Friday, 13 February 2015

367. The Draft Horse (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 366.
Release date: May 9, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Draft Horse / Army officer).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Robert Cannon.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A draft horse is determined to enlist in the army, and undergoes a series of tests which he is incompetent at passing.

While there are a lot of folks who believe that The Dover Boys was the first short that Chuck Jones made his career, I think that The Draft Horse was the first all-round funny cartoon he has directed. Although he made a couple of attempts in previous cartoons, this is the short where he has successfully blended in the Warner Bros. humour to his own cartoons, and cuts down from his bad habits at mimicking Disney.

Chuck has also successfully managed to create successful pacing, all round; but also great characterisation too, which he previously flawed at. Not to mention, I also believe the factor to the success of this short is attributed to the return of Ted Pierce, whom we hadn't seen since 1938, as he left for the new Fleischer studio in Florida. Pierce was an underrated talent, was also crucial in playing a role by adding the unforgettable humour and energy of the Warner Bros. shorts in the 40s and 50s.

The promises that Chuck has for a great career ahead of him is evident from the start to end of the short. At the opening, the draft horse is seen skipping merrily about how he enjoys being a plow horse. At that moment, he spots a billboard advertisement U.S. army sign for a wanted horse--much to the horse's delight. He rushes out to seek his ambition, but beforehand, he kisses his old master.

The frantic scenes of the horse starting his journey to the U.S. army headquarters shows the possibilities Chuck has in timing, as well as experimenting and pushing the boundaries of timing further. The pan shot of the horse leaving his master is wonderfully achieved in the sense of speed, as the background reveals the tracks from the plow. The montage shots of the plow tracks that follow are also effective.

However, the scene of the draft horse crossing a wooden bridge has great weight towards it, but the timing of the planks arising is a little sluggish and slow, as it forms into a wooden hut--becoming F.H.A. property. When it is revealed that the draft horse has made his journey to the draft office headquarters, we get a great pan shot of an off-screen crash the horse has made--Treg Brown adds to the charm, making the calamity believable. The shots fades to the scene of the damage caused by the plow horse, where he is seen sitting on the officer's lap.

Perhaps one of the most highlighted sequences in this cartoon would be the scene of the draft horse's interview with the army officer. His characteristics are greatly conceived by Ted Pierce's writing and Chuck's energy. He is brash, boisterous, and too confident. He mimics gun impersonations and boasts: "Oh, boy. I'm gonna be a soldier. I'm gonna fight the enemy! I'll annihilate him, that's what I'll do!" The mimicking of the dome dropping and explosions are realistically portrayed, and the energy of the character is incredible.

After several mimics of airplanes, marching, etc. he finally reaches the finale of his performance: a death performance. He covers his chest, and speaks with a weakened voice: "They got me!". Just as he is about to drop, he drops and says "Mother" before dropping dead--until he gets up and mimics the death piece Taps. This wouldn't have been successful, thanks to the marvellous character animation by Ken Harris, who animated this sequence.

To find elements of Ted Pierce's humour, you'll find it in particular sequences which you wouldn't expect from Chuck Jones, typically. One that comes to find is the sequence following right after the horse's energetic performance. The officer orders with rage: "Now, get in there and strip!"

At this moment, the draft horse misinterprets the order by stripping (à la) a stripper. It's a cliched Warners gag that's been used countable times, with the same music cue for stripping played (It Had to Be You). Nevertheless, it still adds to the charm--testing the patience of the angered officer who shouts ("Strip, you lug!").

Another striking example of a sequence with subtle dirty humour by Ted Pierce is evident in the great eye testing sequence. The officer orders the draft horse to read what's read on the sheet. It reads the lyrics of a popular army song: You're in the Army Now

The sheet reads following, line-by-line: ("You're in the Army Now---You're not behind the plow--you'll never get rich--), at this point, the following letters are written in a tiny font ("By digging a ditch--"), before it finishes it with the final words ("You're in the army now"). The gag behind it is that the line is often sung as: "You'll never get rich, you son of a bitch". As it doesn't read it, Ted Pierce and Chuck want the audience to be under the illusion it's written in the chart. Again, it's not a gag that Jones would be most comfortable with.

For sequences where Chuck appears to have taken his energy and pacing to its toll, watch the surgery scene, where the draft horse is being tested for medication. The officer inspects his mouth (which is found to be contained with oats and hay), and then asks him to say "ahh" for examination. 

At this moment, the horse shouts "AHH!" at the top of his lungs, creating a wind force which the officer struggles to fight through. For this sort of humour, you'd expect it to appear in a Clampett short, but it's clear that Chuck is having a lot of fun at being a successful director. 

This follows with some funny dialogue exchanged between the horse and officer. The horse questions, "I thought you said to say 'ahh'", this follows with the officer's reply: "That I did, but I didn't tell you to say: AHHHH!". 

Some great comedic touches appears in the sequence where another officer is seen grooming the horse. To make the sequence wackier, Pierce has the draft horse feel ticklish from the brush, and goes into a fit of giggles. The officer is still doing his best to groom the horse as he rolls on the floor laughing. At this point, the horse switches position of the officer, and begins to tickle the officer with the brush, grooming him. Animation wise, it's loose and it has some decent fluidity to it (was this Bobe Cannon anyone?).

Chuck is also a master at making the "impossible things" seen believable in an animated cartoon. You can see for yourself in the sequence where the army officer is testing the horse for posture. As he begins to call out orders, the horse misinterprets them, and it gets so that he has all four legs leaning sideways, sitting in midair. The officer walks over, and corrects him: "Don't you know you can't do that?" causing him to floor and hit the floor.

 Other great cases of where Chuck explores this is seen towards the cartoon's climax. The horse had been rejected by the draft officer, and goes into a dramatic, depressed state ("Other horses get to join the army, and I never get to do anything"). Unknown to him: a giant cannon is aimed towards his head. In this close-up, the horse is breaking down, sobbing, "I'm not good enough for Uncle Sam."

At this moment, the cannon blasts--with the horse questioning: "Say, did I hear something?" He looks directly at the cannon, it blasts again. The smoke unveils to reveal the horse supposedly decapitated, when in reality he's hiding his head underneath his collar. Not an easy scene to achieve in staging, and Chuck makes the dynamics and staging appealing, to make the gag and sharp timing work.

The cannon sequence leads to some fulfilling action scenes of the horse avoiding the battlefield area and the cannons surrounding him. Chuck isn't afraid to use complex staging for scenes of the draft horse running into a cannon and finding himself rising. The horse's encounter with the bombs underneath a field, and the posing of the horse dodging the bombs is entertaining.

At this moment, the horse frantically rushes away from the battle area, and zips wildly back towards the drafting headquarters. We repeat a scene of a quick pan of the horse crashing inside the hall, until we find he has crashed through the hall and zips towards a station nearby, where they are looking for recruits. At this point, we get a satisfying ending where the draft horse is content enough to be knitting Bundles for Bluejackets, as he reveals a 'V' for Victory sweatshirt, with the short ending on a patriotic note.

In conclusion, I still stick to my opinion that this is Chuck Jones' first successful cartoon at achieving comedy and comic timing. After watching and reviewing three and a half years of mundane, repetitive cartoons by Chuck, it's fitting to see him converting to the Warner Bros. humour, as the energy and humour was advancing greatly around this time; so his change to directing funny cartoons couldn't have been better. Chuck manages to create some great characteristics with the horse character, as well as create funny and outrageous sequences which he wouldn't have attempted before (or even rarely use in general). Chuck's expertise at characterising his stars is paid off greatly in the short, as well as his use of experimenting in taking comedy to another level. It's astonishing to believe that just a few months back, one of Chuck's all-time worst cartoons: The Bird Came C.O.D. For a director who had a unbreakable record 15-year streak of turning out wonderful material, this is only the beginning of the best which is yet to come.

Rating: 4/5.

1 comment:

  1. Two points of interest: (1) the soldier that gives the horse the rub-down is very similar to Private Snafu, whose shorts for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine were just being developed at this time; (2) there's a small irony in the timing of the cartoon, in that by mid-1942, the U.S. Army was in the process of phasing out not only horse cavalry regiments, but horses for nearly any usage.