Saturday, June 03, 2006

NOAH KNEW HIS ARK (1930)

It's weird how Farmer Al Falfa used to be a Van Beuren guy until Paul Terry took off with him. Only two years after this Aesop's Fables cartoon, Noah Knew His Ark from 1930, Farmer Falfa would star in a similar cartoon over at Terrytoons called Noah's Outing (which I reviewed here), once the already departed Terry swiped the character away from Van Beurne. It's only notable because, while this film stars a different Noah, both films feature the same song at the conclusion of the nonsense, and both films see fit to make sure that brontosauruses are involved in the ship-loading antics.

A monkey plinks out a modified version of Sailing, Sailing on the knees and toes of an elephant (who uses his giant ears to replicate an occasional crash of cymbals), while Capt. Noah (whom we know is called this from the small shack sitting directly behind him bearing this very name) leans back in a very tall stool, which dances to and fro while he whistles along. Eventually, the bearded and barefoot Captain jumps off the stool, and the both he and the stool dance alongside one another until the song's conclusion. Overhead, dark clouds thunder and lightning starts crashing ominously. The captain sits down as we see two large ears of corn growing off his toes, and then we are treated to the disgusting sight of a closeup of his feet, with each toe adorned with a blister of its own, which are then pounded on with hammers by tiny little pointy-tailed devils. The fiends disappear, and we see the corns hop and down on their own accord. Noah cries out, "Oh! Oh! Oh!" and then sings out, "Well, I guess we're going to have some rain!"

Two raindrops punctuate his statement, and in the sky above, one dark cloud floats up to another, takes the form of a bowler, picks up the other cloud, and rolls it into the stormclouds distant. Rain pours down from the sky, and Noah stands outside of his shack in complete bewilderment. Not knowing what to do, he sticks his head down his pants and looks out his pantsleg, and then pulls it back out again. A lightning strike sends him flying out of his pants, and he runs around the shack and then inside. When he closes the doors, his pants bang on the shack with its suspenders. He pulls the pants inside, but a lightning bolt shatters the structure, and Noah runs off bearing a goldfish bowl and holding the roof up with a stick for a makeshift umbrella. A strange-looking cat runs behind him, and when Noah trips, the cat greedily swallows the flying goldfish in one gulp.

Animals run two by two in fear of the storm, which is strange because the animals I know would be every critter for itself. People are pretty much the same way. A large tree with an anthropomorphic face and a skinny sapling bend in the rain and wind, and the large tree uproots itself, grabs the sapling, and runs for the hills. Down a wide valley, the pairs of animals thunder towards Noah's Ark. They board the ship through means of a huge gangplank, and those that don't employ this method simply hurtle themselves over the sides. Noah yells "Come on!" as he pulls the roof down on the ark, and on the shore, what appears to be a brontosaurus stretches its long neck to reach the ship. The ship moves away, so the dinosaur leaps high into the air, lands on the ship and sinks it briefly, then the ark rights itself and they are on their way.

The skunks are towed behind the rest on their own little ark, and if they didn't know that they had their own vessel, they would when they looked at it, for the word "SKUNKS" is writ large across its roof. Onboard the main ark, Noah announces "Ladies and Gentleman! The ship is safe! And I am your skipper!" Between each line, the monkey blows some very flat fanfare, more like raspberries, on a horn, and Noah starts to lose it. But then the monkey starts in on a jazzy little riff, and Noah starts to dance happily. Long before Fantasia, two ostriches dance beautifully in tandem across the deck, and in mid-dance, they both lay eggs. (Apparently the ostriches are an early example of a lesbian couple.) Their babies pop out of the eggs with the beat, and they jump out and finish the dance. Two elephants with huge belly-buttons and with bells on one ankle each, sway their hips and bump their butts together, and Noah takes over on piano while the monkey plays percussion on the Captain's bald head. A pair of monkeys dance a swell routine, incorporating their trademark flailing arms and bodily scratches into their choreography; meanwhile, two hippos, taking their cue from the ostriches, also predate Fantasia and show some flashy balletic moves of their own. A pair of monkeys turn an elephant into a rather static musical instrument, and then the deck is filled with pairs of dancing, hopping creatures. The ark wants to get in on the fun, and with a smiling face planted on its bow, the ship climbs up on top of the water on two skinny legs, and skips along happily in time with the music.

The rain has stopped by this point, and Noah gathers his charges on the deck. They all shout "Hooray!", and then they start singing:

"It ain't gonna rain no more, no more!
It ain't gonna rain no more!
But how in the world will the ship still sail
If it ain't gonna rain no more?"

As they start the second round of this verse, the two skunks dance their way up the towrope, and when they reach the deck, they hop aboard, sending Noah and all of the animals into a panic. Animals start running around the ark's cabin, given chase by the skunks, and then the whole lot of them start diving into the water, this time decidedly not in twos. It's every critter for himself, just like I told you. Iris out.

I will say this: the animals in this film are much better dancers and musicians than the ones in Farmer Al's version of the silly biblical fable. (Yeah, I said it. You should know where I stand on this poppycock by now.) The film is also a little less on the "surreal" side as the later film. No giraffes with elevators in their necks being ridden to the bottom floor by mice here. Owing to my aversion to men's feet, I find the corn sequence a little tough to take on a personal revulsion level, but it is still humorous to see, and doesn't detract from the fun opening musical scene. I also really like the scene with the pants banging frantically on the door of the shack after the lightning has divided them from Noah's bottom half. Numerous little touches abound in the corners of this cartoon, and even though the source tale is the same, as well as the producer, outside of the couple items that I mentioned at the start of this review, hardly anything gets touched on in the same fashion as in the other.

It's almost like two different units of the same company were given the same story, but were not told what the other one was going to do; so you end up with two slightly similar films with variations on the same popular song standard at its closing, further evidence of the popularity of dinosaurs in the public consciousness, and two equally light but equally fun shorts. It's almost like two different units of the same company did that, but it's not -- one film came two years later and almost feels like an attempt to remake the first film, but with the newer company's only star (at that moment). Was Al robbed of a starring role in this film, so once Paul Terry made off with him, the producer saw fit to cast his big star in the later version? (I have heard and read that this film is also a remake of Ship Ahoy, released as an Aesop's Fable by Van Beuren five months earlier, and that much of the animation is reused, including the skunks. I have not seen the film, so I cannot verify this personally, but this does not surprise me in the least.)

There is a similar feeling when one thinks about the variations that certain myths take on from culture to culture. For instance, there is this venerable myth about an ancient massively destructive flood that gets repeated in a great many cultures, such as by the Babylonians and the Sumerians and the Jews, and while some of them include arks or boats and some of the animal details (no dance numbers, though), there is a similar element that runs through all of them: there is a shitload of water. Why, it's almost like several units of the same company produced different versions of the same story. And now, I think the Babylonians are suing the Jews for the film rights...

Noah Knew His Ark (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Mannie Davis and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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