Monday, 13 April 2015

376. Foney Fables (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 375.
Release date: August 1, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various voices), Sara Berner (Mother), Frank Graham (Narrator / Wolf).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Richard Bickenbach.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A series of gags focused on famous fables, with a recurring gag of a boy crying 'wolf'.

For an alternate concept in a spot-gag cartoon, nothing could be a better choice of selecting a topic by parodying fairy tales. For one, they are very familiar stories immortalised by society (like Jack and the Beanstalk and a lot of Aesop's fables which are in the public domain), so most of the gags would hardly be dated.

This allows the writer a good advantage of creating timeless gags towards timeless fables. The concept has been used similarly in Tex Avery's A Gander at Mother Goose, where the parody focused on children's nursery rhymes, and Maltese takes this concept onto fairy tales. With the wits of Michael Maltese, as well as Freleng's masterful direction - not much should go wrong in making the cartoon.

From the first sequence in the cartoon, Maltese already sets the short to a fresh start, in conceiving an unpredictable punchline. The scene centers on Sleeping Beauty. The scene is set in one of tale's most iconic moments of the prince arriving at her tower, awakening her with true love's first kiss. Just as the prince is about to kiss, he tugs her shoulders shouting: "Come on, wake up! Wake up, you lazy good-for-nothing! Come on, wake up!" A great gag because of its sheer spontaneity.

Another great gag which great unpredictability is shown in the sequence parodying Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp. This is a good collaboration of talent from both Maltese and Freleng. In this scene, Aladdin attempts to rub a magical lamp to awake a powerful genie. He sings Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair.

To no avail, he attempts to rub the lamp again but in a more furious tone. At this point, the genie appears with a picket sign pointing out from the lamp, reading Genie on Strike, as the picket sign paces around the lamp; protesting. Freleng's timing works in its subtle ways, as the sudden appearance of the picket sign adds to how unpredictable the punchline is.

Sequences which show good parody and gag sense is evident in satirising scenes or infamous features in fables, by contradicting them. Michael Maltese puts this into good use during the Tom Thumb scene. The narrator describes him as "no bigger than a man's thumb."

In a interior shot of the house, we find an elderly couple who care for Tom Thumb. The narrator then asks for his presence, and they point at a direction: leading the camera to pan at an oversized appearance of Tom Thumb. The narrator asks, dumbfounded: "How did you get so big?". Tom Thumb reveals this to be the effects of Thiamine (Vitamin B-1), which he guzzles. A rather obscure reference: thiamine helps fuel the body by converting blood sugar into energy, hence the enormous size from Thumb.

The following sequence is another is parody on the infamous Jack and the Beanstalk tale, but it doesn't work as well as the Tom Thumb sequence. The established scene shows Jack climbing down a beanstalk, narrowly escaping the giant's hand. At this point, the giant slows down and stops running.

The following scene reveals that the giant is bizarrely two-headed. One head is shown to be fatigued, and the other head leans over a roof, sulking. The narrator comments: "Say, you almost had him. Why did you quit?". the giant replies: "Aw, he's been sick." Although the gag is a little bizarre, its punchline lacks pay off as it is a little weak.

Other sequences show rather little or pay off in humour or execution. This is evident in the short parody of The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. The wolf is described as being the "fifth columnist of his day." He puts on the disguise and begins to hop around masquerading as a sheep. As the wolf encounters a unsuspecting "sheep", the wolf quietly creeps towards it, anticipating an ambush pose.

Just then, the sheep is revealed to be another wolf in disguise who shouts: "Scram, bum! I'm working this side of the pasture." The wolf tosses his disguise to the ground, annoyed at his flawed plan. As a gag it's a little lame, as the climax of the joke doesn't pay off well.

On the other hand, the sequence with the baby really does pay off in terms of execution and spontaneity. The scene is a little out of place, as it isn't based on a fairy-tale, but a nursery rhyme. Nevertheless, the gag is passable so it works on its own.

The scene features a baby who is enjoying his toes getting pinched by his mother who playfully recites This Little Piggy with his toes. Sara Berner's Russian dialect adds to the charming touch of the sequence. As the mother reaches for the big toe, she pinches it roughly - causing the baby to leap in pain, and his giggling noise range into a masculine scream. The baby yells: "For crying out Pete's sake, mother! Be careful! My corn!". Blanc does a solid delivery which adds to the tone of the scene. I believe the accent is likely a Greek dialect, based from a character off the Fibber McGee and Molly show, Nick Depopoulous, who was known for the line: "For crying out Pete's sake!".

Being produced during WW2, this created an advantage for Mike Maltese to produce some war-related gags which would be satirised into infamous fables. However, they don't all hold up well. A striking example is seen in The Grasshopper and the Ants, with the established scenario showing a lazy grasshopper, humming while an ant paces back and forth harvesting.

After pacing back and forth, the ant complains: "You're gonna be sorry. I've worked all summer and put away plenty for the winter. But you, you lazy thing. You're gonna starve!" The grasshopper shakes his head in a "I don't think so" attitude, revealing a handful of bonds he's holding in his hand - exploiting his patriotism.

War-time references which don't hold up too well is seen during The Goose That Laid the Golden Egg parody. Once she ways a litter of eggs, she carries her nest and throws them away. The narrator comments, "Hey, wait a minute! You're supposed to lay golden eggs." Bearing the same voice as Daffy Duck, the goose replies: "Not anymore, brother. I'm doing my bit for national defense". A close-up reveals the egg to be identifies as "Never-Wear Aluminium", which is of course a take-off on "WearEver". Note how Carl Stalling appears to heavy rely on the song We Did it Before (and We Can Do it Again) on war-related gags as well as other themes. The goose dumps the aluminium eggs in a scrap pile, and proceeds to hatch more.

Another gag which is war-related, but works on its own is evident in the Mother Hubbard sequence (animation by Phil Monroe). When the U.S. entered the war, food hoarding occurred almost immediately, due to rations, so this would've been a beneficial gag for Maltese. The scenario shows the mother leading her enthusiastic dog towards a couple.

Like the nursery rhyme, she opens one side of cupboard - which is bare. The dog opens another cupboard - showing a pile of meat stacked inside. And so, the dog begins to back away from the mother, offended. He starts to accuse her: "Why you dirty, double-crossing..". He opens the window and begins to yell accusations to the mother: "Food hoarder! She's a food hoarder!".  A tad dated, it's a gag which still works on its own. Blanc's delivery on the dog is nicely executed as well as the gag itself.

 One of the short's recurring gags is one of the more entertaining ones, yet very predictable. The fable parodied is on The Boy Who Cried Wolf. The scene shows a boy who cries "Wolf, wolf! Help, help the wolf!". This leads to an alarmed hunter to run to the scene, only to be tricked by the boy, who laughs at him. The scene which reappears throughout the cartoon really has no gag, at least not until it's payoff in the final scene.

Most of the scenes were animated by Dick Bickenbach, who animates a convincing performance of the cocky shepherd. The narrator constantly warns the boy to not jinx his pranks. The boy ignores him, relying back cockily, "Go on, go on. Mind your own business. Mind your own business. Can't a guy have a little fun?"

Freleng's timing of the hunter chasing at the scene is clever and it matches Stalling's improvised cues. It pays off in the final scene, even though the gag is very predictable. We know the boy's fate is tied to the wolf, but how is it delivered? The boy cries wolf one last time, and the hunter still answers to these yells. This time, he skids and takes with astonishment. The final scene reveals a wolf leaning by the sign, mimicking the cocky boy's laughter from earlier in the short. The delivery of the wolf's laughter provided by Blanc is humorous, though it seems a waste of pay-off, as it hardly adds up to a funny gag.

As a whole, the theme for a spot-gag short set in fairy tales is a much better concept, for parodying fairy tales can be timeless depending on what context it's presented. Some of the gags work and are pulled off wonderfully, particularly the Genie scene and the Sleeping Beauty sequence. However, there are many gags which are dated due to wartime references which haven't aged very well. Freleng's timing isn't so theatrical in this short, as some of the gags didn't meet to the best of his abilities. However, Freleng times his scenes thoroughly well in order to match the sequences. Admittedly, the recurring gag is a little weak in pay off, as it could've been a little more satirical as some of the other scenes which were portrayed. Overall, it's a passable spot-gag short with some delightful sequences that feature great spontaneity, and others which aren't quite so. It's fair to say it's one of the better spot-gag shorts produced by the Studio.

Rating: 3/5.