Today’s topic, while transcending the Halloween season as a viable genre for any occasion, permits us to commemorate a Halloween eve of long ago, and celebrate one of the most memorable Halloween “tricks” of all time – shaking to the roots the broadcast media – and further immortalized in animated cartoon form.
Invasion of Earth has, in both motion pictures and television, live and animated, become a rather commonplace occurrence in recent years – and an often predictable source of ratings or box-office revenue. But it was not always so, and as we will see, took a while to develop in the cinema. This first installment will focus upon those early days, when the concept of creepy beings frm another world was not well ingrained into the standard nightmares of overimaginative youth – or the paranoia of adults.
While several early characters had excursions (planned or unplanned) to other celestial bodies (usually Mars or the Moon) during the early 1930’s (including, to name a few, Felix the Cat in Astronomeous (1928), Bimbo in Fleischer’s Up To Mars (1930), Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Mars (1930) and Sky Larks (1934), Willie Whopper in Stratos-Fear (1933), Little Cheeser in Little Buck Cheeser (1937), Scrappy in Scrappy’s Trip to Mars (1937), and anonymous animals of various species in Fleischer’s Come Take a Trip In My Airship (1930), Van Buren’s Silvery Moon (1933), and Fleischer’s Color Classic Dancing on the Moon (1935), the inhabitants of such worlds, even if willing to engage in weird experiments or to react with hostile intent upon meeting an earth specimen, were usually not the initiators of an attack or invasion upon Earth in animation’s early days. The paranoia of little green men or weirder monstrous beings appearing from nowhere had not apparently yet gripped the cinema-going public. In fact, space opera in general did not catch a broad cinema audience until the later 1930’s when Universal procured substantial profits with its serialized tales of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
Perhaps the earliest instance of a space heavy coming to Earth I’ve encountered occurs in Krazy Kat’s The Peace Conference (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Krazy Kat, 4/26/35 – Ben Harrison, Manny Gould, dir.). Most likely inspired by the Geneva Disarmament Conference of 1932-34 (though another, the Chaco Peace Conference, began in 1935 in Buenos Aires), a peace conference attended by both human and animal delegates and human world leaders (including a recognizable Mahatma Ghandi) gets under way, below a chirping chorus of peace doves above the entrance doorway. A hat check window serves new duty as an attendant instructs attendees, “Check your pistols, guns and knives, hand grenades and 45’s.” Inside a first meeting room, delegates of the world leaders gather around a dog in a chef’s hat, who slices bits and pieces off a large globe like he was carving a roast. “One for you, and one for you, and share this one among you two.”
Sharing is not a normal part of these delegates’ vocabulary, and in no time the assembly are “duke”ing it out atop the conference table. The roof of the building bounces and wobbles from the fighting inside, and even the doves fly the coop, taking their “Peace” banner with them. Amidst this chaos arrives at the front door an old-fashioned World War I-style tank, which rolls through the front door and smashes down an interior wall to get to the delegates. Inside the tank – Krazy Kat, wearing formal top hat and delegate’s wardrobe. “Gentlemen, please! This fighting must cease!” Producing what appears to be an ordinary rifle, he continues, “This is my gun, to bring you world peace!” The delegates scoff at this intruder. Krazy realizes a demonstration is in order, and loads his rifle with a series of special bullets, marked “Crooner Tunes”, “Hot Music”, “Waltz Time”, and “Jazz Band”. A first shot into the middle of the battling delegates produces, in person, Bing Crosby, who croons a few “Boo Boo Boo Boo”s and instantly has the delegates spellbound and singing along. Krazy ventures deeper into the convention hall. In a back room waits an assemblage of actual world leaders, who watch a large world globe as it bulges and erupts on one side into a miniature no-man’s land battlefield with two opposing armies taking rifle pot-shots at each other. Krazy, peeking in through a keyhole, fires another shot through the hole, making a direct hit on the miniature battlefield. In its midst appears a miniature version of clarinetist Ted Lewis, who breaks into a solo in his traditional hot-cornball style. The soldiers start blowing on their rifles, magically converting them into clarinets too. The world leaders are all satisfied, and break into a choral number entitled A Happy Family. (Musical director Joe De Nat was obviously a waste not-want not kind of guy, as he (in a move copied several times in his career) would lift this song almost verbatim for reuse only a few months later in another Krazy episode, “A Happy Family”).
