Saturday, April 30, 2016

Smile When You Say 'Flounder:' Fresh Fish

Release date: 11/4/1939 (according to BCDb)
DVD-Blu-Ray Availability: nada

You may view a nice-looking copy of this cartoon (with an embedded logo) HERE.

Perhaps I'm softening, or weakening under the spell of these Avery spot-gag cartoons, but they don't seem as egregious as I anticipated. They can be stale, but it's a deliberate staleness, a reveling in the joy of telling a bad or corny joke.

These aren't Avery's most enjoyable or memorable cartoons, but they do offer evidence of the shreds of progress in his path to becoming the most innovative and well-known non-Disney director of Hollywood cartoons.

The long delay in posting this analysis is due to the temporary misplacement of my set of complete Warner Brothers cartoons from a sudden move this past January. I am happy to say the set has been recovered, and I'll try to get through the rest of this spot-gag period quickly and painlessly.

By the time of Fresh Fish, an easy formula rules the Avery-directed spot gag cartoons. Robert C. Bruce is the affable, mildly sarcastic emcee; Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling supply invaluable audio input, and a talent pool of animators with a growing skillset turn out stable, functionial-to-impressive work. The Warners cartoons begin to have the vibe of a finely-tuned machine: each part does its work with due diligence, and each part works with its neighbors in concert.

The lone variant, by this time, is the content of each cartoon. Avery's time at the Leon Schlesinger studios demonstrates the power of this variant. With good material, Avery and crew could create an instant classic cartoon. With formula stuff or a flawed basic theme, the same group of talented people, capable of far greater things, could turn out a trifle. No one was going to remember these things, so if they turned out good, great; if not, well, let's try to make the next one better.


Like most of these spot-gaggers, Fresh Fish opens with a time-killing, leaden gag card:
Avery and his gag writers unconsciously cite the work of socialist cartoonist Art Young--the only American cartoonist to be tried in court for sedition. Young created a feature called "The Poor Fish" for the political humor magazine Good Morning, and the character stood for the apathetic, self-satisfied souls who hide their cluelessness in a world of trivial complacency. Here are two examples of Young's Poor Fish:
No pulpit-pounding intended; just a touch of etymology. And back to our spot-gagging...
We are invited to come along on "an educational cruise in our glass-bottom boat to view the wonders of marine life in the South Seas." I realize we have little choice to opt out, so, fine...
 We visit the tropical island of Floy Floy. As Bruce gushes over its wonders of flora and fauna, "Aloha Oe" plays on a slide guitar.
 "Slowly, our ship approaches the island..."
"Attracted by this opportunity to invade the fathomless depths of the sea," the unfunnily-named Prof. Mackerel Fishface walks down into the frame, makes a face at us, and enters a primitive diving bell.
Fishface seeks "the rare Whim-Wham Whistling Shark." If there's a pop-culture reference there, it's lost on me, but down we go...
Underwater SFX have a free run for the rest of this picture. As the bathysphere descends into the deep, Bruce calls our attention to the glass-bottomed boat we're "in," and the attendant batch of corny sight gags we're in for...
Prehistoric letterboxing!
 Sardines... you know, they're tightly packed in those little cans... yep.
 Tuna... known as the "chicken of the sea..."
 Fish cluck-clucks on cue.
 "...a most productive individual, often laying 100,000 eggs at a hatching..."
 "WHEW!" This is on that sacred short-list of gags that are always amusing.
Ned Sparks caricature is an "old crab..."
(Ned Sparks sold separately.)
Hermit crab would've quipped, "I'm only 93 1/2 years old," had this cartoon been made a few years later...
 "Taxi crab" makes me wonder if Bugs Hardaway has yet left the building.
The gag trifecta still rules Avery's world. Neeeext?
 "Dainty star fish" has Katherine Hepburn voice, and does Avery's favorite bits, including the sublime "so sadly happy" line. At his best, Avery finds logic in incongruity.
The tension of unfunny v. funny continues...
 you saw this coming, no doubt... an electric eel...
 Then this thing interrupts the picture. 
 "Pardon me... could you tell me where I could find Mr. Ripley?"
This Mr. Ripley, whose Believe It or Not daily panel cartoon was a favorite
Avery target in this period. Few cartoonists look more like a cartoon character.
 Freak fish told to take long walk off short pier by narrator.
 "Yes, sir," it/they say in unison...
 ...and swim out of frame.
"Polynesian dogfish" bit isn't particularly funny, but offers nice character animation and a note of ambiguity at gag's end. The small crustacean's resentful, menacing stare, right at us, is unexpected and a mite unsettling.
 The moment you hear Bruce discuss fish fins, the possibility of five-dollar bills enters one's mind.
Sure enough, Avery and Stalling deliver.
 That toothy grin, coupled with a refrain of "We're in the Money," puts a stoopid gag over with style.
Cut back to Prof. Fishface in the diving bell.
Avery loves table-turning gags, and he beats this one to death in various spot-gag cartoons. Prey upends predator with a feeble "boo." This will reach its apotheosis in Avery's 1947 M-G-M cartoon, Slap Happy Lion. We witness its larval-stage development here.
Bruce now shifts his bemused gaze to the mussel, but not before FreakFish [TM] again interrupts, inquires about Ripley, and is shamed into an exit.
 That bit is far funnier than the mussel/muscle joke we then get.
 Bonus points for sheer grotesquerie. Now we're onto herrings:
pickled herrings, in particular.
A pun worthy of Famous Studios, and a gag carried out with sharp timing and the dynamic duo of Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling, this sea-floor drama is a bright moment, despite itself.
This bit, which runs from 4:20 to 4:47 in the cartoon, is a testament to the sheer appeal Mel Blanc's voice-work brings to the Schlesinger cartoons. Blanc's characterizations, even brief ones like this, have an unspoken inner life that makes them memorable.
Spot Gag Cartoon Rule 337: Never pass up a potential sports metaphor. Bruce adopts the nasal indifference of a radio commentator as sea-horses have an obviously rigged race.
 The sea-horse on crutches is named "Malicious."
Bruce begins to rhapsodize about the gorgeous colors
found on the seabed.
 These/this guys/guy again!
 Bruce tells them/it to "go lay an egg."
 The beauty part: they/it return/returns with two eggs. Despite no visible egg-laying equipment.
They/it seem/seems pleased with themselves/itself. This is Fresh Fish's one inspired moment--the sequence in which Avery & Co. cannot repress their inherent comedic brilliance. Too bad we still have 2:07 of runtime left...

Shark gag trifecta. The tiger shark meows like a mild tabby;
Hammerhead shark gleefully gives self concussions-plus;
 Shovel-nosed shark idly labors on an underwater federal improvement project.
Back to Fishface's bathysphere, which will soon defy all laws of physics, nature and gravity.
 School-of-fish gags are rife in all studios' cartoons; at least this blackout bit is clever.
The animation of this piscine professor is just great. Though the routine benefits from the James Cagney-with-hemorrhoids voice work, the poses and actions read beautifully without the audio.
Like its forebearer, Land of the Midnight Fun, this cartoon hews to a limited, controlled color palette, The blue-green ocean floor settings call for a small set of earth-tone hues for the animated figures. Such disciplined color is rare in 1930s Technicolor animation. With a gaudy rainbow at their disposal, Avery and his designers stick to only the tones necessary to put across the episodes of this cartoon.

Speaking of which, I smell a wrap-up coming.
 Bruce is about to write Fishface off, but we'll have none of that.
 The open-air model bathysphere!
 Prof and Whim-wham Whistling Shark meet at last!
 Silhouetted shapes contribute to dynamic animation in a frenzied physical scene.
 You know what they're going to find inside the diving bell. Why say anything more about it?
 Sailor design changes from primitive post-Egghead to McKimson-esque quasi-realism.
 A Bert Gordon radio bit ("How do you do?") takes some of the mildew off this inevitable wrap-up.
Fresh Fish is a step down from Land of the Midnight Fun, but far from the worst of these spot-gaggers. Despite my pangs of remorse that I could've watched The Bear's Tale, A Wild Hare or Porky's Preview instead of this, I must concede that beneath the layers of sheer corn is good timing, a high level of professional gloss and the considerable contributions of Mel Blanc and Carl Stalling. They are, as much as Avery or his animators, responsible for the outcome of this cartoon.

Add Robert C. Bruce to that list. He really warms to his role in Fresh Fish. Somewhere between snark and dotty, doting parent, his performance adds shades of coloration and class to a pretty standard stack of cause-and-effect blackout gags. All parties bring more to this material than it deserves, but their skill and resourcefulness must be noted and saluted.

Next: Homicidal Infant in the Stands: Screwball Football

1 comment:

  1. I think the schoolteacher-as-fish is meant to be a Lionel Barrymore caricature; cp. with the definite caricature in McKimson's later "Hot Cross Bunny." The sort of snorting in the voice, I think, is the giveaway.

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