Thursday, October 06, 2016

Countdown to Halloween: 90210 Shark Attack (2014)

[For Countdown to Halloween 2016, The Shark Film Office is concentrating on shark films that have a supernatural element to them, however slight it may be. Since shark attack films are automatically counted as "natural horror," I could post about them anytime, so I decided that by adding the supernatural focus, it would make it more appropriate to the season. Got it? I hope that you enjoy the films that I have selected to review this month...]

90210 Shark Attack (2014)
Dir.: David DeCoteau
TC4P Rating: 2/9

Species: great whites (in stock footage and computer-generated images), a cartoon shark on a surfboard in the opening, and a bunch of other sharks in obvious aquarium shots that are supposed to be in the ocean and other stock footage shots that are sometimes supposed to be great whites because the filmmakers either don't know the difference or don't care. And then a girl with a magical necklace whose top half transforms into a miniature great white shark... don't ask.

To understand what you are seeing in 90210 Shark Attack, you have to go in with some basic knowledge of director/producer David DeCoteau.

In the late '80s and early '90s, David DeCoteau's films could be counted on for two things: boobies. Lots of them. Specifically, the boobies of scream queens like Linnea Quigley, Michelle Bauer, Julie Strain, and Brinke Stevens (my personal fave of the bunch, and ex-wife and model of the late Rocketeer creator, Dave Stevens). I got to know his name well and count on him for quality in that department (and that department only, really). In films like Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Creepozoids, Nightmare Sisters, and Dr. Alien, DeCoteau kept scream queen fans happy while also providing Joe Bob Briggs with plenty of material on his Drive-In Theatre show. DeCoteau also released films under the name "Ellen Cabot" as well, such as Beach Babes from Beyond, and its sequel, Cave Girl Island (which each featured Roxanne Blaze aka Sara Bellomo, a former porn actress turned scream queen). He even found time to direct Puppet Master III: Toulon's Revenge in that period.


I don't think he came to eat dinner...
DeCoteau started out as a teenager working for Roger Corman, got into editing, writing and producing, had a brief spin directing hardcore XXX features in the mid '80s (both gay and straight), and started his run of over 100 direct-to-video (and now on-demand) features with Dreamaniac in 1986. In 1997, he had a more public coming out with a personal film titled Leather Jacket Love Story, that played the festival circuit, his only film to do so. Since then, DeCoteau's films became more aggressive in their gay content, and where it used to be standard for his scream queens to take off their bikinis and get in a hot tub, he now uses those scenes to have hot young studs slowly strip off their shirts and step into softcore soapy shower scenes.


Marcie and Bryce... the Howells
of this Gilligan's Island.
He still makes film after film, and most are made in three days to a week's time. He started a successful gay horror series (for its target market) called 1313, and he now balances his productions between mostly horror films and occasional children's movies such as A Talking Cat!?! and An Easter Bunny Puppy. That DeCoteau is an industry unto himself is evidenced by the fact that he has already released six films in 2016 with two more completed and ready for release.


Alyssa has a secret, but it's probably not
about who did her highlights...
Which brings me to 90210 Shark Attack. Naturally, the name conjures up an immediate connection to the old show from the '90s, Beverly Hills 90210. Assuming before watching it that this film is supposed to be a spoof of the show, and knowing that Beverly Hills is rather landlocked, I had guessed the characters would either have to make an outing to a local beach area to have a shark attack them or there would have to be some otherworldly or supernatural means to convey the sharks to Beverly Hills. Well, apart from its name, its habit of using stock footage shots of the Beverly Hills area and its famous street signs, and the fact that its characters are supposed to be high school students (I guess?) on a field trip, 90210 Shark Attack is not really a spoof of the show. None of the characters are named even close to the show's characters, nor are personalities of the characters replicated or even attempted. It takes place in Beverly Hills, nothing more. But I was right in guessing that something supernatural brings the shark into the area: a cursed shark-tooth necklace worn by the main character.

The film starts out with the stock footage that I mentioned, accompanied by bland '90s-style synth music and "wacky" animation of a guy, a shark wearing sunglasses, and a turtle riding on top of a wave on surfboards. The guy screams and goes under the wave as the shark practically drools over the sight of the guy (or at least a badly animated approximation of it; for all this, the shark could be a stand-in for the director filming a young stud in a soapy shower scene). We see a shot of the Beverly Hills Hotel and a sign for Beverly Hills and then a shark rushes right at the camera underwater.

This is not a great white shark...
Following a generic shot of a beach, we hear a narrator talk about the beauty and power of the great white shark and how she didn't realize just how powerful it was until today. The problem is the first shot of a shark that we see is not a great white shark. The next shot actually is a great white, but grunting and growling noises have been added as it snacks on some bait (sharks don't make noise), the third shot is a computerized graphic of a white, and the fourth is full-on computer animation of two great whites. It's quite a mix, but it shows that DeCoteau really didn't care what shark footage he used as long as he had any footage of sharks at all. We are then shown a black-and-white scene, seemingly a flashback (which always looks odd with video because all they did was desaturate it of color) of the lead character, Alyssa, being told that she should talk to someone about what happened, and then we see a beheaded man lying on the ground (actually a guy in swim trunks lying face down with his head over the side of the pool to save money on a more expensive effect).


Just so you know what has her
(and the director's) interest...
The film then shows us a graphic that says "24 Hours Earlier" after which we are introduced to a series of "high schoolers," who all look far too old to be such (not anything new with that in Hollywood), as they gradually enter a quite palatial BH estate that has been rented for the class to stay in during their "field trip". In no time at all, one spoiled rich kid couple, Bryce (whose dad owns the house) and Marcie, end up getting it on upstairs, but DeCoteau, as a director, is not really interested in their idiotic lovemaking session. He is more interested in another guy downstairs, Tyler, who strips down to his shorts by the pool while standard softcore movie seduction music plays (it would be interesting to find out how often DeCoteau has used the same piece of music over the years, but I really don't want to watch the films to find out). Tyler is unknowingly watched from inside by one of the other girls, Jess, who kind of gets a weird look on her face, you know, the kind you get in a movie where you turn from the normal, possibly good girl early on in a film to leering voyeur in the turn of fourteen seconds. The camera then practically fondles Tyler for several minutes while he takes a slow, rather boring swim.


Scream queen Donna Wilkes now...
Soon enough, we meet the "kids'" teacher, Miss Pamela, who is played by Donna Wilkes, a rather important cog in the film. In the DeCoteau style that still stands to this day, hiring a scream queen – even a former scream queen – means getting more people to check the movie out in the video store (once upon a time) and now on demand. Wilkes has definite scream queen credentials, serving as the teen female lead in Jaws 2 (she was described in that film as having "tits like a sparrow" but damn, we thought she was cute back in the day), creepy Klaus Kinski's daughter in Schizoid (1980), and the lead in Angel (1984), where she played a teenage prostitute being stalked by a serial killer. (The cult classic sparked a series, but she was not in the sequels, her character taken over first by the even cuter Betsy (Tomboy) Russell, then Mitzi Kapture, and finally saw Angel going blonde in the form of Darlene Vogel.) Wilkes was also in Hello, Larry, a spinoff of Diff'rent Strokes, where she played MacLean Stevenson's teenage daughter, and if those aren't scary credentials, then nothing is. Hell, I was so into her back as a teenager that I remember her being in episodes of The Incredible Hulk and Gimme a Break. Wilkes stopped acting around 1991, until DeCoteau brought her back for a couple of his films including this one, and I can't imagine the pay was all that great judging from the budget of the film.

