Friday, March 31, 2006

UNDER THE SPREADING BLACKSMITH SHOP (1942)

Since I've moved to Southern California, I have taken the opportunity to visit the San Diego Zoo a trio of occasions. The okapis alone are enough to keep me returning for eons, but I've seen them at other zoos, and the orangutans, gorillas and giant tortoises are undeniably awesome in their own right, but again, I have run into their like before elsewhere. No, there is something else at the S.D. Zoo to which I had never previously or personally witnessed at any other zoo or sanctuary or wildlife park that I have attended. Something that has won my heart over in ways that I never imagined. Something that has made me rethink my attitudes towards zoos, endangered species, and man's ultimate place in the natural order.

I am talking, of course, about the incredibly versatile and omnipresent North American fieldmouse. No, really! Never saw one in a zoo before, and one ran across the path as we were heading toward the sun bears, and I said, "Oh, Mister Mouse! You'd better rethink that! The feral cats lie in wait on that path!" But he was gone, and it was the last I saw of him. How I wept that afternoon...

OK, so I am actually talking about the Giant Panda. Not the Infinitesimally Teensy Panda, or the Medium-Sized Average Panda, but the Giant Panda. Singing Sifl and Olly songs about the Unceasing Mystery of the Panda softly to myself, and hinting at them to Jen, I have stood somewhat calmly in line a total of 4 times now to be granted my special ten minutes or so with the charming black and white ursines. Su Lin, the baby, was born in September of last year, and to be allowed to not only see the gorgeous adults bears, but to be given a rare glimpse of one of their not particularly abundant young has proven to melt my heart to pieces in ways that I have scoffed at others for behaving.

But, I've noticed something odd in the roughly 38 minutes that I have now viewed pandas in a live setting. Where are their clothes? Where are their cars? How come the Papa Panda doesn't wear a hat and suspenders and smoke a huge stogie? Why aren't they conducting orchestras or throwing elaborate dinner parties? How come their panda houses don't have mailboxes or windowboxes? Where are the woodpeckers? And where the hell is Charlie Chicken???!!!

You see, most of my Panda Experience (or, P.E.) comes from the cartoons and comics; specifically, most of that experience comes from Andy Panda. Walter Lantz was on to something when he decided to try out characters that other companies hadn't cashed in on yet. There are enough bears, bunnies, dogs, cats and mice in the Cartoon Universe; why not try something new? And he did --- first a Panda, then a Woodpecker, Walrus, Penguin and Polar Bear. Whatever the quality of individual cartoons through the years, at least he was trying something different in some aspect. I saw a handful of Andy Pandas growing up, but even more so, I read a hell of a lot of Gold Key comics with Andy and his luckless buddy Charlie Chicken in them. And not once did Andy ever behave like the pandas in the zoo. Perhaps when he couldn't find a decent bamboo joint in America, he went native and never again acted like a real panda. It would certainly explained the shock that I met when I saw pandas just lying about sleeping or munching on leaves. It hardly would make for a thrilling or comical adventure.

Here's something else you don't see pandas doing in the zoo: wearing a horse costume. Or, for that matter, running a blacksmith shop. In a Lantz Cartune from 1942, Under the Spreading Blacksmith Shop (a twisted Longfellow allusion), Andrew Panda, Andy's blustery Pop, runs such a place, and as little Andy slavishly works the bellows on the fire, Mr. Panda lights his stogie with a tong-held coal. Andy has obviously been working his apprenticeship for long enough at this point, and asks his Pop if, at last, he can shoe a horse on his own. "Shoe a horse?", he asks incredulously. "Why, I'd sooner let you shoe a fly!" He laughs uproariously at his own bad pun, and Andy gets just a little more perturbed. As Mr. Panda laughs, he spies a costume shop across the street, and as good fortune would have it, sitting forlornly in the window is a horse costume for sale. Papa Panda excuses himself for a few, leaves Andy in charge of the place, runs across the street, and buys the costume. What plan could he possibly have in mind?

He emerges from the costume shop a changed panda. With the cigar dangling from the costume's mouth, Papa Panda makes his way across the street to torture his son. He sucks the cigar into the costume through the mouth, and ends up swallowing it. Smoke pours briefly out of the horse's ears. (The horse costume, full of so much character and a spunky attitude, reminds me of one of the horses that Johnny Gruelle would etch in one of his children's books. Yes, I have read Raggedy Ann...) After dancing "La Cucaracha" out on the street, Papa Panda-Horse reaches the shop and leans on the bell for service. He hands young Andy a sign (with his paw reaching through the mouth of the costume) explaining that he is trying to make his way to Santa Anita and needs to be staked a set of new horseshoes to seek his fortune. Andy bids him welcome, and Papa dances his way through the shop like a prima ballerina, alighting atop a wagon wheel, which then begins to spin with his gyrations. Papa is thrown on his keister, and Andy recognizes the similarity. "Ah, you act just like my old man!", he sputters disagreeably, and sets himself to work on the horse's shoes, placing four of them in the hot coals.

Andy decides to feed the horse and affixes a feedbag full of oats unknowingly over his father's head. The oats cause the elder Panda to sneeze, and the feedbag flies out from his face and then slaps back into place due to the straps around his head. He sneezes again, and this time the bag flies further, and on its return journey, dips down and through the water trough. Papa Panda receives a mouthful of water, but all it does it cause him to sneeze yet again. This time the bag reaches all the way to a dangerously sharp-looking plow. It drags the huge plow back at Papa, who ducks just in time, but the plow flies past him and crashes into a pole, dragging Papa with him in the opposite direction to end up at the same pole. When he crashes, a boxful of magnets falls open. Unfortunately for Papa, he is unaware of the incredible power of cartoon magnets, and he is also precariously placed between both the magnets and large anvil. The menacing metal of the anvil flies towards Papa and smashes firmly into his behind. The magnets, now pulling towards the stopped anvil, fly straight into Papa's mouth and internally attach secure themselves to the anvil.

Andy makes a vain attempt to hammer the anvil off of the horse/Papa, but he is not strong enough to handle the vibrations of such a blow. Papa manages to kick the anvil off, but it stops in midair, and changes directions back his way. Papa hightails it out of the shop, down the road, and into the woods with the anvil in hot pursuit through every turn and zigzag. Papa stops behind a tree to hide, but the anvil is sneaky. As Papa tiptoes out of the woods, the anvil gains feet, too, and tiptoes after him. Papa reaches an axe, turns, and with one mighty chop, breaks the anvil into umpteen pieces. The anvil, however, is determined enough that it manages to pull itself back together and pick up the chase anew. Papa makes it back to the shop and slams the door, trapping the anvil finally in the thickness of the wood.

But, he has a new problem at his backdoor. Specifically, his personal back door. The four horseshoes from the fire fly up and out of the coals, attracted by the stomach full of powerful magnets that Papa still has within him. They chase him out of the shop, but Andy follows them. The horseshoes burn Papa's butt at one point, but he picks up speed from this attack and outpaces the horse costume. Andy catches the costume and kicks up a ton of dust as he struggles to nail four shoes onto the feet of it. When the dust clears, he is victorious and he tells his passing Papa proudly of his feat. But the four hot horseshoes are still after him, and he has to make tracks fast! He tells Andy to "tell your mother that I won't be home for dinner!" and runs off into the distance, the four horseshoes still tracking his every move.

My, this cartoon builds nicely, and makes excellent use of locales and props. (Must be something about blacksmith shops that brings this out in cartoonists.) Papa is his usually buffoonishly engaging self, and Andy's grimly set mask of determination gives the cartoon some real drive dramatically, even if Andy is barely in the film. As for the anvil, it's nice to see a single anvil not only get so much screen time, but also something of a personality to boot. A playful and fast little flick that doesn't waste much time with peripherals, instead concentrating on moving its action forward.

Of course, I never expected to see clothes, cars, mailboxes, windowboxes, cigars, bellows, tongs, anvils, or horse costumes when I visited the pandas in the zoo. But is it too much to ask that they have a chicken named Charlie at least sitting in a pen adjacent to the Panda den? You never know when one of the bears will be called off to have an adventure, and a panda's just got to have a sidekick...

Under the Spreading Blacksmith Shop (A Walter Lantz Cartune, 1942) Dir: Walter Lantz & Alex Lovy
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Thursday, March 30, 2006

ABUSEMENT PARK (1947)

I have never ridden in the Tunnel of Love. Being born and raised around Anchorage, Alaska, we do not have much in the way of amusement parks. The Alaska State Fair on the Palmer Fairgrounds is a prime source for those looking for mechanical thrill rides: if you like them to only go in circles, and at that, for only two minutes. I don't, but my friends love it, and the State Fair is an annual shared rite, with the requisite trip north to the historic farming community of Palmer. The food is great, so a fun thing to do is load on artery-clogging goodness and hit the rides to see if you can hold everything in. Off and on, there is a rollercoaster that is about a hundred meters long in total distance (if you count the underside of the rails, too), and that jerks you so hard on the turns that you end up with ribs on the wrong side of your abdomen. It's not much, but it's what Alaskans have for thrill rides (apart from everything else that you can do in Alaska involving the natural beauty, photographic splendor, mountainous terrain, and abundant flora and fauna... but how is that interesting?)

Anchorage has three other options for similarly styled thrills: 1) There is a small amusement lot just off Benson Boulevard where about 4 or 5 of the same rides from the State Fair station themselves, and mop up the spare change from the local teen populace for about 4 months every summer; 2) Anchorage has an indoor waterpark, much bandied about for years due to delayed fundage and construction, political intrigue, and a strange ennui about its even being built even though there is little to do for kids in-town, which opened not too long before I left, but which held little interest for me -- eeewww!; and 3) The annual and overrated Fur Rendezvous, which I have ripped on previously, holds a downtown Winter Carnival every February -- That's right! I said "February"! -- in which some of the same rides from the State Fair get set up, along with the carny games, and one gets to experience their decidedly monotonous thrills with a steely new element added: a freezing windchill factor, as you are wrung endlessly in circles through the often subzero temperatures. Why the rides aren't named the FreezerBurn, the FrostBiter and the Body Temperature Drop are beyond me.

There is a scene in the BBC series Father Ted, where Craggy Island has an annual fair in which the rides are a crane lifting a parkbench high into the air, and the like; but the people attend it faithfully every year, mostly because it is what little there is to do on the isolated hunk of rock. That's the amusement park experience in Alaska. It hardly ever changes for the better, and what changes are made are so minute that it takes eons for anyone to notice that something has been done. That said, an annual trek to the State Fair and the Winter Carnival are on the agendas of nearly everyone looking for "thrills". That is, thrills outside of getting eaten by a bear.

So, there is nothing even approximating the Tunnel of Love in Alaska, unless you decide to go river-rafting with a group of swingers (since only 2 people can't go). But Popeye, Bluto and Olive Oyl are not in Alaska. They hit a real seaside amusement park in Abusement Park from 1947. (I guess it is modeled after Coney Island; there are no signs or cards displaying where they are, only an opening shot of a sumptuously rendered amusement setting). The pair of super-rivals are, as usual, showing off for the suspect charms of Ms. Oyl, and this time they are doing it by challenging each other to the variety of games on the carny boardwalk. First, Popeye grabs the hammer on the strongman game to try and ring the bell, but Bluto stops him short and swipes the hammer, hoping to be the first to impress Olive with his manliness; when he unsurprisingly rings the bell, the word at the top of the bar reads "Superham". Popeye gets his turn, but he tilts the board at a 45 degree angle. When he smacks the hammer down, he hits it so hard that the metal cylinder busts through the top and flies a thousand feet to a bell tower, where it ricochets musically between an arrangement of eight different bells.

Not to be swayed, Bluto takes charge of the next game: a machine that measures lung power. However, Bluto tries to win it outright by blowing so hard into the tube that the machine ruptures completely. Popeye won't let a little thing like the lack of equipment hold him back from winning; he runs to the nearest phonebooth and blows hard into the mouthpiece. We then see a bubble run through the phone cord all the way to telephone pole, then to another telephone pole, and then across the water through the phone line leading to a lighthouse. The breath comes out in a huge explosion that devastates the lighthouse -- and leaves the attendant hopping mad on top of the rubble that remains!

Next, Popeye takes his intended on a ride into the Tunnel of Love. Unbeknownst to the lovebirds, Bluto is tagging along unseen on the back of their boat. As the boat glides from scene to scene, in the darkened intervals between them, the inhabitants of the boat switch places. First, Bluto switches with Popeye, and as he puts the moves on Olive, Popeye has to swim after the craft. Then Popeye switches with Bluto, and the bearded creep is left with waterwings in their wake. On the third switch, as they pass through King Neptune's Court, where the titular ruler and a comely mermaid greet visitors, Popeye ends up with Bluto snuggling with him in the boat. Bluto begins to pummel Popeye -- and then there is a terrified scream! It is Olive, and she is drowning and struggling in the water behind the boat. Bluto takes his time to get to her, and then reaches into the water. But he pulls out a huge lobster instead, which in turn is holding tight to Olive with one of his claws. Bluto motions Olive to check out the boat ahead of them. "Nice guy!", he says. "He threw you overboard for a blonde!" Olive sees the back of Popeye's head held tight against the golden locks of another woman. She swears off the cad and leaves with Bluto. We then see a shot of the front of the boat, where Popeye is passed out cold from Bluto's assault, and Bluto has grabbed the bare-breasted (though non-nippled, sadly) mermaid figure from Neptune's diorama and stuffed it into the boat with his unconscious rival.

Bluto takes Olive to a photographer, where the pair sit in an automobile to get a series of snaps taken. Bluto wants to turn up the heat, but Olive will have nothing to do with it. She screams and struggles to get away from Bluto, but as he tells her he "knows how to deal" with dames like her, Popeye bursts through the door, mermaid dummy in tow. Bluto takes off in the car, running over Popeye and sending him flying into the air. He lands quite accidentally in the stiff but apparently loyal arms of the mermaid. Meanwhile, Bluto drives straight for the rollercoaster and soon he and Olive are climbing up a very long hill. As they get to the even steeper side, Olive screams until he not only see her tonsils in closeup, but we also watch her entire head turn white on the descent. Popeye hears her pleas for rescue and heads off to do so.

Since Olive won't shut up, Bluto decides to kick her out of the car, but she is actually tied to it with a long piece of rope. As a result, when the car makes turns on the coaster track, poor Olive is sent flying wildly through and into various structures, such as the smokestack she shatters bodily on the first turn. Popeye, in an unseen decision, has somehow found a pair of skis, and he struggles to the top of the rollercoaster hill. When he reaches the top, naturally he skis down after Bluto. When he reaches a spot on the track that lies over where Bluto is, Popeye jumps down and crashes straight through the car, leaving Olive alone on the crazily careening vehicle. Popeye, in the meantime, has Bluto caught by the head with a plunger (?), but there is a problem: they are no longer on a rollercoaster track, but rather they are on a traintrack, and a large locomotive is heading for them at top speed. As the train runs over the spot where they were standing, Popeye drops both he and Bluto safely out of the way, hanging from the track with his mighty arm. When they crawl up, Bluto meekly and politely thanks Popeye for saving his life -- and he proceeds to beat the snot out of him!

