Back to School (Part 2)

Welcome back to lecture number two in our introductory-level course on “‘30’s Toon Education 101″. Last week got us past orientation, and at least allowed us to get our desks warm. This week, we knuckle down for more serious study, as animation begins to get itself past the rough-spots of pre-code anarchy, and learns how to spin its tales of schooldays in a more refined, audience-friendly manner. Some may view this as a step backwards in development, but none can doubt it was a move that kept the industry viable with little protest for the next twenty years. Animation further begins to wet its feet in puddles of rainbow hue, as the world of education begins to be illustrated in the pigments of early-process Technicolor. Yes, the industry was learning – and hopefully, so will you in the following pages.

Teacher’s Pests (Lantz/Universal, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, 12/19/32 – Walter Lantz/Bill Nolan, dir.) – This episode starts out upon the wrong foot, seemingly retreading old ground from “Country School” reviewed last week, but improves. One of its weakest points is voicing, as whoever is performing as the cow schoolmarm seems to mumble many of her lines, to the point where portions of her dialogue are not understandable even after multiple replays. It also falters at the outset from slow and irregular development of gags, not developing any pacing until the second half.

The film opens in the classroom of the same teacher as the previous episode, with another chorus being sung of “Good Morning to You”. This time, one child in the back of the classroom, Marvin Mutt, is not singing. When the line “We’re glad to see you” is reached, Marvin pulls out a handkerchief, and loudly blows his nose. “Come here”, bellows the teacher. Oswald (in virtually his only piece of action in the first half of the film) is played somewhat out of character, since he is usually not the aggressor – as Marvin stands up, Oswald, in the desk ahead of him, mischievously sticks out his foot to trip him. “I tripped”, Marvin apologizes to the teacher, as he regains his footing. Here, the entire finale sequence from “Country School” is revisited again, with another student slipping a balloon into Marvin’s pants before he can walk up the aisle. Again, the teacher spanks, and again, the balloon explodes. This time, the teacher’s dress is not blown off, but she finds herself several feet off the ground, clinging to the goatee beard of a bust statue upon a high shelf. The statue comes to life briefly, complaining, “Puh-leeeze!”. Teacher falls, pulling the bust down with her. She decides to place the statue on the stool where she had been sitting, and indecipherably asks Marvin a question about the bust. Hearing the word, “Bust”. Marvin responds by socking the statue, busting it into pieces. Teacher directs Marvin to go stand in the corner.

She next calls upon Harry Hippo to spell the word, “frog”. Harry gets out the “F-r…”. but gets hung up on the rest A dog uses the long neck of an ostruch ahead of him as a weapon to launch a ruler at Harry, in the manner of a bow and arrow. As the ruler finds its target, Harry reacts in pain, “Oh, Gee!” “Correct”, responds the teacher, as proud Harry sticks out his tongue at the dog for inadvertently helping him, and the dog responds back with a rsspberry. Teacher writes a math equation on the board, then calls, “Oswald Rabbit, what can you do with these figures?” In a sequence almost feeling like it is obligatorily included just to give an excuse for Oswald’s name to appear on the theater marquee, Oswald finds a wind-up music box. and cranks it up for a tune. The numbers on the board (in ways avoiding any attempt to literally reassemble them into a viable jigsaw-puzzle image) somehow transform into stick figures of a girl and boy, who perform an overly-long dance upon the blackboard, then conclude it with an Al Jolson half bow and call of “Mammy”. Back to Marvin, who has written “I love my teacher” on another blackboard, but quickly adds lines to transform some of the words into an unflattering portrait of teacher, with the word “love” forming an irregular set of dentures in her mouth. Angered teacher picks up Marvin bodily, and uses him as a human eraser to clear the board. In another hopelessly bad dialogue read, teacher tells Marvin, “Get seat!” (Who edited this dialogue?) Marvin heads for the dunce stool in the opposite corner, by way of a jaunt over the top of the teacher’s desk. He steps off the opposite side of the desk onto the surface of a large globe, but finds the surface is not solid, falling into the Atlantic Ocean. He emerges with a fish in hs mouth, then replaces the fish into its natural habitat by having it dive back into the water from a ruler diving board. (Animation on this shot is embarrassingly primitive, painting the water half of the globe on cels instead of background, with seemingly no effort made to match grey tones between the ocean water on the background and that on the cel, giving away the whole drawing shortcut.)

Marvin finally finds the dunce chair, which is far too tall for him to climb, so he presses an invisible button on one of the stool’s legs. The platform of the stool descends telescopically as if an elevator, allowing Marvin to climb on, then rises again to full height. Meanwhile, teacher spots another student toward the rear of the class, asleep in his chair. Teacher’s having a bad day, so strts to show her aggressive side. She blows up a balloon, and ties to its string a heavy schoolbook. With a strong blow, she sails the balloon over the head of the student, then fires a rock from a slingshot. (Does she normally carry one around, or is this something she confiscated from a student?) The balloon pops, and the student is rudely awakened. Another classmate behind him laughs heartily, and the awakened student thinks he did it, so socks the classmate in the nose. Escalation of hostilities begins, as the punched student retaliates by throwing a book. His shot misses, and instead clobbers Oswald, knocking him out of his seat and to the front of the class, where he lands in a wire wastebasket. He stands up, with the basket inverted over his head. Teacher advances on him with a yardstick, but Oswald grabs another, and the wastebasket suddenly seves as a fencing mask, as Oswald and the teacher duel it out before the class.

A slash from Oswald knocks the teacher’s yardstick from her hand, and as she turns to bend for it, Oswald scores a “touche” on her rear end. Another student joins in the fight, using a hand-crank pencil sharpener as a makeshift machine gun, loading it with chalk sticks. Teacher ducks behind a pivoting portable blackboard. Now Marvin gets into the act, taking a flying leap from his high stool, and catching hold of the top of the blackboard, pivoting it to sock teacher a blow on the chin. The impact thrusts teacher out the window, where she conveniently collides with a pieman making deliveries from his pie wagon. Knowing just what she wants to do, teacher calls through the window, “Class dismissed”, but lies in wait for them outside the door. As each student emerges, she plasters him in the face with a pie. Last out the door are the two shortest students, Oswald and Marvin, whose small strike zone causes the teacher to miss her shot. They flee at top speed, while teacher pursues with one juicy pie left. When within range, teacher lets poe fly, which sails through the air with a face upon it, with teeth clenched in grim determination to find its mark. Just before impact, Oswald finds a section of pipe, which he and Marvin bend into a “U” to catch the pie and semd it sailing back at teacher, for a direct hit. Oswald and Marvin stand laughing for the closing.

Cubby’s Picnic (Van Buren/RKO, Aesop’s Fables (Cubby Bear) 10/6/33, Eddie Donnelly/Steve Muffati, dir.), is a loose but still somehow enjoyable assembly of random ideas and themes that seems to try to be all over the map at once. Don’t even try to look for a plot. Early sequences focus on a band concert at a park/beachfront amusement area, where Cubby conducts a band whose members are more focused upon obtaining the newly-legal free beer that comes as part of the gig than with playing music (including filling up instruments with the lager by the tubaful). Intermission provides a chance for the hiccuping band to sleep it off, and a brief venture of Cubby and his girlfriend to watch an adjoining magic act. A little gorl grabs a bird the magician makes appear. Cubby tells her to “give him the bird”, which she does with a resounding raspberry. Then Cubby takes his girl to the park for a little spooning, but finds every available seat (and one concealed set of hedges) occupied by other lovers – including a seemingly empty bench that os actually occupied by two bees, discovered in painful fashion when Cubby and his girl attempt to sit down. The two bears finally head for open water for a little togetherness in a motorboat, yet the subject changes again as Cubby engages in some fishing rather than romancing. At one point, Cubby uses a large sandwich as bait on the line. A Jewish fish comes by, takes a bite, then spits it out, saying “Phooey. Ham!” Then comes the tie-in to this article’s subject, as a teacher fish leads a “school” of pupils into view, providing a lecture on how to avoid the lure of “the old blackworm”. She asks various questions to the class, as one student is accused by another of being teacher’s pet. The student responds, “With a face like that, you’re all wet.” But among the students is yet another anxious youngster, one Tony, who keeps insisting he needs permission to “go”.

Teacher repeatedly refuses him, causing Tony to utter the newly-coined expletive, “Sacco and Vanzetti! I gotta, gotta go!” An odd reference indeed, referring to two Italian self-proclaimed anarchists accised and convicted of murder under questionable circumstantial evidence and controversial trial procedures, who had been executed in 1927, but the writers apparently felt would still be remembered. Finally, the teacher dismisses the class, and tells Tony all right if he really can’t wait. On the surface, Cubby and his girl see a small jet of water rise from the ocean surface, causing Cubby to surmise to the audience, “Too late.” Amother gag that would never pass the censors a few years ;ater, even though it is quickly cleaned up by the rising of a whale from the spot where the water emerged, a similar jet eerging from his blowhole, to explain the true circumstances. Finally, Cubby and his girl head back to shore, but Cubby swats at an intruding mosquito. Subject thus changes again, as the mosquito vows revenhe, and rounds up a swarm of his cronies. This portion if the film is perhaps a little ahead of its time, seeming so similar to, but in fact getting the jump upon the release of, Mickey Mouse’s “Camping Out”, released the following year. It would not be the first time Cubby beat Mickey to the punch, also being first to use an ending gag of kissing his girlfriend atop the spokes of a ship’s steering wheel in Bubbles and Troubles (March, 1933), only to have the nearly identical ending used in Mickey Mouse’s Shanghaid (1934). Was the Mouse house actively keeping tabs on Cubby as recognizable competition, in attempt to utilize his ideas one better? When the mosquito attack occurs, Cubby, rather than flee, returns with determinatiin to the bandstand to complete his contractual commitment, only to have the insects attack in corkscrew and dive formations to destroy the bandstand, leaving Cubby and his girl inside the face of the big bass drum for the iris out kiss.

The Lion’s Friend (Terry/Educational, 5/18/34 – Frank Moser/Paul Terry, dir.) 0 Another class of typical Terry animals makes its way to school. The viewer is struck immediately with the realization that the first half of this film is little more than a direct remake of “Good Old Schooldays”, reviewed last week. Yet “Schooldays” was released after Terry had left Van Buren, and directed by John Foster and Mannie Davis, each of whom would eventually emigrate from Van Buren and rejoin Terry in his new studio. Does this provide indication of when Foster and/or Davis made the move? Or was Terry just watching over his shoulder his old haunting grounds, and claiming for his own uses anything his old boss could think up? Or was any of this material from a storyboard that Terry had left behind upon exiting Van Buren? In any event, numerous gags are recycled here. Again, a wagon marked “school bus” is pulled by a pig wearing a target on its tail to attract the kids’ slingshot fire. The “apple polisher” again leaves an apple for teacher, takes a bite out of it, then swaps the “bite” slice for the remainder of the apple. A singing girl student takes a bow, while another classmate pranks her by tearing a handkercheif, to make her think she split her panties. Even the professor is the same Germanic-type dog seen in “Schooldays”. Far too many coincidences to be explained away. In one of the few “new” gags, a trio of pups lugs behind them on one strap a heavy pile of schoolbooks, which transform into a convict’s ball and chain on the screen, set to the tune of “Song of the Volga Boatmen”. The second half of the film loses itself in an entirely different direction, immersed in the professor’s retelling of the fable of the lion and the mouse. One suspects that, were more thorough research possible, this material (rather straightforwardly presented with few if any real gags) was probably also lifted verbatim from some Van Buren counterpart. Two cartoons likely stolen for the price of one!

Grandfather’s Clock (Van Buren/RKO, Toddle Tales, 6/29/34 – Burt Gillett/James Tyer, dir.) – Burt Gillett had just joined the ranks of the Van Buren studio, imported to assist them in staying competitive with the more advanced work of their current rivals, based on his notoriety in the industry as being the director of the then most popular cartoon to have hit the screen, “Three Little Pigs”. He had big plans for the studio’s advancement, but at the time of this first production, seems to have not yet completed the considerable retraining of his fellow animators and/or recruitment of outside talent to bring the studio’s artwork up to snuff. Working instead with the studio’s veteran up and comer Jim Tyer as second in command, who had ably handled the mechanics of producing the “Little King” cartoons, Gillett raced to present something new to the screen in black and white, while meanwhile working with innovator Ted Eshbaugh on a bigger move to break the studio into the market of all color production, by way of the soon-to-be inaugurated second series, “Rainbow Parades”. The result was a curious series of three black and white releases known as “Toddle Tales”, which frameworked a standard cartoon between wraparounds of live-action children playing, and in one or another manner encountering “live” or anomated objects or creatures within their real world who tell them a tale of life in their own plane of existence, often with a lesson to be learned in the process. The target audience was definitely a younger set than the average Van Buren product, with none of the adult or pre-code feel to the gags that had often crept into prior productions, making the cartoons entirely friendly to the newly more-diligent censorship boards. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the concept, however, was the directing of the live-action sequences. It is unknown who handled this photography, and whether it was produced in-house or contributed from the regular RKO studios, much like the live segments of Fleischer Screen Songs. It can only be wondered if it lived up to the director’s expectations, or merely had to be tolerated to meet schedule, as it lacks entirely the natural feel and pacing of an “Our Gang” comedy from Hal Roach, or footage of a Baby LeRoy sequence from a W.C. Fields comedy at Paramount. The kids either appear overly “forced” or hammy in their actions and reads, or the camera lingers too long on what someone thinks is an adorable or precocious face or expression, so that the audience fails to share the same opinion of the view as the cameraman. The sum of the equation is that we are left dying to get to the cartoon, however weak it may be, just to escape the kids. Yet, the three episodes managed to satisfy the studio’s contractual commitments while the more expensive, elaborate, and time-consuming color productions were getting past the final bugs. To Gillett’s credit, at least this first episode did not cheat on footage, providing an animated content approximately of average length to prior productions despite the inclusion of the live-action footage, making for a very full film reel. When the color production took over, Gillett did not entirely abandon his brainchild, but would produce what amounted to two more Toddle Tales with color child footage, under the series banner of the Rainbow Parades – “The Picnic Panic” and “Spinning Mice”. Perhaps these were also stopgap budget savers when full color production ran behind schedule, as they appear to have made little impact upon audiences, The concept was abandoned altogether by the time production moved to full three-strip Technicolor.

In the subject installment, about a minute and a half of footage is eaten up on a girl and a younger boy playing with a bubble pipe. While the footage is tolerable, it does nothing to advance story or plot. Instead, the younger child spills the bowl of soapy water, and the kids abamdon their first activity altogether to play hide and seek. For no apparent reason, the little one forgets the game, and becomes fascinated with a bedroom alarm clock, which he brings out to show his sister, as if she’s never noticed it before. Though the older child should seem to know better, they begin to thump the small clock upon the floor. A grandfather’s clock in the corner speaks out at this abuse, its ability to talk provided by a live actor whose face appears made up as the “face” of the clock behind its hands (a somewhat bizarre and grotesque image, almost giving the viewer the same odd feeling as if watching the use of “Synchro-Vox” live mouths on animated characters in a Clutch Cargo cartoon of the TV era). The clock insists that the little alarm clock is alive and has feelings just like people, and if they don’t believe it, just listen to his heart beat (his tick). To illustrate, the grandfather’s clock begins to relate a tale of Clockland to the kids, describing an average day for young alarm clocks attending a public school. A typical schoolyard shows the young ones at play, including jump rope and shooting marbles (as a stray shot ricochets and rings one of the kids’ alarm). A “grandmother” clock serves as schoolmarm, calling the kids to class in a schoolhoise with giant clock face on the door and an alarm bell for its tower. Teacher draws a circle on the blackboard, entering within it the numbers 1 through 12, then points to various numbers as she asks each student to identify them. Members of the class ring their alarm bells the proper number of times to match the number indicated, to the teacher’s approval. A class genius, getting the hard number, “11″, pulls a wise-guy trick of triggering off his automatic ringer instead of counting off the numbers one by one, getting the required 11 rings in a split second. In the back row sits a not-so-bright pupil, who struggles to provide his answer, getting halfway though his rings, then having to pause to count how many he has already sounded on his fingers to make sure he doesn’t lose count. In the corner sits another student on a dunce chair. Just as the student being questioned finally counts up to the desired number of rings, the dunce pulls out a slingshot, and fires a shot at the other student’s alarm bell, causing it to ring an unexpected extra time. Teacher is irate that the student didn’t get the answer correctly, and orders, “Just for that, you stay after school and write that 100 times. You know better than that”, leaving the frustrated student wailing with tears.

“Grandfather’s Clock” model sheet – click to enlarge

As school lets out at 3:00, a passing old grandfather’s clock, who walks feebly with the assist of a cane, is recruited by the kids to act as referee for a football game. He blows a whisle and himself provides a kickoff to the kids, whose play becomes energetic enough that they pass grandfather in a whirlwind, briefly causing grandfather to lose his regulator weight from his pendulum. Spectators on the sidelines shout the cheerleading chants of “Tick tick tick, tock tock tock, Hooray!” One team’s quarterback tightens up his winding key for an extra burst of speed, and caries the ball through the opposing line, racing for the goalpost. He has, however, wound himself out of control, and cannot slow down or control his advance, smashing straight into the goalpost instead of going through it. The impact knocks him flat, as his back springs off, jettisoning clock parts everywhere. The little clock lies face down and motionless, as the crowd gasps in horror and slowly advances for a closer view of the victim’s condition. Grandfather is the first to reach the youngster, and realizing his plight, carefully ans gently scoops up all of the stray parts into the clock’s body, then carries him slowly to the repair shop of another old grandfather clock, while the crowd nervously follows. Musical director Winston Sharples provides appropriately dramatic and moody music to accompany the scene, as the little alarm clock and its chamber of loose parts are laid before the shop proprietor for his viewing under a jeweler’s glass. (Winston would apparently takes memories of this production with him during his later tenure as musical director for Paramount/Famous studios, finding opportunity to underscore a nearly identical sequence in the later Noveltoon, “Land of Lost Watches”.) After careful inspection, the shop proprietor begins to smile, and signals with his hand to the other grandfather that there is nothing to fear. Taking tools in hand, he twists, screws, and snaps into place the various components of the alarm clock back into their frame, the last item to be inserted being a balance wheel in the shape of the outline of a heart. Gently flipping the balance wheel to begin its pendulum-like swing, the shop owner replaces the back on the alarm clock, and turns him around. Slowly, gradually, the youngster’s eyes open – and his ticking becomes loud and strong. He feels so good, he gets up and dances, and sounds his alarm bell. The community of onlookers outside the shop window celebrate by chiming in rhythmically with their own bells, and all is well again. The scene dissolves back to the live living room, where the grandfather clock concludes with the recommendation that the kids always be kind and gentle to his fellow clocks. To the younger child’s surprise, the alarm clock he holds chooses that moment to sound its alarm, startling the child to let the clock go, and leaving the child crying in surprise for the fade out.

An Elephant Never Forgets (Fleischer/Paramount, Color Classics (2 strip Technicolor) – 12/28/34 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Seymout Kneitel/Roland Crandall, anim.) – The classtoom first appears in color! I wish that currently available prints of this film did it justice, as I was introduced to this title in a screening of an original 35mm Nitrate in a UCLA Film Archives presentation, and stlll remember the substantially crisper focus and brighter, more subtle mixing of the effects of the red and bluegreen strips, where green was reasonably suggested in the jungle foliage, while frequently bright blues appeared on books, props, and some outfits. The three-dimensional backgrounds of the turntable camera were also shown off to fine advantage when seen on a large screen in good colors. If only the current owners of these prints would allow them to be made widely available. Ah, dream on.

A three-dimensional bell rings on the model log cabin constructed by the Fleischer set-builders for the Jungle School. Through long panning views of background foliage at various planes of depth come the class members of all species, skipping along to an original number, “We’re on our way to school today”. Prominent among them is a large elephant, who sings a sort of improvised rhythm line in scat, sounding like “Rugga-digga-di-de-dum, Tweet Tweet.” Another equally large student, a hippo, has an entirely different attitude than the rest, his eyelids drooping and half closed, as he trudges along at a snail’s pace, his books dragging in the dust behind him, lagging far behind the others. As we will see, this is actually a reworking of a wraparound gag already used by the studio for Bimbo in the earlier Talkartoon production, “Sky Scraping” (1930). As the students enter the school, the hippo drags himself to the schoolhouse steps, but can proceed no further, and collapses outside the school into a deep sleep. A pig inside the classroom has been seen in the introductory number choosing the muddiest portions of the jungle path to “wallow” in en route, so that, as he walks to his desk, he leaves a trail of muddy hoofprints everywhere. The teacher, a long-billed duck, calls him to her desk. “Dirty again! Hold out your hand”, she commands. The pig timidly obeys her order, but the duck fakes him out entirely, by hitting him with her yardstick upon his head instead of his hand. Then, a late arrival slips through the window into the back seat of the class – Gus Gorilla. He takes his seat behind the elephant, but comes armed with a weapon of his own choosing – an old washboard, which he uses to smack the elephant over the head with just for fun, then stomps on the elephant’s trunk while he is rubbing his sore head. The elephant calls out “Teacher, teacher!”, but the gorilla disrupts the class by flipping the top of his desk forward into the elephant, causing a domino effect of flipped desks up the aisle, the last desk tossing a textbook into the teacher’s face. The teacher retaliates by tossing the book back at the first desk, flipping all the desktops back to original position, but has been well distracted from intervening on the elephant’s behalf. The elephant turns to the gorilla, and cautions him with a warning, “An elephant never forgets.”

Teacher attempts to musically call roll. One frog covers for his absent twin sister by hopping under and between desks, pretending to be two frogs at once. Teacher next starts putting the students through a series of pop questions, but each student fails to provide a correct andwer, claiming “I simply can’t remember.” The boastful elephant brags, “But an elephant never forgets”, until he is finally called on to perform an addition problem. He is now forced to admit he can’t remember either, as the students deride him in unison with his own words, “But an elephant never forgets!” The elephant blushes bright red before the class – a good chance to experiment with the color process. The teacher then announces that the students will now take a written test, and absents herself from the classroom, leaving star student “Master Turtle” from the front row in charge of the class. “Peter Porcupine, hand out the pens”, the turtle commands as the teacher leaves. The porcipine circulates through the classroom, allowing each student to pluck a quill from his back to use as a pen. The test begins, with a long-necked giraffe peeking over everyine’s shoulder to obtain the answers, until the turtle smacks him on the head with a textbook. The turtle mounts the chair of teacher’s desk, and begins to copy onto the blackbiard from a book today’s motto: “Always shoot straight”. The class takes this lesson to heart, by using the bulls-eye markings on the back of the turtle’s shell as a guide to launch a volley of quills directly into the turtle’s back. “Oh, yeah? , says the turtle, and tosses the geography globe back at the class. A seal catches the globe on his nose and spins it around like a ball, then tosses it – directly on the head of Gus Gorilla.

The ape decides to take out his frustrations randomly upon the elephant again, bopping the pachyderm on the head with a book, then tying the book to his drooping trunk and swinging the trunk around so that it hits the next student in front of them. That student turns and smashes a book upon the elephant, which bounces off and also hits Gus. Tempers flare, and before long, books are flying among the classmates everywhere, in a free-for-all. The turtle tries to restore order, but has to dodge a barrage of books by retreating into his shell, sticking his head out periodically to jeer the class at their terrible aim, until a direct hit on his chest pops his head out of the shell, long enough to be battered by a half dozen books. The seal is making a real collection out of the flying objects, now balancing books upon his nose piled end to end four high, when the doorknob of the classroom door begins to turn. “Jiggers, the teacher!”, he warns the class. The books finally stop flying, and all the students sit quietly as teacher enters. The aisles, desks, floor and blackboards are a littered and splattered mess, but all the teacher seems to see is the quietness of the class, oblivious of the rest. “Very good. Class dismissed”, she says is satisfied tones. The kids all run out the door to spend the rest of the day at play. Their exit arouses the sleeping hippo from dreamland, who, realizing the day’s lessons are over, shouts “Hooray!”, and exits the frame with new vigor and haste. Much as the day of labor ended for Bimbo in “Sky Scraping”, the hippo passes the entire class, and outraces even a jack rabbit down the road, to be the first to get away. Bringing up the rear are Gus Gorilla and the elephant. Afain just for “kicks”, Gus attempts to deliver a swift kick into the seat of the elephant’s pants, but receives a painful surprise when his foot hits something hard and metallic – Gus’s washboard, which the elephant has inserted into his trousers. As the gorilla hops about in pain, the elephant smashes the washboard over the gorilla’s head, then again reminds Gus, and the audience, that “An elephant never forgets!”

I Haven’t Got a Hat (Warner, Merrie Melodies (two strip Tcchnicolor, 3/2/35 – Isadore (Frix) Freleng, dir.), marks a milestone for Warner cartoon fans, ushering in the new era of the Leon Schlesinger production with the birth of the studio’s first true superstar, Porky Pig. Not that Porky was in any manner the center of attention, or even the intended star, of the production. It was one of those circumstances of fortuitous happenstance that out of the legacy of this film, a star was born. The entire concept upon which the film was created was something different altogether than the aftermath it spawned. One of the most well remembered and popular vehicles for youthful stars to appear upon the live-action screen was Hal Roach’s “Our Gang” series of comedies (known from television distribution as the “Little Rascals”, playing off reference to he kids as “His Rascals” in several of the original title cards from the screen series), which were already well established for over a decade, beginning in 1922. In their heyday, few attempts had been made to transfer live stars outright to any kind of a regular animated series (excepting short-lived efforts to capitalize upon the persona of Charlie Chaplin). So there was never a theatrical series devoted to spinning off from the “Our Gang” shorts. But not to say that pilots were not tried. Gene Byrnes’ “Reg’lar Fellers” comic strip already closely resembled the Our Gang comedies from its inception – even though the strip predates the Our Gang series by five years, possibly suggesting that Hal Roach took some inspiration from it himself. So it was a natural, it seemed, to try an adaptation from the comics counterpart, rather than pay a direct royalty to Roach and potentially step upon the powerful distribution toes of MGM. Ub Iwerks was first to try, producing his last ComiColor cartoon, Happy Days, featuring Byrnes’ “gang”. The result was effective and pleasing, even if animation continued to show Iwerks’ studios’ natural traits of being a little rough around the edges, and closely mirrored the timing and dialogue style of a Roach comedy. Yet it went nowhere. There would be no follow ups from the studio, which in fact ceased its independent productions, and opted instead to farm out its subbsequent work for hire to more established studios. Walter Lantz would attempt to pick up the reins with a commercial project for Ipana Toothaste featuring the same strop’s characters, in Boy Meets Dog, circa 1938. However, Ipana withdrew its sponsorship at the last minute, with the film already completed, leaving it to languish on the shelf until the home movie days. Even had it received distribution, it is unlikely it would have raised a stir, as it is considerably farther off-topic than the Iwerks’ venture, developing no recognizable personality or life in the characters.

