Sunday, 23 June 2013

280. Cross Country Detours (1940)

Warner cartoon no. 279.
Release date: March 16, 1940.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Lou Marcelle (Narrator), Mel Blanc (Bobcat/Arctic Dog/Polar Bear/Tourist/Scout Master), Sara Berner (Deer/Girl/Echo Voice).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Paul Smith.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A corny travelogue parody which shows us the in-depths of national parks, wildlife and tourism.

Original title card
Last WB cartoon with an animation credit for Paul Smith before wounding up as a notorious Lantz director. The short is also known for its length as it almost clocks in at 10 minutes; and is Avery's longest WB short he directed. Evidently a lot of live-action has been shot for this short for the gag sequences, which can be evident in the Schlesinger Gag Reels.

Lou Marcelle, according to Keith Scott, most likely provided the narration of the short, although isn't certain. Marcelle, however, is mostly well known for his voice-over in WB trailers..e.g. Casablanca.

Being Blue Ribboned, it appears from the original opening of the short had begun with an opening narrative over its titles. In this version, the narrator already talks whereas the introduction is evidently cut, judging by the Blue Ribbon. It begins with the narrator's opening lines: "....animal life and scenic wonders of our country".

The short's opening shot shows a beautifully watercolour painted background of the Yosemite National Park in California, done by Johnny Johnsen...whose work really shines and dominates the visual look all throughout the short.

Looking at the beautiful shot of the Yosemite National Park, done through overlays, we truck in closer towards a woodland area. A bear is sitting by a tree with a sign clearly reading Do Not Feed the Bears. A thoughtless tourist walks towards the bear, holding a sandwich, and attempts to feed the bear. Just what he deserves, the bear smacks the tourist on the head and bellows: "Listen stupid, CAN'T YA READ?!" and pulls out the sign pointing it to him. Avery's own delivery on timing and patience is really top-notch, and he was always full of surprises which is already shown as an example.

 In another part of the forest, the narrator spots a "shy little deer", and as the deer walks into the scene, chewing on some grass. The narrator calls out, "Hello, deer". A few moments later, the deer transforms into a tart figure where she responds lustfully, "Hello, big boy" and walks out of the scene. An extremely corny pun, but very well executed in terms of animation, as well as its delivery.

The anatomy of the deer is a little serviceable, but the pose of the deer into a woman figure shows some great personality. Of course, the pose as well as the walk at the end was performed through live-action done by ink & painter Gladys Halberg, who provided the walk as a guide for Avery's animators.

Meanwhile, a scout master is seen rushing towards a gas station at the Yosemite National Park as he asks the hick with such desperation as he appears to have a issue. He asks: 'Pardon me, may we use your washroom?'. He shows the dirt in his hands, and the hick remarks: 'Okay, bub--right over there?' as he points it. The scout master whistles for the other scouts to follow on to the toilet which results in a little corny toilet humour gag. The timing for the little kid running towards the toilet in rhythm to Yankee Doodle is a pleasant touch.

Over at the lookout towers of the Yosemite National Park, dedicated rangers are using their telescopes methodically on the lookout for any carelessness or littering, which would hurt the national park's image. Johnny Johnsen's backgrounds, again, are very striking and effective throughout the sequence, as it shows how the image of the National Parks are rather beautiful.

Through the telescope, the ranger spots a tourist smoking a cigar and tosses it on the ground, once finished. Much towards the tourist's dismay--he rushes with such efficiency in the theme of William Tell.

The ranger runs through the bridges, through the mountains, as well as the entrance to the forest, as we sympathise with the ranger, believing he will eradicate the cigar. Once the ranger skids and finds the cigar, Tex deliberately puts on some deep suspense where the ranger turns to look around for any sighting. After the coast is clear, he picks up the cigar and walks out of the scene with glee and pride. The buildup is deliberately corny as well as funny, and Carl Stalling is just wonderful at arranging music cues for the appropriate atmosphere and suspense of the scene, and is able to make the gag work.

Johnsen's backgrounds in the following sequence play a salient role; where there is no animation at all, and the backgrounds shows the story to us, with the narration providing the descriptions. We've moved on from Yosemite, and now over towards Utah where the narrator moves over to Bryce Canyon National Park.

Backgrounds are just as effective as well as animation, especially when coming towards travelogue parodies where we only want to admire the view and natural landscapes. Of course, without any use of a Multiplane camera, Tex uses the overlay trick where it still looks rather effective and making the layout natural looking.

The narrator moves over towards what is considered a 'natural bridge'. Sure, we may be familiar of a natural bridge in the Bryce Canyon; but the gag is its formed of gums with teeth inside it, the golden tooth being a great touch to the gag. Such beautiful use of colours that it looks incredibly believable.

Just as the narrator simply puts it; we move quickly away from Utah, and out towards the frozen unknown wastelands of Alaska. Described as "perfectly contented", the polar bear climbs on top of an icecap to sit on. The travelogue narrator is erudite in describing the polar bear -- and even mentions the polar bear's fur to help keep in warm in freezing climates.

The polar bear turns wise towards the narrator and moans: "I don't care what you think I'm cold". Turns out the polar bear is cold-blooded which is the gag; and then turns away to sit normally. The cold temperature is seen visible on the polar bear's behind which rises.

Meanwhile a group of huskies are seen playing in the arctic fields of Alaska, and are enjoying the lifestyle. However, one husky in particular runs over towards a sign which point to directions of certain cities in California: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Going on the geography side: the distance isn't accurate; however, depending on where they are in Alaska (say, the arctic area); the distance towards San Diego would be roughly 4'000 miles. The husky reads the sign with such joy, and then spontaneously decides to embark on the journey to California; where Stalling cleverly places California, Here I Come as part of the music cue. The narrator balks rhetorically: "Don't tell me he's headin' for California?!".

After the abrupt visit to Alaska, we're back towards the South, and "back into the states". (Remember folks, Alaska wasn't inducted as a state until 1959. We move onto wildlife features of the detour; where a villainous, fierce looking bobcat is creeping up towards a helpless, baby quail.

The suspense is already there, as we are about to watch an intense drama of real-life 'survival of the fittest' situations...with the help of the narrator, and the suspense in the music, and dramatic staging of the animation. With marvellous savvy comments from the narrator:

"With muscles tense, and ready to spring, the marauding killer gets closer and closer...(pan to the baby quail) to this tiny, shivering little creature". Lou Marcelle, whose likely provided the narration, performs an excellent job in changing mood from cuteness towards tension.

Already about to approach the defenceless quail; and just as the bobcat is in form of attacking the creature (great pose, by whoever animated it)...but then immediately breaks down, giving in. The bobcat bawls, "I can't do it! I can't go through it! I can't! I can't!!". Evidently, as we all know; the sequence was acted out by Avery as a guide for the animators in making the bobcat more human for that approach, and to also make the gag work. Mel Blanc's delivery for the bobcat is rather well done, but you must also give credit towards Tex not just for the gag; but for his performance in making it a success.

Moving on to another part of wildlife; a particular pond is displayed in this sequence as the narrator expresses his joy and wonder of the sounds of croaking frogs. As the camera trucks in, we get a good close-up of the frog. A frog, standing on a lilypad, makes sounds as the narrator comments: "Here we show you a close-up of a frog croaking".

Just then, the frog pulls out his shotgun and commits suicide, and falls into the river. The delivery, the timing, and the whole gag itself is just hilarious, and completely empathises that the Warner guys were really something special in contrast towards their rival studios.

 Of course, all being aware of the metaphor/colloqualisms; it's really one of the few puns in many of Tex's spot-gags that actually works, and that actually is very funny. A theatrical card then pops over towards screen; which is one of Tex's many 'mock apologies' where a PARTON'S NOTICE reads: We are not responsible in any way for the puns used in this cartoon - The Management

Moving towards the deserted areas of New Mexico, we are interrupted briefly as we catch the tenacious husky who is in fact, determined to travel all the way towards California. From his distance, he is only 1'098 miles away from his destination. The layout, as well as staging is rather creative and effective, due to its simulated camera movement.

Back to the focus of the sequence; another part of wildlife focused; is a lizard which lives in the desert. To the narrator's knowledge, the lizard is known to shed its skin once a year. Avery then goes ahead with the pun, as the lizard stands up and ends up shedding its skin, but done so as a striptease.

A rather notorious gag, and it has its reasons. One, the music cue for the sequence is It Had to Be You--which was a Stalling cue he used for striptease sequences. Another reason, for it being known, is also shown in a newspaper ad from The Los Angeles Times, dated 27th August 1939.

Thanks to Yowp, who made this post back in the old GAC Forums, a stripper named Marcia Eloise provided the live-action for the lizard sequence as a guide for the animators. Fortunately, the footage survives, though partly, through the Schlesinger 1939 Gag Reels, which I posted as a blogpost some two months back.

My perspective on the gag, easily one of the creepiest and weirdest gags which Tex pulled off. The fact that the lizard actually walks as accurately as a female is just unnatural to watch. At times it feels a little uncomfortable watching the lizard strip, as to put it as plainly as possible: it's wrong.

God help anyone who'd even perv over it. It also goes on at such length, as the striptease lasts for roughly a minute; and I guess its one of the reasons for why the shorts runs at such length...but then again, Tex had to put it at such length, to make the gag work. The 'Censorship' part covering the lizard's chest is another fitting touch to the sequence's conclusion.

For the next sequence; the narrator warns the next sequence to be considered gruesome for the kids. So, in two categories; the screen is split. For the adults, they're to view a "hideous, hela monster", and for the kids: a recitation for Mary Had a Little Lamb.

Once again, Tex is already full of surprises, as it is a rather ambitious cinematic technique to use, even for a studio like Schlesinger's since their budgets were scarce.

Meanwhile; as the little girl recites the nursery rhyme, the held monster growls rather viciously towards the audience.

Thanks to Greg Duffell, he credits this sequence to famed animator Rod Scribner, which is most likely his earliest animation for Tex Avery, once he has been moved out of the Freleng unit, and immediately transferred to Avery's unit. The sequence shows how Rod could be very graceful and subtle in terms of movement, which wasn't the case until a few years later when he used his famed 'Litchy' wildly-loose animation for Clampett. The gag is, at the end, the little girl snarls towards the hela monster, that he runs away scared. Great use of mockery of age limits for cinematic purposes.

At least Tex didn't approach the typical 'little girl' voice towards Berneice Hansell, whereas Sara Berner does a very capable and more appealing job.

Moving on, we travel slightly towards the beauty and the great landscapes of the Grand Canyon, Arizona--the canyon we all know and admire. The narrator's comments are: "It is indeed a breathtaking panorama of multicoloured rocks". For the horizontal pan, Johnsen's backgrounds are also very key for the narrator's descriptions of the Canyon's beauty.

Moving on, we find a tourist whose seem standing at an edge of the canyon, as the narrator explains you can hear our own echoes within a distance of three miles. Here, we already get an example of a tourist who shouts out "Hello!!". No answer.

The tourist tries again: "Heeellooooooo!!". No answer again. The tourist then shouts at the top of his lungs: "HELLOOOOO!!!!!!!". After a few moments, an echo replies, via telephone operator: "I'm sorry. They do not answer". The tourist, then makes a take out of that. Very funny punchline, and as well as corny. Mel Blanc's delivery on the shouting is rather amusing, as it creates frustration; and the operator gag being a little dated, Berner's voice is always entertaining to listen to. Back towards the Alaskan husky, he is seen tenacious again, as he is still serious of completing his journey towards California.

After the small appearance of the Alaskan huskie. We continue our detour of the Grand Canyon; where in a beautiful birds-eye view shot: we view the Colorado River. Man, doesn't anybody else feel at awe at these beautiful backgrounds provided for the cartoon? The narrator's comments on the river are: "Resents a remarkable view from the edge of the canyon, high above".

After the slow pan of the  Colorado River from a bird's eye shot, we truck in of the river where there are a bunch of busy beavers who are preparing to build a dam.

Of course; from the point of view you are seeing--it's not just an ordinary beaver's dam which can be displayed: Tex takes that big to a big stretch. In a long-shot view: the beavers then build the dam at such an extent where it forms into the Hoover Dam. Another clever use of pun by Tex, and works itself, too.

Back towards the Alaskan dog, whose seen completely exhausted and has already 'hit the wall' from his  long journey to reach California. The walk of the Alaskan husky shows so much realism, as it has a lot of weight and we believe the husky is very exhausted. After the immense amount of continuous travelling. The Alaskan dog then makes a stop, but much to his joy: he has already reached the California State Line. The sense of feel immediately has him recoup his energy and continues his travel towards his real destination. He travels quickly through San Francisco, Los Angeles, Hollywood, San Diego and then he finally reaches his destination: the Big Trees of California.

Realising his journey is all over, he has finally arrived towards a dream he had long wanted. Trees. The dog then cries out: "Trees, TREES. Thousands and thousands of trees. And they're mine! All mine!" He then breaks down crying with joy; as he's just overjoyed of the amount of trees. Of course, being subtle as the gag is: it was just intended as a rather corny bathroom humour joke by Tex. Whereas a audience of its time probably thought he wanted to travel to start a new life as well as new dreams as California was considered a place full of hope during the Depression.

Overall comments: Being a Tex Avery cartoon which it is, if you'd review this cartoon as a whole, in terms of his career at Warners; you'd may consider a decent Tex Avery cartoon during his tenure at WB. Whilst breaking it down towards the many spot gag cartoons he directed, I'd consider it a Tex Avery masterpiece. Not being facetious at all, but I find this is easily Avery's best travelogue parody in this short as it's just full of funny and outrageous surprises. Almost every gag as well as the build-up is all very cleverly planned and staged, and Tex makes the most of what he can use. Of course, we've all encountered silly, unfunny puns in such spot-gags like Isle of Pingo Pongo or Fresh Fish--but here he pulls them off very well, and the short is one of the few cases where the puns actually work...most particularly the "frog croaking" gag which is just set up perfectly. Of course, the average viewer would probably discuss the cartoon's length. It clocks in at almost 10 minutes...9 minutes and 40 seconds (in Blue Ribboned version). It's surprisingly way over-length for a typical cartoon of this particular era, even for Schlesinger...being a low-budgeted studio.

Considering the fact that it clock in at that length, one must note that a lot of it had to be included in there to make the gag work. Particularly in the background pan scenes with the narrator, as well as the gag sequences which last a minute long, as the build-ups played an important role, to make the gags successful. Of course; you may think that the wildlife sequences should've been shelved for another spot-gag short based on wildlife: Wacky Wildlife which was released later that year. However, when this short was in production, Tex wouldn't have known what his next shorts would be as 'WW' was likely not in production yet. Once again, Johnny Johnsen's backgrounds are incredibly well detailed, and its use of pinkish colours are rather effective, and are rather key for the narrator's narration. One gag which I will frown upon, and still will is the lizard "shedding its skin". Again, Tex is just taking the pun to the next step, and the pun funny? I suppose so, but watching the lizard move so realistically like a stripper is just enough to be off-putting. Knowing some of the footage survives and also the cartoon's length; it's safe to suspect this was considered even a very ambitious cartoon for Avery's unit as well as what the Schlesinger Studios would even be turning out.


  1. The studio was really starting to get to the ten minute length or longer in the Merrie Melodies alone by this time;Avery himself with "Aloha Hooey", Chuck Jones with "Dover Boys" and Bob Clampett with "Horton Hatches the Egg", all in 1941-1942, are also over ten minutes long. Clampett's own "Goofy Groceries", his first Merrie Melodies, billed with Friz Freleng's "Porky's Bear Fact", a shorter, six-seven minute Looney Tune. (In addition to which we have seen in the thirties Looney Tunes cartoons over seven minutes long as well. MGM would do shorts as long as 12 minutes!! Well, a bit of an exaggeration. Other studios would flirt with this, Disney by all means.)Steve

  2. Hi there! Sorry if this is off-topic but do you know what scenes Cliff Nordberg animated on ''The Thief and the Cobbler''?

    1. I'm not so sure...I do know he did work for Richdard Williams briefly in the 60s/70s, but I believe it was other projects, but who knows?

  3. Glad I have a DVDRip of Cross Country Detours that I always watch on my Laptop. It's restored and has the 1995 Turner Dubbed Ending Title Card at the end.

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