Halloween is approaching again. Last year, we covered a number of the monsters and things that go bump in the night. This year, I thought it might be fun to cover some of the more “normal” characters who have appeared in costume. And what has been more of a perennial for costume inspirations next to spooks and hobgoblins than super-heroes? Many a toon has donned mask and cape, either in the hopes of fooling others into belief that they’re a superhero, or in a psychological effort to fool themselves into believing it too. Others have been even more fortunate, developing temporary powers or acquiring sources of strength from unlikely props and bric-a-brac, such that even the most mild-mannered of reporters might someday claim hero status, at least for a little while. We thus celebrate in this series not those who can trace their lineage to the planet Krypton, but the unlikely shmoe of questionable breeding who has his day in the sun through strange happenstance.
The whole notion of the caped superhero, of course, began with a well-known publication in Action Comics #1 in 1938. The idea of a cape, however, was an old one, used by such literary figures as Zorro, the Three Musketeers, etc. Only the tights and the chest insignia were new elements of fashion statement. These items became something of a trademark for early toon wanna-bes, instantly signifying that you were on a parity with the man of steel.
Animation’s first caped hero was “Superguy”. Who? The unknown spokes-character for a brand of soap chips in Bob Clampett’s Goofy Groceries (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 3/29/41). For all intents and purposes, the character is in appearance a dead-ringer for Superman – right down to the costume colors and red S insignia on his shirt – except for two prominent buck teeth. However, looking like the original doesn’t make him the real thing. As a gorilla escaped from a grocery-store box of animal crackers terrorizes Jack Bunny with a lit stick of dynamite, Superguy spots the dastardly deed in progress, and flies off his soap box to make a rescue. Landing on a nearby can, Superguy calls out his challenge – “Hey, you big ape!” “Yeah?”, replies the gorilla, staring our hero in the face, and looming ten times his size. Already small in scale, Superguy shrivels at the sight of the ape, in a reverse growth-spurt that leaves him as a crying three-year old widdle kid. Told ya – a costume doesn’t necessarily make a hero.
The release date on Goofy Groceries is surprisingly close in time to the unveiling of Max Fleischer’s prestigious but daunting assignment of bringing the real Superman to the big screen for the first time (long before the first live-action adaptation). The Fleischer masterpiece premiered on 9/26/41, and, based on the sheer complexity and breakthrough artistic style utilized by Fleischer, must have spent considerable time in gestation. It is thus likely that Clampett would have been well aware during the production of “Goofy Groceries” of Max’s impending project. Clampett also possibly was carrying the personal axe of a case of sour grapes, having found no market for his own experiments in realistic animation in an attempt to bring to the screen Edgar Rice Burroughs’ “John Carter of Mars”. There may thus have been a certain personal score to settle in Clampett’s subjecting of the man of steel to satiric ridicule. As the gag plays no essential part in the plot line (what little there is) of “Groceries”, it could easily have been added to the script as a last-minute afterthought in late production, if discovery of the Fleischer project occurred close to release time.
Having presumably not yet seen a frame of the rival Fleischer rushes, Clampett’s handling of the brief flying sequence of Superguy is a curious concept, yet effective. Instead of shooting through the air like a bullet or comet, Clampett’s hero “runs” at super speed against the air, propelling himself with sheer swiftness and strength of motion. It’s not DC, but it looks convincingly impressive on the screen. Perhaps Clampett would have been the proper go-to guy had Warner ever considered a realistic action series of its own.
Showdown (Paramount/Famous, Superman, 10/16/42 – I. Sparber, dir.) – Normally, the real “strange visitor from another planet” wouldn’t figure into this trail, being the genuine article and a career hero. But this unusual episode pits him against another character of similar costume who is anything but genuine. A series of robberies, including payroll heists and jewelry store windows, are beling committed by a culprit in blue tights, red cape, and with a large red S on his chest. Superman? Hardly. A cheap hood is masquerading in a twin super suit, casting the finger of suspicion for the crimes on anyone but himself. He is not, however, the mastermind of the plot – nor possesses a master mind by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, he works for smaller, more wily character who spends his days puttering around a luxurious mountain hideout with a golf putter, honing his game in his living room while waiting for his flunkey to deliver the day’s take. The doppelganger arrives with a load of cash and jewels, only to be greeted by the boss with the affectionate nickname “stupid”. When the super suit hoodlum holds out a five dollar bill, the boss conks him on the head with the putter. “Gee, boss, it was only a fin”, he gently protests. “Next time, it’ll be a Mickey Finn”, replies the boss.
The rival papers, and ultimately even the Daily Planet, run headlines on the Superman crime wave. For once, Lois Lane is not on the by-line of the Planet’s coverage, disbelieving the paper’s boast, “Friend Turns Foe”. Before Clark Kent can voice his own opinion, an assignment comes down for Kent and Lane to cover an opera opening. Kent tugs at the tightness of his everyday collar in anticipation of the even tighter attire of going formal, and is next seen in a box seat at the opera house, still tugging at his collar and nodding off to sleep from the music But in the corridors behind the luxury boxes, the caped thief skulks in the shadows. He reaches into one box after another, demonstrating the craft of the pickpocket as he loosens and nabs women’s broaches from their necks and lifts men’s wallets. One lady finally catches him in the act. Her scream causes Lois to look into the corridor, and encounter the masquerader face to face. In the darkness, she is unable to make a facial recognition. However, in the scuffle that ensues, she succeeds in ripping the “S” off the faker’s shirt. “It is Superman”, she says, looking down at the fabric evidence.
But Clark Kent has been roused by the noise of the scuffle. Slipping past Lois in the dark, he follows the thief up a fire escape to the roof. Noting the thief’s attire, Kent says to hmself, “Looks like my double is in for some trouble.” He ducks back into the fire escape, and makes his costume change. The thief meanwhile peers over the roof edge, and sees police vehicles arriving outside. Deciding to double back, the thief returns to the fire escape – and walks right into Superman inside the door. The cowardly crook pulls out a pistol, and fires his ammunition point blank at Superman’s chest – only to have the bullets bounce off in all directions. His gun empty, the crook begins backing toward the roof edge as Superman steadily advances. The crook pleads that “Ya got me all wrong. It wasn’t me. Da boss made me do it.” As the hoodlum begs that he’ll come clean and talk, he stumbles backward over the building’s edge. Superman launches himself into a dive, and catches the crook inches from the ground while a shocked crowd looks on, then takes off again with the crook under his arm. Among the crowd is Lois, who, seeing two Supermen, reassesses the situation. “I knew there was more to this story.” Hailing a cab, she and several policemen follow in the direction of Superman’s flight.
At the mountain hideout, the boss waits as usual, sorting through the previous night’s haul. A caped figure as usual appears on his balcony – actually, make that two caped figures. Superman signals the superficially cooperating double to remain quiet, while he enters the room in the double’s place. The boss, with a desk lamp in his eyes in an otherwise darkened room, does not even rise from his desk, but, seeing only the familiar blue tights and red cape in the darkness, assumes he is talking to his henchman. “Did you enjoy the opera?”, the boss asks with snide condescension. Superman stands silent and motionless, waiting for the boss to tip his hand. “What’s the matter, stupid? Did you lose your tongue? Don’t stand there like a dummy, give me the jewels!” Superman’s heard enough. The boss, believing this silent treatment is some kind of a double-cross, swipes at the caped figure in the darkness with his putter, only to have the stick forcibly yanked away. Finally raising the lamp, the boss observes the unfamiliar countenance of the man of steel, while his flunkey whispers from the shadows, “Hey, boss, dat’s mister Superman!” Feigning nervousness, the boss claims “I didn’t expect to see you here…” But in fact, he did, as he presses a button, opening a trap door under our hero, who falls into a deep cavern below. It doesn’t take long for Superman to scramble back upwards, or to push aside the weight of the desk placed over the trap door. The two crooks head for a secret passage, which is then blocked by a sliding iron grill. Superman grabs the grill work, and receives a strong blue shock from wiring of it for electricity. But he is able to break free, and with a quick yank breaks the grilling loose.
The secret passage leads through a wine cellar and to another corridor guarded by a bank-vault style door, which the crooks close behind them. While Superman wrestles with the door, the crooks make an escape onto a mountain road in a sedan from a secret exit below. Unbeknownst to them, Lois and the cops are proceeding uphill in the taxi by way of the same narrow winding mountain road. When Superman finally breaks through the door and finds the exit, he flies to an aerial vantage point, to see both vehicles about to converge on a blind curve. With a mighty dive, Superman arrives directly between the vehicles just before impact, holding them apart from collision at arms length. Pushing the crooks’ car to one side, he neatly scoops them up from the driver’s seat and hands them over to the authorities, then soars off as Lois looks on. In the final scene, we return to the offices of the Daily Planet, where we find Clark Kent back in his formal tuxedo and top hat, seemingly sound asleep in a chair. Lois walks in, announcing “Boy, have I got a story.” Observing Clark in sleeping mode, she asks. “What’s the matter, bright eyes? The opera get you down?” Yawning. Clark informs her, “Just been dreaming I was Superman.” Beginning her typing, Lois cooly observes, “Hmmm, fine Superman you’d make.” Clark wraps things up with the response, “Well, I can dream, can’t I?”
The earliest full-blown lampoon of the genre remains one of the best. Chuck Jones (who of recent has endured his share of jabs on this site, including from this author, for the irregular and often slow pacing of his early productions), has by now seen the light, and turns in a nearly flawless effort in the classic parody, Super Rabbit (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 4/3/43). As demonstrated from the example above, the Superman series, through both its radio and cartoon adaptations, was by now well established with its trademark narrated opening, heroic standing and flying poses, cliches and by-lines (“It’s a bird. It’s a plane”, “mild-mannered reporter”, and telephone booth changes (though Fleischer, in spite of giving Super his first such on-screen change, actually tried to minimize its use by presenting changes in several other locales as well)). With so many signature elements, the standard opening was now an easy target for broad comedy and shot-for-shot take-off, and writer Tedd Pierce provides plenty of ammunition. In precisely the manner of Fleischer, a deep blue night sky is lit by a flashing red streak. In nearly precise quote, but in Brooklynese accent, Mel Blanc gives us the opening line, “Look, up dere in the sky. It’s a boid!” A second Mel voice answers, “Naw, it ain’t a boid, it’s a dive bomber.” Then, Mel answers himself in his formal real life narration voice: “No, it’s Super-Rabbit!”, as the title flashes across the screen in red and yellow lettering as close in font to Fleischer’s as the studio dared. (Superguy’s font was actually even closer.)
Then, into the list-of-powers cliches. “Faster than a speeding bullet…” But instead of a revolver, the visual shows us a kid’s cork-gun. “More powerful than a locomotive…” Except the engine illustrated rivals “Toots” from “Porky’s Railroad” in dilapidation and antiquity. “Able to leap the tallest building…” Bugs, in flowing red cape but baggy blue oversized tights, makes his first appearance onscreen, and indeed leaps over what is presumably the Empire State. However, he’s still got a lot to learn on his descents, as a wondeful perspective shot with camera angled almost straight up from the ground shows Bugs coming at us face-first over the other side in free fall, shouting “Yeowwwww!!!”, as he crashes into the camera and blacks out the shot. Then, of course, Bugs assumes Superman’s majestic standing pose against a rear-sunlit background – except instead of standing stock still, he takes the time to chomp on one of his own trademark carrots and utter “What’s up, Doc?”.
Every good hero has to have an origin story, and Bugs is no exception. Not being from another planet, how did this “superdynamic rabbit of tomorrow” come to be? The narrator “turns back the clock” to the “laboratory of a certaon noted scientist”, practically whispering under his breath the actual name, “Professor Kanafraz”. Amidst gadgetry, electrodes, beakers and test tubes galore (including an array of liquid-bearing tubes which glow in yellow as fluid enters them, “Eat at Joe’s”), a powerful ray beams energy into, of all things, a carrot. Waiting in a nearby crate is an “Experimental Rabbit”, adding on the box’s label the Latin species designation (a first-rime use of such a gag by Jones, who would later make such mock-Latin a regular element of his “Road Runner” series), reading “Rabbitus Idiotus Americanus”. “What’s cookin’ Doc?” asks Bugs. The Professor (vocally impersonating character-actor Richard Haydn, whom mystery buffs may remember as the butler in the original film version of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”, and animation fans will remember as the voice of the caterpillar in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland – and later as the inspiration for voicing of another professor-type – The Alvin Show’s Clyde Crashcup) informs Bugs he is preparing his greatest experiment. “A super vitamized, locked-in flavorized…modern di-zionized…(and other terms I can’t even spell)…super carrot.” Bugs grabs knife, fork, and bib, inquiring, “What are ya gonna do with it, Burbank – as if I didn’t hope?” Yes, it’s for Bugs.
Bugs zips through it as if her were shearing all the kernels off an ear of corn. “You are now a super-rabbit”, announces the Professor. “Ya mean, able to leap da highest buildings, et cetera, et cetera?”, replies Bugs. This news brings to mind some additional news which Bugs carries around in a newspaper clipping concealed in an invisible rear pocket, depicting a tough-looking Texas cowboy named “Cottontail Smith”, who is currently holding a “Big Texas Rabbit Drive”, vowing to rub out all rabbits. Determined to use his new powers to benefit the lower members of his species, Bugs delivers the standard by-line, “Dis looks like a job for Super Rabbit!” He disappears into a conveniently-located phone booth which just happens to be installed in the Professor’s laboratory, and emerges in the costume of – Little Bo Peep, with shepherd’s crook and a pull-toy lamb in tow! Looking down at himself, an embarrased Bugs apologizes, “Pardon me. Wrong costume”, then darts back into the booth for his proper blue and red attire. Although we only saw the professor zapping one carrot wits super power, Bugs now finds a tray in the lab with five more carrots at the ready, which he scoops up and places into a handy cigarette case already included in a pocket of his costume. (Is it customary for super heroes to smoke?) Giving the Professor a farewell kiss, he bids him, “So long, Pasture” (mispronouncing the name of Louis Pasteur), and soars out a window.
En route to Texas, Jones and Pierce slip in what has to be one of the most surreal and preposterous, yet ingeniously funny, moments in series history. For no apparent reason whatsoever, and without any attempt at a logical explanation, a farm horse (identical in appearance to Jones’ previous “The Draft Horse”) is seen walking along, minding his own business, supported by nothing but thin air thousands of feet high in the sky! Bugs passes him, and in casual nonchalance calls out, “Hiya, Doc.” “Hello. Mr. Rabbit”, responds the horse in equally casual tone. Then, realization hits the horse full force, as he breaks the fourth wall and confers with the audience: “A rabbit? Up HERE?????” The absurdity of the gag is subtly brilliant, as no one else from any other vantage point could have delivered this mere observational line and produced a laugh. We also briefly discover that Bugs’ carrots have an Achilles’ heel – their effects can wear off, causing Bugs’ flight speed to sputter like Jack Benny’s Maxwell. But a simple nibble on another from the cigarette case recharges Bugs’ battery.In Deepinaharta, Texas, Bugs encounters a stampede of his distant kinfolk, telling his to run for his life as Cottontail Smith has gone “plum loco”. True to the Superman code of secrecy, Bugs assumes the guise of a mild mannered forest creature – with a Clark Kent-style fedora and glasses, which he puts on in another phone booth. (Amazing how Bell has these pay phones conveniently placed all over the Texas prairie.) It doesn’t take long for Bugs to find his adversary – as Cottontail Smith, on a horse trained to hop in the same manner as a rabbit, follows closely behind. As the camera cuts to a tracking close-up on Smith in the saddle, Bugs pulls an unseen flanking maneuver off screen, and is suddenly hopping alongside Smith. He engages the bad man in conversation about what he’s shooting for. In another creative bit of camera work, Smith and Bugs rise and fall out of frame with each hop, assuming more ridiculous repositions with every reappearance. In one hop, Bugs is in the saddle with the rifle, while Smith is hopping alongside the horse. In the next, both Smith and Bugs are sharing the saddle. And in the last, the horse has disappeared entirely, with Bugs riding a saddled Smith. Bugs pulls Smith to a stop, and slaps a feedbag over Smith’s chin, then walks away. It takes a few chomps of whatever’s in that feedbag before Smith realizes he’s been played for a jackass. Pulling out his twin revolvers, Smith announces, “I’m gonna drill you good.” Bugs asks him to wait a moment, zips into the phone booth again (or is it yet another one, considering they seem to have hopped some distance), and reveals his super identity. (So much for secrecy.)
As Bugs stands with his arms defiantly folded in front of him, Smith draws a bead on him with his custom gunsight – amazingly designed to precisely fit the shape of a rabbit with folded arms! The figure of Bugs is blacked out dot by dot by a hail of bullets, which entirely fill up his outline – then Bugs merely steps out from behind the bullets, completely unharmed, and allows the munitions to tumble and fall to the ground like so many marbles. As flabbergasted Smith, so shocked he can’t even finish his own sentences, tries to make sense of what just happened, Bugs offers him a better option. “Here, Doc. Try the heavy artillery”, says Bugs, hauling in a cannon. Before Smith fires, Bugs takes a small nibble from one of his carrots, as “Just a precaution.” The cannon goes boom, and Bugs merely catches the cannonball, then tosses it to Smith’s horse (where’d he disappear to all this time?). Bugs and Smith appear on opposite sides of the horse, and the horse assumes the improbable role of a basketball referee, setting the contestants for a jump ball. Bugs takes over the “ball”, and, to the uptempo strains of “Freddie the Freshman”, does to basketball what he would do to baseball a few years later, providing a one-man show where he assumes all shooting and passing positions, dribbles into position, and shoots – then soars into the air to hold his arms out in a loop, providing the “rim” for the winning shot. To further kerflummox his opponents, Bugs pushes a “bleachers” section under Smith and the horse, places “B.B.” pennants in their hands, and conducts them as a cheerleading squad in a chant of “Bricka Bracka, firecracker. Sis Boom Bah! Bugs Bunny, Bugs Bunny. Rah Rah. RAH!”, then zooms past them in a victory lap, whisking half of Smith’s clothing onto his horse.
In the skies above, Bugs relaxes for a pause. “Time out whilst I think up some more deviltry.” But Smith and the horse aren’t observing a time out, and unpatriotically have commandeered from some local air base what appears to be Warner’s closest approximation to a P-47 Thunderbolt. From above, they descend upon Bugs, lining the drifting rabbit up in their gun sight. Oddly, they don’t fire (maybe realizing nothing will penetrate), and instead appear intent upon chopping the rabbit to ribbons with the propeller. Instead, Bugs remains stock still, then grabs the entire plane out from under them. Smith and the horse continue to soar through the sky – accompanied by nothing more than the plane’s cockpit canopy and control stick. (Jones would remember this gag for use again in his later Daffy epic, “Duck Amuck”.) Observing cartoondom’s standard laws of gravity, nothing happens to the villains until the horse looks down, and points out the situation to Smith. Then they spiral in free fall to Earth. To ensure their demise, Bugs tosses their plane after them, then takes off, assuming his job well done. But that old engine sputter interrupts his flight path, and Bugs notes, “Time to recharge again.” The resounding moral of the story turns out to be, always use a steady hand when retrieving a cigarette case – as Bugs fumbles his grip in opening his reserve supply, and helplessly watches his five carrots tumble out and fall out of his grip to the badlands below. In an underplayed whimper, Bugs responds, “Yipe.” In another pair of nicely animated perspective shots, one from above and another from below, the flightless Bugs tumbles back to Texas, lamding hard upon the ground with appropriate squash and compress upon his big feet – then collapsing to the ground after a pause. His keen nose smells something, even in his near unconscious state, and he opens his eyes to find the stem and stub of one of his carrots right before his nose. More stems and tiny remaining morsels litter the path before him, which the camera follows, until we reach the costumed feet of both Smith and the horse, who are now dressed in super suits identical to Bugs, and looking plenty powerful after a hearty vegetarian meal! Bugs rises before the villains can attack, addressing the audience: “This looks like a job for a REAL Superman!” He zips again into yet another phone booth, as the villains also arrive at the door, ready to barge in. But the booth door opens, causing Smith and the horse to stop cold in their tracks, abandon all plans of vengeance, and stand at attention in a salute. Out of the door marches Bugs, in a new costume – a U.S. Marine, singing “The Marines Hymn”. Marching past the villains, he pauses in his song. “Sorry, fells. I can’t play with ya anymore. I got some important work to do!” Resuming his march, he heads off to the horizon, following a road sign pointing “To Berlin, Tokyo, and points East.”
Rather than a direct parody, Columbia’s Screen Gems division introduced a new character possessing accidental super-powers, obtained through pure happenstance. Willoughby Wren, a small, silent, bulb-nosed little shrimp of a human being, became the unlikely hero in three episodes sporadically placed into the studio’s schedule. Because the episodes are considerably similar except for settings and gag content, we will showcase the first and the best, Willoughby’s Magic Hat (4/20/43 – Columbia Phantasy, Bob Wickersham, dir.) As the title indicates, a bull’s eye style black and white striped cap is the cause of all the commotion. A narrator (John McLeish, from the Goofy “How To” series), presents a lengthy prologue as to its history – knitted by Delilah from the hair trimmings she obtained from Samson, as a gift to her boyfriend Hercules, who lost the cap in a gin rummy game with Atlas, after which the cap was stolen. Its whereabouts have remained a mystery for centuries, until it accidentally turns up at a second-hand haberdashery on Seventh Avenue. Our hero Willoughby takes a shine to it, making a purchase. Things start to change quickly for the diminutive little man. The doorknob of the shop’s front door crumbles in his hand, and the door flies off the hinges. Leaning on a telephone pole, Willoughby cracks the pole in two, taking down three others connected to it. Uncertain of what is causing these phenomena, but somehow compelled by a spirit to do good, Willoughby hears the screams of a woman down a darkened alley. There he finds an attractive young blonde caught in a stranglehold by – of all things – Frankenstein’s monster (depicted in mechanical man style). Possessed with unexplained courage, Willoughby taps the monster on the leg, and assumes fighting pose to prompt the monster to “put ‘em up.” The monster gestures to the woman as if to inquire, “someone you know?”, in response to which she just shrugs her shoulders in non-recognition – then the strangling commences again. Willoughby persists, but fails to note that his cap has fallen off behind him. The monster applies a stranglehold on Willoughby, uses his head like an axe to knock holes into the walls and pavement, then hurls Willoughby onto the climbing step of a telephone pole. Fortunately, he also tosses the hat after him, which lands on Willoughby’s head, returning his strength and fighting will.
When Willoughby returns to the crime scene, the culprit and victim are gone – but tell-tale screams direct his attention to a high railroad trestle, where the monster is seen tying the damsel to the tracks. With a powerful leap, Willoughby is jet-propelled up to the trestle, and begins working on the ropes. His boy scout training isn’t what it should be, and in a blur of activity, the girl is somehow set free, while Willoughby is left securely tied to the tracks! Along comes a locomotive right on schedule. As Willoughby struggles to free himself of the ropes, he succeeds in releasing one hand, from which he raises a fingertip in the direction of the locomotive – stopping the train’s progress cold, as the engine wheels strain and scrape against the tracks to fight the force of Willie’s finger. But trouble can’t be avoided this easily, as Willoughby observes the monster has caught up with the damsel again, and now has her tied to another railroad tie a few feet down the track – with a second locomotive approaching in the opposite direction. With a mighty inhale, Willoughby expands his chest, breaking through the ropes. He gives a firmer push on the train he’s been holding back, causing it to slide backwards a few feet, while he hops over the damsel to perform the same feat of train-stopping with the second locomotive. The first locomotive regains traction, and proceeds forward. Willoughby pushes locomotive 2 backwards, hops over the damsel, and holds locomotive 1 again. The process repeats, with Willoughby playing the role of ping pong ball back and forth over the damsel to keep the two trains from meeting – finally leaving Willoughby with both hands outstretched between the headlights of the two engines, as each engine strains with full steam to crush him and the damsel below. The vibration nearly causes Willoughby to lose the cap again, but he manages to save it from falling by grabbing it with his teeth. With a final mighty shove, he forces both locomotives apart at the same time, giving him a split second to unravel the damsel’s bonds, then jump through the gap in the trestle ties as the locomotives collide above them. Below in the valley, Willoughby meets the monster again. Now with cap secured firmly on head, another finger push from Willoughby sends the monster slamming into a brick wall, disassembling him into component parts. But the parts are somehow programed to self-regenerate, and reform into a monster tank, firing at Willoughby with a barrage of shells. With one hand, Willoughby blocks off the impact of shell after shell, finally reaching the tank for another finger-blow upon its chassis. With a tremendous explosion, the tank is again disintegrated to shrapnel, and does not reform. Willoughby plants a sign on the heap reading, “Salvage for Victory”, then returns to the arms of the sweet young heroine, where he is covered with kisses for a happy fade out, while the narrator hurriedly recaps about the cap just to make sure none of the audience missed anything.
Scrap Happy Daffy (Warner, Looney Tunes (Daffy Duck), 4/21/43 – Frank Tashlin, dir.) – This film has been visuted several times recently on this website. Only weeks after Bugs got the superhero treatment, rival Daffy enjots the same moment of glory for the war effort. Inspired by the ghosts of his ancestors from the revolutionary war, civil war, and pioneer days, Daffy turns to face the Nutzis and their secret weapon scrap-pile devourer (a billy goat) by streaking through the skies like a comet, prompting the ghosts to repeat the old “Is it a bird”, “plane” bit, finally recognizing that it’s “Super American” (Daffy, in full super-hero outfit, with a large “A” insignia on his chest.) He first out-strengths the goat, butting him in the head so hard the goat’s horns are bent into the shape of glasses around his eyes. Next, he takes on the deck gun of a German sub, with the shells bouncing off his chest. He approaches the gun closer and closer, in the same manner as Fleischer’s Superman approached the mad scientist’s ray in his premiere episode, striking at each enemy shell as soon as it emerges from the gun barrel. Then, he ties the barrel in a pretzel knot (a feat also duplicated by the real Superman in episode 1). The Nutzis submerge, but Daffy holds onto the periscope and struggles to keep the ship from disappearing below the waves. The scene transforms back to Daffy’s scrap yard, where he is merely battling with a water pipe in the ground. Awakened by a jet of water in the face, he tells the audience, “A dream. It was all a dream”. But above him, atop the scrap pile, rests the battered submarine, the goat, and the crew, calling to him, “Next time you dream, include us out!”
Snafuperman (Warner, Private Snafu, 3/44 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) – On a typical day in the barracks, Private Snafu listens to a hot version of “Little Brown Jug” on the radio (a hit for Glenn Miller a few years back), and noisily beats time with drumsticks on his helmet, bunk, trunk, and anything else that’s handy. His fellow troopers are engaged in more important matters – studying field manuals, and charts depicting types of enemy aircraft, and tell him to “Pipe down! “How in hell do ya expect a guy to study with all that racket gong on?” Snafu responds. “Study? Nuts! When I get at them Natzis, I ain’t gonna clunk them over the head with no books. What ya gotta give them dopes is a belly full of lead.” As Snafu mock-fires an imaginary machine gun, he is visited by the appearance of series regular guidance figure, Technical Fairy First Class, who addresses him in condescending tone, “Hello, Superman”. “Well, if I was Superman, I betcha I’d show ‘em plenty”, responds Snafu. Accepting this comment as a wish, the fairy raises a wand, and transforms Snafu’s private’s garb into a super suit, pronouncing him “Snafuperman” (In an interesting and rare bit of studio license cross-over, all in the name of the war effort, the Carl Stalling orchestra is allowed to play Paramount’s Superman theme for background score.) After testing his ability to leap the barracks in a single bound, Snafu spots a bomber crew transporting a blockbuster bomb with the inscription, “For Adolf” written on its nose. Snafu commandeers the weapon, placing it under his cape, and takes off for the front – ignoring the calls of the bomber captain that he forgot to take his navigation maps. After flying by the seat of his pants for a time, Snafu spots a populated area below, and presumes it is Berlin. Snafu jettisons his precious cargo, and waits with his fingers in his ears for the blast. A moment later, he is tapped on the shoulder by the Technical Fairy, who carries the bomb in one hand, inquiring, “Did you drop this?” He indicates for Snafu to look down – as a closer look reveals the structure below is the capitol building of Washington D.C.! “The Americans are on our side, ya know!”, says the fairy, as a sheepish Snafu melts into a puddle of embarrassment.
Further along in his flight, Snafu spots an armored vehicle below. “A lumbering Japanese tank”, concludes Snafu. He attacks the vehicle with a king-size can opener and plunger, prying off the top and plunging out its occupant – who is actually an American four-star general in a command tank. While Snafu salutes and attempts to sputter out a feeble explanation, a real enemy force is finally sighted – a squadron of “Messerschmitts. A whole mess of Messerschmitts” (a line also used by Freleng in the regular-issue propaganda title, Daffy the Commando). Realizing the planes are headed to bomb a nearby port, Snafu flies to the rescue, intercepting every bomb before it hits the ground, then piling the bombs neatly on a dock. “There. As harmless as a burnt-out match.” Snafu should have used his Superman x-ray vision – as the camera does – revealing that the bombs are not concussion bombs, but include clocks for delayed timing. BOOOOOOMMMMMM!! Our scene changes to a bed in a field hospital, with Snafu well laid up on sick call. Technical Fairy materializes again, and asks if there’s anything he can get for him. Snafu weakly whispers, “Well…..Yes…..”, then shouts at the top of his lungs, “GET ME A FIELD MANUAL!!!’ as we iris out.
A Hatful of Dreams (George Pal/Paramount, Puppetoon, George Pal, dir.) (NOTE: online data on this film is sketchy and incorrect in many particulars, including major differences in alleged release date. IMDB (with very little other data) claims release on an unspecified date in January, 1944. Graham Webb lists a release date for this film in his book as April 28th, 1945. Big Cartoon Data Base (which completely misattributes voice roles) states its release date as July 6th, 1945. Anyone with a more reliable source of data is invited to contribute.) – For those many of you whose only exposure to the George Pal output has been through the video or DVD of The Puppetoon Movie, you may be pleased and surprised to learn that the romantic couple of Punchy and Judy had another appearance besides their adventures in a weather clock in the more well known Together in the Weather. In fact, this film was their first appearance. Judy (the shapely poster girl for The Puppetoon Movie) is already in her glory as the attractive little thing, adding to the effect with some highly realistic heavy breathing. Punchy is as unlikely a lover as ever, this time a kid with patches on his pants in a tenement-laden urban tough neighborhood. He’s not the only one with eyes for Judy, who moons for romance on an upper-story fire escape. The toughest kid on the block tries to impress with muscles.
The rich kid from across the tracks (although he dresses like Little Lord Fauntleroy), comes equipped with an entourage of servants bearing expensive trinkets and candies for Judy. As a street-wise narrator observes, Punchy can only offer “nothin’ but nothin’”. Stoop-shouldered and dejected, Punchy can only feel small – and smaller – and smaller, shrinking to size of a tosse-away cigar butt as he mopes his way down the street. A voice addresses him about his “dragging morale”. To Punchy’s surprise, the voice comes from a proud-looking horse, wearing an old, somewhat battered straw hat. The horse not only talks, but wears a chest of medals, announcing that he’s won the Kentucky Derby four times, the Santa Anita Handicap three times, and even appeared on the “Quiz Kids” radio program! The horse confesses, however, that he really didn’t do all that, any more than he can really talk – “It’s just the hat that does it. It brings out my suppressed desires. Confidentially, the hat’s full of dreams.” To boost Punchy’s spirits, the horse offers Punchy “a go at it”, a chance to try the hat on. As soon as Punchy lifts the hat from the horse’s brow, the noble steed reverts to a standard junkyard horse, with all medals and trappings gone. Not quite knowing what to expect, Punchy places the hat on his own head. In a twinkling, we are presented with a stop-motion rendering as close as possible to Paramount’s standard, “It’s a bird, It’s a plane” opening for a superman cartoon – and Punchy is transformed by his own hidden dreams into a junior Superman, complete with the trademark shield across his chest. (The original credits of the film, which has been beautifully fully restored by UCLA Film and Television Archives and is scheduled for release on the Puppetoon Movie 2, includes an express licensing credit for the use of the Superman character, though one would have thought freedom for such usage would have come as a direct offshoot of Pal releasing his films through the same studio already offering the character in its own releases. Click here to pre-order The Puppetoon Movie 2 – END OF PLUG).
Punchy can now fly to Judy’s balcony without that feeling of being little any more, and impresses her enough that she presents him with a flower. He does the outrun the bullet bit, holds back a locomotive with one hand, then pulls a change of persona, transforming himself into Aladdin, so he can not only outdo the neighborhood tough guy with his feats of super strength, but show up the rich kid by materializing a balcony full of expensive gifts, including a new sporty coupe, a grand piano, and – most impressive to Judy of all – nylons! Unfortunately, a fire-escape of heavy gifts is not the greatest idea for structural soundness – and the whole load collapses onto a cop on the beat below. On top of that, the hat drops off Punchy’s head in the fall, transforming him back to his powerless, unimpressive self. Taking several items, including the hat, as evidence, the cop carries Punchy away to tell it to the judge.
In court, an ornery and cantankerous judge (voiced by Pinto Colvig, in his deep gruff register similar to Grumpy) calls Punchy forward to plead his defense, while Judy sits among the spectators. Punchy calls as surprise witness the junkyard horse, who at first can do nothing but stand there, until Punchy pleads for the judge to permit him to have his hat back. As the hat touches the horse’s brow again, he returns to the mode of the talking champion, and asks if the judge is familiar with the United States Supreme Court decision of Dream Horse vs. Night Mare, in which controlling precedent was set that dreams are quite legal. The judge claims he wouldn’t believe a horse’s word for it, even under oath. “I’m dubious”. Ge says. “Hello, dubious”, says the horse, and suggests he try the hat on himself to prove the point, just for kicks. The judge believes it ridiculous – but is transformed by the hat into a six-gun toting Western lawman. His bullet fire causes the hat to fly off and land in the arresting officer – who is embarrassingly transformed into a ballet dancer. The hat flies off again, and lands upon various members of the jury, transforming them into their dreams of being an opera singer, a fighting soldier, and even a human cannonball. The only person in the court who returns things to a semblance of order is Judy – who doesn’t have to dream about being anything but Judy, having everything in the first place, so that the hat causes no transformation at all. Punchy is freed, and returns the hat to the horse, who becomes Punchy and Judy’s private steed for romantic evening rides in the junk wagon, Judy now fully satisfied with Punchy as he is, as he’s her dream.
Trombone Trouble (Disney/RKO. Donald Duck, 2/18/44 – Jack King, dir.), provides superpowers without a super suit – through divine intervention. The scene opens from an unlikely vantage point – a view of the globe from somewhere far out in space, with a trail of sour music notes being emitted from the planet into the heavens. As we continue to hear the “wonk wonk”ing of a badly-played brass instrument, the notes reach the heavenly home of two of the Gods, Jupiter and Vulcan (idetified by mailboxes protruding from a cloud.) In bolts of lightning, the two Gods make their appearance atop the cloud. (No one knew until now that they are both ducks – modified versions of Donald, with longer bills, and one with considerably fatter girth.) :”It’s that man again!” says Jupiter. “Night after night. How long must we suffer thus?”, says Vulcan. They pull their hair, which emits lightning sparks with each tug, and frustratedly pace around the cloud, both over it and underneath upside down. The camera briefly brings the audience to Earth to reveal the source of the commotion – our old reliable Black Pete has taken up music – making life easier on himself by plugging his own ears with corks while he exhausts himself with breathy squawks on an old trombone – reacting after the world’s worst note, “Ain’t dat sweet?” The gods are not the only ones upset at the nightly concert – next door resides neighbor Donald Duck, who also can’t get any sleep. He knocks on Pete’s door, and politely asks Pete to cut out the “wah wahs”. Pete responds with a note so strong, it blasts Donald across the yard, back into his house and bed, then folds the bed up into the wall – even though it isn’t of the Murphy variety. On the other side of the wall, Donald’s head and arms protrude through the plaster. The phone on a nearby table rings, and Donald manages to reach it through the wall to answer the call. It’s Pete, who apologizes that his note was in the wrong key, and blasts Donald with another one trough the earpiece.
Above, Jupiter and Vulcan notice Donald’s plight, and hit on an idea. “Let’s give that little guy power!” With a little jolt of lightning, Jupiter hits Donald in the tail. A frustrated Donald casually kicks at his upright piano – and to his surprise, launches the instrument into the opposite wall. “Gosh”, he remarks, as a lightning bolt emits from his open bill, zapping what was left of the piano into cinders and splinters. Puzzled, Donald looks into a mirror, scratching his head – and bolts and sparks emerge from his scalp, electrically frizzing and singeing his head feathers. Starting to get the idea, Donald tries an “Uncle Fester” experiment (one can only wonder who penned the idea first – the Disney staff or Charles Addams), by screwing a light bulb into his mouth, then turning it on and off with a snap of his fingers. “Power. POWER!!”, repeats Donald, his eyes turning rreen and his teeth becoming pointed and sinister. He advances on Pete’s home, not pausing to unlock the gate, but merely lifting the entire fence over his head. “This is gong to be good”, declares Jupiter above. Grabbing the house’s foundation, Donald lifts the entire home from the ground and gives Pete a good shaking while he plays. “Wow”, Pete exclaims at what he believes is the impact of his playing, “Dat note had poisonality!” Another note produces even more violent shaking, which Pete concludes is an “Oithquake!” “That’s me”, boasts Donald from the window. Donald cocks his fingers as if they were a gun, and shoots a lightning bolt from his fingertip into Pete’s posterior. Pete runs for cover, locking himself in the bathroom. Donald gains access by shooting another lightning bolt into an outdoor water pipe, which comes up in Pete’s tub, blasting him again. Donald pills out another bolt as if from an invisible quiver, and shoos it like a bow and arrow, making a three-cushion shot off Pete’s clotheslines into the window to zap him again. Pete runs for the exit, but Donald spins the house around so that Pete runs out his front door, straight into a tree trunk. Donald lets Pete out his back door – which is now aimed at a cliff. Pete rolls over the edge, but pulls himself back up by means of the extended root system of a tree ftom the ledge above. He calls for help as he tries to crawl his way back onto the ledge. Donald offers him a hand – which sends volts of electricity through Pete as if he had inserted his finger into a light socket. “Methinks our man’s a foul fighter”, says Jupiter. “Yea – but he’s getting places”, responds Vulcan.
As Pete again clings to the ledge, Donald uses one fingertip as if the point of a jack hammer, and cuts through the rock to which Pete clinhs, dropping him into the valley below. Pete grabs at every plant on the cliffside on the way down – and winds up with two bouquets of flowers in his hands, which he knows makes him look like a sissy – so he tosses them away in disgust. He lands stuck between two pier pilings in front of an old mill waterwheel, where the wheel’s planks administer a spanking on his rear end, guaranteed to continue for a good long time to come. “And that, as they say, is that”, concludes a happy Jupiter, as he and Vulcan bed down into the cloud while dawn breaks above. But sleep, and a happy ending, never come that easily in a cartoon – as a new set of notes, although somewhat better played, is heard by the gods. They look down , to discover that Donald has found Pete’s trombone, and is trying it out himself. “Oh, boy, boogie woogie!”, says the duck, and launches into a series of jazzy riffs, leaving the frustrated gods to faint dead away for the iris out.
She-Sick Sailors (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 12/8/44 – Seymour Kneitel,.dir.) – The cartoon that almost answers the burning question between the studio’s two current rival superstars – Who is the stronger? The man of steel, or the sailor of spinach? Olive seems to lean toward the former, as she has taken up reading Superman comics, and swoons at his every act of derring-do, ignoring her powerful boyfriend as if a has-been. Bluto overhears the bickering between them in Olive’s apartment, and sees an opening to get in good with Olive. For one of the few times in his screen career (though the “unkindest cut of all” is not actually witnessed on screen), Bluto shaves off his whiskers (though leaving a visible “5 o’clock shadow”), and rents a set of blue tights and red cape in a somewhat portly size range. While Popeye engages in a heated game of “keep-away” by concealing Olive’s comic book behind his back, an oversize “amazing stranger” bursts through the wall to defend the lady’s honor, dealing Popeye a blow to the chops that crashes him into Olive’s sofa. Blutoman tells Olive he’ll stick to her like glue, and Olive replies with a giggle, “The feeling is mucilage.” Popeye, with his head springing out of the sofa cushions, is shocked. “Well, blow me down. If he ain’t a real humane being!” However, Popeye is as usual up to the challenge, addressing Bluto as “Stupidman”, and insisting that he has to prove he’s the better man than the sailor. “All right, you milk muscled midget, let’s see if you can save the fair damsel”, says Bluto, casually dropping Olive from a window 20 stories above ground. (Makes one wonder how Bluto managed to break through the wall at such a height.) “Wow!”, shouts Popeye, and begins racing at his fastest speed down flight after flight of stairs. Bluto instead uses gravity for speed (of course taking nothing into account as to how he can possibly fall faster than Olive so as to catch up with her), and jumps out the window himself. Miraculously, he does overtake Olive, then pops an umbrella out of the back of his shirt, tied by its handle to his waist, floating the two of them gently to the ground. When Popeye arrives, catcher’s mitt in hand, her merely runs himself in circles into a pretzel knot looking upwatds for someone to save – as Bluto and Olive are already on the ground, laughing at his hapless effort. (A notable continuity error commences from this point in the cartoon, as the “S” insignia on Bluto’s chest disappears entirely for the remainder of the picture once he reaches the ground.) Popeye sighs, “I’m flabberblasted!”
Popeye pursues the strolling couple, and insists that the would-be superhero still hasn’t proved “nothin’” yet. Stepping onto a railroad track, Bluto waits in the path of an oncoming train, seemingly bringing the engine to a stop with the force of only one hand. However, Bluto is well aware of the train’s schedule, and conceals view from the other side of the cars that the engine has come to a stop using its own brakes, to unload passengers at a concealed station just up the tracks. “If you can dood it, I can dood it”, said Popeye. He stands on the track with one arm outstrectched, and tells Bluto to “Let ‘er go.” Bluto glances back at the station, whee the conductor is giving the signal for “All aboard”, and releases his hand’s pressure on the engine just as the vehicle builds up steam and takes off. Popeye stands steadfast on the tracks – so much so that he carves a silhouette-shaped hole through the front of the engine, then through and out the caboose for the entire length of the train – leaving him in a wobbling walk on the tracks with the conductor’s red lantern in his outstretched hand. Bluto guffaws heartily, but Popeye weakly insists he’s still not convinced. Bluto devises the ultimate test of he-manship. “Dis is something only Superman can do. Pepper me chest with dis’.” He hands Popeye a machine gun. “Th-That’d be moider!” says Popeye. “Yeah…when it’s your turn!”, replies Bluto. As Popeye carries the gun back to a firing position, Bluto ducks behind a tree, and inserts a heavy armor plate within the chest cavity of his costume. Popeye can’t even bear to look as he pulls the trigger – but the bullets indeed bounce off Bluto’s chest as advertised. As Popeye’s eye pops when he takes a peek, Bluto takes the gun and announces, “Now you’re gonna be the big shot.” Popeye attempts to stand with courage to meet the hopeless challenge, throwing out his chest (which wobbles and withers like a wilting leaf to the ground. Olive tries to divert the shot, but Bluto launches a hail of bullets at the helpless sailor, until he falls to the ground). Then Bluto makes off with a struggling, screaming Olive, and for good measure ties her to the railroad track when she refuses to come gracefully.
Popeye, however, is not entirely motionless, and reaches into his shirt, producing his trusty spinach can – riddled with bullets. “Saved by me spinach”, says the sailor, and downs the can’s contents, shrapnel-flavor and all. The vegetable instantly produces a red cape for Popeye, and a large yellow “P” on the chest of his shirt. Back at the tracks, Bluto’s sailor hat falls out from the chest of his costume, revealing his “secret identity”. But a streaking form in the skies prompts the nearly trademark reactions from Olive and Bluto. “Look, up in the shy! It’s an eagle. It’s a rocket. It’s a meteor.” Of course, it’s Popeye, flying with a jet from his pipe. (Just to match Bluto’s continuity error. Popeye’s “P” now disappears from his shirt, too – I guess the alphabet wasn’t the ink-and-paint girls’ specialty.) Bluto pries a boulder loose on a mountaintop to roll at Popeye – but with a blast of super-breath, Popeye blows the boulder back up the mountain, and straight at Bluto. It intercepts him within a grove of nine trees – resulting in a crushing strike with Bluto as the headpin. The score as to who is the strongest is finally settled, with a shot that tells us we should have known the outcome all the time – as it is identical to the ending of the original “Popeye the Sailor” seen back in 1933. Popeye, without sufficient time to untie Olive from the tracks, takes aim with his fist at another oncoming locomotive – and this time demolishes the entire train into rubble, giving us his pipe “toot toot” for the iris out.
Next Time: Cats, mice, coyotes, and even a little girl, among others, prove the superhero business isn’t just for the super.