Friday 19 May 2017

Tom Palmer revisited

You can find rewritten reviews of Buddy's Day Out and I've Got to Sing a Torch Song, directed by the short-lived Tom Palmer, here.

Sunday 14 May 2017

415. Falling Hare (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 414.
Release date: October 30, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny / Gremlin), Bob Clampett (Vocal effects) (Thanks Keith Scott).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Rod Scribner.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny becomes tormented by a war-time gremlin who attempts to sabotage an aircraft.

How do a lot of people perceive Bugs Bunny generally? A carefree rabbit with a trickster personality. A cartoon involving Bugs Bunny becoming a victim would be entirely out of the question. In the hands of Bob Clampett, it is so the case - and how he approaches it.

Making Bugs Bunny a victim of another foil is an extremely dangerous feat; as it depends entirely on who Bugs' opponent is - based on potency and wit. Bob Clampett's choice of candidate is much more amusing and in context of his cartoon style - by having Bugs run afoul of an unseen power - a fictitious gremlin.

The origin of gremlins go back to the myths of airmen from the Royal Air Force (RAF) in the United Kingdom - the myth that gremlins are impish creatures who have the ability to sabotage aircrafts. In 1943, Welsh author Roald Dahl (best known today for a highlighted career writing children's books) was perhaps first attributed for making the myth known worldwide, by writing his first children's book for the Walt Disney Studios simply titled The Gremlins.

Roald Dahl had served in the RAF during World War II, explaining his awareness of the myth amongst airmen. For what it's worth, Dahl himself was involved in a plane crash during his post at Libya in September 1940.

Reportedly, the concept created a lot of superstition amongst many airmen. And so, it enhanced further possibilities for wartime animated cartoons. By placing Bugs Bunny in that environment, Clampett and Warren Foster don't shy away from limiting the possible consequences Bugs would face once he encounters a gremlin.

Bob Clampett must've taken a liking to the Dahl story, as well as the gremlins concept - enough so, it warranted another directed-cartoon, Russian Rhapsody which was released shortly after this cartoon.

The opening sequence has a very satisfying yet unpredictable tone. From any first-viewing experience, it's difficult to determine what Clampett has lied in store. For much of the short's first minute of running time; it's animation free - which is possibly attributed by Clampett's careless management skills.

A Clampett-esque sign gag is featured as the cartoon's establishing shot which is followed by a slow pan shot of an air base, whilst Carl Stalling plays We're in to Win in the background.

The lack of new animation is soon compensated in the following scene - which features some of the most beautiful character animation ever conceived by the studio. Bob McKimson's work of Bugs' introduction is usually hailed as a tour de force piece of animation - and rightfully so. Not only is Bugs drawn very appealingly in proportions; but he feels very human. It also serves as a welcoming opening for what's yet to appear.

Bugs is seen as his standard self - sitting on top of a blockbuster bomb, eating his carrot and reading a book which title plays on Alexander P. Seversky's book, Victory Through Air Power. Bugs chuckles over a page he's reading on gremlins - followed by a point of view shot, featuring an illustration of the creatures, along with their descriptions.

Mel Blanc adds some wonderful touches to Bugs' delivery as he reads the text, such as Bugs' misreading on "dia-boo-lickal saa-boh-tay-jee". Bugs laughs mockingly over the notions about gremlins - utilised beautifully by McKimson's acting. Bugs' mocking gesture from his line, "Oh, murder" reads beautifully.

Bugs continues to laugh skeptically about gremlins ("Gremlin! What a fairy tale! Little man. Oh brother!") - until one passes by him. And so, Bugs feels an unusual strike coming from the nose of the blockbuster bomb, causing his body to vibrate broadly. He timidly laughs until he feels another strike.

After a surprisingly calm opening sequence for Bob Clampett - the cartoon effortlessly moves forward.

So, Bugs watches the gremlin attempting to strike the nose of the bomb with his large mallet - in synchronisation to I've Been Working on the Railroad. Bugs is completely unaware of who he's conversing with. The gremlin reveals to Bugs, "The blockbuster bombs don't go off 'til you hit 'em just right!" - broadening Bugs' entranced amazement.

And so, Bugs Bunny is deceived by the gremlin into testing the blockbuster bomb, by borrowing the mallet: "Hey, Mac. Let me take a whack at it". McKimson animates Bugs with an extreme anticipation - causing Bugs to twist his body several times; until he violently halts, hollering "What am I DOING?!".

Clampett's sheer energy begins to kick in a close-up of Bugs Bunny animated by Rod Scribner. Bugs stutters and speculates, "Hey, I bet that was a -- Say, do you think that--? Hey, could that have been a...gremlin?". The gremlin, standing on top of Bugs' whiskers yells in Bugs' ears: "It ain't Wendell Willkie!".

Scribner's timing of Bugs reacting to the holler is excellent in its frantic delivery. The use of layouts and colour styling in Clampett cartoons is always intriguing. Note how in the close-up; Mike Sasanoff only uses one colour to signify suspense. It's quite a risk in changing backgrounds very drastically; but it works well effectively.

Bob Clampett conceives some of the most surrealistic gags surrounding Bugs Bunny ever turned out by the studio. Clampett's energetic gags are typically far too broad for Bugs Bunny - and yet, he experiments with it with surprisingly great results.

Once Bugs Bunny chases after the gremlin, he strikes Bugs on the head with a monkey wrench. After an assembly line of inventive smear animation by Virgil Ross, Bugs momentarily alters his persona to dim-witted Lennie from John Steinbeck's novella, Of Mice and Men.

He dimly asks the Gremlin, "Which way did we go, George?" before collapsing frontwards. Mel Blanc provides a dim-witted voice for Bugs Bunny, to enhance the absurdity of the scene. In the following close-up animated by Rod Scribner, Bugs' posing and expressions are outrageously broad and hysterical as drawings.

The Gremlin pulls open Bugs' eyelids, checking to see if he's fine. Bugs responds, quoting Lou Costello "I'm only three-and-a-half years old" (Correction: See Yowp's comment below), and then flaps his lips in a screwball fashion. Typically, such a scene like this would be completely out of character for Bugs Bunny. Bugs' typically suave disposition would normally deprive from such boundaries. Only Clampett's boyish charm and Scribner's wild animation could bring make a feat pass. The sequence still has shock value today, taking into consideration that Clampett's perilous take on Bugs Bunny hasn't been paralleled.

Clampett's broadness and dangerous experimentation don't end there. Extensive exaggeration is highlighted in a scene of a vertigo Bugs Bunny, whose heart pumps out a 4F rating. Following that, the cartoonish energy is topped as Bugs slams into the wall of the plane. His body compresses into a flat penny - and gracefully shimmers.

Animation by Phil Monroe.
Once the gremlin boards an aircraft to sabotage it; Bugs ambushes him - in a desperate plea for retribution. Bugs, unaware that the gremlin has already started the plane, looks out for the creature by deceivingly calling after him whilst holding onto a monkey wrench. The gremlin appears but kicks Bugs' rear end; whilst hiding behind the aircraft door - laughing the the first few notes of Yankee Doodle. Typical piece of added character from Clampett.

Angered, Bugs attempts to strike the gremlin with the monkey wrench - only breaking the window. This follows in a wonderfully timed, suspenseful piece of action featuring Bugs attempting to run into the aircraft doors - taking a step back farther each time, hoping for greater impact.

The action gets broader to the point where Bugs begins to violate the laws of physics. His feet start up with great anticipation, to the point were the weight of his feet causes the aircraft walls to tilt back. Phil Monroe's animation shows a great use of weight that makes a seemingly preposterous gag look believable from impact.

Carl Stalling's use of the Russian folk song, Dark Eyes fits effectively to build suspense whilst timed accordingly to Monroe's animation - which is now considered a dead art. At the right moment, the gremlin opens the aircraft door - but Bugs' impact is too great as he zips out to an open sky.

One of the short's highlights, asides from observing Bugs Bunny getting tortured, is the animation itself. Arguably some of the most inventive, outlandish pieces of animation ever cranked out by the studio. A scene worthy for analysis is seen in Virgil Ross' animation of Bugs' visual concussion from the monkey wrench that struck his head.

Smear animation dominates a large chunk of the cartoon. Some of them are more conventional, like the smear frame of Bugs, as indicated from the frame grab. Others are more far-out and brave. It's astounding how animators and assistants were able to creatively invent new kinds of smear animation - by still keeping the cartoon action maintained. At times, the stars truly have aligned when it comes to an artistic venture!

From a casual viewing experience, the smear work doesn't scream for attention - but it evidently shows the enjoyment and endless possibilities of animation.

From a cartoon standpoint, a lot of the gags conceived are fairly standard - but Clampett's animators enforce so much energy to make results more effective than what would be typically acquired. In a repeated gag of the gremlin striking Bugs with the monkey wrench on his foot - another inventive smear is thrown into the action.

The cartoon even features one of the oldest, and most cliched of slapstick gags - the banana peel. It's one of the rarest of occasions when a banana skin gag is actually inventive and hilariously executed.

Bugs Bunny zips back inside the plane after his exposure towards an open skylight. As he reenters the aircraft, he slips on several banana skins planted by the gremlin as sabotage. The action is very quick and energetic. The staging shows some strong dynamics that blends with Clampett's brisk timing. Notice how very daring the animator is on moving perspective within a a couple of frames. Both scenes provide an excellent showcase on how broad animation can improve generic gags.

For the cartoon's climax - Clampett builds up the suspense as Bugs and the gremlin race towards the earth in a diving bomber. Not only is the sequence a masterpiece in dynamics and ambitious staging - but also in comic delivery.

A speed meter that channels
Tex Avery.
The climax is kept exciting and nail-biting. Bugs Bunny has been terrorised by a gremlin throughout this short. It gets to the point where Bugs' fate becomes unpredictable based on Clampett's uncanny handling of the character.

The layout staging and fast cutting are potent in execution. The shots cut back from a diving aircraft, that's animated beautifully as its body begins to strip apart from impact. Hilarious shots cut back to a nauseating Bugs - burdened by fate and sickness.

The pacing and suspense feels like a throwback to Tex Avery's cartoon The Heckling Hare; except in Clampett's cartoon, the pacing and camera staging has far advanced.

Once the moment of impact is present - the aircraft engine sputters; causing the plane to completely halt in mid-air, barely just above the earth. The unpredictable delivery and absurdness of the punchline makes its payoff the more hysterical. In the closing shot, the gremlin reveals that the plane has run out of gas. Bugs confidently eats his carrot whilst confiding to the audience, "You know how it is with these 'A' (gasoline ration) cards" - revealing an 'A' card next to him. Although the gag itself has aged over time, there's no denying that Clampett's hilarious punchline couldn't have been outmatched.

Perhaps my favourite Clampett-directed Bugs Bunny cartoon - Falling Hare is a home run! It's wonderfully thrilling and inspiring, and yet downright hilarious. Admittedly, I'm not a fan of the savage-like persona Bob Clampett later gave Bugs in Hare Ribbin' or Buckaroo Bugs; but his experimenting on characterisation remains unparalleled. Admiration for Clampett continues to escalate by astonishingly observing the risks he took and his fearlessness. Other cartoon directors would shy away from such an ambitious experiment, but Clampett's confidence shines. As a director, he took great pride by the creative freedom he was blessed with. It remains a wonderful insight in seeing somebody outwit Bugs Bunny to terrorising levels. At the same time, Clampett remains faithful to its source material - by restoring Bugs' charisma at the cartoon's end. Overall, an excellent cartoon that holds a testament to why Warner Bros. cartoons are exciting to watch. They're original and spontaneous.

Rating: 5/5.

Monday 8 May 2017

414. Fin 'N Catty (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 413.
Release date: October 23, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Robert C. Bruce (Narrator).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Ben Washam.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A goldfish loves his water. But, a cat who wants to eat the fish hates water and exhausts several attempts to retrieve it.

Michael Maltese was very fond of exploring cartoon stories based on animal nature and their instincts. His shorts range from the Coyote and Road Runner, or one-shot masterpieces like Much Ado About Nutting. For the most part, Maltese took advantage of the mannerisms of domestic animals for endless story and gag opportunities. Easier to access and observe in comparison to a zoo visit.

For Fin 'n Catty, Maltese plays around with animal nature and logic - by portraying the natural enemies surrounding a domestic cat and a pet goldfish. As indicated by Bob Bruce's narration, "goldfish must have water in order to exist", but "cats hate water, but must have goldfish in order to exist." Maltese's use of exposition sets up an entire cartoon effortlessly.

The concept of how cats "must eat goldfish in order to exist" is quite perplexing, especially when taking into account that fish isn't a natural diet for cats. An alternate line, "cats must eat in order to exist", would've been more justified, if more obvious. A minor flaw, but either way the cartoon premise is firmly established - with Maltese's creativity and character driven gags to benefit the short.

Chuck Jones' vision and attention to detail would also carry out the cartoon. An example of that is featured on interior scenes of the fish bowl, of a distortion effect achieved by Johnny Burton's camera department to create the illusion of underwater.

Although Michael Maltese used cliched formulas; they were always character driven and unconventional. Maltese creates a funny personality of the cat, based on his extreme dislike of water. In an early scene, the feline dips his claw on top of the fishbowl but turns horrified at the slightest touch of water.

This results in a recurring gag of the cat frantically running towards a toilet paper holder to dry himself. This is accompanied by Chuck's fast-cutting and wonderful facial expressions that gives the cat some added character.

Although the cat's extreme phobia of water is comedically executed for the most part, sometimes it's flawed. In a later sequence of the goldfish outside his fishbowl looking for water, he finds a sink tap dripping with water.

The goldfish leaps over to rinse himself, but finds the faucet completely plugged by the cat's finger. Despite having a dislike of his claw touching water - the cat still would've gotten wet from the tip of his finger. A minor flaw, but earlier scenes highlighting the cat's fear of water, work broadly through Maltese's knack for creating humorous characters and Chuck's posing combined.

Animation by Ben Washam.
Besides a brief bit of narration, the rest of the cartoon is presented through pantomime - which I'm sure Chuck greatly enjoyed. Chuck Jones' use of strong character animation and comedy blend together wonderfully during a sequence of the cat attempting to siphon the fish's water with a hose. On the cat's first attempt, he watches the water siphon through another bowl - but finds the goldfish missing from his original bowl.

Frustrated, the cat attempts to siphon the water back the other way; without realising that the goldfish has plugged its finger on the hose. The fish responds back by blowing the water through hose, drenching the cat's face.

Ben Washam's animation throughout the sequence is wonderfully executed in portraying determination of a tenacious cat. Washam enhances Chuck's posing hilariously during the cat's reaction to water splashed on his face.

Jones' timing is put to great use in the following scenes, of the cat sucking in and blowing through the hose. The air ascends through the hose to the fish's end, causing the goldfish to blow up to the shape of the fishbowl, all puffed up. It's beautifully subtle in execution, that's not overdone whatsoever. The gag is topped once the fish blows back - causing the cat to blow up like helium, and then exhale like a balloon.

Character animation is further showcased in visual gags - as seen earlier when the cat attempts to trick the goldfish with a rubber glove. The cat uses his hands to create an unconvincing human figure representing a Fuller brush man. Some clever posing is conceived in order for the animator to animate a challenging hand walk.

Some of Chuck's most hilarious comic timing appears in a frustration gag sequence involving flypaper. The conniving goldfish has replaced towel paper with flypaper; resulting in an episode of the cat's struggle to remove it.

Flypaper gags in cartoons are perhaps best remembered in the Disney short, Playful Pluto, featuring a sequence with Pluto battling with one. Although it's celebrated for taking character animation to a new level; the sequence lasted over a minute and the gags were fairly conservative for Warners' standards.

By the early 40s, many animations studios had developed a fast-paced style for gags. In the case of flypaper, Chuck times it so broadly and rapidly; it creates an opportunity for more outlandish gags - like a Turban hat, and even more bizarrely, a piece of luggage. Bobe Cannon's animation in the sequence demonstrates great weight on the character's struggle, as well as an inventiveness in broad animation to interpret such far-out gags.

As per usual, one of the key highlights of Chuck's wartime cartoons is the 'avant-garde' layout styling of John McGrew, which varied from short to short. Sometimes they're either colourful, like in The Aristo-Cat or graphical like in Dover Boys. For this short, the stylistic approach is almost entirely abstract.

The background work for the house, like as the floor or ceiling, are entirely interpreted through shapes. In many shots, the backgrounds lack constructed lines to graphically clarify the locations. It's a very similar background style used previously in Jones' The Case of the Missing Hare.

McGrew and background artist Gene Fleury (was he still employed at Schlesinger by this point?), compose very daring angles in an attempt to create clarity of that style. The colour styling of the backgrounds are deliberately kept inconsistent in order to convey mood, which is more forgiving.

The simplistic, abstract approach works well enough to the point where background interference isn't an issue. Chuck Jones was blessed with having solid animators like Ken Harris and Bobe Cannon, whose animated performances kept the audience's attention.

Parts of the abstract layout styling are best highlighted in a series of fast-cutting shots of the cat exhaling from the siphon gag.

After a string of gags focusing on the cat's failure to catch the goldfish - the plot then takes a different spin. At one point after the fish's antics; he hops back into his fishbowl - only to discover the hole is blocked by a dinner plate. The fish realises he's finally being outwitted. This soon follows through several attempts to find water - only to be blocked by the cat's presence.

Some intriguing dynamics and staging are explored; showcasing the fish's struggle to survive without water. A scene dissolves to the fish supposedly stranded in the middle of a canyon; but the poster trucks back to reveal a poster of the Ace Insurance Co.

It's then revealed that the cat is manipulating the scenario, by holding a lamp on top of the fish and moving the beams as the fish crawls. Soon afterwards, the fish starts to experience hallucinations.

The fish spots a swimming pool outdoor location. Once he climbs the ladder and jumps off the diving board - the board match dissolves to the cat's claw, whilst the swimming pool dissolves to the cat's mouth. After a close call - the fish zips out of the cat's body. It's a creative portrayal of hallucination that serves as a compelling piece of suspense as well as a sinister portrayal of the cat.

Animation by Ken Harris
Following the cartoon's climax - the goldfish hides inside a shower, and desperately turning on the taps - which soon overfills with water. The cat, unknowingly aware he is under water - watches the goldfish smugly as he swallows the key. After the cat watches the bubbles arise from his fingers - he double-takes and realises the predicament he's in. The bubble effects spelling "Water?" from his mouth is a beautiful touch, and yet it doesn't violate the pantomime effect.

Desperately, the cat attempts to break away from the overfilled shower - kicking and screaming. Soon, he completely overcomes his dislike for water, as he starts to swim like a fish inside the shower room.

This is soon followed by the closing shot - revealing a twist to end the cartoon. The narrator concludes, "As we were saying, cats hate -- er, (clears throat) cats love water!", as the shot reveals the cat happily snoozing inside a fishbowl - whilst the fishbowl scowls inside a claustrophobic glass cup.

It's an amusing twist to the entire concept of "cats hating water", but admittedly, I feel the overall cartoon ending is a little unjustified. Call me sadistic, but personally I feel the payoff would've worked better with a darker ending - with explanation to WHY cats hate water. After all, the cat was certainly the antagonist of this cartoon.

An ending like that might've been too dark for Chuck Jones; but it's certainly not unheard of (i.e. Angel Puss) - and there could always a light-hearted approach to it. A morbid ending might've been too predictable for Michael Maltese; but either way, the twist works fine for how it is - making it less upsetting.

Fin 'n Catty remains a fine effort from both Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones; despite the fact I feel some elements could've been more justified. Maltese takes on what could be a formulaic plot, which eventually leads to an unpredictable yet humorous twist ending. Jones takes full advantage of Maltese's character personalities through his believable facial expressions that read clearly. Occasionally, characterisation is sometimes flawed within the cat; as analysed earlier. Asides from that, the short features enough gag material and strong visualisation which makes up for some of the cartoon's faults.

Rating: 3/5.