Sunday, September 11, 2016

Game of Penalties

Well, personally and semi- professionally, I can't think of a better way to deal with my addiction to film review than by reviewing our next Looney Tunes called Early to Bet, which apparently deals with gambling addiction.  Now, every computer user these days... and I mean every computer user these days, is becoming an amateur psychologist, from the most reluctant user of Facebook to the most prolific user of Instagram, and they'd most likely tell you that all the non-Jungian stuff is basically addiction.  It's a good biological model, really... I mean, that candy bar you ate when you were nine years old, in caveman days it might have been an extra ripe blackberry or something, or the thrill of bringing down your first mastodon, even if you didn't quite have an hibachi to cook it with.  At some point, your brain just says "Hey, that was fun!  Why don't we do it again sometime?  And by sometime, I mean now, within the next 48 hours..."


If you've seen the mini-documentary that comes with the Looney Tunes DVD, Early to Bet is what they call a "one-off," meaning that the characters in it are seen only once, never before and never since.  Sure, some of the greats started off as one-offs, but sometimes the audience dictates what becomes a hit.  After all, the creative geniuses in the WB Animation Department thought that Beans would be the hit character, not counting on Porky Pig to resonate instead.
Nevertheless, maybe it's a contractual thing, maybe it's just good for even the WB Animation Department to try new things, maybe it's just that you got all these great gags, but nowhere to put 'em.  Whatever the case may be, and it's different in each case, the one-offs persisted, and you get fare like Robert McKimson's Early to Bet.  It starts like one of those MGM mini-nature documentaries narrated by... what's his name, and it's a very white-bread American name.  Some of the late 30s-early 40s WB cartoons had a non-Mel Blanc guy who'd do the narration of their nature doc sendups... Robert C. Bruce, it seems!  I mean, let's face it... Blanc was very versatile, but sometimes you just wanna hear different voices from a different person.  But Blanc does his best impression of Robert C. Bruce as he introduces the "gambling bug" in his "native habitat," basically a condo decorated by the various forms of human gambling that have gained a certain level of universality in the first half of the 20th century.  No spent scratch tickets, as you can see.  The narrator says "Hey!  Stand up!  Let's get a look atcha."  For students of these in-betweener films that they now show on TCM, it's a riot.  Blanc channels the speaking style quite well.
Yes, the gambling bug.  I'm pretty sure that this is his only appearance in Looney Tunes... and maybe in Joe Dante's 2003 classic, Looney Tunes: Back in Action.  Free Blu-Ray for me, maybe?  Oh well, worth a try.  I mean, there was the whole Vegas sequence.  They had every other periphery LT character in that thing, and Jeff Gordon.  Anyway, what else would be next?  Why, some examples of the gambling bug's work in action, of course.  Gag writers, take note.  Always be ready to rattle off a list of gags for a given situation.  Every day, wake up and ask yourself, "Okay, gimme an object, a setting, and an occupation."  See what you come up with.  If you have friends or family to annoy with this, even better.  The first situation we're treated to is a deadbeat restauranteur who hasn't thought to try the ol' Dine 'n Dash move.  No, he's not a complete coward, but he does try to flip the Italian waiter for it.  "Double or nothing, Luigi?" he says.
The next example is especially near and dear to my heart.  Two barflies are sitting around watching an actual fly.  They both have full, frothy, painted beermugs in front of them.  One, voiced by drunk Mel Blanc, says "I'll betcha five bucks that fly lands on my glass foist."  "It's a BET," responds drunk Mel Blanc.  Now, the Coens would appreciate this, because they move on before the fly picks a glass to land on, rubbing its two (strangely human) front hands together before taking off again.  This reminds me of my week stay in Whitefish, Montana, where I realized that the gambling bug seems to have bitten most of the residents of that town.  I went into a bar with some of my work friends.  There was a football game on telly, and one of the local yokels says, to whoever would listen, "Bet you seventy-five cents that he makes a touchdown!  Bet?  Seventy-five cents?"  I'm pretty sure that was the amount.  It all happened too fast for anyone to take him up on his offer, naturally.  Wonder if he was a tweaker.  The other example was when we were sitting round a gas-fired campfire, and one of the Montana dudes says "Bet you five bucks you can't guess my age."  Three people tried, and he said "Five bucks, five bucks, five bucks..."  I of course handed him a twenty and said "Keep the change..."  ...okay, maybe not, but that's maybe what I should of... have done.
The third gambling bug example has a comedy twist, which any true gambling addict would probably have no patience for.  A guy whose face we can't see is sitting there with the one-arm bandit, and he gives the handle a tug... and then he plays the slot machine.  Ba-BOOM!  I'll be here all week, folks; try the veal.  The spinning wheels on the slot machine stop, and he hits three oranges.  Then he cups his hands for the big payoff and... well, I wouldn't dream of spoiling the punch line.  Why should I be the only one to suffer?  Needles to say, the guy never turns to face the camera slash animator at his animation desk.  I should point out that the Carl Stalling Memorial Orchestra plays a little bit of the Looney Tunes theme song, "The Merry Go Round Broke Down."  Okay, so he was having an off week.
As we all know, all good things come in threes, so we must cross-fade back to the gambling bug.  Mel Blanc's narrator offers a rather stern warning about said gambling bug.  What happens next, I personally feel influenced the entirety of the comic and animation style of a little show called "South Park," but maybe that's just me.  The gambling bug repeats the narrator's line and gives a strange laugh-like mocking noise, then says "...and I WILL, too!"  In response to the fact that the gambling bug will "get you," that is.  The gambling bug is purportedly voiced by Stan Freberg, but his voice is altered beyond recognition.  I mean, Freberg was good at characterization, but I'm sorry, it just doesn't sound like his work.  Not in the Pete Puma family of voices, anyway.  Fade to black.


Next scene: the gambling bug out of his native habitat.  The gambling bug's on vacation, but Carl Stalling's musical choices never rest.  "We're in the Money," the orchestra plays... or whatever it's called.  "I'll leave my victims alone today," says the gambling bug.  But this lord of his own microcosmos must interrupt his confident strut, as he hears footprints behind him.  I think they had this version of "Powerhouse" on that infamous Carl Stalling CD that I don't have anymore, as part of a montage.  The gambling bug hides behind a rock, and we watch as a giant grey bulldog passes by, looming as large as a bent skyscraper, at least from the gambling bug's low-to-the-ground perspective.  Next scene: the perspective straightens out a little bit, as the gambling bug now watches as the bulldog heads over to a red barn in the background.  No white chickens or wheelbarrow, alas...
Next scene: now I hate bullying as much as the next fella, but I'm getting older now.  And, I am a hooligan, after all, so I like a nice celluloid bullying as much as the next fan of cinema.  I have to fantasize just to survive as much as the next fella or fella-ette... fella-ella?  Hmm.  And so, we see the dog reaching under the underside of the slightly raised red barn.  What could he be looking for?  A dog's sense of smell is reportedly quite acute, but I must say that some of the dogs I see on a daily basis are far too busy barking at me to notice it when I throw them treats.  Gotta cut back on that, and I will, if only for the sake of my credit card bill.  Anyway, the dog eventually finds what he's looking for, because he gets a happy look on his face.  And he pulls out, from under the barn... a non-Sylvester-type cat!  Because even the Looney Tunes directors, and perhaps especially so, hate their stars sometimes.  I heard that Frank Tashlin got pretty sick of Porky Pig, anyhow.  But this late in the game, this is more of an Arthur Davis move.  For some reason, he would often work with new characters.  I guess his choice of Looney Tunes stories to tell was so lame, he at least had the decency to not tarnish the regular stable of Looney Tunes stars with them.  They often lack the polish of even something like Early to Bet, and certainly explains why they'll all be on Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 834, after the absolute last of the archive footage on flammable stock has been exhausted.  I got a thing about him, as you might know.
"WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?" asks the non-Sylvester cat of the surprisingly calm bulldog.  If there's one line that Mel Blanc often used when doing Looney Tunes work, this would have to be it.  In a surprising twist, or maybe not so surprising, given the plot's content, the dog wants to play the cat in a game of "penalties."  Which makes me wonder what species of bug has bitten the dog: the Managerial Bug?  We don't get to see that film, naturally.
The cat, without going into too much detailed backstory, flatly refuses the dog's offer.  Let's move quickly on to the next plot point, please... I mean, has this cat suddenly been indoctrinated, vaccinated, built up immunity to the Gambling Bug's touch?  I mean, SURELY, it's gently implied that the cat's played this game with the dog on a previous occasion, no?  I mean, the cat's not asking what "penalties" is or how "penalties" is played?  Surely, he seems to know, no?  Yes?  He seems to have been stung by losing this game on previous occasion(s)?
And so, the cat refuses the dog's creepily seductive offer, and walks away... but not too far.  The cat's somewhere between the dog and the Gambling Bug.  Confusing himself for Superman, the Gambling Bug emerges from his hiding place, motions to the cat, and tells the audience "Looks like a job for the Gambling Bug!"  And you thought people don't take vacations these days!  Go figure.  And so, the Gambling Bug's vacation over after about thirty seconds of its declaration, the bug rushes over to the cat and bites him on the ear.  Gotta hand it to the Gambling Bug: he's not lazy!  A lazier gambling bug would've just taken a bite out of the cat's tail, but not this Gambling Bug!  He runs up the length of the cat's spine, right up to the tippy top of the cat's head.  The cat, sulking on his log, fails to notice.  Which is quite the opposite of my cat, indeed.  I can't even sneak up on my cat without her swiveling one of her ears at me well before I get close!
And so, having been bitten by the Gambling Bug, the cat revs up, becoming a swirling mass of feet and strangely human paw hands, tongue sticking out like a dog, a glazed look over his pretty blue eyes and, like some kind of new zombie that can run, zips over to the dog and its pack of cards, leaving a big grey cloud of dust in his wake.  Spoiler alert: yes, we're going to see this loop of animation a few more times in the coming minutes.  I'm trying to think if I ever rewound a VCR tape of this particular loop of animation.  The one that comes to mind is Clampett's Kitty Kornered, when the four cats in that one are sitting around, drinking and smoking cigars, and when a very angry Porky comes upon them, they all take off running in their varied trajectories.  I had to rewind the tape a few dozen times on that one.  Great animation and sound.  If that's not in Heaven, well... clearly it's Hell in an elaborate disguise.
...where was I?  Oh yeah.  So the Gambling Bug bit the cat on the ear, the cat rushes over to the dog, and the cat starts saying, OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN... "Gimme the cards!  C'mon!  Deal 'em out!!!!"  It's kinda pathetic.  The living picture of Zen, despite his role in all this, the bulldog says "What'll we play?"  The cat responds, "WHO CARES?  Deal the cards!  Gimme the cards."  Now, THAT is a bad Gambling Bug bite.  I don't see how it could be worse, and still abide by the Hays Code.  And so, as in Bugs Bunny Rides Again and What's Brewin', Bruin?, the game of choice is gin rummy.  It's just a funny game, and I guess it was bigger than poker at the time.  "Gin rummy for penalties!" says the bulldog, eerily calm.
Also, I guess what the Looney Tunes mavens found funny about gin rummy is how instantly one can lose the game.  In Bugs Bunny Rides Again and What's Brewin', Bruin?, opponents lose their games rather instantly, and Papa Bear of What's Brewin,' Bruin? fame gets pretty pissed off about it.  Same thing with the cat.  But listen to that happy breathing as the cat gets a handful of cards!  I was wrong.  It did get worse, and the Hays Code was okay with it... somehow, that makes it worse.  Oh well.
The bulldog makes gin with a handful of spades, and the cat slowly drops all his cards, cross-fading into a giant lollipop.  And yet, James Cameron gets all the credit for so-called "morphing."  Harumph.
The cat slowly and dejectedly walks over to the penalty wheel.  Sorry... Penalty Wheel.  The cat gives it a spin, thereby providing some overtime to the camera guys rather than the animators.  If Disney had such a gag, the animators would be working overtime to re-paint the penalty wheel, no less than 360 times, I tells you!  That's how little they skimp on their high-quality animation products.  And so, screen writers take note: our Plot Superstructure is complete.  The cat gets bitten by the Gambling Bug, gambles, then goes to the Penalty Wheel.  Will this be iterated three times or what?  With slight alterations?
FIRST PENALTY: the "Gesundheit."  Oh, if only kids could bully this way.  As it is, they have trouble with "I won the hot dog."  Love that logic puzzle.  Or how about Sesame Street's infamous 10Q?  Anyway, gambling has a dark side, who knew?  However, the Gambling Cat, as he should probably be known now, might not realize it, but spinning the Penalty Wheel is kind of a form of gambling, albeit an unpleasant one?  Alas, he's caught in the gears of this Plot Superstructure, and there's no time for such self-realizations.  And the "Gesundheit" penalty actually has a lot of moving parts in its own right.  How do things get so complicated?
It begins with the dog force feeding the cat a teeny piece of chewing gum.  The dog also force chews it for the cat... we get a helpful close-up of the piece of bubble gum, thankfully.  The dog slaps the cat on the back, then kicks the cat in the ass to create a bubble, which is particularly cruel.  But the cat knew the bulldog was capable of this when the cat took him in.  Next piece of the puzzle: a canister of "Sneeze Powder," since banned by the Geneva Conventions... but don't worry!  The market will soon be flooded with Trump brand Sneeze Powder.  I'm not psychic, but I can see it in all of our collective futures.  And so, a dash of "sneeze powder" on the cat's nose and... yup.  The cat sneezes.  It takes a while, and the pink bubble gets sufficiently big, and the dog backs out of the blast impact zone, but the cat sneezes, and gets a new bubble gum suit out of the deal.  "Gesundheit!" says the dog, ever the embodiment of sophisticated sarcasm.
The cat says "OOOH, I HATE THAT!"  Joe Besser couldn't have done much better.  However, the cat clearly doesn't hate it enough, for it's back to the log to await the Gambling Bug's second bite.
SECOND PENALTY: Now once you have a great Plot Superstructure to lean up against like we have here in Early to Bet, clearly it's time to tweak it as much as you can without changing it... at least, here in the pre-J. J. Abrams Film Storytelling Age.  As it happens, there's a reason the Gambling Bug bit the Gambling Cat on the ear, and now we find out why.  Apparently, the Gambling Bug will talk to his victims before repeated bites.  Here, the Bug says to the cat, "Okay, so ya lost!  So ya didn't win!"  That's like telling a soft person that they're not hard, Frank Lee.  And if that doesn't make them hard, clearly nothing will, forever and ever, till the End of Time.  And Time is a River rolling into nowhere.  We must live while we can, and play Steve Winwood on Top 40 radio forever and ever, till the End of Time... where was I?  Oh, right.  Second bite, just as effective, and the cat's turning into a Limb Tornado before heading back over to the dog's Picnic Table of Doom.  No wonder Joe Pesci's character in 1995's Casino hated "degenerate gamblers" so much!  Yeesh Louise!
And so, we once again find the Cat finding solace in a handful of cards.  "Aah!" the Cat says, looking at his pawful of cards.  However, all is not well in Gamblesville, Florida, as the cat starts to put back a ten.  "I still got my FINGER on it!" says the Cat, with one strangely human finger on the card.  The Cat takes the card back.  Not a completely degenerate gambler after all!  To cut to the chase, we see the Gambling Bug's reaction now when the Gambling Cat loses.  Now, that's powerful filmmaking right there.  We don't even need to see the cat this time!  And so, we come to find out that, much like the Devil working with a sucker, the Gambling Bug takes a much longer-term interest than we first realized.  It seems the Gambling Bug was actually rooting for the cat to win, and was visibly disappointed when the cat lost!  Alas, we still don't get to see the bug that bit the dog; apparently, that's just the way the dog is, especially with this cat.
Next scene: back to the penalty wheel.  We saw the whole drawn-out process once, so we get to the good stuff a little faster this time.  For whatever reason, and maybe to appeal to the booming database community, the Penalty Wheel has numeric codes on it.  Probably more funny that way, forcing the Cat to go to the filing cabinet to figure out what number corresponds to what penalty.  He clearly doesn't have it memorized yet, but might at some point.  The penalty this time is the "William Tell."  The cat tries hard to resist, but he nevertheless eventually gets in place in front of the wooden fence, and he at least gets to pick the largest apple within his reach to place atop his head.  Is the cat at all grateful?  Of course not!  Me, me, me.  I guess it's more about the abject humiliation of it all rather than the brief moments of pain, perhaps.  Again, I hate to spoil the punchline, but basically, the cat's just fine, and being way way too much of a cry baby about the whole thing.


THIRD PENALTY: even the Gambling Bug is surprised by how much of an unlucky loser this Gambling Cat is!  The Gambling Bug breaks the provincial Fourth Wall over it, for God's sake!  The cat's fevered run over to the gambling table is sped up this time, by the way.  Help that hopes, er... hope that helps!
The punishment this time?  It's referred to as "Roll out the Barrel."  This farm has a wheelbarrow after all, but it ain't beside any white chickens.  And it ain't raining, either.  Now, for those of you who don't know, there's a barrel, and it's full of gun powder, and the barrel is in a wheelbarrow.  So, technically it should be "Roll out the 'Barrow," but you know how it is.  I mean, technically, the acronym should be MILTF, but MILF just rolls off the tongue that much more easily, right?  Anyway, this penalty is especially humiliating for the cat, because typically the "Roll out the Barrel" punishment is inflicted unknowingly on the bad guy in a Looney Tunes cartoon.  We saw it most recently in... you know, the one with Yosemite Sam and Bugs, probably Bunker Hill Bunny.  Arguably, in that one, Sam did figure out what was going on, but his fate was already sealed long ago, and not with a (sweet) kiss.  But it didn't start out that way.  "Roll out the Barrel" starts out with both parties knowing how it must end.
And so, we get a rather Immaculate Explosion.  The bulldog fires a starter's pistol, and faster than even Berthold in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), the Gambling Cat makes for the horizon over four hills in the distance.  If he actually had to roll the barrel along, say with his hands, it might have taken longer, but oh well.  Now, sure, the dog could've ignited the gun powder trail with that starter pistol, but he's a class act all the way, and uses a match instead.  Just as instantly, the powder trail gets burned up faster than fireproof pajamas, and the film gets the explosive ending that it somehow needed.  The cat is blown sky high, of course... and he lands right back in the same place where he first started with the wheelbarrow!  What are the odds?


The cat, now in crutches and bandages because of "Roll out the Barrel", heads right back over to the picnic table for another bout of gambling.  If it weren't for the harsh penalties, this might actually be good therapy!  However, in a slightly surprising plot twist, THE DOG HIMSELF has had enough!  The dog tells the cat, "You're too unlucky, cat!  I'm quittin' before ya KILLS yourself!"  A lone piccolo plays lead on "We're In the Money."  I'm reminded of one time on the old Letterman show when Jim Carrey wondered aloud about NASCAR drivers who want to get back in their cars after a particularly horrific crash.  Carrey, of course, made a compelling case about why they shouldn't.  On the other hand... IT'S THEIR JOB!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  What else are they S'POZED to do, man?  The job of Ace Ventura AND Ace Ventura Jr. is taken!
Oh, but before we continue, asymptotically close to wrapping this one up, I should reveal the results of my rigorous data analysis before the Trump Administration issues me another gag order.  So, between bites by the Gambling Bug upon the Gambling Cat's ear, here's how much time elapsed, in seconds: 109, 69 and 40.  Study that well, future editors, directors and screenwriters.  This is the formula you'll be tinkering with.  Or maybe you can do like Soderbergh and just tell the story completely out of order, Slaughterhouse-Five style!  Bear in mind, of course, that even Slaughterhouse-Five sort of ends up in a Three Act structure of sorts, in between the fast edits.
Now, if you're like me... scary thought, I know... and you're put in a mind of films like A Life Less Ordinary or Warren Beatty's Oscar-nomination sponge, 1978's Heaven Can Wait, which I have yet to write a review for... you're aware of the line between men and Gods.  Now, the Gambling Bug is a God of sorts, even if his powers are limited, and he's not exactly floating around in the sky, hanging with his eternal posse of clouds and angels with wings and harps.  But up until this critical moment, the Gambling Bug's influence on the story was known only to us, and not to the dog and the cat.  But now that the dog is out of the picture, by his own choice, there has been left a void.
Into this void steps the Gambling Bug.  No cross-fade to the next scene, no long introductions, and the Gambling Cat doesn't ask "Hey, who are you?"  Just as God once made whoopee with Mary about 2,050 years ago as of this writing, so too does the Gambling Bug feel the need to get more actively involved with this living creature he has picked as Soul Mate for this current celluloid outing.  There's no time to stop everything and ask why this is happening, unless you've got this on DVD and are writing a so-called "revue" of it... the film projector just keeps rolling right along, and all the filmmakers involved in its creation are left to sit back and hope it sticks for the majority of the assembled audience, as they watch from the back of the theatre, hands pressed against faces, like Rodin's sculpture "The Worrier."
Either the Gambling Bug's duties to his victims haven't been more clearly defined for me, or maybe we've gone off the rails completely in order to achieve a sense of closure, that's all I'm saying.  But one thing's for sure: the Gambling Bug has picked a much simpler game than gin rummy to play with the cat.  It's time for a game of "High Card," which is usually played to determine who goes first in a more complicated game.  And what are they playing for, incidentally?  What are the stakes?  If the Gambling Cat loses to the Gambling Bug, does the Gambling Bug own the Gambling Cat for life?  Body and soul?  Will the Gambling Cat eventually break his rather consistent losing streak?  Will there be closure at all for anybody?  So many conflicting emotions, how to express them....

-so sayeth The Movie Hooligan

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