Wednesday, February 01, 2006

CLEANING HOUSE (1938)

The Captain...Katzenjammer... whoever Hans und Fritz belong to and whatever their surname happens to have been, and which of their oddly competing dual comic strips was the true narrative of their rowdy behavior for the bulk of the years that they ran against each other, I really don't care. I, myself, have only read a handful of strips from either The Captain and the Kids and The Katzenjammer Kids, and while I have found the strips amusing enough, I have not read enough to compare its worth against my personal favorite strips of either its era or even the modern one. [For the record, and in no particular order, the best comic strips of all time are Herriman's Krazy Kat, McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, Kelly's Pogo, Schulz's Peanuts, Segar's Thimble Theatre, Trudeau's Doonesbury, Capp's Li'l Abner, Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes, and Eisner's The Spirit. There are other terrific strips out there, but for me, this is it. (All you Nancy fans out there can suck it...)]

When The Katzenjammer Kids creator Rudolph Dirks lost his strip's title to the Hearst Syndicate, his former employers, in 1914, he strangely retained the right to create a brand new strip using the exact same characters; the only thing that he lost in the court decision was the use of the title. For much of the 20th century, both strips competed against each other in different newspapers, and I, and I also gather that most people, would be hard-pressed to tell the two apart. But The Captain and the Kids, Dirks' new title, went somewhere that the Katzenjammer name did not: the movies. (Well, not counting a handful of Katzenjammer silent cartoons in the 1910's.) The Teutonic brood went Hollywood in the late 30's, as MGM signed on to create a series with the beloved characters in 1937, and the studio produced over a dozen films, sometimes with the briefly contracted Friz Freleng at the helm, until the public's taste for the German-bred characters seems to have mysteriously turned sour within a couple of years. (I wonder why?) The series was considered to be a tremendous disaster for MGM, and Hans, Fritz, Der Mama, Der Captain and Der Inspector were not seen on a screen again, albeit a much smaller one, until their regular blackout gag appearances on Archie's TV Funnies in the 1970's. (Yes, that Archie!)

The sad part is that the films aren't that bad despite their reputation as a flop enterprise; but this is America, where the capitalistic ideal generally holds sway over critical acclaim or artistic excellence (9 out of 10 peeks at a film box office chart will reveal this to be true.) So, the series was, and is, considered to be a disaster. The first film in the series is somewhat sly in its introduction of each succeeding character; it is great fun to watch the boys pick on the lazy, conniving no-good Captain; and while Der Mama is annoying in the way that usually makes me despise pushy harridans, she, and the other characters' fear and affection for her, is often the center of many of the series' plots, and the films could not do without her for a second. After all, Hans and Fritz will do almost anything to prove their love to der Mama and show up the blustery Captain. If the opening film in the series wanders a bit in its intentions is only due to there being one or two too many characters to support the plotline.

Cleaning House is the title, which opens on a jumping, musically-timed puffing house, and cleaning house is what The Captain and the Kids are doing inside of it, only not quite in the way that Der Mama wishes. Impish sycophants Hans und Fritz play tic-tic-toe on the window as they hang from the sill sitting inside one of Der Mama's girdles (or is the Captain's? Just wondering...); the instant Der Mama walks into the room they get back to doing what she expects of them: cleaning the window. She doesn't suspect a thing of the devilish little dears. She believes Der Inspector to be vacuuming earnestly, but he has actually rigged the vacuum with balloons so that it will float forward in time to his snoring, only pulling the machine backwards with a tug of his lengthy white beard. Der Captain has put a sail on his scrub brush and blows it dreamily through the suds on the floor, but Der Mama catches him and boots him in the rear, saying she is "sick and tired" of his lazy ways. The word "sick" registers an idea in Der Captain's brain, and he begins to complain of stomach pains, kicking about the floor. Der Mama is worried, but Hans und Fritz don't buy his lies for even a second, and wink at each other knowingly. Are they plotting mischief? Are they Hans und Fritz?

A housecall is dialed in for Doctor Quak; unfortunately for him, he shares an office with Doctor Stork, who is, you guessed it, actually a stork and obsessed with delivering babies (their office door reads "Cradle to the Grave"). Dr. Quak is looks and speaks like W.C. Fields, and is seen playing with a ventriloquist doll that looks like Mortimer Snerd but speaks like Charlie McCarthy. (Not coincidentally, Fields, Snerd and McCarthy, or rather, Edgar Bergen, were employed by MGM at this time.) Der Mama's head pops through the receiver of the phone she is in such a tizzy over Der Captain's health, and Dr. Quak pushes a button reading "Horse" to sound the alarm. But he can't shake Dr. Stork, clutching a doll because of his maniacal possession by our society's "baby" curse, and off the pair go together. But the boys pose as Wild West bandits with toy pistols and riding hobby horses, jumping out of the woods and holding up Dr. Quak's coach, robbing the startled M.D. of his medical hardware. The pair head back to their house and march through the door dressed as a doctor and nurse and begin to examine the protesting Captain, who is claiming already that he is feeling better (he hates doctors, you know). Unfortunately for him, the clearly baby-addled Dr. Stork has followed the boys to the house, and is buoyantly determined that someone has a baby delivered to them.

The boys delightedly torture Der Captain with an excrutiatingly thorough medical examination and then frighten the deceptive blowhard by sharpening an axe in preparation for surgery. They attack Der Captain, causing the house about the room to fall apart as if an earthquake were occuring, but it is only the boys Indian war whooping, bouncing on Der Captain's stomach, trashing the house, threatening grevious bodily harm and scaring the bejeezus out of their patient. Dr. Stork knocks on the door, Der Mama sees him... and closes the door in a panic! Der Captain escapes from the boys, but the kids chase after him throughout the house, causing more damage along the way. Soon enough, Dr. Stork knocks on the door again, and manages to switch places with Der Mama, at which points he too gives chase after Der Captain and the Kids. He finally catches up to Der Captain and hands his mistaken mother target the Snerd/McCarthy doll. The boys then reveal themselves to Der Captain, whipping off their disguises, and Der Captain yells, "Why, you little--!!!", but he is stopped short by the ominous voice of Der Mama. The final scene shows Der Mama stuffing her little angels faces with vast amounts of cake, while Der Captain simultaneously scrubs the floor, does the windows and vacuum's the trashed house.

A good deal of fun, I say, and I have seen far worse MGM cartoons (despite their general excellence). Hardly a call to circle the wagons, but I imagine the returns were not as swell as producer Fred Quimby would have liked to have seen, and once things got iffy overseas, it is not hard to see why the films were put to a halt. But I rather like the series, at least the six or seven episodes that I have seen, and I would never personally call the series a bust.

The forty acres without a mule on Der Mama, however...

Cleaning House (MGM, 1938) Dir: Robert Allen
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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