Sunday, August 22, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 6: Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B', Pantry Panic, $21 a Day (Once a Month), The Hollywood Matador...

I guess I've found the size limit for post titles, as it won't let me fit The Hams That Couldn't Be Cured up there.

As Walter Lantz is starting 1941, he's been doing cartoons for well over a decade, and is starting to know what his strengths are and play to them. The trouble had been getting a popular, merchandise-driven character once Oswald's star had faded, and Woody gave him the ticket revenue he sorely needed. More to the point, however, were his connections to the music world. All the cartoon studios did cartoons based around both classical and jazz music, but Lantz's jazz cartoons are some of the few where you can actually turn off the picture and enjoy the entire cartoon just listening to the hot band playing on the soundtrack.

Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B' benefits especially from this, as the basic plot involves a drafted trumpet player trying to avoid being killed by the company (who hate to get up in the morning, to quote another Army song) by replacing his bugle with his golden trumpet and jazzing things up. Needless to say, this works out great, and soon the whole platoon is swinging and dancing. The cartoon features an all-black cast, and there are a few gags I'd say are racist, but the overall tone is nowhere near as bad as Lantz's infamous Scrub Me Momma With A Boogie Beat the year before, and the emphasis is predominately on the music. This is just a regular Cartune for Lantz, but soon he's have the idea for a new series.

Meanwhile, Woody appeared next in Pantry Panic, possibly the most widely watched Woody cartoon out there as the copyright was mistakenly not renewed, so it fell into the public domain. Mel Blanc had signed an exclusive with Warners, so was no longer voicing Woody - instead it's a guy named Danny Webb. The difference is minimal, though, and Woody is still just as insane. Winter is coming, and all the birds are going south for the Winter, with the exception of Woody, who notes it's a lovely day. Winter does indeed come rapidly (in the space of about 5 seconds) and Woody is forced to retreat to his warm, well-stocked home. Sadly, he makes the mistake of mocking the winter winds, who invade his home and steal all his food. With starvation staring Woody in the face (literally), an evil-looking cat shows up, planning to eat our hero. Unfortunately for him, Woody is a) insane and b) hungry, so Woody is just as homicidal towards the cat. After many murder attempts, the two briefly reconcile to kill and eat a stray moose, before going after each other once more. Watch for the sound error in Woody's last line, which isn't sped up as the others are.

Lantz realized his jazz cartoons were big sellers, and so created a whole new cartoon series for them, called 'Swing Symphonies'. The first in this series was a military cartoon (not really Wartime, as this was produced before Pearl Harbor) called $21 A Day (Once A Month), and featured toys in a department store imitating the soldiers and doing their best marching while singing the title song. Lantz knew how to start off a series by now; this cartoon features cameos by both Woody (who gets the toy soldiers to bound around in a goofy walk imitating his own) and Andy Panda (as a bugle boy). There's no plot to speak of, but the music is terrific.

We're now into 1942, and what would the Woody Woodpecker series (now a whole five cartoons old) be without a bullfighting cartoon? Nowhere, that's where! Woody (still voiced by Danny Webb) is the matador, and posters on the walls show his ritual abuse of various bulls in previous matches. This one fares no better, and the cartoon suffers a bit as a result, as Woody, insane as he is, appears to be in control the entire cartoon, with no sense of menace even when the bull is charging at him. Woody by now is not QUITE pure insanity, though, and shows a genuine gift for low cunning throughout this cartoon, but ends things off with pure force, charging the bull himself and ending up with the bull carved into "extra fresh bullburgers!". Of note, the print we have now may not be the original - an article from 1944 talks about Lantz reshooting 1/3 of this cartoon to remove stereotypical footage of Mexicans at the bullfight.

The second Swing Symphony, The Hams That Couldn't Be Cured, has far more plot than the first, and indeed takes a while to get going. It doesn't help that this is another "The Big Bad Wolf tells the REAL story of how the pigs are little hellions" cartoons that Warners had already done so well with The Trial of Mr. Wolf the previous year. The wolf, about to be strung up, tells everyone that the pigs are rambunctious jazz musicians, invading his home (where he teaches classical music) and demanding lessons, then jazzing up his scales and playing so loudly that it eventually blows up the entire house. The wolf actually gets the townsfolk to believe it, surprisingly, as they chase off after the pigs. Naturally, though, the wolf is telling lies. Not quite as good as $21 A Day, but once the music gets started the timing of the violent destruction is well done.

Next time, we'll get more Woody, more jazz from the Swing Symphonies, and another failed cartoon star in Homer Pigeon.

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