, apparently, at least to movie producers, 3D is instantly identifiable with science-fictional settings): Popeye, the Ace of Space, with the spinach-popping sailor, and Casper the Friendly Ghost in Boo Moon, released into theatres on New Year's Day, 1954.

Apart from his non-stop, whiny search for friends, Boo Moon almost completely does away with the Casper formula: there is no crying for attention, and except for two opening scares on Earth, Casper doesn't go through the usual parade of possible friends turned horrified recipients of Casper's ghostliness. After frightening everyone out of the subway, the producers decide to give us a first taste of 3D thrills, and have Casper flight straight at the screen slowly. Just as his giant smiling face fills up most of the frame, Casper disappears.

Casper happens upon a salesman working the street with a telescope by selling views of the "Wonders of the Moon" for 10 cents a peek. At first, the salesman thinks Casper is just any other little boy, but a second glance has him leap up and then smash himself down into his shoes, while pulling his hat down on top of himself. The salesman then leaps towards the camera as Casper did before, and we see the large sole of his left shoe as he leaps out of frame. A frowning Casper peers through the telescope and sees the Man in the Moon smiling at him. From this brief slice of evidence only, and always desperate for a friend, Casper reasons that the moon seems to be a friendly place. The friendly little ghost undertakes a long, solo flight through space, using just his ghostly powers, to meet the Man in the Moon himself.

When he arrives, Casper is disappointed to find "nothing but rocks and holes," and his long journey has left him weary. Casper stretches, yawns, and lies down to sleep. As he does, tiny Moon People crawl out of the craters, declare Casper to be "a monster" and cage him on a wagon to bring him back to their Moon King. This visual allusion to Gulliver's Travels is incredibly apt, as it turns out, because the Moon King Luna, is played by none other than King Bomba himself from the Fleischer Studios feature-film adaptation of the Swift classic. It is not entirely apt, however, since Bomba played the king of Lilliput's rival, Blefuscu. (Fleischer Studios was notoriously bilked out of existence by Paramount/Famous Studios in 1942, and Paramount kept the film rights to all previously-owned Fleischer properties, including Popeye and their original Gulliver's Travels characters.) Essentially playing the same character, only facing a giant white ghost kid instead of a giant white man, Bomba/Luna is not pleased with Casper, and orders "the monster" to be sent away to the royal dungeons.

Conveniently for Casper (though he could fly out of the cage at any time owing to his non-corporeal form), the Moon Kingdom is attacked by large and vicious Tree Men, who are apparently pissed off about being on the moon when the casting call for The Wizard of Oz took place or something or other, and a violent battle commences. The diminutive Moon Soldiers launch large (or rather, small) balls of fire at a pair of the Tree Men: one is burned through the middle, and runs off pulling his two separated sections together; the other is burnt to about the width of a very tall blackened toothpick, and after his eyes pop open telling us he is still alive (no actual death apart from Casper in these cartoons), the charred stick hurries off in fear.

But the Tree Men won't be stopped. They run to a crater filled with water and suck up the liquid through their branches that serve as noses. The Tree Men squirt the water back at the castle and put out the fires creating the Moon People's only defense. The Tree Men finally break through the gates of the walled city and capture King Bomba/Luna. Casper finally gets in on the hero action, materializing through the ground of the moon, and pulling two roots of each tree under with him and tying them in bows, thereby literally rooting each tree in place. The Moon Kingdom is saved! 

No longer afraid of him, King Bomba/Luna stands on Casper's palm and awards him with a medal and the title of "Sir Friend Casper." Even though he has finally made a large group of friend that trust him, Casper decides to take off to return to Earth, and as he leaves, the Man in the Moon winks at the audience.

Of course, we will never see these "Friends of Casper" again, just as we never see any of Casper's friends again when the next formulaic cartoon rolls around. Until Spooky and Wendy show up, that is. I have two theories:

1) Casper is actually a ghost who befriends and then murders these new "friends" in the space between each film. He is unable to retain any memory of having met or killing these friends; thus, his slate is wiped clean at the beginning of each film, and the repetitious cycle of each Casper film begins anew. Casper is a serial friend killer from beyond the grave.

2) Somewhere there is a Hollywood chapter of the Friends of Casper Anonymous, where abandoned "friends" of the "love 'em and leave 'em" spook meet confidentially to work through their anger issues over Casper. There is Bonnie and Johnny, Dudley Duckling, Wheezy the Elephant, and the ghost of little Ferdie Fox; every couple weeks a rocket lands and King Luna and the Moon People arrive to join in the group hate session, and Luna details an attack plan on whatever haunted house Casper is holed up in that week. The meetings always fall apart when it is decided that Casper is hardly worthy of such attention and rage, but they all agree wholeheartedly that only a truly pathetic individual would spend even a day discussing the life and crimes of a middling cartoon character, let alone five days in a row.

Oh, I think they must be talking about me.

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

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 12/9/2015.]

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Countdown to Halloween: Balloon Land (1935)

Balloon Land (An Ub Iwerks ComiColor Cartoon, 1935)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cast: Billy Bletcher (The Pincushion Man)
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

It's strange how what frightens us as a child doesn't necessarily affect us as adults, or at least, doesn't affect us to the same degree as it once did. Monsters come and go, and we learn how to deal with them, and our nightmare villains slowly get displaced by scenarios laced with elements from our personal realities, wherein our subconscious attempts to allow us to deal with things that might be bothering us or bring us about to learning how to approach the problem when we awaken. The other night, I had a dream that may seem banal to most who would hear of it, but it felt very real to me. Enough so that I woke up shaking and filled with loathing for my own inability to handle the situation. What makes it so odd is that there was no one with a knife or monstrous fanged creature making me feel small and afraid. It was simply a wildly embellished variant on a problem I have at work in how I deal with certain situations. (I am unable to discuss the details, first because of non-disclosure agreements, and second because the details are actually unimportant to the nightmare.) Though I woke up sweating and upset, I did get a solid reminder from the nightmare to curb some of my personality tics when they spring up at inopportune moments in the business world. Personal growth through subconscious fear and intimidation, I guess...

Growing up though, far removed from business-related nightmare imagery, there was the Pincushion Man. Having seen Ub Iwerks' gorgeously designed Balloon Land cartoon a few times in my youth — released in 1935 to a world unprepared for its horrors, though far greater and more real horrors were already occurring — my concerns were not with what an exquisite piece of animation the film happened to be, but placed more with wrestling with my sleeping self as the Pincushion Man would spring to life every so often in my nightmares. While I have had many a restless night in my lifetime, as far as animated characters go, only four of them have ever led me to nightmares, and all of them when I was quite young:

1) The Big Bad Wolf, as Disney interpreted him in The Three Little Pigs and its followups, which I saw occasionally on The Wonderful World of Disney as a kid. Other animated wolves didn't bother me as much as he did, with that malicious glare set hard in his pig-craving eye, though my fear of him came as a direct result of my werewolf fetish, which in turn came from my living in wooded surroundings and from seeing far too many werewolf movies as a kid. (The same circumstances brought about my Bigfoot fascination. Well, that... and The Six Million Dollar Man.) The wolf never bothered me when I watched the cartoons, but leave me alone as I walked home through the woods on a dark winter's night? Forget it... Is it a surprise that the nightmares would follow?

