Friday, September 25, 2015

Believe it or Else: The Spot-Gag Syndrome

Release date: 6/3/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability:

You may view this cartoon HERE.

We now enter a troubling period of Mr. Avery's cartoon career. For the next three years, he and his unit will hopscotch between inspired, sometimes-brilliant narrative comedies and topical spot-gag revues.

Many of the latter have not aged well. The best of them (Detouring America and Cross Country Detours) transcend the format's limits with solid comedy and formal experimentation. Too many of the spot-gag pictures are simply lazy work. It's not a matter of elderly gags and worn-out punchlines--it's a lack of dedication that makes these cartoons among the lowest points of Tex Avery's career.

He still had great passion and enthusiasm in his work--as seen in nearly all the non-spot gag cartoons from here on. The shifts from these cartoons--such as our last study, Thugs with Dirty Mugs--to the largely mediocre spot-gag entries is jarring.

Why Avery chose to do these pictures is obvious: they were easy. Having spent himself on a cartoon like Thugs or A Wild Hare (1940), these spot-gaggers were a way to recharge his batteries while keeping product on-schedule. None of the directors at Leon Schlesinger's studio had time to stop and reflect. A set number of cartoons had to be delivered to theaters in every year's schedule.

The format was an innovation of the Avery unit, and perhaps they felt close to it. With most of these cartoons, the best one can hope for are islands of inspiration in a dull grey sea.

A familiar-yet-unidentifiable* voice greets us, in a soft impression of the panel cartoonist Robert Ripley. Ripley began to make live-action short subjects in 1930. You can see the first one HERE.

Faux-Ripley promises highlights of "many odd and interesting facts from around the world." He encounters an immediate critic:
Elmerhead is more Fudd than Egg at this point. Avery abandoned him as a narrative protagonist after 1938's Johnny Smith and Poker-Huntas. In his growing obsolescence, he, as in A Day at the Zoo, is little more than a straw man. He has little reason to be on-screen.

Having a character violate the credit sequence is an Avery trope, and this is a Lite version of it.

Since there's not much to explore or dwell upon in these cartoons, I will reserve my usual in-depth visuals for the few worthy moments herein.
GAG #1: A Mr. Holstein Cud drinks 50 quarts of milk every day. (I can only imagine how his apartment must smell!) Carl Stallings gives him "You Must've Been a Beautiful Baby" for guzzling music. When interviewed, he moos.
GAG #2: "In my travels to India, I came across this Hindu snake-charmer..."
Semi-amusing gag scores bonus points for its venture into the uncanny valley with its visuals.
GAG #3: Man builds ships-in-bottles... a semi-clever twist on the stupid sight-gag we expected.
GAG #4: A more elaborate set-up here. "A Mister Adolphus Hambone, native of the world's long-distance hog caller." Mel Blanc provides the soo-eees.
 Clever double-exposure combines hog calling and a remarkably distorted map of the U.S.
 Pigs hear Hambone's call...
 ...and in soothing three-part harmony, sing "I hear you calling yoo-hoo..."
Grudging admiration for this gag, as
Avery takes it farther, and in a more eccentric direction than anticipated.

GAG #5: "Believe it or else... this man has not been out of his room for more than 50 years!"
Quick whip-pan across idyllic landscape reveals elderly jailbird.
 "I'm a bad boy."
This is a lovely piece of character animation. Those chin hairs disturb me.

GAG #6: "At a California university, I found a human basketball." Basil Wolverton-esque character design and basic grotesquery of situation earns a few brownie points.
First character, aside from Elmerhead, to wear regulation white cartoon gloves in this picture.

GAG #7: "Here, an optical illusion..."
Narrator: I'm going to prove to you that these two squares are not the same size.
 Audience is requested to close their left eyes...
 ...and then the right.
 "Uh-uh, uh-uh... somebody peeked!"
 "No fair!"
 "Let's try this one now..."
"...and no cheating from the audience this time..."
 Ur-Ripley claims that these three matchstick triangles can be re-arranged to form 37 triangles.
Here is a moment of hi-octane Avery. He warms the audience up with that fourth-wall-breaking
closed-eye business. With the aid of this talented voice artist, Avery floors his gas pedal. The result is mesmerizing and very funny. Voice artist resorts to some minor James Cagney touches as he speeds up the patter.
"Wasn't that easy? Try it on your friends..."

GAGS 8 and 9 form an outer-space suite, as Believe it or Else reaches its modest peak, aided by exotic graphics and animation. For this segment, Avery appears 100% engaged with his material, and pushes his comic timing to its 1939 limits.
NARRATOR: Atop Mt. Palomar, California, science takes a step forward with its new 200-inch telescope...
 ...and brings to you, through millions of miles of space...
 actual pictures of life on Mars.
 Avery's flair for visually striking effects animation reaches a pre-war peak here.
 Calm view of Mars surface.
 View with rush-hour traffic.
 A savaging of the homo-erotic aspects of adventure
heroes in mass media--with a typo to boot!
 DODGERS: Hi, folks! Don't miss in next Sunday's funny paper...
 It's a killer... thriller (chuckles awkwardly)
Back to the mis-labeled space ship...
 Enter Elmerhead.

 [coarsely] I don't believe it!
 Narrator bridges these interstellar gags: 
 With the aid of the telescope, we will prove to you...
 that there is no life, of any kind, on the moon!
 Sa-ay... what's this?
 Who are you fellows...
 and what are you doing here on the moon?
 Blanc-voiced shorty informs narrator that they're with a remote Major Bowes unit.
 "Which way is it ta Cleveland, hah?"
Narrator confirms that trio are far afield of their destination. Invites them to show their talent to the nice audience, since there's nothing better to do...
 Voice artistry expert Keith Scott:
"Contractor Paul Taylor's quartet, The Sportsmen, are the singers in the Major Bowes unit."

 They do a perfect three-part job on "Sweet Genevieve."
 Narrator stops them; asks them to speed up their act, in deference to the cartoon's one-reel runtime.
 No prob!
Screen captures utterly fail to convey the beauty of Avery's razor-sharp timing. This is an exhiliarating moment in an enervating cartoons. Moment begins at 5:27.
 They return for a bow.
Fade to black. No cartoon could expect to sustain such energy--especially a 1939 cartoon. So we're back to Ye Olde Hitte-and-Misse.
GAG #10: An Egyptian wishing well brings back the eerie-eyed Middle Eastern type seen in the snake-charmer gag (or his cousin).
 Turbaned one wishes he had a million dollars.
 "So... do... I," replies a Ned Sparks-voiced, heavily echoed minor divinity.
 Elmerhead earns his keep via recycled animation.
GAG #11: I know! Let's do a Northwest wood-chopping bit!
 Speed-axing Chopoffksi is introduced.
 More impressive acceleration and FX animation.
 Payoff is so stupid it's funny.
You already know the punchline to GAG #12. I will not bother to write it out. It involves a champion knife-thrower and his unfortunate subject.
Truthful anagram of his closing statement: Here 'tis. Hee! Corn to dish out.

For some reason, GAG #13 is usually cut out of TV prints.
Narrator promises footage of "the actual berth of a baby," and trades shamelessly on homonym and racial humor.

GAG #14: "Super-sensitive microphone" allows us to hear actual ant dialogue.
 Iris-out choice is a puzzler. It creates a moment of relief... but, then again, this is one of the better spot-gag cartoons, and it looks golden in comparison with ones yet to come...
 Curtains. Avery loves curtains.
GAG #15 closes our subject of study, and, typically of these cartoons, provides a weak ending. Some sharp character animation makes it worth a glut of screen captures.
Elmerhead expresses lack of faith in magician's saw-a-man-in-half trick. "It's done with mirrors!"

Narrator invites him to prove it's a hoax, via participation. Elmerhead's look of worried reluctance is priceless.

What happens is exactly what you think happens. This might've already been stale in '39.
Grace-note of Elmerhead chasing his lower half improves limp ending.
Let's score Believe It or Else. With the assumption that a cartoon has a potential high rating of 100, and that each bad/lame gag subtracts 5 or 10 points, while each good gag adds 5; a great gag adds 10, We start with a blank slate of zero--what's the verdict?
It earns a mediocre but not abysmal 40. Had Believe It or Else ended after its outer space suite, it would have hit a respectable 60. Some of Avery's later spot-gag cartoons will hit surprising lows.

For its time, BIoE offered audiences nine-ish minutes of harmless laffs, spiced with current pop culture references in moments sometimes possessed of a bracing speed and humor. It filled the spot on the program, and left Avery and his boys to come up with something better on the next go-round.

NEXT GO-ROUND: Dangerous Dan McFoo--and the birth of a notion.
Keith Scott was stumped as to the ID of the film's narrator. It's a familiar voice, but the actor's slight adoption of Robert Ripley's speech style blurs his expert ears. If anyone out there has verifiable information of the performer, by all means let us know.


  1. Some sources claim Cliff Nazarro as the voice of Ripley (that may or may not be true, but it feels like it).....

  2. (Accidentally posted to the "Thugs With Dirty Mugs" review by mistake):
    Great cartoon and review, all ten minutes of it, favorite gags include the long pan over multiple states and the pigs (pig call), the wishing well and matchstick games are among them.

    I believe Phil Kramer (as in "Hamatuer Night" with Elmerhead, where he does the starring emcee) narrates.

    This is one of a handful of 1939 WB cartoons to open with the scroll over the shield (and in a rather scary large font).