Thursday, October 19, 2017

Countdown to Halloween: The Ghost Town (1944)

The Ghost Town (Terrytoons, 1944)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
TC4P Rating: 6/9

I first ran into the Terrytoons cartoon team Gandy Goose and Sourpuss sometime before I was ten. Fiddling around with the UHF channels on a whim one day – while also adjusting the rabbit ears on top of the old school black and white television we owned, and yes, those rabbit ears had big tinfoil flags wrapped onto them – I ran across a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon. I had seen one of their cartoons before, so there was nothing remarkable about the discovery except that I had found them in a previously unknown location. I don't even remember which short it was except that they were in a hotel room (I never saw the title at the beginning of the film). Time and overfamiliarity with the characters has wiped away the memory of that scene, but another cartoon came on next featuring Mighty Mouse. It was the one where he fights a big bad wolf (the cartoon is named Wolf! Wolf! in most versions) and saves the mice as he usually does. Once again, I knew who Mighty Mouse was (mostly from comic books), and so apart from the joy of finding a new cartoon to watch, the moment was just what it was.

And then I met Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. The next short was a cartoon in which a goofy looking bird with a large beak and a cranky mostly black cat were dressed as soldiers fighting in World War II. Years later, actually having remembered scenes from it (in a marked difference from the Heckle and Jeckle short), I discovered the title of the cartoon was Scrap for Victory. As I had not seen Disney's version of Alice in Wonderland quite yet (I would see it first in 1974), I did not know who Ed Wynn was yet, so I had no way of connecting Gandy Goose's similar voice to the great comic actor. But Jimmy Durante I did know, and so it was easy to equate him with Sourpuss the Cat's rough, New York accented voice. I thought the cartoon was pretty swell, but then again, I like nearly every cartoon at that age. When the Gandy and Sourpuss cartoon was over, the cartoons went away. The station switched to an old movie that we chose not to watch, and so we switched the TV back to a regular channel.

The reason I remembered Gandy and Sourpuss so vividly over Heckle and Jeckle – even though I like the talking magpies (who look more like crows) a lot more – is because Heckle and Jeckle were a regular part of my youth in my teens, with Filmation producing a new Saturday morning show in which they co-starred with Mighty Mouse. As a result, my memories of H&J were largely built around that show's version of them, while my only memories of the other team were from that single cartoon showing on UHF a few years earlier.

It would be about 15 years between that UHF viewing and my next meeting with Gandy and Sourpuss, when a couple of their shorts would get played on a different UHF channel airing in Anchorage, Alaska (in a studio not far down the road from where I lived too) called The Cartoon Channel, the first such station in the country (predating Cartoon Network by a few years). Most of the cartoons on the station were of the public domain sort, but they did have some sort of Hanna-Barbera package (The Funtastic World of...) that allowed them to show Space Ghost, Frankenstein Jr, the Herculoids, Jonny Quest, and many other HB adventure cartoons, along with the Blue Ribbon versions of many Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts. In this mix came a handful of Terrytoons, including Gandy and Sourpuss.

Today, I am far more familiar with the pair. While there has never been a major, authorized VHS or DVD release of the Terrytoons catalogue, one can find a wide selection of their cartoons on YouTube. I have more than caught up with the weird goose-and-cat team, and they have become a regular part of my cartoon viewing. I will admit that they are not favorites of my mine; like many later Terrytoons series, I find their cartoons a little too rote and unimaginative for me, and I tire of their recycled antics pretty quickly. That is not to say that every once in a while I might find a cartoon short that has just a little bit extra contained within it, sometimes in rather shocking ways. The Ghost Town, a Gandy Goose and Sourpuss short from 1944, directed by Terrytoons' mainstay Mannie Davis, is one such cartoon.

The credits for The Ghost Town feature a music credit for Terrytoons regular composer Philip A. Scheib, but as xylophones tinkle up and down the scale and the music lurches along, there seems to be a trace of another song in the opening theme. I detect a bit of Mendelssohn's The Hebrides Overture (aka Fingal's Cave) in there, but in a jazzed up, quicker paced way. Of course, when I "detect" it, I do not do so with any massive knowledge of classical music, where I can dip easily into my memory archives and bring up the exact composer and his life history in a moment's notice. What I actually did was say "Oh, that reminds me of... Chuck Jones' Mynah Bird!" (Because I really did, like many people of my generation, learn all about classical music from Looney Tunes and Walt Disney...)

Mendelssohn or not, I really like the opening theme to this cartoon, which informs me right away that I am up for some spooky hijinks. Following the credits, we see some rather odd-looking cacti in a desert. Each cactus has a face, which when combined with a cactus' normal outstretched limbs, lends the plants a rather human quality, like the faces and arms of people who have been frozen in place. The camera tracks across the desert briefly and stops on a small mound, empty at first until what seems like the ghost of a wolf materializes for a quick second or three to howl loudly before disappearing from view.

A male chorus begins to sing on the soundtrack as the camera starts to pan left again, and as they sing, we see cactus after cactus, each one bearing an oddly grimacing human face...

"It's Ghost Town!
It's Ghost Town!
Ghosts are lurking everywhere...!"

The camera leaves the cacti behind to show us the houses of the ghost town. The buildings, like the cacti, also seem to have very human eyes, along with noses and mouths designed and built right into their structure. Traditional "white sheet"-style ghosts fly through the air and in and around the houses as the film and its song continue, with the singers pausing for dramatic effect sometimes between words...

"...Waiting for some
poor, wretched victim
that...
they...
can scare!"

The camera stops at a sign at the front of the town, which consists of a ragged, tattered banner that says "Ghost Town Welcome" strung atop two long poles. A goofy looking, gap-toothed ghost wearing a derby hat flies at the camera and giggles, sticking a finger in each ear and waving the rest of his fingers while he does. The chorus continues with the song...

"In Ghost Town
In Ghost Town
Something's doing every night!
Hear that moaning!
What is that awful groaning?
It's the spooks,
the spooks,
of old Ghost Town!"

As the song concludes, we end up inside of Ghost Town Bar, where we see that the voices of the chorus belong to three beer-drinking ghosts, two of them wearing cowboy hats. The cowboy ghosts are leaning against the saloon bar while a bartender ghost (who is also singing) sways along with them. When the song stops, all four ghosts crane their necks towards the camera and say in unison, "Boo!"

At a nearby pool table, a skeleton is seen readying his next shot. Eyeing the table, he pulls his right leg off his body and uses it as a bridge stick to sink a red ball in the far corner pocket. He pops his leg back into place and walks to the other side of the table. Smacking the cue ball as hard as he can, the skeleton causes all of the balls on the table to clatter and rebound over and over again against each other loudly. Perhaps in recognition of his own abilities, the skeleton turns away from the table immediately after taking his shot, and racks his cue and leaves the room while the balls are still falling into each pocket, including the cue ball.

A rowboat with a single determined ghost bearing oars comes gliding across the room through the air. The chorus (unseen) sing "Row Row Row Your Boat" as he does. At a slot machine, a gentlemanly ghost wearing a fine purple suit, a top hat, and boots with spurs – but with no visible body at all – drops in a coin and pulls the lever. He gets nothing, so tries another coin and pulls again.

There is a wipe upward and the scene changes to a trio of skeletons seated on a bench all looking to the right. Suddenly, they all look straight forward, and then a pair of ghostly hands reach into the frame and pulls the head off the first skeleton. Once the head is removed, the skeletons all reach to their left and pull the head off the next skeleton and place it atop their own bodies. (There is a presumed fourth skeleton offscreen, as the third one is able to replace his head as well...) We then see the ghost standing with the first skeleton's head in his hands as he prepares to use it as a bowling ball. He bowls a strike (unseen) and then reaches over to grab another skeleton head. He bowls again, and this time we see the group of ten long bones that are being used for pins. He clears the pins again, and the head he used as a ball lands on the alley and handily yells, "Strike!"


Back out in the desert, from a distance we see two lowly characters riding on horseback. With a closer look, we see the cat Sourpuss and his friend Gandy Goose (who is wearing a giant backpack) looking not all that comfortable while the horse underneath them seems to be on its last legs. The horse's tongue sticks out of his mouth from thirst, and the poor old nag trudges through the desert with very little energy, while ghosts zips under and around its body. Sourpuss says to Gandy, "Listen! How far is this ghost town you're talkin' about? I'm gettin' hungry!" Suddenly, a ghost vulture fades into view on top of the pick strapped onto Gandy's backpack and says, "I'm getting hungry, too!"

Sourpuss and the horse turn to look at the vulture, but Gandy only looks behind himself and doesn't see the ghostly bird. The horse screams a loud whinny, and Sourpuss ends up eye to eye with the vulture. The horse runs away, sending Gandy and the vulture tumbling to the ground, where they too end up eye to eye. The vulture raises his wings in attack and dangles his tongue as Gandy steps backwards to match the carrion eater's approach. But Gandy thinks quickly and pulls out his pick and chases after the much bigger bird, taking swipe after swipe at him with the pick. The vulture mysteriously disappears and Gandy falls onto the dirt.

Gandy runs up to Sourpuss, who is standing next to a signpost with a pointing board that reads "Ghost Town 1 Mi." On top of the signpost is a single skeleton head with a wide grimace that is missing some teeth. Gandy tries to point Sourpuss' attention to the vulture, but the skeleton head laughs maniacally and deep. Gandy asks, "What's he laughing at?" but then the sign stretches out further to point the direction to the ghost town. The pair then turn to see the vulture leaning nonchalantly against a cactus while picks his teeth. There are four horseshoes left lying on the ground. "Where's my horse?" demands Sourpuss, but the vulture just whinnies in smirking reply. The big bird pushes against Sourpuss' hands with his beak and head as the cat throws out his hands to fend off the creep. Finally, Sourpuss turns and runs, joined by Gandy, and they both reach the door of the saloon in the ghost town (that is supposed to be a mile away) in what must be record time. They slam the saloon door shut behind them, and the vulture runs straight into it. Ending up sprawled out on the ground, the vulture then dematerializes.

Inside the seemingly empty saloon, Gandy Goose yells out, "Is anybody here?" and then scores of ghostly voices yell back, "NO!!" This frightens Sourpuss enough that he crashes through the wall of the saloon and hides outside. He finally works up enough courage to look back through a set of swinging doors, where he sees Gandy watching a cowboy ghost twirling a lasso. The singing ghosts pick up their original song where they left off earlier...

"In Ghost Town,
In Ghost Town,
Something's doing every night!
So take warning,
Stay away until it's morning!
Watch out for spooks,
the spooks of ol' Ghost Town!"

Through the song, the lasso ghost performs variations on traditional rope tricks, only with a ghostly twist, like having his body disappear gradually as the loop moves up and down over him. Finally, he throws the rope into a circle that he dives through and disappears. The rope continues twirling, so Sourpuss tries to leap through as well, but the rope transforms into a big tub of water at the last second, and the cat ends up completely drenched. Gandy laughs at his partner's misfortune, but then gunfire is heard. The pair flee for safety as a ghost cowboy riding a ghost horse rides inside the saloon to shoot up the place. He and the horse pose for a second before they ride up to the second floor, continue to shoot along the way.

Sourpuss carefully makes his way along the wall of a hallway, but he is distracted by the sound of a ghost playing ragtime piano. He runs into the room, where he sees the piano player ghost seated there. A large, mostly intangible mug of beer sits atop the piano. Another ghost materializes and starts singing...

"Every ghost can boast
from coast to coast
what he likes to be most
is a ghost."

Another ghost appears in a lounging position on top of the piano and picks up the next verse...

"How he laughs at life
with all its strife
and he's glad that he's
just a ghost!"

The first singing ghost, now wearing a dickey like a butler, walks through a door back into the room. He pulls out a small platter from behind his back with a heaping pile of butter on it, and another larger platter with an entire cooked turkey with all the trimmings. He sings...

"He can play the host,
serve butter on toast.
and a nice big ten pound roast!"

The second ghost is now on the floor and takes over the verse, adding a World War II era reference to boot...

"And do it every day,
no ration points to pay...

And then both ghosts join together and sing "He is just a ghost!" to conclude the song. During the finale, the piano player ghost grabs his mug of beer and downs it in a huge chug. The beer fills up his entire body from feet to chest, and he hiccups with delight.

Sourpuss has been watching the entire song from behind the piano, and at its conclusion he turns about and is flabbergasted, and rather envious to boot, to see his pal Gandy cutting a rug on the dance floor with a rather shapely female cat. She is dressed like a cowgirl, but is very clearly a ghost from the fact that she is translucent like the other ghosts. Sourpuss, naturally, wants to cut in on this action, and so he steps up to the pair and moves Gandy bodily out of the way. He bows to the cat-girl ghost and takes her arm to kiss all the way up it, but she turns into one of the regular ghosts as his lips reach hers. After the last kiss, Sourpuss opens his eyes, and is shocked to see he has kissed a guy ghost instead.


He paces backwards, but the ghost matches him step for step, looking Sourpuss right in the eyes. Sourpuss turns to run and the ghost chases after him, firing two six-shooters in the air as they do. Luckily for Sourpuss, he ducks behind a corner and the ghost keeps running.

Meanwhile, Gandy has found the one-armed bandit that the gentleman ghost was having no luck with earlier. He pulls the handle and comes up empty. However, he tries it again, and this time three lemons come up on the wheels. Sourpuss holds open a large bag as a shower of gold coins come spitting out of the machine. Gandy yells "Gold!" at his success. They tie the bag up and attempt to make their retreat, but a pair of ghosts block them in every direction. The buddies make a run for it, with the ghosts giving hot pursuit, with even the rowboat ghost seen earlier (along with another Indian ghost in a canoe) joining in the chase.

Sourpuss and Gandy run all over the saloon environs trying to find a way past their ghostly tormentors. At last, they zip behind a door and all of the spooks run outside the saloon. Sourpuss closes the door and the pair head to another exit, where they find a ghost horse waiting. Sourpuss, bearing the large sack of gold, jumps onto the horse's back, and is soon joined by Gandy. The horse takes off with lightning speed, but soon enough, the steed dematerializes and they are shown to be riding along in midair without assistance. Unfortunately for them, they crash into a tall cactus and fall hard to the desert floor. Still, they have their bag of gold and decide to open it to look at their treasure. However, when the bag is untied, they only find the ghostly vulture. They start running again, as the ghost chorus starts singing...

