Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Little Stranger (1936)

The Little Stranger (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936)
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: Eli Brucker and Dave Tendlar
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

It always seemed to me that the Ugly Duckling, actually a baby swan, didn't have it all that bad. Sure, compared to any baby duckling, he was homely; but he had enough going for him where, even with the mental abuse at the hands of his "siblings", he could at least compete physically with them. He could swim just as well, he could dive just as well; he was simply different in face and feather color, but otherwise, for all intents and purposes, he was basically the same type of bird, designed for life on the water. On most key elements in their young lives, both the ducklings and the (to the eyes of the ducks) hideous cygnet are relative equals.

But, not so with a cockerel. By this, I mean a baby rooster (which I presume this oft-considered "chick" actually is; he performs a rudimentary "cock-a-doodle-doo" near the film's end). He is horribly ill-suited to pose as a duckling, as he does not possess the proper feet for paddling; his quacking attempts fall out of his tiny, pointed beak as meek little "peeps"; and he is far too easily distracted by worms and seeds to pray proper attention to waddling in line! The babies of chickens, while undeniably cute as buttons, are wholly unsuited for lives largely spent diving and foraging in the water. It would be an unlucky (and possibly quickly deceased) chick or cockerel indeed who got stuck mistakenly in a family of ducks.

And that is precisely what happens in this Max Fleischer Color Classic, The Little Stranger, from 1936. We first hear these lyrics sung over the title cards and opening credits:

“Don’t make a sound,
don’t make a sound!
There’s a stranger here in town.
Where’s he from nobody knows!

Lonely little stranger,
he looks so forlorn.
He thought he was in danger
the day he was born.

Don’t make a sound,
don’t make a sound!
There’s a stranger here in town.
Where’s he from nobody knows!”

A sneaking mother hen, who I suppose is living insufferably in depressive means (such was the age), under cover of darkness, leaves her solitary egg in the nest of a mother duck, and her young son then has to fend for himself amongst a group of water-dwellers. Not too smart on the hen's part (were there no other hens that could raise him?) if she wants the kid to survive, but perhaps she didn't expect him, too. Hmmm... is there a far darker vision at work here in this film? (No... the darker vision is well outside this film, and it is clearly me.)

Come the morning, the eggs hatch underneath the mother duck, and she quickly sets to training her brood of three ducklings, and even tries to teach the "Little Stranger,” who gets sung about over the opening credits. As described, his "peeping" makes him fail his quacking lessons, even with repeated effort; and he nearly drowns when the family first takes to the water. After a pair of leaves attached to his feet merely float off when he tries them, he is left onshore by himself, while the ducks paddle about the pond. The poor chick climbs into the broken remnants of his egg, but then hatches the brilliant idea of using half of his shell as a boat. Running back to the water,  he paddles about with increasing ease upon the water. He swiftly catches up to his adopted family, and soon all five of them are enjoying a relaxing afternoon at play, jumping off logs and paddling all around.

But, then the giant roc attacks! OK, it's actually a buzzard of some sort, but its menacing, circling shadow over the water reminds one of the similar bird in Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, released later the same year by the Fleischers. (I have wondered if this sequence was used as a test for the roc scenes in the Popeye flick, or at least inspired them to try something similar on a larger scale in that far more successful cartoon.) The buzzard tries to make a meal of one of the ducklings, but the chick paddles swiftly and heroically yanks a feather out of the tail of the villainous bird. The buzzard turns about on the chick and mocks him. The cockerel makes like a miniature motorboat, windmilling his formative wings in the water to reach the far shore. Running onto the land, he runs through a knot in a tree and manages to trick the buzzard into getting its head stuck. This allows the baby to make it into the likely safety of a nearby mill.

The buzzard manages to free his feathery head, and then hops through a broken window, chasing the chick throughout the entire mill. A bad step on a loose board gets the buzzard a face full of pine, and allows the little stranger to hide in the middle of a wagon wheel. The buzzard naturally dives for him and gets its head stuck yet again, and the force of his attack causes the buzzard's neck to wind up like a rubber band. Spinning and crashing wildly through a pair of apple barrels and then the door of the mill, the buzzard ends up floating by his neck from the wheel in the middle of the pond. A quartet of frogs hop aboard and turn the contraption into a carousel, making fun of their common enemy in the process. The family of ducks rush to the side of their little yellow hero, and the cockerel unleashes his best “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” The ducks, now accepting the chick as a full member of their little family, do their best quacky version of the same cry. All is well. Dissolve to the Paramount logo.

This film is the most traditional cartoon of the Color Classics released in the series up until this point: the action is generic, heroic action with a hungry villain chasing his prey; the lyrically rich music, a dominant feature in most of the Color Classics, is done by the time the opening credits close; and the three-dimensional is highly underplayed for the first time in the series. There is also very little overt humor; what humor there is happens to be of the most gentle form, and except for the buzzard attack and the brief early scene with the sad mother hen, the film is extremely lighthearted. Due to this stricture to established lines, is also the most forgettable of the series to this point. At times, it's cuteness almost makes it seem like “Baby's First Duck Cartoon”. This is not a slap at it, for the film is very well made, but it is never more than a pleasant, simple diversion.

I wish that I could say that the film, like the misplaced cockerel, only seems out of place in the Color Classics series, and that it has hidden strengths that allow it to show its true worth in the flock, but what it really does is allow a peek at where the series would eventually head: to increasingly middling and cutesy productions with lambs and bunnies galore. Long before this film, Fleischer seemed to already be nearing the moppet cartoon ideal; but even the previous film, Somewhere In Dreamland, though steeped in kewpie-doll optimism, had a severely dark undercurrent and subtext built around the Great Depression which resonates emotionally even while you are scraping the sugar off your tongue. But as the Color Classics moved through the decade, there was less emphasis on technical innovation and more placed on charming a family audience.

A family of sheep, I don't doubt. And I am steadfastly of the lupine persuasion. I'll never be accepted into the fold...


And in case you haven't seen it:

[This article was updated with new photos and edited on 12/12/2015.]

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