Sunday, 24 August 2014

350. Rhapsody in Rivets (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 349.
Release date: December 6, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
No cast.
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Gil Turner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (sound).
Synopsis: Set at a construction site, the workers spend the entire day hard at work, whilst routinely working in synchronisation to Franz Lists's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2.

As most cartoon fans know, Franz Liszt's popular Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, has become a popular association when combining classical music and animation together. Numerous cartoons have used the piece to carry out an entire short, as well as using parts of it. Friz Freleng, not to mention uses much of the key aspects of the piece into the cartoon, where for the first time in a Warners cartoon, they turned out an entire cartoon featuring the Listz rhapsody.

This is evidently not the first use of the music, despite being a popular association with the Warner cartoons. Walt Disney used it first, though only partly in the Mickey Mouse cartoon, The Opry House, and the first cartoon to feature the music in an entire cartoon would go to Fleischer's A Car-Tune Portrait, released in 1937.

Both cartoons were featured in its standard opera house setting, whereas this cartoon takes a different turn. Taking place at a construction site, the entire cartoon relies on the use of music for their gags, even though there is no musical instruments played by the characters.

Instead, Freleng tells a story of a foreman "conducting" the skyscrapers constructing large buildings, and all to be synchronised to the Listz number. Freleng recalled in an interview featured in Leonard Maltin's Of Mice and Magic: "I love music. I can't read it, but I can feel it. When I hear it, I see things in my mind. Music inspires my visual thinking. I time my cartoons to music, and I find it helps me. Everything is done rhythmically." Musical cartoons had been a long-time association with the Warner shorts, not to mention that was how the cartoons essentially started off, by promoting popular music. This cartoon, however, is a totally different interpretation: and all for comedic and timing purposes, with Freleng taking his timing to another level, and proving he can master it.

For a cartoon which relies on no dialogue, the opening scenario begins just how it should. The foreman walks towards the sight, with pride and dignity much like how a music conductor would walk through a stage.

The foreman opens up his blue print much like a music sheet, and therefore "conducts" his co-workers with the project, and all blending in beautifully with the start of Hungarian Rhapsody, which to a lot of the public, is also very recognisable and key throughout the entire number.

Thanks to Mike Maltese's establishment of the cartoon, and Freleng's masterful timing: they create a wonderfully imaginative connection between music conducting and construction conducting. In reality, the foreman at a construction site would generally be ordering his workers in a meticulous order to keep production on a skyscraper development on schedule. Here, Maltese metaphorically uses the "conducting" in a musical perspective, and thus vividly putting it altogether into animation.

After conducting the first notes of the rhapsody, the music and conducting synchronised go mostly as planned throughout the first half of the cartoon. There follows a string of gags that combine beautifully to the Listz number, and thus making the opening of the cartoon as vivid as well as entertaining as what Friz Freleng has to offer.

Most of the gags centered around the long opening number and sequence will be further analysed later in the cartoon, but the most part lets look at scenes where the entire cartoon feels almost human. We get delays from the conducting and musical synchronisation.

The music, in one scene, suggests a riveter's cue, who is snoozing and causing delays to the time and music the construction site has. The music repeats the notes to capture the riveter's alertness and attention, until the foreman tosses a brick to wake him up, and to get back on cue.

After the many string of gags that follow, (like the charming gag with a concrete mixer with the cork inside), the foreman notices a mistake in terms of production consistency as well as supposedly a piece of action combined in music. He holds out a "STOP" sign to permit any further production from his workers. Once a great, unpredictable gag to suggest that the schedule can't go as perfect. The foreman, starts the conducting the music from scratch, as well as once more, reminding the sleeping riveter from being hit with the brick again.

Areas where Freleng perfectly nails pieces of music from the rhapsody number and into animation are all over the entire cartoon, making it difficult to pick his true highlighted moments. Perhaps one that sticks to mind would be the construction scraper sequence.