The convention hall changes from quivering with the impacts of battle to swaying with the rhythm of the little tune. But above in the reaches of space, the giant war god of Mars watches through a telescope from his planet, and is outraged. He leaps off his world and cannonball-dives to our own, landing with a terrific thud in the middle of the convention hall. “Stop this vile hilarity. I see that you’re neglecting me!”, Mars shouts. He sharpens a large dagger, and descends upon Krazy. Krazy attempts to stand his ground, taking a shot at Mars’s shoulder. On it appears Rudy Vallee, with his trademark megaphone, repeating a few bars of the “Family” song. After only a few notes, Mars, in complete disdain of this effort, flicks Vallee off his shoulder as if he were a fly. Krazy tries another shot to Mars’ opposite shoulder. Again, we get the dependable Crosby. Mars listens a little longer this time, and almost seems to be won over, but gets hold of himself and flicks the intruder off again. Time for the big guns, thinks Krazy, and fires off a volley of shots at Mars’s chest, ultimately knocking him down. Atop his chest appears the entire Paul Whiteman jazz orchestra! The leaders and delegates link hands and form a circle around the fallen Mars, dancing while the Whiteman band reprises the “Family” song again. Mars finally comes to, but finds the band’s effect too powerful, and sings along with the song’s final chorus as the scene irises out on a happy note.
H.G. Wells was no slouch when it came to creating frightening concepts – many of which would long after become considerable money-makers for the cinema. As if a Time Machine and an Invisible Man weren’t enough, he would attempt to shock us into consciousness of other life forms with his 1897 composition, “The War of the Worlds”. But curiously – even with such inventive fantasy forces in cinema as George Melies – film adaptations of Wells’ work were slow in coming (either considered too far-out for general audiences or perhaps yet beyond the special effects capabilities of live-action directors), and “War” would wait until 1953 for stop-motion animator turned live-action director George Pal to adapt the project to feature form.
It would fall upon another entertainment medium – lacking entirely in visual effects – to bring this groundbreaking story concept to full public consciousness. The year was 1938, and a renowned entertainment giant of conspicuously similar name – Welles (Orson) – would decide to use his new anthology radio series, “Mercury Theatre on the Air”, as the springboard for a devilishly clever “Halloween joke”. Instead of presenting a play based on “Worlds” with typical narration, actors with stage-style expositional dialog, etc., Welles and his writers decided to present the story in a manner to grip the audience with a living presence, as if wrapped up in the plot events themselves. In a manner somewhat foretelling the style of later programing such as “You Are There”, the first two-thirds of the program are presented in present tense, with the listener hearing events firsthand as if being delivered in real time by radio bulletins interrupting normal programming. Combining the realistic sounds of a radio commentator with the outlandish events being reported gave the broadcast a unique semblance of credibility, coupled with the script’s use of name-dropping of real-life locations, including New York City, making appear believable what could not possibly be. Enough so that at least some of the populace was genuinely fooled – and, probably having no knowledge of the underlying literary work, swallowed that everything was real! Broadcast competition helped foster the realistic sound of the program, as listeners were prone to tune in the opening “duologue” between Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on NBC before channel surfing to CBS – leading many to tune in after the introduction of the Welles’ play to get swallowed up in the belief that they were listening to a band remote interrupted by news flashes. If you’ve never heard the broadcast (embedded below), listen, for example, to its midpoint, where sound effects are convincingly used to make the audience believe they are hearing live sounds from the high vantage point of atop the Empire State Building of chaos in the streets and harbors of New York City – as a gas is released over the populace. The announcer falls victim with a sickening thud – leaving an open mike. The whistles, sirens, shouts and horn honks continue, but quickly fade and diminish to an ominous and terrifying total silence. After a long silent pause, a radio engineer’s voice is heard from a remote station, attempting to hail the New York announcer – “2X2L to CQ . . . . . Isn’t there anyone on the air?”
New York animator Paul Terry, being in the center of the area that was supposed to have been decimated, obviously realized the power (and the potential for real-life chaos) that a broadcast of this caliber could raise. In a nearly-forgotten animation landmark, he would be the first to bring Wells’ concept of full-blown alien invasion – by radio broadcast – to the animated screen. The Nutty Network (Terrytoons/Fox, 3/24/39 – Mannie Davis, dir.) is an original and highly satirical direct parody of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, set in an animal jungle radio station – Station A – P – E. As in Welles’ broadcast, the program opens with a musical interlude (in Terry’s version, assisted by a coloratura ostrich, who sings an operatic vocal in lyrics played in reverse – until a stage hand shows her she’s holding the music upside down). Suddenly, a bulletin interrupts the proceedings, as an ape announces that astronomers report mysterious activity on the moon. “That noise you are about to hear is a terrific explosion on the moon itself!” A monkey in charge of sound effects, equipped with an array of firecrackers, skyrockets, cymbals and a large bass drum, supplies the appropriate accompaniment. To make matters entertaining even for live audience members at the broadcast site, more monkeys hoist into place a large yellow disk representing the moon on a pole, with eye-holes and a mouth slit, through which protrudes a board painted pink, which one monkey manipulates from behind the disk so that it looks like a large protruding tongue.
