Sunday, November 15, 2015

My Pal Paul (1930)

My Pal Paul (1930, Universal)
Dir.: Walter Lantz
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

The King of Jazz? Paul Whiteman? Surely not, though the big band leader from the early part of the 20th century certainly called himself that. And he was a big, big deal back in the 1920s and 1930s, recording scores of huge, popular hit songs, and featuring many of the top musicians of the day in his orchestras (some of whom went on to become stars on their own). Perhaps his biggest contribution to the world was that he commissioned George Gershwin to create Rhapsody in Blue in 1924. If anything remains today of his legacy, it is surely that.

Oh, but there is something else, though few outside of animation buffs would consider it to be of note: Whiteman appears in an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon. And, to make things even, Oswald makes a cameo in a feature film that was produced about Whiteman. See how these things work out?

In 1930, Universal Pictures produced a huge spectacle of a film called King of Jazz. It was produced in early two-strip Technicolor and was pretty much wall to wall with lavishly produced sets, costumes, stilted comedy bits, and boisterous musical production numbers. It was also a notorious flop for the day. But there was much of note about the film. Apart from not only surviving the decades in fairly decent condition, the film features a rather young (only 26) Bing Crosby taking vocals on several songs as a member of his vocal group from that time, the Rhythm Boys. The music bounces along merrily throughout King of Jazz, and displays a good cross-section of popular music in 1930, though hardly any of it could be considered jazz as it is understood today. The film won an Oscar for Art Direction, and watching the film now certainly shows the award was well deserved (or at least a nomination would have been).

And best of all, not far from the beginning of the picture is the very first Technicolor sound cartoon in history. Directed by animation studio head Walter Lantz, the cartoon is introduced by Walter Brennan, who tells us of Whiteman's travels to darkest Africa. Dressed appropriately in his safari garb, Whiteman is set upon by a lion, and after battling him with a rifle (in which the lion drops his skin and reveals his skeleton before the bullet even hits him), Whiteman seeks to soothe the savage beast through jazz-inspired dance music. The lion dances, the flowers dance, the trees dance, the natives dance, and for a few brief seconds, Universal's big (and stolen) cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, dances alongside a snake (who is wearing a derby) while a snippet from Streets of Cairo (you know, the song you sang as a kid that you thought went "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance") plays on the soundtrack. After an elephant sucks up and then releases the water of a pond rhythmically, a monkey wings a coconut at Whiteman's noggin while he conducts, which makes him see stars.

The segment is brief (only around two minutes), but it is goofy and entertaining and gets the moviegoers tapping their feet and prepared for the music to come. The highlight of the piece, of course, is the chance to see Oswald in color (though the only part of him that really changes are his blue pants and red tongue), and long before other cartoon characters received the chance to do so.

But Oswald and Lantz weren't done with Whiteman, and vice versa. Universal had Lantz create a short called My Pal Paul, which not only would feature Whiteman and his music in it, but would also serve as direct promotion for the King of Jazz film. When My Pal Paul opens -- with a jazzy melody playing over the credits -- we actually see a billboard promoting the film, that reads "Paul Whiteman in King of Jazz A Universal Release". Between our view and the billboard is a silhouette that we assume is meant to be the rather portly Whiteman, waving his arms as he is supposedly conducting his famous orchestra.

Then the silhouette turns around, and it is revealed that it was only Oswald the entire time. From a medium shot, we see that Oswald is performing in front of a group of other cartoon animals, who are watching the Lucky Rabbit torment a cat by playing his tail with a violin bow. And then, because the tails of cats are hollow, as you should well know by now, Oswald turns the cat into a saxophone and blows through the tail for a brief solo. A small baby bear (but don't quote me on that; the ears on some of these critters in early cartoons could represent many things) finds out that behind one of the boxes Oswald is using in his show, the rabbit has hidden a record player, and he is only faking the performance. The baby holds the phonograph over his head and yells, "Looky! Ha ha!" The crowd goes crazy. They start yelling, "Throw him out" at Oswald, and the rabbit leaves dejected.

It is always important to remember the year in which something was created when watching older films. A few years later, and the following scenario would never have happened. Oswald, spurned by his barnyard friends, runs behind a tree, crying madly and utterly despondent. From off of the single branch jutting out from the massive tree hangs a noose. Oswald spies the noose and without hesitating, he leaps up to grab the branch and pulls himself up to stand upon it. He pulls off his head, places the loop of the noose onto his neck, and reattaches his head. Holding his nose as he is about to jump into a body of water, he jumps off the branch to kill himself.

That's right. We are barely a minute into a cartoon, and the star wants to commit suicide. However, his attempt is unsuccessful, because as he hits the end of the noose's length, he uproots the entire tree (terrible root system, this thing), which falls straight over on top of Oswald. He holds the tree at bay with his skinny cartoon rabbit arms, and yells "Help!" several times at the top of his lungs, straining with the effort of keeping the tree from crushing him.

Enter Paul Whiteman. He zooms into view with his Oliver Hardy-like face and his body crammed into a speedy little sports car, honking his horn and making the car leap along with the music. Engaged in his drive, he pulls the steering wheel off and plays it like a flute for a brief moment, before replacing it and continuing on his merry way. That way becomes blocked by a very long dachshund, who stretches across the roadway. This upsets Paul, but the dog is helpful and swings its long midsection up into an arch tall enough to let the car pass.

He speeds off but suddenly hears Oswald's cries of "Help! Help! Help!" He runs to the tree where he sees the rabbit struggling mightily with the enormous trunk of the tree. Paul, about four times the size of the rabbit, easily pushes the tree back to standing but just stretching his arms out to place it without moving his feet at all. However, this causes Oswald to go back to being hung by the noose. Paul casually pops the rabbit's head off again, removes the noose, and puts Oswald's head back. All appears well for our hero and his new pal.

Or maybe not. Oswald is still sad from the rejection of his friends, and Paul can see it in his body language. He asks, "What's wrong, sonny?" and Oswald answers, "Who wants to know?" Paul stands up proudly, tugs each whisker of his mustache on each side of his face straight out, and says, "Paul Whiteman!" Oswald is astonished. "P-P-P-Paul Whiteman?" This causes Whiteman to puff up his chest to outlandish proportions, and with a tone for each button corresponding on the soundtrack, pops out all three buttons on his shirt and all four buttons on his pants. The pants fall down, and he is revealed to be wearing polka-dotted underwear. He pulls his pants back up sheepishly and quick.

"Ha!" says the rabbit. "Get a load of this, Paul!" Oswald runs to the bandleader's car and pulls out the muffler. He starts a jaunty tune by playing the muffler like a trumpet, blowing into the end while magically transforming a section of it into what looks like a derby that he uses as a mute. Partway through the solo, he points at the hood ornament, which reaches down to the grill on the front of the car and plays it like a harp. Paul Whiteman has a very strange moment where he is shown in closeup as he pulls his whiskers away from his face in time with the music. Oswald cranks the engine and causes the hood to roll up so we can see the pistons pump along in rhythm.

Oswald has since pulled the crank from the car and starts playing it like a flute. The hood ornament dances on top of the radiator cap to a tribal drum beat, looking for all the world like he is wearing a warbonnet. Oswald moves over to the front tire, where he pulls the valve off and starts and stops the whistle of the air escaping along with the tune. On the last note, the tire pops loudly, sending the rabbit rolling off, and causing the car to collapse.

Not to be outdone, Whiteman tries to get in on the fun. Standing next to a sawed off tree trunk, just like Oswald, he can't wait to blow into something else that people don't normally put their lips around. He grabs the tree branch and fingers the holes on the side of the trunk so that it makes horn sounds. Meanwhile, Oswald has picked up another tire and somehow turned it into a stringed instrument. On a helpful cue from a woodpecker within the tree trunk, the pair team up on a short version of the old standard, It Happened in Monterrey. When Whiteman sings, "Broke somebody's heart..." and pulls a large heart from his pocket, Oswald grabs it and sings back in a falsetto, "...And I'm afraid that it is mine!"

The following solo by Whiteman raises Oswald's ire and the pair spar back and forth, trading licks until Oswald decides he will determine the winner by laughing, "Ha ha ha ha ha! Nyah!" and sticks his tongue out at Whiteman. Back to the radiator cap, the hood ornament does some nice toe dancing, before the tune changes again. This time, a pair of pliers and a hammer jump out of the toolbox on the back of the car, and take to dancing. They are a nicely matched pair, with their limbs stretching out as it suits their moves, but when the hammer tries to kick the pliers in the rear, it misses and the hammer gets flipped. The pliers jump onto the back of the hammer and rides it like a pony for a measure before the pair return to their gentle stepping from the start of the song.

After the hood ornament once again dances to the beat of the tom-tom, we are ready for the finale. Oswald sticks a horn into the tailpipe and four figures much like the hood ornament (they could be musical notes) pop out of the holes on the horn. The quartet link their skinny little arms and start dancing to the popular tune, Happy Feet, marching back and forth and causing music to play as they step across the holes. Whiteman, the tree trunk, Oswald, and the car are then seen dancing together in a line, stomping their feet and jumping up and down to the crazy rhythm. 

The song switches to Song of the Dawn, with Paul singing "Dawn is breaking and a new day is born!" (It's not really his voice.) For an unknown reason (maybe the rabbit doesn't like Paul's singing), Oswald picks up Paul's car over his own head and then smashes to the ground in a jumble of pieces. Paul immediately looks overhead to see the noose still hanging from the tree and grabs Oswald. He puts the noose back over the rabbit's head and pulls down the rope. Instead of hanging Oswald (it only stretches him upward), the rope pulls the tree further and further down into the ground until both Paul and Oswald have been pinned to the ground by the tree branch holding the noose. Crawling out from under the branch, the two sport huge bumps on top of their heads while each see stars swirling. They look at each, say "My pal!" in tandem, go to shake each other's hands and then purposefully miss, sticking out their tongues instead.

That's Oswald!"

Sure, it's cartoon insanity, but for a tie-in that is meant to promote a major motion picture release, they sure weren't worried about showing its main cartoon star as being manic depressive suicidal. It does point to how these films, at the time, were considered for all audiences and not just children. Such details in cartoons would largely go away, as they did in all mainstream fare, once the production code kicked in a few years later. While I like finding odd events like Oswald's suicide scene in these early films, I must admit that the scene bothered me slightly if only because of my own recent problems with depression (part of why I stopped writing on this blog for a few years, all of which is documented on my other blog if you are interested in such things).

In the end, the cross-promotion between cartoon and film probably didn't help all that much, given that the film failed at the box office. Still, the music in My Pal Paul (all of which is featured in King of Jazz) should appeal to fans of period music, even if this cartoon is nowhere near as interesting as the previous Oswald release, Hells Heels (written about on this site last week). There is a decided downturn in quality from that film to this one. It does show how even with the same staff working on the same films, inspiration is truly of the moment. And if you had to draw the rather dull Paul Whiteman over and over and over again, you might not feel all that inspired either.

No comments: