Tuesday, May 23, 2006


My uncle raises miniature horses, and while they don't quite come in the uber-economical package that the steed in MGM's 1953 Barney Bear-Benny Burro team-up Half-Pint Palomino does, they were certainly much smaller than I had anticipated seeing when driving to his home in Olympia, WA. While we were trying to catch up on family business and small talk, two things of which I am usually unable to pull off even serviceably out of sheer lack of interest, all of our attention was drawn to the television, which was being used as a video monitor to survey the expected-at-any-moment dropping of a miniature foal from the miniature womb of their miniature mare. As a result, this became the focus of attention during our entire visit, and it rendered the family business and small talk null and void.

Of course, as it happens so often, through the entire ride to my uncle's and also through the time spent there, my thoughts were on a Ray Harryhausen film. Specifically, his "dinosaurs in a lost mesa" flick, The Valley of Gwangi. Specifically, one scene in particular, which hopscotched to mind immediately upon my father's mentioning of my uncle's miniature horses: the table-top stable in which one of the characters keeps a thought-to-be-extinct specimen of the Dawn Horse, Eohippus. The tiny, uniquely-striped horse-like creature with the three toes, whose capture and kidnapping leads to the discovery of the allosaurus Gwangi inside a lost canyon and which ultimately ends in the dinosaur's ferocious rampage through a small western town, casually strolls out of its stall to the amazed eyes of any and all observers, leading to thoughts of greed and exploitation.

So, don't be surprised if the title and opening of today's cartoon send me sailing once more into thoughts of Harryhausen's Dawn Horse. Much like in Barney Bear's Heir Bear, also from 1953, Half-Pint Palomino jumpstarts its story with a newspaper headline setting up the entire scenario. We see a copy of the Grand Canyon Daily Echo (and if there isn't a real paper named that, there should be), and it's top line reads: "Eccentric Millionaire Offers Fabulous Reward For Capture of World's Smallest Horse!", and just below this we find a photo of the same top-hatted and nattily attired millionaire fanning out oodles of cash in both of his hands. A sub-head continues with the detail, "Grand Canyon Scene of Scientific Research", and a story set below this one points to the one who will be responsible for all of the succeeding action: "Local Bruin To Bag Abbreviated Bronco". This can mean, since it is an MGM cartoon, none other than Barney Bear. (One gasps to think of the chaos that would ensue were Disney's Humphrey Bear to be the one in charge, though it would give his ranger more work, and be an appropriate place for one of his ilk. That the voices of both the ranger and MGM's Droopy were supplied by Bill Thompson would also prove convenient.)

There probably hasn't been a cartoon vista more brilliantly colored than the one that follows the paper opening, and the Grand Canyon has never looked more grand (at least in a cartoon) than with the rainbowed rocks and the greener-than-green foliage that are displayed as the camera pans its meandering way to Barney Bear's encampment. It looks so small set into the corner of the box canyon in which it is set up, but it will seem titanic in comparison with the object of Barney's most likely ill-fated hunting expedition. (After all, he doesn't have a good track record of success in his quests.) Barney has before him a tremendous green pack, which then gets dumped off the diminutive shoulders of his burro buddy Benny. "Okely dokely, Benny," Barney says, quite literally talking down to the donkey, "you stay here, and I'll go catch the li'l ol' horse!"

Barney sets out on his search, and to aid in this pursuit, he pulls out a magnifying glass and holds it to the ground. He instantly recognizes the minute trail of hoofprints of his prey, the world's smallest horse. Smelling success in the air, Barney pulls out a small box from his pocket, and the lettering on its top proclaims it to hold "One Trained Horsefly". He pops the lid, and inside is a cute big-nosed horsefly named Charlie; Charlie Horsefly, that is. After Barney orders him to "Go get 'im!," Charlie sets out on the ground like a bloodhound, and soon he picks up the trail of the horse. He finds the tiny stallion drinking water from a thrown-out sardine can, which perfectly shows the scale in size of the horse. Charlie jumps on the horse's bare back, and the steed bucks and bucks but can't shake the steadfast horsefly. However, the horse twists his tail into the shape of a broom, and swats his rider. This dazes the fly, and then the horse throws the fly off his back, and kicks him in the rear, sending him whimpering and whining back to Barney. The horsefly tries to get sympathy from the bear by showing Barney his sore backside, which is imprinted with two very red-looking tiny horseshoe prints.

We find out soon enough that the world's smallest horse has, like many horses, a great affection for clover, and Barney approaches the equine as it downs the savory flower off one of the plants. Barney might be a little too close, for the horse marches up to Barney's boot, which is conveniently sewn with the pattern of a clover on its side, and the horse rips the fake plant off the boot and downs it. Barney takes the opportunity and throws his ten-gallon hat over the critter, but when he picks up his hat, the horse is gone! Of course, only an idiot would then put his face up the hat for a peer inside, and Barney is more than willing to oblige us, and he gets squarely kicked in the nose, which inverts into his face, and when it pops backs out, the same two hoofprints appears glowingly on his skin.

He has dropped the hat in the course of this attack, and when he goes to retrieve it, the hat moves about on the ground. He finally picks it up, but receives another kick, this time to his eyelids. It is no surprise by this point that he has another pair of prints on them, but they are revealed like the wheels on a slotmachine. Barney produces a net and snags his prey, but when he turns the net inside out, the horse has disappeared yet again. This time, he discovers it under the hat on his head. He fashions a tiny lasoo out of a piece of string and throws it about the horse's neck, but the steed takes off suddenly, dragging Barney behind him, and the horse pulls the 40-times-larger bear across the canyon and through the open end of a log. Leaving the ursine inside, the horse runs around the log and pulls out a piece of dynamite and shoves it in Barney's pants. The kick the tiny horse delivers creates a powerful explosion, and Benny Burro runs up and sees the steaming pair of hoofprints in the seat of Barney's rear end.

Barney consults a book called "How to Catch a Wild Horse", which informs him that "the wild horse will always fall for a filly." Barney casts a scheming eye in the direction of his little burro, and Benny knows that no good can come of that look. Within seconds, Benny is covered in makeup from head to foot, and outfitted with a wig so that he looks for all the world like a hottie mare. Lastly, the bear perfumes Benny mightily, and as the burro sets out to trap the world's smallest horse, the pungent odor does the job for him. It wafts out from Benny and forms a lasso that wraps about the horse's neck, sending the little stallion immediately into the depths of lovesickness. Cupid also has a hand in the proceedings, or rather, a centaur version of Cupid, who discovers, when he finds that his love-arrows ineffectively bounce off the hard-headed steed, that a firm kick to the backside of the horse does the trick equally as well.

You can look at the result in two different ways: either Cupid's kick turns the horse into a straight lampooning of Charles Boyer, whose French-accented sweet-talk of romance and the Casbah launched a thousand imitators, or else, it is MGM's sideways nod to Warner Bros.' popular animated version of the Boyer imitation, Pepe Le Pew. Whatever the reason, the world's smallest horse takes on the world's biggest libido and practically mauls the drag-plagued Benny Burro. Begging for a kiss from his new love, the size-shrunk palomino receives one all right, as Benny slams a plunger right over the face of the horse. Another arrow from Cupid, however, fills the tiny horse with enough renewed passion to grab Benny and carry him through the water of an adjacent pond, which washes off the makeup, much to the horse's horror. His true self exposed, Benny can only sit as the horse pulls out a car-jack and ratchet's the burro's rear up to a good kicking angle, and then knocks Benny clean back to Barney Bear's encampment, where Benny ends up jammed halfway down in the ground.

Barney makes one last attempt at the horse. With fishing pole in hand, he baits it with a flower and throws it into a sea of grass within which the tiny horse is grazing. The horse grabs the bait and is pulled through the grass as if really were the sea, with the horse jumping out of the grass much like a tarpon on the line off Florida. It is only too easy for Barney to finally reel in his target for good, and the proud bear takes the horse back to his camp, where the millionaire awaits by a table, a large wad of cash resting in his hands to pass over to Barney. When the horse hears why he has been captured, though, he interjects "Uh-uh-uh!" and whistles for someone away from the table. Zooming to stand beside "the world's smallest horse" is an even tinier equine, his own baby son, clad in diapers and cute as a button. The horse takes the money for his own, but the baby asks, "Gee, Pop! What is that green stuff?" The father replies, "I don't know, son." He then follows up with a popular colloquialism of the early twentieth century, "But it ain't hay!" The damage done, the joke told, the horse then breaks into a riotous forced laugh, and the film irises out.

This film might be too bright. Color-wise, that is. The color pallette is so inspired and so dominates each and every scene, that I feel it actually lessens the comedic impact of some of the scenes. Of course, some of the jokes aren't that great to begin with, but overall the film keeps enough forward motion (the drag-Cupid sequence actually comes off best). My main problem with the film stems from a personal tic, that of my need for the cartoon to veer off into a dinosaur vs. cowboys scenario, just like in Gwangi or Beast of Hollow Mountain, which predates Gwangi (both are derived from the same Willis O'Brien idea). That first search for the world's smallest horse begins, and Harryhausen's Eohippus immediately springs to the fore, and I couldn't care less about the rest of the MGM goings-on.

One thing does bother me about the "world's smallest horse": who shoed him? When he kicks or runs, he doesn't leave hoofprints; he leaves horseshoe-prints. Is there another cowboy that we never see who goes around shoeing tiny horses, or did the horses shoe themselves? After all, they can talk and seem to be fairly sharp and self-reliant. Anything is possible. Or perhaps they are a mutant strain of horse (besides the size deficiency) that are born with horseshoes. Or, is it possible that they the direct descendents of Eohippus himself, and over millions of year locked in the canyons, they retained the miniature size but evolved hooves that appear as if they were wearing horseshoes? Of course, do we really even know what the bottom of a Eohippan foot really looked like? It's almost enough to warrant my taking another trip to Gwangi's lost mesa and check it out for myself.

Ah! The reasons I compose to provide excuses to watch Harryhausen films again. I'll never grow out of it...

Half-Pint Palomino (MGM, 1953) Director: Dick Lundy
Animators: Robert Bentley, Walt Clinton, Michael Lah and Grant Simmons
Writers: Jack Cosgriff and Heck Allen
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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