Friday, February 10, 2006

NOT NOW (1936)

I must have read Myron Waldman's name a thousand times in my life, on endless viewings of Fleischer and Paramount/Famous Studios cartoons that he had a hand in animating, designing, and creating. I have read his name in the pages of countless animation books and magazines, interviews, histories and credit lists. I have to be honest and say that I probably picked up his name subliminally; you see the two words that make up his name in the credits of a Casper cartoon under the heading of animator, and you know what an animator does, and you know how to pronounce those two words that make up his name, and you say, "Animation: Myron Waldman", but you really don't think about the sweat and long hours and talent that the man poured into his craft for the better part of an entire century. You can't know the man that carries that name from a simple credit listing on a simple cartoon; you just read the names that follow with an anxious desire to just get to the cartoon already. You do this a thousand times, the name sinks unknowingly into your brain, and everytime you see a cartoon from his studio you fully expect his name to appear even if you don't know that you do. But you never really think much about who is attached to that name, and just what he represents. Then you read one morning that the man attached to that name has died, and you probably weren't even that aware that he was still alive (gosh, those cartoons were made so long ago!); then you spend a lot of the next couple days pondering the worth of one man's existence in this world.

Here are two things that I do know:
  1. Myron Waldman was the major figure in creating and designing Pudgy the Pup for the mid and late '30's Betty Boop cartoons at Fleischer; and...
  2. I have ripped on Pudgy here and there throughout my life, for reasons that both have nothing to do with the quality of the character itself, and that are generally selfish in nature.
Over the years, Pudgy has come to represent to me what I consider to be the downfall of the Boop series: the taming and domestication of a once scandalous comic icon by surrounding her with ever increasing levels of cuteness, blandness, all covered over with a thick coating of stiflingly moral rectitude. While Betty may have enjoyed the break from the lustful cravings of every male of every species in every cartoon, the films from mid-1934 on are not all that enjoyable for me to watch. Once I see that the Boop adventure I have run across is one of the later ones, I invariably feel a tug of disappointment in my heart knowing that, while the film itself will actually be enjoyable and well-executed for what it is, it will not be Betty in her prime. There will be no Koko, no Bimbo, no Cab Calloway, no monsters with tongues four feet long, no crazed jazz parties; there will instead be Pudgy and Grampy, lessons on manners, and cake and ice cream parties. However well-conceived these characters (especially in Grampy's case), even this minor drop down is a poor trade-off for a once unbelievably imaginative and vital series.

Pudgy is cute. As a pet person, I cannot deny this fact. He is as adorable as designed, and in closeups, his wrinkled little bulldog face is even more adorable, with Pudgy, as he does in Not Now from 1936, occasionally talking or even winking at the audience to let them in on a secret. Betty is now basically a mother, caring not just for Pudgy, but also other animals throughout what I shall henceforth refer to as the Betty II series. (But not Betty Boop/Mark II; that would imply an upgrade, which this is decidedly not.) In Not Now, she and Pudgy are trying to get some sleep, with the Pup resting peacefully in a cradle next to the Boop's bed (given her canine-lovin' past, it is not surprising that no dog actually gets to sleep with Betty, only in the same room. I'm fairly certain this in no way played a factor in this portrayal; I'm just bringing it up to add a little spice to the proceedings.)

Our heroine is awakened by the midnight yowlings of a scrawny feline, perched on a fence outside of the Boop's window. Betty confronts the noisy fiend with, as often occurs when she admonishes something in Betty II, a song. This time, however, the cat starts and sings the bulk of the song, and Betty sings only a couple of lines interposed with his. The song, naturally, is the title tune of the film, and the cat begins the song with words approximating a feline's "Me-ow!":

Cat: Not Nowwww! Not Nowwww!
Betty: Won't you let us go to sleep?
Cat: Not Now! Me-owwww!
Maybe later, but Not Now!
Betty: I'll throw shoes and knives!
Cat: If I didn't have nine lives!
Me-owww! Me-owww!
Not Now! Not Now!
Due to all of the ruckus, Pudgy finally wakes up, and ambles to the window out of curiosity. When he spies the cat, he laboriously makes his way to the fence to confront the creep himself. Balancing himself precariously atop the fence, often nearly falling off of its thin structure, he begins the battle that will take up the rest of the film: Pudgy vs. Cat. The battle will take them up buildings, over rooftops, hanging over city streets, falling off of buildings into a series of awnings, and eventually into an alley where the real brawl takes place. Pudgy, for his size, is incredibly scrappy, and gives the twice-his-size cat as good as he gets throughout the chase, often even imitating the cat's own moves with a tough little scowl of determination.

The chase section of the film is fairly straightforward, partially due to the cat and dog involved being cut along more realistic lines than cartoon teams of this nature usually tend to be. There are no TNT or mallet intrusions; no incongruously introduced props interfering with what is essentially a basic cat-and-dog scuffle. This is not a bad thing, as the film plots its easy, natural course to its only possible conclusion. While taking on the cat in an alley, Pudgy is also surrounded by about 20 of the feline's compatriots. They dive into the fray, making an even larger cloud of fightin' dust, and there is so much going on that Pudgy is able to slip out of the melee. The cats follow him into a garbage can, but he slips out of a well-placed hole, traps the lot under its lid, and returns home yipping. Betty is overjoyed, and puts her tiny charge back to bed, telling him that "Now we can go to sleep!". This turns out to be an ill-timed statement, for just outside the bedroom window, the 21 or so alley cats have congregated on and about the fence opposite. Picking up on a reprise of the title song, the felines close the show yowling in their strangled voices, "Oh, yeah! Me-owwww! Not Nowwww!"

As I have stated, the cartoon moves neatly and perfectly to this conclusion, but due to this adherence to sustained momentum, there is a marked deficiency of genuinely creative gags. There are two moments that I greatly admire in the film, however, and I would be remiss not to mention them. The first is a quick, almost invisible bit, so smoothly does it occur, when Pudgy chases the cat along the rooftops. As the cat leaps from roof to roof, Pudgy follows it as if he never left firm footing, continuing to run through the spaces between the buildings as if solid ground were still beneath him. There is never even a double take reaction of the dog to this ability, and it is only repeated once instead of two times, so it almost feels completely like a throwaway gag. The other moment is actually one of my favorite Betty II moments, and a cuter one that I normally like to admit to having fallen prey. Pudgy has the cat cornered on the end of a plank hanging off of a roof, and the cat swings a paw full of razor sharp claws at the pup. After it connects and leaves a fresh open wound on Pudgy's face, the formerly non-speaking dog makes an aside to the camera, whispering conspiratorally, "He pulled a knife on me!"

Would that the film had more inventive asides such as that one, and lightly fantastical moments like the air-walking scene (there is a fun quick bit where Pudgy trips in mid-flight, but keeps running on his ears until his round little body cycles back to his feet), it likely would have broken my overall disregard for the Pup character. Unfortunately, there are too many bland and rote films involving him to ever allow me to warm up fully to the lad, and my tolerance for him is totally dependent on the overall quality of each film in which he appears. I say "overall" quality, however, because the design and animation provided by the late Myron Waldman were always top-notch, even in latter Paramount series like the Casper catalogue, for which he also gained much reknown in the animation world. But like Casper, Pudgy too was trapped in a series of lesser storylines, and it is from this that I derive my final judgment on the Pup.

But Mr. Waldman did his job, and he did it exceedingly well for a half-century. It is time that I remembered his name for what he accomplished, and not because I have absorbed through some sort of cranial osmosis.

Not Now (Max Fleischer, 1936) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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