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!

Sunday, 9 July 2017

419. Puss n' Booty (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 418.
Release date: December 11, 1943.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Frank Tashlin.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Bea Benaderet (Woman); Mel Blanc (Hiccups).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Cal Dalton.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Rudolph awaits for a new canary to arrive, with the intention of eating it. Little does he realise how resilient his prey is.

By April 1943; Warner Bros. had ordered for all cartoons from the Looney Tunes series to be produced in colour for the 1943-44 season. Not only would all of Leon Schlesinger's cartoons feature colour, but the distinction between the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies segment would cease to exist. Prior to the demand, only a handful of cartoons from the series were still being produced in black-and-white under Frank Tashlin.

Tashlin's first few cartoons during his second directorial stint at Schlesinger's that screamed with lavish film techniques and strong uses of cinematic staging. Once Tashlin moved over to colour cartoons - he begun experimenting more with design work and angular movement.

For the final Looney Tunes short produced in black-and-white; Tashlin ends the tradition with a satisfying sendoff. If Porky Pig's Feat was Tashlin's finest cartoon in terms of its successful use of comedy and experimental filmmaking blended together; then Puss 'n Booty is arguably Tashlin's finest cartoon as far as dynamics, pacing and audacious camera angles.

The cartoon's premise is a cliched formula, which consists of a duelling cat and canary. Warren Foster brings innovation to the characterisations - by making a seemingly harmless canary more potent based on its true colours. Foster finally has an opportunity to showcase his talents as a story man. Although he worked on many classic Bob Clampett cartoons - the stories always feel more like Clampett's than Foster's. The concept is largely a forerunner for the Sylvester and Tweety series. The cartoon itself would be remade with the duo in I Taw a Putty Tat (1948). Frank Tashlin turns such a formula-ridden idea into a cinematic experience!

Tashlin's ability to stage animated scenes in the style of a cinematographer never fails to impress. Such planning might've been a burden for the layout artist or the cameraman; but the results were worth it.

In the opening scene of the lady entering her house, the shot is depicted from point of view. The camera pans at various corners and edges of the house; once the woman discovers the disappearance of her missing canary, Dicky - (gettit?).

Johnny Burton's camera department have the delicate assignment of nailing the timing of the panning; to make the simulated P.O.V. convincing. The mistress's point of view ends once her cat Rudolph, is introduced to the audience, supposedly snoozing away.

The mistress asks for the whereabouts of Rudolph, who shakes his head. The evidence is revealed once Rudolph accidentally hiccups bird feathers from his mouth. Tashlin applies some intriguing timing of the cat burying the evidence with him. Much of Rudolph's frantic action of retrieving the feathers consists of approximately twenty frames: one feet and four frames in animation, or just slightly under a second. The following frame immediately cuts to Rudolph pretending to be asleep; which looks very jerky in motion whilst freeze framing. Such jerkiness works to an advantage by adding emphasis of a cat, hiding his crimes.

Although Tashlin's keen usage of cinematography is evident, he doesn't go too farfetched to the point it could potentially interfere with scenes involving character personalities or bits of exposition. Tashlin keeps a fair balance between characterisation and cinematic techniques.

Following the opening; Rudolph's character is devoted some time - by establishing his conniving persona. He tricks his owner by opening a window, mimicking canary whistles, and pretending to cry of despair.

The mistress is tricked into believing the canary had flown away. A fair use of exposition reveals that five canaries have been eaten by Rudolph in a month - but "lost" from the perspective of the owner.

It always strikes me as odd how the mistress never suspects Rudolph of her "missing" canaries, in that short span of time - especially when her cat is home alone regularly. I'd imagine Rudolph pulls the same trick on the lady for each canary. Such naivety would be legit for a Warner Bros. cartoon, that oughtn't to be questioned.

The sequence ends with a simple solution for the mistress: order another canary from the pet shop - to the satisfaction of both the lady and Rudolph. The shot of Rudolph curling around his owner's legs is very striking and insightful of the character - who hides his sinister nature in the presence of the lady. Rudolph's two-faced personality and motive has firmly been established by the end of the sequence.

Suspense and tension begins to build during a sequence of Rudolph impatiently awaiting for the delivery of the canary. The dreaded wait is hilariously illustrated through Art Davis' animation. Rudolph paces back and forth on top of the front wall of 1605 Maple Drive. Once Rudolph turns to pace back; his head turns after his body begins walking!

