Flights of Fancy (Part 6): A Heavy Payload
We’ll wrap up the 1930’s this week, with another barrage of cartoons about flight, both for fun and for profit, plus a look at a striking cartoon that did its best (albeit unsuccessfully) to keep the world out of impending war.
The Air Hostess (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Color Rhapsody, 10/22/37 – Art Davis, dir.) – Commercial aviation had been around for awhile (witness Shirley Temple’s flight aboard the “Good Ship Lollipop” in “Bright Eyes” in 1934). Yet, for animation, it was still considerably unexplored turf as of 1938, and still considered enough of a novelty to merit a cartoon. Furthermore, at least in the impression of the animators, it must have remained tinged by a sense of danger, as Columbia’s portrayal of the industry is far from complimentary, and suggests that anyone utilizing this mode of travel is taking his life into his hands. As was the custom of Mintz pictures since the inception of its leading star Scrappy, tender age presents no obstacle to aspirations of exotic employment, as all but one of the personnel of the airline are children. (Imagine entrusting a plane to someone who isn’t even of legal age to drive a car!).
The one elder statesperson of the airline is a female instructor, who, instead of being in charge of flying lessons, tutors a quartet of identical young girls (with standard Mintz studios cherubic faces, not dissimilar to the design that would be used a few seasons later for The Little Match Girl) in the finer points of satisfying the passengers as air hostesses (today, we’d call them stewardesses – but this would have been too long a title for the kiddies to spell). While the four wait for their daily lessons, Flight 6 approaches for a landing. The set-down on the runway looks smooth, and the junior pilot waves flirtatiously at the girls. But one of the front tires begins to flatten, and, with no apparent explanation, the plane sags in the middle, and falls apart at the seams. The girls break into uncontrolled giggles, while the kerflummoxed pilot pops his head out of the debris, and throws away a stray piece of metal stuck inside his coat. The girls’ instructor calls them to attention, insisting they maintain order and decorum, and concentrate upon their own duties of serving the customers’ needs. While the girl quartet musically responds with a flock of repetitions of “Yes, Ma’am”, the pilot busily surveys the damage, and sets upon the impossible task of putting his ship to right. He attempts to inflate the tires, bit one deflates as fast as he can inflate the other, and when he finally fills them both with air at the same time, they both deflate with the sound of a raspberry. He hammers away to reinstall what he thinks is the tail exhaust pipe, only to find he is hammering on the propeller shaft, which falls out of the plane’s nose. He shovels loads of stray nuts and bolts into the engine compartment. Meanwhile, an airport flight controller announces that his plane is due for takeoff in five minutes, and calls for passengers to board. One of the junior hostesses runs to check the passengers in at the door, even though the door is falling off its hinges. Hoping that his plane will hold together with “scotch tape and prayers”, the pilot hastily climbs aboard, nearly falling through a gaping hole in the floor of the center aisle. He gets no response when he attempts to rev up the engine, as he forgot to re-install the propeller shaft. He runs outside and stuffs the long pole back in – right into the stomach of one of the forward passengers. The angered passenger kicks the pole back, and out the nose again, where it becomes disengaged from the propeller.
With no concept of what is to make the prop spin, the pilot resorts to spitting on the propeller hub, and merely slapping the prop onto the plane’s nose for show, then returns to the cockpit. The passengers have been waving goodbye to the spectators outside for the last five minutes, and are beginning to grumble about what’s taking so long, and that they haven’t got all day. But among the passengers is Mae West, who has a different opinion: “Take your time, big boy.” Inside the cockpit, the control panel is shooting off sparks like a fourth of July celebration. The pilot crawls out the window to perform more repairs, and tells the hostess to stall the passengers – “Do anything”. The hostess walks out into the twisted and warped center aisle, and performs a song, much like Shirley Temple did in her air excursion. The pilot is meanwhile bracing up the sagging middle of the fuselage, with a jack that seems to know no limits in elevation. It extends so high, it splits the fuselage into nose and tail halves, as an interior shot reveals the hostess being raised in her half about twenty feet higher than the passengers she is trying to serenade in the nose of the ship. Then, the jack finally reaches its limit, bringing the passenger compartment down for another crash. By now, some of the passengers have been knocked unconscious. The others continue waving to the spectators out the window, but both passengers and spectators are drooping from weariness, as it is already evening. Though things do not seem to have visibly improved one bit, the pilot announces he is finally ready for takeoff. He guns the engine, which makes the sounds of a tired, off-key trombone, as it attempts to raise its fuselage off the ground, section by section. Somehow (inconsistently), the propeller has regained a shaft, but the prop extends out far beyond the nose of he plane, on the verge of falling out again. A short taxi down the runway, and – you guessed it – the plane falls apart again, this time with the pieces hopelessly scattered. The passengers lay in the wreckage, and one comes up with one of the tires around his neck, dripping with grease from the over-lubricated wheel rim. He takes a handful of grease, and tosses it into the face of the air hostess. She begins to cry, while the pilot, after all he has put her through, cruelly breaks into belly laughs at her. A moment later, the same handful of grease is flung (presumably by the hostess) at the pilot, scoring a direct hit, leaving him dripping and smiling a sheepish half-smile to the camera, followed by a backwards glance in consternation at the hostess, for the iris out.
Popeye The Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s 40 Thieves (Fleischer/Paramount, Popeye (2 reel Technicolor Special), 11/26/37 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Willard Bowsky/George Germanetti/Orestes Calpini, anim.), features briefly an unusual mode of transportation. As Popeye, serving in the Coast Guard, receives radio report of recent raids by bandit chief Abu Hassan (Bluto) and his 40 thieves, he, Olive, and Wimpy set out to track the bad guys down, in a superpowered ship propelled by a large rear propeller. When the ship builds up enough speed, it reveals wings and tail surfaces submerged just under the water, with added pontoon floats under the wing surfaces, and takes off into the skies as a flying boat, with Popeye stationed on the bow with a machine gun. The radio report is quite non-specific as to the precise location of the bandits, only pointing an electric finger out of its amplifier horn to point “thatta way”. So Popeye’s pursuit is entirely random in direction, bouncing from America to Europe, to the pole, Africa, etc. We hear Popeye’s muttering under the birds-eye global tracking of the journey, as the sailor says “Skip the gutter” when crossing the Atlantic. Suddenly, Popeye’s engine develops a loud metallic knock. “Maybe I should trade this in”, he comments. Paraphrasing Kay Kyser on the “Kollege of Musical Knowledge” show, Popeye observes, “Something is definitely wrong – – I’m right, it’s wrong!”, as the nose of the craft bends downward 90 degrees, and the ship crashes in the desert. The vehicle is never seen throught the remainder of the picture, as our trio trapse through the desert, and finally meet up with the thieves for a well-known epic Technicolor battle.
Zula Hula (Fleischer/Paramount, Betty Boop, 12/24/37 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Thomas Johnson/Frank Endres, anim.) – Betty and Grampy, without explanation for their excursion, fly in a private plane on an ocean hop. A lightning storm erupts, with the electric bolts taking the form of a huge fist, to repeatedly deliver upper cuts to the plane’s nose. Inside, in aviator suits, Betty asks Grampy if there’s something wrong with the altitude. Grampy states that the engine’s missing. “Then why didn’t you bring it along?”, inquires Betty. Outside the cockpit window, the bolt-hand appears again, smashing through the window glass, and yanking out of Grampy’s hands the steering column, taking it outside. Another bolt transforms into a pair of scissors, cutting off the wings. The plane falls in a steep dive – but of course inventor Grampy is prepared for just such an emergency. A simple pull of a lever, and a huge umbrella opens from the top of the plane, floating it down like a parachute. The plane lands in the shallows of an island lagoon, where the plane uses its last energy to wade out of the water, and collapse upon the beach. Grampy assures Betty that everything will be “hotsy totsy”, and they begin unpacking supplies, while Betty says she hopes they have a beauty parlor because she needs a shampoo. Grampy recruits the local wildlife to assist in building shelter – using a swordfish to cut bamboo, and a woodpecker to drill holes for nails. He supplies fresh coconut milk dispensed from the shell with the nozzle of a seltzer bottle. And he provides a gentle breeze with a contraption using a large palm leaf for a fan, tied to a pivoting pole where two seagulls play tug of war over a fish tied to the center pole. But their every move is watched by politically incorrect cannibals, whose gibberish is sprinkled with occasional catch-phrases like “Excited! Who’s excited?” Just as Betty and Grampy are drinking a toast to their new home, all of Grampy’s efforts are jeopardized by the cannibal tribe surrounding them and beginning to throw spears. Betty frets that they’ll be “killed to death”, but Grampy hides behind the tail of the plane, pulling out his mortarboard thinking cap wtith a light bulb on top, to come up with a solution. A unique twist to the stock “thinking” animation used in every Grampy cartoon occurs, as a native spear cracks off the glass from the thinking cap’s light bulb, requiring Grampy to screw in a replacement bulb. The bulb finally lights, as Grampy, as usual, declares, “Hooray! I’ve got it!” Ripping the nose and hood off his plane, Grampy starts up the engine, and places a row of four bamboo flutes in the pipes of the exhaust system. The flutes produce instant music, charming the savage natives. Grampy embellishes upon the music, using the cockpit windshield wiper to strum a set of four cocoanut shells, each strung with a wire across the shell opening as a min-guitar. A pulley from the motor runs to a rotating pole on a tree, to which drumming devices have been fastened to beat out time on the belly of a turtle. The natives happily dance in wild frenzy – giving Grampy time to build a new smaller plane out of spare parts and bamboo poles for he and Betty to make their escape – power provided by a monkey on a rope ladder looped over the propeller shaft, trying endlessly to climb the ladder in treadmill fashion to reach a bunch of bananas suspended above him.
What Price Porky? (Warner, Looney Tunes (Porky Pig), 2/26/38 – Robert Clampett, dir.). A predicament has developed for poultry farmer Porky, whose chickens can’t get their necessary feed, because a flock of nearby ducks keeps stealing their corn. Porky gently protests to the ducks. “Be a s-s-sport. If my hens get no corn, no eggs. No eggs, no chicks. No chicks no hens. No hens, no eggs. No eggs, no chicks. No chicks, no…Aw, d-d-don’t you understand?” The ducks’ commanding officer (General Quacko, Ducktator) responds to Porky with a written communique. “Fowl ones – Let’s talk turkey. You’re too cocky! We think you eggs are chicken. Why don’t you quit cackling and fight – you dumb clucks!” With these fighting words, a re-enactment of WWI takes place, barnyard style, as the chickens dig a path with their claws for entrenchment warfare. Porky dodges shot and shell in “No Hen’s Land”, while the fowl utilize the combined efforts of land, sea, and air attack. Ducks sail in from the pond, with gun barrels strapped around their necks, making them resemble battleships. From their backs, smaller ducks, piloted by even smaller ones behind miniature windshields upon their backs, take off in the manner of planes from an aircraft carrier. One duck plane approaches a small chick flying aloft in a an observation “sausage” balloon. Grabbing hold of clouds above and below the balloon, the duck compresses the clouds into the shape of hot dog buns, and consumes the balloon as a sausage sandwich. On a night maneuver, a duck plane lays down a smoke screen across the battlefield, by means of a pilot duck exhaling it from an old stogie cigar. The enemy ducks advance toward the chicken trenches under its cover – but the smoke lifts just before they can attack. The embarrassed ducks try to conceal their purpose, by breaking into a chorus-line dance as the smoke curtain lifts, and making a high-kicking exit as the smoke curtain rings down – then complete the ambush by leaping through the smoke curtain once it descends. Above, more flyers pull release levers by yanking on the tail feathers of the plane ducks, opening below the lids of egg crates strapped upon the plane ducks’ bellies. One dozen eggs drop out, from which emerge helmeted ducklings armed with mallets, their shell tops serving as parachutes. Porky retreats to a washtub with wringer attachment, and threads an ear of corn into the wringer, causing the kernels to be shot into the air like anti-aircraft fire. The cobs are also squirted through, and intercept the parachute troops, rocketing them upwards and back into the egg crates. Further firing brings the duck plane down in flames. Finally, General Quacko is driven back by one of Porky’s shots into a circle of wire fencing, where he is trapped. Porky celebrates by pouring out a supply of corn ears for his chickens directly in front of Quacko’s entrapment, and sticking out his tongue at the duck. But Quacko has one more trick up his sleeve. He rolls out under the fence wiring another half-dozen eggs, from which emerge more ducklings – who swipe the corn ears and bring them back to Quacko, as they and the general share a corn feast inside the concentration camp.
The Goose Flies High (Terrytoons/Fox, Gandy Goose, 9/9/38 – John Foster, dir.) – Gandy was barely a fledgling when this cartoon was produced, this being only his second appearance. His first outing (“Gandy the Goose”) had established him as an Ed Wynn sound-alike (although he never said “So-o-o-oooo”) with a scatterbrained personality, and easily gullible to a con. To provide such con-games, the previous film had also established a Greek-accented wolf, with a knack for fracturing the English language, providing a mimic of the styles of both George Givot (who is also known to animation fans for a faux-Italian accent as the voice of Tony in “Lady and the Tramp”) and Harry “Parkyakarkus” Einstein from the Eddie Cantor show, with possibly a leaning toward the latter, considering that Einstein’s character was often designated as a chef. The wolf makes a second appearance in this installment, now aided and abetted by another favorite celebrity impersonation of the studio – a lion, who sounds like Bert Lahr. (It is curious that Terry would begin appearances of the Lahr lion this early, as “The Wizard of Oz” would not premiere until the following year. But it was no doubt known in the trades that Lahr had been cast for the part, and perhaps Lahr’s stage act had suggested a feline casting in some manner before he acquired the official role.) The wolf would not continue as a part of the Terry repertory company for long, making only one other brief appearance in the Technicolor Gandy, “Doomsday”. Possibly, one may consider him the predecessor of another, more mildly accented Grecian wolf voiced by Tom Morrison for the 1940’s Heckle and Jeckle, “Flying South” and possibly reused in a Mighty Mouse or two, but that may be stretching his bloodline a bit. The Lahr Lion, however, would continue to appear from time to time well into the 1950’s, thus having almost as long a shelf-life as Gandy himself, though rarely if ever again paired with Gandy in any episode.
Gandy is cast as a shepherd, tending a large flock of lambs. But his mind (what little there is of it) is not truly on his work, as, under his wing, he carries a wind-up toy plane which he loves to toss and watch zoom about, and he also stares at movie posters pasted on a nearby tree of his idol, Clark Gable (renamed “Grable” for this film), in his role from the recent MGM hit, “Test Pilot”. Nearby, the wolf and lion share an old cabin in the woods, and, spying the sheep, decide to send out the wolf in traditional sheep’s clothing to mingle with the flock. An observant lamb bites down on the tail of the wolf’s sheepskin, pulling away the disguise. Revealed, the wolf begins chasing the flock for anything he can catch. The commotion alerts Gandy, who blows air through his long beak nostrils, producing the sound of a police whistle. In an often-reused stock shot of animation, motorcycle policemen appear from behind every tree, except the one the lion is waiting behind, where the wolf runs to take refuge. “He went that way”, Gandy tells the squad of confused cops, and to Gandy’s and everyone else’s surprise, the cops all head in the opposite direction. “We gotta liquidate that guy”, suggests the lion to the wolf. The lion observes Gandy tossing the plane again, and gets an idea. Stepping out into the open, the lion comments on Gandy’s toy, “Some fun, eh, kid?” “Yes,” replies Gandy. “I’d like to be an aviator like Clark Grable.” “Why don’t you learn from Grable himself?”, suggests the lion, “He runs a school.” The wolf, still behind the tree, takes his cue from the lion, and tears off from one of the posters Grable’s picture, pasting it to his own face. “Do you know him?”, Gandy asks the lion, when out steps the wolf in the flesh, shakes hands with the lion, and greets the lion as “Hello, Spacey.” “Oh, so you’re Trencer Spacey!” states Gandy (a name-switch for Gable’s co-star in the MGM picture, Spencer Tracy). The two con artists soon have Gandy heading for their cabin, believing he is about to attend his first lessons in flight school. But Gandy is still inquisitive, asking “Where’s Lerna Moy?” (Reference to Myrna Loy, third-billed in the Gable picture.) “Yeah, where is she?”, asks the lion, covering for an answer. Dismissing the subject, the wolf responds, “This is no time for reason.”
The path to the classroom is strewn with booby traps. First, the lion tosses a rock over the wolf’s head to hit Gandy, but misses. A weighted bucket over the entrance door falls too late to strike the goose. A bear trap (which the wolf describes as a test Gandy will pass in a snap) clamps closed too high to strike Gandy’s neck. Oblivious to the danger, Gandy also passes near misses of a hangman’s noose, a row of falling axes, and a suspended safe. The lion is beginning to suspect Gandy leads a charmed life, but the wolf assures him not to worry. The wolf begins sharpening every knife in the house at a squirrel-powered sharpening wheel, while Gandy still wanders about looking over the “school”. Seventeen or so knives miss their mark, and one even boomerangs to almost take the wolf’s head off. “How about my tests?”, asks Gandy. Tying a blindfold arounf Gandy’s eyes, the lion informs him that test number one is “blind flying”. Gandy is tied in a chair, spun around, then placed precariously above an attic stairway balanced on only two chair legs. He falls before the villains can get out of the way, knocking them down the stairs and breaking his fall. The lion ties the chair to a rope from the ceiling like a piñata, while the wolf and lion take pot shots at him with machine guns while he swings. The room now looks like Swiss cheese, but Gandy is still in one piece. Taking things to a level of overkill, the villains roll the still blindfolded Gandy outside on a catapult-like contraption designed to give the victim an automatic swift kick with a large boot, rolling the device up a hill to the edge of a cliff. To ensure their success, they also place in Gandy’s hands a lighted bomb. “Am I gonna take off?” asks Gandy. With extra emphasis, the lion repeats “Are YOU gonna take off.” The machine delivers the kick to Gandy’s tail, but the trajectory is off, and instead of being launched off the cliff, Gandy is thrown backwards into the lion’s arms. as they run back down the hill, with the bomb still in Gandy’s hands. The lion tosses a lateral to the wolf. The wolf returns the pass to the lion, and they play “hot potato” with Gandy, until they reach the cabin, slamming the door on Gandy and barricading themselves in. Gandy removes the blindfold, spots the bomb, but apparently doesn’t know what it is – so decides to return it to his instructors. Somehow finding a side point of entrance, Gandy enters the cabin behind the villains, places the bomb on the floor, and joins the instructors in leaning his weight against the door. The wolf feels Gandy’s presence pushing behind him, and taps the lion on the head to tip him off that there’s trouble. BOOM!! The cabin is blown apart, and its contents sky high, Among the passing furnishings is a folding tea table, with two expansion panels making perfect “wings”. Gandy lands between the wheeled framework of the table legs, while the wolf and lion land on each expander panel. “Oh, boy, I’m heading for California”, shouts Gabby, as the table soars through the sky. (This flying table gag was, with the exception of this lift by Terry, almost the exclusive property of MGM, who had first used the idea for a soaring finale to the Captain and the Kids’ “Mama’s New Hat”, and would use it again in Tom and Jerry’s “Triplet Trouble” about a decade later.) The table finally crashes, spilling its passengers about on the ground, as Gandy observes what he believes is his ultimate destination – “My goodness! Ireland!” (More about the explanation for this line in discussion of “A Feud There Was”, below.) The wolf and lion in unison react with Bert Lahr’s catchphrase if consternation, “Nyung, Nyung, Nyung!”, as the scene irises out.
Porky In Wackyland (Warner, Looney Tunes (Porky Pig), 9/24/38. Robert Clampett, dir. This well-known madcap classic about Porky’s expedition to capture the multi-zillion dollar “last of the dodos” (directly spawning the progeny of Gogo Dodo for the later “Tiny Toon Adventures” for TV), is one of several cartoons to rate honorable mention in this week’s chronology, for inclusion of brief airplane gags as establishing shots. Porky, in pilot’s outfit, makes the newspaper headlines, seen in illustration in the small plane in which he will travel on his expedition. In global view of the planet, we see the plane wend its way across the Atlantic, into dark, darker, and darkest Africa, to a small realm in the middle in dotted outline bearing only a question mark on the map. Porky’s plane skids to a halt before a sign reading, “Welcome to Wackyland. It CAN happen here. Population: 100 Nuts and a Squirrel.” Cautiously, Porky’s plane taxis into the unfamiliar realm, as if a living character proceeding on tiptoe. A ferocious lion-style roar is heard from the underbrush, and a towering white beast emerges. Both Porky and the plane cower in fear together in a huddle, and just as the beast looms over them, teeth bared and quivering with pent-up energy, it suddenly deflates and utters an effeminate “Boo”, then struts in “gay” fashion back into the jungle, to be seen no more. For that matter, neither is Porky’s plane seen again, ending out current discussion.
A Feud There Was (Warner, Merrie Melodies (Egghead/Elmer Fudd), 9/24/38 – Fred “Tex” Avery, dir.), though containing no sign of an aircraft, features a notable historic reference to aviation. Two families of feuding hillbillies are shooting it out, and one hillbilly checks out the open door of a cellar to see if any of the enemy clan are down there. To his surprise, a quavering voice responds from the shadows, identifying himself, “My name is Non-Stop Corrigan. I though I was headed for Los Angeles. It was a mistake. My compass broke. Honest!” For those not aware today, this would likely have resulted in an audience familiar with news events of the day erupting with laughter, as it was a direct lampoon upon a current “hero” who had come to prominence for just such a reputed mistake. The reference is to pilot Douglas Corrigan, who became affectionately known to the general public as “Wrong-Way” Corrigan. Research over the years has revealed that the young man had had long aspirations of making a non-stop flight from New York to Dublin, but had been denied the necessary clearances to make the flight. Undaunted, one day he took off, with flight plans indicating an intended trip to California – yet turned around in the opposite direction, and made a beeline for the emerald isle. Upon landing and being greeted by customs and police officials, he concocted the supposed story that his compass had broken, and he had believed himself to be flying over cloud cover towards California for nearly the entire flight. He denied any break in the clouds until he was nearly to his landing point. His craft indeed had made use of a secondary compass with the first non-operational, but Corrigan claimed he had been reading the needle of the device in reverse in the darkness of the flight. The whole thing seemed altogether too “pat” for a logical explanation, but Corrigan stuck to his story, and his good-natured attitude eventually charmed U.S. and Irish officials to largely look the other way. His pilot’s license was suspended – but only during the time it took to transport him on a ship back to the United States, where he otherwise received a hero’s welcome. Corrigan’s story not only matches the stranger in “A Feud There Was”, but explains why Gandy Goose thought he had switched directions from California to Ireland as well.
Corrigan’s nickname would live on in aviation history, and was still remembered by animators in the late 1950’s and ‘60’s, as Jay Ward introduced in the first story arc of Rocky and his Friends a sea captain named Captain Peter “Wrong-Way” Peachfuzz, who became a recurring sidekick to the squirrel and moose over many episodes, despite his utter lack of navigation abilities.
You’re an Education (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 11/5/38 – Frank Tashlin, dir.), also receives an honorable mention for a one-scene gag among the folders of a travel agency come to life. The brochure in question is of Avalon Bay, referring to same as “Home of the flying fishes.” The point is driven home by the moving illustration on the cover, showing the fish, not flying by means of their own exertion, but by piloting a small squadron of planes flying in formation.
Peace on Earth (MGM, 12/9/39 – Hugh Harman, dir.) – While aeronautics play only a small and fleeting part in this film, it at least provides an opportunity to comment upon a landmark achievement which otherwise defies categorization with any other films of its day.
A little background is in order to fully grasp the startling nature of this production. MGM studios, under the influences of Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, had taken on a markedly different reputation than its predecessor in releases through the studio, Ub Iwerks. Gone was the quirkiness and unique tooniness of Iwerks’ art style, as well as the ever-present tendency toward blue and off-color humor. But also in large part were gone Harman and Ising’s old traits during their stint at Warner Brothers, including old habits of too-frequent recycling of old animation, and characters that all seemed interchangeable, as well as any hint of what some studio executives later classified as “Warner Brothers’ rowdiness”. The emphasis instead was on big budgets, Disney-style production values, and “heartwarming” characters that would play squeaky-clean and be inoffensive to any general audience or to the censorship board. While the approach did in fact result in several masterpieces, most excelled in presentation more than in humor, and the studio must have seemed stifling to the creative gag writer. (Of the major directorial names in the comic vein, only Friz Freleng seems to have held up for any length of time under the studio’s approach for a few years, and even his efforts at MGM are comedically weak compared to almost anything in his Warner output.) There were in fact many times when Harman-Ising characters at MGM could become positively cloying (such as the skunk in “Poor Little Me”, the title character of “The Little Mole”, or the squirrels in “The Lost Chick”, to name a few). So, it would seem the last thing an audience seeing the MGM lion in 1939 would have expected to see was anything taking on a serious overtone or weighty social message. Yet, this is precisely what Hugh Harman strove to deliver – within the very framework of character styling and storytelling that the studio had striven to build for the last five years.
The establishing shots of the story are themselves strange and uniquely unnerving, especially for an audience having no idea what to expect. Our scene fades in on a winter’s evening, with light snow falling, giving us a view of a church tower with a large stained glass window, apparently depicting the figure of Christ. However, the image is disturbing, as there is a large hole in the glass pane, as well as a gap in the roofing above it, indicating that the face of Christ has been shot away. Yet there are no guns or explosions heard on the soundtrack – instead, we hear only a children’s chorus of traditional carolers, singing a modified lyric to “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”, with emphasis on the phrase, “Peace on Earth. Good Will To Men.” The camera view pans down, then pans from the churchyard to the surrounding countryside. All is quiet, with soft layers of snow lightly blanketing the terrain. Yet, there are telltale signs that something major has been going on in this land. Remnants of a barbed-wire fence lay just outside the courtyard. A snow covered cannon rests nearby. The stubs of what once were tree trunks lay charred and blackened in a cluster in the far background. A machine-gun nest and canteens lay unattended. Then suddenly, a view meets our eyes that is from another world – a community of small homes, with warmly lit windows decorated festively for the holiday season, all fashioned in miniature out of what appear to be old soldier’s helmets. The scene dissolves to the heart of the town, where we catch up with the carolers we have been hearing – a trio of small rodents (at least one a squirrel), dressed up in full human-style winter garb of hats, scarfs, mittens, etc., happily singing in the town square. A much larger gray squirrel, obviously an old-timer with a bit of a limping gait (voiced by Mel Blanc), passes the boys and praises their vocalizing. “That’s the spirit”, he encourages.
He proceeds ahead to a little home with a cheery holly-wreath in the front window. Inside, a mother squirrel rocks two youngsters in a cradle with her foot, as she sits knitting in an easy chair, beside an inviting-looking open hearth flame in the fireplace. The front door flings open, and the old timer sings with gusto the repeated phrase of the modified Christmas carol. “Grandpa, Grandpa!”, shout the little squirrels, and a warm greeting ensues, while mother rises to make the confortable chair available for their visitor. Gramps settles himself to sit down – but mother forgot to remove her knitting, providing one of the only laughs in the film, as Grandpa struggles to restrain his language after being painfully pricked by the needles, managing to hold in his expletives and convert them to repetitions of the phrase, “Good will to men”. Then comes the bombshell, in the form of the first clue to the mystery of the strange establishing shots. “What are men, Grandpa?”, asks one of the little squirrels. WHAT are MEN??? This is probably the last question anyone seeing this film for the first time would have expected to hear, and it still holds true for modern fans of the studio’s work just as much as it probably did to audiences of 1939. I recall seeing this film for the first time in an animation class at UCLA, at a time when the film was not a part of regularly available holiday or video fare, but with a class of students who otherwise generaly knew of the reputation of MGM cartoons – and it was as if everyone’s jaw fell open at the same time. What did he say, referring to us in the past tense? It was the same feeling as if Rod Serling’s name had appeared on the writing credits, as if we had fallen into the Twilight Zone. To confirm our suspicions, Grandpa replies that “There ain’t no men in the world no more.” Double whammy. If anyone was ready to dismiss this film as a routine fluff holiday episode, that feeling is now gone, and you have been in a few words completely drawn in to discover just what happened to the human race.
Grandpa, the only one old enough to remember firsthand, begins to spin the tale of what humans were like, and why they are no longer. He provides his best description of the “critters”, who he states looked like monsters. The reason for his description, as depicted in a visual flashback, is that he saw them under the battle conditions of a typical WWI soldier, wearing goggles that made their eyes glint, long “noses” fashioned to their chest (actually a gas mask), wearing “iron pots” on their head, and carrying tremendous “shootin’ irons with knives on the end of ‘em”, referring to their bayonets. “I never could figure ‘em out. They was the orneryest, cussedest, dag nab tribe of varmints I ever did see.” He describes how they’d fight and feud over “one dang thing or another”, finding something new to fight over the minute any prior argument was settled. “When they couldn’t think of nothin’ else to wrangle over, the flat-footed people started shootin’ at the buck-toothed people, and the vegetarians began to fight the meat-eatin’ people, and you couldn’t make heads or tails of it.” Using rotoscope and live-action reference, flashbacks vividly depict grisly war in all its “glory”. Trenches ae shelled with cannon and mortar fire, explosions bursting through thick clouds of smoke and gas. A machine gunner pivots his weapon, laying waste to a perimeter around him. Rows of tanks invade the terrain, while troops race ahead through bombed-out villages. Air power is briefly represented, as squadrons of then-modern bombing planes drop their payloads upon the countryside, while an anti-aircraft gun takes aim at one, and paralyzes it into a spinout and fiery crash. The animation is frighteningly realistic, and predominates in darkness and earth tones, frameworked against clouds and skies of glowing red. Then, the topper – a chilling moment, having all the poignancy of the final sequence of Universal’s “All Quiet On the Western Front”, as the human race is reduced to only two soldiers left. Each one draws a bead on the other from their respective place of entrenchment. The first fires, scoring a hit on his opponent. But the determined victim is not yet decommissioned, and manages to fire a shot, having the same effect upon his murderer. This is the last act the man will ever perform, as life ebbs from him, and he collapses, descending into a muddy water-filled hole, until his clutching hand (much like the punctured hand of the soldier in Universal’s epic) sinks beneath the bubbling water, never to be seen again. “And that was the end of the last man on earth”, concludes Grandpa.
By now, if you are an audience member, you have been chilled to the point of numbness – the last emotion you would have expected to receive from a cartoon. The scene fades in to the first light of a dark, brownish morning. All is utterly quiet – again, just as in the Universal classic – and one wonders for a moment of there is any more story remaining to be told. It is only a chance for us to catch our breath, for there is still a source of life remaining, as little forest animals begin to appear from under the fallen debris of war, and the burnt and battered remain of what once were forest trees. They timidly peer about to ensure that the coast is clear, and curiously survey the shattered buildings and artifacts of what had once been thriving human communities. Within the shadow of the church steeple we saw in the film’s opening, a little gray squirrel (Grandpa, in his youth) approaches the wise Owl, who is perched upon the platform of the church pulpit, investigating a gilded copy of the Holy Bible which has survived the devastation. Flipping through its pages with one foot, he pauses on a page reading “Thou shalt not kill”, and recites it aloud to the squirrel, who has not yet learned to read. “Looks like a mighty good book of rules”, says the Owl, “but I guess them men didn’t pay much attention to it.” Flipping further through the book, the owl finds another quote of wisdom. “Ye shall rebuild the old wastes.” The animals around the pulpit nod at this concept, and one of them remarks, “That’s it! We’ll rebuild!” In traditional MGM style, the animals begin to gather the materials around them, mostly the soldiers’ fallen helmets, and labor industriously to construct a community of homes their size, which they name “Peaceville”. (This scene is so traditionally approached that its musical underscore found reuse a few years later, to accompany the labors of another industrious animal community in “The Bear and the Beavers”.) The scene dissolves from the sunny setting in which the construction occurs, to the Peaceville of today, and the very night where we came in. By now, the happy ending of Grandpa’s tale has finally lulled the squirrel twins to sleep, so Grandpa rises softly from the chair, and takes his leave at the front door, wishing all “Peace on Earth”, as the strains of “Silent Night” are heard musically from outside. Mama tucks the twins into their cradle, singing the last line of the carol, “Sleep in heavenly peace.” The film has no traditional “The End” card, but instead closes with the title, “Peace on Earth” repeated in Gothic lettering over a background of a golden sunrise, for the fade out.
Needless to say, the class members with whom I witnessed this film for the first time were blown away, as was I, by this modern parable – and by the fact that it would even have been attempted by the studio probably least likely to have been expected to produce it. But it is perhaps because MGM seemed such an unlikely atmosphere for social comment or disturbing images that this film maintains its striking impact – like hitting you right between the eyes. It is a major example of the dramatic power the medium can produce, on those rare and miraculous occasions when the right project falls into caring and capable hands.
In any other year, this film would have seemed a certainty to achieve an Academy Award. As it was, it was beat out by Disney’s charming mini-feature, The Ugly Duckling, but did garner a certificate of nomination, in a narrow field of only four films nominated that season. Unfortunately, its only failure was that, as far as the impending WWII was concerned, Mr. Owl put it right: “Them men didn’t pay much attention to it.”
Moving into the 1940’s next week.