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Dec. 16 – The Pink Panther in: A Pink Christmas

Original air date December 7, 1978.

In 1964, MGM released a film titled The Pink Panther. Such a title conjures up a certain image in one’s mind, but the titular pink panther in the film was not an animal, or even alive, but a pink diamond. Someone must have felt though that you can’t have a title like The Pink Panther and not have an actual pink panther, so the studio turned to the duo of cartoon legend Friz Freleng and David H. DePatie to create a mascot. Add in a theme composed by Henry Mancini and the rest is history. The character was born and in some ways would become more popular than the films he was attached to, even though those films had nothing to do with the actual Pink Panther character, but he was popular enough that he made the leap to television to star in his own show appropriately titled The Pink Panther Show.

As a kid, I saw a little bit of The Pink Panther Show. Many cartoons from the 60s and 70s were still being shown in syndication or on smaller, broadcast, networks and a few cable outlets too. I remember no specifics of the show, and probably saw far more of the Pink Panther at my local hardware store since he was used to sell home insulation. He may have even had a run on television in commercials, but I could be mistaken. Regardless, I’ve seen more of the Pink Panther in 2021 than I have any year of my life and that’s because of a show called Toon in With Me. It’s a cartoon package show on Me TV that shows a lot of Pink Panther cartoons along with stuff from Looney Tunes, Popeye, and more. It’s a show I can watch and enjoy with my kids and it’s actually pretty cool to see these old cartoons still getting some airplay today.

If you have never seen a Pink Panther cartoon they’re basically just cartoon shorts without dialogue. The protagonist and everyone else is silent and the main theme is relied upon quite a bit for the music. It usually involved the Pink Panther character just going about his business which seems to always inadvertently make life miserable for an unnamed, pointy-nosed, man often just referred to as The Little Man. The show premiered in 1969, following theatrical releases for some of the shorts, and basically aired on television into the 2000s in some form or another. In 1978, ABC commissioned a Christmas special starring the Pink Panther and aired it December of that year. The special was produced by DePatie and Freleng and directed by Bill Perez. The half hour long special may have been longer than the standard Pink Panther cartoon, but it largely obeys the same rules of being a silent story set to music. There’s some singing provided by The Children of Saint Michaels Day School Choir, but they’re basically the only voices you’ll hear aside from the occasional yelp or shout of a character. I’m not sure how successful the special was. It probably drew a large audience since basically everything did back then, but it definitely didn’t have the staying power of other Christmas specials as I can’t recall any prominent, network, airings in the 80s or 90s.

This special is partially adapted from the O. Henry short story The Cop and the Anthem. In that story set in the early 1900s, a tramp by the name of Soapy tries to find shelter for the winter in New York by getting arrested. He goes through a series of trials that all fail to get him incarcerated. Finally, at the end of the story, he has an epiphany outside a church while listening to the organist and resolves to end his terminal homelessness by getting a job, only for a cop to come along and arrest him for loitering which results in a 3 month jail sentence (ouch, that’s harsh!).

This intro is a little bit of a red herring for the special.

The special begins with an introduction that’s basically an unrelated animation. The Pink Panther, dressed up as Santa, is on the roof of a house preparing to enter, but he knocks over the chimney separating it from the house instead. This takes us to the title card while the main theme plays, which we’ll hear a lot. When the special truly begins, we just see a lot of city sights around the holidays. The animation is no better than a typical television cartoon of this era, so it would appear no extra money came from MGM to make this one look “special.” As the camera pans and focuses in on various characters, we hear the children’s choir singing an original Christmas song called “Yuletide Spirit.” Eventually, the camera lingers on a pile of snow which gets blown away to reveal a sleeping Pink Panther.

Winter in New York is probably not the ideal climate for a panther.

Our protagonist is apparently cold, hungry, and poor and the events of this cartoon are largely going to revolve around the Pink Panther trying to score a meal. He sits up on the bench and there’s a bindle beside him. He unfolds the purple wrapping to reveal a lone can of peas. Actually, it turns out to be a can of “pea” as one pea is dumped onto his lap. Still, he looks happy and prepares to feast, only for a little bird to swoop down and take it off of his fork. Angry, the panther walks off kicking piles of snow out of frustration, only one turns out to be a snow-covered fire hydrant and he hurts his foot.

Get used to this sight as there are a lot of cops in this one.

The panther then notices some kids buying roasted chestnuts from a vendor. One lands on the ground and the panther is so hungry he goes to pick it up and eat it, but it’s so hot that he drops it into a pile of snow. He furiously digs through it only to find a sewer vent underneath and the steam from the chestnut rises from below. Defeated, he sits with his shoulders slumped a moment, until a cop shows up to get him to move along. Can’t have the homeless uglying-up the park, now can we?

It’s a little known requirement of animation that if a cold character comes across a heat source he has to toast his buns in this fashion.

The panther roams around the city streets taking in the sights and does some window shopping because he apparently enjoys torturing himself. He comes across a man warming himself by a fire in an old drum and he immediately heads over to do the same. As he rubs his buns and points them at the fire, a nearby Christmas tree salesman is about to make a last-minute sale on a clearance tree when the scent of it apparently bothers the panther’s nose. He sneezes, and all of the needles fall off of the pathetic, little, tree. The panther just saved some old lady a few bucks, but at the cost of angering the salesman who chases him off.

Packs of stray dogs are actually known for having the smallest, and cutest, of their rank do the begging. You learned something today.

The panther then comes to a delicatessen where a little puppy is barking at the window. The panther apparently lost his scarf when he ran from the tree guy, but smiles at the sight of the dog. They both look at the food behind the glass as a man pays for a large order and leaves. The little dog, seeing a string of sausages dangling out of the man’s bag, gives chase. He successfully pulls the wieners from the bag and runs for an alley. The panther runs after him likely hoping to snatch the sausages from the tiny puppy only to find out he has a very big friend lurking in the alley who frightens him off. Adding further insult, the little dog chases him away. On the bright side, his scarf has reappeared!

Oh, okay, so he’s going to do some Santa stuff in this picture.

The panther finds himself in the street and nearly run over by a horse-drawn trolley (the setting of this special appears to be pre-automobile). He narrowly avoids becoming a pink pancake, only to be run into by a man chasing after the trolley. The collision causes a wrapped box to fall from the very encumbered man’s arms. The panther chases after him a moment trying to alert him to the missing gift, but the man gets on the trolley and is soon far off in the distance. Since he has this box now, the panther opens it and finds a Santa costume inside. He happily puts it on, I think just to get warm, and starts strutting down the street.

This store manager must value the apparent professionalism of the panther as Santa since he has a costume right there. He could put any guy in that thing, even himself!

Nearby, a man is seated in a dressing room and he’s clearly under the weather. He’s wrapped in blankets and has his feet in a hot bucket of water trying to get rid of the chills while a well-dressed man looks on. There’s a Santa suit hanging on the wall and it’s clear the well-dressed man is a department store manager without a Santa Claus on Christmas Eve. When he sees the panther go strutting by in his own Santa suit though, his prayers are answered! He runs outside and apparently offers the panther a job as he smiles and heads inside with the man.

Not sharing your bag of candy with Santa should definitely land a kid on the naughty list.

We then see Santa Panther seated in an ornate chair as a line of children greet him. They sit on his lap and apparently tell him what they want for Christmas (the cartoon is basically silent, after all) and the panther smiles and sends them on their way. It’s all going rather well, until a little girl with a bag full of sweets comes to sit on his lap. A gingerbread man gets the panther’s attention, and his smiling visage is basically taunting him while the scent appears to be torturous. The camera cuts back and forth from the cookie and the panther’s eyes until he can’t take it anymore and bites the head off of the cookie. The kid screams and cries (geez, you can’t share your cookie with Santa?!) and her mother angrily approaches and takes a swing at the false Santa with her purse. The panther decides to bail and as he runs he peels off the costume, but the store manager chases after him.

I guess this dude is going to catch the panther, force him to play Santa, and maybe something will come of that?

I’m not really sure what the manager hopes to accomplish as he continues to chase after the panther even after seeing his discarded clothes. The panther tries to hide in a fur coat, but a woman scoops it up and takes it towards a mirror while the manager digs through what’s remaining. He turns and sees the woman trying the coat on and the panther’s tail is dangling out from underneath it. He grabs it and pulls, flinging the panther over his head. The panther takes refuge under a table, but a bowl of wax fruit on top of it proves too tempting. The panther reaches out from under the table to grab an apple, apparently not realizing it’s wax, and eats it while the manager stands beside it. He makes a noise demonstrating he found the “fruit” unappealing, but returns a spent apple core to the bowl anyway. The manager sees this and looks under the tablecloth and spots the panther who smiles at him sheepishly. He dives under the table, and the panther squirts free and takes the tablecloth with him.

Now this jerk has wrecked his store trying to reinstall his Santa, where could we go from here?

As the manager scours the store for his runaway Santa, a children’s choir starts up. The panther ends up trying to hide amongst the children and as he moves under them the kids pop-up like a game of Whack-a-Mole. The panther eventually emerges from the choir with the manager still chasing after him. He slides down a massive banister and the manager follows, only he’s not very good at this and crashes into a gigantic Christmas tree in the store. It topples over and a bunch of patrons are covered in pine needles and merchandise, including the panther. The manager emerges from the rubble and sees his former Santa, and continues to chase after him. Seriously, what is this guy planning on doing when he actually gets him? He basically quit, and now the manager has destroyed his store by trying to capture him. He should probably just cut his losses at this point.

I guess he kind of looks like a toy?

The panther runs into the toy section and attempts to pass himself off as a stuffed animal. The manager walks right on by him while a kid seems to think he’d be a great toy. He drags the panther by his tail over to his mom who apparently has no interest in buying the kid a stuffed animal the night before Christmas. He sadly drags the panther back to the toy department and just leaves him on the floor while his mother watches with a look of apparent regret on her face. A little girl takes notice of the panther and stands him up on his feet. Treating his tail like a crank, she turns it and he holds it in shape and goes along with it. He starts walking in a stiff manner like a toy and smiles when he sees a beautiful sight: the exit. Only the manager is standing in between him and the door. When he sees the manager he does an about-face and walks back towards the girl. The manager seems confused for a moment, and then starts walking after him. The panther begins to slowly drop the toy act as he walks faster and faster and the manager breaks into a sprint. He steps on a roller skate though and goes whizzing past the mother of the boy from earlier and tumbles down an escalator.

After all of that he’s just going to watch him leave?!

The woman and her kid then take the panther to the register. There he’s gift-wrapped as she apparently had a change of heart, and the gift is given to the boy. The panther soon shoots his feet out of the box and jumps out of the kid’s arms. He starts running off and the manager just stands and scowls. Either he doesn’t realize what is happening, or he’s finally given up, because he just watches as the panther runs out the door. I still don’t know what that guy was trying to achieve, but it ate up nearly 5 minutes of the special’s run time so I guess mission accomplished?

I don’t know what we’re doing here. This special has no idea where it wants to go.

