Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Snow Foolin' (1949)

Snow Foolin' (A Paramount/Famous Screen Song, 1949)
Dir.: Izzy Sparber
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

If you have seen any old animated film shorts where a bouncing ball seems to leap from word to word (or syllable to syllable) in along a line containing song lyrics, then you have probably seen a Screen Song cartoon. Screen Songs were animated shorts that were created originally by the Max Fleischer Studios (and released via Paramount) from 1929 through 1938, and were a continuation of a previous series created by Max and Dave Fleischer (under various distributors and contracts) from 1924 through 1927 called Song Car-Tunes.

"Follow the bouncing ball!" was the catchphrase that led audiences to follow along with the lyrics to a song that was featured in the cartoon being viewed. That audience would then sing along at the top of their lungs in the theatres in what I presume would be considered a jolly good time by most in attendance. For me, personally, such behavior in a movie theatre would be excruciating to behold; I like people to just shut up when the lights go down. But Screen Songs were, I imagine, pretty popular in the earlier days of the cinema when studios were looking for any gimmick to get butts in seats. Sure, it hasn't changed one bit from then to now; studios are as money-hungry as ever, if not more. But if some studio or theatre chain decides to give singing show-obsessed Americans free reign to start caterwauling along with music out loud at my local theatre, I may switch to video for good at that point. Audience participation is not for me.

After the Fleischers closed up shop in the early 1940s and Famous Studios took over what remained of Paramount's animation production (including the rights to the Popeye franchise and with many from the Fleischer staff still employed), Screen Songs somehow made a comeback. Famous Studios created their first new Screen Song in 1947, Circus Comes to Clown, which not only featured the old chestnut The Man on the Flying Trapeze, but was also the first film in the series in color.

The Screen Song series had a formula that followed a through-line from some examples in its early incarnation up to the Famous revival. The first three to four minutes of the short would usually be comprised (though there are variations) of a series of simple gags involving actions or characters somewhat related to the subject of the song being featured in the film. After the gags were done, the audience would be led into singing along using the bouncing ball gimmick. The lyrics to the song would appear on the screen, generally broken up phonetically to give the ball even more to bounce upon (and probably to make it easier for the audience to read). The ball (which originally was just a painted ball on a stick in the earliest Fleischer days, but which was eventually totally animated) would leap across the lyrics in time with the music, so it was remarkably easy to learn to sing even lyrics that you had long forgotten (or most likely, never knew). The song would continue until the end of the film, where there was often a final animated gag to close things out on a humorous note.

Since there was usually not much in the way of a story, the Screen Song films themselves are pretty generic, with the only difference being the song selection and the characters chosen for the gag section. In this way, they are also largely forgettable. But circumstances sometimes make some cartoons stick out more than others, even films of a lesser quality. Through the 1980s and 1990s (mostly, but even up to today), VHS and DVD collections of public domain cartoons, usually at incredibly cut-rate prices of only a few dollars, would appear in the cut-out bins of big box stores. I, like many people, cannot resist at least digging through these bins for supposed treasure at the bottom that everyone else has passed over. I bought a lot of cheap cartoon collections this way desperately searching for cartoons that I hadn't already found elsewhere.

And at Christmas, the fervor only grew. I can't even count how many cheap-ass VHS tapes I had with six or seven low quality prints of holiday-oriented cartoons crammed on them in the hopes of finding a rarer film I hadn't seen before. (The lists of films on covers rarely reflected what was actually on the tape, so you were pretty much working on faith here.) And one of the cartoons that showed up most often in these low- rent, dime-store collections was a Famous Screen Song from 1949 called Snow Foolin'.

Built around a sing-along for Jingle Bells, Snow Foolin' starts off with the Screen Songs jingle, an overly chipper tune belted out by what must have been some highly caffeinated singers:

"Start the day with a song
and sing the whole day through!
Even while you're busy working,
do just like the birdies do!

Though the day may be long,
you never will go wrong!
Off key, on key, any old key,
Just start the day with a song!"

After the title card is shown, with a quick bit of Jingle Bells behind it, the gag section opens with a rabbit dressed in a shirt and pants who steps out of a doorway in a tree trunk to look at a calendar that says "Dec. 20" upon it. Stretching and yawning, he lifts the paper to reveal the next date on the calendar. "December 21st," he says. "First day of winter!" He tears off the previous date, but as soon as he does, the rabbit is flattened by a massive amount of snow, as winter literally just drops down onto the landscape in a single blow. The rabbit, now completely covered in the white stuff, pops his ears out of the snow, turns around, and tunnels his way back to his door and slams it behind him.

A bear, fox, and skunk, each dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, run across the frame in front of the wintery background towards a cabin with a sign reading "Fur Storage". The bear enters, and when he comes out the other side, he is fully clad in his normal fur so he may keep warm for the cold months ahead. But when the fox comes out, he is wearing the skunk's fur. It doesn't fit him properly, he is easily twice the size of the little skunk, and he sniffs at the odd aroma emanating from it. The skunk ambles past him, and he is more than covered by the fox's fur coat, dragging the white-tipped tail behind him. This angers the fox, and he swipes his own fur away from the skunk, tumbling him over in his underwear (which is completely different from what he was wearing entering the fur storage, I might add). The skunk is then hit by his real fur as the fox throws it at him, and in seconds he is dressed properly. The skunk stands up and sniffs himself, and then turns to the camera and says pointedly, "Nauseating, isn't it?"

A trio of scowling alley cats are seen next, throwing snowball after snowball from behind a wall built of snow blocks. Their missiles are targeted at a trio of mice running across the snow, and one of the snowballs hits a mouse and covers him so completely that his legs pop out of the bottom of the snowball, and he runs blindly away. The cats continue to pelt snowballs in the direction of the mice, but then the felines duck as the sound of what seems to be cannon fire is heard. A giant boulder of a snowball rams itself into their wall of snow blocks. Looking up cautiously, they see that the mice have a snowy fortress of their own, and have enlisted the aid of a rather cute little elephant. The mice feed a snowball into the elephant's mouth, and then by swatting the pachyderm in the rear with a giant paddle, the snowball rockets out of the elephant's trunk at a highly dangerous rate of speed.

On a nearby skating pond, a mother rabbit skates by, followed by about a dozen baby rabbits mounted upon a single, elongated skate. A penguin wearing a top hat and cigarette holder has a little more trouble staying on his feet but passes by, followed by a stork who switches legs, keeping one in the air at all times while riding a single skate. A caterpillar wearing about a dozen skates zips past, and beneath him, we see through a hole in the ice, that a pair of fish are skating on the underside of the ice (in other words, upside-down).

A pig attempts a figure eight successfully, and shows off his effort, but an ostrich comes forward and does two number fours at the same time, proclaiming "Eight, the hard way!" An alligator has a third skate on the end of his long tail, but his confidence gives way to disaster as he smashes hard into a tree and ends up skating off as a quartet of alligator skin suitcases instead.

A trio of hippos speed down the hill on what a sign declares is a "Suicide Bob Sled Run". A pair of hens sitting next to the sign have all of their feathers blown off when the hippos' bobsled passes by them, and the girls are left wearing nothing but their scarves. The hippos continue their manic run at high velocity, handling the course with the grace of professionals. But suddenly, a mouse on a tiny runner sled handily overtakes them, leaving them to gasp in amazement.

At the top of a very steep hill, a kangaroo prepares to perform a ski jump. Her joey, handling a movie camera, sits in her pocket and is ready to record the action as it happens. All is going well until the mother kangaroo reaches the apex of her jump, and she starts to panic and kick her legs out as she falls to the ground below. She hits the snow-laden ground with a heavy impact, and is completely dazed from her fall. But her joey escaped the crash by being outfitted with a parachute, and he drifts down safely back into her pocket.

A mother hen passes by them singing Jingle Bells merrily. In front of her, the hen pushes a sled upon which lies a carton holding a dozen eggs. As she sings "Oh, what fun it is to ride in a one-horse open sleigh," each egg pops open in synchronization with each syllable, revealing in each slot a baby chick wearing earmuffs. Except for the twelfth egg. It bounces up and down unhatched, and the mother hen turns to the camera and asks, "And how about you folks joining in, and singing this merry old song?" As the egg keeps bouncing, she adds, "Just follow the bouncing hen-fruit!"

The egg switches to a more spherical shape and leaps onto a backdrop bearing a Currier and Ives-style sleigh. The ball starts to bounce across the words as we hear a choir sing along as well to encourage the crowd to participate...

"Jing-le bells! Jing-le bells!
Jing-le all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride
in a one horse o-pen sleigh!

Jing-le bells! Jing-le bells!
Jing-le all the way!
Oh what fun it is to ride
in a one horse o-pen sleigh!"

Of course, most of us know the song, or at least the chorus and first verse, but I have included the lyrics here so you can see how the words were broken up for the sing-along portion of the cartoon. The song continues as the background changes to that of a different image of a sleigh...

"Dash-ing thro' the snow
in a one horse o-pen sleigh.
O'er the fields we go,
laugh-ing all the way.

Bells on bob-tail ring,
Mak-ing spi-rits bright,
oh what fun it is to ride and sing
a sleigh-ing song to-night! 

Probably so Famous could reuse animation (it makes sense), the background switches back to the one originally used for the song's chorus, as it is played once again. Then a third background is shown as the cartoon continues on to the second verse of the song (which some, but not all, readers may not know too well)...

"Just the oth-er night,
While rid-ing in my sleigh,
I passed a pret-ty miss,
Walk-ing 'long the way.

I asked her if she'd like
to join me for a ride,
She an-swered "Yes" and soon she was
sit-ting by my side.

A third chorus using the original sleigh background is sung, leading into the third verse of the song. This time, the background is that of a young couple basically making out in the back of the sleigh. The song continues...

"We didn't have a care,
Ro-mance was in the air,
It was a per-fect time,
to kiss my la-dy fair.

She did'n't seem to mind,
her heart was light and gay,
and now we're on our hon-ey-moon
in a one horse o-pen sleigh.


And now is the time for the big finish. With the rising of a new set of lyrics for the final chorus, the font has changed and appears in all capital letters fully for the first time. If that wasn't enough to excite the graphic designers in the crowd, a tiny snowman leaps onto the screen, smashing the first "Jing" and then proceeds to happily squash each syllable as he makes his way across the first line. At the halfway point, his movements uncover a sleigh in the background. When the second line appears, the sleigh becomes animated, and the horse starts to walk over the top of the words, pulling the sleight and its occupants behind him. They continue across the remainder of the chorus to the song's conclusion, as snowflakes have started to fall and cover the screen.

There is an iris out that takes us out of the song portion and the scene dissolves into that of a turtle wearing a hat, mittens, and a muffler while skating across the ice. Working as a vendor, the turtle calls out, "Hot coffee! Get your hot coffee!" to everyone in hearing distance. A tired sounding, feminine voice asks for a single coffee politely, and the turtle stops below a tree branch and opens his shell from his front (the underside, that is). Inside the turtle, where we would assume his stomach to be, he has a hotplate and a coffeepot, and on the interior of his outer shell, there are five coffee mugs, three of them resting on a shelf in the middle of the shell. The turtle pours a cup, and then climbs (unseen) up the tree to hand the coffee to a cold mother bird on a nest. "Uh," he starts to ask, "I thought all birds spent the winter in Florida?" The bird takes a swig of coffee, and as the camera pulls out to reveal her nest mounted on top of a stove sitting upon the tree branch, she responds in a voice very reminiscent of actress Zasu Pitts, "Oh, dear! At these prices, who can afford Florida?"

Yes, as I stated, this is an extremely generic cartoon, and really not all that clever or funny. This is not to say that it can't be appealing, and certainly, come the holidays, when the airwaves are filled with some increasingly crass material, Snow Foolin' comes off as rather innocent and comforting. You get to see some simple, gentle humor delivered by cutely designed animals, and you get to sing Jingle Bells at the end of it. If starting the day with a song is also your mantra, then you will probably enjoy this. Screen Songs were probably made precisely for you.

As for me, I still have about a dozen copies of this cartoon. And I kind of feel obligated to watch each and every one of those copies every single Christmas. I had better get going on the next one...



And in case you haven't seen it:

No comments: