Tuesday, 22 April 2014

328. Hollywood Steps Out (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 327.
Release date: May 24, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Kent Rogers (Voices all Male Celebrities, minus Colonna), Sara Berner (Female Celebrities); Mel Blanc (Jerry Colonna).
Story credit unknown.
Animation credit unknown.
Character designs: Ben Shenkman (uncredited).
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A satirical night of Hollywood where a group of celebrities gather at Ciro's nightclub for dinner and dancing.

Hollywood parodies has always been a popular choice for animated shorts from the 1930s: you could pick several choice from all various studios like Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, or even Warner's The CooCoo Nut Grove which had previously satirised the Hollywood night-out, though the celebrities were caricatured as mainly bird figures.

Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger,
seen seated, in this subtle staff-gag.
Perhaps this was to emphasise their
supposed 'fame' for producing the
In this short, Tex is satirising the short with a huge range of Hollywood stars in their human form, as Tex attempts his version of a "mockumentary" of a Hollywood nightlife documentaries like the Oscars, etc.

Here, he manages to capture the spirit and feel of a nightclub atmosphere which takes place inside Ciro's. The caricatures are well greatly exaggerated and in great taste, thanks to the excellent character designs of Ben Shenkman. He had been brought over to Leon Schlesinger to work for Freleng's Malibu Beach Party, as well as this short. He had previously worked on the caricatures in Columbia's Mother Goose in Swingtime. According to Keith Scott, who wrote a great piece of the short in the 100 Greatest Looney Tunes, Shenkman himself had instructed the background painters of the short in order to create a very Hollywood-oriented background.

A pivotal attribution to the short's success in satirising their biggest stars, is the wonderful voice impressions. Sara Berner handles the voices for some of the female celebrities such as Ann Sheridan ("Oomph Girl"), as well as Dorothy Lamour; but praise has to be given to Kent Rogers, who without doubt is the star of the short.

For a young voice actor who was still a teenager, his ability to voice the entire male cast is incredible. This shows how Warners had the ability to look and search for remarkable talent, and Kent just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Kent would continue to be quite a key voice actor in the early 40s, as he not only did some early voice work on Woody Woodpecker, but also worked for MGM and Warners, too.

I truly do believe, he would have been a famed voice actor if it hadn't been for his tragic death in 1944, aged 20. Mel Blanc, however, only performs one voice which is the Jerry Colonna caricature, the only celebrity not voiced by Rogers, and Mel does a fine impersonation, but Kent is dominating actor of this short, for great reason.

Not to mention, Carl Stalling's music is incredibly wonderful and motivating. Of course, Stalling was always wonderful at his knowledge of music in combination to a theme or action: here Stalling takes his music cues to a different level.

Throughout the score: you hear the Conga music heard in the beginning and the dance sequence; and he adds a lot of tone and rhythm to his music in order to create a motivating vibe around Hollywood, and he definitely pulls it off beautifully.

He also uses the score underplayed during the dance sequence at the ballroom, though that will be explained further in the review. The opening sequence is a great introduction to the short, as the audience are immediately captured by the spirit of Hollywood, with its beams dancing in synchronisation to the beat; and Stalling is taking his choice of music cues to a different level.

Throughout the short, at least during the short's first act: Tex gives the audience some great parody of infamous celebrities such as satirising their traits or characteristics, to amuse an audience who very much would understand much of the gags being satirised. Greta Garbo is very amusingly caricatured in her scenes. who in the short is dressed as a cigarette girl.

Shenkman nails her distinctive features, and also the giant effect for comedic effect, which she uses her giant foot to light a match for Cary Grant. One of the funniest pieces of delivery in the short is when lampoon Harpo Marx give her the ol' hotfoot. Whilst her foot burns, she responds with a grunted "Ouch", which is just a wonderful piece of exaggeration and delivery.

Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic Gold-Medal and Tarzan fame, arrives at the nightclub where he takes off his jacket wearing what else: his Tarzan outfit--who at that time he was exclusive to the Tarzan film series, before he created an alternate character though very much alike: Jungle Jim.

It appears to be no question that one of the gags that everybody loved to lampoon was the running-gag of Bing Crosby's horse arriving--a joke which back in 1941 was considered never too old.

