Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Movie Madness (1952)

Movie Madness (20th Century Fox/Terrytoons, 1952)
Dir.: Connie Rasinski
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Movie madness? Yeah, I've got it. Had it for quite some time, in fact, and I would bet that nearly anyone that has happened upon these words on this page is likely to have movie madness as well. If you care enough about the movies to the point where you are looking up random titles and clicking on links to rather obscure films and cartoons, you must have some form of movie madness equal to mine. Welcome to the club, pals and gals!

Heckle and Jeckle? They don't just have movie madness. They are pretty much generally insane, or at least their behavior would tend to lead one to believe such is the case. You could look at any one of their films and simply add the word "madness" to any title and no one would blink. They could just have titled Heckle and Jeckle films, one after the other without any real thought behind it, "Golf Madness," "Thinking Madness," "Ocean Madness," "Hula Madness," Dancing Madness," "Fox Hunting Madness" (just in amending one slice of films from their catalog), and everyone would have just thought, "There's those crazy talking magpies that actually look like crows. Boy, are they mad!" When lunatic behavior is your stock in trade, who is going to question your methods?

Movie Madness, released pretty much in the middle of Heckle and Jeckle's theatrical career in 1952, the 34th of their 52-film output, and is fairly representative of their work. The boys (the birds, that is) find themselves right away, without any other buildup, outside the gates of Wacky Studios. Jeckle says to Heckle in his affected British accent, "I say, old bean. A cin-em-ah studio!" Heckle is equally excited by this prospect, adding, "That's where we belong. We're a couple of hams at heart!" They link arms and walk right through the gates.They are caught immediately (and offscreen) by a studio watchdog, in security uniform though he is a dog, who tells the pair to "Get out and stay out" and thrusts them by the scruff of their necks into the camera. We see them lying all disheveled on the sidewalk, and the we see the watchdog attempting to settle himself down in his chair to relax. However, the frantic honking of a car horn sends him scurrying to his feet and looking to see who it is.

A fancy red sports car chugs into view, with one of the magpies behind the wheel dressed as a chauffeur, and the other sitting in the back of the convertible in the disguise of a big deal movie director, complete with monocle and cigarette holder. The watchdog holds the door for the bird, who steps out, slowly pulls one glove off his own hand, and then tips the ashes from his cigarette into the watchdog's open hand. Thinking it is a tip without looking, the watchdog replies, "Thank you, sir!" The bird wanders off, and the watchdog looks down at the ashes, and realizes quickly he has been had. The watchdog leans against the sports car, but all he does is cause it to fall over, revealing itself to be nothing but a plywood facade of a car.

As the fake chauffeur catches up to the fake director, they spot the watchdog running after them, and they shoot so fast from the frame that their disguises are left in their wake. They run into a building marked "Wardrobe Dep't." and the watchdog follows suit. As a matter of fact, he runs right up to a suit -- a suit of armor. Wonder who is in it? As he turns away from the suit, the arm rattles and he turns back swiftly. Then the visor opens up and a black hand sticks a seltzer bottle out of the helmet and sprays the watchdog fully in the face with carbonated water. The suit of armor starts to run away, and the watchdog grabs a prop sword and takes several swipes at the suit. The torso section keeps leaping up at the right instant while the legs continue to keep pace below. Finally, the halves (each containing a different bird) separate and run into different folds in a five-part changing screen. In various combinations, the magpies and the watchdog run in different directions using the folds and sides of the screen as hiding places. At one point, the watchdog runs across the front of the screen with the magpies behind him, with one of them waving a handkerchief at the audience.

Finally, the watchdog comes around the side of the screen with a shotgun, and he seems to have Heckle and Jeckle trapped for sure. He sticks the barrel tight up against their beaks and tells the pair to "put 'em up!" Out of nowhere, Heckle spins his hand and is suddenly holding a very large pistol with a cork plugged into its barrel. "You put 'em up, pal!" he growls back in his Brooklyn accent. This action causes the barrel of the watchdog's shotgun to grow a pair of eyes and then faint dead away after screaming out loud! As the watchdog stares down at the limp end of his shotgun, Heckle pulls the trigger and shoots the cork right into the watchdog's eyes.

On the run again, the magpies duck into a soundstage where Romeo and Juliet is being filmed. The watchdog hesitates to enter, but then he hears Heckle's voice mangle some Shakespeare. "But soft," the bird entreats, "what light from yonder win-der breaks?" Going onto the soundstage, he sees Heckle standing on the stage in Romeo's garb, and up on a balcony stands Jeckle, dressed up as Juliet. The watchdog wanders on to the balcony as Jeckle/Juliet continues her lines. As he acts, Jeckle tickles the watchdog's chin and he gets very shy and embarrassed. However, as the scene continues, he ends up standing on Jeckle's dress. When a safety pin becomes undone, the dress is pulled off of Jeckle's without his knowledge. The watchdog saunters up calmly, the dress behind his back, to corner his prey. At the last second, Jeckle sees the fabric hanging down behind the watchdog, grabs the dress, pulls it over his enemy's head, and zooms off the balcony.

Jeckle climbs high up a ladder into the rafters of the soundstage, and walks stealthily across two wires high in the air. The watchdog follows, but when he gets to the end of the wires, it turns out they are electrical... and Jeckle is about to pull the switch. When the bird does, the electricity chases the watchdog back across the wires, where he jumps out of harm's reach onto a hanging sandbag. However, Heckle is sitting in the window of a castle facade and reaches out with a pair of scissors. He cuts the sandbag free, and the watchdog and the sandbag crash into a dressed living room set below. When the sandbag hits the rug on the floor, the hole it creates pulls all of the furnishings in the living room into the hole right after the watchdog, crashing on top of him and clearing the entire set. The watchdog crawls out of the hole with a lampshade on his head and a lightbulb glowing intermittently in his mouth.

The birds wander into another set titled "Arctic Adventures." When the watchdog goes in, he sees a line of penguins waddling across the wintry landscape of the set. The last two penguins, even with their best efforts at aping the flightless birds, look very much like Heckle and Jeckle. The watchdog is not fooled and walks right up and grabs the birds by their throats. "I say, old boy!" says Jeckle, "I believe we are caught!" "You can't throw us out!" protests Heckle. "We've got talent! Why, look --!!" They both tear themselves out of the watchdog's grip, and he is left holding what amounts to a pair of white paper dickies.

At a piano, with his back to the camera, one of the birds starts rearranging his face until he turns out and looks like Jimmy Durante. He wanders forward shouting, "Start the music! We're puttin' on an act! And who strolls across the planetarium but..." The camera pans left and the other bird struts across the stage, smoking a cigar and imitating Groucho Marx. "Well, that boy will certainly go a long way..." he says, "...and the farther he goes, the better I like it!" The camera zooms in for an extreme, eyebrow-wriggling closeup of the fake Groucho. "They say he's got talent, but how does talent feel about this?"

The watchdog seems to be enjoying the show, but then he is confronted by one of the birds putting on a tough-guy act (it could be generically either Cagney, Robinson, or Raft, but no one definite), chewing on a cigar out of one side of his beak while holding a revolver on the watchdog. "I don't have to take it anymore, see! You're through, finished, washed up... so there!" he says variously, and distracts the watchdog as the bird makes him walk backwards. The watchdog doesn't realize that he is walking onto a pair of skis, and the other bird pulls him until he is falling backwards down a long snowy hill on the arctic set.

Our hapless studio guard skis completely backwards down the hill, overcoming several obstacles such as a split in the set, while the magpies sit in a camera chair high above and mockingly direct his actions, telling him to "get more personality." The action ends when the skis hit the wood of a stage and the watchdog ends up face-first on the floor. Dazed, he barely has the presence of mind to escape when Jeckle holds a clapper reading "Scene 3 Take 2" under his chin and with the cry of "Cut!" from Heckle, tries to clap it down on the watchdog's neck.

The birds run away again, and straight into a dressing room. When the watchdog opens the door, one of the birds is wearing a wig and a girdle, and screams at the dog. He slams the door shut, gets red in the face, and says, "Pardon me!" Then one of the birds opens the door and slams the watchdog into the wall next to it, until he has been pancaked flat. Then the other bird comes through the wall, using the watchdog as a door. 

They run to an exit, and close a gate behind them. Jeckle mocks the watchdog by saying, "Toodle-oo, old bean! We enjoyed our visit!" Heckle adds, "You must come and see us sometime!" But the last laugh is on the birds, because the room they have run into is actually the back of a Police Patrol vehicle. The watchdog laughs loud and says, "With pleasure! With pleasure!" The birds hold the bars of the cage and look at each other as the police wheel them off to jail. Fade out.

For me, Heckle and Jeckle represent the same style of humor that has always attracted me to cartoons. I have always been drawn to the most anarchic elements in humor -- the Marx Brothers are the gold standard for me, and from my love for their early comedies (especially Groucho) sprang my deepened interest in Bugs Bunny, who in most cases had full control of any situation, and went with any means necessary to drive his foe or foes crazy by the end of a cartoon. Heckle and Jeckle are right there, though they have never seemed as cool as Bugs was.

Regardless of the cool factor, in Movie Madness, it is fun to watch the nutty birds simply march into a "cin-e-ma studio" and just take it over completely. Sure, there are repercussions, as there often are by the end of their cartoons, though I am sure that by the time the Police Patrol car arrives at the jail, Heckle and Jeckle would have either escaped readily (as only they can) or would have used the opportunity to simply start another wacky adventure where they run amok in a prison. (I can't even begin to imagine what they would employ for a shiv.) The gags run fast, and if it is not one of their best shorts, it is at least what you expect when you happen upon a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon. 

It is the watching of their cartoons where the problem lies, for both me and the civilized world in general. I have, when compared to other cartoon characters from the major studios, had relatively little exposure to the Terrytoons characters, including Heckle and Jeckle (not counting the bad original cartoons that they made in the '70s where the birds were cleaned up for toddlers). The talking magpies got a pretty good head start in my memories. I fondly recall an afternoon or three or two dozen in my youth after I discovered that there were such things as UHF channels in Anchorage, Alaska in the '70s, and spent some free hours discovering Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Gandy Goose, and Sourpuss cartoons. The problem was that I saw some cartoons at that tender age that I have never seen again.

This is because there has been a scarcity of old Terrytoons shorts on DVD (or VHS, too, for that matter). The copyrights to most of this material are apparently owned now by CBS (once Viacom), and while the occasional rumor gets passed around that something might be released, they usually turn out to be just that. Hell, we can't even get a halfway decent Tex Avery set to come out from Warner Bros./Turner Entertainment (who own those copyrights, and they put out everything on the Warner Archives. What chance do you think the release of a box set of Terrytoons will have without some massive public outcry? (that will never come...) 

Which is a shame, because the history of Terrytoons goes all the way back to the silent era in 1917, continues straight through the growth and popularity of cartoons in the sound era, marches right into the early television era wth Tom Terrific, introduces Ralph Bakshi to the world in the 1960s. As I mentioned before, some of their characters were retooled for Saturday morning television in the '70s, and then Bakshi brought Mighty Mouse back in a big way in the late '80s. There is a chance here to add a nice collection for fans of animation with even a partial overview of their output on a Blu-ray or DVD set, that would give a sense of appreciation and history. 

The biggest problem is that the audience for such a release is relatively small in comparison with a normal video release, making the cost of remastering these older cartoons a less attractive option to the rights holders. I always ask if holding the rights to something is worthwhile if you just let your supposedly prized material sit and moulder for decade after decade. And my second ongoing question is always: in this age when you can stream just about any form of entertainment online, why not just make these old cartoons available, scratched up as they might be, for the audience that wants to see them without putting out a DVD set? Then you can see the size of your audience based on their views, and determine if it might be worthwhile to take the extra step in cleaning up the shorts and releasing them in a wider way. And the longer you wait, as your fanbase gets increasingly older, the less of an audience there will be that remembers the likes of Farmer Al Falfa, Gandy Goose, Dinky Duck, and Sourpuss.

At this late date in the game, we are talking about a niche audience, and it's a niche that won't be scratched any time soon. Talk about being driven crazy with "movie madness". I might be up all night with this...



And in case you haven't seen it (and you want to see a really downgraded copy, the same way that I had to...)

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