Wednesday, April 05, 2006

SINKIN' IN THE BATHTUB (1930)

Ya gotta start somewhere, folks! You start at one point, and you keep on chooglin' (to put it in John Fogerty terms), and pretty soon, it's 75 years later and you have an incredible legacy of animation behind you. For the Warner Bros. Animation Department, it starts with Sinkin' In the Bathtub and a now relatively obscure character named Bosko. I am nearly 100% certain that the average person on the street couldn't pick Bosko out of a pen-and-ink lineup with Foxy, Buddy, Bimbo, Scrappy, Dinky Doodle and Flip the Frog. This is not to fault those who lack knowledge of Bosko and his ilk; these are all characters whose day came and went well over a half century ago, and you generally have to be actively seeking out their company to find them.

Sinkin' in the Bathtub is the first short not only in Warner's long run as a studio of quality animation, but also the first film in the legendary Looney Tunes series, as well. And Bosko was their first star. In fact, he was their main star for the first four years of the studio's output, until Harman and Ising were dumped by Warners and went to MGM, taking Bosko with them. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising did start somewhere else (like Friz Freleng, who animated Sinkin', they broke their animating baby teeth with Disney before that studio had its first early implosion), but the Bosko films were their first chance to really show what they could do under their own direction.

Not that Bosko wasn't a cookie-cutter character clearly modeled, at least in action, after Mickey Mouse, but Sinkin' in the Bathtub puts the stamp from the get-go on the style of humor that would become Warner's virtual trademark for the next 40 odd years. The boldness of a handful of gags in the film is a tad shocking when one thinks thinks how, just a couple years later, Warners would not have gotten away with such references. And what the hell is Bosko? Or rather, who the hell is he? In Sinkin', he is clearly a black character, both by voice and tiny visual clues in his design: at one point, he turns his head, and we see that his hair is outlined in a cartoon version of a short afro. (At least it is trimmed, and not nappy or with little bows, as was a much-used stereotype for black hairstlyes for many years in film. I should point out that Honey has a bow on her head, but she is a girl...) Bosko's vocal mannerisms are obviously patterned after black slang of the period (even though he only says two actual lines in Sinkin'; in fact, Honey has the most dialogue.) But it doesn't come off nearly as patently offensive as other cartoons with black characters. Perhaps this is due to the joyous good-natured charm of the film, or the fact that the film moves along so swiftly that one doesn't have the time to lash out at it. (Subsequent Warner Boskos would either play down some of his more "racial" traits, or do away with them altogether. That is, until MGM reinvented the character years later as a cutesy black child.)

One other element plays a huge part in the look and feel of this film. The "Looney" is given life through its humor, but the "Tune" part? Because the film's were produced only with Warner's insistence that each one feature a ditty from the Warners' songbook (for they were a major music publishing company even then), this film not only has a popular song of the day parodied in its title, but also throws little bits of several other songs into the viewer's ears as it progresses. Indeed, at the beginning of the film, Bosko is not singing, but rather, whistling in the bathtub, but he is whistling Singin' In the Bathtub. Bosko uses any and every part of his body and tub to play along with the tune, including plucking his toes and nose, clinking a glass, banging on the side of the tub, and playing the stream from the shower spout as if it were a harp. He jumps out of the tub, and the tub itself has to get in on the fun. It stands up on its four feet and begins to shake with the music, then after rubbing itself dry with a towel, it pulls the toilet paper (!) roll off the wall. As it prances and skips through the bathroom, it shreds and throws sheets of the toilet roll as if they were flower petals in a springtime frolic, complete with Spring Song on the soundtrack. The tub finishes off its act by slapping both sides of its anthropomorphized rear end, and then settles back into its normal tub-itudinous state.

Bosko is seen standing naked (sans glands, of course) on a towel. He puts his pants around his feet and pulls a hair on top of his head. The pants immediately pull up high around his waist, and after Bosko turns the shower's direction out the window with his hand, he slides out into the day on top of it. He pulls an enormous harmonica, which if stood on its end would equal Bosko's height, from his pocket and plays Turkey In the Straw while he makes his way to his garage to retrieve his car. After he Shave-and-a-Haircut's the ending of the song, he throws the harmonica up in the air, and it bounces on the ground and then falls back into his pants. He looks into the garage, but the car is absent. He turns around to see the car coming out of a distant outhouse. He shames the car and whistles for it to come over; the car buttons up the flap on its pants and runs over to meet him. Bosko turns the crank on the car's front and twists it like a licorice stick; the car then unwinds itself back to normal, and the pair take off on their adventure.

As they roll along (merrily, I might point out), Bosko plays Tiptoe Thru the Tulips on his harmonica, and honks the car's horn occasionally for emphasis. Not surprisingly, they drive up to some actual tulips, and as Bosko picks them, the car literally tiptoes through them. After he has picked
a bouquet and placed it in the horn, they drive to the doorstep of Bosko's girlfriend, Honey. She, too, starts the picture tra-la-laing her way through Singin' In the Bathtub, but when she sees the camera spying on her, she pulls the blind. Her silhouette is then seen climbing out of the tub and pulling her clothes in off the line. She emerges on a balcony dressed in only her skirt (like Bosko, she never seems to put on a top, though we do see a bra drying on her line), and says, "Hello, Bosko!" As Bosko nervously asks her to guess what he's got for her, a goat eyes the tulips Bosko is holding tantalizingly behind his back. He devours the flowers, and Bosko, shocked at the disappearance of his love offering, begins to cry. "Don't worry, Bosko", Honey yells down to him. "I still loves you!" Bosko is overjoyed at this news, but the disgusted goat blows a raspberry at him. The goat obligingly turns around, and Bosko kicks the goat's rear right over its horned head; with the sort of skill that even top contortionists don't possess, the goat walks under his own body and twists himself right.

Bosko laughs and runs to the car. He opens the hood and pulls out a pipe, to which he attaches the horn, making himself an impromptu saxophone. As he runs on the walkway to Honey's door, each step on the boards sounds like a xylophonic scale. But, as he blows another chorus of Tulips on the sax, Honey does not like what she hears. She drops an entire tub of soapy water into the horn, and the song changes, naturally, to I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. Honey is delighted; she hops off the balcony and onto the bubbles gracefully and dances about on them. Not so gracefully, she jumps back onto the balcony, stretches out her body so that her skirt rides up to her chin but her undergarments drop to her shoes, waves her naked torso wildly about for a couple of revolutions, then does Bosko's hair-pulling trick and zips her clothing back into place. She then jumps back onto the bubbles and walks down them to join Bosko on the ground. Both of them dance some more Tulips on the xylophone-walk before jumping into the car and driving off.

They kiss as they amble down the road, but are soon stopped by a cow lazily chewing what one assumes at first is its cud in the middle of the path. After Bosko honks his horn at the beast, we discover what is really being chewed, as a gap opens up in the cow's teeth, and from which it emits an enormous wad of blackened tobacco spit. The monstrous loogie lands on the front of the car and flattens it. Bosko pulls the car back to its original shape, and then walks up to the cow to take care of the situation the Bosko way. He pushes the cow's midsection down to the ground, with the legs staying up and rigid as if they were mere tentpoles, and then Bosko and Honey drive through the cow. The cow angrily cranks its tail to raise its midsection, and then turns tail on the car, huffily swinging its head and also its almost obscenely huge udder at the interlopers.

Bosko and Honey laugh musically at the cow, but then the car runs over a huge boulder, which jolts Bosko out of his seat and onto the road. When he hits the dirt, he breaks into eight tiny Boskos, but pulls himself back together in time to chase the car up the steep incline which it is now riding up. The car strains at the effort, so Bosko puts his back into pushing it, but the radiator gives out and the car flattens. Bosko kicks it back up, and the car reacts like a whipped dog, moving ahead a few steps until Bosko gives it another push. The efforts of both Bosko and the car cause it to take on an almost inchworm-like quality, as it steps stretchingly forward a few more steps and then Bosko pushes it yet again to realign its body. They reach the top, but Bosko doesn't get in the car, and both the car and Honey go flying at top speed down the other side. Bosko races to catch up, and grabs the exhaust pipe, which stretches out to a ridiculous length. Bosko hangs onto it as if he were water-skiing, but a series of large rocks cause our hero to crash and fall about over the tops of them. Since the rocks get smaller and then larger in size, we hear the descension and then the ascension of the musical scale. Not so pleasingly musically are the four thin trees that Bosko rides over next, each time running his whole body up and over the tops of them; he then meets another series of rocks, this time grower larger in size and he hits his crotch on each one (though this most likely is not be the intended effect).

He goes flying off of the last rock and lands in front of the car, and is now running for his life from it instead of chasing it. He falls on his face briefly and slides on it, before getting up and falling over another rock. The camera then shows a head-on closeup of Bosko running towards it with the car and Honey chasing him. He takes the opportunity to do his Jolson, yelling "Mammy" loudly and longly. The angle switches back to the side again, and they ride straight through a shack on the side of the hill. When they come out, Honey is no longer in the car, but riding in a wheeled bathtub. The hill runs out, and Bosko and Honey's tub both jump a gap onto a rocky and ominous looking spiraling peak with a road carved like a snake around it. The chase continues, but twice Honey falls out of the tub and lands on the road below, and then bounces back into the tub. They finally reach the bottom, and the camera shows another closeup of the pair as Bosko leaps off a cliff to escape and Honey rides helplessly behind him, with both of their mouths yelling "Oohhh!" as they pass and fall. Bosko ends up hanging on a treebranch over a pond, and Honey's tub is dunked straight down into the water. The splash that she makes causes a huge waterhand to rise up and grab Bosko from the branch. The hand places him in the now floating tub. He is reunited happily with his lady love. Bosko grabs to cattails and moves their craft along by playing Singin' In the Bathtub on the tops of a row of lilypads. Bosko and Honey then embrace, and laugh merrily as the film irises out.

The film never stays still for long, and there are so many little bits of business that an attentive viewer is rewarded most delightfully at the torrent of fun images in the picture. Paying attention also has its drawbacks, and there are two minor things that nag at me: 1) When Bosko gets dressed and then leaps from his window, he is very clearly wearing only pants, with his entire torso completely black; when he emerges from the window, he has white sleeves on (which he wears for the remainder of the film), and with this addition, the black section of his body now looks more like a vest; and 2) when the car exits the outhouse, it is clearly of two different colors, or rather, shades, but once he and Bosko take off, the car immediately turns completely white in hue. Whether these events are intentional or not, I have no way of knowing. If they are mistakes, then neither defect takes away from the fun of the film for even a second.

It's a good thing that they decided on the bathtub theme for the bulk of the story, because they almost could have named the film after any number of other songs, at least judging from the profusion of tunes let loose in the film. (There'll Be A) Hot Time In the Old Town Tonight is even played over the opening credits (they still hadn't gotten to the WB theme of The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down yet), in addition to all of the songs I've already mentioned. I'm fairly certain they just looked at a list of song titles and picked the ones from which the animators got the best ideas for stories.

But, as I said at the beginning, ya gotta start somewhere, folks! It didn't matter what it was, or what the name of the film turned out to be; what mattered is that the film worked, and while Bosko never became a huge star, the series at least was successful enough that the WB animation department could soldier on until their golden age. In retrospect, it's amazing to think that so many great characters and films were riding on one little film series. Of course, the same could be said for Disney's first films, too. But in the end, one has to say "Thank goodness for small favors..."

Sinkin' In the Bathtub (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1930) Dir: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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