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Dec. 5 – The Captain’s Christmas

The Captain’s Christmas premiered December 17, 1938

Did you ever wonder where those speech balloons in comic books came from? Maybe you just assumed they were always there, but they actually originate from a comic strip titled The Katzenjammer Kids. The strip was created by cartoonist Rudolph Dirks and it debuted in newspapers in December of 1897. It was incredibly popular for its time, and after Dirks jumped ship from the Hearst Organization, he was forced to continue the strip under a different name: The Captain and the Kids.

The Captain and the Kids ran in newspapers all the way until 1979 while Hearst actually continued The Katzenjammer Kids into the new millennium. Neither series has a ton of name recognition these days since print cartoon strips are all but dead, but for its time period The Captain and the Kids was quite popular. Popular enough that when MGM was looking to get into the cartoon making business, it turned to the franchise and some now familiar names served as directors: William Hanna, Bob Allen, and Friz Freleng. Despite the strip’s popularity, the cartoon series was viewed as a flop. After roughly a year and 15 cartoons, MGM put an end to The Captain and the Kids and turned its attention to other projects.

During its brief run, The Captain and the Kids did manage to bestow upon us one Christmas short: The Captain’s Christmas. The Captain (voiced by Billy Bletcher, best known as the voice of Pete from the Mickey Mouse shorts) is the star of the shorts and as his name (title?) implies he’s a sailor, only he’s shipwrecked and has taken to a role of surrogate father for the local kids. His rival is the pirate John Silver (Mel Blanc) who causes trouble for the Captain. The twins Hans and Fritz, basically the real stars of the strips, are present but take a back seat to the Captain. Their mama, who is just referred to as Mama (Martha Wentworth), is another supporting character. Thirteen of the fifteen cartoons were presented in black and white, with The Captain’s Christmas being the first done in Technicolor.

The cartoon, directed by Freleng, opens with a shot that appears to be from the vantage point of someone looking through a telescope. A stereotypical pirate voice narrates the scene of a snow covered town and children hanging stockings in their warm house. The Captain then comes into the picture dressed as Santa Claus with a cow dressed-up as a reindeer pulling his sleigh. We then see our narrator is John Silver, and if I didn’t know Mel Blanc was performing his voice I wouldn’t have guessed it. He thinks he’d be a better Santa than the Captain, and the three sailor stooges around him agree, and we have a plot!

The poor guy is just trying to do something nice and he winds up with three guns drawn on him on Christmas Eve.

The Captain rigs up a pulley system to hoist his “reindeer” and sleigh onto the roof feeling this is required to complete the stunt. The little pirate henchmen then show up behind him and hold him up. This allows Silver to jump in and strip the Captain of his Santa disguise and commandeer it for his own good. Silver Claus grabs the rope the Captain was holding and as the cow falls from the roof, he goes up. The others are left to panic momentarily before the cow lands on them.

This Santa is a god damn maniac!

On the roof, Silver has some trouble getting his barings. He has a peg leg after all, which can’t make navigating a snow-covered roof easy. He slips and goes tumbling into the chimeny, which breaks apart and then messily re-assembles itself as he falls in. In the house, Mama and her boys are forced to scramble as “Santa” comes tumbling in. The boys are pretty pumped to see Santa in their house, though Silver is a bit out of sorts at first. He soon remembers what’s going on and then whips out his pistol and starts blasting in celebration of his arrival. He even blasts open the sack full of toys and they all come spilling out looking no worse for ware. And upon first inspection, none appear to be racist – it’s a 1930’s cartoon Christmas miracle!

Damnit…

Silver continues his jaunty celebration and then turns his attention to the blond boy (I don’t know which is Hans and which is Fritz) who is playing with a dancing, marionette, toy. Unfortunately, the toy is horribly racist so there goes our Christmas miracle. And then to rub salt in our eye wounds, Silver starts shooting at the toy’s feet to make it dance more violently which is in incredibly poor taste (what little I know of this comic strip though makes it apparent there’s a lot of problematic elements that wouldn’t fly today). The other pirates watch from the window as Silver continues to get out of control even swiping a tricycle from one of the kids declaring it’s his turn to play with it.

Look at this asshole! It’s not enough to steal the kid’s bike, he’s gotta hang him from the tree too.

Silver rides around the room on the bike, and while he does he gets a reprimanding look from a jack-in-the-box which is rather clever. He ends up crashing into a bunch of toys though and winding up on some horse toy. The pirates outside make a reference to The Lone Ranger as Silver continues to smash through the house leaving carnage in his wake. He eventually comes to rest atop a pile of broken toys and the remnants of the family’s Christmas tree. As he has a good laugh, he looks around and realizes he’s the only one laughing.

I hope you’re proud of yourself, Impostor Claus!

The kids, devastated that Santa showed up only to destroy everything, are weeping and Mama looks distressed as well. Silver immediately starts to feel bad as he’s soon accosted by his inner child who appears beside his head similar to the old devil/angel gag. As the child berates him, he soon begins to sob as he realizes he’s ruined Christmas for these lads. The child asks him how he plans to fix this mess and then whispers a suggestion into his ear. Silver immediately perks up and heads out.

I’ve heard of worse ideas, I suppose.

In the snowy town, Silver is pulled down the streets by the cow from earlier. He comes to rest in the center of town, and pulling out a little tuning fork, tells the other pirates he intends to secure those kids a big, barrel, of money. They then go into song, “Hang Up the Holly in the Window,” but the town does not reciprocate with money. John reasons they need to do it better, so they restart the song only this time at a faster tempo and an overall more cheerful vibe.

I think this is what got the crowd on their side.

The townsfolk do not respond in kind to this livelier version and soon start tossing all manner of junk from their homes in a bid to silence the troupe. For some reason, everyone is dressed as Santa Claus too. Eventualy they start throwing larger objects like a piano, freezer, and even a bathtub which the boys have some fun with. As the song moves along, they start getting pelted with toys as they row the bathtub down the street. Soon, they have enough toys to fill the sleigh, and John Silver instructs his would-be reindeer to head back to the house he massacred earlier.

Incoming!

Inside the home, the Captain has joined Mama and the boys as they rush to the fireplace because they hear a commotion. Soon a barrage toys comes rushing in like a tidal wave burying the home in goodies. The kids are happy, and even the adults don’t seem to mind the incredible amount of toys they’ll be stepping on for months.

Well, at least there do not appear to be any racist toys this time.

Outside, John Silver looks through the window and seems quite proud of himself. His inner child from earlier shows up again to congratulate him, and even plants a little kiss on his head. John Silver laughs and appears to be genuinely happy with himself as the short comes to an end.

John Silver gets to be happy with himself in the end, so happy that he imagines a child version of himself giving him a kiss.

The Captain’s Christmas is a simple little short that manages to tell a unique Christmas story. Even though it’s titled The Captain’s Christmas, it’s really John Silver’s Christmas as the trickster and glory hog commandeers the Captain’s surprise and gets to present himself as Santa Claus. He comes across as a jerk, but apparently a well-meaning one as when he realizes he did a bad thing he sets out to make it right. And conveniently, he’s able to and ends up giving the kids an even better Christmas than they would have had, if we’re simply going by the volume of toys they received. It’s fine as a tale, though John Silver is the only worthwhile character as he dominates everything.

They probably should have called this series The Misadventures of John Silver.

The Captain and the Kids may have failed as a cartoon series, but it doesn’t appear as if budget had anything to do with that. It’s quite competently animated by MGM, though the actual short basically forgoes any credits. If IMDB can be trusted, this short was animated by George Gordon, Emery Hawkins, Irven Spence, and Jack Zander, all of whom enjoyed lengthy careers as animators. Future household name Joseph Barbera wrote this one, and as mentioned earlier, Freleng was in the director’s chair. The coloring on the short looks great even today, and I’m assuming no one bothered to remaster this one. I don’t think I’d call any of the visual gags truly memorably, but few stuck out as cliche for 1938 so it at least has an original feel to it.

This cartoon looks good enough, and there’s some solid Christmas imagery as well.

Ultimately, The Captain and the Kids was a failure of a cartoon series and I suppose it’s because it wasn’t truly memorable or stand-out. Everything that is here, be it the music, voice acting, animation, is all fine, but it feels like this was MGM figuring out the medium before going onto bigger and better things. It’s nice though to have a Christmas short that isn’t just two parties battling around a tree or one that’s just a visit from Santa in which nothing exciting happens. There’s some conflict here, a little slapstick, and someone is even moved by the holiday into doing something good. It checks all the boxes, just without any exclamation points.

In short: it’s fine.

It probably will not surprise anyone when I say The Captain’s Christmas is very easy to come by should you wish to watch it this year. Warner Bros. owns the copyright now, but isn’t very protective of it. There’s also no comprehensive release of The Captain and the Kids on DVD, but you can find this cartoon on The Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 6 as a special feature on disc two as part of a Friz Freleng spotlight. Since that comes with three other discs of classic Looney Tunes shorts, it obviously comes with my recommendation. If for some reason you don’t want to own Looney Tunes shorts, you can also stream this one for free with minimal effort. Seriously, just type it into YouTube.


