Tuesday, May 02, 2006

PLANE DUMB (1932)

So, I spend the last couple of days heaping light praise upon a much-neglected series like Van Beuren's Tom and Jerry shorts, and then I run into the film Plane Dumb, which accurately describes the actions of the filmmakers as they contrived to create this wannabe Amos N' Andy homage. Appparently, donning blackface not only helps disguise you when you roam about Africa, but it also lowers your IQ's to the negative, changes your speech patterns automatically, and somehow also makes your disarrayed and lighter colored hair instantly change to short, dark and curly like the assumed fashion of the stereotyped race you are portraying. Ah, the magical properties of makeup!

I have read a couple of reviews where the writers complained that Tom and Jerry are traveling to Africa for no good reason. Let me state this from the outset: Tom's plan is to fly non-stop across the ocean to Africa so as to bring fame and fortune to the pair, and if this seems like "no good reason" to the reviewers, well, then they are probably not clued into the fact that when this film was made, the world was only five years removed from Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight to Europe, and that it was still quite a challenge to accomplish the feat, given the limits of technology at the time. Just because you are first up the mountain, doesn't mean that the next 10,000 mountaineers are just going to give up trying. It's the impulse of exploration that exists to this day, and it seems like a "good reason" to me.

Now that I am done with the philosophical portion of this review, let's jump back to the film, which has "no good reason" behind it except for the continued media demeaning of races other than those of the white establishment. As said, Tom wants to fly across the ocean to Africa, but Jerry couldn't care less. He sits bored and listless in the passenger seat, but then Tom hits Jerry with his 'brilliant" idea to put on blackface to disguise themselves, which they do. They shake hands, and at first the voices seem like their own put-on as they shake hands and say together, "Well, I sho' is glad to see you again!" Apparently, though, the disguise takes away Tom's abilities to fly the plane, and he loses control and dives the craft down into the ocean. The biplane wings rise to the surface, and the darkened pair climb onto the wings, dangling their feet in the water. "Well," starts Jerry, "I wonder how far it is to there!" Tom's answer: "'Bout twenty knots." Jerry scratches his head at this, and asks, "How come they got knots in the ocean?" Tom shrugs his shoulders, and answers, "Tropical wave gets heavy, it gets tangled, it makes knots!" To prove his unfunny remark, he points out several waves which meet with other wave crests and knot up.

An octopus climbs up and happily puts an arm over each of the lad's shoulders. Jerry is alarmed, and cries, "I tol' you I
didn't wanna go to Africa!" "Wait a minute!", says Tom. "Is we in Africa?" "No we ain't in Africa!", is Jerry's reply. Tom asks, "Does it look like we is gonna get to Africa?" "It shoooooooo' don't...," fears Jerry. "Then what has you gotta tick about?" The octopus, probably alone in his opinion, finds this hilarious, and laughs uproariously. It kisses Tom full on the cheek, and Tom punches it in the nose. This ires the octopod, who briefly throttles Tom, spanks him, and then it spins his arms and wallops the pair in bicycle fashion. It then dives back into the water.

A crowd of sharks are shown swirling about the pairs feet. They both accuse each other good-naturedly of tickling the other one's feet, and then sharks starting leaping over the wings. "Will they eat ya?", Jerry asks. "If they don't," Tom answers, "they'll sho' mess you up plenty!" A swordfish skewers the wings from below, and the lads are forced to run along the top of an long rainbow of jumping sharks. The last shark is met, and the pair drop into the water. A large ominous-seeming black whale zooms through the waves as the lads struggle to stay afloat and alive (because they are unable to swim due to their disguise? Just wondering...)

Suddenly, they are standing upright with their feet still in the water, and Jerry proclaims, "Hey, sista! We been saved by a submarine!" The whale pops up with the pair on his back, and it continues to cut through the water at high speed towards the shore. They try to stop the whale by sitting "on his nose to smother him". When they do, the whale spouts them high up into the air, and eventually aims them towards the shore, where they are deposited onto a patch of ground, where just moments before, a crowd of jungle animals were watching their approach. (The lion, for future reference, ran into a nearby cave...)

