Thursday, February 02, 2006

PETUNIA NATURAL PARK (1938)

Unlike the previous entries in The Captain and the Kids series at MGM, both The Captain's Christmas and Petunia Natural Park, perhaps in recognition that the clan were on vacations from their normal trappings, sawed through the shackles of the sepia-toned prison that the studio had oddly shut them up in, bursting free into brilliant Technicolor. Like the previous entries, Petunia Natural Park, about the highly dysfunctional family's foray into a slightly decrepit wilderness reserve, is funny and wholly undeserving of the horrid reputation that the studio's disappointment rained down on the heads of the characters.

The film plays much like a Tex Avery blackout film, such as he was currently specializing in with Warner Bros., and if he wasn't under contract with that studio, you would swear he was already working at his eventual home at MGM. This may be one of the films that Friz Freleng directed, but as the majority of The Captain and the Kids films possessed incomplete title cards without directors' credits, as this one does, it is hard to say who directed which film. Back on the Avery tack, the film is even endowed with a hearty-voiced narrator who bespeaks the wonders of the national park even as his words are betrayed by the actions on the screen.

The family Katzenjammer (though, legally, not by that name) takes to the open road for a well-needed vacation. With the pompous but lazy Captain at the wheel of a clearly faulty and sputtering jalopy, the family enters the gates of Petunia Natural Park, but only after the narrator's reeling off of the names of the local wildlife does not quite match what we view, with the elk actually being a cow, buffalo as pigs, and moose as hens. The family themselves are named as the common Screwballus Americanus as they sputter their motoring way across the screen. A stop at an inspection station, where the inspectors need far more inspecting than the family, leaves the car and Der Captain covered in touristy bumper stickers; a ride through a giant redwood leaves the family car high up on a branch; and a narrated tour of the geysers brings us to Ol' Dependale, who spits a neat, single drop into a nearby spittoon.

When Der Mama tries to take a picture of a grizzly, it acts shy and hides, and when Der Mama goes after it, several more grizzlies pop out and take her picture! Other bears, we are told, like to gather nuts by shaking trees; Der Captain is then shown hanging from a branch over some bears engaged in exactly such an activity, and the narrator says to him, "Hello, Nuts!" A baby bear then shakes salt on Der Captain's "fatted calf", but he panics and falls into a geyser called the "Devil's Stewpot". The devil swiftly kicks him out, and he runs over the hills with the bears at his heels, with the narrator asking them, somewhat creepily, to "save me a slice of the white meat, boys!" Der Mama takes the spotlight with a dance over her love of nature; she stops at the babbling brook to get in on the local gossip; and she finally disregards a plethora of "Don't Pick the Flowers" signs, unleashing blaring alarms, a squadron of police and even a fire engine at her indiscretion. Der Captain has a similar problem when he finally breaks down and gives an olive to a begging bear, only to discover that it is a cop in disguise and he has broken the "Do Not Feed the Animals" law. (The cop, of course, is Irish.)

A hand literally pulls down the curtain to change the scene to night. A fawn timidly wobbles to the watering hole, then whips out a jug of XXX and goes carousing into the night, whooping it up mightily! When Der Captain is annoyed by all of the night noises keeping him awake in the family's tent, he goes charging into the darkness after blasting his shotgun, and attacks the family car, beating it to pieces with the butt of the gun. Hans und Fritz are largely unseen until the end of the film, when Der Captain asks them to fetch a pail of water for the car's radiator, which has pooped out for good. The boys wink knowingly at each other, as they often do, and run to the nearest rumbling geyser, scooping up a good measure of the earthquaking water. Der Captain not only pours it into the radiator, which will eventually cause the jalopy to hop and shake every few feet, but he also drinks a healthy draft of the stuff himself. As you can imagine, this is a good way to end the picture, with Der Captain shaking furiously out of sight as the narrator tells him, "See you next year!" "Not if I see you first!", yells Der Captain.

One of the most interesting bits of the film is the opening title, where MGM replaced their standard Leo the Lion "Ars Gratia Artis" insert with a completely animated feline in the circle. It is terrifically done, and is truly striking looking, especially with the then still novel Technicolor leaping out at you. I wish that they had used this opening more throughout the years that their animated cartoons were in production, and as I am unaware of the extent that they used it, it would be a shame that you have to seek out this single cartoon to get a peek at it. Not that the cartoon is anything of which to be ashamed; it holds up marvelously, and there are far worse parks to visit than Petunia Natural Park.

Petunia Natural Park (MGM, 1938) Dir: no credit given on title cards
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

No comments: