Monday, January 23, 2006

I Haven't Got A Hat (1935)

I Haven't Got A Hat (Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 1935) 
Dir: Isadore "Friz" Freleng
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

"I'd tip my hat to you,
I'd do just that!
I'd tip my hat to you,
but I haven't got a hat!
(Bo bo-bo bo-bo bo-bo boom!)

I'm just a college boy.

Even at that,
I'd tip my hat to you,
but I haven't got a hat!
(Bo bo-bo bo-bo bo-bo boom!)

I'm really not a sap,

it's plain to see.
But if I wore a cap,
they'd never let me back
in the university!

I think you're swell, I do,

I'm standing pat!
I'd tip my hat to you,
but I haven't got a hat!

It's all about Ham and Ex.

Beans the Cat? Oliver Owl? Miss Cud and Little Kitty? They all deserved their one-way trip into The Hell of Poorly Conceived Cartoon Characters. And Porky Pig? Well, the Porky in I Haven't Got a Hat -- kind of an all-star character jam from Warner Bros. in 1935 where none of the characters were actually stars yet -- while he does stutter to marvelous effect, is a long way (physically and vocally) off from the beloved pig that was to slim down and spring into eventual stardom, catching his tongue on every other syllable.

You can say that Porky was the one who came out of this character traffic jam unscathed, because he did become a star after all, partially due to this film's success serving as a springboard to his continued development. But after a single watching of I Haven’t Got a Hat, you would realize that you were dead wrong. For no matter how history wants to paint things, Porky Pig is not the true star of this picture.

Since the time I first saw this light and fun cartoon, there was one scene, and one scene only, that truly stood out for me: two tan and white pups, punningly named Ham and Ex, singing the title song, I Haven't Got A Hat. Not even in the film for forty seconds (counting their introductory appearance), the two dogs nail the center of the picture down with their show-stopping number, with Ex (I guess he's Ex; he is the one on our right) punctuating the oddball lyrics with bursts of a doo wop-style basso.

The song stuck in my head for the next twenty-plus years, and Ham and Ex were stars, if only inside this same head that sucked up that unshakable ditty. In the real world, the pair only made three more films, all directed by Jack King, the eventual longtime Donald Duck director for Disney, who was one of the animators for this film: The Fire Alarm (1935), The Phantom Ship and Westward, Whoa! (both 1936). This gave them one more film than Jones' later Two Curious Puppies characters. Shuffled off to an undeserved obscurity, Ham and Ex had as much of a comeback as they are likely to make with a cameo appearance in the casino scene in Looney Tunes: Back In Action in 2003.

Ham and Ex and the rest of the cast (save for Little Kitty, who was probably in the sandbox at the time) are introduced at the start of the film with individual spotlights, before the film opens up to the story at hand. There is a "Musical and Recital" talent show at the schoolhouse overseen by the bovine schoolmarm, Miss Cud. She introduces each act to the assembled students and mothers, beginning the show with Porky Pig. The tremendously fat swine busts into a spirited but stuttered rendition of Longfellow's The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, slapping his bare bottom to simulate the gallop of the horse. The cannons to the left of him are provided by a cute turtle pounding on his shell with drumsticks, and the cannons to the right are provided by a fellow dog student dropping a box of light bulbs from atop an offstage ladder. The class whistle outrageously, and Porky is herded off the stage by some very responsive and frisky dogs (who are acting like regular dogs, unlike Ham and Ex).

Little Kitty takes the stage to recite Mary Had A Little Lamb. She is forgetful at the beginning (aided twice by Miss Cud), but once her need to urinate (!) arises, while she does better at remembering the verse, her impatience swells along with her bladder, and she runs off the stage to attend to more personal affairs in a distant outhouse (or rather, the aforementioned sandbox).

Ham and Ex perform their number and thereby make it impossible for anyone following them to steal the show. They come in like professional troupers, ready to knock out their scene in the time allotted and leave the stage on cue. Ham and Ex are never seen in any of the classroom shots, and the lack of familiarity with them probably helps make them far more memorable than they probably deserve to be. They perform like they have been to the manner born, or at least have an incredible stage mother who has coached them endlessly.

Midway through the song, after mostly standing still since their entrance, Ham and Ex hit us with some fancy dance steps. Then, as swiftly and smoothly as they took the stage, they exit it, but not before Ex pops his head around the side of the frame for that final "Bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-boom!" It is a marvelous performance, and pretty much overrides anything else before in the picture or that occurs next. 

