Animation Trails
February 21, 2024 posted by Charles Gardner

In the Center Ring (Part 7)

The mid-forties didn’t seem to produce much in the way of circus-themed movies in the field of live action. But in the animated world, it continued to be at least one of the world’s greatest shows. This week, many well-known animated stars try their hands at circus-related stories (including a double-visit for Bugs Bunny), as well as appearances for three lesser-known Columbia shorts, two featuring Fox and Crow.

Mighty Mouse at the Circus (Terrytoons/Fox, Mighty Mouse, 11/17/44 – Eddie Donnelly, dir.) – This story is frameworked in the form of a radio broadcast of a “kiddie” show, with mice as the intended audience. (Is the announcer a mouse too? The network owned by mice? The radio set around which the mice crowd around, however, is of full human size, such that one still wonders what demographics led the broadcasters to select their target audience.) Today’s tale is about a circus coming to town, with the usual gala parade. Mich of the animation is new, including a clown that unicycles and juggles while bathing in a portable bathtub. But the usual elephant beating two bass drums with his tail reappears from “Happy Circus Days”. The show inside begins with a lion tamer act, conducted in a manner more conducive to the trainer’s safety than usual. This time, the lions take turns placing their heads in each other’s mouths. One accidentally swallows the other’s mane, and has to spit it up, while the second lion totally swallows the first and tries to keep him down until the trainer’s whip-snap commands him to release lion 1. The two rival lions end the act in a fist fight.

The feature attraction is the trapeze act of a small mouse, Mademoiselle Fifi. She is launched up to her platform by standing on the spring-bar of a large mousetrap as it is released. Her partner in the act is a hippopotamus, presenting an unfortunate mismatch of sizes as Fifi plays catcher while the hippo leaps. Their combined weight snaps the trapeze ropes, and they fall toward the lions’ wagon. The hippo hits first, punching a large hole through roof and floor of the wagon. Fifi lands inside the cage, and the lions advance on her. She escapes through the hole, but the lions pursue, running loose and scattering away the crowd. A job for Mighty Mouse, who descends from the skies, shouting a Tarzan yell. (A common gag in the series, until the “Here I come to save the day” musical riff was written by Philip Scheib.) The lions have followed Fifi up the tent pole, and now chase her on trapezes and across the tight wire. Although up to now only three lions have been seen in the circus’s cast, suddenly, to keep the cartoon going, an endless supply of lions becomes available, which Mighty’s efforts pile up in a heap resembling the size of Dumbo’s pyramid of pachyderms. Mighty dives down the throat of one lion, then pulls from inside the beast’s tail to turn the lion inside out. He forces open another’s jaws after again being swallowed, then pursues the last of the lions to a high-striker, where they huddle atop the high bell. Mighty grabs the sledge-hammer, and hits the striker with a mighty blow, knocking the bell and the lions off the top of the striker tower, and onto the lion heap in the center ring. The last lion revives long enough to say the usual series catch phrase – “What a mouse. WHAT A MOUSE!”, then faints. Fifi is saved, and Mighty makes a surprise personal appearance by bursting through the speaker of the radio set in the mice’s home, to receive the cheers of all the little mice.

The Egg Yegg (Columbia/Screen Gems, Fox and Crow, 12/8/44 – Bob Wickersham, dir.), though not set in a circus, finds an excuse for an act that definitely belongs in one. Crow is the recipient of two mystery eggs parcel post – refugees to care for in wartime. Determined to guard the eggs from harm, Crow is forced to deal with the arrival of Fox, an avid egg-collector, equipped with high-tech gear like an electronic egg-detector – sort of a refinement on the divining rod with voice-assist and meter to discern egg type. Sensing the eggs’ presence in Crow’s tree, the meter is nevertheless stumped as to type, giving a reading, “You got me, pal.” Fox’s vehicle also comes equipped with a portable elevating platform to raise him to the location of any nest. Before he can reach the eggs, Crow consults his trusty “Encycrowpedia”, finding out that egg collectors are old sentimentalists. The book suggests, “Drag out the past”. Crow produces an old upright piano, and starts playing turn of the century sentimental tunes to distract Fox from his quest. Fox comes down to make a written song request for “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”, and before you know it, the two are engaged together in an elaborate musical duet. Crow climaxes the number by holding up a sign to an invisible audience, reading “The Honey Boys, Fox and Crow”, and having the two of them improvise a dance step and take bows like they were on a Vaudeville stage. He himself calls for an “Encore”.

Surprised, Fox whispers to him, “Encore? What’s our next number?” Instead of a song and dance, Crow improvises a second act for Fox to perform – a feat of daring. Crow binds Fox’s hands and arms and attaches a cap with a small wheel on top to his head. He then lifts them skyward on Fox’s elevator platform, to which he has tied a wire. Announcing to a still imaginary audience, Crow declares that his partner will descend 9,000 feet on the wire, balanced on the wheel on his head. Placed upside down on the wire, Fox exclaims, “9,000 feet?” and stares down. The other end of the wire is hooked to the open power box of a high voltage telephone pole. And just for good measure, Crow stuffs into Fox’s mouth a lighted stick of TNT. Fox mumbles, “I’ve never done this trick before. Help! Help!” A kick from Crow, and Fox is off. Halfway down the wire, he passes through a cloud, and intercepts a large flying bird, but still remains headed for oblivion. On the platform, Crow heightens the drama by playing a spirited drum roll on a snare drum. But his playing gets carried away, and in the process he accidentally nudges the lever controlling the platform, so that in descends rapidly. At the other end of the wire, the angle of descent changes, so that the wire becomes level just shy of Fox making contact with the voltage box. Then the angle reverses, and Fox rolls backward along the wire, straight at Crow – making contact just as the dynamite explodes. After a fade out, we discover that both have somehow survived the explosion, but a slightly-charred Fox now has the upper hand, announcing that the next act will be by “the inhuman cannonball, Mr. S. Crow!” True to his word, Crow is stuffed into a large cannon, and shot into the heavens, to land inside the Big Dipper. Fox finally retrieves the eggs from the tree, and studies them with a magnifying glass. But study period doesn’t last long, as the eggs hatch – producing two huge gooney-looking ostrich-style birds in gaudy colors, towering over Fox, who upon spying him shout “Daddy!” Fox’s scientific interest will have to take a necessary hiatus, as he heads for the hills, with the two rambunctious youngsters in hot pursuit.

Similar to Fox and Crow’s random inclusion of a circus act, director Friz Freleng, who never seems to have placed Bugs Bunny into a direct circus setting, provided at least three instances, which will be discussed in this series of articles, where an act of mammoth proportions which would befit its presentation in a circus was instead presented in the improbable and unlikely setting of a theatrical stage performance – a scenario where in real life, it obviously could have never fit. The first of these was in Stage Door Cartoon (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 12/30/44). A typical Bugs and Elmer chase leads through the stage entrance of a vaudeville theater. Bugs is soon on the stage in various roles and guises, impersonating a French can-can dancer, doing a specialty tap dance (in moves that would be remembered later as models for similar scenes in “Bugs Bunny Rides Again” and “Mississippi Hare”), and performing a concert piano number (predicting “Rhapsody Rabbit”), with Elmer inside bouncing on the strings. After the curtain lowers, it rises for another act, revealing Elmer in the course of trying to strangle Bugs. Realizing he’s now in view of the paying customers, Elmer blushes many shades of color in embarrassment and stage fright. Bugs takes charge as emcee (call him a ringmaster, if you will), and points out a high-diving platform that has been revealed behind the curtains from nowhere. Bugs begins to tout Elmer as his “partner”, who will make a death-defying dive from the platform’s dizzying heights. “Get goin’. They’re all lookin’ at ya’”, whispers Bugs to Elmer, prodding him into gullibly climbing up the ladder to the top of the theater. (I dare say the ladder to the platform is so tall, it probably wouldn’t have fit if it was built inside the Metropolitan Opera House.) While Elmer is busy climbing, he seems to be oblivious to what Bugs is continuing to relate to the audience. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, my partner will NOT dive into the tank which you see here. Tell ya’ what he’s gonna do. He’s gonna dive into an ordinary glass of water!” Bugs makes the switch of water receptacles, just as Elmer cautiously reaches the platform above.

Elmer backs onto the platform, then glances down. The shock of the view below teeters Elmer off the platform into an uncontrolled dive. All he has time to do on the way down is set himself in a prayer position to make his last wishes to his maker. SPLASH! A close up shows Elmer, with his face and half his torso tightly crammed into the small glass, while Bugs takes all the bows. (This sequence was reshown in lifted footage in the first Bugs “cheater” clipfest, “His Hare-Raising Tale” in 1951.) The film’s action goes on, climaxing with Bugs shadowing Elmer on stage as an extra set of arms reaching out from behind him, unbuttoning Elmer’s hunting outfit and forcing him into a humiliating strip-tease down to his loose-fitting boxer shorts. Leaving Elmer on stage, a cutaway to Bugs in a dressing room shows him donning a broad hat, coat, and moustache, assuming the disguise of a sheriff. A moment later, what appears to be the same “sheriff” marches onto the stage, arresting Elmer for indecent Southern exposure. Just as the two reach the theater aisle leading to the exit, a movie screen lowers, and, of all things, a Bugs Bunny cartoon begins to unreel for the patrons. The boisterous sheriff tells Elmer, “Sit, son. I ain’t a gonna miss this ‘un.” (Notably, the Sheriff voice is almost a dress rehearsal for what would in a few short years become Mel’s stock voice for Foghorn Leghorn.) On the screen (projected in black and white, even though all Bugs cartoons except a few cameos were in color), we find they are apparently screening the same cartoon we are presently witnessing, as the shot of Bugs putting on the sheriff’s disguise is repeated. Elmer gets wise, and presumes that the sheriff is nothing but the “wabbit” in disguise. “Off with it, you twickster”, rants Elmer, tearing away at the sheriff’s clothes – only to find inside a real sheriff, also reduced to his boxer shorts. “You’ll swing for this, suh!” roars the sheriff, marching Elmer off to the clink. Below the stage, a pit orchestra plays the closing notes of a standard Warner cartoon fanfare (as if they’ve been playing the score live all along – decades before “Bugs Binny on Broadway”). The maestro brings the performers to a stop, then faces the audience. It is Bugs, in yet another costume, ending with Jimmy Durante’s curtain line, “I got a million of ‘em.”

Tops in the Big Top (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 5/16/45 – I. Sparber, dir.) – Special opening credits unfurl on a canvas banner at the circus grounds (unfortunately not depicted intact on currently-available prints on the internet, though available restored on a Warner Archive DVD). The opening shot of the main entrance, depicting various vendors passing by, denotes that this particular circus must be playing in a Southwestern locale, as one vendor is a moustached Mexican type, vending sombreros! (This may be fine for those viewing the outdoor attractions, but it must raise Cain for those patrons inside the tent happening to be seated behind someone wearing one.) As the show begins, ringmaster Bluto announces Popeye’s death-defying act of placing his head in a lion’s mouth. Popeye enters the cage of the big cat, and slowly begins prying the huge mouth of the beast open (depicted more realistically than in most cartoons, with fearsome-looking tooth and gum detail). While Popeye struggles to open the jaws, Bluto eyes Olive up and down, his face converting to that of a wolf, and mutters, “What a feature attraction I’d make with Olive Oyl.” To get Popeye out of the way, Bluto deposits a large, juicy steak atop Popeye’s head just before he gets inside the open jaws. The smell is irresistible, and the lion chomps down. Popeye wonders if there’s been a blackout, and inhales deeply on his pipe to produce some light, and to fill the lion’s head cavity with smoke. The lion turns green, and collapses, releasing Popeye. Olive criticizes Popeye for the meat on his head, accusing him of “butchering the act”. Popeye vows to find out who double-crossed him. “Me honor’s at steak.”

Another daring act begins, bringing back memories of Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry. As in “Tight Rope Tricks”. Popeye and Olive venture out upon the high wire, with Popeye carrying a piano, played by Olive, who sits upon a piano stool balanced upon the sailor’s head. To top the whole thing off, Popeye is walking the wire blindfolded. Bluto, still up to his old tricks, casually eats a banana below, then tosses the peel up upon the wire, directly before Popeye’s feet. The sailor slips, and Olive is left holding onto the wire by her nose (and finally her hands), as Popeye clings below to her ankles, with the piano clutched between Popeye’s feet. Still blindfolded, the panting sailor asks if Olive is all right, as his heavy breathing inflames his corncob pipe again. Olive receives a hotfoot from the flame, and lets go of the wire. All fall upon a safety net below, then bounce into the air again. Before they come down, Bluto cuts the support rope on one end of the net. Popeye, whose blindfold has now flipped off, knows at last who is the saboteur, as he, Olive, and the piano crash through the sawdust floor, leaving a deep crater. Popeye attempts to drag Olive out of the hole, but Bluto knocks Popeye cold by swinging a block and tackle at him on a rope. Olive falls back into the crater, while Bluto waves a small cloth over the unconscious Popeye, pretending to give him some air. Concealed within the cloth is an open bottle of booze, its fumes wafting over Popeye’s face. Olive extricates herself from the hole by spreading her long legs and walking vertically up the sides of the hole, then smells Popeye’s prone face. “He’s drunk”, she shouts scandalously. The crowd begins to grumble for the bum to be thrown out, and clamors for a good act. Olive moans that the show cannot go on – but Bluto insists it will, ripping away his ringmaster outfit to reveal strong-man leotards worn below. “You’re such a handsome monstrosity”, reacts the ever-fickle Olive.

With a mighty heave, Bluto tosses Popeye out of the ring. Still unconscious, he lands atop a gorilla cage. One of the apes below pokes out a knothole in one of the roof boards of the cage, reaches a finger through, and grabs Popeye’s ankle, tugging with all his might to pull the sailor inside through the small hole. He is soon joined by two more huge apes, who with their combined tugging drag all of the sailor but his head inside the cage. As Popeye’s chest is compressed through the hole, his trusty spinach can pops out from his collar, coming to rest atop Popeye’s pipe. For the third time, Popeye breathes hard into his pipe, producing a fire below the can that cooks and explodes it, the can’s contents popping out, upwards, then falling into Popeye’s open mouth. His body in the cage below begins socking at the gorillas, who are quickly reduced to the three “See no evil, hear no evil” wise monkeys. Popeye extricates himself from the cage, then flies like a rocket toward Olive and Bluto, who are engaged in a trapeze act of Bluto’s own design. Bluto hangs from a trapeze bar by his feet upside down. and has tied a rope around Olive’s waist, with which he manipulates her up and down like a yo-yo, forcing her to smack into his lips on every upward spiral. Excusing himself, Popeye smacks straight into Olive’s feet, knocking her and her outer dress free of the rope spiral and taking her place within it. Olive flies through the air, colliding with the main tent pole, around which her gangly legs become twisted into a secure knot. Bluto tugs at the yo-yo rope for another kiss, but receives a sock in the jaw from Popeye instead. In a return to action first seen in “The Man On the Flying Trapeze”, Popeye and Bluto take to respective trapeze bars, each leaving the bars momentarily as they meet in the middle of the tent to exchange upper cuts. Olive slides down the tent pole, but is unable to release herself from her leg-knot – so she reaches for a nearby hatchet, and begins chopping away at the wood of the pole. A sock from Popeye sends Bluto sliding through a loop-de-loop ramp backwards, through two paper hoops held by Popeye, and into the mouth of the human cannonball’s cannon. Popeye fires the weapon, sending Bluto bouncing among the upper trapezes and platforms like the ball of a pinball machine. Olive meanwhile has chopped the main tentpole through. As it begins to topple, Olive runs with legs still knotted, yelling “Timber”. Popeye, anticipating Bluto’s re-entry flight, attempts to carry a tank of water to place under him, but rips up only the tank’s outer planking, leaving the water behind. Just before the tent collapses, Popeye spots a large bottle on a water cooler, and holds it over his head. Olive and the tent canvas enter the frame, obliterating the view momentarily. Inexplicably, though the falling tent canvas should have dragged Bluto down with it, we see an aerial shot, depicting Bluto, having somehow passed through the canvas roof, still in free fall toward the collapsed tent below. A loud splash, and the film ends with a view of Popeye, holding a well-bottled Bluto above him, while Olive looks on appreciatively.

Carnival Courage (Columbia/Screen Gems, Color Rhapsody (Willoughby Wren), 9/6/45 – Howard Swift, dir.) – Willoughby Wren was a recurring character, in the form of a little bulb-nosed mam who happens to possess remarkable physical strength – quite by accident, through the acquisition of a second-hand hat of antiquity woven from the hairs of Samson. In his first two films, Willoughby never quite pieces together the source of his amazing strength, often assuming heroic roles in the erroneous belief that his supernatural abilities have somehow naturally manifested themselves in him, oblivious to situations that threaten to separate hat from brow and place him into immediate risk of mortal peril. In this, his final appearance and the only one in Technicolor, Willoughby seems to have developed more of an awareness that his hat has a connection to his abilities, and is forced to attempt to recover the same when temporarily rendered helpless by its absence.

We find our hero standing outside the grounds of the Jingling Brothers’ Circus, admiring the poster of Mademoiselle Zaza, trapeze artist. However, the show costs 50 cents (a fivefold price increase over the admission sought in 1941 by Barker Bill!) – a sum which Willoughby hasn’t got. The hearts which have been appearing around his head while gazing at Zaza’s image pop out of existence one-by-one like a flight of soap bubbles. But another sign tacked to a tall pole gives Willoughby renewed hope – reading “Boy Wanted”. Rather than simply take down the sign to apply for the position, Willoughby breaks the entire pole off from its mounting on the ground, and marches into the tent, carrying the upright pole on one hand, and ripping a lineal cut into the tent canvas in the process.

Willoughby acquires a circus uniform and a sweeping broom, and even the elephants have to smile with a degree of humor at his diminutive appearance. The first thing Willoughby does is try to pay a social call at Zaza’s wagon. But the ringmaster has other ideas for him, ordering him to water the elephants. Instead of using the buckets or obtaining the drinking supply from the water wagon, Willoughby has his own unique style for accomplishing this task. He picks up bodily five elephants, carrying them over his head, and dumps them into the tank of a local water tower. The ringmaster next tells Willoughby the clean out cages. Willoughby approaches the cages of a flock of man-eating pigeons, and an African lion, but the ringmaster says no, they are too easy. Instead, Willoughby is directed to a cage reading “Bobo the Killer – Enter at own risk”. The cage’s inhabitant is a fierce gorilla. His natural aggressiveness takes a bit of an ego sag, when Willoughby lifts him with one hand to sweep dust out from under him. Bobo snarls his meanest sneer – but Willoughby calmly uses his broom to brush the ape’s teeth, then steps inside his mouth to sweep more dust off the ape’s tongue. Bobo roars and rants, unintentionally breaking loose one of the bars of his cage, which he ties into a pretzel knot. Willoughby insists on neatness, straightening out the bent bar as if it was a soft noodle of spaghetti, and replacing it into its original position, poking Bobo in the stomach with it in the process. Willoughby pauses as Mademoiselle Zaza’s act is introduced inside the big top. Smitten with love again, Willoughby respectfully removes his cap in the face of femininity. This is just the opportunity Bobo has been waiting for, as he slips up behind Willoughby, carrying a long-handed mallet. With one bash upon Willoughby’s now uncovered head, Bobo drives Willoughby into the cage floor, creating a hole, from which he quickly extricates Willoughby, then compresses him into the shape of a ball. Teeing up Willoughby upon a small circus platform, Bobo now uses the mallet as in croquet, batting Willoughby clear across the cage. Bobo disappears after him offscreen, and a moment later, Willoughby is revealed tied hand and foot, bound upside down from Bobo’s cage trapeze, and being used by Bobo like a hanging punching bag.

The ape now decides to get frisky, and easily rips open the door to his cage, scaling a tent pole to reach the platform from where Zaza is performing her trapeze swings. Without the safety of a net below, a chase ensues, descending to a tight wire upon which Bobo pursues the bicycling Zaza on a unicycle. Seeing these events from within Bobo’s cage, Willoughby realizes he must retrieve his fallen magic hat from the cage floor. Biting through one of the ropes supporting his trapeze bar, Willoughby propels himself into a swing from the bar dangling vertically from the remaining rope, and manages to grab the hat with his teeth. His strength returned, Willoughby bursts his bonds, then takes off like a rocket to the pole platform high above. The gorilla has Zaza in his clutches, but Willoughby jumps from the platform, landing forcefully upon Bobo’s head. Bobo is knocked dizzy, and falls, also letting loose his grip upon Zaza, who also follows to what appears to be their certain doom in the netless arena. Not if Willoughby can help it. Our hero jumps to another wire strung at a 45 degree angle from pole to the ground. Landing upside-down upon the wire with his cap, Willoughby performs a “slide for life”, zooming down the wire faster than his falling targets, and reaching the arena floor first. In one hand, he catches Zaza – in the other, the gorilla, upside down, saving both their lives. The film ends as the ringmaster, happy in having his star performer saved, and the gorilla, happy to be alive himself, provide a romantic atmosphere by strewing the center ring with flower petals from respective positions in the trapeze rings above, while Zaza gratefully covers Willoughby’s face with kisses before the crowd, as Willoughby’s dreams of love all come true.

Acrobatty Bunny (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 6/29/46 – Robert McKimson, dir.) – This film has always to me seemed a bit disappointing, as its pacing is quite uneven, with many sequences unusually dialogue-laden as if filling time. It could be that McKimson realized this as the film was completed, since, within a short few years, he would utterly redeem himself with the much more active and funny “Bog Top Bunny.” A circus is rolling into a vacant lot, wagons, elephants, and all, raising a powerful dust and waves of destructive vibration in Bugs’s underground hole. A lion’s cage is pushed over the entrance to the rabbit hole, and the resident lion begins to sniff at the hole entrance, with deep inhales and exhales that pull Bigs in and out from the covers of his bed. The lion speculates in thought clouds over the scent that he senses from inside the hole, ruling out the possibility of varying species such as a dachshund, camel, and even skunk, then settling on rabbit. Bugs chooses this moment to take the elevator from his hole (remarkably engineered to make turns at right angles) to see who is messing around topside. He emerges directly into the gaping jaws of the lion, and looks into a cavernous dark tunnel that is the lion’s throat. In clever homage to similar images from Disney’s Monstro the Whale sequence in 1940, Bugs hollers into the darkness, “Pinocchio!”.

Bugs spends the next two minutes of the film in conversation with the beast, first complaining about the disturbance of his slumber, then responding to an angry roar as enlightening him to see the lion’s side of the story, concluding that the lion can make all the noise he wants and “live it up”, while Bugs looks for a hasty exit. Bugs neatly slips through the bars of the cage, but the lion clangs into them, not the same fit. “Iron bars do not a prison make. But they sure help, eh, doc?”, jeers Bugs. The lion swipes at Bugs through the bars with one paw, only nearly missing him. “So ya’ wanna play?”, remarks Bugs angrily. Bugs grabs a board, and begins rattling it against the cage bars, taunting the lion with a “Nyah nyah”. But as Bugs passes the cage door, the gate is found to be unlocked and open, and instead of the bars, the board rattles across the lion’s teeth. As the lion leaps out, Bugs pulls a switcheroo, and darts inside the cage, closing the door in the lion’s face. The lion angrily marches offscreen, as Bugs laughs that “He couldn’t take it.” But the lion is far from finished with the incident, as he returns, riding atop and elephant, which he prods from the rear, slapping it to encourage it to crush through the bars. A likely first use of a gag that would become a Warner staple appears, as Bugs produces from out of an unseen pocket a wind-up mouse. The elephant is not only reduced to screams of fright, but seizes up the lion by the tail with its trunk, and uses the lion as a weapon to swing at the mouse in defense, bashing the lion’s head multiple times upon the ground. (This gag would be repeated, among other places, by Yosemite Sam with Bugs in “Sahara Hare”.)

Bugs wastes more screen time with a clown disguise and a rendition of “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” and then, with barely two minutes or so left to the cartoon, the chase finally enters the big top. Bugs and the lion jimp from a springboard to the trapeze bars. When they meet on the swings above, Bugs drops out of frame, then pops up again. “Net”, he explains. Bugs swings to the other side of the tent, as the lion swings behind him. Bugs averts the lion’s grip and lets him fall, then points down, informing the audience, “No net.” CRASH. Bugs swings again across the tent, then dives for the arena floor and a tank of water off a high-diving platform. The lion beats him to the water tank, breaks off the bottom of it, then places the tank walls around his open mouth. Bugs falls into the lion’s gullet, but instantly bounces back out. Having to again explain the gag (which somehow kills its impact to produce a laugh), Bugs turns out his toes, revealing he is wearing a pair of “Rubber heels, doc.” He hops away on them out of frame, and the lion follows, mimicking his hops for no apparent reason, in another sequence that fails to produce a laugh. Bugs hops into the human cannonball’s cannon, and the lion follows. Bugs emerges out the rear hatch of the cannon, but the lion’s waist is stuck in the cannon’s muzzle. In another mis-timed scene that feels unnecessary, and also makes us question what Bugs’ motives are, Bugs, after lighting the canon fuse, fiercely pushes on the lion’s exposed rear, as if trying to push the lion fully inside, but gives up as if it is no use. The next shot makes it appear that Bugs’ true motive was to merely wedge the lion in tight rather than push him all the way in, as the cannon blast fails to propel the lion skyward, but merely breaks off the end of the cannon mouth in frayed condition around the lion’s waist, so that it resembles the grass skirt of a hula dancer. Bugs completes the image by tossing a few flower leis around the dazed lion’s neck, playing a ukulele number as musical accompaniment, and placing a signboard into view as if on the musical stage, reading “Bugs Bunny and his hula-hula lion.” Again, timing seems off, as the explosion gag could have played better as a surprise without the shot of Bugs pushing the lion in, and the Hawaiian song and dance seems to last several bars too long. A strong curtain line is also lacking, as Bugs merely closes in close-up with an advertisement to the audience: “We’re also available for picnics, lodge meetings, children’s parties…and smokers.” McKimson had many better days.

Mysto-Fox (Columbia/Screen Gems, Fox and Crow, 8/29/46 – Bob Wickersham, dir.) – Sadly, the only episode of Fox and Crow which has become nearly lost, the only extant print appearing to be a black and white 16mm, without titles. (At least one upload has recreated a “Columbia Favorite” reissue card in black and white (though there’s no clear indication whether the film actually saw a reissue), and tacked on a generic Fox and Crow end card with the closing music of a different cartoon, to give the print something of a semblance of completeness and closure.) We open on the circus grounds at the dressing tent of Mysto-Fox, the canvas bedecked with posters declaring himself the wizard of legerdemain, and the king of deception. An additional sign appears on the tent, temporarily nailed on a post. “Rabbit wanted to assist magician. Free room and board.” The latter sentence appeals to the passing S. Crow – if only he was a rabbit. A little application of a few extras to his anatomy should solve this problem. Crow turns up at Fox’s door, applying for the position. He has affixed two long leaves to the back of his head as rabbit ears, two sugar cubes under his bill to simulate buck teeth, and a cotton ball around his own tail feathers. To make the impression more complete, he chomps on a carrot (displaying Mel Blanc’s hatred for the vegetable in a running gag, where every time after chomping, he places his head out of camera range, followed by the offscreen “ping” sound of making a bulls-eye on a spittoon). Replicating a catch-phrase as closely as the attorneys will allow, Crow opens conversation with “Eh, whadda ya’ know, doc?” “Are you a rabbit?”, asks the puzzled Fox. Crow proves the point by hopping everywhere inside the dressing room, smashing and knocking over things right and left, then burrowing a rabbit hole into Fox’s mattress, and wiggling his bill like a pink rabbit nose. Fox is still not convinced, until Crow points out his rabbit features one by one, pulling them off himself to show, then applying them back upon himself again. He adds one we haven’t seen – “Rabbit’s foot”, displaying one he isn’t wearing, but which is mounted on a keychain as the traditional good luck charm. With a knock at the door announcing Fox is on in a matter of minutes, beggars can’t be choosers. Crow is hired, and Fox attempts to push him down into a top hat. Crow is too fat and tall to fit, his feet protruding out the hat’s top. Fox is finally forced to grab a long bandage, wrap it around Crow, and improvise a mystic turban for his headgear, placing the wrapped-up Crow on his head, as he makes his way toward his performance.

Fox is introduced to the audience, and takes a bow. Then, an announcer also introduces his assistant, “Harry Hare”. Inside the turban, the shape of Crow is seen, also taking bows. Fox disapproves of Crow giving away his location and the forthcoming magic trick, and so whacks the turban into a drooping flatness with a mallet. The act progresses, as Fox waves a magic wand, making objects appear, then waves it at the turban. He reaches in to pull out Crow, but the bird is stuck tight, and Fox can only bring his feet into view. Grabbing up the mallet again, and placing the turban at his own feet, Fox strikes the bandaged bundle with a full golf-swing follow-through. The bandages unravel, filling the stage, and when they are through unfurling, Fox is wrapped up in them, bound like a mummy from the neck down, while Crow stands on top of him taking the bows for a magnificent entrance. Crow takes the opportunity to himself introduce his own idea for the next part of the act. “Ladies and gentlemen. For the first time in magical history, a rabbit will saw a magician in half.” Producing the mallet again, Crow drives Fox with one swing into a long box with hole cut for his neck to protrude, then nails a lid upon the box to prevent Fox’s escape. A saw is raised, and Crow not only bisects the box in two, but severs it into quarters. “Just call me Shorty”, weakly remarks the helpless Fox. While cutting the last line in the box, Crow’s saw is stopped short as it intercepts a pocket watch from Fox’s vest. The battered watch, popping springs, indicates it is twelve o’clock – so Crow decides to break for lunch, piling the four boxes one atop another, with Fox’s head on top. Angered Fox struggles, bursting open the top box, in which he is safely huddled, all in one piece. He grabs up Crow before he can desert the act, and announces, “You can have lunch – right here.” Placing Crow upon a table, Fox makes a number of passes with the magic wand, producing a custard pie, multi-layered cake, and a dozen raw eggs – all of which are mashed upon Crow’s face. For a grand finale, Crow is compressed into a pellet with another mallet blow, placed into a peashooter, and fired into the mouth of a human cannonball cannon. Fox labors with a will at the cannon mouth with a long pole to pack Crow in tightly before firing. Crow, however, is forced out the hatch at the canon’s other end, unseen by Fox. In retaliation for what Fox intended to do to him, Crow loads the cannon’s barrel with several extra charges of explosives, then shuts the hatch and pulls the firing pin. A blast is heard out of frame, and Crow hops away, certain he is rid of his foe. Instead, a slightly charred and frazzled Fox appears, standing right in Crow’s path. “Abracadabra-cadabra”, chants Fox with the wand. Crow undergoes a magical transformation, his beak, orange feet, and feathers disappearing, replaced by fur and a pair of long ears. Crow has been changed into the rabbit he wanted to be. But that does not mean he will secure the assistant’s job for life, as Fox is determined to have him permanently “fired”, by the very cannon which Fox just got blasted by. Fox sits in a command seat, now manipulating the cannon like a field artillery piece with a cross-hair sight. A first shot at Crow-Bunny blasts a hole in the side wall, and Crow exits through it in a hurry, hopping over the countryside like mad, as Fox pulls the firing pin again and again, scoring near miss after near miss behind the retreating Crow, for the final fade out.

