Monday, 27 August 2018

Never Trust a Snake...

...even if she's as glamorous as Barbara Stanwyck!

Despite the hardships of the Depression, the "screwball comedy" genre typically involved wealthy people who could afford to behave eccentrically. Nothing could be further from the truth in Preston Sturges' The Lady Eve (1941). If you haven't yet seen it, you're in for a great viewing experience. It's an intelligently conceived plot; rich with characterisation, as well as satire and allegory. 

The film's sexual themes and gender role reversals have been analysed constantly by critics and film scholars. However, this post's focus is on the animated titles, played at the beginning. In case few of you don't know, the work was sourced out to Leon Schlesinger's studio. 

To those who haven't seen the film, it's heavy with references and allegorical imagery to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden. The snake in the opening titles is a visual metaphor for the respective snake-like personality in the film. For example, Charles Pike (Henry Fonda) is socially awkward who shows an innocent fondness for snakes (whose pet is featured sporadically in the film). It contrasts with Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck), due to her snake-like and deceiving personality, as she manipulates and snags the vulnerable Charles. 

The animated snake slides in and out of the bushes, to grab three large apples to form the film's title. It's clear that Sturges wanted the animated titles to be symbolic of foreshadowing the twisted, deceiving elements that occur during the film. The apples are an obvious reference to the Biblical fable, which is loosely parodied in Eve.

The snake slithers down the credits in a vertical set-up and a simple cycle. Credits include Paramount's most reputable costume designer of that era, Edith Head. The use of maracas as a replacement for a snake rattle is beautifully inventive and true to the screwball comedy form. 

As the snake reaches the bottom of the credits, the apple "Eve" falls and hits the snake on the head, flattening his top hat. The gag is a rich metaphor adding depth to female dominance - a theme carried out in Stanwyck's sublime performance in the film. It also reflects a scene, early in the film, of Jean Harrington dropping an apple on Charles Pike's head, when she first sights him boarding a ship. The magic of Sturges' writing are blessed by such subtleties and connotations, as this.

If I had to hazard a guess, the animated snake strikes me as the work of master animator Bob McKimson. The snake bears McKimson's solid drawing and meticulous timing - especially evident as the snake attempts to pull his top hat up. 

For me, the animation credits are a wonderful addition to the film. It enhances mystery and bona fide twists, that are yet to be unveiled. To view the opening titles, click here.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

424. Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears (1944)

Warner cartoon no. 423.
Release date: February 26, 1944.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Henry, Bugs Bunny), Kent Rogers (Junior Bear), Bea Benaderet (Ma Bear).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Robert Cannon.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: The three bears attempt to lure Goldilocks with carrot soup, but only Bugs Bunny arrives at the household.

If Disney mastered in evoking fairy-tale fantasy for his features and Silly Symphonies; then Warners certainly mastered in satirising them. Several adaptations had been done on Goldilocks and the Three Bears in animated cartoons, particularly Ub Iwerks and Terrytoons. Tex Avery directed a "semi-epic" version, in The Bear's Tale.

For this cartoon, it's an unwholesome take on the more endearing tale. The three bears are portrayed as a dysfunctional family, each having a distinctive personality and defect. Papa Bear (or Henry) is depicted as the smallest sized of the clan, who bears (no pun intended) a Napoleon complex. Junior Bear is simply an overgrown, differently-abled child (a la Lennie Small), whilst Ma Bear is the long-suffering, passive wife, burdened with a deadpan expression.

The family portrayal is more cynical than the "ideal American family" image audiences might expect to see in a Andy Hardy picture. In this case, the three bears are the kind of family one might find in a rough and disreputable neighbourhood. One could say it's a prototype to the dysfunctional family comedy, long before Matt Groening popularised it in The Simpsons.

Animation by Bobe Cannon.
The opening scene introducing the three bears living in poverty is pure exposition. Their situation is already established based on their expressions: frustrated and hopeless. This is clarified through held poses for each characters; save Pa Bear drumming his fingers. Carl Stalling's wholesome rendition of In an 18th Century Drawing Room  nicely contradicts the sour atmosphere of the household.

Junior breaks the ice as he wails, "Dad, I'm hungry"; retaliating the abusive Henry to clobbering him on the head, yelling: "Shuddup, Junior! Can't ya see I'm thinkin'?" Already, the audience are aware of how run-down the family are.

Truck in on Henry as he ponders and thinks - (wouldn't it have been easier and less confusing to omit the mouth movement, since dialogue isn't called for?) And so, he pitches his new plot to his family: "Remember the story of the Three Bears? Well, why can't we do the same thing? But when Goldilocks goes upstairs to sleep...WHAM!"

But, Ma informs Henry that there isn't porridge for "Goldilocks" and only a handful of old carrots - a nice piece of foreshadowing on Bugs' part. Infuriated, Pa is forced to compromise: "Well then, make carrot soup!"

This scene, and like so many in this cartoon, suffers from poor assistant and cleanup work. Bobe Cannon's work in this sequence isn't met with justice and it's evident that his work needed a more skilled assistant. For example, the animation of Pa Bear on the table lacks weight and has a floating feel.

The following sequence explores the personalities further, based on how the three bears interpret their line readings during their reenactment of them having carrot soup. In the line: "My soup's too hot"; Ma delivers it in a scatterbrained manner, whereas Henry half-asses his line unenthusiastically. Junior Bear, however, slurps his soup sloppily and delivers the wrong line: "Somebody's been sleeping in my bed."

The timing of Pa hitting Junior with a spoon works to a tee, and the abusive comedy opens for some gag opportunities; which were used several more times throughout the short.

And so, Ma Bear awkwardly delivers her lines, "Now, let's all go for a...walk. And when we return, the--porridge will be--just right." Hysterically, the bears stroll out and back in the house; even putting on a performance that they're a healthy and functioning family. They end the masquerade once they hide behind a curtain under the stairs.

The scent of carrot soup soon lures Bugs Bunny inside the cottage and he starts to guzzle the soups on the table - forcing the bears to disguise themselves as bear rugs. It's a relatively slow-paced sequence on Bugs' part whose calibre isn't fulfilled. The only source of humour appears when Bugs calls for ketchup, and Junior unconsciously walks over to a nearby shelf and passes the ketchup to Bugs. In this case, the humour is coming from Junior, and not so much Bugs.

Ironically, as the cartoon's title suggests, Bugs is downplayed considerably in this cartoon, who functions like a prop. One questions whether Chuck Jones or Ted Pierce wanted to fully explore comical possibilities on the three bears more, but were saddled with Bugs based on the number of cartoons required to make on the studio's most popular star.

This cartoon is notable for its unusual use of long continuous shots - only ten cuts occur through the duration of this short. Was Chuck Jones experimenting artistically or was this an economical practice? After all, his previous cartoon Tom Turk and Daffy is bombarded with fast cuts that possibly ate up its budget.

A fine example of Chuck's long continuous shots is the bedroom sequence, starting with Bugs walking to the room wearing a nightgown, and singing King For a Day. It's a remarkably long piece of character animation tailor-made for Ken Harris, who usually assigned the hardest scenes for Chuck. The scene is 123 feet long, and its all a continuous performance. Surviving animation drawings reveal that this scene was animated in separate levels. Imagine the workload that had to be finished at a set time! And here's the breakdown of the rather long scene:

After Bugs' exit, the bears bump into the door and Pa yells, "Now don't forget your lines!" - followed by another of Junior's comic foils. Like the soup eating sequence, the bears reenact the story up to its point. The bears find Bugs Bunny sleeping in Junior's bed and they pounce on top of him for a beating.

A camera pan, however reveals Bugs to be unharmed. Ma Bear finds Bugs and confronts him, but he bluffs by expressing fake admiration and kisses her - in standard Bugs fashion. It's also the only moment in the cartoon when Bugs contributes something substantial and

Personally, I feel the long continuous action marred the cartoon's pacing in earlier scenes, but it's used effectively and busily for this sequence. It's a stellar performance from Ken Harris, whose work is the cartoon's one saving grace from its somewhat sub-standard animation.

Animation by Ben Washam.
It's clear by the time of this cartoon's production that Bugs Bunny already evolved fast as a character. To resolve the cartoon in a less predictable manner, his wits get the better of him. Bugs' fake flattery to Ma Bear consumes her to blinded affection. She protects Bugs from Pa and Junior, and hopelessly attempts to seduce him: "Tell me more about my eyes?".

And so, Bugs awkwardly tries to back away form Ma's seductive moves towards him. He attempts to turn her down gently, "Now take it easy, you've got me wrong! Just a passing fancy, etc." Blanc takes Bugs into an emotional arc during his dialogue, as Bugs finally has enough and yells: "Stop it! People are looking at us! Compose yourself! Stop!".

It's nicely written dialogue, performed to a fine standard by Mel Blanc, but unfortunately ruined by awkward character animation. The timing of Bugs cringing at Ma's advances towards him, in particular, is executed sloppily and the animation acting lacks clarity. Washam's timing and posing of Ma Bear is frankly not strong, and at times, confusing. Ma Bear comes across as lifeless from her expressions and the surplus of spastic, unrelated movement over Bugs' animation is rather distracting.

The cartoon's ending has the standard pacing and energy of a classic Warner Bros. short as Bugs attempts to escape from the nymphomaniac Ma. Door to door, he finds Ma posing in seductive, saucy outfits. The scene is timed well and Bugs' penetration through the wall is nicely executed.

Bugs escapes safely inside his rabbit hole until Ma's off-screen voice reveals she's hiding inside, once again saying: "Tell me more about my eyes" and kissing him. Mel Blanc delivers some wonderful, hilarious hysteria as Bugs leaps from his hole and runs into the horizon - screaming and panicking.

As entertaining as the sequence is alone, it feels out of place compared to the more uneventful and sluggish sequences seen earlier in the cartoon. Based on Pierce's philandering reputation, it's possible that the ending is a scenario of life imitating art.

Bugs Bunny and the Three Bears is a cartoon I want to appreciate more for its dysfunctional take on the three bears, that definitely had the potential for comedy gold, but it wasn't fully realised in this cartoon. The satire is there, but only marginally. The sluggish pacing throughout this cartoon proved to be a missed opportunity with the concept. The short isn't clear on whether Bugs or the Three Bears should be the focus; when you take into account on how relatively underplayed Bugs is. A healthy portion of the cartoon's gags evolves around the Three Bears, who by far, are the cartoon's scene-stealers. Despite the cartoon's flaws, the comedic opportunities for the three bears wouldn't be missed, when Chuck Jones (and Mike Maltese) would later return to the characters and turn out master-works (i.e. A Bear for PunishmentBear Feat).
Rating: 2.5/5.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

423. Tom Turk and Daffy (1944)

featuring PORKY PIG
Warner cartoon no. 422.
Release date: February 12, 1944.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig, Daffy Duck), Billy Bletcher (Turkey).
Story: The Staff.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Daffy Duck protects a turkey from becoming a Thanksgiving dinner, hunted by Porky Pig. Soon, he turns into a "stool pigeon" by betraying the turkey's trust.

Before I commence with the review; I'm not going to theorise too much on the story credit for this cartoon. The context of "The Staff" credit has been forgotten overtime; much to the chagrin of some cartoon fans. Don't take my guess for granted; but I believe it was simply a joke by the Schlesinger crew. After all, would 1944 audiences really care on who wrote the cartoon?

If I had to pinpoint a writer, I'd say Mike Maltese, or maybe Ted Pierce. Then again, Leon Schlesinger also employed gagmen in his service. Hubie Karp worked as a gagman for Michael Maltese, although he wasn't hired until late 1944. Any idea who might've worked alongside Mike around the time of the cartoon's production?

Onto the review: Porky and Daffy continued to be a successful duo in animated cartoons, that a hatful of story opportunities were open to them. For this cartoon, the locale is centered during the Colonial era. Porky assumes the role of a pilgrim, hunting for a turkey to feast for his Thanksgiving dinner, but Daffy intervenes by hiding the turkey from harm.

The opening sequence serves as exposition for the entire cartoon. In a wintery scenario, Daffy is contentedly building a snowman. Daffy reacts to the off-screen gunshots in a vigorous manner, as broadly depicted in the frame grab. Daffy encounters a desperate turkey, vulnerable from the shooting.

Some wonderful character animation from Bobe Cannon who depicts despair and cowardice in a comical fashion. The turkey cries, "Don't let 'em kill me! I'm too young to die! I've got my whole life before me: love, travel, good books!", and proceeds to climb on top of Daffy, whose weight burdens him, yelling and sobbing "HIDE ME!".

Daffy's nonplussed expression as he sinks slowly in the snow is priceless. It's a beautiful presentation of how one might respond awkwardly to such a plea.

Billy Bletcher clearly has a blast with his vocal performance for the turkey's plea - and wonderfully versatile in vocalising comedy. It's more refreshing from the standard, villainous voice; for which he was typically typecast in cartoons.

Animation by Ken Harris.
Ken Harris' animation beautifully portrays Daffy as ignoramus by showing that the character has no consideration for the turkey's well-being, by physically forcing him down potential hiding places; to no avail. First, he attempts to hide the turkey under a lump of snow and in another attempt down a rabbit hole.

Daffy's characterisation is portrayed in a hilarious fashion, as he jabs the turkey with a pole down the hole, until he reconsiders: "Nah, even more obvious-er."

Daffy's ideas for hiding places become even more hysterically ridiculous as he tries to stuff the turkey inside a narrow tree. Whilst Porky is seen from the distance, Daffy chooses the final hiding spot; and hides the turkey inside a snowman.

Once Porky arrives and meets Daffy, he guards the snowman and attempts to stall Porky. To begin with, Daffy appears to be resilient and defensive; by declaring: "My lips are sealed." In a close-up; Daffy's "loyalty" is featured as a visual metaphor, with a dissolve of padlocks and a vice; supposedly closing his bill tight.

The opening scenes have already established the premise in a precise manner. Daffy hides a turkey, and defends him from hunter Porky. This paves the way for some comedy opportunities based on these characters. Daffy is clearly portrayed as careless and ignorant - so it begins to transcend that.

Porky walks away with disappointment, complaining: "I had everything ready for a nice, big turkey dinner." The following close-up exquisitely illustrates temptation and battling good vs. evil. Daffy is enticed by Porky's remarks about a roast dinner, so much so, that he desires it. Without being wholly corrupted; he forms like an angel, declaring: "I'm no stool pigeon." But, his halo disappears and devil horns appear at the thought of cranberry sauce!

Background colour play a pivotal part in Daffy's torn emotions. He's literally "torn" to the point when the colours are divided to coincide with the staging of the scene. A celestial blue colour depicts his willingness to do good; whilst a more vibrant purple colour suggests a sinister nature consuming him.

Chuck Jones' posing are broad and nutty in a sense, but Daffy's emotions feel very human in his hopeless attempt in fighting temptation; and his corruption. The point-of-view shot of Porky walking away is crisply inter-cut to evoke Daffy's increasing impulse.

Alongside mashed potatoes, chestnut dressings and greened peas; a favourite of Daffy's, candied yams, was also prepared for Porky's dinner. So, Daffy breaks down crying as he bellows: "The yams did it! The yams did it!". He impersonates a stool pigeon and begins to coo (squeal), indicating that Daffy is perfectly willing to reveal the turkey's whereabouts.

Daffy's breakdown serves as an unforgettable scene throughout his entire legacy. Succumbing to temptation and attempting to divert the blame correlates with the human mindset, and yet his betrayal is impeccably funny; right down to the animation and Mel Blanc's voice work.

Of course, like a Chuck Jones cartoon, Daffy directs the turkey's location to Porky with numerous signs, as though his desire isn't escalating any further. Dissolve inside the snowman, the turkey refers to Daffy as: "quisling".

The cartoon takes a different direction with the turkey plotting retribution for Daffy's treachery. The turkey steps in as a plot device to turn the conflict towards Porky and Daffy, rather than what the opening exposition established.

The turkey trails under a pile of snow and hides behind a remorseful crying Daffy. He sacrifices his own feathers to plant them on Daffy's rear end (without his knowledge), and gobbles to attract Porky's attention.

With the exception of Bugs Bunny, the Schlesinger cartoon writers knew fully well that their characters were dumb and unsophisticated. Despite just meeting Daffy a moment ago, Porky completely overlooks this and takes Daffy for a turkey. Daffy's denial isn't enough for the obtuse Porky; which puts him in a vulnerable spot.

Several gags during the chase sequence feel like a throwback to early Chuck Jones cartoons, which involved inanimate objects personified to challenge the character. This is evident in the scene of Porky getting attacked by Daffy's snowballs. Snowballs strike Porky from different directions, including two from opposite sides. Porky comes face-to-face with a large snowball, who mimics every  movement of his. Daffy arises and strikes him with a mallet.

Although Chuck had explored these gags several times in his earlier years (i.e. Elmer attempting to blow the candle out in Good Night, Elmer), the timing is advanced and the gag is kept spontaneous; with Daffy merging from the large snowball.

Further gags take advantage of the winter locale in the cartoon. Daffy fills up a bucket from a lake and tosses the water out of it. The running water solidifies into a piece of ice, and strikes Porky - with forceful timing to illustrate pain.

Daffy showcases his zany ability as he loiters by a tree and pours a glass of water over him, forming into ice. Porky's attempt to crack the ice with his gun creates a comical staggering effect from Ken Harris' animation.

Chuck Jones' innovative use of funny expressions are uniquely showcased in a scene of Porky that's remarkably broad. Porky has been fooled by Daffy from the "toll bridge" gag. He skids from the snow and has a moment of thought. After a series of visual gags highlighting Porky's stupidity, he completely boils up. Porky slams his gun in the ground and is all-out exploding with rage. He anticipates a huge sprint, as he digs up a lot of heavy snow before he exits the scene - animated sublimely by Bobe Cannon.

During the buildup, Porky goes through several angry expressions which are very far-fetched for a character whose relatively tamer compared to Daffy, or even Bugs. It's a unique form of outrageous posing that has seldom been seen in Porky or since. It's a pity that Cannon reportedly despised animating broad and wild, despite how well he excelled in it.

The wildness doesn't end, as during the chase, Porky's rage and speed are executed in a perilous and yet exaggerated sense. To begin with, he transforms into a war tank; symbolising force and danger. Such a gag easily rivals the more outlandish gags Tex Avery would conceive. The great use of energy in Porky's wrath causes a snowy hill to break open into a chasm. The cutting and timing of the chase scenes are a contender for Clampett's more flamboyant energy.

The final scenes of the cartoon are represented as a bookend to the entire cartoon. The turkey is contentedly building a snowman, but is ambushed by a cowardly Daffy. It perfectly matches the opening scene, to demonstrate the changes made through the course of the cartoon - and the heavy emphasis on the characterisations reverse.

The turkey gets the last laugh, as he deliberately re-enacts Daffy's careless attempts to hide the turkey. Soon, his "attempts" to hide Daffy turns ruthless as the turkey kicks Daffy up a tree; and cuts the tree down with an axe, causing it to land on his body.

The fast-cutting becomes very slick and abrupt to showcase the turkey taking pleasure in fulfilling retribution on Daffy. For the final scene, the cartoon ends very appropriately on the turkey continuously beating up Daffy Duck into the night - long after Porky Pig is out of the picture.

So far, Tom Turk and Daffy has become one of Chuck Jones' fastest paced cartoons; and definitely worthy of rivalling Frank Tashlin or Bob Clampett. The writing and structure is sublime and true to the animated cartoon spirit, and the conflict is executed hilariously from a writing standpoint between the three characters; that it keeps the whole viewing experience engaging and spontaneous. I can't emphasise enough on how overly entertaining this cartoon is; all down to its impeccable wit and execution.

Rating: 5/5.