All Rise. Court is again in session.
For our second simulated session of Toon Court, a varied docket presents itself, replete with homicide, assault, petty theft, animal abbuse, disturbing the peace, and just plain making a pest of oneself. The scales of justice will tip as the evidence weighs up, resulting in a just and proper balance of convictions and acquittals.
The Puppet Murder Case (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Scrappy, 6/21/35 – Art Davis, dir.). By this point in time, the animation for some Scrappy episodes had graduated from the surreal and stylized to downright sophisticated. With a few minor errors here and there, the characters have begun to move fluidly and in good three-dimensional perspective, much in the fashion of Disney. And in at least this episode, Scrappy and Oopie are supported by a large cast, who in many group shots move independently of one another rather than in short repeating cycles. It’s a matter of taste whether you prefer the early style as the animators were feeling their way in experimentation, or the surprise of seeing that the characters can be drawn neatly as here.
Also showing itself by this time were the stylistic storytelling approaches of developing director Art Davis. Anyone familiar with his later work at Warner Brothers will remember some of his unique techniques, including use of frequent dissolves to transition from one viewpoint to another, without necessarily being indicative of any passage of time. This trait is already fully evident throughout this cartoon, along with a great number of iris-throughs from one setting to another (another style choice that would occasionally be injected into his Warner work). Art would continue to develop these screen tricks throughout the remainder of his stint at Columbia, and thus produced some instantly recognizable work among the productions of his peers. He would further attempt in later episodes to follow suit as with the ever-changing features of Mickey at the Mouse House, by “modernizing” Scrappy into a more-realistic little boy with somewhat more frazzled hair. His design was not followed by his fellow directors, making his cartoons again stand out uniquely, much as Frank Tashlin’s unique models for Porky Pig always distinguished his productions at Warner from the rest of the pack. In short, amidst the more traditional and set-in-their-ways forces like Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, and Allen Rose, Art was indeed a groundbreaker and a standout.
One can easily see an influence upon this episode from the live-action productions of Hal Roach, for MGM’s longstanding “Out Gang” series. The use of the classuc “Let’s put on a show in the barn” had been a Gang staple from back in the silent days (in such productions as “Uncle Tom’s Uncle”) and was still in use and to be revisited by the Gang in many episodes to come (such as “Out Gang Follies of 1936″, “Pay As You Exit”, and “Aladdin’s Lantern”, to name a few). The large audience Scrappy attracts with his announceent of a puppet show is populated with many “Our Gang” types, including a hyper member of the junior “Press” reporting on the affair, dressed in the oversoze clothes of his dad, and a typical “Butch”-style bully in striped shirt and bowery-style hat, whose very expectoration is enough to blow up a house across the road. And, of course, the series has its own built in “runt” – little Oopie, who wants to gate crash. Scrappy shows no tolerance for the pesky pipsqeak, engaging in a running gag of feinting with his left, but socking Oopie in the nose with his right (or vice-versa). Scrappy finally gets his paying audience inside, and slams the door in Oopie’s face. “You’ll be sorry”, calls out a sniffling Oopie from outside.
The show commences – an elaborate affair for a youth production, miraculisly manned single-handedly by Scrappy, who has marionette controls attached to nearly every part of his person as he tugs and pulls at strings from the rafters. A full orchestra of puppets fills the stage for an opening number (an odd little comic touch added as the wooden figures somehow manage to develop tobacco-based saliva and spit in unison, with a row of spittoons appearing from hatchways in the stage to catch the drippings with precision timing). A chorus of tuxedo-wearing tap dancers performs a specialty number (despite Scrappy over-extending their strings, so that their legs become separated from their torsos). But outside, frustrated Oopie kicks at the corner of the barn, and to his own surprise loosens a board so that he can slip inside. After skulking for a few moments in the shadows, his silhouette is seen as an enlarged shadow on the far wall, as he lifts a bean-shooter to his lips and lets fire at a trio of chorus girl puppets performing high kicks. Oopie’s shots neatly sever all the strings connecting the puppets to Scrappy’s controls, leaving the three puppets limp and lifeless upon the floor. Scrappy appears center stage, demanding to know who done-it. All the other audience members assume “saintly” upright sitting positions, with glowing halos appearing over their heads. The bully, who couldn’t generate a natural halo in a month of Sundays, passes as a good guy by bonking himself on the head with a mallet, at least producing a dizzy spiral of light around his head that substitutes for a halo. But Oopie is spotted trying to creep away concealed under a box.
