Monday, 29 October 2012

211. The Major Lied 'Til Dawn (1938)

Warner cartoon no. 210.
Release date: August 13, 1938.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Frank Tashlin.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Ted Pierce (Major) and Mel Blanc (Elephant)
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Phil Monroe.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Upper-class major speaks about the story of his African trip.

The cartoon begins as we find that there is a little upper-class boy (caricature of child actress of the time - Freddie Bartholomew) standing next to the Major. They are both very uppity British folks that the little boy is standing inside the Major's enormous and cosy living room by the fire. Everything in just that first glimpse shows all the details that is very interesting. They both speak with upper-class accents; and there is juicy details in the backgrounds as well as the animals that had their heads carved onto a wall.

The little posh boy remarks to the Major, "I say, Major (?)". The Major then clears his own throat, "Yes, Freddie?" - of course it turns out that the little boy apparently turns out to be the celebrity boy Freddie Bartholomew who was a star of the 'Little Rascals' back in the 1930s. "You do have an awfully fine collection of heads there, you know". The Major then frankly responds with attitude and even a proud look, "Quite so, definitely so, if you know what I mean". The little boy then asks the Major about his hunting and missionaries in Africa. 'I say, Major. Do tell me about your adventures - hunting big game in Africa'. There is a little appealing established film shot of where we pan through the carved animal heads of a lion that he would've captured back in his missions in Africa. The little boy then asks about the ferocious creature (and we pan down to the boy and the Major again - an appealing Tashlin shot). The Major then laughs and chuckles about what the boy asks before standing reporting, "I don't get it".

After the Major has a slight chuckle about his adventures in Africa - he even begins his story as he pan towards a globe where his map points at the rough area of the continent that he had left. The finger appears to point at Nigeria although he names an African part of the country or area. That is a rather good Tashlin technique of the finger pointing as its also character animation. Any golden age director could do it but its Tashlin there all over.

The music then faces to Africa and we go back in time to one to his expedition in Africa. There are birds flying around the African jungle area and the 'Congo' music is being played in the background. I think from my long-term memory the animation of the birds was reused animation from The Isle of Pingo Pongo. I like that little Tashlin effect where we pan through the background and there is already an overlay of a path with a butterfly flittering around. It then moves away when an elephant's foot stomps at the scene. That is a very good Tashlin effect there of the elephant's foot stomping there which must have not been easy to tackle at animating it - but all in all - it really reminds you of what you see through a live-action pan.

There is a little interesting animation effect following as we find the Major sitting on top of the elephant in his expedition. He mentions the elephant has travelled quite a lot. There is a good pun of his trunk completely covered with travel stamps (hence the word 'trunk'). Then it is followed on as the Major mentions he also brought a butler along as the elephant's tail is attaching to a trailer. I like how the butler is just on top with a trailer so the Major can say inside during their expedition trip.

They are then followed on by African slaves - as they go into rhythm. We then see some racism as they are carrying belongings and equipment for the Major as they are portrayed as slaves. They even appear to have a huge collection of the slaves - carrying so much equipment for the major. There is also another slave walking around with a plunger on top of his head and he is carrying a sign that is attached to the plunger that reads: Space to Let Inquire Below. Of course; I believe this is the slave to ask questions to but from the look of him but before I dare it - but the slave that you are looking at is a caricature of Hollywood black actor of the time - Stephin Fetchit.

The next shot then features a slave who is balancing some equipment on top of his head. He walks past a tree where there is bananas attached to. He then unpeels the banana as we believe he is going to eat the banana. After peeling it - he just throws the banana away and he eats the peel. Eww, that is just disgusting to watch. Fact is, monkeys do eat banana peel but watching a slave eat it there is just wrong and disgusting to watch even though that is the gag.

We then discover a jolly slave who has huge, round lips which is supposedly the stereotype. As he walks around happily carrying the luggage with his huge lips - it turns out that he is actually listening to music and enjoying it as he walks along. After the music repeats itself a little bit - he begins to open up his mouth as he is playing a vinyl record inside his mouth which is just a wrong gag but yet again its still amusing and his tongue is the record player. He then walks along after that slight error but continues to keep on walking. These are just gags of ways to stereotype a slave walking with the major carrying the luggage. Of course - I find that this sequence was presented as a little incorrect - and no wonder its rarely seen in television. It looks like there that Tashlin is already trying to top the gags that Tex Avery would often use in his cartoons - as it appears.

