Wednesday, May 03, 2006

PENCIL MANIA (1932)

I have a friend who likes to remind me that everything film that comes out is a "rip-off" of another film. Perhaps taking the concept of "nothing new under the sun" a little bit too far, any movie that comes out is ripe for his cynical attack; though, much of the time, he does it in a mocking fashion, fully aware of his own cliched statement. This would be fine if he had more knowledge of movie history, for sometimes he will proclaim something a "rip-off" of something else, but not be aware that the film being pointed out as that point of originality was, in fact, in his words, a "rip-off" of another earlier film. Example: when raking a low-budget straight-to-video sci-fi thriller over the coals for being a "rip-off" of Alien, he was totally unaware of the fact that the plot to Alien was inspired to a good degree by a film from over 20 years earlier, It! The Terror from Beyond Space from 1958. (We won't get into the story that may have been the other "inspiration" for the film -- that was all settled out of court, anyway.)

So many times, I run into "reviews" (I loathe the term, in general) by people who enjoy pointing out that while a certain film may be revered, its ideas, design or plot were "stolen" or "liberally borrowed" or, to use my buddy's term, "ripped off", from an earlier less well-known source. Such is the case with Duck Amuck by Chuck Jones, where I have heard a multitude of arguments that, while the Daffy Duck classic is one of the great animated films, especially from the so-called "Golden Age", there were any number of antecedents to this film, where Bugs and Daffy break that fourth wall rule between the story and the audience, and that what Jones did was not so original after all.

Well... boo hoo! Thanks for being so on top of a cultural crime, Columbo! Feel free to trip on your raincoat on your way down the stairs. What Jones did was make a damn near perfect film, no matter what ideas may have been borrowed from films preceding it in animation history. Plenty of films broke that fourth wall before Duck Amuck: Tex Avery would have characters run off the edges of the film, lift or break through a screen or have characters wander out into "the audience"; the Fleischer Brothers had their Out of the Inkwell series with the animator interacting with Koko the Clown's adventures; and you could go all the way back to Winsor McCay's Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) for somewhat similar effects. You could even point to films like Buster Keaton's Sherlock, Jr. as an ancestor of sorts. But is Duck Amuck a "rip off" of these earlier films?
This is akin to saying that the first time anyone used dynamite in a cartoon, every film that followed it, wherein the Coyote or Sylvester or Sourpuss or Katnip found themselves on the short end of an explosive stick of TNT, was a "rip off" of that original dynamiter.

So, obviously, Duck Amuck must be a "rip off" of Pencil Mania, as well, a Tom and Jerry short from the Van Beuren Studios in 1932. Jerry torments his friend Tom with a magic pencil (amongst other tricks) that can not only draw in mid-air, but the objects take on life of their own, with which Jerry takes particular delight in taunting Tom at various turns throughout the picture. There is also a shot where Jerry breaks through the background to pull one last sadistic trick on Tom, and then Tom joins in on the dimension-twisting action.

After a rousing rendition of I'm Looking Over A Four-Leaf Clover escorts us through the opening credits, we are made privy to the sight of a lovely skirted cow leaping her way through a bovine ballet in an open field. Someone else is there in the field, as well: our friend Tom, who is happily painting the day away on his easel, which itself dances along to the music, and Tom skips after it, smiling as he applies even more paint to its canvas. Soon, it is quite apparent that the cow is the model for his sojourn into his artistic side (though we never get a chance to see his attempt at it). Next, Tom's pal Jerry comes skipping along merrily, and stops when he reaches his taller partner. Unfortunately for Jerry, he does so just at the moment that the music ends, and on the last beat, Tom splotches Jerry's face with a brushful of paint.

A lesser man would have resorted to immediate violence, but Jerry has other ways to deal with such an affront. After wiping the splotch of paint from his face and slapping it down on the ground, Jerry produces from his coat a seemingly
innocuous pencil. However, he points the pencil at the splotch, and the device magically sucks the paint into itself. Jerry then draws the shape of an egg in midair, which turns out to be an event that mystifies Tom. The lanky goof walks around the small drawing, looking on each side of it, and finally, looking up at it from underneath. It is at this point that the egg drops down onto Tom's face, covering him in yolky wetness. Tom wipes the egg from his face, and starts to chase Jerry across the field. He finally catches the diminutive runt, and grabs the pencil from Jerry's grasp. But, try as he might, he can't get the pencil to draw in the air in the manner in which his pal performed it.

Jerry stops him and regains the pencil. He pulls a jackknife from his pocket, and starts to shave the pencil down. The shavings hit the ground, and each successive cut adds to the others and forms a pair of wooden shoes. Jerry picks the pair up, shuffles it like a deck of cards, and soon, he has five pairs of shoes lined up on the ground. He grabs Tom's hat, and then pulls Tom's thin black nose off his face (at which point, it is replaced cartridge style by another nose). The nose becomes a magic wand, and Jerry taps it on Tom's hat, producing a pair of gooney-looking birds. The birds start to dance across the tops of the shoes, playing Oh Where, Oh Where, Has My Little Dog Gone? on them as if they were xylophone bones, and accomplishing this by tapping on them with their beaks, butts and their own worn pairs of wooden shoes. They finish the songs by pecking the shoes out of existence, and then Jerry embraces the birds and mashes them back into the shape of the wand, and then transforming the wand into a saxophone.

He starts to play a wild solo on the instrument, and as the notes hop out of it, each note turns into a happily quacking duck. Jerry produces a great quantity of the creatures with his sax, and Tom watches mystified, shaking his head in disbelief. At last, Jerry lets go of the sax, and for a couple of seconds, it takes on the form of a half-duck/half-sax, with the mouth of the horn where the duck's bottom should be. Tom tries to grab the mutated instrument-bird, but it turns around and quacks him onto his rear. Meanwhile, Jerry is drawing in mid-air yet again. This time, he draws a tomato, a potato and a banana, lined up next to each other. As Tom runs to his friend's side, Jerry squirts ink at the lined up groceries, and faces appear on them, which immediately begin singing Yes, We Have No Bananas:

"Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!!
We have string beans and onions, cab-BA-ges and scallions
And all kinds of fruit and say
We have an old fashioned to-MAH-to
A Long Island po-TAH-to, but
Yes! We have no bananas
We have no bananas today!"

Jerry reaches underneath the feminine to-mah-to and the masculine po-tah-to and pulls bodies out of them. The pair come out as a small, cute ingenue and a strapping blonde hero, melodramatic stereotypes both. They immediately fall in love and begin singing to each other:

Potato: "There's something in your eyes
That makes me realize...

Both: You've got me in the palm of your hand!
The thrill of your caress
Is making me confess
You've got me in the palm of your hand!

Tomato: I'm just a subject under your control;
You're doin' something to my heart and soul!

Both: What I possess is yours,
I can't be
[indistinct lyrics] !

You've got me in the palm of your hand,

And I love it! You've got me in the palm of your hand!

Mid-song, Jerry pulls down the body on the banana, and it turns out to be the missing villain for the trio. It lurks after
the loving pair, and when the song ends, the villain, with twirling mustache and black suit, knocks the hero down with a dirty punch. The hero regains his feet, wallops the villain atop the head, and then he and the girl run for the safety of a nearby house. The villain goes after them, however, and then there is a frenzied chase sequence in and out the door and window of the simple house. When the girl and the hero both look out the window at the same time, Jerry wanders up and draws a car on the side of the house around the window. The car magically takes off with the couple, who begin kissing during the drive.

