Friday, October 21, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: The Haunted Ship (1930)

For the month of October, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc is taking part in an annual internet celebration known as the Countdown to Halloween. This is the fourth year that I have participated in this countdown, but the first with my Cel Bloc site. To find out more about the Countdown to Halloween, and to see a list of participating websites and blogs, go to http://countdowntohalloween.blogspot.com/.

The Haunted Ship (A Van Beuren Studios Aesop's Fable, 1930)
Directors: Mannie Davis and John Foster
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Part of the joy of continuing this experiment has been rediscovering for myself cartoon characters with whom I was fleetingly familiar, but had discounted because they weren't as famous or prevalent as other characters. It has been a distinct pleasure to reunite my eyes with Van Beuren's Tom and Jerry, the human tall guy–little guy combo which starred in a couple dozen films in the early 1930s, though some of the films are much better than others in the series.

I will be utterly honest in my assertion that I was not aware that the original Tom and Jerry (who had their semi-heyday long before MGM's cat and mouse came along) had morphed from an even earlier Van Beuren team: Waffles the Cat and Don Dog. Starring in a handful of Van Beuren's Aesop's Sound Fables, Waffles, the more excitable of the two, and Don, the short, cool breeze who fears nothing, are close enough to their human descendants to have caused me to do a double-take when I first viewed their first film, The Haunted Ship, from 1930.

With a beginning strikingly reminiscent of the some of those Tom and Jerry shorts, Waffles and Don start out buzzing through the skies in a plump little airplane, that seems about as able of flight as a Vienna sausage. Don sits nonchalantly on the tail of the plane and casually lifts his hat to us, and Waffles, who is ostensibly the pilot because he occasionally maneuvers a small steering wheel, is more concerned with playing the entire plane's body as if it were a vibraphone. He runs two mallets back and forth in musical fashion over the exhaust pipes, the wings, and even off the whirling propeller, happily playing away, pretty much oblivious to any need to guide the plane along its way.

However, in the skies overhead, a nasty-looking cloud forms a grimace filled with evil intent, as it blows wind and lightning down on the chubby plane. Waffles blows too, not wind and lightning like the evil cloud, but a trumpet instead, as he carries his jazzy tune over from bashing the parts of the plane to playing an actual musical instrument, while his diminutive buddy Don does a neat tapdance upon the tail of the plane, displaying a daredevil's lack of fear of heights. At one point, Don even dances off the edge of the tail into midair, and then shuffles backwards to safety, with nothing more than mild surprise that we went a tad too far. However, we see the cloud overhead, where its top edge has now formed into the shape of three working figures who pump and bucket the rain through the cloud and down onto the inhabitants of the plump plane.

Waffles and Don have taken to rowing their plane through the rain, but another lightning strike causes their paddles to disappear, and a third strike has Waffles yowling and hiding in the cockpit. A body made of lightning lands on the wing, and after the fear-ridden Waffles points it out, the pugnacious Don wallops the lightning-figure on the head and knocks it off the plane. But they are nowhere near to safe yet. The pair zoom off as fast as the little plane can go with the lightning-figure running through the air after them. They hop the next cloud that they meet, yelling "Hey!" and landing back inside the plane. The lightning follows, and when they meet the next cloud, they leap and yell "Hey!" again, but land on top. They fall into the cloud, and the lightning leaps inside for the fight. The plane, now wrecked, falls down towards the ocean with the pair inside it.

Thinking fast, Waffles and Don pop open a trap door and climb down an escape ladder in its rear, both wearing life preservers. They leap from the ladder and splash into the ocean, but as the plane nears impact, they climb up the ladder and back into the craft, perhaps thinking that it might float on the surface. The plane, however, sinks below the waves once they climb back inside, and so they drift down to the bottom of the ocean, where a dapper-looking walrus sings to them in the heaviest of baritones of impending doom: "Many brave hearts are asleep in the deep, so beware! Be---ware!" As the shanty-singing mammal departs, Don blows him a quick raspberry, which forces Waffles to knock Don in the head with a hammer for his rudeness.



