Thursday, 20 August 2015

385. The Sheepish Wolf (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 384.
Release date: October 17, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Sheepdog / Wolf / Multiple Wolves).
Story: ?
Animation: ?
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A dimwitted sheepdog attempts to keep his flock of sheep safe from a hungry, Shakespearian-like wolf.

Perhaps the finest example of a "wolf vs. sheepdog" formula as a cartoon story was wonderfully depicted in Chuck Jones' Don't Give Up the Sheep. Chuck's sharp wit, and heavy use of pantomime made the cartoon a solid and unique effort. This was in 1953. Go back almost a decade earlier, with the formula used by Friz Freleng; expect the output to be different.

To say it was the wrong approach would be a huge stretch; as by this time all the Warner directors were already hitting their stride. On the other hand, the shorts in the 1940s was much more broader, compared to the different approach in the early 1950s, like in Jones' short.

Freleng's take on this cartoon is definitely not a bad one. The two main personalities are well established in their establishing scenes. The dim-witted sheepdog's clear motivation and enthusiasm is for doing a good job by keeping the flock of sheep safe from wolves. As dim-witted personalities were popular amongst Warner directors, it seemed the right way to go.

The wolf on the other hand has some character, despite having an identical design in many Freleng cartoons of that era (Foney Fables comes to mind). His opening scene indicates he is a performer, an enthusiast of Shakespeare's work. He references Hamlet, "To eat or not to eat, what a question!". His motive is to disguise himself as a sheep "and mingle with the flock."

With those two personalities, some great characterisations come to fine use in some sequences. The dumbness of the sheepdog works in a scene where he is alerted to the wolf's appearance at the flock of sheep, he runs down the hill to investigate. The sheepdog yells at the wrong direction, "Come on, come on, I know you're in there and you ain't gonna get away with nuthin' and I'm right on the job, an'".

The sheepdog takes and raises his hair patch, covering his eyes, realising he has shouted at nothing. He turns to the right direction, only to continue to threaten the wolf. The double-take and execution conveys the character's ignorance wonderfully.

Upon spotting the wolf, the sheepdog uses the "wolf mating call", the incoherence of it  is why make the call when it is liable to attract wolves? I suppose it was to display the sheepdog's ignorance.

Carl Stalling and Freleng collaborate on a great timing effort as the wolf blows the horn three times. The wolf's acting personality comes to good advantage as he skids in the scene, masquerading as a romantic. A popular gag in animated shorts, this is a direct parody to the cliched dialogue from general romance scenes, by exaggerating the connotations and metaphors. He repeatedly and broadly expressing, "I love thee" while embracing the sheepdog. Blanc's delivery and accent adds to the element of fun, as does the wolf's double take; which is far from pretentious.

Speaking of Freleng and Stalling's collaboration of timing; it works even better in an earlier sequence of the wolf first disguised. Disguised in sheep clothing, he masquerades his actions by bouncing like a sheep, while quietly and inconspicuously crawling.

The bouncing action is comically timed to Mendelssohn's Spring Song, a popular and yet suitable piece of music used for animated cartoons, especially for comedic purposes. The transition from bouncing to crawling is remarkably complex in timing.

Phil Monroe, who animated that sequence creates an appealing and yet perennially funny piece of action. Freleng's timing also comes to great use during the sequence where he first attempts to trap a cute, vulnerable lamb. Using a carrot as bait, the wolf attempts to trap the lamb in a sandwich piece, but he narrowly misses.

Friz Freleng builds up the timing and pacing quicker as the wolf frantically attempts to trap the lamb. Note how he navigates the layout in the shot, particularly as the wolf attempts to trap him from various distances, and yet it is all combined beautifully in a loop. The gag ends when the wolf unknowingly traps the sheepdog in the sandwich set. While he chastises him, he cuts into a cutting remark, "Gee, what an ugly looking sheep", without realising it's a disguised wolf. The line alone is beautifully executed in not only quality character animation, but also voicing, as once again it adds to the character's ignorance.

"Well hello, what have we here?" comments the wolf as he begins to feel the texture of the lamb's legs, stuttering them as "tender". He feels another leg from a different lamb, disapproving it as "too scrawny." Friz's timing works subtly as the lambs heads pop one one-by-one, reacting to the wolf touching them.

A black sheep leaves the flock to inform the sheepdog. As far as historical context goes, it would've seemed fitting for a black sheep to have a African-American stereotype, for Blanc uses his Rochester voice for the result.

The gag itself works as a visual metaphor, even if it would be taken out of proportion today, for a "black sheep" is a known negative connotation. The black sheep cries "Boss, oh boss." Once he awakens the sheepdog he informs, "I ain't the suspicious kind, but there's a wolf in sheep's clothing among us. And it don't look like he's going to no masquerade party."

The Little Red Riding Hood gag is a fine parody right up to the Warner writer's alley. The sheepdog has chased the wolf into a cave, in which the wolf disguises himself as a sickly grandmother. Dimwittedly, the sheepdog attempts to outsmart him by disguising himself as Red Riding Hood.

Foolish the scene may be, nothing could be more enjoyable than Blanc's delivery on the sheepdog singing the melody of Here We Go the Mulberry Bush. The skipping cycle itself is very appealing as an attempt for the sheepdog to keep in character.

Fade in to inside the cave, the sheepdog attempts to stay in Riding Hood's character by speaking the famous lines, "Why Grandma, what a big nose you have." Instead of responding with the grandmother's lines, the wolf replies with his hammy acting, "Yes, it is quite a profile, isn't it?". A shame the credits are a mystery on the cartoon, as some of the poetry the wolf responds with are solidly executed, and the sequence being well parodied. As entertaining the sequence is alone, it isn't integral to the plot and it feels somewhat padded.

For his meticulous ways, Friz Freleng always had the ability to create pieces of animation timing and energy that looked really attractive. This is evident in the shot of the wolf attempting to leave the cave, only to be piled on top of by the sheepdog, leading them to a scuffle.

The scuffling effect, mostly drybrushed is meticulously and yet strikingly effective, and it's the type of energy that seems to lead people to underestimate Freleng's abilities.

Another feat in Freleng's work is his complex timing to blend with Treg Brown's innovative sound effects. A fine example occurs in a shot of Back Alley Oproar, where Elmer slides down the greasy stairs on his front porch. The effect is in early use for this cartoon, but instead of sound, Carl Stalling's music fits for the gag. For the haystack scene, a crane picks up the sheepdog, mistaken as a lump of hay. The sheepdog lands in the machine, where the process has a very rhythmic beat to it, and comes out all boxed up like a haystack. 

And so, the sheepdog manages to trap and defeat the wolf and removes his disguise. He brags to the other sheep as he shows them the sheepskin, "Look fellas, the wolf in sheep's clothing. I caught him! I caught him! Look, I caught him!". Cut back to the sheep, they remove their heads, which reveals they were disguised as wolves the entire time, saying: "Well, how do ya like that?". 

A cute little gag, as it not only adds to the sheepdog's incompetence at his job, but irony itself is awesome. It's somewhat lifted from the sheepskin gag in Foney Fables, where a unsuspecting sheep turns out to be another disguised wolf. If the flock of sheep turned out to be wolves in disguise, whatever happened to the real sheep? As the phrase goes: ambiguity is the enemy of accountability.

Although the concept of a "wolf vs. sheepdog" cartoon being a neat formula, it isn't used to the best abilities in this cartoon. The characters themselves function well as cartoon personalities, but in some cases the short feels uncomfortably forced and unfocused in story. The earlier part of the short stayed true to the character's motivations, and the gags themselves show potential. By the point the wolf and sheepdog are led to a cave, the plot itself takes a different route, which doesn't flow naturally in a seven minute running time. The Little Red Riding Hood parody works itself, but only as an individual sequence, and not as part of the cartoon. As usual, Freleng's comic timing is kept to his 
abilities and shows vast improvement and knowledge of music in order to create well planned gags. 
Not a bad attempt for 1942, it's overall a so-so cartoon with elements of good characterisation, and 
well-timed short, but otherwise it has an unsettled narrative and scenario.

Rating: 2.5/5.


  1. .....And, of course, the "Wolf vs. Sheep" formula would be revisited once again in Frank Taslin's "I've Got Plenty of Mutton" two years later (1944).

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