Thursday, February 4, 2016

Land of the Midnight Fun: Smooth Sailing on a Ship of Fools

Release date: 9/23/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: as an extra on the Warners Home Video DVD of Allegheny Uprising.

You may view the uncensored version of this cartoon (with Cartoon Network logo) HERE.

Here's something to be happy about: A Tex Avery travelogue spot-gag cartoon that's funny, well thought-out, and beautifully drawn.

Land of the Midnight Fun feels like the result of a Termite Terrace think-tank session, in which the goal was to make one of these popular topical gag cartoons with clarity, solvency and some genuine wit. By sticking to one narrative incident (a cruise to Alaska), rather than a shotgun-spray of unconnected gags. LotMF is cohesive, appealing and endearing. Though Avery never depended on a strong narrative, it surely doesn't hurt him. Having a sturdy foundation upon which to gag, and confound the viewer, is common to his best early cartoons.

Yes, there are some bad puns--those poor-on-purpose items that are part of the spirit of these spot-gaggers. But Avery is wise enough, from the experience of having made a few of these, to let his natural comedic and cinematic inclinations steer this ship.

The title sequence announces something out of the norm:
Thanks to these original titles' survival, we start this cartoon with a pleasant surprise. This cartoon contains some of the most elaborate and pleasing visual content of any Avery film. From its well-chosen color palette to its impressive and ambitious effects animation, LotMF seems inspired by the similar (and usually better-done) efforts in Disney's animation.

Robert Bruce is back again as narrator. His role is wisely used throughout. His comments and observations are always in service of the story, and snark is non-existent.
"From New York harbor, we take you on an educational cruise to the Far North--the land of the midnight sun." To Carl Stalling's familiar nautical choice, "We're Shovin' Right Off Again." and bustling scenes of dockside industry, innocent viewers might for a moment believe
 this cartoon was going to play it straight...
 "With ample supplies, and eager to sail, we board that monarch of the high seas..."
 "The S. S. Wrecks."

This is a gentle-but-funny parting note--as of now, the viewer realizes that though this looks serious, it is not in any way. Bruce emphasizes the syllables of "S. S. Wrecks" much in the way that David Letterman, 50+ years later, would carefully read certain words for audience impact. Like Avery, Letterman loved gags that seemed self-deflating, with the attempt of selling them to the audience as tho' they were award-winning stuff.

Bruce gamely narrates on: "The whistle blows..."
(It says "all aboard," via a microphone focused on a speaker's throat, and filtered through the primitive technology of the day.)
 Big band-leader Alvino Rey used a similar gadget for his slightly creepy mascot, "Stringy, the Talking Guitar." And, of course, it's used in Dumbo (1941) and other animated films.  Avery never embraced gimmicks for their novelty value. This device is used in service of getting a laugh, and no attention is drawn to the effect proper.
 "Up comes the anchor..."
One of the better examples of Avery's literal humor.

"And we're on our way..."
Avery was the cartoons' master of playful visual metaphor. I've compared this aspect of his comedy to French film-maker Jacques Tati in prior posts. What could be a stock shot of a ship launch becomes human comedy, as the vessel lurches out of its dock space like a driving-school student trying to impress the instructor. 
"Steaming out of the harbor, we pass a little... ferry boat..."
 Its whistle "woo woo"s with a mild effeminate attitude.
"Being a new and treacherous course, the captain thought it best 
to follow the coastline."
Diagram dissolves to a wonderfully sensual piece of animation,
as the Wrecks hugs the coastline like a cat in heat, It's funny 
because it's so persistent. The ship caresses the contours of
the Northeastern coast for all it's worth.
"The third day out found us 2,000 miles closer to our goal."
 This is beautiful work. The use of the painted ship, in stark perspective,
against those foam-capped waves, with that deep blue water... it's 
hypnotizing. The level of craft is so much improved in the Schlesinger
studio's animation and effects. Such a shot (admittedly, a throwaway)
would have been unimaginable even two years earlier.
 "These waters are truly a fisherman's paradise..."
 Bruce rhapsodizes about the sight of barracudas...
 tuna... (do you sense that a table is about to be turned?)
 and, ahem, salmon.
This is a dumb joke made funny by its set-up. The elaborate
underwater FX, and fairly realistic animation of
various fish, again causes us to let our guard down. We are
amply rewarded! Carl Stalling uses another sea standby, 
"Over the Waves."

We now pause for a rather racy bit of business:
 "What's this? Someone shipwrecked!"
"Throw him a line!" Bruce cries to the sailor, in a subtle fusion of pre-existing
material (the filmed voyage) and post-production (Bruce's narration).
 Tar does as told, and we see and hear the ship's brakes screech like a
'37 LaFayette Business Coupe.
 But all is not what it seems...
 Gent is vexed...
 hurls life ring back, with attendant distortion in the animation...
 and reveals that he's here on purpose.
Bruce is speechless as we fade out. (This lack of comment
shows great restraint on Avery's part. It would have been so 
easy to make some quip here, and that would have
de-valued the entire sequence.)

"The fourth day out, the sea became a bit choppy..."
And, before we are able to absorb Bruce's extreme under-statement:
 "Many of the passengers made the entire trip by rail."
Once again, first-rate effects animation and atmosphere provide a
subtle contrast to the narrator's under-statements. This finesse,
as before, makes a slight joke more amusing. Note the limited color
palette that emerges here--a variety of blue-greys, accented with
earth tones and chrome yellow. In an era when Technicolor ran
riot, and curious color choices are seen in many Hollywood cartoons,
this level of order and control is quite agreeable and compelling.
"Later, giant icebergs begin to make their appearance."
The LA joke--pertaining to the city's penchant for over-expansion--is still timely. The ice-cream vendor always brings a smile to my face--the sheer incongruity of it all!

Bruce informs us that "passage would be impossible," in this frozen land, "without the aid of these ships, called ice-breakers..."
 Again, Avery's literal wit works well. 
 Looks like a tedious job!
 "...we at last reach the end of our voyage..."
"Nome, Alaska."
We're not quite halfway through this film. This is unusual for one of these spot-gag
cartoons... but, as said before, this is an intelligent re-think of this format, and much
appreciated. (Gag sign anticipates several similar moments in Avery's M-G-M films.)
 "The skipper docks the ship..."
 Parallel parking, no less!
"We drop anchor..."
 No lie!

"The gang-plank down..."
"The people off..."

and we segue into a short suite of "varied camera-studies of life
in the frozen wastes of Alaska." These topical sight-gags are
customary to this-type cartoon, and funnier
than one might expect.
 Eskimo returns home in kayak...
 ...wriggles into igloo...
 "Let's go in and watch him."
Eskimo's intense focus on this cramped fish-fry
proves most amusing.

"Chickens are not rare in Alaska..."
 And what would animated cartoons be without them, period?
 Mother hen clucks to us "Gee, it's cold..."
 A grotesque visual, in so many ways...
"Here's a little duck who forgot to fly south."
In this visual twin of the kayak bit, we see a sudden burst of Tex Avery's cartooning style in the duck's stuck-up profile. It's always a pleasure to see his drawing come through the house style.
Again, complex FX animation adds to the overall impact.
Back to the Eskimos...
 "Kissing among Eskimo lovers is unknown."
 "Instead, they rub noses."
 This is the kind of gag Frank Tashlin would later make the big
bucks doing in live-action. Elegant animation and character design
helps put over a genuinely funny concept...
Note wet, squeaky sound effect of their love-making.
Man's reaction anticipates much Avery madness to come...
Getting away with as much as possible under the blue nose of the censors.
 "With no other means of transportation, dog teams are a necessity."
 So are telephone poles. The pee-pause is beautifully timed.
And speaking of trees...
 "Here we show you an Alaskan timber wolf."
 This canine has found his joy in life...
 Avery's vocal performance as the "Timber!" shouting wolf is delightful.
 Aside to us:
 "Gee, this is silly."
 But he does not cease fire.

"Penguins live entirely on fish." 
The waddling fellow appears to be left over from last year's The Penguin Parade.
Pantomime comedy in full, assured form. With the considerable
help of Stalling's soundtrack, with its coy version of "While
Strolling Through the Park One Day" blended with his original
avant-garde sound-stabs, this is a predictable bit of business
made better than it really is. There's a certain kind of magic
to doing this--something many other cartoon directors did not possess.
"... we may as well take in this Eskimo nightclub--
for the nights are six months long."

The club's name is another triumph over the Hays Office.
They probably just thought it a non-sequitur.
The nightclub is a comedy ground-zero for Avery.
You know there are going to be curtains, too.
 An Inuit version of Sonja Heine (complete with dimples)
is the star of a musical climax that goes on a bit too long...
 ...but anticipates the dynamic staging of the song number
from the M-G-M gem, Red Hot Riding Hood (1943).
Here's a shot of Norwegian skating champ Heine, so you can
see the resemblance.
Set to the Victorian favorite "The Kiss Waltz," this is nicely
animated, altho' it smacks of being time-filler.
 It's rotoscoped, but so was a lot of other 1939 animation.
 Gotta have that gam shot!
There--that takes care of the ooh-aah crowd. Back to funny stuff.
 "Wow--it's getting late!"
"Half past October? We must leave!"
 In a clever bit of thrift, three shots from earlier are filmed in reverse.
"And so, with heavy hearts, we bid a reluctant
farewell to the land of frozen splendor."
 The color scheme is vibrantly violated by a Tahitian-style sunset.
 " our ship puts out to sea, on that long, monotonous voyage
(tone lightens) back to little ol' New York!"
 "...we ran into a heavy fog our third day out."
The handling of the lights' reflection on the water is great.
It's a classy touch we didn't expect.
 "Five dismal, monotonous days pass..."
 "Then our able captain informs us...
that we are finally approaching the mouth of
New York harbor."

 The fog clears, and we get a World's Fair visual that is
one of Avery's classic "Chaplin-in-a-milk bottle" finales.

Land of the Midnight Fun is a pleasant surprise in the middle of a difficult period of transition for Tex Avery. It is arguably the best of his unit's spot-gag pictures, with a wry tone, gentler narrative flow and a handful of inspired moments. It is a relief to see a more deft, joyful touch on Avery's part. His animators are in transition, too, and the grace and visual appeal of the human characters is impressive. 

There seems to be an ambition here that is seldom present in Avery's other spot-gag films. With its elaborate special effects, judicious color palette and more droll humor, it is a sudden, giant step forward for the director and his unit. 

That progress will appear intermittently for the next year, as highs and lows pepper Avery's filmography. We view these films with frustration, in retrospect, because we know what's in Avery's near future. As films like this show, he was a skilled film-maker and a peerless comic mind. He knew how to get the best out of his crew, when the material was worthy of their talents. 

I hope the highly self-critical Avery was happy with this cartoon. It accentuates the positive from a troubled but innately talented human being.

Up next: (not-so) Fresh Fish.


  1. Outside of the Jones' unit's "Old Glory" and Chuck's other efforts to mimic Disney, the figure skating rotascoped sequence is really the last time we're asked to take a segment from a Warner Bros. cartoon seriously for a long, long time. In that way it hearkens back to a few years earlier, when the musical chorus in the Merrie Melodies were designed to push the music while deadening the comedy at the same time, but the level of comedy around it, as well as the drawing style, is so much better here than in the early and mid-30s.

  2. It was released via DVD as a feature for Aligheny Uprising.

    Thanks for great review.

  3. I'm going upload the DVD Dubbed Special Feature on Dailymotion.

  4. Interesting that you identify the rotoscoped "Kiss Waltz" sequence as smacking faintly of time-filler; I tend to agree, but its appearance and length at this stage in Avery's career (when the Schlesinger studio's house style, save for the anomalous late-30s efforts of the Chuck Jones unit, had largely evolved into a near-dichotomy to the softer and more visual-technique-centric Disney shorts of equivalent vintage, a move which Avery of course pioneered) is oddly conspicuous, particularly as Avery's presentation in interviews cuts an image of a meticulous and heavily time-efficient perfectionist and gag-builder (of which the sequence seemingly contains none), which, in light of its considerable length for a seven-minute short, doesn't exactly appear to be the type of sacrifice Avery would yield to without some conscious underlying reasoning. Although that reasoning behind it remains ambiguous (considering that Avery presumably had no studio producers looming over him to insert a popular WB song into the short as he almost certainly would have had to two or three years prior), I actually tend to wonder if the juxtaposition between its extended length/absence of gags and the relatively brisk pace of the short's remaining blackout gags is a subtle comic inclusion in itself (a support to the 'six-month nights' gag, in which the abrupt deceleration in the short's pace reflects the length of time the 'travelers' would be forced to spend within it) whilst additionally providing a pallet-cleanser for the audience as a buildup to the 'weighter' ending gag of the cruise ship marooned precariously atop the Big Apple's skyline). Alternatively, you could also argue that the sequence's purpose serves the above two theories in a mutual way - by allowing the audience to relax their guard and relate slightly to the long polar winters in a less comedic manner than the norm for Avery's style (possibly to reflect the more tranquil and beautiful elements of the poles), the short's setting is grounded a little more into reality, which enables Avery's playfully cavalier smashing of this reality in the ending gag more effective and surprising, particularly to the relatively Disney-inundated audiences of 1939 - or simply a technical stretch for the Avery unit's animators and resources in handling rotoscoped sequences (it's not entirely perfect, but Lee is correct in its improvements over Harman-Ising rubberhose or the stiff, lumpen figures of the mid-30s Freleng Merrie Melodies), but I honestly wouldn't be entirely sure if the sequence itself was entirely composed as filler (at least not unconsciously) considering both its unusual parameters and Avery's style indicating otherwise.

    Or maybe I'm simply reading far too deeply into the mechanics of what's intended as a fun, breezily sardonic seven minutes. Flattery'll get me nowhere.