Tuesday, 7 June 2016

401. The Unbearable Bear (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 400.
Release date: April 17, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Marjorie Tarlton (Sniffles), Mel Blanc (Fox Burglar / Husband Bear), June Foray (Wife Bear) (Kudos to Keith Scott).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Bobe Cannon.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Sniffles' loud, fast-talking causes mayhem amongst a fox burglar and a drunken bear who attempts to discreetly sneak past his sleepwalking wife.

Once Chuck Jones had reformed into a talented, comedic animation director - it seems he attempted to take his own characters into that comedy angle...especially on Sniffles who was known previously for having mawkish, Disney-ish qualities and facing vulnerable situations.

"Little Blabbermouse (1940)"
Instead, he is given a different persona which is a throwback to the late 30s shorts of cute, inquisitive characters who are compulsive talkers that are a nuisance to those around him.

The persona is a throwback to the late 30s characters Tex Avery had conceived in shorts like I Wanna Be a Sailor, and of course: Friz Freleng's short-lived Little Blabbermouse character. It wasn't a funny or engaging personality back in 1940; but by the time the Warner directors were hitting their stride in 1943 - the characterisation was put into better use depending on what narrative was told. In the opening sequence of this short where a Cockney fox burglar attempts to steal money - the compulsive talking personality works.

To some extent Sniffles' fast-talking becomes an important dilemma as far as story goes. In the opening sequences; a fox burglar's attempts at raiding a house unnoticed goes foiled when he encounters Sniffles as he attempts to open a safe lock.

Caught, the fox burglar spontaneously tricks Sniffles into thinking he's Robin Hood, providing an cover-up motive: "As robs rich blokes for the benefit of the poor, I am." For what it's worth, Cockey accents are very rarely performed by Mel Blanc - who as usual excels in the dialect and stereotype. Sniffles agrees to watch out for the fox and protect him: "I'll stand guard. If anybody comes I'll warn you, like this!". He grabs out a spoon and bowl and produces unwanted noises out of it. His naiveness would prove an essential role as far as story arcing goes - distracting the fox from his principal goal.

And so - Mike Maltese's story becomes even more episodic when the drunken husband bear returns home. Once he changes into his nightwear - he opens the box to bid an intoxicated "good night" to the fox hiding inside. Had the fox not been inside the box - it's a hilarious notion of the bear's drunken behaviour by bidding farewell to a box.

In a double-take; the bear zips back and points his pistol at the fox's mouth. As though the story doesn't get more episodic - the suspenseful scene is interrupted by a sleepwalking wife bear.

The police bear warns the fox: "Hold still, ya little runt! If we wake the missus now, we're a couple of dead ducks!". This is backed up in an earlier sequence that is complete exposition - explaining the husband's fear of his henpecking wife.

The wife bear was fast asleep in her bed with a rolling pin on her bedside, murmuring in her sleep: "Wait till I get my hands on that brood, I'll teach him to stay out all night - gallivanting around."

Meanwhile Sniffles misinterprets the sleepwalking wife as an enemy of the fox (who still believes he's as Robin Hood) and attempts to finish her with his small bow and arrow. The fox and the bear grab Sniffles and silence him while the sleepwalking mother is in their presence.

For an animated short, it's a rather complex storyline: a fox burglar has to avoid getting caught by tricking a suspecting Sniffles into thinking he's Robin Hood; while attempting to avoid himself from the hands of the police bear, whose avoiding his sleepwalking wife out of fear of waking her up. For a talented writer like Michael Maltese - he takes advantage at such a feat by conceiving potentially funny gags out of it.

As usual; the innovative "avant-garde" styling of the cartoon is expert work amongst John McGrew and Gene Fleury. McGrew's layouts for the opening sequence feel like cardboard props on a theatre stage; such as the trees outside - and the advantages of the interior scenes is it doesn't have too much background interference. It's Fleury's colour styling which makes a marvellous addition to McGrew's layout styling.

