There are only a few days before Halloween and in my neighborhood the jack-o-lanterns, tombstones, ghosts, and spiderwebs have appeared on many front porches. I am still a little kid at heart who adores animation and to celebrate the holiday, I would like to share three cartoons that I remember from my childhood that frightened me to death. In fact, they remain rather disturbing fifty plus years later.
The featured shorts by Happy Harmonies originally appeared in theatres in the 1930s when technicolor was new and were MGM's answer to Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies. However, when I was a kid in the 1950s, they were shown during the weekdays after school and on Saturday mornings. Viewers won't see these cartoons on television anymore because they are not politically correct and are fraught with unflattering racial stereotypes; nevertheless, they deserve a close look as examples of great animation for the time.
Produced and directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, the "Goody Goody Monkey" cartoons were formulaic with inanimate objects coming to life while real people were not around. The first of the series, "Good Little Monkeys," appeared in 1935 and was popular enough to inspire two sequels, "Pipe Dreams," and "Art Gallery."
The Tao of The Mystic Apes
One of the reasons why I think that the cartoons are so memorable is that they touch on a subject that is deep within us: the idea that there is good and evil and that we can be led into temptation.
The main motif of the three monkeys posing with their hands covering ears, eyes, and mouths is sometimes referred to as The Mystic Apes. It is an ancient representation of good behavior dating all the way back to Confucius who advised us: "Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety." The fourth monkey, who does no evil, is seldom represented and has his hands folded on his lap.
When translated into Japanese, "mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru" the phrase "zaru" resembled the word "saru" that translates into the word "monkey" giving them their respective names.
Good Little Monkeys (1935)
The cartoon begins at midnight in a library. A volume of Dante's Inferno opens and a red devil appears through the flames. He jumps out of the book and onto the top of a globe and spies the three monkeys who are singing about their goodness: "See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil--no! We're the Goody-Goody Monkeys every place we go. Never have we gone astray. Don't believe in being gay. Being good's the only thing we know. So, speak no hi-di, see no hi-di, hear no hi-di-ho! Not a single wild oat we will sow! We're so very very good. Wouldn't be bad if we could. Speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil--no!"
Viewers today need to understand the older meanings of a couple of phrases in order to avoid misinterpretation. "Don't believe in being gay" is one of them. The word "gay" in 1935 meant "rakish" or lacking in restraint to vices. "Speak no hi-de-hi-de-ho" refers to jazz great Cab Calloway who was a virtuoso scat singer known as the "The Hi-Di-Ho Man." Jazz, with its African roots and syncopated rhythms, was considered to be an evil influence on the young. Duke Ellington, Calloway's cohort at the Cotton Club, said "By and large jazz has always been like the kind of man you wouldn't want your daughter to associate with." In fact, the devil leads the monkeys astray with a trail of peanuts to a Latin beat and invites them to "Come join our fun."
Characters in other books come to life such as Rip Van Winkle, an unlikely Black Beauty, The Three Musketeers, and then the dancing lady from The Arabian Nights. The monkeys are embarassed by her near nakedness and turn a bright red. The devil tries to gather the poor frightened creatures and cast them into the fire until the Boy Scouts of America, Napoleon and his army, Tarzan, patriots and Indians drive the devil back into hell and the monkeys escape. An interesting use of pen points shot through a pencil sharpener instead the use of swords by the Three Musketeers was nice little play on an old saying that "The pen is mightier than the sword."
Pipe Dreams (1938)
In this next cartoon, the Goody-Goody Monkeys have made a transformation. They have evolved into much cuter looking characters and are more child-like--by that I mean they look more like children than monkeys and their voices have been sweetened some, too. It is midnight again and the devil is still present, however, he is only a depiction on the front of a can of Helz Fire Smoking Tobacco. Our little monkeys sing the song to their goodness again only with a little less resolution this time. They need no peanuts to egg them on to the mischief of underage smoking.
