Animation Trails
August 31, 2022 posted by Charles Gardner

Where There’s Smoke (Part 7)

We conclude the 1930’s, then move on to a new decade, in this week’s survey of hot times on the old screen tonight. Some of the heated action discussed below takes place in elongated form, as we’ll cover sequences from two different feature films. We’ll balance these with a double-dose of some of the slowest animation ever to escape the pen of Chuck Jones – an acquired taste for those who appreciate fine artwork at the expense of plot. A mixed bag, indeed, ready to be thoroughly toasted like a bag of campfire marshmallows on the incendiary settings discussed below.

Max Fleischer’s first feature, Gulliver’s Travels (Paramount, 12/22/39), includes a short sequence of fire fighting. The three spies of Blefescu, Sneak, Snoop, and Snitch, hide Gulliver’s pistol (stolen from public display) in an abandoned farmhouse, but try to conceal their presence as Gulliver passes by outside. Little Snitch carries a kerosene lantern, and Sneak orders him to “Douse the light.” Instead of putting out the lantern flame, Snitch looks for somewhere to conceal it, and chooses an old barrel, unwisely covering the top of it with loose straw and a horse blanket. Gulliver passes by without noting anyone’s presence, and the spies breathe a sigh of relief – until flame shoots out the top of the barrel, having burned through the blanket and straw. Sneak and Snoop run helter-skelter, trying to think of some way of attacking the flames, but mostly bumping into each other. Snitch, on the other side of the room, notices his shadow appearing on the wall from the bright glow behind him, and begins to entertain himself by making shadow pictures of various animals and birds on the wall. Outside, Gulliver observes smoke rising, and flames beginning to shoot through the roof of the old building. A small stream is nearby, and Gulliver cups his hands, dropping several handfuls of water upon the roof, one of which extinguishes the fire in the barrel. “Hello! Anyone in there?”, shouts Gulliver. Reflexively, Snitch responds, “There’s nobody here but us….” Before he can finish the sentence truthfully to give them away, Sneak covers Snitch’s mouth, and completes the sentence with the word “…Chickens!”, while Snoop utters a few chicken clucks to make it convincing. Gulliver dismisses the whole ruse with a perplexed utterance of “My, my”, and moves on.

They couldn’t have filmed the actual fire-fighting sequence from the original novel, where there is no convenient stream available for a water supply. Gulliver instead douses the flames with what “The Ant Bully” cast would have referred to as “the dreaded yellow rain”! His efforts are not appreciated. Jack Black eventually incorporated it into his satirical modern-day feature adaptation.


Granite Hotel (Fleischer/Paramount, Stone Age Cartoon, 4/26/40 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Thomas Johnson/Graham Place, anim.) – A look at luxury hotels in prehistoric times. The Granite Hotel advertises prices that are “Rock Bottom”, while the hotel’s telephone operator parodies the remarks of the staff in MGM’s “Grand Hotel”, repeatedly asserting that “nothing ever happens”. Not entirely true, as there are a variety of activities. Elevators of sorts have been invented. As guest and bellhop stand on a platform in an elevator shaft, the bellhop chooses from a row of operators asleep on a bench nearby, all of varying sizes and carrying mallets of matching appropriate size, each assigned to a particular floor by a sign above. The attendant for the Third Floor is selected, by hitting him on the head with a rock fired from a slingshot. The attendant picks up his mallet, then slams it down on the end of the platform as if hitting a carnival high striker. The guest and bellhop are launched up the shaft, striking their heads on a board extended out on one side of the shaft at the third floor level, and landing on another narrow board below it, to walk unphased into the upper story. (We can only wonder how they get back down.) Guests receive special service, such as an extra blanket on a chilly night, provided by a bear who unzips his fur like an overcoat, then removes it to gently tuck the man into bed. Ice water is shot to another guest right through the pipe that serves as the room phone, instantly freezing the guest into a solid block. Theft is a problem, as a thief sidles up to a cash register and presses a button to open the till, changing the readout of the register’s sign tags from “Petty cash” to “Petty larceny”. Finally, an old codger (voiced by Jack Mercer in his standard Poopdeck Pappy voice) asks the operator is there is anyplace one can find someone to engage in a game of checkers. She suggests checking out the hotel’s fire department. The old timer spots a fire alarm box, reading “To call Fire Dept., break glass.” Grabbing a club, the old man knocks the box right off the wall. It reveals a cord and another sign, reading, “Now pull rope”. The old man yanks on the cord, and upstairs, another caveman is affected. He is sitting in a rocking chair, below a large steeple bell, and the rope, attached to the rocker, uses the caveman’s head as clapper to clang the bell as the rocker teeters back and forth. A huge dinosaur engine with ladders strapped to its sides races out of a station house, with full crew astride it. The dinosaur blows a siren horn with its lips, and gas a wheel attached to its tail for a member of the crew to steer. (No doubt, this scene was remembered years later by Hanna and Barbera, who would use a similar scaled-down dino as their fire engine for the original title sequence for “The Flintstones”.) The dino arrives at the hotel, and, without looking for a flame, the entire crew pull out their axes and chisels, surrounds the building, and chops away until the entire structure is undermined and levelled to the ground (a scene closely mirrored in the 50’s by Tex Avery in “The First Bad Man”), leaving only one guest trapped in a bathtub atop the skeletal plumbing system remaining. He calls through the pipe phone “Operator, operator, for Pete’s sake, what’s happening here?” Below, the fire crew is carting away the operator and her entire switchboard on a gurney, as the operator responds, “There must be some mistake, sir. Nothing ever happens at Granite Hotel.”


