Thursday, 8 August 2013

Zap the Cat

The two-strip Technicolor that cartoon studios (except Disney) were forced to use for a few years toward the middle-1930s was pretty limited, but it provided the highlight in “The Discontented Canary,” the first cartoon Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising released under MGM.

It’s a typical colour cartoon for 1934. A little creature is threatened by a more menacing creature until the menace is stopped. Normally, it’s by friends or cohorts of the little creature. But there are none in this cartoon. Nature does it instead.

A cat is chasing the little canary in the middle of a storm.

For reasons of pure plot convenience, the cat’s tail gets wrapped around an Acme Lightning Rod. The cat doesn’t notice.

Lightning hits the lightning rod.

The lightning travels down the rod and zaps the cat. The reddish skeleton—two-strip Technicolor only produced shades of red and green—is the best part.

The cat kind of deflates, jumps up, rolls around a bit and runs away. Meanwhile, a lightning bolt strikes a weather vane, which morphs into the word “Scram.” It’s really the only gag in the picture.

Cartoon studios—especially Warner Bros.—would milk this dull formula over and over. MGM’s animation became more fluid and elaborate while doing so, but Warners finally decided enough was enough and start developing the gag cartoons and characters it’s known for even today. No one remembers a discontented canary.


  1. The first few Happy Harmonies feature characters that are both extremely detailed and extremely ugly and unappealing. No wonder they opted to revive Bosko in his WB design, if ever so briefly -- at least his design was easier to get across.

    It is a credit to Hugh and Rudy's studio that the animation got better as fast as it did, but as Mike Barrier noted in Hugh Harman's second stint at Metro, the animation was always there as much to impress as it was to entertain. Warners wouldn't reach technical proficiency at at least the pseudo-Disney level until the 1940-42 period, but even well before then their cartoons were more fun to watch than what was coming out of the MGM stable.

  2. The later stuff was art for art's sake. It's interesting to look at but I don't particularly find it entertaining. Same with later Disney. Or much of UPA.
    On the other hand, I really like McKimson's subtle "death scene" animation in the Bugs debut because it fits the story and it's how you'd expect Bugs to act.

    1. The 'button eyes' on Elmer and a few extra lines above the brow are the only thing that looks 'old-style' in McKimson's death scene animation. The cartoon may not have been as fluid as what would come two years later at the studio, but "A Wild Hare" is one of the first WB shorts where you feel like the animation is loose and not holding things back, and Bob Givens' designs on Bugs and Elmer convey only the detail necessary to get the gags and personalities across while losing that 'lumpiness' that 30s Schlesinger characters had to deal with.

      Compare that to the MGM efforts of the time, where the animation may be technically better, but Hugh and Rudy lather on so many details on the character that aren't needed to get the story across. The characters feel weighed down by all the lines which are there to impress the viewers with that Disney-like "illusion of life" (In contrast, the designs in the first few Happy Harmonies come across more as smoothly animated Color Classics than anything Walt's studio was doing by late 1934).

  3. I'm tempted to guess that the "characters that are both extremely detailed and extremely ugly and unappealing" (thanks J Lee) represent Harman's or Ising's personal drawing style, as unadorned by the work of slicker assistants. Decades later, Harman's bare-bones TV project "Sir Gee Whiz" has exactly the same look, right down to characters' eye design.