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Monday, February 11, 2013

GEP Best of...: Movie Penguin Monday

Giant Electric Penguin has had several sister sites over the years (The Food Compendium, The Lamest Stories Ever Told, Matt Lawson's Field Guide to Erotic Elves, etc.), but the only one that ever "took off" in any significant way was Movie Penguin.  I enjoyed writing the reviews featured on Movie Penguin, but I ultimately decided to discontinue the blog.  I've kept Movie Penguin around as a semi-regular feature though (Movie Penguin Monday, of course!), and this review, originally posted 12/12/2011 is one of my favorites.

Speaking of having too many blogs to handle, my new blog, The Shallow Grave, will debut later this year.  This one will stick around because it's attached to a larger project I have in the works.  But, anyway, now is not the time for that, now is the time for this.  Merry Christmas!

It's Christmastime and you want some appropriate holiday fare, right? Well, what could provide your family with more Christmasy fun then a collection of moldy old cartoons from the 30's, 40's and 50's, purported to be certified classics? Turns out, almost anything else actually.

I expect a certain level of quality when I see the word "classic" attached to something. Classics are stories everybody loves; tales we grow up knowing as if they were part of our very DNA. I can't pinpoint the exact moment I heard the story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for the first time, I simply knew that when the air got cold and my dad lugged our Christmas tree out of the basement, it was time to start singing about Christmas's most unlikely little hero. Rudolph is a classic character and, as far as TV specials go, you don't get any more classic than Rankin/Bass's stop motion triumph, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. That was my favorite part of Christmas growing up. Sure, I used to be deathly afraid of the Abominable Snow Monster and hide behind the couch whenever he lurched across the screen, but I loved every minute of it. Unfortunately, the version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer that opens Christmas Classics Vol 1 is not the Rankin/Bass one. I'm not sure who put this one together, but I have a theory that it was belched up half-formed from the pits of Hell. I'm probably way off. It is a theory after all.
This Rudolph is not featured in Christmas Classics Vol 1. Sorry, everybody in the world.

In Classics' version of Rudolph, reindeer have conquered the Earth, a la Planet of the Apes. The reindeer walk on two legs, celebrate religious holidays, and maintain their own Roman-style coliseum, I assume for gladiator fights, though we only see it used by Santa (the last surviving human being on the planet???) to thank Rudolph for guiding his sleigh through the fog.

I know what you're saying: "If there are no more humans, who is Santa delivering presents to?" Easy. Other animals. On the aforementioned foggy Christmas Eve, Santa is seen dropping presents off for all manner of woodland creatures, none of them even remotely human, unless wearing pajamas makes a bunny rabbit a tad human-ish. Sorry, Jack, but we don't exist in this nightmare world. Santa is the only one with memories of humanity's past. What he chooses to do with this knowledge, we may never know, but this seems as good a time as any to discuss Santa's house.

In "Rudolph," Santa lives in a cliffside fortress like Skeletor. It's creepy. When his drawbridge opens into the yawning maw that is the pitch black crevasse that protects his castle from the bloodthirsty animals who've eradicate humankind but have continued to live in our now empty cities and adopted our methods of dress and two-legged locomotion, I half expected some sort of Dracula-style Santa-bat to soar into the night sky. Like Man-Bat with a fluffy white beard and a sack full of toys.

While "Rudolph's" Santa hangs out in digs more appropriate for a Bond villain, the Santa in our second cartoon "classic" lives a bit more humbly (see also: North Pole trash). In "Santa's Surprise," Santa's house is revealed to be nothing more than a shabby, cluttered chalet. The kitchen sink is piled with dirty dishes, soiled laundry lies in stinky piles here and there, and Santa sleeps in a twin bed much to small for his immense girth. Luckily, a collection of kids from all over the world have smuggled themselves onto Santa's sleigh and as soon as the fat man is asleep, they break in and start cleaning up the joint. It's kind of sweet. Oh, and totally racist.

To be fair, "Santa's Surprise" was made in 1947, so many of it's racist overtones can be forgiven, but is there really a reason the little girl from Hawaii had to be topless? One, I've been to Hawaii and I've watched women hula dance. While it is true that they wear grass skirts, it is not true--as far as I saw--that their breasts are exposed. They wear bikini tops or, I guess in extreme cases, coconut shells. Two, this particular little girl is in the North Pole. She's wearing a grass skirt and, literally, nothing else. How is she even alive? Yes, Blacks and Asians are both represented cruelly and unfairly, but for Pete's sake, let the little Hawaiian girl put a damn shirt on!

"Santa's Surprise" also marks the first appearance of Little Audrey, but who gives a shit. This thing is racist-er than hell.
Another recurring theme in the cartoons that make up Christmas Classics is extreme poverty, usually associated with orphans. Yes, apparently in the old days, orphans were abandoned in shabby wooden shacks and left to, I don't know, die, I guess. Grampy--one of Betty Boop's regular co-stars--happens by one of these orphan death cottages in "Christmas Comes But Once A Year." Before ol' Grampy enters the picture, a houseful of orphans awake on Christmas morning to a roomful of beautifully wrapped presents. It's a Christmas miracle! The orphans have too many toys and stuffed animals then they know what to do with! It doesn't take long, however, to see that the toys they've been given--presumably by Santa Claus, as there appears to be no adult supervision whatsoever--are cheap and shoddily built. Everything falls apart and the orphans collapse into fits of crying. Grampy sees this pitiful display, lets himself in through the kitchen window, and builds new toys for the orphans, using common household items. Items, I might add, that the orphans need to prepare food. The only food in the orphan shack of sadness though seems to be popcorn, which Grampy uses to make garland. All the orphans are happy and appreciative. My guess is that they all died shortly after Grampy's visit, having no food or anything else. Oh, Grampy.

"Christmas Comes But Once A Year" opens with the most depressing rendition of "The First Noel" you've ever heard. Couple that with crying orphans and you'd got yourself a recipe for a holiday suicide.

The less said about "Snow Foolin'," the next cartoon on the program, the better. I will quickly mention that it does feature an ice-skating, cigarette-smoking penguin and a seemingly endless "Jingle Bells" sing-a-long. Also, a chicken calls one of her eggs "hen fruit." Have you ever heard that before in your life? Hen fruit? Ick.

The next cartoon, "Hector's Hectic Life," concerns a dog named Princie who must keep three precocious puppies in line or else he's out in the streets, which led me to the question, "Who the fuck is Hector?"
I've already mentioned my love of Rudolph, but who are some other beloved Christmastime characters. You've got Santa. Frosty the Snowman. Buddy the Elf from Elf. Baby Jesus.

How 'bout Jack Frost? Anybody clamoring for more cartoons about him? I wasn't, but we get one here. I'm not entirely sure what makes 1934's "Jack Frost" a Christmas classic. Christmas isn't mentioned once, in fact, there's an entire scene featuring singing Jack-O-Lanterns and a scatting scarecrow. There is a dude with a beard, but he sure ain't jolly. Old Man Winter is depicted as a leering, drippy ghoul who tortures animals just because he can. Of course, the animal he chases around during the cartoon is a whiny, irritating baby grizzly bear who thinks he's better than everybody else. Stupid baby grizzly.

After Jack Frost saves the day with this magical paint brush, it's back to unsupervised orphans and blatant racism. In "The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives," a pants-less waif is visited by a tubbier-than-usual Santa Claus with singing Tourette's. Santy whisks the orphan away to his haunted workshop and things get pretty racist pretty fast. The cartoon ends with Santa's haunted toys and his guest orphan setting fire to a Christmas tree. They all perish in the fire and Santa collapses into the snow, sobbing, until he dies of exposure.

Nah! I'm just joshing! The orphan puts the fire out with a bagpipe full of water. What a resourceful orphan!Christmas Classics Vol. 1 wraps up with a cartoon I've seen many times that never fails to depress the shit out of me. Seriously, have you seen "Somewhere in Dreamland?" This thing is dire, man. That being said, I actually kind of like this cartoon, though I have no idea why it's been included in this collection.

The story opens with two destitute children collecting firewood in town. They are dressed in rags--the boy doesn't even have shoes on his feet and it's snowing!--and some local merchants feel all bad about it and stuff. The brother and sister return home to their mother--phew! no orphans for once, though that mother of theirs doesn't exactly look well--and enjoy a dinner of stale bread and water. Then it's off to their sad little beds with their moth-eaten blankets. The brother and sister sing a dumb little song to each other about hooking up in Dreamland and then--BOOM--we're there! Dreamland is a wondrous place with fields of ice cream cones, a syrup river, and all the doughnuts, cake, candy, and popcorn a growing child could ever want. Because that is what starving almost-orphans want: junk food. Anyway, the kids wake up to a kitchen table full of food, including a freshly roasted turkey, donated by the aforementioned merchants. The kids go straight for the sweets however. Don 't eat those sweets, almost-orphans! You'll rot out whatever teeth you might have left in your oozing, infected gums.

I had the same thought at the end of "Somewhere in Dreamland" this time that I always do: That's nice of the local butcher, baker, and toy-maker to provide this poor family with delicious food and fun toys, but are they going to do it every day? It's not like after this one meal, these kids will never need to eat again. And what's going to happen when their mother inevitably dies of starvation? She looks like an emaciated Olive Oyl! What, is Santy gonna pick them up and drop them off at his racist toy shop for the night? That place is a tinderbox, man! What happens if the tree gets set on fire again and there aren't any bagpipes handy? This is what I think about at night.

(Christmas Classics Vol. 1 also features a reading of "The Night Before Christmas," but by that point, I couldn't take anymore.)

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