Monday, April 24, 2006

Humpty Dumpty (1935)

Humpty Dumpty (An Ub Iwerks ComiColor Cartoon, 1935) 
Dir.: Ub Iwerks
Music: Carl Stalling
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

I'm not going to get into the supposed and varied sources of the nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty. There are enough places that already deal with the whys and wherefores and whats, and I feel as much need to make sense of it all as do the animators who have brought cartoon life to the character over the years. Cannons, kings, blah, blah, blah! 

The disparity between how much information we actually have about Mr. Dumpty, given the brevity of his poem, and the amount of times he has been employed over the many decades in comics and animation is astounding. This is all the information anyone gets from the start:

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king's horses and all the king's men
couldn't put Humpty together again."

The poem tells you so little, not even the seemingly necessary fact that Humpty is, indeed, an egg; though as this poem is meant as a riddle leading to that conclusion clears that mystery up for good. It is taken for granted that Humpty is an Ovoid of Notorious Balance; what has not been mentioned is that his skills clearly qualify him for most junior varsity gymnastics teams. (Were he created today, Humpty would possibly be some sort of a combination of idiot narcissist and daredevil, probably the forerunner in the quite narrow subgenre of X-Treme Dairy Products.)

Lewis Carroll was obviously bemused enough with the situation to clear it up for good in Through the Looking Glass, which is one of the early instances of Humpty being given more life than he possessed previously in this tidy little quatrain. In fact, Carroll skewers the structure of the poem by having Alice comment "That last line is much too long for the poetry" (given by Carroll as "couldn't put Humpty Dumpty in his place again," thus making it more ponderous than before).

In 1935, Ub Iwerks, like many studios in the 1930s, took to spending a good deal of time and money trying to compete with Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies series, and started a series, produced in the red-and-blue, predominant, two-color Cinecolor system, called ComiColor Cartoons. Like all of the Symphonic copycat series (and “copycat” is not a putdown, mind you!), the ComiColor shorts were generally cutesy and childlike. They were also severely lacking in the story department.

This does not mean that there weren't some good cartoons in the bunch, along with some excellent characterizations and quite memorable moments. One such cartoon (fun to watch, but with a story so weak you can hear its knees quaking from the strain) is the Iwerks updating of Humpty Dumpty, brought into the modern world with cheap melodramatic devices and poppy jazz. After all, when even the toddlers of the world have your source poem memorized, the only way to go is to set it finger-snappin’ music...

The film opens on a storybook where the credits are presented, and when the page turns, we are shown a window with wooden doors that open up and introduce us to the three main characters. As this is an update, the first egg is Humpty Dumpty, Jr., the son of the late wall-tumbler; the second is his lady love, the beauteous Easter Egg; and the third is the foul-mouthed villain, The Bad Egg. He is quite literally foul-mouthed: a stench wafts from his maw as he sneers at the audience, who cascade him with "Boo! Hiss! Boo!" which is apropos. The action proper begins with the camera showing us a picture of the late Humpty Dumpty, and a choir sings us a chiming version of the poem. It pulls back to reveal his son, Junior, who sits precariously atop the lip of a vase, and continues singing his story:

"My old man may have sat on a wall;
He slipped and had a very great fall!
But I'm Humpty Junior, 
I'm just like my pop!
I climb where I please!
They can't make me stop!"

His mother, sweeping the counter with a broom and worried beyond reason, intervenes, but almost causes her son's death inadvertently. She yells, "Junior! Come down from there!," and Junior is startled enough to lose his balance and fly down towards the ground. Luckily, his mother catches him in her apron. She tells him, "You be careful! That's how your father got cracked!" Junior slinks off, all the while hanging his head in shame.

Enter the heroine, Easter Egg. She skips along cutely, tapping various kitchen items with a stick, and Junior thinks fast and greets her with an armful of greens that he has plucked from a dinner plate. A light jazz number kicks in, and Junior serenades her:

"The moment you arrived, I had a feeling
I'd never be contented 'til we met!
But otherwise it ain't quite so appealing
So won't you join me in an om-e-lette?"

She then joins him in the chorus, as they rock back and forth as they literally spoon within a tablespoon:

"Oh, spooning in a spoon!
We don't need a moon!
Poached or fried or on the side
Morning, night or noon!
Scrambled in a tune,
Deviled with a croon!
In a cup, you're sunny side up,
Spooning in a spoon!"

As they cavort and sing, a kick-line of leggy she-eggs join them through the course of the tune, while The Bad Egg lurks jealously about in the background, peeking and sneering at their act, resplendent in traditional villain's curled mustache, tails, spats and top hat. The pair of love-eggs (I suppose that would make them pre-lovebirds were they fertilized properly) kiss sweetly and repeat the second half of the chorus, but then the villain stomps on the spoon handle, sending the pair flying into the air and onto their oval keisters. The Bad Egg tells Junior to "Scram!" and pushes him down, kidnapping Easter Egg, and carrying her off for his own twisted take on the process of love. Junior attacks him but only gets punched in the eye and knocked down again.

The Bad Egg carries Easter high up on the kitchen shelves where he puts the moves on her, but she runs and tries to stop him with anything in her path: a box of matches, a tomato can, and pepper, which she blows in his face, causing him to sneeze. Junior reaches the top shelf and charges the pair, but the Bad Egg roughly throws Easter off the shelf and down into a pan full of boiling water. She screams for help as Junior battles the villain, but finally the lovestruck hero breaks away from the melee and rushes to her aid.

Junior fashions a lasso out of some leftover spaghetti, but by the time Junior pulls her out of the water, she has become hard-boiled. To his surprise, she now speaks and looks along the lines of a Mae West. "Aw, scram!", she tells Junior when he tries to embrace her. The villain laughs at this turnabout, and Junior strides towards the heel to exact his revenge, but Easter pushes him out of the way. She hitches up her skirt toughly and starts pummeling the villain with a number of sharp blows to the face.

Junior, excited as usual, shadowboxes off to the side to Easter's every successful punch at the villain's face, but in his fervor, Junior slips and sends himself into the boiling water. At first, he calls for help, but he ends up getting hard-boiled as well. Crawling out of the boiling pan, he delivers a roundhouse punch that sends the Bad Egg flying. Junior then strikes a number of matches and throws them at the creep, surrounding him with flames and burning his rear end. Finally, Junior dumps the entire box of matches down on the Bad Egg. There is a large flash as the matches all catch on fire simultaneously, and when the smoke clears, the villain is revealed to be completely blackened and sick from smoke inhalation. 

The Bad Egg collapses exhausted into the tablespoon, and Junior stomps on the handle to send the Bad Egg sailing to the ground below, where he smashes to bits. As an explanation for his foul breath, a couple dozen skunks run out from the broken shards of his remains! Junior spits into the spoon's cup and it tosses him to the shelf above, where the two now-hardboiled love-eggs meet up. He embraces Easter and they kiss passionately, and then the film cuts back to the opening storybook window, where we see a replay of the chorus to "Spooning in a Spoon" before the book closes. Finis.

When I was a kid, I loved to make finger puppets, and I would do this by measuring a piece of construction paper into rectangular sections and then drawing clothes and faces onto the rectangles, cutting them out, rolling them, and then glueing the opposite ends together to form tiny little puppets. I would often have a hundred of these figures stored in a box by my desk, and each one was different, with distinct faces, clothes, and some even had arms, legs and other props glued onto their outsides. But there was one way in which they were the same: they all had tremendous facial areas that took up about 2/3 of their body lengths, mainly so I could get as much in the area of facial expressions as possible so that they could be seen by an audience (usually my brothers).

It is the same trick here with the eggs in Humpty Dumpty. Their faces easily take up most of their bodies, with only the bottom third left for the torso, arms and legs. Their eyes and mouths are huge and extremely expressive; as a result, with the wildly melodramatics at large in its action, this film would be an excellent example for drawing study.

The problem, though, is the close sticking to melodrama: the only real surprise in the film is the way the formerly innocent, childish eggs "grow up" and get "hard-boiled", though in retrospect, given the "tough guy" stance in most films of the period, maybe it's not really that surprising. But the film remains a visual delight even if there is that much going on storywise. The colors of the piece are remarkably vivid and the line work on the characters is sharp and clean. Overall, the film is politely entertaining, if nothing over which to fall off a wall.



And in case you haven't seen it:

[This article was updated with new photos on 12/28/15.]

No comments: