Wednesday, 16 April 2014

325. The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 324.
Release date: April 26, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Mr. Wolf/Attorney/Owl/Bird), Sara Berner (Red Riding Hood / Grandma).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Dick Bickenbach.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: During the Wolf's trial over the Little Red Riding Hood case, the Wolf gives his interpretation of how the events truly happened.

Fairy-tale parodies were fairly common in the 1930s; especially when Disney produced a majority in the Silly Symphonies series. Nevertheless to say, Warners also turn out a couple of spoofs, mostly from Tex Avery: such as Little Red Walking Hood and Cinderella Meets Fella.

They were decent parodies, though it still contained its original narrative structure even if it contained some changes such as having the infamous fairy tale characters impersonate celebrities.

With this short however, Mike Maltese and Freleng take the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale with a completely alternate version. Instead of a typical parody of the Riding Hood story which would contain modern-day references and pop culture, this tale is told as an alternate version from the Wolf's perspective.

This perspective turns out to be unreliable, yet very wacky. Mike Maltese is already playing is cards right very early in his career and has so far turned out very humorous shorts which in which its unique touch of humour stand out a lot more compared to the other writers.

The short itself, opens up with a trial case which of course links to Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf who are both on the case of verdict. Both verdicts are in the act of innocence. The attorney on the other hand, believes there is a complete different story compared to the supposedly cliched fairy tale.

She believes Red Riding Hood was guilty in the crime, as the prosecutor remarks: "Why she has guilt written all over her face".

Mike Maltese there greatly uses these play-on words to make a great visual gag. Red Riding Hood's face then dissolves with the word 'guilt', indeed written all over her face.

The prosecutor then turns to the Wolf, who he believes has an alternate and reliable account on the story. The trial sequence is a rather great set-up for what would be a complete different tale for the story: already the jury are presented to be a series of wolves (and a skunk) which would suggest the wolf has more innocence.

From the wolf's version of the story: he was just an innocent childlike wolf who was wearing his Sunday outfit picking up posies for his mother. The way Mike Maltese sets up the character of Red Riding Hood is just wonderful satire and a great presentation of a con artist.

From the moment you see her in the alternate story; she is evidently a trickster who is after setting up the wolf. Maltese plays around the personalities of both characters by switching them around. He creeps by trees, with a sneaky glare hoping her plan would no unnoticed.
He then proceeds to cry at a tree as a part of the Wolf's bait.

The Wolf is seen trotting along the woods merrily, and once he skips past Red Riding Hood she trips him deliberately.

The Wolf asks, "Why dost thou weep, toots?". Riding Hood, who in Warners shorts appears to be frequently impersonated by a Hepburn accent, explains she lost her way to Grandmother's house. After the wolf grabs out his compass, where the route to Grandma's house has been designated; Red Riding Hood frantically places the wolf in her wagon. This set-up between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood is greatly well-established and it satirises the characters very well, as Maltese is making the Wolf appear only human and vulnerable; in which no other cartoon writer would have considered taking into account.

 The Grandma, in term of her dynamism and Maltese's interpretation of the character is a far more broader character, compared to Red Riding Hood. After she takes the Wolf to Grandma's house; it turned out she was a follower of Grandma, as she has a flair for wolf furs to sell.

The audience immediately connects to the Grandma as she dances to a record player, but once she hears of a wolf alert; he hides all her fur outfits and disguises herself as a sickly grandmother.

The Grandmother is just a terrific persona and a piece of satire in the short. Once Maltese establishes the famous "Why what big eyes you have" scenario in the fairy-tale; it is the Grandma who acts at the real villain, and giving the wolf a more vulnerable personality. She also subtly refers to the Wolf's fate, as she observes the wolf's fur, "Why what a beautiful fur coat ya have--should be about thirty-five bucks."  Slowly, she then brings out her mallet from under her pillow. At this point, the wolf responds naively, "Why what a big mallet you've got, Grandma?", and the grandma responds: "All the better to get a new fur coat!", and attempts to knock him with a mallet, and this turns to a chase sequence.

Whilst this turns to a chase sequence; you notice that Friz Freleng is certainly making is comic timing a lot more broader and faster. This appears throughout the cartoon, where a majority of it work, and whereas in some areas it doesn't quite work.

Where it doesn't work? Well, in one shot: the Wolf running frantically around the walls of the house, whilst he is pursued by Grandma.

That shot has been well effective in many cartoons in terms of speed, though Freleng had not yet quite perfected the timing that would be required for the speed of the animation. Where it does work: in the chase sequence there is a great door-to-door gag which shows great emphasis on 'you can't escape'. The wolf tries to escape through one door, but finds Grandma is carrying an axe. At the following door, Grandma is seen with a machine gun attempting to fire at the Wolf. Then at the following door, a cannon. All these gags are certainly great as the humour is only getting wackier the more the climax builds, and Freleng is certainly at the tops compared to his other competitors.

Other great uses of Freleng's own comic timing would be in scenes such as the Wolf dancing merrily to the tune of Gavotte. Freleng successfully manages to synchronise the timing to Stalling's music cue for the sequence. Plus, it is also a great established opening for how the Wolf interpreted his own events. Considering the audience had caught him carrying weapons in his suit; the sailor suit is a hilarious pay-off. Also, notice the swish effect the wolf has when he tries to disguise the weapons he is carrying whilst in trial.

Finally, and concluding the cartoon: Friz pays off the short with the funniest comic timing, as well as the funniest delivery in the entire short. After the wolf has finished his interpretation of the events, the jury turn very sceptical of his views.

This sceptic perspective of the jury then forces the reluctant wolf to make a cutting remark: "And if that ain't the truth, I hope I get run over by a streetcar".

This is a great gag set-up by Maltese who again, is an expert on deliveries by putting a lot of emphasis on what wasn't the truth. Friz perfects that moment, where a streetcar crashes into the scene, and all in a matter of 1 feet of animation (less than one second). Only Friz could have made the delivery of that line appear wacky and broad, and nails the speed. Just then, the wolf reappears, as he admits: "Well, maybe I did exaggerate just a little bit", where the short ends with the audience's interpretation of what was the real story in this trial.

Have you ever had the impression Mike Maltese not only writes an excellent satirical short and writing a great alternate version to the fairy tale: but it seems to write the short with some ambiguity. Maltese hints that the wolf is the real criminal, and attempts to make it obvious such as the streetcar gag and the weapons the wolf carries.

At the same time, the prosecutor on the other hand: accuses Red Riding Hood for having "guilt written all over her face". Both act any innocent; at the Wolf expresses his 'innocence' with a Halo on top; and Red Riding Hood gives a speech expressing her 'innocence' as well as impersonating Katherine Hepburn at the same time.

During the Wolf's story; Matlese does appear to hint the Wolf''s story was made-up as a alibi, and it's evident when the blue-bird rants at the Wolf: "Go on, ya jerk! Act your own age". At that remark, you would expect it was just intended for laughs, but I feel this was left to the audience to decide.

My main thoughts of this short: I believe that Maltese managed to nail the fairy-tale satire, as he takes it to a different level, much like how Tex did so in The Bear's Tale. The characters are absolutely well-established and diverting. Freleng's comic timing is only becoming more up to it's advantage, and he has certainly nailed it in small areas. Notice how Freleng is going through a different drawing style in this short, compared to what was seen in previous shorts? I wonder who was drawing character layouts for Friz then? Compared to Freleng's great timing, he hadn't yet achieved the appeal in the drawing style, as it feels a little like what he did in the 1930s; though he definitely does not let that get away from a great story with great characters and gags. I find this one of the most colourful shorts of 1941; as this is rather ambiguous compared to many Warner shorts. The ending itself ends on a very wacky cliffhanger; and the real criminal is somewhat obscure, even if it really was the wolf.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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