2 & 3) Monstro the Whale and Stromboli the puppet master from Disney's Pinocchio. Monstro was certainly the progenitor of my water-fear, long before Jaws and the Land-Shark came along (I'll explain at a later date), and Stromboli formed much of the basis of my vision of humanity at its cruelest, and when he throws the axe into the remains of the burnt puppet in the fireplace, he opened up a lifetime of woes for my subconscious. I saw this movie way too young (it was one of my earliest films). For a relative comparison, I equate him along the lines of the Child-Snatcher from Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang, also a touchstone of my youth (though it does not hold up like Pinocchio does, not by a long-shot...)

4) The Pincushion Man. It was years until I saw this stand-in figure for Death itself on a television screen again, and it was in The Pee-Wee Herman Show, not the Playhouse, but the original HBO version of Pee-Wee's wacky little world. The short itself was truncated, with no credits and only about half of the film shown, but I immediately recognized the fiend responsible for the mayhem in the short as the one and only Pincushion Man, who pulls pins from his puffy midsection and throws them through the bodies of the citizens of Balloon Land, all of them quite literally balloon people made out of rubber and filled up with air. He is the Bringer of Doom to their people, and all are warned of his ominous presence when they leave the seeming safety of their gated kingdom. He was also the Bringer of Nightmares to me, though I had no idea he would when I used to watch the cartoon once in a while as a young'un. But that's the way that nightmares work: you never seem to really know what is going to affect you as you sleep, and much of the time, you never really understand why you dreamed such a thing. With the Pincushion Man, there were no questions. My young mind immediately recognized him as a source of pure malignant evil.

In Balloon Land, which starts off on one of those idealized fairy-tale cloud-worlds with tens of balloons flying up into the air about a grand castle filled with rubbery balloon towers and buildings, this evil will find a way into even the most secure of strongholds, in the way that evil usually does: through backstabbing trickery and sneakiness. But first, we meet the happy citizens of Balloon Land, and it is a slight surprise that the earliest faces we meet are the celebrity faces of Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, all blown up and acting like their real-life counterparts. We next meet a Goof, whose head floats on a string above the rest of his body, and the establishment of his character at this early point proves important as he plays a huge role later in the film. For now, though, we have simply met a Goof. A man and his wife dance about with their baby balloon between them, and when he starts to float off, they each grab an arm to protect him. A bird, dog, duck and pig make their respective noises in time with the happy music.

But there is work to do in Balloon Land, as well. A rubber tree plant uses its limbs to squeeze its "head", and it squeezes out "sap" into buckets that are manned by various balloon people. Another man works a waffle iron set just below another tree from which some of the same substance drips. As each one drops onto the iron, they are turned into what I can only seem to think are whiffle-balls. When he opens the iron, each one bounces into a large bin. The buckets from the other tree are transported to a large machine, poured in, and then the machine converts the raw materials into new balloon people. An smiling attendant at the other end blows each person up with air, bringing them to life with solid statements of reason. As a balloon man is given life, the attendant sunnily warns, "Beware of pins!" A little boy is next off the line, followed by a little girl, and the attendant informs them at great length of the dangers of the world, and luckily for us, he does so in song:

"Now, beware! Have a care!
You're just filled with air!
A single pin would rip your skin!
And the Pincushion Man in the forest there,
Would pop you both if you don't take care!"

The little boy, puffed up with more prideful air than is probably good for him, isn't buying any of these scare tactics. His response is typically tough for a disbelieving youth:

"Oh, such trash! In a flash,
I would settle his hash!
I'll bust right in and twist his chin!
I'll get rough, I'll get tough, I'll just call his bluff!"

The little girl, however, is scared enough for the both of them, and she finishes the song with her cry of "Oh, no! Oh, no! Please, oh please, don't go!" But, like all kids, they forget the warnings and head off into danger. They bounce over the wall and peer into the forest, rethinking their agenda, but an owl-eyed balloon tree hoots behind their backs and pushes them forward. When another tough tree grimaces at her, the girl says "I'm scared," and the boy counters, "I'm not... much!" Then the tree waves his arms at them and they run off. There is a large rock balloon in the forest, but a skinny green hand reaches up over it bearing a long straight pin. It slams the pin down into the rock, and as the deflated remains fall to the ground, the Pincushion Man stands before us, all dangly limbs and pincushion pelvis, with a variety of pins set into it. He wears a thimble as a hat, and his body, most likely in an ironic statement, is that of a safety pin, though sometimes the pin part pulls away from his nose, and when it does he often grabs at his pointed appendage (which sticks upward on the front of his body, and there is definitely something lightly phallic about its protrusion). As he marches through the forest coldly popping various flowers and trees, he recites this poem:

"I'm the old Pincushion Man,
Terror of Balloony-Land!
Folks all hate me! How they hate me!
Tickles me the way they rate me!
Always have a pin at hand,
That's the reason I am panned!
How I stop 'em when I pop 'em!
Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!"

The kids, though, have not met him yet, and as they sneak about the woods, the boy says "Aw, that Pincushion Man is a fake! I'm not afraid of his pins!" Unfortunately for him, the Pincushion Man has heard this, and sets up an ambush for the two. He leaps about from behind a tree and yells, "So, you're not afraid of pins?!" He stabs at them a number of times, and when the kids back up to a balloon cactus, he pops the flowers set all about their heads. They run away with the Pincushion Man hot on their heels. 

The kids are able to knock him back by pulling a small tree down and hitting him with it, and as he is somersaulted backwards, they run for the Balloon Land gates and bounce over the wall. He bangs on the door while yelling to be let inside, adding "I'll get mad in a minute!" for emphasis. It is here where we meet the Goof for the second time. He opens a small spy-door and as his head floats out above his body, he tells the Pincushion Man, "Hoo Hoo! I'd better not! The folks'll blow up if I let you in!" Seemingly, the Goof has some sense after all, but it is only the most fleeting sort, and the Pincushion Man is able to easily sweet-talk him in a soothing version of his usually gruff voice. "Nonsense!", he says with a light accent to his speech, "I'm your friend! I vant to geeve you something!" The Goof hardly hesitates as he opens the door, and the horrors begin...

The Pincushion Man leaps in and definitely gives the Goof something all right -- a popped body, and his speech is interrupted as his head floats off unharmed. The kids spy the villain and make their way to the alarm, which consists of balloon quadruplets sucking on bottles (I would imagine that you wouldn't have to get the air out of those bottles). The boy and girl pull the bottles from the babies' mouths, and they cry loudly, their heads moving toward the camera and filling up the screen, their uvulas waggling in toddler unison. (I hate crying babies, but it is one of my favorite moments in the film.) As the townsfolk head for shelter, the kids run for a house, but they can't quite fit in the door together. Rather than step back and let one go in first, they both decide to let some out of their valves, and dodge into the shelter. The Pincushion Man can't get to them, so he turns around and throws a pin expertly through the legs of a hapless man passing behind him. The victim shoots around through the air while the life is literally sucked out of him.

The villain starts to throw pin after pin in the chaos of balloon bodies trying to escape his rampage. A clown balloon laughs uproariously at the Pincushion Man's multiple failed attempts to stick him, but he laughs no more when he is left with only a pair of large feet. A caterpillar balloon continues to flee as a series of pins pop each section of its body; at last, only its head is left, but as it starts to cry for help, a final pin seals the caterpillar's popped fate. The kids make it to the guardhouse, and they alert the captain of the guards of the Pincushion Man's evil presence. After the captain's mustache twirls wildly in and out, he has another guard sound the alarm on his bugle. The guard exhausts himself of air, so hard does he blow out the call. Guards make other guards by blowing up new ones from boxes filled with balloons.

They march out onto the street, but the Pincushion Man is ready for them. He deftly pops one after the other as they charge towards him. Another rubber tree plant spits out more sap into buckets, and the guards use this substance in the attack. Some of the guards are armed with huge slingshots, and they fire the sticky stuff at the Pincushion Man, covering him in the sap. As the villain struggles with his newfound stickiness, with the stuff hanging from his nose and also tying his hands up momentarily, one of the guards is twisted over and over again with his arms outstretched. A bucket of whiffle-balls is poured out as they release him, and he spins and spins, knocking the balls at the villain like a rapid-fire weapon. The Pincushion Man catches a bunch of the balls on one of his pins and throws it down angrily. A catapult is loaded up with sap and fired at him, and his entire rear becomes covered in it. The attack methods are all repeated over and over, and soon enough, the Pincushion Man is nothing but a rolling ball of sap, whiffle-balls and wildly waving limbs. He rolls to the very edge of Balloonland, and after a couple of desperate grabs at the grass and flowers to save himself, he falls off into the clouds, never to be seen again. Back in the town, as balloons float and bounce about in victory over their vanquished foe, the boy balloon and the girl balloon kiss for the first time. They both are embarrassed by their action, and act shyly as they blush. Fade out.

It might seem silly now, but this cartoon really affected me as a kid. The Pincushion Man isn't just full of bluster and ego, merely threatening to kidnap, kill and/or devour in the fashion of most cartoon villains; he is the real deal. He threatens to pop the balloons, and he does. Given the people that inhabit this particular land, life and death to them means the difference between being full of air and being popped. The Pincushion Man is a bringer of death to them, and this is shown, no apologies asked. We think that it is all cute because it is an imaginary world, but when you really think about the subtext behind his actions, it is actually pretty horrible. The Pincushion Man kills.

Now, while I have been accused of being full of hot air, I am not a balloon. So, you would think that I would have nothing to fear from such a villain. But it isn't hard to imagine that getting stabbed, even in non-rubberized form, would be pretty painful and possibly deadly, just as with a knife or other sharp object. In my mind, the Pincushion Man became a very real villain, and I was chased about in a number of dreams in my youth. The strange part is, while the balloon world in the film is fully and deeply realized to glorious effect by the amazing Mr. Iwerks and Co., I didn't adopt any of the other characters into my dreams. Only the villain made the switch from public fantasy cartoon to private nightmare world.

After a few years, especially with not seeing the source again for so long, the Pincushion Man receded in my rogue's gallery, as did wolves of all sort, both lycanthropic and real. Whales became an interest, and sharks, an offshoot from my Monstro fear, became a passion. Only Stromboli remains, and while I have never quite worked out my fear of him (I figure that I see him as a sort of god-like figure due to the control that he has over his subjects, and the callousness with which he displaces them), he is the only one that still brings a chill to my spine whenever I watch him on the screen.

After all the horrid creatures, monsters and demons that plagued my dreams through my youth, they have all been vanquished by time and understanding, and now it is only the human figure that stands revealed as the true monster. The question is: what does the evil puppet master Stromboli represent in my head? What is is that I am afraid of, exactly? Is he my fear of humankind? Is he the reason that I have rejected all worship of gods? Or is he (for I have played the actual part of puppet master in my life) my own fear of myself?

Now, how the hell am I going to sleep tonight?

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 11/4/2015.]

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Countdown to Halloween: Spooks (1931)

Spooks (Ub Iwerks, 1931)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

So, what do you do in 1979 when you don't have a VCR yet, and a special comes on HBO with an incredible band that drives you nuts? You take your portable audiocassette recorder, hold the handheld microphone (yes) as steady as you can against the single television speaker and hope to heck that your brother doesn't talk while you are recording it. What was "it"? A comedy special, the name of which I could not remember for the longest time, but research has led me to find that the special was called George Segal's "Best Bets". Since I lost the audiotape recording in the early '90's, the special itself is mostly out of my memory.

But I do recall five details very well. The special was split between comedy and music acts, and it had a stand-up comedian on it named Jeff Altman (who would go on to star that same year in a spectacular failure of a primetime variety hour on NBC called Pink Lady and Jeff) and it also featured a comedy troupe called the War Babies. I thought both Altman and War Babies were hilarious on the show, but I was only 15 and literally laughing at everything. For all I can remember, what I found so knee-slapping back then would probably be met by me with stone silence and the swelling onset of loudly chirping crickets were I to view it today. Who knows? The other three details involve the music on the special. The first two involve the songs that were played by a punkish rock band: a song called Louise, partially sung in French, and an amphetamine version of the Beach Boys' classic California Girls, with the lyrics transposed to explain the travails of dating girls from the various planets of our solar system and why girls from the Sunshine State kick their asses. (I personally, for my own fetishistic designs, will always go for a girl from Neptune, who possesses a dozen arms and legs and three heads.) The final detail is that, through these two songs, I was introduced to a band called Oingo Boingo.

I think of Oingo Boingo whenever I watch older cartoons with their images of rampant spookiness and ambling, dancing skeletons. Disney's The Skeleton Dance, in particular, but there are several others that bring me that Boingo feeling, including numerous Betty Boop shorts with their Cab Calloway songs and lurking monsters. Much of this connection stems from the fact that brothers Richard and Danny Elfman used a lot of old cartoon footage in their stage productions and in the film The Forbidden Zone, and also because Oingo Boingo seemed to be a band which at all times found itself surrounded by images of skeletons and haunted house madness. And Danny Elfman, with his turns as the composer and singing voice for Tim Burton's stop-motion skeleton musicals The Nightmare Before Christmas and The Corpse Bride, has done nothing to dissuade this continued connection to the ghoulish and reanimated.

