Animation Trails
November 27, 2019 posted by Charles Gardner

How Grim Was My Pilgrim (Part 1)

Every year about this time, some author or another traditionally writes about his favorite Thanksgiving cartoons, usually concentrating on those dealing with everyone’s favorite dish – Turkey. For a change this year, I thought it might be interesting to de-emphasize the turkey in importance, and concentrate on the guys and gals who got the whole holiday started in the first place – the Pilgrims. While there is necessarily some overlap between Pilgrim and turkey cartoons, this re-focus allows us to include a few choice episodes which don’t usually make the cut in Thanksgiving discussion, where the turkey is either of lesser importance or entirely absent.

For those politically-correct purists, be forewarned that, after all, much of our discussion period deals with the racially-insensitive ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s – a time when no one seemed to think of using the phrase “native American”, and the “Indian” was a common commodity in all forms of cinema and literature – particularly in dime-a-dozen Western epics and novels and in many forms of low comedy. For shortage of space and in keeping with the times of our subject, I will therefore from time to time use the period term “Indian” when dealing with descriptions of such characters’ participation (however possibly unsavory) in the adventures below.

I’ve not located any listings clearly indicating the existence of any silent cartoon involving Pilgrims. Perhaps one unknown possibility is Mutt and Jeff’s Cold Turkey (1922), a presumably lost film. Anyone know of any candidates for inclusion from this early era?

This would bring us well into the talkie period, where we find The Mayflower (Terrytoons/Educational, 12/27/35 – Paul Terry/Frank Moser, dir.). Not exactly a stickler for historical accuracy, the stoic Pilgrims are depicted as passing the time aboard ship in a country square dance! I would doubt such frivolity would have been socially approved – and further doubt the deck of the Mayflower would have provided enough space for a dance floor. Land is sighted, and Plymouth Rock is topped by the nest of – what else – a Plymouth Rock chicken.

Pilgrims and furniture pour off of the ship, much of the furniture taking on life and providing its own swimming strokes. An old lady uses a spinning wheel as an outboard motor. Waves crashing on the rocky shore deposit successive “waves” of the settlers. Their arrival does not go unnoticed by the local Indians – who break out carts selling hot dogs, ice cream, peanuts and shoe laces to take in the tourist trade. One Pilgrim and his dog take to turkey hunting, but the old gag is used of shooting at feathers and hitting an Indian’s headdress instead (This oldie had been kicking around in cartoons at least as early as Krazy Kat’s Ratskin (1929), and probably earlier.) The Indians go on the warpath, and throw tomahawks which lodge in the trunk of a thin sapling tree. The Pilgrim bends the sapling down, then springs all the tomahawks back at their owners. With the use of a board set on a rock like a teeter-totter, the Pilgrim launches his dog to safety upon a cliff above in the manner of hitting a high-striker. The dog reciprocates by dislodging a boulder above, hitting the teeter-totter and launching his master up to the cliff in time to make a narrow escape from the tribe. They dance in victory for the iris out.

Ye Happy Pilgrims (Lantz.Universal, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, 9/3/34 – Walter Lantz, dir.). A cast of characters introduces Oswald as John Alden, a human character referred to as “Harelip Harry” as Miles Standish, and a human female (oddly named as “Helen Hare”) as Priscilla. Opening shots look as though they were roughly modeled after Terry’s The Mayflower, with the ship sailing (superimposed under live-action transparencies of artificial snow), pilgrims marching ashore, and a repeat of the Indians trying to hawk items for sale, solicit taxi rides, etc. A few original gags appear in a sequence of construction of the pilgrims’ homes, with a hippo serving as a living cement mixer, and a giraffe extending and contracting its neck into its body to move logs like a hydraulic crane. Everyday life is depicted with one pilgrim in the public stocks for “Necking on the Sabbath”. Comes spring. As usual, Miles Standish can’t get up nerve to deliver a love note, Oswald acts as messenger, and Priscilla asks him to speak for himself, then drags him into the cabin for a smooching party. Standish reacts with a sarcastic, “My Pal!, making a slashing gesture with his sword as if he’d love to cut Oswald’s throat. He takes his sword and swipes at a nearby tree, chopping it down in one swing. By the time he’s through with his tantrum, the whole forest seems to be chopped down.

Realizing a wedding is impending, Standish appears to get an idea, and disappears into the woods to presumably carry out a nefarious plan. At a Thanksgiving dinner table, Oswald and Priscilla celebrate their nuptials with their pilgrim brothers. Until a war whoop is heard, and Standish appears, at the lead of a tribe of Indians. But an aggravating town cryer (Dopey Dick – in some cartoons the spitting image of Wimpy) bids them all welcome and invites them to the banquet. The Indians and Standish greedily dive in to the food supply, battling a skirmish between themselves on the table over the dinner morsels. Oswald and Priscilla reappear from under the table. Standish offers no explanation for bringing the Indians, but professes to being “Pals” with Oswald again, claiming he only came to kiss the bride. Pilgrims and Indians exchange handshakes in further friendship. As Standish bends to kiss Priscilla, Dopey Dick barges in between them to call out “All is Well”, blocking the kiss. Standish pushes a fresh pie smack into his face for his troubles, as we iris out.

Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas (Warner, Merrie Melodies (Egghead), 10/22/38 – Fred (Tex) Avery, dir.), does a good job of crossing-up historical references, attributing John Smith to the Mayflower instead of Jamestown. Egghead plays the title character. (When his character name appears below him in superimposed caption, he topples all the letters like a row of dominoes.) The dedication card opening the film dedicates it to “the 7,500,000,000,00000 people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower” – with the numbers running clear around the frame. As Smith approaches land, he spots signs ashore advertising F.H.A. loans (Federal Housing Administration), and “Parking 15 minutes”. Ashore, the Indian community looks like Main Street U.S.A., with teepees for barber shops (with a hole in the middle of the barber’s blade to cut an instant Mohawk). “Beer and Wines”, and even a Pool hall. Several gags were redrawn years later by Bob Clampett for Daffy and Porky’s Slightly Daffy (1944) of a scouting Indian wearing a headdress that is really a turkey, who on seeing the Mayflower, leaps on his horse to travel two paces to a telephone, and phones in his report by means of automated tom-toms on the chief’s phone. Smith and his party explore the new land, and encounter a sign reading, “Beware of Scalpers”. From behind a tree emerges the chief, who tries to sell Egghead two Rose Bowl tickets on the 50 yard line. Egghead reveals he’s an alumnus himself, and already has six tickets of his own to sell.

This sets the Indians on the warpath, and the chase is on. A slide interrupts the proceedings, announcing that due to the length of the program, the chase will be cut short – then even asking Smith if this is okay with him. Smith approves, insisting he’s too fast for these guys anyway. Of course, the scene fades to him hogtied and bent over for a headsman’s axe (whose job is made easier by a tattoo on the back of Egghead’s neck reading, “Cut Along Dotted Line”). Nearby in a teepee, princess Poker-Huntas listens on the radio to bulletin of Smith about to go to the happy hunting ground. The announcer tells he to get going if she wants the picture to have a happy ending. To really cross-up history, she zooms to the rescue in a streamlined sedan automobile, bowling the Indians over. An extended wild car chase ensues, with an auto fleet of Indians in pursuit. Smith and Poker beat them to the gangplank and drive aboard the Mayflower, as a shoe attached to the stern of the ship gives the Mayflower a kick-start from the dock. They sail back to England (I guess they had no persecution to run from in the first place) and cross-up history again, as they take up domestic life. They are seen in their living room, reading a copy of “Last of the Mohicans”. “Oh, yeah?”, says Poker, as the camera pans to the center of the room, full of infant miniatures of Egghead and herself, as the iris out almost catches one of the crawling babies in its circle.

Original production art from JOHNNY SMITH AND POKER HUNTAS

Landing of the Pilgrims (Terrytoons/Fox, 11/1/39 – John Foster, dir,) – is roughly a half-and-half mix of old animation and new – but all in glorious Technicolor. The first half mostly retraces and paints in color previous scenes from The Mayflower – from the landing through the Indian hawkers and vendors. A few new gags appear – with everyone on board the ship reading “Pilgrim’s Progress”, and an extended scene as one Pilgrim trades a grandfather’s clock to an Indian for one of his hot dogs. The Indian pulls the old trick of a hot dog attached to a string – pulling all the meat out just before the Pilgrim bites into the bun. But the Indian gets his pants caught on the key mechanism of the clock, and the contraption falls apart – so they’re even. The last half features new footage of a turkey hunt – fairly routine, but with a strange ending. Playing on Congress’s debates at the time over what week to celebrate Thanksgiving, the Pilgrim, having caught the turkey and about to give it the axe, gets an unexpected visit by – Paul Revere (??), who tells him to stop. Why? He delivers an official parchment proclamation from Washington, decreeing that Thanksgiving was already over last week! The Pilgrim faints, and the local turkeys do a victory dance for the closing.

Pilgrim Porky (Warner, Looney Tunes, Porky Pig, 3/16/40 – Robert Clampett, dir.) promotes Porky to captain of the Mayflower. His ship bears markings on its stern like an automobile, complete with license plate, warning not to follow too closely – air brakes, and even a bumper sticker with a heart, and the names “John” and “Priscilla”. The anchor is raised by the ship’s porthole changing into a mouth and swallowing it. Clampett borrows Avery’s gag of a shoe kicking off the ship from the dock. Porky’s captain’s bridge looks like the cab of a streetcar, as he sets a destination sign from “England” to “America” and rings a streetcar bell. A chorus of Pilgrims sings that if they can’t make the voyage by sea, they’ll make it by rail – then burp and head for the railing to hurl. A black cook provides a running gag of trying to dive underwater to get fresh fish for dinner, but always being told that his catch is too small. Puns abound, as flying fish (piloting little airplanes) pass towing a sign reading “Eat at Joe’s” (predicting Tex Avery – see below). A rough sea produces “whitecaps” – literal hats on the ocean surface. The ship nearly hits an iceberg – but it parts in the middle like a drawbridge. Signs of civilization appear (beer bottles in the water), and Clampett steals Avery’s gag of the F.H.A. and “Parking 15 minutes” signs And the continent already has a Statue of Liberty – junior size, age 3. Porky lands on Plymouth Rock, the stern of the ship dumping out the Pilgrims like a dump truck. For a closer, the cook finally produces a fish that’s plenty big – except he’s inside it.

The Hardship of Miles Standish (Warner, 4/27/40 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) begins with a visual play-on-words with the title card, showing a type of inkstand called a “standish” below the titles. The scene opens on a radio broadcasting the closing of a dramatization of “The Courtship of Miles Standish”, which is scoffed at by an old “grandpaw” type (a parody of Bill Thompson’s “The Old Timer” character from the radio comedy, “Fibber McGee and Molly”). “Even if it did happen that way, it couldn’t’ve happened that way!”, protests Gramps. He tells his grandson his own version. The lovely (???) Priscilla is played by a caricature of old frump Edna Mae Oliver, while Miles Standish is a caricature of Hugh Herbert – two character actors with more than their share of portrayals in cartoons. Both spend year after year sneaking little waves to each other through facing windows of their respective homes, then darting away. “I don’t want to appear brazen”, says Priscilla. Standish not only can’t get up nerve for a proposal, but is terrible at composing “mash notes” – so he hires the John Alden Messenger Service to deliver a singing telegram (looking up Alden in a far-out of historical context telephone book also including listings for “John Barrymore” and “John Barleycorn” – a colloquial reference to Booze.) Alden is played by an early Elmer Fudd – just barely past his historical roots of derivation from Tex Avery’s “Egghead” character (see A Feud There Was (1938), where Egghead still is drawn in Avery’s style but is named “Elmer Fudd, Peacemaker”), and still wearing Egghead’s hat and high collar.

Elmer performs with his traditional speech impediment “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby” at Priscilla’s doorstep, which Priscilla obviously finds adorable. But before Elmer can collect his fee (as Standish has sent the telegram collect), an Indian arrow enters the scene, and Alden and Priscilla find themselves under attack. Elmer and Priscilla bravely hold the “fort” of Priscilla’s home with a few muskets and rifle balls. Priscilla is so brave, she runs out in the middle of the attack to retrieve the laundry she left on the clothesline in the yard – then returns one item to the clothesline which is “not dry yet”. Stock scenes of Indians, some reused from films such as “Scalp Trouble” (1939), or to be reused in its remake, Slightly Daffy (1944), abound. Finally, an Indian whose headdress feather keeps falling over his eyes shoots an arrow through a plate-glass window. Elmer insists one of them has to pay for the glass – and the Indians run for it like a gang of street kids who won’t take responsibility for a batted baseball. Alden is Priscilla’s “little hero”, and the story ends. Freleng makes first use of a gag to be often reused later (in, for example, The Trial of Mr. Wolf (1941) and His Hare-Raising Tale (1951)), as Gramps insists that it that isn’t the truth, he hopes lightning strikes him. It does, burning out half the living room. Gramps hangs from the rafters, paraphrasing The Old Timer for his curtain line: “Anyhow, that’s the way I heard it!”

Hysterical Highspots In American History (Lantz/Universal, 5/31/41 – no director credit (likely Lantz), Alex Lovy, Laverne Harding, anim.), a spot gag reel, of course features a few brief gags on the Pilgrims. Renaming the ship “May Flour”, Plymouth Rock includes a sign, “Free parking in rear for patrons.” The most eager Pilgrims to set foot on the new world are the passengers’ dogs, who all encircle the nearest tree (a lift of the closing gag from Disney’s Father Noah’s Ark (1933)). And the Thanksgiving dinner is punctuated by an endless procession of passing the plates around in circles, with everyone endlessly chiming in, “Thank you!”

Tom Turk and Daffy (Warner, Looney Tunes, Porky Pig/Daffy Duck, 2/12/44 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.) is apparently something of a communal effort for the Termite Terrace crew, with story credit merely reading, “The Staff”. In the winter snow, Daffy (who again seems to have forgotten to fly South) is building a snowman. His jazzed-up chorus of “Jingle Bells” is interrupted by the sound of gunfire – followed by a turkey (voiced by Billy Bletcher) in hysterics, begging for Daffy to hide him. A begrudging Daffy slaps the turkey out of his crying jag, then halfheartedly attempts to “hide” the bird – in places obviously too small to fit (under rocks, in small holes, etc.) He finally crams the turkey inside his snowman (closing him in with a snow drop-seat like a pair of long underwear). Along comes Pilgrim Porky, who announces he’s seeking the turkey. Daffy feigns offense at being accused of concealing his turkey, and states that his lips are sealed (a dissolve shows them closed with masking tape and clamps). Porky walks off dejectedly, bemoaning that he won’t be able to have a Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. Each “goodie” he mutters about starts to bring out a hunger in Daffy. In a creative color layout, Daffy alternates from one end of a background to another – the upper end in heavenly blue as he develops angel halo and pledges he won’t reveal the turkey’s position, and the lower end in fiery red as Daffy develops devil’s horns and drools more pronouncedly at every additional banquet ingredient Porky mentions. When Porky finally gets to “candied yams”, Daffy breaks into tears. “The yams did it. Those nasty yams.”

Daffy is suddenly atop a stool, with a sign reading “Stool Pigeon”. He pushes the snowman right in front of Porky, surrounded by a barrage of signs indicating “He’s in here!” In cutaway view, the turkey inside calls Daffy a “quisling”. But the turkey has an idea. Burrowing under the snow, he tunnels over to Daffy, and places his own tail feathers on Daffy’s rear end. “Gobble Gobble Gobble”, he calls out behing Daffy’s back, then ducks out of sight. Porky assumes Daffy is a turkey, and hunting season opens afresh. Many snow gags abound, with snowballs greeting Porky from all directions (look for an interesting animation error at about 4:35, as Porky’s eyeballs disappear from his head and appear in the sky on the other side of the screen without their irises showing, from a cel placed on the camera mount backwards), Daffy creating an ice shield for himself by pouting a pail of water over his head which instantly freezes (remembered years later by Bugs Bunny in The Iceman Ducketh), another pail of water that forms an ice suspension bridge (for which Daffy collects toll yet), and a dive by Porky through a snowbank that converts him briefly into an icy Sherman tank. Daffy finally finds the tailless turkey building his own snowman, and begs to be hidden from Porky. The turkey gets a chance for role reversal, and gives Daffy the same treatment as he got at the beginning of the picture – except worse, with Daffy thrown off cliffs, having trees felled upon him, and being flung under every object in sight far into the night for the iris out.

Tex Avery’s Jerky Turkey (MGM, 4/7/45), has become a holiday staple frequently included in other author’s “favorites” lists, and crosses over into categories of both turkeys and pilgrims. For any other director, the continued popularity of this film might have seemed surprising – considering the number of dated wartime references included within the cartoon (lines around the block to patronize a store that still has cigarettes; a town “crier” weeping at being classified 1-A by the draft board; anti-aircraft weaponry and a flotilla of supporting destroyers accompanying the Mayflower; and the turkey attempting to sell himself on “Ye Black Market”, for example) – enough such gags that MGM could never figure a re-edit that would permit it to include the film in any theatrical reissue. But after all, this is Tex Avery we’re talking about, and the remaining cartoon content is as funny as ever. Avery’s version of Plymouth Rock is shaped like the chicken itself – with a nearby sign with another wartime reference: “Was this trip really necessary?” Avery repeats his fondness for Jimmy Durante by using the same voice impersonator as used on his previous What’s Buzzin’, Buzzard? (1943) for the turkey, while the pilgrim shares the same Bill Thompson impersonation used when the real Thompson wasn’t available in other films such as Northwest Hounded Police (1946).

Strange touches which only Avery, or maybe Bob Clampett, would dream up abound, such as the turkey, in the middle of running from a hail of bullets, stopping to transform himself with a Superman suit so that the bullets bounce off his chest. Or the Pilgrim apologizing to an Indian, but so anxious to get away that he flees the scene, leaving behind only his dentures to complete his sentence in mid-air. There is that frequently-seen Avery political incorrectness, with a “half- breed” – divided down the middle so that half of him wears Indian garb, the other half a business suit. And a classic running gag out of left field featuring a bear wearing a sandwich sign reading, “Eat at Joe’s” who pops up all through the picture, until our tired heroes finally take him up on the invitation and proceed to Joe’s diner – where they are instantly devoured by the bear, who’s name is Joe. In a final cutaway view, the Pilgrim and turkey are seen disgruntled inside Joe’s tummy, as the Pilgrim holds up a sign in counter-advertisement: “Don’t Eat at Joe’s.”

Tom and Jerry’s The Little Orphan (MGM, 4/30/49 (odd release date for a Thanksgiving cartoon!) – William Hanna/Joseph Barbera, dir.) is of course another well-known and highly-regarded masterpiece, discussion of which is unavoidable whether you’re dealing with turkeys or Pilgrims – as Jerry and Nibbles spend half the cartoon playing dress-up as Pilgrims via borrowing the outfits of miniature doll figurines on place cards at the dinner table. Tom immediately gets into the spirit of things by donning a war bonnet of feathers with the use of a convenient feather duster – and the battle of the dinner table is on – complete with flaming arrows, war whoops, utensils used as tomahawks, etc. There is more concentration on this battle than on the briefly-seen turkey at the end of the picture, so the film most properly belongs in a Pilgrim category. Curiously, the film may mark one of the only instances where a filmmaker won the Oscar for presenting the same idea twice, in films spaced only a few years apart. Note sometime the similarity in both presentation and pacing between this cartoon and the same cat- and-mouse team’s 1952 vehicle, The Two Mouseketeers – they’re virtually the same cartoon – just change the time period, and switch a few gags (replace champagne bottle with cannon, for example). Odd that the academy didn’t notice – but then, how could one not like the team in those borrowed outfits from a Gene Kelley swashbuckler, marching to a leftover Nelson Eddy march from “The Girl of the Golden West”? Charm conquers all.

I’d hoped to squeeze all of this topic into one article – but there were considerably more of these episodes to review than I figured. So, as with any good Thanksgiving feast, next week we’ll finish up with the leftovers.


  • I initially misread the title of this week’s post as “How Grim Was My Reaper”. I hope you will begin collecting material for a post on that subject at some future date.

    Just a few notes (or should I say, “Let’s talk turkey!”):

    Re “Helen Hare”, I don’t think she was intended as a human character at all but rather, like Oswald, a cartoon lagomorph whose long ears and cottontail were concealed by her bonnet and dress. You can’t expect Pilgrim girls to dress like Playboy bunnies — but please let me know if you ever find a cartoon where they do.

    In case anybody doesn’t know, Elmer Fudd’s “traditional speech impediment” is called rhotacism, that is, the inability to pronounce R sounds (from “rho”, the Greek letter R). Other well-known rhotacistic characters include Pontius Pilate in Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” and Barry Kripke in “Big Bang Theory”.

    When Tom Turk calls Daffy a “quisling”, he is referring to then-Prime Minister Vidkun Quisling, who led the Nazi-backed puppet government in Norway during the war. A year after the cartoon was released, Quisling was executed by a firing squad, but his name lives on in infamy as a synonym for “traitor”.

    I look forward to reading your take on the Underdog episode in which Simon Bar Sinister travels back in time to start a quarrel between the Indians and the Pilgrims as part of a convoluted plot to eradicate Thanksgiving because (sigh) the annual parade prevents him from crossing the street. Simon gets my vote for the most cleverly named villain in cartoon history (Boris Badenov is a distant second).

    Your weekly posts are among the many things I have to be thankful for. Happy Thanksgiving, pilgrim!

  • After seeing the Oswald cartoon, I am determined to start doing the “We are pals, best of pals” song-and-dance every chance I get!

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