Tuesday, 27 June 2017

SNAFU: The Home Front (1943)

Director: Frank Tashlin.
Release date: November 1943.
Starring: Mel Blanc (Snafu).
Music: Carl Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown.
Synopsis: A homesick Private Snafu complains about the easy life of civilians like his family. However, he discovers they're also contributing to the war effort as he does.

Wars have the tendency of highlighting soldiers fighting combat as well as bearing the burden of military life. It's a pivotal example of war duty - but so is the home front. For civilians who are uninvolved in combat (whether it concerns the elderly or folks with 4-F ratings), society can contribute to the war effort through various kinds of factors. It ranges from various resources such as industrial or human, so the home front is still significant to a cause. The Snafu cartoons themselves were a contribution to the war effort. Every bit helps!

In this entry, Private Snafu underestimates how other forces contribute to the war effort besides armed forces. With magical guidance from the Technical Fairy, Snafu observes the various home front duties that's all beneficial for the war effort.

An intriguing element in this short that's set apart from a lot of Snafu cartoons is the character's relatively passive role. A chunk of the cartoon focuses on Snafu's family, based on what he thinks they're doing in contrast to what they're really up to. Instead of calamities that characterises Snafu; he is portrayed as an observer in this cartoon instead.

Nevertheless, Snafu's presence is felt during the cutaway sequences surrounding his family. Each of his family members are stereotyped based on Snafu's observations. He assumes his father is casually playing pool at Kelly's. His mother is portrayed as gossiping away with her lady friends whilst playing bridge.

Frank Tashlin uses sight gags as little touches to personify their apparent nature. His father uses his cigar smoke to push a cue ball that's standing at the edge of the pocket. His mother and her friends visually dissolve into a flock of hens. Such gags are amusing in Snafu's unfair interpretations of their family.

Perhaps the most hilarious observation from Snafu is seen from his interpretation of his grandfather - who he claims, "never did a day's work in his life". He is stereotyped as a perverted old coot who pleasures himself of using his binoculars to watch stripteases at a burlesque show. Some great lustful exaggeration is prominent in a shot of his eyes erecting through the binoculars.

A more personal perspective from Snafu is his girlfriend, Sally-Lou. His paranoia kicks in at the thought of her already having an affair with a sophisticated philanderer. All those stereotypes are funny interpretations based on Snafu's homesickness - which makes him relatable as a character.

By the time the Technical Fairy arrives - he gives Snafu a special insight of his family's current activity through a telelvisor - which today, is a dated noun for a regular television set. Since television was a relatively new invention in 1943 - it's exaggeratedly portrayed as a magical device to watch people's current lives. As Snafu discovers; his father and grandfather are both contributing to industrial resources, his mother is planting a victory garden and Sally-Lou is working as a WAC. By the end of the short, Snafu comes to his senses when he realises his family are all "working in the old home town" - sung in the style of Tenting On the Old Camp Ground.

Frank Tashlin utilises some his knowledge of camera panning during the opening scene of Snafu inside a shelter during a blizzard. His only source of comfort is a phonograph ironically playing Home Sweet Home. The camera pans to the record player, then pans towards a miserable Snafu attempting to keep warm by sitting on a stove. The camera pans back to the record player, which violently malfunctions and breaks apart.

The camera pans back to Snafu when he expresses his homesickness by complaining about a possible luxury his family are having back home: "They don't even know there's a war goin' on!".

It's a complex use of camera pan that's consistently kept busy throughout the sequence. If you're aware of how cels, backgrounds and camera stands compile together, it's a great deal of effort. Frank Tashlin is fearless when it comes to taking the liberty of moving the camera much more freely. This allows the scenario to have more space instead of a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Frank Tashlin appears to approach some economic tactics in his direction - likely attributed by the smaller budgets the Snafu shorts provided. Economical or experimental, Tashlin utilises both in scenes that contain little or no animation.

Tashlin explores his timing abilities in sequences that contains no animation. This is especially evident during the victory garden sequence dug up by Snafu's mother and her pets. After ploughing the garden and planting the seeds; the crops grow rapidly to great effect.

This is achieved with no animation and the crops are likely drawn on separate levels. The effect would've been heavily reliant from the skills of Johnny Burton's camera department - who "animated" the crops growing. Not only did the department have to carefully time the effect; but also in rhythm to Beethoven's 5th symphony.

Snafu's girlfriend in a figment of the nightclub scene is drawn as part of the background. Only the seductive gentleman is completely animated in the shot. One could say it's merciful in sparing the animator from painstaking drawing skills. However, she is very passive and aloof to the gentleman during the scenario; so full animation would've been unnecessary. It showcases Tashlin's judgement of using economical factors to good use.

Elements of risqué humour are no secret in Snafu cartoons. Some of the more edgier gags surface in this short. For example, in the opening shot of a blizzard, the narrator says: "It's so cold, it would freeze the nuts of a Jeep!". The context needs no explanation, but effects animation is applied to feature two nut bolts from a Jeep actually drop and fall to the ground. Keeping the context subtle makes the delivery all the more hilarious.

The burlesque sequence probably has the biggest shock value in this cartoon. Snafu's grandfather is watching a trio of young ladies performing a saucy strip tease on stage. Stripteases have proven a fun source for gags in several Warner Bros. cartoons; but never as indecent or obvious in this Snafu cartoon.

The trio strippers are seen completely bare; save their breasts and genitalia which are covered. Sometimes Frank Tashlin underplays the racy scenario as the camera trucks in on a girl's leg whilst undoing a bra. The assistant and drawing work in those scenes are a tad sloppy, but otherwise the clarity's all there. The series of shots featuring full-frontal nudity indicates the freedom the Schlesinger studio enjoyed from the Snafu shorts.

The Home Front is an intriguing approach for a Snafu short that doesn't follow a story arc. The first half of the cartoon features Snafu's interpretation of how he sees his family back home; whilst the second half features them contributing to the war effort. Frank Tashlin would be an appropriate candidate for a cartoon that doesn't rely heavily on formula or structure. Not only is this cartoon one of the rarest occasions where Snafu doesn't meet disaster, but also the downplaying of his role. It's takes a different spin on the premise's usual formula, but it manages to clarify its message just the same.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

416. Inki and the Minah Bird (1943)

Warner cartoon no. 415.
Release date: November 13, 1943.
Series: Merrie Melodies.
Supervision: Chuck Jones.
Producer: Leon Schlesinger.
Story: ?
Animation: ?
Musical Direction: Carl W. Stalling.
Sound: Treg Brown (uncredited).
Synopsis: Inki runs into a hungry lion whilst hunting with a spear. However, the lion has difficulty when he encounters the mynah bird who challenges him.

Courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
By the time Chuck Jones was achieving better comedy for his animated cartoons; he still hadn't quite withdrawn from his Disney-esque characters which held back his true talents during his first few years as a director. He previously attempted to broaden Sniffles in The Unbearable Bear, which worked fine by underplaying his position and altering his cutesy persona.

Chuck Jones' Inki cartoons remained firmly consistent during his reform - with the exception of his broader timing. Jones would continue to sporadically make Inki cartoons until 1950 - at a time when he was reaching the pinnacle of his powers. Inki is probably the least diverse character from Chuck Jones regarding formula. While the Coyote & Road Runner cartoons feature a great variety of hysterical gags within the same premise - the Inki shorts are restraint from that. The premise is almost entirely centred on Inki hunting a mynah bird whilst endangered by a hungry lion. Only occasionally does the locale change, especially in later cartoons like Inki at the Circus and Caveman Inki. For such differences is for the review to uncover.

The animation is far broader in Inki than Chuck Jones wouldn't dare to do in his earlier cartoons centered on the character. In the opening scene Inki attempts to stab a worm with his spear, but narrowly misses. The spear vibrates vigorously that once Inki grips his hands onto the handle - he begins to shake violently.

In a following close-up; Inki's shaking action is matched by some wild smear animation. By the time the spear relaxes; Inki's hair bun is unloosened with wild long hair falling over his face. For a character we're used to seeing in slower paced cartoons - it's a pretty farfetched gag.

Shortly after, Chuck Jones appears to channel the likes of Tex Avery in a scene of Inki attempting to hunt the mynah bird. Inki's hair bun appears above the water, signalling the bird's location. Upon finding it Inki's hair bun travels its way through soil and digs up the surface. Inki grabs out his spear lying by the ground and proceeds to follow the bird.

The gag itself has been used several times in Avery's cartoons like The Crackpot Quail and The Heckling Hare. It was also used similarly in the Donald Duck cartoon, The Hockey Champ.

The gag standalone might be a throwback to earlier animated shorts, but the action of Inki digging through soil goes up a notch. Inki's hair bun creating wild subtle twists enhances some charm to Jones' timing.

Carl Stalling's music typically requires a lot of direction from Chuck Jones for his Inki shorts. Most evident is the infamous motif for the mynah bird's hopping action synchronised to Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave. Although Stalling took credit for the accompanying motif in an interview; he added, "it went over so well that we had to use it every time." While it's one of the few remaining identities surrounding the character - it magnifies the bird's vague nature.

Other uses of music timing blended into animation is utilised well in the cartoon's opening scene. A green worm hops rhythmically to Stalling's beats - including the worm's wriggling action. The hopping action continues until the worm has a close call to Inki's spear slammed to the ground.

It's a great showcase of how Stalling and Jones were both creative when it came to timing animated action through tempo. The scene itself has great staging and layout work - most likely by Art Heinemann. Keeping the worm the main focus until a spear shoots ahead of him is a nice case of unexpected delivery. The absence of Inki in the shot makes the spear all the more threatening. While the opening operates as a formula to previous Inki shorts - Chuck's pacing and use of dynamics had advanced to that point.

The sequence of Inki and the lion fighting inside a barrel showcases some of Chuck's experimentation with timing. Inki frantically hides inside a barrel after a close encounter with a hungry lion who antagonises Inki throughout the cartoon. The lion lifts the barrel upwards licking his chops, indicating he ate Inki - without realising he's now hiding on top.

This follows by a frenzy attack inside the barrel. The action is interpreted as frantic and wild as indicated by the barrel exaggeratedly twisting and changing volume, pulled off by Chuck's fun timing and the clarity of the cartoony animation.

A very intriguing piece of timing follows immediately afterwards. The mynah bird suddenly hops out of the barrel and zips out of scene - leaving a cloud of dust. Then, Inki and the lion leave their clouds of dust as they zip out of shot.

But, the dust unveils to reveal the trio standing in their same positions - except this time the lion is ready to eat up Inki. The timing is wonderfully innovative in its presentation of speed. Very few directors like Chuck Jones could time a gag that requires so much subtlety surrounding the mystery of the mynah bird.

In previous Inki shorts, a hungry lion played an antagonist role. As a personality the lion was always intended to be fearsome and dangerous - likely a past attempt to make audiences take the lion seriously. For this cartoon, the lion is portrayed with a foolish characterisation; much in vein to the rest of the Warner Bros. product.

In one scene, the lion skids broadly to a halt upon seeing a juicy steak Inki holds. However, the mynah bird swallows the steak whilst hiding inside the jaws of the lion's mouth. Upon realisation that his steak is gone; the lion ends up bawling his eyes out, banging on the ground like a child.

Chuck Jones adds a hilarious touch by having the lion eyeing towards the audience - and quickly returns to his fearsome image - which is already tarnished. The gag works fine in creating an obvious contrast between size and behaviour.

