Saturday, 19 May 2018

423. Tom Turk and Daffy (1944)

featuring PORKY PIG
Warner cartoon no. 422.
Release date: February 12, 1944.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig, Daffy Duck), Billy Bletcher (Turkey).
Story: The Staff.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Daffy Duck protects a turkey from becoming a Thanksgiving dinner, hunted by Porky Pig. Soon, he turns into a "stool pigeon" by betraying the turkey's trust.

Before I commence with the review; I'm not going to theorise too much on the story credit for this cartoon. The context of "The Staff" credit has been forgotten overtime; much to the chagrin of some cartoon fans. Don't take my guess for granted; but I believe it was simply a joke by the Schlesinger crew. After all, would 1944 audiences really care on who wrote the cartoon?


If I had to pinpoint a writer, I'd say Mike Maltese, or maybe Ted Pierce. Then again, Leon Schlesinger also employed gagmen in his service. Hubie Karp worked as a gagman for Michael Maltese, although he wasn't hired until late 1944. Any idea who might've worked alongside Mike around the time of the cartoon's production?

Onto the review: Porky and Daffy continued to be a successful duo in animated cartoons, that a hatful of story opportunities were open to them. For this cartoon, the locale is centered during the Colonial era. Porky assumes the role of a pilgrim, hunting for a turkey to feast for his Thanksgiving dinner, but Daffy intervenes by hiding the turkey from harm.

The opening sequence serves as exposition for the entire cartoon. In a wintery scenario, Daffy is contentedly building a snowman. Daffy reacts to the off-screen gunshots in a vigorous manner, as broadly depicted in the frame grab. Daffy encounters a desperate turkey, vulnerable from the shooting.


Some wonderful character animation from Bobe Cannon who depicts despair and cowardice in a comical fashion. The turkey cries, "Don't let 'em kill me! I'm too young to die! I've got my whole life before me: love, travel, good books!", and proceeds to climb on top of Daffy, whose weight burdens him, yelling and sobbing "HIDE ME!".


Daffy's nonplussed expression as he sinks slowly in the snow is priceless. It's a beautiful presentation of how one might respond awkwardly to such a plea.

Billy Bletcher clearly has a blast with his vocal performance for the turkey's plea - and wonderfully versatile in vocalising comedy. It's more refreshing from the standard, villainous voice; for which he was typically typecast in cartoons.

Animation by Ken Harris.
Ken Harris' animation beautifully portrays Daffy as ignoramus by showing that the character has no consideration for the turkey's well-being, by physically forcing him down potential hiding places; to no avail. First, he attempts to hide the turkey under a lump of snow and in another attempt down a rabbit hole.

Daffy's characterisation is portrayed in a hilarious fashion, as he jabs the turkey with a pole down the hole, until he reconsiders: "Nah, even more obvious-er."

Daffy's ideas for hiding places become even more hysterically ridiculous as he tries to stuff the turkey inside a narrow tree. Whilst Porky is seen from the distance, Daffy chooses the final hiding spot; and hides the turkey inside a snowman.


Once Porky arrives and meets Daffy, he guards the snowman and attempts to stall Porky. To begin with, Daffy appears to be resilient and defensive; by declaring: "My lips are sealed." In a close-up; Daffy's "loyalty" is featured as a visual metaphor, with a dissolve of padlocks and a vice; supposedly closing his bill tight.

The opening scenes have already established the premise in a precise manner. Daffy hides a turkey, and defends him from hunter Porky. This paves the way for some comedy opportunities based on these characters. Daffy is clearly portrayed as careless and ignorant - so it begins to transcend that.

Porky walks away with disappointment, complaining: "I had everything ready for a nice, big turkey dinner." The following close-up exquisitely illustrates temptation and battling good vs. evil. Daffy is enticed by Porky's remarks about a roast dinner, so much so, that he desires it. Without being wholly corrupted; he forms like an angel, declaring: "I'm no stool pigeon." But, his halo disappears and devil horns appear at the thought of cranberry sauce!


Background colour play a pivotal part in Daffy's torn emotions. He's literally "torn" to the point when the colours are divided to coincide with the staging of the scene. A celestial blue colour depicts his willingness to do good; whilst a more vibrant purple colour suggests a sinister nature consuming him.

Chuck Jones' posing are broad and nutty in a sense, but Daffy's emotions feel very human in his hopeless attempt in fighting temptation; and his corruption. The point-of-view shot of Porky walking away is crisply inter-cut to evoke Daffy's increasing impulse.


Alongside mashed potatoes, chestnut dressings and greened peas; a favourite of Daffy's, candied yams, was also prepared for Porky's dinner. So, Daffy breaks down crying as he bellows: "The yams did it! The yams did it!". He impersonates a stool pigeon and begins to coo (squeal), indicating that Daffy is perfectly willing to reveal the turkey's whereabouts.

Daffy's breakdown serves as an unforgettable scene throughout his entire legacy. Succumbing to temptation and attempting to divert the blame correlates with the human mindset, and yet his betrayal is impeccably funny; right down to the animation and Mel Blanc's voice work.

Of course, like a Chuck Jones cartoon, Daffy directs the turkey's location to Porky with numerous signs, as though his desire isn't escalating any further. Dissolve inside the snowman, the turkey refers to Daffy as: "quisling".


The cartoon takes a different direction with the turkey plotting retribution for Daffy's treachery. The turkey steps in as a plot device to turn the conflict towards Porky and Daffy, rather than what the opening exposition established.

The turkey trails under a pile of snow and hides behind a remorseful crying Daffy. He sacrifices his own feathers to plant them on Daffy's rear end (without his knowledge), and gobbles to attract Porky's attention.

With the exception of Bugs Bunny, the Schlesinger cartoon writers knew fully well that their characters were dumb and unsophisticated. Despite just meeting Daffy a moment ago, Porky completely overlooks this and takes Daffy for a turkey. Daffy's denial isn't enough for the obtuse Porky; which puts him in a vulnerable spot.

Several gags during the chase sequence feel like a throwback to early Chuck Jones cartoons, which involved inanimate objects personified to challenge the character. This is evident in the scene of Porky getting attacked by Daffy's snowballs. Snowballs strike Porky from different directions, including two from opposite sides. Porky comes face-to-face with a large snowball, who mimics every  movement of his. Daffy arises and strikes him with a mallet.


Although Chuck had explored these gags several times in his earlier years (i.e. Elmer attempting to blow the candle out in Good Night, Elmer), the timing is advanced and the gag is kept spontaneous; with Daffy merging from the large snowball.


Further gags take advantage of the winter locale in the cartoon. Daffy fills up a bucket from a lake and tosses the water out of it. The running water solidifies into a piece of ice, and strikes Porky - with forceful timing to illustrate pain.

Daffy showcases his zany ability as he loiters by a tree and pours a glass of water over him, forming into ice. Porky's attempt to crack the ice with his gun creates a comical staggering effect from Ken Harris' animation.

Chuck Jones' innovative use of funny expressions are uniquely showcased in a scene of Porky that's remarkably broad. Porky has been fooled by Daffy from the "toll bridge" gag. He skids from the snow and has a moment of thought. After a series of visual gags highlighting Porky's stupidity, he completely boils up. Porky slams his gun in the ground and is all-out exploding with rage. He anticipates a huge sprint, as he digs up a lot of heavy snow before he exits the scene - animated sublimely by Bobe Cannon.

During the buildup, Porky goes through several angry expressions which are very far-fetched for a character whose relatively tamer compared to Daffy, or even Bugs. It's a unique form of outrageous posing that has seldom been seen in Porky or since. It's a pity that Cannon reportedly despised animating broad and wild, despite how well he excelled in it.

The wildness doesn't end, as during the chase, Porky's rage and speed are executed in a perilous and yet exaggerated sense. To begin with, he transforms into a war tank; symbolising force and danger. Such a gag easily rivals the more outlandish gags Tex Avery would conceive. The great use of energy in Porky's wrath causes a snowy hill to break open into a chasm. The cutting and timing of the chase scenes are a contender for Clampett's more flamboyant energy.


The final scenes of the cartoon are represented as a bookend to the entire cartoon. The turkey is contentedly building a snowman, but is ambushed by a cowardly Daffy. It perfectly matches the opening scene, to demonstrate the changes made through the course of the cartoon - and the heavy emphasis on the characterisations reverse.

The turkey gets the last laugh, as he deliberately re-enacts Daffy's careless attempts to hide the turkey. Soon, his "attempts" to hide Daffy turns ruthless as the turkey kicks Daffy up a tree; and cuts the tree down with an axe, causing it to land on his body.

The fast-cutting becomes very slick and abrupt to showcase the turkey taking pleasure in fulfilling retribution on Daffy. For the final scene, the cartoon ends very appropriately on the turkey continuously beating up Daffy Duck into the night - long after Porky Pig is out of the picture.

So far, Tom Turk and Daffy has become one of Chuck Jones' fastest paced cartoons; and definitely worthy of rivalling Frank Tashlin or Bob Clampett. The writing and structure is sublime and true to the animated cartoon spirit, and the conflict is executed hilariously from a writing standpoint between the three characters; that it keeps the whole viewing experience engaging and spontaneous. I can't emphasise enough on how overly entertaining this cartoon is; all down to its impeccable wit and execution.

Rating: 5/5.

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

422. Meatless Flyday (1944)

Warner cartoon no. 421.
Release date: January 29, 1944.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Cy Kendall (Spider), Mel Blanc (Air Raid Warden).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Jack Bradbury.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A fat, jolly spider attempts to catch a fly for prey; but his traps are consistently foiled.


THE COBWEB HOTEL
(Fleischer, 1936).
The premise of a malicious spider preying on helpless flies was already a cliche in cartoons, by the time Meatless Flyday was in production. The source material can be traced back to John Heywood's pseudo-epic poem, The Spider and the Flie in 1556. Mary Howitt's opening line in her poem of the same name: "Will you come into my parlour? said the spider to the fly", remains one of the most recognisable quotes in English poetry.

Courtesy of Devon Baxter.
By the early 1940s, the Schlesinger studio began inserting twists to old cartoon formulas, ranging from cat-and-canary shorts like Puss 'N Booty. The "victims" were being portrayed as hecklers to the antagonist, which called for stronger gag dynamics and hilarious characterisation.


Michael Maltese's take on the spider vs. fly formula is enriched by some aesthetic characterisation for the short's antagonist. The spider is portrayed as a jolly, loveable rogue - whose sinister motive marks as a deliberate contradiction to his personality.

His persona echoes Tex Avery's laughter and mannerisms, that he previously portrayed in shorts like The Bear's Tale and Ghost Wanted. Tex had already settled at MGM in 1941; so the character's voice is performed by Cy Kendall. Kendall is best remembered as a prolific character performer for over a hundred features, and his Tex "impersonation" works fine. A part of myself suspects that the characterisation has traces of Thockmorton P. Gildersleeve, despite the lack of his signature laugh.

The opening scenes establish conventional traps plotted by the spider, but his bubbly personality almost overlooks them. His first plot is to entice the fly with a sugar cube, attached to a string. He jovially laughs: "Come and get it". It's already indicated that the mute fly is a heckler to the spider, as he advances towards the sugar cube to pick it up. The spider, holding onto the piece of string, is caught by the force of the fly, who holds the cube on top of the ceiling.


In an impressive 3/4 down shot, the spider is hanging perilously from the thread. But, the spider cuts the rope with scissors - leading to the spider's fall as his head is clobbered by several sugar cubes. The spider's jovial personality increases his likability by laughing off his foiled plan and addressing to the audience: "Caught me off my guard."


The following sequence sets up another scenario, only to be foiled again by the heckling fly. The spider is seemingly watching the fly perform a trapeze act with the kitchen hooks - and awaiting his fate. The spider still finds some humour in the scenario as he mocks the fly, "Look at him, tryin' to heckle me! A poor man's Bugs Bunny". So, he laughs some more!

In the spider's first attempt to eat him, the fly narrowly escapes a close call. He stretches his tongue like a rubber band and releases it, causing him to stagger. In the second attempt; the spider is hanging onto one of the hooks; and momentarily traps him. A la Bugs Bunny, the fly kisses the spider and gives him the hot-foot.


Michael Maltese's lighthearted approach to the spider enhances the comedy to more the standard scenarios, seen in the earlier sequences. The spider finds himself in greater peril compared to the previous scene, once he's falling from the hook with his burning feet.

Even when facing calamity, he continues to find amusement from it. He laughs and speaks to the audience: "Look folks, I'm a Zero!". It serves as a funny metaphor that implies the spider is portrayed as a kamikaze pilot, plummeting to disaster. Instead of destruction, he's clobbered again by sugar cubes.

For the following sequence; Friz Freleng's use of direction and dynamics turn to a more menacing approach. The first few shots puts emphasis on the spider's hand preparing another plot for the fly: which involves painting a buckshot, to disguise it as candy. It's nicely executed in staging to emphasise peril.


