Thursday, April 06, 2006

CONGO JAZZ (1930)

Polar bears at the Antarctic; penguins at the Arctic; dinosaurs in servitude to or trying to eat cavemen. Because the emphasis is on laughter, fun and cuteness in the cartoon industry, it's exceedingly rare that cartoon creators go to great, or any, lengths to get their facts straight. It's not important that one gets a geologic epoch correct, as long as the cartoon is funny. (Unless it is Fantasia, whose dinosaur sequence is sober and dramatic, until science takes a coffee break when the dancing hippos and gators arrive. And when, hell, everything else in the picture happens.) Also, since cartoons so often are funhouse mirrors of a society's foibles, and so much of the humor relies on the commonality of the audience's knowledge, stereotypes (not necessarily offensive in nature) play a huge part in nearly every cartoon. If everyone in the audience already believes that each person in Alaska lives in an igloo? Well, then it will show up in just about any cartoon with a northern and/or snow-laden locale. Sometimes, it gets so crazy, you don't know which end is up. What's next? Tigers and kangaroos in the African jungle?

As it turns out... yes, if the African jungle is the one in the second Bosko cartoon, Congo Jazz from Warner Bros. in 1930. This time out, our pal Bosko is a not-so-mighty hunter on the trail of some undefined creature, and it very well could be the tiger that is actually sizing him up for a meal. Bosko is either scared of the jungle or of the music that accompanies his every careful step: the familiar ...dum-dum-dum-dum-DAAAAHHHHH!!!!-dum-dum-dum-dum... progression that many websites credit to a song called Mysterious Mose, but is actually far, far older, and was already a well-established melodramatic cliche by 1930. (More on this later...) Bosko has to deal with this music twice, both times nearly jumping out of his pants with the savage din. But, soon, he has a bigger problem than a troublesome orchestra with which to contend: the tiger has started sniffing at him, in time with the music, and after a couple of sniffs, unfurls his tremendous tongue and licks Bosko right up the back. Our startled hero would hit the roof if the jungle had one, and then he ducks down inside of his pants, shivering at the sight of the predator. But a gun seems to make even the most cowardly person brave, and Bosko is no exception. He pulls his rifle and himself out of his pants, and takes careful aim at the tiger. But firing is another matter, for the bullet seems to have lost its will to attack, and when he pulls the trigger, the bullet just rolls out of the barrel and bounces harmlessly down on the ground. The tiger lets out a huge roar, and the chase is on!

Bosko takes off, but the tiger soon grabs him teethwise by the seat of the pants. He stretches poor Bosko's body out until his legs are running several feet behind the front half of his body -- where his little fists are pumping, keeping him moving as if he were running with his body still aligned vertically. (It's an immensely fun and successful visual.) The tiger makes to bite Bosko's rear, but Front-Bosko reaches back with a long arm to pull his legs up to their former position, all the while still continuing his frantic pace. Unfortunately, his midsection is stretched like taffy, and it drags behind his limbs like a deflated tire. Bosko soon worries about this problem, as the tiger is right behind him at all times, so he reaches back again and picks up his torso and stuffs it into his pants. Magically, he reassembles himself and pciks up some more speed. But the tiger, who can obviously catch him at any time, takes to toying with Bosko as cats often do with their prey. He first mocks Bosko's running style by standing up on his back feet and cycling his feet in the same fashion, along with pumping his fists like his would-be victim, too. He then reaches out with one mighty paw and bats Bosko's head off of his shoulders! Luckily, his head is still connected by something like a string, and he looks for all the world like a balloon, and it twirls about for a couple of revolutions until settling back down again on its proper place again.

Bosko has had enough. He ceases his fleeing, and turns to the tiger, whistling sharply for the cat to stop. Bosko pulls a horn out of his pants, and begins to play a jazzy little riff, which gets the jungle cat tapping his claws happily as he rocks back and forth. On the last note, Bosko flirts with disaster (no, he does not play Molly Hatchet) and flicks the tiger in the nose. The tiger is angered at this, but Bosko starts la-la-la Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush; the merry little tune calms the cat, and then he and Bosko play patty-cake. However, Bosko can't help himself, and he plucks on the tiger's whiskers, which riles the cat anew. Bosko la-la-la's another verse, and music apparently does truly hath those legendary charms, for the striped terror becomes a pussycat once more, and he and Bosko march along happily. They come to the edge of a cliff, and as the tiger stays locked in reverie, Bosko pulls down the fur on his backside (where the tiger is, naturally, lined with underwear) and kicks the tiger off the cliff!