As for Warners, the subject cartoon was their own attempt to create a “gang” to rival the Roach product, taking the different angle of assembling a cast comprised entirely of animals. The junior cast and teacher are all introduced like the cast of a 1930’s feature, in pictorial shots with their names below on the screen. Regular teacher Miss Crabtree is replaced by a cow named Miss Cud. Introduced in reverse order are the two characters apparently intended by the writers to act as a team – our familiar Porky (in his early overweight roly poly design model), playing the proverbial fat kid that was always a trademark of the early “gang” shorts, and Beans, a boy cat character, with a bit of a brash attitude, first depicted in a shot swiping jam from a kitchen pantry, and uttering “Nyahhh!” to the audience when he is caught with his face smeared with the stolen goo. Also depicted in the introduction are one Oliver Owl, who in some manner predicts a move for the Roach shorts which had not yet taken place – the use of a boy-genius type, which would not begin at Roach until at least the next year with the addition to the cast of Waldo. Final introductory depiction goes to a set of identical twin puppies called Ham and Ex, who were to develop a reputation for mischief, and here are depicted exchanging glances at observing the audience observing them, and begin to whisper among themselves as if exchanging unflattering remarks about what they see of us in the darkened theater. Oddly missing from the introduction is a little girl cat named Kitty, who appears prominently in another segment of the cartoon to follow. Watners would later make up for this oversight by featuring her face on the titles of subsequent follow-ups, and including her prominently in several subsequent scripts involving Beans.

Action of the cartoon commences with the announcement of a Musical and Recital for the school’s students (a standard plot vehicle for Hal Roach shorts). First on the program is Porky Pig, as the world’s worst deliverer of recitation, performing a reading of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” His recurrent stuttering was apparently the hit of the cartoon, becoming his trademark, and slowing the progress of his recitation down to a crawl. He attempts to punctuate the reading with the waving of an American flag (though the original poem had nothing to do with an American regiment), and by cannon sound effects provided by his classmates (a turtle beating with drumsticks on his chest shell, and a dog dropping light bulbs out of a box), which cues get crossed up, as “cannon to the right of them” appear on the left, and vice versa. Finally, in the old ‘30’s wheeze that a whistle will somehow break a stutter, the entire frustrated class lets out with a unison whistle. The effect is unexpected, as it summons every dog in town, who begin licking Porky’s face, and unsher him unceremoniously off the stage. Miss Cud next introduces Kitty for a recitation of “Mary Had a Litte Lamb”. Kitty has a severe case of stage fright, and Cud attempts to help her through with some prompting from the wings. Kitty gets stuck on the word, lamb, which Cud communicates to her by mouthing the word silently, and flashing a book illustration of the animal. Kitty is hung up again on the line “It’s fleece was white as……” Cud trues to give her a clue by grabbing a box of corn flakes, and tossing a handful up in the air so they fall arounf her like drifting snow. Kitty sees the imagery too literally, and the lamb’s fleece becomes as white as “corn flakes”. Kitty takes it from there to tremble and squirm her way through the remainder of the recitation, which becomes faster and more speeded up as she goes, until the words become indecipherable, and Kitty makes a hasty exit by backing out the rear door of the school, seen next through the window racing down the road for home. Ham and Ex appear to perform a rapid version of the film’s title number, with Ex transforming his voice intermittently from Bernice Hansen’s soprano to a booming basso for low rhythm notes. (for more about the title song, click here) Finally, Master Oliver Owl performs a piano solo. Beans, in the desk behind Ollie’s, is frustrated at Ollie’s snooty ways, and with some taunting by the owl as he displays a bag of sweets as if to share, only to hold the goodies for himself just out of Beans’ reach. Beans gets even by sneaking outside, and slipping a live dog and cat into the upright piano during Oliver’s solo. The commotion inside the piano takes over Ollie’s control of the keyboard altogether, as the animals inside bat out upon the strings their own rendition of themes from the “Poet and Peasant” Overture. The class, unable to see Ollie behind the piano, accepts the performance as his own, at the end of which Ollie nervously slips out from behind the piano to take a bow. His cover is blown when the lid flies off the piano, allowing the dog and cat to escape across the stage, prompting the cass to boo and hiss the performance. Oliver spots Beans out the window laughing at him, and figures out who planted the pets in the piano. Pulling out a fountain pen, Oliie splats Beans in the face with ink. Beans falls onto a board left behind on the grounds by some worker, on the other end of which is an open can of red paint. The can is flipped into the window, landing on Ollie, while Beans is somegow flipped into the window too. The two rivals land next to each other covered in primary colors, and decide to call the battle even and make friends with a handshake, for the iris out.

It is unknown (at least to me) whether there was a conscious intent from the beginning to launch these various characters on their own film careers when this picture was made, or whether the sheer box office success of the short prompted the later spin-offs. Certainly, the gamble of producing the short in more expensive Technicolor may suggest that it was intended from the outset as a launching vehicle for a new direction for the studio. Whatever the circumstances, the “gang” quickly replaced the less popular “Buddy” cartoons Jack King and others had been producing in the wake of the loss of Bosko for the Looney Tunes series, with an entirely new opening card designed for the Looney Tunes featuring corner images of Beans, Kitty, Porky, and Oliver. Series entries frequently would include name credit for the featured “gang” members below the title, with Beans and Porky initially the predominant favorites, almost equally splitting their number of screen credits. However, the two characters would never receive real prominence in their conceived role as a team, performing only once in such manner in Boom Boom, but otherwise generally following their own separate paths even in the few episodes in which they appeared together. Ham and Ex would receive at least one screen credit as stars in The Fire Alarm, although they would make appearances in at least two other films. Kitty would appear in several Beans efforts, and in one Porky (Plane Dippy), but never became a billed star. Oliver Owl seems to have hardly if ever been used again, and also thus never starred – yet received an unusual, if incredibly short, second life in a recording produced in the 1950’s by Mel Blanc for Golden Records, as part of a twelve-side series of birthday records with each side devoted to one calendar month. Oliver Owl is oddly chosen by Blanc as the spokes-character for one of the sides, for which he creates a new voice never actually used in any cartoon. The twelve sides were eventually reissued on the album, “Bugs Bunny’s Songfest” in the 1960’s, and has been previously featured in review by Greg Ehrbar in his Animation Spin columns on this website. As for Miss Cud, she would make one cameo in Porky’s Moving Day, and was possibly included in a group shot or two of Alpine Antics.

Along Flirtation Walk (Warner, Merrie Melodies (two strip Tcchnicolor, 4/6/35 – Isadore (Friz) Freleng, dir.), has been visited at least once before in the Easter series, “Happy Henfruit” on this site for its dealings with eggs, but fits squarely into the school subject as another tribute to the standard genre of college musicals. The opening sequences take place at the pep rally of an all poultry university (Plymouth Rock College), in preparation for the big game. A duck quartet enter in monogrammed shirts, which are supposed to sequentially spell out “Glee Club” – but one member is standing out of position, so that the shirts instead spell the mouthful, “Leeg Lubc”. They perform the title tune, lifted from the recent Warner feature, “Flirtation Walk”, boasting of a college lover’s lane, where turkeys spoon on a park bench, hiding their amorous kisses behind their tail plumage, and ducks “duck” out of sight into the inner workings of a park fountain to escape prying eyes. The “big game” turns out to be an egg laying contest against the rival hens of Rhode Island Red University, staged as a staduim event. Each team sits in a set of nests set side by side, with half-pipe chutes extending below to allow the eggs laid to roll down into a communal trough leading to an automatic scoring apparatus, where each egg rolls through a hole and pushes the paddles of a scoring wheel, adding one point to a flipping scoreboard for each egg received. The home team hens keep reasonable pace with the visitors, until a couple of Rhode Island cheerleaders encourage the visiting team to put on an extra “heave”, leading to an extra burst of egg production. A lone hen on the substitute bench pleads in chicken clucks to be put in the game, while the home team duck coach only responds with an irate “Nyaahh!”. The halftime gun fires, with the Reds leading the Rocks 75 to 30. The visitors trot into their locker room with an air of confidence, while the home team drags themselves with drooping head into their own quarters, to be chewed out by their coach. The Reds make better use of their halftime, as they prepare to cheat – having every team member swallow their fill of billiard balls. When the second half resumes, the filled visiting hens empty their loads into the scoring trough, racking up the score on the scoring wheel rapidly. (Doesn’t any official check the egg baskets later so that the billiard balls may be observed? Wouldn’t it have been less detectable if the hens had swallowed white cue balls instead of colored balls with numbers?) One home team hen strains to even the score, but produces from her chute a string of live chicks instead of shelled eggs. The turkey referee calls a time out, and cranks backwards the scoring wheel of the home team for a fifteen point penalty. Several gags in the second half are the victims of heavy censorship that must have occurred concurrent with the film’s release, leaving painfully ragged holes in the story continuity, such that all of a sudden there are only 5 minutes to play, with the lopsided score 98 to 40 in favor of the visitors. The little hen on the bench again pleads to be put in, and the coach finally relents. We are never allowed by the censors to see onscreen how she accomplishes it, but a complete change in the hen’s wardrobe in the final shots suggests that beneath her team outfit, she was wearing a ladies’ corset. And two teammates are also seen positioned at her sides, suggesting that her teammates pulled the corset laces, to squeeze a steady flow of eggs from the little hen, until the scoring wheel indicates the Reds have only a one point lead, 98 to 97. The corset having accomplished all it can accomplish, and with only ten seconds left to lay, the hen’s teammates produce mallets, and hammer two blows upon the hen’s head. Two last eggs are jarred loose from her, providing the tying and winning points. The victorious hen is carried home on the shoulders of her cheering fans, for the final iris out.

The Graduation Exercises (Mintz/Columbia Scrappy, 4/12/35 – Ben Harrison, dir.) – Though Scrappy would play various roles in his cartoon career, there is no doubt that at times, his product could also resemble an “our gang” comedy. Such as is the case here. It’s the last day of school for the term. Scrappy and Oopie attend the same country school, but elder Scrappy complains at Oopie’s dilly-dallying and sing song about “No more teacher’s nasty looks” that he’ll make them late for the graduation exercises, where Scrappy is to receive a diploma. Scrappy tries to hurry them along, but both are distracted at seeing fish jumping (and even playing leap frog) in the local pond. The fishing looks so good that Oopie is actually able to briefly catch one of the fish in mid jump by merely reaching out the palm of his hand. But the fish pulls Oopie into the water, along with both their schoolbooks and the apple intended for teacher. As Scrappy pulls Oopie out, the books and apple bob to the surface, balanced on the nose of one of the fish. Scrappy grabs the books, but the fish swallows the apple and jeers them. In the distance, they hear the school bell, where the students are entering for class, under a sign hung over the schoolhouse door reading, “Welcome, School Board”. Scrappy runs as fast as he can, but teacher shuts the door before he can reach it, and Scrappy finds it locked. He runs around to a window, and tries to coax a student inside to help him climb in. But the student shakes his head, and teacher, thinking the student to be distracted by something outside, shuts the window. Scrappy is left on the outside looking in, and kicks the dirt in melancholy frustration, as Oopie catches up. “See what you’ve done?”, Scrappy tells him. “Now I’ll never get my diploma.” Oopie smiles with some embarrassment, as if to say, “but we’re still friends, right?”, but remains unassured from Scrappy’s continued gloom. Then Oopie gets an idea. He sees a poster on the schoolhouse wall depicting one of the elders of the School Board for whom the welcome signs and banners have been posted, depicting an elderly man in an old top hat and long coat, with a white grizzled beard. Conveniently nearby, he spots a cornfield scarecrow, wearing very similar attire. Swiping the outfit from the farmer’s poles, Oopie returns to Scrappy wearing them, and Scrappy, seeing Oopie in comparison to the poster, begins to get the idea. He allows little runt Oopie to climb up on his shoulders, and Oopie buttons the coat around them, as Scrappy attempts to master the balance of Oopie for a first wobbly few steps. But there’s still the matter of a beard. No problem, thinks Oopie, producing a pair of scissors, as he surrealistically trims the whiskers from the life-size picture of the school elder on the wall, leaving the poster with a bare-chinned, goofy looking face. Oopie tips his cap as a “thank you” to the poster, and applies the whiskers to himself as the final makeup. With confidence, they proceed to the front door and knock. The teacher cordially invites them inside, as they copycat in style the teacher’s old-fashioned, swively bustle walk.

Scrappy and Oopie, in their new guise, are given a seat of honor next to the teacher’s desk. But mischievous Oopie, having nothing personally at stake himself, can’t resist open opportunity to prank the teacher. While the teacher makes introduction of their guest to the class, Oopie produces a bean shooter, and fires a shot at the teacher’s head. He scores a bulls-eye, partially knocking off the teacher’s hairdo, which it appears is a wig covering a bald head! Teacher looks aroind for the source of the shot, but Oopie conceals the weapon just in time, leaving teacher no recourse but to reset her hairdo. She then proceeds around the other side of the desk to take a seat herself, while Oopie slips onto her chair a long pointed spindle for holding letters or papers, as a super-sized tack on her chair. Teacher gets the point in the most pointed way, not once, but twice, as Oopie slips the spindle back on the seat a second time after teacher thinks she’s already replaced it on the desk. Next, Oopie, and even Scrappy in the coat below him, start to help themselves to teacher’s apples when she isn’t looking. The class sings a special “Welcome, School Board” song, which Oopie can’t resist finishing himself with the improvised line, “with a heidi heidi heidi and a ho de ho!”, as he playfully tickles the teacher’s face with the whiskers from his chin. The star pupil of the class is invited up to the front of the class to recite. Oopie has no desire to hear the stuck-up egghead, and pours a bottle of ink over his head while the prodigy is taking bows, leaving him looking like a little Al Jolson (though for once, the word “Mammy” is not uttered). The teacher is getting suspicious at the source of these recurring strange accidents, and her curiosity is quickly satisfied when Scrappy sneezes. The sneeze blows Scrappy upwards, with his head in the place where Oopie’s should be. The jumbled two attempt to reset themselves in their proper places inside the coat, but only make things worse, with the beard appearing on the wrong face, or worn upside down, or their heads popping out in the wrong places, until both their heads are protruding from the coat’s sleeves. Teacher is wisened up fast, and pulls out a switch to administer some discipline. The kids make a run for it, getting separated along the way. Oopie gets hung up running on top of a globe, then spinning around in a swivel chair. Scrappy, still wearing the coat and hat, continues to run, as the teacher makes multiple attempts to hit him with the switch. She catches up close enough to grab the tails of the coat, but when she slips inside, Scrappy has popped out of the collar, leaving teacher wearing the full outfit, complete with the false beard. From outside enters the real head of the school board. In an ending which is unfortunately played in too rushed a fashion to develop proper audience reaction or character emotion, the school elder is insulted to find the teacher in a mock outfit of himself, and haughtily leaves without a word. As it now appears that no one will get diplomas, so that nothing has been missed, Scrappy and Oopie appear at the door, performing a taunting dance before the teacher of “No more pencils, no more books. No more teacher’s nasty looks”, and disappear down the road to a summer of freedom.

Back in session next week.