by Rachel Newstead
Perfection is an elusive goal, and particularly hard to define in the medium of animation. There are so many factors to consider: character design, the storyboard, the timing, the gags (if the cartoon is meant to be funny), the music, the voice work. It’s an often delicate balancing act, combining all of the aforementioned elements in exactly the right proportions, in order to make something that’s not only enjoyable to watch, but which stands the test of time.
By those criteria, Hugh Harman’s Circus Daze, released near the end of his and Rudy Ising’s stint as independent producers, is as perfect a cartoon as any I’ve seen.
In a way, it’s as much a surprise to me as it must be to you; it’s not the funniest cartoon I’ve seen (Bob Clampett and Tex Avery pretty much have a lock on that category) nor is it the most frenetic (though it is still very much so, for its time.) Why, then, would I consider it to be a perfect cartoon? Quite simple.
I’ve found, as I’ve grown older and my tastes in animation have changed, that a cartoon no longer need be of the Tex Avery variety to attract my interest. I’ve seen, in my lifetime, literally hundreds of cartoons, hundreds of times each; when one views a cartoon that many times, it becomes easier to notice, and appreciate, certain subtleties in each one. I found myself starting to say, “I never noticed that bit of music on those few frames berfore (or that sound effect, or how well that scene was timed)…it really makes the cartoon funny….”
Further, in all the cartoons I’ve seen, regardless of era, studio, animators or director, the cartoons that approach perfection have these things in common:
First, they start slowly, and build to a thunderous climax. Tex Avery’s King Size Canary, for example, starts out innocently enough as a standard “cat vs. canary” cartoon–until he introduces the plot device of the stray bottle of Jumbo-Gro. From then on, the plot absurdities multiply in size as rapidly as our cast of characters–at one point, the now-gargantuan cat pursues a not-quite-as-gargantuan mouse–the mouse evades him by ducking into a train tunnel as if it were a mouse hole. It ends as each fights the other for control of the bottle, growing with every sip until, by the time they run out of “the stuff,” they’re precariously balanced atop a comparatively tiny planet Earth.
Circus Daze too starts slowly, with random scenes of a small-town circus, the sort we knew of long ago: in successive shots, we see–from a child’s eye view–a “test-your-strength” game as the customer rings the bell; a shot of a ragtag band (a clown band, perhaps?) playing lively music; a shot of a barker on the midway, enticing people to see his side show; a belly dancer; a group of trained horses circling in front of the camera; a cackling clown; a hot dog vendor cheating his customers. Into the excitement and the noise come Bosko, Honey, and their dog Bruno. Honey’s main preoccupation is with the animals; the first thing we hear when she enters the frame is her excited chatter, while Bosko’s main preoccupation is keeping Bruno under control. (With questionable success).
It promises to be an ordinary day for two kids at the circus, until this cartoon’s plot device–a tiny flea–starts to drive poor Bruno insane. One flea, however, isn’t enough to create complete havoc–it’s not until Bruno chases that one flea toward a flea circus containing thousands of them (and subsequently setting them loose) that all you-know-what breaks loose.
Second is how well the musical score complements the action: we all know how Carl Stalling at Warner’s used music to make an ironic comment about the action on screen; Scott Bradley would do much the same at MGM, even at this early date. In Circus Daze, when the tiny invading insects are unexpectedly unleashed on a clown orchestra, the conductor trembles–in perfect time–to the rumbling strains that begin the middle section of von Suppé’s Poet and Peasant. (A piece of music which also begins slowly, and builds to a thunderous climax). The action on screen becomes faster as the music becomes faster, the cuts more rapid, until the entire circus seems to collapse around our ears, and those of our confused protagonists. It’s so fast, and so sudden, that we feel winded.
It’s a day at the circus in Anytown, USA; the aforementioned opening, while not technically a montage, comes quite close, and is rather ambitious for the era. (Only Frank Tashlin at Schlesinger would attempt anything similar in this period. )*
One of the images in the opening, of a clown laughing maniacally as he swings from a trapeze, utilizes a type of shot Harman was extremely fond of using–having a character’s open mouth fill the screen in extreme close-up. (He’ll use it once more in a later scene, as we’ll soon see.) Why he chose to do this I never fully understood–perhaps he considered it an innovative way to “wipe” from one scene to the next–but it’s something prevalent in his work from his earliest days with Walt Disney, and despite its constant repetition, is strangely enjoyable.
