Codfish Balls (1930)
[For the month of September 2016, I am writing a series of shared posts in conjunction with another of my websites, 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.]
Sharks in the early days of animation came in a wide variety of styles. I suppose that if one were to use the argument that if there are over 500 identified species of sharks in the world, why shouldn't there be that many species too in the animated shark world, only in a more fanciful sense. I guess that I would have to somewhat agree with such a musing. Why not indeed? In cartoons, mice, ducks, and cats and all other manner of animals speak like us, drive cars, fly planes, have dogs for pets, captain boats, wear clothes, and do everything else that humans do and that other normal animal species don't, so the rules for everything in the universe have already been turned topsy-turvy just in their initial conception. If something is called a shark but really doesn't look like a shark, does it really matter at all?
In my last Cel Bloc post, I wrote about the 1930 Terrytoons short, Salt Water Taffy, where I discussed how animators in the early days of the art form seemed to care little about what form a shark took on screen as long as they got across the basic idea that it was a shark of some sort. The shark in Salt Water Taffy had a full set of jaws with big pointy teeth, but he had a rather stubby body, a dorsal fin that I noted looked more like a mogul on a junior ski hill, and had a round black nose of the sort that you would normally see on the face of one of the Beagle Boys in an Uncle Scrooge comic book. Sure, it swam through the water and tried to attack a swimmer and was done in with cannon fire from a navy ship, but the shark was also released from a leash wielded by its owner, a super-grumpy octopus who strode along the ocean floor while wearing a sailor's cap and seven shoes on its tentacles.
Codfish Balls was released by Paul Terry a few months before Salt Water Taffy in 1930, by the same director (Frank Moser), and I would presume many of the same animators, though I have been unable to find information to verify that as of yet. This film, too, incorporates sharks into its plot – many, many sharks, it turns out – but except for a couple of common superficialities early on when they first appear in this cartoon (one of which disappears almost immediately), they are of a far different stripe than the shark that menaces the heroine in Salt Water Taffy.
The original opening credits on this cartoon no longer exist for the version available online, and instead has the replacement title card that was used when it aired as part of the syndicated TV show Farmer Al Falfa and his Terrytoon Pals back in the late 1950s. The cursive-style Terrytoons logo used in that card was then quite familiar to kids who watched The Captain Kangaroo Show as well for the adventures of Tom Terrific, which aired in daily installments on that series.
Codfish Balls is a pretty straightforward seafaring adventure, albeit with an animal crew but no matter, and we are introduced immediately to what appears to be a group of swarthy looking swashbucklers right from the start, as they sit around on the deck of their ship singing a couple lines from the sea shanty standard Blow the Man Down. While the pirates sing, a beefy dog with a peg leg dances along to the tune. A billy goat wearing pants while seated on a tricycle rides circles around the cabin on the deck of the ship, and is alternately pushed and chased by a rat. The rodent annoys him greatly, but every time he turns out to scowl at the rat, the little guy pushes the back of the trike forward giving the goat another burst of speed.
When they swing wildly around the corner of the cabin, the goat and rat run right under the dancing dog with the peg leg, and he spins in the air and falls on his keister as they speed away. They make another circuit around the cabin, and run under the dog again, sending him spinning to the ground anew. Infuriated, the dog picks himself up and confronts the goat, while the rat stands safely to the side. Without actual dialogue (there is little English spoken but a couple of lines and the song already heard in the film), the dog accuses the goat and then punches him hard, making him flip in place. He punches the goat twice more, and then the goat retaliates in the classic goat style, head-butting the burly dog in the chest. The dog sinks back unconscious against the outer wall of the cabin, and the ship that is tattooed on his chest sinks beneath the waves.
But the rat is not done with the dog. The dog revives himself and find that the rat has a large basket of eggs at his side, and the little pipsqueak starts throwing them at the face of the dog. Yolk starts pouring down over the dog's head as the rat chucks a couple of AAA Large at the mutt. From around the corner, another pirate with a peg leg – a cat this time – shows up, and the rat nails the cat in the face too, and then scrambles, appropriately, straight up the ratlines to the mast above. The angry cat grimaces at the rat, and one of his teeth rolls upward in his gritted grimace so he can stick his tongue – snaked, I must stress – out through the gap. The cat shakes his meaty fist upward in the rat's direction several times, and then hops towards the ratlines, balancing precariously on the railing of the ship momentarily.
The cat climbs up fast along the ratlines, and meets the rat along the yard atop the sail, where they engage in a frenetic sword fight. The cat uses his peg leg within the fight to parry the rat’s blows on occasion, and it soon seems that the cat wears the rat down. Finally, the pirate cat lunges for the rodent but gets caught in the sail, and the rat pounces on the opportunity to spank the cat in the rear end several times. Then, for some strange reason, both combatants leap off the sail and into the ocean.
