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#233 (Vol. 2 #5): CUNNING CANINES

cic-fox-01One of the animated films nominated for an Academy Award this year is live action director Wes Anderson’s venture into stop-motion animation, Fantastic Mr. Fox. This is based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book, which draws upon the traditional characterization of the fox as a trickster, which goes back to Aesop’s fables and the European tales of Reynard the Fox. Other wild members of the dog family likewise have appeared as tricksters, notably the coyote in Native American mythology, and sometimes the wolf.

Thinking about Hanna-Barbera’s 1960s animated trickster Top Cat for a forthcoming installment of this column led me to consider another example of the canine trickster: Top Cat’s predecessor at Hanna-Barbera, Hokey Wolf. Baby Boomers may find this chilling, but 2010 marks Hokey Wolf’s 50th anniversary. Yogi Bear (another trickster) had originally appeared in cartoons in The Huckleberry Hound Show; when Yogi got his own show, Hokey Wolf was created to take over his spot on Huckleberry Hound, from 1960 into 1962.

Hanna-Barbera’s TV cartoons and characters often seemed to be inspired (to be kind about it) by other characters, actors or series. But in Hanna-Barbera’s better work, they reworked the concept in such a way as to make it uniquely theirs. Hence, for example, The Flintstones is essentially Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners transplanted to a Stone Age suburbia.

cic-stang2I think that even as a child I recognized that Top Cat was inspired by the TV series that was originally called You’ll Never Get Rich but was retitled The Phil Silvers Show, and familiarly known as Sgt. Bilko. When I first saw Top Cat, Phil SIlvers was still a prominent figure on television, and Bilko was in syndication. Bilko was Silvers’ signature role: a fast-talking sergeant in a motor pool on an army base who endlessly devised money-making schemes. Aided by his crew of corporals and privates, Bilko continually bamboozled authority figure Colonel Hall and numerous other dupes, and his plans often became elaborately successful before usually collapsing due to some twist of fate. (After all, the title was You’ll Never Get Rich.) Bilko was a classic example in pop culture of the comedic con man; W. C. Fields and Groucho Marx played variations on this sort of character in most of their films. Probably a major reason for Bilko’s success was his role as an army sergeant in a time when most of the adult men watching TV were veterans of either World War II or the Korean War: Bilko was their hero, defying the frustrations and limitations of military life they well remembered.

cic-fox-02Beyond that, Bilko was a mid-20th century version of an archetypal figure in comedy, the trickster. Top Cat is so appealing and memorable a character because he is such a well realized version of this perennial comic figure. (I have previously written extensively about tricksters in my “Comics in Context” columns about Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, his novel on the subject.)

Hanna and Barbera had already introduced a Bilko-like character, Hokey Wolf, on The Huckleberry Hound played by Daws Butler in a voice that did not duplicate the sound of Phil Silvers’ voice, but caught his rapid-fire delivery, his self-confidence, and his outward friendliness while moving in for the kill with his sales pitch. Indeed, animation historian Mark Evanier notes that Hanna and Barbera initially intended Butler to play Top Cat, presumably using the Hokey Wolf voice.

Whether legally or not, the Internet has proved to be a vast library of the history of animated cartoons, and enabled me to watch some Hokey Wolf cartoons for the first time since my childhood. I was impressed by Hokey at his best, concocting schemes that reflect the adult world more than I had expected in cartoons that were aimed primarily at small children. (As usual, I issue spoiler warnings.) For example, in Tricks and Treats the hungry Hokey pretends to have his foot injured in a steel trap set by a mild-mannered farmer.

Hokey has his hero-worshiping sidekick Ding-a-Ling (voiced by Doug Young) take photographs, and threatens to use them as evidence when he sues the farmer. Taken aback, the farmer agrees to let Hokey recuperate in a bed in his house, if Hokey will drop the lawsuit. So, as Hokey had planned, he and Ding-a-Ling get to freeload at the farm. Eventually the farmer discovers that Hokey is faking and gets out his shotgun, but Hokey had the foresight to devise a backup plan. Representatives of the Humane Society show up, taking more photographs, to praise the farmer for taking such good care of the injured wolf.

But seeing these cartoons again as an adult, I was struck by the darker implications of the cartoons that I had completely missed as a child. These are comedies dealing with “funny animals.” But in this cartoon Hokey is really pretending to be a cripple. Do children stop and think of how much the “teeth” of that trap on his foot could hurt? And when the angered farmer gets out his shotgun, isn’t he intent on killing Hokey? There is a grimness here underlying the comedy.

Consider the ambiguous status of “funny animal” characters in animated cartoon series. At one end of the spectrum are characters like Disney’s Pluto, who are meant to be more or less real animals, lacking human-level intelligence or the ability to speak. On the other hand, Pluto’s owner, Mickey Mouse, not only can talk and think like a human being, but is accepted in society as if he were human: he owns a house, he holds jobs, and so forth. And then there are characters who are somewhere between these poles. For example, Yogi Bear is “smarter than the average bear”: he has a human intellect and can talk. Yet Ranger Smith treats him as an animal who is supposed to obey the rules set down by humans in Jellystone Park, or else he’ll get shipped to captivity in the St. Louis Zoo.

Many of these characters are essentially humans in animal form. The tension between the “human” and “animal” sides of the characters is often essential to the cartoons. Since Bugs Bunny is an animal, Elmer Fudd has license to shoot him when it’s “wabbit season,” yet since Bugs is essentially human, it would seem like murder if Elmer succeeded in killing him. (Indeed, typically when Elmer is tricked into thinking he has killed Bugs, he is overcome with guilt.) And so we in the audience root for Bugs to outwit Elmer.

In the cartoon Who’s Zoo Hokey Wolf and Ding-a-Ling declare themselves to be “hungry” and looking for food.

Though outwardly animals, they act like humans, talking, wearing clothes, walking on their hind legs. Hokey may be jauntily dressed in straw hat and bow tie, but he and Ding-a-Ling have no visible means of support. If they were humans, they would be tramps. Though Daws Butler endows Hokey with a lighthearted manner, when Hokey admits to being hungry in this cartoon, Butler makes him sound serious indeed.

Hokey and Ding-a-Ling arrive at a city zoo and realize that the “dumb animals” living there are well fed (”We should be so dumb,” notes Hokey, in a somewhat bitter tone). So most of the cartoon consists of Hokey trying unsuccessfully to get a huge steak away from a captive lion. Finally, Hokey shifts strategy: since he and Ding-a-Ling are wolves, they simply take up residence in the wolves’ cage at the zoo. The cartoon ends with Hokey rattling a cup against the bars of the cage, as he explains to Ding-a-Ling that in “prison movies” doing this always gets the guards to bring the inmates food. It’s a rather ironic end to the cartoon. Sure, we may be used to thinking of wolves kept captive at the zoo. But Hokey and Ding-a-Ling are also like people in animal guises, and they have chosen to sacrifice their freedom and become prisoners behind bars in exchange for being fed.

I was taken aback by another Hokey Wolf cartoon, Hokey Dokey, in which Hokey encounters the Three Little Pigs.

Like Frank Tashlin’s The Fox and the Grapes (1941), this is another cartoon exercise in metafiction. In Hokey Dokey Hokey knows the story of the Three Little Pigs and decides to create his own sequel to the tale; at the cartoon’s end, Hokey even consults a book to reread the original fable.

This is hardly the only animated cartoon that deals in revisionist versions of well known fairy tales. At this time Jay Ward had already been doing Fractured Fairy Tales and Aesop and Son on the Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show for years. Moreover, there was already a long history if cartoons that not only parodied the classic Three Little Pigs story but also Disney’s landmark Three Little Pigs cartoon (1933). In Hokey Dokey the bricklaying pig wears virtually the same outfit as his Disney counterpart. Among the previous cartoons that created variations on Disney’s Three Little Pigs were Tex Avery’s Blitz Wolf (1942) and Three Little Pups (1953) for MGM and Friz Freleng’s Pigs in a Polka (1943) and the jazz-scored Three Little Bops (1957) for Warners.

Presumably because they are protagonists of cartoons for kids, Hokey and Ding-a-Ling are not predators. Early in Hokey Dokey, Hokey declares that his goal is not to eat the pigs but to con them into giving him the brick house, since he and Ding-a-Ling need a place to live in the winter months.

Hokey’s strategy is startling for what is purportedly a kiddie cartoon. He poses as an insurance company agent, investigating the mysterious disappearance of the Big Bad Wolf, and making it clear to the pigs that he suspects foul play. The three pigs deny everything, but are clearly shaken. In the traditional end of the Three Little Pigs’ story, the Big Bad Wolf slides down the chimney into a cauldron of boiling water and perishes. Disney let the Wolf escape, but it is clear in Hokey Dokey that the pigs believe that they killed the Big Bad Wolf. Now Hokey is treating them as murder suspects. Interestingly, Hokey refers to this as a “double indemnity” case, suggesting that the cartoon’s writer (Michael Maltese, perhaps?) was thinking of Double Indemnity–James M. Cain’s 1935 novella and Billy Wilder’s 1944 film.

After intimidating the Three Pigs by playing insurance investigator, Hokey dons a sheet and impersonates the ghost of the Big Bad Wolf. This is a rather macabre stunt, and it works. Guilt-ridden and frightened of retribution, the Three Pigs pack up and leave, telling Hokey that he can have the brick house if he wants it.

In the end, like Disney, Hanna and Barbera can’t kill off the Big Bad Wolf: he turns up, alive and reformed, and turns the tables on Hokey.

So here is an early Hanna-Barbera TV cartoon that works on two levels, for children and for any adults who might be watching. Apart from the Three Little Pigs dealing with their guilt over seemingly committing with murder, there is also Hokey and Ding-a-Ling’s motive for trying to trick the Three Little Pigs out of their house. Hokey and Ding-a-Ling are homeless. For an instant even a child watching this cartoon might visualize Hokey and Ding-a-Ling shivering in the snow if they cannot somehow find shelter. Hokey may be amusing, but the motives for his actions in these two cartoons–hunger and homelessness–are not funny at all.

Fifty years after Hokey Wolf’s debut, writer/director Wes Anderson went much further in applying an adult perspective to the trope of the talking trickster animal in his recent stop-motion animated film Fantastic Mr. Fox.

This is an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book of the same name, which treats its talking animals in a relatively conventional manner: the animals have human intelligence and can talk among themselves (although humans apparently don’t understand their language), but they still roughly follow the lives of animals.

Anderson’s movie, however, seems very much a reinterpretation of Dahl’s material for an adult audience. In the film, the animals not only talk but wear full sets of clothing. The lead character, Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, works as a newspaper columnist. The character Badger, voiced by Bill Murray, is a lawyer. Anderson himself voices a weasel who works as a real estate agent. (Supply your own joke here.) It becomes apparent that the animals comprise a community that parallels human society. In Dahl’s book Mr. Fox steals chickens from the local human farmers, Boggis, Bunce and Bean, because that is what foxes do. In Anderson’s film Mr. Fox reverts to stealing chickens as a result of what New York Times critic A. O. Scott aptly terms “something of a vulpine midlife crisis.”

As in Dahl’s book, the human farmers retaliate by trying to hunt down, starve and exterminate the foxes and the other animals. But if the animals are just like humans, then the farmers are effectively attempting to commit murder. One could easily interpret the clash between the hunters and the animals as a metaphor for class warfare, with the rich attempting to eliminate the poor–or, actually, the middle class, since Anderson’s animals have respectable bourgeois professions. Perhaps one could even interpret the farmers’ war on the animals as a metaphor for racism, with the farmers attempting to commit genocide by wiping out those beings whom they consider to be their inferiors. (Watching the film, it struck me that the chickens are not presented as having human intelligence; if they did, then arguably the foxes who eat them would be guilty of genocide as well!)

Although it is intended for an audience of children, Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox in effect justifies theft: the readers’ sympathies will clearly be with Mr. Fox and his friends and family, not with the farmers who are out to destroy them. Dahl portrays the farmers as particularly nasty, so they seem to deserve to have the foxes steal chickens from them. But moreover Dahl seems to be saying that the foxes are justified in stealing from the wealthy farmers, who have far more than they need. Hence, Mr. Fox is something of a Robin Hood figure, especially when he provides stolen food for the community of animals.

In Anderson’s version, Mr. Fox reverts to stealing chickens apparently as away of recapturing his youth, when he did that all the time. This may serve as Anderson’s metaphor for youth’s rebellion against the system, and the film seems to argue that middle-aged members of the middle class are likewise justified in rebelling against a system controlled by the rich and repressive. Beneath the trappings of a children’s fable, complete with talking animals, Anderson has disguised a rather radical point of view.

Casting George Clooney as the voice of Mr. Fox works well in this interpretation of Dahl’s story for adults. Following the example of Phil Silvers, Daws Butler’s Hokey Wolf deals in the fast talking hard sell. Arnold Stang’s Top Cat isn’t as hyperactive, but he, like Hokey, overpowers his target with a barrage of verbiage. Clooney has a smooth way of speaking that also proves suitable for trickster characters, as the Coen brothers recognized in their film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Clooney’s more laid-back screen persona suits a more mature version of the trickster, one that is also capable of emotional vulnerability, which is what Anderson’s Mr. Fox becomes. Moreover, Clooney conveys the calm and cool that separates the trickster from many of his hot-tempered, violent opponents, like the farmers in this film.

I will have much more to say about classic tricksters in cartoon art in near future installments of “Comics in Context,” including Top Cat and one of the greatest characters of this sort in comics, Popeye’s pal J. Wellington Wimpy.

-Copyright 2010 Peter Sanderson

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