Frank Duck Brings ‘Em Back Alive (Disney/RKO, Donald and Goofy, 11/1/46 – Jack Hannah, dir.) – Thus “wild” idea of a short pulls off the curious recasting of our beloved Goof as an African wild man – with some definite nods and jabs at the Edgar Rice Burroughs “ape man” genre. Goofy the wild begins the film in a sort of vine ballet, demonstrating the gracefulness with which he swings freely about the jungle canopy. Some of his moves harken to a rodeo, using twirling vines much in the manner of a lariat. Other variants allow him to skip rope with the jungle growth, and even soar along with vine fastened around his waist, much as a stage performer of “Peter Pan” might simulate flight. Into this world where Goof is seemingly king of beasts ventures Donald Duck, now going under the assumed name of “Frank Duck” to mimic big game hunter Frank Buck, famous retriever of wild animals for circuses and zoos. Disembarking from his small jungle riverboat, Donald posts a want ad on a nearby tree, seeking a wild man for the Ajax Circus. Above him upon a high tree branch, the Goof waits with jungle cunning, preparing to launch himself from the limb with glistening knife at the ready, for a savage aerial pounce upon his duck prey. This does not go at all according to plan, as Goofy’s knife pops open in mid-fall, revealing itself to be a Swiss army knife with a hundred and one spring-loaded gadgets. Goofy becomes so immersed in attempting to fold the unneeded gadgets back into the blade, he doesn’t watch for the ground rapidly approaching – and smashes headlong into it. “A wild man”, reacts Donald. “Where, where?” answers a frightened Goofy, taking cover by huddling in Donald’s protective arms. “You’re it, bud”. Donald explains, offering Goofy a pen and a contract to sign on the dotted line. Having obviously no experience with a fountain pen, Goofy fills the line with a back-and-forth zig-zag, then breaks off the pen point, leaving a blob of ink on the paper. The confused Goof raises the busted penpoint to his lips as he attempts to ponder the paper – then realizes he likes the taste of the ink. He empties the remaining contents of the pen’s inkwell onto the paper, then folds the contract in half around the ink, forming a sandwich, which he begins to devour. So much for Donald’s contract.

Goofy retreats to the trees, so Donald attempts to lure him down, with a sugar cookie, an apple, a banana – all of which Goofy refuses. But a fully decorated strawberry shortcake is too much for the Goof to resist. He swings down in an arc to pass over Donald’s head, seizing the cake. But Donald patiently waits – for a snap – as he has placed a cage at a short distance further along Goofy’s trajectory, predicting the wild man’s move. Goofy seems trapped, but as Donald attempts to lift the cage onto his back, the cage roof and bars separate from the cage base, freeing Goofy. Despite having no cage floor to bind him, the Goof follows along with Donald, even assisting him in carrying along the rear end of the cage, all the way back to Donald’s boat. The Goof and Donald load the empty cage onto the vessel, Donald boards, and Goofy shoves the boat off, waving goodbye. “Swell fella”, remarks Donald, as he happily continues to pull away from the shore. Then, reality strikes, and Donald takes off his pith helmet to slap a little sense into his head, as he zips back toward shore, his face an angry scowl. Most of the rest of the film consists of variants on chasing with the cage, and more vine tricks by Goofy. Ultimately, the chase leads both of them into the cave of a lion. They are oblivious to the lion’s presence outside, but the lion is quite comfortable with the idea of having two surprise guests “drop in” for dinner. The lion enters the cave, producing Goofy’s trademark “Yah-hoo-hoo-hooey” and Donald’s frantic “Waaaak!” Our heroes manage to emerge from the cave first, but in their panic within, have somehow wound up with a costume switch – Goofy now partially dressed in Donald’s sailor suit, while Donald tries to pick up his feet within the folds of Goofy’s oversized leopard-skin garment. The Goof heads for Donald’s riverboat, and happily sails away, waving bye-bye to a helpless Donald, still stranded on shore. As the lion approaches, Donald is forced to take the only route capable of placing him just out of the lion’s reach – Goofy’s highway of jungle vines – transforming Donald into the jungle’s new successor wild man – at least until the next circus talent scout comes along.

Lots of action in ‘46 and ‘47, next time.


  • Great article as always Charles.

    I would argue that “Acrobatty Bunny” is a minor classic, but I definitely have a soft spot for “Big Top Bunny”. Bruno ma’ acrobatic bear!

  • Well, in the Terrytoons universe, of course mice would have their own radio networks. (So would cats.). But since transistors weren’t developed until after the war, the mice of 1944 would still be stuck with those big, clunky old radio sets — which, whatever their other flaws, would have the advantage of enabling Mighty Mouse to make the occasional personal appearance.

    I like the bunny pinup photos on the wall next to Bugs Bunny’s bed in “Acrobatty Bunny”. He has a similar array — autographed, yet — on his wall in “Hot Cross Bunny”.

    This is the first I’ve heard about Mel Blanc not liking carrots. Now there’s a man of 1,000 voices after my own heart!

  • First time I see someone gave a negative review for “Acrobatty Bunny” especially as it was included in “The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes” book.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *