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

No comments: