Tuesday, November 7, 2017

A Gander at Mother Goose Is Fine in Small Doses

Release date: 5/25/1940 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 5 DVD set, Disc 2

You may view the complete version of this cartoon HERE.

Life has kept me away from this blog, and my quixotic goal of completing it. At the rate I'm going, it may be 2025 before I'm finished--assuming that blogs, the free Internet and my sanity still exist at that future date.

A Gander at Mother Goose and its successor, Circus Today, are the calm before the creative storm for Mr. Avery. After these spot-gag efforts, his next work will change the rules of Hollywood animation--to the extent that the film, seen out of context, might not pass as anything special to the casual viewer. And you're not the casual viewer, or else you'd be looking for expensive sneakers on eBay instead of visiting this blog. So welcome to this obscure, toasty corner of the world.

A jolly swing-tinged arrangement of "Mutiny in the Nursery," the Harry Warren/Johnny Mercer collaboration that first showed up in the 1938 film Going Places, leads us into the cartoon proper--after, of course, a rare appearance by the rainbow-rings WB logo:
A thing of beauty.
 Avery tosses his first spitball into the balcony.
Robert C. Bruce, the long-suffering, ever-patient father figure who chaperones us for most of Avery's spot-gag pictures, chimes in with some warm, reassuring twaddle about turning back the pages of time and reliving cherished memories of our collective childhood days. Lovely but deceptive images back up this bogus introduction, as do Stalling's syrupy strings.

The narrator's hand reaches into the scene to turn the pages on each spot-gag Avery and his crew will assault us with for the next six minutes and change. Mercifully short, A Gander is one of the most agreeable of the spot-gag cartoons.
First boffo laff: the proto-Wacky Packages garbage-filled garden. It's already a given that "Mistress Mary" will do a Katherine Hepburn impersonation. It's impossible to watch these cartoons without predicting every nook and cranny--a testament to how indelibly they've etched their message into American pop-culture. 

Asked "how does your garden grow," the inevitable reply is beautifully animated:
 "I'm so terribly sorry..."
 "but confidentially... it stinks!"
 One down, ten to go.
We know it's Humpty Dumpty at the first peek of that foot and that wall.
 Bruce doesn't complete the rhyme. The rubbery animation of the egg is the joy here.
 "Heh heh; didn't even hurt me," Mel Blanc as Humpty chuckles.
 We have a reprise of the closing gag from Avery's previous cartoon, The Bear's Tale.
Up next: Jack and Jill, the hill and that pail.
Jack and Jill's medium shot is a showpiece of the lush-yet-grotesque end-of-decade Hollywood animation style. It's a huge improvement over the symmetrical circle-based characters of a few years prior, and it's almost there. It's a fascinating period for animation. Within three years, every studio will have nailed the style. Anyway: Jack and Jill.
 They go up the hill, in search of water.
 Jack fails to tumble down and break his crown. Narrator Bruce repeats the cue line with audible irritation. Stalling's music is a progression of dissonant, nightmarish chords as Bruce reiterates.
A dishevelled Jack runs towards us and chucks the pail.
 "Huh huh huh huh... tha heck with thuh water!" The kiss prints only show in Jack's close-up.
 And back up the hill he goes.
Little Miss Muffet's next. Every time I see this cartoon, I keep wishing that the reveal was Muffet as Groucho Marx. But that's for another Avery cartoon...
 No input needed; images tell all. Muffet's shrug pose really has that 1940 look and feel.
Next is the highlight of this cartoon--the truth revealed about The Big Bad Wolf! By this time, Avery begins to shed the ritual of the cartoon. For "The Three Little Pigs," there's no sing-song rhyme to call upon--just the stock situation, familiar to late 1930s audiences from the still-resonant Disney cartoon of 1933...
The wolf looks much like the wolf in Avery's 1937 Little Red Walking Hood; the pigs look like they came out of a Friz Freleng cartoon.
Mel Blanc's vocal performance as the Big Bad Wolf pulls out all the stops--hoarse, roaring voice, manipulation of loose jowls and lips to create funny sounds and a masterful reading of these lines the audience knows by heart.

 Pigs' facial expressions can be read in more than one way...
 Wolf's eager leer suggests he intends to devour his prey ASAP.
 Instead, he gets a bottle of "Histerine" mouthwash (mis-spelled "Histor... in the long shots).
 Of course, that rank carniverous breath would be offensive! 
 The "Histerine" contents slosh menacingly under layers of airbrush.
 Wolf refers to the product's "why don't some people tell me these things?" angle, as sort-of seen in the 1922 magazine ad above...
The subtle distortions in this scene's animation are impressive. We see the onset of Avery's 1940s exaggeration, but with a weight and contour he would discard in a few years.
If you've ever swallowed mouthwash, you'll recoil at this moment. I suppose it would have been too much to show the wolf gargling and spitting the fouled liquid into the bushes.
And we fade to black, breaking with the reassuring hand-opening-new-pages motif.
It's a stale gag, anyhow--recycled from Avery's earlier spot-gagger, Detouring America:
 Parade of the wooden soldiers; such precision; cut to out-of-whack rubbery leg movement.
And the hand's back. Why that fade, then? This moment proves that it wasn't impossible to have two discrete layers of movement going at once. (shrugs, a la Miss Muffet)
Up next is another moment of beauty--for a rare glimpse of almost pure Avery drawing style in the dog character, especially in his profile shots. That 'bundle of balloons' construction shows up in Avery's earlier WB cartoons and returns, with a vengeance, in the cartoons M-G-M released in 1945-1949. Avery sat on his style, perhaps to allow the animators room to improve their art and craft, or possibly because he had someone else draw his finished layouts from his instruction. (shrugs again; eye cold bowl of porridge with disdain)
 "Store loit, store broit... heh heh..."
 Part of the joy is that we know what he's wishing for.
Dog's autistic glee is utterly delightful. He got exactly what he wished for. Obvious as a gag, it's rhapsodic as an action.
 How those fire-engine red hearts pop against that royal blue night sky! Ah, Technicolor...
Jack Be Nimble gag pairs with Humpty Dumpty in its Disney-esque injury to the ass motif. Fluid character animation goes way off model from drawing to drawing, but coheres as an animated whole. Mel Blanc uses a voice not far away from a certain grey rabbit.
Notice the radical change in Jack's face from pose to pose. This might've been done straight-ahead. The scene's movement is dynamic and subtle.
 One glimpse of the giant boot and the manic baby and we know where we are...
To play with Photoshop's Auto Align Layers tool, I've created this monstrous assembled pan shot. The camera moves make it impossible to create an entirely even image, but here's a vast span of lavish background work.
Deadbeat dad acknowledges us with a wink and wave.
We're in the home stretch.
The story of Hiawatha offers another chance to parody a more recent Disney effort. The cartoon's first dissolve occurs here. Dissolves will continue for the rest of this brief affair.
So wrapped up in quoting his Robert Louis Stevenson poem is Hiawatha that he doesn't notice the bald eagle hovering into the film frame.
 The third and final injury-to-tush gag in this six minutes and some-odd seconds.
Unlike impact or candle scorching, this arrow-sourced injury seems to hurt. The eagle rubs the affected area and stalks off-screen.
Strains of "Silent Night" as an atmospheric multiplane night scene smooths by, sweet-talked by Bruce's reassuring voice.
Avery lets the background artist do the heavy lifting, and the cozy winter atmosphere is most convincing.
 "Not a creature was stirring..."
 Save for a couple of Freleng-esque mice.
Mouse #2's feeble, gentle "Merry Christmas" is beautifully animated. We feel the rodent's sincere message of hope and happiness.
Mouse #1 recognizes a clear violation of this admixture of yuletide tropes.
 That sublime shock on his face...
 hands clamp his mouth too late to help.
And an I-gotta-pee stance adds to the poor creature's wish to implode, as the iris imprisons, then obliterates him.
If my tone has seemed brusque and impatient, it's because I'm eager to get through the next cartoon in this project--after that lies a cartoon I've always wanted to write about in depth. But another spot-gag cartoon is my penance before I get to the really, really good film. So be it.

