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Bogart in Hell

I will pray to an avenging God and an unmerciful devil to tear my heart out, and roast it over the flames of sulfur. And lastly, may my soul be given into torment, that my body be submerged into molten metal, and stifled in the flames of hell. And that this punishment may be meted out to me through all eternity. In the name of God, our creator, amen.

This concludes Humphrey Bogart’s oath to join the Klan-like title society in Black Legion (1937). The film itself is typical of Warner Brothers’ working-class stories, told with the narrative rhythms of a “Crime Doesn’t Pay” short expanded to feature-length. But it’s also unusually intense: what other movie has its star promise to consign his soul to hell if he fails to uphold a white supremacist agenda? It’s suffused with a ripped-from-the-headlines immediacy, a Samuel Fuller-ish bluntness, that really makes it stick in my head. And wow, the intensity of that oath!

Bogart plays Frank Taylor, the schmucky, sour-faced patriarch of a Middle American family. The pressures of being a Depression-era breadwinner, it seems, have burdened Frank with free-floating resentment. But when he gets passed over for a promotion in favor a better-qualified coworker (of Polish extraction!), the resentment quickly finds a target: those fucking immigrants. Deep down, Frank’s a good guy; we know this because he has a sweet, loving wife and son. But his economic shackles, with the aid of some inflammatory rhetoric, harden his heart. He joins up to “protect his home and family”—i.e., become a race-obsessed domestic terrorist.

That’s where the oath comes in. Bogart gets dragged, like a humble frat house pledge, into a desolate field. By the light of a bonfire, surrounded by dozens of his robed comrades, he recites a rambling, pseudo-religious script: “In the name of God and the devil, one to reward and the other to punish, and by the powers of light and darkness, good and evil…” Yes, he wants to be a member, but he’s still intimidated by all this nocturnal pomp and circumstance; as the only one whose face is visible, he’s still technically an outsider. (The superfluous gun pointed at his head sure doesn’t help.)

The oath itself is pompous and grammatically messy, full of redundant flourishes like the refrain of “my heart, my brain, my body, and my limbs…” Bogart plows through its ten-dollar words with his proletarian New York accent, stumbling over “extermination” and “hierarchy” but carrying tremulously on. It takes two straight minutes to read. At the end he’s tense, exhausted, and beyond the spiritual threshold. He’s signed his soul over to racist hatred. No one can save him now.

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Saturday Theme Songs: Animaniacs

Continuing my new series on theme songs from ’90s cartoons, I come to a hilariously anarchic, idiosyncratic show: Animaniacs. Produced by Steven Spielberg in coordination with a wide variety of writing and voice talent, it lacked the coherent narratives and respectability of its less manic peers. You could call it a sort of Monty Python, Jr. – just as the Flying Circus riffed on everything that 1960s British TV had to offer, Animaniacs took on every assumption children had about what cartoons were “supposed” to be. It followed in the hallowed footsteps of Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng, using borderline-sociopathic characters to assault and delight the viewer. All of these qualities are at work in this opening.

One important aspect of Animaniacs that the opening gets across is how scattershot and fractured it was. It resembled a string of vaudeville routines more than a conventionally plotted children’s show. Granted, it had main characters – “the Warner Brothers, and the Warner sister, Dot” – but they were more like self-aware hosts, delivering fourth-wall-breaking jokes in a detached, Groucho-like tone. The meat of the show was in the numerous recurring segments, like “The Goodfeathers,” “Slappy Squirrel,” and of course the beloved “Pinky and the Brain.” However, there weren’t solid borders between segments either, as the stories would occasionally slide together. It was a cartoon free-for-all, where all logical concerns were subordinated to the characters and jokes.

Alongside this intentional lack of structure came Animaniacs‘ love of self-reference. Starting from the title, it was a cartoon about cartoons, and the opening demonstrates this repeatedly, telling the audience that “now you know the plot,” and later exclaiming, “the writers flipped, why bother to rehearse?” Even the characters’ identities (the Warner Bros.) are rooted in the series’ real-life origins, as well as the history of animation itself. This is a show where characters drew attention to jokes as they were making them. They also regularly mocked other shows’ “morals of the week” with their “Wheel of Morality,” which would churn out an arbitrary (and absurd) lesson. Yakko, Wakko, and Dot seemed to take great pleasure in tearing down any pretense of straightforward fictional storytelling, just as they did with the niceties of TV programming. If not ideologically, it was at least a very formally subversive series.

It’s also a great text to examine when trying to determine the zeitgeists that drove ’90s cartoons. Animaniacs was a stand-out, but it was by no means alone in its innovations, and this might hint at a strange cultural moment when adult animation was just entering the mainstream (see: Beavis and Butthead, Ren and Stimpy, or of course The Simpsons). Perhaps “children’s” cartoons were able to piggyback on their newly acceptable levels of topical sophistication, a stark contrast to the many ultra-toyetic ’80s cartoons with little to offer the adult viewer. Whatever the case, Animaniacs was decidedly a product of its time, with an original run (1993-98) tucked neatly within the Clinton years (and, indeed, Clinton himself is featured in the opening). This may have been the only time in history when cartoon theme songs have used the phrase “pay-or-play contracts.” Those are the facts.

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