The slaves continue their walk as they appear to be singing a tribe song but I'm not sure of the name. One of the slaves is still walking down the path but he then ends up walking through a river. I like how these animated shots actually have weight in them. As he walks through the river - we only see the luggage floating on top. Afterwards of the luggage floating on top of the water - it is then revealed that an alligator then walks out of the water licking his chops and carrying the equipment.

Okay - but I have to say that everything is dark about that gag. I see that it has been used in the Harman-Ising cartoons before but the fact that a black character being eaten up and killed by a crocodile?? Man, that's a very grim, cold gag to even turn up in a cartoon. Holy Jesus. Its just a gag like that which really creeps me out. The elephant and the Major then arrive at the spot as they then discover an road path - where it leads to different directions with motorway signs. The really funny part that comes to my mind is that they are not on a road - they are on a path! We cut to a very Tashlin-esque drawing of the Major as he is carrying a map of a road map - "hitch hiker's expedition". He then opens the road map to check for his directions. We then hear the music in the background to "Arkansas Traveler" - which is the type of rural road map music you would hear in rural areas which makes it rather amusing. Notice how that Tashlin makes a reference to his old boss, Van Beuren as the map reads "Van Buren Parks".

The Major then unfolds his map as he appears to be using a lift while sitting on top of the elephant. I like how the buttons of the elephant strap actually has lights to represent floor numbers as the Major then reaches to the ground. It appears to be that as he walks over to the signs of the routes - he has to choose by random which route to take. He grabs out a paddle as he then spins the entire circle of signs and uses his paddle to pick his random. After it slows down - he then chooses to take the Route 50 in Africa. Of course - the route numbers are a parody of American routes.

The elephant then walks through Route 50 but he then pauses as he discovers a very, very steep hill that would be extremely difficult to climb. I have to say I don't find the walk of the elephant to be very realistic as it lacks weight. I like those spikes in a long-shot view of the elephant and the major as they just look at the very steep hill. They then decide they have to move up there the very hard way. The elephant moves up there as it sounds like we are hearing the sounds of train-tracks. The elephant's legs then move up there like train tracks and that's how they manage to climb up that hill. I swear I have seen this in a Bosko cartoon elsewhere before because that gag really reminds me of its influence but then again - any director of the 1930s could've used that gag - not just Harman-Ising.

The next gag we feature turns out to be these antelopes - and from the view we are seeing from a bush they are hopping. The Major also continues his story about what he has managed to spot in the jungle. From the bush, it looks like antelopes hopping - but it turns out to be antelopes riding on a pogo stick which is very amusing. Its a gag that really reminds me of what Avery would've used in his travelogue parodies.

Of course - we all know the expression "an elephant never forgets". We move on to the next sequence where the Major talks about an elephant who has a terrible memory and is "trying to remember something". The elephant is just walking up and down and struggling to think what was coming right into his mind. The elephant then sits down on the rock as he thinks into deep space, "Now...lemme um...was it, err.." We then fade out from from the forgetful elephant. The next gag we continue our expedition trip in Africa. We have already past the Los Angeles City Limits for reason - but hey, its just a joke - we're not supposed to take it seriously. They arrive at a spot which is called 'Kiwunu's Klub' as there is also a lion's club. They arrive at an idea where a dangerous lion resides. He talks about how the boys were already "beating the bush" and they walk up the hill looking out for a dangerous lion. The major then looks out on top of the elephant holding onto his shot gun to see what his boys were afraid of.

The natives are out on the look for the lion and what they are scared of. One of the major's slaves then notices a very small tree plant and he whacks it with a club. It turns out that a huge lion was hiding in there and the lion runs away from the slaves as they are chasing after him. What interests me is why is the lion running away? He could easily kill them.

