Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Village Smithy: Consider That Fourth Wall Busted, Folks! And...Introducing Carl W. Stalling*

RELEASE DATE:
12/5/1936 (according to the unreliable IMDb, and most other Internet sources)

DVD/BLU-RAY AVAILABILITY:
None

A crappy-quality 1990s colorized version of this cartoon can be seen HERE, as part of a collection on archive.org. Thanks to reader "clark" for spotting this version. Due to WB's recent pogroms of their classic cartoons from YouTube, it's newly hard to see many of these early pieces.

This brings up an unavoidable pre-essay thought. It seems ridiculous to me that so many corporate copyright holders (a) have no interest in preserving or making available their archives and (b) strive so hard to keep people from seeing their holdings. This goes for the major music moguls, all movie studios, and book publishers. They seem stubbornly resistant to the fact that there IS interest in this stuff, and that, if they made even the feeblest attempt to offer it publicly, it would be greeted with positive response, which would, in turn, make the greedy gits look good (or as close to good as they might ever appear).

It seems to me that a win-win situation for these monoliths is to let this stuff stay up on YouTube, etc., in the belief that it will create a new market for these vintage pieces. If/when a legal, official version is commercially released, they'd have every right to crack down on poachers. If they only want to hoard these gems, and keep people from seeing them, then they're going to look like selfish, arrogant jerks.

End of soapbox sermon. Now, on with the show...


Note the name of Carl W. Stalling on the credits above. His succession to the role of musical director for the Schlesinger cartoons was a major step towards greatness for this studio. Norman Spencer, to be fair, was a decent m.d. for the WB cartoons. His scores have a sense of musicianship, wit and playfulness.

Stalling, even in 1936, operated on a higher plane than any other animation m.d. (and, arguably, was on par with the best live-action music men in Hollywood). His precision, sensitivity to the directors' personalities--particularly to their sense of comic timing--and his open ear to a vast songbook of popular, folk, jazz and world music pieces, gave the Schlesinger cartoons a powerful edge and brought them one step closer to their golden age.

Avery's previous cartoon, Porky the Rainmaker, played with the device of an off-screen narrator. Our hero obviously felt this motif was worth further exploration. This time, the omniscient narrator (beautifully voiced by Earle Hodgins) extensively interacts with the events and characters.

While the cartoon itself is slight, though full of characterization, Smithy's main claim to fame is its intrusive/intrinsic narrator. At cartoon's start, Hodgins recites the familiar sing-song lines of the poem, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 96 years before this cartoon was made.

As Hodgins narrates, the individual elements of the poem fall in place, from the sky. The spreading chestnut tree...

PLOP!

The village smithy...
PLOP!

The smithy is a lovely example of Avery's rounded, deco-ish cartoon art style.
Hodgins continues... "the village smithy stands."

"I said, 'stands.' Stand up, you lug..."
Big lug does as told, but with his back to the audience--a cardinal sin of theatrical training.
 Hodgins corrects his stance, catches up with where he is, poem-wise, and continues...
"The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands..."
"...and the muscles on his brawny arms are as strong as iron bands..."
 "No, NO! 'Strong as iron bands!"
"And now, the blacksmith shop..."
The blacksmith, apparently once a boxer, goes into fighter PTSD moves--a beautiful moment that, like many of Avery's touches, hints at a backstory never told about his characters. Big Lug recovers, is startled at the blacksmith shop's sudden descent, and cheerfully enters within.
"And children coming home from school look in at the open door..."
"They love to see the flaming forge..."
 "and hear the bellows roar."
And, of course, since this is an Avery cartoon, the bellows take a literal cue from Wordsworth...

The extras are by now getting into their parts a bit too much. Hodgins shoos them away. They leave resentfully. The taller fellow with the hat angrily kicks an old tin can towards the screen. All murmur in dissent as they stomp off-camera.
Moments such as these were entirely new to the Hollywood animated cartoon. The intrusive narrator, on its own, is a clever device, but (a) his interaction and micro-management of the on-screen characters and (b) their umbrage at his comments are truly inspired. The casual presentation makes this all seem more off-handed than it really is.

This was one of Avery's true gifts as a humorist. He could do something outrageous, almost avant-garde, and grease it up just enough that it can pass through the viewer's consciousness, and get them to accept some mighty wild notions, before they even realize what's happened.

Back to our poem proper...
 "Week in, week out, from morn 'til night, you can hear his bellows blow..."
 "Up and down, faster, faster, up and down, upanddown, upanddown, upanddown..."
 Big Lug drops the bellows and protests.
 "Listen, chief, take it easy. We got plenty of time... this cartoon ain't half over yet!"

This brave outburst causes Big Lug to lose his prime position in The Village Smithy. Hodgins immediately introduces "our hero," as the camera pans towards Porky Pig. Porky gets a triumphant flourish of brass as he acknowledges the acclaim.
Camera pans back to a PO'd looking Big Lug. Our narrator takes stock of the set-pieces of The Village Smithy...
                                                                 the blacksmith...
the blacksmith shop...
                                                            Porky, the hero figure...

And, oh, yes, the horse. "Where did we put that horse..." Porky and Big Lug search fruitlessly around their immediate whereabouts, as if the animal is under that magazine, or that half-barrel....
Then something enters, stage right, to the chagrin of off-screen narrator and on-screen players...
 NARRATOR: (chuckles) My mistake! This fellow belongs in our Foreign Legion picture..."
 A vaudeville hook creeps into view and pulls the camel away...
Immediately, a horse, complete with cart and collar, drops into the picture.
At 2:52, the picture proper can at last get underway. Nothing that follows in The Village Smithy can live up to its first three minutes, which are among the most revolutionary film ever scripted and shot in Hollywood. What continues the picture is amusing, well-paced, and worth watching, with a couple of flipped-out moments to keep you, the viewer, on your toes.

Big Lug gently, thoughtfully removes the horse from its harness...
and leads him over to an ersatz shoe store, complete with a Brannock device.
"Size six an' seven eighths!"
Porky is dispatched to fetch a new horseshoe, and gets stuck in a Laurel-and-Hardy closed loop of comedy.
 Such sequences require a suspension of disbelief. In this case that (a) a blacksmith would have rubber horse-shoes; (b) that rubber horse-shoes exist and (c) that they be stored right beside the regular iron shoes, so that an idle hand can grab them by mistake. This is the contract we tacitly sign in order to enjoy what follows...
 Only a gifted animator could pull such a sequence off. I believe this is the work of Charles M. Jones. The Stan Laurel-esque pantomime is nicely handled, and contributes a great deal to making the difference between painful time-filler and nuanced, charming character portrait.

No description is needed for the events of this sequence, which are Jones' show all the way (with expert timing on Avery's behalf).
Big Lug calls for a horseshoe. With great caution, Porky approaches the anvil, and proceeds to the hoof in question...
...and here's another tailor-made moment for confusion. It gets a mite belabored, but it reminds us that all involved are still in the early stage of their creative development, and that they're learning as they work.
Avery and his fellow cartoon director were allotted about one third of the screen time Laurel and Hardy had for their two-reel comedies. Thus, cartoons seldom dwelt on this level of fussy, detail-oriented comedy. More rubber horse-shoe antics continue, as Big Lug attempts to get rid of the bouncy thing (which he ought never to have stocked in the first place)...
Big Lug is about to rehurl the damned thing, when he's stopped by the chirping of birds. This is a rough draft of a gag Avery will do brilliantly in his Schlesinger masterpiece of 1940, A Wild Hare. Here, a lack of visual evidence of the birds rather wrecks the joke's coherence. It's another example of how Avery auditioned comedy bits, and recalled them at a later date.
 (chirp, chirp, chirp...)
The rubber horse-shoe has a life of its own, it seems...
Big Lug puts it out of its brief, tormented life:
 Death of a rubber horse-shoe.
Porky is chastised, and instructed to heat up a for-real iron horse-shoe this time... we're burning daylight here!
In the great comedic tradition of Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Porky is none-too-good at his assigned task. We know he will fail, but it's the how that keeps us riveted. And how!
 The horse is caringly, kindly returned to its harness...
and then Porky is trusted with the flames, iron and tools of a blacksmith shop. Even he looks concerned...
 So far, so good...
 Injury to the posterior, comin' up!
Big Lug barely has time to comprehend what's happened before he becomes part of the chaos...

A clever trick angle perspective shot inaugurates this Preston Sturges-before-Preston Sturges madcap escape. Since the general store is drawn on a cel, we know it's doomed right away.
It dawns on us that this cartoon is not going to worry about a strong narrative! It's sheer chaos, with the girding of Avery's beloved situational gags. They come fast and furious in the next minute or so. That they're actually clever and funny helps greatly.

Well, the first one's pretty mild, but it does establish that Lug and horse are at a dangerous pace.
Next, they pass a bank, in a gag that anticipates a similar bit in Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night by nearly 30 years...
The next gag won't pay off for another minute or so...
Next is one of  Avery's pet changing-sign gags. These would soon become a Hollywood cartoon trope, after which time Avery persisted with them, perhaps because they were so stale.
 After a casual leap of a chasm...
Big Lug reflects on the situation...
"Whew...
what a buggy ride!"
and all involved hit a fence. We think they've stopped.
 Or do they? Avery throws something at us that almost no one had tried before. In the 1931 Fleischer cartoon The Cow's Husband, a parade is informed it's going the wrong way down a one-way street. The parade reverses its procession, step for step. It's a startling moment, but seems almost casual in the Fleischer cartoon.

Here, Avery makes a big deal of showing us the insane sequence we've just seen in reverse. Big Lug gets to recite his "buggy ride" comment backwards, and we get the payoff to the business with the ditch-digger.

"Am I missing something?"
 I'll spare you (and myself) the task of revisiting all these images. Just imagine 'em going backwards until we reach the general store...
Reconstruction happens quickly in Avery cartoons--and so does re-destruction.
 Quick action saves the rebuilt store, as Big Lug's joyride comes to an abrupt end.
Horse and smithy gather themselves together...
"Say, listen..."
"Tell me how all dis happened!"
An understandably reluctant Porky demonstrates, and we realize it's going to happen all over again.
The Village Smithy is a celebration of sheer chaos--in a way that cartoons of the mid-1930s were on their best behavior not to be.The Disney influence, by 1936, demanded that a short cartoon be more civilized. Although Disney’s shorts avoided strong narratives (to put it politely), they tried, via cartoons such as Mickey's Trailer and Moving Day, to cater to the strictures of their highly popular but limited characters, while attempting to make lively cartoons. In those two instances, they mostly succeeded, but they had to do it the hard way.

The Disney cartoons' complex set-pieces, with many moving parts, didn't always congeal, as in Hawaiian Holiday or Clock Cleaners. Avery showed a way chaos and characterization could be wed, with more modest tools. In 1936, he was still ahead of the curve. Cute trumped clever. This would be Avery's call to arms for the remainder of his time at the Schlesinger studio.

Smithy is as deterministically plotless as the average mid-1930s Mickey Mouse cartoon. Because it has spent its first three minutes rewarding our intelligence--our ability to absorb its constant, willful smashing of the fourth wall--we react more forgivingly and charitably to the formless slapstick that ends this film.


Though lacking in significant narrative events, Smithy shows Avery's embrace of character quirks, and that he was ready to knock all cartoon conventions on their collective ear, while inventing new ones on the fly. That he has Carl Stalling to support and enhance his exciting new ideas brings him one significant step closer to perfecting his early style of animated comedy.

Musical Note: After the 15th viewing of this cartoon, as I worked on this essay, I noticed another curious link to the Fleischer cartoons. Stalling uses a piece of music that recurs in the rare and remarkable 1931 "Bimbo" cartoon The Ace of Spades. That theme can be heard in the opening credits of the Fleischer cartoon, and in a few spots in Smithy's score, including the "That's All Folks" sign-off. There's no significance otherwise... I'm curious to know more about this charming piece of music, which may be called "I'm Wild About The Sunny South."

The study of classic cartoons also offers an education in American music and 20th century history. There is much to be mined from these animated films, above and beyond their obvious charms.

NEXT: Milk And Money 

Thanks to Thad Komorowski for providing me with a copy of this genuinely hard-to-see cartoon, and to Keith Scott for his help in identifying the voice talent therein!


* Yes, nit-pickers, I know this wasn't Carl Stalling's first WB cartoon score, but it was his first for Avery. Thus the "introducing" in the title...

            

6 comments:

  1. The 1990s colorized version can be seen at http://archive.org/details/ClassicRareAndCensoredCartoons

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    1. Thanks, clark. I've updated the post with this information.

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  2. No comment on actually putting "What a buggy ride!" in reverse??

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    1. By myself, or by others? I do mention it in the text. For the record, I'll "recite it" now...

      Whew! Ride, buggy, a, what...

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  3. That's none other than ace storyman (and later party animal) Tedd Pierce providing the voice for our smithy, using, for the first time, that "husky-tough guy" voice..I wonder who it was suppoed to be based on..Joseph Dougherty is still the voice of Porky, with Mel Blanc just right around the corner and as Keith Scott correctly notes, Earle Hodgins is heard as the narrator."No, no, no, no.....WITH IRONM HANDS!!".S.Carras

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  4. Warner Archive is releasing all of the B/W Porky cartoons on a 5 disc set. Hopefully this will be a sign for future WB cartoon collections that will make Avery's WB/MGM filmography available.

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