Monday, June 15, 2015

The Mice Will Play: A Jaunty, Peppy Non-Entity To End 1938

Release date: 12/31/1938 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 Jezebel (WHV DVD); Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles (also WHV)

You may view this cartoon HERE.

My last post here displeased a number of animation people. So it goes. My goal here is to present my take on these often-overlooked cartoons in Tex Avery's career. How I view them will, of course, differ from how others see them. It's bound to cause friction, but that's the way it is.

I believe everyone can comfortably agree that The Mice Will Play, released on the last day of 1938, is not a major film in Avery's q.v. It is one of the last of its kind--an insincere "cutie" cartoon that unsteadily straddles front-office expectations and filmmakers' needs. Those factions tend to cancel each other out and produce compromised work.

The Leon Schlesinger cartoon studio is such a well-oiled, jaunty unit, in late 1938, that it can gloss over weaknesses with an affable, scrappy attitude. This doesn't make the lesser films any better, but it helps them go down easier.

This cartoon was shorn of its original credit sequence in 1949. The theme music for the titles was eight seconds of "Three Blind Mice."

Let the insignificance... begin!
When a cartoon begins with this shot, you know the next scene will be of a darkened interior, moving in multiplane fashion towards the film's alleged protagonist(s).
And, indeed, that's what occurs.
 Anonymous 1938 mice emerge from knothole.
 Lead mouse Johnny declares coast clear.

More atmosphere, with exaggerated Disney-style shadows.
 The one truly great "Tex Avery" moment in Mice Will Play occurs right now.
A far superior alternate shadow gag will soon appear in one of Avery's WB masterworks, Thugs With Dirty Mugs. Throughout Avery's career, gags like this are previewed, played with and filed away for future use. This routine is unique to Avery's sensibility. The conflation of two- and three-dimensional forms, and the former's ability to be affected by the latter, is deep-dish cartoon physics, and is a cherished moment in a castaway cartoon.

Ya just know what's gonna happen next...
 (as one) HEY! ANYBODY HERE?
Avery loved to allude to pop culture events that anyone in the audience would get. He's already referenced Margaret Mitchell's Civil War potboiler, and will continue to do so into his M-G-M years.
 An Avery gag goes the extra mile. Despite being a throwaway topical reference, the carved-in-wood letters remain, and become a functional part of the environment. As the film version was several months away from release, musical director Carl Stalling inputs a mysterioso piece.
Modern-day viewers might expect a short burst of "Tara's Theme."
 "Nobody here! C'mon... let's have s'm fun!"
And oh, what fun they shall have!
 This next sequence is a mere excuse for the patented Avery Gag Trifecta©.
 Note that slide has three sections. Ahem.
 POV focusing shot offers slow reveal of first gag.
 Football gag, less inspired than its predecessor in A Feud There Was...
 Just what you'd expect;
Reminder: these gags were still sorta-fresh in 1938--sufficiently so
to send these rodents into giggle heaven.

Cartoon mice protagonists demand a cartoon cat as villain. As a pro-feline
supporter, such depictions of cats upsets me. Living with a cat who sometimes
catches (and noisily eats) three mice a night, I know that is what cats do. >sigh<
As cat ponders the available Fourthmeal options, the mice fulfill the
promise of this cartoon's title. They now fuss with a stethoscope...
 Pills are a common problem-solver in the Avery universe.
 Test subject's heart now beats a conga rhythm, which literally sends this listener.
A burst of elegant film technique introduces us to the sub-plot, which,
to Avery and team's credit, is established as risible:
 Indeed, Susie Mouse's protestations lack the gag aside we expect from Avery in this period.
(Not even a Hepburn or Bette Davis impersonation!)
Male mice, still playing, are oblivious to pleas.
 Again, ya know the outcome of this routine...
Oh yeah...villain... got to make entrance...
 Check! The Trifecta© is on again...
The radiant mouse's strut is scored to "Garden of the Moon," a bumbling, whimsical 1936 pop ditty Carl Stalling was fond of using--most famously in Bob Clampett's Porky in Egypt, from earlier in this year... and we now close out or gag trinity with one loaded with topical references I feel the need to explain. I learned more about 1930s and '40s American history through Warner Brothers cartoons than I ever did in school.
You know the Federal Housing Administration--it's the only of these three New Deal
organizations that still exists in our government. The Works Progress Administration
gave scads of hard-luck artists, writers and other creatives a chance to make some late-
Depression dough. WPA-era murals in public buildings have become a national
treasure from this period of American life.

The CCC--Civilian Conservation Corps--shunted unskilled, unmarried young males
to America's hinterlands to develop rural areas. These young workers helped replenish
America's forestation, and likely provided many mosquitoes with regular meals.
Here's a cool WPA-style poster for the CCC:
Its design is similar to Soviet propaganda posters of the same vintage.
Never was high style such an integrated part of daily life!

And now back to our dissected cartoon... and another oddball bit of Americana!
This seeming non-sequitur inspires a four-eyes double-take...
 but what in the heck does it mean?
The 1930s were a field day for quacks, con-men, mean souls with an
agenda, and other snake oil peddlers. The "Ham and Eggs Movement"
was one of the more colorful crackpot schemes of its day. You may
read about it HERE... and in this LIFE magazine article from September
of 1938. 
This gives us some idea of how truly topical the Schlesinger
cartoons could be. This was still fresh news when MWP appeared
in theaters, and audiences likely laughed and thought of pro-Nazi
radio personality Robert Noble.

There was much to lampoon in late 1930s politics,
and Avery chose something so transient that, by
the cartoon's 1949 release, the catch-phrase likely
puzzled younger viewers--as it has, ever since,
on TV showings.
Back to Susie Mouse.
 "Help... HELP! And help ANOTHER TIME!"
 This cartoon is cross-cut crazy, and gets its best energy from
these juxtapositions. This gag, self-explanatory, still has
the power to cause cringes and shudders...
 In an inventive move, Avery has the camera truck in and out
as the three ass-stabbers prepare to make contact...
 Just as "THREE!" is uttered, a non-rotoscoped audience
member stands up and shouts:
 The terrorist trio discards the hypo and grouses, as one:
"Aw, we never have any fun!"
 They slowly, resentfully shuffle off-frame.
Feline prepares for feast. The cat's angular design smacks of
Avery's drawing style--an increasing rarity as his cartoons
become more homogenic.
 Susie pens a help note. The deliberate pacing of this scene
exemplifies what's still rusty about Avery's work. The speed
and concision we associate with his M-G-M cartoons is
yet to come in his work. He's trying, though, and improving
with each new picture.
 A mouse with a manicure?!?
 Johnny still peers through the microscope, despite his
recent near-miss with a needle.
 Note conveniently unfolds and hangs in the air.
 "Gee--she must be in trouble!"
 Johnny is a slow learner.
 By this time, Carl Stalling's use of a piano glissando
to accompany a character's run is part of the Warner
Brothers cartoon DNA.
 Johnny runs diagonally into deep focus in this shot--
a clever piece of staging.
 Johnny understands the law of Cartoon Physics that states:
Any aperture may be made to open in the manner of a
 Johnny nixes the love-stuff and urges escape.
 Johnny puts a cork in it.
 Cut back to a fantastic pose of the creeping cat.
 Safe and sound?
 Johnny is irked by Susie's coyness.
 X-ray reveals the glowingly obvious:
 Johnny is a slow learner.
 Johnny becomes Jimmy Stewart-bashful...
 They kiss as we fade-out...
 ...and iris in on a musical scene of mixed merit.
Every member of the local Mousician's Union
appears in this scene.
 Avery's camera pans up, down and sideways in this sequence.
 A more benign vocal trio than in Avery's earlier A Sunbonnet Blue--from which
this cartoon repeats many gags and visual motifs--smoothly croons a wedding
march laden with peckin', truckin' and other n's of the swing era.
 The wedding vows are conducted in big-band riffs--a move both clever and slightly pretentious.
 Avery goes crazy with the trucking shots (not related to the swing dance craze) and cross-cuts:
 With a mildly lewd gesture, the anonymous three vanish behind a curtain.
"Now we're married," Susie Mouse burbles, "any maybe bye and bye there'll
be lots and lots and lots of little fat mice..."
 Cat overhears...
 Cat gets punchline, voiced by Mel Blanc.
 "Lots an' lots o' little fat mice?"
 "I t'ink I'll WAIT!"

The closing quip demonstrates the growing sophistication of the Schlesinger product. Cartoons that end in punchlines are the status quo for Warner Brothers cartoons--the most typical ending one finds in the films from here on. 

The fine line between visual and verbal humor invigorates the WB cartoons of the 1940s. When there is action, it's well-wrought frenzy. Words increasingly tend towards the expressively colloquial and are colorfully stated. This dynamic duo of comedy bolsters the Warners cartoons from the late '30s onward, and gives them an edge over their competitors' efforts.

Avery didn't conjure this out of whole cloth, but he had a hand in shaping and refining the idea that a cartoon could build to a worthy end point--one that would leave 'em laughing as the closing credits flashed on-screen. This will become the philosophy that guides the best cartoons of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashin and Robert McKimson. And, of course, Bob Clampett, who made the closing zinger an art-form in his bold, vigorous 1940s color cartoons.*

Avery will take this approach to a different place in his M-G-M years. This undistinguished cartoon ends with a beautifully succinct and table-turning moment--the last thing on earth its audience would expect. Though the film itself is rather feeble (if good-natured), with a few intelligent gags amidst the bland content, it's guided with authority by Avery and his staff. 

1939 will be another up-and-down year for Avery (and the entire Schlesinger creative staff). The highs are sublime, and the lows are deflating. So much depends on the content of the film. As our next entry, which covers one of Avery's bona fide masterworks, will show, when this creative team was ON-in-all-caps, they had no equals in animated wit and mayhem.

*Thanks to reader "Pokey" who noticed that I'd initially left Clampett out--the horror!

Up next time: Hamateur Night.


  1. Tex does seem to get some personal enjoyment out of the idea that -- after nearly a decade of cartoons from every studio of happy, frolicking small animals teaming up at the end of a cartoon to stave off a bigger predator -- Avery spends seven minutes setting up that Disney/Harman-Ising-esque moment and then bails on it to the iris out in a span of about 10 seconds (why, you'd even think Mr. Avery disliked the concept of doing cute Disney cartoons in the first place!).

    It's not a 'big laugh' change of pace, but it is a small way at rebelling at the old-time Merrie Melodies format that some theater owners no doubt were still asking Warners to produce (they'd get the cute stuff from the Jones unit for the next few years -- Tex's only seeming concession to the MM original format after this was having the rotoscoped ice skater play her musical performance completely straight in "Land of the Midnight Fun").

  2. Frank-" This will become the philosophy that guides the best cartoons of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashin and Robert McKimson."
    To quote Chuck's famous 1951 "Chow hound" bulldog:"What--no Bob Clampett" (a query which Jones would cringe at...)

    Great review..

    Berenece Hanselle in one her last years is Susie Mouse and maybe a few other mice.SC