Wednesday, May 31, 2006

SUMMERTIME (1929)

I was going to speak about the changing definition of summer for me since I moved to a place where, if it is not sunny for just one day, people start seeing visions of four skeleton horses with riders galloping across the cloud-bedecked sky. I was also going to link the title of this cartoon to the Gershwin/Gershwin/Heyward song from Porgy and Bess, for while the show did not even exist as an opera until 1935, I cannot read the title without thinking of the beautiful and evocative "lullabye" of the same title. From here, I was going to launch into a wistful rememberance of a friend for whom the song had played a deeply important role in her happiness, and how I have not seen that friend for a number of years. I'm still going to discuss the friend and her song, but events occur which transform thought and memory, sometimes in shocking ways, and my interest in watching a simple cartoon (especially one of middling quality) was diminished by grim reality.

We flirted for a couple months at work, and early on, we had only one official "date" (which went alright), but somehow we still bonded as friends. For a few years, no matter what life put either one of us through, my friend Leah and I could also count on each other when we needed someone off of whom we could bounce any crazy ideas floating in our heads; when we had romantic troubles, we could call each other for a good platonic talk-down (booty calls were out of the question); and when I would get a little nutso with the self-pity (such as my silly "Suicide Night" of binge drinking many years ago - when you are clearly not a person meant to hold more than about 1-1/2 drinks max, 19 shots of Goldschlager is probably not the way to go about things), Leah was there to reprimand me in a way that none of my other friends were able to do at that time. (Even after they hold your head over a toilet one night, your guy friends are just a little too eager to continue the craziness the next.) We probably got along so well because she was the only person around who could outgab me in matters nonsensical, and I was actually able to breathe for a little while and let someone else carry on with the B.S.

But, to the matter of "Summertime", the Gershwin tune and the title of the cartoon I am supposed to discuss. At the time, my buddies and I often attended a blues jam on Sunday nights at a bar called Blues Central, a hole in the wall dive that nonetheless serves some pretty decent eats. Since it was on Sunday night, I didn't go there to drink, but rather to catch the tunes and hang with my buddy Robear (who kills, in a good way, on harmonica), usually subsisting on Cokes which the waitresses would often not charge us for as long as we ordered food and tipped them well. Leah started to show up when she heard that we often went, and it wasn't long before she worked up the nerve to take the stage herself. She had sung quite often in church (her father was a minister), but this was a different animal altogether, and the first time she hit the microphone, she understandably shook quite a lot. She sang "Summertime" that first time out, and for several weeks after that, it was her song; I know at some point she told me the significance of the song to her, but I don't remember why. I just liked the song because it was dripping with poignancy and beauty and hope, and it got to the point where even now I can't think of the song's title without thinking of Leah singng it. I won't go deep into how she sang it; her voice was nice, a little thin and untrained, but pleasant, and the soft Southern accent of her parentage became more pronounced when she sang the wistful lyrics. In a couple months, she started to branch out into things like "Straighten Up and Fly Right" and even started singing with a band at a few gigs. And at a certain point, knowing of her interest in blues music, our boss Bob loaned Leah a dual disc of Great Female Blues Singers like Bessie Smith and the like. Bob was a minor blues fan, and seemed to be tickled to find someone else in the office who liked the same music.

Eventually, she left the job to go elsewhere, but we kept in touch and hung out occasionally (including the only night that this partly Irish guy has ever gone to an Irish bar on St. Patrick's Day), and still used each other for sounding boards for our various miseries and missed opportunities. And then... she disappeared. I heard various rumors from people who had run into her that she was going to go to school somewhere, that she had moved to Georgia, that she was getting married. I never got confirmation on any of them, but I didn't really worry about it since I was moving along in my own life. And so a friend slipped out of my life without any conflict at the cause. Though I did have the opportunity to remain in touch with her, I simply could not be bothered with whatever direction my life was taking at that time, and so a friend was just... gone.

I bring this up because I got a call late last week, as I was preparing the notes for this very review, that my old boss Bob, the employer with the dual disc of Great Female Blues Singers, whom I knew for over twenty years, and had worked both with and for over the last twelve or so, had died. I was actually informed by email, and the verbiage used in it by a friend at the old gig was "passed on." I am not one to romanticize death; you do not pass on in my view, harsh as it seems. You just die. I was at my new job in my new town in my new life when I received this message, and I had to sit down very quickly when I read for fear of hitting the ground. This feeling overcame me because I felt that I was guilty of another missed opportunity to keep up a small friendship.

It's hard to dive into the inconsequential details of a silly cartoon after a feeling like that overtakes you. After the odd crowing of the live-action Pathe rooster, we are introduced to a disturbed-looking frog (his design, I believe, leaves much to be desired) who skips and capers along a forest path for what seems far too long, and in his hands, he carries an instrument case of unknown content. He stops beneath a tree and pops the case open, and inside is a large toadstool. He starts to play the toadstool like it was a flute, and in a nearby, a monkey pops out and starts to blow a horn of his own in time with the frog. The song they play is the famous novelty number Abba-Dabba Honeymoon, which details the wedding night of a monkey and a chimpanzee. There are no words here, though, merely the tune, and the frog and monkey toss it back and forth until it gains the notice of a curious squirrel.

At first not giving the music an approving look, the squirrel starts to rabidly applaud the concert, and it is his actions which serve to wake up a very grumpy owl in the same tree. The owl hoots a warning for the squirrel to shut up, but the applause continues. So, the owl hoists a boot out his window, which conks the squirrel and sends him bouncing down the tree, from branch to branch, until he lands on top of the frog and prematurely ends the song. This brings nothing but derisive laughter from the monkey when he sees the collision, and I can't help but think this might be a great way to run American Idol. Only, instead of a squirrel, we could just drop a whole tree on Katherine McPhee. Or Taylor Hicks. Whatever... they're interchangeable.

Sweating profusely from the heat of the day, a mouse makes his way towards two gossiping women. We briefly hear how the one woman wishes to keep her husband away "from that blonde hussy...", but all the mouse is concerned about is the shade that the very fat woman of the pair provides him. He sits down in her shadow and starts to play a tiny horn. As he plays, a mouse emerges from an abandoned mattress on a refuse pile and likes what he hears. He pulls a spring from the mattress and starts to bounce up and down on it. Soon, another mouse with a spring joins him and they leapfrog over one another on their way towards the horn-playing mouse. One there, they take turns leaping onto and sliding off of the heel of the fat lady. She finally discovers what is going on, sees the trio of mice at her feet, and she and the other lady swiftly depart, screaming all the way. The mice laugh heartily at their fear.

Stepping out of his house beneath the burning sun of the afternoon, Farmer Al Falfa watches with horror as the mercury on his thermometer rises and rises, reaching 100 degrees and threatening to burst over the top. The thermometer goes through wild contortions, and so do Al's eyes as the sun gets hotter and hotter, and the thermometer finally explodes. Al runs to the frame of his front door as the sun flies down towards him, growing larger as it moves straight to Al's front step. Al almost melts before the sun finally relents and moves back to its proper place in the sky. Inside his house, Al seeks relief from the heat by mixing a cool drink on the rocks. Three bottles on his kitchen table are meant to provide the goods, but only the first two pour with any sort of ease. The third bottle Al has to wrangle and squeeze harshly to even be able to get a single drop out of it. He stirs the mixture with a sigh of satisfaction and a thirsty tongue, but before he can drink it, a mouse hops onto Al's piano and steps out the first four notes of How Dry I Am. Al wings a bottle at the mouse, yelling "Get out of here!" and then returns to his drink. Another mouse picks up the next few bars on a tuba, and Al yells again. Just about to take a swig, Al finds the glass shatters when another mouse in front of a banjo shoots through the glass with a slingshot. Al starts to cry, as a whole crowd of laughing mice are seen just outside by his doorstep. Al picks up a shotgun and goes after the rodents. They run to where a goat is eating with his back turned, and when Al shoots at them, the bullet hits the goat in the rear. The goat turns on Al and chases him off, occasionally laying its horns into the soft flesh of Al's backside. Iris out. Then the film returns for the traditional Aesop's moral, which usually has nothing to do with the film itself, and which this time reads "Hair, brains and skirts are short this season."

There are probably films that are held together with even less of a theme than this one is, but I'm not going to seek them or call them out for the purposes of this review. Let's just say that it must have been as hot in the studio as the temperature displayed in this film, because it seems the filmmakers really had no desire to even make half an effort towards supplying a decent scenario for its characters. Or to supply decent characters, outside of Farmer Al Falfa. No character in any section has anything to do with the other sections, though you could surmise that the mice playing the pranks on Al are the same ones that messed with the fat lady. But since all the mice look the same, you can't say for sure. I'm sorry, but I don't feel that there is much else to say about this cartoon, not in light of certain feelings.

Not all people are the same, no matter how much I try to convince myself and the world that most people are disposable and ridiculous beings. Because when you actually make a connection with a person, get to know a person, and whether or not you agree with that person on most subjects, that connection is precisely what makes life worthwhile. It's just that too often the people who are worth knowing better slip out of your life, often to circumstances beyond anyone's control, and sometimes because you are just too busy with life to keep in touch with people that way that you should.

