Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Shark Film Office Special Edition: Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)
Directors: Preston Blair and Michael Lah
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Shark appearance: cartoon shark (undefinable species), able to roar and growl, no sense of humor.

So, who has it worse? Sharks in the movies -- where they are employed mainly to threaten the lives of the (usually) human characters in the film, or at the very least, imply that said characters are in mortal danger -- or sharks in cartoons?

Certainly, the answers is "in the movies," since sharks almost always end up dying onscreen for their sins, and in some films (in the dark, olden days of the industry), really dying for our entertainment. Their menace is perceived as far more real, naturally, and the potential harm to the reputation of sharks in the real world is that much more immense.

Cartoon sharks, on the other hand, not being flesh and blood, have a cakewalk. Or is that "cake-swim"? Sure, they show up, flash their pearlies, frighten the protagonist(s) and generally have a fine, evil time of it as the contracted villain of the piece. They do what is expected of any shark in a film: be evil, get your comeuppance, end of story. Except cartoon sharks, given that they are in a piece where death is a rare (if ever) occurrence, don't get blown to smithereens (as a final blow, that is) or get a bullet through the head or get harpooned or electrocuted or spear-gunned. Cartoon sharks, though actually one of the rarer species on earth, most often survive their appearances in their films. The twist is that they often face a different sort of living death...

In Goggle-Fishing Bear, an MGM short from 1949, the shark in question literally and ultimately becomes the butt of the joke. Accompanied by the usual compliment of lush backgrounds, detailed closeups and sharp character work that was a hallmark at MGM in the '40s, ursine dope Barney Bear takes to his rowboat for a spot of fishing relaxation. Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with poor ol' Barney, or cartoons in general, knows that relaxation is definitely not in the cards. Even if he had opted to stay home and actually play cards instead, relaxation would not be ready to be paired with the misbegotten Barney. In much the same manner that sharks have their place to play in cartoons, so is Barney burdened with the yoke of playing the eternal lummox.

The opening third of the short concerns Barney's attempts at enjoying a day trident-fishing off his outboard motor boat as being initially thwarted by the intrusion of a typically cute sea lion pup (not a seal, though people will immediately see him and shout, like a small child would in delight, "seal!). The pup gives Barney the sort of hard time that one expects, but these frustrations immediately cease once the third character of the film is introduced: the shark.

His entrance is grand, far grander than the film itself deserves. As Barney and the sea lion pup go through their cutesy struggles with one another, at the point where the pup has been so fully shunned by the bear that he mopes away sadly on his own, a huge, looming shadow falls over him. The pup glances off to see what is causing the circling shadow, and as he does, a huge green and yellow shark turns about and makes a beeline for the pup. Panic ensues, but the pup retains just enough of his senses to try and warn his would-be playmate, Barney, of the impending doom. He zips between the bear's legs, sending the ursine spinning about and accidentally releasing the fish Barney has just caught. The pup barks madly in desperation. Barney is so annoyed by the pup by now that he ignores its warnings, and continues back to his trident-fishing. As the shark continues drifting forwards, closer and closer, the pup has no choice but to give up on his friend, scream frantically and head for the hills. Or the boat. Whatever the case may be.  

So, now I ask, which is of more murderous intent? The natural hunger that continues the great "Chain of Life," wherein a shark might instinctually seek out his prey, or a bear seeking to vent a few holes in a wholly innocent sea lion pup's head with a trident? When the shark pulls up and bumps Barney Bear in the bottom twice, the bear, believing it to be more goading from the pup, doesn't hesitate to stab his trident several times over into the snout of the shark. It slowly dawns on Barney what he has just done, and he steps away from the giant shark and acts sheepishly. The shark, angered, pulls forward and roars tremendously, its jaws fully open to allow its breath and sound waves to crash over Barney. The bear stands calmly and smartly shows the trident to the shark as if to display that it couldn't possibly do any harm, and then jabs himself in the chest as an example. Of course, it hurts Barney, and as a last desperate measure, Barney thrusts the trident over the shark's snout, pins it to the ocean floor, and makes a break for the boat, where the sea lion is already waiting to escape.