Good Night, Elmer (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 10/26/40 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.) We knew Elmer Fudd was a fuddy-duddy. But is this cartoon a period piece, or are we really supposed to believe he is so Victorian as to have a house with no electric lights? This certainly wasn’t the case in his very next venture, Elmer’s Pet Rabbit, in which a light switch plays a pivotal part in a running gag. Anyway, for reasons known only to the staff, that’s the setup for the film – setting the stage for one of those slow and deliberate early directing efforts of Jones, where pacing seems to take a back seat to eating up the allotted time of a full film reel on the shallowest of plot material. In fairness to the production, it is probably the most meticulous animation ever conceived of the character, with movement achieved with the utmost smoothness, and considerable attention paid to shadowing and modeling of facial features. Yet its plot idea is rather trite – a candle that refuses to go out – leading to a battle of wits, or should we say half-wits, to extinguish it.

The first third of the film doesn’t even allow the candle to be an active force – except as an obstacle to Elmer freeing up his hands to get out of his coat. Holding the candle holder in one hand, he can’t remove the coat sleeve over it. He places the candle on a windowsill, but it blows out, leaving him in pitch darkness. (Elmer never thinks to repeat this act in the later stages of the cartoon, which might have saved him a lot of trouble.) Elmer relights the candle with a match, then looks around for another place to put it. He tries balancing it on his head – but has to remove his bowler hat to do it, which also won’t fit through the coat sleeve. Putting the hat over the candle atop his head doesn’t seem right – it’ll burn a hole. Turning the bowler upside down, putting the candle in it, then on his head…Elmer gives up, and takes the candle over to a table, but finds his finger stuck in the holder ring. He wildly swings his hand up and down to get free, and blows out the candle again. (Now you have two sure ways of extinguishing it. Why don’t you remember to use them later?) Elmer relights it again, does more swinging, ad without further complication, gets his finger free, and removes his coat. (We’re already three minutes into the picture, and this is all that’s happened.)

Elmer settles down to bed, and blows out the candle on a night stand. Now the thing becomes stubborn, and the flame reignites. Elmer seems to be unable to sleep with the light on. Elmer moistens his fingertips, and attempts to squeeze the wick to snuff out the flame. Instead, he finds the flame still burning on the fingertips of his glove. Hard blowing doesn’t work – only shifting the flame over about a foot in the air, from which position it leaps back to the wick as soon as Elmer’s wind gives out. Elmer smacks two hands at once atop the candlestick, and thinks it’s finally out – but the pesky flame plays hide and seek, reappearing every time Elmer is not staring it down. Elmer slaps an encyclopedia on top of the candle, darkening the room, until the flame burns through the covers, lighting the room again. Elmer trues to dodge the light by turning in bed the other way – only to find himself staring into the flame’s reflected light in a mirror. Elmer tries piling a whole stack of books between himself and the candle to block the light – but the flame plays peek-a-boo, stretching itself tall to peer over the books, or around them. Elmer sneaks up behind the candle, causing it to temporarily go out in embarrassment – then breaks the candlestick in two. Of course, up pop two flames. That’s all Elmer can stand, and, grabbing an axe, he chops violently at the candle stubs, as well as the table they’re standing on, the books, and anything else within reach, senselessly chopping his entire bed and furnishings in his frenzy. Finally, with the room dark, and his bed in a state of collapse, he retires upon it for the night, pulling over him a small remnant of what was once his blanket. Suddenly, the room is filled with light again, and we all wonder how. Not much of a riddle – the night is over, and the dawning sun is rising in the window. Elmer breaks into a fit of helpless bawling, and we iris out.


Fire Chief (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 12/13/40 – Jack King, dir.) – Donald tries his hand at assuming the official title position, with Huey, Louie, and Dewey as his crew. His unit takes some liberties with the principles of fractions, with a sign on his station house reading “Company 13 13/13″. (As 13/13 would equal 1, shouldn’t this be Company 14?) Donald snores the morning away in a deluxe canopy bed, while his nephews are kept awake in their triple-decker bunks. The nephews signal each other to engage in “cut-throat” tactics, and one of them pulls out a slingshot, taking dead aim on the clapper of the fire bell. Donald is roused from slumber so fast, he punctures the canopy over him, then jets down the fire pole to start the engine – until he hears the snickering laughter of the nephews from the floor above. Transforming into a bolt of lightning, Donald zooms back up the hole to strike, but the nephews beat him back to their beds, and play possum. “Always trying to put something over on me”, Donald mumbles, then pulls out a bugle, and blows a blast that launches the boys out of their beds and into their fire hats on the wall. Donald orders them into drilling formation, leading them in a march to the pole. The rear nephew collides with the others, leading to a hard landing of the boys upon Donald’s head at the bottom of the pole. “Every man to his post”, Donald bellows. One nephew begins stoking the boiler of the pumper unit on the engine with coal – feeding the flame with only one lump of coal at a time. Donald pushes him aside to show him how it’s done. Taking the whole bucket of coal, he hurls its entire contents into the boiler. The pressure builds immediately, but a jet of flame shoots out the exhaust stack, and ignites the ceiling above them, setting the upper floor on fire. The flames spread, reaching the wiring of the alarm box, and automatically setting off the bell again. Donald presumes an alarm has come in from outside, and revs up the engine, while the boys assume their assigned places on the vehicle. The engine barrels out the station door, and Donald enjoys himself using the siren, until the nephew manning the tail wheel spots the flames behind them in the station house roof. (Obviously, the plot now takes a leaf from Meany, Miny, and Moe’s “Firemen’s Picnic”.) The nephew turns the tail wheel to pivot the ladder sideways, riding parallel with Donald in the engine cab, to point his attention to the blaze behind them. Donald executes a u-turn with such a “crack the whip” effect that a few of the nephews’ tail feathers are snapped off in making the turn, and the group arrive back at the station. Donald’s braking is also sudden, and the ladder of the engine compresses behind him, stuffing Donald briefly inside the mechanism of the dash siren.

A modification of the extending ladder height gag from Mickey’s Fire Brigade is presented. As Donald commands the boys to raise the ladder with him on top, the engine’s mechanism shoots him upward with such speed that the straps holding sections of the ladder together at the joints snap – allowing the topmost ladder to continue flying into the air, far beyond the combined height of the ladder sections as intended. Another nicely-composed aerial shot depicts Donald about 200 feet in the air above the station, as the ladder runs out of velocity, and begins a fast descent. The nephews race underneath with a net – but catch the wrong object, Donald’s hat. The duck himself lands in the chimney of the station house, and emerges from the smoke in the front door, encased in a pot-bellied stove. His furious quacking inside is deadened in decibel level by one of the nephews closing the valve on the upper stovepipe. Meanwhile, the boys turn on the fire hose, which winds up under Donald’s legs. Donald rides a bubble of water within the hose, on a bumpy ride over the rungs of one of the ladders, then crashes into a tree, cracking off Donald’s cast-iron armor. The hose begins to slither like a large serpent, finally tying itself into a knot, just as Donald gets hold of the nozzle. A huge bubble of water grows behind the knot, while Donald complains about the lack of water flow. “Come on, come on! What are we waiting for?”, jabbers the duck. He gets an answer quickly, as the hose bursts, blasting Donald through the window of a bicycle shop, from which he emerges in the embarrassing position of making a return to the fire riding astride a kiddie tricycle. The nephews are already in the process of attempting to hook up a substitute hose to the water supply, but Donald again insists on taking charge, lecturing the kids on their inefficiency, while himself not watching what he is doing. As a result, Donald, just as in the fate that befell Oswald the Rabbit in “Empty Socks”, mistakenly hooks the hose to the gasoline tank of the engine. The nephews duck for cover under a hedgerow, and cover their exposed tails with their fire helmets for protection, as Donald liberally sprays the station house with the flammable liquid – reducing it to charred matchsticks with an audible “Poof”. The flame continues to burn, igniting the hose like a fuse, and tracing its way back to the engine – which also is reduced to charred outlines. Finally, a stray spark hits Donald’s hat. Although the boys manage to spray Donald to place him out of direct danger, the fire has done its work, and the hat is also reduced to black outlines, which snap apart into a set of independent lines protruding from Donald’s head, which droop upon his dome to form a sort of longhair black hairdo. “You can’t win. You just can’t win”, states Donald to the camera for the curtain line, and the iris out.


Joe Glow, the Firefly (Warner Bros. Looney Tunes (B&W), 3/8/41 – Charles M. (Chuck) Jones, dir.), has little to offer the subject matter of this article, except for the fact that it’s title character wears a fireman’s hat, and carries a miniature kerosene lantern. It is unknown precisely what his duties are supposed to be (is he looking out for fire hazards?), but for some reason he maintains a patrol in the woods, and engages in investigatory snooping within the tent of a sound-asleep camper. Jones was probably inspired by Fleischer’s “Gulliver’s Travels”, and uses Joe for a microbe’s-eye view of common everyday sights and objects from human life. At first, it seems we will receive a complete lesson in human anatomy, as Joe lands in the forest of hair atop the human’s head (accomplished with more laughs a few years later by Friz Freleng in Bugs Bunny’s “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk”), hops down, over, and under the human’s bulbous nose (nearly being inhaled by the nostrils), and sets off twitches in the man’s eyelash and the corner of his mouth from the heat of Joe’s little lamp. He travels over the man’s belly to one wrist, where he climbs the holes in a watchband like a ladder, then briefly puzzles over the strange needles going round and round inside the watch frame. Joe slides on the shiny surface of the man’s fingernails, nearly losing his lantern – then spots various objects on a table, leading him away from interest in the human’s physique. He presses the button of a flashlight, almost waking the human, but quickly extinguishes the light to let him go back to sleep. He walks over a saltine cracker, unable to figure out why it crackles so when he walks. He ducks into the holes of a wedge of Swiss cheese, leaving light beams coming out everywhere from his lantern inside. He opens a hatch in the top of a cylindrical box, and unleashes an avalanche of white “snow” – actually, the contents of a salt carton. Wandering behind an egg (which his lantern cleverly “candles” to reveal a silhouette of the yolk), he enters the holes of a pepper shaker, and sneezes himself silly, blasting his way out of the shaker, and nearly breaking a bottle of catsup. He’s finally had enough, and prepares to exit the tent, but realizes he’s forgotten something. Flying back to the giant ear of the human, he screams into it at the top of his lungs, “Good Night!”, then departs.

I first saw this film in 35mm in a roadshow packaging of newly-restored black and white Looney Tunes that briefly circulated under the banner, “Porky Pig in Hollywood”, somewhere around the late 1970’s or early ‘80’s. It was a great collection of stuff, with the exception of this odd film, which, despite its superlative animation and background work, didn’t raise a peep out of the relatively small audience, who otherwise laughed in all the right places at every other entry on the program. Warner just seemed to feel obligated to include something of Jones on the bill.


Fire Cheese (Fleischer/Paramount, Gabby, 6/20/41 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Steve Muffati/Joe Oriolo, amin.) – Gabby, the town crier from “Gulliver’s Travels”, is doing what Gabby does best – making a general nuisance of himself. The episode opens with a parchment on which Gabby has written his life’s creed – to act as a committee of one to make Lilliput a better place to live, uphold the law of gravity, and all kinds of things and stuff. His travels today take him to the Lilliput fire department, where he wanders in to chew the fat with the boys. Most of the crew sits in concentration upon next moves on respective checkerboards, and don’t even give Gabby a look. The chief shows him the courtesy of lowering the paper he is reading for a brief instant to make reluctant eye contact, then raises the paper to continue with his reading. Gabby begins to monologue about how he was once a fireman himself, known as “Fire-Eatin’ Gabby”, when an alarm bell sounds. In the blink of an eye, the entire crew and chief are out the door with the pumper engine, and Gabby is left standing in an empty station. “Wait for me”, he shouts. He chases the engine on foot through the streets of the town, never quite managing to catch up with its tail gate, until the engine slows to pull up in front of a multi-story home on fire. Thinking he has finally paced himself to intercept the engine, Gabby hops onto the tail board – just as the vehicle comes to a complete stop. Ignoring how short the moment was of his obtaining a foothold on the engine, Gabby mops his brow, and says, “Phew! What a ride!”

The crew begins making ready to fight the blaze, and Gabby attempts to blend in with the action – but bumps straight into the chief, knocking him to the ground. His and Gabby’s hats are also knocked off, and the chief tells Gabby to look where he is going – though the confused chief himself is not looking at what he is doing. As a result, the chief grabs and slaps onto his forehead Gabby’s cloth hat – which is a size or two too small, and gets stuck over the chief’s eyes. While the chief tugs with all his might to pry off the chapeau, Gabby sees his chance in the fire chief’s hat left unoccupied on the ground, and places the helmet on his own head, volunteering to take charge for the incapacitated chief. Gabby first tries to unspool the hose off the engine – but only succeeds in winding the hose around himself, transforming into a human ball of canvas. Another fireman has to unwind the hose off Gabby, stringing it onto the waiting arms of a third fireman, while reciting, “Knit one, purl two.” Gabby next repeats Donald Duck’s act from “Fire Chief”, riding a bubble of water inside the fire hose, then getting blasted by the water through a closed window, emerging a moment later with smoke coming out his ears. He grabs an axe and pail from another passing fireman, and chops a hole through the center of a door – scrambles through, then pauses to turn the knob, although he is already on the inside, to open the door and bring in the pail. He runs into a room filed with various burning items, but unwisely chooses to use the water to irrigate a potted tree, then tosses a fresh log on the fireplace to stoke the hearth blaze already burning within. Running outside again, he grabs the hose, and starts playing target practice, in the manner of Elmer Elephant, with a personified flame who peeks from one window to another and back again. As the water flow takes a pause, the flame throws a “rope ladder” of fire up to the landing of a window two stories above, and climbs to a level out of reach of the hose’s range. Once there, he meets another flame already there in the next window, and the two take turns blowing upon each other, each breath causing the other to increase substantially in size. More flames begin cutting through the roof shingles, the trails of fire forming the pattern of a tic tac toe board, at which they play until a victory is scored. Gabby climbs up a ladder with the hose nozzle to bring the water higher, but then looks down, and becomes petrified at how high up he is, clinging in trembling manner to the ladder. The water pressure builds into another bubble, and ascends the ladder. “Who-o-o-o-O-O-O-A!”, yells Gabby, as the water pressure carries him off the ladder on a wild spiraling ride. A fireman at the water valve tries to reduce the pressure, but is blasted away from his post by a spray from the hose above. Flames in the roof shingles open little parasols of flame and hold them over their heads to dodge the passing sprinkles of water from the hose. The chief finally gets out from under the hat, but is hit by the hose water, shoving his head right back into the hat brim. The fire repeats a Fleischer gag from “The Two Alarm Fire”, the flame in each window forming into the shape of an arm, and shaking hands with the flame in the next window in congratulations on a victory. Finally, the hose end and Gabby plop into the smokestack of the pumper boiler, filling the boiler with water and putting its fire out. Gabby pops his head out of the boiler, to see the house destroyed, except for the plumbing system where one man bathes in a bathtub in the open several stories above ground (shades of “Granite Hotel”). Gabby looks at things on the positive side: “Well, chief, it’s finally out.” The chief and crew respond with a little token of their esteem – concentrating multiple hoses upon Gabby, shooting him into the air atop their spray. Gabby closes the film while rolling around in the water, complaining. “Help! “You’ll drown me! I’ll catch pneumonia.”


Truant Officer Donald (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 8/1/41 – Jack King, dir.), has been visited in greater detail in my previous “Back to School” series. It deserves mention for a climactic sequence in which Huey, Louie, and Dewey hole up in a pirates’ den-themed clubhouse, eluding every effort of Donald to capture them and haul them off to school. Donald concocts a plan to get them to reveal themselves, by tunneling under their clubhouse, then starting a fire at the tunnel entrance, blowing the smoke through the tunnel and up through the floorboards of the structure to smoke them out. Inside, the boys are just finishing the cooking on a spit of three roast chickens for their lunch. (What are they, anyway? Ducks, or hawks?) As the smoke begins to rise, the boys cough and gasp, until one of them says “Think fast, men. We’re on the spot.” The idea arises for a clever substitution, so the boys remove the chickens from the cooking fire, place them under the covers of a blanket on their bunk bed, then climb a rope to a hatch in the roof for an escape, unseen to Donald outside. Advancing to the door of the clubhouse, Donald cries out, “Come on out. Do ya give up?” He receives no answer, and surprisingly finds the door unbolted. He peers in, and thinks the boys are hiding under the blanket, which he pulls back – to reveal the three roasted chickens. Donald jumps to the entirely-wrong toony conclusion that the boys have been barbecued in the smoke! He tortures himself mentally with wails of “Why did I do it?. Then, to rub salt into a wound, the boys make him feel multiple remorse, by lowering one of the nephews on a fishing wire, covered in white flour and wearing a pair of fake wings, as an “angel” to deliver a swift kick in Donald’s rear as revenge for his misdeeds. Of course, the ruse is eventually revealed, Donald makes the capture, and the boys are marched to school – all for nothing, as Donald discovers from a sign what the boys knew all along – “School closed for summer holidays”!


Dumbo (Disney/RKO -10/23/41), lets fire-fighting play a principal part among its plot points. Little Dumbo, the baby elephant with the enormous ears, falls into a state of notoriety and shame when an attempt to star him in an elephant acrobatic act literally falls flat on its face, thanks to Dumbo tripping on his own ears, and toppling a “pyramid of pachyderms” that causes the big top to fall. As punishment, Dumbo is relegated to the lowliest and most embarrassing of roles – stooge for the circus’s motley troupe of clowns. The clowns concoct a fire rescue act, featuring Dumbo with face painted chalk white, dressed in diapers as a baby needing rescuing from a tall building. One clown wears a fake white elephant head, and plays the infant’s mother, yelling in front of the building for anyone to hear, seeking someone to save her child. The clowns arrive on a clown-car hook and ladder truck, which bucks and tosses them helter-skelter into the center ring. A first clown carries a ladder so small, it only has three rungs. He climbs it, steps over the top rung, and falls splat on his face. Others ride an extension ladder almost to the top of the fake-front which serves as the burning building, only to have the ladder quickly retract, leaving them standing on nothing and to fall to the sawdust below. A clown arrives with a fire hose and hydrant, but instead of getting water from the nozzle, a midget clown pops out the top of the hydrant and squirts the first clown with a water pistol. Two clowns enter the scene with buckets, but only drench each other when they toss their contents. A bucket brigade forms up a ladder, but when the last clown on top is handed the bucket, he simply tips its contents into his mouth for a quick drink. Another clown sprinkles water on a small plant in a window box, which grows instantly into a palm tree to knock him over. The ladder brigade tries again, with a row of clowns racing up the steps, but each merely throws each pail of water into Dumbo’s face. A fat clown is followed by a smaller one carrying a large barrel labeled “H2O” and drops a minuscule amount of its contents into a window with an eye dropper. From nowhere, he receives a drenching from a bucket of water, thrown at him from somewhere in the building. A clown reaches Dumbo’s landing, but instead of carrying him down, tries to cool the elephant off by waving a fan. “Save my Baby!” yells the fake mother elephant to the fire chief, watching the fire from the top of another ladder. Her pleas are met by a turn of the chief, who sprays her in the eye with a jet of water from a trick squirter in a lapel flower. Another ladder-climber positions himself over the flames, and pulls out a wiener on a stick, using the fire to cook his lunch. Another clown enters with a hose, but, as with Donald Duck, it is hooked to a gasoline tank, which boosts the flames to new heights. The clowns now position themselves at the base of the fake structure, carrying a round net, and shout to Dumbo, “Come on, jump!” Dumbo looks down, cringes at seeing the height of his position, and refuses to jump, hiding the view from his eyes by covering them with his ears. But Dumbo’s jump is not intended to be voluntary – as yet another clown stands on a platform behind the fake prop building and directly behind Dumbo, smacking Dumbo’s rear forcefully with a paddle. Dumbo falls helplessly toward the net. However, it is not a net at all, but a circus hoop made of paper, which the elephant falls clear through. The clowns pill the hoop away, to reveal that underneath it, they had placed a large pail of sticky white paste, from which Dumbo rises, as a complete gooey mess. The clowns point and poke fun at Dumbo to the delight of the crowd, while the poor elephant tries to keep up a show-biz appearance by a weak-hearted half-smile, and a wave of a baby rattle held in his trunk.

The clowns celebrate their new act with a round of cheap champagne in their tent that night. “13 curtain calls, 13″, one remarks. The act is a sure-fire hit, and they know it. But one of them has an idea to go it one better. “Let’s raise the platform the elephant jumps off of.” “Yeah. if they laugh when he jumps 20 feet, they’ll laugh twice as hard if he jumps 40 feet”, responds another. By the time they are through, the idea has been expanded to a platform `1,000 feet in the air. They dismiss as ludicrous the risk factor to the elephant, concluding that elephants “ain’t got no feelings”, and are “made of rubber.” As they leave their tent to hit the big boss for a raise, one knocks over a bottle of the champagne into a watering bucket just outside the tent flaps – a bucket that Dumbo and his new pal Timothy Mouse unknowingly choose to drink from to cure the elephant’s case of hiccups. A famous intoxication sequence where the two imagine a nightmare of pink elephants eventually renders the duo unconscious, and they awaken the next morning without memory of what happened after their drinking spree, and, of all places, on a limb of a tall tree, about thirty feet above ground!

Revelation strikes Timothy Mouse and a quintet of wise-cracking crows who discover them on the limb, that the only way they could have gotten up in the tree was for Dumbo to fly – and Timothy deduces that his ears would make perfect wings. The crows hatch an idea to give Dumbo a psychological edge to convince him he has the power to become airborne. The crow’s leader plucks a tail feather off another from his flock, and hands it to Timothy, with a wink, as “the magic feather”. Timothy catches on, and tells a white lie to Dumbo that the feather will allow him to fly. The ruse works, as Dumbo, clutching the feather, successfully solos off a high cliff. “Wait’ll we get to the big town”, says Timothy, imagining the surprise they’ll have in store for the crowd.