Free of the predator, Bosko takes to admiring a pair of baby apes frolicking underneath a palm tree. They are leapfrogging endlessly over one another, and Bosko is amused enough to laugh out loud at their antics. His joy scares off one of the babies, but the other one is not only unafraid, he seems fairly perturbed at Bosko. As Bosko picks up the lad, the ape spits right in our hero's eye. Bosko resorts to putting the baby primate over his knee, pulling down his pants (fur), and with his naked little bottom exposed, starting to spank the ape. This would probably go on for a bit were it not for the timely appearance of the baby's father. Bosko nervously covers up the baby's bottom and sets it down, whereupon the little guy kicks Bosko square in the leg and then scurries off.

The Papa apa pulls the fur up on his arm like a rolled-up sleeve, and prepares to punch Bosko, but the mighty hunter thinks quick. Pulling a small wrapper out of his pants, he asks, "Have some delicious gum, Mr. Ape?" The ape is reluctant at first, but after seeing Bosko take some and chew it, the creature relents and tries it out. Bosko pulls on his own piece and plinks its length like a guitar string; the ape responds in kind, and soon they are both playing a tune on their gum together. Apart from the musicians, two monkeys dance alongside the placid reflection of a nearby pool. They spring about on their coiled tails, and after they hit their bottoms together rhythmically, three bird heads pop out of a hole by the pool, and match the last three notes in the bar with their sqwacks and peeps. An ostrich and kangaroo (with joeys) wander happily into the scene, and then the song finishes, leading to wild applause amongst the now gathered jungle animals.

But Bosko is not done partying; he is just getting started. Ready to make the scene red-hot, Bosko yells out, "Gimme a 6! Oh, baby!" Suddenly, the whole jungle erupts into a frenzied jazz orgy: the ostrich plays his body like some sort of mutant form of cello, bowing himself with his neck; the papa ape plays a rudimentary sort of horn while a small leopard bangs on some rocks like they were drums; a percussionist monkey hits a hippo and another ape, and then finishes his solo by pulling on another monkey's tail to produce a screech; and a kangaroo blows through a branch on a withered old stump to produce an oboe-like effect. Standing in the middle of the scene, Bosko performs a short tap-dance and throws out some scat (always dangerous to do around monkeys). Then it gets weirder: several creatures play the body of a giraffe as if she were a giant bagpipe (though not with the same shrill effect), and a palm tree pulls its top fronds down around its waist, and with a pair of shapely cocoanuts set at just about the right height above its invented waist, performs a seductive but crazed hula to the beat of the music, slapping its rear on occasion. Then the elephant takes the big solo for its own, playing its trunk (no surprise there) like a saxophone and bringing the song to its climax. As the music builds, the tree swings itself about crazier and crazier, its cocoanut breasts twirling mightily (the effect is, uh, rather shocking...), until one of the cocoanuts breaks free and flies in the direction of Bosko's head. He is knocked on his keister by the fake breast, and surrounded by hyenas, he can only join in their raucous laughter as the film closes.

As much fun as the film can be, the music is actually somewhat underwhelming for me, as I am a fan of the far more inspired jazz rave-ups in numerous Betty Boops (though at the point of this film, still to come), though the film lacks in comparison with some of what the Fleischers were already incorporating into their shorts. The thirties were jazz crazy, though, and it shows, but I wish there were better definition and imagination used in the instrumentation, rather than simply squeezing a giraffe and throttling his neck to make a sound . Also, that the Fleischers often enlivened their soundtracks with gongkickers like Cab Calloway and his Cotton Club compatriots only serves to show the music in this film to seem like something of a pose. This is not to say that Congo Jazz is still not toe-tappingly fun: the music sequence does have terrific energy, and I especially enjoy the gum-chewing scene with Bosko and the ape, who has some amusing facial expressions as he experiences gum for the first time. (The scene really plays true to the characters.) And I truly can't get enough of the opening stretching-and-running sequence. That sort of visual is exactly why I love these cartoons.

But the "scary" music at the beginning? The truth of the matter, despite my usual interest in these things, where I have to know these little things for the satisfaction of my trivial little heart, I had never really given the music much thought throughout my life. I had always accepted the
...dum-dum-dum-dum-DAAAAHHHHH!!!!-dum-dum-dum-dum... as the scary music for any scene and any occasion: haunted house movies; songs about spooks; melodramatic entrances by villains; sneak attacks on your little brother in the darkness of the hallway... everything scary. Every comes out of childhood knowing this bit. But from whence does it come, and who wrote it. As I said before, I've never given it any real thought (I may have mused on it briefly a time or two before, but did not possess the resources at the time to track it down), but now I want to know.

Not knowing the answer is almost scarier to me than being sneaked up on in the African jungle by a tiger. Because, after all, there are no tigers in the African jungle. But, not having the answer to a trivia question? I've ducked down inside my pants just thinking about it...

Congo Jazz (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1930) Dir: Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

No comments: