Tuesday, December 08, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Jack Frost (1934)

Jack Frost (Ub Iwerks, 1934)
Dir.: Ub Iwerks
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

I miss frost. Since leaving Alaska, I mostly get to experience a very modified version of "winter". Winter in Southern California where we are is, at the lowest, in the low 60s during the day, and into the mid 30s at night. And that is if I am lucky. It's usually still in the high 70s most of the time, though we did have a nice run of much chillier weather through the long Thanksgiving weekend, and another one coming up this weekend (at least it is forecast that way currently).

But apart from a work retreat a few years ago up to Big Bear, the fun I used to have with snow and frost is no longer a factor where I live. A couple of quick trips up to Alaska keep me remembering how I spent my entire life: shoveling snow, snowball fights, sledding, scraping car windows, slipping on ice and falling, more snowball fights... OK, so I like snowball fights. (I'd say "so sue me," but you probably would if I hit you with a snowball nowadays.)

Yeah, leaves fall here, then the leaf-blower guys come along and blow all of the color away, and with it goes autumn. Then the next week, you're taking a walk along the beach like winter never comes around. And then, without anyone blinking an eye except for me, you are suddenly celebrating winter holidays without winter ever actually coming around. Definitely a form of seasonal shock at work here.

Seasonal shock hits the residents of a small woodland area in the 1934 Ub Iwerks film, Jack Frost, though in the opposite way from me. Here, they actually get a fall and a winter, and they are, for the most part, prepared for it. We first see the critters of this fairytale forest prancing about in a way that only cartoon forest animals can, with the predators happily playing without malice or evil intent with other creatures that usually constitute their prey. With squirrels and bird leaping about joyfully in the trees on a fine summer day, the bears, foxes, and lynxes play a friendly game of leap frog.

One small grizzly cub has a good go of it leaping over the other larger animals, but has a bear of time when he gets to his own father, many times his size and the largest animal at the party. He tries and tries, but can't quite leap over the bigger grizzly, but then he gets an idea. Since some of the animals are done up in modest clothing in the manner of Thornton W. Burgess' Old Mother West Wind books (an early influence of mine), the cub pulls on the suspenders worn by the bigger grizzly and propels himself up and over the bear. However, he is flung into a nearby washbasin, and spins around and around on the handle of the mangle before dropping into the water. The cub spits out bubbles when he surfaces, slaps the water, and giggles.

As he shoots the soap out of his paws up in the air, the cub hears a wild wind and sees crisp leaves blow past him. He cries out, "Jack Frost!" and all of the other animals lift their heads one by one to look up into the trees. There on a branch is a gnomish looking fellow, holding a painter's color palette. Jack Frost bows to his constituents, and with a brief fanfare as an introduction, he starts to dance as he sings:

Here am I,

Jackie Frost,
quick and spry!
Listen to me, while I say...

Summer's gone,

play no more!
Winter's knocking 
at your door!
Better go and store your food away!"

A group of beavers by a pond start to dance and slap their tails together. Their response in song is:

"Thanks, Mr. Jackie,
for your advice!
We'll hurry home to our wives."

Squirrels pick up the tune as they gather nuts and fling them up to other squirrels in the trees:

"Well have our cupboards
filled with supplies
when Ol' Man Winter arrives!"

But the little grizzly cub is having none of this nonsense, and he growls out "Bah!" He continues to soak in the washbasin as he sings:

"I don't have to worry!
I don't have to care!
My coat is very furry,

I'm a friendly grizzly bear!"

What the cub doesn't notice is his mother walking up behind him and scowling down at him. She sings, somewhat presciently:

"If you meet Ol' Man Winter,
you'll sing a different tune!
It's time that you were safe in bed,
for he will be here soon!"

Mama Bear leads her cub into their home inside a tree, which I think probably rivals Doctor Who's TARDIS in terms of being bigger on the inside. She dresses the bear in pajamas and tucks him into his carved-log rocking bed, but as she tucks, the cub scurries down to the end of the bed and climbs out without her noticing. He starts to tiptoe away, but she catches him, and swoops him onto her lap. Mama Bear lifts the pajamas over her cub's head, and swats his bear behind hard several times. She puts the now loudly crying cub back into bed and leaves the room. Rock-a-Bye Baby plays on the soundtrack as he continues to weep and snuffle his nose.

Mama and Papa Bear fall fast into hibernation mode, snoring so loudly that the image of a handsaw cutting through a large log materializes over their heads. Sawdust rains down towards their open, snoring mouths, but they blow it away again and again on their next snore. Finally, the log is cut all the way through, and a section of ghostly log somehow hits Papa Bear square on the forehead. Stars swirl about his noggin as he sits up and smiles, still deep in his slumberous state, and then he lightly settles back down into his pillow for his long winter's nap.

The cub has had enough, and he decides to run away. He crawls out of bed, lays out a bandana, gathers a few toys into it, and makes a bindlestiff. Throwing it over his shoulder, he says with a sniff, "You'll be sorry!" but then turns back to blow a kiss in his parents' direction. Music box sounds are heard, and the cub looks towards his window and smiles. Outside, Jack Frost is painted a frosty scene on the window, sticking out his tongue as he concentrates on his happy work. He capers off to another duty, and Billy opens up the window and follows him outside.

And thus begins the best part of the film. Jack Frost has a quartet of pumpkins before him, pumpkins that seem to have no color to them at all. He points his brush at each one in turn, and they first are colored orange, and then a second point at each one creates a smiling Jack O'Lantern grimace. Billy Bear strolls up to Jack, and the gnomish creature admonishes him in song:

"Billy Bear,
have a care!
Ol' Man Winter's in the air!
You'll be sorry
if he catches you!"

But the cub's response is the same as before:

"I don't have to worry!
I don't have to care!
My coat is very furry,

I'm a friendly grizzly bear!"

(It must be pointed out that when Billy gets to the "I'm a friendly grizzly bear!" portion of his verse, that he lifts up his fists and throws a few fake punches.)

Jack saunters off, and the four pumpkins grow legs and start dancing before the now named Billy Bear. They hop atop each other to form a stack, and begin howling at Billy, scaring the young bear off and away. He runs up to a scarecrow who is slumped in a lifeless sleeping pose on a stake. next to a mostly empty cornfield.

With the blowing of the autumn leaves, the stake supporting the scarecrow disappears, and the scarecrow casually springs to life! He starts to dance and sing, but there are no words. In a voice very much meant to sound like the famous jazz bandleader and singer, Cab Calloway, the scarecrow sings in a nonsensical but musical scat language. His dancing takes himself and the bear cub over to a group of trees, barren of leaves, who bob back and forth in time with the music and provide backing vocals to the scarecrow. When the scarecrow finishes his scat singing and twirling, Billy Bear either took the nonsense to be a further admonishment of his being out with Ol' Man Winter on the way, or he is just plain stubborn. The little cub sings yet again:

"I don't have to worry!
I don't have to care!My coat is very furry,I'm a friendly grizzly bear!"

As he finishes his verse, Billy nightshirt is whipped up by a blast of freezing air from out of nowhere, and he stumbles about blindly. Snow has started falling, and the scarecrow reassumes his position when Billy first walked up to him, his arms stuck straight out as if resting once again on his stake. In my favorite part of Jack Frost, the scarecrow is slowly covered by freezing wind and snow, and gradually transforms into a stereotypical snowman. Billy is frightened by the transformation (as he should be, because it is actually kind of chilling), but before he knows it, there is another swirl of arctic wind, and Ol' Man Winter appears!

He is tall and blue and thin, and he has wild white hair and a long beard icicles hanging off of it. He has gapped teeth and a wicked grin, and he arches his arms over the top of his head as he tries to grab Billy Bear. The cub starts running in place to build up speed and then zips off as fast as his little legs can carry him. But Ol' Man Winter gives chase, and he stays just far enough behind Billy to blow freezing air at him with his breath, bowling the cub over in the snow and causing him to roll up into a snowball. The snowball grows ever larger, and its largest point, it rolls and smashes into a tree.

Billy, no longer encased in snow, sees a small door on the side of the tree and tugs on it hard to open it. We don't see what creature lives inside, except for a large nondescript foot that sticks out and boots Billy away. Billy runs to the next tree and tries that door. This time, a large white first is propelled by what seems to be one of those extendable, mechanical arms and punches Billy in the face. Sent sprawling once more, Billy sees a third door and runs inside. Seconds later, he runs out again, for it is the home of a skunk. Billy stands away from the door as the skunk comes out and invites the cub back inside where it is safe and warm. But Billy pinches his nose in disgust, and upsets the very friendly skunk, who has no idea of her offensive smell.

Ol' Man Winter runs at Billy Bear once again, and the skunk ducks back inside her home. The chase leads Billy to a log, where he runs inside to hide, but Ol' Man Winter knows exactly where he is. He ducks his down close to where Billy hides and says, "So, you would run away from home!" He points a claw at the log and icicles drip down from the top and form bars as if in a jail cell. Ol' Man Winter then disappears in a whirl of wind and snow, and Billy is left to his fate.

Suddenly, Jack Frost arrives to the rescue. He sings:

"You would roam
all alone.
I told you not to leave your home!
But you were a friendly grizzly bear!"

Billy, weeping and snuffling his nose, sings his apology:

"Gee, Mr. Frost,
I'm sorry!
Oh, help me out --

please do!
Take me home
to my nice warm bed.
I'm freezing
through and through!"

Jack Frost takes his magical paintbrush and dabs some paint on each of the bars trapping Billy in the log. The icicles transform into candy sticks with delicious looking stripes of varying colors wrapping about them. Billy Bear starts salivating and hungrily licks at the candy icicles, slowly melting one of them away enough so that he can tuck his body through the gap and escape the log. He is free! Jack Frost sets his color palette on the ground, and both of them climb aboard it as if it were a sled. Jack uses his brush to row the palette across the snow, but a rainbow trail starts to appear behind the palette and they are rushed up and through the air!

Jack Frost and Billy Bear fly over the forest, causing a fully arched rainbow to appear in the night sky, and then they land at Billy's window. Jack tucks the sleepy little bear back into his log bed and pulls the covers up tight. After he climbs back outside and closes the window, Jack Frost picks up his brush once more and starts to paint on the window. This time, he draws a single large word in cursive. The word is "Finis," signifying the end of the story. As the music swells, Jack looks at the camera and winks to the audience. Iris out.

I had seen this Iwerks cartoon numerous times since my youth, but a large segment of today's population probably knows Jack Frost best from its appearance as one of the films that the King of Cartoons played -- albeit in truncated form -- on Pee Wee's Playhouse back in the '80s. Stuck alongside much more memorable cartoons that were used like Balloonland or The Sunshine Makers, this one has always seemed like an also-ran to me. Watching it a few more times recently, however, has raised my opinion of it a notch or two. It tells its story well, and the transitions between seasons are very well illustrated, especially in the transformation using the scarecrow. The least successful part is of the rather generic forest animals at the beginning, and I think maybe I picked up on that blandness when I was younger and discounted the film as a whole.

I also think that Ol' Man Winter is never portrayed quite as scary as he could have been, especially given how well Iwerks and company would bring off the Pincushion Man in Balloonland a year later. Maybe Winter was an early run at such a character, and they packed what they learned into the later villain. Still, I know several people who swear by how frightening they still find Ol' Man Winter in this cartoon, and I will admit he is pretty creepy. Also creepy is Jack Frost, who is the hero here, but that doesn't make him any more appealing as a cartoon character. I can also see some people nowadays being taken aback by the spanking laid down on Billy Bear by his mother, though I don't remember thinking anything about it when I watched this as a kid.

Getting back to the topic of winter, it is now December 8th, and I will be spending the day at Disneyland taking in the "Xmas atmos," as Blackadder's Prince George would say (he claims Jesus always ruins it for him). That's right, it's forecast to be 81 degrees in the middle of the afternoon, and I will be celebrating Christmas in a theme park while dressed in shorts and a t-shirt. It's hardly winter at all, the snow is all going to fake (except in the Frozen area that takes place inside), and the only frost that will be seen is painted onto windows and doors. Sure, Jack Frost painted his frost onto things as well, but that was the real deal... only in a cartoon.

Man, I miss frost.

In case you haven't seen it:

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