Wednesday, July 5, 2017

184. Hell's Bells

SERIES: Silly Symphony
DRAWN BY: Ub Iwerks

In a cavern of hell, dark and strange creatures cavort for the Devil's amusement. After feeding one of his minions to Cerberus, he chases after another who flees. His Evilness is outwitted in the end, consumed in the fires of his own abode.

"Hell's Bells" is something of a favorite of mine, mainly because it's so weird. Down in the caverns of Hades all manner of devilish creatures make merry to Carl Stalling's orchestrations of Funeral March of a Marionette (best known as the theme from Alfred Hitchcock Presents). Disney seemed to go for the spookiness in 1929. Other shorts released around this time include dancing skeletons, haunted houses, and mad scientists. Things get very bizarre and silly in this one, as Iwerks lets his imagination roam with character design and some of the animation gags. For example, there's a wonderful moment when a serpentine beast swallows a bat-like beast, prompting it to sprout wings and fly away. This is the kind of thing that can only be done in animation; the stuff of dreams and nightmares. But despite the fact we're in hell this time, it's still lots of fun. We get an appearance from Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound, but here he's designed in a scrawny and funny sort of way. It's not threatening; it's just weird and funny.

There's one moment that makes me laugh every time I watch it, and that's when the third devil walks into the wall. It's an unexpected laugh. But what tops it is the way he becomes all angular after colliding with the jagged edge of the wall. And after all his geometric contorting to retain his original form, he walks right into the wall again. It gets me every time.

The absurdity takes one step further as the cartoon progresses. Where else would you witness a dragon-cow being milked for fire? The idea seems to spring from the mind of a five-year-old. Disney doesn't do bizarre things like this so often, but the results here are joyous.

"Hell's Bells" is notable for furthering the formula of what the Silly Symphonies would become. If the pattern of a dance number in an atmospheric cartoon was established by "The Skeleton Dance", "Hell's Bells" takes it one step further by adding to the mostly plotless proceedings a final chase scene. Nearly every Silly Symphony to follow for the next few years would climax in some sort of chase. In this case, it's the Devil chasing one of his minions to the strains of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King.) Like "The Skeleton Dance", the short prefigures much of what would become the story for the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Fantasia. In both, weird infernal beings cavort for the amusement of their dark lord, only to be pawns for his wrath and pleasure. In this case, some sort of good still wins out even though the hero of the chase is a demon, and Satan gets it in the end. Literally. The cartoon opens and closes with a rising wall of flame, coming from the bottom of the screen. It is a sort of reverse curtain call, for just as the curtain would rise on the stage at the start ofa play and fall at the end, it acts in the opposite way in the bowels of Hades. I find it a clever way to open and close the short. As with "Plane Crazy", Iwerks shows his deftness with bringing the audience into the cartoon world.

185. Get Rich Quick

DIRECTOR: Jack Kinney
STORY: Milt Schaffer, Dick Kinney

George Geef (here introduced as G.G. Geef) has a gambling addiction, placing bets on anything and everything, and throwing money away on all manner of lottery. He loses his money on a slot machine, wins some in a back-alley craps game, loses big on a horse race, and finally walks off a big winner at a neighborhood poker game. Upon returning home, his wife immediately scolds him for gambling, until realizing he won, and George finds the one person he always has to settle up with is his wife.

"Get Rich Quick" is another in the series of George Geef shorts from the 1950s that usually deal with some particular vice. We've already seen Goofy tackle food addiction, and now he takes on gambling. There are a lot more of these kind of shorts focusing on bad habits and societal good in the '50s and '60s. But what I like about a few of these Goofy ones is you can tell they were made for adults. It's easy to think of cartoons as "kid stuff", especially when they have social messages. But these are adults with adult problems and the folks behind these shorts are talking to them. This one deals with situations that are outside the view of most kids.

There are some fun sight gags that play on literal interpretations of popular idioms. Goofy shorts are usually the place to find such gags. So when his money is "burning a hole in his pocket", it literally does. Or when a slot machine is referred to by it's slang term "one-armed bandit", the animation treats it like a hold-up, with Geef surprised by the lever in his back. I love when he leaves the poker game, which is surrounded by a cloud of smoke, and he just opens the smoke like a door.

