Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Cobweb Hotel (1936)

The Cobweb Hotel (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936)
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: David Tendlar; William Sturm
Music: Sammy Timberg; Bob Rothberg
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

While all but three of the Popeye shorts and all of the films of the Betty Boop series that the Fleischer brothers produced were in black and white, Max and Dave did have a series explicitly designed to show off their creations in the glorious new color processes flooding the film medium in the mid-1930s. Since their series was called Color Classics, it had better do just such a thing as show it such grandeur in high style.

Outside of the inaugural film of the series starring Betty Boop, the Color Classics series was mainly comprised of the standard 1930s anthropomorphic animals, plants or inanimate object scenarios and kiddie book adventures much in the style of Disney's Silly Symphonies series, only not quite with the polish of that studio's product; it was also a stylistic choice that pretty much wrote the critical and eventual financial death knell of the series. The Fleischers’ color films, however striking at time, especially when using their “setback” camera, a tabletop process that was somewhat similar to the “multiplane” camera that Ub Iwerks developed (and that Disney’s William Garity would perfect later). The Fleischers’ color films were usually slightly rougher than Disney’s, however, there are a couple handfuls of decent, and sometimes more than decent, cartoons that truly lived up to the name of Color Classics.

The Cobweb Hotel, released in 1936 and ridden hard by public domain use ever since, is one of those memorable films. If you have seen Pee Wee’s Playhouse or any number of kiddie cartoon compilation shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, you have seen The Cobweb Hotel. It may indeed be one of those cartoons that sticks in the mind more than others, so that years later, you go, “What was that cartoon where the really creepy spider was running a hotel?”

The Cobweb Hotel seems to be a basic buggy spectacular, much like Warner Brothers' 1934 love-bug fest Honeymoon Hotel, with a cute bug couple seeking comfort and joy in a low-rent hotel on their wedding night, but the differences end there. For while the Warners' short was laced with clever innuendo set in a mostly cutesy environment, The Cobweb Hotel takes a different tack to a similar happy ending. Along with Balloon Land (aka The Pincushion Man, a ComiColor short from the Ub Iwerks studio in 1935), for me, The Cobweb Hotel is one of the flat-out creepiest cartoons ever made, at least of the ones that came out of the American studio system in the first half of the 20th century. The cause of all this creepiness is not just the excruciatingly hideous spider that runs the titular hotel of doom (and I am a big spider fan); no, it is the imagery of all the innocent buggies caught in hotel beds made up of the spider's webbing, while they struggle and squeal to free themselves that sends a chill up the spine. The ickiness of Mr. Spider is merely the icing on this wedding cake of slow and torturous impending death.

The film opens brilliantly, first with a shot of a sign written in a spider's web reading "Cobweb Hotel - For Flies Only", and then there is a dissolve to a shot of a sumptuous hotel lobby, with marbled columns, gorgeous wooden floors, an expansive staircase, two couches, and with a large desk and mail-case centered at the back of the frame. But then the camera pulls back and reveals the true state of things: the hotel is actually the top of an abandoned roll-top bureau desk. It is covered in webs and dust, and the desk is nothing more than a large inkwell, the mail-case is for holding stamps, the staircase is a stack of spread out books, the couches are two open stamp pads, and the columns are two fountain pens standing up on end. We also see that there is a phone and other ephemera set about the outer edges of the desk, and the entire thing is shot three-dimensionally, as it is actually a prop setting for the film. Likewise, the spider that drops down from the ceiling into the picture; from its movement, he almost seems like a puppet, and I still feel perhaps that it is in that first shot. He definitely has a three-dimensional feel (like the set itself), until the true cartoon action begins.

When we get a closeup of the spider, he is not a pretty sight, to say the least. He has a long, almost saw-like nose, and he drools and slobbers as he sings and talks throughout the picture. He launches into the title song as he swings menacingly from side to side on the line from his web, occasionally thrusting his face and arms violently at the audience:

"Spend the night at the Cobweb Hotel!
You'll find that the service is swell!
Now, you needn't be shy;
I won't harm a fly!
Spend the night at the Cobweb Hotel!"

