Friday, May 11, 2018

Ceiling Hero: Stale Material Gets a More Sophisticated Treatment

Release date: 8/24/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
none

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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After the creative and cinematic triumph of A Wild Hare, Avery might have felt exhausted, and relied on a familiar fallback--the spot-gag cartoon. We see this pattern throughout his latter career at Leon Schlesinger's studio: masterpiece/dud/masterpiece/dud.

Despite Avery's growing confidence and finesse as a movie-maker, he had a hard time with winning streaks. Some of this was borne of his self-challenge to try new things, take risks and better what he'd done before. How the spot-gag format inspired him is a mystery. It was a familiar port to rest while he charged himself up for his next superior effort.

Ceiling Hero offers nothing new in terms of content. The gags are mostly cornball, with two shining moments of inspiration. Despite its lack of yocks, the cartoon impresses with its forthright, composed and cool-handed air. We are closer to the style that Avery will use in his best M-G-M pictures. Gone is the gawkiness of 1937/8; the show-off who practically mashes his gags in the audience's face. Avery still had a bit of that in his system, and it shows up in a few of his early M-G-M shorts. Ceiling Hero looks ahead to the spot-gag cartoons Avery will do at the end of the decade. House of Tomorrow, Car of Tomorrow and TV of Tomorrow peddle deliberately stale gags with a poker face, with a few innovative and genuinely successful vignettes here and there.


The title sequence is novel: the credits are gradually revealed as clouds pass by; a red plane flies across the field before Robert C. Bruce's reliable narration kicks in.
This cartoon spoofs two Howard Hawks-directed aviation pictures--1936's Ceiling Zero, with James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, and the superior Only Angels Have Wings (1939). There is something in the tone of Hawks' pictures, which stress first-rate craftsmanship, adept pacing and an ability to morph from comedy to drama and back again, that connects with Avery's vision.

An image worthy of Leni Refenstahl, in glorious Technicolor, supports Bruce's opening yack about the wonders of aviation.
Following this stylized, assertive image is Avery's idea of a "large Midwestern airport"--a traffic snarl of planes that barely miss collision, swoop over and under one another and make an amusing visual mess.
Gag #1: "Here's a flier who has just received his license..."
It gets better. 
Gag #2: "One of the latest innovations in transport is this huge six-motored airliner."
This gag always makes me laugh--the expert timing of the passengers' heads in the windows seals the deal on one of the cartoon's few genuinely clever bits.
Gag #3: commentary on the outsized wheels of a plane that's revealed to be a precursor of those idiotic jacked-up trucks that is every hillbilly's wet dream.
Gag #4: Experimental rocket-ship prototype launch.
Dumb-incongruous joke is decorated with state-of-the-art FX animation.
Gag #5: "Planes of today are getting more and more popular with the public..."
"Even many vacationers have taken to the air."
Note that no big deal is made of this business. Neither Avery's direction or Carl Stallings' music tells us this is funny. And though it's a small gag, its somber presentation is a marked departure for Avery and crew.
Gag #6: planes used as advertising.
 With the all-important chaser gag:
 Gag #7: "Here's a new-type cabin cruiser."
Gag #8 has built-in racism of that cheerful, white-folks-are-always-right stance that typified pre-war America... a view of the China Clipper explains itself.
Gag #9: "Army engineers have perfected the art of camouflage to protect their planes from enemy eyes." Just absurd enough--and logically presented--to merit a chuckle.
Gag #10: pilot has engine trouble; jumps ship with the help of the rotoscope; is startled by irony of nearly billboard.
 Coffee reference for the wide-awake adults in the audience.
Gag #11 is a connected suite of mini-gaglets, and foretells Avery's M-G-M work, with some pet bits he'd reuse in his later 1940s cartoons and a diagrammatic approach to visual humor that remains lyrical. Bruce informs us that this plane is headed for the West Coast. We see its takeoff:
 ...and then a gag Avery will revisit in 1948's The Cat That Hated People, with almost the same approach and timing...
Plane stops at a traffic light to let a puny airship toddle by...
 Then, after a time-killing, low-cost held shot of the airborne plane...
Bruce informs us that "planes, when not using instruments, often fly by well-known highways." This sequence's visuals are diagrams that require no commentary or insight to ingest.
Plane encounters stormy weather--and a human being drawn in an incongrous semi-realistic style.
 The effects animators get quite a workout in Ceiling Hero.
 Randolph Scott-ish pilot is his own windshield wiper.
We near the California state line, in another pet Avery gag; his most powerful version occurs in 1948's Lucky Ducky.
This mini-journey fades to black, and in its place is the one brilliant moment in this mulligatawny.
Gag #12: "And here's a daring team of stunt pilots."
This is a supreme example of diagrammatic humor, wedded to a metaphorical incongruity that was already Avery's specialty.
If the rest of Ceiling Hero were leader footage, this one gag would redeem it.
Gag #13: "Experienced pilots must master the art of blind flying....."
 Pilot lands in tasteless but logical manner.
Gag #14 uses a "never funny" animation gag, up there with "tongue, stretched out, snaps back like a defective window-shade" and other war-horses that all cartoon studios used...
...and so on. Gag goes on way too long.
Gag #15 ends Ceiling Hero with another suite of gaglets under the theme of the test pilot. The awkwardly designed pilot's refrains of "Calling Baranca" are a reference to Only Angels Have Wings.
Avery loved this gag; here, he references a 1938 M-G-M picture that starred Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy.
 Gag doesn't vanish as pilot finishes cig, climbs aboard...
At about three minutes, this is the longest and most significant stretch of Ceiling Hero. Avery plays it straight and allows the gags to float by without fanfare. If the viewer catches them, great. Avery's mastery of film form--and the able team of animators and background artists on his crew--make the most of this extended sequence, which speeds by where previous moments drag.
Ceiling Hero has some of the most elaborate and atmospheric background paintings in Avery's catalog.
A mood of almost-serious movie-making has been set up, so here comes incongruity...
More eerie than funny, this gag leaves us wondering what to expect of this here cartoon.
The placement of a pay phone inside the plane is inspired. More impressive is how little is made of it. The Avery of 1937 or 1938 would have made a point of shaking us bodily to make sure we caught this absurd bit of business. Here, it's cucumber-cool in its deposition.
Pilot calls Baranca.
He spouts all manner of techincal info about his flight...
and concludes with a sports score.
This Fred Astaire-esque pilot seems pleased with himself.
He does not fish for a coin in the return slot.
Another off-beat gag on the standard-issue Avery Sign.
A custom-made altimeter has a built-in jape.
Pilot, suddenly looking better-drawn, reports ice on his wings.
This blend of farce and drama is compelling.
Engine trouble!
Pilot strives to undo the inevitable.
A striking falling-eye view that Avery will repeat throughout the rest of his cartoon career.
Pilot calmly reports his accident-to-be to Baranca.
An impressive double-exposure, as the surging ambulances overlap the close-up of the mangled wreck.

"This is terrible! Is he hurt? Is he killed? Is he killed?"
Mel Blanc's one line of dialogue here:
"Ehhh.... could be!"
A cheerful throwaway, and a letdown as a follow-up to A Wild Hare, Ceiling Zero impresses with its viewpoint and technique, which surpass most of its mail-order joke book gags. The technical proficiency of Avery's animators is striking. When character design catches up to their growing chops at creating layered, subtle movement--a far cry from the balloony characters of 1935--studio animation will reach its zenith.

Exquisite technique and high-functioning animation can't save weak material, and Avery and Co. try to imbue these bits with some style, but there's not much to hang onto. When these cartoons still had a shred of novelty, they amused audiences. Time has not been particularly kind to them.

The wheel-spinning of Avery's unit will continue with two more spot-gag cartoons before his next significant film, Of Fox and Hounds.

In the meantime, Holiday Highlights...

4 comments:

  1. I wouldn't necessarily say that Tex was "exhausted" after making A Wild Hare when he made this one. Remember that these cartoons weren't always released in the order they were made. Some were held back for dubious reasons lost in time. If anything, Tex may have taken attention away from this one so he could concentrate more on A Wild Hare or any other cartoon he was more passionate about.

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  2. It almost seems as though Avery & crew worked backwards on this cartoon, in that the extended end gag was the rationale behind doing "Ceiling Hero" in the first place, and the bits which came before it were filled in after-the-fact, even with the Mr. Kitzel-ish weak ending sapping the final payoff. No other Avery spot-gag effort at Warners (and certainly not at MGM) takes so much time on one particular sequence (the incongruity of the polar bear on the wing looking puzzled at why he's there in the first place is may favorite part of that sequence).

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  3. It’s more of a cross between the spot-gag format and a narrative, at least in the final two minutes. Spot gag cartoons never seemed to have long sequences like this one.
    I agree with your comment on the payphone in the plane. Because of the passive execution, I wondered, for a moment, if that was an actual feature on some planes at that time, even though it looked out of place.

    This transfer looks very bold and colorful for a dubbed version.

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  4. As usual thanks for sharing my uploaded TVRip with original audiotrack synced.
    In my opinion, it is one of the best "wartime" shorts at that period.
    @Vinacome: Full agree. This transfer without 1995 Dubbed Notice should be used to be released via DVD.

    Greetings from Poland.

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