Films for Class: Bataan and Chicken Little

A little old-timey cartoon before a feature for you all.

chicken_little_1944_8_graveyardChicken Little

This irascible little Disney wartime devil is almost absurdly superior to that most fell semi-remake by the same company in 2005 (their first, and by far worst, CG feature film). Recasting the ignorance of youthful Chicken Little as the conscious social disruption of a fox who utilizes propaganda to convince everyone that the sky is falling, Chicken Little is a scabrous wartime cartoon about the dangers of Nazi (and Communist) propaganda that, implicitly, critiques its own vessel. The fox eventually sending all the none-the-wiser chickens to a cave (a bomb shelter, basically), all the better to eat them with, the film explores its own construction. With an inter-title at one point informing us that everything ends up okay in the end, the film concludes by pausing itself for a second to critique its own ending, with the narrator wondering aloud how the prior inter-title could lie to us; the Fox – mordantly laying chicken bones in graves like tombstones – informs the narrator and us not to believe everything we read.  

Obviously the Red Scare is all over the film (the Psychology Manual the fox calls on to lie to the chickens is red, after all), but the film’s more provocative claims relate to the self-reflexive consideration of art and entertainment more broadly. And like any worthwhile bit of critique, the film engages in critique from within rather than without. It doesn’t announce a criticism of other works of entertainment; rather, it marshals its own formal qualities to critique itself as entertainment (thus the lying inter-title, an inversion of the famous conclusion to Murnau’s The Last Laugh where the main character similarly engorges himself afterward). The tension at the end of Chicken Little is, in essence, the short figuring itself out by breaking itself, disrupting its forward progress to interrogate the assumptions that under-gird that progress.

Outside of that, there’s an embarrassment of more traditional riches on display here (including character animation by Nine Old Men members Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston, John Lounsbery, and Ward Kimball (the most dangerous of them all)). But it’s the biting, even barbed self-critique that Chicken Little hinges on, reminding that Disney’s war-time shorts (and, considering The Three Caballeros, their war-time feature films) were, if not nearly the equals of their magisterial earlier feature films, certainly their hippest cats in town. Chicken Little is a squashed-and-stretched monument to the fact that the old “Disney is to Looney Tunes as Classical music is to Jazz” analogy is, if mostly true, shot through with rubber bullets.

Score: 8.5/10

b005Bataan

A WWII-era WWII film of unexpectedly split morality and rather coarsely overt ambivalence about the life of a soldier, Bataan advances the US logline about war as a necessity, but it is undoubtedly a necessary evil in this abnormally vicious work. Setting down on – but most certainly never settling in with –a  motley crew of soldiers tasked with repeatedly destroying a bridge the Japanese have been using for transportation in the Philippines, Bataan takes the Battle of Bataan and weaves a shroud of suspicion and mortal terror around it. At its sharpest, Bataan even approaches something akin to the lyrically suggestive off-screen viciousness of the films Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur were making over at RKO around this time.

Starring Robert Taylor as Bill Dane – an army sergeant tasked with holding down a cabal of soldiers strewn from (surprise) disparate backgrounds – Bataan is nothing more than a genre film. But its relative visual poetry and slices of oddity and personalization remind how startling an unknown find can truly be, and how problematic canonization is in any art form. Although completely forgotten, Bataan frequently eludes our attempts to pin down its semi-unstable morality; while valorizing the soldier, it also dares to explore the false valorization of war in a devastating scene where a Navy crew member (played by a very young Robert Walker) writes a letter home to his mother (a cliché) only to trail off into the bluntly melancholic reality of war, forcing Dane to rewrite the letter in the glowing tone expected of the film. Bataan’s little social breakages – call it scribbling in the margins – self-consciously critique the narrativization of war cinema for a public audience.

A narrativization Bataan only tentatively subscribes to, certainly not in its flow from loss to loss rather than success to success. The film is hovered over by an ever-creeping mist conscripted into a weapon by the Japanese soldiers who exercise a modernistic guerrilla warfare style the US soldiers, more naïve, can only conjure in their worst nightmares. Although it can’t quite match John Ford’s little known The Lost Patrol for reimagination of war as an almost literal existential void where the only course of action is to wait around to die, the polyvalent trajectory of the film imagines the American patrol as slasher victims in addition to oddballs and heroes.

You’ve probably never heard of Tay Garnett before (I certainly never had), but his direction is both rambunctious and pressingly intimate, as in one death-by-sword intimated solely through a hilt sticking upright out of a ground-covering fog that conveniently (for the Hays Code) hides the body while also horrifyingly suggesting the idea of wartime as a groundless void-walk around terrain that hardly feels like the physical world anymore (the frequently mobile camera and the lyrical-but-not-glamorized look is courtesy of cinematographer Sidney Wagner).  While writer Robert Hardy Andrews’ screenplay is slim, this refreshing trimness of a largely blunt instrument of a film actually holds the grandness of war cinema at bay, approaching something more akin to a proto-Vietnam film than a conventional WWII epic. The final title card may seem a cop-out, a consolation prize for American goodwill and optimism, but it also suggests a film working through its unfinished contradictions, shuffling through the incongruities of war with a sudden shock of realization that there is no more nuanced or natural way to hit us over the head with propaganda. The abruptness of the optimism is frighteningly hollow.

Score: 8/10

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