Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Baby Bottleneck (1946)

Baby Bottleneck (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, 1946)
Dir.: Robert Clampett
Cel Bloc Rating: 8/9

While visiting Zootopia twice upon its release at our local theatre, Jen and I were subjected cruelly to several trailers for upcoming films of variable quality. Amongst these long-running torture devices was a preview for a future Warner Bros. feature titled Storks. My friends can have all the babies they want; that is fine. But speaking for ourselves, neither one of us cares a whit for babies, or the ridiculousness of "baby culture". We are not the ones to ask if we would like to hold your newborn. When the kid can amble about and hold something close to an actual conversation, then call Uncle Rik and Auntie Jen, but not before then. So, the "wacky" antics taking place in a factory that seems to manufacture and prepare newborn brats for their trips via stork into the arms of their parents was pretty much lost on us.

That said, the animation looked fine, the film carries the Warner Bros. pedigree, and Kelsey Grammar's booming, pretension-soaked voice as the stork narrating the trailer seemed like appropriate casting. Plus, though unknown to me the first time I saw the trailer, the co-director and writer is Nicholas Stoller, who still has some cachet with me because of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, and Muppets Most Wanted. (I will ignore the underwhelming Neighbors for the time being.) And the other co-director is Doug Sweetland, who gave us the magnificent Pixar short, Presto (the one with the magician and the rabbit in the hat). However, forcing a supposedly cute, giggling, red-haired baby on us after the title is displayed at the end of the trailer did nothing to make me any more excited about seeing the film. It is more than likely that I will end up seeing Storks anyway, though, since I usually end up seeing most major animated feature film releases at some point.

So, my initial (and secondary) reaction to the Storks trailer is really not all that important in regards to my seeing it, but there was something that I did notice while watching it that I feel should be mentioned. In the teaser trailer, the Grammar stork (well-dressed in pressed shirt and tie) regales us of the importance of the stork's unique relationship to human infant deliveries throughout history. As he continues to bluster through his speech, swearing how his factory will not falter in their aims and goals, a skinny, red-haired girl struggles to keep a succession of giggling infants from falling off a conveyor belt in the human infant factory. Her ceaseless but panicked devotion to this task is completely reminiscent of I Love Lucy and the famed chocolate assembly line routine, except this particular red-haired girl never tries to stuff several babies in her mouth like Lucy did with the chocolates. But the inspiration is clear. Or is it?

Because Storks is a Warner Bros. film, and because it is animation, and finally because it deals with a baby assembly line run by storks, isn't the real inspiration for this upcoming film actually Baby Bottleneck? Second question: do you remember -- or even know -- what Baby Bottleneck is? 1946. Bob Clampett classic. Baby factory. Storks go on strike. Daffy Duck and Porky Pig are brought in to run the place. Things go crazy on the assembly line. Raymond Scott's Powerhouse is played relentlessly as the machinery goes nuts and chaos reigns supreme.

Yeah, that Baby Bottleneck. I am sure you have seen it at some point. If you haven't, I assume you must be of a certain age, but definitely not of the same certain age that I am. I saw this film a lot over several decades, and in my natural course of things, I just automatically assume that others out there have the same influences as me. How could you not? Well, that is just a silly concept from the start, because such a thing is well nigh an impossibility. Even my little brothers, who saw most of the same things and heard much of the same music I did growing up (even though we were each separated by a few years in age), don't love and don't dislike all of the same things that I do.

I often tend to write like my readers, even brand new ones, are all on the same page as I am. I automatically jump to the conclusion that everyone has the exact love for a film like Baby Bottleneck that I do, and grew up seeing it dozens and dozens of times as I did. As a result, I can sometimes seem as if I am blind to the fact that others may feel differently or have never seen a film like Baby Bottleneck. And, more and more, I should expect that to be the case, given that much of the internet audience is very often younger than I am. There are entire generations that need to discover these films for themselves, and I should welcome them in to the fold.

So, perhaps I should write about Baby Bottleneck with the approach that I will hopefully hit a goldmine of younger readers who have never seen the film before. They will see the graphic on Twitter, click on the link, read or at least skim this article, convince them that they simply must see this film at once, watch the film, then watch the film forty straight times, and become Bob Clampett fans for life. It's a reasonable assumption, because if they didn't become Bob Clampett fans for life, then they surely must have something broken inside their pathetic little shells. (Well, there I go again...)