The pair leave the confines of their downed and drowned plane, and make their way to a sunken ship which bears the name "Davy Jones" upon it. They dive through a window and into the hold where they discover vast amounts of treasure. Their joy is cut short suddenly by a piercing noise of a slide-whistle and a door which opens on its own accord. A question mark appears above Waffles' head and then zips around to Don's tail, where it pokes him and pushes the duo towards the now closing door. (Kind of a reverse variation on a Felix-style gag.) Another whistle whines, the door flies open, and a huge black octopus ambles threateningly through it, and then moves towards the camera until it crowds out most of the frame, and then swims out of the shot. As they reach for the door again, another fearsome monster fish with a lion-like mane and jaws, slides out from underneath some furniture behind them and slinks off to not be seen again. [Note: The animation for these creatures would be used again, notably in the later Tom and Jerry underwater short, Rocketeers, in 1932.]

They step swiftly into the hall, where Waffles is confronted by a floating skull. He is absolutely chilled by the site, and yowls and screeches in place but Don merely rocks back and forth calmly on his heels. Waffles twirls about to hide his eyes, but another skull pops up in the porthole behind him, scaring the yowl-ready Waffles yet again. Don, meanwhile, only scratches his head in boredom. The skull disappears, but a large anchor chain nearby them starts moving and rattling about, and it is discovered that the arm of a skeleton is pulling it. Don, ever the calm one, pulls out a hammer and casually wings it at the bones, causing the skeleton's hand to drop the chain and disappear from view. A fish swims towards the camera, getting larger and larger and then turning, showing that its full size easily dwarfs the pair of them, and Waffles continues to shiver uncontrollably. Then a trapdoor opens under their feet!

Waffles and Don find themselves sliding down a huge staircase. A tremendous dragon-like eel, then an an odd combination of eel and ray, and finally a shark with a strange style of dorsal fin glide past them from opposite directions, causing Waffles to leap back and forth in utter fear. Finally, the fraidy cat discovers a bell, which naturally has has to ring. The call for service brings a pair of skeletons down the stairs: one whose bones are the normal bleached white, and one with entirely black bones (but a white jaw, most likely a nod to blackface makeup, to make the skull appear as if it has large lips, and therefore a racial joke). The skeletons dance in practiced formation at the bottom of the stairs and salute in attention, but Waffles pushes Don into the skeletons, and the head falls off the white one's shoulders.



As Waffles makes his escape, Don picks up the skull and hurls it all the way down the hall until it hits Waffles in the head and knocks him flat. When Waffles comes to and sees the skull floating above the floor, he jumps clear out of his clothes and reenters them through his pants legs. He starts to berate Don, but an eel breaks up his complaints when it slides out of a hole in a barrel behind Waffles and swims through his legs. Then all of the cabin doors in the hall open up, revealing a waving, dancing skeleton in each one. Waffles and Don run away from the hall and enter a bar-room. Waffles, however, runs into the wall and hits his head, and since he is all shaken up, Don laughs at him and places him at the piano. Reluctantly at first, Waffles starts banging out a tune on the keys, and Don picks up two mallets and uses a sleeping crocodile for a vibraphone.

Waffles and Don continue to play as four drunken sea turtles stand at the bar and slug down one more shot each, and then join together to sing the old standard Sweet Adeline in swell four-part harmony.

"Sweet Adeline,
(My Adeline,)
My Adeline, 
(My Adeline,)
At night, dear heart, 
(At night, dear heart,)"

At the start of the second line, a fat catfish embellishes the song with a Gershwin riff played through a clarinet formed from his lips, while two happy starfish caper by his tail.

"For you I pine. 
(For you I pine.)
In all my dreams, 
(In all my dreams,)
Your fair face beams. 
(Your fair face beams.)"

