As we near Halloween, what better way to prepare than with one of the most effectively creepy and disturbing cartoons of the classic era. The fact that The Tell-Tale Heart was made at all during the classic era is amazing, but UPA was one of the most adventurous and forward-thinking animation producers in the 1950s, both in terms of content and animation style, and this short is a great example of that. As in the Edgar Allan Poe short story upon which the film is based, the narrator tells of his slow descent toward madness (though he denies, perhaps a bit too vehemently, that he is mad) thanks to his obsession with getting rid of the dead eye of the old man for whom he works.
The animation style is striking, mostly made up of still drawings with only slight movement, or only the movement of light or the camera to lend a sense of motion. The angles are abstract, as is the action when it comes – a murder depicted with a flurry of blankets and distorted shapes. It’s almost avant-garde, and supported by James Mason’s chilling and eventually frantic voice-over, the cartoon is unlike just about anything else that studio-era animation units ever produced. Sixty years later, it still has the power to chill today.
Keeping with our creepy cartoon vibes for the month of October, here’s an early Looney Tunes entry featuring Porky Pig as a cop dispatched to investigate an old house that may be haunted. And in fact, it is, with a very groovy ghost who gets great kicks out of scaring the pants off poor Porky. There are a lot of great visual and timing gags, with the kind of broad and loose animation style typical of director Robert Clampett.
Back in the 1930s, Porky Pig was one of Warner Bros. leading animated characters. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, the two characters most associated with Looney Tunes from a modern-day perspective, were introduced as foils for Porky just a couple of years before Jeepers Creepers was released, and wouldn’t evolve into their most recognizable forms until the early 1940s. Once Bugs and Daffy came into their own, Porky was largely relegated to supporting roles (cf. Drip Along Daffy and Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2 Century). He never lost his trademark stutter, though, immortalized in the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies “That’s All Folks!” sign off.
This is the original black and white version of Jeepers Creepers, with the full blackface ending intact. It has also been frequently shown on television in a colorized version with the ending censored, either by fading or irising out early or trying to dull the offensive blackface gag by putting the ghost in purple-face instead. There are numerous examples of racist moments in Warner cartoons – the infamous Censored Eleven are so heavily reliant on racist stereotypes that they generally aren’t shown at all, whereas cartoons like Jeepers Creepers have only small offensive portions easily edited out for television broadcast. Personally, I’m all in favor of showing these cartoons in their original form with proper historical context, if only to better understand and learn from our past, even the negative parts. Of course, the majority of this cartoon is simply a hilarious ghost story.
Here we are again in October, so I’m giving this column over to horror-themed cartoons. As you might expect, horror cartoons, at least from the studio era, tend to undercut the horror with comedy and end up being pretty innocuous overall. Still, there are some that have a surprisingly high creep factor, and today’s short is one of those – and even more surprisingly, it’s from Walt Disney, known even back in the ’30s for being more cute and cuddly than many of the other animation houses. That said, when Walt wanted to scare, he certainly knew how to do it – check out the witch transformation scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But that’s getting off-track.
The Mad Doctor (1933) finds Pluto being abducted by the titular Mad Doctor, who wants to experiment by placing Pluto’s head on a chicken’s body. Mickey runs after him to save him, but is blocked at every turn by skeletons, bats, and eventually his own life-threatening situation. Despite the inevitable happy resolution, the cartoon actually packs in a lot of genuinely creepy visuals, many of them NOT undercut by comedy. The film was actually deemed so scary in 1933 that some theatres refused to show it to their young patrons. It shares some gags with an earlier Mickey Mouse cartoon, 1929’s The Haunted House, but The Mad Doctor takes advantage of better sound technology to back up its visuals for an overall more satisfying experience. The Mad Doctor himself doesn’t appear in any other cartoons (except a brief cameo in a much, much later Roger Rabbit short), but has become a major villain in the Disney video games Mickey Mania, Epic Mickey, and Epic Mickey 2.
Yesterday would have been legendary animation director Chuck Jones’s 100th birthday, and as you might expect, there are lots of celebrations going on for him. Here in Los Angeles alone, at least two different theatres have planned tribute screenings, showing just a few of his best shorts. Meanwhile, classic film blogs like True Classics have devoted past week to celebrating Jones’s life and work. As for me, Jones is easily my favorite of all the Looney Tunes directors, and it seemed like a good time to bring the Saturday Morning Toons feature out of hibernation to highlight some of my absolute favorite Jones-directed shorts.
Like all of the Looney Tunes directors, Jones worked with Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, but didn’t create either – however, he was a major influence on Daffy’s shift from whacked-out loon to the irascible, egotistical duck we all know and love today. He also created Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, directing over 26 shorts featuring the pair, as well as skunk loverboy Pepe Le Pew. A lot of credit when talking about Jones goes to his frequent collaborator, writer Michael Maltese – the two of them developed some of Warner Bros’ most lasting and iconic animated shorts, including many you’ll see below. They brought wordplay to slapstick in Rabbit Seasoning (and its Hunting Trilogy partners Rabbit Fire and Duck, Rabbit, Duck), meta-humor in Duck Amuck, opera to cartoons in What’s Opera, Doc and The Rabbit of Seville, sci-fi in Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, heart and warm humor to Feed the Kitty, and outrageous one-off visual gags to a multitude of Roadrunner and Coyote cartoons.
The combination of wit, slapstick, character moments, heart, and guts to try something new permeates Jones’ best cartoons, and that’s why they remain just as hilarious, moving, and iconic as ever. But enough of this. Let’s watch some cartoons!
