Monday, 22 July 2013

290. Tom Thumb in Trouble (1940)

Warner cartoon no. 289.
Release date: June 8, 1940.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Shepperd Strudwick (Father/Narrator ), Marjorie Tarlton (Tom Thumb).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Robert Cannon.
Muscical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: When Tom Thumb is home alone cleaning the kitchen, he almost drowns and ends up being saved by a little bird; but his father however, takes it at the wrong foot.

Similar to what Chuck's approach was in Old Glory; Jones tackles another cartoon where it is almost virtually gag-free. It is arguably the most Disney-ish looking cartoon that Chuck has ever directed, as well as one of his most well-crafted shorts from his early years. With Old Glory; Leon had wanted Chuck to work on a patriotic short, whereas here it is a much different contrast. The short relies on drama, in terms of the characters, the atmosphere and the angles.

Taking place in the woodland areas; the narrator narrates the opening line rather softly and as to how a fairy tale would usually open: 'Once upon a time, there was a kindly old wood-chopper who lived in a warm little hut on the edge of a great dark forest'. The background of the exterior part of the hut has sort of a European feel in terms of its illustration and texture; which is what I believe Chuck was wanting.

The interior of the hut has a very 17th-18th century feel towards it; as well as how it would be pictured in fairy tales where there would be a teapot hanging from a hook, a mandolin sitting by the fireplace, as well as old pots. The camera pans towards the father of Tom Thumb; and the narrator continues:

'Now, this old man had a son whom he loved very much and who was so very, very tiny that his father called him Tom Thumb. The staging of the father and Tom Thumb's size looks rather accurate as they're viewed asleep, where Tom has a tiny blanket to sleep with, on top of his father's bed.

 Just as the alarm clock is about to hit six o'clock; you watch the build up of the clock, which is such an obvious contrast to the short's very realistic and serious animation, as the clock building up to be rung has a exaggerated feel towards it, as well the clock dancing around as it rings. Tom Thumb wakes up from the alarm; and gets a vibrated feel from the noise. He jumps out of his bed, where he jumps on the table of the bedside to turn off the alarm clock. Just as its stopped and walks off; the alarm clock rings and this calls for Tom to rush over and make a attempt to stop the alarm ringing. Quite possibly the only gag used in this cartoon (if you're willing to call it a gag) where Tom Thumb is holding onto the alarm clock, as it continues to ring.

The father then helps out poor Tom as he helps turn off the alarm clock. The father, looking very perked up then sends his morning regards to Tom, and Tom does so back. Also another pinnacle for animator Bob McKimson where he contributes to the animation of the very realistic father; and without any live-action guidance.

The father is so realistically drawn well in terms of proportions, his broad figure has very realistic movement, as well as a lot of weight--which is generally a technique which many animators struggle with. The father walks over towards his water bowl as he grabs some water between his hands for Tom Thumb to bathe in.

Tom Thumb strips from his pyjamas as he jumps from his father's thumb like a diving board and soaks himself clean. After a few moments, the father's thumb holds onto Tom Thumb as he slides down his arm safely to clean himself from his father's short sleeve. The thumb movement from the father really adds warmth to the father's personality; and shows a bonding father & son communication. Tom Thumb finishes off putting on his clothes and puts on his hat for the finishing touch. Proud of his new clothes; he declares to his father: 'Gee, pa, I feel like a new man!'.

Meanwhile over at breakfast; the father and the little boy are enjoying their morning meal. Chuck also shows some appeal with size; whereas the father's food is portrayed as huge for Tom, as well as the mug; whilst the smaller things is content enough for Tom Thumb. Appealing measurements, but it would have been very difficult to stage.

The father holds his mug as he takes a drink of, probably tea or coffee, as he then takes a sip with enjoyment: 'Man, that's good'. Tom Thumb then picks up his drink from a thimble. After taking a guzzle form his tea; he signs with greatness: 'Boy, that's good'.

Just as breakfast has finished, the father gets ready to leave for work: 'Well, Son, I'm afraid I got to go to work now. Do up last night's dishes like a good boy, will you?'. With pleasure; Tom Thumb responds: 'I sure will, pop, spic and span!'. Just as the father leaves the house; they say 'Goodbye' to one another. The entire opening of this cartoon was really just exposition. We are introduced by the characters; we know their relationship as well as their morning routine; which is a rather settling introduction before the story kicks into gear.

Whilst the father is away at work; Tom Thumb proceeds with the housecleaning as he uses a spoon as a spade to scoop soap suds into a bowl, and to use a tiny mop to clean the plates with. Looking like rather hard work for a boy his size; his song proves how he enjoys cleaning the kitchen, and using creative methods in cleaning it.

The song he is singing was taken from a popular song: In a Little Dutch Kindergarten; but of course the lyrics are an altered version in this sequence. A very Disney-esque sequence that one would wonder whether it would be influenced from the cleaning sequence in Snow White.

