Monday, 8 October 2018

Shit That Scared Matt Groening: No. 35 - Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp

"35. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp."
~ "49 Things That Frightened and Disturbed Me When I was a Kid", Matt Groening (Bart Simpson's Treehouse of Horror #1, 1995)

I'd like to think that, as a species, we've progressed beyond the stage where we're comfortable with seeing primates dressed up in people clothes and paraded around for our own entertainment. At first glance, a show like Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp (an early 1970s spy spoof in which all of the roles are "acted" by chimpanzees in coats and silly wigs) feels like a relic of a bygone era, the kind of grotesque sideshow attraction that would not appeal to modern sensibilities. But then again, it doesn't seem so long ago that TBS attempted something very similar with Monkey-ed Movies, a collection of skits from 1998 in which costumed chimps performed spoofs of contemporary feature films, and which was later expanded into the short-lived series The Chimp Channel in 1999. Clearly, our fascination with self-parody achieved through molding our hairy cousins in our own image lies more deeply ingrained in our culture than we might like to think. It took the UK a long amount of time to fall out of love with the legacy of the "Chimpanzee Tea Party", the long-running public show first hosted by London Zoo in 1926, in which chimpanzees were dressed up and encouraged to drink tea for the amusement of zoo patrons. Although discontinued by London Zoo in 1972, the concept lived on in a popular - and controversial - series of TV ads for PG Tips which ran on until the early 00s (when they were replaced by the T-Birds, a cast of claymation birds brought to life by Aardman Animations).

It's because chimpanzees are so intelligent, and so like us, that seeing them embrace the full catalogue of human behaviour resonates so strongly with us. It tickles our funny bone, but there's undoubtedly an element of the uncanny in it too - the grotesqueness of these "manpanzees" coming as uneasy reminders of both our own fundamental animal nature and the freakish absurdities of our civilised rituals. The suited chimp bridges the gap between human and animal, making us realise what wildly distorted and eccentric beasts we really are. But then, it's because chimpanzees are so intelligent, and so like us, that there are so many additional ethical considerations to be taken into account when making them perform for our own amusement. Having ANY animal perform purely for spectacle's sake raises important questions, of course, but it gets particularly problematic when it comes to our closest relations. A "no animals were harmed in the making" disclaimer might not be enough, in their case. Above all, chimpanzees are social creatures, with their own complex hierarchies and behaviours. Even if the chimps receive a high standard of welfare during production (as I understand the chimps used in Monkey-ed Movies and the PG Tips ads did), too much time spent forcing a chimp to behave like a human can seriously damage that chimp's ability to fit in with and interact with other chimps. In our pursuit of cheap giggles, we risk stranding the unfortunate simian in a kind of no man's (or ape's) land, unable to function as a member of its own species and, due to the dangerously aggressive tendencies of adult chimps, not at all suited to a life among people.

Thus, it's with some trepidation that I approach the next item in STSMG. Speaking as someone who would prefer to see an end to the use of chimpanzees in entertainment altogether, I knew that Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was not going to sit easily with me. Even my enormous love of 1970s kitsch was unlikely to move me beyond that unease. For now, though, I will try to suspend my stance on performing chimps and attempt to judge the series on its entertainment merits and, above all, its ability to unnerve young children.

Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp was a TV series created by Sandler-Burns-Marmers Productions that aired on ABC between September 1970 and January 1971. It was essentially a reworking of Get Smart, the affectionate secret agent parody created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry in 1965 (two of the creators of Lancelot Link, Stan Burns and Mike Marmer, had served as writers on Get Smart), with the twist that all of the characters were chimpanzees. Sounds cute, huh? The chimpanzee cast was trained by Frank Inn (who went on to work with Benjean the dog, better known as Benji, and had a minor onscreen role in one of our all-time favourites here at The Spirochaete Trail, Benji The Hunted), and their chattering mouth movements were synced with dialogue provided by three voice actors - Dayton Allen, Joan Gerber and Bernie Kopell - with Malachi Throne supplying narration. Lancelot Link originally followed a variety show format, in which the spy segments were combined with bloopers, Laugh-In style interstitials and Warner Bros cartoons, although the series was later edited into a more straightforward format for syndication, with the cartoons removed. The show's Wikipedia page makes the (as of now, uncited) claim that, in its original incarnation, it was also broadcast with a laugh track that was taken out of the syndicated version. All I know is that the episode of Lancelot Link I watched on YouTube did not come with a laugh track, and that disappointed me so - if you know about my own love/hate relationship with the sitcom laugh track, and of its roots in one of my earliest childhood phobias, you'll know that there could be no surefire way to make the experience any more freakishly surreal for me.