Dec. 15 – Bugs Bunny’s Looney Christmas Tales

Bugs_Bunny's_Looney_Christmas_TalesOnce upon a time, Bugs Bunny was a big enough star to land numerous television specials. He’s still a recognizable character across the world, but I sometimes feel as if Bugs isn’t as loved as he should be. I can’t recall the last time I saw him standing next to a Warner Bros. logo in front of a film. I just feel like he should be on the same level as Mickey Mouse and Disney does a much better job of promoting their mascot than Warner.

In 1979 Bugs returned to the small screen for a Christmas special. Unlike some other Bugs TV specials, this one wasn’t just a collection of previously released theatrical shorts but a collection of all new shorts with an obvious Christmas theme. It features the most recognizable of Looney Tunes as well as the voice of Mel Blanc. It’s broken up into three acts that are each different shorts:  Bugs Bunny’s Christmas Carol, Freeze Frame, and The Fright Before Christmas. Fritz Freleng directed the book-end shorts as well as the joining segments while Chuck Jones handles Freeze Frame.

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Our carolers for the evening, no Daffy is pretty disappointing.

The special opens with Bugs leading some other Looney Tunes characters in some carols before we’re whisked away to an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. In this, Bugs is sort of the narrator, but he’s also a part of the story as Fred and Jacob Marley. Yosemite Sam is Scrooge and Porky is Cratchit. Tweety is the Tiny Tim character, though he’s not really essential to the story. Bob asks Scrooge for some coal, which Scrooge denies because he gave him a piece last Tuesday (Disney will kind of steal that line). Fred, Scrooge’s nephew, is there to wish his uncle a Merry Christmas with the carolers and notices Bob’s predicament. When Scrooge tosses him out, Fred swipes a piece of coal and gifts it to Bob. Scrooge’s cat, played by Sylvester, sees this and alerts Scrooge who tosses everyone out and fires Bob. Bob thanks Fred, even though he did kind of get him fired, and invites him over to his home for dinner. There he meets the rest of the family and sees how little they have. A knock on the door is from a man with the light company and he comes in and takes the family’s candle. Another knock is from the bank – Scrooge is foreclosing on the mortgage and kicking the family out tonight. That’s one harsh lender.

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You know what they say about a fool and his money.

Bugs takes it upon himself to teach Scrooge-Sam a lesson uttering a popular Looney Tunes line of, “Of course you know, that this means war.” He returns to Scrooge’s house to first annoy him with carolers. Then he throws snow in his hot bath. To really scare him straight though, he dresses up as a ghost and convinces Sam that he’s his deceased former partner Jacob Marley. Rather than run through the usual past, present, and future routine, Bugs is able to just get to the point by threatening Scrooge with eternal damnation. It’s enough and Scrooge heads over to the Cratchit house to set all the wrongs right, though he’s not particularly happy to do it. Once done, it’s revealed to be a sort-of play and Sam assures Bugs he’ll be getting his money back. Wile E Coyote and Roadrunner look on from outside the house, which leads us into the next segment.

The Coyote is busy researching road runners (book title “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Road Runners but were Too Afraid to Ask”) and discovers they love deserts and hate snow. One ACME snow-seeder later and the Coyote is buried under a pile of snow. Every time he tries to use the snow generator it just drops a pile on him, even when he takes shelter in a cliff face it just shoots the snow horizontally. Realizing that’s a dead end, he resorts to the tried and true method of switching two road signs, one pointing to the desert with one pointing to a snow summit. The Road Runner falls for it and ends up on a frozen pond unable to get much traction. The Coyote is ready with a pair of speed skates and calmly skates a circle around the Road Runner intending for the bird to fall through the ice. Of course, the ice under the Coyote drops instead out leaving the Road Runner floating on a circular piece of ice. He runs in place and creates an outboard motor effect to escape the trap.

Screenshot1-2Next the Coyote uses rocket-powered skis to chase the Road Runner while some subtle Christmas music sets the mood. The two become buried in the snow with only their tails exposed. In a repeat from an old Bugs Bunny short, the Road Runner’s tail splits in two when he approaches a tree there-by allowing him to go around the obstacle, while the Coyote possesses no such ability and merely crashes into the tree. He then acquires a dogsled with a team of 12 92lb dogs guaranteed to run-down any road runner. Turns out, the dogs also love coyotes and they maul him. Had he checked the invoice more thoroughly he would have noticed. Next comes what’s probably the Coyote’s worst idea of the short – he rides a rocking horse like a sleigh while wielding a Road-Runner Lasso. All he does is entangle himself in the lasso while the rocking horse plunges off a cliff. It has the misfortune of landing on some train tracks. You know the rest. The Coyote then makes a giant snow ball he intends to crush the Road Runner with. He just ends up getting stuck to it and when it rolls towards a cliff he falls with the snowball close behind. He pops out of the snow looking like Santa Claus and holds up a sign wishing the viewer a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

We go back to the carolers and Bugs is still leading them in song when his nephew shows up to remind him that he owes him a Christmas story. Bugs informs him that he’s going to tell him all about Santa Claus and the night before Christmas. We’re then taken to the North Pole where Santa is speaking offscreen about getting a move on. High above an airplane soars by and the pilots are discussing their cargo – a tasmanian devil. The cargo falls from the plane and Taz ends up landing in Santa’s suit which was hanging out on a clothes line. He ends up in the sleigh (six reindeer, grrrr!) and the reindeer take off.

Clyde_in_Bugs_Bunny's_Looney_Christmas_Tales_02Back in Bugs’ home, or his nephew’s, he’s reading the little bunny A Visit From Saint Nicholas when a sound on the roof causes his nephew to get all excited for Santa. Bugs sends him to bed while Taz jumps down the chimney and lands in the roaring fire below. Bugs cracks some jokes at Taz’s expense, but invites him in for a snack. Taz is eager for food and not only does he devour Bugs’ milk and cookies but the entire table as well. Bugs then reads him his nephew’s Christmas list while Taz sets to eating the decorations on the Christmas tree. Eating the lights cause him to get electrocuted, but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. Bugs suggests he sit by the fire so he can make him some popcorn, but Taz eats the kernels before Bugs can get the popper and the heat from the fireplace causes them to pop in his stomach. He starts to wreck the place, and Bugs sets up a gift exchange booth and gifts Taz a present – a self-inflating rubber raft (I expected TNT). Taz eats it, and when it inflates he floats away.

Bugs’ nephew Clyde wakes up disappointed that Santa didn’t bring him anything. Bugs assures him everything will be all right and they set out to return Santa’s sleigh. As they soar through the air Bugs wishes us a Merry Christmas. Back from the break, the Looney Tunes are sleighing along and singing carols when Taz decides in to eat their sleigh. That’s basically the end and they must have only tacked on this final segment so Porky can chime in with his signature good bye, only he stammers his way through “Happy Holidays” instead of the usual.

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Mmm, lights.

Bug’s Bunny’s Looney Christmas Tales is pretty underwhelming for the old rabbit. A lot of the gags have been done before, and the animation is definitely television quality as opposed to move theater quality. Of the three segments, the middle one, Freeze Frame featuring the Road Runner and Wile E, is probably the best. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s a solid Road Runner short with just a dash of Christmas thrown in. Yosemite Sam as Scrooge makes a lot of sense, but it’s still a tired tactic to adapt A Christmas Carol. At least  the light department gag is probably the best joke in this one and probably the only time I laughed out loud. Tweety is essentially wasted though. And where’s Daffy? Did someone think he and Bugs could not co-exist in the same Christmas special? Is Daffy too big a star to play second banana to Bugs?

Watching this one, I inevitably feel compelled to come back to the Bugs and Mickey comparison. While Mickey was given Mickey’s Christmas Carol, yes a trope to adapt that story but done so well it’s probably my favorite adaptation of it ever, Bugs was gifted this. It’s unfortunate. While it’s true the format of a typical Bugs short doesn’t lend itself to a Christmas tale quite as easily as the more adaptable Mickey Mouse, they still could have done better. Why not have Bugs just wind up in the North Pole and his antics there mess up Santa’s plans or something? We don’t need to make Bugs more wholesome, we just want to laugh and get in a little Christmas cheer at the same time. Oh well.

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Of course Bugs would end up in Santa’s sleigh at some point.

Bugs Bunny’s Looney Christmas Tales probably won’t be shown on television this year. If it’s shown at all, it would probably be on Boomerang. If you insist on viewing it, you can find it on the fifth volume of the Looney Tunes Golden Collection set of DVDs. They’re sold individually or as a box set with all six volumes and it’s actually really affordable and comes highly recommended by yours truly, even if this special isn’t particularly…special.


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