Monday, May 15, 2006

THE FISHING BEAR (1940)

As I have mentioned before, I am not big on the whole fishing thing. I'm not so much anti-fishing, as I am anti-ME-fishing. Can't stand it, don't want to do it, don't even really want to be there. The problem is, in many key moments of my life, I have had to be there. Being raised in Alaska, fishing seems to occur around nearly every corner, at every point of the year, and many is the time I have been trapped on a riverbank, pacing about and finding other things to do while the rest of the fam took to matters of the mind-bendingly dull and gruesomely directed. I have no desire to gut still breathing entities, nor do I wish to watch them as they slowly drown to near-death in the shallow water by the shore, gasping for each and every dying breath. Sure, I love halibut and tuna, and you can't have either without fishing – I just don't want to be the one in control of the wetworks.

Barney Bear has no such reservations. After all, he
is a grizzly bear, and what is more natural to a grizzly than trying to catch a fish? In The Fishing Bear from 1940, in his second appearance as MGM's first truly home-spun character (Bosko was created at Warners, and other series characters, like The Captain and the Kids, were licensed properties from other hands), Barney not only takes to the lakes for a little fishing madness, he does so in a more recognizably human vein than in an ursine one. No swatting salmon out of a mountain stream here, but rather, in the tradition of just about any fisherman worth his sea salt, Barney has more tackle and gear than he really needs to do the job, and all to catch a single fish for dinner. What he gets is certainly the opposite of his hungry winding up with nothing but pain and the unexpected and unwarranted faithfulness of a misguided duck.

The film opens with the camera's leisurely panning across the dew-moistened early-morning haze over a charming lakeside vista. In the midst of several lilypads, a trout surfaces slightly, yawns wide, stretches his fins like arms, and gargles with his face through the top of the water. Numerous trout pop up and leap about in glee with the promise of the new day. But, this serenity is due to be shattered with the arrival of the fishermen, and this particular fisherman, laden down with a ton of gear and equipment, is none other than Barney Bear. He crashes through the brush awkwardly, but soon realizes that he has found the right place when he spies the vast array of leaping fish. He locates a rocky outcropping that will serve as his "spot", and sets to fishing.

From his bag he pulls a box of bait, but this is no ordinary worm product. This is a box of "Trouties", which declares itself proudly as "A Tempting Treat for Timid Trout". (A picture of a cereal bowl is shown on the cover, with a variety of flakes and hooks set inside it, and a large hook in place of the customary spoon.) Any doubt in Barney's mind as to the veracity of such a statement must surely be allayed by the endorsement on the box cover's bottom edge: "Approved by the Boy Trouts of America". Barney throws a handful of flakes into the water, and the fish go crazy fighting over them. Grabbing a small sample of "Trouties", he places the box on the ground and turns to his gear to bait his hook. A fish leaps through the water towards the shore, and spies the advertisement on the back of the box. Portraying a tough-looking fish with a tommy gun, the advert reads "Do You Want To Be A Junior G-Trout?" (Additional humorous text continues: "Send This Coupon and 18,0000 Box Tops To: J. Edgar Poorfish, Washington, D.C.")

The fish gets excited over the ad, swims a 360 around a rock formation in the water, imitates a tommy gun by spitting in the air, and swims back to shore. It leaps up and down out of the water, making light honking noises to get Barney's attention. Bemused, Barney dangles his Troutie-baited hook out over the water, and not only does the fish leap at it, but so do several other fish, as well. Barney devilishly imagines all of them roasting slowly in a frying pan over a hot fire, and gulps with intense hunger. He teases the fish by preparing to throw the hook into the water, and saying "One for the money, two for the show, three to make ready--", and as he makes each pass, more and more fish join the crowd. As he hits "And, four to--", he is interrupted by some loud quacking, and the fish are disappointed, though saved, by the arrival of a duck who plops down right where the fish were gathered.

The duck plays about in the water, spitting water high into the air, and then swims to the shore to quack right in Barney's face. The bear is not amused, and just sits on some rocks, rubbing his whole face in a frustrated fashion. The duck keeps quacking, annoying Barney even more. But, the fish return to beg for more "Trouties", and Barney wastes no time in casting his pole at the water. The problem with that action is that the duck zips across the water and catches the bobber in its mouth over the heads of the fish, and then swims the bobber back to shore. He climbs out of the lake, sets the bobber at Barney's feet like a trained dog, and quacks for Barney to play with him. He wiggles his tail like a retriever and readies himself for the next cast. Barney is not so happy with this turn of events, though, and he swipes roughly at the duck to drive it away. The fish start to chime in again, and Barney casts his hook once more towards them; the duck is too quick, however, rocketing through Barney's legs, knocking the bear down, and then returning the bobber again, this time on his chest.

Barney reaches slowly for the box of "Trouties" and throws it at the mallard, but the box misses the duck and skips out across the water, where it is set upon immediately by the mass of hungry fish. Well, all except one, the literate fish, who only wants to be a G-Trout. He steals the empty box and swims off with it. Barney sails across the water to stop him, but only ends up smashing his head painfully into a rock formation set just below the water's surface. Barney shakes himself into coherence, and bolts after the fish again, running across the water, but when he stops, he plunges straight down. The duck, still ashore, is shocked by this, and can only watch sadly as he fears that the bear has drowned. But, plopping his hand onto the bank, Barney comes back ashore with the cereal box in his other hand. He pours the water out, but the fish is inside of it, and when he comes out, he spits in Barney's eye and speedboats back around the rock formation, doing another 360. The duck, who is apparently faithful to Barney, sets out to defend his new friend and chases after the fish.

When the duck reaches the wannabe G-Trout, the fish pretends to shoot him with a tommy gun and then splashes water in the bird's face. A chase then ensues through and under the water, around rocks, and the fish finally arrives back at the shore, where Barney traps him in a net. But, the duck comes up under it, and the fish is knocked free, and when Barney tries to grab it, the fish crashes into the pile of fishing gear. The ducks zooms under Barney again, knocking him down, and searches for the fish in the mess. A boot comes clomping out towards the water, and at the edge, the fish climbs out and heads for safety. The duck goes after him, zooming under Barney and knocking him down a third time, and then locating the point in the water where the fish is hiding. He frantically tries to tell Barney where the fish is at, and flies to the spot, pointing with his whole body like a hunting dog at the fish. Barney excitedly casts his pole into the water, and the Troutie-laden hook floats down to the bottom.

The fish is intrigued by the tasty morsel, but an electric eel, bigger and tougher, pushes his way to the hook. When he bites it, an massive electrical charge is sent up the line and through the pole to Barney's unknowing hands, and the Bear is fried to a crisp by the shock! Bolts fly at the duck, who evades them all, but one of them hits and instantly destroys a large tree, leaving only a charred and smoldering stump. There is a large explosion, and when the duck returns to the shore, there is hole through the rocks where Barney was standing. Another bolt rockets through the pole, and fries the feathers off of Barney's faithful duck, and the bird drops through the hole and down onto the chest of Barney, who is laying in a frustrated heap, tapping his fingers on the floor of the lake. The duck emits an underwater quack that sounds more like a burp, and the film irises out.

Typical of MGM cartoons of this period, the settings and design are lush, and I like the way that the center of the action, the rocky shelf on the shoreline and the tiny lagoon with the rocky outcropping, has a truly intricate connection to the film. Every square inch of this "set", both on top of the water and underneath, is explored in the conflict between the characters. Of course, I naturally identify most with the little fish that can obsess over the backs of cereal boxes and imagine himself as a crimefightin' G-Trout. Barney's character is roughly the same as in his first film, The Bear That Couldn't Sleep, only here we have to recognize him, if not just slightly, as the villain of the piece. He moves from the much put-upon protagonist who cannot find rest due to the world's noise conspiring against him, to that of the antagonist (though unthinkingly): the would-be captor and devourer of innocent, playful fishies. It doesn't quite work on Barney here (it would much later in the series, though); I keep thinking "Barney, no!" throughout the film as he attempts to murder fish and throttle a duck trying its hardest to be his pet. He still seems too sweet to try and carry off such mean-spirited plans, and thus, it somewhat hardens his actions here to the viewer. Thus, it doesn't quite work.

I recall many a camping/fishing trip with various combinations of my parental units, and most of my time was spent finding a nice spot under a tree or on the edge of a riverbank, and scribbling in a notebook, either drawing or journaling. Not so strangely, many of the things that I wrote about were feverish daydreams of fishing trips gone insane, with fish rising up in rebellion and devouring or murdering the human idiocy who dress in ridiculous costumes and wade out to their waists in the river with either the belief that all of this preparation and driving and traffic and elbowing and tedium and pollution is somehow relaxing and meditative, or with the belief that they are becoming "one with nature" through their actions. (I prefer the people who are honest and say they just want to get a meal out of it, but I still suggest that these people simply devour each other instead.)

Not that I am wishing for harm to come to Barney Bear, but the featured fish in this film had it right on the money. Pursing up his face like a Piscean Edward G. Robinson, spitting repeatedly as he imitates that tommy gun, this little fish clearly had plans quite similar to those that I imagined in those ennui-wrought tales written on the riverbanks and lakeshores. What could these fish do were they to turn on their oppressors, who view stock lakes as moveable feasts, as liquid refrigerators to be raided at their own whims? Perhaps it is time for the fish to rise up against mankind, become Junior G-Trouts in spirit, and teach men the pain that can derive from their own arrogance.

Of course, the last time the fish rose up, we ended up with humans in the first place...

Let's not have that mistake again...

The Fishing Bear (MGM, 1940) Director: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

1 comment:

T.J. said...

The Barneys must be grown-up cartoons. I appreciate them now much more than I did when I was a child. In those days, a Barney Bear meant a trip to the kitchen or to the bathroom while waiting for the next cartoon came on.