Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Punchy De Leon (1950)

Punchy De Leon (UPA Jolly Frolics, 1950)
Dir.: John Hubley
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

It might seem odd that in starting to write about the cartoons of the Fox and the Crow that I would begin with their very last starring short, 1950's Punchy De Leon. Truly, the primary reason is one of convenience rather than one of foresight or the unveiling of a grand plan wherein I make a juxtaposition between where the Fox and the Crow characters started and where they stopped. Nope... there is no such drive behind this selection at all; it's purely timing. Disc One of UPA's The Jolly Frolics Collection set just happens to be sitting in my player right now, and Punchy de Leon was the cartoon that I just finished watching and musing upon at length. And so that is where I begin.

In my 1970s youth, I really only knew the Fox and the Crow characters from piles of old DC Comics that neighbor kids had passed down to them from older siblings and cousins. DC had contracted with Columbia to continue the adventures of their animated characters long extinct from the silver screen in funny animal comics from the early '50s through the late '60s. I remember reading these characters on occasion, along with ones from other studios who were printed by companies such as Gold Key and Dell, on visits to the various houses of my neighborhood friends. My brothers and I also had our own decent pile of these more "kiddie" oriented comics, and we came to know many characters that were originally spawned in animated form chiefly from their printed personas.

While I was well-versed in Woody Woodpecker cartoons, Andy Panda was pretty much just a comic character to me, who had adventures with a goofball bird named Charlie Chicken in ways they never did in the cartoons. Sniffles the Mouse, far from his Warner Bros. cartoon existence, ran around in the comics with a blonde girl named Mary Jane who could shrink herself to his size and have conversations with toys and other animals. (I still quite like these stories, though I have since become an even bigger fan of the original Chuck Jones-directed series of Sniffles films. Some people think I am crazy because of this.) And Uncle Scrooge? Despite the later success of DuckTales and Mickey's Christmas Carol, Scrooge McDuck was always bigger in the comics, where artist Carl Barks spun corporate product into true art. Even as a kid, I knew there was a difference between what was happening in the Scrooge books and the comics featuring the other characters I have already mentioned. But my point, disregarding overall excellence, is the same: all of these characters lived and breathed in the comic pages for me more than anyplace else.

And the same goes for the Fox and the Crow. For most of my life, they were nothing but comic book characters to me. Once I got older, I would eventually read about them in books on animation, but it would be eons before I finally saw a proper Fox and the Crow cartoon. The problem for me in transitioning away from the comics (where I was never really a fan of their antics anyway, and only saw them rarely) to watching them in animation is that they were just so inconsistent. The tone of each film was often drastically different from the previous one, and the personalities of the Fox and the Crow, while certainly instilled with recognizable, repeated character traits, never seemed to either be constant enough or even approachable at times. However, over time, I grew to really like several of their original Columbia shorts (Room and Bored, and their very first film, The Fox and the Grapes, being particular favorites), though it seems that the further they got away from the early influence of their creator, Frank Tashlin (yes, that Frank Tashlin), the less I tended to really enjoy their films.

After around twenty or so Fox and the Crow films for Columbia Pictures, the Screen Gems unit was disbanded in 1947, and following that, an upstart company called UPA -- featuring veterans with much experience at other studios, including Disney -- rushed in to fill the animation void at Columbia. In just a few years, UPA's new, distinctive style was going to make animation history, winning Oscars and massive acclaim, and introducing Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing to the world. Eventually, UPA would also introduce their seemingly simpler, more expressionistic style to television, and the industry would be changed forever, for better or for worse. But first, before the legendary John Hubley and his crew could step forward and prove themselves as a wildly original and innovative unit, they were given a test run with Columbia. And this test run would be built around the two biggest characters left over from the Screen Gems days... the Fox and the Crow.

Hubley, the initial supervising director for UPA, immediately knocked the first two Fox and Crow efforts -- Robin Hoodlum and The Magic Fluke -- out of the park. That is, if you consider back-to-back Oscar nominations for Best Short Subject - Animated to be home runs of the first order. Having proved their mettle, in 1949, UPA next released their first Mr. Magoo short, The Ragtime Bear, but Hubley had one more Fox and Crow short to film under his supervision. And it would also prove to be the final Fox and Crow theatrical cartoon -- period.

Punchy de Leon, released in January of 1950, is of a piece with the first two UPA Fox and Crows, though I rather like it a bit more than those two. Despite the fact that the story takes place in the latter part of the 15th century, there is a modernity that I find greatly appealing, especially when it makes some quick gags on the subject of urbanization and takes a couple of jabs at the state of Florida (always a good target for hilarity) in the process.

As is to be expected from the punning title and the Florida reference, Punchy de Leon is indeed a take on the quest for the fabled Fountain of Youth. At the film's outset, while the camera drifts across a landscape of a Spanish port city, we are told by the stentorian tone of an offscreen narrator, "Long ago, in 1497, all of Spain believed in the existence of the Fountain of Youth... but no one had proof! Then, in 1503, came to Spain two noblemen; the daring explorers, Punchy de Leon and Leon da Punk." A coach rides into view bearing the Fox and the Crow. While both of them wear morions on their heads, the Crow carries the conquistador look further by wearing an armored vest (probably a good idea for the antics that will ensue), while the Fox - perhaps owing to his more cultured voice and gesturing -- is dressed more like a courtier, with a ruffle protruding from about his neck, while also wearing a peascod belly around his waist.

Their coach passes a poster on a wall, and at the merest peripheral sight of the word "Rewardo!" on said poster, the coach screeches to a halt and then goes into reverse for a few feet so they may survey the text. The poster reads, "Rewardo! For Proof of the Fountain of Youth --  Signed, King Philippe the Floppe." This excites both of the con artists (because ever they are), and they yell in tandem, "To the palace!" Up to this point, we have only seen the coach in closeup as it carried the Fox and the Crow along, but when it rolls forward again, we realize that there is neither horse or driver involved in their progress through the streets; the Fox and the Crow are propelling themselves around the port city via their own feet!

Arriving at the palace, the Fox and the Crow are given immediate audience with his majesty, King Philippe the Floppe. The king is a hefty man with a very bulbous head, a pointed goatee, and what seems to be a permanent scowl on his face. But he is grandly excited to hear that Punchy de Leon and Leon da Punk might know something about the Fountain of Youth, to the point where is he obviously overly gracious in his dealings with the Fox and the Crow. "Señors," he asks whilst he admires himself in a long-handled, golden mirror that seems to be welded to his hand, "You have the proof?" The Fox takes the lead in convincing the monarch, and as he balances a large jug with a zigzag design on one hand, replies, "Si, your majesty! Observe! One hundred years o' age!"

The Fox motion towards a wheelchair in which the Crow sits, now wearing a long white beard while he acts aged and infirm, struggling to support himself with a cane, his hand quaking with the effort. The Fox flips the jug upside down over the head of the Crow, and water gushes out of the jug down onto the bird's head. The Crow quickly whisks the long white beard off his face and hides it under his helmet. As if by magic, he now appears reinvigorated and youthful! Flexing his muscles, the Crow jumps off the wheelchair, picking it up easily and then tearing it into pieces. He wads the entire thing up into a tiny ball that he flicks away seemingly without a care.

King Philippe is elated. "Magnifico!" the monarch exclaims, but upon examining the jug, the king finds none of the miraculous healing water remaining for his use. Angered, he growls and asks of the Fox, "Where is it?" Facing the king literally eye to eye, the Fox replies, "Where is what?" "The Fountain of Youth!" yells the king, but the Fox's response is cool though fumbling. He thinks hard, running his fingers along his own face and tapping his chin while he struggles to come out with an answer. Finally, he whispers out a meek response with the mere sound of a bubble popping, his fingers twirling in the air. "FLORIDA!" yells King Philippe in astonishment, and he immediately orders the pair of con men to travel there to find the Fountain. 

Of course, with the Fox and the Crow, monetary gain is always the best way to get either one to deliver on a promise. And does the king ever have an incentive for them. King Philippe tells them teasingly that whichever one pf them delivers the waters of the Fountain of Youth back to him will receive one of his most priceless treasures. The Fox and the Crow, stealthily tiptoeing out of the castle at this point, suddenly turn towards the king with large diamonds sparkling in their greedy little eyes. Naturally, there is no thought between these two of ever working together in peace to achieve a goal, and so we know exactly what is to come in the remaining few minutes of the cartoon. The Crow rushes forth to retrieve the jug from the hands of His Majesty, and the race is on.

The pair run through the city and back to the dock, where they leap onto their sailing ship and race across a map of the Atlantic Ocean. Florida, painted pink on the map along with the remainder of America (and still mostly unexplored at this juncture) sits waiting for them, and when their ship hits land, the eventual state bounces back and forth like the spring on a door stop. The pair shout, "AH, FLORIDA!" when they step on to the sands of the shore, and their first sight is of tall skyscrapers and a charming, well-kept hacienda or three (including one with a weathervane) thriving happily under the hot, shining sun. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal that what they are seeing is merely an image on what must be Florida's very first billboard, with text at the bottom reading, "Balmy Palms -- Now Subdividing!" The camera pans to the left and the dire truth of their situation is revealed: Florida is nothing but a desolate swampland, though there are some small traces of civilization. One sign stuck in the muck reads, "Low Cost Palaces" and another says, "Why Wait?" We even see the discarded remains of a beach umbrella strutting upward out of the thick mud.

The Fox mutters disgustedly under his breath, "Ugh, Florida" and grabs the jug from the Crow's hands. He throws the pottery up and away through the air dismissively into the jungle nearby, cursing the Fountain of Youth. But there is then a loud splash in the distance and the Fox and the Crow's faces betray great surprise at the sound. Surely the sound must have been caused by the throwing of the jug. Had the wayward toss landed the jug miraculously in the Fountain of Youth! They rush towards what they think is merely the thickened vines of the jungle, but the Fox, speeding ahead greedily before his much smaller partner, crashes hard into the terrain as if it were a solid wall. While the Fox dangles upside-down while tangled in a series of vines, the Crow examines the wall. A bright pink flower pops out of the wall, and the Crow pushes a button in its center. He discovers a sliding doorway that takes him easily through the jungle wall and into the darkness beyond. While the shocked Fox still hangs from the vines during this discovery, the door almost slides shut on his nose.

The Crow struts through the dense Floridian jungle in search of the Fountain of Youth, but is so caught up in concentration that he literally wanders right past his goal. When he finally does a double-take and turns back, he finds that the actual Fountain of Youth is an unmistakeable sight: a golden statue featuring seven lads in togas contorted and balanced atop one another athletically while the waters rush magically out of a jug held in the hands of one of the lads. (Oh yeah, so that no one could ever mistake it for anything else, the words "Fountain of Youth" are written at the base of the statue in English.) The Crow's beak hangs agape at the wonder of this discovery. He finds their original jug, which had been thrown over the wall by the Fox initially, floating in the water pooling in a basin at the base of the statue, and attempts to collect a dose of the elixir. He holds the jug up to the spout but the stream suddenly retreats and disappears up inside the spout, and even the water in the basin goes down a drain to elude him as well!

After his initial grumbling, the Crow notices that the index finger of each lad portrayed in the statue points to the lad next to, above, or below him, and so on in zigzagging progression until the last lad in the athletic pile points at a coin slot on the other end of the statue. The Crow rocks a coin into the slot and runs back to collect his prize. A large golden sign reading, "No slugs!" springs out from an unseen hand and bashes the Crow on the noggin! He slumps to the ground, but at least the statue somewhat politely flicks his coin back to him. 

But before the Crow can grab it, the Fox shows up and patiently picks the coin up, walks to the slot on the other side, and deftly deposits the coin. He calmly walks back to the jug and holds it up to the spout, and the golden waters of the Fountain pour forth into the jug. Holding his nose high in oneupmanship, the Fox smoothly walks away from the statue. But the Crow believes that he is not licked yet. He takes off his helmet and turns it over to collect the water, but the stream once again disappears as before. Another sign held by the unseen hand springs out, this time reading "Empty," and hits him squarely in the head once again. The Crow has now been licked but good. At least by the statue...

Meanwhile, the Fox is creeping back through the jungle with his fortune-granting, liquid booty. All seems to be going well for the Fox until he comes to a toll gate set up in the middle of the path. The Crow walks out wearing a ticket-taker's uniform, and in the unmistakeable Southern drawl of the well-known voice actor, Daws Butler, the Crow informs the Fox that he has come to the "Florida State Line Border Inspection... any boll weevils, fruit, candy...?" Then he gets right to the point of this strange disruption. "What'choo got in that jug?" he drawls. "Gimme that jug!!!" The Crow rips the jug containing the golden water from the Fox's hands, and after inspecting the item, he hangs onto it and then allows the Fox to pass through the "state line" freely. The Fox slowly realizes he has been duped, and when the Crow speeds off to get away, the Fox rushes ahead to stop the Crow at the sliding doorway exit to the jungle. The Crow crashes headlong into the Fox's body, and the switch of the jug is made into his rival's hands.

There is a cut to the Fox loading the jug into the rowboat that will take him back to their sailing vessel. In the distance, we see the top of a palm tree pulled back by a rope, and then it suddenly springs forward. A large boulder flies through the air and lands in the rowboat, shooting the jug high up into the sky where it hits the belly of a passing bird. The bird is angered at this intrusion and punches the jug, shattering it into pieces. The golden water starts to fall back to earth, but while it does, the Fox will all due haste constructs a pottery wheel, turns a new jug on it, builds a kiln out of brick, fires the jug inside it, and then even takes the extra time to pull out a brush and paint a design on the outside of the jug.

The Fox gets back to the pottery wheel in time to catch the falling water, but his victory is short-lived. For there is the Crow, who takes the wheel and smashes the Fox over the head, grabbing the jug in the process. The Crow bolts for the ship, but as he climbs the ladder to the deck, he barely registers that the Fox is there already, posing as the ship's figurehead. He turns back to double-check, and the Fox knocks him over the head, taking the jug back once more. We hear an splash from below as the Crow falls unseen into the ocean.

The scene switches back to Spain, where the king is waiting impatiently for news of the finding of the real Fountain of Youth by the Fox and the Crow. Trumpeters blast a fanfare as a long red carpet is unrolled into the throne room. From out of the red carpet spring the Fox and the Crow, who continue to conduct their battle over possession of the jug filled with the magical waters of the Fountain. Without a blink, King Philippe grabs the jug from the greedy hands of the duo and tells them that his priceless treasure is theirs. The battle is swiftly forgotten and the pair make their way to the treasure before them, but the king trips the Fox and the Crow. As they splat into the floor, the king adds, "...if it works!"

King Philippe turns the jug upside down over his own head, but nothing comes out at all. He shakes it... and still nothing. Knowing that there is indeed magical water in the jug, the Fox and the Crow pick themselves up off the floor and try to help the king shake the jug even harder. Suddenly, the stubborn water gushes forth in a massive golden flood, dousing the desperate trio fully. At first nothing happens at all, and there is doubt on all three faces. But then there is a great swirling of images that takes place next as the room lights up as if charged with electricity. There are several bright lightning-like flashes that occur, and the Fox and the Crow are shown in a series of negative images briefly.

When the magical flashes subside, the Fox and the Crow suddenly see before their astonished eyes a less hefty and far more dashing and younger version of King Philippe, who admires himself approvingly in the reflection of his constant companion, that long-handled golden mirror. However, without warning, there is another bright flash or two, and we next see the Fox and the Crow as utterly cute childish versions of themselves, clad in matching sailor outfits (complete with caps). Before the conning pair can even realize what has happened to them, there is yet another bright burst of electrical flashing, and when it has died down once more, the king has grown even younger.

The crown that once sat upon his massive head is entirely too large now for the pint-sized monarch, and the diamond necklace he was holding to entice the Fox and the Crow now sits discarded on the seat of his throne. But the king doesn't care. He yells out, "Yippee!" and throws himself with great joy at his new second childhood pals, the Fox and the Crow. They race gleefully in circles for a few short seconds, their heads popping out here and there in the tornado-like swirl. When they finally scramble out, the now younger Fox, Crow, and King Philippe are shown happily playing a game of jumprope with the diamond necklace. The End.

It's a shame that the Fox and the Crow didn't continue beyond this point at UPA. But Hubley and his team seemed to have an initial mandate against having a stable of regular characters at their fledgling, preferring to concentrate instead on original stories and situations. Yes, hedging their bets on this concept did seem to be a good plan against sinking into gradual creative stagnation as happened with many of the animation heavyweights of the time. But while UPA for the most part stuck to this path through their initial years, Mr. Magoo was just too obstinate to ignore. The film released directly after Punchy De Leon in 1950 was the second Magoo short, Spellbound Hound, and there would be two more Magoos to follow within the year. And once Gerald McBoing-Boing's amazing mouth made its first onscreen noises... forget it. While they were able to hold back and not make a second McBoing-Boing film for two years -- and Gerald certainly had far, far fewer films than Magoo, just four in total -- UPA had discovered the financial gain to be had with a popular, recurring character, while still getting to flex their creative muscles with more inventive films like The Tell-Tale Heart and Rooty Toot Toot.

As for the Fox and the Crow, clearly, UPA as an organization was not interested in continuing on with a pair of characters created by other artists from another studio. They had essentially been forced into the situation of using the pair to prove themselves to Columbia, and had done just that. With Punchy de Leon completed, the Fox and the Crow were done at UPA, and this is sad because I feel that they would have actually fit in well with the steadily advancing use of abstract expressionism in the backgrounds, actions, and character design. From the start in their original Screen Gems series, the Fox and the Crow had been plagued by inconsistent characterization. 

More than most characters, with the beginning of each new film, the viewer almost seems to need a reintroduction to the Fox and the Crow to understand their individual motivations. With characters like Donald Duck or Porky Pig, they may change occupations from film to film, but their was a firmness in their characters that had been long established and understood fully by both the animators and the audience. Anything that would happen in the film was likely to remain firmly attached to that established characterization, no matter how wild the antics in the film may get. With the Fox and the Crow, their primary fault as characters was a lack of any such real base. Even though the vast majority of their films were directed by Bob Wickersham, it almost always feels like I am meeting the Fox and the Crow for the very first time when I watch their early shorts, as if each one is a completely different combo also named "The Fox and the Crow". That is not to say that there are not stand out shorts in the series (and I have already mentioned a couple of which I hold a certain fondness for their creativity), but it displays to me readily why Screen Gems generally remained far from the top with their overall efforts.

But I feel that this same lack of consistency in the characters of the Fox and the Crow actually made them the perfect team to carry on at UPA, no matter how they may have been viewed by Hubley and company. While Robin Hoodlum, the first UPA Fox and the Crow cartoon, was nominated for an Oscar, I find it the least of the three films. (And I can't help but compare it against Chuck Jones' Robin Hood Daffy, with which I grew up and saw about a thousand times until it is burned in my memory. Sorry, but that is the case...) The humor is not developed enough, I feel that some of the situations don't play themselves out to the full extent that they could have, and the short feels somewhat incomplete. I like Robin Hoodlum, but it pales to The Magic Fluke, a much deeper, funnier, and better balanced film. The Magic Fluke is fully deserving of its Academy Award nomination, though it is hard for me to believe it should have won the Oscar over Warner Brothers' For Scent-imental Reasons that year, the Pepe Le Pew short where the tables are turned memorably on the amorous skunk by an equally lovelorn cat. And yet, in watching both films again, Fluke is far more epic in scope and does give us at least a partial glimpse into UPA's future. Most importantly to me, the Fox and the Crow are given their most rounded showcase, not only properly portraying the class contrast between the two characters, but also their deep connection as a team. 

Then we come to Punchy de Leon. It seems, story-wise, slighter than Fluke, and that is probably true. It certainly doesn't have the same emotional depth. We are also closer here to the usual Fox and the Crow routines; a pair of con artists constantly one-upping the other one to a wild conclusion. But in starting the story in 15th century Spain, taking satirical jabs at Florida and the supposed American Dream, and in the general lushness of the surroundings, Punchy de Leon takes on greater perspective. And then there is the design. While there were hints in Ragtime Bear, this may be the film that more fully previews the leap into the abstract expressionistic influence that UPA would show ever increasingly in the next few years. 

The opening shots of the Spanish port city (unnamed, of course) are a good example of this, with their clouds designated by white lines but remaining unfilled against the yellow sky while the ships below them in the ocean bob unconnected from the simple line waves in the background. Portions of the jungle scenes are shown as rather lush even while overlaid with objects of much simpler, almost childlike design, such as vines and branches that hang more like discarded rubber gloves than anything organic. [See the image to the right... marvelous in construction.]  Regardless of intricacy or lack of it, the backgrounds throughout the short are elegantly composed and work in the given context, especially when contrasted against the more detailed actions of the Fox and the Crow in the foreground. The odd posturing of the figures on the statue in the jungle are a further example of the UPA team playing with form while achieving great humor with a mostly static structure.

It is especially in the courtroom scenes where the filmmakers take advantage of going beyond what was to be expected. Early on, there is a shot of the king in closeup when he is riled by our heroes. Far from the smoothness of the character animation in the short to that point, when King Philippe throws his head towards them, and his eyes go beyond merely bulbous to two swirling whirlpools of madness, his monstrous, shouting maw threatens to swallow the savage bristles beneath his now nearly pig-like nostrils. It was a rather shocking moment that was positively thrilling to behold when I first saw it and holds up on repeated views. [The image is shown farther up in this piece.] And in the closing scene of the film where the waters of the Fountain of Youth provide a series of transformations of the three main characters, the details built into the electrical flashes are wonderful to watch in slow motion. [Several are shown above.]

UPA would have far greater work ahead, and it is hard for me to pretend that their early Fox and the Crow shorts are lost classics of a monumental nature. But in the manner that they were used in both The Magic Fluke and Punchy de Leon, where they continue business as usual while the UPA magicians continue to work in their developing sense of group style and design, it does make me wonder what would have happened with the Fox and the Crow had UPA not discarded them. What would have happened if they had just taken the two and dropped them into films in the style of Rooty Toot Toot, transforming the very conception of the characters to much simpler forms and having them interact in a style befitting their surroundings. How far could they have minimized the two of them, but still kept them true to their natures?



And in case you haven't seen it...