Max and Dave: 1940 – Way Back When…

The 1939-40 season may have been somewhat disappointing to Paramount’s distributors. The only shorts they had at the beginning of the season were the Popeyes. But Max and Dave were more concerned with a feature in the works (Gulliver’s Travels). The brothers must have remembered at the same time some silent shorts which had been set in an idealized Stone Age (including Buster Keaton’s “The Three Ages”, and Laurel and Hardy’s “Flying Elephants”). So they proposed a series set in such an age, crossing ancient problems with modern-style humor. This would be a perfect setting for black and white production, most rocks being naturally in a shade of grey. Paramount consented, and the series was introduced in early 1940, lasting until the end of the season. Some of the last entries may have been rushed out, to complete the quota in time to clear the field for subsequent series such as Gabby and Animated Antics. They also may have begun negotiations for a series based on a comic book (Superman), and may have already been in preliminary planning for their second feature (Mr. Bug Goes to Town), so their attentions were well-divided to take them away from this short-term stopgap series.

Nobody has found a print yet of the series’ first installment, Way Back When a Triangle Had Its Points. The title suggests one of two scenarios – the rounding off of a pointed stone to invent the wheel – or perhaps a romantic triangle between henpecked Henry, a battle axe wife, and someone more comely. Anyone with access to review of synopses of the day are invited to contribute any information available on the subject matter of this short.

Way Back When a Nag Was Only a Horse (3/8/40) – Henry’s wife (the battle axe), finds out there is a sale at a stone-age department store. She insists he go shopping with her – an activity he hates. A lot of gags follow, with Henry stopping off at the music department, where Henry asks for a demonstration of a new tune. “Let Your Hair Down”, an original song composed for the film. (One can only wonder if this tune may have been planned for one of the aborted Sally Swing cartoons. The girl character who demos this song does so with a great deal of verve and eccentric dancing in the manner Sally might have portrayed.) Mobs of women gather at the bargain table to tear each other apart for a sale, and at the soda fountain, where a cobra shakes up the beverages to mix a “Dinosaur Delight”. The battle-axe finds Henry dancing with the song demonstrator – but Henry manages to turn the tables on his wife ad drag her off by the hair, the narrator adding “And she loves it!”. Other songs include “Thanks For the Memory”.

Way Back When a Night Club Was a Stick (3/15/40) – The battle-axe wants Henry to rock the baby, while Henry wants to go out for a night with the boys. Henry’s singing is not very pleasing to the baby. Henry does manage to sneak off to the pool hall, where he is most interested in a nickel slot machine (the machine is probably “gaffed”). The same establishment also has a pool table with a chicken laying the pool balls, and a duckpin bowling alley – with real ducks. Henry keeps missing out on the slot machine jackpot, with the machine’s third wheel always drifting to another spot. The battle axe catches up with Henry, armed with a club. She is told women are not allowed inside, but that doesn’t stop her. The place begins to clear out like it was under a prohibition raid. The duckpins transform into a bowl of duck soup. Henry is dragged away home – just as his jackpot finally comes in, getting left behind. Songs: “It’s a Hap Hap Happy Day”, lifted from Gulliver’s Travels (it would become a veritable anthem for Gabby series and for all manner of later Paramount cartoons well into the 1950’s) and “Chicken Reel.”

Granite Hotel (4/21/40) – Spot gags set around a luxury stone-age hotel, catering to such guests as Edgar Burgundy with Charlie Bacardi, and a large gorilla who asks for a single room with a trapeze, who signs the register as “Monkey’s Uncle”. One can only wonder if MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932) was in theatrical reissue at the time, as a great deal of attention is given to the line “Nothing ever happens” by the hotel switchboard operator. This cartoon originates the dinosaur fire engine that would later be a memorable part of the original opening sequence of “The Flintstones”. It also has a gag which predicts the later Tex Avery film, The First Bad Man, as the fire department reduces the entire hotel to pebbles with their fire axes – which Avery would perform upon a mountain hideout to reduce the bad man’s lair to a tiny jail. Songs: “Reuben and Cynthia”, and “William Tell Overture – The Storm”,

The Fowl Ball Player (5/24/40) – Spot gags on the diamond, as the Giants play the Mighty Midgets. One of the Midgets has a girlfriend always encouraging him on, whom the star player of the Giants tries to coax for a kiss. But the Giant has one weakness – hay fever – which the Midget plays upon to full advantage with an ample supply of goldenrod. Songs: “Take Me Out To the Ball Game”.

Wedding Belts (7/5/40) – This cartoon features a rather jaundiced view of marriage, as both the prospective bride and groom are taken in hand by others who’ve been there and shown the finer points of marries life. A battle-axe takes the bride into her “training quarters”, where the maiden receives lessons in making a bed (from scratch, out of rock), cooking (if you can call it that), and the ever-popular rolling pin throwing (with a target wall of plates to break, the centermosr plates revealing as they break the word “BINGO” etched in the wall behind them. Over at the husband’s training camp, the groom first becomes expert at dodging thrown rolling pins, then takes up how to eat a bride’s cooking (demonstrated with a solid wood “plank steak”), and how to bear up under wifey’s suspicious accusations and overwhelming nagging. The wedding takes place at the Stone Age Coliseum, before a rabid crowd of fight fans. The minister calls for “the ring”, as four posts and connecting rope drop into place around the center of the arena, and wifey and husband go into their respective corners, armed with clubs to wait for the bell. The round begins, and the groom takes a KO, before the minister pronounces them man and wife. Songs include “Love In Bloom”, “Mendelssohn’s Wedding March”, and “Lezginka” (played during hubby’s rolling pin dodging).

Springtime In the Rockage (8/30/40) – A would-be gardener is pestered by various insects who eat up his crops. The insects eventually take over the caveman’s dwelling, and there’s nothing the caveman can do about it. This would prove a template for such cartoons as Flies Ain’t Human. Songs: “Mendelssohn’s Spring Song” (dealt with before, but which about that time was appearing on Columbia by Benny Goodman in a new swing arrangement).

Pedagogical Institution (College To You) (9/13/40) – A caveman looking for work finds that the only jobs available require a college degree. He is suckered into a fast-buck school, where the professor in charge discovers the caveman to not be the brightest bulb in the socket. The instructor borrows multiple phrases from Kay Kyser’s “College of Musical Knowledge”, including the trademark, “That’s right – you’re wrong.” He eventually becomes so frustrated, he has to count ten to keep his head from exploding. The film also gets some mileage out of a math question, requiring the student to add the sum of one rabbit plus one rabbit. The caveman spends considerable time counting on his fingers and toes, and comes up with the solution: 777 rabbits. The professor scoffs, until he looks at the illustration of the rabbits on his blackboard, and finds in the time it took to solve the equation that they have actually multiplied to exactly 777 chalk images! Eventually, the caveman gets his diploma, and his college-level job – walking around outside with a sandwich sign upon him, drumming up business for a pants presser. Songs: “One and One Makes Two”, an original with music by Sammy Timberg, lyrics unknown.

Way Back When Women Had Their Weigh (9/25/40) – A relatively comely lass is expressing her interest in getting herself a “thin man”. (Is the voice Margie Hines?) A cave man decides to trim down to attract this lass. He goes through all the various tortures and contraptions in a prehistoric gymnasium, and does manage to slim down, only to emerge to find his intended keeping company with a 300 pound ball of blubber in spite of her song. If this caveman had had a rival, they‘d have ended the film kicking each other, as Popeye and Bluto did in A Clean Shaven Man. Songs: “I’m After a Thin Man,”, an original song, lyricist unknown. The song title would suggest a play on words upon the William Powell/Myrna Loy feature “After the Thin Man”, from a few seasons back (1936).

Next Post: Popeye – Into the 1940’s.