Friday 25 April 2014

329. A Coy Decoy (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 328.
Release date: June 7, 1941.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig / Daffy Duck / Duckling).
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: Norm McCabe.
Musical Score: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Taking place in a bookstore for bizarre reasons, a wolf springs to life as he attempts to use a decoy as bait to trap Daffy Duck, though his wackiness causes the wolf to not succeed.

Daffy Duck returns in a Warner's short, as it has been almost a year since his previous short: You Ought to Be in Pictures. This time Daffy is turned to the hands of Clampett, who in my opinion did the best interpretation of putting 'daffy' into his name, at least in some of his later shorts.

At this point, Daffy was still being refined with a more tamer personality, though without losing none of his wackiness, as well as giving Daffy more of a personality than a total-screwball one.

The screwball personality in this short is certainly evident during the chase sequences of the short, as well as its opening song sequence: in fact it is evident throughout the entire short. Which will be explained further in the review.

Considering how the short is a 'Porky and Daffy' short, it is considerably better off as a Daffy Duck short, standalone. Porky only appears briefly during the beginning of the sequence where he sitting by a campfire, dressed as a cowboy playing: Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride.

He also appears briefly towards the end of the short as it reaches closure. It seems somewhat considerably pointless that Porky appears briefly in the short, where the short is dominated by Daffy.

Bear in mind, Daffy Duck was already a Warner Bros. cartoon star at that point, even though he was just portrayed as a supporting character, but that's not all. Porky at that point was not becoming a top priority in appearing in every black-and-white Warner Bros. cartoon; and the short perhaps would have worked a lot better without Porky.

That's not all, the short itself appears to be Clampett's take on the 'books come to life' stories. It seems pointless and bizarre for a cartoon which consists of a straightforward cartoon plot to have its theme set with books. Clampett did use Daffy Duck again with the same theme in Book Revue, except it had a purpose; whereas doesn't. I suppose Clampett was attempting to be creative in using Warner's star characters for that theme, but for a story which consists of a wolf attempting to trap Daffy with a decoy, it could easily be a passible short, without the books.

Daffy's introduction to the song consists of a rather lengthy though also pointless segment where Daffy sings: I Can't Get Along, Little Dogie. No doubt we've all seen Daffy sing, especially when a short is introduced, but it is usually evenly paced with great animation taking advantage of the song sequence.

In this short, Daffy's singing does not appear to have any tone whatsoever in terms of pacing or even being visualised.

Much of the time we see Daffy running about singing a lot very appealing song, and he just asks rather goofy, but without much character or enough visuals to make the song sequence itself work. The song sequence itself also contains a pun in which results some action.

Daffy is seen climbing on top of a Black Beauty book cover. Knowing the book, you'd expect to see a black horse, much like the original novel. Though, the 'pun' instead shows an African-American stereotype who Daffy Duck is seen riding like a horse. Usually, I don't mind these stereotypes in shorts, as I understand it was a product of their time: but this joke is in incredibly bad taste. This is one of the few stereotypical jokes from that time period that even I am offended of.

And so, the wolf then enters into Daffy's stardom, which was supposedly what the pointless song sequence seemed to be about. The wolf steps out of a book which is titled metaphorically, The Wolf of Wall Street, which I'll admit is a pun that works itself. To avoid confusion to readers, who might bizarrely refer to the title to the recent Martin Scorsese film, the tittle was actually named after an infamous con man named David Lamar, and of course: there is also another movie (made in 1929) titled the same time.

And so, as the wolf enters the story: his ambitions are rather simple: to eat and kill Daffy Duck for hunger. As this ambition carries out the entire short: it is again another point of how pointless it is to still include the setting in a bookstore.

And so as the wolf approaches Daffy's location, he sets up a female decoy as bait to trap Daffy Duck. As soon as he he gets the bait set; Daffy does instantly fall for it. He zips over to the decoy, in which he responds to the decoy a la 'romance embrace', where Clampett is mocking the romantic embrace scenes, which of course is a cliche itself in cartoons.

As soon as he embraces towards the decoy, talking romantic, the wolf approaches and disguises itself as a decoy in which Daffy, being lovestruck, misinterprets the wolf's nose as the decoy.

The growl then frightens Daffy in which Daffy shivers and melts like liquid. Whilst it is a little cliched, and amusing for a while, it then appears to go into poor pacing, similar to how Chuck would have interpreted the gag.

Daffy takes a while to realise he is danger, when he examines the fangs as well as the distinctive features of the wolf before realising he is in danger. It could have worked in a broader fashion had he discovered much quicker.

As soon as he is aware of his danger; he then goes into a begging situation, and this is mostly taken from Hare-Um Scare-Um, where Daffy begs to have his life spared. He tried to attribute his plead with vulnerability; "Why I'm nothin' but skin 'n bone see", as well as the "why even the army don't want me", as he hands out a rejection letter. Compared to the 'Hare-Um' short, the delivery and suspense is a lot more broader and wackier here, for better. Daffy's fearfulness is greatly exaggerated as he bursts out several more problems such as having an ingrowing toenail, coated tongue, as well as dandruff. That dandruff gag is just wonderful in terms of gag-wise and how well executed it is in animation which only Clampett would have demanded for his animators.

And so, a climax cannot occur without a chase scene, some of them pay off and others don't. This sort sort of does, as it is a tad wackier than what the Warner's viewer of that viewer were used to seeing. You'd expect to see some lame puns from the books which add to the climax, such as Daffy entering the 'Escape' book but ends up being blocked by the wolf.

What makes the sequence wackier themselves, is not of course the whooping sounds Daffy Duck makes, but these subtle little scenes where the climax is just interrupted on purpose. Daffy skids, where he asks: "Say, are you following me?" before the chase continues.

One of those little subtle interruptions is again another trait of Clampett's where he is evidently testing the audience' patience. He does it again, though most notably in The Hep Cat which won't be released until a year later.

The climax then makes a closure as Daffy opens up the 'Hurricane' book, as you may guess, this blows the wolf out of side. Though, this only sends him to his death. Lightning from another book strikes the wolf, killing him. He lies still as his 'funeral' occurs at the front cover of Ernest Hemmingway's infamous novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which had only been newly published around the time the short was in production.

And so, as soon as the Wolf has been killed off the short: Daffy goes back to what he desires--the decoy (or is it). Porky walks over after not having seen him since the beginning, and scoffs at Daffy's romance: "That dumb duck, he's been wasting his time around that decoy. Everybody knows that there can never be possibly mean anything to each other".

Daffy then scolds at Porky's cynical comment in which he leaves with his decoy, and this then follows with several ducklings following them. This is the type of ending where it ends on a bizarre manner, that itself it leaves on a rather ambiguous note: is the decoy real or not?

I highly doubt Clampett intended that to be this way, as the gag is meant to be incoherent as well as nutty, so it's best to leave the gag as that. One of the little ducklings at the end of the line then scoffs at Porky's comment: "You and your education", which without doubt is the funniest line in the whole short.

Despite a short which is mostly a mess: it does have some shining, classic Clampett moments. As explained, Clampett takes advantage partly in the chase sequences where he interrupts the action. Thus, Daffy Duck is of course the main role, whereas Porky hadn't yet been given much identity than than an everyman personality. The execution of Daffy's pleading with the wolf is also very believable and amusing. Though the flaws: where to start. The fact it is set in a bookstore seems completely to lack focus and it ends up looking unjustified. Although, one could make the assumption Clampett was trying to make his scenery look intriguing as well as unique, but it isn't done very well. Porky's screen appearance seems pointless as he has no purpose of the short except his cynical comment towards Daffy at the end, which is the only point of having him appear; but otherwise it would've worked better with Daffy Duck alone. The first-part of the short itself is a mess in ways: as the song sequences are in poor taste, as well as the pacing; though as soon as the climax sequence is about to start: the short seems to get into better shape, even if parts of it already ruin the entire short.

Rating: 2/5.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

328. Hollywood Steps Out (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 327.
Release date: May 24, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Kent Rogers (Voices all Male Celebrities, minus Colonna), Sara Berner (Female Celebrities), Mel Blanc (Jerry Colonna).
Story credit unknown.
Animation credit unknown.
Character designs: Ben Shenkman (uncredited).
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A satirical night of Hollywood where a group of celebrities gather at Ciro's nightclub for dinner and dancing.

Hollywood parodies has always been a popular choice for animated shorts from the 1930s: you could pick several choice from all various studios like Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, or even Warner's The CooCoo Nut Grove which had previously parodied the Hollywood nightlife, despite the celebrities being caricatured as bird figures.

Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger,
seen seated in this subtle staff-gag.
Perhaps this was to emphasise their
supposed 'fame' for producing the
Tex Avery is parodying his cartoon with a huge range of Hollywood stars in their human form, but with a heavy distinction of caricature. Tex attempts his create a "mockumentary" out of the Hollywood nightlife documentaries like the Oscars, etc.

Here, Tex manages to capture the spirit and atmosphere of a nightclub atmosphere which takes place inside Ciro's. The caricatures are wonderfully biting, but in great taste thanks to the excellent character designs of Ben Shenkman. He had been brought over to Leon Schlesinger to work for Friz Freleng's Malibu Beach Party, as well as this short. He had previously worked on the caricatures in Columbia's Mother Goose in Swingtime. According to Keith Scott, who wrote a great piece of the short in the 100 Greatest Looney Tunes, Shenkman himself had instructed the background painters of this short in order to create a very Hollywood-oriented background.

A pivotal attribution to the short's success in parodying their biggest stars, are the wonderful voice impersonations. Sara Berner tackles the voices for some of the female celebrities featured such as Ann Sheridan ("Oomph Girl"), as well as Dorothy Lamour; but praise has to be given to Kent Rogers, who without doubt is the unsung star of this cartoon.

For a young voice actor who was still a teenager, his ability to not voice the entire male celebrities, but convincingly is incredible. This shows how Tex Avery had the ability to look and search for remarkable talent, and Kent just happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Kent would continue to be quite a key voice actor in the early 40s, as he not only did some early voice work on Woody Woodpecker, but also worked for MGM and Warners, too.

I truly do believe, he would have been a famed voice actor if it hadn't been for his tragic death in 1944, aged 20. Mel Blanc however, only performs one voice which is the Jerry Colonna caricature, the only celebrity not voiced by Rogers. While Mel does a fine impersonation in that brief moment, Kent is the cream of the crop in this short, for great reason.

Carl Stalling's music is incredibly wonderful and rhythmic. Of course, Stalling was always wonderful at utilising his knowledge of music in combination to a theme or action: here Stalling takes his music cues to a different level.

Throughout the score: you hear the Conga music heard in the beginning and the dance sequence; and he adds a lot of tone and rhythm to his music in order to capture the nightlife vibe around Hollywood, and yet he definitely pulls it off beautifully.

He also applies the same cue, which is underplayed during the dance sequence at the ballroom - though that will be explained further in the review. The opening sequence is a great introduction to the short, as the audience are immediately captured by the spirit, and perhaps farce atmosphere of Hollywood, with beams dancing in synchronisation to the beat over an ostentatious setting.

Throughout the short, at least during the short's first act: Tex gives the audience some fun parody of infamous celebrities by poking fun at their famed traits or characteristics. Greta Garbo is very amusingly caricatured in her scenes. who in the short is dressed as a cigarette girl.

Shenkman nails her distinctive features, and also the 'giant' proportions for comedic effect, which she uses her giant foot to light a match for Cary Grant. One of the funniest pieces of delivery in the short is when lampoon Harpo Marx give her the ol' hotfoot. Whilst her foot burns, she responds with a grunted "Ouch", which is just a wonderful piece of exaggeration and delayed delivery.

Johnny Weissmuller, Olympic Gold-Medal and Tarzan fame, arrives at the nightclub where he takes off his jacket wearing what else: his Tarzan outfit--who at that time he was exclusive to the Tarzan film series, before he created an alternate character though very much alike Tarzan: Jungle Jim.

It appears to be no question that one of the gags that everybody loved to lampoon was the running-gag of Bing Crosby's horse arriving--a joke which back in 1941 was considered never too old.

Bing is in the middle of his presentation, but is interrupted by Crosby's horse, as he remark: "Move along now, I'll see you at the track". Crosby was an infamous racehorse fan, who would used to joke about being a failure of picking horses, which became a running-gag in many of his radio appearances. The setup and spontaneity definitely pays off in that little scene, though it is a tad unfunny the second time the gag appears. Of course, these jokes may be considered perhaps too dated for a modern audience, though just remember this was no secret to an audience member when the short was in production.

For more references that appear to be rather obscure to viewers, though I'll mention a view as I hope this review could answer some people's questions. The three tough guy figures (Cagney, Bogart, Raft) are seen seated at a bar, as Cagney discusses of a plot that should be "risky".

George Raft is infamous for his 'coin-flip' trait which can be seen in the original Scarface; Humphrey Bogart, of course, was an infamous chain-smoker. Being into a typical suspense-killer gag, the 'risky' plot actually ends up being an innocent game of pitching pennies as they debate over which coin is the closest.

Another one which comes to mind, would be the sequence with the late Mickey Rooney, as well as Lewis Stone. Rooney, infamous of starring movies with Judy Garland (his date in the short) finds his bill consists of $50 (adjusted for 2014 inflation: $803.72).

Speechless of the high bill, he then turns to his screen father, Lewis Stone, in which the scene turns into a reference of a role Rooney played named Andy Hardy, while Lewis Stone played his father. Rooney's character was known for his trouble with money, and the quote "I'd like to have a heart-to-heart talk with ya" pays homage to the film series.

One of my personal favourite references, would be the Cary Grant monologue at the beginning. Through his dialogue, Tex neatly blends him movie titles he starred in. He remarks: "What a place, what a place! Mine's as pretty as a picture. If I ever told My Favourite Wife The Awful Truth, I'd land right on The Front Page. Yes sir-ee bobbie!". Though he doesn't appear in the original 1931 film, it was remade into a Howard Hawks film, renamed His Girl Friday, starring Grant.

After a series of sequences where the audience get to laugh at the characteristics of a celebrity exaggerated; Tex moves the short forward as he satirizes a ballroom sequence. Bing Crosby orders Leopold Stokowski: "Make it mella, fella" to create some mellow music.

The suspense and tension of his conducting is about to begin, then the it all abruptly begins as Stokowski plays coolly to the Conga which is a great example of Tex's flamboyant timing in his mockumentaries.

This then follows through a string of gags of celebrities dancing, and each of them vary from each shot. We get a pair of celebrities paired, some perhaps obscure today like Tyrone Power who dances with infamous Olympic skater: Sonja Heine.

Another great gag shows Cesar Romero dancing with Rita Hayworth, as Romero was known for his broad figure, and their dancing does not coordinate well is just well staged and comically animated.

Then you get some shots of perhaps better known celebrities of their time, Frankenstein without doubt is known to everyone, and is greatly parodied in the dance floor. Then we get a great comic scene of the Three Stooges using their poke trademark, in synchronization to the Conga music. Another great little gag is Laurel Hardy, who from the back looks like he is dancing to a woman who is of his size, but it is greatly portrayed once it's revealed he is dancing with two young blondes. These dance sequences are a great break from the cinematic references, that is also Tex a lot of creativity to create some very charming gags, and they still hold out well even today.

From an animated crew side: the short and the realistic character designs also are a great example of how solid and subtle Rod Scribner's animation could be. Of course, note this was Scribner's animation before he broke out with a loose, wild animation in which he took wackiness to a whole new evolution.

In this short, his animation shows rich character personality as well as  a sense of realism and human in his animation. He manages to capture the caricature and characteristics of Jimmy Stewart, who is jerky when Dorothy Lamour persuades Stewart to dance with him.

Though, Scribner does appear to attempt to break out into his infamous, loose style though the designs are very controlled that he doesn't yet have the ability to breakthrough. The exaggeration is slightly evident in the pose Mickey Rooney makes when he is flabbergasted of the bill price. Though this is a little extreme in terms of staying on model with Shenkman's designs, Scribner captures the emotions and reaction of a high bill price.

Though the short itself so far only consists of strings of gags and references of the audiences' favourite celebrities: Tex himself is also taking a lot of risks against the censorship boards. He devotes the short a whole sequence of some burlesque entertainment. The entertainer is burlesque celebrity Sally Rand, who is going to perform her bubble dance in the nude.

Of course, for censorship reasons the nudity is covered up and opaqued by the bubble. Though, this doesn't stop Tex from teasing his audience as well as the censors as he challenges them with not only gags but a lot of subtlety.

At one point she lifts the ball in the air, where the audience would suspect she is completely nude, though the camera follows the ball rising, thanks to the geniuses of Johnny Burton's department who were in on the gag.

Only Tex would have had the gall to challenge the censor's minds, by not only having an animated sequence which was considered to be blasphemy in the Production Code era, but still keeping a lot of the imagery censored at the same time. As the sequence comes to an end, Tex ends the sequence with an excellent pay-off; in which the audience themselves have been conned by the master cartoon director. Harpo Marx arrives at the spot with a rubber band and stone, and fires at the bubble which bursts. However, much to the audience's disappointment, Sally Rand was seen attached to a barrel the entire time. That is my nomination of the funniest gag in the entire short. The timing and pacing is absolutely great, and the scene wraps up in the most bizarre matter. Though, only Tex Avery could conclude such a daring sequence with a hilarious closure.

And so, what about the celebrities' reaction to the dance. Of course, Tex included the shots of each celebrity, not just to gain a laugh out of the audience, but to also keep the dance moving at a great pace with the sequences moving back and forth, in order to give the sequence a great twist.

The reaction of the audience are amusing in some aspects, at least if you understand the references. Peter Lorre, known for his sinister characters, remarked dreamily: "I haven't seen such a beautiful bubble, since I was a child".

Then this cuts to a Aldrich family reference, though this time the reference is on Henry Fonda is a little lame in terms of how the pun is. One of the corniest reactions from the celebrities comes from J. Edgar Hoover, who then was Head of the FBI is seen wearing his "G Man" badge. His initial reaction to Rand's erotic dance is, "Gee, gee, gee gee".

It's so corny in terms of how the pun is directed, but it works like a charm that it still goes along with the whole sequence amusingly. And of course, you have other reactions from Jerry Colonna, Kay Kyser, Ned Sparks, etc. Sparks - in particular as he asks "You buys having a good time?", with Buster Keaton, Boris Karloff, Arthur Treacher, and Mischa Auer who respond with a expressionless and dull "Yes". Notice how Karloff supposedly appears twice in the short: first being Frankenstein. This was likely pure coincidental.

And so at last, Tex has his usual running-gag routine where the gag gets revealed at the last scene. He positions the gag on Clark Gable, who has the hots for a mysterious, blond woman whose face is a mystery as she covers her face with a fan.

He appears twice during the dance sequence, as he is not only performing the Conga, but hints to the audience of his desire to win the girl. Of course, Cable was an infamous womaniser of this time: so it works well as a recurring gag for Tex.

Ironic you see Clark Gable dancing, when in reality he lacked the talent. And so, the recurring gag is then revealed. Clark Gable chases after her as she walks to a balcony, "Now listen, babe, I'm a man of few words, see? But I've been chasing you all night. How how about a little kiss baby?".

He then turns as he is about to kiss the "woman" until it is revealed to be Groucho Marx in drags who remarks: "Well, fancy meetin' you here?". This is also an excellent piece of closure, as Gable ends up being tranced by a rude awakening. Most of you of course know the story that in the short's original print; the ending was extended. According to Sody Clampett, it originally ended with Gable, staying true to his womanising reputation, remarked (along the lines): "Awww, I want what a-comin' to me, and I'm-a gonna get it!", and kisses Groucho Marx anyway. However, legend has it that Clark Gable heard about the gag, and was afraid it would ruin his womanising image to which he objected to the gag by requesting Warner Bros. to remove it. Thus, the scene was omitted in its reissue print. Whether the original print still survives we don't know for certain...though, it's always possible it exists out there.

For a review which went on a lot longer than expected; I consider this to still be one of Tex's finest WB short he ever did, even though a few people might question that. I thought that this was one of the very few spot-gag shorts in which Tex actually managed to capture extremely well. A lot of the animation is very realistic and believable, and it all pays off with excellent gags and delivery. Of course, the short itself has aged as the references may be obscure to some viewers, but I hope the review will answer some questions for some readers. Certainly a lot of effort has been put to create this ambitious short for Warners, in terms of its artistic side as well as talent. The voice work is incredible, thanks to the genius behind it all: Kent Rogers. The short itself is very well paced for a spot-gag as unlike most of Tex's spot-gags; it lets the actual cartoon just play and it does not rely on fade-outs or dissolves, which I consider to be great filmmaking. Overall, this was a short full of entertainment, dares, as well as excellent payoffs.

If you want to read more information about this short, then I'd advise you to read Keith Scott's piece of the short in the 100 Greatest Looney Tunes book, where he provides some great background information.

Rating: 4/5.