The Bootleg Files: Wacky Wigwams

BOOTLEG FILES 804: “Wacky Wigwams” (1942 animated short).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It fell through the cracks.

Probably not.

Unless you are a die-hard animation aficionado, there’s an excellent chance that you are unfamiliar with the output of Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems animation studio in the 1930s and 1940s. Truth be told, their films were never as invigorating or innovative as those from the major Hollywood animation studios of the time, and their obscurity was compounded by not being part of the television rerun culture that ensured cult status for the Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer animation.

The 1942 “Wacky Wigwams” was one of the better – or perhaps, less bad – of the Columbia cartoons. Much of the credit for that could be attributed to Frank Tashlin, who generated memorable work while at Warner Bros. and Disney and held a production supervisor role on this work. One major negative aspect for the film from a contemporary viewpoint would be its stereotyping of American Indians – yes, it is politically incorrect by today’s standards, but the film is so broad and goofy that any belated insults borne from its humor could be attributed to ignorance rather than deliberate malice. “Wacky Wigwams” is a film of its time, not ours.

“Wacky Wigwams” takes on the trappings of an old-school travelogue designed to enlighten yesteryear’s viewers on distant and exotic cultures. The short opens with an appropriately pompous narrator bloviating, “Deep in the Indian Country, steeped in misty legend, night like a shroud studded with jewels begins to pale before the first glimmering of day.” Whether the writers were trying to be funny or not is unknown, but the thick imagery is among the funnier aspects of this film.

From here, “Wacky Wigwams” takes on a hit-and-miss aspect with sight gags designed to poke fun at both the Indians and at the stereotypes manacled to their culture. The viewer is initially greeted with a skein of crummy gags: “Chief Thundercloud” is presented as an anthropomorphic cumulonimbus, the “Indian reservation” is a line for tickets to a ball game, and an Indian “scalper” tries to entice the viewer with hard-to-get tickets for the much-anticipated game. (And, yes, we get to see that celebrated tribe of the “Cleveland Indians.”)

There is an “old witch doctor” who is seen concocting a potion that turns out to be a pot of tea, with the Indian speaking in a posh Noel Coward-style accent. There is a medicine man who performs the “snake dance” to bring rain – naturally, he goes into reptilian slithering – and an Indian rug weaver addresses the audience in a mild Yiddish accent to warn about the quality of his workmanship.

The first and only woman Indian in the film is in the sight gag related to the Cherokee Strip (an obvious nod to the jaded middle-aged men in the audience). There is also a reference to Florida’s Seminole tribe that includes the unexpected appearance of an alligator who speaks in a gravelly voice reminiscent of Eddie Anderson’s Rochester character on the Jack Benny radio show.

The second half of the cartoon picks up with an extended chase between two smart-aleck talking buffalo and a squad of Indian horsemen. The gags here are more satisfying, particularly an Indian-style ambulance featuring a white teepee emblazoned with a red cross. The film’s closing gag involves the medicine man’s efforts to produce rain – without giving away the joke, it is safe to say that any car owner will appreciate the payoff.

“Wacky Wigwams” was released in February 1942 and didn’t make much of an impression – but, then again, very little of Columbia’s animated shorts resonated with the moviegoing public. For years, it was difficult to access – Daniel Ira Goldmark’s 2011 book “Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood” lamented that the short was among five cartoons not considered for assessment due to “the unavailability of video reference copies.” Since then, however, slightly faded copies have been included on a few collector-to-collector DVDs and there is an unauthorized posting on YouTube.

While it is no one’s idea of a classic, “Wacky Wigwams” is a silly curio that will entertain those who are eager to trace Tashlin’s cinematic work and to enjoy under-the-radar animation from Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, every Sunday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.