Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Discontented Canary (1934)

The Discontented Canary (An MGM Color Cartoon, 1934) 
Dir: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

I have had a coloration problem through most of my life. I've discussed previously my 1980s outrage at colorized films at great length on my other blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon, but that problem is not what I am talking about here. That's colorization. No, I've had a problem with my own color, or rather, my lack of ability to keep any color in my skin. Living in Alaska; being a blonde; having the natural skin tone of the fence in Tom Sawyer; being a night-owl -- all of these items do not lend one to being considered anything less than an albino freak by most people, except for the scattered and hesitant opinions of actual albino freaks.

What a difference a year makes. Now I've moved to California, and I have been exposed to more sun (except for the last two months) than I have ever been before. As a result, I possess considerably more color in my skin than I used to have, though when compared to others who have lived here much longer than I, there doesn't seem to be much change in tone. An arm-to-arm matchup against my nephew Rupert showed that I still have a long way to go in the coloration department. But even a casual glance in the mirror brings into my view a decidedly different shade in my features than I had been used to on the previous Alaskan incarnation of myself. (Not that the non-sun-seeking portions of my physique are any better off -- there I am the same ol' Rik -- and will remain so since skin cancer is simply not an option.) I am not a vain person -- I just like any help that I can get in the looks department, and being mistaken for Marilyn Manson's powderpuff is not the way to go anymore.

The Discontented Canary also has a coloration problem -- it is losing its color. The first MGM film produced by the historic animation team of Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (also known by the delightfully melodic sounding sobriquet of Harman-Ising), and the first MGM cartoon short period, Canary is only seen in badly deteriorated prints, with the colors washed out in some scenes to where the titular bird is practically invisible in a couple of shots. This problem might be expected with public domain cartoons, where the original negative is not available for reprocessing, and the endless duping of a print results in wear and degradation. But even MGM does not seem to have a decent print of Canary; this situation was displayed most broadly on TCM's Cartoon Alley (whose print is the source of this review), where Ben Mankiewicz offered up an apology for the decrepit state of the film. This technological speed-bump, however, does not prevent one from watching the film from an artistic level.

The story concerns a very sad and lonely canary living his days trapped inside of a cage. While he does have other companions, including a parrot, living in the same room, he feels withdrawn from them and longs to see what the world outside of the living room window has to offer. As the film starts, a song introduces the canary's gloomy disposition (sung by other birds, including the parrot), and since the song is done to the tune of The Man on the Flying Trapeze, it is no surprise that the little canary shares a similar talent on his swinging perch. A chorus of voices sings:

"Once a canary his life did bemoan,
locked in an old cage to live all alone.
While out in the wild world he wanted to roam
and fly with the birds in the trees.

Now the bird that we sing of is lonesome;
he wanted to fly in the breeze.
All he could was to eat and to drink
and to swing on his flying trapeze!"

As the bird hops on his swing inside cage in time with the music, the parrot picks up the chorus of the song:

"He flies through the air
with the greatest of ease.
This daring young bird
on the flying trapeze.

His actions are graceful,
all birds he does please,
and my love,
he has stolen away!"

The old lady who cares for him comes in the room to feed him, but she notices his pallor and possibly corresponding sadness, and decides that some air would do him good. She opens the window, but she forgets to shut his birdcage after his feeding, and I will let the chorus tell the story:

"But this wide the door is left open;
now here is his chance to be free.
So out of his cage he so cautiously steals
and flies away on the breeze!

He flies through the air
so happy and free!
This daring young bird,
now the world he will see!

His actions are graceful,
he sails through the trees,
and he's glad
to be winging away!"

Unfortunately for the bird, the first time that he lands on a fencepost to check out his new surroundings, he attracts the attentions of a scrawny, hungry alley-cat. The cat pounces after the bird as he leaps from fencepost to fencepost, but is left behind when the canary is drawn towards a tree across the open field. There, the canary meets a wide variety of other birds, all of whom are chirping a happy rendition of Listen to the Mockingbird, including a strange cuckoo bird who gets all the best parts of the song. The cuckoo zips around a curious flamingo, which ends up tying itself in a knot trying to follow the cuckoo's maneuvering with his head. Then the cuckoo fashions a hat out of a leaf and poses as Napoleon Bonaparte. With his wing stuffed inside his feathers in the traditional impression of the French dictator, the cuckoo hops across the branch and chest-bumps the canary off, sending him spiraling downward.