...and Wilkes in her heyday as
Angel in 1984.
Surprisingly, Wilkes is not bad in the film, or else I am just really grasping for something – anything! – even casually worthwhile in what is a pretty threadbare production. She at least does the best she can with the role, and there is a marked difference between her acting style (rather more professional) than that of her "born on third base" co-stars. (I'm just saying that she paid her dues...) While Wilkes may no longer be the thin, young thing she used to be, DeCoteau not only wrote his only name actress a villainous role but also gave her character an ongoing affair with the handsome twink from the pool scene, which I am sure Wilkes must have enjoyed greatly. Since it is alleged that a fair-sized section of DeCoteau's audience is also comprised of women who enjoy the well-shot scenes of scantily clad, buff men (the scenes are never raunchy or even close to pornographic, just racy and teasing; he knows his various crowds), I can imagine there is some Harlequin Romance wish fulfillment at play here for that set as well. (More on this creepy teacher-student junk after a couple more paragraphs; I can only handle so much at a time.)


Tyler could never get "Blue Steel" quite right...
The main character, Alyssa, is a troubled girl that is much put upon by the rest of the kids, and is seen as a nerd and an outcast in the mold of Carrie White (as in, you know, Stephen King's Carrie). The problem with this angle is that Alyssa is every bit as attractive as the other girls in the film, and frankly, from my viewpoint, more so. But they call her stupid, and make fun of her for being quiet and withdrawn, all because her dad was a famous oceanographer who died under mysterious circumstances amongst a tribe of Indians who worshipped the great white shark. Since she was there when he died, and also wears a shark tooth necklace in memory of her father, which she fingers constantly throughout the film, it is not hard to figure out where this is going.

There is a funny bit where Miss Pamela is running through the course for the class, and Marcie asks that since her parents live in La Jolla, can she just interview them for her term paper. Miss Hanson says she "needs to choose a slightly older indigenous culture," but Marcie counters that her folks "have been members of the yacht club for, like, twenty years." It would be nice if more of the film were clever, even in little bits, but so much of the film is simply watching DeCoteau spinning his wheels while he builds to his meager effects scenes in what is actually a quite short film (only 75 minutes, and the credits kick in at the 68 minute mark).

As a result, 90210 Shark Attack does play like any standard softcore "Skinemax" flick for most of its running time. For example, in one scene, Tyler sneaks around at night and calls out the teacher's name. She doesn't answer and so he goes into her room and explores. Because it is exactly this type of film (and mind you, we don't know about their quite illegal "relationship" as of yet), he turns on the shower and takes off his clothes, the seductive music starts again, and there are several closeups of his lower torso just above "that region". It is twink paradise. We get a shot of the ocean. Alyssa plays absentmindedly with her necklace on her bed, while Pamela checks on her from the door. Pamela then goes to her own room and sees her door is open. Curious, she hears the shower running and walks in to see Tyler taking a shower. Just as we are expecting her to be shocked, she smiles and watches him slowly massage his chest and shoulders. The camera lingers on his lower torso again and she licks her lips slightly. She is a dirty old lady. He stops the shower, turns and sees her, smiles and asks, "So teach, like what you see?" "I do, but you'll have to do some extra credit." He says she should be paying him by now, and she replies angrily that he'll get his when she gets hers, and that's always been their agreement. She storms off and he says he was only kidding. It turns out that Pamela is planning a book about Alyssa's father and that the caring teacher thing is only a ruse to get closer to the girl. She wants a bestseller and a movie based on the bestseller out of it, and Tyler wants to play himself in the movie. Just as they are about to kiss, there is a crashing noise. They both think it is Bryce, and Tyler says, "If you don't kill Bryce, I will." (Please, someone kill someone... we are 38 minutes into the film, and no one has been killed yet, by a shark or anyone else.)


It's time to meet the Muppets...
And what about those sharks? I mean, apart from quite frequent interruptions by even more stock footage sharks, most of them not great whites, interspersed with more generic beach shots and Beverly Hills stock footage of signs and buildings. Well, for actual shark scenes that are involved in the plot of the film we get seemingly sweet but put-upon Alyssa and her magical shark tooth necklace. It is going to come as no surprise to anyone who watches even two minutes of this film that the necklace is going to play a part and that Alyssa is secretly evil. It just takes the film 46 minutes to show us the first non-flashback sample of what she can do. Because of how her father treated the Indians he discovered on his travels, a curse placed on his daughter via the necklace allows the top half of her body to change briefly into a small great white shark. In moments of passion or anger, she starts to glow, and then transform, and bite the heads off of her victims. 


...on The Muppet Show tonight!
The effect is really silly and destroys any horror that is meant to be conveyed by the scenes. The shark looks more like a hand-puppet than anything else and we only see the creature for about a second or two at any given time, and never see anything more than the quite sudden transformation. (There are no actual shots of the Alyssa Shark attempting to clumsily chomp onto someone's head or grab their arm. If there had, though, I may have rated this film higher, because how hilarious would that have been?) Any violence is off-camera and nothing is seen until a body is found later (though only in a couple of cases). So, technically, you never actually even see a "shark attack" within the film.

Not that DeCoteau really cares. He gets his slow swimming scene, he gets his soapy shower scene, he gets his scream queen appearance to wrangle a few more of the curious to his film, and he gets to put it out with a poster that in no way shows anything that even approximates what happens inside the film. The poster shows the three "teen" female leads in their bikinis (which we never fully get) standing in the ocean surrounded by sharks (the girls standing in the ocean never happens nor do we ever shark fins surrounding anyone at any time). As I just mentioned, there is also no real shark attack seen in the movie. If one could sue DeCoteau for false advertising, one might have a slim case. Hell, the class is never even seen out on their ocean field trip, or even near the goddamned ocean, in the film; they could have spent less than $500 for the lot of them on a dolphin cruise in an afternoon and used the footage to convince us they went as a class. Instead, we just get more stock footage – shot after dull shot – of sharks that are mostly not great whites.


The "beheading" pool scene, first in color,
 and then in fake "black and white"...
90210 Shark Attack seems to be caught in a strange place for me. Given DeCoteau's background, and the setting and characters in the film, if he had just made a flat-out pornographic film with the same plot, I would probably rank this higher. Why? Honesty. If that sounds odd to you, imagine you just watched a film called 90210 Shark Attack, that never really acts or gets near being a real spoof of the TV show it is clearly playing (and trying to make a dime) off, that never gives us a visible shark attack within its frames despite its title, and that talks about the power of the great white shark but does it (without tongue in cheek) over stock shots of sand tigers and other sharks. And when DeCoteau does show great whites, half the time they are CGI sharks (as is the monster in the film). I feel that, as a viewer of the film, I have been ripped off in watching it.