At that moment, Olive is still flying about at the whim of the rollercoaster-locked car, and she tears through the side of a circus tent. When she emerges, she is amazingly pulling three full-size elephants, each holding each other trunk to tail, through the air after her. Bluto continues trying to do in Popeye, who switches feet back and forth as he hangs upside-down from the tracks. A can of spinach starts to fall from his pocket, but the sailorman stretches his body just enough to catch the can in time. He downs the super-green stuff, which sends a charge of energy straight up to his feet, which kick Bluto full in the face, and then Popeye charges back into action, pummeling Bluto so hard and furiously that the pair are sent spinning up into the air. They land on the back of the first of Olive's pachyderms and continue the battle apace. They then jump to poor stretched-out Olive, where Bluto stands on her back and holds off Popeye, who is standing on both her arm and her head, deflecting Bluto's blows. Popeye socks Bluto into the car, which shatters into a thousand pieces. Bluto ends up with the gas tank on his head, which Popeye lights with his pipe, sending his archrival rocketing off into the sky. Popeye takes control of Olive and the elephants and turns their momentum toward the photographer's studio, where they crash through the wall and it seems like nothing good can come of it. But there, in the dust, is Popeye standing victorious with Olive at his side. In his mighty right arm, he holds aloft the three elephants... and Bluto, who is knocked out for a loop. And beside his side? King Neptune's mermaid.

Whew! A lot of action in a fun six minutes, but I have a basic problem with the weird props introduced into the final battle. A plunger? A pair of skis? Look, I accept Olive being able to whip three elephants in the air without ripping her arms off -- I accept it through the Principle of Cartoon Momentum. But, unless you give me a reason for those items to be there in the first place -- which Popeye doesn't -- then I can't buy it. As I have said before, it is one thing to pull a flugelhorn out of your ass and blow it comically for a three-second gag, but it disappears and then has nothing more to do with the cartoon. But to introduce something that will actually play a part in the plot, but give it no set-up or reason to be there at all? Not good. I plauded the cartoon that I reviewed yesterday, The Anvil Chorus Girl, for its excellent use of every item in the blacksmith shop, and for keeping it to those items. Not the same story here. But still a very energetic and engaging short.

I suppose that the closest that I have come to riding on a Tunnel of Love style ride would be at Disneyland. There are four rides that somewhat approximate the boat-in-the-dark scenario, but only mildly and not remotely in the way that the creators of the Tunnel of Love intended. The one that gets the most dark action is a toss-up between Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean, but neither one is very romantic, at least in the groping your sweetie fashion. It can be done, and I suppose that Splash Mountain's seating arrangement could lead to some rather interesting "situations" (ass to crotch); but you never know who else is going to be in the craft, and you rarely get alone time. Storybook Land is even less of a good prospect for petting: a single boat with about fifteen people all crammed in willy-nilly and having to listen to stilted narration relating to the miniature houses (and the monstrous ducks) that are supposed to represent a fairytale kingdom. Unless you can get your business done in the short time it takes to ride through Monstro's cetecean maw, you are out of libidinous luck.

And then there is It's A Small World. Nothing could be less romantic: 4000 stiffly moving, smiling, singing, talking, dancing little advertisements for a birth and LSD control. If you can get it going in Small World, my hat's off to you. And then you should be jailed. It's Small World, you lech...

Abusement Park (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1947) Dir: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

THE ANVIL CHORUS GIRL (1944)

I have spent a good deal of time ripping apart the Famous Studios' Popeye films of the 1950's, which I will admit is sometimes an easy thing to do, given the ramshackle state that the series was in during its dying days. But, it wasn't always that way. The Fleischer series, too, suffered from a downswing in quality before Famous famously swiped the studio from Max and Dave. (I say downswing, but on a whole, these films are still miles ahead of the latter day Famous stock.) Famous Studios, for the first few years anyway, made a noble attempt at keeping the series fun and imaginative, with several films being particularly high in quality, even though Famous would often take older Fleischer films and give them a Technicolor scrubbing and reoutfitting, not so much remake them per se, as they were reconfiguring them for a wartime and postwar world which would take on a decidedly brighter outlook on life than the Depression era crowds who took in the originally Fleischer shorts.

Basically, the Famous remake of Shoein' Hosses (1934), The Anvil Chorus Girl finds our two eternally-on-leave sailors, Popeye and Bluto, strutting manfully down a sidewalk. They pass under an awning, and the impression is that they are in front of a restaurant with possibly, due to the shape of the door and awning, a lucky horseshoe motif. There is even a sign, but instead of the Day's Specials, it has instead written upon it "Sale on Horse Shoes - No Coupons Required". Clearly, it is a blacksmith shop, but with a decidedly feminine touch to the decorating. This is proved when Bluto and Popeye do a doubletake when they look into the shop. Inside, working strenuously but to little success in smithing, is Olive Oyl. They first see her bending over to pick up a heavy box; as she strains to carry it across the shop, she passes in front of the fire, where she ends up getting backlit so that her scrawny figure's silhouette is devastatingly apparent through her skirt. The boys, who have undoubtedly been at sea for waaaayyyy too long, lose it. Their pants roll up from their ankles; they fall flat on their backs; they pop back up; and they give a wolf-whistle. In a line that would have completely different meaning about 40 years later, Popeye shouts, "Oh, boy! A she-male blacksmith!" Bluto just has to throw his dirty little two cents in with "Yeah, she can park her horseshoes next to mine anytime!" She then nudges Popeye in the ribs twice, which gets a scowl from the Squinty One.

Olive continues to have trouble with her blacksmithing. Everytime she hammers on a horseshoe, it flips up and over her head, landing on the bun of her hair, and then slides down onto her shoulder and back onto the table. Then, in her frustration, she ends up sitting in the fire, and then has to resort to placing her bum in a tub of cold water to ease the burn she has just received. "What I need is a good strong man around here!" The boys need no more invite than that, and they are quickly in her face, peddling their strongman wares to her. "Muscles like iron!", Bluto brags. "All brawn and no brain -- that's me!", and then he picks up two straight pieces of iron and bends them by hand over an anvil into a pair of horseshoes. He taunts Popeye into doing better, and Pops grabs a long piece of hot iron from the fire, uses his head to shape six horseshoes into it, and breaks them off to form three pairs, and there is a surfeit of poker jokes thrown about in this action. This kicks off a wild round of superblacksmithing, with each of the sailors trying to outdo the other one over and over. (Since Bluto goes first each time, it is no surprise that Popeye will outdo him.)

Bluto bends an iron bar around a wheel, and then wedges it to the wood using only his teeth like a riveter; Popeye outdoes this by grabbing some more hot iron, this time twisted in shape, and uses his fingers to straighten the burning metal. He then throws it at a jacked-up wagon in the corner, where the metal instantly wraps about one of the wheels, and then a lone lugnut dashes into place and sets the wheel to the wagon for good. Bluto takes two horseshoes and punches both the shoes and the nails onto the back hooves of a horse; Popeye ups the ante by spitting nails into four horseshoes, dispersing them into four spots on the floor nails-up, and then grabbing a very surprised horse, which he flips up and over himself and onto the four horseshoes.

Then the war begins... Bluto throws an anvil at Popeye, who catches it and gets sent crashing through the floor. Bluto shows off by picking up two horses, one in each hand, and holding them over his head. Popeye maintains that he can't top that, but he says this as he is holding Bluto and the horses over his own head. The boys start punching each other, and Bluto smacks Popeye clean into the fire. He grabs Olive and puts his moves on her, howling like a wolf as his head turns into the very look of one. "You wolf in ship's clothing!", Olive screeches as she tries to break free of his grip. Suddenly, we see Popeye sitting casually in the fire, for all the world a devil, calmly stirring a tiny fork in a now heated can of spinach. He takes a huge bite, and his hands turn into sledgehammers which clang repeatedly on his anvil-shaped biceps.

One solid punch from the spinach-packin' sailor sends Bluto crashing hard into the wall across the shop. Bluto picks up a bellows and loads it with nails. He spits the nails at Popeye as if the bellows were a machine-gun, but Popeye turns the assault on the bruiser by picking up a section of bent piping and sending the nails straight back at Bluto, who pulls himself up and out of their path by grabbing an overhead box of horseshoes. The nails jab into the wall in the shape of Bluto's body. Bluto and the box of shoes come crashing down, and Bluto starts throwing them rapidly at Popeye. However, Popeye punches each one back in Bluto's direction; the tune that his punches creates ends with "Shave and a haircut" and this is exactly what the last few horseshoes do, cutting a strip straight up the middle of Bluto's head.

