Saturday, July 8, 2017

Hold the Lion, Please

Animation Nation

By Steve Herte

Hold the Lion, Please (WB, 1942) – Director: Chuck Jones. Writer: Tedd Pierce. Animation: Ken Harris, Robert Cannon (uncredited), Ben Washam (uncredited). Background: Gene Fleury (uncredited), Bernyce Polifka (uncredited). Layout: John McGrew. Voices: Mel Blanc, Tex Avery (uncredited), Harry Lang (uncredited), Tedd Pierce (uncredited). Color, 8 minutes.

It was in my teens that I discovered my horoscope sign, Leo, the Lion. Since then I’ve embraced the qualities and tried to minimize the weaknesses of such a proud and strong symbol. Everywhere I’ve traveled is remembered in lion memorabilia, be it a photograph of the statue of Cuthbert in London, the two outside the Chicago Museum of Art, or Patience and Fortitude in front of the main library in New York. Most of the images and figurines are dignified and life-like. A few, like my statuette of Burt Lahr as the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz (1939) are less “lion-like” and some are just silly. And speaking of silly brings me to the cartoon in question.

Hold The Lion, Please is a Chuck Jones cartoon in the Merrie Melodies series that pits an out of shape, not too bright lion against a developing Bugs Bunny character. I say developing because Bugs is in the middle stages of transformation from an annoying, looney prankster to the suave, wise-cracking victim we know today, who always gets the best of a situation.

The cartoon opens with a hippo (voiced by Tex Avery) bathing (not wallowing in mud like a real hippo – he even cleans the bath tub ring before toweling off), a giraffe and a monkey touting the short-comings of Leo, who sits nearby. “There he is. The King of the Jungle, The Mighty Hunter, The Killer of the Congo.” (Note: there are no lions in jungles or even in the Congo.) To each of these titles Leo nods his head excessively. “Why that palooka (an old boxing term for a loser) couldn’t catch a rabbit!” Leo is still nodding as if it were another flattering title. He suddenly realizes he’s been insulted and tries to prove he’s still got it by striking a comic boxing pose, but though he jabs out with his right paw, his left paw socks him in the jaw. The three taunters are hysterical with laughter. Getting angry, Leo tries to roar, but when he opens his jaws we see only a few teeth, none of them sharp, and his roar gets choked off in a cough. The other animals feign fright by pretending to pick up their skirts and back away. As they continue to laugh, Leo stalks off to prove he can catch a rabbit.

Being a lion aficionado, I feel sorry for Leo but I know which rabbit he’s going to encounter. The familiar laugh of Tex Avery as the hippo has been heard in other cartoons, but this one is significant because it’s the last one before he left Warner Brothers for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Leo’s misguided hunting technique sees him walking upright holding a carrot by the bottom tip, calling out, “Here, bunny, here rabbit!” as if he were calling a dog. He breaks the fourth wall to inform the audience, “Carrots are good for rabbits.” In a clearing, he comes upon a railroad crossing sign bearing the words “Stop, Look, Rabbit Tracks.” There’s a sound of a train approaching and Bugs Bunny zooms by smoking a cigar (for the smoke effect). We hear brakes applied, he backs up, snatches the carrot, and zooms off.

Our slow-witted feline suddenly reacts with recognition that he just saw the rabbit. He zips after Bugs but has to screech to a halt as he approaches the hollow log seen in many Warner Brothers’ cartoons. Instead of going off a cliff though, he skids into it backwards and shoots out the other end with his head in his front paws, mane covering them. When he lifts up his head, he’s cradling Bug Bunny. At this point, any lion worth his stuff would have started chowing down. Not Leo. He talks with Bugs. Bugs pulls out a carrot from a cigarette holder as Leo pushes invisible buttons in his paw to extend his claws (one of which turns out to be a cork screw, for which he’s embarrassed). Leo swipes at Bugs with his claws and only connects with the carrot Bugs holds out, slicing it neatly. “That’s a nice trick, Doc. Can you do this?” Bugs wiggles his ears. Leo struggles to do so but can’t. He gets frustrated and angrily announces to Bugs that he’s a lion.

Bugs starts a string of logic that if Leo is a lion (to wit), then he’s to be scared (unto wit), and suddenly, he realizes that he is scared and goes into a screaming fit. This time Bugs breaks the fourth wall by speaking the words “Shriek, shriek, scream, scream” to the audience and makes an elaborate, terrified exit.

In the next scene, Bugs, wearing a lady’s gardening bonnet is picking carrots, snipping off the greens and singing “When The Swallows Come Back to Capistrano,” For the first time, Leo acts like a lion and stalks Bugs crawling close to the ground (but in obvious, full view). When Bugs notices him, he stops, nonchalantly whistling. The scene continues and Leo creeps closer. When Bugs sees him again he pretends to be swimming the backstroke to the “Blue Danube.” But when Leo pounces, Bugs escapes, losing his bonnet to the lion’s head.

Bugs heads for his rabbit hole and sets up a door (which we’ve seen him do in other cartoons). Leo (of course) knocks. “Who is it?” “It’s me. The Lion.” Bugs opens the door and starts giggling, then laughing at the lion, now wearing the bonnet. He holds up a mirror and the lion starts laughing uncontrollably. Bugs takes the opportunity to re-position the door and slams it shut. “Hey, let me outta here!” says Leo banging on the door. Bugs reaches around the door to show him the key, but snatches it back before Leo can grab it.

The door-to-nowhere is so Bob Clampett. One is reminded of Porky Pig’s adventure with the Dodo. Rather than just going around the door, Leo takes several steps back and gets a running start to (hopefully) push open the door, but Bugs opens it as he gets there and he flies through off-scene and we hear a crashing sound. Chuckling, Bugs walks through the door to encounter a snarling, bandaged lion. He tries to escape but Leo’s too angry now and pins him to the ground.

As Leo raises a claw to strike however, a telephone rings in Bug’s rabbit hole. “It’s for you.” He hands it to Leo. His anger drains away and is replaced by fear as he speaks to his wife Hortense and beats an embarrassed retreat. “Sorry I can’t stick around and kill ya.”

Bugs discusses the fact with the audience that the King of the Jungle isn’t even master of his own home. But as soon as he states that he wears the pants in his family (strictly a euphemism, Bugs rarely wears pants at all) we suddenly see a female rabbit and a sign appears identifying her as Mrs. Bugs Bunny. “What’s up, Doc, Dear?” she says and he slinks into his burrow. This is the only time we see her in any cartoon. She has the last line, “who wears the pants in this family?” She raises her skirt and a pair of pants covers her legs. The End.

This cartoon, in the middle stages of Bugs’ development, is also one of the few times he shows fear. Yes, he realizes danger later on but he never slinks away from anyone, actually cowering. We know him as the one who is harassed until we hear the line, "Of course you realize this means war!" And…he’s still being drawn similarly to the way he originated, the oval head with few defining features and the short stature.

The ice-water hoarse tone of Leo’s voice reveals Tedd Pierce’s characteristic sound. He put that voice on for the cartoon of course. Ted actually sang second tenor in a barbershop quartet and provided coming-attractions voice-overs for Universal Pictures. Having been a barbershop singer myself, I know they love to have an “afterglow party” after each performance and Pierce indulged avidly in parties. At these parties, Chuck Jones would hear of Pierce’s love exploits (true or not) and used them as a model for the lovelorn skunk, Pepe LePew.

Leo is, as I said, not the prime example of a lion, but he’s fun in a backward sort of way and respectable when his dander is up. That’s one thing I read in the horoscope of a Leo. Don’t get them angry. In a discussion, they’ll insist that they’re the only ones who are right. I try to control that and think of all points of view. Even though the main character is silly, Hold The Lion, Please is a special part of my lion collection.

A note for the younger readers. Before cellphones, there were phones with rotary dials most texters would not even recognize. But before that, there were phones that only required picking up the receiver and an operator would connect you to your party. What’s an operator? Ever seen Lily Tomlin do her routine as Ernestine? If not look it up on YouTube. Operators were famous for the line, “Hold the line, please” when they were connecting you. Hence the punny title of this cartoon. You might know it simply as a computer saying, “Please hold.”

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