The announcer continues, “A bunch of goofy-looking moon people are headed this way with terrific speed.” Audience members, as well as listeners over the air, begin to flee through the jungle. The announcer further incites the panic – but with a proviso: “Run, run, RUN! Have you forgotten anything? STOP! You still have time to get it.” The fleeing masses do an about-face and race back to their homes to gather their belongings. Even the Lord of the jungle – Tarzan himself – packs a traveling bag and dons a fedora hat for a quick getaway. The announcer continues to make thing sound more desperate, describing power lines down, gas tanks blowing up, lights going out – but the enemy coming in.
The jungle animals fortify with weapons – but, in direct parallel to the New York destruction sequence of the original broadcast, the announcer upsets the counter-attack by declaring that a poison gas has been released (coincidentally timed with the unseen arrival behind a rock of a passing skunk, convincing the other animals of the gas’s lethal powers). The last line of defense flees for the hills – passing the cave of the King of these parts, a lion in royal crown and robe voiced like Bert Lahr. Trying to get to the bottom of the melee, the King overhears the radio’s announcement of moon monsters. “Why wasn’t I told?”, shouts the King. The announcer says that it’s only the beginning. “The beginning of what?” demands the King. “The beginning of the end”, replies the announcer. “The end of what?” asks the King. “The end of EVERYTHING!”, answers the announcer, sending the King into shudders.
Calling out his army, and even taking matters into his own hands with a ladder and a high pressure fireman’s hose, the King and his troops try to do battle with the yellow moon-face. But an arsenal of fireworks shot off by the prop man collapses the ladder and sends the King running. Back within his cave and hiding from the attack, the King hears the broadcast come to an abrupt conclusion, as the announcer (in fashion similar to Orson Welles’ actual concluding remarks on the original broadcast), announces that it was “all in fun”. “Some fun”, grumbles the King, and vows that the perpetrators will report to him (as , no doubt, some real-life broadcasters had to report in the wake of the original broadcast). The announcer and his effects man are brought before the King. “Gimme that script”, demands the King. He reviews it while chomping on a cigar between his teeth, then drops the cigar as he chews the monkeys out with how preposterous the hoax was, and that the moon’s too far away. He neglects to notice that his cigar has fallen upon a fuse hooked to the prop man’s last remaining skyrockets. Ka-BOOM!!! The King and the two monkeys are blasted into space – and the moon turns out to be closer than anyone thought, as all three land within its crescent, the King hanging on by his hands to keep from falling, ending with Bert Lahr’s nonsensical catch-phrase, “Naaaungh, Naaaungh, Naaaungh!!!!”
Rocket To Mars (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 8/9/46, Bill Tytla, dir.), previously reviewed in my post “The Invisible Article (Part 1)”, may mark the first of its kind, in telling the tale of a real (not fake) unprovoked attempted mass invasion of Earth by Martians – although the invasion never quite gets off the ground thanks to Popeye’s accidental arrival in a runaway rocket. While Popeye does the actual invading, this seems to be the first time the Martians already had something in mind to conquer us, before we arrived there. It thus closely mirrors H.G. Wells’ original concept from “War of the Worlds” in its literary form, and sets a template against which subsequent invasion cartoons would frequently model themselves in the decades to come.
Bob Clampett appears to have well-remembered the radio scare from the 1938 “War” broadcast many years later, and adapts such situation for his own laughs in Porky Pig’s, Kitty Kornered (Warner, 6/8/46) – the cartoon that introduced the world to Sylvester the Cat. Sylvester is not quite of star caliber in this first episode, but is cast as the self-appointed leader of a motley crew of four cats who are members of Porky’s household. The only problem – they are fed up with the tradition of being put outside in the cold at night, and would rather stick around inside and eat (and drink!) Porky out of house and home. Sylvester’s personality does not even reveal itself until about two-thirds of the way into the film, when he first addresses his fellow pussy cats in his signature voice. Porky has succeeded in chasing the cats out into the cold by trickery – calling for his “big dog Lassie” out the window (“Lassie, come home!!), and scaring the cats out with loud barking and a menacing fanged shadow – which turns out to be merely Porky casting shadows with his hands. Regrouping outside after the panic, Sylvester and his three cronies plot revenge by the same form of trickery. What might Porky be afraid of? How about Martians! In silhouette, our feline foursome are seen donning their “war paint”, as they dress in elaborate costumes with added features such as a light bulb screwed into the top of one of the “Martians”’ heads. The scene changes to a sleeping Porky in his bedroom. Suddenly, in “War of the Worlds” style, a shouting announcer delivers a news bulleting from the radio (actually, its just one of the cats behind the radio, speaking through a metal funnel). He announces that millions of Martians are landing in our fields. Strange creatures dropping from the stratosphere (as outside the window, little toy aliens are being dropped from the roof with small parachutes). Crisis in Washington. “Everything’s gone mad, I tell you, utterly mad! Stay tuned to this station for late reports!”
From nowhere, the smallest cat, completely disguised as a pink Martian with green hair, asks Porky, “What do the man say, Mister? HUH?” Porky repeats the “Men from mars” story, but adds “That’s silly”, and dismisses it. He says good night to his visitor, then also says good night to three more such creatures un his bed, hardly noticing their strange appearance as he is still half asleep. “Good night, Butterball!!”, reply the three other “aliens” in unison, and plant a big smacking kiss upon Porky. In one of Rod Scribner’s wildest “take” scenes, reality dawns on Porky. Pointing every which way at the aliens, and trying desperately to break out of his stutter, Porky nearly explodes with frightened energy, as he finally finds the words, “MEN FROM MARS!!!!!!” Shooting out of bed like a comet, Porky darts up a flight of stairs , where a glass case on the wall houses an old blunderbuss in the manner of a fire extinguisher, with inscription on the glass reading “Use Only In Case Of Invasion From Mars”. In a repeat of a Clampett gag first used in “Porky’s Badtime Story” (1938), Porky smashes the glass – and the painted letters hang briefly in mid-air before falling to the ground with little tinkles. In an amazing forced-perspective camera angle from the upper floor landing, Porky whips the blunderbuss barrel around to point down the stairs at the intruders below. But the cats perform another costume quick-change, suddenly transforming themselves into four look-alikes to Teddy Roosevelt, who draw swords and yell, “CHARGE!” They advance en masse up the stairs like taking San Juan Hill. Porky is so surprised he forgets to use the gun entirely, and runs panicked through the corridors at near sword point, finally leaping through the glass of an upper-story window to fall to the street below. The cats reveal their true identities inside the window, and give Porky the proverbial last laugh. Porky turns to the camera, and apologetically inquires, “Pardon me, but does anyone in the audience know somebody who knows somebody that has a house to rent?” Iris out.
Flying Cups and Saucers (Terrytoons/Fox, Dimwit, 12/2/49 – Connie Rasinski, dir.) – By this time, the notion of Martian invaders was creeping slightly more into the public’s vocabulary – although primarily still the stuff of junior pulp fiction. 1947 had brought us the rumored sighting of a UFO in Roswell. “Space Opera” was getting its start in some media – notably creeping into such things as Republic serials, and eventually making its way into ultra-low budget television, in such productions as “Captain Video”, “Space Patrol”, and “Rocky Jones, Space Ranger”. We were still slightly ahead of the popular advent of serious science fiction, such as “Dimension X” and “X Minus One” for the NBC radio networks. This cartoon is a disappointing early effort to cash in on a new trend, which actually gets nowhere fast. While the titular flying cup and saucer invades our earth, its only occupants are a pair of cats. The only thing distinguishing them from Earth cats is that one is blue, the other pink. They’ve come from the moon, seeking a planet with mice, claiming the mice on the moon have run out. Farmer Dimwit, encountering these newcomers, advises that his farm has millions of them, and that they can help themselves. He even offers to help their efforts. What follows is nothing more than yet another endless cat-and-mouse chase cartoon of the kind Terry had produced for twenty or more years, with no gags of particular distinction. I would rank the effort as an entire waste of time.
What Terry and Rasinski did wrong for Dimwit, they managed to do right for his star money-maker, Mighty Mouse, in Goons From the Moon (Terrytoons, Fox, 4/1/51 – Connie Rasinski, dir.). The title is actually a misnomer – as the invaders come from a traveling planet which comes to a stop next to ours and lowers a gangplank. This time, instead of two measly felines, we get an invasion force worthy of Wells – with multicolor cats with a variety of varying physical “extras”. Many have the equivalent of bats’ wings. Others have wheels instead of feet – one even gets a “flat tire”, and is able to apply a tire patch and pump his foot up again. They also carry a variety of space weapons, including a bubble gun that catches mice in soap bubbles, to be floated upward to a cloud where other cats wait with pins to pop the bubbles and nets to catch the mise in. Another gun-like contraption uses a boot on a hinge to kick mice into the air, where other flying cats catch them. The panic is broadcast in alarming radio form by a chain-smoking reporter mouse voiced like reporter-columnist Walter Winchell. In an effective scene well-angled for dramatic effect, several cats squeeze their way inside the transmitter tower atop the radio station, travel down inside the center pole, and the camera sweeps angularly down the building face to the front entrance, where the cats exit carrying the radio announcer on his desk and chair, still in the middle of broadcasting the rumor that the radio station was being invaded!
The power of the broadcast media is also lampooned in another shot, as another mouse is abducted from his living room along with some of his furniture including a TV set – and is too involved in watching the invasion on the TV broadcast to note that it’s happening to him in real life. Of course, the call goes out to Mighty Mouse. In an unusual entrance scene, an animator’s hand paints in Mighty on a blank sheet of paper riding atop a Nike missile – while he is still only halfway painted, Mighty sings at the unseen artist, “Hurry up! I have a job to do!” Mighty finally makes his grand entrance, steering the missile into an aerial squadron of the cats. As isolated cats fly at him in solo attack, Mighty becomes unusually playful, dispatching each one with a mere flick of his finger. A cat uses a more traditional anti-aircraft gun from the ground. Mighty merely catches the bullets in his mouth and spits them back. Another Earth weapon is employed by the cats – a cannon is fired. Mighty catches the shell, reloads it into the cannon, and turns it on the cats. As they lay in a heap on the ground, Mighty uproots a large tree, inverts it, and uses the foliage to sweep the cats neatly away off a cliff. What’s left of the cat air force is socked back to the planet they came from. Then Mighty delivers a super-punch to their planet itself. The planet bounces off of various stars, lighting them up like lights in a pinball machine. Then the planet catches on the point of the crescent moon, punctures, and deflates to hang from the moon like a limp teabag. Now they can correctly be called “goons from the moon”! Mighty is seen through an observatory telescope waiving farewell, as he soars off into the heavens, in wait for his next adventure.
Chuck Jones became an early afficionado of the sci-fi epic, jumping on the bandwagon of growing space-consciousness with his creation of the first Martian to ever hold a regular berth as a recurring series character – Marvin the Martian, debuting in Bugs Bunny’s first space epic, Haredevil Hare (7/24/48). The gladiator-helmeted, tennis-shoed mouthless black ball of an alien (whom Daffy as Duck Dodgers in the late Cartoon Network television series would affectionately nickname due to his resemblance to a bowling ball, “Brunswick”) was a general nosy nebbish – rarely holding grandiose dreams of universe conquest, but more likely to be found trying to blow up the Earth on the simple whim that “It blocks my view of Venus.” But Marvin was the type that usually preferred to do his dirty-work long-distance – by building death-star weaponry light years before Darth Vader such as his infamous “Uranium PU-36 explosive space modulator” and attacking from his home base in space. Only once did Marvin ever make it to Earth in the golden era.
In The Hasty Hare (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 6/7/52 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.) (title a play-on-words of Ronald Reagan’s feature, “The Hasty Heart”), Marvin and his trusty sidekick, a green dog called “K-9″, comprise an expeditionary force to the Earth to capture a typical Earth specimen for study (as told in sealed orders signed by General E=MC Squared). They of course stumble upon Bugs’s rabbit hole. As they attempt to peer in, they are greeted with a bucket in the face of carrot stumps from Bugs’s trash can. Bugs emerges, and upon seeing their strange appearance, remarks, “Oh, I get it. Trick or Treat!” He produces a bag of goodies for each of them, and returns to his hole, complimenting them, “Swell getup ya got, kids.” Marvin, fearing that this Earth creature will prove difficult, employs an “Acme Disintegrating Pistol”, and blasts away a large crater of Earth over Bugs’ hole. A frazzled and spooked Bugs emerges. “HEYYY!!! How Haloweeny can you get?”
Bugs now spies Marvin’s space ship, and shrinks dramatically in bravado, as Marvin explains that “We” will be travelling back to Mars in it – “Isn’t that delightful?” Bugs finds his cool again, replying, “And suppose I decline to accompany you on your delightful journey, Shorty?” Marvin responds by simply turning his ray pistol on a nearby boulder – which disappears. With a nervous laugh, Bugs pops back into the crater and emerges with fedora hat and packed suitcase – “Well what are we waitin’ for? Let’s go!” He climbs up the gangway to the space ship, but reappears back down again a split second later dressed as a tour conductor, announcing the ship’s departure like he was a dispatcher at Grand Central Station, Marvin and K-9 follow his cue and board the ship – forgetting that Bugs is still on the ground. They take off, zoom into space, halfway to their home destination – before they realize something’s wrong, and zoom back. Marvin, in his usual ineffective way, anounces that Bugs has made him “very angry”. While Marvin paces back and forth in a nervous huff, Bugs takes him aside, whispering that it isn’t that he doesn;t want to go to Mars, but that he “don’t want to get mixed up in no mutiny.” K-9 looks on from a distance, while Marvin queries, “You mean he – against me?” Marvin attempts to cure this fast – by drawing a bead on K-9 with the disintegrating pistol. Only K-9’s helmet remains in midair – but K-9 is hiding inside it, and hands a message out of it to Marvin with one paw, reading, “Dear Commander. What have I done? Signed, Anxious.” While Marvin and K-9 clear things up, Bugs attempts to nonchalantly walk away. But Marvin and K-9 have another trick up their sleeve – an Acme Straight-Jacket Ejecting Bazooka. One shot – and Bugs is bound in a tight cloth cocoon.
The scene changes to the interior of Marvin’s space ship, where Bugs now bears a shipping label: “One over-confident Earth creature.” Marvin calls K-9 over, and gently complains that the jacket isn’t his size, asking for something more “sporty” in a size 36. K-9 obliges, retrieving another from an entire wardrobe closet full of straight-jackets. Released from the first one, Bugs pretends to try on the new jacket, but observes, “You know, I believe this is more your sort of thing”, and swiftly ties up K-9 in it. Obtaining another jacket from the wardrobe closet, Bugs enters Marvin’s cockpit, yelling for him to abandon ship as they’ve struck an iceberg. Instructing Marvin to get into a life preserver, Bugs wraps Marvin up like a present too, and seats him next to K-9, with a new delivery tag: “Two disgruntled Martians.” Bugs takes the controls, and attempts to steer the ship toward home. Easier said than done. The ship careens through dives, right-angle turns and corkscrew twists. In hopes of slowing it down somehow, Bugs tosses out a huge anchor. The anchor catches on the lower corner of a crescent moon, and drags it along for the ride. The upper hook of the crescent hooks the rings of Saturn, and spears its point into Jupiter. Several stars get their points caught in Jupiter’s surface, as the ship begins to approach Earth. A scientist in a mountaintop observatory sees the strange sight through his telescope, as Bugs and his assemblage of heavenly bodies park right above the telescope lens. Scribbling a note on a paper, the scientist leaves, the note reading, “I resign! When I begin to see things like this, it’s time to take up turkey farming.” He is reasonably content with his belief that he was seeing things – until Bugs calls to him outside the observatory from the space ship, asking him if he knows anybody in the market for a “slightly-used flying saucer. It’s only got three billion miles on it.” The scientist develops a case of insanity fits and disappears down the road, while Bugs asks the audience, “What’s biting him?” for the iris out.
Honorable mention also belongs to Jones for Operation: Rabbit (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 1/19/52), in which Wile E. Coyote, in his first speaking role under the “Super Genius” guise, adds a Roswell-style flying saucer to his bag of inventive tricks – set to seek out and explode its victim by merely setting a selector knob to point at the word “rabbit” from a selection of animal targets on the controls. Bugs sees the thing zoom out of Wile E.’s cave, and sensing danger, dons a Halloween mask of a chicken. The saucer stops in its tracks, fooled, and looks the other way for its intended victim. Bugs grabs a pencil and scribbles on the saucer next to the word “rabbit” the new target, “coyote”, them turns the selector to point at it. The saucer immediately streaks back to Wile E’s cave – and explodes the whole mountain apart around the frazzled, charred coyote.