This cartoon features Bosko and Honey, in their later MGM incarnation as little black children (more on that in my Concluding Thoughts); they enter the scene from behind a confused clutter of circus props. Honey skips along, carrying a red balloon, not so much holding Bosko’s hand as pulling him along, while Bosko’s being pulled from the other direction by a recalcitrant, off-camera Bruno on a leash. Honey’s chatter is excited, almost indecipherable: “Look, a hip-, a ‘hippopotusment!’ Look at the clowns–ain’t they funny…look at the big lion! Ain’t he fee-rocious!…”
Enter Bruno, who seems intent on seeing, tasting and smelling everything in the vicinity as Bosko unsuccessfully tries to pull him along; he continues to go his own way even after Bosko and Honey stop at the monkey cage, tangling poor Bosko up in the process.
Of the monkeys, Honey utters what is now her catchphrase: “I think they is simply ab-dominal!” The monkeys are engrossed in getting rid of a flea; so is Bruno, once the flea leaps out of the cage. Heedless of Bosko’s yells to stop, Bruno sets off after the flea, unwinding the rope around Bosko like a top–which sends him spinning into a nearby wooden vat of water. No sooner does Bosko climb out than Bruno heads off in the other direction, pulling Bosko face-first down into the vat again: “You…gon’…git…licked…sho’!” Bosko sputters.
Bosko gets dragged through the dust several feet as Bruno very nearly catches up with the flea–he swats at it but doesn’t catch it, as he’s interrupted by an irritated Bosko: “I’s…I’s re-zasperated!…Doggone, Bruno, is you is, or is you ain’t gonna behave yourself!…”
When Bosko orders him to lie down, Bruno inexplicably begins to speak as he whimpers in protest: “Awww, I never have any fun! Other dogs have fun….” This is another curious quality of Harman’s cartoons, the tendency to mix Disneyesque realism with the cartooniness of the days of “rubber house” animation. We’re so accustomed at this point to accepting Bruno as a “real” dog, it can be quite jarring when he suddenly starts speaking. Then again, perhaps that’s what Harman wanted–to build up one set of expectations through Disneyesque realism, then immediately puncture those grandiose expectations with cartoony slapstick.
Bosko, still indignant, sputters: “Y-y-y-you watch your step!” Unfortunately, he doesn’t watch his, and winds up right back in the vat of water.
Here we get what is perhaps the cartoon’s only truly regrettable sequence, as Bosko and Honey engage in a bit of minstrel-show patter:
HONEY: (laughing): Bosko, what’s the difference between you and a fish?
BOSKO: Well, I don’t know…
HONEY: A fish is all wet, silly…
BOSKO: Well, I’s all wet…
HONEY: Well, den–dere ain’t no difference!
This fortunately doesn’t go any further, as Honey is soon distracted by the monkeys, who grab her red balloon. She calls for Bosko to help; once they’re both absorbed in getting the balloon back, Bruno makes a break for it, renewing his pursuit of the flea.
The scene that follows is, I believe, is perhaps the most underrated of any in any Hugh Harman film, if not in all animation, as Bruno goes off swatting at the flea with his paw. Just when he thinks he has it, it turns up somewhere else; it plays the “old shell game” with Bruno a bit, appearing under one old peanut shell after another. It appears under one of Bruno’s paws, then another, then another, until Bruno finds himself with all paws in mid-air–and crashes to the ground. Bruno spins around until he’s dizzy; once recovered, he hears the flea mocking him from off in the distance (taunting “nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah,” in bicycle pump-sounding squeaks.) One notable gag: the flea at one point squeaks a five-note melody–”he’s-a-hor-se’s-ass!”–the same five note melody one hears in the Private Snafu cartoons.
Seeing this sequence I was struck by its similarity to that in a Disney cartoon made three years earlier, Playful Pluto, considered by animation scholars to be a watershed moment in the development of personality animation. In it, Pluto, pursuing a fly, gets his nose caught in flypaper. He tries to pull it off with his front paw, and it ends up on his paw. He tries to pull it off with the other paw, and it ends up on that paw, and so on.
Not only does Harman pull off a sequence that seems equally as good, he may well have surpassed it, as his sequence is faster-paced and funnier than Norm Ferguson’s Pluto scene, and serves as a warm-up to the chaos that’s about to follow.
The flea continues to lead Bruno on, running him around in circles several times; the action then abruptly cuts to Bosko and Honey, still at the monkey cage trying to free the balloon from the monkeys’ grasp. It should be noted here that in this sequence, Scott Bradley plays parts of Poet and Peasant, perhaps to foreshadow the action that’s coming.
When Bosko pulls the balloon free, it deflates and propels him backward into the clown orchestra–he weaves back and forth through them, toward, then away from the camera, in a dandy little perspective shot. (I believe, in a description of a similarly complicated shot in Disney’s Three Orphan Kittens, it was referred to as “moving-point” perspective.)
Bosko finally gets propelled in the opposite direction, then pulled back and forth by the slide of a trombone a few times before hitting the ground. In the meantime, the now-deflated balloon is re-inflating, courtesy of the clown trombone player–the balloon had been stuck inside the trombone. It grows to such tremendous size, it floats off into the air, carrying trombone, clown–and eventually Bosk0, who grabs ahold of the clown’s leg–with it.
Meanwhile, back to Bruno and the flea. The flea is still taunting him, making huge leaps forward which Bruno vainly attempts to match. One of his jumps, however, goes a little too high, and into the general vicinity of a flea circus–on which he happens to land. Hold on to your hats, because here we go…pay close attention, because one could go cross-eyed trying to follow this.
The resulting black cloud of fleas surrounds Bruno–he goes yelping off in the distance in an effort to get rid of them. We must leave him for a moment, though, because we’re back to Bosko, the clown and the balloon, all three of whom are soaring rapidly upward. While they’re doing this, we cut back to Bruno, who has his own problems, alternatively running, scratching, and batting at the huge cloud of fleas.
In his desperation to flee from the fleas (like that?) Bruno doesn’t realize he’s heading straight into a cannon–and before he gets a grasp of what happened, both he and the fleas are shot skyward. In an instant, poor Bruno is propelled across the length of the big top, just inches ahead of the cloud of fleas. He passes by Bosko, the clown and the ever-expanding balloon, grabs the clown’s pants–but can’t hold on.
Bruno and fleas land inside a clown musician’s tuba–the clown lets loose with a couple of huge blasts, which has the effect of spraying the huge mass of fleas all over creation.
It’s here that we come to the cartoon’s high point, as the clown conductor vibrates in agony to the rumbling notes of “Poet and Peasant.” His arms flail about as he madly “conducts”, swiping desperately at the fleas.
Another clown drums in rhythm to the music on the sound track, only to be beset by the fleas himself, writhing and scratching.
Of course, while all this has been going on, Bruno is still stuck in the tuba, and the oblivious clown musician is still tooting like a fiend to get Bruno loose, and still completely unaware of the flea plague he’s unleashing on the entire circus.
In yet another instance of cartoony impossibility in this otherwise very Disneyesque cartoon, the clown’s tuba expands to an impossible width as the pressure builds up inside it, eventually expelling Bruno. Bruno is shot forward, where he runs headlong into a banner, which stretches to that wonderful “bwoooong!” noise on the sound track–the sound effect that’s as much a part of Harman cartoons as Bosko himself.
When the banner snaps back, it sends both Bruno and fleas crashing into Bosko and the clown, who are still in mid-air. As Bosko and the clown fall to earth, Bruno gets his neck caught in the trombone’s slide–and is shoved backward into the now-huge balloon. Bruno, unlike Bosko and the clown, gently floats back down to the ground (his neck’s still caught in the trombone slide) spraying fleas as he goes. He appears to have a goofy expression on his face, or he’s not quite conscious, as if knocked senseless–it’s hard to tell from my print.
The clown is the first to land, then Bosko, then a shower of random instruments, then finally–and inevitably–the fleas.
As Poet and Peasant picks up pace on the sound track, Bosko and the clowns follow suit, scratching so violently they seem to whirl suspended in midair. We now see the effect of the fleas on the entire circus, as we get quick gag shots of Jo-Jo The Dog-Faced Boy biting away at his own rump; an elephant breaks free of its chains, settling back on its rear and rubbing its stomach violently with its forelegs (a move as amusing as it is anatomically impossible). With every passing second, this very realistically-rendered elephant becomes more and more of a cartoon, standing up on its hind legs like a human, even putting its front legs between its back ones to scratch its own rear. As with Bruno speaking, it’s funny in a strange way, because it so violates our expectations.
The elephant runs directly toward the orchestra pit, where the clowns are still fighting off the biting menace themselves. When it lands, the clowns, fleas, Bosko and all are propelled into the air again. Bosko lands on the trapeze and swings from clown to clown, bumping into one stray instrument after another, before finally being caught in one clown’s accordion. It snaps him toward the clown with the tuba, which propels him upward even more–until he hits a bass fiddle. Desperately trying to cling to its strings, they unfortunately give way, sending him down again. His fall, this time, is broken by a giraffe, whose neck is more than a bit distorted by the experience. (Does anyone else find it strange that Harman would use the sound effect of a bleating sheep to represent the sound of the giraffe–which technically, can’t make a sound?)
By now, it’s total bedlam–cages are twisted pieces of metal as the writhing animals burst their way out of them; we get quick wipe dissolves of clowns, monkeys, animals, Bosko, all jumping around as if they were on fire. A “laughing hyena” cackles hysterically as it scratches; a charging rhinoceros splinters the tent’s support beams; the clown we saw laughing maniacally at the beginning of the cartoon is still laughing maniacally, albeit for a far different reason. Even the two-headed alligator from the freak show can’t stop scratching itself (themselves?)
We get a possibly unnecessary repeat of the previous actions–animals scratching, clowns scratching, Bosko scratching–in a series of wipe dissolves that could easily lay claim to being a legitimate montage, if the scenes at the beginning could not.
An elephant charges straight for the camera–and us, the audience. As with the clown, it’s mouth soon fills the screen as we wipe to…
…Bosko, with Honey in tow, dodging animals and speeding circus wagons to escape the disaster. A tiger even leaps over Bosko’s head, for just an instant.
Honey, had she been like any other creature in the universe, would have been frightened half to death, but instead she considers it all great fun. Bosko, again, has only one concern: “Where’s Bruno?” he says.
We quickly find out where Bruno is–being unceremoniously booted from the premises, as he whines “What’s the idea? I didn’t do anything…”
Before he can say any more, he’s thrown headlong onto the “Test Your Strength” meter, and the cartoon ends as it began–with the ring of the bell.
Bosko is little-remembered today by all except animation historians and the most ardent fans; those new to the character might be surprised to learn that there are, in fact, three Boskos.
The first is the bouncing, singing, ever-smiling, Mickey Mouse clone, always ready with a song or dance, the little “inkspot” character that launched the Looney Tunes in 1930. When Harman and Ising left Warner’s three years later, they took Bosko with them, and it’s that Bosko we see in Hugh Harman’s first two MGM cartoons, Bosko’s Parlor Pranks and Hey Hey Fever.
In these cartoons, he continues pretty much as before: Bosko’s Parlor Pranks, in fact, is little more than a redrawn Looney Tune with the addition of color. In Hey Hey Fever, he bounces through Mother Goose Land, teaching the inhabitants some good old Depression-era self-reliance. All to music, of course.
But artistic styles change, and when Disney began moving away from the “rubber hose” character, so did every other animation producer, Harman and Ising included. At the Harman-Ising shop, we begin to see an increasing, if awkward, realism in cartoons, and that new attitude was reflected in Bosko. He, and eventually Honey, would be “reborn” as regrettably stereotypical little black children, starting with Run, Sheep, Run (1935).
The third, and final, incarnation comes with the so-called “Bosko Trilogy”. Honey is no more; Bosko is now a very little boy with a very big imagination, dreaming all manner of adventures as he walks through the woods. In a curious return to his roots, he’s now a very musical character once again, leading a group of humanized, jazz-loving frogs in swinging little production numbers.
All have their merits, but Kevin and I share a particular affection for the “second Bosko”, the one we see in Circus Daze, Run, Sheep, Run, The Old House and Bosko’s Easter Eggs. As we’re both fans of the Hal Roach Our Gang shorts, we can’t help but notice certain similarities between the above cartoons and their live-action counterparts. Both evoke a more innocent time, when circuses such as the one seen in Circus Daze were an event in any small town. Kevin more than once has compared the wilder sequences of Circus Daze to the “undercranked” scenes in the Our Gang shorts, in particular to a 1926 silent film called Thundering Fleas. As with Circus Days, a swarm of fleas gets loose, this time invading the person of one Oliver Hardy (sans Laurel).
I regrettably have no copy of Thundering Fleas on which to base a comparison (but will get one, rest assured). But based on Kevin’s description, with the aid of the undercranked camera, Mr. Hardy moves at the same breakneck speed as Bosko and the clowns, tearing off his pants to get at the little pesky insects. It would be fascinating to see Hardy’s 300-pound frame, scratching and writhing so rapidly as to seem to rise off the ground.
It has always amazed me how well-constructed Circus Daze is–the framing device of the “Test Your Strength” bell is a rather nice touch. Like a boxing match, the bell here signals the beginning and end of a total free-for-all, though the opponents here are barely large enough to see.
As I said in the beginning, perfection is an elusive quality. Unfortunately, artistic recognition is equally so; Circus Daze represents a huge step forward, both for Harman and Ising and animation in general. But it’s rarely seen, will never be restored, and will likely fade from memory, because of the unfortunate stereotypes of another time. When it and other cartoons like it finally deteriorate beyond repair, they’ll take a huge chunk of film history with them. And future generations will never get a chance to look beyond the uglier aspects of our history, and see these cartoons for the masterful little films they are.
*Harry McCracken’s blog, “Scrappyland”, quotes Paul Etcheverry as saying that two Columbia “Scrappy” cartoons by Art Davis (Let’s Ring Doorbells and The Puppet Murder Case) preceded both Harman and Tashlin in using montage, but not having seen either cartoon, it’s impossible for me to verify this statement.
(3/5/10: Tightened up the writing in what I felt were rather clunky passages).