Tuesday, February 28, 2006

TIN PAN ALLEY CATS (1943)

Neither as inspired as Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, due mainly to a massive recycling of gags and animation from a pair of earlier, better Bob Clampett and Friz Freleng films, and because of this rehashing, it's not as funny, either. Tin Pan Alley Cats repeats Clampett's Porky in Wackyland concept of a hallucinatory excursion into a Daliesque nightmare landscape, though this one is brought about by an orgiastic jazz frenzy rather than a search for a legendary Do-Do Bird. Where this film approaches Coal Black, however, is in Clampett's portrayal of outrageous racial stereotypes set against a backdrop of jive and swing culture. The concept from which the title is derived is due to all of the black characters being played by cats.

After a camera pans across a moonlit city landscape to the strains of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon", we are introduced to a stout, pudgy little cat obviously designed after Fats Waller, who struts about shouting "Wot's de matter wit dat?" to any confrontation that occurs, and gets his shoes shined by a kitten. We then focus on a street where two diametrically opposed operations stand side-by-side: the jazzy, bouncing Kit Kat Club, where the Waller-cat will inevitably end up, and the Salvation Army-like Uncle Tomcat's Mission, where a band pounds out a martial beat while bleating out "That Ol' Time Religion". (It's enough to turn you to liking jazz... if you don't already.) Of course, given the choice, it is obvious what the Waller-cat will choose, and when a cat preaches a sermon to him about the dangers of "Wine, Women and Song", the Waller-cat immediately bursts through the doors of the gin joint. Raring to party, he heads straight to the drums and begins to pound out a swingin' beat, then switches over to the piano. A lazy cat eating his dinner is surprised when his chicken gets off of the plate and starts dancing! A cat styled after Louis Armstrong begins to play "Nagasaki" (though the voice seems closer to Louis Prima, and I would be interested to know if he laid down the vocals for this track; much of this animation, the trumpet bit and the Waller piano rolls, come from September in the Rain from 1937). Suddenly, in the frenzy of the intense jive, the Waller-cat is sent by the music... and in the worst way!

The music carries him off through a sky of giant trumpets to an unknown land. "Where's I at?", the Waller-cat asks, and a tremendous pair of disembodied lips tells him, "YOU IS OUT OF THIS WORLD!!!" The film then becomes a redone version of the journey through Porky's Wackyland, with the Waller-cat encountering all manner of weird, wacky, sometimes creepy individuals, all surrounded by increasingly strange backdrops, trees and buildings. The gags that aren't lifted wholesale as reused animation are often redrawn version, such as the moment where a black bellhop holds an elevator for the Waller-cat, only to take off and disappear before he can get in the lift. In Porky in Wackyland, it is the exact same elevator animation, except for the operator, where the cad in the lift is the Do-Do Bird himself. The rubber band, the "Mammy" bird, the rabbit swinging through his own ears, the double-head-ended cat-dog: these are all taken from the earlier Clampett film, and there is even a character that has an umbrella-hat for a head just like the Do-Do, only he is more recognizably human in nature.

This film, however, as it was released in the midst of World War II, has giant dancing, bouncing, kicking caricatures of Stalin, Hitler and Tojo visited various dancefloor pains on each other. And the backgrounds, while mostly similar, sport several features not found in the Wackyland version: trees with limbs bent in the shape of horn players, and enormous slices of watermelon about the size of blue whales form a green and red backdrop to the crazed goings-on. Soon, the Waller-cat can take no more of being out of this world, and suddenly pops back into the real world. He immediately runs to the safety of the Salvation Army Band, and takes up singing "That Ol' Time Religion".

I am torn by films of this type. I am simultaneously overjoyed at discovering one of these films (I ran across this one on an Orange County public access channel), as they are (with good reason) difficult to track down; but I also wrestle with a certain shame over viewing the contents of these films, especially given the sensitive racial nature of the material. The plus in these films is that there are lively musical sequences and incredible animation and design at play; the incredible downside is that the fun is clearly at the expense of an entire race of people. Because I am most decidely not black, I can't even to begin to imagine what someone of their race must feel when confronted with these reminders of this time not so long ago where such portrayals were considered copacetic for public consumption. As much as you want to simply sit back and enjoy the antics of the characters on the screen without caring what color the protagonist happens to be, it cannot be done. The ugliness is coated on too thickly to ignore the stereotypes and meanness at play. Casual meanness it might be; accepted societal norms they may have been, but it doesn't make it right for even one second.

The twist is that I feel that these films should be seen and should be preserved. There is considerable art at work here, even in the most terrible of instances (compared to the horrendous Bugs Bunny short All This and Rabbit Stew, this film and Coal Black seem to be shining examples of civic brotherhood), and as art they should be studied and discussed; they should always be seen with an explanation of the time it was made and the conditions that led to the attitudes and traits displayed in the story. Unfortunately, this film did not come with any of those provisions: I found it on that lonely public access channel, tacked on just before the end of the 9 o'clock hour, simultaneous coating the screen in its fun musical numbers, wacky antics and ugly black stereotypes. I doubt many young impressionable viewers were up to see any of this.

Then again, I ran into just flipping the channels. Who knows who saw this without any understanding of its true nature?

Tin Pan Alley Cats (Warner Bros., 1943) Dir: Robert Clampett
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Monday, February 27, 2006

THE PINK PHINK (1964)

I recently received, via Amazon, the complete collection of Pink Panther cartoons on DVD. While I imagine the later discs to be somewhat rough and monotonous going, it is the early films from the first few years of the Panther's reign as the best thing going in theatrical cartoons in the mid-60's (as Warner Bros. had already begun their decade-long spin into dessication from what was once an artistically inspired outfit, and Disney barely put out any shorts anymore), that I had been awaiting for some time. The biggest pleasure, it turns out, is being freed from the annoying laugh tracks that were attached to the films for television, the likes of which I have had to deal with since my childhood. To hear and see The Pink Phink, the very first Pink Panther short, free from this unnecessary audio intrusion was the first and most immediate pleasure I received when I plugged in the initial disc from the collection. The next immediate pleasure was to rediscover the simple joys that a perfectly designed and well-written cartoon can bring.

There is an explosion on the screen like a pink sunburst, and then the cat appears; the Pink Panther, that is. Calm, cool, and collected (the Three C's, Arthur Fonzarelli would call them); the Panther is all of these, seated serenely with his early omnipresent cigarette holder clenched in his smirking fangs. Once almost expects this entire cartoon to be completely colored in pink, and eventually, it will be, but the film starts off far more subtly. In fact, almost too subtly: when we first see the Panther in the story proper, he walks onto a nearly entirely white, stark backdrop, with only a few lines scrawled at screen left. The cat follows these lines and eventually we see a forced perspective shot of a long hallway with blue walls. It is the first indicator that we are inside of a building, specifically, a house. The camera pans further left and we meet The Little Man for the first time, a character who would appear time and again as the Panther's nemesis, and whose mustachioed look was based on the company's own Friz Freleng. The Little Man is painting a wall with bright blue paint, and takes no notice whatsoever of the large pink cat. The Panther dips a finger in the paint, tastes it, and finds the color blue not to his liking at all. He replaces the can with one full of pink paint, and the Little Man continues to paint unaware of the change of pails, with the new color going over the old blue one. Now, he notices it, and turns to find his blue can gone, but a trail of blue drippings leads him to a door.

It is remarkable how much is conveyed in this cartoon with only the simplest line drawings. We don't see the walls about the room in which the door is placed. Only the door, the keyhole of which the man looks through and gets an eyeful of blue paint. Perturbed, he runs at the door to knock it in, but it opens politely as he approaches it, and he stops short to find his blue pail sitting there undisturbed. It seems all is well as he picks it up to return to his work, but the door flies open again and smashes him against the wall, as the Panther passes unseen by the crushed Little Man, who is revealed when the door closes in a blue wallsplatter.

The Little Man then stretches to the ceiling to paint a length of wall to about a third of the way from the floor; unbeknownst to him (he apparently has horrible peripheral vision), the Panther is painting that bottom section of wall with pink paint. When they pass, the Panther goes under the Little Man, who gets to the end of the section and notices the pink part; he frantically tries to paint over it with the blue paint, but the Panther does the opposite to the top section. (I like how messy all of the painting is; when colors go over each other, there are streaks of the previous color, and even at the end of sections, there are mistakes clear on the doors next to them.) The Little Man tries to paint a column blue, but the Panther paints it pink on the opposite side of him; they continue this pattern round and round until they are both running in circles and the whole thing ends up looking like a pink-and-blue barber's pole. The Panther leaves a trail of pink footprints, and the Little Man imagines that he is combatting a mouse. Pink camouflages himself on a pink wall, with only his eyes visible when he looks out at the Little Man. Pink paints a pink stripe down the Little Man's back, who turns and touches the wall, tickling the Panther, who takes off when the Man is not looking. He leaves an imprint in the paint of his body, but the Man now believes that he is combatting a giant mouse, and leaves to bring back a giant mousetrap, complete with an enormous wedge of cheese. As he goes to place the trap, a pink reaches in from offscreen and pulls out and then lets go of the measuring tape in the Little Man's pocket. An offscreen "Yow!" and "Snap!" are heard as the tape reaches its target, and the Little Man stomps back in trapped withing the spring-loaded doom of the giant mousetrap. Most amusingly, as he smolders off the screen, an actual mouse runs in and makes off with the huge hunk of cheese.

A series of gags are then employed to demonstrate the Panther's effectiveness against the Little Man: a set of half-doors are painted first blue, then pink, and the Man tries to win this fight by bringing in a giant brush and painting both halves blue in one stroke, but then the unseen Panther simply flips the entire door over pink; the Little Man paints a set of stairs blue, and is almost finished, but the Panther pours a can of pink from the top, leaving the Man to stomp furiously up the stairs, leaving little blue footprints; and the man finishes painting an entire room blue, but the Panther calmly walks in, sets up a sprinkler, and sprays every inch of it pink in seconds. The man does a doubletake when he looks in on the room again, and it is at this point (4 1/2 minutes into the cartoon) that he finally spies the Panther. He takes after the cat with a shotgun, blasting the Panther's tail black, but when the Little Man lets his guard down briefly, the Panther pours an entire can of pink paint into the barrel. The Panther then appears through each window of the house, and the man shoots at him accordingly, but he only succeeds in painting the entire house pink with a few shotgun blasts. The man goes bonkers, and grabs every can of paint that he can find, and on a background entirely white, buries the pile of cans in the yard. Suddenly, the grass and trees and bushes all sprout up around the pink house in exactly the same hue, and even the sun pops up in the sky, shiny and pink. The Panther espies the glory before him, and pulls the For Sale sign out of the ground, and moves into the house. The Little Man, mouth agape, goes to the mailbox to bang his head on it. The mailbox reads "The Pink Panther".

So sharp. So clever. So simple in design, but so perfect in execution. There is nothing used here that is more than what is necessary for each scene and for the story. The Panther films would eventually lose this focus, but early on it is used more often than not, and there are several gems in the first few years. This film would win the Academy Award, and while I have a few beefs with the Academy about some of the winning (or even nominated) films over the years, this one is not one of them. This film is simply marvelous, in every sense of the phrase.

The Pink Phink (DePatie-Freleng) Dir: Friz Freleng & Hawley Pratt
Cel Bloc Rating: 9

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Bold King Cole (1936)

Bold King Cole (A Van Beuren Rainbow Parade cartoon, 1936)
Dir: Burt Gillett
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I am struck by how many people I know who get Felix the Cat – the star of silent animated films, bad TV series, and endless merchandising – and the alliteratively similar but decidedly far more, er, sexually obsessed Fritz the Cat confused with one another. 

Surely it is the "F" at the start of their five letter first names and the fact that they are both "the Cats" that cause the initial mental switch-up. But many times in the past I have been confronted by normally sane people who ask me, straight-faced, "Which one is in that movie? The animated one?" Of course, there is no truly clear answer to such a question, unless you take "that movie" to mean “the feature film,” since most people tend not to think of what they would consider a mere cartoon (and thus simple child’s play) as a “movie”. They are wrong, of course… a film of any length is still a movie, no matter its content or its intent of distribution or lack thereof. But, naturally (because you are dealing with idiots), you have to respond "Oh, that's Fritz the Cat". Those same persons, invariably, have generally not actually seen Ralph Bakshi's film of Fritz the Cat (and even less have read R. Crumb's original comix) any more than they have actually seen a silent Felix the Cat. Most have tended to merely know good ol’ Fritzie from his film's reputation as a dirty, dirty movie. 

As for Felix, who can still be found all over the place on T-shirts and mugs and clocks and what have you, even in the 21st century, it almost seems as if many people are not even aware that Felix was ever actually in theatrical cartoons, so little are they seen these days. Even though the original “the Cat” has somehow remained a popular cultural figure since his creation, some people can't get his name right. Or mixed up with a different cartoon cat that likes to get wasted and have lots of sex with loose animal girls of various species with robust figures.

An attempt in the mid-1930s was made by the Van Beuren studios and directors Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer to revive the character of Felix in their Rainbow Parade series (sort of like Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Warner’s Merrie Melodies, MGM’s Happy Harmonies, or Fleischer’s Color Classics, only by Van Beuren instead; every studio that wanted to be a major player in animation had to have a color series like this at a certain point.). As Felix had previously been a silent figure, and since, apparently, dialogue just had to be assigned to the Cat, Felix was affixed with a not unpleasant but rather unmemorable voice filled with golly-gee, can-do boldness. 

At the beginning of the last of the three Van Beuren Felix shorts, Bold King Cole, the Cat is also possessed of a sassy tenor croon, which he accompanies with guitar whilst hanging in a tree, singing about Nature and Me, surrounded by the flowering buds and chirping birds of the forest. Then a lightning storm shatters the serenity, and, of course, the lightning focuses in poor little Felix. The lightning bolts shoot and jab him repeatedly; one bolt even lights his head up like a 40-watt bulb, complete with element (an effect which, it turns out, he can switch on and off with his nose, and does, through the remainder of the picture). The bolts eventually chase him out of the forest and to the seeming shelter of a nearby castle. It is a jarring but charming opening; in fact, the first couple minutes of this cartoon are quite memorable, and if the remainder of the film had retained this early sense of wonder, it would have been terrific. Instead, it becomes monotonous and silly in the worst way, which is truly unfortunate given the fact that the film is populated by fanciful notions of ghosts and their ilk.

The castle is inhabited by the frightened retinue of an equally timid but boldly boastful monarch, Old King Cole of nursery rhyme fame. But there is no pipe nor bowl nor fiddlers three in this tale; rather, Cole is an insufferable braggart who shouts loudly of his bravery to all who will hear, but in his heart he is as much of a chicken as the rest of his subjects. Felix bangs frantically on the castle door to gain entrance and relief from the attacking storm, and the King has to answer the door as no one else will. So the monarch seizes the opportunity to prove how tough he is to a total stranger. He quickly descends upon the rescued Felix with a flurry of loudmouthed boasts, but the ghosts of the figures in the castle's paintings are sick and tired of hearing his Royal Longwindedness and set out to do something to stop him. 

The ghosts capture the king in the dungeon and torturously pump the hot air out of him, all the while singing a song with the refrain, "You talk too much, you talk too much". They then force him to listen to his own voice to teach him a lesson. Felix sees that the lightning storm has continued unabated, and formulates a plan to save the king from the ghosts. He uses the arms of a suit of armor to attract and funnel an array of lightning bolts into the dungeon, destroying the ghosts for good. The king pumps his own hot air back into his frame, and acts satisfied at the return of his plumpness. Felix and Cole laugh and sing about how they are "not afraid of anything,” but then a pair of mice, for no apparent reason, decide to manipulate and stage a battle between two suits of armor, causing the "heroes" to hide in fear. The mice complete their melee and call a truce, and the King and Felix come out of hiding. The King crowns the cat "Prince Felix" and switches his nose to turn on the lightbulb effect. Felix does the same to Old King Cole, and they laugh as the picture closes.

I like the lightbulb idea, but I wish they had put it to some good use throughout the picture. I especially like some of the bits in the opening lightning storm, such as when a bolt saws through a cloud like a knife through a loaf of bread and unleashes a torrent of rain upon the Cat. I also like it when a bolt hits the back of the tree that Felix is sitting in, and the tree jumps like a startled man kicked or poked in the seat of his pants. Much like the same year's The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg, there is an epic feel to the backgrounds and direction that the story itself doesn't bother to carry off, and we are left yet again with a wistful sense of "what could have been" had the story department been stronger in their support of a character sorely in need of better development.

At least Felix gets made a prince at the end of the story. Luckily for him, this film was made in 1936, almost forty years before the Bakshi cat movie, so the King doesn't mix up the names and declare him "Prince Fritz". Then Felix would have no choice but to go and hump one or both of the battling mice, the ghosts would have an orgy with the castle residents, and the King would really have something new to brag about...

Now that I think about it, this might have been the direction Van Beuren should have taken. Ah, what could have been... they could have beaten Hefner and Flynt to the punch.

RTJ

[This piece was edited and revised with new photos on September 13, 2016.]

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg (1936)

The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg (A Van Beuren Rainbow Parade cartoon, 1936)
Dir: Burt Gillett and Tom Palmer
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I'm going to say this right from the beginning: despite his obviously cute, sharp character design, and his apparent steady popularity for nearly a century, I think that most people, including those who dote on the cartoon kitty, have never actually seen a Felix the Cat cartoon. I mean, a real Felix the Cat cartoon -- one of the silent Felixes produced by Pat Sullivan and created by Otto Messmer in the 1920s, not the various television or merchandised bastardizations of Felix.

Myself, I have only seen a handful of these silent gems, but they are, quite often, brilliantly conceived and masterful. Would that I could say the same for the trio of Felix films that the Van Beuren produced in the 1930s in a vain attempt to revive the then-retired cartoon star, of which The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg was the initial offering. Co-directed by Burt Gillett, who helmed Disney's The Three Little Pigs and started a worldwide craze, and Tom Palmer, who didn't, the film is chock-a-bloc with good ideas desperate to become great, but undercut by a confusion of how to let the character breathe within the film. Rarely has a cartoon seemed so much like a classic, without actually being a classic.

The rather, by this point in time, Mickey Mouse-like Felix, who predates Mickey in actuality, runs a Relief Bureau in his village (a by-product of the Great Depression – look it up), aided by the mad egg-dropping abilities of the titular fowl. That everyone in the town doesn't just form a mob and bludgeon the cat to take all of the gold is further proof of his enduring cuteness. But everyone seems content to damage their country's economy by taking in their daily allotment of illicit gold from out of the ass of Felix's bird. A disguised Captain Kidd, who is quite like Pegleg Pete in both appearance and attitude (unsurprisingly), covets the goose for his own nefarious dealings, and breaks in on Felix's domicile to kidnap the bird. Despite Felix's toughness and best efforts at fending off the bully, Kidd bags the bird and makes off to his ship, singing a hearty pirate shanty called I Takes What I Wants, which carries over to his men once he boards the vessel. They sail off, leaving a distraught Felix behind on the dock, fretting over what he should do next.

That "next" turns out to be fashioning himself into a ball and firing himself at the ship via a cannon resting upon the dock, including pulling off his own tail to use as a matchstick to light the cannon. (It is one of the few moments in the film where Felix behaves as if he were the cat of his younger days.) He lands upon the deck of the pirate ship, and thus begins a fierce battle against the Captain and his pirate dogs. The men charge Felix, but he fires drinking mugs onto their faces with a cannon, and the Goose gets into the action by taking sword in hand and cutting a sail from the mast onto their heads. A further series of cannon shots traps the entire pirate crew in the hold of the ship. Captain Kidd and the brave Felix cross swords, and the action is swift enough to literally melt their blades down in their hands, and then the molten blades burn through the deck of the ship. The Captain chases Felix up into the rigging and makes several attempts to stab the hiding cat, but he only succeeds in cutting his own foothold and ends up hanging from the mast. Felix eventually traps the Captain for good, and then instructs the loyal Goose to turn the ship around for home. The picture concludes with Felix firing the entire stores of treasure from the ship through the skies to his village, where the citizenry rush about greedily taking in every coin that they possibly can, and then hoisting Felix up on their shoulders as their hero.

It seems thrilling, but it is never thrilling enough. It seems simple and clever, but it is too simple and never clever enough. Felix is appropriately spunky when called for, but you keep waiting for him to do more of the slightly surreal and oddball bits like the cannonball routine, and he never fulfills this brief potential. The pirate battle could be so much more engaging and witty, and while I know this film was released in the depressive American '30s, the Relief Bureau concept seems to have a sense of the overindulged. That said, it still feels like a classic, and there is enough here to allow the film to be enjoyed for what is on the screen.

There are several prize moments (I like the throwaway bits, like where Felix slides down the rope heroically, and his hands turn red from the brief rope burn, but then fade as he concentrates on his actions), the film has a nice visual depth in the backgrounds and sets, and the canvas on which the film plays out is impressively expansive for a 7-minute cartoon, bestowing an appropriate air of epic adventure on the tale.

All fine and well, but they should have worked more on developing Felix as a character to grow on, but here he is finally given a voice, and it's not bad, but it's not right, either. Instead of retaining some of the incredible sense of Chaplin-esque wonder that Felix thrived on throughout the '20s, they burned through their newly thin character in three visually sharp but story-short films (Van Beuren would close not long after, finding itself unable to compete against the bigger companies, and losing their studio-sustaining deal with RKO when Disney ran them out), and Felix was retired again until he was cleaned up and babied for television in the '60s, where he renewed his vampire-like popularity once more.

Badly edited and dubbed television cartoons (yes, I know those have their huge fans bent on uncritical nostalgia), but they are a far worse way to have gotten to know Mr, Felix the Cat than in these Van Beuren films, which may not be prime Cat but they are still bright and fun. But, all of you who claim to love Felix in any form, you should have met him back when he didn't talk at all. Now, that feline was a world-beater...

RTJ



[This piece was edited and revised with new photos on September 13, 2016.]

Friday, February 24, 2006

NEARLYWEDS (1957)

Dames is so fickle, as Popeye might say. Yet again, the anti-voluptuous Olive Oyl (this is not a putdown, merely a reflection of the status of her womanly figure) pits her would-be suitors Popeye the Sailorman and Bluto against each other. The odds, however, are significantly higher, as wedded unbliss looms at the end of the film titled Nearlyweds, released by Famous Studios in the last year of Popeye's theatrical run. The surprise is not that Popeye and Olive flirt so devastatingly close to ending up in the connubial mattress together, nor that Popeye runs about nearly or fully naked for much of the picture, but rather that the film actually holds together and keeps your attention for the duration of its length. This could be because you might think that Popeye and Olive (or Bluto and Olive) might actually end up married by picture's close, but it is called Nearlyweds for a reason.

Popeye proposes to Olive, causing Bluto to do the same, and Olive is "forced" to choose "Eeny-Meeny"-style between them. I say "forced", because she is seemingly quite enamored of the squinty sailor, and seems to perform the game merely as a joke. Popeye says at the outset of his proposal, "Olives, you hask been me girlfriend fer a long, long time", and when Bluto bursts in with his version, there is a large smile on the vixen's face; but whether she solely takes pleasure in the double attention of the lovestruck sailors or considers Bluto's added plea a mere amusement is hard to discern. Regardless,
there is no doubt as to the outcome of her "choosing", and she accepts Popeye's hand in marriage, leading to the sailorman's rather acrobatic jump-out-of and back-into his clothing. (Is there foreshadowing with this early appearance of his underwear? Let's discuss...)

Bluto mockingly accepts defeat, and Popeye agrees to meet Olive at the courthouse at 3:00 pm dressed in his "weddin' duds." It is quite apparent that Bluto will do everything that he can to prevent or delay Popeye's arrival, and that is what ensues. What is not expected is that Popeye will spend much of this time naked. The scene cuts to Popeye preparing for a bath, and he dives into his tub directly from his bathrobe, back turned to the audience for discretion. (There is, however, a fleeting moment where it seems that Popeye's ass is visible at the apex of his dive, but a geeky breakdown of the scene reveals his shoulder blades.) Of course, where there is a cartoon bathtub, there is an open window right next to it, and Bluto pops in with a bag of quick-drying cement. Popeye tries to get out of the tub, notices the "hard water", and climbs out with a rowboat-shaped erection of cement encasing his entire midsection. (There is something more than a little weird about this scene.) Because Popeye has been saving up his thrusting for about 25 years for this very wedding night, he easily smashes the statuary with a fierce jab of his groin at the ground. The cement easily crumbles into a large pile that covers up his lower nudity. (Of course, the pinch of spinach that Popeye sneaks probably has the most to do with his escape, but... Come on! The guy has got to be pent up!)

Bluto performs other tricks on Popeye to further delay him: nailing Pop's shoes to the floor and tying knots in his pants' legs; moving the clock hands up to 2:55; and smashing a mirror and jabbing a shaving cream brush through the hole so that Popeye believes that he is in need of a serious shave. All you really need to know is that through an unfortunate rigging of his electric razor, Popeye ends up in his underwear again. He arrives at the wedding clad only in a top hat and barrel (whoever is making all of these barrel-and-suspenders sets for cartoon characters has got to be a gazillionaire by now!); Olive Oyl snubs him for his lack of fashion sense, and all too willingly accepts Bluto's proposal instead. The brute and the bimbo make off for the courthouse, but the oddly familiar man posing as the Justice of the Peace verbally runs off a list of about a hundred bad things that will happen to Bluto once he gets married, i.e. all of the rights and fun things that he will have to give up In the Name of the Wife. Of course, the Justice is Popeye, and he saves his own day (I guess) by frightening Bluto off from marrying Olive, and Popeye picks up where he left off.

All of these hi-jinks reel off in a surprisingly comically logical scroll (at least, for a Famous 'toon), and the film is lightly involving enough to enjoy despite itself. It would have been nice if this had been the final entry in the Famous Popeye series, and they had actually ended it with Popeye and Olive's real wedding, but the cartoon lives up to its title, as I mentioned. But for what is in the cartoon, Bluto's torturing of an oblivious Popeye is good fun, and Popeye's revenge is even better, but it leaves me asking this...

Why is Popeye so eager to jump back into Olive's arms after she snubbed him mere minutes before to marry his rival? And why is he so ready to do so even after he has read Bluto the riot act regarding such a marriage? Why is Popeye unafraid of these same consequences and loss of freedom? What is it that Olive possesses, besides her incredible physical pliability that would obviously make her well-suited to completing every act in the Kama Sutra within a fortnight? And while we are at it -- what would spinach make Olive do were she to ingest it during lovemaking? Popeye's reaction is obvious, but what would it do to the girl? It seems we will never know the answer to this mystery.

But, I'll bet that somewhere beneath that giant skirt and boots beats the heart of a veritable wildcat of sexuality. Think about that the next time you rip on Shelly Duvall...


Nearlyweds (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1957) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Thursday, February 23, 2006

A HAUL IN ONE (1956)

One of the films in the Popeye series where Bluto and Popeye do their shabby best to convince the audience that they are the best of friends (there are more cartoons like this than you might think), A Haul In One from 1956 presents the boys as the co-owners of a moving company called (what else?) Popeye and Bluto Movers. Their attempts at pushing their bond into believability consists of them simply calling each "pal" and "chum" where conversationally appropriate; unfortunately, it is done in such a broad manner that there is little doubt of the future dischord in the relationship. This dischord, of course, will be due to the intrusion of the spaghetti-limbed charms of Ms. Olive Oyl.

Olive is fretting impatiently about the arrival of the moving company, as she frantically tries to pack, or rather, overpack a large trunk in her apartment. The trunk explodes her clothing across the room, and sends poor Olive through the ceiling. When she pulls her noggin out of the hole, it is completely enveloped by a kitchen sink from the floor above, her neck stretched out through the drainpipe. Meanwhile, the movers arrive, though when they can't find a parking spot, Popeye gladly helps his "pal" out and stacks up the offending cars on top of each other so that Bluto may pull the truck up to the curb. It is when they set their sights on their customer that all hell breaks loose, and the buddy-buddy attitude swiftly erodes. Bluto tries to be helpful of his new would-be love interest, showing an almost dainty (though gruff) side, but Popeye can't help but show off, outdoing his rival packing dishes and clothes, and then the film turns into the Battle of the Furniture. When Bluto hefts a huge stack of furniture in his burly arms, but Popeye easily picks up Bluto, and carries him out to the moving truck. An infuriated Bluto locks the sailorman inside of the van, but Popeye sneaks snakily out of the exhaust pipe.

To prove his worth to Olive, Popeye throws her piano out the window of her apartment, then runs down several flights of stairs to catch the instrument before it smashes to pieces on the sidewalk. (That this scene does not thrill at all is the purest evidence that all is not right at Famous. It is badly timed and poorly conceived.) With Popeye on the ground below, Bluto begins to hurl piece after piece of a complete living room set out the window. Popeye not only catches each piece, but assembles and arranges it fully on the sidewalk, and Olive Oyl is greatly impressed. I, however, am not; this is due to the scene being bungled badly by not establishing clearly where he has placed the assemblage. It is only with the scene that follows that we are aware that he has placed the living room set on the sidewalk, rather than inside the truck or in the street or up Bluto's ass (which would at least have made the film interesting). Of course, where else is he going to reasonably place the set but on the sidewalk? The problem is that the composition of the payoff is just not very well set up. Following the living room scene, Bluto goes bonkers, knocks Popeye into a seemingly final defeat, the spinach comes out, and the lights go out for Bluto. Popeye drives off with Oyl in the cab and Bluto strapped atop the truck, and Popeye's traditional ditty closes the show.

I'm not disputing the notion that Popeye and Bluto could have been, or are, friends who are extremely competitive with each other; the rub is that the filmmakers feel that they have to go to cheesily extreme lengths to spell out their friendship in the broadest terms possible at the start of each film. Tom and Jerry often got along in cartoons, sometimes even teaming up quite well to defeat a common enemy or problematic situation; Hanna and Barbera had faith that their viewership would know the score with the cat and the mouse as they entered each picture, and when things would swiftly turn ugly between the two at some point in the proceedings, I would guess that most of the audience members were wise to the fact that it was just the way things were with the pair: they loved to beat the snot out of each other, and it would happen eventually. Popeye and Bluto, likewise, could turn any slight into a stampede of escalating violence; Famous should have trusted the audience's then nearly quarter-century of familiarity with the unbelievably popular characters, and realized that they could shortcut many of these awkward scenes due to this sense.

Yet another way that Famous screwed up their arms and twister-punched their prize property into the ground...

A Haul In One (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1956) Dir: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

INSECT TO INJURY (1956)

Here's an example of a Popeye film outside of the normal Famous formula, close to the end of that studio's reign of oppressive domination over the character, that actually works, despite its pedigree. Insect to Injury, released almost a year to the day before the end of the Popeye series at Famous, is not great, it's not even that good, but it is good enough to be basically pleasant and also to allow Popeye to burst free of the bland ghetto of laziness in which the studio had trapped the world's most loveable sailorman.

As plot devices go, it's hard to mess up termites. The protagonist has a house full of wooden furniture; the termites show up and eat a chair in almost magical fashion, like a swarm of bees though the buzz is more like that of a tablesaw; the hero does his best to combat the menace to his house and home; wooden things that the hero tries to use to stop the termites will disappear as they are being used; and so on until the end of the picture when some compromise is usually reached. I wouldn't say that termites are funnier than ants or bees as antagonists (the word itself rife with social insect punnery), merely that they lend themselves to wilder sight gags due to their propensity for speedy furniture mastication. [For just one example of a much better termite film, see The Pest That Came to Dinner with Porky Pig, from the studio who named their working offices Termite Terrace, Warner Brothers. They should know...)

Popeye is seen at the beginning of the film building a chimney in typical working-happy sing-songiness, with Jack Mercer finally embellishing Popeye's voice the way that he used to do back in the Fleischer days, scatting and punctuating his actions with nonsense syllables. "Now me house is finich-ked!", the sailor proclaims, and he climbs down to paint his name proudly on his new mailbox. A cloud of tiny black dots moves along the ground towards him, and then the post for the mailbox disappears! Popeye is then worried that the creeps will eat his fence and he goes to block it, but they devour first the gate around him, and then chew up the planks to his walkway leading towards the house. Popeye misleads them by changing the course of the walkway. Popeye then traps the cloud of pests inside of a small garbage can, but they form the shape of a jack and crank the lid up and escape.

The termites then set about eating the entire fence from around Popeye, but form the shape of a large exclamation point as he runs towards them with a large surface roller. He gives chase after them over a bridge, but they turn direction around a tree, and on the trip back over the bridge (wooden, naturally), and, of course, Popeye ends up falling in the creek. The soaking wet hero runs back to the house and digs a moat about the place, filling it up with water, and foiling the pests' entrance into his abode. But not for long... the termites use a tin can as a makeshift vessel and float across the moat; entering the home, they eat the furniture piece by piece from around Popeye. They then set to eating the walls and then, finally, the floor, and Popeye crashes into a bathtub that now lies on the bottom of the concrete basement.

Luckily, because he is Popeye, there is spinach stored in the basement, and downing a can of the wet leafy stuff (yum!) turns him into a whirlwind of building activity, and when he turns back to normal, there is a house entirely made of steel where the wooden structure once stood. The termites attack it, but they are foiled and a closeup is shown of the bent and bedraggled teeth of the exhausted bugs on the windowsill. Popeye is victorious, but only briefly; Popeye puts his pipe in his mouth, and the termites seize the moment, and buzz the pipe away. But Popeye is one up on them, and replaces it with a pipe fashioned from the same steel as the house, and he puffs his trademark closing double toot-and-puff to end the cartoon.

My only gripe is that the film goes too far in before we get a close-up view of the obnoxious invaders. When we do, the film is already at the point where they are trying to cross the moat, and by this point it is too late to build up any recognition with them; it is a storytelling flaw that we are not given better visual details for the termites earlier in the film. We already know that they are termites, so there is no mystery to their actions. If you want us to react to their handful of closeup moments later in the film, you should allow us to get comfortable with their goofy little pointy-toothed faces in such a way that we accept them as rival characters in the film, not just some unstoppable force. If you just wanted "Popeye vs. An Unstoppable Force", then don't show us the faces of the bugs at all. Leave them a complete mystery.

Truly, the only mystery is why Famous couldn't do this not just more often, but all the time. Why resort to such stale, restrictive formulae? Why lock a staff with some clearly very talented artists into a factory lockstep? Was it merely a love for the easy buck that caused the producers at Famous to not allow their artists any creative freedom? The reason Popeye flourished at the Fleischer Studio was that Max and Dave were relentlessly creative people and inventors, who constantly sought new ways to present their characters, and who rarely allowed their films to lapse into easy formula (when they did, like the later Boop films, however bland they seemed against the original ones, they still came up with new concepts here and there, and at least had a variety of ways to present the safer version of the girl). This film is not all that great of a film, as I said before, but it is good enough against the surrounding films in the series to make one wish that they had broken out more often.

Of course, Famous probably reacted to this like Popeye does to the termites in this film: they probably saw that one film had broken out of their mold, and so they encased their precious formula in steel to keep the series on the straight and narrow. That is, the straight and narrow to oblivion, as this series would meet its doom within the year.

Imagine what would have happened if Famous had taken the Raid to it...

Insect to Injury (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1956) Dir: Dave Tendlar
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

SHUTEYE POPEYE (1952)

I swear that there are morons who go onto IMDB and rate everything they see a "10". Whatever their reasons might be: whether they are bored, have a lot of time on their hands, have it in for either IMDB or ratings systems and want to screw with them, or really are morons who rate everything they see a "10"; whatever, their reasons, they are morons. IMDb combats this rash of the brain-dead with this rule:
IMDb publishes weighted vote averages rather than raw data averages. Various filters are applied to the raw data in order to eliminate and reduce attempts at 'vote stuffing' by individuals more interested in changing the current rating of a movie than giving their true opinion of it.
However, you can go on to the page for just about any movie, even the worst piece of roachshite in the universe, and find a number of people who have deemed that film, either jokingly or sincerely, as a masterpiece. Luckily, the IMDb has their weighted average formula; it helps to keep things a little sane. (If only they had a firmer system in place for their Top 250 of All Time list; I'm not disputing the films on it, merely the number of votes required before a film can be placed upon it, i.e. the bar to be placed on the list should be set a rung or two higher.)

Shuteye Popeye is not the worst piece of roachshite in the universe; it just happens to be the film that finally drove me crazy when I saw that 2 of the 28 people who have actually taken the time to vote for the thing (myself included) had given it a "10". Because there are not a multitude of votes piled up in the 10-hole, I am going to assume that these two 10's were either given a) dishonestly; b) honestly, but in a knee-jerk I-give-everything-a-10 fashion; or c) honestly, but stupidly and/or underinformed. Respect the opinions of others, blah, blah, blah... I know the drill. I do respect your opinion if you are sincere and honest in it, but only if you can keep that same opinion in the face of greater knowledge. Such greater knowledge would involve seeing any other Popeye film made before 1943 (and even many of the Popeyes made by Famous up until about 1948), and then telling me straight-faced (and possibly on a lie detector) that you still believe Shuteye Popeye is a superior cartoon. Because I doubt that you can perform such a feat, and if you can, I feel deeply sorry for you.

[Of course, those two votes could come from #1 Popeye Fan of the World and from #1.5 Popeye Fan of the World, and reeling from years of belief that people have underrated the later oeuvre of their hero, they have taken on a mission to raise the profile of every single Popeye film ever released by Famous, even the really crappy ones like Popeye for President (itself the proud recipient of an amazing five 10 votes out of 33, and reviewed here on the Cel Bloc yesterday). There is nothing to do for these people but trap them in veal boxes, forcefeed them their own offal, and make them watch reruns of Full House for the rest of their natural lives. (This could only take about two weeks, so we might want to drop the punishment to Reba.)]

Apparently, Famous decided to turn Popeye into either Katnip or Jerry, pitting their spinach-popping hero against a tiny mouse. This is actually a fine idea; it certainly breaks the monotony of the Bluto-Popeye rivalry films, though these would continue almost unabated for the next four years. But, even though I bemoan the formulas that Famous famously trapped themselves in, there is one element of the Popeye films that should always be present: Popeye is a hero. I suppose this would leave you to believe that Popeye is something of a villain in this one, but actually he is not; he is practically nothing in this film except a source of endless volcanic snoring. (Some would consider this villainous in and of itself. Quit your whining... no matter what you believe about yourself, everyone freakin' snores...) But, I believe that Popeye is best when he is overcoming some form of overwhelming odds; here he is practically a mere piece of furniture that gets moved around by the mouse, and apart from one moment of spinach-related nonsense that really makes no sense given what has already occurred, the part that Popeye plays could be filled by any character, not even necessarily a known character, but just an everyman snoring the night away and bugging the crap out of a little mouse. By taking away most of Popeye's basic character traits, you have negated the need for the hero to exist, so why make this a Popeye film at all?

Popeye snores. His snoring sucks the drawers of the dresser in and out, causing them to slam in the walls. A mouse asleep in the requisite matchbox mouse bed in a hole in the wall gets annoyed and tries to combat the noise. After a couple of attempts to shut the sailorman up, Popeye kicks the mouse out. The mouse tries to flood Popeye out of the house, which works, and in the best gag in the film, Popeye is woken up by a traffic cop who tickets Popeye for parking his bed against a fire hydrant. Popeye, for some reason, also has a Murphy bed in his home, and goes back to bed, but the mouse slams Popeye into the wall by lifting up the bed. There is a labored and insipid mousetrap gag series, and finally Popeye catches the rodent and kicks him out again, trapping him inside of a garbage can.

However, the can has the remnants of Popeye's spinach laying about its bottom, and the mouse devours these orts and becomes Popeye-strong. This makes little sense, since the mouse has already performed the superrodent feat of pushing a bed with Popeye in it across the room and later slamming the Murphy bed up violently into the wall with Popeye in it, an incredible act for such a tiny creature. Why does he need the spinach? If they had developed the early gags about the mouse's cleverness without having him resort already to unbelievable acts of superrodent strength, the spinach bit might work. But they failed the mouse and the cartoon. So, the mouse gets even stronger and pulls Popeye out of bed, lifts up the wall and slams ol' Squinty inside of it. The mouse crawls into Popeye's bed and begins snoring just as loud as its former occupant, and Popeye is forced to poke his ear lobes creepily into his ears like fingers.

It's not the worst cartoon; it's not even that bad of a cartoon, but certainly not worth a pair of 10's on a ratings board. People, expand your cartoon horizons, and think about what you have just seen, comparing it to every other cartoon that you have witnessed. Judge them against each other, weigh their strengths and weaknesses, and truly think about whether a film is actually good or not.

Of course... Boy Howdy! You might think all cartoons are just terrific, golly gee! I LOVE ANIMATION! WA-HOOO! Let's give all cartoons 10's!!! Wheeeee!

Morons...

Shuteye Popeye (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1952) Dir: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Monday, February 20, 2006

POPEYE FOR PRESIDENT (1956)

You would think that the guy who voiced Popeye for the majority of a 22-year run (at the point of this film's production) would have a batch of story ideas piled up that he had always wanted to try with the character. Surely, after reading and speaking nearly every line that Popeye had ever said, Jack Mercer had better things in mind than this sloppily slapped-together hodgepodge of half-baked ideas. And certainly, he had far more in mind for a cartoon titled Popeye for President, which potentially could have presented some interesting plays on political issues of the day, all solved by the power of a miracle can of spinach. Instead, we get the backdrop of two candidates vying for voters, still a promising idea (for an example of a far more witty and sharply satirical version of this, see Ballot Box Bunny), but the follow-through is poor as the film devolves into yet another "winning Olive's favor" plot, albeit with the purpose to win her vote instead of her heart.

Popeye represents, naturally, the Spinach Party; Bluto is stumping for his eponymous Blutocratic Party. The first part of the cartoon involves the typical rival-business plot of the Famous Popeyes, with the boys doing anything to steal voters from each other, with the top moment coming when Popeye rips out and picks up an entire sidewalk of people and moves it in front of his stage. A news ticker then announces that there is only one person left to vote in the entire country, and that person is -- wait for it -- a Miss Olive Oyl. The boys race to Olive's farm, where she refuses to go off to the voting booth until all of her chores have been finished. Bluto obliges first on each chore, including chopping wood, plowing Olive's field (not that way...), and putting a huge cart of hay into the loft; Popeye outdoes Bluto on each task with amazing displays of strength, enraging Bluto more and more each time, but winning Olive over to his side gradually.

Bluto finally traps Popeye between the rungs on the top of a long ladder, rips the ladder in two, causing Popeye to fall to the ground below, where Bluto socks him in mid-air and sends the sailor crashing through the guts and out the front of Olive's tractor. Bluto kidnaps Olive to force her to vote for him, and heads off with her to the city. But spinach again comes to the rescue, as Popeye downs the delicious stuff (yes... I said "delicious" -- one of my favorites since a child; ask my mum), and takes off after them with his legs operating like tank treads. The camera cuts to the voting booth where Bluto is dragging Olive in to vote, but through the curtain comes the hammering fists of Popeye, which knocks Bluto across the street and into an election sign, where he spins until he is completely wrapped up... and clearly out of the race. Popeye is elected, and as their limo rides off in the victory parade, Popeye and Olive hug to close the story.

Truthfully, if there had been even a couple of decent gags, even this lackluster effort could have salvaged itself from the uneasy conglomeration of what is clearly two different halves of films glued together to make one bland cinematic time-filler. But there aren't a couple of decent gags, the difference between the two halves practically has a DMZ laid out between them, and there is only one halfway amusing line. Popeye tells his eager audience that he promises "bigger elephants in the zoo". I find this intriguing, because if trying to figure out to which real political party the sailor man would belong, this line could mark him clearly as Republican (the "-cratic" attached to Bluto's name might be a giveaway, too). Of course, "bigger elephants in the zoo" could also mean "better men in Washington", but this might be giving the otherwise dull screenplay far more credit than it deserves.

What I am really intrigued by, and why this paltry film is even more disappointing, is the idea of Popeye, one of the first superheroic figures in comics, as the leader of our country. Of course, such absolute power in the hands of one already so powerful could easily corrupt absolutely. But imagine if he were in charge of things; we could send the Commander-in-Chief over to Iraq to clean up his own damn mess as his own Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines -- without the loss of both thousands of lives and billions of dollars, and the only expense would be for a single can of spinach. The problem inherent in this scenario is that every other country in the world would get wind of his spinach fix, and we could end up in an escalating Spinach War. Spinach would replace nuclear power and biological agents as the weapon of choice, and we would spend all of our espionage budget on seeing what certain whackjob despots were having in their salad.

That's all we need -- that nutsack Kim Jong Il on an all-spinach diet...

Popeye for President (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1956) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

Sunday, February 19, 2006

SPREE LUNCH (1957)

J. Wellington Wimpy, I've met you before. While a mere second banana in the Popeye universe, you have still proven yourself a lovable and most welcome addition to any cartoon. I have always related fully to your hamburger obsession, even while wrestling with an on-again off-again vegetarianism; and who doesn't know "I would gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today", or extant variations thereof, the repetition of which has garnered you the largest measure of your fame?

Yes, Wimpy, I have met you before; sadly, you were in far better form in much funnier, and much earlier, cartoons than Spree Lunch, a 1957 programmer that, not coincidentally, was the penultimate entry in the Popeye series at Famous Studios. In a rehashed plot, Popeye and Bluto run rival diners, with both cooks striving for the attentions of Mr. Wimpy, who, of course, tells Bluto that he would like a hamburger, "For which, I would gladly pay you next Tuesday!" Despite the fact that it is his famous response to a menu order, it is also by far the wittiest thing said in the film. As a matter of fact, Wimpy has all of the funny moments in it, as Popeye and Bluto simply replay their usual Famous battle, with each one topping the other in their increasingly "wild" but lame attempts to move Wimpy up to their diner counter.

Finally, the film's conclusion has Bluto and Popeye throwing objects back and forth between the diners in a steady stream. Anything and everything is thrown, and Wimpy takes full advantage of this fact. He stands in the middle of the road dividing the establishments, and reaches up into the stream to grab whatever he needs: first a chair, then a table, then a table setting, then a selection of foods on which to dine. Finally, he requires ketchup, which he grabs in mid-flight, pours onto his food, and then replaces back into the stream of objects, with the ketchup bottle taking right off once it is placed into the stream. That this gag has been done before elsewhere is beside the point; the calmness and grace with which Wimpy has been imbued as he enacts this scenario is the point: in the midst of all of this chaotic but humdrum activity, the serendipitous arrival of Wimpy's lunch becomes the focal point of the story. Through lazy scripting, Wimpy steals this focus from a once great character, and with it, steals the picture with only a couple of lines and a lot of sitting around. It is the only part of the film that works, and practically by accident at that, and it comes at the end of the cartoon.

Somewhere in the Famous tenure over the Popeye series, someone forgot that Popeye was once a sympathetic and gruffly lovable character. In the Famous series, we are supposed to root him on, but for no apparent reason other than that we are expected to do so; by this point in time, his behavior is so markedly the same as Bluto's, that they are no more than the same character split into two, only with Popeye scripted to come out on top at the end, much like a wrestling match. The problem is, if both sides behave like buffoonish assholes, it's really hard to root either one on, unless you, too, are a buffoonish asshole.

And that explains why wrestling has remained so popular. Now that I have insulted most of the male half of the United States (and a good cross-section of the female half), I will let the ref tap you out. 1... 2...

Spree Lunch (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1957) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Saturday, February 18, 2006

TAXI-TURVY (1954)

You can take many of the Popeye-Bluto shorts that Famous produced in the 50's and break them down this way:
  1. Popeye and Bluto are rivals in some sort of industry or vocation.
  2. The rivalry intensifies with the involvement of a potential customer, usually Olive Oyl.
  3. Things grow increasingly out of hand and overly destructive and violent.
  4. Popeye is subdued in some fashion by Bluto.
  5. He eats spinach to gain a power edge over Bluto and defeats the villain.
  6. Popeye is victorious, and gets the spoils and/or the girl.
You can, quite correctly, point out that many of the original Fleischer cartoons were based somewhat around this same formula; after all, it had to start somewhere. All cartoon series have some form of successive formula from film to film, or at least, distinctive character traits that get used repeatedly from film to film. This is to be expected. But not all of the Fleischers' were based on this basic formula; and even in the more rote entries in the early series, there was far more imagination and wit at play than in the Famous productions.

For instance, I offer up the middling effort called Taxi-Turvy, released by Famous in 1954. Popeye and Bluto are rival taxi drivers; when Popeye idles at a taxi stand waiting for a fare, Bluto just has to knock his car out of the way and then threaten Popeye with bodily harm. An elderly fare arrives, and though Popeye gets him first, Bluto tears Popeye's cab in twain by tying its rear bumper to a hydrant, and then escorts the gentleman into his own cab. Popeye putts down the road on two wheels as Bluto passes him with Popeye's old fare. Popeye then welds his cab back together with his multi-purpose pipe.

Olive Oyl then appears looking for a cab to take her to "23 Skidoo Street". Popeye has first crack at her, but Bluto swiftly steals her away. Popeye's cab jacks up to three times its original height, drives over the top of Bluto's ride, and then Popeye climbs down and moves Olive back to his cab. The boys spar back and forth like this a couple of minutes, with Olive practically becoming nothing more than a ragdoll being torn, stretched and tossed from rival to rival. The girl takes an enormous amount of punishment due to their efforts, from crashing through (and becoming) a traffic turn signal to receiving enormous amounts of electricity from grabbing a train voltage line.

Eventually, it all comes down to Bluto jackhammering Popeye into the ground (as a convenient can of spinach pops out from Popeye's chest) and then making off with Olive. Popeye makes an effort to suck the spinach from the can through his pipe, but, in the only good line in the cartoon, Bluto returns to swipe the can, bellowing, "Oh, no! You ain't eatin' no spinach in this picture!" Bluto and Olive take off in the cab, but are instantly plowed into by the train, sending the pair flying high into the air, and allowing the spinach can to land on top of Popeye's noggin, open and ready for eating by the crash. The picture ends with Bluto being stuffed into the smokestack of a train, with his face reddening and expanding from the smoke (how it is entering his body I don't want to know), as Popeye rides off with Olive.

There is very little of consequence here, though as usual with the Famous product, the animation is fine, though I have always had a problem with the lazy design on the later Popeye films. What I miss mainly from the original series are the muttered asides that all of the characters, not just Popeye, would emit during their adventures. Because the soundtracks were synched to the films after the animation was completed in the Fleischer's product, Jack Mercer, Mae Questel and the rest were allowed tremendous latitude with their utterances; many of my favorite moments from those films come from things that Popeye says under his breath, whether reactionary statement or outright insulk, er, insult. It is just this sort of thing that is missing from the Famous films, and with this trait gone, so is much of the charm. Though, a Popeye film is still a Popeye film, so I understand why a certain portion of people enjoy these later films from Famous.

I understand it, but I won't accept it. It's like preferring the latest three Star Wars films over the original trilogy. Some of the people are like this because they have never been introduced properly to the originals. They are usually quite young, will eventually mature and see the films, and realize the error of their misinformed ways. The rest of the people who maintain that position, like the people who maintain that the Famous Popeyes are the Popeyes, well... they're idiots.

Taxi-Turvy (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1954) Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Friday, February 17, 2006

TARTS AND FLOWERS (1950)

I'm imagining a time before television when a person would actually listen to an informational radio program giving detailed instructions, and then that person trying to duplicate the steps within the comfort of their own home while the show is still going on the radio. I know people to this day foolishly try this with their televisions, and more often, with a tape, DVD, or Tivoed version of such a show, to this day. Some people seem to believe that they learn better from seeing or hearing, rather than simply reading such instructions and then performing the task as written. To each their own; I much prefer having a hard copy written down in front of me on those rare occasion where I might try a folly of this sort. But cooking shows, the preeminent example of this type of show, have been extremely popular throughout the history of broadcast radio and television, and there will be no end to this flood.

[I, myself, love Iron Chef and Good Eats on the Food Network, but the former I watch because it is basically a Japanese martial arts movie only with chefs instead of ninjas and samurai, and the latter I watch because it is both informative and amusing, and both are certainly not meant to be cooked with in unison in your home. I suppose you could cook along with Emeril, but I always have a problem with these studio audience cooking shows: you never see anyone declare a dish to be a piece of crap; everyone is so civil when tasting their dishes, so in thrall they are to be tasting one of the celebrity chef's dishes, that if he/she took a dump on one of their plates in front of them, they would surely smash their faces into the plate and call it a masterpiece. ("I liked the way the remnants of peanuts mixed in almost a jauntily saucy fashion with the rest of the dish...") No one ever has an adverse reaction to any of the dishes proffered to them; I'm sorry, but in real life, even in a 5-star restaurant, someone (probably me) is going to have the sac to tell someone that something sucks. Big time. It just happens. I know that they undoubtedly remove any negative scenes from these shows in the editing booth, but come on... just once show me that someone projectile-sprayed Emeril because he "kicked it up" one "notch" too many.]

In Tarts and Flowers, Little Audrey, at a time where television was slowly pervading most American homes, has her radio set on a cooking show.
Audrey is set on making a cake according to the show's instructions and she mainly acquits herself remarkably well, though she struggles somewhat to keep up in a time-honored comic fashion. One of these time-honored gags is to correct the listener when they make a misstep, which Audrey naturally does and to which the radio announcer follows up. Another good bit occurs when the announcer tells her to "Beat it!", and Audrey sadly and sheepishly resigns herself to leave the room, but the announcer calls her back. Audrey finishes mixing the cake batter, and slides it in the oven. But because Audrey is either caught in another one of her sugar-high crashes, or is actually narcoleptic, she falls asleep in a chair by the oven.

Suddenly, the timer goes off, and Audrey awakens to find the Gingerbread Boy kicking his way out of the oven. He tells our heroine that he is off to Cakeland because he is late and he's "got a date with a cake!", and Audrey, of course, chases after him on the journey.
(It is her dream, you know; what is she going to do? Stay behind?) A cloud of flour is kicked up on his escape, and Audrey follows him blindly through the haze. She finally arrives at Cakeland, entirely built and populated by desserts, where the streets have names like "Breadway"; striding out of the "Garden of Eatin'" is the Gingerbread Boy accompanied by his bride, Angel Cake, a red-haired hottie with a human body and angel wings, though draped about her lower half is a skirt-shaped piece of angelfood cake. Gingerbread Boy tells Audrey that they have to get ready for the wedding, so Audrey goes off with Ginger to prepare her. She uses powdered sugar and cherry juice to do Angel's makeup, and squeezes icing on Angel's head to do her hair for the ceremony.

Outside, the populace of Cakeland are holding a wedding parade, with cupcakes and other treats singing of the joy that will happen on this most festive day. French pastries dance a can-can, a Maurice Chevalier-type escorts two ladyfingers to the wedding, and a rumcake staggers drunkenly after them. The parade leads to the wedding chapel, and the happy bride and groom enter it on a red carpet of rolled dough. All seems to be going well...

...then Devil Food Cake pops out of his box! He interrupts the wedding with a flash of hellfire, and kidnaps poor Angel Cake! Audrey rings the alarm; the Cop Cakes run to the rescue twirling their batons; and the Gingerbread Boy runs to a box of animal crackers and rides after them atop a horse, followed by other animals. Devil drags the kicking and screaming Angel to a sugar boat awaiting them on the Old Milk Stream (after first taking the Strawberry Short Cut); Audrey takes out a hand mixer and makes the stream too thick for their vehicle to escape. The Gingerbread Boy easily defeats Devil Food Cake, and the Cop Cakes cart the villain off in the Pie Wagon. The wedding can go on as before, but Audrey wakes up in time for the real timer to go off on her oven. She opens it up to discover, in a neatly arranged row, the Gingerbread Boy and Angel Cake, with a baby version of each set in between them.

This, of course, is amazing not only because they were characters in her dream, but because Audrey simply poured a huge brick of batter into the pan before she placed it in the oven. How she managed to get not only two entirely different recipes to separate within the oven, but also to come out already decorated is a feat that would have taken Julia Child half a vineyard's worth of wine to figure out. But it brings me to something I noticed when watching this cartoon: given that the year was 1950, I find it amazing that no one picked up on the interracial marriage taking place in the dream sequence. Not just that they are two different recipes, but that they are two different colors: Gingerbread Boy, as expected, is fully brown throughout the proceedings; Angel Cake, naturally, is white with red hair. When they enter the chapel arm in arm, it is hard to miss this distinction. If this were done in a live-action film, it would have raised a tremendous controversy in 1950; apparently, their animated pastry bearding got them past the censors (although they never do kiss, which is unfortunate, they do get to have offspring by film's end). I have no way of knowing if this was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but if it was, my touque's off to them. And also, my hearty congratulations to the Gingerbread Boy for scoring such a five-star dish.

Obviously, I'm going to eat angel food cake a little more sensually from here on out...

Tarts and Flowers (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1950) Dir: Bill Tytla
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Seapreme Court (1954)

The Seapreme Court (Paramount/Famous Studios, 1954) 
Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Apparently, Little Audrey finds fishing as snooze-inducing as I do, though she is actively engaged in pursuing the, ah, craft. What I don't find snooze-inducing is this sweet little revenge story called The Seapreme Court, a Famous Studios cartoon from 1954, where the denizens of the deep attempt to exact thousands of years of bad human behavior on the person of one little girl. This actually isn't a bad idea: it would be like punishing George W. Bush for over a hundred years of non-stop oil company corruption by making him read a book without pictures in it. (It should be very easily proven that the only thing that he can read with over two syllables in it is his middle initial.)

Little Audrey has nodded off beneath a tree on the shore of some form of body of water (more on that later), when she is awakened by a tug on the line she has resting in that water. She is thrilled, but her excitement wanes when she realizes she has only pulled up an old boot with a score of tiny fishes in it. She casts her line back in, and settles against the tree again, swiftly descending back into a deep slumber. She again gets a tug, and wakes up, shouting, "Oh, boy! It's a big one!" (I, myself, have woken up that way on numerous occasions, but the wife couldn’t care less what I have.)


The "Big One" pulls her under the waves and deep down into the murky depths. There is a cry for help, and a passing sawfish cuts the line between her and the pulling fish. Well, we couldn't see Audrey's mouth, but the fish pulling her down into the deep clearly mouths the repeated "Help!" over and over again, but the childlike voice that emits from the creature is eerily reminiscent of Audrey's. So, just who is the sawfish saving?

As it turns out -- it's certainly not Audrey! She is, however, the center of attention here at the bottom of whatever body of water this happens to be. Surrounded by a host of fish, one of them yells out, "There's one of those humans now!" and another fish shouts, "Yay! We finally got one!" Audrey is arrested by one of the "carps on this beat,” with a pair of crab handcuffs placed on her wrists for good measure. Audrey protests, but there is nothing that can be done; she is brought to the Seapreme Court where she is to be put on trial for the whole of all humanity's crimes against fish-kind. The judge bangs his gavel and calls the court to order...

"The Seapreme Court is now in session,
and the trial is about to begin.
The plaintiff is the fish,
the defendant is the human.
Officer Finn, bring the jury in!"


Officer Finn (the bailiff) turns the key on a can of sardines, releasing a dozen of the smelly delights. The canned jury swear themselves in...

"We're the sardine jury both tried and true!
An "oily" verdict we promise you!"

The judge fish jumps right into the trial...

"The first witness from Fish-Land,
Willie Winkfish take the stand!"

A shy fish dressed as a schoolboy (with a voice somewhat reminiscent of Kay Kyser's original recording of Three Little Fishies) tells his tale of being lured to his near capture on a hook under false pretenses...

"While swimming on my way to school,
down where the ocean is sandy,
I nearly swallowed this fishhook,
whichI thought was peppermint candy."


Audrey yells out, "Ah, that's a fish story!" But the judge doesn't care...

"Order in the court!
Order in the court!
Let there be no interfering!
Mr. Sailfish, take the stand!

Let's continue with this hearing!"

One of the sardine jurors holds a shell up to his unseen ear in order to hear the judge better. Mr. Sailfish, who has an Irish accent, tells his tale of woe...

"I was sailin' nonchalantly,
never dreaming of attack,
when before you could say O'Houlihan,
I was mounted on a plaque!"

The camera pulls back from Mr. Sailfish's head to reveal his entire body mounted exactly as described, with the plaque held up by a stool next to the stand. Little Audrey protests, "I didn't do it! I didn't!" and she stomps down hard on one of the octopus' limbs. The octopus hops around holding his appendage, and the judge calls for order.

"Quiet! Quiet!
Let order prevail!

Call in the next witness
to unveil his tale!"

A large whale now sits on the stand, his face sullen as he towers over the jury.

"It was cold December day,
and I was below the ocean's swirls,
when I was netted by a whaling tug,
and drained of my winter oil!"

It's a much nicer account than what actually happens when oil is taken from a cetacean, but to prove his story, the whale pulls a dipstick out of his blowhole to show that his oil reads "empty". Little Audrey uses the octopus' limbs to slingshot her way up to the judge's stand, and pleads, "Judge! That's a whale of a tale!" The octopus pulls her away, and the judge continues...


"Order in the court!
Now let's examine

the testimony of
the Widow Salmon!"

A salmon wearing a bonnet and pushing a baby carriage rolls up to the stand. There is a tear in her eye as she reveals a goldfish bowl underneath a blanket with about forty small salmon fry swimming about in it.

"My children and I were once happy,
and life altogether was grand.
But now I'm a poor lonely widow.
You see, judge, my husband was canned!"

She holds up the can as evidence, and the sardine jurors (themselves working out of a can) start crying and dabbing their eyes with handkerchiefs. The judge closes the testimony (without allowing Audrey a defense, mind you -- are there such things as kangaroo fish? Because it seems this is that sort of court)...

"There you are, sardines of the jury!
The evidence is crystal clear.
Make haste in reaching your verdict;
it's late, and my suppertime's here!"

The jury is rolled up back into their can while they deliberate; this takes them exactly 1.23 seconds. It unrolls again and the unsurprising verdict of "We find the human... GUILTY!" is shouted by all twelve of them. The judge turns to Audrey to lay down her sentence for the crimes of humanity...

"The Fish-Land trial is over.
It was just and fair.
And now here is your sentence...
a seat in the EEL-LECTRIC CHAIR!!!"

The camera pans to the left to show eight electric eels formed into the shape of a normal chair, only with the adding threat of their natural body impulses. They light up briefly a few times to show what is in store for Little Audrey, who screams and fights with the octopus to escape. She ties all eight of his limbs together and makes a break for it, running out of the court and onto the ocean floor. Every type of sea creature in the audience swims after her in hot pursuit.

A cry of "Calling All Carps" goes out, and mountie carps head out after her riding atop of seahorses. Audrey runs into the open mouth of the whale, who happily swallows her, but she climbs up and out of his blowhole. A giant clam swallows her next when the whale's tail flicks her into it, but she tickles the clam's mouth open with a feather, sending the huge mollusk into hysterics. She is next cornered by a swordfish who engages her in a fierce duel, but as Audrey is armed only with a piece of wood from a wrecked ship, the battle is easily won by the fish, but Audrey tricks the swordfish into catching his snout in the side of a shipwreck, and she escapes once again.


Finally, other swordfish build a cage around her by sticking their weaponry in the sand and she is brought back to the court. Placed into the Eel-Lectric Chair, it begins to surge... and suddenly Little Audrey wakes up safe and sound on the shore of the water. She then notices a tug on her line, and a small cute fish leaps from the water. Feeling bad about her careless fishing ways, she frees the creature and puts it back into the water, swearing off fishing. At the last second, the fish hops back out and pins a medal on Audrey. It reads "OfFISHial Pardon", and the fish kisses Audrey on the cheek and heads back home.


The Seapreme Court is simple but clever, with the underwater scenes almost entirely done in a rhyming verse. Audrey does apparently have some confusion about the status of whales as fish (though whales have just as much to complain about humans as fish do, maybe more); I'm longing to see an episode where she fell asleep in a biology class while she should have been learning about taxonomy. (I'd like to see the ghost of Linnaeus pursuing the girl through Science Fair Land while singing a swing tune called "You Gots to Learn Yo' Orders or Else!") Also, for a stubbornly rambunctious girl who doesn't think twice when doing anything in her waking life, she certainly has a head full of guilt; this guilty conscience apparently delights in torturing her nearly to death in dream after dream in this series.


As for that body of water, she is clearly fishing by a lake, but nearly every creature in her dream is specifically an ocean-going animal (included a pair of sharks, who only get in on the final chase action, but sadly, only peripherally). I'm sure, like most kids, Little Audrey makes very little distinction made between the animals in freshwater and the animals in saltwater. Hell, we have a world that is convinced that penguins live at the North Pole with polar bears, and that the whole lot share Coca-Colas with each other. Even as an adult, though I fully knew better, I have always, when in lakes, with a large amount of respect for the sharks that must surely inhabit their waters. (I also knew too well of the isolated incidents where sharks actually were in lakes, and had attacked people, such as in Nicaragua.) I knew that I was completely safe, at least from killer sharks, but it was still scary and fun to imagine.

Of course, there are still all of those lake monsters to worry about. Growing up in Alaska, where rumors have always abounded about the creatures living in certain remote lakes such as Iliamna, that was always a very real concern. And don't even get me started on Sasquatch...

RTJ

*****

And in case you haven't seen it...