Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Animation

THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1950

Well, folks, we’ve entered the 1950s and it’s time to end our series here, at least for the time being.

The 1940s are typically thought of as the apex of the Hollywood cartoon, but there’s still a lot to enjoy in 1950. Disney released the animated feature Cinderella, and Warner Bros. debuted some of their most beloved minor characters like Granny (Canary Row), Miss Prissy (An Egg Scramble), Rocky (Golden Yeggs), Frisky Puppy (Two’s a Crowd) and Sylvester Jr. (Pop ‘im Pop).

Throughout the 1950s, demand for theatrical cartoons diminished and many notable studios closed their doors. Disney stopped its regular production of shorts in 1956, MGM’s cartoon studio shut down in 1957 and UPA stopped producing theatrical cartoons in 1959. Disney continued to release special shorts on occasion, and MGM made a few attempts to return with Tom & Jerry cartoons by the likes of Gene Deitch and Chuck Jones in the 1960s, but the golden age was over. Even Warner Bros. experienced a brief shutdown in 1953 when Jack Warner felt that 3-D was in and cartoons were out.

The studio reopened shortly after when the 3-D craze had died down.

Other studios significantly retooled, turning to limited animation as a means of reducing costs. After shutting down in the late 1940s, Walter Lantz returned in 1951 to produce cartoons on a shrinking budget. At Famous Studios, Sam Buchwald died in 1951, putting Seymour Kneitel and Isadore Sparber in charge of the studio. The films soon got cheaper and became even more restrictively formulaic. By the end of the ‘50s, all of the studio’s major characters (Popeye, Little Audrey, Baby Huey, Herman & Katnip, Casper) were retired in favor of unsuccessful series like Modern Madcaps, Jeepers & Creepers and The Cat. And over at Terrytoons, Paul Terry retired in 1955, which led to a brief burst of inspiration when Gene Deitch took over and shifted the studio toward a UPA-inspired “modern art” look. However, when Deitch was fired in 1958 and Bill Weiss took control of the studio, the cartoons became cheap and not much else.

You wouldn’t be off-base to say that the theatrical cartoon died by the end of the 1950s. The studios that survived into the 1960s were all long past their prime, and even when a major studio produced an inspired short like High Note (WB), The Dot and the Line (MGM) or A Symposium on Popular Songs (Disney), it was an experiment or a departure from the norm. The days when you could expect quality from a run-of-the-mill Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck short were long over. The only theatrical cartoon studio to emerge in the 1960s was DePatie-Freleng, which started off strong with amusing Pink Panther cartoons like The Pink Phink (1964) and Dial “P” for Pink (1965), but quickly declined into unfunny series featuring characters like the Tijuana Toads, Sheriff Hoot Kloot and the Blue Racer.

But that’s all pretty doom-and-gloom, considering that things didn’t go completely to hell. The 1950s saw the birth of TV animation, which admittedly provoked a lot of junk, but also led the way for enjoyable series like Rocky & Bullwinkle, The Gumby Show and Tom Terrific. The 1950s also saw a rise in independent animation, giving us delightful films like John Hubley’s The Tender Game (1958), Stan Vanderbeek’s Science Friction (1959) and Bob Godfrey’s The Do-It-Yourself Cartoon Kit (1959), and paving the way for latter-day innovators like Bill Plympton, Sally Cruikshank and Don Hertzfeldt. Also, this decade saw an increase in the amount / quality of animated films produced outside of the United States; the National Film Board of Canada and Zagreb Film in Yugoslavia produced many of the finest cartoons of the 1950s and ‘60s, and in 1958, Japan produced The Tale of the White Serpent (released in the US under the title Panda and the Magic Serpent), which is considered to be the first anime film in the modern sense.

But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves. Take a look at this list, which features a whole host of great cartoons from Warner Bros., as well as appearances from Disney, MGM, UPA and even another Terrytoons cartoon (what’s wrong with me?).

