Thursday, 25 July 2013

291. Circus Today (1940)

Warner cartoon no. 290.
Release date: June 22, 1940.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Don Brodie (Narrator), Mel Blanc (Most voices in act). (Thanks Keith Scott!)
Story: Jack Miller.
Animation: Sid Sutherland.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Spot-gag parody which is set during a day in the life at the circus of particular circus events which tend to backfire.

Taking place outside the circus; a carnival barker is gathering a crowd outside the circus of Jingling Bros. Circus; as the barker gathers around: 'Hurry, come out to the greatest, most sensational show on earth!'.

The opening quote from the barker is what was quoted at every circus gathering; where they'd exaggerate it being 'the greatest show on earth. The barker continues to shout out, 'Hurry, hurry, hurry!'.

Meanwhile, still outside the circus, another barker is seen carrying balloons for sale to appeal towards the youngsters. 'Balloons! Get a big, red gas-filled balloon for the kiddies! Only ten cents, one-tenth of a dollar!'.

Just as the balloon barker continues to call out towards members of the public; to his surprise he finds he is high up in the air sand on cloud level. Completely high up from buildings, and afraid of falling to his death, he shouts out 'HELP!' with desperateness. As the shows and the circus events begin; the first act to be introduced in this spot-gag is: Gamer the Glutton; who has the skill to eat everything and anything. As Gamer begins his act; he eats everything which is shown on the table: knives, forks, boots, nails, etc. He moves the remaining items into his mouth in one go. The glutton has finished his act and takes a bow to the audience. Just as he bows; his belly then flows over to the top; which is animated rather amusingly. As he walks off the stage, his belly becomes so huge it jingles and rattles due to what he has eaten.

Moving on to another act; the aunt performer is Hot-Foot Hogan; which the name is a loose parody of Schlesinger story writer Rich Hogan. Hoot-Foot Hogan's stunt specialises in fire walking; where he will bravely walk through the hot coal through the bed of embers with his bare feet. The narrator even makes a reminder to the audience; he will walk in bare create more amazement.

As soon as the fire walker places his bare feet on the hot stone; he immediately jumps and yelps through the bed in pain. The execution and timing of the sequence is rather amusing; particularly when the fire walker jerks around the hot bed as he yelps in pain.

Its delivery is very typical of what Tex would approach. What's most amusing is when the fire walker stops yelping in pain, once he's at the other side and bows towards the audience before he proceeds sitting down. The following act; a very typical act seen in a circus; and is also of popular use today--the human cannonball!

To add a lot of appeal and persuasion; the narrator adds how the human cannonball will be exploded out of the cannon at '500 miles per second'. The speed, of course is a joke itself since it is physically impossible but the measurement is very exaggerated and funny. The human cannonball slides inside the cannon, the match is lit for the cannon to fire, and blast! the human cannonball fires from another part of the Earth. On the other side of the planet; the human cannonball arrives back: travelling the globe. On his return, the gag is he has numerous holiday stamps on his rear end. Of course, very corny and funny gag since holiday stickers were very cultural in its time.

Meanwhile in another part of the circus; the animals are a very popular section of circus activities. Concentrating on a circus monkey; this becomes an advantage for Tex to re-use a particular gag which he used in two previous spot-gag shorts: A Day at the Zoo and Cross Country Detours...except the delivery is different.

A local man walks towards a monkey inside a cage where a sign shows restriction on feeding the monkeys--'under penalty of the LAW'. The man, thoughtless, then grabs out a bag of peanuts for the monkey; but instead the monkey grabs the man and frantically screams 'LAWBREAKER'.

He also whacks the man with his umbrella which is hilarious watching the man being attacked by a monkey. Instead of the 'Listen, stupid, can't ya read' quote which was used in the two previous shorts...this is far much broader and expressed comically.

At the bird section, the stork is being the main focus on the bird sanctuary. The telephone rings, and the stork walks over to answer it: 'Hello?'; the stork then breaks down into fillers: 'Yes but--' and keeps getting interrupted by a protesting caller. After many moments of being interrupted the stork concludes: 'Ahh, try again!' and he hangs up on the phone. As though an audience should've known in a very humorous way, the stork reveals what the phone call was: 'That's Eddie Cantor still pestering me for a boy'...if you don't get the joke; read the Slap Happy Pappy review.

Moving onto another animal in the animal section of the zoo; a fierce looking gorilla is inside his cage and is approaching towards the camera in a fierce looking matter. The narrator comments on particular unique and effective name of the specie: 'the assassin of the jungle'. He describes how the gorilla was captured from the Darkest Africa; and is without doubt, a dangerous killer.

The gorilla walks towards the camera still acting very grizzly and, in the narrator's words 'gains two thousand pounds of hate and fury'.

Just as the gorilla is holding onto the bars, and at the breaking point of outbursting, he breaks down in a funny voice, quoting the Mad Russian, 'How DO you do?'. Watching these deliberate build-up gags so many times in Tex's spot-gag cartoons, you would expect to see a silly, corny punchline such as this to conclude the gag.

Moving away from the animals; the narrator as well as the spot-gag takes us all the way to the big top section of the circus; easily the most popular culture part of the circus. The narrator announces the first act to be introduced, and with such acclaim: The Flying Cadenzas.

As how Tex had interpreted the gag to be, the cadenzas end up flapping their wings like birds and fly. They fly around the big top; and also grab hold of the trapezes where they also are to perform their trapeze act.

Just as the act is being performed, one acrobat tosses one stunt towards another acrobat on a different trapeze; and it would be what you would expect in every trapeze gag. Tex turns into a gag, in what could actually happen in reality as accidental. One of the trapeze artists misses the other one's hands; and so falls to the ground, and crashes off-screen. Just there, the trapeze artist grabs out a sign from under his chest which reads: PARTNER WANTED. A very dark gag but the payoff itself is very funnily executed.

The following act in the big top is a rather daring and exciting act for the audience to watch. Miss Dixie Dare is the main attraction currently, as she is dressed in a Western outfit with her noble steed. The narrator remarks she will attempt to 'pick up a handkerchief with her teeth'. A man's hand places the handkerchief in the middle of the ring.

She jumps onto her horse as she rides around the arena, Cheyenne is played during the underscore...considering its a Western song, and fits well in the sequence.

Just as the handkerchief appears in close-up; she grabs the handkerchief with her teeth, but it turns out she has false teeth which fall out of her mouth. Tex's timing was precise in order for laughs, and it is definitely satire which works very well. The next act; a ringleader named Madame Trixie is to conduct certain tricks with her horse, Prancer. Just as the spotlight appears at the scene; the 'trick' displayed shows the ringleader and the horse dancing together to the music of Sweet Georgia Brown. Very corny gag, as I keep saying, but it's really all you can say about many of Tex's spot-gag shorts, but the music cue from Stalling from the popular song was a great touch.

Another popular section of the big top is: the lion tamer. Inside the lion's cage, the tamer is whipping the lion and using a stool to tame the lion. The narrator explains about the captain's next actions: '..will demonstrate man's best (?) forcing his will and his desires upon the flashing fangs and sweeping claws of this snarling king of the jungle!'.

The act begins, where the tamer opens the lion's house and puts his head inside the lion's mouth for a moment, which is the typical act you see in many circus shows. The audience applaud as he has managed to place his head inside without having his head in damage.

Now to make the act more amusing and interesting to Tex and his gagmen; the lion does the exact same actions as the tamer. The lion opens up the tamer's mouth, and repeats the actions of a tamer. The lion sticks his huge head inside the tamer's stretched mouth. And so, the audience then cheer on the lion's act as the lion proudly accepts his cheers.

Another very popular mammal in the big top arena are the pachyderms. A line of elephants walk into the arena holding onto its tail. To make the line of the elephants a lot less boring and more messed up; a small elephant is seeing holding onto another short but isn't touching the ground due to his height.

At the end of the line; we find a particular stuntman who is holding onto an elephant's tail with his mouth, and is walking with his arms, as well as legs--like an elephant.

'The professor will attempt one of his most dangerous and daring achievements', the narrator mentions, 'allowing this huge mastodon to place its entire 13,876 tonnes of crushing weight upon his head. Just at that moment, an atmosphere of suspense is laid upon the audience as well the drumroll for when the elephant is about to sit on the professor's head. Just as the elephant almost sits on the professor's head, he breaks down sobbing: 'I can't do it, I can't go through it! I can't do it!'. No question this was another Tex gag which was reused previously, and also what Tex had acted out before; where the elephant's actions are identical to the bobcat's reaction from Cross Country Detours as well as live-action reference from Tex...its the same acting and reference.

For the grand finale of this spot-gag cartoon as well as the events running in the circus: a dangerous daredevil is to perform a deadly high-diving act. For the finale; Tex makes the most of what he can do gag-wise; such as making the daredevil look silly where he has too much bathrobes around him before we see his costume.

The daredevil proceeds towards the ladder where he attempts to jump off at such an exaggerated height of 5,462 feet into the air. The layout staging for the shot of the height of the high-diving board; as well as the ground floor has been perfectly well-achieved in terms of layout; and it shows suspense on how very deep the ground level is.

It would've been a very difficult scene for a layout man to achieve...but Tex would have to use a difficult method to make the sequence work; he'd get his results the hard way! Just as the high-diving man reaches the top; the band play. The bandleader watches the man jump down from the diving-board.

At this point, the bandleader only uses the drummer for the drumroll part. After a few moments, the drumroll then stops; the bandleader turns towards one of his band members: 'Okay Joe, take it'. The trumpeter then picks up a trumpet and plays the Siegfried Funeral March. Another very dark gag; but quite possibly the funniest gag in the whole cartoon. Its execution, its pacing as well as its delivery--its just pure gold and darkly amusing.

Overall comments: Almost the entire cartoon itself is a huge time capsule. Back in the 1940s; and even prior that...the circus was very popular of the decade and it had played a huge part in American culture. It provided a great sense of escapism for the public, to escape from hard times such as the Depression as well as World War II. However, the circus isn't very regularly attended these days or even regularly shown, it's become sort of a more annually or few events a year, type. Today's circuses are far different towards circuses which we all come to know about: sure, circuses are still shown but have lasers in circus acts, instead of tactical acts. Okay, enough about circuses; about this cartoon: it's just another spot-gag cartoon where you can really only consider this cartoon an abundance of corny, and cheesy gags that it all sort of runs together. Many of the gags have very little surprises, they're all paced evenly and comparably.

However, the short itself does have some touching and wonderful surprises: particularly the stork sequence who grumbles 'Eddie Cantor is still pestering me for a boy' which is generally very dated, but very funny towards historians and intelligent enthusiasts. Quite a bit of dark, death gags used in the cartoon; particularly with the trapeze sequence as well as the ending finale. Such dark elements, that you can't help but smile and laugh at the whole setup. Despite being a mediocre short for Tex, especially as a spotgag; the dramatic camera angles as well as background staging are terrific achievements; particularly the high-diving sequence which has a lot of realism. Tex has also reused particular gags which were already popular gags from previous shorts; except with the monkey gag, I feel he made the delivery and change of dialogue a lot more broader, convincing as well as more outrageous.


  1. Note the "LS" at the entrance of the tent, standing for "Leon Schlesinger." It's cute that there are references to Ace Gamer, Bob Clampett and Henry Binder in the cartoon for the staff's self-amusement.

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