Sunday, October 16, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: Lonesome Ghosts (1937)

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/.

Lonesome Ghosts (1937)
Dir.: Burt Gillett [uncredited]
TC4P Rating: 8/9

Ask me which Disney cartoon short my brothers and I saw the most as kids, and there could be only one real answer: Lonesome Ghosts. OK, we didn't really see the full cartoon an awful lot as kids, maybe a few times on TV here and there, but we still saw Lonesome Ghosts far more than other Disney cartoon.

Because we had a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer in our house.

If you don't know what a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer is, then you missed out on a prime joy of the '70s. It was a toy that looked pretty much like a small movie camera, and if you needed an impromptu laser gun for a space battle in the middle of the afternoon, you could use it for that too, because the design wasn't too far off of that of a blocky phaser. The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer came with a long cassette that had a short clip of either a feature film, a television show or, most often, a cartoon short on it. The first Movie Viewers were released in 1973 and were sold through 1985. Scores of titles were released for the device, including many Disney, Warner Bros., Sesame Street, Pink Panther, and Spider-Man titles. There were even special editions of the Fisher-Price Movie Player marketed to fans of Snoopy or as a tie-in for Disney's The Black Hole when it was released.

The Fisher-Price Movie Viewer in our house belonged to my brother Mark as far as I can remember, as he would have been either five or six when it came into house, probably as a Christmas present. Or a birthday present. It doesn't matter, since both occur on the same day for him. (Yes, my brother is actually Jesus.) My brothers can correct me if I am wrong here, but I do not recall if we ever had any other titles for our Movie Viewer besides Lonesome Ghosts. The reason we even had Lonesome Ghosts was because it was the default cartridge that came with the basic player for most of its run as a retail product. Looking online at a list of released titles, I do not see any others that I recognize as having been owned in our household. 


My relatively recently acquired Fisher-Price Movie
Viewer and Lonesome Ghosts cartridge.
What I do recall is sitting for hours watching the tiny, edited snippets of Lonesome Ghosts endlessly, first forwards for a few revolutions (the thing would keep playing in a loop as long as you cranked, a genius idea) and then backwards for a few revolutions (another genius idea in its construction), and then back and forth over each scene in the clip. I know my favorite moment was watching Goofy stick himself in the ass with a straight pin thinking his butt is a ghost, and then watching him go crazy inside of a vanity dresser after he sticks himself.

Whether we had any other tapes or not for the Movie Viewer, what I do know is that a bond was formed between myself and Lonesome Ghosts since childhood because of that machine, that in many ways goes beyond most other Disney cartoons. Last year, with such fond memories of the Movie Viewer and the Lonesome Ghosts cartridge in my head, I decided to look about on the internet to see just what one might run for on sites like Ebay or Amazon. Surprisingly to me, not too bad, and within the hour, I had ordered a Fisher-Price Movie Viewer with an original LG cartridge for less than $20, shipping and handling included, off of Etsy, a site that I had never used or really looked at previously. Some antique business in Georgia had one, and by all means, it was going to be mine.

Directed by Burt Gillett, Lonesome Ghosts was officially part of the Mickey Mouse series of shorts, but was also part of an unofficial subseries within the Mickey series that featured Donald Duck and Goofy as full partners with Mickey in whatever endeavor they happened to be on for that cartoon. Boat Builders, Moose Hunters, The WhalersClock Cleaners... you name it, these three could mess it up, though sometimes they came out on top in the end.

Lonesome Ghosts begins with some some quite haunting intro music and an almost impressionistic title card, where he see the silhouettes of Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse cautiously walking through the night (Mickey even has a single figure held up as if to hush his companions). Above them looms what could be (or definitely is) the outline of a tremendous spectral form, but except for what could be interpreted to be fingers on a pair of hands (one low and one raised high behind a possible head), it is almost worthless to waste time trying to determine exactly what form of ghost this is, as it seems draped over a series of large trees or hedges (equally ill-defined though lovely) in the background.

