A belated surprise – and an apology for an oversight, which even more surprisingly, no reader caught. An additional silent classic will receive its proper place today under the subject of fire-fighting cartoons, from the inkwell of Max Fleischer. We’ll also cover two classic animated features, and the usual array of 1940’s stars getting their chance to feel the burn. Plenty of heat to satisfy a hot summer day.
From the famous “Out of the Inkwell” series comes an early Koko the Clown classic, False Alarm (8/1/23). After drawing in Koko on the artists’ board, Max pauses to roll himself a smoke, but can’t seem to get the paper to hold the tobacco. “Bring it up here. I’ll show you how”, shouts Koko. After briefly losing his hat in the tobacco pouch, then falling inside it, to scramble around like an inchworm across Max’s desk, Koko succeeds in distributing the tobacco evenly inside the cigarette paper, and sealing the roll up with generous dabs of library paste. He then tosses the completed stick off the drawing board, squarely into Max’s mouth. Max lights up, but tosses the match onto Koko’s background board. Koko runs for the local fire house, grabbing a hose to drag back to the matchstick, but can get no water. Max offers an assist by blowing at the drawing board, extinguishing the match. Koko stomps on the match for good measure, and fancies himself as the one who put out the blaze, strutting around proudly. He feels inspired to join the fire department himself, and returns to the fire station, taking an elevator platform built around the fire pole up to the upper story, and assigning himself a bunk to get some sleep. Suddenly, the alarm bell rings (producing some unexpected sounds, which appear in visible words at each impact of the clapper, reading “Dang Dang. Honk Honk. Bow Wow. Woof Woof.” A fire horse who happens to be sharing the same bunk arouses Koko, and they slide down the pole. The horse sets itself in harness ahead of the pumper engine, but Koko somehow learns that the vehicle is actually mechanized – and takes off through the back wall of the station without the fire horse. As he chugs along with the boiler puffing out a steady stream of smoke, the top of the boiler tank jostles loose at a slant, and is on the verge of falling off, until Koko securely reattaches it with the use of a needle and thread. He arrives at what appears to be the scene of the peril – a state penitentiary, with bars on the windows.
In a third-floor window, a plume of rising smoke is observed. Koko raises a ladder to the wall, which only extends to the second story. He starts to climb – but the rungs are not wooden at all, and bend under his weight like soft rubber. He attempts to shimmy up the uprights rather than placing his weight upon the rungs, but only drives the entire ladder into the soft earth below him. Then, again responding like rubber, the ladder bounces out of the hole, extending to full length and finally thrusting Koko up to the second story window. Koko chops away at the window bars with an axe, but receives an unexpected surprise as the bar falls away. Nearly the entire convict population of the prison chooses this opportunity to stage an escape, climbing over Koko’s back and down the ladder for a getaway. Koko falls to the ground, where the warden meets him with an inquiry of “What’s the matter?” Koko shouts that there is a “Fire!” – but the warden is exceptionally hard of hearing. After several tries, Koko screams “FIRE!!!” at the top of his lungs in the man’s ear. Misinterpreting the message, the warden draws his guns, and fires a shot from each of them off to one side. Giving up on verbal cues, Koko physically grabs the warden’s neck, turning it to point at the upper story window. Unfortunately, the smoke still emitting therefrom also has an unexpected source, as the head of a convict peers though the bars, puffing a lit pipe in his lips. The warden is furious, and pulls his guns on Koko for allowing the escape. Koko tries to make a getaway aboard the engine, but blows its steam whistle in the process. The sound frightens out of the boiler several convicts who were in hiding, and the rest of them in the surrounding area, appear, all with their hands raised in surrender. The warden keeps the group at gunpoint, and, with Koko included at the front of the parade, orders them to march single-file back to j`ail. Koko, however, feigns a collapse at the front of the line, rolls himself into a ball, and simply allows everyone else to march over him, leaving him unnoticed, and able to evade detention to head back to Max’s studio. On the way, however, he begins to smell an ever-increasing aroma of smoke – then turns to find the engine itself has erupted in flames. Max watches from his chair, rather heartlessly laughing, and drops his cigarette butt on his daily calendar, causing the calendar paper to ignite. Max draws a fire alarm box on the drawing board, and triggers another alarm to the fire station. By now, all that is left of Koko’s engine is the disconnected boiler drum, and a few steps of ladder. Koko can’t do much with them, but somehow gets the ladder to magically grow to get him off the drawing board onto Max’s desk – in the process poking Max in the eye with the ladder. Max runs for a pail of water in the hall, while Koko approaches the burning calendar, and gets his rear end ablaze. Max splashes the water over everything, extinguishing the calendar, but not Koko’s rear. The clown drags his sizzling tail around the desk, then jumps into the only place left to extinguish it – the inkwell, where Max inserts the stopper to plug up the last billowing smoke from the mouth of the bottle.
Mr. Bug Goes to Town (Fleischer/Paramount, 12/5/41) – A peaceful bug community lives on an unkempt back lot somewhere on Manhattan Island. Problem is that the place has fallen into disrepair, with a section of back fence down, and now, the passing humans have begun to intrude, and treat the property as their personal dumping grounds. This can wreak havoc on the “Lowlanders”, whose homes and shops are right in the lie of fire – literally, as a man carelessly lights up a cigarette, and tosses a lighted match upon the home of Mrs. Ladybug (leading to the old rhyme, “Mrs. Ladybug, Mrs. Ladybug, fly away home…”). But the villain of the picture, C. Bagley Beetle (voiced by Ted Pierce, who also co-authored the script), resides in a concrete pedestal of the fence high above ground level, safe from the trod of human feet – the land-rich elitist of the community. He has eyes for the lovely Honey, a young bee who lives with her father and young brother (a bee scout) in a Honey Shop at the far end of the lot. But she and her father won’t accept his proposal of marriage to her and luxury life on his estate, as her heart belongs to her longtime boyfriend, a grasshopper named Hoppity, who is returning to town from unknown adventures. Hearing of Mrs. Ladybug’s plight at the destruction of her house, Bagley hatches a plot, taking advantage of an opportune moment when another human tosses away a lit cigar butt. The tobacco stick rolls down an incline, but stops short at the edge of a small rise in the ground, averting what might have been a direct hit on the Honey Shop. Calculating that his offer of a luxury life might be more appealing to Honey and her father if their place to live was destroyed, Bagley “helps” things along, by giving the cigar butt a little kick when no one is looking, allowing it to roll the rest of the way to land leaning against the wall of the hive that serves as the Honey Shop. Though it lands with lit end up, not yet making direct contact with the hive, it’s only a matter of time until it burns downward, and the burning tobacco ignites the shop.Hoppity, just returned, is inside the shop receiving a general welcome from the Lowlanders, and declaring there’s no place like home – just as they all feel the impact of the cigar on the outside of the shop. Everyone rushes outside, and there is general panic. A bell sounds on a discarded human alarm clock in the lot, and a small squad of volunteer fire-flies races out. They are entirely ineffectual, carrying no water or hoses – just axes, with which they start to needlessly chop into the back wall of the hive, until Honey’s father shoos them away. Father tries to use one of the axes to chop at the cigar, but only opens an exhaust hole in the side for more smoke to escape. Hoppity climbs upon the shop roof, and attempts to kick away at the accumulating ashes on top of the stogie – only accomplishing the revealing of the still red hot embers inside, and giving himself a near hotfoot. He pries at the top of the cigar with a stick, only to have it burn up like a matchstick. The other Lowlanders try to fasten strings around the base of the cigar to pull it off the hive, but it’s a slow go. Suddenly, Hoppity spots a ray of hope – a fire hydrant, across the street from the hole in the fence, dripping a slow drip of water out of one of its connector pipes. Hoppity jumps off the building, looking for something that will hold water – and commandeers Bagley’s top hat while he is in the middle of renewing his marriage proposal. “I’ve been robbed”, sputters Bagley. Hoppity races out into the street, but finds crosstown traffic is a nearly insurmountable obstacle, in a bug’s eye street perspective which harks back to the obvious inspiration of a similar scene in Disney’s academy-award winning The Country Cousin (1936). Seeing Hoppity in peril from the fast-moving vehicles, Honey’s brother steels himself with a recitation of the motto, “A bee scout must be brave”, and flies over the busy street, where a policeman stands directing traffic nearby. “This is gonna hurt me worse than it does you”, the scout says, and makes a bee-line straight for the policeman’s fat neck, with stinger pointed for maximum effect. Impact is made, and the policeman exhales a startled breath of air into the whistle in his mouth, stopping traffic unexpectedly. Two cars are unable to slow in time, and collide, almost directly atop Hoppity. Clear fluid begins to escape from a tank on one of the vehicles, forming a puddle on the street. Deciding to take what’s available instead of making the trek the rest of the way to the hydrant, Hoppity fills the top hat from the tank – unaware that it is not coming from the water reservoir, but the gasoline tank. He returns to the Honey Shop just as the villagers finally succeed in tugging the cigar away from the shop, though its tip is still glowing. Hoppity tosses his hatful onto the cigar – and it explodes, completely disintegrating the cigar butt. What of Hoppity? He turns up on the shop roof, his arms and legs tangled together, and his face blackened, but safe. “Oh, Hoppity. You always make things so complicated”, remarks Honey.
