Friday, 12 April 2013

266. Fagin's Freshman (1939)

Warner cartoon no. 265.
Release date: November 18, 1939.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Ben Hardaway and Cal Dalton.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Ted Pierce (? as Fagin), Mel Blanc ('Okay, Professor' cat), Sportsman Quartet (Chorus singers) and William Days (Cagney singer).
Story: Jack Miller.
Animation: Rod Scribner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Blackie, the odd one out of his family, aspires to be a gangster, and dreams of going to gangster school.

Very little is known about the cast of the cartoon. I have added Ted Pierce as only a possible voice as Fagin, whose voice is an impersonation of Lionel Stander. As according to Keith Scott, it's been considered he recorded his lines months before the cartoon's release and just before his departure to Florida but there is no certainty to that. The child actor of Blackie as well as the other kits are rarely discussed child actors.

The cartoon starts off with what naturally appears to look like a Disney-esque sequence. A mother kitten is seen playing the pianos while her kits are singing along to the song: Three Little Kittens. The mother then joins in a close up shot: 'What no mittens? You naughty kittens, then you'll shall have no pie'. The kittens meowing is a little bit irritating to listen to.

Meanwhile; you'll find in the corner is Blackie, who is the odd one out of his siblings and doesn't like to take part in singing along with his siblings. No wonder. He's sitting by the family's own radio. He then mutters: 'Sissy stuff!' and he turns on the radio.

Whilst the little kittens continue to sing their cute little song; the radio already turns on and we hear loud gunshots off-screen. The children hide under the piano, frightened, as Blackie killed the family activity. He comments with awe; 'Boy, this is key!'.

The mother walks over to turn off the radio. As you might expect in Disney-esque stories: the mother disapproves of Blackie's bad taste and he pinches him by the ear to lead him to his room. 'Now just for that young man, you can march right up stairs to bed without your supper'. Whilst they're at the top of the stairs, she continues: 'I don't know what's ever to become of you, all you ever think of is guns and shooting. Now you get to get to bed, and stay there until you behave yourself'. I sure wish who the voice of the child actor and the mother; as they certainly sound a little more professional and their voice has some appeal, at least Blackie's anyway. To all the fanboys out there, this is NOT Verna Felton's voice as the mother. She closes the door, but opens again to comment: 'And none of that backtalk either'...and she closes again.

Blackie, is in his room as he sits on top of his bed, moaning: "Aww, I never get to do nuthin'". He mimics the kittens and the mother singing The Three Little Kittens, and criticises it as 'kindergarten stuff!'. Afterwards, Blackie falls asleep. His spirit then steps out as its obvious he's stepped into a dream, as we know his dream is to experience what life would be like as a gangster.

He walks through the streets in his dream, and he finds a poster outside a shack reading: 'Boy Wanted'. Mmm, looks like the posters give out very fresh opportunities you would never get.

The slides of the door then open where we find a stranger looking through, as well as the bottom of the door before he lets Blackie inside. He opens the door as Blackie explains: 'I saw your sign there and...'. The stranger accepts his curiosity: 'Sure thing, come in'. Blackie enters and the strangers introduces himself as 'Fagin'.

He then explains his real name but narrows it down to his nickname: 'Blackie'. A particularly juicy line as it's more unique and intriguing other than just saying his name is 'Blackie'. By the way, can anyone get an earshot of what his real name is being said: (?) Wilbur Scaff...Fagin continues 'Okay, Blackie...come in and meet the boys'. Whoever the voice actor is, if it isn't Ted Pierce, is impersonating Lionel Stander, who was a well-known American actor of his time. It's a really solid impression...but I also like Fagin's warming personality towards Blackie in the opening scene. The music cue in their introduction is Melancholy Mood.

It turns out that this is a school where you can learn to be a gangster, and inside the classroom the boys are seen shooting craps before Fagin whistles for their attention. Fagin explains: 'This is recess, and the boys like to relax'. He then introduces the students to Blackie as a new recruit. They all greet Blackie.

Blackie then turns astonished: 'Do I have to go to school?'. Fagin explains softly: 'Sure, you can't get no places nowadays without no education...why just look at some of our graduates, they're in demand everywhere'.

In a point-of-view shot, it turns out that his graduates have turned into criminals...which is what Fagin's occupation is. During the pan through the posters, we find a 'Fat Burns' who is wanted for Arson...scanning through the posters; there is also a Class of 1920, who are seen behind bars. Notice the Fibber McGee gag reference where the criminal is called 'Fibber McKee'.

Blackie, then turns with astonishment and asks: 'You mean you teach your boys to be criminals'. Fagin explains again: 'Aww, you shouldn't have said that...all I do is teach them the basic principals, and they go out as educated gentlemen. Then, well, gold is where you find it'. Note the 'Gold is Where You Find It' is a reference to the 1938 film of the same name. Fagin then advises the boys to go through the theme song so Blackie 'can get the general idea'.

The piano conductor then responds warmly: 'Okay, professor' which is Mel Blanc's only voice he has used in this cartoon. He then starts to play the piano: and a cat chorus go into song of the great popular song: We're Working Our Way Through College. A student acts out in the song of a rich dummy tied to a hatstand. He rushes in to steal and wear the clothes.

Another student acts as a thief with boxes all masqueraded as a street and the students walks into a fake bank and is to open up a safe. A hand from the safe then reaches out with a mallet and whacks the student on the head, pretending he is arrested...and then the result is jail for him. The song then concludes as they sing a brief 'Do, rep, me..' tune and then finish.

After the song concludes, a police officer's hand knocks on their door. Fagin walks over to check who's by the door, and makes a take. He shouts, 'It's the cops!'. Blackie asks with enthusiasm: 'Are they really enthusiasm'. Fagin responds with a funny line: 'Well, if they ain't they're unreasonable facsimile'. That scene I suspect is by Rod Scribner, as Blackie's posing reminds me of what he did for Clampett. Outside Fagin's headquarters, the police officers blow their whistles as other constables attempt to crash the door open with a tree  trunk. They all crash together, but a whole group of constables crash together at the door. Some very funny comic timing there, I must say. Of course, Erlkonig is the music cue throughout much of the fighting sequence.

The fighting starts as one of the students begin to fire at the police officers. During the fighting sequence; there is one police officer who is holding a toy gun with a bottle cork attached to it. As he shoots, the typical gag is the cork hits him straight in the eye. As more of the fighting continues, Fagin is hiding from under the window firing at the officers.

The bullet then shoots off Fagin's hat, and Blackie asks eagerly: 'Are those real bullets?'. Fagin then responds humorously, 'That wasn't done by no moth'. The police officer (with the fake gun) once again fails which h ends up with two black eyes.

 Blackie turns afraid and then starts to shake Fagin's arm begging to go home, as he has finally realised he's too scared and cowardly to be a gangster and to be fighting the police officers. Fagin pushes Blackie away, too busy to fight with the police officers, and of course--being a criminal. 'Quit shaken' me, it interferes with my aim'. The constable then fires again, with his dummy gun, lowers his hat but finds the cork hits him right back in the nose. Okay, what was the real point of the gag anyhow? Knowing he is going to be hit three times--why would that be funny in this crime situation...unless, he's just an ignorant officer not giving a toss about the crime?

The next sequences features some Avery-esque where Fagin is still fighting, but the phone rings. He answers the phone, but struggles to here due to the gun fighting from outside. He shouts outside, 'Hey youse guys, pipe down, somebody's on the phone!'. He then asks 'What was it, lady? Yeah...yeah...yeah', and then hangs up. He shouts outside: 'Which one of you guys is Hogan?'

One of the officers identifies himself as Hogan. Could this is be a staff reference to Rich Hogan? He then asks: 'You're wife asks you to bring home a pound of butter'. Mmm, we wouldn't ask for a pound anymore--at least today.

Blackie then finds himself in a scary situation as the firing bullets start to follow him. He tries to escape through a door but the bullets then shoot the words 'NO NO!'. He manages to escape, but only by falling out of the curtains and falls into mid-air. Oh no, it turns out that he is not falling in reality; that's him moving around under the duvets. He then hears the sounds of the mother cat and his siblings singing The Three Little Kittens--he immediately decides to turn over a new leaf, as he rushes downstairs to join in with the rest of his brothers and sisters, and sing. At the ending shot, he joins in with his cats by 'meowing'. During the iris-out there's a cute shot where a halo is on top of his head, and he blinks with goodness. A rather Disney-esque ending, but I feel its a good enough ending as it is.

Overall comments: Not being facetious, whatsoever, one of my particular favourite Hardaway-Dalton cartoons. I know you probably think its just another cheap-skate entry from the two directors...considering how some folks feel its like a knock-off of Disney's The Robber Kitten--but, this is a cartoon which (I feel) has guts. Okay, I'll admit I'm not a particular fan of the opening and closing scenes as I will indeed consider that a bit Disney-esque. But what really speaks to me is mostly the introduction scenes of Fagin and Blackie (prior their song sequence). What I like is how Fagin's character personality is displayed. From the start, we all consider him a gentleman--(though we already know he's secretly a criminal) but already turns the opposite during the shooting scenes. In some aspects, even if this is me saying a lot - I like this cartoon a tad more than say, The Robber Kitten.

Of course, I like the cartoon to, but I suppose 'Robber' is too whimsical for my liking, and too nostalgic (being set in medieval times)...whilst this cartoon sets the idea where Blackie wants to be a gangster or a bad guy successfully shooting police officers. In some ways, it's a more modernised approach as gangsters were very popular in terms of entertainment in the 1930s. The voice acting here, is some really good acting. The voice for Fagin is really top-notch, even though we're not certain who is the director...though we've only speculated it could be Pierce, as he's the only possible actor through educated guesses. It's a shame we don't know who the child actor for Blackie is, as I find his voice for the kitten is rich in terms of cockiness and attitude. Maybe, one day there will be documentation. Overall, I like the cartoon, mostly due to the gangster appeal as well as the personality of Fagin. I'll admit the rest of the cartoon, like the fighting and song sequence were not strong merits which Hardaway and Dalton didn't usually have.


  1. Blackie's birth name is Ambrose Wilbur Scat.

    Love this cartoon. Sort of a mix of "Katnip Kollege" and The Dead End Kids.

  2. It's kind of a cross between a 1939-40 Avery and a '39-'40 Jones cartoon, which -- coming from the Jones standpoint of the time -- is good, since the cloying start and finish are offset by the midsection of the short.

  3. Lionel Stander IS the voice of Fagin, at least in the second half....Robbie Winkler (who you noted was "I wanna be a Sailor's" hero in 1937) is the kitten, and Bereniece Hansell does the chickens... [All my humble guess, of course] Keith Scott in the late, lamented Animato also guessed for the beginning of Fagin's lines either Frank Graham or Phil Kramer.

    This is also the same idea as the IMHO MUCH inferioir 1988 Disney movie "Oliver and co." with a kitten as Oliver. The use of all cats is not just like Katnip Kollege but THe Caqt Came Back to me...


    1. Where did you get information of Lionel Stander being the 'actual' voice as Fagin and Robert Winkler voicing Blackie? Do you have any documentation? The fact it is a 'humble guess' isn't useful. As far as Keith has told me, the only possible candidate for Fagin is Ted Pierce, though isn't certain. So, I'm going to rely on Keith for this one, as he's spent years and a lot of cash of timeless research and many hours of listening to radio drama..

  4. Sorry, must have been from the usual suspects online and such..Ted Pierce is most likely the candidate, since it is Keith Scott coming up with the info (I hope that he finally is allowed to publish his long awaited book on these old cartoon voice credits!)(This should go for all of my guesses, and you're right, a lot of those voices are still a mystery to me..)..sorry.:)Steve