Such characterisation remembered fondly by animator Shamus Culhane - a veteran animator who briefly worked at Schlesinger during this time. He recalls in his autobiography: "I especially working on the lion because he was a dumb, raggedy coot who didn't remember that he was supposed to be the king of beasts." Culhane's descriptions perfectly matches with the scene. Culhane also wrote that the majority of the animation was split between himself and Bobe Cannon. Cannon's animation adorns this cartoon but whatever animated scenes Culhane worked on, I'm not certain.

In several sequences; Chuck Jones' character layouts come to advantage - notably when Inki first encounters the lion. Animating pantomime is challenging enough in terms of capturing clarity, but in the hands of Chuck Jones it's put to good use. Chuck's posing works effectively during Inki's double-take when he glares directly into the lion's eyes.

Beautiful touches are added when the lion drums his fingers which delays Inki's take comedically. Inki's hair bun forming a question mark wonderfully communicates through pantomime. As the lion roars menacingly at Inki; he zips out of the shot - causing the lion to bump his head on the ground - adding character to his clumsy persona.

In a later sequence, the lion pounds furiously at a palm tree with child-like behaviour after failing to eat both Inki and the mynah bird. Coconuts drop from the tree but one drops in the lion's hands which morphs back to Inki's proportions.

Inki looks at the lion bashfully by which the lion responds with an even goofier grin. Inki leaves the scene - leaving the lion's hands empty. Chuck's expressions are fitting towards the lion's inept personality.

The mystery of the mynah bird typically becomes repetitive when the character sporadically hops into scene with the same Mendelssohn music and bringing curiosity towards Inki and the lion. In some cases; the mystery of the mynah bird actually becomes intriguing and ambiguous.

In one scene; the mynah bird hops inside a clump of hay whilst the lion anticipates a pouncing action towards it. As the lion follows the bird - the straw gradually reduces in size until it completely vanishes into thin air.

Later on, the lion encounters a single piece of straw hopping into scene, but gradually grows larger and larger until the mynah bird reemerges. It's an intriguing piece of ambiguity surrounding the character - indicating a supernatural force in a cartoon environment. Jones' cartoons never reveals the mynah bird's true nature - perhaps a deliberate suggestion that the mynah bird is an unknown power towards mankind that can't be understood. The greater the mystery the more illuminating.

The mynah bird soon plays a more active part at the cartoon's climax when the bird challenges the lion. Earlier cartoons never featured the mynah bird's actions when defeating a lion; as it took place entirely off-screen. In this occasion, we are blessed to see the mynah bird engage in an effortless fight with the lion.

He picks up the jungle giant by the tail and whirls him around until the lion falls inside a lump of hay - which dwindles until it vanishes out of sight. Soon afterwards; the lion reappears when the mynah bird gives Inki a few pieces of straws.

The cartoon's ending commences once the mynah bird takes down the lion again - but this only, interpreted by some elaborate drybrush work and Treg Brown's use of comical sound effects. Inki quietly exits the scene during the brawl.

Once the drybrush whirlpool wears off; the lion discovers his jaws are missing from his mouth. He turns his eyes towards the mynah bird furiously - who then reveals to be wearing the lion's teeth inside its mouth.

I don't consider myself a fan of the Inki cartoons, primarily based on its stale, repetitive formula. The cartoon's title itself doesn't strike me as anything different in comparison to The Little Lion Hunter or Inki and the Lion as those cartoons have a primarily similar structure. Although this cartoon might be another replica, it's much more engaging than the previous instalments. Chuck Jones' pacing and innovative use of timing makes the short a more intriguing viewing. It's evident that Chuck was attempting to utilise comedy for the Inki shorts; and to some extent it worked well for the lion characterisation. The minah bird's role in this cartoon adds some depth to the mysterious nature, and he's a lot more active than beforehand. This short doesn't represent the very best of Chuck Jones by all means, but it's certainly a step up from Jones' painfully slower cartoons.

Rating: 2.5/5.