Saturday, 5 August 2017

421. What's Cookin', Doc? (1944)

featuring BUGS BUNNY
Warner cartoon no. 420.
Release date: January 8, 1944.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny); Robert C. Bruce (Narrator).
Story: Michael Sasanoff.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny demands a recount from the Academy voting during the Oscars ceremony.

The Oscars are a mixed bag of opinions. Some will consider it a prestigious ceremony that sets the standards by which all movies are judged. Others might see it as politically driven or biased - especially Bugs Bunny in this Bob Clampett cartoon.

The Warner Bros. cartoon studio didn't win an Oscar until 1947, for Tweetie Pie. The shorts had been nominated beforehand, but were always overthrown from the multiple Oscars won by Disney during the 1930s, and MGM's Tom and Jerry series throughout most of the 40s and 50s.

What's Cookin' Doc feels like a subtle allusion to the studio's lack of success with the Oscars; with Bugs Bunny portrayed as a symbol of disdain. I don't doubt a lot of cartoon studios felt that competition was biased - as expressed from Bugs' words; "It's sa-boh-ta-gee". For the film's premise; Bugs Bunny is competing for an Oscar awarding the Best Actor in a lead role - but angrily demands a recount after the category is awarded to Jimmie Cagney. Cagney had won an Academy Award a year prior for Yankee Doodle Dandy.

The Oscars as a subject of satire in a Warner Bros. has comedy merit - with Bob Clampett being an interesting choice for director. Unfortunately, it appears this short is a victim of Clampett's haphazard management skills. It's no secret Clampett was typically a cartoon or two behind the studio's schedule. His wartime filmography consists of both masterpieces and "cheater" shorts.

This cartoon is frustrated by its obvious use of cutting corners. New animated footage is reduced extensively - with stock live-action footage and extended clips from older cartoons compensating the cartoon's screen time - and likely its costs.

The first two minutes are made up of newspaper/magazine cuttings and live-action footage taken from establishing shots of Hollywood, featured in David Selznick's A Star is Born (1937). Technicolor footage from the film works effectively enough in its attempt to deceive audiences from the idea of stock footage.

Bob Bruce's narration serves primarily as exposition surrounding the Academy Awards presentation and hype around Hollywood. The prolonged opening feels forced in its attempt to narrow new animated footage.

Despite economic constraints hampering the cartoon - Clampett at least tries to benefit this with the occasional gag. In one scene, a wolf howls at the night sky; a deliberate misplacement from night shots of Hollywood landmarks. The narrator gets caught up in the moment: "Well, how did he get in here?"

Later in the cartoon, a clip from an early Bugs Bunny/Friz Freleng cartoon: Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt eats up a part of the running time. The clip is meant to showcase Bugs Bunny's "best scenes"; which involves Hiawatha attempting to cook Bugs - whose crudely drawn in one of his earliest cartoons. Of all Bugs Bunny shorts prior to 1944 - is this really the best example of Bugs' funniest moments? Unless, in Clampett's case - it could be savagely ironic.

Bob Clampett portrays Bugs Bunny as arrogant and egotistical, in a similar vein to Tortoise Wins by a Hare. Both shorts showcased Bugs' frustration and delusion. Clampett experimented with different personalities and behaviours for Bugs, for the sake of his directing style - that either worked or backfired. For this short, at least Bugs' ego problem is built from strong characterisation.

Bugs Bunny is deluded to believe that the voting system is rigged - as he demands a recount to the Academy voters. Bugs' pathetic attempt in staying humble is wonderfully felt as he says: "I'll leave it up to youse intelligent people in this audience, whether I deserve the Oscar or not!".

Bugs' arrogance is displayed comically as he charades across the stage - in a desperate attempt to plead the audience. He starts off in boisterous fashion as he bangs on a drum, reading: "Let Bugs Have It"; and soon showers them with free cigars. But, the audience "give it to him" by throwing an abundance of fruit and vegetables at Bugs.

The minimal use of animation in this cartoon is blessed by Bob McKimson's top-notch draftsmanship. Like Falling Hare, McKimson's gives Bugs at the dining table humanistic qualities through his animation. Bugs' interaction with the audience is believably communicated. Beautiful little touches like Bugs acknowledging the ceremonial fanfare to the audience, is enough to give him your undivided attention.

Bugs is self-confident by the thought of winning an Oscar, "it's in da bag; I'm a cinch to win". Bugs begins mimicking iconic Hollywood stars like Katherine Hepburn, Edward G. Robinson and Jerry Colonna, not only by their mannerisms - but in caricatured form, too.

Animating caricature is difficult enough, but McKimson's ability to morph Bugs' face into movie stars, without losing its appeal, is an astounding effort! For a character that consists of familiar stock poses, it's a surrealistic, unorthodox gag only Clampett would dare to tackle, and quite possibly achieve - thanks to McKimson's draftsmanship!

McKimson's animation continues to shine in the following sequence of Bugs self-assuringly insisting the host's comments of "consitently high performances" are directed at him. The host, seen in silhouette, points out the "actor's" attributes for drama, comedy, romance and being "equally good in character roles".

Bugs' over-confident nature shines by wanting to prove he fits that profile through his zany charades. At one point, Bugs morphs and mimics the mechanical traits of Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. And so, Bugs breaks into a flabbergasted take when it's revealed that the Oscar was been awarded to James Cagney instead. Much of the attributes indeed fit with Cagney's screen persona - who had a knack for melodramatic performances, like The Public Enemy, or comedy such as The Bride Came C.O.D.

Some of Clampett's more dirtier gags goes unscathed in this cartoon. When Bugs tosses pile a film cans to "Smokey" (a nod to cameraman Smokey Garner); a "stag reel" is projected on the screen. The gag itself has aged through the years as attributed to many factors like the sexual revolution; but its context remains risque.

Bugs' defensive reaction as he yells, "HEY!" is priceless in capturing Bugs' embarrassment and pervertedness. To fool the censors; an illustration of a deer stag for the title card is a funny touch to hide its suggestive scenario.

For the final scene; Bugs is given a "boozy prize" Oscar, shaped in the form of Bugs himself. Bugs cherishes and caresses the statue; by romantically saying: "I'll even take you to bed with me every night". The statue comes to life, quoting Bert Gordon's Mad Russian, "Do ya mean it?", and puckers Bugs on the lips. Clampett's rapid firing spontaneity provides charm to that innuendo. 

The newly animated sequences contains elements of Bob Clampett's eye for entertainment. Bob McKimson's animation is sublime for refining Bugs' egotistical persona. Despite some of its values, the cartoon holds up as a lacklustre in comparison to Clampett's better works. Its economical factors involving the forced use of stock footage and an old clip brings this short down in that retrospect. Clampett attempts to make up for it with some entertaining sequences of Bugs - framed in a way to make a cheater cartoon worth watching. Not a terrible short by all means, but without Bugs' appearance, there really isn't much to recommend in this cartoon. Despite what the title suggests, consider this an underwhelming short.

Rating: 2/5.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

420. Little Red Riding Rabbit (1943)

featuring BUGS BUNNY
Warner cartoon no. 419.
Release date: December 25, 1943 (see below).
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny), Billy Bletcher (Wolf), Bea Benaderet (Red Riding Hood).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Manuel Perez.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny and the Wolf battle each other inside Grandma's house; during her absence of contributing to the war effort.

Typically, I'd place Little Red Riding Hood as a 1944 release; as it shows up with a release date of January 4th on that year, in many filmography lists. With special thanks to Yowp's research - a newspaper ad from Hamilton, Ohio on December 23, 1943 reveals that this cartoon was already in theatres by that point.

Although an official release chart indicates its January release date - it appears that posted release dates of classic era shorts aren't entirely accurate. Perhaps the short opened first at smaller towns, before entering general release in January?

What I find a little perplexing in the advertisement, that it supposedly represents a Paramount theatre in Ohio; but it's also advertising an MGM musical, Best Foot Forward, and a Warner Bros. cartoon. Perhaps block booking wasn't practiced at smaller theatres in smaller towns?

This cartoon also marks the first time Mel Blanc gets billing credit in a Warner Bros cartoon. Such practice of granting voice artists screen credit was unheard of in Hollywood films. Even Walt Disney's earliest features omitted credit for vocal talents - likely to maintain the illusion of fantasy for audiences entranced by the magic of animation. For more information on Blanc's screen credit steal; see Keith Scott's article on Cartoon Research. The short also includes performances by Bea Benaderet and Billy Bletcher, who are both uncredited yet very talented.

The cartoon itself is another showcase of how the Schlesinger studio took liberties on parodying fairy tales. That same year, MGM released a very risque parody of the Riding Hood tale; Red Hot Riding Hood, by Schlesinger's former director, Tex Avery. The majority of the cartoon challenged film censorship since it was built around lust. Friz Freleng's parody of the same fairy tale might not be edgy; but it excels for its funny characterisations and smart writing by Michael Maltese.

Michael Maltese's take on Red Riding Hood opens up to a lot of gag opportunities. Many versions of the fairy tale typically depict Red Riding Hood as a sweet young girl with endearing qualities. Maltese portrayal, however, lacks such traits. Many cartoons previously parodied Red with a Katherine Hepburn persona. Instead, Red is stereotyped as a loud, obnoxious bobby-soxer teenager - vocalised irritatingly by Bea Benaderet with great comedy values.

The character was the inspiration of radio comedian Cass Daley - and Michael Maltese's young daughter! Daley was known for her energy and loudness; but some of Red's childlike dialogue ("ta-have!") was adapted from Maltese's daughter.

The opening sequence showcases Red's personality very vividly that realistically portrays the awkwardness of adolescents. Like the story, Red journeys through the woods with a basket -- but sings ear-splittingly in her rendition of Five O'Clock Whistle. An obnoxious piece of delivery makes Maltese's portrayal of Red, all the more hilarious!

Bugs Bunny arises from his basket, asking casually: "Watcha got in the basket, gorgeous?" Red responds loudly: "Ahh've got a little bunny rabbit which I'm taking to my grandma's. Ta-have, see?". Red's purpose of bringing Bugs as a gift is kept vague. A pet gift or a plate of rabbit stew? Depends how you see it.

Animated cartoons had come a long way from wholesome, cutesy interpretations of Red Riding Hood from the 1930s, popularised by Disney. MGM's Red Hot Riding Hood even claimed, "Every cartoon studio in Hollywood's done it this way!". Red is deliberately parodied as an unlikeable loudmouth that even a casual viewer would love to hate!

The traditional storytelling of the fairy tale slowly starts to change direction once the wolf appears. He diverts Red's route; whilst approaching Grandma's house. As discovered, it's revealed she's away from home contributing to the war effort, by working a "swing shift at Lockheed".

The wolf puts on the disguise; and even shoos away other wolves hiding under the covers on the bed, hoarding the spotlight, as he yells: "Come on, come on! Take a powder. This is my racket!". The disgruntled wolves leave the bed, muttering.

By the time Red Riding Hood enters Grandma's house for the traditional lines, Michael Maltese diverts the story from that standpoint - adding a comical twist to make way for Bugs' antics. The wolf overhears Red shouting, "I brought a little bunny rabbit for you, ta-have!".

And so, eating a rabbit appeals to the wolf more than Red. The wolf grows irritated by her presence as she attempts to speak the infamous lines from the tale: "That's an awfully big nose for you; ta-have!". Red is quickly shuffled out of the door by the wolf, who turns his attention towards Bugs Bunny, residing inside the basket. The twist is both spontaneous and build by characterisation - as the characters themselves take the cartoon in a different approach.

Michael Maltese would take advantage of Red's irritating personality; by using her as a recurring gag throughout the cartoon. Maltese is innovative enough by mocking traditional values of a fairy tale story. He understood parody well enough to not rely too much on the source material - if better gags are called for.

Sporadically, Red would re-appear in several scenes - still asking the wolf questions based on the fairy tale: "What sharp teeth ya got, Grandma!". The wolf would always respond by disposing Red out of the house.

At the height of his annoyance, the wolf expresses courtesy towards Red, by speaking French! I don't know what the rough translation is; unless Billy Bletcher improvised it. This is soon followed by an unwelcoming yell from the wolf: "Get out!". The comedy delivery works as an amusing juxtaposition of etiquette and rudeness!

Freleng's comic delivery comes to advantage in a short interruption of Red knocking on the door, and questioning loudly. Inventive smear animation by Gerry Chiniquy, the animator of that scene, comes into effect when the wolf slams the door in front of Red.

The most complicated and highlighted elements of Friz Freleng's comic timing are showcased authentically in this cartoon. Applying musical timing to animated action isn't an unheard trait of Freleng, but the short features some very fine examples.

A remarkably complex piece of timing occurs in a gag involving Bugs Bunny running up the stairs and closing the door, whilst in pursuit of the wolf. Bugs then reappears through different doors during an in-and-out routine. The layout work is relatively simple; but it's an unbelievably complicated piece of action.

Both Bugs and the wolf's stepping movements are arranged by different instruments respectively. To keep the musical timing consistent whilst Bugs is deceiving the Wolf is an incredible tour-de-force on Freleng's part. For a gag executed successfully, it would eventually have its encore in Buccaneer Bunny (1948).

A less difficult but engaging piece of musical timing applied to action is featured in a scene introducing the wolf. As seen, the wolf is hiding behind a tree while spying on Red's trail. The wolf would discreetly tiptoe his foot towards another tree nearby, and slide his body forward without exposing his presence.

Stalling's use of musical pantomime amplifies the wolf as a conniving and sneaky character. The scene, animated by Dick Bickenbach, indicates some strong poses of the wolf's tip-toeing action, whilst keeping on form with Friz Freleng's timing pattern.

Much of Bugs' escapades in this cartoon is matched with a certain kind of energy seldom practiced by Friz Freleng. In a scene of Bugs Bunny striking the wolf with a paddle, and deceiving him of his whereabouts - it shows a standard use of smear animation that enhances animated energy.

For more intriguing dynamics, Friz Freleng practices his own cutting style during a scene of Bugs whistling his whereabouts to the wolf, but zips out of shot when he arrives.

To begin with, the pacing is kept stable. Once a series of consecutive shots of Bugs whistling at various places of the house takes place, the cuts become more rapid.

Friz seldom practiced fast-cutting amongst his directorial abilities. His style of cutting might not be as dynamic as Frank Tashlin's, but it works well enough to assimilate the cartoon action.

The fast-cutting ends with a pay-off once Bugs Bunny points towards a cupboard. He exits upon the wolf's arrival, but he opens to find Bugs hiding inside. Freleng's timing is both subtle and zany in its execution. The action flows very quickly with such subtleties that otherwise could come across as contrived.

Mel Blanc and Billy Bletcher both play off each other with sublime fashion, in a sequence of Bugs mimicking the wolf's actions. Bugs finds himself cornered, but his quick wits enforces him to copy the wolf's speech and posture. They both yell, "Why you... / Hey, now! / Cut that out or... / Say, wise guy! / Oh, yeah?"), and are both perfectly synchronised at the further of delivery  of "Yeah!".

The mimicking works so well from many departments - from the duo's voice collaboration right down to its animated form. Intentionally, Bugs is out of sync for much of the mimicking, to create a realistic scenario. Only Friz Freleng's meticulousness could do a scene such justice.

Gerry Chiniquy's animation is met with many challenges. Imaging seeing an exposure sheet for that scene, which would've required complicated charting. It's one of the few times in animation, when twinning the characters' poses are called for.

Then, Bugs takes control through psychology by shouting out nonsense words, and distracting the wolf by muddling up his speech, and breaking into the song: Put On Your Old Gray Bonnet. A Tex Avery-esque gag quietly appears as Bugs holds a "Silly, isn't he?" card.

A part of myself is curious if Blanc and Bletcher might've recorded their lines together for that scene? Not only would the delivery work better, but it could've saved expenses of sound film stock - had they recorded their lines separately. Still, the sequence has strong comedy merit from those talented men, as well as Freleng's direction. Such a gag like that could've easily gone wrong without the importance of team effort and careful planning!

Suspense builds up as the wolf creeps towards a dark room. An elaborate scene of a fireplace reveals Bugs Bunny is hiding underneath the gown - as indicated in a reflection. Much of the suspenseful action contains lavish composition. This is evident when the wolf enters a dark room, with Bugs' hot coal as the only source of vivid light.

The darkness ends in the blink of an eye when the wolf shoots upwards from his gown - screaming in pain from Bugs' hot coal. Bugs places a large shove full of hot coals - causing the wolf to catch his feet on the edges of two benches. The vibrating action has some nice timing to it.

From this moment, Bugs Bunny has finally outwitted the wolf, and is ready to give him the coup de grace. Bugs punishes the wolf further by dumping heavy objects on the wolf's hands. The scene dissolves to a tall structure of house objects. The camera pans upwards as Bugs is ready to apply some finishing touches until...

..."GRANDMA!", Red cries off screen. Bugs has finally had enough of Red's earsplitting voice! Her presence prompts a new motive on Bugs, who remarks: "I'll do it, but I'll probably hate myself in the morning."

Animation by Virgil Ross.
Bugs climbs down the ladder, and the next shot reveals another twist: Bugs had switched the wolf with Red; whose now given the burden of carrying all that weight whilst avoiding her rear end from getting scorched. The camera pans towards Bugs and the wolf, now friends, as they both share a carrot and watch Red's torture with satisfaction.

And a satisfying ending it is! Red's recurring presence is paid off in a hilarious gag, that merits shock value. It probably represents a more sadistic nature for Bugs - but justice feels truly met. Michael Maltese's use of twists are excelled in this cartoon. The overall ending is hilarious by its entire execution - right from the storyboards onto the finished product.

For a director whose sometimes criticised for being "conservative", this cartoon is anything but that! It's arguably one of Freleng's most energetic and spontaneous cartoons he did for Warner Bros - and its entertainment values are sky high! The cartoon highlights Freleng's true talents as a director. Much of the short is built on constant activity and fast pace which creates excitement. Michael Maltese reconstructs the fairy tale for his own parody, with wonderful spontaneity and twists. His characterisations are very funny; especially when the characters themselves drive the story away from its traditional roots. Much of Maltese's structure has a natural, loose feel towards it which is anything but forced. Little Red Riding Rabbit is the least bit pretentious, and it still serves as one of the most entertaining and thrilling cartons produced by Warner Bros.

Rating: 5/5.

Friday, 14 July 2017

SNAFU: Rumors (1943)

Director: Friz Freleng.
Release date: December 1943.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Snafu / Various voices); Frank Graham (Narrator).
Music: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown.
Synopsis: Snafu spreads a rumour about a recent bombing that grows more exaggerated - eventually leading a panic at the base.

The Snafu series utilise the message of "loose lips sink ships" satirically yet effectively, like in Spies, which exaggerates the potential threat of eavesdroppers. Rumors follows a very similar message; but it also illustrates the potency of rumours and its side effects.

Rumours and gossip might be a part of human nature, but it can be dangerous for a large number of factors. It's an endearing feature of the human psyche; evoking emotion and sparkling attention. The more spread the rumours are, the more exaggerated and ridiculous they become. Rumours that become misleading can potentially start panics amongst soldiers - creating distractions and weakening courage.

The opening sequence showcases Snafu's ignorance as he misinterprets a fellow comrade's remark, "Nice weather for a bombing" during small talk in a latrine. Diagram shots are applied heavily during the opening scenes; such as Snafu's mind visually portrayed as a hot stove, receiving and repeating: "Bombing weather".

This motivates Snafu to begin a rumour next to a man shaving. So, Snafu tells him about a possible bombing occurring at their base. The use of visual metaphors applied in animated form are innovative in its portrayal of how gossip travels - such as the "hot air" shown as steam ascending to the listener's ears.

So, the listener informs the rumour to another person - but more misinterpreted than Snafu's message. Frank Graham's narration supports the diagram shots of the human mind, as he remarks: "That's right, exaggerate it! Stretch it! Multiply it!". The diagram of a listener's head reveals its mind operating like gears; as mechanical hands stretch out a piece of baloney.

Consequences of travelling rumours are largely satirical throughout this cartoon. The rumours are personified through imagery as zany-looking characters who fly through the camp once the gossip spreads like wildfire. To begin with, the rumours are symbolised as "flying baloneys". The visual metaphor/pun literally features flying pieces of bologna with wings.

The layout work is stunning by portraying anxious soldiers speaking of rumours inside their tents. The soldiers are featured in silhouette - an effect used similarly for the celebrating clowns in Disney's Dumbo.

The rumours grow more exaggerated, as soldiers speak such tales like: "They blasted the hell out of Brooklyn Bridge", "What's the matter with our planes? They popped them off like kites!". In one tent, it sounds like Mike Maltese and Ted Pierce provided their voices to some of the conversing soldiers.

Much of the surreal imagery in this cartoon feels heavily influenced by Ted Geisel's (Dr. Seuss) work. Geisel had contributed to the earlier Snafu cartoons and his presence is felt as far as visual storytelling and character designs are concerned. Such analogies like the "flying baloneys" are used to represent false information taken seriously, and the possible consequences following.

Animation by Gerry Chiniquy.
Soon enough, the rumours begin to haunt Snafu in surrealistic fashion. In a sequence of Snafu eating breakfast inside a mess hall; the piece of bologna begins speaking to him - claiming it has "nothing to fight with". Once the piece of meat flies away, Snafu ignores it by cracking a boiled egg - causing a horned bird to arise, shouting: "And furthermore, the Japs are in California!" (line corrected: see comments below).

The following climax is a hilarious and yet surrealistic portrayal of Snafu's panic amidst flying baloneys or horned creatures taunting him of such rumours. The visual imagery represents how rumours can haunt the person who begun them.

So, Snafu runs across the army camp; attempting to seek refuge from the gossip; but he can't escape them. He attempts to escape inside dustbins and on telephone wires, but discovers even inanimate objects are plagued by rumours.

Much of the creepy imagery feels like a throwback to early 1930s cartoons produced by the Fleischer Studios or Van Beuren - the former's Swing You Sinners comes to mind. The use of inanimate objects briefly forming to life is certainly feels reminiscent of that era.

The climax involving Snafu attempting to escape the zany creatures are disturbing enough in execution. Friz Freleng's cutting style and the use of voice effects add to that effect. They haunt Snafu with more outrageous rumours concerning the war: "The Russians have surrendered", "The British are quitting", etc. Soon, Snafu falls to the ground after falling off a flying baloney - as he falls, a cloud of dust speaks melancholily, "It's all over. We've lost the war...", until Snafu crashes.

At the cartoon's resolution; it's been revealed that the army camp has been quarantined for "rumor-itis". The camera pans to a padded cell, which dissolves inside to reveal Snafu as a patient, driven insane by his rumour episode. Snafu wriggles and incoherently blabs "Rumours", whilst laughing hysterically.

Snafu stops wriggling and momentarily regains his conscience, remarking: "Nice weather for a rumour". A baloney arises from a patch of padding with both characters jumping across the cell.

After the cartoon's iris close, an additional gag is inserted of a cameraman rolling a film camera. He forces a piece of bologna inside the camera like a grinder - with slices falling from the lenses. The cameraman turns at an angle facing an audience, with the camera trucking in on the words: "Sees - Hears - Knows - Nothing". The gag is a nice little touch that sums up the unreliability of rumours. The composition of the scene serves as a parody for the closing newsreels featured in Paramount News.

All Snafu cartoons are built around morale and hard lessons, but Rumors remains unique for portraying an important message in surrealistic fashion. The use of "flying baloneys" are absurdist in its conception - but it's an innovative portrayal of how dangerous rumours can be, and the possible consequences that even a nation could suffer from. The themes are dramatised through both wit and nightmarish scenery. Friz Freleng enhances the zany imagery believably; enough to make the creepy imagery have a lasting impact amongst army recruits watching this short. Despite the cartoon's age; its overall message and theme hasn't dated at all. It remains a strong testament of how rumours can travel fast through word of mouth, and before the existence of social media or e-mail!