There is a little amusing gag where the Major then attempts to shoot the lion. After the gun blast reaction, the major just spins around the elephant's stomach which was an amusing 1930s gag of the time. In the next sequence - the Major then mentions the next part of his story: "failing to shoot him, I decided to track him down". We believe from the close-up point that the Major is using a guard dog to track the lion. It turns out that the Major is using his butler to be a dog and to trace any of the lion's tracks in the ground. The butler then stops and points as we pan along to find that the lion is in fact standing on top of a boxing canvas as he is looking towards the Major using his finger gesture to entice the Major to a match of boxing. The Major then throws his own shotgun to the ground and agrees to challenge the lion in a wrestling match. He then climbs over on top of the canvas and he is given a pair of gloves. He then places them through inside his hands.

The lion begins to warm himself up as he does some slight stretches onto the rope and then he begins his crooked scheme on cheating in this boxing match. He begins to stuff horse shoes inside boxing gloves one-by-one to knock out the Major. the fighting then begins as we find that they are covered from the screen because of dust and also a use of speed lines.

After the twister and dust effects clear up - we then discover that the Major has in fact won the game of the boxing match as he has managed to trap the lion as there are horse shoes trapping him from his arms and legs. Meanwhile it appears that Tarzan sees what has happened to the lion and then he beats his chest and makes a loud call for the animals to charge at the Major. That shout is very amusing. Although that Tarzan animation was originally from 'The CooCoo Nut Grove' and it looks rather weird in a Tashlin cartoon. The whole group of animals then charge up to the Major and the they all give him a beating as there are swish effects and some wacky stuff of the Major being beaten up. Meanwhile as the fighting is taking place - the elephant is still thinking and coming out with the words of what was to be said. "Err was it, erm..Aww, course not that's not it. Well, um, could be". That scene with the elephant is a running gag of the cartoon and it won't arrive until its conclusion of the cartoon which appears to be a popular trend back in the Warner Bros. cartoons. After numerous beatings from the animals beating up the Major - he is then tossed out of the arena and he hits the ground.

There is a little sly reference to Popeye from the Major as he grabs out a can of spinach, "If its good for that sailor man then it's good enough for me!" The Major then grabs out his can of spinach and then he starts to transform and the movement of him transforming into a tough major is really weird. As the Major then starts to develop huge biceps - there is a little ad reference that reads: With Men Who Need Muscles its Spinach 2 to 1!

That line there was a little ad reference to purchasing cigarettes. After the exaggerated growth of his body - it then manages to heel back into its normal size and the major then starts to fight the animals away. As the Major is fighting the alligator away - thats Stalling playing the music cue to 'Poet and Peasant Overture' and the timing along with Stalling's music is very cliched and very well done. Listen to the music of the alligator flipping out of the scene after his beating - that shows the music being played. 'Poet and Peasant Overture' appears to be a cue from Stalling that he has used before whenever there were fight scenes. The really humorous part then appears after the alligator then bounces off he immediately then forms right back into a suitcase. Its a really crazy gag but hey, that was the 1930s for you where they would exaggerate gags.

Some more crazy exaggeration then appears as the Major then starts to punch the hippo to the theme of 'Poet and Peasant Overture' - he then bounces off and forms into a piano stand which is a very wild gag for the 1930s but yet it is very funny. He then begins to punch a bear out of the way and the bear then ends up hanging on top of a tree and forming into a fur-coat. Its exaggeration one after the other there.

Afterwards; the elephant is still sitting down on the rock thinking of what he was going to say as we cut back to the elephant. "Nah, nah, nah. It couldn't be that. Nah-uh! No that's not it! Oh if only I could remember what it was!" More action scenes then follow on as the major is now finally tackling the lion as it was his major plan during his expedition. After fighting the lion - another crazy gag where the lion's hair then suddenly transforms him into a hula dancer which is widely funny although yet again - the 1930s for you and it is a pretty exaggerated gag. The Major is then given some help from the butler who has a palm tree bent down and then he ends up catapulting the palm tree where the Major flies out to continue knocking the crap out of the wild animals of Africa. His fighting then continues until his actions then dissolve into the present day. You could say that its a Tashlin technique even though its used be everyone.

After the Major has finished his fighting - he then remarks to the present day, "and here I am - fit as a fiddle". The little boy then remarks, "Yes, yes Major - most interesting. But what about the elephant, tell me about the elephant". He tugs at his arm begging to find out more about the elephant.

The Major then remembers and he finishes his story off about the elephant. "Oh, the elephant, yes, quite so" and he then clears his throat as he is about to continue. We then cut back to the elephant as he is still sitting on the rock only trying to remember what he was supposed to say. Suddenly, his memory then returned in a flash as he has finally managed to figure it out. "Hey, wait a minute. Yeah. That's it. I got it, I got it!" The camera then announces and it turns out what he really was supposed to say was 'That's all folks'. What a really interesting and also amusing conclusion and it made it feel a bit special. It feels as though in this Tashlin has already gone beyond the boundaries, like Avery, in this cartoon and he has already developed the similar type of humour like he did.

Overall comments: Michael Barrier mentioned to Frank Tashlin in his interview that he thought this cartoon was where Tashlin went beyond Avery with humour around this era. I have to agree with Barrier there because I find that this cartoon at least shows some wildness in it but I find much of it very likeable. The opening scenes with the Major and the little boy were rather likeable to me and the British accents were very appealing. Ted Pierce did a great job on voicing the Major and he really gave him a great upper-class British sophisticated accent. Frank Tashlin recalls that he and Ted Pierce both worked on the story for this cartoon but Rich Hogan ended up receiving story credit on there. Whether a few story guys worked on it like Hogan was possible but I can see Pierce's contributions since he also provided the voice of the Major. I also actually like the little voice of the little boy although I imagine it was just a voice from a child actor. This cartoon is also suppressed from television and its rarely been seen in television over the years but only because of a sequence of the black tribe. Much of the gags of the tribe were rather dark and also creepy - like the one with the alligator which I thought was just downright wrong.

I believe that what Frank Tashlin was experimenting in this cartoon was mostly speed. Notice how that this cartoon actually has some fast-pacing at least in the punching scenes and they all sync together very nicely. Tashlin even shows that he can be very capable of creating some very funny action scenes too - particularly of the animals changing into objects after the Major was fighting. I see a lot of Avery influence in that - although Avery wasn't wild back in the 1930s - and was never really wild at Warner Bros. compared to his MGM work but I think it goes to show that Tashlin was showing some capability of making funny cartoons, as well as Bob Clampett around this time. The Popeye reference was rather amusing - and of course it had to be slyly referenced in case they could get filed a lawsuit - perhaps. The elephant conclusion was great - a really special ending without the typical rings with the 'That's all Folks' writing. It goes to show that Tashlin was already showing potential at his age and he was already a great director back in the 1930s showing potential of becoming a great live-action director. The speed in this cartoon is great as well as the gags. Overall, I thought it was a pretty cool Tashlin effort, with stereotypes aside.


  1. Freddie Bartholomew was not in the Little Rascals – which at the time were known as the “Our Gang Comedies” – but was in fact in bigger roles such as in DAVID COPPERFIELD with W.C. Fields and CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS with Spencer Tracy. In this cartoon, he is patterned after the role he played in LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY.

    “With Men who Need Muscles its Spinach 2 to 1!” is a parody of a Lucky Strike cigarette slogan, "People Choose Luckies 2 to 1."

  2. The major's name is "Twombley." I don't know where they got the name, but Gene Twombley was a radio sound effects man who later worked on the Jack Benny show and was then married to Bea Benaderet.

    "With men who know tobacco best, it's Luckies 2 to 1!"

  3. The Van Buren reference is for comedian Bob Burns, who was from Van Buren, Ark., and was popular in the mid-1930s, known as The Arkansas Traveler. Tashlin no doubt enjoyed the inside joke involving his former boss and comic target, but he wasn't trying to go inside on the audience with this gag.

  4. It's also worth noting that the African characters that you describe as "slaves" aren't. It was a staple both of jungle movies and documentaries - not to mention real life safaris - to hire native bearers for pay to carry the supplies that the safari or a distant trading post would need. They were working for pay and thus by definition were not "slaves."