“Step Right This Way, Ladies and Gentlemen”: Last Few Flea Bites, And Other Toonified Musings

5 Mar

The clown conductor from Circus Daze, as he's being attacked by fleas

by Kevin Wollenweber

NOTE FROM RACHEL: There will be no Freeze Frame Friday this week; my illustrious co-blogger Kevin was so inspired by yesterday’s review of Circus Daze that he sent a few words of his own off into the computerized ether. As I felt it to be the perfect companion piece, his post really needs to be right above mine:

Well, as usual, I thank my co-blogger, Rachel Newstead, for doing such a magnificent job of reviewing, in full detail, the HAPPY HARMONIES cartoon, “CIRCUS DAZE”, starring, as she pointed out, the fully humanized Bosko and Honey.

I’d always said that the humanized Bosko, especially in the final three cartoons in the MGM-distributed series, felt more connected to the Hal Roach OUR GANG comedies, moreso than almost all of the other toons under the HAPPY HARMONIES banner, more typically dedicated to bringing to life notable fairy tales or cute little musicals.  In some cases, you could actually imagine some of the antics that happen within the first few cartoons in the MGM collection of titles starring BOSKO as having been directly inspired by the antics of the OUR GANG kids.

Certainly, the accidental scares that happen in “THE OLD HOUSE” could also be run, side-by-side, with the live action OUR GANG early talkie, “MOAN & GROAN, INC.”, a film in which the kids, groaning about the days grinding by without any real excitement, decide to skulk around in search of that excitement in what first appears to be an old abandoned house.  They soon learn that it is inhabited by an eccentric old man who seems to delight in scaring the kids, sometimes face to face as we see in the segment in which Farina (Alan Clayton Hoskins) is cornered and has to mime eating a full course turkey dinner.  In this case, Harman could have learned a lot from the acting talents of young Mr. Hoskins as he pulls the miming off so carefully and comically.

And, as I prompted Rachel to point out in her review, “CIRCUS DAZE” may have been slightly more directly inspired by “Thundering Fleas”, a silent entry of Hal Roach’s OUR GANG series that I never actually had the opportunity to physically see, but, according to the Leonard Maltin/Richard Ban book, OUR GANG—THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE LITTLE RASCALS, the plot points certainly sound ever so close to that of “CIRCUS DAZE”.

Here, again, Harman could have taken the clue from Mr. Roach for his Bosko and Honey antics.  In the Roach film, not only do the fleas taunt the gang’s little dog *AND* individual members of the gang, like rotund Joe Cobb, they cling to the kids and follow them back to the festivities around a gang member’s sister’s wedding.

As I read Rachel’s vivid outline of the “CIRCUS DAZE” cartoon, I was reminded of some of the scenes and given a clearer picture of things that were not so clear and clean in the grainy broadcast edition that I’d seen years ago, in the early 1960’s to be exact.  Rachel pointed out that, for  a few seconds, there are a few montaged scenes recapped as the cartoon comes to a speedy conclusion and Bruno gets literally kicked from the circus grounds, hopefully to never return as far as the ringmaster is concerned.  As there are Disney-esque aspects of the cartoon, as again observed by Rachel, then it is too bad that Harman did not do something as daring as continue the chaos for a little longer, perhaps incorporating live action into the wildness.

It is indeed so odd that little Honey is the one character who comes out of the frey unscathed—a hat’s off to Honey’s tenacity in the face of extreme danger and mayhem?  Well, I see it as more and likely a cost-cutting measure of padding before Harmon can bring the cartoon to an abrupt halt after the sweaty and speedy last few seconds in which we hear the fastest version of the oft-used “Poet and the Peasant” classical piece I’ve ever heard in my life!

