Monday, April 3, 2017

Animation April: Rooty Toot Toot (1951)

If you've been slavishly checking this URL for updates for the last six years (and I hope you have!) you might have noticed that our annual National Poetry Month festivities have dwindled in scope. This isn't because I've lost interest in poetry—that's not the case at all. But a fan isn't necessarily qualified to be an anthologizer. I've virtually exhausted my repertoire of favorite poems and poets. Coming up with, say, fifteen meaty, worthwhile NPM posts this April (one every other day) would require me to find fifteen authors, poetic themes, forms, or traditions that we haven't already covered, and I'm just not up to it.

But I do miss dedicating an April's worth of updates to celebrations and expositions of an art form. Also, my wristwatch tells me it's been far too long since I've taken a break from whatever it is I usually write about to dissect some fun pop culture artifact or other.

So! Instead of National Poetry Month, this year we'll be observing ANIMATION APRIL, starting today. First up, we've got Rooty Toot Toot, United Productions of America's Oscar-nominated 1951 short.

  

I have to thank the enigmatic Taras Tymoshenko (who made one of my favorite webcomics ever) for introducing me to United Productions of America (UPA), the most important cartoon studio you've never heard of.

Formed in the aftermath of a strike at Walt Disney Studios and active in the animation business from 1943–1964, UPA's influence has become so ubiquitous as to be invisible. Its films, sadly, are just invisible, period. Its star character was Mr. Magoo, who isn't exactly in the same league as Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or even Betty Boop; chances are, you're only aware of him because of the seasonally recurring TV special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962). The studio's two feature-length productions were 1001 Arabian Nights (1959) and Gay Purr-ee (1962), which, as far as I know, aren't on the Criterion Collection's shortlist. And UPA produced wonderful adaptations of children's books like Ludwig Bemelmans's Madeline (1952) and Dr. Seuss's Gerald McBoing-Boing (1950), and of short stories such as Edgar Allen Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) and James Thurber's The Unicorn in the Garden (1953). You've probably seen none of them, though. As far as I can tell, they weren't rerun on TNT, TBS, Cartoon Network, Boomerang, or any of the usual outlets for pre-1960 animated shorts. (I do believe Madeline appeared on Nickelodeon's Pinwheel during the 1980s, though.)

To help us get an idea of how UPA changed the animation game, let's do a compare/contrast exercise.

Below are three pairs of video links. The first of each pair is a cartoon from 1947, and the second is a cartoon from about ten years later, starring the same character(s) as the first. (Hopefully these videos won't be taken down anytime soon, but you never know how long stuff like this will last.)

A Chip n' Dale cartoon from 1947.
A Chip n' Dale cartoon from 1956.

Tom and Jerry, 1947.
Tom and Jerry, 1957.

Daffy Duck in 1947.
Daffy Duck in 1957.

Notice how the backgrounds in the 1947 cartoons are more detailed, the colors more variegated than in their counterparts from the 1950s. The characters in the 1950s characters generally hold poses longer than their 1947 versions; their movements are more abrupt, their figures stiffer and simpler, less marshmallowy. If you paid close attention to the 1950s toons, you might have picked out a lot recycled poses and frames.

Yes, we're looking at a cheapening of animation, but let's put this into context. These are all theatrical shorts. One year after the 1947 cartoons screened, the Supreme Court case United States v. Paramount Pictures completely rewrote the rules of film production and distribution in the United States. One consequence of the ruling was the end of block booking, the Hollywood practice of selling films to theaters exclusively in bundles. Before 1948, if your downtown movie theater was interested in screening Citizen Kane, it was constrained to buy a whole package of films from RKO along with it. But after the ruling, theaters could purchase individual reels as they pleased. If a movie house wanted to show MGM's Singin' in the Rain and pass on the latest Tom and Jerry short, MGM was out of luck. Producing animated shorts became a riskier, less lucrative proposition for studios, and grew even less appealing as television nibbled away at theater ticket sales during the 1950s.

Long story short, animation workshops had to adjust their production budgets accordingly or shut their doors—as MGM's cartoon division did in 1957. And the studio that showed the field how to make more economical use of their resources was none other than UPA.

UPA's aesthetic and its repertoire of economical animation techniques came to be called "limited animation"—to the chagrin of Rooty Toot Toot's director John Hubley, who preferred "stylized animation." Like any studio, UPA certainly had an interest in getting the most bang for their budget, but Hubley and his colleagues saw limited animation as a way to improve the visual quality of cartoons, not dilute it.

Take a look at this clip from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), for instance. It's a marvelous feat of artistry. Snow White looks and move like a real person; imagine how much work must have gone into achieving such verisimilitude in her form and gestures. The rich, layered backgrounds are no less stunning. And even though the forest critters are anthropomorphized in order to convey human emotions, we definitely can't accuse the animators of just winging it with regard to their subjects' kinesiological attributes.

John Hubley (who, as a matter of fact, worked on Snow White) felt this devotion to realism was a waste. Animation was a template where the artist's imagination was, in theory, the only restriction on what was possible. Rejecting the baroque "colored-valentine" aesthetic prevailing at Disney, UPA experimented with more expressionistic and variously stylized cartoons, which, incidentally, made use of rarefied imagery streamlined animation.

Anyone who has gone scavenging through the garbage dump of Hanna-Barbera's 1960s and '70s catalogue is aware of how the limited animation toolkit has been used to churn out cheap, bromidic television cartoons. Ren & Stimpy creator John K accuses UPA of killing cartoon animation, which seems a little bit to me like blaming the Wright Brothers for the Blitz. UPA created the tools, but it was Hanna-Barbera et al. who used them for evil. The situation has improved dramatically since the renaissance of the 1990s, but even the best Western TV cartoons of recent years still observe UPA's ethos, to some extent, and borrow its techniques.

Let's do one more compare/contrast exercise. Here we have two scenes in which a hero (or heroes) are pursued through a fortress by people trying to kill them. We have a clip from an episode of the resurrected Samurai Jack (2017), and another from Disney's hugely underrated The Black Cauldron (1985).

Watch the body language in The Black Cauldron clip; pay attention to how people move. Notice how much more articulate, continuous, and detailed their motions are compared to Samurai Jack's characters. And if you didn't pause to admire the lavish grittiness of the setting during your first viewing, please go back and do so now. While you're at it, look closely and try to spot moments when the animators are taking any kind of shortcut. There aren't many to be found. I see more instances of them deliberately making things harder for themselves. There's a moment around the 1:56 mark where a fallen beam partially obstructs a narrow pathway the Horned King's minions run through to cut off the heroes' escape. The villains had to be animated stepping and hopping over the damn thing for a shot that lasts maybe two seconds. The scene would have had exactly the same import if the beam weren't there; all was done purely for variety's sake, for an extra pinch of visual flavor. I respect that.

The setting of the Samurai Jack clip, on the other hand, obviously didn't require a small army of background artists to render. During the sequence where Jack races through the abandoned deserted temple's corridors, the scrolling, repeating walls are taken right from the Hanna-Barbera playbook. The seven villains hunting Jack are visually identical, so only one model sheet had to be used. Characters' bodies approximate the human form rather than reproduce it; their movements are stiffer, flatter, and unnaturally sharp. But it's this exaggerated speed and directness, and the sparse clarity of composition that makes the Samurai Jack clip a much more intense action sequence. And, in this particular instance, it's the stylistic flair of Jack's foes, their mechanical inexpressiveness and uniformity, that invests them with a menace that's comparatively lacking in the motley horde of deplorables chasing after Taran and Eilowny.

To make another long story short: good animation and limited animation aren't mutually exclusive categories, and limited animation can actually be more exciting and vivid than exhaustive animation.

Right. We're actually here to talk about John Hubley's Rooty Toot Toot—whose lineal traits are as clearly expressed in Genndy Tartakovsky's brainchild as those it inherited from the film Wanpaku Ōji no Orochi Taiji (1963), the TV drama Kung Fu (1972–5) and Frank Miller's Ronin (1983–4). Rooty Toot Toot might best be considered a more distant ancestor to Samurai Jack, though: Tartakovsky has specifically cited 1950s Disney films as an influence on Jack's style, but those Disney films were imitating UPA.

Rooty Toot Toot is a brief musical based on "Frankie and Johnny," a tune from the Great American Songbook dating back to the turn of the twentieth century. Multiple versions have been recorded at different times by different singers. The lyrics and details vary, but the story is always pretty much the same. Below are the lyrics from a 1929 recording by folk singer Jimmie Rodgers. Far be it from me to tell you how to live your life, but it might be fun to sing and yodel along.
Frankie and Johnny was sweethearts
Oh lord, how they did love
Swore to be true to each other
True as the stars above
He was her man
He wouldn't do her wrong


Frankie went down to the corner
Just for a bucket of beer
She said, Mr. Bartender
Has my lovin' Johnny been here?
He's my man
He wouldn't do me wrong

I don't want to cause you no trouble
I ain't gonna tell you no lie
I saw your lover an hour ago
With a girl named Nellie Bly
He was your man
But he's doin' you wrong

Frankie looked over the transom
She saw to her surprise
There on the cot sat Johnny
Makin' love to Nellie Bly
He is my man
And he's doin' me wrong

Frankie drew back her kimono
She pulled out a little .44
Rooty toot toot, three times she shot
Right through that hardwood door
Shot her man
He was doin' her wrong

Bring out the rubber-tired buggy
Bring out the rubber-tired hack
I'm taking my man to the graveyard
But I ain't gonna bring him back
Lord, he was my man
And he done me wrong

Bring out a thousand policemen

Bring 'em around today
Lock me down in the dungeon cell
And throw that key away
I shot my man
He was doin' me wrong

Frankie said to the warden
What are they going to do?
The warden, he said to Frankie
It's the electric chair for you
'Cause you shot your man
He was doin' you wrong
This story has no moral
This story has no end
This story just goes to show
That there ain't no good in men
He was her man
And he done her wrong
I'd never heard (or heard of) "Frankie and Johnny" until after seeing Rooty Toot Toot and googling it for more information. My assumption was that its music and story were entirely original creations. Given the scarcity of music recorded prior to the late 1950s on commercial radio playlists, another viewer my age or younger would have most probably been under the same impression. A 1951 audience, on the other hand, would have understood they were watching a sequel and a riff on a popular song. There's no cultural artifact that isn't subject to the inexorable beta-decay of its own context.

Rooty Toot Toot is eminently enjoyable without prior knowledge of the tune on which it was based—but I have to wonder how my first response to, say, the "See My Vest" number on The Simpsons would have changed if I hadn't known it was a spoof of a Disney showtune, or that it was spoofing anything at all. Knowing if and when a piece is engaging in parody can be critical to assessing it, as we'll see in next week's post.

Different versions of "Frankie and Johnny" conclude in different places: sometimes it ends with Frankie getting the chair, but in other recordings she's just taken off to jail, or stands over Johnny while he bleeds out. The due process that was presumably observed sometime between Johnny's murder and Frankie's sentencing is always skipped over, and Rooty Toot Toot fills in that gap in the sequence. After a nickelodeon plays a recap of the story thus far (reiterating the first verses of "Frankie and Johnny" for good measure), we're taken to a courthouse. A judge bangs his gavel, the bailiff announces "THE PEOPLE VERSUS FRANKIE!" and Frankie's trial is in session.

Frankie is here, of course, as are the bartender and Nellie Bly (the original Becky with the good hair) from the song, who are called to the stand as witnesses. Even the little .44 and bullet-riddled hardwood door are brought in as evidence. The only important new character is the unctuous, satyric defense lawyer Johnathan Bailey—voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who you might recognize as the singer of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and the original voice of lusty cereal spokesman Tony the Tiger.

A jazzy Rashomon-structured courtroom drama unfolds, with three characters giving three different accounts of the events preceding Johnny's death. The bartender recollects Frankie's outrage at the news of her man being "out back with Nellie Bly," and the three gunshots he heard after Frankie stormed off. Next up is Nellie Bly, who claims to be a singer, and testifies that she and Johnny (who seems to have been a pianist all this time) were innocently rehearsing a song together.

Factoid: Frankie's interruption of Nellie's testimony is marred with a bit of censorship on the insistence of UPA's distributor, Columbia Pictures. The line that made it into the final cut was: "That's a lie, that's a lie! She's no singer!" Originally, there was a little more to it: "That's a lie, that's a lie! She's no singer! She's a...!" The judge bangs his gavel and cuts her off in both cases, but it's interesting that a forthcoming, unsaid epithet implying promiscuity (or prostitution?) put a bad taste in Columbia's mouth. In a Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny cartoon this wouldn't be especially puzzling, but Rooty Toot Toot was already a film about a jealous woman gunning down her unfaithful man (with some rather morbidly animated death-spasms to boot), and probably wasn't going to be screened at kiddie matinees to begin with.

Moving on: third and last up is Honest John, who fabricates a ridiculous story of a chaste Frankie spurning a sneaky, sleazy Johnny, who is then killed by magical ricocheting bullets he fires from his own gun. For our purposes here a mention of the fact will suffice, but I'm sure a more motivated critic can exegesize the significance of Frankie's being the only (surviving) figure from the original song who isn't given an opportunity to tell her side of the story.

Mr. Bailey concludes his defense by declaring the jury he's so convinced of Frankie's innocence and outstanding character that he'll marry her if she goes free. Fortunately for Frankie, the jury buys it and finds her not guilty. But unfortunately for Mr. Bailey, his client buys it too—and the lawyer already knew that Frankie doesn't suffer duplicitous Johns gladly. History repeats; the status quo is preserved, the rubber-tired hearses rolled out.

If your eyes are attuned to Hanna-Barbera and Jay Ward cartoons, the screencaps might be a little deceptive. As a matter of fact, it took a second viewing of Rooty Toot Toot before I could appreciate it for what it is, without its superficial resemblances to cheapo 1960s TV animation influencing my appraisal. On the obverse side, viewers who grew up watching stylistic, streamlined cartoons like Powerpuff Girls, Samurai Jack, Adventure Time, or even Bill Melendez's Peanuts movies and TV specials might have a hard time seeing anything particularly remarkable in Rooty Toot Toot. (Speaking of Bill Melendez, would you be surprised to learn he worked for UPA in the 1950s?) But the film is really a delight to see in motion, and a signal feat of animation. If AMPAS didn't have a such a rich history of getting it wrong, it would be inconceivable that Rooty Toot Toot could lose out to Tom and Jerry in The Two Mouseketeers at the 1952 Academy Awards.

There's nary a scene or a shot in Rooty Toot Toot that's just there for the sake of continuity. Hubley and his team overclocked themselves in making sure that each visual sequence earned its place in the film. Root Toot Toot definitely has its highlights—the courtroom hurly-burly after the Not Guilty verdict, Frankie's dancing (which might well have been a rebuke to Disney for its reliance on rotoscoping), Nellie Bly's sultry, octopoid voluptuousness, the ricocheting bullets pursuing Johnny across town—but even its more understated moments are loaded with visual treats. The strange, alternating transparencies of Frankie and Nelly's limbs and garments are a trick that wouldn't seem out of place in the modernism/cubism section of an art gallery. Honest John lets out quick little yawns during his affectatious bows to Frankie and the jury. Myself, I get a kick out of following the facial expressions of the bored, diffident old judge.

I'm too lacking in technical knowledge of jazz music (or music in general) to feel comfortable about commenting on Rooty Toot Toot's tunes, but we'll give a try anyway. What's most interesting to me about Phil Moore and Allen Alch's score is its—let's call it dissonance. If you listened to only the first verses of "Frankie and Johnny" you could easily sing along with the rest of it, provided you had the lyrics in front of you. This would be much more difficult with Rooty Toot Toot. The tune is modeled after "Frankie and Johnny" and cleaves to its structure, retaining the ABCB rhyme scheme in the verses and the "man...wrong" refrain. But after the first couple of stanzas, the verses stop scanning (to borrow a term from poetics); lines will have too many or too few syllables. Verses will be spoken instead of sung; the tempo fluctuates; the singers change; there are pauses and interruptions. No sooner do you get a feel for the rhythm than the rhythm changes again, jarring you and refastening its grip on your attention.

What happens during Honest John's testimony is a clever move. While he's arguing (read: lying) on Frankie's behalf, the lyrics lose all resemblance to "Frankie and Johnny;" even the "man...wrong" refrain temporarily goes away. When the not guilty verdict is announced, it appears he's successfully rewritten history by rewriting the song—until the bartender points out to Frankie that Honest John is about to leave the courthouse arm-in-arm with Nellie Bly. Frankie loses her temper and reaches for Exhibit A, which still has three bullets in the chamber. She shoots her man 'cause he was doin' her wrong. As Rooty Toot Toot concludes, it once again recapitulates the lyrics and melody of "Frankie and Johnny," sealing Frankie's inevitable fate.

In any case, if you watch Rooty Toot Toot more than twice, expect the score to get lodged in your brain for several days.

Rooty Toot Toot is the magnum opus of John Hubley's career at UPA, and also his last hurrah. In 1952, he was blacklisted for refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He had no choice but to leave UPA and strike out on his own. He continued working in animation for the rest of his life (frequently partnering with his wife Faith), but virtually nothing as high-profile as his work with UPA. Most of his post-UPA work may safely be characterized as avant-garde, but there are some exceptions. While he was blacklisted he worked on TV advertisements. Later on he did a few short cartoons for Sesame Street. And he was originally slated to direct the feature-length adaptation of Watership Down (1978), but passed away during production. Some of his work remains in the film (the opening sequence is all Hubley), but he's mentioned nowhere in the credits.

Rooty Toot Toot is definitely worth the 7.5 minutes it takes to watch, and is probably the best springboard for an exploration into UPA's filmography and Hubley's oeuvre. Hubley did far too much good work to have been allowed to fall into obscurity like he has. He really deserves to be up on the dais with such luminaries of animation as Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Tex Avery—and with Genndy Tartakovsky, for that matter.

  

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this. It was reminiscent in style (and as you suggest, RTT may have been a direct inspiration) for a favourite short of mine, the animated version of The Bear that Wasn't (1967).

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    1. Yeah! That's a really good one, and the UPA influence is obvious. I'm also a big fan of Chuck Jones' "Now Hear This." I'm gonna guess you've seen it before, but it's worth looking around for if you haven't.

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