Wednesday 18 February 2015

370. Hobby Horse-Laffs (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 369.
Release date: June 6, 1942.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Norm McCabe.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Robert C. Bruce (Narrator), Mel Blanc (Various voices), Kent Rogers (Strongfort, Giggleswick, Potts). (Thanks Keith Scott!)
Story: Melvin Millar.
Animation: Cal Dalton.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A take-off on an old radio program, Hobby Lobby, as it satirises different hobbies from different individuals.

For those who don't know, the satire on the cartoon is based on a more obscure radio programme of its time, Hobby Lobby, where guests on the show would talk in detail about their hobbies - (sounds fun). This short is loosely based on the programme except it's presented in the style of a documentary, much like a Warner Bros. travelogue parody.

Satire is used well in particular scenes that exaggerate a hobbyist's enthusiasm or collection. The opening scene of the hobbyist's huge boat collection is a fine example. It opens like a typical spotgag cartoon, with a layout shot of his vast collection of different ship designs such as a Viking ship, a yacht, etc.

The scene pans forward to reveal more of the collection of boats, and the narrator comments that the hobbyist is "crazy about boats."  The pan moves forward to the hobbyist, dressed as an admiral, sailing a small boat, and rowing the oars.

This is great satire on hobbyists who still aren't satisfied with an already large collection. To make his passion for boats seem more bizarre, he'll quote Captain Blime: "It's mutiny, Mr. Christian!" and make childish noises as he plays with his lips. Other good pieces of satire is the scene of the man who enjoys creating "biggest boons to mankind." This leads to some nutty ideas of the man dunking doughnuts into a cup of tea, and how there is always a flaw in a boon. He soaks the tea inside by opening a small device which sucks the tea inside, soaking the entire doughnut. As soon as he bites the doughnut, all the tea squirts out from different areas of the doughnut, squirting and soaking him.

Other sequences with satire that pays off is in the magician sequence, the magician being named, Giggleswick. The narrator mentions him as a performer of "amateur magic". So, Melvin Millar exaggerates the term, by making the magician seem very amateurish. It's worth to mention this, according to Joe Torcivia, who knew Don Christensen, Don said he was Melvin Millar's uncredited writing partner, and worked with him on shorts that bear only Millar's name, from '42 onwards. As this cartoon is credited to Millar, it's very likely Christensen would've contributed to the sequence, too.

Kent Rogers, who voices the character, does a pretty spot-on impersonation of Richard Haydn, who was known for his work on the Burns and Allen Show, but nowadays is more well-known as the Caterpillar in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, or Uncle Max in The Sound of Music.

The magician explains about his magic trick, by placing the cloth over the fishbowl, and with his incantations, he will make the goldfish disappear. As he shouts his incantation: "Alakazam! Alakazam! Presto!", the magic trick backfires--he vanishes himself. The invisible magician unveils the cloth from the bowl, with the magician's head caught underneath the bowl, criticising his inanimate moving clothes: "A fine magician you are!". It's a fun little sequence as it is itself surprising, and Roger's performance on the character is delightful.

McCabe shows a good understanding of timing in the scene of a "Prof. Blooper" supposedly imitating musical instruments. The performer, who imitates the violin, slap bass, piccolo, etc. provides a good opportunity for Stalling to create a musical gag into it, as well as for McCabe to achieve fun timing.

After imitating several different instruments individually, his next step is to play all of them "altogether". With this, we need to a frantic shot of the performer imitating different instruments with double-exposed shadow effects to create the comedic timing.

 McCabe's competent timing and energy leads to the performer, fatigued as he collapses; revealing a recorder hiding underneath his tuxedo. He finally admits: "I was cheating", which satirises hoaxes on talent shows. Another great sequence with funny, unpredictable timing is seen in the short scene of the hobbyist who is said to have "the largest collection of hotel towels and silverware in the entire world." At this moment, the prison bars shut; revealing the hobbyist to be in a prison cell. It's a great scene with excellent scene merely because of how deadpan and unpredictable it is, as it's suggesting he is a thief.

