Saturday, July 01, 2006

THE GOOFY GOPHERS (1947)

Yeah, I have gopher-killing in my genes. I recall a trip back to Wisconsin where my dear Granny came back into her farmhouse off the backsteps with a shotgun after having blasted at a couple of the varmints in the backyard. Not that I would ever go to such lengths -- I would merely point out, "Hey, look! A couple of gophers! Let's name them Mac 'n Tosh!" Inevitably, to whomever I said this declaration, I would further have to explain who Mac and Tosh were, and then I would have to wish for a shotgun of my own with which to put the unknowledgable soul out of their misery. Growing up with The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show, one of my favorite connecting segments was when Bugs would introduce "The Gopher Twins - Mac 'n Tosh!", and then the little rodents would parade out onto the stage just before one of their adventures would air. Starring in nine cartoons over an almost 20-year period, the Goofy Gophers were particular favorites of mine in my youth, mainly because it was fun to duplicate their overly polite and slightly condescending mannerisms.

In their debut film from the under-rated director Arthur Davis in 1947, and unsurprisingly titled The Goofy Gophers, the chipper duo run afoul of an overly eager guard dog on a prize-winning vegetable farm. A sign reads: "Vegetable Garden - Entry No. 12 - Spumoni County Fair" and proudly displays a large blue "First Prize" ribbon off its boards; a second sign warns "Beware of Dog", and then we are shown the brute himself: a rather ordinary-looking hound, but one who marches back and forth in front of a guardhouse, repeating "Hup! Two! Three! Four" a few times. Suddenly, he curls up on the ground for a nap, his guard duties apparently thought done for the evening. Or is it all a ploy? When some intense crunching sounds are heard in the vegetable patch next to him, the dog rises to full alert and, in much the same voice as the Shakespearean dogs that would plague the gophers in their next two films, he intones dramatically with a paw to his ear, "Hark! Methink'st there be intruders in yon garden!" He fires off a mortar shell that brightens up the night sky, and then peers through a spyglass, which reveals to him two chubby grey gophers who are lazily munching on a batch of plucked carrots. "I shall give them what-for!", he announces to us, and then sneaks off with a tomato plant affixed to his head, a move which he describes as "CO-mman-DO tac-tics!"

If the gophers are aware of this assault, they seem to hide it completely. Instead, they politely let each other taste various vegetables as they find them. One is given leave to do with the carrots as he wishes, while the other tackles the tomatoes, which just so happen to be the ones on the dog's head, the largest and ripest-looking actually being the dog's nose. "Look! Who am I making like? Who am I making like?", the other gopher says, and he launches into an amusing imitation of a certain world-famous rabbit (who just happens to work for Warner Brothers). "Eh, what's up, doc?", he says with a pair of carrots for ears while he holds another like a cigar. "My, my, my, very clever!", his pal responds, as he leads the dog along by his tomato-like nose until he has led the canine to both of them. The dog continues to follow them as the pair pull up vegetable after vegetable and stuff them into the top of a hole in the ground: rhubarb, cucumbers, turnips, potatoes, radishes, etc.

The tomato-pulling gopher admires a particularly juicy watermelon, and the dog decides to let his prescence be known. "Scrumptious, isn't it?", he asks the gopher, who is not startled in the least by this verbal intrusion. "Have you tried the pumpkin?", he inquires of the pooch, and then he slams one straight down on top of his head. The dazed dog is asked if he has had his iron today, and when he answers in the negative, the gopher slams and form-fits the head of a shovel over his houndy noggin. He chases after the rodent with the shovel still in place, and when he dives after the gopher into the hole, he ends up hovering above the ground when the shovel handle hits the bottom. The gophers wear hats full of vegetables and bid each other adieu mockingly, and the dog digs out the ground around them. The gophers pop out the sides of the huge hole and blow him raspberries as he unsuccessfully tries to cut them in two with gardening shears. While he awaits their next entrance, the pair sneak up behind him and give him a hotfoot, causing him to rocket across the farmgrounds and soak his scalded foot in a rainbarrel.

All to a delightful conga beat, vegetables all over the farm start to disappear underground. At an appropriate moment in the beat, one of the gophers pops out with a boxing glove and slams the dog in the head. When the gophers reach the lettuce and start pulling the heads under, the dog disguises himself inside the scarecrow above, and hammily announces, "Ah! Once again me razor-keen mind comes to me rescue!" With the last vegetable taken, the gophers pull the scarecrow under. But the dog is spit back out immediately, and then the properly attired scarecrow is put back into place. A telegram from Western Onion drifts into the dog's hand, reading "We're vegetarians. You screwball!!!" Underground, one gopher talks the other one out of devouring certain items -- such as the strawberries that cause the one to break out into a rash -- but the celery is not to be ignored! The gopher starts to tug on the stalk, but so does the dog on the ground above. He starts to say, "Aha! Now I've got them exactly where --", but as he tugs, he sits his tail down on another hole, and with a mighty pull, he pulls himself headfirst into the hole behind him, because the gophers have tied his tail to the celery. Trapped between two holes, he changes the ending of his statement to sadly say "-- they want me!" The gopher fly at him on the ground with a flattening roller, mash the poor dog into the ground, and then pop their heads under the earth to tell him, "Silly boy!"

"I must extract meself from this precarious position!", says the canine, and he leaps up, barking and charging. He reaches his arm into one of the gopher holes, but the only thing he finds is the pin to a hand grenade, which, of course, he pulls out. He thinks it to be a ring, and he asks "Stunnin', isn't it?", before the grenade explodes, he is smoked to a crisp, and he passes out. Later, the lounging gophers are distracted by a beautiful gopher coquette, dressed in her gay 90's finest, and of course, actually being the hand of the dog in disguise. After giving loud wolf whistles, the boys take polite turns dancing with the beauty, before the second gopher knowingly pulls the clothes off the dog's hand. The pooch is not aware of this, and continues to prance his fingers about, with only the leggings still in place. The gophers push a mousetrap into place and snap it down on his fingers.

This seems to be the final straw. The dog angrily crawls across the ground with a knife, a stick of TNT and a long fuse. He slashes a carrot in half and hides the TNT inside. He lights the fuse and plugs his ears for the blast. The gophers intercept the burning fuse, cutting it off with shears at the last second, and then one gopher blows up and pops a paper bag to simulate the explosion. The happy guard dog marches victoriously in his next set of rounds, before predictably falling back asleep. The gophers pick up the dozing dog and place him in a missile launcher, set the sights for the moon, shove a stick of dynamite in his mouth and then light it. They place a camera in front of him, and one gopher blows a birdie whistle to wake the dog up. He does awaken, sees the camera and smiles -- and then BOOM! He is shot all the way to the moon, which breaks into four quarter moons, all of which rock back and forth to the closing notes to Rock-a-bye Baby. The gophers saw down the "Beware of Dog!" sign, and dance about in joy, saying "And now we will have the garden and all those lovely carrots ALL TO OURSELVES!!!" But they are distracted by a voice saying, in a tone mocking their squeakier voices, "Now, eh, I wouldn't say that!" The voice belongs to a laughing Bugs Bunny, who stands with his arm resting assuredly against a giant pile of carrots. Iris out.

Now, these are pesky antagonists to love, and I do. Created by Bob Clampett, he never actually directed the Goofy Gophers in a film, since he left Warners not long after their creation. The reins for the first couple of films belonged to Davis, one of my personal Warner favorites for his series of slightly off-kilter films in the late 40's. The gophers jumped around from director to director: Friz Freleng would commandeer them for their best films in the 50's, and Bob McKimson made a couple as well, including their last in 1965. Perhaps its the vegetable fixation; perhaps its the torture of ham-handed actorly canines; perhaps its the exaggerated manners, but I love these little guys. (By the way, I did not differentiate between the two in the above text: Mac has Mel Blanc's voice, while Tosh is vocally sketched by Stan Freberg.) While this film is not their very best, it is an excellent start to the series. I do wonder at the military hardware that seems to have been left all over the farm. Is it just postwar refuse, or was the film originally written and worked out in wartime, and then released later with hawk-like tendencies intact?

As I will never possess a shotgun, gophers have nothing to fear from me. Of course, I don't have a vegetable garden either, so that might keep them away anyway. Even if I had the seemingly deadly combination of garden, shotgun and gopher-killing genes, the little varmints could still get away with every vegetable in the plot.

After all, Mac 'n Tosh had already knocked the fight out of me long ago, when I was but a kid. (I did get a cauliflower ear from it, but then it got stolen and eaten...)

The Goofy Gophers (A Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 1947)
Director: Arthur Davis
Animators: Cal Dalton, Manny Gould, Bill Melendez and Don Williams
Backgrounds: Philip DeGuard
Layouts: Thomas McKimson
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Stan Freberg
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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