Tuesday, 1 January 2013

236. A Day at the Zoo (1939)

Sorry I didn't write a post to conclude the blog's year of 2012...too busy partying and having fun! But anyway, I hope you all have a good new year and hope you all continue to follow the blog in the new year -- 2013. Last year (2012) I have reviewed a rough total of 154 reviews (155 - if you want to include my special review) -- with many days of no . Could I do more reviews this year - we will see. But this year I have estimated that by the end of 2013 - I will already be reviewing 1943 cartoons - which means all the bad and weak days of the studios would be by us. So, definitely keep tuned! Much more to look forward to.

Warner cartoon no. 235.
Release date: March 11, 1939.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Egghead/Elk Named Bill/Monkey/Stool Pigeon/Mother Ostrich/Joe Jumbo/Wildcat), Gil Warren (Narrator) and Danny Webb (Second elk/Owl/Parrot/Second Panther/Jailbird).
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: Rollin Hamilton.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Spot-gag cartoon of the different animals at the zoo. Egghead is annoying a lion throughout intervals of the cartoon.

This is the first animator credit for Rollin Hamilton since Hollywood Capers (1935) which was released almost four years earlier. Of course - Rollin Hamilton was famous for animating for the very early Disney cartoons (the Oswald an 'Alice' cartoons) as well as animating the WB cartoons in the Harman-Ising era. He remained at WB until 1935.

After Rollin left WB in 1935 - he went over briefly to animate back at Disney again at around 1935/36 (as according to his relatives - Walt forgave him for walking out on Walt in the 20s and let him continue working until he could). Rollin Hamilton provided animation for the cartoon Toby Tortoise Returns which he is credited for in the animator draft. But then he left Disney - then he went over to animate for Harman-Ising at MGM in 1936 to 1938; but he did return to Warners briefly in 1938 where he landed over to the Avery unit where he had two credits: A Day at the Zoo and Detouring America before he left and his animation career supposedly ended there. Rollin died around 1951 or 1952 of a heart attack.

With that aside - this is where Tex then begins his own breakthrough making his own spot-gag cartoons. Before that - he was just focusing on humorous as well as parodies of famous stories and legends. Now - he starts to focus on his spot-gag cartoons. I guess The Isle of Pingo Pongo - (the first spot-gag Avery cartoon) must have been a success in the cinemas that it encouraged Avery to create much more - even though they lack a lot of the creativity they had. From that point on - Avery's cartoons so show a decline by making these cartoons and would occasionaly turn out some parodies or stories that weren't spot-gags.

The cartoon begins as the narrator for this spot-gag cartoon begins: "Here we are at one of the country's most interesting zoos". The name of the zoo - as identified by the bars read 'Kalama Zoo'. The camera then pans forward as Tex Avery gives us a sign gag. The sign reads FEEDING TIME and the time for that takes place at 12 to 1pm for one hour. Then we see more of the sign where there is a special 'Blue Plate Lunch' for 35 cents. The 'blue plate' part is a little dated as it refers to low-priced meals that you would expect at diners.

So - the sequence of spot-gags then begin as the narrator begins to look through the different types of animals featured at the zoo. The narrator begins with as we find a wolf 'in its natural setting'. The wolf is standing outside freezing and there is a locked door. I don't quite get the gag but I guess it involves of wolves trying to get into houses and they live in northwest.

Then we go on to find a pack of camels in the zoo - and the camels are smoking. This is referencing to the cigarette brand Camel which is still in use but was very popular in the 1930s.

Then we pan through to spot the North Ameican Greyhounds - and that is a definite reference to the operating passenger system Greyhound Lines and it even features the distinctive logo. We see a monorail that rides through the road in the theme of California, Here I Come. We follow on we find 'two bucks' as the narrator is just pulling out puns and it is visualised through the sequence. As well as 'five scents' and we see five skunks in that area. Then we spot 'two elks' as they walk along and greet other and are both named Bill. That gag is definitely dated. I don't get it.

The next sequence then begins as we see a group of monkeys in their cages as they are feeding peanuts to the humans - which is a little odd and funny since it should be the other way round. There is a scene where there is a baboon who is standing outside in uniform and a real baboon in the cage as they stare at each other eye-to-eye. I guess that was is they are trading places.

Then the next scene follows with the baboon in a suit inside the cage and the baboon is set free. I don't fully get the gag - but I guess it means they're both lookalike I suppose.  In the following scene as we horizontally pan - we then find an elderly lady who looks at a monkey in the cage. The sign below clearly reads, 'Do Not Feed the Monkeys'.

She looks around for anyone around and then brings out a packet of monkey nuts out of her purse to give to the monkey. The monkey then rejects and tosses them straight to her face as he shouts, 'Listen, sister! Can't ya read?!' Now that is a very funny scene that is just wonderfully executed and even a gag that you would not expect to happen when watching the first time. Avery would reuse that gag again when making Cross Country Detours.

The next sequence then features a groundhog who lives in its cage - and it turns out that his shadow is in a separate as they are also pacing about. That gag I definitely do not get - and I wouldn't know much about groundhogs - but its a terrible gag anyway. (Update: Don't mind me for being ignorant of not knowing of 'Groundhog Day' - just isn't celebrated in the UK - thats why I'm not aware of it).

We are then interrupted as the narrator spots Egghead who is teasing a lion as he is laughing. The sign clearly reads, 'Do Not Tease the Lion - Dangerous'. The narrator then interrupts the scene and tells off Egghead, 'Hey, don't annoy that lion. It's dangerous.  Can't you read that sign? You better take my advice and leave him alone! Shame, shame! You're a bad boy'. Egghead then walks out of the scene in shame. The remark 'you're a bad boy' is rather funny as you would least expect to hear that from a narrator. The interrupting sequences are rather fun as its Tex making the cartoon a bit more exciting than just a string of spot-gag sequences.

The next sequence follows as the visitors are standing a few metres away from the cage where there is a skunk that lives there. We view the skunk inside who is reading Dale Carnegie's best-seller of the 1930s: How to Win Friends and Influence People. Now that is a funny gag which displays of how much of an outcast the skunk is because of their hygiene - and that book may be dated but it certainly works.

The next sequence then features where the zookeeper is feeding the giraffe. The gag then continues where it looks like the zookeeper is feeding him corn. The corn is already visible through the inside of the neck where it makes a fall down the neck before bouncing down to the giraffe's stomach. That gag is really not that funny but the comic timing works.

Afterwards - we then spot Egghead is teasing the dangerous lion once again as he was just told by the narrator to not do that. As Egghead continues to have fun laughing historically - the narrator warns again - once more. "Listen fella, this is the second time I've to speak to you. Leave that lion alone, and I'm warning ya!" Egghead then looks at the camera with a sad expression and criticises himself, "I'm a BAD boy!" and he walks out of the scene. I suspect that line "I'm a BAD boy" was a reference to Abbott and Costello even though they weren't popular until after the cartoon was made.

We move on to the next group as we find a group of white rabbits hopping around in their rabbit hutch. The narrator explains about how rabbits are very quick at multiplying - which is just play-on words as we then horizontally pan to the group of rabbits that are using the calculating machine which is a little amusing.

The next sequence over at the bird sanctuary we find many small birds that already reside there. One in particular is a wise old owl who is standing on the branch of a tree.

The owl then interrupts and asks, "Who?" The narrator responds, "You". Then its through dialogue that is a line exchange from The Night Watchman. "Me?" - "Yes", "Ohhh" responds the owl - who has a rather stupid voice which is  a little amusing, too. The narrator moves on towards a South African talking parrot. He starts off with the typical line to get a parrot talking - 'Polly want a cracker?' - the parrot is obstinate to speak - he responds in a rather shirty way, 'Nahh - give me a short beer!' With that line - I would've expected that time since the facial expressions read it already, and you would know Tex was going to build around a gag like that.

The next animal who is introduced in the bird sanctuary is the Alcatraz jailbird. The play-on words are rather fun as we see the jailbird pacing up and down until he then impersonates Edward G. Robinson. He walks around pacing and shouting, "I didn't do I tell ya -- I was framed, see? Ya--I'm innocent".

Then he starts to shake the bars as he continues to beg. Cute reference to Eddie G's gangster films. "I wanna see the D.A. They can't do this to me, see? They can't hang this on me. I didn't do it, I tell ya! I didn't do it I tell ya!" Then we pan forward where the next bird is a stool pigeon who snitches and reveals he had 'done it'. Now that is just very funny and I call that a wonderful pun - since 'stool pigeons' were names on what you would call people who would snitch. Mel Blanc's acting and voice of the stool pigeon certainly delivers some charisma on the pigeon.

The next sequence that we spot is a mother ostrich who is sitting on her next hatching an ostrich egg. The ostrich then steps out and oddly and creepily enough - clucks like a chicken. Since when do ostriches cluck my chickens? Yes, it's just for a joke I suppose -- but I just find that creepy.

As the ostrich walks out with her giant egg - she accidentally trips on the bucket and the ostrich trips. She lets go of the eggs by accident and it then falls and cracks. The ostrich egg reveals another egg box that carries a dozen eggs.

That is a little funny as its judging on the size of an ostrich egg since they are so huge - that it probably could carry a box that is worth a dozen eggs. Meanwhile Egghead is still teasing the lion as the lion's anger is only getting worse. The narrator tells him off once more: "For the last time - you better stop annoying that lion if you know what's good for ya!" Egghead hides behind the tree and walk backwards and quotes, "I'm a BAD boy once more".

Meanwhile - the narrator announces a new animal has arrived at the zoo is the elephant. The elephant is on the phone to some mail clerks to return his 'trunk' which is all the way from Africa. He then turns to the audience and we see he has no trunk on his face. Arrgh - how creepy to look! He remarks, 'Y'know - these guys had had my trunk for a week!"

We pan forward as we find another cage where we see pink elephants floating around. The narrator jokes about folks experiencing him in a New Years party. Mmm, I've been in a few states (even at New Years) no pink elephants yet! Well, of course - its a term that is used for whenever  a person hallucinates or go in an acid trip. Probably the best use of 'pink elephants' on film is Dumbo.

The next sequence we see two panthers who are walking up and down their cage as they are continuously restlessly pacing and appear to have an argument or a bicker over who mentions 'bread and butter' first - which is just a superstition which is mentioned towards people to see who gets bad luck first.

The next scene then focuses on what appears to be a ringmaster who is reading the newspaper - named J. Wellington Buttonhook. The narrator describes him as he used to be a lion tamer at the circus and was known to have thrilled thousands who attended his circus acts.

 After he finishes reading the newspaper - he then walks out as he is headless. A rather dark and grim gag, I must say. The next scene - we then find a wildcat from the Rocky Mountains. Of course - Tex Avery decides to make it all wacky by making the cat act wild and kooky. Mmm, too bad Tex couldn't have topped it in this era as he was an expert for wild takes. The narrator then asks why the cat is asking wild. He replies, 'What makes me wild? What makes me wild? They called my name out at bank night and I wasn't there!" and he continues to act crazy.

The next scene then comes to its conclusion as we spot the same lion in the cage who is feeling very happy and content. The narrator believes that Egghead had finally went home. "Well, I guess that little fella finally took my advice and went home". The lion then shakes his head slowly with a proud look of his face. He gives it away as he opens his mouth and we listen to Egghead inside the lion's stomach, "I'm a BAD boy". It's a dark and sadistic gag - but at least we know he isn't...dead.

Overall comments: Supposedly (as I have already mentioned) Tex's first spot-gag was a success and felt encouraged to make more of those cartoons - even though they would get much more worse and even declined his cartoon quality. However, this cartoon (as I noticed) clearly shows Tex Avery's strong use of character layouts and drawings that is evident in the cartoons released in 1937-38 and this is just before the animation and designs change where the animation looks more realistic and Tex becomes influenced with the Disney designs - but it is a little evident here. The cartoon had a couple of his funny moments - but as I say too much sequences in his films - and even spot-gag cartoons in general are just pretty weak.

I feel the cartoon where it is just a string of gags that features puns, and jokes that relate to dated catchphrases or references does get a little tiresome and it makes me feel a bit offish when reviewing. Although I think that the scenes with Egghead and the lion were rather cool and at least they were an excuse for interruptions in the cartoon where it wasn't just spot-gag sequences, which would just be boring - but I think we all saw what was coming to Egghead at the end. The couple of the gags which i think were some cool highlights - could be the 'skunk' gag where he reads the book on how to mix just says it all through drawings. The 'jailbird' gag was a rather nice parody of Edward G. Robinson in his typical drama-gangster films. He sure is easy to caricature - even though only his voice is caricatured. But this is just a sequence where it had some good gags and others weak gags - I feel like for almost every spot-gag (but there are some where they aren't funny at all).


  1. Ham died 3 June 1951. Didn't he go to work for Hugh Harman in the '40s?

    1. Im not sure - I had some info on Ham's career of where he worked (and what studios) and it appeared to stop after his tenure at Warner's in 1939, so who knows...

  2. A little tidbit for your introduction on Rollin Hamilton, he also worked on another Silly Symphony, 'Merbabies', which was mostly animated by the Harman-Ising unit at MGM (he animated the tiger fish in the cartoon).

    The gag with the wolf in his natural habitat comes from the saying, “wolf at your door” which means to ward off starvation or financial ruin (i.e. this person is trying to get a job just to keep the wolf away from the door). Also, note the lock on the door he is behind.

    The two men both named Bill are Elks, but are actually part of a fraternal club, The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (or simply Elk Lodge). It is actually still functioning today, so it’s not dated.

    The groundhog gag, I’m a little surprised about, but I suppose there is no Groundhog Day in England.

    Just so you know, the term “pink elephants” has been around long before 'Dumbo'. It actually comes from author Jack London. In his 1913 book, 'John Barleycorn', he describes an alcoholic man’s hallucinations “who sees, in the extremity of his ecstasy, blue mice and pink elephants.”

    During the Depression, movie theaters had a game called Bank Night. Moviegoers would go to the theater and put their names in for a lottery of prizes, taking place during intermission. Names were pulled and called, so people had to hustle up to the stage to claim their prizes, or risk forfeiting them. Prizes ranged from various consumer goods to cash. Little wonder why the wild cat went extra wild.

    1. Here's my feedback:

      Ya...I know about 'Merbabies' since it was a Harman-Ising cartoon that Disney produced. About the two 'Elks' can't say I have heard of it before.

      Nope, Groundhog Day is not celebrated here in the UK so hence the reason why I didn't understand the joke.

      Yes, I know about the 'pink elephants' theory from 1913 - I was just mentioning it is widely used in 'Dumbo' which was released in 1941.

    2. And to think, all this time I thought the "wolf at the door" was a Three Little Pigs joke... I can be a real idiot at times, can't I?

  3. When you mention that Hamilton went on to work for Harman/Ising on some of the HAPPY HARMONIES cartoons, because the quality on those cartoons improved with a lot of shadows and light detail in cartoons like "THE OLD HOUSE" and "CIRCUS DAZE", especially in the latter which also featured many scratching and writhing, realistic-looking animals at a traveling circus, similar to those you see in this cartoon.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.