Before my inner workings blow a gasket, let's discuss the film itself. At the start of Baby Bottleneck, after the credits flash by over a nicely decorated title background showing a baby rattle, toy block, and rubber ball, we see the front page of the Daily News, where the headlines are read by a narrator. In his newsman-style tone, he reads: "Unprecedented Demand for Babies Overworks Stork." It is now that I should point out that Baby Bottleneck was produced by Warner Bros. in 1946, at the start of a period known famously as the post-World War II baby boom. If you are wondering where the generational term "baby boomer" came from, this is it. If you aren't my age or older, then it is possible that your parents are baby boomers. Or your grandparents.

A lot of economic and social specifics are applied to the reasoning behind the uptick in births beginning in 1946, but what it really boils down to is: everybody in America was super-horny after the war ended. Soldiers leaving the European and Pacific theatres; women leaving the industrialized war machine workforce and returning to their homes as housewives again. My own mother was born in 1945, missing the distinction of being a baby boomer by a year, and I barely got in as one being born in 1964. I'm not proud of the designation; I never have been. I've always liked to point that out since I have tried hard to not actually behave like the stereotypical boomer. Sure, I have a penchant for misplaced nostalgia and a taste for trivia, like any boomer. But otherwise... no 3.2 kids for me. No worshipping of the Reaganite '80s and trickle-down economics. No home owned in the suburbs. No midlife crisis red Corvettes. Doesn't make me any better or worse. It just wasn't my idea of life.

Getting back to the start of Baby Bottleneck, people are getting their rocks off like mad and causing problems for the stork. Not storks... stork. Singular. Apparently, there is one stork responsible for delivering ALL of the world's babies. Well, no wonder he is exhausted. (People can't keep it in their pants for a second, which is doubly amazing since so much of the world is just too damn ugly to be allowed to do it. But I digress...) The stork in this film is about as close as you can get to a Jimmy Durante type, with a very bulbous and enlarged beak. We find this particular bird at -- where else? -- the Stork's Club nightspot, where he is pretty much a puddle on the floor underneath a nightclub table. Drunk off his derriere, the stork swings and attempts to pour a bottle of hooch unsuccessfully into his glass, while mumbling out loud -- in a very Durante-like voice and vocabulary -- to anyone that can hear him. "I'm mortified! I'm disgust-i-pated! I do all the woik and da fadduhs get all da credit! Ummm-briago!"

Our narrator returns to read the next portion of the paper: "Inexperienced help being used to make emergency deliveries." We next see a rather dopey looking pooch who is able to remain aloft high in the air through means of a propeller tail. In his mouth, he grips a pair of baby-bearing bundles that are tied together, and another such pair in his front paws. Tied to his collar is a string that allows him to pull a toy airplane behind him with another baby animal in its cockpit and another paired bundle hanging from the plane. The string continues from the back of the tiny plane across the screen to a small baby animal sitting on a wooden baby scooter that is pulled along through the air behind the whole lot.

A quartet of crows grip tightly to the trunk, tail, and ears of a sweet baby elephant. Next, we spy a pelican that has been pressed into service. He walks past us with his prodigiously sized mouth full of several other babies (none of them fish I might add, or there could be trouble). The pelican is only able to move along through a helpful red balloon that is tied to his tail-feathers and a small wagon riding beneath his filled mouth. Directly behind the pelican is a tiny mouse who is seen dragging along a baby rhinoceros. The mouse, straining with all his might, stops to pant several times in a hurried and exaggerated fashion before taking up his bundle again.

The narrator read, "Naturally, some slight mistakes have been made," and so begins a series of mismatched familial pairings brought on by the disappearance of the stork. A mother goose has been handed a baby skunk, and has to clothespin her nose closed to escape the noxious fumes emanating from her false child. A baby kitten is delivered to a mother duck, who implores the kitten to take swimming lessons in the pond next to them, quite against the basic instincts of her false offspring, who hisses and fights in a desperate attempt to remain dry. "Baby gorilla to Mrs. Kangaroo" reveals just that: an enormous, furry child who beats the spectacle-wearing marsupial several times in the head, much to the mother's dismay.

A baby hippo is delivered to a Scotty dog, who sits in a rocking chair singing "Rockabye, Baby" to the gargantuan child until, with the line "When the bough breaks," the rocking chair shatters under the weight. The Scotty, with the usual brogue, sticks his snout out from under the hippo's bottom and finishes singing, "The cradle will fall!" A baby alligator is delivered to a mother pig, and the reptile, not realizing that it doesn't need milk from its mother, seeks to find an open teat on the mother pig, though the other piglets keep closing their bodies together and make it impossible. The gator then uses his elongated body to push and stretch out a gap in the middle of the hungry piglets, but just as Baby Gator is about to snap down hard on his mother, she stops him. [At this point, there is an odd cut that occurs in all known versions of Baby Bottleneck, where the film jumps to the next scene just as the mother pig is about to say something. According to director Clampett in an interview conducted years before his death, the line was supposed to be "Uh-uh! Don't touch that dial!" but it was actually cut by the censors for whatever reason they felt was appropriate. The scene is now considered to be lost.] Finally, a father mouse has to deal with being the papa of a baby cat. (Different from the "baby kitten" we saw earlier with the mother duck exactly how?) The baby cat seems to be torn between catching his father and just batting at him in a way that is clearly frightening to a lifelong cat-fearer.

It is finally revealed by the narrator/paper that "Porky Pig to Handle All Stork's Problems," with the additional phrase, "Appoint Daffy Duck Assistant Traffic Manager". We see an outside shot of the Storks, Inc. building, a big blue tower that confusedly (it must be a mistake), as the camera zooms in ever closer, shows the small, silhouetted forms of numerous storks flying off in all directions with baby bundles clasped in their beaks. (Wasn't there just one stork and isn't he on strike?) 

At a bank of several upright, candlestick telephones, Daffy Duck, resplendent in a clerk's cap set at various odd angles throughout the picture, leaps from phone to phone and answers the calls of worried, prospective fathers, some of them quite famous. "No, I'm sorry, Bing! You've used up your quota!" and "Oh, oh yes, Mr. Cantor! You say you haven't got that boy yet? Well, if at first you don't succeed...!" Finally, there is a call from a famous father from the Great White North. "Who? Mr. Dionne?" (He being the father of the famous Dionne Quintuplets of Ontario, the first known identical quintuplets in history, who were confiscated from their parents by the Canadian government and exploited for the first nine years of their lives.) At Mr. Dionne's most likely outsized request, Daffy responds, "Mister Di-onne! Puh-lease!" with extra spitting at the end. The calls continue hard and quick, and Daffy slowly starts to lose his once happy composure, finally yelling "QUIET!!!" at everything around him.

Porky mans (or is it "pigs"?) the Control Room monitor board. Using his microphone like he is an air traffic controller, Porky calls the various flights leaving the facility for status updates. "Come in, Royden Stork... Come in there, Storky..." he says, invoking the actual name of one of Jimmy Dolittle's pilots in the famous Dolittle Raid over Japan in World War II. Sure enough, Porky next says, "O.K. for takeoff, Jimmy Doo... doo... eh-da eh-da eh-da, doo.. Do-quite-a-little!" Another clerk in the factory, a dog character, strides in by smashing a hole through the door to show Porky his latest invention that will help the company. "It'll speed up deliveries one billion percent! It's a Luuuuu-lu!" The dog has a large firework strapped about his waist, which he lights in anticipation of rocketing out the window. But, of course, it explodes instead, leaving him nothing but a charred, smoky mess. "Well, back to the drawing board!" he proclaims, and struts back out of the Control Room.

An alarm goes off, and Daffy yells out, "FULL STEAM AHEAD!" Porky is standing next to a conveyor belt upon which are sitting the babies of several species of animals, including a dachshund and a very Tweety-like canary bird. He pulls a lever to start the machinery, and the babies shoot forward on the belt. A large baby hippo wearing a pink bow and bonnet set is screaming wildly, but then stops when it turns to look at the camera, and paraphrases Lou Costello's famous line by saying coyly, "I'm only three and a half seconds old!" She then continues to cry at the top of her lungs.

A hand comes out of the machinery to flip babies with a spatula after another arm pats them with a large powderpuff. Another pair of machine hands ties diapers onto the babies, but is stymied when it comes to doing up a turtle child. It pauses, and the box from which the arms shoot out briefly gets a face of its own. It taps its head and considers the situation, then has a light bulb and the word "IDEA" appear above it, before it pops open the turtle shell, gently places the turtle inside onto the diaper, pins it (with the biggest safety pin imaginable), and then puts it back in the shell. A large egg is also diapered, and then another another egg gets the powder treatment.

Next comes the milking station, where each baby's tummy is filled up to capacity by a gasoline-style nozzle. Baby after baby gets fed, but once again, there are complications because of the turtle (who also, like the baby gator does not require milk). The nozzle goes straight into the turtle shell, and milk spills out of it in several places. Finally, the turtle shell pops open, as an angry young turtle uses a bucket to bail out his home. He curses wildly at the milk station machine as he does so.

A very shapely dress mannequin is next in line, which picks up each succeeding baby and pats it on the back until it gives a satisfied burp. The third recipient of this behavior is one of the eggs, which too gets patted, but when the burp comes out, a large bump appears at the top of the egg.

More babies get fed, but one of the babies is turned over the wrong direction, and gets sprayed in the rear end instead. This causes the Control Room monitor board to display the word "TILT" in large red letters, and for all manner of alarms to go off at the same time, frightening Porky into immediate action. He reverses the machine, sending the sprayed baby backwards along the belt and into a washtub. The baby is scrubbed and hung on a line to dry.

Porky starts to check the delivery tags for babies about to be sent out to their parents. There is one for Akron and another for Hollywood, but suddenly, a stray egg seems to have no tag. Porky calls Daffy to his side and asks him to sit on the egg to find out to whom it belongs. Daffy (whose cap by this point has reached comically large proportions in relation to the rest of his body) wants nothing to do with this. "Oh, no-no-no-no! Sitting on eggs is out! O-W-T! Out!" He turns his back to Porky in protest, and strides off singing, "You must have been a beautiful baby!" Porky runs up and grabs Daffy by the throat, orders him to sit on it, and tries to push his butt down onto the egg. Daffy bounces his butt all over the place to avoid touching the egg, and finally, he climbs on top of Porky's head, screaming "Sufferin' Succotash!" in the manner which we normally attribute to Sylvester the Cat. (Same voice actor, Mel Blanc, and there are always similarities in both of their voices anyway.)

Daffy leaps off of Porky's head, and then pushes him backwards towards the egg. Porky, too, tries as hard as he can not to actually touch the egg, which results in his bending completely backwards in an arch over the egg, held up only by the tip of his tongue on the ground. Daffy takes advantage of this, making his distinctive "Woo-hoo" noise over and over and jumping up and down on top of Porky's arched belly. Daffy pulls out a large board and smacks Porky on the rear end, and then capers in front of the egg before running away. 

But Porky grabs one of Daffy's legs, and the duck's leg gets pulled out to about a hundred times its normal length. At one point, Daffy runs out one door and through another, doubling back to see that his foot still remains in the pig's clutches. When Porky lets go, there is a slapping noise as the foot snaps back into his body, coiling up momentarily like a spring, and then spilling out limp onto the floor. As Porky charges the duck, Daffy tries to reel his leg back in to his body, but doesn't have enough time. He leaps onto the conveyor belt and takes several awkward steps in his run forward, one foot on the belt, and the other farther down on the ground due to the extreme length of the leg. Finally, as Porky nears him, Daffy doffs his cap, pulls a feather on top of his head, and the leg snaps back to its normal position.

Just then, Porky and Daffy react in fear as they realize they are trapped in the baby preparation machine. Porky's clothes get caught and shredded in the gears of the machine, and his pink and naked body looks like nothing more than a newborn infant. As they start to go through the normal steps of the machine -- powdering, diapering, etc. -- their attempts to escape cause the machine to go into overdrive and confuse it into thinking the pig and the duck are part of one baby. It bonks Daffy on the head with a small hammer and slaps a baby bonnet on his head. The machine's unit hands then smash Porky and Daffy together and diaper and pin them in place, with the pig inside the diaper with his legs poking out, and with Daffy as the top half of the body.

The machinery then shoots the now conjoined pair into the delivery room, where they are dropped into a delivery bundle, and then shot off into wild blue wonder in the beak of a stork-shaped rocket. We see the Earth from space with the continent of Africa highlighted by text on its surface. Next, a mother gorilla is shown knitting patiently next to a rocking cradle carved out of a tree trunk. She hears the rocket and then the whistling drop of something coming in her direction, and she knows it must be her baby. She picks up the cradle and tries to position it to best catch the infant, but the force of the fall causes the Daffy-Porky to smash through the cradle and into the ground.

Dazed and disoriented, Daffy starts crying when he sees his "mother". The gorilla picks him up gently and places him in a crib made of banana leaves. As she looks down at her baby, she is shocked to see Porky peek out from under the diaper with his big eyes, and when he says, "Boo!" she instantly leaps away. Calmly picking up her telephone and calling the local radio station, the mother gorilla (voiced by Sara Berner) says, "Mr. Anthony? I have a problem!" She starts crying wildly with a large open mouth. Iris out.

Like many of the Warner Bros. shorts of the '30s and '40s (and especially the wartime ones), Baby Bottleneck is rife with references specific to its time, most of which I have mentioned as I went along. The Mr. Anthony gag at the end is a nod to one Lester Kroll, who under the name of John J. Anthony (derived from combining the names of his sons) dispensed common sense advice to those who needed help (sometimes psychologically) on several radio programs in those days, including his most famous outlet, The Goodwill Hour.

Also, well used here is Raymond Scott's swinging composition Powerhouse, taken from its jazz band settings and given the full orchestral treatment by Warner Bros. house composer Carl Stalling. Powerhouse was used many times over here and there by Stalling from the late '40s and through the '50s, especially any time that large machinery or a factory is included in a plotline, but when I think of the film where it used most effectively of all, it is Baby Bottleneck. So powerful is my connection of song to film that even when I listen to the original version of the song, absolutely unconnected to Warner Bros. cartoons, I immediately bring Baby Bottleneck to mind.

But while then-current references and swing music may add some personality to the proceedings, what makes this film truly special are those elements that Bob Clampett showed us in cartoon after cartoon in his Warner days. A massive amount of gags crammed into a six-minute-plus short, one after the other without a discernible break to catch one's breathe. An exquisite sense of speed; not just comic timing and pacing (both of which Clampett had in spades), but a real talent for showing the immeasurable swiftness of his characters or other objects. Of having his characters move swiftly in and out of surroundings and of not just being merely "animated," but actually creating what appears to be real motion as we would normally perceive it in our three-dimensional world. On top of this, add a sense of humor so outrageous that no gag is beyond him, even being able to give his audience a taste of true surrealism (Porky in Wackyland, as his most famous example) or for allowing us the chance to believe that Daffy Duck's leg is capable of stretching to ridiculous proportions. And that he is able to set it back into place through the pulling of a feather on his head.

And about that leg... Clampett may be my favorite Daffy director. As much as I love the way Chuck Jones employed him in concert with Bugs over the years, that version of the character, despite the variations of gun blasts to his face and the redrawing of his body by unseen hands, still was largely achieved through smart but still rather staid posturing and some keen writing (as well as Blanc's vocal artistry). In Clampett's hands, Daffy is a far different duck, almost totally unhinged. It's somewhat akin to the early Martin and Lewis films where Jerry Lewis is this manic ball of energy that you swear is going to explode at any second. We can argue about whether you find him funny or not (for me, earlier is better), but Lewis -- on a physical level and as pure energetic will -- is a force of nature in many of those films. Here, too, Daffy is almost unstoppable until the circumstances of the story get in his way. He zips here and there, answers multiple phones simultaneously, stretches and twists and leaps and hops and dances. His every movement is as rubbery and unconfined as possible, aided greatly by the fact that Clampett and his animators seem to have given him about 2000 different facial expressions in Baby Bottleneck. His is the manic and bouncy Daffy that I love the most, contorting his body wildly while "woo-hooing" his way into my heart.

What is unlikely to do anything remotely concerned with my heart, apart from causing to cease beating, is Storks. Since I started writing this piece, I have since seen a full trailer for the film, and it veers wildly away from the baby factory concept (though that still seems to be the main setting) and has a great many more characters involved in the shenanigans in the film, none of which seemed particularly interesting to me. I will still probably end up seeing the film eventually, but I will probably not be that excited about doing so. Mainly, it's the babies in the trailer, each one designed to exude the maximum cuteness to the audience, and all of it fails to work on me because I do not find human babies cute the least little bit. This probably proves that I was never meant to be a dad, that is for sure, and the course of my life -- even with two marriages -- has proven that to be a fact.

And so my initial theory that perhaps Warner Bros. was "ripping off" (a term that I despise actively, but purposeful here) their own Baby Bottleneck and the late Bob Clampett? Probably misplaced, but I am going to keep a wary eye out when I do see the film. If there is even the slightest nod to Baby Bottleneck -- a drunk stork, a stork strike, a visit to the Stork Club, a pig and a duck working somewhere in the background -- my suspicions will be roused anew. And if they work in a quick bit of Powerhouse, then the truth will be known.


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