Monday, 20 October 2014

357. Who's Who in the Zoo (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 356.
Release date: February 14, 1942.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Norm McCabe.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig / Animals), Robert C. Bruce (Narrator).
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: John Carey.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A wacky spot-gag short centered at a city zoo. Porky Pig is portrayed as the zookeeper.

Although Norm McCabe had already received his first sole animation credit for Robinson Crusoe, Jr., it's safe to assume that this is quite possibly the first McCabe cartoon that he directed from start to finish. Though there is little evidence to suggest that, 'Crusoe' does feature elements that suggest Clampett had originally started the short, and not to mention his drawing style was still fragmented.

Moving forward to this cartoon, it's a different artistic style compared to Clampett; a style which you can associate with a lot of McCabe's cartoons. Here, it appears that McCabe hasn't quite comfortably stepped out to reveal what his true directorial talents can require: he is approached with a spot-gag short, but not based on a new subject.

Set as a zoo-themed short, this concept had already been explored previously in Tex Avery's A Day at the Zoo, which had the mediocre gags you'd expect. Although the gags range differently in this short, its still written in the same style that you've explored Tex do for the past four years at Warner Bros. Not to mention, it's another cartoon where Tubby Millar is attempting to throw Porky Pig in whatever scenes are opportune for him, and once more, giving him another limited role: as a zookeeper.

Millar creates an appropriate scenic location for the zoo, in order to create a well-delivered comedic error which is well satirised from Bob Bruce's narration. Set in Azusa, California; The narrator begins by reading out the short's title; and then reads the name of the zoo as seen from the screen.

Combining the title and the zoo's name together in a speech, it is a real tongue twister, and Bruce's narration is well acted, capturing the tongue twister difficulty to a tee.

The opening scene, although its riddled with poor puns, and the whole sort: it does make up with an impressive pan shot of some of the animals displayed in their cages. Then it dissolves into another camera pan as the camera takes you to another line of animals (with puns) featured on display.

You get some corny puns labelled to the animals in their cages; offhand you get the corny "tortoise and the hair" gag, as its revealed the tortoise only has one piece of hair on his forehead. The other would be the 'bum steer' gag where you see a cow dressed as a tramp, which you see in the second camera pan shot. The pan shots aren't exactly as complicating or as inventive as Tashlin's pans, but they're great shots in establishing some of the animals you'd expect to see from cage to cage.

More and more corny puns are tossed into the mix, abundant enough to carry the whole cartoon. To look a little more further at where these puns just lack creativity or integrity would be gags such as the "march hare" gag, where a group of marching hares are walking in a single line walking a la army marching. Other really corny puns which is amateurishly developed, but the output meets a funny result otherwise.

This centers in the middle of the short, where we view the different types of elephants displayed at the zoo. First off, we see the 'African elephant' who is seen very plainly eating, being its only anticipation. Then, we meet an 'Indian elephant'. With the outcome not being an ethnic Lascar stereotype, we get the straight-forward pun resulting in a Native-American elephant who is seen whooping and producing a rain dance, which is a more forgiving stereotype, even though I never see it as not being PC. It's a silly gag, but of all the madness combined into the gag: it works to that degree.

One of the funniest gags in the short with a great unpredictable outcome is centered in the sanctuary scene where the narrator identifies a vulture. Looking very stern from its appearance, the narrator informs the audience of the vulture's instincts: "A sneaky bird of prey", "a lonesome scavenger", etc.

After blurting out a couple of cutting remarks to the vulture; the bird responds by breaking out in a snobbish, calm attitude as he simply speaks back by reciting the Sticks and Stones nursery rhyme.

The rhyme is also a moral, to help encourage children to ignore taunts or name-calling from various people. The outcome of the scene is not only surprising, but you enjoy the characteristic, camp voice Mel Blanc performs, who could devout a great performance, even out of a one-shot, minor character. Another great sequence, a pun intended, but also with a great outcome is seen earlier in the show: in another sanctuary scene. The narrator identifies the bird as a bald eagle. The eagle is disturbed when he is being called a 'bald eagle' by the narrator several times more loudly, until the eagle removes his hairpiece and yells: "Okay blabbermouth, so I am BALD!". It's another good diction voiced well by Blanc, who himself saves an average gag to being passable.

Porky Pig's role in the cartoon is still limited, but his scenes are scattered randomly through the short, perhaps to try and make his role look dominant. Porky's role in the short is as a zookeeper with gags and other businesses, that are unrelated to a travelogue parody. His role and the scenes he's in are really pointless combinations to be placed in a spot-gag short.

The gags would have worked better as a passable short if it were a cartoon focused primarily on Porky as a zookeeper. Anyhow, the first scene we find Porky walking merrily holding a mallet with him. When questioned by the narrator, he responds that he uses it to feed the giraffe.

It's explained further on, that his method on feeding giraffes is by striking the mallet in the style of a strength tester display that you'd see in a funfair. The first few times, the giraffe narrowly misses the bucket as Porky attempts to strike harder each time. After a series of tries, it reaches to the giraffe except the food splatters over his face, ruining his meal.

The next sequence Porky is seen feeding the seals fishes, except one seal refuses a piece (slamming it back, striking Porky's face). Then, in his scene; he is seen as a demonstrator on the narrator's commentary about the toughness of the hippo's skin. Porky demonstrates he consistently prodding a stick to the hippo's skin during his commentary. Then, out of nowhere, both commentaries contradict otherwise as the hippo breaks down laughing, ticklish at the stick poking him. It's another amusing, contradiction gag which are beneficial for entertainment.

At the same time the short was in production, the U.S. government played a part in propaganda by encouraging the public to help save scraps in preparation for World War II. It seemed rather fitting for the time the short was made to feature gags related to the war effort. One gag features a black panther who is sloppily drinking from his bowl.

After filling up the entire bowl, he finds to his astonishment a symbol which he tosses over a "save aluminium" scrap. I suppose this was the ideal symbol produced by the government used at the time so the public would be alerted to saving aluminium tin cans, pots, etc. to help the cause.

Another government-related joke also has some subtle humour blended in to it. The scene begins with a father rabbit, who already in the scene is the father of a multiple bunny rabbits. Reading the letter: he shows concern, anxiety and is almost at the brink of being panic-strikened. He gasps, "I can't do it! I can't do it! It's impossible. My gosh, there's no limit!". The curious narrator asks of the rabbit's concerns, and he turns to reveal the letter, as you can see in the screenshot. It's a nice subtle gag, which you'd expect out of Clampett; but instead Norm McCabe adds the right touch to the gag.

Like many spot-gag cartoons produced in Warner shorts, you get a satirical scene of a scene building up to suspense. The scene begins with the narrator explaining the intimidating instincts of a black bear. He is seen approaching towards a helpless lamb who is eating from a trough, as the narrator explains about his deadly claws which he uses "to hug his prey of death". And so, the bear approaches the lamb: and this is the height of the suspense that the scene carries.

Unlike many Warner fans, one might expect the bear to break down exclaiming, "I can't do it"; or the bear would romantically embrace the creature. The bear does the latter. Not to mention, it's another play-on word scene, as Tubby Millar uses emphasis on the word "hug" to suggest otherwise. Just as the bear hugs the lamb with affection--the narrator, misinterpreting that as danger, demands the bear to place the lamb down, but the lamb responds by sharing the same affection, "Oh for goodness sakes, mind your own business!". Love the Blanc falsetto voice.

And so, last but not least is the typical recurring gag which has been a popular formula when creating a spot-gag short. The star of this recurring gag is a lion who is seen pacing inside his cage with an ambiguous expression. A few times in the short, we see him still pace in his cage.

It isn't revealed until the ending sequence where, the lion finally stops pacing and looks from outside his cage with sheer delight. It turns out he's been waiting for the ice-cream man to arrive with his ice cream cart. He barks out ice-cream around the zoo, and notices the lion's eager attention for ice-cream.

The audience would be under the impression that the punchline was just a childish gag of a lion who was peckish for ice cream, but that isn't the case. As the ice cream man walks off screen to deliver the ice cream, we hear an off-screen munch. As it turns out, the lion as after the ice-cream man all this time, and not the ice cream itself. Cruel irony is awesome.

As this review comes to a close, my overall thoughts on the cartoon was rather tepid. As I wrote, Porky is very much unrelated to the cartoon, other than that he's a zookeeper, and some of the gags just don't seem to fit into the short. Not to mention, he appears to be written in the short as an attempt to save the short from being an uninspiring spot-gag cartoon. Like most spot-gags, you'll find it has some goodness as well as some blandness in taste. Mel Blanc and Bob Bruce both play their roles expressively as well as enthusiastically, despite having worked on such material so many times previously. You'd need to be this devoted an actor to carry on with such roles. Norm McCabe's sense of direction is also passable. He's not afraid to explore several aspects of subtle humour, as well as to make his shorts look visually pleasing, like the long camera pan shot. A vastly under-appreciated director, indeed.

Rating: 2.5/5.

1 comment:

  1. Eric O. Costello21 October 2014 at 16:38

    Note the date on the rabbit's letter; compared to the release date (b/w shorts had a much shorter time period), this implies the cartoon was certainly written before the outbreak of the war, and may have been completed just before hostilities started (but war production was already well under way).