Dir: Rudolf Ising
Animation: Norm Blackburn and Rollin Hamilton
Music: Frank Marsales
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9
Christmas has come to mean so little to me over the last few years. I loved it as a kid, maintained that fire through the teenage years (though naturally I rebelled against it a small bit, though presents have a way of snuffing out rebel passion), and then built my Xmas love higher and higher into a true bonfire that raged throughout my twenties and thirties, when I was engaged in a non-stop parade of Christmas delights spearheaded by my large group of theatrically focused friends. Tree decorating, candle-lighting ceremonies, caroling through the neighborhood, putting on Christmas-themed shows for kids, going to other Christmas shows, annual Christmas parties, late night get-togethers on Christmas Eve (at times), meeting back up with everyone for a Christmas night movie, and then continuing that festive mood straight through the week until our annual New Year's Eve party. My closest friends -- a mix of several religions (and then my complete lack of it) -- know how to do things right by the holiday, and practically exhaust themselves in trying to make everyone have as good a time as they are. Though I was often left breathless myself, I always enjoyed being a part of their holiday plans.
Since leaving Alaska and the snow and the cold in December for Southern California, no holidays have been the same for me, but especially Christmas. My love for the holiday has always been purely secular, but I am open to the whole experience. As an atheist, I don't get into that pagan garbage either (it is equally as tied to ancient belief as Christianity), but at Christmas time (or Xmas or whatever you want to call it), all bets are off for the season. I sing along with Silent Night or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer equally. I like hearing people read the story of the Nativity, even if I don't believe four-fifths of the story or especially think it bears any true significance. Even though I own the specials on DVD now, I like watching A Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman on TV for the 1,438th time each. I enjoy believing, if only for a fortnight or two, that a world that otherwise insists on fat-shaming, "three strikes" policies, and practically wrapping their precious offspring in bubble wrap to protect them from boo-boos is just fine with an obese guy in a red suit breaking into their homes in the middle of the night to leave presents for their children. Sure, I can play make-believe the way everyone else does the rest of the year.
But Southern California has eaten me up and spit me out. So Cal has left me so low, and has devoured much of the joy I had left in me. Even in my current situation, where we have moved into a much larger house that we are sharing with Jen's family, my situation is no better. I am having a hard time finding a decent job, and though I have a massive amount of time to write, I am going stir crazy in the place. I miss my friends and family, and while I love my wife deeply, each Christmas season has brought with it a little bit more erosion in my regards for the holiday. And the world in general does not help with that mood.
I get enraged when people start decorating for Christmas or playing Christmas music before Thanksgiving has even happened. Black Friday depresses me immensely, mostly by seeing exactly what idiots our culture of greed has spawned. I had the same feelings about Cyber Monday (though I will admit to taking advantage of great DVD pricing now and then), but hearing the phrase "Cyber Week" this morning nearly made me throw up my breakfast. And any time that I hear the phrase "War on Christmas," I want to kick a FOX News anchor right in the crotch. (Rest assured, I want to kick a Fox News anchor in the crotch each time any of them say nearly anything.) If there is anything that is truly hurting Christmas, it is because we have, in that way that Americans do everything, made the actual spirit of Christmas recede because we have made too much of the holiday commercially. We have grown fat on false joys, and not on true understanding, tolerance, and fellowship with our neighbors.
It's the stuff of many of a Christmas special: finding our way back to the innocence of Christmas in our childhood. And it is clearly something that I desire, especially now that the fun I once found in the holiday (and much of life) has largely evaporated. The question was in how to go about using my current situation and resources to revamp my interest in Christmas. Since I am writing about animation and cinema in general once again, and since much of my childhood was dedicated to pouring over old films and cartoons in formulating my personality, it seems a natural to use the reviewing of old Christmas-related cartoons to help me in this process.
Unfortunately, cartoons like The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives are not going to help my mood very much. Produced in late 1932, it was released post-Christmas for some reason in January 1933 by Warner Bros. as part of their Merrie Melodies line. Directed by veteran Rudolf Ising (he of the Harman-Ising team; "harmonizing," get it?), Shanty was Warners' second true foray into the Christmas genre, following 1931's Red-Headed Baby, and its opening scenes reflect the desperation of the Great Depression era in which it was made.
Following the then-traditional playing of Get Happy over the Warner Bros. logo and Merrie Melodies production credits, we hear an organ playing Silent Night over the title and credits card, with a very large Santa Claus figure standing to the left. The first shot in the cartoon is of tolling church bells, while Silent Night continues to play. In the snow outside of a well-lit church we see a small boy trudging through the snow. He is wearing an oversized cap and a long coat. When he stops to look at the church, a choir continues to sing, and the boy sniffles his nose. He starts to walk through the snow again, sniffling his nose over and over.
The boy is surprised by a sight in a nearby home and runs to the window to look inside. Several children are inside, holding hands while running around a Christmas tree to the tune of Jingle Bells, while a warm fireplace crackles in the background. The boy is saddened that he can't join them, but a brisk wind picks him up and throws him against a nearby shed, where snow falls off the roof and piles on top of the already freezing little fellow. He crawls out sadly, sniffles his nose again, and continues to pace through the snow.
We see through the window of a shanty house the boy come over a hill. He enters the mostly barren shack, where the only two items we see are a makeshift chair and a single stocking hanging down from the empty fireplace. When the boy enters the shanty, he runs excitedly to the stocking and peers inside, but his frown returns when he sees that Santa has not been here. He drapes himself against the chair and weeps.
Suddenly, sleigh bells are heard, and we see the familiar image of reindeer and someone on a sleigh slide past the window. The boy's excitement returns and he runs to look outside through the glass. "Santy Clause!" he squeaks, and sure enough, good ol' Santa Claus steps through the front door singing the song that gives the cartoon its title.
"They're making toys for little girls and boys
in the shanty where Santy Claus lives!
They're taking tears and turning them to joys
in the shanty where Santy Claus lives!"
The boy joins in on the song: "Oh, boy! I'd like to go with you!" And Santa replies: "You've been so good, you’ll see that wish come true." While I would think that the kid would be more concerned about food, he keeps his sights squarely on kid-oriented goals: "Perhaps there'll be a bunch of toys for me..." And Santa finishes with "...in the shanty where Santy Claus lives."
The boy is absolutely fired up and yells, "C'mon, let's go!" He runs to the sleigh and hops onto the curl on the back. Santa waddles to the vehicle and climbs in, his weight pressing the floor to the ground before it bounces back up. He asks the boy, "Ready?" and then tells the reindeer, "Get up!" and cracks the reigns. When the sleigh lurches forward, the boy is somersaulted off the back of the sleigh into the snow. "Hey!" he yells and runs frantically after the sleigh, where Santa rescues him and sets him down securely in front of him. To the strains of Jingle Bells, the reindeer take to the sky, and they fly to the North Pole, where they land in front of another house with a sign reading "Santa Claus Shoppe."
When they enter Santa Claus' "shanty," they are greeted with cheers by a large council of dolls and toys in the form of babies, ducks, monkeys, cats, clowns, and other creatures. The boy says gleefully, "Oh, boy! Oh, boy! Oh, boy!" and runs to play with them. On the counter is a kangaroo that is controlled by a rubber bulb. The boy squeezes a couple of times, and each time the kangaroo hops upward and a small joey pops out of the kangaroo's pouch and barks, throwing out its arms.
But, let's be serious. This is a Warner Bros. cartoon in 1933, so they couldn't wait to get to the nonchalant racism of the day. Next to the kangaroo is a music box with four musicians on it. The box reads "Sambo Jazz Band" and when the boy winds it up, the four minstrel show-looking musicians start to play a lively tune. This makes the other toys start to play musically. A toy soldier under a Christmas tree starts hitting a large drum and some ornaments, and then taps a small baby doll in the stomach. The baby doll sits up and says, "Ma-ma! Ma-ma!" but then it falls off the table and lands in a bucket full of fireplace ashes.
If you don't know where this is going, then I envy you your innocence. When the baby doll pops up out of the ashes, he is completely black except for his eyeballs and his mouth. (He sort of looks like Bosko, which would not be surprising since Harman-Ising were the team responsible for that character, both at Warner Bros. and MGM.) The now-black baby doll yells out, "Mammy!" and the camera shifts to the right to reveal a traditional mammy character who responds, "Sonny boy!" and happily collects her offspring.