Now free of the department store, the panther is back to sulking as he walks around the city. Some kids are building a snowman and the panther is so hungry that the carrot the kids use for a nose proves too tempting to ignore. He casually walks past the snowman and once he clears it the nose vanishes. The kids notice immediately with one crying while the other starts chasing after the panther. Unfortunately, he runs into a police officer and the kid mimes what happened. The officer demands the panther show his hands, and he does, one at a time. The cop then gestures for him to show him both hands at the same time and he complies and still no carrot. That’s because he’s holding the carrot in his tail, which seems clever, until it’s revealed a horse-drawn trolley is behind him and the horse finds himself a snack. With the evidence destroyed, the panther is able to walk away free of consequences, but he stops to lift up his “fur” to reveal a belt which he tightens further to illustrate his severe hunger.

You have to be really hungry to take bread crumbs from pigeons.

An old woman is shown feeding pigeons in the park, and now the panther is going to get really desperate. When she finishes dispersing what appears to be bread crumbs, the panther chases the birds away. He begins gathering up the crumbs, only for the old woman to return and pummel him with an umbrella. He runs off, and has apparently lost his scarf for good now, and comes to rest beside a bridge. Water drips on his head and he looks up to see he’s standing under a tree loaded with snow. He steps aside to avoid the dripping water, but he can’t avoid all of the snow that immediately falls off the tree limbs. This feline really can’t catch a break.

Hey! That dog wasn’t there a moment ago!

The panther emerges from the snow and actually smiles for he hears more singing. He walks over the bridge and peers under it to see people ice skating as the music grows louder. This leads to a short montage of children sledding, people skating, and a group of kids having a rather cold picnic around a roaring fire where they roast hot dogs, toast marshmallows, and drink hot chocolate. The panther imitates a more famous cartoon character by burrowing in the snow to travel undetected. He then channels his inner Yogi Bear as he attempts to swipe the picnic basket, only he accidentally grabs the tail of the bulldog snoring beside it. They get into a fight underneath the snow as the song fades out.

Gotta get some of that yellow currency.

We pick up the panther some time later as he’s resumed walking sadly through the city neighborhoods. He walks past a set of stairs covered in snow and a woman emerges from her door with a shovel and some money. The panther is eager to perform some labor in exchange for a couple of bucks and takes her up on her offer. She goes back inside while he shovels only he’s just tossing the snow from this woman’s staircase to her neighbor’s. When he finishes, he gets ready to claim his payment only for the neighbor to emerge from their house angry to see their stairs covered in snow. Rather than accept payment and apologetically clear the guy’s stairs, the panther just runs off once again. He does a lot of running from people in this thing.

Well, I suppose soapy water beats an empty stomach? Also, I wonder if this is a reference to the story that inspired this special as its main character is named Soapy.

The panther goes running back into the city proper and now night has fallen. He comes across a soup kitchen and immediately jumps into the rather long line. As people get served, the panther moves closer and closer until it’s his turn only the pot of soup is down to its literal last drop. The server even tries to dump want’s left in the panther’s bowl, but a single drop of brown is all that’s there. The panther still licks his bowl and then jumps into the pot to lick that. He emerges with an angry look on his face and, spying another pot, dives into it. He happily laps up whatever the pot’s contents are until he pauses to belch. Bubbles pop out of his mouth when he does indicating this pot is for doing the dishes. That suspicion is confirmed when another member of the kitchen approaches with an armful of dirty dishes. The panther turns a sickly blue and slinks away.

Aww come on! Just let the poor thing eat! He can do some dishes or something after. The bird can’t be uncooked.

He then emerges back in the city and returns to just staring forlornly into a restaurant he can scant afford. A wealthy looking man enjoying a meal alone sees the hungry panther shivering in the cold and motions for the waiter to come over. The waiter then invites the panther in to join the man for dinner. It would seem his luck has changed! As the panther orders a feast via thought balloons, we see a horse-drawn ambulance come racing down the street. It stops at the restaurant and the drivers run inside. It would seem our wealthy man is a doctor, for he grabs his kit and races out to go off and presumably attempt to save a life. This leaves the panther all alone at the table as the waiter brings a giant turkey over along with something else: the bill. Totaling a massive $7.50, the panther sheepishly gestures to the waiter that he has no money and is promptly thrown out. He lands on the welcome mat, which is then pulled out from under him.

Sweet, sweet, prison.

The panther is forced to resume his mournful, night time, walk, until a pleasant smell stops him in his tracks. It’s coming from the city jail and the panther peers through some bars to see a police officer delivering a delicious looking Christmas meal to one of the inmates in solitary confinement. This gives the panther an idea as he sneaks in alongside a troupe of newly arrived prisoners. The guard shuts the cell door before he can get in though, and since no one recognizes the panther, they toss him out.

Now he can’t even get himself arrested!

Outside, the panther seems intent on getting himself arrested, but rather than act like an actual panther and maul someone, he searches for a different method. Spying a “wanted” poster, he grabs it and places a picture of himself over the actual criminal. Why he seems to have a picture of himself handy is not something the show has any intention of revealing. He slaps the poster on a wall near a police officer, but the photo starts to fall off. He replaces it and quickly tries to get the cop’s attention, only a nearby individual sees the poster with the panther’s face and immediately grabs him. Likely hoping for a cash reward, he gets the cop’s attention and presents the panther while gesturing to the poster. Unfortunately for him, the panther’s picture has fallen off and the actual wanted man underneath it is him! He shrugs his shoulders as the cop chases him into the precinct. Meanwhile, the panther is left standing with his eyes closed and his arms out awaiting handcuffs that don’t come. He turns to see the two run into the building and then he looks up and we see the criminal in a cell with a steaming Christmas dinner in his arms. This may have been the panther’s greatest failure yet!

Ooo! A donut!

The panther resumes his walk and even passes by the same street corner from earlier in the special where the guy was selling trees only now no one is around. A cop is nearby eating a donut and drinking coffee as the panther walks past. He comes to a jewelry store where a shady looking character is standing outside the window with a brick. He soon smashes the window of the store and starts taking the jewelry while the donut cop drops what he’s doing and runs over. The panther sees the crook drop the booty and run and he seems to think he’s found a new way to get arrested. He picks up a watch and waits for the cop to arrive only to see him go running past him after the real crook. He looks momentarily defeated, until he sees the cop’s discarded donut go rolling by! He quickly replaces the sack of booty before giving chase.

Well, at least he made a friend tonight.

The panther chases after the donut which comes to rest by a hungry looking stray dog. The dog licks his chops and prepares to chow down, only to get stiff-armed in the face by the panther. He picks up the donut and goes to eat, but takes a look back at the dog who is sulking away, tail between his legs. It’s a pitiful sight, and our main character can’t be this big of an asshole, so he hands the dog half of the donut which he happily eats. The pup licks the panther’s hand clean and he happily barks and starts following the panther, who sports a smile on his face. They walk through the city which suddenly is alive again as the children’s choir returns to sing about Christmas time. We get a brief montage of people celebrating the holiday and even a glimpse of some secular imagery.

Christmas magic!

Eventually, the panther and his new dog companion return to the park bench where the story began. He gestures for the pup to sit beside him. As the panther pats the dog on the head, some “magic dust” falls from the heavens to land on a small tree beside the bench. It soon morphs into a pretty, little, Christmas tree. Before the panther can begin to comprehend what just happened, more of this dust falls in front of him and a table appears! It’s covered with delicious looking food and the panther can scarcely believe his eyes! He then turns and looks to the sky and we see the culprit: Santa. The jolly old man waves to the Pink Panther, who returns the gesture, and flies through the sky. As the two prepare to feast, we get a shot of Santa and all eight reindeer fly in front of the moon. What we don’t get to see, is the panther finally enjoying a big old turkey leg. How dare you deprive us, MGM!

This guy always comes through.

And that’s how the Pink Panther spent his Christmas. I’m a bit surprised by the absence of the Little Man, but not entirely surprised by the direction of the special. I did think it was going to go elsewhere for when the panther ended up with that lost gift I expected it to turn into a special where the panther had to make sure some kid got their present. Instead, that gift was just the springboard for one of the many misadventures the panther has during the night as he simply searches for a warm meal and a little kindness at Christmas. He’s a bit self-defeating, which makes aspects of this special tiresome to watch. It definitely spins its tires a bit too in the middle portion as it tries to find a way to pad this thing out. Seeing the panther try to get arrested in a bid to score some grub was pretty amusing though, and it definitely finds the right note to end on, but it definitely didn’t need to be a half hour. It was a bit of a surprise to see “The Cop and the Anthem” referenced in the opening credits, only for maybe 5 minutes of the special to actually be an adaptation of that story. At least the Panther doesn’t wind up in jail at the end though.

He even serves the puppy first, what a guy! Err, cat.

The animation quality is pretty bare. This is televised animation in the 70s which wasn’t an area where producers were spending big. Even for a special the studio might have thought it would be able to market year-in and year-out, this thing turned out pretty cheap. The backgrounds and character models are rather simple and many of the characters are mildly animated. It’s interesting to see where some scenes were short-changed and where some weren’t. It’s not all-together terrible or anything, but if you thought nearly 15 years post A Charlie Brown Christmas things would look better, they certainly do not. The music is fairly pleasant though and you’ll hear familiar Christmas stings alongside the catchy Pink Panther Theme. I don’t know that I needed the children’s choir, nor was I particularly fond of the original compositions, but they also weren’t annoying or overplayed. Instead, it just feels a little monotonous, much like the plot.

I definitely didn’t expect this one to get the reindeer count right.

It’s not particularly hard to see why A Pink Christmas failed to catch on as a holiday classic. It’s a decent Christmas story, it’s just that the sight of a forlorn and hungry panther loses some impact when it’s just repeated over and over. There’s also a lack of clever gags when compared with a traditional Pink Panther short, and the poor feline is almost downright pathetic at times in his quest for food. Still, it’s far from terrible and if you want to watch it basically every Pink Panther cartoon is available for free on YouTube via the Official Pink Panther channel. And hey, maybe MeTV will spring for the broadcast rights to show it this year since they already show the other cartoons, plus it can’t be very expensive if they’re basically already giving it away for free.


Dec. 15 – Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!

How the Grinch Stole Christmas! first premiered on December 18, 1966.

It’s December 15 which means it’s time for another retro throwback and I bet you’re surprised to see the green guy here. Since I dubbed Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! as the best ever Christmas special not just once, but twice, you may have expected it to appear on this year’s edition in the coveted Christmas position. Well, it already received that honor back in 2015 and, to be honest, the actual Christmas Day post is usually one of the least read because people are quite busy that day. I figured we should leave that spot open for another deserving entry and give the Grinch his due on the road to Christmas 2021!

The now familiar A Cat in the Hat Presentation logo.

Now, in case you’re confused, there is only one Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! that we need to acknowledge. That live-action movie with Jim Carrey? Nah, don’t like it. The CGi Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle from a couple of years ago? Technically, it’s titled The Grinch so I guess people shouldn’t confuse it with today’s topic, but it’s understandable if they do. That film is better than the live-action one, though it’s hardly what I consider truly memorable or even essential Christmas viewing. The 1966 animated special directed and produced by Chuck Jones is the only Christmas special I need in my life featuring the Grinch. I think it even far surpasses the beauty that is the source material, though I do consider that essential Christmas reading at this time of year. The animated version though just brings the character to life in a way that print and still images cannot. The famed Seuss himself did criticize the animated version a bit by pointing out to Jones that he took his character and just made it look like himself, but I don’t care! If he looks like Jones, it’s probably because the famed animator had to look at himself in a mirror to try to get that infamous smile drawn correctly and it turned out so well that I think he’s more than deserving of injecting a little bit of his own likeness into the character.

I take a trip to Who-ville probably a dozen times a year.

The animation for this special is terrific, especially for television. It likely had a bigger budget than what people were used to seeing and definitely a larger one than the latter day Looney Tunes shorts Jones had worked on. There’s a fluidity to Grinch’s movements few rivaled at the time and the little personality quirks and gags are so well designed. Beyond the simple looks of the special is the music. What is the Grinch these days without “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,”? The two are inseparable and the other musical bits are nearly as memorable. To top it off, you have the incomparable Boris Karloff as narrator who adds just a touch of a growl to his voice when performing as the title character. It’s just magic for the eyes and ears and the simple story of a Christmas grump trying to ruin everyone’s holiday makes the Grinch both loathsome and relatable.

We begin with what the Grinch hates most of all: singing!

Obviously, I love this cartoon and could talk about it for hours, but we should probably get on with the viewing before I get on too much of a roll. The special begins with the now familiar Cat in the Hat logo which fades into falling snow. Soft singing comes in as we’re introduced to the song “Welcome Christmas” as sung by the people of Who-ville. Albert Hague wrote the now memorable music featured in this special with lyrics by Dr. Seuss himself (it’s pretty obvious where he contributed). Eugene Poddany oversaw the score which is arguably as good as the actual songs with lyrics. There’s basically no soft spot in the production for this one.

Little Cindy-Lou Who who is no more than two.

We are introduced to the Whos as they chop down a massive tree to bring to their little town square. As it’s erected, the song shifts abruptly from the serene “Welcome Christmas” to the much livelier “Trim Up the Tree.” The massive tree is splashed and decorated with garish objects that have wacky, Seussian, names attached to them. The Whos move on to other parts of town as they hang wreaths outside and decorate the interior of their homes and through the lyrics of the song we learn that Christmas is tomorrow! These Whos are old fashioned in that they trim the tree and put up all of the Christmas décor on Christmas Eve, which is such a waste. It’s also during this song we get our first look at little Cindy-Lou Who who will play a larger role in the story later, but who Chuck Jones wanted to play an even larger role initially. He wanted her to be the granddaughter of the Grinch, but the idea was either cut for time or nixed by Seuss. If you ever thought Cindy-Lou looked an awful lot like the Grinch, well now you know why.

Never mind the size, that thing just doesn’t look healthy. The Grinch may only have a few more Christmases to endure.

As the song fades out the camera shifts to the snowy mountains and begins its climb. Our narrator, Boris Karloff, enters the picture to tell us that the people of Who-ville really like Christmas, if that wasn’t already obvious, but one guy does not: the Grinch! We’re introduced to this grumpy, green, fur-covered being as he leans against the entrance of his cave which he calls a home. His cave is located 10,000 feet above Who-ville in the side of Mt. Crumpet. When we meet Grinch he seems fairly nonchalant as he chews something with a toothpick hanging out of his mouth. As we regard this curious creature, Karloff tries to figure out just why he dislikes Christmas and hypothesizes it could be his shoes, or maybe his head, before settling on the size of his heart. A little X-Ray window is positioned over Grinch’s torso to demonstrate that his heart is two sizes too small.

Staring down from his cave…

The narrator dismisses the exercise as perfunctory for it matters not why Grinch hates Christmas, he just does! Grinch then walks over to the ledge as his dog, Max, comes trotting out and the two look down over Who-ville. It’s clear that Max is the opposite of the Grinch for everything about his disposition is cheerful and happy. Then Grinch speaks for the first time and Karloff uses a slight growl when reciting his lines. The Grinch informs his dog, or maybe himself, that Christmas is coming and he just can’t take it any more.

Yeah! Wham that gardinka!

Grinch then goes into detail about what it is he dislikes most about Christmas and it mostly boils down to noise. Grinch, you big wimp, it’s one day a year! Just deal with the noise! Though to be fair, the Whos definitely make a lot of noise as basically every one of their Christmas toys is some crazy concoction designed to make noise. My favorite as a kid was the gardinka (spelling?), mostly because it had the word “dink” in it. Though it’s hardly the most impressive of the instrument-vehicles. Some electro-who-cardio-thing is quite a spectacle and definitely good at producing loud noises.

The dude in the front should definitely be wearing ear protection.

The Grinch doesn’t just hate the noise though, he’s also annoyed by the feast the Whos have. Why? I don’t know. They have a bunch of desserts and rare, Who, roast, beast which is a feast that the Grinch cannot stand in the least. Again, we don’t know why, maybe he’s a vegetarian?

I think it’s a rather nice Christmas tradition the Whos have. No, I do not want to hold hands and sing with my neighbors.

The feast isn’t what Grinch hates the most though, nor is it the abstract noise from earlier. Oh no, what Grinch hates the most is the singing! And yeah, these Whos definitely seem to enjoy singing. It’s apparently a pretty large part of their Christmas celebration as every man, woman, and child gathers around the town tree to sing, with Christmas bells ringing! And their song of choice is “Welcome Christmas,” and we get another taste of that rather wonderful song. As Grinch recites all of this, the camera dissolves onto Max who seems to really be enjoying the memories of Christmases past.

Oh Max, do you have an idea?!

Grinch is not enjoying these memories and he repeats “Sing! Sing! Sing!” as he shoves his face right into Max’s as if to convince him he’s wrong to reflect fondly on these memories. Grinch has had it though. He’s put up with Christmas for 53 years! Is that how old he is, or just how long he’s lived in this cave? He doesn’t elaborate, but he has decided that he now must stop Christmas from coming. There will not be a 54th! In order to do so though he’ll need a plan, and one doesn’t come to mind immediately. Then he looks at Max…

The good stuff!

The rather meek canine had backed himself into the snow when confronted by the Grinch and found himself covered in snow. Upon popping his head out of the pile, the snow clings to his head like a hat and beard. Yes, he looks like Santa Claus and it’s Max in this state that gives Grinch an idea. Not just any idea though, a wonderful, awful, idea! The animation on the Grinch’s smile is quite possibly the highlight of the entire special, which is full of highlights. I just love how that smile climbs up the sides of the Grinch’s head and then it’s topped off by the tuft of fur on the top of his head unfurling. It’s so good, that I had to include a gif. Still images just won’t work.

Some amusing antics take place during the montage of Grinch and Max crafting the Santa suit. The original story was so short that the special needed the songs and non-speaking scenes to really lengthen the whole thing for TV.

The Grinch, chuckling to himself proudly, grabs his dog by the tail and drags him into the cave. He doesn’t keep any secrets as he informs the dog (and us) that he’s going to make a quick Santy Claus hat and coat. To do so, he starts cutting up some red curtains in his rather sad looking cave. What little we see of the interior seems to contain old, worn out, furniture. It looks rather dank, but also like a fitting place for such a creature to call home. His sewing machine looks nice though!

As the Grinch, and Max, get to work on a Santa outfit, we’re introduced to the baritone of Thurl Ravenscroft. I suppose Thurl is best known for his role of Tony the Tiger for many years, though kids today probably won’t know him from anything except this special. He gets the honor though of singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which is now a Christmas classic. Granted, the song never mentions the holiday, but its association with this special is all the Christmas it needs. Ravencroft’s performance combined with the words of Seuss and the bombastic melody nearly steal the show here. We only get a taste of the song though, the rest will have to wait for later.

The Grinch apparently doesn’t think much of the Whos if he expects them to confuse he and Max for Santa and a reindeer.

When the song drops out, we see the Grinch in his new Santa costume. It’s rather basic as it’s just a hat and coat. Apparently, Grinch is a bit like Donald Duck in that he refuses to wear pants. He also doesn’t see the beard as a necessity, but he does need a reindeer. He has none though, but he does have a dog and a pair of antlers on his wall! He takes some black thread and ties one of the antlers onto Max’s head. It looks rather uncomfortable as all of Max’s fur gets scrunched where the antler meets his skull. Worse though, is that it’s too heavy. When Grinch steps back to admire his handy-work, Max slowly collapses under the weight of the headpiece. Grinch then grabs a saw and removes some of the tines from the antler and Max slowly rocks back onto all fours, a little splash of drums can be heard as his feet return to the ground. I love the sound effects in this one, like the strings when Grinch saws the antlers. It’s all so good.

He’s so cute!

With Grinch in costume and Max turned reindeer, it’s time to stock an old sleigh with some bags. Max, behaving like a typical dog, jumps enthusiastically into the sleigh thinking he’s about to go for a ride. Oh, you’re going for a ride, Max, but it’s not going to be a fun one. The Grinch is not amused by his dog’s antics and grabs him by the fur and hooks him up to the front of the sleigh. The tiny dog looks ridiculous out in front of such a large sleigh, but the Grinch either disagrees or doesn’t care. He is coming up with this plan on the fly, after all. He cracks a whip over Max and orders him to “giddy-up” and the dog is forced to comply.

My second favorite piece of animation after the infamous smile.

The beginning of Grinch and Max’s descent to Who-ville is quite steep, so steep that the sleigh rushes past the dog. In perhaps the special’s cutest moment, Max winds up behind the sleigh and hops onto the back as the Grinch looks under the sleigh for his dog. When he turns and sees Max just sitting on the sleigh, the only thing the dog can do is smile and wave. That won’t do for the Grinch, who is committed to arriving at Who-ville in a style similar to Santa’s so he grabs the rope and yanks Max back out and in front of the sleigh where the little dog rolls before going into a run. The two then head up an embankment that causes the sleigh to flip in the air which results in Max grabbing onto his master for dear life. When the sleigh lands in the snow again, the Grinch is forced to pull Max off of him like one would a really tight-fitting sweater. For some reason the sequence reminds me of one of Jones’ other famous creations, Wile E. Coyote, as this seems like a predicament he’d find himself in. Though it wouldn’t be a dog grabbing onto him, but some weird ACME contraption.

Oh Max, you’re in for a long night, buddy.

With Max back out in front, the sleigh completes its descent and arrives in Who-ville. The Grinch immediately puts Max to work carrying a massive ladder while he grabs a bunch of bags. He leads the dog to the first house informing him this is only stop number one. Now we get to see the Grinch’s plan in motion as he ascends the ladder to arrive at the chimney. Since he’s committed to the Santa role, he can’t just break in through a window or door, no, he must go down the chimney!

This has become a rather iconic image over the years.

Grinch pauses at the top of the chimney to strike a pose before descending. He squishes his back against the side and basically “walks” his way down the chimney. He gets stuck briefly (Karloff claims it’s for a minute or two, but it’s more like a second) before eventually arriving in the living room of the Who house. His eyes shine from the blackness of the fireplace making him look like a rather sinister character, indeed. When he pops out, he uses a magnet to pull the tacks out of the mantle to collect the stockings. Then he slithers just like a snake, I guess to be quiet, and arrives at the tree. Old St. Nick has apparently already come and gone for the tree is covered in presents and goodies. The Grinch takes them all, stuffs them in bags, and then shoves them up the chimney where poor Max is expected to catch them and load them onto the sleigh.

You better believe he’s taking that star!

The song then returns as Thurl Ravenscroft continues to tell us how much the Grinch sucks. While he does so, we get to see the Grinch sneak around the house and take stuff. And he’s going to take it all! Presents, decorations, furniture, food – you name it. It doesn’t have to be anything representing Christmas, he apparently wants the Whos to suffer! The song drops out for him to raid the fridge where he makes sure to take the rare, Who, roast, beast. It returns for him to take everything else, before dropping again when only one item remains to be claimed: the tree!

Uh oh, Grinch, you’ve been found!
I love this shot.

As the Grinch stuffs the tree up the chimney, one, lone, ornament falls off of it and rolls into a bedroom. We had already seen Grinch raid this bedroom earlier and steal the candy canes from the hands of the sleeping children, now one of them has awoken. Cindy-Lou Who (June Foray) picks up the ornament and heads into the den to find the Grinch shoving the tree up the chimney. Now, she’s only 2 so we can forgive her for not noticing all of the other missing items and for confusing Grinch for Santa. Upon seeing the girl though, the Grinch gets really unnerved for a moment, but Karloff assures us he’s thought up a lie and thought it up quick! The Grinch changes his facial expression indicating that this did indeed happen and begins his lie. He tells Cindy-Lou that a light on the tree has malfunctioned and he’s taking it home to his workshop to fix it. A totally plausible explanation. She buys it, and the Grinch gets her a cup of water and puts her back in bed.

You might as well have fun while stealing.

With Cindy-Lou out of the way, Grinch is able to stuff the tree up the chimney without further issue. It’s at this point we’re informed of just how much he took as he left basically just wires on the wall. The narrator then tells us the one speck of food he left was a crumb that was too small for a mouse. As the wee little mouse approaches said crumb, Grinch’s hand comes back into frame to steal that too! He then goes to the other houses in Who-ville as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” returns for a final time. It plays over the Grinch stealing more stuff, some of the images are recycled from before as we see Max getting buried under bags and Grinch slithering around some more. The last thing the Grinch steals is the giant tree in the town square which he opens like an umbrella and then folds up to carry it away.

I’m starting to think the real Santa should try hiring Max.

When the song ends we learn that it’s quarter to dawn. It’s time for Grinch and Max to get out of there, but how are they going to do that? The sleigh is massive now, and it’s just little Max out in front who needs to pull it 10,000 feet up the side of a mountain! No matter, the little dog is a lot stronger than he looks as he’s forced to run when Grinch cracks his whip. The dog becomes buried in snow with only the antler showing, which is probably a good thing as he’s safe from the whip. The Grinch, being a chubby, green, guy, reclines on the pile of stuff and relaxes as his dog tugs the sleigh all the way up to the top of the mountain where Karloff informs us the Grinch intends to dump the sleigh.

And he put a hand to his ear.

Once the Grinch reaches the top, he cheerfully bounds from the pile of bags. He stops for a second to regard poor Max, who is just dangling in the air from his harness as the sleigh literally balances on the tip of the mountain. The Grinch then makes his way down to a perch where he’s able to assume yet another iconic pose as he places a hand to his ear. He’s hoping to hear the cries and wails of a defeated town, but he’s not prepared for what he hears instead.

Holy shit! The Whos have created a Spirit Bomb to avenge Christmas!

The people of Who-ville all emerge from their homes as the sun rises. They gather in the center of town as if nothing has happened, clasping hands and singing “Welcome Christmas” just as joyously as they would have even with trees and such. The Grinch also failed to steal the Christmas bells which blare as the song is sung and the narrator sounds aghast at what is taking place.

One grumpy Grinch.

We then pivot back to the Grinch, with his ice cold feet in the snow, looking as grumpy as ever. It’s at this point he tugs on Max and shoves his face into the dog’s to question how this could be happening, “It came without ribbon! It came without tags! It came with out packages, boxes, or bags!” He continues to ponder over it, before the background starts to brighten and the Grinch’s eyes turn a brilliant shade of blue. A smile comes across his face as he realizes that, “Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Time to get bombarded with screenshots because this climax is just too good. First, we have the Grinch starting to realize something about Christmas.
However, this sudden change of heart coincides with the sleigh deciding it’s had enough. And don’t forget about poor Max who will surely die if he falls with the sleigh!
The Grinch’s initial bid to save the sleigh did not go well, but at least Max got free.

Unfortunately, just as the Grinch comes to this realization the sleigh starts to move. As it inches closer to the edge, the Grinch scrambles after it. He grabs onto Max to try to pull it back towards him, but Max slides out of the harness and the two wind up going headfirst into the snow. When they pop up, they both see the sleigh begin to fall and race after it. The Grinch gets to it first and tries to pull it back. Max arrives to grab onto Grinch’s coat with his mouth, but it appears their effort will be for naught. As the sleigh slowly slides down the backside of the mountain where it will soon plunge off the edge, the Grinch and Max slide with it.

If this special had been made in the 2000s it probably would have started right here, with Patton Oswalt the narrator, “Hi, my name is Grinch, and you’re probably wondering how I got into such a predicament.”
Normally, an enlarged heart is a bad thing, but not here!
Now he has so much Christmas spirit inside him it’s shooting out of his face!

Then it happens. The Grinch’s small heart, the thing suspected of being the source of his grumpy attitude towards Christmas, begins to grow. It grows one size, then another, and then another! As it breaks free from the confines of the X-Ray window from earlier, the true meaning of Christmas is able to enter the Grinch’s heart and he finds the strength of 10 Grinches! Plus two!

Christmas is saved!
And now, Max finally gets that ride he wanted.
And he brought everything back.

With such unbelievable strength coursing through his body, the Grinch triumphantly lifts the massive sleigh over his head. The sun bursts behind him as Max clings to the end of a runner. Now, their descent can begin as Grinch and Max ride down the side of Mt. Crumpet. Max gets to ride on the sleigh this time while the Grinch announces their arrival with a blast of a trumpet he must have found amongst the gifts. They pull into the village and the Whos welcome them without an ounce of judgement. He and Max then cheerfully toss items from the sleigh as the narrator informs us that they gave everything back.

Carve that beast, Grinch!
A slice of meat and a pat on the head for the best boy.

The image then dissolves as a little triumphant piece of music comes in. We see the Grinch has been invited to participate in Christmas with the Whos, not just as any old guest, but as the one to carve the roast beast! He hands a slice of beast to Cindy-Lou Who seated at his left who passes it on to the goodest boy of Christmas – Max! She pats his head as he looks at the full plate with eager eyes. The camera then pans back to show the Grinch carving and passing, carving and passing, before the camera moves beyond the wreath-lined window. As Boris Karloff recites some of the lyrics to “Welcome Christmas” the camera pans up the mountain as snow falls and the words “The End” come into focus.

Norman Rockwell, eat your heart out.

And that’s it: the greatest Christmas special ever made! Every time I watch this special I go into it knowing it’s the best, and I leave it secure in my thoughts. There’s nothing about this special I do not like. Even the few animation shortcuts, like the female Who pouring a glass of orange juice that’s not even animated during the feast scene, I find charming at this point. The sounds, the sights, the emotions, it all comes together in a delightful symphony of pure, Christmas, goodness.

A serene, Christmas, image to take us out.

Because this special is so old and such a part of our culture at this point, it’s easy to forget that before it came around the Grinch didn’t even have a color. His old book was mostly black and white, with a dash of red for his eyes and Santa suit. It’s a delightful, visual, story, but adding the voice of Boris Karloff and that green fur just adds so much life to the character. I love reading my kids that book every Christmas, but it’s so odd to not have the music to go along with it. When my son was just a baby, I loved putting on the spoken word version of this special for him while I was working. He probably didn’t care about hearing it, but he did bob his head with the music and both of my kids today love this special. Maybe not as much as their father does, but not a Christmas goes by without it.

Everything about this special is wonderful, but perhaps an undersold element is just how playful Grinch is with the camera. Look at this guy – he’s such a ham!

And thankfully the world loves How the Grinch Stole Christmas! so catching it on television shouldn’t be difficult this Christmas. If you missed the NBC broadcast to start the month, it will return on Christmas Eve so set your DVR if you can’t be in front of the TV to enjoy it. TBS also plays it throughout the month for those with cable, and you can purchase the special through various means if you wish. As for me, my preferred method of watching this one is on my ancient VHS from 1987 of recorded Christmas specials, even though CBS that year chopped out a piece of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s just not the same though without the old commercials and the now washed out colors from years of use. Obviously, you shouldn’t let the season pass without watching this at least once (and I encourage you to watch it more than just once) so get to it! This is the best Christmas special ever!


Dec. 11 – One Ham’s Family (1943)

Original release August 14, 1943

Tex Avery is one of the most influential animators in cartoon history. Beginning his career at Universal, he would make the jump to Warner Bros. when he famously convinced producer Leon Schlesinger he was an animation director when he actually had little or no experience at such. While working under Schlesinger, Avery was influential in creating many of the famous Looney Tunes stars and is credited with bestowing Bugs Bunny with his catchphrase, “What’s up, Doc?” Avery worked at the famous Termite Terrace until 1941 when a spat with Schlesinger over the ending to The Heckling Hare lead to his suspension from the studio and eventual departure. After a very brief stint with Paramount, Avery would resurface with MGM quickly becoming their lead director on cartoon shorts where he further cemented his legacy by assisting in the creation of other famous characters like Droopy Dog and the duo of George and Junior.

Avery was famous enough that he even had his own show on Cartoon Network spotlighting his work. The Tex Avery Show began airing in 1997, and in a pre-Adult Swim world, I recall catching it during the late night hours when Cartoon Network would air other Golden Age cartoons and lesser, forgotten, shows like Sealab 2020. The show would also pop up during morning blocks, specifically weekends, and it was an interesting program because it blended Avery’s work with both Warner and MGM since Cartoon Network’s parent company came to own it all.

It was during Avery’s time at MGM that he directed the short One Ham’s Family, a Christmas cartoon about a wolf trying to get into a house to eat a pig. One of Avery’s most famous character creations is the unnamed wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood famously depicted in The Mask, for you 90’s babies. The wolf here isn’t necessarily the same character, though he does look pretty similar. His design with an elongated face and curved posture makes him an ideal foil for an Avery cartoon as the director is probably most known for really playing with the animated form. Characters stretch and squish and make outlandish facial gestures when doing something like screaming or expressing pain. And having a wolf go after a pig makes this one basically an offshoot of The Three Little Pigs, an often revisited story by animators (including Avery himself).

This wolf was apparently too tired to go down the chimney and wind-up in the pot of turnips or whatever, but he will eventually go down the chimney!

The cartoon begins like it’s going to be yet another retelling of The Three Little Pigs. There’s a book motif going on with a narrator reciting the story, until he gets sped up and the screen just blasts on by the story and ends with the Big Bad Wolf trying to blow down the brick house. He’s out of breath and on the verge of giving up, but as a pig smiles at him from behind a big, wooden, door he vows to return and get in some how, even if it takes until Christmas! This is the cue for the passage of time, as we see the mailbox that reads Mr. Pig change to read Mr. and Mrs. Pig. As the seasons rapidly change further and snow covers the landscape, a second, little, mailbox sprouts up that reads “Jr.”

Looks like Papa Pig is enjoying the view.

Inside the home, Mama (Sara Berner) and Poppy Pig (Pinto Colvig, using the same voice he utilized previously for Practical Pig in the Silly Symphonies shorts based on The Three Little Pigs) are putting little Jr. (Kent Rogers) to bed on Christmas Eve. It’s his first Christmas, and Poppy Pig is explaining to his son how Santa Claus works while Mama lets her heaving bosom rest on the edge of the crib. This is the moment where I remind you that Tex Avery was also a fan of buxom women and apparently pigs qualify. Once their explainer is complete, the parents quickly jump into bed and commence with the snoring. Meanwhile, little Jr., who had sprouted a halo at the mere mention of being a good little boy for Santa, turns a dark red and the halo is replaced with horns. He moves over to the bedside of his parents and starts smacking a wash basin and fires a shotgun just to make sure his parents are sound asleep. Now, he informs us, he can go check out what this Santa business is all about. This is also setting up how Jr. is going to break the fourth wall over and over in this one.

I will say, he wears the suit well.

Jr. slides down an impossibly long banister given the outside dimensions of the house and comes to a screeching halt before he can crash into a vase placed at the end. He remarks how he has good brakes, then heads over to the fireplace (which must have about thirty stockings on it) to look for Santa. Outside, the wolf (credited to Rogers in some places, but he sure sounds like he’s voiced by Pinto Colvig to me) has returned and is peering through the window and admiring the hams on Jr.’s posterior. He’s drooling profusely and his tongue hangs out to reveal a welcome mat at the end of it as he’s clearly fantasizing about devouring this little pork loin. He then tiptoes towards a tree and disappears behind it, despite how thin it is, and then reappears dressed as Santa Claus. He ascends the house and plunges down the chimney.

A bit Grinch-like, wouldn’t you say? Well, technically, I should say the Grinch looks a bit wolf-like when doing the same.

Jr. is pretty elated to see Santa pop out of his fireplace, which takes on the appearance of an elevator. He assures the wolf in Santa’s clothing that he’s been a good boy and requests he be provided a present. The wolf Santa is happy to oblige and implores the young porker to look in his sack for his present. Jr. heads inside and the wolf quickly snaps the sack shut, tosses it over his shoulder, and tiptoes across the room towards the door. As he does so, I can’t help but wonder if this little piece of animation influenced Chuck Jones some 20 years later when it came time to animate the Grinch doing the same thing. Anyway, he tiptoes towards the door, and it’s actually Jr. who opens it for him and lets him out. He even acknowledges the kid before leaving because he’s your typical stupid antagonist. When the wolf gets outside, he opens the bag in hopes of finding a snack, but instead he finds a giant sucker while Jr. looks on from inside the home.

The “sucker” insult will occur multiple times in this one like it’s some sort of sick burn.

Pissed off, the wolf tares off the beard and coat and barrels through the door. Jr., with his bum now hanging out of his little jammies, turns and runs away by climbing up the Christmas tree. The wolf gives chase up the impossibly large tree only to find a sign placed at the top that reads, “You’re still a sucker!” The unmistakable sound of an axe striking a tree trunk can be heard, and of course Jr. is chopping down the tree with the wolf on top of it. He gives out a cry of, “Timber,” which is required in a cartoon, and the wolf plunges into a bunch of Christmas stuff and looks the part of a punch-drunk tree when all is said and done.

It’s a Christmas catastrophe!

The wolf comes to his senses and gives chase as Jr. races into the kitchen. There, he moves at an impossible speed as he prepares a pie of some kind (possibly pumpkin) and bakes it incredibly fast so that he’s able to meet the wolf’s face with it when he comes bursting into the room. He taunts the wolf by asking if he enjoyed the pie he baked all by himself, and then runs off leading to maybe my favorite gag of the short. The wolf, rather than give chase, pulls out a large butcher’s knife from a drawer and sharpens it on his tongue before tossing it. Jr, standing casually on the other side of the room, pulls out a large revolver which is enough to scare the sentient knife in mid-flight, causing it to turn around and dive back into the drawer instead.

This, I like.

The wolf is flabbergasted at the sight and decides to give chase, but Jr. apparently possesses the ability to teleport as he appears behind him, grabs his suspenders, and when they stretch out as the wolf runs he slips a vase inside them. The wolf spins around to see the vase coming right for him and ducks into his trousers to avoid it. He pops up and spits his tongue out at Jr, just as the vase rebounds in his suspenders and crashes into the back of his head sending him flying into the living room. Jr, casually leaning against the doorframe, informs the audience that he’s going to bang the wolf around all through this picture, which only has about 2 minutes left anyway.

I’m sure most saw this one coming.

The wolf comes to beside the front door just as someone starts knocking from the outside. He opens the door and it’s Jr. in an oversized postal worker hat informing the wolf he has a telegram for him. The wolf takes it and it reads: Dear Mr. Wolf, don’t look now – but your tail is on fire. Love, Jr. P.S. Sucker! The image stays on the screen long enough for most people to read it two or three times. The wolf then turns to look at his tail and it is indeed in flames. He screams and runs to the kitchen where he fills a bucket with water in-between his howls. As he goes to sit in the bucket, Jr. yanks it away and replaces it with a bucket of gasoline. Just as a contented expression crosses his face, the wolf explodes and crashes through the ceiling.

Jr. looks up at the wolf-shaped hole in the ceiling and then remarks that since he can’t heckle the wolf right now, he might as well heckle the audience. Because we’re apparently supposed to hate this character, he pulls out a large chalkboard and scratches an X onto it. It’s intended to be pretty annoying since the scratching chalkboard sound lasts nearly 10 full seconds. When he’s done, Jr. seems pretty satisfied with himself and proudly remarks, “Boy, I sure am a mean little kid!”

It is not recommended to kick an anvil.

The wolf then returns as he sneaks up behind Jr. His tail is wrapped in bandages, which is a rare example of cartoon continuity. His body coils around as he prepares to level Jr. with a giant, roundhouse, kick, but Jr. disappears under the chalkboard replacing himself with a staple of cartoon violence: the anvil. The wolf howls in pain after striking the anvil and we see an X-Ray image of his boot which reveals his foot has been crushed. It also reveals that his foot looks like a human one and it’s very similar to a shot in the Goofy short The Art of Skiing. I only mention this because the voice of Goofy is Pinto Colvig who is featured in this cartoon.

Vicious.

Jr. then confronts the wolf who is still in obvious pain. He tells him he has something for him, but he needs to guess which hand it’s in. The wolf picks the left one, which is a bad move since that’s the evil side and this kid is clearly evil, and sure enough a tiny mallet is revealed to be in Jr.’s left which immediately grows to cartoonish proportions. He smashes the wolf over the head with surprising vigor and then runs off into another room. The wolf recovers and gives chase armed with an axe and once he disappears into the room, Jr. pops out to tell the audience we can’t see what’s about to transpire in there because it would be too gruesome. The wolf’s hand emerges to grab Jr. by the tuft of red hair on his head and pulls him into the room as raucous sounds fill the air and items like pots and pans mingle with stars and come firing out of the darkness.

Now there’s an idyllic Christmas image.

This is finally enough noise to wake the parents and Mr. and Mrs. Pig race down the stairs to survey the carnage in their home. The camera pans across the destroyed Christmas display to find Jr. waving at his parents from across the room. He wishes them a merry Christmas, but it’s not a nice enough gesture to appease his mother who stomps over promising a beating. Jr. then yanks out a present for his mother, and this softens her mood. She unwraps it to find a brown, fur, coat which she happily puts on. As she models the garment, we see it features a bandaged wolf tail on the rear so we know where this came from. As Mr. Pig looks on holding Jr., mama Pig remarks that this is just what she needed. The wolf then appears and announces, “You and me both, sister!” He’s naked, but still wearing his Santa hat and boots, as he holds a towel to cover himself with one hand and snatches the coat with the other. He appears surprisingly happy as he dances out the door. It slams shut behind him revealing a sign that reads: Corny ending, isn’t it? Not really, but it’s an ending!

What’s he so happy about?

One Ham’s Family is a zany, violent, manic, cartoon short that features Christmas, though is fairly light on Christmas spirit. That’s not to say I’m arguing that it’s not a bonafide Christmas cartoon for it surely is, it just uses the holiday as a setup for the macabre to follow. Jr. is a bit of a screwball protagonist in the same vein as Bugs Bunny and early Daffy Duck. I read him as more sinister than either and he almost possesses supernatural abilities to avoid danger and harm beyond what his more famous predecessors can even attest to. There are a lot of clear cheats where Jr. just magically appears somewhere, which isn’t unusual for this style of cartoon, but it’s relied on a bit too heavily in this one to the point that it’s not really funny. Jr. is also intentionally unlikable, or at least it had to have been intentional, because he certainly does suck. It’s not unusual for the audience to root for the villain in some of these shorts, but I definitely can’t say I’ve ever felt for Bugs the same way I do about Jr. I would have been perfectly content to see him get some sort of comeuppance in the end and I feel like my feelings are justified, as opposed to how I sometimes feel about the Road Runner who really isn’t guilty of anything in his cartoons.

So how do we feel about sweet, innocent, Jr.?

In the Road Runner shorts, some of that feeling of rooting for the coyote comes from him being at least a touch sympathetic. After all, he’s a scrawny coyote who needs to eat something to survive and nature decrees it be a road runner. When it comes to the wolf in this short, I feel no such sympathy. He’s breaking and entering to try and eat a kid. He could have conceivably ignored Jr. and gone for the parents, though Jr. is so “powerful” that he probably would have foiled that as well. Unless he truly is evil and cares not for the wellbeing of his parents. Some of the gags utilized to inflict misery upon the wolf don’t read as particularly original, but some of that is made up for by the sheer violence with which that misery befalls the wolf. The mallet shot in particular is delivered with such force that it’s a touch surprising, while the gag with the gun and knife is just plain clever and amusing.

