Hells Heels (Universal, 1930)
Dir.: Walter Lantz
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9
The recent news that a long-lost Oswald cartoon has been found by the British Film Institute (BFI) and restored by Disney has filled my heart with joy, especially since I was watching a couple of Oswald shorts, albeit Walter Lantz ones, earlier in the day. Of course, we will have to wait until after the premiere of the short -- titled Sleigh Bells -- in December at an event in London, and then even longer until Disney does some sort of release -- my guess is in a holiday Blu-ray collection -- to see the damned thing. For now, only a short snippet has been given as a preview (follow the link at the beginning of the article), and so Oswald fans will need to make do with what we already have at hand.
And I certainly have more Oswald films on my shelves than I did a few years ago when I stopped writing for this blog. In that time, Disney, having regained the rights to the character, put out The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 2007 as part of their then flourishing Walt Disney Treasures series. It came in a limited edition, golden metal box, and featured thirteen of the 26 shorts Disney and Ub Iwerks created before Oswald was whisked away from them by Charles Mintz (some of those shorts are lost films, though obviously there is one less now).
Also in 2007 and 2008, eleven restored Oswald films done by Walter Lantz came out on two separate Woody Woodpecker and Friends collections. And finally, Thunderbean put out a disc in 2013 titled Lantz Studio Treasures starring Oswald, which featured eight Lucky Rabbit shorts, including two Disney titles (The Ocean Hop and The Mechanical Cow) with the soundtracks that were added to them when Lantz reissued them in 1932. Still, with 195 Oswald titles in total, that means there is a lot of Oswald we are not getting to see yet. Sure, you can find a lot of the unreleased shorts online at various sites, but the quality is very mixed. Not knocking it... seeing something in any sort of condition is better than not seeing it at all. It just seems to me that in this age, where studios are finding success with archival sites where customers can order DVD-R copies of their long lost favorite films, thereby cutting down the costs of printing untold thousands of unsold copies in stores, that we should have access to all of these cartoons with ease. Not the way it works, apparently...
But on to the film I was watching the morning the news came out about Sleigh Bells. When I first saw the title Hells Heels when I opened my Woody Woodpecker and Friends Volume One set, and saw what year Hells Heels was released (1930), I immediately thought it was going to be a spoof of Howard Hughes' Hells Angels film, also released that year. Until I watched the cartoon, I assumed Oswald would be taking to the skies in a World War I era plane and fighting the Germans. Never gave it a second thought, except that I assumed I had it all figured out like some big shot. How wrong I was (as usual). Turns out, the film takes place in the desert, and after a quick bit of research, I discovered Hells Heels is actually a spoof of another film released earlier in the year by Universal, Hell's Heroes. (And it turns out it couldn't have been a spoof of Hell's Angels anyway, because the Hughes film wasn't released until November of that year, well after the Oswald short.)
While I have yet to see the film, I have seen the story before, as Hell's Heroes is only the fourth of six versions released through 1948 of Peter B. Kyne's Western novel, The Three Godfathers. (The most famous version was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne, of course.) The basic premise is that a trio of robbers, having been unsuccessful in their efforts to steal from the bank of a small town, escape into the desert and are close to perishing due to lack of water. They discover a woman who has just given birth but is close to dying herself. She begs them to bring the child back to its father, and so they essentially become the three godfathers of the title, and risk life and limb to save the child. It all ends both miraculously and tragically at Christmas. (The three godfathers basically represent the Three Wise Men of the birth of Christ story.)
Hells Heels pretty much establishes this same premise from the start of the film. We first see Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in his classic look (no shirt, but with pants) strutting alongside Pegleg Pete (actually a Disney character, but Lantz made use of him or a character roughly like him deep into the '30s) and a dog wearing overalls and an eyepatch. As they strut, the trio sing a tough tune full of boasts:
"We're heading for the desert
and three bad men we do be.
We're heading for the desert
and a good ocean that's free."
Oswald breaks away and sings:
"We're bad babies!"
And then the other two join him again:
"As you very soon will see.
We're a highfalutin',
The three come to a stop at a sign hanging off a dead tree, with a series of skulls piled on top of its trunk. The sign reads "To Heela City -- a Naughty Town for Naughty Men". At the end of the branch is a sign that reads "Welcome" and just below it, hanging off the branch, is a noose. When they stop, the skulls hop up one at a time in order, and then the largest skull at the bottom of the pile, replete with bull horns, starts to sing:
"How dry I am!"
The tiny skull at the top of the pile repeats the same line. The bull skull continues:
"Boom boom boom boom!"
The tiny skull adds:
"And so are you!"
The bull skull sings (joined by the tiny one on the last three words):
to give a..."
The tough guy trio have heard enough. Pete pulls out his gun and with four shots sends the quartet of smaller skulls flying. Oswald takes aim and shoots with his own gun at the bull skull, but he misses. The bull skull sticks out his tongue and blows a raspberry at Oswald, but the rabbit's second shot finds its mark and knocks the skull away. The trio pick up the final refrain of their song where they left it:
"We're a highfalutin',
The trio enter the street of a small Western town and sneakily approach the bank to the strains of Mysterious Mose. On the last few notes, their necks shoot upward from their bodies, and then their heads rattle and jut forward, puffing up and pointing at the bank. Then the two other robbers say to Oswald in unison, "You're gonna rob that bank! Here!" Pete forces a giant stick of dynamite into Oswald's hands. Oswald asks, "Who?" and they respond "YOU!" The rabbit quakes with fear as Pete lights the TNT. Pete picks up Oswald and throws him inside the bank. There is a huge explosion! When the smoke clears, the only thing left standing where the bank was is a safe, and the only thing left standing where Pete and the other robber were are their skeletons, still wearing their hats. (Pete's leg has seemingly been restored, as you can clearly see he has bones where both legs are.) The skeletons dance off, and Oswald falls from the sky and lands with a bounce upon the street.
Oswald tries to open the safe, but then he hears a voice, as if on radio. "When the gong rings, it will be exactly one minute past." The gong rings, and the top of the safe pops open. Out jumps a large bulldog sheriff, whose badge leaps forward from his chest towards the viewer to inform them exactly who he is. He glares at Oswald, who prepares to flee. The rabbit runs towards the screen and we get a perspective shot of him running with the street rolling behind him at an angle, as he yells for help. The camera cuts to the sheriff, who seems to be barking with each step, but then he stops to say, "And if you ever come back, I'll..." He runs a finger across his neck in the commonly accepted cutthroat sign, but all he does is severe his own head. It falls before him onto the ground, and his body starts searching blindly for it. His hand reaches for his head, but the sheriff bites his own hand, yelling "Ouch!" His hands then grab the head and put it back in place, only facing the opposite way, and he starts walking back towards the town in this manner while his body is still facing forward.
The scene changes to that of a baby crying in the back of a wagon, which sits behind the skeleton of a cow, which still has a bell on its tail and somehow has a working udder. The baby leaps out of the wagon with two cups, and attempts to leap up and pull the udder down from the body. His first two leaps end in failure, as the udder keeps pulling its nipple up away from the baby, but on the third leap, he stretches the whole udder downward and fills up one of the cups with milk. He puts the second cup on top of the other and shakes the concoction a couple of times merrily. He then throws the milk straight up in the air and catches it in his mouth, only to have the cow skeleton bonk him on top of the head with the bell on its tail. The baby starts bawling wildly, just in time for Oswald to reach him.
Oswald asks the baby, "Who are you" in his usual falsetto, and the baby pulls a photo out of nowhere and answers in a far deeper voice, "That's who I am!" The photo is one of the sheriff holding the baby, with the word "DAD" printed below. Oswald yells, "WOW!" and splits, but the baby's arm stretches out and drags the rabbit back into the frame. "You're gonna take me to my dad. Oswald sweats bullets, but the baby starts crying again. Oswald pulls himself together and tries to find something to ease the baby. He reaches into the wagon and finds a diaper, but the baby pulls it away from him, and puts it on himself. He grabs Oswald's hand and pulls him away on their journey.
They first come to a large sign reading "Wanted! Oswald" and a large skeleton pops up from behind the sign, points to the rabbit and says "Aha!" Oswald runs in fear, but the baby stretches out his arm to catch him, which reels the baby all the way up to where Oswald is. When the baby starts crying, Oswald starts to tap dance to calm the brat down. On top of a strange-looking cactus formation with a flat top and stairs, he starts to bounce around on all four limbs, his head, and bottom, even breaking into a quick soft-shoe bit before resuming his tap dancing. He ends up falling down the stairs on the cactus and landing on his butt. He yells "Ow!" and pulls a chunk of cactus with needles out of his rear.
The baby grabs Oswald and they begin their trek anew. They come to a second sign, this time reading, "Wanted! Oswald -- Dead or Alive". Two skeletons pop up from behind it, point at the rabbit and yell, "Aha!" Oswald flees yet again, the baby stretches and catches him as before. With the baby bawling again, Oswald dances over to a half-buried bull skeleton, picks up two bones, and starts to play the ribcage like a vibraphone. A crow caws along with the song, a donkey skeleton (still with flesh on its tail, feet, and head) brays along, and the bull skeleton rattles its tail bell to Oswald's merry tune.