We next see three baby dolls in a line. The one in the middle is an exact copy of the doll that starred in Red Headed Baby, while the other two dolls are black, and have kinky hair protruding from the tops of their heads (and who also appear in the other film). In comparing this scene to the one in Red Headed Baby, it is most likely that Ising reused animation from the earlier one, and just changed songs. The baby dolls sing in unison:
“We are the toys for little girls and boys
in the shanty where Santy Claus lives.
We're taking tears and turning them to joys
in the shanty where Santy Claus lives.
We give the world [?**] just like we used to do.
You'll make a wish and have that wish come true.
Perhaps there’ll be a sweetheart there for me
in the shanty where Santy Claus lives.”
While they sing, we see the full room of toys cheering and dancing. We get a solo performance by a toy figure composed of balls on a series of strings, who stretches his body and legs out in time with the song, and then snaps them back causing the balls to cascade back into their places. At the end of the song, much confetti is throw and the toys cheer wildly.
The red-headed baby doll picks up a pair of maracas, and the two black dolls do a dance of their own, stepping in time to a conga beat. On top of a small toy cash register that bears the words "Baby Bank," the toy soldier steps on a button that causes the cash drawer to open. Five baby dolls sit up and cry, providing a chorus to the song.
Another small doll blows up a balloon, but when the balloon reaches its maximum capacity, the air is sucked back into the doll's tiny body and fills her up until she looks like a zaftig caricature of the famous radio star and singer Kate Smith. Like Smith, the doll introduces herself to the audience by saying, ""He-llllllo, ev-er-y-body!" She launches into Shine On, Harvest Moon, and two Scottish Terrier dogs sitting nearby say look into the camera and say in tandem, "Are you listening?" before turning their ears back to Kate.
The song switches back to The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives. A teddy bear on a stool plays a wild trombone solo, and when a Jack in the Box pops up to meet the bear's height, the bear hits it several times in the head while he plays his solo.
On the big Christmas tree in the room, the toy soldier bounces up and down to the music. Unfortunately, a lit candle set upon the tree's branch (yes, I know it precedes Christmas lights, but whoever though that was a good idea?) falls down and sets the entire tree on fire! The solider yells for help, and a toy fire truck rushes towards the tree. Other toys try to help. Another small doll jumps up and down on a perfume bottle bulb to spray the tree. One of the firemen slides up and down a tall ramp with a weighted pulley system to throw buckets of water at the tree.
But the fire is out of control. The small boy, who has disappeared largely from the picture since he wound up the jazz band, is shown watching the chaos as he stands next to both a sink and a very convenient garden hose (inside the house). On the floor on front of him is a bagpipe (I guess because Scottish kids get presents too, though I think it would be the parents who are being punished.) After a couple of shots where he just watches in astonishment, the boy finally realizes what he needs to do. He hooks the hose to the bagpipe, and then turns the water on at the sink.
He runs to the tree and squeezes the bag. We hear bagpipe music on the soundtrack as he squeezes water over and over onto the tree, ultimately putting the fire out. The toys run into frame and cheer their hero and the boy looks back at them and then at the camera in amazement. Iris out.
One thing that I really love about the Warner cartoons of the early 1930s is their forward thrust. It doesn't matter who the characters are or what the premise is, as long as there is a jazzy rhythm and everything bounces along to the film's conclusion. Shanty is no different; after initially establishing the Christmas setting, the film turns into any other film with toys coming to life (there are many of them). In fact, after Santa brings the boy to his shop, the right jolly old elf is not seen at all anymore for the duration of the film, not even to congratulate the boy for his heroics at the end. If the fire were not occurring on a Christmas tree, the holiday itself would have likely been forgotten as well.
Despite the jaunty movement and its forward drive, Shanty is just too pedestrian overall for me to give any real love to it. None of the toys do anything truly memorable (apart from setting up the series of jokes based on race), and the music itself, while cute, is not all that remarkable either. If Santa were involved more in the second half, it is possible it could have made the film stick a bit more in one's memory. As part of a program featuring other Christmas cartoons of its period, Shanty might stand out (at least for the opening sequences), but left on its own, it is just another production off the line.
And so I will have to leave it to other cartoons to help me in recapturing the Christmas spirit this year. I have several more lined up to write about through the month of December, and I hope you will join me here on the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc on this quest.
And in case you haven't seen it: