Friday, 7 December 2012

219. Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas (1938)

Warner cartoon no. 218.
Release date: October 22, 1938.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Egghead / Indian Chief) and Berneice Hansell (Pocahuntas).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Paul Smith.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Egghead cast as Captain John Smith and explorers are set out to explore the new world - but are trapped by indians and only to be saved by Pocahontas.

Our cartoon begins where we find that a silhouetted view of a ship sailing in the distance as there is a journey to the new world. Avery, at first, opens up with his own opening gag as he dedicates the cartoon to those who sailed the Mayflower - but with clear exaggeration.

He exaggerates by using the the amount of "zeros" that it stretches much more further than needed in the title card that it causes the "total amount" to slide down and through so we know there were that many. Of course, the Mayflower was a famous ship that sailed over to the United States that was sailed by many English Pilgrims that were sailing to pioneer the United States mostly in the 17th century. Avery uses a gag on the sign at the back playing around with words as the ship apparently used to be called "March Flower", "April Flower" with crosses covering it but not is called 'Mayflower' with a modernised propeller at the back of it. It's basically just bad puns - once again.

Our main character (well at least in Avery's cartoons) is Egghead where he is playing the lead role as Johnny Smith, and at the time when Avery made parodies - he used that character to play the leading roles; so Egghead was the satire of those cartoons. The captions identify him as 'Capt. John Smith' and there is a cool part where he tries to hold the captions and the letters fall down like a pile of dominoes.

Egghead then chuckles gleefully and announces: "I'll be in history books, because I came over from the Mayflower". He grabs out his own telescope where there is a cool, jerky take as he has finally arrived at America. That little scene was of course Irv Spence's loose animation of Egghead. From the telescope's point of view - we find a cool billboard sign that reads: AMERICA and a little gag that announces 'free loans' since America was just discovered by those pilgrims there. We can hear in the backgrounds to (I Wish I Was) in Dixie' which is of course the Confederate anthem. They have arrived at Virginia which is where the Pocahuntas setting takes place.

We then get to view an indian village where it looks like a modernised downtown for the 17th century as there is a teepee that has a bar sign outside. Inside the teepee we find a barber shop where a indian barber uses a razor to give an injun a haircut which is a scalp treatment - which is rather amusing as Avery is playing on words with the word 'scalp' referring to an indian but also the type of 'scalp treatments' that you would get for your hair.

More injun gags appear as there is an injun mother where there is a sign that reads "Minnie Ha Ha" which is referencing Canadian silent actress 'Minnie Devereaux' who was also Indian - she was nicknamed 'Minnie Haha' - we find her outside the teepee just repeatedly yelling 'ha-ha', etc. of course I wonder if that gag was even dated since she was only famous as an actress in the 1910s?

Meanwhile there is an injun out in the distance on the lookouts for incoming Pilgrim travellers. He wears his own injun hat (with feathers at the back as indians were portrayed for wearing). At the back is a gag which I find funny where it turns out that there is a turkey at the back. It kind of makes the character look rather foolish in that scene.

The Indian lookout finds a ship about to dock into the New World and the Indian rides on his horse to report the news. Now only amusing that they have wired telephones over there (even not existing over at the 17th century) but the fact that when he rotates the numbers - the telephone itself turns into a different angle. Over at the teepee where they deliver messages, there is the "No Stop, No Stoop and No Squint" which was a directory reference of the time. There is a very cool ringing effect with a drumstick beating on tom-toms at the beat. The directory Indian answers the phone and discovers the news through blabbering noises. He steps out and as he is given the call (through Indians) he steps out in front of a crowd in front of the villagers.

A messenger Indian then makes a note to the villagers (and even using the 'no squat, no stoop, no squint' line). He appears to act rather broader and broader as he presents the Indian Chief of the village where he stands in the corner.

It is rather amusing as the excitement of the character is purely exaggerated as it also exaggerates on references a little (even for the 17th century time period). The Chief announces to his people "Ug" where the injuns cheer. That is rather amusing you there is a drumroll at the beginning of that, we'd believe that he is about to come out with a threatening message, but instead blurts out with a laconic "Ugh" sound which makes the Indians applaud - rather funny and typical of Tex in the 1930s as he is pretty much parodying an intense moment.

So, John Smith and his crew manage to dock at the American coast successfully and as they are about to embark on their adventure - Smith shouts, "Last one out is a rotten egg" in a childish form. All the other pilgrims dash out stampeding Egghead so he is the rotten egg. It's rather childish but charming in this type of scenario where the adventure (back then) was supposed to be taken seriously.

So, Egghead and his Pilgrim explorers are out hunting to develop their own land. As they hunt - they come across a sign reading, "Beware of Scalpers". At the spot - the injuns jump out with the Chief carrying a dagger as they plan an attack on the Pilgrims. In this Irv Spence sequence, Tex even uses more intense drama being parodied. As we believe that John Smith has been captured it turns out that the Injun Chief is offering a ticket to Egghead to watch a football match.

Egghead rejects the offer: "No thanks, I've got 6 to sell myself. I'm illuminous" as he chuckles gleefully. Egghead runs out of the scene as he is still being savaged by indians. As he runs off from the indians - a deliberate Avery gag (that even Tex would use in more pictures for fun) where a title card ends up being thrown in at the screen reading about the 'thrilling chase scene' being cut to shorten the length of the cartoon which was endorsed by the management. Of course; it was common for cinemas back in those days - so Avery spoofs it there and it was a very well done gag. The management even asks for Johnny Smith's opinion with a title card reading "Is that O.K. with you, Mr. Smith?" and that is just a wonderful use of satire for the title cards used in cinemas - as Tex is getting rather personal with the audience members watching the cartoon. Mr. Smith's response to that is "I'm under contract anyway" and proving that cartoon characters are also actors - something that Tex really knew how to show with his characters. I like how he quotes, "These redskins will NEVER catch me" before he laughs in his supposedly characteristic laugh. Of course 'redskins' would be rather politically incorrect these days...

So, after Egghead's unthoughtful comment - we find that he has been tried on a chopped down tree stump where the infamous execution of John Smith event is to take place. He cries as he is tied up, "Woe is me, woe is me" and even cries of being in agony. An executioner grabs out an axe through a breaking glass emergency one on a tree which is amusing, and even more amusing as cheerleaders cheer on the execution.

Some funny satirical dialogue appears as Egghead pleads:

Egghead: Hey you guys can't do this to me because I came over---
Indians: ---on the Mayflower (bleegh)
Chief: Gee that stuff gets me!

Goes to show how all the executioners have heard the same stories from many Pilgrims that were executed by the Indians. Just as the execution is about to occur - the executioner lowers Egghead's collar where there there dotted lines around is neck that read: "Cut on Dotted Line" which is hilarious. Just as the begins - there appears to be a weird cut from where the indian rubs his hands to where Poker-Huntas is in her teepee - I wonder if that was just a television cut - but there doesn't appear to a source to show which scenes were censored.

Meanwhile as the execution is supposed to take place - as Poker-Huntas is late for her cue - she is instead listening to Walter Winchell on the radio. Winchell announces the latest news of Johnny Smith's execution which she turns to shock from hearing. As she realises this is her chance she shouts:

"Ooh, I better get going" and Winchell responds, "Yes, you better sister. If you want this picture to have a happy ending". Funny gag which Avery liked to use with the radio actually having personal talk with the listener. So Poker-Huntas runs out of the scene to save Johnny-Smith as it did happen in reality. She uses her car to drive over to Johnny Smith with the executioner but Poker-Huntas stops the execution and escapes with Captain Johnny Smith by running over the indians. The fast-pacing shots where she drives fast (and as the chopping off scene is about to occur) make the action rather exciting. They dash through a photographer - but zip back for a photo of both of them before they continue their own escape. Stalling uses the 'Western Scene' cue which was a popular cue he used for action scenes western style. The indians notice the escape - and some funny Avery humour (and yet child humour) is where the Indians count (adding on 5 each number '5...10...15...20, etc.' before they continue the action which is done in a hide and seek style.

The Indians then ride inside their car as they chase after Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas in this exciting car action sequence. As they drive - they drive through logs and stones which forms into a log cabin. As the chase sequence continues - the police catch the fleeing Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas as they chase after them in their motorbikes.

The Indian officers then ride out of their motorbikes as they appear to ride invisibly which is the gag. It appears to be a gravity type gag I suppose. They stop as they notice their mistake but get run over by their own motorbikes. As the chase sequence continues - there is a lovely bit of loose animation of the car that appears to almost fly out of the edge of the cliff but manages to keep track on the road. The amusing part is where the reckless indian drivers appear to drive straight through to chase after them and somehow - they don't fall down.  After they stop - the Indian Chief announces, "Hey fellas, ain't this so fun?" as the indians shout "Yeah! Let's get some more!" before continuing on. Of course - even they aren't taking the chase scenes very seriously - like a game on the playground.

So, as Johnny-Smith and Poker-Huntas escape for their lives; Poker-Huntas giggles: "Now don't you people half-get excited? Because you see, the indians don't ever catch us and we escape on a ship--". Johnny Smith interrupts as there is personal conversation going on: "Aww come on Poker, don't tell them the whole story - let 'em guess!" That is definitely rather humorous.

So they manage to escape on the ship (as she has described almost the entire story) and they managed to flee America. The ship is rather  inanimate as the anchor pushes itself away from the harbour and back to England. Mmm, looks like Avery got some influence with inanimate objects from the 20s and early 30s cartoons. They wave away from the indians and they share their own kiss at that romance scene (even her feather tail appears to get erected - which is rather subtle humour). Much later on - as they have returned to England, we find they are already married (as identified on their letterbox). They are both reading a book titled, "The Last of the Mohicans" as Poker-Huntas questions, "Oh yeah?" and pan towards their own infants which is a combination of Eggheads and Mohicans which is a rather funny conclusion to this parody of the real-life event of Pocahontas.

Overall comments: What Avery was famous for in his WB cartoons (and even through his MGM cartoons) were parodies and satires to stories, fairy tales, travelogues, etc. Of course - we know he was probably more famous for his fairy-tale spoofs like 'Cinderella Meets Fella' or his MGM masterpiece, 'Red Hot Riding Hood'. Of course he's well-known for punching out too many dated and weak travelogue parodies as well as spot-gag cartoons. He was very good, most of the time with satire, and here he satirises the real-life events of Captain John Smith and Pocahuntas where he has fun with the story. The gags that were used in this cartoon were very amusing and he certainly has created some originalities here. That sequence with the 'Management' was very original that Avery would repeat those gags for his other future cartoons, and it's the first usage of that being seen here. No surprise that a female role for these parodies would go to Berneice Hansell as she was probably cast as appropriate for satirising the original characters - I suppose.

Avery's star characters that he was using by this point were Egghead and Daffy Duck. Of course, Egghead (or if you insist on using 'Egghead's brother') were used as they were the reason of satire - and of course Avery turned out two Daffy Duck cartoons after the first (Porky's Duck Hunt). It's rather interesting that he used him a lot but it took him so many cartoons to evolve into Elmer Fudd. Indian stories for animated cartoons appear to have been very popular among the Warner cartoons and other animation studios of the 1930s as I suppose its history was rather popular of the time period the cartoons as being made. This cartoon has its original titles that exist through Sogturtle's (Tim Cohea) nitrate film frames of some of the Avery films but it's cropped. You can see it in the 'Warner Bros. Titles' website - it's cropped with the exact image of the silhouette ship (although you can't identify the writing).


  1. Minnehaha comes from Longfellow's "The Song of Hiawatha," which predates any silent film actress.

  2. One thing of note that's always overlooked, the Indian police officers are riding Indian motorcycles. Another of those clever sight gags Avery couldn't pass up.