Saturday, December 09, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: A Cold Romance (1949)

A Cold Romance (1949, Twentieth Century Fox/Terrytoons)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
Animators: Mannie Davis, James Tyer & Carlo Vinci (all uncredited)
TC4P Rating: 7/9

One of the cartoon series that I find most fascinating are the Mighty Mouse shorts from Terrytoons, a series that started in 1942 with The Mouse of Tomorrow and ran through Cat Alarm in 1961. In that span, exactly 80 Mighty Mouse shorts were produced, even if we was called Super Mouse for the first 7 films in the run. Like many cartoon characters, Mighty didn't finish up his theatrical career (having since gone on to TV stardom) the way he was initially developed.

It's a common story though... Mickey Mouse, the face of an ever-growing empire, is a long way from his humble, silent and black and white beginnings almost 90 years ago. He started out a pretty brazen adventurer, ended up domesticated by the '40s and turned into a business logo. The Donald Duck that the world loves today barely looks like his original self, even if his attitude has always been the same. Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker were both pretty rough and didn't sound much like their eventual selves in their initial shorts for Warners and Universal. It took years to figure out their most successful versions.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has had the truly weirdest path. His simple design, predating Mickey before being stolen from Walt Disney, changed gradually as he hopped through various studios, having his look switched several times – even going from being a black rabbit to a white, fluffy bunny for a brief period. He then disappeared for over 60 years, and once Disney got him back, he reverted back pretty closely to his original form. (In other words, the one he inhabited while still with Disney.)

But Mighty Mouse has had perhaps the most muddied path of the major recognizable cartoon characters from the twentieth century. He certainly has a high media profile, with his likeness consistently appearing on merchandising – much like Betty Boop or Felix the Cat – even though he is 30 years past his most recent regularly animated incarnation. His accidental connection to the career of Andy Kaufman has also kept Mighty Mouse tangentially in the limelight, even as recently as last week when Netflix premiered a new documentary about the making of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. (The film is Jim and Andy, and it is fascinating.) Certainly, his cachet with early television viewers stems from recognition as the title character of Mighty Mouse Playhouse starting in 1955, when he got a new theme song (the one the late Kaufman sang along with famously in his live act and on Saturday Night Live) and his shorts were thus syndicated for the next couple of decades. And then, of course, there was the great but infamous Ralph Bakshi series in the late '80s that got Mighty Mouse even more headlines for its controversial "poppy sniffing" episode.

But without the timing of the syndicated packaging of old Terrytoons shorts and those subsequent, fortuitous happenings to the character in the media eye, was Mighty as mighty as he seems to have been through the decades? Did the character himself warrant this success based solely on the original output from the Paul Terry cartoon factory, which churned out hundreds of similarly animated shorts over forty-plus years as a working studio?

I guess it comes down to your personal taste? Do you like Terrytoons in general? Some people think their cartoons are pretty second rate, in comparison to studios with higher budgets like Disney and Warner Bros. Other people think some of the Terry cartoons are at least outright funnier than the more family friendly Disney product, and I suppose one could make a case for characters like Heckle and Jeckle or Gandy Goose and Sourpuss having a leg up humor-wise on some of the gorgeously animated but rather tame Pluto or Mickey efforts in later years. I might even agree with that case.  

But how do you think of Mighty Mouse? When you think of his old cartoons, do you think of them as funny? Hilarious? Or just mouse-filled versions of the Fleischer Studios' ultra-realistic Superman cartoons, which were the real inspiration for the Mighty Mouse character. Of course, the original run of Fleischer Superman shorts ended a couple of months before Super Mouse hit the big screen for the first time in October 1942, but the Superman series continued on through summer of 1943 under the reins of Paramount's newly christened Famous Studios (which retained much of the Fleischers' staff, save for the brothers themselves). 

By the time the Superman series had ended, Mighty was still called Super Mouse for another two films. These initial films were all over the place in tone and humor, and especially in story range. First it was a straight Superman parody, then came a Frankenstein-type tale, then straight crime, then Greek mythology (Pandora's Box, featuring the first appearance of Mighty's most striking-looking villain, the Bat-Cats), straight crime again, a winter-themed tale (but with Nazi-like cats), and finally, a rewriting of an Aesop's Fable. In all of these forms, the set-up was that populations of mice were being downtrodden, attacked or frightened by outside forces, usually wishing to make a meal of them and quite often in the shape of cats, however transformed magically in some cases. But the cartoons were so nondescript as to be interchangeable. Yes, there were magical elements here and there, but each one tended to have scenes of mice fleeing from cats or cat-like creatures, mice trying to fight back but being overrun by greater forces, and all sorts of terrible things happening to the homes or towns of the mice in the wake of such attacks. There were gags here and there, but the overriding air was one of terror and the need for rescue.

And each time, the hero by the end of each cartoon was Super Mouse, sometimes brought to power by differing means, sometimes already being powerful, and never consistent in his appearance or costuming. It was almost as if there was no consensus on how Super Mouse should look amongst the Terry staff, and so they took turns each short throwing darts at a board filled with various combinations of looks and powers. Or maybe there just wasn't any excitement behind the character's development or creation.

The seventh cartoon came out in Nov. 1942, and then there was a full three month gap before the eighth short appeared: The Wreck of the Hesperus [which I have written about here: link]. Super Mouse had been changed to Mighty, and while there was still a small group of mice in danger on the ship in the title, the concentration was on three characters: a sea captain trying to weather a potentially fatal storm, his beautiful daughter whom he has lashed to the ship's wheel to keep her from being swept away, and a mouse who runs a lighthouse on shore but who is secretly Mighty Mouse in disguise! (Well, you could consider the group of sharks who remain constant foes throughout the cartoon as the fourth "character", but they are not important to my point.)


The narrowing down of characters in The Wreck of the Hesperus was a big change for the series, though it's construction would not pay off until later down the line. For the next half dozen shorts, the series would continue as before. Adaptations of fairy tales, another horror tale or two, more gangster cats running roughshod over mouse communities. In the 15th tale, The Sultan's Birthday, there was the next big change. Mighty Mouse, who seemed to look different in each adventure for one reason or another, finally got his classic look: the yellow suit with red cape and boots. One would think this would spark more imagination in the series, but no... it went back to being all over the map with the type of tales it told. More this, more that, just more of the same. Mice, villains, and maybe Mighty would show up in the last couple of minutes and save the day.

But somewhere in there was another slight change. In 1945's Mighty Mouse and the Pirates, the 17th short in the series, they made the short a full operatic musical. The pirates – cats, of course – all sang; the native islanders – who consist of a single, lovely, sarong-wearing heroine – don't, and neither does Mighty Mouse, who has a cape and shorts here, but loses his yellow suit briefly to appear bare-chested and footed to leap from the island's jungle depths and yell like Tarzan. But it's a foreshadowing of things to come, as opera (or at least operetta) will begin to turn up with increasing frequency. Also in 1945 would come Gypsy Life, an Oscar-nominated effort, which really concentrates on the singing and dancing, and brings the evil Bat-Cats back as well. And even the Bat-Cats get to sing. Best of all... Mighty finally opens his trap to sing too! He doesn't do "Here I come to save the day!" but he does get in "I am coming... never fear!"

Mighty would sing in a few other cartoons through the next couple of years, but our concentration here is really on how the series would split time between the generic rescue cartoons to which the series had grown accustomed, and a true separate sub-series within the main series: the cliffhanger serial operettas. We skip far ahead to the 44th short in the series, A Fight to the Finish, to find a far different type of cartoon. In this short, gone are the scores of mice being threatened by equally large groups of cats and other menaces. Instead we are greeted with a typical setting for an old-style melodrama – a railway station high atop a cliff – and find two combatants in the middle of a fight, as if we are seeing the next chapter of a serial adventure.

We meet the tall cat in dandy's garb named Oil Can Harry, he of the pencil thin mustache, and Mighty Mouse, now comfortable and instantly recognizable in his yellow and red garb. The animation is more rubbery and stylized than a normal Mighty Mouse cartoon as the pair duke it out inside the confines of the station. We also meet Pearl Pureheart, Mighty's love interest, she of the blonde, curly hair who consistently finds herself tied to something (a chair, this time at the beginning, and a log later in the short) and sorely in need of rescue. In the course of this adventure, a bolt of lightning sets fire to the station, Mighty will get tied to the railroad tracks, the fourth wall will be broken a couple of times, and Pearl will escape only to find herself in one horrid situation (including a buzzsaw) after another until Mighty regains his strength to escape the tracks and rescue his beloved. But while all of this is going on, the dialogue will turn out to be sung about 80% of the time in mock operatic style. While there were MM cartoons to this point with singing, this is the first time where the jokes are basically delivered in that style... and also where Mighty is a part of that ongoing dialogue. He even starts out the cartoon in the first scene and is a presence throughout it. A Fight to the Finish is a really fun short.

Oil Can Harry and Pearl Pureheart would become mainstays of the series, of course, but they were not in every following Mighty Mouse short. There was still a balance between adventures tales and the type involving the "cliffhanger trio", but even when they got together, they didn't always sing, such as in The Mysterious Stranger. (It can be debated as to whether Pearl, or rather, the character of "Nell" in that one, is actually Pearl, but Harry is really Harry.) But most of their shorts from this point forward together did involve operatic action.

At last, we get to the cartoon in focus this time around, A Cold Romance, the 55th film in the series. While this is not a Christmas cartoon, I have chosen the short for its wintertime setting, and also because it is set in the frozen north, most likely Canada, home of many a cliffhanger serial adventure and old-timey melodrama. Over the credit sequence, we hear the voice of Pearl Pureheart, as she trades line with a chorus of men's voices to give us the basis for a theme song...

Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!"

Choir: "The villain's on the loose again!"


Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!"


Chorus: "You'll have to cook his goose again!

Hear the cry of some poor maid
Crying out to you for aid..."

Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!

Mighty Mouse!
Save me!"

The film opens on a small mountain town draped in snow. Only one building is shown with smoke climbing out of its chimney, and it is to this place that our narrator will direct the action for us...

"In our last episode, we left Mighty Mouse at the Ol' Trading Post. As you remember, he was locked in a desperate struggle with the hated villain, Oil Can Harry. And so, let us continue... they're off!"

We see our hero, Mighty Mouse (I assume he is your hero as well), engaged in ferocious swordplay with a tall cat dressed in dark clothing. The cat, Oil Can Harry, sports a black suit with grey lapels, with spats and a hat to match. Using his foil, Mighty finally knocks off Harry's hat, and then cuts the villain into several slices, starting with his head on down to his shoes. Harry's various parts fly to the other side of the room and land first with his head upside down and then in the proper order from floor to ceiling. Harry rights himself, pulls out a new sword from his pocket (that's some power to have) and runs back to meet the tiny mouse in battle again. Once more, Mighty cuts Harry into the same assortment of pieces, Harry lands across the room in the same upside-down way, pulls out another sword and starts to run back to their eternal struggle.

"Outside," interrupts the narrator, "it is raining cats and dogs!" There is a loud boom of thunder and the screen quite literally shows cats and dogs falling from the sky and landing roughly on the ground, where they all scamper off in various directions. "As they continue to fight, the storm increases and the rain comes down in buckets!" After we see a brief interlude of Harry and Mighty in closeup getting ever more frenzied in battle, we naturally get a shot of buckets full of rainwater hitting the ground, the slats from the buckets breaking apart as they do. Back inside, it seems Harry is about to be bested by the powerful little mouse. Harry runs away to the bar and throws a bottle at Mighty Mouse, but it only crashes through the window behind the hero.

