Sunday, February 07, 2016

Chess-Nuts (1932)

Chess-Nuts (A Max Fleischer Talkartoon, 1932)
Dir: Dave Fleischer
Animation: James H. "Shamus" Culhane; William Henning
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9


"Old King Cole was a mean old soul,
and a mean old soul was he!
Poor Boop he wanted for his queen,

but that was not to be!
For Bimbo was her lover bold
and a hero strong was he!
And in the castle where they lived,
they fought so merrily,
was Old King Cole and his mean old soul
...and Bimbo and Betty make THREE!"

It's strange how not everyone sees us the same way. Apart from how we may feel about ourself on the inside (we are usually the automatic hero of our own histories, though this may not always be the case day to day for me), there is often the example that for every group of people that think you are a terrific person or friend, there is always that one person who believes you to be a Grade A, Numero Uno schmuck of the highest order. 

Speaking for myself, there are exactly a half dozen people that I have encountered and gotten to know in my life that I consider to be the members of my Rogues Gallery: cruel, twisted, malevolent villains upon whom I continue to wish the worst and most painful fate imaginable. On the flip side, most of that "Sinister Six" probably have many loving friends, family, and admirers, who are just fine with or blind to behavior that I consider to be destructively selfish, ill-mannered, and (perhaps unknowingly) awful. In a couple of those cases, I think people around them are just afraid of these individuals going off in a horrible possibly violent way, so their friends and family let the bad behavior continue unabated without intervention. Regardless of the situation, they don't appear to be villains, at least on the surface, to the majority of their individual support groups.



And thus we come to the case of one Mr. Cole... Old King Cole, to be precise. Through most of the last three centuries, this king of still debated origin has been described and portrayed in popular media by the words made famous in the ancient nursery rhyme that tells his story: "Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he!" There are great variations on this poem, as in many popular rhymes that last through the ages. Regardless of the version, at some point in the telling, the subject of "merriment" rises to the fore. For the most part, when we hear the name "Old King Cole," we think immediately of the monarch as being merry. And then comes all that pipe, bowl, and fiddlers three jive.

Every once in a while, though, there is an aberration. There is someone who looks at the happy monarch that is Cole, gives him a look up and down, backwards and sideways, and thinks, "What a stupid, lousy jerk!" In the 1932 cartoon short, Chess-Nuts, those "someones" must have been Max and Dave Fleischer. At the start of this Talkartoon series entry featuring the Fleischer studio stars, Betty Boop, Bimbo, and Koko the Clown, we hear the song connected to the lyrics that introduce this article wherein we discover that Old King Cole is described as not being merry at all, but rather as a "mean old soul". To be sure, merriment does play a part, as a feud is laid out between Bimbo and the king over the love of Miss Betty Boop (as one would expect), and it is related that they "fought so merrily". But his "mean old soul" status is established as the primary force of his character, and so it will remain throughout this cartoon.

To start things off, there is that punning title, Chess-Nuts. As it turns out, beyond the pun, this film actually does revolve around the game of chess (which, yes I know, is also recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee and other groups that I don't care about anymore). The first image we see beyond the credits is a live-action shot of a silent chess match between two wizened opponents, who sit starting intently at a board. Suddenly, the old man on the left, playing white, sets his hand to the board and prepares to move his bishop, but then pulls his hand back at the last moment. The two old men return to starting at the board. 

The old man on the right is smoking a cigar, and some animated ash falls from its tip and plops down on top of the black queen piece below him. This awakens Betty Boop. Her abnormally large head rises from the playing piece, and after she brushes the ash away, she waves her arm and yells, "Yoo hoo! Bimbo!" On the white side of the board, Bimbo -- Betty's then erstwhile companion and canine boyfriend -- pops up out of the white king piece, yoo-hooing back at his beloved. The camera cuts back to Betty, but to her right sits the black king piece, out of which comes an elderly monarch with spectacles. He angrily pushes Betty back down inside the queen piece, shaking his fist as he growls, "Get down there! Stay where you belong! No more of that!"



The next fifteen seconds or so are comprised of stop-motion animation, as the chess match is shown to proceed with several moves being made only by the pieces themselves. After a few moves, the pieces all converge in the center of the board, and then spin out into a line shooting diagonally across the board, black and white pieces intermingled. They spin about and then shuffle and meet in the center again, and then all fly off the board at once! We next see the two king pieces, now in hand-drawn animation rather than stop motion, lying against each other on the table top. The pieces gradually morph into the bodies of Bimbo and Old King Cole. Cole starts to pummel Bimbo with his fists, and then both start battling in a spin cycle in midair. Music starts up again, and as the battle continues, each character pops momentarily out of their spinning disc to add a line in song...

Old King Cole: "I'm the King!"
Bimbo: "He's the King! A-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

Old King Cole: "I'm the King!"
Bimbo: "He's the King! A-ha-ha-ha-ha!"

There is a small explosion of smoke, and the King is seen once more on top of Bimbo, beating his rival mercilessly in the head. 

Old King Cole: "I'm the King!"
Bimbo: "He's the King!"

And then Bimbo sticks out his tongue and blows a raspberry at the old man. Cole tells Bimbo, "Let's fight this out on the square!" and the two kings depart to their respective sides of the board. We next see Bimbo standing in a field of chess squares. He sways back and forth and starts to chant...

"Hobba-jum! Stobba-jum! Higgy-diggy-jobba-jum! Oh!"



As he chants, Bimbo's hands come off of his arms to float in midair on the opposite side of his body. Behind Bimbo, his army of chess pieces -- pawns, bishops, and knights -- are lined up, led by his pal Koko the Clown (from the Fleischers' silent Out of the Inkwell series of cartoons). Koko tries to direct the squad, but the pieces turn in any direction but the one that Koko commands. We cut back to Bimbo, who now has several other crowns springing up and down out of his regular crown. He continues to chant...

"Hobba-jum! Bobba-jum! Root-toot-jum!" 

The pieces starts to hop in unison to the music, with Koko jumping as well, but just slightly off the beat of the others. The knight piece, represented by a completely deadpan horse, leads the other pieces off the board, with Koko following behind. On the other side of the board, Old King Cole summons a small rat-like creature carrying a candle. Cole picks up the rat and candle combo and fashions them (magically?) into a bomb. Another rat arrives and Cole also shapes him into a bomb. The king then hurls the bomb like a bowling ball in a forced perspective shot across the board, where Bimbo's men are lined up like so many bowling pins. The bomb knocks down all of them except for Bimbo and Koko, but the second bomb, thrown clearly to pick up the spare, catches the tall clown in the midsection, knocking him into a somersault. The bomb bounces off of Koko and hits Bimbo in the head, laying him out next to the clown.



Undaunted, King Bimbo's team huddles up and works out a play. The pieces line up in front of Bimbo in a football-style formation, and with the chant of "Eeny, Meeny, Miney, Moe! Hip!" the bomb is hiked to Bimbo, who tucks the bomb in like the ol' pigskin and carries it down the chessboard. Rushing forward, his teammates start yelling "Touchdown!" over and over as they head onward to their goal. In a nearby tower (the rook transformed?), Queen Betty stands in a window, rooting on the action with this cheer...

"Hip-Hip-Hooray!
Alakazam-a-zing! 
Alakazam-a-zoom!
Alakazam-a! Throw the king
right around the room!
Alakazam-a-riff-a-raff
and that's not half!"

As she leads the cheer, there is a closeup of Betty's garter-bearing legs. We see two strange, rabbit-like creatures, one of which seems to come out of her shoe, and joins the other one as they disappear into a crack in the wall next to the open window. The action cuts back to the chess match, which is now really just a football game, all pretense of portraying the brainier sport having gone by the wayside (but only momentarily). As Bimbo continues to run down the field of play, he is rooted on by this inspirational ditty, stolen in part from the famous "BINGO" song...

"Bimbo is running down the line!
Bimbo is his name!
We hope he makes a touchdown now!
Bimbo is his name!
B-I-M-B-O! B-I-M-B-O! B-I-M-B-O!
Bimbo is his name!"

