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TCM's Cartoon Alley - September 2006
Remind Me

TCM's Cartoon Alley - September 2006

Cartoon Alley #26 Features two Homer Flea cartoons: The Homeless Flea (1940), What Price Fleadom (1948), plus bonus: The Cat That Hated People (1948).

The obscure MGM cartoon character Homer Flea represents one of the only bridges between the early period of MGM cartoons made by the Harman-Ising team, and the later-era MGM cartoons directed by Tex Avery. The Homeless Flea (1940) is directed by Rudolf Ising, and was one of the director's one-shot cartoons made at a time when he was trying to build up Barney Bear as a recurring character. (The Milky Way, another of Ising's one-shots from 1940, won that year's Oscar for Animated Short Subject). Homer's appealing design includes the standard-issue hobo outfit: a battered derby, the remnants of a discarded stogie, and belongings in a pole-hoisted kerchief. The gags mostly involve Homer's efforts to make a cozy home - fire included - in the hairs on the dog's rear end. Homer Flea was a potential recurring character, but he was not revived until Tex Avery's What Price Fleadom in 1948. In this cartoon, our hero is fast friends with his dim-witted canine host; the mutt shares his meal of hobo-cooked beans with Homer. Homer vocalizes with violin-scratches, but doesn't say a word to his spaniel pal when he hops onto a bulldog to try and make time with a cute female flea living there. His terse "Goodbye Forever" note crushes the poor dog, a rare instance of pathos in a Tex Avery cartoon! All ends well, of course, when the bulldog proves to be an unwelcoming host, and the spaniel welcomes the whole flea clan back. A bonus on this program is The Cat That Hated People (1948), one of Avery's greatest one-shot cartoons. An alley cat grouses at the treatment he receives from thoughtless people, so he rockets to the moon to get away from humanity. Unfortunately, on the moon he finds a welcoming committee reminiscent of the anonymous crazies in Bob Clampett's classic Porky in Wackyland (1938). At one point on Earth, the poor cat is stuffed into a milk bottle. Years later, Avery was explaining his theories of cartoon exaggeration to interviewer Joe Adamson, and said "You couldn't possibly do that with Charlie Chaplin, get him in a milk bottle." For Tex, there was no reason to animate something that could be accomplished in live-action. With his cohorts at MGM, the philosophy was always, "Let's go wilder than we did last time. Faster, too."

Cartoon Alley #27 Features three B&W Warner Bros. cartoons: I've Got to Sing a Torch Song (1933), Pettin' in the Park (1934) and Gold Diggers of '49 (1935).

In this group of very early Merrie Melodies, we find the cartoon staff hard at work promoting the Warner Bros. music catalogue, perhaps in hopes that moviegoers will buy the related sheet music at the music store on the way home from the theater. I've Got to Sing a Torch Song is a plotless cartoon showing people the world over tuning in to their radios for all-day entertainment. This conceit allows for a wildly eclectic assortment of movie star, radio star, and even political caricatures. We see both George Bernard Shaw and Benito Mussolini doing their morning exercises by radio; there is a running gag with radio's fire chief, Ed Wynn; movie comics Wheeler & Woolsey are seen cooking in a African cannibal's flame-boiled pot; James Cagney and Joan Blondell are also on view, doing their tough-guy and gal routines. The title song is from the studio's musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933); the rendition of that song in this cartoon is sung by no less than Mae West, ZaSu Pitts, and Greta Garbo! Pettin' in the Park (1934) takes its title from yet another Harry Warren–Al Dubin song from Gold Diggers of 1933. There are some birds chirping the tune as we witness the goings-on in a city park where Spring has sprung and lovebirds are active. The action shifts to a big race in the Annual Water Carnival; competing for first place are geese, ducks, pelicans, and a penguin in a bathtub. This cartoon features the first screen credit (as animator) of Bob Clampett, who would later become one of the great Looney Tunes directors. Gold Diggers of '49 was the first Warner Bros. cartoon directed by Fred "Tex" Avery, and he had future star directors Clampett and Chuck Jones as his animators. The story involves little Beans striking gold in 1849, and Porky Pig, Little Kitty, and everyone else in town "heading for the hills" to make it rich. Avery wastes no time in destroying logic and cartoon conventions for the sake of a gag – Beans has a souped-up auto in pursuit of the villain, and he drives it on the sides of the canyon walls!

Cartoon Alley #28 Features three MGM cartoons by Tex Avery: Lucky Ducky (1948), Bad Luck Blackie (1949), Symphony in Slang (1951).

For many cartoon fans, Tex Avery's stint at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer resulted in a string of some of the best theatrical cartoons ever produced, and all three of the examples in this program are from Avery's most fertile period. Lucky Ducky (1948) employs dog-styled variations of the George and Junior characters; they are out duck hunting and encounter the cute mallard of the title. Every opportunity that our heroes take to blow the duck's head off is met with an appropriate response and a diabolical laugh. This is the one with the great gag in which the characters run past the Technicolor boundary – they stop chasing each other when they realize the cartoon has turned Black-and-White, and retrace their steps to get back to color! Never one for creating recurring characters, Avery comes up with a dog and two cats to star in one of the greatest one-shot cartoons ever produced, Bad Luck Blackie (1949). The dog is a cruel bulldog, chortling with glee as he tortures a poor, defenseless kitten. Coming to the rescue is a mangy black cat with a derby – he gives the kitten a whistle, and with every signal of trouble from the bulldog, Blackie appears to cross the path of the villain, resulting in an object from the heavens falling squarely on the dog's head. A simple premise which, as usual, Avery takes beyond the furthest edges of the extreme, but all with the solid, believable THUD of a steamroller (and a plane, and a battleship, and a kitchen sink) landing on solid ground. Symphony in Slang was one of Avery's best spot-gag cartoons, with a perfect set-up: they are handing out wings in Heaven, and a recent arrival is a jive hipster – he tells his life story in jive talk and the angels try to visualize everything he says literally. Even people who don't like cartoons at all can be counted on to enjoy this one. Well, almost everyone: Avery said in an interview that MGM cartoon chief Fred Quimby had no sense of humor and took everything too literally himself. Tex said, "...we illustrated literally a lot of popular expressions – 'I was in a pickle,' 'I went to pieces.' [Quimby] had a hell of a time trying to understand that one."

Cartoon Alley #29 Features three Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Hubie and Bertie: Aristo-Cat (1943), Roughly Squeaking (1946), House Hunting Mice (1947).

When Chuck Jones began his Looney Tunes directing career in 1939, his earliest characters, such as Sniffles the Mouse and Two Curious Puppies, were of the "cute" Disney variety. Jones entered a more manic period in the mid-to-late 1940s, and fitting in nicely during this phase are his mice characters, Hubie and Bertie. The cartoon that introduced the characters was The Aristo-Cat (1943), written by Ted Pierce. The title character is a spoiled housecat – actually a mansioncat - and when Meadows the Butler has had enough and quits, the cat has to learn about hunting mice for its supper. The intended victims are a dumb, buck-toothed mouse named Bert and his slightly smarter partner, called Hubie in later cartoons. The sight of mice chasing a cat spells madness to an onlooking bird, and as in his Bugs Bunny short Wackiki Wabbit, Jones emphasizes the point with insanely colored geometric backgrounds. In Roughly Squeaking (1946), the mice again play mind games with a cat – this time they give him a mop for a mane, and try to convince him he is a lion! In a semi-remake of the first Two Curious Puppies outing, Dog Gone Modern (1939), House Hunting Mice (1947) has Hubie and Bert stumbling into an ultra-modern "House of Tomorrow." Like the puppies before them, the two mice get caught up in a variety of automated "conveniences," like a record-changer, a laundry, a cheese dispenser, and especially, a stubborn sweeper robot. There are lots of wild gags, here, of course, plus plenty of opportunity for Carl Stalling to adapt various snippets of Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse." Michael Maltese wrote the later Hubie and Bertie cartoons, and with Pierce, deserves part of the credit for their success. Also worthy of mention is the superb voice acting for the characters by Mel Blanc and Stan Freberg.

Cartoon Alley #30 Features three Popeye cartoons: Can You Take It (1934), Child Psykolojiky (1941), Car-azy Drivers (1954).

Three Popeye cartoons from three different decades highlight this program. Can You Take It (1934) is a classic early Fleischer Brothers entry, with William Costello as the voice of Popeye and Mae Questel as Olive. Featuring violence for the sake of violence (in the grand tradition of the Popeye comic strip by Segar), this one is set at the Bruiser Club – the sign outside reads: "Can you take it? We dare you to join!" Popeye can't resist joining, of course; Olive knows what he's in for – she works next door as a nurse at the Bruiser Club Hospital! President Bluto first has a cigar-off with Popeye, then says "OK Boys – put 'im true de woiks." Needless to say, spinach will play a role in Popeye's eventual victory. Child Psykolojiky (1941) is a demented classic directed by Dave Fleischer toward the end of the Fleischers' Popeye run. Poopdeck Pappy is trying to play poker with Popeye (voiced by Jack Mercer), but Swee'pea is making noise. As Papppy threatens violence, Popeye says, quite accurately, "Hittin' ain't no way to quiet little infinks!" Popeye heads off to buy a gift to calm Swee'pea down, unwisely leaving him alone with Pappy, who says, "He's makin' a land-lubbin' sissy outa that kid!" Before long Pappy is crashing Swee-pea out of windows, and handing him a gun: "Maybe shootin'll sharpen your peepers!" Swee-pea ends this madness, and doesn't even resort to spinach to do so! Car-azy Drivers (1954), directed by Seymour Kneitel, is a color Famous Studios cartoon and a semi-remake of Dave Fleischer's Wimmin Hadn't Oughta Drive (1940). Popeye takes on the task of teaching Olive to drive, and arrives prepared – in a suit of armor. Popeye's instructions to Olive, such as "Give me the wheel," and "You'll just have to choke the engine" result in predictably literal results. Olive is just too busy looking at the new hats in store windows to pay attention to the road, so it isn't long before they find themselves driving on the railroad tracks.

By John M. Miller