Carl Stalling's music enhances the tension of the wait - further emphasised in Rudolph's restless walk cycle on the wall. Stalling also briefly uses a part of Powerhouse with a tense musical arrangement that fittingly provides atmosphere to the cat's desperation.

Tashlin experiments with scene transitions when a different truck representing a gas company drive past the house. Rudolph is already standing on the sidewalk; attempting to attract the attention of the driver by literally ripping off the house sign from a brick wall!

In a side shot, the truck drives through the shot - but once the vehicle disappears, Rudolph has returned to pacing anxiously on top of the wall. It's a dangerously ambitious piece of staging, that makes the transition very unique as far as timing's concerned.

Already Frank Tashlin was gradually experimenting with angular, stylised poses for his characters. It would eventually take its course during his last few cartoons for Warner Bros. - but elements of it started to crop up in his black-and-white shorts. A scene of Rudolph whistling desperately for the pet store van is not only broad in animation; but also shape-like in proportions.

Once the delivery man walks to the front door of the house; Rudolph discreetly sneaks behind. Rudolph's tiptoe cycle is economical, but without lesser quality. Rudolph's body is a held drawing, but only his paws and feet are animated. It's an innovative, stylised piece of animation that might cut corners, but still exemplify Rudolph's slyness.

It looks like Tashlin was influenced by the avant-garde layouts Dave Hilberman provided for him. In one shot; Rudolph's body aligns with the shape of the porch steps as he follows the delivery man carrying a cage.

By the time the canary, now named Petey, has settled into its new surroundings and left alone from the mistress - the action begins. Extensive use of fast-cutting and perspective heightens the tensity of the scene. To begin with, the mistress places a saucer of milk on the floor and leaves the scene. Rudolph spits out the milk with heartfelt disgust, and sneakily advances towards the birdcage.

Perspective animation is applied to create the illusion of a continuous shot; as Rudolph's body obstructs the camera, and walks to the birdcage - facing rearwards at the audience. The technique isn't quite perfected, as an obvious cut occurs once Rudolph's body blocks the camera. It's a daring device that deserves credit for effort.

After the elaborate perspective shot; Tashlin's fast-cutting makes up a lot of the action of the cat pouncing coinciding with the canary's reaction. The intercutting builds suspense and danger for the canary; whose seen as helpless from a viewer's perspective.

Spontaneously, the canary lifts the birdcage upwards; causing Rudolph to narrowly miss his prey. The spontaneous delivery of the canary is a nice payoff from Rudolph's pouncing action staged as a nail-biting moment. The cat crashes onto a wall; taking the physical shape of a coin that rattles on the floor after the impact.

The nighttime sequences occurring during the cartoon's climax; exhibits Tashlin's finest use of a cinematic mode. The layout work of Dave Hilberman (who worked with Tashlin around that time), is a masterpiece in dynamics. Each shot is uniquely staged and framed; and it flows effortlessly in continuity action. The build-up and use of dynamics are comparable to auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock or cinematographer Gregg Toland.

The scenario consists of very imposing camera angles, as well as an emphasis of low-key lighting and silhouette. It's largely a homage to the film-noir style of filmmaking - which was all the rage during 1940's Hollywood.

Samples of beautiful staging are too many to analyse. Very impressive ones feature a low-angle shot of the canary looking up at Rudolph sneaking up on the rafters. The scenes manage to use the 180-degree rule effectively from very complex camera angles.

Effects animation is strikingly utilised in a shot of Rudolph's paw seen in silhouette form - attempting to slowly catch the canary. Unexpectedly, the canary quickly responds to the threat by striking Rudolph's paw with a cartoon mallet. Elements of comedy are applied in this sequence; but the complex staging is applied extensively to emphasise suspense and buildup.

After an artistic tour de force of suspense and staging; the final battle between Rudolph and Petey commences. The cat pounces on top of the bird cage - resulting in some broad action of Rudolph crashing upwards and downwards. The canary almost encounters a close call; as he narrowly escapes the jaws of Rudolph.

The rest of the battle isn't seen, but interpreted through crashing noises - as the scene focuses on the disturbed mistress, who wakes up from her sleep.

The cartoon's ending works as a juxtaposition of the opening scene. In a throwback to much earlier, the camera pans across the room from the P.O.V. of the mistress, concerned of Rudolph's absence. She "awakens" Petey, asking: "Have you seen Rudolph?".