Scrappy decides to dispense justice in his own unique way. Tying Oopie to a chair, Oopie is placed before the audience on stage. Lowered from the rafters to surround him come the puppets of a judge, a prosecuting attorney, and a five-member jury (another one of those odd numbers that only appear in the cartoon world). The puppets accuse Oopie of murder. The judge and the prosecutor begin a harrowing course of cross-examination upon poor Oopie, their questions overlapping upon one another at such speed, Oopie doesn’t even have time to form responses, and never gets a word in in his defense. The questions melt into gibberish and become mind-numbing, as Oopie sees screen-filling spirals, interspersed with flashbacks to his previous activities in the cartoon, and a hallucination of puppet dancer after puppet dancer. The judge finally calls for a verdict, and receives the anticipated call of “Guilty”. Scrappy carries out the sentence, as the show resumes with a new production number. Center stage dawns a new “star” – Oopie, to whom Scrappy has tied marionette strings, forcing him to perform in place of the puppets he bumped off. The film ends with one of the puppets repeating Scrappy’s running “punch in the nose” gag upon helpless Oopie, and irises out.
Who Killed Cock Robin? (Disney/UA, Silly Symphony, 6/26/35 – David Hand, dir.) marks the first publicly-released Technicolor Disney film to rely heavily upon celebrity caricature. Disney had previous experience in the genre on two occasions – a star-studded Hollywood affair set in black-and-white for “Mickey’s Gala Premier”, and in the one-time screening for the Oscars ceremony of the short Technicolor specialty, “Parade of the Award Nominees” (1932). But here, Walt’s boys pass all expectations one might have held from viewing the preceding productions, by bringing to the screen what could be called a genuine, living, breathing creation – Jenny Wren. A siren of the woodlands, Jenny’s obvious inspiration is seductive Mae West (voluptuous and controversial star whose screen escapades had been a prime target of the legions of decency backing stricter enforcement of the production code), whose speaking voice, demeanor, and general plumpness are translated into the character in masterful fashion. They even come closer in vocal impression to Mae’s earthy “growl” of a moan than any other studio was ever able to accomplish. But it’s not just an excellent vocal performance upon which the cartoon relies. What makes Jenny amazing is the three-dimensional sense of weight and volume achieved in her “overripe” enlarged frame, the dimensionality as she pivots her plumage, and the sheer smoothness of motion as she struts her stuff, all achieved without the motion ever lapsing into the “too mechanical” feel that Charles Mintz and several later European studios would generally fall into whenever they tried to do “full” animation, utilizing too many drawings to seem natural. This was Disney really showing off what they could do – and placing their primary rivals in a state of pure embarrassment by comparison. See, for example, Warner’s attempt at drawing the real Miss West in I’ve Got To Sing a Torch Song, or Fleischer’s plagiarist attempt to cast Mae in bird form again, as “Ducky Wucky” in Chicken a La King – both of which come off crude and entirely unconvincing. To describe Jenny in her own words, she is truly “Fascintin’”
Our story opens as Jenny is serenaded below her balcony by our victim to be, who is an impersonation of crooner Bing Crosby. (The impression is completed with the addition of Crosby’s signature whistling, and a song that resemles as close as possible without requieing a royalty payment Crosby’s theme song, “When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day”.) A shadow of a bird armed with a bow and arrow is seen against the trees, and fires a shot in Cock Robin’s direction. Robin falls, with just enough breath to utter his last “Boo Boo”. The police are called in, arriving with a paddy wagon (actually a bird cage) in traditional Keystone Kops fashion. With a display of force that today would be branded as police brutality, they raid a local saloon (The Old Crow Bar) and drag out amidst the blows of their billy clubs a rogue’s gallery of likely suspects. Adding to their brutality charges, the cops inject a dose of race prejudice, laying a disproportionate number of club blows upon the head of a blackbird who speaks like Stepin Fetchit, and denies having “done nothin’”. (The blackbird and the brutality are the prime reasons why this film is rarely if ever shown today.) “Tell it to the judge”, says a cop. The billy club blows dossolve to the banging of the judge’s gavel. Court is provided over by a wise old owl – well, at least he’s supposed to be wise by reputation. However, his actual skill begins the bench is open to question. He seems to have little to ask of the witnesses except “WHOO killed Cock Robin?” The district attorney (a fast-talking parrot) is more probing and persistent in his cross-examination, using intimidation and inferential accusation as his key weapons (in apparent lack of any actual evidence to incriminate any specific suspect). The blackbird takes the stand first, and every stereotype button is pushed, as he is “scared white” at the sight of the body as Exhibit “A”, again insists in racial dialect that he ain’t seen nothin’ done nothin, and don’t know nothin’ at all.
The jurors continue the racial slurs, punctuating a repeat of his testimony with the word “Yowsa”. And again, the blackbird receives three times as many club blows as anyone else, on his way to and from the stand, and even while testifying. A tough bird in a “doiby” hat and striped shirt (Legs Sparrow), stands up for himself as the cops drag him in to testify, telling them to “lay off”, and socking both his arresting officers. Legs holds up under the prosecutor’s pressure, vowing, “I ain’t sayin’ nothin”. (Today, this would be more formally accomplished by “pleading the Fifth”.) Next comes a cuckoo (a caricature of fright-wigged Harpo Marx. When asked who committed the crime, the bird points his finger at the judge. “WHOO????”, bellows the outraged judge, who takes a swipe at the cuckoo’s outstretched arm. Pivoting as if on a loose hinge, the cuckoo’s arm points in the other direction – at the distruct attorney. “WHO??” responds the prosecutor, and bats away the incriminating arm again. Now both the cuckoo’s arms get in the act, and he points at both of them at once. The judge and DA strike both his arms, which finally pivot to both point at the cuckoo himself. The DA argues the testimony is irrelevant, as the cuckoo is truly, well – cuckoo. Judge and jury are totally frustrated that no one seems to know the answer to the episode’s title question. Into the proceedings struts Jenny, as everyone’s eyes widen. “Hello, boys”, she provocatively growls. “Hi, Jenny”, responds each member of the jury, sounding a bit like their breath has been taken away. Referring to the owl as “Judgy-Wudgy”, and maintaining an utter cool as she struts, Jenny says she wants to see justice done, and sings a number roughly resembling “St. James Infirmary”, entitled “Somebody Rubbed Out My Robin”. She suggests to the jury that “somebody oughta be hung”. At the inquiry of the DA as to which prisoner should be deemed guilty of the crime, the smitten judge passes a sentence without precedent: “Hang ‘em all!” (Let’s hope these prisoners can find a good appeals attorney – this verdict should be eligible for overturning in a heartbeat.) Suddenly, an arrow lodges in a tree beside the bench, narrowly missing the judge. Spying a new arrival in the trees from whence the shot was fired, the judge inquires, “Who are you?” In a purely ‘30’s “gay” stereotype, a bird with a bow and quiver responds. “Now don’t be stupid. I’m Dan Cupid.” He explains in rhyme that Robin’s not really dead, but fell for Jenny Wren, and landed on his head. Jenny lifts the arm of the “corpse”, to discover that the “murder weapon” arrow never pierced Robin’s skin, but was just tucked inside his armpit. “Kiss me, tall, dark, and handsome”, says Jenny. Those words are enough to raise the dead, and Robin snaps out of his blackout, embraces Jenny, and they kiss behind the expanse of Jenny’s open parasol, which spins in a twirl, as Jenny lets out one of those trademark West moans, and the jurors fan themselves to control the heat of the moment, as we iris out.
Pluto’s Judgment Day (Disney/UA, Mickey Mouse, 8/31/35 – David Hand, dir.), has had previous discussion in my article “Go To Hades (part 2B – sort of!)”. Pluto (in a dream) is manacled and placed on trial before a hellish court where judge, attorneys, and jury are all cats. The evil prosecutor announces, “You’re on trial today for the crimes that you’ve committed. We’re gonna prove your guilty! Just try and get acquitted.” Pluto is ordered to “swear in” by placing his paw on a telephone book instead of a Bible – which turns out to be a trick mousetrap, catching his paw and making him yelp. Pluto is promised “Justice” – even from a live cat “statue” of the goddess of Justice, who gives the audience a sly wink and holds a set of scales already decidedly tipped to one side. A parade of cats whom Pluto has bullied through his lifetime appear as witnesses from puffs of smoke (some, if not all of them, appear to be the ghosts of cats Pluto has knocked off). A young cat in a sissified collar and bow with a balloon says Pluto made fun of him for being fat, chased him under a steamroller, “and then he left me flat.” He walks away in profile, his dimensions changing from round and plump in forward view to pencil-thin from the side. Another cat is wheeled in on a wheelchair by a medical attendant, who announces that he’s a shock victim, and demonstrates that now every time the patient even hears a dog, he “throws a dozen fits”. The final witnesses are a politically incorrect trio of black kittens, who testify, “He drank our milk, and ate our liver, and then he pushed poor Uncle Tom in the river”. They tow on a rope behind them the grave and gravestone of Uncle Tom, from which pop the nine “angel” lives of Uncle Tom to dance a brief minstrel dance to the tune of “Ten Little Indians”, then disappear while rattling tambourines. The prosecution rests. “Jury, do your duty”, orders the Judge. They do, marching in and instantly back out of a deliberation room through a revolving door, then announcing their “G-U-I-L-T-Y” verdict like a squad of college cheerleaders, complete with a card section to visibly illustrate the word. Pluto’s sentence is “the hot seat” – a wooden hi-chair with a hole in its seat, suspended over a pyre of flames licking at Pluto’s tail, with more little flames tearing apart the suspending rope to drop Pluto into the flames. Thank goodness Pluto is awakened by a stray ember from the fireplace in Mickey’s living room!
Judge For a Day (Fleischer/Paramount, Betty Boop, 9/20/35 – Dave Fleischer, dir., ) – A rare glimpse of life inside the courtroom during those frequent periods when an actual hearing is not in session. Betty is a hard-working employee of the court, dressing herself in prim and proper official fashion for her morning commute to the courthouse. While waiting at the bus stop, Betty’s otherwise happy mood is first disturbed by two acquaintances passing by, who great her with a painful slap on the back. She responds with polite “Hello”s, but is obviously irritated. Boarding her bus, Betty receives further rise to her blood pressure by passengers on either side of her, who can’t keep their noses out of reading Betty’s morning paper before she can read it herself. Betty is forced to solve the problem by relinquishing the paper, tearing it into two halves so that each of the nosybodies is respectively satisfied. She moves to another seat, but receives further stress from a cigar-smoker, who blows a cloud of smoke in her face, causing Betty to cough and exhale smoke rings. Betty tries yet a third seat, but a fat lady shoehorns herself in next to Betty, popping Betty right out of her seat into another passenger’s lap. Betty’s stop finally arrives, and Betty exits the bus for some relief, only to have a passing car splash her with mud from a puddle, soiling her from head to toe. She wrings out her outfit as best she can, observing “This town is full of pests.”
Entering the courthouse through the employees entrance, Betty (who appears to hold the positions of both court reporter and clerk), sets up her transcription machine, straightens out papers on the judge’s bench, and lays out the judge’s robe neatly over his chair. She continues to mutter to herself about the pests she encountered, and what she’d like to do to them if she was in charge. Her eyes settling on the robe, a playful idea pops into her head. Making sure no one is around, Betty slips on the judge’s robe, then the glasses from the judge’s desk. Seating herself, she takes on a stern demeanor, and bangs the gavel to call imagination court into session. She sings to herself a little song about if she was judge for a day, how she’d make all the public pests pay. Regarding two of these varieties, she describes in the song how back-slappers would be sentenced to receive sunburns, then subjected to their own trick. For paper readers, she would pile papers high on each side, then have someone turn the pages to poke them in the eye. Then, her daydreams get visual, as we view her effective methods of sentencing. Taking over the municipal zoo, various varieties of pests are locked in cages and put on public display to provide a laugh to the general populace. A smoke blower is locked in a steam cabinet with only his head free, while two burning candles set afire rubber tires on either side, to fill the cell with noxious fumes. (A little severe, Betty. Isn’t that a death sentence?) The back slapper sentence is visually carried out, with the victim shackled to the floor by his feet and his arms in a straight-jacket, as a mechanical hand slaps his back again and again.
A guy who likes to “park his chewing gum” is placed in a room with large patches of gum plastered to the walls, floor and ceiling on all sides, soon binding himself in a spider-web of sticky gum. (This gag would be later remembered by Dick Lundy at Walter Lantz, who placed Wally Walrus in an identical sitution for the closing gag of Kiddie Koncert). A circling tire axle repeatedly sprays mud on the prevous puddle driver, now tued to a lamppost. A guy who uses all the apartment house hot water is manacled into a bathtib full of ice cubes. And a guy who drives people crazy with impressions of radio personalities is trapped in a cell full of parrots, who repeat every popular radio catch-phrase endlessly. Betty returns to reality, and to her surprise finds that all the other personnel and attendees of the courthouse have been listening in at the doors and windows. They swarm into the courtroom with cheers and applause, and in the time it takes for an iris, Betty is being carried down main street on the shoulders of the voting public, who carry signs congratulating Betty on her election as new judge. (Another reformer candidate – often the quickest way to a voter’s heart.) Betty provides the coda “Boop Boop a Doop” for the iris out.
Sunday Go To Meetin’ Time (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 8/8/36 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) – One of the more infamous and most stereotypical of the “Censored 11.” The story of Nicodemus, a lazy, shiftless gentleman of color, who would prefer to play hooky to roll dice or steal chickens instead of attending Sunday church meeting. This time, however, his efforts to lure a farm fowl into his clutches backfire, as the bird ducks under a loose fence board secured only at the bottom, pivoting the upper portion of the board to slam down upon Nicodemus’s head. On the wall of an adjoining building is a campaugn poster depicting a picture of a proud member of the local judiciary running for public office, seated behind his judge’s bench, with large lettering on its front reading, “Vote for Judge Jailem – Court of Justice”. As Nicodemus’s head whirls from the blow he’s just received, the entire shot bends and transforms with the use if a distortion lens, and the poster on the wall changes personnel. In place of the honorable Jailem sits a horned minion of Lucifer, with the podium lettering now reading “Hades Court of Justice”. With a menacing cackle, the minion announces “One look in my book will reveal your past.”
The charges penned in the book include “Shooting craps. Stealing chickens. Missing church. Raisin’ Dickens.” (And a fifth count that isn’t read by the minion aloud – “Stealing Watermelons.”) The minion pulls a lever, dropping Nicodemus through a trap door into a deep chasm, and onto the launching ramp of a giant pinball machine, where a plunger is pulled back and fires Nicodemus into the bumpers like a ball, then through an exit hole, straight into the hall of the devil himself. A small army of imps tote Nicodemus bodily to dump him at the foot of Satan’s throne. The devil sings his verdict to Nicodemus, punctuated by pokes at his nose and eyes, in a musical number, “You’ve Got To Give the Devil His Due”. “Give him the works”, pronounces the devil (the same sentence received by Buddy in last week’s article), and the imps proceed to jab Nicodemus from all sides with their tridents. But after all, this was a dream induced from unconsciousness, and Nicodemus awakes to find the trident jabs are in reality a flock of chickens pecking at his prone form. Nicodemus shoos them away, but has nevertheless been “scared straight”, and makes a zig-zag beeline for the church, rejoining the singing of the choir, while a view of him through a stained glass window from outside superimposes the image of an angel halo over his head.
Oswald Rabbit’s The Mechanical Handy Man (Lantz/Universal. 11/8/37 – Charles Bowers, story), was previously discussed at length in my article We, Robots 2: Of Title Bouts and Technocrats. Oswald and his periodic flunkey The Dumb Cluck stand trial for allowing a mechanical milking machine/handyman to run amok. Attempting to demonstrate for the judge just what happened, Cluck activates the robot again, sending the Plaintiff farmer’s cow fleeing out a window. The judge orders Oswald and Cluck to return the cow, or be sentenced to jail for life. When the cow can’t be found, Cluck and an assistant dachshund play for time by renting a cow costume, and return with Oswald to the courtroom. One look at the dilapidated milk-maker, and the judge dismisses the whole affair by announcing, “Take it out and shoot it!”
The Big Birdcast (Charles Mintz/Columbia. Color Rhapsody, 5/13/38 – Ben Harrison, dir.), has been appropriately compared to a preceding film, Warner’s “The Woods are Full of Cuckoos”, as consisting entirely of caricatures of radio personalities. Amidst the buffoonery is an extended courtroom sequence, presided over by an impatient judge who is a caricature of radio comedian Tommy Mack, in his persona of Judge Hugo Straight, who became remembered for a catchphrase that would recur time and again in animation, particularly at Warner Brothers – when losing his temper, someone will inevitably tell him, “Now don’t get excited.” His response, delivered in a scream. “Excited? WHO’S EXCITED? I”M NOT EXCITED!”. The line was picked up by Petunia Pig, Gabby Goat, and several others, and is of course the judge’s final word in this parody, where he, and all other members of the cast, are refashioned as birds. His Bailiff appears to be a portrayal of a young Milton Berle (who was host of the program on which Mack was featured, “Community Sing”). Testifying as witnesses before him are Ed Wynn (Texaco’s “Fire Chief”, later remembered as Uncle Albert in “Mary Poppins”, the toymaker in “Babes in Toyland”, and the Mad Hatter in “Alice In Wonderland”), and Joe Penner, using his own recurring catch-phrase “You wanna buy a duck?” Joe’s duck is what ultimately sets Mack off into his standard temper tantrum, as the duck pulls the meat out of the judge’s sandwich, then takes a chomp on the judge’ beak). More about Penner and Mack can be found in the articles of the “Radio Roundup” series from past articles elsewhere on this website.
Boy Meets Dog (Walter Lantz, unreleased, 1938 – Burt Gillett, dir.) has been briefly visited and spotlighted in my previous “Countdown to 2020: Dance of the Cuckoos” article. The second film to attempt to adapt to the screen a sort of “Our Gang” comic strip, Gene Byrnes’ “Reg’lar Fellers”, this scrapped Ipana Toothpaste soft-sell advertising film centers on a grumpy father who won’t let his son have a dog, and abuses the stray pup the son’s brought home. Tripping on a roller skate, the father (in what turns out to be a dream induced by a blow received in the fall) is captured by a menagerie of elves and pixies on the fanciful wallpaper of his son’s bedroom, and taken to be placed in stocks and await trial in Pixie Court. Several celebrities are impersonated among the little folk presiding over the trial. Prosecuting attorney sounds like radio comedian Fred Allen. Court reporter (with an out-of-control stenographic machine) is Joe Penner, threatening “I’ll smash you” to the uncooperative device. At least some, if not all, of a trio of defense attorneys appear to alternate between Jewish stereotypes and some mannerisms of Eddie Cantor. Bailiff suffers from a stutter and spoonerisms, similar in delivery to Roy Atwell (Doc of the seven dwarfs) – though I’m not sure if he’s impersonating someone else. An officer who watches the prisoner laughs like Ed Wynn. And the Judge (or so it seems) again lampoons the mannerisms of Tommy Mack, as in “The Big Birdcast”. Trial is a musical travesty, with periodic returns to a dental hygiene theme underlying the soft-sell message of the film. Prosecuting attorney states, “He hires lawyers who are bums – and he don’t even massage his gums.” The defense staff alternates lines with the jury:
“He spent four years in college.”
“But still he has no knowledge.”
“Perhaps no dental knowledge…”
“He has no mental knowledge.”
“Mental. Dental. It’s inconsequental!”
The jury walks in and out of the jury room as fast as Pluto’s cat jury through the revolving door, and the prosecuting attorney, on hearing the unanimous guilty verdict, asks for the guillotine. But the judge (who turns out to be the son in disguise), instead sentences Pop to the Youth Machine – a complicated mechanical device powered by Father Time marching backwards on a treadmill, reducing Papa to a crying baby. But Papa awakes from his dream, sees the light to follow his boy’s lead (dentally and mentally). and becomes a chum to all the kids – a “Reg’lar Feller”
I’ll reserve mention of one Warner Brothers item from this period until next week, to discuss it together with a reappearance of the same idea from the 1940’s.
Next Week: More crime? Do the time.