Friday, June 30, 2006

THE PRINCESS AND THE PAUPER (1940)

Nicky Nome, the former Chief Gnome, is at it again, bringing his do-goody-good aid to the rescue of fairytale lovers everywhere, and this time in the Arabian Nights vein. Oh, yes... and though he is without the aid of his beloved horsehopper (that's right -- a grasshopper with a horse's head, and yes, in one film, Nicky did a little mackin' on his "pet"), Nicky still gets results by having at his disposal the mighty help of a magical Chevrolet Coach, whose corporate fathers lended the money to have this diguised advertisement built especially to trick moviegoers into thinking they were watching a straight cartoon.

As said, The Princess and the Pauper, the fourth Nicky Nome cartoon, is set in the lands beyond beyond, where an anachronistic narrator Bob Hope's his way through some sketchy dialogue and snidely presents each scene's action. He starts "Once, or twice, upon a time, there was a king who ran this classified ad in the local Town-crier..." Indeed, a town-crier holds a sign in the city square reading:

"Be it known o'er the land where the King holds sway,
that at the King's Palace at sundown today,
His Majesty offers his daughter's fair hand
To the wealthiest suitor in all the land."

The announcement is signed "Bey-la-hay Rex". In verse, the people in the square curse the name of the wizard who has duped the king for the Princess' hand, a notorious cretin named Ali-kazam. Speak of the djinn, the fat, greedy Ali-kazam himself arrives in a parade of camels and elephants, reaching the front gates of the palace in a shower of boos from the crowd. The narrator clues us in to his motives by saying "This Ali-kazam might be Public Cluck Number One, but it's hard to see how he can lose! Being a magic wizard, all he has to do is wave his wand like a swing band leader in a groove, and Zing-O! There's a gunny sack full of jewels!" Sure enough, Ali-kazam presents such a sneaky prize to the King, who gushes like Lenny from Of Mice and Men. The king gladly hands his daughter over to the wizard, and as he pitches woo to the poor little cutie, the narrator makes like a Spike Jones record and says (in the cadence of a track announcer), "So it's Ali-kazam leading at the backstretch, Ali-kazam at the waist..." etc.

Suddenly, all heads turn as another suitor enters the arena, and the narrator asks "Who's this dark horse coming up?" as a trio of dark African servants march toward the throne. They part to betray a scrawny little fellow with whom the princess is immediately taken, and he, her. He impresses the king at first with an array of tricks on his yo-yo, but when the king asks to see jewels, the lad pulls out a slingshot and a mix of marbles. The king tries the slingshot, but snaps himself in his stupid head, and has the lad thrown out. This is done by one African servant whipping the carpet so that the lad is thrown to the front door, and then a second servant cries "Well, looky dere! Hot diggety!", and slaps him in the ass with a paddle which sends him crashing down the front steps of the palace. The lad sees stars from his bumps and bruises, and then a couple bubbles start dancing around his head. One lands on his hand, and out pops the magical Nicky Nome, who offers his service freely to the lad.

The kid explains his plight to Nicky, and the gnome tells him about a Valley of Jewels. "But how will I go?", the lad asks, and Nicky obliges by pushing his armsleeves up and casting a spell. Suddenly, a magic flying carpet is woven right under the boy's feet, and it picks him up and into the air. "Hi Ho Linoleum, awayyyyy!", the narrator weakly reads, and the carpet flies all about the parapets before zooming off for the Valley of Jewels, which he finds in short order and is suddenly very, very rich. The wizard, meanwhile, consults his crystal ball in "magic mirror"-style and finds out the princess loves another, and that the object of her affection has just discovered massive riches. The wizard calls for his giant vulture, which he boards and frantically tries to take off on, but when he heads for the open front door, he crashes through the wall instead. (The narrator adds, "It's a good thing he's just renting the place!")

As the lad flies back to the palace with a carpet full of jewels, he cuts through a rainbow, changing color with each bar. "He shouldn't be taking detours through any rainbows, just to get himself all dolled up!", the narrator gruffly opines. (This creep is really wearing thin on me... and fast...) Waiting in the clouds ahead is the wizard on his monstrous vulture, and he divebombs the boy when he least expects it. The jewels fly into the air, but Nicky Nome produces a large trunk, and the jewels fall into it and sit safely on the back of the carpet. Why, just like in a car trunk, eh? I wonder where they are going with this? The vulture appears again, this time with magical guns that fire blasts of spells at the carpet; Nicky Nome, though, is even more powerful and constructs a steel cage on top of the carpet that protects the boy from the blasts. Could this be the chassis of a Chevrolet Coach? A magical smoke cloud gets inside, however, and chokes the boy, but Nicky adds airvents to the side windows which sucks the smoke right out. Ali-kazam has taken to skywriting "CURSES FOILED AGAIN!" with his vulture, but then turns back for another attack. He produces some very bumpy clouds, which shake the carpet about like a bad section of road, but Nicky throws four serpents under the steel frame, which coil up and act as springy shock absorbers. The vulture grabs the carpet and unravels it, but four sections of carpet like skis remain beneath the snakes, and the carpet lands safely in a slide on the sands of the desert.

The vulture keeps trying to attack, but Nicky transforms the entire contraption into a fully decked-out Coach, and the vehicle zooms off, leaving the vulture and the wizard atop it spinning, stumbling and fumbling in the car's wake all the way back to the palace. The wizard is knocked into the air, and he lands in the bells of a tower. The clappers in the bell come to life and attack the evil wizard, some of them becoming boots which kick him, and one of them develops a face which bites him in the rear. Another parade of camels and elephants is seen, this time with the king riding the pachyderm while he plays with a yo-yo, and the new prince and princess bring up the rear in the coach. The narrator, even if we didn't ask him for it, offers up the hackneyed "moral" of the story: "A poor but honest citizen can practically always marry the king's daughter and live happily ever after -- if he knows the right people!" This is Nicky Nome's cue to appear, and he does, right in front of the closeup of the front grille of the Coach. The emphasis, after all, is on Chevrolet, and their logo is distinctly on view. The end.

Whatever strides this series made with the previous picture, Peg-Leg Pedro, they sure stepped back a notch with this one. And it is all due to only one thing: the crappy narrator. Loaded with sayings that only marginally have anything to do with the action, I'd like to think that even in a day when the items were current that he sounded like the annoying jackass that he seems to be now. There is a drive on his part to seem "hep", but he just digs at your flesh with his canned corn. The animation is just fine in the picture, though -- much like the last film -- and I really enjoy the scenics of the Valley and the surrounding countryside. This would actually be on a par with the last film, and it is actually very well done, but the narration really slows the ol' Coach down.

And the Horse-hopper, the most unique element of the series? Where is he/she? Given that Nicky is now a full-fledged magician in this one, producing everything with a mighty wave of his tiny hands, did he have to make some sort of sacrifice to obtain such dark power? What hath Nicky wrought? It's all fine and well to run to the rescue of true love, but was it at the expense of his own illicit relationship with a mammal-headed insect, carefully tended through three variously-rendered films?

Did Nicky surrender to the Dark Side?

The Princess and the Pauper (A Jam Handy Organization Film, 1940)
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

Thursday, June 29, 2006

PORKY'S MIDNIGHT MATINEE (1941)

Now, where was I? Oh, that's right...

I was interrupted at the beginning of a middling Porky pig cartoon by a political plea to turn a Senatorial vote. Returning to Porky Pig as he shakes his curly tail singing and dancing about the backstage of his theatre in preparation for a special evening hour performance, itself the target of the film's title, Porky's Midnight Matinee, from Chuck Jones and Warner Bros. in 1941, we find the pig's attention drawn by a small "Psst!" emanating from a wire cage hidden amongst the backstage trappings. Inside the cage, Porky discovers a tiny ant with a bone wrapped about some hairs on its head, giving it the supposed look of an African native. The ant motions with his finger to get Porky to come over for a closer look. He gives the swine a cautioning "Shhh..." and points to the cage door, adding an imploring look to get Porky to free him, to which the pig happily obliges. The ant tiptoes forward out of his prison, and when he reaches Porky, the ant bolts through the pig's legs, knocking him down and causing him to overturn the cage. On its bottom, Porky reads these words: "PROF. McGURK'S TRAINED AFRICAN PYGMY ANT - VALUE $162,422,503.51 (plus sales tax)."

Surprised, Porky reads aloud the outrageous sum of money, and lets loose an astonished "Yipe!" when he realizes the can of worms he has opened, or rather, the cage of ant. Porky looks over at a rope hanging from the rigging and follows it up to where the ant is sitting, waving and smiling tauntingly. Porky keeps his eye on the little fellow as he runs towards it, but he runs smack dab into an open trunk and falls in. The trunk shuts and tumbles over and over, and when it stops and reopens, Porky is wearing a magician's top hat. He lifts the hat, and a white bunny is sitting atop his head. The ant gives Porky another "Psst!" and motions his fingers on his head like bunny ears, following this with a giggle at the slow-burning pig.

Porky takes off after the ant, but the pygmy bug swings off on a string and lands at the top of a ladder across the stage. Used to performing, the ant lands and holds his arms upraised, the music striking a bit of fanfare at his derring-do. Porky is not applauding this, though; determined to catch the troublemaker, he stealthily climbs the ladder and tiptoes after the ant on the high-wire to which the ladder is attached. The ant points out to Porky how high off the ground he is standing, and Porky looks down at the stage far below and makes an exaggerated gulp towards the camera. The ant calmly trots to the other end of the wire, steps off, and then shakes the wire wildly, harder and harder, until Porky is wobbling like crazy on top of it and then ends up hanging desperately from it for his very life. The ant finally gives up on picking on Porky and slides down a rope to the ground below. He again makes a big show of his landing, before spinning about dizzily from his winding trip around the rope.

The ant makes the happy discovery of a table full of food hovering just above him, so he ascends the ornamentally carved leg of the table and greets the grand banquet before him. He bounces three times off the top of a sandwich as though it were a trampoline, but then he dives through the bread, causing a small splash as he swims to the middle of its deliciousness. He climbs out from between the two slices of bread, climbs back up on the top, and tears out a huge chunk of bread, downing it in one bite. The pygmy ant looks up to see a very perturbed Porky staring down, the pig's chubby fingers tapping impatiently on his chin. Porky slaps a hand clear through the sandwich, leaving an imprint of his fingers in the bread. The ant, however, has leapt aside, and when Porky hears another "Psst!", he looks over to see the ant waving from a jar of mustard. Porky slaps at the jar and gets his hand stuck inside. He struggles to remove his hand, and sitting on top of a nearby soda bottle, the ant suggests to Porky that he smash the jar against something to free himself. Porky does so lightly on the table, and the ant insists he do it harder. Porky obliges, the jar shatters and mustard pours down the aching hand of the pig, as do tears of pain. The ant pushes a bottle to Porky, who chugs down the liquid, but at the last second he pulls the bottle back to inspect it, and reads the label: "TURPENTINE". As Porky starts to panic and sweat, the ant "Psst"'s again, and the little fiend tries to hand Porky a lit match. The pig dives at the ant on the table, but only ends up getting covered in the plethora of food items that toss about with his landing.

"Here, Anty, Anty, Anty! I've got some nice candy for ya!", Porky shouts as he crawls along the backstage floor. Indeed, Porky is holding a delicious peppermint stick in his hand, but the ant marches along beneath the pig, and eventually switches the candy for a lit stick of TNT. The insect trots off with his prize and starts to happily devour small pieces of it as Porky slowly realizes that he has been duped. Porky tosses the dynamite away, but it slides along the floor and bumps into the candy, replacing it behind the ant's back. Porky, worried for the ant, goes "Psst!" over and over, but the ant ignores him, and shows off by lying on the stick of TNT, thinking it is the candy. As he places another bite into his maw, there is a huge explosion. Porky ducks behind the curtain, but when he emerges, he is overjoyed to see that the blast has blown the ant back into his cage and shut the door behind him. The ant sits dazed and slightly charred on the bottom of the cage, and when he opens his mouth to smile, he at last betrays the traditional sign of Afrocentric cartoon ethnicity: an oversized set of lips, their white shade brought about by the sugar in the candy. Iris out.

The ant in this picture shows signs of certainty on Jones' part that he would be beloved by audiences, when in fact, he comes off as merely annoying. He actually has very little charisma, and much of this is due to the fact that the act thinks very highly of himself, and relies too much on his show-bizzy cuteness. (He also seems to be designed rather sketchily, like one of the characters in Jones' later films - this is not a demerit, merely something I noticed; he doesn't seem as smoothly defined as Jones' other characters in the 40's). Much of the film is actually silent, and there are only a handful of lines delivered by Porky, and really, only in three segments. I personally love it when Porky speaks; whether he stutters or not, I enjoy his voice and wish this film had a little bit more of it. It would go a little way to helping a few scenes where the action seems to be rote and under-developed. I would have liked to see more of the ant trying out the food on the table, and maybe some more gags built around this, instead of the weak bit of Porky crashing into it. In fact, several of the bits seem to not come off, including the high-wire, which just ends; the magic hat, which just ends; and the match-and-turpentine bit, which also just ends. And perhaps the ant could have been developed more if they had shown more of the things he was trained to do. Overall, a disappointing and very minor effort, which could have been far better with just a couple of zigzags in direction.

But, how disappointing is it to see a film turn out like this after I have yelled and screamed about its interruption yesterday? Not very -- I have seen this film quite a lot, actually; it's not like I didn't know what I was up against. And as I have mentioned lightly before, even the most boring cartoon of this era has much to recommend its being seen. I happen to like the backgrounds and art direction of this film, even if I don't care for the pygmy ant concept. A by-the-numbers Aesop's Fable from the 30's still has great enjoyment to be had; you just have treasure small character moments or a smidgen of music that might illuminate an otherwise dull effort. It's why I enjoy watching these films and writing about them, and hopefully get others interested in them.

For me, they are worth far more than
$162,422,503.51 (plus sales tax). And that is why I don't like to have them interrupted with someone's outside political leanings, no matter how much I might or might not agree with them. When I watch a cartoon, I'm all in, baby...

Porky's Midnight Matinee (1941)
Director: Charles A. (Chuck) Jones
Animators: Robert Cannon
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 5

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Porky, Interrupted...

Except for the colorization, the film could be any number of Porky Pig's Looney Tunes shorts of its era: the Warner Bros. company card and then Porky reclining comfortably on top of a wooden fence in overalls; directly beneath him lies the announcement that this particular short is another entry in the popular Looney Tunes series, pretty much promising to the viewer that much riotous antics are about to ensue. The title of the film, though, is hidden in the film itself, on a sandwich board set in front of a grand theatre, where we also read the names of the director Charles A. (Chuck) Jones and a couple of his other compatriots in comedic devilment. Suddenly, we are backstage inside the theatre, where Porky Pig hits a series of switches to prepare the theatre for another showing, all the while singing You Oughta Be In Pictures (which may also be a reference to his classic short from 1938 of the same title) and coordinating his busywork movements to the music, thus inspiring him to dance along happily.

And then, before Porky can take another step -- the film is interrupted by a test screen color bar pattern, a smattering of off-the-air television snow -- and the bad acting begins. As the cartoon, Porky's Midnight Matinee from 1941, had been downloaded by me as a podcast from www.Vintage ToonCast.com (though I actually snagged it off iTunes), I realize that I am pretty much at the mercy of the owners of that podcast site. They can edit, warp, redo and transform any part of the material that they wish. In the case of this particular cartoon, political agenda and knee-jerk, worry-warting has led them to cut the cartoon off 46 seconds into the action, or really, before the action has even begun, and if you don't count the titles, you only actually get 17 seconds of cartoon before the abrupt switch to the Vintage ToonCast plea to stop a House Bill that could possibly lead to the networking of the Internet.

After a strained scenario where the owner of Vintage ToonCast plays both himself and the shady government operative (are there any other kind?) who has been monitoring his self-described (in more ways than one) dual existence, the screen goes to black and then the description of the podcast's true purpose comes onto the screen via several succeeding title cards:

"On June 9, 2006, the House voted to make it legal for Internet Service Providers to strip us of our right to free speech online. If this bill passes the Senate, corporations will build a high speed toll internet and charge content providers for the right to use it. Your DSL or cable modem company could decide to block Vintage ToonCast or others who don't pay to be on "their" internet. Call your senators today and let them know you support a bill for network neutrality, not COPE."

Of course, this makes me angry in a couple of ways. First, I didn't get to see the cartoon that I had set out to review. I should have known from the relatively small size of the file (14.9 mb instead of the usual 40 mb or so) that something was up, but I didn't check it until this morning, when I sat down with my tea and toast and began to watch the thing. I can, of course, go to archive.org, the site from which all of the VTC footage is delivered, and download the full film, and without the annoying black and bottom side bars with the names of both Vintage ToonCast and archive.org splattered on them in a font that looks crappy no matter what size you make your window. (I did indeed go and download the film properly, and will review it tomorrow.) Instead, with my morning viewing time eaten up by a guerrilla political campaign, I had to switch my writing tactics for the day.

The second thing that makes me really angry about this development is that I am admittedly confused by the whole issue, and I am bothered with myself for not caring more about it. It seems like something I should be involved in, much like my constant signing up for all of the democratic sites but never responding to their pleas for "ACTION" and "MOVING ON", mostly out of my own ennui with the world. It's especially hard to do when the people who speak online for the Democrats are clearly cut from a stronger cloth than the actual politicians who preside in positions of power for the party. Online, something might seem like it is getting done, but in the House and Senate, where it counts, with a couple of notable exceptions to the sad rule, they are lackluster and whimpering pansies, afraid of rocking the precious fucking boat.

So, what can I do about it? Well, not much beyond posting the words that Vintage ToonCast tricked me into viewing up on their site and then declaring my confusion about such a cause. I will add that the Net Neutrality Amendment predictably got shot down today. In an article on saveaccess.org, the story has a quote from a major communications corporation that says, "Phone and cable companies have lobbied for a free hand in setting fees for preferred delivery, saying it will cost billions to beef up their Internet wires and, unless they can charge the content companies, consumers will foot the bill." This is bullshit. Whether content companies are charged or not, the consumer gets it in the ass anyway. I'm already paying exorbitant bills to Adelphia.net for their shitty service that seems to get interrupted about six times a day, so that I have to sit on an open blog for a couple of hours until I can finally save it.

There are points on both sides of the issue with which I can agree, and reading the various points of the bill and the proposed amendments only leave me even more divided internally. As I said before, much of it is knee-jerk anti-corporate bluster, even if I am just as guilty with all of my rantings about Big Oil or Big Banking and so on. Overall though, I am clearly in over my head on this issue, not out of a lack of understanding it, but really just my general disdain for the world at large. No matter what is decided, it is not going to be the final blow for "Free Speech" in this country, and besides, there are worse things to worry about in the world. People are still dying for stupid reasons in wars started by idiots, and millions (even in America) are starving to death each day, Paris Hilton is allowed to run amok, American Idol and Family Guy are inexplicably popular, and... well, everything sucks.

And my cartoon this morning got interrupted for something that I most likely agree with but I really wanted to watch that cartoon and write about it.

Net Neutrality? Call me Switzerland. I don't give a crap.

(Psst...! You should really, really check into this. It's kind of important...)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

A TALE OF TWO KITTIES (1942)

My buddy, The Duke, always said that Tweety Bird was an evil little shit. Whether you call him Tweety Bird, Tweety Pie or just plain Tweety, I have always agreed with this statement wholeheartedly. Yes, I love it when the little yellow canary does his baby-voiced wendition of Singin' in the Bathtub, which I have taken great delight in repeating (usually in the shower) throughout my life, even today. Outside of his vocal proclivities and his genius as a character, though, Tweety gets no love for me. Yes, I know that Sylvester the Cat is trying to eat him -- that's what cats do - they eat little birds -- but it's no excuse for the savage glee with which Tweety tries to do the poor pussycat in for merely submitting to his natural instincts as a predator. Much like the Coyote, forever taunted by the scrawny, speedy Roadrunner, my heart has gone out to the hapless Sylvester on any number of occasions. This is not out of any mirrored personal recognition with the predatory creatures of the world; this is more my own knee-jerk twist to those who gladly hand the universe over to the ones who garner the most "Aw, isn't he cute?" reactions. Tweety Bird is cute and he knows it. He knows he can get away with anything, often just by batting his giant baby blues. And the surprise factor on his side is that nobody is prepared for the fact that Tweety Bird is so adept at killing in his own right. Or, at least, attempted murder. And so I side with Sylvester, who is merely struggling to survive. Tweety Bird must die.

I have an opposite reaction where Abbott and Costello are concerned. Growing up, I could never understand why Costello didn't just brain the gruffer Abbott for all of the abuse he received. Pushing, prodding, slapping, kicking, poking, insulting... Abbott did it all to the baby-faced, childish, fatter Costello, and usually to get Costello to try and do something that Abbott wanted to have done but was either reluctant or too afraid to do himself. And most often, Costello would get left holding the bag and taking the blame for the resulting chaos. Then, Costello would get into more trouble trying to explain his way out of the situation, often to a cop -- and did Abbott have his back? By picture's end, usually; but immediately? No, Abbott would usually bluff and act incredulous that Costello would try such a thing, and slap and push him around even more. It was usually an act to try and extricate the pair from the situation, but Costello, with his short memory and his obviously confused and pained expressions, would slowly admit that he "was a bad boy", and would collect another solid link on the furthered chain of abuse. I couldn't stand Abbott as a kid, my heart siding immediately and for life with Costello. As I grew older, I saw far more to the relationship, and now I think Abbott is incredibly funny, and a brilliant straight man. I also realized that Costello was more of a cad than I first understood, being just a little too easy to talk into performing minor unlawful infractions or stupid acts.

So what happens when the ultimate in little birdie cuteness with a hidden sadistic streak meets a baby-faced man-child with a light criminal eagerness? In A Tale of Two Kitties, the first Tweety Bird cartoon from Bob Clampett, the formative canary is beset by feline caricatures of Abbott and Costello, basically nothing more than the comedic duo in cat suits, called Babbitt and Catsello. Such an effort could prove to be annoying if Mel Blanc weren't so very adept at performing a dead-on Lou Costello impersonation, and there are moments where one is not sure if its the actual Lou doing the voice. (Tedd Pierce's Babbitt is not great, but it doesn't seem as bad to my ears as others have said.) Unseen as they stroll behind a fence, Babbitt and Catsello argue exactly in the manner of their live-action counterparts, and when they emerge into view, the pushing and the face-slapping of Catsello by Babbitt is also on target.

"I won't do it! I won't do it!", Catsello yells as Babbitt tries to goad him into climbing up a ladder into a tall tree to collect a prize dinner of a little bird. Asked if he wants to eat, Catsello responds, "Yeah, I wanna eat! But I don't wanna hoit no boid!" It is easy enough, though, for Babbitt to twist the chubbier cat's mind about on itself, leaving Catsello to start yelling "Lemme at 'im!" He starts to climb up the ladder, but falls off immediately. Babbitt tries to push him up the rungs, but Catsello pushes back, explaining "I'm scared to go up high! I get height-raphobia!" The pushing continues as Catsello yells, "Ya can't make me do it! Ya can't make me do it!" Babbitt produces a pin and stabs his buddy in the rear. Catsello shoots to the top of the ladder and says to the camera, "He dood it!", and then punctuates the statement with a trademark Costello whistle.

Down below, Babbitt continues to prod his partner verbally, screaming frantically up at him, "Give me the bird! Give me the bird!" Costello turns a sad eye at the camera and meekly mutters in a subtly raunchy aside, "If the Hays Office would let me, I'd give him da boid alright!" Catsello lines up with the bird's nest that is his target, and inside twigged enclosure, we see the small yellow fiend-in-disguise that is Tweety seemingly asleep on its bottom. Catsello takes a swipe at the bird which misses entirely, and Tweety awakens to the chill generated by the miss. He pulls a section of nest over his body to warm up and goes back to "sleep". The ladder splits under Catsello's weight, and he is left standing with one paw on top of two separate poles. "Hey, Babbitt!", he yells. "Stilts!" One pole falls away, and Catsello struggles with retaining any sense of balance. The pole starts to fall, and Catsello screams for help from his friend. The pole stops its descent, and Catsello, hiding his eyes, slowly slides to the bottom from a mild angle. He says to Babbitt, "Hey! How'd you get way up here?" Babbitt slaps Catsello with exaggerated slowness across his pudgy face.

We next see Catsello standing atop two large springs as Babbitt attempts to push his pal down into a small box. He crams the chunky cat into its cramped interior and latches it shut. Catsello, naturally, protests all the way, finally shouting that he's "afraid of the dark!" Babbitt replies calmly, "Well, I'll let you out then." He unhooks the latch and Catsello springs high into the air and up to the tree branch, topping out just above Tweety's nest. As the cat heads back to the ground, Tweety, for the first time in film history, utters one of the most quoted catch-phrases in animation, "I tawt I taw a puddy tat!" When Catsello bounces into his view again, Tweety begins an incredible onslaught of harm and destruction, and all crammed into just a few very violent seconds. He first whacks Catsello in the noggin with a club, and when Catsello bounces up again wearing a bird cage over his head, Tweety opens the door and pokes Catsello hard in the eyes. Catsello bounces up again with his hands over his eyes inside the cage, and Tweety just whacks the top of the cage with the club again, denting Catsello's skull. The rotund kitty bounces up immediately wearing a WWI helmet, but the bird pulls grabs it and snaps it back at Catsello's head, while simultaneously stuffing a cigar into the cat's mouth. When Catsello returns, he is holding a pistol pointed right at the bird, but Tweety grabs it and fires it back at the cat. Luckily for him, it turns out to be a water pistol, but it does prompt Catsello to swiftly don a deep-sea diving helmet on his return trip. This doesn't sway Tweety in the least, for he simply opens the face-latch and inserts a lit stick of TNT inside the helmet. Catsello flies back down to the earth, and unseen by the viewer, he receives a massive explosion. "Aw, da poor puddy tat!", Tweety snarkily comments, "He ca-wushed his widdle head!"

But the explosion gives Babbitt an idea, apparently, and while Catsello sits down musing on his own failure to "get da boid", while munching on an apple, Babbitt prepares a surprise for his partner. Unbeknownst to Catsello, he is sitting on a powder keg, and Babbitt shoves a plunger down next to him and explodes Catsello high into the air. He zooms past the nest, and Tweety is swift enough to grab the apple from the cat's paw as he passes. Tweety doesn't want the apple, which is larger than the little bird, he want's the worm inside, and devours it unthinkingly. Catsello, meanwhile, is still flying up into the skies, and when he comes down, he splats hard on a nearby roof, slides down to its edge, falls, and luckily catches himself on a clothesline. Did I say luckily? Sadly for the cat, Tweety deftly walks along the clothesline and stands over Catsello. With the casual grace of a practiced killer, Tweety nonchalantly pulls Catsello's desperately gripping toes off the line, as the bird recounts the children's rhyme of This Little Piggie Went to Market, only in his baby-talk verbiage, "piggies" becomes "piddies". After he reaches "This widdle piddie had woast beef!", he finds there is no longer a cat beneath him, and remarks with surprise, "Well, whatdya know! I wan outta piddies!"

As Catsello falls, Tweety throws the "puddy tat" a rope. Catsello grabs it, but unfortunately for him, Tweety has tied it to an anvil, and it and Catsello hit the ground so hard that the surrounding scenery and ground cover into the hole after them. Babbitt, who is busy working on a wartime Victory Garden, is pulled all the way backwards up to the hole's edge. He turns about to see the anvil, and pulling it out of the ground, Catsello is completely flattened to the point where he can only answer Babbitt's queries as to who did this to him by attempting to whistle, though the attempts only come out halfway, and are more spit than whistle.

Babbitt hasn't given up, and talks Catsello into giving it one more try. Or, rather, he misdirects him with small talk while he outfits the husky kitty with a pair of wooden wings and then fires him into the sky with the aid of a giant rubber band. "Hey, Babbitt! Look at me!", yells Catsello with much joy as he discovers that he is flying. "I'm a Sp-Sp-Spitfire!" Tweety sees this action, and slaps a helmet reading "Air Raid Warden" on his head. He gets on the phone and calls the Army, warming them of an enemy attack in the skies. Caught in an array of crossing searchlights, Catsello is an easy target for the guns that are seemingly surrounded him on all sides. Catsello's wings get shot to pieces, and the cat smashes into the ground below, tumbling into Babbitt as he does. Tweety marches about their heaped bodies, inspecting the damage. The pair open up their eyes and start to whisper conspiratorially to each other, but Tweety turns on them. He shouts, "Turn out those lights!" in a voice that is neither cute nor sweet, and the cats oblige. With their eyes going out like clicked bedroom lamps, the film goes to black.

Tweety's great gimmick is that no one, neither Sylvester nor any other cats that mess with him, are ever prepared for the fact that this little bird has more danger per square inch packed in him than any other cartoon character ever created. He gets away with it, too, but covering up his violent side with his engaging cuteness, all sing-song patter and smarmy butt-kissing to those who can aid him in this cover-up (like Granny). But its not just that he is dangerous – he is sadistic. He could have just as easily left Catsello alone on that clothesline, but he had to do the "piddie" bit. He could have just as easily let Catsello fall, but he had to do the "rope and anvil" bit. One cruelty on top of another.  

Bob Clampett was a bona fide genius.

And Tweety is an evil little shit. The Duke is right.

A Tale of Two Kitties (Warner Bros., 1942)
Director: Robert Clampett
Writer: Warren Foster
Animator: Rod Scribner
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Tedd Pierce
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

Monday, June 26, 2006

STEAMBOAT WILLIE (1928)

Seeing as how our girls are both Rescue Dogs, and since Jen will not cave in to my request to own a lizard, snake, frog or tarantula which might rely on the icky dispatching of crickets or mice for sustenance, I have taken up a search for another pet of the warm-blooded variety. Since a mistress was clearly out of the question, I had to take my search to various animal rescue societies in the local area. My quest led me to a shelter in Hollywood which specializes in mammals and birds which were either neglected or abused by their previous owners, and as it turned out, the first few animals that I checked out had a similar story behind their abuse.

First, I was shown a billygoat whose tail had been shaped into a handcrank and then callously turned to allow the goat's stomach, which was full of music sheets, notes and guitar remnants, to emit noises much like a grinded organ would do. A black cat cowered and hissed in a corner, its tail stretched and shredded from not only the pulling it encountered when its assailant attempted to turn the feline into a yowling musical instrument, but also from the fiend's swinging of the cat several times about his head until letting it fly without a concern for where it would land. A duck, who had been on the scene for the cat's abuse, had been leapt on next and encountered a squeezing of its stomach as if it were a bagpipe, while at the same time, its neck received a harsh strangling for the same "musical" intent. A cow had to undergo much dental surgery after its teeth were pounded on with a pair of xylophone mallets, and also had developed a swollen tongue from the same attack.

In a most disgraceful savaging that only the most icy-veined of sociopaths could possibly commit, six tiny piglets had their tails sprained by constant "musical" pulling by the assailant, and then their mother was picked up and the babies were shaken loose of their hold upon her teats. The last baby was roughly kicked from his toothy grip on his loving mother, and then the sow was held upside down in the air while the cad groped and pinched each of her six teats for his own, allegedly, musical pleasure (though there are hints that the reason for the molestation may have sprung from a far darker urge.) Finally, a parrot, of decidedly callous nature himself, also limped along the fringes of the room, with large lumps on his head from not just being crowned with a bucketful of water, but also from a large flung potato which resulted in the bird's near-drowning incident in the river outside the boat where all of this abuse occurred. The most heinous detail of the attacks was the fact that all of it, except the parrot's experience, happened during the playing of the inexplicably popular tune Turkey in the Straw. And though it was all captured on film, a near-platoon's worth of lawyers managed to keep the abuser from paying for his horrible crimes upon his fellow animals.
The single element that ties the attacks together? They were all the fault of an abnormally sized mouse wearing short pants and shoes.

And it all happens before our eyes in Steamboat Willie, the historically revered "first" synchronized sound cartoon starring the soon-to-be world famous Mickey Mouse, which was neither the first sound cartoon (Max Fleischer had done several of them four years earlier in 1924) nor the first Mickey (two others, Plane Crazy and The Galloping Gaucho, were made first and shown in test screenings to potential - and nonplussed - distributors, and Plane Crazy was released as a silent, until sound came in and Willie turned into a boffo success; then the other two films were retrofitted with soundtracks). Mickey was actually created by Ub Iwerks, who quickly sketched out the initial drawings of a mouse character after he and Walt needed a star to replace the swindled Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And with the timely introduction of revised sound engineering, Mickey whistles his happy tune, and doing so, he wins over the world.

It is fascinating to realize that one of the most iconic of animated sequences (though this may be partly because Disney has made it impossible to not see its imagery from time to time) actually only takes up less than fifteen seconds in Steamboat Willie. Mickey, wearing a pilot's cap and whistling happily as he taps his foot and steers the steamboat, isn't even the captain of the ship, and he is swiftly supplanted by the gruff skipper Pete (he of later "Pegleg" fame), a large, grumpy cat who stretches Mickey's torso out from the rest of his body so that Mickey has to pull in and stuff his torso back into his pants. Pete hisses at Mickey to leave the pilot's house, but Mickey can't help himself and blows a raspberry back at a very surprised Pete. The grouch swings his leg to take a kick at the rodent, but Mickey avoids it, and the leg wraps over Pete's shoulder so that he ends up booting himself instead. Mickey, however, still falls down the stairs, falling end over end onto each step, lands on the deck, slips on a bar of soap, and ends up with his rear stuck in a pail of soapy water. (It is this point where he first abuses the taunting parrot by smashing the bucket over its head.)

Once Pete assumes command of the vessel, he commences to tear off a large chaw of tobacco, and spits out a nasty loogie from between his teeth. To aid him in this task, two of his teeth actually slide open like doors and then closes again when he is done spitting. The loogie hits the wind and sails right behind Pete, splashing nastily on the ship's bell. Pete, like any idiot, thinks this is great fun and tries it again. Only on the second try, he times it wrong and gets a sticky black face full of odious chew. The ship pulls up to Podunk Landing where a variety of barnyard animals (many of them descibed in the opening paragraph) are waiting to be shipped to distant towns. Mickey's job is to load the animals, but when he puts the lifting belt of his crane around the cow (who wears a tag reading "FOB"), she is far too skinny about the waist to pick up. She does, however, have an enormous udder, and when Mickey first attempts the lift, he gets sprayed full on by a year's supply of unpasteurized milk. Mickey runs off to get a pitchfork of hay, and when the cow obligingly opens up for the tasty stuff, Mickey shoves the fork all the way into her body, bloating it to its full potential. The loading goes easy after that, and the ship takes off again.

Only problem is, they left behind a passenger: Minnie Mouse, to be precise, and she chases the ship along the river for what must be a half mile before Mickey gets the bright idea to pick her up with the crane. As she continues to run, famously yelling her trademark "Yoo-Hoo!", the crane's hook nicely lifts Minnie's skirt and picks her up by the undies. It drops her on the deck, sending her sheet music for Turkey in the Straw (subtitled "Hey! Hey!") and her guitar sprawling to where the billy goat is standing, eager for an easy meal. As the crane politely puts Minnie's skirt back into place, the goat eats every note of the music and the guitar, and after Mickey fails to wrest the guitar from the goat's gullet, he notices the chiming of the instrument as it bounces around the goat's stomach. Mickey inspects the inside of the goat and then signs to Minnie to turn the goat's tail into a crank. She does so, and the Turkey song springs into bloom. Let the abuse begin!

Mickey doesn't spring immediately into the torture. First he bangs on some pots and pans (and even his own head) outside the kitchen, and then does a mean solo on a washboard. He runs out of inanimate objects too quickly, and the passing black cat is the first to get it. From there, as described earlier, he tortures the duck, the piglets and their mother, the sow, and the cow. Some would point out that a couple of animals seem to be enjoying the music and are smiling, most noticeably the bovine, but this is merely a case of the abused not realizing their danger, or becoming used to it, perhaps even accepting it as a sign of love and acceptance. Pete breaks up the party soon enough, and banishes the rebellious upstart to the kitchen, where he is ordered to peel a giant pile of potatoes. Mickey starts to carve each one with a knife, peeling away roughly about 75 percent of each spud, and then dropping the tiny remains in a bucket. The parrot flies into the window and taunts him again, so Mickey wings his next spud right at the bird's skull, and the parrot drops into the drink yelling "Help! Man overboard!" Mickey laughs, and we have iris out.

For a film that is often described to visually be on a par with other films of its period, I find the world that Mickey and his friends occupy to be remarkably well-developed. Not that there is much depth to either the backgrounds or the characters, but what is there is fully rounded and complex enough to make us believe in the situation. The knock against Mickey has always been that he is not all that funny, but I don't believe that such a thing was ever the point. Donald and Goofy came along to provide that at their various levels, though never to a Warner Bros. degree where that was the concentration, but I think Mickey really was meant from the start to be a sort of Everymouse, where anyone in any situation could readily identify the mouse's soul as their own, or at least, that of their secret self that they yearned to spring upon the world. Mickey may have been idiotically happy from the start (though you might notice that he does not actually speak in this cartoon - he only whistles and laughs), but he was also heroic, true blue, and courageous. Not necessarily qualities that I admire, but enough people have over the years to make Mickey a truly distinct prescence in history. Almost 80 years since his creation, I think we have forgotten about how much Mickey changed over the years, and also how much he didn't. His look evolved with the times, but most of the main components of his personality were instilled in him from that very first film: the gutsy, plucky little guy who gets the job done.

Of course, getting the job done here, aside from piloting and loading the ship, includes the unwarranted groping of piggie teats, the dropping and kicking of babies, and the strangling and general misuse of innocent animals. That he is a mouse is no excuse for such behavior, for he is essentially portraying a recognizably human and modestly clothed character to their furred and feathered animal ones, and thus, his crimes must also be determined to be recognizably human. The torture of small animals is often an early sign of a future serial killer, so it is a great sign that Mickey's misuse of the animal kingdom soon goes away altogether. (Eventually, his pets, such as the hapless Pluto, take to basically torturing themselves.) But, the evidence is here in this film, and to top it off, Mickey flirts musically with an underwear-revealing hottie like Minnie, throwing her "Yoo-Hoo!" around for all to see and hear.

Let's seem them build a park around this theme. I'd buy an E-ticket ride for that one...

Steamboat Willie (A Walt Disney Mickey Mouse Sound Cartoon, 1928)
Director: Ub Iwerks
Animators: Ub Iwerks, Wilfred Jackson and Dick Lundy
Music: Bert Lewis and Wilfred Jackson
Cel Bloc Rating: 8

Sunday, June 25, 2006

PORKY'S RAILROAD (1937)

A train hurtles towards us at breathtaking speed, zipping past the telephone poles that lie on either side of its engine without a care, dust from the tracks kicking up beneath its iron frame, and black smoke oozing out of its stack in a relentless wave of sickening exhaust. We see this streaming smoke from the side as the train's whistle announces its approach to any who would be unlucky enough to pause upon said tracks, and then we see a full side view of the engine as it runs along the top of a small incline. Quick cuts reveal to us the steam escaping from the pumping of the wheels just above the track; a front-side closeup of the engine's face; the golden bell clanging urgently on the engine's top; the cowcatcher and front wheels scraping along at the front of the train's ceaseless assault across the plains of America. A final burst of cuts further define the engine's power and energy, including one where the train runs straight up into and through the camera's eye.

As beautifully edited and heart-pumping as any similar scene of locomotive prowess in any number of Hollywood pictures, but this scene is at the very beginning of a Looney Tunes cartoon. The picture is Porky's Railroad from Warner Bros. in 1937, and the director is Frank (Tish Tash) Tashlin, whose signature, apart from the style of gags that he developed and employed in his few short years with the studio, was his ability to bring a feature-film eye for cutting and visuals to his animated films. That he would go on to master feature-film comedies in the late 40's and through the 60's is further proof of his talent, equally at home in two very different media, but similar enough where he could bring elements of either to the other.

In the case of Porky's Railroad, this train sequence, had it been shot in live-action form, could easily have formed a remarkable montage piece in just about any western of the day. Instead, it is used to set up a mere gag involving Porky Pig's slice of the locomotive business. The train that we have been introduced to is Number 515, the 30th Century Limited, which a superimposed title tells us is "The Railroad's Crack Train". We are then shown Number 13-1⁄2 - The 15th Century Unlimited, which we are told is "also a crack train" and then followed up with "Everything cracked, including the engineer". The train putts along as if in slow-motion, and each puff of its smokestack or pull of its whistle causes the engine (and tiny coal car) to leap up into the air apart from its wheels. With the name "Toots" painted on its housing and with engineer Porky Pig at the controls, the engine inches its way up the incredibly steep Piker's Peak, and its almost total lack of thrust allows a snail to lap it on the way up.

Why Porky is surprised by this, I don't know; but it is enough to cause him to spring into action when the train slows almost to a stop. After he pulls some pepper out of his pocket, we see that the furnace is only burning a single candle for its fire. Porky sprinkles the pepper on the candle, and the engine starts to sneeze. As it continues to build up more and more power in its sneezes, the engine starts to speed up and flies up the side of Piker's Peak, zooming down the other side and through a tunnel. Still speeding along, when it hits a section with numerous switches, all of the cars come apart from the engine (in an overhead view) and meet up with it again where the switches meet up farther down the line. However, the 515 is heading straight towards them at even greater speed, and Porky has to pull the train onto a side track to avoid collision. His caboose is left hanging on the track, though (the train's caboose, not Porky's at-this-time prodigious one), but Number 13-1/2 manages to scrunch up at the last second, much to Porky's brow-wiping relief.

He gets his engine's speed back up and heads off again, but he has to put the brakes on when he almost runs into a cow lounging about on the tracks ahead. She chews her cud lazily as she ignores Porky's calls for her to move, so he has to resort to pushing her rear end and forward to get the desired result. "Am-scray, you m-mess of t-t-t-T-bones!", he orders, and as he makes his way back to the engine, he muses that "It's c-cows like that that g-g-give m-milk a b-b-bad n-name. I b-bet she can't g-give sweet milk, an old s-s-sourpuss like that!" Unbeknownst to Porky, a huge bull, easily twice the size of the cow, crosses the tracks and sits down by some bushes adjacent to them, his body hidden by the shrubs and his tail flapping about on the track. Porky, still thinking it's the cow, vows to show the "four-legged piece of hamburger!" When he tugs on the tail, he swiftly realizes that he has gotten more than he bargained for, and the next thing we see is his train flying along at supersonic speed, flying around several S-curves before disappearing out of sight.

At a dispatch office far away, a telegram is received reading "STOP PORKY'S TRAIN STOP". Indeed, his train is called in, and Porky is handed an Official Dispatch from the humorously monickered president of the railway, I. Fuller Cinders. It tells Porky to "Roll Up Your Tracks and Go Home - The Streamline Train is Here to Stay!" A postscript asks Porky nicely to "Please Return Spikes". The camera darkens the screen around most of the note except for the words "Streamline Train" and then the camera cuts to the latest word in high-speed continental travel, The Silver Fish, which is indeed streamlined and looks for all the world like a bullet-shaped spaceship. It's engineer tips his hat to us and blows his whistle proudly. Ah, boys and their stupid toys...

Speaking of which, Porky bids a sad farewell to his beloved Toots, but the Silver Fish pulls up on the track parallel to Porky. The engineer rudely shakes Porky's hand and drops him on the ground after the pig offers him the best of luck, and then the engineer adds insult to injury by asking "Say, what is that? A percolator on a roller skate?" Porky muses that Toots could be "his ol' Silver Fish" and the engineer picks Porky up by the tail, pokes him in the eyes, and takes up the challenge to race the decrepit engine. A gun is fired, and when the Silver Fish takes off, its massive speed leaves Toots' cars all knotted up with each other. The Silver Fish bolts past a woodpile, and when all the logs fly away, there sits the proverbial Negro that is stereotyped as living in it. The train goes through a small tunnel and completely turns the structure inside out. It does stop as a bridge is raised over a river, but only long enough for a Mae West-style fish to pop out of the water, stroke her side seductively, and say "Oh, boy! What a man!"

Porky, meanwhile, is doing his best to keep up, and when he reaches the same bridge, when it is raised to allow to allow the S.S. Leon (named for WB producer Schlesinger) to pass, Porky goes so fast that he goes up and over the raised bridge. Toots ends up carrying off a life preserver with the name of the ship on it, but that's not all, folks! Hanging from one of Porky's freight cars is a lifeboat with full hanging tackle, and inside is a sailor who rows along singing, "They stand together! Give up the ship!" As Porky makes his way back to the spot where he had all the cow problems, the bull sits atop a hill and recognizes the engine. He runs down to the tracks and charges full-speed after Porky and Toots! He plows through each of Porky's cars and headbutts the engine so that it flies through the air, straight over the top of the Silver Fish, and down onto the tracks to cross the finish line first! The crowd goes crazy, and the scene switches to a closeup of the Silver Fish with Porky installed as its new engineer. Poor ol' Toots, trashed and laying in a broken heap on a flatcar pulled by the Silver Fish, bears a sign reading "Headin' for the Last Roundhouse!" Iris out.

Aside from the quick racial gag, Porky's Railroad is a most enjoyable and satisfying film (except for the retirement of poor ol' Toots, a good train that deserved a better end). Tashlin's version of Porky is completely charming, sort of halfway in-between his initial immensely rotund self and his later streamlined and most popular version. Despite his stuttering, Porky's attitude here is truly one of "can-do" self-application, and his railroad is proof of his DIY spirit. Much of that spunk probably came from the general spirit of the times, where everyone was still struggling with the lingering effects of the Great Depression (which really didn't go away until WWII rolled into view). Porky was a perfect hero for the times; I think more so than Popeye, whose powers relied on a specialized diet (and, let's admit it, he began each adventure with astounding strength already) or than Superman, who was soon to be unleashed onto the world, but whose powers were literally unearthly. Porky is an Everypig who has to use the only weapons that he has in his arsenal: his pluck and his gumption.

Would that we were all possessed of such drive. Sure, most of us, myself included, in this MySpace age of massive ego, talk a thunderous game. But when confronted with a challenge like that which the Silver Fish presents to Porky's Toots, with every odd coming out against us, how many of us have the gumption to at least buckle down and give it our best shot?

You're right. Neither did I, until the day that I discovered that I could give my life a new burst of energy and start over fresh somewhere new. You have to swallow your fears, make that move, find that new job, and pour everything you can into replanting your happiness so that it can flourish like it never has before.

And you have to reach up and clang that engine bell as loud and as proud as you can. Let the world know that you are coming down the tracks and you've taken the catcher off the front. All aboard!!

Porky's Railroad (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1937)
Director: Frank Tashlin
Animators: Robert Bentley and Joe D'Igalo
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Voices: Mel Blanc and Billy Bletcher
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

Saturday, June 24, 2006

PEG LEG PEDRO (1938)

Peg Leg Pedro (Jam Handy Organization, 1938)
Dir.: uncredited
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

The new Johnny Depp Pirates flick can't show up soon enough. Jen is driving me crazy. Not only does is she "in the zone" on her anticipation of the new film (as is much of female America over their lust for both Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom and pirates in general), but since she works at Disneyland, she has been keeping me in the loop over every development in the park's VIP premiere showing this weekend of the film, in which they have blocked off the Rivers of America area and built a full-size movie screen across one end of Tom Sawyer's Island. Huge seating stands have risen up where people once sat for Fantasmic!, and the entire is roped off so that the massive Disney crowds have to funnel through the bridge that runs over the top of the Pirates entrance to gain access to and from New Orleans Square. Jen's mom is coming to town expressly to see the opening day showing with Jen and to ride the redesigned ride after it opens this weekend. And to top off everything, Jen is going crazy because both Depp and Bloom are not only staying at the hotels for the event, but she, like every woman and many of the men that work at the parks, believe that a run-in with the famous movie stars is inevitable at some point during the weekend.

This morning, I gave Jen a goodbye hug and kiss to see her off on the day that I declared "the one in which you leave me for Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, or both of them." Dolled up for her job, she looked great going out the door, but I actually have no worries about such a scenario; I am merely playing along with her fantasy pirate world. I see no harm in this, and unless she mystically divines an invitation to the premiere showing this evening, then I will see her tonight. (She has already asked that we stay in since she has to work again early in the morning.) Fantasies are all fine and well, but there is still the reality of the working world, and she has a job to do. On my end of things, I will greet her at the door with an eyepatch, and since I have sprained my ankle and have been limping about on one foot throughout the past week, I am thinking about sawing off my left leg from the knee down and affixing a peg leg for a true piratey effect. Remember, it's not the peg leg that counts, it's how you use it.

Peg Leg Pedro, which is an odd name for a crafty and evil pirate but the one by which he goes, is the captain of a swarthy crew of buccaneers in a Jam Handy cartoon short/Chevrolet ad from 1939, also cunningly titled Peg Leg Pedro. Not only does he indeed possess a peg leg on his left leg, but his pet pirate does as well. They also both wear eyepatches, and when the film starts, we see the skull-and-crossbones on his flag sing the beginning of Blow the Man Down, but then a slow dissolve brings us to the face of Pedro himself, continuing the song as he strolls proudly across the deck of his ship whiling applying savage cracks of his whip to the backs of his deck-scrubbing crew. His parrot "parrots" his every move, but when one of the crew makes to stab the captain in the back, the parrot squawks "Wise guy, eh!" behind the man. The pirate pretends he was only carving an apple, and whistles nonchalantly. The parrot slips on the bar of soap the pirate had been using, and the bar shoots ahead to the captain's peg leg. He slips on the bar and slides across the deck, and crashes through a barrel of apples and other items before getting pelted in the head by several cannonballs. The parrot climbs up on his master and rips out a handful of chest hair, singing "Fifteen hairs from a dead man's chest!" but the captain comes to and starts to strangle his pet.

We are shown a closeup of the bottom of a pair of feet while a deep voice intones musically, "Many brave hearts lie asleep in the deep, so beware! Be-" A bee lands on the sole of one of the feet, and the big toe on the other tries to flick off the offending bug, as the voice continues to go "Be--be--be--" Instead of singing "-ware!", there is just a short buzz as the toe manages to relocate the bee into the skies with a flick. The camera pulls back to show a pirate relaxing in an easy chair suspended from the top of the mast, in place of an actual crow's nest. Peering through a telescope, he sees a ship being tossed across the waves nearby. He pulls out a microphone and announces, "Calling all pirates! Calling all pirates!" The parrot is taking swings at his master, which is a losing game since the captain still has him by the neck. At the call for battle, though, the captain throws the parrot against the wall and marches off. The feisty parrot curses the captain, but gets his peg leg stuck in one of many holes in the ship's deck. The captain tries to look through his own telescope, but he can't see anything. He pushes a button on the contraption, and a windshield wiper springs to life and cleans the lens. He peers back through and sees a young boy and girl on the deck of the other ship, and in their hands, he sees they are surveying a treasure map.

"C'mon, babykins," the pirate tells his pet, "Get dressed! Were going to have company!" As the parrot squawks, "I ain't-a gonna do it! I ain't-a gonna do it!" the captain dresses the parrot in baby clothes. "You will," orders the captain while he slaps the parrot, "and you'll like it!" The parrot gives in, but with a condition: "Alright, I will! But I won't like it!" The captain affixes a ladies' wig to his own head, and orders his crew to lower the decoy. From the top of the masts a huge backdrop is unrolled that covers the entire ship, which shows nothing but blue skies, some clouds, and a small raft adrift on the open sea. A figure is painted on top of the raft, and where its head is at, the pirate pops his wig-laden noggin through a hole in the backdrop, and does so with his arms as well, one of which holds the baby-disguised parrot. As the pirate captain screams for help, a pair of crewman uses shark puppets to make it seem that the mustachioed lady and her baby are in great peril.

The captain of the other ship calls for their immediate rescue, but as they head towards the pirate craft, the evil captain tries to light the fuse on his cannon to fire on their intended victims. A cute little flame leaps from his lighter and bends over to light the fuse, giggling as it does; however, when the cannon blows, a mouse and his family run away from its nozzle, and the cannonball only drops onto the deck and rolls over the side of the ship, landing on the head of a pirate holding a knife in his teeth, which fall right out on the collision, still gripping the knife in them. The parrot laughs and declares "Foul! Strike One!" The pirates then unleash a furious broadside at their victims, tearing their ship to shreds. The little boy runs to the cabin and sends out a telegraph signal, which filters through the steam from a teapot and gets sent out into the skies as three winged and steamed letters: "S.O.S."

It is now that we finally meet the hero of the film, Nicky Nome, the goodie-two-shoes gnome, whom we met previously in the pair of Jam Handy Chevrolet ads directly before this one, and A Ride for Cinderella and A Coach for Cinderella (in which he was simply called "Chief Gnome"). This time, Nicky and his faithful horse-hopper steed (and sometimes romantic companion as well) have a Trouble-Shooting Station on a tropical isle not far from the piratical assault on the kids' ship. With its six legs, the horse-hopper has no problem strumming both a ukulele and a guitar at the same time, while also playing a vibraphone with its feet. (The song, unsurprisingly, is Aloha Oe.) The "S.O.S." letters arrive on the island and tap dance their Morse Code message in front of Nicky, and then point him in the direction of the strife. We then see a shed by the oceanside, from out of which shoots what first appears to be a speedboat -- in classic action movie style, cutting boldly through the surf -- but then is revealed as the bill of a pelican, which takes off from the water and flies off into the skies, with Nicky and the Hopper safely stashed inside the bill.

On the pirate ship, with the shattered remains of the kids' ship floating meekly in the background, Peg Leg Pedro extracts gold from his tied-up victims' pockets with a large magnet. A pirate accountant sits at a cash register and rings up "2 Bits" over and over. He places the gold into his own pocket, but a string of pirates behind him each steal the gold down the line, from him to the last man, each one pulling coins from the pocket or bag of the man in front of him. The captain, who may dream of being royalty someday, muses that "Now I can buy me a poiple shoit with poil buttons!" As the last pirate passes with a bag of gold on a stick, the captain finishes rolling up his purloined treasure map and switches the bag of gold with a ball-and-chain. He moves the gold to a safe, and as he turns the combination dial, it sounds like he is tuning a radio (the familiar NBC tones are heard in conclusion). He stashes the bag and map inside and slams the safe shut, but on the other side, the parrot drags both items out through a large hole and across the deck. However, he yet again runs afoul of one of the holes in the deck, and when his peg leg gets stuck, he drops the map and it lands in the hands of the boy and girl, who are hiding behind a mast.

The kids desperately climb up the mast, but the captain follows close behind them. To their rescue flies the pelican (it is interesting to note that he has large red N's on his wings), and Nicky and the hopper drop a large pelican egg onto the captain's face. Instead of a yolky mess, though, a baby pelican pops out instead, and struggles to start its personal engine until, at last, its sputtering stops and it makes its first flight successfully. The kids leap from the mizzen onto the back of the pelican, and then the heroes fly off to the island on the treasure map. Upon landing, they immediately locate the treasure cave, thanks in no small part to a sign that reads so above its entrance. The kids find a huge pile of gold coins inside, and when the girl declares that there must be more than a million dollars in it, the boys replies "Aw, shucks! There's more than a thousand, I betcha!" After wondering how they will get the cache of treasure home, Nicky Nome helpfully fires up a steamshovel, with the pelican serving as a scoop, and deposits the gold into the spacious trunk of the everpresent Chevrolet Coach, star vehicle of the previous two adventures, which always seems to turn up just in the nick of time. The pirates have made it to the island, too, and they Mysterious Mose their way towards the cave, sneaking in perfect alignment and step with each other, except for the parrot who constantly scoots through their legs until they pass him again. But when they reach the cave, the Coach bursts out of the entrance and mows through the ruffians, sending them flying and leaving the Captain hanging by his pants from a tree branch. The parrot, stuck in yet another hole, screeches exhaustedly, "And me what wants peace and quiet!" and then collapses. Peg Leg Pedro can only mutter in frustration, "I been a bad boy! I shoulda listened to me muddah!"

The boy drives the Coach to the shore of the island, but the dilemma pops up over how to get back home. Nicky Nome, who is adept at these sort of problems as long as he has a Chevrolet at his disposal (which he usually does) paces back and forth on the dashboard of the Coach, shouting "Worry! Worry! Worry! Worry!" Finally, he has a swell idea, and we next see the skull-and-crossbones being lowered and the standard bearing the face and initials of Nicky Nome replacing it. (When the pirate flag comes down, the pirates are revealed to be standing on the shore of the island, and they run off in either fear or anger, or perhaps both.) Soon, the pirate ship is cutting through the waves once more, but it turns out to be tethered to the wrecked ship of the children, which in turn is tied to the back of the Chevrolet, which Nicky has magically turned into some sort of paddle-wheeled construct, with a long board running through its center to act as a hull. Leaping from behind the "NICKY" license plate on the front bumper, we are met by the parrot, who has apparently switched to the side of good. He squawks, "We certainly fixed those pirates, didn't we? Awk!", before he yet again plunges his peg leg into another hole. As he spins and struggles to free himself, Nicky laughs at the parrot from atop the hood of the Coach, while the boy steers from inside. Just when you think that Nicky and the hopper are going to make out like they did at the end of the second Cinderella picture, Nicky reaches his little hand over to his steed, and they shake limbs like proper friends. The End.

With the inconsistency in all departments at large in Nicky Nome's Cinderella flicks, it is a distinct pleasure to announce how wonderful Peg Leg Pedro turns out to be. Despite being an advertisement, this is also a terrific pirate picture, not just animated cartoon, and takes its time to lampoon just about every aspect of buccaneer culture into which it can get its silly (celly?) little paws. For once, characters seem to look the same from scene to scene, and each slice of the story is tied in with the rest, which is also a welcome change after the kitchen-sink approach of the opening pair of films. Honestly, I had never seen this film until just the other day, and I am flabbergasted at the superior quality on display for what seems to be a throwaway series of films in most animation books I have seen. If the preceding films were up to this quality, I think greater pains would have been taken by now to learn more about the makers of these films. As it is, the creators seem to be mostly unknown (though some principals are mentioned here and there) or forgotten.

The first film of the Pirates of the Caribbean eventual-trilogy is of a high quality, and because of that watermark set onto the hull of movie history, for me, the next pair are certainly going to have a rough time equalling The Curse of the Black Pearl. But I don't think its the same for many of the people who are going nutso at Disneyland this weekend. I think the bulk of them (though not Jen) already have it locked into their brains that they love the next two films, even before they've seen the second and even before the third has been filmed (and which doesn't even come out until 2008). Jen says that there is no way that I can hate a film with shark-headed pirates marauding about in it. She might be right, but there is a big difference between a good film with shark-headed pirates and a bad film with shark-headed pirates. I am going to withhold judgment on any front until I am actually seated in an air-conditioned theatre with a strawberry Coke, a small bag of popcorn and a hell of a lot of sword-fighting (and shark-headed pirates) up on the screen.

But even with her pirate madness, Jen is still keeping a cool head about things. She could have gone on the Cast Member Only Preview of the Pirate ride Thursday night, while I couldn't, but even after getting in line for it and receiving umpteen assurances from me, both in person and then on the phone as I waited outside, that it was alright if she did, she still left the ride to get me and my sprained ankle home. Which just pointed out how much I love the girl, but she really should have gotten on the ride. I would have done it.

And now, tonight, Jen called me while I was jumping between devising a vegetarian lasagna and working on this post to tell me that she ran into Johnny Depp at the park. Actually, her initial words were "I met Johnny Depp", but when pressed, she admitted that she didn't actually meet him, but she was in the same room with him, and she was about ten feet away from his royal prescence. She is going to be crazy tonight, and smirking, and calling her mother, and unstoppable. I will do my best to distract her with the lasagne and with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang on DVD (which I watched for the first time last night and loved, but she has not seen yet). But she will probably recount every detail of Her Personal Johnny Depp Adventure.

Which is fine. I'll let her have her moment. And then, when she is half asleep and least expecting it, I, clad only in bandana, eyepatch and newly pegged leg, will conduct the most heinous boarding party known to man!

If she'll let me, of course... Arrrggghh!!!

Friday, June 23, 2006

THE KING OF BUGS (1930)

Consistency isn't something that you expect from the early days of Van Beuren's Aesop's Sound Fables, what with still working out the sound gimmick and all, and you certainly don't get it in any measure with The King of Bugs, put out by Van Beuren workhorses Harry Bailey and John Foster in 1930. Neither in the relative sizes of bugs to backgrounds or bugs to mammals, character motivations or the lack thereof in most cases, nothing really works in this film. Sometimes, even with these demerits against an Aesop's flick, they would still come through by pouring on the charm. While a couple of their flicks from 1930, such as The Haunted Ship, are rather accomplished for the day, many rely on this charm factor alone. Relying on this "charm", though, can prove deadly when you absolutely nothing else going for you...

The King of Bugs, who will soon arrive in his pumpkin coach, is preceded by four guardsmen who march in formation, and then pick up a caterpillar, who has weirdly transformed himself into a long flute, and play a tune on his stretched-out and suddenly-holed body. The coach is also preceded by a pair of armored knight-bugs who ride upon horses. Yes... I said horses. Behind them, we see the coach, also drawn by a quartet of horses. Yes... yet again, I said horses. How freakin' big are these bugs? Does the government know about this? Is Mothra on his way next? Just as I am getting all worked up over the proportional limits of insects and their exoskeletons, we are shown the side of the pumpkin coach, and it appears that it has all been a mistake. The horses drawing the coach all have little sets of wings on their backs (which were not shown in the shot before it), so it now seems that they are actually horse-flies! Whew! A close one, that...

As the parade continues past mushrooms that tower over the road, we see that the king is annoyed with a little fly who marches directly behind the coach, tooting incessantly on his horn with the music of the band. The king yells some nonsense gibberish at the fly, who toots raspberries back at the king. This causes the monarch to fall out of the coach, and when he yells at the little fellow again, the fly's only response is to play some magic tricks on the much larger king in a very nonchalant manner. (In his detached calmness, he could almost be either Van Beuren's Don the Dog or his direct animated descendent, Jerry.) Just as I had gotten over the horse incident, the fly pulls a rabbit out of his horn and then a duck from the king's crown! That's right, a rabbit and duck, each half the fly's size, and then he lets them run off. As the bugs are shown as being smaller than the flowers and mushrooms, then just how freakin' tiny are this bird and this mammal? They can't be babies, because even ducklings and kits at birth are far bigger than most insects. Oh, my head... whatever the answer, the king fails at his own attempt at a magic trick and runs back to his coach, which is still rolling off into the distance. He reaches it with the fly close behind, but the king turns about when he jumps into the coach and knocks the fly on the head.

The coach then enters the arena for "Ye King's Tournament", and the little fly is denied access by the knight guarding the door. A caterpillar strolls up, and when it hands the knight its invitation, the fly pretends to be one of the caterpillar's segments and sneaks inside. With much fanfare, the king and his daughter, the princess, are introduced to the crowd, and then the contestants in the tournament are marched through for review. A huge, black burly spider puffs his chest and salutes the royals, and then, much to my surprise (though I shouldn't have been by this point), march a hare and a tortoise, both far smaller than the spider. (Sound effect of me rubbing my eyes in astonishment.) The games begin, and the contestants take off on a race across the arena. After much cheating and punching, the spider knocks his two rivals out of the race, and he dances across the finish line. As the king applauds his pet spider's victory, the fly shows up, sits next to the throne, and starts hissing at the spider. The angered king throws the fly onto the spider, and the much larger arachnid gives the little fellow a good beating. The princess hops down to stop the fight, but the spider's instincts get the better of him, and he grabs the princess and runs off with her.

As the king's men chase after him, the spider drools, though not with hunger, but rather with lust. The spider climbs a tree and heads out on a branch. Clutching the princess in one hand, he beats down the advances of about a hundred of the guards, all of whom fall to the ground in defeat. (I do find it very amusing to see that there are four bugs attempting to catch each fallen bug on a trampoline, and they miss every single one of their compatriots.) As the spider makes unwarranted advances on the princess, the fly marches up the road, quite literally tooting his own horn to announce his attack on the villainous fiend. He climbs the tree, and with dagger in hand, he and the spider, who produces a sword from out of nowhere, engage in a furious battle back and forth on the treebranch. At one point, the spider runs his sword down through the center of the fly's dagger, and the fly has to use it like a pair of scissors. He finally succeeds in snipping off the spider's sword (this could be a Freudian thing) every few, uh, millimeters or centimeters or inches, whatever scale they are on at this point, and then the fly stabs the spider through the heart, even producing a dash of blood which spurts past the fly. The spider shakes, yells "Mammy!" and throws his arms out Jolson-style, before plummeting to the ground below. (We never see him hit nor do we hear his "thud" as he does -- there is only a weird silence.) The fly and the princess dance in victory and joy, they kiss the kiss of newfound lovers, and the movie irises out.

There are several instances where this film could have turned out to be really enjoyable, but its proportional inconsistencies, its introduction of characters well out of the scale of the rest of the characters, the horsefly mistakes (we never do see the wings on the ones that the knights are riding, so are they also horseflies or still horses?), and the fact that the pumpkin coach suddenly is sitting at the base of the tree when we never see the king again after the tournament, along with other oft-putting editing problems points to a film that was either poorly conceived or was poorly edited... or both. As it stands, while I want to enjoy it like other Van Beuren's, even the crappiest ones which still coast by on charm, it fails to win me over, and I consider it a substandard effort.

And while I'm willing to suspend disbelief enough to engage myself in a rabbit that dresses in drag to bedevil his enemies, which include a dopey hunter, an ornery cowboy, a Tasmanian Devil and a goofy Martian, I simply can't go along with a pair of bunnies that are smaller than the tiniest fly in the kingdom. The only way that I could buy such a scenario is if the filmmakers had placed little wings on the buns' backs and referred to them as "rabbit-flies".

"Bugs bunnies", indeed...

The King of Bugs (A Van Beuren Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Harry Bailey and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 4

Thursday, June 22, 2006

JOE GLOW, THE FIREFLY (1941)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

SNOWTIME FOR COMEDY (1941)

It's strange, but the time when I seem to miss the snow the most is in the middle of June. I've already run through exactly why I was not missing the ice and snow this past "winter" (for it must always be written in quotes in California when spoken of as a local season). All of my reasons were perfectly selfish and perfectly on the mark. But, here it is, around the beginning of summer (officially) and I am missing the snow. But not just any snow. I'm missing summer snow.

At least once a summer, and in ways that were never planned, I would end up either with family or friends on a trip through or to a place up around the Wasilla/Palmer area in Alaska called Hatcher Pass. Graced with a tourist-attracting long-ago abandoned mining area full of rusty equipment and deteriorating shacks, the Pass is a long and winding, extremely pleasant drive which takes you through some very scenic mountain terrain, and many people go there to hike or fish or hump or do all that other Alaskan touristy jive, which is all fine and well -- have a great time if you must do it.

Personally, I always liked it when we would drive to the top of the pass and end up at a small mountain lake, where there were often hundreds of marmots popping in and out of their burrows, and people would run off the mountain on their hang-gliders right in front of us. My beloved and belated pup Blip swam there on a number of occasions and barked at an awful lot of marmots (even tried to dig a couple out), so it has special memories for me. A couple of my old good friends even got married in the Pass on a particularly windy day. (I say "old" good friends, for I've not heard of their doings for a while now.) But the best part of Hatcher Pass for me was to drive through (well, not me driving, for frig's sake!) in June or July, when you would get to the upper levels and there would still be snow by the sides of the road. I would always take the time to make a pile of snowballs and throw them either at whoever was with me, or at their car, or just at the nearest object that looked good to smack with a very wet snowball. It is usually in the absence of something that I really want to do that thing, and finding snow on a hot summer day was usually enough for me to make even the most mundane trip through the pass a success.

There's no summer snow in Snowtime For Comedy, the third and final of Chuck Jones' Two Curious Puppies films, from Warner Bros. in 1941. It's all winter-fallen white freshness, and a perfect day to cavort and romp in that cute and curious puppy fashion. Having first conquered a housecleaning robot in Dog Gone Modern and then having battled each other in an amusement park setting in The Curious Puppy, the dogs are once again good buddies and chasing each other playfully through the picturesque snow-laden streets of the small town where they live. Up a hill, over a wooden bridge and up a set of stairs the small dog, who is carrying a bone that he does not want to give up, runs with a boxer who is twice his size fast on his heels. So fast on them, in fact, that he crashes into his smaller pal, who has stopped short at the top of a very long ski jump. The boxer's momentum carries the two of them down the steep ramp, and when they reach the bottom, they fly through the air: the boxer at the rear, the pup in front of him, and the bone hanging just out of reach in the lead. The bone hits the landing hill first, and when the dogs touch down, they climb over each other and jostle for position to grab the bone first. The pup and the bone shoot through a snow drift, leaving two distinct outlines in their individual shapes; the boxer shoots through where the bone did and leaves the impression that the bone outline is now in his outline's mouth.

In reality, neither one has the bone yet, and the small pup finds himself jetting uncontrollably across an ice-covered pond. However, just ahead, he sees that the ice has broken open and he tries unsuccessfully to stop himself before reaching it. Instead of falling in, though, he hits a small calved-off piece of ice, on which he skids across the water until he slows to a stop in the middle of the water. Every now and then slipping frighteningly, he struggles to keep himself upright. The boxer, meanwhile, is also skidding across the ice. He avoids the open water, but a dam that is being completed by a busy beaver lies just ahead of the dog, and the boxer smashes right through it, much to the frustration of the beaver. Several pieces have laid themselves about the dog in the shape of a teepee, but as he shakes them off, he slides right into some deep snow, through which he continues to zip until he smashes (unseen) into the base of a pine tree. The squirrel who resides in the tree runs down to check out what has happened, and the dog drags himself out of the snow, slowly regaining his actual shape but falling and stumbling upon the ice in a daze. He sees the bone on the ice not far away, and building up a burst of speed, he somehow manages to make it to just about an inch away from the delicious treat. But when he tries to grab it, the wind kicks up, his snap misses the bone, and he is swiftly carried backwards towards the tree, smacking it this time with his anterior end, and disturbing the confused squirrel on a second occasion.

The pup, meanwhile, finds his icy craft has started to split in half on him. He is stretched between the two sections, but he pulls himself up on one of them and rights himself. Then that section splits in two, and he is left with his right and left sets of legs sprawled out, and then those ice chunks split in twain, leaving one for each foot. The boxer has gotten out of the snow by building up into a run, and he shoots once more towards the bone. He has too much speed, though, and when he snaps and misses at the bone, he ends up in a crab-like position while he sails back toward the now-rebuilt beaver dam. The boxer smashes it once again, and he ends up covered by a log cabin, from which he pops his head out and peers at the camera quizically. He loses the shelter, however, when his rear end falls through a hole in the ice, and he ends up stick with his bottom in the icy waters.

The little pup, at this point, has made it to the edge of the water and hops onto the full ice, but a crack appears behind him when he lands. He backs up further and further from the crack, but it follows him, getting bigger and bigger all the time. He bolts and runs full-steam ahead, which is appropriate, since when he, too, crashes through the yet-again rebuilt beaver dam, he comes out covered in wood so that he looks like a tugboat. He jets towards the pine tree in the snow, but so does the crack in the ice, still getting larger and larger, and after the little dog smacks into the tree's trunk, the ice follows him and splits the tree completely in two. No one is more confused than the little squirrel, who ends up stretched out between the two halves of the treetop, wondering what has happened to his home. The boxer has a new problem of his own: how to extricate himself from an icy pair of pants. Pulling himself out of the water, he soon discovers that he can't walk properly because the bottom half of his body is surrounded by perfectly-shaped ice. After a good deal of falling, spinning, sliding and tumbling, he finally is able to push the ice off his rear, only to half it flip through the air and land over his head and front legs.

The pup, now freed from the iceblocks and the icecracks, walks across the frozen water and spies the bone just ahead of him. He leaps upon it, but it slips out and sails through the air. It flies over the once more rebuilt beaver dam, and it is disrupted a fourth time as the pup crashes through it again. The bone lands on the empty seat on a ski lift, and the pup runs up the hill after it. The boxer kicks and pulls and gets his icy casing off his head, but he slips on the ice, and the thing falls over his butt. He stares at the camera with a look of "what are ya gonna do?" The seat with the bone has reached the top of the lift-hill, and it dumps the bone off. We can see buildings off in the distance, and we know what is coming next for the little pup, and sure enough, when he dives onto the tempting bone, he starts to slide down the ski run. Eventually, as he tries to stand up, he falls down and turns into a snowball, which continues to build until he ends up inside a giant snow-dog, still gripping the bone, about fifty times his normal size.

The boxer finally gets the ice-pants off his butt, but as he walks away victorious, he hears a horrible shaking and rumbling coming up behind him. He turns in time to see the enormous snow-dog plowing down the hill, running down tree after tree, and the sight leaves the boxer goggle-eyed in astonishment. He turns and runs right through a snowdrift, while creates a long shaft of snow that he pushes in front of him for several paces. Finally, the snowdog over takes him, and he is sucked into its mass. Ahead of the snowdog lies the for-the-last-time rebuilt beaver dam, but the beaver isn't waiting around this time. He bolts for the safety of a nearby hill, and below him there is a terrible crash. When the snow flying through the air clears up, he is amazed to see that in place of his once-ordinary dam, there now lies an enormous snowy replica of the Hoover Dam, which covers the massive area between a couple of hills. The pup pops up out of the monstrous creation with the bone set atop his head on a drift of snow; the boxer, too, pops up with his ice-pants stuck once more over the top of his head and shoulders. Iris out.

The most successful of the Two Curious Puppies films, Snowtime for Comedy also points up the problems inherent in the characters: that there is little to the personality of these dogs outside of the fact that there are two of them, they are curious, and that they are puppies. Indeed, the boxer seems to be a different dog in each of the films, with wildly differing motivational triggers displayed, and it is only in the last film that he even seems "puppyish" in any extreme. Visually, this film is on a par with the first two (they are all sumptuously designed), but it surpasses the second by taking its action to that "next level", building up to a rampaging climax that The Curious Puppy sorely missed. But even with this achievement, it is clear that Jones and crew have exhausted the potential in the characters, even going so far as to recreate the slide scene from the second film by turning it into the ski jump scene in this one (it is not reusued animation, just reconfigured).

There is also an interesting twist on the "comedy in threes" dynamic in this film. While the beaver has his dam smashed a grand total of five, count 'em, five times via the antics of the puppies, it still follows the "threes" rule by having the boxer smash it first twice, then the puppy bowls through it twice himself, and then, with both dogs encased in the giant snowball-dog, they both get their third shot at the dam by destroying it for the fifth time total. I won't even try to figure out the equation for this formula, though I'm sure Leif or Frank would send it to me if they cared at all. Not that I do...

What I do care about is seeing summer snow again, and not due to some global-warming accident of freakish nature whereby Anaheim is laid low by a mid-summer snowstorm. (Though it would be interesting to see; Jen and I would be the only ones going "Wimps...") I doubt that I will ever get back to Hatcher Pass again; except to visit friends and family, I have no real desire to return to Alaska for the foreseeable future. And with family moving to Washington and Idaho, I'm sure I will find myself in a vacationing winter setting at some point. It's not the same, though, as that feeling that overtakes me every summer, whether in Alaska or California or Seattle (where I have often visited), where I start to actually miss snow, and long for a good chunk of the stuff to wallop someone in the back with a well-timed missile when they are least expecting it. Serves 'em right for turning their back to me... fools! Tiny fools! I''ll crush you all with my snowball stockpile! I'll take you all down! I'll rule the world! Hahahahahahahaha! Ha!

Hmmm... Hadn't thought about that. I have the sneaking suspicion that snow seemingly brings out the hawk in me. Maybe it's a good thing I have moved to OrCo, SoCal...

Snowtime for Comedy (Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 1941)
Director: Charles A. (Chuck) Jones
Writer: Rich Hogan
Animator: Robert Cannon
Music: Carl W. Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6