Sunday, May 14, 2006

THE BEAR THAT COULDN'T SLEEP (1939)

As anyone can tell you, and Jen will back this up with a very strong affirmation, I don't sleep very much. Or rather, I can't. Quite the opposite of my significant other, the slightest jostle or noise has me bolting upright from slumber, even at my most relaxed. Once I am awakened, if my brain connects with anything -- the TV, a pet, or the printing on any package, book or magazine -- outside of my dream realm, the night is sunk, and I am awake for the duration of the darkness. Occasionally, after an hour or two, I might drift back into Dozeland, but this is very rare. Not counting nocturnal trips to the restroom, where I have trained myself to get back to sleep, for the most part, once I am up, I am up.

I often go to work with less than five hours of sleep because of this problem, even though I try to hit the hay at a relatively decent hour each night, in an attempt to allow myself the rarely accepted luxury of getting a comfy seven hours of sleep. Regardless of how much sleep I get in an evening, during the work-week, I get up at 6 am at the latest every day, in order to get my fingers awake and into their typing stance for both personal and work writing; on the weekends, when you think that I could catch up, I still find myself getting up at six. (Saturday morning was a rare exception: I slept until 8 am, which would be great, if I hadn't gone to bed at two in the morning!)

It's certainly a good thing that I am not a creature that relies on hibernation to get through the winter. I would be so cantankerous by the springtime, holed up in a cave, listening to every little noise, wide-awake, bleary-eyed, bored out of my friggin' skull. For me, there would be no attempt to get back to sleep; I would be up for the winter, and going stir crazy in the process. Not so with Barney Bear, the lovable ursine MGM character who slowburns his way through each frustrating (for him) adventure. Oh, to be sure, he goes crazy in The Bear That Couldn't Sleep from 1939, his first screen adventure, but it's actually from each and every little noise in his household (and those sounding off only in his imagination) that conspire to deprive him of a six-month slumber.

Meticulously and almost ridiculously detailed, and sumptuously designed with multiple furrowed brows and an almost too-plush coat, Barney prepares himself calmly and sleepily for his sojourn into "hibernation" (though bears do not truly "hibernate" as science allows) as the snow flurries down on and about his cozy little home (with its understated sign reading "Mr. Bear" -- I believe that, in the forest, there are only about thirty surnames of this sort, so I'm sure the Arboreal Postal Service would appreciate his putting a signifying "B" on the sign as well, if not his full first name.) Barney takes one last peak outside as he places another sign on the door to his cave. It reads, in finely wrought lettering, "Do Not Disturb", and below this warning are two final words, not so delicately scrawled, "TILL SPRING!" The wind kicks up and shoots a final blast of chilling snow into Barney's face, and he ducks back inside, and the rustling of metal chains is heard. Our vantage point now inside, we see that Barney has fastened a variety of bolts and locks on his door, and after wedging the final insurance measure of a large log against the door, Barney turns with a satisfied look to the task at hand: going to bed.

Shuffling his slipper-clad feet to the fireplace, he warms his paws and then his bottom against the heated glow of the coals. Covered in pajamas, he shakes his bottom a little before walking to his clock, whose hands not only tell the time by hour, but they have an inner clockface that allows one to set an alarm by the month. Set on August, he winds the alarm hand all the way several months ahead - to March, and the springtime glory to come. After fluffing his pillows, he pulls back the covers and starts to climb in for the season, but with a quick snort, he realizes he has forgotten one final detail: his hot-water bottle. He retrieves it, and then finally, with a great sigh, sets off to find sleep.

But, this will not be so easy to achieve. A steady dripping of water tap-taps on his nose, and when he looks up, he gets hit in the eye from the next drop, which is descending from his roof via a stray root. He climbs up and ties a knot in the root, and then settles back down. The savage wind kicks at this window from outside, and rattles it annoyingly. Just about to get up, Barney decides to ignore it and puts his head down once more. But then, the musical tinkling of many waterdrops can be heard dripping from the bottom of his bed onto the floor, and Barney starts to fear the worst; a quick glance under his covers allays one fear, but brings tears to his eyes anyway, as he realizes his hot-water bottle has emptied onto his mattress. Bemoaning his bad fortune, he starts to feel the drip from above his head again, and when he spies the knotted root, the water pressure has built it up into thirty times its original size, and the root finally bursts, drenching the saddened Barney from head to foot, along with his bed. Not giving him a moment's reflection, the window starts to rattle again, and this time, the wind kicks it fully open, and snow flies into the room. Once it has subsided, a slow pan over to Barney's bed reveals him to appear as no less than a bear-shaped snowperson. He shakes his head to uncover himself, and the shutters to the window start to rattle with the wind anew. The scene fades...

...and when it returns, the window is competely locked up tight with all manner of ephemera from about Barney's home: brooms, plungers, washboards, chairs, boards, tablelegs, what have you has been hammered into place and, hopefully, for good. Barney's bed and pajamas are once again warm and dry, and he climbs under his covers to try to sleep once more. But, other things than Mother Nature are threatening his hibernation: the clock's pendulum ticks dully and monotonously in his ears, and the coals from fire start to crackle and pop, and every sound starts to annoy him. Worse, the coals not only start to rebound off the bottom of the tea kettle that dangles over the fire, but the occasional stray coal shoots towards Barney's head. Finally, the kettle reaches a boil, and starts to whistle, first in bursts, and then in one long, ceaseless whine. Barney pulls it from the fire, and the whine dies down, but when he looks at the kettle, it whines again and shoots him in the face with a puff of steam.

He turns to set the kettle down, but a pair of coals pop and dance into his pajama bottoms. He returns to bed, and whenever the coals pop inside his pants, he looks back at the fire angrily to try and hush it. He climbs into bed, entirely unaware of the smoke pouring out of his bottom. But, soon enough, he starts to sniff and smell the smoke, and after a good doubletake, he finally understands it is coming from him. However, he is too late, and the coals pop loudly and sharply under his backside, and he is sent flying in a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling, and then back down roughly onto his bed. He runs to find some way to put out the fire as alarms blare on the soundtrack, and finally, he decides to unlock his front door, and then zips to the nearest snowhill and soothes his burnt rear in the calming snow.

All better now, with the fire put out for good, Barney can only watch helplessly as the wind not only shuts his front door with him on the outside of it, but fate smacks him, too, by allowing the locks to engage themselves on its closure. Barney remembers his window, but does not remember the barricade that he built inside of it, and when he tries to dive through it, his progress is painfully impeded by the wall of furniture and household goods. Barney takes two casual steps back, and after pausing briefly, turns into a whirlwind of fury and smashes clean through the barricade! As the camera strolls through his cave, the destruction is almost total: every piece of anything inside Barney domicile is smashed to bits, and as he stares in numb shock at the camera, a spring from his bed pops up and smacks him in the chin.

The hour on the clock chimes to serve as a transition to a later time, where Barney has constructed a makeshift bed from the ruins of his former comfort, and as he tries vainly to fall into slumber, he listens to lullaby music on his phonograph. "Sleep, baby, sleep", a tenor smoothly intones, "close your bright eyes!" But even this effort is interrupted when the next line, "Angels will watch...", starts to skip over and over, going "will-watch, will-watch" and driving Barney nuts! He flings a shoe at the record, and it flips completely over, and sets the arm back down on a loud, blaring Spike Jones-style swing record! Barney next picks up an entire log and hurls it into the machine, silencing it forever.

After tapping his foot and staring at the ticking clock, Barney lies back down and tries counting sheep. His rough, exhausted voice counts out each number as he keeps a deathgrip on his pillow, his reddened eyes droopy and filled with spidery cracks. As he counts, the ticking of the clock grows louder, and the eerie faces of baaing sheep and lambs are superimposed over closeups of clock gears, springs and alarm bells. Barney count reaches the 500's, and then he ends up at "one million, nine hundred and seventy-nine thousand, seven hundred and nine-nine", and when he is shown in his bed, he is half in and half out of his dream of vast crowds of cute, baaing lambs. He finally falls into snoring, but just as he does, Barney awakens to the clanging of his month alarm, and spies with horror that a little buzzer announcing the arrival of Spring has gone off, as well. He hears the happy chirping of a bluebird outside his home, and he sticks his head out of his window to see its beauty. Shocked, he says simply and wearily, "Spring..." but then is hit in the head with more drops of water. He looks up, and discovers it is the melting snow from his roof, as the bluebird chirps us through iris out.

Growing up watching a variety of MGM shorts, my least favorites were always the ones starring Barney Bear, merely by dint of his being not as unhinged as Tom and Jerry, nor as funny as the Tex Avery offerings. But, I was young and only interested in what was immediately hilarious or shocking; the best of the Barney Bear cartoons, and this is one of them, succeed by the richness of character alive in Barney (and based somewhat on the grumpy facial contortions of Oscar-winning actor Wallace Beery), and should be must viewing, if only for the depth of the animation of the lead character. These films are a little simpler, and a little more ponderous than the manic work of the other MGM's, but they are lightly humorous and enjoyable; and because they were fairly well-budgeted, sharp, colorful details abound in the backgrounds and props, and the richness shows in every frame. Not that a big budget ever means a better film -- hardly -- but everything comes together in this one to make it a fun, if light, romp. There are any number of films, such as Tick Tock Tuckered (a favorite of mine), that feature characters that go mad from lack of sleep, but not from lack of trying. But, this one goes its own direction, and also remains true to its character and setting.

And, by romp, in Barney's case, I mean, trying to get some sleep. This is something that I fail at time and again. Sometimes, it does seem as if everything conspires against you: the pets, the TV, the girlfriend, outside noises like neighboring dogs or drunkards, car backfires, thunder and lightning, and all of them timed to go off just as you are desperate for the arms of Morpheus. The less sleep that you get in a night, and the earlier the hour, the more prone you are to thought of paranoia and a persecution complex can settle itself into your brain. The only way that I can stop the process is to leave the bedroom, go to a secluded and dark part of the house, away from the jealously growling dogs and the glaring TV, and have a lie-down. Hopefully, I can use this isolation to fire down my mind, not think at all, breathe deep, and relax... just relax... and drift... off... to...

And then the cat loudly meows and demands either water or food or attention! You're awake again, sucker!

It's a good thing that I don't hibernate. I'd be up for months.

Is it spring yet?

The Bear That Couldn't Sleep (MGM, 1939) Director: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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