Monday, May 01, 2006

PIANO TOONERS (1932)

If you want to know what makes a memorable cartoon for me, my answer will often involve whether or not there is terrific music within the cartoon, whether sound cues, a persistent theme, or even throwaway song lines such as the ones that Daffy Duck and company were prone to jump into in Warner Bros. films. Even better, when music plays a major part in the plot of a film, not so much like in Disney's The Band Concert, though that film is excellent, but rather like in the Betty Boop series with its reliance on -- and sometimes stories built around -- hot jazz numbers, which instantly pump up their prominence in my head.

The Tom and Jerry series released by the Van Beuren Studios in the early '30's would most likely be placed on my back burner, if certain long-forgotten standards and obscure jazz hits weren't heavily woven into the simple plots of the films. The standard "Margie" is heard over the opening credits of Piano Tooners, and when the film opens, Tom and Jerry are seen finishing the song, with Tom on piano, and Jerry strumming a broom. The lyrics are as follows:

My little Margie,
I'm always thinking of you,
Margie, I'll tell the world I love you;
Don't forget your promise to me,
I have a bought a home and ring and ev'rything, for Margie
You've been my inspiration,
Days are never blue:
After all is said and done
There is really only one
Oh! Margie, Margie, it's you!


At the song's close, Tom hits another key on the piano, and it plinks out in an off-key manner. It is then that we realize, from the workbench and tools lying about, that the pair work in a piano shop, and that they are the very piano tuners that are comically described in the title. Tom pulls out the key, and continues to do so until about 27 feet of it are piled spaghetti like on the floor at his feet, and he is holding the other end of it. He pulls out some scissors and cuts off a short segment of the key, and then jabs the entire length back into place. Tom starts to playing again, and the piano plays just fine.



In another room, Jerry sweeps around a huge assortment of pianos, and then about a hundred mice drop down out of nowhere and start bouncing, three abreast, on each of the pianos. They play a loud and harsh version of "Chopsticks", and the mice that aren't playing the song, dance along to it, instead. Just after the song turns into some raucous ragtime, Jerry runs in with a flit gun, scattering the mice away. Jerry manages to knock one of the mice out, but a tiny ambulance rides up, and two attendants climb out and load the mouse casualty off on a stretcher.

At another piano, Tom tries out a tune, but is encountering another flat key. He hits it over and over again, and each time, the note flies up and dissipates into the air. Tom dives under the lid and hits the key again. This time, the sour note jumps up and out onto the floor, scurrying about as Jerry tries to pound it with a hammer. Jerry catches the note, and in a closeup, the whining note seems to look very much like the baby from Eraserhead. Jerry harshly smacks it like a caught fish against the door jamb, and then he flushes down a mostly unseen toilet (we can only see the edge of its lid, but we know its there from the resulting flushing noise as the scene irises out).



The iris opens anew on the front of a theatre, where people rush inside to take their seats to see the big event, which the marquee outside proclaims as "TONIGHT -- MLLE. PFLOP CONCERT". In the audience, a women of enormous carriage casually bounces patrons out of the way as she slides into a row to take her seat. Backstage, her exact opposite number, a delicious maid who might be a little bit too thin, carries undergarments into a starred dressing room, where another woman, also of the rather large variety, awaits to costume herself for the show. It is Madamoiselle Pflop, and there are a couple moments of near nudity as she struggles behind a screen to don her garments. She steps out to slide on her garter belt when the scene cuts to the orchestra, where all of the musicians are stuck playing instruments far too tiny for belief -- it is as if they were given toy shop instruments instead. As they play the opening fanfare, the curtain drops, and Mlle. Pflop is caught with her skirt hiked up as she finishes attaching her stockings. The curtain flies back up, and then raises properly, and Pflop is now sitting at her grand piano.

Her tremendous bosom heaves as she sings up and down the scale in her mock-operatic voice, and all while she pounds the keys on her piano. The audience, too, moves side to side according to her playing; when she starts to ascend to the upper part of her register, the piano legs grow taller and taller, her body grows taller and taller -- and the audience raises magically out of their seats until they are floating in midair. She then hits a bad note, and the audience drops back down harshly to the ground, and as she repeats the bad note, the legs on the piano lower all the way to the ground, and Mlle. Pflop is left sounding like a yelping pup. She stops herself -- and then she panics, flailing her arms about and screaming for help! She finally collapses onto the piano, as stagehands rush to her aid and throw a bucket of water on her.



A card covers the screen reading "ONE MOMENT PLEASE", and then the theatre manager is shown asking "Is there a piano tuner in the house?" Turns out, not only is there a tuner in the house, there are two -- and they are Tom and Jerry. They climb onto the stage and tackle the problem piano like they were doctors: Jerry holds a stopwatch and checks the instrument's pulse, while Tom holds a stethoscope to its lid. A bump appears on its surface, and Tom chases it briefly about on the lid. Jerry locates the bad key, however, and points it out to his partner. Tom has a pair of pincers with which he pulls the key out like a bad tooth, which it resembles upon closer inspection.



The piano, even without the key, apparently now plays brilliantly, which Tom demonstrates by banging out a jazzy sing tune called Doin' the New Low-Down. The orchestra joins in from the pit, and Jerry hooks up with the hot blonde maid and dances with her. The pair eventually make their way to the piano lid, where the maid sits, stretches one leg out seductively (almost flashing the viewer), and sings along Betty Boop-like with the song:

"That dancin' demon,
He has my feet in a trance,
'Cause while I'm dreaming,
I go into my dance!"

The piano player in the pit plays along on the tiny piano, and though it breaks apart into a hundred pieces, the pianist continues to play the keys like normal. The maid continues:

"Make 'em play that crazy thing again,
I've got to do that lazy swing again,
Hi-Ho! I'm doin' the new low-down!

Three trumpeters play together until they merge into one larger trumpeter, and then the stagehands, through fanning, pumping her legs for circulation, and mopping her brow (though actually her whole face), succeed in reviving Mlle. Pflop. She joins the trio on stage and starts to sing aria-like once more. She sings higher and higher, and she literally raises the roof, as a shot high above the building shows the structure stretching up into the sky. Mlle. Pflop bursts out of the type, her body pulled to its maximum like Stretch Armstrong, and she finishes the song as she waggles her monstrous bosom at the camera. Tom and Jerry pop up just before the cartoon irises out, and she clutches them happily to her chest!

Call it crude, call it common... one thing you can't deny is that the film is a good deal of wacked-out fun, top-loaded with sexual innuendo and the oft-deplored bathroom humor (though, since it is a rarity in cartoons in general, a dose of it here and there is actually more of a novelty, and thus, doesn't wear out its welcome).

And, as said, the music here is a definite plus, even if the animated action containing it could have been done a lot smoother and smarter. But, part of the charm of this series is its crudity; even when other studios such as Fleischer and Disney were making great strides in animation development, Tom and Jerry were content to entertain simply by simply entertaining.

In the oft-used words of David Letterman, "Let's blow the roof off the dump!" And in Piano Tooners, Tom and Jerryand their ladyfriends do just that...

Piano Tooners (Van Beuren Studios, 1932) Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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