Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941)

The Trial of Mr. Wolf (Warner Bros., 1941)
Dir.: Friz Freleng
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

I'm not aware of what sort of punishment there is for perjury in the courts of Cartoon Storybookland, but Mr. Wolf seems to have no fear of the penalty. Even with a heavier punishment, a liberal twisting of the facts seems worth it: the jury is made up of his true peers, eleven other wolves (and one lone skunk, sitting far removed from the rest in the jury box... their choice, not his); the judge himself is of the lupine persuasion, seemingly allowing Mr. Wolf incredible latitude in portraying his case (especially when a stash of weaponry crashes to the floor from Mr. Wolf's coat when the defendant takes the stand); and Little Red Riding Hood herself has guilt literally written all over her Kate Hepburn-esque visage. Eh, why not skip the through-the-teeth jazz and just brazenly lie as loudly as a wolf possibly can?

As somebody who has always thought that cartoon wolves (outside of Disney's Big Bad, who has always creeped me out) have never gotten a fair shake in these affairs, I was hoping that for once, Mr. Wolf wasn't lying. Sheep and pigs and grandmas, BAH! They're all practically begging to be devoured! Lambs with their bleating and prancing about all fluffy and cute; pigs with their cute, curly tails running about practically in the nude (why, a wolf hardly even needs to try and imagine apples spit-roasting in their mouths!). And grandmas? Well, I'm not sure about grandmas, and why anyone would try and eat them. It seems to me that grandmas would be a little tough in the chewing department, and really, in my personal experience, grandmas are toughies who wield shotguns. I think they only get eaten because they are in the way of the real prize: Little Red.

The only problem is that Little Red here is a leggy vixen who weeps and plays it coy to the jury in the courtroom, and in Mr. Wolf's version of the case, she sneaks from tree to tree like cartoon wolves usually do, and our much put-upon "hero" is dressed as a schoolboy with a balloon who skips merrily through the forest, seeking only to commune with Mother Nature. (It's a marvelously laid out role reversal.) Little Red sneers greedily as she seeks to trick Mr. Wolf into arriving at Grandma's house, who, it turns out in this version, is a furrier who's abode is surrounded by giant signs that proclaim loudly both her vocation and impending sales of wolf furs. When the Wolf is finally corralled at the house and rings the bell, Grandma swoops about the place trying to hide every wolf fur that she can; and when the wolf enters, she greets her intended victim with "My, what a beautiful fur coat you have!" There is much violence and chasing to follow, only ending with Grandma's hands about the Wolf's throat. The scene jumps back to the courtroom, where the Wolf swears that if he is lying he should be run over by a streetcar. A streetcar crashes through the walls and runs him over. Mr. Wolf sheepishly admits, "Well, maybe I exaggerated just a little!," and collapses.

In the first Screwball Squirrel cartoon that Tex Avery made, the clearly insane Screwball meets up with a traditional cartoon squirrel named Sammy, who talks a lot like Sniffles the Mouse, and goes on and on and on ad nauseum about how wonderful the world is and how much fun they are going to have blah blah blah, and Screwball puts his arm about his still chattering new pal and walks him behind a tree... and beats the living crap out of him! Screwy only lasted for four cartoons because of his overbearing obnoxiousness, but you've got to hand it to the squirrel: he was who he was. He was born to act a certain way, he acted that certain way, and while he lost his career because of it, he was still a screwball of a squirrel in the end. He never tried to convince anyone that he was anything but an insane rodent, and he fully accepted the consequences of his violently mischievous behavior.

I ran a survey of kids for our magazine recently, and under the question of "What is your pet peeve?," the vast majority of their answers came back as "Posers" or "People who aren't themselves". While I don't think that most kids -- who still haven't decided who they are yet or what they are going to do with their lives -- can legitimately judge as to whether or not someone is "Keepin' it real," it still seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people. Phoniness, whether one can truly detect it or not, is generally despised.

Cartoon wolves: be who you are!!! You don't need to answer to anyone else! Accept the cravenness with which you have been stereotyped! Never stop attempting to devour the innocent lambs and piglets and sweet old ladies that the animators continue to draw in your path! Your role of nightmare villain in the storybook world has transferred culturally and completely into the film world, and it is not going to change anytime soon. So, keep drooling over little girls with baskets of goodies, keep blowing down the houses of straw, sticks and bricks, and keep trying to swipe sheep out from under the sheepdog's watch.

After all, it's the cartoons. You're probably going to get run over by a streetcar eventually, anyway.

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

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