The spider motions up to his left, and we see that each of the holes of the desk have been turned into the rooms of his hotel, each draped in webbing, and as he begins the next verse, we see a squealing, squirming fly "tenant" who is stuck fast to his bed, also made of webs. As he sneers his way through the song, the camera keeps panning to even more victims of his bloodlust, including a female fly that squeals in an ear-piercingly shrill and upsetting manner as she struggles in a jar of glue, and another fly trapped on a Murphy bed that bounces up with his movements and traps him against the wall. The spider’s song of evil continues:

"Step into my parlor, please do!
In a while, your cares will be through!
There'll be no rent to pay,
'Cause you'll be here to stay!
Spend the night at the Cobweb Hotel!"

Enter Mr. and Mrs. Bug. They fly in hand in hand; she is cute and doting, and he is a barrel-chested powerhouse who proudly wears a banner that drifts behind him that reads "Flyweight Champion". They spy the hotel below, and following the spider's landing instructions, march up to the hotel desk unaware of the structure's true nature. The spider-clerk offers the register to them for a signature; the fly grabs the spider's nose, dips it in the ink, and signs their names, “I. Fly and Wife”. “Newlyweds, I presume?” gasps the spider in his Peter Lorre-like whine. He then asks the couple to make themselves at home while he prepares their room.

The couple first turn the telephone into their own personal amusement ride, with the Mrs. sitting in one of the holes as her hubby spins the dial. The spider, meanwhile, is up in their room building a bed out of his webbing, which unfurls like thread from a spool on his back. He attaches it to four pins that he pulls out of a pincushion and then jabs into the floor in a square formation. The flies are busy turning an ink blotter into a seesaw, and after the spider lays down a strip of flypaper on the floor like a throw rug, he calls them up by singing, again: "Step into my parlor, please do!" The newlyweds are eager to get on with the honeymooning, but when they walk in, they hear the screams and cries of the poor trapped fly in the next room, whom they view through a convenient hole in the wall. They turn in shock towards the camera, and it captures their horrified faces.

The spider, foaming at the mouth with a mad, craving lust, closes the webbed curtains, rubs his numerous hands together and advances on the pair. They duck under the bed and to the opposite side, but when they try to escape, he grabs them both and the spider throws the girl onto the sticky covering of the bed. Mr. Fly pummels the spider about the face and head several times, and then manages to duck out of the room, causing the spider to chase after him. In the lobby, the spider unspools a long line of webbing and forms a lasso, which he throws over the fly, allowing him to pull the delicious morsel back towards his clutches. But as the fly nears his greedy hands, they are given a rope burn when the fly makes a last ditch effort to escape again. The spider pulls again, and once more the fly gets close to being captured before kicking into high gear across the room.

This time, he wraps the webbing around the side rung of a chair, and conveniently enough, there is a large lighter sitting just beneath the strand. The fly jumps on it to activate its flame, and the spark shoots down the webbing right onto the spider's back! The spider is forced to put out the fire in the inkwell, and then dives back into the fray as the fly decides to settle the affair with his flyweight championship-winning fists. Eventually, the spider backs the fly near a box of paper clips, and indeed, he affixes one of them to the fly's wings, rendering him flightless. The fly starts to get a royal beating from the villain, who easily holds off the fly's attack with one hand, as he wallops the little guy with his other hands and feet. The fly manages to make it to a case full of sewing needles, and both he and the spider grab a needle and begin a sword fight, with the spider backing the fly into a hanging web. Though the fly defends himself vigorously, all seems lost.