The very first shot of the film proper is of an old, battered house almost shivering in the chilling wind that blows across its frame and causes its shutters to swing and slam shut over and over. Surrounded by snow-draped trees in a wintery setting, the house and the scene instantly brings to my mind other Disney cartoons of much renown, where inclement weather or an ominous setting played the role of a central character, such as The Old Mill and The Skeleton Dance. (I say it brings to my mind such films, but in real time, this film was only released about six weeks after The Old Mill was released.)

Inside the house, as the shutters continue to clatter, a clock chimes the hour, and we hear the wild howl of a ghost as he yawns in utter boredom. Sitting next to him on the floor is a book of ghost stories. He and his other three ghost pals are tired of sitting around – one sits next to an empty goldfish bowl and is fishing with a hook inside a can of sardines – without anybody to scare. As they scour the papers, one of them spies an ad in the classifieds section of the newspaper. "Get a load of this, fellers!" he says, and they tumble over themselves trying to do so. "NOTICE!" the ad reads, "We Exterminate All Kinds of GHOSTS -- DAY AND NIGHT SERVICE -- Phone Gooseflesh 9000." One of the ghosts says, "Wise guys! Let's get 'em over here!" The others chime in: "And have some fun with 'em!" "We'll scare the pants off of 'em!" When the last ghost says this, his bottom half drops off so that he has to pick it up again, almost like a pair of pants.


The ghosts start yowling and fly to their phone. The next thing we see is the outer door to the office of Ajax Ghost Exterminators, where a "BUSY" sign has been hung on it. Busy indeed... inside, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey Mouse are each fast asleep and snoring away. Mickey and Donald have their feet propped up on the desk, while Goofy's legs are crossed. In the background, we can see signs that promote their prowess in the ghost hunting field: "All Types of Homes De-Ghosted – Work Guaranteed" and "We Chase Ghosts By Day, Week or Month". There is even a diploma from Ghost College on the back wall behind Goofy. We also see the assorted paraphernalia of their trade hanging off hooks on the wall or leaning against it: butterfly nets, axes, a Flit gun, a blunderbuss, a shotgun, a large mallet, a club, and a deerstalker cap.

The candlestick phone between the trio rings once and they ignore it. So the phone rings even louder the second time and it awakens them all with a shock. They seem amazed they have even gotten a call (business must be really bad) and they fight over answering it. When they are done, Goofy has the receiver while Mickey has the speaking part, and poor Donald's neck is wrapped up several times by the cord in the middle of them. The ghost on the other end affects a woman's voice and asks, "Do you chase ghosts?" and Mickey answers (a bit nervously, due to the shock of needing the job, not being scared), "Y-y-yes, ma'am! Yes, sir! I'll say we do!" The prank-playing ghost responds with "We-ell, this house is full of ghosts. Listen..." The four ghosts then start making the expected sounds of ghosts in a dwelling to convince the ghost hunters to come over to do their job. He (she) then tells them to come quick to the old McShiver Mansion, and the boys don't even question the situation for a second because they are too overjoyed to have a customer at last.

Arriving shortly at the mansion, Mickey (holding a shotgun) knocks on the door and listens through it for an answer. He knocks harder and then there is a perspective shot from inside the house as we see the door come off its hinges and crash to the floor, quite interrupting Mickey's announcement that they are "from the Ajax Ghost Exterminator Company". As Donald, holding only a small butterfly net, steps into the house, he is bumped by Goofy. The duck squawks loudly, and tells his pal to watch where he is going. The three start to tiptoe into the house across the entire door, but once all three are fully on it, the door starts to rise up on Mickey's end. When it gets about halfway up, however, it reverses direction and drops, the three of them go flying off, and the direction whips up into the door frame from its opposite end so that the side of the door that was once facing out into the world is now inside.

