Thursday, April 24, 2008

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)

Goggle-Fishing Bear (1949)
Directors: Preston Blair and Michael Lah
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Shark appearance: cartoon shark (undefinable species), able to roar and growl, no sense of humor.

So, who has it worse? Sharks in the movies -- where they are employed mainly to threaten the lives of the (usually) human characters in the film, or at the very least, imply that said characters are in mortal danger -- or sharks in cartoons?

Certainly, the answers is "in the movies," since sharks almost always end up dying onscreen for their sins, and in some films (in the dark, olden days of the industry), really dying for our entertainment. Their menace is perceived as far more real, naturally, and the potential harm to the reputation of sharks in the real world is that much more immense.

Cartoon sharks, on the other hand, not being flesh and blood, have a cakewalk. Or is that "cake-swim"? Sure, they show up, flash their pearlies, frighten the protagonist(s) and generally have a fine, evil time of it as the contracted villain of the piece. They do what is expected of any shark in a film: be evil, get your comeuppance, end of story. Except cartoon sharks, given that they are in a piece where death is a rare (if ever) occurrence, don't get blown to smithereens (as a final blow, that is) or get a bullet through the head or get harpooned or electrocuted or spear-gunned. Cartoon sharks, though actually one of the rarer species on earth, most often survive their appearances in their films. The twist is that they often face a different sort of living death...

In Goggle-Fishing Bear, an MGM short from 1949, the shark in question literally and ultimately becomes the butt of the joke. Accompanied by the usual compliment of lush backgrounds, detailed closeups and sharp character work that was a hallmark at MGM in the '40s, ursine dope Barney Bear takes to his rowboat for a spot of fishing relaxation. Of course, anyone even remotely familiar with poor ol' Barney, or cartoons in general, knows that relaxation is definitely not in the cards. Even if he had opted to stay home and actually play cards instead, relaxation would not be ready to be paired with the misbegotten Barney. In much the same manner that sharks have their place to play in cartoons, so is Barney burdened with the yoke of playing the eternal lummox.

The opening third of the short concerns Barney's attempts at enjoying a day trident-fishing off his outboard motor boat as being initially thwarted by the intrusion of a typically cute sea lion pup (not a seal, though people will immediately see him and shout, like a small child would in delight, "seal!). The pup gives Barney the sort of hard time that one expects, but these frustrations immediately cease once the third character of the film is introduced: the shark.

His entrance is grand, far grander than the film itself deserves. As Barney and the sea lion pup go through their cutesy struggles with one another, at the point where the pup has been so fully shunned by the bear that he mopes away sadly on his own, a huge, looming shadow falls over him. The pup glances off to see what is causing the circling shadow, and as he does, a huge green and yellow shark turns about and makes a beeline for the pup. Panic ensues, but the pup retains just enough of his senses to try and warn his would-be playmate, Barney, of the impending doom. He zips between the bear's legs, sending the ursine spinning about and accidentally releasing the fish Barney has just caught. The pup barks madly in desperation. Barney is so annoyed by the pup by now that he ignores its warnings, and continues back to his trident-fishing. As the shark continues drifting forwards, closer and closer, the pup has no choice but to give up on his friend, scream frantically and head for the hills. Or the boat. Whatever the case may be.  

So, now I ask, which is of more murderous intent? The natural hunger that continues the great "Chain of Life," wherein a shark might instinctually seek out his prey, or a bear seeking to vent a few holes in a wholly innocent sea lion pup's head with a trident? When the shark pulls up and bumps Barney Bear in the bottom twice, the bear, believing it to be more goading from the pup, doesn't hesitate to stab his trident several times over into the snout of the shark. It slowly dawns on Barney what he has just done, and he steps away from the giant shark and acts sheepishly. The shark, angered, pulls forward and roars tremendously, its jaws fully open to allow its breath and sound waves to crash over Barney. The bear stands calmly and smartly shows the trident to the shark as if to display that it couldn't possibly do any harm, and then jabs himself in the chest as an example. Of course, it hurts Barney, and as a last desperate measure, Barney thrusts the trident over the shark's snout, pins it to the ocean floor, and makes a break for the boat, where the sea lion is already waiting to escape.

Being more than a match for a mere trident, the shark dispenses with the tool and snaps sharply onto the tips of Barney's flippers. The flippers stretch out to ridiculous lengths as Barney frantically swims for the surface. He reaches the boat, and the seal grabs his hands to pull him aboard. The boat tips upward with the weight of the bear, and when Barney grabs the slats serving as seats in the tiny craft, the boards are ripped out, and Barney zips back underwater and towards the waiting jaws of the massive shark. The fish takes a huge snap at Barney's backside, and scrapes off the poor bear's swimsuit and fur in the process, leaving Barney either bare-bottomed or bear-bottomed -- take your pick. Barney hides amongst some underwater weeds, and uses his trident to pull off a hastily improvised impersonation of King Neptune. He halts the shark with one steady hand, and then points away from him. The shark departs, but as Barney runs off in the opposite direction, the shark immediately turns about. There follows a series of snaps as Barney's person, but each snap is thwarted by the fact that Barney is running on a series of underwater moguls, and so he goes up and down with each attempted bite.

The shark swims far ahead, rests on the bottom, and opens his jaws wide like a cave. Naturally, Barney runs right in with his momentum, and the shark closes his mouth in triumph. Barney continues to run, and the shape of his body is seen walking to the end of the shark's tail. Barney realizes his mistake and turns around to run the other way. He smashes right through the teeth of the shark, leaving a silhouette of his body in the remainder of the shark's surprised grin. Barney finds a small rock and somehow manages to hide his own massive body underneath it. The rock sprouts eyes all of a sudden, but they aren't Barney's. As the shark pulls up to investigate, we find that the rock is actually an octopus, which screams at the sight of the monstrous fish and stretches up on its six legs (yes, this octopus only has six legs, not eight) in fright. It zips away, leaving an unaware Barney at the mercy of the shark.

Luckily, the sea lion pup comes to the rescue. As the shark closes its teeth in on the bear, the pup zooms into the shark's mouth and holds the jaws agape. As part of the struggle between pinniped and shark, the fish's teeth are shown to prod Barney in the rear, and the bear turns his head, presumably in anticipation of his own demise. Instead, he espies the brave little pup, straining mightily to keep the shark's jaws from snapping his would-be pal to pieces. Barney turns tail and exits the scene, only to return -- in a reminder of precisely why one indulges their mind with cartoon logic in the first place -- with a highly convenient car jack. He jams the jack in the shark's mouth and cranks it upward. The pup is no where to be seen, until it peeks out from underneath the huge tongue of the shark. The bear grabs the pup just as the shark breaks through the jack's resistance and slams its jaws shut.

Barney and the sea lion make their escape, the bear literally running upward through the water to the surface, with the shark close behind. Perhaps a bit too close for the pup's comfort, as once he sees the shark breathing hot on their necks, jumps out of Barney's grip and carries the bear himself all the way to the boat, finishing the effort with a massive leap far beyond what one expects from a tiny little sea lion pup encumbered by the weight of a portly ursine. They start the outboard engine and take off, but the shark soon catches up and uses his dorsal fin to saw the boat in twain. Barney pulls the halved pieces back together, but they sink immediately. The pup starts to bail water out, which is truly an impossible task if one is already completely underwater. But -- via that sweet cartoon logic again -- he manages to succeed. The boat pops back on the surface, somehow completely intact. The shark, not to be outdone, spins his tail section into a propeller and launches himself towards the boat like a torpedo. He strikes the boat full on, and a massive explosion ensues. Barney, the pup, the anchor and the myriad pieces of the wrecked boat fly upward, and then start to fall back to the surface of the water. The shark pops out and strikes his best pre-Jaws, mouth-agape, waiting-for-his-prey pose, a hungry smile formed on his cruel face.

But, did you really think that Barney Bear and an innocent and playful sea lion pup would really get devoured in a cartoon from 1949? In the days of "the code," would what is recognizable as evil by the bulk of the public at that time go unpunished? Of course not, and the shark receives his due according to this absurdly moral center: a faceful of anchor, a wrapping by the anchor line, and a newly outfitted yacht body courtesy of the remaining pieces of the boat, mysteriously nailed and perfectly aligned along the shark's back. The pup comes out wearing Barney's diving set and sporting the trident, which he pokes into the shark's rear, causing the fish to emit an anguished "Ooh!" Barney decides it would be fun to pantomime driving their new craft while the pup tortures the shark with a series of jabs to the rear. As they float off into the island sunset, the sharks cries are heard over and over again: "Oh!" "Ooh!" "Oh!"

As I said, our boy has become the butt of the joke. Maybe it would be better to get spear-gunned.

RTJ

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Shark! [aka Caine] (1969)

Shark! [aka Caine] (1969)
Director: Samuel Fuller
TC4P Rating: 4/9
Species: appears to be a tiger shark in most shots, though it seems like it flashes to other sharks briefly here and there.
Downside: actual death of a stuntman used in the film.

Just before the opening credits end on this early Burt Reynolds starring feature, the following dedication appears:

"This film is dedicated to the fearless stuntmen who repeatedly risked their lives against attacks in shark infested waters during the filming of this picture."

The film then gives up the Samuel Fuller's name as the director, and within about half an hour, the viewer will come under the realization that Shark! (also sometimes known as Caine, the name of Reynolds' character) is perhaps in that small but not so intimate circle of the worst releases ever to be lensed by a renowned international filmmaker. That it is available enough for low-budget schlock house Troma to gain the rights and release it as part of their DVD line might be testament enough as to its haggard status in film history. Fuller, the creator of bona fide cult classics such as Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, Pickup on South Street and The Steel Helmet (this is an unreserved call for any and all to check them out... he was truly an amazing and original director), famously quit the production after the studio decided to use the death of a stunt diver to promote the film.

Why? Naturally, this stunt diver was killed by a shark, and as we know by now, if there are two things that go well together, it is the media and a shark attack. Even years before Jaws, this was a solid rule. Fuller was apparently upset with a great deal during the production, but this was the final straw. When the film was released, Fuller saw a drastically reedited version from the one he had envisioned, and though he asked for his name to be removed from the print, he was refused this courtesy. (The film was, no surprise, re-edited and released once Jaws-hysteria struck the world.)

This is not to say that the film is not of interest, outside of the fact that someone is shown actually being killed in Shark!, which is a natural, sick draw. The pre-cultural icon Reynolds (who, according to Fuller, also threatened to quit the film) is already fully practicing his "what the hell... I'm a handsome guy" off-kilter humor, and he radiates the charm that would serve him well over the coming decade as a leading man. Arthur Kennedy, an old favorite of mine, is far too over the top as a drunk doctor, but he does have a couple of nice moments. And the fight scenes are engaging and sharp, with Burt going crazy with the full leaps into his opponents, and often into the food and trinket stalls lining the streets of whatever Sudanese port in which this film (shot in Mexico) is supposed to take place. There is also a mildly kinky vibe to his "romance" with legendary Mexican actress Silvia Pinal, as they both intend to seduce one another for, ultimately, the same purpose. All in all, there is a definite rough edge to every character within the film, which squarely is a sure sign of Fuller's involvement; even with his eventual denial of the film on whole, its toughness certainly conveys the feeling that it is one of his making.

But, the print is entirely shoddy, most of the key scenes are far too dark to even know what is going on, and the sound quality is inferior as well (it's loud enough, but much of the dialogue is garbled). All of this serves as a serious detriment to the key reason both you and I are here on this page, which is the shark scenes. If you are watching this movie for the death scene with the stuntman, it is hard to tell which underwater scene it is. There is a shark attack scene in the prelude to the credits, and there is one at the tail end of the film. At first, I thought it was the same shots shown twice. Checking back on it, there are differences in each scene. There is, however, a shark attacking a stuntman and a resulting stream of blood spewing forth in each shot. It is possible that these shots are both from the same attack, but from different angles, but without any further knowledge to back this up, it is hard for me to say.

But, the death scene is not the only time that the editors have their way with continuity or cohesion. Not just switching back and forth throughout the movie amongst a series of reused shots, the menacing shark also switches species on more than one occasion. If they were trying to give the impression that there were multiple sharks surrounding the actors, then they have failed as they never show a single shot where there is more than one shark at a time. I know there is some compulsion to live up to the phrase "shark infested waters," but... an infestation of just one shark and one shark alone? If this is the way you must portray it, apparently the waters where they were diving were equally "ray infested," as the same shot of a single bottom-drifting ray is used more than once as well. By the same token, you could argue the film is "Silvia Pinal or Burt Reynolds infested."

The only thing that Shark! is not infested with (in the single digits) is Samuel Fuller. He swam away from its creepily voyeuristic legacy long ago, and with good cause and forethought.

RTJ