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

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