Friday, March 24, 2006

Box Car Bandit (1957)

Box Car Bandit (A Walter Lantz Cartune, 1957) 
Dir: Paul J. Smith
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Dapper Denver Dooley: Walter Lantz's version of Peg-Leg Pete, Bluto, and Yosemite Sam, all rolled into one. Dark of eye, pointy of head, scruffy of chin, quick with a gun, and mean and devious as a snake (and by this I mean not to denigrate all snakes, just the mean and devious ones). He is trouble on the hoof; his horse's hoof, that is, when his horse allows Dooley to actually ride him.

In Box Car Bandit, released by Walter Lantz in 1957, Dapper Denver Dooley (or DDD as I will call him off and on from here on out) is doing what he does best: plotting a robbery. At the beginning of the film, a camera pans down a telegraph pole, rests a moment on a wanted poster for Dooley, and then sweeps to the bottom of the pole to show Dooley and his horse attempting to intercept a telegraph message via the horse's use of headphones.

"What does it say," Dooley growls impatiently. The horse (an unexpected and underused source of yuks in this film) yells annoyingly, "IT SAYS DIT-DIT-DIT-DOOT-DIT-DIT-DIT-DIT!!!" It would be one thing if the horse just said it this loud because he was wearing headphones, but he says it to Dooley in an extremely pushy and obsequious manner, and it is all the more funny for his doing it that way. It produces nothing but seething rage in Dooley, but then they retrieve the actually message: a shipment of gold bullion is coming through on the next train. The plot is set.

But it is sure no certainty. Sadly, for Dooley, Woody Woodpecker is the conductor on this train. (I'm sure there is a missing film somewhere that shows Woody running the previous conductor, probably played by Wally Walrus, out of this job.) Woody is shown gleefully sorting the mail for drop-off at the next depot, and then the film cuts back to DDD. Dooley and his horse take off after the train, only when they bolted, they left in the wrong positions, with the horse riding atop Dooley. "Now just a minute!" he roars, and the switch is made. Hoofbeats are heard, but Dooley swiftly realizes that they aren't going anywhere. The camera pulls back to reveal the horse cheerfully clomping his hoofs hambone-style on his knees. "Now cut that out!" the villain yells, and  bonks the horse on the noggin, and then they ride out properly.

They get to the depot at Saddle Sore Junction, and when Woody's train grabs the bag from the mail-hook and Woody opens the bag, it is no surprise what lies waiting inside: Dooley and his horse. Dooley immediately pulls his weapon on Woody and demands, "Stick 'em up! Where's the gold bullion?" Woody is more than reluctant to tell him, but finally acquiesces. "In there," he says, and Dooley charges through the door, only it is the door to the outside of the car, and he falls off a high bridge. He returns swiftly, fires his pistols at Woody's feet, and tells the bird to "Start Dancing!" The two of them grab each other and start a quick boogaloo with the music flourish, and then Dooley tells him, "I hate you!" Woody's only defense is to reply, "I like you!" and kisses him loudly on the nose.

They hit a tunnel as Dooley fires his guns, and Woody (hiding in a barrel) lights a match to the bottom of the bullets on Dooley's gun belt, and they shoot a circle around Dooley's feet, causing him to fall through the floorboards. But the villain is saved, momentarily, by the fact that he has fallen on top of the train's wheels. He cycles his feet on the axle pre-Flintstone-style frantically, but Woody has other plans. The wacky woodpecker peels and eats a banana, and then throws the skin into the hole. Dooley is whisked under the train for a good mashing.

Next, Dooley and horse ride to catch the train, but are stopped by a lonely railroad crossing. They look both ways, but there seems to be nothing for miles. So, they step on to the tracks and the train zooms right over them. When the train is gone a split-second later, Dooley is a broken heap smashed into the tracks, and the horse is bandaged and scratched, sitting on his rear on the tracks, tapping his hooves on his knee in a very frustrated fashion. They then reach another railroad crossing, but this time, Dooley has a plan to pole vault over the tracks to avoid getting hit by the instantly appearing train. This would seem to work, but DDD wasn't counting on one of those low-flying planes. You know, the type that always seems to appear out of nowhere in the Old West. Dooley and his horse get carried off on the nose of the airplane as it blasts through the area.