Soon, we see another crocodile with his mouth agape, and a frog, who may be meant to resemble Harpo Marx though it bears no wig, has several strings wired through the croc's teeth and plucks at them for a harp solo.

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline!
(Sweet Ad-e-liiiiiine!)"

When the turtles finish their verse, their tongues hit the floor in drunken reverie (they make a "Nyaaagh!" sound and pass out) and Waffles and Don carry off the tune with an extended vamp in a tango style. Fish sway all about them, and a lobster wields its claws like castanets, until its shell drops to its tail and its polka-dotted underwear are revealed. Two smiling eels dance to the beat, and a ten-limbed octopus shuffles its three pairs of feet while waving its four gloved hands. Don does a tap dance, and we see many fish out on the dance floor take up his lead. The turtles revive themselves, crawl out of their shells completely naked, each with a cute bellybutton, dance a quick jig and then reprise the final line of Sweet Adeline.

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline!"



With the last note, the catfish swings a bottle into the head of the baritone turtle. A full crowd of sea creatures go crazy with their applause and laughter, but the noise is enough to wake up the spirit of Davy Jones, and his captain's hat-wearing skeleton hops out of his locker looking for trouble. Waffles turns a passing turtle into a squeezebox and Don plays off the heads of three eels to start the next number, but Davy Jones intervenes. "Who are you?" a shaking Waffles the Cat asks of the skeleton, and the reply comes back, "I am Davy Jones!" Waffles splits immediately, with Davy Jones fast on his heels, but Don, who is not afraid of anything apparently, follows them and sticks his mallets into Jones' bones and sends the captain crashing into Waffles. The two of them tumble head over heels together for some distance. Outside, we get a very detailed shot of the deck of the haunted ship from above (but slightly off center) as vast numbers of sea creatures spill out of the hold and swim up towards the camera and then past, followed by Waffles and Don, who in turn are still being chased by the evil Davy Jones.



Inside the bar, the four turtles are still piled in a heap on the floor, but they revive long enough to sing:

"You're the flower of my heart, Sweet Adeline! Sweet Ad-e-liiiiiine!"

Their open mouths crane forward to take up the entire screen, and we can see their uvulas shaking with the final held note. Staring straight down their gullets, we see the iris out.

When I started to watch this cartoon, I immediately thought I was watching a Tom and Jerry short, and it took me a few seconds to realize that I was dealing with a cat and dog act. But their personalities are almost the same as the human version, though if anything, Don is an even cooler customer than Jerry, though both seem to always be itching for a fight. Tom is as much a flustered 'fraidy cat as Waffles, though in Waffles' case, he quite literally is such a creature (being an actual cat, you know... well, an actual cartoon cat).



The film itself, with its concentration on small character work rather than extensive gags, is quite enjoyable, in fact, I find it to be one of the more satisfying of the hit-and-miss Aesop's Fables series. Certainly, many of the elements are repeated in later, arguably better Tom and Jerry shorts, but the sequential progression of the story actually moves along with few bumps, being a lot smoother than, say, some similar shorts from the company's same period. And there is a spooky enough atmosphere inside the ship to make this necessary for an annual Halloween revisiting. That final shot with the sea creatures flying out of the hold is certainly a unique one so far, though it does display a lack of true resolution in the story. The musical sequence stands out even larger, and I especially love the concentration on the singing drunken turtles. Somehow, their design reminds me an awful lot of Dr. Seuss's Yertle the Turtle.

But not as much as Waffles and Don remind me of Tom and Jerry. Sure, Waffles has a tail and Don's hat is different from Jerry's, but if you squint, you could easily miss that the former are a cat and dog (except for Waffles' annoying habit of yowling). What I didn't miss is the fact that I have spent most of my life missing out on this excellent entry in Aesop's Fables.

I have a feeling I will be diving back down to The Haunted Ship again every Halloween.

RTJ


*****


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


[Note: The original version of this article was posted on June 2, 2006, but has been given a drastic revision and updated with new photos and a video link on October 19, 2016.]

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