Friday, 4 November 2011

51. One Step Ahead of My Shadow (1933)

Warner cartoon no. 50.
Release date: February 4, 1933.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Directed by: Rudolf Ising.
Producers: Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Leon Schlesinger.
Cast unknown.
Animation: Isadore "Friz" Freleng and Carmen "Max" Maxwell.
Musical Score: Frank Marsales.

The short starts of with in the setting of China and we see the title card of a Chinese drum with a mountain view and then a Chinese boy bangs the drum, and the short begins- the layouts show a very Chinese look for this cartoon. We see a Chinese town in which it looks pretty busy, even with a Chinese traffic person in the road. We see Chinese people riding in bicycles, and one riding the Shanghai Express.

We then see a lady carrying a pot by balancing it on her head, and there are a whole series of pots inside as each Chinese person pops up doing Jimmy Durante's "Ha-cha-cha-cha" impressions. Even a pair of Chinese locals are going Amos n' Andy impressions. The Chinese music in this cartoon so far is very beautiful and a real Chinese feeling to it.

The next shot we see is a boy rowing a canal in a river, with the beautiful Chinese trees in the layouts, and a very pretty view. It really does have a Chinese culture in it, and to show to the audience that it's very peaceful - not like how China is showed in An Idiot Abroad. There is a gag that involves a swan that keeps on ducking under the water swallowing fish and quacking, and as the swan keeps on diving, a fish pops up with a quacking sound being heard from the fish's stomach - which shows that the swan has been eaten (that's ... dramatic).

The Chinese boy starts to jump onto a bridge, as it's rather low so his canal can go through. He jumps back onto the canal, and then he starts to play with his banjo, and sings the title song, One Step Ahead of My Shadow. His Chinese girlfriend can hear him play music. The canal arrives at his girlfriend's balcony in which they continue to play (and the birds join in the chorus). I have to say, those Chinese accents are atrocious here - did Harman-Ising hire a bad impressionist?

The boy steps ashore as he makes a grab for a swing in the girl's garden. The girl at the balcony, makes a grab of the swing, and the boy pushes her gently on the swing like what boyfriends and girlfriends do affectionately. A couple of times, the boy pushes high, and ducks as the girl nearly hits him on the head due to her on the swing.

We then go to a shot of a Chinese aristocrat who is riding on a cart being carried by a Chinese person that whinnies like a horse just because of the teeth - well, that is rather racist, but I guess not so much 80 years ago. As the aristocrat is sitting on the cart, and makes a jump - a type of meter on the cart then says "No Sale". The aristocrat then looks at his very long and pointy fingernails, and sharpens then to make then pointier.

The aristocrat then pulls the Chinese man's ponytail (riding the cart), and makes a sound of a car horn. As the riding continues, the cart bumps onto another rock in which the rich Chinese man falls off, and drags onto the top that turns into a stairway, and walks his way to the cart. The cart then travels through a bridge in which the cart goes up high in the rails, and then back onto the ground. The rider then brakes at the aristocrat's home and the rider goes out of breath, and the aristocrat puts a bucket strapped to his neck and enters his house.

As the Chinese aristocrat enters his home, he was a Chinese band in there that play music when he needs to be entertained. He doesn't like how they play Chinese music, and yells at the top of his voice to stop the music. He then tells his band that he'll plat it "the American way". The danceband music then turns jolly, with several Chinese people playing on another Chinese man's pair of teeth like xylophones, and using his hat like a cymbal (that is a look percussion gag).

The Chinese children can hear the music outside, and they enter the aristocrat's home (they both bang on the percussion that blocks the way through). There are more gags being shown with how the instruments are being played, and even a painting/mosaic of a dragon gets animated making sounds. The aristocrat then starts to sing his verse of One Step Ahead of My Shadow. But those Chinese impressions are really bad, unentertaining and pathetic.

Meanwhile, a rather snorting dragon locked in a cage starts to breathe fire with his nose, in which parts of the bars go on fire and burn to dust - which means he's free. The dragon sneaks inside the house, and starts to breathe fire at the cornered girl who is trying for help. The boy comes into the scene as bravey as he brings out his sword. Instead, they both run off being chased by a fire-breathing dragon.

The boy then thinks of a clever idea for placing a box of fireworks inside the stomach, that causes the dragon to go all over the place and one of the fireworks shoot directly at a group of legs, and an assembly of men's legs get shorter. One of the fireworks lands in a fishbowl, that explodes with two dead fish in there. The dragon continues going mental with the fireworks, until it finally explodes and ends up as nothing but bones and runs out of the house. The Chinese aristocrat cheer for the children for getting rid of the dragon - and that's all folks.

This cartoon did in fact stereotype Chinese people, a little bit - but I don't think that Harman-Ising had anything against then and were just trying to make an entertaining short. The music by Frank Marsales was very wonderful to listen, particularly the very beginning. The voices however, were really badly voiced and it sounds like the worst Chinese impressionists voiced the characters.Of course, this is just a cartoon made 80 years ago, and we should know that stereotypes were weren't considered harmless back then.


  1. I don't like this short so much.
    Apparently, the main idea of ​​the cartoon (boy, girl and the dragon) was borrowed from the Disney cartoon called "The China Plate"(SS). It's don't have good story. Only good gags save this cartoon.

  2. I didn't compare it to a Disney short, but comparing that to "The China Plate" - I do believe that you are right. It proves on how Harman-Ising were copycats.

  3. I've just discovered this short on Youtube, and looking for more information, I've found your review, which, frankly, I loved, and that's why I write you despite being this an old post.

    Personally, I find this short quite flat (though stylistically gives the trick, and strikingly similar to the very first Chinese animation), and little more than a buch of racial prejudices (unfortunately, very in vogue back then), but I think, beyond all this, there's another interesting interpretation: the quick Americanization of China (especially Shanghai) in the 30s. I owe you also the understanding of the gags on Durante and Amos n 'Andy, which as the Spanish lady I am, I would never probably have recognized.

    I really like how you write and what you write about, and I will keep track of your blogs, waiting, hoping, for new posts. I apologize for my bad English, but I just wanted to congratulate on your writtings. :)

    Sincerely, Marisa.