Thursday, May 04, 2006

ROCKETEERS (1932)

It's funny how you can start a cartoon sometimes and end up somewhere you never expected that film to take you. Often, due to the title of the film and the opening setup, you can formulate a belief that you know exactly where that cartoon is going, and I would say about 9 times out of 10, you would be right on the money. But, then you hit a cartoon that delights in robbing you of those implied cliches, and the damn thing does a 180 on you, zooming you straight into the complete opposite type of film that you expected.

So it is with Rocketeers, a Van Beuren animated short released in 1932 starring Tom and Jerry. A huge float drives down the street, stocked to bursting on the front end with a cadre of top-hatted, bearded scientists; the back end carries three objects only: our friends Tom and Jerry (the human kind), and a large rocket, but not the kind you may be
thinking, in which astronauts may climb inside, but rather one small enough where Tom can hold it at its base with his hand. Swiftly, we discover the plot of the film in a few deft pantomimed moves: there is a sign on the side of the float car that reads "ROYAL EXPERIMENTAL SOCIETY", and in time with the martial parade music being pumped around their heads, Tom and Jerry tip their hats to the crowd (and mostly, the viewer), then each point out the sign, then point to themselves, then to the rocket, back to themselves, back to the rocket, back to themselves, and then stand up and point to the skies. They are clearly rocketing to space (how is unclear, but it is 1932 -- they'll come up with something). A sanitation worker trailing the car must know something the rest of the float doesn't, and he reaches into his trashbin and retrieves a wreath of flowers reading "GOOD LUCK", which he hangs over Tom's rocket, which the lad has tucked under his arm for the duration of the parade.

Making it to the stage where the flight will take place, Tom and Jerry set the rocket at a slant, and then pose proudly with their construct. One of the scientists unleashes a huge pocket telescope, and after peering about for a few seconds, transforms the tool into a trumpet. He blats out a solo which is meant to remind one of a horse race, and then he addresses the gathered scientists and crowd. He motions broadly and speaks loudly as if full of import and drama, but his voice comes out as a muted squeak, the sort of noise used, for instance (though it came later) when Harpo answers the phone in Duck Soup, and "talks" with the use of his variety of horns. The scientist finishes "honking" his speech, and after much applause, there is a simple but wonderful shot of the stage sitting small and distant in the corner of the screen while the moon looms overhead in diagonally opposite corner. The moon has heard the speech, and he sees who is involved with the rocket, and he says simply, "Uh! Oh!", knowing full well that he is in trouble.

There is a hinged bottom to the rocket, and we discover exactly how the boys are going to fly into space: Tom picks up
the diminutive Jerry and stuffs him into the head of the rocket. Tom then begins to climb in, but he requires the aid of the lead scientist, who is more than happy to use a cannon-style ramrod to force Tom into the cramped compartment. The scientist then attaches a long fuse to the closed compartment, and after lighting it, the rocket takes off for the moon -- and flies about five feet forward, dropping straight down into the ocean!

On the rocket's path to the bottom of the briny deep, a shark and a manta ray swim cruise brusquely past the contraption, causing Tom and Jerry to pop their heads out separately after each pass to figure out what is going on. When the rocket hits bottom, the boys dump out and Tom props the rocket up in the sand, it is taken over by an eel, who wraps himself around its circumference and turns it into a barber pole. Apparently, this is with some great success, for a large fish swims up with a beard full of barbels, and a small fish barber pops out of the top of the rocket and cuts them off the large fish's face with a pair of scissors. This angers the fish, and he attacks the rocket and knocks it to pieces. Without their ride out, the boys decide to march about and get their bearings.

Much to their despair, though, they are bothered constantly by a small playful fish who weaves in and out and around Tom's legs, arms and head. Tom loses his cool and socks the fish hard upon the top of its head. The fish cries,
"Mama!", and suddenly, a monstrously huge black with giant fangs and fur leaps out at them from behind some coral. But this is not all in the way of oceanic beastliness. A large dragon-like serpent swims past them from another direction; then a shark, a manta ray and an octopus make repeated passes around our heroes. The boys make a break for it, and soon they come upon some old moorings, and behind one they discover the hook and line of someone fishing. When they look around it, they find out it is a skeleton, who casts his fishing line over and over again, catching fish, eating them, letting them drop out of the bottom of its empty ribcase, and then begins the process again with a new fish. Tom and Jerry are horrified by this and make for the "safety" of a nearby shipwreck.

As they explore the boat, a skeleton waiter descends a staircase carrying a tray full of glasses. He swiftly goes through a
door, comes back out, and flies back up the stairs, presumably to get another tray. Tom and Jerry step through the door to see what is going on, and they are ambushed by a rather beefy mermaid. "Hello, suckers!", she says in a rather masculine tone. "Give the little girl a big hand, boys!" She swims off, and the boys give chase after her. The scene shifts to a hot jazz band made up of sea creatures kicking out some fresh licks. When we see Tom and Jerry next, they are surrounded by beautiful, lounging mermaids (most certainly not the fugly one from before); Tom, because of his small stature, sits on the lap of his new girlfriend, while Tom holds his on top of his own lap. There is a bit of fanfare as a song starts, and Tom (on piano) and Jerry start singing a song called Oh, How I'd Love to Own a Fishstore:

"Oh, how we'd love to own a fishstore!
That's all we wish for,
A lovely fishstore!
We'd have the mermaids
all dressed up just like dollies;
We'd have our little fishstore
Doing better business than the Follies!"

As the boys continue their cute song, a quartet of mermaids start a kickline, with their fins getting mighty close to portraying actual female legs:

"We'd put a flounder in the window each day;
We'd put it on the scale and say,
"We're giving this a weigh!"

The film cuts back to Tom and Jerry:

"Oh, how we'd love to own a fishstore!
We'd sell nothing but the hali-but!"

Tom and Jerry then lean in close to each other, and their mouths weirdly combine to form one huge mouth:

"Oh, how we'd love to own a fishstore!
That's all we wish for,
A lovely fishstore!"

An Irish-looking catfish and a bearded, large snouted fish wearing a cap march past on the screen:

"To all the paddies,
We'd sell the finnan haddies;
And to all the Cohns and Misches,
We would sell gefilte fishes!"

The song concludes with the boys grasping the hands of their two mermaids, before they move to the big finish:

"They say an apple keeps the doctor away,
But we don't need a doctor with a mermaid every day!
Oh, how we'd love to own a fishstore!
I once had two herring and one smelt!"

At this, Jerry pulls a fish out from behind his back and smacks Tom on the head for comic effect. The horrid pun of the closing lyric apparently upsets King Neptune, and in his ire, he blows a conch shell like a siren. The boys and their new girlfriends continue to dance along with the still-playing music, but then a platform is winched down between the four by the scientists straight above on the dock. As the winch is pulled up, the scientists catch Tom and Jerry snuggling with the half-naked mermaids, who themselves are frightened of the large group of scientists, and then dive back into the ocean. Tom and Jerry, no fools, at least in this part of the cartoon, dive in after them. And then the scientists? Well, they're superbrains, you know. They dive in after the mermaids, too!

At the point in this film where the moon says, "Uh, oh!", in anticipation of the hi-jinks sure to occur when Tom and Jerry land on his surface (apparently they have quite the reputation amongst the planetary satellites), I was prepared for yet another excursion on good old Luna, and I was excited at the prospect of seeing some weird fantasy creatures wander about amongst the moon rocks and craters. Instead, I end up with Tom and Jerry at the bottom of the ocean, and pretty much get the same experience, only with great volumes of water in place of barely any atmosphere. Tom and Jerry don't really notice the difference; whether on moon or in water, they just continue to meet whatever oddness pops up and roll with it, and since the boys seem to have no problem breathing underwater, let alone sing, dance and woo mermaids, they would probably get along without air just fine on the moon surface, too.

Rocketeers has some of the feel of a Fleischer film to it, and by this, I mean the mood created by the strange imaginary creatures that torment Tom and Jerry on the ocean floor. The Fleischers' Betty Boop shorts were often filled to the brim with nightmare creatures that would just pop out for brief instances (though some would carry their cameos a bit further), and some of their Color Classics (like Small Fry) would have sequences where a parade of frightening creatures would be used to teach a lesson to a misbehaving individual. This film captures more of that "Boo!" Boop spirit; additionally, the skeleton sequence seems like something just begging for a Danny Elfman score.

This is not to say that the film itself is any great shakes; this is the point where my preconceptions are met, for the one lesson to be learned from the Tom and Jerry series is that due to the limitations that the series' creators put on their characters, no matter how wild their adventures might turn, there is no true great imagination at play behind the scenes. Therefore, while the series might turn on a dime and throw you for an instant, within 20 seconds, the sharpness subsides, and you are back in the warm, smothering arms of conformity and cuteness. I can get thrown for a loop by the cartoon's switch of intended locale (You got me, boys! Good one!), and despite the welcome interference of sharks, monsters, skeletons and mermaids, the film is nothing more than (and switches back into) a generic though fun entertainment. (Oh, is that all ya got!)

Besides, I didn't want to go to the moon anyway. I've heard there isn't even a decent movie theatre there.

Kind of like L.A. ...

Rocketeers (Van Beuren Studios, 1932) Directors: John Foster and George Rufle
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

*Due to my complete lack of patience, mainly with the shabby sound of the copy of this movie, but in general, just my own desire to be done with the process, I slipped up on the transcribing of some of the lyrics of the featured song in this cartoon. David Gerstein, of Golden Age Cartoons and Gemstone Publishing, who has been very nice to the Cel Bloc, was even kinder to correct me in the error of my ways. I have changed the incorrect lyrics in the body of the text, not to make myself look better, but mainly to have the proper information in the post for those who follow in reading of it. As the original lyrics are printed in green, I have made the corrected words red, perhaps to signify my own slapping of my face for screwing up. Furthermore, I offer links to Mr. Gerstein's two websites in thanks for his aid. (Click on their names above.)

1 comment:

David Gerstein said...

Hey Rik!

I thought I'd leave you a quick correction on several lyrics in ROCKETEERS' fish song. They include some puns which might clarify a bit of what you're seeing:

"We'd have our little fishstore
Doing better business than the Follies..."
[because the mermaids are dancing a Follies Bergere-type kickline]

"We'd put a flounder in the window each day,
We'd put it on the scale and say
'We're giving it a weigh'..."
[groan]

"To all the paddies [Irish cops]
We'd sell the finnan haddies..."

"I once had two herring and one smelt" [incredibly bad pun... thus the reaction from Jerry]

Otherwise, keep up the magnificent work! Your reviews are as much fun to read as ever!