Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Isle of Pingo Pongo: Avery Creates Cartoon Tsunami; Inspires Countless Imitations

RELEASE DATE: May 28, 1938 (according to BCDb)
DVD-BluRay AVAILABILITY: none
You can download and view an uncut reissue version of this cartoon HERE.

Fred Avery marked his 25th cartoon 'anniversary' at Leon Schlesinger's studio with a short that sent shock waves through the film industry--and not just the animation world.

It also led to a depressing low point in his early career, as almost a dozen sequels to this innovative film bring his creativity to a screeching halt at the close of the 1930s.

Neither Avery or his audience could have foreseen this grim result in the late spring of 1938. At that time, this cartoon had more shock value and carpet-yanking surprise than any film in his career to date. Avery and credited storyman George Manuell (according to this recently-unearthed original title card) struck a raw nerve in live-action cliches--one that floored its first audiences.

By this time, Lowell Thomas' Going Places shorts had offered filmgoers three years' worth of oft-patronizing mini-tours of far away locales, anchored in the news commentator's relentless narration. Alas, none of these shorts are currently available for viewing on the web, to make a study of Avery's satire more complete. Suffice to say that the films' purple-prose narration and condescending examination of other cultures were an established film trope, by 1938, and thus ripe for savaging.

As with many of the Avery unit's early triumphs at Schlesinger, this cartoon suffers from over-familiarity. Its gently sarcastic tone was wholly absorbed into Hollywood film-making, and cast a large shadow over much film comedy to come.

This cartoon has been off the air since at least 1968, as one of the infamous "Censored 11." It contains a great deal of iffy racist humor, for which more sensitive readers and viewers are hereby advised. No Leonard Maltin apology here; this is just the way it was in late 1930s America. The cartoon was unaltered for a 1944 reissue--late in the game for such insensitive portrayals of non-Caucasian peoples.

That the cartoon is still funny and somewhat fresh is a pleasant surprise. Perhaps this is because it hasn't had the chance to be played to death on TV or home video (although versions exist on various VHS tapes and digital discs).


Avery has long established the use of a sardonic narrator in cartoons, so Isle's oft-intrusive omniscient voice is nothing new. Right away, we're subjects of his world-view:
 "Boarding the luxury liner Queen Minnie, we bid voyage to little ol' New York."
We next get one of Avery's pet so-long-it-couldn't-exist vehicles, which seems at least five city blocks in size as it passes... and passes... and passes...
"We're off at last on our adventurous voyage to the faraway isle of Pingo Pongo..."
 "The towering skyline of New York falls slowly astern as we approach the Statue of Liberty."
 Patriotic icon of the world's traffic cop becomes as apt an analogy now as then...
 ...with a pet Avery sight-gag of a miniscule craft amidst the brawny sea vessels, which halt for its feeble progress.
The light changes, and we're off...
 with a self-explanatory visual irony to counter the narrator's claim of "a direct course."
A humorless IMDb reviewer complains:
(T)he gag is not made funnier by the map's gross inaccuracy. Would it have hurt Leon Schlesinger's production schedule to include an accurate map of the world in that shot?
This whine is arguably funnier than the gag itself. And we continue...
 "Steaming through the calm waters of the South Pacific,
our ship passes many interesting islands..."
 The boat sensually hugs the small island's contours.
We next encounter an Avery pan gag. Because I have time on my hands, I've pasted the entire tableau together for you.
The pan goes right-to-left. We start with one of countless mocking references to Los Angeles in Avery's cartoons:
 These are, again, self-explanatory. The intended laugh comes from the needlessness of the narrator--a subtle touch that barely balances the Ben Hardaway-esque visual puns.
 Canary Islands...
 Sandwich Islands...
 Thousand Islands...
 ...and something new for dessert. Egghead, voiced by Mel Blanc in the style of early Porky Pig, anxiously asks the narrator: " N-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-now, boss?"
"No, not now," the narrator sighs as we iris out/dissolve.

Next is some creative film-making, as the narrator notes that the island "rises suddenly on the distant horizon." The combination of iris out and up-and-down camera motion achieves a striking effect from simple means...
 ...and is catnip to Avery-the-literalist.
We dissolve to a dock.
 Narrator notes: "the passengers throw coins into the crystal-clear waters for the native divers."
 Animated by our man Irv Spence, said passengers look like stowaways from a 1935 Ub Iwerks Comicolor cartoon.
 Avery loves status shift gags, and this is one of his best. One coin levels the playing field.
 ...and, in long shot, non-pluses the coin donor.
"Finally...
 "...we dock."
In another foretaste of Avery's rampant 1940s pacing, luxury liner unloads
passengers in an eye-blink.
  Last to touch shore is Egghead, who again inquires if it's time yet.
It is not.

