Sunday, January 31, 2016

Lord in Heaven Save Us, The WB Cartoons of Arthur Davis: Porky Would... if he Could

Time to get the long knives out.  I've been dreading this day for a long time now, but I didn't properly prepare myself for when exactly it was going to come.
"Directed by Arthur Davis."  Sheesh.  Are there any four scarier words to a fan of the Warner Brothers cartoons?  Okay, I'll be a little magnanimous, if you will.  Davis' IMDb bio damns him with faint praise.  Some of the stuff he did for Friz is some of his best work: Pink Panther, Ant and Aardvark... I hope to get to them someday.  "He did manage to direct one of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons, Bowery Bugs."  It's got one of the best punchlines, where Bugs ... SPOILER ALERT ... manages to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to some sucker hick... you know what, I'm going to double-check that assertion for myself right now.  How about that?
(seven minutes later...) ...okay, it's pretty good, but I don't think it's, say, The Wild Hare good.  Just what is my favourite Bugs cartoon, anyway?  Probably something by Clampett, like Wabbit Twouble or The Old Grey Hare, perhaps the penultimate Bugs cartoon.  Even the opening note of the musical score of Old Grey Hare is funny.  I love a good "blatty" tuba.  Bowery Bugs has some good throwaway gags in it, but... and that's another thing!  Davis worked with the best.  Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Friz Freleng... WHERE DID HE GO WRONG?  DID HE LEARN NOTHINGNOTHING AT ALL????!!!!!!!
From what little I know of Davis, he seemed to favor Daffy Duck, with such cartoons as What Makes Daffy Duck.  But he mostly tried to be a trailblazer at Warner Bros. as a director.  He may have created the WB version of Disney's Chip and Dale, but somehow they were better under Friz's direction.  Davis liked to make cartoons without the usual stable of stars.  I guess you'd technically call them "one-offs," cartoons with all the leftover gags that didn't work with any of the well-established stars as Bugs and Elmer, etc.  Unfortunately, his WB cartoons seem to be on the level of Adam Sandler's stuff: your basic underdog nerd vs. the jock; take Bone Sweet Bone, for example.  Seriously, take it away, please.  I understand that Warner Bros. is planning to do a tribute to Arthur Davis when it gets to Volume 83, Disc 4 of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, so I guess we'll just have to wait.
Anyway, no more introduction.  Let's get right to the first of what will hopefully be many many Arthur Davis Warner Brothers cartoons, and this one is called Porky Chops.  Ar ar ar... get it?
ACT ONE
That's right... I'm going back to the Three Act structure for this one.  Scene: a logged forest.  As you can see from the attached picture... see that?  I didn't even ask you to move this from your Spam folder.  Wasn't that nice of me? ... we've got a bunch of stumps.  We've also got a hollow log, a teeny sapling, and one last tall tree standing.  Spoiler alert: each has a role to play here.  Sorry if I ruined the surprise.  Go and watch it first already!... sorry, it's gonna cost you $1.99... you know, I'm almost tempted to do that just to see how many hits it's gotten.  Anyway, we zoom in on the last tree standing, and we're invited inside.  As I was saying before about Davis and his resistance to using established WB characters, here's a prime example.  As GrouchoFan notes, enter the vaguely Bugs Bunny-esque squirrel.  Some online have referred to this character as a "hipster squirrel."  I dragged out the DVD and watched this one on the TV, and one of my living companions thought it was Screwy Squirrel at first.  If only.  No, there's some historical precedent here.  Davis was born in Yonkers, so obviously this squirrel character is an homage to SOMETHING... one of the Bowery Boys?  Aren't they called that?  I hate to sound like a spineless, vanilla studio executive, but de-ethnicize this character a little bit!  Okay, okay, perhaps that's going a little too far.  There's local Brooklyn flavor there, obviously.  It's the big city fish out of water.  It's like the opposite of the country mouse going to the city type of deal, except there's no cousin to bounce off of.  And how this character's able to pick such a terrible spot to find rest and relaxation is beyond me.  But again, it's a child's cartoon.  These things aren't supposed to make sense, right?
Now, here's my next nitpick about Arthur Davis cartoons.  There's something about his character's eyes that doesn't quite connect.  I don't know what it is.  Maybe it's their shape, maybe it's that he seems to make sure the irises are always dead center, with plenty of white space around them to make sure they don't touch the edges.  Somehow, these artists who drew the characters were able to do a lot with eyes.  In general, except for Arthur Davis.  Maybe someone else can explain it to me.  Anyway, we get a longer-than-usual introduction, probably because this is a new character to the WB stable.  I don't know if he came back to do a second WB cartoon, but whatever.  No sooner does this character get to sleep in his bed in his purple pajamas, when trouble comes a'knockin'.  The lumberjack has returned to do away with the last tree of this new-fangled forest.  The big-city traveler is rightly indignant, of course.  Doesn't the lumber jack in question understand?  Don't cartoon lumberjacks ever learn?  They're the bad guy!  It's a long, deep tradition, from Bluto in Axe me Another to Popeye in Wood-Peckin'.  And it is in that tradition that this non-native of the forest goes to ground level and teaches this usurper a thing or two about messin' with Sasquatch... I mean, Mother Nature.  As in Wood-Peckin', it begins with a subtle attack on... oh, by the way, Porky Pig is the lumberjack in question.  I would've thought Elmer Fudd, but what do I know about comedy?  Anyway, as in Wood-Peckin', the lumberjack never knew what hit them.  The... I guess I'll just call him the 'Hipster Squirrel' for the sake of consistency... the Hipster Squirrel sabotages Porky's axe, thereby causing Porky much physical anguish, so much so that Porky decides that the only solution is to get a fresh axe.  A whole "flock" of axes!  Well, that's Porky for ya.  Ever the individualist.  Daffy would get some hired goons to help.
At this point, Porky has wandered off, still unawares of who was responsible for the adze-based mischief.  Having heard Porky's future plans for the tree, Hipster Squirrel does an impression of Porky.  Somehow it's not as effective as the similar scene from Wabbit Twouble, but I guess I'm just picking more nits again.  To be fair, that Hipster Squirrel does a hell of an impression of Porky!  Quick learner, I guess.
Needles to say, Hipster Squirrel's vacation dwelling is in imminent danger of being vertical, and on the ground.  And Hipster Squirrel is nothing if not prepared to defend his vacation home, and he knows he needs some serious hardware to stave off that impending onslaught from the flock of axes.  "This calls for stra-tee-gee!" he says, standing at Hipster attention.  And so, in a New York minute, Hipster Squirrel returns from the Acme superstore with a kevlar steel sheet to protect the typical chopping area on his tree, then painting over it to look like the tree's natural bark... dayamn!  Now, that's some Greenpeace, Earth First! eco-terrorist-type sh... stuff.  See, this is another example of the tone deafness that is Arthur Davis.  In his quest to distinguish himself from the other WB Looney Tunes directing greats, he falls on the wrong side of the spectrum, into Creepy Ville, where more and more things reside each day thanks to the internet, I think.

ACT TWO

As good a time as any for Act Two... maybe a little early.  And so, Porky returns with his golf club bag full of axes, lol.  Porky's singing the song that Daffy was singing in Daffy Doodles when Daffy was trying to figure out how to outfox Officer Porky's moustache booby trap.  And so, Porky gets back to the tree, takes the first axe and... yup, Hipster Squirrel's plan worked.  The axe is destroyed, and Earth First! changes their mind about tree spiking... well, the first part, anyway.  In rapid succession, Porky destroys the other axes almost as quickly, making the sound of the falling steel railroad tracks in The Unruly Hare, only slightly slower.
As you can see, Hipster Squirrel takes great delight in the fact that he's handing the axes to Porky.  Screenwriters take note, as this serves two purposes: 1) to illustrate the Hipster Squirrel character, and 2) to set up his first meeting with Porky, as Porky ends up grabbing the squirrel, thinking he's one of the axes.  "Whoa!  HOLD IT!!!" says the squirrel.  Porky's not so in the zone that he's not able to stop in time before doing in Hipster Squirrel... kinduva shame, actually.  So bear that in mind, present and future hipsters.  You get too close to the action like that, and you just might get caught your own damn selves.
Porky sees the squirrel and says "So YOU'RE the one responsible for this!"  The ball's in Hipster Squirrel's court at this point.  Hipster Squirrel returns, and takes quite a long time doing it.  You know, to help illustrate that there's no one on God's green earth who's tougher than a male Brooklyn bobby-soxer.  "I'm going to get some shut eye... and so are YOU!" says Hipster Squirrel.  Hipster Squirrel then pokes Porky in his eyes, Moe Howard style.  See, again, this is the problem in a nutshell. (pun intended)  Cartoon violence is supposed to be fanciful and fun, which is why characters hang there a little while before falling off the cliff.  In this case, just as the Stooges cause youth to poke each other in the eyes, so too does this set a bad example, and Porky doesn't seem to be enjoying himself, so at least there's part of the consequence there.
And so, Hipster Squirrel, having vanquished his foe for what he thinks is once and for all, returns to his flat, puts on the purple P.J.s and gets back to relaxing with the racing form.  Make a note of his line, because it's a Call Back at the end... sorry, SPOILER ALERT.  Meanwhile, Porky finds a way around the metal sheet, and sets about sawing the tree down.  Hipster Squirrel marches right back down to ground level to f... mess with Porky a little more.
This is where the baby sapling comes into play.  Hipster Squirrel hooks up the saw to the sapling, thereby causing Porky to struggle.  I'll spare you the description of the outcome, except to say that at least it's cartoonish... albeit strangely perverse.  That's Arthur Davis for you!  Consistently tone deaf.  Not only that, he skimps on the animation, as we only hear Porky fly far away and land in a small pond.  We pan over a MUCH SHORTER DISTANCE THAN WAS IMPLIED... to find Porky in a pond.  Porky emerges from under the water with a cartoon frog on his head.  The frog doesn't have white irises, and sounds like the aliens from Tim Burton's 1996 disaster... I mean disaster picture, Mars Attacks!  Was I the only one who kinda liked that?  Thought so.
The next couple antics are, frankly, ripped straight from the playbook of Screwball Squirrel.  I'll let the suspender gag slide because it's not exact... but again, slightly perverted.  Hipster Squirrel thinks he's gotten rid of Porky, but Porky is, in fact, on the branch right next to him, and Porky's got a shotgun aimed at H.S.'s head.  And Porky actually shoots!  Cold-blooded, dude.  However, the shot damages the branch, and Porky begins to fall, much like the fox in Davis' The Foxy Duckling.  Kinda wish I could see that one again... WITHOUT paying $1.99 on YouTube, that is.  H.S. aids and abets Porky's fall, then adds insult to injury by pretending to cushion Porky's fall... you know, kinda like how Dubya pretended to help these two guys move... damn, YouTube doesn't got it.  But Letterman showed it back in the day!  Say, who's side are you on, anyway?  You helped elect him as president, after all!  But I digress.  And so, Porky lands, and H.S. makes a smart-ass crack about it.  Sorry, but I still prefer how Screwy Squirrel did it.  "Too bad... JUST missed him!" said the squirrel that is screwy.  Love that annoying little nutball.
And so, much like the end of The Mouse-Merized Cat, Hipster Squirrel has a little fun with the now conscious, but dazed Porky.  Porky snaps out of it and gets furious again.  He's about to do something he might regret to that darned old Hipster Squirrel, but Hipster Squirrel takes the two bananas that Porky's holding, and smooshes them onto Porky's face so it looks like Porky's got a banana moustache.  Much like Porky, I'm speechless.  I guess when something like that happens, you gotta stop and go to Plan B.