But Mrs. Fly manages to free herself from her honeymoon bed of doom, and locates a razor blade laying about in her room. Bravely, she flies from room to room and frees the would-be victims of the spider, who then charge to the rescue of Mr. I. Fly. Just as the spider seems ready to end Mr. Fly's life, three of the freed flies pick up a fountain pen and sharply jab its point into the spider's rear. Distracted by the attack, the spider chases the other flies, allowing Mrs. Fly enough time to free her husband from his bonds. As the spider continues his chase, he is flooded with the ink from another fly-operated fountain pen, then he is shot in the rear numerous times by another fly wielding a safety pin and pen points like a bow and arrow; and pelted machine gun-like with aspirin from a perfume bottle and plunger. Fearful for his life, the spider crawls to the top of the book staircase, but he is beaned by the sliding arm of a typewriter when two flies hop down onto the shift key. He falls into a web being held by several flies, who then airlift the villain into a vat of library paste.

The victorious flies zoom off from the hotel of horrors, with Mr. and Mrs. Fly riding atop a makeshift sedan chair constructed out of a jewelry box with an enormous ring, held aloft by several flies carrying two pencils. The flies sing as they exit the film:

"And now, as we go,
there is one thing we know:
Stay away from the Cobweb Hotel!"

I am not the biggest fan of flies; in fact, like most bugs, if they are in my home or on me, they are fair game, and I am pretty obsessive about ridding myself of their presence. And spiders? I've always been partial to their kind, and usually go out of my way to get them safely out of my abode so that they can concentrate their supposedly malicious, but actually beneficial, powers on the insect population out of doors. Of course, since I've moved out of Alaska, I am now confronted with spiders manyfold the quantity and size that I am used to seeing, and of many more varieties, too. And with a girlfriend who is deadly allergic to spider bites and bee stings, I have been forced into a more violent approach to two of my favorite arthropods. This coalesced into my first live meeting with a black widow who had taken up residence in an area at my job, where I was basically pressured into performing an execution on the gorgeous creature. I admired her for two days before I was called crazy for not considering the safety of both myself and my co-workers (by a Republican, no less… I think there were racist overtones to his “concern”), and once I thought about how much work I was going to be doing around the area, I took matters into my own hands.

Perhaps if that black widow spider had been as hideous and vile-looking as the fiend in The Cobweb Hotel, I would not have hesitated so long. The Fleischers play up the horror theme to the maximum, and I feel that the scenes of bondage and torture are as creepy as anything seen in any horror film of that era. There is such an element of fear at large in this picture, that I find it incredible that it was even shown for children in that time, given that people were known to faint during pictures as innocuous (nowadays, at least) as Frankenstein and Dracula. It seemed that it didn't take much to bring on a case of the vapors back then; perhaps the picture got past censors on these counts due to its being a cartoon, and thus, considered to not reflect reality. Fair enough, but I grew up with this film; like most things that locked creepy images into one's mind as a child, you grow up either loving it or hating it, and I have never been one to shy away from the creepy. Thus, my appreciation for this film.

I must say, I recently attended a test screening for an upcoming Sarah Michelle Gellar picture, The Return, and there is a point in the film where her character has to go check into a hotel where there is a pig's head hanging from a hook in full view in the lobby. And she still checks in!! Likewise, all of these flies who have checked into the swank Cobweb Hotel, who don't seem to notice the spiderwebs all around the place, and while he may be done up in his clerk's vest and shoes, there is no mistaking the fact that the clerk is a giant friggin' spider! And yet, the flies still check in!!

I know people say that looks can be deceiving, but the operative phrase there is “can be,” not “are”. In many cases, they are not deceiving at all. If you enter a hotel with either a bloody pig's head or giant spider-webs hanging about the place, there's a good chance that it has not been rated with four stars in any reputable guide.

But this picture should be. As an entertainment and as one of the closest instances of a cartoon recreating a true atmosphere of horror, The Cobweb Hotel is pretty near perfect.


And in case you haven't seen it: Not finding a really great version of The Cobweb Hotel online, but this one (cut up credits and all) has one of the better pictures. But if you can, get the Somewhere in Dreamland: Max Fleischer's Color Classics DVD set.

[This article was reedited and updated with new photos on 12/14/15.]

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