Return with us to those exciting days of yesteryear. (Wait a minute…Wrong show!) Again we ascend the peaks of Hollywood’s golden era for more frozen frolics with the champion winter athletes of Toontown, as even more of the classic pen-and-ink franchises explore for the first time (while a few revisit) the perilous pastime of skiing.
Continuing from where we left off, Fifth Column Mouse (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 3/6/43 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.), includes a throwaway skiing gag in the introductory “mice will play while the cat’s away” sequence, set to the tune of “Ain’t We Got Fun”. A mouse wearing toothpicks for skis slides down the seemingly snow-covered slats of a Venetian blind, into the box that reveals the source of the snowy covering – soap chips.
Plenty Below Zero (Columbia/Screen Gems, Fox and Crow, 4/23/43 – Bob Wickersham, dir,) – Often cut from current prints, this film opens with a “FOREWARD. The notion that all birds must fly South for the winter is erroneous. A bird remaining in the North can satisfy the most ravenous appetite by dining on a few acorns and a dried leaf.” Just don’t tell this to Crow, or he’ll swear the writers are dopey! Arriving in apparent solution to the food problem comes Fox, fancy-skiing through the mountains and yodeling in carefree fashion, with a knapsack of choice goodies strapped to his back. The scene is set for a classic battle of wits over the portable banquet. Crow hitchhikes on the back of Fox’s skis and relieves Fox of his backpack. Disappearing into his tree (complete with built-in elevator shaft), Crow spreads out the feast on his dinner table (adding to his coffee a rationed lump of sugar he keeps hoarded in a locked safe). From below, Fox scales the tree in his skis, using his ski points to climb by inserting them into window holes in Crow’s elevator shaft. Crow counters by riding the elevator down, the cab catching the points of Fox’s skis and vibrating him so that he “pecks” a large wedge out of the tree trunk. Fox falls to the snow below, but the damaged tree partially collapses, tipping the knapsack and the contents of Crow’s dinner table out his window-hole and neatly back onto the Fox’s back – with the exception of a cake, which slides onto Crow’s head. Fox continues on his ski jaunt, but Crow catches up to him by tunneling under the snow (the snowy limp extending an identifying sign to the audience reading, “It’s me again!”) Once more Crow rides the back of Fox’s skis – but Fox sees his shadow against snowdrifts to the side of the trail. In a clever bit of skullduggery, Fox deliberately skis over a small tree stump – just Crow’s size. POW! Crow gets his beak firmly planted through the tree stump. Fox laughs hilariously in taunting fashion – but forgets to watch where he’s going, and skis over a cliff, winding up suspended by his skis upside down from a small branch out of the cliff side. Now Crow gets to chuckle, though his beak is still stuck in the tree stump.
The next blackout finds Crow with a bandaged beak as Fox passes by again. Standing in the middle of the tracks left by Fox’s skis, Crow packs a snowball, and rolls it after Fox as if on a bowling lane. It of course grows to huge proportions and bowls Fox over with the sound effect of bowling pins. To complete the metaphor, Crow produces a score sheet and chalks up a strike before pursuing Fox. Climbing up the snowdrift left by the snowball, Crow finds what appears to be one of Fox’s feet, still in ski, sticking out upside down from the snow. The other “foot” is about six feet away! Crow tries to right things by scooping up a large chunk of snow under one “foot” and placing it next to the other one (after correcting for at first placing one foot in reverse direction to the other). But suddenly a specter rises from the snow – the icy silhouette of Fox, with its arms looming out to menace Crow. Crow turns green and faints on the spot. Shaking off the snow, Fox is revealed, retrieving his loose ski-boots from where Crow thought his legs were, and happily continuing on his way.
Finally, Fox stops on a mountain ledge to enjoy his well-earned meal. Crow scales the summit, popping up in the snow behind Fox. In super-speed action, crow inserts about a hundred matchsticks into the sides of Fox’s skis, then, striking a match, announces to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to witness the hottest hotfoot since Nero put the heat on Rome!” Fox flies into the air, then downward like a crashing plane past the cliff – but is again saved by an overhanging branch. Crow begins making a sandwich, while Fox climbs back up and pokes his head through the snow under Crow’s sandwich. Oblivious to Fox’s return, Crow liberally applies mustard to Fox’s face, encases him in two slices of bread, and bites – but can’t chew through. As Crow tries to sharpen his beak on a nearby tree trunk, Fox substitutes a roman candle for the contents of the sandwich. Now Crow shoots into the air jet-propelled. But on his way down, he severs a portion of the cliff side on which the entire picnic rests. Despite their best efforts to catch the goodies, all the food falls into a ravine hundreds of feet below, as the duo watch helplessly from above. In the final scene, the two share a meal together – of a dried leaf and a few acorns, leaving both of them with a case of hiccups and a recipe for instant indigestion.
Ski For Two (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 11/13/44 – James Culhane, dir.) – What would get Home-Sweet-Homeloving Woody Woodpecker out of his comfy abode into the snow? A travel brochure for the “Swiss Chard Lodge”, promising “Excellent Food”. The train he travels on is abruptly snowed in, leaving him staring at a sign indicating remaining distance to the lodge: “40 miles as the crow flies – But who wants to ride with an old crow?”. Woody takes a skiing “short cut, musically set to a masterful singing rendition of “The Sleigh (a la Russe)” by Richard Kountz, vocally performed in speeded-up recording by Lee Sweetland. Photography is innovative, with Woody bank-turning into the camera in forward perspective, diving up and down hillsides in rapid succession, losing his skis to ice skate across a frozen pond, only the meet up with his skis again on the opposite bank, diving through multiple snowbanks, and climaxing with an attempt at three-dimensional first person perspective as he nears the lodge between snowdrifts – without the benefit of the luxury of a multiplane camera. The sequence is brief, but exceptionally memorable – and repeated at faster tempo for a finale as Woody makes away with what he thinks is a bundle of food – only to find it’s proprietor Wally Walrus inside, to administer a stranglehold on him while mimicking Woody’s laugh.
As an interesting curiosity, a version of the “Sleigh” number appears below, in which speed has been reduced to attempt an approximation of the actual singing pitch of Lee Sweetland. It’s particularly fun to hear him musically mimic the Woody laugh in convincing fashion.
Dear Old Switzerland (Terrytoons/Fox, 12/22/44, Eddie Donnelly, dir.) again proves that Paul Terry was both prone to saving a buck and a pack-rat for archiving old scenes. In essence, this is largely a Technicolor retracing of “Swiss Ski Yodelers”, only four years distanced from the original. While detouring with some other atmospheric scenes no doubt borrowed or remodeled from other previous cartoons (including the oft-used gag of putting holes in Swiss ceese by means of a machine gun, a log flume lifted straight out of Fannie Zilch’s “The Banker’s Daughter” (1933), and a cuckoo clock sequence with one original gag involving a clock with a “real Swiss movement” (a cuckoo bird who struts in Mae West fashion like Disney’s Jenny Wren from “Who Killed Cock Robin?” and seductively growls, “Cooo Cooo!”)), the film reprises the clog dance on skis from “Ski Yodelers”’ opening, then uses as its finale a digest version of the whole “Ski Yodelers” plot. The only added new twists are a wrong turn for the skiing pig that places him in a luge trench, trying to outrun a bobsled, and a triple-up of the ski jump that has the pig get crossed-up with two more skiers on the ramp to make a triple set of X’s in the snow upon landing – the other two skiers looking like dead ringers for cameos of Gandy Goose and Sourpuss! Only a solo St. Bernard comes to the rescue this time, and there is no bear or cave. Instead, the dog opens his brandy barrel and mixes a drink with a cocktail shaker. From the three holes emerge the arms of each of the skiers, holding a waiting martini glass. After downing their drinks, the three skiers emerge unscathed, and sing a serenade of the episode title, for the fade out. (Even the new material of this film would be milked for reuse later, as will be seen in forthcoming portions of this article.)
I’ll Be Skiing Ya (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 6/13/47 – I. Sparber, dir.), is a Technicolor reworking of two black and white Fleischer episodes, Seasons Greetinks (1934), and I-Ski Love-Ski You-Ski, reviewed in last week’s article. The film’s first half sticks to the ice skating pond, but changes venue when Bluto, instructing Olive in skating, leads her backwards to the chair lift of a ski jump, and lifts her while himself seated in one of the chairs to take her up to the dizzying heights. Olive comments that she feels like she’s skating on air – then gets an eyeful from hundreds of feet above the pond. Bluto strands her at the top, with nowhere to go but the icy slope of the ski ramp. Popeye of course pursues. In the fight above, Olive is knocked backward into a rack of skis, her feet getting hooked into a pair, and slides helplessly down the ramp. Bluto follows, socking Popeye backwards, where he crashes into a barrel – its stakes provide the sailor with skis just his size (a borrow from Krazy Kat’s Snow Time, also reviewed last week). A rapid downhill chase repeats many gags from “I-Ski…”, including Popeye and Bluto exchanging punches between dodging chasms that spring up in the trail between them, and Olive doing a spread of those gangly legs to try to keep a footing on two opposite canyon ledges. Popeye slows Bluto up by leaping over him in the middle of a jump, and fastening an umbrella to Bluto’s pants, which acts like a drag chute to sail him gently down to Earth. Bluto retaliates by sailing over Popeye, stomping downward with his feet when over him, and causing Popeye to land upside down in a canyon suspended by one ski across the chasm (a lift from Terry’s Swiss Ski Yodelers). A St. Bernard spots him through a telescope, and observes it shouldn’t happen to a dog – so revives Popeye with a dose of spinach. Popeye extricates himself from the canyon by twirling his skis so that they act like helicopter blades. He saves Olive from the path of a giant snowball, and gives Bluto his Sunday punch, rocketing him to Florida to rest up from his ordeal.
The Bear and the Hare (MGM, Barney Bear, 6/26/48 – Preston Blair/Michael Lah, dir.), possibly takes my pick for best skiing cartoon of all time. Barney is out to hunt the elusive snowshoe rabbit – whose camouflaging natural coloration is played upon as a running gag throughout the film by frequently only animating eyes and nose, leaving the rest of him invisible against the snow. Barney reads up on the subject from a book, “The Art of Rabbit Hunting” – but while his concentration on the book is more intense than most modern-day folk engrossed in texting on their cell phones, Barney isn’t about to let his reading interfere with getting to the hunting grounds, and performs a masterful demonstration of daredevil skiing along the mountain paths while never taking his nose out of the book. To a musical accompaniment of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” at mile-a-minute tempo, he curves down spiraling paths, negotiating a turn by planting the rear end of one ski in the snow while raising the other foot to avoid flying off the ledge. He soars off one cliff to land smoothly on another, while never moving a muscle. As if equipped with built-in radar, he ducks and jumps in alternating fashion under overhanging branches and over a log in his way on the path. Facing a line of trees in his way, he instinctively negotiates a slalom, with one ski coming off and criss-crossing his path on the opposite side of each tree. Encountering the rabbit (eyes and nose with a trail of snowy footprints), Barney follows the footprint trail – which suddenly ends abruptly, leaving no trace. Barney is confused – until his skis take him to a spot where the snowdrifts are smaller – and reveal that the rabbit has hitchhiked on the front of his skis and is enjoying the ride. Barney grabs his rifle and attempts to shoot the bunny on his ski – but the blast propels him backward, where he ricochets off a log, plunges forward into a snowbank, and crashes into the partly-snowbound trunk of a large tree, the snow falling away to show Barney’s skis lodged in the tree roots, and Barney’s head reverberating back and forth as if he were Woody Woodpecker pecking the tree with his nose) sort of a reworking of Fox’s Plenty Below Zero gag).
Even the non-skiing scenes of this cartoon are wonderfully timed, as the rabbit propels a series of snowballs at Barney with his ears (prompting Barney to mouth the words, “Why, you…..” accompaniet on soundtrack by low register trombone moans), and the two of them engage in a high-speed match of snowball tennis, using Barney’s snowshoes as racquets. The Rabbit now gets into the skiing act, extending his feet to take the approximate form of skis, and using his long ears as ski poles. Barney is in hot pursuit, but they come to a cliff with a rough downhill slope with no snow on it. The rabbit uses his ears to grab an overhanging tree limb and stay put, while Barney teeters at the edge just long enough for the rabbit to line up a swift kick in his rear. Barney slides down the rocky slope, the friction setting his skis on fire. At the foot of the hill, he slides onto a frozen lake – with the fiery skis melting the surface ice and plunging Barney into the water. Barney comes up half-frozen in ice, resembling a blue seal. The rabbit next sends him sliding down the frozen river toward a waterfall. Barney soars over the waterfall’s edge, his skis planting their points into a snowy cliff face on the other side of a canyon (the Alpine Antics predicament). Barney cowers at seeing the floor of the canyon hundreds of feet below – but then gets a greater shock, as the blade of a long lumberjack’s saw descends from the cliff ledge above him, the other end held by the rabbit, who begins sawing at the tips of Barney’s skis. Barney strikes several begging poses, pleading for mercy as his skis begin to crack, then realizing the hopelessness of the situation, waves “bye bye” to the camera, and falls with a scream. To the rabbit’s surprise, the impact of Barney’s crash dislodges the snow he is resting on on the cliff ledge, sending the rabbit plunging too. He is only saved by intercepting Barney’s snow hat, still floating downward in mid-air, and using it as a parachute. But Barney, somehow none the worse for wear, greets him with a further surprise – a complete encirclement below of bear traps surrounding the place where he is landing. Unfortunately, dimwit Barney has also placed himself inside the circle of traps, veritably “painting himself into a corner” – so when the rabbit “soft soaps” Barney with a sob story about a wife and kids (all in wonderful pantomime) and gets Barney to throw him over the encirclement of traps, the rabbit can’t resist waking Barney to the reality of the situation by throwing a snowball in his face. In a rage, Barney plunges headlong at the rabbit – forgetting the obstacle course he has laid for himself. The rabbit hops over the horizon, Barney pursuing him – with three-quarters of his bear traps well attached to him and chains clanking and dragging in an octopus-like array.
The Preston Blair/Michael Lah directing partnership would last only a few short films – but it’s a wonder why the studio didn’t stick with it. This, and the next production, Goggle Fishing Bear (1949), are perhaps the finest and fastest-paced Barney Bear episodes ever created (only rivaled by Hanna and Barbera’s only instance of moonlighting in the series, The Bear and the Bean (1948)). MGM had obviously realized the successfulness of duo-directorships with H-B’s Tom and Jerry efforts. Blair and Lah had obviously grasped fully the benefits of brisk pacing and crisp timing inaugurated by Tex Avery and by now well adapted by H-B into the cat-and-mouse series. Why couldn’t Barney stay a fast-paced laugh getter, as the Blair-Lah episodes demonstrate could be done so well? Was there some undercurrent of dissent or rivalry between the directors’ personalities that was working against their partnership (though not apparent from the quality of their finished products)? Did Fred Quimby feel they were going over budget? Or did Fred’s economic logic derive from the simple mathematic equation that one head is cheaper than two, and that Barney Bear just wasn’t an important enough character to him to merit duo-directorship like the studio’s cat and mouse stars? Whatever the theorem, Dick Lundy, fresh from the temporary closing of the Walter Lantz studios, was brought in as Blair’s and Lah’s replacement. Not that Lundy was a financial bargain, either – his excesses in dressing up the look of the product at Lantz had probably led to the cartoons no longer being commercially viable to support a continued contract with United Artists, and to the approximate one and one-half year forced hiatus upon the studio’s output. Yet Lundy seemed to churn out the footage at MGM with almost assembly-line efficiency – so much so that his cartoons were stockpiled and still being trickled into distribution long after his contract with MGM had already lapsed. Quimby must have seen this as a benefit over the presumably longer timetables of the Blair/Lah unit – despite the fact that the Lundy episodes frequently missed the target and rarely approached the cleverness and brisk tempo of the preceding projects (with the possible exception of Barney’s Hungry Cousin (1953)). Blair would never again see the director’s chair at MGM. Lah would return solo to helm the Droopys after Tex Avery moved on to new pastures. But the door had closed on what might have stood out as a memorable collaboration of talents, and Barney Bear’s last real chance to scramble to the true heights of cartoon stardom.
Fast and Furry-ous (Warmer, Road Runner, 9/17/49 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.), the inaugural episode of the series, presents one of Wile E. Coyote’s most surprising contraptions – surprising because the film first presents you with the crates which identify all of its components – and you still don’t know from all that information what it’s supposed to do until you see it! The ingredients consist of a refrigerator, an Ace electric motor, one pair of skis, and a meat grinder. Wile E. finally appears, wearing the skis, with the refrigerator strapped on his back, the electric motor mounted on the side of its ice compartment, and hooked by pulleys to the meat grinder which extends out in front of Wile E.’s forehead. With no explanation as to the device’s power source, Wile E. flips the motor switch – and a stream of ice cubes pops out of the refrigerator ice compartment, gets minced into snow by the meat grinder, and falls at Wile E.’s feet to provide a slick trail for the skis to travel on, anywhere that Wile E. wants to go. Sliding down a steep hill, he approaches the road on which the Road Runner travels – but crosses the road a split second ahead of the bird. He of course sails off a cliff. And the motor on his snow maker gives out, leaving him with no more snow only inches away fom the canyon’s opposite ledge. As usual, he crash-lands in the canyon. On impact, the snowmaker begins functioning again, and pours snow down on the prone Wile E’s face. Wile E. holds up a sign reading “Merry Xmas” for the blackout.
More to come next time, moving forward another decade into the theatricals of the 1950’s.