Sunday, 25 March 2012

135. Shanghaied Shipmates (1936)

Warner cartoon no. 134.
Release date: June 20, 1934.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Jack King.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Billy Bletcher (Captain), Joe Dougherty (Porky Pig).
Musical Score: Norman Spencer.
Animation: Paul Smith and Joe D'Igalo.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Porky Pig and a group of drunkards are shanghaied by a tyrannical sea captain - and are met with harsh punishments at sea.


[REVISED: 13/11/2017].

Based on Warner Archive's exciting new release of the Porky Pig 101 set last month; I've experienced new insight and appreciation for the earliest Porky Pig cartoons. As the title promises, the set features the first 101 Porky Pig shorts - including every short of the character produced in black-and-white. For years, I've had colourised copies of several Porky shorts produced from that era, and the DVD set did justice to rekindle my interest and re-visit several cartoons.

One of those cartoons happen to be Shanghaied Shipmates - a very early Porky Pig, directed by James Patton King - otherwise better known as Jack King. King might not be a celebrated name in the Warner Bros. legacy in comparison to Chuck Jones or Tex Avery, but he certainly left a mark on its legacy - as he helped put Porky Pig in his place, alongside Tex and Friz Freleng.

By the time of the cartoon's release; the Beans gang were being quietly replaced, save one member, Porky. He had appeared in several independent cartoons directed by Tex Avery, namely Plane Dippy and The Blow Out. Whilst Porky was being "groomed" to become the studio's star - it was evident that the stuttering pig provided a lot more comic possibilities, that Beans or Oliver Owl couldn't do.

A number of Jack King's Warner cartoons were adventure-oriented, as he directed a handful like Buddy's Lost World or The Phantom Ship. This cartoon is also adventure-packed, as the characters sail at sea - under the scrutiny of a ruthless sea captain.

The premise of the short feels loosely inspired by MGM's 1935 historical hit, Mutiny on the Bounty - based on arguably the most well-known naval mutiny on the HMS Bounty in 1789. Charles Laughton's portrayal of Captain Bligh depicts a strict, tyrannical captain whose harsh punishments lead to the infamous mutiny. Although the film's portrayal of Bligh has been questioned historically - it worked fine from a cinematic story perspective.

Like the film, Porky and the shanghaied crew also overthrow the captain during its climax. It only alludes towards Mutiny in a small way. To begin with, the cartoon's villain is a standard villain - enhanced by Billy Bletcher's vocal performance.

Also, shanghai comedies weren't unheard of from that period. Laurel and Hardy appeared in one for the 1934 short, The Live Ghost - and Charlie Chaplin appeared some twenty years earlier in Shanghaied (1915) for Essanay Studios.

Jack King might not have inherited comedic traits like the freshly arrived Tex Avery, but there's no denying that he thought cinematically for his cartoons - whatever the results became. For the opening sequence, a mist effect is applied for the exterior scenes of a seaside town.

The effect is a little amateurish, as it looks like an overlay effect done by the camera department. It still remains a valiant effort of the restricted budgets King had to work under. The effect was used an effort to create a suspenseful atmosphere for the opening - and to introduce the sea captain.

We first see him pacing on deck; whilst his ship is docked. Norman Spencer provides a musical theme for the captain to capture his sinister nature - and it's heard frequently throughout the cartoon.  His assistant, Mr. Stew returns to captain, informing him frantically - "Aye side, captain! The crew's deserted the blinkin' ship!". 

And so, the pair decide to shanghai a group of drunken customers at the Ye Black Barnacle Tavern. Whilst, inside the tavern - King experiments, in one scene, a very unusual piece of staging that lasts a second on screen.

In one scene, the captain looks upwards at a drunken barfly - with his head facing backwards at the camera, and the camera panning vertically upwards to enhance the illusion. Frank Tashlin hadn't arrived yet at the studio, and it comes close to his unique ideas for composition. It's executed quite sloppily as far as continuity is concerned, but King deserves his dues for trying.

Once Tex Avery amazed and inspired the entire Schlesinger studio with his unique brand of humour and timing - it became clear Jack King couldn't match his originality and innovations that came pouring in. Jack King appears to try to keep up with Tex's style of humour that was gradually beginning to transform the cartoon studio.

Most of King's attempts however, end up being more conventional gags - that doesn't even match some of Tex's more weaker gags. In an earlier scene at the tavern, a goat uses a lot of his strength, by pulling a piece of rope from the table. The gag reveals that he's pulling a large pint of beer - which he consumes.

During the shanghai, the sea captain punches all of the barflies like cartwheels onto the ship. One barfly even grabs his hat, before he wheels away outside the tavern. Simple speedline effects are applied that was used more successfully in Avery's first WB short, Golddiggers of '49. Unfortunately, it's hampered by Jack King's lack of imagination and execution.

For the most part, a lot of the gags in this cartoon are relatively old-fashioned in concept. Whilst the crew are shanghaied at sea, Porky Pig is forced to scrub the deck; whilst the sea captain promenades along the deck. In an act of childish rebellion, Porky slides a bar of soap down the deck - causing the pompous captain to slip and hit the floor.

The timing and impact is very conservative as a gag; and King uses the captain's hat hitting his head as the only extra touch. Of course, cliched gags have been done endlessly afterwards - but in a more slicker and less conventional fashion. Jack King appears to be intimidated in experimenting.

Infuriated, the captain forces Porky to swallow the bar of soap as punishment! Porky begins hiccoughing bubbles in predictable fashion. He receives help from a shipmate; who pulls his tail, and releases the bar of soap like a catapult.

And so, the sea captain falls and slams, the same as the first time. Second time's a charm, I suppose. However, a shanghaied hippo laughs at the sea captain's humiliation. To indicate this review won't slate Jack King consistently - the hippo's punishment is more creative and amusing.

The captain has the shipmate's feet locked up in a pillory. He pours milked cream on both feet - and entices a black cat to torture the punished hippo, by licking the cream off its feet. Both characters laugh, but with different emotions! The captain's is more sinister, whilst the shipmate is laughing from his torture. The scene serves as an amusing and yet ironic take on the ruthless sea captain and his merciless torture devices.

For economic factors, Porky Pig's dialogue is kept to a minimal in this cartoon. For most of the cartoon, a lot of his appearances are served through pantomime - like Porky's little dancing scene at the tavern. Porky's lines are fairly straightforward, as he confronts the captains, and stutters: "Y-y-y-y-ou c-c-c-c-can't do this to me!", which is several times in the short. 

It was a decision also enforced by Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin, whilst Joe Dougherty provided Porky's voice. Recording sessions, in those days, were shot entirely on sound film - and Dougherty's uncontrollable stutter likely wasted a lot of valuable film. And not forgetting, lengthy recording sessions!

Potentially, it could've driven the cartoon budgets up, and likely their profits down! Unlike Porky's first appearance of a recital, heard in I Haven't Got a Hat, his dialogue was kept limited not long afterwards, until Mel Blanc became the most appropriate replacement for Dougherty.

During the mess hall sequence, King attempts to build suspense of the shipmates slowly reaching their breaking point - attributed by the captain's cruel nature. Whilst all the crew are seated; the gluttonous captain eats up all the juices of a chicken leg. He passes the bone over to the rest of the crew.

A few of them start to reach madness: one crew eats up his hat, whilst another slices the bone to pieces with his knife. The camera pans horizontally to each crew member - experiencing each of them suffer.

King's staging and camera work works well in observing the shipmates. The whole sequence is hampered by very weak drawing, and simplistic character animation that strikingly bears the work of Paul Smith.

Smith's work for Warner Bros. and Walter Lantz is very conservative and basic. His conception of movement is very simple, and a lot of his animation lacks subtleties - that esteemed animators like Bob McKimson or Virgil Ross were known for. Smith's animation during this sequence, results in a relatively straightforward sequence that doesn't bring richer qualities of the characters.

One week later, the crew grows more restless! They begin chanting and banging inside the mess halls - demanding food, after all their harsh treatment. The sea captain arrives, armed with pistols. And so, this results in a mutiny - as the crew fight the captain. 

Jack King applies a gag with a nice, subtle touch in a small scene. Porky is wrestling the captain's assistant, Mr. Stew. He points to his glasses, and takes them off - signalling "You wouldn't hit a little guy with glasses?"; and Porky resumes fighting. It's a nice gesture that sums up Mr. Stew's cowardice.

The action scenes for the mutiny are handled relatively well - with a great scene of Porky and his shipmates charging at the captain in perspective! The captain's attempt to hold off the crew with a cannon backfires, as he lands inside a gunpowder room. And so, the ship explodes into debris.

For the final scene, Porky and the crew finally have their way - as they sail on a raft. Porky is holding onto a whip; as a camera pan reveals the sea captain pulling the raft with a rope, as he swims!

Despite Jack King's lack of artistic innovations at Schlesinger's, I'd likely attribute that his efforts hadn't blossomed then. King had a more successful career as a director of Donald Duck cartoons at Disney - which he did well on! King was by no means a terrible director. He was certainly an ambitious one - as he took an adventurous perspective, and had an eye for unique composition. His timing and execution partly brings him down - especially by the arrival of Tex Avery, who represents such talents. As a standalone cartoon, it's fairly straightforward with an adventurous locale that would've been satisfying enough for 1936. Personally, I'd rather highlight King for his late 30s Donald Duck shorts. With Avery's rampant style taking the studio by storm; the cartoon begins to lose its place within the studio.

Rating: 2/5.

5 comments:

  1. The hippo getting its feet locked in stocks and having them licked by kittens reminds me of 'Shiver Me Timbers', a 1934 Popeye cartoon.

    The shanghai aspect in the beginning reminds me of the Laurel and Hardy short, 'The Live Ghost' (also from 1934), where they both help a captain shanghai these toughies in a bar, but I won't dare spoil how they do that (it's really funny).

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  2. Here's the dialogue from the pirate captain and his sidekick (whose actual name seems to be "Stew," which not-so-surprisingly sounds a little like Smee):

    [At 1:25]
    Stew: I say, Captain, the crew's deserted the blinkin' ship!
    Captain: Enough! The rats!... I'll shanghai a crew, Mr. Stew!

    [At 5:49]
    Stew: Mutiny, Captain, mutiny!

    Other thoughts: not all of the crew seems to have survived the final explosion; Stew and others are gone! Pretty grim.

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  3. You're right; I never thought about Stew and the lads perished. Did Jack King intend to kill them or does an error made by the director? The latter is probably more likely to be right.

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  4. I think so, too. (I can imagine that once the film was released, the crew was watching it and saying "Hey, wait a minute, we never thought about what happened to Stew...")
    If you look closely, Stew (complete with glasses) is also Oliver Owl's assistant in HOLLYWOOD CAPERS, so Stew clearly didn't "evolve" from Oliver. He just had a short, sad little career of his own—ending in his accidental death by drowning (-:

    Oliver himself disappeared for a few years after this, but then he reappeared as a regular character in the Henery Hawk comics in LOONEY TUNES AND MERRIE MELODIES COMICS, which were drawn by Warner animator Vivie Risto.
    Ollie's debut in the comics was in issue 37 (1944). He was portrayed as the snooty schoolboy of I HAVEN'T GOT A HAT, though his visual design is different in the comics—aside from his glasses, he doesn't wear clothes (maybe so he would look a little more like Henery?).

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