Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Greedy Humpty Dumpty (1936)

Greedy Humpty Dumpty (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936) 
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: David Tendlar; William Sturm
Music: Sammy Timberg; Bob Rothberg
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

As I said yesterday, animators don't need to know the history behind something to continue on apace with a project. It might help if the subject you are lampooning or portraying has some sort of historical importance or is a current figure in the headlines; some good jokes can come out of even the simplest morsel of dogged research. But we are talking about nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters for the most part when discussing the animated films of the first half of the 20th century. All that you really need to use for a springboard is the most basic information at the disposal of both yourself and the audience. And that information? In the case of Mr. Humpty Dumpty, that information is encased in four very famous lines; lines so famous, that it is not only one of the first poems that most children hear in their lives, it is also one of the first cautionary tales they hear, too:

"Humpy Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again."

So short; so concise; so... lacking in detail. Perhaps due to its history as a riddle in which children are supposed to guess Humpty's identity, the poem is locked in mystery, especially its etymologic origins; but, I've said before that I want to skip all of that folderol to concentrate on the mystery of Humpty himself. Who is he, besides an egg? Why did he have a great fall, and why was he sitting there in the first place? After his fall, why are the king's resources spent trying to reassemble him? Is he the king?

In Max Fleischer's 1936 Color Classic, Greedy Humpty Dumpty, Humpty actually IS the king: the king of Nursery Rhyme Land, that is. On top of that, according to the title of the film, he is greedy, and this character deficiency has turned poor Mr. Dumpty into a tyrant. Like most tyrants, he hides this bad behavior (or is self-deluded into thinking he has hidden it) under a veneer of gaiety and forced cheerfulness. Perched high atop a wall, wearing a gold crown and glutting himself on a turkey leg, he looks for all the world like an ovoid Henry the Eighth, and he opens the cartoon with a burst of boastful song quite literally fit for a king…

"I'm Humpty Dumpty, king of wealth,
and this wall of gold is my throne!
I've built it high so it touches the sky!
This wall is all my own!
The more I have, the more I want;
I love this glistening stuff!
There's power untold in these pieces of gold,
I've never had enough!"

But, there is dissent at large in the kingdom. Peering up at their king from a log, Little Boy Blue and Little Bo Peep (who is knitting clothing straight from her sheep) voice the people's discontent with their own song…

"Ohhhh... Look out! Look out!
Some day you're gonna fall!
Look out! Look out!
You aren't smart at all!
Oh Me! Oh My!
You go too high!
You'll be sorry by and by!"

The Old Woman in the Shoe reprimands the tyrant with a round of scolding…

"Look out! Look out!
The years have made me wise!
I know the end
Of all you greedy guys!
You've got to stop
While you’re on top --"

Her kids peek out of the shoe, pull the broom out from under their mother's arm and knock her down. They finish the song in a giggling fashion…

"Or you're gonna take the plop!"

King Humpty merely laughs off all of this bad press, drops a handful of gold coins into a pants pocket that looks more like it is carved in his side like a piggy bank, and wanders back to the golden-spired castle that is surrounded by his great wall of gold. Inside an antechamber, filled to the rafters with bags and bars and loose piles of gold, Humpty takes to playing on a table with a stack of coins, laughing lustily the entire time. But then the sun pokes its sunlight into the room, and Humpty is taken with the stray ray of light. "Gold! Gold! Gold!", he shouts, and climbs up his piles to peer directly out the window at the sun. When he looks at its center, he imagines that it is of the most detailed finery, and he yells with a righteous fury, still continuing to rhyme…

"Why didn't I know 
there was gold in the sun?
I'll get that, too, 
before I am done!"

He runs back outside to his wall, checks himself before he falls off accidentally (and thereby wrecking himself), and then calls the citizens of the land to gather for some important news…

"There's gold in the sun! 
I saw it there!
Precious gold that is so rare!
So, get busy, everyone!
Build my wall to reach the sun!"

Mother Goose, who must have lost the kingdom to Humpty Dumpty in an earlier story, offers him some sage advice…

"Don't climb too high 
to build your wall
'Cause the higher you crawl, 
the harder you'll fall!"

This enrages the eggy monarch, and he pulls out a whip to make his point crystal clear. He cracks it over the heads of the populace and threatens them thusly…

"If you value your lives, 
and also your health,
You'll dive right in, 
for I want more wealth!"

The citizenry, fearing for their lives now, do indeed dive into building the wall higher! Scores of people carry sacks labeled "Gold Dust" to a trough where the Three Men In A Tub mix it with water to form mortar. The Rock-a-bye Baby gets in the act, using a bucket to pour the mortar along the top of the wall by sliding his cradle in the treetops along a branch. Mother Goose's namesake pet is a dedicated bricklayer, using its pointed beak for a perfect trowel. Pelicans also pick up mouthfuls of the mortar and pour it along the wall, while storks, too, help out the dispersal of the building materials. Witches on broomsticks carry the bulk of the workload, picking up large loads of bricks and dropping them perfectly into place on flyover missions. The wall eventually completely envelops the castle, even its spires, but still Humpty orders them to build higher.

At last, he is but a few feet away from the sun, and King Humpty himself stacks the last few bricks into place. He almost falls when he stands at its peak, but he balances himself, and then pulls out a huge axe and swings it at the golden orb. The effect is devastating -- and completely expected. Flames shoot out from the surface right at Humpty and he has to duck in order to avoid getting roasted. But somehow, lightning jumps out in the form of a stick figure, picks up Humpty, lays him over its knee and spanks him fiercely. He cries and rubs his backside, but the sun is not finished with him -- not by a long shot! Another lightning charge shoots out and takes the form of a jackhammer, caving in the side of the tower. It sways precariously from side to side, losing more bricks with each sway, and Humpty has to fight to keep from falling.

But fall he does when the entire structure finally collapses, taking Humpty's treetop castle with it, and as the yolk-filled despot falls to earth, he has one last relapse of greed. On the way down, he reaches out hungrily for a falling brick of gold, but then realizes he is doomed, and releases the object of his desire. He hits the ground with a disgusting splat, and there is soon nothing left of him but shards of broken shell. Various hands reach in to rebuild the fallen monarch, and he sings a tale of woe upon his reconstruction:

"Oh, I climbed too high
To build my wall,
But I got too greedy
And I had a great fall!"

He holds together for mere seconds before he falls to pieces for the last time. A choir then recites the last two lines of the famous poem, and the Nursery Rhyme kingdom is less one tyrant.

The Fleischers take the Dumpty storyline (such as it is) and run with it, imagining exactly who he really is, where he lives (a given, when considering the source of the poem), and detailing both exactly why he is on the wall and why he falls from it. It doesn't matter whether the poem actually mentions any of this detail or not; what is important is that the poem is successful enough in the human imagination that anyone can imagine the reasoning behind Humpty Dumpty's plight in infinite variations. Humpty's charge towards the sun is rhythmically strong as drama, with a slow and careful build (and, in Humpty's case, climb) to the conclusion. And the visual depiction of Humpty reaching the sun and battling it is a unique vision, and when the sun's defense springs into action, it is savage and brutal.

What disappoints me, though, is that yet again a nursery rhyme land is imagined (such as in Warner Bros.' Sniffles and the Bookworm, reviewed recently here), but while much thought has been given to the main character, little is done with the rich cast of Mother Goose characters at their disposal. Five or six characters are seen briefly, but then the action is turned over to squadrons of nondescript witches, storks and pelicans. I would have rather seen the different manners in which Jack Sprat and his wife help out; Simple Simon could klutz about and provide comic relief; -- and damn it! Jack built a whole house; why not let him and his rat and cat and dog and so on run riot while building the wall. Not to mention Jack and Jill; you already have characters moving pails about -- why, that's a natural for the unlucky pair! And certainly the Three Blind Mice could provide some politically incorrect chuckles misplacing various objects whilst building away? There are so many characters, and so many possibilities, that it seems perhaps the Fleischers got a little lazy again in the story area while concentrating so hard on developing the lead character.

And what is more shocking than a nursery rhyme character, generally though to be a cheerful and carefree sort until his plunge, picking up a bullwhip and cracking it angrily at the populace of his town? Not just the S&M overtones; not the totalitarian threat inherent in his actions; but the fact that it comes from a character of relative innocence, apart from his greedy habits, before this moment makes it all the more memorable.

Now, if only I could gather a conference together to discuss this weird cannibalism thing in the cartoon world. Daffy and Donald Duck regularly eat or crave the flesh of other fowl in various films, and now here, in an even kinkier twist on self-species destruction, Humpty Dumpty, an egg, though of unknown origin, is devouring the leg of some bird, most likely a turkey, in keeping with the play on Hank the In-Between-Seventh-and-Ninth. I know greed knows no limits, but come on...

If there are turkeys far smaller than the egg that is Humpty, then from what monstrous creature did Humpty drop? An allosaurus?



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

[This article was revised and updated on 1/18/2016. My thanks to the anonymous person who long ago helped me figure out a couple of the lines of Humpty's song.]


Anonymous said...

By the way, the line that you could not discern in the cartoon is "I love this glistening stuff"

And also the line "There's power untold in these "sheets" of gold" is actually "Pieces" of gold", keeping in with the rhythm of the song.

Anon said...

Ah yes, I remember that episode from long ago. And it frightened me when I was saw that version of Humpty Dumpty pay for his greed. However, I have mixed feelings about that short. One half of me wants to get back at the sun, especially the electric figure, for what it did to Humpty. The other half agrees that it's his fault that his own greed proved to be his downfall.