Friday, December 31, 2010
The Last Post of 2010: Potty Humor and Animal Conflict...two very early "Tom and Jerry" stories (Our Gang Comics 6 and 7, 1943)
This first story, from Our Gang Comics #6, brims with Stanley's distinct energy, comedy and sound effects. It also features what may be the comics' first unabridged view of the American bathroom--complete with a visible toilet which prominently features in the action.
The commode was a big no-no in mainstream media. Animated cartoons made before the Production Code show us glimpses of it, as do feature films such as King Vidor's The Crowd (1928). The loo was something that existed, and was a part of every American's daily life. It simply wasn't shown in our mass entertainments. Not too often, anyway...
Did you notice the box of "Kelly's Liver Pills" in the first panel of p.3? Western's comics creators were unanimously fond of dropping one another's names in their stories. Kelly, Carl Barks, Dan Noonan and Stanley are the most frequently referenced.
Much of the charm of Stanley's "Tom and Jerry" stories occurs when the mice Jerry and Tuffy explore the mystifying world of mankind. Their cat-like curiosity brings them to the bathroom, where they encounter a sentient electric razor (an image reminiscent of Chuck Jones' 1939 cartoon Naughty But Mice), the tub, sink, various perfumes, powders and potions and, finally, the verboten commode.
Toilets were the thing people didn't talk about in popular culture. To this day, movies, TV and popular fiction assiduously avoid showing this common everyday item. Think of it: when was the last time the hero of a TV show stopped to relieve himself in a restroom?
Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho shocked 1960s audiences with its dead-on, confrontational views of a hotel commode (a device that figures prominently in one of the movie's plot points, as it does in this T&J story). The sight of a commode in post-Production Code movies are tangential and fleeting.
Perhaps out of naivete, Stanley gives us fearless toilet comedy in this story. The commode's lid is conveniently removed--the better for the mice to frolic around its innards.
This is one of the funniest and broadest of Stanley's early works. Even tho' the shock value of the potty has long worn off, the bathroom antics of the mice are genuinely ticklish. Stanley SFX trainspotters will relish the unique occurrence of "UFFLE!" on p. 4.
As I've noted elsewhere, there is a strong tie between Stanley's earliest comics work (1943-46) and his most realized, mature material of the 1960s. A major agent in Stanley's mature work is the fearless incorporation of broad, knockabout physical humor. Stanley got away from physical comedy in the most high-profile portion of his career, the Lulu Years (1947-1959).
There is a great deal of physical comedy in Little Lulu, but it's much tighter and more reined-in than the wild, limb-thrashing business we see here, and, later, in Dunc 'n Loo and Thirteen Going On Eighteen.
Those who eschew Stanley's early works might rankle at this statement, but it's true. This very brassy physical farce-comedy is the meat and potatoes of Stanley's late, mature work. The main difference is the issue of narrative stakes.
The 1960s Stanley was a seasoned comics writer who understood the intricacies of status, action and reaction and the plot-point pyramid. He used these tools as their master.
In 1943, the stakes are much lower. In a life and death scenario, none of the characters take their roles really seriously. Jerry and Tuffy don't really fear being caught and eaten by Tom. Tom is an a-hole aggressor who gets his kicks toying with the mice, while striving, in vain, to retain a higher status in the household. The stereotyped Mammy maid holds the upper hand. Hers is the power to shoo them all away or tolerate/ignore them.
Stanley's comedy--and its vivid energy--carry his early stories. From the start, he was a very witty writer--more so than Barks, and certainly Kelly's equal, if not occasionally his superior.
Stanley's next T&J story continues in this vibrant, humorous bent. This story contains one of the first occurrences of a Stanleyism: spots-before-the-eyes. These occur time and again in his later work, to connote dizziness, confusion, stunned silence or sickness.
Both these stories include some of Stanley's earliest YOWs.
Rare references to current events occur in this story. In the last panel of p.3, Tom quips, "I don't need any ration coupons to eat you guys!" Jerry's smart-crack in the succeeding panel is lost to 2010 (or 2011) readers. Even I, seasoned viewer of wartime Warner Brothers cartoons, didn't understand the significance of Jerry's retort.
You can read 1943 a letter at this blog that mentions the no. 17 rationing coupon, and tells that it was for the purchase of leather shoes.
In another, more fatalistic wartime reference, on p.4, the mice mistake a wooden toy soldier for an Allied front for their predator: "WE'RE SUNK! Tom's got the U. S. Marines on his side..." This offers a hint of the rodents' self-acknowledged status as societal outsiders. I'm sure that effect was not consciously intended by Stanley when he wrote this story.
The repetitive staging seen here is one of Stanley's most-used storytelling devices. As seen in the sequence of p.4, panels 5-6 and p.5, panels 1-2, the fixed viewpoint serves the comedy by heightening the futility of the tethered rodents' efforts.
Throughout the story, fixed viewpoints sustain comedy sequences. This is another strong tie to Stanley's mature work. Once again, the 1943 Stanley uses this device with some authority, but is clearly still learning the ropes of comics. The 1963 Stanley would use the fixed viewpoint to highlight his characters' failures, embarrassments, emotional shifts and status gains/losses.
It is fascinating to me to see that the young Stanley had access to the same tools that would so distinguish his late, most masterful work. Stanley grew into them, and made them an essential element of his storytelling, rather than expressive garnishes to rowdy, bright farces.
My Febreze-activated coughing and sneezing has increased during my work on this post. I'll celebrate the New Year with NyQuil. I hope you toast 2011's arrival with a more pleasant beverage, and that this new year brings us all more pleasing results than did '10.