We then see a scene from outside as dark clouds roll over the mountains until our view is all but obliterated. "Then all at once, the lightning flashes..." says the narrator, "and what a piece of lightning it is!" After a couple of quick strikes, the lightning bounces around in several directors to make its own rather haphazard form of artwork on the screen. The lightning then hits the Ol' Trading Post and reaches Mighty Mouse inside. He is sent crashing through the back door of the building, where the lightning spears him into the trunk of a tree. Harry runs up to gloat, but first twists the ends of the lightning behind the tree to lock Mighty in place. "Heh, heh, heh!" he laughs, "Now for little Nell! She's as good as mine!"

"Meanwhile, unaware of what has happened, Little Nell is on her way to the North Pole, in search of seal skins for a new fur coat." We see a red helicopter piloted by Mighty's usual girlfriend, Pearl Pureheart, only here she is being called Nell, most likely because such a name was commonplace in melodramas of this type and even songs of the corresponding time period. In all other aspects of her character in this film, Nell seems to be Pearl, right down to her need to sing everything as in an operetta. And so, Nell/Pearl begins to sing of her travels...

"Oh, I fly through the sky in my little [cop-fay?]!
Up and away! Up and away!"

Down on the ground, Oil Can Harry hears the song of his intended victim and sings back...

"Oh, whatever goes up, must come down, so they say.
I'll have her this day!"

Harry runs to a taxi stop that rests on the beach, and calls out to the water for a ride. In seconds, we see a large sperm whale hopping through the water. When the great mammal glides up to the beach, he opens his mouth wide and Harry runs inside without hesitation. The whale then turns about and hops off towards the horizon. Meanwhile, Mighty Mouse struggles against the lightning bolt still holding him tight to the tree trunk. Back in the ocean, it is revealed that the whale taxi has windows on its sides, through which Oil Can Harry is able to look out into the water. The whale arrives at a sign that reads, "North Pole Station" and then opens its mouth once more to allow Harry to step out again. Harry runs up a subway exit and finds himself surrounded by ice and snow, as expected, but then ducks inside again when he sees Nell's copter whiz past the station.

Harry runs out and finds a sled attached to a large group of huskies sitting there. He picks up the whip, yells "Follow that plane!" and then cracks the whip over their heads. The lead dog leaps up to start running, as do the rest but the dog between the first and third dogs is just a small puppy, who spins about on the leash so it rides along upside down while the others run. Harry fires the lash a couple more times, and then hangs onto the back of the sled as the dogs really get going. Soon, they are going fast enough so that Harry's entire body is flying straight above the ground as they run. As Nell continues to whirl along across the landscape, Harry gives close chase, and then we once more see Mighty still struggling against his bonds.

Out in the ocean, Nell flies overhead, when a kayak pops up suddenly from under the water. Out of the hole in the top of the kayak climbs Oil Can Harry, who grabs a paddle and rows as furiously as he can after the whirlybird. He finally goes fast enough to affect a motorboat sound as he rows, but then has to climb out of the water with his feet sticking improbably through the bottom of the kayak, and run across the ice until he finds water again. He motorboats to the next section of land and disappears into the confines of the kayak as it pulls up to the shore. From out of the relatively small area inside the kayak leaps the entire dog sled team, one dog after another, followed by the sled and Oil Can Harry.



A chunk of round ice suddenly is knocked up into the air, followed by a goofy looking walrus. The ice lands on his head almost like a hat, but then the walrus sees Harry's dog team heading in his direction. His eyes bulge out in surprise, and then the walrus dives into the side of a snowbank, but the entire dog team runs straight into the side of the snowbank after him. When Harry hits the snowbank, we see his head remain above the top of the snow as the sled dogs plow through it underneath the snow. As the snow deepens, however, Harry disappears. At last, the team reemerges from the other end of the snow, only this time, each sled dog is riding atop their own walrus, as Harry relaxes in comfort inside the sled.

Harry, his legs crossed, pulls out a telescope and holds it to the sky, finding the fair Nell almost instantly. The mouse girl continues to sing in happiness on her flight, oblivious to the chase below...

"Oh, I fly through the sky in my little [cop-fay?]!
Up and away! Up and away!"

As she passes, a large group of seals answer her song with a chorus of barks. They leap excitedly into the water, clearly awaiting her arrival. The seals swim fast across the water and jump out onto the spot where Little Nell has landed her chopper. The seals line up for Nell, who gives them fish in return for their furs. The Blue Danube plays on the soundtrack, and as Nell sings, each seal unzips its fur – leaving each wearing long red underwear – and then barks its approval in time to the music...

"Please sell me your fur!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
"Oh, thank you, kind sir!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
Please sell me yours, too!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
And my thanks to you!
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
Now what have you ––!!!"


Nell is interrupted as the third seal unzips its fur and is revealed to be her archenemy, Oil Can Harry!! He sings...

"I am Oil Can Harry, and my price is just a kiss!"

Nell, never flustered, picks up a fish from the bucket and flings it at his face...

"And my answer is –– this!"

The fish slaps Harry hard in the face as Nell escapes on foot. She continues to sing...

"Oil Can Harry, you're a villain!"

He replies...

"I know it, but it's a lot of fun!"

Back at the tree outside the Ol' Trading Post, Mighty Mouse has had enough at last. He uses his heat vision to completely seer away the lightning bolt, melting it in a split second. Far away, as she continues to run, Nell sings in great desperation...

"Mighty Mouse! Please help me!"

And now, with the super-powered mouse in hot pursuit, he finally sings his signature phrase...

"Here I come to save the day!!!"

Oil Can Harry continues to run after Nell, but he cannot gain ground. Harry pulls a seltzer bottle out of his pocket and sprays it in Nell's direction. The girl is caught frozen in a small ice block which continues to slide slowly across the ice on the ground. Mighty catches up to them and attacks Harry, trading several punches with him. As the boys fight over Nell, her ice block keeps sliding, falling off the edge of the snow and onto a flume. All the while, she has begun singing Dixie, though for comedy's sake (in a gag repeated in many of the Mighty Mouse cliffhangers), the film cuts her off mid-verse...

"Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton,
Good times there are not forgot– –!"


We return briefly to the frenzied action of the Oil Can Harry v. Mighty Mouse match, where the combatants continue to trade hard blows on each other's chins. We then cut back to Little Nell, still trapped in her ice block, which zig zags its way down the flume, surrounded by numerous small rocks. She continues to sing Dixie as she enters the mill...

"Oh I wish I were in Dixie, I do! I do!"

The rocks are crushed into smaller pieces by massive hammer-blocks, and as Nell nears them, she keeps up her song, though she gets even less song out than the first time...

"Wish I were in the land of cotton,
Good times there are not – –!"

Back at the fight, Harry has taken to walloping Mighty Mouse with a tennis racket, while Mighty replies to each blow with an outrageously enlarged fist to Harry's face. Back at the mill, Nell hurtles towards the chain of pulverizing rock hammers. She sings...

"Look away, look away, Dixieland!"

Miraculously, the timing of her block as it speeds along the belt has it so each hammer narrowly misses her. However, she reaches the end of the belt, and it unceremoniously dumps her and her ice block right into the ocean. The ice block pops up atop the water, with Nell's head thankfully up in the air.

Mighty Mouse finally wrests the tennis racket from Harry's grip, and then pummels the villain several times until Harry is knocked down out of his suit and into the snow. Mighty jackhammers him to the surface and we see Harry in his winter underwear. They trade blows once again, but this time, Harry steps backward onto an ice ledge which breaks away under their weight. Harry drops like a cannonball into the drink while Mighty makes a more graceful dive into the ocean's waters. When Harry comes to the surface, he is in an ice block like Nell's, but placed far away from her. Mighty, too, is encased in ice, but he comes up next to his beloved's block. The lovers stare into each other's eyes, as Nell says, "Mighty Mouse! Thank goodness you're here!"



She kisses him as a heart forms around their heads. The heat from their kiss melts the ice straight away, until Mighty is holding her in the open air. A chorus starts to sing on the soundtrack...

"And now he's seeing Nellie home!"

To which Mighty replies as he flies the girl in his arms...

"Yes, I'm seeing Nellie home!!"

We then see that a group of six seals, three of them in their long underwear, are providing the chorus. As Mighty flies Nell/Pearl off towards the sunset in the mountains, the seals close out the cartoon...

"From the frozen north,
He saved our Nell,
and now he's seeing Nellie,
Seeing Nellie.
Seeing Nellie home!"

Fade out. The End.

It took me a couple of views to think about it, but I think the real reason they wanted to use the name "Nell" for Pearl this time was because of the closing song, I'm Seeing Nellie Home. The lyrics in the cartoon version are different, of course, for the real song has nothing to do with the frozen north or a bunch of seals, or even a cat and mouse in constant battle. I'm Seeing Nellie Home, also known as Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party or When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home, was written in the 1850s and is a rather gentle tale of romantic innocence. That said, my theory as to its inclusion was probably inspired by the use of the seals as the chorus at the end. One does not have to squint one's eyes (or brain, as it were) too much to believe that the seals are a stand-in for a minstrel show chorus, given their dark fur but lighter faces as shown in the film. It might be a bit of racial suggestion without needing to have characters appear in blackface. It is just a theory of mine, but I will stick by it.

Not that I wanted to make things sound bleak for a cartoon that I find thoroughly entertaining, if not a little creepy for the inclusion of the fur gathering scene itself. At least Pearl is attempting to shoot or club them, but just politely trade them a fish for a fur (along with a happy sing-a-long). But overall, A Cold Romance stands as one of my favorites of the Mighty Mouse cliffhanger operettas. It may have taken Mighty a long time and a hell of a lot of films to get to that point, but I am glad that he did. I know some people who really think the Mighty Mouse series, even the operettas, are dull and uninspired throughout, and I have even met a couple of people who don't like the operettas but do like the rest of the series. 

Myself, I prefer the adventures of Mighty, Harry and Pearl united in song, if only because it is those episodes, especially the animation and style, that are the real inspiration for the insane Bakshi version on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. I don't find many of the earlier Mighty Mouse shorts all that funny (and I don't even think most of them are really trying to be that way), but I think the operettas are intentionally much broader and therefore pretty humorous. And sometimes, even hilarious, especially when they break the fourth wall over and over again. I enjoy many of the entries in the series before their team-ups came along, but to me, the cliffhanger operettas are the best of the lot.

RTJ


*****

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




Friday, December 01, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Christmas Comes But Once A Year (1936)

Christmas Comes But Once A Year (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936)
Dir.: Dave Fleischer; Seymour Kneitel (anim. dir. uncredited)
Animators: Seymour Kneitel and William Henning
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

I figured there would be some sort of inevitability that either myself or some of my friends would end up looking like Santa Claus. Now middle-aged guys, getting larger as we get older, and some of us have facial hair that seems to be getting lighter and lighter and downright whiter as time slips past us. Of course, one can avoid this most easily by not being lazy and keeping one's face clear of shrubbery, and the next level would be keeping in shape so that one doesn't develop the potbelly and the extra chins that come with the basic design of the character.

