Friday, 24 October 2014

359. Conrad the Sailor (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 358.
Release date: February 28, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck), Pinto Colvig (Conrad Cat).
Story: Dave Monahan.
Animation: Ben Washam.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Conrad Cat is busy cleaning the deck, but gets distracted by his duties when he becomes a target of bullying from Daffy Duck.

It's worth to mention before we review the cartoon that what really stands out greatly about the cartoon; is not just Chuck Jones' drastic change in direction, or that Conrad Cat represents Goofy; but it's the art direction of the cartoon. Chuck's layout artist from this era, was John McGrew who designed a lot of unique and ambitious backgrounds for classic animated shorts. It was unusual for McGrew's work to appear in such cartoons, as many audiences were used to seeing watercolored, oiled backgrounds seen from Disney as well as other studios. McGrew and Jones both helped revolutionise the look of classic animation, as well as making the cartoons a lot of fun at the same time.

Compare his work to some of the cartoons he worked on like: The Dover Boys, Case of the Missing Hare, etc. All of his work in those shorts show how very versatile he was in terms of designing as well as providing the right atmosphere for cartoons. In this cartoon, not only does his layout work in all scenic locations of a navy ship look modern in art direction, but pleasantly realistic too. These screen grabs were borrowed from the late Michael Sporn's ever-so-inpsiring Splog; for more of McGrew's artwork on the short. Mike writes a great analysis here, complete with breathtaking frame grabs.

You can tell how risky and complex, both Jones and McGrew wanted to be artistically; they were willing to use their artistic abilities to the point where it could sometimes sidetrack from story purposes, as well as the animation itself; which to itself is a disadvantage in animation. A real shame he never received screen credit for his great work at Warners, much like the many other background and layout artists working in that era.

Conrad Cat, in his final appearance, is once again interpreted differently by Chuck. Perhaps judging by the lacklustre of The Bird Came C.O.D., Chuck switched to turn to comedy; giving him a Goofy persona. To add to that, have Pinto Colvig provide the voice.

Chuck's approach to humour has also drastically changed in the course of this cartoon, compared to what we're used to his approach. His pacing and timing has lived up to the Warner Bros. standards, as well as the gags.

The gags work coherently, and have that looney sensibility that lives up to the series' name. Perhaps this can be attributed to Dave Monahan, who had written shorts mostly for Tex Avery and Friz Freleng, who were the funniest directors Warner's had in 1940-1941.

From the start of the cartoon, it's clearly established that Conrad is working as a sailor for a navy ship, cleaning the decks. While the navy crew sing Anchors Aweigh together, Conrad sings the song alone; and it's clear he's established as an outcast.

Conrad's introduction scene is 45 feet of animation (30 seconds), and the action mostly consists of Conrad singing and cleaning. This was a real challenge approached to animator Ken Harris, who animated the scene. He had to create some inventive animation as well as gags to not lose the audience's attention, especially as the scene shows little descriptive action. So, he adds some decent touches like Conrad swinging the mop, and positioning his hand for the mop to hand neatly.

Another great addition to the cartoon is none other than Daffy Duck. Daffy had been appearing sporadically such as in a few black and white Looney Tunes, though this is his first colour cartoon since Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur, directed by none other than Chuck himself. This cartoon; Daffy's characteristics well interpreted by Chuck and Monahan. Daffy is not only mischievous and looney, but he's cynical, he can dominate people; and Chuck nails that kind of persona in this short.

He becomes an instant menace to Conrad once he discovers Daffy's footprints on the floor, and finds Daffy loitering on top of a mast. There, Daffy mocks Conrad's singing by singing in a mockery voice: "We're shoving right off, again", before leaving a forth-wall remark to Conrad, "Phew, is that guy awful? Gee, it makes me sick."

The sequence with Daffy pestering Conrad's duties is a brilliant showcase of how Chuck Jones has nailed the comic standards which you'd expect from a Warner Bros. short. Not to mention, it's also very inventive in giving Daffy more of a wacky personality.