I didn't know Bob incredibly well, despite the two decades that I knew him, but we talked enough every day for a long time, that I felt that I could consider him a friend. We hardly agreed on anything, but that didn't matter. We agreed on college basketball, and that's all that we needed. For years, we would fill out our brackets each and every March, and then compare them and discuss the various permutations that certain results would bring about, and we rarely agreed on any of that, either. And we were both usually wrong, as is most of the college basketball fanbase. Which is precisely what makes things like March Madness so intruiging. We would also occasionally attend college basketball games together; Bob had regular tickets to the annual Great Alaska Shootout, and often he would have an empty seat or two, and I would catch a game with him. The difference between us was that for me, that basketball game was a fleeting thing, and the spectacle of the event was the main attraction. For Bob, each game meant the world, and he would get incredibly fired up on even the smallest play. It was a passion for sports in general that I can only play at having.

When I left the agency, I never talked to Bob again. I kept meaning to call and catch up with him, but I didn't. I had a box of magazines and other items that I have worked on since I moved to California, and a week didn't go by that I didn't think, "Oh, I need to get that in the mail to Bob." I once started a letter to him, but never got past the second paragraph (I know, it seems impossible). He got in a car accident in October, but I never heard about it until much later, so I never knew that I should contact him. He was remarried at the end of the year, and again, the news came as a belated surprise. And this recent March past, I printed up my brackets but never filled them in, even though I had intended on faxing them over to Bob for his amusement. Instead, I let each and every moment where I could have rekindled that ebbing flame of friendship pass by, and now he is gone. I never heard back from my friends at the old job about the services, where at least I could have given some word to his brothers. For most of this, I feel that I was the delinquent one; I feel that I should have acted sooner.

And now, another friend is gone.

"Summertime, and the living is easy..." Not for everyone.

Summertime (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1929)
Directors: John Foster & Harry Bailey
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

HAPPY POLO (1932)

There are many things that occur very rarely, if at all, in the remote confines of Alaska. I am the first to point out how alike Alaska is to the rest of the country, and am often astounded when people don't even know that we have most of the basics of life as people have them elsewhere. It seems like a joke, but there are people in our midst who genuinely believe in the "living in igloos/driving to work on dogsleds" image that has persisted since Alaska became a running joke in our popular culture. Truth be told, Alaska has everything that the "lower 48" has. It might be to a lessened or altered degree, but we have it. What we don't tend to have are all of the more supposedly elitist qualities that persist elsewhere. For instance, we do have golf courses, four-star restaurants, private clubs, and even equestrian organizations. What we don't have, though, to my knowledge, is the "snooty" presence of polo matches.

Now that I have moved to California, one of the things that I wish to visit is one of those polo matches. A full-on knock-down drag-out course full of up-nosed bluebloods smacking the hell out of a little white ball while on horseback. (Do I exaggerate the blueness of the blood? Perhaps. I just want to see some of it spilled in a live match. OK, not really... well...) Most of my interest in the sport comes from cartoons, and when I say "cartoons", I actually mean "cartoon", specifically Mickey's Polo Team from Disney in 1936. This might be due to the presence of some supremely well-done caricatures of a host of Hollywood's bright lights of the '30's, including a "dream team" made up of Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and Harpo Marx. It is also most likely due to my second favorite duck, Donald, and some swell Big Bad Wolf action. Whatever my reasons, since I have seen this cartoon as a child, I have wanted to see this game up close and personal.

But there are other cartoons out there detailing, though not necessarily in an accurate fashion, this fringe sport. Van Beuren Studios actually has two, though they are actually the same film. A rerelease of 1929's The Polo Match, the 1932 Aesop's Sound Fable Happy Polo uses the backdrop of the snobby game to tell a tale of a mouse-mouse-cat love triangle gone awry, as all such trinities must. In a world where all of the horses seem to be mechanical constructs, a carriage rides along briskly, it's single passenger a lovely lady mouse. The ride is so brisk, in fact, that the horse sees fit to disconnect himself from the reins and run around to the rear of the carriage, lifting himself up and enjoying a sitdown for a brief interval. The lady mouse squeaks some orders to the cat driver through a mouthpiece in his tail, which she also pulls to sound a bell alarm. The cat politely tips his hat to her in response.

A nearby stable at the polo grounds seems to be her destination. Before her arrival, we see a mouse jockey preparing his horse for the match. He tilts the horse's head back and pours the contents of a gasoline can down its neck, and runs to the back of the horse to oil its legs, spinning the left hindleg to measure its effectiveness. The lady mouse gets dropped off from her carriage, and it is evident from the rampant smooching that occurs that the mice are an item. The mouse jockey tells her through squeaking that he is off to the races (or rather, the polo match), but their discussion has been watched from around the corner of the stable by a curious cat. As the jockey departs, the cat confronts the lady mouse and makes his romantic intentions known. She high-hats him, and he starts to cry for effect. He scratches her chin, and she slaps him across the whiskers, and then prances off teasingly to her spot in the polo stands.

This action allows the cat to instantly turn the corner from the romantically spurned to a villain in the grandest of melodramatic traditions. Literally -- the cat actually has a satchel from which he pulls a top hat and a cape, as if he was prepared for this outcome, and he drapes the cape about his shoulders and creeps to the stands, leers all about to see if anyone notices him, and then sneaks up to lurk about in the row behind the lady mouse! On the field below, the teams take the field, and after a bulldog referee yips some instructions, the match begins. The game is rough and furious, so much so that when the ball ricochets sharply off a goalpost, the other leg of the goal pulls itself out of the ground, betraying a hand on its end, and reaches over to rub the spot where the ball smacked it.

Our mousy jockey gets knocked end over end high into the air, and when he lands, his horse smashes into a dozen pieces. He reassembles his steed, at first putting the head on upside down but then spinning it into its proper place, and takes off to rejoin the match. The horse mutters at him, and they both look behind them to see the tail struggling to reattach itself. From the stands, the lady mouse receives some blown kisses from her boy, for which she is overjoyed, but the cat slyly moves down a row to take a seat next to the girl. On the field, the mouse jockey has his horse's head knocked off by a ball, and he reattaches it deftly, but the horse spins a turn, and the mouse has to switch the head and tail to keep the steed moving forward properly. Another collision leaves the mouse and mount sitting high atop the goalpost, but the kindly goal aids them in getting down. However, as they ride off, the horse splits in half, and the mouse has to get off to push its ends back together.

There are numerous buildings set about the grounds on which many spectators are watching the action on the field. (Whenever a rider is knocked into the air, we see him framed by the buildings on either side.) This time, a ball gets rocketed off course and crashes into a skyscraper, sending its occupants tumbling off as the buidling smashes to bits. On the field, our hero mouse is able to crane his horse's neck out, of which he runs along the length to reach a ball, but then his horse gets knocked dizzy by a wayward ball, and the mouse takes his steed back to the stable for a new set of legs. After placing the horse's torso on the fresh quartet of pegs, he shoots a slingshot into the rear of an adjacent donkey, who angrily kicks the mouse and his mount back onto the field. The mouse lands behind another horse, whose jockey swings his mallet and sends out hero flying. His horse retaliates, however, and marches forward and clocks the offending jockey clean across the field, where he lands in front of the stands and staggers for a bit.

Meanwhile, the lady mouse continues to fend off the advances of the amorous cat villain. When he grabs her and smooches her against her wishes, she slaps him so hard his head spins around. He forgets all thought of love, and chases the girl around the stands. She screams for help, and her pleas reach the ears of her boyfriend, the jockey. He rides to her rescue, but the cat has already grabbed her and has begun to head, literally, for the hills. The chase is on, over mountaintop and through valley alike, with the cat employing ropes to scale moutnains and the mouse using his mechanical gluebag to follow him. Finally, the mouse resorts to his polo skills to bring the villain down, sending a ball clonking off his skull. The lady mouse is knocked into the air, but she lands safely on the horse's back when her skirt billows out. The reunited lovers kiss, but the horse splits in half beneath them, laughing as he does so. But this doesn't deter them as they hit the ground: they continue to keep their lips locked in passion. No pun-riddled moral from "Aesop" pops up to round out the action, merely an iris that slowly sucks up the characters like a black hole, and the film ends.

This film is all about the cat villain and the horses. The polo match material is routine, and there is only so long that you can watch the mice (why do only mice play?) whack the ball (and each other) around without wishing for an outside influence to mix things up a little. This is provided in the genius decision, from way-way-huh-way out of left field (See? For interest, I had to go to another sport to provide the cliche), to make the horses, essentially, into robots. This decision seems to instantly multiply the possibilities inherent in a normal polo match, but I have a question regarding this casting change. Given that the polo match takes place in the cartoon world, where the laws of physics and... heck... reality are notoriously played with fast and loose, why change the horses to robots. In cartoons, you can just as easily switch the head and tail of a "real" horse as you can the same body parts on a metal one. You can tug on a horse's ear to make his neck crane out for the same effect as pulling a lever on your mechanical stallion. But, regardless of this point, the robot angle does add a large dose of visual uniqueness to the proceedings. I am still worried, however, about the size of the ball in relation to the building that it knocks down. Was it actually a tiny building peopled by insects? Because they all look like tiny little cats when they hurtle from the roof.

Speaking of cats, the villain of the piece turns out to be the best animated character in the film, which is a status that is not hard to accomplish, I guess, when you are fleshed out much fuller than the generic mice (it is awfully hard to distinguish the heroic mouse for whom we are meant to root from all of the others on the field -- in fact, you can't distinguish him from the rest), and the sneer he adopts from the moment of his spurning onward (not to mention his dashing cape and hat) instantly makes you root for the guy, despite his seeming status as a heavy. Bad guys get all the fun, even if they end up with a giant lump on their head from being smacked with a polo ball.

Halfway through this film, though, I came to a realization: I no longer possessed the desire to attend a polo match. How fun could it actually be? The riders zip back and forth monotonously; they smack a little ball with a mallet through upwards of six chukkers (that's forty-two minutes of possible boredom); and I hate the rich. I was bored with just the scenes of the quaint cartoon mice hitting the ball at each other. How am I going to react to a course full of snotty human beings repeating this action ad nauseum? Will I be able to enjoy such a match, or will my misanthropy combine with my despisement of Republicans to form a combustile situation? And then I hit on the only thing that could still convince me to go...

Real robot horses, just like in Happy Polo. Actual robots, just like Dick Cheney. And if a horse doesn't scissor his neck out an extra ten feet so his rider can get closer to the ball, I'm going home. And if a robot rebellion occurs on the course, all the right people will go down.

You won't see that in Alaska, either...

Happy Polo (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1932)
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Monday, May 29, 2006

I'M FOREVER BLOWING BUBBLES (1930)

I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles (A Max Fleischer Screen Song, 1930) 
Director: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

No, despite the old joke, this is not a song about Michael Jackson involved in illegal congress with his famous chimpanzee, though it's not hard to imagine such an activity. (Try scrubbing that image out of your head before you go to sleep tonight.) Rather, this is an old standard that the Fleischer brothers chose to bring to life in one of their famous Screen Songs, where the audience was instructed to sing along with a popular song while a bouncing ball hopped emphatically from syllable to syllable. But before the song would show up, three or four minutes of animated nonsense would ensue, sometimes only having a light relationship to the lyrics of the song, sometimes not. Released in 1930 (though the title card bears a 1929 date), I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles at least has bubbles galore, as the animals that make up the orchestra, which is supposedly playing the music in the cartoon, clean up before their performance.

As the program starts, a series of mice are lined up at a well, each one holding a pail to retrieve the water that is being pumped by the wagging tail of a puppy, which is tied to the pump handle. Each mouse carries his bucket behind a Chinese screen sitting in front of a large waterhole. The first mouse covers his eyes against whatever is occurring behind the screen; the second mouse sneaks a peek through his open fingers; and the third mouse cheekily tosses the contents of his bucket at the screen, knocking it down and revealing the rather detailed backside of a bathing elephant. When the pachyderm turns about to scrub under his armpit, it sees the audience, murmurs in surprise, and covers itself up quickly with a towel.

While a pig and a kitten sit in a basket, a mouse scrubs what appears to be some sort of cloth against a washboard. Then the rodent wrings out the object, and when it is satisfied, the mouse drops the cloth to the ground, and it turns into a freshly scrubbed and yowling kitten. The mouse grabs the next kitten to repeat the process. Finally, it sets the pig in the washtub and starts scrubbing away. A well-dressed dog in top hat and tails comes coughing into view, and he is carrying what is either medicine or liquor (the bottle does not bear the tell-tale inscriptions of either "XXX" or "RX"). He tries to unplug the bottle, but has his rear end poked by the curly-cue tail of the piglet, which only serves to introduce the thirsty canine to a great way to uncork the bottle. The action completed, the dog joyously splashes the liquid all over himself and through the air, finally pulling out an umbrella as he leaves the screen.

A mouse cleaning a giraffe can't quite reach up on the creature's neck, so he pulls his own tail upward to give himself more height. The trick only works momentarily, and after the giraffe mocks him for his attempt, the mouse looks about and comes up with a better plan. He slides the giraffe to where a hippopotamus is asleep on its back. The mouse climbs on its enormous stomach, and when the hippo snores, the mouse rises up and down accordingly, which gives it the chance to fully wash down the giraffe. He even scrubs inside the ears, which riles the giraffe and makes it growl at the mouse. Meanwhile, the puppy at the well has fallen asleep, causing the pumping of the well to cease. Another mouse holds up an alarm clock and triggers it. The noise wakes the puppy up, but the job is not finished. The mouse pulls a pair of dice from his pocket and forms them into a nice bone for the puppy to chew upon. The canine wags it tail in time with its happy chomping, and the cleaning continues.

We soon see mice helping to bathe every animal in the orchestra, and then a bunny rabbit in front of a circus tent pulls out a horn and blows Reveille. The animals stampede the tent and mash the bunny to the ground. The bunny gets up and shakes his bugle, and all of his teeth fall out of the horn, which form into a set of false teeth. The rabbit places them back into his mouth, but they squeak in a noticeable and annoying fashion, so he oils them prodigiously before moving into the tent. Also the conductor for the orchestra, he signals the band to warm up before addressing the audience directly. He speaks in a halting and exaggeratedly slow fashion, enunciating each syllable very clearly before moving to the next. "Well, folks," he begins, "we're all cleaned up for that old pop-u-lar song, I'm For-ev-er Blow-ing Bub-bles. The orch-e-stra will play the mu-sic, you sing the words, and I'll beat the time like this..."

The rabbit pulls a baton out of his pocket and taps it on the bottom edge of the screen, which fades from the animated scene to reveal the almost three-dimensional image of a series of bubbles riding forever upward along a darkened backdrop. A white ball starts to bounce in the left-center of the screen, and Billy Murray, the famous bandleader, implores the audience further in a voiceover: "You just heard what bunny boy said. Now sing along, folks! The trick is in following the bouncing ball. It's very simple. Let's see how well you can do it. Everybody ready? Let's go!" The lyrics for the song start to scroll up line by line up the now totally black screen, and the ball hops to each syllable, and the longer a note is held, the longer the ball bounces on that syllable. The lyrics:

"I'm dream-ing dreams;
I'm schem-ing schemes;
I'm build-ing cas-tles high.
They're born a-new;
Their days are few,
Just like a sweet but-ter-fly.
And as the day-light is dawn-ing,
They come a-gain in the morn-ing.

I'm for-ev-er blow-ing bub-bles,
Pret-ty bub-bles in the air.
They fly so high,
Near-ly reach the sky,
Then like my dreams
They fade and die.
For-tune's al-ways hid-ing,
I've looked ev-'ry-where.
I'm for-ev-er blow-ing bub-bles,
Pret-ty bub-bles in the air."

Through the song, tiny cartoon images have appeared underneath the word, somewhat envisioning what is being said in the lyrics. Near the song's end, however, when the chorus is presented for a second and final go-around, the background goes to white, the bouncing ball disappears, and the bunny starts playing with the words in the lines. He hops from word to word in the first line, and each word turns into a bubble pipe that blows a bubble that the bunny climbs like stairs to the next line. Sitting below the words, he blows bubbles from a pipe that carry off each syllable as they are sung; he grabs the word "air" and it stretches out into a dachshund, and when he releases the dog, it turns back into a bubble and floats away. 

"They fly so high" turns into a pond scene with a quacking duck, lily pads, rocks and cat-tails; in "Nearly reach the sky", the bunny, trapped inside a bubble, fights to escape and his exertions cause stars and then the moon to appear. When he falls out of the bubble, he grabs the moon, and his weight stretches the moon and causes it to blurt out like a trumpet. "Then like my dreams" gives the bunny a ride in an automobile, and "they fade and die" causes the machine to collapse in pieces, and the bunny places flowers on the steering wheel and then says a quick prayer. 

"Fortune's always hiding" reveals a trio of taunting, dancing money bags, which the bunny covets enough to sing the next line himself, but the syllable "-where" gets sung as "wh-ahhh!!" as a large moneybag sprouts out beneath his feet. It doesn't work out, though, as the bunny's tug on the string reveals a mocking jester's head on a spring. The bunny sings the last two lines himself, as well, and on the final words, each bounce reveals one of the orchestra animals, who blow bubbles from their instruments and are carried off the screen. The last animal is a little mouse, whose saxophone bubble pops and he starts to fall, only to be saved at the last second by a tiny parachute. Iris out.

The animation? Rudimentary, rough and primitive, and like many studios, possibly more than eager to prop up the picture with a gang of Mickey-like mice. On the other hand, everything is cute and pleasant, the animal designs are very appealing, and there is a quick and mild touch of raunchiness (being able to almost see up the elephant's backside was certainly a surprise), though if any films were ever designed to appeal to the entire audience at once, it was these films. Fleischer has developed the bouncing-ball picture back in 1924, and by this time, had the formula down pat, though the films by this point were including the music as part of their soundtrack.

In a different time, in a far more innocent-seeming era (though it really wasn't), with a less-jaded audience, these films must have been tremendous fun and offered an exciting breaking of that magical fourth wall. I, myself, do not like to sing along with anything where other people are concerned, and to say that I am a little shit during karaoke is a severe understatement. Rather, if the idiotic activity starts, I am out the door in a flash. Which is kind of weird owing that I come from a background where everyone I know can't stop singing, but then, when you think about it, this might be the very reason I dislike it so. But, I think given the right circumstances, I would be eager to help bring a night of these fun films back to life, with my own off-key warbling mixed in with the rest of the crowd, if only for a few hours.

[Oy! The things I will do to get people involved in appreciating older animation...]

"IIIII'mmmm for-evahhh blooowwwwing bub-bllllessss..."

Sunday, May 28, 2006

THE WIZARD OF OZ (1933)

It should not be surprising that I love the Oz books by L. Frank Baum. There is not a point in my life where at least one volume of the books (even the later ones by John R. O'Neill or Ruth Plumly Thompson, all still enjoyable) was not at my immediate disposal. For many a year, I had heard about an animated version of The Wizard of Oz that predated the MGM musical version by six years, and that had been suppressed due to copyright conflicts. I had, at various points in my life, thought the film to have been "lost", but how overjoyed I was to find out that MGM was releasing the film on its ultimate Wizard of Oz Collector's Edition last year, along with a host of silent adaptations (some of which I already owned on videotape.) Despite this announcement, due to my move and fluctuating monetary state until I established myself, I put off getting the set until last week. Finally, I was going to get a crack at mystery man Ted Eshbaugh's version of my favorite fantasy world. Of course, I was bound to end up disappointed, as my hopes were incredibly high.

