Flights of Fancy (Part 2): More First Contacts

Ready to rise above it all? Then continue with us as we soar to new heights with our overview of ‘toons about planes.

As we progress deeper into the dawn of talkies, air flight continues to play a prominent role, sometimes as a passing highlight, and in others as a primary motivation. Notable during this period, as further discussed below, was a nostalgic tendency to look backwards upon “The Great War”, where airplanes had first found their application as offensive weapons. Cartoons’ love of violence developed into a somewhat ravenous appetite for such fare, taking the aerial battle to new extremes that would have made aces’ faces grow pale.

Come Take a Trip In My Airship (Fleischer/Paramount, Screen Song, 5/23/30, Dave Fleischer, dir., Willard Buwsky, anim.) is nearly related to this survey in title only. Its opening sequences deal with the unrelated subject of delivering a piano to a cat’s high-rise apartment. The bouncing ball is briefly seen superimposed upon a live action shot of the New York skyline taken from the cockpit of a plane, as if bouncing in mid-air out the window. The final chorus of the song has the cat picked up for a date by a boyfriend in a propeller-driven dirigible. Lines about a trip to Mars have the vehicle shot from the cannon mouth of a Martian warrior. The final line “And we’ll visit the man in the moon” provides the unusual ending of the craft sailing right into the moon’s open mouth, with the pilot cat’s hand emerging briefly to retrieve his hat which has fallen off during the entry, and the clouds obscuring the moon’s face for a black out.

Bully Beef (Terrytoons, 7/13/30 – Paul Terry/Frank Moser) is one of the first talkie cartoons to look back at WW1 – a trend that was becoming popular for cinema in general, stemming largely from MGM’s “The Big Parade” (1925), and subsequently including such films as the Oscar winning, “Wings” (1929), “All Quiet On the Western Front (1930) (another Oscar winner), “Hell’s Angels” (1930), and “Dawn Patrol” (1930), among others. Even Laurel and Hardy would soon join in the act, in “Pack Up Your Troubles” (1932). As Terry films were apt to do even this early, one will notice certain opening scenes bearing considerable similarity between this film and “Sherman was Right”, reviewed below, as a cat and mouse compete for a female mouse’s affections as the call to battle summons them off to war. The present Terry epic conducts most of its battles on the ground and in the trenches (including numerous bits of gratuitous violence where whole rows of mice are beheaded (with blood drops) by enemy fire (accounting for the film’s non-inclusion in the CBS manifest). But it also takes a few shots to depict the aerial campaign. An enemy cat strafes the anti-aircraft nest of the mouse with machine gun fire, and also hits his cat comrade squarely in the face. The mouse loads himself into the breech of the anti-aircraft gun, and fires, launching him into the clouds. Armed with a pistol, he pursues the plane on foot, by hopping from cloud to cloud in a scene that looks like something out of a Mario Brothers platform game. (Imagine if some creative video game designer were to come up with an “Aesop’s Fables” game, a la Cuphead.) The plane fires back with its machine gun, as the mouse ducks bullets between his cloud leaps. Finally, the enemy pilot (as only cartoon pilots can) puts his plane into a mid-air hover, and hides inside a cloud himself, as both combatants engage in a shoot-out as if in a Western hiding behind rocks. A lucky shot downs the enemy, who falls to earth, yet immediately gets up uninjured and runs away. Terry animals were as durable as Wile E. Coyote – always ready to rise again. And the same goes for the mouse’s comrade, who the mouse attempts to tend to upon landing nearby with a parachute. The mouse thinks the cat is a goner, but he is merely playing possum, and flirting with the mouse’s girlfriend again behind his back. Discovering the trick, the mouse retaliates with a stone from a slingshot into the car’s rear, and gets the girl for an iris-out kiss.

Dumb Patrol (Warner/Harman-Ising, Looney Tunes (Bosko), 5/19/31) – One of the more thrill-packed installments of this series. The film opens by placing the audience in the heart of the action, as explosions rock even the title card, and we fade-in in mid air in the midst of an aerial dogfight, with planes filling the skies in pursuit of one another, and one heading straight on toward the camera, crashing into the lens with an explosive blast. Down on the ground, Bosko, in nearly identical fashion to Putrid Pete from Oswald (a series in which Harman and Ising also had roots), nurses a pot-bellied mini-plane by squirting oil into its joints, and even having the plane blow its nose into a hanky. He paraphrases a whistling version of the “Get Happy” theme all the while, ignoring the fact that small bombs and shells are dropping precariously close by, bouncing Bosko and the plane off the ground intermittently from their explosive force. Our scene changes to a close-ip of an enemy plane high above. The pilot seems to be a gorilla, and his plane is made of solid metal, with row upon row of protruding rivets to make its appearance even more menacing, and wings that seem fabricated from steel bars cut absolutely square about a foot thick, with no sign of air-flow streamlining. The pilot is so inherently evil, he takes note of the audience watching him, and turns his machine gun fire directly at the camera to blast the audience with multiple lethal rounds. (So I guess no one survives to see the end of the picture.) Spotting Bosko below, the villain pulls a lever, opening a rear belly-hatch and dumping out a huge blockbuster bomb. The bomb scores a nearly direct hit on Bosko and the plane, submerging the two of them into a deep crater, and showering them with rocky rubble. A second shot lands in the crater, causing the plane to leap into Bosko’s arms. Well, this assault cannot go unchallenged, so Bosko spins his plane’s prop, then gets whirled around by it in reverse direction (Terry’s gag from Lindy’s Cat). The plane adopts flying techniques from previous cartoons we have discussed, including both flapping wings and swimming strokes through the sky. Bosko comes up behind the tail of the villain’s craft, and opens fire with his synchronized machine gun through his propeller blades. (This may mark the first time such invention is depicted literally in a cartoon – a major improvement in positioning of firepower on warbird aircraft, minimizing the inaccuracy of aim resulting from positioning of guns on upper or lower wing surfaces, or the limitations of aiming perimeter which would result from depending only on a tail gunner with rotating mount, who could never turn his gun to aim in a forward direction, as the wings and the pilot would be in the way. By mechanical gear interaction, the synchronized machine gun timed gunfire to place shots between the rotation of the prop blades, allowing the pilot the freedom of more natural aim without worry of danger to his power source.) The villain is surprised to find someone on his tail, but has special equipment for just such a situation – an impossibly large cannon, which rises out of the fuselage and points backwards over the tail, to fire a cannonball at Bosko. A first hit blows all the fabric off Bosko’s plane, exposing engine parts and the spindly framework of the body and wings. A second hit obliterates the plane altogether, sending Bosko plummeting down toward the bombed-out wreckage of a provincial home in the French countryside. Bosko is fortunate enough to bounce off the keyboard of a piano, landing inside some long johns on a clothesline, and emerges from the garment’s drop seat.

A musical interlude ensues as Honey, the owner of what is left of the place, comes home and finds her surprise visitor. Bosko’s French isn’t much, but he knows the universal language of ragtime, and despite a rocky start of prematurely sealing a kiss from Honey, he begins to win her over with a lively performance on her piano. But there’s still the matter of that villain, who unloads another couple of bombs upon the already open-air home, reducing the piano to a harp framework. Bosko is now riled. “I’ll get you!”, he ineffectively threatens. Finding the old dependable aerial standby of a dachshund, Bosko places a bench across the dog’s shoulders for wings, a broom to extend his tail, and for ammunition, grabs a meat grinder and a picket fence. Twirling the dog’s head like a prop, the dog’s head begins spinning to provide the thrust, and Bosko is back in the air again, for the second time instantly attaining choice position behind the enemy’s tail. Placing the picket fence into the meat grinder, Bosko shoots out a stream of pointed pickets. In a scene that makes no sense whatsoever, since we’ve already established the enemy’s plane as metal, the wooden pickets somegow poke at the enemy plane’s rear, causing the plane to come to life with a shout and attempt to protect its sore rear end. The villain tries turning his machine gun on Bosko, but Bosko produces a curved section of pipe from nowhere, catching the enemy’s fire and U-turning it back upon him. Back to the villain’s big gun, as the cannon emerges again. The cannonball shoots right down the dachshund’s throat, and lodges inside the dog’s tail. Bosko squeezes the dog’s body like a tube of toothpaste, launching the cannonball back at the villain. Now the ball explodes upon impact, and the huge war machine is reduced to a flock of mini-planes that fly in aimless spirals like a swarm of insects, until Bosko appears among them, spraying at the pests with a Flit-gun, and spitting a direct hit on the last one to knock the pests from the skies. Bosko gives a hearty laugh as the film irises out.

The Explorer (Terrytoons/Educational, Farmer Al Falfa, 3/22/31), finds our favorite farmer returning to the air again, this time in an autogyro assembled from another old jalopy with a vertical prop inserted into the hood, departing from a hangar on a quest to the North Pole. Continuity of plot is not of much concern to the Terry staff this day, as the film makes little coherent sense, mostly concentrating on random gags as every animal in Farmer Al’s livestock seems to want to join him in his flight. A mule tows a cat aloft on a box kite, but the cat falls to his doom, producing nine dancing cat angels. Another cat, without any good motivation, flies up to Al’s vehicle in a plane with four props driven by the hand-cranking of mice, and ties a box of skunks to Al’s tail, causing a fracus in the cockpit, and Al to hang out his clothes for airing on an aerial clothesline. A cat riding astride a goose keeps other animals aloft atop an umbrella by blowing hot air under them with a fireplace bellows. A long polka-dotted dog propels himself with a rotor tail. A pack of cats flies atop the surfaces of a set of biplane wings, propelled by a cat towing the assembly through the sky by means of a bicycle – then for no reason, the bicyclist loops to dump the passengers off, who all hit the silk with parachutes. Farmer Al’s craft drags its anchor, upsetting the bell in a church steeple, and then overturning a pair of igloos at the pole. Eventually, after some unnecessary musical dancing by bears and walruses, Farmer Al acquires the North Pole in a barter with a Jewish bear (cut from CBS’s print), and flies it back to the states. A welcoming committee presents Al with a loving cup – but inside it are the skunks again, who chase Al out if the county in the final shot.

Trouble (Van Buren/Pathe, Tom and Jerry, 10/10/31 – John Foster, George Stallings, dir.) – Tom and Jerry, accident attorneys, can’t find a case to work on, but seem to be on the verge of finding the biggest accident of their careers. In the heart of the city, a dirigible bores through the clouds toward a tall skyscraper. One cloud, before releasing the ship from its core, develops a face and puffs on the ship like a giant cigar. (We’ll see this gag reused later in a Max Fleischer Screen Song). The ship heads for what appears to be the Empire State Building, while a lanky man attempts to meet the ship the hard way – by climbing up the side of the building like a human fly. A a crows of curious passers-by crane their necks upward, the man reaches the pinnacle of a mooring mast at the top of the tower, reaches out, and grabs a ring in the nose of the airship. However, he can’t seem to moor one to the other, and soon finds himself being pulled off the mast by the huge ship. Reduced to a one-finger grip with each hand, the man finally loses his hold on both building and ship, and falls in a dizzy spiral down, down to the ground. Tom and Jerry wait below to sign up what is left of their prospective client, but at the last second, the man decelerates in his fall, does a series of slow, graceful loops through the air, and lands delicately on his feet, bowing to the crowd and tipping his hat, from which fall a large number amount of business cards which he leaves on the street, then proceeds on his way. Jerry picks up one of the cards, and reads, “Joe Spoof, World’s Champion Slow Motion Actor.” Tom and Jerry faint dead away, and make use of an ambulance themselves instead of merely chasing one.

The Wolf At the Door (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Scrappy, 2/29/32, Dick Huemor, dir.) Is a well-made, atmospheric episode set in the frozen North. An old goat in a remote cabin is being terrorized by the howls and attempts to gain entry of a timber wolf. He places a call to the local mounted police. Officer Oopie is sent out first, but despite his best efforts and braving of a terrible storm, only proves true the old adage, never send a baby to do a boy’s job. Mountie chief Scrappy is thus finally summoned to the scene, and travels there by way of plane from a private log cabin hangar. His plane has unique maneuverability, shifting from stationary on the ground to a right angle vertical position straight up to rise above the hangar roof, then an instant U-turn to point itself in the direction of the goat’s cabin. It is also sectional, repeating Krazy Kat’s gag from “The Stork Exchange” last week, as its propeller gets ahead of the plane itself, with the body having to inch its way forward through the air to catch up. When Scrappy lands alongside the cabin, he detaches the machine gun from his plane, mounting it on the ground. Then, he climbs a ladder to the roof edge of the cabin, and breaks off a long string of icicles hanging from the roof eaves. Feeding the icicle strip into his machine gin, Scrappy uses it as a ammunition belt, peppering the wolf with the pointed ends of the icicles. An added snowball barrage from Oopie, and the wolf is soon on the run. The wolf is left howling on a hilltop, while the smoke from the chimney of the log cabin forms the outline of a hand giving him a deriding nose-wave for the iris out.

Sherman Was Right (Terrytoons/Educational, 8/21/32) begins in similar fashion to “Bully Beef”. A mouse on military guard duty flirts with his girlfriend, while an officer cat attempts to move in on the action, ordering the mouse to proceed with his drill. The mouse gets back at the cat by parading a bit too close to the spooning couple, repeatedly knocking the cat’s hat off with the tip of his bayonet. Then comes the attack, from a squadron of planes piloted by cats, each of which craft bears an insignia of a skull and crossbones on the tail. Long before the notion of a blitzkrieg, the sky is suddenly filled with bombs, some falling straight to their targets, others miraculously shooting through the skies in horizontal paths as if somehow fired from a cannon, with several making passes very close to the camera. Various “takes” on the predicament provide most of the early gag content. A clothesline empties itself of clothes, which run away over the horizon under their own power. A very unfunny shot finds a mule pursued by a bomb, which collides with him and explodes, crippling the mule’s hind legs, and forcing him to balance on his front two to carry his hindquarters away elevated above his head. Farmer Al Falfa makes one of the shortest appearances of his career, running away with his livestock in only a single shot of the film. One dog rounds up his collection of bones, while another dog family evacuates by piling all the kids into a long section of pipe, while Mom and Pop assume positions inserted into the front and rear ends of the pipe, carrying away the whole brood looking like a single long dachshund. A lookout in a tower is barely missed by a passing shell, and wig wags signals to the troops with signal flags, until a second shell explodes his tower, leaving him to fly away by using the flags as flapping wings.

A unique piece of weaponry is employed on the ground by the cats – a large cannon, which advances on a set of live legs, and sucks cannon shells like an elephant’s trunk to load before each firing. The infantry regiment is finally alerted with a bugle call, and the mouse we began with is called into duty, after kissing his love goodbye. By now, the cats have entrenched, with a solid row of cannons behind them. A cannon ball is shot at the mouse. In “Bully Beef”, one mouse batted cannonballs back at the enemy as if baseballs. This cartoon takes the same gag one better, not only allowing the mouse to bat the cannonballs out of the park, but providing him with a baseball diamond to run the bases between hits. A large shell swoops in, and picks up the mouse as a riding passenger. The mouse provides a precedent for what would become a Mighty Mouse gag, bending the nose of the shell upwards at a right angle, thus changing its trajectory to soar into the skies, directly at one of the enemy planes. The mouse bends the shell again to level off below the plane’s belly, and climbs aboard the plane by grabbing the landing gear. Entering the cockpit, he engages in a fist fight and ejects the cat crew, then speeds ahead in a low buzzing of the ground to dive into an enemy trench and knock an entire row of cats out of the burrow. Rising in elevation again, he collides head on with another plane, and the two planes duke it out, using their landing gear as fists. Both planes perform a loop and collide nose on, with the enemy cat’s plane taking it on the chin and falling from the skies, leaving its owner in a heap on the ground. The mouse gently descends to the ground, to land his plane in the middle of a victory parade and roll down the street to the cheers of a crowd, for the iris out.

King Neptune (Disney, United Artists, Silly Symphony, 9/10/32 – Burt Gillett, dir.), doesn’t really feature aircraft, but sea creatures that mimic the attacks of aircraft. A pirate ship has spotted a bevy of topless mermaids. (In a Disney cartoon? Yes, it happened, with surprising realism in a shot or two). They capture and take one prisoner after a struggle, eventually locking her in a strongbox. Neptune is kept out of the action for a good deal of the cartoon, by getting tangled up in anchor chain. But the sea creatures wage a veritable war upon the pirate vessel. Principal shots of importance to our survey include what may be animation’s first reference to the aircraft carrier – a development primarily stemming from the late 1920’s in various navies, often from conversions of existing ships, though ships specialized for aircraft use would shortly follow. Here, such a vessel is formed by a whale who has somehow been misshapen since birth into a flat top, from which a school of flying fish take off, carrying below them payloads of lobsters, which they drop in bombing formation to the deck of the ship. The crustaceans quickly have the pirates on the run, with an attack of claws aimed at their toes. A second aerial squadron develops, as octopi fill fish with sunken cannonballs, then rise from the waves, using six arms as helicopter blades, and the remaining two to dump the cannonballs from the fishes’ mouths. Neptune finally breaks free, and spears the ship with his huge trident, then swirls up the seas and sky into torrential storms and whirlpools, finally bringing the ship down by jumping upon it, and sinking it into the depths under his massive weight. The mermaid is saved, and gets an added bonus, as the strongbox was full of jewels, which she shares with all her mermaid friends.

And for a bonus extra while we’re still in the holiday season, Santa’s Workshop (Disney, United Artists, Silly Symphony, 12/10/32 – Wilfred Jackson, dir.), features one of the earliest uses of a toy plane, which is sent down a chute ready for tryout in Santa’s testing department (supervised by Santa himself). Santa winds up the rubber band motor and sends the toy successfully flying around the room. He laughs his hearty laugh, but opens his mouth a little too wide, allowing the plane to make a direct landing almost down his throat. Santa takes it in stride, and launches the plane again, which performs loops through three shelves of toys, knocking them to the floor, where they put on an elaborate toy parade that takes up most of the remainder of the film. A jolly sendoff for this week’s installment.

Happy New Year, all!