It is absolutely no surprise then that my thoughts drift yet again to that favorite silly band of my teenage years (and really, I'm still hooked on them to this day) when I watch Ub Iwerks' Flip the Frog skeleton opus Spooks from 1931. The film rushes straight into a wonderfully evocative opening section, featuring the stormiest of dark and stormy nights ever beheld, as Flip the Frog struggles mightily to stay atop his skinnier-than-an-empty-feedbag horse. The wind keeps threatening to blow him off his mount, and the lightning crashes violently all about the pair as they make their way to a rickety shelter. No sooner are they under the structure than it blows away, but they are happy to see that they are only about thirty feet away from a shadow-engulfed house swaying before them in the hurricane winds. They struggle to march through the storm to the front porch, but reach it they do.

Flip knocks on the door, and we see the creepy silhouette of a sinister figure through the backlit window blind, his hands hanging downward like clawed things as it laughs maniacally. Flip does not notice the figure, and with all the fiery panache of Larry Fine, turns to the horse and calmly orders him to "Shut up." The door opens, seemingly of its own accord, but Flip enters anyway. Once inside, there is the sudden flash of lightning, and behind him, the door slams shut. Standing beside it is a skeleton dressed as a mutton-chopped butler. Flip jumps in shock, the lightning flashes again and the lights go out. Flip runs through the darkened house, until he screeches to a halt in a room where a skeleton wearing a top hat sits at a table in front of two plates, apparently waiting for another party to join him. Flip tries to flee the room, but the skeleton barks at him to stop, and then politely bids him to sit down. Flip sits down on a chair, and the thing gallops Flip over to the plate opposite the skeleton. "You're just in time to dine!", the skeleton announces, and it clangs a bell loudly for service.

The mutton-chopped butler reappears bearing a serving tray. He removes the lid, and Flip is treated to the sight of a steaming, succulent... uh, defleshed chicken carcass. The tailbone swipes back and forth of its own accord, and the host skeleton traps it with a fork and carves it off. He places it on Flip's plate, but the frog cheekily tells the host, "I don't like dark meat!" The host instead hands Flip a leg bone (which would still constitute dark meat, I might point out), and an angered Flip pretends to gnaw on the bone. Luckily for him, into the room walks a skeleton dog, who pauses in the doorframe for a sniff, and then, in a great Iwerks gag, lifts his leg as if to mark his territory, but then swings the leg all the way around to his neck to scratch at a flea. Surprisingly, there is a flea -- the skeleton of a flea pops out of the dog's neck and scuttles off across the floor. The dog smells the cooked chicken bones and makes his way eagerly to the table. (Somehow, it still has a tongue.)

Flip distracts the host and gives the legbone to the dog. Then Flip pretends to be chewing and swallowing the bone when the host turns back around. The host happily gives his guest another legbone, but the trick doesn't work this time, for the host turns around before Flip can fully hand off the bone to the dog. Flip has to pretend that the dog snatched it from him, but after a brief tug-of-war, Flip graciously offers the bone to the host. The host is overjoyed at this kindness, and chows down happily on the meal. The shards of bone from his mastication, however, fall through his ribcage and onto his chair between his thighs. (This is actually somewhat of an eerily revolting sight.) The skeleton has an easy fix for this, though, and simply hangs a small bucket beneath his ribs to catch the shards from his next bite.

Of course, it wouldn't be right for a cartoon done by Ub Iwerks to involve the presence of skeletons without adding in a swell musical interlude. A skeleton jazz trio thumps out a swell beat on bass, fiddle and piano, and a well-dressed skeleton lady steps across the floor to ask Flip to dance. Well-mannered amphibian that he is (at least, in this scene), Flip acquiesces to her request, and they hit the dance floor. A couple of times in their dance, Flip runs his fingers across her ribs like a xylophone, and she acts like a tickled schoolgirl, pushing him away as though he were a cad. They dance some more, and when they spin, Flip ends up dancing only with her separated top half, with the bottom following behind them. The second time it occurs, he ends up with her empty pelvic socket at eye level, as the torso dances off by itself. Pulling the ol' girl back together, Flip steps back to take a balletic leap into the lady's outstretched arms, but his crash only succeeds in shattering her into a heap of bones on the floor of the house.

The host skeleton laughs, but his facial expression betrays his ill intentions. (The evilly clutched hands rubbing together probably have something to do with this impression as well.) For whatever reason, the host has four display cases in a trophy room, and only three of them have skeletons inserted into them. The fourth is just exactly Flip's height, but the host pulls out a tape measure to sell the concept to us. Distracting the frog, the host points to a nearby cuckoo clock to remind Flip of the time. The cuckoo skeleton that pops out has trouble making its famous sound, but it spits out a plug of tobacco, and then cuckoos twice to signify the early hour. Flip yawns and stretches, but as he does so, his clothes magically turn into bedclothes, and a candleholder appears in his hand. He follows the host to some stairs, and as Flip climbs them, the host continues to check his measurements gleefully.

In the comfy-looking bedroom, Flip checks frantically under the bed for something, and the host is confused by this action. Flip whispers his problem to the host, and the skeleton points down the hall to the bathroom. (Love that Iwerks!) A sign on a wall points to the door, reading "This is IT!" If Flip even thought about "IT" for a second, he wouldn't go in the room; but, enter it he does, and his candle gets blown out immediately, and the skeleton sets upon him in the darkness!

There is much crashing about and fireworks, and when the lights come on, Flip is tied down to a table in a laboratory, and the host is hungrily testing the sharpness of a giant knife. Dissatisfied with the blade, he thrashes it on a strap a few times, but as he does, Flip flips the table over and runs off on all fours, with the table riding on his back. The skeleton host gives chase, but when Flip hits the stairs, he somersaults down, the ropes come loose, and he ends up riding the table like a toboggan down the bumpy steps. On the floor, he crashes through one, two, three skeleton guards, and then slides to seeming safety out the front door and onto the back of his faithfully waiting horse. He thumbs his nose triumphantly behind him, but the horse turns into a skeleton beneath him. Surprised, but no fool, Flip leaps off the horse's back and runs over a hill to escape the picture. Iris out.

I have heard some people compare this to Iwerks' earlier Disney classic The Skeleton Dance, from 1929. Sure, I guess it's reminiscent -- but only because they both have skeletons in them! The musical-and-dance sequence lasts a paltry 80 seconds out of an eight-minute running time, and the plot of Spooks, such as it is, is several steps more evolved than the basic "skeletons arise, dance, and then go back to the grave at sunrise" set-up. This is not a knock on the Disney film; no, not at all. It is a justly acclaimed classic and a highly important step in animation history. I'm merely pointing out that this later Iwerks film has nothing to do with the other film, except that it is Iwerks taking another crack at a film within the same genre. And doing it remarkably well... and fun.

I can't pretend to know of the Elfman brothers' influences and where they found the inspiration for the skeleton motif that runs through many of their projects, but I will take a guess that they received much of that notion from multiple viewings of cartoons just like Spooks and The Skeleton Dance and similar films. If they weren't influenced by these films, then the dots that I am connecting must have moved in from separate coloring books. But I can't hear a song like Dead Man's Party without thinking, even briefly, about Ub Iwerks' crazily life-like dancing, music-making, singing and even scheming skeletons.

I also won't pretend that the Oingo Boingo skeleton motif led me to my fascination with horror movies and books; I was already there by that point, I just merely needed to play catch-up like any teenager does when he discovers fun or shocking new worlds to discover. It is a game of catch-up that I have played my entire life, and will continue to play. Just as with the likely effect such movies and cartoons had on the Elfman boys growing up, and as with any person, I am merely a Frankenstein's monster patched together from the influences and experiences of my youth. If seeing The Skeleton Dance at an early age led me to eventually to further exploration of the fields macabre, and if seeing Spooks for the first time as a teenager, at roughly the same time that I first happened upon Oingo Boingo, helped solidify that fascination, then so be it.

As James Burke would point out, our lives, and indeed, all of history, are marked by "connections". Some would call them "coincidences" and some would point to "fate" and "destiny". All I know is that I enjoy animations with skeletons in them, and whether it is from a fleeting connection with a beloved band from my youth or from a prepubescent viewing of an Ub Iwerks cartoon, one cannot surmise.

All I know is that I dig 'dem bones...

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Listen Up, You Bloc-Heads!!!

Rare is the post on this site that doesn't involve a review of some variety regarding an animated film of some vintage. In fact, this is only the third one in over six months that isn't built around a cartoon, but it is a necessary interruption in our normally scheduled program.

Since the beginning of the year, I have kept up this blog as a way of keeping myself in my writing trim, as it were; chiefly to force myself to constantly be at work on something, no matter how busy or lax the particular moment happened to be. It hasn't been easy for the last few months, especially after I worked myself into a certain style of lengthy essay each and every day, after beginning the project with each review sporting a mere two or three short paragraphs on each film. That truncated style has certainly gone the way of the dodo, but I could control this current wordiness if I were a better editor of my own voice. The thing is, I don't want to force brevity on my writing at this time. It is the very spirit of freestyling that I am trying to introduce into my writing, and besides, the bane of my existence has been my too-rigid self-editing reflex. As a matter of very definite fact, the true purpose of this blog was to help do away with that reflex, or at least quash about 75 percent of the hideous monster into the ground with the bootheel of my literary freedom.

So, what am I getting at here? I'm trying to explain that by no means was this blog meant to be an actual "daily" blog. And yet, until Thursday, I have kept it up as such. The blog is solely meant for my own personal growth, and while any visitors to it are welcomed heartily, I must stress that while I have strived thus far for historical accuracy and often do a good deal of research before writing each article, this is merely part of the exercise regimen that the site is meant to provide for me. I certainly write the posts to be read by anybody that is into animation -- after all, why else would a make a very public spectacle of myself? -- and the handful of people who have been so kind to check back every now and then and comment on the reviews, whether in the positive or the negative, and especially those who have provided even more information on each cartoon, I thank you all from the bottoms of my two hearts. (Sorry, a little too much Dr. Who lately...)

I must be making it seem like I am shutting down the blog, and you would only be partially right, but we would then be getting to my ultimate point here. I am stopping the site, but only briefly. Starting today, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is going to be on hiatus until Sunday, September 6, 2006 when I shall return with a review of Max and Dave Fleischer's Ants in the Plants from 1940. (Ya gotta start somewhere, and it was the next one in line for review...)

The reasons for this much-needed battery-recharging break?
  • The busted ankle isn't getting any better with all of my desk-sitting. So, a little time to properly rest the thing is well overdue.
  • Other projects have sprung up for which I need to reserve more time.
  • Increased temporary duties at work have melted my brain into mush for the past month or so.
  • And, we are actually planning to take a decent-length vacation at some point in this hiatus.
I will still be posting sporadically on my other blogsite, The Cinema 4 Pylon, with the time that I do have for non-other-project-oriented writing this month. But the Cel Bloc is taking a short intermission, my friends.

Now, for the real reason that I am enacting this hiatus?

Jen read me the riot act regarding her wishes not to be wasting her vacation time waiting for me to finish writing every morning and every night. Very sound logic, that... don't want to wake up in a hotel in the middle of Arizona, New Mexico or Texas abandoned and girlfriendless.

See you in a month...

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Ain't Nature Grand! (1931)

Directors: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 0:07, b/w
Animators: Friz Freleng and Norm Blackburn
Music: Frank Marsales
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Ah, wilderness! I moved away from it, at least, away from the largest single measure of it in the United States, when I left Alaska, and to a certain extent, I miss it dearly. Mainly, I miss the possibility that my dad might call me up spontaneously and ask me to go camping the next weekend. I'm sure that once he gets down to Idaho for good that we will get together and hit some of the National Parks together that lie outside of Alaska. But for now, I am a city mouse, and I shall have to live vicariously through outdoors adventures in the movies to get my camping kicks. In the great outdoors, I never seem to sleep more comfortably or seem as relaxed as when I am curled up in a sleeping bag, breathing in the fresh forest breeze, or just hanging about the campfire with friends or relations (or both).

Not that I shall find such happiness with Bosko when he takes to the outdoors in Ain't Nature Grand!, a Merrie Melodies from the Harman-Ising team in 1931. Not only has he taken the woods with only a fishing pole at his side, but he has also left civilization without his girl Honey, and especially without a reasonable plot or interesting situations. Bosko has left with so little, that he seems to have left half of himself behind as well, since he only seems to appear onscreen for about that much of the picture. In fact, the creators seem somewhat bored with the little guy in this picture, and spend much of the time communing with the worms, birds and bees rather than following the exploits of their supposed lead character. Outside of a couple whimsical moments, the film seems so lacking in anything interesting that upon viewing it, the film threatens to dissolve into snow on my television screen, somewhat like a reverse version of a magic picture poster.

