Monday, December 11, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: The Great Toy Robbery (1963)

Note: Click on any image to enlarge them.
The Great Toy Robbery (1963, National Film Board of Canada)
Dir.: Jeffrey Hale
Animation: Jeffrey Hale and Cameron Guess
Storyboard and Design: Derek Lamb
TC4P Rating: 7/9

Nearly everyone out there knows about IMDb. You know, the Internet Movie Database. Big I, big M, big D, small (but actually unnecessary) b (except that the abbreviation would be more annoying to spell out without it). It's where many people go first to get movie information, especially new movies that are about to come out in theatres. Or maybe the user is someone who remembers seeing a certain actor in a film they can't quite remember, so they look up the actor's filmography on IMDb and wade through every title just to see if something sticks. Or maybe you wanted to see who it was in that movie you just saw that looked so familiar in the two-line role as the frustrated waiter.

I use IMDb for these reasons and many, many more. Because I write about movies in my considerable (but soon to be shrinking greatly) free time, I practically live on IMDb. And I have lived on there ever since I first discovered it existed over 20 years ago. (It has existed since 1990, but I didn't really have much in the way of internet access until the late '90s.) IMDb is my prime source of movie information, and while I know – because much of the info can be edited and changed by users – to double-check information found on there like with any online source, I find the site, in regards to basic film information, to be generally trustworthy and useful overall. But there are a few aspects of the IMDb experience with which I take issue, but I will skip over things like the trivia sections and tweaked ratings system to concentrate on two things that really drive me nuts.

First there are the user boards, which exist for most of the popular titles in the database, and even some not so popular titles that nonetheless have cult followings. (Any film can have its own board as long as someone on the site decides to start one.) They are the exact same experience you will get with most user boards across the internet: legitimate and sincere users aside, asking topical questions, the IMDb boards tend to be chiefly populated (if not overrun) by vain, frustrated, whining trolls who just want to stomp on anything that anyone else likes. Just like other rabbit holes on the internet, to step into a conversation on an IMDb user board for even a minute – even just as an anonymous reader – is to find oneself trapped in all manner of depravity and bile, idiotic theory, even more subhuman responses and outright racism, sexism and even veiled threats. As I said, just like boards (or even open comments) almost anywhere else on the internet...

Not quite as useless to me but still pretty annoying are the user reviews on IMDb. While one occasionally finds a reviewer with some writing flair and warranted verve amongst the dross on there, for the most part, IMDb user reviews are the home where statements like "I want those 96 minutes of my life back" not only go to die, but seem to have been born there in the first place. The same idiocy that rules the board areas of the site also tend to apply to the user reviews, but once more, it is yet another rabbit hole that I cannot avoid sometimes. Especially when I see a favorite film being attacked by a petulant dullard who is only upset about the movie because he thought he saw the third lead in the film in a mall somewhere once and the guy ignored him. (And don't even get me started on the people who judge a movie because they fell asleep five minutes into it, and then feel that is a worthwhile basis to review the film online... I can't even... grrrr... AAARRRGGGHHH!!!! Man, I hate humans sometimes...)

I once felt differently though. Early on in my use of IMDb as a certified user, I thought perhaps that I at last might have found a forum to post my own thoughts and responses to films as they came out to theatres. I quickly dismissed the idea once I started to really read other top user reviewers on the site. After a few months of digging around looking for the right venue, I discovered that maybe blogging was something that I wanted to try, and soon enough, I created my first website, The Cinema 4 Pylon, the older, more feature film-oriented sister to this one, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc. But that wouldn't happen until October of 2005. Before that, on May 1, 2005 – one day before I began working at my first place of employment after moving to Southern California (the now-shady soccer organization that would lead me to near-suicidal depression) – I wrote three short reviews about animated films on IMDb.

The three animated films that I reviewed were:

1) The Man Who Had to Sing, a 1973 Czech short that influenced me greatly when I saw it on PBS' International Festival of Animation (with Jean Marsh!) several times as a kid;
2) The Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical, Mystery Trip (1973), an ABC Afterschool Special starring Timer, a yellow, pointy-nosed, top hat-wearing weirdo who is better remembered today for those commercial interstitials where he would "hanker for a hunk o' cheese – YAHOO!"; and...
3) The Great Toy Robbery, a Canadian cartoon short from 1963.

Because I am so tied to that which influenced me earlier in my life, I felt at the time that someone really needed to say something about these particular films. I chose each for their relative obscurity in being written about online at the time. In May 2005, YouTube was just barely up and running, and I couldn't any of these three films online then. I was working completely off memory, as I also hadn't seen them for many, many years. Frankly, I wasn't even sure if any of the three were any good either anymore. You can like something as a kid but that doesn't mean you will grow up to continue liking it. There are a lot of cartoons I saw on Saturday morning TV as a child that I would not only love to throw under a bus today, but would even prefer that I be the one doing the bus driving. (Keeping in mind, of course, that I don't even drive.) As it turned out, once I relocated all three films, I still  completely loved the two foreign shorts, preferring them more than the Timer film (though I still like that one just fine).

So, without a fresh viewing of any of these three back in May 2005, I still posted my brief reviews of my memories of experiencing each one on that single day. I will skip over the other two films from here on out, because we are actually here to fully discuss the third one. About The Great Toy Robbery, I used this sub-heading:

"This should be an X-Mas perennial in the US..."

...and my review appeared like this...

Author: rik tod johnson ( from Anaheim, CA
1 May 2005
I first saw this cartoon in 3rd grade in 1973 as part of a Christmas assembly in the school gymnasium, and I have been fascinated with it ever since. It would also get played on TV on Christmas mornings by one of the local affiliates for a few years, and I would study the film, completely transfixed with the story of the Wild West robbers who steal Santa Claus' sack. And then, one Christmas, "The Great Toy Robbery" disappeared from my life...

This is one of the funniest, most lovable and satisfying cartoons I have ever seen (and my animated experience is considerable). From the perspective of the American "sensibility", there is something decidedly off-kilter about a lot of Canadian animated films. The pace and timing can often seem too ponderous, too slow for American eyes, and this film is no exception. It could be the reason it has never really caught on here. But it is the pace of this film that makes it so delightful. Although under seven minutes long, it never hurries, and takes its time with its characters.

I heard that this came out on a Christmas tape a few years back, but by the time I tried to order it, the film seemed to have mysteriously vanished again. Maybe the Film Board of Canada will package it on DVD, not necessarily with other Christmas-related films, but on a set of neglected classics. I know Cartoon Network had their "O, Canada!" show a few years back, and it was a noble effort to promote the country and its animated output, but the network seemed to promote the show as though the title were a back-handed swipe, making it seem like "Look what those crazy Canucks are doing now!", though 90% of the films were far superior to the Seth MacFarlane tripe that they've been pushing on their audience for years.

All in all, a movie ripe for rediscovery...

So, that was one of my first three online reviews (it was actually the second after The Man Who Had to Sing), and it was written after not having seen the film for probably about 25-plus years at that point. A couple of years later, The Great Toy Robbery finally did show up online, when the National Film Board of Canada launched a new site where you could play many of their classic shorts. (The NFB has since opened a YouTube channel. You can watch the film in its entirely by scrolling down to the bottom of this review.)

Seeing The Great Toy Robbery again after so long was a revelation in one way only: I was right all along with the thoughts in my nostalgia-soaked review. But before going any further with any of his nonsense, let's introduce you to the film itself...

The Great Toy Robbery was released in 1963 by the National Film Board of Canada, which sponsored its creation. English director Jeffrey Hale got his first solo credit for directing animation on this short, having previously directed segments for three NFB shorts. The first two of these were Hors–d'oeuvre (1960) and Pot-pourri (1962). Hale, along with other acclaimed directors such as Kaj Pindal, Gerald Potterton, Derek Lamb, and Grant Munro, had previously animated commercials for institutions such as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Both Hors–d'oeuvre and Pot-pourri collected numerous examples of these animation pieces together. Without a guide to tell me who the players were for which segment, I cannot say with any assurance that I know which portion of these films were Jeffrey Hale's. (And besides, I have only seen Hors–d'oeuvre, but cannot locate the second one. So, that makes it even harder to say which segments are his.) [Note: Hale was involved in a third co-directed production for the NFB, also a holiday-themed piece, but we will discuss that film later in this piece,]

Since the film's title is a play on The Great Train Robbery, a 1903 silent film which still serves today as one of the great milestones in cinema history, most may go into The Great Toy Robbery with hopes that it will take place in the Old West. Such hopes are instantly rewarded as the film opens up onto a vast desert landscape. A melody that slightly plays off Happy Trails to You (but not exactly that) ambles along on the soundtrack, while a tall cowboy in white clothes and hat with a guitar strapped to his back is shown riding a rather roly-poly, tan horse with white mane and tail. The cowboy is in no hurry whatsoever, nor is his horse. He rides tamely past rocks, brush and cacti in front of the rolling hills and dunes in the background, while the deep voice of an offscreen narrator begins the tale...

"In the tough and rugged west, cowboy heroes ride alone. They have no past. They have few friends. Their hearts are pure. They never start a fight..."

The cowboy continues to ride along silently until a bright yellow flower appears in their path, at which the horse stops immediately. The narrator continues...

"...but must be prepared to meet trouble...."

The horse noses towards the flower and sniffs it deeply, and then opens its jaws wide to devour the flower, stalk and all, severing it completely down to the ground.

" all times."

The horse just stands stock-still after having eaten its meal. The cowboy, at first patient, says, "Giddap!" but becomes increasingly agitated. "Giddap! Go! Giddap, boy!" He shakes the reins uselessly as the scene fades to black. The titles begin to the tune of Oh, Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie, only this version seems quite informed by Henry Mancini's Peter Gunn theme, with a driving guitar leading the rhythm, and a saxophone playing the melody. 

After telling us what I have already told you – "The National Film Board of Canada presents The Great Toy Robbery" – the film comes up on another desert scene, this time with a cattle skull prominently placed in the foreground while a red sun glows above the horizon. From behind the hills mid-screen rides a small figure being propelled quickly forward. The film cuts to the familiar face of Santa Claus, or someone dressed as Santa Claus (we never find out which one it is), making his way swiftly across the desert sands. He is seated on a small sleigh with a large sack resting behind him, and the sleigh is pulled by a single reindeer. Like the cowboy's horse earlier, this reindeer's body is also quite round, as is Santa and his sack.

Santa glides past some cactus, and the film jumps to a trio of villains, also all round in body, atop their respective round horses as they watch Santa's progress from atop a tall hill. The leader of the bad guys, as usual clad all in black (he almost looks like Snidely Whiplash), spies on Santa Claus using binoculars. He first sizes up the reindeer and then shifts his gaze to the sleigh and its driver. Most especially, he sizes up the large sack of goodies on the sleigh. Happy with what he sees, the leader of the bad guys leads his men down the hill in a charge towards St. Nick. Santa, at first unaware of this, checks his watch, but then has to stop short when he sees that he is being held up by the robbers. He throws his hands in the air, and tosses the sack to the bad guys (in a pretty great throw) after the lead villain seeks to make his point with his gun. The robbers ride off with the loot and Santa is left in the desert with his deer and sleigh, his arms still pointing upward into the air.

At a small town nearby, we see a bright star and then the camera pulls back to reveal a tall Christmas tree surrounded by a handful of appreciative, admiring citizens of the town. A gallows rests to the side, while church bells chime nearby. But the holy music is replaced by that of the cowboy hero riding into town. Strumming his guitar while he trots past several buildings, the cowboy yodels his way through a nondescript tune. His singing is charming enough to make the wife of a local citizen, whose husband tipped his hat in friendliness to the cowboy, faint dead away in her husband's arms.

The cowboy rides up to the local saloon, where he intends to tie his horse, but the creature has other ideas. "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa, boy! Whoa!" he yells, but the animal keeps walking until they are offscreen. We hear, "Whoa! Whoa, boy! Whoa!"

Inside the saloon, a piano player is going crazy on the keys as a dancing girl with a lot of cleavage kicks and shimmies on top of his upright piano. She dances in front of a large Botticelli-style style painting of a topless woman lounging in her bedsheets. Outside, we see the robbers ride into town, the sound of their rushing horses causes one lady to pull her window shades down and to have one mother stretch her arm out her door to yank her small, blonde daughter indoors. The robbers reach the saloon, where they leap off their horses as one. They enter the saloon and the dancing and music stop cold. Even the dancing girl keeps her kicked out leg high in the air.

In a close-up, the three robbers grimace and glare at the cowboys inhabiting the bar. The camera cuts to the bartender moving his eyes to the left as he watches all of his patrons depart as quickly as possible. As the sounds of the (unseen) departures get louder and louder, the bartender, whose face starts out bright red and slowly loses its pallor – slinks down smoothly underneath his bar. The piano player is shown still sitting on his stool, staring in shock at the front door, with chairs and even a table kicked over on their sides on the floor of the saloon. The dancer climbs inside the piano for shelter, and the pianist does too, but at the last second, he looks down and gives a leering look with his tongue waggling out of his mouth and gleefully jumps inside to have some fun.

The villains, still by the swinging doors, look out upon an empty saloon. The bartender allows his arm to rise above the level of the bar long enough to supply the goons with a trio of bottles for their drinking pleasure. Their spurs jingling along the wooden floor, the robbers walk in a line – their leader at the front with the sack of goodies – past the bar, grabbing a bottle each and starting to drink as they continue to the back of the saloon. From offscreen, each bottle is thrown 1, 2, 3 back in front of the bar, where the first two smash instantly, but the third bottle lands miraculously upright before smashing into little bits.

The villains surround the sack once belonging to Santa Claus and wiggle their fingers in anticipation. With huge grins on their faces, they open the sack wide and start flinging presents in every direction as fast as possible. Finally, each of the henchmen pulls out a single item from the sack. The leader in the top hat get two toys, owing to his status, I guess. He pulls out a bugle and an airplane, and toots the bugle loudly in triumph. The villain in green hugs a teddy bear gently and then kisses it over and over, and the third villain, clad in blue, shows off his dribbling skills with a large beach ball. The leader whirls his airplane playfully around his head in circles, and then makes a mad dash with the toy. He runs the length of the saloon with his arm outstretched, pretending that the plane can fly, and then he runs back through the bar, even up and over the piano to continue his joyous, childlike flight. He then repeats his wild run.

Outside the saloon once again, the cowboy hero's horse has switched direction and makes another pass in front of the saloon. The cowboy hero continues to yell, "Whoa!" again and again at his steed, but the creature refuses to (or can't) listen. Finally, he can't take anymore, so the cowboy raises his guitar high above his head and wallops the horse Yosemite Sam-style on the noggin. The horse stops immediately, but also barely seems to really notice the blow after it has happened.

The cowboy hero steps into the saloon and sees that the majority of the bar is now empty. He steps up to the bar, but as soon as he leans on it, the beach ball flies across the room, bounces off the piano, and arcs high through the air until it smacks the cowboy right on top of his head. The cowboy stumbles backwards and gets his right foot stuck inside a golden spittoon. He turns and sees the bad guys playing with their stolen toys at the back of the room. The green shirted henchman has his arms high in the air as he spins a hula hoop around his waist, the blue-shirted fiend is playing with a paddleball, and the villainous leader is running a small electronic railroad. Other assorted toys lay scattered on the floor around them.

Innocently, the cowboy hero asks, "Hey, fellas? Can I play?" Their first response it to grab up their loot and then hide behind the sack to glare at the cowboy hero. The leader growls at the hero, "Get outta here!" The hero just wants to play too, so with the spittoon still on his right foot, he pleads like a child, "Aw, c'mon, fellas!" In a shot reminiscent of the most famous image from the silent The Great Train Robbery, all three robbers pull their guns and point them straight at the cowboy hero, i.e. straight at the camera like the robber in the silent version. (That image of a man firing straight into the camera shocked audiences at the time, even without sound.) The hero starts to step backwards with his hands near his holsters. His second step backward, however, is greeted with the clang of the spittoon on the floor, and after his third step, the cowboy hero throws his arms into the arm and bolts for front door, going step-clang-step-clang repeatedly.

The cowboy hero runs straight out past his horse and then backtracks to leap onto its saddle. "Giddap! Giddap!" He slaps its haunch, but there is no response from the horse. "Go, boy! Giddap!" The horse is as useless as ever. As he continues to struggle, Santa rides into town with the sheriff standing next to him on the sleigh. They stop in front of the saloon, and the sheriff asks the cowboy hero, "Say, pardner! Have you seen this guy's sack of toys?" The cowboy points inside the saloon and the pair go inside. The cowboy hero watches the front door, and there is silence for several seconds. Suddenly, gunfire starts to burst through the doors and walls of the saloon. The cowboy hero tries ever more frantically to get his horse to get going, kicking at its sides.

Inside the bar, the sheriff and Santa are pinned down behind the overturned table next to the piano. The lawman fires back at the robbers, who have him easily outgunned as they advance across the floor. Finally, they make it to the front door as the sheriff and Santa move past the piano to a less strategically sound table. The robbers, still firing wildly at the good guys, step out of the saloon backwards. Outside, the cowboy hero is just gearing up to give his horse another conk on the head with his guitar to get moving again. Without realizing it though, he first bashes all three villains with one blow, and then throws the guitar forward to hit the horse. His steed shoots out from under him and bolts away. The cowboy hero lands awkwardly but upright as the villains tumble backwards down the steps of the saloon and onto the ground unconscious.

The sheriff and Santa run out of the saloon, where the lawman shakes the cowboy hero's hand as Santa recovers his sack. Santa, who turns out to have a rather cultured British accent, says, "Thanks, old boy!" and opens up the sack to the cowboy hero. "Have one!" says Santa, and then chuckles, and says looking at the audience, "Have one!" again. The cowboy hero pulls a large toy car out of the sack and then climbs inside, his tremendously long legs barely allowing him to fit comfortably inside as he pedals away with great glee. 

As the sheriff points the way to jail for the three robbers, Santa waves happily from his sleigh. The cowboy hero drives his new toy car back into view and makes circles in front of the saloon as Santa rides away. With the saxophone-driven version of Oh Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie blasting once more on the soundtrack, Santa rides off across the desert the way he came in, ultimately zigzagging his way to the horizon with a crescent moon gracing the night sky above. The End.

Since I finally found a copy in recent years and was able to get reacquainted with The Great Toy Robbery, it has become an annual affair again with me. And I must say, my memories of the film mostly served me well over the long decades between showings. I remembered the tone of the piece, and of course, the storyline and characters. I stand by everything that I said about in my initial IMDb review, even though I wrote it through the haze of misty-eyed remembrance.

What I missed out on in that review, since I saw it as a child first and was chiefly responding to cowboy heroes and villains who acted like little kids, was the more adult aesthetic of the film. Despite their playing with toys, the villains in this film really are bad, violent men. People are held at gunpoint or are terrorized by these bad men, bullets are fired, the use of tobacco is hinted at by the spittoon, and alcohol is being consumed. Near the seemingly glorious glow of the lit up Christmas tree in the town square lies a gallows waiting ominously to hang the guilty. The film is graced by at least a minute (if not more) of inadvertent nudity because of that huge painting in the saloon. And somewhere inside his upright, a piano player is probably also upright and getting laid.

This was all clearly missed by me as a kid, and back in the day when I first saw it in that assembly in the gymnasium at Eagle River Elementary in 1973, no one freaked out because there was a nude painting in the saloon, or because it was too violent. The showing was not even a regular school event, but a local usage of school property to show the audience an evening of family-friendly entertainment in a town that did not have a regular movie theatre until the late 1980s (at least). I recall two such events at the Eagle River gym that my family attended. Everyone sat at cafeteria tables (some on the floor if they chose to), popcorn, candy and hot dogs were sold, and the evening would consist of several short subjects (usually cartoons) and then at least one feature film. One night, they ran A Man Called Flintstone as the feature film; the other was Namu, the Killer Whale. I don't remember which showing had The Great Toy Robbery, but the other night had Disney's The Three Little Pigs as a big drawing point.

The next year, I was moved to the brand new Homestead Elementary for 4th grade (the new school was closer to our home), and they eventually had similar movie nights, some of which I was able to convince the parents to attend with us (and sometimes we would get dropped off there). Of particular merit was a night featuring The Shaggy Dog, during which they not only showed other Disney shorts like Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill, but also drew the ire of many in the crowd for showing a short about killing and dressing a deer. They should have known that was not a good idea for a pro-Disney crowd, prone to crying over Bambi's mother. Knowing about the art-based nudity in The Great Toy Robbery, it makes my heart glad now to recall that mothers in my town back then were more concerned with violence and gore than a stylized Botticelli.

Speaking of which, the curviness of the model in the painting points up a motif within The Great Toy Robbery. I mentioned that the horse was roly-poly, having an oval body and general soft edges on the rest of its body and head. So too the reindeer, with even its antlers being less pointed than muted. In the opening scenes in the desert, even the cactus and hills – as luxuriantly laid out as the model in the painting have a pleasing roundness and to them, as do Santa, the robbers, their horses, the sack, the hero's guitar, the Sheriff and the dancing girl. And of course, that spittoon and the beach ball, and the giant boulders that the robbers and Santa are seen beside.

The contrast is the ridiculous tallness of the cowboy, the upright piano, the piano player, and the Christmas tree. Most especially, the buildings of the town – which show surprising details in their structure for a film where the characters are such elementary shapes – are drawn tall and thin. In one shot of the Christmas tree, the street takes a turn so that when the town turns with the street, they seem more like facades at an amusement park than an actual structure. The lack of depth seen in the buildings when the corner is turned seems almost absurd in contrast to scenes in the saloon where we see that there is a healthy amount of room inside. Is it a town entirely constructed of TARDISes?

As I mentioned in my old review, the chief merit of this film is its patience, even within its fairly abbreviated running time. The hero is not going anywhere fast, no one is in a hurry except for the villains, and Hale really allows the story to breathe. It even has an opening scene that telegraphs to us that no one is going anywhere with a horse refusing to get moving again. Once the bad guys get to the saloon, all they want to do is play, and they would do so forever if given the chance. Over and over, the details are introduced to us in a most leisurely fashion. Even the propulsive theme is based on a fairly slow western standard. At this pace, we still get to thoroughly understand and love each of the main characters, even the baddies, because yeah, we'd kill to get that sack full of goodies too.

But don't get on me about the modern airplane and car designs of the toys in Santa's sack in the Old West, or even the hula hoop and electric train set. Have a little faith in fantasy, this atheist says for once. Clearly, Santa isn't bound by the same rules as us mere mortals. If he feels a kid needs a jet plane a hundred years before its time, or a pedal car that would not look out of place in the early '60s, then so be it. Santa is magic, after all.

Though it does raise the question as to whether we are seeing the real Santa Claus in this film, or just a kindly, imposter Santa going from town to town to spread basic Christmas joy and grab a free meal where he can. He doesn't fly into town; he drives his sleigh there instead. He has to enlist the aid of the sheriff to get his sack back, and he never seems to use magic openly. And yet, he has the proper air and patience of a Santa, and has the perfect gift to make the cowboy hero happier than ever. If that isn't holiday magic, what is? Besides, who else would have an actual reindeer, flying or otherwise, in the Old West?

I said earlier that Jeffrey Hale co-directed yet another holiday-themed piece for the NFB of Canada, and it was released in the same year as The Great Toy Robbery. It was another group effort called Christmas Cracker, which ended up being nominated for a short subject Academy Award. The film features three distinct segments each offering a different celebration or story about the holiday.

Once more, I am unsure of which segment Hale directed in Christmas Cracker (the NFB website is not helpful in this regard, nor is IMDb), though I can take a pretty good guess and say it was probably the chunk in the middle featuring a cadre of tin toys dealing with a renegade wind-up crocodile in their midst. I am basing this guess on the work that Hale had ahead of him in the years to come. He moved to San Francisco eventually to start up his own studio, which eventually would go on to make a great many segments for Sesame Street for a couple of decades. These included the famous "1,2,3" pinball segments that many now grown-up kids from the '70s, including myself, recall with much affection.

Working with Hale on some of those shorts was another Bay Area filmmaker, Ernie Fosselius, who would go on to great renown (or notoriety, given your taste) for creating the world's first Star Wars fan film and parody, Hardware Wars. The film is a particular favorite of mine and always will be, having watched it quite literally scores and scores of times on HBO and even in movie theatres as a kid. (In fact, I might even watch it again today.)

And there, in the midst of all the silly puns about the Planet Basketball, Fluke Starbucker, Chewchilla the Wookie Monster, Artie Deco, and tractor beams (showing animation of a cartoon tractor), is a person playing Augie Ben Doggie, the film's version of wise Obi-Wan Kenobi. And just who is playing Augie Ben Doggie?

None other than Jeffrey Hale, the director of The Great Toy Robbery. I love how things seem to connect together in life sometimes. Especially your influences...

Merry Christmas! See ya soon with the next 'toon!



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

Saturday, December 09, 2017

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: A Cold Romance (1949)

A Cold Romance (1949, Twentieth Century Fox/Terrytoons)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
Animators: Mannie Davis, James Tyer & Carlo Vinci (all uncredited)
TC4P Rating: 7/9

One of the cartoon series that I find most fascinating are the Mighty Mouse shorts from Terrytoons, a series that started in 1942 with The Mouse of Tomorrow and ran through Cat Alarm in 1961. In that span, exactly 80 Mighty Mouse shorts were produced, even if we was called Super Mouse for the first 7 films in the run. Like many cartoon characters, Mighty didn't finish up his theatrical career (having since gone on to TV stardom) the way he was initially developed.

It's a common story though... Mickey Mouse, the face of an ever-growing empire, is a long way from his humble, silent and black and white beginnings almost 90 years ago. He started out a pretty brazen adventurer, ended up domesticated by the '40s and turned into a business logo. The Donald Duck that the world loves today barely looks like his original self, even if his attitude has always been the same. Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker were both pretty rough and didn't sound much like their eventual selves in their initial shorts for Warners and Universal. It took years to figure out their most successful versions.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has had the truly weirdest path. His simple design, predating Mickey before being stolen from Walt Disney, changed gradually as he hopped through various studios, having his look switched several times – even going from being a black rabbit to a white, fluffy bunny for a brief period. He then disappeared for over 60 years, and once Disney got him back, he reverted back pretty closely to his original form. (In other words, the one he inhabited while still with Disney.)

But Mighty Mouse has had perhaps the most muddied path of the major recognizable cartoon characters from the twentieth century. He certainly has a high media profile, with his likeness consistently appearing on merchandising – much like Betty Boop or Felix the Cat – even though he is 30 years past his most recent regularly animated incarnation. His accidental connection to the career of Andy Kaufman has also kept Mighty Mouse tangentially in the limelight, even as recently as last week when Netflix premiered a new documentary about the making of the Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. (The film is Jim and Andy, and it is fascinating.) Certainly, his cachet with early television viewers stems from recognition as the title character of Mighty Mouse Playhouse starting in 1955, when he got a new theme song (the one the late Kaufman sang along with famously in his live act and on Saturday Night Live) and his shorts were thus syndicated for the next couple of decades. And then, of course, there was the great but infamous Ralph Bakshi series in the late '80s that got Mighty Mouse even more headlines for its controversial "poppy sniffing" episode.

But without the timing of the syndicated packaging of old Terrytoons shorts and those subsequent, fortuitous happenings to the character in the media eye, was Mighty as mighty as he seems to have been through the decades? Did the character himself warrant this success based solely on the original output from the Paul Terry cartoon factory, which churned out hundreds of similarly animated shorts over forty-plus years as a working studio?

I guess it comes down to your personal taste? Do you like Terrytoons in general? Some people think their cartoons are pretty second rate, in comparison to studios with higher budgets like Disney and Warner Bros. Other people think some of the Terry cartoons are at least outright funnier than the more family friendly Disney product, and I suppose one could make a case for characters like Heckle and Jeckle or Gandy Goose and Sourpuss having a leg up humor-wise on some of the gorgeously animated but rather tame Pluto or Mickey efforts in later years. I might even agree with that case.  

But how do you think of Mighty Mouse? When you think of his old cartoons, do you think of them as funny? Hilarious? Or just mouse-filled versions of the Fleischer Studios' ultra-realistic Superman cartoons, which were the real inspiration for the Mighty Mouse character. Of course, the original run of Fleischer Superman shorts ended a couple of months before Super Mouse hit the big screen for the first time in October 1942, but the Superman series continued on through summer of 1943 under the reins of Paramount's newly christened Famous Studios (which retained much of the Fleischers' staff, save for the brothers themselves). 

By the time the Superman series had ended, Mighty was still called Super Mouse for another two films. These initial films were all over the place in tone and humor, and especially in story range. First it was a straight Superman parody, then came a Frankenstein-type tale, then straight crime, then Greek mythology (Pandora's Box, featuring the first appearance of Mighty's most striking-looking villain, the Bat-Cats), straight crime again, a winter-themed tale (but with Nazi-like cats), and finally, a rewriting of an Aesop's Fable. In all of these forms, the set-up was that populations of mice were being downtrodden, attacked or frightened by outside forces, usually wishing to make a meal of them and quite often in the shape of cats, however transformed magically in some cases. But the cartoons were so nondescript as to be interchangeable. Yes, there were magical elements here and there, but each one tended to have scenes of mice fleeing from cats or cat-like creatures, mice trying to fight back but being overrun by greater forces, and all sorts of terrible things happening to the homes or towns of the mice in the wake of such attacks. There were gags here and there, but the overriding air was one of terror and the need for rescue.

And each time, the hero by the end of each cartoon was Super Mouse, sometimes brought to power by differing means, sometimes already being powerful, and never consistent in his appearance or costuming. It was almost as if there was no consensus on how Super Mouse should look amongst the Terry staff, and so they took turns each short throwing darts at a board filled with various combinations of looks and powers. Or maybe there just wasn't any excitement behind the character's development or creation.

The seventh cartoon came out in Nov. 1942, and then there was a full three month gap before the eighth short appeared: The Wreck of the Hesperus [which I have written about here: link]. Super Mouse had been changed to Mighty, and while there was still a small group of mice in danger on the ship in the title, the concentration was on three characters: a sea captain trying to weather a potentially fatal storm, his beautiful daughter whom he has lashed to the ship's wheel to keep her from being swept away, and a mouse who runs a lighthouse on shore but who is secretly Mighty Mouse in disguise! (Well, you could consider the group of sharks who remain constant foes throughout the cartoon as the fourth "character", but they are not important to my point.)

The narrowing down of characters in The Wreck of the Hesperus was a big change for the series, though it's construction would not pay off until later down the line. For the next half dozen shorts, the series would continue as before. Adaptations of fairy tales, another horror tale or two, more gangster cats running roughshod over mouse communities. In the 15th tale, The Sultan's Birthday, there was the next big change. Mighty Mouse, who seemed to look different in each adventure for one reason or another, finally got his classic look: the yellow suit with red cape and boots. One would think this would spark more imagination in the series, but no... it went back to being all over the map with the type of tales it told. More this, more that, just more of the same. Mice, villains, and maybe Mighty would show up in the last couple of minutes and save the day.

But somewhere in there was another slight change. In 1945's Mighty Mouse and the Pirates, the 17th short in the series, they made the short a full operatic musical. The pirates – cats, of course – all sang; the native islanders – who consist of a single, lovely, sarong-wearing heroine – don't, and neither does Mighty Mouse, who has a cape and shorts here, but loses his yellow suit briefly to appear bare-chested and footed to leap from the island's jungle depths and yell like Tarzan. But it's a foreshadowing of things to come, as opera (or at least operetta) will begin to turn up with increasing frequency. Also in 1945 would come Gypsy Life, an Oscar-nominated effort, which really concentrates on the singing and dancing, and brings the evil Bat-Cats back as well. And even the Bat-Cats get to sing. Best of all... Mighty finally opens his trap to sing too! He doesn't do "Here I come to save the day!" but he does get in "I am coming... never fear!"

Mighty would sing in a few other cartoons through the next couple of years, but our concentration here is really on how the series would split time between the generic rescue cartoons to which the series had grown accustomed, and a true separate sub-series within the main series: the cliffhanger serial operettas. We skip far ahead to the 44th short in the series, A Fight to the Finish, to find a far different type of cartoon. In this short, gone are the scores of mice being threatened by equally large groups of cats and other menaces. Instead we are greeted with a typical setting for an old-style melodrama – a railway station high atop a cliff – and find two combatants in the middle of a fight, as if we are seeing the next chapter of a serial adventure.

We meet the tall cat in dandy's garb named Oil Can Harry, he of the pencil thin mustache, and Mighty Mouse, now comfortable and instantly recognizable in his yellow and red garb. The animation is more rubbery and stylized than a normal Mighty Mouse cartoon as the pair duke it out inside the confines of the station. We also meet Pearl Pureheart, Mighty's love interest, she of the blonde, curly hair who consistently finds herself tied to something (a chair, this time at the beginning, and a log later in the short) and sorely in need of rescue. In the course of this adventure, a bolt of lightning sets fire to the station, Mighty will get tied to the railroad tracks, the fourth wall will be broken a couple of times, and Pearl will escape only to find herself in one horrid situation (including a buzzsaw) after another until Mighty regains his strength to escape the tracks and rescue his beloved. But while all of this is going on, the dialogue will turn out to be sung about 80% of the time in mock operatic style. While there were MM cartoons to this point with singing, this is the first time where the jokes are basically delivered in that style... and also where Mighty is a part of that ongoing dialogue. He even starts out the cartoon in the first scene and is a presence throughout it. A Fight to the Finish is a really fun short.

Oil Can Harry and Pearl Pureheart would become mainstays of the series, of course, but they were not in every following Mighty Mouse short. There was still a balance between adventures tales and the type involving the "cliffhanger trio", but even when they got together, they didn't always sing, such as in The Mysterious Stranger. (It can be debated as to whether Pearl, or rather, the character of "Nell" in that one, is actually Pearl, but Harry is really Harry.) But most of their shorts from this point forward together did involve operatic action.

At last, we get to the cartoon in focus this time around, A Cold Romance, the 55th film in the series. While this is not a Christmas cartoon, I have chosen the short for its wintertime setting, and also because it is set in the frozen north, most likely Canada, home of many a cliffhanger serial adventure and old-timey melodrama. Over the credit sequence, we hear the voice of Pearl Pureheart, as she trades line with a chorus of men's voices to give us the basis for a theme song...

Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!"

Choir: "The villain's on the loose again!"

Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!"

Chorus: "You'll have to cook his goose again!

Hear the cry of some poor maid
Crying out to you for aid..."

Pearl: "Mighty Mouse!

Mighty Mouse!
Save me!"

The film opens on a small mountain town draped in snow. Only one building is shown with smoke climbing out of its chimney, and it is to this place that our narrator will direct the action for us...

"In our last episode, we left Mighty Mouse at the Ol' Trading Post. As you remember, he was locked in a desperate struggle with the hated villain, Oil Can Harry. And so, let us continue... they're off!"

We see our hero, Mighty Mouse (I assume he is your hero as well), engaged in ferocious swordplay with a tall cat dressed in dark clothing. The cat, Oil Can Harry, sports a black suit with grey lapels, with spats and a hat to match. Using his foil, Mighty finally knocks off Harry's hat, and then cuts the villain into several slices, starting with his head on down to his shoes. Harry's various parts fly to the other side of the room and land first with his head upside down and then in the proper order from floor to ceiling. Harry rights himself, pulls out a new sword from his pocket (that's some power to have) and runs back to meet the tiny mouse in battle again. Once more, Mighty cuts Harry into the same assortment of pieces, Harry lands across the room in the same upside-down way, pulls out another sword and starts to run back to their eternal struggle.

"Outside," interrupts the narrator, "it is raining cats and dogs!" There is a loud boom of thunder and the screen quite literally shows cats and dogs falling from the sky and landing roughly on the ground, where they all scamper off in various directions. "As they continue to fight, the storm increases and the rain comes down in buckets!" After we see a brief interlude of Harry and Mighty in closeup getting ever more frenzied in battle, we naturally get a shot of buckets full of rainwater hitting the ground, the slats from the buckets breaking apart as they do. Back inside, it seems Harry is about to be bested by the powerful little mouse. Harry runs away to the bar and throws a bottle at Mighty Mouse, but it only crashes through the window behind the hero.

We then see a scene from outside as dark clouds roll over the mountains until our view is all but obliterated. "Then all at once, the lightning flashes..." says the narrator, "and what a piece of lightning it is!" After a couple of quick strikes, the lightning bounces around in several directors to make its own rather haphazard form of artwork on the screen. The lightning then hits the Ol' Trading Post and reaches Mighty Mouse inside. He is sent crashing through the back door of the building, where the lightning spears him into the trunk of a tree. Harry runs up to gloat, but first twists the ends of the lightning behind the tree to lock Mighty in place. "Heh, heh, heh!" he laughs, "Now for little Nell! She's as good as mine!"

"Meanwhile, unaware of what has happened, Little Nell is on her way to the North Pole, in search of seal skins for a new fur coat." We see a red helicopter piloted by Mighty's usual girlfriend, Pearl Pureheart, only here she is being called Nell, most likely because such a name was commonplace in melodramas of this type and even songs of the corresponding time period. In all other aspects of her character in this film, Nell seems to be Pearl, right down to her need to sing everything as in an operetta. And so, Nell/Pearl begins to sing of her travels...

"Oh, I fly through the sky in my little [cop-fay?]!
Up and away! Up and away!"

Down on the ground, Oil Can Harry hears the song of his intended victim and sings back...

"Oh, whatever goes up, must come down, so they say.
I'll have her this day!"

Harry runs to a taxi stop that rests on the beach, and calls out to the water for a ride. In seconds, we see a large sperm whale hopping through the water. When the great mammal glides up to the beach, he opens his mouth wide and Harry runs inside without hesitation. The whale then turns about and hops off towards the horizon. Meanwhile, Mighty Mouse struggles against the lightning bolt still holding him tight to the tree trunk. Back in the ocean, it is revealed that the whale taxi has windows on its sides, through which Oil Can Harry is able to look out into the water. The whale arrives at a sign that reads, "North Pole Station" and then opens its mouth once more to allow Harry to step out again. Harry runs up a subway exit and finds himself surrounded by ice and snow, as expected, but then ducks inside again when he sees Nell's copter whiz past the station.

Harry runs out and finds a sled attached to a large group of huskies sitting there. He picks up the whip, yells "Follow that plane!" and then cracks the whip over their heads. The lead dog leaps up to start running, as do the rest but the dog between the first and third dogs is just a small puppy, who spins about on the leash so it rides along upside down while the others run. Harry fires the lash a couple more times, and then hangs onto the back of the sled as the dogs really get going. Soon, they are going fast enough so that Harry's entire body is flying straight above the ground as they run. As Nell continues to whirl along across the landscape, Harry gives close chase, and then we once more see Mighty still struggling against his bonds.

Out in the ocean, Nell flies overhead, when a kayak pops up suddenly from under the water. Out of the hole in the top of the kayak climbs Oil Can Harry, who grabs a paddle and rows as furiously as he can after the whirlybird. He finally goes fast enough to affect a motorboat sound as he rows, but then has to climb out of the water with his feet sticking improbably through the bottom of the kayak, and run across the ice until he finds water again. He motorboats to the next section of land and disappears into the confines of the kayak as it pulls up to the shore. From out of the relatively small area inside the kayak leaps the entire dog sled team, one dog after another, followed by the sled and Oil Can Harry.

A chunk of round ice suddenly is knocked up into the air, followed by a goofy looking walrus. The ice lands on his head almost like a hat, but then the walrus sees Harry's dog team heading in his direction. His eyes bulge out in surprise, and then the walrus dives into the side of a snowbank, but the entire dog team runs straight into the side of the snowbank after him. When Harry hits the snowbank, we see his head remain above the top of the snow as the sled dogs plow through it underneath the snow. As the snow deepens, however, Harry disappears. At last, the team reemerges from the other end of the snow, only this time, each sled dog is riding atop their own walrus, as Harry relaxes in comfort inside the sled.

Harry, his legs crossed, pulls out a telescope and holds it to the sky, finding the fair Nell almost instantly. The mouse girl continues to sing in happiness on her flight, oblivious to the chase below...

"Oh, I fly through the sky in my little [cop-fay?]!
Up and away! Up and away!"

As she passes, a large group of seals answer her song with a chorus of barks. They leap excitedly into the water, clearly awaiting her arrival. The seals swim fast across the water and jump out onto the spot where Little Nell has landed her chopper. The seals line up for Nell, who gives them fish in return for their furs. The Blue Danube plays on the soundtrack, and as Nell sings, each seal unzips its fur – leaving each wearing long red underwear – and then barks its approval in time to the music...

"Please sell me your fur!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
"Oh, thank you, kind sir!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
Please sell me yours, too!"
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
And my thanks to you!
(Arp! Arp! Arp! Arp!)
Now what have you ––!!!"

Nell is interrupted as the third seal unzips its fur and is revealed to be her archenemy, Oil Can Harry!! He sings...

"I am Oil Can Harry, and my price is just a kiss!"

Nell, never flustered, picks up a fish from the bucket and flings it at his face...

"And my answer is –– this!"

The fish slaps Harry hard in the face as Nell escapes on foot. She continues to sing...

"Oil Can Harry, you're a villain!"

He replies...

"I know it, but it's a lot of fun!"

Back at the tree outside the Ol' Trading Post, Mighty Mouse has had enough at last. He uses his heat vision to completely seer away the lightning bolt, melting it in a split second. Far away, as she continues to run, Nell sings in great desperation...

"Mighty Mouse! Please help me!"

And now, with the super-powered mouse in hot pursuit, he finally sings his signature phrase...

"Here I come to save the day!!!"

Oil Can Harry continues to run after Nell, but he cannot gain ground. Harry pulls a seltzer bottle out of his pocket and sprays it in Nell's direction. The girl is caught frozen in a small ice block which continues to slide slowly across the ice on the ground. Mighty catches up to them and attacks Harry, trading several punches with him. As the boys fight over Nell, her ice block keeps sliding, falling off the edge of the snow and onto a flume. All the while, she has begun singing Dixie, though for comedy's sake (in a gag repeated in many of the Mighty Mouse cliffhangers), the film cuts her off mid-verse...

"Oh, I wish I were in the land of cotton,
Good times there are not forgot– –!"

We return briefly to the frenzied action of the Oil Can Harry v. Mighty Mouse match, where the combatants continue to trade hard blows on each other's chins. We then cut back to Little Nell, still trapped in her ice block, which zig zags its way down the flume, surrounded by numerous small rocks. She continues to sing Dixie as she enters the mill...

"Oh I wish I were in Dixie, I do! I do!"

The rocks are crushed into smaller pieces by massive hammer-blocks, and as Nell nears them, she keeps up her song, though she gets even less song out than the first time...

"Wish I were in the land of cotton,
Good times there are not – –!"

Back at the fight, Harry has taken to walloping Mighty Mouse with a tennis racket, while Mighty replies to each blow with an outrageously enlarged fist to Harry's face. Back at the mill, Nell hurtles towards the chain of pulverizing rock hammers. She sings...

"Look away, look away, Dixieland!"

Miraculously, the timing of her block as it speeds along the belt has it so each hammer narrowly misses her. However, she reaches the end of the belt, and it unceremoniously dumps her and her ice block right into the ocean. The ice block pops up atop the water, with Nell's head thankfully up in the air.

Mighty Mouse finally wrests the tennis racket from Harry's grip, and then pummels the villain several times until Harry is knocked down out of his suit and into the snow. Mighty jackhammers him to the surface and we see Harry in his winter underwear. They trade blows once again, but this time, Harry steps backward onto an ice ledge which breaks away under their weight. Harry drops like a cannonball into the drink while Mighty makes a more graceful dive into the ocean's waters. When Harry comes to the surface, he is in an ice block like Nell's, but placed far away from her. Mighty, too, is encased in ice, but he comes up next to his beloved's block. The lovers stare into each other's eyes, as Nell says, "Mighty Mouse! Thank goodness you're here!"

She kisses him as a heart forms around their heads. The heat from their kiss melts the ice straight away, until Mighty is holding her in the open air. A chorus starts to sing on the soundtrack...

"And now he's seeing Nellie home!"

To which Mighty replies as he flies the girl in his arms...

"Yes, I'm seeing Nellie home!!"

We then see that a group of six seals, three of them in their long underwear, are providing the chorus. As Mighty flies Nell/Pearl off towards the sunset in the mountains, the seals close out the cartoon...

"From the frozen north,
He saved our Nell,
and now he's seeing Nellie,
Seeing Nellie.
Seeing Nellie home!"

Fade out. The End.

It took me a couple of views to think about it, but I think the real reason they wanted to use the name "Nell" for Pearl this time was because of the closing song, I'm Seeing Nellie Home. The lyrics in the cartoon version are different, of course, for the real song has nothing to do with the frozen north or a bunch of seals, or even a cat and mouse in constant battle. I'm Seeing Nellie Home, also known as Aunt Dinah's Quilting Party or When I Saw Sweet Nellie Home, was written in the 1850s and is a rather gentle tale of romantic innocence. That said, my theory as to its inclusion was probably inspired by the use of the seals as the chorus at the end. One does not have to squint one's eyes (or brain, as it were) too much to believe that the seals are a stand-in for a minstrel show chorus, given their dark fur but lighter faces as shown in the film. It might be a bit of racial suggestion without needing to have characters appear in blackface. It is just a theory of mine, but I will stick by it.

Not that I wanted to make things sound bleak for a cartoon that I find thoroughly entertaining, if not a little creepy for the inclusion of the fur gathering scene itself. At least Pearl is attempting to shoot or club them, but just politely trade them a fish for a fur (along with a happy sing-a-long). But overall, A Cold Romance stands as one of my favorites of the Mighty Mouse cliffhanger operettas. It may have taken Mighty a long time and a hell of a lot of films to get to that point, but I am glad that he did. I know some people who really think the Mighty Mouse series, even the operettas, are dull and uninspired throughout, and I have even met a couple of people who don't like the operettas but do like the rest of the series. 

Myself, I prefer the adventures of Mighty, Harry and Pearl united in song, if only because it is those episodes, especially the animation and style, that are the real inspiration for the insane Bakshi version on Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures. I don't find many of the earlier Mighty Mouse shorts all that funny (and I don't even think most of them are really trying to be that way), but I think the operettas are intentionally much broader and therefore pretty humorous. And sometimes, even hilarious, especially when they break the fourth wall over and over again. I enjoy many of the entries in the series before their team-ups came along, but to me, the cliffhanger operettas are the best of the lot.



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