Dumbo is not the only one with a surprise to reveal. The clowns have made good on their plot, and the fake building front is now raised to a full 1,000 feet, nearly scraping the canvas atop the tallest pole of the big top. Timothy and Dumbo now wait together atop the platform, Dumbo still clutching the feather, and Timothy advising, “Don’t look down. It’ll make ya dizzy.” The clowns reach the point in the routine where they wait below with the net, which not only looks awfully small from Dumbo’s dizzying height, but we all know will provide no protection from a painful smack into the paste bucket below. The moment of truth arrives, and with a cry of “Contact”, Timothy cues Dumbo to take off. Due to the extended length of the fall, Dumbo’s velocity increases to a speed substantially higher than before – raising so much wind at his passing, that the feather blows out of the grasp of Dumbo’s trunk. Panic ensues – Dumbo in fright at the loss of his power to fly, and Timothy, wracking is brain to figure how to explain the lie. Timothy decides the only way out is to ‘fess up with the honest truth – and in a hurry, as that ground is moving ever closer. “The magic feather was just a gag. You can fly. Honest ya can!” He implores Dumbo to open his ears, but the elephant is still frozen with fear. “PL-EEEEZE!!!” begs Timothy, and at the last possible second, Dumbo extends his “wingspan”, and arcs out of the dive, missing the net and bucket by inches. He soars over a section of the crown, loops, and heads toward the center ring. “Let’s show ‘em, Dumbo”, shouts Timothy, yelling in celebration, “Power dive!”. Dumbo descends upon the clowns from above, this time with no intention of hitting the net, but to buzz the funny-faces who have been persecuting him. He dives past clowns on ladders, knocking them off their perches. One falls into the H2O barrel, while another drops through the hoop into the sticky paste. Most of the crew high-tail it onto the clown wagon, and try to outrun the repeated swoops of the elephant. Dumbo’s fake “Mother” has her elephant mask grabbed away by Dumbo’s passing trunk; then, another pass knocks the ringmaster head-first into a watering pail, allowing Dumbo to deposit the elephant mask upon his upside-down rear end. The clown wagon continues to careen around the ring, seeking any safe spot for sanctuary, and its driver wrongly chooses the fake front of the burning building, crashing the vehicle through the wooden framework, leaving a silhouette hole of the clown engine through the wall. Out of the hole scamper each of the clowns, with their rear ends set on fire by the burning flame source behind the prop front. As a last finale to his debut, Dumbo sucks up a supply of peanuts from one of the concessionaires, then shoots them like a machine gun at other elephants of the circus who tormented him. Dumbo makes history, and all ends well, with altitude records set, bomber squadrons designed in his honor, a Hollywood contract, and even a private railway car for Dumbo and his real mom.

More features, more fire, next time.

11 Comments

  • I’m not familiar with most of the Gabby cartoons, having developed a dislike for the character around the fifth time he hollered “There’s a giant on the beach!” in “Gulliver’s Travels”. The main thing I noticed about “Fire Cheese” is that its musical score is taken largely from the Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by Otto Nicolai. As it happens, this piece is also featured in the Famous Screen Song “The Big Flame-Up” (1949), which I expect we’ll get to at a future date, as well as “Mighty Mouse Meets Jekyll and Hyde Cat” (1943), in the scene where the chemicals in the doctor’s laboratory ignite and set his house on fire. That makes three cartoons from the 1940s, with three different music directors, all using the same classical overture to accompany scenes of a burning building — and I can’t for the life of me figure out why.

    Otto Nicolai (1810-1849) had much in common with his contemporary Felix Mendelssohn; their musical styles were very similar, and they even looked alike. Born a year apart in North German port cities (Mendelssohn in Hamburg, Nicolai in Koenigsberg), they were child prodigies whose families sent them to Berlin at an early age to study composition with the same teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter. They were renowned conductors who established two of Europe’s great symphony orchestras: Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, while Nicolai was a co-founder of the Vienna Philharmonic. And sadly, both composers died at the height of their success while only in their late thirties. But while Mendelssohn’s works form a substantial component of the Classical canon (as well as cartoon scores), Nicolai’s music has been all but forgotten except for this single overture. (The opera itself is occasionally staged in German-speaking countries, but elsewhere it has been largely supplanted in the operatic repertoire by Verdi’s “Falstaff”, based on the same Shakespearean comedy.)

    Ordinarily, when an overture is used in a cartoon score, the subject matter of the opera has some bearing on the scene: “William Tell” when a heroes comes to the rescue, “Light Cavalry” for someone on horseback, “Flying Dutchman” for stormy seas, and “Barber of Seville” for, well, barbers. But “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has nothing to do with fire. It’s true that in the final scene of the original play, the local children dress up as fairies and torment Falstaff by pinching him and burning him with candles, all the while tormenting him in verse:

    “Lust is but a bloody fire
    Kindled with unchaste desire,
    Fed in heart whose flames aspire
    As thoughts do blow them higher and higher.
    Pinch him, fairies, mutually!
    Pinch him for his villainy!
    Pinch him and burn him and turn him about,
    Till candles and starlight and moonshine be out!”

    Scenes like that are probably why the Globe Theatre burned down. Nineteenth-century opera houses being just as combustible, to the point that few are still standing today, the burning candles were wisely omitted from both operatic adaptations of the play. In Nicolai’s version, Falstaff is beset by mosquitoes, so the actor playing him only has to react to the buzzing effects coming from the orchestra. In Verdi’s version, everybody piles on top of the debauched knight and beats the living daylights out of him.

