Sunday, June 19, 2016

Portraits in Role Reversal (spoiler alert): Tortoise Wins by a Hare

Our next Looney Tunes is another Bob Clampett masterpiece, Tortoise Wins by a Hare.  Sure, it's the same old Aesop's tortoise and hare story... or is it?  Spoiler Alert: I'd be interested to hear the opinions of engineers at the time, as it seems to represent a rare stab at the times' cutting-edge thinking about what Bugs and the turtle themselves refer to as "modern design and streamlining."  Mind you, this one's from 1943, while Rabbit Transit is from 1947, post-WWII, the year of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and all that, and they focus more on the action, and not so much on the mechanics of it all.

ACT ONE

I wonder why Bugs never fell off of the WB logo when it comes zooming up.  Work on that, JibJab!  Make it happen.  I mean, the thing comes to a sudden stop.  A real sudden stop.  Even Mel Gibson's stunt guy in Lethal Weapon 2 wouldn't be able to hang on to that!  I guess Daffy at the beginning of Gremlins 2: The New Batch will just have to suffice.  26th anniversary this year, you know!
Also, I'm real disappointed that there's no mini-doc or commentary accompanying this one on the DVD... maybe they're saving it for the Blu-Rays or something.  On the other hand, we don't have to suffer through another self-indulgent Kricfalusi commentary about how he was very personally influenced by this very cartoon by Clampett and all that.  I'm not denying that John K.'s a genius, I'm just saying he stole Clampett's style and added more veins to the characters' eyeballs.  That's all he did!  But, arguably, it was enough for MTV and Nickelodeon, so we can't argue with the success of bad taste.
Anyway, we start, as anyone who's read the IMDb "Connections" page for Tortoise Wins by a Hare, or who's actually seen Tortoise Beats Hare knows, with clips from Tortoise Beats Hare.  New voice-over narration, though!  We're treated to the parts you'd expect to be highlights, including the part where Bugs is skating along the ground.  This part is so enchanting, in fact, that they had to include the part where he passes the tortoise, up to but not including Bugs' massive double take and doubling back to where the turtle was.  The other major highlight is, of course, the part where Bugs crosses the old rope bridge across the chasm, then cuts it down with a knife, thereby influencing Temple of Doom... there's still only one, right?  Incidentally, why is George Lucas trying to add Indiana Jones' name to Raiders of the Lost Ark?  Does it really need to be standardized like that?  Was ANSI just that up in arms about it?  Inquiring minds like mine want to know... albeit not that badly, arguably, so on to the next thing.
As it happens, a frustrated Bugs is sitting at home, watching old home movies, thereby influencing, amongst many, many others, the Robin Williams character in The Best of Times.  God bless Dickens!  For that alone, this cartoon is a work of genius.
The part of Bugs' home movie where the tortoise is raising his front paws in victory at the cheering crowd, well... I'm pretty confident that that part wasn't in Tortoise Beats Hare, and not just because it looks more like a Clampett tortoise than an Avery tortoise.  You'll forgive me if I have a lapse and refer to the tortoise as a turtle.  I thought tortoises were brown anyway.  Ever seen a green tortoise?  ...I'll take this here page as proof that I'm right.  Ah, Sweet Nuggy Vindication.  Brought to you by The Green Tortoise Hostel in Seattle, Wurshington.  The Green Tortoise Hostel!  Because, let's face it, Uber and AirBnB haven't turned every be-goatee'd hipster into a fellow billionaire yet.
Oh, I've just never seen Bugs in such a state.  His fragile ego hangs in the balance.  Lord help him if his enemies Daffy or Elmer ever see this one!  Bugs spits out his mouthful of carrot, and he gives the projector a good swift kick, and a few seconds later we hear the one crash sound we always seem to hear in these here Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies cartoons.  Lol.  Lol, Larry David!  Lol.  Bugs makes the case to his unseen audience of one that, surely everyone knows that, despite the ending narration of Bugs' home movie, the rabbit is clearly the better athlete when it comes to these track and field type deals!  Bugs sounds a bit like Curly Howard, saying "Certainly!" like Curly, and especially so at 1:57 when he asks "How does that moron do it?!"  It all reminds me of the one retelling of Aesop's fable, where the rabbit wins the race in about four seconds, while the turtle's still at the finish line.  I think Aaron Sorkin came up with it, because the turtle said, amongst other instantly quotable lines, that he's never ever sick at sea.  Must've been Sorkin.
It doesn't quite feel like time for Act Two yet, but we're close.  If we say that Act One begins at about 0:25, when the narration begins (over the credits, no less!  For shame, Clampett... for shame) and the film ending at 7:40, just before the "That's All, Folks," Act Two should be at 2:50 and Act Three at 5:15... but who's counting, am I right?  This is art, not a widget.