Reaching the edge of the chessboard, Bimbo leaps over Old King Cole, who tackles him, but Bimbo spikes the bomb-ball on the tabletop. Suddenly, everyone on the board, including the two kings, realizes that the bomb is still active. They shiver and shake in fear, and when the bomb goes off, there is a huge cloud of smoke and all of the players are thrown up into the air and back down on the board. Old King Cole gathers his senses quickly and spies Betty looking out from a window in the tower. With the strains of Mysterious Mose accompanying him to the door, the top half closes in front of him and he runs smack into it, his body falling apart into pieces. Pulling himself together, he crawls on all fours through the bottom half of the door and seeks out his would-be queen.


Thus begins the more molestation-oriented half of the cartoon, where Betty's sexiness comes into play for both the characters and the audience. The king twirls a lasso over his head, and backs Betty Boop against the wall. She says in her sing-song way, "Oh no, King-y! Mm-mm, King-y!" as the rope falls over her body and down to her feet. The king pulls the rope up and it pulls his short dress upwards as well, revealing her underwear and midsection. As she pulls her dress back down, she says (somewhat flirtatiously), "Oh oh, King-y! Hel-lo, King-y!" He cinches the rope up around her securely, and she decides that enough is enough. She balls up her hands into fists, licking one thumb in preparation for laying a wallop of a punch upon the crusty old monarch. "C'mon, I'll fight ya, ya big go-rilla, you!" she says, swirling her fists in circles before him.


The king picks her up in his arms and walks across the checkerboard floor of the room, his feet stepping in and out of his shoes as he moves. Betty kicks her legs and protests, but soon enough she has the rope completely wrapped around her as she is tied to a post. The king kisses up and down her left arm, and while Betty seems to be flattered by the attention, she is not at all happy with her capture. When the king is given a close-up where he sings, "Can't you see the love light in my eyes?," the pupils of his eyes are replaced with a pair of lit candles. Betty reaches forward with her head slightly and blows the candles out, causing them to go completely limp in their stands, their flames hissing out and the smoke sneaking upward. (And if you are a Freudian, you will love this scene.)

This riles the king beyond belief, and he angrily pulls Betty out of her bonds and carries her across the room. Betty protests and screams for help, grabbing a nearby window and stretching it beyond its normal dimensions. The commotion alerts Bimbo, still laying on the chessboard with Koko and the rest of his pieces. He yells, "I'll save ya!" and lifts a black square on the board like a trap door to sneak towards the tower. We see his outline as he burrows underneath the game surface to the edge of the board. Then, rather than simply crawling through the door, he lifts the edge of the stone tower like a curtain and goes inside.


Old King Cole, ever the pervert, carries Betty Boop into the bedroom, as she continues to scream helplessly. The bed, perhaps thinking of the hint of scandal this may cause, doesn't want anything to do with this. It swiftly departs the room on its four bedposts, kicking at the ground behind it in dismissal. Bimbo runs into the room and tells the king to "Drop that girl!" The king holds Betty up higher over his head, and says, OK!" and then drops the girl indeed, right on her voluptuous rear. As the two feuding kings pick up their fight anew, Betty stands up quite perturbed and rubs her bottom. "Wise guy!" she yells at Old King Cole. Bimbo and Cole (but not Bimbo Coles) start to chant at each other as they revert to their chess battle, each one punching the other following each line...

Bimbo: "Awky-woo! Awky-waa! Awky-wocky! Check!"Old King Cole: "Icky-low! Icky-high! Icky-wicky! Check!"
Bimbo: "Son-of-a-gunna-hulla-baloo!"
Both: "And double check!"


Betty decides to get in the fight. She picks up a piece of cake from a nearby table and makes to throw it at Old King Cole, saying, "Now, you're gonna see something!" At the last second, one of the strange, rabbit-like creatures pokes at the cake with a fork so the plate is empty when Betty hurls it across the room. The plate smashes on the corner of a portrait on the far wall of a queen, possibly one of the preceding monarchs of this realm. The noise awakens the queen, who tries to get the attention of her king in an accompanying portrait. She slaps him in the face, knocking him out of the picture and down to the floor. The portrait queen then jumps into the pristine picture frame, leaving her torn portrait behind. However, it seems Betty is still hurling items across the room and the queen is hit square in the face with a tomato. Betty throws a vase, but the effort causes her skirt to lift up over her rear, revealing her undies once again. One of the table legs kindly reaches up and pulls her skirt back down, much to Betty's appreciation.



