Sunday, August 8, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 4: Hollywood Bowl, A Haunting We Will Go, Life Begins for Andy Panda, Scrambled Eggs, 100 Pygmies and Andy Panda

As we get into the period I'm covering here, from 1938 to late 1940, the Lantz studios were doing OK but not great. They'd retired Oswald, but hadn't really found a character to replace him that would be popular and possibly sell some merchandise. So a lot of the cartoons in this period feature characters that appeared in only a few cartoons as 'tests' to see if they would catch on with the moviegoer. With one exception, they didn't. And even the exception would only be a 'minor star'.

First, though, we've got another Hollywood caricatures parody, this one revolving around the opening of the Hollywood Bowl. Note that the Bowl had already been around for 16 years when this cartoon aired, so I can only assume they meant for a new season. In any case, half the cartoon is an excuse to see celebrity caricatures. The impersonations have gotten better since Wax Works, though we still aren't anywhere near you average Warner Brothers cartoon. They still can't do a Groucho voice, for example. The 'plot' involves Leopold Stokowski attempting to conduct Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, with some magic gloves playing all the instruments. This leads to some very intriguing, arty sequences, which sadly also show the art limitations at the time - Lantz's group can't draw hands well. Disney had similar issues 3-4 years ago. When it becomes clear the symphony really is unfinished, Stokowski storms off, and we get a bunch of stars finishing the show off - Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Benny Goodman, and Martha Raye among them. We even get Jack Benny at the violin. Quite an interesting cartoon, if only to show how well Warners' celebrity cartoons hold up compared to their rivals. It's also the last B&W cartoon I have on DVD - everything from now on is in color.

The first of our three attempts at cartoon stars here is L'il Eightball, a young black boy with a deep voice (well, deep for a boy as young as he's supposed to be). A Haunting We Will Go is his final cartoon, so clearly he didn't work out. It's a very well-made cartoon, especially if you like ghosts. A 'child' ghost is enjoying going around and scaring various animals, but comes across our hero, who says that he doesn't believe in ghosts. L'il Eightball is a bit racist, what with his jive talking and 'hyuk hyuk' laugh, but compared to other black characters of the period, he's really fairly harmless. The ghost takes him to see his ghost father, who gets together with his pals to scare the child. They do this mostly by shaking him up, with lots of ghost tricks and reality-bending mind games. Windows roll up into the wall, shadows become nets, etc. At first holding out, L'il Eightball finally ends up getting scared out of his wits - though denying it to the end. Incidentally, he was voiced by Mel Blanc, who still freelanced at this point.

We then get Life Begins for Andy Panda, which is, quite naturally, Andy's first cartoon. After Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy, Andy is Lantz's best knows star, and this short makes his birth - literally, it begins with the forest creatures congratulating the pandas on their new baby. (The title, by the way, is not a parody of the movie Life Begins for Andy Hardy. That movie came out 2 years after this cartoon.) Andy quickly grows to about 6 months old, to become a mischievous and curious toddler, who drives his father crazy with constant questions. Then he tries to go out of the forest, and his father yells at him, saying if he does that he'll "wind up in the newsreel!". Of course, telling a toddler not to do something never works out. Andy runs off, and when his father tries to catch him he is captured by a tribe of pygmy African hunters. These caricatures, unlike L'il Eightball, are as bad as they sound, being a bunch of racist African 'unga bunga' types, all interchangeable. The other forest creatures, as well as Andy's mother, hear about this and run off to the rescue. Sadly, Andy still wants to be in the newsreel. This is a decent short, but I don't like Andy as a precious l'il tyke.

However, it's magical compared to the next cartoon. Scrambled Eggs stars Peterkin, a cute boy satyr (yes, you read that right) who is playing his flute in the forest and looking for mischief to cause. He is distracted by a bunch of birds of various types in the tree above him, all of whom are waiting for their eggs to hatch. (We even see a woodpecker couple, though we don't get Woody just yet.) Peterkin decides to have some fun and switches all the eggs, so that the sparrows have a blackbird egg, etc. This leads to all the parents fighting and storming off (as the dads think their wives have cheated on them), leaving all the babies behind. Oh well, so much for sympathetic parents. Peterkin isn't much better, as he's presented as cute and adorable and twee in the worst kind of Disney imitator way, and you just want him to get his ass kicked. It's sort of fun seeing the bratty little babies demanding food and water and entertainment, but really, this is a giant drag. This was Peterkin's only cartoon, and I can see why.

In the meantime, Andy Panda had done better than the other short-lived characters, and returns in the aptly titled 100 Pygmies and Andy Panda. It's not as good as the other Andy cartoon I saw, sadly, and features, as you can no doubt guess, the same racist African hunters, this time with a Witch Doctor added. Andy has gotten a magic wand in the mail, and is enjoying using it to make bunnies appear and torture his father. However, the witch doctor's magic mask now says that Andy is more powerful than him. (Man, imagine if Andy had gone for the sea monkeys instead. We'd have no cartoon!) The witch doctor goes to confront Andy, who quickly conjures up some shoes to literally kick his ass. So the witch doctor calls in the titular 100 pygmies, who chase after Andy and corner him. They grab the wand, but use the wrong magic words to activate it, and end up trapped in the middle of a live-action city street, running away from cars. (The city street is in black and white, but this cartoon is in color, making it even more jarring and weird.) This would thankfully be the last appearance of the pygmies (who'd also battled Andy and his dad in a fishing cartoon earlier in the year.)

So Andy's doing OK, but not terrific. Lantz would continue to try new one-shot characters with him, however, In fact, in his next cartoon we'll see Andy and his father battle a particularly obnoxious woodpecker...

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