Saturday, May 06, 2006

A SWISS TRICK (1931)

I love cheese. I love cheese so much, I could be mistaken for a cartoon mouse (except for the whole "6-feet-tall" thing). I love loving cheese so much, that I even love Donna Reed saying "I love cheese." Cholesterol and fat-wise, it's perhaps not the best thing to eat in bulk, but since I despise milk, I figure cheese is the way to go for getting the same nutritional supplements that the milk provides. And, outside of smoked gouda, there's no cheese I like better than some nice swiss. Turkey sandwich? Swiss cheese, my friend, must be on it. It's not so much the holes (actually called "eyes" in the cheez-biz), though there is a certain charm to them, and they are the chief indicating of sharpness in flavor, but rather it is that flavor: tangy, slightly nutty, sometimes lightly sweet, that I love so much.

Not once have I chanced upon any adverse effects from eating Swiss cheese. Sure, the occasionally bit of mold might have been discovered upon retrieving the brick from the fridge, but outside of the "eewww" factor, nothing else has ever happened to turn me away its charms. Not so with Tom and Jerry,
comic denizens of the Van Beuren cartoon stable. In A Swiss Trick from 1931, the duo's fifth short, the stick-thin Tom and the fireplug-built Jerry find themselves running afoul of some sort of curse packed inside a wedge of Swiss cheese, and it is enough to give me pause the next time I slice off a hunk of the delicious comestible.

Iris in and hold that circle tight on the relentlessly pumping gear arm of what we presume to be a large steam engine on a train. There is a whistle superimposed over the wheel that blares its warning of oncoming locomotive progress, and a switching arm on a track is also shown before returning to the wheel alone. It is only then that we discover that the "train" is only a tiny steam engine meant for pulling a single passenger sledge behind it. Here, the engine is in operation in the Swiss Alps, and the passengers in the sledge are none other than Tom and Jerry. They look about in wonder as the engine pulls them up a steep incline, one of many mountains in view within the vicinity. We notice also that the wheels on both the engine, which is operated by an engineer wearing a typically Tyrolean hat, and on the sledge are fastened to them with large spring-shocks. When the engine pulls its load up and down over each hill in rapid succession, the springs allow the cars to bounce up and down according to the size of each hill.

The train suddenly comes to a hill with an ever increasing grade, so much so that it seems to almost reach a 90 degree angle. The train does a variant on the traditional "Little Engine That Could" routine, pooping out almost totally once it reaches the top. On the way up, Tom and Jerry's look turns from one of wonder to one of fright and worry, as they realize how little control they have over their own safety. Once the train poops out, collapsing onto the track while breathing in and out deeply, it is noticed from a distance by the world's skinniest rescue dog (and one which bears a most striking canine resemblance to Farmer Al Falfa, with a full white beard gracing its chin) via a pair of binoculars. The dog slaps on a keg of the traditional mountain rescue reviving alcohol (the keg is only marked "XXX") and heads up the hill towards the engine.

When the rescue dog opens the tap, a drop of the liquid splashes on the ground, and the slumped over engine feels for it blindly with its smokestack. It sniffs the drop, and immediately craves all that the dog is carrying. The smokestack sucks down the booze, and even swallows the barrel whole. It puffs out a burst of smoke, which knocks the dog out of the way, and then slowly but rhythmically, the smokestack puffs its way back to vim and vigor, and leaps clear to the next peak, and then out of the picture via a series of peaks. However, it leaves Tom and Jerry behind on the mountain, with Tom quite angry at this turn of events. He yells "Hey!", but his echo zips through the air like a boomerang. It cuts six neat holes through the snowy caps on six nearby peaks, and then returns to smack Tom in the back of the skull with such force that his head comes off, and its progress is only impeded by the quick hands of Jerry, who catches Tom's head and gives it back to him.

Jerry pulls out a trumpet and plays a quick little number to see if anyone can hear them. The reply is immediate, but not exactly what they expected. A mountain goat climbs to the top of a peak blowing on a horn, its own, it turns out, and once the goat has finished its response, it places the horn back on top of its head. As it turns out, there are mountain goats on top of each peak in the vicinity, and the first goat leaps to the next goat-topped peak, butting it in the rear, which moves that goat onto the next peak, and so on, and so on. This continues until the last goat leaps to the peak that Tom and Jerry are perched upon, and the boys are bumped high in the air. The goat laughs, but then gravity gets the best of the creature, and Tom and Jerry crash back down on top of it, sending the three of them rolling down the mountain. They fly head over heels with each other down the slope, but eventually, the goat lands upside-down, and Jerry sits on its horns as the goat slides along. Tom sits on top of the goat's rear, but their slide is halted by a crevasse.

The goat falls away, but Tom is left stretched out across the crevasse, barely hanging on with his hands and feet. A bear wanders in, and after checking out the situation, walks across Tom and sits down on his back. Tom can barely take the strain of holding up the gargantuan creature, but just as he starts to lose his grip, Jerry kicks Tom's feet from the ledge, and the bear goes tumbling down towards a lake situated below the crevasse. Tom pulls himself up on the other side, and the splash from the bear's fall allows Jerry to run across the top of the fountain-like spray. The boys skip along merrily in triumph, until the sound of nearby yodeling reaches their ears.

Spread out over the top of a mountain is an entire band of musicians, some of them sitting on branches, and built into the side of the peak is a small cache house like that seen on a cuckoo clock. This is important to note, since at the appropriate turn in the music, the doors open, a board slides out, and alarge lederhosen-clad goon slides out and starts yodeling. As the boys watch, another man strolls up with a curious but fascinating object on a leash: a wedge of Swiss Cheese, which moves along under its own power via a tiny pair of legs. Of course, the boys can't resist, and they follow him back to an alehouse. The cheese jumps up onto the counter, and the bartender covers it with a glass lid. "You no Swiss!", he yells at Tom and Jerry. "You yodel?" Jerry laughs this off, and as Tom plays a series of mugs like the vibes, Jerry reveals his secret Slim Whitman side, yodeling like a pro and dancing. The place goes crazy with delight, with much pounding of mugs on tables by zaftig blonde women in pigtails.

Tom and Jerry kick the party up a bit by taking to the floor with a saxophone and clarinet. As they jam, Tom reaches for the piano and plays that at the same time as the sax. The other musicians join in, and as the alehouse is shown bouncing on top of its mountain, all of the mountains get into the act, piping and bouncing to the music. A milk maid twirls her buckets, as moo cows cavort behind her in pairs. Tom and Jerry take to the dance floor and deftly prance their way to their real target: the wedge of Swiss cheese on the now unattended counter. They rubs their empty bellies in intense hunger, and carry the wedge off to the back room, where Tom tears the wedge in half and hands it to his partner. Tom only eats half of his section, but Jerry downs his entire half in about four bites.

As Tom shakes Jerry's hand for a job well done, a hole magically appears through the back of Jerry's hand! The boys are astonished, but even more so when another hole opens in Jerry's upstairs cheek, and then another through his other hand. Tom starts to worry about himself, and sure enough, even though he ate less cheese, he starts to acquire his own set of holes, too. Soon, Tom and Jerry are covered in huge holes over every part of their body, and they begin to resemble Swiss cheese themselves. The mice in the building certainly think so, as well, for they start crawling out of the woodwork and chase after the duo. Hundreds of mice pour out of the walls and chase the boys out of the alehouse, and down the mountain. The citizens in the alehouse go outside and laugh at Tom and Jerry's predicament, but Tom and Jerry aren't laughing -- they are running for their very hole-y lives from hundreds of ravenous little mice.

You can't have any plot holes if there isn't a plot, and this film succeeds on that count. All of the holes are in the cheese, in the peaks, and in the heroes. The middle section of the film is merely an excuse for musical gaiety, and if that is what Van Beuren wished to accomplish as a studio, I suppose it is carried off moderately well. Some fun imagery, and no gag labored or infused with difficult lifting -- nothing more, but a series of gags built on some common geographical stereotypes. Would that it weren't so, but without them, where would cartoons, and indeed, comedy be? On a personal level, the ending with the mouse attack is memorable simply for the illusion that Tom and Jerry are being chased a thousand Mickey-like mice -- is this intentional, and is it an inside comment on the cartoon industry?

As for that Swiss cheese side effect, my guess is that the cheese is not pasteurized, as is common in European regional cheeses, and the boys, being tourists, are simply not used to the cheese in its true form. Perhaps the villagers, after lifetimes spent devouring the stuff, have built up immunities to their cheese's flesh-carving aspects -- but I am hit with a parallel theory about the film. Did the villagers, as it seems the man walking the cheese is doing, lead the boys to the alehouse with the intent to turn Tom and Jerry into human cheeses? Was their object to rid the alehouse of the mice, and the only way to do that would be to trick two hungry tourists into stealing a wedge of cheese so that they would be riddled with holes upon its devouring? Couldn't the Swiss just have rolled a wheel of cheese down the hill and led the mice away in that fashion instead?

Can't one of these films actually have a real plot so I don't have to twist like a pretzel to make sense of what is in the film?

Man, I'm hungry... I wonder if I have any Swiss...?

A Swiss Trick (Van Beuren Studios, 1931) Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

(It must be noted that during the course of this essay, Rik did indeed eat a slice of Swiss cheese, and experienced no side effects whatsoever. Except for the hole in his head...)

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