In the way that most Oz adaptations begin, we meet a bored young lady named Dorothy who plays fetch with her little dog Toto on a farm in Kansas. A horrible thunderstorm causes the formerly sedate animals of the farm to seek shelter from an oncoming cyclone, and Dorothy and Toto do so also, running frantically into their home. However, the storm is too much and cuts a harsh path straight through the farm, and the house is lifted spinning high into the air. The next thing we know, Dorothy is falling through the skies, straight down a rapid clip, and as she does, the little girl that we have just met in a black-and-white landscape starts turning into vibrant shades of bright color, as does the world around her. By the time she lands on the body of a Scarecrow on the ground, she is as rosy-cheeked as a baby doll and resplendent in her blue dress and red hairbow. Toto lands, too, bouncing on the head of the Scarecrow, who comes to life and struggles to his feet (after having his rear lifted slightly by a magically appearing rabbit) to join the newly arrived pair. He is wobbly at first, but after he tips his hat and releases a flock of blackbirds into the sky, the trio march off out of the cornfields.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow play fetch with the giant-headed Toto as they reach the edge of a woodland area. When the Scarecrow throws the stick into the forest, they hear a disconcerting clang. They rush to seek the cause of the odd noise and find a Tin Man in mid-swing with a large axe, completely rusted to stillness, with flowers growing wildly up his metal legs. The Scarecrow pulls an oil can off the Tin Man's head which also serves as his hat, and swiftly brings the grateful man of tin back to clanking life, and brushes him clean as a measure of friendliness to boot. The Tin Man instantly befriends the trio and they march off out of the forest.

Why waste time finding and befriending the Cowardly Lion, too, when you can stop at a bridge just outside of Oz and watch a romantic pastoral scene with various birds and bugs going at it? Two swans kiss as they wrap their necks around each other atop a placid pool of water; a butterfly moves its gorgeously colored wing just ever so slightly to allow us the vision of two birds pitching woo, who wave back happily just before the butterfly moves his wing back like a Chinese screen; and a Kingbee and a Queenbee zip themselves up tight in a flower, and then seconds later, the flower bud reopens to unleash a squadron of baby bees clad in cute bonnets and diapers. (It's a sweet way to kill a minute of time in the cartoon, but the Lion could have been introduced in that same amount of time; the film feels incomplete in the character department for just that reason -- but, oh well...)

They leave the serenity of the bridge for the gates of Oz, lying just up the hill. Two peacocks fanning their tails out close them to show trumpeters announcing the arrival of the visitors. A wagon awaits for Dorothy, and she boards it courtesy of a caterpillar made of alphabet blocks, with feet protruding from each block. The blocks read "Welcome", and when Dorothy steps across them, the blocks change to read "Dorothy". The wagon takes off and the caterpillar is sent sprawling willy-nilly. Dorothy's wagon is part of a parade to the palace of the Wizard of Oz. A tremendously obese policeman leads the parade as he rides a low-riding tricycle (the back wheels are practically flat from his fatness), and he has a blackbird flying just in front of him that serves as a police siren when he pulls its tail. A marching band made up of bugs and assorted weird beings follows right behind, and we see a pair of hobby horses pulling the wagon. (These horses might be a reference to the Saw-Horse that figures prominently in the second Oz book, The Marvelous Land of Oz. Or, they might not.) The Tin Man and then the Scarecrow follow, each tipping their hats to the ecstatic crowd, and Toto brings up the rear, holding his nose proudly in the air. Perhaps I shouldn't say he brings up the rear, though, for he is followed by a pack of other dogs, all sniffing the ground where Toto has just trod.

The wagon pulls in front of the palace and we see the crowd going crazy over its arrival. As the visitors prepare to ascend the stairs leading up to the palace, four disembodies suits of armor sing to them some instructions:

"Hail, to the Wizard of Oz!
To the Wizard of Oz, we lead the way!"

Dorothy and her friends enter a strange and eerie chamber, and there, across the room mixing potions is the famous Wizard of Oz. He casts a spell that causes four chairs to appear, each one suited to its occupant's personality. The Tin Man's is carved out of a treetrunk; the Scarecrow's is black and has the carved visage of a crow resting at its top; Dorothy's is a pretty little throne fit for a princess; and Toto's, in a surprising bit of bathroom humor, has a dog's head set where its seat should be, and Toto obligingly lifts his rear up and positions it near the carved dog's nose. The Wizard uses his wand to reveal a series of top hats, out of which pop eight rabbits, which then turn into dollies. As the lights go black about them, the baby dolls do a cutesy version of a Folies Bergere kickline, and when they join arms sideways and wave them, their blue dresses turn to pink and back again. Then they all fall down and disappear, and the lights come on and the Wizard cleans up the hats with his wand.

He then pours a potion inside another top hat, and the hat turns into a clucking chicken, which then lays seven eggs: six normal sized ones and a tiny little egg. Just before the laying, however, some of the remaining potion pours onto the floor, and a curious Toto runs up, sniffs it, and then licks some of the potion up. He does not find it to his liking, and yips and runs away. Each egg on the table cracks in turn, and out of each one comes a different mutated creature, with the body of a chicken, but the head and legs of another creature. In turn, they are a giraffe, a monkey, a pelican, an elephant, a dragon, and what seems to be a tiger but with Mickey Mouse-style ears with red and black stripes. The seventh tiny egg vexes the Wizard and refuses to hatch, and the hen runs up, seemingly squawking "Put it out! Put it out!", and then lays her head to the egg for a listen to what might be inside. The egg starts to grow in spurts, first to the size of an ostrich egg, and then larger and larger.

Everyone sets off in a panic, and things are made worse when the Wizard drops his wand and Toto, thinking he is playing fetch, takes off with the magical item. Dorothy and the Wizard give chase after the dog while the Tin Man and the Scarecrow try to deal with the ever-growing egg, already towering over the two of them. The Tin Man swings his mighty axe at the egg, but the weapon breaks in two. The Scarecrow discovers a display case full of ancient weapons, and he breaks into it and passes the Tin Man a sword and a spiked club. Both shatter on the indestructible egg. The brave heroes then pick up more weapons and besiege the egg further, but it is to no avail. Dorothy and the Wizard chase Toto endlessly around the still-enlarging ovoid, which now takes up more than half of the room. As the Tin Man waits for the Scarecrow to hand him another weapon to shatter on the egg's casing, Toto hands him the wand instead. One hit, and the egg explodes, leaving large chunks of shattered shell lying about the chamber, and rocking in the middle of one of the pieces is a tiny, chirping chick. The mother rushes to his side, picks him up and starts clucking Rock-A-Bye Baby. The music swells, and all of the participants in the story finish singing the song. We see "The End" written on the final page of a storybook bearing the famous Oz logo, and as the cover of the book closes, we hear a choir reverantly singing: "All Hail to the Wizard of Oz!"

So much potential, so many worthwhile scenes, all spoiled in service to a silly second half. Once they reach the Wizard, he is just a normal magician and they have apparently made the journey for a goofy magic show. The Wizard in the book may have been a humbug, but marvelous things still occurred about him. Sure, it involved murdering a witch and all that, but political assassination aside, he still made things happen. That said, for what is here, it is fun adventure with surprising visual depth. Ted Eshbaugh was certainly an interesting filmmaker, and it is a shame that he did not do more films (or, at least, more films that anyone knows anything about.) And for all my disappointment, the film itself is still certainly a unique vision, and I suppose that I should be thankful that I have even had the chance to view this piece of history.

More than once, I have heard that this cartoon paved the way for the similar beginning in the famous 1939 version, with the drab Kansas beginning in black-and-white making way for the rich colors of the magical land of Oz. Whether its MGM creators had seen this unreleased film or not before their production, and thus gained inspiration from this one detail alone, I am not aware. (I'm sure some far more knowledgable Ozophile out there knows the answer to this.)

Looking back on all of these silent versions of Oz and this cartoon, and also some of the later adaptations, what I can't figure out is why no one wants to stick with the story and characters in the original books. I love the scary Disney Return to Oz from 1985, with its presentation of a ton of little-used characters from across the Oz spectrum made their film debuts, but it seems the mainstream audience found it all a little too much. I know that the 1939 version presents a massive hurdle for filmmakers to leap, because audiences want more of that, and not necessarily the stories as set down in the books. I still hold out hope, however, that with the success of the Tolkien films and now The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, that some enterprising young filmmaker will wish to tackle the Oz books anew, perhaps hopping the first book and starting directly with Land, or even picking up with the next book that actually features Dorothy, Ozma of Oz. (Elements of both books comprise Return to Oz.)

As long as a chicken doesn't grow an enormous egg, I will keep my mind open to all else that occurs...

The Wizard of Oz (Film Laboratories of Canada, 1933) Director: Ted Eshbaugh
Original Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Thursday, May 25, 2006

TOONERVILLE TROLLEY (1936)


I will admit it from the start: I know very little about the Toonerville Trolley. Yes, I have a handful of Toonerville Folks comic strips tucked in the pages of a few volumes of assorted collections of classic comics gathered together by the likes of the Smithsonian and so forth. As the comic is only a one-panel affair, and I have so few examples, it is hard to get a true feel for Fontaine Fox's famous strip, but I do get a much larger taste of the strip's humor than I do of the characters. I can look about and find articles about the strip, and references to the characters with wacky names like Little Woo-Woo Wortle, but I've been hard pressed for the opportunity to read many of their adventures.

Most of what I know about the town of Toonerville is from the cartoons. Specifically, three cartoons released by the Van Beuren Studios in 1936, which also happens to be the year of the studio's demise due to studio politics (RKO's, their distributor, and not Van Beuren's; RKO chose to go with the in-the-market Disney shorts, much larger profit winners, than with Van B.'s less popular, though highly acclaimed, output). I mainly know of the Skipper, who races his trolley at breakneck speed each day trying to meet the incoming trains at the station, usually to disastrous results. In the first film of the trilogy, Toonerville Trolley, directed by Tom Palmer and Disney's Three Little Pigs helmer, Burt Gillett, the Skipper is keeping to his daily routine.

Or rather, he is eating his breakfast before embarking on his daily routine, which he can't do until the Trolley is finished getting a good scrubbing from a large blonde Nordic woman named The Powerful Katrinka. When he reminds her to hurry up so he can meet the morning train, he proves how accurate a name she possesses by wrenching the water pump clear out of the ground, pumping the water directly on the trolley car, and then picking the entire car up in the air like it was so much cotton candy and dumping the water out of its interior. "By cracky!", the Skipper complains, "I'll just about make that train!", and he winds up his little ramshackle car and heads down the tracks. He hits two rocks that threaten to make the car fall apart like a house of cards, and when he reaches a steep hill, he is very lucky that two Toonerville folks were stowed away inside, or else he would never have made it up (they get out and push nicely before departing).

He flies down the other side of the hill at top speed, surely making up a lot of lost time, but when he gets to the double set of tracks at the RR crossing, he is nearly splattered by the surprise appearance of a rocketing passenger train. He tiptoes the trolley across the other track and it nearly gets its rear cab fractured by yet another train coming down the first track. In a nearby meadow, Molly Moo-Cow (another Van Beuren staple) is wasting the day away eating apples and spitting the seeds at sunflowers, when she hears the familiar ring of the Toonerville Trolley. She chases the car and hops on, but her bouncing of the car sends it careening off the tracks, and the trolley zooms down a trackless hill and crashes into a large mudhole.

"Help, Katrina!", the Skipper yells, and the faithful powerhouse hikes her skirt, lifts an entire fence and runs to the Skipper's rescue. When she reaches in the mud towards the Skipper's hat, she finds out quickly that a squealing pig is wearing it; she dips in again, placing the hat on what she thinks is the Skipper's head, but when she pulls him out, he is upside down instead and she is holding the seat of his pants. While the Skipper frets about the train, Katrina calmly lifts the entire trolley out of the mud by using a board as a lever. She dumps it back on the tracks, but then the Skipper frets about the mud on the vehicle. She tells him she will fix it, and dumps an entire barrel of water on it. It only gets halfway clean, but she spies a paint shed nearby, and it is the simplest of efforts for her to lift the whole building off its floorboards, and then pick the floor up like an artist's color pallette. She skips back and paints the trolley with a fresh coat of red, and the Skipper takes off again, but only after asking Katrinka to "give her a start!" The almighty hausfrau picks up the tracks and whips them down, causing a tidal wave of trackage that shoots the trolley off at a decent clip.

The problem for the Skipper is that just ahead there is a bull in a pasture, and when he sees the now-red trolley, it appears in each of his eyes as a waving red flag, and he goes crazy! He demolishes his fence and charges after the trolley, and on his first hit he dislodges the Skipper from his perch. The Skipper waves a red bandanna to try and ward off the bull from smashing his precious trolley, and the bull responds by charging him directly. The first charge leave the Skipper spinning, and ends up with the bull wearing the Skipper's cap on his horn, and the Skipper's pipe in his mouth. The next charge, the items return to the Skipper, but the bandanna has been shredded. The bulls rests and breathes heavily in the corner where two fences meet, and the trolley, showing its face for the first time in the film, frets and rings its bell like at a boxing match. The bull charges again, and the Skipper is left wearing only his underwear -- and they are red! The bull chases the Skipper up a tree, where he is able to call for help from Katrinka yet again, as the bull knocks the tree back and forth, dislodging the leaves with each hit and momentarily showing the Skipper in his longjohns.

Katrina runs up, and when the bull goes after her (she, too, is mostly in red), she grabs him by horns and spins him around and around, finally letting go and letting him bounce off the roof of the trolley, leaving him in a daze. However, with the bounce, the trolley takes off on its own, and Katrinka has to shake the Skipper out of the tree and throw him like a football towards the car. He grabs the trolley pole and whips over the car to his perch in the front. He speeds like a demon to meet the train, but when he hits the end of the tracks, he is dumped off unceremoniously, and the trolley pole whips over the top to bonk his hat down tight over his face. When he recovers, he sees the Railroad Bulletin sign and he reads it aloud: "Toonerville Morning Train - 3 Hours Late [crossed out] - 12 Hours Late [crossed out] -- DUE NEXT WEEK!" The only thing the skipper can think to say is the very thing that he has yelled throughout the film: "KATRINKA!!!" Iris out.

This film is light and pleasant, but nothing more. It is not especially funny, though it is meant to be humorous, but the film is a minor diversion, and by that, I don't mean minors will get the most out of it, for I doubt many of today's youth would have the patience for such a light confection. It does intrigue me, however, about the Toonerville comic strip, for I have long felt I would like to get to know these folks a little better. I jumped on Amazon, but can only find out-of-print book collections of the strips, and maybe I will pursue one in the near future, maybe not. I still have the new Peanuts collections to catch up on, and a few Li'l Abners to locate.

And my Smithsonian collection and other comic strip books? Still in Anchorage, boxed-up and waiting for transport to my eager hands. The only thing that I have in my apartment with the Toonerville Folks on it is the U.S Postal Service's sheet of Comic Strip Classics that they released back in 1995. There, on a single stamp, is my only extant image of the Skipper and the rickety Trolley, packed full to its six-passenger capacity as the Skipper tries to pull it over a hill through the use of a handy grappling hook. As the stamp exactly equates the number of the panels that the strip contained each day, it shall have to do as my surrogate Toonerville strip until I get a decent collection some day. Despite the blandness of the cartoon series, it has more than piqued my interest.

Of course, I can always try a more effective method of getting out of this Toonerville fix...

KATRINKA!!!!

Toonerville Trolley (Van Beuren, 1936) Director: Burt Gillett
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

FUNNY FACE (1932)

It is a tale of mad science and of romantic obsession so twisted that it could easily star Peter Lorre (whose amazing Mad Love was filmed in the same year). Or its queasy mid-section regarding facial reconstructive surgery could easily be directed by David Cronenberg, had he any penchant for helming a film in which an eerie wall of detached faces come to life and break into an off-kilter musical number. There is even the possible suggestion of savage and shocking rape lurking in the details of the movie's wrapping plot. And if that's not enough to make you wonder what the hell is going on, I would then tell you that the film is an animated cartoon from 1932, and that it is ostensibly meant to be a comedy.

Ub Iwerks' Funny Face (made in '32 but released in January of the following year) was meant as just another Flip the Frog cartoon, but I wonder if there was any residual effect on Iwerks from the array of horror films hitting the market in the time of its creation. Certainly in the laboratory scenes there is a definite trace of influence, but the entire plot seems configured with a malignance that would have made Tod Browning sick with glee. That the film ends on a note as false as the mask that Flip the Frog wears in it only serves to magnify the horror.

Flip the Frog is in love. Because he is more human than frog in his walk and actions by this point, counting out his unmistakably amphibian head, one wonders if the character is merely a man whose unfortunate looks have gained him the nickname "The Frog". If not, then his romancing of the pretty girl in the film takes on tones of bestiality as well, and I think our plate is full enough at the moment. The enraptured Flip marches joyously down the street, bearing a full bouquet of flowers, and as he practically dances on air, he sings of his impending date. It is clear from his words that he is a lost cause.

We then meet the object of his affections, and no wonder Flip is so smitten: she is more than beautiful (within the borders and limits of the cartoon, people; don't go thinking I'm cranking one out here, and she is far from Red Hot), with a Boop-style flapper's air and style of dress. The girl is fixing her makeup for a date -- but not with Flip. She has two photos on her vanity table: one of a more-than-handsome twerp which she ogles lovingly, and one of Flip, which she eyes impatiently, and then throws harshly in the trashbin. (One wonders how it even made it onto her table in the first place, if she is so disgusted by him.) This rough action done, she kisses the picture of the cute boy (it is interesting to note that when she completes this kiss, her lipstick transfers to his lips in the picture, and he gazes back revealed as the little sissy boy that he is) and goes back to primping herself.

Flip, meanwhile, is still so elated that he dances on top of the girl's picket fence, but when he reaches her gate, his erractic movements cause the gate to wobble, and he slips and falls. The gate swings back to knock him over from behind, causing him to somersault all the way to her porchstep. Unfortunately for Flip, the handsome twerp is already waiting there, and the short-pants wearing slicky lad knocks on the girl's front door. When he leaves with her arm in arm, Flip tries to intercede between the pair, and hands his bouquet to his now seemingly indifferent doll. Her response is to thrown the flowers roughly back at his inferior face, an action that knocks Flip down on his rear. As his lost love wanders off with her new boy, Flip pulls a mirror out of his pocket and looks at his sad reflection, and then imagines himself as nothing more than a monkey. In his anger, he kicks the fence, but the board swings around and smashes him on top of the skull. He can't win for anything.

But, back on the ground again, he spies a piece of paper laying by his side. Picking it up, he sees that it is a flyer for a plastic surgeon named Dr. Skinnum, who shows before and after pictures of one supposedly successful operation, and he promises that he swaps "New Faces for Old", whatever that could mean. He makes his way to Dr. Skinnum's laboratory, which resides in a rather non-descript building across town. Entering the waiting room, he walks up to an entire wall covered with what seem to be masks. However, seeing Flip staring at them, the masks reveal themselves to be alive, and they start singing as one to their visitor:

"Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha, Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha
Oh, look at the guy with the funny face!
(Funny face!) (He's a disgrace!)
Oh, look at the guy with the funny face!
Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha!"

Flip won't take this abuse for long, but he tries to appeal to their sympathetic side, and the masks echo some of his words:

"To laugh at me is sure a shame,
(Such a shame!) (What a shame!)
But not, oh heck, I'm not to blame!
(Who's not to blame?) (He's not to blame!)
Ha-ha Ha-ha Ha-ha!"

The masks continue on:

"Now this is the place to change your face!
(Change your face!) (To change your face!)
To look like that is more than a trick,
So step right up and take your pick!"

The four masks at the bottom each introduce themselves individually for Flip's perusal. The first, a milquetoast sort, and the second, a burly rough-shaven type, are mocked by the other masks in chorus, and lose their composure. The third, the mask of a black face, sings:

"I'se sho handsome,
As you can see!
The gals down south
sho' go fo' me!"

The fourth and last is a most effeminate sort, with blush, lipstick and eyeliner clearly in display on his visage. When he sings, "How would you like to look like me?", the chorus replies, "Look like him? Whoops, my dear!" The mask blushes and resings his line, ending it with an array of kisses. None of them impress Flip at all, and finding them rude, he finishes the song with this couplet:

"Well, my face may look like heck,
But yours looks like a horse's neck!"

A blind rolls up on the far corner of the room, and there on the wall is a handsome face, who sings: "Now wait a second, Mr. Flip! Pay no attention to those dips!" He kindly offers up his face to Flip, and our hero is elated at the discovery. At this point, the doctor finally comes out to greet Flip, but when the doctor clears his throat to announce his arrival, Flip is so taken by surprise that he throws his newly chosen face in the air, and it lands on the doctor's big bearded head. The doctor leads his new victim, er, patient into his laboratory. When the door closes, stars of pain and violence emit from the cracks, as Flip yowls. "There, there," the kindly doctor tells him, "it won't hurt!" The masks on the wall reply in chorus, "Not much!"

Meanwhile, on the street, the object of Flip's obsession is stopped along with her new beau by a mosntrous bruiser, who wastes no time in laying his hands upon the girl. The boyfriend is dispatched quickly with a casual toss into a mud puddle, and the embarassed lad runs frantically from the film, literally yelling for his "Mama". Left alone with the mountainous cretin, who makes an attempt to kiss her, the girl slaps a sheet of flypaper on his face. He pulls the paper off, but his face goes with it, and he has to peel it off the paper and arrange it in place before pursuing the girl again. She runs to a house, and the thug enters after her, and when the door slams, we hear her scream as more stars emit from behind that door, signifying some sort of violence being perpetrated upon her.

Back at the doctor's office, Flip's bandages are being removed, and when the former frogface sees his new reflection, he yells "Hot Dog!" He grabs the doctor and dances with him, but when the doctor spins Flip, he shoots like a tornado through the office door and out on the street. Picking himself up, he starts to strut and whistle, and the now-more-than-handsome Flip is immediately seen by first one swooning girl, and then a whole crowd of girls, who chase him to the same house where's Flip's would-be love is being molested. Flip hears her scream at the top of the stairs before she is pulled back into one of the rooms. Flip flies up the stairs and pulls frantically on the door, but he pulls it off its hinges, and he and the door slide down the stairs and straight through the front door, sending it flipping around and placing the crowd of girls inside the house. Flip dives at the top of the door, and it spins around again, depositing the girls back outside.

After falling out the window once and sliding down a pine tree, stripping it of its foliage, Flip tries to attack again, but the bully knocks him out the window and into the tree a second time. This time, Flip bounces back and starts brawling with the creep. A series of interruptions occur, but Flip keeps ending up on the receiving end of the punches, until a flurry of sharp blows shatters his new face. Flip sees his old face in the reflection of a mirror and goes mad with rage. The girl sees who has been trying to save her, and she shouts Flip's name in joy and surprise. Flip pummels the thug with his rapidly flying fists, and smacks him in the head over and over with a broken board. He finally leaps on the prostrate form of the bully and the pair crash down through several floors, bounce back up through the holes just made and then the roof through the timely intervention of a very springy mattress, Flip ends up next to his intended and the bully ends up rolling down the roof, hanging from it by his suspenders. Flip cuts the straps with some scissors, and the bully ends up face down in a barrel. Flip and the girl are reunited, and she is finally able to see past his frogface, and see the gentleman and hero within. It seems they are about to kiss, but the windowpane slams down on their necks and they struggle to wiggle free as the film irises out.

OK, so maybe at the beginning of this piece, I made this film out to be a little darker than the way in which it actually presents itself. The general tone is actually fairly light and airy, even in the scenes with the girl and the thug. Her minor taunting attitude turns serious, however, and it is hard to understand exactly what Iwerks meant with the house scene, where the door shuts and there is clearly some sort of scuffle going on. Is he slapping or punching her, or is he doing something more? It is certainly a little more advanced than the normal nyah-hah-hah villain tying the girl to the railroad tracks routine. And the Mad Love-style themes of romantic obsession and body alteration are most definitely at play here, and if the plastic surgeon seems more than a little overly happy, his suggestive last name (Skinnum) and his behavior behind closed doors more than betrays his place as a true mad scientist figure. And just what are the singing masks in his office? Perhaps the film is not really on the Browning or Cronenberg levels, but there is most certainly something more than a tad otherworldly going on in Doctor Skinnum's office.

That ending? Would a girl like that finally relent to the affections of such a plain-to-ugly faced creature like poor Flip? She certainly thinks pretty highly of herself, just judging from her behavior in the film, so would she be so quick to submit to his charms, even with his grand heroic gesture. Better-deserving women go out with lameasses all the time, enough for the great Joe Jackson to tell the truth and get considerable mileage out of Is She Really Going Out With Him?, but this usually is in reference to good-looking guys who are undeserving assholes. Rarely is it a case where a total schlub has the hot girl, unless he is named Bill Gates.

The thing that I noticed on this go-around, though, was that the girl might actually be the undeserving one. Near the end of the film, as she roots on the now-heroic Flip, her hands appear to be little misshapen webbed things, though she is clearly quite human. She stands next to Flip, who possesses normal human-like fingers and all, and her hands are these little almost star-shaped monstrosities, as is she were born a youthful victim of thalidomide. The girl is a refugee from a freak show, and yet she has the gall to turn her nose up at our boy Flip?

And now they are together. Flip has his hot girl, and she has a frog-faced boyfriend. Perhaps there is something to this karmic balance thing after all.

Funny Face (Ub Iwerks, 1932) Director: Ub Iwerks
Animation: Shamus Culhane
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

HALF-PINT PALOMINO (1953)

My uncle raises miniature horses, and while they don't quite come in the uber-economical package that the steed in MGM's 1953 Barney Bear-Benny Burro team-up Half-Pint Palomino does, they were certainly much smaller than I had anticipated seeing when driving to his home in Olympia, WA. While we were trying to catch up on family business and small talk, two things of which I am usually unable to pull off even serviceably out of sheer lack of interest, all of our attention was drawn to the television, which was being used as a video monitor to survey the expected-at-any-moment dropping of a miniature foal from the miniature womb of their miniature mare. As a result, this became the focus of attention during our entire visit, and it rendered the family business and small talk null and void.

Of course, as it happens so often, through the entire ride to my uncle's and also through the time spent there, my thoughts were on a Ray Harryhausen film. Specifically, his "dinosaurs in a lost mesa" flick, The Valley of Gwangi. Specifically, one scene in particular, which hopscotched to mind immediately upon my father's mentioning of my uncle's miniature horses: the table-top stable in which one of the characters keeps a thought-to-be-extinct specimen of the Dawn Horse, Eohippus. The tiny, uniquely-striped horse-like creature with the three toes, whose capture and kidnapping leads to the discovery of the allosaurus Gwangi inside a lost canyon and which ultimately ends in the dinosaur's ferocious rampage through a small western town, casually strolls out of its stall to the amazed eyes of any and all observers, leading to thoughts of greed and exploitation.

So, don't be surprised if the title and opening of today's cartoon send me sailing once more into thoughts of Harryhausen's Dawn Horse. Much like in Barney Bear's Heir Bear, also from 1953, Half-Pint Palomino jumpstarts its story with a newspaper headline setting up the entire scenario. We see a copy of the Grand Canyon Daily Echo (and if there isn't a real paper named that, there should be), and it's top line reads: "Eccentric Millionaire Offers Fabulous Reward For Capture of World's Smallest Horse!", and just below this we find a photo of the same top-hatted and nattily attired millionaire fanning out oodles of cash in both of his hands. A sub-head continues with the detail, "Grand Canyon Scene of Scientific Research", and a story set below this one points to the one who will be responsible for all of the succeeding action: "Local Bruin To Bag Abbreviated Bronco". This can mean, since it is an MGM cartoon, none other than Barney Bear. (One gasps to think of the chaos that would ensue were Disney's Humphrey Bear to be the one in charge, though it would give his ranger more work, and be an appropriate place for one of his ilk. That the voices of both the ranger and MGM's Droopy were supplied by Bill Thompson would also prove convenient.)

There probably hasn't been a cartoon vista more brilliantly colored than the one that follows the paper opening, and the Grand Canyon has never looked more grand (at least in a cartoon) than with the rainbowed rocks and the greener-than-green foliage that are displayed as the camera pans its meandering way to Barney Bear's encampment. It looks so small set into the corner of the box canyon in which it is set up, but it will seem titanic in comparison with the object of Barney's most likely ill-fated hunting expedition. (After all, he doesn't have a good track record of success in his quests.) Barney has before him a tremendous green pack, which then gets dumped off the diminutive shoulders of his burro buddy Benny. "Okely dokely, Benny," Barney says, quite literally talking down to the donkey, "you stay here, and I'll go catch the li'l ol' horse!"

Barney sets out on his search, and to aid in this pursuit, he pulls out a magnifying glass and holds it to the ground. He instantly recognizes the minute trail of hoofprints of his prey, the world's smallest horse. Smelling success in the air, Barney pulls out a small box from his pocket, and the lettering on its top proclaims it to hold "One Trained Horsefly". He pops the lid, and inside is a cute big-nosed horsefly named Charlie; Charlie Horsefly, that is. After Barney orders him to "Go get 'im!," Charlie sets out on the ground like a bloodhound, and soon he picks up the trail of the horse. He finds the tiny stallion drinking water from a thrown-out sardine can, which perfectly shows the scale in size of the horse. Charlie jumps on the horse's bare back, and the steed bucks and bucks but can't shake the steadfast horsefly. However, the horse twists his tail into the shape of a broom, and swats his rider. This dazes the fly, and then the horse throws the fly off his back, and kicks him in the rear, sending him whimpering and whining back to Barney. The horsefly tries to get sympathy from the bear by showing Barney his sore backside, which is imprinted with two very red-looking tiny horseshoe prints.

We find out soon enough that the world's smallest horse has, like many horses, a great affection for clover, and Barney approaches the equine as it downs the savory flower off one of the plants. Barney might be a little too close, for the horse marches up to Barney's boot, which is conveniently sewn with the pattern of a clover on its side, and the horse rips the fake plant off the boot and downs it. Barney takes the opportunity and throws his ten-gallon hat over the critter, but when he picks up his hat, the horse is gone! Of course, only an idiot would then put his face up the hat for a peer inside, and Barney is more than willing to oblige us, and he gets squarely kicked in the nose, which inverts into his face, and when it pops backs out, the same two hoofprints appears glowingly on his skin.

He has dropped the hat in the course of this attack, and when he goes to retrieve it, the hat moves about on the ground. He finally picks it up, but receives another kick, this time to his eyelids. It is no surprise by this point that he has another pair of prints on them, but they are revealed like the wheels on a slotmachine. Barney produces a net and snags his prey, but when he turns the net inside out, the horse has disappeared yet again. This time, he discovers it under the hat on his head. He fashions a tiny lasoo out of a piece of string and throws it about the horse's neck, but the steed takes off suddenly, dragging Barney behind him, and the horse pulls the 40-times-larger bear across the canyon and through the open end of a log. Leaving the ursine inside, the horse runs around the log and pulls out a piece of dynamite and shoves it in Barney's pants. The kick the tiny horse delivers creates a powerful explosion, and Benny Burro runs up and sees the steaming pair of hoofprints in the seat of Barney's rear end.

Barney consults a book called "How to Catch a Wild Horse", which informs him that "the wild horse will always fall for a filly." Barney casts a scheming eye in the direction of his little burro, and Benny knows that no good can come of that look. Within seconds, Benny is covered in makeup from head to foot, and outfitted with a wig so that he looks for all the world like a hottie mare. Lastly, the bear perfumes Benny mightily, and as the burro sets out to trap the world's smallest horse, the pungent odor does the job for him. It wafts out from Benny and forms a lasso that wraps about the horse's neck, sending the little stallion immediately into the depths of lovesickness. Cupid also has a hand in the proceedings, or rather, a centaur version of Cupid, who discovers, when he finds that his love-arrows ineffectively bounce off the hard-headed steed, that a firm kick to the backside of the horse does the trick equally as well.

You can look at the result in two different ways: either Cupid's kick turns the horse into a straight lampooning of Charles Boyer, whose French-accented sweet-talk of romance and the Casbah launched a thousand imitators, or else, it is MGM's sideways nod to Warner Bros.' popular animated version of the Boyer imitation, Pepe Le Pew. Whatever the reason, the world's smallest horse takes on the world's biggest libido and practically mauls the drag-plagued Benny Burro. Begging for a kiss from his new love, the size-shrunk palomino receives one all right, as Benny slams a plunger right over the face of the horse. Another arrow from Cupid, however, fills the tiny horse with enough renewed passion to grab Benny and carry him through the water of an adjacent pond, which washes off the makeup, much to the horse's horror. His true self exposed, Benny can only sit as the horse pulls out a car-jack and ratchet's the burro's rear up to a good kicking angle, and then knocks Benny clean back to Barney Bear's encampment, where Benny ends up jammed halfway down in the ground.

Barney makes one last attempt at the horse. With fishing pole in hand, he baits it with a flower and throws it into a sea of grass within which the tiny horse is grazing. The horse grabs the bait and is pulled through the grass as if really were the sea, with the horse jumping out of the grass much like a tarpon on the line off Florida. It is only too easy for Barney to finally reel in his target for good, and the proud bear takes the horse back to his camp, where the millionaire awaits by a table, a large wad of cash resting in his hands to pass over to Barney. When the horse hears why he has been captured, though, he interjects "Uh-uh-uh!" and whistles for someone away from the table. Zooming to stand beside "the world's smallest horse" is an even tinier equine, his own baby son, clad in diapers and cute as a button. The horse takes the money for his own, but the baby asks, "Gee, Pop! What is that green stuff?" The father replies, "I don't know, son." He then follows up with a popular colloquialism of the early twentieth century, "But it ain't hay!" The damage done, the joke told, the horse then breaks into a riotous forced laugh, and the film irises out.

This film might be too bright. Color-wise, that is. The color pallette is so inspired and so dominates each and every scene, that I feel it actually lessens the comedic impact of some of the scenes. Of course, some of the jokes aren't that great to begin with, but overall the film keeps enough forward motion (the drag-Cupid sequence actually comes off best). My main problem with the film stems from a personal tic, that of my need for the cartoon to veer off into a dinosaur vs. cowboys scenario, just like in Gwangi or Beast of Hollow Mountain, which predates Gwangi (both are derived from the same Willis O'Brien idea). That first search for the world's smallest horse begins, and Harryhausen's Eohippus immediately springs to the fore, and I couldn't care less about the rest of the MGM goings-on.

One thing does bother me about the "world's smallest horse": who shoed him? When he kicks or runs, he doesn't leave hoofprints; he leaves horseshoe-prints. Is there another cowboy that we never see who goes around shoeing tiny horses, or did the horses shoe themselves? After all, they can talk and seem to be fairly sharp and self-reliant. Anything is possible. Or perhaps they are a mutant strain of horse (besides the size deficiency) that are born with horseshoes. Or, is it possible that they the direct descendents of Eohippus himself, and over millions of year locked in the canyons, they retained the miniature size but evolved hooves that appear as if they were wearing horseshoes? Of course, do we really even know what the bottom of a Eohippan foot really looked like? It's almost enough to warrant my taking another trip to Gwangi's lost mesa and check it out for myself.

Ah! The reasons I compose to provide excuses to watch Harryhausen films again. I'll never grow out of it...

Half-Pint Palomino (MGM, 1953) Director: Dick Lundy
Animators: Robert Bentley, Walt Clinton, Michael Lah and Grant Simmons
Writers: Jack Cosgriff and Heck Allen
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Monday, May 22, 2006

LITTLE GRAVEL VOICE (1942)

So, what sort of appeal does a small, cute burro character have on his own, away from the slightly more famous bear character with whom he was introduced to the cartoon world? If we are talking about Benny Burro, MGM's sweet-natured donkey, then the answer is: very little, outside of the fact that he is small and cute and makes the kiddies go "Awww!" in a empathetic way. So, does he have enough personality to carry his own film?

Given the results shown in Little Gravel Voice, released in 1942, he does not have enough. He might be secretly strong enough to carry an enormous pack of mining supplies up the trails of the Grand Canyon (as he did in his 1941 Barney Bear introduction, The Prospecting Bear, reviewed yesterday here), but he buckles under the pressuring weight of a story built roughly around his single character trait (which he didn't even betray in his first film): a loud, grating, spine-rattling, earth-stopping bray that he emits in times of sadness, happiness, danger... well, at any moment that he is called upon to speak. Because he has no human voice (unlike most cartoon characters), the film will have to rely on its being largely silent in the dialogue department. While it is nice once in a while to have a cartoon that is told entirely through expression and action, here there are really only two expressions at large, happy and sad, and the seesaw between the two grows wearying after, oh, the first three minutes, if not sooner.

The resulting film starts out with a series of incidents in which 1) Benny meets a cute little animal that resides in the Grand Canyon; 2) the cute little animal is more than eager to befriend the sweet-faced donkey; 3) out of happiness and joy, Benny unleashes his paint-scraping bray; 4) the animal (and if with them, the animal's parent) is frightened to bits by the noise and hightails it for cover from any further disaster; and 5) Benny walks off sad, crying his eyes out, and often, continuing to bray. This pattern allows Benny to run through the quick friendships of a bluebird, a roadrunner (which looks more like a real roadrunner than the Warner Brothers version), a mother and child prairie dog duo, and a turtle. A squirrel watching from the sidelines also considers the situation, and then hides. The actions and reactions of the animals are largely trivial, so I will not further elaborate on them, except to point out that when Benny finally walks off out of their home, the animals reflect on the situation and seem remorseful of what occurred. Then Benny brays again loudly and offscreen, and the animals hide once more.

