Sunday, June 18, 2006

A FIREMAN'S LIFE (1933)

I don't know if jumping through hoops is literally a part of the cadre of tests that one must take to become a fireman, even a volunteer one, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were. It's not like the armed forces where they will take practically anyone for cannon fodder, as long as you shut up about certain things. No, to put your life on the line fighting fires in what I consider to be the most noble of professions, you have to be considered a top candidate both physically and mentally, and they really make you work your ass off to get a job where you could be killed with even the slightest mistake.

Knowing full well that it is hard as hell to become a fireman now, one wonders what the standards were back in Tom and Jerry's day. In the Van Beuren cartoon, A Fireman's Life (originally released in 1933 with the title Hook and Ladder Hokum, and also put out as Fire! Fire!), Tom and Jerry are the residents of a firehouse that encounters very little success in actually doing any good in the job. Given their antics in the past films, Jerry has done nothing more than give off the air of a future arsonist, so perhaps he was hired to fulfill the role in the manner that Bradbury envisioned firemen in Fahrenheit 451: as those who start the fires. Not that he is up to any of that nonsense here. No, both Tom and Jerry are happy and dedicated to their jobs as protectors of the community, and when we first meet them, they are retiring for the night after a hard day of work. This means playing a game of checkers while Turkey in the Straw plays on the soundtrack. It seems that Tom has the game won, with pieces covering the board, and with Jerry having only a single piece left. But Jerry pulls his piece up into the shape of a chess rook, and the piece sprouts arms and legs, jumping over all of Tom's pieces. Tom pounds his fist in anger, and a portrait of the firechief on the wall comes to life and laughs uproariously at Tom's loss. The flustered fireman picks up a spittoon and throws it at the painting, but the chief catches the spittoon and fires it back at Tom, hitting him in the head and sending him about the room in a daze.

Jerry makes his way to bed, and as he does so, he hops and climbs out of each succeeding item of clothing, leaving it sitting or hanging in a long path leading to the bed. Tom brushes his teeth fastidiously, but then pulls his teeth out and leaves them in a glass when he is finished. He climbs into bed, lying close to Jerry, but when he lays the blanket over the both of them, Tom rolls to the other side of the bed, completely wrapping himself in the blanket and leaving the already sleeping Jerry uncovered. Tom tries to blow out the nightstand candle, but the flame merely leaps off onto the tabletop, and then leaps back into place. If a fireman can't put out a mere candle, what good is he going to be in the field? Tom brings an end to this nonsense by smashing the candle with a sledgehammer.

Suddenly, the phone rings, and when the boys don't come running, the phone puts its hand into its mouthpiece and whistles for them to come. Tom waddles out of bed still wrapped tight in the blanket, and takes the call. Flames and smoke pour out of the receiver, and the boys jump to action! Jerry runs along the path where he had laid out his clothing, and he leaps, flips and dives through each article until he is fully dressed and sliding across the floor. Tom turns on a faucet over the hole where the firepole should be, and he slides down the stream of water to the garage below, with Jerry close behind him. To wake up the sleeping horse that has to pull their firewagon, Tom merely cuts the rope on the horse's hammock. The creature wakes up dazed and looking for a fight, but Tom motions to him the emergency. The horse steps into his boots, and after Tom throws a helmet onto his head, the horse pulls the firewagon into the night.

A house aflame and surrounded by clouds of smoke is the target, and as they near it, flames leap from the house in the shape of the word "HELP!" over and over. As they run the hose out from the truck, an old geezer a couple stories up is beset by savage flames as he yells for water. Tom turns on the water, and we see a bulge fly through the hose to its nozzle, but when Jerry points it upward, only a series of single drops spring out. He throws the hose down in anger and brings Tom over. The skinny Tom sits down like a swami and plays a horn which causes the hose to rise mystically like an enchanted snake. (When it reaches the story where the old geezer is, it even takes on the face of a snake.) The water shoots so hard out of the nozzle that it knocks the geezer clear through to the other side of the building, where he runs along the stream and then grabs and rides it for a while. Finally, he swims back along to reenter the building. The horse runs with a bucket to throw into the house, but a small flame leaps out and lands at his feet. The horse throws the meager amount of water onto the flames, extinguishing them to his amusement. He then runs back to the pump to get more water.

The geezer prepares to leap from the building, and the firefighters run up with the trampoline to catch him. When he hits, though, the geezer bounces back up, over the roof, and into the chimney. He comes out back on his original floor, covered in soot and yelling "Mammy!" The horse's next bucket of water actually makes it inside the house, but he gets his tail attacked by some flames, and the next water that he pumps is only to soothe his sore rear end. The next attempt to catch the geezer fails when Tom and Jerry are distracted by a comely femme in the next window. They drop the trampoline just as the geezer hits it, and they run off to catch the girl instead. Her clothes blow upward as she falls, revealing a healthy set of gams, and she faints in Tom's arms when he catches her. (Jerry fans her with his helmet.) Meanwhile, the horse has filled an entire barrel up with water, and he carries it over to the house. When he throws it into the wall, however, he knocks the already weakened structure down completely. The horse gnaws his shaking hands so much out of guilt, that he pulls his teeth out. The geezer crawls out of the wreckage, picks up a board, and chases after the horse. As the firesteed bolts down the street dragging the wagon after him, parts start falling off the wagon. One of them is the boiler, underneath of which we discover Tom, Jerry and the rescued damsel, all holding hands and dancing gaily around and around. The boiler falls over the top of the angry geezer, and the film comes to an end.

Typical Tom and Jerry fun, a bit lighter on the surrealistic aspects than normal, and with Jerry less of the little rebel than he prefers to be. As a result, it is not as engaging, though a couple of the set pieces are fun. The film is mainly of interest as it is the first screen directing credit (under the typically wacky pseudonym Tish Tash) for future Warner Bros. great Frank Tashlin, who made a name in both animation and feature films. (Artists and Models, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? and The Girl Can't Help It are some of my favorites of the ones that he devised.) This short was his only directing credit at Van Beuren, but he would show up three years later on the Warners' lot, directing Porky's Poultry Plant with the shortened name of Frank Tash (something of a compromise between his given name and his original pseudonym). A few films in, he would make a film called Porky the Fireman, where he would reuse a handful of the gags from this film, but with a more practiced style.

All the practice in the world couldn't help Tom and Jerry become better firemen. They just aren't cut out for a job which requires extreme patience, personal strength and perseverance. While Jerry is loaded with boatloads of courage (though much of it is derived from sheer stubbornness), Tom is something of a coward in tough situations, and though he shows a bit more courage here, it is of little good due to their inability to complete their job as planned. Even if the boys were able to practice their skills, they had very little time left in which to do it. Three more films would follow in 1933, and then the Tom and Jerry name would be put out to pasture until a little brown mouse and tall grey cat would pick up the mantle at MGM. They would be more famous than the human versions could ever dream of being, and they would make it possible for even the most casual animation fan to discover the old pair and declare, "There was another Tom and Jerry?" (including yours truly, at one point).

If only the old boys had stuck to one of their many failed jobs in the cartoons, they might have had something to fall back on. As it is, if any retired cartoon characters ended up as bitter old drunks in their dotage, it was probably these hard-partying guys. Even their names are an olde reference to drinking, fighting, knockabout pals. Well before Van Beuren closed, the duo disappeared for good, and it is not hard to imagine them in the gutter, bemoaning the days when they used to be middle-tier cartoon stars, and to hell with that friggin' cat and mouse who stole their names!

Try putting that fire out...

A Fireman's Life (aka Hook & Ladder Hokum and Fire! Fire!)
(Van Beuren Studios, 1933)
Directors: Vernon Stallings and Tish Tash (Frank Tashlin)
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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