Thursday 29 May 2014

334. The Heckling Hare (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 333.
Release date: July 5, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), Kent Rogers (Willoughby).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A dim-witted dog is on the look out for a rabbit. Being a threat to Bugs, he takes advantage of the dog's lack of intelligence with his smart tactics.

Throughout most of the early Bugs Bunny shorts, (with the exceptions of Tortoise Beats Hare or Elmer's Pet Rabbit), the Warner directors were still writing the same story formula for Bugs Bunny, involving Bugs outwitting several different characters each short.

With that said, being a very common trait of Bugs Bunny throughout his career, later shorts on the other hand had more focus towards story and each short had different dilemmas. In this short, this is really the basic, A Wild Hare-type story.

Instead of a hunter: Bugs is being pursued by a dim-witted dog (if you wish to call him Willoughby, fine). Since this is a short where the story formula was still largely the same, Tex still had a new set of gags to invent, and this short he is certainly experimenting with new gag ideas, that would still seem beyond what animated cartoons, then, offered.

The short starts off like how an earlier Bugs Bunny short might begin, the antagonist of the short appears first, as the purpose is the audience would be wanting to know the antagonist better.

Willoughby is seen sniffing out for the scent of a rabbit in the forest. He introduces himself, and explains to the audience of his intended target.

Note the walk-cycle that Tex gives to Willoughby, which shows how Tex's walk cycles only get even more bizarre in each short he is making. With the walk animated by Bob McKimson, Tex shows an urge of attempting to create funnier animation, which is becoming more noticeable in this short.

This then follows with a glimpse of Bugs Bunny's ears once Willoughby discovers a rabbit hole. Bugs' ears then appear out of scene. This requires stronger character animation, as well as a heavier set-up from a scene used several times previously.

Instead of Elmer's gun, Willoughby's mouth is held wide open, and the detail on the teeth emphasise on the viciousness the dog could be. And so, Bugs outwits Willoughby with his presence, where Willoughby is too late for his double-take delivery, a gag formula that Tex loved to use between two parallel characters. Once Willoughby realises his error, this follows through a sophisticated, walk-cycle of Bugs Bunny who walks in rhythm to Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn's synchronisation to I Was Strolling Through the Park One Day. The walk-cycle, likely animated by McKimson or Virgil Ross, shows how the animators at Warners were becoming more confident in exploring their animation, and that cycle alone expresses not only how much better the animators got, but also the freedom to explore several aspects when animating.

A great example of how Tex Avery was definitely allowing his animators to explore further in what they could do with animation happens in the following sequence. This classic sequence in the short centres on Bugs mimicking Willoughby's facial expressions in a psychological effect to have the dog's mind focused on making consistent facial expressions.

The sequence, animated by Rod Scribner, is great for what Tex was wanting his animators to do, as well as what he was attempting to explore. The wacky Tex Avery everybody would come to associate with is only at the tip of the iceberg in this short, and Scribner nails on how Tex probably visioned the scene.

Bugs and the dog go through some far-out expressions, such as the details of their mouths and Scribner was exploring the broadness of his animation in a lot of bizarre ways which no animator in Tex's unit did, he tries to top each pose with a more exaggerated feel towards it. Tex's comic timing is also a striking example of how he is attempting to achieve funnier timing.

The dog, making consistent face-making is already been fooled, to the point where Bugs is no longer a threat to the dog. It builds up with a typical Tex Avery delivery, as he holds a sign reading "Silly, isn't he?", but only returns from his hole with a giant baseball bat. Tex's use of colour to follow the effects is only seen at a brief glimpse, to find that the scene quickly follows with Bugs holding onto a damaged baseball bat. Tex's time couldn't get better for the build up that it got to. He is already succeeding in achieving funnier timing, and his talent of it is already glowing in this sequence. Stalling's choice for Mendelssohn's Spring Song heard briefly in the underscore is an excellent little cliche to emphasise of Bugs's innocent posture.

The following sequence, a gag which is largely borrowed from Tex's The Crackpot Quail, is once again another challenge in terms of animation in order to make the gag easier to follow as well as visualised in a comical way. Bugs, deciding to dive underwater, and placing his bathing cap, dives underwater, but only to end up being pursued by Willoughby on the way.

The effects animation (did they have other effects animators at that time, other than Ace Gamer?), is well achieved in order for the two characters to be communicated under water. One of the highlights would be through the communication of bubbles rising from the surface.

We can identify Bugs from underwater due to the frantic speed he is travelling through underwater, but once he's stopped by Willoughby, the silence then deepens. Their identities are somewhat more obvious as Bugs' ears and Willoughby's tail rise from the surface.

Tex only gets even more bizarre with the gag when a giant log is seen in the middle of a lake. Bugs travels straight towards the log, but manages to dodge by having both ears separate to each corner. Tex used a slightly, though more subtle gag in The Crackpot Quail which featured Willoughby sniffing the quail's gap, and at one point the tracks then become greatly separated. Here, it is more bizarrely visualised, as the ears separating is somewhat very surreal compared to the previous short.

The following sequence is another animated challenge, though it requires a lot of strong character animation, and methodical skills. The gag, being rather straightforward from Mike Maltese's writing: shows Bugs standing on top of Willoughby who is still hunting for Bugs, though without noticing his presence above him. Bugs, pacing up and down Willoughby, comes up with another strategy, and thus tickles him, causing Willoughby to scratch.

Whilst the gag delivery is somewhat basic in terms of how it looks how, the technical side would be a lot more challenging. For one, Willoughby would have to be animated separately, especially since Willoughby, for a small part of the sequence is animated as a walk cycle. Bugs, however, is animated separately, and thus making staging difficult for the animator, in order to achieve an accurate line position for the dog's back. It's likely that both animators were animated at the same time, once Bugs begins to tickle Willoughby, considering how the action is done.

The following sequence, and despite some great strategies and sequences invented by Mike Maltese: the following sequence is somewhat cliched. Willoughby, suspecting the rabbit is inside the bark of a tree has his hand reaching out on the other end of the tree. Bugs, once again taking advantage of the dim-witted dog, grabs out a tomato to place on Willoughby's hand.

Once Willoughby squeezes the tomato in his hand, Willoughby mistakes the tomato juice as Bugs' blood, crying, "I crushed him". He continues to cry, and expressing pity towards himself for killing the rabbit.

I've never been a personal fan of these sequences, and despite making the characters just appear even more foolish: it never made sense to me of their sudden sadness for killing an animal they intended to kill. Perhaps the impact of killing had reflected poorly on them? Well, a cartoon's a cartoon. Willoughby, mourning the "loss" of Bugs, arrives at his rabbit hole to place flowers besides it. Still sobbing, Bugs approaches on top of his hole and feeling flattered, puckers up to Willoughby: "For me, doc? Oh you darling".

This then leads to the cartoon's climax, and without doubt, the most memorable sequence in the short for several factors. One factor was that the sequence was reportedly considered to be the longest fall in cinematic history.

Tex Avery, who was taking new levels that Leon Schlesinger considered dangerous, had wanted to test the audience's patience by having the characters not fall for a great distance, but a total of three falls, which was cut from the print that everybody knows of today.

For further information on the removed sequence, read Thad K.'s enlightening blog post. Though the sequence was considered to be the reason why Tex Avery quit the studios (which wasn't the factor); it just goes to show how Tex was already becoming far more ambitious with his cartoon directing, but his original ending just happened to flop.

Despite the original ending, the edited version does feel somewhat a lot more better in terms of the short's cliffhanger. The audience feel for Bugs Bunny, their favourite character, and this was Tex's vision of testing the audience's mind on how they could make it alive. The problem is solved with them skidding to the grounds safely, with Bugs remarking to the audience, "Ehh, fooled ya didn't he", in which Willoughby responds, "Uh, yeah". The delivery works well as an ending. Whilst the original ending would have shown Tex exaggerating the significant amount of feet they are falling and landing from, it does feel somewhat very anti-climatic, and shows how Tex's original approach didn't work out.