An ambitious animated close-up
of the key about to unlock the doorknob.
Just the right suspenseful effect anywhere. 
Scenes like the fox casually smoking his cigarette outside while waiting for the household lights to switch off - is beautifully and intricately staged in order to give the fox a more sinister appearance. The animation effects of the cigarette reflection is the perfect finishing touch. It shows two artistic masterminds laid bare.

The sequence of the drunken police bear staggering back to his home is another example of excellence graphic clarity. The action is entirely in silhouette; and the poses read well. Not only is the staging exceptional; but the lighting and tone blends in wonderfully - capturing that dark, vague feeling of being intoxicated in a dark room. It's another homage paid to the low-key lighting of motion picture filmmaking - as evident in the darkness of the windows. The darkness of the sky is kept to a blue shade so the colour contrasts of the silhouette action is kept subtle.

Chuck, who excelled in the pace of Warners, was never afraid to challenge himself as far as timing goes - as evident in the radio switching sequence. After his encounter with Sniffles; he attempts to carry out his plan by working out the code for the safe lock. Sniffles attempts to cooperate by switching on the radio - which he mistakes for another safe lock.

Alarmed by the infamous Frat Stalling cliche - the fox streaks into the scene by wrapping the radio with a pillow, and tying up Sniffles with bandages - to prevent such further disturbance. It's an appealing, intricate piece of drybrush work with a rapid appearance of 20 frames, and all on 'ones'.
Chuck Jones' experimentation for outlandish expressions are always key to not only giving his characters some extra personality - but also for striking effects. The double-take of the drunken bear ascending the stairs is an example; but the most valiant would be the fox's take to Sniffles' banging noises on the bowl. The fox reacts with a triggering effect that nails the essence of unwanted disturbance and the fear of getting caught beautifully.

For the sleepwalking scenes - Mike Maltese and Chuck Jones work together in formulating some gags to reflect the wife's daily chores routine. In one scene, the wife unknowingly carries the fox hiding from the box and takes him outside to get scrubbed - mistook as a piece of laundry. The hysterical facial expression on the fox as he's being carried away speaks for itself.

The posing on the fox has some nice subtleties as he squirms while being hanged on a washing line.

Another great gag is centred on the wife bear carrying her husband after his long fall from the basement. She sleepwalks towards the fireplace and dumps him there on the floor. The husband raises his mouth to appear in the form of the bear rug - resulting in a funny visual gag from Mike Maltese's taste for irony.

For a climatic sequence; the sleepwalking starts to take its toll and threat towards the husband. Once the bear sobers up and makes direct eye contact with the fox - this builds up to a chase sequence around the house. In an attempt to rid him; the bear grabs an axe hanging on the wall - and hides behind the wall to inconspicuously finish him.

Maltese conceives some great delivery for some suspense-build up as the sleepwalking wife walks into the fray - causing the husband to almost strike his wife with an axe.

Meanwhile, Sniffles enters into the scene again - as he once again: mistakes the bear's actions as an enemy of "Robin Hood". He fires his arrow which targets the bear's rear end - causing him to hit his head on the wall-mounted shelf and leaving pieces of china floating in mid-air, awaiting its destruction. Incoherency and cartoon physics takes its toll when the bear and the objects abruptly halt in mid-air - as the sleepwalking wife walks past the scene. The bear motions again to collect the shelve pieces still standing in air.

After a series of chases with the fox - the husband bear is about to meet his fate as he accidentally strikes his sleepwalking wife with an umbrella (which the fox is clinging onto). At the summit of the wife's wrath - she observes the fox around her shoulders, which she mistakes as a sincere present from her husband.

The scene of the wife building up her wrath which only sinks down into happiness and affection is a brilliant team effort, from not only the animation but Stalling's musical score, too.

At first perplexed, the husband bear decides to play along as he turns back coyly while his wife admires the "fox fur" present. He goes so far along with it to the point he knocks on the fox's head, leaving him out-cold, for the sake of his wife's satisfaction.

The ending scene however, are another throwback to the Little Blabbermouse shorts where the compulsive talker will get justice from irritated characters who'd put up with him throughout the short. In this instance, the husband bear places his police hat on top of Sniffles. Despite an inventive approach of the compulsive talker in keeping up with the brisker pace of Warners - the ending itself feels somewhat uninspired and limp.

For a narrative which is very episodic - Mike Maltese masterfully paces and blends the story together whilst still making room for funny gags. Chuck continues to do an ambitious albeit successful job at directing and yet it appears he isn't yet ready to let go of his own characters like Sniffles or Inki - who slowed him down and gave him limitations artistically. While the compulsive talking personality works fine in this cartoon, the short also take much advantage of Sniffles' screen time - and appropriately limits his role in the cartoon...as the comedic values centred on the bear couple and the fox were too valuable. Admittedly, had Sniffles not appeared in this short - it's doubtful the short would suffer much at all.

Rating: 3.5/5.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

400. Super-Rabbit (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 399.
Release date: April 3, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny / Cottontail Smith / Various voices), Kent Rogers (Professor Canafrazz), Ted Pierce (2nd observer).
Story: Ted Pierce.
Animation: Ken Harris.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Bugs Bunny develops superpowers and goes on a mission to challenge Cottontail Smith - a cowboy who despises rabbits.

Animation by Ben Washam
In the early 1940s, the Superman franchise (who debuted in Action Comics #1, 1938) had become incredibly popular - even so, that the Schlesinger Studio leapt at the chance of producing a parody of their own. Due to Chuck Jones' success of his Rover Boys parody a year earlier - he becomes an obvious candidate to conceive a Superman take-off.

The franchise had also been very popular on radio, as well as a series of animated shorts produced by the Fleischer Studios - which is arguably their most elaborate work. The shorts were popular enough that their opening montage sequence for each short were directly spoofed shot-by-shot in Jones' parody.

A still from the Superman series -
seen at the opening of each short
from 1941 and 1942.
Its infamous opening narration which establishes Superman goes: "Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!" were presented in a montage form in the Fleischer shorts.

However, Jones and Ted Pierce visually lampoon the opening with their Warner Bros. style - to some extent they channel the same level of humour Tex Avery used for his late 1930s shorts. (02/06 Edit: In relation to Eric O. Costello's comment - it's reminded me that Ted Pierce's experience at the Fleischer Studios proved handy, even more so as he had story credit for one Superman cartoon - The Arctic Giant.)

Instead of a dry-brushed bullet zipping past the screen; a cork gun is replaced. A streamlined locomotive in the Fleischer short is replaced with a fatigued steam train - a visual contradiction the "faster than a locomotive" statement. Finally, the leap to the highest building gag is topped - with Bugs accidentally trips his foot on the pointy top of the skyscraper, causing him to fall.

To make the parody more conspicuous; John McGrew sticks to a similar style to the Fleischer shorts in order to take advantage of Jones' direct parody on the montage. Alas, Bugs Bunny channeling the iconic Clark Kent/Superman image has a nice touch to it - as Bugs retains his own personality while still posing as a superhero. He is partly animated in the scene as his legs are held while he munches his carrot.

Ted Pierce also conceives certain gags directly spoofing recurring elements in Superman. Once Bugs Bunny reads a cut-out newspaper article of Texan cowboy Cottontail Smith's plan to eradicate all rabbits in the laboratory; he declares: "This looks like the job, for Super-Rabbit!".

He hops into a booth to change into his costume but finds himself dressed as the wrong alter-ego - as Bo Peep. Bugs quickly returns to the booth and comes back with the correct superhero costume. A nicely executed gag by Pierce full of spontaneity while maintaining Bugs' characteristics of being in drag.

Animation by Ken Harris
The sequence of Bugs flying to Texas is a fine example of Chuck  Jones taking pride with his flair for comedy and lack of logic.

As Bugs casually flies he greets a horse walking on air - a gag which feels very Clampett-esque. The horse greets Bugs back, and goes into a double take: "A rabbit? Up here?!". A hysterical gag which boasts about it's nonsensical environment in contrast to more realistic Fleischer shorts.