The atmosphere, and the happy song are a possible influence, but I'd just take it as a very cutesy Jones sequence where we're supposed to admire him. The lyrics itself are very Disney-ish where it contains advice and messages; where Tom Thumb sings about how to not feel bad when you work; and to sing a song to make you feel happy, and to get on with the work. With those lyrics being heard; there is no doubt Chuck saw influence from the Whistle While You Work song. Meanwhile; there is a yellow bird which is sitting on a branch outside the window of the hut who tweets merrily to Tom Thumb's song.

Just after Tom Thumb finishes his song; he then endures one last errand; where he has to hang a cup up in a hook of a shelf. To do this, he accomplishes it in a rather cutesy and cartoony effect. Being a cartoony effect; it was accomplished to make it look realistic. The timing of the cup springing up towards the shell feels a little slow; but having to make it move realistically would've been a hard challenge.

Just as Tom Thumb walks away from finishing his chores; he then proceeds to walk away from the kitchen, but the climax kicks in as he steps onto a bar of soap by mistake.

The soap slides him through a long ride on the table but he ends up tripping and lands into the tub of soap water; which was seen earlier. Because the water in the tub is not shallow enough for Tom's size; he is at the brink of drowning.

He ends up gurgling water out of his mouth, as he screams for help hopelessly 'Help!' from his perspective; with his father absent, and the yellow bird outside, this is surely presented as dramatic and putting the father in a poor parenting position...but may, that's going too much in the reality side. The bird looks through the window with curiosity and finds Tom Thumb in trouble; just like the cartoon title. The bird, makes a preparation to fly backwards, and then flies straight through the window like a bullet that the window glass smashes. The father, busy cutting wood with his axe, stops his work and rushes back to the house concerned.

As the father makes his way back home, believing there is a emergency; the bird already attempts to pick up and rescue Tom from the soap water, and yet carry him out of the tub with its small wings. Chuck paces the shots around where as the bird retrieves Tom safely out of the tub; the father's legs run back towards the house; which makes the suspense illuminating.

Just as Tom Thumb is lying down from concussion; the bird waves its wing around attempting to awaken Tom. The door opens, and to the bird's shock; Tom Thumb's father looks towards the bird with a cold glaring look.

The staging and layout of the father's stare is completely outstanding and believable, that it makes an audience feel intimidated and fearful by his expression. It is completely human and only the great expression speaks for itself.

From the father's perspective; he takes the action at the wrong foot; where it looks like the bird is seen as the perpetrator due to his angle; and he looks towards his window; finding it has been smashed. The father walks towards the bird slowly and angrily. The bird, completely afraid and perplexed; walks backwards from Tom very slowly before making an attempt to fly off. The father makes an attempt in smashing the bird with his hand but misses. The bird flies around the house, attempting to dodge the father's hand but makes it out of the window in time. The father, missing the bird with his hands; looks out with the window; a revolting look.

Afterwards; the father looks down at an unconscious Tom where he asks: 'Did that bad little bird hurt you?'. He picks up Tom with his hand, feeling guilty for deserting Tom and leaving him home alone whilst at work. 'I shouldn't have left you at alone, I know. You're so little and helpless'.

Tom Thumb, then wakes up and attempts to explains about the bird; but the father believing he is still in shock, attempts to let him rest.

He places him on the pillow very gently and places the pillows on top of him. He comments softly: 'Everything will be alright in the morning'. Tom Thumb attempts to explain, 'But, Dad..', but he walks away not wanting to hear anymore. Just as enough time passes by and the father is seen asleep; Tom Thumb then writes a note on paper in explaining about the bird situation. As written; he explains the bird is a friend of his, and also for saving his life and attempts to go through a dangerous journey in searching for the yellow bird.

Tom Thumb leaves the house where he is on the search looking for the yellow bird during a blizzard. The door is being left open; as Tom struggles his way through the woods. A lot of the following shots have a heavy influence of live-action; particularly the shot of the door which slams itself where it creates mystery and also shows a lot of intense lighting.

The father then wakes up from the sound of the door closing. To check if Tom is safe; he finds the note pinned next to him on his pillow. At this point, the father becomes very afraid for Tom and he calls outside the window: 'Tom, Tom? Where are you?'.

He looks out the blizzard and shouts, 'Tom! Come back!'. The sequence itself is certainly given a rather pleasant and believable effect. The father's mind is almost about to explode; as he is extremely concerned on the disappearance of his son, and is doing all he can in being faithful to find if he is still alive. As its been noted before; the short itself really shows so much realism in a lot of areas: realism in emotions, realism in movement, realism in personality, and animation of course. It possibly did inspire the staff and other directors at Warners who turn out realism in their humour as well as character personalities: whereas prior that, they really only specialised in humorous and satirical shorts which didn't have too much realism like this short, and shorts that succeed this one.

While the cries for help continue to soar through the woods; at a tree: the yellow bird's eyes then appear to glow through the hole. The bird, wakes up from the noise but then makes a take and realises that Tom Thumb is in trouble. The yellow bird then flies around the forest looking for Tom Thumb.

After a lot of frantic searching, the yellow bird then spots him walking through the woods and struggling to make it. The bird then dives down to pick up Tom, and also to fly him back home.

Back at home; the father lies down with his arms folded and his head down, completely crest fallen. He cries, believing he has lost his only son. 'My son! My son!' he cries, 'Why did you do it? Where have you gone? Tommy, my boy'.

After he looks up; lo and behold; Tommy has returned, completely safe and with help from the yellow bird. He greets his father with boy, and the father, overwhelmed of Tommy's safety, then sheds a tear with joy. At this little, subtle scene, Chuck has already mastered the tear technique; not how its animated, but how we've captured the emotions from his father. Back at home; we find Tom Thumb and his father asleep happily; and who doesn't like a happy ending. The yellow bird is sleeping on top of the father's beard, like a bird's nest as the cartoon ends.

Overall comments: By far, probably the most dramatised and Disney-ish cartoon that Warners ever made, which there is no doubt about. However, would you look at this short as a flaw for Warners, because it is so unlike their cartoons, and due to how it is almost gag-less? Of course not. I consider this short, even if this is still early days for Chuck, to be a rather considerate achievement for early on in his career. This is definitely not one of Chuck's masterpieces, and far from being one of the best shorts he has directed but it has such a desirous quality to it that Chuck really had the crew and brains in making this short possible. To make the human anatomy of the father very accurate; his answer was Bob McKimson who successfully animated the father, and most likely, without much effort. Chuck has always had a great talent for drawing expressions which would appear believable towards an audience; which is what he's really famous for in his career.

He could pull expressions that make you laugh and cry; but here he pulls off expressions that are completely human, honest, and commanding; particularly with the facial expressions of the father where he stares coldly at the bird. It's one of the best read facial expressions seen in a animated cartoon which most animators today wouldn't be able to pull off. The personality and warmth of the father and son relationship is already well established. We see that the father is the only person who has complete custody and responsibility of Tom Thumb, and is completely caring towards him, and his concerns over him are understood and touched by audiences; that Chuck really knew how to engage the audience's hearts, especially in this cartoon. I must give credit towards Shepperd Strudwick who gives a very soft and warming performance for the father; and is just the perfect touch for making the father completely human. Of course; the cartoons like this one, would be one of Chuck's very few attempts to use in his own cartoons as when he really moved onto funnier, and more broader cartoons, he wouldn't really experiment with this type of drama again. But the short itself is a good bracer on Chuck's career; and to show what is to become in his later and successful years.


  1. I always thought this was kind of nice..about 12 minutes, one of the longest (like MGM's Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising shorts and all the Disney shorts)...nice to see the voice cast (thanks to Keith Scott())..Graham Webb, Scott's co-worker, did a book in 2000 on theatrical cartoons called "The Animated Film Emcyclopedia' (McFarlane-Jefferson press), notes Marjorie Tarlton as the voice of an early cartoon Tom THumb, Walter Lantz/Unviersal's 1939 "Tom Thumb Jr.",with the goofy grasshopper that says to would be attackers "You can't do that to me". Nice to get a consensus on the dad's voice (various refercesses mentioned John Sheppard who no doubt is Shepper Strudwick mentioned or the completely different John Deering. Webb mentions Gay Seabrook, others Sara Berner as Tom, but I hear neither, and believe the credts you gave (from Keith, no doubt..) Steve

  2. I have never seen anything posted about theater owners' reaction to the cartoon, but that would be an interesting take on the success of the picture. Warners did a lot of pre-release publicity for "Old Glory" so theater owners (and possibly even some of the public) would know what's coming; in the case of "Tom Thumb" what theaters booking the Merrie Melodies series had come to expect by mid-1940 and what they got from this cartoon may have been two entirely different things. That may explain why neither Chuck nor any of the studio's other directors attempted anything like this again (and even Uncle Walt was getting out of the 'serious' short subject cartoon business by 1940, leaving the shorts to the comedy genre and focusing the drama on his feature film animation).

  3. Most of the Merrie Melodies/Looney Tunes shorts were exercises in humor. They were mostly intended for brief excisions of nonsense for theater-goers. That was clearly not the case with this short. It was a clearly defined narrative. Stories have always played a key role in the lives of children. In the case of this cartoon, Chuck Jones was clearly addressing that. This cartoon was not intended to be a sequence of nonsensical events intended to make a person laugh. It was intended to to tell a narrative that would touch the hearts of the children in the audience. And it still did when I watched in on TV. Too bad it hasn't been broadcast in years. I guess that it is considered politically incorrect now, like so many other early WB toons of that era.

  4. I think Tom Thumb was done by Margaret Hill-Talbot, the same person who voiced Sniffles.