The Sixteenth Talkartoon: Tree Saps


I have to skip another cartoon in this Talkartoons progress. The fifteenth, Ace of Spades, was apparently lost for decades. Wikipedia says the cartoon was found in 2010. I don’t have a copy. If you have one, let me know, I’d be interested to see.

So here’s the next of them. It was originally released the 3rd of February, 1931 — a busy week; next week’s Talkartoon was released the 7th — and animated by Grim Natwick and Ted Sears, both of whom have had mentions here before. It’s “Tree Saps”. And, ah, a quick content warning. Al Jolson. (Well, a blackface gag.) It’s the tag of the short, after the building finishes falling down.

I’ll get to the first 7 minutes, 16 seconds of this 7 minute, 35 second short in a bit. But I have got a rhetorical question: why did like every cartoon of this era think it was a killer gag to have a character get blackened up and then call out “Mammy?” I mean, yes, I get that Al Jolson was as big a star then as he isn’t now. And that it’s a easy joke to make. But it’s not much of a joke. It’s more a moment of “remember this popular thing and giggle!” I know, we always have these things. And it’s easy in a moment of twitchiness while trying to think of something funny to call on it. I suppose it stands out because blackface gags have a social charge to them that, like, an Austin Powers impersonation hasn’t gathered. I’d rather they have worked a little harder back then.

Up to that point, though, it’s an amiable cartoon. The title suggests a logging camp and that’s just what we get. I’m a little curious what the earliest logging camp cartoon is; it doesn’t seem like it’s a setting anyone uses anymore. Standing out to me is how many of the lumberjacks are asleep, or near asleep. I feel like there’s a payoff to that which is missing.

It’s otherwise a long series of spot jokes about how cutting down trees might go wrong. Easy enough, and the sort of cartoon that can run as long or as short as you need to fill time. Here, it’s about five minutes before the short figures that’s enough lumberjacking, let’s do a chase. And not much of a chase, as a tornado for some reason gets entered into the narrative? I guess it ends the action, and makes for a bunch of silly action in the climax. But why a tornado?

Bimbo doesn’t get to act all screwball this time around. He’s probably the most responsible lumberjack of the bunch. And he keeps losing focus to his seal(?) partner who needs a steady bribe of fish to act. I’m curious why Bimbo’s given such a dull role this cartoon. It’s possible to be an entertaining straight man, but he’s not doing it.

There’s a mouse showing up regularly in the cartoon as one of the lumberjacks, appearing at just before 1:30, 2:15, 3:30, 4:40, and 5:30, the half-minute mark through the whole short. There’s a surprising lack of really body-horror-ish jokes. Also of jokes you miss by blinking. I mean, I like the seal uprooting and replanting a tree that Bimbo keeps missing, but that’s too well clearly presented to miss. I love the musicians playing instruments while thrown in the air, particularly the cats on the fiddle, but again they’re too central to miss. Bimbo grabs and drinks a glass of water while falling, but that isn’t much of a joke either. It’s just activity.

That the lumberjacks play instruments in the end doesn’t come from nowhere. They’re set up for it in the introductory scene. It does give the cartoon the chance to end with action set to the William Tell Overture. Good piece, certainly. The sort of thing that gives a strong beat for the action to play against.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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