We transition to a fetid jungle landscape, where the narrator calls our attention to
"many rare and unusual birds." A chaos of motion and color passes before us, in multiplane fashion:
First up for examination is a hummingbird...
...who obliges us by leaning on a tendril, humming non-chalantly, and dawdling. Polishing its nails and looking at them is a nice touch.
Next viewed: the mockingbird, who engages in a cutting contest with our narrator:
"Intensely interesting is the mockingbird..."
 Mel Blanc acidly mimics each of the narrator's lines, with still-amusing results.
 Narrator tricks bird into self-insult, which causes after-the-fast shock and anger.
 "Who--ME?"
Typically, we experience three of these things. Last up is a baby canary who calls for its mother at lung-splitting volume, again a la Blanc.
Trifecta delivered, we veer towards other wildlife...
 We encounter an elephant.
"Notice the intelligent expression on this old boy's face..."
Narrator clears throat; scene does a pre-Photoshop horizontal flip. An Irv Spence-drawn elephant is the best one could possibly hope for.
"That's better," narrator chirps. Pachyderm responds with another "woah.....yah" gag, derived from Ken Murray's radio series.
Narrator now breathlessly informs us that we're about to witness "the world's fastest animal in action... the Pingo Pongo spotted gazelle!"
 We see a few blurs (rare screen shot of one said blur) and fluttering of ground fauna. 
Narrator begs the animals: "Whoa! Slow down, girls! We wanna see what you look like!"
 One gazelle obliges, and, via rotoscoped action, gives with some voluptuous moves: 
Narrator thanks gazelle for this furry cheesecake show. Gazelle ducks back into frame to thank narrator.
Egghead asks narrator-boss for the third time; is denied approval once more.
 Camera makes haste away, as narrator stops dead in his tracks by an Eskimo and polar bear.
 "Hey! What are you fellas doing here in the tropics?"
 "We're on a vacation," they respond, as one...
 and then give narrator a razzing.
We now delve into the material that makes this so-far innocuous cartoon part of the "Censored 11." The mantle of patronizing condescension passes from narrator to film-maker.

The suite of gags that follow range in cleverness from sublime to demeaning. Because of their grotesque physical exaggerations, Avery's comedic tendency is muddied. It would have made no sense to cut the offending portion out, as was done with 1937's September in the Rain. Because of this material, a landmark cartoon in Avery's career was kept under wraps for decades.

Here we go...
 Disney-esque fauna enter flight mode as narrator mentions that the islanders are "skilled hunters."
 The contrast of the semi-realistic deer and the pinhead black native is, er, striking.
In Avery's world, to be on top is an at-risk position. The gag's topper offers almost pure Avery artwork, as the traditional tables are turned.
We fade in on a traveling shot towards the native village, where the narrator warns us that we're about to hear "native rhythms as old and primitive as the jungle itself."
 Four stern-faced "natives" pound out a heavy beat...
 ...then break into a cowboy rendition of "She'll Be Comin' 'Round the Mountain."
Is this funny? And is it funny enough to justify the extreme discomfort embedded in this gag?
Guitarist offers contrapuntal yodel for second chorus...
 ...then they return to the seated position, and pound out the beat.
Before we can even deal with this sequence, another--with a strange topical gag--blusters in...
 NARRATOR: Here we find a typical aborigine, completely untouched by civilization...
 ...and totally ignorant of our presence.
 Aborigine whips out camera, snaps our picture, and continues on. The punchline's intent still puzzles, even with knowledge of its reference...
This was a popular feature of Henry Booth Luce's flag-sized photo weekly, Life. Here's a typical installment in this series, for context. The usage of this reference is vague, at best... I'm not sure of the joke's intent. We're into a suite of food gags, and Avery wastes no time moving to another set-up.
 NARRATOR: A native beanery...
Two fried eggs and a scoop of mashed potatoes are served on the plate-like lip of a hungry (and delighted) aborigine.
NARRATOR: A common beverage of the islanders is milk of the coconut.
 Irv Spence's animation helps sell this grotesque gag sequence. The use of a "church key" beer can opener offers a piece of 20th century kitchen lore for modern viewers.
 The topper gag is downright disturbing.
NARRATOR: Typical of the island life is... HEY! Sorry, folks...
I'm sure I don't know how that got in here... oh, well...
Late in a cartoon that has taken a turn for the worse, Avery completely de-seats his audience with live-action stock footage, for no good reason at all. This is a far more creative misuse of live footage than the "gag reel" of the forthcoming Daffy Duck in Hollywood. It's a brilliant conceptual gag, forecasting Avery's manipulation of real-life movie sequences in his M-G-M cartoons.

Let's have a sports gag.
 Mild "bingo" gag topper. Sequence again trades upon patent absurdity of aborigines playing white man's "civilized" game of running, maiming and crushing.
Irony duly noted!
Rotoscoping again graces another grafted-irony bit.
 The transplant of 18th century dance, with all its affectations, is funny in this context.
Music switches to jivey version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," and natives indulge in that grotesque jitterbug movement called "peckin'." Fats Waller caricature ushers in the change.
A jazz dream-team of the Mills Brothers and Waller scat, hum and trumpet their way through "Sweet Georgia." One of the Mills-stand ins periodically lifts quasi-Fats up too the FOO microphone to inject asides, scat singing and other adornments. Virgil Ross animated this sequence, according to Devon Baxter.
It's a lively, rousing rendition of this over-familiar song.
The possible influence of Swing Wedding shows up, again, as a jungle
 jazz band and scantily clad dancers cavort in forced perspective:
 Avery loves insert shots of unorthodox dancers.
 This gag, while offensive, follows cartoon logic to the letter. If you lack a musical instrument, become one yourself!
 Here are the scantily-clad dancers.
More of that "peckin'" business, with a democratic give-and-take:

With a multi-tasking musician, our jungle jam comes to a close.
With wistful tones, our narrator delivers the inevitable news:
"With the soft, sweet strains of the native music still lingering in the air, we say farewell to this isle of enchantment..."
 "...as the sun sinks slowly into the West..." This statement is twice repeated before Egghead gets the message.
 "N-n-n-n-n-n-n-n-now, boss?"
 "Yeah--NOW!"
 E-head removes rifle from instrument case...
 ...and murders the sun.
 He is quite tickled at his success.
Troubling for its racially reductive content, The Isle of Pingo Pongo ripped a new hole in the cartoon continuum. Its effect sent another round of changes to the Hollywood cartoon. It is, alas, very much a product of its time.

Avery's black-themed gags often have a mean streak running through them. His was an era of unfettered, boldly stated racism. The gags that make up the last half of this cartoon were no doubt met with hearty laughs by their predominately white audience.

Avery would only end race-mocking gags when it was no longer allowable, in the early 1950s. These gags are a substantial part of his comedic vision, and to ignore them is impossible.

America is still a racist society, and may always be so. Volumes have been written on this cruel, far-reaching irony. A study of Avery's work demands that the viewer cope with the racist mind-set, and judge the films by their success or failure as works of comedy.

Pingo Pongo is far funnier than the balance of Avery's spot-gag cartoons, which will continue through his Schlesinger career, jammed amidst innovative films that make these corny brethren seem more stale and regressive as 1938 becomes 1939, and onward.

The opening brace of gags is quite clever and playful. That impish spirit continues through the film--the insert of live-action horse-race footage is inspired and wholly unexpected. It's the sudden, jarring shift to jokes about ignorant savages--gags that mock the characters' being black, with no attempt to disguise this bias--that leaves a bad taste in the millennial viewer's mouth,

Indeed, many people--mostly younger ones--may not be able to stomach the film after it hits the 3:58 mark. Compare this film to Uncle Tom's Bungalow. While that earlier cartoon has its share of racial reduction jokes--some of them shockingly tasteless--there is an obvious affection for its black characters.

Pingo Pongo's blunt tone of disdain--fortified by the arrogant narrator--is saddening, and casts a shroud over a suite of often-clever visual and verbal gags.We will encounter worse aberrations in other Avery unit cartoons made at Leon Schlesinger's studio. Wit and malice are strange bedfellows, and the latter tends to neutralize the former.

It is a pity that the innovations of this cartoon are cloaked in such regrettable and mean-spirited material. Avery and unit are back on calmer, gentler ground in their next film, which is among my favorites of their Schlesinger work.

NEXT UP: Cinderella Meets Fella: Epic Film-making on a Shoestring Budget.

2 comments:

  1. I think the "racist" gags about the natives are a trope from a bygone era that most of us can't get our heads around now. But the movies and "travelogues" of the time would show native African bushmen in a (mostly) accurate light...hunting, beating drums, speaking in their own native languages incomprehensible to us. So it was considered funny to have them speak and behave like stereotypical American black people when caricatured in cartoon form. Avery wasn't the first to use this anomaly..."Buddy in Africa" used the same gimmick a few years earlier. I'm sure it even dates back further than that.

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  2. About that gag where the natives sing "Comin' 'Round the Mountain", I'm wondering if this was a swipe at rural America. He might have been indicating that hillbilly culture is just as primitive as those on this island. That's how it looks to me anyway.

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