As Conrad is scrubbing firmly of the deck singing angrily: "We're shoving right off for home!", Daffy replaces the water bucket with a bucket of paint; to make Conrad's navy life a living hell. Conrad sweeps the deck, not realising at first he is using red paint.

Daffy responds to this by disapproving Conrad sarcastically, "Very sloppy, Roscoe. You're a slovenly housekeeper". Conrad reacts to the criticism harshly and aims the mop directly to Daffy's face. Daffy grabs the mop, leading to a brilliant scene with Daffy grabs the mop and improvises by performing a short act in the style of vaudeville. The dry-brush effect on that scene is just delightful.

Daffy tosses the mop up in the air, and shouts to Conrad: "Catch! Catch!". The 3/4 up shots from Conrad's POV of the mop falling is another brilliant angle, as well as another great reason to admire how gutsy McGrew and Jones were in laying out the angle.

The mop falling in perspective is very complex to animate, and it would require only the ambitions of Jones' unit to accomplish it well. The next shot of Conrad's mini eye-take is just a brilliant showcase of timing. Chuck was never afraid to exaggerate poses, especially with eye-takes; and he used some of the most subtle kinds such as in shorts like Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur or Prest-O Change-O. After the mop smacks Conrad's face, the camera pans to Daffy sitting on top of the mop once again taunting Conrad; "Very petite, Betsy. Very, very petite". Once again, its a brilliant showcase in representing the potential of what the rest of the cartoon.

Despite the potential of having really good characters in creating an all-round funny cartoon; Chuck Jones is just not quite there yet. Sure, he has Daffy; and an improvement on the Conrad character (even if it means a rip-off to Goofy), as well as a really good sequence; but the only part that's really lacking in the short is the hyperactivity and energy from the characters.

Daffy acts looney like he'd usually behave in any other Warners cartoon, but its his looney energy that makes him somewhat tamer in this cartoon. Not to mention, in the latter half of the cartoon; both Conrad and Daffy remain silent a lot of the time, occasionally speaking a line of dialogue, and since the mop gag; the energy and characterisation just faded.

An example can appear in the crow's nest scene, where Conrad holds out his telescope on the lookout for Daffy. After placing the telescope back and supposedly grabbing hold of it again, he grabs Daffy's neck mistaking him as a scope. This leads to Daffy's sarcastic remark at Conrad, "Swell view, eh doc?".

Much of that sequence is performed in pantomime, and by doing that; you feel you are losing the personality already established from the characters. It just doesn't work in a cartoon which has a lot of fast-paced action. Note another scene which shows characteristics but lacks energy and motivation. Daffy has slider down a very long chute, but lands from the threatening hands of Conrad. Just as his hands get cleansed, Daffy licks Conrad's lips; unintentionally freeing him. It would've been more motivating a gag if Daffy's hyperactivity was there, such as his 'hoo-hoos'.

Despite some problems with characterisation and energy, you've got to appreciate the big change in Chuck's own pacing. Every scene is evenly paced, with no scene dragging too long whatsoever. This was a big step for Chuck, and this is what he's done right.

You'll notice Chuck certainly expressed a keen eye on dry-brush effect to help gain weight and anticipation into the action, and a lot of the time it's beautiful to look at frame-by-frame.

A clear example of that is seen in the cannon cleaning sequence. Conrad believes he is rid from Daffy, but finds Daffy is only standing right by the cannon. This leads to a childish game where Conrad's and Daffy's hands both overlap one another, and Daffy swirls Conrad's arms to get them into a sticky tangle.

Conrad manages to unfree himself easily by swirling into a frantic motion, which is seen in the screen shot. Another scene with some great, loose animation is the scene where Daffy plays the nursery rhyme clapping game Pease Porridge Hot with a perplexed Conrad. Note how Chuck's animators at that point were already very liberal in animation, and had this sense of freedom that you'd be under the impression that Chuck's allowing them to go loose. Daffy's little hitch dance in that scene is wonderfully loose and expressive.

Chuck always liked the idea of having a random, passing-by character interrupting the action, and passinby throughout the short before getting a sendoff. He's used that in cartoons such as the sailor in The Dover Boys, Humphrey Bogart in 8 Ball Bunny, and not to mention: the Mynah bird. Here, the recurring passing-by character is the sea captain. The captain is represented small in size, but big in power; hence the irony in size. During the action and chase scenes, the characters freeze when they are seen by the captain and both salute him in his presence. The timing of the captains' walk as well as Stalling's cue is entertaining comically, but it doesn't really have an edge, or a purpose; other than distracting the action.

It doesn't have much of a sendoff in the cartoon's ending, either. A scene with the captain passing by that does really stand out is the scene of Daffy and Conrad both sliding into the scene to salute. Watch how layers of Daffy and Conrad slide into the scene, with the characters starting out as transparent to opaque. It's difficult to create in terms of ink and painting, as the lighting has to be slightly different each layer. This is also another prime example of just how inventive Chuck's pacing is, and to pull it off takes a lot of ambition.

During the cartoon's climax, the short appears to built back the pace again: with Daffy's energy restored into the cartoon. Hiding inside a cannon, he hums to himself inside, but unaware of his knowledge Conrad has placed a giant bullet inside. Daffy points out obviously as a forth-wall gag, "Big bullet". Conrad lights the cannon, and the cannon fires, leading to Daffy riding the bullet.

He shouts, "Look at me, hoo-hoo-hoo, I'm a dive-bomber!". Once again, it's another great sequence which has the right pacing for an action-filled sequence. Daffy's attempts to dodge the bullet are very fluid in movement as well as impossible in action.

Believing that he has disposed of Daffy for good, Conrad walks among the deck with his mop to resume to his duties. To his surprise, he finds that the bullet has backfired leading to the bullet chasing Daffy. Realising the bullet and Daffy is leading directly to him, he expresses a "Here we go again" pose. Such a rich expression, too. This leads to the final gag where the trio (inc. the bullet) both stop at the presence of the sea captain as they salute before the bullet continues to chase them.

After almost four years of Chuck Jones directing almost consistent, tepid cartoons; this is the cartoon where he has finally broken out of the habit and started to pick up the pace much like what Friz Freleng or Bob Clampett were doing. It's got some great pacing, and not to mention even some coherent gags which in Chuck's earlier cartoons were not. Daffy Duck and Conrad in the opening scenes were great characters who created some good comedic situations, mainly in the mopping sequence; but then for a while the energy goes for a while. Though many do consider Chuck's real breakthrough in creating good comedy to be The Draft Horse, they to some extent correct. If there was a cartoon which Chuck Jones finally started to make his pacing slicker, and that none of his scenes dragged: it's definitely this short. However, in making an all-round fast-paced and great all-round entertainment: he's only so close. Like I said, the only lacklustre in the short is centred in the middle of the short, where you get long scenes of time of little to no dialogue, which doesn't quite combine well into the earlier sequences. I would personally attribute the problem to Conrad, who as a character just isn't adaptable as a character to match Daffy Duck, especially if Chuck prefers to have him silent much of the time. All in all, this was certainly an entertaining short, and from then on in his long career at Warners, Chuck could do no wrong.

Rating: 3/5.


  1. The opening scene with Conrad and the mop has an added gag, in that Chuck shows the cat looking down and then looking up to a waving Daffy, before pulling back to show it was footprints -- and not, er, something else -- that the duck left on the deck of the ship to be mopped up.

    One of the problems here is while this cartoon anticipates the Road Runner series, in having a series of what could be stand-alone gags that could be randomly re-ordered within the short prior to the climax, the quietness almost serves as a re-set button for whatever energy was built up in the previous scene. Jones would tackle a similar situation better working with Michael Maltese later in the year, with Daffy harassing Porky in "My Favorite Duck".

  2. Point of reference - the song that Conrad is singing is NOT Anchors Aweigh. It is "the Song of the Marines", a 1937 song composed by Harry Warren. It was sang by Dick Powell in the 1937 Warner Bros film, the Singing Marine, and saw use a few more times in various Warner Bros cartoons.