If you listen to the piece of music carefully, watch how each piece of movement hits every beat and note animation wise: especially the anticipation on the extended foot pressing on the metal part of the spade. It's all timed and animated brilliantly, making the gag a success, as well as beautiful in integrity.

Another scene that works almost as well as most of the gags placed together, would be the hammer and mallet comparison of a trio hammering a stake further to the ground, but with not much effort. Two dog workers begin with a gentle tap from their hammers to hit the music beats, and a tiny mouse pounds at the stake with his mallet in tempo. This is a clever scenario by Friz and Maltese where both the dog and mouse are a contrast in terms of beat and tempo, and the contrast is perfect in delivery and combining different rhythm. Comparing both scenes, the scraper gag is a more sophisticated gag, whereas the mallet gag is more wacky.

Several characters are given leitmotifs or an instrumental to give the character a musical theme/identity. One that comes in mind is the small Droopy-like worker whose appearance is mostly seen during scenes that require a woodwind instrument. From the start of the scene, be appears almost late for work and begins right away hammering on the construction site while an elevator takes him up.

The character is used for comedic purposes, relating to a character who almost causes collisions such as a scene involving the dog almost being crushed by an elevator, but ends up spared bizarrely. In the concluding scene, the dog character actually does cause a collision. Though, his scenes will be further more discussed as he mostly appears under different gag situations.

Another sequence or character that is created as a leitmotif would be another small dog character, who distinctly has red sideburns on his face, and supposedly with an Irish stereotype, even if only hinted in design. From a notable key element from the rhapsody number combined to animation, the dog character is seen attempting to climb up a ladder to the next floor.

This proves to be a struggle for him, as a larger dog worker is seen crawling down the ladder, and preventing the smaller dog from climbing. This is also a great showcase for Friz's timing which is looped, but beautifully staged, as well as very complex.

It could easily have been flawed, music-wise and timing-wise--the sort of complexity that is only in Friz's meticulous instinct. The gag repeats a couple of times, so the audience feel sympathy as well as in on the gag of the small dog trying to climb the ladder.

After several more attempts, the frustrated dog becomes more assertive by forcing his way up the ladders knocking out anyone bigger than him attempting to climb down the ladder, blocking him. After making it to the top of the skyscraper site, he lands on top of an elevator which ultimately takes him back to the first floor. It's another gag that Freleng and Maltese planned through carefully and wonderfully: this could have easily been flawed hadn't it been for both their careful approach to timing and music scenario to fit the scenes.

Scenes which require a lot of thought and mechanical planning to make the gags functional and in the right place are also all over the entire cartoon. Watch the scene of a group of riveters who are not only hammering nails from different story levels in sync to the music, but watch how complex the layout is.

Each worker hammering a nail, are all positioned in the wrong spot, involving a nail in the position they're hammering to jab them easily, and after a series of hammering: they all feel the jab.

It's a subtle scene from layout and from a mainstream perspective, it's a pretty childish gag. Youthful? Maybe. But there's no denying that the gag alone was a lot of work, as it had to be animated on separate levels, and it was a very complex scene to time and stage.

Another scene which features mechanical planning, as well as expressing Friz's confidence in a ambitious cartoon would be the elevator gag centering on the Droopy-like character. The gag is the Droopy character is standing at a dangerous spot that could leave him seriously injured or killed by the elevator coming through. With a comedic touch, the elevator slides along the side, sparing the dog's fate.

What captures me the most relating to the scene, is an extreme down shot and an extreme up shot of the elevator lowering in perspective covering the camera. For a cartoon, that almost the entire time requires a lot of animation timing to the music, thus having to be very careful with what angles they use. Friz clearly shows he's not afraid to pull off such shots like this, but they appear quite rapidly, and thus the timing pays off. It's a very gutsy thing for Friz to do, especially in a climatic scene that requires the mood of the music to be combined appropriately.

Scenes which would require a lot of typical gags that could blend in perfectly to music occur in other cases, too. Another stake scene involving a big and smaller dog both hammering at the stake is a greatly interpreted to music. The bigger dog, unnoticeably slams the "stake" to the ground, but finds he has slammed the smaller man's bowler hat right down to his legs, leaving him moving his feet around. A popular Warner gag, which Friz used again in another musical short, Holiday for Shoestrings, and other uses of the gag appear offhand in shorts like Little Red Walking Hood.

Instances of the typical Warners humour blend in the scenes that build up to the climax. As the climax gets more frantic and build-up in the rhapsody, so does production on the construction work, from a bigger demand from the foreman's conducting. A scene shows a dog laying as much bricks as possible, but in between rows he would occasionally break out with a fatigued pant before proceeding with rapid development.

Just as the production and conducting is becoming more climatic, builders are beginning to lose control with the sculpture of the building, leading to a wacky, charming gag of a tall building being constructed, but turning at corners and not being built at a complete straight line.

And so, leading to the climax of the music and the cartoon: the foreman halts everyone working as he gets prepared, for he hopes to have the building completed before its deadline closes. After settling down all the workers, he begins to conduct rapidly combined to the rapid finale of the rhapsody number.

The builders then begins to complete its construction rapidly in synchronisation to the finale. As it finishes, one last builder jumps up to finish off the rest of the music by placing the flag on top. The foreman celebrates as the crowd cheer on the completed building. The Droopy-like character, standing on top closes the food violently to the point where the entire building rattles: ending in how a Warners cartoon would typically again, leaving the entire building in ruins. The foreman, discovering the small dog was the culprit turns sternly cold towards him, but three bricks fall on his, ending with the three last notes of the rhapsody number, as the cartoon ends.

Friz Freleng was without doubt ahead of his game directing this very ambitious cartoon. It's an entirely original concept, which hadn't dared been attempted by anybody at Warners, and while the technique had been experimented by other directors like Bob Clampett on A Corny Concerto, none it met to the brilliant standard and quality Friz Freleng could produce. It shows how a lot of effort is combined in this cartoon, and Friz knew how to get the best out of his unit in making it an all-round entertaining and successful cartoon gag-wise and music-wise. A lot of scenes blend in wonderfully from Friz's timing, and they're all in the right place. Perhaps what makes the cartoon astounding would be Friz and Maltese's collaboration with story and scenery, for they had the ability to tell a comedic, cartoon story all through the synchronisation of music, and the results meet greatly.

Not to mention, this is all without dialogue, and to pull it off in this cartoon is a toughie. This is the one of the first of Friz's several musical shorts he would go on to make, such as the likes of Pigs in a Polka, Holiday for Shoestrings. From a personal opinion, this cartoon is more worthy of an Academy Award, though in 1942 it was beaten by Disney's Lend A Paw. The Warner cartoons receiving Oscar nominations, is also a sign on how they're improving for the better. Overall, this was an all-round, ambitious entertaining cartoon that deserves the praise it has received, from all the hard work combined into it.

Rating: 4.5/5.


  1. Eric O. Costello24 August 2014 at 14:48

    To be fair, Avery had received a few Oscar nominations, including one for "A Wild Hare" and one for "Detouring America." But you're quite correct in your assessment. This one of the first in a long string of smash cartoons that Freleng would direct starting around this time, and this is at the point where the WB cartoons are starting to round into form.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I'm sure that you mean "Pigs In A Polka," not "Pigs Is Pigs." "Pigs In A Polka" is a 1943 Three Little Pigs cartoon set to classical music, while "Pigs Is Pigs" is a less musical 1937 entry about a little pig who dreams about eating too much. Friz Freleng also directed another musical Three Little Pigs cartoon, called "Three Little Bops," from 1957, set to then-modern jazz.

    I will also agree that "Rhapsody In Rivets" is definitely one of the best Warner Brothers cartoons from 1941.