Up in the crow’s nest, we see a large whale spouting in the far distance, and a different pirate cat manning the watch blasts an alarm on a horn to alert his fellow buccaneers. “Thar she blows!” he cries, and then it suddenly seems that perhaps these aren’t actually pirates at all, but whalers of the old school instead. On the main deck, another former-pirate-now-turned-whaleman blares back on another horn, and yells back, “Who she blows!” (at least, that is what it sounds like to me… you check it out; the soundtrack is very old, garbled, and loaded with distortion).
Out on the sea, the cat and the rat, who had previously been feuding on top of the sails, are now in a rowboat being paddled by the much smaller rat. The cat, who by his actions and authority is clearly the captain of the ship, though he doesn’t seem much different than the others aboard, bonks the rat in the head with every stroke as they row towards the whale. When they reach the mighty leviathan, the cat captain cruelly places the rat onto a hook on the end of a fishing pole and angles it towards the whale. Since fishing for a whale with a pole and bait is clearly not normal operating procedure for whalers, this now makes me doubt my previous position where I changed my initial impulse proclaiming them to be pirates to one where they were whalers. Now this just makes these morons look like opportunists, and that takes them squarely back to just being pirates again. (Man, I have ever been watching too much of Cooks vs. Cons…)
The rat is not happy with this arrangement and squeaks angrily at this treatment as he dangles in front of the whale, who just sits in the water smiling away, seemingly without a care for what is happening. The cat, for his part, delights in dipping the rat into the water, and laughing merrily. But when the whale finally does open its mouth, it not only swallows the rat, but also the pole, the cat, and the entire rowboat, with a huge hungry scowl as its massive sharp, pointed teeth close down around everything in a single bite. We see a closeup of the whale thoughtfully and carefully munching its dinner, but suddenly a hatch opens up on the whale’s head!
The rat and the cat climb out swiftly, and then the pirate captain cat smacks the whale on the noggin with an oar. Dazing the whale, they leap into the water, but the whale gives chase through the waves. When the rat dares to swim in front of the cat, the feline reaches out and picks up the theme from when they first approached the whale, conking the rodent on the head to take the lead. The rat moves forward again, and the cat picks the rodent up bodily and places him behind once more. Regardless, the rat still manages to reach the ship first and climbs up a ladder. When the cat gets there, the whale grabs his tail and tugs on it painfully, but the cat gets free and climbs to safety as well.
When the cat reaches the rat again, he slaps the rodent in the face. The pirate then ties a blindfold over the rat’s eyes, pulls a knife, and pushes him towards the plank to walk to his death. They both stride out onto the plank – to the then quite familiar strains of the Civil War standard Tramp! Tramp! Tramp! playing on the score – and march all the way to the end of it, but as the rat has the excuse of still walking about blindly, we bear witness to a classic cartoon gag (you may recall Bugs Bunny pulling off a similar trick against Yosemite Sam in High Diving Hare, for example), as the rat continues apace and flips to the underside of the plank, walking normally as if there has been no change in his orientation, and marches straight back into the ship to the astonishment of the pirate cat.
With the rat safe inside again, isn’t it time some sharks got into the action, folks? Or, maybe if not sharks, how about something that – kind of, sort of – represents sharks even if they really do not look all that much like sharks? Sharks waiting for a buccaneer victim to walk the plank to gather an easy meal is a standard image of much adventure and pulp fiction. Sure as you can bet, just below the plank, we hear the ominous but familiar refrain of Mysterious Mose on the soundtrack as we see the snapping jaws of numerous hungry sharks in the water, waiting for a tasty rat meal. However, some of the sharks can’t wait that long to get a pirate snack. Several of them use a ladder to climb through a porthole inside, and then march through the bowels of the ship towards the deck to seek out their prey.
On the deck, the pirate-turned-whaler-turned-pirate-again cat captain has tied his would-be rat victim to the mast and is delighting in torturing him. Fate is clearly against him, though, as the thug turns around to see the big toothy grimace of one of the sharks, who really look more like rather stunted, sharp-toothed fish with sawblade-style fins on their backs than they do sharks, but it is clear their purpose here is in the role of a shark. In the part of the film that made me laugh out loud, the tough captain cat cries out in a rather high, girlish alarm of surprise, “ME-OW!” and runs away in fear, with the rat running away after him. They run around the cabin, and the sharks – varying between a dozen to upwards of eighteen in count – give chase in formation, three to a row.
When the sharks start to come out one by one through a porthole in the cabin, the mouse stands on top of the cabin with a board and smacks each one hard in the head in sequence. The sharks fall to the deck in a big pile as the rest pour throw the porthole and get smacked in turn. Somehow, the cat captain has ended up in the rear of the line and comes out to get smacked as well. The cat turns to look up at the rat atop the cabin, who by now has several sharks sneaking up on him from behind. Thinking quickly, the rat leaps onto the rigging and a dozen of the fish give chase after him up to the crow’s nest, where the rat hides on the other side of it and somehow traps all of them inside by closing the lid, basically canning all of the fish. (The crow's nest has a lid? Oh, cartoons...)
In Codfish Balls, we have a decently paced cartoon with plenty of action though little sense, but certainly with more of a through-line than Salt Water Taffy did. I joked about the pirates not seeming like pirates all the time, and that may be true, but who or what they are in an occupational sense is also not really all that important to the film. What matters is that a bunch of sailors are at sea on a tall ship, there are antics built first around the crew fighting amongst themselves, then their attack upon a whale, and then dealing with a concentrated attack by sharks.
Perhaps identity is an unintentional hidden theme behind this film. We have the pirates who may or may not be whalers, and then we also have the issue of the rat, who basically serves as the hero, even though he is kind of asking for a lot of what happens to him. I have decided to call him a rat in this description of the film's plot, but he might be a mouse. I mentioned how in Salt Water Taffy, the playful mice in that film, who sang and danced and swam about, were had unusually tall limbs for mice. I had mused on the notion that perhaps the length of their limbs had something to do with not wishing to be sued by Walt Disney for copyright infringement, though it was merely idle speculation on my part. I have no proof of this, any more than I have proof that the rodent in Codfish Balls is either a rat or a mouse. He could be a mouse; his facial design is exactly that of what I called mice in Salt Water Taffy, but he has much shorter limbs. The longer limbs on the other "mice" would actually lead me to believe that they were actually the rats, since rats are most often much bigger than mere mice.
But there is one true reason that I decided to go with the "rat" nomination for the rodent in Codfish Balls: the general identification with rats being at large on sailing ships. When I used the term "ratlines" earlier, it was to stress this link, as I called it out at that moment. While Mickey Mouse certainly had nautical adventures in his career, the difference between him and the rodent in this film is that Mickey is a fully developed and known character going into the story; he can be a mouse on a sailing ship because we understand going in that not only is he a mouse, but that he is an extraordinary mouse. This rat character has no given name within the film, nor do any of the characters, and we only know of him what we are shown from his first appearance within the film to his last. In Salt Water Taffy, given that the rodents were meant to be cuter and more readily identifiable as human in their clothes occupations, and language, I was more accepting of them as mice; here, though he is sympathetic and we root for him against the bullying cat, because of the setting and his scurrying actions aboard the ship, I only see him as a rat.
Getting back to my main purpose here, the sharks also seem to have an I.D. problem in this film. While they are drastically different from the shark in Salt Water Taffy, and even though (as I said before) this film predates that one by several months, there is a matching trait between them: a button nose. When the sharks are first seen in the water in Codfish Balls, snapping their jaws upward at the plank in anticipation of a rat dinner, they have a black button nose at the tip of their snout, just like the dog, cat, and rat have in this film, and just like the shark has in Salt Water Taffy. The difference here, though, is that those black noses completely disappear by the time the sharks decide to climb up the ladder and march into the ship. It has to be a mistake, and it may go totally unnoticed by someone – basically anyone else – that isn't running a blog where he is purposefully writing not just about sharks, but also about cartoon sharks. Sure enough, when I went back to watch and rewatch these scenes, the black noses are gone within second of the sharks first appearing in the film.
And then there are those fins along their spines. I mentioned they look more like sawblades than actual dorsal fins, and indeed they do. Maybe it was more to give them the impression of a tough haircut than anything else, but these fish really do not look like sharks one they are no longer snapping their jaws underneath the plank. This is not to say that I don't think they aren't pretty groovy. I like the way their jaws jut out as they sneer at the cat and the rat, and I like their creepy, determined march through the ship. I think they are terrific villains, and worthwhile opponents for anyone in an animated film.
But do I think they are sharks, and not just some other form of big, scary fish? These guys seem more like oversized, ocean-going piranhas with razors on their backs to me. Hell, the enormous whale in this film seems more like a shark, with its giant fanged teeth and rapacious appetite, than these guys do, even if he has no dorsal fin at all.
In a world where animated sharks are hard to come by, though, I will take all I can get. Sharks or sharky posers... whatever. Tell them to bring their friends.