Betty throws another vase, but she misses Cole's head, and the vase smashes against the wall. However, it does cause the wall to break open, where we see two holes, each one showing mice in their beds. In the left hole, there is a mouse couple asleep. The disturbance wakes up one of the pair (presumably the male, but who can tell?), who then slyly slips out of the bed and sneaks across to the hole on the right, where he climbs into bed with the other mouse, with a very sheepish grin plastered across his face. Clearly, we have just borne witness to some pre-code rodent cheating.

Back at the fight of the century, the two kings have pounded each other nearly to a standstill, until finally the points on Bimbo's crown pick up the challenge. They reach out like fists, hitting Old King Cole in the face over and over. "Take that one! And that one!" cries Bimbo, and the mean old soul is laid out flat. It looks like he is about to get up, but as Bimbo wearily tries to mount another assault, Betty steps over the old man like a set of stairs and proclaims Bimbo to be her hero. The scene cuts to a parade led by Betty, Bimbo, and Koko, with the chess pieces marching behind them. It then cuts once more to the live shot of the two old men playing chess, where their beards grow long and pile over the chessboard as they continue to contemplate their next move. An animated spider appears in midair between them, bouncing up and down on a web that it has spun between the two coots. There is an iris out, and over the final title card, we hear the final lines of the song that opened the cartoon...

"Old King Cole is dead and gone,
but Bimbo and Betty... LIVE ON!"

The voice work in this short, outside of Betty (the perfect Mae Questel), is uninspired and the voices all come across as too monotone for the action that is occurring. It is strange indeed that the Fleischers had come to discover the importance of a strong vocal performance in some characters, but played it rather haphazardly with others. Chess-Nuts is never uninteresting in style or animation, but the jokes are not up to the same high style of surrealism that would be shown in such classic shorts as Snow-White (1933). 


That said, there is much to recommend in Chess-Nuts, especially the fun it has adapting chess to an animated setting. I do wish it had gone much further in examining the game itself as a topic rather than simply resort to the usual slapstick, damsel in distress hijinks, but you can't have everything, and it is far too late to send the film back to the studio and have them redo it. Besides, you have Betty Boop running around being early '30s Betty, and sometimes that is all you need.

As for Old King Cole, I am sure no ill intent was meant by the Fleischer brothers in relegating this leader, who is widely regarded as an old soul who is resolutely merry, to villain status. Kings, owing to their stature, are often held in contempt by a certain portion of their subjects. It would not be surprising if there were some in Old King Cole's kingdom that thought his guise of merriment hid something darker and more insidious. After all, he has most of the gold; why shouldn't he be merry? Thinking about it further, I am surprised that more hasn't been said about what might lurk behind the unblinking giddiness of absolute power that Cole represents.

Looking back at my own "Sinister Six", each and every one is a bona fide douchebag to be sure, but there is a great likelihood that they think the same way of me. I have certainly made my displeasure at their behavior known, and they likely believe that I am completely in the wrong regarding all aspects of my summation of their individual characters. Of course, I'm not, but we can't fully control how other people see us. 

There is a simple test in my case that tells you whether I like you or not. If I throw terrible puns in your direction, or pull stupid pranks on you, or make strange noises around you, then I probably consider you to be worthwhile of my attention and friendship. If I grow strangely quiet in your presence, don't attempt even the smallest of small talk with you, seek to depart a room at the earliest possible convenience when you enter it, or even ignore most of your posts or messages on Facebook (if we are "friends" on Facebook, that is), then our personal relationship is probably on the ropes at best or totally done for already in my mind.

All it takes is one sour confrontation for me to write you off as unworthy for eternity. And in these days where I don't even like myself most of the time, you are in pretty good company. Or bad, as it were. Really, it all depends on how others see it. So, it could go either way.

RTJ


*****

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

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