If he had made a hardcore film with the same plot, the film may be equally as shitty, but I may not feel quite as ripped off overall. DeCoteau already has a solid porno set-up (groups of young adults pretending to be teens breaking off into various sexual pairings into a gorgeous house that was rented for the occasion, pool scenes, shower scenes, and a teacher-student affair), it would have been far more honest. I know its common to look down one's nose at an X-rated scene and say (in a pinched voice effect) "That's not what sex is like in real life" and in many instances, yes, depending on the scene, number of participants, orifices included, and when and how it finishes, you might be right. For most people, that's not what sex is like. But the "act" of sex onscreen is a real act. However false the emotions involved on the part of the players (if they are even necessary to the scene in question), we see it being committed to onscreen, and for the viewer, it gives you something solid (pun absolutely intended) in return for your time spent watching it and possible investment in its viewing. 90210 Shark Attack could even remain the same film the rest of the way through, with the addition of hardcore sequences – DeCoteau could keep the same stupid stock footage, blah, blah, blah – and it would immediately seem like a more honest effort than the tripe with light softcore moves he put out in real life.


Beware anyone with a shark tooth necklace... Hey!
Wait a minute... I have one of those!
I would be tempted to rate this film even lower, but there is a small hitch. There is a certain competency to what looks like a piss poor end product. You can look at DeCocteau's low-budget films and think they are just crap across the board, but for all their faults, these films are still proficiently manufactured crap from an assembly line that knows exactly what it wants to put out and for whom they are making it. The actors may not be great, but there are far worse actors out there, the video camerawork is professional porno studio competent, the settings are well-chosen for a sort of aesthetically bland beauty, and the cast is mostly rather attractive. You could do a lot worse in a visual sense. Sure, it falls apart in every other category that I have already discussed.

But what we have really learned here are two things: 1) DeCoteau needs a far deeper stock footage library or at least an account with a good online resource, and 2) the next time he decides to do a stupid shark film, he needs to hire someone who can do some basic research into sharks. I believe that I may be available...

RTJ

Saturday, October 01, 2016

The Munsters in "Marineland Carnival" Promo (1965)

Of the many things that I wish existed somewhere on the internet, one definite would be the full hour long "Marineland Carnival" special that CBS ran on Easter Sunday in April of 1965. I would not normally get wound up to see what must have amounted to nothing more than an extended primetime advertisement for a theme park, but dammit... this one featured the Munsters! 

Herman, Lily, Grandpa, little Eddie, and Marilyn Munster – the entire family – running amok at Marineland of the Pacific in Palos Verdes, California. CBS, which was also home to their own sitcom show, got a little cross-promotion in by having their first family of horror visit the park. Fortunately, while we don't get to see the whole special (which is probably pretty creaky and stilted anyway, I would guess), there is a minute-long promo for the special that still exists and can be found floating about on Youtube in various places. Here's a look...



Of course, the purpose of discussing the Munsters/Marineland promo here on The Shark Film Office can only mean that sharks are involved somehow, right? Well, almost... It is mentioned that Herman, Lily and Grandpa want to find a pet that is lovable "like a shark, a barracuda, or an octopus". We do get to see the octopus, which looks like it is tangled up with a diver in the tank, but as for the shark? Not quite. On the word "shark," we are shown a sawfish. 

Many people believe sawfish to be sharks (in reviewing old cartoons for shark scenes, sawfish are sometimes brought in to be the "shark element"), but in fact, sawfish are actually members of the ray family. They have bodies that are shaped somewhat like a shark's is, and like all other rays, sawfish are also cartilaginous, as are sharks. These similarities probably lead a lot of people to assume sawfish are sharks, as well as an existing alternate name for them out there: carpenter sharks, owing to the fantasized usage of their denticle-laden rostrums. (They may not build houses with them, but they can use them to dig out prey.)

While I am definitely more of an Addams Family guy in both temperament, darker humor, and artistic sensibility, I have also held a love for the Munsters as well, having grown up seeing reruns of both shows (which, believe it or not, in their original runs aired concurrently, albeit on different networks) in roughly equal measure. I also have an unreserved love for the 1966 feature film, Munster, Go Home!, in which Herman ends up racing Grandpa's wonderfully named (especially as far as Rob Zombie is concerned) Drag-u-la race car while vacationing in merry olde England.

As for the promo, while the shark reference is a tad off, the commercial is charming and it is great fun to see the actors cavorting about as their characters in public. And, of course, a shark would be a perfect pet for the Munsters to want to bring home. I hope that someday a copy of the actual full special of Marineland Carnival is found, because who knows? Maybe we might actually get to some real sharks in it?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Rabbitson Crusoe (1956)

[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with my animation website, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, about cartoons that feature sharks in them. You can read the reviews on either site, but please do visit the other one if you like the content I have to offer.]

Rabbitson Crusoe (1956)
Dir.: Friz Freleng
TC4P Rating: 7/9
Species: a purple shark named Dopey Dick, who is a little bit dopey and kind of a dick.

Believe it or not, I still own my very first edition of Daniel Defoe's classic novel, Robinson Crusoe. Please don't read that incorrectly. I do not own the first edition of Robinson Crusoe. Considering that the novel is just a hair under three hundred years old – having been first published in 1719, and thought by many scholars to be the first true novel in the English language – that would now make me a multi-thousand-aire, at least (and I am definitely not that at the moment).

No, the first edition of Robinson Crusoe that I ever owned was – and is – a Junior Literary Guild Book Club edition from the early 1970s, itself a reprinting of a 1945 edition of the book, illustrated in a still appealing way by Fritz Kredel. I read and reread this volume multiple times as a child, and it definitely would have to count as one of my early literary influences. To this day, sitting on my library shelves, I still have a few other books from my time in that book club (the first of many) as a kid: Daniel Boone - Wilderness Scout by Stewart Edward White, 101 Dalmatians by Dodie Smith, Paul Bunyan and His Great Blue Ox by Wallace Wordsworth (which has been missing its cover so long that I can no longer summon an image of it in my mind), and Rascal by Sterling North (also sans cover, but I remember what that one looked like). Some have made it through the years better than others, but only one of those Book Club volumes has gotten a full rereading since I became an adult (and has, thus, remained in the best shape due to my attention to it), even though I owned both a paperback edition and a more recent, handsomely bound edition. That book is Robinson Crusoe.

Though my politics and viewpoint towards the book (and mankind in general) have changed greatly since my early, youthful exposure to the story, I still find Robinson Crusoe a rousing adventure novel, not least of which is its location and setting, that of a man stranded on what we would term a "deserted" or "desert" island, though it is anything but a desert nor does it turn out to be deserted. The notion of a tiny little island with just sand and a palm tree is really the province of cartoonists, filmmakers, and sketch comedians, though when we hear the name "Robinson Crusoe," you would not be charged with wrongheadedness were you to summon up such a simple image at first. Of course, you would tend to add a slave in the form of a "Man Friday" to do Crusoe's bidding, but otherwise, the brevity of your casual daydream would be forgiven.

The book, of course, is far more robust and detailed, and the island is equally lush and laden with the resources necessary for decades of survival, as long as Crusoe and his eventual co-habitant are willing to work for them. The book was so popular it created its own sub-genre – the Robinsonade – and all further stories of humans lost at sea and abandoned to the islands of the world's oceans have Defoe's book (and its two quickly written sequels, neither of which have I ever read) as its wellspring. Do you think the novel, The Swiss Family Robinson, written almost a full century later, is named that for little reason? (The name is meant to be evocative of Defoe's book. It is not the name of the family in the original German printing, that's for sure. The family is well aware of the novel Robinson Crusoe, and mention it and its title character several times within their own adventures.)

Getting back to that original novel, Defoe really started something in the imaginations of men, women, and children all over the world. And despite what happens to the characters being stranded for so long from civilization on their own island before Crusoe is eventually rescued, the book itself evokes a romantic feeling for the notion of being lost and stranded at sea, however actually tragic such an occurrence often is for the victim. That's why when musing about getting away from the rat race of modernity, we discuss "desert island" lists, books, albums, and romantic partners. The notion of being trapped on a small circle of jungle-cropped land to choose between Ginger and Mary Ann is endlessly appealing to most men. (The answer, for me, is "both," though Mary Ann is the clear choice when all is said and done. Way cuter, smarter, and ultimately hotter than the overly made up and high maintenance movie star.)

Yes, I still recall the novel quite fondly myself, and know that at some point in the near future I may settle into a couch somewhere and give it another good read. I have yet to find a feature film version of the story that I have considered completely satisfying, though I am certain filmmakers will continue trying. (And please do...) Many of the details of the book are thoroughly burned into my subconscious by this point, that it sometimes feels that I have actually absorbed the book into my bones as well. And yet, when presented with a small story detail, such as the presence of sharks within the framework of the novel, I had to think about it briefly. "Are there sharks in Robinson Crusoe?" I wondered. My mind told me, "Well, yes, there certainly must be," but I couldn't recall for sure. Inside, a mild panic started to bounce around my brain. "Good god, man! For the sake of The Shark Film Office, you need to figure this out!"

This issue gets confused even further for me when other adaptations – and even parodies and spoofs – of Robinson Crusoe are released which do include sharks in the details. The book that I thought I knew so well starts to get muddled even further. And sometimes, these additions are so clearly out of bounds that they become ridiculous. This is fine when a comedic adaptation is meant, but sometimes creative license in straight dramatic versions can go just a little bit too far. But here is what I do know: Nowhere, in that original book, do I recall that its main character had to fend off the murderous advances of a man-eating shark named Dopey Dick.

To find Dopey Dick, you have to go to the cartoons. You have to track down the Warner Bros. short titled Rabbitson Crusoe, directed by Friz Freleng, which was released as part of its Looney Tunes series in 1956. Lovers of The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show in the 1960s and 1970s will remember seeing this cartoon a zillion times, and frankly, this particular short was not of my favorites at the time. This owed nothing to the general excellence of the short's construction but more to the very company it was keeping. It is hard to be thought of in such grand terms when What's Opera, Doc?, The Rabbit of Seville, and A Froggy Evening are living right next door. But Rabbitson Crusoe has grown on me over the years, and within the reasons for such a thing to occur, the most important is its portrayal of the sneaky, ravenously hungry shark, Dopey Dick.

The title of the film appears over a cartographer's rendition of an island on any ol' map. An orchestral version of the pop standard Trade Winds by Cliff Friend and Charles Tobias plays over the credits (and this is not by accident, as it will come into play later in the film). Mel Blanc's familiar voice as Yosemite Sam fills the soundtrack after the end of the credits as the story opens with Robinson Crusoe's narration of his diary. "A low tide and high rock caused my predicament. The ship's supplies used up, my only food supply was a lonely coconut tree."

Trade Winds continues to play in the background as the camera pans from a shipwreck sitting high in the water, over to a series of rocks leading to a small island whose only feature is a hut on stilts with a ladder, and then another series of rocks, and finally another small island upon which stands the lonely coconut tree mentioned in the narration. Sam continues to spin his yarn as the camera zooms in on the island with the tree, saying "Gathering coconuts was a problem because of a dangerous, man-eating shark named Dopey Dick." (See? I got it from somewhere...)

Amongst the rocks, we see a shark's large black dorsal fin swim into view, ominously swirling about in a circular motion. Sam as Robinson Crusoe, on the island with the hut, walks to the edge of the water and looks around the rocks to gauge any potential places where the shark might be lying in wait for him. A closeup on the rocks reveals Dopey Dick to have his head up out of the water as he peers around one large rock to eye his intended prey. Sam does not see the giant fish, and so starts to hop in a rather cute way across the first few rocks, almost like a small child attempting a playground skipping game. Suddenly, he spins his head around behind him to see the shark advancing on him, snapping its jaws as it chases him across the remaining rocks to the other island!

Once there, the shark follows Sam straight up the low-bending trunk of the coconut tree, almost like a toothy guard dog. Far up the tree, Sam reaches to a hook on the trunk from which a large mallet hangs suspended. He starts to beat Dopey Dick hard on the head over and over again, yelling, "Back! Back! Back! Down, ya shark-livered varmint!" (Well, he is a shark, so it stands to reason he may be "shark-livered," unless he had some form of transplant.) Dopey Dick yelps sharply like a beaten dog and beats a hasty retreat to the safety of the ocean. "Danged ol' fin-flappin' flounder," mutters Sam as he hangs the mallet back onto its hook.

Sam pulls down a coconut and walks back to the rocks. He looks about for safety's sake, and seeing nothing, gingerly tiptoes onto the rocks. Almost immediately, there is a splash and Dopey Dick is giving him chase again, snapping his huge jaws over and over at Sam's heels. Sam reaches the shore of the other island, where he has a rack filled with numerous baseball bats, sitting there for the sole purpose (presumably) of smacking Dopey Dick on the head. Sam grabs some pine and charges back at the shark, who sees Sam coming and beats it once more for the ocean. "Twenty years tryin' and ya missed me again!" Ya shovel-nosed mackerel!" yells Sam, raising his fist at the water and then swinging his bat. "No good bushwhackin' barracuda!"

A short while later, we are shown a cookbook that reads 1000 Ways to Prepare Coconuts, and we then see Sam sitting down to a meal entirely comprised of them. At first, he seems happy with this spread: "Mmm... tossed coconut salad. Fresh coconut milk. New England boiled coconut." After he sniffs his main course and replaces the lid on the serving tray, he has a change of mind though. "Ooh... I HATES COCONUTS! Twenty years of coconuts! I can't stand coconuts!" He brushes the entire meal, dishes and all, away with an angry swipe of his stubby little forearm and then starts to beat his head hard against the bamboo support of his hut. All of a sudden though, he hears another voice in the near distance singing the song Trade Winds. It is the wonderful voice of Bugs Bunny, also provided by the talented Mel Blanc...

"Down where the trade winds play
Down where you lose the day
We found a new world where paradise starts..."

When Sam looks to the ocean, he sees (as we do too) a small box floating on the waves, in which Bugs Bunny is draped casually as he chews carrots one by one, leaving the carrot tops to float lazily in the water in his wake. Sam recognizes a stewing rabbit, of course, but calls out to the rabbit all friendly-like, summoning him to shore. Bugs is overjoyed at this, believing he is "saved at last" and starts to paddle in that direction. Soon, he is riding the box at the top of a large wave that threatens to crash down hard on Sam, but all that happens is that Bugs drops out of the box into Sam's waiting arms.

"Oh, boy! Dry land!" exclaims Bugs. "It sure feels good to be dry again!" But no sooner does he say this than Sam drops the critter into a large kettle sitting atop a bed of firewood. As Sam lights the fire, Bugs asks, "What's the big idea? What's up, doc?" Sam announces his intention to make rabbit stew out of Bugs and asks, "Get the idea?" and then laughs wickedly. Bugs response is to say he does get the idea and then starts to mock Sam's laugh, losing steam halfway through at the possibility of his own demise. Bugs asks how long until dinner is ready, and Sam tells him it will be just a few minutes, barring accidents. Bugs says, "Oops!" and pours an entire ladle of water from the kettle onto the firewood, putting out the fire. "Foist accident," he says calmly, tucking his hand under his chin as he rests his elbow on the edge of the pot. Sam is livid. "D'oh! Ya stupid id'jit rabbit! Don't ya know matches is scarce on this island?"

Sam now has to march across the rocks to the shipwreck to get another match. At the water's edge, he carefully starts to step onto the first small black rock, but it turns out to be Dopey Dick lying in wait for him. The shark snaps its jaws down hard, and when Sam pulls back his foot, the front half of his tiny brown boot is missing. He sticks a single toe out of what remains and has it look around the corner of the boot for more trouble. Finally, he sticks his remaining toes out with it. "Ha! Missed again, ya hammerhead halibut!" Sam picks up a small bone and whistles to the shark as if he were a pet dog. "Here, boy! Here, go get it!" He throws the bone towards the horizon and the shark speeds off after it. Sam races across the rocks to the ship and runs into the cabin. He opens the safe and then pulls out a small drawer, inside of which are numerous matches. Sam grabs a single match and then races back across the rocks.

When he reaches his island, he races back to the stewing kettle to relight the fire. But he suddenly realizes the rabbit is no longer in sight. When he goes to look over the edge of the kettle, the shark leaps up out of it and gulps Sam down its maw in a single gulp. Well, everything but Sam's legs, which carry Dopey Dick upside down around the island in a staggered, clumsy walk. Sam finally (somehow) is able to find a mallet and start bashing the shark in the head with it. Dopey Dick quickly leaps off of Sam's body and rushes yelping once more for the water, leaving Sam to bash himself in the face with the mallet several times, after which he is left seeing stars.

Once Sam finally gets his sights righted, he starts to wonder where the rabbit went. "Yoo-hoo!" yells Bugs, sitting out on Sam's ship. "Mr. Robinson!" (This is the first and only time that there is a direct reference to Sam having this name in the cartoon.) Sam sees where the rabbit is and goes bonkers. "I'll get ya, ya long-eared galoot!" he yells, "Shark or no shark!" Sam disappears from view and then runs back into frame with a surfboard. He dives into the water and doesn't make it very far until he realizes that he is sliding straight into the open, waiting mouth of Dopey Dick. After it closes its jaws, the head of the gigantic fish is contorted by Sam's efforts to free himself, and then he zips out, still lying on his surfboard, and he paddles fast for the shore.

Back on the ship, Bugs lies draped along the bow and sings a couple of lines from the then popular ballad, Secret Love (written by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster)...

"Once I had a secret love
That lived within the heart of me.
All too soon my secret love 
Became impatient to be free..."

While Bugs croons, Sam makes preparations to attack the ship. He ties a large pink balloon to himself and says, "This time, I'll outsmart both of 'em!" He holds a wet finger in the air and realizes the wind is just right, and so Sam pushes a large rock off the string that ties him to the balloon so he can float into the air. When Sam starts to float down towards Bugs on the ship and cackles maniacally in victory, Bugs kicks open a hatch and Sam suddenly finds he is floating straight down towards Dopey Dick, who sits patiently down in the water inside the submerged hold. (It's actually a nice little detail that they remembered they were running around a shipwreck.) Bugs leans calmly on the hatch's edge as Dopey Dick and Sam duke it out in the water unseen. Finally, Sam comes up the stairs beating the shark away with a club while he yells, "Down, down, down, ya sharp-toothed salmon!"

Sam shuts the door to the stairwell, and then goes after Bugs who is hopping lightly across the rocks to the island. Sam catches up to him and grabs the varmint. He throws Bugs back into the kettle, relights the fire, and then picks up his cookbook for instructions. Bugs points behind Sam and shouts, "Look, it's a tidal wave!" but Sam doesn't believe him, thinking it is meant as a distraction. (To be fair, Bugs does say it somewhat insincerely, probably his worst line reading.) Sam yells back at the rabbit, "Shaddup and start simmerin'!!" but as soon as he does, Sam hears the loud rush of water behind his back. There is a neat shot of the silhouetted pair against the massive wave heading in their direction, and then they are swept away, with Bugs still inside the kettle.

"Holy, carrot sticks!" says Bugs in astonishment. "The island's gone!" Sam swims up screaming for help as the shark chases him in circles around the kettle. He begs the rabbit to pull him in, and Bugs agrees, telling Sam to "keep his shoit on!" Bugs pulls a boat hook out of the kettle (who knew he had one of those?) and lifts Sam out of the water by his shirt. Sam demands to be pulled into the kettle, but Bugs wants to cut a deal. Sam refuses so Bugs puts him back into the water. Sam swiftly agrees to the deal, and the next thing we see is Sam slowly paddling the kettle through the water as he hangs from the end of the hook, still several feet out of the kettle. Dopey Dick follows close behind, his dorsal fin sticking up out of the water. "After all, a deal's a deal," says Bugs. They pass a sign that reads, "San Francisco – 2736 Miles". As Dopey Dick chases them, Sam starts to paddle even faster towards the horizon as California, Here I Come is played on the soundtrack. Iris out.

I find Rabbitson Crusoe a lot more fun now than I did when I was younger, and that probably has something to do with the end of my close obsession only with Chuck Jones cartoons in my early days (though, honestly, when I watched them on Saturday mornings, the individual shorts did not have credits). But I could tell the different styles apart, and it turned out that the Warner Bros. cartoons which I revered the most in childhood were the Jones' offerings. I also loved a lot of the Friz Freleng shorts as well, but this one got booted aside. Now, I find it completely endearing, and as I mentioned earlier, Dopey Dick is the main reason.

This is one of the rare earlier cartoons where the shark is a fully developed main character along with the other two in the film. He gets fairly equal screentime with the Bugs and Sam, and is given a chance to be both sinister and funny as well. Like any hungry predator in a Warner Bros. cartoon, we simultaneously want Dopey Dick to succeed in his life's mission but also want him to fail in largely comic ways. Sam is so annoying and downright villainous in his own right that he completely deserves to be eaten by Dopey Dick, far more so than Bugs deserves to be eaten by Sam. After all, according to Sam's own dialogue, Dopey Dick has been trying for some twenty years to capture his prey. Why shouldn't he?

As for design, this is one of my favorite cartoon sharks. He does get to give a couple of early menacing looks, but for the most part, Dopey Dick is kind of goofy looking. Especially in profile, with his grandly elongated snout and widely spaced teeth that hang down almost like vampire's fangs, though there are usually three to five of them. There are couple of shots where it almost appears as if his dorsal fin works like a hat atop his head rather than in the middle of back, which is easier to do when your mouth is drawn in most cases to take up anywhere from the front third to a full half of your body length. (Those shots also happen to be when he is standing on his tail and his back is arched, which further adds to the impression of a sharp, pointed hat resting atop a big bald head.) His is a really simple design, but quite effective, and adds a lot to the comedy, where he is just rubbery enough to get some good reactions to Sam's outbursts of reactive violence. Another nice touch is the constant reminder that the shark really serves as some sort of stray dog loose in Sam's neighborhood, and Sam has adjusted his own behavior (and thus, the shark's) accordingly. Naming the shark Dopey Dick after yet another literary monument, that of Moby-Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville, is also rather a fun move.

In bringing this back around to Robinson Crusoe, a quick search of the novel online finds no mention of the word "shark" within its text, and I also did searches for the word "fish," thinking that Defoe, writing in an earlier age where the word "shark" was not quite as prevalent or even immediately as prone to invoking fear, might have opted for "giant fish" or some other such sobriquet. No such luck, just some mentions of being taught to fish in his youth, etc. It really does appear that I will need to sit right back down and actually reread Robinson Crusoe once again to get my query resolved for good.

If only I had a decent copy lying around...

RTJ

[Editor's note: Rabbitson Crusoe has yet to appear on DVD or Blu-ray from Warner Bros. It was released on laserdisc and VHS back in the day, though I am unable to locate my own VHS copy for whatever reason. It does appear online in a couple of places, but I am unwilling to link directly to them in this post as they do not appear on YouTube. You can do a search and find them. If you do, keep in mind that one version out there on Vimeo is fully dubbed in Italian, which makes for a really interesting contrast against the English version. Have fun with that.]



Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Wreck of the Hesperus (1944)

[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with my animation blog, Cinema 4: Cel Bloc, about cartoons that feature sharks in them. You can read the reviews on either site, but please do visit the other one if you like the content I have to offer.]

The Wreck of the Hesperus (1944)
Dir.: Mannie Davis
TC4P Rating: 6/9
Species: cartoon sharks, a small but very hungry pack of them.

Sharks versus Mighty Mouse? Say it IS so! It is!

The 1944 short, The Wreck of the Hesperus, was the eighth Mighty Mouse short churned out by the Terrytoons studio from October of 1942 through December of 1961. When I say "churned out," I mean it; they knocked out eighty of these babies in that span. [OK, technically, the first 77 were released theatrically through 1954, and the final three were completed later in the decade for television, but that means they crammed even more Mighty Mouse into a still smaller time frame. That can be either more impressive or sad, take your pick. I choose to go with "they kept animators employed and there was a market at the time".]

Surprisingly enough, The Wreck of the Hesperus was the first of the series in which the lead hero is finally named Mighty Mouse, having been called Super Mouse from the very beginning. [TV prints of six of the first seven films, excluding The Lion and the Mouse, were voice-dubbed over so that the Mighty Mouse name appears instead.]

What you won't find in this film is the what would be considered the classic Mighty Mouse costume: a yellow suit, a red cape with matching boots and shorts, and his tiny hands clad in white gloves. That wouldn't be in place until the fifteenth film, The Sultan's Birthday, and until then Super/Mighty Mouse's costume leapt all over from film to film as much as the mouse did. In this film, the colors are almost a dead-on match for Superman's famous colors: the red cape, boots and shorts are in place, as are the white gloves, but the rest of the suit is blue with a yellow belt.

As the title would tip one off were one poetically intrigued, the film is an adaption of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous 1842 poem, which once served as a standard in English classes (it was for me), which tells the tale of a rather horrid tragedy at sea. Caught in a furious storm, the captain of a ship lashes his daughter to the mast so that she won't be tossed overboard to perish in the ocean. (Such things did occur, as this poem is most likely based on a couple of real life incidents.) But the storm is so terrible that the captain freezes to death at the wheel of his own ship, and the craft is eventually smashed to pieces in the tempest. Later, the daughter's body is found washed ashore, still tied to the mast.

Death and destruction, gore and mayhem... Happy fun times for a cartoon featuring a super-powered mouse, say I!

Naturally, members of the Terrytoons staff remembered the epic tragedy and felt it was a perfect opportunity for their Mighty Mouse character to swoop in majestically and, ahem, turn the tide, as it were. I do not know what inclination led them towards attempting to adapt a classical poem, but it seems clear from examining the evidence of the seven preceding films in the series that they were trying almost anything they could to instill some life into this still nascent but rather unformed series.

The primary problem with the series early on (and some would say throughout its run) lie in its basic structure. Let's say you establish a Mighty Mouse story with a running time of around six minutes. The first minute or so introduces the setting (often a small town or village) and how happy the protagonists – generally, mice, cute beyond measure – are in this situation. The next minute sets up the antagonists – most often a gang of ravenous or just plain bullying cats – and how rotten things have turned for the mice since the cats arrived. The next two minutes show the battle between the mice and the cats, or whatever sides have been taken in that particular episode, which usually leads up to a moment of extreme tension where the deus ex machina is introduced, here given form in the zero personality form of the early version of Mighty Mouse.

This was exactly the problem with the bulk of the early Mighty Mouse shorts: their hero. In some ways, it is the exact same problem with Superman: he is just too relentlessly powerful and godlike. When Mighty Mouse comes to save the day, it is a foregone conclusion that we won't learn much more about him, of course, since he arrives so late in the cartoon that there is time for little else but the proper heroics to correct that episode's jam. From film to film in the early going, we know nothing about Mighty except that he is immensely strong, is invulnerable to almost anything, and (especially early on) can shoot electric sparks from his fingertips which sometimes make him appear as if he can manipulate objects or persons. There are no real (or even facile) attempts at character development, and hardly any dialogue on his part; Mighty rarely speaks a word to anyone, and he doesn't trade quips back and forth with the villains.

This would all change later in the series when the direction turned to its more fondly remembered operetta form, which featured later regulars, Mighty's sweetheart Pearl Pureheart and his main nemesis, Oil-Can Harry, These were the shorts where everyone – including Mighty Mouse – sang the bulk of their lines. In the first such example, A Fight to the Finish (1947), the cartoon opened up as if it were a middle chapter of a long-running serial, with a cliffhanger where Mighty and Pearl are in peril, and then as the story veers towards another cliffhanger near its end, the narrator displays impatience and has Mighty sum up the action right away so we aren't left hanging. Mighty also starts to be seen earlier in other cartoons in the series around this time, such as in the Swiss Cheese Family Robinson, where he is seen catching some rays on the beach at the beginning, and then the story unfolds until he is eventually summoned to the rescue by a message in a bottle. While these shorts are far more fun, such changes come around the halfway mark in the series.

This early on, however, Mighty is pretty much just a small guy who comes in near the end of a cartoon to beat up on some bigger, meaner guys and make the kids in the audience feel like someone has their back. He is short on character but long in power. Unfortunately, the violent displays of action in the back third of most of the cartoons don't nearly make up for the rather routine set-ups in the front two-thirds. I say "most of the cartoons," because of course there are examples where Terrytoons was trying a bit harder. The Wreck of the Hesperus is clearly one of those attempts.

Surprisingly, the cartoon remains fairly consistent with the tone of Longfellow's poem for its few couple of minutes, and actually uses ten of its first eleven stanzas in setting up the story. (There are 22 stanzas in total in the poem; of the cruel fate of the second eleven of them, we shall speak in a while.)

The action begins with a ship sailing amongst icebergs, and the first stanza describes exactly what we see:

It was the schooner Hesperus, 
      That sailed the wintry sea; 
And the skipper had taken his little daughter, 
      To bear him company.

This is the first time in the Mighty Mouse series where those needing rescue are human beings and not mice (though there are mice on the ship who get some screentime and will eventually be rescued, they are not the primary focus for once). Instead, we get a normal-sized sailing vessel upon which we meet, in turn, its three passengers. The second stanza of the poem is skipped in this case, the one in which the daughter's eyes, cheeks, and bosom are described, and instead we get a visual of a pencil-thin blonde with a kewpie doll's head far too large for her body to support it. The wind blows her skirt up so her white bloomers are revealed, and she sits down as the her father is introduced...

The skipper he stood beside the helm, 
      His pipe was in his mouth, 
And he watched how the veering flaw did blow 
      The smoke now West, now South.

Indeed, the wind does change direction, and the smoke from his pipe blows ahead of him as announced in the poem. From high up in the crow's nest, we are introduced to the third human character...

Then up and spake an old Sailor, 
      Had sailed to the Spanish Main, 
"I pray thee, put into yonder port, 
      For I fear a hurricane.

As he spies the horizon far ahead, he rushes down the mast to rush the wheel and tell the skipper of their bad fortune. He is clad all in blue, with a sailor's cap and a peg leg. The old sailor continues as we are shown first the face of the man in the moon in the sky, and then the moon in an eclipse, as if someone has pulled the blinds on it...

"Last night, the moon had a golden ring, 
      And to-night no moon we see!" 
The skipper, he blew a whiff from his pipe, 
      And a scornful laugh laughed he.

In the sky above, the clouds form into a huge figure with a frosty beard and hair that blows cold air down upon the sea...

Colder and louder blew the wind, 
      A gale from the Northeast, 
The snow fell hissing in the brine, 
      And the billows frothed like yeast.

Down came the storm, and smote amain 
      The vessel in its strength; 
She shuddered and paused, like a frighted steed, 
      Then leaped her cable's length.

The ship is tossed about in the ocean, as it climbs one mountainous wave after another. The skipper, fearing the worst, tries to rush his daughter to the only safety that he can envision for her...

"Come hither! come hither! my little daughter, 
      And do not tremble so; 
For I can weather the roughest gale 
      That ever wind did blow."

He wrapped her warm in his seaman's coat 
      Against the stinging blast; 
He cut a rope from a broken spar, 
      And bound her to the mast.

A buoy is show bouncing in the waves, its bell clanging while the storm rages about it. The daughter, who seems to have come somewhat loose from the seaman's coat her father bound her in seconds ago so that her upper torso, rather lightly clad, juts forward from the ropes that bind her, cups a hand to her comely ear and asks in her innocent confusion...

"O father! I hear the church-bells ring, 
      Oh say, what may it be?" 
"'T is a fog-bell on a rock-bound coast!" — 
      And he steered for the open sea.

The skipper veers the ship through iceberg after iceberg in an overhead shot. The nautical figurehead on the bow of the ship, which is itself the model of a very lovely but scantily clad woman, comes to life momentarily and reaches through a porthole at the bow and pulls out a fur wrap to keep herself warm. On the deck, as the skipper steers, the wheel comes loose and spins away. When he tries to recapture the wheel, a rogue wave sends him running back along the deck. It throws him against a mast and then upwards, where he hits his head on a bell, and then he drops back down to the deck unconscious.

Somehow, far below on the sea floor, an octopus manages to see this and laughs in time with the music on the soundtrack. He then rushes into a cave and brings out a tablecloth that he lays down on a large table. He zips back to the cave and comes out with eight plates. Three large sharks arrive at the table to see the plates laid out and lick their lips (well, if they had lips). The sharks are seen breaching and leaping after the ship, whose sails are now tattered and torn from the storm's attack.

Onboard, mice inside the ship are sent scurrying. Two sit atop a box of doughnuts and hand them out to mouse after mouse, for use as inner tubes in the water. Each mouse floats away and then out through the porthole at the bow and into the ocean. The ship is now almost entirely submerged by this point. The daughter, still lashed to the mast, sticks up out of the ocean and watches as the three sharks chase her father round and round through the water. The daughter then speaks one of the more famous lines, which most often is considered to refer to the sound of the storm-driven waves beating against the shoreline...

"O father! I hear the sound of guns...!"

The skipper and the sharks continue their furious pace, spinning about and about in a tight circle at her feet, as there are no such sounds to be heard. But the daughter, craving attention for her next big line in the poem, pleads in an overly dramatic voice to her father again...

"O father! I hear the sound of guns...!"

This time, at her continued insistence, the skipper and the sharks stop cold in the water, all four of them staring at her in a very concerned manner to her words...

      Oh say, what may it be?"

She points behind them as she asks this, so the skipper and the sharks all turn their heads to look and the skipper says...

"Some ship in distress, that cannot live 
      In such an angry sea!"

It is interesting to note that at this point, the cartoon skips the next six stanzas. Had they continued on with the tale as told by Longfellow, the daughter would have then asked a third question, and then the story would turn truly morbid: "O father! I see a gleaming light/Oh say, what may it be?"/But the father answered never a word/A frozen corpse was he. The poem's next few stanzas then go on to describe in greater detail just how frozen a corpse the father/skipper now is, and then the daughter's subsequent praying and vision of Christ, who stilled the wave/On the Lake of Galilee. Then the ship's journey towards its doom amongst the rocks at the reef of Norman's Woe is recounted. But the cartoon leaps ahead of this morbidity to instead set up its reason for even being made.

Following the skipper's second response to his daughter, he and the sharks pick up their previous chase, round and round in endless circles, and the storm rages onward. We are then shown a lighthouse surrounded by rocks, where three of the mice riding on the life-saving doughnuts crash hard onto the base of the lighthouse. A mice comes out of the lighthouse bearing a lantern and they tell him about their plight. The light-mouse (see what I did there?) runs inside, though fighting hard against the winds, and rushes up to the top to turn the tower's lantern towards the shipwreck. The wind blows the beam of light backward, but the beam, with what looks like fingers at the front edge of its light, pulls itself forward to land on the ship flailing against the waves and the rocks. 

The narrator picks up the poem again far down the line in its eighteenth verse, somewhat changing the meaning to focus on the beam from the lighthouse hitting the wreck, rather than on the ship crashing to its death.

She struck where the white and fleecy waves 
      Looked soft as carded wool...

At this point, in the middle of this stanza, the story (and the narrator) gives up the verse of the poem entirely. The next line, But the cruel rocks, they gored her side/Like the horns of an angry bull, is discarded in favor of a newly invented line that introduces the cartoon's hero instead...

But the maiden's plight, called for a knight
      Fearless and powerful!

The skipper climbs up the mast to where his daughter is still suspended by her bonds, as the hungry trio of sharks leaps underneath them, each ferocious leap edging them nearer to the doomed pair. Back at the lighthouse, the light-mouse watches everything through a telescope. The mouse is visibly upset by what he sees and starts to spin in place. As he stops his spin, he has changed from a plain brown mouse wearing no clothing at all to a more familiar black-furred mouse wearing the Superman-style outfit I described earlier. As he does, the narrator shouts on the soundtrack...

This... is a job for... MIGHTY MOUSE!!!

After the attendant fanfare, the nigh unstoppable Mighty Mouse zooms towards the beleaguered ship, blasting his way without pause through wave after thunderous wave. The sharks loom dangerously close to the skipper and his daughter, with one shark finally deciding that leaping is not doing the trick, so he starts to shimmy up the mast towards them with his pectoral fins wrapped about the pole. But Mighty Mouse arrives in the nick of time (as he tends to do) and punches each shark powerfully on their noses, one after the other. He then flies fast enough around the fish to create a bright red contrail that picks up a full half dozen sharks in his wake, as if they were hooked by the mouths on a fishing line. He flies with his catch up into the sky, and when he has reached an appropriate amount of altitude, he then snaps the contrail like a whip past him and the sharks are sent flying out of sight!

Mighty ties his red contrail to a large cleat on the deck near the bow of the once doomed ship, and with a likewise "mighty" tug pulls the craft free of the stormy sea. He drags the ship high through the air and flies it all the way to New York City. The old sailor, the skipper, and the daughter all cheer wildly from the bow, as the comely figurehead holds out an American flag in victory. A huge ticker-tape parade is held down Broadway as thousands fill the street to cheer. In a long convertible, the skipper and his daughter ride in the front seat, the old sailor and the figurehead (still wearing her wrap) ride in the middle seat, and Mighty Mouse rides up on the back edge of the car. Behind the vehicle, smiling, cheering mice run after their hero, waving their arms. THE END.

In the preceding seven films in the series, there were slight attempts to wiggle the formula a bit, but all but one of them never really got away from the basic "mice vs. cats and then Mighty saves the day" template. The second film, Frankenstein's Cat, did have a horror element, a mechanical monster in cat form that goes after birds and mice, but despite the neat trappings perfect for a Halloween cartoon fest (more on this film in the future), it is still tied to then-quite new formula. The fourth film, Pandora's Box, works in the famous mythical box, but mixes it up with fairy castles, cats with bat wings (who would reappear in later films), and witches, so that it makes another fun Halloween film, but it still hews close to the Mighty cookiecutter form. The chief thing making these early films watchable is that the action is really fast, loaded with gags (however moldy), and the design is pretty endearing if you don't gag on utter cuteness. (And sometimes I quite like super cuteness...)

It is the seventh film, the one that directly precedes The Wreck of the Hesperus, where they really tried something different. The Lion and the Mouse is a direct take on the classic Aesop's Fable, but this time, the mouse tries to hide inside a discarded bottle of hard cider lying on the floor of the jungle, and gets really drunk. The lion takes pity on him and releases him, and when a hunting safari arrives to capture the lion, the drunken mouse get his Irish up and somehow turns into Mighty Mouse. He saves the lion from a trap, hunters, and their dogs, and they both return to the bottle of hard cider and crawl inside... quite literally. The short is a bit more Warner Bros. in style, almost early Chuck Jones but not quite, than the other Mighty Mouse cartoons, and I do wonder if it was influenced even the slightest by Jones' then-current series of Inki shorts.

But in The Wreck of the Hesperus, with the switch of focus to human victims, and a leap into classical literature, it is the first true taste that perhaps they were desperate to find something – anything – to make this series hum along in a different fashion. Were they successful? Well, it is odd to take such a tragic story and turn it into a happy tale involving a super-powered rodent. But then again, there are other examples. In the following year, Tex Avery would take Robert W. Service's The Shooting of Dan McGrew and add Droopy Dog and the Wolf to it, and come out with The Shooting of Dan McGoo. The story in McGoo is altered even further from its source material to the point that McGoo, played by Droopy, doesn't even get shot. While it departs from Service into a standard Avery gag-fest, a standard Avery gag-fest is usually miles above what anybody else was producing, and thusly, The Shooting of Dan McGoo is considered to be one of Avery's great cartoons.

You can also look at the whitewashing that most modern filmmakers, especially Walt Disney, have done to Perrault, Grimm, Andersen, etc. in adapting their classic "fairy tales" to the modern sensibility, both throughout the twentieth century and into the more politically correct times of this century, and realize there is nothing different about what is done in this film in those terms. It is merely to gain the basic structure of a story (and even its setting in verse, in this case) in the public domain, and then artistic license is allowed to take over for the remainder of the film.

And who wants a frozen corpse of a father in a Mighty Mouse cartoon? Well, OK, deviants probably wouldn't mind it (and I am squarely in that camp, depending on my mood at any given time). But I will accept a trio of grimacing, hungry sharks (who are not mentioned at all in the verse of the poem) – and even a goofy, table-setting octopus – over a couple of gruesome deaths in this case.

As for those sharks, I think they are pretty groovy. From the second they arrive on the screen, I am sold on their appearance and their purpose in the film, as they lick their chops in anticipation of tasty sailor stew. There is no real difference between each one of the sharks (until the contrail scene, where we get a half dozen, we actually only ever see three of them), and they seem to react in tandem to everything. As a trio, they do the job. They add the menace for which they meant, but they also get a couple of neat comic moments in the film. During the scene where the daughter mentions the "sound of guns," and she resorts to intentional overacting to get their attention, the look on the sharks' faces is absolutely wonderful as they seem to forget their regular intent and get caught up in her big theatrical moment. Likewise when they turn to see where the "sound of guns" is coming from (though there isn't any sound to be heard at all), and then wait while the skipper delivers his big ironic line from the poem (in which he mentions a separate doomed ship to divert her from their ultimate fate), before collapsing back into the chase for dinner as before. And in the scene just before Mighty arrives, where one shark slowly creeps up the mast by shimmying instead of leaping like the others is a really nice touch.


Does the Terrytoons version of The Wreck of the Hesperus work as an adaptation? Not really. It discards half of the poem, especially the second half where the true drama of the story lies. As a spoof of a literary classic? Partially, but not nearly as well as Mad Magazine's adaptation in the 1950s where Wally Wood really put it through the wringer. (You can find it online.) I grew up reading this version, and read it long before I ever read the real one (though technically, the verse is not changed; all of the humor lies in the images that accompany it), and I love it to this day. 


But as a Mighty Mouse cartoon (and especially as the first full Mighty Mouse cartoon sans the Super Mouse name), this version is certainly my favorite of the first eight cartoons in the series, and a nice reprieve from the endless mice vs. cats battling of most of the examples early on in its eighty-cartoon run.

And The Wreck of the Hesperus has cartoon sharks, who get to do a little bit more than just be big and mean and scary. What's not to like about that?

RTJ

*****

And in case you haven't seen it...