This is not to say it is a bad thing, at least philosophically, to look like Santa Claus. He is, after all, a right jolly old elf, who brings good cheer to all and even greater joy to children all over the world. And as I said, if you check off factors like growing out one's beard, etc., it becomes increasingly easy to affect the look as one gets older.

What I did not factor in was that one or more of us might end up actually playing Santa Claus for real. Not in a small Christmas party sense or to a family full of kids in a household; anyone could end up doing that at any point if the scenario called for it. No, I mean straight up playing Santa Claus in a very public way, hearing Christmas wishes from kid after kid seated on your lap on a grandly decorated winter wonderland set. Maybe even surrounded by others in elf costumes, handing out candy canes to impatiently waiting urchins while you try to get the currently seated brat on their way before bursting out in tears. And that is what has happened, as I saw numerous pictures of one of my nearly lifelong friends playing the kindly old saint last week back home in Alaska. Not that my friend hasn't dressed up as Santa many times in the past, but now, with the passing of much time, he is definitely more well-suited to the role than ever before. Just as much of my old gang is.

And, lest you think I am shaming my friends in any way, just as I am. My weight is certainly in the Claus-ian range at this moment (though I hope to shed much of it soon) and even if I only have a couple of weeks of scruff on my face, it is pretty clear, should I wish to grow it out at length again, that it is coming in whiter than ever before. (For the longest time, blondie-blonde me had a beard that came in quite red once full; this altered in recent years to a Kenny Rogers' Roasters-white.) And the weirdest thing, before I saw my friend's pics, was that I was lightly considering – very lightly, that is... more of a passing thought – looking into opportunities as a mall Santa, since I have been having a remarkably hard time nailing down any sort of job. It has become increasingly clear to me that my age (just turned 53) is a big factor in why I am not getting any offers, and two years out of regular work is enough. [Side note: I did finally land a job this week, but I am not ready to discuss the details or even what it is yet.]

Now, the vast majority of my friends are theatrical types, i.e. actors, writers, directors, lighting designers, etc. The Claus gig my friend has is a natural extension of their theatre company, performed in conjunction with a city organization with the mutual benefit of gaining exposure for their children's theatre company. My pal has been keeping a pretty considerable growth of beard going for some time now, and has played role along the way in shows where the beard goes hand in hand with the character. It's a nice luxury, but the best part is that when the chance to play Santa roles around, he can be even more authentic with his healthy waterfall of facial roughage. In my case, were I to truly wish to capture a mall Santa job, I would most likely have to rely on the old fake beard guise, since my significant other does not like me to have facial hair. (And, silly me, I do like to kiss her on the rare occasion... so off the beard goes!) With a chin merkin in place, I just would never really feel like a real Santa because of this. I would feel a poser at all times, and that is just not good for my already weakened ego.

But what about Grampy? You know, the old Max Fleischer Studios star from the Betty Boop series? He could definitely fill the role of Santa easily, mainly because his wizened exterior already sports at least a lamb's worth of facial wool. Plus, Grampy has that mad twinkle in his eye that only the best Clauses have, which is paired with a relentless (and sometimes frightening) joviality that cannot be abated in any measure. Luckily enough, within the list of titles in the Max Fleischer Color Classics series from the 1930s, there is one that gave ol' Grampy the opportunity to, if not exactly be Santa Claus, at least allowed him to dress for the role and be the hero of an entire orphanage of miserable children: Christmas Comes but Once a Year.

Thankfully for the orphanage in this film, the holiday does only come once a year. If it was more frequently held, how could the orphanage ever hope to overcome the amount of damage Grampy would do to the kitchenware and furnishings in the household? Confused by this? Let me explain further...

Christmas Comes but Once a Year begins strikingly with another one of those marvelous establishing shots for which the Fleischer Studios were renowned in these Color Classics (and especially in their color Popeye shorts) in the 1930s. We see a three-dimensional model of an orphanage with the camera sitting to the side of the building at a perhaps 45-degree angle to the structure's front corner. Then the camera glides sharply to the right over to the gate in front of the orphanage and then smoothly slips through the gate, underneath the overhead sign and up to the front door itself. It almost looks like a POV shot if someone just down the street had found the building for which they were looking, and ran back to pay a visit. The Fleischers' invention and use of their "setback" camera allowed for such delightful compositions, though they were rather limited in their range beyond allowing a character to run along a single axis, tricking us into believing the two-dimensional character is moving in three-dimensional space. But for setting the mood instantly at the beginning of a cartoon (even if that mood ultimately promises more than it can deliver), the setback was a stunning device years ahead of its time.

In the case of this film, the effect allows for some impressive camera movement in the early stages of the story. As the camera swoops past the gate to meet the front door, we spy a traditional Christmas wreath. Within the ornament's circumference is, as one might expect in an orphanage full of wee ones hoping to attract a set of parents of their own, a childishly scrawled message on a piece of paper pinned to the door. The paper reads, "Merry XMAS," and the last letter – the "S" – is, of course, written backwards, the major signifier that either a small child (or the 45th president) has written the note. The shot dissolves to inside the home to a rather scraggly Christmas tree and then pans to the right to reveal a fireplace mantle with about a dozen mostly worn and re-sewn stockings hanging from it. The strains of The First Noel continue on through this scene, as the camera once more dissolves to the inside of the sleeping quarters for the orphanage.

The dozen kids in the big room sleep soundly in their beds, until a large clock on the wall chimes. A small door at the top of the clock opens up to reveal not a cuckoo bird, but a small puppy. The puppy is much in the vein of Fleischer star and Boop plaything Pudgy, though this little guy is all tan and has no black spot on his back. The tiny pup barks several times as part of his job within the clock and then he jumps on a slide that allows him to land on the stomach of a nearby urchin, waking the brat up instantly. The pup licks at the kid's face, causing the kid to giggle and then leap to his feet. The girl yells, "Merry Christmas, everybody!" and the rest of the kids in the room sit up from their beds to greet the holiday properly. Each one steps to the foot of their beds atop their mattresses, returns the first kid's greeting in unison, and then leap to the floor. They all start to sing...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"



Yes, it is the major downside of the Fleischer Color Classics: their ultimate and absolute commitment to cutesy-wootsy-ness. For a company that could produce down 'n' dirty, warts 'n' all, fairly adult productions like the Koko, Bimbo and Betty Boop team-ups and the incredibly raucous beginnings of the Popeye series, to see what happened once the Production Code moved in and cleaned up these movies is almost painful to behold. While the Bob Clampetts and Tex Averys of the cartoon world would continue to push buttons where they could throughout their careers, so much of animation in the mid-to-late '30s and throughout the '40s became addicted to mush of such sheer saccharinity that it almost makes me choke to death just writing that word. Of course, everyone was following the success of Disney's Silly Symphonies with their own series full of happy, chirping, singing babies, birds, animals, toys and baked goods come to life, itself all spinning out of a very public need for a blanketing of pure happiness due to the Great Depression, that one cannot fault studios too much when that seems to have been what audiences wanted.


Speaking personally, as I almost always do, these films usually don't gall me too much as long as the happily chirping singers and dancers are the animals, toys and baked goods I mentioned. In fact, I often find such films rather infectious, depending on the talents of the animators and other artists at work. But when it comes to kewpie-headed Campbell's Soup kids, I draw the line. I can barely stand to watch them, let alone have to listen to their squeaky voices invade my eardrums. But since I know there is some worthwhile stuff ahead in this cartoon, I can put up with them for a little bit. So, let's continue...

The kewpie kids here seem somewhat androgynous in appearance, with the only difference in design being the colors of both their hair and nightshirts. (Yes, I know they are not actually Kewpie doll characters; I am just calling them that because the little creeps remind me of kewpies.) To me, they all – including the kid that the dog licked awake – seem to be girls... all that is, save for one at the end of their dance line. While the girls la-la-la and dance barefoot upon the cold floor of the orphanage, the camera pans past them to a much smaller toddler bringing up the rear. He has a bald head except for a single hair sticking upwards from his forehead. He has been granted the role of singing the next verse, and as he bounces along in his too-long nightgown, he happily whines his part...

"You and me,
and he and she,
and we are glad because...
Why? Because, 
because, because
there is a Santy Claus!"

The "he and she" part of the song started to make me doubt my declaration that all of the other kids seemed to be girls, but then I decided that this little moose-nugget is just a stupid baby and doesn't know anything but his own crap. As far as I am concerned he is the only "he" in the place. Halfway through the last line, the little dimwit trips on the overflowing length of his nightgown and smashes his face right into the floor. The remainder of the kewpie heads continue their song, while I double down on believing that every last one of these cookiecutter kids (except for the dopey baby) are still chicks...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

As they sing, each kid reaches up to the mantle and pulls down their individual stockings (or at least, the next stocking in line) until only the toddler is left. He is almost too short to reach up and grab the decrepit looking article hanging from a nail at the very end of the mantle, which holds what appears to be a rather racially offensive sewn doll in it. Of course, and to his credit, the little brat gives it the old preschool try, rolling up his sleeves and making another leap that enables him to grab a single thread on the beat up sock that unravels it completely. He is then able to leap one last time to grab his ultra-racist prize.

A girl in front of the ratty-looking tree pulls a toy rifle out of her stocking and closes one eye to take aim with it immediately. We never see her target (nor does she need one), but when she pulls the trigger, the entire toy falls to pieces at her feet. She looks at the camera and cries wildly. Another of the kids blows up a football so hard that her face turns beet red. When the ball pops after being over-inflated, she too cries, wiping her eyes with her arm. Another child rides a tricycle that also falls apart on the first try, and then a fourth tosses a stuffed bear into the air. While at first it seems all is well after a couple of tosses, and she hugs the bear with immense affection, saying, "Oh, Teddy bear!" a couple of times, her joy causes her to hug all of the stuffing out of the poor thing. More crying ensues. At last, the camera pulls back to reveal a room full of bawling orphans standing on a floor littered with the remains of Christmas wishes dashed. (It almost plays and looks like a negative version of the Halloween dance sequence in It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!)

At this point, you might be thinking Santa Claus is a real jerk for bringing poor orphans such low quality toys. You might even think that he needs some serious quality control at the North Pole. Did he trade in his workshop for buying exclusively from the 99¢ Store? But, no, as I was hinting at in the beginning of this piece, Christmas Comes but Once a Year is not a Santa Claus cartoon. Well, at least not quite yet, but even when we do get dear Santy to show up, it is not quite as you expected. However, at this spot in the cartoon, when a sleigh rides to the rescue of the wee ones, it is good ol' Grampy driving the vehicle instead! Painted on the side of the green sleigh are the words "Prof. Grampy – Inventor," and this is most appropriate because the sleigh itself slides along the street under its own propulsion. The ever so clever Grampy has rigged the sleigh with an outboard motor that leads to a propellor that drives the cart through the snow like a boat through water.

As Grampy whips down the street, the elderly genius sings the same song that the orphans did earlier...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

As he slides down the street past the orphanage, Grampy hears the distant cries of the kids inside (who apparently have zero supervision) and turns the sleigh around in front of the gate as he asks, "What's the matter in here, I wonder?" Grampy, as always, is a veritable tornado of action in his motions. He slaps his shoes on the walkway in a neat rhythm as his legs more whirl than waddle to the front door of the orphanage. He peers through the window on the door and sees many crying children, with a couple of the kids wandering sloop-shouldered back into the dorm room. "Looks like a pretty gloomy Christmas for those poor kids," he states as he rubs his beard in thought. "What can I do?" In the manner of the Popeye cartoons, where much of what the characters say is not matched by corresponding mouth movements, Grampy too mutters much of his dialogue. He says, "Let me think," and then produces from his coat pocket his "thinking cap," a professor's mortarboard with a large light bulb screwed into the top of the board. Poking a finger at his temple and squinting, the old man works through a series of solutions. For a second, it almost appears as he has the answer, but the light bulb does not light up, meaning he was incorrect. Finally, the bulb not only starts blinking wildly, but makes a loud beeping sound!


"Hooray! I've got it!" he yells, and then he leaps over the railing of the porch and into the snow in the front yard. He starts to step through the snow, but each move causes a certain level of snow to stick to his boots. He rises higher and higher with each succeeding step, until he has enough snow stacked under his boots that he can easily reach a window on the side of the building. Now, I'm not really meaning to make Grampy's intentions seem at all creepy, but remember what I said about zero supervision at this joint? Not another adult in sight. The film is, of course, completely innocent and light, but a modern viewer – no matter how well versed in the mores and standards of decades past – can't help but be a little bit taken back at the scene where Grampy easily pops open the shutters on the orphanage and sneaks through the window (after meticulously shaking the snow off of each boot, of course). We know his intentions are pure and helpful, but it does make you wonder if, previous to the film, these kids have actually been abandoned during the cold, cruel winter or if the body of their caretaker is lying stock still on the floor of her quarters since early in the morning.

Regardless of the history of the place, Grampy crawls through the window and finds himself in the kitchen area of the orphanage. Spinning his rather nimble legs in his trademarked manner, he swiftly tosses off the outer layer of his clothing - consisting of his winter gear only – all of which lands perfectly folded into a neat pile in his arms, which he then places on a chair in the corner. The resourceful Grampy surveys the kitchen in a single glance and grabs a nearby bin full of assorted junk and pours all of it out onto the floor. Before one can get past the question of whether is he is just a mere vandal, Grampy runs to the china cabinet and throws all of the dishes, one piece at a time, into the pile, his arms and legs spinning wildly all the while. His progress continues across the kitchen, as he grabs any and all objects that cross his path as he moves past the other cabinets and the stove, and adds them to the now massive pile sitting in the middle of the floor. Dishes, flatware, cooking implements, cleaning supplies and even cans and boxes of food end up in the pile.

His next move explains his purposes fully: Grampy, with his big white beard and joyous smile, paired with the knowledge going in of his prowess as an inventor, is nothing more than a junior Santa seeking to stop the crying he heard cutting through the air from the dormitory. Setting himself at a long table next to the junk pile, Grampy begins his happy work, which is making brand new toys for all of the children from the objects in the junk pile. He grabs a washboard, straightens the hook on a pair of hangers and pushes them into the washboard like suspension rods, and adds a pair of flatiron bars to use as skis. To finish building what now looks like a brand new sled, Grampy does something that will probably have modern mothers turning off the television at this exact moment: Grampy picks up a box of nails and pours some of them into his open mouth. Using what must be superhuman powers, Grampy spits several nails at the bottom of the sled to affix the rails and other gear into place and then pushes the new sled off to the other end of the table. Using more junk and other bits, he next makes a toy plane, that buzzes past him when he winds it up and sends it flying. He uses the plume for a feather duster, an old sock, and a hand mixer to created a mechanical ostrich, which looks positively wretched and dangerous at the same time.

Time passes, and Grampy finally gets to the last few items in the pile, which he finishes by making a mandolin. As the camera scans the dormitory room once more to show all of the children crying into the pillows on their beds, Grampy is shown still hard at work (play for him?) where he has reconfigured a sewing machine Rube Goldberg-style to help him mass produce endless popcorn strings, with which he joyfully decorates the fireplace. But with the toys built and the room redecorated, what does Grampy have left to do? That's right: this party needs an actual Santa Claus.

Grampy runs to the kitchen and breaks apart the stovepipe to create boot-like coverings on his legs. He stuffs his shirt with a pillow, and then uses a red table runner to fashion a coat for a disguise. He simply punches his arms through the fabric to create holes for the coat; expending any further amount of energy into just how most of this stuff works or fits together will only create migraines. (And I'm the proof...) Turning a purse he has found in the kitchen (sure, Grampy, sure) into a red cap, and using a razor stop as a dandy belt with a picture frame for a buckle, Grampy looks for all the world like a perfect representation of jolly ol' Saint Nick. Spinning his legs as always, Grampy runs to the door of the dormitory and rings a dinner bell loudly while yelling out, "Merry Christmas, everybody!" The kids are slow to react to the noise at first, still intent on whining incessantly, but they finally realize that Santa Claus is there live and in person. At last, they shout their hero's name, and pour into the living area to see what toys he has brought.


Each new toy is tried out in turn by the kids. One hops onto a high chair affixed with wheels, which itself has been attached to a vacuum cleaner. The little girl throws the switch and rides back and forth through the room. Another kewpie head rides the bottom broken half of a rocking chair that has been turned into a hobby horse through the imaginative use of an overturned boot with an eye painted on it. Grampy is then shown pouring out the contents of a massive box full of cotton onto the stairs. Another girl finds a new train track – she cries out "Choo! Choo!" at its sight – where the train itself has been fashioned from an old tea and coffee set. Forks at the front of the coffee maker form a cowcatcher, small plates serve as wheels, and tea pots, sugar bowls and creamers work as cars for this peculiar train set. As the little girl switches on the tree, the coffee starts to boil in the pot, which creates steam to move the train through a tunnel made from a bread box and a bridge partially built with knives, on a track made of clothes pins and other objects.