The canary lands inside of a flower, but his timing is very bad, for there is a bee inside of it, and he gets lightly stung as a warning. The bee cusses the bird out in his buzzing language and gets back to work inside the flower. It is then that the cat appears to take another shot at catching the canary. But the little hero bird has already moved on to the next intriguing sight: a group of flitting hummingbirds who are hard at work on a group of flowers. The canary decides to try and duplicate their actions, but as he dips into a flower, one of the hummingbirds stabs him with its beak and pushes him through the entire flower, and the canary gets unceremoniously dumped out at the root.

He flies to a branch to collect himself, but a fierce wind kicks up, blowing the canary's feathers up his body like a lady's skirt. A flash of lightning then lights the tree on fire, burning it down around the bird, but when he starts to escape, a torrent of rain crashes down from the clouds. He flies for the shelter of a nearby birdhouse. When he arrives, the house is already full up with other avian refugees. The cat sees the canary's dilemma and decides to disguise himself as another birdhouse. He crawls inside the opening and sits waiting with his face appearing just inside the doorway of the now dangerous sanctuary. Crammed inside the house, the cat hops on his tail to the end of a branch and then whistles to get the bird's attention. But as the bird graciously wings it for the false birdhouse, nearing his certain doom, another gust of wind whips up and changes his direction mid-air, keeping him from being eaten.

But, the cat is impatient, and leaps at the canary, giving swift chase to the little bird through and around the trees of the forest. At one point, he actually gets close enough so that the canary is actually inside his mouth, but the little bird gathers his strength and pushes his way out. The bird flies through a hole in a tree and then comes out on top of the roof of his home, but the cat is fast on his tail. The bird leaps out onto the weathervane, and the cat struggles to reach him, but has to hang onto a lightning rod for support and safety. (Boy, he hasn't been paying a close eye to the weather, has he?)

Lightning fries the cat to a crisp, his insides appearing red and lit up through his fur and skin, and he howls as he scampers away in shame and pain. Then a second bolt hits the weathervane. The canary jumps off in time, but the vane has been transformed by the lightning into the word "SCRAM!" The Discontented Canary has learned his lesson, and he flies back through the window of the house, and hurriedly shuts his cage. He eyes a needlepoint picture on the wall displaying the words "HOME, SWEET HOME". Happy to be safe, the canary whistles the line to that song that famously goes "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home."

All series have to start somewhere, and though this cartoon isn't titled as a Happy Harmonies short (the series would officially start with the next Harman-Ising film, The Old Pioneer), it really is part of that series in spirit. You could also argue that, artistically, the series actually started years before as Disney's immensely successful Silly Symphonies series. For the Happy Harmonies series was essentially a copy of Disney's success, and who can blame MGM or Harman-Ising? If you are going to swipe an idea or a style, you don't do it from things that have failed; you do it from what works or from what sells. The Silly Symphonies did both, and it is no surprise that nearly every cartoon studio took a shot at their own similar series, both in title and concept. As it turns out, the Happy Harmonies were probably the shorts that emulated the Silly Symphonies the closest artistically, possibly due to having higher budgets than the other studios.

This film, and the rest that followed until midway through 1935, were filmed in only two-color Technicolor, so part of the lessened depth of color is to be derived from that slighter process. Because of this, the canary is not actually yellow as one would think he would be. But, for a studio like MGM, where film preservation seems to have always been more important and prevalent than at other studios, what happened to the print for their very first cartoon short? Why has The Discontented Canary become so washed out and pale?

Easy... that little pale blonde bird flew to Alaska...



And in case you haven't seen it...

[This article was updated with new photos on 1/2/16. The copy from which I screengrabbed these shots may or may not be the same print that was shown on TCM (alluded to in the article). In most of the scenes featuring the cat with the bird, there is definitely a deterioration of image, though some other scenes look rather nice.]

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