Bluto fires another barrage of horseshoes, but Olive gets in the way and receives a neck-stretching series of horseshoes, which are finished off with two shoes landing inside her mouth, stretching her lips out wildly and giving her the stereotyped appearance of an African native. Next, a score of horseshoes are caught on each of Popeye's mighty arms, which he then whips back at Bluto, who gets each of his limbs and his neck shoed to the wall for good. The delirious Bluto has no defense as Olive convinces him that he is "Mama's little helper" and is the perfect man for the job of taking care of the shop. The film cuts to Bluto cleaning up the mess from the battle, and Popeye bids his rival adieu in a very polite fashion. Bluto returns the mannered favor, but then does a doubletake when he sees that Olive is going our on the town, via horse and cart, with Popeye. "So long, Strongman! Don't strain your brain!", she taunts as Popeye drives them off into the sunset. Bluto places his head on an anvil and starts banging a pair of hammers on his noggin.

A good deal of fun, and as I said, not really a remake, but more of a re-rigging of am already very fast ship. So much of the problem, besides the lack of imagination in the gags, with the latter Famous Popeyes is the pacing. Popeye and Bluto fight best and funniest when the action is fast and furious, so that there is little time to breathe before the next punch lands. But so many of the later shorts are too slow and labored in the battle scenes that must, inevitably, come to the fore when Popeye and Bluto meet. The one-upsmanship is there as it should be, but so many of the films never develop that frantic pace to which the best of the earlier Popeyes build. Here, that buildup is nearly perfect, with a steady progression that also never takes it out of its cramped blacksmith shop setting, with each gag growing logically out of the materials at hand. It is a solidly entertaining effort, and it shows the Famous Studios crew, both animated and real, at the top of their game.


That there is a weird sexual subtext to this episode doesn't really detract from it. But Popeye said it earlier, and I have to ask: what if Olive Oyl is not really a woman? What if she is some sort of tranny playing with the affections of two guys who need to step onto shore a little bit more? In more than one film now, Popeye and Bluto have used the term "shemale" to describe her, uh... him? Olive does seem to have a remarkably boy-like figure, and both of them seem to go ga-ga over it. I don't want to upset the purists, but is there something more at play in the Popeye realm than just two guys having an epic war of the affections of a lady? Is she more -- lady... boy?

The Anvil Chorus Girl (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1944) Dir: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Lion (Felis Leo) (1948)

The Lion (Felis Leo) (David Hand's Animaland/Gaumont)
Dir.: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9 (pending lion approval, of course)

"I'm the king of the jungle! They call me Tigerman!" - Lux Interior

I never really cared much for lions. Despite their legendary ferocity and reputation as man-eaters, lions always looked a bit scrawny and unworthy of the whole "King of the Jungle" title. First off, lions don't even normally live in the jungle; they live on the savannah. Hyenas gang up on them and kick their ass. Male lions don't even do most of the hunting; that is left to the lionesses, who do all the work and then have to sit back while the big boys get the spoils. It is when the males go rogue that they become dangerous to humans, but even then they usually pick off the weak and helpless most of the time.

The Lion King was a chore for me to watch, mainly because I was rooting for Scar and the hyenas, but also because its the elephants who are the real creatures you don't want to mess with in Africa, and they could have taken care of that whole "Nazi hyena" situation in about a quarter hour. Warner Bros. was always pretty good about making lions the butts of the joke in several cartoons ("Suuuuckahhhh...!"), though they did come in handy against Yosemite Sam and Nero, once. Born Free, even as a child, though beautiful, was somewhat boring. Aslan moved me about as much as his religious counterpart, which is zero. Endless Tarzan books and movies left the image in my mind that most lions only existed -- except for Jad-bal-ja -- to provide a momentary distraction from the plot at hand (and easily dispatched with sinewy effort, cries of "Kreegah!" and a sharp knife). The only lion that I have ever considered worthwhile was that Cowardly one in Oz, but he had charms that overwhelmed any extant lion behavior. In all, as large predatory cats go, lions were always on the bottom of my list.


No, for me, it was tigers all the way. "Three cheers and a tiger for me!", as the genie in A-Lad-in His Lamp would say. Tigers actually live in the jungle, and are definitely the kings of that realm. They also eat more people than lions could ever dare dream of devouring. Shere Khan was and still remains a smooth kickass villain. I have twice had the wonderful opportunity of holding a baby tiger at petting zoos. We have Siberian tigers at the zoo in Alaska (but not lions, because tigers are all-weather felines). And for many years, I had the side-nickname (as opposed to my normal one, namely Boog) of Tigger, doubly due to my obsession with A.A. Milne's Pooh stories and especially his springy bon vivant character, whose behavior I often could replicate because of my naturally hyperactive and AAD-laden energy. (I would often "bounce" people back in the day). Plus, tigers have that whole stripey thing going for them, making the tiger far more appealing visually than the dusty, dirty, often scraggly lion. Yup, it has always been tigers for me.

Two things, though, over the last few years have changed my opinion of lions. The first occurred when I, or rather, my cat discovered Big Cat Diary, a show which Animal Planet ran a few years back. Spare, nearly silent except for the roars of the lions, leopards and cheetahs who were the solitary stars of each episode, Big Cat Diary was basically raw nature footage of the big cats of Africa doing what they do best, which is being the big cats of Africa. My cat, Buster Keaton Ghidorah, brought the show into our lives (accidentally? I think not...) when he stepped on the remote one night, changing the channel from a Marx Brothers film to Big Cat Diary, and the show became a mainstay on Saturday nights for the next couple of years.

But not because I was watching it. No, it was Buster, who often sat down and watched TV throughout his long 22 years, who was the audience for the show in our house. He would sit and bob his head anytime one of the cats would stalk something, meow occasionally at the goings on, and would sometimes dart at the tube when there was a chase or even a mating ritual occurring. I would often watch his favorite TV show with him, and it was there that I began to really appreciate the lion, though I have to be honest and tell you that it was the lionesses, as always, who really rocked the screen. But I began to see past most of my prejudices involving the creature, and they made the jump above cougars on my list.

Finally, earlier this year, we attended the San Diego Wild Animal Park, where I had been a couple times before (and am an annual pass holder of both it and the San Diego Zoo). They had added the Lion Camp exhibit since our previous visit, and it was an eye-opener. I had seen lions in zoos numerous times, but the lions were almost always lazing about and completely unconcerned with the people milling around outside of the glass of their enclosure. Lion Camp was different. The viewing areas to see the lions are far superior to anything that I have seen before, but the part that truly sold me on the worth of the lion was our encounter with the sole lion that had the nerve to be outside that day. He was sitting about twenty feet away from the glass, but inattentive he was not. He stared intently in our direction, sniffing the air and growling in a menacing fashion. His muscles were quite clearly twitching on his shoulders as he wrestled with darting towards the glass at our party, and I became entranced by him. We left the area, and about a hundred yards down the path, we heard a tremendous roar that completely shattered my nerves. And now, I can't wait to see the lions again. Apparently, I am a convert. Nothing like a little fear to set you straight.


The hunter who narrates as he writes about his adventures in the David Hand production of The Lion (Felis Leo), from 1948, has no seeming concern about the deadliness of his subject. He instructs us about the development of a young lion cub who learns the lessons of life inside a lush and beautifully detailed jungle. Typing earnestly, we see only his pith-helmeted shadow cast upon the walls of his tent as he begins his tale.