Dooley then catches the train, climbs into an open car, but it is loaded with cattle and gets a full stomping from the fierce bulls contained inside. Then Dooley catches the train again, climbs under one of the cars, and begins to drill a hole though the floor. But Woody has moved a barrel of molasses over the spot where Dooley is working, and the villain become a sad, sticky mess clinging woefully to the bottom of the train. Dooley then rides and catches the train yet again, climbing up a ladder to the top, but Woody unhooks the ladder, and Dooley panics and ends up trashed on the tracks once more.

Dooley. Horse. Train. Catches. Climbs. This time, the train goes into a tunnel as Dooley hits the roof, and when it emerges, Woody walks up to Dooley with a puncher and asks the creep for his ticket. As Dooley begins to search for his, Woody cries out, "Hit the deck!" Dooley turns, only to get a face full of a mountainside as the train goes through another tunnel. The next time Dooley mounts the train, he decides to steal the bullion car by undoing it from the rest of the train. He turns the wheel violently to unhitch it, but, in a great visual, he only succeeds in twisting the entire train into what appears to be like a long peppermint stick. Finally, his twisting catches up to him, and the train and the wheel reverse themselves, and Dooley is shot up into the air, spinning madly. 

Next, DDD uses a railcar to catch the train, but Woody pulls the breaks, and Dooley goes crashing bodily through each and every car of the train, finally coming out in the engine, where he shoots up and out of the smokestack. Never one to give up, Dooley then tries to make the train switch tracks, but when he pulls the lever, the entire track simply jumps over on top of where he is standing, and the train runs him over. He pulls himself up from the tracks, and he looks for all the world exactly like a Cubist painting. (Nice one, that.)

Finally, Dooley knocks on the boxcar door, and Woody asks who it is. "Fuller Brush Man!" answers Dooley as charmingly as he can muster, and Woody lets him in. Finally, Dooley has reached the gold bullion: Gold Bullion Soup, that is! Crates and crates of Gold Bullion Soup. Understandably, the horrible gag makes Dooley go insane, and it is an easy matter for Woody to detach the car and drive DDD to the nearest jail. Soon, it is dinner time in jail, and Dooley demands his food. He gets it alright: Gold Bullion Soup, delivered to him by the new jailer, Woody Woodpecker.

Good, not great, fun until the lame soup ending. Some very nice gags, the horse is fun (especially his opening bit), but the visuals leap in quality from a couple of lushly grand shots to some very sketchy ones, and Woody seems to change shape and sharpness from scene to scene. In fact, Woody seems like an afterthought in this cartoon, and doesn't really seem to fit in with the rest of the animation in this short. It's not that I find him unappealing in Box Car Bandit (there are other more well-known Woody cartoons where that description would be apt for my reaction to him), but I just think that he greatly pales in comparison to the bandit and the horse.

But Dooley is the draw here anyway. There is more than a touch of Tex Avery in his very style, and even though he predates the character by a few years, when I see Dooley, I am slightly reminded of that drag-racing, pop-eyed rodent, Rat Fink, mainly for the similar crazed stare. Dooley is the Lantz Studio's bad guy of all seasons, and I do not want to overstate his worth, but I really do believe that he can often make an otherwise bland effort reasonably bearable, especially in some of these mid-50's Woody films that would be so ho-hum without his special touch of rubbery, brain-smashing madness and dogged determination.

OK, I'll say it -- Dapper Denver Dooley is Walter Lantz's secret weapon.

Stick 'em up...!



And in case you haven’t seen it…

[This article was revised slightly and updated on 1/12/16.]

1 comment:

Thad K said...

Rik, your reviews range all over the different cartoon studios. I love it! Keep up the good work.