Sunday, May 21, 2006

THE PROSPECTING BEAR (1941)

Barney Bear films walk that fine line between tediousness and entertainment for me. MGM cartoons, for the bulk of the studio's run as a major animation studio, were produced at a very high-level of quality, and many of the films don't necessarily rely on a heavy quotient of laughs to be considered successful (i.e. Peace on Earth from 1939). Some of the later Barney Bears are laugh riots, but some of the early ones are so concerned with being picturesque and cute that they forget about engaging the audience in any real way outside of the realm of being syrupy eye candy. The character animation is always top-notch, though, and you can at least be assured of studying some fine movements and facial contortions and expressions. They are certainly textbook examples on how to animate. And after all, who said animated films have to be funny? I've never agreed with that assumption. But, at the very least, you can make some sort of attempt to tell a decent story, whether funny or otherwise.

The Barney Bear programmer, The Prospecting Bear, released in 1941, is a perfect example of that fine line. Barney is teamed up for the first time with a character who will eventually become known as Benny Burro, but here is merely just a pack animal in the service of the grumpy gold-seeking ursine. Benny is no typical stubborn ass, but rather is playful and mischievous, and in this film, his desire to munch (and safely, somehow) on dynamite runs counter to the plans of the luck-beleaguered Barney.

At the beginning of the short, we only see two things moving: Barney himself, who galumphs along the thin ledges wrapping about the spires and cliffs of a gorgeously rendered Grand Canyon vista, tapping his tiny pick on every rock he passes as he searches for gold; and a large bundle of supplies, tied together with ropes, and largely covered by a blanket except for the picks, shovels, Barney's bedroll and several boxes of TNT. The bundle seems to mirror Barney's movements step for step, but we are not given a glance at the force behind its motions. It is only after a minute or so of meandering and rock testing that we finally see its motor: a small burro, left panting and wheezing from his exertions. When they get to a larger clearing with a cave at the other end, the burro walks alongside a lengthy section of fallen tree, and without his knowledge, the pack catches on the top of the log, and when the burro moves forward, the pack is lifted from his back. After a few steps, he realizes that he has caught the disapproving eye of his master, and after shaming his charge into returning, Barney prepares to kick the burro harshly in the rear. But he has a change of heart, and he only playfully pats the burro on the rear. It doesn't matter, though; the pat sends the burro flying as if he had really been mistreated.

Barney, meanwhile, has discovered a few nuggets of gold at the entrance to a small opening in some nearby rocks. He weighs one of the nuggets on a scale laden down on one cup with a dozen carrots plus two. (You can figure out what he calls the nugget.) The bear looks all about to find even more gold, and finally pokes his head through the small opening in the rocks. His eyes literally puff out from their sockets like two white balloons when they view the treasure inside the cave. He has found an unbelievably rich vein of gold, with every surface glowing bright before his distended eyeballs. He briefly imagines huge stacks of gold coins and jewelry, but then quickly zooms back to his supply pack before the little burro can pick it up again. He zips right back to the rocks with a pickaxe, but when he swings it, the vibrations leave his entire body shaking wildly. Pulling himself together at last, he tries to take another swing, but he didn't count on the burro's curiosity about the situation, and when the blade comes round, he has to stop short to avoid burying the pick in the burro's backside. He shoes the beast away, and then takes a furious swing from another handle, leaving the pick sitting deep within the topside of the rocks. He pulls hard on the handle, but his grip slips, and he is walloped relentlessly in the head from the continued wobbling of the handle. He tries again and again to stop it, but the results are still the same. He finally feigns walking off, and then zips back to grab the handle over the tops of the rocks instead, but it only springs him back and sends him crashing into the supply pack.

When he untangles himself from the wreckage, he realizes that the burro has been eating the sticks of dynamite like so much hay. Barney shoos Benny away, whereupon the cute burro hiccups out small clouds of fireworks, while Barney carries a box of the TNT back to the cave. He selects a long fuse, but when he lights it, the TNT instantly blows up in his face, leaving Barney lightly charred but the cave intact. In his slow-burning anger, he causes something else to burn slowly, too -- he tosses his seemingly spent match away and unknowingly into the TNT box. He picks up the box to move it to the entrance, but even before he can get it all the way there, the box blows up in an even larger explosion. Barney is left holding the cindered frame of the box before his face as if he were a smoke-damaged self-portrait.

Back at the supplies, Benny Burro is sniffing some spilled blackpowder that has poured out of an open keg. He sneezes sharply -- and more fireworks emit from his head. The burro turns towards the remainder of the TNT and starts to sneeze again, but Barney runs up and stifles it with the timely interference of his finger. Barney picks up the powderkeg to move it to the cave, but the powder pours out into his pants. When he places the now empty keg in the opening, he attaches an extremely long fuse inside the keg, but his foot catches on the fuse when he turns away, and the fuse dumps into the back of his now-lumpy pants. He lights the fuse, and then drags his heavy rear back to the presumed safety of some rocks. It is only at the last second, after watching the fuse burn up behind him, that he realizes his mistake. he is blown clear through his hiding place and into the entrance of the cave, where his head is now stuck inside the powderkeg. When he removes it at last, his head squeezes from forehead to chin like an accordion.

Barney goes into a frenzy and stuffs all of the remaining TNT inside the entrance of the cave -- save for the batch of sticks on which the burro continues to munch. This behavior infuriates the bear, and he delivers a monstrous kick to the rear of the cute animal. What Barney did not count upon was just how much TNT the burro has eaten. The burro starts to bounce about the air in a series of small internal eruptions, and Barney runs for the safety of the golden cavern. His head, of course, becomes stuck in the tiny opening, but he needn't worry. The burro, in a huge burst, blasts right for Barney's rear, and the impact leaves the pair of them well inside the cave. That's right -- Barney Bear, a fireworks-hiccuping burro, and all of the gold and TNT. When the smoke clears from the resulting megaton explosion, Barney and the burro are still alive, but everything else is gone. They are trapped atop a thin spire of rock many, many feet from the canyon floor. Barney had better hope that the burro doesn't hiccup again.

From the description of the film, I am struck by how funny the scenes seem to be, and yet, when actually viewed, the scenes fall alarmingly flat. It feels like comedy as directed by a strict dramatist: he has read up on the structure of a comedic scene, but he is completely missing the most important element for a successful piece: comic timing. Rudolf Ising had been around the game long enough to know the rules; if his film is not supposed to be humorous, then he has succeeded in spades. The crux is that it is meant to be funny. The whole film feels off its meter; the set-ups with the burro really don't pay off the way they should (he is, in fact, practically unnecessary to the plot, and the film actually could have been done completely without him); and the film finally comes off as nothing more than a gorgeous, sharply moving misstep.

Barney and Benny would get other chances, both alone and as a duo, and especially in the comic books where they spent a lot of time together as a team. But here, in their first film as a tandem, they mined anything but a rich vein of comic gold. It seems like comic gold, but it is just not there. But that's the problem with pyrite: it looks pretty, but it ain't the real deal.

The Prospecting Bear (MGM, 1941) Director: Rudolf Ising
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

No comments: