More Sound and Vision Of An Innocent Quality From The “Wide-Eyed” Age

1 Apr

March Of The Wooden Sodiers

The wooden sodiers come alive, in Hal Roach's 1934 film BABES IN TOYLAND (a.k.a. MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS)

by Kevin Wollenweber
Well, obsessing as I often have far too much time to do over comments I’ve made about memories of visual effects in movies or cartoons, I think I figured out what is so surreally humorous or interesting about “under-cranked” or time-lapsed photography used in comedy or to enhance action.  First of all, the best such photography occurs when the subjects can be taught to play along with the effect.  If, for example, you’re trying to convey unbridled chaos in a crowd situation, you could slow the camera down and have the actors in the crowd move at regular speed, but they should do so as if oblivious to their surroundings.  In so doing, if, say, the situation is for crowds of frantic shoppers to move along tightly populated  aisles of merchandise, grabbing at things over and around other shoppers also grabbing at things, they should do so as if they were “programmed” to do what they are doing, like the wooden soldiers in the Stan & Ollie version of “BABES IN TOYLAND/MARCH OF THE WOODEN SOLDIERS”.

What I’ve found so amusing about the effect of sped-up action like this is that the participants all look like toy figurines run amuck.  This is true of that whole sequence in the BETTY BOOP cartoon, “MORE PEP”, as the energy-inducing substance wafts over the streets of New York and automatically begins speeding up everything, including drivers and people just casually out for a stroll on their lunch hour.  Somehow, the stimulating antidote to lethargy begins seeping out like a white vapor over the live action surroundings and all hell breaks loose, as is usually the case in a strange and wonderous Fleischer cartoon of this type.

This is also true in that Mazola corn oil commercial I referred to in an earlier posting, even though it is only one woman and her shopping cart.  She speedily rushes through scenery as if she were electrically charged, grabbing at anything she needs with stiff, exaggerated body language to accent how tired she’s getting until you feel her relief as she falls limply into the recliner, kicks off her high heels and plops her tired feet on the footrest with that almost cartoonish emphasis of weariness on her face.  You can almost see the lines of over exertion around her mouth and eyes.  The actress could have been a cartoon, but it is the fact that this is a live actress turned into an animated cartoon by a mere photographic effect that allows us to believe that a person is really moving this fast through her daily activities.  On film, you’re not even totally aware that this is actually being sped up, whereas, I’m told that the effect isn’t quite the same using digital technology, but I’ll leave that to a professional to correct me if my assumption here is wrong.

If the under-cranked choreography is done correctly, a chaotic crowd scene of similar shoppers, rushing about and bumping into each other or bouncing off each other while in the process would look as if they were all mannequins, blindly moving about on their programmed duties, temporarily bouncing off each other’s bodies while doing it, but not missing a beat after stumbling and continuing to rush about as originally “programmed”.  After all, the point of the image is that the shoppers are after that bargain, even if they have to step on others to get there.  Or, if an actor in a time lapse scene falls stiffly to the floor after an altercation or collision, he can almost look like a cardboard cut-out that falls backwards.

We saw incidents like this on filmed visuals on shows like “ROWAN & MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN”, but mostly these were used to good effect in commercials, and that is why I liked the wackier commercials of the latter 1960’s, some of which, like this one, almost made no sense and, ultimately, would not keep us remembering the product as much as the silly situation.

On an unrelated note, I was playing the contents of one of those volumes from Columbia House in the “WOODY WOODPECKER SHOW” series of disks, and I can’t say enough about the earliest incarnation of Andy Panda, especially when it comes to the character’s voice.  No one, absolutely *NO

Andy Panda 1939

Andy Panda, as he appeared when Sara Berner voiced him. From LIFE BEGINS FOR ANDY PANDA (1939)

ONE* can do that baby doll voice for comic effect like Sarah Berner.  She is, of course, also noted for doing the voice of Toots in the LOONEY TUNES cartoon “QUENTIN QUAIL”, about a father bird and his petulant daughter who so likes to be by Daddy’s side as he goes out to catch his morning worm.  Miss Berner is funny but a little abrasive in that Warner Brothers classic, but in the early Lantz cartoon which introduces us to the inquiring little panda boy, Sarah plays the role so perfectly that you almost wish that the character were instead based on a little girl.  When Andy asks pressing questions to a somewhat childish Papa Panda about nature and he irritatedly answers him with some convoluted summation answer to his questions of “whyyyyyeeee?”, with a similarly innocent half-understanding “ooooohhh”, every mother and father can relate to the tone in that little voice.  I know, because I’ve a little grand niece who is now at the age where she needs to know, constantly, the reason “whyyyyeeee!”

Sarah Berner never loses the little child in her voice, even when Andy has to tangle with the poacher tribesmen who wait outside the forest habitat, waiting for game.  Andy manages to escape danger every time, just by being a kid and teasing the hunter/gatherers out of their game with the same glee as he would in playing games with his exasperated Papa.  In subsequent ANDY PANDA cartoons, the voice chores would be given to Walter Tetley who, of course, was later immortalized as Sherman, Mr. Peabody’s “pet boy” in the Jay Ward series of cartoons about the canine genius, but we lose that infant glee that the character seemed to have and only Sarah Berner could show us.  Miss Berner was one of the last to show such talent, coming out of the 1930’s where we had not only Sarah Berner, but also Berneice Hansen, most remembered for her voice of Little Cheezer and countless cherubic rodents and birds in earlier 1930’s cartoons and Mae Questel who gave that cute baby talk to her BETTY BOOP takeoff on the voice talents of Helen Kane.

