Saturday, February 13, 2016

My Green Fedora (1935)

My Green Fedora (Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies, 1935)
Dir.: Friz Freleng
Animators: Chuck Jones; Robert W. Clampett

Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9
Song: 9/9

Even in this age where every hipster and wannabe something-or-other is sporting a fedora under the impression that it somehow makes him (or her; don't want to leave any equally insipid ladies out of this) look cool instantly, it is still hard for me to write the hat off completely as a fashion statement.

As a fan of classic cinema, you can't watch any film from the first half of the twentieth century (and a great many in the second half, considering if they are period pieces) without your eyes running into fedoras left and right. Gangsters, actors, salesmen, bums, musicians, reporters, singers, politicians, detectives, dancers, businessmen alike all wore the hats that were de rigueur of male fashion trends over several decades. Once the '60s rolled around, the fedora made a slow fade in the public eye until in the decades to follow, its only adherents were the diehards who had never known anything else. And ancient bluesmen. And the occasional entertainer, such as Michael Jackson, who admittedly, looked pretty cool wearing one.

Oh yeah... there was also that Indiana Jones guy. Of the two fedoras that I own, one is a special promotion Jones model that was given out by Paramount to companies who purchased so many copies of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark) when it came out on VHS back in the '80s. I was the audio/video buyer at the time for our company which supplied our chain of book stores with inventory. When the hat arrived in our offices, there was a brief battle over who would get to keep the fedora, but there really was no contest. Since I was already widely known as a film geek, and I was the one who ordered the shipment of many hundreds of copies, I went home that night wearing an Indiana Jones Hat of surprisingly good quality. In time, I would take a Daily Planet Press Pass card that I got out of Wizard Magazine and slip it into the ribbon around its crown. This became my "writing hat" for any number of years (and still worn occasionally when doing so today), making me feel like the hardcore, gee-whiz journalists that I saw in all the old movies. It was my moment of hipsterism, only I wore inside my house and rarely went out of doors with it.

However, that fedora, which I still put on from time to time at my computer when the mood is right, is not green. Unfortunately, I don't have a green fedora, but if I did, I would only wear it under special circumstances. I would only wear it when I was steppin' around with that special someone. Some swell doll named Dora, for instance. Yeah, I would wear my green fedora only for Dora. Not that I have ever met anyone named Dora -- I have met a couple of Dorises and a Nora or two. But not a Dora. I suppose that if I could convince a girl named Doris and a girl named Nora to run straight at each other at high speed, maybe they would fuse together into a Dora. Just as likely, though, I would end up with a Norris, and that just wouldn't work. So maybe I just call off the whole thing off instead. This is good, because obviously my wife would have a problem with this whole scenario. But since I don't possess a green fedora, the scenario is just a pipe dream anyway.

Or is it? In the 1935 Merrie Melodies short, My Green Fedora, from Warner Bros., a boy rabbit named Peter (what else would you call him?) has a green fedora, and he will proclaim his love for a girl named Dora in an absolutely catchy tune that was specially written for the cartoon. He doesn't really have a girl named Dora either; it's just a part of the song he sings to distract a wailing baby. But somewhere, three songwriters dreamed up a fedora that is only worn for a girl named Dora, and if that is all the rabbit and I are going to get, well, that will have to do.

At the beginning of My Green Fedora, where the bouncy melody of the title song plays over the credits and in the background of the opening scenes, we are introduced to a mother rabbit, who opens the door and steps out into the front yard to call out for her son Peter. The lad is hiding around the corner of the abode, and as she continues to yell his name, he turns about sheepishly and begins to sneak on tiptoe in the other direction. In the tradition of kids everywhere who want to play on their own terms and not do what their parents tell them, Peter wants nothing to do with this. His mother has him fooled though, and as he sneaks beneath one of the windows, her arm stretches out to a rubbery length and grabs the lad, pulling Peter through the open window.

Peter is set down in the middle of their living area, where we see a crib by another window holding his baby brother, Elmer. The baby has a permanent scowl on his face and it is clear that the infant is up to no good from the start. Peter's mother scolds her older son and warns him to keep out of mischief while he is left to watch the baby while she goes out shopping. The second she is gone, Elmer schemes to drive his older brother batty. To put it mildly, Elmer is a little shit, and he starts bawling wildly to annoy Peter. To Peter's credit, he tries gamely to calm his baby brother down, not realizing that the temper tantrum is nothing but an act. Peter picks up Elmer's rattle and shakes it to get his attention, but Elmer just grabs the rattle and smacks Peter hard over the head with it. Elmer lies back casually in his crib and continues to fake his cries, sending Peter off into the closet holding his paws over his ears.

Sulking in the closet, Peter looks about and hits upon a great idea! He spies an old green fedora hat sitting on a trunk. He puts it on and then tries to grab a white coat draped about a dressing dummy. The coat, however, is made up of nothing but moths, who all fly away at his touch, leaving nothing behind but the dummy. Peter looks behind himself and sees a green coat hanging on a hook behind the closet door. He dons the coat and runs out to the center of the room, where Elmer is still carrying on with his affected crying. Peter reaches into the pocket of the green coat and pulls out the stump of a partially smoked cigar, and then begins to strut, breaking boldly into the title song...