Being more than a match for a mere trident, the shark dispenses with the tool and snaps sharply onto the tips of Barney's flippers. The flippers stretch out to ridiculous lengths as Barney frantically swims for the surface. He reaches the boat, and the seal grabs his hands to pull him aboard. The boat tips upward with the weight of the bear, and when Barney grabs the slats serving as seats in the tiny craft, the boards are ripped out, and Barney zips back underwater and towards the waiting jaws of the massive shark. The fish takes a huge snap at Barney's backside, and scrapes off the poor bear's swimsuit and fur in the process, leaving Barney either bare-bottomed or bear-bottomed -- take your pick. Barney hides amongst some underwater weeds, and uses his trident to pull off a hastily improvised impersonation of King Neptune. He halts the shark with one steady hand, and then points away from him. The shark departs, but as Barney runs off in the opposite direction, the shark immediately turns about. There follows a series of snaps as Barney's person, but each snap is thwarted by the fact that Barney is running on a series of underwater moguls, and so he goes up and down with each attempted bite.

The shark swims far ahead, rests on the bottom, and opens his jaws wide like a cave. Naturally, Barney runs right in with his momentum, and the shark closes his mouth in triumph. Barney continues to run, and the shape of his body is seen walking to the end of the shark's tail. Barney realizes his mistake and turns around to run the other way. He smashes right through the teeth of the shark, leaving a silhouette of his body in the remainder of the shark's surprised grin. Barney finds a small rock and somehow manages to hide his own massive body underneath it. The rock sprouts eyes all of a sudden, but they aren't Barney's. As the shark pulls up to investigate, we find that the rock is actually an octopus, which screams at the sight of the monstrous fish and stretches up on its six legs (yes, this octopus only has six legs, not eight) in fright. It zips away, leaving an unaware Barney at the mercy of the shark.

Luckily, the sea lion pup comes to the rescue. As the shark closes its teeth in on the bear, the pup zooms into the shark's mouth and holds the jaws agape. As part of the struggle between pinniped and shark, the fish's teeth are shown to prod Barney in the rear, and the bear turns his head, presumably in anticipation of his own demise. Instead, he espies the brave little pup, straining mightily to keep the shark's jaws from snapping his would-be pal to pieces. Barney turns tail and exits the scene, only to return -- in a reminder of precisely why one indulges their mind with cartoon logic in the first place -- with a highly convenient car jack. He jams the jack in the shark's mouth and cranks it upward. The pup is no where to be seen, until it peeks out from underneath the huge tongue of the shark. The bear grabs the pup just as the shark breaks through the jack's resistance and slams its jaws shut.

Barney and the sea lion make their escape, the bear literally running upward through the water to the surface, with the shark close behind. Perhaps a bit too close for the pup's comfort, as once he sees the shark breathing hot on their necks, jumps out of Barney's grip and carries the bear himself all the way to the boat, finishing the effort with a massive leap far beyond what one expects from a tiny little sea lion pup encumbered by the weight of a portly ursine. They start the outboard engine and take off, but the shark soon catches up and uses his dorsal fin to saw the boat in twain. Barney pulls the halved pieces back together, but they sink immediately. The pup starts to bail water out, which is truly an impossible task if one is already completely underwater. But -- via that sweet cartoon logic again -- he manages to succeed. The boat pops back on the surface, somehow completely intact. The shark, not to be outdone, spins his tail section into a propeller and launches himself towards the boat like a torpedo. He strikes the boat full on, and a massive explosion ensues. Barney, the pup, the anchor and the myriad pieces of the wrecked boat fly upward, and then start to fall back to the surface of the water. The shark pops out and strikes his best pre-Jaws, mouth-agape, waiting-for-his-prey pose, a hungry smile formed on his cruel face.

But, did you really think that Barney Bear and an innocent and playful sea lion pup would really get devoured in a cartoon from 1949? In the days of "the code," would what is recognizable as evil by the bulk of the public at that time go unpunished? Of course not, and the shark receives his due according to this absurdly moral center: a faceful of anchor, a wrapping by the anchor line, and a newly outfitted yacht body courtesy of the remaining pieces of the boat, mysteriously nailed and perfectly aligned along the shark's back. The pup comes out wearing Barney's diving set and sporting the trident, which he pokes into the shark's rear, causing the fish to emit an anguished "Ooh!" Barney decides it would be fun to pantomime driving their new craft while the pup tortures the shark with a series of jabs to the rear. As they float off into the island sunset, the sharks cries are heard over and over again: "Oh!" "Ooh!" "Oh!"

As I said, our boy has become the butt of the joke. Maybe it would be better to get spear-gunned.

RTJ