I’d go so far as to say that I long to see more Lantz cartoons come out on DVD just so I can get the remainder of the earliest ANDY PANDA cartoons, even though most of these were included as uncut film prints throughout the Columbia House Lantz series.  There is an ANDY PANDA cartoon that was produced soon after the debut, “LIFE BEGINS FOR ANDY PANDA” that was nothing more than a battle of wits between baby Andy and the tribal hunters that is fantastically well timed in most of its comedy, and I hope to see that in any subsequent volumes, in full and complete restoration.  (Note: LIFE BEGINS FOR ANDY PANDA was the debut Andy Panda cartoon–I believe Kevin is referring to 100 PYGMIES AND ANDY PANDA here–Rachel).

With news of such future releases looking rather slim right now, I am not expecting this to be so anytime real soon, but I do hold out hope that this cartoon, whatever its title, will be one of the next in the series to be chosen for inclusion therein.

Even though cherubic and even cloying characters were the norm in the 1930’s, various studios approached this cuteness from a different angle.  Walt Disney Productions embraced it whole-heartedly as Disney wanted to stress the passion he had for childhood tales told without a single drop of cynicism, but you always felt the underlying disenchantment that other studios had for that sort of tale-telling, and it is noteworthy that some voices who took part in the serious efforts of Walt Disney to tell the innocent morality tales *ALSO* took part in the other studios’ mockeries of this passion Disney had for such tales.

When Sarah Berner plays the guile of a child to the hilt, she is clearly poking fun at the way Disney looked at the tiniest little creatures, sometimes even voiced in Disney cartoons by children, and on that level it works.  Yet, there is still an innocence retained in her performance of it.  She brings a sweetness to performances that might be sneered at as being overtly insensitive today, as she does in a JASPER cartoon from George Pal’s PUPPETTOONS series in which the little black boy is seen gently playing a sad little tune on his fiddle to soothe an old Southern racehorse, put out to pasture.  Jasper finds out about the horse’s racing past when he begins playing a jig and reel that excites the horse into racing wildly around the barnyard, and this gets Jasper interested in entering the old horse for one more victory in the Kentucky Derby.  Miss Berner plays the little boy Jasper in the same way she plays the little boy talking to Uncle Tom in the MGM Tex Avery classic, “UNCLE TOM’S CABANA” and, because Sarah does the voice so well, you’re drawn into the story, as only George Pal, the Walt Disney of his native land, could tell it.  Likewise, Sarah Berner could lend her voice to the speed-talking little Agnes in the DAFFY DUCK cartoon, “NASTY QUACKS” from Frank Tashlin, that skinny little dark-haired girl with the bow in her hair who comes between her Dad and Daffy in one beautifully timed scene just as Dad is ready to brutally clobber Daffy, explaining in a breathlessly long sentence how teacher said we should be kind to animals and that she loves the little duck enough to protect him.

In “DING DOG DADDY”, another Warner Brothers cartoon that features, prominently, the voice of Pinto Colvig as the lovesick dog, Sarah has a brilliant bit part as a white longhair female with whom the male dog becomes smitten.  When Pinto gives out with that country bumpkin laugh as only Mr. Culvig can do, Sara reels back her head and snootily mocks every

Frame of girl dog from DING DOG DADDY (1942)

Sara puts a dead-on, yet mean-spirited imitation of the Pinto Colvig dog into the mouth of this snooty girl dog in DING DOG DADDY (1942)

nuance of that laugh and answers his advances with a negative that is as funny as it is sad to see the Colvig character scoffed.

And, lastly, I do want to elaborate on Pinto Colvig’s voice work on this cartoon from Warner Brothers, called “DING DOG DADDY”.  While Mel Blanc is given voice credit for his work on Warner Brothers cartoons, there were a few that did not feature Blanc’s talents at all.  This is not to take away from the genius of Blanc, but it does seem that, no matter who did voice work for the studio, the cartoons always brought out the best in the voice talent.  I would go so far as to say that Pinto Colvig, most notable as the voice of Goofy at Walt Disney Studios, also known as The lovable Goof, gave all his best performances at Termite Terrace, and “DING DOG DADDY” is no exception.  When the Sarah Berner longhair aristo-dog spurns his advances, he sadly wanders around to the tune of “St. Louis Blues” until he falls literally head over heels in love with a statue in the park.  He rushes up to this gorgeous fixture of a dog and fumbles for the words, even burying his head in the sand and rolling giddily around in a flower bed before kissing the dog which is struck by a bolt of lightning at the same moment, making him think that this otherwise lifeless beautiful dog is the greatest kisser he has ever encountered.  Colvig’s performance is so good here that, even though we laugh at how utterly dopey he is for believing this creature of a statue to be real, we genuinely feel for him when he follows the truck that takes the statue to be disassembled at a munitions plant.  We hear his forlorn cries as he searches for his Daisy among rows and rows of potential ammunition.  He’s sitting there, surrounded by huge bullets and calling his potential girlfriend’s name and crying “I guess I’ve lost ya, Daisy.  I’ll never see you again!”  Only Bugs

Muniitons plant scene in DING DOG DADDY

In DING DOG DADDY, Pinto Colvig gives us a goofy (as opposed to Goofy) character with real dimension, one we can truly feel for....

Bunny would give a better dramatic performance after Elmer Fudd blasts a bullet in his direction.

This proves that the voices in classic cartoons were incredible, so believable in their simplicity.  If only the big budget talent hired to play parts in animated cartoon movies of the present age were able to approach their characters with the same zeal as Sarah Berner and Pinto Colvig, I think that animation still has a lot to say, even if funny animals.  What the age of CGI doesn’t quite understand is that funny animals were funny because they were cartoons and cartoons allowed us, through voice talents, to believe in the utterly ridiculous for even the amount of time it takes to sit through a classic animated short subject.


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