Tuesday, April 18, 2006

An Elephant Never Forgets (1935)

An Elephant Never Forgets (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1934)
Dir.: Max Fleischer
Animators: Roland Crandall, Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

An elephant may never forget, but I never forget an elephant. Especially one that chucks a rock at your best friend.

Zoologically speaking, as land animals go, nothing is more important to me than the survival of these amazing mammals. Like dolphins and whales, they are possessed of an intelligence and talents we haven't even really begun to comprehend, and also like their cetacean cousins, they are in danger from man's egotistical presumption that we are the most important creatures on Earth. Silly, silly men...

I am both happy and sad to be able to view elephants in zoos. Happy, because standards and practices in zoos worldwide have risen in recent years, and there has been an increased premium in not so much merely keeping the animals on display for a gawking public, but rather to make their stay far more comfortable than in the early days of zoological exhibitions. Sad, because elephants wear their emotions openly in their faces and body posture, and it is easy to see when an elephant is not pleased with its immediate world. Happy, because sometimes elephants often don't have much of a chance in the violent, poaching and scavenging Wild West atmosphere of Africa (India is a different situation), and often the only place for certain displaced elephants is in a sanctuary or zoo. Sad, because I have been privy to the public details of the unhappy life of a captive elephant in the Alaska Zoo.

Without going on with the full details, I will just establish that the Alaska Zoo has an elephant named Maggie, and she is often a jealous, cantankerous, and downright angry young lady. The Zoo had a much beloved Indian elephant named Annabelle, who, in fact, was the animal that got the zoo started. In addition to her accomplishments as an artist (the zoo still sells her prints of her paintings), she was wildly popular with Alaskans. She was extremely well-adjusted, though lonely, and in 1983, the Zoo acquired Maggie, a baby from Africa whose parents were culled (basically, savagely executed for their meat) right in front of her eyes. 

Maggie lived with Annabelle until the elder pachyderm's death in 1997 at the age of 32, at which point, Maggie was a mere teenager. For the last decade, she has lived on her own, and instead of sending Maggie to a reserve where she can mingle with others of her kind, establish some sort of relationship that might ground her, and perhaps, get her the long-ranging exercise that she needs, the Zoo insists on keeping her lonely, and fool themselves with purchasing expensive gadgets like treadmills in a transparent attempt to convince the public into believing they are doing all that they can for her. Silly, silly men...

Maggie carries a reserve of anger inside of her, and it is widely known that she has hurt or attacked the majority of her handlers over the years. In the year before I left Anchorage, a trip to the zoo late in the day with Jen and my buddy Leif left us in Maggie's area of the park. We were the only ones there, and we did not taunt or tease her or even pretend to be able to converse with her. We merely observed quietly, and actually spent a good portion of the 10 minutes there looking at the ducks and geese battle in the pond on the other side of the walkway.

Maggie paced back and forth on a patch of ground about 30 feet long, and seemed to be paying us no mind at all. But as we started to leave the area, with Leif taking the lead, a rock about the size of a muskmelon flew right in front of our group. We looked briefly at Maggie, and she was casually selecting a section of log from the ground, and we weren't waiting around to find out whether she would toss that our direction next. We were gone, and it was the last time that I saw Maggie, but I won't soon forget her. Once an elephant has winged a rock your way, you never forget it.

Or if an elephant hits you with a washboard as well. In Max Fleischer's An Elephant Never Forgets, one of his Color Classics series from 1935, the torture comes not from improper zoo care, but from a bullying gorilla. The victim, though, is a large, deep-voiced but thoroughly childish elephant, who skips merrily to his jungle school, and sings along with the rest of the animals about "going to see the teacher":

"Well, we're on our way
to school today
Going to see the teacher!
Well, we're on our way
To school today
Going to see our teacher!"

The elephant repeats this refrain as he skips behind the rest: "Croco-diddle-li-dah, 1-3-3! Croco-diddle-li-dah, 1-3-3!" A pig, filthy with mud (of course) also rushes along behind the group. Eventually, the entire group sings the elephant's refrain, with the "3-3" portion picked up by a very late hippo child (who has the same deep Gus Wickie voice as the elephant). They finally arrive at the Jungle School and take their seats and meet their teacher, who is played by a bespectacled ostrich. 

The hippo stays outside the class and takes a nap. The gorilla arrives late to class and climbs in a side window, unseen by anyone, and especially unseen by the elephant, who sits in front of him. The gorilla is carrying a washboard, which he uses to whack the elephant on the back of the head, and then hides the object inside his desk before the elephant can see it. He repeats the offense, and the elephant reminds the ape, "An elephant never forgets!"

The teacher hushes the class and takes roll call, first concentrating on the students who missed school the previous day. The duck quacks to prove she is feeling better, and a boy frog either leaps into his absent sister's desk to pretend he is her, or else he has a split personality. The rest of the class is counted as "here", and then the teacher begins the lessons. Thus starts the title song:

Teacher: Now, Mr. Mule, your memory course!
Mule: But, teacher, it's a total loss!
I simply can't remember!
Elephant: But an elephant never forgets!

Teacher: Now, Gus Gorilla, the alphabet!
Gorilla: A-B-C-D, I forget!
Who cares? I don't remember!
Elephant: But an elephant never forgets!

Teacher: Every dumb thing
Must know something!
Class: But we haven't got the time to learn!

Teacher: Now, Rooster Joe, it's up to you!
Rooster: Cockle-doodle-doodle-doo!
It's all that I remember!
Elephant: But an elephant never forgets!

Teacher: Now, Mr. Elephant, it's come to you!
Tell them all what's two plus two!
Elephant: I- I- I- I-
simply can't remember!
Class: But an elephant never forgets!

The class laughs uproariously at his lack of memory, but the teacher excuses herself while the class takes their test, leaving the turtle in charge of the class. He directs Peter Porcupine to hand out the pens, and he walks around the room while the students pull quills off his back. During the testing, the giraffe uses its long neck to cheat off every kid in the class, but the turtle catches him and whacks him with a book, causing his neck to telescope back in place.

The turtle writes the Motto for the Day on the chalkboard. It reads "Always shoot straight", and the class responds by shooting all of the quill pens into his backside. Books get thrown, and then the gorilla smacks the elephant again. He follows this by tying a book up in the elephant's trunk and then sending it flying into the mule's head. The gloves are off, and the entire room starts in throwing books and pens and anything that they can at each other. The room is in chaos, and the turtle can do nothing to stop it. But one thing can: the impending return of the teacher. She enters the room, and while the place looks like a hurricane went through it, all of the students are sitting quietly, their hands folded and brightly glowing halos atop their heads. The teacher is pleased and sends them home for the day.

The class bursts out of the school singing a reversed version of the earlier song. The hippo wakes up overjoyed that he has slept all the way through the day's lesson. He sings the "croco-diddle-li-dah, 1-3-3!" part as he skips. And the gorilla? Running behind his pachyderm victim, he kicks the elephant in the behind, but something almost breaks his foot when he does so. The elephant pulls the washboard from the seat of his pants, and then smacks the gorilla full on over the noggin with it. He turns to the camera, sings "But an elephant never forgets!" and winks.

Yet again, the strongest and most memorable parts of this Fleischer Color Classic have nothing to do with the color, which appears dramatically washed-out in many areas. They have to do with the marvelous opening shots of the schoolhouse, shot as usual on Fleischer's Turntable Camera system, the subsequent tracking shots of the backgrounds behind the frolicking jungle animals, and the cheerful schoolyard music, co-written by Sammy Timberg and Jack Scholl. Even the most generic of the Color Classics have these as virtues, however, so they only serve to make this fun slightly better than average.

Not to make light of a rough situation, but if they gave Maggie a washboard, she could just smack every person that pisses her off, and pretty soon the Zoo would have to do something about the problem. Not just to build titanic treadmills, or finally put in a softer floor for her feet. I mean really do something about it: put her in amongst her peers, so that she may develop familial relationships, something that not just humans need to do.

I don't condone the extremist views of some of the groups petitioning the zoo for Maggie's freedom; I feel that the truth actually lies somewhere in-between the opposing sides. I've seen the zoo make great strides in the treatment and care of their animals, especially after the tragic deaths of its two major breadwinners, Annabelle, and the famous Binky the Polar Bear (not to mention the younger bear, Nuka). Exhibits are bigger and more comfortable for the animals, and while I could take the cynical view, and say that they are only keeping Maggie for the publicity factor, I do believe that the zoo board really does believe they have Maggie's best interests at heart.

But then again, the board is only made up of men, not elephants. And men believe a lot of wrong, silly things. I acknowledge that I am but a man, and I have fallen for wrong, silly things, too. But I do know this: an animal should be allowed to fraternize with members of its own species. That is a basic fact of nature with which the members of mankind on the board of the Alaska Zoo are tampering. Silly, silly men...

Let's hit them all with washboards.


[Postscript: In November 2007, after years of petitioning, the then 27-year-old Maggie the Elephant was finally relocated from her isolation in the Alaska Zoo to the PAWS Ark 2000 Sanctuary in San Andreas, California. She was integrated into the rest of the herd comprised mainly of other elephants who previously labored as "performing animals", and once again learned what it was like to be amongst others of her species. From all accounts, she continues to thrive and be happy there to this day. I hope to one day find the opportunity to see her in her new home.]


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

[This article was updated on 12/27/15 with new photos and the above postscript to the story regarding Maggie the Elephant.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember that episode from when I was a kid. And I feel sorry for that elephant. Therefore, I'm glad that he got back at the gorilla for what he did to him like I want to do to the people who bullied me. In fact, I wish that he sawed off that ape's hands.