    So we’re still left with the question of why Sammy Timberg, Winston Sharples, and Philip Scheib all thought that the Overture to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” was just the thing for a cartoon about a burning building. Sharples may have assisted Timberg on “Fire Cheese”, but it was unlike him to use a single classical work so extensively in a cartoon. Any ideas that might quench my burning curiosity will be most welcome.

  • “Elmer breaks into a fit of helpless bawling, and we iris out.”
    That’s strange, but I have the same reaction when I watch this cartoon.🤣
    I’ve never been a fan of Jones’ cartoons, but his early work is simply dreadful.

    • Jerry already did that joke in “The Warner Brothers Cartoons”/ “Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Brothers Cartoons” book.

      • Sorry to say I’ve never read Jerry’s book, I guess the old saying is true that there are no new jokes.

  • A fire brigade appears briefly in “The Nutty Network” (Fox/Terrytoons, 24/3/39 — Mannie Davis, dir.), a takeoff of Orson Welles’s “War of the Worlds” broadcast. As the monkeys of the radio station’s props department set off firecrackers to simulate the sound of an alien invasion, the king of the jungle, a lion who sounds like Bert Lahr (and who previously appeared in the fourth Technicolor Terrytoon “Doomsday”) is determined to get to the bottom of it. Taking a long fire hose, he climbs to the top of a tall ladder supported by several animals, each of them wearing a numbered red fireman’s helmet. But before the king can deploy the hose, a rocket strikes him in the behind, and he slides down the ladder all the way to the ground, breaking all of its rungs. “Nyung nyung!”

  • There’s also the scene in “Pinocchio” (1940) where the title character naively plays with a candle and gets his fingure on fire. Gepetto ends up putting the flame out in Cleo’s fishbowl much to her disprovel.
    And who can forget the near climatic scene where Pinocchio and Gepetto make a fire inside Monstero in order to escape?

  • One of the last of Ub Iwerks’ cartoons for Columbia, the unusual “Blackboard Revue” (3/15/1940), set on a schoolhouse blackboard with chalk stick figures for characters, features a short firefighting segment around the five minute mark. A bit of a throwback to Iwerks’ “Mary’s Little Lamb” (1935) with the sort-of return of limp-wristed schoolboy Percy, here voiced by Mel Blanc. A hasty demonstration results in Percy driving a fire engine fully nude; as Tex Avery demonstrated a year later in “Porky’s Preview” (1941), you can get away with as much full-frontal nudity as you want to in a cartoon as long as you’re using stick figures.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WvjZIC2Dfw

  • I’d actually like to see a Gabby cartoon (just one would be plenty) restored to its original Technicolor splendor. It probably wouldn’t help much, but it would be nice to see one at its best. Is it any wonder Paramount was looking to oust the Fleischers? “Gulliver,” while doing well at the box office, didn’t pose any threat to Disney; and the short cartoons were getting progressively worse–even Popeye was beginning to lose his moxie, and the “Superman”s should have been much better for what they cost.

    Speaking of “Pinocchio,” it’s interesting that Tom Hanks made a big deal about apologizing for playing a gay man 30 years ago (although I doubt he plans to give his Oscar back) and now here he is playing an old Italian man in the “live-action” (mostly CGI) remake.

    • I’ve screened both “Fire Cheese” and “The Constable” from 35mm prints at UCLA back when I was a student. (Not entirely sure if they were UM&M master dupes, though I thought I remembered “The Constable” having its paramount titles.) It certainly helped, as the color and clarity was as good as the feature film. The closest thing I’ve seen to it on home video was a print of “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day” which was included as a bonus title on a DVD of “Gulliver’s Travels” issued by, I believe, Hal Roach Entertainment and/or Image (though oddly, the feature itself was missing some footage.) The short appeared to be a cobble-job, using a sharp 35mm that appeared to be missing its titles, and broke early, just before Gabby was launched into the tree – so it cut to the usual dupey 16mm for the final shots. Considering that this was about the worst of the Gabby cartoons, the addition of good color really didn’t work much magic. The only other effort of note was a deluxe “Anniversary” edition of Gulliver (I don’t remember the distributor), with both mono and “surround-EFX tracks” (overdoing the latter), which did some pretty-good “home-grown” restoration efforts from the usual 16mm sources of what were probably the two best Gabby cartoons, “King For a Day” and “Swing Cleaning”. They really worked on manually correcting the color on a couple of shots of the first title that go incredibly dark on all UM&M prints I’ve ever seen – almost making it imperceptible that the shots ever had a problem. We wish it had been from actual 35mm, but to date its the best known source on these titles. Somewhere on old hand-cut DVD’s ripped from the internet, I also have some old prints of “Swing Cleaning” and “Two For the Zoo” that seem to have been removed from the net, which also had some pretty remarkable color, and some decent efforts to restore the titles. Glad I saved them before they disappeared.

    • “Much better?” I though the Fleischer Superman shorts were as good as they were. Heck, I nomminated the first one to be in Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.

  • Fantasia has lava and ghostly fire. How about that?

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