Thursday, November 30, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas... Once Again!!

You know, when it comes to movies and pop music, I have never had a problem with mixing my holidays together. One of my favorite Christmas songs has always been Monsters' Holiday, Bobby "Boris" Pickett's follow-up to his worldwide smash, Monster Mash. With its silly but cute story of Frankie, Drac, and the rest of Pickett's monsters plotting "to steal Santa's sleigh," the song is the natural ancestor to Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, a film that I have championed since its original release. Even though I have tired in recent years of Jack Skellington's omnipresence in the Disney park stores, I still delight in seeing the Haunted Mansion transformed each year for a few months. And the film itself, which needs to stand as the true measure of the original story's strength, has never stopped delighting me. And I never cared that Halloween dripped into Christmas, or if Christmas overlapped the other way, as long as the results were charming and fun.

Despite this, it's odd how hard I fight to keep Christmas tamped down elsewhere in my life while Halloween festivities are ongoing. All through late September and straight past the 31 days of October, I am proactive in quashing or at least decrying every effort that the retail stores and broadcast television channels make to push the Christmas season forward so that it interferes with other holidays. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I don't want Hallmark to start their Christmas TV movie season on October 27th, right while I am in the middle of feasting on monster movie after monster movie. Though I adore so much of the music, I don't want to hear any Christmas carol stations until we are at least a couple of weeks deep into November, if not December 1st. After that, I will be singing along like anybody else. And I definitely don't want to walk into any store in late August and already see racks of Christmas decorations starting to pop up, even in a low-key way. For me, the month of October (especially) is for one thing only: Halloween.

Scheduled for posting tomorrow, Dec. 1st.
After that, the lines blur fast, even for me. Just when is it appropriate to begin celebrating Christmas? Well, for Christmas' part, it's really not hard to run over Thanksgiving. We all cherish it and the vast majority of Americans celebrate it, but really, it's a pretty weak sister (at least in a merchandising sense) to the other two major holidays that sandwich it. Yeah, some of us (not me) still pay lip service to "giving thanks" but really, the holiday is actually about cramming a big turkey dinner down our throats, watching boring football, and getting a four-day vacation from your job. And I also think many of us pretty much consider Thanksgiving to be the natural start of the Christmas season. I know my wife and I were pretty regular in setting up our Christmas tree and decorations on Thanksgiving weekend, once we got past Turkey Day itself. (Not this year, though; we won't start putting stuff up until this weekend.)

Scheduled for posting on Dec. 4th.
Here on Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, Christmas starts properly and promptly on December 1st. Two years ago, I attempted to start a tradition on this website by posting articles about ten Christmas or winter-related classic cartoons for the holiday season. This is much in the same way that I have been posting scary cartoons for Countdown to Halloween each October, the difference really being that my Christmas posts don't coincide with an additional reach for expanded readership by connecting through an outside website. For Christmas, I am on my own to grab viewers for the toons and readers for my words. One year ago, I had hoped to continue this new Xmas tradition, but then I got a serious hip injury that kept me off the computer for most of a few months. I had the films lined up and the templates of the posts built, but I just couldn't sit for more than twenty minutes at a time most days, and so the project went by the wayside.

Scheduled for posting this month.
This year, everything – including me – seems to have gone back to normal. I got through October without an injury this time, and even warmed up for the holidays by publishing a Thanksgiving cartoon post last week. So now, it is time to announce that, starting tomorrow on December 1st, I will spend the month of December presenting yet another set of classic animated shorts either set in wintertime or dealing directly with the Christmas season.

Unlike at Halloween, when I have posts over most of my blogs and websites, I currently concentrate on cartoons only for Christmas (though that doesn't mean I won't expand to film and music in the future on the Cinema 4 Pylon). I have ten cartoons picked out for concentration this year, spread across many studios so that we have a more rounded picture of how animators of the past approached a similar subject. Pluto, Tom and Jerry, Grampy, Chip and Dale, Woody Woodpecker, and Mighty Mouse will all make appearances this year, and there will even be a classic Tex Avery MGM short in the mix.


Scheduled for posting this month.
Due to a currently developing employment situation, I am not going to fully commit to naming the titles here, just in case I end up with not quite as much time as I would hope to get these reviews finished. But I will tell you that tomorrow (Dec. 1), I will publish my piece on the 1933 Grampy short from Max Fleischer called Christmas Comes but Once a Year. A couple days after that will come a review of the 1949 Mighty Mouse melodrama, A Cold Romance, which may not have Christmas anywhere in it, but is a fun Mounted Police operetta that takes place during the Canadian winter. Third will come a film about which I have put off writing for many years now: The Great Toy Robbery (1963), a short from the National Film Board of Canada that actually serves as one of the most influential cartoons in my life. And if I don't get to anything else after those three, I will at least hopefully write about MGM's Peace on Earth, the Hugh Harman-directed, Oscar-nominated classic from 1939 which is both impossibly beautiful but also completely harrowing in its dark vision of mankind's future due to its insistence on constant war.

After that, it is all up to timing on my part to see what I can get done by the time Christmas actually rolls around. I may get to all ten films – I am going to do my best to get to all ten – but regardless, there will be numerous cartoon classic presented leading up to the big day. I hope you wil return regularly throughout December for more fun in my It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas series. In the meantime, if you want to get your own Christmas cartoon season going a day early, you can check out my published pieces on Christmas shorts from years past below. Have fun! 

And Merry Christmas (one day earlier than I normally allow myself to say it)...

RTJ

It's a Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas 2015 + Thanksgiving Special
Each photo and title are linked to the article for that cartoon. You can also watch each short within the page for that article:


Tom Turk and Daffy (1944)
The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives (1933)
Toyland Premiere (1934)
Jack Frost (1934)
Santa's Surprise (1947)
Hector's Hectic Life (1949)
Snow Foolin' (1949)
Broken Toys (1935)
Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus (1949)
Gift Wrapped (1952)
Bedtime for Sniffles (1940)

Still in the mood? Here's an older post that I updated (fairly) recently:

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

And finally, here is a Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse cartoon without a Christmas or winter theme, but which has a pretty good Santa Claus gag right smack dab in the middle of it:

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thanksgiving Special: Pantry Panic (1941)

Pantry Panic (1941)
Dir.: Walter Lantz (uncredited)
TC4P Rating: 7/9

Yay! It's November, and not only that, it's Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving, but one thing I am not enjoying is the weather. Here in Southern California, it is going to be above 90 degrees Fahrenheit once again today, as it has been all week long. Let me stress this: I am an Alaskan boy borne and bred, and while I did move to So Cal willingly a dozen years ago, that doesn't mean that I ever have to like the weather here. It's always going to be too hot to me in this place, no matter how much I might acclimate myself.

For the past couple of weeks, the weather toned itself down from the 100-degree heights we were topping in late October (when we had some pretty surprised friends in from out of town). For a good dozen days or so, we had been able to cut down on the electric bill a good deal by being able to turn off the AC in the house, keep all the windows open upstairs and downstairs, and let the house cool and heat itself naturally. The winds have been downright pleasant – just the right amount of velocity matched with coolness – and with the toned down mood of nature has come a more relaxed state of mind and body. At least, you know, speaking for myself.

And now... this week happened. Too hot for the season, too hot for the house or to do anything outside, and just too hot for me. Looking to the skies in recent weeks, flocks of Canadian geese have come whipping through our area, honking loudly in near unison as they pass above my head on their way to potentially warmer climes. No one gave them the memo that this place never cools down much at all, so pass us they do. Me, I would dearly love to join them in their flight, if only I had enough airfare to secure myself a pair of nifty wings like theirs, wherever it is that they end up is where I wish to be right now.

Woody Woodpecker is exactly the sort to stay put when the rest of his neighbors take off seasonally, and that is just what he does in the third official cartoon in his long-running series, Pantry Panic, released originally in 1941. (It is actually the fourth film in which he appeared, as he first showed up in an Andy Panda short called Knock Knock.) The Woody in this cartoon is not exactly the one who is fondly remembered by a couple of generations of Baby Boomers and their offspring. The voice is certainly there, though not yet in its most recognizable form, but his look is a little more haggard, and far from the more streamlined, domesticated version of his most popular self. Woody is drawn here to look almost completely mad from the start, and his behavior is completely ravenous and unhinged, especially when compared against later efforts.

At the beginning of Pantry Panic, we are presented with a scenario roughly approximating my wishes, only the temperature threat is the complete opposite of my situation. In a small town comprised of numerous bird houses built among some trees in a forest, the local weatherman – a Professor Weatherby Groundhog, who proclaims himself via signage as a "Weather Forecaster Extraordinary" – runs out of a door built into the side of a small mound, itself surrounded by forecasting equipment and a large thermometer. The bespectacled groundhog pins his forecast to a weather bulletin board in the center of town, and then proceeds to ring a bell alerting the townsfolk, but each time he reaches up to pull the rope his plump furry body seems to leave his pants behind in midair. The local birds pop their heads out of their houses one by one, and they both run and fly to the town square to read the announcement.

The bulletin reads: "Underground News Service: Terrific cold wave headed this way... All birds advised to go south at once!" One panicked bluebird cries out, "Weatherman's right! We'd better go south right away!" All of the other birds, as one, respond, "You bet!" and then scatter in every direction. One bird couple, to the cry of "Winter's coming! Winter's coming!," closes up their shutters and hang a sign on their house reading "Closed for the Winter." Another bird, who keeps a worm in a small cage, pushes his house inside a hole in a tree trunk and zippers it shut. An entire bird family (with a pet cricket in tow) runs off but leaves an egg behind. The little egg pops legs, arms and head out of its shell, and runs after the rest of his family in great haste.

Woody Woodpecker, always selfish and never heeding the advice of others in his community, is determined to enjoy the day swimming in the local pool. "Boy, oh boy!" he exclaims, "What a day for a swim!" However, he is distracted by the frantic disembarking of his neighbors to parts far south. From atop his diving board, Woody spies dozens of birds and other creatures as they charge past a sign pointing to Miami, with the distance of "1234½" (miles) chiseled into it. What looks like a Civil War vet bird warns him first, and then a well-dressed goose tells him, "You'll freeze to death if you stay here!" Finally, a dizzy-eyed bird adds, "And you won't have any food left either!" But Woody pooh-poohs their ideas, claiming, "Don't worry about me! I've got plenty of food. Right now... I'm goin' swimmin'!" and dives into the water, laughing his trademarked, famous laugh as he does. If the birds were ants, he'd be the grasshopper...

Hitting the water, Woody pops back up to the surface wearing a goony grin and with a lily pad atop his head. He takes his time to pull and then sniff deeply of the bloom from the flower on the lily pad, never noticing that the wind is starting to whip up from the north. The air begins to cool quickly, and as Woody bounces once more on the diving board, the wind freezes the air around him enough so that when he starts to fall towards the water, it is with his entire body encased in a large block of ice. He hits the now frozen surface of the pond hard enough that his block of ice shatters around him. "Sheesh...," Woody says to the camera, "...must be hard water in this place!" 


He stands up, but the winds blow him up into the sky, where a pair of clouds bat him back and forth like a badminton birdie. After a few hits, one of the cloud forms smack him hard enough that he plummets back to earth at a high velocity so that Woody gets rammed backwards through the mailbox in front of his house, ending up with his tail-feathers sticking out through the open end.

We next see a title card that reads, "The Next Day and 130° Below Zero". There is a brief pause, and then the words "Seems authentic" pop up in parentheses. At Woody's home, both the mailbox and his house are shrouded in deep snow. Seated at his dinner table, where he has placed a massive meal that surely must be most of the food in his possession, the uncaring woodpecker taunts the freezing wind rattling the shutters of his windows. "Go ahead! Blow your head off! See if I care! It's nice and warm, and I've got plenty of food!" The ferocious wind attacks his front door as well, pushing the door in at the top and bottom, but with the lock keeping the door in place ultimately. Woody taunts the wind again, saying "Go ahead and blow!" and spitting in the direction of the door as he blows back at it.

This was probably not a wise thing to dare in his case, as the door suddenly blasts open, carrying some snow in with it, and then a miniature whirlwind forms in the doorway. It whisks across the room and sucks up all of the food lining Woody's table, save for a single banana still held in Woody's grasp. The woodpecker's taunting comes back to haunt him as the whirlwind returns to suck away the banana as well. Woody yells at the whirlwind and chases it, but all he manages to do is to grab its tail, which spins him about and spits him out on the floor. The whirlwind speeds back through the doorway and off over the hill, carrying Woody's vast stores of nourishment with it.

Another title card pops up, this time reading: "Two weeks later, his food all gone, STARVATION stares Woody in the face". (The word "starvation" flickers on the card slightly to draw attention to it.) Sure enough, a shrouded death figure sits creepily staring across the table at the forlorn woodpecker, but Woody is clearly too tough to give in just yet. Even as the cigar-chomping ghoul laughs in his face, Woody gives it right back to the ghostly figure, laughing wickedly in return, and making it almost nervous as well.

A third card arrives to tell us, "One month later, there comes to this snow-bound village, a poor, hungry little kitty cat." Outside, mewling innocently and sadly near Woody's mailbox, is a tough-looking black and white cat wearing a winter cap and a scarf. To the camera, the cat grins wide and says in a growly, Amos 'n' Andy-style voice, "I'm that hungry kitty cat you just read about!" He meows inappropriately (given his actual maturity) once again, and then tells us, "I'm sorry hungry I could eat a..." He looks at the mailbox to find out what his next prey will be. "A... a woodpecker!" he says as he lines the word underneath with his clawed finger. The cat knocks on Woody's door, and the woodpecker excuses himself from his battle with the deathly figure at his table. "Pardon me, buddy! That's probably the grocery man!"


Woody answers the door, and both he and the cat jump in place when they spy each other. While it would seem obvious that the cat would covet the large talking bird for dinner, it seems Woody has surprisingly equal designs on the predator in return. With drool dripping fast from their mouths, each one imagines the other stuffed and steaming atop a large platter. Woody invites the cat into the house for dinner, but when the cat asks Woody what he is having, the bird says, "I'm gonna have cat... er, fish." Woody gets right to the point: murder. He says, "Lemme help you with your scarf!" and then proceeds to grab the scarf at both ends and tries to strangle the evil kitty. The cat, however, manages to slip out just in time, leaving Woody holding a knotted scarf. To the camera, the cat holds his sore neck and says, "You know, I think that pigeon tried to choke me!"


Woody tells the cat he must be cold from being outside, but the cat denies it. Woody insists that the cat step "over by the fire," which in this case means his open oven. The ravenous woodpecker pushes the cat inside and slams the door, proclaiming, "Oh boy! Feline fricasee!" and then whistling his joy. While Woody sets the table in a single dash and goes to grab catsup as a condiment, the cat pops out through the burner on the stove and hides. Woody returns to pour some catsup on his meal, but has trouble finding it as he peers in through the oven door. The cat advances on Woody with a huge meat cleaver, but Woody hides inside the burners of the stove. The chase turns into a predecessor of Whack-a-Mole (or even Itchy and Scratchy) as Woody leaps up out of the each burner as the cat takes a swipe at him with the cleaver.

Eventually, the cat gets carried away with his relentless swipes, so Woody decides to get right to the point. He pours catsup on the unknowing cat's tail and attempts to gnaw at it like a piece of corn on the cob. The cat, though, breaks his trance in time to pull his tail from Woody's attack. Woody speeds away as the cat first throws the cleaver at him, which crashes through the wall behind Woody, and then throws pots, pans, knives, and other kitchen implements in Woody's direction as the bird taunts him by spitting a raspberry and making faces at the cat. Woody yells, "You missed me!" but then the cat pins the bird against the wall by the neck with a grilling fork. "Now, my fine pigeon," says the cat as he marches up to Woody's face, "I'm going to pick you dry!" However, Woody has other ideas, and bends the handle of the grilling fork downward so that it springs up and clocks the cat on his chin. The force of the blow sends the cat flying across the room and into a large pot hanging in the fireplace.

Woody runs up to tend to the fire, but the cat reaches out and pulls the bird inside. A fight commences, in which he see the pot take the shape of both combatants. The battle sends the kettle rolling across the floor of the household, with sections of the metal container continuing to warp into the shapes of the adversaries. Finally, the cat lands a solid blow inside the overturned kettle, and lifts it up to show Woody has really gotten his bell rung. Suddenly, there is a mooing sound by the doorway, and both enemies spy a large, rather shabby-looking moose standing there. "Meese!" says Woody; "Mice!" says the cat. Then Woody says, "Moose!" and the cat replies with "Meese!" Both run to the door, a knife in Woody's hands and a cleaver in the cat's. They chase the moose out of the house and over the hill.

In the next shot, there is a huge pile of bones, and the camera pans right to show Woody and the cat greedily finishing off the last couple of bones. The moose's head, with exes in his eyes in the grand cartoon style, is mounted on the tree next to the cat, who exclaims, "Well, that was pretty good... but you know, I'm still hungry!" Woody, who suddenly (and for reasons I cannot surmise) has lost his helium-drenched voice, replies, "Yeah? So am I!" Woody picks up his knife with a wicked look straight into the cat's eye. The feline once more grabs his cleaver, and the two end up in a cloud of frenzied fighting to close out the picture. Roll the credits.

We hear a lot about just how violent the old Tom and Jerry shorts were, and I think it is both an exaggeration in most cases, though a few of the films still resonate as over the top in such violence. And while Tom was indeed trying to eat Jerry in some of them, more often he was just trying to get the better of him, since Jerry usually came out on top of everything. (And sometimes they even ended up working together and were downright friendly with ear other.) Clearly, Tom and Jerry were the basic model for Itchy and Scratchy (whom I name-checked earlier), but there were others out there creating cartoons that were just as blood-soaked in their outcomes. Think of Chuck Jones' trilogy of "rabbit season" shorts where Daffy gets his face blown off over and over and over again in increasingly inventive variations, or Freleng's Mouse Mazurka, where first a mouse and Sylvester drink nitroglycerine and explode while Russian dancing, only to end up chasing each other in the afterlife. (In Sylvester's case, he outright commits suicide to continue chasing the mouse, who only exploded by accident.)

I think Pantry Panic matches any of these films, or even many of Avery's MGM adventures, for manic intensity, especially once it gets away from the cutesy bird stuff at the beginning and Woody starts to starve to death. (It's not the only time Woody would face such a scenario either.) I rather like the more screwy version of Woody here; he would eventually get a little too docile and self-explanatory for me ("Boy, I better go do this before..."), and so it is great to see him just leaping into action here, almost before he has had a chance to even realize he is attempting those actions. He seems genuinely unhinged at every moment of this cartoon, and while I find that most appealing on its own level, I do understand creator Walter Lantz had to tone down his character eventually (just as most other major cartoon characters were).

Edging into the more horrific implications of this cartoon, the jump cut to the pile of moose bones and then the sight of the murdered moose's head on the tree are some really morbid touches that shock me today, even with my supposedly more open sensibilities to such things after decades as a horror movie fan. And there is just something delightfully gruesome about seeing two cartoon characters completely dispatch another character to whom we were just introduced mere seconds before. I know we are talking about a bird and a cat killing a moose to survive, but because these characters walk, dress, act and talk more like humans, it adds a level of confusion in identifying them as mere animals. As a result, in an effort like Pantry Panic, it plays in my head more like a cannibalism motif than one species of animal attempting to devour a different species. I see the differing species as humans instead and that establishes the mood of cannibalistic fever in my head. Then the film comes out seeming like another play on Charlie Chaplin and Mack Swain having fever dreams and sizing each other up for dinner in The Gold Rush (1925) or even the twin starving Yosemite Sams that eventually go after the duck in Along Comes Daffy, but start out imaging each other as delicious foods. (There are so many other examples out there; it's a standard comedy trope.)

No problems here at home food-wise. I will not be sizing the Blueberry – our beloved cat – up for a pie, as we have plenty of desserts waiting in the kitchen below. Even now, as I finish this, the smells of turkey breast, gravy (gluten-free, of course), equally GF stuffing, and – the greatest of all Thanksgiving foods – green bean casserole are wafting upstairs to my office. I have thus far avoided going outdoors today, and that is fine with me since my weather app tells me it is a solid 93 degrees out there (3:00 p.m. PT). I don't have any fear of diving into a swimming pool and finding myself encased in a giant ice cube like Woody Woodpecker today, but neither would I be jumping into a disgusting pool in the first place.

With the slightest bit of luck, I would be celebrating today in somewhere much cooler, such as my old stomping grounds in Alaska, where is cold and snow and a lot of great friends (and a wee bit of family left). Or somewhere else where it is not 93 degrees. Oh, boo hoo, you might say, especially if that sort of weather appeals to you. That's fine, but it's not for me at all. Not a sun guy; definitely a rain guy, and still a snow guy. But I suppose that I should just accept my fate, since I have a wife that I adore and we have established ourselves down here in So Cal.

Me, I am just happy to have watched some cartoons (and a couple of old movies) today, along with a good chunk of the annual MST3K Turkey Day marathon, on my way to a tryptophan-induced (not really) food coma in about an hour or so. And somewhere tonight I will indulge in pumpkin pie (still GF). It's really how all days should go in this world that has been largely designed to drive us crazy. Why just this one day a year and not 365, I will never surmise. But I guess I am thankful for this one, if I can be thankful of anything in the past year. And believe me, it has been tough being thankful for even that one thing.

So let's just close with me saying Happy Thanksgiving to all of my friends, family and fellow animation fans. I love you all.

Now I just need to win me some airfare up to Alaska...

RTJ

*****

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