The lion cub at the core of this narrative is seen learning how to stalk his prey through the "heart of Darkest Africa". His prey just happens to be a massive elephant fifty times his size, and the narrator points out how the young prince "stalks his prey with true regal dignity", just before falling into a deep mud puddle that he mistakes for one of the elephant tracks he has been following. A log then blocks his progress, but after a couple of failed attempts to scale it, he charges and somehow dives hard enough to burrow underneath it in one burst. 

All thought of his prey is forgotten, however, when he is distracted by a leaf. He chases it playfully, but the leaf gets sucked into the trunk of the elephant. The lion crawls through the elephant's legs as if they were mere tree trunks, and tries to regain possession of the leaf. Thus begins the lion's tormenting at the hands, er, trunk of the larger beast, which teases him mercilessly in a number of ways. The lion freaks out and bolts for safety, running straight through the log, leaving a cub-shaped door in the side of the log, which the cub runs back and shuts to keep the elephant from following him. (There is an especially nice bit where the nostrils of the trunk appear to be like a pair of eyes to the younger creature.)

The narrative skips three years, and the cub has grown up into the leonine version of an awkward teenager, flirting with the first stirrings of young love. As the lion tries to cultivate his "cool" new mane, he is teased with bad puns and mockery by an annoying parrot named Boko on a nearby branch. As Boko cracks wise about the "mane idea", the lion accidentally loses all but one of the hairs atop his nervous head. He roars at the parrot, whose feathers roll up his body so that he is essentially bottomless. A lovely young lioness begins to flirt and tease our hero, and the parrot hoarsely and flatly starts in on a song called Bet'cher Life It's Love as she paws, slaps, and generally tortures him.


Partway through the tune, the parrot says "Let's be frank... Sinatra" and twists a flower into a bowtie, the stem of the now denuded plant becomes his microphone, and he turns totally pale and wan (in the manner attributed to Sinatra at a certain early point in his career) before launching back into the number, this time with a much better though not-quite-Frankie singing voice. He next impersonates Jimmy Durante (poorly) for a bit, until he is interrupted by his female and better singing half, who throws him into their home in the tree before finishing the song on her own, as the lioness drags her intended love by his tail into her heart-shaped cave.


Six years later, the now fully grown male is following the trail of a water buffalo, but he passes up his prey due to his own earnestness, and he ends being followed by the buffalo calf instead. When he sits his rear down on the calf's head, he jumps back in fear. He is almost playful with his reaction to the calf at first, but then remembers who he is and what he is out to do. The recoiling calf looks as if it were a steak to the lion's eyes, and the lion begins to chase the smaller and weaker animal. The calf finally leaps onto a small island in a pond to hide, and the lion prepares his assault.

However, the mother buffalo has awoken from her slumber and has begun breathing threateningly on the lion's tail. The lion uses his tail like a hand, flicking the point on the buffalo's horn to test its sharpness. The lion's jaw drops and he ends up with a mouthful of the pond water, and a fish jumps out of his gaping maw. The buffalo bumps the lion into the air, and then again until he gets caught with his hind end sticking out of a hole in a tree. Another hole above him gives the lion a chance to check on his opponent's progress as he tries to unstick himself (this makes for a cute visual). A third hole gives the lion a chance to push his bottom inside the tree, but it does not work. The buffalo hits him, and the lion is shot high above the jungle canopy, and then down he falls towards a prickly pear plant, but the lion stops his progress long enough to move the plant over so that he may hit the ground without being speared.

He finds himself near the tent where the narrator continues his writing. "In summing up," he says, "the lion, so far from being the king of beasts, appears to be a cowardly, half-starved creature. But, king or no king, of one thing I am convinced..." The lion takes umbrage at this statement, and marches full on into the tent. We see the lion's shadow as it melds with that of the writer, and then the lion emerges from the tent, but there is no longer the shadow of the hunter on the walls. The lion opens his mouth, and we hear the narrator conclude his statement: "...That the lion will not eat man!" The lion smiles at the camera, very satisfied with his improvised meal, and walks off into the distance, the typewriter causing his side to jut out over and over again as the writer continues to type towards his eventual digestion.

Um, I guess that I should consider myself warned. Uh... Lions rock! Yep, they sure do!

(But I still like tigers much better...)

RTJ

[This article was updated with new photos on 12/20/15.]

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Cuckoo (1948)

The Cuckoo (David Hand's Animaland/Gaumont, 1948) 
Dir: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

Cuckoos creep me out. I know they are just birds, and not particularly horrid looking birds at that. There is nothing in their appearance to bring this mood out in me. No, it is the parasitic behavior of their kind that brings this feeling to my chilled bones. The way they lay their eggs in the nest of a different host species, and then, when the egg hatches, the way that the invading hatchling will then push the other eggs out of the nest, or if they have already hatched, the way it will terrorize and push the other offspring out and down to their doom below just gives me the willies.

It doesn't help that this mood is escalated by the horror film music that often accompanies the cuckoo's portrayal in any number of nature documentaries, as the bird insidiously kicks one of the host birds' eggs out of the nest to make way for one of its own, often colored quite similar to the egg that is being bombed to the forest floor.



Then, when I was a teenager, a reading of The Day of the Triffids (after I saw the movie, naturally) led me to another novel by that book's author, John Wyndham, called The Midwich Cuckoos, a story about aliens who knock out an entire town, and after the town wakes up from their forced slumber, every woman in the village is pregnant, unknowingly, with an alien child. These children have terrible and deadly mind powers (much like in Scanners). They look odd with their cold, staring eyes, and they try to control everyone that crosses their path. Whatever the faults of the book overall, it was made into a terrifically suspenseful and eerie film called Village of the Damned (1960, and remade in 1995), and once I saw that film a little while later, the cuckoo was completely evil in my head, even if the story has nothing to do with the creatures, and is nothing more than a metaphor. Regardless, damage done.



Some fought in the cuckoo's defense, but despite the combined efforts over the years of Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Nurse Ratched and the beloved family cuckoo clock that we grew up with in our home, I still have this negative picture of the cuckoo in my head, and no damn crazy bird was going to get my Cocoa Puffs. And all of this without ever seeing, while in my adolescence, the David Hand Animaland cartoon, The Cuckoo, from 1948. If I had, it certainly would not have changed my impression to the positive at all, but would have instead firmed up my resolve in the cuckoo department for all times.



The beginning plays much like the documentaries that I have mentioned, though the music is a bit less menacing as a lurking and shadowy cuckoo sneaks across the screen from branch to branch as it she were an avian Big Bad Wolf. Perhaps, she is, for all intents. She leaves her egg as described, and not surprising from the supervisor of Bambi, the film does not pull back on her action in sending the sparrow's egg falling to the ground below. We do not see the impact, nor is there the saving grace of seeing a little baby pop out of it at the last second. The egg is gone for good. To that point, the narrator mentions that the cuckoo wastes no time in "destroying the egg". The mother housesparrow sits on both the alien egg and her own for a good long while, but eventually she feels a kicking beneath, and soon enough, her actual offspring kicks his way out of the shell. He is a round-headed little cutie pie, who proclaims, "Hello, Mummy!" when he emerges.

Mr. Housesparrow arrives to check out the new family member, but after he joyously meets his real son, the other egg starts jumping, smacking the father repeatedly under the chin. The egg bounces high into the air, and Father Housesparrow, believing it to be his other real egg, has to run to catch the egg before it smashes to pieces. He catches it successfully, but soon he will wish that he hadn't done such a thing. The alien egg cracks open and the cuckoo baby, nearly four times as big as the sparrow chick, dumps into the straining arms of the much smaller father.

The cuckoo is extremely dopey looking, with a huge schnoz substituted for a useful beak, a goofy smile, and a never-ending appetite. This is evident in the next scene, where the pair of mismatched brothers rock back and forth in the nest as the cuckoo baby grabs food left and right from the parents, leaving not even a morsel for the real sparrow chick. That night, the pair of chicks are abed in the nest, but the snoring cuckoo kicks the sparrow child out of the nest, perhaps not so accidentally, given the cuckoo's track record. The sparrow kid uses the cuckoo's foot for a pillow, as the narrator tells of the mournful condition of the doomed bird. "Poor baby sparrow," he intones. "Nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat. His world becomes a nightmare..."

Suddenly, the air around the chick goes dark as the film enters the nightmare within his head. The stomach and two legs of the cuckoo expand and puff up around the baby. He pushes them apart, and they turn into three mushrooms, which then roll over, turn into sundae cups, and then are filled with delicious ice cream and toppings. A spoon lies by the sparrow's seat on the black floor of the nightmare chamber, but before he can gather even one bite of the dreamland desserts, the first sundae turns into a cuckoo and begins singing a song called The Cuckoo Ain't So Cuckoo After All. Each of other sundaes turn into two more cuckoos, and all three of the malicious fiends torment the baby sparrow with their song, teasing him with food, but then keeping it from him throughout the course of the dream.

"Oh, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, a cuckoo ain't as cuckoo when he's full!
Hunger makes you crazy
Takes wings to make you lazy
A cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

When you're blue, go cuckoo like the cuckoo in the spring.
Realize he's really wise and not a silly thing!

Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, the cuckoo ain't as cuckoo as his call! (Cuckoo, cuckoo)
He never toils or labors
He borrows from his neighbors
The cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

Oh, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Oh, the cuckoo ain't as cuckoo as his call!
Sail the whole world over
He's the clown who's found the clover
No, a cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!

Oh, a cuckoo ain't so [indeterminate at this point; sung drunkenly]
He knows which are lemonades and which'll fizz
He's a hearty smarty
His life is one long party
Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo after all!
Ain't so cuckoo (cuckoo, cuckoo)
Ain't so cuckoo (cuckoo, cuckoo)"

The cuckoos adopt a variety of disguises throughout the sequence, including that of Napoleon (when the word "crazy" is mentioned) and a trio of sailors. When the nightmare is over, the baby wakes up to morning, and the fat, lazy cuckoo kicks the baby off the branch. The seemingly doomed sparrow plummets to the ground below. No sooner does he hit the turf than he is met by a weasel, and he has nothing but bad designs on the kid's future. However, he talks himself into the bird's confidence, and tricks him into his cave. The hungry bird is more than willing to learn what it takes to make the menu item called "inside soup" with which the weasel tempts the starving little runt. He convinces the bird that to make "inside soup,” you first crawl inside the pot. Then you stir it inside the pot as you sit there. And then, finally, he slams the lid on the pot, trapping the baby bird inside.

But the smell of the soup drifts out through the opening of the cave, and inevitably, it reaches the nostrils of the always ravenous cuckoo. He waddles into the cave, and then comes back out with the entire pot. The weasel steals it back and carries it into his home. But the cuckoo intercepts him, and when the weasel thinks he is gnawing on a bird, he ends up chewing his own tail up instead. 

So obsessed with taking everything in the world from the baby sparrow is the cuckoo, that he doesn't understand that the baby is the main ingredient in the soup, and roughly shoves him out of the pot as if he were trying to steal it. He then drinks a ladleful of the soup, but the weasel distracts him, and then starts punching, kicking and throttling the cuckoo. The lazy bird calls out for help, and the baby sparrow tries to rescue him by picking up a club and bashing the weasel's tail with it. All it does is turn the weasel's attention to the smaller and weaker baby. He chases the sparrow throughout every inch of the cave at lightning speed, while the cuckoo, who has seemingly already forgotten about his distress, returns to devouring the "inside soup". 

The sparrow runs to the cuckoo for protection, but the schmuck kicks the sparrow away and then returns to his gluttony. The sparrow, however, has discovered the fire upon which the pot was cooking, and lights the tail of the weasel on fire. The weasel runs off and out of the picture for good.

The sparrow, feeling his oats from vanquishing one villain, now sets in on lambasting his larger "brother" for his behavior. The cuckoo actually begins to feel ashamed, ducking behind the pot as the tiny bird berates him, and a final verse of the Cuckoo song plays over the action:

"Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo, he's just mad
Oh, the cuckoo ain't so cuckoo, he's a cad
One way or another
He will rob his little brother
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo, not a friend!
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo!
Just a cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!
Oh, the cuckoo's just a cuckoo, not a friend!"

While the song finishes, the cuckoo takes off after the angry, strutting sparrow to explain himself, but then remembers the remainder of the soup, and returns to drink it all down. Then, he picks up the empty pot, opens his enormous maw as wide as it can go, and swallows the entire cast iron pot. It plops to the bottom of his stomach, and he drags it with him as he runs out of the cave.

Serious shades of Pink Elephants on Parade on display here, but that's fine. Disney has swiped from that Dumbo sequence numerous times themselves over the years, and probably will continue to forever. Some great atmosphere throughout the entire cartoon, excellent characterizations, and the chase in the cave yields several fun camera angles. There may also be, inside the cave, a morbid Disney reference when the weasel is leading the little tyke deeper into his lair. There is a skull on the ground, that the weasel rests his foot atop momentarily, which is probably just a generic duck, but it looks remarkably like that of Disney's beloved Donald Duck. As Hand left Disney for not necessarily greener pastures, is this a hidden cheeky swipe at Walt and Co.? Or is it mere coincidence? A weaker second half keeps the film from being a true lost classic, and instead, leaves it being a still nearly excellent piece of animation. 

Regardless, this film renders fully that ol' cuckoo creepiness into my being. Now, I know that not all cuckoos behave this way. Most of the North American varieties do not take on host species like the European ones do (you can read whatever you want about Old World imperialism into that statement. I am too tired during this writing to pursue it any further.) Of course, some would say that there is an abundance of pro-cuckoo propaganda out there, too. Roadrunners, after all, are members of the cuckoo family, and there is a plentitude of Warner Brothers' cartoons demonstrating the remarkably versatile capabilities of their Road Runner. Of course, this presumes that I am not on Wile E. Coyote's side in this dispute.

But I am on his side. The Coyote is the true and much put-upon hero of those cartoons. Cuckoos... you suck.

RTJ


*****

And in case you haven't seen it:


[This article was updated with new photos on 12/19/15.]

Sunday, March 26, 2006

HOW TO TRAP A WOODPECKER (1971)

In an earlier post, I railed against the use of harridans in cartoons. It was in error: I had attacked Der Mama in The Captain and the Kids series as being a member of that breed of female cartoon character that I despise the most: the nag. I had been relying on my memories of the cartoons from my youth, transposed Der Mama's actual behavior with that of similar characters from a zillion other cartoons, TV shows and movies, and then was shocked -- shocked! -- to discover, that when I gave the films a fresher viewing, that I was totally mistaken about Der Mama's status as a harridan, and that her behavior toward Der Captain was undercut by her character's innate sweetness and relative innocence.

I have apologized for this unwarranted attack on Der Mama's good name (whatever it is), but I stand by my dislike for the shrieking harpy character in all forms of the media. I know full well that they exist, and as such, filmmakers are certainly allowed to use such personae in their films; I will just stand firm in my ability to not watch that film in which they carry on their annoying behavior. I cannot handle nags in either film or in real life. And I can't handle any relationship where one partner needles the other partner, warranted or not in their actions, and coerces or emotionally blackmails that partner into performing some task or another, or tries to dominate the other person in any form, whether physically or emotionally. Some would say, well, that this description applies to most relationships, and they would probably be right, but then, I do not agree with the way that the generally accepted form of personal relationships in this world, marriages or otherwise, are carried out. (Or in the way society does most things that have become commonly accepted.) And neither do I have to accept this tripe as the way that things have to be. They might that way, but I don't have to like it.

My hatred of the nag character extends to my personal life (obviously). I do not go into the details of my fucked-up marriage very much, but I believe that the coarse and hyphenated adjective I just used to describe its condition explains it well enough. It was doomed from the beginning, from circumstances previous to our getting together, circumstances out of my control just before the wedding, and then my reluctance to break it off at an early stage before it snowballed into the vortex of hatred that I fell into due to this pause. I don't believe that I wasted a decade of my life; after all, anything that occurs in your life can turn into a lesson well learned. I just wish that I had learned that lesson a handful of years earlier, like, about eight of them. I now hold no malice towards my ex; the entire scenario was horribly enacted by all of the participants, not just us, and I wish highly that I could have remained her friend. But, when in the midst of a marriage, the plots of Hitchcock thrillers begin to seem like reasonable ways to dispatch someone, well... Once murder enters one's head, it is clearly time to skeedaddle out of that marriage, or else it is time to start learning how to catch without a mitt.

Now, if I were the trapper who resides as the antagonist at the heart of the latter-day Woody Woodpecker slapdashery How To Trap A Woodpecker from 1971, I would have had the arsenal necessary to take care of the problem, and the proper location in which to operate. Out in the middle of the woods, away from civilization, and with a sizable stock of bear traps, slings, ropes, knives, axes and, apparently, giant rat-traps larger than any human, at my disposal. I would also have a remarkably acerbic, teeth-gratingly shrill brillo-headed nag living in the log cabin with me -- and it wouldn't be for long. It would be putting something out of misery, and it would be a kindness of the largest, most benevolent sort: putting her out of my misery. Hell, I can't even watch this cartoon for the first 30 seconds without wanting to commit the crime. There would be no thinking about it were I in his place.

But the trapper is a decent, movie ratings board-guided sort, and instead takes his wife's verbal assault, or rather, swallows it with a gulp, and tries to do his best to pay heed to her. We are introduced to the couple via a narrator's mercifully short introduction, bringing to our ears a hail to the calls of the songbird -- which instantly turns into the harpy of a wife wailing banshee-like at her trapper husband that she wants a new hat, and it has to have pretty feathers in it. She then bodily kicks him out of the house until he returns with her prize. In the meantime, we are introduced to Woody Woodpecker, who is lost deep in the woods, and runs into the trapper and asks him for directions. The trapper, who wears a coonskin cap and sounds much like a poor man's impersonation of John Wayne, is more than willing to oblige, and Woody tells him, "Thank you, Big Nose!" This is not impolite, really, because that is what the man has on his face. Suddenly, his wife (hereafter called Mildred) appears, having seen the woodpecker from the cabin. "Did you see that bird?", she shrieks, and demands his pretty red feathers for her proposed new hat.

The trapper grabs Woody, and makes to cut off his headfeathers with a pair of scissors, but the bird pecks the trapper in his usual fashion, and the scissors stab the trapper painfully through his boot. The trapper pleas with his wife to relent. "Would you settle for some pussywillows, Mildred?", he begs her, but she will have none of it. She kicks him through the air again, and he begins his hunt anew. The trapper lays out a beartrap for Woody, but when our little pecker discovers it, he walks across it, and the thing never shuts on him. The bewildered trapper runs up and begins to poke the trap to see if it is stuck, but it does nothing. Woody runs up, and tries to help the trapper by pounded his fist on the spring, but it does nothing. Finally, Woody pulls out a tailfeather and drops it over the trap. The feather floats lightly towards the spring, and as it does, the trapper eyes it with ever-increasing tension, getting too close to the trap for his own safety. When the feather hits, the trap jumps up and catches the trap full about his nose!

The trapper next unveils the aforementioned giant rat-trap, which he springs open and locks, but then can't decide on which bait to use. Woody whispers to him that an acorn might be the appropriate bait, so the trapper sets an acorn on it. Woody walks up to the trap, decides that he is actually in the mood for an apple, and walks off. The trapper switches the acorn for an apple, but when Woody returns, he decides that what he really wants is a canteloupe, and leaves again. The trapper makes the switch, but when returns again, he changes his mind a third time, and suggests a watermelon. The trapper struggles to put a tremendous watermelon on the trap, but he drops it on the lever, and the entire apparatus snaps shut on the trapper's midsection.

The trapper resorts to the old box-and-stick trap, and because woodpeckers are notorious for their banana-eating ways, he places a finger of the fruit underneath it. It turns out, bananas are Woody's favorite fruit (or so he says), and he climbs under the box to gorge himself. The trapper pulls the trap shut, but when he picks it up to retrieve his prey, there is a hole dug underneath it, and Woody is gone. The trapper shoves his head into the hole to search for the bird, but Woody crawls out of another hole behind him and pecks the trapper sharply in the butt. He asks the trapper to just give up, and the trapper explains his dilemma. Woody devises a cunning plan, and returns with his head shorn, and a large box for the trapper to give his wife. When the trapper departs, Woody pulls off the obvious bald-cap and laughs devilishly. The trapper returns to his cabin and presents the gift box to his wife. She closes her eyes in front of the mirror while the trapper places the hat on her head, but both are surprised when the hat actually turns out to be a live skunk. The final scene has the nagging crone taking a bath, where more of a body, that would be kicked out of the most decrepit nudist colony, is seen than is healthy. She harangues her trapper husband with threats of bodily doom, and then we see Woody skipping off through the woods, laughing maniacally all the way.

Any chance of my truly enjoying this film went out about half a minute in, but my chances are not helped by a very tired storyline consisting of a less-than-basic chase scenario, and ancient vaudevillian gags that would still play funny if they were instilled with any sort of zest by the animators or performed by even halfway charismatic characters. Instead, we get the ancient gags as if presented to kindergarteners, where the punchlines might be pointed out on charts standing next to the screen just to make sure every kid got it. (There will be no test later, but everyone gets milk and cookies, and then a nap. Oh yeah, and a participation trophy just for being able to breathe...) 


I would say this film is the nadir of the later Lantz oeuvre, but since there are many films I haven't seen, I can only say that it is the worst I have seen so far. Doing away with the annoying nag in this film is probably not the solution, either. Maybe I need to put this film out of my misery instead.

How To Trap A Woodpecker (A Walter Lantz Cartune, 1971) Dir: Paul J. Smith
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Australian Platypus (1949)

The Australian Platypus (A Gaumont Animaland film, 1949) 
Dir: Bert Felstead
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

A few months ago, I woke up in the middle of the night to take care of some much needed ablutions (to put it bluntly, the dream sequence in my head began to rely a little too much on ocean imagery, and I didn't want to wake up swimming in the Yellow Sea). Jen was awake too, for a similar reason (it's amazing when a couple can sync such events together), and there on our ever-glowing television were scenes from a cartoon that I did not recognize.



At least, I did not recognize the characters, two lovestruck platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever. There was a male platypus and a female platypus cavorting cutely in a river in Australia, carving decorated hearts into the water's surface with their tails. And I, in my half-roused blurry vision said out loud, "Ah, Harman and Ising,” for such was the high level of animal cuteness, combined with lush visuals though without the usual cartoon slapstick, that I immediately assumed it was a little-played MGM cartoon that I had never seen before. And then I went back to sleep.



Of course, I knew all about David Hand: his glory days at Disney directing Bambi and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, his relocation to England in 1944 head up a new animation studio at Gaumont, only to see the studio sputter and get shut down a half decade later. The stuff of film history. I had only seen one of the nine films of the studio's signature Animaland series previously, and that was Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus, since it occasionally pops up in holiday cartoon collections

Since I had never considered that I might actually see the rest of Hand's British output, I had never really studied much about his career after Disney except knowing the basic information. So, even though there was a cartoon that I had never seen before on television featuring one of my favorite mammalian species -- what's not to love... a duck and a beaver practically rolled into one, an egg layer, and the part that is frequently forgotten when discussing this monotreme: the fact that it is venomous?), I was absolutely clueless as to its origin. I simply shrugged the film off to get some much needed ZZZZZZs.