Ultimately, I feel like this short tries a bit too hard to be a signature Tex Avery-directed cartoon. It’s wacky and violent, but a lot of it feels conventional which probably isn’t aided by the framing device of The Three Little Pigs. It also feels like it’s forcing Jr. upon the audience as some sort of omniscient screwball and he’s force-fed a few too many fourth-wall-breaking lines in the process. Still, this style of Christmas cartoon is hard to come by, and since it’s only a little over 7 minutes in length it’s hardly a waste of time to check it out. And checking it out is both easy and difficult. Officially, this short appears to have received one, physical, release and it was a laserdisc of Avery cartoons. Because of that though, there’s no real oversight for the short online so it’s easily found with a simple Google search. It aired as part of the Tex Avery Show on Cartoon Network and Boomerang, so viewers had plenty of opportunities over the years to acquire a good copy. It’s not one of Avery’s best, but it also possesses some charm of its own.

I guess?

Toon In With Me

Originally, the cartoon short was something that was exhibited in theaters alongside news reels, serials, and feature films. All of the major motion picture companies owned their own theaters and most built up a stable of cartoon stars. This was the era that saw the creation of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Popeye, and many more. These characters were stars that rivaled the popularity of the most famous actors of the day. Then it all changed. The government went after studios with anti-trust lawsuits stemming from the fact that they operated as producers and exhibitors for their films. Post World War II saw many, mostly white, families leave the confines of the city for the suburbs taking them further away from those theaters they used to frequent. And then came television. All of the big companies reacted to TV in different ways. Walt Disney rather famously embraced it, while at the opposite end was Warner Bros. which did everything in its power to avoid television.

Eventually, TV took over and it’s remained a staple of the modern household. When the movie-going experience was altered thanks to independent theaters and changing tastes, the cartoon short largely vanished. It was an easy place to trim costs since virtually every studio took a big hit to their bottom-line during this era. Those characters that once flourished though didn’t need to be put out to pasture completely. Instead, they became stars on the small screen as studios packaged them up and sold them in syndicated packages to various outlets.

When I was a kid, there’s no doubt in my mind that the biggest toon stars from that era were the characters owned by Warner Bros. Bugs, Daffy, Porky, Tweety, and the rest were among my favorites, and they were everywhere. Warner Bros. had different packages of shorts it shopped around. What the studio considered the cream of the crop went to the big networks and were shown on Saturday morning. The lesser packages went to smaller, regional, channels and cable. Nickelodeon entered the picture in 1988 and it started off with a somewhat meager offering. Remember Bosko? I sure do and he was seen rather frequently on Nickelodeon’s Looney Tunes show. The show was a huge success for the cable outlet, which had really just begun to go all-in on animation, and when it came time to renew with Warner the channel got a better set of shorts. Remember the “Sorry, Bosko” commercial? I do!

Get the hell out of here, Bosko!

Warner’s cartoons weren’t the only ones out there though as there was a pretty sizable cast coming from MGM. Ted Turner, the famous billionaire who owned the Turner Broadcasting System, set out to acquire cartoons for his cable networks. He would come to acquire Hanna-Barbera and MGM’s cartoons, which had also acquired some smaller outlets like United Artists, and this would lead to the creation of Cartoon Network. Cartoon Network was a place for Turner to air all of the stuff he had acquired, but the channel also had it’s own Bugs and Daffy show too (because MGM bought some, it’s confusing so you should just watch this edition of Nick Knacks on it). Eventually, Turner sold to AOL, which would merge with Time Warner, and basically all of these cartoon stars would come to rest under one umbrella by the time the 90s were over.

This ended up being a bad thing for cartoon viewers. Once Warner controlled everything except for the classic Disney characters, the company started to pull back. Eventually those networks that had been a home for these characters for so long were no longer allowed to air them. Even worse, Cartoon Network had become so full of original content it no longer had need of these characters either. To Boomerang they went, the sister channel to Cartoon Network that few cable providers seemed to carry. Eventually, they would be forced out of there as well as the Cartoon Network What a Cartoon! era shorts matured and made the jump over. Reboots would follow like The Looney Tunes Show and Wabbit, but there was no easy access to the classic, unaltered, shorts that generations had grown up with.

Your hosts for Toon In With Me: Toony the Tuna and Bill the cartoon curator.

Until 2021. Launched in January of this year on MeTV is Toon In With Me. It was a quiet launch since it took me several months to even know the show existed. Before that, I could not have told you what channel MeTV was in my area or on my cable package. For those in a similar boat, MeTV is a broadcast network with a local affiliate in most markets. It specializes in “Memorable TV” and it’s not unlike a lot of local stations from when I was a kid. Right after Toon In With Me is Leave it to Beaver and I see lots of odds for The Andy Griffith Show, M.A.S.H., and Happy Days. It seems like the type of channel my dad would watch if he was home sick or something.

Kevin Fleming provides the voice of Toony and plays a bunch of other recurring characters like Mr. Quizzer.

Toon In With Me is an old school cartoon show with a live-action wrap-around segment. It’s hosted by Bill the Cartoon Curator (Bill Leff) and he is accompanied by a puppet, Toony the Tuna (voice of Kevin Fleming). There is usually a theme for each episode and they end up acting out some skits with help from Fleming and Leila Gorstein. Fleming and Gorstein have a stable of characters to work with that they play and it’s all intentionally corny, but charming. When they’re not on the screen, we get to watch a cartoon!

Bill Leff plays the host of the same name (as well as a few other characters) and introduces the cartoons, usually with some fun background info on it.

The stable of cartoons the show has to select from is quite large. There’s Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, MGM, King Syndicates, Paramount, and United Artists. Of course, most of this stuff is just owned by one company, but they probably had to do individual deals for each set of characters. Just about every episode though will open with either a Looney Tunes or Merrie Melodies short and often it’s Bugs Bunny. Other cartoon stars shown quite frequently include Tom and Jerry, Daffy Duck, Porky Pig, The Pink Panther, Barney Bear, and Popeye. That’s obviously not exhaustive as you’ll see Tweety Bird and Droopy Dog, but those are definitely the characters I see recur the most. It’s an effective mix, and whatever package they have from Warner is very reminiscent of the one Nickelodeon had for its version of Looney Tunes. That’s both good and bad as I’ve certainly seen plenty of classics that I once watched on Nick, but I’ve also seen some of the not-so-classic I once saw there as well such as Cool Cat and Merlin the Magic Mouse. I’ve noticed the Tom and Jerry shorts definitely favor the Chuck Jones era, but I don’t know if they’re limited at all in what cat and mouse era they can exhibit.

Comedian Leila Gorstein might be the show’s MVP as she’s relied upon to play a large cast of characters, all of which are pretty entertaining.

Stumbling upon Toon In With Me has been a tremendous amount of fun in my household. It’s on every week day at 7 AM EST and I set my DVR to record it. It’s become a show that I watch with my kids. During their summer vacation from school I could watch with both, but ever since school restarted it’s become a show I mostly watch with my daughter as she’s in half-day preschool. She’s become quite the little Bugs Bunny fanatic and has even decided to break her streak of Disney Princess Halloween costumes in favor of the wise-cracking rabbit this year. I love sharing these old toons with her, even if she sometimes would rather watch something more modern since she’s not much into Popeye or The Inspector. It makes me wonder just who the target audience for the show is. It’s definitely presented in a kid-friendly manner, but it doesn’t talk down to the audience. The hosts will share viewer mail at the end of every episode and it’s almost always from an adult. My guess is a lot of people in their 30s, 40s, and up enjoy the nostalgic trip the show brings and they’re probably the core audience. Hopefully kids are watching too.

MeTV also shows cartoons on Saturday morning, like The Bugs Bunny Show, which even includes the classic intro!

Toon In With Me is a nostalgia lovers dream. The cartoons appear to be mostly unedited, or at least haven’t been edited further than what networks did 30 years ago, and several generations of people have grown up with them and have a fondness for them. I love that the show is here for the current generation of children because there’s a shocking amount of children out there who don’t know who Bugs Bunny is, and the number would be higher if not for the new Space Jam movie. Being on a broadcast station means the show is accessible to everyone with a TV set and a digital antenna, and it looks like the website offers a bunch of clips too, though probably not of the actual cartoons. And if you just want the toons, MeTV also has a Saturday morning block of cartoons including an hour’s worth of Looney Tunes. It’s hard to resist the temptation to just buy a big box of Froot Loops and chow down on Saturday with the cartoons going. Definitely check the show out though if you want more cartoons in your life.


The Secret of NIMH (1982)

The 1970s was a transition period for the world of feature length animation. Walt Disney’s death had left a leadership void at Disney which was exacerbated by the passing of Roy Disney in 1971. With the Disney brothers no longer at the head of operations, the company turned to Donn Tatum, the first non-Disney family member to head the company. It was during this era that the animators on staff started to feel like the company no longer prioritized the art of animation the way it had under the Disney brothers. It probably didn’t help that the decade began with the release of The Aristocats, one of the least celebrated Disney animated features to date. Because of a sense of stifled creativity, a group of animators staged a walk out lead by Don Bluth. He along with animators Gary Goldman, John Pomeroy, and several others left the company during production on The Fox and the Hound and Don Bluth Productions was born. Seeking to emulate the classic style of early Disney works, Bluth and his associates set out to making features as quickly as possible. They found a partner in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and a story in Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien. They knew what they wanted to do, but the hard part would be making it all happen.

The tale of Mrs. Frisby had been brought to Bluth’s attention by fellow animator Ken Anderson while working at Disney. Try as he might though, he just couldn’t get Disney to bite on it. And there was some solid reasoning behind that as animation director Wolfgang Reitherman cited the recent release of The Rescuers as being too similar to the tale of Mrs. Frisby and her fantastic rat friends. When Bluth left Disney, the story went with him and it was the book he turned to first when it came time to prove that feature length animation could flourish outside the House of Mouse. Working outside of Disney though meant a lower budget and a shorter schedule which necessitated Bluth and staff to work ungodly hours on the feature. And a certain company that popularized a flying disc necessitated a name change of the titular character of Mrs. Frisby to Mrs. Brisby.

Bluth wanted to prove to Disney that others were capable of outperforming them and The Secret of NIMH certainly packs the visuals.

I was in the fifth grade when the story of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH was introduced to me. I was a kid who liked to take shortcuts when it came to academics. I was fortunate that most subjects came easily to me, but it did stifle my intellectual curiosity as a result. When it came to independent reading, I just recycled junk I had been reading for years that my new teachers wouldn’t necessarily be aware of. Eventually, my teacher, Mrs. Roy (who remains my favorite teacher ever), wrote a note in my report card that I needed to read more challenging books. I really had no desire to honor the request, but also had little choice in the matter so I simply asked one of my friends if he got the same edict. When he confirmed he did not, I asked what he had been reading that she seemed to approve of and he directed me to the book Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. I read it and thought it was good enough to read the sequel when I was finished. Better yet, my teacher left me alone when it came to my independent reading assignments. At the time I read it, it was the early 90s and I had no idea a film had been made out of the story a decade earlier. I think I just happened upon it one night at the local video rental store and asked my mom if we could rent it, so we did!

Ever since seeing The Secret of NIMH I have thought of it very little. I think I liked it, but it clearly didn’t leave a mark. The book really didn’t leave a lasting impression either, though I can say it did stick in my head far better than the sequel of which I remember nothing but the title. In my house though, Saturday is movie night and we alternate who picks the movie each week among the members of my family and when the choice falls to me I like to find things that my kids haven’t seen and will hopefully enjoy. That’s how this film popped up on my radar recently, so out I went (safely) to a nearby media store and found a used DVD release of the film for a mere five dollars. It’s certainly not a great DVD release as it only has a full screen option, but it was an opportunity to see this film again and show it to my kids for the first time and I’m still not willing to digitally rent things. I’m just weird like that.

Mrs. Brisby is out to save little Timmy. I feel like it’s always a “little Timmy.”

The Secret of NIMH tells the tale of the widow Mrs. Brisby (Elizabeth Hartman), a field mouse, and her quest to save her ailing son Timothy (Ian Fried) from a bout of pneumonia. The illness itself isn’t necessarily the threat, it’s the fact that the harvest season has arrived and Mrs. Brisby and her family need to vacate their current home for the farmer’s tractor will soon level it. Unfortunately, Timothy is too sick to be moved so Mrs. Brisby is forced to turn to the Rats of NIMH for help. The rats are a colony that lives in a nearby rose bush and they possess intelligence seemingly beyond that of man. It’s all the result of once being lab rats. Throughout the film viewers are introduced to a small portion of their various members and their wonderous home while also learning about their past and their relationship with Brisby’s deceased husband. Internal strife also exists within the ranks of the rats which will pose a problem for Mrs. Brisby and her family.

The story is quite brisk and uncomplex as it moves along during its 82 minute runtime. Mrs. Brisby basically has a problem and receives advice from one source to go to another, who then sends her to another, and so on. It’s easy for a child to follow and Brisby is a likeable and empathetic lead. She is joined, at times, by the crow Jeremy (Dom Deluise) who provides comic relief, while the seemingly ancient leader of the rats, Nicodemus (Derek Jacobi), adds a little wonder to her supporting cast. The danger of the situation is illustrated clearly, and other dangers arise throughout the film. Since we’re largely dealing with a cast of mice and rats, expect a cat to play a role.

Jeremy is the character we’re supposed to laugh at, but I didn’t hear much laughing in my home.

The story is cohesive, but what isn’t is the world created by O’Brien and added to by Bluth. The rats are said to possess human level intelligence, and perhaps more as their home is quite elaborate for something that exists in a bush. However, seemingly all of the animals (except the cat) possess incredible intelligence anyway making the rats seem less remarkable. Mrs. Brisby and her children all wear clothes and live in a home full of human comforts. They even use utensils and boil water for tea and such. A Bluth addition is the inclusion of magic. Bluth seems to think animated tales should contain elements of the fantastic like magic, so Nicodemus is now a wizard of some kind. He’s the first character we meet as he views Brisby through a magic looking glass and remarks how he has a talisman for her. No explanation is provided by the film for this magic or how Nicodemus and the Rats of NIMH came to possess it, but the talisman does at least serve a practical purpose of putting the power to save her family in Mrs. Brisby’s hands, quite literally. Movies don’t have to explain everything, of course. People seem willing to happily accept that Cinderella can communicate with animals and such in her Disney film, but this is also the type of film that does try to provide explanations for everything else, and hand-waving the concept of magic feels off as a result. It also forces a lot into the final five to ten minutes of the film. Animation is expensive and hard, so it’s no surprise to see this one clock in under 90 minutes, but it’s a film that would have benefited from more time. We barely get to know the rats and their inner conflict so the climax that conflict leads to doesn’t land like it should. Everything just sort of happens and as a viewer I was left feeling, “That was it? Huh.” My kids, on the other hand, fell asleep.

The film’s decision to shoehorn some magical elements into it doesn’t really satisfy from a plot perspective, but it’s at least visually interesting.

The Secret of NIMH isn’t as captivating or as enchanting as it probably would like to be, but what can’t be denied is the visual fidelity. The Secret of NIMH looked terrific in 1982, and by any standard it still does. I wish I had tracked down a Blu Ray version, but beggars can’t be choosers. Bluth and his fellow animators set out to emulate the early Disney style and they absolutely nailed it. Show this to someone who is just a casual animation viewer and they’ll probably mistake it as a forgotten Disney feature. The designs of the mice and rats are very reminiscent of The Rescuers and Cinderella, but absent those tell-tale Xerox lines from the Disney films of the 1970s. It’s gorgeous, and the more fantastic elements are captured with simple, effective, animation techniques. I may not have been fully engaged with the film’s plot, but the visuals definitely held my attention for the duration of the film.

Less celebrated is the soundtrack of Jerry Goldsmith. It is certainly capable, but not quite memorable. The same can be said for most of the Disney features from that era, so in that respect this one feels quite similar to what Bluth’s old place of work was outputting. The voice cast is plenty capable though and I very much enjoyed the late Elizabeth Hartman in her role as Mrs. Brisby. She brings a gentle confidence to the character and I imagine it’s quite similar to the voice I heard in my head when reading the book back in fifth grade. Dom DeLuise is good in his role as Jeremy, though I think the film thinks he’s funnier than he really is making him more of a distraction than true comic foil. The Rats of NIMH are all given rather regal and distinguished voices while Nicodemus is treated as an elderly wizard, a departure from the source material. It’s a cast that doesn’t contain many big names from the era, but it’s a professional cast more than capable of bringing these characters to life.

The Secret of NIMH is a triumph of animation with a somewhat forgettable story. That adds up to a solid viewing experience that provided movie-goers in 1982 with a glimpse of where Don Bluth was heading. He and his team of animators would go on to make better films, and worse ones, leaving The Secret of NIMH to serve as the appetizer of the Don Bluth feast. The film did eventually receive a sequel, but without any contribution from Bluth, which makes it similar to the book sequel which was not written by Robert O’Brien. I have never seen it, but it received a near universal negative reception upon release in 1998 as a direct-to-video feature. Which is fine, as this isn’t a film that cries out for a sequel. It’s quick, fairly tidy, and mostly beautiful and a perfect way to kill an hour and a half on a Saturday night.


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 – The Night Before Christmas with Tom and Jerry

tom and jerry xmas

Originally released December 6, 1941

As someone who loves the cartoon shorts produced by Warner and Disney, I sometimes am guilty of overlooking the contributions of MGM from that same era. MGM was a big player back then, and their flagship creation was Tom and Jerry. The cat and mouse pair first debuted in 1940 and were the creation of William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, two folks most associated with television creations through their company Hanna-Barbera. Because the quality of those television productions is largely poor, Hanna-Barbera is more of a punch-line in the world of animation which is why I always try to keep things in scope. Their creation of Tom and Jerry is their crowning achievement and their greatest contribution to the world of animation. They were also responsible for bringing animation to television, which is something we can likely all agree was a good thing, even if we turn our noses up at the likes of Jabber Jaw and Grape Ape.

Tom and Jerry’s third cartoon was the 1941 classic The Night Before Christmas. It was nominated, but did not win, an Academy Award and it was once a Christmas staple on Cartoon Network, but is now relegated to home video and streaming services. It was written and directed by the duo of Hanna and Barbera and even features voice work by Clarence Nash, as Tom, who is most famous for being the voice of Donald Duck. He went uncredited in this short, perhaps because of his association with Disney or perhaps just because a lot of folks initially went uncredited who work in animation.

jerry trap

Jerry’s too smart to fall for that.

The short opens with a narrator (Frank Graham) reciting the opening to A Visit from Saint Nicholas, more commonly referred to simply as Twas the Night Before Christmas. The camera pans through a cozy home all decorated for Christmas and rests on a mouse nook in the wall with a mousetrap outside it. The trap contains a wedge of cheese with a festive red ribbon placed around. Given the cheese is in a trap, I’m thinking this isn’t the work of one Santa Claus. The narrator ends his narration after the conclusion of the mouse line from the poem, which is Jerry’s cue to emerge from his home.

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Jerry is so stinkin’ adorable throughout this cartoon.

Jerry is a happy little rodent who seems delighted by the festive decor. He pays the cheese no mind as he happily skips over to the Christmas tree which is loaded with gifts and treats. He finds a candy cane and licks the stripe off of it and also manages to get his head stuck in the mouth of a stuffed lion. He soon discovers that same lion has a squeaky toy in its belly, and he delights in bouncing up and down on it to make it squeak. The force of his bounce causes him to bounce off of the lion and come to rest on a soft, furry, gray surface. Mistaking this for another toy, he bounces up and down trying to make it squeak, only to come to find he’s actually bouncing on the rump of one Tom the cat.

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I bet I know how this encounter ends…

Upon being woken up by the careless mouse, Tom takes a swipe at him only for Jerry to avoid him and slap a Do Not Open Until Christmas sticker over his mouth. It’s a frequent gag in old cartoons, even in ones not taking place at Christmas (Daffy Duck Hunt). Tom chases Jerry around the Christmas tree and through the various toys where the characters pause for comic hijinks. Jerry uses the various toys to his advantage, and even demonstrates how cartoon science works. Upon noticing a missing bulb in a string of Christmas lights on the tree, Jerry jumps into the exposed socket and immediately glows like an angel atop a tree. When Tom grabs Jerry he’s immediately electrocuted though Jerry is unharmed.

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…nailed it!

Jerry is able to escape through more toys and comes to rest atop a model train. Tom is forced to stop when the crossing bar for the train is lowered and Jerry goes on by. He’s a bit careless though as he’s knocked from the train when he fails to duck for a tunnel giving Tom an opening. Jerry hides in a boxing glove and is able to jab at Tom who grabs the matching glove. He gives chase once more and Jerry takes shelter in a box, which turns out to be a jack-in-the-box which belts Tom in the face.

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I’ve seen enough cartoons to know it won’t end well for you, Tom, if you touch that mouse.

After recovering from the blow of the toy, Tom gives chase once more and Jerry arms himself with a piece of mistletoe he plucked from a wrapped gift. He stands there holding it over his head while making kissing faces towards Tom. Tom pauses in his pursuit to fold his arms across his chest and feign indifference to Jerry’s advances. He soon softens and appears to be flattered at Jerry’s proposal, eventually giving in and kissing the little mouse. While Tom is basking in the the afterglow of the smooch, Jerry slips behind him and kicks him in the butt.

tom and jerry mistletoe

Mistletoe:  the only aphrodisiac that works on sight.

Tom, now wounded both physically and emotionally, chases Jerry once more who jumps through the mail slot in the door and escapes outside. From there he’s able to pelt Tom with a well-aimed snowball through the mail slot, but it’s his final act of mischief as Tom simply piles household objects in front of the door to prevent Jerry from getting back in.

concerned tom

Tom soon begins to worry about that adorable little mouse.

Satisfied he’s dealt with the mouse, Tom grabs a fluffy pillow and prepares to lay down beside a roaring fire. As he does so the mournful tunes of “Silent Night” begin to play, and Tom looks over at the blocked mail slot with some concern. Jerry is shown pacing back and forth in the snow outside. The camera jumps between the two as the volume of the music increases. Tom tries to distract himself, but it’s clear he’s experiencing some guilt over trapping the mouse out in the cold. Jerry continues to pace as the snow accumulates around him eventually overtaking him. When Tom can’t stand it any longer, he races over to the door and removes the blockage. He then hides behind a corner and waits for Jerry to come back in. When he doesn’t, Tom opens the door and sees a snow-covered object sticking up from out of the snow. He grabs it and it at first resembles a popsicle. He shakes it to reveal a frozen Jerry and he races back inside.

frozen jerry

A mousicle.

By the fire, Tom thaws Jerry out by the tail and places him on his pillow. As Jerry comes to, he’s at first scared to see Tom but is soon gifted a candy cane from the now softened cat. He happily licks it while Tom goes over to a bowl of milk to indulge himself. Jerry then races over to stop Tom from drinking the milk. He plunges the candy cane into the milk splashing Tom in the process, but also triggering a mouse trap he had apparently hidden in the milk for his adversary. Tom smiles and returns to his milk while Jerry heads for his nook. He pauses outside it and takes note of the wrapped cheese wedge on the mouse trap. Using the hooked end of his candy cane, he safely removes the cheese only for the trap to snap-back and reveal it wasn’t a trap at all, but a music box which plays “Jingle Bells.” As the song plays, Jerry looks to the camera with glee as the short ends.

jerry rescue

Jerry repays the favor, because Christmas.

The Night Before Christmas is a delightful little short starring Tom and Jerry. It contains the chase scenes the duo is known for while also putting a Christmas spin on everything. The layout of the home and the various Christmas decorations creates a very festive setting. It’s a home I want to visit for Christmas. The sweet conclusion of the short is also the right note to strike for a Christmas themed cartoon. It’s interesting that MGM was willing to show Tom and Jerry in such a light after only a few shorts, but it’s still sweet nonetheless and for most people who actually view it today I doubt it feels too soon. There’s plenty of festive music as well, and I’m glad the short didn’t include the entire poem it borrows its title from. This is also the only post this year that is duplicative of acartoonchristmas.com, but it’s so wonderful I think there’s plenty of room for many posts like this.

jerrys happy xmas

Just look at that happy little guy!

Visually the short is near breathtaking. Jerry is so plump and happy and his expressions feel authentic and genuine. I love how happy he is just checking out all of the Christmas toys under the tree and his expression to close short is perfection. Tom has a nice scruff to his appearance, considering he is a tom cat after all, but he too is capable of all manner of expressions. I really enjoyed the back and forth between he and Jerry during the mistletoe scene, and Tom’s anguish over Jerry being locked out in the cold was played well. The characters do not speak, so it falls on the animators to make sure we understand what they’re experiencing in the moment. A particular triumph is when Tom removes the obstruction from the door in hopes that Jerry will return. He hides behind the wall likely because he’s not entirely sure he’s comfortable with Jerry knowing he extended such a courtesy to him, but all the while the look of fear is etched on his face that the little mouse is no more.

Tom and Jerry cartoons may not air on television much anymore, but they’re still easy to come by. This particular short has been released several times on home video including the Christmas themed Tom and Jerry: Santa’s Little Helpers and the Blu-ray release Tom and Jerry Golden Collection Volume One. If you just want to see this short and aren’t interested in purchasing a DVD or Blu-ray, you probably won’t have much trouble finding it online for free to stream. And I totally recommend it as this is right up there with my favorite Christmas shorts from Disney.


Dec. 1 – George & Junior’s Christmas Spectacular

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George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular (1995)

Welcome to the inaugural post in this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot! We’re giving you a write-up each day in December as we march towards Christmas that will hopefully help give you a sense of that wonderful Christmas feeling. This year’s countdown is starting things off with a mostly forgotten short from 1995’s What A Cartoon Show! which aired on Cartoon Network and was basically a proving ground for new animation. Viewers would watch a block of new shorts and could phone in at the end of the episode to vote on their favorite. The most popular shorts would go on to become full-fledged shows in their own right. This was the birth place for many of Cartoon Network’s mid to late 90s original programming including Dexter’s Laboratory, Courage the Cowardly Dog, Johnny Bravo, The Powerpuff Girls, and others.

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G&J as they appeared in 1946 for their debut short.

Patrick A. Ventura directed six of these shorts and had the distinction of being one of those directors whose works never went to become a series. And as we’ll see with this post, it was mostly with good reason. Ventura has credits all throughout the 80s and 90s as a character designer, writer, director, and so on for lots of popular properties and some not so popular ones. For a pair of shorts he did for Cartoon Network he dug through the archives and resurrected two Tex Avery characters the public had largely ignored, the bear duo of George and Junior.

George and Junior are two bears that probably felt pretty familiar when they first showed up in 1946. George is the short and bossy character who fancies himself the brains of the duo, and he is, but only because the other half of the duo is so incompetent. Junior is a large, rotund, man-bear-child with very limited intelligence. He often begins every sentence with an “Uhhh” or a “Duhhh” before asking George what he should do. Avery was apparently fond with such pairings as you can find basically the same thing in other shorts where the characters may be cats or dogs. They also had the bit of when Junior would mess up George would command him to bend over so he could kick him in the ass as punishment.

Ventura resurrected the characters for two shorts in 1995, “Look Out Below” and “George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular,” and the latter is naturally what this post is most concerned with. The duo are largely the same as they were in the 40s, only with a new look that Ventura used on basically all of his shorts from this era such as Yuckie Duck and Sledgehammer O’Possum. This style made the characters look a lot uglier and the animation was often minimal. The characters are usually stationary except for over-exaggerated mouth flaps and flailing noodle arms.

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Characters typically get even uglier when speaking as is the case for Steve in this shot.

The short opens with George and Junior delivering mail to Santa’s Workshop in The North Pole. Just as they arrive though Santa departs. Steve the head elf (voiced by T.K. Carter), his status as such displayed via onscreen text, admonishes the duo for arriving so late with the last letter for Santa before telling them they’ll have to deliver it themselves so that some poor sap’s Christmas isn’t ruined. George (John Rubinow) tells him off but the other elves show up to grab the pair and they’re placed in Santa outfits and dropped into a ragged looking sleigh that’s apparently the rusted out frame of an old car. They get the back-up reindeer as well, which is headed by Randalf blue-nosed mule.

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George preparing to deliver the present, note the noodle arm syndrome.

The deer/mule team leads the duo to the only house on their list, and promptly dumps them off the roof because they’re positioned in single file and can’t physically fit everything on top of the house. They dust themselves off and proceed inside, where we get our first “bend over, Junior” after Junior (Tony Pope) crushes George after following him down the chimney. George kicks him so hard the fur flys off of his ass and the commotion awakens Greta. Greta is an ugly little dog who was enjoying a nice snooze beside her dish filled with chicken and booze. A yellowish liquid surrounds her bed which may be drool or it may be urine – this cartoon is pretty gross in style so either is plausible. Greta assumes the two are bandits and gives chase. Repeating backgrounds are the name of the game with the chase and the production values are not looking too high. George and Junior find themselves dumped outside after Greta uses a wreath to lasso them and toss them through a window.

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They love the eye bug-out gag almost as much as the noodle arms.

George, apparently really determined to deliver this gift, gets the bright idea to tunnel into the house. The sequence is actually done without dialogue opting only for visuals as the two dig their way into the house only to emerge in the toilet where Greta is in the midst of dropping a deuce. She flushes them, and presumably goes back to her dirty, sinful business. George them decides to have Junior just try and see if the door is unlocked, it wasn’t, but Junior’s freakish strength makes it moot when he pulls the door off its hinges. The two sneak in and George decides he’s going to creep over to the tree and leave the present. Before he goes he hands Junior an oversized candy cane and tells him to bop the dog if it chases him out. Greta naturally chases him, and Junior also naturally bashes George instead – repeatedly. This leads to the second bend over gag and this time George kicks Junior’s ass write off of his body which lands on George and crushes him.

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That’s some kick.

Greta resumes the chase, and when George and Junior scream their heads resemble real bears in what may be the best visual gag of the episode (though the previous slab of ass was kind of funny too). They run up the Christmas tree, so the dog chops it down. When George and Junior land in a Jack-in-the-box Greta need only turn the crank to send them flying out of the house once more. Fed up with everything, George instructs Junior to saw a hole in the roof and they’ll just dump the gift, but Junior cuts a hole around the two and they both fall in on top of Greta. Greta then sees the gift, which is for her – a shiny new fire hydrant to defecate on! She’s overjoyed and immediately heads into the bathroom with it and even remembers to grab a book. Santa arrives (also voiced by T.K. Carter and sounding like a stoned jazz man) and thanks them somewhat awkwardly by giving them a gift before he floats back up the chimney. They open the present to find an adorable little white cat, that of course once acknowledged goes nuts and scratches the hell out of them thus bringing this cartoon to a much needed conclusion.

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George’s last resort. By this point we all know giving Junior a saw is a terrible idea.

When this short first aired in 1995 I liked it. I thought it was gross, stupid, and funny and I probably hoped that George and Junior would get their own show. Now when I watch it I see it as a lazy, unfunny, short that tries to invoke memories of classic Tex Avery but without any nuance, charm, or purpose. The audio contains mostly public domain Christmas music with little dialogue, which is fine and expected. The sound effects though make frequent use of squishy, fart noises that I may have found funny when I was 11, but they do nothing for me now. A random fart noise is not a joke. Visually, the characters are all ugly which is fine since they’re also not really supposed to be likable. Even Santa Claus comes across as having a “Who cares?” attitude with his brief cameo. What’s less acceptable is just how little animation is present. Maybe Cartoon Network wouldn’t give Ventura much money to make this thing, but it’s also present in his other shorts. Characters just don’t move much, and when they do, there’s almost no transition animation making all of the characters very jumpy. Instead of having them actually move to do something, it just takes the lazy route of having their arms stretch to complete tasks which is neither funny nor interesting to look at.

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Santa does make a brief cameo at the end to thank the boys.

Christmas-wise, this short at least does pass the test of having recognizable Christmas decor. George and Junior are both dressed as Santa and there’s a Christmas tree, wreath, and snow man, plus all of the different Christmas tunes. It’s not lazily adopting another Christmas story as parody, though the “Character fills in for Santa” routine has been done a lot as well, even by Hannah Barbera. I also do appreciate the attempt to revive a forgotten cartoon duo for another chance at stardom, even if it’s not done particularly well by this or by the other ’95 short. “George and Junior’s Christmas Spectacular” is neither spectacular nor is it likely to put you in the Christmas spirit, but it is a cartoon centered around the holiday so it’s at least deserving of coverage on a small WordPress.com blog. Now lets never speak of it again.


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