Walter Lantz was one to remember favors. His studio had hit upon hard times when his deal with United Artists, to whom he had “jumped ship” from Universal, resulted in some of his most lavishly-produced cartoons but a situation where booking revenues apparently were not keeping pace with production costs, forcing a closure and hiatus of production. While Lantz, having lost his original staff animators and voices, attempted to regroup, fellow animation mogul George Pal, newly addressing his skills to the production of live-action/animation mixed-media features, offered Lantz a choice opportunity to see if his star character Woody Woodpecker could be revived under a new unit. Despite the Woody series being out of production, Pal gives Woody a royal introduction as a Hollywood celebrity to present a promotional animation short on space travel as a fund-raising measure for the building of a rocket ship, in the feature Destination Moon (1950). The full-length short sequence not only gave Lantz the first chance to publicly try out his wife (Grace Stafford) as the new voice of Woody, but gave his new team of animators a first crack at manipulating a new and streamlined character design, easier on the “line mileage” than previous versions and with less “frazzle” in his feathers, thus providing a more comfortable “fit’ with the lessened budgets under which Lantz would be forced to work for the rest of his career. Such proving ground not only made a successful impact, but allowed Lantz to have a solid foot in the door for re-establishing his Universal contract at an affordable rate of return.
Lantz was not about to forget Pal’s helping hand. In 1951, a routine Woody episode concerning, of all things, a supermarket, was transformed by its title and title-card artwork into a backhanded complimentary nod to Pal’s feature, entitled Destination Meatball. By 1953, Pal had moved to and premiered his latest project – the long-awaited filming of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. Lantz again didn’t miss a trick, finding a way before the premiere to indirectly promote the concept of Pal’s forthcoming feature by means of an unusually creative far-out story concept – enough to strike terror into the heart of any red-blooded (and red-headed) woodpecker!
Termites From Mars (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 12/8/52 – Don Patterson, dir.), even opens in a special manner, with animated titling featuring a passing parade of miniature rocket ships – with one lone flying cup-and-saucer! We fade in to an observatory, swinging its telescope around for a view of the skies – and hitting the moon on the backside in the process. A scientist inside reacts in fright, as we see through the viewfinder a stream of the rocket ships we just saw descending in droves from the planet Mars. The astronomer relays a distress call to the press. A reporter (again parodying Walter Winchell), paraphrases Winchell’s standard opening line: “Flash! Calling Mr. and Mrs. Universe and all the ships at sea…” (His broadcast mike bears the call letters, “WLP” (i.e., Walter Lantz Productions).) He shouts panic-stricken distress warnings for the populace to prepare itself against attack. At sea, an ocean liner dives below the waves and converts itself into an armed submarine. A city skyline submerges into the ground, to be replaced with an equally-tall arsenal of cannon. In a stylish yet simple use of color, each scene transforming into danger mode dissolves itself from blue skies to a reddish-purple tint for dramatic effect.
One part of the vicinity has not yet been affected – a tall tree in the forest with sign reading, “Broken Limb Apartments”. On the top floor, Woody casually sweeps up his living room, while doing a hula to a TV broadcast of Hawaiian dancers. Appearing from nowhere between the dancers comes an announcer on the screen, terror-stricken as he interrupts the program for a bulletin on the invaders. Woody dismisses his warning as nonsense, and switches the channel to a puppet Punch-and-Judy show (a lampoon of such popular puppet shows of the day as Kukla, Fran and Ollie and Howdy Doody). The same announcer suddenly appears between the puppets with the same interruption. Woody again clicks the channel, now to a wrestling match. There’s that announcer again, appearing in the center of the ring! Woody finally lets the warning run its course, as on the spot cameras track the invading rockets as they land – of all places at the foot of Woody’s tree. The camera zooms in on the ships, which compared to the tree turn out to be of diminutive size. Even the announcer is astonished. “What’s this? They are not men. They look like……Oh, no! Oh, Yes!! They’re TERMITES!!!”
The invaders are little green insects, in glass space helmets. (These characters had actually appeared one time previously, in April of the same year in Woody’s Stage Hoax, in a throwaway gag where Western bandit Buzz Buzzard launches a small rocket to land on the hitch of a stagecoach – where the termites emerge and heat away the hitch to disconnect the wagon from the horses.) Woody reacts with instant fear (not only to being invaded, but to the obvious natural competition wood-devouring insects will offer a woodpecker). Barring his front door, he still can’t resist taking a peek outside by sticking his head out a round hatchway covering a knothole in the tree. When he pulls his head back in, one of the invading ships has landed on his beak, and a crew of termites parachute out to the ground below – but the last crew member lags behind, removes his helmet, and bites a serrated pattern into the edges of Woody’s beak. In his apartment, more invading swarms have entered, setting themselves to the task of devouring furniture right and left, including the sofa and the TV set. Leaving uneaten a few loose wires, one of the termites in the TV decides to ward off Woody’s nosy stares by attaching the loose wires to his bill. Woody’s eyes develop a background of TV static (a standard phenomenon in the pre-digital TV age), while the termite walks up his bill and grabs the iris of his eyeball, turning it as if adjusting an old set’s fine-tuning knob. As if appearing in yet another broadcast, the static in Woody’s eyes clears to an image of the same television announcer, who pushes aside Woody’s irises to repeat his “interrupt this program” announcement yet again! But, finding himself face to face with the termite, the announcer lets out a pinched scream, reaches upward for Woody’s eyelids, and pulls them shut with a built-in zipper!
A wonderfully creative and creepy shot follows. As Woody unzips his eyelids open, a termite on the floor takes aim at him with a ray gun. Woody tries to run, but the ray freezes him in place – obliterating the background and turning Woody orange. Another blast turns the background a new color and Woody green. A third blast removes the color altogether and reduces Woody to a white outline against black. Woody finally finds the strength to run, but the termite catches up and simly grabs part of his outline, flipping it backwards over the termite’s shoulder. Woody literally unravels as if he were a long spaghetti noodle, but as the noodle lands on the other end of the room it reforms itself into the familiar outlines of our star. One more blast, and the termite mercifully restores Woody to his full self.
More hijinks ensue. Woody tries to retaliate with a blowtorch, but the termite merely swallows the flame and spits it back at Woody, igniting his topknot. Other termites eat a hole around Woody, sending him plummeting down through the tree trunk, as a sign on the front door of the apartments spins to read, “Jackpot” – and Woody and half the apartments’ furniture spill out the front door. The termites eventually carve the whole tree to look like a sculpted furniture leg, then topple it with a crash. All that remains is the stump, where a manager’s office appears to be located. As the termites devour the front desk, one of them encounters a Scotch tape dispenser. His jaws get hopelessly entangled in the adhesive gum. Another tries to free him – and gets himself wrapped up bodily in the tape like a mummy. Woody sees this one weakness of his adversaries – and capitalizes with a fresh roll of tape as his weapon. Holding up a strip of tape against a wave of his pursuers, he traps one legion.
As ground and air troops approach from another direction, he threads tape like a spider web between the remaining furniture – and catches them all. Outside, he spins more webs between the trees – and the enemy is vanquished. The scene dissolves to a new, larger tree, carved with a massive entrance with sign reading “President Woody Woodpecker – Termite Control”. (The last sequence of this film was originally played without dialog – but Kelloggs’ or Lantz felt some in a junior TV audience couldn’t read, so many currently circulating prints include a Woody voice-over to read what we see on the screen.) Woody sits inside at a massive executive desk, reviewing a brochure advertising his new product line – “Little Wonder Termite Tools”. These include using the jaws of the securely-taped critters as pencil sharpeners, can and bottle openers, a mouse-trap, burglar alarm (depicted as biting the nose of a burglar entering a window), garbage disposal, and even as a phonograph needle on a record player. (Don Patterson gets away with one here – these Martian termites appear to be equipped with stingers – providing a point to use in place of the record needle.) Woody demonstrates the last invention, as a termite taped to the tone-arm produces out of his mouth the recorded sound of Woody’s laugh, with which the real Woody chimes in for the fade out.
This creative masterpiece encapsulates the images of invasion paranoia that would establish a new and lasting genre in the wake of Pal’s live-action efforts, and itself left a somewhat lasting legacy. It was one of the most frequently re-aired episodes of the “Woody” show in local syndications. Castle Films quickly added it to their home movie catalog as soon as available. And it was the longest-lived release of any Woody Woodpecker cartoon in the Castle catalog, never going out-of print and still in stock up to the last days of home movies (when the company had changed names to “Universal 8″).
For a neat “treat”, Universal has produced a storyboard-to-video comparison reel, using Lantz’s original drawings, embedded below. Enjoy.
We’ll continue into the 1950’s next time, and into the beginnings of television, as alien invasions become a veritable fad, and a regular part of traditional concepts of “schlock” theater. Till then, Happy Halloween!