Sunday, September 5, 2010

Walter Lantz Cartoons Part 8: The Screwball, The Dizzy Acrobat, Ration Bored, Pass the Biscuits Mirandy!, Boogie Woogie Man

Welcome to 1943 at Walter Lantz studios, and we open up with some classic Woody Woodpecker. The Screwball features Woody at a baseball game, and was one of the more commonly aired 'early Woody' cartoons when I was a kid. This is your typical 1940s ballgame, which is to say that the field has a mere wooden fence protecting it from the unpaying masses. With lots of convenient knotholes, and one very sadistic cop. I have to say seeing the cop use his truncheon to poke the eyes of all the people watching through the holes made me wince. Sadly, his wooden billy club is no match for our hero, who shortly makes his way into the game. Not that Woody's home free. The cop is still chasing him, he's dealing with guys with big hats (and big hair) blocking his view, and he can't even enjoy a nice cold sody pop. Clearly he has no choice but to go out on the field and play. His screwball is perfect, but he has trouble hitting the opposing pitcher's slow ball. All in all, a classic 'baseball gags' cartoon, with Woody generally acting like his usual jerkass self.

The same cast of Woody and cop appear in the award-winning The Dizzy Acrobat, which features Woody walking around the circus. After abusing a few animals, he tries to walk into a tent, but is stopped by the guard - the implication is you need money, but it reads more like he just doesn't like Woody. Which, given Woody's personality in these cartoons, makes total sense. Once Woody gets into the tent, though, it's pure cop abuse, with him flying into lion cages, hurtling along trapeze wires, and finally riding a tiny bike that throws him into the middle of a shooting gallery. Woody attempts to heckle him from there, but apparently looks too much like a target - the two of them both end up dodging bullets!

Woody pretty much reaches new heights of being obnoxious in the next cartoon, the vaguely wartime-themed Ration Bored. Woody is driving along in his gas-guzzling car, ignoring signs asking whether his trip is really necessary. "Of course it is - I'M a necessary evil!", he points out. Unfortunately, his car runs out of gas, and the gas station attendant doesn't buy his use of a child's ABC book as a replacement for actual A, B, and C ration cards. (Unlike The Screwball, this cartoon hasn't aired all that often on TV, most likely due to the war references, Woody sucking on gasoline, and the ending.) Woody gets thrown into a car junkyard, and tries seeing if any of the wrecks have any gas in them, and siphoning them by sucking out the gas through a tube. He hits the jackpot with one nice-looking car. That's because it's a cop car, though this officer seems more gruff and less dumb than the cops we've seen in the previous 2 cartoons. Woody slips right into full heckle mode, and chaos ensues. In the end, Woody rides the cop as if he were a car into a high-test gas tank, blowing them both up. Surprisingly, they both end up in heaven (I say surprisingly as Woody was just HORRIBLE in this cartoon) and continue their chase up there. This was Kent Rogers' last cartoon as the voice of Woody - he went into the Army, and was later killed in the war.

Walter Lantz, meanwhile, had scored a big coup by getting James "Shamus" Culhane to come on board as cartoon director. Culhane's pacing, gag timing, and animation all helped improve the cartoons literally from his debut, which is the Swing Symphony Pass the Biscuits, Mirandy!. The first 2/3 of this cartoon is your typical 'Hatfields vs. McCoys' hillbilly schtick, with the gags and the song revolving around Mirandy's completely inedible biscuits (using glue in the recipe might be one reason why), and how they make excellent ammunition when fighting against their neighbors. The pacing here is already a step up from previous Swing Symphonies. The fighting ends with a messenger notes that war has been declared. The two feuding families join up, and use the rock-like biscuits to take out the Axis, including caricatures of Hitler, Stalin and Tojo. Needless to say, that ending is why the cartoon was hard to find on TV.

Finally we have Boogie Woogie Man (Will Get You If You Don't Watch Out), a completely surreal salute to Harlem-style dancing, featuring an all-ghost cast. The ghosts are holding a convention in an abandoned town, lamenting the fact that the old scares just aren't working anymore, and they need to find some new blood to get everyone back into the haunting business. They've invited along 3 black ghosts who proceed to simply walk in and start singing the title song, the implication being that what the square white ghosts need is more jazz and swing. The rest of the cartoon is a combination of hot dancing and creepy ghost horror animation, usually at the same time. It's riveting, and incredibly well-animated. In the end, of course, the clock warns dawn is coming and the ghosts all disappear.

The arrival of Shamus Culhane has certainly spiced up the Swing Symphonies, but he hasn't gotten to Woody yet. And whatever happened to Andy Panda anyway? (The answer to that is he's been appearing all along, just not in cartoons on DVD). Tune in next time for some 1944 classics - including Rossini!

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