Archive for RKO


Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 7, 2022 by dcairns

I’d never heard of Toby Pup until a minute ago.

(This is extemporaneous.)

So, he’s RKO’s early thirties version of the Mickey/Bosco/Bimbo/Flip archetype. A b&w animal character with big eyes, wide mouth, minstrelsy characteristics, white gloves. Toby, in his title illustration, has some grey trimmings but in the cartoon he’s all solid blacks and whites. He doesn’t have little shoes like those other characters, his feet are dog feet, although they join to his ankles as if they were shoes. A Rene Magritte touch. His proportions are lankier, making him less cute, an evolutionary dead end save for the survival of Goofy, a sort of freak platypus of toontown.

In the cartoon, having perhaps undergone some Flip the Frog type remodelling, Toby is more rotund.

Repeating actions are cheap, so we watch Toby milking a cow directly into a series of bottles and diluting the milk with a handy water pump. For a tedious amount of time, with musical accompaniment. So far, so sub-Fleischer. But these things always get weird/distressing in unpredictable ways, I can wait.

Okay, milk bottles with legs, I’m sold. With legs but no arms or faces or eyes even. Blind, insensate, lolloping headlong, clinking. Horrible.

OK, they can momentarily grow arms and mouths. That’s reassuring. In no way disturbing. “Woo-oo!” The 30s cartoon gets closer to nightmare than anything outside of Charley Bowers, without really resembling an actual nightmare anyone’s ever had. Which is in itself uncanny.

Toby’s horse wears I think galoshes, and has Mickey Mouse ears. Ri-ight. Tell me more. It turns lazy cartwheels, a motion perhaps suggested to the director by the presence of actual cartwheels right behind him.

Milk is delivered by slinging it at the target doorstep, where the bottle smashes and the occupant syringes it from the stonework, broken glass and all. Some business with a bouncy bottle, not too interesting, then a bottle appears which grows a tongue from its neck so it can lap up its own spilt contents. Presumably anyone who tries drinking from the bottle gets a french kiss. Freddy Kreuger invented nothing.

Cartoon animals tend to be able to roll up their hide as sleeve or cuff, as if their animal skin were merely clothing… little three-year-old kids know that animals can’t talk, so they often do assume cartoons must be people in costumes. Mickey the cartoon and Mickey the huge wobbly thing at Disneyland are the same, they must be, though they appear unaccountably different. Anyway, this is RKO, so when the horse exposes its “bare” arm/leg, it’s sprouting hairs and dotted with unhealthy-looking moles. I’d get those looked at, and not by a YouTube audience.

Toby pulling spats on over his head isn’t too disturbing, and extruding a top hat from his navel, well, who amongst us, in a moment of weakness… the point is, he’s finished his milk round and is now a big city swell, lopping the end off his cigar with a meat cleaver he tosses back into his pants/dogskin, somehow escaping evisceration or at least a Napoleonesque circumcision.

The only image that really makes me laugh is the Leone ECU of the sleepy horse’s eyes, which display, METROPolis vidphone-style, two beds, a drowsing pupil in each. That’s pupil as in the big black centre of the eye, oblong with a chip taken out of it to suggest a reflective highlight. Those things. In beds. Pulling up the covers with specially-sprouting arms. THAT’S funny.

Unable to rouse his steed, Toby (keep forgetting his name, want to call him plain old Pup) departs his cart in a white flubbermobile, rather charming in its featurelessness, creepy in its ability to slide under rocks. I can too easily picture the demented dawg riding into my room at night, under the door sill like a threatening note, mowing me down in bed FUCK OFF

Toby rides into an angry/pained anthropomorphic storm with weird low-budgets sound effects on repeat, the toon is halfway over and all pretense of milkmanning has been abandoned like a bad shirt.

Now Toby does actually slide his car under a door — SEE I WAS RIGHT — to get out of the storm. The door flexes and warps to let him in — the door is a LOOSE SKIN on the house — a small tree knocks at the door and compassionate Toby lets it in.

Sudden, dismaying shock cut to daylight. The storm is forgotten. Some kind of cow barn dance in progress. Naturally, Toby, a dog, is guest of honour. How did we get here? What’s going on? I can accept milk bottles with anchors chained to them, but this kind of Godardian transition is some fresh hell.

Actually, Pup Toby isn’t even here. What right do we have to be seeing this? I don’t feel dancing cows should be thrust at us without warning or explanation.

(A goat, meanwhile, playing the fiddle, has mice in his shoes using his toes as xylophones or maybe glockenspiels, not sure. The shoes open up like car hoods. Goats don’t even have toes. Who do I write to? Ah, YOU, of course, and I am already doing it.

Ah, here’s Toby, dancing with a corsetted pig. The abruption of this scene change makes me think someone has accidentally spliced two incomplete toons together into a cinematic Fiji mermaid, or else two screenplays/storyboards got shuffled, the way Warners would do to recycle material so the common public might not notice (THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT is a glaring example). But most likely the “writer” just ran out of storm gags and so shifted scene like Capt. Kirk.

Spaniel on banjo wipes his nose with his whole arm, like Mifune or Amber Heard. Not sure why we needed to see that, but then, isn’t that the entire aesthetic here?

Like some dance marathon contestant — THEY SHOOT PUPS DON’T THEY? — Toby collapses on the floor and, mysteriously, some cigarettes and cigars — I *think* — the kinda look like fishes — rush from his hat and pose on his prone form. He looks up, confused, and for the first time in the cartoon I can relate to him.

Seven minute cartoon took me 14 mins to watch because I was typing this.

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.

Ent, Misbehaving

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on July 12, 2019 by dcairns

This treebeardy apparition occurs in BOY SLAVES, a rip-roaring RKO social conscience melo from one-shot wonder PJ Wolfe. Thanks to Randy Cook for recommending it (with reservations). His comparison to Sam Fuller seems spot-on, but Big Bad Wolfe also seems to have seeen Disney’s SNOW WHITE…

Now reviewed at The Chiseler.