Like Get Smart, Lancelot Link revolved around the ongoing battle between two agencies, one a force for good, the other for evil. Our CONTROL equivalent was A.P.E. (Agency to Prevent Evil), for whom the titular Link worked as a top agent, alongside his partner, Mata Hairi, and under the leadership of big boss Commander Darwin (in a predictable but still charming running gag, Link would routinely greet Darwin with the catchphrase, "What's your theory, Darwin?"). Standing in for KAOS were C.H.U.M.P. (Criminal Headquarters for the Underworld's Master Plan), led by the nefarious Baron von Butcher (a pastiche of Ludwig von Siegfried from Get Smart - appropriately, Kopell, who played Siegfried in the aforementioned series, provided vocals for his chimp counterpart) and comprising a broad range of ethnic/national stereotypes, including Wang Fu, Ali Assa Seen (see what they did there?) and Dr. Strangemind. There are tertiary characters, like the host of Link's favourite TV show, Ed Simian, who was obviously a pastiche on Ed Sullivan (check out how the chimpanzee in question accentuates its jaw movements during his "really big shew" bit). Lancelot Link was a product of its time in many ways, although certainly none were more telling than its incorporation of a bubblegum pop band, The Evolution Revolution (actually the alter egos of Link and Hairi, with two additional band mates, Bananas Marmoset and Sweetwater Gibbons), who were shoehorned in to provide psychedelic musical interludes and some handy merchandising revenue on the side. In the style of The Archies, The Banana Splits, etc, the fictitious Evolution Revolution landed their own tie-in LP, Lancelot Link and The Evolution Revolution, released by ABC Records in 1970.

Looking through Matt's list, one can identify a running theme in which he was frightened and disturbed by media in which animal mouth movements were synced with dialogue to give off the impression they were talking (he gives two other examples, which I'll explore in due course). It must be said of Lancelot Link that all the suspension of disbelief in the world won't have you buying into the notion that any of the dialogue is actually coming from the chimps in question, even within the reality of the show. The primitive lip-syncing, while playful, rarely convinces on any substantive level, resulting in a jarring dissonance between what the viewer sees and what they hear. In that sense, Lancelot Link feels strangely reminiscent of the Woody Allen film, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, in that it has it the aura of an assortment of found footage (albeit very peculiar found footage, involving chimps dressed up as people) taken out of context and redubbed for comic effect (in actuality, the dialogue was ad-libbed exhaustively on set in an effort to keep up with the primates' unpredictable chattering). It makes for extremely bizarre viewing, although one certainly cannot deny the talent of the chimps involved. For the purposes of this entry, I watched one episode, entitled "No Business Like Snow Business", in which Link and Hairi go undercover as ski instructors in order to retrieve a stolen diamond from C.H.U.M.P., and not only do they waddle around on skis but for the story's climax they even engage in a toboggan chase. I've made it clear that I am no fan of seeing chimpanzees used in this manner, but there's no doubt that, for better or for worse, what Inn managed to get from this cast was nothing short of eye-popping.

Lancelot Link takes itself about seriously as you would expect from a series about chimpanzee espionage, and there's an evident improvisational streak whereby numerous gags were shaped and dictated by the antics of the cast, leading to some weirdly convoluted dialogue exchanges and odd plot digressions in which the chimps struggle with props and to put on clothing (the aforementioned "No Business Like Snow Business" has a moment where the plot is put on hold in order to milk as much mileage as possible from Link putting on a ski hat incorrectly). Random coughs, sneezes and even singing are also common tactics for covering additional mouth movements. Needless to say, the actual story hangs together rather haphazardly in all of this, but then I doubt that anyone who watched Lancelot Link did so because they anticipated a riveting narrative.

Lancelot Link inspired a range of tie-in merchandise, including a series of comic books, although the show itself had only a short lifespan. I've no idea how well it performed on the ratings front, but I suspect that it was ultimately sunk by the expense and sheer complexities of the production (trained chimps don't come cheap, and when your entire cast consists of trained chimps you're going to require a generous budget), which would have made any additional seasons too laborious to be worth the effort. It was a wild burst of inanity, but probably never destined to last.

Does it frighten and disturb ME?

All in all, I could see people enjoying Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp as a mindless bit of 1970s fluff - the chimps are cute, the corny dialogue and non-stop ape puns do raise the occasional smile and the production is bright, colourful and most importantly, surreal as sin. What also sticks out is that this was blatantly a labour of love. Somebody cared enough to bring this incredibly complicated (from a production standpoint) chimpanzee spy pastiche into the world. Ultimately though, there's no getting around the problem that all this effort and expenditure was in aid of what is essentially an elaborate circus sideshow, of the kind that I personally would prefer to see consigned to the history bin. Lancelot Link doesn't exactly creep me out but, owing to the nature of the series, there is something about it that I find inherently unsettling.

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Squatter's Rights (1946)

Earlier this year, I took a look at The Painter and The Pointer, the 1944 Andy Panda cartoon that left a young Matt Groening grappling with some serious mental scars. And now I think I may have found that cartoon's Disney equivalent. Like The Painter and The Pointer, Squatter's Rights revolves around a dog getting pestered by two scrawny little nuisances while his squeaky-voiced owner remains oblivious to the full extent of his misery. Somewhere along the line the dog ends up with his face on the wrong end of a loaded shotgun. Neither short is for the faint of heart.

For the most part, Squatter's Rights plays like a tamer version of The Painter and The Pointer, except that it somehow winds up with the sicker punchline of the two. In fact, this feels like the ending The Painter and The Pointer should have had, had it followed its depraved vision all the way to the max. Mickey and Pluto have gone up to their winter cabin for a change of scenery, unaware that disease-spreading vermin Chip and Dale have taken up residence inside the stove in their absence and aren't keen on relinquishing their accommodation. War breaks out between Pluto and the chipmunks, while Mickey remains wholly oblivious to the root cause of the problem.

Squatter's Rights is notable for several reasons:

  • It marked the Mickey Mouse's first post-war appearance in a theatrical short, following a three-year hiatus after Pluto and The Armadillo in 1943. By this stage, Mickey Mouse shorts were becoming fewer and farther in between, as Donald Duck and Goofy supplanted him in the popularity stakes.
  • It was the first occasion in which Mickey was voiced by Jimmy MacDonald. Walt Disney had long provided vocals for his signature character, but by 1946 he was becoming too busy with other projects (not to mention, his nicotine addiction was starting to take its toll and his vocal range wasn't quite what it used to be). Squatter's Rights marked the beginning of the transitional period in which the torch was passed to MacDonald, who took over full-time as Mickey in 1947.
  • It was Chip and Dale's second appearance - their first being in the 1943 short Private Pluto, in which they were likewise pitted against the hapless hound. You can tell that this was an early outing for the chipmunks because their character designs and dynamics have not yet been refined - here, Chip and Dale look completely identical (Dale was later given a red nose and larger teeth to make him distinguishable from Chip). For the most part, their characterisation is also indistinguishable here, although we do see signs of their separate personalities emerging early on in the short, when one of the chipmunks is clearly shown to be more bossy and sensible than his lazier, more carefree companion.
  • It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short film at the 19th awards ceremony in 1947, but lost to MGM's The Cat Concerto, starring Tom and Jerry. I can't really object to that. The Cat Concerto is a stone cold classic. Squatter's Rights is a solid cartoon but doesn't really represent the best for any of the associated characters.

I've encountered a fair number of people in my time who don't like Chip and Dale and think that the karma police of the Disney universe frequently permit them to get away with murder because they're cute (people who initially knew them as the valiant heroes of the 1980s TV series Chip n Dale: Rescue Rangers are sometimes surprised to look back and observe what little bastards the sciurines could be in their earlier incarnations, although they're far from the only classic Disney characters to have undergone something of a rectitude makeover - if you only know Huey, Dewey and Louie from Ducktales then you might be shocked to discover what a trio of proper little sociopaths they were back in the day; my theory is that Della had started medicating them come the Carl Barks comics). I would strongly disagree, although I do concede that the dynamics in their earlier appearances didn't quite hit the right balance, chiefly because they were up against the wrong nemesis. Although initially conceived as adversaries for Pluto, Chip and Dale quickly made the switch to being the omnipresent thorns in Donald Duck's side, and enjoyed a far more prosperous career because of it. After this, there were two further shorts in which they faced off against Pluto - Food For Feudin' (1950) and Pluto's Christmas Tree (1952) - but I doubt that Chip and Dale would have had nearly as much longevity as characters had they limited their repertoire to creating havoc for Mickey's faithful chum. Their chemistry with Donald tended to be a lot better, and there's something infinitely more satisfying about seeing them come to blows with the irascible fowl than with Pluto. I think it comes down to the fact that Pluto is too much of an innocent, whereas Donald is not (even so, you do get the occasional short in which the chipmunks harass Donald for no good reason, such as Crazy Over Daisy from 1950), which is one reason why Squatter's Rights ultimately leaves something of a sour taste.

Squatter's Rights does not seem to know (nor care) which characters in this equation it intends for us to root for; Chip and Dale might initially come off as the underdogs, but their tactics grow increasingly devious as the short goes on (to the point where they're setting Mickey's toes ablaze and getting a real kick from it to boot). Meanwhile, Pluto does cast a handful of malevolent glares in the chipmunks' direction (and gets eerily excited at the thought of dousing the tiny intruders in kerosene), but he's too intrinsically sweet-natured to be convincing antagonist material, and surely we're not supposed to be rooting against the prospect of Mickey Mouse (of all characters) having an enjoyable vacation in the cabin that's rightfully his (the fact that he possibly intends to devote a part of it to blasting his rifle at innocent wildlife notwithstanding)? In the end, this is a simple battle of conflicting ids; Pluto grows increasingly exasperated in his efforts to evict the chipmunks, while Chip and Dale become ever more cutthroat in their attempts to hold onto their residence, and Mickey has to deal with the inevitable calamity. As noted, Mickey never learns that there are rodents in his property (besides himself) and misconstrues all of the strange occurrences as being down to Pluto's bad behaviour. Thankfully, Mickey is not Andy Panda (or Andy Panda's evil, Shamus Culhane-created doppelganger), and he's not actively mean to Pluto, even when he incorrectly deduces that Pluto was responsible for setting his toes on fire. In this scenario, Pluto finds up with a shotgun in his face when Mickey steps out to get more firewood and Pluto chases the chipmunks around the cabin, only to bump into the rifle while pursing them across the mantelpiece. Pluto gets his nose stuck in the barrel of the shotgun and discovers, to his horror, that the trigger is directly adjacent to the hook on which the gun has been mounted, meaning that he cannot jar himself free without the risk that it will fire. Pluto's best plan is to hold perfectly still, which is easier said that done when the stool on which he's standing is none too stable. Pluto's shotgun dilemma occurs toward the end of the short, so it isn't as disturbingly drawn-out as Butch's comparable predicament in The Painter and The Pointer, but the tension is no less excruciating. Pluto's plight is further underscored with an unsettling visual gag in which Pluto looks up at the mounted moose head above the mantelpiece (bagged and stuffed by Mickey?) and imagines his own head stuffed and mounted in its place (although, if that gun were to fire then it's probably optimistic to suppose that there'd be very much of Pluto's head remaining).

Chip and Dale didn't deliberately set Pluto up to this, of course, and they do look genuinely concerned when they realise what kind of a mess he's in, so at first I was expecting them to come to Pluto's aid, thereby making peace with the mutt and enabling all four characters to come to an amicable arrangement in which they could have share of the cabin. But nope. The chipmunks just sit back and gawk as Pluto struggles with the shotgun, until finally something gives and the gun ends up firing; Pluto slips free of it just in time to avoid getting his brains blown out, but the gun falls and hits him on the head, knocking him unconscious. It's then that Chip and Dale come up with the deranged idea to pour ketchup (sorry, catsup) over Pluto's abdomen, thus simulating a gruesome gunshot wound. Mickey returns and finds Pluto out for the count with the shotgun spread across his inert body and lots of red gushing from his gut, and breaks down into tears, assuming his friend to be dead. Pluto comes to, sees Mickey in distress and reflexively starts comforting him...then he looks down, becomes aware of his own predicament and freaks out, believing that he really has shot himself in the gut. The short ends with Mickey rushing the wailing Pluto out into the snow to seek emergency help, erroneously believing him to be bleeding to death, leaving Chip and Dale to rule the roost once again. The chipmunks laugh at how swimmingly their prank went and congratulate one another on a job well done. Obviously none of the characters were actually harmed in this scenario, and Mickey and Pluto are going to feel mighty silly when they finally do reach the emergency room, but still, that's pretty sick, dude. It's a strangely unsettling end-note for a cartoon that doesn't quite go the full hog in terms of nastiness in the build-up, and it rounds off with more bite than the otherwise crueler The Painter and The Pointer, which doesn't really produce a memorable punchline after its own nightmare scenario reaches its inevitable breaking point.

PS: If you're one of those people who like to think of Chip and Dale as a gay couple (and I know there are a lot of you out there) then Squatter's Rights should be right up your alley in that regard. Not only do we see the chipmunks sleeping in the same bed, but they even share a random kiss at one point. Hurrah for sciurine ho-yay.