In all, for a short that did itself have a repeated story formula: this allowed Tex to explore at different heights in terms of approach to gags, as well as timing. Tex's timing is only getting faster and edgier compared to his previous shorts, and his idea for gag build-up has certainly gone to high levels which he hadn't yet achieved before. Of course, there are many sequences in the short where Tex had recycled certain gags, though the mimic sequence as well as the fall stand out as being far more original not only as to how they were timed, but also how they were delivered. Mike Maltese, appears to be under much of Tex's influence in the short as many of the sequences feel very Tex Avery oriented, and little of the charms from Mike Maltese. In all, it was an entertaining short for a  Bugs Bunny cartoon, a character who is only getting funnier and broader in each short. The shorts by this point are only becoming a tad faster and edgier, and thus giving Warners a reputable name.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

The Six-Day War

Sorry folks, as I haven't had time to write a review today, but instead this will be a very rare blog post that isn't a review. Since we are nearing the end of the month, I thought it would be at least fitting, since we are still reviewing 1941, that we reflect on a big event that occurred at the Leon Schlesinger Studio, which I will tell to a small majority who probably don't know.

That's right, that is the infamous "Leon Schlesinger Lockout" which occurred in May 1941 (also known as the "Little Six-Day War" in the words of Chuck Jones. This event happened when Leon Schlesinger attempted to lock out the Guild animators from his studio from having his studio unionised. Known as the Screen Cartoonists Guild, it was an organisation in which, under the leadership of Herb Sorrel, was attempting to unionise all animation studios in the U.S. Since the Fleischer studio met with victory in 1940, and studios like MGM, Lantz and Columbia had signed contracts--Warners and Disney were the only studios left who hadn't yet signed the pact.
From L ro R: Ben Washam, Roy Laupenberger, ?, Paul Marron, Martha Sigall.

Only lasting six days, Schlesginer quickly relented and agreed to sign contracts, and at that point Leon Schlesinger then reportedly remarked, "What about Disney?", who was the only studio left to not go unionised. Thus, this would lead to the infamous Disney animator's strike, which is another story.

If you want more information, you can read about the "lockout" as well as the unionisation of other animation studios through Tom Sito's excellent book: Drawing the Line: The Untold Story of Animation Unions from Bosko to Bart Simpson, as well as information from Martha Sigall's autobiography, which explain a little more about the event, though it did not impact the studio much at all.

Sorry if this seems a rather abrupt post with information already taken from, but the story about unionisation at the other animation studios are a fascinating part that scarred animation history, consider this that they did change the industry forever: especially the unionisation of Disney. Though it definitely had its advantages as well as disadvantages, but that will be for another time..

Tuesday 27 May 2014

333. Meet John Doughboy (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 332.
Release date: July 5, 1941.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Robert C. Bruce (Reel Narrator/Citizen Sugar Cane), Mel Blanc (Porky Pig/Most voices), Jack Lescoulie (Jack Benny).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Vive Risto.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Porky Pig presents a mockumentary on the productivity going on in the U.S. military, as well as the draft serial numbers.

Clampett's idea of making a spot-gag mockumentary was produced with appropriate timing around the time the short was released. The U.S. military had already begun preparations for World War II, even though troops did not join the war until December that year, during the attack on Pearl Harbour.

It was clear that Clampett wanted to make a short which at that point was very much up to date in terms of military affairs, and preparations--satirising newsreels which at the time would show some footage of the military preparations and the inventions they were turning out.

The military had already been in production in inventing new machinery as well as testing out artillery, which was what was needed during the war. Though, despite being very head of its time, the mockery and gag deliveries are still rather dated in Warners' standards. The nervousness from the public of an American invasion is perhaps evident during the short's closure. The newspaper headline reads: "Can American Be Invaded???" which emphasises on a worried country, who are aware of the nation likely to enlist in the war.

Porky's appearance, is as usual a lot more limited than what Clampett would allow him. His appearance feels also, somewhat unneeded. The title bears no indication that Porky is the character, and Clampett was allowed to produce one-shot shorts for the first time. Since the whole story is mainly focusing on spot-gags on the military effort, and hell, the narrator is performed by Robert C. Bruce; Porky really didn't need to appear in such a wasted role.

It's a no-brainer to have Porky appear in a small role, when he deserves a lot more opportunities than what Clampett or the other directors are giving him. Though, the "Porky Pig presents" title is a amusing satire the RKO Radios Picture logo of a radar signal, and thus Mel Blanc adds the perfect charm by performing his infamous, wacky 'rubber band' noise.

For a spot-gag being set of its time, it still doesn't exude the short from still being bombarded with very lame puns that don't pay off well, and the results are downright corny. A perfect example occurs during the military productions on the factory.

The narrator narrates: "The need for all types of planes has every American factory humming". Of course, we know the narrator is using the word 'humming' as a metaphor to emphasise the factories are kept busy in terms of military preparations.

Clampett turns this into an unappealing pun which doesn't have much purpose. The factory windows and gates transform into a smile where the factory is humming cheerily to Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. Another gag in the same sequence follows where the narrator explains about the various types of aircraft being invented in the air force. An example being the Spitfire, which Clampett transforms it to a poor pun of the aircraft spitting out flames. It's a gag wholly predictable and lacking intelligence.

However, there are some gags that do pay off rather well. A great example, would be the sequence involving the latest military invention, known as a "land destroyer", and, according to the words of the narrator: "a 100 times faster and more effective than a tank". Clampett, of course, uses rather quick timing to give the weapon a very effective sense of speed.

Once the narrator asks for the 'weapon' to slow down so the audience can identify the weapon: it turns out to be Jack Benny and Rochester riding a Maxwell.  The gag is that Jack Benny did in fact owned a Maxwell, and it was a well known running gag from his radio shows.

Another amusing one which pays off quite well would be the conflict between two soldiers who are being drafted. Both of them with polar opposite heights: tall and short.

The tall man mocks, "They'll take a little runt like you". The following short immediately contradicts that remark, where the little man indeed makes it in the army, but talking in stilts. He responds back, having the last laugh "You and your education" which is an amusing pay-off, as well as perhaps a moral to never contradict little people as not eligible to enlist, even if the solution is to walk in stilts. Another great one, which is a personal favourite, would be in the mess hall scene. The narrator comments on the strong appetite a soldier would need, as quoted by Napoleon: "An army travels with its stomach!". The metaphor is therefore taken into a great visualised gag where the soldiers are crawling outside the mess hall from their stomachs.

For those who appear to have trouble understanding some of the references that are dated in today's standards, perhaps I can answer some questions. One of the main dated gags that appears in the short, would be during the antitank gun sequence. The narrator explains about this new invention that can easily destruct any tank.

From a great point of view shot, a silhouetted tank is seen moving towards its intended destination, but the soldiers in charge of the cannon aren't firing. Frustratring the narrator, the problem is solved.

One of the soldiers is distracted as he looks at two different sized cigarettes and chuckles "Mine's longer than yours". The gag is that it is referring to an ad from Pall Mall cigarettes, and the ad features two soldiers who are both comparing the size of their cigarettes.

Note the reference at the beginning where Porky is identified from an announcement as "Draft no. 158 3/4". The reference is that "158" was in fact the number that the government first conducted for its first peacetime draft in 1940.

Note the Citizen Kane reference which is quite possibly one of the very earliest references to appear in the well-known and beloved film. Around the time of the short's release, Citizen Kane was only released a few months prior in the cinemas, but it gained notoriety as the main character: Charles Foster Kane was loosely based on American newspaper publisher, William Randolph Hearst, who threatened to ban the film from distribution. Here, the character is referenced as another lame pun: "Citizen Sugar Kane".

However, you can give credit towards Clampett for making this spot-gag very visually appealing, as much of the layout and style of the short is very unique in its own taste. A striking example is shown at the beginning, where you see an exterior of the factories: the effects animation of the smoke and steam is simple but effective, bold animation. The montages that follow afterwards are also effective in terms of mood and pacing.

