Tuesday, 17 February 2015

369. Lights Fantastic (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 368.
Release date: May 23, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various voices).
Story: Sgt. Dave Monahan.
Animation: Gil Turner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A take-off on billboard advertising products, satirising billboards with commercial characters singing and dancing.

Although this may not be a Warner cartoon up to anybody's taste; it is without doubt one of the most strange and unique shorts in their entire stock library. Instead of creating a spot-gag cartoon based on billboards, Freleng turns the concept into a musical concept, as well as a short where he can practice and improve on his timing.


The opening scene features an elaborate color stock footage of New York Times Square at night. However, by the time World War II hit America, the Times Square lights went out, so the stock footage would've been filmed some years ago.

If you look really closely, you'll find a cinema with bright neon lights reading: May Way for Tomorrow, which was first released in 1937. One can assume this was when the footage was shot. However, the film could've been a possible re-release or it ran in theatres longer than '37 - can you clarify Yowp? The stock footage has also been used in several shorts, Rebel Rabbit being a striking example.

Friz experiments and has fun with exploring unique types of timing, as well as achieving a different type of comedy. The typewriter-billboard gag is a good example of that. Friz's timing combined with Stalling's original cue is the icing on the cake.

The billboard is advertising an Understood Typewriters product. The gag itself is is the billboard is typewriting positive statements: "It's Sensational! It's Colossal!", which at the time were key adjective words used in advertising to describe a product or motion picture.

It becomes even more of a gag, as the typewriter on the billboard fails to spell the word "Stupendous". Freleng has the writer pause for a while, deliberately ruining the jingle and timing of music. As soon as the typewriter incorrectly types a letter, it crosses out the verse, and starts a new one: again, making another make. After a pause, the typewriter quickly spells out: "It's Swell!". It's great satire that contradicts what the advertisements make it out to me, and Stalling's improvised cue really adds to the charm.

Freleng's timing is also put to excellent use in the effects animated billboard sequence which animates a beautiful scenic image in synchronisation to the Johann Strauss's Voice of Spring. Freleng has re-used the sequence later in Holiday for Shoestrings, but both are excellent showcases of Friz's abilities. To achieve such a scene, it would require a lot of careful, meticulous planning on not only timing the pieces in the animated billboard, but also how the layout will look.

Freleng's knowledge of music is put to excellent use, as he finds an elaborate piece that would fit perfectly to a sequence like this. It's a wonder how Freleng managed to accomplish this incredible, ambitious task: twice! Not only is it a gag that has an animated billboard move in the rhythm of the classical piece, but it becomes even more of a gag as it's revealed in the typical Warners gag Eat at Joe's.


As dated as some of the cartoon is today, racial stereotypes are guaranteed, but only for entertainment purposes. The gags involving Chinese billboard signs set in Chinatown. One gag involves a bus conductor seeking a crowd to go for a bus excursion. After the last remaining passengers enter the bus, the scene trucks back to reveal two Chinese men picking up the bus like a rickshaw, and leave.

The sequence with a group of Chinese men reading the sign notices is much more humorous. As Chinese handwriting tends to be written written as one word, and the neon sign is very thin. This causes them to stretch their legs to read the rest of the advertisement written in Chinese.

They do this every time Chinese handwriting slides upwards up at the sign. Mel does a great accent on Chinese men muttering as they read, adds to the comedy and realism. Another Chinese-related gag appears in a billboard sign advertising a free eye test, courtesy of Dr. I.C. Spots (heh - where's Ben Hardaway when you need him?).

As each word pops up, it gets smaller and smaller. Finally the smallest writing is written in Chinese, and the doctor announces: "If you can read this: you are Chinese!". This is probably the most politically incorrect gag of the whole short, even though you can't help but snigger at it.

Other great sequences which show excellent satire is seen in some of the musical number sequences. One for example, would be the Laugh, Clown, Laugh sequence. In the billboard poster, a clown representing a comedic advert begins to sing the infamous song. As soon as he sings the word 'laugh', he slowly begins to chuckle, and later breaks down, cracking with laughter. Gil Turner, who animated the scene, really added the energy to the gag, making it enjoyable.

Other enjoyable sequences that occur would be the can-can sequence. This wasn't the first time we saw "can-can" performers in a Warner short (see Goofy Groceries), but instead they are dancing to the song number. In this sequence, the can-can dancers, disguised as coffee bean cans, perform their dance as well as reveal their rear ends (the ends of a tin can), to the popular song: The Latin Quarter. The result of the gag, is that the billboard adds another neon sign, reading: it's dated. The back of the tin cans reveal dated can as "Jan 5, 1942", four months after it was released. It's another great satire on false advertising.

Perhaps the highlight of the cartoon would be the satire on the Four Roses whiskey, spoofed as Four Noses. This features animated stick figurines with big, red noses sticking out. They go into a jingle, singing My High-Polished Nose, which is a take-off to the popular song My Wild Irish Rose. Not only is a great sequence, but it's a great little jingle that sets the mood and atmosphere into a positive one. The stick figurines were designed appealingly, giving the sequence a rather unique look towards it, artistically. The little nose character, who sings back-up: "It sparkles and gleams at night" adds to the charm. A top-notch sequence.

As the cartoon reaches its finale: it's finale ends on a high note: a musical, rhymic sequence. This showed great cooperation between Freleng Stalling as they plan their timing and music, to coincide with the billboard characters as they dance to Annabella, in rhythm to the Congo.

The sequence starts out uniquely, with a cup of coffee dripping, and the dripping noise starts the beat of the finale. This follows by a group of peanuts shaking, adding more rhythm; a cow chewing at another billboard ad (ringing its bell).

Then the rhythmic beat really begins. We get amusing gags which add to the charm. The liver oil billboard scene is a scene which amuses me most. We get a pair (a man and fish) dancing together during the conga. The man has the fish attached to a rope, as they dance; they switch positions (see screenshot). Perhaps the funniest scene in the finale is the Egyptian cigarettes billboard scene. The billboard is created with several picture slides, we get a a couple of Egyptians performing their cultural dance, then we get a hotfoot gag, with an Egyptian stomping the hand of the culprit. It's a gag incredibly decent, it was used once more in A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Some decent editing in the final shot of Times Square as the footage pauses to match the rhythmic beat, as the cartoon closes.

Although an unusual Warner Bros. short, it's still worth a pass for its creativity and unique concept. Even though it's mainly an update of the old "sing-and-dance" routine from the 30s shorts, Friz's update shows how advanced and experienced he became a director, after directing those mundane 30s Merrie Melodies himself. His timing is to a tee in this short, and his knowledge of music is evident. It really hasn't got a narrative or story, but merely a mood piece--to enchant audiences with melodies and comical sequences. It's no wonder why several later cartoons have repeated several gags in the cartoon because of its clever, conceived gags and sequences. Overall, I think it's an enjoyable, unique effort from Freleng, and it's certainly worth the watch.

Ratings: 3.5/5.

3 comments:

  1. (1) The stock footage is from a few years prior; namely, from the 1937 version of "A Star is Born," released by Warner Bros. (2) Understood = Underwood Typewriters. (3) Stalling, I believe, plays "Chinatown, My Chinatown" during the Chinatown sequence. (4) Face and Sunburn = Chase and Sanborn, which at this time promoted the fact that its coffee was dated on the cans so customers could judge freshness (hence the closing gag) -- it's not really false advertising. [Chase & Sanborn was also the sponsor of the popular Edgar Bergen/Charlie McCarthy radio show at this time.]. There's also a number of other real-world products spoofed, including, among other things, Lucky Strike cigarettes (doing the Speed Riggs auctioneer spiel), Carnation Milk (the contented cows gag), movie theatre giveaways (the win-a-car gag at the end). An earlier cartoon, from ca. 1936, "Billboard Frolics," should also be noted. I think this may have been Dave Monahan's last credited cartoon before he went into the Army (hence the credit).

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    1. Thanks Eric for the obscure references--I had no idea the original footage appeared in the original "A Star is Born" (I've only seen the more well-known version, starring Garland and James Mason).

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  2. Friz and Bob Clampett had been participating in these sort of billboards/books come to life stories since 1931, and in both cases, they seemed to want to do at least one final cartoon to finally take advantage of the capabilities of both their animators and the improvement of the gags by the 1940s. This was Friz's effort, while Bob's would come with 1945's "Book Revue" (a cartoon wild enough that it still couldn't have been done in 1942).

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