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?



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