Take a look:


CAT HAPPY
Directed by Connie Rasinski; Terrytoons

Given that Jim Tyer’s animation is the biggest reason – oftentimes the only reason – to watch a Terrytoon, many cartoon fans wish he could’ve gotten a chance to animate a film entirely by himself without having his work dragged down by lesser talents. He actually did do all of the animation on a handful of Stuffy Durma episodes for the Milton the Monster show in the 1960s, but he unfortunately never got the chance on a theatrical budget. That being said, Cat Happy is probably the closest thing to pure Jim Tyer you’re going to find; his work is strewn all throughout the film, and all of the key scenes are his.

Anyway, the plot: the short features a cat who is kind and friendly to a mouse when he is “on” Catnip, but returns to his antagonistic ways when he receives a blow to the head. This film is the first to feature Little Roquefort, the tiny mouse with the demented voice who appeared in 18 Terrytoons shorts (his cat co-star’s name is Percy, in case anyone cares). The Little Roquefort cartoons seem to have been designed to cash in on the success of Tom & Jerry, and this film’s storyline is more than a little similar to Hanna & Barbera’s 1947 short Part Time Pal. That in no way diminishes the entertainment value, however, as the story provides ample opportunities for Tyer to go wild.

Jim Tyer animation and drug trips are a match made in heaven, and the cat’s wild convulsions upon sniffing the catnip are extraordinarily funny. Not to mention that Percy’s sneeze is the greatest sneeze ever captured on film, with different parts of his body fluctuating dangerously before he explodes into a rainbow of wildly unrelated drawings. Tyer even makes a lot out of the smaller moments – check out the way he matches vocal inflections with crazy drawings, or his stunningly creative wild takes (at one point, Little Roquefort dissolves into a spinning line before reappearing with a terrified look on his face). Even the non-Tyer stuff is pretty decent this time around; there’s a well-directed shot of Percy shooting up and down the rails on a stairway before crashing through a door, and some creatively cartoony visuals (the lightning striking in Percy’s eyes when he’s angry, the way the bathtub crumbles after Percy falls into it). The story is also pretty funny, despite the fact that it isn’t a laugh-a-minute gagfest. Particularly amusing is the way Little Roquefort resolves the problem set up here by simply rocketing Percy to the moon. For wacky, unrestrained cartoon eye candy, you couldn’t do much better than this.

THE CUCKOO CLOCK
Directed by Tex Avery; MGM

A tormented cat decides to end his suffering by bumping off the bird in his cuckoo clock. This absurd masterpiece brilliantly uses Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a launching pad, giving the typical cat-chases-bird setup an extra dose of dementia. Because of this offbeat framing device, the cuckoo here is transformed from a run-of-the-mill cartoon heckler into a fourth-dimensional figment of the cat’s imagination, able to appear and disappear at will, endlessly multiply itself and even transform its own finger into a pistol. (By the way, what is it with animators and physics-bending cartoon birds? You’ve got Clampett’s Do-Do from Wackyland, the Aracuan Bird in The Three Caballeros, and let’s not even discuss the Chuck Jones’ unexplainable Minah Bird).

The film borrows elements from previous Avery films (the goofy dance from Doggone Tired, the jazzy version of “Taps” from The Early Bird Dood It) and also anticipates later ones: there’s a brilliant sequence towards the beginning where the cat responds literally to the narration (his ears turn into bells when his ears are ringing, he walks through a trash heap when he’s down in the dumps, etc.), which is an idea that would be fully-fleshed out in Avery’s 1951 classic Symphony in Slang. Speaking of the narration, it is expertly supplied by Daws Butler, who imbues each line reading with a restrained insanity. His eerie calmness gives the film the tone of a suspense thriller, which makes it all the funnier when the film turns into a barrage of prime Tex Avery slapstick gags.

But let’s not sell the gags short, as they are spectacular and impeccably pulled off. Avery is, of course, well known for the funny drawings in his films, but the cat in this picture must break some kind of record for the most hilarious and unique expressions in a single film. Take a look at the scene where the cat “falls to pieces”; his hands are clasped as he paces around, and he’s wearing a priceless worried frown as his eyes grow wide with dread. Even better is the cat’s fantastic expression when it occurs to him that the cuckoo is the source of his troubles; his large green eyes stare off into the distance while his front teeth stick out of his mouth awkwardly, capturing the perfect mix of goofy and disturbing. You also have to love the cat’s indignant expression after he sews red and green fur onto his lower half; he hunches over with his head jerking forward impertinently, all while puffing out his lips in a cartoonishly exaggerated pout. These are all funny enough as stand-alone drawings, but the snappy movements and crisp pacing really use them to their best effect.

This wild cartoon comedy makes a nice contrast with UPA’s straight retelling of The Tell-Tale Heart, which would be released three years later. That film, with its static layouts and somber tone, may have been more innovative, but this film is more fun.

DOG GONE SOUTH
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

If there’s one minor Looney Tunes character who deserves to be counted among the greats, it’s Charlie Dog. He only appeared in five cartoons (not counting Bob Clampett’s 1941 film Porky’s Pooch, which serves as something of a precursor to the series), but characters like the Tasmanian Devil and Marvin the Martian similarly appeared in only five cartoons each and have both received far more media attention. Furthermore, amusing as Taz and Marvin are, Charlie is a much richer character, with enough going for him to withstand a long-running series of the kind afforded to Pepe Le Pew and Foghorn Leghorn. Jones retired several of his best characters in the early ‘50s, such as Hubie & Bertie and the Three Bears, but Charlie Dog in particular feels like he had the potential for more great films.

Ah well, we must be thankful for what we have, and all five Charlie Dog cartoons are masterpieces, with Dog Gone South serving as the cream of the crop. While Charlie’s first three films paired him off with Porky Pig, this film set Charlie loose in the land of cotton, teaming him up with Colonel Shuffle from Jones’ 1949 Bugs Bunny cartoon Mississippi Hare. The plot concerns Charlie Dog attempting to sabotage Shuffle’s loyal pet Belvedere so that he can earn a spot on Shuffle’s luxurious plantation.

The film’s writing simply couldn’t be better. Charlie Dog’s absurd confidence that he is exactly what every pet-owner could possibly want, combined with his unrelenting determination to prove it, makes him a charming and entertaining screen presence. You can’t help but like him even while he is acting like a louse to get his way. And the film’s setup gives him the perfect opportunity to both self-promote and take down his competition (the rivalry angle makes for an enjoyable twist that wasn’t present in earlier Charlie Dog shorts).

Not to mention that the dialogue is witty and hilarious; Michael Maltese is clearly having a ball with the southern expressions (“well, shut my fat ol’ mouth and stuff me with chitlins”, “right smart piece o’ dog ya’ got thar”), and Charlie Dog’s pathetic attempts to pretend to be southern are screamingly funny (the punchline to the gag where Charlie impersonates a wounded soldier makes me laugh every time I think about it). When such great writing is teamed with Chuck Jones’ extraordinary character poses and expressions, it all adds up to comedy gold. Some of the lines in this cartoon, like “oh, Belvedere – come here, boy” and “ah, magnolias” have become iconic among hardcore Looney Tunes fans.

Dog Gone South is one of several Warner Bros. cartoons to satirize over-the-top southern pride, alongside 1949’s Mississippi Hare and 1953’s Southern Fried Rabbit. Colonel Shuffle flies off the handle at the slightest hint of yankees, and he’s quick to don his old confederate uniform when he finds his dog wearing a sign that reads “the north forever”. Given that there was a lot of nostalgia for the pre-Civil War south in the 1940s (remember that there were still living veterans of the Civil War when this cartoon was produced), it’s amusing to see the south treated so irreverently here. With all of the unrest over the confederate flag as of late, cartoons like this remain oddly relevant.

WATCH IT HERE

HIS BITTER HALF
Directed by Friz Freleng; Warner Bros. 

The Warner Bros. cartoons always had a cynical streak, but one of the more extreme examples is His Bitter Half, in which our “hero” – Daffy Duck – attempts to marry a rich widow duck specifically for her money. He finds that the money isn’t worth it, however, when his wife turns out to be a domineering monster and his new son Wentworth is an infuriating demon-child. There’s nobody to root for here, as every character is presented as being selfish, hateful or both. Carl Stalling’s ironic intonation of “Every Day I Love You Just a Little Bit More” over the opening credits only serves to underscore the film’s disenchanted viewpoint.

So there’s a lot of edge going into this one, but what that description leaves out is how funny the cartoon is. It’s endlessly amusing to see Daffy’s frustration with Wentworth (by the way, could Freleng and writer Tedd Pierce have come up with a better name for the kid than “Wentworth”?), and Mel Blanc’s impassioned voicework as Daffy is at its best. There are several outstanding visual gags (one of my favorites being the scene, animated by Arthur Davis, that shows the results of Mrs. Daffy kicking him in the seat of his pants), as well as funny little touches (like the flower on Mrs. Daffy’s hat smacking her in the face). Even the film’s title card is great and conveys the tone of the cartoon quite well.

There are many excellent gags to be found here, from Daffy getting scalped to Wentworth experimenting with fireworks on the fourth of July. But there’s a scene that stands out, and for my money it’s one of the flat-out funniest sequences in any cartoon: the shooting gallery bit. This is just the prime example of a perfectly executed gag; it’s brilliantly written, the timing is masterful, there’s funny bits of dialogue thrown in (“musta ricocheteted”) and the facial expressions and poses really sell the joke: check out Wentworth’s false innocence, or Daffy eagerly pointing at his stepson before getting bopped in the face. I laugh every time I see it.

This film marks one of several Daffy cartoons to paint marriage / family life as hell, with others including Bob Clampett’s The Henpecked Duck (1941) and Frank Tashlin’s The Stupid Cupid (1944). Friz Freleng also returned to the plot of this film in his Yosemite Sam cartoon Honey’s Money (1962), which is arguably even darker since it focuses so heavily on Sam’s attempts to kill his overlarge son. Freleng also produced another version of the same story in the Roland & Ratfink short A Taste of Money (1970), which was directed by animator Arthur Davis. Still, His Bitter Half is probably the best version of this idea, and one of the most jaded of the Warner Bros. cartoons.

NOTE: The only halfway decent copy of this cartoon I could find online has text describing who animated which scenes. It isn’t too distracting and it’s actually interesting information.

HILLBILLY HARE
Directed by Robert McKimson; Warner Bros.

McKimson directed a great many wonderful Bugs Bunny cartoons, among them 1947’s Easter Yeggs (where Bugs takes over for the Easter Bunny), 1948’s Gorilla My Dreams (where Bugs is adopted by a gorilla family) and 1949’s Rebel Rabbit (where Bugs destroys national landmarks to prove how obnoxious he can be). But perhaps McKimson’s funniest and most iconic take on the character was his battle with two dumb hillbillies.

In the film, Bugs Bunny takes a vacation in the Ozarks, but he is hunted down by two rednecks named Curt and Punkinhead Martin. The two hillbillies are differentiated by the color of their beards (one black, one red), a tactic used earlier in the 1947 Friz Freleng cartoon Along Came Daffy (with two housemates who resemble Yosemite Sam). McKimson would pull a similar trick in the following year’s French Rarebit, which features two French chefs named Louis (red hair) and Francois (black hair).

McKimson had a knack for rowdy, painful slapstick, even more than other Warner Bros. directors. Characters in McKimson cartoons are constantly slapping each other around and bashing each other on the head, all in the loudest, most brazen manner possible. In the Foghorn Leghorn cartoons, for instance, Foggy and the dog constantly play painful tricks on each other for the sheer joy of it, as opposed to other characters like Wile E. Coyote or Sylvester who are out to get a meal. If McKimson’s films lack a little maturity in comparison to the works of Jones or Freleng, they’re still thoroughly entertaining.

