Saturday, July 18, 2015

"What Makes Me Wild?.... What Makes Me Wild?" A Day at the Zoo, Perhaps Not

Release date: 3/11/1939 (according to BCDb)

DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:
 on various PD bargain DVDs and VHS tapes

You may view this cartoon HERE.

Good-natured yet tepid, this second topical spot-gag cartoon (released almost a year after the first, The Isle of Pingo Pongo) showcases all that was good--and lacking--in this genre.

In the spring of 1939, such a cartoon was fresher and far funnier. Though imitations of Avery's first spot-gag film (as influential to other animators as A Wild Hare and Porky's Duck Hunt) would show up in rival studios' product, their sheer, overwhelming dreadfulness makes Avery's half-strength efforts seem more amiable.

This is Avery Lite--on a break between two superb cartoons, he coasts on a handful of pleasant-to-painful puns, blackout gags, mass media references and the strength of Carl Stalling's bullet-proof musical score.Whenever inspiration flagged, though contracts demanded X amount of cartoons, Avery had this format to fall back on for the rest of his career.

Far milder than Pingo Pongo, this film toodles along, never surprising, never innovating. Narrator Robert C. Bruce (or Gil Warren, suggests leads the way.
We're introduced to "one of the country's most interesting zoos." You know there's going to be a sign gag--one that will eat up some footage without the cost of animation. And, indeed...
"Here, we find the wolf in his natural setting..."
This is a clever allusion to The Three Little Pigs, Disney's 1933 crowd-pleaser, and nothing more.
"... a pack of camels."
 "A North American greyhound..."
 Bus navigates tricky perspective animation with little grace.
"Two bucks..."
"...and five scents."
Stalling's "wah-wah" ironic brass gets overuse in this cartoon, but it's the only
civilized response to gags that were corny in '39. We continue...

"A pair of friendly elks."
This is, of course, a nudge at the mysterious fraternal organization.
Avery's dead-pan approach gets such gags across without much pain.

"No zoo would be complete without a monkey cage." This stand-alone gag of spectators being fed by primates plays like a mild magazine gag cartoon. Note the use of Avery unit's earth-tone inking of background figure.
This is an amusing cycle--one that demonstrates the still-awkward visual transition of
the late 1930s Hollywood cartoon.

Narrator shuts up for a welcome pantomime interlude--again, akin to the era's milder
magazine cartoons...
The demoted human's whaddaya-gunna-do shrug is a nice end to some pleasant, low-key
character animation.

The original storyboards for this sequence are reproduced in Steve Schneider's 1988 coffee-table book on the Warners cartoons, That's All Folks! A troubling layer of racist humor was wisely excised from the original concept...

The gag is made more palatable by the human figure's retooled appearance. In the cartoon, he sort of resembles comedian Joe E. Brown. No attempt is made to tie him to Brown, and the resemblance may just be a coincidence. Thanks to reader Chip Shaw for reminding me of this document (and providing the scans you see above)!

Camera pans stage left to a matching gag, again full of simple but solid character animation,
and capped with Mel Blanc's unmistakable voice:
 "Hey, sister..."
 "Can't ya READ?"
 She was only trying to be nice...
Avery's cartooning is strongly felt in the design of the misguided matron. That, and the lack of talk, except when needed for effect, makes this a strong sequence in a saggy cartoon.

Fade in: "Mother Nature's little weatherman... the groundhog..."
 "...and his shadow."
If nothing else, this is a better-than-average Avery conceit, conveyed with literal deadpan.
Narrator's blather is disrupted by Elmerhead, in his next-to-last appearance. Looking more Fudd-like than before, and stripped of his Joe Penner impressions, he's now an anonymous schmo.
 Narrator chides Elmerhead for this mean-spirited act...
 implores him to read obvious sign...
 and shames him, while we see a brief bit of Irv Spence (or Spence-esque) animation.
Another skunk joke? Why not?
 Long shot, with judicious spectators, is a funny visual, but is blunted by narrator's
"scenter of attention" pun.
 Why does "Dixie" play as skunk peruses Dale Carnegie's highly influential self-help book?
Ida know....
 A quasi-Milt Gross looking zoo-keeper feeds a giraffe. This scene is jarring--it looks like it was added in for the 1952 reissue. The brighter colors and better draftsmanship suggest such. Do you animation wizards out there know anything about this?
The diagrammatic presentation of this gag is a tell that Avery's in the house. Sights like this will pepper his cartoons through his career.
 Back to this.
 Elmerhead is twice scolded by narrator.
 He utters Lou Costello's career catch-phrase...
 "I'm a bad boy."
Abbott and Costello were a couple of years away from their streak of box-office enhancing formula comedy films, but had already done enough radio gigs that gag-hound Avery would have spotted this catch-phrase and appropriated it. It will be used to death, revived, and then re-used to death by all Hollywood cartoon studios, from this moment on.
 Not gonna dignify this with a synopsis.
Some bird gags?
Cute posing makes an owl gag better than it really is.
 The owl's sheepishness, teamed with Blanc's voice work, smooths over this corn.
 Parrot declines offer of crackers...
 requests short beer.
 Takes textbook screwball character stance.
The "Alcatraz jail bird" does a stock Edward G. Robinson impression, in an unconscious nod
to Avery's next (and much more important) cartoon, Thugs with Dirty Mugs.
 Stool pigeon over-talks; makes gag more tiresome than one might think.
If this had been made a little later, the scene would close with the stool pigeon
getting clocked by a thrown object. That technology was not yet available.
 In these cartoons, a bad overall gag idea may contain a smaller, far better notion.
 Example given.
All intact! Narrator pretends to be impressed.
Back to this. A different POV helps.
 This is Elmerhead's third warning...
 He beats that Costello bit into the ground.
Elephant Joe Jumbo asks that his trunk be sent up "wight away,"
in a prediction of the voice Elmerhead will soon acquire, as his transformation
is complete.
"You know, those guys have had my twunk fow a week..."
"These are some things we had left over from that last New Year's party..."
 Arcane Reference Defogger:
 This "bread an' butter" business shows up in many Hollywood cartoons.
What does it mean?
Wikipedia is, for once, useful:
So now you know!
 Rocky Mountain Wild-Cat interrupts his Clampett-esque shenanigans to explain himself.
 "They called my name on Bank Night and I wasn't there!"
 Bank Night briefly explained, again via Wikipedia.
Don't worry, this cartoon's almost over...
 Via pantomime, lion reveals source of his newly bulging stomach.
 (echoey) "I'm a bad boy...."
 When this cartoon was reissued in 1952, its original titles were whacked off
and replaced with this generic placeholder.
A Day at the Zoo is not as abysmal as these spot-gag pieces will soon become, but it leaves the viewer with the feeling that the last seven minutes might have been spent doing something more worthwhile. 

Regardless, this pit stop in the mediocre zone recharged Avery's batteries, which are in full force for his next cartoon--another masterpiece in his Warner Brothers filmography.

NEXT UP: Thugs With Dirty Mugs, see? Yeah!

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