Sunday, September 11, 2016

Salt Water Taffy (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.]

Salt Water Taffy (1930)
Dir.: Frank Moser and Paul Terry
TC4P Rating: 5/9
Species: cartoon shark, this time with snubbed dorsal fin; appears to be the pet of an octopus and is on a rather undefined form of leash. Probably a dogfish.

Just as with live-action narrative films, there are far more animated films out there with sharks in them than you might think. The reasons one does not often think of such things, outside of a commonly held public disinterest in the animated state of sharks, are probably many, but there are probably a couple of main reason that really sum up why sharks are really second – and even possibly steerage – class citizens in the cartoon world.

The first is that until relatively recent, there have not been any really big, recognizable, regular cartoon characters that were portrayed by sharks. That state changed somewhat in the '70s after Jaws made everyone gonzo worldwide. Along with the insane amount of merchandising available, both official Jaws products and just simply anything with a shark upon it, television too had to get into the shark game. Suddenly, there were two competing Saturday morning cartoon shows called Jabberjaw and Misterjaw with sharks as the lead characters. However silly those leads were, and even with the fact that one shark talked like Curly from the Three Stooges, breathed air, and played drums in a rock band (Jabberjaw) and the other shark wore a vest, bowtie, and top hat and spoke with a kooky German accent courtesy of Arte Johnson (Misterjaw), both characters were still quite recognizable as sharks. Jabberjaw certainly looked like a great white shark, albeit a supremely klutzy and cute one, while Misterjaw was supposed to be a great white, but really just looked like a generic shark (he was entirely blue; Jabberjaw at least had the white underbelly).

But, in the animated screen of the movie theatres for several decades, sharks were supporting characters at best, and mere local color if they were lucky. And not even on a regular basis, just a part here, and a part there. Usually in a beach, fishing, or pirate adventure, if that was the story the main characters had gotten themselves involved in that time, and if so, there might be a chance that a shark would show up as the main villain or as the henchman to the villain. Or at least turn up in a film for a quick gag or two if it was that type of picture, such as the kind Tex Avery specialized in during his early years at Warner Bros. But a shark would never get called on to carry a cartoon, because frankly, who was going to have a shark in a lead role? In a hero's role? Or even in a sympathetic role? Not a lot of call for sharks as best friends, then or now. (Cue Anchorman 2...)

And then there was a problem that rather plagued early animated portrayals of sharks through the first half-century of the late, sometimes great, more often not so, twentieth: just what exactly does a shark look like? It's a question that you wish early animators asked more often, because what constituted a "shark" in the '20s and '30s would not pass muster today. To be fair, the wonders of undersea exploration did not really open up to the public until post-World War II, which on the big screen was represented through the work of filmmakers and diving pioneers such as Hans Hass and Jacques-Yves Cousteau. Much of the ocean and its wonders were even more unknown to the general public than they are today, where we regularly hear that we have still explored only a fraction of the ocean's total depths. Well, it was even worse then.

I am pretty certain that you could ask nearly any school-age kid today to draw a shark and they would give you a fairly decent approximation of its general shape and its most commonly known features: the torpedo-shaped body, the jaws, the teeth, the pectoral fins, the rudimentary build of a tail area, and probably as prominent as the teeth would be the dorsal fin. (I've seen kids draw some crazy huge dorsal fins on sharks over the years.) I wouldn't hold your breath for pelvic and anal fins or second dorsals, but I think most kids would have the basic design down pretty well. And we all have an image of a shark drilled into our heads now, especially in the post-Jaws era. There can't be anyone that doesn't know what a shark looks like, right?

Pre-Jaws, pre-aqualung (not Jethro Tull, but Cousteau and his cronies), while sharks had certainly been scientifically catalogued for hundreds of years by that point, they were very much more creatures of mythic stature than anything else. They were known more by reputation than by physical presence in our lives, unless you happened to live either where they were regularly caught and sold, or liked to go swimming in the same places they did. Kids didn't cuddle up to stuffed shark toys in those days, but sharks were also not seen as monstrous killers, but more as a regrettable nuisance to be avoided when one took to sea. Then 1916 happened, when the series of famous shark killings in the Jersey Shore area occurred (five victims, but only four died, two of them inland), and suddenly sharks were headline villains du jour, especially the great white shark – for a long time considered to be the culprit, though it has been argued since that a bull shark was responsible for the three inland attacks in the Matawan Creek area. (That is my theory as well.)

While sharks definitely entered the public consciousness a bit more following such an incident, it doesn't mean that everyone got the memo. It doesn't mean that everyone took the time to do a little research into how sharks actually look or even that they really cared how they look. In a fantasy world where mice talk, fly planes, and fight giant cats with peg legs, does it really matter if a shark's dorsal fin looks more like a mere mogul on a ski hill than have a proper arch and come to a decent point? I don't find it unusual that a landlocked animator asked to draw a shark for a few seconds of a film would take massive liberties with the design of the creature, and just draw it in any manner that would work for the film they were doing. No one is going to these films for scientific accuracy, merely for pure escapism. Who cares if the dorsal fin is correct?

So that is where we are at the start of Salt Water Taffy, a 1930 short from Paul Terry's Terrytoons studio, directed by Frank Moser and Terry. It's a combination of sea-faring adventure and beach party flick, where a singing and dancing sailor sets up the action, disappears for most of the picture, animals of various species cavort in the waves and end up in silly hijinks, an octopus and shark show up to ruin the fun, and then the sailor rushes in to save the day and win the girl. If it sounds like fluff, that's what it is, but it is of a piece of many pictures of its day. If you can't find at least a little something to smile at in this, then you are in the wrong genre, buddy.

From the outset, we have to contend with that sailor fellow, who introduces himself to us aboard his ship (on which he seems to be the only sailor) via song, using the familiar tune of The Sailor's Hornpipe (which you probably know best from the Popeye the Sailor Man theme song):

“I’m Salty McGuire the gob, 
you’ll always find me on the job. 
When a ship’s in distress 
then who cleans up the mess?
Why, it’s Salty McGuire the gob!

We sail as we lead a rough life.
We eat our peas with a knife.
When the ocean gets rough,
that’s the time we get tough!
Oh, I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!”

In between the verses, Salty dances the traditional hornpipe, showing some fancy footwork, and when he sings about eating his peas with a knife, Salty demonstrates it immediately for us. (He's a true man of his word, that Salty!)

Elsewhere, a speedboat driven by a cat wearing a captain's hat zips along with eight other cats sitting in the back. The speedboat rides straight through a big wave and when it emerges on the other side, the eight other cats are left floating in the ocean while the captain and his boat speeds away. On the beach, scores of cats wave their arms in limited animation joy, with dim shouts of "Hooray" and "Woo hoo!" heard on the soundtrack.

A hippo waterskier, actually using a large plank of wood instead of skis, is being towed by a large, razor-backed fish. She flips off the board and does a somersault into the ocean. A monkey stretches out his comically long arms in a slow breaststroke but a bird passes over him and drops an anchor, for no logical reason, onto his head. The monkey sinks and we don't see him for the remainder of the film. An elephant cranks the engine on an outboard motor and the boat immediately takes off into the air, even with the elephant inside. The elephant eventually falls out of the flying boat but her skirt fills up with air around her like a parachute. She floats softly for but a few brief seconds, but then her skirt collapses, and she drops hard into the water.

Back on the beach, singing is heard emanating from inside a changing booth that sits atop a small cart. The booth stretches up and down, growing thinner and then fatter, as the unseen singer goes up and down the operatic scale. As each run reaches its apex, another piece of clothing is tossed out the window and onto a nearby clothesline. Then a lovely lady hippo emerges from the booth carrying a tiny parasol while she wears a one-piece bathing suit. She skips and sings "La la la" as she reaches the water’s edge. When she carefully dips a toe in, the tide rushes at her, so she runs backward playfully. When it goes out, she once more dips a toe, and then runs back again.

When the tide starts to leave, she leaps at the water, and ends up stranded on the beach, though, with her eyes closed blissfully, she thinks she is under the water, and she maintains a swimming posture while resting on her belly on the sand. A tall mouse passing nearby with a pair of oars takes the opportunity and strides up to the hippo. He climbs onto her back just as the tide rolls back in and uses his oars to propel her out into the ocean. He rows out to his boat, where he hooks a crane to the hippo and tries to lift her up out of the water, but her weight pulls down the entire boat and submerges it fully into the sea.

On land, another group of tall mice are holding a race on the backs of a group of turtles. One of them is a beautiful lady mouse wearing a swimsuit, who rides apart from the rest of the pack. Her faithful turtle steed ends up getting flipped over at one point during their ride. He acts frustrated as he climbs out of his shell to turn it back over, before climbing back inside it to continue the race. When they get to a small cliff at the water’s edge, three of the turtles and their riders leap into the water without pause. The fourth turtle, the one carrying the beautiful lady mouse, stops and then cranes his neck far out over the water so the lady mouse can use his head and neck as a springboard to dive into the water. When a boy mouse pops up near her out of the waves, the turtle turns his neck into a set of stairs so the boy mouse can climb up to perform his own dive. When the boy mouse does, he slams his head hard into the mud just underneath the too shallow water. His head gets stuck momentarily, and when he gets loose, the mud has formed a brick around his head, through which he blinks his eyes at the camera.

Ominous music plays as a large hat-wearing mosquito carrying a briefcase marches into the scene (he only flies briefly before picking up a nervous stride). He pops open his case to reveal a pencil sharpener, which he uses to sharpen his long, needle-like sucker. He stops his march again to open the case and this time use a razor strop, not just on his needle, but on his rear end as well. (Why? I don't know, since they have no stinger there.) In the distance is another supremely fat mosquito completely filled up and drunk on blood. He hiccups like a lush while the song The Bear Went Over the Mountain plays lazily on the soundtrack. The first mosquito runs up and rubs his hands in admiration over the fat mosquito’s belly. “Where did ya get it?” he asks, and the fat skeeter points to a sleeping elephant nearby.

While How Dry I Am plays on the soundtrack, the skeeter flies to the elephant and lands on his belly. He undoes the top of the elephant’s pants and lifts its shirt as well, and then circles around in the air a few times before determining the best space from which to suck blood. (Get your mind out of the gutter, you sickos.) Grabbing his nose, the mosquito turns his proboscis into a hand-drill to make a hole in the elephant’s tummy. After a few seconds of drilling, he pulls out a small can of oil to aid in the process. The elephant suddenly wakes up and smashes the skeeter with a single, swift blow from his trunk. The large mammal stands up and turns his back to the audience to fix his pants, turning his head shyly to the camera and fastens them finally to the tune of Shave and a Haircut.

We are whisked back to the lady mouse and the turtle, who are cruising along happily through the water on a joy ride. However, in this universe, octopuses are apparently evil and super grumpy and grumbly. And they also wear sailor caps and have a shoe on the end of all but one of their eight tentacles. They also apparently keep sharks as pets. I am guessing, in this case, that the shark is a dogfish (it does have a black button type of nose, entirely uncommon in actual sharks), since it seems to be on a leash held by the octopus as he strides along angrily beneath the turtle at the bottom of the ocean. We never see exactly why the octopus is so angry at the lady mouse. We just have to accept that he is, in the same way that we have to accept that the monkey that was pounded with the anchor in the head earlier didn't drown nor did the elephant who fell hard into the water after her skirt failed as a parachute nor did the tall mouse whose boat was submerged by the hippo earlier. We have to accept that none of these characters drowned to death, or else this film is far darker than one could ever imagine, and thus we also just have to accept that the octopus is either pissed about an earlier unseen transgression or he is just an all-day jerk.

The shark has a strange rounded bump of a dorsal fin, and certainly not what the modern viewer would perceive in their mind if they were told to expect a shark in this film. The octopus lets go of the shark's leash, and the snarling, snapping fish is allowed to swim free after the lady mouse and her turtle mount. The large shark rises to the surface, dwarfing the turtle, and frightening the lady mouse, who throws her arms up into the air and screams. But instead of riding off easily on the turtle, who is speeding along at a pretty good clip, she leaps to the side of the reptile into the water to swim directly in front of the shark (a tactical error, if you ask me).

Re-enter Salty McGuire the Gob, who has been watching the action from the deck of his ship through a spyglass. His craft changes directions by lifting directly up out of the water and spinning about 180 degrees, and Salty mans the cannon at its bow. In a perspective shot, he fires several shots at the shark as it swims in the distance. Three large cannon bursts are fired, each hitting their target, but it is the fourth one that does the job. Both the shark and the beautiful lady mouse are sent sinking unconscious beneath the waves. They both sink downward, but Salty dives in and rescues the girl and carries her to the surface. The shark continues to sink slowly until he finally lies belly up on the bottom of the sea floor, presumably dead.

Back on Salty's ship, the lady mouse comes to in her hero's arms and asks meekly, "Who are you?" He replies, "Me?" and then launches into a reprise of his opening song, this time with the lady mouse joining him in a dance...

"Why I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!
You’ll always find me on the job!
When the ocean gets rough,
that’s when I do my stuff
for I’m Salty McGuire the Gob!”

He dips the girl, she kicks her long mouse legs high in the air, and he gives her two hard, quick kisses. Iris out.

Salt Water Taffy is most episodic, mainly a series of blackout gags framed by the slight story of its sailor host, Salty McGuire the Gob. (And what is the deal with the absurdly long limbs on the tall mice in this cartoon? I guess to differentiate them from Mickey and Minnie to avoid a lawsuit from Disney?) As I mocked throughout the description, as long as you aren't too worried about closure surrounding the fates of certain characters, there isn't a lot to hang on about in this short. Silly, light fun for the most part apart from that drowning motif.

But there is a darker undercurrent to the picture and it involves its shark character, who seems merely like a pet, but unlike the monkey, the girl elephant, and the hippo, we do get to see the shark's fate – or at least a glimmer of it – through to what we presume is its end. (That grumpy octopus? Totally disappears once he unleashes the shark...) When the fourth cannon blast hits the shark and we are shown the long slow dive towards the bottom of the ocean by the shark and the unconscious lady mouse, the film shifts tone in a brief but jarring way. The intent of the animators is to show the heroics of Salty as he rescues the girl, but as they swim away, the camera follows the shark downward to the bottom, and dwells upon the giant fish as he flips about to lie prostrate upon the sand on the floor, belly up, a sure sign for its death.

They did not need to show this extension of the action sequence; after all, they quite noticeably did not show us the outcome of numerous other gags earlier in the film. But here there is such a focus upon the circumstances of the shark's demise that it is hard for me – and I certainly cannot speak for anyone who is not already attuned to feeling sympathy for sharks, whether or not they are considered villains or monsters – not to feel a little heartsick, not to get a little emotional in a film where otherwise I felt relatively nothing at all, not even laughter.

If there is anything that distinguishes Salt Water Taffy 86 years after its creation, it is this short sequence of the shark, that really doesn't look all that much like a shark as we would recognize one today, meeting its maker at the hands of a sailor mouse with ridiculously long limbs for a rodent of its nature. Since the shark represented a dog in the universe of this film, it is not hard for me to make an even further emotional leap in my mind. This turns Salt Water Taffy into a kind of Old Yeller of the 1930s for me. Luckily, the scene takes place underwater so nobody can see my eyes welling up with tears.

RTJ


***


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



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