Saturday, February 04, 2006

WOLF, WOLF! (1944)

Wolf! Wolf! (Terrytoons, 1944)
Dir: Mannie Davis

Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Despite the fact that Terrytoons was one of the longest-lived cartoon studios in history, almost literally churning out their "product" for over 35 years into over a thousand cartoons, I have seen relatively few of their films. Public domain collections seem to be the only place that I can find Mighty Mouse; I've seen more Heckle and Jeckle through cameos in feature films (Kill Bill, Part 2 being a recent example) than I have ever seen in their full adventures; and Gandy Goose and Sourpuss are distant memories, long relegated to the Underwhelming Character dustbin in my brain. Most of the Terrytoon action that I have encountered has been in television shows packaged around their 1960's characters: Deputy Dawg, Hector Heathcote, Hashimoto, and Ralph Bakshi's fun The Mighty Heroes, and most of this animation was produced for television, though some of it was released to theatres well after its television debut.

I am not lamenting this gap in my animation viewing history because of the quality of the cartoons; no, far from it. What I have seen of the Paul Terry product is serviceable at best, though I will withhold further judgement of the studio's output until I have seen more examples and in a more recent vein, not relying so much on fond memories of cartoon viewings of my long ago childhood (as are my remembrances of Heckle and Jeckle, first seen on a UHF channel when I was but a lad).

Which brings me to Mighty Mouse, of whom I have garnered most of my knowledge from four sources: the abhorent TV series from the 1970's; the middling Gold Key/Whitman comics with which I grew up; the witty and dynamic Ralph Bakshi TV series of the 1980's; and Andy Kaufman's ironic but loving lip-synching of an ancient Mighty Mouse Theme Song 78 rpm record on Saturday Night Live, still one of my favorite television moments of all time. Oh, I have seen a handful of the old Mighty Mouse cartoons, both in operetta and non-operetta form, as there are two distinct periods of his career before he was sucked into the boob tube; but again, most of these viewings were as a youth, so I cannot rely on my memory of them at this junction.

One thing I can rely on is my recent viewing of Wolf! Wolf!, a Mighty Mouse short from 1944, only the fifth cartoon in the series where he was actually named Mighty Mouse (the films for the previous two years he had the monicker of Super Mouse, but more on that at a later date). The title card for the version that I own is clearly not the original card; it has the feel and tone of a 70's TV title card, with an outer space background over which the first a later version of the character is superimposed, and then the name of the hero in a simple white font. The titles then jarringly shift to those of the original cartoon, and then into the action of the film itself.

This is comprised of a plot by a group of lazy but starving wolves to trap a flock of sheep for dinner, though for the bulk of the film they only concentrate on a single lamb. To set up this action, a narrator reads a modified version of "Little Bo Peep" to open the show, and one wolf, who clearly has some issues he needs to confront, dons a Little Bo Peep costume, using a barbell to imitate a tremendous pair of breasts. Once dressed, this wolf shows off and teases the remaining wolves, who wolf-whistle (naturally) as the tranny wolf raises his skirt to show a hairy garter-garnished leg. Of course, such behavior would be just a little too weird for 1944, and the wolves naturally laugh off their lustful antics as mockery. One wonders...

The wolf attempts to use a flute to lead the sheep to the slaughter, which works at first until the lamb also lifts the skirt of the disguised wolf to also see the gartery and hairy leg. The lamb backs off warily at this discovery, but as no living creature seems to have any resistance to the power of swing music, the wolf pulls out a trumpet and blares out a rousing tune, accompanied by the rest of the wolves who are hiding behind the fence of their yard, which causes the lamb to fall back into step and eventually into their trap. The wolves chase and trap the lamb, causing the narrator to blurt "What brutes! What cowards! What fiends!" at the lot. One wolf responds to the camera, "What lambchops!", and then the wolves continue their preparations for lunch.

Because Mighty Mouse is clearly representative of the deus ex machina, it is only appropriate that the little lamb launches into a prayer for its life, which it does once the wolves point a variety of knives, guns and other assorted weaponry at its tiny face. Once this prayer is spoken, the camera shifts to a tree with a door at its base; the camera then travels up the tree past a variety of windows until it rests at a house atop the highest branch on the tree. The narrator utters only "Mighty Mouse!", as the heroic rodent steps out onto his porch. (There is no singing Mighty intro as he rushes into the fray.) The narrator then says, "He's off!" as the mouse does so, and the battle begins.

The mouse first, and shockingly, sets fire to the first wolf, who literally jumps out of his skin, even though it keeps trying to catch up to him and eventually rides him like a jockey! Several wolves throw a tremendous barrage of butcher knives at Mighty, but he uses his mastery of magnetism (which I never knew he possessed) to turn away the missiles, sending them flying dangerously back at their owners. (None hit them, however.) Mighty apparently drowns another wolf as he forces the contents of a beer keg that is being squirted at him down the throat of the predator; as there is no shot of the wolf either drunk or gasping for breath, I can only surmise that Mighty's wrath is of the cruelest aspect. A stewpot that the lamb was being readied for dinner within is upended by Mighty Mouse, who flies about safely inside of it knocking down the canines, until the wolves launch a concentrated assault from their shotgun shack with a large number of cannons. (Why the wolves didn't just blow the snot out the sheep with all of these weapons is beyond me.) Mighty crashes his makeshift stewpot cannonball into the shack, blowing all of the wolves (and the lamb) high up into the sky. The whole lot begin to fall back down to earth, but the only one that seems to be either awake or alive (take your pick) is the little lamb, whom Mighty Mouse catches as the wolves continue their plummet, possibly to their deaths (if they aren't dead already.) The lamb is reunited with his mother as the narrator closes the cartoon with the intonation, "Mighty Mouse proves again that he's the champion of sheep and men!"

For all of their experience as a cartoon studio, there is an amateurish roughness to their films, and Terrytoons have a certain feel and tone in some of their cartoons that makes the violent scenes seem just a little bit more violent than when, say, Elmer Fudd shoots a shotgun right into Daffy Duck's face. Warner Brothers makes no bones about the satiric content of their shorts; you are always aware that it is all a big joke, even when a character does something as dramatic as shooting themselves right through the head. In this cartoon, the violence involved in Mighty Mouse dispatching the wolves was not so jarring at first. After all, it's a little mouse against a squadron of big bad wolves. Even with his great strength and agility, Mighty Mouse would surely face some sort of struggle against these much larger and meaner ruffians. But Mighty Mouse easily takes out these foes -- Nay! He easily smites these villains with a righteous fury, while betraying only the slightest sense of humor in his actions; and it was only after the cartoon was over that I reflected on what I had just seen, and thought, "Holy crap! Did I just see Mighty Mouse murder a shitload of wolves?!" Because we never see any of the wolves actually land after their Mighty bombing, and because the wolves do not show any signs of life, the jury is out on this matter. While I would be shocked if a cartoon studio actually had their star mouse strutting about killing off other creatures, the beer-drowning incident, which has a strange, cold tone to it, still has me wondering.

Though, didn't Mickey Mouse kill seven flies with one blow in The Brave Little Tailor?

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