Sunday, 16 April 2017

412. Hiss and Make Up (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 411.
Release date: September 11, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Friz Freleng.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Bea Benaderat (Granny), Mel Blanc (Roscoe / Wellington).
Story: Michael Maltese.
Animation: Gerry Chiniquy.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: A cat and a dog are forced to become friends, in favour of being kicked out during snowstorm for the night.

I apologise for becoming neglectful to this blog lately. This year has been my busiest so far regarding university work, which has led to months of hard-work and distractions. As a treat for Easter Sunday, here is a new review, for an underrated Freleng short: Hiss and Make Up. I've noticed how my output in this blog has been declining, which I intend to improve on - at least a little.

Cat vs. dog/mice/birds routines are a popular genre in classic cartoons. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera excelled at the formula for the Tom & Jerry series. Michael Maltese was clearly attracted to the formula - as he used it sporadically during his animation career. Maltese always tried to explore innovation within the cliche - by making the stories more character-driven rather than formulaic.

Hiss and Make Up is no exception. The premise is kept straightforward and to the point. The elderly owner of a feuding cat and dog (named Wellington and Roscoe) is fed up of their fighting habits, and threatens to throw one of them outside a snowstorm if they don't "kiss and make up". Intimidated by her warning, the pets attempt to snake each other out - by building traps to frame one another.

Maltese makes it clear that neither Wellington or Roscoe should be sympathised or rooted for by the audience. Both characters have the same motive, and they're equally bad as each other in terms of low cunning and selfishness.

The elderly woman is a sort of precursor to Granny - a regular character of the Sylvester & Tweety shorts. It's the same voice provided by Bea Benaderet in her first released WB cartoon (based on Keith Scott's research, her first recorded voice going by production order is Little Red Riding Rabbit).

Animation by Gerry Chiniquy.
Maltese's develops the characters with realistic personalities to the point where the cartoon already establishes that Wellington and Roscoe will never get along as friends, which is natural. The pair never attempt to patch up their relationship - but instead try to frame each other. Maltese is a master in understanding character psychology, which is left open to a lot of gag opportunities - with Friz Freleng's masterful direction skills to enhance them.

Wellington and Roscoe's relationship could easily be summed up in one scene of the elderly lady forcing the pets to "kiss and make up". The pair are immediately hesitant, but begrudgingly kiss by their owner's orders. Immediately after kissing each other, they spit out in disgust. Gerry Chiniquy's posing and facial expressions perfectly captures the essence of hatred and spite the pets have for each other.

Character animation provides great clarity in an earlier sequence of the pets slowly restoring their conflict. As the elderly woman is sewing and singing Carolina in the Morning, Roscoe the dog makes his first move by carefully sliding Wellington's tail towards the leg of the rocking chair. Wellington yells in pain on impact, which startles the owner. She immediately suspects Roscoe, attempting to look innocent.

In the following scene - Wellington is craving for retribution. Every angst in his expression is wonderfully portrayed through the animator's hands. And so, Wellington produces fly noises through his mouth, without making it obvious. He looks at imaginary fly supposedly landing on Roscoe - and then smacks him with a flyswatter.

It's a wonderfully rich piece of character animation which is reliant on pantomime. Every expression reads and shows clarity in Wellington's motive and hunger for vengeance. The pantomime is extended further, when the elderly lady watches Wellington beating Roscoe. In a desperate attempt to look innocent; Wellington picks up the imaginary fly from Roscoe's head and acts disgusted by its 'remains'.

Friz Freleng's masterful timing comes into play since the opening scene of the cartoon, featuring Wellington and Roscoe fighting in the lounge. Freleng applies an elaborate drybrush effect featuring only the cat and dog's face very briefly throughout the cartoon action. The scurry effect works well to add emphasis of the pets' fighting nature.

Freleng's ability to time cartoon action into music is used to its finest advantage in a sequence of Wellington stamping paw prints around the house. He uses a flowerpot to stamp the soil, which he prints around the room - all timed towards Raymond Scott's Powerhouse.

The Scott piece had exploded into a popular music cue around the cartoon's production time, and Friz knew how to execute it well. The effect is given the extra touch through Treg Brown's timing with sound. It's a beautifully timed piece accomplished through the work of several departments around the Schlesinger studio. It's far from economical.

Michael Maltese's expert use of gag buildups is embellished in the sequence of Roscoe planting mechanical mice toys around the kitchen as bait to set up Wellington. Upon Wellington's arrival, Roscoe bangs loudly on a frying pan - leaving the cat on a chasing spree of the mechanical mice; as the owner is disturbed from her slumber.

Wellington rapidly places the mechanical mice into a bundle, and sits on top of them prior to the elderly woman's arrival. Maltese only builds the gag after the impact, making the payoff more unpredictable and hilarious in execution. As the owner pets Wellington, the mechanical mice zip through the kitchen, with the cat sitting on them - leading him down to the basement.

Another sequence with a great gag setup is the "mad dog" sequence. Mad dog, at the time, being a colloquial term for rabies. In order to find an excuse to kick Roscoe out of the house, Wellington sets up Roscoe by rapidly planting shaving foam all over his face; which is masqueraded as rabies.

The elderly owner shrieks "Mad dog" in panic, and starts beating him with a broomstick all over the house - until he exits through the door. The disease was a common fear by the public during the time period - and the delivery captures the panic convincingly.

Friz Freleng was always capable of embellishing rich visuals whenever it was called for, like in the blackout gag. In a sequence of Roscoe attempting to clean up the paw prints; he hears the sound of his owner coming down the stairs. In a desperate attempt to hide the evidence - he turns out the lights and runs outside to look through the window.

The shot of the elderly owner opening the door in darkness is beautiful in colour and atmosphere. The light highlights around her is rather meticulous in creating effective lighting from the hallway in the background. As she turns on the lights, Roscoe shouts "Hey, put out that light!" - disguised as an air warden.

The gag might be wartime related; but it's an excellent showcase of Friz's unsung abilities as a director - asides from his comic timing.

Freleng's strong point of view as a cartoon director can never lose the audience's attention to the story. In a scene of Roscoe about to pounce on Wellington, Freleng uses intercutting of the sleeping Wellington and the approaching Roscoe.

The suspense builds each time Roscoe moves at a brisker pace. Carl Stalling's expert ability to apply music into animated action helps achieve such result. And so, the scene cuts to Wellington awakened by Roscoe's intrusion with the fight beginning. Not only does the effect work great in suspense; but it's a great showcase on Friz's attempt to continue innovating his craft, by keeping up with the trends of other Warner Bros. cartoons, like Frank Tashlin.

Mike Maltese goes his way of not writing a conventional cat-and-dog feud short. One result is the presence of a canary; who would later play an important role in the cartoon. The canary is first seen as an observant of Wellington and Roscoe's recklessness, and is given the burden of dodging incoming pieces of china passing by its cage.

At one point, the canary is used as bait by Roscoe to set up Wellington. He places a couple of the bird's feathers in Wellington's mouth; to deceive the elderly owner - and trapping the canary inside a jar; only to foil Roscoe's plan by whistling its presence to the owner.

Once the feud continues to escalate; the canary becomes a nervous wreck. The expressions of the canary undergoing its own breakdown is priceless; and only to be topped as he swallows an aspirin pill.

The canary's role becomes prominent as he begins framing Roscoe and Wellington, by deliberately destroying furniture items and wrecking the room. At this point in Warner history, it's unusual to have animated cartoons seen through the perspective of background characters. It adds more depth and dimension into a typical cartoon formula, which is excelled here. Michael Maltese would use the plot device several times later (like Roughly Squeaking).

Once Wellington and Roscoe realise they're being set up by a destructive canary; they ally together to attack the canary. Caught by their house owner, the pets are tossed outside in the snow. Roscoe observes Wellington smiling, which not only confuses him, but the viewer, too. This motivates Roscoe to speak his only line in the cartoon: "How can you sit there and smile when we're out here in the cold, and that double-crossing canary's in there!".

The cat nods in disagreement to the latter part of Roscoe's dialogue, and reveals the canary trapped inside the cat's sharp teeth - in the style of prison bars. Whoever animated the close-up shows a great understanding of staging and visual clarity for the payoff gag.

Maltese's ending presents a good case on how justice is brought to every character. Roscoe and Wellington, both as bad as each other, are punished equally as they're left to freeze in the night. The canary, who snaked the pets, is brought to justice when Wellington has the last laugh.

For an overlooked cartoon of Friz Freleng, it's an innovative take on the cat and dog formula. Michael Maltese creates an interesting perspective that makes the cartoon less conventional and more compelling - such as the canary plot device. His characters are established well enough to devise gags that will keep the audience focused throughout the cartoon. Friz never fails to fall behind on keeping up with the growing standards of the Schlesinger plant. Not only does he excel in executing comic timing, but he keeps the short visually appealing - such as the use of fast-cutting and beautiful staging. Overall, it's a solid one-shot cartoon that holds as a beacon for Freleng and Maltese's growing reputation within the studio.

 Rating: 4/5.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

411. Scrap Happy Daffy (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 410.
Release date: August 21, 1943.
Series: Looney Tunes.
Supervision: Frank Tashlin.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Daffy Duck / Hitler / Lincoln), Dorothy Lloyd (Whistle). Thanks to Keith Scott.
Story: Don Christensen.
Animation: Art Davis.
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Daffy Duck confronts a billy goat, whom was sent by the Nazis to demolish his scrap pile.

Although the cartoon is showered with propaganda tendencies - the premise operates like a standard Warner Bros. cartoon. Daffy Duck is devoting his time collecting scraps for the war effort; but Hitler attempts to thwart his plans by sending a billy goat to destroy his scrap pile.

For a concept relatively straightforward, Frank Tashlin never shies away from his innovative direction and artistic abilities. Like Porky Pig's Feat, he attempts to give the cartoon a cinematic scope, without losing the entertainment value - a feat he excels at.

The opening sequence is a prime example of Tashlin's attempt to combine entertainment and patriotism fluidly. Daffy's purpose is to encourage audiences in cooperating with the war effort. By doing so, he sings the popular wartime song We're in to Win, and lists out numerous items to be used as scraps.

The sequence is largely informative; and Tashlin compensates this by adding visualised gags - like having Daffy climb the scrap pile, like a mountain. Frank ic bathing suit; acknowledged by Daffy's wolf-whistle.

To enlighten wartime audiences, the Warner staff don't hesitate to ridicule their enemies. Tashlin inserts a visual pun of Daffy's mirror reflections morphing into the Axis leaders: Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo; as they each yell "Freedom's foe" with their stereotyped accents--causing the mirror to shatter.

Tashlin also applies a hilarious cross dissolve effect to mock Hitler; that is perfectly clarified visually. Once, Daffy finishes his song, he remarks bitterly: "Well, how d'you like that? Schicklgruber?"--the name being a reference to Hitler's father's original surname. The camera pans to the rear end of a mule facing sideways. The scenes changes through a match dissolves to Adolf Hitler reading a newspaper.

Frank Tashlin's cinematic style is perhaps best highlighted during the montage sequence of Hitler and his comrades ordering the destruction of Daffy Duck's scrap pile. The scene begins with Hitler reacting offensively to Daffy's witty headline on the scrap pile, reading: "Mussolini in scrap heap - now let's junk Hitler!".

Hitler rants in the German tongue, which is comically translated as "Non aryan duck". Hitler's anger goes so far, he ends up shredding his carpet like an animal! And so, he orders for the scrap pile to be destroyed.

"Destroy that scrap pile!"
This follows into an elaborate montage sequence, of Hitler's officers forwarding the orders: "Destroy that scrap pile!". Tashlin's innovative use of dynamics fits wonderfully. He applies silhouette and closeups of officer's hands; which enhances the suspense. The choices of composition are almost on par with master filmmakers, like Alfred Hitchcock or Leni Riefenstahl.

A standout example of Tashlin's use of dynamics is evident in a shot of the submarine captain. He commands the same order, "Destroy that scrap pile", but the camera pans right across the officer as he points with his finger, to indicate a command. It's a remarkably complex layout; but the animator's use of mechanics produce great results.

Asides from his cinematic techniques; Tashlin's cartoons had strong art direction a lot of the time. The layouts of the cartoon, possibly by Dave Hilberman, follow a graphic, avant-garde approach which the animation industry wouldn't fully endorse until the formation of UPA. Tashlin, and Chuck Jones are notable exceptions in this era. The scrap pile is an innovative design that suggests a constructed look to it.

The background work is very experimental and somewhat underestimated in this cartoon. A lot of the backgrounds are painted in rough form without the use of normal linework, but was applied afterwards. A similar technique wouldn't become popularised until the 1961 Disney feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians - under the art direction of Ken Anderson and colour stylist Walt Peregoy.

Other creative uses of colour is evident in the sequence of Daffy Duck unknowingly staring at his own reflection in the dark. He mistakes his own eyes for the billy goat, and he holds up a bayonet as defence. He orders: "Put your hands up. You criminals are all alike. I can see it in your eyes. Just a stupid ignoramus. A numbskull. A nitwit. A nincom--"; Daffy strikes a match to realise he's talking to his own mirror reflection, resulting in a late delivery of "--poop".

Once the submarine fires a torpedo directed towards the scrap pile; the weapon opens to reveal a billy goat contained inside. The sequence showcases Tashlin's comic timing wonderfully; such as the action of the goat goose-stepping.

Treg Brown's sound effects are put to great use; like when the goat eats up the scrap pile, in the action of a typewriter. Once the goat swallows a handful of junk, his stomach struggles to fully digest, and he begins to hiccup; which Brown utilises with an effective rumble sound.

Other indications of Tashlin's timing skills is seen during the mallet scene. Daffy has hidden himself inside a pair of glasses, that is portrayed so subtly in animation. The glasses were formed in the shape of Daffy, which the goat ruins by tossing them away.

Daffy's hands arise as he strikes the goat's horns with his mallet. Sheepishly grinning, the goat retaliates by shaking his head vigorously; whilst Daffy is still attached to the mallet. An interesting cross-dissolve effect fits in, where multiple uses of Daffy Duck are used to emphasise his struggle with the goat.

A trait of Frank Tashlin that's most revealing during his 1940s stint at Schlesinger's, was his ability to push poses to the extreme. The effect is applied during the fast-cutting scenes of the billy goat charging towards Daffy Duck. The timing and animation (by Art Davis?) adds a lot of character personality. The speed of the billy goat suggests a disciplined, intimidating mammal; whilst the goat's comical and clumsy skid suggests otherwise.

This is soon followed with a sequence of Daffy Duck, disguising himself as Tojo by wearing glasses and wearing the stereotyped grin: "You wouldn't hit a guy with glasses, would ya?"

Another creative piece of animation that works as a visual gag, is the scene of Daffy's neck peeking out from by the fence. His head pokes out from underneath his combat helmet, as he remarks: "Saboteurs, I betcha!". Only a gag like that could read in animated form.

While the cartoons were plagued with wartime references naturally, elements of cultural references are still blended in. Perhaps this was used to balance out the propaganda. In one sequence, Daffy Duck encounters the hiccuping goat, and attempts to help him.

In an attempt to help, Daffy produces a remedy by placing a sodium pull in a glass of water; quoting "Listen to it fizz" - a direct reference to the Alka-Seltzer advertisement popular of the time. After the goat consumes the drink, his hiccups get more violent each time - leading to Daffy's discovery that the goat serves the Nazis - as indicated from his swastika ornament.

At a moment of defeat from the billy goat; Daffy has an epiphany. He encounters the spirits of his former descendants; who are dressed as American pioneers and historical figures like Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln.

Admittedly, it's one of the weakest elements of the cartoon. The cartoon changes in tone and style, from the short's usual brisk pace, to an ending that's over-patriotic.

The descendants encourage Daffy by singing in the style of Yankee Doodle, about determination. Then they all sing in unison, "Americans don't give up!". The line work on the descendants are creative in style, but the sequence itself is rather forced and cliched in patriotism. The majority of the short set a brisk pace style of Daffy Duck's antics with a Nazi goat, with entertaining sequences - but the patriotic scenes of Daffy's descendants feels out of place.

The heavy of patriotism escalates only further once Daffy has an epiphany. He leaps up in the sky, and forms a superhero guise parodying Superman - "Super American". By today's standards, the sequence can be open to interpretation.

One viewer might believe the persona displays a sense of arrogance of the nation - as the scenes emphasise America's power and strength. This is especially evident in the scene of Daffy fighting off the naval officers onboard a Nazi ship; by punching the firing bullets away.

However, it could be seen as a satire on American propaganda; by overcompensating the nation's pride. Preferably, I'd like to see it as satirical. The satire is even more revealing as the scene of Super American cross-dissolves back into reality; with Daffy Duck wrestling with a pipe. Daffy Duck recovers himself after being wrenched by water, gasping: "It was all a dream". But, a camera pans up towards the scrap pile; where a Nazi submarine sits atop. The Nazis yell in unison, "Next time you dream, include us out!". It's a wonderful piece of witty writing that is either open to interpretation or plain wacky.

Scrap Happy Daffy feels more like a patriotic, propaganda cartoon and not so focused in mocking the Axis powers, as evident in cartoons like Daffy - the Commando or Herr Meets Hare. Frank Tashlin at times, uses propaganda cleverly in the short. The opening sequence of Daffy's propaganda song balances comical humour neatly, and the 'Super American' climax is a clever piece of satire on America over-compensating their power through propaganda. The sequence with Daffy Duck communicating with his spirited ancestors, however, is a bit forceful. It feels out of place compared to the satirical propaganda scenes. One could argue it was deliberately written in that patriotic style to build up the hilariously flamboyant Super-American scenes. Tashlin's expert use of applying cinematic techniques,  innovative layouts and the distinctive Warner Bros. humour more than makes up for the little flaws here.

Rating: 3/5.

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

SNAFU: Spies (1943)

Director: Chuck Jones.
Release date: August 1943.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Snafu / Various voices).
Music: Carl Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).

Synopsis: Private Snafu has a secret, and is determined to secure it. However, his loose tongue become an advantage for spies hiding at every corner.

Whilst Private Snafu is the epitome of little common sense within the army - Spies is the definitive representation of "loose lips sink ships".

The potency of spies was an integral lesson during the Second World War, especially through propaganda. British cartoonist Cyril Bird (known as "Fougasse" by pen name), satirised the concept in a series of propaganda posters called, Careless Talk Cost Lives. Many posters featured Nazi henchman or spies eavesdropping at highly improbable places of each locale.

Whether or not Theodore Geisel or the Warner Bros. staff were familiar of the posters is unclear, but through sheer creativity; their concepts of improbable hiding places are excelled.

The short's premise is centred on Snafu receiving a military secret. We never see him being informed of the secret, as the exposition indicates he's already being informed; in order to keep the continuity and pacing at a brisker pace. Snafu is firm about keeping the information privately, but his incompetence and ignorance always gets in the way.

Geisel visualises the spying concepts hilariously and inventively that sets the comedy up wonderfully. Snafu impulsively talks about his military secret, underestimating the various objects surrounding him - like an unattended pram or a horse dummy.

In unison, several spies arise from their hiding locations, declaring: "The soldier's got a secret, and I bet we find it out!". Unaware a spy is hiding inside a phone box, he informs his "mother": "Hello Ma, I've got a secret, I can only drop a tip / Don't breathe a word to no-one, but I'm going on a trip."

So, as Snafu reaches a newspaper stand, he informs the owner he's travelling by ship - much to the interest of eavesdroppers caricatured as Benito Mussolini, Herman Goring, and Emperor Hirohito. Chuck Jones applies a very subtle effect of showing the trio's faces as front covers of the magazine. Once they lower the papers, they're facial features vanish from the print.

Ted Geisel's use of rhyming scheme, and Chuck's visualised gags are utilised together well. In Snafu's opening dialogue: "I just learnt a secret. It's a honey. It's a pip! / But the enemy is listening, so I'll never let it slip / 'Cos when I learn a secret, boy, I zipper up my lip", Snafu literally zips his mouth shut; making the gag visually appealing towards army recruiters.

Other innovative forms of visualisation appears in a diagram of Snafu's brain locked with "a padlock and chain". It creates a stunning visual metaphor that blends with Snafu's determination.

The gag comes to greater effect in a latter sequence of Snafu getting intoxicated at a bar. The spirits pouring inside Snafu's body begins to evaporate, causing the vapour to steam towards Snafu's brain. The vapour circulates the padlock and chain to dismantle. Not only is the scene inventive for visual storytelling, but it's an accurate portrayal on how manipulative alcohol can be to one's mind. The suspense is built appropriately towards Raymond Scott's infamous Powerhouse, with Chuck's timing coordinated with great care.

Once Snafu's consumption of alcohol has taken its toll; he drunkenly approaches an attractive woman, full of lust. As noted before, the sexual qualities of women is a key theme to the Snafu series. Although the blonde's portrayal as a sex tool to distract Snafu might be considered derogatory today - it still builds up the suspense fittingly.

Snafu accidentally reveals the location of his trip as he lusts, "I hope I meet some babes in Africa, s'cute as you are!". Typing on a miniature typewriter underneath the table; the blonde spy hands the note to a messenger dove once disguised as a glamorous feature on her hat.

After some time, Snafu drunkenly enjoys an erotic night with the blonde spy, but once again reveals new crucial information: "But I've gotta get a move on, I sail at half past four!" The camera trucks in on the spy's breasts; with a dissolve that reveals hidden radio speakers.

As derogatory and yet creative the gag is; the short emphasises the dangers of strangers resourcefully - especially with babes. Bobe Cannon's work in the latter sequence requires a great deal of analysis - and yet he pulls it off effortlessly. He wonderfully captures the subtleties of an undercover spy with limited movement - whereas Snafu is animated more loose in his drunken, staggering position.

Once the word reaches Hitler - the order is carried out to sink Snafu's liner. Composition and scope is used to its great advantage in the sequence of Snafu discovering the German submarines. The use of long shots of the submarines cornering the ship, or forming into a swastika creates excellent dynamics.

Alerted of the enemy, Snafu bellows: "Full speed ahead!" - but the ship whisks away with extreme force, to the point of Snafu falling into the middle of the ocean. Surrounded, the submarines fire torpedoes at Snafu.

This results in an elaborate layout of the ocean forming into a sinkhole; which is where Snafu falls. Johnny Burton's camera department apply a remarkably complex effect as the sinkhole vertically pans down to the fires of hell. Annoyed, Snafu wonders: "Now who in hell do you suppose it was that let my secret out." Then, the devil personified as Hitler appears, saying "What was that I heard you say my little sauerkraut?" The scene presents a good case of how the Snafu cartoons were beyond the control of the Production Code. Geisel takes liberties of this, like the use of "hell" as a pun; which compared to a Warner Bros. cartoon like Draftee Daffy, it could only be almost uttered.

Spies is represented as an excellent hyperbole and morale to the dangers of spying and eavesdroppers. Whilst it's all played up for comical effect with the spies' discreetness being improbable - the premise never fails to portray the consequences. The eavesdropping gags are used so inventively and believably to the point the viewer is persuaded by danger lurking at every corner. Geisel's writing on the short is sublime; from Snafu's antics right down to the memorable rhyming dialogue. The short makes it clear Snafu intends to be discreet on his secret, where his mistakes only make him human.