Petey shakes his head; but accidentally hiccups Rudolph's ribbon from his mouth - strongly implying his own demise. The punchline is both wacky in its depiction, if considering the laws of physics. The element of dark humour may be jarring; but serves as fine justice for poor Rudolph!

For the final black-and-white cartoon in the Looney Tunes series - you'd wish to see more shorts paying homage to the film-noir technique. Puss 'n Booty is perhaps Frank Tashlin's greatest cartoon, in terms of impressive staging and suspense. The use of camera angles are not only sublime; but its masterful pacing and structure that's almost equivalent to the works of Alfred Hitchcock. The short also remains funny in its characterisation and timing; with the talents of Warren Foster fulfilled. The canary is illustrated unpredictably - a fine showcase of how there's more than what the eye sees! Although the tradition of black-and-white would fade from the series - it's last cartoon is a testament of how visually appealing it can be.

Rating: 5/5.

Saturday, 8 July 2017

418. An Itch in Time (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 417.
Release date: December 4, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Bob Clampett.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), Mel Blanc (Cat / Dog), Sara Berner (A. Flea) (Thanks Keith Scott).
Story: Warren Foster.
Animation: Bob McKimson.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A dog must resist himself from scratching; despite been tortured by a hillbilly flea.

An admirable quality of Bob Clampett is his ability to turn basic narratives into something innovative and spontaneous; which is conspicuous in An Itch in Time. The short follows a relatively straightforward scenario: a dog must resist himself from scratching, or otherwise, he'll be given a flea bath - much to the dog's heartfelt dislike.

Such a concept might be beneficial for a Disney cartoon featuring Pluto - except it'll likely be hampered by awkwardly slow-paced sequences of Pluto struggling. In the hands of Clampett, not only does he feature the dog's burden but also some insightful perspective of the flea - in wild and unconventional ways!

Of the Looney Tunes cast; Elmer Fudd takes the role of a housemaster - but he's rather underplayed throughout the cartoon. Elmer sporadically appears throughout the cartoon to keep a watchful eye on his dog. Elmer's supporting role still plays a pivotal part in the narrative's angle - as his intimidation is shown from the dog's viewpoint.

The principal character of the short, is A. Flea; whose characterisation fits perfectly with Clampett's outlandish style. The flea is portrayed and dressed like a country bumpkin and consistently sings the irritatingly catchy song, Food Around the Corner. Written by Bob Clampett himself, its intentionally unsophisticated by adding character to the unrefined flea.

Sara Berner, whose voice is sped-up for the character, provides an obnoxious performance that fits with Clampett's vision of the character. Such a personality makes the dog's heavy burden all the more hilarious in scenario.

The flea's main desire is to find food; as seen from his actions and his song. He uses the dog's skin as an opportunity to find some meat - which he discovers through a telescope by yelling "T-Bone!" in Mel Blanc's voice. Not only is Blanc's delivery sublime - but the extra touch of the flea applauding in a juvenile fashion fits with the unsophisticated persona to a tee! The memorable appearance of the flea would eventually merit a second appearance in the Bob McKimson short; A Horsefly Fleas (1947).

Rod Scribner was always a reliable choice to embellish Clampett's zaniness on the screen. His talent is utilised uniquely in several close-ups of the dog, earlier in the cartoon. For example, when the flea leaps on top of the dog's snout - his nose bounces and jiggles vigorously; unparalleled by Clampett's wild timing.

To escape from a vulnerable position; the flea softly sings a lullaby inside the dog's ear. The following close-up is a greater contrast of the wild animation seen in the previous shot. The close-up of the dog drifting off sleepily from the flea's lullaby contains much slower action.

Such subtleties would be a challenge for any skilled animator. Rod Scribner not only pulls off the slow movement convincingly - but even uses the opportunity to draw exaggerated poses of the dog yawning - featuring Scribner-esque teeth. There's also a lolw-key background colour change; as indicated from both frame grabs. The second close-up enhances the sleepy atmosphere fittingly.

Elmer going by the book! 
By the time Elmer enhances the bath caution; the dog attempts to put up with the escapades from the flea. Clampett's exploration of dynamics and struggle are priceless right down to the frame. The dog anticipates a scratching action several times, but only to be watched over by Elmer. A striking close-up of Elmer reading a Looney Tunes comic book is lavish not only in detail, but by emphasising his warning.

Animation by Phil Monroe.
In a short sequence; the dog attempts to cheat his way from scratching, by strategically kicking a domestic cat to clawing his back. Animator Phil Monroe displays sharp timing on the clawing action - as well as some very funny poses of the dog at a climax of relief. But, such luxuries aren't possible when Elmer Fudd glares down at the pets.

Bob Clampett experiments with gags of the dog's torment from scratching - that he takes an approach that's outlandish and absurd; but also bizarrely believable from that standpoint. Not only is the dog's burden beautifully captured in painstaking drawing seen in several close-ups; but also in scenes that's dependent on the ink and paint department.

The dog's resistance from scratching becomes increasingly difficult, to the point when the dog starts to change colour. At first, the dog's body turns blue - until the colours get more absurd in the process; including a tartan look. 

The more painful it becomes for the canine; the crazier the colour choices get. The animation itself is primarily secondary in comparison to the ink and paint work. It's a very unorthodox method - but Bob Clampett enhances the pain convincingly.

Clampett's cutting style is used to an advantage as the shots of the dog struggling coincides with the flea's antics in the jungle of fur. The gags involving the flea searching for meat are hysterical in its execution. To begin with, the flea harmlessly pours ketchup and mustard on the dog's skin.

Over the course of the cartoon; the gags become more sadistic and silly - that the result is riotous. Whilst searching for more meat inside the dog's fur; the flea uses tools such as a pickaxe and a jackhammer. Whilst intercut with the dog's reactions; his struggles are much more justified.

In preparation for the cartoon's climax; the flea begins to use explosives inside the dog's fur. The gag becomes far-out when the dog scents smoke rising from his rear end. This results in a series of airbrush fireworks rocketing from his bottom - a Clampett approach of a gag indeed.

Clampett's love for edgy albeit juvenile humour goes unnoticed in a lot of his cartoons. One of his more famous dirty gags appears during the dog's frantic scratching frenzy across the living room. At one point, he halts and informs the audience, "Hey, I better cut this out. I may get to like it." Such a kinky confession is a symptom of Clampett's boyish charm.

One of Clampett's more obvious samples of juvenile humour appears early in the cartoon - during the flea's introduction. The flea pulls out a telescope to scout for potential flesh. The following shot is point-of-view from the telescope.

The flea moves across to discover a lavishly drawn rear-end of the dog. The effect of the flea double-taking and vibrantly looking back at the dog and whistling features some nice timing. An intriguing assignment I imagine for a character layout artist drawing out such lavish albeit crude detail.

Some samples of Clampett's timing blending neatly with comical action is evident during the scene of the flea escaping the dog's biting chops. The action itself is timed to Raymond Scott's Powerhouse - which was becoming a trendsetter of Carl Stalling's musical compositions.

Much later, during the dog's scratching spree - Clampett explores some fast intercutting - of an approaching Elmer Fudd. This follows into a hilariously exaggerated skid; that's so intense the dog ends up gripping its nails onto the rug.

The dog backs away as Elmer advances towards him. Once the characters are off-screen; an unseen crash is interpreted through a camera shake. Elmer walks back into the scene; with the reluctant dog attached to a door ripped off its walls.

And so; the cartoon reaches an incoherent ending. Elmer ends up scratching himself, presumably from the flea, which follows up some smear animation of Elmer scratching himself pose-to-pose.

After both characters end up slipping inside a bathtub - they are unexpectedly carried away by the flea onto a dinner plate; labelled as a blue-plate special. This leads to the flea: "They'll be no more Meatless Tuesdays", in the same rhythm of his song - delighted over not having to ration.

Such a spectacle comes as a complete surprise to the domestic cat - seen earlier in the cartoon. Losing the will to live, the cat remarks: "Well, now I've seen everything" - and commits suicide on the spot. This holds my nomination of one of the nuttiest endings in a Clampett cartoon. The gag itself has been used several times, like Horton Hatches the Egg, but ending the short abruptly during that scene - is both dark and hysterical in shock value.

For a relatively basic narrative, Bob Clampett is always full of surprises! His carefree, wild approach to cartoon filmmaking are exceeded here. His exploration of angst on the dog is a personal highlight - from both an artistic and comical perspective. The characterisation of the flea is ingenious albeit deliberately corny. The flea's uncanniness and obnoxiousness still holds up as memorable - even if Clampett's song is the prime reason. The short's ending felt a little contrived, but what Clampett does is what's given - enough to let it slide by!

Ratings: 4/5.