A wolf spies Benny and stalks after him for a while. When the little burro seems at his most helpless, still continuing to cry over his lost friends, the wolf attacks. Benny, completely unaware of the predator's advances, brays yet again in sadness, and the wolf is practically shattered into pieces from the cry. The wolf tries again, but another bray brings him down, and then Benny realizes his danger. The chase is on, but when Benny gets cornered in a box canyon, he brays again and the force of the cry sends the wolf falling off a cliff. He returns, but a series of sharp brays sends the wolf packing for easier and quieter prey. This he finds in the form of the friends that betrayed Benny. Seeing the wolf coming, the bluebird tries to warn them, but the wolf easily captures the baby prairie dog and easily holds off the brave attack of the other animals. The baby escapes into a hole, but the wolf digs his way down until his teeth are practically filling the circumference of the hole... and the baby prairie dog... but then...

Benny returns! Having heard the commotion, and knowing that only he can stop the vicious wolf, Benny starts to bray over and over again, an action that causes the wolf's head to almost explode with madness, and the slobbering beast throws itself off the nearest cliff. The other animals are just as scared of Benny's voice as they were of the wolf, so they hide again, causing Benny to shed tears once again. The animals take pity on him and surround him, which makes Benny smile and open his mouth to unleash a bray of joy, but---! The animals pounce on him, and after a flurry of busy dust-raising, Benny is revealed with his ears tied through his mouth like a gag. The baby prairie dog, perched atop Benny's head, leans over and kisses him on the nose.

Well-done animation, as most MGM's were apt to be, and cute, cute, cute... also rather banal. Certainly, I do not find Benny interesting enough to warrant a series of these films. Perhaps, it was just MGM grasping at straws, trying to get any character they could to stick in the public's consciousness. A dozen years down the road, little Benny would get another chance to team up onscreen with his good buddy from the Dell Comics line, Barney Bear, in a short called Half-Pint Palomino. It would be the last time that Benny would appear on the silver screen, but I guess the fact that he managed to hang around 12 years, even in limited duty, has to be considered some kind of success.

Cuteness can get you pretty far, but to last, you have to have personality. Unless you are a Hollywood starlet.

Maybe they should have outfitted Benny Burro with boobs and a push-up bra.

Little Gravel Voice (MGM, 1942) Dir: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Sunday, May 21, 2006

THE PROSPECTING BEAR (1941)

Barney Bear films walk that fine line between tediousness and entertainment for me. MGM cartoons, for the bulk of the studio's run as a major animation studio, were produced at a very high-level of quality, and many of the films don't necessarily rely on a heavy quotient of laughs to be considered successful (i.e. Peace on Earth from 1939). Some of the later Barney Bears are laugh riots, but some of the early ones are so concerned with being picturesque and cute that they forget about engaging the audience in any real way outside of the realm of being syrupy eye candy. The character animation is always top-notch, though, and you can at least be assured of studying some fine movements and facial contortions and expressions. They are certainly textbook examples on how to animate. And after all, who said animated films have to be funny? I've never agreed with that assumption. But, at the very least, you can make some sort of attempt to tell a decent story, whether funny or otherwise.

The Barney Bear programmer, The Prospecting Bear, released in 1941, is a perfect example of that fine line. Barney is teamed up for the first time with a character who will eventually become known as Benny Burro, but here is merely just a pack animal in the service of the grumpy gold-seeking ursine. Benny is no typical stubborn ass, but rather is playful and mischievous, and in this film, his desire to munch (and safely, somehow) on dynamite runs counter to the plans of the luck-beleaguered Barney.

At the beginning of the short, we only see two things moving: Barney himself, who galumphs along the thin ledges wrapping about the spires and cliffs of a gorgeously rendered Grand Canyon vista, tapping his tiny pick on every rock he passes as he searches for gold; and a large bundle of supplies, tied together with ropes, and largely covered by a blanket except for the picks, shovels, Barney's bedroll and several boxes of TNT. The bundle seems to mirror Barney's movements step for step, but we are not given a glance at the force behind its motions. It is only after a minute or so of meandering and rock testing that we finally see its motor: a small burro, left panting and wheezing from his exertions. When they get to a larger clearing with a cave at the other end, the burro walks alongside a lengthy section of fallen tree, and without his knowledge, the pack catches on the top of the log, and when the burro moves forward, the pack is lifted from his back. After a few steps, he realizes that he has caught the disapproving eye of his master, and after shaming his charge into returning, Barney prepares to kick the burro harshly in the rear. But he has a change of heart, and he only playfully pats the burro on the rear. It doesn't matter, though; the pat sends the burro flying as if he had really been mistreated.

Barney, meanwhile, has discovered a few nuggets of gold at the entrance to a small opening in some nearby rocks. He weighs one of the nuggets on a scale laden down on one cup with a dozen carrots plus two. (You can figure out what he calls the nugget.) The bear looks all about to find even more gold, and finally pokes his head through the small opening in the rocks. His eyes literally puff out from their sockets like two white balloons when they view the treasure inside the cave. He has found an unbelievably rich vein of gold, with every surface glowing bright before his distended eyeballs. He briefly imagines huge stacks of gold coins and jewelry, but then quickly zooms back to his supply pack before the little burro can pick it up again. He zips right back to the rocks with a pickaxe, but when he swings it, the vibrations leave his entire body shaking wildly. Pulling himself together at last, he tries to take another swing, but he didn't count on the burro's curiosity about the situation, and when the blade comes round, he has to stop short to avoid burying the pick in the burro's backside. He shoes the beast away, and then takes a furious swing from another handle, leaving the pick sitting deep within the topside of the rocks. He pulls hard on the handle, but his grip slips, and he is walloped relentlessly in the head from the continued wobbling of the handle. He tries again and again to stop it, but the results are still the same. He finally feigns walking off, and then zips back to grab the handle over the tops of the rocks instead, but it only springs him back and sends him crashing into the supply pack.

When he untangles himself from the wreckage, he realizes that the burro has been eating the sticks of dynamite like so much hay. Barney shoos Benny away, whereupon the cute burro hiccups out small clouds of fireworks, while Barney carries a box of the TNT back to the cave. He selects a long fuse, but when he lights it, the TNT instantly blows up in his face, leaving Barney lightly charred but the cave intact. In his slow-burning anger, he causes something else to burn slowly, too -- he tosses his seemingly spent match away and unknowingly into the TNT box. He picks up the box to move it to the entrance, but even before he can get it all the way there, the box blows up in an even larger explosion. Barney is left holding the cindered frame of the box before his face as if he were a smoke-damaged self-portrait.

Back at the supplies, Benny Burro is sniffing some spilled blackpowder that has poured out of an open keg. He sneezes sharply -- and more fireworks emit from his head. The burro turns towards the remainder of the TNT and starts to sneeze again, but Barney runs up and stifles it with the timely interference of his finger. Barney picks up the powderkeg to move it to the cave, but the powder pours out into his pants. When he places the now empty keg in the opening, he attaches an extremely long fuse inside the keg, but his foot catches on the fuse when he turns away, and the fuse dumps into the back of his now-lumpy pants. He lights the fuse, and then drags his heavy rear back to the presumed safety of some rocks. It is only at the last second, after watching the fuse burn up behind him, that he realizes his mistake. he is blown clear through his hiding place and into the entrance of the cave, where his head is now stuck inside the powderkeg. When he removes it at last, his head squeezes from forehead to chin like an accordion.

Barney goes into a frenzy and stuffs all of the remaining TNT inside the entrance of the cave -- save for the batch of sticks on which the burro continues to munch. This behavior infuriates the bear, and he delivers a monstrous kick to the rear of the cute animal. What Barney did not count upon was just how much TNT the burro has eaten. The burro starts to bounce about the air in a series of small internal eruptions, and Barney runs for the safety of the golden cavern. His head, of course, becomes stuck in the tiny opening, but he needn't worry. The burro, in a huge burst, blasts right for Barney's rear, and the impact leaves the pair of them well inside the cave. That's right -- Barney Bear, a fireworks-hiccuping burro, and all of the gold and TNT. When the smoke clears from the resulting megaton explosion, Barney and the burro are still alive, but everything else is gone. They are trapped atop a thin spire of rock many, many feet from the canyon floor. Barney had better hope that the burro doesn't hiccup again.

From the description of the film, I am struck by how funny the scenes seem to be, and yet, when actually viewed, the scenes fall alarmingly flat. It feels like comedy as directed by a strict dramatist: he has read up on the structure of a comedic scene, but he is completely missing the most important element for a successful piece: comic timing. Rudolf Ising had been around the game long enough to know the rules; if his film is not supposed to be humorous, then he has succeeded in spades. The crux is that it is meant to be funny. The whole film feels off its meter; the set-ups with the burro really don't pay off the way they should (he is, in fact, practically unnecessary to the plot, and the film actually could have been done completely without him); and the film finally comes off as nothing more than a gorgeous, sharply moving misstep.

Barney and Benny would get other chances, both alone and as a duo, and especially in the comic books where they spent a lot of time together as a team. But here, in their first film as a tandem, they mined anything but a rich vein of comic gold. It seems like comic gold, but it is just not there. But that's the problem with pyrite: it looks pretty, but it ain't the real deal.

The Prospecting Bear (MGM, 1941) Director: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 5