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The Bootleg Files: Half Baked Alaska

BOOTLEG FILES 792: “Half Baked Alaska” (1965 animated short in the Chilly Willy series).

LAST SEEN: On B98.tv.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Included in an anthology of Walter Lantz cartoons that is now out of print.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No one is rushing to get it into home entertainment release.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:
It was briefly available, and hopefully it will come back.

Among the cartoon characters from the Golden Age of animated short subjects, Chilly Willy occupies a strange niche. This Walter Lantz-created penguin was cute and mischievous, but the character’s films were rarely laugh-out-out hilarious and Chilly Willy never truly occupied the iconic status of other creations of that era. Most people would point to the Oscar-nominated, Tex Avery-directed 1955 short “The Legend of Rockabye Point” as being a peak in the Chilly Willy series, although most of the humor in that short does not come from the penguin himself.

If I was forced to pick a Chilly Willy cartoon that came as close to perfection as possible – and, admittedly, I can’t imagine being in a situation where such a decision was being mandated – I would not opt for “The Legend of Rockabye Point,” but instead I’d veer toward the 1965 “Half Baked Alaska.” While Lantz’s cartoon output rarely came within the vicinity of perfection, this was as close to flawlessly funny as the animator’s studio ever came.

“Half Baked Alaska” opens in the midst of an Alaskan blizzard, with the misplaced Antarctic denizen standing out in the cold and snow with a shoeshine stand that the very few pedestrians bother to acknowledge. Chilly Willy spies Smedley’s Snack Bar in the midst of the Alaskan snowscape, with the happy-go-lucky canine Smedley making pancakes on a grill in the eatery’s wide front-facing window.

Chilly Willy ventures in and order a plate of pancakes. Smedley obliges the order and keeps asking his patron if he wants more syrup and butter on his meal. Chilly Willy answers in tiny responses with a quaint little voice – and anyone familiar with this character since his 1953 film debut might be surprised that the long-silent Chilly Willy was finally given dialogue.

Alas for the penguin, Smedley demands payment before Chilly Willy can eat – and the meal costs $60. Remember that this was back in 1965, when $60 was a considerable sum. The penguin empties his pockets to reveal a penniless state, and Smedley dumps him out in the snow and angrily suggests he find work to earn money.

Chilly Willy is hopeless in every job he attempts to fill. As a piano player in a saloon, he barely bangs out an elementary tune with his index fingers before being ejected. As a barber, he drops a too-hot towel on a customer and shrinks his head. As a blacksmith’s assistant, he smashes his boss’ hand with a hammer. As a portrait photographer, he uses too much flash powder and incinerates his subject’s clothing and hair.

The penguin sneaks back into Smedley’s eatery just as an oversized and ill-tempered lumberjack enters and demands 200 pancakes. While Smedley hurriedly prepares this mega-meal, Chilly Willy surreptitiously hijacks them for his own consumption. Smedley is unaware of this and serves the lumberjack an empty plate – which the humorless lumberjack smashes on Smedley’s head.

Smedley keeps making pancakes, but doesn’t realize Chilly Willy is eating them before they arrive on the lumberjack’s table. The penguin eventually substitutes parts of the iron stove for pancakes – the lumberjack bites into them and all of his teeth break. Angrily, he being pummeling Smedley, but Chilly Willy stops the assault by donning a constable’s helmet and blowing a police whistle. As the lumberjack skedaddles into the desolate snowy horizon, Smedley praises his unlikely hero and serves him a huge plate of pancakes coated in whipped cream and jelly.

Under the direction of Sid Marcus, with Daws Butler providing all of the character voices, “Half Baked Alaska” is a fast-moving and wonderfully inventive cartoon. Chilly Willy is equal parts devious and naïve – he is willing to engage in the worst possible chicanery to get his way, but at the same time he sees nothing wrong in the chaos he is creating. Smedley, who was the frequent antagonist in the series’ earlier cartoons, is genuinely sympathetic – although his inflated pancake pricing is excessive, he doesn’t come across as a villainous character and it is easy to sympathize with him as Chilly Willy disrupts his business.

The lumberjack is especially funny – he makes his presence known by throwing an axe (and barely missing) Smedley, and his rising temper is portrayed by having his agitated body grow larger and larger with each passage of impatience.

Universal Pictures put “Half Baked Alaska” into theaters in 1965 – this was at a time when the short subject market had mostly evaporated. Incredibly, the film was not submitted for Oscar consideration in the Best Animated Short Subject category – it was certainly more invigorating than Chuck Jones’ artsy “The Dot and the Line,” which won the award.

“Half Baked Alaska” was included in the 2010 DVD release “The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection: Volume 2,” but that has been out of print for years; to date, there has never been a DVD collection of the entire Chilly Willy series. A website called B98.tv has the complete six-minute-plus film online, and I hope that you can take that brief piece of time to enjoy this truly entertaining cartoon.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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