“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”
— Elmer Fudd
Many consider What’s Opera, Doc? a masterpiece — the greatest Merrie Melodies cartoon, ever. It frequently makes “best of” lists for animated shorts, sometimes at the top.
What’s Opera, Doc? is classic dopey Elmer Fudd (Arthur Q. Bryan) hunting flippant, nonchalant Bugs Bunny (Mel Blanc), complete with trickery, potstirring, and the latter in drag. This one, however, is notable because it’s not particularly violent, and — spoiler alert! — Elmer actually catches Bugs in the end. He feels bad about it, too. To quote Bugs, “Well, what did you expect in an opera — a happy ending?”
Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, What’s Opera, Doc? is an irreverent parody of composer Richard Wagner’s works, and I think I hear songs from Die Walküre. It really takes the piss out of him and high fallutin’ culture (those viking hats, egads!). It’s also a parody of the Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny formula. Its visually impressive Technicolor layouts are big and downright gorgeous, resembling a Salvadore Dalí painting at times.
For all it has going for it, though, What’s Opera, Doc? isn’t my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon. Honestly, it’s not even close. But I see why it’s highly regarded.
Bruce Baillie’s experimental short film Castro Street has nothing to do with San Francisco. It has no plot, no dialogue, and no characters — unless you count the machines, silhouettes of workers, numbers, words, ads, colors, and sounds that wander in and out the frame like a stream of consciousness. The point is to convey a certain mood through visual and sonic elements.
It works. Dominated by shifting shades of red and blue superimposed over black and white, a drab industrial bleakness emerges from the constantly moving images and noises of oil refining machinery and trains. Suddenly, a welcome bit of nature comes into a view: a field of grass. Toward the end, a familiar pop song that I can’t place is trying to break out of all the noise. I looked it up: “Good Lovin'” by the Rascals.
Overall, Castro Street is not particularly exciting — but it’s pretty.
Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.
Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.
Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.
Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.
Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.
After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.
The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.
Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.
Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.
With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright
Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment
“Now, I have something to tell you…I’m not like other guys.”
— Michael Jackson
A very young Michael Jackson on a date with…his girlfriend (Ola Ray)? Jackson playing a werewolf, a zombie, and a lizard-eyed creature? Vincent Price reading an outro? Bad ’80s hair? You know it’s thriller, thriller night!
It’s not his best song, but Michael Jackson’s Thriller is a fucking cool video. It features all the showmanship he’s known for — the dancing, the weirdness, the bigness of the whole thing, that red jacket and those white socks, oh and a setting in the midst of seedy urban decay, this time a cemetery apparently somewhere downtown. Directed by John Landis, Thriller is clever: what starts as a cheesy horror movie turns out to be…a cheesy horror movie. Loaded with references to Night of the Living Dead and An American Werewolf in London,Thriller demonstrates that Jackson actually had a sense of humor.
I don’t put a music video on my blog every day. In fact, Michael Jackson’s Thriller is (so far) the only one. Why? In my quest to see as much as possible on the Library of Congress National Film Registry, I am obligated to include the final single and title track from the legendary pop star’s massive blockbuster album Thriller (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thriller_(Michael_Jackson_album) ). The song was not written by Jackson — Rod Temperton came up with it.
This video truly was a “seismic shift” — longer, more dramatic, and reaching beyond the song, it proved that music videos could be more than promotional clips; they literally could be little movies — or as here, bona fide events — that attract a huge audience, and thus worthy of a big budget. I can cite a number of artists who followed the template that Jackson set with Thriller.
With Marcea Lane, Kim Blank, Lorraine Fields, Tony Fields, Michele Simmons, Vincent Peters, Michael Peters, Vincent Paterson, Michael De Lorenzo, Ben Lokey, John Command, Richard Gaines, Mark Sellers, Suzan Stadner, Diane Geroni, Suga Pop
“Man, I ain’t poor. Look, I give away things to the Salvation Army. You can’t give away nothing to Salvation Army if you poor.”
Killer of Sheep has an unusually twisted history that kept it out of daylight — and the spotlight — until recently. His Master’s thesis when he was a film student at UCLA, director Charles Burnett shot it part time over a year’s worth of weekends on 16mm scraps salvaged from production houses. He used equipment borrowed from the university film department. He never intended it to be shown publicly, which is why he didn’t bother to secure licenses for all the music in it (https://mobile.nytimes.com/2007/03/25/movies/25kehr.html?referer=https://www.google.com/).
Relegated to obscurity because of copyright issues surrounding the music, Killer of Sheep was impossible to see for decades — not that that stopped the Library of Congress from adding it to the National Film Registry in just its second year of existence. A grant and a donation led to a restoration that finally placed it into the stream of commerce about ten years ago.
Burnett paints a fluid portrait of the American urban ghetto through the daily life of Stan (Henry G. Sanders), a poor black working class grunt at a slaughterhouse in Watts. His days, monotonous and uneventful, are loaded with small events like fixing the pipes under the kitchen sink, eating dinner at the table with his family, cashing a check at a liquor store, buying a used motor for a car, and getting a flat tire on a “trip to the country” only to find no spare in the truck.
While this is happening, different temptations like a job offer and a part in a crime are presented to Stan. His wife (Kaycee Moore), a weary beauty who waits for him with fresh makeup and a record on the turntable each evening, seems to be the reason he resists. Maybe it’s not her — maybe it’s because Stan simply doesn’t see himself as capable of doing any better.
Not a whole lot happens in Killer of Sheep, but that’s not the point. Like the Italian neorealist films it calls to mind, Burnett’s execution is beautifully simple: he uses non-professional actors (and children who aren’t acting at all), mundane settings and situations, and black and white film to depict the rhythm of poverty. His execution is also really haunting, as if we’re eavesdropping. It’s incredibly effective. For such a quiet and contained film, Burnett’s ultimate statement is pretty jarring.
Every now and then, I come across a literary or artistic work from the past that makes me reevaluate its day as maybe a little cooler than I gave it credit for. The silent gem Pass the Gravy is one such work. It’s longer than it needs to be, but it exhibits a twisted sense of humor that I love.
Schultz (Bert Sprotte) and Davidson (Max Davidson) are next door neighbors who don’t get along. Schultz, a well-dressed pompous ass, raises chickens that constantly eat the seeds Davidson, a far less dapper man, plants in his backyard. Schultz’s prize-winning pet rooster, Brigham, makes him, shall we say, cockproud.
When Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) and Davidson’s daughter (Martha Sleeper) announce their engagement, the two older gentlemen reluctantly agree to set aside their differences and celebrate the occasion with a fine feast. Davidson gives his conniving son, Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell), two bucks to go buy a chicken. Instead, Ignatz pockets the money and steals a bird from Schultz’s yard — it’s Brigham.
The two families sit down at the table. Ignatz realizes what he’s done when he notices a tag that says “1st Prize” hanging off one of the roasted bird’s drumsticks. Hilarity ensues as one by one, each guest at the table realizes what Ignatz did and tries to hide it from Schultz.
Produced by Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy) and directed by Fred Guiol with Leo McCarey, Pass the Gravy sounds like something Family Guy made up. It’s not: it’s real, and it’s actually pretty funny — if only for Davidson’s well played reaction that has to be seen to be appreciated and Schultz’s morbidly ironic quips (“They act like it’s a funeral” and “It’s my chicken and I’m going to eat it!”).
A football pantomime toward the end is shaky, and the joke here wears thin before the whole thing is over. Still, even with its antiquated slapstick silliness, Pass the Gravy is solid humor.
Max Fleischer’s Snow-White is nothing like Walt Disney’s — and that’s good. Fleischer offers a dark, edgy, and weirdly trippy death-focused version of the story most know from Disney. He “staffs” this short with characters from his Betty Boop cartoons.
Betty Boop (Mae Questel) — as Snow White — is off to a bad start when a magic mirror with Cab Calloway in it tells the Evil Queen (Questel), who looks and acts a lot like Olive Oyl, that Betty is “the fairest in the land.” The Queen orders her flunkies, Bimbo and Ko-Ko the Clown, to kill Betty — off with her head!
Bimbo and Ko-Ko don’t really want to hurt Betty. They take her to the forest, where she escapes by jumping into a river that freezes her into a box that looks like a coffin and carries her down a hill to the seven dwarves. Meanwhile, Bimbo and Ko-Ko fall into a hole and land in a cave where the Queen is. She turns them into monsters as they sing a blues number.
The Queen asks the mirror again who the fairest in the land is, and this time the mirror explodes into a puff of smoke that puts her face to face with Betty. Things don’t end well for the Queen.
Roland C. Crandall’s animation is rough and jagged and kind of jumpy, giving the whole thing a nervous energy and a sketchy vibe. He loads this cartoon with ghosts, skeletons, armored executioners, and other creepy goblins. Ko-Ko dancing to “St. James Infirmary Blues” is rotoscoped from footage of Calloway performing the song. This Snow-White has a Cajun flavor to it. It’s an interesting approach.
The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.
The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.
The National Film Registry has some weird shit on it. Life of an American Fireman is a good example. An early “narrative” film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, who worked on other Edison film projects, this one depicts the dangerous work of firemen.
Life of an American Fireman doesn’t waste time or expense on things life title cards or credits. It begins with a fireman (Arthur White) dreaming about his wife and kids, shown in an onscreen thought bubble. He is awakened by the sound of the bell — not that we hear it — because oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire! It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the fire is at his house.
This film is interesting from a historical perspective, and it shows some nice exterior shots of suburban New York or New Jersey. It’s also neat how the aforementioned thought bubble is composed as well as how the action is depicted from various viewpoints — in and outside the house. The fake smoke is a nice detail. Other than that, Life of an American Fireman is a snooze — about as thrilling as watching a fax go through. Thankfully, programming has come a long way.