Spooks (Universal, 1930)
Dir.: Walter Lantz
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9
As the first offering of several Halloween-themed cartoons that I plan to feature throughout the month of October, I felt it was important to go with a film that captures an overall Halloween mood, rather than one that concentrates on a single featured character. Yes, Spooks, a 1930 short directed by Walter Lantz (he of Woody Woodpecker fame) does eventually settle into a full-on parody of Lon Chaney's version of The Phantom of the Opera, and indeed, that action is built around series star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But Oswald is really a secondary character in his own cartoon, and much of the shenanigans are built around other characters instead.
And as for setting the Halloween mood, the early portions of this film have it in spades. Over the title card, we hear whistling wind effects as an orchestra sputters and seems to churn to life. An actor attempting to replicate the supposed voice of a ghostly apparition repeats the title word "spooks" twice, and on the second turn, pronounced harder and louder than the first, the letters in the title quiver in place. After the credits card, a black curtain seems to be drawn across the screen, and then the blackness transforms into the shadowy branch of a tree overlooking a cemetery.
The orchestra, with the wind effects still whispering along in the background, begins to play Charles Gounod now-famous Funeral March of a Marionette, which gained even greater popularity starting in the mid-1950s as it was chosen to be the theme song of Alfred Hitchcock's television series for a solid decade. In fact, for me, it has been hard to see any image of Hitchcock without immediately thinking of that theme music, so hearing it in a cartoon that was released twenty-five years earlier than the first episode of the show – and about a year after Hitchcock released his very first sound feature, Blackmail, in 1929 – seemed to hold some special importance (even though it really doesn't).
After we see the branch wave about in the wind as we view the marvelously sketchy background image of the graveyard (and not the first time that a Lantz Oswald film has reminded me somewhat of a Herriman Krazy Kat drawing, also of that relative time), the action begins with a visit to a coffin sitting upright from the ground. The door swings open, and a skeleton lets his fully fleshed black cat out for the evening. The cat, who has been hung out by the tail, yowls at its master and stomps away with its head in the air, blowing a raspberry at the skeleton at the last second. The skeleton then puts out an empty milk bottle on what I presume would serve as his doorstep, the mound of dirt over the grave. He drops a nickel into the milk bottle as payment, closes the door to the coffin, and through a window on its door, we see the shadow of the skeleton blow out a candle, creating a second blackened frame effect.
This time, the blackness pulls itself away from the borders of the frame into the dark cloak of a masked and hatted figure with tall, skinny legs marching through the cemetery. "I'm the Phantom!" says a voice beneath the mask, as his cloak trails out high in the wind behind him. On a branch in a tree, an owl surrounding by the outline of the moon makes its trademark "Who?" noise in the direction of the figure. The Phantom looks up and points a finger at the bird, yelling "Not you, you fat-faced buzzed!" The bird stretches his neck towards the camera until its bulbous eyes overtake the screen, its pupils making somewhat of a kaleidoscopic effect in the middle of each eyeball. The owl then retracts it neck and resumes its usual perch on the branch.
Nearby sits a low-rent looking Opera House, where we are shown the stage door. The Phantom stalks across the screen to the door, and when it opens on its own, he lifts his cape and almost seems to fly through the door. Inside, a small orchestra comprised of various animals is rehearsing. On the kettle drums, holding a pair of sticks, is a small mouse who looks almost exactly like Mickey Mouse, the character who replaced Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks's shorts when Disney left Charles Mintz's employ a couple of years earlier. (To be clear, Lantz did not steal Oswald; he was merely directing the character after Universal gained the rights to him. Mintz is the culprit, who basically conned Disney out of a job and thus, his main creation to that point. Lantz went on to produce over 140 Oswald shorts.)
Of course, the kettle drums that the Mickey doppelgänger is playing is nothing more than the ample rear end of the conductor, who doesn't seem to mind having his hindquarters used in such a way as he leads the rest of the orchestra in the pit before the stage. The cats and dogs in the band play the overture wildly, and then the curtain grinds open to reveal Oswald the Lucky Rabbit wearing a small hat and standing next to a female hippopotamus. The hippo lady grasps her hands together and starts to sing in an operatic voice. The gag here is that the hippo sings the low parts, while Oswald sings the higher parts...
Hippo: "Oh my heart cries out to you dear..."
Oswald: "Oh my heart cries!"
Hippo: "Oh my heart cries!"
Oswald: "Oh my har-har-har-har-heart!"
Both: "H-E-A-R-T! Heaaaarrrrt! Ooohhhh!"
On the final note, both of their heads jut out toward the viewer, much like the strange owl had earlier, thereby distorting their features wildly. As the voice of the hippo is none other than Pinto Colvig, it is not hard to hear his eventual character of Walt Disney's Goofy in some of the intonations.
Backstage, a female cat named, somewhat unsurprisingly for the day, Kitty (who today is now known as Ortensia, Oswald's beloved) cries into her paws at the performance. She is jealous of the hippo being onstage and desperately wants to be the star of the opera. Enter the Phantom of the Opera, who slithers up and out of a crack in the floorboards and opens his arms wide to greet the crying kitten. Animated hearts flutter from his chest in great profusion, telling us of his stalker-like affection for the girl. "What behooves thee, fair maiden?" asks the Phantom into her ear, as her back is still turned to him. She stops crying and points to the stage. She tries to tell the Phantom her troubles, but a closeup of her head and open mouth reveals a long tongue that is tied completely in knots, so that everything comes out as gibberish. But the Phantom knows precisely what she desires, and after thinking for a second, says "Hmmm... fear thee not!" and then disappears as swiftly as he arrived.
On the stage, the hippo is singing an aria, but the Phantom's long arm shoots up through a knothole in the floorboards. Bearing a knife, his hand thrusts towards the hippo's prodigious rear end and stabs it with the knife. Air escapes the hippo like a balloon being deflated, and the opera sings flattens out completely on the stage. (Take it for what it is – after all, none of this was ever meant to be taken seriously – but taken from a logical view, we have essentially seen a murder in a cartoon, since we never see the hippo again for the remainder of the cartoon to know that she is alright.) Backstage again, the Phantom reappears to Kitty, who seems only briefly shocked at the demise of her rival. The Phantom announces, with a grand flourish, "I will make you a great singer!" but when he does, another Mickey doppelgänger, or perhaps even the same one from before, pops up through the floorboards and blows a raspberry at them.
This only distracts the Phantom for the briefest of seconds, for as Kitty turns her back to him, he tries to lift up her skirt. She stops him, and shoots the Phantom down with a glare, as she taps her foot and drops her fists to her hips. He whispers to Kitty what he was actually planning to do, and she agrees. Shockingly, she sticks her butt high up in the air, and he turns around to place a large phonograph inside her stretched-out skirt. The Phantom puts the phonograph needle to the record on its turntable and sends her to take her place as the opera's new star. Kitty takes the stage and starts to sing, "For I am the queen of the Mayflower--" but after the third go at the lyric, the needle on the record starts to skip after the word "May". Each time it skips, it causes Kitty's rear end to sway from one side to the other, while her arms flail about in panic.
In the opera's gallery section, so noted because that is what is written across its front, a pair of jokers (while a third sleeps several rows behind them) start to mock her and begin counting down the months following May: "June... July... August... September... Merry... Christmas!" Back onstage, Kitty is still flailing about while the record continues to skip. The Phantom's hand reaches from stage left and resets the needle, which shortly corrects the skipping, but then the music starts to wind down slower and slower, until Kitty collapses into a puddle on the stage, much like when the hippo was deflated with a knife earlier. Unlike the hippo, however, Kitty is resurrected by the Phantom reaching in and cranking the lever on the phonograph so that the music can continue once again to play unabated. Kitty finishes the performance, and somehow receives "Bravos" from the audience in triumph.
Backstage, Kitty is greeted by the Phantom and Oswald, who are applauding wildly. When the Phantom says, "My beloved!" to her, though, she leaps completely over his outstretched arms and into the arms of Oswald instead. The two embrace happily, and Oswald says, "Gee, Kitty! You were wonderful!" The Phantom growls at this, and yells "Curses!" in the classic villain mold. He grabs Kitty and pulls her completely out of her bloomers, which are left sitting in Oswald's hands, who doesn't even realize she is gone until he opens his eyes and realizes in shock he is holding her clothing. Crying out, "Kitty, where are you?," Oswald pokes his head through the flap of her drawers while looking about for his beloved.
Spooks then makes an absolutely dead-on reference to the 1925 Chaney version of The Phantom of the Opera by staging its own replica of the film's arguably most recognizable scene: the unmasking of the Phantom as he plays the organ. (True, thin plot elements were involved before this, but this section is very on target.) The Phantom drops the girl on the ground and then takes his place at the instrument, but before he begins playing, he turns to Kitty and warns her, "If you ever remove this mask, I'll---!" and then drags a finger across his throat to signify cutting it. He starts to play the organ, and of course, Kitty cannot help but try to remove the mask. He sneaks forward, her legs stretching higher and higher so she can reach his face, and when she reaches a certain point, her bloomers fall down from under her skirt. (Somehow, she got another pair between being kidnapped and now.) The Phantom turns and catches her in the act, growling at her, but she tap dances back to her original spot singing "La la la la la" and then kisses both of her hands, to the tune of Shave and a Haircut.
The Phantom returns to playing on the organ, and this time, Kitty makes it all the way to the bow of his mask tied behind his head. Tentatively, she undoes the knot, and the mask drops away. The Phantom turns around and roars at her as his skeleton-style face is revealed. Kitty cries in fright, and the Phantom clasps her hands about her neck and ankles and starts to stretch her apart. Suddenly, a knock arrives at the Phantom's door, provided by a knocker set into the wood just below a small window. Yet another Mickey-type mouse answers the window, and Oswald's angry face is seen through it. The mouse closes the window and alerts the Phantom on a small trumpet. He opens the window to show Oswald to the Phantom, but the Phantom floats straight through the window, his frightening visage sending Oswald scurrying away. Yet again, blackness starts to fill the screen as portions of the Phantom's strange body continue to cascade through the window on the door.
Oswald is shown running as fast as he can from the terrible Phantom, but the villain keeps attempting to grab the rabbit by the ankles, failing each time. Oswald finally leaps down through a long shaft, where he bounces off several ledges along the wall, yelling "Ouch!" over and over again. He lands on the upturned shoes of a giant spider, who is stretched across a web at the body. The spider dwarfs Oswald several times over, so you really have to wonder what other horrors lie below this Opera House? Well, we find out quickly, as the spider – to a variation on Funeral March of a Marionette – tires of juggling Oswald atop his numerous shoes and kicks him away. No sooner does Oswald land on the floor than he finds a series of dragons running through his legs. Each dragon has several sharp-looking scales along its spine and as they make their pass between the Oswald's legs, he screams in pain over and over again as the scale seem to break right off when they hit his crotch. ("Lucky Rabbit" indeed...) The last dragon in the line is completely black, and though it produces the same painful result as the others, the dragon is ultimately revealed to be the Phantom instead.
The Phantom continues to chase Oswald faster and faster through the creep-inducing atmosphere of the Opera House underground, until at last he stops the rabbit by placing a large gloved hand about the poor lad's neck. The music stops as well, and then, surprisingly, the Phantom asks Oswald this question: "What does a chicken say when it lays a square egg?" Oswald is mystified by this, and scratches his head, as sputters as he fails to come up with a proper answer. The Phantom slaps Oswald hard across the face, and the rabbit yells out, "OUCH!" "'OUCH!' is correct!" responds the Phantom, and then gives the camera a goofy look. The villain then squares himself up and disappears in place, like a pair of elevator doors closing into nothingness. Oswald turns to the camera and gives a smile and then a curtain closes on the whole affair. We see a cartoonist’s version of the Universal Pictures globe logo, and then we hear…
Sure, the final gag drops with a thud. But that aside, this film rocks as a spoof of The Phantom of the Opera, released only five years earlier than this short and at the time (1930) was itself in a national rerelease, which included some added sound sequences. Spooks may not be as accurate as a Phantom fan would wish, with only a light touch on a couple of prime scenes, but the intent was never more than a gentle ribbing here, happy to hopefully warrant a little more attention by tying itself to a highly popular film of its day.
The one element that I find the most intriguing about Spooks is that the character of the Phantom of the Opera is truly allowed to be quite scary, at least by the standards of a 1930s cartoon villain. I was expecting him to be unmasked in a far more comic fashion, where perhaps he would turn out to be some recognizable celebrity/actor of the day, but instead they pretty much, except for Kitty's underwear falling to the floor, play it for the full scare of the movie version. The Phantom does not have a pleasant countenance underneath the mask, and is exactly the disfigured, cadaverous-looking monster that is revealed à la Chaney.
And he never lets up being scary until that very last gag. He is almost always angry at everyone, murderously jealous of Kitty, stabs the hippo, strangles Oswald and Kitty at separate times, curses out the owl, slaps Oswald in the face and growls menacingly at him in another scene, and seems to have a corps of hideous monsters at his beck and call. He can shapeshift into other forms, flight seems to be a power at his beck and call, as is disappearing at will. In other Oswald cartoons, the lucky rabbit often takes on the hero role and when danger rears its head, he often is up to the task. But in Spooks, you get the very real feeling that they simply had to end the film on a truly stupid joke because there was no other way out for them. The Phantom was simply too powerful to stop, and even though Oswald gets his Irish up when Kitty is kidnapped by the villain, the second he actually confronts the roaring, drooling cretin, any pretense of being a hero wilts away from Oswald's being. He hightails it and is pretty much on the run for the remainder of the picture.
Until that slap and the stupid joke bit, that is. I suppose if they had found some lame weakness for their villain, and had Oswald blunder into stopping him cold at the last second, I probably would have taken it even harder than simply ending the film on an old vaudeville punchline. I suppose for comedy's sake, or even to bring the film back into the general vicinity of comedy and not animated terror, they had to thrown in that last joke. I suppose that I will have to make my peace with it after all.
Putting this aside, as a film rife with Halloween atmosphere, this fits right in to what I wanted to kick off the month. A graveyard, spooky noises, skeletons, black cats, coffins, owls, creepy music, gentle mocking of a horror film classic, spiders, dragons, and a genuinely fright-inducing villain... Spooks is a pretty enjoyable start to any Halloween celebration. I have several other grand shorts, some quite famous, some not so much, chosen for the spotlight in counting down to Halloween throughout October here on the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc. I hope you will join me through the month for more animated fun!
And in case you haven't seen it...