Friday, December 14, 2007

12/14: Six Looney Tunes cartoons

Bob Clampett's Draftee Daffy starts off as just another World War II patriotic cartoon, with Daffy reading the newspaper and cheerfully recounting the latest American military victories, launching into an elaborate song and dance routine extolling the virtues of the US. Watching it today, this segment can probably only elicit a groan, though Daffy gets some good lines in, because even the best-made propaganda is ultimately a little boring. But then Daffy gets a call from the draft board, and a man comes to deliver his draft notice, and there ensues a wild and frenetic chase as Daffy does anything possible (and quite a few impossible things too) to escape service. Somewhere in there, inevitably, a sneaky little thought occurs: Daffy's a hypocrite! In its unobtrusive way, this short mocks the hypocrisy and faux-patriotism of those who are all for war just as long as it's an abstract concept happening somewhere far away, and in that sense it remains startlingly relevant now.

More importantly, once the action gets moving, it's a dazzlingly fun cartoon, and a perfect showcase for Clampett's tremendous animation skills. The chase scene was a dependable standby of all the Warner animators, and Clampett hits all the usual points here, as always riffing on some basic plotlines and gags. The delayed reaction, the chaser who follows his prey through even the most elaborate traps and escape routes, the bomb that gets casually handed back to the one who lit it: these constantly recycled plot elements serve as the skeletal basis for Clampett's rubbery, fluid motion animation, in which Daffy stretches and contorts himself into pretzels with every movement. Daffy, with his wackiness and exaggerated character, is a perfect fit for Clampett's rubberized sense of movement, and a chase film is exactly the right form for this union of the director with his perfect character.

I Haven't Got a Hat, directed by WB mainstay Isadore "Fritz" Freleng, is mainly notable for being the first cartoon to feature Porky Pig, who would shortly after become the studio's major star (following on after more generic earlier characters like Bosko and Buddy). At this early point, though, Porky doesn't look much like he would later on, and he doesn't have much to do either, although his characteristic stutter was already in place. The film is basically a showcase for the introduction of a whole cast of new characters, of whom only Porky would ultimately stick around for very long. Among this crew was also the mischievous cat Beans, the stuck-up Oliver Owl, a pair of playful dogs named Ham and Ex, and a shy girl kitten. All these characters are in a school, supervised by a cow schoolmarm, and putting on a series of performances for the benefit of their classmates. It's a setup that gives each character the opportunity to step up and introduce themselves, ostensibly to the class, but actually to cartoon audiences of the time, by giving a performance. The Looney Tunes cartoons of the time didn't have much in the way of memorable recurring characters, and these new creations each get their moment in the spotlight here for a try at enduring fame.

The problem is that the short is very light on gags. Ironically, though Porky would be the only one of these characters to last beyond a few cartoons, his part here is by far the weakest. Porky's introduction is just one lengthy joke about his stuttering, which goes on for so long that eventually the class chases him offstage by summoning a pack of dogs to attack him — presumably the audience would've been ready to kick him off much earlier. Later, the WB cartoonists would realize that Porky's stutter, though it defines his personality and to some extent endears him to audiences, is best when it's not the focus of the jokes but a simple accepted fact of the character's being. In later Porky shorts, his stuttering could be funny — especially when it resulted in fun streams of fractured wordplay — but it was rarely placed at center stage in the narrative the way it is here. Little Kitty fares just a little better, shyly reciting "Mary Had a Little Lamb" with exasperated prompting from her teacher on the sidelines — still basically a one-gag show, but at least it's a mildly funnier gag. Finally, there's some interplay between the piano-playing owl and Beans, who's set up here as a trickster character much like Bugs would later become. This is the short's best sequence, a small taste of the madcap insanity that would soon mostly push aside the song-and-dance routines and dominate the Warner cartoons for the next 30 years. Otherwise, this is a relatively undistinguished early effort from the studio, more notable as a historical landmark than a good cartoon in its own right.

Porky Pig's Feat is an absolute work of genius, there's simply no denying it. A pure comic masterpiece, it's packed with so many jokes and wonderful small moments that it's almost impossible to grasp everything that's going on without watching it several times. Porky and Daffy's expensive stay at a plush hotel that they can't pay for triggers a lunatic barrage of rapid-fire gags as the duo attempts to flee from the nigh-unstoppable hotel manager. There's a joke every second, and director Frank Tashlin has the visual panache to milk every one of these jokes for all they're worth. In one scene, Porky and Daffy send the manager tumbling down a massive spiral staircase, and his yells of pain come echoing up to them (at one point, the voice actor hilariously mixes in a recitation of the vowels with the yelps). When the pair looks over the edge, Tashlin shows each of their faces in turn, with a reflection of the falling hotel manager visible in their eyes, and immediately after he inserts another visual joke, a shot of the staircase as a spiral heading down seemingly to infinity — but when Daffy insults him, the manager is back at the top of the stairs like a rocket. Tashlin also plays with mirroring in another scene, when a defiant Daffy is glimpsed sticking out his tongue in a reflection from the manager's monocle.

The cartoon is crammed with these kinds of surprising moments, displaying a keen attention to detail and a way of thinking about scenes, even in cartoons, in terms of the camera's eye. When the manager, insulted by Daffy, prepares to slap the duck, Tashlin pans away to Porky, who's looking on in fascinated fear, and only when the offscreen slap is over, panning back to show Daffy with a white hand print across his face. This kind of moment stands out because of its innovative use of self-consciously "cinematic" techniques in cartoons, but Tashlin's images could be equally striking in terms of pure visual humor. When Daffy accosts the manager, he squashes their faces together and burrows in until the man's face is twisted in on itself, whereupon Daffy turns to the camera and points, telling everyone to look at the new Dick Tracy character, Pruneface (who, indeed, had been introduced in Chester Gould's strip the year before). Towards the end of the film, in an even more metatextual moment, Porky and Daffy discuss Bugs Bunny, saying that they once saw him make a very daring and tricky escape in "a Leon Schlesinger cartoon."

This short is packed with these kinds of multi-layered gags, enhanced by the fluid visuals of Tashlin's expressive animation style. His Daffy, in particular, is brilliantly realized and acted here, as in the opening scene where he loses a dice game and slinks away, every inch of his body telegraphing his depression. His stooped shoulders, dragging feet, and head drooped practically to the ground give his walk exactly the feel it should have, and he's equally expressive when jolted into action for the rest of the cartoon. This is a real joy of a film — I've watched it over and over again tonight, probably five times already, and it's a riot every time.

Plane Daffy is another WW2 short, and director Frank Tashlin makes it one the classics of the era, opening it with a tribute to the Hollywood flying pictures, especially Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings. The opening shot is a fog-shrouded view of the flyers' airbase that evokes Hawks' lonely aviation outpost in the South American jungle, although in this case it's a birdhouse, and the flyers are all pigeons. And, of course, one duck too. That would be Daffy, who takes on a dangerous mission when all the other "pilots" are seduced and waylaid by the Nazi spy Hatta Mari, who's so dangerously sexy that even a poster of her, shown to the troops, sways and sashays seductively so that her hips shake from side to side. Daffy can resist, he says, because he's "a woman-hater, she won't get to first base, this Hatta Mari tomater!" Of course, it doesn't work out that way, and the film gives way to one of those manic and logic-defying chase sequences that so define Looney Tunes cartoons.

Tashlin structures the film in an interesting way, though, so that the crazed release of this chase serves as a counterpoint to the comparatively staid and serious first half of the film. For the first few minutes, the cartoon is set up like a conventional flying ace film (excepting the replacement of the pilots with pigeons, of course), with the birds worrying about their missing friend and chain-smoking until mounds of cigarette butts pile up in the headquarters. A narrator provides a grim voiceover, the seriousness of his narration only undercut by the fact that he's speaking in rhyme, combining a fairy tale sensibility with the macho attitude of the flying picture genre. Once Daffy enters the scene, the mood is shattered, and the foggy ambiance of the birdhouse headquarters gives way to a wacky and surrealist chase as Hatta Mari attempts to extract military secrets from the unwilling Daffy. The chase itself is a masterpiece of warping space: the space seems to entirely change from one shot to the next, with Daffy's motion keying the transition from one space to the next. He opens a door, finds Matta Hari right behind it, darts towards the bottom of the frame and suddenly there's a staircase right there for him to leap down (and of course Matta Hari will somehow be waiting at the bottom as soon as he gets there). And there's an immortal line when the sexy spy chases Daffy into a refrigerator, and he pops his head back out to exclaim, "What do you know? The little light stays on!" This kind of absurdist digression isn't just a fun aside, but the very essence of the cartoon's method, although the equally absurd treatment of spatial logistics in the chase is perhaps a more subtle touch. In fact, the film's whole second half might be thought of as an absurdist detour from the genre pastiche of the beginning, going from the moody Only Angels Have Wings to the wackiness of a screwball comedy (hey, much like Hawks himself). Wackiness is built into the film's DNA, its very structure, which is what makes it such a classic of insanity.