Waking up the next morning, thinking clearer on the situation, I checked TCM.com on the computer to make sure that the whole platypus-bathroom scenario hadn't actually been part of a dream within a dream. But there it was in their monthly guide: a showing of Cartoon Alley, TCM's animation reservoir featuring Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of the famous and Oscar-winning Citizen Kane scribe, Herman J. Mankiewicz. And it was an entire half-hour devoted to the partially "lost" films of the great David Hand: his Animaland series.

Of course, I immediately set up my Moxi (the Adelphia version of Tivo, without the annoyingly stupid mascot, and said by pumping one's fist in a Burgess Meredith-Rocky style and a gravelly voice, as in "I've got Moxi! Arrrr!!” -- also, sort of like a pirate, I guess) to record the next showing of the episode -- luckily it was being reshown a bit later -- and eventually I found myself wrapped in an animated Brigadoon. It seemed I had stumbled on a precious, lost land of characters that I was sure was going to disappear like gossamer if I blinked my eyes too much. And the first characters that I would get to meet in this magical land were the two little lovelorn platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever...



In the cartoon, a map of the Australian continent is first seen while a narrator, with a British accent, describes the mysterious splendors and fauna of this seemingly strange world. He first points out the "familiar kangaroo,” which, upon discovering that a camera has intruded into their privacy, wastes no time in collecting its joey into its pouch and hopping well out of the camera's range. We next meet the hyena-laughed kookaburras, which the narrator first refers to as "jackasses,” who laugh at the slightest things as if they were Cheech and Chong riding around in their van made out of weed. Then, as the camera zeroes in on a den laid into the riverbank, while numerous ducks swirl about in the waters adjacent, we meet a lovely lady platypus, who views her reflection in the water with an approving wink, but then bolts into her den due to her overwhelming shyness.

Suddenly, a male platypus crawls ashore on the other side of a log bisecting the riverbank, wrings the water out his tail, and then uses that tail to etch a semi-circle into the riverbank. "Looks like she's going to have a neighbor," the narrator intones, and sure enough, the boy 'pus starts digging into the soft clay of the bank, and then throws the stray dirt up and over the log into the yard of the lady 'pus. At first, she is angered about the uncalled for dumping on her property, until she peers over the log to investigate and spies the handsome new neighbor.

She is immediately smitten, perfumes her face with a flower, primps a little, and then chucks a wad of dirt back onto the head of the boy 'pus. He juts his head over the log to locate his attacker, and is himself smitten by the loveliness of the girl 'pus, and little red hearts spring out of his now love-addled pate, and he swoons, dropping onto his seat. In a most likely unmeant through thoroughly phallic-seeming bit, he jacks himself back up onto his feet with his beaver-like tail, but then swoons again, this time face down in the dirt. The girl makes to look over the log again, but the boy uses his tail to push himself over it at the same exact moment, and the pair meet eye-to-eye for the very first time. The girl bolts for the safety of her den, and the boy 'pus bounces merrily on his tail like a pogo stick (very much like Tigger).

The kookaburras, sitting in the tree overlooking the platypus riverbank, start laughing and mocking the boy’s lovesick behavior, and he eyes them with embarrassed scorn. As he is distracted, a female duck climbs out of the river and parks herself alongside the log opposite the boy platypus, so that he can only see her billed head. After drawing some cartoon hearts with arrows in the dust with his versatile tail, the boy spies the duck's head, but imagines it is his new love. He attempts to kiss her, but the lady 'pus crawls out of her den in time to see him making the moves on the duck. He throws her bill up into the air, and parades snootily past him to show him up. As twitter-pated as he is, he watches her march past, and then goes back to his ministrations of love on the sleeping fowl. He then does a double take, checks over the log to realize his mistake, and runs to the side of the lady 'pus. He tries to apologize, but she slaps him in the chin with her tail, and walks off. The kookaburras laugh at him again, and he burns red in the face, and then tries to cover his ears as they continue to mock him.

He then sees the girl 'pus swimming off in the river, and makes a concerted effort to catch up to her. She sees him, and decides to play it coy, and when he gets near her, she ducks under a leaf in the river. He swims into the leaf, which blinds him, and he conks his head on a nearby rock. He goes under, and the girl 'pus believes that he is in trouble, but he is only pretending to drown. Beside A Waterfall, a lovely tune, is sung on the soundtrack, as the girl 'pus watches her new love sink to the bottom of the river. As he lies on the bottom, he slightly opens one eye to see her worried reactions, and then quickly grabs a waterlily and holds it to his chest as if dead. The girl kisses her lost love, and he opens his eyes. He emits a bubble in the shape of a heart, which floats to the surface, where it causes heart-shaped ripples to flow out, which the boy and girl emerge up and out of in their reverie. They spend the afternoon chasing each other about the river, floating on lily pads, sliding down waterfalls, and silently professing their adoration to each other.

Time passes to a short while later, as we see the pair standing in a heart-carved den in the riverbank, and this time, they have a baby platypus at their feet. The kookaburras are heard to be laughing again, and the mammalian pair and their offspring look up into the tree above. This time, it is not the pair of kookaburras that mocked them over and over before. Instead, it is their quartet of bratty kookaburra kids, and the parent birds are cowering red-faced and are no longer amused at anything. The platypuses get a kick out of seeing the kookaburras get a taste of their own medicine, and they chuckle quietly. The film irises out, but to the baby platypus’ surprise, he is left sitting on a blue screen surrounded by a rainbow of flowers and the name of the production company.

The Australian Platypus is cute in a way that normally gives me the dry heaves, but there is so much artistry at work here, that it would be a shame to overlook this film. Simply for the novelty of the characterizations alone, it is interesting to view, and while it seems that the saccharine content would choke a Care Bear, there is considerable charm in how this cuteness is applied. This film is also a subtle reminder that good animation is not always about the "funny". So often, when watching animation, we tend to automatically lean towards what is riotous or even mildly humorous. Because most of American animation has always been about making Americans laugh, we lose track of the fact that animation can be used to express any emotion, even something that sounds as hokey to our ears as simple love.

This loss of remembrance of the range of animation can often be a blessing, though. As a youth, I was shocked into submission when I first saw MGM's Peace on Earth from 1939, a devastatingly somber recounting of man's evil visited upon his fellow man. I went into that cartoon thinking it would be simply cute furry animals, and was rained upon with some of the creepiest and most chilling war imagery that I, though a child of relatively young vintage, had seen to that point. And as such, it helped solidify my personal disgust with the military mindset and hatred of man's macho and absurdist warlike attitude as much as, say, the original 1931 version of All Quiet on the Western Front did. (That one put it over the top for me.)

Luckily, there is a distinct lack of such evil in The Australian Platypus. It is all love and happiness and carefree sentimentality. But, sometimes, well-done animation is enough to make such a film a worthwhile watch. The majority of Bambi is like this; the majority of Snow White is like this. Yes, there are the incredibly jarring sequences of fear and terror that actually form the core of the actions of the characters, and which make those feature-length animated films truly memorable and classic. But a good portion of both films is simple fluff: cute little people and cute little animals acting cutely. While this film does not retain the terror factor of Hand's feature films at Disney, that is not the purpose here. 

That these films seem more like Happy Harmonies than Looney Tunes, especially this film, is no detriment to Hand. (Other films, like the Ginger Nutt films that comprise almost half of the Animaland series, rely more on a light version of Warner-style antics.) Hand was a craftsman, and he created exactly what he wanted to create in these films: happy little worlds for all audiences to enjoy. That the films did not take worldwide is not his fault. They are exceptionally well-made films. This film may not be "funny" in the way that we expect our cartoons to be, and in the way that very few cartoons actually are, but it is mildly amusing. If the cuteness seems a little cloying to you, I believe that its novelty more than makes up for it. And the animation is beautiful and lush enough to keep one watching for merely the design aspect alone.

After all, where else are you going to get to see two cavorting animated platypi... uh, platypuses... uh, platypodes... oh, whatever...

RTJ

*****


And in case you haven't seen it...


[This article was given an update with new photos on 12/18/15.]