Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Poultry Pirates (1938)

Director: Isadore [Friz] Freleng
MGM, 0:09, b/w
Cinema 4 Rating: 5

Is it all that pent-up frustration over having two highly prolific brats within his household that causes der Captain to go all hellfire crazy on the behinds of a quintet of garden-rustling chickens?

Released from his torturous home life for at least this entry in MGM’s not entirely successful (but not entirely unworthy or uninteresting) series of adventures featuring The Captain and the Kids (also known as the Katzenjammers in their complicated history), 1938’s Poultry Pirates sees der Captain in a solo adventure wherein he must deal with a passel of ornery birds who are trying to overrun his immaculately kept vegetable garden. Naturally, the extremely short-fused Captain will blow his top with every single transgression upon his property or person, and much in the way regarding slapstick inanity will occur.

Directed by Friz Freleng during a brief respite from his Warner Bros. work (and credited here as “Isadore”), Poultry Pirates could just as easily be an adventure for any short-tempered cartoon blowhard, and never really separates itself from other similarly-styled scenarios, except for a couple of lines featuring der Captain’s usual mangled dialogue shtick. One could easily take Donald Duck or Porky Pig and drop them into this storyline (in fact, they pretty much had), and you would never tell the difference, apart from the different voices and looks of the characters themselves.

Basically, the film is a series of gags featuring chickens stealing der Captain’s vegetables, and with der Captain going nuts trying to stop them. At the beginning of the film, der Captain is almost instantly revealed as a chicken-beater of the first order. Five hens stick their scrawny little necks through a horizontal line of holes in a fence, but every time they reach out to grab something, der Captain peers around the corner to make them backtrack through the holes. After a couple of attempts, the hens are left to themselves as der Captain takes a new tack: sneak up behind them with a large board. He smacks all five hens across their bottoms, and they scatter out of the yard. In the vaudevillian-style, German immigrant shtick that served der Captain so well over the course of a century (and, oddly, in two opposing comic strips), he bellows, “Dat will teach you to keep from the garden out!”

Worn out from his battle, der Captain sits down to continue his garden guarding. At the point that he falls asleep, a heretofore unseen duck (it’s hard not to think of Daffy upon first seeing him, though there is nothing really Daffy-like about him except for his pesky attitude) sneaks past der Captain and steals a huge tomato from the garden. Slurping out the insides of the fruit, the duck then spits them out, acting very disgusted in the process. He marches up to der Captain and wakes him up. “Hey!,” he quacks in a semi-wiseguy voice, “Did you raise this to-mat-uh?” The duck wings the open tomato straight into the eyes of der Captain, splatting him messily. As the duck strides off, he mutters lowly, “What are you trying to do? Poison people?” Smacking the bird with the board fails several times, and then the duck zips inside der Captain's sleeve. There then occurs a chase through der Captain’s clothing, with the duck darting in and out of numerous articles, before zipping away towards an open shed. Der Captain follows the bird, but once inside, the duck sneaks through a hole and locks der Captain inside.

The duck lets all of the other fowl into the garden, and the mass of birds begin to level the place. Rows of plants are devoured in nearly perfect unison, except for one sloppy hen who is reprimanded by her cohorts. One hen eats corn with the usual typewriter-return gag (is there really any better way to eat corn on the cob in a cartoon?) Another hen is seen pecking away at a gigantic pumpkin, and she backs away to reveal a marvelous example of a jack-‘o-lantern. Oops! Not quite marvelous enough apparently for her, so she goes back in to peck perfect the smile, as any true artist would do. Tiny little chicks stack up on one another precariously to wrest far larger tomatoes from their stems, each orb dangerously being schlepped down the pile of chicks to be carried away awkwardly.

Der Captain, who has been trying to escape by pounding on the door, inadvertently succeeds in knocking down all of the walls around him – only he isn’t aware of it. He pulls furiously at the doorknob, yelling the entire time. Finally, he rears up several feet, beyond where the back wall had lain just moments before, and never noticing the damage peripherally, he charges forward to knock down the still standing doorway. He rumbles to his home, and comes back outside with a shotgun in his arms. Seeing the rampaging brood in front of him, he levels the gun at the lot, fires a shot over their heads, and orders them to return their stolen goods. They oblige, but the duck is holding out on der Captain. The duck pulls a tomato out from under his wing and hands it back under further orders from der Captain. Instantly, all of the chickens charge the unsuspecting oaf, and in a great flurry of activity and dust, they make off with the vegetables again. Except for the tomato. That remains with der Captain – until the duck zips back in and snags it anew. But he isn’t here to eat it. Oh, no... he merely takes the opportunity to steal it so he may splat der Captain once more in the face!

Meanwhile, one of the tiny chicks is shown laboriously attempting to carry off one of the far bigger tomatoes. Der Captain stands over the little bird and glares at him shamefully. The chick puts the tomato back, but is then picked up by der Captain and placed over – rather, atop – his enormous knee. Der Captain spanks him lightly a couple of times, and then gently places him back on the ground. The chick marches off with a sore, throbbin rear, and immediately tells the nearest rooster of the attack upon his personage, being very careful to demonstrate through singsong chirping and exaggerated pantomime the horrid actions of the hostile man, as well as imparting what an angel the little chick has been throughout the incident. (A halo magically appears over his noggin in the telling.) The rooster then tattles to another slightly bigger rooster… and so on… and so on… until the news has reached the ear of the largest rooster of them all. A rooster who stands head to head with der Captain when they eventually meet to do battle.

The rooster is more than a match for the der Captain, but many of the short gags fall flat in what should be a more dynamic sequence, and the fight is tragically ordinary. It is amusing when der Captain removes his coat, only to have the rooster remove his entire draft of feathers, revealing a naval tattoo. Der Captain meekly tries to stop the whole affair there by putting his coat back on, but the rooster will have none of it, and removes it every time der Captain attempts it again. The pair circle each other, with der Captain adopting the stance of his fowl opponent, acting for all the world like another chicken. And then der Captain is satisfactorily whupped in the course of the melee, including a series of clever shots where his face basically becomes Silly Putty, contorting with each blow from the bird's fists. Just at the most dire moment for the big blowhard (der Captain, I mean), he awakens from the dream he has been engaged in since he fell asleep on the watch -- and hopping madly on his chest is a normal-sized (though still relatively huge) rooster!

Der Captain gets outraged and goes after the bird, but with a mighty leap, he only succeeds in knocking down one of the boards in his garden fence... and then the adjacent board falls, and like so many dominoes, his entire garden fence lies in ruins. The birds converge on the now unguarded domain, and while der Captain lies defeated amongst the pile of boards, the little chick with the wounded rear marches up and kicks dirt in der Captain's face. Even without Hans und Fritz around to annoy him, children still get the best of him.

The solo adventures of der Captain really don't work that well, and one wishes that the remainder of the regulars (perhaps minus Mama) made an appearance here, if only fleetingly. Der Captain just really isn't strong or interesting enough a character to carry a film himself, and perhaps it was wise on Freleng's part to let the animals lead half of the film, even if the action is merely pedestrian. The most interesting part -- the duck -- is never used again after the second "Splat!," and so the viewer is left hanging waiting for the needed third part of the joke.

And still, there is the question of all that residual anger in der Captain. The film starts mid-theft, and our boy is already armed and ready to attack. Did he go into the garden ready to take out his frustrations on whatever crossed his path? What have those boys led him to? Was he keeping the garden to help soothe his nerves outside of his often tempestuous home setting? So many unanswered questions, and ones that are really unnecessary to watching the film itself. One thing's for sure: der Captain doesn't hesitate for a second to level violence upon the garden robbers. Even his most gentle act of the short is considered an act of child abuse in most circles. This might get looked at askance in this day and age, considering that it is basically man vs. animals, and rather defenseless ones at that.

I must point out that I did eat a chicken sandwich while writing this, so I guess I am just as bad as der Captain...