Sunday, July 02, 2006

WALKY TALKY HAWKY (1946)

I will resist the urge to start this post with either an "I say" or a "Boy!", and simply profess that I am a great admirer of Foghorn Leghorn. My father probably had something to do with this, as he has counted Foghorn, along with the ornery Yosemite Sam, as one of his favorite cartoon characters; not that long ago I was able to read the delight on his face as he watched a Foghorn short that resided upon a tape I had loaned him. But, I must admit that Foghorn is not my choice of a favorite character in his own films. Rather, that distinction belongs to a plucky little fella who is usually discounted by others when relating the merits of various Warner Bros. animation stars.

The star of 1946's Walky Talky Hawky, which stands as the star-making Oscar-nominated debut film of the blustery rooster, is not actually Foghorn Leghorn, but instead a pint-sized purpose-questing little spitfire named Henery Hawk. Henery is a chickenhawk by nature, but he is unaware of this at the beginning of this film. We meet him first after the camera crawls to the top of a tall tree, where rests the home of Poppa Hawk (whose mailbox holds a rolled-up Looney Tunes comic book with Bugs Bunny on the cover), Momma Hawk (whose magazine of choice is a raptorian play on the Ladies Home Journal) and tiny Henery (who is apparently reading Esquire at such a young age). Inside, Henery stands on his father's hand and says, "Gee, Pop! I don't know what's wrong with me! The trouble's in my tummy. I crave something, but I don' know what it is!" His father breaks down, and in a prolonged monologue, admits to his son the true nature of their "outcast" kind. He offers the knowledge that they must eat chickens, to which the now eye-opened little fiend replies with glee, "Eat a chicken?! Is that bad?! That's for me!" He leaves their home immediately to seek out that which his tummy has been craving, all the while yelling "Here, chick-chick-chick-chick!" He leaps off the ancestral tree branch, but he only crashes hard onto the ground below, commenting that he "had better loin to fly."

Meanwhile, we meet the Barnyard Dog (so named because he is a dog that guards a barnyard) as he participates in his favorite sport: annoying the hell of a big, pushy, no-good rooster named Foghorn Leghorn. Tethered constantly to his house, the dog nonetheless prances about with a watermelon towards the unaware Foghorn, who is giving himself a manicure, and splats the melon right over his big fat chickeny noggin. Correctly conjuring the image of his tormentor, Foghorn shouts out in his boisterous Southern gentleman's voice, "Everyday it's the same thing!" The dog has run back to his house and lays down on the ground, pretending to be asleep as if there was no way he could be involved in such a trangression, but Foghorn knows better. With a board in hand, he walks up, lifts the dog by his tail and swats his behind fiercely a number of times. He runs off with the dog in pursuit, but the canine gets wrenched backwards by the limits of his tether. Foghorn turns about on the barking dog and slaps him across the face, yelling "Aww! Shaddup!"

Henery has made his way to the barnyard, and as he calls about for a chicken, Foghorn picks the runt up and asks him, in his gruff manner, "Ya lose something -- I say, ya lose something, kid?" Henery tells him of his quest for a chicken, and Foghorn misdirects the confused youngster by telling him that "I'm a horse - I say, I'm a horse, myself!" He whinnies, neighs and kicks about for further effect, and then he points out a real chicken for the aspiring young chickenhawk. The kid marches up to the Barnyard Dog and says "Ooh! That's the biggest chicken ever I seen!" He picks up the dog's tail and describes it in the popular manner of a cigarette commercial: "So round, so firm, so fully-packed." He chomps down hard on the canine tail, and the dog wakes up, yelping loudly. The dog picks up the bird and growls at him, but Henery stands his ground and grabs the dog by the chest, asking him "Are you coming quietly or did I got to muss you up?" The dog chases Henery across the yard, but yet again is choked by the limits of his rope. Foghorn marches up and smacks a croquet ball off the dog's head with a mallet, sending the ball through a hoop to capture a wicket.

Henery is still running, but Foghorn intercepts him and persuades the kid to go after the dog/chicken again. "Nice boy," the rooster says to the camera, "but he doesn't listen to a word ya say!" Henery marches back to the doghouse, giving himself a pep talk as he goes. The dog wakes up in his house, and starts to believe he is on a train the way the house is shaking to the strains of California, Here I Come. He looks out of his doorway, and holds a mirror to see underneath the floor while the house continues to rattle along like on railroad tracks. He sees the ever-determined Henery hoisting the entire house (and dog) along on his shoulders. He leaps out and chases after the little bird but for the third time reaches the end of his rope. Gasping on the ground, he has no defense as Foghorn seizes the moment and places a knight's helmet over the dog's head, and then bangs on it with a hammer to rattle the dog's poor brains.

Foghorn helps the lad formulate a scheme to catch the "foxy chicken" once and for all. Henery sneaks up to the doghouse, which has been roped and staked to the ground by the dog for protection, and lays out several props in specific places. He carries a small upright piano and a frying pan around the side of the house. Henery then runs out to the dog's door and draws a doorbell on it with a pencil. He rings the bell and runs back around the side. The dog looks out, but Henery (unseen) starts to pound out Gotta Be This or That on the piano, a tune which the dog is unable to resist, and he struts around the side of his house, where we hear the clang of frying pan against dog skull. The dazed Barnyard Dog stumbles out to the front again, where he falls down onto a perfectly placed banana peel, falls back onto a large bedspring, and then falls forward onto a rollerskate, with which Henery wheels off his proposed dinner.

