Marvin Acme, toon prop-vendor extraordinaire, has become synonymous to a modern generation of animation fans since Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for stockpiling all the standard gadgets, weaponry, and miscellaneous gizmos that provided the industry for generations with tried-and-true laugh-getters to fit any situation. In the first article of this series, we explored one of Marvin’s best-selling models – the horseshoe magnet. Today, we explore animation’s use of another Acme favorite – featured in the Baby Herman cartoon that opens the film, “Somethin’s Cookin’” – the Acme Suck-o-Lux super-duper vacuum cleaner.
No particular recollections of use of this handy home gadget have come to mind from silent cartoons or from filmography listings of the period. Surprising, in that the contraption was invented in 1901. The earliest talkie I am aware of to use it as a central plot point was Ub Iwerks’ Flip the Frog episode Fire-Fire (MGM, 2/7/32).In that film, Flip plays heroic fireman to the rescue, battling with the usual assortment of hoses that run dry (in one scene, he erroneously grabs the trunk of a lady elephant in place of the hose, and gets a water dousing for his troubles), ladders too short, and interfering victims who just want to be saved, while Flip has his eyes only on the sweet young cat on the top floor – so he unceremoniously dumps each lower-floor victim out the window on his way up – each to be near-missed by the team with the safety net below. Inside the apartment house, Flip battles with the smoke, which takes on humanized form. Pulling out a pistol, Flip shoots it in the belly, and it keels over and fades away. Inside a room, Flip finds four flames doing an Indian war dance around the unconscious Kitty. Flip grabs a stick and slashes at the flames – but only succeeds in dividing each flame into two with each swing – he reacts by resignedly shrugging his shoulders to the audience, as if to say, “What you gonna do.” He finally hits upon his masterstroke – grabbing up a vacuum cleaner, he proceeds to suck the flames in one-by-one. The last flame struggles against the pull, but is held in place long enough for Flip to simply extinguish him by spitting. (Amazing that none of these flames burns through the vacuum bag!) He revives Kitty (using a rolling pin to squeeze smoke rings out of her mouth), then, as we hear offscreen crackles of the flames apparently regrouping, turns the vacuum sideways and pushes it toward the window. It miraculously develops the power of flight.
Flip and Kitty soar away atop the device, giving each other a big smacking kiss – but this is a pre-code Flip, so its not just going to end there. The vacuum nozzle turns around, and sucks Kitty into the bag. A second later, the nozzle develops the features of a human mouth – and coughs out Kitty’s panties. Well, no red-blooded fireman could resist a chance like this! Flip jumps into the nozzle – but signs of a fight develop inside the bag, leading to Flip being kicked out of the bag, landing in a battered heap atop the vacuum pole, while Kitty’s head and hand emerge from the nozzle, her finger raised in a scolding “Uh Uh” gesture, as we iris out.
Next up, Christmas Comes But Once a Year (Fleischer, Paramount, Color Classic (Grampy), 12/4/36, Dave Fleischer, dir., Seymour Kneitel/William Henning, anim.) – In eccentric inventor Grampy’s only appearance in Technicolor, he creates a dazzling variety of Christmas toys for an orphanage – out of household items and miscellaneous junk. He creates a motorized vehicle for one kid by fastening a vacuum cleaner to the front of a high-chair on wheels! You’ve all seen it – but just in case, here’s the link.
Pink Elephants (Terrytoons/Educational, Farmer Alfalfa, 7/9/37 – Dan Gordon, dir.) – This often commented-on episode (see “Thunderbean Thursday” article on same, this website), produced by future superstars Dan Gordon and Joe Barbera in their spare time, has recently been fully restored at UCLA with original Educational titles and censored scenes. The currently available TV print has about a half-minute missing thanks to an edit. But CBS’s editors didn’t seem to have a standard book of rules as to when and when not to cut, as is explained below.
The missing sequence actually explains the whole setup of the film – a hungry goat on Alfalfa’s farm, who’ll eat anything (tin cans, car fenders, etc.) gets into a barrel of “Bock” beer bottles. After devouring same, he develops a recurrent case of hiccups – and with every hiccup, a pink elephant appears from nowhere and engages in menacing mischief. Oddly, these elephants aren’t just visible to prey upon the drinker – Farmer Alfalfa can see them too! (What the CBS boys didn’t notice is that portions of this film were reused and retraced from the original pencil drawings for a Technicolor partial remake titled Mrs. Jones’ Rest Farm (Fox, 10/12/49), where CBS left in the Bock beer scenes, identical to the black-and-white version – so check out the remake below for the missing chapter of the story!)
The central plot point for our purposes of both versions is that Alfalfa (or in the remake, Terry’s lion-voiced-like-Bert Lahr) finds a secret weapon to eliminate these behemoth pests – a household vacuum cleaner. One suck, and the critters dissipate into puffs of smoke and into the bag. The trick works for a while, but one elephant dodges out of a doorway and around a corner. Our hero gives chase, but the vacuum cord runs out before he can round the corner, yanking the nozzle out of his reach. Grabbing blindly behind himself for the nozzle, our hero grabs instead the trunk of the same elephant who has looped around and come up behind him. He drags the elephant with him, but can’t locate what he’s supposed to be chasing – then runs across the real nozzle. Holding two “nozzles” at the same time causes hero to make a double-take, then a shock take when he realizes the elephant is with him. Hero gives chase again, but stumbles atop an easy chair, the vacuum nozzle landing on a painting of a bearded gentleman on the wall – then pulling his beard off. The last elephant disappears under hero’s bed. Here the versions diverge.
In Alfalfa’s, the farmer also darts under the bed. The elephant comes up over the bed from the other side and back under again, farmer still in pursuit. The action is repeated until the vacuum hose wraps itself around the bed a couple of times and again runs out of cord. Through the farmer’s progress is stopped, he still manages to take careful aim – and swallows up the last elephant into the bag. Finally ready to settle down for the night, the farmer finds an intruder still under the bedcovers – the goat, who gives another hiccup, and produces another elephant in bed with them. The elephant is happy just to stay there, and seizes up his two companion like they were his teddy bears. Farmer Alfalfa can do nothing but face the camera for the iris out, singing a farewell to the audience, “Good eve-ning, Frien-n-n-n-ds!!” In “Rest Farm”, the lion is running too fast, fails to dive under the bed, and instead flies over it, and through a window outside. Finding his car, the lion makes a hasty exit from this restful retreat, and speeds down the highway, thanking his luck that he is finally rid of the elephants. A honk of a passing vehicle attracts his attention. A large tour bus begins to pass – the driver: the goat, and all the passengers: the elephants, waving to the lion from out the windows. The lion shock-takes again, slams on the brakes to let the bus pass, and darts left down a side road and off to the horizon, with an endless trail of elephants giving chase into the distance.
Cleaning Day (aka Kiko’s Cleaning Day) (Terrytoons, Educational, Kiko the Kangaroo, 9/17/37 – George Gordon, dir. (This may be in question, as IMDB lists George, not Dan, as also being director on “Pink Elephants”, though restored credits have proven it was Dan all along) – Paul Terry, at the insistence of Educational Pictures executives, was demanded to do something which always ran against the grain of Terry’s baser instincts, and his pocketbook – improve the quality of his cartoons. The result was the addition of three new characters to the Farmer Alfalfa universe – Kiko the kangaroo, Puddy the pup, and later, as Kiko’s pet in a mail order delivery egg from Australia, Ozzie the ostrich (seen first in Ozzie Ostrich Comes to Town (1937)). All three (with the exception of a few vocal appearances by Puddy) were basically pantomime characters without dialogue – Ozzie was less mute than the others, but his sounds consisted only of quack-like vocal squawks.
Within a few short months of the release of “Pink Elephants”, Terry returns to the theme of the vacuum – this time with wilder gags. Kiko’s pet Ozzie is making the usual pest of himself, chasing goldfish, dancing on pianos, and puncturing feather pillows, among other entertainments, disrupting Kiko’s cleaning efforts.
When pillow feathers fly all over the living room, Kiko locks Ozzie in a closet, but before locking the door retrieves from within his trusty vacuum cleaner. This time the Terry staff don’t worry about cord-lengths running out – this one, a miracle of engineering, like Flip’s, is completely cordless.) It sucks up the feathers – but swallows Kiko’s throw-rug too. As Kiko looks inside the nozzle for it, his face is sucked into the nozzle hole. When he pulls it back out, a stack of books and a vase get pulled up behind him, to whack him in the back of the head one by one and back into the nozzle. Then the vacuum suddeny shifts into reverse, spitting out Kiko, the feathers, and the throw rug on top of him. The machine momentarily stops. Kiko (not knowing when to leave well enough alone), walks over to and flips the switch back to suction. The machine takes off self-propelled, first taking Kiko for a ride, then climbing up the walls and ceiling, taking wallpaper and plastering with it wherever it goes. A ceiling lamp is circled, dislodged, and falls. Down comes the vacuum along the opposite wall, then chases Kiko around a table. It travels over a sofa, exposing all the springs. It finds the locked closet door, and starts climbing the wall again all around the door jambs, sucking Ozzie on the opposite side to do a dance and somersaults inside the closet. Ozzie is finally drawn out the upper transom of the doorway. The vacuum pursues him, almost plucking off his tail feathers. Kiko and Ozzie (in a sequence missing from the currently available TV print, but present in a not-too-badly done redrawn color version produced about 1960 from an uncensored but splicy Castle Films edition (where it bore a third known title – Cleaned Out)) run into the kitchen, clamoring over the at first inactive stove. The vacuum climbs the stove too, coming briefly to rest atop it. Its suction pulls to on position all of the gas jets, and it inhales a full load of hot air therefrom.