The famous fire sequence of Bambi (Disney/RKO, 8/21/42) is more to be seen than described. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious 2D animation ever attempted of an out-of-control wildfire. It all begins when a large party of hunters, stalking the woods, carelessly leaves campfire embers unattended. A bit of breeze, and the stage is set for a fast-spreading, blazing inferno. Bambi has been grazed by a shot from hunters while rescuing his new mate Faline. He lies near unconscious in a rocky crag on the side of a hill, while the glow of the yet-distant leading edge of the conflagration moves ever closer. “Get up, Bambi”, shouts a stern voice. It is his father, the mysterious Great Stag, who omnisciently manages to appear from his hermitage whenever he is most needed. “You must get up”, he commands again, registering in his voice the immediate sense of urgency, cloaked in a tone that demands action unquestioningly. Bambi struggles, but the insistence of his father prevails, and Bambi finds himself up and standing. “Now, come with me”, orders Dad – just as the first clear view of open flame appears through trees in the distant rear of the shot.
The scenes which follow are harrowing and heartbreaking, as the deer gallop at top speed, using their wits to follow the paths of streams, and look for every clearing or path available to find an opening in the wall of billowing smoke and blazing fire that threatens to encircle them. Falling limbs and trunks appear everywhere, providing an endless obstacle course that only the deer’s great and graceful leaps can surmount. Finally, the deer find themselves at the edge of the shallows of a riverbed, which breaks off into a vertical drop in the form of a plummeting waterfall. The stags hesitate, knowing any further progress is at great risk to their lives. But looking back, they see a giant blazing trunk, toppling in a fall with a trajectory set to land directly on top of them.
There is literally no turning back, and the brave stags give their all in a magnificent leap for life, over the falls’ edge, and into the river bottom far below. They disappear from sight below the water, as the white churning foam from the falls hides our view. The camera dissolves to an awesome and thought-provoking shot from the opposite bank of a broader stretch of the river far downstream, where the entire sky is ablaze with the glow from what seems to be the entire forest going up in smoke. One by one, refugee animals begin to surface, paddling their way with their last ounce of energy to the river’s shore, pausing there for much needed rest and to dry themselves and lick their wounds. Among the refugees is Faline, who escaped unharmed thanks to Bambi’s timely rescue. She stares endlessly at the water, hoping against hope for some sign that her beloved has somehow made it through. Then, her tail rises as a signal of heightened emotion, as, against a reflection of the continuing red glow in the sky, Bambi and his father both rise out of the water, and Bambi responds to a call of his name by Faline, hurrying over to meet her, and to exchange affectionate licks on the cheek. The couple turn pensively toward the glow, continuing to watch with awe the spectacle of the destruction of their home, as the camera fades out.
Of course, this is a Disney picture, so Summer soon arrives, and, while there are definite remaining traces of the forest’s destruction, with charred-out limbs and logs everywhere, new green has begun to grow in among them, and the blooms of new flowers also add a touch of color to the blackened landscape. Nature will regenerate herself, in spite of man. And so will the deer, with the birth of Bambi’s twin fawns.
The story did not end there. In the 1960’s, a striking and memorable public service announcement was created for television, licensing footage straight from Bambi’s fire sequence, but adding the touch of additional wraparound animation of the Forest Service’s fire-prevention mascot, Smokey the Bear, sounding the alarm to the forest animals, “Fire! Run for your lives!” That call probably rang in the ears of many a child throughout the decade, and left a lasting impression upon many a young viewer (myself included). I do not know whether the Smokey animation was created within the walls of the Disney studio, or spliced in from some source out of house, but it is well-produced, high budgeted, and almost seamlessly integrated into the existing footage, making the presentation all the more effective in impact. I believe I saw the PSA before I ever got to see the feature itself – and recognized the shots of the falling trees when I saw them on the big screen, getting the idea as to where they had been created. Still, even for those who may never have seen the feature, the wonderful creativeness of the Disney imagery will likely forever remain etched into the minds of those of us who grew up during the period, and Smokey’s message, “Only you can prevent forest fires”, registered strong, true, and clear.
The infamous Tokio Jokio (Warner, Looney Tunes (B&W), 5/15/43 – Norman McCabe, dir.), visited on several occasions along various trails for its random spot gags in the form of an allegedly-captured Axis propaganda film, features two gags relating to fire. The newsreel camera pans to a location where narrator Mel Blanc (in his worst Japanese accent) informs us we will visit honorable Fire Prevention Headquarters. The camera reveals an archway with sign of same name over the doorway – but the surrounding structure is reduced to a few charred posts and sticks, still smoldering. “Oh, son of gun. Too late!”, intones Mel, pronouncing his “l” like an “r”. Another scene attempts to give lessons on how to deal with incendiary bombs. A fallen bomb lies on the ground, its tip lit with sparks like a Fourth of July sparkler. A Japanese gentleman in top hat, suit, wearing large glasses, and carrting a parasol, approaches, then reads on-screen lettering reading, “Do not approach incendiary bombs for first five seconds”. The man looks at the second hand on his watch for the allotted time, determining that everything’s okay. He then sticks the end of his parasol out of frame view. When it returns to camera area, we see he has speared a hot dog from somewhere with the umbrella’s point. He carries the wiener over to the bomb’s spark, and attempts to cook it over the open flame – but the bomb suddenly explodes, leaving nothing in the shot but an open crater. From the hole, we hear the gentleman’s voice: “Ohh, losing face, please. Losing face.” He emerges from the hole, looking like the invisible man – with only top hat, glasses, and open collar where his head should have been.
Pandora’s Box (Terrytoons/Fox, Super Mouse (Mighty Mouse), 6/11/43 – Connie Rasinski, dir.). Set in a world apart, where fairy tale castles rest on clouds, and the moon is made of green cheese, we meet a little mouse named Pandora. She busies herself watering plants that produce lollipops and peppermint sticks. She then makes a wish at a wishing well for a playmate, and instantly receives a live mouse boyfriend who materializes by her side. All is too perfect to sustain itself in a cartoon, and so enters a witch, carrying a large box atop her broomstick. She drops the box intentionally at Pandora’s doorstep. (Why? Just to be mean-spirited, why else?) The box is tied shut with a rope, to which is attached a small parachute, causing the box to drift into Pandora’s window, and settle in the living room. “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!”, squeaks Pandora’s boyfriend. But Pandora dismisses the warnings, assuming the package to be harmless, and is about to loosen the rope, when a loud shout of “LET ME OUT!” is heard from inside. Unlike the classic tale, Pandora doesn’t even get a chance to open the lid herself – as the rope is snapped open from the inside, and out pop three bat-winged devil-cats. The cats fly around causing chaos, wrecking the lollipop trees, then soar into the clouds to develop lightning and rain by means of electric switches and pumping mechanisms in the clouds. Lightning strikes an old mill in which the mice have gathered to hide from the storm. Some old gags are revisited, with one mouse attacking the fire with water pails, only to have them grabbed away by the fire and tossed back at him, while other mice have a ladder burnt out from under them as fast as they can climb it.
A decade after its creation, the original shot of Hook and Ladder No. One snaking its way out of the firehouse door, from 1932, reappears, traced in Technicolor. However, the old animation of a profile view of the racing engine is augmented by a lightning strike upon it, splitting the engine chassis into two respective two-wheeled chariots. Pandora’s boyfriend somehow has chosen not to assemble with the other mice inside the mill, and is actually busy rounding up one of the devil cats and tossing him back inside the box. He then leaps into a series of human-sized vitamin bottles on Pandora’s shelf one by one, taking vitamins A, B, C, D, E, X, Y, and Z, and is transformed into – Super Mouse! (We had no idea he was in the cartoon all the time, as he has not yet developed his resonant tenor voice.) Super soars off to the fire, flying in one window of the burning mill, and carrying the mice out the opposite window, riding upon his red contrail. He then uproots a fire hydrant, pulling off the top of it to produce a jet of water. Placing his mighty protruding chest at the top of the spray, Super bends the flow of the water at a right angle to attack the flames, gradually descending to aim the spray at the lower regions of the building, until the fire is completely out. Miraculously, though little is left of the building but its skeletal structure, its exterior boards and shingles instantly reassemble themselves upon the supertstructure, rendering the building as good as new. (After all, this is fairy tale land.) Super finally does battle with the cats in the clouds (there are still three of them, even though we just saw Super return one of them to the box!), having their lightning bolts bounce harmlessly off his chest like bullets off of Superman, then deposits the cat trio in the ladle of the Big Dipper. In celebration, Super carves a feast for the mice below, in slices and wedges off the green cheese moon, then rides a slice like a magic carpet down to the cheering crowd below, picking up Pandora for an additional passenger through one of the holes in the cheese, for the fade out.
Cilly Goose (Paramount/Famous, Noveltoon, 3/24/44 – Seymour Kneitel, dir.), has been visited before in my “Happy Henfruit” egg series of a while ago. It spins a tale of a frustrated goose, who can’t understand why everyone else dismisses the thrill of laying her first egg as nothing (mainly because they themselves are already in the process of raising a batch of kids well ahead of her). When she can get no attention, she hits upon an idea from a storybook to make her routine blessed event into something special – paint her egg gold. Now, she is the center of attention, and the press is called in. She receives headlines, feature spreads in national magazines, and honorariums from various public officials. In a throwaway gag which Famous’s home-grown audiences from local New York would have loved, Cilly gets to meet the Mayor (then Fiorello La Guardia) in a way that became a celebrated characteristic for the “Little Flower” (as he was affectionately called) – riding on the tail board of a hook and ladder truck on the way to a fire! (A pastime the mayor engaged in on several occasions, which brought him great publicity among the populace and fire fighters alike.) But all may not be gold that glitters, as Cilly’s fame somehow careens out of control, entrapping her in a booking at Madison Square Garden, to lay a golden egg in public. Sure that the jig is up, she reluctantly mounts a huge elevated nest in the middle of the arena, struggles to lay an egg, and covers her eyes, expecting her fraud to be revealed. Instead, the crowd cheers, and to her own amazement, she looks down the egg chute to see that she really did it – GOLD! Inspired, she begins laying golden eggs by the crate – leading to a public riot to obtain the eggs, and Cilly at axe point from violent crowd members who want to help themselves to her remaining eggs all at once. It of course winds up all a dream – except her “normal” egg hatches to reveal a chick with an unusual feature – a prominent gold tooth.
The Beach Nut (Lantz/Universal, Woody Woodpecker, 10/16/44 – James Culhane, dir,), pits Woody Woodpecker against Swedish-accented Wally Walrus for the first time, in a day of frivolity along the sands of a local beach and nearby amusement pier. Wally just wants to set up a beach umbrella and relax in the shade for the afternoon, but the lunatic redhead is too busy engaging in surfing and mooching food to pay the walrus any notice. Woody nabs off Wally’s picnic lunch, blanket and all, and sets up camp a short distance away, building a campfire right next to a sign reading “No fires allowed on beach.” His flames grow low while he is toasting a hot dog, so Woody blows on the flames to fan them. Hs efforts produce a billow of smoke, which drifts backwards over his head, settling inside the curve of Wally’s beach umbrella. The smoke continues to build, until it extends downward from the umbrella like a solid curtain, enveloping the coughing walrus in the choking smoke. A portion of the smoke screen opens as if Wally has found a hinged door in the fumes, and the irate walrus emerges to investigate the situation. Back at Woody’s encampment, Wally’s hands emerge through the smoke above Woody’s head, holding a beach pail full of water, which they pour upon the flames, dousing them. Puzzled Woody looks upwards as the hands disappear, and peers into the sky with his palm outstretched, trying to check whether it’s raining. Woody pulls out a match to re-light the firewood, then tosses the matchstick over his shoulder. It lands atop Wally’s umbrella, burning away the canvas and leaving six curled and bent spokes. An ember falls upon his beach chair, also devouring the seat right out from under the walrus. To add insult to injury, Woody appears to the sounds of a roaring siren, dressed in a fireman’s hat, and carrying a portable hydrant and hose, to spray the walrus right in the face. Wally produces an axe from nowhere, while Woody hides inside the hydrant. Wally chops the hydrant to bits – but Woody has somehow already escaped, and still has enough water in the hose end for another squirt in Wally’s face, leaving him with large water puddles accumulated in both of his lower eyelids.
The Unruly Hare (Warner, Bugs Bunny, 2/10/45 – Frank Tashlin, dir.) – Elmer Fudd is “working on the railroad” (make that “wailwoad”) as a surveyor, checking out the lay of the land for laying a section of new track. Bugs lives in a tree stump on the railroad right of way. Elmer sets up his surveyor’s tripod next to the stump, while Bugs figures various ways to torment him (including sticking a sign out of the stump which only the audience sees, pointing at Elmer and reading “P-U”). At one point, while Elmer is looking through his telescope, Bugs pulls off an amazing special effect, by holding up the lit end of a lighted match in front of the lens. From Elmer’s viewpoint, it makes the entire woods look like they are on fire! (Take it from a fan of vintage 3-D films – this idea des NOT work for real. Believe it or not, it was actually tried by budget-trimming director Sam Katzman in an effort to provide a finale the studio could not afford, in Drums of Tahiti. Instead of obtaining 3-D shots of an active volcano, Katzman projected standard 2-D newsreel images of one on a rear screen, then positioned the jet of a flame thrower pointing upwards from the floor ahead of the camera lens, between the camera and the projection screen. The result was a total embarrassment, and drew rounds of laughter from an Egyptian Theater audience in a sequence that was supposed to be high drama.) Elmer begins racing around in panic, yelling, “Help! Water, water! Fireman! Confwagwation!” Bugs emerges from the stump upon an extension ladder, wearing a full fireman’s hat and slicker. He climbs the ladder out of frame, then slides down a fireman’s pole back into view, racing over to Elmer, who is still calling for “Water!” Bugs answers his request – by hitting him in the mouth with the spray of a seltzer bottle, continuing to spray until Elmer is inflated like a roly=poly, and reaches full saturation point, the water now spraying over his face, and obscuring him from camera view. “What a dope! Imagine, askin’ for it!”, laughs Bugs. However, the camera pans to the left, revealing that Elmer somehow isn’t inside the spray of water anymore, but has slipped up behind Bugs, with seltzer still pouring out of his ears, and now armed with a double-barreled shotgun. Bugs turns to see him, but takes in the situation with the usual calm, letting two of his fingers “walk” a path up the barrel of the gun, until they are under Elmer’s nose. They suddenly spring to give Elmer a forceful tweak upon his sniffer. Bugs then bends both barrels of the gun in opposite directions for a u-turn, causing Elmer’s shots to be diverted backwards behind him, where Bugs now waits, holding two bull-eye targets to receive each of the bullets in a dead-center score. “You win, Doc”, says Bugs, stuffing a dozen cigars into Elmer’s mouth before he can even think. They are all, of course, explosive – well blackening Elmer’s face. Eventually, another gag of explosive “pass the baton” with a dynamite stick goes awry, as the tossed stick pursues Bugs to the main inventory of rails and railroad ties, then explodes. Within seconds, the blasted rails and ties land in perfect position to form a competed railroad track, and Bugs roars through the scene over Elmer right on schedule – as passenger on the rails’ very first train.
Some big names get caught “red- handed” next week, including Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and Tex Avery.