Here, with minimal introduction, is my favorite cartoon of all time. It’s from Metro in 1936. This cartoon is a Special Feature on the DVD of “San Francisco,” which I wrote about the other day. I am very fond of “San Francisco,” but am seldom in the mood to look at the whole thing; occasionally, I’m not in the mood to look at any of it. I am, however, always in the mood to look at “Bottles” again. As you will see for yourself, it’s nearly plotless; it’s really nothing more than a ten minute acid trip — most of which is charming and good-natured, but it turns nightmarish in the last minute or so.
No matter how many times I see “Bottles,” it never fails to draw me into its enchantment. I love to see the bath salts dance the Sailors’ Hornpipe while a pair of inflated red rubber gloves whistle the tune. I love to hear the hot water bottle basso sing “Lost in the Cradle of the Deep” to the accompaniment of a tuba. I love how the India ink fakir charms the Cobra Toothpaste from his tube by playing on an eye-dropper oboe. I love the quartet of inebriate medicine droppers who play a woozy waltz melody atop four wine glasses. (By the way, Hitchcock and Waxman used this same waltz in the first reel of “Rebecca”: it underscores the scene in the Monte Carlo hotel restaurant, where Laurence Olivier has breakfast with Joan Fontaine. I have yet to identify its title . . . but I will.) UPDATE (October 10, 2013): I knew that waltz was familiar — it’s from Act I of Tchaikovsky’s “Sleeping Beauty”; Disney did a version of it and titled it “Once upon a Dream.” The tune also appears in the ghastly “Weekend at the Waldorf.”
Look at the fabulous individuality of those four terpsichorean soaks! Each one of them is distinct; each is at a different level of drunkenness. The episode lasts only a few seconds, but what lively seconds they are! The members of the Medicine Dropper Quartet are the drollest drunks I ever saw. They, in particular, take me back to my younger days, when I spent many a carefree night on the dance floor. I know first-hand the euphoria those droppers enjoy as they go circling round the rims. Et in Arcadia ego. And by the time the talcum powder begins to shake snowflakes out of his bum onto the heads of the Dutch boy and girl skaters (courtesy of the Old Mill Perfume display), I’m completely under the spell of “Bottles.” The happy hallucinatory atmosphere delights me. I love the hilarious nightmare that begins at the entrance of the Spirits of Ammonia! I love the Halloween haunted house orchestration. I love all the bassoon music. I love the music throughout the entire cartoon. I love everything about “Bottles.”
Nothing else from the Hugh Harmon/Rudolph Ising “Happy Harmonies” catalogue (which was Metro’s answer to Disney’s “Silly Symphony” series) ever came close to this blissfully weird ten-minute exercise in cheerful surrealism.
“Bottles” was not nominated for an Oscar, of course. Another, much less interesting “Happy Harmonies” cartoon, “The Old Mill Pond,” snagged a nomination, but the award that year went to “The Country Cousin,” one of Disney’s “Silly Symphony” cartoons. It’s standard issue: the animation is excellent, as one expects of a Disney cartoon from that era, but I don’t think it’s half as much fun or nearly so imaginative as “Bottles.” Worse, it’s rife with that same old Disneyesque scorn for urbanity and sophistication that I see and dislike so much in so many of his pictures.
“The Country Cousin” is an eight minute, wordless retelling of the old Country Mouse/City Mouse story. The entire first half of the cartoon relies on variations on a single joke: the newly arrived bumpkin rodent keeps making an unseemly racket and his top-hatted, citified cousin must keep shushing him. At the four minute mark, the bumpkin swallows a great deal of hot mustard, which causes great black plumes of ashy waste to billow from his burning mouth as from a locomotive’s smokestack. To douse the mustard’s fiery corrosion, the rustic innocent drinks off an entire dish of Champagne — this is a Disney cartoon, so drunkenness is immediate and dreadful. (The comic antics in Disney cartoons nearly always involve intense pain or extreme discomfort.) The next three minutes are taken up with the harmful effects of demon alcohol: dizziness, nausea, remorse, loss of balance, belligerence, impairment of judgment, headache . . . the works — everything but the madcap hilarity of light-headedness. The final minute takes the hungover bumpkin out into the nightmare streets of the city, where he must dodge murderously fast traffic that keeps roaring at him from every direction until at last he comes upon a sign that points him back to the bucolic nowhere from whence he came. And back he goes, without bidding his host good-bye — like a Hollywood agent.
It’s interesting to compare the Disney cartoon’s censoriousness about alcohol consumption to the pie-eyed hilarity of the bibulous medicine droppers in “Bottles”: they are seen to be very tipsy indeed, yet while in their cups, they have a grand old time, wear shit-eating grins on their faces and play music in tune. I’ll take Happy Harmonies’ merry tipplers over Disney’s sorehead sots any day. In Disney cartoons, the drunks never have any fun.
Watching the cartoon again made understand why it is in the top of your list.
Glad you can share it with us.