Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Ragtime Bear (1949)

The Ragtime Bear (UPA Jolly Frolics, 1949)
Dir.: John Hubley
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

I am not especially a fan of Mr. Magoo, but I also have never minded the character much. I know we are in politically correct times, and every once in a while, someone makes some ado about the Magoo cartoons and how they make fun of the blind and a bunch of other outright hooey.

Mr. Magoo is not blind. He has extremely poor vision, perhaps even legal blindness, but he can see to a slim degree. The humor in his cartoons comes from the situations into which his bad vision gets him. (See, even there, calling it "bad" might set someone off; hopefully they skipped over the "poor' part... hate to be called "elitist" when I am nowhere near that.) But he rarely ends up in real trouble from his misadventures.

Usually, such as in his debut film, The Ragtime Bear, his extreme nearsightedness causes massive problems for those around him. Magoo is also as stubborn as they come, and generally refuses to admit when he has made a mistake or a wrong turn. This trait, too, will usually spell trouble for those he encounters, while leaving Magoo most often for the better by the end of the situation (or the cartoon).

After directing the final two films in the Fox and the Crow series for UPA, John Hubley and his team came up with a new character, a near-sighted curmudgeon with a wide stubborn streak named Mr. Magoo. According to Leonard Maltin in his seminal Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Hubley was able to convince the studio to allow him to make The Ragtime Bear in 1949 only because it had an animal in it. Columbia weren't interested in a human character, no matter how original he was in the animation landscape. Once Magoo took off over the next two decades and became one of the most popular animated icons in the world, I am sure there are some at Columbia who had to eat some crow (and a bit of fox as well). (Then again, it was Hollywood, and no one ever admitted mistakes; they just moved on to the next project...)

After a series of Jolly Frolics opening cards, we enter the story of The Ragtime Bear. A red jalopy speeds along a high mountain roadway, passing bears hanging out in the trees and the tops of numerous peaks. At the wheel is a short figure clad in green jacket and cap; in the back of the jalopy, strumming a banjo, is a gangly doofus with a yellow hat (with the brim bent upwards) and wearing a raccoon coat. The car seems out of control, and that is exactly what it is. The jalopy speeds into a tree where a bear is fast asleep on a branch. The camera remains on the bear as the sounds of a crash are heard below. The crash shakes the tree and the bear, but the ursine fellow only wakes up fleetingly and then settles back into his reverie.

In the car at the base of the tree, the gangly collegiate tries to tune his banjo (which had been providing the jaunty soundtrack up to the point of the crash), while the older gentleman, who will become very well known as Mr. Magoo, climbs out of the driver's seat. Clad all in green with white spats on his shoes, the bald man with thick eyebrows and a bald head squints almost constantly as he walks. As he walks up to sign reading "Straight ahead to Hodge Podge Lodge," it becomes clear that Magoo is extremely nearsighted.

He turns towards the camera and asks in a very pushy voice (provided by comic actor Jim Backus, who would also go on to play Thurston Howell III, the millionaire on Gilligan's Island), "Which way to Hodge Podge Lodge?" "Can't you read the sign?" says a disembodied voice, possibly meant to be the director or the cameraman. "Well, certainly I can read the sign!" the old man shouts back angrily. He pulls out a pair of spectacles and puts them on, his eyes enlarging to ridiculous proportions. We see a very blurry closeup of the bottom half of the words on the sign. "What does it say?" he asks the voice, which responds calmly, "Straight ahead." After grumbling a little bit, Magoo says, "Well, thank you. Thank you kindly!" and then turns to head back to the car.

The tall youth has gotten out of the car by this point, and is standing right behind him toying around with his banjo. Magoo shouts at him, "Come on, Waldo! Follow me!" but when Waldo tells him he will, Magoo calls him a "scatterbrained boy." As they head off, Waldo starts to strum his banjo, returning to the jaunty tune from before. However, the bear is now awake high in the tree above them, and with his paw cupped to one of his rather mouse-like ears, the bear likes the sound of what he hears. He begins to tap his foot and stick his tongue out to the rhythm of the music.

Waldo is getting a tad carried away with his music, and he doesn't notice that Mr. Magoo has walked straight up a tall precipice covered in snow and is about to step off into nothing but space. Luckily, the music angers Magoo, and he turns to yell at Waldo, saying "Stop that guitar! Can't stand noise!" He grumbles again, and with his eyes squinted, turns to take that possibly fatal step. However, Waldo sees his predicament -- and is likely very used to these situations with his elderly uncle -- and lays his banjo down underneath Magoo's steps so that he crosses over to another cliff unscathed. Magoo is unaware that his life has been saved by his nephew, and continues to berate the lad. "I came up here for peace and quiet, son!" and grumbles some more. Waldo tries to step from one cliff to the next, but the far one has a chunk break off, and he end ups letting go of his banjo and taking the fall himself. 

Waldo's hat also flies into the air, and the bear not only arrives at the cliff just in time to accidentally catch the banjo, but has the hat flop onto his furry head as well. The bear inspects the instrument, hits the strings with his paws, and then with the back of the banjo to his face, pulls a string which allows the banjo to smack him hard in the nose. After hitting the strings in frustration a few times, suddenly he becomes a banjo master, perfectly fingering the neck and head, and playing as well, if not better, than Waldo did.

But Magoo is not done with Waldo. He wanders back furiously to the bear, mistaking him for his nephew because of the fur of his coat and the hat and banjo. "Waldo! I told you to quit it! Now, give me that mandolin!" Magoo leans across the gap between the two cliffs and pulls the instrument from the bear's paws. He also scrapes a chunk of fur from off of the bear's stomach and says, "Get yourself a new coat. You're disgraceful, son. I'd like you to be neat, boy..." Magoo continues to mutter and chuckle under his breath as he marches away.

A short while later, we enter the Hodge Podge Lodge, where apparently the hoi polloi gather to lounge about in the lobby. Magoo, dragging the banjo, walks straight up to the clerk's desk, but he ignores the clerk who is hunched over the register on the desk, clambers up some luggage and stops at the head of a moose mounted on the wall. While Magoo makes his introductions to the moose, the clerk speaks to Magoo, but the old man never notices that the voice is coming from behind him.

He introduces Waldo as "a bright lad and a fine banjo player." However, the Waldo that walks up to the desk is the bear version of Waldo, and the clerk notices this straight away. The clerk holds out his hand to shake, but the bear just grabs the clerk and gives him a bone-crushing bear hug. Magoo yells at his "nephew," shouting from the top of the stairs, "C'mon, Waldo! Get some rest! And take off that coat!" Magoo, though, has stepped unknowingly up onto the railing, and steps off, falling to the ground below. It looks like the bear is going to catch him, but lets Magoo pass and hit the carpet as he collects the banjo instead.

The bear starts to play My Darling Clementine, but Magoo wrests the instrument from his grasp once again. When the bear looks up, Magoo, with fairly impressive speed, has climbed up a snow-covered hill and is making to throw the banjo off into nothingness. At the last second, Magoo realizes something is passing by him -- a ski lift -- and he sets the banjo on one of the chairs, which carries it up to the top of the mountain. Magoo does a little dance but throws his back out, and stops when he hears the banjo music again. Magoo has wandered onto a ski jump, and from the top of the jump comes the bear on a pair of skis, playing the banjo for all he is worth. Magoo is swept up by the skis, and the pair go flying high into the air.

They land further down the slope with Magoo mounted at the front of the skis. He doesn't seem to notice that anything was any different than if they were standing on the carpet at the lodge. He turns around to talk to "Waldo," but we then see the real Waldo desperately trying to climb back up from where he fell earlier. He just about makes it, but gets run over by his uncle and the bear. Magoo grabs the banjo again from the bear, yelling, "For the last time... STOP THAT MUSIC!" He steps off the skis, and begins to tumble fast down the hill, until he ends up with his head stuck upside down in the snow.

Later, at the lodge, Magoo has gone to bed. He not only is still holding the banjo hostage as he lies in his bed, but he is also brandishing a double-barreled shotgun. As he snoozes fitfully, we see the bear, still posing as Waldo, in the other bed. The bear notices a bear-skin rug on the floor, and places it in his bed. He starts to tiptoe across the room to steal the banjo, but when Magoo stirs a little, the bear falls down flat on the floor and pretends to be the bear-skin rug. He tiptoes on all fours to the bed, but almost runs into the shotgun. The bear reaches up to grab the banjo, but grabs a string and awakens Magoo. The old man looks across the room and sees what he thinks is Waldo asleep in the other bed, and a bear-skin rug (though it is actually the real bear) lying between them.

Magoo falls back asleep, and the bear reaches up again for the banjo. This time, he accidentally pulls the trigger on the shotgun, and the blast awakens Magoo once more! He looks across the room, where he mistakenly believes he has shot his nephew full of holes, as we see the silhouette of the bear-skin rug on the bed splattered by buckshot. Magoo rushes to Waldo's aid, with the real bear watching in disbelief on the floor in the middle of the room. Magoo decides that water is needed to help the situation, and he leaves the room, stepping on the bear in the process. The bear makes a last grab for the banjo, but hears a noise at the door, and runs back to his own bed, throwing the rug out of the way and lying down.

A very tired-looking Waldo comes through the door and climbs on top of the bear. He falls asleep just in time for Magoo to return with a pitcher of water, which he pours on both Waldo and the bear. They both sit up, and Magoo is overjoyed that his nephew is alive The bear helps to brush the water off of Waldo without either human noticing him at all, but when Magoo graciously hands the banjo back to his real nephew, the bear pops up to look down happily at the instrument. But Magoo warns Waldo, "And if you play one note, I'll blast you!" and levels the shotgun at his nephew. 

Waldo holds back from playing, but the bear puts a finger in his own ear, and then reaches around to strum the banjo. From outside of the lodge, we hear a shotgun blast. And then another. Magoo chases his nephew up and down the hills and mountains, shooting his gun wildly. In the final shot of The Ragtime Bear, we see the bear perched yet again on his tree branch, strumming his banjo and tapping his foot happily.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I am not necessarily a fan of Mr. Magoo. I find him extremely irritating in the later entries in the original theatrical series, and don't care for him much in the various television series (though some of the specials and movies have been entertaining). Even worse is when he gets that stupid dog that looks and acts just like him. (Foreshadowing of the vile Scrappy-Doo perhaps?) But I greatly enjoy many of the earliest shorts in the theatrical run, and The Ragtime Bear is right up there with UPA's best work, if not in all of animation. The character work is sharp, and I love the details in the lodge scenes and in the opening backgrounds.

And best of all is the creation of the cranky old man, Mr. Magoo. In Maltin's book, it is mentioned that Hubley was upset that the later films concentrated almost completely on his nearsightedness as his major trait, and pushed aside the bullheadness that was the real reason for his existence. I suppose this was to make him increasingly more acceptable to the masses, but it does rather cut down his character by at least a dimension in doing so. Luckily, there a handful of early films where this attribute is fully intact, including this one.



And in case you haven't seen it...

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