Sunday, January 08, 2006

The Brave Engineer (1950)

The Brave Engineer (Disney, 1950) 
Dir: Jack Kinney
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

My first introduction to this film came in my youth when I attended Homestead Elementary School, which was built during my third year at another school in Eagle River, Alaska. (Our soon-to-be-divided in half class even took a field trip one day, marching the mile or so up to the location of the still-unfinished building, and for the next few months I was unconsolable, for I adored my third grade teacher and didn't understand why I had to leave her). Over the next three years, since we were without an actual theatre in our town (considered to be a suburb of Anchorage), Homestead Elementary would become the focal point of my burgeoning interest in movies, where they sporadically ran film nights in the gymnasium several times a year. It is in this venue that I saw many Walt Disney cartoons and True-Life Adventures (including the infamous lemming-flinging one), and in one horrible night, a fairly bloody documentary on hunting bears and deer that scarred me for much of my life.

But the joyful memories far outweighed any small bad elements from those film nights, the biggest joy being the night of what I call the Walt Disney Myth Cycle: Johnny Appleseed, Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan, Casey at the Bat, and this film, The Brave Engineer, which is proclaimed to be the story of Casey Jones, the engineer who just had to get the mail through, no matter the obstacle in his path. That I know relatively little about the actual story of Casey Jones does not deter me in the least from critiquing this minor but enjoyable Disney effort. As in any Disney myth film, it pretty much treats the source myth as if it were simply the first story treatment for the film, to be trampled and shaped in any way the studio saw fit until it reached their accepted standard for mass consumption. As this always seemed to work for Disney through the years, why change a pattern for success?

The animation is workmanlike and steady, as is the Disney way, and I would consider the work bland in the manner that I declared Football Now and Then the other day, except that the story here is slightly more engaging (though, honestly, I couldn't care less whether he gets the mail through or not). The film has one great redeeming vocal performance by Jerry Colonna. I have a great affection for Colonna, all of it derived mainly from animation (and one live-action film, Jack Benny's It's In the Bag!, from 1945). While I originally knew of him from his constant caricaturing and aping in a number of Warner Bros. cartoons, it is his performance as the March Hare in Disney's Alice In Wonderland (1951) for which I first admired his unbound and happily obnoxious personality. "Clean cup! Clean cup! Move down, move down! Clean cup, move down, move down!"

In The Brave Engineer, Colonna provides the narration and the imagined voice of Engineer Jones, and spins the tale with such breakneck narration, he threatens to outrace the very engineer into whom he is breathing life. It's Mr. Colonna's wild ride of shouts, hollers, muttered asides and crazed tenor crooning, and while he also vocalized a memorable turn in Make Mine Music's Casey at the Bat segment, which is a far superior cartoon by the same director, in this one he truly hits it out of the park. Bending every syllable about his tongue to the maximum effect, Colonna provides the effect of locomotion that the well-designed but ultimately ordinary animation fails to fulfill.

There is a most interesting aside that Colonna makes halfway through the film: When the classic melodramatic trinity of hero, villain, and damsel in distress intervenes in the picture, with Jerry simulating the supposed voices of all three figures, the hero (in this case, Casey Jones himself) must rescue the tied-to-the-tracks damsel by scooping her up before the trains flattens her. The girl is rescued to be certain, but Casey leaves her dangling safely from the mail hook at the next depot, with Colonna stating without irony, "Look! She-Mail!" I'm not totally sure of when gender reassignment surgery became a widely known phenomenon, though I do know that they did make worldwide news a couple of years after this picture. And I certainly don't think that Colonna was actually making a reference to transsexuality in a Walt Disney cartoon, so I haven't the foggiest idea to what this joke is actually making reference, but it certainly plays in an unintentionally hilarious fashion today.

[Editor's note: The text and photos for this article were updated on 10/29/2015.]

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