ACT TWO

Next scene: as in Tortoise Beats Hare, Bugs is so incensed that he finds himself going right to the turtle's doorstep.  In Tortoise Beats Hare, we find the tortoise living in a tree... and apparently trying some extreme diet, as he slips out of his shell quite easily.  In Clampett's version, we get more cinematic touches: the close-up of Bugs knocking, then the wider shot of Bugs in costume, by the light of the moon no less.  If Bugs has ever been a more pathetic figure than this, well... I just don't want to know about it, frankly.
"Hello, old timer!" says Cecil when he finally answers the door.  But just before the door opens, Bugs quickly removes himself from his costume for the benefit of the audience, faster even than Mrs. Doubtfire, and then zips back in again.  Ah, the old Clampett insanity; never far behind.  Now, I'm guessing that either the screenwriter or the director of Tortoise Wins by a Hare probably had some bad run-ins with old timers of their own, perhaps a holdover from the Silent Era spinning wild tales about John Bunny and bemoaning how they couldn't quite make the transition to sound because a) well, they were too old, and b) the sound equipment made them sound like chipmunks... mostly because it was just their natural voice.  And so Bugs begins on the turtle, "Hello Johnny!  Tell me, Johnny... how come you always beat that rabbit?"  Boy!  One too many times being called Johnny by one of their elders, and they get a whole cartoon out of it.  Damn smart-ass whippersnappers.  So ungrateful.  Thank God there aren't sheets of ice in California, or they'd be shipping off old people by the baker's dozen out to sea every fifteen minutes, with some Hollywood tour guide telling tourists all about it, as if it's just another local custom or something.
Of course, there's something happening in this conversation between en-costume-ated Bugs and Cecil B. DeTurtle here, so I suppose we ought to comment on it.  First of all, you'll notice that the turtle doesn't seem to buy Bugs' ruse for a second.  And second, you'll notice that Cecil Turtle's drying a dish with a towel.  He then starts using Bugs' fake beard as the towel.  A level of disrespect that would almost be topped by that one Stooge film, Income Tax Sappy... see, there was a guy with a fake beard in it.  A fifty dollar beard, no less!  In 1954 dollars, that'd be like... a million today!  But back to the conversation.  Cecil Turtle swears that the reason he keeps winning the races with the rabbit is just plain old "clean living."
"That ain't the way I heared it, Johnny!  The way I heared it, you have a secret way of winning!" says Bugs.  Not quite the three times dynamic of, say, The Spy Who Shagged Me, but can't argue with results!  Cecil confides in Bugs the secret: modern design.  You know, streamlining.  Bugs takes notes with a typewriter concealed in his fake beard, no less.  Cecil pulls out a whole blueprint for the turtle shell.  It's not overloaded with secret easter eggs, apparently, but note the "North Orifice" and "South Orifice" for where the turtle's legs go.  Lol.  A little shout out to the herpetologists of the world, I guess.
Oh, but the turtle's not even finished yet.  Time to denigrate rabbits.  "They're built all wrong for racing," says Cecil.  Bugs types something down, of course.  "Those ridiculous ears," says Cecil, mimicing them with his hands, and making the tsk-tsk noise.  "Wind resistance, son, just wind resistance," Cecil concludes.  There's just no way to improve on that dialogue.
Bugs types a little bit more, and this time Cecil pushes the typewriter's carriage and slams his front door.  Bugs finally realizes the jig is up, just like Laurel and Hardy in Blotto eventually realize.
And then, Cecil delivers the final secret to Bugs: "Rabbits aren't very bright, either."  Oh, s'z'nap.  You can imagine how Bugs takes that news.  Is Cecil trying to say that all those years that Bugs has been fighting Elmer Fudd and various hunting dogs... that all those opponents were just dumber than Bugs?  And Bugs is just dumb?  Well, jumping up and down on his typewriter was certainly dumb!  Now, I hate to be critical of the animation at 3:14 and 3:15, but Bob Clampett raised the bar so high on cartoon lunacy, that it just feels a bit subpar in retrospect.  I'm flying without my Pinnacle Studio net here, but I think Bugs jumps up and down three times a second on his beard with the broken typewriter underneath, which would represent eight celluloid frames here.  Plus, he's not even mouthing Blanc's dialogue!  Lazy, guys.  Lazy.  Disney would never let something like that happen!  Never!
Next scene: ...personally, I don't believe Mel Blanc did the voice of the turtle.  Maybe he did, but it just doesn't sound like him... and I've been listening to his voice for most of my life now.  Anyway, in this next scene, he's got the added challenge of playing Mrs. Turtle!  Sure, it's just one line, not terribly crucial, bit of a token gesture, but still.  I think he nails it.  Okay, so they can't all be like the Girl Cat in A Gruesome Twosome, where they become the token fulcrum of the action.  And Cecil calls his old lady "Sweetie Face"!  More sexism.  Another slap in the face.  Anyway, Cecil muses that Bugs is "about ready for another race."  I'm put in mind of Ripley's Game for some reason.  Fade to black.
Next scene: fade in on night time.  We see a sign that says "Danger - A Twerp at Work."  This is the kind of detail that my insane grandmother might be able to speak to, but I haven't spoken to her in years, so it'll just have to wait... okay, my mom clarified it for me.  Why, is it just a mere play on "Men at Work"?  Well, that's the kind of thing that happens to us cinema worshippers.  We get blinded by things like, say, when the Stranger says "Course I can't say I seen London, and I've never been to France"... you know how it goes.
We pan up on a house, with light coming from the windows on the beat of the music, and sparks shooting up from the chimney.  Incidentally... I think the music is "Old Grey Mare Ain't What She Used to Be," and boy, did Clampett love that song.  He used it when the two cats don the horse costume in A Gruesome Twosome, and he named a whole cartoon after it.  Did I mention already at least twice that the opening notes of that one alone are laugh-out-loud hilarious?  Let me check... yup, I mentioned it here.  I mention it also here, just not the opening note.  Wow!  I didn't even call it iconic or anything!  Me proud of self.
And so, we hear what Bugs is working on.  Next scene: Bugs is hammering the finishing touches on his own air flow turtle chassis, made from good old Lockheed steel.  Bugs zips behind his green curtain to try it on... nice to know there's some modesty in this thoroughly indecent affair.  Bugs comes just as quickly back out with his swimming cap on to cover his ears.  Now, some of the more cynical members of the audience at this point will begin to scratch their heads... and you'd be right.  Oh, boy, will this role reversal in progress lead to future problems.
Next scene: a good old fashioned newspaper.  Note the headline in the lower right-hand corner that says "Adolph Hitler Commits Suicide."  Two years early, but it's definitely the thought that counts.  Mel Blanc acts as generic announcer here, and he seems to do that old Vernon Dent trick in the Stooge films where he says a little "Yeah..." before the massive double take.  Blanc goes "Hare races tortoise today.  Y... what, again?!"  Oh, he's so Jewish.
Next scene: a close-up of the pictures in the Chicago Sunday Tribunk... so corny.  The picture of the tortoise comes to live, thereby influencing the Harry Potter series.  The announcer says "The contestants sayyyyy....."  The tortoise, ever the cooler head, very diplomatically says "May the best man win."  I know, I know, it should be "species" instead of "man."  Anyway, Bugs quickly pushes the tortoise aside, then flashes a couple of ration cards... it's a Depression era thing.  Frankly, we should probably bring that back, what with all the junk food we have today.
Next scene: the very bombastic announcer says "The gamling ring sezzzzzzzzzzz....."  We see a group of rabbit gangsters.  The teeny one is the leader, of course, and he sets up the identity crisis that's about to take place.  Unfortunately for Bugs, his little race with the turtle now has gambling interests behind it, and the teeny rabbit mobster tells the press, and the public at large, "We don't even think the toitle will finish!  Do we, boys?"  The three giant gangsters dip low, saying, in Blanc's dippiest voice possible, "Duhhh.... no boss, no!"  Another one of those cinematic moments that, if it doesn't exist up in Heaven, well, it's Hell in disguise, no question about it.
Next scene: Bugs is warming up at the starting line, while the trumpet in Carl Stalling's orchestra plays... you know, that charging song that's typically played before a war begins.  Is it just called the "Charge" song?  Speaking of aimless wondering, Bugs begins to wonder where the turtle is.  Why, he even says so twice!  "Oh, uh... Speedy!" taunts the turtle.  Bugs does a massive double take; he just can't believe the pomp and circumstance he's seeing.  The turtle is held aloft by his adoring throng of fellow turtles, all singing "He did it before, and he can do it again."  Boy, the turtle's being kind of a di... kind of a Richard about this whole thing!
Of course, Bugs is not much better in terms of etiquette and manners.  Bugs gives the turtle a slap, causing the turtle's arm to... I can't even tell what happens!  The animation's just that fast.  Upon the fifth or sixth viewing, the turtle's arm spirals around his neck, covering up most of his face, then spirals back to normal again.
After all that, the race formally begins to begin.  It's clearly a self-refereeing affair, and even now Bugs feels the need to cheat.  "One for the money," says Bugs, creeping a little bit past the starting line.  On the count of four, as in that one where he gets Yosemite Sam to dive instead of himself, Bugs makes an extra bold move, disappearing towards the distant horizon to say the word "go."  The turtle seems to get some speed on his takeoff, but ends up slowly lumping along.  Boy, Bugs really needs some kind of extra advantage to win this thing.  Clearly.

