Sunday, June 17, 2018

Light-Hearted Holiday Highlights: About What You'd Expect, But Amusing

Release date: 10/12/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: 
Bugs Bunny's Cupid Capers (WHV, 2010)

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

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Yes, we're still in spot-gag mode. This cartoon sits higher on the bell curve than the teeth-gnashers the Avery unit will put out as our hero nears the end of his time with the Leon Schlesinger animation studio.

Neither terrible or ground-breaking, it's professional cartoon product, and offers some amusing bits, including its clever presentation of the title card:
We open to the peppy strains of "Ain't We Got Fun?"--a seemingly desperate reminder that we're expected to be amused. And, for the most part, we are. The Avery unit has got this format down pat, and the growing skill of the animators and technicians makes these middling gag-fests a bearable ride, though we know that all parties involved are capable of greater things.

Gil Warren, an announcer for studio-backed station KFWB, steps into the Robert C. Bruce role as bemused narrator. We open with a desk-calendar motif--one perfect for presentation on this blog. Thank you, 1940 cartoon makers!

The year kicks off with New Years' Day, which inspires this montage--a cartoon version of the mini-films being created by future cult director Don Siegel and others for Warner Brothers' live-action features and short-subjects:
As these live-action tropes are being kidded, you get the sense that there's some affection for them. 

Gil chimes in as he observes the New Year crawl on-stage. "Say, he's a cute little fellow, isn't he?" Warren asks the infant year-symbol to say something for the audience. You know what that means...
A nice touch: the toddler puts his top-hat back on his head with a satisfied expression of a job done a bit too well. He returns to crawling and goo-goo-ing.
Valentine's Day is next. This mushy event offers a nice little gender-aggressor role switch, atop the idea of having apple-cheeked tots get into some Code-approved heavy petting...
 Heart changes hue in the cut from long-shot to medium-shot. 
The offer of a Valentine turns the Mel Blanc-voiced li'l boy into a smooch-hound. It's surprising that Blanc didn't do the Charles Boyer bit, but his sighs and gasps are a little more intense than is called for...
Warren orders them to stop--but not because the love scene's getting out of control. He reminds the girl that this is leap year!
That gleam of glee in her eyes is priceless. She does a word-for-word version of the boy's seduction lines (which perhaps came from some live-action film of the time).
Girl, of course, speaks in Katharine Hepburn's voice--Avery's favorite highfalutin' target in Hollywood. She breaks character to ask us if we share her opinion that the whole thing's a big silly.
George Washington's birthday (2/22) is next on the firing line:
The animators' ability to create convincing and good-looking human characters has improved by leaps and bounds over the past year. As I've noted here before, it's easy to take for granted the rapid sophistication of the Hollywood animation studios at the end of the 1930s. Five years before this, all human characters were maddeningly symmetrical cookie-cutter figures. This was perhaps the Disney studio's greatest contribution to the animator's art--the insistence that human figures be drawn with more challenging contours and proportions.

To do this and make the figures amusing was a taller order, but Avery's animation team is up to the challenge. Though the gags in Holiday Highlights are predictable and pat, the visuals impress with their increasing confidence and solidity.

Highlights of Washington sequence:
 A hearty "TIM-BER!" as the puny tree falls;
 This perfect expression of disoriented bewilderment (above);
 A rare powdered-wig "take;"
Charles Laughton impression for Dad Washington's voice; amusing insertion of "thou"s and "didst"s in dialogue;
 Inevitable-but-satisfying "Ehhhh... could be" reply to query about cherry tree.
Speaking of trees... Arbor Day... will there be dogs in this next scene? Lesee...
Unseen voice cheerfully micro-manages Arbor Day participant:
 Yep--it's a very pleased canine with an appealing New York-wiseguy voice.
 To the victor belongs the spoilage. Dog trots off to TCoB.
Next?
 Oh, yes. Easter eggs. Easter bunnies. And another variant on a well-worn Avery gag...
 1935-ish bunny design is a bit of a surprise.
Avery has leached all the shock value out of this set-up. The animation of the fox is impressive, tho'...
In the twitch of a nerve, more-or-less realistic fox morphs into 1940 cartoon fox, designed with the angularity that reveals the director's hand in some capacity.
 Fox's OCD joy in acquiring an egg is quite funny.
 Bunny is outta there.
 4/1 allows Avery and Warren a chance to cut loose. 
 Warren's gloating performance as we view a blank screen is perhaps funnier than the gag itself.
 In comes The Avery Sign, looking more and more like its M-G-M equivalents:
Avery and another narrator did this better in the rapid-fire matchstick illusion game, way back in 1938's Believe it or Else. This earlier bit is much more involved, but both sequences share a desire to waste the audience's time, against their will. 

Warren regains control of himself and we proceed:
Rotoscoped grey-haired mother rocks, knits: note stereopticon on table. Warren sets up the scene; wayward son, absent for "22 years," returns to see his aging mater on her special day.
 Quick pan across the room to the front door.
 Son rushes in. Looks like one of the dress extras from The Grapes of Wrath.
 "H'lo, Ma."
 "Hello, son."
 "Bye, ma."
 "Bye, son."  78 years later, that still sums up the awkardness of many parent/child relationships.
 "June... the graduation month for students throughout the land."
Continuing the late-Depression vibe of the prior gag, Avery offers one of his rare moments of pointed social commentary--again, still true today...
Graduate Magee is showered with praise on-stage. Proud principal (voiced by the director, I believe) assures stern lad that "you're now equipped to take your place in society."
 This is terrific character animation--beautifully posed and timed.
Devon Baxter tells me this is the work of Virgil Ross.
 Magee turns and strides off with sober confidence.
There's a chilling aspect to this sequence. Gallows humor was always close to Avery's heart, and this conclusion (enhanced by two 'topper' gags) is as black as they come in the director's universe.
 Magee, of course, heads right for bread line (clearly labeled with one of those signs).
Deliberately corny humor slightly leavens (no pun intended) the gravity of the situation. Carl Stalling's woozy, beaten-up arrangement of "I've Been Working on the Railroad" was probably an Avery suggestion. The director enjoyed using uber-familiar tunes as an aid to getting his gags across. Scott Bradley, the brilliant musical director for the M-G-M cartoons, groused about Avery's insistence that he use these well-worn themes. But they do their job, and are an essential part of Avery's work.
One would think the sequence might end with this mood-lightening interlude, but it doesn't. Magee is shoved against the person in front of him in line...
 ...his principal. "Take it easy, Magee," the man says, with ominous intent.
Magee is shocked. And the beauty part of this sequence--the saving grace of Holiday Highlights--is the long time it takes for the realization of what he's seen to sink in.
 It will take a lot of forced cheer to shake this one off. So onto Halloween we go...
 Warren talks about witches soaring through the moonlit skies on 10/31...
The import of this gag is lost on me, but someone is bound to explain it in the reader comments, so be sure to look below.
We sit on this card for a spell. It helps eat up some footage, to atone for the more elaborate moments elsewhere in this picture. Here's another bit of dark comedy played to perfection by all parties involved...
Realistically drawn animated people bow at the table as a mumbled prayer is heard. We pan across, stage right, to see the speaker:
This would be funny enough--having the turkey deliver grace. Perhaps even cute. But that isn't enough for this crew.
 "...and thank you for this lovely turkey..."
 "TURKEY?!?"
 "WHAT AM I SAYING?!!?"
The whirl of tail feathers and their extended exit, in the wake of the fleeing bird, are an apt capper for this still-effective bit.
The brisk pace of this cartoon has us already at Christmas. This would seem an ideal spot to dawdle and pad out the footage a bit, but that doesn't happen here.
Warren gives some expected palaver about Christmas Eve... silent night... the approach of sleigh bells...
And we get another of Avery's ice cream gags. They're never particularly funny; they tend on the odd side. But he obviously loved them, because he kept using them into his M-G-M days.
 Santa's knowing smile suggests that he's in on the silliness of it all.
The cyclical nature of the year brings us back to New Year's Eve/Day. A good opportunity to get another gag about the relationship of dogs and trees.
Warren orates about the 1/1 tradition of the Rose Bowl, presented "in gorgeous Technicolor" as we view "a few of the prize-winning floats."
 The background artist gets to show off.
 "Popular with the kiddies," Warren notes, "is the float from The Encino Chamber of Commerce."
I don't get it; again, check the comments section below, where someone will, at some point in time, calmly explain the connection between Encino and The Lone Ranger.
The swarm of kiddies warms up the screen for the big boffo finish: "The entry from the state of California is also very popular."
Holiday Highlights is streamlined; it never lingers long on any one moment. It's on the higher end of these spot-gag efforts, but the staleness in the formula becomes front-and-center, and will remain for the duration of this series. Beautiful animation and sharp timing can only do so much to prop up adequate material. Though the animation crew breaks a sweat here, the content is, at best, casual.

The Valentine's Day, June graduation and Thanksgiving gags are outstanding, and make this cartoon worth our time to view. There's nothing wrong with the film, per se, except that all parties involved had done these routines before. The element of surprise that energized this series at its start has cooled. The films must have remained popular with exhibitors and audiences--otherwise, Schlesinger would've advised his creators to turn their attention to more profitable and crowd-pleasing ideas. 

One plus this series offered: they didn't require the crew to re-invent the wheel, as would one-shot narrative cartoons. It's possible that the unit looked forward to these spot-gag cartoons. They did offer more variety--and challenges--for the animators, and gave the background artists more to paint than the usual golf course settings of the Hollywood chase cartoon.

The virtues of the Avery spot-gag cartoons lie in their presentation. Watching the films in this series in order, the growth in Avery's confidence and capability as a film-maker is striking. It's frustrating to see such talent spinning its wheels, and expended on unworthy material. If the making of these spot-gag cartoons helped to strengthen the talent pool and please the front office, they served their purpose. From this film on, the rewards to us, the 21st-century viewer, diminish. There are four more of these to go. In-between, you and I shall both look forward to taking a look at a few more good-to-great films from the Avery unit as we approach their last year of existence.

Thanks to Keith Scott and Devon Baxter for their valuable input.

UP NEXT: More of the same: Wacky Wildlife


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