Tuesday, May 16, 2006

HEIR BEAR (1953)

In all the times that I played pirate as a child, I'm not sure if I ever found any of our pretend lost treasures. No Terrance or Phillip, I was obsessed with sword-fighting in my youth, a process which we neighbor kids fulfilled by having a neverending supply of fireweed at our service. Pull a stalk out of the ground, snap off the end with the roots, slide your roughly hand up the stalk to remove the leaves and flowers, and you had a pretty good sword that would last for at least a battle or so. If it broke, you just grabbed another one. They weren't as dangerous as actual sticks, though they wouldn't last as long, either. But the main thing here was that we had a plentiful and limitless sword supply at our disposal, and if you needed a new cutlass or rapier, you just reached behind you, and in a few deft moves, you were back in the fray.

Only we never really got to the finding treasure part of the buccaneer adventure story. It was pretty much ship-boarding, fighting, plank walking, keelhauling, and raping and pillaging (not that we understood the raping part; we just knew the phrase). A variety of Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Burt Lancaster flicks had us bloodthirsty and savage to the core; and yet, we never seemed to get past the battles and to the part that should have had us battling in the first place: the booty. And, somewhere in Eagle River, Alaska, there are a thousand imaginary treasure chests still waiting to be found in that old neighborhood of ours, all forgotten by a passel of cutthroats who could never stop the imagined throat-cutting long enough to actually enjoy the spoils of war on the high-seas.

What calls this lost hoard to mind is a latter-day Barney Bear short, Heir Bear, from MGM in 1953. Our story opens with a close-up of the front page of a news rag called the Daily Grief, on which we spy a headline declaring that “Local Lout Gets Loot – Barney Bear Inherits Treasure Map Disclosing Fabulous Pirate Hoard In Own Backyard”. It would be just like the media to ruin a guy’s good time. In the real world, such a declaration would have said inheritor being bombarded with bandits and ne’er-do-wells trying to find the treasure under his nose. Anytime that anyone wins a large amount of money in a lottery, the media makes sure to point the poor sap out so that he can be run down by every opportunist and half-assed charity shill around. I know that if and when I win a large amount of cash, I’m going to take my time being rich, and will eye even the most benevolent institutions as so many mustache-twirling villains with capes held over the bottom half of their faces braying “Nyah-hah-hah” at my bank account. This is not to say that I wouldn’t give to the needy; I would just do some major investigative research first.

As we will soon discover, Barney Bear doesn’t have to worry about bandits, ne’er-do-wells or mustache-twirling charities. He has a smaller problem, at least in physical stature. For once the picture in the paper of Barney holding the map dissolves into the real Barney standing in his backyard in the same pose, the bear draws a large “X” on the ground with a pencil (which is a very near impossible thing to do on a grass surface, so “Kudos” to him), and then proceeds to begin digging a large hole in search for the treasure. As it turns out, the treasure is indeed located just below where he is digging, inside a large cavernous hideout with stairways and a giant chest full of gold coins.

The problem is that his excavating wakes up the solitary resident of this hideout: a gopher, who is extremely perturbed about the rude awakening that the rocks and dirt shaken loose from the top of the cavern have just given him. He jumps off the treasure chest where he has been bedding, and furiously climbs the winding stairwell that leads him up and out of a hole in a stump in Barney’s backyard. The gopher marches right up to the bear and taps on his foot. Barney lifts the gopher up in the air with that same foot, and the gopher first looks up the bear’s pants leg, and then scurries up through his pants and onto Barney’s chest. He scolds him quickly and squeakily, ending his tirade with “Gimme that pickaxe!” He grabs the tool from Barney’s paws and gnaws his way swiftly through the handle. He then takes the pick itself and smacks Barney right on top of his head with the flattened edge!

Barney shakes off the assault, and once the rodent has left, the bear takes to digging again. The gopher marches back and pulls the shovel from Barney’s hand, fills the hole back up with dirt, and puts the shovel back. Barney digs out dirt again, but the gopher wanders back with a small pine tree, which he plants in the hole, and then pats dirt around to secure it. Barney tries to pull the tiny pine out of the hole, but it refuses to give, and then the gopher returns with a bottle of Quick Grow formula. Pouring it on the tree causes it to rise hundreds of feet in the air, a change which goes completely unnoticed by the still-tugging Barney Bear. At last, the tree gives way for the bear, even if it is only now the top of the pine, and after Barney tosses it away, he turns to walk off in triumph. Only, his foot finds no solid ground, and he soon realizes he is high in the air. He starts to fall, but down below on the ground, the gopher spies the bear’s descent, and runs offscreen to bring back a large supply of bricks and equipment. He prepares and mixes the mortar, builds an entire brick fireplace, and lights a warm and cozy fire, all before Barney Bear hits the ground flat and turns into a bearskin rug. The gopher then slides a comfy chair in on top of the downed brute, and then sits down in the chair, smoking a pipe and enjoying the fire. Barney, as he so often does, can only tap his fingers on the ground in frustration.

Later, Barney is at it again, digging out large rocks and tossing them over his shoulder. The gopher takes a board and sets it up on top of a rock to turn it into a catapult. Each time Barney throws a rock, another flies back at his head and knocks him silly. On the third time, the gopher has set an anvil on the far end of the board, and when it flies and hits Barney, the bear shatters not once, not twice, but three times into smaller versions of Barney Bear. Finally, the 1/8th size bear can only watch helplessly when the gopher marches up to him, as an equal-sized mammal, and punches the bear full in the face.

Barney pulls himself together, and later, starts digging again, but the gopher builds a machine out of an erector set that grabs the dirt Barney is throwing over his shoulder and, through a series of gears and scoops, leaves the dirt on a platform over Barney’s head, which ultimately dumps the entire load on the bear, leaving him buried deep in the yard. The gopher digs his way to Barney’s head, lights a stick of TNT, and places it inside the poor bear’s mouth, covering him back up with dirt. The resulting explosion sends Barney shooting up through the ground like a volcano, and when his head breaches, he spits a flume of black smoke out of his maw. The gopher pops up, though not via explosion, and mocks the bear with a boisterous laugh. Barney copies the laugh in derision, but the gopher beeps Barney’s nose twice. Barney reaches out an arm and honks the gopher’s button nose back a few times, making the rodent’s ear stretch out wildly. The gopher’s response is swift and strange: he blows his hand up to gargantuan proportions and smacks the still-buried Barney silly.

The gopher burrows to escape, but Barney follows him underground. When the gopher reaches a pipeline laying across the ground, he hops out and starts burrowing again on the other side of the pipe. Barney runs headlong into the structure, and his body ends in several pieces, each one encased inside a section of the red pipe. Finally, Barney has had enough. He lights a stick of TNT with a tremendously long fuse, and drops it down the hole in the stump, eager to blow the gopher to kingdom come and gain easy access to the treasure at the same time. But the gopher, sitting at ease atop the pile of gold, paints the stick of dynamite so it looks like a large Havana cigar. He carries the TNT back to Barney and offers it to the bear in a show of peace and friendship. Naturally, the bear takes it, but as he waits for a light, it slowly dawns on him that the long fuse inching its way towards his face is not a sign of a good cigar. He covers his head with his arms, and the resulting blast causes the viewer to see nothing underneath those arms but the background behind him. He has been left headless.

But, once he has collected his wits (and, presumably, the tiny little pieces of his noggin), Barney pulls together one last plan. In full view of the gopher, Barney dons a giant gopher suit, and as anyone who has ever worn a giant gopher suit knows, it immediately allows you to dig with remarkable precision. No sooner has he disappeared into the earth, than he returns with the chest full of lost pirate gold. The real gopher takes great exception with Barney's pilfering, but the bear is not to be trifled with by this point. He winds the gopher's tail up like the key of a wind-up toy, and the gopher walks off like a wobbly toy soldier. Barney takes the treasure inside his home, and delightfully counts each and every coin, stacking them up in tall piles on his table. But then there is a knock at his door, and it turns out to be the taxman. He asks Barney why he hasn't given Uncle Sam his share, and picks up a single golden coin. He then wipes the rest of the gold into his collection bag, and flips the solitary coin to Barney. There is no sadder image known on which to iris out.

Honestly, I fully expected the taxman to turn out to be the gopher in disguise, but maybe I am used to too many Bugs Bunny or Droopy cartoons. This cartoon feels so much like an MGM Avery, and certainly director Lundy was well-versed in Tex's style. I like this version of Barney; he is not so dipped and rolled in honey and sugar as the early Barney; short-tempered though he was, he was still a fairly goody-two-shoes character, and his films could veer towards the merely pedestrian. I like the greedier, later Bear, and his nemesis is fun, too, though I wish the gopher had a stronger vocal gimmick than just talking like a tape recorder on the wrong speed. And I love the time-bending brick fireplace-Barney rug bit.

And that treasure? Well, it's nice, but I am far more interested in that hideout underneath his property. It looks pretty intricate, too. Nice place to hide your entire crew in a time of crisis. Oh, yeah... you could fit a lot of treasure down there, too, and while Barney seems to think that he got his fill out in the 1.4 seconds he was down in that cavern, it seemed to me that there was a lot more going on down in that place. Once that IRS jerk split, I hope Barney went back down to check out every nook and cranny of the place.

Of course, if Barney had only found someone's lost imaginary treasure instead, he never would have lost his fortune. As an adult, especially now that I live where lotteries are an everyday reality (Alaska is a silly place and has no such thing), and even though I have only bought into one lottery ticket in my 13 months in residence here (and that was because my company was doing it as a group), I dream constantly of the day that I have the winning ticket in my lucky little hand. I think about how we could maintain ourselves easily for the rest of my and Jen's existence by being thrifty and smart (and not necessarily cheap, but simply wise about it). And then I think about how my name and face will be blasted all over the news in every conceivable form of media, and then the beggars, the bandits, the ne'er-do-wells, the charity cases, the long-lost relatives, and the IRS will all keep at my door and phone and windows and computer day in and day out like the persistent biting gnats that they are...

...and ...and forget being rich! I am going back to Eagle River to dig up all of my lost imaginary treasure chests. At least I already know how to battle those that would rob me of my invisible spoils..

Heir Bear (MGM, 1953) Director: Dick Lundy
Writers: Heck Allen & Jack Cosgriff
Animators: Michael Lah, Robert Bentley, Walter Clinton & Grant Simmons
Cel Bloc Rating: 7

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