Instead, they already know what to do--pack that pipe and light up! Taking turns, the little simians look like they are smoking some other substance than tobacco and have a nightmarish vision. They encounter The Three Cigars--the tall one is a caricature of Ned Sparks, a cigar chomping Canadian character actor of the era who so rarely smiled that there was once a publicity stunt that would pay for a photo of his smile.
"What's so good about being good?" he asks them, and then, "What's so bad about being bad?" Undaunted by this sinister character, the three little monkeys continue their adventures.
Model trains have been around practically since the advent of the railroads and the in the 1930s, the Tyco company came out with a line of trains that were a complete set in the scale of 1/64 that was called Matchbox. The monkeys encounter some trains fashioned from matchboxes. They also travel past the book, Tobacco Road where they meet up with the corn cob pipe people and learn to square dance. After meeting the Mexican cigarettes and enjoying a rhumba, a can of lighter fluid ignites, explodes, and blows the monkeys back into their spot above the fire on the mantel.
Art Gallery (1939)
All is quiet at the art gallery but one night when lightning strikes outside the window, the statue of the Roman emperor, Nero, is animated. After a maniacal shreik, he breaks the fourth wall, looks directly at the audience, points to us, and declares, "What a night for a fire. Boy oh boy. Hey you! Rome will burn tonight!" He notices the three monkeys near a painting of some matchsticks and implores them to bring them to him. The monkeys look dubious and begin to sing their Goody-Goody song. Nero mocks them as he joins in and the rest of the song is sung by the inhabitants of the gallery.
The cartoon gallery features numerous celebrities in the paintings by the Old Masters. For example, Cleopatra is sultry actress Mae West. Dour Ned Sparks makes another appearance in this cartoon as a Puritan, "The Song of the Lark" is Kate Smith known for her stirring rendition of "God Bless America." Conductor Leopold Stokowski is the mophead depicted in "Maestro." The rocks in "Mammoth Cave" are fashioned into the likeness of comedian Joe E. Brown, "The Town Crier" is the New Yorker columnist Alexander Woollcott. Longtime FBI director Herbert Hoover's collar is burned off and the group shown in "Spirit of '76" is none other than the Marx Brothers.
This time the devil in the form of Nero plays the fiddle and cries when the monkeys balk at his request for matches. "Aw gee," he whines, "I just wanted to start a little fire and you've got all the matches and nobody wants to help a poor old man." The monkeys waste no time in deciding to help him burn down Rome. They have some difficulty with the matchsticks and turn to a lighter but it is out of fluid. Not to worry, there is a bottle of lighter fluid, 99 percent alcohol. They get drunk and become willing particpants in the destruction of the last vestige of western civilization as Nero continues to play his fiddle. The paintings burn and the monkeys seek shelter in the waters of Venice to cool off in a painting very near to their wooden stand where they take their places once more and sing their song of goodness with genuine relief.
I am not exactly a friend of the apes and don't think monkeys are cute. As a matter of fact in the range of scariness, they rank right up there with clowns as far as I am concerned because there is something disconcerting about creatures who look so much like us and yet are not. They remind me of the ugly animal that lurks in humanity. And yet, they are not as ugly as we are.
The enduring Tao of The Mystic Apes demonstrates how ancient holy men revered monkeys as sacred beings with wisdom to impart to us but modern science is also revealing that we can still learn from our evolutionary ancestors. Unlike many people, monkeys have an inherent need to share with others of their species.
Frans de Waal is a dutch scientist who embarked on a six year study of captive chimpanzees and discovered that they have a sense of empathy and fair play especially when applied to food and the well being of others:
The animals were asked to perform a set of simple tasks and then rewarded with food or affection. The rewards were varied, seemingly at random. De Waal found the animals had an acute sense of fairness and objected strongly when others were rewarded more than themselves for the same task, often sulking and refusing to take part any further. (From Chimpanzee Politics, 1982)
If we are to survive as a species, this is a lesson in caring and compassion that we can learn from the animal kingdom. Thanks for joining me in this study of scary cartoons, primates, and humanity.
About the People
About the Cartoons
About Monkey Morality