We progress further into 1942. Our boys were headed overseas in droves (and other assorted transports). Home defense remained a top priority in view of the invasion of our Hawaiian shores, with nervous citizenry worrying which coast might be next. New challenges included keeping the production lines rolling to supply our servicemen, not only with weaponry, but with basic food and provisions for their jaunts to unknown foreign battlegrounds. With shortages of labor, any available 4-F’s as well as women not ordinarily in the workforce, were accepted as volunteers to work on factory assembly lines running in non-stop 24 hour production into the wee small hours, coining the phrase “swing shift” for the night crews. Rationing of foods and materials deemed essential for munitions or for soldiers’ food supply became another order of the day – and the butt of topical jokes about “points”, “priorities”, ration books, and gasoline ration cards to be displayed upon vehicles to determine their fuel allocations. Gags about non-essential traveling would also become a comedy staple, with the public encouraged to avoid unnecessary trips to free-up public transportation for the movement of military personnel and inductees. And amidst all this, the planes kept rolling out of the factories and into the air, providing our continued focus for this series.
Tulips Shall Grow (George Pal/Paramount, Madcap Models. 7/26/42 – Geouge Pal, dir.), has been visited once before in these articles, during our “Hearts and Flowers” series a season or two back. It is Pal’s Academy-Award nominated dramatic masterpiece, tributing the country he had been forced to leave (Holland, where he had produced his early films for Phillips and Horlicks) by reason of the expansive moves of Germany resulting in the country’s invasion in May of 1940. The land was still under occupation at the time of the production of this film, and would remain so until the end of the war, despite an active resistance movement within. Starring a representative couple in traditional folk garb (Jan and Janette), the film begins like something from a picture postcard, in an enchanting land of windmills and expansive tulip gardens. Janette, owner of a mill, is courted by Jan, and rewards him with a cake. They begin to dance to the music of Jan’s concertina (which plays itself while hanging from the irrigation pump of the mill), when suddenly the scene is interrupted by the flashes of an offscreen explosion.
Against a backdrop of fiery red sky advances a brigade of all metal soldiers, constructed of metal balls with rotating bolts for heads, carrying a flag announcing themselves as the “Screwballs”. Their general marches in stiff-legged goose-step fashion, arm raised in a “heil” position while rows of medals jingle from his waist, while behind him, a live goose mimics his every step. (The Screwballs had appeared once before, in “Rhythm in the Ranks”, but there had been played largely for comic effect. In this film, their aggressiveness and destructive attitude depicts them as of much more sinister and serious intent, with obvious resemblance to the Nazi invaders.) A forward line of soldiers charges with bayonets, trampling down fences and tulip fields. A new level of offensive weaponry, not seen in their previous picture, is added for heightened dramatic effect – advancing formation-flying planes, in unique design of transparent gleaming bat-like wings and fuselage, with internal structure photographed in a “day-glo” outline, giving the crafts an ominous and utterly futuristic appearance – almost a cross between imagery we would later associate with Batman comics and the memorable shot of the advance of the winged monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz”. A bomb bay opens, and the first bomb scores a direct and destructive hit upon the local church, caving in its roof and partially destroying its steeple. Jan and Janette flee in terror, as more bombs begin to fall, stopping the rotation of each of the windmills and decimating most of their towers. Jan and Janette are seen running below the shadows of the planes crossing overhead. Then, the land invasion is aided by a new payload dropped from the planes – tanks, slowly descending to Earth with the use of large umbrellas built into their gun turrets, serving as parachutes. Upon settling to Earth, each folds its umbrella back into the escape hatch of the turret, and slowly commences rolling over everything in sight. Jan and Janette are forced to reverse direction, and find themselves in the middle of cross-traffic of the oncoming tanks. As two tanks pass each other in opposite directions, Jan and Janette are divided from each other, becoming separated. Jan calls for Janette, but she is nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, a tank completes the local destruction, by driving through the side of Janette’s mill, then, in a spotlight of light amidst the red clouds in the sky, turning to intentionally crush the cake Janette had left lying on the ground, which crumbles symbolically as the spotlight from above disappears, and the scene fades to black.
Some time later, amidst the sound of quiet, sacred singing, we find Jan in the remains of the shattered church, praying and in tears as he kneels at a partial altar where two candles burn on each side. Jan begins to lose heart, as even the candles’ flame goes out. But, as the camera slowly pans to the skies, a prayer is answered. Above, a series of dark clouds builds into a storm front. First drops of rain begin to fall, landing close to Jan at the roofless altar. Miraculously, the flame of the altar candles comes to life again. Outside, a scene of panic quickly arises, as the first drops of rain hit the Screwballs. They begin to run around in circles, not knowing where to flee, as the rain is now falling everywhere. Above them, the first to feel the full impact of the storm are the circling planes, each of which is seized by a lightning bolt, which takes hold of them in the shape of a pincer, giving them an electric jolt. Each plane catches fire, and spirals helplessly into a devastating crash. The foot soldiers continue to run aimlessly, as Jan looks up from his prayer, and now observes what is happening. “Rust”, he softly utters, seeing the first patches of the red stuff appearing upon the surfaces of the Screwballs. One by one, the soldiers become more and more red and rigid, until they cannot move, and crumble to dust where they stand. “Rust”, repeats Jan over and over, each time more enthusiastically, as the tide of battle rapidly turns. A Screwball tank hesitates in its advance, and attempts to protect itself by opening its umbrella. But the move is too late, and the umbrella is only able to open half way, then shudders and folds back into the body again, as the shell of the tank chassis cracks open and crumbles. The general is now feeling the full effects of the continuing precipitation, even his medals now unable to clank in their former perpetual movement, now hanging red and stiff from his chest. He remains directly in the path of the last surviving command tank, which rolls right over him, crumbling him like the cake before. Finally, a few feet away, the tank stalls in a muddy patch of Earth, as its weight slowly sinks the vehicle into the bubbling murky puddle (much in the same manner as “the last man on Earth” from MGM’s “Peace on Earth”), its flag being the last thing seen as it submerges and disappears forever. (It is particularly interesting that Pal chooses as the resolution of his epic not a rallying of forces, a show of might, an influx of allies, nor a purchase of war bonds – but a divine intervention of natural causes – giving us a viewpoint that in time, an aggressor will always be dealt with and fall from power, without everyone having to become a counter-killer. Were it this simple in real life.)
The final sequence finds a new day, with the sunlight restored – yet a still bleak, barren land, where Jan slowly walks to revisit the location where he lost his love – the remains of Janette’s mill. He is surprised to find his concertina is still hooked to the irrigation pump, and still wheezing a weak little tune. The music brings back memories, and Jan again sheds tears at his loss, staring at the leaning form of the battered Dutch door where he had last found her. To his amazement, the upper panel of the door swings open, with a gentle voice calling, “Jan”. Janette has returned, back to her home. The concertina springs to life with renewed vigor and a livelier song, and Jan and Janette dance their way up the lane in celebration. As they progress, row upon row of tulips spring to life and regrow on either side of them, while the land becomes green again. They double back to the mill, and its blades and tower miraculously reform and spin again like new, while a series of puffy clouds appear in the sky, in the shape of a V, to the music of Beethoven’s 5th. The camera pulls back to a long shot of the restored landscape, similar to that seen in the opening titles of the film, and the letters of the title appear again in the sky – except that one word has been added to the title: “TULIPS SHALL ALWAYS GROW.”
If you’d like to see a better copy, please buy Arnold Lebovit’s The Puppetoon Movie.
All Out For V (Terrytoons/Fox, 8/7/42 – Mannie Davis, dir.), receives only brief honorable mention. Nominated for an Academy Award (in a year when it seems every studio received one by merely submitting their own chosen title), the film is a meaningless patriotic flag waving spot gag film about “stepping up production, at Uncle Sam’s instruction”, as a theme song endlessly repeats. The closest thing to action in it is a brief sequence towards the end, where one animal sprays crops to evict an infestation of “Japanese beetles”, who try to escape on leaves by water, sink beneath the waves, and raise white flags in surrender. (TV prints clipped out the word “Japanese” from the dialogue). All we ever see of planes is the last shot, where squadrons of them fly overhead in V formation, transforming into a large white letter V in the sky.
Wild Honey, or How To Get Along Without a Ration Book (MGM, Barney Bear, 8/10/42 (disputed date – “Of Mice and Magic” says 11/7/42) – Rudolf Ising, dir.) is another honorable mention. Hungry Barney seeks honey in the raw, with a treatise of the picture’s title. His prumary ruse os a mechanical Queen Bee, who leads away the worker bees in a seductive conga dance. When the device pops a mainspring, the bees get wise, and angrily swarm. Nervous Barney flips to the book’s appropriate page – “If the bees return – SCRAM!” The bees transform into the shape of a massive bomber, complete with identifying indicia of “BEE-19″. It drops bombs consisting of masses of bees with their stingers pointed down. Barney is forced to jump in the lake, and emerges in a mass of painful welts. His book floats by, open to a page reading “Next time use your ration book – You won’t get stung.”
Blitz Wolf (MGM, 8/22/42 – Tex Avery, dir.), introduces Tex’s unique style of madness to the MGM lot. The studio knew a good thing when they saw it, and not only provided Tex with all the footage he needed to really stretch out and show his stuff, but submitted the film for Academy Award consideration and a nomination. As some versions of a later song from “Kiss Me Kate” would decry, “Tex” was “here to stay”.
A foreward announces that any similarity between the wolf and that (cartoon swear words) jerk Hitler is purely intentional – but that the auto tires used in this photoplay are fictitious (and we ain’t kiddin’, brother). In the heretofore unheard-of country of Pigmania, we find the three little pigs have taken residence. The smart little pig (for whom Avery takes the extra effort of acquiring the voice talents of Pinto Colvig, just to make the intended reference to the Disney classic all the more realistic) builds with much more than stone and brick – surrounding his house like a fortress with cannons, trenches, machine gun nests, etc. His mailbox identifies him as “Sergeant Pork” – reference to Gary Cooper’s recent starring role in Warner Brothers’ “Sergeant York”. He shows his brothers a headline about the wolf preparing for a blitz, even including a detailed invasion map, with swastika insignia fashioned out of two twisted sausage links. A squad of flame-throwing vehicles includes one non-conformist, whose sign reads “I don’t want to set the world on fire” (reference to a recent song hit by the Ink Spots.) The pig’s brothers don’t care, because they signed a treaty with the wolf. It reads in part, “With your freedom, I will not tinker. Signed Adolf Wolf, Colossal Stinker” (including an official seal with the image of a skunk). As the smart pig says, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on, as the horizon is already in a fiery red glow from the oncoming invasion forces – tank after tank, accompanied by a Good Humor ice cream wagon on tank treads. An armored car identifies its passenger as “Der Fewer (der Better)”, and out pops goose-stepping Adolf, who holds up a sign to us reading “Go on and hiss. Who cares?” He promptly receives a tomato in his puss, thrown from the audience. With the aid of a Mechanized Huffer und Puffer, he blows the straw house down. A shell sets the stick house on fire, reducing it (and an outbuilding) to burnt matchsticks. The first two pigs take refuge inside the third pig’s bunker, with a sign on the door, originally reading “No dogs allowed”, now displaying the word “dogs” crossed out and replaced with “Japs”.
During the course of the epic battle, aerial warfare is resorted to three times. First, the smart pig pilots a “B-19 1/2″ (lifting from Cinderella Goes To a Party), which is an amazing mass of machine gun turrets, and powered by 16 engines. From its bomb bay, the pig drops another borrowed gag – the “scream bomb” from Lantz’s “Recruiting Daze”, Oddly, with such a “flying fortress” at his command, the smart pig sneaks in later in a plane so small, the “peashooter” would dwarf it – a B-6 7/8. He drops an incendiary bomb, which falls into the wolf’s trench while he is busy talking on the telephone to operator “Myrt” (a reference to the Fibber McGee and Molly radio show, where local operator Myrt was always the center of town gossip – Bill Thompson, a regular cast member, provides the voice of the wolf, so couldn’t resist an “in-reference” to the program). The bomb’s nose cone opens, and an automatic hand places a match Into the wolf’s shoe and lights it, giving the wolf a hotfoot that transforms his foot into a red-hot hot dog. Finally, the wolf retaliates with his own “Stinka Bomber P-U” (a reference to the “Stuka” bomber, a favorite of Axis bombing raids in the early war). At a listening post (consisting of multiple mechanical human-shaped ears), the pigs detect the oncoming attack, retreat to their house, and throw a switch, retracting the house into the ground, and replacing it with a colossal bundle of mile-long cannon barrels, marked as “Secret Weapon”. They fire, ejecting about thirty shells, in cutaway view revealed to be loaded with defense bonds. They obliterate the wolf’s plane, and as he clutches for any part of his aurcraft in the falling debris, finds only his own aerial bomb intact. He runs a race to try to evade the bomb in its downward fall, punctuated with Germanic gibberish including the title of Hitler’s book, “Mein Kampf”, but finally calls for help to the audience in German – translated on the screen as “Call for Dr, Kildare”, a favorite phrase from the famous MGM series of medical dramas. The explosion leaves a deep crater, into which the camera travels, finding the wolf in the fiery caverns of Hades. “Vere am I? Have I been blown to….” A group of fourteen devils respond from the sidelines, “It’s a possibility,” The iris out forms into a target, reading “The End of Adolf. If you’ll but a stamp or bond = we’ll skin that skunk across the pond!” (Some TV prints exist blacking out the bond pitch from this closing.)
Eatin on the Cuff, or The Moth That Came To Dinner (Warner, Looney Tunes, 8/22/42 – Robert Clampett, dir.). is one of those few and far between black and white Looney Tunes not featuring a series character. It is an odd concoction of live action and animation, as a live pianist spins the tale of a moth with a wandering eye and a large appetite, seduced by another “Brenda and Cobina” style man-crazy black widow spider, who tries to look attractive by combing her hair half over her face like Veronica Lake – except her huge bulb nose keeps popping out. The moth’s intended, a honeybee, is left waiting at the church, and, when she gets wind of the situation, comes out fighting to get back her man. Lifting from Barney Bear, she soars to the Widow’s home web with the identifying numbers “Bee-19″ written under her wings. She briefly duels the Widow with stingers, and the Widow gets the point. The film ends in a live action shot, as the moth takes revenge for a wise crack from the narrator, by devouring his trousers, leaving the pianist scrambling for the exit door of the sound stage.
Japoteurs (Paramount/Famous, Superman, 9/18/42 – Seymour Kneitel, dir.) – While Max Fleischer had been quick to enlist Popeye to battle the Axis forces, he curiously had not felt the same about Superman, keeping the Man of Steel out of the scrap and within his own world of sci-fi and crime stories, right up to the time of closure of the Fleischer studios. Whether this was Max’s own idea or that of the publishers of the comic remains unknown. However, when the Paramount executives walked in on the studio’s ownership and management, there was a quick change of mood, and, within one cartoon following the removal of the Fleischer name, Superman was meeting face to face his first enemy agents, saboteurs, and other sellouts to the Fuerher and Tojo. With only a couple of exceptions, this would become Superman’s sole raison d’etre for the remainder of his theatrical animated career. At least, however, Paramount never messed with Superman’s motto of fighting for “truth and justice”, never adding “and the American way” as did the subsequent TV series.
The Daily Planet’s latest headline announces the completion of the world’s largest bomber, and of preparations rushed for its test flight. A camera pull-back reveals the paper is being read by an Asiatic man in a private office. His intentions are revealed without a word. A press of a button on his desk flips a wall portrait of the Statue of Liberty into an image of Japan’s rising sun flag, which the man bows to in salute. He then takes the cigarette he is smoking, and snuffs it out on the newspaper image of the belly of the plane, burning up the paper. The burnt paper edges are neatly used as a dramatic camera wipe to the plant where final preparations for the test are being made, as crews load the plane with a full contingent of bombs. Through the plant windows, the silhouette of an armed guard on duty is seen, walking his patrol. From behind him rises the silhouette of the Asiatic man, raising a black jack to smash upon the guard (the actual impact masked as the two walk past the windows, just out of view).
The next day, the six-engine bomber rolls out of its hangar, dwarfing the control tower and all other structures around the field. The press are invited for a conference, among them Clark Kent and Lois Lane. While an air corps representative lectures the rest of the press in the advanced design of the plane’s stabilizers, Clark sits at one of the gunner’s turrets, trying out the weaponry for size, while Lois looks on. Clark kiddingly ribs Lois about her probably wishing she could go up in the test flight, and unfortunately puts precisely that bee in her bonnet. “Hmm, maybe I will”, she coyly responds. Clark dismisses this reply with a laugh and a remark of “Fine chance”, as a call is heard for everyone to disembark. Clark exits obediently, but Lois exhibits her old “anything for a story” streak, and hides out in a locker stall. The plane takes off without anyone but Clark noticing that Lois is nowhere to be found. No sooner has it left the ground, than the nose cone of a giant bomb begins to unscrew from the inside. From out of the cylinder of the device emerges the Japanese agent, who taps on the nose cones of two other bombs, alerting two henchmen to also emerge. The plane performs the probably aerodynamically impossible feat of launching a series of smaller planes in the manner of an aircraft carrier while in-flight. First, the method used, of rolling to flying speed across the length of the fuselage, would seem unreasonable for plane maneuverability, since the top of the large plane is rounded instead of flat, leaving too much opportunity for the small planes to just roll off and fall without the most precise side-to-side balancing.
Secondly, the wind forces already keeping the main plane aloft would surely be enough to blow the smaller planes backwards from a standing position instead of forwards, such that they would never be able to taxi along the “flight path” for takeoff – and the plane doesn’t even come equipped with a catapult launcher as a brace to get the smaller planes going. Notably, the air corps had previously devised a method of launcing small planes from a dirigible, but in such cases air speed need not be of a speed to keep the larger ship aloft, as hydrogen or helium already made the craft lighter than air, so planes could be launched with the mother ship only moving at slow speed or even hovering. In addition, the airship launches were conducted from a hatchway underneath the craft’s belly, instead of from an elevator platform on top, so that no runway was required – all the small plane had to do was rev up its motor, unhook itself from sky hooks, and attain flight speed in a dive. The Paramount animators again thus needed a few lessons in flight basics, and created this craft’s amazing abilities in a fit of wishful thinking. After this demonstration, the giant plane turns around, and begins to head back to the airfield. However, the plane briefly appears to go out of control, dipping its nose and beginning to dive – yet abruptly levels off. The reason? Inside the cockpit, the Japanese have ambushed the flight crew, tying them up, and taking over the controls, with intent to fly the craft to Japan. (We only hope they know what they are doing. If this was only a test flight, why would the plane have enough fuel to make such an extended flight? Without preparations for mid-air refueling, their plans, even if escape were successful, might result in nothing but ditching the plane Into the ocean.)
Lois picks this inopportune moment to emerge from her locker. She creeps forward to get a look through the window panel in the cockpit door at the activities of the crew, and discovers the takeover by the saboteurs. Having no other ideas on how to seek help, and not content with letting those on the ground figure out for themselves that the plane is being hijacked, Lois bravely (and foolheartedly,) creeps into the cabin, grabs the radio mike, and radios a hushed message to the tower that Japs are stealing the plane. She of course is immediately captured and tied up. The tower alerts all fighter planes on the base to scramble and give pursuit. (If the super-plane is such an amazing invention, is this a realistic goal, as wouldn’t the bomber’s massive motors be designed to outrace the smaller planes? If not, will the bomber have to forever rely upon fighter escorts, while it remains a sitting duck for any enemy fighter or anti-aircraft gun?) The Japanese, however, are ready for this move, and have already placed a large bomb into the bomb bay, aimed at the runway. A well-placed shot, and the runway is destroyed, stopping the pursuit in its tracks. “This looks like a job for Superman”, states Clark in usual fashion, disappears into an elevator, and has executed his costume change by the time he hits the top floor. He floes to meet the super bomber, and for once finds the animators have left the seams of the plane’s elevator platform well visible, so that he can find and open the hatch to let himself in. One inside, Superman is surprised to find that the Japanese agent seems to be one step ahead of him, having placed Lois in the ejection chute of the bomb bay. “Stop where you are”, calls out the agent. “Leave plane immediately, or girl will be released.” With some underplated condescension, Superman responds, “Okay, little man, you win”, and exits through a side door – but continues to fly close by, to see what will happen next.
It turns out Superman played his hunch well, as the agent’s threat was not a matter of calculated counter-move to ward off interference, but merely an opportunistic bluff – as the agent’s true intentions were merely to jettison Lois anyway. Without Superman as a menace, the agent still pulls the switch to open the bomb bay – but Superman crashes through the plane’s belly, catching Lois before she falls, and carrying her up to a catwalk to be untied. The two henchmen converge on Superman, but are quickly tossed over the catwalk railing. The Japanese agent races for the cockpit and locks himself in. This won’t stop Superman for long, as he rushes the door with his shoulder, making sizeable dents in the steel, so that it is evident the door will give way any minute. With nowhere left to run, the agent does what any good saboteur would do – if he can’t have the plane, no one else can. So he grabs any heavy object, and smashes at the controls, breaking apart the steering column, and disabling the motors. Superman gains entry too late to stop the damage, and, casting the agent aside, struggles to see if any power is left to regain control of the plane. His efforts prove futile, as the plane falls into a steep dive. With characteristic super speed, Superman darts back into the main cabin, finds Lois, exits carrying her out the side door, outraces the plane to the ground, and deposits Lois safely on Earth. But what about the falling aircraft? Our hero again launches himself skyward, grabs the nose of the plane with his mighty hands, and pushes with all his strength. The plane begins to slow, as Superman’s powerful legs touch ground, giving him enough bracing to lift the plane by its nose high above him. The weight of the rear end of the ship begins to bring it down, but Superman shifts position to catch it by one of its huge main tires, placing the wheel upon the ground. He then darts to the tail, grabbing and gently settling to Earth the smaller rear tire. The camera pulls back to reveal the plane, in the heart of a Metropolis street, safely positioned just so, that iys wings extend over the tops of two small buildings on each side, with no damage done to plane or property. The Planet building’s light-up news board proclaims that the plane is safe, and the Japoteurs rounded up. Out final scene finds Clark and Lois enjoying a bit of recreation to get away from such harrowing action, appearing to be flying in a small plane by themselves. “Well, you’re safe in this plane, Lois”, quips Clark. “I’d feel safer if Superman were here”, states Lois, with an unusual amount of quaver in her voice. However, her fear of flying may be more imagined than real, as their transportation is in a rotating amusement park ride at Coney Island. Despite its obvious propaganda “slant”, the episode seems less improbable and more effectively dramatic than The Bulleteers, and is overall more satisfying than many that would follow.
Yankee Doodle Swing Shift (Lantz/Universal, Swing Symphony, 9/22/52 Alex Lovy, dir,), requires a very brief mention. Among the least-frequently circulated Lantz productions, the film is a very loose accumulation of spot gags on the assembly lines of the night shift at a typical plant for production of munitions and military vehicles, set largely to a boogie woogie version of “Yankee Doodle”. The first third of the film barely has anything to do with the remainder, as a band called the “Zoot Suit Swing Cats” is put out of business by the hand of Uncle Sam, confiscating all of their brass instruments for wartime priorities. Down and out, the band spots a sign on the local factory plant, advertising for workers for the swing shift The band feels they’re perfectly qualified, as “swing” is their middle name. However, despite the boogie woogie music we hear throughout the factory sequences, the band is only seen again in one short shot near the film’s end, otherwise vanishing from the slender plotline. When they do appear, they are playing atop a bandstand consisting of giant industrial boilers (no wonder their music is hot) – but where’d they get their instruments back from? I guess the brass was labelled a priority simply so it could be used to play strictly for “our boys” in the defense plants. Perhaps the funniest of the mass-production gags is an old-Westerner, who takes sheets of thin copper and gunpowder, and forms them into machine gun bullets as if he was “rolling a smoke” in a cowboy picture, then places them in a cigar box marked “Mac Arthur’s Special”. For our purposes, the only shot involving airplanes is near the end, where an aerial view of the plant shows us trucks and tanks pouring out one side of the building, and all manner of planes pouring out the other side. The film ends with an overhead shot of the sparks from welder’s guns and sideways trails of smoke, all forming the shape of an American flag.
The Hare Brained Hypnotist (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 10/31/42 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.). provides another memorable honorable mention. Only two short years into the blossoming career of the “scwewy wabbit”, and the personalities of Bugs and Elmer are already so well engrained in the public’s minds that Freleng is able to pull off a brilliant exercise in “role reversal” between them (the first of two, as the subject would rcceive a new twist over a decade later in “Hare Brush”). Elmer has turned to a book on “Stalking Wild Game”, containing the revelation that “dumb animals of the forest” can be subdued by the superior mind of man through hypnotism. “Unbewievable”, remarks Elmer. A chance encounter with a grizzly bear gives Elmer a chance for practice, effectively turning the beast into a tweeting “canawy bird”. But will Bugs Bunny prove such an easy subject? Even when Bugs says he’ll cooperate, Elmer’s making of eyes emitting electrical sparks at Bugs is matched by Bugs’ eyes emitting even stronger sparks back at Elmer – until Elmer falls asleep in a trance. Determined to teach Elmer a lesson so that he won’t bother Bugs any more, Bugs commands Elmer to be a rabbit. Suddenly, Elmer responds with every move from Bugs’ standard bag of tricks – right down to punctuating his gags with kisses on Bugs’ nose. Elmer takes over Bugs’ rabbit hole, while Bugs complains, “Who’s the comedian in this picture?” Bugs confides in the audience, wondering whether he is slipping, while his dialogue becomes less and less understandable – because Elmer, directly behind Bugs, is supplying the rabbit with two unexpected extra “arms” in the form of Elmer’s hands, stuffing Bugs’ face with three carrots at a time! Bugs has had it, and dives into the rabbit hole after Elmer. In a favorite technique of Freleng, a battle rages unseen in the ground below, indicated only by recurring electrical sparks which shoot up from the hole. For reasons unknown, Elmer, seemingly normal, hops out of the hole, and runs away to horizon. Bugs appears to be the victor, but exhibits a strange behavior, as he looks down at a watch on his wrist, and declares he is overdue at the airport. He zips out of frame, and our final shot surprisingly finds us high above the ground in a cloudy sky, with Bugs’ arms outstretched like wings, and feet clamped tightly together to resemble a tail, roaring with the sounds of a plane engine through the skies. Bugs explains, by informing the audience of what he now believes to be his identity after the hypnotic battle – “I’m the B-19!”
Sky Trooper (Disney, RKO, Donald Duck, 11/6/42 – Jack King, dir.), represents something unique among Donald’s filmography from the golden era – a genuine sequel to a prior cartoon, picking up nearly seamlessly where the last cartoon left off, as if the two films were originally scripted to be presented as a cohesive whole in featurette form. “Donald Gets Drafted” (5/1/42) was an unusually long installment of approximately 9 minutes, while “Sky Trooper” is of average length, just over 7 minutes. Added together, the two would seem of average length for a two-reeler. This speculation, however, gives rise to another level of speculation. In order of actual release, “Trooper”, as discussed below, appears to represent a rare instance where an ending was lifted by Disney from a rival studio – of all people, from Walter Lantz. However, if one presumes that the script for “Trooper” was already in existence when “Donald Gets Drafted” was issued, then it would be Disney who had the idea for the ending first, with Lantz mysteriously coming up with a nearly identical closing before Disney’s version of the film was even issued. How could this have come about? Was there any corporate espionage afoot amidst the rival studios’ own film campaigns to stamp out foreign espionage? Did someone expatriate from the Disney ranks, and leak the story line to Lantz? It is another of those classic situations where the chances of coincidental independent creation seem too slim to be believed, and under either scenario of production order, somebody stole from somebody. If there are any Disneyphile detectives out there who can confirm when the script or storyboard for Sky Trooper came into being, we may perhaps discover who was most likely to have been first, and who was the culprit who just couldn’t resist reusing a good ending setup when he saw it.
In Donald Gets Drafted, Donald, upon signing up for military duty, expressed his wish to learn how to fly – but found his dreams frustrated by an assignment to the infantry. After shooting up camp in an incident where Donald becomes infested with red soldier ants, the duck is assigned to K.P., with a mountainous tower of potatoes behind him to peel. This is just where we find him in the opening of Sky Trooper. From the window, he hears, and occasionally catches glimpses of, trainer planes soaring past as new pilots win their wings. “I wanna fly”, moans Donald over and over, his hands carving his latest potato into the shape of a small plane. Donald gives the potato plane a toss, and it glides gracefully around the room, and into the barracks, where it intercepts the cap off Sergeant Pete’s head, carrying it back into the kitchen. The plane and cap land among the pile of still unpeeled potatoes, and Donald, reaching for his next subject for whittling, grabs the cap instead of a spud, and begins carving. “Did you see a cap around here?”, asks a curious Pete, poking his head in. Donald begins to answer no, then discovers what he is holding in his hands. Pete grabs away the remnants of the cap, and holds the fabric out before him, carved into the shape of many planes like a string of paper doll. “Crazy about airplanes, eh?”, he observes. When Donald repeats that he wants to fly, Pete opens a chute, releasing another tidal wave of unpeeled Idahos, stating “Fly into these!” (Doesn’t this dialogue sound amazingly similar to the “Pilot this clipper” sequence from Woody Woodpecker’s Ace in the Hole, reviewed last week?
Yet another case for there being more than coincidence in the similarities between these two films.) Even while buried under all that starch, Donald’s mood brightens when he hears Pete add. “When you’re through peelin’ that pile, ya can fly.” Donald finishes the task in record time, and reports to Pete’s office, where we discover from sign on the door that Pete also holds the rank of flight sergeant. Pete begins with a simple test of equilibrium – telling Donald to close his eyes, and touch his fingertips together. Donald thinks this will be a cinch – but his fingertips go right past each other, into the opposite sleeves of his uniform. He tries again, but is so lost, Pete toys with him, by placing his own finger within Donald’s reach, the duck falling for it and being perfectly satisfied when he is tip to tip with Pete. Having failed test one, Pete gives him an alternate chance – an air corps version of “pin the tail on the donkey” using a paper plane tail on a pin and a photo of an airplane for the target. Here’s another case of a lifted gag, now borrowing from Terrytoons’ Flying Fever with Gandy Goose, also previously discussed – and with the same “ending”, as Donald gets spun around, wanders out a window and back inside another, coming up behind Pete and “sticking it” into Pete’s rear end. Pete leaps out the window, and cracks the sidewalk below. It is apparent Donald is a washout, but maybe there’s still a use for him in the air after all. Pete observes a plane warming up to take aloft a squad of paratroopers. Getting a fiendish idea, he asks Donald, “Ya wanna go up?” Donald is ready in a heartbeat. A well-crafted shot shows two human-style “dogfaces” running for the plane door, depicted in shadow with lighting highlights in photo-realistic fashion, followed by the silhouette of Donald, also shaded in remarkably realistic light and dark relief. Pete is last to board, and laughs a sadistic laugh in aside to the audience before shutting the door.
The plane takes off. Donald is eager to look out the window, but does not fasten his seat belt. The plane performs an unexpected loop, and Donald finds himself on the ceiling, staring upside down into the face of Pete. “Get back in your seat!”, orders Pete. Donald obediently obliges as the plane rights itself, buckling himself in. Before Donald knows it, Pete is marching down the center aisle with several troopers in full gear behind him, ordering “All out.” Donald unbuckles, commenting aloud, “We must be on the ground”. A trooper ahead of him snickers to another about the little guy, who “thinks we’re on the ground”. (The voice sounds quite familiar, and is neither Bletcher nor Nash – I believe it is Cliff Edwards providing a quick one-line cameo.) “Thanks for the ride. Sarge”, says Donald, as he places one foot out the plane door – and realizes it is touching nothing. In a delayed take, he looks down – and breaks into a total panic. Negotiating a full turn in thin air, Donald zips back into the cabin, clinging with all his might to one of the passenger seats. Pete tries to pry him away, ordering him to “Hit the silk”, while pulling Donald with such force, the chair is uprooted from its steel-riveted base. But Donald is hard to shake, and sticks like glue to every part of Pete’s person and outfit – clinging to Pete’s tie until he is choking him, grabbing hold of and removing Pete’s shoe and sock, then pulling off Pete’s trousers, stretching their suspenders to full extension, while Donald rides inside the pants as a sort of hammock. Pete tugs to get back his pants, but upon regaining the trousers, Donald clings to Pete’s leg again, causing Pete to slip and begin to lose his grip on the plane door. As Pete’s handhold slides to the bottom edge of the doorway, Pete’s other hand reaches out for anything more solid to grab around the underbelly of the plane. All that he can grab is an aerial bomb fastened loosely below. (Is it customary for paratrooper planes on a practice mission to carry live heavy weaponry?) Pete’s weight disconnects the bomb, and he and Donald plummet – neither one of them remembering to take a chute along!. Again, haven’t we seen this situation in Woody Woodpecker’s “Ace in the Hole”? Donald and Pete take turns passing the bomb to each other, and take hand grabs up its diameter as if using a baseball bat to decide who is high man. But Donald settles the issue by kicking Pete in the shin, and when Pete bends to clutch his leg, stuffing the bomb inside the back of Pete’s pants (just where the sergeant in Woody’s cartoon carried his “payload”. The explosion on impact sends into the sky the jagged-edged remains of a sign reading “General’s Headquarters”, then the scene dissolves back to the kitchen – except this time, Pete accompanies Donald in peeling duties, while both of them are in partial traction. “Boy, was that big shot surprised”, remarks Donald. “Aw, shut up”, snarls Pete, jamming a potato upon Donald’s beak to shut him up, for the iris out. Not too different from Woody’s horse clipping duties, wouldn’t you say?
We’ll finish up this busy year, and move into 1943, next time.