The alley craps sequence is a lot of fun. This was shortly before Guys and Dolls would bring the world of underground craps games to a new audience. The music that lures Geef into the alley is actually a re-use of a bossa nova element from The Three Caballeros. That's a nice little callback. I love that visual of dice as musical notes on the staff. What's the sound that lures him to the alley? The music of rattling dice. It's a very clever way to portray that, and something which Disney does well: blending sound and imagery. When Geef kisses his dice for luck, they kiss him back to signal lady luck is with him. And then there's that wonderful twist at the end. By this point, it had become a cartoon cliche that when a character loses his shirt he wears a barrel (you'll find it in several Donald Duck cartoons).

But this one wonderfully turns that on its head when Goofy emerges with a barrel only to turn and you find out the barrel is full of money. He didn't lose, he won big! That's a wonderful twist on expectations. And in a way, doesn't that illustrate the thrill of gambling?

Throughout the short, Geef has very few wins among his many losses. He wins the poker game with the most unlikely hand, a pair of deuces. The narrator calls him "lucky George Geef", but he sure hasn't seemed lucky during most of the cartoon. And it's these infrequent wins that lead to the addiction because suddenly the big win seems possible and all the losses worth it. And that's where the short ends. Geef sneaks home from the game and attacked by his wife for blowing their money on gambling... until she finds out he won. Then she changes her tune quickly! Something terrible seems less so when it benefits you. The wife now can take all his winnings for herself, and that's the joke of the ending "easy come, easy go". But isn't it interesting that she goes from violence to a tempered "oh how nice!"

Let's take a moment to talk about Geef's wife. This is not her first appearance. I think she first appears in "Cold War", in which George Geef is sick at home with a cold. But she will continue to feature in other of the Geef shorts. She is always kept just offscreen, as a voice or a pair of hands or legs. We never see her face. They will eventually have a son, which we will discuss later. But her presence has led many to confuse the Geef character with Goofy himself. This is not Goofy's wife; it's George Geef's wife. And his son, though often later confused with Max from Goof Troop is a different character. It is unclear who Max's mother was or if Goofy is ever meant to have been married. 

"Get Rich Quick" isn't the strongest of the "social issue" shorts that Goofy tackles, but its gags are fun. And ultimately, it doesn't end with a didactic message. It simply sums up gambling as "easy come, easy go". It's more a way to gently poke at folks in the audience, but it doesn't end with a moral like telling Donald not to pay hooky from school or telling Pluto to save a kitty. Instead, it presents a social vice for laughs and leaves it the the audience to draw conclusions.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

186. It's Tough to Be a Bird

DIRECTOR: Ward Kimball
STORY: Ted Berman, Ward Kimball

A friendly cartoon bird constantly under fire from hunters narrates an educational discussion on the importance of birds in human society. After a brief history lesson, we are informed about modern birdwatching from the National Audobon Society, and are treated to documentary footage of the Buzzard Festival in Hinckley, Ohio. Finally, the short culminates in a bizarre surrealistic explosion of cartoon images.

"It's Tough to Be a Bird" was the last animated short Disney put out in the 1960s, and really the last one made for awhile apart from educational material for schools. And it's not even fully animated; a large portion of this short subject is live action documentary footage that is hosted by the cartoon. For this reason, I questioned whether it even belonged on the list, but as at least half of it is animated and because there are elements that make it unique, I included it. If you've never seen it, it's worth having a look if only for a few brief moments of inspired lunacy.

This short has Ward Kimball's name all over it, and it definitely feels like him. The bird narrator character has a look of Kimball's design, and the sometimes silly moments of humor seem to reflect some of his sensibilities, or at least what I've gleaned from seeing interviews and footage of him. Kimball was one of the famed Nine Old Men of the Walt Disney studio, those top animators that helped shape the things we know and love. Notice also the very rough black lines from the xerography process. I believe I've read Kimball liked it rough like that because it preserved every scribble of the artist.

So what's it about? Well, it's about birds and how great they are. As is often the case in these Disney educational presentations, we begin with a kind of history lesson. One place where I criticize this short is in the evolution segment. I suppose it's fine to discuss the evolution of birds, but did it really need to go all the way back to fish? I don't think so. It's really unnecessary, because what matters is that the birds develop from reptiles. Going all the way back to sea life is irrelevant to the discussion, I think. Also, "archaeopteryx" is pronounced wrong, and I'm not sure if this was intentional or not. The narrator does have this particular accent that sometimes intentionally says things wrong for comic effect (like the way he says "Leonardo Da Vinci"), but I don't think doing so in a scientific context here was smart because kids for whom this is new information will then be saying it wrong.

The importance of birds to humans throughout history is an interesting subject, and though it's glossed over very quickly, I think it's a nice sequence and reasonably informative. However, there's the bit about how early armies based their battles on whether or not the sacred chicken said it was okay. While I'm entertained by it, I seriously questioned the veracity of this claim. We are told this is the origin of the phrase "to chicken out." It may be true, but it does seem to me like one of those bizarre etymologies you find in a book that may not be accurate (like all the rumors about where the F-word came from, most of which are nonsense). In doing some quick research, I found that some Roman histories do cite the feeding of sacred chickens as omens from the gods. Whether this is truly the origin of our English phrase, I do not know. But if it is, then I really did learn something from this short.

There's a great little visual gag during the Noah's ark sequence when the animals come out two by two, and when he gets to "mustangs", two cars drive out. This short is filled with little absurd touches like that which make me laugh.

I enjoy the theme song of the cartoon, perhaps because it has rhymes in triplicate which I always enjoy. It's a catchy little tune, with some very clever lyrics ("you pluck our feathers out and call us dressed"). And it illustrates what I think is the primary focus of the short: stop hunting and eating birds to extinction. By highlighting the historical and cultural significance of birds, it hopes to change America's views of them. Perhaps to curb hunting altogether. It's funny how much the studio's output shifts from the early 1930s to a very anti-hunting message by the 1950s. If anything, this short seems like a commercial for the National Audobon Society, who get their own little sequence in the middle. We see documentary footage of birdwatchers. Remember when they were called "birdwatchers"? Back before they turned "bird" into a verb and started calling themselves "birders"? I miss those days. And speaking of the birdwatching sequence, did you notice the one man with the tape recorder? I'm not positive, but it looks to me like that's Ward Kimball himself. If so, perhaps this short was a subject of personal interest and that is why he made it.

It is at this point that the short goes into full documentary mode for awhile and becomes a human interest documentary about an annual celebration in Ohio of when buzzards return to a small town.  It's a nice curiosity, because who would have ever known about Buzzard Day? The highlight of this sequence, though, is the song "When the Buzzards Return to Hinckley Ridge" as performed by Ruth Buzzi. Buzzi was a known comedic actress of her day, appearing at that time on the popular series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. She would later go on to other cartoon voice work in the 1980s, and many of my readers might remember her for her run on Sesame Street in the 1990s. Her hilarious vocal performance in this short subject is distinctly Ruth Buzzi. On the YouTube upload of this short, she even stopped by to comment on how much fun she had recording the song. She would later go on to do other roles and voice work for Disney.

There's a part of me that wonders whether the Hinckley sequence might have been better served as its own live-action documentary short subject. The style of this short, switching between the cartoon and the documentary footage, feels very much like the Disney television show. And apparently, that's no accident. An one-hour version of this program did air on the Wonderful World of Color the following year. I wonder if the short came first and was expanded, or if it was made for television and then cut down for theatrical distribution (which Disney did from time to time with other live action shorts of the period). If you perhaps remember it being longer, you are probably remembering the television version.

I like the little George M. Cohan joke at the end where our narrator does the "my mother thanks you, my father thanks you" bit that you might remember from Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What makes the cartoon entirely worth it for me, and warrants its inclusion on this list, is the climactic last two minutes. They don't make any sense, they are just an explosion of surreal images and ideas featuring birds. These moments are very much in the style of animation Terry Gilliam was using on Monty Python's Flying Circus. The earlier sequence with the flying statues getting shot down feels very  very Gilliamesque. And you know what's fascinating? This cartoon was released in 1969, and Monty Python was only just starting in the UK. We wouldn't get it in the U.S. for another two years! Gilliam had done a few similar animations for a series called Do Not Adjust Your Set. All this leads me to wondering just how Ward Kimball or the Disney people came to the decision to do this sort of stuff in this cartoon. Were they influenced by Gilliam? Had they seen any of his stuff? It's amazing because it is so unique in the Disney canon; they never do anything quite like this ever again. That makes these final couple of minutes some of the most interesting Disney animation you can see. It's weird, and funny, and sometimes political. It begins by simply reminding us of the birds that end up on our table, but quickly flashes through all manner of images that get more and more insane. The progression from stills to movement is done well. We see a chicken holding a protest sign that says "eat more fish!" We even get a reference to the political environment of the country with the Vietnam War. Peace protesters were popularly known as "doves" and those for the war were "hawks" (you still hear those terms every now and then, but not as frequently). But here we have this subversive little moment where a dove drops a bomb and a hawk drops a flower. It seems to be making a statement, but what exactly who can say? There's even a bit of more adult humor, like where rooster man hops over to hen lady, but scoots away when she lays an egg. Disney cartoons rarely get this subversive, political, inventive, or bizarre. The explosive nonsense reminds me of the ending of The Three Caballeros, where there seems no logical way to end proceedings so why not a crescendo of surrealism? As the music builds up to its climax, we segue into a montage of clips with dancing birds from previous Silly Symphonies. And after an explosion, just for good measure, a little cutout Mary Poppins flies by. This entire sequence is so unexpected, it is a real treat to watch. The fact that I don't remember Disney ever doing anything quite like this again is a real shame. The first time I saw it I remember saying to myself, "this is a Disney short?"

"It's Tough to Be a Bird" may not have completely iterated why it is indeed tough to be a bird, but it certainly touched on reasons why birds may be more significant to our culture than just being eaten and shot at. It won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject, the last Disney would win in this category for a number of years. As far as the educational shorts go, it isn't bad, and is informative. But the real joy of this cartoon is when its unique brand of humor and animation really shine through. This is a cartoon that just can't be easily categorized. I do wish there were more animation and less live action. Even the animation we have is mostly a bird on a blank background doing a slideshow. But there are sparks of insanity that make up for the blandness in other places. This short demands to be seen at least once, and I don't think it's ever been commercially released on DVD, which is a shame. Definitely look it up on YouTube; you'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

187. Scrooge McDuck and Money

DIRECTOR: Hamilton Luske
STORY: Bill Berg

Huey, Dewey, and Louie come to Uncle Scrooge seeking advice about their piggy bank savings. After Scrooge gives them a lesson in economics and the history of money, they invest in his company.

The 1960s were the waning years of the Disney short subjects, and even of theatrical animation itself to a degree. After the war, the studio had rebounded in the 1950s with celebrated classics like Cinderella and Peter Pan, culminating in the expensive masterpiece Sleeping Beauty. But the 1950s also saw Walt Disney further diversify his company into television with The Mickey Mouse Club and his anthology series to promote his new theme park, Disneyland. Focus shifted into live-action features beginning with Treasure Island. So while the 1960s brought the more modern look and feel to the animation beginning with One Hundred and One Dalmatians, only three animated features were made by the studio that decade, as focus shifted to other endeavors and animated content was sometimes relegated to their television programs. The popular Mickey Mouse and Pluto series of shorts had ended, while Goofy and Donald Duck would soon end theirs. What shorts were made in the 1960s were sometimes experiments or curious one-off specialties, or they were educational pieces often designed to focus on a particular social woe. This was nothing new exactly, as Disney had had success during World War II making such films as "The Spirit of '43", reminding viewers of the importance of filing their income tax returns, or "Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Firing Line" asking homes to donate their used cooking fats to the war effort.

It is into this environment that "Scrooge McDuck and Money" was released in 1967, one of the last animated shorts released in that decade. It's not as entertaining as some of the others of this period, being much more clearly an educational piece. It has that in common with the two Goofy "Freewayphobia" cartoons (which did not make this list and I'm sure some will be mad at me for it). What content is there is sometimes glossed over too quickly or a bit inaccurately (the discussion of salarium for example is a little loose with fact), but that's true of the company's output at the time. Remember, this is the same educational Disney company that concocted the myth of lemmings jumping off cliffs do their death. But most of the content is fine, if oversimplified. It's a bit drier than other theatrical shorts even of the 1960s (this came out between the released of the first two Winnie the Pooh shorts), feeling much more like something put out specifically for the educational division or for the television series. Heck, I don't know why it even got a theatrical release. But there's a reason it made this list, and not just because it's a mildly amusing economics lesson. It's because of it's place in the larger history of the company regarding a certain character.

This the first animated onscreen appearance of Scrooge McDuck. Uncle Scrooge as a character had actually appeared years earlier in the popular Donald Duck comic books written and drawn by the great Carl Barks. After a number of guest appearances in those comics, Uncle Scrooge got his own comic series. All of these adventures and the cast of characters that came to populate Duckburg would lay the foundation for the popular television series DuckTales (and it's theatrical feature film). But the first step from page to screen was "Scrooge McDuck and Money". You'll notice Scrooge is clothed in red in this cartoon rather than the now-standard blue, but that's how he appeared in the comics at the time. And who do you get to voice this now iconic character? None other than the great voice actor Bill Thompson, whose Scottish brogue you may recognize from his role as Jock the Scottish terrier in Lady and the Tramp. But Thompson has played many other recognizable cartoon characters from the White Rabbit and Mr. Smee for Disney, to Droopy Dog for MGM. His performance of Scrooge McDuck very much lays the foundation for Alan Young's take on the character in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" and DuckTales.

This is also the first time Huey, Dewey, and Louie are given normal voices. In earlier cartoon appearances, they were all variations on Clarence Nash's Donald voice, and usually only to have unison lines like "Yes, Uncle Donald." This too lays the foundation for DuckTales, where they would have more normal voices, but with a little bit of duckiness to them as well. It can be a little jarring hearing their voices in this cartoon because it's quite different from what we are used to up to that point as well as on DuckTales. But it was a stepping stone, and I think important that their speech be intelligible for this short to work.

While "Scrooge McDuck and Money" lays the onscreen foundations for what we would know as DuckTales, there are a couple more steps before we got there. Scrooge has a large vault full of money, but it's not the comically enormous bin with a diving board that we saw on the series. We can see Scrooge's Number One Dime on display in a glass case on a pillow, but it's not the same display it would have on television.

As an historical aside, there was another short cartoon important to the evolution of DuckTales. It was a television special called Sport Goofy in Soccormania. As it was a television production, it didn't make the list and so I will not spend too much time on it. Surprisingly, this cartoon that was ostensibly about Goofy turns out to be a kind of pilot for a DuckTales series, featuring the boys, Scrooge, the Beagle Boys and many of the common DuckTales elements. Of note however, Alan Young does not voice Uncle Scrooge in it, despite having already played Scrooge in "Mickey's Christmas Carol". It's very weird watching it and hearing another voice come out. I don't think it was even Scottish. It feels a lot like an alternate universe version of DuckTales, like the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie that came out before the series.

As you can tell, the historical place "Scrooge McDuck and Money" has in the evolution from comic books to a popular television series is a bit more interesting to me than the short itself. But I would be lying if I said there was nothing here I enjoyed, or I wouldn't have put it on this list. I remember watching it on the Disney Channel as a kid, and learning about budgeting. So in that way it was at least a little bit successful.

The animation is not particularly polished, and certainly doesn't have the care and technique that shorts had in the heyday of the company. Rather, in the style and the execution it is very much in keeping with what the studio was doing for their television programs. We're into the xerography era, with the harsh black lines, but even this is softened for the song sequence describing the history of money from bartering to credit cards. There's also a fair amount of limited animation and live-action shots using techniques from the wartime propaganda days, and fairly typical of some of the shorts of this period. You can see they appear to have used actual money, or at least pictures of actual money for some of it.

This cartoon was directed by Hamilton Luske, who shares animation director credits on many of the features of the 1950s, and directed many pieces for the Wonderful World of Color television program. He began doing more sort of documentary short work, and so the shorts he directed during this period reflect that more edutainment type of approach. These include the award-winning "Donald in Mathmagic Land", "Donald and the Wheel", and a third Donald short, "The Litterbug". So we could take "Scrooge McDuck and Money" as the last installment of Luske's "education by duck" series, if we wish to view it that way. This cartoon doesn't come out of nowhere; it came after a string of similar shorts featuring Donald. For this particular story, it makes more sense to use Uncle Scrooge and the nephews, anyway.

As I mentioned above, the content is informative, if a bit too briskly paced. We quickly cover bartering to the trade of precious metals, but don't get into other nuances of the history, like money based on weight. And it's funny looking back on it now, when Scrooge talks about the troubles of inflation and money not being worth the paper it's printed on, knowing that today money really isn't worth the paper it's printed on! Scrooge predicted the future. And then there's the discussion of how the government has a budget too, but we gloss over the fact that the government hasn't had a balanced budget ever.

The style of this short is reminiscent of others in the later years, when everything rhymes. Though one could also consider this a throwback to the Silly Symphonies which often featured rhymed dialogue because it was meant to evoke music or storybook. The rhyming dialogue here seems perhaps overly cutesy, like a children's storybook about finance.

There remain some nice visuals here and there to try to keep it interesting, like the hat full of money flying around the world. Visualizing a budget as a literal pie is very helpful to the metaphor. And this short is also not without charming moments of humor. My favorite little moment is after Scrooge unwittingly tears up a dollar bill, he makes a point of sewing it back together. That's a delightful character moment and this cartoon doesn't have enough of them. I also like the final moments in which stacks of coins become factories and trains. I think it's a nice little visual device.

The music isn't groundbreaking or anything, but when I was a kid for some reason the "balancing the budget" refrain was very memorable. And it's one of the few aspects of this cartoon that have stuck with me all these years. The music is utilitarian; meant to service the short by quickly doling out information in a catchy way. They're not all particularly catchy, but they are inoffensive. I don't think the little song about buying stock ever really makes clear what Scrooge is talking about. The short seems to gloss over the notion of investment a little too quickly for me. I don't think I understood it as a kid.

Considering the way the cartoon ends, one could perhaps deduce that Scrooge went through this whole spiel just to get the boys' money. He even charged them a 3 cent fee! One could watch this cartoon and get the sense that Scrooge is not just a greedy son of a drake, but a shrewd businessman who made good investments. It would be easy to see him as just a stingy Scottish stereotype, but this cartoon presents him more as just a sensible self-made businessman. Still, the little bit at the end where he ends up with his nephews' money adds a touch of the old expected Scrooge.

"Scrooge McDuck and Money" is nothing earth-shattering and in many ways is probably forgettable. But it holds a unique place in the history of the company regarding Uncle Scrooge. And if nothing else, it is an interesting time capsule for the studio's output in the late 1960s. The style of the short is very representative of what they were doing on television at the time, using familiar characters but broaching educational topics, the choral song work, etc. It's a snapshot of the company at a particular point when priorities were shifting and they were soon to plow ahead without Walt. This was the first cartoon short released after Walt Disney's death a few months earlier. If it has a forgettable quality, it's because the studio was unsure of its identity at the time. But this short also gave a glimmer of what many kids would come to love twenty years later when DuckTales came along and did it right.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

188. Mother Goose Melodies

SERIES: Silly Symphony

A procession brings Old King Cole to his throne, where he calls for his pipe, his book, and his fiddlers three. The book arrives, being a collection of Mother Goose rhymes, and we are treated to humorous musical vignettes with some famous characters.

These are still the early days for the Silly Symphony series, but already we can see a bit of growth. Mother Goose Melodies continues the tradition of animated characters cavorting to recognizable musical motifs, but using nursery rhymes was a clever choice because so many are associated with singable tunes. For each section, the music score accompanying is usually identifiable, even when the rhyme isn't being recited. When the blackbirds fly out of Jack's pie, for example, we can hear "Sing a Song of Sixpence" underneath. You can literally sing every rhyme throughout the short. I like the use of "Baa Baa Black Sheep", in which the sheep actually bleets on the "baa baa" parts.

The short features a lot of the standard tropes of the early Silly Symphony era, such as three figures dancing in unison, a goofy sun, and toothy grins. But there's actually a lot of new ground being broken in this short that will carry into future projects for the company. The most important first in this cartoon is the appearance of Old King Cole. His design, along with his booming jovial voice, would feature throughout the 1930s, both recurring as Old King Cole and serving as a prototype for both King Neptune and Santa Claus. They are all essentially the same figure, and they make their first appearance here.

This is also the first appearance of Mother Goose, both as a character and as a concept. This is the first time the studio has gone to the nursery rhyme well for inspiration but it certainly wouldn't be the last. There would be multiple future Silly Symphony projects, including at least two very similar shorts involving Mother Goose characters. There would even be a short in the 1960s exploring the truth behind certain popular rhymes. The idea of the storybook, and the characters that live in it and pop out of it, would become a standard feature of these cartoons. But more than that, the storybook trope would ultimately become a defining cliche of Disney animated features, beginning with the book that opens Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The interactions inside the pages would also be put to great use in the Winnie the Pooh features. It all begins with Mother Goose Melodies.

The opening parade animation processional that brings Old King Cole in would be re-used in several other projects over the years. For the Academy Awards ceremony several years later, the studio redid the sequence in color, presenting the acting nominees for that year. Instead of Old King Cole, the procession brings in caricatures of the Hollywood stars. During the 1940s, they used the animation again for a Standard Oil commercial.

The design work is interesting in this cartoon because there's a pretty clear distinction made between the "real" people of the kingdom and the ones who live in the book. Characters like Jack and Jill or Little Bo Peep are drawn with a much more juvenile art style. It is very simplistic, almost like stick figures, evoking something more childlike. Meanwhile, character animation and design for Old King Cole, the Three Blind Mice and others is showing a definite progression up from some of the earlier cartoons. There are still holdovers, like the look of the spider, which remains of the sort that we've seen in earlier shorts, but there's definitely progress being made.

I would be remiss if I didn't speak about some of the amusing moments in the cartoon itself. It's all well and good to discuss it's place in Disney history, but it's also on this list for its own merit. While not as major a figure as Old King Cole, this is also the first appearance of the Simple Simon design that remains fairly unchanged throughout the Mother Goose shorts. They'd never get away with something like that today, with this ridiculous fool who's "simple" (read: retarded), and therefore easily mocked. He's always depicted as fishing for some reason, even though that has nothing to do with his rhyme. I have no idea why he has an N on his hat either (if anyone knows, please let me know in the comments!). But I love the bit where he pulls an octopus out of the bucket. It seems so incredibly random and it makes me laugh. The moment when Little Jack Horner pulls out the plum and says, "What a big boy am I" is great because he now has this deeper, booming voice. It makes sense for the character, but it's also part of the humor of the unexpected. And that's where this short works well, in taking these very well known stories and finding ways to surprise us.

Something else it does well is when it connects several rhymes together. It's a surprise to have Jack and Jill turn up at the top of the hill only to find Simple Simon there. But they also smartly blend "Little Bo Peep" and "Little Boy Blue", both of whom are tasked with looking after sheep and doing a lousy job of it. This pairing will usually feature in other Disney cartoons. That whole sequence with them and "Black Sheep" is well thought out. For a cartoon that's fairly simple, the story department did a good job. It's also rather unique in that this one doesn't have a big chase sequence and isn't too reliant on dancing. While it's fairly light on actual story, they found ways to find little stories and make it all work nicely.

One thing I've always wondered though is why so often these characters are depicted in clogs, as if they are little Dutch children. This kind of motif carries over into later cartoons too, and I don't know why. The rhymes aren't Dutch in origin. I wonder if there was some popular illustrated collection at the time and they were referencing those pictures.

Mother Goose Melodies on the surface is a fairly trite, mildly amusing five minute cartoon. And yet it has a legacy in the characters, ideas, and actual animation, that continued in the decades to follow. The Silly Symphonies of the 1930s would not have been the same without it, and that's worth celebrating.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

189. Tomorrow We Diet!

DIRECTOR: Jack Kinney
STORY: Milt Schaffer, Dick Kinney

George Geef (Goofy) finds he has gotten fat when his reflection calls him out on it. He spends the rest of the day trying to put himself on a diet and avoid temptation to eat.

In the 1950s, Disney's short output was diminished as the studio focused on television and reviving its feature division. Mickey Mouse and Pluto saw their last shorts for awhile in the early years of the decade, leaving only Donald Duck and Goofy with regular output. The Goofy series in the 1950s moved almost entirely away from the "how to" or sports series and evolved into a satirical look at the problems of contemporary American domestic life. These cartoons almost exclusively featured Goofy in the role of George Geef, family man ("Geef" being like "Goof" with different vowels).

There are many differences in the Geef years compared to the earlier shorts, and some of the elements from these cartoons eventually made their way into the Goof Troop television series. George sometimes doesn't have the traditional Goofy voice of Pinto Colvig. His design also often makes him look more like a white american, with his body sometimes not being painted black the way it used to be. Sometimes he loses his dog ears for a more humanoid "haircut" look. These design changes are not consistent from short to short, but sometimes I like to think that Geef looks more "human" in the cartoons that focus on very everyday human problems. Then again, it's probably just due to different directors and animators.

"Tomorrow We Diet!" is one such short where Geef looks very human, though cartoonishly fat. There's something a little weird about seeing Goofy fat, since he's always been tall and gangly. This is also one in which George Geef has a different voice than the typical Goofy sound.

The story here seems just as relevant today as it did in 1951. All over the news we hear people bemoaning how obese Americans have become and what we can do about it. This short takes a fun look at the perils of being fat and not wanting to be. I've been fat since I was a kid, so I've always liked this one.

The story opens when Geef's reflection talks back at him. This is a pretty standard cartoon device, but I think it is used nicely here. I always laugh at his opening line, "Hello, Fat!" As the short goes on, they play more with the rules of the reflection and I love that he's just another guy who lives on the other side of the mirror. He stays there even when George isn't home, almost like a roommate. We see him cleaning the mirror as if it were his own window before George walks in.

