Sunday, 23 April 2017

SNAFU: The Goldbrick (1943)

Director: Frank Tashlin.
Release date: September 1943.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Snafu / Goldie the Goldbrick).
Music: Carl Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown.

Synopsis: Fed up of his daily routine - a fairy appears and encourages Snafu to goldbrick from his duties.

Animation by Cal Dalton.
Like Gripes, this short is based primarily on the importance on army duties. While Snafu previously griped about army training by wishing to change the system - here, his desires are to simply avoid his duties lazily. Snafu is a solid representation of army soldiers who don't fully understand the purpose of war duties - making him homesick of comfort and luxury.

The short's opening scene briskly but clearly represents his loathing for duties. The scene opens with a peaceful Snafu snoring away in his bed - complete with a visual gag of Snafu's snores blowing up a pinup poster of a woman's dress, revealing her blouse. An unseen cadet blows his bugle into Snafu's ear - awakening him with force and disturbance.

Awake, Snafu complains "Another day, nuts! If I could only get out of drill." At this moment, a drill fairy puffs into appearance, but bears a chunkier resemblance of the Technical Fairy. The fairy introduces himself as Goldie the Goldbrick, with visual puns to show he has a "heart of gold" (made of 14 karats), and a "backside of lead". Could you trust a fairy whose body is made up of chemical elements?

Goldie then entices Snafu to goldbrick, in a song sequence that parodies the song, Tit Willow, from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera The Mikado. It's fascinating to see how Carl Stalling could apply different ranges of musical songs into the Snafu cartoons, that was otherwise not featured in his Warner Bros. cartoon scores.

The parody lyrics, possibly written by Theodore Geisel, are witty with a lazy-like quality that could easily get Snafu in the mood.

The song follows into a montage sequence that supposedly benefits the possibility of goldbricking - such as laying in a sick bay, or finding a stooge to carry out Snafu's duties for him.

Frank Tashlin uses the montage effectively with his great use of mise en scene and composition, as seen at the sick bay scene. The scene features a silhouette of army recruits marching in a rainstorm, underneath a macabre atmosphere. The camera trucks back to reveal a comfortable Snafu lying in bed, as he's cared for by an attractive nurse. It's a great use o pathetic fallacy set outside in comparison to a more homely, warm hospital bay - achieved by innovative layout work and Tashlin's great judgement in directing.

Once Snafu is ready for combat - time passes by where he is fighting in a Southern Pacific island. Frank Tashlin's cinematic touches fit appropriately with this sequence. For cartoon animation, he's very daring by experimenting lighting and composition. It's also clear that Tashlin takes inspiration from film-noir movies that took the Hollywood industry by storm in the early 1940s, utilising such styles of the genre like low-key lighting.

In several long-shots, soldiers are seen running up a hill, whilst exploding gun shots and explosives in their way - all achieved in silhouette. It's fascinating to see how Frank Tashlin (as well as the other directors at Schlesinger) were still at the top of their game - even when they had to work extra on Snafu cartoons to fit into the studio's curriculum and schedule.

 Tashlin's unit also apply the stark contrasts of black-and-white very intelligently and subtly. In a scene of a tired Snafu climbing the hill, Goldie reappears in silhouetted form but within a luminous glow.

He further reminds Snafu to goldbrick, while in combat - which is the start of Snafu's undoing. Not only is the use of black-and-white applied appropriately, but a silhouetted appearance of Goldie also calls for visual appeal. And so, Snafu decides to goldbrick inside an unsuspecting hospital trap; set up by the "honourable" Japanese army. As he bunks on the bed - a hand device marks a cross on Snafu's helmet, which is followed by a mallet that strikes Snafu's helmet down to his waddling feet.

And so, Snafu is ambushed by an incoming Japanese tank, adorned by the Rising Sun symbol. In an attempt to save himself by digging up a trench; Goldie reappears and corrupts his mind by goldbricking on the digging, to only "dig a few inches and crawl in and sleep." Goldie's ideas of slack grows hilariously absurd throughout the cartoon, to the point where digging a trench for defence doesn't require effort whatsoever.

After only a digging a few inches and falling asleep, Snafu's rear end is still sticking about; noticeable enough for a Japanese tank to ruthlessly crush it to his death. Tashlin's timing and visual presentation of Snafu's death is innovative, by portraying a cloud of dust that unveils to reveal Snafu's grave.

Goldie appears atop of Snafu's tombstone. He removes his mask, revealing himself to be a caricatured Tojo in disguise. In his finishing words, he sings: "Here lies the goldbrick / I now go find more. If find enough goldbrick / Japan could win war!".

For a cartoon ending that's built on morales - it's entirely built around dark comedy. Snafu's mistakes is so severe, that he doesn't get the chance to learn from it; making the overall ending morale rather biting in context. It's a nice little use of irony from an American perspective to present a Japanese victory in a derogatory fashion. I'm sure the army recruits had second thoughts on goldbricking upon seeing this Snafu short.

In comparison to Snafu's Gripes, the short is an articulately funny portrayal on an army soldier's desire for comfort. Desire is crucial for an individual aiming for something, but Snafu is after the wrong desires. The Snafu cartoons are not only brilliant in providing sharp lessons to recruits via comic timing and adult humour, but they also excellently (and exaggeratedly) portray the worst consequences possible. This cartoon is a prime example of that. The cartoon's ending represents the utmost liberties the Schlesinger studio had from studio censors. Not only is the dark comedy used so savagely, but I'm sure Production Code censors would've heavily frowned upon on a Japanese victory - that's only applied as a potential threat if army recruits try to go the same way as Snafu.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

412. Hiss and Make Up (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 411.
Release date: September 11, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Bea Benaderat (Granny), Mel Blanc (Roscoe / Wellington).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Gerry Chiniquy.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A cat and a dog are forced to become friends, in favour of being kicked out during snowstorm for the night.

I apologise for becoming neglectful to this blog lately. This year has been my busiest so far regarding university work, which has led to months of hard-work and distractions. As a treat for Easter Sunday, here is a new review, for an underrated Freleng short: Hiss and Make Up. I've noticed how my output in this blog has been declining, which I intend to improve on - at least a little.

Cat vs. dog/mice/birds routines are a popular genre in classic cartoons. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera excelled at the formula for the Tom & Jerry series. Michael Maltese was clearly attracted to the formula - as he used it sporadically during his animation career. Maltese always tried to explore innovation within the cliche - by making the stories more character-driven rather than formulaic.

Hiss and Make Up is no exception. The premise is kept straightforward and to the point. The elderly owner of a feuding cat and dog (named Wellington and Roscoe) is fed up of their fighting habits, and threatens to throw one of them outside a snowstorm if they don't "kiss and make up". Intimidated by her warning, the pets attempt to snake each other out - by building traps to frame one another.

Maltese makes it clear that neither Wellington or Roscoe should be sympathised or rooted for by the audience. Both characters have the same motive, and they're equally bad as each other in terms of low cunning and selfishness.

The elderly woman is a sort of precursor to Granny - a regular character of the Sylvester & Tweety shorts. It's the same voice provided by Bea Benaderet in her first released WB cartoon (based on Keith Scott's research, her first recorded voice going by production order is Little Red Riding Rabbit).

Animation by Gerry Chiniquy.
Maltese's develops the characters with realistic personalities to the point where the cartoon already establishes that Wellington and Roscoe will never get along as friends, which is natural. The pair never attempt to patch up their relationship - but instead try to frame each other. Maltese is a master in understanding character psychology, which is left open to a lot of gag opportunities - with Friz Freleng's masterful direction skills to enhance them.

Wellington and Roscoe's relationship could easily be summed up in one scene of the elderly lady forcing the pets to "kiss and make up". The pair are immediately hesitant, but begrudgingly kiss by their owner's orders. Immediately after kissing each other, they spit out in disgust. Gerry Chiniquy's posing and facial expressions perfectly captures the essence of hatred and spite the pets have for each other.

Character animation provides great clarity in an earlier sequence of the pets slowly restoring their conflict. As the elderly woman is sewing and singing Carolina in the Morning, Roscoe the dog makes his first move by carefully sliding Wellington's tail towards the leg of the rocking chair. Wellington yells in pain on impact, which startles the owner. She immediately suspects Roscoe, attempting to look innocent.

In the following scene - Wellington is craving for retribution. Every angst in his expression is wonderfully portrayed through the animator's hands. And so, Wellington produces fly noises through his mouth, without making it obvious. He looks at imaginary fly supposedly landing on Roscoe - and then smacks him with a flyswatter.

It's a wonderfully rich piece of character animation which is reliant on pantomime. Every expression reads and shows clarity in Wellington's motive and hunger for vengeance. The pantomime is extended further, when the elderly lady watches Wellington beating Roscoe. In a desperate attempt to look innocent; Wellington picks up the imaginary fly from Roscoe's head and acts disgusted by its 'remains'.

Friz Freleng's masterful timing comes into play since the opening scene of the cartoon, featuring Wellington and Roscoe fighting in the lounge. Freleng applies an elaborate drybrush effect featuring only the cat and dog's face very briefly throughout the cartoon action. The scurry effect works well to add emphasis of the pets' fighting nature.

Freleng's ability to time cartoon action into music is used to its finest advantage in a sequence of Wellington stamping paw prints around the house. He uses a flowerpot to stamp the soil, which he prints around the room - all timed towards Raymond Scott's Powerhouse.

The Scott piece had exploded into a popular music cue around the cartoon's production time, and Friz knew how to execute it well. The effect is given the extra touch through Treg Brown's timing with sound. It's a beautifully timed piece accomplished through the work of several departments around the Schlesinger studio. It's far from economical.

Michael Maltese's expert use of gag buildups is embellished in the sequence of Roscoe planting mechanical mice toys around the kitchen as bait to set up Wellington. Upon Wellington's arrival, Roscoe bangs loudly on a frying pan - leaving the cat on a chasing spree of the mechanical mice; as the owner is disturbed from her slumber.

Wellington rapidly places the mechanical mice into a bundle, and sits on top of them prior to the elderly woman's arrival. Maltese only builds the gag after the impact, making the payoff more unpredictable and hilarious in execution. As the owner pets Wellington, the mechanical mice zip through the kitchen, with the cat sitting on them - leading him down to the basement.

Another sequence with a great gag setup is the "mad dog" sequence. Mad dog, at the time, being a colloquial term for rabies. In order to find an excuse to kick Roscoe out of the house, Wellington sets up Roscoe by rapidly planting shaving foam all over his face; which is masqueraded as rabies.

The elderly owner shrieks "Mad dog" in panic, and starts beating him with a broomstick all over the house - until he exits through the door. The disease was a common fear by the public during the time period - and the delivery captures the panic convincingly.

Friz Freleng was always capable of embellishing rich visuals whenever it was called for, like in the blackout gag. In a sequence of Roscoe attempting to clean up the paw prints; he hears the sound of his owner coming down the stairs. In a desperate attempt to hide the evidence - he turns out the lights and runs outside to look through the window.

The shot of the elderly owner opening the door in darkness is beautiful in colour and atmosphere. The light highlights around her is rather meticulous in creating effective lighting from the hallway in the background. As she turns on the lights, Roscoe shouts "Hey, put out that light!" - disguised as an air warden.

The gag might be wartime related; but it's an excellent showcase of Friz's unsung abilities as a director - asides from his comic timing.

Freleng's strong point of view as a cartoon director can never lose the audience's attention to the story. In a scene of Roscoe about to pounce on Wellington, Freleng uses intercutting of the sleeping Wellington and the approaching Roscoe.

The suspense builds each time Roscoe moves at a brisker pace. Carl Stalling's expert ability to apply music into animated action helps achieve such result. And so, the scene cuts to Wellington awakened by Roscoe's intrusion with the fight beginning. Not only does the effect work great in suspense; but it's a great showcase on Friz's attempt to continue innovating his craft, by keeping up with the trends of other Warner Bros. cartoons, like Frank Tashlin.

Mike Maltese goes his way of not writing a conventional cat-and-dog feud short. One result is the presence of a canary; who would later play an important role in the cartoon. The canary is first seen as an observant of Wellington and Roscoe's recklessness, and is given the burden of dodging incoming pieces of china passing by its cage.

At one point, the canary is used as bait by Roscoe to set up Wellington. He places a couple of the bird's feathers in Wellington's mouth; to deceive the elderly owner - and trapping the canary inside a jar; only to foil Roscoe's plan by whistling its presence to the owner.

Once the feud continues to escalate; the canary becomes a nervous wreck. The expressions of the canary undergoing its own breakdown is priceless; and only to be topped as he swallows an aspirin pill.

The canary's role becomes prominent as he begins framing Roscoe and Wellington, by deliberately destroying furniture items and wrecking the room. At this point in Warner history, it's unusual to have animated cartoons seen through the perspective of background characters. It adds more depth and dimension into a typical cartoon formula, which is excelled here. Michael Maltese would use the plot device several times later (like Roughly Squeaking).

Once Wellington and Roscoe realise they're being set up by a destructive canary; they ally together to attack the canary. Caught by their house owner, the pets are tossed outside in the snow. Roscoe observes Wellington smiling, which not only confuses him, but the viewer, too. This motivates Roscoe to speak his only line in the cartoon: "How can you sit there and smile when we're out here in the cold, and that double-crossing canary's in there!".

The cat nods in disagreement to the latter part of Roscoe's dialogue, and reveals the canary trapped inside the cat's sharp teeth - in the style of prison bars. Whoever animated the close-up shows a great understanding of staging and visual clarity for the payoff gag.

Maltese's ending presents a good case on how justice is brought to every character. Roscoe and Wellington, both as bad as each other, are punished equally as they're left to freeze in the night. The canary, who snaked the pets, is brought to justice when Wellington has the last laugh.

For an overlooked cartoon of Friz Freleng, it's an innovative take on the cat and dog formula. Michael Maltese creates an interesting perspective that makes the cartoon less conventional and more compelling - such as the canary plot device. His characters are established well enough to devise gags that will keep the audience focused throughout the cartoon. Friz never fails to fall behind on keeping up with the growing standards of the Schlesinger plant. Not only does he excel in executing comic timing, but he keeps the short visually appealing - such as the use of fast-cutting and beautiful staging. Overall, it's a solid one-shot cartoon that holds as a beacon for Freleng and Maltese's growing reputation within the studio.

 Rating: 4/5.