Swelling like a balloon, it floats into the air, its nozzle still in action. As it drifts over the rooms, contents thereof are sucked inside – kitchen utensils, living room rug (revealing Kiko cowering underneath), piano keyboard, all water from the goldfish bowl, and easy chair slipcover (again revealing Kiko instead of a chair hiding underneath). Finally, Kiko is caught under a revolving “lazy Susan” style table. As his tail enters the floating nozzle, Kiko desperately holds on to the table, starting to spin in circles. When he finally lets go, both he and the vacuum continue in wild spins against the ceiling of the living room. In a surreal gag, a mounted wall trophy of an unknown two-horned antelope variant comes to life, notes the vacuum bag spiraling repeatedly past it, gets fed up, and points both horns straight at it for the next pass. BOOM! The vacuum is destroyed, and Kiko comes crashing to earth, with his living room rug and a large puddle of the goldfish water. Some kitchen stuff, including a flour can, also falls. The can starts moving and wildly clucking, then pops open. We find Ozzie’s been hiding in the can for the last fifth of the cartoon – but in popping the can open, turns the puddle of water into a sticky paste, from which Kiko and Ozzie hopeless strain to extricate themselves as the scene irises out.
Porky’s Poppa (Warner, Looney Tunes, Porky Pig, 1/15/38 – Robert Clampett, dir.) – The tale of a “Creamlined” mechanical cow, ordered by Poppa Pig mail order to save the farm from ruination, when resident live cow Bessie gets “hoof ‘n mouth trouble” (she literally sits around all day with one hoof stuck in her mouth). This contraption can do everything – it not only gives milk, but ice cream sodas, cheese (cottage (shaped like a small house), Limburger (with clothespins on their “noses” so they can sand their own smell), and Swiss cheese (shot full of holes by a machine-gun wielding cuckoo bird)), milk of magnesia, and even vanishing cream.
Porky tries to keep Bessie in competition, solving Bessie’s food problem by prying back her feet, placing a stack of hay on her hooves, then letting her stuff the hay down her throat when her hooves spring back into her mouth. Devising competitive plans like having Bessie make ice cream by tying a huge ice block on top of her head, Porky apparently makes the robot recognize the challenge. The robot picks up a container of vanishing cream with its tail, pouring some on Bessie’s hay.
The milk bottles Bessie is producing begin to disappear before Porky can even lay hands on them. Then the haystack disappears entirely. Bessie comes out of her stall to seek more, but the mechanical cow develops a ravenous competing appetite, and beats Bessie to every stack. Outside, the race for hay continues, as the robot converts into a new mode – a giant vacuum cleaner. Its suction on, the robot spirals around Bessie, wiping away a half-dozen or so haystacks, then dives into and drains another storage barn full – reducing the structure’s size to that of a mere outhouse. Only one stack remains – but it’s not hay, as a sign on the stack reads “Milk Weed”. Porky tells Bessie, “Th-th-that’s the last straw!” Both she and the robot race from opposite directions at full speed toward the common objective. They collide at the stack with tremendous impact. Something emerges out of the debris, zips back into the stable stall, and a massive pile of milk cans suddenly lifts the building about a story off its foundations. Inside, atop the cans, Poppa congratulates “The Winner” – which appears at first to be the robot cow – but its head falls away, and inside is Bessie, who has punctured and destroyed it, saying “Oh yeahhhhhh!!”
The Mouse Exterminator (Columbia, Krazy Kat, 1/26/40) – In the studio’s last Krazy Kat installment, unimaginative use is made of a vacuum cleaner to suck a mouse out of the wall – but the dust bag has a zipper, so the mouse merely slips out and turns the machine on Krazy for the same result.
Fraidy Cat (MGM, Tom and Jerry, 1/17/42 – William Hanna/Joe Barbera, dir.) – Tom’s been up late listening to radio spook show “The Witching Hour”. Chills have been running down his spine (leaving his tail in an ice block). The show closes with the hostess asking, “And you do believe in ghosts, don’t you?” Tom vigorously nods in agreement. Watching all this from the other side of the room is Jerry, doubling up in laughter at Tom’s silly fear. Getting an idea, and engaging in various gags to spook Tom, Jerry eventually finds an accomplice in the form of a large vacuum cleaner in a closet, on which Mammy Two Shoes has carelessly left hooked on the pole one of her large white nightgowns. As Tom looks for Jerry outside the closet doorway, Jerry runs behind the nightgown and flicks the power switch. The motor eerily drones to life, and the nightgown inflates into a ghostlike shape with menacing arms extended. Tom hears it behind him, his face registering impending terror. He slowly turns to look – then, in a great series of facial contortions, breaks the fourth wall, attempting in desperation to signal the audience in pantomime as if to say “Look what’s behind me” – and faints dead away. Jerry might now have his escape – but no, this is too easy. He instead jumps up on a kitchen table and positions a seltzer bottle to splash Tom in the face to revive him – hitting Tom with enough water than Tom has to tip his head sideways to let water pour out of his ear. Jerry resumes his position at the vacuum switch. Turned on again, the vacuum begins to exert its full power – first pulling in a throw rug from under Tom, then nearly swallowing the cat’s tail. Tom runs for his life, but is slowed by the force of the backward pull, which also draws backward a stream of objects around him. Tom reaches a table with a telephone on it, and manages to grab the receiver.
He is drawn backward, clinging to the receiver by its extended cord. A voice is heard on the phone: “Hello…Hello…This is the operator. Will you please get off the line?” Tom reluctantly obliges, and flies backward. Grabbing the only other thing available, Tom clings to a staircase railing. The vacuum won’t give up – and starts sucking from him, one- by-one, transparent versions of himself numbered 1 through 9, each of whom desperately cling to each other’s tails as a continuous chain. While the first few are already sucked into the vacuum chamber, number 9 won’t let go of Tom – and realizes the only way to get Tom going is to give him a little boost. Life 9 takes a big bite on Tom’s tail, sending him screaming and running, with 9 still clinging to him. The rest of the lives are dragged along, with those that were swallowed reemerging from the vacuum (Life 1 enjoying it most, riding as if on the end of a skater’s “crack the whip” formation). Tom rounds a corner out of the vacuum’s reach, and finally stops, each “life” colliding with him and reentering his body (Life 1, however, pauses before entering, clasping his hands above his head and raising and lowering them to the audience as if a college victory cheer). Tom still hears the moaning motor, and realizes he has doubled back to another corridor leading back to the closet. He now has a rear-view, where he can see Jerry manning the switch behind the nightgown. Knowingly, he saunters over to the vacuum from behind. Jerry is having a ball, and, not even realizing who has joined him, pantomimes to the new arrival to join in his joke and laugh at how silly that cat is. Realization finally dawns, and Jerry swallows with a hard “Ulp!” He meekly tiptoes back to Tom, giving him a half-hearted sheepish grin.
Realizing he’s not impressing, Jerry zips under the hem of the nightgown, attempting to form the shape of a mini-ghost and yelling, “Boooo-ooo–oooo!” But it’s no dice. The chase is on as usual. Eventually, Tom gets it by accidently attacking the real Mammy Two Shoes, who he mistakes for another fake “ghost”. Meanwhile, Jerry, who hid in a pantry flour can, gets surprised by a magnified reflection of himself all in white, and runs in terror into his mousehole – getting a dose of his own medicine.
A Cartoon Travesty Of The Raven (Fleischer/Paramount, 4/3/42- Dave Fleischer, dir., Story: Carl Meyer/Pinto Colvig (voice of Goofy, and performs as both Wolf and Scotty in this picture)). The last of Fleischer’s two-reel specials (although the reels are short on this one, so it’s really only a one-and-one-half reeler) centers almost entirely on the vacuum. The raven, who apparently has led a previous life of crime breaking and entering, has gone straight – taking up a new line as door-to-door vacuum salesman. He rap-taps at 3:00 A.M. on the chamber door of what turns out to be the hideout of an old associate in crime, a wolf. The wolf asks him what’s his racket trying to get in at this hour. In Poe-metered rhyme, the raven explains he’s turned honest, will engage in crime “Nevermore!”, and that he needs to sell one more vacuum to meet his quota. The wolf isn’t about to buy, but gets an idea, informing the raven he knows of an opportunity at the McTavish Mansion where they can “clean up”, adding that “The joint ain’t been cleaned out in years.” Smelling a sale, the raven joins him.
As dawn breaks, they approach the mansion – an imposing castle-like structure. Two doorbell buttons are at the door – one marked “Peddlers”, the other “Guests”. The wolf is about to press the “Guests” button, but the raven stops him: “That would be unethical.” Instead, he presses “Peddlers”. The welcome mat they are standing on suddenly springs them backward to land on the ground, and flips over to reveal the sewn-in letters “SCRAM!” The wolf decides to do things his way, and presses the “Guests” button instead. The result is even worse, as two cannon barrels appear from hatches under coats of arms in the wall columns and fire at will at the retreating duo. The wolf finally announces a way to get that Scotsman out for sure. Producing a dime, he merely lets it drop and “clink” against the pavement. From within the mansion we hear the distant but rapid sounds of running footsteps approaching, as the door flies open to reveal an excited McTavish looking everywhere for the coin. He is a tartan-wearing, kilted Scotty dog.
The two “salesmen” take hold of the scotty and usher him inside. Producing raven’s vacuum, they engage together in a rhyming sales pitch, but let slip the price of $7.50. “Hoot mon!” cries the scotty, who insists its not thrifty to pay $7.50, and that his old bagpipes will do. He pulls out a set of pipes and drones up a tune, blowing a small whirlwind of dust out of the carpeting ahead of him with one of the pipes. The wolf stops him, pointing out that while his bagpipes merely blow the dust away, the vacuum saves it in its bag. “Saves???” says the scotty – the very mention of the word bring dollar signs into his eyeballs. He’s now willing to let the demonstration commence, and Wolf takes the cord inside a curtained corridor to plug it in. However, the wolf has other objectives. Finding a socket right away, he instead lingers to climb a staircase where a large standing safe can be seen.
The Raven begins the demonstration, but scotty is at first unimpressed. Raven adds a musical angle to match the Scot’s bagpipes – pumping the vacuum bag to also produce a whirring highland tune. Meanwhile, wolf has sledge-hammered the door ajar of the safe upstairs – only to find a smaller nested locked safe inside. Scotty decides to take a whirl at playing the vacuum – but it slips away from him, propelled to a position above a floor grating. Seen from below, the grating turns out to be concealing the dog’s hidden stash of vintage Scotch, and all the corks from the bottles are pulled loose by the vacuum suction. The vacuum imbibes a hearty dose of the potent beverage, and goes through a wild series of contortions registering its effects. Punctuated with hiccups, the vacuum stars again, ripping a small troth of material out of the living room carpet as it moves along. Out of its handle, the material begins to reappear – somehow reknit into a tartan tie. Seeing a possible chance to save the situation, the raven adapts his sales pitch as if this was all part of the demonstration, and hails the virtues of the tie it has produced. The scotty is at first impressed, admitting it’s a “pretty thing – But will it wear?” The raven replies, “Like a rug!” – then covers his mouth as if realizing “what am I saying?” Imbibing more Scotch, the vacuum shifts gears, and somehow starts cross-stitching all the slices it made in the rug – but also sews the Scotchman into the material of the carpet. As raven produces scissors to extricate the scotty from the floor, he yanks the sewn carpet away from his back – and rips off the back of the scotty’s kilts in the process! (No, censors, this Scotsman wears underwear under his kilts.)
Upstairs, the wolf has removed a total of eight nested safes from the original one – and the smallest one still won’t give. Applying three sticks of TNT, he blasts, Meanwhile, the raven is being dragged around by the handle of the runaway vacuum, in the process knocking to the floor and switching on a transistor radio, playing the “Blisterine Crime Crushers Program”. The vacuum swallows the radio, just as the blast of the dynamite sends the wolf and the family fortune falling through the ceiling into the living room. Wolf is momentarily blinded by the smallest safe being stuck with its door off atop the wolf’s head. The vacuum approaches in reverse, handle first, and sticks its handle into the small of the wolf’s back. The actor on the radio shouts for him to put up his hands. Thinking the cops have caught him, the wolf stands with hands up and remains motionless. The vacuum turns, nozzle forward, and sucks up all the money from the safe. When the wolf realizes what’s happening, he gives brief chase, but is whacked to the ground by several blows of the vacuum handle. Then the vacuum sucks off the wolf’s outer clothing – revealing an outfit of prison stripes underneath. Wolf makes a run for it out the front door and down one fork of the main road – but chose the wrong turn, as he races back the other way and down the opposite bend, pursued by a continuing string of motorcycle policemen. Back in the castle, scotty declares, “I’ll buy it! It saved my money!” Raven happily counts his cash, and makes his quota, honestly after all.
We’ll suck-up some more juicy episodes for consideration next week, which films deserve to do more than gather dust.