Saturday, 4 April 2015

374. Wacky Blackout (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 373.
Release date: July 11, 1942.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Misc. voices), Sara Berner (Cow / Mrs. Bird), Kent Rogers (Woodpecker, Baby bird), Thurl Ravenscroft (Carrier pigeon). (Informaiton provided by Keith Scott)
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Sid Sutherland.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Spot-gag cartoon set in a farm, showing various animals preparing for war.

If there is any part of the short that lives up to its title, I'd say the opening title cards, which as a gag is very subtle as far subtlety goes in Clampett cartoons go. The first shot reveals a civil defence worker watching a woman by her window undressing. In the second shot, everyone is checking her out, and bizarrely enough: including the pets (referenced from Tralfaz's entertaining post).

It's not the last spot-gag cartoon created at Warners, but it's the last from a long, exhaustive streak of three years' material of mundane, repetitive spot-gag cartoons. An occasional spot-gag would be produced once in a while, like Chuck Jones' The Weakly Reporter. Tex Avery would carry that trademark a couple more times at MGM, the spot-gag shorts being superior.

This is also the second time Clampett has based a spot-gag surrounding agriculture (see Farm Frolics), but the content is slightly different. Whereas Frolics mainly satirised animals, Clampett and Foster both poke fun at farm animals used for the war effort. Some key moments of Clampett and Foster's takeoff is seen in the sequence of the cow, as reported by the narrator gives "5000 quarts of milk a day. That seems like a lot of milk, but 5000 quarts is what she gives."

At this point, the cow contradicts the narrator, complaining and sobbing: "Gives, nothing! They come in and take it from me." The scene is less funny and more predictable, because the gag formula has been used a lot of times, making the gag more tiresome. Rod Scribner's animation of the cow wailing is a lot of fun, though.

Another sequence which isn't based on an animal participating in the war effort, but it merely another scene where the narrator's comments are deemed threatening. As the turkey continues to eat corn greedily, the narrator comments:

"When he reaches twenty pounds, he'll be ready for the oven." The turkey gasps with horror, "Twenty pounds? Oven?". He quickly spits the corn out and proceeds to go on an "18 Day Diet". He desperately attempts to work out on a machine to prevent his fate, which works well from Warren Foster's witty comedy.

Another sequence shows Clampett attempting to experiment with recurring gags by making it seem wild and inventive. This is seen in the sequence where the narrator introduces a very elderly cat named Old Tom. He comments: "Why, he's been around for the last three wars and he knows this one will turn out all right too."

After making the alarming statement, the scene is interrupted by a woodpecker pecking the bark of a tree. The narrator comments: "Now, I bet you I know what he's aiming to be when he grows up. I reckon he plans to be a riveter at Lockheed."

I suppose the take on the joke is the young woodpecker is supposedly an avid pecker, and is sorely tempted to jab the cat's tail. He comments, quoting a famous line from Red Skelton's character, Mean Widdle Kid: "If I do, I'll get a whipping. I dood it!" The cat screams from the pain, but lands on top of the woodpecker, crushing it.

Clampett's timing on the crush is effective. This recurs during the turtle-egg scene where the woodpecker interrupts the scene claiming, "I dood it", while running away from the cat. We see the cat one last time, having the last laugh: "I good it", as the woodpecker drills around his stomach - revealing he has been eaten. It's a more ambitious gag than how they're typically shown, but the way the gag was conceived seemed a little unfocused and out of sorts.

In some of Clampett's spot-gag shorts, he appears to have the knack of cutting corners. This is likely a strategy he uses to prevent going over-budget. His cutting corners strategy is evident in the opening sequence, where a farmer's trained dog helps put out the fire at a barn. Only the fire and the dog's head is animated as the dog spits the fire out, one-by-one. Clampett has the ability to make the gag effective, no matter how limited the animation is.

Other cases of Clampett's animation saving is seen during the firefly sequence. The sequence is established with a group of fireflies preparing a blackout. The scene cuts to a turtle, who is warned by the narrator to hide underneath its shell during a blackout.

Only the turtle's body is animated, whereas the shell is a part of the layout. It still works as a gag itself, as the shell doesn't really require movement at all, so it's a sensible decision made by Clampett. As the turtle reluctantly hides underneath the shell, the narrator asks: "Why in the world didn't you wanna go into your shell?". The turtle replies, to the point: "Well, uh, I'm afraid of the dark." While Clampett succeeded in cutting corners, the gag itself didn't succeed.

Like many spot-gag shorts, there are devoted sequence which is built-up slowly to create a wacky punchline. This is evident during the turtle egg sequence. The narrator remarks that the turtles were born "with a natural bombproof shelter on their backs." The first two turtles hatched are rather identical as they're sen cradling on top of the hatched egg. Stalling's cue of Rock-a-Bye Baby sets the mood of the scene. As the third egg hatches, the atmosphere changes as the hatching timing is rather frantic. The third turtle is seen driving in its shelter rapidly across the screen, confusing the narrator. Stalling's ability to change from one cue to the next (playing In My Merry Oldsmobile?) rapidly works well in this scene. The baby turtle identifies itself, commenting: "Beep, beep! I'm a jeep! Jeep, jeep", and continues to ride around the scenery chuckling wildly.

In a spot-gag, Clampett couldn't miss an opportunity of adding elements of his sneaky sense of humour. The narrator chuckles when the sequence centers on a farm dog "a-courting his sweetie." The scene dissolves to a dog couple in silhouette, with a bashful dog stammering to her: "Oh, Marie-Alana, um, uh, would you be my--uh, etc.".

The scene dissolves to the stammering dog and Marie-Alana, as the stammering dog comments, "Oh gosh. I wish there was a blackout". At that moment, the dog receives a warning and shouts "Blackout!". The lights blackout and turn on, leaving the dog excited with glee from a intimate moment.

Clampett's own wacky sense of humour is also evident during the firefly sequence. The scene features an establishing shot of the fireflies in a single-file, and can be identified by their lightbulbs. The narrator discovers that one lightbulb is missing, after creating a blackout. Dissolve to a close-up, one firefly is indeed missing one: the leader. He stops the line, and shouts: "Hey, who's the bulb-snatcher?". It's revealed the firefly next to him snatched the bulb as an immature prank. A bit of a corny scene, but Blanc's delivery adds the charm.

To finish off the review, here is a reflection of some bird-related gags that link decently to some of the war-related gags. The first scene shows a mother bird teaching her baby son to fly. She gives a demonstration by flapping her wings elegantly. The baby bird refuses to make an effort, in which he responds: "Aw, ma! I wanna be a dive-bomber!". The bird mimicking a plane engine is amusingly well delivered, particularly the groggy voice by Kent Rogers.

The last scene in the short reveals the final recurring gag of the cat and woodpecker, as I've spoken about earlier in the review. The scene trucks in to a birdhouse to reveal two elderly carrier pigeons with arthritis. They look proudly at their picture frame of their numerous sons serving in World War I, frame dated 1918.

Clampett enjoys changing the atmosphere and energy of a character, which is seen of the elderly male pigeon. He comments: "Well Ma", and then breaks out energetically, and marching very fluidly singing: We Did it Before (and We Can Do it Again). The final montage shot shows the pigeon couple watching the warplanes advance and a live-action shot of the American flag, ending the cartoon on a patriotic note.

As a short, this is still rather flat as a Clampett entry, even though it's clear he's attempting to break out of the spot-gag routine. A lot of gags intact are still a little vulgar in creating an all-round funny spot-gag short. Admittedly, the title card openings were probably the highlight of the short. The hidden gag is incredibly subtle and promising, that it makes the entire short a letdown - lacking the promises it could've had. Not to mention, Clampett's cartoons are becoming slightly more energised, even though it's not as innovative as what would become. Clampett and Foster make a few attempts in turning a cliched gag and making it look fresh, particularly the woodpecker and cat scene. Even though it didn't work as well, you've got to give both of them credit for trying. Not to mention, it's an interesting showcase for historians in satirising the infamous blackouts conducted by large cities which were a threat for bombing.

Rating: 2/5.

1 comment:

  1. Eric O. Costello5 April 2015 at 13:50

    (1) The "bulb snatcher" joke is a reference to a then-current series of advertisements for GE Mazda light bulbs.

    (2) The song being played when the little turtle is play-acting as a jeep is "Yankee Doodle."

    (3) The Fourth Interceptor Command (referred to in the singing telegram) was the fighter group that was responsible for providing air cover over the Los Angeles area.