Pierce conceives another great gag where Bugs' ability to fly begins to trigger, as he munches another carrot to "recharge his batteries" - indicating that Bugs' superpowers aren't reliable or perfect compared to Superman.

John McGrew brings a slightly less ostentatious look as far as layouts go. The designs aren't as experimental or avant-garde as seen in the Texas sequence. The laboratory sequence at the beginning shows more of his simplistic, dynamic approach to style.

The pan shot of Professor Canafrazz preparing his experiment shows McGrew going to town in a complex camera pan arrangement. The effects animation (probably by Ace Gamer) are incredibly elaborate and appealing to watch, too.

The camera pans from Canafrazz's many flasks and viles; and along the way an "Eat at Joe's" gag is inserted. The pan stops momentarily at a radiated carrot - and ends with Bugs Bunny sitting in an "experimental rabbit" box. Note the box is labelled in apparent Latin "rabbitus idiotus Americanus"; a descendant gag of Chuck Jones which would be more popularised in his Road Runner shorts.

Animation by Bobe Cannon
In response to Bugs' "What's cookin', doc" phrase - Canafrazz reveals his experiment as he examines the carrot: "I'm cooking, as you so kindly put it, my great--my great--my greatest experiment! A super-vitamized, locked-in flavourized, ariumized, modern-designized super carrot".

Canafrazz's voice actor, Kent Roger, does an unbelievable impression of English actor Richard Haydn (today best known as Uncle Max in The Sound of Music), by nailing his own characteristics and distinctive dialect. Bugs' comes up with some witty lines conceived by Ted Pierce, like "Aw, you shouldn't have ought to have done that, Edison" when Canafrazz reveals he intends to give him superpowers. Also, any idea on the meaning behind Bugs' line; "Yeah, what are you gonna do with it, Burbank?".

For the introduction of rabbit hater Cottontail Smith - Ted Pierce's knack for creating exceptionally witty, unpretentious dialogue and gag development presents wonderful exposition for Bugs' first encounter of him. Bugs discovers the trail for Cottontail Smith as he watches a group of rabbits fleeing the area - leading him to go undercover in order to infiltrate and trick him.

As Cottontail Smith and his horse hop across the Texan desert - Bugs hops along with them, and states his business. This leads to a complex yet fun piece of layout work where the characters hop in and out of the scene - and in each hop, there is a different action.

First, Smith is riding on the horse and Bugs hops - and several hops later, the action is reserved as Bugs rides the horse. As each hop goes, the nuttier the gag gets - leading to Bugs riding on top of Cottontail Smith.

It's a hilariously executed sequence that's been perfected from every department - from McGrew's layouts to Chuck's timing - as well as Ted Pierce's creative abilities. Cottontail's dialogue is extremely amusing while establishing his personality, as heard in the line: "I hate rabbits! If thar's anythin' I hate more than a rabbit - it's two rabbits!". A perfectly written line which is kept simple and to the point - and a perfect emphasis for his hatred of rabbits. It's famously known that Cottontail Smith is a precursor to Freleng's Yosemite Sam as Mel Blanc uses the same persona and voice for the character.

Chuck Jones has already excelled in the pace of the Warners style - and takes pride with it in an energetic sequence involving Bugs' improvised basketball game. Cottontail Smith has attempted to exterminate Bugs by firing a cannon - although Bugs takes advantages of his powers by quickly grabbing the cannonball and turns this into a game of basketball. Bugs uses his quick wits to trick Cottontail Smith and the horse in participating.

The sheer energy and timing couldn't have been handled superiorly by Bobe Cannon. His great use of drybrush and speed captures the tone and pace of not only the sequence, but the action of the sport.

Bugs hasn't finished his fun as he continues to exploit Cottontail and his horse's gullibility by having them chant with him in a cheerleading rally. Mel Blanc nails the charisma and vocal clarity of the performance as he chants, "Bricka-bracka, firecracker...Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny rah, rah, rah!".

Ken Harris also carries out the scene with his outlandish animation. It's very daring for Harris to use that level of exaggeration in a scene like this; who takes complete complete advantage of the fast action with smear animation. It's a very loose, but solid looking piece of animation at the same time.

Successive timing asides, Chuck's great use of continuity and bold expressions also carry out the cartoon. In an attempt to make each facial expression inventive and new in each cartoon - Chuck pulls off a unique 'burn take' for Cottontail Smith. Once Bugs has tricked Cottontail into thinking he's a horse - he double-takes and burns in effigy, realising Bugs is a rabbit - while still wearing a grazing muzzle.

The anger in Chuck's expressions read very clearly - especially when much of his face is covered from the muzzle. Chuck also pulls off a red glow effect surrounding his head; to help emphasise his anger. An effect rarely used by Chuck.

Some innovative pieces of dynamics and staging are taken advantage of in the following scene of Bugs supposedly making his sacrifice to Cottontail. The POV shot of Cottontail navigating his  scope shaped in the form of the rabbit shows great coordination as far as layouts go.

While standing in position; Smith fires multiple bullets at "Bugs" - but finds the real Bugs is standing behind a model of himself. By this time; audiences have become familiar of Bugs' conniving ways of avoiding his own peril - making the suspense build-up deliberate.

The sequence of Bugs being patrolled by Cottontail Smith and his horse on a piece of aircraft is comparable to the action scenes depicted in the Fleischer shorts - except it's played up for laughs. McGrew and Jones tackle some ambitious layout navigations and dynamic angles to make the action as compelling and intricate as the Superman shorts. A POV scope shot targeting Bugs is very ambitious as far as a Warner short goes.

Bugs once again defeats Cottontail as he effortlessly holds onto plane; causing it to detach - leaving the pair floating in mid-air. Animation acting couldn't have been topped in the shot of the horse tapping Cottontail to hint the perilous situation they're in. Cottontail looks down; then turns back and immediately they fall from the remains of their plane. It's a hilarious piece of animation delivery - the anticipation of Cottontail turning back and supposedly expecting the giant fall from the sky is an icing on the cake.

While Bugs Bunny has enjoyed his victorious running time in the short; Ted Pierce constructs an exceedingly exciting climax to meet new challenges for Bugs. While flying, Bugs finds he has lost his energy to fly and opens his carrot case; but clumsily lets all the carrots fall to the ground.

After hitting the ground in a great piece of squash and stretch motion; he finds that all of the carrots have been eaten by Cottontail Smith and his horse who morph as superheroes - making Bugs Bunny feel threatened.

A quick thinker, he declares: "This looks like the job for a real superman!". He quickly rushes inside a booth while Cottontail Smith and his horse anticipate an attack action. As the door opens, they very quickly salute as Bugs marches out wearing a Marine uniform, while singing The Marines Hymm.

He briefly pauses and turns back to the pair, "Sorry fellas, I can't play with ya any more. I've got some impoitant woik to do!". He continues his march and walks past a sign where he is heading for Berlin or Tokyo. A now slightly-dated gag - it works well in Bugs Bunny having the last laugh - escaping the dangers of Cottontail Smith from then on.

A short that Chuck Jones felt he finally achieved the comedy standards he was looking for - Super-Rabbit is an excellent parody of the Superman franchise as well as a riotous adventure for the wascually wabbit. As parody is a difficult theme to write successfully - Ted Pierce doesn't let it get in the way of the story - creating a healthy balance for the Superman references and gags for a typical Bugs Bunny short. Jones' confidence is all over the cartoon - and perhaps creating one of the funniest parodies from the Warner Bros. cartoon library. Not only does the short scream with energy and excitement - but it takes complete pride of the studio's style of animated shorts; and it shows that when lampoon Fleischer, as the gags are done so creatively and incisively. Ted Pierce conceives Cottontail Smith wonderfully; by establishing a perfect rival for Bugs - due to his extreme hatred for rabbits; which is hilarious itself. The ending sequence might have aged overtime; although it doesn't let the whole cartoon itself suffer at all.

Rating: 5/5.