Master Oliver Owl, all turned-up beak and snooty attitude, takes the stage for a piano recital. A troublemaker, Beans the Cat (the supposed "star" of this picture), tries to steal Oliver's bag from his desk, but the owl snatches it at the last second before taking the stage. As Oliver pounds out a perfunctory tune, Beans, who I have mentioned is a cat that goes to the school, finds a "normal" cat and normal dog and puts them under the piano lid. The piano starts jumping, and accidentally plays von Suppé's Poet and Peasant Overture on its own due to the frenetic cat-and-dog chase going on inside the workings of the piano. The class only sees a piano that they believe is being played by the awesome manipulations of Master Oliver; once the dog and cat climb out and the tune stops, the class boos Oliver profusely.

An upset Oliver realizes that Beans, outside the window atop a ladder, is the culprit, and squirts the green ink from his pen at the cat. The cat falls off the ladder onto a board opposite a conveniently placed can of red paint. The paint falls onto the owl's head, and the pair of enemies laugh at the outcome and shake hands to conclude the picture, covered in the two colors representing the limited rainbow of the Technicolor two-strip spectrum.

I Haven't Got a Hat is buoyant and silly fun, and is helped immeasurably by its score, which continues playing the catchy title song underneath through many moments in the picture. It is just another factor that allows Ham and Ex to dominate this picture for me, even with Porky giving his all in his very first scene, and even with the tiny amount of time the dogs are allowed to take part onscreen. 

What seems so odd to me is one of those cartoon contradictions, much in the same vein as Donald Duck's seemingly ravenous appetite for other birds (and not in a sexual manner), or Mickey Mouse being a rodent much larger than his pet dog Pluto, even though one of his best friends, Goofy, is a dog that is gainfully employed, drives a car, owns a house, and talks (also pointed out in Stand By Me). In I Haven't Got A Hat, there seems to be some sort of caste system where there are cats and dogs that wear clothes, go to school, sing, talk, and dance, and then there are cats and dogs that act like, well, actual cats and dogs. I can't figure out these contradictions, and there really isn't that much to figure out, because the creators of this cartoon probably didn't have the time to think these things through either. Nor would they have cared to do so. If it helped tell the story that they were animating, it seems that the prevailing rule was "Anything goes."

Of all the proposed new "stars" for Warner Bros. set loose in this cartoon, it was the fat, stuttering pig that burst out as the major cinematic star. Myself, I would have put my money on the twin singing puppies. Boy, would I be broke now, even more so than if I were around then during the Great Depression.

But, boy, do I love me some Ham and Ex...

Bo bo-bo bo-bo bo-bo boom!



And in case you haven't seen it:

[This article was revised and updated with new photos on 1/4/2016. And I still think Ham and Ex are the bee's knees.]


Anonymous said...

I've been singing "I'd tip my hat to you" for about 30 years and had no idea where it was from or who sang it. Thanks for the information. The cartoon is on youtube under I haven't got a hat.

Anonymous said...

I agre that this is a fantastic cartoon with a highly addictive tune. Thank you for writting out the lyrics and thanks also for the you tube reference. At first I didn't even really notice the cats and dogs with the real cats and dogs, but I guess, lik you said, it was about a cute story and not a hierarchy of educated animals. Maybe an alegory for the budding diversity in schools at the time of equal rights. Either way, I love this cartoon and other like it. Shout out to owl Jolson, and it similarly addictive, I love to singa, which was fetured in the vary first south park. I hope these cartoons will stay alive for years to come.

Anonymous said...

IT's sad to say, but there's no longer a copy of this great short available for viewing on Youtube!!There is a note saying that it's been "pulled" due to the infringement of Warner Brothers copyright. Too bad, someone should squirt them wth red, green, and blue ink!

Paul Curtis said...

Yesterday morning I watched "I Haven't Got a Hat" on one of the Warner Bros "Golden Collection" compilations, and later in the day, wondered what were the lyrics to the song. Happily, I found your web post, and it satisfied my question.

I'm glad you felt inspired to post so many brief essays on old cartoons, and I'm sorry that grumpy cartoon fans managed to dampen your enthusiasm for writing about these things. People are like that sometimes, and I know how hard it can be to rekindle your energy, once it has diminished.

Anyway, thanks!