Thursday, June 22, 2006

JOE GLOW, THE FIREFLY (1941)

I have yet to see a firefly in person, but I do know this much: they are not actually all that cute close up. Neither are most bugs, at least to the human eye, but we still separate "good" insects from "bad" based merely on our collective perceptions of their personalities. Seen from our angle, if a bug has a trait that seems to be good or beneficial to humans, or if it achieves a vision of human "cuteness" for some aspect of its look, then it becomes one of the "good" ones. If a bug is an outright killer, or our perception is one of such depravity, then it becomes a "bad" one.

We do everything we can to destroy any ant that comes in our periphery: spraying them, smashing them, burning them; and yet, in cartoon after cartoon, ants, due to their social structure which reflects human society to a certain degree (albeit a socialist one), get to be the good guys in animated short and feature film alike. People fear bees for their stinging ways, yet they are also generally good guys because they make honey, and who can hate them for that? Even in films where we identify with its true lead character, Donald Duck for instance, we are made to feel sorry for the insects because of the lead's actions towards them.
Insects that we would kill outright if confronted with them, and not just necessarily in our homes. Ladybugs are actually vicious stalking killers, but you'd never know from how cute they seem to us because of the dainty spots on their exoskeletons. Butterflies are generally considered to be beautiful, unless you get a close up of that face, when it appears to be like any other insect by which we would be disgusted. Flies, which are perceived as filthy, disease-ridden pests in real-life, almost seem to get a pass in cartoons, where we tend to feel guilty for our rampage on these small creatures and let them be the heroes in numerous films. Besides, every knows where true evil lies: while they are not insects, the arthropods which most resemble true human behavior, the spiders, are almost always cast as villains (James and the Giant Peach being a notable exception) for their trapping, scheming, and murderous ways.

Whither the firefly? Not really flies, they are beetles. Beetles tend to be cast as "cute" buggies, even though some species of their ilk would gladly scoop out your innards once you are six feet under. Not the fireflies, though. We perceive them as cute because the males flit about with a phosphorescent glow shining off their backsides. People have used them in lanterns over thousands of years, and there is a general air of acceptance when speaking of the firefly. Of course, if one were to walk across your kitchen floor in the middle of the day, most likely you would not know what it was and squish it without a thought. Our only experience with them usually comes from viewing them at night, and we, as a species, summon up a common romantic vision of the firefly's dance for love in the nightskies. But there is no romance involved in this action, at least, not in the human realm of emotional understanding. The dance is only to attract a female with which to breed and make more little beetle larvae. We call them "glowworms", because it, too, allows for descriptive human cuteness. At all turns, we subvert our natural aversion to such creatures by hanging colorful and whimsical names on them. We do everything we can to sugarcoat the truth from ourselves; well, everything but put little hats on them.

Chuck Jones puts a hat on his title insect in Joe Glow, the Firefly, a black-and-white Looney Tunes entry from 1941. Part of this is to make Joe even cuter than than already drawn, a whimsical notion that adds a little more visual depth to what is perhaps the simplest character with whom Jones and crew ever worked; and because it is a fire helmet that Joe wears, it gives him a tie-in to the "firefly" name. The reasons for this tie-in are dubious themselves, as Joe never once fights a fire, nor does he come equipped with an axe or any other fire-fighting equipment. His sole prop is a small lantern that actually provides the light for which fireflies are famous. Though he can fly in the film, he seems to derive much more enjoyment from walking about, and his movements are those of a mountain climber and spelunker.

Why? Well, the story itself is even simpler than the bug's design. Whereas Joe could easily be any cartoon bug until the visual signifiers of the helmet and lantern are added, the only thing the story could be mistaken for is not existing at all. Into a tent in the middle of the woods, we see only the light of a firefly zip through the tent's flapped doorway, and after a quick scan of the landing area below, which is made up of the sleeping and snoring maw of a husky human being, the light lands within in the hair of the unconscious man. As the light emerges from the hair, we finally see the lantern and the hand holding it: that of Joe Glow himself. For most of the film, Joe treats the human like a huge mountain on which to explore. He slides down the man's nose; leaps from cheek to cheek as if they were crags to conquer; opens an eyelid to examine his own reflection; and walks through the man's fingers as if they were a cavern, his lantern light emitting between the cracks of the fingers. At one point falling off the body, he climb's the man's belt-holes like they were the rungs on a ladder to get a new vantage point on the body. Fingernails prove to be as slippery as ice to the bug, and he accidentally gets his feet trapped under one as he attempts to fly.

Eventually he loses interest in the man and flits off to explore the belongings of the tent. He lands on the switch of a large flashlight that understandably catches his eye; the light momentarily awakens the man, but nothing comes of it once Joe leaps off the switch. Food seems to not be a concern, for while the bug walks amongst numerous comestibles, he never bothers with devouring anything. He does get waylaid by a hill of salt when he curiously pops open the trapdoor on a container lying on its side (good thing it was laying this way or there'd be no such incident). And when he pulls himself into a similar pepper shaker, his sneeze shoots him across the table and almost knocks a catsup bottle off the table. The jig would be up indeed if it fell, but Joe is able to do some quick thinking and lasso the bottle with a ball of string that he discovers nearby. Having explored in a rather dull but sweet way for a few minutes, Joe starts to fly out, but rethinks his position and zips back to the man's ear. Climbing inside, he yells "Goodnight", startling the man, and then Joe makes his escape out of the tent. That's all, folks!

Really, that's all. As a small character study, Joe Glow is a success, albeit a small one. There are no interfering characters to distract us, just the minor league struggles of a small bug engaged in mindless adventuring, and we get to see the world from his perspective for a change. The film doesn't see the need, outside of the catsup incident, to have to involve us deeper emotionally or give the piece a villain or dramatic arc; it's just a simple bug doing simple things. And to offset the simplicity of the lead character, the film is chockful of shockingly close views of the human face and limbs, much as Jones did with Elmer Fudd in Beanstalk Bunny, where Bugs and Daffy play confused Jacks to Elmer's cloud-dwelling giant. The success of Joe Glow lies mainly in its ability to convince us that Joe really is exploring a huge mountain, and in the later scenes with the food products, the backgrounds have an almost three-dimensional and very lush feel to them, especially given how basic Joe seems against them.

I can't help but think that a year or so later, had this film come out then, that someone would have to be added to the film to remind Joe in the harshest way possible to "PUT OUT THAT LIGHT!" in the manner that many Warners' films did during World War II. Perhaps it would be the annoyed man awakening after Joe's yell and telling the bug off in that manner. Of course, in real life, if Joe had woken him in the middle of the day, the man's reaction might be different. He would see Joe and screech "What the f--- is that?" and then stomp on Joe, not knowing that he was one of the world's most cherished insects. And there would be cute fire helmet to warn the man in advance that this was Joe Glow, the firefly. There would just be splatter and the squish of bug, as it is in most households where insects, no matter how cute we make them in the cartoon business, are considered icky and unwanted. Joe would be a big brown spot of the floor, and then the Lysol Disinfectant would be hauled out to help Joe's remains end up smeared on a chemically doused papertowel on its way to a landfill.

Poor Joe... we hardly knew ye! Goodnight!

Joe Glow, the Firefly (A Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1941)
Director: Charles A. (Chuck) Jones
Writer: Rich Hogan
Animator: Phil Monroe
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voice: Mel Blanc
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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