ACT THREE

Once again, Hipster Squirrel thinks that Porky's gone for good, and so it's back to bed.  However, Porky's got a rather fiendish ace up his sleeve!  It actually frightens H.S. out of house and home... in this case, his tree pad... and runs in fear down the tree for once.  Porky gives chase, firing two rounds at Hipster Squirrel.  That part's kinda funny.  Remember, kids: in a cartoon, even if you're running down a tree, cartoon guns have a hell of a recoil.
Now, here's some rather sloppy direction for ya.  Porky's on ground level, and he runs past the hollowed out log.  Porky fires, and the gun bounces him back to the mouth of the log.  "I'm not so stupid!" says Porky in that redundant, stuttery way of his.  I think he's trying to tell the audience that he knows that the squirrel is inside the log.  First of all, we don't know that, as it wasn't shown to us.  Second, how did he know that the gun was going to position him right at the mouth of the log?  Wouldn't it have been better if Porky just doubled back on his own, without the gun's indirect assistance?  Is this the end of the double take as we know it?  And third, Bugs would say something like "Ah, I knew it all the time."  What I think I'm trying to say is: sloppy direction, Arthur.  Sloppy direction.  Even for you.
And so, Porky knew all the time that that darned old Hipster Squirrel was hiding in the log.  H.S. starts snarling like a bear and scares the fertilizer out of Porky.  At least the animation here looks like some of that old Clampett magic.  Kinda rare for an Arthur Davis cartoon.  He'd fix that later, though.  Drain the fun out of everything, that's his motto.  And so, Porky hides behind the tree.  Hipster Squirrel doubles down, scaring Porky a second time, causing Porky to climb up the tree, really digging his hooves into that poor old tree's bark.  I guess the metal sheet's officially gone.  "You need a vacation worse than I do!" says the Hipster Squirrel.  I'll begrudgingly admit it; that's kinda funny.  Even Hipster Squirrel couldn't screw that up.
Needles to say, it's the last straw.  Also, it's near the end of the pic, so it's dynamite time.  "I'll kill two birds with one stone!" says Porky.  Meanwhile, Hipster Squirrel's about one and a half steps ahead, as he starts piling the red kablooey sticks into the empty log.  Screenwriters take note: yes, this is leading to something.  And so, the fuse is lit.  ...hmm!  I wonder if Mel Blanc just made a hissing noise to simulate a lit fuse.  Yeah, that's probably it.  Never considered that before; that's just how good Blanc is, and how bad Arthur Davis is.  And so, we get the expected reaction from the dynamite and... BOOM!  One last plot surprise.  I almost hate to spoil it... guess I won't, then.  But perhaps I can report that Porky and Hipster Squirrel finally have some common ground, and they both run off into the horizon, although they've got a good amount of distance between each other.  The audio department uses a little bit of... whoops!  Almost spoiled the surprise.  But maybe I can report that H.S. gets hoisted on his own petard, so to speak... damn.  Can't say that, either.  But I will admit that this is actually one of Davis' better cartoons.  Actually, Mexican Joyride may be his best.  It's Daffy Duck in Bully for Bugs, what's there to screw up?  I'm probably not going to show Porky Chops to anyone any time soon, however.  The title may be the best part.

Good double bill with: Wood-Peckin'

**1/2
-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan


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