Saturday, April 15, 2006

SNIFFLES AND THE BOOKWORM (1939)

So many people mention to me how annoying Sniffles the Mouse's voice can be, but I'm not sure if they are aware (or even care) that there is a film in the Sniffles series where he hardly says a word at all. In fact, he says exactly one word. I doubt that fact has anything to do with the lessened quality of Sniffles and the Bookworm (I believe that to be a rare case of muddled direction on the part of Chuck Jones, and an ill-conceived story, or lack of one, by Rich Hogan), but if there is a character who shouldn't be quieted, it is the cutesy motormouth Sniffles. If you are one of the easily duped who simply find him relentlessly annoying, then you are missing out. His annoyance is his charm.

The film starts wonderfully, with a picturesque wintertime street scene outside of a bookshop. There are a few inches of fresh snow on the ground, and in that snow is a trail of tiny little footprints leading up to a small crack on the door to the shop. Following the trail through the door, the camera leads us to a heavily dozing Sniffles, soaking wet from the snow and with his back leaning against a book that is propped open and standing on its opening edges. A hole pops open on the book, and there is a green bespectacled bookworm, who does a double take when he spies the sleeping, and to him, giant mouse that is Sniffles. He ducks back into the book, but his glasses come off when he does. The glasses hit the floor and wake up Sniffles, who smacks his lips, and then gets a jolt of his own when he sees a little green arm with a yellow glove reaching about on the floor for the specs. The hand grabs the tail of the mouse instead, and retracts in surprise. The hand pokes out again, and this time, the worm comes out with it, where he ends up face to face with Sniffles. He ducks into the book once more, and then shoots his hand out to grab the specs hurriedly!

The camera pulls back to show that the book is just the first in an entire row of books through which the worm has burrowed an escape route. The worm dives out of the last book, hops across the floor in a couple of big leaps, and ends up at a large red book lying down on the floor. (He also ends up at the still very early point that the film starts to go awry.) Inside of the book is a sleeping man dressed all in green. (He could be Robin Hood because of his Sherwood green outfit and feathered cap, but we do not know. There is no title shown on its spine to clue us in to his identity, so we can only go with what the filmmakers tell us through his actions. ) The bookworm whispers to him about the giant that he just saw, and also pantomimes his size as a warning. The man at first climbs up out of the book and bravely marches off to check out the monster, but a few steps out, he has second thoughts, and motions to the bookworm to remind him of its size. He then thinks about the difference in the reported height, compares it to his own physicality, and starts to panic. He runs off towards another book, opens it, whispers to a figure inside, and then a large burly viking crawls out, holding a large ominous-looking club.

The viking, followed by the man in green (neither one of them identifiable in the least), and he, in turn, followed by the bookworm, marches toughly towards a meeting with the supposed giant monster. As they pass a set of books, Sniffles hops out and starts to follow them, his hands nonchalantly in his pockets. The viking turns and shushes the green man, who turns and shushes the bookworm, who turns and shushes -- who else? Sniffles, which causes the worm to react wildly, and then zoom straight over the ducking heads of his bodyguards. They are startled and follow him, taking cover around the corner. They look out in order of height, and see the cute and tiny Sniffles standing demurely in the moonlight. The viking and green man stare disapprovingly at the bookworm, who pantomimes yet again the details of the horrible monster. He uses his hands to show its great size, then shrinks it bit by bit, and then gives up, crawling off ashamed.

The men are relieved, and it is here that we get the first hint of who the man in green might be. He pulls a clarinet out of his sleeve, and it is entirely possible that he is The Pied Piper of Hamelin. He starts playing a sweet, jazzy solo on his horn, and then produces another smaller horn for Sniffles to play. They start a duet and march towards a large volume titled "Nursery Rhymes"; when the Piper knocks on the front of the book, Little Boy Blue pops his head out and starts to sing a popular Johnny Mercer/Harry Warren song of the day called Mut'ny in the Nurs'ry:

"There's mut'ny in the nurs'ry
There's mut'ny in the nurs'ry
Mother Goose is on the loose
Her kids are swingin' out!"

Upon hearing this, Mother Goose and her namesake pet jitterbug out of her book, and join the party. The bookworm crosses in front of another book where three men are singing harmony:

"Grab yourself a partner
Grab yourself a partner
Open the ring and choose one in
While we gaily laugh and sing!"

Three pretty maids in a row meet the bookworm on the other side. They address the harmonizers:

"Oats, peas, beans and barley grow
Oats, peas, beans and barley grow
Which of you will give him his horn?
He'll show you how to blow some corn!"

The bookworm takes his trumpet from the men, and blasts out a mean solo. Unfortunately, the noise wakes up Frankenstein's Monster, who crawls out of his book to start stalking towards the nursery characters. In the meantime, the songs continues with the maids and men singing the next chorus:

"There's mut'ny in the nurs'ry
Mut'ny in the nurs'ry
Mother Goose is on the loose
Kids are swingin' out!"

Sniffles is hep to the middlin' jive, and is standing listening to the jam session, when the Piper, toting a large pie, starts singing:

"They sang a song of sixpence, pocket full of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie
When the pie was brought in and opened by the king
All the blackbirds flew around and started in to swing!"

The piper places the pie in front of the seated Viking, who cuts it open with a knive. A row of blackbirds with very large heads pop out and start to dance. (There is a very quick and jarring cut here, and I suspect that there may have been a racial injustice performed that was edited out years later.) The singers continue on, and the film cuts between their vocalizing and the oncoming threat of the Frankenstein Monster:

"There was mut'ny in the nurs'ry when they all got loose
They began to yell for ol' Mother Goose
Goosey Goosey Gander, take a tip from me
Better track on home before you miss the jamboree!"

Everyone has an instrument by this point, and they start blasting out the end to the song, when the Monster is finally seen one by one, and everyone runs off except for the bookworm and Sniffles. The Monster leans down to put his evil hands on the bookworm, but Sniffles yells "Stop!", and then slaps his hands over his mouth when he realizes that he has drawn attention to himself. As the bookworm faints to the floor, the Monster moves towards Sniffles, backing the poor mouse up further and further. Sniff finally begins to run, and the Monster follows him to the edge of the bookshelf. At the last second, Sniffles sticks his tiny foot out in front of the gigantic blocky boot of the Monster and trips him, sending it crashing to the floor below. Later, Sniffles goes back to his comfortable book to go back to sleep. The bookworm pops out again (maybe it's a different book, because while it looks like the same one, there is no hole from their previous encounter), and gratefully kisses Sniffles on the cheek. Sniffles smiles.

Despite the jazzy setting and the often fun Books-Come-To-Life setting, Jones and crew never take this film to the heights that it could have taken it. With so many nursery book characters available, the best they could do is a quick glimpse of Little Boy Blue and three pretty maids. Mother Goose is seen strutting at the beginning of the song, and then disappears. And we get a possible Pied Piper and a well-designed but unknown Viking, and they do acquit themselves just fine in the proceedings, but this film could have been so much wilder. Instead, the visuals are quite cramped in the musical sequences (this may be the print that I am viewing), and film, despite its insistence that everyone is "swingin' out" and that everyone has "gotten loose", never truly swings or gets loose the way it should. And the addition of Frankenstein's Monster, while appreciated by this quite rabid horror movie fan, only stifles this would-be wild time.

As for the missing motormouth of Sniffles, his best, and thus, most annoying films were yet to come. This one goes down as the least of the Sniffles efforts, but it still has enough enjoyable elements to make it viewable.

Unless you hate Sniffles...

Sniffles and the Bookworm (Warner Bros., 1939) Dir: Charles M. "Chuck" Jones
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

4 comments:

Casey said...

Personally, I like Sniffles, but I do hope you appreciate that "Mutiny in the Nursery" is going to be running through my head for the rest of the weekend.

Loren said...

Substance or not, I've gotten a huge kick out of "Sniffles and the Bookworm," probably for no other reason than the song, "Mutiny in the Nursery. I guess I just like it for the shear fun of it and the rockin' music which Carl Stalling (that WAS Carl, wasn't it?) always did so damned well.

BTW, don't feel bad, Casey - it's stuck in MY head, too!

Anonymous said...

I'm curious as to what the racial injustice was, right after the blackbirds start dancing. The quick cut scene was obvious - anyone have any idea? It's a nice point of interest.

Anthony

SURESH said...

I think the sleeping man might be Rip Van Winkle. I may be corrected if I am wrong.
Regards,
S.Suresh.