ACT THREE

Okay, we're past the 5:15 mark.  There hasn't been much in the way of Clampett insanity yet, but they're saving it for the Third Act, trust me.  Bugs gets far enough ahead to make it to his special hiding place.  He gets his metal turtle suit out and slips into it, then carefully folds his ears and covers them with the green bathing/swimming cap.  As in Hare Ribbin', and probably others, the putting on of the swimming cap always takes the longest... didn't Daffy do that once?  Someone else look that up, will ya?
Bugs hears the turtle coming, so he hides in the giant crook of the tree.  The turtle lumbers past, then taunts Bugs a little more.  "Time's a-wastin', Speedy!" says the turtle to Bugs.  It's as though Bugs can't hide at all.  Bugs gets revved up with anger, then takes off, doing one loop around the tree for good measure.  Next scene: Bugs passes the turtle with a whirlwind of fury, spinning the turtle around like a top... how did Bugs get so far behind the turtle just now?
"Look folks!  Modern design!  WOO WOO WOO-HOOOOO!!!!" exclaims Bugs, channeling the spirit of Daffy li'l bit IMHO.  Next scene: our concerns from earlier finally come to fruition, as one of the mobster rabbits sees Bugs through a telescope and confuses him with the turtle.  "Hey youse guys!  Here comes the toitle!" he says.  I don't think that was Mel Blanc.
And what sort of devious mobster trick are they going to use to trip up Bugs?  Well, they alter the paint line in the road, of course!  Now, I'm no historian, but is this the first incident of that happening?  And did Wile E. Coyote ever do such a thing?  I think he did ... just double-checked.  At 3:22 in Fast and Furry-ous, Wile E. paints a long, long line to a desert mountain wall where he paints a fake tunnel.  Here, the bunnies are less ambitious, painting a line to a grey brick wall a couple feet from the road.  But unlike Wile E., who still gave the Road Runner a choice of path, the bunnies paint over the straight line and make it look like there's only one choice of road.  Devious and clever!
Back to Bugs who, oddly enough, is now carefully watching the lines of the road while running at 530 miles per hour.  A bad choice for several reasons.  And as predicted, Bugs makes the turn right into the wall, thereby influencing a similar scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Eddie Valiant makes Bizarro Jessica run into a wall the same way).
Next scene: Bugs is lying unconscious on the ground; the orchestra tells us so.  He's got a happy, dazed smile on his face.  No more cares in the world except recuperation.  In lieu of a pair of pliers and a blowtorch, the rabbit mob just hold down Bugs and hit him in the face with a simple cartoon mallet, much like one would use on the Test Your Strength carnival game of the time.  You might notice that no one's holding down Bugs' right arm, but never mind.  Bugs is a gentleman if nothing else, and he accepts that he's being attacked... at least, to a point.  After getting hit in the face twice with the mallet, he objects to the confusion.  See, the not-very-bright rabbits are confusing him with the turtle for some reason!  Must be the metal shell and the visible lack of bunny ears.  "Toitle, schmoitle!  I'm the rabbit!" screams Bugs.  This threatens to go on for the rest of the pic, until...
Next scene: a slight pan to the right, and there it is.  The role reversal is complete.  "Yup, that's the toitle all right!" says the turtle, munchy-wunching a rather large carrot and dressed in a lame bunny outfit.  That must be one of the golden rules of role reversal comedy: the lamer the outfit looks, the funnier it is.  I guess green rabbits are more common than people think.
"HOORAY FOR THE RABBIT!" the mob rabbits exclaim, cheering on Cecil as he lumbers back into the race.  Someone in the audience (who sounds a lot like Mel Blanc) yells "That's my boy!"  The Closed Captioning missed that one, alas.  Next scene: we get a two-layer background of Cecil in his bunny costume.  The foreground has a layer of weeds going by slightly faster than the road.  "I told you rabbits aren't very bright!" Cecil says to the audience, and he takes another big bite of carrot.  Lol.  Back to Bugs, who proudly pushes his way through the stupid audience, and takes off to finish the race his way.  The mobsters shoot at Bugs with a machine gun.  When that doesn't work, they lob some shells at him in rapid succession.  More lol.  Dayamn, them rabbits is cold-blooded!
Next scene: Bugs is about to pass the turtle again.  The turtle does a very elastic double-take, then moves as fast as he can in his ad hoc rabbit costume.  Dayamn, look at that little fat boy move!  The long shot of the two of them begins at 6:41.  The background here is moving a little bit slower than it did at 5:38 or so; must be all the bullets and shells slowing Bugs down, huh?  Do like what's his name said: aim for the head, guys!  Aim for the head!  G. Gordon Liddy, that's it.  I remembered that he was in a turkey called Adventures in Spying.  I'm almost loathe to bring it up because, well... check out writer-director Hil Covington's résumé.  See, you need at least two blockbusters before you start acting like Spielberg.  But who knows?  Maybe he's teaching at USC now.  Three months of principal photography on one film can give you enough anecdotes to be a tenured film professor.
Anyway, either Bugs must be running really slow, or that turtle is going really fast, because Bugs just barely passes the turtle, yet still needs to take his verbal victory lap.  "Look folks!  I'm in the lead!" says a never more desperate Bugs.  Talk about a nightmare for poor ol' Bugs.  But, that's dreams for ya.  You're either naked in school, or you're trying to run but just can't seem to take a second step at all, or you find yourself going down the highway at 70 mph while sitting on a square-shaped skateboard with shopping cart wheels.  That's what I usually do in dreams.  No wonder I never seem to hurt my hands when I push the ground for more speed.  Weird, right?
Clampett's artfully careless direction has Bugs disappear off screen Stage Right, then the scrolling stops.  Bugs should've re-entered the frame, then zipped across the screen from right to left quickly.  I tell you darlings, Disney would never let a slip-up like that pass by... probably.  I can't vouch for all his cartoon work, frankly, except that one about Poseidon and his treasure chest of topless mermaids.  Total WTF-fest, I'm telling you.
Next scene: another gaggle of bunny gangsters is waiting at the finish line.  A Mel Blanc-voiced idiot scout gets them ready for Bugs.  He does still look like a turtle.  And then, within mere centimeters of the finish line... BANG!  A group of rabbit gangsters is pushing back on Bugs, while two bunnies go to work on Bugs' shell with a mallet and a knife.  Strength in numbers, folks... oh!  And one's got a truncheon?  Never noticed that before!  Clearly I didn't pay close enough attention to such details during my VHS phase with this one.
The duo from earlier that repainted the road run over to Cecil and carry him over the finish line.  Now, some of you in the audience might be tempted to hold this cartoon aloft as either anti-union or pro-state rights... aren't those both the same?  Bear in mind, though, that this is illicit gambling funds at stake here, not union members' pension funds, Social Security and Medicare we're talking about.

EPILOGUE

Cecil is held aloft at the finish line, and he gives the audience the OK sign with a wink.  Who's the star of this pic anyway?  "Hooray for the rabbit!" the mob rabbits cry again.
And so, when the pushing and shoving comes to a stop, the hidden truth is finally revealed.  Bugs starts crying and literally ripping his metal turtle suit off of his body.  "I'M THE RABBIT!" he cries out.  Why, he even sticks his cottontail in the four mob rabbits' faces!  Lol.  "Eh, now he tells us!" the four of them cry.
Then, the gangster on the left puts a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger.  The other three have their heads in line, and they all fall down, instantly dead... thereby inspiring a similar scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade... you know, where Indy jumps onto the tank and,... ah, never mind.  Is it creepy that I remember that?  I thought so.  If you notice, Bugs reacts when the trigger is pulled.  He's horrified as much as the rest of us, but not more so than today's TV censors, as the cartoon is now typically faded out before the gun goes off.  Maybe the NRA made that call, who knows.  You'd think they'd be in favour of more guns on TV!
Anyway, as I should've said up at the top, for all of you Shrek fans and, to a lesser extent, fans of the Hoodwinked! series, put Tortoise Wins by a Hare in your bong and smoke it!

*****
-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

1 comment:

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