The baby has had enough and pulls Oswald away once more, where they encounter a third sign reading, "Wanted! Oswald DEAD". When three skeletons pop up this time, Oswald hits the bricks, and the baby repeats his arm-stretching trick. Oswald forms his ears into the hat of a parade marshall, grabs a bone and throws it around his body like a baton. He starts to march to the tune of The Stars and Stripes Forever. The tune is kicked off by a rattlesnake who knocks his nose on a skull and then rattles his tail. A cactus is inspired to march along, taking on semi-human form (only with bristles) and is joined by a tree, whose leaves drop about the tree's middle to form what is supposed to either be a tutu or what really appears to look like ostrich feathers (or both). The cactus and tree dance together to the music for a bit, but then Oswald spies danger!
He drops the bone and he rushes to where the baby is attempting to drink water at a small pool, which sits next to a dead tree with a branch sticking through a skull on top of it. A small sign reads, "Poison Water -- Help Your Self". (There is even a handy cup on a hook to help the thirsty traveler.) The baby tries to drink but Oswald pulls him away. The lad breaks free by punching the rabbit in the face, and then drinks down everything in the pool. When he does, the screen goes black, and then the black moves downward on the screen to reveal the inside of the pool. We see a walrus wearing a professor cap, three fish playing trombone, drums, and cello respectively, and a lone frog with a clarinet. The walrus commands, "Eins, drei, Spielen!" and the band starts to play How Dry I Am. (The walrus prof is not very pleased with their performance.)
Back on the ground, the baby finds his father sitting under a makeshift Christmas tree (a cactus with a combination of pipes, branches, bottles, corkscrew, sombrero, umbrella, and an old boot) with a sign that says, "Piece [sic] on Earth". "Merry Christmas, Dad!" the baby cries, and he pulls Oswald up to the sheriff by his rabbit ears. The sheriff is joyous to see his son but even more so to catch Oswald. When he reaches to grab the rabbit, Oswald jumps out of his skin, revealing his skeleton, but falls back in as the sheriff misses. Oswald runs, but the sheriff grabs his powderpuff tail. Oswald keeps running, and his tail stretches tremendously far, until the sheriff lets go. The tail snaps back violently at the would-be robber, and splits Oswald briefly into eight tinier Oswalds, which then form back into the full-sized one.
On the soundtrack we hear a chorus sing as Oswald continues his escape:
"I'm heading for the desert...
The film cuts to a cartoonish Universal Pictures logo, signifying the end of the cartoon.
Hells Bells is exactly the sort of early '30s comic surrealism that I adore, and it is a really fun cartoon. Adding to the fun are the backgrounds, which really remind me of Herriman's Krazy Kat (the comic strip, of which I am a big fan, but not the cartoon series, which goes far afield of the original creation). I love the roughness of the background drawings. Rather than have the polished and painted backdrops of later films (which I love as well) for all studios, every pile of rocks and tree and even the town looked like they were sketched really fast and thrown up on screen. This works because the draftsmanship is excellent. And combined with the rubber hose animation, everything comes together in a very pleasing way. A lot of the credit for this goes to Bill Nolan, who not only wrote the story but also animated portions of the film, and who previously worked on Felix the Cat and Krazy Kat as well before coming over to Lantz.
I know that as a Disney fan, I was immensely pleased to find out that Disney had somehow found their way back to owning Oswald again where he started. But Oswald has been around for so long, and gone through so many iterations, I have a hard time believing that the one that is now back at Disney is the same rabbit. I have gone wild in purchasing nearly everything with the rabbit on it: ears, a hoodie, a phone case, pins, t-shirts... I've been grabbing whatever they have come out with so far.
But I also know that the Oswald at Disneyland is not necessarily the same Oswald I saw in cartoons occasionally over the years. I mostly saw shorts done by Walter Lantz, some in the same tone as Hells Heels, some where he has been softened somewhat and cavorts through fairy tale adventures, and even some of the later ones where Oswald was a white rabbit mysteriously and was overly cute and schmaltzy. The Oswald in Hells Heels is closer to that original rabbit, and that seems to me to be the prime place to watch him; freshly purloined from his original creators, but getting a charge from being at the forefront of the rubber hose groove. The best way to handle a rabbit with multiple personalities is to hang out mainly with the personality that is the most fun.