The spotgag also features a handful of gags that center on plants and nature. One that comes to mind is the cactus gag. This is a sequence which requires very little animation, so this is McCabe cutting corners, and yet still attempting to make a gag work. The scene is set at a home, where its private garden features nothing but cactuses.

The hobbyist, is seen in the next shot, strolling around the cactus garden. At this moment, the hobbyist, unseen, yells in pain as he gets jabbed by the cactuses, with the cactuses vibrating.

This was a unique way of making a gag work, as the cactuses moving are convincing enough to feel pain, plus Blanc's delivery on yelling sounds. Another plant gag, with also some funny punchlines is seen from the scene of the florist. He is reported to have developed a "marvellous plant food" which is said to have the ability to make plants grow. At this moment, the seed rapidly grows in the pot, transforming into a beanstalk, and driving the hobbyist from the site. He yells out in a fading cry, "It's a possibility!". Blanc adds to the great charm in that yell.

The sequence of the dwarf Scottish hobbyist taming a vicious dog is a great way of adding tension and suspense to a sequence, where one would wonder if he succeeded in his task. Since Mel Blanc provides a comical Scottish accent, it's hard to take the sequence seriously. The name of the dog, Lochinvar, is a literary reference to the Walter Scott poem, Marmion, where the main character was named Lochinvar himself.

As the tamer walks inside Lochinvar's kennel, the action occurs off-screen, and as he exits the kennel, the tamer remarks: "I guess you realises who's master around here. Aye!". The following scene, in a rear shot, it's evident he's been attacked by the rock, as a piece of his trousers are missing.

The scene of the mailman is a fun sequence, albeit cynical. It starts with an old-timer postman driving, and explains about how Mr. Hutsut has a dangerous hobby of experimenting with explosives. Mr. Hutsut, of course being a reference to the Hut-Sut Song. As the mailman arrives at his letterbox, an unseen explosion occurs at the Hutsut household. At this point, it is hinted he had died in the collision as the mailman writes at the back of the postcard, "forwarding address UNKNOWN", with the Taps military piece heard in the underscore.

Nevertheless, the cartoon itself does suffer from lame gags that have either lame concepts or puns. One sequence centers on hobbyists who have a passion for flying. The scene features an instruction giving an unheard lecture on flying, and one-by-one they leave the scene, to learn to fly. As the narrator puts it: "In man's closest challenge: to the art of the birds." As the camera pans, it's revealed that the hobbyists are flying like birds, ending in a rather corny pun.

Another sequence with a corny concept is featured in another sequence that focuses on boons, the anti-hotfoot shoe. The invention is demonstrated with a hotfoot being placed on a man's shoe. At this moment, little gadgets appear from a shoe, such as a bell ringing the alert, and a water can extends from  the end of the shoe, extinguishing the flame. It hardly seems like a gag, and more of a crazy concept.

For gags which are unpredictable in delivery, a striking example occurs in the carrot eating sequence. The scene centers on a character, Herbert Strongfold, who has an unusual hobby of having  healthy diet, eating raw carrots. He presents himself with his strong physique. At this point, the narrator asks: "Is there any drawback deluding exclusively on raw carrots?. At this point, he raises his hat, revealing his rabbit ears. He is shown to be particularly unaware of his major drawback as he comments in Kent Roger's dumb voice, "Uh, no, not that I know of", and wriggles his nose as a result.

Moving forward to the final sequence in the short, we cut to a scene involving passengers on a train. One man is seen reading a newspaper, and a man behind him hogging the paper, wanting to turn over to individual pages. At this point, the bearded him announces, "My name is Potts, I got a hobby, too. I make all kinds of handy gadgets." At this point, he produces a gadget with an extended hand poking the other passenger in the eyes.

The voice of Potts, by Kent Rogers, according to Keith Scott, he is impersonating John Qualen, a movie character actor. At this moment, the narrator comments: "I'm sure everyone will be glad you've given this device to the world." At this moment, the entire passengers on the train contradict that comment, where they all have black eyes: "Everybody will be so glad, he says."

In conclusion, Hobby Horse-Laffs may be one of the more forgettable shorts in the Warner Bros. cartoon library, but in all, I'd say parts of it hold up pretty well. It's certainly a more passible cartoon than Nutty News. Several sequences show that Norm McCabe is a competent director, particularly in timing as well as his approach to humour.  Some great voice acting effort by Kent Rogers and Blanc did save the short, however, particularly Rogers who as a teenager was remarkable at impersonating celebrities professionally, especially his take on Richard Haydn. Although some of the gags fall flat, and it is a little dated in humour, it does only pass as adequate.

Rating: 2.5/5.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

369. Lights Fantastic (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 368.
Release date: May 23, 1942.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Various voices).
Story: Sgt. Dave Monahan.
Animation: Gil Turner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A take-off on billboard advertising products, satirising billboards with commercial characters singing and dancing.

Although this may not be a Warner cartoon up to anybody's taste; it is without doubt one of the most strange and unique shorts in their entire stock library. Instead of creating a spot-gag cartoon based on billboards, Freleng turns the concept into a musical concept, as well as a short where he can practice and improve on his timing.

The opening scene features an elaborate color stock footage of New York Times Square at night. However, by the time World War II hit America, the Times Square lights went out, so the stock footage would've been filmed some years ago.

If you look really closely, you'll find a cinema with bright neon lights reading: May Way for Tomorrow, which was first released in 1937. One can assume this was when the footage was shot. However, the film could've been a possible re-release or it ran in theatres longer than '37 - can you clarify Yowp? The stock footage has also been used in several shorts, Rebel Rabbit being a striking example.

Friz experiments and has fun with exploring unique types of timing, as well as achieving a different type of comedy. The typewriter-billboard gag is a good example of that. Friz's timing combined with Stalling's original cue is the icing on the cake.

The billboard is advertising an Understood Typewriters product. The gag itself is is the billboard is typewriting positive statements: "It's Sensational! It's Colossal!", which at the time were key adjective words used in advertising to describe a product or motion picture.

It becomes even more of a gag, as the typewriter on the billboard fails to spell the word "Stupendous". Freleng has the writer pause for a while, deliberately ruining the jingle and timing of music. As soon as the typewriter incorrectly types a letter, it crosses out the verse, and starts a new one: again, making another make. After a pause, the typewriter quickly spells out: "It's Swell!". It's great satire that contradicts what the advertisements make it out to me, and Stalling's improvised cue really adds to the charm.

Freleng's timing is also put to excellent use in the effects animated billboard sequence which animates a beautiful scenic image in synchronisation to the Johann Strauss's Voice of Spring. Freleng has re-used the sequence later in Holiday for Shoestrings, but both are excellent showcases of Friz's abilities. To achieve such a scene, it would require a lot of careful, meticulous planning on not only timing the pieces in the animated billboard, but also how the layout will look.

Freleng's knowledge of music is put to excellent use, as he finds an elaborate piece that would fit perfectly to a sequence like this. It's a wonder how Freleng managed to accomplish this incredible, ambitious task: twice! Not only is it a gag that has an animated billboard move in the rhythm of the classical piece, but it becomes even more of a gag as it's revealed in the typical Warners gag Eat at Joe's.

As dated as some of the cartoon is today, racial stereotypes are guaranteed, but only for entertainment purposes. The gags involving Chinese billboard signs set in Chinatown. One gag involves a bus conductor seeking a crowd to go for a bus excursion. After the last remaining passengers enter the bus, the scene trucks back to reveal two Chinese men picking up the bus like a rickshaw, and leave.

The sequence with a group of Chinese men reading the sign notices is much more humorous. As Chinese handwriting tends to be written written as one word, and the neon sign is very thin. This causes them to stretch their legs to read the rest of the advertisement written in Chinese.

They do this every time Chinese handwriting slides upwards up at the sign. Mel does a great accent on Chinese men muttering as they read, adds to the comedy and realism. Another Chinese-related gag appears in a billboard sign advertising a free eye test, courtesy of Dr. I.C. Spots (heh - where's Ben Hardaway when you need him?).

As each word pops up, it gets smaller and smaller. Finally the smallest writing is written in Chinese, and the doctor announces: "If you can read this: you are Chinese!". This is probably the most politically incorrect gag of the whole short, even though you can't help but snigger at it.

Other great sequences which show excellent satire is seen in some of the musical number sequences. One for example, would be the Laugh, Clown, Laugh sequence. In the billboard poster, a clown representing a comedic advert begins to sing the infamous song. As soon as he sings the word 'laugh', he slowly begins to chuckle, and later breaks down, cracking with laughter. Gil Turner, who animated the scene, really added the energy to the gag, making it enjoyable.

Other enjoyable sequences that occur would be the can-can sequence. This wasn't the first time we saw "can-can" performers in a Warner short (see Goofy Groceries), but instead they are dancing to the song number. In this sequence, the can-can dancers, disguised as coffee bean cans, perform their dance as well as reveal their rear ends (the ends of a tin can), to the popular song: The Latin Quarter. The result of the gag, is that the billboard adds another neon sign, reading: it's dated. The back of the tin cans reveal dated can as "Jan 5, 1942", four months after it was released. It's another great satire on false advertising.

Perhaps the highlight of the cartoon would be the satire on the Four Roses whiskey, spoofed as Four Noses. This features animated stick figurines with big, red noses sticking out. They go into a jingle, singing My High-Polished Nose, which is a take-off to the popular song My Wild Irish Rose. Not only is a great sequence, but it's a great little jingle that sets the mood and atmosphere into a positive one. The stick figurines were designed appealingly, giving the sequence a rather unique look towards it, artistically. The little nose character, who sings back-up: "It sparkles and gleams at night" adds to the charm. A top-notch sequence.

As the cartoon reaches its finale: it's finale ends on a high note: a musical, rhymic sequence. This showed great cooperation between Freleng Stalling as they plan their timing and music, to coincide with the billboard characters as they dance to Annabella, in rhythm to the Congo.

The sequence starts out uniquely, with a cup of coffee dripping, and the dripping noise starts the beat of the finale. This follows by a group of peanuts shaking, adding more rhythm; a cow chewing at another billboard ad (ringing its bell).

Then the rhythmic beat really begins. We get amusing gags which add to the charm. The liver oil billboard scene is a scene which amuses me most. We get a pair (a man and fish) dancing together during the conga. The man has the fish attached to a rope, as they dance; they switch positions (see screenshot). Perhaps the funniest scene in the finale is the Egyptian cigarettes billboard scene. The billboard is created with several picture slides, we get a a couple of Egyptians performing their cultural dance, then we get a hotfoot gag, with an Egyptian stomping the hand of the culprit. It's a gag incredibly decent, it was used once more in A Hare Grows in Manhattan. Some decent editing in the final shot of Times Square as the footage pauses to match the rhythmic beat, as the cartoon closes.

Although an unusual Warner Bros. short, it's still worth a pass for its creativity and unique concept. Even though it's mainly an update of the old "sing-and-dance" routine from the 30s shorts, Friz's update shows how advanced and experienced he became a director, after directing those mundane 30s Merrie Melodies himself. His timing is to a tee in this short, and his knowledge of music is evident. It really hasn't got a narrative or story, but merely a mood piece--to enchant audiences with melodies and comical sequences. It's no wonder why several later cartoons have repeated several gags in the cartoon because of its clever, conceived gags and sequences. Overall, I think it's an enjoyable, unique effort from Freleng, and it's certainly worth the watch.

Ratings: 3.5/5.

Monday 16 February 2015

368. Nutty News (1942)

Warner cartoon no. 367.
Release date: May 23, 1942.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Arthur Q. Bryan (Narrator), Mel Blanc (Various Voices).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Virgil Ross.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Spot-gag cartoon centring on the news which explores the latest inventions or anything unusual.

Judging by the original titles of the cartoon; one would expect this short to be a home run of Clampett's with many wacky and surprising gags along the way. The opening titles are very appealing and "nutty", as they're presented upside down--before they're switched to its right position. Not to mention, there's also wacky Treg Brown effects to add to the gag. What else could go wrong?

However, I proved to be very wrong when I judged a cartoon's titles by it's cover. This is one of Clampett's more uninspiring cartoons, and the titles really lack your expectations. It's a wonder if Clampett even devoted to this entire cartoon, due to a lot of inconsistencies in animation and design.

Not only does it lack Clampett's energy, but in several sequences, you'll find scenes which look like they were done by Freleng animators; from observing the drawing style, which looks nothing like Clampett. If anyone refers the unseen narrator as Elmer Fudd, then please do if you insist. However, I'm more willing to go along with the idea that it's just a narrator, voiced by Arthur Q. Bryan.

The cartoon itself does still contain elements of Clampett's juvenile humour. The start of the cartoon, with the moose gag is a striking example. The Arthur Q. Bryan narrator gives a report about hunting season occurring at the "Wocky Mountains". Like any spotgag, there will be a device to make a gag backfire: the device being the moose caller.

As the hunter blows into the horn, we pan to the horse who blows "Yoo-hoo" into another horn---catching the hunter's attention. The moose strikes the hunter, and stands on top of him, in a victorious posture; and impersonating the Tarzan yell.

Another sequence which features some of Clampett's charm and subtlety is featured in the painting sequence. The scene occurs in the middle of the short, where the artist is Frank Putty. In the scene, the painter is seen supposedly painting a real-life supermodel. He sticks his thumb out, as he paints, supposedly painting a supermodel who is seen in silhouette.

Though it contains some subtle humour by Clampett, the drawing and animation of the artist clearly reflects the style of a Freleng animator (unless it is purely coincidental). After completing the painting, the artist reveals the finished work on his canvas. He pulls it out, showing a painting of his own thumb. Some amusing irony in this sequence, where the suspense is paid off with a gag as innocent as Warren Foster conceived it.

Clampett also likes of the idea of cutting corners, particularly in sequences which require no animation. One sequence evident is in the science lab sequence. The narrator gives an appoint on recent scientific reports analysing the secrets of life, and we are privileged to get a sneak peek of how rabbits "multiply". As predictable and as corny gags get: the scene reveals a pair of rabbits quickly multiplying mathematical sums (two times tables). The cutting corners is evident in the animation, as only the mouths are animated. This technique is somewhat similar to Tex Avery's Speaking of the Animals series, with live-action animals and animated mouths, but instead we get the rabbits drawn in the layout.

Another sequence of Clampett limiting animation follows right after the rabbits sequence. The narrator reports about how in the East Coast, fireflies have lights. The narrator remarks: "Here we see them with their wights all wit up." The narrator repeats this again, but his statement is contradicted by unseen fireflies who shout: "QUIET! We're having a blackout!", hence why they're unseen or animated.

Like in a lot of Warner Bros. cartoons, the occasional staff caricature would go unnoticed by anyone who isn't a fan of animation. Caricatures on staff members were always used for fun, particularly on incidental characters. Henry Binder, Leon Schlesinger, and animator Ken Harris have probably been caricatured more times than anyone at Termite Terrace. Schlesinger and Harris appear in a caricature later on, portrayed as builders. Harris, has especially been caricatured more than anybody: even immortalised as the Coyote.

Henry Binder is caricatured in an entire sequence that centers on modern inventions. The narrator explains about how people get paranoid of having their coats or hats stolen while in a restaurant. A test invention happens, when a Binder caricature sits at a table, and places his hat and coat up on a rack.

At this moment, he reveals his latest invention: a rear-view mirror, so he can eat and watch potential thefts at the same time. The scene fades out to the following scene, where it is set a little later from earlier.

The man has finished his meal, and his hat and coat has remained at the rack. He remarks, "I'm too smart for 'em". As he leaves the restaurant, his shoes and trousers have been stolen, unknown to him. Perhaps one of the only few funny gags in the short, albeit a little corny.

In terms of sequences that has a good gag purpose: the baseball gag is another example. The narrator reflects on an old tale of how George Washington tossed a silver dollar across the Potomac River. The narrator reports on baseball player Carl Bubble (a take-off on player Carl Hubbell).

He is seen standing at the exact spot at Potomac River, where Washington once stood. The purpose is so he can prove anybody could throw a dollar across the river. At this moment, the player anticipates striking pose; and then he releases the silver, only to discover that the coin barely made it halfway through the river.

At this moment, a Scotty dog comments on the event, remarking a funny statement: "Well, a dollar just doesn't go as far these days, does it folks?". This is amusing satire, satirising the U.S. economy. Although the appearance of the Scotty dog is out of nowhere, Blanc's Scottish accent adds the charm.

Other backfire gags which appear is the duckling sequence. The narrator comments on how newly-hatched ducklings love to swim in the water once they're born. These leads to an assembly line of ducklings marching to the lake, with a baby chick following them. Each duckling lands on top of the lake safely, except for the chicken who falls underneath. The mother duck swims into scene, correcting: "You shouldn't have jumped in that water. You're a chicken. Chickens can't swim." Underneath, an annoyed chicken drums his fingers, replying: "Meh, now he tells me!" (Reference anyone?). A bit of a predictable gag, lacking effort and thought.

The fox-hunting scene feels a lot more Clampett-esque than the rest of the cartoon. His timing, his cartoonic style as well as humour is all compiled in that scene. Clampett has a taste for timing in scenes of the dogs barking in rhythm to the horn calling. The use of silhouette from the hounds moving is also dynamic and appealing.

As the hunt begins, the lead hound ascends first; followed by the rest of the hounds. We watch the hounds hunting foxes in silhouette--with a cute little puppy last in the chase. Cuteness and youth is also another common trait for Clampett.

As the hounds continue to run back and forth, the narrator comments: "Those dogs seem confused! I wonder where that wead dog went to?" The scene pans towards a bush where the head hound and vixen are seen having a romantic moment together. The dog giggles, "Give me a kiss, or I'll tell the other dogs where you are." This is a great little sequence, which is typical in Clampett's pacing as well as killing the suspense and build ups for the scene.

Wartime references were also guaranteed to appear in spot-gag shorts. An example appears in the barber shop sequence, although the reference is hardly vague. The scene begins with a barbershop attempting to cut a reluctant boy's air; who constantly squirms and moves (animation-wise, it has a Freleng look to it).

The narrator points out that latest inventions have solved the problem. A jack-in-the-box appears at the sight of the barbershop. The scene continues onwards, the barber attempts to cut the boy's hair, with the boy behaving contrary and reluctant. At this moment, the jack-in-the-box opens with a scary Hitler face growling.

The boy screams, raising his hair upwards. The barber cuts the boy's hair easily, as the boy remains scared stiff. Politically incorrect, yes - but it's a lot more entertaining than anything else in the short. Reaching towards the final gag in, the short, the final gag feels such a rush of an ending. The gag features a list of navy liners at sea. We get an order of navy ships lined up, underneath the pouring rain. First we meet the U.S.S. Conneticut, U.S.S. Mississippi, lastly we meet the U.S.S. California, which is seen shining underneath a lovely sky. It's a piss-poor way of ending, as it lacks closure as well as a climax.

To conclude this review, it is overall a pretty weak effort from Bob Clampett. Some of the jokes fall very flat, whereas there are some which are witty and humorous, like the silver dollar gag as well as the Hitler jack-in-the-box scene. Then there's others like the multiplying gags or the navy liners which don't serve much of a purpose. From watching the short, the promises of great comedy and wacky humour fades from the moment the opening titles fade to the short. To say the opening titles were the highlight of the short must be pretty bad..

However, one would question whether Clampett directed the overall majority of the cartoon? A very inconclusive theory, but I've questioned whether or not this was originally directed by Friz Freleng, and Clampett took it over? For the reasons I've explained, there are sequences which bear animation styles that strongly resemble Freleng's animation style from his animators, and some sequences don't seem to match Clampett's trademarks: as it lacks in energy. Also, notice that there appears to be an absence of top-notch animators like Bob McKimson and Rod Scribner, though McKimson's work is seen the fox hunting sequence. It's possible that perhaps the cartoon was produced before Horton Hatches the Egg, and Clampett took it over for Friz. OR, that Clampett was borrowing animators off his unit (after all, he had Gerry Chiniquy animate Bugs' introduction to the animated wartime song sequence Any Bonds Today?). Or, it could be merely coincidental, which had nothing to do with Friz and Clampett did a lazy job working on the short. I'll leave it to the historians and experts to suggest other theories. No disrespect towards Freleng at all, but both directors don't match in terms of style.

Ratings: 2/5.