Monday, 4 August 2014

Variations on a theme, working backwards in time

Fans of classic Warner Brothers cartoons might observe that Isadore "Friz" Freleng was quite fond of re-using gags and story ideas, often transplanting them onto different characters. (See my earlier post on "Curtain Razor") Here is another example, his 1957 cartoon "Bugsy and Mugsy".

Bugsy and Mugsy:

In this short, Bugs is living under the floorboards of bank robbers Rocky and Mugsy's latest hideout. Throughout the cartoon, he tries to convince Rocky that his dim-witted sidekick Mugsy is smarter than he looks, and is trying to kill Rocky and take the stolen loot for himself. As the two crooks beat each other up, Bugs alerts the cops to their presence (which Rocky blames Mugsy for, continuing their fight even in the back of the police car). Why does Bugs do this? Just out of a sense of justice, it would appear. The two gangsters don't actually threaten Bugs in any way - they have no idea he's there - but he feels the need to turn the two criminals in. As they are established as Bad Guys at the beginning we don't seem to mind when Bugs starts playing mind-games on them unprovoked. Well... we don't feel too bad for Rocky. Mugsy is so clueless you've got to feel bad for the befuddled guy, being constantly beaten up for things he hasn't done.

Freleng had already used most of the same plot elements before, in 1950's "Stooge for a Mouse".

Stooge for a Mouse:

Sylvester The Cat - (Ep. 20) - Stooge For A Mouse by cartoonNetworks

This earlier version has an all-animal cast. A mouse takes the role later played by Bugs, with Sylvester the cat in Mugsy's role and a bulldog named Mike in Rocky's. Mike and Sylvester are much friendlier with each other than Rocky and Mugsy would be, and neither is portrayed as being particularly villainous, so I think more audiences would sympathise with them than with the gangsters in the later cartoon. One notable difference is that Sylvester and Mike *are* a threat to the mouse, and so he has more of a personal reason to plot against them. Does his make him more sympathetic, or less so because he appears less selfless than Bugs in the later cartoon? (Notice that in "Stooge for a Mouse", he, not the characters he plots against, is described as a robber) Some audiences may automatically side against Sylvester, recognising him from other cartoons where he comes across as a villain... but Sylvester was often portrayed as a hapless victim or even as a hero in other cartoons, so we can take our pick really.

Well, it doesn't matter who you root for because the end result is that all three characters are knocked unconscious, with an ironic "Home Sweet Home" sign falling behind them. There is less of a straightforward "good guys win through pluck and cunning, bad guys lose through suspicious and violent nature" ending than there would be for the later cartoon.

But this was not the first time this plot was used either. Come upriver with me to Famous Studios. Yes, Famous Studios. That's what they were called. They were the successor to the Fleischer studios which made Popeye cartoons, and they continued to make Popeye cartoons along with Casper the Friendly Ghost and other less well-known characters. One of these characters was Herman the Mouse, who starred in 1946's "Cheese Burglar." Usually he was paired with a cat named Katnip, and their relatively obscure cartoons were actually a bigger influence on The Simpsons' "Itchy and Scratchy" than the more famous Tom and Jerry.

Cheese Burglar:

Well, this is the story Freleng would use for "Stooge for a Mouse", all right. But one story element which didn't survive to either Freleng cartoon was that this cat and dog overhear Herman explaining his scheme to the audience (!), stop fighting, and fool Herman into thinking they've killed each other. They repair their friendship, something that Sylvester-Mike and Rocky-Mugsy would not be allowed to do. In fact, instead of having all three characters punished at the end, they all end up forgetting their quarrels in a state of drunkenness, and singing the same friendship anthem the dog and cat sang at the beginning.

In fact, that's another difference. Not only do this cat and dog manage to become friends again, but they are much more affectionate in general to each other than their later Freleng counterparts would be.

As for Herman, is he more sympathetic than the "Stooge for a Mouse" mouse or Bugs? Less sympathetic? Well, he comes across as more morbid ("The cat's death rattle! Music to my ears!") But... the cat and dog are more of a threat to him, and his need to steal from the fridge comes across as greater than that of Freleng's mouse. Again there is no clear "hero" or "villain", and so, while the makers of this cartoon were kinder on the cat and dog than Freleng would be, as in "Stooge for a Mouse" all three characters end up in the same state.

But this idea has been animated before. The roles of hero and villain are even more clear cut than in "Bugsy and Mugsy", and they are the other way around. Here is Columbia Screen Gems' "Cholly Polly", released 1942.

Cholly Polly:

The parrot fills the role later played by Herman, the nameless mouse, and Bugs. Once again he is trying to break up the friendship between a cat (Myrtle) and a dog (Harold). The difference is, well... the parrot is in no danger from the cat and dog, and he is explicitly depicted as, well, a Nazi. His objection to the cat-dog friendship is because he believes it to be unnatural. Herman and the "Stooge" mouse do tell their respective cat and dog enemies "A cat and dog should be enemies, not friends", but they have an ulterior motive - steal the food once the cat and dog have beaten each other senseless. The parrot does not have anything to gain from making Harold and Myrtle fight. He's just doing it For The Evulz.

As a result, the satisfying ending is that Myrtle and Harold realise that the parrot has been plotting against them and throw him out of the house.

Oh, and if you thought that the "Cheese Burglar" cat and dog were more friendly to each other than their later counterparts, check out Harold and Myrtle. Making them fight is like pulling parrots' teeth. It's only just before the very end that the parrot manages to make them fight... and then they realise that they've been tricked. In fact, this is the only time the two characters are one male and the other female. It's almost as if they are being presented as a married couple. Well, the parrot does object to them "sleeping together" at the beginning? Hmmm, could be.

Of course, during World War II there were a lot of anti-Nazi cartoons. But most of them were simple "We're the good guys, they're the generic bad guys" stories. The villainy of the Nazi character here, the parrot, is more specific. He is repulsed by an inter-species... friendship? Romance? Anyway, it seems like this is a rare example of an anti-Fascist cartoon being specifically anti-racist.

(Incidentally, there is a lot of romantic imagery for the cat and dog in "Cheese Burglar", and the cat's voice is slightly androgynous. But when the "Stooge" mouse accuses Mike the bulldog of being a "sissy" for "liking cats", specifically (the male) Sylvester... No, I'm sure that's not what he means.)

So there you go.
Nazi parrot tries to turn innocent cat and dog friends/couple against each other For the Evulz, and fails
Sadistic but hungry mouse tries to turn cat and dog BFFs against each other so he can get a bite to eat, succeeds for a while, and they call reconcile and get drunk
Vaguely hungry mouse tries to turn cat and dog good friends against each other so he can steal some food, succeeds, but ends up beaten up like them
Smart-aleck rabbit tries to turn wanted criminals against each other in order to see justice served, he succeeds with no ill effects.

I don't know if Freleng was influenced by the "Cheese Burglar", or if the people at Famous Studios were influenced by "Cholly Polly", but the similarities -- and therefore the differences -- are fascinating.

What do other animation fans think? Are there any notable similarities or differences I neglected to mention? Do you agree or disagree with any of my interpretations? Please let me know in the comments!

Monday, 16 June 2014

Hoch Hech!

Is anyone familiar with the Zagreb (Croatia) School of Animation?

I'm sure I've seen that Zagreb Film horse logo before, maybe on a Public Domain video. After which I would presumably have fast-forwarded through the cartoon, expecting there to be a culture and/or language barrier.

I think when most people think of Eastern European animation, they think of this:

From the Simpsons episode "Krusty Gets Kancelled", where kids' TV show host Krusty the Klown shows a cartoon starring "Eastern Europe's favorite cat and mouse team, Worker and Parasite!" The title, gloomy music and settings (a factory and a bread-line) are clearly meant to invoke images of the austere, work-driven Soviet Union at the time of the Cold War, and the joke is that it is neither entertaining nor comprehensible to anyone who doesn't live east of the Iron Curtain in the '50s.

(As a side note, in another Simpsons episode from the same time, "Mr Plow", Homer tries to buy a car from "Crazy Vaclav's Place of Automobiles", and is told that the car was built in a country which "no longer exists". I like to think this was the same country that produced "Worker and Parasite", whose titles are written in a fictional Slavic language. And the head animator of the Rembrandt Films Tom and Jerry series, animated and scored - but not written - in 1960s Czechoslovakia, was named VACLAV Bedrich! Coincidence?)

Soviet-era Eastern Europe may well have produced animated shorts which bring "Worker and Parasite" to mind. But the Zagreb cartoons from the 50s and 60s I have found have, I think, a universal appeal. They are generally dialogue-free but manage to tell stories through animation and music. I don't know if their creators had American animation in mind when they made them - were they trying to copy the style of U.S. cartoons, or react against it, or neither?

This cartoon, "Ersatz/Surogat", has the distinction of winning an Academy Award (an Oscar to you and me). It's very quirky and doesn't look anything like a U.S. cartoon... well, not a mainstream U.S. cartoon anyway. It's still easy for Western audiences to follow and be entertained by it, but putting it out as an example of Croatian animated film making kind of implies "they don't think the way we do".

The same director, Dusan Vukotic, was also capable of creating cartoons that were much more recognisable to people in the West. This one tells a story of childhood rivalry and ingenuity that's familiar to all who have been children, but still exaggerated in a suitably cartoony way. It's a bit like the final act of "Hare Today, Gone Tomorrow", where Buster and Babs fool Elmyra into thinking she's travelled to another planet.

The events from 6:15-6:50 bring to mind the fable of the blind men and the elephant.

Another director, Zlatko Grgic (who previously worked as character designer on Vukotic's cartoons) appears to have had two favourite themes: "No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" and "I Don't Know How To End This Thing". Here's his "Musical Pig". Watch as the poor pig brings happiness to all around him by his singing, and how his refusal to let them eat him anyway (!) causes conflict, strife, and even war!

Oh, and the knife-eating sound effects are painfully convincing!