Clampett is also rather artistic in his staging, as well as his choice of mood and colour. During the agricultural military work sequence, the animals are foreshadowed through silhouettes.

The narrator explains about the plough horses' origins being "South America", in which their identity is recognised as they dance to the conga beat.

These are great, unique visuals from Clampett as well as background artist Bob Thomas (who was Clampett's layout man then?), in which he tries to make the sequences look rather artistically fulfilling, as well as capturing the silhouette and cinematic effect of newsreel documentaries.

The final sequence, is a focus of the U.S. president who orders out "defense strength" in testing out their aircraft as well as other use of crafts such as navy ships.

This follows through a series of montage scenes of aircrafts taking off, and a navy ship sailing past (the infamous reused animation from Buddy the Gob). As explained from earlier, the newspaper headline shows the nation's concerns of the country being possibly invaded.

The final scene, which you could say foreshadows the Pearl Harbour events, indicates a couple of enemies aircrafts who are seen flying at a completely different target: New York City. In the final shot, the planes are seen flying with no military bases planning on any revolt on these aircrafts. As the narrator frantically asks for any assistance, the gag then reveals that the Statue of Liberty transforms to life and uses a gas spray to stop the planes. This then leaves to a sudden cut, ending the film. It feels that there is certain footage missing that could precede afterwards, but there is no evidence of such.

In conclusion, this was just a hit-and-miss mockumentary short. Some of the gags relating to military production are pulled off in a amusing sense, whilst others just backfire. Porky's appearance in this short felt very much wasted, and not necessarily needed. If Porky were to appear in the short properly, the very best Clampett could have done was at least make Porky the narrator of the reel, and not the lesser role of a distributor. Clampett is without doubt trying to compete with several of his artists when comparing it to artistic levels, and his choice of scenario and mood to represent the scenes are at times on par with Chuck Jones' artistic scenery and unique staging. Overall, this was a average in terms of the spot-gag formula, and not a bad attempt, featuring the Tex Avery influence.

Rating: 2/5.

Monday 26 May 2014

332. The Wacky Worm (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 331.
Release date: June 21, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Jerry Colonna Worm / Crow).
Story: Dave Monahan.
Animation: Cal Dalton.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A crow is in the search for a worm, but catches its attention on a Jerry Colonna-like worm.

What Friz Freleng was great at when creating a cartoon, was a story which would center on two foes, as well as the struggle for survival of the fittest. Striking examples include Sylvester and Tweety, or Yosemite Sam, who don't make appearances until much later on.

In this short, this is one of the many formula shorts he directs, though it's an early take for Friz.

This short features a crow attempting to tackle a worm, but to give the worm more of a identity, the worm is shown as a caricature of Jerry Colonna, hence the moustache and Italian accent, performed excellently by Mel Blanc. Colonna was a popular radio personality of that era, well known for his phrase "Greetings gate!", and did Colonna actually speak in rhyme during comedic shows? Being a popular celebrity reference for many Warner Bros. shorts in the early 1940s; this short quite possibly tops the other shorts in terms of impersonating Colonna, being a star of the short.

The short's story is pretty straightforward, and perhaps a bit unfocused. The short begins with a peckish crow who is on the lookout for a crow. After having no luck, chance comes when he hears the Jerry Colonna worm off-screen singing Daydreaming (All Night Long).

After being spotted by the crow, the worm responds: "My word, a bird". Afterwards, this then results in the term being chased by the crow and follows by a string of gags. That is pretty much it in terms of how far the story goes to.

The story feels rather unfocused at that point, as it appears to have no tone. The string of gags that just immediately follow just run don together in a monotonous sense. The gags that appear are at times rather amusing in terms of timing and delivery, but it just isn't paced out evenly well, and going from one scene to another feels rather rushed. The story does appear to at least go to several point at least later on in the short, but in-between let's speak about the decent parts of those sequences.

Freleng's timing certainly comes to great advantage with Stalling's choice of music to fit perfectly to action. Throughout the chase scenes that is heard in the cartoon's score: the crow's run cycle is well-synchronised towards Harry Warren's Tango Muchacha. The crow's legs change at various angles during the different scales played in the music, and it works so well in the crow's run.

Another highlight in terms of Freleng's timing is during the toothpaste sequence.

The Jerry Colonna worm goes to hide away from the crow by hiding inside an abandoned toothpaste in a junkyard. The crow, who attempts to unscrew the lid and remove it, is struggling to set it loose as the worm is still attached to the lid.

This is rather great timing which once again Stalling takes advantage of the timing in terms of music beats. The animation of the worm crawling inside the toothpaste is also surreal to a extent making the crawl look rather believable.

A highlight of the string of gags, in my opinion would be the apple gag. The worm has landed in one of the apples which are scattered in the ground. The crow arrives and shouts, "I know where ya are - you're in one of these apples". One of the apples behind the crow then begins to make little steps towards the left, causing the crow to turn suspicious and suspect an apple behind him is moving. The timing of the apple moving is rather well-done, and the mind-playing of the crow is well satirised.

The crow, believing that the apple moving has the worm inside, then the crow tiptoe towards the right whistling innocently. The wackiest part of that sequence, then spontaneously shows the entire group of apples scattering around--perhaps suggesting there are other worms in there, or just a gag for the hell of it to confuse the crow further. This wacky and surreal gag really pays off the sequence, and thus making Warners jut different in their approach to humour, which is very original.

After a series of gags that don't take the story further, the worm then hides inside a medicine bottle which its alcoholic beverage is rated as 110%. It always seems to be that cartoons like to exaggerate the beverage rate to make the gag more bizarre. The worm, having drank the alcohol, then slides out feeling intoxicated.

Feeling unable to walk and adjust properly, the worm then approaches the crow with intoxicated confidence. Note the Henry Binder reference to the can (which the worm hits his head during his hiccup).

The worm, who attempts to challenge the crow then orders by speaking in rhyme: "Listen crow, you better go!". The worm then attempts to face the crow into a fight, but then goes on to suggest, "I dare ya to strike me first".

This is a great little sequence, as this finally gives writer Dave Monahan the chance to use satire on the Jerry Colonna caricature. Prior to the short, during the chase and action scenes, the worm was very much underplayed during these scenes. I feel that Monahan doesn't completely take advantage of the caricature and impersonation, though he does use it in several scenes: it could have made some of the comical-timed gags appear funnier in terms of delivery.

And so, the cartoon then reaches its closure. The worm once again hides inside one of the apples under a apple tree. The crow, losing his track on the worm, then immediately suspects he is hiding under one of the apples. Vowing revenge, he declares: "Okay, come on out. Come on. I'll find ya if I have to eat every one of these apples. And I will too".

And so, the crow begins his time consuming task of eating all the apples that are scattered under the ground. After eating so much apples later, the crow then begins to feel very ill from eating too many apples.

The animation is very believable of the suffocated crow who is tired from eating al these apples. It really captures and persuades the viewer to not eat many apples. Stalling also captures the torture of eating too many apples with the music from Melancholy Mood. Discovering the worm is hiding in the last apple available, it just so happens by bad-luck a woodpecker pecks on the tree, with a number of apples falling from the tree. From the grief and suffering he is going through, he finally quits his target on the worm, "Who wants a worm anyhow?" before he faints.

Overall, this short feels more of a missed opportunity in terms of its parody as well as story construction. For a short where the main character is a parody of Jerry Colonna, this short managed to pull it off well, except I wish they could have explored with the parody further, especially in the scenes where the worm was underplayed. The sequences and the pacing in-between felt rather unfocused and rushed, and thus they just run altogether. Freleng's timing is certainly at the top of his game, and he continues to surprise the audience with each cartoon he turns out. This was a rather average short which could have been better, and could have explored the satire a lot more. The Colonna worm was amusing, but personally I don't believe the short was good enough to warrant a sequel: Greetings Bait. I suppose the short was popular amongst its audience, and probably was the reason for giving the worm one last appearance.

Rating: 2.5/5.