Thursday, May 11, 2006

BARS AND STRIPES (1931)

Bars and Stripes (Columbia, 1931)
Dir: Manny Gould

Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

"Sounds like the Envil Choritz by Rigid Vogna in beer flet." - Krazy Kat (as transcribed by Geo. Herrimann)

No comic strip gets me revved up like Krazy Kat. Yes, I also highly revere Pogo, Little Nemo, Thimble Theatre, the early Peanuts, and Calvin and Hobbes, but overall, Krazy Kat is the one. It is high art encased in the body of a "mere comic strip," and I never weary of reading my numerous collections. For me, the entire universe is summed up through the slapstick machinations and fractured English of poor Krazy, Ignatz Mouse ("Mice", as Krazy callz 'im), and Offissa B. Pupp: each one with a fixation, each either lovesick or filled with loathing for one of the others or both, and each conspiring against the other, in various permutations. And all through the inventively endless tossing of a common brick. In the process, the strip seems to be about everything and nothing at the same time. George Herrimann should be held in the same esteem as Shakespeare, Michelangelo, etc., and just as well known. However, in today's world, where most of the population seems to not even be aware that Peter Jackson's King Kong is a remake, and many people I have met believe that the original was from 1976 (*sigh*), this will never be. For all the world of today knows, "Krazy Kat" will just be the next amazingly irritating ringtone to be downloaded from those insidious Frog pushers.

Adapting the Kat who is not Krazy into another medium has proven exceedingly difficult. It has been tried numerous times to create a film series out of the misadventures of this ultimate in cross-special romantic triangles, even on television, but the offerings usually come up far, far short of Herrimann's intentions, if they even try to duplicate the formula at all. Such is the case with the Columbia Pictures' version of Krazy Kat from the 1930s. No Ignatz; no Pupp; just little ol' Krazy, and the Kat couldn't be more different than herself. Or himself. Whatever Krazy was... The Krazy here is basically another generic Mickey Mouse clone with zero true personality. So, why do I enjoy Bars and Stripes from 1931 so much?

Musical torture, my friends; the answer lies in musical torture. In either a music studio/shop or rehearsal hall (the film never makes this clear), Krazy Kat starts out the show by picking up a cello and scrawling out a few torturous Jack Benny-style notes on the poor thing. Not only are the instruments surrounding him holding their ears in disgust (all of the instruments have their own faces, arms and legs), but they are scowling disgustedly at Krazy. They scowl even more after Krazy starts weeping over the "beautiful" music being scratched across the cello's face. (The cello scowls the most.) When Krazy stops playing to cry himself a river, all of the instruments blow a raspberry at him, and when Krazy turns to angrily face them, they all whistle and pretend they did no such thing. Undeterred, Krazy goes back to playing, but the cello has finally had enough. Its arms pop out and grab the bow, pushing it and Krazy away. Krazy attacks the cello and starts scratching out more notes, but the cello takes the bow away.

Krazy picks up another bow from the ground, and the pair start dueling. Random hits on the cello from Krazy's bow produce short, quick squeals and squeaks, and the cello returns the favor rhythmically upon Krazy. The horns watching on the sidelines serve as a sort of chorus to the noise produced from the dueling pair. At one point, their gloves and bows remain striking each other in midair, as the two of them rub their sore hands, before returning to their gloves for more action. After circling each other with savage blows, Krazy finally gains the upper hand, slicing the cello's bow in half, and then stabbing the cello through the stomach. Krazy lifts him up and throws him out the window, and when the other instruments run to look at their fallen comrade, Krazy runs up and pushes them all out the window, too. From the sidewalk, the cello demands retribution, shaking a fist and yelling, "This means WAR!!"

The trumpet stands up and blares out a few notes, which dance through the air back into the music studio, and tap dance atop a snare drum, creating a martial call to arms to the rest of the instruments in the studio. The instruments march out and on to the streets, where a huge musical parade begins, with hundreds of instruments marching in formation against Krazy Kat. A note climbs through the window of an apartment and wakes up a sleeping saxophone. Climbing out of bed, the sax puts on his strap, and then, through a mournful solo, tells his wife that he is going to war. She weeps with great worry, but things get worse when their son comes into the room. The sax kisses his child goodbye and heads off to the streets. More and more instruments scurry from every building and alleyway to join the army.

At the home of Mr. Cello, he grabs his bow from above the mantle. His son tries to join his dad, grabbing another bow and carrying it over his shoulder like a rifle. He plays a few weak notes, trying to convince his father that he is grown up enough. His father laughs and tells him, rather sternly, "No!" After Mr. Cello leaves, a pig enters the room, pulls out a hose and blows the baby cello up to an adult size, decreasing his own porcine size in the process. The son marches joyously off to the war. As the war parade continues to grow and move on Krazy's home, a pair of clarinets are caught smooching under a tree. The male of the pair gives her one final kiss and runs off to join the others.

Soon, the entire army surrounds the house of Krazy Kat, and without warning, starting blasting cannonballs built of musical notes through every window of the house. The building itself rocks from side to side in a vain attempt to avoid the blasts. A statue of an ancient warrior is pelted with note-fire, losing his shield and club, and Krazy runs to the window to survey the attack. After a barrage of notes take out many of his fixtures like so many carnival targets, Krazy starts catching cannonballs and cranking them into smaller notes through the use of a meat grinder, which spits the bullets back at the army like a Gatling gun. Instrument after instrument has its feet knocked out from under them as the bullets reach their targets. Soon, instruments are falling down onto stretchers, and it is looking decidedly grim for the army.

However, the instrument's refocus their efforts, and reload themselves for another thrust. A megaphone throws notes into a saxophone; the piano stuffs its keys with pile after pile of musical bullets; and a tuba marches up and swallows down an armory's worth of ammunition in one giant gulp. The attack is soon on, and though the house tries again to avoid being hit, it has it's roof blown off. Krazy runs about trying to avoid a cannonball, and he turns every few steps to slap it away, but the cannonball is more than determined (seen through a suddenly appearing and angry face and arms) and makes one last thrust at Krazy. It misses, and instead crashes into Krazy's wine cellar. The wine sprays through the house and out into the yard, coating the entire army in boozy goodness. A quartet of horns start drunkenly playing How Dry I Am, with the clarinet hiccuping an off-key note in the middle. He is shamed at first by his fellows, and then they all collapse, passed out in the lake of spirits. Krazy starts laughing uproariously in victory!

If only he had been victorious in finding some sort of personality outside of simply being a passive figure in three-quarters of his own cartoon. The Krazy Kat in this film, a male, disappears for a large chunk of the action, but that's fine with me; the characters with real personalities here are the instruments, even if most of them have the same personality, just slightly adapted to the musical attributes of each different one. But they are united in a delirious group-think, dedicated to bringing the tormenting feline with a cello bow down for good. The main fun here is in the gathering of the armed musical forces and their determined march to Krazy's abode. The battle is only the butter on the biscuit, though I quite enjoy the idea of musical notes wadded into the form of cannonballs and then savaging Krazy's house in a sort of time-measured fusillade. I just wish that more of Krazy's true personality had been attempted, not just in Bars and Stripes, as fun as it is, but in Krazy's fairly long-running Columbia series.

Columbia did take one shot, in 1936, at a Krazy Kat cartoon with most of the elements from the comic strip. The film was called Lil' Ainjil, and from all reports, it did not go over at all. Myself, I finally got a chance to see it, and while it goes off the rails late in the film, for most of the short it is as close as they ever got in the early days to reflecting even a portion of what was going on in the comic strip.

But it is still in second place. The closest anyone has come to seeing the true vision of Herriman's onscreen (big or small) was a short clip that ran on Sesame Street in the early 1970s when I was a mere child. (OK, so it ran on there when I wasn't such a mere child either, and yes, I still watch the show sporadically today, being a huge Muppet fan.) Pupp, Ignatz, brick-flying and all... it was there, and all as a representation of the word "Love". I am not aware of who produced the clip, but they had it right. And, one day in my youth when I went to the Eagle River Public Library, there in the dusty little-used arts and entertainment section, on the very shelves where I learned also to love Buster Keaton, Ray Harryhausen, Alfred Hitchcock and W.C. Fields, all before I ever saw even one of their films, I discovered a book called George Herriman's Krazy Kat, with an introduction by none other than e.e. cummings. One afternoon spent in shock and fascination that there was more to these characters than just a short clip on Sesame Street, and then a solid month (at first) spent studying the precious tome each night, and it was clear that a lifelong love affair had bloomed.

Krazy Kat and Love. You truly can't understand either one without the other...

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