Hillbilly Hare features typical Looney Tunes-style violence gags (Punkinhead getting shot with his own rifle, both Martins getting blown up in a shack full of explosives), but the highlight of the film – and one of the best musical moments in cartoon history – is the climax, where Bugs Bunny starts making square dance calls that are obeyed verbatim by the brainless hillbillies. It’s a great idea for a comedy sequence, and the scene just keeps getting more ludicrously funny as the square dance calls become more bloodthirsty (“hit him in the shin, hit him in the head, hit him again, the critter ain’t dead”). As with many of Bugs’ other adversaries, the hillbillies have totally forgotten their original mission and Bugs takes great delight in playing around with them. The way he flutters his eyelashes as he plays the last few chords on his fiddle is the icing on the cake.

THE HYPO-CHONDRI CAT
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

Black comedy is a tricky thing to pull off, and yet here Chuck Jones gives us a pitch-perfect film that is sad, disturbing and gut-bustingly funny all at the same time. To see a cat-and-mouse cartoon with such a range, you have to look to Hubie & Bertie, the most psychologically twisted cartoon characters ever invented. Whereas Jerry might hit Tom with a mallet or blow him up with TNT, Hubie and Bertie wage mental warfare on their enemies in cleverly malicious ways.

In their first appearance (The Aristo Cat, 1943), they play on Claude Cat’s naïveté by confusing his idea of what mice are. In Mouse Wreckers (1949), they stage various complicated tricks to convince Claude Cat that he has gone mad, sending him into a nervous breakdown. But even by Hubie and Bertie’s standards, The Hypo-Chondri Cat is warped and bizarre. After discovering that Claude Cat is terrified of diseases, the two cheese-hunting mice convince him that he’s sick, perform an operation on him, convince him that he’s dead and then send him off to his reward.

Everything is going at full-throttle here: the characters are very strongly defined both through the acting and writing (it’s a great character moment when Hubie tells Bertie not to overdo it with his plaid comment), and Mel Blanc’s desperate, panicky performance as Claude Cat falls among his best work, ranking alongside Bugs Bunny freaking out in Tortoise Wins by a Hare (1943), Daffy Duck surrendering in Duck! Rabbit! Duck! (1953) and Sylvester sobbing uncontrollably in Birds Anonymous (1957). There’s also an incredible nightmare sequence that features Jones’ surrealist talents at their peak; that image of gigantic green versions of Hubie & Bertie jabbing at Claude with knives is deliciously offbeat, and having the two mice hypnotically repeat “we gotta operate” and “yeah yeah, sure sure” in humorously dreamy voices was a stroke of genius.

Still, it’s Jones’ mastery of tone that makes the film a standout. The operating scene has a tenseness to it, even amidst the comedy, and it’s quite poignant when Claude Cat is starting to realize that he’s dead. And that ending is one of the strangest and most emotionally complicated ever in a Looney Tune. It’s sort of ironically inspirational, giving us a finale that might’ve been a tearful one at the end of some Frank Capra fantasy-comedy, only with the added knowledge that the whole thing is fake. It’s also comedic, as Claude becomes arrogantly superior now that he believes he is a celestial being. The mood of the scene is peaceful and tranquil, but there’s a dark foreboding to it as we’re aware that balloon isn’t going to hold up forever (Bertie’s comment “happy landings” is no accident). Or even if he doesn’t fall to his death, the fact that he’s going to continue floating around believing that he’s dead is in some ways more discomfiting. Amazing that Jones and his crew were able to capture so much in a slapstick comedy released in 1950.

MOTOR MANIA
Directed by Jack Kinney; Disney

After Jack Kinney had savagely demolished Goofy’s personality in his 1940s How To… series, transforming the character from a likable klutz into an endless parade of extras, Walt Disney recommended injecting some personality back into Goofy by presenting him as an everyman. As the series entered the 1950s, Goofy was suburbanized, and he dealt with everyday problems like fighting off colds, going on diets, raising kids, etc.

Despite a return to some semblance of normalcy, however, this series turned out to be even more bizarre than the sports cartoons: Goofy wasn’t pitched as the endearing clown of the 1930s, but was instead a virtual blank with no consistent voice, personality or design (his dog ears were usually scrapped); he wasn’t even named Goofy in the films, instead taking on the occasional title “George Geef”. Seeing an entire football team of Goofys feels like a cartoonish variation on a beloved character; seeing a “Goofy” cartoon with a character who doesn’t sound like Goofy, act like Goofy or even necessarily look like Goofy (in a film like Tomorrow We Diet, he is presented as grotesquely fat as befits the theme of the short), you are inclined to feel like you got ripped off.

This would be irrelevant if the cartoons were funny, but Kinney never seemed to connect with the relatable aspects of the “foibles” series (as storyman Milt Schaffer referred to it) and the cartoons became stiff and pedestrian. The impression to be gained from duds like Cold War (1951), Tomorrow We Diet (1951) and Get Rich Quick (1951) is that Kinney had no interest in Goofy as a character, or in domestic humor in general, but he was also being held back from going in the anarchic directions he took earlier cartoons like How to Play Football (1944) and Hockey Homicide (1945). There are certainly amusements to be found in entries like Teachers Are People (1952) and Father’s Day Off (1953), but it seems as though Kinney gave up when forced to water down his Goof.

Motor Mania may have been the first attempt to suburbanize Goofy, but really it falls into a brief transitional period between the last of the How-To cartoons (Tennis Racquet, Goofy Gymnastics) and the earliest George Geef cartoons (Cold War, Tomorrow We Diet). Other cartoons released in this short window were Lion Down, Hold That Pose and Home Made Home, all of which focus on everyday problems instead of sports, but feature crazy gags similar to the ones used in earlier Kinney films. Out of these cartoons, Home Made Home is the closest in tone to the How-To cartoons and Hold That Pose is the most relentlessly wacky, but Motor Mania is the most memorable and probably the funniest.

The film, narrated by the indispensable John McLeish, tells the Jekyll & Hyde-style story of mild-mannered Mr. Walker (Goofy), who transforms into the viscous Mr. Wheeler when he gets in his car. This cartoon does splendidly what most of the other “foibles” shorts fail to do: take an everyday annoyance (in this case, bad drivers) and present a cartoony funhouse viewpoint on it. The film in many ways serves a precursor to the ‘90s Nickelodeon series Rocko’s Modern Life, which similarly exaggerated the minutiae of American life by turning relatable experiences into wild cartoon gags. And indeed, Motor Mania is full of wonderful visual jokes that could only have surfaced in the mind of a cartoonist, from the cars barking like dogs to Mr. Wheeler opening up a “convertible” hat.

The film is full of laugh-out-loud moments, such as Mr. Wheeler wriggling in his seat while waiting at a red light and a driver keeping score of pedestrians he has run over. The voices are also excellent, with Wheeler’s unintelligible grunting and raving being a highlight. And the animation is absolutely stellar; the opening animation of Mr. Walker is suitably stiff, while the introduction of Mr. Wheeler (accompanied by a stark red backdrop) is incredibly unhinged and animalistic. The cartoon even works in a little bit of Disney self-parody as the benign Mr. Walker tweets along with a cute bird that might’ve flown right out of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of these separate elements pull together to form an amusing satire of driving habits that marks one of Disney’s best shorts of the 1950s; people taking their driver’s exam ought to be required to watch this cartoon.

NOTE: Goofy is referred to as Mr. Walker (or alternately Mr. Wheeler) in this film, but he also refers to one of his neighbors as “Mr. Geef”. Confusingly, Goofy would be given the name George Geef in many shorts throughout the ‘50s.

                                                      
THE SCARLET PUMPERNICKEL
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

Easily one of Chuck Jones’ greatest cartoons and one of Daffy Duck’s signature roles to boot, this terrific film succeeds as a genre parody, a character comedy and an in-jokey piece of meta-humor. In case you haven’t seen it (and if you haven’t, remedy that right away), Daffy is so tired of being typecast in comedy that he approaches “J.L.” (i.e. Jack L. Warner, head of the studio) with a dramatic part that he wishes to play. He then unfolds the story of the Scarlet Pumpernickel, a daring rogue who must save the fair Melissa from being married off to the nefarious Grand Duke.

This cartoon is notable for a few reasons; it was the first of Chuck Jones’ films to pit Daffy as an out-of-his-element hero. Jones went on to cast the duck as a western hero (Dripalong Daffy), a space explorer (Duck Dodgers in 24th 1/2 Century), a master detective (Deduce, You Say) and a swashbuckling outlaw (Robin Hood Daffy), all of which featured Daffy desperately attempting to prove himself and failing miserably. While Jones had already established Daffy as something of a loser in You Were Never Duckier (1948) and Daffy Dilly (1948), The Scarlet Pumpernickel solidified his personality as an egomaniacal screw-up and future appearances more or less adhered to that description.

This film is also highly unusual in that it features so many Looney Tunes characters in one place; the Warner Bros. crew rarely paired off characters from different series, and when they did, they scarcely used more than a few (for instance, Sylvester and Porky appeared together in Scaredy Cat, and Sylvester and Elmer appeared together in Back Alley Oproar, but this is the only film where you’ll find Sylvester, Porky and Elmer). However, Chuck Jones pulls out a whole slew of characters here in an effort to parody all-star epics.

The film gives us Porky Pig as the Lord High Chamberlain (in a rare villain role) and Sylvester as the Grand Duke (he delivers an ever-quotable monologue where he straightforwardly lays out his character motivation). And then there’s Henery Hawk as a messenger, Elmer Fudd as the humble proprietor of the King’s Nostril Inn and Mama Bear strumming on a harp behind Melissa. I particularly like the fact that even in Daffy’s imagination, he apparently couldn’t land Bugs Bunny in a role (or perhaps Daffy refused to work with him, fearing he would be shown up).

With all of the pieces in place, Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese concoct one of their most enjoyable collaborations. The absurdly majestic backdrops and archaic verbiage (“mayhap, perchance, foppish that I am, I might be the Scarlet Pumpernickel?”) create a dead-on parody of the Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn-style swashbuckler epics, but it’s really Daffy’s out-of-place casting as the charming hero that generates the biggest laughs. The climax is particularly amusing, as Daffy loses track of the script and starts pulling out all the stops in a nonsensically destructive finale. Michael Bay, take note!

SPELLBOUND HOUND
Directed by John Hubley; UPA

It’s a bit ironic that Mr. Magoo has become UPA’s most famous creation, because in many respects he went against the studio’s principles. The UPA artists wanted to move away from beloved cartoon stars and make more experimental one-shots like Gerald McBoing-Boing and Rooty Toot Toot. The Magoo series was something of a compromise; a gag-based comedy series starring a character who does about the same thing every time to keep the public happy so that the studio could also release more experimental shorts. But that’s not to say that Magoo doesn’t represent the studio’s sensibilities at all: he is drawn in a flat, stylized manner that doesn’t look anything like Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig, and the artists also got away with forming the series around a human as opposed to a funny animal (although Columbia only allowed Hubley to make the first entry in the series – Ragtime Bear – because the plot involved a bear).

Anyway, the early Magoos are the good ones. Creator John Hubley had a great handle on the character, treating him as a proud old coot who insists that he knows what’s going on and has things under control even when he doesn’t. Once Hubley left the studio and Pete Burness was put in charge of the series, Magoo lost his edge and his films became just a series of blind jokes. And that formula was far less creatively successful; a nice old man who wanders in and out of trouble because he can’t see just isn’t as funny as a stubborn old curmudgeon who refuses to admit that he can’t see.

Spellbound Hound was the first cartoon to nail Magoo’s personality (his debut, Ragtime Bear, actually tipped the scales too far in the other direction and made Magoo a nasty and unpleasant character), and it might be his best appearance. In the film, Magoo runs into a bloodhound on the hunt for an escaped convict, and he mistakes the dog for his friend Ralph, who he intends to go on a fishing trip with. Jim Backus’ hilarious mutterings gives the character instant likability, and the film’s animation is appealing and energetic (unlike later entries, which became far too stiff). There are a lot of amusing variations on Magoo’s inability to see, and the character is well-handled throughout.

Perhaps the film’s greatest scene is the one where he tries to start up his motorboat, but mistakes a record player for the motor. Magoo recognizes that there’s a problem, but he won’t give up, and he continues to try and start the boat. He finally gets the record to start playing, and he puffs his chest out in triumph as the boat remains in place. This is as good a representation of his character as any: if something doesn’t fit his expectations, he makes it fit. The scene is also a testament to how good the animation was in these early entries; Magoo is very strongly identified by his voice, and yet this scene nails the character and Jim Backus doesn’t utter a word.

RABBIT OF SEVILLE
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

What can I say about Rabbit of Seville, a film that would enter just about anybody’s top ten list of greatest cartoons of all time? Well, I could say that it’s an incredible piece of work, but that’s a dramatic understatement. Whereas many earlier classical music-themed Warner Bros. cartoons used selections from a piece to match the action to (Pigs in a Polka) or would occasionally diverge from the traditional score for the sake of a joke (a la the boogie woogie sequence in Rhapsody Rabbit), here the jokes are choreographed to a straightforward performance of Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture.

Like Chuck Jones’ other great forays into opera, Long-Haired Hare (1949) and What’s Opera, Doc? (1957), the film is a perfect mix of the highbrow world of classical music and the lowbrow world of slapstick comedy. But there’s so much artfulness and grace in the beautifully synchronized animation and ingeniously orchestrated gags that it seems incredible any society wouldn’t consider cartoons of this kind to be high art. It’s mind-boggling to think that Chuck Jones embarked on a masterpiece of this kind at a time when the films he was making were considered disposable filler.

That isn’t the case today, as Rabbit of Seville is justifiably hailed as one of the undisputed masterpieces of American animation. It’s a great high-concept cartoon, pulled off expertly, but it’s also a great Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd chase, and Jones never once sacrifices laughs for the sake of grand ambition. And that’s what makes the film such a joyous success: you can marvel at the film and laugh at the same time. I dare you to listen to this piece and not think of Bugs Bunny pouring Figaro Fertilizer on Elmer Fudd’s head.

Thanks for reading, guys, and be sure to comment on this article with your favorite cartoons of 1950.

That’s all, folks… at least for now!

3 Comments

3 Comments

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

DISCLAIMER

Forces of Geek is protected from liability under the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) and “Safe Harbor” provisions.

All posts are submitted by volunteer contributors who have agreed to our Code of Conduct.

FOG! will disable users who knowingly commit plagiarism, piracy, trademark or copyright infringement.

Please contact us for expeditious removal of copyrighted/trademarked content.

SOCIAL INFLUENCER POLICY

In many cases free copies of media and merchandise were provided in exchange for an unbiased and honest review. The opinions shared on Forces of Geek are those of the individual author.

You May Also Like

Movies

This time, terror comes from below … as well as a new Phantoms [Collector’s Edition] 4K UHD + Blu-Ray combo set arriving on July...

Movies

  People online are always talking about how they would never be able to make Blazing Saddles today. This, of course, is true, if...

Movies

Experience writer/director John Krasinski’s “heartwarming” (Joey Paur, GeekTyrant) and “hilarious” (Tessa Smith, Mama’s Geeky) original adventure IF when it arrives to buy or rent...

Movies

The trouble is, it’s just not true. This is a movie about how your grandparents were phonies and the city you live in is...