Thursday, December 24, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Bedtime for Sniffles (1940)

Bedtime for Sniffles (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1940)
Dir.: Charles M. "Chuck" Jones
Writers: Rich Hogan and Tedd Pierce

Animator: Robert Cannon
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

Even though I fully figured out the Santa Claus trick in our family relatively young one Christmas Eve, I think that I have always held out a glimmer of hope that the idea of one's parents holding the responsibility of providing such marvelous magic was just a diversion of Kris Kringle's to keep us from really discovering his operation. As if, at a certain age, he has to convince you that he is a fake after all to avoid any real problems while he continues to fill the stockings of the kids of the world with Christmas presents.

Long after any chance of my having even the slightest faith in invisible sky wizards of the cosmic kind has eroded, there is still appeal for me in the notion of a fat, do-gooder saint who visits one day a year to make the children of the world deliriously happy. (Well, the good ones that is...) I think this is why I maintain a deep fascination with Christmas specials and films where characters are obsessed with meeting Big Jolly himself. And if one of those characters goes to great lengths to stay awake just long enough to catch a glimpse of their holiday hero, then all the better. 

So it is in 1940's Bedtime for Sniffles, a Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Charles M. "Chuck" Jones, then still relatively early in his directing career with the studio. This is the sixth in the Sniffles the Mouse series, generally low-key shorts for Jones considering the classic, high-energy antics he created for Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Marvin the Martian, and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The twelve Sniffles films he directed over several years at Warners were more focused on slow-burning character development and much gentler themes that rarely involved much in the way of the overt comic violence of his later output. If there was an overall "family friendly" series created at Warners in those days, it was probably the Sniffles cartoons.

In Bedtime for Sniffles, the cutesy mouse with the curious lilt to his high-pitched voice (which I refer to as "up-squeaking") is indeed trying to stay up all night to meet Santa Claus. After a rather elegant opening sequence where the camera introduces us first to a group of carolers far below at a building's entrance, and then swoops upward floor after floor to the top of the building, and then shifts across the snowy rooftops through a cold winter's evening to the small, wreathed door and lit windows of what must be the abode of a tiny creature, we meet Sniffles as he opens that very door to take a broom to the snow on his landing. While the score of the film had been playing the carolers' version of Joy to the World on the camera's journey through this holiday postcard setting, Sniffles' purely saccharine voice sings a wavering, off-key nod to Jingle Bells as he sweeps the way clear for Santa Claus.

His cleaning done, Sniffles continues his song as he prepares for his meeting. The camera drifts across his apartment as we see his calendar for December with the days marked off and the date of the 25th in red and circled. We see a letter pinned to his wall that partially reads (in a relative approximation of Sniffles' rambling mode of discourse), "Dear Santa. Please bring me some cheese and some Swiss cheese and some American cheese..." (I imagine it probably carries on in a single sentence and contains further uses of "and" to describe many other cheeses he would like.) There is also a closeup of a watch face (which will become increasingly important through the short as midnight approaches), which bears the name Monahan on it (a nod to Warners' story man, Dave Monahan, a fixture at the studio in the '30s and '40s). The clock reads 10:26.

"Gee!" says Sniffles. "In one hour, and thirty-three minutes, and forty-seven seconds, Santy Claus'll be here!" Sniffles yawns wide and hard, and tells himself, "Golly! I'd better fix some coffee if I'm gonna stay awake that long!" He walks over to a large tin, much taller than himself, that reads "Haxwell Mouse Coffee" with the logo of a white mouse on it. The lid is already askew, and Sniffles takes a mouse-sized cup and dips it up over the edge to sleepily and sloppily yank some of the coffee out. He throws the coffee into a pot that sits over a burner, and turns the flame on, while continuing to half-sing, half-mumble Jingle Bells in his utterly charming way (though annoying to some cartoon fans).

While the coffee heats up, Sniffles continues his song as he wanders over to a full-sized (in human terms) radio. He turns the switch and leans against the device while the then-familiar introductory trio of tones that represented the NBC radio network play. A waltz begins to fill the air in his abode, and Sniffles is swept up by the music. He starts to dance across the room, and rather gracefully too for a slightly pudgy mouse. He finishes his dance when he stops in front of his mirror, where he tells himself cutely, "Thank you!" and his reflection answers back in the same manner, "You're welcome!" (This is not meant to make us believe his reflection has come alive; he is only answering himself, and it is only because the reflection is forced upon us that it seems like the opposite.)

Sniffles starts to size himself up in the mirror, adjusting his hat and posing sideways, saying "Hmm... not a bad lookin' mouse!" He then pretends to be a tough guy, making tiny fists and throwing out a few punches, all the while looking into the mirror. A female voice over the radio starts to warble out the song Sleep, Baby, Sleep, and a lullaby mood starts to overtake Sniffles. He continues to throw punches, but they slow down more and more with each measure, and finally he is face down asleep on a brush that lies below the mirror in the ladies' compact that he uses for a vanity tabletop.

The camera switches angles, and we once again can see directly into the mirror, as the radio starts to play an overly rousing rendition of Jingle Bells. Sniffles wakes up groggily and looks into the mirror, not noticing at first the tiny red marks that the bristles of the brush have left on his face. But then he suddenly does see them, and yells out, "Measles!" As he comes to, however, he quickly realizes that the dots are from the brush and is instantly relieved. He giggles and says, "Thought for a minute I had the measles!"

Time speeds up through a close-up of the Monahan clock-face, but there still seems to be over an hour left to go, and Sniffles is not holding up too well. With Beautiful Dreamer playing on the radio, Sniffles fights to keep an alert smile as he leans against the radio, but his face keeps melting back down into a dull-eyed, slack-jawed pose. He stumbles over to his wash basin and splashes his face with water, and then wipes his face with rice-straw cigarette paper from a book hanging on the wall. Wadding up the paper, he throws the refuse into a hinged walnut with a kick-pedal serving as a garbage can on his floor. "Gee whillikers!" the mouse exclaims. "I hope he comes pretty soon!" He opens his front door, and stares into the snowy night outside. "Gosh --" he starts to say. "Gosh -- can't -- can't go to sleep..." He starts to nod off in his doorway, and adds a final, "Gotta stay awake..."

He is lightly awakened by the whistle of his coffeepot, and as he slowly turns around in his open doorway (good thing no predators are about in this cartoon), he has snow all over his head, nose, and mouth. Barely coherent, he brushes the snow away, and heads over to the coffee. With a steaming hot cup of joe in hand, he goes to sit on a chair (made from an empty spool and a broken section of comb) next to the oversized radio, and says, "Nothin' like a good ol' cup of coffee to keep you awake!" He blows the steam from the cup, and when the steam rolls forward, the camera moves over to the Monahan clock, which bolts down past 11:30 p.m. The camera pans back to Sniffles, who is completely asleep while hunched forward on the chair, the coffee from his now empty cup spilled all over the floor.

After the three NBC tones chime once more, a voice on the radio says, "This is station KFWB, signing off. Goodnight all." Sniffles slowly opens his eyes to see the clock staring back at him. His eyes move in segments down along with the inexorable ticking of the second hand, and he closes his eyes as his body takes over for the ticking, and he almost ends up on the floor. He wakes up and desperately grabs a copy of Good Mousekeeping Magazine to keep his interest. Inside is an ad for a tire company, with a yawning human toddler (in a mouse publication?) carrying a lit candle in one hand and a tire draped over his other shoulder, with the ad copy reading, "Time to Re-Tire". 

Sniffles shows disdain for the notion and turns to another page. This time, as he reads about an "E-Z Catch Mouse Trap," his eyes drift up to his soft, comfortable bed sitting across the room, with a tall lit candle by the bed's side. He drops the magazine and looks away, but sees the reflection of his bed in his mirror. He turns away once more, but this time sees the shadow cast by his bed on the opposite wall. Sniffles slaps his forehead, and walks over once again to his wash basin. 

This time, he buries his entire face in the water for several seconds. However, the basin is clear, and as he opens his eyes, he sees an image through the bubbles once again of his bed. The difference in this case is that he sees a vision of himself sleeping in that very bed. He pulls his face up out of the water and looks forward. Through the drops of water dripping down his face, he again sees himself fast asleep in the cozy bed. 

We next see the dream Sniffles sitting up from the bed and looking in the direction of the real Sniffles. The dream figure motions for Sniffles to come over to him. Sniffles shakes the water from his face in disbelief, but the dream mouse merely pats the pillow next to him. Sniffles shakes his head to signal "No," but the dream version of our hero climbs out of the bed and motions Sniffles forward again. Sniffles' body is leaning forward almost parallel with the ground as he continues to shake his head. But the dream mouse keeps motioning for Sniffles to come to bed. Finally, with a stumble and then a single, slow-motion leap, Sniffles flies softly into bed and bounces under the covers. The dream mouse crawls back into bed in the position that Sniffles has taken, and merges with the mouse's body, disappearing fully. Suddenly, the dream mouse pops back up out of Sniffles body to blow out the candle.

Beautiful Dreamer gives way to Joy to the World on the soundtrack, as we see the night sky through Sniffles' window. Into view rides the shadowy figure of Santa Claus and his sleigh, being driven by six reindeer on their Christmas flight. Iris out.

Bedtime for Sniffles is not filled with the manic humor and violence of most other Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies films, and for once, this makes me a very happy kid. The Sniffles films were always a little bit off from the rest of the pack, relying more on the slow-building curiosity and innocent sincerity of their lead character, a "man/boy"-mouse in human clothing who ends up in often dangerous predicaments -- sometimes accidentally -- just slightly over his rather diminutive stature. Bedtime is probably the skimpiest of plotlines Sniffles ever encountered -- just a mouse sitting around trying to stay awake for Santa Claus -- but the personality of the mouse benefits from this bare bones structure. We always laugh at cooking competition shows when a contestant describes a rather haphazard attempt at a dish as "deconstructed," but in a way, Bedtime somewhat fits the bill.

It's a one-mouse show, where the only other characters we see are the painted carolers in the opening shot (their voices are implied by the soundtrack), the disembodied voices emanating from the huge radio he has somehow crammed into his tiny home (did he build around it? If so, he must have been the biggest sound fetishist of his day), Sniffles' dream self which calls him to bed, and the fantasy figures of Santa and his team, arriving in the nick of time the second Sniffles drifts off to slumber. Apart from these instances, we are up close and personal (as they use to term it on ABC Sports) with the mouse himself. The cartoon becomes a showcase for Jones and his animators to give us nearly every aspect of Sniffles' nature. Mouse under glass, as it were.

I have always found this short to be extremely relaxing and pleasing. I love to sink into the same dream-state in which Sniffles finds himself, and fill my head with dreams of the joy of the Christmas season, the excitement of waiting up for Santa Claus, and the belief that I am special enough that I, out of everyone in the world, will be the one to look behind the curtain to see the magic of Kris Kringle at work. 

I can see Sniffles haters feeling that this is probably their version of hell, being trapped for eight slow moving minutes with a too sugary creation and with no way to escape but turn away or turn it off. I can see it, but I don't agree at all. For those who are able to get past, or even embrace, Sniffles as a character, and enjoy some downtime from the usual breakneck speed of classic animation, Bedtime for Sniffles is exceedingly rewarding. I would also nominate it as one of the best examples of a Christmas cartoon, capturing the essence of the holiday but without laying it on too, too thick.

Getting back to my youth, we used to go next door to our neighbors' (and still friends') house each Christmas Eve. They were Jewish, and naturally didn't celebrate our holiday, but we would go over to their house where we could play with their kids for a little bit while the adults toasted something or other with a beer or wine or whatever. A few steps down our long driveway, however, and our mother would have forgotten something or really needed to use the bathroom or some other excuse, and rush back to the house while we continued on over to the neighbors. A short while later, our mother would show up like nothing had happened at all, and we spend a certain amount of time at the neighbors before heading back to see if Santa Claus had shown up in our absence.

That's right... Santa Claus would wait until we left the house each Christmas Eve to deliver our gifts. Christmas Day itself never meant all that much to me because by Christmas morning, we had already spent half the night playing with our new toys and watching old movies on the local channels. (No cable or VHS in those days.) Christmas Day itself was all about just hanging out doing more of the same, putting up with whatever football games were being played, maybe doing some sledding or snow-fort building, having a big turkey or ham dinner, and then more playing and old movies. Present-wise, we had pretty much shot our load before Santa Claus even reached the houses of most ordinary kids. 

And so I never had to stay up late to wait to try and sneak a peek at Santa Claus, because our parents had a deal worked out with the big guy where he hit our house earlier as long as we weren't around to get in his way. Admittedly, we had the better side of things, but I always remained a tad jealous of the regular kids who got the opportunity to sneak downstairs at midnight to try and figure things out for themselves. Through Bedtime for Sniffles, I still get to dream of this opportunity for myself.




cynthia brockett said...

This has always been,and always will be my favorite Christmas cartoon. Love that mouse

cynthia brockett said...

This has always been,and always will be my favorite Christmas cartoon,love that mouse