Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Sneezing Weasel: Takin' Care of Business, Cartoon-Style

RELEASE DATE: March 12, 1938 (according to the Big Cartoon Database)
none at present

You can watch this cartoon  HERE. Enjoy!

1938 is the year Warner Brothers' cartoons begin to feel like Warner Brothers cartoons. All the key players were present--including some who would depart (Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin) then return in stronger form.

In the meantime, cartoons had to be made, and a yearly schedule fulfilled. Our hero, Fred "Tex" Avery, continues his pattern of a breakthrough cartoon followed by several misfires/near misses. The Sneezing Weasel is one of those also-rans: a warehouse for half-developed concepts that its creator would refine, uplift and transcend in his more acclaimed M-G-M period.

The tentative feel of the mid-1930s Warner cartoons is almost gone. In its place is a brash, cheerful strut. This confidence was sufficient to create the illusion of entertainment, regardless of the content and quality of an individual cartoon. In this same manner, the live-action Warner features bluffed their way into audience's hearts, masking weak narratives and wafer-thin characters with a hearty howzitgoin, mac?

Still coasting on the buzz of Little Red Walking Hood, Avery fashions another minor attack on the wishy-washy cartoons of the day. This film's storyline could have been a Hugh Harman/Rudolph Ising M-G-M animated melodrama. It follows a tiresome cookie-cutter narrative that all the cartoon studios, on both coasts, told to sickening excess in the last half of the decade.

Avery isn't phoning it in here, but he is subsumed by the very weakness he satirizes.

Anyhow, he starts with a reminder that this is NOT a Walt Disney production: 
His work done, the rooster settles back into sleep, in a gag that delivers more than the scene-dressing it might otherwise represent. A quick multiplane pan, stage left, guides us to a re-purposed cartoon cottage.

A fussy mother hen guides her chicks out the door for breakfast. The birds' profiles are redolent of the Avery drawing style--a crude but effective streamlined approach.
As the brown chick (erstwhile non-star star of this picture) notes: "Yes, we're gonna eat worms... I bet-cha." His casual candor makes ingratiating fun of the obviousness of the situation.

Mom Hen has a clever re-adaptation of a kitchen gadget, for snacking purposes:

 Dirt goes in; worms come out...
 ...for everyone but our leading man.
 Sequence is repeated, with the li'l guy better positioned for a living lunch.
 Lunch has other ideas about this situation; slaps him silly, slithers away.

Cute pursuit.
A dramatic change in weather suggests similar moments in the more elaborate, self-indulgent Harman-Ising M-G-M cartoons, which Frank Tashlin savages in his 1938 Merrie Melodie, Now That Summer Is Gone.
 Mom is oblivious to the weather change.
 A minor Avery motif is the tendency for energetic forces to spell out messages. In this case, a bolt of lightning warns the poultry:

Ma gets the message.

Inside, she follows cartoon custom and counts her offspring.

This is a job for modern technology!
 Yep, one's missing!
 In another moment of Harman-Ising satire, the mother rushes to the door, and grabs an umbrella, the better to weather the, er, weather...
It matters not that the umbrella is just bare spokes. It's a prop, and therefore is essential to her stage presence.
 We learn the brown chick's name--Philbert--as she excitedly calls for him.
 Enter our villain--voiced by the director in his instantly-recognizable dulcet tones.
 The weasel addresses us with glee:
 "Heh heh heh heh... I'm the villain in this picture... heh heh heh heh..."
Avery characters love to accentuate the obvious, and rub it in the viewer's face.  This statement of cliche-as-fact had greater impact in 1938, when it was fresher. Such affronts are now so deeply embedded into popular culture that we don't really hear them anymore. 
Inside, another Harman-Ising satire plays out--a tediously paced conversation, swathed in soothing music, that sets up the basic situation of the cartoon. Little Philbert has caught a cold from his rainy romp, and his mother sends him to bed.
 Philbert slips in another "I bet... cha" while describing his lost worm.
Philbert's camera look of quizzical annoyance reminds us that he does not take this narrative seriously. Again, the humor of this has been dulled by the utter absorption of this attitude into our daily lives. 
Back out in the rain for Ma Hen, as she fetches the local doctor...
 We've been good boys and girls, so we get an Irv Spence scene. As always, the verve and slick eccentricity of Spence's animation is a joy to the orbs. Combined with Avery's superb voice-work, this is a golden moment in a bronze-quality cartoon.
 "While the mother's away... heh, heh, heh, heh... the weasel will play... heh heh heh...That's a good one!"
"Now, you folks pardon me just a minute, an' I'll make a quick change...heh heh heh!" Avery's voicework suggests a slightly malevolent step-uncle who shows up at family events and soon divides the room.

Weasel uses a primary Avery device to effect this switcheroo.
 "Not a bad disguise, huh?"
 "Now for a meal! Heh, heh, heh, heh..."
This rain overlay wreaks havoc on picture fidelity. That doesn't prevent our weasel from gaining entrance to the cutesy cartoon hut.
 The common yellow chicks respond to the knock, and completely buy the weasel's ID as "Doctor Quack."
 In unison, they offer a moderne response: "Boy... that's service!"
And now, the fun, quote-unquote, begins. To carry out a spoof of 1930s cartoons includes the dreaded, much-repeated battle-with-household-implements bit, in which the villain is mercilessly blitzed by cheerful cartoon good-guys. Before we suffer through that, there are a couple of redeeming moments.
Fraudulent 'Dr. Quack' is admitted. Once he breaches the doorway, we switch to more Irv Spence animation, which instantly improves our entertainment odds.
 Weasel's cackles barely sustain a weak impersonation. Avery's vocal performance of the simple phrase "say 'ah'" is convincingly full of menace.
 His ruse revealed! It only took 13 seconds, which helps greatly. Harman and Ising, at their most excessive, might've stretched this bit out for two minutes of deadly screen time.
Weasel's surname revealed as Willy. Alliteration is a must, even with cartoon villains!
With that mad dash, Spence's short-but-sweet interval ends.

What happens next might have been funny and engaging to 1938 audiences, who had seen too many such scenes to endure them at face value.

In these years immediately before the Second World War, militarism had a certain mass appeal. Those sleek weapons, those snappy uniforms! Marching in precision! It all had a streamlined, efficient 'modern' touch that tied in with the optimism and forward thinking of that brief spell between Depression and War.
 Cutesy call-to-arms via tin funnel.
 These things come in threes, with an 'unexpected' joke the last time. 
 Chick complains, in most unctuous child-star tones, "Hey! It's too small!" 
 This home-brew outfit has a bottle opener; problem solved.
The weasel goes horribly off-model in this next shot.

Injury-to-the-rear is a central aim of such sequences, and it's quickly dished out.
 The increased pace of the action is welcome, although it still seems molasses-slow when compared with Avery's 1940s cartoons.

CARTOON RULE: If you stick your nose down into a hole, a smaller character may use said nose for faux-boxing wokout, complete with gymnasium SFX.
 Brief look of chagrin is then required of antagonist.
Before that saliva hits the floor, another consumer-item assault is borne. Pimientos are perhaps the funniest comestible that can be used to attack a cartoon villain.
 Willy does not approve of this blood-like massacre. He corners poor Philbert...
...and we are rewarded with another Spence scene. One appreciates how adroitly the animator interprets Avery's character designs, and how much better his work looks than anything else that surrounds it.
Avery took great joy from metastasizing metaphors and cliches. Here, he drops the old "behind the eight ball routine" in a manner not apparently meant to be funny, if Carl Stallings' dark musical cue can be trusted...
 Nice that the metaphorical eight-ball has its own watercolor shadow for its brief appearance.
Avery's lesser cartoons (such as this) often have one truly redeeming moment. In these late 1930s Warners cartoons, those moments strongly anticipate pet motifs of the 1940s and '50s masterpieces. Here, as Philbert gives Willy his head cold and resultant sneeze, we see the first glimmer of a hardy Avery humor theme--cause and effect. Think of the lion's roaring in 1947's Slap-Happy Lion, or the skunk's scent in 1948's Little 'Tinker, and how these actions have dramatic, colorful and creative reactions--one after another, with a cumulative clout.
Spence sells these poses to the max, and this break from dull routine is delightful. A relentless barrage of sight-gags (reactions to the weasel's sneezes) would be bettered, in the later cartoons, by a breathtaking fast pace. Avery earned his mastery of that blink-of-the-eye timing through trial and error in this and subsequent Warners cartoons.
 Gag #1:
 Gag #2:
 A call-back to the action that fuels these comedic reactions:
 Gag #3...
This may be the first cartoon gag with the title of Margaret Mitchell's late '30s best-seller.

There have been no mallets used, so far, in The Sneezing Weasel. Philbert attempts to correct this gauche oversight...
 ...and becomes his own sight gag.
 After a moment to adjust, he seems like his new role as walking ad.
 Gag #5 again switches things up, with one of the common yellow chicks' attempted assault...
 The result is an early rough draft for a brilliant, quintessential sight-gag in 1948's Avery M-G-M cartoon, The Cat That Hated People:
Philbert finally wields mallet with success.
 Philbert anticipates the sadism of Herman Mouse (Herman and Katnip) as he uses smelling salts to revive the KO'd weasel, just so he can harm him again.
Just in time for Ma Hen to return with the actual Dr. Quack!
 Chicks see the real thing coming home.
 More brain damage to Willy Weasel, just to be sure...
 ...and the vicious heroes depart for the closet.
Doctor Quack believes in the process of elimination.
Fun fact from "Castor oil is used to treat constipation... it works by increasing the movement of the intestines, helping the stool to come out." This treatment for systemic inertia has fallen out of favor, which might make its frequent use in vintage cartoons a puzzlement to younger viewers.
 Willy does a Fleischer-esque wiggle shock-take as the foul oil oozes onto the spoon, accompanied by a sickening sound effect.
So horrified is the weasel that he gets a second shock-take by an animator who hadn't seen the previous scene's layout.
 Kids clamber from closet to witness defeat.
 MORAL: He who knocks a weasel unconscious thrice...
 ...may suffer internally for his external cruelty.
 Only the children in the audience needed to ask what was behind that gray door.
 Willy returns to get a last laugh. "It's a killer!"
 Willy may need to apply for social service benefits now.
 A jerk relishes his jerkiness as we iris out.
The Sneezing Weasel makes no effort to consciously innovate. Seven minutes of lively, irreverent yocks are its only goal. In historical perspective, such throwaways are frustrating, but they amused their target audience back in the day. That was, to be honest, the only goal of Avery and the other staffers of the Schlesinger studio. Keep 'em laffin', and get 'em in a good mood for the main feature.

That Fred Avery had any goals beyond this simple maxim was remarkable. Animated cartoons were a small part of the moviegoing program. Walt Disney had his lofty ideas of "the illusion of life," a grand notion only attainable by obsessive focus and reliable funding. As the virus of his influence infected the animation community, corruptions of his ideals resulted in dreary time-fillers on both coasts. The early Schlesinger output often struggles with this non-viable ghost-Disney conceit.

Avery's greatest contribution to animation was his belief that the only feasible path was to do what Disney wouldn't. Avery's hypothesis, put immediately into action as a director, encouraged others to shed the Disney way and make cartoons humorous, vivid and engaging.

As directorial deadwood left the Schlesinger ranks, Avery found comrades in Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett, who also aimed to please rather than dazzle with white elephant art (to borrow Manny Ferber's evocative description of Disney's work). Chuck Jones would join these ranks, after Avery left Warners for M-G-M, and in the wake of his own struggles to implement Disney's philosophy.

As we've seen, via his prior Schlesinger cartoons, Avery has obvious interest in the techniques of live-action film-making, and in the comedy that results from their playful manipulation. Frank Tashlin used his late 1930s cartoons as a formal workshop/playground for film editing and staging. At this time, he wasn't particularly interested in laying 'em in the aisles, as were Avery, Freleng and Clampett.

Like Tashlin, Avery had more on his mind than entertainment, but audience appeal was foremost. In lesser cartoons, such as this one, we see him comfortably elide his ambitions. We will see his more formal ideas for comedy and film-making take greater priority as 1938 plays out. Though this effort is slight, it manifests the crowd-pleasing tendencies of a stronger, more united Warner Brothers cartoon department, as it ramps up towards its brilliance of the 1940s--of which Avery will play no small part.

UP NEXT: The Frozen of 1938: The Penguin Parade.

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