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, and then with the punchlines pointed out on charts standing next to the screen. (There will be no test later, but every gets milk and cookies, and then a nap.) 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 so far.

Doing away with the nag in this film is probably not the solution, though. 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

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