Monday, March 20, 2006

LIGHTHOUSE-KEEPING BLUES (1964)

Lighthouse-Keeping Blues (A Walter Lantz Cartune, 1964) 
Dir: Sid Marcus
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

I am continually struck over the public's (and the media's) obsession with placing penguins at the North Pole, often with polar bears and eskimos, or placing the latter two groups with the former at the South Pole. Sometimes they get it right, and the penguin is found in the correct frigid end of Earth. More often, they get it , not so much wrong, since they really don't seem to care in the first place, but just... well... weird. Sure, every once in a while Disney will put Pablo Penguin on the right block of ice, as in The Three Caballeros segment The Cold-Blooded Penguin, but that proves to be the exception, as Bugs Bunny ends up at a pole with a cute penguin and an Eskimo (or Humphrey Bogart, for that matter); Coca-Cola makes a mint off of the concept, even throwing Santa Claus into the mix; or, in the Walter Lantz shorts, Chilly Willy ends up cavorting about with a misplaced Maxie the Polar Bear. Not that there's anything wrong with that...

And there is certainly not anything wrong in Lighthouse-Keeping Blues from 1964. Ably directed by the underrated Sid Marcus, Blues features a very sleepy Chilly Willy bedding down for a nice, quick six-month nap. We know this to be so due to the color-bisected face of his alarm clock, with the dark half reading "Winter" and the light half reading "Summer". Just before this, we met Smedley the dog performing his titular duties on a nearby lighthouse, maintaining the upkeep on the place steadfastly, all whilst singing a happy cleaning song. As Chilly Willy tries to zip off to a prolonged dreamland, Smedley turns the light on, and sadly for him, it shines right smack into Willy's igloo. (He is sure to pay for this.) The little bird pulls the blind on his window, but the light eventually gains entry through a pinhole in the fabric, and the penguin has to climb out of bed and move his entire igloo, bed and all, across the ice a few feet to avoid the glare. However, the light merely reflects numerous times off of the ice and bounces right back into his face.

Chilly takes the process to the next level, and boats angrily over to the lighthouse, climbs the stairs, and turns the light off. As he departs the lighthouse, Smedley takes notice of him and informs the audience, "Little penguin feller. Lots of 'em down here", quite nonchalantly. Then, the dog receives a phone call from his supervisor, who grouchily tells him to get the light back on. Smedley does so, and Chilly Willy returns; this time, though, he takes out a hammer and smashes the light to pieces. Smedley sends Willy flying in a giant spring-loaded boat launcher, and Willy and his craft skid across the water and smash gracelessly through the penguin's abode. Obviously, in the words of Bugs Bunny, this means war...

After another irate phone call from the boss, Smedley replaces the giant broken bulb, but Willy arrives to smash it anew with his slingshot. This time, when the dog tries to shoot Willy from the launcher, it backfires, and Smedley is sent crashing into a buoy. Another phone call with a warning of immediate job loss and a sock in the eye through the receiver, and Smedley again replaces the bulb. And again, Willy smashes it. Then another new bulb -- SMASH! And another -- SMASH! Then Willy takes an axe in hand and chops the power cord into little bits, and Smedley frantically tries to ties the numerous ends back together.

But Chilly Willy is off to even bigger prey: he heads to the store room to destroy all of the giant light bulbs, which he does gleefully, one by one. Smedley tries to catch him, but Chilly Willy ducks into a nearby pipe. Smedley tries to go in after him, but it turns out to be a foghorn, and Willy blows it in time to send Smedley crashing into the Danger Signal Room. Naturally, the dog scratches a match in the darkness, and in that brief interval of newly lighted realization, poor Smedley sees himself surrounded by stacks of explosives. The Danger Signal Room goes up, and so does Smedley's lighthouse, taking off into space like a rocket, and even going the extra step of falling apart in stages so that only the top of the lighthouse goes into orbit around the Earth. 

Chilly Willy goes back to the comfort of his bed for his delayed and much-needed nap, but it turns out that he and Smedley have battled the winter away, and to Chilly's great surprise, his alarm clock blares loudly. Chilly's response is swift and brief: he smashes the clock to smithereens violently with a hammer, and settles back into bed for a long summer's nap.

This cartoon builds wonderfully and almost perfectly, from the small steps of somewhat bothersome busywork at the beginning, progressing through larger and more violent set pieces until the grand fireworks display of the climax. The pacing is wonderful, and the cartoon at all points tells you just enough information about the participants to move the story along. There is no excess dialogue getting in the way of the story, just the exact amount needed, which is not the case with many of the latter day Walter Lantz pictures. 

In the case of a Chilly Willy cartoon, this might be easier to achieve since the character is largely a silent figure, whereas in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, the hero is known for his loud-mouthed wise-assery. But with a gabby character like Smedley on the loose, there could have been the compulsion to gum the thing up with unnecessary lines, such as DePatie-Freleng often did when ruining Pink Panther films with overly talkative antagonists. Fortunately, Marcus reined in the Daws Butler-voiced canine, and kept the focus squarely on the inspired antics.

And, fortunately, there are no polar bears hanging about in the Antarctic. Nothing against Maxie the Polar Bear (whom I quite like). But there is no place for him at the South Pole. It's just not believable.

Now, a snowcap-wearing penguin sleeping in a bed and doing battle with a talking dog over a lighthouse? That makes perfect sense...

RTJ

*****

[This article was updated on 1/13/16.]

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