Monday, April 21, 2008

Bullfights Aren't Funny

I unexpectedly scored a copy of Disney's out-of-print "Complete Goofy" DVD set the other day. Ebay copies are out of my price range and blood pressure levels, but I happened upon a copy that was just sitting around in a used CD store. This store did not have any other rare cartoon DVDs; in fact that was pretty much the only cartoon DVD they had.

The first cartoon I watched from the set was "For Whom the Bulls Toil", a 1953 cartoon that sent Goofy to Mexico and made him a bullfighter, something that every cartoon character was required to go through around that time. (I've always been a little sympathetic to Eddie Selzer for telling Chuck Jones that "I don't want a cartoon about bullfights, bullfights aren't funny," because the context was that every cartoon studio including Warners had put out a bullfighting cartoon in the late '40s and early '50s. And it really isn't that great a subject. Bully For Bugs was like Jones' personal challenge to himself to see if he could put a fresh spin on what was already one of the lamest, most over-used cartoon stories around.) Anyway, the reason I watched it first was that it was my favorite Disney cartoon when I was a kid, probably my favorite Disney cartoon period, short or feature. I saw it in a special devoted to Disney "heroes," a catch-all subject that allowed them to recycle this cartoon and most of Ben and Me (another childhood favorite) and The Brave Little Tailor and maybe some other cartoons that did not become childhood favorites and which I have therefore forgotten about.

Seeing it again, I still like it despite the slight lameness of the subject. (Having Goofy unwittingly fight a bull before he gets into the bull ring is at least a little twist.) One thing I like about it is that it is a story cartoon. I find that even after Pinto Colvig came back to the studio, Jack Kinney and co. had gotten so used to their narrator-driven format that they didn't always give us enough of Goofy as a character, as opposed to a living illustration of whatever the narrator was talking about. Some cartoons work great that way, like "Hockey Homicide." Others might have been better with less narration and more character comedy, especially since the narrator format places a huge amount of emphasis on the quality of each individual gag, and great gags were never Disney's greatest strength. Other early '50s cartoons as well as Woolie Reitherman's Xerox-fest "Aquamania" tried to bring back the Goofy character but made him too much of a generic '50s suburban dad character, Dagwood Bumstead with buck teeth. (Or any teeth. Does Dagwood ever show teeth? How does he eat those sandwiches? Anywho...) The bull cartoon is one of the few I've seen where he really sort of seems a little like the early Goofy, even though I suppose technically it fits into the befuddled middle-class suburbanite persona they were giving him at that time.

The other thing about "Bulls" is that it points up a big difference between Disney's shorts and other cartoon studios' shorts: Disney always went for a little bit of verisimilitude. They're not realistic, of course, unless giant mice and ducks are considered realistic. But there's often at least some attempt to get real-life details right. So "Bulls" has real Mexican music on the soundtrack, the Mexicans mostly speak real Spanish and a Mexican actor was hired to do voices, the look of the cartoon is meant to at least suggest what Mexico looks like. In a bullfight cartoon by Warners or MGM, the Mexican setting is important only insofar as it's an excuse for jokes, broken English (or fake Spanish), "La Cucaracha" on the soundtrack. Disney would tone down the jokes somewhat to make a cartoon feel somewhat more like life (and the characters somewhat more like people), which was sometimes a weakness in short cartoons but was important for features.


Anonymous said...

This cartoon's greatest virtues are it's excellent stylized background work. Like you said, gags weren't Disney's strongest point (although I find almost all of them appealing).

"For Whom" actually seems more like a "classic" Goofy short than the suburban shorts, probably because this is the last time in the shorts that Goofy would spot his classic uniform, with the clown hat, turtleneck, vest, slacks and oversized shoes.

And at least Goofy mostly looks like himself here. They didn't eliminate his ears or teeth, or pack 200 pounds on him.

J Lee said...

Ironically, the cartoon that must have set Selzer off -- since it was the only previous bullfighting cartoon done at Warner's post-Schlesinger -- was Art Davis' "Mexican Joyride", which I actually enjoy more than "Bully for Bugs" (Daffy solves the whole problem of inauthentic Mexican atmosphere in this one by asking the counterman at the Mexican restaurant for a bowl of borscht). It's hard to figure out what would have punched the wrong buttons for Eddie in this one, but it would explain why Davis' colleagues said he was never a confident director during his tenure at Warners.