Sunday, May 07, 2006

THE PRIZE PACKAGE (1936)

Am I the only person that is somewhat creeped out by kangaroos? I don't mean totally creeped out -- I actually like kangaroos as a species (or, rather, a great many species), and for the most part, they are cute and fun to watch. Speaking broadly, wallabies, tree kangaroos, grey kangaroos, etc.; they are incredible animals. I have no problem with them on a biological level. But, have you ever stared at one head on? The large, dark staring eyes that seem to show no recognition of humankind as the predominant species on the planet (like I believe that b.s. anyway); the almost prayerfully hanging paws that remind me of those of Max Schreck as Count Orlok, and which would just as soon punch you as anything, though it becomes easy to imagine a swift and deadly leap across the grass to tear your throat asunder; and, lightly prominent on some kangaroos, and again bringing up the image of the vampiric Orlok or the Nutty Professor (version 1.0), those two bucked incisors that slightly protrude from their upper jaw. How is this creature considered cute?

I have some sort of residual memory echo floating about in my skull from my teenage years spent pouring over volume after volume of cryptozoological information, and in a couple of these books, there were sections on ghost kangaroos. For anyone not familiar with this weird phenomena, someone will be driving on some dark road one night, and they will have a near collision with what they swear is a giant kangaroo. This would be quite understandable if this person were driving in Australia -- it happens every single day there. No, what gives the story emotional heft is that the near-accident occurred in New Jersey -- or Austria -- or Sweden -- or somewhere else where kangaroos and wallabies do not normally almost run into vehicles. There will be the cursory check of all the zoos in the area, and none of the kangaroos will be missing, of course, so either one of two things are presumed: 1) the creature escaped from a private zoo or person that was holding the creature illegally, hence, no record of its existence in that country; or 2) the creature is the ghost of a kangaroo or was teleported by UFOs or a similar trans-dimensional device or circumstance.

You can believe what you want about ghost kangaroos, but I tend to think that until you have definite physical evidence -- you know, like a dead body, DNA, ectoplasm, or even kangaroo fecal matter -- then all you have is the story of either a drunken troublemaker or a person who is desperate for some media attention. Belief for me doesn't lie in someone telling me something happened. Screw faith. I don't have faith in most people to begin with, why should I have it in fifteenth-hand stories of phantasmagorical kangaroos in the Alps? But I do know this about the ghostly macropods: in one of the books that I read there was a photo of one of the creatures staring through a truck window in the middle of the night, its shifty eyes glowing in the glare of the pickup's headlights, two large, goofy llama-like teeth sticking out from its pointed snout, and an unearthly aura surrounding its body. Whether the photo was simply a doctored shot from a real encounter in Australia (with added glow), or was put in the book as actual bona fide photographic evidence of one such story story of displacement, I cannot recall. No, it was merely the hard unforgiving eyes of the creature that burrowed their way screw-like into my skull, and the rest of the image of the kangaroo as I described it above, and now, whenever I watch Hippety Hopper kick the snot out of Sylvester the Cat or catch a rerun of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo, I think of that picture. And I get a chill up my spine.
It seems, actually, that there are numerous supporting kangaroo characters in the animation world, all of them destined to remind me of that photo, no matter how cute they may be in their respective cartoons. David Hand directed Mickey Mouse in one of them; the Fleischer Brothers had a kangaroo picture; Warner Bros. did a whole series of the aforementioned Hippety Hopper shorts; Columbia released at least two, including a short where Mr. Magoo mistakenly tries to get a female roo to marry his nephew. Since she boxes, you can imagine the problems to which this would lead. And in The Prize Package from Paul Terry in 1936, Farmer Al Falfa meets up with Kiko the Kangaroo, who appeared in around ten films for Terrytoons in 1936 and 1937, for some barnyard antics that might explain fully how "ghost" kangaroos get stuck in some of the most incongruous spots in the world.

A tenor sings over the opening credits to try and reassure me that everything will be alright, and that Kiko is a lovable sort. He does this through a short and simple ditty:

"All the kids like Kiko,
Ki-ko the Kangaroo!
No one else can equal
The things that he can do!"

Farmer Al Falfa naps the day away on a bench in front of his farmhouse while his dog, with a fly swatter tied to its tail, tries to keep the flies off of Al's face. An elderly postman rolls up childlike on his scooter, and once he reaches Al's mailbox, he blows his whistle and sails a letter through the air and smacks it square into Al's sleeping face. Al wakes up, realizes he has mail, and tears open the letter. It is from his brother Hank in Australia and it reads:

"Dear Al, Under separate cover. I am sending you a pet named "Kiko". You will find him gentle and kind. Your brother, Hank."

