A Year in Shorts Day 247: "The Rookie Bear"
When we think of MGM animation in the 40s and 50s, we think of Tom and Jerry. But believe it or not, they had other characters besides America’s favorite cat and mouse team. You may laugh, but it’s true! A long time ago in our Year of Shorts we looked at Droopy Dog, whom at least of you remember. But can any of you say the same for Barney Bear? I doubt it. And after watching The Rookie Bear, I can’t say I blame you.
Released in 1941, Rudolf Ising's The Rookie Bear is the second consecutive MGM cartoon we've covered that deals with the war without technically being propaganda. It's also a very obscure short, presumably because no one cares about Barney Bear anymore. Either way, it follows what I assume is the typical Barney Bear formula, with Barney getting involved in some sort of adventure for another; in this case, winning a free vacation from the army. Of course that "free vacation" turns out to be a draft notice, and hijinks ensue. Are they particularly funny hijinks? No. But they are hijinks nevertheless, and you can't take that away from the short.
Look, there's certainly nothing wrong with The Rookie Bear. It's well-animated enough, certainly up to MGM's standards. And the jokes in the short are all decent, if not hilarious. It's all the same sort of stuff that you'd expect to find in any average cartoon about a cartoon bear joining the military. Well, there is one exception- it's not racist! At least, the Spanish language dub I was able to find on Facebook wasn't. (I know I've seen an English language version somewhere, but Lord knows what happened to it. I don't think it made much of a difference either way, although there were probably some snarky bits of narration I've missed.) Wikipedia tells me that a lot of Barney Bear shorts contained their fair share of blackface gags (why was that a thing?), but there's none of that here, nor are there any caricatures of the Japanese. I was going to give the short some credit for that, but then I realized this film was released in May, seven months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States wasn't even in the war yet, so no dice.
That realization certainly puts a lot of the short's more subversive edge a great deal of important context. When compared to other wartime shorts, one could think it's mighty bold for the film to portray boot camp as a miserable hellhole, and the US Army as an institution which tricks people into joining them. It might even seem more daring to not end the short with a call for war bonds! But of course, when viewed more properly within its place in history, that all seems less impressive. It's still certainly satirical, but maybe a little more shallow. Also I have to mark down the short a fair bit for its joke about Barney's disgusting teeth, as well as using the cliched "all a dream ending". It's the little things that bring a short down.
All in all, The Rookie Bear is not a terrible short, but there's nothing spectacular about it. And I think that's due in no small part to the fact that Barney Bear just isn't a very interesting character. Maybe with a more colorful lead, this short could be elevated to something funnier and more exciting. (Can you imagine Daffy or Donald in boot camp? Hilarious.) But Barney is just a passive observer, and the short can only do so much with that. Still, while Barney Bear's legacy is all but forgotten, I suppose he at least has an Oscar nomination to his name. Which isn't nothing. But I'm not terribly surprised that he never managed to repeat that feat.
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