Monday, November 30, 2015

L'il Ainjil (1936)

L'il Ainjil (Columbia/Screen Gems, 1936)
Dir.: Manny Gould and Ben Harrison

Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

It is my guess that for many of you, L'il Ainjil is not a film you have ever run across before. Hell, I didn't see it until a couple of years ago, and I went into seeing it with great, built-in misgivings thanks to Leonard Maltin. 

L'il Ainjil was released in 1936 as part of Columbia's long-running Krazy Kat series, in which the Kat looked and acted nothing like the original version that George Herriman created and made famous in the comic strip of the same name starting in 1913. (It ran in Hearst newspapers until Herriman's death in 1944.) The silent films originally created in tandem with Hearst did have a Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse (two of the strip's three main characters, the third of whom is Offissa Bull Pupp) that looked pretty much as put down on paper. They did little that pertained to how they acted in the comics, but they at least looked pretty close. But none of the Southwestern flavor of the settings and backgrounds of the strip made it onto the big screen, and because they were silent films, none of the rich, poetic verbosity and little of the mangled language (they did use word balloons in the cartoons early on) made it either.

And the driving force of the Krazy Kat strip, the strange love triangle dynamic between Ignatz (who loved to throw bricks at Krazy's head but didn't like the Kat), Krazy (unidentifiable as either male or female, and who took Ignatz's missiles to be messages of pure love), and Offissa Pupp (who was in love with Krazy but hated Ignatz and went to extreme measures to stop the mouse from throwing bricks, even though Krazy had little but disdain for Pupp) never made it to the movie screen at that time at all.

Krazy kept making films, and the world hit the sound era, and things just... evolved. Over the years, Ignatz disappeared from the movies. The series was taken over by Columbia at some point, and soon enough, Krazy was just another adventure-seeking Mickey clone -- he got cuter and round, and even obtained a girlfriend -- and became engaged in rubbery antics with all manner of barnyard animals and anthropomorphic musical instruments and furniture. Though there are moments that still play well in the earlier shorts, as the series continued at Columbia through the early 1930s, they became increasingly rote (and sometimes well below that near the end). And, of course, nowhere near what Krazy Kat was in the comics, which in my opinion -- based on a combination of Herriman's dual talents at superior draftsmanship and fantastically written, original satire -- continues to serve as one of the finest pure examples of individual art ever created.

L'il Ainjil is almost, kind of... should'a-would'a-could'a... sort of almost the way it ought to have been done for years and years. The character we see in L'il Ainjil is almost -- and I only say "almost" with reservations, because L'il Ainjil is still fairly wide of the mark -- the real Krazy Kat.

Not that the people who made it think that way, and this where the misgivings I mentioned at the start of this article were built initially. Directed by Columbia veterans Manny Gould and Ben Harrison, who were hugely responsible for the steady descent of the series, L'il Ainjil was conceived as a desperate change of pace from what they had been doing in the series to that point. According to Leonard Maltin's usually indispensable tome on the art, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons (McGraw-Hill, 1980), animator I. (Isadore) Klein convinced producer Charles Mintz to let them try to make a Krazy Kat film using the actual characters and love triangle plot from Herriman's strip. This meant bringing back Ignatz Mouse (though I prefer when he is called Mice) and, for the first time on camera, Offissa Pupp. But Klein had to deal with the increasingly pedestrian style of his directors, and even though he loved the backgrounds that were created for the film, he ended up deeply disappointed in the final result. Klein's partial quote from Maltin's book was, "...but it was a senseless story, throwing bricks, and that was the end of it."

And here is where Maltin screwed me. He closes the subject on L'il Ainjil by saying bluntly, "The cartoon... is just as bad as Klein remembers it being." That's it. Of course, when I am told something is remarkably bad, I want to see it almost as much, and sometimes even more, than I would a greatly revered classic.  But, it would over thirty years after first buying Of Mice and Magic (I have first editions in both hardcover and paperback) before I would have a chance to see L'il Ainjil, though I would read through Maltin's overall, still quite excellent and informative book several times over those decades. And because I prefer to base my cinematic knowledge first in that which I have seen for myself, then supplementing it with secondary information gained from published sources, and finally coloring in what I have seen and learned with the ofttimes educated (but sometimes not) opinions of others about the subject, I had no other recourse but to watch L'il Ainjil with my own eyes to find out just what was so "bad" about it.

Nothing. There is nothing that is outright bad about L'il Ainjil. That there was a sense of disappointment regarding the film by the animator who led the charge in getting it made is understandable because L'il Ainjil is not a success by most means of measuring a film's quality. But in comparing it to the most immediate predecessor in the Krazy Kat series (that is available to see, that is) -- 1935's heavily racially stereotyped and dull Kannibal Kapers -- the intent behind making L'il Ainjil for the true Krazy Kat fan of that era not only comes off as bold but also somewhat noble.

At the outset of L'il Ainjil, following the title card, we meet Offissa Bull Pupp and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk as they walk towards the camera in a forced perspective as the road rolls away underneath their feet. They are rushing hurriedly forward, with Offissa Pupp swinging his truncheon wildly above his head. 

Offissa Pupp (in Billy Costello's instantly recognizable voice) sings along in an operetta style:**

"I am all the law and order,
___ ___ ___, ___ ___ ___
of the county known as Coconino!"

And then Mrs. Kwakk Wakk adds in:

"Nino!"

Pupp continues:

"There's one rascal ___ ___ ___ me,
Ignatz Mouse, and  ___ ___ me!"

And then Mrs. Kwakk Wakk reveals the purpose behind their purposeful march:

"Don't hit Krazy Kat upon the bean-o!"

And Pupp adds:

"Bean-o!"

[**I have listened closely to what Pupp is singing dozens of times now, and still cannot make out clearly what is being said. I have left blanks in the spots where the lyrics are still to be determined. If you have better ears than I, and the answers seem reasonable, I will update this in the near future. Feel free to leave comments below.]

The pair then join hands and begin to dance while pale examples of Herriman's Arizona-inspired rocks and mountain scroll along past them in the distance. Suddenly, Krazy Kat dances into view. Offissa Pupp and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk stop their merriment to stare at the lovelorn cat, who spins about with a tremendous smile on her face. (For purposes of clarity, I haven chosen to establish Krazy's gender as female in this article, though her gender is generally considered fluid.) Krazy departs and continues to dance along, as houses and trees pass behind the cat. After leaping into the air, Krazy ducks her head into a flap in a booth ahead of her.

It sounds like something hits Krazy in the head, and the angle switches to the other side of the booth. We see a scowling Ignatz Mouse standing next to a pile of bricks. One after one, Ignatz picks up a brick and hurls it at Krazy's head, not even waiting it see it bounce off the cat's noggin before picking up the next one. But this is not enough for the mouse. Krazy has been smiling like an idiot thus far throughout the mouse's cruel but wrongly interpreted onslaught, but then Krazy shows surprise when she sees what is coming. Ignatz mounts a modified machine gun onto the counter of the booth and starts shooting bricks even faster at Krazy's head. The cat is knocked back through the flap at the back of the booth.

When she rises from the ground, Krazy flies up into the air with a happy smile still on her face, and then rushes to duck her head back into the flap to catch more bricks. Offissa Pupp only sees Krazy from the rear of the booth and scratches his head in confusion. He chuckles due to his adoration of Krazy and her strange behavior, but then realizes something must be amiss. He and the nosy duck march to the booth earnestly and see Krazy's body with her head still through the flap. She swings back and forth, clicking her heels with each hit of a brick (still completely unseen by Pupp and Kwakk Wakk).

Pupp picks up Krazy's tail and pushes the end of it like a doorbell or buzzer. Krazy's head pops out of the flap as she backs up, and we see that her ears have turned into the bells that used to adorn the tops of older telephones. They ring fast and loud, and Krazy pulls out a telephone receiver (with a cord) from out of nowhere. In the only word she will say throughout the cartoon, Krazy asks, "Hello?" Pupp is overjoyed to hear Krazy's voice, and responds, "Hello!" but then realizes this silliness is blocking him from his job in finding out what is happening on the other side of the booth. He swings Krazy away by her tail and out of the frame with a crash. Pupp puffs up his chest and adjusts his pants and ducks his head into the flap to see for himself. We hear a brick hit him square on the noggin, and he falls out backwards from the flap onto the ground.

On the other side of the booth, Ignatz realizes what has just happened. Hurriedly, he pitches the machine gun under the pile of bricks and forms them into a small chimney. He reaches over the counter and pulls out a long white beard, and then also pulls out a bell and a large sign that reads "Xmas Fund" on it. He starts to wave the bell in the air. Pupp gets up and comes around the side of the booth and sees the beard-wearing Ignatz forlornly ringing the bell as if to ask for donations for the needy. Pupp is ever the softie at heart, and readily flips a coin into the chimney.

Enter Krazy Kat from the side of the booth. She sees the sign and the chimney, but then sneezes, blowing the bricks from the false chimney up into the air, and causing them to rain down onto the head of Offissa Pupp! The brick-throwing machine gun too is revealed, and Pupp looks ready to clobber Ignatz. The mouse looks him in the face and laughs musically at the police dog. "Ha-ha, ha-ha, ha-ha-ha!" and then waggles the bell under Pupp's chin ticklishly. Pupp smacks Ignatz on the head with his truncheon and then drags the mouse away. Mrs. Kwakk too is riled up and overly excited by the capture of Ignatz, and she quacks wildly before conking Krazy on the head herself. (It must be pointed out that the duck is doing exactly what she was trying to stop in the first place: the further abuse of Krazy Kat.)

Pupp marches to a small jail that looks fairly like the one that Herriman himself would have drawn, and throws Ignatz into it with his truncheon, crashing the mouse through the front door. Pupp pulls out a large key, locks the door, and then swallows the key in one gulp, with his neck taking on the shape of the key briefly. Offissa Pupp then reverts back to the operetta style from earlier and sings:

"Ignatz Mouse, it's safe to say,
you will not toss a brick today!"

And Mrs. Kwakk Wakk finishes:

"Or any other day in Coconino!"

Pupp adds:

"Nino!" 

The pair dance away as before, and we next see Krazy Kat sneaking from tree to tree, with one rubbery leg stretching far out from behind one tree and then over to the next, pulling her body behind it. She gets to the jail where Ignatz sits in a second-story cell window with bars across it. She whistles to get the mouse's attention and shows him a large gift basket. He can't reach it with his tiny mouse arms, so Krazy lights a cigar sitting in the basket to rocket it upward. The basket lands in his arms, and he takes it inside. He first puts the cigar in his mouth happily, and then dumps all of the fruit out of the basket. The last item to pop out is a pie with a zipper running around its circumference. He unzips it and reveals all manner of tools with which he can perform an escape, including a saw, a drill, an axe, and even a good-sized, classically cartoonish bomb. He grabs the saw and drill and gets to work.

Krazy stands outside, with large hearts flying around and dissolving over her head. The jail starts to shake and bulge out in various places as Ignatz uses the escape tools. There is more stretching and shaking as bricks start to pop out of the building, and then entire holes are smashed out here and there. Another criminal is seen in another cell window on the second floor, hanging on while the building rocks back and forth. Finally, the building gives way, and the criminal's entire cell is sent flying, smashing the bricks off of it when he lands, upon which his cell door swings open. The criminal runs away.


Meanwhile, Krazy has bricks raining down on her, and she runs to avoid them. But then one of them hits her directly on the forehead, and she falls instantly into a love swoon, with more hearts popping in the air above her. She goes back into her leaping, spinning dance from the beginning of the picture, eventually running into Mrs. Kwakk Wakk. Krazy grabs the duck's wings and starts to dance with her, leaving Pupp to scratch his head. Mrs. Kwakk Wakk desperately tries to break Krazy's grip, and quacks wildly. By the time that they dance back to the police dog and Krazy switches partners, the duck is thoroughly exhausted. The cat and dog dance a quick round and come back to the duck, and then Krazy dances on her tiptoes around both of them.

Krazy dances back to the jail, where we see that the only thing that remains is a long pipe extending up from the foundation, on top of which rests Ignatz's jail cell, with the mouse still behind bars. The cell swings back and forth through the air, with bricks being shot out cannon-style through the chimney on top of the jail cell. Pupp rushes forward to check out the situation, but hears Mrs. Kwakk Wakk being attacked by the other criminal who was set free by the explosion of the jailhouse. The crook gets pretty "handsy" with the duck, and she wallops him a couple of times with her umbrella, but it doesn't stop him. Pupp jumps on the crook and they start to fight and roll about. In the melee, Mrs. Kwakk Wakk takes a couple more swings at the criminal, but hits Offissa Pupp soundly each time.

Ignatz sees what is happening and reaches down to the ground to pick up his machine gun. With a pile of bricks laying about, he has unlimited ammo and starts firing down in the direction of the criminal. He brains the criminal several times over, and then the gun allows Ignatz to shoot the bricks in such a way that it builds a brand new jail around the criminal, locking him inside. (I am not sure where the bars in the window come from, but oh well...) 

Ignatz leaps down from his cell window with a brick already hidden behind his back. Pupp and the duck are overjoyed at the capture, and the police dog rushes forward to shake the mouse's hand. Pupp departs, and Krazy walks up to Ignatz. The mouse looks only briefly at the brick before he wings it and hits Krazy once again. Pupp runs back into frame and chases Ignatz into the distance, with the mountains of Coconino County behind them. Iris out. 

As I mentioned, compared to some of the relative crimes of the later Krazy Kat cartoons against the art of animation, L'il Ainjil is the preferred choice. Yes, even when it goes against the true nature of the strip and mistakes what was cleverly satirical for slapstick violence, it is still a far cry better than what came before. This may be damning with faint praise, but so be it. I get a small rush just from knowing there is an older cartoon that actually use more than just the two most famous cast members of the strip and that they made a fairly decent show of replicating the look as well, including the backgrounds. And frankly, it is a lot of unthinking brick-throwing (and shooting), but I would rather see Ignatz -- and an Ignatz that actually looks like Ignatz -- throw a thousands bricks in one cartoon than not throw a brick at all. Especially when one realizes there are nearly 200 Krazy Kat cartoons, and this is the only one with Offissa Pupp and Mrs. Kwakk Wakk.

I am a bit astounded that Maltin passed this one off so quickly. It also makes me wonder if he actually watched it when he wrote his book. He gives no real detail about it and lets the quotes from Klein explain anything that was in the cartoon (which is little). All he is says is that the film was as bad as Klein remembered, and if he didn't actually watch it and just paid lip service to having done so, I am deeply surprised he wouldn't take a sharper look at the film to determine its true level of "badness". Naturally, he implies that he did just by his statement, but even a quick look at L'il Ainjil reveals it is not merely another product of the same line from whence it was built. It is an aberration from that line, and deserves to be studied a little closer than it has. It showed the wild potential that could have been had by this series if they had simply followed the original creation a little closer. We could have been talking about one of the classic cartoon series if they had developed these themes further (and would have hopefully brought more of the wordplay of the comic strip to the movie screen).

Just by its intent, L'il Ainjil proves, even at this belated date, that it has its heart in the right place and certainly beats out the Krazy films that preceded and followed it, even if the short disappointed its creators. It may have missed wildly, and it may have everyone in the balcony inexplicably booing it, but L'il Ainjil still throws a pretty mean brick.



RTJ



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