After they are charged by a pair of strange-looking imaginary animals, Tom and Jerry run into the cave, which is cloaked entirely in complete darkness, so that only their eyes, enormous lips, and gap-toothed mouths can be seen.
They carry on with their "What was dat?"-style routine, and get assaulted by bats and harmonizing gospel black skeletons. At one point, Tom and Jerry's faces swell up to the front of the screen, and Tom's eyes get all weird and googly, merely for weirdness sake (it's the most genuine moment in the film). Finally, they run out of the cave in fear and end up being surrounded, from behind every object imaginable, but a cadre of headhunters. The lads run for their lives as hundreds of spears are thrown past them, and the film irises, not a moment too soon, out. For some reason, at that last moment too soon, they wipe the blackface from their faces, but it helps them not in their predicament.

Like most of the film, the ending seems to not matter, for the only purpose was to get them in blackface so they could carry off what must have been already pretty standard and tired vaudeville routines involving the supposed deportment of blacks in America. There are probably even more subtle digs piled in here that meant more in the time period, but I am unaware of them. That a series that could be so fun would resort to gags like this for a joke here and there would be more bearable, but to need the use of such a gimmick for an entire film is unforgivable. (On top of this,
never once is a real laugh approached within its far too long seven-minute running time.

What saves the film from being a total waste of time are some marvelous shots of the mass of sharks swirling about beneath the floating plane, Tom and Jerry running along the backs of the voracious and leaping creatures, and also some nice animation of the whale cutting through the water. I also like the scene where the plane is flying above Africa, and the Dark Continent is shown with what must be about a half-mile of jungle spread out across its obviously not-in-scale relief map. It's the one part of the film that actually strikes me as wittily designed and funny.

I'll admit it openly. I do have a certain fascination with Hollywood films that use blackface, not just as a gimmick, but sometimes as the impetus for the plot. I'm embarrassed when I see Eddie Cantor or Fred Astaire (both of whom I adore otherwise) or Al Jolson (whom I don't) don the makeup, and with it the stereotyped garb, mannerisms and characteristics that come with the disguise. But I can't turn away. It's a fascination like that with a trainwreck. You get to the end of Jolson's Wonder Bar, which is a horrid exercise in how not to make a comedy for the first 3/4 of the film (though Jolson is fine, and there are several pre-Code tidbits of verbal naughtiness worth hearing), and then you end up at Busby Berkeley's production of the Goin' to Heaven On A Mule closer, with its "Here you is in Hebbenly'Land!" lyrics and its giant dancing watermelons... and your jaw just drops. You wonder how some of these stars could perform like this, especially given that they were often surrounded by real blacks with real talent, and one wonders how they were able to shut off that part of their brain that said, "This is the wrong thing to do."

Now, the Van Beuren Studios were not Hollywood: they were New York-based, and right across the street from the Fleischer Studio, which also dealt with such stereotypes, but often in a much subtler fashion, sometimes incorporating characteristics into their plots and drawings, but not so much in the commonly accepted "blackface" mode, and often their films were graced with real black voices. Here, though, Van Beuren stoops as low as the low can go, bringing us that common mode and sending it straight into the commode. They did the wrong thing in this picture, especially given that it is not only a slap in the face of another race of humans, but it is a badly done slap in the face.

But you can't look away... not even to Dixieland.

Plane Dumb (Van Beuren Studios, 1932) Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

As I recall, "Plane Dumb" was voicetracked by blackface comedians Moran and Mack, who billed themselves as the Two Black Crows. When plans for a series of cartoons with Moran and Mack fell through, Van Buren took the completed voice track for "Plane Dumb" and turned it into a Tom and Jerry cartoon, rather than waste it.

Rik Tod said...

Thanks for the information, Anonymous. Actually had not heard of Moran and Mack, but it explains a lot about the film for me. It absolutely explains why this film varies so much from other Tom and Jerry flicks. It still doesn't make it funny or any good.

My complaints about blackface performers aside, the chief aspect of Amos and Andy's success was that they were actually funny despite the unthinking racism, which is wildly different though just as socially dangerous as intentional racism. I have heard many of the radio shows throughout my life, and have chuckled warmly over many of the lines, because often it was well-scripted comedy.

This film, however, doesn't succeed in that area, and if Moran and Mack are to blame for that, along with the diminished concentration on the rest of the cartoon to succeed on its own terms as an animated film, then more's the pity. I'm glad their series didn't pan out.