But, they didn't count on the villain hiding out inside the rumble seat, which is equipped with a tremendously long spring, and allows the villain to bounce all around and above the car. The girl climbs on top of the roof to offer a tempting kiss to the villain, which he is unable to resist. He leans in, eager for her love, and she clobbers him! He bounces straight up and then slams down into the rumble compartment. A ladder hanging from an empty passing plane allows the couple to escape the car, and as they climb up to the plane itself, the villain reemerges with a shotgun. He aims the gun at them, but the car hits a rock and falls over a cliff, almost taking the villain with it. He hangs onto the edge, pulls himself back up and does a contortionist's trick to realign his body, and then picks up the gun and fires it. The recoil knocks him flat on his back, but the shot does its job, ripping a hole in the side of the plane, and causing the couple to fall out of it and towards their certain deaths on the ground below.

The hero holds onto the legs of the girl, as her skirt provides a rudimentary parachute for them. However, his weight is too great, and her stockings start to slip off of her, and soon the hero is hanging far below her as her stocking and garters stretch out to their maximum, with her legs flailing spread-eagle in the air. Below them, Jerry is busy drawing railroad tracks on the ground, and the pair fall to earth safely. When they reach it, the girl collapses in a faint, and the hero is not in much better condition. He is out of it enough to allow the villain to walk up behind him, remove his hair, and then knock him unconscious with a thin hammer. The hero, laying on the tracks, is now in danger of being killed by a fast-moving steam engine; fortunately for him, Tom has shown up on the scene, and he angrily kicks the sneering villain in the keister, knocking him down on top of the hero. The train barrels towards all three of them, and Tom fears for his life, but when the train runs over the unconscious men, the tracks disappear on Tom's side of the screen, and the train disappears as well, magically halfway through the screen in front of Tom!

He is astounded at this turn, and when the train is gone, he looks all about to try and figure out how this happened. But, the villain is still standing there before him, and Tom fires up his anger again, and punches the creep full in the face. The villain explodes in a burst of ink, and is gone for good. The girl walks up to Tom, proclaiming him as her hero, but Jerry has something else in mind than having Tom get a kiss. Jerry bursts through the movie screen, making it lurk like it is torn open in the middle, and sucks the girl up into his pencil! Tom jumps through the hole, and then the movie closes with a moving perspective shot of Tom chasing Jerry angrily down a road and over the hills.

So, does a film like Duck Amuck "rip off" Pencil Mania? Of course not. There are only the slightest similarities (the pencil being the most obvious, but Amuck's pencil was large and penetrated the action from offscreen, where it turns out it is being manipulated by that "stinker", Bugs Bunny), but, by and large, the films exist in practically two different realms: Amuck's being that of the sublimely unearthly delights; Pencil's being that of the mildly amusing and cute time-filler.


It's fine to point out that one film did something before another film did it. But, if you still feel the impulse to point out how everything is stolen from everything else, I suppose you will then go out and catalogue every instance of this and post it hyperbolically on IMDB. Alas, there is nothing I can do for you. You can repeat your belief that one film ripped off another, but remember: this is akin to saying that the first time anyone used dynamite in a cartoon, every film that followed it, wherein the Coyote or Sylvester or Sourpuss or Katnip found themselves on the short end of an explosive stick of TNT, was a "rip off" of that original dynamiter.

Cartoons, like films or books or television or any form of popular entertainment, rely on studied inspiration, on the gentle tweaking or wholesale expansion of previous ideas, the following of trends, and eventually, radical deconstruction to progress or continue to be successful. There is a fine but quite distinct line between paying homage to an ancestral concept and criminal plagiarism. I doubt Duck Amuck even approaches the first, and is light years away from the second. It is a unique film experience, and remains one of the wonders of character animation.

But it does lead me to a revelation about Pencil Mania and its images of Jerry drawing with his magic pencil:

Harold and His Purple Crayon "ripped off" Pencil Mania. It just has to be...

Pencil Mania (Van Beuren Studios, 1932) Dir: John Foster & Geo. (Vernon) Stallings
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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