There are few animation directors who can get as much out of a simple set-up, or wring as many well-earned laughs and genuine emotions out of the same scenario as Chuck Jones. There’s a reason he’s my favorite cartoon director, and shorts like Feed the Kitty showcase that perfectly. It’s an easy concept – a dog starts to chase a kitten, who behaves in an impossibly cute manner and wins the dog’s affection. But the dog fears that his owner won’t let the kitten stay and comes up with all sorts of ways to try to hide his new friend. As many times as I’ve seen this short, the middle section where Marc Anthony fears the kitten has suffered a horrible fate never fails to make me tear up. Though it has its fair share of laughs, this is on of the absolute sweetest and most kind-hearted cartoons Warner Bros. ever made. And most of the reason for its continued impact is Jones’ amazing ability to wring expressions out of Marc Anthony’s slack-jawed face. There’s almost no dialogue in the piece – neither Marc Anthony nor the kitten speak at all – so everything has to be communicated visually, and communicated it is. Whether he’s cooing over the kitten’s adorableness or cringing at its claws in his back or suspiciously eyeing it as he realizes his responsibility to take care of it or sobbing when he thinks it’s gone forever, Marc Anthony is among the most expressive characters Jones ever created, and that’s saying a lot, because Jones was incredible at faces. This is probably one of my top five cartoons of all time. Enjoy!
You’ll have to forgive me if I get a little UPA happy in the future; I picked up TCM’s new box set of UPA Jolly Frolics and have been really enjoying going through it. Most of these cartoons are new to me, because UPA cartoons rarely get the kind of play that Looney Tunes or Disney cartoons get, even though UPA was the site of some of the most exiting and unique animation styles in the 1950s, really pushing past the established styles of Warner and Disney and incorporating more modernist and avant-garde design aesthetics into their cartoons. Though UPA would become best known for its series of Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing Boing cartoons, they also did a lot of one-offs, not really establishing any major long-lasting characters outside of those two. Rooty Toot Toot is a one-off, based on the popular jazz song “Frankie and Johnnie” about a woman who shoots her lover after catching him with another woman. It was deservedly nominated for a Best Short Oscar in 1951 (losing to Tom & Jerry outing The Two Musketeers), and is probably one of my favorite examples of a song-based short. One thing I love about it is a fairly common trait in UPA cartoons, and that’s how minimalist it is and how willing the animators are to let color and basic design define the space – none of the clothes have solid edges, for example. Other UPA cartoons would go even further in this direction. It gives them a startlingly modern look, as though a Matisse painting were being created right before our eyes.
I‘ll state right off the bat that I haven’t actually watched this cartoon yet, except for the first several seconds to check quality and sound and that sort of thing on the YouTube upload. I will be watching it in full later today as part of a special program of 3D shorts put on at the TCM Film Festival (I’ll have a full write-up on the program at some point; it includes both live-action and animated 3D experiments from the 1930s through the 1950s, as well as a few outliers), and I’d rather save my first full viewing of it for that. Even from the opening credits, though, you can see it was intended for 3D, especially with the way the title swoops off the screen toward the audience. Melody is the first in a short-lived series of Disney cartoons titled “Adventures in Music” – in fact, there was only one other cartoon made in the series, and it’s the arguably better-known Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom (which I have seen many times; hence my totally ego-centric claim it’s better known). Both cartoons star an owl who teaches a group of young students about music and musical instruments. I’m looking forward to seeing Melody very much, especially as it’s extremely rare to see it in the original 3D. As a side-note, I’m amused at myself for being so intrigued by these old-school 3D presentations, yet I’ll go far out of my way to see 2D presentations of current 3D films. I don’t understand it either.
With the friendly debates over Canadian accents going on in the comments of the latest Cinecast episode, I figured I’d bring a little classic Canadian animation to the fore this week. “The Cat Came Back” was originally a comic children’s song written by Harry S. Miller way back in 1893. It has remained popular throughout the 20th century, but now it’s pretty much indelibly linked to Cordell Baker’s 1988 cartoon, depicting the trials of one Mr. Johnson as he struggles to get rid of a persistent and destructive little yellow cat. Frankly, Mr. Johnson does seem to get angry at the cat for very little reason in the beginning – if you didn’t want him to play with the rattle, why did you wave it in front of him? But the cat gets his revenge and moreso, as Mr. Johnson goes to ever more explosive lengths to get rid of him. The cartoon won a Genie Award for Best Animated Short, and was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Tin Toy, one of the very earliest Pixar films. I guess if you’re going to lose an Oscar, losing to Pixar is about as good as you can do. I will warn you, once the song starts playing, you will NOT be able to get it out of your head.
As I expect is true for many of my generation, my first exposure to Chip and Dale was via the TV series Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers, where the chipmunk duo leads a detective agency/crime-fighting squad. But the characters have been around since the 1940s, sans the crime element. Debuting in a Pluto-centric cartoon in 1943 (and appearing in one more Mickey/Pluto short), the pair of chipmunks received names and distinctive character traits in 1947’s Chip an’ Dale, where they were also paired with their most common antagonist for the rest of their 23 short film appearances, Donald Duck. The high energy chipmunks were a perfect match for Donald’s mania, playing off each other much the way Tom and Jerry did at MGM or Sylvester and Tweety did at Warners. One of their best shorts is Working for Peanuts, which sees the pair attempting to get peanuts from a zoo, but the peanuts are closely defended by Dolores the Elephant, in cahoots with Donald the zookeeper. Though in their earliest appearances the chipmunks aren’t differentiated in personality or looks, by this time Chip is clearly portrayed as the smarter of the two, the one who comes up with the schemes and ridicules Dale when his unthinking bravado gets him into trouble. Physically, you can tell them apart by Dale’s larger, red nose, which is easily distinguished from Chip’s smaller, back nose.