Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Love's Labor Lost" (Vernon Stallings, 1920)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

Admission time: I've never quite understood the appeal of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which knowledgeable people often list among the greatest comic strips of all time. Oh, I respect it. I recognize that Herriman was a tremendous artist with a great talent for laying out an adventure across an entire page. And I appreciate how sexually ambiguous it was allowed to be, something that wouldn't have flown in newspaper strips just a couple of decades later.

But I don't actually enjoy it. In college, I read the entire 1946 hardcover collection (with introduction by E. E. Cummings!). It felt like homework, I didn't laugh, and it mostly just left me puzzled.

My initial explanation for why I didn't like it was that maybe the strip's unique dialect just hasn't aged well. Every strip has an awful lot of clipped words that need to be sounded out. But I love E. C. Segar's Popeye and Walt Kelly's Pogo, and none of the characters in those strips talk like any human being ever has or ever will. So I disregarded that theory.

I made peace with my dislike of the strip, deciding that I'm just a whippersnapper who can't appreciate great things from the days when cartoonists drew for a living instead of Xeroxing a bunch of talking heads. Whatever the reason, I always felt like I missed out on Krazy Kat, and that made me sad.

And then I saw "Love's Labor Lost," which has a gag where Ignatz Mouse hits Krazy over the head with a mandolin and then strolls away, playing and singing joyfully. I guess the dialogue might have been my problem after all, because this cartoon doesn't have any. And it's hilarious.

Actually, Krazy himself makes little more than a cameo in this cartoon. He has scenes totaling almost exactly one minute of the three-and-a-half minute running time, and the strip's other regular character, Ignatz's oppressor Offissa Pup, is nowhere to be found. The focus is on a completely different love triangle, with Ignatz and an elephant vying for a hippo's affections.

Perhaps the single most interesting element, for me, is the way it foreshadows a cartoon icon of the following decade. Popeye didn't make his comic strip debut until 1929 - or his first film until 1933 - but the elephant's story here almost plays like a Popeye spoof. After drinking the entire barrel of "Beevo" (what a great name!), he gains super-strength and even flexes his forearms. Then he heads off to defeat the bully who stole his girl.

But, see, it's funny because the bully is a tiny mouse and he's a big giant elephant. And also, when he goes back to get his revenge, he straight-up kills Ignatz (or so it seems in the moment). I know that "Bully steals girl from little guy" wasn't invented for Popeye or even Charles Atlas, but it feels so specific here. Both of those elements play exactly like subversions of the Popeye formula.

And then Krazy's tears of sadness cause a flower to grow, and that flower sprouts Ignatz Mouse, and that mouse throws a brick at Krazy's head.

That's seriously so wonderful that it makes me want to go read three hundred pages of the Krazy Kat comic strip.

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