At first, Al seems suspicious of the letter, but by its end, and he points out his good fortune to his dog. No sooner has he read the letter, than an Express Mail wagon rolls up with a large box bouncing around in the back. The driver meets a joyously shouting Al at the end of his driveway, and after he dumps the box unceremoniously out the back gate of the wagon, Al hands the man a cigar as a tip. The box starts bouncing high into the air, and Al runs back to his house, chased by the bouncing box the entire way. Suddenly, the lid pops off, and a large kangaroo hops out, and he is carrying two suitcases in his paws. Al is not only less than pleased with the size of his new "pet", he is also angered at the airs the marsupial is putting on for him. Kiko hands Al his bags, points Al's dog to his tail so that the little mutt can carry it like a train on a royal gown, and a disgruntled Al then carries the luggage into the house, with Kiko flashily waving a cane in front of him. The kangaroo goes into the room that Al offers him, and when Al and his pup try to enter after the creature, the door slams in their faces and knocks them down. Al hides around the corner, and the door opens again, but Kiko is only putting his shoes out in the hall to have them shined, as if he were in the Grand Hotel, and Al runs up more perturbed than ever. He does take the shoes, though.

Kiko climbs in the bathtub, turns on the shower, and shivers at the reception of the cold water on his back. He soaps
up, but the soap falls into two pieces on the floor. He starts to scrub his back, and the scene shifts to Al laboriously shining Kiko's shoes. Kiko hops out of the tub and lands on top of the two pieces of soap. At first, he is ungainly on his feet, but soon he adapts and starts to slide about on the bars as if they were ice skates. He slides clear out of the room, down the hall, and back into the room, shutting the door behind him. Al returns with the freshly shined and polished shoes, and the door opens so that Kiko may take them. He does so, but he replaces them with a pair of black boots and shuts the door anew. Al becomes even more enraged, and he kicks the boots out of his sight.

Kiko comes out of his room and slides down the bannister like a kid with a sled attacking a snowy hill. He flies out the front door and lands on top of Farmer Al, and once there, he hops up and down on the geezer's back, the dust flying mightily from his bratty actions. Kiko throws a few punches over the head of the downed geriatric, but Al regains his feet and stares the kangaroo down. Kiko stops goofing, and holds his head down in shame, a bright halo glowing over his innocent marsupial noggin. But Kiko's tail is not so innocent, and it grabs Al and spins him like a top. Kiko laughs as the farmer spins to a stop, and Al orders him to go. The kangaroo throws more playful punches and hops away on his tail.

He hops to the barn, where a chicken sits on a huge basket of eggs in front of the structure. The chicken runs off, and Kiko scoops up a huge pile of eggs and hops them back towards the house. Al and his dog are pacing about frustrated, and Kiko hops up behind his "master", rolls the eggs down his back and up his curved tail, so that the eggs fly over his head and smash one after the other on Al's head instead. Suddenly, a paddy wagon comes flying over the hill and down the road towards Al's farm! It is filled in the back with what would best be described as Keystone Kop types. each cop in succession checks the time worriedly on their pocketwatches before they pull up to Al's driveway, and pour out like an army in front of him.

The captain informs him, "You're under arrest for keeping a kangaroo!" Kiko starts to cry piteously, and Al begins to feel sorry for him. But the captain and his squad don't, and they pile onto Al and start to pummel him within a ferocious cloud of dust! They smack him repeatedly and savagely with their billy clubs, and Kiko starts to get angry. He jumps into the fray, and starts punching and kicking each cop over and over as each one returns to combat him. Finally, he kicks the last one back into the paddy wagon, which starts to pull out down the road. Kiko hops after and into the conveyance, and then hops back out. When he returns to Al, he reveals that he has swiped the pocket watch from each and every policeman. Al and his dog jump and dance along with Kiko, and it becomes quite clear that Kiko will be staying. The opening song is repeated as the film irises out.

It goes without saying that when one hears that Kiko will be gentle and kind, you know instinctually that those qualities are surely the opposite of what he will really be like. What I did not expect when viewing this film for the first time was the leisurely slow-burn comedy that ensues in the first half, with the tub and the shoeshine and the boots. Nothing like Al turning into Edgar Kennedy to keep my interest in the story. All told, having only seen a handful of Farmer Al Falfa shorts in my life (why can't someone release them on DVD? Yet another cultural crime at play?), I must admit that I have been pleasantly surprised by the characterizations in them. So often, one hears about the lower quality of the Terrytoon product, but this usually is in reference to the later Mighty Mouses and Gandy Gooses from the late 40's and early 50's (and other series). Here in the 30's (and I will leave others to sort out the listing of the animators, etc. who did the work in these films -- this is mostly a column based around personal observation), Paul Terry's crew seem to be capable of making cartoons that are just as enjoyable as those from other studios in the same period. Not necessarily equal in quality, but they are fun.

Not that any amount of enjoyment can wash the memory of that ghost kangaroo photo in that quaint and curious volume of psychobabble and Fortean goofiness from my mind. Yet another kangaroo picture -- yet another night where I will try to fall asleep with that odd photo's image looming about behind my eye sockets as I imagine myself as the driver of that vehicle to spectral intervention.

Maybe that ghost kangaroo photo finally explains, at last, why I have never gotten a driver's license. Hmm...

The Prize Package (Terrytoons, 1936) Dir: Mannie Davis & George Gordon
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

If you are interested in viewing a Quicktime video of The Prize Package, click here to be taken to a page at the Animation Archive of ASIFA-Hollywood. (The pictures above also hail from their estimable site.)

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