Sunday, August 1, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 3: Jolly Little Elves, Toyland Premiere, Candyland, Springtime Serenade, Puppet Show

Ready for 5 more Walter Lantz cartoons he created for Universal Pictures, these five ranging from the years 1934 to 1936. Four of the five are very similar, and very much what one expects when told they're watching a 30s cartoon trying to imitate Disney. That fifth one, though... it's different, I'll grant it that.

Jolly Little Elves is an interesting cartoon for many reasons, none of which relate to the action on screen. It was Lantz's first color cartoon, and also his first cartoon not to star a regular character such as Oswald and Pooch. It was a straight up attempt to try to do a Disney Silly Symphony (the line would be called 'Cartune Classics', and it had a much higher budget than usual. And for a 1934 cartoon, it actually looks well animated and designed. It uses the 2-strip Technicolor technique, as Disney owned the rights to 3-strip until 1935. This means that the palette looks a little drab, with lots of red and blue but little richness. As for the cartoon itself, it's a Shoemaker and the Elves cartoon. If I just tell you nothing but that, you'd be able to write 3/4 of the gags seen here. There's little to no irony or surprise, as you might see in a later Warners cartoon with the same subject. It's just cute shoemaking, along with some choruses of Dunk Dunk Dunk (Oh How I Love To Dunk Doughnuts). However, this was what folks wanted from a cartoon in 1934. It was nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to Disney's The Tortoise and the Hare), and Disney was reportedly worried he'd have serious competition. No worries there, though - the Cartune Classics ended up being rarities, as Universal couldn't afford too many of them.

Lantz fell back on the old standard for his second color cartoon - celebrity caricatures. He also threw in Oswald as well, though Oswald plays a smaller role. Toyland Premiere's premise is that Christmas is coming up, and to get kids jazzed up for it they're throwing a big parade in New York City - sorry, a city somewhere that is unnamed - followed by a party at Macy's - excuse me, City Department Store. I get you don't want to alienate your non-NYC viewers, but sheesh, be less obvious. After some brief Santa angst when moths eat his suit, and a few cute parade shots, we're at the premiere, which features Johnny Weismuller and his wife Lupe Velez (he's doing Tarzan, but that's clearly Velez rather than Maureen O'Sullivan), Shirley Temple, Laurel and Hardy, Frankenstein's Monster (Karloff, presumably), Eddie Cantor (in blackface throughout), and Bing Crosby (whose vocal imitator gets the speech right, but not the singing). Laurel and Hardy dominate the 2nd half of the cartoon, which features them trying to get at the cake before it's divided up. Unfortunately, the end of this cartoon is cut in all available prints, so the obvious end gag (Santa blows so hard on the candles the cake lands on Laurel and Hardy) is missing. Shane, as it means a weak ending to a fun cartoon.

Candyland is next, and I'm already starting to get my fill of cutesy. After seeing several ethnic stereotype babies going to sleep, we focus on the one baby who isn't, a little Italian kid. You can tell he's Italian (or at least a recent immigrant) as his father is yelling at him right out of the Chico Marx school of dialect. Atsomatta, you no sleep? No, he's not sleeping, as he wants candy. So the Sandman takes the kid from his father (who happily lets him go off with no word about where they're going - he could be going to Happy Cartoon Torture Land for all we know), and kid and dog end up in Candyland, the magic factory where candy is made, ruled by The Candy Man. Candy making gags follow, similar to the shoemaking gags 2 cartoons ago. There's some very odd perspective here, as the kid and dog are clearly bigger than the elves making the candy, but as we normally just see the elves by themselves (they look like old men), when combined there's a visual dissonance. In the end the journey is nightmarish, as the king decides to give the kid castor oil. In the end, he's crying again and Italian dad is back where he started.

Springtime Serenade is technically an Oswald cartoon, and it's in color (rather washed out color - this isn't a great print, though they did their best to restore it). Oswald has a wife, and for once she's actually a rabbit. Makes a change from all of his cat and dog girlfriends of yore. The sun is shining, the trees are blooming and spring is in the air. All the cute l'il animals are frolicking and being cute, despite the annoying old German groundhog telling them he sees his shadow, so winter isn't over yet. They ignore him and go about their spring cleaning for most of the cartoon. As they finish and Oswald open his summer resort, winter returns, and they all rush back inside. Easily the dullest cartoon of the five I viewed.

And then there's Puppet Show. We're back to black and white for this one, and it again stars Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. By this point, however, Oswald had lost his 'inkblot' design, and become a white Easter bunny type rabbit. The basic plot of this cartoon is that Oswald is presenting a puppet show, which features him manipulating several puppets in song and dance. What makes it odd is that the puppets are live-action, and over half the cartoon is just live-action sequences of various puppets doing a vaudeville routine. The rather fey emcee introduces an Arabian snake charm dance (with a very buxom puppet doing the dance instead of a snake); two Latin dancers; and a black torch singer with her piano player, singing as two other black puppets dance. Oswald is at this point bothered by a rather persistent bee, who first gets the puppets all tangled then stings Oswald, who falls to the ground and gets knocked out. We then switch to animation full-time, as the now-animated black dance puppets come to life, and one decides to strike off on his own. The other puppet chides him, noting that they can't do anything without someone pulling their strings. The first puppet wanders off, at first sort of sliding but once he gets a bunch of balloons attached to him more freely. He arrives at a toy department, and wants to be one of the others. The other toys permit him to try out for their toyland gala, but when one of his balloons pops, it becomes clear that he's a horrible, disgusting puppet. The toys decide to show him what happens to those who try to get above their station by sawing him into firewood. Oswald, thankfully, wakes up at this point, and finishes his live-action puppet show. If you think that the 2nd half of this movie sounds like it has hideously creepy racial subtext, you're absolutely right. I doubt it was intentional, but the black puppet being jeered and then tortured by the toy mob is just mind-boggling today. Still, it was easily the most interesting cartoon of the five I watched, if perhaps not for the right reasons.

Next time we'll see Lantz retiring Oswald, and trying to find a new cartoon star in Andy Panda.

No comments:

Post a Comment