There is an assortment of broad gags revolving around how fat George is. Making a suit from the awning outside the tailor shop is amusing, and the chairs buckle under him. All these things are typical "make fun of fat people" jokes. But the key to the sequence is the button: George denies he's fat during all of this and only believes it when one of those fortune-teller scales calls him fat. He won't believe people, the world around him, or his own reflection, but as soon as this machine for superstitious amusement says so, he thinks "I must be getting fat!" I think the cartoon gets away with the easier cheap jokes because of that. Besides, there are also other clever visual ideas in the rest of the cartoon, like how he's not "fit as a fiddle", but rather resembles a double bass.

Then we get to the meat of the cartoon (so to speak) with the focus on his fat being due to his overeating. There's a moment when faced with a carrot, he turns into a rabbit. Indeed, I have similar feelings about "rabbit food". The "get the behind me, salami!" is great too. Then we get a look at all the food elements of his home decor. Why do people decorate their homes like this? There are normal elements (a grape motif on a wall sconce, the fish on the wall), then the slightly weird like how his chair has a fruit pattern. Even that is a bit believable, but then we start to get to a point where I'm not sure his house really looks like this or he's just cracking up. That point comes when I see his drapes are a pattern of cold cuts! I like the build-up of these sequence. Also note the magazine he looks through is photo-real. It's not something they do a lot in Disney cartoons (but they do toy with it in the '50s here and there). In this case, it helps to heighten the appeal of food.

One of the most memorable elements of the short, and the one I always remembered as a kid, was the "Eat!" chanting. It begins with this mysterious voice telling George to "eeeeeat!" The vocal is really nice, with just the right amount of reverb. But as it goes on, it becomes this fun almost robotic "beep boop" kind of voice repeating the word in various tones, almost like car horns. Somehow, I always find it hilarious. It's also the perfect audio to match the visual of all the late night signs advertising eateries.

The structure of the second half is reminiscent of Donald Duck cartoons built around the notion of trying to achieve a task and being thwarted. Here, the task is to avoid eating. The resolution is a nice button on the clever notion of the reflection living in his own world: he actually eats all the food himself! It's one of those beautiful illogical ideas that only works in cartoons. And the episode closes with the familiar Goofy laugh, even though up to this point neither Geef nor his reflection has sounded anything like Goofy.

Viewed through modern eyes, the cartoon could be said to have two problems. One could argue it promotes anorexia, by arguing you should just stop eating. But people should understand this is a cartoon and is being broad to make a point in a short amount of time. I think if this one were made today, it would also be accused of fat-shaming or downright bullying. The reflection constantly refers to George as "fat" or by some other mean nickname. He almost seems to get perverse pleasure out of making George touch his toes and acknowledge his problem. Again, it's a cartoon and I think it gets away with it. I think at its core, it's not picking on all fat people, but addressing this specific person who used to be fit but has problems now through gross overeating. This is not to say everyone is fat because they eat too much. But it was an attempt to shine a light on Americans overdoing it in their diet, because food is awesome. There really isn't even exactly a resolution to the issue; just that the reflection guy is going to prevent George from eating. This cartoon was part of a series of these that focused on the addictions of middle class Americans (other cartoons were made about smoking and gambling). So in this case, focusing on an addiction to food, the intent wasn't to shame fat people into eating disorders, but to shine a light on habit-breaking. It's still relevant today, even if its tactics.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Disney to release animated shorts collection on blu-ray and DVD

I just read that Disney is releasing a new collection of shorts to DVD in a few weeks. Apart from the recent successes like Paperman and Feast, which have been available on other discs, we'll also get the new Frozen Fever, Tangled Ever After and How to Hook Up Your Home Theater which to date had only been available on a Have a Laugh! collection.

But the most interesting news to me is two others that this collection will include: Tick Tock Tale and Lorenzo. I know literally nothing about Tick Tock Tale other than that it exists. No footage exists on YouTube, and I don't think it ever got a wide release. Lorenzo was theatrically released years ago with the movie Stepmom, but it has never been released to home media and so I've only seen brief trailer footage online. These two were among the 4 or 5 shorts that I've been unable to view for this project, and now that's going to change!

I'm so happy to finally see an official release for some of these, and to see others collected in one place for easier reference. I now have to think about whether to amend my ranking to include them, or whether to just do specialty essays on them later. But if there are any readers out there, I'm glad to share this news with you!