After shooing his dog away, Bosko sits down on a lakebank to pursue a little fishing pleasure. For him, that is, not the fishies. Of course, he sits down next to a sign reading "NO FISHING", and while something will come out of this set-up, if you think any conflict with a park ranger or policeman will ensue here, then you have the wrong film, buster. Bosko wishes to bait his hook with the worm that he brought, but the little fellow pleads for mercy and a big-hearted Bosko lets him go. Desperate for something else to use as bait, Bosko has the swell idea of removing the letters N and O from the sign, not only using them as worms for the hook, but also making his actions completely legal (at least, on first appearance).

In an extended sequence, the worm scurries off to his hole, but a bird coyly follows him, but when the worm makes him out, the bird gives rapid chase to the panicking wriggler. The worm dives into a hole but the bird tries to pull him out. Luckily, there are three other holes nearby that form a square with the other hole, and the worm stretches his body so that he laces through all of them and ties himself about a plant stem. He then pulls the bird through all of the hole, subsequently defeathering the naked avian in the process. The bird picks up his feathers and dons them anew like a coat, and after the worm blows a raspberry at him, the bird highhats the wriggler and struts off.

Meanwhile, Bosko is getting no bites at first, but finally a fish grabs on and Bosko pulls him from the water. The little fella slips free of Bosko's grasp, but after a couple of similar swipes, Bosko finally manages to hang on to him. Bosko ask rhetorically, "Ain't that cute?", but the fish spits in Bosko's eye and makes his escape. Not that flibberdigibbit Bosko cares; he is off chasing a beautiful butterfly. (This part has some particularly fun animation, with Bosko and the butterfly moving closer and farther from the screen in turn throughout the chase.) Bosko comes upon a waterfall, where bees dance from rock to rock and a spider plays his web like a harp and rings flowers like percussional bells. Bosko starts to "La-la-la!" along with the music and then prances and skips through the waterfall and over the rocks. On the far side, a pelican spits up four frogs, and the amphibians link arms with Bosko and form a kickline.

A large spider dances along to the music, following by four spider babies (and I don't mean the Jack Hill sort). The spider shimmies up to the top of a flower and spreads its legs out, and the little spiders spin about from the legs as if they were dancing about a maypole. All of these sorry excuses for entertainment can only lead to trouble, and it does, in the form of two mischievous bees and their dragonfly buddy. The bees pluck a daisy, strip it down to two petals, strap it to the dragonfly's bent tail, and then wind up the daisy. The flower works like a propeller and the dragonfly zooms off with the bees on his back like bombadiers on a warplane. (Uh, the dragonfly can fly already, boys - he doesn't need a propeller.) Regardless, the illusion is completed by the fact that the bees have hefted a rock up with them, and when they fly over the still dancing Bosko and his froggy pals, the bees bomb the rock onto Bosko's head. The bombers then head to a tree and grab a beehive, tap it with a section of thin hollow log and then use it to machine gun Bosko with bee after angry little bee. They force Bosko to leap into a fountain, and the bees depart. Bosko pops up to the top of the fountain and poses like a statue. Iris out.

Zzzz... huh?! Wha-?! Oh, I'm sorry. I must have dozed off. Seriously though, what's up with the proportion on these bees? When they pick up the rock, it is barely the size of the pair of them together. But when they drop it on Bosko, it is bigger and wider than his head. When they get near him, it is easy to see that the size of the rock must have changed in mid-drop. Perhaps the bees (or beetles of some variety - they are bigger than all of the other bees and their unused wings are different, but they bear stripes like bees do) have magical abilities that allow them to change the mass of hurled projectiles. Or perhaps they used their mutant X-bee/beetle powers to effect this transformation.

Whatever they can do, if this is the best that Bosko's middling (though well-animated by Mssrs. Freleng and Blackburn) wilderness has to offer, then I need to dream about camping somewhere a little more exciting and not so generic. Someplace where the characters break into some actual scat singing instead of poncy la-la-la-ing. Someplace where the frogs skip the kicklines, and mainline instead with a trumpet valve. Some savage wilderness where a hot chick with a high garter dodges monsters and wolves, even of the human variety, disabling them all with her cool way with a red hot jazz tune. Anyplace but here in Generic Goody-Goody Land.

Mmm-mwyah! Huhmmm... why am I so sleepy? Oh, that's right. I've barely slept in days. Must be the city life and the business walk of the damned. I think it's time we escaped, my son! (Thanks, Ian Dury...) Hit the open road and take a relaxing trip to revisit the beauty and grandeur of nature. And, in the words of the similarly afflicted Mr. Fudd, get some "west and wewaxation at wast!"

Just can't do it in Bosko's neck of the woods. He'll la-la-la me to death...

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Barnyard Brat (1939)

Director: Dave Fleischer //
A Max Fleischer Color Classic, Technicolor
Animators: Myron Waldman and Tony Pabian
Cinema 4 Rating: 4

Who deserves a spanking in The Barnyard Brat? The obnoxious little donkey turd named Spunky, the indecisive mother named Hunky, or the far too anxious to commit child abuse barnyard animals? Well, none of them. (Except that little brat donkey is asking for something horrible to happen to his innards...) No, the Fleischer Brothers deserve the worst beating imaginable for unleashing this weird series of donkey films on mankind. While I am the generally the biggest defender of the Fleischer Brothers in even their most unsuccessful turns (such as their forays into feature films), I have no love to spare for the Hunky and Spunky shorts, even the Oscar-nominated original short from 1938. Released as part of the Color Classic series, which went to great lengths to duplicate the mood and look of Disney's Silly Symphonies, the Hunky and Spunky featured an adult-and-child donkey pair possessed of little or no visual appeal whatsoever. Grotesque and grating at every turn, I'd sooner watch a donkey show than one of these donkey cartoons. At least with the donkey show, disgusting and weird as it might be, you'd at least can guess the sort of hellishness into which you are descending.

In The Barnyard Brat, the title refers to the annoying childish braying of Spunky as he throws an immense tantrum. He won't eat his hay, and just brays and cries. A grandmother duck comes up and motions to Hunky that she must punish Spunky with a good smacking. Spunky raises her hoof, but can't go through with the action. A rooster says something about smacking the brat, but Hunky tries to get her charge to eat a bucket of oats. Spunky butts the bucket into the air, and it sticks on his head. Hunky pulls the bucket off, but takes a spill and falls into the water trough. Spunky runs off and pulls all the wool off an unsuspecting lamb. The mother sheep discovers this and reports it to Hunky. Spunky drinks all the water in a small pond full of ducks, and they are left in the mud. The mother duck reports this to Hunky. Baby chicks, who are enjoying some corn off the cob, are shooed away by the pushy Spunky, who steals the corn and eats it.

The barnyard animals have had enough. After the rooster forms a committee and devises a plan to teach the youngster a lesson, the goat runs the bucket from the well towards Spunky and butts it over the young donkey's rear. The other animals winch Spunky towards the well with the bucket's rope, and then dunk Spunky over and over in the deep water of the well. Hunky, moping off by her lonesome, hears her child's cries of anguish and runs to his rescue. She kicks various items of trash at the barnyard animals to disperse them, and then she pulls Spunky out of the well. She tries to console the screeching Spunky, but he only kicks her in the face several times. Pushed to her limits, but unwilling to punish the kid directly, he does the only thing she can: he takes him back to the well and drowns him.

No, we couldn't be so lucky. Actually, she spanks him by turning the crank for the bucket and letting it swing around and around, swatting him each time. The barnyard animals cheer his comeuppance, and then Hunky brays to him that she wants him "to be a good boy." Spunky seems to do just that, and he attempts to make amends by skipping over to the corn bin and dropping out several ears for the other animals. He invites them over to partake of the kind gift, and they happily run over to do so. As they fill their mouths with the corn, Spunky kicks the bar out of the corn bin and covers the whole lot of them with a heaping pile of corn. He laughs and slides down the mountain of corn, but Hunky is waiting at the bottom. The gloves are off. She takes a swipe at his head with her hoof, and chases him into the corral. Iris out.

I don't know what is less appealing: the creepily large head that rests on Spunky's tiny shoulders or the use of child punishment as the theme for an entire cartoon. My own feelings towards the spanking of children are muddled, but then again, I wouldn't bring them into the world to begin with. Certainly there are children who need to be reminded of their place now and then, but I don't think the solution to this question is going to be found in a Fleischer Brothers cartoon. Especially when the solution to the question involving Spunky is that he should be swiftly and mercilessly eviscerated and then rendered into shellac. It's hard to work up any sympathy for a character when the immediate impulse at even his most appealing moments is to have him disemboweled.

Or, perhaps there is another way to go. How about a new form of donkey show? How about we take Spunky and shove his giant noggin up Hunky's ass? I go to Tijuana to see that. In fact, it's the only reason I'd go there. And the only reason I could possibly wish to allow myself to be in their company again.

Oh, crap... there are several other H&S films with which I must deal. Ohhhhh, crap...

[A word of warning if you are planning to look up images of Hunky and Spunky on the internet. Turn your safe mode ON. My goodness, the things you will see otherwise...]

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Yankee Doodle Daffy (1943)

Yankee Doodle Daffy (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1943)
Director: I. (Friz) Freleng
Writer: Tedd Pierce
Animators: Richard Bickenbach
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Billy Bletcher
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

I miss my usual Fourth of July gang, hanging at my buddy Leif's place, which just so conveniently lies across the street from Anchorage's Mulcahy Stadium, where the annual fireworks display goes off at midnight, after we have partied hard all day with a barbecue, water fights, bocci ball, frisbee and dealing with drunk guys on bicycles when they invade the party because they once lived in the same house.

The party is just getting started back home as I write this, and as I watch my Fourth of July tradition, that of watching ESPN's coverage of the Nathan's Famous International Hot-Dog Eating Contest, an event that simultaneously repulses and fascinates me, I am reminded how I tortured the gang my last couple of summers in Alaska by practically forcing them to watch this culinary gross-out. Outside of the fact that they take place annually on the same day, the connection between the contest and the holiday is tenuous at best (I don't recall hot dogs having anything to do with helping us gain our independence). I guess that it is the barbecue aspect of both items that binds them together now in my mind.

I look back on the fireworks displays in Anchorage, and while they have always been somewhat laughable in relative terms of size and complexity, I miss them to a large degree. Since I have moved near Disneyland, fireworks are nearly a nightly occurrence. I can see them from our home if we go outdoors and down the street a few hundred feet, but we can always hear them loudly and very clearly every time. Especially tormented by this are our baby girls -- our pups -- one of whom, our little delicate flower India, tends to shake and hide when she hears the noises, and also refuses to go outside if they are booming.

The smallest Disney displays put even the largest Anchorage display to shame, but I still miss the Anchorage ones, if only because I miss the Bohemians (my gang) dearly, and if I weren't going to Rob's wedding later in the month, I would have taken some time off and sprung a surprise on the louts. What I don't miss about the Anchorage display is the fact that it never takes place on the Fourth of July. They do them at midnight (because Anchorage is very light in the evening at this point of the summer, so they wait until it is sort of the darkest but not really), so the event actually takes place on the Fifth of July. (I am throwing out my usual "Unday" rules on this subject.) The connection between the Fourth, a day celebrating the gaining of America's independence from England, and the Fifth -- a day celebrating, uh, the next day, I guess -- is tenuous at best. Oh, yeah... they both happen in fucking July. Get it right, people.

Except for the title, and a verse from a war song, what does the Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, show biz opus Yankee Doodle Daffy have to do with the Fourth of July? A little bit more than a hot-dog eating contest and a little bit less than a fireworks display that occurs after the holiday it is celebrating. What the cartoon does have is a parodic title playing off of Warner Bros.' very own Oscar-devouring Yankee Doodle Dandy, and it is around that film's myriad scenes taking place in talent agencies that this animated short builds its plot.

Porky Pig is the going-on-vacation president of Smeller Productions, and with only ten minutes to catch his plane, Porky hangs a sign on his door announcing "No Casting Today". "Hold everything!", yells Daffy Duck, startling Porky as he leaps through the door. He grabs the luggage from the pig's grasp and sets them back inside the office. He does likewise with Porky's golf clubs, and then his golf cap, but Daffy can't resist plopping the cap on his own head, sizing it up in a mirror, and then giving his opinion of the cap, muttering "Poo!" quietly. He forces the pig to sit down, and tells Porky that "Opportunity is knocking!" and proves it by rapping on the pig's head with his knuckles. Daffy presents his business card, which portrays the duck as an "Actor's Agent" and then settles into his pitch, despite Porky's protestations to leave.

Daffy announces that he has found "the most sensational discovery since the sweater girl!" (Well, after that, this is surely going to be something truly special indeed…) Daffy continues: "He's colossal! He's stupendous! One might even go so far to say -- he's mediocre!" Porky has been slowly sucked into the pitch, so the duck finishes his introduction, with hyperbole that would put Stan Lee to shame: "I give you that paragon of pep and personality -- Sleepy Lagoon!!" With a burst of fanfare, Daffy points towards the couch, where a small duck sits licking an enormous purple lollipop, larger even than the size of his own head. Sleepy shoves the sucker into his mouth, causing his head to warp to the lollipop's dimensions, and then turns the lollipop a couple of times about the inside of his mouth, forcing his head to stretch with each spin. Daffy continues to pitch Sleepy to the pig, and as he rolls along merrily, it becomes clear that he is determined to act out every part of Sleepy's show himself.

Donning a straw hat, Daffy launches into a boisterous version of I'm Just Wild About Harry, and he punctuates the song with his own string of increasingly silly rhymes to the actual lyrics. As justification for how over the top Daffy’s sales technique is, in the middle of the song, Sleepy casually holds up a sign with a picture of a large ham…

“I’m just wild about Harry,
and Harry’s wild about me!
Oh, the heavenly bah-lisses 
of his kisses
fills me with ecstas—!”

Daffy interrupts the “y” in “ecstasy” to jump onto Porky briefly to proclaim, “This is just a rough idea, ya understand?” He then returns to his song…

“He's sweet just like chocolate candy
or just like honey from a bee!
Yes, I’m just wild about Harry,
and he’s just wild about…
cannot do without…
he is from the South…
can’t ya hear me shout…
talkin’ with my mouth…
could you ever doubt…
he’s just wild about me!!”

As Daffy finishes the song, he catches Porky making an escape, and he grabs the pig and sits him back down. Daffy starts to describe the audience's applause, and Sleepy holds up a sign with a picture of a screw and another picture of a baseball. Daffy, who is indeed both a ham and a screwball as Sleepy suggested, zips through a frenetic banjo solo, but Porky tries to run out again. "Just a minute, chubby!" (Daffy is suddenly standing on the outside of the door.) "You ain't seen half of the kid's repertoire-y!"

Daffy sits the pig down once more, and dons a Carmen Miranda-outfit, complete with assorted fruits piled high on his head, to knock out a “boom-chicka-boom” number. (Sleepy's response to this? A picture of corn on the cob.) Porky bolts again, but when he opens the door, Daffy is on the other side dressed up as Pagliacci. He starts to sing Laugh, Clown, Laugh and then follows suit, laughing maniacally and adding his trademarked leaps and “hoo-hoos” into the mix.

Porky runs to the next door, but out pops Daffy again, this time wearing a cowboy hat. He jumps on top of Porky, and rides the pig like a bucking bronco through the office, singing the then-popular song Cheyenne, but with these lyrics in place of the real ones:

"I'm a cowboy, yessir, I am!
Yessir, I am a cowboy, yessir I am!
I'm a cowboy, yessir, I am!
Yessir, I am a cow-how-boy! Yee-hee!"

Porky manages to buck the duck off his back, and sends him flying into an open safe, which Porky locks up with a devious grin. He creeps to the door, grabs his bags and cap, and heads off for his vacation. The plane takes off from the airport, and inside the cabin of the plane, Porky sighs with relief and relaxes in his seat. From the cockpit, we hear the familiar voice of Daffy Duck, who has taken over the pilot's role, as he sings We Watch the Skyways. Porky leaps out of the plane, and pulls on his parachute ripcord. He floats gently to the ground below, but he hears Daffy lightly singing Angel in Disguise above him. He looks up, and Daffy has taken the place of the parachute. Regardless of the duck’s added weight (though I suppose he could fly them down if he wished), Daffy continues to serve faithfully as a parachute and they land safely on the roof of the Smeller Agency building.

As Daffy chases Porky down flight after flight of stairs to the strains of the William Tell Overture, the overreaching duck sings his own mash-up of lyrics both purloined and nonsensical:

"Over hill and over dale
We're always on the dusty trail,
Hunting fox and hunting quail.
Tally-ho! I’m a hunting fool!

Giddy up! Giddy up! Giddy up!
My horse and I are of the finest breed!
Giddy up! Giddy up! Giddy up!
Just like the wind I ride my stalwart steed!

Sure of foot and sure of eye,
Peeling onions makes me cry!
This makes no sense and so do I!
So don't you go and beat me daddy to the nearest bar!

Back in the office, Daffy doesn't allow Porky a moment to rest from the chase. He launches into the kid's finale… “And what a finale!” he terms it. Suddenly, there are many superimposed versions of Daffy doing a variety of tricks: unicycling, juggling, balancing, somersaulting, and most shockingly, performing acrobatics in tandem with another Daffy. Porky can stand no more. He yells at Daffy to stop the onslaught of spectacle, and to simply let him see what the kid can do.

At this cue, Sleepy Lagoon jumps off the couch, methodically places his giant purple lollipop inside an appropriately shaped case, and turns to sing to Porky. In an incredible baritone voice that doesn't quite jibe with his diminutive stature, Sleepy boldly sings "Let springtime's blossoms bloom again in the garden of ---!!!" At this point in the song, Sleepy emits a gigantic wheeze, and he starts to cough much like a breath-shortened smoker. He has to choke out the last two words, "-- my heart!", as he continues to cough until the film irises out.

More than one person I know or have read has proclaimed their indifference to Daffy in this film because he is so annoying. Hello? Have you missed the point here? Daffy is supposed to be a pain in the ass, and not just in this film, but nearly all of them. Here, with his "Hoo-hoo!" persona still well intact, he quite tangibly pushes Porky to the very brink of his sanity. Daffy clearly wants to be the best talent agent that he can, and he pitches his client like no agent ever has in the history of show business, but that's not enough for Daffy. His ego overtakes him and forces him to act out Sleepy's repertoire.

Yeah -- Daffy's annoying. But he's my kind of annoying, he is brilliant at it, and we are all the better for it. Yankee Doodle Daffy, whatever else it may be, is a triumph of character work; the backgrounds and other visual elements play a deeply secondary role to the reactions of the characters and Mel Blanc's always stellar voice work. It has always been one of my secret Looney Tunes favorites, perhaps not in the upper echelon of classics, but definitely running just behind that pack.

So, what does Yankee Doodle Daffy have to do with a hot-dog eating gross-out contest and a Fifth of July fireworks display? The connection between the three is tenuous at best, except that I have now written about them on the Fourth of July. And that's about all the Independence day kismet that I can take. Did you really think that I was going to write about America and all that blind faith flag-waving hoo-hah? Especially when we have a country whose actions seriously counteract everything for which it supposedly stands? Do you like invading country after country on the slightest whim of our leaders (and the oil companies)? Do you like how racism and misogyny continue to write the headlines of the day when we are supposed to a nation of equals? Do you miss habeas corpus? (Because I guarantee you, someday you might.) And how does Gitmo make you feel? We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Now I am in a bad mood. I knew that I should have just watched Reds again today. I do still miss my friends, though. And, with vegetarian Jen at work right now, I am having potato chips and hot dogs by myself at home in my own small version of a George Foreman Grill "barbecue". (America, fuck yeah...)



And in case you haven’t seen it…

[This article was updated on 12/30/15. Leif no longer lives across from Mulcahy Stadium, I stopped watching the annual hot dog eating contest because, well, it's gross, and I rarely see or hear fireworks as much anymore since we moved 30 miles away from Anaheim last spring. The political references near the end of this piece are based on my feelings when this was initially posted in July 2006. Not that much has changed since then, and I still feel the same way.]