For a moment, the plan succeeds as the fly gulps a handful of buckshots down his mouth. The weight of the buckshots make it incredibly difficult for the fly to leap out of sight - resulting in a small chase scene.

Freleng's crisp timing starts to takes its course, once the spider casually holds a magnet out for the fly. As he attempts to resist, the power of the magnet increases to the point when a door forcefully opens; leading to knives and other cutlery speeding towards the spider. Freleng's timing turns to a brutal effect as the knives supposedly finishes the spider off.


The camera pans to reveal that the spider narrowly evaded his end. Friz adds an additional piece of horrific value, when a meat cleaver supposedly slices off a part of his leg. In a close-up, the audience are reassured that his toes remain intact, as they pop up from his partly-cut shoe one-by-one.

Freleng's timing solution works to great effect in a detonation gag. The spider spots the fly posing as a figurine in the ambiguous feature of a wedding cake in a household. The spider poses next to the fly's disguise as a groom, and cackles with cruel irony: "Hello, Sweetie-Face". The scene is at first depicted in close-up of the spider, but the camera trucks back to reveal a firecracker the fly replaced off-screen. The spider menacingly says, "How about a little kiss?" to the "fly", unbeknownst to him. As the spider kisses in anticipation, the cracker detonates. A classic testament of how comedy is executed through clarity and staging.

Friz Freleng's masterful timing is highlighted in an elaborate chase sequence, of the spider and the fly's chase through an electrical conduit. The chase is comically interpreted through effects animation. The fly is visually represented as a yellow light; and the spider being red.

Some wonderful touches are added for comedic effect; such as the fly's take, which reads as "Yipe!". The pair chase run down the conduit separately, creating a figure eight until they crash into each other.

Soon, the effects animation depicting the chase becomes more absurd. At the center of a conduit, random pieces of imagery like flowers and other assorted things start to flash to Carl Stalling's score. The gag is reminiscent of a neon billboard gag, seen in Freleng's Light's Fantastic. It also serves as a forerunner for the mine sequence in Chuck Jones' Beep Beep, many years later. 

The multicoloured flashing lights catches the attention of an air raid warden, who yells: "Put out that light!". And so, the lights flickers out in succession - leading the pair back inside the house. It's probably an animated highlight of the entire cartoon. It's beautifully elaborate and funny, to the credit of Freleng and Stalling; and the effects animation.

For the closing sequence; the spider finally catches the fly. The scene fades in to reveal the spider scraping his knife, ready to feast on the fly. The audience are expecting a twist that intervenes with the fly's demise. But, the payoff is a tad disappointing and predictable. The fly points a calendar to the spider, which reveals the date to be "Meatless Tuesday": a WW2 government campaign to encourage the public by rationing their meat for the war effort.


The spider responds with great irritation and angst, that he takes the matter over to the U.S. Capitol. The final shot of the Capitol's window depicts the spider's off-screen complaints to government officials: "You can't do this to me! You just can't!".

It's a satisfying and humorous gag to close the cartoon, but a part of the problem of its predictability is that it links to the cartoon's parodying title: Meatless Flyday. The payoff would've been executed had a different title been suggested. Despite my nitpicking, it's plausible that WW2 audiences overlooked that detail.

To conclude: Meatless Flyday, despite being relatively short, serves as a nice potboiler; enriched by funny characterisation. Michael Maltese's forward-thinking approach to story makes a somewhat tired formula feel fresh and inventive. A portion of the gags are heavily themed with wartime references, but the premise itself has a timeless quality. As discussed, the electrical conduit sequence wonderfully showcases Friz Freleng and Carl Stalling's timing - which is a challenging feat from a lot of levels. Despite the jolly, Tex Avery-persona used several times in cartoons - it never fails to charm.

Rating: 3/5.

Friday, 27 April 2018

Sam Armstrong (1893-1977)

Sam Armstrong might not be strongly associated with Warner Bros' cartoon legacy - but he certainly contributed his fair share to the Golden Age of Hollywood animation. Armstrong was present during the glory years of Disney's most lavish feature productions - having worked on Snow White, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. His brief tenure at Warner Bros. however, is largely overlooked.

He's only credited for layouts on two shorts: Hare-Abian Knights (dir: Ken Harris) and Really Scent (dir: Abe Levitow). Both cartoons were released in 1959, and the studio was past their prime then.

Neither cartoons are particularly outstanding. Hare-Abian is simply a filler cartoon that showcases Bugs Bunny's better performances - through clip shows. While that era might've been staled by economic factors, the layout and colour styling maintained dynamics and atmosphere.


Armstrong's layout work in these cartoons certainly channels the UPA influence that took the Hollywood animation studios by storm in the 1950s.

Whilst the influence is unanimous; Armstrong's staging evokes the talent and profession that forever earned his solid reputation as an artist and director at Disney.

Samuel John Armstrong was born on November 7, 1893 in Denver, Colorado, to parents John and Nettie Armstrong. His father, a native of England, was a travelling salesman. By 1900, the Armstrong clan resided in San Francisco. Armstrong's art training took place at the Philadelphia School of Industrial Art. According to Sam's draft registration from 1917, he worked as a commercial photographer for the Los Angeles Express Tribune. He lived in Tacoma, Washington from 1918 to 1929, where he worked as an art editor for the News Tribune. In 1923, he founded the Armstrong School of Art in Tacoma. By the 1930s, he had moved to Santa Barbara where he painted a mural for Amy C. du Pont's home, nearby Montecito. For more information on his mural work, see Yowp's post here:

For most of his life, Armstrong lived with his mother - and he resided in Glendale during the 1930s. The U.S. 1940 Census indicates that Armstrong and Nettie (his mother) lived in Valley Spring Lane. At one point, he was a neighbour of Adrian, an infamous costume designer for a number of MGM features.

Sam Armstrong joined the Disney Studios in the publicity department on June 6, 1934, and soon afterwards he transferred to the background department. He painted backgrounds for various shorts, like The Country Cousin and The Old Mill.

Walt clearly admired Armstrong's talent, as he was blessed with the position of supervising the backgrounds for the studio's first full-length feature, Snow White, for which he was responsible for "approximately two-thirds of the key backgrounds." For the promotional film, A Trip Through Walt Disney Studios, filmed in July 1937 by Bill Garity - Armstrong is briefly seen painting a watercolored background for an interior of the dwarf's cottage.

In a rare 1939 interview that was recently published in Didier Ghez's Walt's People - Volume 20, Sam went into great detail about the background process that embellished Snow White. He spoke in great detail about the experimentation of colour and the search for a subtle atmosphere, which would be a huge step up from the Silly Symphonies.

In one passage, he said: "I had many, many conferences with Walt about the thing he had said all through the earlier inceptions of the work that he wanted the color kept almost monochromatic. He felt that we had overplayed our hands in coloring the shorts and that in Snow White, it being a long picture, and still being an unknown quality, in cartoon form, he thought it would drive the audience out of the theater if we used the type of coloring that we used in the shorts up to that point."

Sam was later made a director on the "Toccata and Fugue" and "Nutcracker Suite" segments in Fantasia. Don Lusk, an animator on the "Nutcracker" segment, saw a different perspective of the director, when Joe Campana and myself spoke with him on September 9, 2017. He recalled:

"His mother would bring him to work, and his mother would pick him up [every day]. He was the director [on the fish ballet], but I never knew anything he directed. Walt directed it. Sam didn't know anything. I don't know what the connection there was. We'd go into the sweatbox and run [the rough animation] I'd done. And Walt did all the talking. Sam never said 'boo'. I don't think he knew how to say it."

Unfortunately, Armstrong isn't remembered fondly by some of his former colleagues. Maurice Noble described him as a "selfish, ambitious person". He also recollects his brief tenure at Warners: "One time, many years later, I was working at Warner Bros. and that's the last time I saw Sam. They were considering hiring him for something, to do some layout work or something like that. It turned out that he was too ingrained with the Disney snob. And he couldn't fit into what we were doing at Warner Bros. He came in and saw me in my room a couple of times. Then all of a sudden he disappeared and that's the last I ever saw of Sam." Although Armstrong's career at Warners was relatively short-lived; none of the layouts for those two cartoons suggest his failure to adapt to the stylised look.

Armstrong left the studio on September 12, 1941. Little is known about what jobs he took between leaving Disney's and his brief tenure at Warner's. In 1951, he did illustrations alongside ex-Disney employee Riley Thomson for a Woody Woodpecker children's book, Peck of Trouble. Joe Campana's research indicates that Armstrong might've worked briefly for John Sutherland - but when he worked there, or how long his stay was - I don't know. He never married. There are several conflicting sources regarding his death - but based on Joe Campana's reliable research, he died on January 24, 1977 in Los Angeles, California.

(Thanks to Yowp, Didier Ghez, David Johnson and Joe Campana).