Wednesday, 16 April 2014

325. The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 324.
Release date: April 26, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Mr. Wolf/Attorney/Owl/Bird), Sara Berner (Red Riding Hood / Grandma).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Dick Bickenbach.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: During the Wolf's trial over the Little Red Riding Hood case, the Wolf gives his interpretation of how the events truly happened.

Fairy-tale parodies were fairly common in the 1930s; especially when Disney produced a majority in the Silly Symphonies series. Nevertheless to say, Warners also turn out a couple of spoofs, mostly from Tex Avery: such as Little Red Walking Hood and Cinderella Meets Fella.

They were decent parodies, though it still contained its original narrative structure even if it contained some changes such as having the infamous fairy tale characters impersonate celebrities.

With this short however, Mike Maltese and Freleng take the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale with a completely alternate version. Instead of a typical parody of the Riding Hood story which would contain modern-day references and pop culture, this tale is told as an alternate version from the Wolf's perspective.

This perspective turns out to be unreliable, yet very wacky. Mike Maltese is already playing is cards right very early in his career and has so far turned out very humorous shorts which in which its unique touch of humour stand out a lot more compared to the other writers.

The short itself, opens up with a trial case which of course links to Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf who are both on the case of verdict. Both verdicts are in the act of innocence. The attorney on the other hand, believes there is a complete different story compared to the supposedly cliched fairy tale.

She believes Red Riding Hood was guilty in the crime, as the prosecutor remarks: "Why she has guilt written all over her face".

Mike Maltese there greatly uses these play-on words to make a great visual gag. Red Riding Hood's face then dissolves with the word 'guilt', indeed written all over her face.

The prosecutor then turns to the Wolf, who he believes has an alternate and reliable account on the story. The trial sequence is a rather great set-up for what would be a complete different tale for the story: already the jury are presented to be a series of wolves (and a skunk) which would suggest the wolf has more innocence.

From the wolf's version of the story: he was just an innocent childlike wolf who was wearing his Sunday outfit picking up posies for his mother. The way Mike Maltese sets up the character of Red Riding Hood is just wonderful satire and a great presentation of a con artist.

From the moment you see her in the alternate story; she is evidently a trickster who is after setting up the wolf. Maltese plays around the personalities of both characters by switching them around. He creeps by trees, with a sneaky glare hoping her plan would no unnoticed.
He then proceeds to cry at a tree as a part of the Wolf's bait.

The Wolf is seen trotting along the woods merrily, and once he skips past Red Riding Hood she trips him deliberately.

The Wolf asks, "Why dost thou weep, toots?". Riding Hood, who in Warners shorts appears to be frequently impersonated by a Hepburn accent, explains she lost her way to Grandmother's house. After the wolf grabs out his compass, where the route to Grandma's house has been designated; Red Riding Hood frantically places the wolf in her wagon. This set-up between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood is greatly well-established and it satirises the characters very well, as Maltese is making the Wolf appear only human and vulnerable; in which no other cartoon writer would have considered taking into account.

 The Grandma, in term of her dynamism and Maltese's interpretation of the character is a far more broader character, compared to Red Riding Hood. After she takes the Wolf to Grandma's house; it turned out she was a follower of Grandma, as she has a flair for wolf furs to sell.

The audience immediately connects to the Grandma as she dances to a record player, but once she hears of a wolf alert; he hides all her fur outfits and disguises herself as a sickly grandmother.

The Grandmother is just a terrific persona and a piece of satire in the short. Once Maltese establishes the famous "Why what big eyes you have" scenario in the fairy-tale; it is the Grandma who acts at the real villain, and giving the wolf a more vulnerable personality. She also subtly refers to the Wolf's fate, as she observes the wolf's fur, "Why what a beautiful fur coat ya have--should be about thirty-five bucks."  Slowly, she then brings out her mallet from under her pillow. At this point, the wolf responds naively, "Why what a big mallet you've got, Grandma?", and the grandma responds: "All the better to get a new fur coat!", and attempts to knock him with a mallet, and this turns to a chase sequence.

Whilst this turns to a chase sequence; you notice that Friz Freleng is certainly making is comic timing a lot more broader and faster. This appears throughout the cartoon, where a majority of it work, and whereas in some areas it doesn't quite work.

Where it doesn't work? Well, in one shot: the Wolf running frantically around the walls of the house, whilst he is pursued by Grandma.

That shot has been well effective in many cartoons in terms of speed, though Freleng had not yet quite perfected the timing that would be required for the speed of the animation. Where it does work: in the chase sequence there is a great door-to-door gag which shows great emphasis on 'you can't escape'. The wolf tries to escape through one door, but finds Grandma is carrying an axe. At the following door, Grandma is seen with a machine gun attempting to fire at the Wolf. Then at the following door, a cannon. All these gags are certainly great as the humour is only getting wackier the more the climax builds, and Freleng is certainly at the tops compared to his other competitors.

Other great uses of Freleng's own comic timing would be in scenes such as the Wolf dancing merrily to the tune of Gavotte. Freleng successfully manages to synchronise the timing to Stalling's music cue for the sequence. Plus, it is also a great established opening for how the Wolf interpreted his own events. Considering the audience had caught him carrying weapons in his suit; the sailor suit is a hilarious pay-off. Also, notice the swish effect the wolf has when he tries to disguise the weapons he is carrying whilst in trial.

Finally, and concluding the cartoon: Friz pays off the short with the funniest comic timing, as well as the funniest delivery in the entire short. After the wolf has finished his interpretation of the events, the jury turn very sceptical of his views.

This sceptic perspective of the jury then forces the reluctant wolf to make a cutting remark: "And if that ain't the truth, I hope I get run over by a streetcar".

This is a great gag set-up by Maltese who again, is an expert on deliveries by putting a lot of emphasis on what wasn't the truth. Friz perfects that moment, where a streetcar crashes into the scene, and all in a matter of 1 feet of animation (less than one second). Only Friz could have made the delivery of that line appear wacky and broad, and nails the speed. Just then, the wolf reappears, as he admits: "Well, maybe I did exaggerate just a little bit", where the short ends with the audience's interpretation of what was the real story in this trial.

Have you ever had the impression Mike Maltese not only writes an excellent satirical short and writing a great alternate version to the fairy tale: but it seems to write the short with some ambiguity. Maltese hints that the wolf is the real criminal, and attempts to make it obvious such as the streetcar gag and the weapons the wolf carries.

At the same time, the prosecutor on the other hand: accuses Red Riding Hood for having "guilt written all over her face". Both act any innocent; at the Wolf expresses his 'innocence' with a Halo on top; and Red Riding Hood gives a speech expressing her 'innocence' as well as impersonating Katherine Hepburn at the same time.

During the Wolf's story; Matlese does appear to hint the Wolf''s story was made-up as a alibi, and it's evident when the blue-bird rants at the Wolf: "Go on, ya jerk! Act your own age". At that remark, you would expect it was just intended for laughs, but I feel this was left to the audience to decide.

My main thoughts of this short: I believe that Maltese managed to nail the fairy-tale satire, as he takes it to a different level, much like how Tex did so in The Bear's Tale. The characters are absolutely well-established and diverting. Freleng's comic timing is only becoming more up to it's advantage, and he has certainly nailed it in small areas. Notice how Freleng is going through a different drawing style in this short, compared to what was seen in previous shorts? I wonder who was drawing character layouts for Friz then? Compared to Freleng's great timing, he hadn't yet achieved the appeal in the drawing style, as it feels a little like what he did in the 1930s; though he definitely does not let that get away from a great story with great characters and gags. I find this one of the most colourful shorts of 1941; as this is rather ambiguous compared to many Warner shorts. The ending itself ends on a very wacky cliffhanger; and the real criminal is somewhat obscure, even if it really was the wolf.

Rating: 4.5/5.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

324. Porky's Preview (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 323.
Release date: April 19, 1941.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Tex Avery.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Porky Pig/Skunk); Sara Berner (Tickey lady); Cliff Nazarro (Al Jolson caricature).
Story: Dave Monahan.
Animation: Virgil Ross.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Porky sets up a movie preview of his own, and his film takes us into a different, amateurish, animated world.

Whilst other directors asides Clampett have begun to put in a little input in directing a few Porky Pig cartoons such as Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones; Tex Avery also joins the lot considering he hadn't make a Porky cartoon for almost four years.

Despite directing a character whose path he went a long time ago, he does without doubt uses that advantage of a character who would only need to appear on the screen in a few seconds.

Without doubt, Porky appears in the cartoon in many small ways, as the short focuses on an animated preview which Porky animated himself. From a cartoon artistic aspect, as well as in terms of satire:

Tex is taking this to a whole new level of mockery. Tex's choice for a Porky short is to create a sub-gentre. In other words, a "cartoon within a cartoon". Unlike You Ought to Be in Pictures which was a sub-genre; Tex takes it to a different level, where he is mocking the artistic side of animation. Porky's preview presentation consists of a very amateurish animation production. A lot of the animation consists of doodles and stick figurines, as well as very childish-looking backgrounds. Tex creates this different artistic side of animation, where he obviously is intending to create amateurish backgrounds and drawings to create a very effective short, as well as a very funny satire. Tex with without doubt, going at new heights and this is one experiment to make a majority of a cartoon look very incompetent but entertaining at the same time, as a lot of the animation is seen in Porky's perspective.

Starting with the cartoon's opening sequence: it stands out differently from the rest of the short. The animation and character designs are of good standard, and the backgrounds are rather detailed and apparent. It also consists of several gags which you would expect from a typical Tex Avery cartoon.

For example at the ticket booth; a skunk walks into the scene and everyone is seen covering themselves with a gas mask. The skunk makes a silly pun, claiming he has only 'one scent' to afford a ticket.

Tex even breaks the forth wall to make the joke somewhat obvious, and to give the skunk a little personality. There are also several cute jokes such as a firefly usher who walks to an audience member with a small torchlight to their seats; in rhythm to The Umbrella Man.

Then there are other gags created by Tex goes a little daring. A kangaroo usher is seen collecting people's tickets for admission; and at one point he snaps a customer's arm off and places it inside his pouch. The opening sequence is a great way to start off a short which is unlike what Tex has ever created. It is very evenly paced, and being in a completely different environment, the cartoon from that point on is completely unpredictable; which I believe is how Tex interpreted the opening, as it was a great introduction for what is yet to come.

Porky doesn't have much of an animated appearance in the short, as he only appears for a couple of seconds introducing his feature preview. He also appears in the closing shots once he's learnt his preview has bombed (save for the skunk who enjoyed the 'stinker').

Despite not much appearance; I always felt he was in a lot more of the short in many subtle ways such as the work he created behind the feature preview, as well as the consistent scribblings made in the animation, etc.

During Porky's entrance on stage, animated by Virgil Ross, he is very confident and has an artistic ego, as he remarks specifically: "I drew this cartoon all by myself but, shucks, it wasn't so hard because I'm an artist." Perhaps this was also an emphasis on how Leon Schlesinger would have his name printed on every Warner Bros. short? Though he doesn't appear for very long, he certainly is paced very evenly as the real "fun" can be seen following the preview.

As soon as the presentation begins; we then immediately follow into this very bizarre transition from a traditional animation style to supposedly eyesore, amateurish movement. This begins with a band parade of stick figurines, and follows on with pachyderms.

In some of laughter, Tex isn't really gaining for laughs or gags in this world. Most of the short pieces of animation in the short feel like animation tests from an amateur animator. Tex evidently isn't trying to gain laughs in this short, as this is really a visual experience.

There are certainly gags which appear during the preview; though they aren't very complex animated wise; as Tex would need to use some streamlined gags in order to great a very visually fulfilling piece of crude animation.

When you watch a sequence like the streamline train of an engineer tooting to California, Here I Come--it's clear Tex's animation crew can't quite escape the high quality of animation as they create subtle brush effects for the whistle tooting, and the timing is also very fluid. Also, has anybody noticed several caricatures of Henry Binder circulating around the pages several times, which was once again to emphasise the incompetence Porky has in filmmaking as several doodles are seen noticed. It was also intended as a subtle staff joke, too, but you can't help but admire that spontaneity.

Not only is Tex creating believability in this very childish piece of filmmaking, but Carl Stalling is also in on the gag, and does almost as good a job as Tex and his crew do. It is evident in so many cases, such as in the introduction sequence where the Looney Tunes theme, The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down, is played very off-key and out-of-tune.

Stalling also includes a frequent use of kazoos which are in some of the underscores. The kazoo is quite possibly the least professional instrument in the entire world, and tho is greatly used to emphasise and achieve this amateurish feel.

The kazoos are mostly heard during the soldiers marching sequence, where the soldiers are marching in theme to the song: Frat.

Their march is mostly just an animation cycle of them walking, though it gets more bizarre as they begin to walk in a single file and touching each other's feet in mid-air. Treg Brown even adds in to the unprofessional feel of sound effects, as he creates a very unrealistic, intended sound effect of a small soldier being constantly kicked by their taller peers.

With a lot more enlightening sequences to be seen, you get the impression that the animators themselves can't help but create some beautifully animated scenes with good timing. An example is evident in the 'Hula' dance sequence. The Hula dancer is seen dancing the Hawaiian song Aloha Oe.

The hula dancer's animation is evident where the Hula skirt flows very smoothly in terms of timing, and it makes the motion looks a little complex, when it shouldn't be.

The last sequence which appears in the short: the September in the Rain sequence which is sung by a Al Jolson caricature, it makes sense to be parodied here considering how The Jazz Singer made Warner Bros. career. The animation and weight of the stick figurine of the character shows some good weight as well as good synchronisation. What I enjoy about the sequence, is during the rain scenes that the rain doesn't appear to touch Al Jolson as he sings; which I interpret to be a deliberate goof.

One of my favourite sequences in the short is "Porky's" trial-and-error in animating a Mexican dance dancing to La Cucaracha. During the sombrero's dance to the music, every bit of dance movement not up to Porky's satisfaction, he scribbled out the drawing from scratch and gives it another attempt. What I find very amusing about that scribble, is how pointless and amateurish it is in an attempt to correct a piece of animation, as it is pointless scribbling out a drawing when the dance had already been animated.

And so, after our September in the Rain number; the preview draws to a close. Porky asks for the audience's reception but finds that it has bombed, except for the skunk who was the only member to have liked it...

Overall, Porky's Preview is certainly ahead of its time in terms of design as well as experimenting particular levels that no other studio would date to imitate. The short as well as its originality is what sets them apart from all other studios, as only Tex would have guts to create what would appear to be a very amateurish short. The preview itself shows no purpose or plot, it is just sequence after sequence of pure nonsense--but it is very entertaining nonsense. I always liked this short for its originality, and though it may not feature too many gags for Tex's liking: the experimentation and artistic level is certainly Tex going at daring levels. The sequences, especially the dance scenes are very entertaining themselves, as it has a touch of comical genius by Tex. I believe that Tex finally managed to handle the short extremely well, even with the lack of screen appearance of Porky; which I think is what the other directors could look up to Tex Avery for. The shorts are only getting better after each cartoon, and it seems the wackiness and creativity of the Warners humour is really about to kick in..

Ratings: 4.5/5. 

Monday, 14 April 2014

323. Toy Trouble (1941)

Warner cartoon no. 322.
Release date: April 12, 1941.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Margaret Hill-Talbot (Sniffles).
Story: Rich Hogan.
Animation: Bobe Cannon.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Sniffles and the bookworm encounter a closed toy shop during the night, where they encounter strange sightings, as well as a perilous cat.

Sniffles once again makes a return to the screen for another short. This time, he is being accompanied with his friend: the Bookworm; who appears to be a supporting character for the short-lived series.

This time, Sniffles' latest encounter is at a toy store, which the store, Lacy's Department Store (a pun for Macy's) has been closed for the night. The entire short as a whole has all the encounters that you may expect from Sniffles; such as perilous encounters with inanimate objects.

This time Chuck Jones appears to stir things around a little where he uses the cat from Sniffles Bells the Cat the chief antagonist of the short. The plot itself is mainly split into halves, where Sniffles and the bookworm are on quests at their own will as they wander around the toyshop. Then it reaches the second act, once the cat enters the picture and is the reason for the molasses timing that is frequently seen in the short.

When you are viewing the first act of the sequence; the sequences themselves are actually paced quite evenly. Sniffles and the bookworm first encounter an African-American rubber band music box, a novelty duck, and a high striker set. One of the scenes which was cut in television prints of the short was the rubber-band music box.

The bookworm turns on the music box with excitement, and the band play broadly to It Looks Like a Big Night Tonight. Sniffles turns off the music box, and warns the Bookworm; "Now listen here, you stick with me and don't touch anything else, or you'll get into trouble". Cut from most prints, the scene itself gives a bit more coherence, to a not-very coherent cartoon.

Interestingly, the short itself has a lot of intriguing pieces of animation. Of course, this was Chuck Jones who was more ambitious artistically than the Warners directors. During the chase sequence with the novelty duck, Chuck shows some great, bizarre camera angles from Sniffles' perspective with unusual but effective choices of colour.

One of the highlights, in my opinion, is Sniffles' eyes synchronised to the rhymic movement of the high striker set. He watches the set of a novelty figurine who is seen striking with a mallet as it hits the bell.

The close-up shot of Sniffles' pupils watching the ball rise and fall is so appealingly animated, and Stalling's music synchronisation fits in perfectly that it makes the animation itself very appealing and juicy. This is a great example of how squash-and-stretch animation is accomplished, as it is perfected for the eye movement. Is a great piece of point-of-view scenarios which is displayed in the short.

For the weaker part of the short, and as I am being humble: there are a lot of flaws in this short like a majority of Jones' shorts from that time period. One of the weaker parts from the first act, and this is from the technical side: and that is the sound effect of the novelty duck.

Not to mention, the sound effect by Treg Brown is very creative and comical; though it is the wrong sort of sound effect to be played as a loop; and the sound effect becomes increasingly irritating to listen to.

It is heard frequently during a chase sequence; as the bookworm has encountered the novelty duck, which somehow comes to life by chasing after the bookworm, and then Sniffles. Then the chase turns to hiding by a pair of books standing. Sniffles peaks his head out, as well as the duck: where the audience get a break from the irritating quacking noises. The assistant work on those scenes are rather poor, especially when Sniffles and the duck's head peek out. Just so, the chase continues; and meanwhile the bookworm can be seen following through a train set.

As soon as the cat steps into the short; this is where the short only gets slower; and constantly just takes
away a lot of time. The poor-pacing already begins where Sniffles spends almost a minute after a double-take on the cat, believing it was a stuffed toy. It looks like the sequence was animated by Bobe Cannon, judging by the poor lip-sync movement.

Sniffles, then remarks slowly, "Golly, he does sound like a cat, does he?", and more nonsense until he finally scrams.

Attempting to disguise himself as a stuffed toy; this is a good opportunity for character animation, though the timing again is rather poor, even if you enjoy Sniffles' attempts of trying to hide his disguise.

Whilst he is hiding from the Porky Pig stuffed toys, the cat presses each different stuffed toy to hear it squeak, and Sniffles almost kills the moment as he shouts "ma ma". Have anybody noticed or felt peculiar of hearing Porky Pig squeak as a stuff toy? I suppose it was used to capture the believability and sound of a stuffed toy, but for Porky? It sounds rather unfitting.

The slow-paceness continues as the bookworm has arrived standing on top of the cat's head. Sniffles, realising the perilous danger the bookworm has involved himself in; attempts to mime "the cat" as a sign of warning. The bookworm doesn't recognise his message, in which Sniffles attempts to alert him cautiously but silently.

I'll admit I feel the sequence hasn't been handled or directed very well. The character animation is rather weak, and by having weak character animation, Carl Stalling's music overlaps a lot of the animation which means it isn't taking advantage of the animation.

Sniffles, unable to resist then shouts "The Cat!" until be clasps his mouth. The slow-pacing continues even further, especially as it is not necessary. This should have resulted in a chase sequence, but instead it builds up into even more further suspense; when Sniffles' outburst was already climatic enough to create a chase. The bookworm, still standing on the cat's head, then looks at the cat straight in the eye until he makes a double take by smiling sheepishly making a pathetic attempt to wave at him. The cat then slowly picks up the bookworm by the hand, so drops in a test-tube. Mmm, all the lighting, electricity as well as trees that could have been saved, if it hadn't been for sluggish pacing and unneeded scenes.

Just as the chase sequence is about to begin, the suspense is building as Sniffles is being cornered by the approaching cat. Just then, the novelty duck just arrives out of nowhere and chases after the cat, who is curious and afraid. And so, the toys and sets that appeared earlier in the short reappear, during the cat's chase.

Also, Chuck also shows some very creative and inventive gags which show a very unique quality of his which you wouldn't expect from Chuck before.

The cat has crashed through some building blocks; there are four which land on his head, that spell "Help".

As he rushes away from the approaching duck toy, he crashes through another set which then spells out as "Zoom!". The airbrush effect of the cat and the duck zipping past in what looks like a 3/4 front view shot (correct if I'm wrong); and here it is appeared as a gif. And so, after the cat's disposal; Sniffles is safe from the toy shop; and finds the bookworm safe, though with the test-tube still stuck inside him.

To conclude this review; Toy Trouble is artistically fulfilling and daring, as analysed in the short: particularly of the squash-and-stretch of Sniffles' eyes and the angle shots. I prefer the first half of the short where Sniffles and the bookworm are seen exploring the various toys. Though the sound-effects are a tad irritating, I always felt Chuck had evenly paced those scenes. Perhaps this was a sign of Chuck slowly getting his groove. However, when the short moves to the second act; this is where it all runs down together. The cat's appearance in a toy shop at night is never explained, except perhaps the cat was on guard for mice. The pacing is just a snail pace; where a lot of the sequences feel extended at Chuck's own pace. Overall it's a very tepid and unorganised short which needs reworking.

Rating: 2/5.