Bee at the Beach (1950)
Dir.: Jack Hannah
TC4P Rating: 7/9
Species: cartoon sharks (a whole six-pack of 'em!)
Regular followers of the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc may well wonder where I have been for the past couple of months, since I have not posted a new review here since late in June.
There are a trio of reasons, the first of which involves getting my mind and spirit refreshed via a pair of short vacation trips. I started off flying back to my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska for the Fourth of July holiday, and then zipped up the California coast at the end of the same month to Sonoma County for a brief family reunion. The necessity of said refreshment of mind and spirit was due in large part to being out of gainful employment for well over a year. Not from any lack of trying on my part, for in my downtime, apart from blogging and writing like a maniac, I started my own freelance writing and editing business. Unfortunately, a serious illness hit me at the precise moment that I went live with my freelance website, which led to a secondary tailspin involving a lot of doctor visits and even more medication than I was already taking. (Much better now, thank you, but I still have to take a lot more meds than I would like.)
Which leads me to the second reason for not posting: the fact that I have, in recent weeks, actually managed to pick up some freelance assignments. This has allowed me to breathe a little bit easier on the money front, and it is very nice to feel productive in a societal sense again, even if it means that my once robust free time has dwindled down a good measure.
But the third reason for not posting on the Cel Bloc ties into something far more fun for me. Because I do still have a fair share of that free time I mentioned, I have been spending most of the past few months concentrating on finally getting my third blog, The Shark Film Office, operating at cruising speed. When I started The Shark Film Office back in 2006, it was meant to just be a little side project, only meant to be a place where I could occasionally discuss whatever film I wanted that just happened to have a shark in it. It was cool to start, but I never really committed to the idea in the beginning, and thus, I posted very little over the first couple of years. Then, like my other blogs, my professional life and personal darkness overrode my writing. I sunk into a massive depression that almost led to dire personal consequences. [You can read about that episode on my original blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon, here if you care to wallow in another's misery. Rest assured, I am much better now on that front.]
When I got back to writing again as a form of therapy over a year ago, and then worked that therapy into blogging regularly once more to ensure that I would stick to the concept, reviving The Shark Film Office was far from my mind. But once the Pylon and the Cel Bloc were up and running again, and I was having some success and happy with their new progress, I realized that what I really wanted to do was get the shark site running as a regular feature as it never had before. I dipped my toe into the water, and liked how it felt, but then a curious thing happened. I found that, in terms of interest in all thing shark related in film, the time was curiously ripe. More films than ever were being released with sharks in them annually, mainly due to properties like Sharknado and its Syfy Channel ilk, but it seemed like sharks could pop up in almost anything on movie screens and on TV. I started to rethink how I approached the idea of sharks on film, and came to the realization that sharks have been represented for over a century on film, whether in fictional epics or documentary travel films, as foils in comedy shorts and multi-chapter serials, or as hulking, mostly villainous adversaries in any number of shorts and features throughout the history of animation. I knew that it was finally time to concentrate fully on the history of these creatures in all styles of film production, and so The Shark Film Office has become a regular venture for me.
So, what does all of this have to do with a very simple Walt Disney cartoon where Donald Duck goes to the beach to catch some rays? Easy... sharks. Bee at the Beach, a Donald Duck series entry from 1950 directed by Jack Hannah, has a solid six pack of big, toothy sharks, all eager to snap Donald up in a tasty, feathery bite. And while Donald is my favorite Disney character of all time, I have to agree: he pretty much deserves it in this one.
Bee at the Beach is part of the sub-series of Donald cartoons where the fiery duck does battle with a tiny adversary in bee form, often named Spike, but now generally referred to by the noise the social insect makes when he speaks: Buzz-Buzz. (He is also called this name directly in a couple of the seven shorts in the sub-series.) In most of their shorts together, there is something coming between Donald and Spike/Buzz-Buzz [I am going to stick with Spike for this one, since that seems to have officially been his name for this short], and this cartoon is no exception. Both characters are trying to catch some rays at an overly crowded local beach, and end up parking in the sand next to each other. Let the battle of wills begin.
Spike is a happily humming buzzer as he flies along the beach, jam packed with umbrellas, but he is even happier to see a nice open spot ahead of him as he looks down. His joy is short-lived as he hears Donald Duck, wak-wak-wakking the same tune Spike was buzzing as he makes his way unseen through the forest of umbrellas. Spike zips to the spot but is send ricocheting away by the open of Donald's big red umbrella. Donald balances a picnic basket and beach towel on his arm as he finishes his song with a flourish, and then begins to set up his gear. Spike, too, has his own beach gear, consisting of a clamshell for a beach chair, and a flower to serve as his own umbrella. No sooner has he put on his tiny little sunglasses and settled back to relax than he has Donald's beach towel thrown over the top of him. As Spike buzzes angrily and burrows out from under the towel, Donald starts his run to the beach by stepping on Spike, crushing him into the sand.
While the duck floats on top of some extremely shallow water, the bee takes the time to set his gear back up and try to relax again. Donald runs back and dries himself off, wringing his wet towel over the top of Spike and his clamshell. The wet bee is angry, but even angrier when Donald brushes sand off his beach towel into a pile on top of Spike and his clamshell. The little bee spits out sand and marches to the edge of Donald's towel. He buzzes to get the duck's attention and calls him over. Donald obliges by bringing his head down low to the ground, where Spike builds a little pile of sand, and then kicks it dog style onto the top of the duck's bill. Donald is now the one spitting and snorting out sand!
The irascible fowl reaches down and blows on the bee, sending the little guy rolling away. Spike somersaults straight into his clamshell, which snaps down on top of him, causing him to wriggle and kick his little legs furiously. Donald laughs loudly in his familiar style and opens a grape soda by flicking the top open with the use of the trapped bee's stinger. This infuriates the little guy, and he flies high up into the air and then charges at Donald's straw, machine-gunning several holes into it with the use of his stinger. Soda shoots out in all directions from the straw. Spike buzzes angrily at the duck, but Donald traps him inside his half-finished soda bottle. Laughing at the bee and saying, "That'll hold ya!," Donald takes to the water in his "Super Duper Raft".
Spike is not to be stopped, however, and he uses his stinger like an outboard motor and revs up the remaining soda in the bottle until it foams up and shoots the top of the bottle off into the sky. Spike flies up high, locates Donald, and buzzes down hard and fast towards the duck stinger first, aiming to pop his life raft. He hits the water and shoots and sputters like a faulty torpedo towards the raft for a good distance, but Donald arches his rubber craft at the last moment so that the bee skitters right past him. Spike rams right into a rock just under the surface of the water pretty hard, but it does not deter him. He flies back, but takes a different tack this time. He sneaks over to the valve of the life raft and starts to unscrew its top. Donald starts to cry "Why you little--!" but the bee manages to pull the cap off, and Donald is sent shooting farther out into the ocean, past the rocks near the shore.
When Donald comes to a stop, muttering all manner of angry slander about the bee, he is sitting on the life raft at the size at which he originally saw it before he pumped it up: a small square barely big enough for the duck to sit upon comfortably. The small purple umbrella built into the raft remains as well. Donald's muttering swiftly turns to a shriek when he realizes he is surrounded by the dorsal fins of six different sharks. He starts to pump the life raft to a more manageable size and mops his brow with his hand. But Spike has no intention of Donald staying comfortable. He whistles and draws the duck's attention to his stinger, which he pulls so that it makes a springing noise. The bee then sits back on the raft so that his stinger is close to popping the rubber boat, and bounces torturously in front of the duck.
"No! No! Not that!" begs Donald, but the bee nods his head. He leaps up lightly, and brings his stinger down, popping the raft. A long slow whistling noise starts, but Donald plugs the hole with his thumb. Away from the raft, Spike rides along happily atop the dorsal fin of one of the sharks. He sees that the duck has stopped the leak, so he flies back and pops three more holes, all of which Donald fills his three remaining fingers on the same hand. Spike flies to the other side of the raft and pops four more holes, and Donald uses his other hand to stop those leaks. He leaps to the left front and does four more holes; Donald uses his left foot to plug those holes. The bee does the same on the right front; Donald follows suit. (There is a major error here, as Spike does four holes each time, but Donald plugs three holes with each of his feet. It is pretty noticeable; even when we were kids we called it out each time we saw this cartoon.)
With all four of the duck's limbs occupied, Spike sits on Donald's bill and sharpens his stinger. He drops down to the water and swims under the raft. He then cuts a square just below Donald, allowing his swimsuit-clad rear end (with a little wisp of white feathered tail) to stick down into the ocean. The bee pulls a single feather out and swims down to a sleeping shark. He waves it in front of the shark's nostrils, and wakes the shark to attention. The big fish swims up and hungrily licks his chops at the inviting meal in front of him. Just as he is about to take a huge bite, Donald leaps up, the shark breaches, and the raft ends up sitting on top of his head. The shark looks around confused, but when Donald skedaddles (at first splitting without the raft, then reaching back for it), the shark races after the frightened duck.
Donald finally resorts to running on top of the water, and the shark reaches out with its teeth and grabs the life raft. The rubber stretches out to a ridiculous length, and the shark manages to pull it just long enough to secure it over the top of a dock piling. The shark lets go of the life raft then and swims off. Donald keeps running but realizes he is getting nowhere fast, and reaches out when he sees something to hold onto, but they turn out to be two of the lower teeth in the shark's mouth. When he comes to this realization, the music stops, and the shark's tongue summons him inside with a whistle. Back at the piling, Spike lifts the rubber over the top, and it snaps back at Donald, sending him through the shark's stomach and all the way through to the end of its tail, which takes the form of Donald's body. Donald reaches out and grabs other pilings in the water, and this snaps the shark backwards, smashing the big fish against the pilings and shooting Donald into the water. However, he is quickly surrounded once more by six dorsal fins.
The sharks rear back and reach into the water and come out each pulling a section of the rubber life raft, with Donald still safely in the middle with his umbrella. "Take it easy, boys!" he begs, but when they each let go of their piece of raft at the same time, he is sent tumbling up into the air and then back down. As he nears the water toward the open jaws of one of the sharks, he grabs his umbrella and opens it, which allows him to slow his fall ever so slightly. The shark misses with his snap, and the force sends Donald upward again, and the duck start to blow quickly into the umbrella to hopefully keep him aloft a little more. But the umbrella fails him after only a few seconds, folding in on itself, and the poor duck falls back down straight towards the wide open, waiting jaws of the shark.
Donald spins himself about and opens the umbrella inside the shark's mouth to prevent himself from being eaten. He is sent upward again, and when he comes back down, the shark takes another chomp, but Donald hides inside the bowl of the umbrella; another chomp, and Donald is wearing the umbrella like a pair of bat wings. He manages to stay aloft through another chomp, and Spike heads to the lifeguard stand. The bee watches through a spyglass as Donald flies off into the distance with the sextet of sharks still leaping and chomping at him. Spike has himself a belly full of buzzy bee-laughter. IRIS OUT.
It is a fairly grim ending no matter how you slice it, I guess. Not that Donald is any real trouble, because he is Donald and he will get out of it eventually. But if you take it strictly as a story, I would guess that the punishment of potentially being devoured by six giant sharks far outweighs the crime of some light bullying at the beach. In this sense, Spike could be regarded as a major asshole. There is also the bee-duck dichotomy at play here. Spike is a bee, and most people, especially my wife, have no regard for bees, even cute ones drawn by the artists for worked for Walt Disney. Donald is a duck, and although he is portrayed quite often as a bully, a coward, a braggart, and a terrible uncle to his nephews, he is still Donald Duck and beloved by hundreds of millions of people the world over, including yours truly.
And yet, Donald is a big asshole in this one. He often played a variant of the Ugly American in his films, and he is definitely that right here. He is the sort of oblivious cretin in this film that I cannot stand in real life, and so, just accepting Donald as an actor in this film playing a role and not as a symbol of anything in his own right, one could say his character rather deserves his fate for not just picking but stepping on the little guy the way that he did. He is the bully and oppressor, and this is the fate of the bully. On the other hand, and this is probably the way most people approach the film, no one really deserves such a cruel end, especially for some sand kicking.
As for the shark scenes, until Saturday morning TV introduced the animated shark-starring shows Jabberjaw and Misterjaw on the same day on September 11, 1976 (and on my twelfth birthday, nonetheless), sharks had mostly been relegated to bit parts in animation. They were always waiting offshore anytime the actual star(s) of a cartoon set foot into or onto the water in a beach or seafaring setting. Most often they were used for menace, as is to be expected given their general public outlook upon them for centuries, though sometimes they could be used for more silly purposes. The use of the shark is hardly ever more than a sight gag or two, usually playing off another gag that leads to the shark, or in other circumstances, sharks might be used as the kept henchmen of a bigger villain (octopuses and gorillas also get these parts as well). And rarely, if ever, do the sharks in cartoons look anything close to real sharks. This was especially true in the earlier days of cinema, before we started to get real underwater looks at the life in the ocean.
But then, every once in a while, you can run into a cartoon with a shark (or sharks) involved in a more extended suite of gags, such as in Bee at the Beach, where they get a couple of minutes of screen time to mess around with Donald and Spike. Sure, they are still menacing and it is implied that they are capable of great danger and potential death, but they get to be funny as well. I quite like that the main shark gets to show that he is thinking about the best way to trap Donald when he pulls the rubber over the piling, and also gets a grandly comic moment when Donald is hiding on top of his head and the shark does a slow burn when he realizes where the duck is actually to be found. And for pure cartoon shark moments, I really enjoy the POV shot when Donald is falling towards the shark's gullet. I think it is one of the better shark moments in any theatrical short from the earlier days of animation. Just as the extended shark sequence in this film, while the creatures are still pretty far from looking like actual sharks, is one of the better and most fun examples of how to employ sharks in an animated short.
You know, in fact, I am going to award them that duck dinner. I think these cartoon sharks worked hard for it and they deserve a fine fowl repast. Just as much as Donald, or at least the character he plays in this film, kind of deserves his fate for picking on the little guy.