There's nothing wrong with A Gander at Mother Goose--except that decades of familiarity have wiped its slate of the element of surprise. We still marvel at the labor, expense and TLC that went into its hand-drawn animation; the sophistication of Carl Stalling's score and Avery's inter-dependence on its familiar cues to shore up his parade of stale-on-purpose routines.

As a work of mechanics, it's streamlined, smooth and it exudes a cool confidence. Avery's hand as director is sure. He's spinning his wheels in these spot-gag cartoons, and we haven't seen the end of them yet. He continued them at M-G-M, though the trend was halted for a few years after the dreadful Batty Baseball (1944)--a cartoon worth remembering only for its opening gag, an inspired moment that the studio ruined by plastering a title card before the film's intended pre-credit fade-in.

Spot gag routines were a waste of Avery's time and worth. He invented the format (with its essential straight-faced narrator) and made a few strong cartoons with this idea, but by 1940 the promise of this string-of-pearls presentation had been mined for just about everything of worth. Why he stuck with them is anyone's guess. They required more work than a straighforward narrative. New character designs and backgrounds were needed for each vignette; difficult scenes to sell a joke added to the workload of his animators. All this effort to push a bit of business that, by its very nature, is intended to make the viewer crease his brow and wince! 

Well, it's another stale sack of gagola, and then I'll get to A Wild Hare. Eventually.

UP NEXT: More gagola grist--Circus Today.


  1. Definitely agreed, nothing spectacular, but not one of the worst shorts. It could have been easily stretched out for another minute with additional nursery rhymes to parody, but that would have probably made the short less enjoyable.

    BTW, release date wise, Circus Today should come next (unfortunately).

  2. This has always been my personal favorite Avery spot-gag just for how...banal it is. Every gag is typical (he LOVED those tree gags), no new ground has been broken and feels like Avery going thru the motions (a problem that would plague his ...Of Tomorrow shorts), but along with Holiday Highlights (another favorite), the animation is top notice.

    Glad to see you're doing better Frank. You're almost to the finish line, just hold out!

  3. Frank, this blog provides a valuable service, and I'm happy whenever you have a chance to work on it. I'm very interested to read about Avery's evolution as a director and you've provided some intelligent, well-thought-out analysis.

    Some of Avery's spot-gaggers aren't strong (Aviation Vacation, anyone?) but they're not as bad as the ones churned out at Lantz or Columbia.

  4. Glad to see you back, pal! I have a soft spot in my heart for Tex's spot-gag cartoons, probably because WNEW in NYC only ran them on Sundays, before, during, & after "Wonderama". I remember many cozy Sundays laughing out loud at the bad jokes (& asking my Dad to explain the more dated references). Your take on this one is right on the money, especially regarding the beauty of the layouts & backgrounds. Welcome back!

  5. One thing conspicious by absence:
    the time-honored running gag in these kinds of shorts....SC

  6. Mel has kind of, sort of used a bit of the Bronx-Brooklyn voice in the first Count Screwloose cartoon over at MGM, and even after Tex took Jack's voice here and wrapped it in a bunny suit, he'd put in in the body of fox for Avery's first go-round with Willoughby a few months later (and Friz would also use it for a fox character at the end of the year, in "Porky's Hired Hand", where in neither case are we supposed to root for that character.

    Having a character with that Bronx-Brooklyn voice who wasn't set up to be overconfident and get his comeuppance was one of the main breakthroughs Tex had, going from a guy we laughed at because his keister was on fire in "Gander" to a character we rooted for, using the same voice and confident persona just two cartoons later).

  7. And I'm also glad to see you're getting better too..SC