As the three hit the floor, Goofy, who had been carrying the most in the way of equipment, is assailed by nearly everything he once had in his hands as it rains down towards him and his pals. He manages to avoid everything except a mousetrap, which snaps shut hard around his nose. He gets it off his nose and it snaps shut next on his hand, but he pays it no mind, since the nose was certainly going to be the worst of that situation. The ghosts start making a ruckus somewhere in the house, and while Donald and Goofy act scared at first, Mickey reasons that they can get the spooks. "We'll separate... and surround them." Not the best plan, Mickey – separation of forces is usually deadly in horror film situations – but this is a cartoon, and it has to get somewhere eventually. And so the three shake on the plan, gather their weapons from before (Goofy picks up an axe), and they make their leave in individual directions.

This is the point that many of their shared adventures reach, where each star breaks off into a section designed to showcase their individual talents. Mickey gets the first solo spot, as he tiptoes into a room to find out several steps into it that he has been shadowed by an annoying ghost. The spook has stolen his hat and knocked on his head, and Mickey turns to greet the ghost with his gun. He goes to fire, but the ghost sticks his fingers in the barrels, and the shotgun explodes, leaving the two barrels completely limp and split about halfway up their length. The ghost zips off, and so Mickey throws down the gun in anger and zips off after the creep himself. The ghost heads up some stairs, and Mickey follows suit, but he is speeding after the ghost so fast that when the spirit reaches a door, Mickey has no way to stop himself from running smack into the door a couple of times (once on a rebound).

Mickey pulls on the door handle, and the door comes loose from the frame, and it looks like there is glue on the other side of it briefly affixing it to the wall. Standing on the door, Mickey hears drum and fife music, and the door whips open from its resting spot on the floor to reveal the ghosts rising up to perform a mocking version of a colonial march, using long red underwear attached to a broomstick for a flag. Standing in the corner, the ghosts do a quick tapdance and then leave the room, the last one waving his hat at Mickey as he closes a set of double doors behind him. Mickey pulls on both doors, and when they spring open, he is hit by a tidal wave of water. He is washed backwards, and when he tries to swim forward through the water, two of the ghosts are wearing old-style bathing suits, holding umbrellas, and riding surfboards on the waves. The third comes through in the same manner, and then the fourth, wearing an admiral's hat, rushes into view in a boat with an outboard motor. He spins circles around Mickey, creating a whirlpool, but then he and the water completely disappear, and Mickey is left spinning in midair, until he finally crashes onto the floor.

Next comes Donald's turn, and he is far more cautious (some would say outright scared) in his approach. He looks tentatively about the hallway into a room, but a ghost sneaks up behind him with a massive pile of dishes and smashes them into the floor behind the duck. Donald flees, and then hides under a chair that has, appropriately, a large sheet draped over it. Another ghost (or the same one -- hard to tell sometimes) sneaks in behind Donald carrying a large set of chains, and crashes them into the floor as well. Donald jumps and runs straight into the drawer of a bureau, but the drawer is ejected almost immediately and Donald flies inside the drawer across the room. He lands rather softly and then starts to look about, his anger rising in increments. The ghost pops up behind him, holding two boards this time, and whacks Donald on the rear end with a wallop! Donald screeches and yells, "What's the big idea?" He starts to do his trademark fist pumping and twirling, while asking "Who did that? Who did that?"

The ghost pops up and taps the duck on the tail, and Donald says yet another trademark of his, "Uh oh." The ghost hits him hard again. Donald implores the ghost to come out and fight like a man, so the ghost does. He throws up his fists and mocks Donald's style, but surprisingly, Donald lands a solid right square on the ghost's chin, sending the spook flying. Donald is so happy that he succeeded that he doesn't realize he is being set up for a fall. The ghost staggers back and Donald follows him, but the ghost falls backwards through the floor in what looks like water, so Donald catches himself so he too doesn't fall into it. 

But the hole created by the ghost disappears, and Donald is confused. He turns to the camera and declares, "Well, I'll be a son of a gun!" but then the spook pops back up through the floor in a ghostly pool and spits water in the duck's face. The exasperated duck shakes his head violently, quacking away in utter frustration, and as the ghost waves goodbye, pinches its nose, and floats back down through the floor, Donald leaps at it. All he ends up with is a headache from smashing face-first into the floor. "What kind of a place is this?" he yells. "They can't do that to me!" Donald picks up his hat and puts it back on his head, but it is still full of water, and so he ends up drenching himself again. He once again speaks directly to the camera, saying, "That's a fine how-do-you-do!"

The scene shifts to the third member of the team, Goofy, who paces along cautiously, holding his axe high above his shoulder. While he takes great, wheeling steps with his long limbs, he says a line that is used elsewhere in this series whenever danger is near, "Oh, I'm brave – Ah-hyuk! – but I'm careful!" As he takes another step, a ghost comes up behind him holding a ladle and a big sauce pot and starts banging it in Goofy's ears. Goofy shoots straight forward to the wall and starts tearing through the wallpaper trying to escape, and when he gets through the wallpaper, he starts tearing at the stucco inside the wall. As he does, the ghost reappears behind him and blows a trombone. Goofy runs around the corner and out of the room.

Looking back around the frame of the door, Goofy pretty much creates the entire Ghostbusters franchise by saying, "Ah-hyuk! I ain't-a scared of no ghosts!" He laughs, but as he does, the ghost drops down from the ceiling behind him, tapdances to the tune of Shave and a Haircut, and kicks Goofy in the rear end. The ghost zips to the bottom drawer of a vanity dresser, and Goofy pulls open the drawer to catch it. But the ghost pops out of an upper drawer and rattles a cowbell in Goofy's ear. Goofy stands up and puts up his dukes for a fight, but the ghosts darts inside the mirror of the vanity.

Goofy turns around, and then he and the ghost play out the classic vaudeville mirror routine, used time and again in silent films, Marx Brothers and other early comedians' films, and even I Love Lucy. The twist here is that the ghost looks nothing at all like Goofy whatsoever (their faces, noses, mouths, clothes, hats, and even colors are completely different), but Goofy is just slow enough to fall for the routine for a good while. At one point, the Goof turns to the camera, chuckles and says, "For a moment, I thought it wasn't me." The ghost perfectly mimics Goofy's every move for a while, but finally Goofy starts to get suspicious. "Something wrong here!" he says, and moves in to investigate. Looking behind the mirror gets another cowbell clanging. He starts to move sideways, and the ghost's actions take him in and out of the mirror, but still Goofy remains suspicious. Goofy starts moving up and down, but the ghost takes it too far, and Goofy has him figured out. "I know you," says Goofy while he points at the spirit, who is still mimicking his every move. "You're a ghost!"

The spook pokes him in the eye, and so Goofy lets loose with a wild swinging punch, but as the ghost deftly dodges the missile, it only sends Goofy crashing straight through the glass of the mirror. The ghost pulls Goofy's legs and it causes our hero to spin around and around with the mirror. Goofy ends up falling inside the dresser and then thinks his various limbs at certain points belong to his enemy. He grabs his own throat and starts to choke himself. His eyes nearly bulging out as his face loses its color. Goofy nearly passes out, panting, with his head hanging over the side of the vanity. But he opens his eyes to see a blue object poking around at the front of the vanity. Not realizing it is his own booty, Goofy thinks it is the ghost, and so he pulls out a long pin and pokes the blue object as hard as he can with it. "Yowwwwwch!" is the loud outcome that issues from Goofy's lips.

Of course, Goofy thinks that he has been stabbed, but doesn't get that he has done it himself. "Help me!" he yells, "They pulled a knife on me!" He starts to flail about inside the dresser, grabbing each of his limbs. "Help, Mickey! I got 'em! I got all three of 'em!" (I guess that he doesn't count so well either.) As he battles himself, the four ghosts show up and push the dresser out of the room and down the hall. The dresser hits the stairs and rattles down it, just as Mickey and Donald show up at the bottom to investigate Goofy's noise. The dresser chases them towards a pile of flour bags and barrels of molasses piled in the corner. Goofy's dresser hits the pile with force, and there is an explosion of flour and sweet stickiness that covers the trio from head to foot.

When the ghosts arrive in the room to see the result of their pranking, all they see is three frightening figures arising from the corner, their arms outstretched as Mickey, Donald, and Goofy try desperately to extricate themselves from the sticky situation. The ghosts, quite ironically, start yelling, "Ghosts! Ghosts!" and skedaddle from the premises. They smash through dishes, furniture, and anything else that stands in their way to get away from whatever is lurking in the other room. Finally, knocking over a chair, they crash through the window at the front of the house. The last that is seen of the ghosts as they whimper in fear towards the horizon is their footprints appearing magically in the snow outside. Donald is first to climb up on the windowsill to see their foes off. "So, you can't take it... you big sissies!" Mickey and Goofy join their duck pal on the sill as Donald laughs like a maniac. Iris out.

At nearly nine minutes in length, Lonesome Ghosts takes a leisurely amount of time in setting up the story, and allows the ghosts a few moments to establish more personality than these affairs usually allow such rather cookie-cutter characters to have. The effect of the glowing, almost ultra-dimensional ghosts against the supposedly "real" surroundings and characters of Mickey and his pals works well throughout the picture. As for the attention to detail in those surroundings, Lonesome Ghosts is a prime example of just how luxurious Disney could get in even a short release. That haunted house really does feel well lived in and used, and feels like spooks really did show up and scare away the owners badly enough that they would have left most of their belongings behind. 

Another aspect that I find a truly nice touch is the winter setting, which I feel may have been added just so they could have that final shot of the ghostly footprints in the snow. However it came about, a choice was made, and it works very well and adds impressively to the atmosphere of the short, even in the scene where the boys first arrive at the house, and especially in the opening shot of the house.

This is one of those cartoons from the period where Mickey Mouse's eyes had no apparent pupils whatsoever. Mickey had been through several redesigns – like many characters – and by this point, his eyes were all black – just strange, almost soulless black ovals, though I rather like the effect in several cartoons, especially in this one and in The Brave Little Tailor (1938). About a year and a half after Lonesome Ghosts, with the release of The Pointer in 1939, Walt Disney had Mickey redesigned again, this time closer to his modern look, with the standard large white oval eyes with the noticeable black pupils and eyelids that help provide more in the way of emotion. Those I honestly felt he was doing just fine with the all black eyes.

I started worrying about giving myself pinkeye and or some Georgia swamp illness that I might catch when the Fisher-Price Movie Viewer showed up from Etsy with the Lonesome Ghosts cartridge in tow. Of course, I got out all manner of germ-killin' wipes and bug-murderin' cleaners, and gave the toy's every possible edge and surface a rubdown. Finally I got to the point of actually watching the cartridge. The technical aspects of everything worked fine; the Movie Viewer has exactly one working part: a crank that you turn around and around, in either direction, forwards or backwards, to move the single gear inside the case that turns the matching gear on the cartridge. However, the film inside the cartridge was degraded just enough to make watching the short clip a little difficult. The colors were a little washed out and not nearly as vibrant as I once remembered. (I had always been impressed with the use of blues and greens in the short – an opinion formed from watching the Fisher-Price cartridge over and over again – something that I was reminded of when watching the version on the DVD again.)

But I had my Movie Viewer and I had Lonesome Ghosts (even though I had the full movie on both VHS and DVD already). That wasn't important. Having the Movie Viewer version was. When I told my brother Mark about my purchase, it turned out that he too had a nostalgic moment a while back, and had obtained not just an original Fisher-Price Movie Viewer with an original LG cartridge, but also the larger wall projector version of the Movie Viewer that we never had as kids (we had a View-Master Wall Projector, another item that I miss), along with a box of various cartridges for other cartoons.

It seems that the next time I am up to see him, we have a film clip festival at hand. It could last as long as twelve, fifteen minutes. If I bring the View-Master Wall Projector, a full half hour.

RTJ

No comments: