by Rachel Newstead
Buddy The Gee Man
Release Date: Aug. 24, 1935
Director: Jack King
In Short: In his very last appearance, Buddy’s one of the Feds, and investigates a prison warden who hates music. An act, of course, unforgivable in a Buddy cartoon….
Say the name “Buddy” and “Looney Tunes” in the same sentence to an animation fan–try it. I dare you.
But before you do it, I highly recommend a good, solid industrial headset to drown the resulting eardrum-liquefying screech of outrage.
Let’s face it, of all the Looney Tunes characters, Buddy is not only the last one we’re likely to remember, but the one we most want to forget.
But how fair is that, really? It’s something I never really gave much thought, until this recent e-mail question from Kevin:
…do you really think that Buddy is a wholly uninteresting character? I guess I’m getting more out of the soundtracks than you are out of the visuals….
Such a simple question, yet so difficult to answer. Kevin has an annoying way of doing that with his questions, making me ask myself why I like what I like. I mean, there are Buddy cartoons I actually enjoy, but the character….
I suppose the best answer would be “yes”–with qualifications. I do think Buddy is completely uninteresting, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I dislike the cartoons that feature him. They can be quite enjoyable, almost despite themselves. But they would be just as enjoyable, I think, if Buddy weren’t there.
Characters like Buddy, the products of an escapist era Kevin likes to call the “wide-eyed ’30s,” were only the nominal stars of the cartoons in which they appeared. The real star, the cartoons’ reason for being in the early sound era, was the music.
And what music! The Fleischers’ soundtracks alone, aided by the New York studio’s easy access to the top jazz artists of the day, hardly need mentioning. The Disney Silly Symphonies were created as experiments in combining music and images, and elevated both to new heights. The cartoons Harman and Ising released through Leon Schlesinger–particularly the Silly Symphony-knockoff “Merrie Melodies”– were meant to promote the vast Warner Bros. music catalogue. And they made good use of it.
The early Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies might never have reached the heights of Disney or Fleischer, but the scores could sweep the audience along on a wild musical roller coaster. Witness the drunken, hallucinatory joyride two characters take through town in You Don’t Know What You’re Doing (1932), in which both sight and sound seem to get knocked completely askew as we experience the whole thing from their inebriated point of view.
So it was only natural after the departure of Harman and Ising that the newest Looney Tunes star, Buddy, would be a song-and-dance man, as had Bosko before him. Buddy and his girlfriend Cookie sang and danced their way through such early efforts as Buddy’s Beer Garden, Buddy’s Day Out, and Buddy’s Circus–bouncy little musicals meant to capitalize more on the novelty of sound than on what the characters are actually doing.
But just as live-action films began to shift away from plotless musicals, so too did animated cartoons. Cartoon characters became less of an animated entertainer and more the participant in an actual story. Over at Disney, Mickey finds himself fighting (however humorously) pirate Peg Leg Pete in order to protect Minnie in Shanghaied (1934); at Fleischer, Popeye would begin a long series of battles with Bluto for the hand of Olive Oyl.
Meanwhile, at the Schlesinger studio, the Buddy cartoons–under the direction of former Disney animator Jack King–began to take on an air of adventure. He’d save a little Chinese girl from being sacrificed in Buddy The Gob, encounter a friendly dinosaur in Buddy’s Lost World, and rescue his girlfriend Cookie from the clutches of a Svengali-like mad musician in Buddy The Detective. Music still figures prominently, but it’s merely part of the plot, not the plot in itself.
Yet even though Buddy takes a more active role in King’s cartoons than in the cartoons of other directors, he’s still little more than a prop–it’s the supporting characters that steal the show, even in what is inarguably the best of the Buddys, Buddy The Gee Man.
It’s a strange little hybrid of a cartoon, combining the mini-musicals of a couple of years earlier with the mini-adventures King did so well. For that reason, it’s easily my favorite of the series. But as was the case with my favorite Bosko cartoon, Bosko In Person, the best unfortunately turned out to be the last.
Our hero, here perhaps the country’s shortest Federal agent, is assigned to sneak into “Sing Song” prison and investigate conditions there. Ah, but there’s no singing at Sing Song–warden Otto B. Kinder (yuk yuk!) has banned it from the premises, not even allowing four prisoners to indulge in a nice little close-harmony rendition of Al Dubin and Harry Warren’s “Lulu’s Back In Town.” (The old meanie!)
Buddy and his pipe-smoking detective dog “Gee Man” sneak into the prison just as the police deliver “Machine Gun Mike”, a tough bulldog. (It’s odd how Buddy seems to be the lone human among humanized animals, isn’t it? Maybe he should have worn a dog suit instead of a false mustache.)
What they see is about as bad as they expected: the warden’s motto, printed on a poster on his office wall, is “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY!” (In a prison?
While Buddy furiously scribbles notes, we look in on a few of the prisoners:
Machine Gun Mike gets a letter from what he thinks is his girl, but it turns out to be a chain letter (not too different here from a present-day pyramid scheme). Such schemes proved quite popular in the cash-strapped Depression, reaching the height of their popularity at about the time this cartoon was released. They were decidedly less popular with the overtaxed postal workers who had to deliver them….
When the prisoner in the next cell laughs at him, the warden overhears and bellows: “Quiet!! No laughing around here!”
The gravelly voice of the inmates sounded strangely familiar; on investigation, I found it belonged to a fellow named Danny Webb, who I’m quite certain did a similar voice in several Walter Lantz cartoons (the sergeant in Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy Of Company B, for one). The voice of the character in the Lantz cartoon sounds identical to the one heard here. The warden, of course, is perennial bad guy Billy Bletcher.
Cut to a prisoner in the yard, catching a nap while lightly tapping the rocks he’s supposed to be breaking, with a ridiculously tiny hammer. The warden hands him a normal sledgehammer and bellows for him to “get to work!” The not-too-bright prisoner almost succeeds in cracking the warden over the head with it, and somehow manages to smash it on the rocks. The warden’s none too pleased, and forces the prisoner to chip away with the tiny hammer again.
In the meantime, Machine Gun Mike decides to find better accommodations, so he tries to send himself over the wall by shooting himself out of a cannon. The cannon simply backfires, causing the irritable warden to hand him a pick and growl “Get to work!” During all this, Buddy and “Gee-Man” happen to be watching.
Buddy types up his recommendations to the head of the department, and we next see a screaming headline:
BUDDY MADE WARDEN!
The next thing we see is Buddy yelling “Is everybody happy?” to a cheering crowd of prisoners. (I’m almost certain this crowd scene would be used in a later cartoon, but I couldn’t determine which one). New warden Buddy has transformed the prison into something resembling a resort, serving ice cream to the convicts; prisoners get their shoes shined while their nails are cared for by a pretty manicurist. The place is so much fun now, even tough Machine Gun Mike burns up his pardon papers to stay there.
The four gentleman silenced by the former warden sing Buddy’s praises to the tune of the earlier song, “Lulu’s Back In Town”; once word gets out that “Buddy’s warden now!”, criminals are actually clamoring to get in. The last we see of this cartoon–and of Buddy–is a scene of him holding up a “NO VACANCY” sign.
I hate to be the pessimist here, but I have a feeling Buddy’s new career as warden lasted about as long as his career in cartoons….
When the year 1935 began, I doubt any animator on the tiny Leon Schlesinger studio staff had an inkling they would soon turn the world of animation inside-out: revolutions are often hard to recognize when one is part of them. But that’s precisely what they would do–by the end of that pivotal year, they would have a new star character (Porky Pig), a new animation director (Tex Avery) and the first glimmers of a newer, crazier approach to humor. The studio that began 1935 imitating Disney would, by the end of that year, be well on its way to its future position as the studio that others imitated.
Revolutions, however, are not without their casualties; Buddy would unfortunately be one of them, and the innocence of the “wide-eyed” era would not be long behind. Audiences would no longer be satisfied with characters bouncing to a cheery little song–they wanted to laugh, and they wanted characters that did more than give them something to look at on screen while the music played.
More’s the pity, because this is a terrific cartoon. One comes away wishing there had been more musical numbers in the cartoon, as the “Lulu” number was quite entertaining. There aren’t many gags to speak of, though I did like one near the beginning: Buddy spits on a horseshoe for luck, tosses it away, and shatters a mirror, a situation liable to give the superstitious brain cramps. If a lucky horsehoe breaks a mirror, do they cancel each other out? That’s almost like a Stephen Wright joke (he’s the comedian who once said, “I bought some powdered water, but I didn’t know what to add…”)
I can’t say I’m clamoring for the return of Buddy. But I do wish today’s cartoons had the vitality of the cartoons of the “wide-eyed” age.