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Saturday Matinee

Saturday Matinee #78: "Lighthouse Keeping" (September 20, 1946) - published June 30, 2012

by Albert Gutierrez

Everything that I know about lighthouse keeping, I learned from three sources: the television soap opera "Guiding Light" (June 30, 1952 to September 18, 2009), the live-action Disney film Pete's Dragon (November 3, 1977), and the Donald Duck cartoon "Lighthouse Keeping" (September 20, 1946). Unfortunately, due to these sources, my view on lighthouse keeping is rather skewed. Real-life lighthouses do not include angels named Zachary, dragons named Elliot, or keepers named Donald. And I doubt many lighthouse-keeping positions would allow me to paint the exterior with Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney. Nor would I ever have to battle a pelican over the light. If I were allowed to listen to music while keeping the lighthouse, I doubt it would be of the melodramatic organ variety. Oh, well. The next best thing for me would be to live vicariously through my VHS tapes of episodes from "Guiding Light" and my DVDs of Pete's Dragon, which fortunately include Donald Duck's "Lighthouse Keeping."

It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, the waves were quite calm, and there was no wind howling in the moonlit sky. Yet, prominent in the foreground, was the lighthouse. The lone lighthouse, proud and tall, stood over the calm, spreading its guiding light (hehe) endlessly throughout the night. Inside the lighthouse, we see its keeper, Donald, valiantly attempting to read his book. He follows the light as best he can, but its constant motion prevents him from enjoying a fine piece of literature. Donald then gets the idea to attach his chair to the light, so that it will follow and keep the light in his path. It works, but only briefly, before the chair is sent careening towards a window.

From the window, Donald sees a sleeping pelican, Marblehead, perched on a rock. He manipulates the light towards Marblehead's nest, who is rudely awaken. Marblehead grabs his nest and flies down to a lower rock, trying to get more sleep. Donald continues to shine a light on Marblehead, who walks over and knocks on Donald's door. As soon as Donald opens the door, Marblehead flies up, blowing out the light. The two soon battle over the right to light, with Donald re-lighting the candle, and Marblehead blowing it out. Eventually, Marblehead ends up pushing Donald over the railing, but a rogue wave sends him back up again.

Marblehead hides inside a trunk, which Donald opens and climbs in. He doesn't realize that he's actually climbing into Marblehead's beak. Marblehead then walks back to the railing, and knocks on his beak. Donald jumps out, ready to attack, only to fall down. He chases Marblehead back into the lighthouse, and they resume their "lights on, lights off" battle. They figure out inventive ways to light or extinguish the flame, but soon morning comes. The light's not needed anymore, yet both Donald and Marblehead wish to continue. Thus, Donald lowers the shades on all the windows, strikes his match, and tells Marblehead, "Okay, bub!" As the morning light continues to peak throughout the day, the two continue their battle with no end in sight.

"Lighthouse Keeping" features a more malicious Donald than we're used to seeing. He was known for mischief before, but some of his actions here are downright nasty. He even remarks to the audience, "Ain't I a devil?" as he shines the light on Marblehead. Perhaps we can attribute this behavior to his boredom at what appears to be an unfulfilling job. As exciting as I'd hoped lighthouse keeping would be, there would be a definite boredom on nights with still waters and no ships on the horizon. Plus, it's a night shift, and he's alone. Not even his book is helping, as he discards that quickly to have some fun, even if it means annoying Marblehead.

The look of this cartoon is rather simplistic. Much of the primary action is only between Donald and Marblehead, with few "props" to help them along. Setting it within the lighthouse also makes for cramped quarters, but it's used inventively. We see Donald and Marblehead duking it out both inside and on the railings, without running out of ways for them to one-up the other. Naturally, a cartoon in a lighthouse would have to take place at night, a dark environment which the sparse backgrounds benefit from. Granted, I doubt this short would need any multi-plane camera work anyway. This was a post-war cartoon, and so there was greater emphasis on getting product out there. Gone were the meticulous and time-consuming methods of the past, when every cartoon was given such close attention to detail.

Ain't he a devil?

As such, we see a greater emphasis on the battle between Donald and Marblehead. There are no distractions in details, we need only see how each character reacts to the other. Personally, I like the simplistic look of the post-war Disney cartoons. It continued into the 1950's as well, even when Disney experimented with the CinemaScope shorts. Detail became only necessary to the needs of the story, and not included for the sake of seeing it. It's a more frugal method of animation, but does have its own charm. For example, in this shot below, we see two contrasting design styles: the modern circular staircase and an old-fashioned stone wall.

Immediately, the shot establishes all we need to know about the situation. It's set in the present day - well, present-day 1946 - but the lighthouse has been around much longer. The arched doorway and wooden door suggest that, as does the stone floor. Were this a feature film, this shot might have seen more intricate patterns in the stone floor, perhaps also including texture to the wall and a sheer to the metal railing. But none of that is necessary for the story. All those "extras" would make the shot look pretty, when all we need to know is that Donald is keeper of a very old lighthouse.

"Lighthouse Keeping" can be found on three DVDs. It first appeared as a bonus cartoon in the 2001 "Gold Classic Collection" DVD for Pete's Dragon. The short remained part of the bonus features offered when Pete's Dragon was re-released as a "High-Flying Edition" DVD in 2009. In addition, it was one of the shorts featured in 2004's "Walt Disney Treasures: The Chronological Donald, Volume Two." Unfortunately, while Pete's Dragon will be released to Blu-Ray this coming October (2), the press release does not mention "Lighthouse Keeping" among its extras.


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