"Ghost Town!
Ghost Town!
Oooo-oooo-oooo-oooo!
So take care.
Ghost Town everywhere!"

Sourpuss and Gandy run off over the desert hills into the horizon, followed by the vulture flying after them. The film fades to black, but over the normal Terrytoons closing card, the three cowboy ghosts appear and thrust their heads towards the camera, yelling out "BOO!"

I'm cannot lie... I like this cartoon. It is just pure fun, without any concern about being anything but that. I am not the biggest fan of Sourpuss or Gandy, but they definitely play second fiddle to all of the antagonists here, with the cat and goose pretty much coming off like extras here. This short makes no bones about being a showcase for its ghost and skeleton gags, with some special space reserved for that really creepy vulture character. He's a ghost vulture, but he is able to devour an entire horse in seconds. Any way that you approach it, that is some gruesome gag for 1944. But it's exactly the sort of gag that moves this cartoon from out of the average pile and makes it a little bit more memorable. And if Gandy Goose and Sourpuss come packaged with it and don't make a mess of things, all the better.

Scare ya next time,
RTJ


***** 

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


Friday, October 13, 2017

Countdown to Halloween: The Stupidstitious Cat (1947)

The Stupidstitious Cat (Famous Studios/Paramount, 1947)
Dir: Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9


Superstitions... BAH! Never had much use for them. Through most of my life, I have taken the stance that most of the little, weird clichéd beliefs that people use to run their lives are silliness of the highest order. By this, I don't mean morals or laws... no, not even close. Any society needs a certain set of standards by which to maintain the peace, so I'm not suggesting anything like that for a second. What I mean are the oddball ideas that people adopt in order to corral that notorious fiend called "luck".

Myself, I have walked under several ladders, reacted to a spilled salt shaker numerous times with mere shrugs and a swift cleanup, and have knocked on wood or crossed my fingers only when in the company of others and when the use of such a cliché was a good conversation ender (and usually it was used in an openly mocking tone). I openly embrace the company of any black cat whose path I happen to cross; to me, they are just like any other kitties. And, boy, have I stepped on a lot of cracks on the sidewalk; my mother's back has always been fine, and at the pace that I walk, you can't let such little stupid things as a mere crack slow you down. And, apart from a handful of blacksmiths left in business and people who work at racetracks, just how often does one run across a horseshoe these days?

I do, however, have superstitions of my own that I have employed to incorporate into my life at various points in the far past, or that I have flirted with following over the years. A few examples:

Example A: In my youth, as a devoted follower of the Cincinnati Reds and the awesome Johnny Bench, I got it into my head that if I didn't read the Sunday or daily funnies from front to back (or left to right) without skipping a single comic strip, even the crappy ones that I hated, then the Reds would have a losing day on the ball field. How I came upon this notion I will never know; it just became ingrained in my head and I followed it for several years without exception. Sunday mornings even began to expand to giving the team luck for the whole week in my world. I would lie on the floor pouring through first the latest Peanuts strip on the front page and then all the way to the last page through Doonesbury, all the while chanting to myself that "the Reds will win this week... the Reds will win this week..." Truthfully, I didn't keep a chart to see if this was actually working, which is odd, since my usually obsessive nature would seem to merit that I would have kept such a thing. But the Reds were winning so much anyway in the mid-'70s, it was the rare day that they lost. So basically, odds were in my (and my scheme's) favor.

Example B: Some of my friends and I would always lift our feet, cross our arms, and have to touch the window nearest ourselves anytime that we would drive over a railroad track. While I had never encountered it before, it was a superstition of my friends' from their youth. It was goofy and fun to do. There were not only railroad tracks near my home as a teenager/young adult, but also a cemetery. One superstition my friends had that I had heard on my own as a kid was holding your breath when you drove past a graveyard. So after we did the railroad thing, you almost immediately had to hold your breath for about 20 seconds as well. I will admit here that if I were ever to finally get a driver's license of my own, I'm pretty sure that I would do all of this every single time that I crossed a track or passed a cemetery... just for funsies, you know. And since it can be dangerous to lift your feet, cross your arms, and touch the window while driving a vehicle, that might be one more reason why I should never have a driver's license.

Example C: Four-leaf clovers have always been a pleasure in my life. Not so much for the luck factor, but for the simple, zen-like pleasure in sitting quietly in a patch of clover and casually trying to pick one of those elusive little buggers out of the patch. It's like getting a 3000-piece crossword puzzle and deciding to start with one particular piece that has a slight variant over the other 2,999 pieces, only that piece may or may not have been packed inside the box during manufacturing. (Of course, as with four-leaf clovers in patches, there is the possibility that one might run across extra versions of that piece packed inside, too.) When I was a kid, my dad had (and might still have) a nature field guide that he would place the four-leaf clovers that we found inside to press them, and that tradition kind of stuck with me. (Note: He gave that book to me a few years, but the clovers were no longer in it. If I were a harder believer in luck, I could use that to explain away large portions of my life.)

But, despite these examples and a few others, I have never fully endorsed the "luck" lifestyle. I figure things happen just because they do, and no amount of wishing, praying, pleading, hoping, or even (as a last resort) hopping upon one foot while balancing a gourd on my forehead whilst reciting the third verse to Jabberwocky (a new tradition I have just made up) is going to make it happen. But try and tell that to the idiot cat that we meet at the beginning of Famous Studios' first Buzzy the Crow cartoon, The Stupidstitious Cat, released in 1947.

This dopey cat wakes up under a Good Luck sign (with a horseshoe, 'natch) with every part of his body that he can possibly cross, well... crossed. Limbs, fingers, toes, even eyes come undone upon his rising from slumber. Even his tail swirls around to make a knot for himself. Upon rising, the cat is stopped from getting out on the wrong side of bed by two signs pointing the direction to the proper side. After following the orders of the "right side" sign, the cat opens up what looks like a snuff box, but inside are several, supposedly lucky wishbones for him to break for even more good luck. He says to the camera...

"Break a wishbone
And if you get the big end
Your wish will come true
And your troubles will end."

Wishing for a bird for breakfast (hey, you gotta get the next wishbone from somewhere), the breaks one for just that purpose. He seems pleased that his right hand has ended up with the large end, never really picking up on the fact that his left hand also possesses the short end, thereby negating his luck either way. (It is a failure of the film that this isn't pointed out to the audience.) A bird starts to tweet and whistle beautifully outside, which attracts the attention of the cat. He tells the audience, "Whistle before breakfast, you'll...," then pauses in between words to giggle wickedly and lick his chops in predatory anticipation, "cry before dinner." What a creep...

Cue that very bird outside for breakfast. The camera zooms in on a small birdhouse atop a tree in the yard, where the whistling continues, this time in the recognizable form of a tune called Listen to the Mockingbird. From out of the front door comes a plump little crow with a straw hat, Buzzy the Crow by name, who is being introduced in this cartoon as a new Famous Studios stable character. He takes a dive off the front porch of the birdhouse to land with a splash in the birdbath at the tree's base. Buzzy starts to sing, only the voice coming from him doesn't quite match the sweet whistling we heard previously. This voice is raspy and rough, and seems to take a cue from Eddie Anderson's "Rochester" voice on The Jack Benny Show. He sings...

"Listen to da' mockingbird!
Listen to da' mockingbird,
Still singin' where da weepin' willows weep!"

Buzzy is giving himself a bath with a tremendous amount of soap suds, and sings from within a pile of those suds which completely obscure him from the camera. The cat, meanwhile, has sneaked up to the bath and decided to carry it and his prize dinner off into the house. Buzzy reaches out during this to grab a brush to scrub his back while he continues to sing, altering the traditional lyrics of the song just a tad for comedy effect...

"I'm dreamin' now of Hallie,
Sweet Hallie, Sweet Hallie,
She's sleepin' in da alley,
Where the mockingbird is singin' as she lies..."

The last line he sings as he uses the brush on his teeth, revealing a big gold tooth in his smile. He is about to begin the next chorus, but he realizes that the scenery has changed dramatically, with a wallpaper print in the background. "Uh-oh, how'd I get in here!" He flies off towards the window, saying, "Man, you gotta straighten up and fly right!" but the cat slams the window shut just as he reaches it. Buzzy hits the ground and the cat traps him underneath a butterfly net. The cat wishes to begin preparations for a Buzzy the Crow dinner, but the cat will now fall into a relentless series of misfortunes due to his rigid following of the Rules of Luck. Once Buzzy picks up on the cat's weakness when the cat picks up a pin for good luck, the entire plan is undone.

While the cat is putting Buzzy into a sandwich, the crow tricks the cat into believing he spilled the salt. The cat panics and throws it over his left shoulder saying...

"If you spill the salt,
Throw it over your shoulder.
Or you won't live
To be much older."

Of course, once he has undone the curse, he picks up the sandwich to find that Buzzy has departed, leaving a paper reading "Out to Lunch" in his place. The cat calls out "Come out, come, wherever you are" and Buzzy, in the manner of Rochester, replies, "Here I is, boss!" The cat spies Buzzy across the room and races towards him, but the bird is relaxing comfortably on the ground underneath a ladder. The cat recites...

"Hey, if you go under a ladder,
Your days will grow sadder and sadder."

The bird thanks him politely, and the cat responds in kind, and then thrusts out his hand in friendship, meaning to grab Buzzy when he does. But the only thing he grabs from Buzzy is a large black umbrella. The device pops open and whooshes up to the ceiling, and then it floats back down gently to land the cat underneath the ladder. Buzzy says...

"Uh-uh, in the house with an open umbrella
Will make you a most unfortunate fella!"

The umbrella closes just as the cat hits the floor but the snap of his rear end in a mousetrap placed there by Buzzy sends the cat back up again where he smacks into the underside of the top ladder step. Then the cat, umbrella and ladder comes crashing to the floor with the cat trapped inside everything. He pops up from the wreckage in the shape of a set of stairs, which Buzzy climbs up until he is standing on the cat's snout. He lifts the cat's eyelid up high until he is staring the cat in his big, yellow eye. The pupil of that eye rattles about like a roulette marble and then the cat comes to his senses and chases Buzzy away in a flash.

One of the more obscure superstitions today is brought up as the cat chases Buzzy. They run towards a large stand with a vase atop it, but Buzzy turns back just as the cat zips past and goes around the stand, causing it to come between the two of them. "Hey, boss!," says the bird, "Bread and butter!" The cat realizes what he has done and walks back along his path back around the stand and then gives chase once more. (What the cat did not do was say "Bread and butter" back to Buzzy, which would be the traditional way of breaking the curse. This might be why the cat gets it in the end.)

Buzzy runs across the room and hides beneath a huge cabinet. The cat can't see underneath it and so he strikes a match to see. The match lights three cigars that Buzzy has in his mouth, thereby causing another superstition to occur. The cat cries out...

"Yipe! Three on a match!"

...and then Buzzy runs out and shoves all three cigars in the cat's mouth! Buzzy says...

"And you end up in da booby hatch!"

The cigars turn out to actually be fireworks, and the cat is shot across the room where he crashes through the seat of a chair. The cat crawls out and swings the chair around his head and throws it in the direction of the crow. Buzzy warns him, "You'll be sorry!" and pulls on a cord that wheels a large mirror into the path of the flying chair. The cat races forward frantically to try and stop the chair, and he does manage to grab it just in time, so that the chair only taps lightly against the glass. But Buzzy sneaks up behind him and says, "Peek-a-boo!" Still holding the chair above his head, the cat ducks his head back between his legs to look upside-down at Buzzy behind him. Buzzy, who is standing upside-down on his hands (or, in bird terms, wingtips), is holding the pin from earlier in his talons and jabs the cat hard in the rear. The cat yowls in pain and flies up towards the ceiling as before, and then Buzzy shifts the mirror so that the cat crashes straight through it.

The cat is informed by Buzzy that he now has to serve "Seven years hard luck" to which the cat asks, "Did you say seven years hard luck?" Playing off a popular catchphrase from the time, Buzzy responds, "That's what the man said! That's what he said! He said that!" The cat angrily charges the bird, but all he does is hit an inkwell that splats him with black ink all over. The cat slides back towards the mirror and the glass swings around. He sees his reflection and screams, "A black cat!" The cat tears his way straight through the wall and then off and out of the picture. Buzzy is victorious and laughs at how the cat has allowed luck to run his life -- until Buzzy realizes from a desk calendar that the date is Friday the 13th. Buzzy immediately panics and begins following all of the same superstitions that the cat did before. He knocks wood, throws salt, kisses a horseshoe and throws it, and rubs his lucky rabbit's foot... each act, over and over, as the film irises out to a close.

Buzzy's voice was provided by Jackson Beck, who made a career out of portraying the voice of Popeye's nemesis Bluto in a tremendous amount of cartoons for Paramount/Famous. His Buzzy voice, as I sort of stated earlier with my positive reaction to the song, is my favorite part of the film. Buzzy as a a character has a pluckiness and roughness that I like quite a lot. That the films he starred in fail him ultimately, by and large, is not his fault; he is merely a pawn being handled roughly by some notoriously ho-hum hands. Getting back to the voice work and the Rochester angle, it is only at the point of Buzzy's introduction that one realizes that the cat's voice itself was a fairly thin imitation of Jack Benny, with his slow whine repeating the rules of luck suddenly becoming a tad more amusing (though not by much).

I somewhat dislike the design of the cat in this picture; I find him too rubbery, and just a tad too confident for someone who has thrown his lot in with the Rules of Luck and for someone who has a Jack Benny voice. I would have liked him to be a little more nervous (not nervy). Benny, of course, was not nervous per se; he had confidence, but only the confidence of one who is blissfully unaware of how disruptive his personality tics could be. The cat here seems to be extremely careful about what he does, until he sees the bird and he acts like a normal cat. I would have rather seen him use the rules of luck to first capture Buzzy, and then we see his plan come undone by his own rigidity to the rules.

I, too, have a tradition involving Friday the 13th: I love it. I often take the day off from work, as I have done for years and years, and go to the movies and do some shopping, or sit at home and watch my own horror movie marathons, sometimes with friends, sometimes not, and never have I met with a single bad incident or accident. Sometimes I even watch Jason movies, kind of doubling down on the Friday the 13th thing.

But I have my own sort of bad luck running for me these days. Sick with a cough for over a month, on a zillion medications, and mostly out of work for over two years. So, I am home for Friday the 13th under my own power this year. No day to take off, because I have too many days off already.

Of course, maybe I need to do something to turn that luck around. Not sure where to start, so many I can try some of those things I used to do to stop the bad kind. Right now, to prevent any misfortunes, I will indeed try hopping on one foot while balancing a gourd on his forehead and reciting the third verse to Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky:

"And, as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame
came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
and burbled as it came."

Here's hoping it works. (I had better cross my fingers... and my toes, arms, legs and eyes, while I am at it...)

RTJ

*****

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




[This piece was posted in its original form on March 4, 2006. It has been drastically rewritten and edited, and given new photos and a video link on October 13, 2017.]

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Countdown to Halloween: A-Haunting We Will Go (1949)

A-Haunting We Will Go (Paramount/Famous, 1949) 
Dir: Seymour Kneitel
TC4P Rating: 5/9

For their third Casper Noveltoon film (he would graduate to his own series after this one), Paramount's Famous Studios really switched gears and tried to break free of the formula that their squeaky clean, overly Friendly Ghost character had been mired in through his first two shorts.

Ha! I had you there, didn't I? Of course, the Casper films changed very little from short to short; it is, after all, Famous Studios we are talking about here, and there was no way that they were going to veer that suddenly from a barely trod but safe path. The closest thing that they did here to switch things up for the third Casper film was to give Seymour Kneitel his first shot directing the character; in all honesty, though, sometimes it is truly hard to tell any real discernible difference between Kneitel's films and those of his Paramount partner, Isadore Sparber. One other minor change was an attempt to slowly begin the slimming down of the once rather portly Casper, a progression that would continue until eventually he would reach the dimensions that much of the world recognizes from both his later cartoons and his Harvey comic books. (His head in the first two films seemed to climb right out of his shoulders; here, Casper is beginning to gain some semblance of an actual neck distinctly separate from his noggin.)



Do ghosts naturally behave in the manner portrayed by the previous inhabitants of the abandoned buildings which the spooks now occupy? If so, this would explain the antics of the ghosts who reside in the rundown little red schoolhouse that is seen at the beginning of A-Haunting We Will Go. Unless, of course, Famous is upping the chilling notion at the heart of the Casper series – that Casper is the ghost of a dead child – by casting an entire classroom of recently deceased school-kid spooks?

A narrator, who sounds at first like someone trying to imitate Jack Benny poorly, introduces us back into Casper's world by stating "I don't think anyone ever really believes in ghosts OR ghost stories..." as we see the camera begin a somewhat eerie pan from its starting point on a dark cemetery at night to the one-room schoolhouse that some civil engineering genius decided to build right next to it. The narrator has that "but" tone in his voice as his voice trails off, and sure enough, he continues, "...but there is one they tell about an old, deserted, little red schoolhouse..." (The narrator's continued intrusions are pretty much unnecessary, as his introduction really makes little sense and there is no point that we can't figure out what is happening without him.)

The action begins inside the boarded up schoolhouse, where we meet a bespectacled schoolteacher leading a classroom of small but deeply voiced ghosts since the words of the film's title – "A-haunting we will go!" – again and again. punctuating the chorus with "Boo! Boo! Boo!" The ghosts learn the tools of the haunting trade in this classroom setting that would otherwise seem normal for regular kids except for the sayings that line the chalkboard. "Boo unto others as you would have others boo unto you," "Fright makes right" and "I will spook when spooken to" are the examples shown, and it seems the teacher will not easily accept failure in her classroom. Poor Casper the Friendly Ghost has obviously found this out the hard way, planted as he is in the corner of the room with a dunce cap atop his ghostly little head.

Casper's failure as a ghost lies not in his inability to frighten; as we well know from past films and endless comic books, however inadvertently and unwanted, he frightens others exceedingly well. He is quite recognizably a ghost, after all. No, the problem that causes Casper to achieve outcast status amongst his phantasmic kin is that he wishes not to frighten. Thus, Casper is a dismal failure in his ghosting class. The schoolmarm announces, "For your homework tonight, we will all go out and practice what we screech. Class dismissed!" With a wave of her arms, the class flies right through the walls of the schoolhouse and into the dark of night. And so, yet again, in the manner of the previous two films, Casper will set out to find a friend, departing from the frightening course the rest of his classmates set out to achieve. He marches out sadly from the schoolhouse, but then perks up at the thought of new friendship, and skips happily to a local pond.

But Casper always has problems with the friend-making game. First, a turtle he meets is so shocked that he zips away faster than any rabbit could, without a doubt breaking the turtle land speed record. Next, a pelican is certainly frightened enough by the little ghost, but not as much as the fish inside the huge flaps of the pelican's mouth. The poor fish is easily twice as freaked out by Casper's appearance. He bug his eyes out wide at the sight of the ghost kid – in triplicate, even – and then slams the pelican's mouth shut around himself, and leaps down across the water pulling the pelican behind him! A pond full of ducks immediately disperses at the ghost's sight, and so Casper sits down on a lone duck nest in the middle of the pond and begins to cry in his trademarked fashion. He sputters out, "I might as well be dead!," not realizing the irony of those words, and concludes with "Nobody wants me as a friend!" (Well, not if you are going to whine like that, Ghosty...)

However, the single egg that was left in the nest when the mother flew off hatches beneath the ghost, and as Casper has orphaned the duckling quite by accident, he takes up the duties of the child's missing mother. (I would call her neglectful because, after all, she has left her young to the mercies of an invading spirit.) The baby quacks relentlessly in obvious hunger, so Casper feeds the baby (who from here on out is named Dudley) a worm. Casper is astonished that the little duckling isn't afraid of him (or just isn't grown up enough to know to be afraid of ghosts yet), and he starts to believe that he finally has a real friend in this world. The narrator returns to say, "Over the next few weeks, I'll bet you couldn't find a ghost in better spirits than our little Casper!"

Next, the Friendly Ghost takes little Dudley for swimming lessons, and the attempt is a success from the moment they hit the water. When the rain pours down on the nest that night, Casper attempts to shield the baby duck from the downpour. The narrator reads, "Each night, they snuggle together in their little nest, and Casper would guard his little friend Dudley with his very life... or, whatever you might call it." However, Casper notices that the rain is going through his body and hitting Dudley instead, so he flips the nest over to wear it like a hat to shelter his pal from the storm, looking for all the world like a giant mus. The next day brings flying lessons, but Dudley doesn't quite get it at first and Casper has to catch him in a rescue. He shows Dudley what to do, and Dudley finally gets it.

In the midst of his first successful flight, Dudley spies a quacking duck in a clearing within the reeds. He lands near the duck, but it turns out to be a decoy. Nearby, there is a hunter lurking with a dog in a nearby rowboat. (The hunter may be the same one from There's Good Boos To-Night, though the dog is different from either of the hounds in that picture.) Casper calls to his friend, and Dudley responds to the ghost's voice. The hunter fires at the departing but completely oblivious duckling, and poor little Dudley is clipped in the tail by the shot and plummets toward the ground below. Before the hunting dog can grab Dudley, Casper swoops down to catch the little duck and whisk him away to safety. The arrival of the ghost scares the spots off of the dog, and then Casper similarly frightens off the hunter, who rows his boat on top of the land in a mad effort to escape.

Just as you think that for the second picture in a row, Paramount is going to kill off a cute baby creature just to give Casper a ghostly companion (but only for a single film's close), the duck comes back to life within Casper's arms. It is presumed that Casper is the toast of the duckpond, because now he gets to fly south with the rest of the ducks, with little Dudley riding on top of Casper with his wing in a sling, while Casper honks the duck call left behind by the hunter. Iris out.

There seems to be a double standard here with the switch in the ending scenes in two successive Casper films, and I think it has to do with what type of creature who faces death in each film. I still maintain that you can kill off an impossibly cute cartoon creature only if it is of a predatory nature and get away with it. That is what happened, shockingly, to Ferdie the Fox in There’s Good Boos To-Night, a film that milks that little fox's death for all it is worth, until finally Ferdie is allowed to play forever with Casper in the afterlife. (Ferdie is, surprisingly, way cuter than Dudley Duck as well, and they still have him croak.)

Now, depending on the type of duck and where they live, ducks do have a predatory side as well. Yes, they eat some plants and grains, but they also eat land bugs and water insects, and some ducks will catch small fish and crustaceans as well. But mankind does not think of ducks this way. We think of them running up to catch small parcels of corn from the farmers who keep them, not as adorable creatures completely capable of cold-blooded murder in order to survive. (Don't even get me started on duck cannibalism, and I am not talking the type where Donald Duck has a turkey for Christmas.) So, to the common public eye, ducks are cute and innocent and most decidedly not possessed of that killer trait (except for where possibly bugs are concerned). So, unlike little Ferdie the Fox who would grow up to be a villain, baby Dudley Duck gets to live by picture's end where Ferdie does not.

But back to that ghost school thing... if the ghosts don't take on the traits of the previous occupants, then how come we don't see ghost schools in buildings that weren't schoolhouses? If an abandoned schoolhouse is required for ghosts to learn how to be ghosts, then the “ghostal” learning for each town is dependent on there being at least one abandoned schoolhouse in each town. Or maybe, ghosts set up school districts or have an exchange program for teaching their haunted craft to new ghosts, in which case they could bus ghosts from the poorer ghost areas for their lessons, instead of depending on there being a school readily available in their vicinity. Or maybe, these ghosts were just having fun playing at "school" simply because they were already in the building. Or maybe, as I stated beforehand, they indeed have an instinct for adopting the behavior of previous occupants.

I should just let it go. After all, now I have cannibalistic ducks to worry about suddenly...

RTJ

*****

And in case you haven’t seen it…



[This post was originally published on 02/06/2006. It was greatly rewritten, re-edited and updated with new video and photos on 10/09/2017.]