Thursday, March 02, 2006

ALL'S WELL (1941)

It's hard to think of a cartoon character that I find more unappealing than Gabby. One of the mysteries of animation history that I will never be able to figure out is the supposed draw of Fleischer Studios' town crier character Gabby. My distaste for the character has nothing to do with the fact that he is balding and stubborn. Elmer Fudd was (is) both of these (though more bald than "-ing"), but he could also be lovable and charming, in his own way, and was probably the greatest straight man in all of cartoondom. Gabby has to pretty much carry most of the load in his short series of only eight cartoons, and the problem is that he doesn't have the personality to back it up. He just doesn't have charm -- any charm. Oh, they try to force the charm on you with his insistent singsongy but bland-as-chalk theme song, "All's Well" (hmmm... where have I seen that title before?), the full unveiling of which they trounce you with at the beginning of this film, but it doesn't work -- unless you are also an aspiring town crier... or a masochist.

All's Well is actually the third film in the Gabby series, but he actually got his start in Fleischer's similarly underwhelming 1939 feature film of Gulliver's Travels. Gabby is basically in the film to provide some comic relief in the picture, though the rival kings of Lilliput and Blefescu have better and funnier scenes than the crier. But, apparently, there was some public interest in his adventures, which can be the only good reason to commit his image to celluloid again. The best that can be said of Gabby is that he expends an admirable amount of energy and spirit into his effort to accomplish his goal; that he fails in both the goal and in entertaining the audience is the signature of the character. (Other characters spun off into their own series from Gulliver's Travels included the Blefuscu spies Sneak, Snoop and Stitch, and the pigeon Twinkletoes. All were slightly more appealing than Gabby, certainly better designed... and all were undeserving of further development in their own series.)

Tromping proudly through the kingdom, Gabby sings his aforementioned idiot anthem, which simultaneously stands as his boastful proclamation of his ability to keep the peace in the town. (As if this were his actual job!) Apparently, he thinks it is, for his song is cut short by the wail of bawling baby, who proves to give the lie to the chorus of Gabby's theme. Gabby puts it upon himself to calm the babe so that peace may yet again hold sway over the kingdom. It's actually not a bad set-up for a series... if your lead character happens to be a town crier. A song describing the peaceful state of affairs is sung; something happens to shatter that peace; and then the OCD town crier goes to any length possible (within the polite restraints of societal acceptance, that is) to bring back that feeling of serenity to the burg. But how often can it happen that a town crier character can helm his own series? Sadly, at least once; and we are left with the shabby Gabby in the "hero" role.

The baby at the cause of this disturbance could almost be a young Popeye, albeit with more hair, so tough and inventive he is in foiling the advances of the Creepmeister Gabby. That the baby is abandoned never seems to occur to Gabby, and he does nothing at all to try to locate the mother; weirdly, he almost immediately adopts a plan to get the tyke's kit up and bareassed for a diaper change. While it is possible that the kid could use a change to cause a change in attitude, it is really not Gabby's place to do so; but attack the brat he does without any further thought. Maybe the mothers in Lilliput are used to strange men just walking up to babies left out in their yards without supervision and then making odd attempts to playing with their kid's ass, but it is a very weird sight to modern sensibilities, and with good reason.

Without describing all of the monotonous action, Gabby makes numerous attempts at putting the diaper on the kid, and the baby foils him at every turn. He pulls out just about anything in a baby's meager arsenal to stop the creep, including punching him repeatedly, kicking him, throwing bottles at him, and even using a little Stroller Fu on Gabby. In fact, he does nearly everything that he can to Gabs outside of urinating or throwing crap at him, which would 1) probably happen if the film were made today, at least the peeing in the face part would, as it has basically become ingrained and oddly acceptable in the modern comic vision; and 2) cause a significant improvement to Gabby's appearance in general. The film ends with Gabby swearing to get the job done no matter what it takes, and then he does it. Only, he has diapered himself, and then walks proudly off into the sunset.

I will say this: the film has the usual high Fleischer standards of design and animation, with a couple of standout sequences in the baby vs. creep melee. They do spend an amazing amount of time in the film centering all of the action in, on, under and around a simple baby carriage, and come up with a plentitude of variations on how not to diaper a baby. There is also a quick, cute cameo by a squirrel who gets inadvertantly diapered, which is briefly amusing, and the baby himself is an enjoyable nemesis for Gabby. All of this raises the film, or keeps it, depending on your point of view, sitting at middling status, for the entire operation is kept at plumb by the cosmic indifference of the Gabby character. How Fleischer could fail at making him interesting, with all of their success with lesser materials, is beyond me. Seemingly, it was beyond them, too.

All's Well (Max Fleischer, 1941) Dir: Dave Fleischer
Cel Bloc Rating: 5


Anonymous said...

this comment is just a request to make the font on your articles slightly larger for clarity and ease of reading.
all the best

matt fosberg said...

I don't know ya anonymous, but I'll let you know that in most browsers there is a way to do that all by yourself. Just look through the preferences of your preferred web browser and you'll find the text size parameters.

Just a tip from your friendly neighborhood Mattman