Here’s more orchids for remembrance, as we journey down the primrose path of the late 1940’s and early 50’s for more glimpses of Technicolor petals and exotic bouquets. Animation’s fascination with flora remained strong, and, while fewer flowers were likely to sprout feet and dance quadrilles, they were still the spark for many a blooming story idea in the imaginations of creative writers.
While Little ‘Tinker (MGM, 5/15/48 – Tex Avery, dir,) is a bona-fide Valentine’s Day special, I choose not to spotlight it as same on this post, both because its connection with flowers is minimal, and because I’m saving it to spotlight its other attributes in a subsequent article. For our instant purposes, it focuses on a lovelorn skunk who, despite showering in the morning with “O-Buoy” soap, and dumping on a whole bottle of cologne before leaving the house, instantly wilts the flowers on both sides of his walkway the minute he passes. This gag became a staple of Chuck Jones’ Pepe Le Pew series in later years (for example, as in Louvre, Come Back To Me (8/16/62).
Inferior Decorator (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 8/27/48 – Jack Hannah, dir.), introduces to the Duckburg universe a new adversary who would serve Donald well for a good half-dozen or so episodes to follow – the as yet unnamed Spike the Bee. Director Hannah’s creation was unusual among animated beedom, in a number of respects. Unlike many studios’ depiction of the insect, where the natural aggressiveness of the species was primarily played upon, almost to the point of portraying the critter as a bully or villain (which indeed Disney himself had done in prior episodes such as Mickey Mouse’s The Steeple-Chase (1933 ), where Mickey wins the race only at stingers’ end of a non-stop onslaught from an angry bee swarm), Spike was designed in classic rounded circles, with a large head and appealing smiling face (almost resembling Mickey Mouse), and an absolute minimum of insect-like features (no hairy arms or legs, no multi-segmented body, etc.), so that, without appearing fat, he gave the impression of a little loveable roly-poly. Spike, too, was by no means a natural troublemaker. Instead, left to his own resources, he was an industrious, gentle-natured soul, content to let the world go about its business while he went about his. A third unusual trait was that Spike must have been a scout bee, as only in this first episode is he seen to interact with a community of bees; in general, Spike works alone (as in Honey Harvester (1949), where he has created his own personal honey hive without assistance from the mesh of the auto radiator of Donald’s old jalopy). However, Spike isn’t created as a bee for nothing, and has the traditional built-in, pointy secret weapon. And he knows how to use it, too – except that, like the Chuck Jones’ model for Bugs Bunny, he never instigates a fight. He’d rather avoid a fracus, and sometimes flashes his stiletto only as a gentle reminder that the danger is there only if he’s pushed too far. But when the push comes, Spike could appropriately use Bugs Bunny’s last word of warning that you’re fair game: “Of course you realize, this means war!”
Spike may also have been Hannah’s only recurring nearly-purely pantomime character at Disney (he would inherit the reins of the completely silent Chilly Willy for a few episodes in later years at Walter Lantz). Spike never uttered a word of dialog except in his last appearance, Let’s Stick Together (1952), as an aged-old-timer narrating flashback to his lifetime with Donald – and still remains silent in all the flashbacks. (The narration bit had been a staple of Hannah’s other less-successful attempt to team Donald up with an insect adversary in “Bootle Beetle” (1947) and a few subsequent follow-ups.) Spike’s only vocal contributions came in the form of buzzes, which could even be adapted to musical use, as in this film, where he is introduced spiraling around the flowers in Donald’s yard, buzzing the tune of Mendelssohn’s Spring Song. In more vocally-abrasive tones than usual, Donald is heard inside the house, “Waak”ing a vocal of the same song, causing Spike to cover his ears. Inside, Donald is equally industrious in a Springtime project – hanging floral wallpaper in his living room. The large pink flowers on the wallpaper design are of instant appeal to Spike, who has no idea they aren’t real. Spike zooms in the window – and is completely miffed to find he can’t enter the flowers’ blooms, instead smashing his head into the wall, followed by more repeated head-blows as he stubbornly tries to gain entry. He can’t even land on the petals, and falls to the floor just as he thinks he’s gained a footing. All of this attracts Donald’s attention. As in each of the Duck’s and bee’s meetings, Donald finds no immediate intimidation from the bee’s presence – Spike is just too cute, and in this instance, too funny for Donald to be afraid of. Donald’s mischievous side rises, and he figures a way to get the little stinger away from the wallpaper.
Cutting out one of the flowers from another wallpaper strip, Donald holds up the piece of wallpaper and waves it invitingly in Spike’s direction – a sort of red cape to a bull. Spike, who still hasn’t figured out the flowers’ mystery, flies at the wallpaper in Donald’s hand – but Donald, in classic bullfighter fashion, pulls the paper out of Spike’s path at the last second, and Spike lands with a dull plop into a paste bucket Donald had concealed behind the wallpaper. “Stick around, bud, stick around”, Donald taunts, as Spike wriggles is the gooey residue at the bottom of the bucket. Spike tries to fly out, but the paste elastically sticks to his tail and keeps pulling him back into the pail. A delightful shot has only Donald’s eyes and Spike’s flight animated, both moving in perfect synchronization as Donald watches Spike’s hopeless struggle with glee. But Donald is never content with insult when he can also add injury. He grabs his scissors, and cuts the stretched line of paste that is holding Spike back. Spike zips skyward, clanging headfirst into Donald’s ceiling lamp. He lands back on the window ledge, stumbling around in dazed circles – and Donald gives him the bum’s rush by pushing him off the window sill and slamming the window shut. Well, this is all a self-respecting bee can stand. As Donald spreads paste on a long strip of wallpaper on the floor, Spile gains entry to the house through a keyhole. Seeing Donald’s prominent expanse of tail feathers invitingly bent-over, Spike turns to his own stinger, musically plunking it to ensure it is in good tune, and dives in for an attack. Donald hears the jet-like roar of Spike’s approach, and dodges the charge just in time, causing Spike to bounce along the glue side of the wallpaper strip and again get stuck to the far end of the paper. As Spike attempts to fly, lifting the wallpaper with him, Donald says “Oh no ya don’t” and grabs the other end, leaving them in a tug of war.
The glue gives way on Spike’s end, and Donald flies backward with the wallpaper into the air – where the wallpaper strip gets stuck to the ceiling, and Donald’s hands stuck between the ceiling and the glue. Now suspended by his hands, Donald’s rear end is left invitingly defenseless. Despite several efforts by Donald to defend his lower regions with his feet (even managing to grab with his toes a cork from a bottle so that Spike gets his stinger caught in the cork instead of Donald’s feathers), Donald finally decides the only place of safety is to somehow crawl all the way in under the wallpaper, forming a lump beneath the strip on the ceiling. But this provides him no help, as Spike uses his stinger to cut a “drop-seat” flap in the wallpaper, leaving Donald’s tail hanging helplessly out. Spike returns to the front-door keyhole, and whistles outside to his home base – a neighboring beehive. Bees swarming around the hive form into the sign of a question mark. Spike hails them over to the house, and zips back inside. One by one, each bee pokes his head in the keyhole, and Spike, with a bow, presents them with sight of Donald’s tail, as “target for tonight”. Each bee brightens, zooms inside past the camera, and we hear Donald’s offscreen “Ouch!” The final shot shows the exterior of Donald’s home, where the bees hover in single-file flying formation as if little airplanes circling the field for landing instructions, forming four long spirals of “incomings”around the house as they make their entries one-by-one, with the sound of Donald’s “Ouch”es repeating ad infinitum.
The Seven Colored Flower (Michael Tsekhanovsky, 1948 (two reels)) – I know very little about Russian animation studios, and often tend to find their early work mechanical in movement and strange in storytelling style. This one, however, is a surprisingly pleasant exception. While slow and gentle in pacing, this one truly does its best to offer Russian audiences a home-grown alternate universe to Disney and the American studios, trying for some genuine heart and elaborate and realistic animation with a vibrant color pallette. In fact, it’s hard to tell if they’re trying more to be Disney, or to capture the style of Famous Studios at its best. The resemblances to Famous may be closer, as a little girl is the center of attention (Paramount’s forte), whose outfit almost makes one wonder if she’s supposed to be the Russian Little Lulu. And the heart tugs at the ending harken to some of the best work of Famous on the Raggedy Ann episodes, Suddenly It’s Spring (1944) and The Enchanted Square (1947).
A little girl is sent to the market for some bagels. Like many little girls, her attention span is limited, and she gets easily distracted – looking in departmet store windows, counting crows, etc. She doesn’t watch where she is holding her bagels, and a hungry dog snatches them and makes a getaway through city streets and into a park (presented in interesting POV fashion, with trees and buildings bending and morphing past the little girl’s eyes in forced perspective in the manner that large objects would seem to loom over the field of vision of a small little girl). She gets exhausted, and is forced to give up the chase in the middle of the park. To her surprise, she is called over by an old lady on a park bench, whom the little girl comes to affectionately know as “Granny” – the suggestion of a fairy grandmother. Granny deduces that the little girl lost her bagels to a dog because she wasn’t paying attention. “How did you know? Are you smart?”, the girl asks. “No, I’m cunning”, Granny replies. Granny offers to help, even though she has neither bagels nor money – but says she knows the secrets to true happiness. Calling to the birds, she is presented with a little magic bell. She rings it and calls out for a little cloud to come over. The cloud stops above a bush where she wants it, and on command pours a private rain shower on the plant. A stem grows from its center, instantly blossoming into a seven-petaled flower, each petal a different color of the rainbow. Granny presents the bloom to the little girl, announcing that it’s a special wishing flower. Pick a petal, recite a magic incantation and your wish, and toss the petal into the air – and the petal will make your wish come true. Memorizing the magic words, the girl tries the flower out, wishing she was home with the bagels. She is swept up in a red cyclone created by the spinning petal, and transported back to her home, while a side wind current delivers to her hands a fresh load of bagels. Back in her own living room, Mom, hearing her from the next room but seeing nothing, thanks her for bringing home the bagels. Realizing the flower is indeed not ordinary, the girl decides it should be put in a beautiful vase – and reaches for Mom’s best vase on a high shelf. More crows pass outside, and as she turns to look, she drops the vase and smashes it. Mom hears and is about to accuse her of being careless again, but the girl tries to dodge the blame and assure Mom that everything’s all right, plucking another petal from the flower and whispering a wish that the vase be repaired – and, no sooner said than done.
Now the girl starts to take the situation more seriously, realizing she can have anything instantly if she just wants it. She resolves to choose something the most wonderful – but is again distracted by a group of boys outside playing explorer, pretending to be on an expedition to discover the North Pole. She runs outside and tries to join the game, but they insist asventurers don’t take girls along. Left alone, the girl spitefully declares that she doesn’t need them to find the pole – she can go herself – and plucks another petal, with the foolhardy wish that she be transported to the North Pole. The petal does her bidding, whisking her away to the far North, where she lands in sliding fashion on a patch of ice. A walrus confirms she has reached her destination, and, largely oblivious to the cold, she falls into her usual habits, trying to count seals instead of crows. But a polar bear approaches, and announces that she looks like a tasty morsel for his dinner. The little girl flees, as the polar bear pursues her up an icy crag. Realizing she’s cornered, she falls back on another petal, wishing that polar bear would find himself trapped in a zoo. In a double whirlwind, both she and the polar bear are transported halfway around the globe, back to the city zoo in her home town, with the bear finding himself securely locked in a cage.
The girl again tries to seriously contemplate what to do with her next wish. She rejects an impulse for something yummy, realizing that after she eats it, there’ll be nothing left. Then she thinks, “Maybe I should wish for a toy.” At this moment, another little girl passes by with a stroller, and a large baby doll inside. Our heroine thinks it’s the most beautiful doll she’s ever seen – but the second little girl won’t let her play second nursemade. “Your hands are dirty – and you’ve probably got a runny nose.” Again left on the outside looking in, our heroine’s vengeful spirit, as well as greed, gets the better of her, and she wishes for all the toys in the world! The petal flies out, first sweeping away the other girl’s doll and stroller right out of her hands. Then, it proceeds to the local toy stores and factories. An elaborately animated parade of playthings begins to fly out of every door and window, all proceeding in marching formation toward the little girl in the park. The little girl is pleased at the first arrivals – but seeing more, and more, and more coming, realizes things are starting to get scary. “No. No. I don’t need so many toys!” But still they keep coming, chasing her down pathways, through zoo ticket booths, and finally forming a pig-pile on top of her.
When she can take it no longer, the girl uses her sixth petal to wish all the toys back to the stores – and they vanish the way they came. Now the girl realizes there is but one petal left. In her mind’s eye, we see her imaging the results of one monster compound wish, trying to throw in a little bit of everything under the sun – including at least one item which she forgetfully mentions twice, then clarifies by adding the phrase, “As I mentioned before”. Just before she is ready to make this wish of all wishes, she encounters a boy on a park bench, who for once is genuinely friendly to her. She suggests they play, and taps him with the call of “Tag”. But the boy does not rise from the bench, and becomes dismal and moody. The girl inquires why, and the boy reaches down and produces a crutch, with which he slowly rises from the seat. The girl apologizes, saying she didn’t know – and is even more distressed when the boy announces that “It’s for life.” The goodness in the little girl comes through, and, forgetting her monster wish, she uses the last petal to with the boy to full health. The boy is cured, drops the crutch, and happily chases after the girl in the tag game she had desired. She’s made a fast friend – but realizes that nothing is left her of the flower except an empty stem. But who should happen along but Granny, who says again that she knows what happened. How? Granny says she knows the girl wasted her first six wishes on foolish things, but used her last wish for a good and unselfish purpose – because the last petal came flying back to her after it had fulfilled the girl’s final wish. She says that she believes if they plant that petal, it will grow into a new seven-colored flower. The boy and the girl carefully assist Granny with the planting, the cloud is called on again – and another bloom grows and is presented to the girl, who has learned her lesson on how to use it, for a happy fade out. An enchanting little parable, and a surprising delight to the eye.
Spring Song (Paramount/Famous, Screen Song, 6/24/49 – I. Spraber, dir.), features a brief gag with flowers, as a panflute playing satyr (similar to Iwerks’ character in “Summertime”, reviewed last week) ushers in the season. A boy flower and a girl flower bloom close to each other. They kiss in romantic embrace – then suddenly, four little blooms emerge from the soil below them, with “papa” assuming a pose of manly pride.
Tennis Racquet (Disney/RKO, Goofy, 8/26/49 – Jack Kinney, dir.), includes a brief surprise floral reference. A sportscaster (Doodles Weaver, a frequent member of the Spike Jones musical depreciation review) looks out the announcer’s booth window at a line of traffic outside the tennis club. “We anticipate quite a gathering, who will not pass up the chance to witness this thrilling contest of……” His voice dwindles off, as he realizes all the cars are turning at a fork in the road, not to the tennis club, but to a Flower Show next door. “Oh, well. Everyone to their own tastes.”
The Mountain Flower (1948) was a two-minute fully-animated theatrical commercial produced by Walter Lantz for Coca Cola. Its plot vehicle is an alpine mountain climber’s quest for edelweiss – a plot point previously used as the start-up of an encounter between Donald Duck and a mountain goat in Mickey Mouse’s Alpine Climbers (1936). The edelweiss bears striking resemblance to Andy Panda’s flower in The Wacky Weed, with effeminate facial features. The climber scales a rock wall with pick axe. A large bird in a nest avoids the pick by pressing a button which folds its rocky crag into the mountainside as the climber passes. At the top, the flower screams, uproots itself, and flees running on its roots. The climber dives for it, but slides off the opposite cliff face. He plummets through about seven snowdrifts on the opposite side – only to find the eighth ledge is solid stone. He rolls down the slope, forming into a snowball, which almost takes out the doghouse of a St. Bernard (who jumps upward with his house to avoid the impact). The dog meets him in the crash at the foot of the mountain with an ice-cold coke. (Wouldn’t a hot rum-toddy have gone better on a snowy day?) The animation gives the appearance of still including many of Dick Lundy’s unit, but with some thicker outlines suggesting the beginnings of influence of the Laverne Harding style which would permeate Lantz animation for several years to come. These Coke commercials seem to have been Lantz’s lifeline through the hiatus following the loss of his UA contract, until “Destination Moon” put him back on the map to regain a new series of bookings back at Universal.
Disney’s Alice In Wonderland (Disney/RKO, 7/26/51) features some of the most masterful character animation ever embodied by a flower in the history of animated film, providing Alice with a veritable community of blossoms to converse – and sing – with, in the Garden of Live Flowers sequence, topped by one of the film’s best production numbers and most memorable songs, ‘All In the Golden Afternoon”. The inclusion of the sequence is in fact a cheat, as the vignette did not derive from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, but from “Through the Looking Glass”. But then, crossovers between the two books had become commonplace in Hollywood filmings, and would continue to be. Charlotte Henry’s Paramount version in 1933 would include incongruously Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (who would also appear in the Disney version). Betty Boop’s Betty In Blunderland (1934) would not only have her and the White Rabbit travel through a mirror, but meet the Jabberwock. Hanna-Barbera’s primetime ABC special in the 1960’s, written by Bill Dana, would have Dana write in for himself a juicy part as the White Knight – another “Mirror” resident. Such were the customs of artistic license.
Alice’s encounter with the flowers occurs in the Disney version after improvising to get herself out of the predicament of being stuck in the White Rabbit’s house as a giant, where a random bite from a carrot in the Rabbit’s garden reduces her to a size of six inches high. She loses track of the Rabbit and attempts to cross a floral garden. To her surprise, she is addressed by a matronly and seemingly friendly Red Rose. “Of Course we can talk”, the Rose states to calm Alice’s surprise. A snooty purple flower, with tendrils resembling a lorgnette, chimes in, “If there’s anyone worth talking to.” Another bloom adds the further cattish comment, “Or about!” A group of small colorful blossoms with seemingly smiling faces further add “And we sing, too.” In the course of the “Golden Afternoon” number, Alice is introduced to shy little violets, tulips with talking and kissing lips, opening morning glories, Tiger Lillies and Dandy Lions with distinctive feline personalities, Daffy Dillies who clown around like buffoons, lazy daisies who lie around in spider-web hammocks, and a sterling white Rose who is the prima soprano of the massed chorus, among other flora and fauna. After Alice (a bit off key) is coaxed to perform the last lines of the tune (her voice cracking on the high note), inquiries begin from the busybodies of the group as to what sort of garden Alice comes from. When Alice states she doesn’t come from any garden, and isn’t a wildflower, the pointed question is asked as to just what genus she is. She answers that she supposes she is a ‘Genus Humanus Alice”. The scrutiny of her becomes more intense, with catty criticisms of her petal color, stems, “and no fragrance”. (I guess Alice bathed well that morning.) One flower finally whispers in the “ear” of another her conclusion that Alice is a genus ending with the Latin “vulgarus” – “To put it bluntly, a weed!” Without further ado or defense, Alice is shooed away with pushing and pulling leaves of her companions, loud honking from the golden “horn” petals of many orchestral flowers, and the snarls of the tiger lily and dandy lion, then for good measure has the water held in the cup of another flower’s petals dumped on her by a daffy dilly, which floats her out of the garden entirely, and entirely drenched.
Upswept Hare (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 3/14/53 – Robert McKimson, dir.), has only a brief floral connection, as a vehicle for its story setup. In an American desert, Bugs (heard only below ground, beds down for the night (“Another day, another carrot”) in a rabbit hole directly adjacent to a large pink flower growing in the nearby soil. Along comes a fancy car down the desert road. In pith helmet and jodhpurs as if on an expedition emerges Elmer Fudd, who, at the sight of the flower, happily proclaims , “Oh, boy! A desert bwooming hadacoleus!” (A verbal mash-up between the genuine floral variety, “coleus”, and the then-notorious “cure-all” tonic, Hadacol, whose most notable feature was 12% alcohol content). Elmer decides to transplant the flower to his penthouse tropical garden. Grabbing a shovel, he plants it deep, and traces a large circle around the plant, which ”only pwospers in its native soil.” Of course, he uproots Bugs’ entire rabbit hole into the large bucket into which he transplants the flower. The remainder of the film follows the adventures of Bugs experiencing culture shock on waking up atop a skyscraper in a New York penthouse. Sleepily arising to take a bath, Bugs stumbles his way into a grandiose bathroom modeled after Ancient Rome, then suddenly realizes, “Hey! Dis ain’t my bathin’ stream!” Concluding it’s a mirage, he comes up with a new lyric to “Home Sweet Home, entitled, “Be it ever so crumbly, there’s no place like Rome”. Elmer discovers him, and attempts to get him out of the pool by firing a double-barreled shotgun at him – but blasts the bottom out of the bathing pool, and its water into his downstairs neighbor’s apartment. Eventually. Bugs challenges Elmer to prove why “Wabbits don’t bewong in penthouses” with a friendly contest of sporting events to prove which one of them is “the better man”. Of course, Bugs rigs every event so that Elmer comes out the fall guy. Finally tricking Elmer into a flying leap off the penthouse roof and to the sidewalk countless stories below, Bugs calls over the edge, “You win, mac!” Finding Elmer crashed into a street vendor’s popcorn wagon below, Bugs appears with the bucket with his hole and the hadacoleus carried like a skirt around his waist, preparing to leave, and delivers the curtain line “I’ve gotta admit you’re a better man that I am, doc – But only because I’m a rabbit!”
When next we meet, we’ll travel through the remainder of the 1950’s and into the televison 60’s, where a new influence on animation’s horticultural interests raises its ugly head – the man-eating plant!