Thursday, April 27, 2006

PLAY SAFE (1936)

We all did stupid things as kids. Hell, I still do them today. They just tend to be of a slightly less self-destructive nature than when I was a kid, jumping out of trees, sledding through traffic, taking sharp downhill ess curves without bike brakes, and pushing bullies to their testing limits. The funny part is, I never broke so much as a single bone until I moved out of the house. Now, when I do something stupid, and break bones, I'm just not paying attention, and I will accidentally hurt myself. Regardless of my own klutziness, at a certain point, most people grow up and leave the insanity to the next generation.

Play Safe, the last Color Classic in the 1936 release slate from Max Fleischer, has perhaps the worst theme song I have ever heard in a cartoon. The singers sounds like a hellish duet of Moe Howard and Jimmy Durante impersonating bellowing baseball umpires who skull-poundingly point out why you should consider the path of safety in all your playtime activities. The lyrics are rushed, though shouted slowly and clearly, and inane:

"Play Safe! Play Safe!
Before it's too late
Stop headin' for danger!
Wait! Better Play Safe!
Beware! Take care!
And always prepare
To stop, look and listen!
When you get up in the morning
Don't you dare forget the warning:
When you play,
Better Play Safe!"

The film itself is cute but purposefully bland through the bulk of its running time, with a cutesy train-loving boy getting into all sorts of trouble on the railroad tracks while his loving St. Bernard tries to rescue him. At the beginning, while the dog sleeps, the boy, bored with his book on trains and tired of playing the tunnel to his own model train set, opens the gate to the yard and tries to run out to the train tracks running adjacent to his home. The dog, unleashed for the moment, leaps out and grabs him before the boy can get too far. The dog settles back to sleep, and the boy sneakily hooks the leash up to its collar, and then tiptoes back out to the tracks again. A train has stopped not far away, and the boy climbs up to the top of the back car, and when it starts to go, he jumps for joy, and then sits down to enjoy the ride. The St. Bernard, meanwhile, has woken up and discovered the boy's escape. The dog struggles madly to loose itself, but it can't get free. The boy continues his swell ride, but finally, he gets bumped off and lands hard on the tracks below, hitting his head on the rail.

The boy enters his own "Dreamland" situation, and wakes up in a magical railyard, thick with brilliantly detailed cars, tracks, and railway minutiae. It would be a wondrous place for a train addict like this little boy; for me, it is mankind grown wild, and a blackly perfect vision of the industrial disfigurement of the planet, so at least they do properly gibe the impression that we are actually in a nightmare realm, whether intended or not (and I think the answer is "not"). Great, powerful engines loom out at the audience, and the boy eventually climbs into one and begins to play with the whistle and the controls. He starts the engine up, and every few revolutions, the wheels and gears jitter and shake maniacally before shifting back into place. At last, the engine picks up speed, and though the boy is ecstatic at first, he is menaced by the machinery within the engine. A pair of dials come to life, each yelling "Play safe!" at him gruffly. The boy reaches for the brakes, but they shrink down to the floor and disappear from view. He tries to grab other levers, and they, too, wither up like someone took their Viagra away. The dials spring out at him again, shouting "Hesitate!" The train goes faster and faster, and we are shown the front of the engine, which forms a grouchily glaring face that shouts "Beware! Take care!", before turning back to its normal train self.

Then, the train is shown in three-dimensions, and you could cynically point out that the Fleischers merely filmed a model train set, but there is far more to it than that. It is the grandest, scariest looking train set ever seen, with mountains with gargoyle-like faces only slightly subtly carved into them, and with the steepest drops and the sharpest turns. The train enters a tunnel with one of the gargoyle faces; the mouth closes behind it and the face springs to horrid life, shouting "Better play safe!!" The boy looks out the side of the train to view its steadily rushing progress, and the face of the engine comes alive once more. It screams, and then forms two fingers from its catcher to use as a whistle. Ahead of it on the tracks is an oncoming train, which also screams and whistles. They go back and forth with the scream-and-whistle act, and then the cars seem about to crash into one another, but at the last second, they both leap up into the air, arch their necks like two cobras, scream savagely at each other -- and the boy leaves the dream, though he is still passed out on the tracks!

But, he is not out of the woods yet -- there is a train rushing towards him, and the St. Bernard sees it and even more frantically tries to escape its bonds. It finally slips out of the collar, and charges alongside the train, running as fast as it can. The train starts to pull forward, but the dog gives it one more burst of speed and manages to get on the tracks ahead of the monstrous vehicle. The dog finds some red paint off to the side, and he coats his tail in it, lays down, and waves the tail like a red flag, trying to stop the train. However, the train continues apace, and it seems that all is lost for the dog, but the train's cowcatcher boots the Bernard in the rear, and the canine is sent sprawling far ahead on the tracks. It slides a while on the rails, then gathers its feet and runs to the boy, picking him up its jaws. Pulling him to the side, the dog starts to lick the boy awake, but has left its red-flag tail draped over one rail. The train nears the tail, but at the last second, the dog pulls it to the side. The boy wakes up, and gratefully hugs his huge pet. As the film closes, the annoying vocalists assault us one final time with a monstrous shout, yelling "BETTER PLAY SAFE!"

This film actually seems far better in describing it than it is watching it. The dream portion is hellaciously intriguing to watch, but it is sandwiched between scenes of marshmallowy sweetness, and I know that it is on purpose, so that the lesson learned in the dreamland is more memorable and severe. But I feel the dream portion is not severe enough: even if the circumstances of the near-crash are set into motion by the boy starting the train, and I suppose the lesson he is supposed to learn is how things can go wildly out of control despite our best efforts, what I would get out of the dream is that anthropomorphic engines are friggin' crazy, and one just needs to avoid trains with human faces on their pressure dials. Then I'd be out on the tracks again an hour later, trying to flag down a real train. Besides, the kid is passed out the entire time the dog is making such a huge effort to save him. He doesn't even wake up until the danger is passed, and since the dog can't talk, how is the kid going to learn any lesson here?

Hidden deep on the Young Fresh Fellows' album Low Beat Time, there exists a hidden track, after a crashing stroll through the standard Green Green, where a presumably ancient lost song from the 1950's is played. I assume, from the words shouted at the beginning of the track, that the "song" is called Let's Make Rock 'n' Roll! Yes, I say "shouted"; and then the voice belonging to that shout recounts, in the straightest white-guy style possible, how easy it is to make rock n' roll, which he demonstrates via a band playing the stiffest riffs this side of The Shaggs. That he or his band have little rhythm or talent is beside the point; they are making "rock 'n' roll", and woe be to any "squares" that get in their way! (If only you could hear their dull, off-key voices attempt to harmonize the simple "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah" part.) I have no idea who does the song, or if it is indeed, as I have often suspected, the Fellows themselves having us on for a lark. But, the song sounds so authentic, and the narrator is so obviously squaresville, one is pained to listen to it, but one must listen! Why? Because he shouts almost half of his instructions! He shouts all through the record!

What does this have to do with Play Safe? Well, nothing except for the fact that when I watch the cartoon, and those wondrously inept, growly voices start shouting the opening song, my brain automatically switches to Let's Make Rock 'n' Roll! Because, just like the instructions being yelled for safe playing in Play Safe, the assumption is that by yelling the instructions for "making" rock 'n' roll, we will be convinced that the narrator knows of whence he is speaking. He tries to convince us of his knowledge by shouting it at us; by practically scaring it into us. The same with the shouters in Play Safe: they want to scare us into obeying the safety rules. And, on both counts, the shouters fail.

Society can tell you nonstop that you must do this and you must do that. They can yell their warnings and laws and rules at you day and night, and yes, most of the time, the laws are there for a very good reason. But
, take it from a guy who has been hit three times by cars, and all when listening to the rules and crossing at the "safe" crosswalks: sometimes, if you want to live to the next day, you just have to break the rules and jaywalk. Pedestrians are on their own whether or not they follow the rules, because people in cars are crazy. Most people get an attitude when they get behind the wheel, an "everybody get out of my way" charge that many of which most of them are not aware. And, though I do it very rarely, I've yet to have a problem when picking and choosing my moments to cross the street in an "illegal" fashion.

Really, it's the only time I have ever been happy being "middle of the road"...

Play Safe (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936) Director: Dave Fleischer
Animation: David Tendlar & Eli Brucker
Cel Bloc Rating: 5