Over at Warner Bros., Tex Avery – who set the tone of Looney Tunes cartoons and more or less created the studio’s biggest characters (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck) – left the studio after a dispute with producer Leon Schlesinger. He briefly worked at Paramount on a series of shorts in which animated mouths were superimposed on live-action animals (titled Speaking of Animals), before joining MGM’s animation studio in 1942, resulting in his most celebrated and accomplished work as a director.
And at Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems, former Warner Bros. director Frank Tashlin was given the position of production manager. He was only in charge for a short time, but he created an atmosphere of creativity that had long-term effects on the studio itself and the animation industry as a whole (he gave creative freedom to young animators like John Hubley, who would later develop a more stylized approach to animation at UPA in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s).
The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, also made a huge impact on the animation industry in the United States, although that impact was mostly felt the following year when films started being released specifically for the war effort. Still, several army-related cartoons were released in 1941 in connection to the United States’ peacetime draft, including Warner Bros.’ Rookie Revue, MGM’s Rookie Bear, Max Fleischer’s The Mighty Navy, and Walter Lantz’s Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B and $21 a Day Once a Month.
Among animated features, the Disney Studio put out Dumbo, one of the true masterpieces of animation. But the studio didn’t stop there, also releasing a live-action/animated behind-the-scenes look at the Disney studio entitled The Reluctant Dragon. Given that the film was released at the height of the Disney strike, it paints a somewhat synthetically cheery picture of the studio, but the film is charming, contains priceless footage of Disney in its prime years and includes some wonderful animated segments like the titular short and the groundbreaking Baby Weems sequence. Not to mention that the Fleischer studio released its second feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, following Gulliver’s Travels. It failed at the box office, but the film has some of the old Fleischer charm that Gulliver lacks.
The Academy Awards handed out ten nominations for Best Animated Short this year (a big switch from 1940, where they only awarded three), and nominees The Night Before Christmas, Rhapsody in Rivets and Superman all appear on this list (I couldn’t find room for Disney’s Lend a Paw, however, which won the Oscar).
The How To series made its debut in the Disney feature The Reluctant Dragon (1941) for a sequence titled How to Ride a Horse. The first short based on the concept was Goofy’s Glider, but its follow-up, The Art of Skiing, is a vast improvement, with tighter pacing, snappier animation and stronger gags. The film isn’t as manic and insane as later entries like How to Play Football (1944) and Hockey Homicide (1945), which populate the screen with dozens of Goofy-like beings, but Skiing sets the appropriate tone and shows a successful series really clicking for the first time.
This film is packed to the brim with brilliantly orchestrated slapstick. Scenes like Goofy attempting to put his trousers on over his skis and trying to get up after falling over are masterful bits of comedy, equal to the best of the silent comics. However, director Jack Kinney is sure to use the medium of animation to its fullest advantage by bending and twisting Goofy’s body in ways that would never be possible in a live-action film.
Essential to the film’s humor is the narration by John McLeish, a story man who narrated numerous cartoons in the 1940s, including classics like the Disney feature Dumbo and Chuck Jones’ The Dover Boys at Warner Bros. He brings an amusing pomposity to the role of the narrator, constantly pontificating in a tone that suggests he is saying something very serious and clearing his throat impertinently whenever Goofy messes something up. His pretentious dialogue matches the voice perfectly (he insists that “skiing” is pronounced “she-ing” and says “unquote” when he finishes reciting “Ode to a Mountain”).
Another key voice here is that of Hannes Schroll, an Austrian Alpine ski racer. He was founder of the Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in California, where Walt Disney stayed as a guest (if you keep your eyes peeled, you’ll see that Goofy is staying at the Sugar Bowl Lodge in this film). He was brought in to record some yodeling for the short’s soundtrack, and he also tossed in a few screams for Goofy as he went flying off of mountaintops. One of these screams became the famous “Goofy holler”, which has gone on to appear in countless Goofy cartoons and Disney films in general. Ya-hoo-hoo-hooey!
THE FOX AND THE GRAPES
Directed by Frank Tashlin; Columbia
The Columbia/Screen Gems studio was in pretty sad shape in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s. Series like Krazy Kat and Scrappy had long since lost any of their original luster, and one-shots like A Boy, a Gun and Birds (1940) and Farmer Tom Thumb (1940) make a strong case that Columbia was the most incompetent and uninspired studio in the United States during this period (even frequently maligned studios like Terrytoons were producing much higher-quality work).
All of this changed when Frank Tashlin came on board as production manager in 1941. The studio was totally reorganized, with most of the old staff members taking off, while Tashlin hired a fresh crew of young artists off of the picket lines at the Disney Studio. He ended up with the likes of John Hubley, Emery Hawkins, Bob Wickersham, Dave Hilberman, etc., all big names that would go on to do great things. With Tashlin in charge, the Columbia films suddenly become vibrant and exciting, showing hints of new approaches to animation that would lead to the boom of stylized animation in the 1950s.
Admittedly, most of the cartoons the new staff produced were more interesting than successful, but the first film made under Tashlin’s regime – The Fox and the Grapes – remains the best short the studio ever released and benefits strongly from Tashlin’s expert hand as a director. The film is a takeoff of the Aesop’s Fable of the same name, in which a fussy fox attempts to snatch some grapes away from a tricky crow. The short introduced the Fox and the Crow (sometimes known by their full names Fauntleroy Fox and Crawford Crow), two characters who went on to appear in a series of shorts throughout the ‘40s (even after the Screen Gems studio closed in 1946, the characters appeared in three UPA cartoons, two of which were nominated for Academy Awards). The characters also appeared in a highly successful series of comic books, which ran until the early ‘60s.
In addition to launching Columbia’s most famous characters, the film is notable for its widespread influence in the animation world. The sequence where the fox tries numerous failed methods to capture the grapes is told through a series of blackout gags, a familiar structure to us but new to audiences in 1941. Blackout gags of this type became a staple of chase cartoons in the ‘40s and especially the ‘50s, with Chuck Jones’ Road Runner series being the prime example. Jones acknowledged that this short was an influence on his Road Runner films, and a few of the gags in The Fox and the Grapes were directly mimicked by Wile E. Coyote.
Still, perhaps the most notable aspect of the film is the way it executes a perfect, Warner Bros. style slapstick comedy outside of the walls of the Warner Bros. studio (apparently no small feat, if you’ve ever seen attempts to ape the Looney Tunes style at studios like Walter Lantz and Famous Studios). Tashlin masterfully hops from zippy, fast-paced movements (the angular way the crow shoots from pose to pose when he hears the fox approaching is a Tashlin earmark) to slow, deliberate timing when the scene calls for it (the fox irritably moving the mustard jar closer to the crow’s hand as he sifts around for it is a wonderful touch). This is a director in full command of his craft.
The animation is consistently great (leagues beyond the amateurish stuff Columbia was turning out earlier in 1941), and the Fox and Crow’s personalities are well-established through their movements (the fox’s actions are appropriately fluttery, and the way the crow writes tally-marks with his foot speaks volumes about his character). Later shorts with the Fox and Crow failed to capture them this well, although the absence of voice artist extraordinaire Mel Blanc had a lot to do with that as well (Blanc humming Tales of the Vienna Woods in this short’s opening is hilariously funny right off the bat).
Tashlin, as usual, displays his finesse with cinematic angles in this film, and the fox’s opening trot through the forest is a tour-de-force of neat camera tricks and unique uses of perspective (the backgrounds are also beautiful, if I may gush about every aspect of this darn cartoon). Tashlin is clearly showing off, but he doesn’t let it get in the way of the comedy; big, boisterous gags are staged for maximum laughs, and Tashlin is sure to toss in lots of little bits of comic business between the big jokes (I love the way the fox’s hat keeps hopping as he wanders through an empty log). These gags go along nicely with the cynical tone of the short, which takes a fable that is already skeptical of human nature and turns it into a cartoon dramatization of life’s unfairness. The stark use of silhouette for the final reveal makes it that much more painful.
HOLLYWOOD STEPS OUT
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.
Hollywood parodies were pretty typical in cartoons of the 1930s and early ‘40s, and Warner Bros. had already put their mark on the genre with films like The Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936), The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos (1937) and Malibu Beach Party (1940), to name just a few. Still, few parodies are as extensive as this one, which manages to poke fun at just about everyone in Hollywood, from Jimmy Stewart to Rita Hayworth. The gags are very funny, but key to the film’s success are the excellent celebrity caricatures (designed by Ben Shenkman) and dead-on voicework. Almost all of the male voices here were provided by Kent Rogers, most famous as the voice of Beaky the Buzzard, who turns in sterling work considering he was a teenager at the time.
Among the highlights: Famous dancers Cesar Romero and Rita Hayworth stomping ungracefully on the dance floor, Peter Lorre delivering a brilliantly off-kilter and creepy comment about a bubble when watching a strip act, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland running into financial trouble at dinner (referencing the popular Andy Hardy series), Jimmy Stewart being invited to dance by Dorothy Lamour, Harpo Marx giving cigarette girl Greta Garbo the hotfoot, and J. Edgar Hoover delivering the dumbest joke ever in reference to his reputation as a G-Man.
Many of the gags take off on well-known celebrities like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy and the Marx Brothers, but many of the other jokes are a bit more obscure to modern audiences. There’s a sequence with Edward G. Robinson and Ann Sheridan that references Sheridan’s title as the “Oomph” girl. The bits with Bing Crosby allude to his frequent losses at the race track (this well-known joke was referenced in numerous other Warner Bros. cartoons as well). The bit where Kay Kysler yells out “students!” was in reference to his role as the Professor on radio’s The Kollege of Musical Knowledge, the scene with Henry Fonda references the radio show The Aldrich Family and mustachioed Jerry Colonna makes a reference to Yehudi, a violinist he was always unable to find on his radio program (thus his depiction as an invisible man).
The centerpiece of the film is a “bubble dance” by burlesque dancer Sally Rand, referred to in the film as Sally Strand to avoid copyright infringement (although she is called Miss Rand earlier in the film when she hands in her feather “fans” to hatcheck girl Paulette Godard). The sequence predates Red Hot Riding Hood in that it mines humor out of sex, and the scene is surprisingly suggestive given that the Hays Code was in full swing at the time. The final reveal that Rand is wearing a giant barrel is a funny capper to the gag, but it may have been a necessity to get the film released, as even implied nudity was generally frowned upon by Joseph Breen.
Other referenced celebrities include Claudette Colbert, Don Ameche, Adolphe Menjou, Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Kate Smith, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Leopold Stokowski, Tryone Power, Sonja Henie, Ned Sparks, Buster Keaton, Arthur Treacher, Boris Karloff, Mischa Auer, William Powell, Spencer Tracy, Ronald Colman, Errol Flynn, Wallace Beery and C. Aubrey Smith. Colorful characters like Tarzan, Frankenstein and Blondie & Dagwood also make appearances. Even Leon Schlesinger and Henry Binder are tossed in the mix. Keep your eyes peeled, folks!
Directed by George Pal; Puppetoons
After creating commercial films in Europe throughout the 1930s, George Pal emigrated to the United States in 1939 and started producing his famous Puppetoons series for Paramount in 1941. Hula Boola marks one of the first Puppetoons produced, and already Pal demonstrates that he is the king of stop-motion animation.
In the short, a sailor named Jim Dandy arrives on an island and meets a beautiful Dorothy Lamour type named Sarong-Sarong. Dandy is eventually captured by cannibals, and it’s up to the mysterious spirits of the island to rescue him. The storyline isn’t a hilarious gag-fest on the level of a Warner Bros. cartoon, but it works well. And although it employs cartoon stereotypes of cannibals of the type seen in numerous island cartoons along the lines of Trader Mickey (1932) and Jungle Jitters (1938), the story is in many ways unconventional. Like most of George Pal’s films, but unlike many other Hollywood cartoons in the 1940s, the film focuses on human characters as opposed to funny animals. Even more unusual is that the film’s heroine saves the male lead, reversing the dominant boy-saves-girl formula of the 1930s.
Still, it’s the visuals that make Hula Boola a stunner. Pal used an incredible amount of replacement animation in his films, creating an entirely new wood-carved puppet for each frame of animation, and as a result his characters have an elasticity that makes them look like they were formed out of taffy. These figures are simply fun to watch move around, particularly in front of the exotic island backdrop built for this film.
And despite the limitations imposed by the painstaking process of stop-motion, Pal manages to give the characters in this film unique personality traits. Jim Dandy is a likable leading man, thanks to his wide grin and his jaunty strut, while Sarong-Sarong contrasts nicely with her slow, seductive movements. The effects animation in the short is also strong, particularly in a sequence where a cabin builds itself and a shot near the end where a bunch of flowers grow all over a stone sculpture. Not to mention that Pal includes lots of crowd scenes, giving himself and his animators an extra workload by having tons of cannibals running around from shot to shot. Still, the film’s visual highlight comes during the climax, where a dancing Tiki head summons a group of zany-looking little demons that take the short into surreal territory. Pal would continue to push the art of stop-motion animation throughout the ‘40s, but Hula Boola is a masterpiece all its own.
THE NIFTY NINETIES
Directed by Riley Thomson; Walt Disney
If there’s one Disney director who I wish had gotten to make more films, it’s Riley Thomson. He only directed six shorts at Disney (one of which was a straightforward remake of the 1934 film Orphan’s Benefit), but they are among the funniest and best-looking films Disney released in the 1940s. In fact, Thomson’s unit was referred to as the Drunk Mickey Unit due to the appealingly loose animation style (that and the fact that many members of his crew, including superstars like Fred Moore, Ken Muse and Walt Kelly, were all heavy drinkers). Within Thomson’s brief filmography, you’ve got The Little Whirlwind (1941), a strong character comedy that features Mickey Mouse at his most likable, Mickey’s Birthday Party (1942), a fairly typical party cartoon highlighted by a masterful dance sequence by Ward Kimball, and Symphony Hour (1942), Thomson’s final short and possibly the funniest film the Disney studio ever produced.
And then we have The Nifty Nineties, a short so overloaded with inside jokes that you would think they were pitching the film to die-hard Disney buffs rather than 1940s audiences who wouldn’t have caught any of it. There’s an extended vaudeville sequence featuring Fred and Ward, blatant caricatures of animators Fred Moore and Ward Kimball, who both worked on this short (they almost assuredly provided their own voices, too). The drunk in the Father, Dear Father bit is a caricature of storyman Dick Huemer, and the ads on the curtain contain clever references to the likes of Wilfred Jackson, Ben Sharpsteen and Walt Disney himself (“Walter D’s… for Hats That Please!”).
The film is a Gay ‘90s spoof, and although the tone is good-natured, the comedy has an edge to it. This is emphasized right away as the background chorus sings of the ‘90s with nostalgic fondness, even while describing frivolities such as how Grandpa used to cuss when inconvenienced. Throughout the short, the era is depicted with mild but apparent mockery, from the absurdly puffed-out rear end on Minnie’s dress to Mickey tearing across the road on his automobile at a stunning 15mph. When Mickey and Minnie go to a show, they laugh uproariously at the most tired, cornball jokes, and the vaudevillian pratfalls are amusingly over-the-top.
The film’s funniest bit, as well as the most cynical portion of the short, is the melodramatic slideshow Father, Dear Father, a song about a poor girl begging her drunk father to come home. In taking such a grim topic and overplaying it to the point of total ridiculousness, the short nails a kind of dark comedy that people don’t typically associate with Disney. The background chorus sounds just sincere enough to sell the humor, and the slides are screamingly funny no matter how many times you’ve seen the film (each progressive slide finds a way to make the father look like an even bigger oaf, as the daughter dressed in rags sheds a tear and/or turns dramatically away). The cop-out ending is equally funny.
Still, perhaps the most memorable aspect of the film is the stunning animation, which is top-shelf even for Disney. Les Clark turns in some excellent acting from Mickey and Minnie at the vaudeville show, Claude Smith does fine work during the film’s climactic automobile ride (a bit of a throwback to similar climaxes in numerous pre-code films) and Ward Kimball’s animation of the Fred & Ward Act is one of his most characteristically zany creations. And then there’s Fred Moore’s animation of Mickey in the opening bit, set to the tune of Strolling Through the Park, which is perhaps the finest animation of the mouse ever drawn. His actions are so appealing and graceful in the scene that it doesn’t matter of whit if there’s any story going on; you are fully content to watch him glide around for two minutes. I’ve rerun that scene countless times and it always gets me grinning.
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera; MGM
The Night Before Christmas marks the third cartoon to feature Tom and Jerry, and it doesn’t have the slam-bang slapstick audiences would later expect from the series. William Hanna was trained in the Rudolf Ising school of slow, sentimental character comedy, and his Disneyesque pacing still dominates the feel of the Tom & Jerry series, despite the occasional brash gag written by Joseph Barbera.
Still, even though the series got a necessary shot in the arm when Tex Avery arrived at the studio in 1942 and Hanna and Barbera had to go wilder to keep up, The Night Before Christmas remains one of their finest films, balancing typical cat-and-mouse slapstick with a kind of sweetness that doesn’t feel forced (many of the later Tom & Jerry cartoons that attempt to employ heart, such as 1953’s Just Ducky and 1954’s Puppy Tale, feel synthetic by comparison).
Despite having made their debut only a year earlier, Tom and Jerry are already very strong characters and you like them so much that you are even willing to accept their eventual reconciliation. Portraying Tom and Jerry as friends is a dangerous road to go down, as it can fatally soften their dynamic, but Hanna and Barbera pull it off here. Perhaps we can tack it off as a special exception for the holidays.
This is an exceptionally handsome cartoon; even the festive red-and-green title cards look great. The film is every bit as lush as the finest Disney cartoons, and the character animation by masters like Bill Littlejohn, Irv Spence and Jack Zander contains some of the best work the MGM studio ever turned out. The acting is especially good during the short’s climax, where Tom chases Jerry out into the snow, only to feel guilty at the thought of him freezing to death. Partial credit for the success of this sequence must also go to the score by Scott Bradley, which features a powerful arrangement of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”. I also want to call attention to the film’s final scene, where the mousetrap doubles as a music box and Jerry has on his face the most delighted smile ever drawn. It’s a nice ending to a thoroughly charming Christmas cartoon.
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.
Although stylized animation didn’t fully come into fruition until UPA started producing films like Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950) and Rooty Toot Toot (1951), there were hints of the Cartoon Modern approach as far back as the early ‘40s.
In the feature film The Reluctant Dragon (1941), the Baby Weems sequence is intended to demonstrate the way an animated short looks in the storyboard phase, but the sequence bears a resemblance to the more static approach to animated storytelling seen in the ‘50s. At Warner Bros., Chuck Jones invented smear animation for The Dover Boys (1942), demonstrating that cartoon characters could move in a highly stylized manner that owed little to the full animation seen in the Disney films. John Hubley, who would later spearhead the UPA studio, was inspired by The Dover Boys and began experimenting further in Columbia cartoons like The Vitamin G Man (1943) and The Rocky Road to Ruin (1943). And then there were numerous training and propaganda films released during World War II that adopted a more limited approach out of budget necessity.
But before all of these films, there was Porky’s Preview, a silly little short that certainly has no pretensions of advancing the art form. In it, Porky Pig presents to an audience of cartoon animals his own animated film, which is drawn entirely with stick figures. Porky’s “masterpiece” is full of glitches, and although the fact that this crude display is being presented as a cartoon is the major joke of the film, the short looks a lot like the intentionally childlike films that UPA would receive accolades for ten years later, such as Christopher Crumpet (1953) and Baby Boogie (1955). I guess context is everything.
This parade of stick figures never stops being entertaining, although Avery was taking a risk here; crafting an entire film around intentionally bad animation is almost a Dadaist joke on the audience. Avery gets a lot of creative mileage out of the idea, though, incorporating floating text into the film, scribbling characters out and creating jokes out of the characters’ sticklike bodies (in one scene, a hula dancer’s skirt falls down, the joke being that there’s nothing to see). The scribbly title cards and sloppy backgrounds are priceless, particularly when coupled with Carl Stalling’s gloriously out-of-tune self-parody, which is fall-down funny all by itself. The only slightly weak link here is the Al Jolson September in the Rain bit, which is animated with a bit too much finesse by Robert McKimson. You know it has to be an interesting short when its biggest flaw is good animation.
RHAPSODY IN RIVETS
Directed by Friz Freleng; Warner Bros.
Frantz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 is well-known among cartoon fans for its use in Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody Rabbit and William Hanna & Joseph Barbera’s The Cat Concerto, but there was an earlier cartoon that made brilliant use of the piece and it remains one of Friz Freleng’s greatest triumphs as a director.
The film features funny cartoon animals building a skyscraper in time to the Liszt piece, and through this simple setup, writer Michael Maltese unleashes a series of wonderfully clever construction gags and Freleng displays his mastery of comic timing. The metaphor of a foreman conducting his workers like an orchestra bears fruits throughout the entire seven minutes, and the short makes you both laugh at the jokes and marvel at the skill that went into creating them.
Freleng was always the most musical of the Warner Bros. directors (Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett directed many of the finest classical music mash-ups, but Freleng would meticulously match actions up to the score even on non-event cartoons), and this film displays expert collaboration between director and score. The way certain portions of the music are delayed or lengthened for comic effect make it clear that this wasn’t a simple case of matching animation up to a pre-recorded score (much less straightforwardly animating a cartoon and tacking a soundtrack on it later), and instead the film must’ve been created through meticulous back-and-forth planning. That kind of attention to detail is why the Warner Bros. cartoons are not only the funniest cartoons of the Golden Age of Animation, but also the most rewarding to revisit.
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited Steve Muffati]; Max Fleischer
Today, superhero movies top the box-office every year, but The Dark Knight, Spider-Man and The Avengers all trace back to this cartoon, the very first superhero film ever made. This short brought Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s famous comic book creation to the screen for the first time (not counting a brief parody of the character, called Super Guy, who appears in Bob Clampett’s 1941 short Goofy Groceries), and it was highly unusual in its depiction of realistic human characters. The film notably invented the “it’s a bird, it’s a plane” spiel, as well as the “faster than a speeding bullet” speech, but even more crucially, it displayed that a comic book superhero could work on the big screen.
The storyline will sound familiar to anyone well-acquainted with comic books: there’s a mad scientist threatening to blow up Metropolis at midnight, and Lois Lane attempts to cover the story alone. The scientist ends up kidnapping Lois, and mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent must take on the persona of Superman to stop the scientist and save the city. The film doesn’t entirely adhere to the Superman backstory we’re familiar with (the short explains that he was taken to an orphanage as a child, rather than being found by the Kents), but it makes its own essential additions to the Superman legend; in the comic books, Superman was able to leap tall buildings, but for this film, the Fleischers gave their caped hero the ability of flight.
Superman is unusually lavish for an animated short in 1941. Apparently, Dave Fleischer wasn’t too keen on making a series out of the character, and so he asked Paramount for the absurd sum of $100,000 per cartoon (about six times the amount of a typical Popeye cartoon). Fleischer was surprised when Paramount negotiated the budget down to $50,000 (subsequent Superman cartoons were produced for around $30,000). As a result, the characters are animated with incredible realism (complete with naturalistic shadowing) and the effects animation is consistently outstanding. The shot of Krypton blowing up is fantastic (we’ve seen something similar happen in numerous science fiction films, but this would’ve been pretty new to audiences in 1941) and the climax, where Superman punches a laser beam back into the ray-gun firing it, is staggering even today.
The writing is a bit hokey, naturally, and the realistic humans occasionally look awkward, but nothing like this had ever been done before and, dated as it is, the short remains thoroughly charming. The staging is effectively cinematic, and coupled with Sammy Timberg’s rousing score, the short has an edge-of-your-seat excitement comparable to the best action films. Superhero movies these days usually have to couple their heroes with a threat beyond anything they’ve ever faced to keep things interesting, but this short simply wants us to marvel at the ease with which Superman takes down the most imposing odds. And, surprisingly, it retains a sense of wide-eyed wonder, keeping the action exciting where many more recent action films get lost in a glut of soulless CGI. Particularly fun is the maniacal scientist, voiced by Jack “Popeye” Mercer, and his cartoonish raven sidekick. He’s the type of nut who sends a letter to the local newspaper spoiling his plans, just to brag about how unstoppable he is; then he patiently sits on his throne until midnight strikes, just so he can dramatically get up and announce, “the hour has come.” Superman would appear in several more cartoons in the early ‘40s, as well as a slew of TV shows and live-action feature films, but in many ways, his first screen appearance was his best.
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.
In this classic short, Elmer Fudd visits Jellostone Park for a bit of “west and wewaxation”, but a screwy rabbit and a ferocious bear turn his dream vacation into a nightmare.
Wabbit Twouble was Bob Clampett’s first crack at a Bugs Bunny cartoon, although it’s possible that the short was partially directed by Tex Avery before he left the studio. That would make sense, as the film feels like a bridge between their styles. Bugs’ aside to the audience, “I do this kinda stuff to him all through the picture” seems like a Tex Avery line, and the way Elmer stiffens mid-air upon seeing the bear feels like a wild take Avery would arrive at. On the other hand, scenes like the bear sniffing Elmer and hissing “P.U.” and Elmer and the bear popping out of different sides of the tree have a looseness to the animation that suggest Bob Clampett’s hand.
No matter who had more control over the finished product here, the film serves as a nice lead-in to Clampett’s heyday as a director. After working on black-and-white Porky Pig cartoons for the first few years of his career, Avery’s departure gave Clampett access to key collaborators like Rod Scribner, Robert McKimson, Bill Melendez, etc., and his cartoons really began to follow-through on the wacky visual fireworks his earliest films could only suggest.
This being an early attempt at a Bugs Bunny cartoon, there are some differences from later entries. The biggest difference is Elmer’s “fat design”, which made its debut in this film. He remained overweight in The Wacky Wabbit, The Wabbit Who Came to Supper, Fresh Hare and the propaganda film Any Bonds Today before switching back to his slimmer design in the 1942 film The Hare-Brained Hypnotist. Wabbit Twouble is also different from later Bugs Bunny films in that it violates the sacred rule that Bugs must be provoked before heckling his nemesis. Here he channels Woody Woodpecker by unleashing anarchy on Fudd without first being threatened, although Elmer is, at this point, so well-known as a wabbit hunter that an early scene of Elmer hunting Bugs might’ve almost been superfluous.
And either way, this is Elmer’s film more than Bugs’s. The cartoon is wonderfully creative in how many ways it finds for Elmer’s vacation to go wrong. Gags are plentiful, from a funny bit where Elmer and the bear zip from tree to tree in time to the music to a hilarious sequence where Bugs pretends to be the bear while Elmer is attempting to remain motionless. Even the opening credits are funny, spelled out in Elmer Fudd-speak (Wobert Cwampett, Cawl W. Stawwing, etc.)
1941 saw the Warner Bros. staff struggling to get a grasp on Bugs after the success of A Wild Hare, and although the rabbit appeared in some fine films in this transitional period, including Freleng’s Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt and Avery’s The Heckling Hare, I would put my money on Wabbit Twouble as the year’s funniest.
Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1941? Let me know in the comments below.