"I’m wearin' my green fedora
fer Dora,
not Alice, 
not Annie, 
not Daisy, 
but fer Do-ra!"

The horrid baby brother suddenly adopts the laugh of then-popular (for some still unfathomable reason) comedian, Joe Penner, a somewhat hiccuping bray that causes Peter to stop his song momentarily, while Peter shoots Elmer a look of disapproval. But then Peter picks up the rest of the song, the green fedora bouncing merrily atop his head...

"I usually come to town 
in a battered old hat of brown,
but I gotta wear green 
when me and my queen 
go steppin' around!

She's fussy ‘bout colors
she's daffy I think!
But if she insisted,
might even wear pink!

That's why I’m wearin' my green fedora
fer Dora,
fer Dora,
fer Dora is the girl I looooooovvvvve!"

At the song's closure, the baby once again does his Penner-style laugh, and then suddenly puts his frown back on his face. Elmer picks up a stick and rattles it against the slats of the crib, so Peter thrusts out his chest from the green coat, and grabs the brim on the green fedora. He throws it to the ground to show his displeasure, but the hat simply bounces back atop his head. He tries it again and it returns the same way. For his third throw, he grabs it with his right hand and throws it much like a discus away from him, and leaves the green coat in a pile on the floor. Peter stomps angrily to the front door and leaves Elmer all alone. Elmer throws his arm at the door to signify "Who needs ya!" and outside the front door, Peter does the same, stomping away from the house with his head down.

The very second that Peter leaves in anger, an extremely creepy-looking weasel crawls out from a tunnel by the side of the house. The predator salivates constantly and it is very clear he is out to make a meal of one or more of the little rabbits. He crawls back down into his tunnel, where we see a cutaway shot of the weasel digging up through the floorboards of the house and into the center of the living area. One paw pulls aside a floor rug, and the weasel climbs up carrying an empty sack. He stares at Elmer asleep in his crib, and drools drips from his mouth hungrily at the sight of the seemingly helpless little reprobate.

The weasel pulls a bandana from his pocket and ties it around his head so that the ends stick up like rabbit ears. This won't fool anyone into thinking he is actually a rabbit, but when they are looking at his shadow on the wall, it just might. And it does, as Elmer opens his eyes and sees what he believes to be the outline of his mother on the wall. He yells, "Mam-my!" and throws his arms at the shadow, but then he turns around and finds he is staring (in a truly gruesome closeup) into the frighteningly bloodshot eyes of a monstrous weasel!

Elmer, of course, is not without his defenses, because after all, he is a cunning little brat. He grabs the weasel by the nose and pulls it out, and then snaps it back at him so it pops him in the face. The weasel is undeterred, and picks Elmer up by an ear and drops the brat screaming into the sack. The weasel then climbs back down into his hole, replaces the rug carefully, and goes off to prepare his meal.

The scene switches to roughly a hundred yards away from the house, where a still fuming Peter has not gotten very far at all in putting distance between himself and his brother. Suddenly, a thought balloon with an image of his mother and what she had told him before she left instills loyalty in the young rabbit and he runs back to the house hurriedly. He finds that his brother is missing and as he runs circles around the rug in the center of the floor, he accidentally steps on it and finds himself falling down, down in a very deep tunnel, still wrapped up in the rug. Finally, Peter and the rug bounce off the ground at the bottom of the tunnel and he rolls slowly to a stop. Elmer pulls out a convenient match and lights it, surveying the dark interior of the weasel's elaborate series of tunnels.

We next see the malicious weasel holding a frying pan over a campfire, with Elmer sitting in the pan. The weasel picks Elmer up by the tail and shakes salt and pepper over the bunny, placing him back into the pan and over the fire to cook. Elmer hops up in pain over the intense heat, but when the weasel shushes him, Elmer starts to cry loudly (and for real this time). When Peter is startled by the sound of Elmer's screaming, he drops the match and is plunged into total darkness. Peter calls out for his brother, but the weasel grabs the brat and drops him back into his sack. The weasel runs as swiftly as he can into the deeper recesses of the tunnel system, but Peter makes his way to the campfire. Why he doesn't grab a log from the fire and use it as a torch I don't know, for Peter spits on his hand instead, and then slaps it to see where the spit lands. Apparently, this action determines which direction he will go, and Peter runs into another tunnel to find his lost brother.

Peter pops out through a hole in the middle of a large recess where the weasel has hidden, but the varmint punches Peter hard in the face, sending the little rabbit spinning and sliding up and down through a winding tunnel that causes him to eventually pop out on the other side of the recess. The weasel punches Peter a second time in the face, and Peter comes out again on the side where he started. The third punch sends Peter all the way through the tunnel and spills him out onto the floor of the room, dazed from the series of punches. While the weasel is distracted, Elmer, still tied up inside the sack, starts to run off, but the weasel gives chase. Elmer drops into a hole and then continues to run, his little legs guiding the sack blindly up and down and out of another tunnel. Sadly for him, without being able to see through the sack, Elmer runs right into the weasel again. The villain laughs in victory, pointing his finger at the sack mockingly.

But Peter is not done yet. He comes to and chases after the weasel again, but the varmint is too keenly aware of his surroundings. Coming to a fork of two tunnels, one facing straight up, the weasel arches his elongated back over the entrance of one tunnel to block it off, his black fur blending in with the surrounding darkness. Peter continues to run along and never recognizes the weasel as he runs right up its furry back and out of the tunnel. Peter, never stopping, also runs straight up the tree outside the hole and out upside-down along its first branch, dumping himself onto the ground in the process. However, all is not lost, for our little rabbit hero has landed right next to a garden hose. Peter shoves the hose down into the tunnel and turns on the faucet, flooding the entire tunnel system with water. Geysers fountain up out of several holes in the ground of their yard, and on top of one fountain rides the weasel, helpless in the rushing water.

On the top of another geyser bounces the sack containing his brother Elmer, and Peter frees the brat happily. Peter turns the water on the faucet up even harder, and the evil weasel is carried up higher into the sky. Finally, Peter turns the water off completely and the weasel falls back down to earth, landing in a large patch of cacti, his entire body stung by the sharp needles of the plants. He rolls about and howls, the weasel's pathetic screams carrying off into the distance as he continues to roll away in intense pain. (It would seem to me that the last thing you would want to do when full of cactus needles is to roll about on the ground.)

The villain of the cartoon has been vanquished, but all of the annoyance has not. Elmer chuckles once more in the horrifying style of Joe Penner, and Peter is having no more of this behavior. Seeing that Elmer is still standing over one of the holes, Peter turns the faucet back on, sending his baby brother up into the air once more, and then turns it off, dropping Elmer hard to the ground onto his bottom. Peter starts to laugh. Iris out.

Warner Bros. had produced a cartoon a few months earlier in 1935 called The Country Boy. It is pretty much The Tale of Peter Rabbit, but done without actually getting the consent of Beatrix Potter to use her story. Most of the details have been changed, like updating the story with a modern lawnmower, Peter tar-and-feathering himself (with maple syrup instead of tar), and a musical introduction and interlude with cutesy-voiced singing bunnies. Still, the theme of "being careful while he is out so that the farmer doesn't catch him raiding the carrot patch" is pretty much the same. Also, the original Peter Rabbit was famously known for his brilliant blue coat, and this Peter wears a red one. The design of Peter and his mother (who is referred to as Mother Bunny, so that must be another change to avoid detection) in The Country Boy are exactly that of the same characters in My Green Fedora -- both films were directed by Friz Freleng -- so it is hard not to think of this film as its immediate sequel (if one must think of such things... which I must, I must).

And then there is something that I call "The Penner Progression," something that I have noticed in regards to the other two later Warner Bros. cartoons that use the song My Green Fedora (and also seem to reuse elements of the animation from this cartoon). In My Green Fedora, the Joe Penner connection is the use of his laugh by the baby rabbit, Elmer. In Toy Town Hall, released in 1936 and also directed by Freleng, the bawling baby was a human one, and it is a toy rabbit that entertains him by donning the hat and coat and singing the same song. This time, though, the toy rabbit, who is baby blue with darker blue polka dots, starts the song by laughing the odious Penner chuckle.

Finally, in The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos, a celebrities-as-animals caricature film released in 1937 and directed by Frank Tashlin instead, I'm Wearin' My Green Fedora is sung for a third and final time. The Penner Progression is now complete, for instead of a bunny, the hat-wearing crooner is a direct caricature of Penner named Joe Penguin, who does his signature laugh and changes his vocal style oddly throughout. (The scene still seems to be built around the same animation as the previous versions, though I have no verification for this, just my eyes.)

The version in My Green Fedora, though, is my favorite, as it includes all of the lyrics and the Penner crap is left to the baby brother. It is not just the swell song that stuck in my head for all eternity, but also the tough guy mannerisms of Peter as soon as adopts the style of dress, as well as his reactions to his brother's antics. To learn that this song was not a popular song of the day, but written directly for this film -- by Al Sherman, Al Lewis, and Joseph Meyer -- was a surprise to me. Also surprising was that Al Sherman was the father of Richard and Robert Sherman, whom Disney fans know very well as the songwriters of many of their favorite songs.

So, yeah, despite the encroaching hipsterism of our time, I'll never give up on the fedora. As long as they are worn by cute bunnies who croon along to I'm Wearin' My Green Fedora, those hats are perfectly fine with me. Of course, if the hipsters try to do an end-around on my provisions and also start donning bunny suits en masse, I will have to give fedoras up for good. That furry junk is just far too creepy for words...



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

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