Bing is in the middle of his presentation, but is interrupted by Crosby's horse, as he remark: "Move along now, I'll see you at the track". Crosby was an infamous racehorse fan, who would used to joke about being a failure of picking horses, which became a running-gag in many of his radio appearances. The setup and spontaneity definitely pays off in that little scene, though it is a tad unfunny the second time the gag appears. Of course, these jokes may be considered perhaps too dated for a modern audience, though just remember this was no secret to an audience member when the short was in production.

For more references that appear to be rather obscure to viewers, though I'll mention a view as I hope this review could answer some people's questions. The three tough guy figures (Cagney, Bogart, Raft) are seen seated at a bar, as Cagney discusses of a plot that should be "risky".

George Raft is infamous for his 'coin-flip' trait which can be seen in Scarface; Humphrey Bogart of course was an infamous chain-smoker. Being into a typical suspense-killer gag, the 'risky' plot actually ends up being an innocent game of pitching pennies as they debate over which coin is the closest.

Another one which comes to mind, would be the sequence with the late Mickey Rooney, as well as Lewis Stone. Rooney, infamous of starring movies with Judy Garland (his date in the short) finds his bill consists of $50 (adjusted for inflation it's: $803.72).

Speechless of the high bill, he then turns to his screen dad, Lewis Stone, in which the scene references' a movie series where Rooney played a character named Andy Hardy, and Lewis Stone was his father. Rooney's character was known for his trouble with money, and the quote "I'd like to have a heart-to-heart talk with ya" is paying homage to the movies.

One of my personal favourite references, would be the Cary Grant monologue at the beginning. Through his dialogue, Tex neatly blends him movie titles he starred in. He remarks: "What a place, what a place! Mine's as pretty as a picture. If I ever told My Favourite Wife The Awful Truth, I'd land right on The Front Page. Yes sir-ee bobbie!". Though he doesn't appear in the original 1931 film, it was remade as a more recognized film which was His Girl Friday, which stars Grant.

After a series of sequences where the audience get to laugh at the characteristics of a celebrity exaggerated; Tex moves the short forward as he satirizes a ballroom sequence. Bing Crosby orders Leopold Stokowski: "Make it mella, fella" to create some mellow music.

 The suspense and tension of his conducting is about to begin, then the it all abruptly begins as Stokowski plays coolly to the Conga which is a great example of Tex's flamboyant timing in his mockumentaries.

This then follows through a string of gags of celebrities dancing, and each of them vary from each shot. We get a pair of celebrities paired, some perhaps obscure today like Tyrone Power who dances with infamous Olympic skater: Sonja Heine.

Another great gag shows Cesar Romero dancing with Rita Hayworth, as Romero was known for his broad figure, and their dancing does not coordinate well is just well staged and comically animated.

Then you get some shots of perhaps better known celebrities of their time, Frankenstein without doubt is known to everyone, and is greatly parodied in the dance floor. Then we get a great comic scene of the Three Stooges using their poke trademark, in synchronization to the Conga music. Another great little gag is Laurel Hardy, who from the back looks like he is dancing to a woman who is of his size, but it is greatly portrayed once it's revealed he is dancing with two young blondes. These dance sequences are a great break from the cinematic references, that is also Tex a lot of creativity to create some very charming gags, and they still hold out well even today.

From an animated crew side: the short and the realistic character designs also are a great example of how solid and subtle Rod Scribner's animation could be. Of course, note this was Scribner's animation before he broke out with a loose, wild animation in which he took wackiness to a whole new evolution.

In this short, his animation shows rich character personality as well as  a sense of realism and human in his animation. He manages to capture the caricature and characteristics of Jimmy Stewart, who is jerky when Dorothy Lamour persuades Stewart to dance with him.

Though, Scribner does appear to attempt to break out into his infamous, loose style though the designs are very controlled that he doesn't yet have the ability to breakthrough. The exaggeration is slightly evident in the pose Mickey Rooney makes when he is flabbergasted of the bill price. Though this is a little extreme in terms of staying on model with Shenkman's designs, Scribner captures the emotions and reaction of a high bill price.

Though the short itself so far only consists of strings of gags and references of the audiences' favourite celebrities: Tex himself is also taking a lot of risks against the censorship boards. He devotes the short a whole sequence of some burlesque entertainment. The entertainer is burlesque celebrity Sally Rand, who is going to perform her bubble dance in the nude.

Of course, for censorship reasons the nudity is covered up and opaqued by the bubble. Though, this doesn't stop Tex from teasing his audience as well as the censors as he challenges them with not only gags but a lot of subtlety.

At one point she lifts the ball in the air, where the audience would suspect she is completely nude, though the camera follows the ball rising, thanks to the geniuses of Johnny Burton's department who were in on the gag.

Only Tex would have had the gall to challenge the censor's minds, by not only having an animated sequence which was considered to be blasphemy in the Production Code era, but still keeping a lot of the imagery censored at the same time. As the sequence comes to an end, Tex ends the sequence with an excellent pay-off; in which the audience themselves have been conned by the master cartoon director. Harpo Marx arrives at the spot with a rubber band and stone, and fires at the bubble which bursts. However, much to the audience's disappointment, Sally Rand was seen attached to a barrel the entire time. That is my nomination of the funniest gag in the entire short. The timing and pacing is absolutely great, and the scene wraps up in the most bizarre matter. Though, only Tex Avery could conclude such a daring sequence with a hilarious closure.

And so, what about the celebrities' reaction to the dance. Of course, Tex included the shots of each celebrity, not just to gain a laugh out of the audience, but to also keep the dance moving at a great pace with the sequences moving back and forth, in order to give the sequence a great twist.

The reaction of the audience are amusing in some aspects, at least if you understand the references. Peter Lorre, known for his sinister characters, remarked dreamily: "I haven't seen such a beautiful bubble, since I was a child".

Then this cuts to a Aldrich family reference, though this time the reference is on Henry Fonda is a little lame in terms of how the pun is. One of the corniest reactions from the celebrities comes from J. Edgar Hoover, who then was Head of the FBI is seen wearing his "G Man" badge. His initial reaction to Rand's erotic dance is, "Gee, gee, gee gee".

It's so corny in terms of how the pun is directed, but it works like a charm that it still goes along with the whole sequence amusingly. And of course, you have other reactions from Jerry Colonna, Kay Kyser, Ned Sparks, etc. Sparks - in particular as he asks "You buys having a good time?", with Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher, and Mischa Auer who respond with a expressionless and dull "Yes". Notice how Karloff supposedly appears twice in the short: first being Frankenstein. This was likely pure coincidental.

And so at last, Tex has his usual running-gag routine where the gag gets revealed at the last scene. He positions the gag on Clark Gable, who has the hots for a mysterious, blond woman whose face is a mystery as she covers her face with a fan.

He appears twice during the dance sequence, as he is not only performing the Conga, but hints to the audience of his desire to win the girl. Of course, Cable was an infamous womaniser of this time: so it works well as a recurring gag for Tex.

Ironic you see Clark Gable dancing, when in reality he lacked the talent. And so, the recurring gag is then revealed. Clark Gable chases after her as she walks to a balcony, "Now listen, babe, I'm a man of few words, see? But I've been chasing you all night. How how about a little kiss baby?".

He then turns as he is about to kiss the "woman" until it is revealed to be Groucho Marx in drags who remarks: "Well, fancy meetin' you here?". This is also an excellent piece of closure, as Gable ends up being tranced by a rude awakening. Most of you of course know the story that in the short's original print; the ending was extended. According to Sody Clampett, it originally ended with Gable, staying true to his womanising reputation, remarked (along the lines): "Awww, I want what a-comin' to me, and I'm-a gonna get it!", and kisses Groucho Marx anyway. However, legend has it that Clark Gbable heard about the gag, and was afraid it would ruin his womanising image in which he objected to the gag and requested to Warners to remove it. Thus, the scene was omitted in its reissue print. Whether the original print still survives we don't know for certain..though, it's always possible it exists out there.

For a review which went on a lot longer than expected; I consider this to still be one of Tex's finest WB short he ever did, even though a few people might question that. I thought that this was one of the very few spot-gag shorts in which Tex actually managed to capture extremely well. A lot of the animation is very realistic and believable, and it all pays off with excellent gags and delivery. Of course, the short itself has aged as the references may be obscure to some viewers, but I hope the review will answer some questions for some readers. Certainly a lot of effort has been put to create this ambitious short for Warners, in terms of its artistic side as well as talent. The voice work is incredible, thanks to the genius behind it all: Kent Rogers. The short itself is very well paced for a spot-gag as unlike most of Tex's spot-gags; it lets the actual cartoon just play and it does not rely on fade-outs or dissolves, which I consider to be great filmmaking. Overall, this was a short full of entertainment, dares, as well as excellent payoffs.

If you want to read more information about this short, then I'd advise you to read Keith Scott's piece of the short in the 100 Greatest Looney Tunes book, where he provides some great background information.

Rating: 4/5.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

327. Farm Frolics (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 326.
Release date: May 10, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Sara Berner (Mother Pig/Mother Ant), Cliff Nazarro (Cantor Horse), Mel Blanc (Dog/Weasel/Owl/Mouse/Pig), Robert C. Bruce (Narrator), Kent Rogers (Henry Ant).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: John Carey & Izzy Ellis.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Spot-gag parody where the narrator takes us to different animals located in farm areas.

Before I begin the review, I'd like to show my appreciation to Thad Komorowski and David Gerstein, who had located a print of the short over a year ago at the Warner Bros. Facebook page, as well as having the generosity of posting beautiful frame grabs of the original nitrate print.

Not only are the original titles a great discovery, but it is indeed the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle after some past debate over whether Tex or Clampett really did direct the short. The short had for a long time existed as a Blue Ribbon print, and its original credits had not been recorded in the copyright catalogue, which for a long time the credits became a mystery. Despite the debate, it was still considered a Clampett product, as despite imitating another style, his drawing style still circulated in some scenes.

Considering how the cartoon itself features a lot of heavy influence from Tex Avery, the most likely theory would be Clampett and his story man Warren Foster would've analysed and studied the spot-gag shorts which had already been an infamous trait from Tex Avery.

 Clampett himself had already created several spot-gags featuring Porky Pig, like Africa Squeaks, and having been given the privilege to create colour one-shot cartoons; Clampett decides to produce a spot-gag in the style of Tex Avery.

Perhaps Clampett was paying homage to his work which he pulls off very well in terms of the similarities this short and most of Tex's spot-gags featured. They are very similar in terms of delivery of their gags, as well as a strong sense of realism and subtly from Clampett's animators, when you watch animation from Clampett, you don't think subtle (unless you count Bob McKimson's animation).

What Clampett managed to capture when he's making a spot-gag short is the sense of realism in the proportions in odd ego for the gag to be effective whilst the gag proceeds. One prime example is evident of the farmer's dog who is seen lying on the rug on the front porch. Being a less productive dog, one of his few errands is fetching the newspaper.

Notice how as soon as the bell off-screen is heard; the dog turns from realism to its cartoony, Clampett fashion. It is a fitting transition in animation which certainly pays off in that sequence. The dog goes to fetch the newspaper from the van with enthusiasm.

Of course, Clampett puts in emphasis on the enthusiasm as it turns out the dog is reading the latest story of Dick Tracy. It is a gag similar to how Tex could have interpreted it, and it is slightly amusing. Mel Blanc also adds to the charm, without any question.

The dog, in one of Mel's dimwitted voices expresses joyfully: "I can hardly wait to see what happened to Dick Tracy". Of course, the gag and concept would later foreshadow one of Clampett's future shorts : The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, where he would take the concept as an entire animated short, as well having its sense of wackiness with far superior results.

Another sequence involving a weasel is almost identical to how Tex Avery would have interpreted the gag: in terms of speed, suspense as well as delivery. The scenery turns to a henhouse where hen is stepping out of her next and covers her egg with hay to keep warm.

However, this turns out to be bad timing to leave the henhouse as a vicious-looking weasel is on the loose. The weasel sneakily walks inside the henhouse, only to slowly approach towards the unhatched eggs; desiring to eat the unhatched chicks.

Just as the weasel is about to make a slow approach; the eggs quickly unhitch before the weasel could catch them on time. Leaving the weasel petrified at the spontaneous piece of action and delivery, the weasel then responds with annoyance: "Don't ever do that!". According to Keith Scott in the commentary, the voice performed by Mel Blanc was how Daffy Duck naturally sounded when his voice was recording (without being sped-up, of course). The gag itself and the suspense is very much similar to Avery, though its punchline is alternate.

Of course: there is a recurring gag which is a trait that Tex had invented for spot-gag shorts; we'll come to that later. Let's see Clampett's own sequences, meaning his own different approaches.

Clampett, though like most other directors, manages to blend in certain celebrity references to the farm animals. To be fair, a lot of those jokes actually pay off in terms of delivery, and the puns are very diverting. One of the funniest jokes in the short (unless you understand the reference), occurs at the beginning with a horse's running technique, starting with a trot, and then the horse transitions to a gallop.

The horse trot is very realistic, though the motion goes back as far as Edward Muybridge. Then the narrator instructs the horse to perform a 'cantor' run. Of course, a canter is faster than a trot, but slower than a gallop. The horse immediately turns into an impersonation of Eddie Cantor who sings: I Am Happy About the Whole Thing.

More puns appear during the owl sequence. First off, we start off with a realistic owl who is hooting inside the bark of a tree. Then the owl turns towards a Jerry Colonna, which is: "Yehoodi". Again, like the canter gag from early on the short: the owl gag is also an excellent combination of an owl hooting, and then this spontaneous delivery.

This gag alone also explains how Warners stood out from the rest. One of the less diverting references which is displayed in the short is the ant sequence. Though, as great the animation and drawing is; the delivery shows little effort, and sort of lacks charm.

The mother ant calls out towards her son, by what else, a reference from the then popular The Aldrich Family series. The little ant turns up, quoting "Coming mother". Compared to the radio series where Henry Aldrich was a teenager, it seems a little bizarre to have the ant presented as a child, quoting the reference. This shows how the reference and gag doesn't exactly work.

One of most unique concepts for a spot-gag sequence, is the cat-and-mouse sequence. The narrator describes the scenery following: "Here is one of the strangest friendships that has ever been known. Natural enemies, yet living together as friends: a cat and a mouse".

The cat is seen perfectly content as he is sleeping next to the mouse, all snuggled up. The narrator asks the mouse, whether he is taken care of and is happy with the cat, in which the mouse nods with a face looking content and relaxed.

At this point, the narrator asks for his insight, only for the mouse to outburst: "Get me outta here!". This turns to a small chase scene, where the cat quickly retrieves the mouse to snuggle back to sleep again. One of the more bizarre showcases which is a great sense of irony for a spot-gag short, though it could easily be under the influence of Tex's work.

Notice how Clampett also appears to have a unique stylistic approach in this short. When you compare the background work in Tex Avery's spot-gag cartoons, they grow a strong sense of verism imagery, thanks to the geniuses of Johnny Johnsen. Here, the realism of the backgrounds is certainly there: but Clampett's own taste is unique. Notice the backgrounds (probably done by Richard Thomas) certainly show some very intriguing use of colours for the skies, with the brush effects showing a lot of appeal. Also, notice the swipe effect which occurs at the beginning of the short. An artist's hand is seen sketching a barnyard layout drawing, and the camera swipes the sketch to a completed background.

Originally, the original titles had the artist's hand over the titles, which is supposedly where the short begins from. Very fulfilling.

Moving towards the final part of the review, and as promised here is the running-gag of the spot-gag. Much like how Tex would interpret his own recurring gags; Clampett shows his version though this easily reflects of what Tex could have done.

A group of piglets are seen starring at the clock in their home, eagerly watching. The narrator is rather puzzled of their eager watch as well as standing there for hours, taking no interest in any daytime activity.

The sequence itself appears several times briefly throughout the sequence. As soon as the short draws to a close, the bell rings and one of the piglets bellows: "Dinner time" in which a swarm of piglets come rushing out of the scene.

The mother pig, eating from a trough, looks at the piglets with a double-take, until a group of piglets arrive charging at the mother's teats as they're ready for weaning. Though, the emphasis on their appetite going with their name is a little corny, the delivery and wackiness of the gag is without doubt amusing and bizarre in Clampett's nature. The mother pig, looking fed-up responds with a Zazu Pitts impression: "Oh dear, every day it's the same thing!".

For a short where Clampett attempts to turn out an all spot-gag short, he manages to do a decent job out of it. Most of the jokes in the short do pay off, even though some of them may still be as lame as Tex's other jokes in his spot-gags. From how Clampett had studied and analysed the shorts by Tex, he certainly manages to adapt his version very closely to Tex's interpretation. Perhaps too close where it got so a couple of people debated over who directed the short when the short existed as a Blue Ribbon print, with credits missing (being in the public domain and all). Clampett certainly managed to follow Tex's timing, his style or choice of gags very well as well as faithfully, though it feels though some of Clampett's own bit of talent is lacking, as he is impersonating one's style in this short. Overall, the short itself is a typical spot-gag, much like any other. Some jokes pay-off, while others don't.

Rating: 2.5/5.