Friday, December 12, 2008

Hollywood glimpse

We will take just a glimpse at the famed Hollywood cartoons of Warner Brothers. I don't have any "official" followers to my blogs but I do know they're being read because they're sent to several e-mail addresses upon publishing. For those who read the blog's I write here in the Animation section it may come across that I'm more into Hanna-Barbera cartoons than anything else. I tend to write more about those cartoons because they're easier to write about...it's tougher to write about Warner Brothers cartoons because a lot of them use pop-culture references, catch-phrases, and slang phrases and it's more of a chore explaining what things mean or who's who in a Warner Brothers cartoon...so this is why I've not written much about the famous characters of Warner Brothers.

However, in this particular blog, I'm going to briefly highlight some Hollywood cartoons. This is old Hollywood...back when being a movie star was looked up at...something to aspire to be...nowadays Hollywood is more or less a wasteland, except for a very, very few who still go there because of their acting aspirations and not for the perks that being in Hollywood can bring someone. I am sure even then there were those who went there looking for kicks...listen or watch any Dragnet episode for examples of the bad side of Tinseltown...but for the most part, the personalities booming from Hollywood were almost always larger-than-life and in some cases manufactured for profit. There's always been the stories of how screen tough guys were really sensitive nice guys off-camera...plus there's also been the stories of how the celebrities known for being nice and charming are callous jerks off-camera. So, don't mistake my commentary as being too glossy...I'm just saying there's a definite difference between the Hollywood of 2008 and the Hollywood of 1938.

So, now, here's my little look back at Hollywood cartoons. As Portland Hoffa would inquire to a hurried Fred Allen... "shall we go?"

The cartoon that always gets the most votes as the best Hollywood spoof is the 1941 release, "Hollywood Steps Out". In this cartoon, directed by Tex Avery, huge super-stars of that era were caricatured in a night-club setting. I will not even begin to compile a definitive cast-list but let's just say there are well over 40 celebrities spoofed in this cartoon. The plot of the cartoon is simple...the action goes from table to table, most of the dialogue is based on the catch-phrases of the time period and references to movies and radio programs. In addition to this, there are segments that feature Bing Crosby acting as host of a revue program where he introduces the likes of Leopold who conducts a Conga number...causing several of the celebrities to get into a line-dance. Later, the scene shifting back to the center stage, we see Bing introduce a bubble dancer named Sally Strand...a pun on Sally Rand. In a bit of irony, at the start of the cartoon, Rand's actual name is mentioned by the hat-check lady...but it's been said that because Rand didn't want her dance used for the cartoon, the writers had to refer to her as Sally Strand when they introduced the bubble dance segment. This remains one if not the only best-remembered Hollywood cartoon out of the several that were released.

Goofy Groceries is a 1941 Bob Clampett cartoon short where celebrities and famous characters come to life from food items. There are several celebrities spoofed...most notably Jack Benny in the form of Jack Bunny. He is the focal point of the cartoon...which includes a send-up of King Kong where a gorilla busts loose from a box of animal crackers. Ned Sparks is parodied as a crab, spoofing his crabby personality in his movies. Superman is even spoofed...he pops off of a comic book and hollers "HEY YOU!!!" at the escaped gorilla...to which the gorilla sneers: "yeeeaaahhhh????". This growl of intensity causes Superman to turn into a baby, literally, crying. Meanwhile, the gorilla sets off a rampage of horror and Jack Bunny hops on a horse and it's proclaimed "Buck Benny Rides Again", a reference to Jack Benny's western character. In the end of the cartoon, Jack Bunny becomes the victim of an explosion...the gorilla handed him a stick of dynomite. After the explosion, Jack Bunny appears black-face, with a voice like Eddie Anderson, the actor who played Rochester the butler on Jack Benny's radio and TV show.

In The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos from 1937, directed by Frank Tashlin, we see more caricatures of Hollywood radio personalities than movie stars. The start of the cartoon features a caricature of Alexander Woolcott as Owl Cott, ringing the bell welcoming everyone to the production. Ben Bernie, under the name of Ben Birdie, hosts the program. He is met with heckles from a caricature of Walter Winchell called Walter Finchell, a radio and newspaper commentator. Milton Berle is parodied as Mr Squirrel in a bit part. The radio duo known as The Happiness Boys are brought out to sing the cartoon's theme song. On the cartoon Billy Jones and Ernie Hare a/k/a The Happiness Boys, are turned into Billy Goat and Ernie Bear and they sing their own song "How Do Ya Do" before launching into "The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos...Cuckoos...Cuckoos...oh the Woods Are Full of Cuckoos and my heart is filled with love...". Looking back, Ernie Hare could've been portrayed as a rabbit...but I suppose he was turned into a bear for the cartoon because they couldn't use the real names of the celebrities they were spoofing. Fred Allen is portrayed on the cartoon as a fox...the person he's with is an obvious parody of his co-star wife, Portland Hoffa. In a joke about Fred's censorship problems and the network interference with his shows, the fox is intentionally singing the wrong song...singing "Swanee River" instead of the cartoon's theme. Hoffa tells him he's singing the wrong song and he hollers: "Why doesn't somebody tell me these things???". Jack Benny is parodied in this cartoon as well. He and Mary Livingstone, who ironically doesn't have her name spoofed, and Andy Devine whose name is spoofed as Andy Bovine, appear together in a whimsical and brief send-up of plays presented by Louella Possums, based on gossiper Louella Parsons.

In Speaking of the Weather we re-visit the concept of magazine and store items coming to life with celebrity spoofs. This cartoon short debuted in 1937 and it features a villain hopping from magazine to magazine. Each magazine features a pun on it's title. LIFE, LOOK, and other magazine titles. There aren't as many celebrity spoofs in this one as there were in the others that were released. Hugh Herbert is featured plenty of times in this...hand-clapping...woo-hooing. Ned Sparks makes an appearance...chomping on what looks to be a cigarette holder. Leopold conducts a symphonic interlude...yanking and pulling on his white hair in rhythm prior to turning around and singing out loud "speaking of the weather..." in a German accent which I think is provided by Paul Frees...it sounds like Boris Badenov. The villain escapes from a magazine and a judge sentences him to LIFE. Get it? Dick Powell makes an appearance as The Thin Man. Clark Gable, Greta Garbo, and others make sight-gag appearances. It's a music-driven short...with the emphasis on the music.

In a more obscure entry, Have You Got Any Castles, from 1938, we see a very realistic looking drawing of radio personality Alexander Woolcott, the host of a show called "The Town Crier". The character appears in much the same way he often appears...ringing his bell with his "here ye, here ye..." catch-phrase. Aside from Woolcott, the rest of the characters that appear are exaggerated/spoofy in appearance. There are several scenes in this cartoon that are considered racist and network TV edited out several of the scenes to make the cartoon look like a mish-mash of nonsense. The Alexander Woolcott scenes at the top and bottom of the cartoon were edited out...later, the scenes involving the black/African-American singers were removed including the caricature of Cab Calloway who sang "I've Got Swing For Sale" on the cartoon. Another scene that was deleted was the Rip Van Winkle segment where he borrows/steals the scissors from "The Valiant Little Tailor" to cut the hair off Uncle Tom to use as ear-plugs during Calloway's singing because it's interrupting his sleep...but there's also the theory that it's a slam against the style of music Calloway was famous for, which was very different than the crooner-pop style that was preferred by the masses at the time. Tom gets his revenge later on by cutting off Van Winkle's beard. There's another scene involving Mr Bojangles...which, that too, was deleted/edited out for TV. The full and complete cartoons without the edits are found on the various Looney Tunes DVD Golden collections.

She Was An Acrobat's Daughter is another Hollywood cartoon, released in 1937 under the direction of Friz Freleng, which goes in a similar pattern with The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos in that the cast is animal-based. The plot of She Was An Acrobat's Daughter simply spoofs the theater business and it's patrons. Annoying instances of people who want to get up and go to the restroom or go get a refreshment is spotlighted as a hippo manages to excuse himself several times "pardon...pardon...pardon..." as he makes his way down the row of seats. Lowell Thomas, a famous newscaster of the era, is spoofed as Dole Promise. Newsreel personality Lew Lehr is parodied in a funny segment called "Nit Wit News", under the name of Who Dehr, a German spoof. In an earlier cartoon that I'm not featuring in this blog, The Film Fan, Porky Pig goes to a free matinee and while at the theatre up on the screen Lowell is spoofed again but as Cold Promise. Meanwhile, getting back to She Was An Acrobat's Daughter, a piano pushes up from the floor at the theatre and the pianist invites the audience to sing "she was an acrobat's daughter...". The main attraction is a spoof of Bette Davis and Leslie Howard's 1936 movie "The Petrified Forest"...called "The Petrified Florist". In the send-up, Howard's character delivers a gibberish version of Mary Had a Little Lamb, somewhat close to spoonerism where words are deliberately re-arranged like "Larry mad a hittle wamb" for example. A duck father and son become the focal point near the end as the son is constantly asking his father "why'd he say that, daddy? does he like her, daddy? can I have more popcorn, daddy...". The boy duck then wanders into the movie projection room and gets caught in the movie projector.

Lastly we have CooCoo Nut Grove which, released in 1936, served as the inspiration for a whole lot of usage on The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos of 1937 right down to the same caricatures of celebrities. Ben Birdie is back conducting the woodland band. In this adaptation, the action is set inside an actual club...parodying the Cocoanut Grove club...in a more cartoonish version of what would become Hollywood Steps Out by Tex Avery in 1941. In this CooCoo cartoon, several Hollywood movie stars are spoofed. Mae West is caricatured as a canary I do believe...maybe a chicken...I know W.C. Fields liked to use the phrase "chick-a-dee" a lot. George Arliss is spoofed as a turtle. He and Mae West are shown dancing together. Walter Winchell, called Walter Windpipe on here, is on hand to heckle Ben Bernie's caricature. John Barrymore is caricatured as "the profile of profiles". Gary Cooper is caricatured...being drunk. Ned Sparks is here... "i go everywhere, i do everything, i never have any fun". Laurel and Hardy are shown in a sight gag sipping on coconut juice. Edna Mae Oliver is shown doing some sort of dance...to which Clark Gable's ears flap approvingly. Helen Morgan sings a love ballad...causing everyone to start crying...including tough guys Edward G Robinson and George Raft...her song is filled with so much emotion that her crying, plus the crying from everyone else, floods the restaurant...Arliss makes use of his turtle shell as he's shown swimming on his back as the cartoon comes to and end with Ben Birdie telling everyone "cheerio, pip-pip, au revioir, and a goody goodnight".

This concludes the look at the Hollywood cartoons. My descriptions are nowhere near the amount of fun you'll have watching them. There's so many celebrity and pop-culture references in those cartoons that you'll catch something different each and everytime you watch.

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