Thursday, May 25, 2006

TOONERVILLE TROLLEY (1936)


I will admit it from the start: I know very little about the Toonerville Trolley. Yes, I have a handful of Toonerville Folks comic strips tucked in the pages of a few volumes of assorted collections of classic comics gathered together by the likes of the Smithsonian and so forth. As the comic is only a one-panel affair, and I have so few examples, it is hard to get a true feel for Fontaine Fox's famous strip, but I do get a much larger taste of the strip's humor than I do of the characters. I can look about and find articles about the strip, and references to the characters with wacky names like Little Woo-Woo Wortle, but I've been hard pressed for the opportunity to read many of their adventures.

Most of what I know about the town of Toonerville is from the cartoons. Specifically, three cartoons released by the Van Beuren Studios in 1936, which also happens to be the year of the studio's demise due to studio politics (RKO's, their distributor, and not Van Beuren's; RKO chose to go with the in-the-market Disney shorts, much larger profit winners, than with Van B.'s less popular, though highly acclaimed, output). I mainly know of the Skipper, who races his trolley at breakneck speed each day trying to meet the incoming trains at the station, usually to disastrous results. In the first film of the trilogy, Toonerville Trolley, directed by Tom Palmer and Disney's Three Little Pigs helmer, Burt Gillett, the Skipper is keeping to his daily routine.

Or rather, he is eating his breakfast before embarking on his daily routine, which he can't do until the Trolley is finished getting a good scrubbing from a large blonde Nordic woman named The Powerful Katrinka. When he reminds her to hurry up so he can meet the morning train, he proves how accurate a name she possesses by wrenching the water pump clear out of the ground, pumping the water directly on the trolley car, and then picking the entire car up in the air like it was so much cotton candy and dumping the water out of its interior. "By cracky!", the Skipper complains, "I'll just about make that train!", and he winds up his little ramshackle car and heads down the tracks. He hits two rocks that threaten to make the car fall apart like a house of cards, and when he reaches a steep hill, he is very lucky that two Toonerville folks were stowed away inside, or else he would never have made it up (they get out and push nicely before departing).

He flies down the other side of the hill at top speed, surely making up a lot of lost time, but when he gets to the double set of tracks at the RR crossing, he is nearly splattered by the surprise appearance of a rocketing passenger train. He tiptoes the trolley across the other track and it nearly gets its rear cab fractured by yet another train coming down the first track. In a nearby meadow, Molly Moo-Cow (another Van Beuren staple) is wasting the day away eating apples and spitting the seeds at sunflowers, when she hears the familiar ring of the Toonerville Trolley. She chases the car and hops on, but her bouncing of the car sends it careening off the tracks, and the trolley zooms down a trackless hill and crashes into a large mudhole.

"Help, Katrina!", the Skipper yells, and the faithful powerhouse hikes her skirt, lifts an entire fence and runs to the Skipper's rescue. When she reaches in the mud towards the Skipper's hat, she finds out quickly that a squealing pig is wearing it; she dips in again, placing the hat on what she thinks is the Skipper's head, but when she pulls him out, he is upside down instead and she is holding the seat of his pants. While the Skipper frets about the train, Katrina calmly lifts the entire trolley out of the mud by using a board as a lever. She dumps it back on the tracks, but then the Skipper frets about the mud on the vehicle. She tells him she will fix it, and dumps an entire barrel of water on it. It only gets halfway clean, but she spies a paint shed nearby, and it is the simplest of efforts for her to lift the whole building off its floorboards, and then pick the floor up like an artist's color pallette. She skips back and paints the trolley with a fresh coat of red, and the Skipper takes off again, but only after asking Katrinka to "give her a start!" The almighty hausfrau picks up the tracks and whips them down, causing a tidal wave of trackage that shoots the trolley off at a decent clip.

The problem for the Skipper is that just ahead there is a bull in a pasture, and when he sees the now-red trolley, it appears in each of his eyes as a waving red flag, and he goes crazy! He demolishes his fence and charges after the trolley, and on his first hit he dislodges the Skipper from his perch. The Skipper waves a red bandanna to try and ward off the bull from smashing his precious trolley, and the bull responds by charging him directly. The first charge leave the Skipper spinning, and ends up with the bull wearing the Skipper's cap on his horn, and the Skipper's pipe in his mouth. The next charge, the items return to the Skipper, but the bandanna has been shredded. The bulls rests and breathes heavily in the corner where two fences meet, and the trolley, showing its face for the first time in the film, frets and rings its bell like at a boxing match. The bull charges again, and the Skipper is left wearing only his underwear -- and they are red! The bull chases the Skipper up a tree, where he is able to call for help from Katrinka yet again, as the bull knocks the tree back and forth, dislodging the leaves with each hit and momentarily showing the Skipper in his longjohns.

Katrina runs up, and when the bull goes after her (she, too, is mostly in red), she grabs him by horns and spins him around and around, finally letting go and letting him bounce off the roof of the trolley, leaving him in a daze. However, with the bounce, the trolley takes off on its own, and Katrinka has to shake the Skipper out of the tree and throw him like a football towards the car. He grabs the trolley pole and whips over the car to his perch in the front. He speeds like a demon to meet the train, but when he hits the end of the tracks, he is dumped off unceremoniously, and the trolley pole whips over the top to bonk his hat down tight over his face. When he recovers, he sees the Railroad Bulletin sign and he reads it aloud: "Toonerville Morning Train - 3 Hours Late [crossed out] - 12 Hours Late [crossed out] -- DUE NEXT WEEK!" The only thing the skipper can think to say is the very thing that he has yelled throughout the film: "KATRINKA!!!" Iris out.

This film is light and pleasant, but nothing more. It is not especially funny, though it is meant to be humorous, but the film is a minor diversion, and by that, I don't mean minors will get the most out of it, for I doubt many of today's youth would have the patience for such a light confection. It does intrigue me, however, about the Toonerville comic strip, for I have long felt I would like to get to know these folks a little better. I jumped on Amazon, but can only find out-of-print book collections of the strips, and maybe I will pursue one in the near future, maybe not. I still have the new Peanuts collections to catch up on, and a few Li'l Abners to locate.

And my Smithsonian collection and other comic strip books? Still in Anchorage, boxed-up and waiting for transport to my eager hands. The only thing that I have in my apartment with the Toonerville Folks on it is the U.S Postal Service's sheet of Comic Strip Classics that they released back in 1995. There, on a single stamp, is my only extant image of the Skipper and the rickety Trolley, packed full to its six-passenger capacity as the Skipper tries to pull it over a hill through the use of a handy grappling hook. As the stamp exactly equates the number of the panels that the strip contained each day, it shall have to do as my surrogate Toonerville strip until I get a decent collection some day. Despite the blandness of the cartoon series, it has more than piqued my interest.

Of course, I can always try a more effective method of getting out of this Toonerville fix...

KATRINKA!!!!

Toonerville Trolley (Van Beuren, 1936) Director: Burt Gillett
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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