Monday, June 05, 2006

HOT TAMALE (1930)

Honestly, I think Walt Disney had every right to complain about the hordes of animated mice that ran rampant after his boy Mickey hit the big time in the late 1920's. Disney has his detractors, and many of them would argue that he was just as guilty as the others of intellectual theft as any other studio. Animation was (and is) a constantly evolving field, and the game grew by leaps and bounds in those days. All of the creators of animation were looking to make money from a finite pool of money, and what was good for one studio was most assuredly the way to go for the rest.

Sure, an argument can be made about the basic similarity of all mice in color, shape and movement. But, Mickey had some rather distinctive features, too -- the short pants, the shoes, the style and shape of his ears and eyes, the attitude -- all of them put together, along with the fact that he was given a name and definite continuing personality, made him huge and special in the public's eye. If Disney had maintained that all cartoon mice were straining to cash in on Mickey's superstardom, then he would certainly be off the mark -- many of the mice were just too limited in screen time and plot importance to be worried about -- but there were cases where the similarities to Mickey are just a little too close.

Take Milton Mouse, for instance, the mouse that drove Walt Disney to a series of lawsuits and eventual court legal victory. Apparently, he is the mouse from Happy Polo/The Polo Match (1929/1932), redesigned, rounded and outfitted to resemble the suddenly famous Mickey (just as Rita, Milton's significant other, now looks remarkably like Mickey's grand love, Minnie). In Hot Tamale, an Aesop's Fables tale of a south-of-the-border love triangle (which really has only two sides) from Van Beuren in 1930, Milton rides up to Rita's hacienda, guitar in hand, to serenade his lady love. Before he descends from his mechanical horse (also used in Happy Polo), a heart bearing wings flutters out from Milton's lovelorn look at Rita's front door, if only to clue us in immediately as to his intentions (as if we needed the hint). Beginning to play In A Little Spanish Town, he pulls and stretches his guitar strings out wildly and spins his instrument about in circles; inside the hacienda, Rita starts to dance flamenco-style to the beat, her bloomers dropping down to the floor once in a while.

Milton desires to enter her front door, but he literally gets cold feet, as we see his shoes form into iceblocks. He decides to continue to profess his love from outside, but as he plays, his spirit leaves his body, several shades lighter than his true self, and enters Rita's abode. The spirit plays the lovesong as Rita continues to dance, sometimes turning upside down to do so, which leaves her skirt falling over her face, which she pulls up with her tail. When the song is finished, Milton's musical spirit kisses her several times on the cheek (up-a-stairs, not down-a-stairs). Outside, Milton drools with lust, and finally works up the courage to enter the house for real. He walks in and seats himself next to Rita, who looks away demurely. Milton lies his guitar on his lap and starts to play it Hawaiian slide-style, and Rita is overjoyed with the sound.

Milton motions to her as if to say "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" and pops his guitar open. Any guitarist worth his pick has a ukelele hidden inside of their instrument, and Milton is no exception. Sitting down on the edge of his guitar like a parkbench, Milton starts to strum Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue as Rita launches into a frenetic dance. Eventually, we see the fountain in her courtyard, where a naked stone figure bearing an umbrella stands over several sea creatures who have hopped out of the fountain to join in the dance: an eel, a lobster, a fish, a turtle and a frog. after a few seconds, the stone figure, too, starts swaying, as do three cacti in the courtyard behind them. Rita continues to shimmy, and then jumps in and out of her dress a few times. When she is done, she is standing naked and embarrassed before Milton, while her dress and bloomers dance on their own. She dives back into her clothes, and then shyly takes a seat on her bench. Milton slides up to her, salivating profusely, but he gets nervous and slides away. He wrestles with his fears, but eyes her slyly, as she does him, and finally, he slides over and they embrace. They kiss passionately for a while, perhaps a little too passionately for a cartoon, and Rita strokes his neck while they do.

Enter the villain -- a cat; Waffles the cat actually, and he naps soundly on the back of his own wooden horse, while the steed strums the guitar Waffles holds in his sleeping hands with its tail. When they arrive at Rita's door, Waffles blows kisses towards it, but then he sees Milton step out. So livid he can barely stand up or control himself, Waffles can only watch as Milton gets aboard his horse and prepares to depart. Waffles berates Milton with about two wagonfuls of Spanish gibberish, and Milton's only response is to blow a raspberry at the cat, which knocks him down in surprise. As Milton rides off, Waffles blows an even larger raspberry back at the mouse. Waffles enters Rita's house, and though he, too, wishes to sing her a song of love, Rita wants nothing to do with him. Even though he sings to her, or perhaps, because he does, she cries out in alarm. She runs off and hides in the back of a haycart, but the bars only serve as a cage to her as Waffles advances on her. He pulls out two mallets and starts to play the bars like a vibraphone, as music swells on the soundtrack.

From off in the distance rides Milton to the rescue. Just outside the wall where she is trapped in the cart, Milton unscrews the head off Waffles' horse and fills the mechanical steed with rocks, weighing its stomach down until it is reaches the ground. He climbs on top of the horse and pulls Rita over the wall just as Waffles' finishes his torturous song of evil. As the lovelorn couple ride off in safety, Waffles tries to give chase, but the horse can't go anywhere -- at least, not in a rapid fashion. He slaps and punches and even smacks the horse's bottom with a flyswatter, but it can barely move. He finally gets it to drag its stomach slowly, but the horse finally falls apart due to his cajoling. He sees the rocks inside the horse's torso, and goes crazy with anger! The horse, however, has had enough, and its dismembered head reaches around and bites Waffles on the backside. Far from this raucous scene, Milton and Rita ride off in rapture. When Milton finishes playing another song, he pulls his sombrero down over both of their heads, and the two renew their kissing. Iris out.

A sad fact is that most people don't bother with credits, or even seeing a film all the way through from start to finish. People know the biggest characters or stars, and it's screw-all from that point onward. I know people who have insisted that they watched "a Charlie Chan film last night on AMC" when in fact the film was a Mr. Wong programmer; likewise, I know of an instance where someone confused Buster Crabbe's Buck Rogers with Flash Gordon, and asked me why they didn't have Ming the Merciless in the serial. It is undoubtably certain to me, that if you were to show this cartoon sans titles to the uninitiated, who only know of Mickey Mouse's existence, they would leave the viewing believing and insisting that they had just watched "an old Mickey and Minnie cartoon." That this film is lesser in quality from Mickey's current output would not matter to those who had happened upon it.

So, I understand Disney's need to establish his big cheese as the big cheese-eater. Despite the fact that Mickey was equally inspired by a preceding decade's worth of other cartoon mice, some even in the Aesop's Fables, to his good fortune, Mickey had become huge, and the rest of the cartoon world had taken notice. It was his stake to claim, and can we really fault him for taking the opportunity to set he and his company up forever? He had the gold standard of cartoon mice at that moment in time. Remember the golden rule: he who has the gold, makes the rules. Disney did just that, and he never let go of that gold, even at the end.

Hot Tamale (A Van Beuren Aesop's Sound Fable, 1930)
Director: John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

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