Toon Musings: Cartooon!
When I was blessed with a son, I decided fairly early on that he would be indoctrinated to cherish Quality Cartoons. I mean cartoons of quality – a particular quality. They had to be well made; that is, the art had to be competent, the movement fluid, the plotting (such as it was) compelling, the characterization consistent and coherent. And they had to be violent.
Disney cartoons were beautifully crafted, but too… plotty. Things happened for a reason. The violent ones usually starred Donald Duck and his boundless rage; or Goofy and his stupidity and terrible luck. Their misfortunes were largely due to misadventure, and while there is a certain satisfaction to seeing mayhem by happenstance, there’s nothing quite like naked cartoon malice to get the juices flowing.
Warner Brothers cartoons were closer to the mark. They were filled with strife, but often required a good deal of setup. Why would Bugs Bunny be fighting with a symphony conductor, or a construction worker, or a mad scientist? Why was Daffy Duck mixing it up with a Martian? Sylvester and Tweety had a natural enmity, as did Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, and Ralph the Wolf and Sam the Sheepdog; but the gags often hinged on elaborate plans gone awry, or dubious gadgetry. And Ralph and Sam were quite cordial when off the clock. Enjoyable? Yes, immensely. But they were not the Pure Article.
For that, we watched Tom and Jerry. Nothing is quite so cathartic as watching a cat give a tongue-out raspberry to a bulldog, only to have the bulldog club the cat on the head and leave the cat’s severed tongue, suspended in air, still raspberrying away until the mortified cat grabs it and stuffs it back into his mouth. No setup required: Atavistic antagonism, furious pursuit and vigorous, no-consequences mayhem, with whatever objects happen to be at hand.
It was in this spirit that I attended Cartooon, a production of Minneapolis’ In The Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre, when it played recently as part of the Chicago International Puppet Theater Festival. Here’s the blurb from the program:
In the Heart of the Beast’s Cartooon
“A live-action three-dimensional cartoon performed by a cast of fifteen, Cartooon was created by Steve Ackerman and directed by Ackerman and Ellen Conn. The controversial animated program “Tummy da Talking Turtle Sucks on Piano Keys” was created by Earl Dives and Gerry ‘Crackjaw’ Sanders while sharpening their lumberjack axes in the fall of 1940. Earl was a balding Protestant with a penchant for soft whisky and women’s feet. Gerry loved the smell of tar and gasoline. They bonded over nudie magazines and the pitching form of Lefty Grove, claiming “one is a national treasure, the other sure could throw a strike.” Knowing nothing about animation, children, or public decency, the two cobbled together obscure Bible passages about dynamite and ran them over a flip book of crude drawings of Gerry’s penis talking that they then put teeth on to resemble a crocodile. One episode of the show was created. It was a failure. This is that episode.”
Upon arriving at the theater, my Formidable Wife and I were greeted in the lobby by a string quartet playing Ode to Joy. As we were listening and glancing around the lobby, which was decorated with set pieces reminiscent of the Cartooon artwork we had seen in the puppet festival program, we were surprised suddenly to hear a quartet of singers chime in with the string quartet, each on a pedestal and each singing an aria not Ode to Joy. There was a table set up to serve bowls of sugary breakfast cereal, and behind the table was a TV playing a clip from a famous Tex Avery short wherein a wolf in a cabaret lustily ogles a cabaret singer, with all the hyper-exaggerated eye-bugging and tongue-lolling for which Mr. Avery was famous. I’m not sure which short it was; apparently he made a series of them, for entertaining the troops in World War II. I didn’t have any cereal (I’d tried a sample box of Froot Loops we got in the mail recently, and it was ghastly, like eating sugary, vaguely fruitish-flavored Cheetos). Feast your eyes, courtesy of my Formidable Wife:
All this pageant was to set the mood for what was to come.
Inside the black-box theater was a row of tables with various props, set pieces and cutout cartoon characters: Tummy da Talking Turtle, Crackjaw the Crocodile, and Bouncy-bouncy, the Object of Desire, depicted only from the loins down as a pair of (mis-)shapely legs clad in a red skirt and matching pumps – in the same vein as the much-reviled Mammy Two-shoes from Tom and Jerry. Here’s a picture:
A small orchestra and conductor were on the mezzanine to the left, along with a sound effects table. In the center was a hidden choir. On the right was the narrator. The players entered, dressed in matching grey tailcoats. The narrator began narrating. Then, in the service of acting out a cartoon short over the period of an hour or so, they proceeded to trash the place.
At this point, I’m reminded of an old anecdote of the marathon runner who tried to match his toddler, move for move, through the course of a single day. He quit, exhausted, after a few hours.
So now the characters chase each other throughout the theater – up and down ladders, through the audience, everywhere – and shoot each other out of cannons and blow each other up with explosives and knock each other through character-shaped holes in brick walls and gawp at Bouncy-bouncy with spectacular tongues lolling out all over everything and drop pianos and piranhas and anvils on each other and the gags get bigger and bigger and the characters get bigger and bigger and then gallons and gallons of sugary cereal rain down and the place smells like dulcet Death… and then it’s over, and the lights come up, and we pick our way through the wreckage, and tongues, and sugary Cheeto dust to outside and fresh air and the cold night.
I had a blast. It was a pretty loving tribute to the idea of a 7-year-old kid, all amped up on Sugar Pops, watching cartoons on Saturday morning. The adult in me misses the lush backgrounds, the character design, the fluid animation, and the superb voice acting that appeared in the best of those cartoons (check out Tom and Jerry in Heavenly Puss, from 1949), but as I sit here I want to go watch The Triplets of Belleville or The Lost Thing, or something a bit more contemplative and less… noisy. I guess that means I’m all grown up. But as we grow up, I think it behooves us to at least try to maintain an occasional hold on the things that excited us as kids; to visit there now and then. But don’t try to live there—that would be weird. And the food is terrible.
Tom and Jerry Heavenly Puss episode (Please pardon the horrifying frame around this video. It’s the best I could find on YouTube.)
Tex Avery cartoons on YouTube
In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre
Phil Maish is a freelance cartoonist of no repute. His modest efforts may be viewed at www.myth-fits.com. He has worked for the Government, the Opera, the Press, and a Soulless Corporation. Self-taught and beholden only to his Formidable Wife and amazing son, he spends his free time gadding about in his vintage autogyro and, with his faithful manservant Nicopol, exploring untrammeled wildernesses discovering hitherto unknown animal species, smashing spy rings, and regaling fellow members of the League of Intrepid Adventurers with tales of his intrepid adventures. He resides in Heartland America.