This same piece was used just as perfectly in a Max Fleischer POPEYE cartoon called “SPINACH OVERTURE” as soundtrack for Popeye’s attack on Bluto, but this Hugh Harman cartoon is a chaos that I wasn’t expecting at all!!  I’m dimly recalling one of those “how to” cartoons, starring Uncle Walt’s Goofy, called “HOCKEY HOMICIDE”, where the action builds to one of the wildest conclusions ever filmed in animation, including live action churned up at top

Goofy hemmed in a hockey goal, buried in hockey pucks

HOCKEY HOMICIDE (1945), like CIRCUS DAZE, builds to an insane climax in the last minute and a half, as can be seen in these stills (above and below)


Just think of what “CIRCUS DAZE” could have been if Hugh Harman possibly decided to team up with Hal Roach, also under contract to have his live action comedies distributed by MGM, in a Fleischer-esque combination of talents of slapstick antics as, perhaps, the clouding mass of insects seeped, like lava, out onto the surrounding city or suburban streets, and we get to witness pedestrian and even vehicular traffic on the highway affected and Fight between dozens of Goofy lookalikes in HOCKEY HOMICIDEsent into a tizzy.

One cannot say that the special effect of blending animation with live action was not perfected or used widely by the time that “CIRCUS DAZE” was created.  Max Fleischer, as I’ve said in earlier animation discussions, had been using the technique in surreal ways.  There is a cartoon in the BETTY BOOP series, a post-Hays Code entry that co-starred Pudgy, her mischievious pup, called “MORE PEP”.  In this cartoon, Pudgy is a performing pup who does tricks, but his “get up and go” has gotten up and went.

Betty Boop's "Pep" machine going wild through the city

The city of New York gets a quick dose of "pep" in this Betty Boop cartoon from 1936 (above, and below right)

The narrator, here called Max, even though it isn’t Max Fleischer’s own voice, suggests this powdery cure-all that not only zaps little Pudgy with high voltage energy, but also wafts out onto the streets of Manhattan, where we see everything moving at top speed, making the already over-crowded and tumultuous streets of the city seem all the more harrowing in the black and white scheme of things.Man with picket sign gets sprayed with "pep"

And, getting back to my original point of course, there was the more immediately accessible “Thundering Fleas” OUR GANG silent mentioned above, where animation was used to zero in on the fleas as they individually skipped out from the carnival grounds where the kids detoured on their way to the wedding festivities, and latched themselves onto the kids and the dog.  Where Harman goes wrong with the BOSKO cartoon is not allowing the taunting flea that menaces Bruno throughout the first few moments to really have a personality, to be seen in close-up, forever teasing Bruno with childish facial expressions and such.  At times, we see the little dot representing the flea zeroing in on Bruno from all sides as having a kind of “personality”, but you have to look close, and Harman doesn’t seem to miss a beat of “real time” as the cartoon continues, despite all the dissolves used from scene to scene.  We are aware that there are two chaotic events happening around the circus grounds simultaneously—Bruno continuing to chase the loose flea and Bosko trying to get the lost balloon away from the monkeys and pried apart from the suction of the blaring trombone on which it gets caught again and again.

By the time Bruno falls on the flea circus, the swarm becomes magnificent, more like waves of electricity that sends the circus into fits of activity, especially that elephant, snapping and clawing at itself from one corner to the other of what has to be the largest cage ever given to a creature in captivity!

But, with all the funding allowed these cartoons, why didn’t Harman blend live action with animation here?  He certainly had experimented in this way when working at Disney and producing a cartoon called “MERBABIES” which opens with the live action surf rushing against the shoreline.  The cartoon fun doesn’t begin until we, the camera eye of the film, dive deep beneath the waves to that land of fantasy underneath.

“MERBABIES” is said to have been produced by Harman just after Harman/Ising’s last BOSKO cartoon was produced for MGM, so live action/animation combinations were apparent at this time and, boy, I can’t help but think of what “CIRCUS DAZE” might have been like if live actors, perhaps big screen stars of the day in cameo, both men and women (and children), were allowed to comically suffer the indignities of the cartoonish clowns and circus animals.

I don’t dare suggest that Harman should have used live animals within the possible live action portion, because MGM would have had the ASPCA on its back for animal cruelty…and, besides, the animated body language of the animals throughout the cartoon are pain-stakingly accurate enough that you really believe that each beast and bird would react as they do if suddenly besieged by ferociously biting insects.  Rachel brought up the occasional inaccuracies of sound effects of the animals as they squawked, roared and screamed in itching agony.  I’d like to mention that, for the most part, I feel that the sound effects person or people got these jarring sounds quite accurate, especially the elephant, as described by Rachel.  At one point, the elephant rolls around and leaps to its hind legs, bending enough to stretch its clumsy forelegs to vigorously scratch around at its hind quarters (or thereabouts) and we hear a higher-pitched yowling.  How perfect; after all, wouldn’t *YOU* howl at a much higher pitch if thousands of nasty little buggers were suddenly biting at your privates?

But Rachel is right about the incorrect noise given to the giraffe.  I’m not entirely sure that giraffes never make noises if provoked or put in danger, but I don’t think it would resemble a sheep at all.  (Note: if I remember my high-school biology, giraffes have no vocal cords–R. )

There is also a brief appearance in the montage of an ostrich, just after our mad elephant reappears and runs headlong straight for the camera with its screaming mouth wide open, and this creature, too, is given a few minor squawks.  I wonder, Were these accurate?

It has always been Harmon/Ising’s problem that they don’t seem to know when they should be starkly realistic in their portrayal of events as they unfold or should strive for something better suited expressly to the exaggerated world of the animated cartoon alone.  We’ve pointed this out in earlier reviews of other titles in the HAPPY HARMONIES series, but Hugh Harman’s direction does hit the mark here most times, because the real “star” of this film, aside from Bruno, is the action…lots and lots of action, so much so that you felt yourself gulping back a breath or two or unconsciously breathing quicker as if on a sugar rush with your eyes glued to every frame as it whizzes by you.

I often recall hearing stories of how Walt Disney instructed his animators to go out and observe life carefully, examine how it moves, how each body part or root is connected  so that, when animating even the most sensational sequences in a film, the results will truly be believable by the viewing audience, no matter how obviously unrealistic.  I’d question just what Hugh Harman had to sit and watch in gathering up poses and in betweens for the various quick scenes in this film, but, aside from Harman’s use of montage instead of side-splitting, out-and-out laugh riot gag content like movie-goers later got with animators like Robert Clampett or Tex Avery, I’d say this is a near perfect cartoon and one that should really be seen by a wider audience.  It so deserves to be restored so that we all could have a better copy to examine, frame by frame, and one that my co-blogger could use for a future FREEZE FRAME FRIDAY segment, eh?

All in all, “CIRCUS DAZE”, if nothing else, is a grand and exhausting education for students of the art of animation.  Action in an animated cartoon can be gripping and more than just two dimensional drawings that move.  It is, after all, at its best, that eerie extension of our living worlds, and one we could imagine in our worst nightmares.  In this major year, wherein a few animated features are up for major Academy Award nods at the Oscar ceremonies, it is noteworthy that cartoons like “CIRCUS DAZE” possibly paved the way for many a view of a world in chaos, and I have to say that I don’t recall many ambitious bits of animation during my sighted years really capturing action this large and this fast.

One might compare a scene or two here to Disney’s later feature, “DUMBO”, but there are times when the action in the Disney film, to me, doesn’t read as clearly as it does throughout “CIRCUS DAZE”.  You cringe as the fleas fall like a vapor over the circus grounds and the finale of the classical piece, “The Poet and the Peasant” whirs on at almost twice its normal speed.  The action breathlessly doesn’t miss a beat as if it were, instead, live action followed closely with an exuberant hand-held camera, something I’ve never seen in a cartoon of this type before.

Fleischer used this technique in some instances in the early 1940’s, but the camera eye moved so quickly as to almost blur the image and passing of time instead of convey speed.  I would have loved to see the pile of individual cells it took to complete this near seven-minute HAPPY HARMONIES entry.  All involved must have needed many a stiff drink after the endeavor, but it was an incredible endeavor indeed.  We, like Bruno hitting the test-your-strength gong, also feel like falling into a heap to catch our breath when this seemingly bottomless mass of energy is done and the end credits roll amid the final few brassy notes of the fanfare.  “It’s colossal…it’s terrific…I’d say it’s even mediocre!”  Those words of the carnival barker heard at the cartoon’s opening montage of performers sums it up perfectly!!


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