Thursday, January 14, 2016

Detouring America: Gagging (in both senses of the word) Across the Great 48

Release date: 8/26/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the WHV DVD of Each Dawn I Die

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon HERE.

Another early spot-gag cartoon, spoofing the abundance of over-narrated travelogues that crowded the short subject segment of motion picture programs.

This format has not grown completely stale, but these spot-gag cartoons have none of the impact they had on first release.

A corny opening "disclaimer," backed by a characteristic medley of familiar national tunes, sets the stage for the next seven minutes and change:
The announcer (Avery regular Robert Bruce) tells us we're going on "an educational tour of the United States." Snort. Chortle. Our first stop is a faux-multiplane Manhattan.

Narrator gets moist proclaiming about the "mighty skyscrapers rising proudly above the hustle and bustle far below." We dissolve to street level to see said hustle and bustle.
 "The monarch of them all," he gushes, as the camera pans up the phallic wonder that is the Empire State Building.
 "One of man's greatest achievements," he sighs, to the raptures of "My Country, 'Tis of Thee."
 Then the camera descends to street level again. "Say--what's the excitement here?"
"This man--attempting to climb its heights?"
This throng of onlookers appears to be Robert McKimson's work. It's always interesting to see human figures in pre-1940s cartoons. From the stiff semi-realism of Disney's efforts to the loose anti-anatomical figures of the Fleischer Popeye cartoons, the human form in animation has been all over the map.

These more subdued, less caricatured characters are mighty easy on the eyes. Screwy demeanor is reserved for Mr. Butter Finger himself.
 Narrator's summation: "He can have it!"
 ...and up he goes, to the whimsical accompaniment of "Umbrella Man,"
Carl Stalling's go-to ditty for the curious-but-harmless type.
"Well. we'll see him later!"
We dissolve to "one of the nation's most outstanding military academies."
 A call to arms is sounded. Cadets rush into formation.
 As narrator notes the striking precision of their marching, you know what's coming next:
 This might have been funny as late as 1942.*
Nothing to do but fade to black...
...and go to the Everglades." Narrator tells us it's "the swampy home of man's most dreaded enemy--yellow jack."
 Loud insect hones in on oblivious botanist.
The vacillation from four- to five-fingered characters, in cartoons of the late 1930s and early '40s, is a worthy topic for an essay I'll never get around to writing.
 Mashed menace, in Mel Blanc's voice, shouts "OUCH!!!"
 He then glares with righteous indignation at we, the viewers.
To black we fade.
 "The rolling plains of Texas." Well, at least the animation is interesting!
We see "a typical Texas cow-puncher."
Such literal humor is part of the core of Avery's comedic vision. It will reach apotheosis in his 1951 M-G-M cartoon, Symphony in Slang. I have never cared much for this part of Avery's world, but it's there, in great quantity, for those who enjoy it.

Announcer notes: "Say, this shouldn't be right!" Cowpuncher, in voice (and some demeanor) of comedian/musician/voice wrangler Jerry Colonna, responds:
 "Aaaahhh! So you're wondering too!"
The gag is not improved by the Colonna-ism, but 1939 audiences may have gotten a chuckle from Mel Blanc's interpretation of this popular radio and film star. It's proof that Avery was a listener of Bob Hope's radio program...
"Our friend certainly has courage! (almost dismissive) What a way to make a living..."

The next sequence is often removed from TV airings of this cartoon. It was far easier to remove offending moments from the bento-box format of these spot-gag cartoons. The third image, below, may indicate why it was excised...
"Of all things... a hitch-hiker!"

The caricatured Afro-American sings "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" in a beautiful, plaintive tenor. (Keith Scott info-bite: the voice is Bill Days of the Sportsmen quartet, Avery's go-to guys for spot-on vocal harmony.)
 Edward G. Robinson-esque Eskimo obliges the request.
 The landscape dreamily dissolves to the florid fields of Virginia.
 Singer is dropped off at his desired destination.
 He's happy. Good for him he didn't choose Alabama.
 Fade to black.
This jettisoned bit is one of the more clever moments in Detouring America--a rare example of a dividend from Avery's literal humor. The gag might have worked just as well with a white character; it's a pity this un-PC but inspired sequence has been wiped out of most prints of the film.

Next, we visit the redwood valleys of the Southwest, with another multiplane shot, scored to Wagner by Stallings:
Narrator explains that these California redwood trees are cut and floated down-river to make "the homes of tomorrow."
 Avery loved traffic metaphors. Give him an intersection, of any kind, and this tends to occur:
The inevitable dogs-and-trees business (a gag that had to be explained to me as a kid; we only had cats in our household) is quick to follow.
Narrator tells us we're about to see "a typical specimen of an American prairie dog."
Accuracy FAIL. Actual prairie dog:
That said, Avery bends the rules of nature in order to make "the dog joke:"
These are rare Avery-designed characters for this period of his career. It's a welcome sight to have his Deco-ized balloon animals back on the screen.
 POV binoculars bit, in which the dog scans past the tree, then back on it with a vengeance.
 Great exaggerated takes and body language, all which forecast the '40s cartoon vibe:
"TIMBER!" shouts Mel Blanc...
 ...and the eager, pee-filled mutts dash into the distance (in decent perspective animation).
Got that out of the way. Now we return to the locale and activity of Avery's debut Schlesinger cartoon, Gold Diggers of '49. Apropos of this, the prospector character shows sure signs of Avery's hand in its design.
 Another multiplane set-up, combined with narrator's blah-blah, sets the scene...
 The Tex Avery reaction to finding sudden wealth: Step One...
 Step Two!
Mel Blanc delivers a whispered performance as Prospector, Grizzled Ol', beseeches us to his confidence. He's "found it... at last..."
 In a nanosecond, dozens of gold-diggers join the scene, to the miner's chagrin.
Back to the sustaining thread of this here cartoon...
"One false move means certain death!"
Dissolve-as-clever-visual-metaphor: we transition to the casual gravity-defiance of these "cliff-dwelling Indians," including this nonchalant stroller:
No dialogue; no obvious gag... just a character in touch with the impossible.

"Picturesque are the Sioux Indians of South Dakota."
"And, of course, the medicine man has his patients."
Elderly figure takes eons to walk into the tepee. The backgrounds now begin to resemble what we'll see in the M-G-M cartoons of the mid-1940s.
 (gurgling SFX)
Not quite what was expected, despite the tip-off of that signage.
We're staying on this Native American kick.
Now we see a clear example of, er, papoose abuse.
 Mother attempts to wean leviathan son from back-breaking ritual.
 Mel Blanc: AW, MAW, I DON'T WANT TO GET OFF!!! (bawls)
We're not done yet.

"The Indian snake dance!"
 Back to our A-story: he's 80 stories up. "What an iron nerve!"
You already know what's going to happen here.
Thank heavens for those naturally-occurring spittoons.
 Fauna Dept: Heavy Disney-school atmosphere, as narrator lays it on thick...
 "... a timid little fawn... the meekness of this fellow arouses only sympathy..."
 "... as it shyly approaches the back door of a cabin, in search of food."
 Again, the gag is self-evident:
 Blanc: "Hey, in dere!"
 "How about a handout?"
Fade to black, and let's wrap this one up...
 Narrator notes Butter Finger's successful ascent of the skyscraper.
 "He's made it! What a thrill!"
 Would the daredevil "like to say a word to your friends in the audience?"
Nominated for an Academy Award, Detouring America's success led Avery and crew further down thie perilous path of topical spot-gag cartoons. No doubt, many of this cartoon's gag sequences went down well with 1939 audiences, as the surprise element hadn't yet been flogged to death.

This official citation may have led to other cartoon studios adopting this spot-gag approach. Many of those efforts--particularly those from the Walter Lantz and Columbia cartoon studios--make Detouring America look like a masterpiece.

This is Avery in sleepwalk-mode. There are clever moments here, plus solid, assured staging and increasingly slick animation. But there is little here that sticks. The best sequences are those that least call attention to themselves--the cliff-walking Indian, or the mosquito in the Everglades. A gruesome inevitability clings to these gags. The humor, from Avery's end, seems to be in how he can inflict these silly, corny bits of business on his audience. 

No one could get away with this sleight-of-hand, carpet-tugging school of comedy for too long. Already the charm is fast fading. 

This said, one can see the first glimmers of the M-G-M Tex Avery mindset here: relentless medleys of very familiar songs, to telegraph the mood and setting to the audience; the contrast of dead-pan and grotesque 'take' reactions to turns of fate; the desire to turn the Disney Way on its ear (while, irony noted, making use of its more sophisticated animation credo). 

* (Grumpy people take note: my reactions to some of the deliberately dreadful puns in this, and in forthcoming spot-gag examinations, is meant to be in the spirit of the film-maker's intention. He wants us to groan, and that is, perhaps. the key to enjoying these cartoons.)

NEXT: A welcome change to a familiar format: Land of the Midnight Fun.

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