Grampy is shown still working on the stairs, painting an elaborate winter scene on the walls as kids ski and sled dangerously down the stairwell atop the cotton "snow". But even more "snow" is needed... Above the stairwell, a suspended bar of soap swings back and forth over a cheese grater to create soap flakes which are then blown by a fan through the air to give the kids the impression of falling snow.

There is one last element that needs to be addressed, but Grampy hasn't forgotten anything. Grampy spins over to a stand full of numerous umbrellas and inserts each one into the next one, one after another, and then opens them all up at the same time to give the effect of a huge Christmas tree. Bending the hooked handle of the bottom umbrella, he power-shoves the base of the "tree" onto the center of what must be a very sturdy turntable. As the umbrella tree spins in circles, Grampy decorates it in record time. Grampy then invites all of the orphans into the room to see the beautiful, shiny umbrella tree. At last, everyone sings the words to the titular song once more...


"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!

You and me,
and he and he,
and we are glad because...
Why? Because, 
because, because
there is a Santy Claus!"

Once the singing starts, the film switches back to the obvious use of the setback camera, as the tree takes on a full 3-dimensional look as the characters from the film cavort in front of it. At first, the tree spins while the lights are on so all can see the fully decorated wonder of it, and then the lights go out, so that we can only make out the basic shape spinning while simple white lights simulate a night sky. While the effect of using the setback is always pretty neat no matter the context, a scene like this one is also where you see the drawbacks of the system. Once two-dimensional characters are manipulated directly in unison with the far more elaborate backgrounds, two realities are presented at once, and the effect is a little jarring in the case of this film. Regardless, the kids and Grampy continue their amped up, almost maniacal rendering of the song to its close...

"Christmas comes but once a year!
Now it's here, now it's here!
Bringing lots of joy and cheer!
Tra-la-la-la-la!"

Before heading into the last chorus, however, the image of the tree is replaced by that of a large Christmas seal stamp – with Grampy still visible beside it. The stamp shows Santa Claus surrounded by candles, along with the expected double-barred Cross of Lorraine. The words "Holiday Greetings" appear on the seal stamp, proving once and for all that there has never been a so-called "War on Christmas". After the final "Tra-la-la-la-la!" is sung in speed freak fashion, we reach the closing shot reading "A Paramount Picture" over its usual mountain setting. The End.


Let's tackle the obvious question first: Grampy is damned dangerous. His apparent disregard for whether tiny children should play with a train set employing electricity, knives and boiling water is troubling, even if these kids were supposedly from an earlier, far more hardy generation. By snapping things in two or bending items to make them fit his designs, are his junk toys any safer than the manufactured ones that had already fallen apart in the hands of the orphans? Kids are hard on toys regardless of origin; I think we are a single cartoon away from Grampy's toys leaving these kids in the same state in which he found them: crying in their beds once again. And that cotton on the stairs stuff is not going to give the kids enough support to ski, sled or even slide on top of it. Those kids are going to sink right into that stuff and more than likely break a limb or even their necks tumbling down step by step instead. Nice going, Grampy...

Grampy also seems to have no boundaries, especially in regards to breaking into establishments instead of knocking on the front door first. He doesn't hesitate at all to sneak in through a side window. In fact, that's just the beginning of his big plan. Sure, he is only planning to help the orphans out, but were he to be seen or caught in the act, no one is going to buy that as an excuse. Were someone to have actually been in the kitchen of this otherwise unsupervised institution, Grampy would be seen as nothing but a common prowler. Bursting through the window and throwing off some of his clothes in a building full of children... pretty suspicious behavior no matter how you view it.

But doesn't he make a fine Santa Claus in his suit made out of whatever he could find in the kitchen? He looks just perfect as Santa, and that is kind of the point of the film. His actions could seem suspicious today, but back then, he is nothing but a saint, coming to the rescue of the poor crying children and saving the Christmas spirit for them.

Grampy has always held the same problem for me that the little dog Pudgy does in the Betty Boop cartoons. They were characters that came in after the Production Code was installed in 1934, a code which changed the perception of Betty Boop from a wild, Jazz Age flapper to a more domesticated woman who keeps a home and has far tamer appetites. No more running around with Bimbo and Koko through surrealistic landscapes and Cab Calloway scores. Pudgy, who came first, and then Grampy, were meant to help tame Betty even further, and in fact, many of the cartoons featuring these two characters only had the poor girl as a supporting figure in her own series, sometimes barely at all. When I was much younger and seeing the run of Boop cartoons for the first time, I almost tuned out completely once the latter films started boring me to death. It was hard not to tune out, given the absolute craziness of the Boop films in their early stages, but over time, I came to embrace even the lesser films for their still excellent production values and sharp character animation. And Grampy and Pudgy came to grow on me eventually as well.

As for Christmas Comes but Once a Year, which was released to theatres in time for Christmas 1936, it too comes off as one of the lesser of the Color Classics. Grampy is his usual high-spirited self, despite how his actions play today, and the animation is of the expected quality of the Color Classics series. I just find the cookie-cutter kewpies more than a tad annoying, and therefore have a hard time caring about their caterwauling until Grampy shows up to help them. The movie tells its simple story neatly and efficiently, and Grampy's impossible toy inventions are a lot of fun. I do wish that more examples of the toys he builds were shown in action, but the film concentrates on moving the story forward instead, and so I accept that in trade. And it is bursting with Christmas atmosphere, and sometimes, that is all one really needs from a holiday cartoon.

In all, Christmas Comes but Once a Year is a colorful, if not slightly obnoxious, holiday ride that I revisit quite often over many holiday seasons. Still, I suggest that orphanages keep their windows locked these days. Even if Grampy comes sliding by on a souped-up Christmas sleigh...

RTJ


*****


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