I Got Plenty of Mutton is a Frank Tashlin-directed one-shot, featuring a starving Depression-era wolf who's so desperate for food that he attempts to trick a deadly ram who's guarding a flock of sheep. This wolf, like so many of the supposedly predatory animals in these cartoons, is a dumb and hapless creature, not unlike the later Wile E. Coyote, who was based on this kind of one-shot wolf character. Like Wile, this wolf is a sad and sympathetic character, driven by sheer desperation and starvation, an outgrowth of the Depression and wartime rationing and shortages. He's introduced with a classic Depression-era gag, the "meal" that consists of just a single pea, eaten with a knife and fork in small pieces to prolong the pleasure of eating it.

His attempts to outwit the sheep's guardian ram are similarly pathetic, and he quickly turns to that tried-and-true Warner device, dressing in drag. It's interesting how often various characters resort to this trick in these cartoons, and not only Bugs Bunny. On one level, it's an indication of a fatal weakness in the male personality: again and again in these cartoons, otherwise stolid and powerful male characters are undone by the temptations of women (or other men disguised as women). The ram who's so fearsome when the wolf first shows up is transformed into a lecherous Romeo, steadfastly pursuing his new love. It's a typical irony, though, that his romantic pursuit is so single-minded that the wolf is just as thoroughly kept away from the sheep, unable to escape the advances of the ram, who woos his love with a whispery French accent, punctuated by a loud "BAHHHH!" The ending adds a new and bizarre twist to this loving chase: when the frustrated wolf finally reveals himself, the ram simply shrugs and takes up the chase anew. The ram, apparently, has decided that he just wants some love, and it doesn't matter what species or sex the object of his affection might be.

In the handful of Tashlin cartoons I've watched so far, it seems typical that the narrative structure ranges far and wide and is structured around these kinds of surprising pivot points, which periodically swing the story into totally unexpected places. The sad and hungry wolf of the cartoon's first few minutes is quickly forgotten after his first encounter with the ram, and the story then becomes a question of how he'll manage to outwit his adversary. Then the story shifts gears again, becoming a chase between an amorous character and the unwitting object of his desire; the unexpected ending provides yet another narrative shift, towards a new story that couldn't have been guessed from anything that preceded it. And all this in a cartoon that lasts less than 8 minutes. Tashlin never provides a solid narrative ground, allowing the characters and their interactions to drive the storytelling. The result is a kind of mini-epic that feels a lot longer than it is, even as its pace remains perfectly calibrated. It simply packs in so much detail and so many different ideas into its compact running time, and it's endlessly fun to take this kind of roller-coaster ride with a master director like Tashlin.

The Stupid Cupid, in comparison to the aforementioned cartoons, is a mild-mannered effort from Frank Tashlin, though it's still charming and fun in its own quieter way. The short stars Elmer Fudd as a wayward Cupid, who's spurned by Daffy because the duck is already (unhappily) married with a line of kids so long that the pictures of them fill up a photo album with an extra accordion fold tailing off with still more Daffy Juniors. Once again, we're back to women as the undoing of men in a Looney Tunes cartoon, and Daffy, having learned his lesson the first time, wants no more arrows. But Cupid Fudd takes this rejection to heart, and skewers the unlucky duck with a mega-arrow that makes him fall in love, inappropriately but hilariously, with a chicken. He consequently falls afoul (you thought I was going to make a fowl joke, didn't you?) of a rooster, and the requisite chase ensues, punctuated with alternating violence and romance.

This cartoon lacks some of the flair of other Tash-helmed 'toons, which means that its jokes, while funny as ever, lack some of the extra pop of the camera-play in Porky Pig's Feat or the radical spatial restructuring of Plane Daffy. It's indicative of the extraordinarily high level of quality in the Warner shorts, and the amount of structural and formal play in their construction, that a hilarious and enjoyable cartoon like this can fall into the mid-level of their output simply for lacking those additional levels of meaning and sophistication. Still, the scene towards the end, where Daffy worms his way into the middle of a kiss between the rooster and the hen, has to be one of the most uproarious ménage a trios scenes in cartoon history. Saying this is only an average Warner cartoon isn't too much of an insult; saying it's an only an average Tashlin cartoon is even less of one.

1 comment:

Just Blank said...

Thank you for the reviews. Great recommendations!