The dog comes to and asks Henery why he is being tortured like this, and the little hawk tells him.
"Hubba! Hubba! Hubba!", the dog yells in amazement. "I'm no chicken," he tells Henery, and then points at Foghorn. "That's a chicken!" Foghorn runs right up to the dog and responds, "Don't you call me no chicken -- you... chicken!" This causes Henery to shout the triple "Hubbas", and then he goes to unscrew the plate from the doghouse, freeing the dog to chase after Foghorn unencumbered. The pair start a vicious dust-cloaked battle, and then the dog chases Foggie to the stables, where the fight continues unseen until the horse holds the pair of them out over his stalldoor and bangs their heads together. The pair shake hands and form a pact to go get the horse instead. They march in and start to thrash the stallion, but someone else marches into the stable, too. It is Henery, and he is all business as he sets his mind to finishing this nonsense. A huge crashing and beating is heard, and then the stall door is kicked open. Henery stomps out dragging a rope which is tied to the horse's tail, who in turn is hanging onto the Barnyard Dog's foot, who in turn is grasping onto a kicking and screaming Foghorn Leghorn, who scratches and claws at the ground as he goes.
Henery spits out in frustration, "One of these things - I say, one of these things, has GOT to be a chicken!", and the film irises out.

Robert McKimson, the director of the Foghorn Leghorn series, may be at his best with the big loud-mouthed schnook, but he had an engaging enough star in Henery, the little equally loud-mouthed fireball of predation. While the jokes may not be elaborate as some in the later entries, especially in the Foghorn-Dog battle which would escalate to bigger and more violent configurations, Henery is the glue in the film. While audiences fell immediately in love with Foghorn, I am actually more attracted to the hawk, for the simple reason that, unlike most of the other predatory creatures in cartoons, Henery actually gets away with his purpose. In many of his films, he parades off with the very prize that he craved: a chicken, and in the form of Foghorn Leghorn. Perhaps he is allowed to get away with this because he is so much smaller and cuter than the rest of the characters (it makes you wonder what Wile E. Coyote could have attained had he been a mere coyote pup going after the annoying Roadrunner). In this film, he not only gets the chicken, but the dog and horse as well, if only to take the time to determine which one will roast up the best.

What I enjoy about Henery, in much the same spirit that I enjoy the late 30's Porky Pig, is his can-do drive. He realizes what he needs and he goes out to get it. Some would call this drive capitalistic and Randian; I don't think of it so much in those terms, as I am only now pondering such an existence as a personal system of achievement. Give this to the little guy: there is little that stops him in these films; even the interference of larger, outside forces only slows him down momentarily, and when he sees his chance, he takes it. Both he and Foghorn may have big mouths, but Foghorn is all blather and boast, using words for a cover to his actual incompetence, while Henery talks big (especially for such a tiny thing), but he also has the stones to get the job done.

It's probably predictable that audiences would prefer the big talker with nothing behind his game, and it's also predictable that most film historians turn almost a blind eye on poor Henery, the Little Chicken Hawk That Could. (Maltin almost dismisses him with a backwards slap to his little feathered chin.) But, he is almost the only theatrical cartoon predator (at least, until the Pink Panther, who never acts his species anyway) who stands as the actual take-no-guff hero of his films.

For that alone, he should be given more notice. I know I do...

Walky Talky Hawky (Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 1946)
Director: Robert McKimson
Writer: Warren Foster
Animators: Richard Bickenbach, Cal Dalton and Don Williams
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

2 comments:

David Gerstein said...

Hey there!

I hope you'll be pleased to learn (if you didn't know already!) that in the 1940s, Warner treated Henery, not Foghorn, as the big star. And he was... in the comic books. 1942's SQUAWKIN' HAWK was only a few months past when Henery debuted in a 1943 issue of LOONEY TUNES AND MERRIE MELODIES COMICS. A few months later, he reappeared, this time as the title character of his own story. And he continued as such, usually with eight pages every month -- all the way into the 1960s. From 1948, Foghorn (initially, and tellingly, called "Senator Leghorn") often appeared, but this didn't change the fact that the stories focused on the scenario from Henery's can-do point of view.
Shall I get into Henery's eternal rivalry with Oliver (I HAVEN'T GOT A HAT) Owl? Those comics, drawn almost exclusively by former WB animator Vivie Risto in Henery's case, never saw a minor WB character they didn't like...

Rik Tod said...

Thanks, David. Haven't heard from you in a while. Yes, I was aware of Henery's prescence in the comics since the 40's (I read many of these stories over the years), but I was speaking specifically of his treatment today, when he is so easily knocked aside for supposedly far more durable characters like Foghorn. I, much like the comics of that bygone era, have never met a minor WB character I didn't like in some aspect, but this does nothing to alleviate the situation now. Despite his treatment in his heyday, it seems to me that today's audiences are decidedly unfamiliar with the little hawk. Many is the time that a Henery quote has popped out of my mouth, and then I have to jump through hoops in trying to describe the character to the unknowledgable cretin towards whom I directed the quote.

And it's no surprise that Henery has been steamrolled by the success of Foghorn in the cartoons. It's a shame, but it's telling: Americans talk about loving winners or admiring traits like gumption and spunk, but what they actually love in this day and age is an egotistical horn-tooter. Add in the trailer trash angle, and I'm surprised that Warner's hasn't developed a "reality" show around him yet.

My main purpose with this site is to relate how animated films, no matter their era, affect me today or how they have affected me since infancy. I play at tidbitting history here and there, but by no means am I trying to give a complete history of a character in each posting. And not to disparage the comics by any means, but in setting a character study, they are often not very helpful in this pursuit. Character motivation and personality often change dramatically when the character skips from screen to print, even more so than when they jump from director to director. The Pink Panther in the comics is a far cry from the one in the cartoons; the same can be applied to the Roadrunner and Bugs Bunny. This is not a knock on the comics' versions of these character; it is merely an observation towards stating that, for the most part, they exist as entirely different entities from their animated selves, and are therefore generally of little use when writing about the cartoons.