Sunday, July 25, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 2: Confidence, King Klunk, She Done Him Right, The Merry Old Soul, Wax Works

Time to settle in with five more Walter Lantz cartoons he made for Universal in 1933 and 1934. This batch of 5 is better than the preceding batch, though it still shows the major weakness of Lantz's studios at the time: dull lead characters, poor voice acting when they're not singing, and an overuse of dream sequence endings.

Of course, it's not like they could afford top of the line. We're in the midst of the depression, where you make do with what you can get. The first cartoon I viewed today, Confidence, is pure New Deal propaganda, with as much subtlety as your average editorial cartoon. (Indeed, Depression is depicted as a flying vulture/cloud thing with 'DEPRESSION' written across it, almost exactly like an editorial cartoon.) Oswald the Lucky Rabbit owns a chicken farm, and the happy animals sing and dance and then go off to lay eggs. Sadly, the depression cloud thing slouches through the farm, and suddenly the animals are falling over half-dead and all the chickens act drunk and dazed. Oswald screams for a doctor, in a weird montage sequence where we see people rioting at a bank and on Wall Street, as well as hiding money under a mattress. Oswald goes to a doctor, but the doctor points out that for this problem, Roosevelt is who Oswald needs. Oswald flies to Washington via a self-made plane, and marches right in to Roosevelt (oh, those were the days), asking what is needed to help his farm. Roosevelt (in a good caricature but a horrible voice - get used to that) marches out from behind his desk and tells Oswald that confidence is what's needed! Confidence for the purposes of this cartoon being something that Oswald can inject into people with a glue gun. For those noting Roosevelt bopping around and dancing here, this was at a period where his physical capabilities were still very much a secret to the average American. Oswald goes back to his hometown and injects confidence into everyone. They start returning all their money to banks, and the chickens and animals are happy again. Very much of its time, but entertaining nevertheless.

The next cartoon, King Klunk, is probably the highlight, being a great parody of Universal's classic King Kong, which had come out earlier that year. It starred the Oswald clone Pooch the Pup, which was odd considering Lantz was also cranking out Oswalds. Pooch's voice is a bit deeper, but otherwise he is essentially Oswald as a dog. He even gets Oswald's dog girlfriend from other cartoons. Pooch and his girl are in Darkest Africa trying to photograph the giant gorilla. After a few somewhat racist native caricatures (after seeing Buddy of the Apes from Schlesinger's studio, trust me, this one is pretty tame), The gorilla arrives, and rejects the native girl he's being offered as a sacrifice. He decides to grab Pooch's girl and eat her, but then Cupid arrives with a well-placed arrow and makes Klunk fall in love with her instead. Most of the rest of the beats of the movie are here. The gorilla fights a dinosaur, and is defeated by Pooch, who drags it back to New York (they spend the entire trip back making out in their boat, while the gorilla walks behind them on the ocean floor). Eventually the gorilla captures Pooch's girl again and goes to the Empire State Building, where Pooch, having commandeered a plane, sends him hurtling to his death. Watch for the surprise cameo by the native African girl for the end gag.

Another parody follows, though this one is a lot less connected to the movie it's a takeoff of. She Done Him Right is a spoof of Mae West films, with Pooch's girlfriend given a much bigger bust so she can be a parody of Mae West. Pooch himself is no Cary Grant, though. He goes to see her show, which consists of a long performance of the Cab Calloway classic Minnie the Moocher's Wedding Day, itself a sequel to the original Minnie the Moocher. It's strange seeing a Calloway song in a cartoon sung by neither Calloway (as in the Fleischer cartoons where he featured as himself) or a Calloway caricature (as in Schlesinger's films). Still, the girl singing it does a very good job, showing why Lantz tries to have song and dance rather than dialogue - the spoken stuff is wretched. Eventually the girl's sugar daddy tries to make off with her and Oswald - sorry, Pooch - rescues her, in an ending that seems very tacked on. I think they'd have done better trying to parody the actual film She Done Him Wrong, but not only was it a Paramount film, rather than Universal, it was also hugely controversial at the time.

Back to Oswald (She Done Him Right was the last Pooch cartoon) with The Merry Old Soul, the first of two cartoons in a row revolving around celebrity caricatures. This one begins with Oswald getting a tooth out at the dentist's. The tooth is proving stubborn, so Oswald gets anesthetic the hard way - via a mallet - and the dentist tries again. Unfortunately, they're interrupted by the news on the radio that Old King Cole is depressed. We see the king, looking sad and droopy, with his lame jester trying his best to cheer him. Oswald knows better, though, and goes around grabbing a bunch of Hollywood stars. We see Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo (and her feet), Ed Wynn, Laurel and Hardy, Joe E. Brown, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, and the Marx Brothers. The whole cartoon eventually degenerates into a giant pie fight, which cheers the king right up, despite his getting hit with pies himself. The jester gets rather jealous of all this, and kidnaps Oswald, taking him to the dungeons and hanging him by his neck. Of course, this turns out to be the signal for it to be All Just A Dream, as Oswald is still getting his tooth out. This cartoon was good enough to get Lantz's first Academy Award nomination, though it lost to Disney's Three Little Pigs.

Lastly, we have Wax Works, a somewhat lesser attempt to do a celebrity caricature cartoon, also starring Oswald. He owns a Wax Museum here, and late one night a penniless mother leaves a baby on his stoop. (I note the wax museum has a night bell. I hope that's for deliveries, as I can't imagine someone needing to view wax figures at 2 in the morning.) Oswald is reluctant, as a swinging bachelor, to take care of a baby (actually pretty much a toddler after the first 2 minutes or so), but takes him in anyway. The kid gets up in the middle of the night to get some water, and starts wandering around the museum, and the statues decide to come to life and have a party. Notable here is a Groucho caricature who has one of the worst voice actors I've ever heard. Not only does it not sound like Groucho, they aren't even trying to! This is a shame, as one of the jokes involving him is a takeoff on the Marx Brothers Broadway musical I'll Say She Is!, a takeoff on Napoleon. Eventually the kid get taken into a basement where he's menaced by various Universal horror monsters, who turn him into wax (the wax toddler sculpture is actually a bit creepy), then go after Oswald, who has finally woken up. Again, the voice acting for the Universal monsters is just wretched. However, all is well, as Oswald wake up - for real this time - to find it was... sigh... all just a dream.

None of these were fantastic, but none were quite as dull as some of the Oswalds I reviewed last time, and in general I enjoyed these. Definitely find King Klunk if you can.

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