What’s Going On In Gasoline Alley? February – May 2017


And as with my other low-daisy-content story strip reviews, this one might be out of date. This post should be good for explaining plot developments in the couple of months before late May of 2017. If it’s later than, oh, August 2017 when you read this, then if all’s gone to plan I have a new post updating things further. My most recent Gasoline Alley posts should be at the top of this link. Thanks for reading and I’ll do my best to be not too wrong in describing the goings-on.

Gasoline Alley, 27 February – 26 May 2017.

Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley has four major kinds of storyline, with many variations possible in those types. Three have been seen since late February. The missing one is the magical-fantasy storyline, wherein Walt Wallet or crew visit the Old Comics Home or something similar. The kind of story that just warps what reality could be. That hasn’t been around the last few months.

The second time is your classic old-style sitcom, ah, situation. The kind where one of the main cast has some scheme that gets advanced and then falls apart. You know, every sitcom from the 50s and 60s, and many of the radio sitcoms from the 40s. It’s an old-fashioned format but it’s still a perfectly workable one. Last time we looked at Gasoline Alley they were coming near the end of one of these. Walt Wallet had been invited to the TV show Shark Bait to pitch inventors his idea: put every household appliance together in one big raging appliance monster. The millionaire or billionaires (the strip made a point of raising confusion about this) don’t see how it would work, and one of them finds that exactly this idea was patented by the Hotenkold Appliance Company in 1935 and still makes the things. As predicted by everyone who’s encountered stories before, Walt Wallet does not go home wealthy. (The strip didn’t pay off the millionaire-or-billionaire question.)

'Skeezix! Do you think it was worth the embarrassment going on the 'Shark Bait' TV show?' 'Well, you're richer by $500 and a case of cereal, Uncle Walt!' In the other car: 'Boog! I want Chipper to look at you when he checks out Aubee!' 'Can he multitask?'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 7th of March, 2017. One storyline gives way to another. Yes, Boog is the kid’s name and yes, much of the online comics snark-reading community is horrified by his name and his appearance but that’s just because he has those huge devouring-void black dots of eyes that suggest the Mirror Universe Dondi.

The strip passed things off to Hoogy Skinner and her kids Boog and Aubee, for a medical check. This led a couple of weeks of pediatrician jokes and let us follow the Physician Assistant, Chipper Wallet, into the third of the stock Gasoline Alley plot kinds. And I’d like to mention the smoothness of the segue: we followed Walt Wallet out of the TV show plot, passed off by switching from one car to the next with characters that brought us to Chipper Wallet, and from that into his story. It’s all smoothly done; I wonder if daily readers even notice they’re being passed on like that.

Chipper: 'I love my kids and am proud they decided to go into the medical field ... ' 'Excuse me, Chipper! I hate to interrupt, but there's someone here to see you!' 'Who's that, Reg?' 'You'll see.' In the distance a barely visible woman approaches.
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 18th of April, 2017. I never spend time discussing this in the main articles so let’s take some here. Boy does Scancarelli draw well. The scenes are well-composed and nicely balanced, and look at how good Wallet’s hair and beard look in the second panel there. The third panel is also a treat; comic strips rarely get to display depth of field, but here it is, used for good dramatic effect.

Anyway, this third kind of storyline is the public service announcement. Chipper Wallet leaves the office to drive to Durham, North Carolina, where he’s to speak at the dedication of the Veteran’s Memorial Garden of the Physician Assistant Society. Wallet gets waylaid by some car trouble and meets Reverend Neil Enpray and mechanic Don Yonder whom I’m just going to assume are from the Earth-2 Gasoline Alley. They gave me the vibe of being established characters but I don’t know the canon nearly well enough to guess. But it’s mostly a chance for the characters to explain to the reader about what they are, what they do, why they’re important. The story ends with Wallet being reunited with a woman he, as a Navy Hospital Corpsman in Vietnam, helped deliver a child. As I say, a bit of story and a good bit of public service announcement. It’s also a chance to fundraise for the historical society.

Scruffy: 'I ain't ate since yestidy!' Rufus: 'Well, hadn't yo' better run home an' get yo' momma t'feed you'? 'T'aint my day t'eat! It's my sister's turn!'
Jim Scancarelli’s Gasoline Alley for the 12th of May, 2017. I know this is my own peculiarity, but: oh, I’m not looking forward to this. Not because I expect the story to end badly. I project it turning out pretty well for Scruffy and his family. But just because I know, deep down, there’s a depressing number of real-world families going through this and the story will end without things getting better for most of them, and that’s the sort of thing that breaks my heart. It’s not Scancarelli’s fault, and I certainly don’t blame him for telling a story about one of those sadly realistic problems and having it turn out well for his characters. But it does make me think of deep down what a rubbish job we do at having a society.

And this led into the current storyline, one of the fourth type. It’s the weepy melodrama. It stars Joel and Rufus, two of the (bluntly) stupider adults in the strip. They’re usually busy with more outlandish hijinks and misunderstandings. (The segue for this story was Rufus bringing his cat in to see Chipper Wallet on the grounds that of course he’s a vet; he served in the Coast Guard.) Rufus has just met Scruffy, a kid whose family just moved into the abandoned old grist mill and is so poor they can only use parts of the Walt Kelly Pogofenokee comic-strip-southern dialect. The story’s in its earliest days so not much has been established past that the family’s desperately poor. I expect this is going to lead Rufus and Joel in a story in which they make some grand and slightly overcomplicated gesture to help that which misfires but still results in their being a little better off. (At this stage it’s playing Santa Claus Running Late. This may evolve.) That’s the kind of story Gasoline Alley does.

The Sunday strips have all been one-off jokes, mostly characters setting up and delivering corny old gags well, and not part of any continuing storylines. That’s fine and pleasant but there’s no context I can usefully give to them. They’re whole on their own.

Another Blog, Meanwhile Index

The index rose eleven points as everyone was relieved to learn everyone else had clicked on that silly clickbait ad about ten ways to earn money from your hobby and there was no reason everyone should feel ashamed that, like, apparently there’s people whose hobby is investing in real estate? I mean, come on. Anyway the index is at 210 and that’s not even an all-time high and isn’t that amazing too? It’s amazing, yes.

210

Betty Boop: Goodbye, Freddie, nice knowing you


I decided to look at another Fearless Fred Betty Boop cartoon this week. I might do one more, at the risk of exhausting his catalogue. This week’s is also Freddy’s last outing, No! No! A Thousand Times No!, originally released the 24th of May, 1935. How could I resist something so close to its 80th anniversary?

As with his debut, She Wronged Him Right, this is a story set in the frame of a theater. It’s not the same theater as in that cartoon, nor in Betty Boop’s Prize Show. So the Fleischers might be recycling general ideas, but not swiping old animation for new cartoons yet.

The cartoon is enjoyable but also confusing. The animation is merry, the story strong and funny. The framing of the stage allows for neat optical illusions and ingenious tricks to suggest how the show might be done on an actual stage. But why have the stage?

The plot is fairly strong and linear. There’s room for a few of the classic Fleischer-y flights of fancy, though, such as the Dick Dastardly-esque villain’s morphing into a wolf, and topping that by putting on a sheep costume. So why did the Fleischers bother with the framing? Why not just declare in the title that it was set in the era of the Spoof Melodrama? There’s some fun in the convention that all this is happening on stage, but several of the jokes, like the inset shots of the diamond ring or the plate of pearl-carrying oysters, would not be visible on stage. They only make sense as inset shots on screen.

I wonder if the Fleischers supposed that Betty Boop was necessarily a contemporary character who couldn’t be tossed into an arbitrary background. Popeye and, to the best of my knowledge, Koko the Clown similarly were almost always set in a contemporary world. If they were to go to medieval times there would be some explicit in-cartoon reason for the diversion. Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves is explicitly set in the contemporary world, and the Popeye cartoon Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp is framed as a screenplay.

Yet this cartoon was released almost a year after Poor Cinderella, in which Betty explicitly plays a character and successfully so. Perhaps, having experimented with the Spoof Victorian Melodrama and this framing device before, they felt the need to stick with it.

It’s a shame because at least part of the dullness of later Betty Boop cartoons is that they got too similar and too routine. Betty could have played a character in a strange setting, especially in fairy tale or spoofs. Why not do more like this?

Betty Boop: So who’s this Freddy character anyway?


Last week’s Betty Boop cartoon, Betty Boop’s Life Guard, raised the musical question of “Where’s Freddy?” They put the question in a song that lasted only about two minutes on-screen but which can last in the head for as much as eight years straight. Sorry about that. But at least as good a question is “Who’s this Freddy person again, exactly?”

Freddy, or Fearless Fred, is Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, for a half-dozen cartoons in 1934 and 1935. It’s repeatedly claimed he was created because under the enforced Production Code Betty Boop couldn’t be dating Bimbo — a dog — once she was finally established as human. I suspect that’s not a complete answer, though. If the Fleischers just wanted Betty Boop to pair up with a human, why not Koko the Clown? He was unmistakably human, and had been on screen for fifteen years, and even canoodled a bit with Betty now and then. Or why not humanize Bimbo? Why add a new character?

My suspicion is that Freddy reflects the discovery of personality. Cartoon characters didn’t lack personality before the early 1930s, but they did tend to be less distinct. Bimbo is faintly pleasant, kind of playful, a little mischievous, easily intimidated: what you’d get from a talented high school theater class producing their very own Little Tramp sketch. You see almost the same personality as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as Bosko and then Foxy over at Warner Brothers. The biggest difference is in how much the characters seem like blackface jokes.

Soon, though, cartoon characters with personality started taking over. Betty Boop was a forerunner. Goofy appears in 1932; Popeye and his cast in 1933. Donald Duck would appear in 1934. They’re characters of a different order from Bimbo or even Koko. I believe that Fearless Freddy was an attempt to give Betty Boop, and the studio, a credible male lead who has character. And to support this I’d like to show the first cartoon with Fearless Freddy, She Wronged Him Right, which debuted the 5th of January, 1934.

His introductory cartoon is a theatrical performance. Fearless Freddy, Betty Boop, and Heeza Rat play out some versions of themselves. Two of his other appearances, Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No!, his final appearance, would use the same framing device. The plot is the grand Spoof Victorian Melodrama of the sort we all thought was done to perfection by Dudley Do-Right. Perhaps it was; but the Spoof Victorian Melodrama was also being done very well in the 1930s, and in the silent movie era, and for that matter by the Victorians themselves.

At some point you have to wonder if the Victorian Melodrama was ever played straight. You wonder more once you learn that silent movie melodrama villains never tied women to railroad tracks. If you see one, it’s from a spoof. This cartoon is part of a curious genre that seems to exist only as a parody. There’s something weird here.

But you can see why a figure like Bimbo just won’t cut it for a Spoof Victorian Melodrama, and why even Koko wouldn’t do. The role has to be cast by someone who looks the part even as he looks ridiculous. Fearless Fred, helplessly dragged behind a horse, can make the best of his plight by declaring “I think I’ll go this way” and make sense. If Bimbo made the same declaration it would sound like the cartoon was nervous about nobody saying anything for too long.

The stage-set framing adds some weirdness to the look of the cartoon. Sets slide in and out, and people walk on the sets within a fixed proscenium. It’s more fun to watch than it probably would have been without the stage convention. Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No! have even more fun with using stage mechanics to suggest complicated lines of motion and that’s a fun, dizzying, hypnotic illusion.

Outside his roles as a stage character Fearless Fred would play a lifeguard, a soldier (against an army of giant mosquitoes), and a traffic cop. They’re not far off the Spoof Victorian Melodrama hero-role and he’s affably not-quite-ept in them all. While he’s not as strong a character as (say) Wimpy, or even Gabby (from the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and some spinoff cartoons), he’s a good step forward. He doesn’t steal a scene from Betty Boop, but it’s at least thinkable that he might.

Charley Chase: A Versatile Villain


I’d like to offer another silent comedy here, this one 1915’s A Versatile Villain, starring Charley Chase. You probably don’t recognize the name and that’s honestly fair enough as his heyday was 85 years ago and he wasn’t in the top tier of silent (or early talkie) comedians. Even his name sounds like an attempt at the mockbuster equivalent of Charlie Chaplin. But he still did some fine work.

A Versatile Villain is also pretty neat in being the sort of parody of Victorian melodrama that’s pretty near the only way anyone sees Victorian melodramas; it’s easy to see the conceptual heritage to, well, Dudley Do-Right, down to the shacks of crates marked DYNAMITE and all that. It’s enough to make you wonder if there were ever a time that this sort of story was being told except for the comic thrill of finding it all ridiculous. I’m inclined to believe that no, these stories have pretty much been absurd exaggeration from the start, or pretty near, that curious sort of entertainment that spoofs something which doesn’t quite really exist, or at least exists nothing like its spoofs do.

The video is available at archive.org, but since I can’t embed that, here’s a YouTube version:

Railroad Track Villainy Updates


The blog Movies, Silently addressed recently one of those questions you never realize you always wondered about until after you hear it asked: in silent movies, who was the villain who was always tying women to train tracks? Basically, who was Snidely Whiplash a parody of? The answer’s surprising and I don’t wish to spoil it, so I’ll not say.

In another article on the same topic, Movies, Silently points out a curious phenomenon: the “heroine tied to the railroad track” gimmick is much more evident in parody — Mack Sennett films particularly, or in homages or tributes or just jokes about how they used to do things — than in the original record. (Admittedly there’s a problem studying the original record in that so much of it has been lost.) That is, the heroine gets tied to the railroad track because people think they’re riffing on the cliche of heroines getting tied to the railroad track, when the actual source is a lot less … well, visible, at least.

There seems to me a conceptual parallel in something that sounds unrelated: impersonations of Elvis Presley and (since Elvis has faded some, at least in my social circles) William Shatner. You know how they sound in parody; what’s shocking is to go back and listen to an actual Elvis record, or the original Star Trek, and compare to the source. At some point impersonations started doing comic exaggerations of one another, with any reference to the original forgotten, and now there’s this thing that is “a William Shatner impersonation” that hasn’t got anything to do with the source. Of course, since it communicates, and entertains, and amuses, it’s serving some purpose, but it’s still, really, a weird phenomenon.