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!

Monday, August 10, 2015

190. Figaro and Cleo

SERIES: Figaro (sort of)

After the release of Pinocchio in 1940, Disney had several breakout stars in the supporting cast. The most prominent is Jiminy Cricket, who would not only go on to serve as narrator and guide in the feature Fun and Fancy Free, but also became a regular feature of The Mickey Mouse Club. He got two regular educational segments of his own, "I'm No Fool" and "The Human Animal". But the other Pinocchio character whose success with audiences prompted his own series was Figaro the cat.

There's no denying Figaro represented a culmination of cat animation for the studio. Figaro is a fully-realized character with his own behaviors and spunky personality, yet he also has distinctly recognizable feline characteristics. It's easy to see Figaro as a further development of the cats from Three Little Kittens and its sequel. So I suppose it was inevitable that Figaro would get his own series.

This first official Figaro cartoon pairs him with another Pinocchio costar, Cleo the fish. Cleo serves as a nice foil for Figaro because while they are sort of friendly, Figaro also can't always deny the temptation to eat her. We call this short "Figaro and Cleo" even though technically that's not the onscreen title. Only the characters' names appear onscreen. I do not know the reason why this is. I think this one was also perhaps meant to be a one-off, even though we count it as the first in the Figaro series. Later Figaro cartoons would have him in the "starburst" opening as the star.

As I mentioned, it's natural to look at this cartoon as a further development from Three Little Kittens. There are more moments of feline mischief, such as Figaro getting tangled up chasing a ball of yarn. There is also a black "mammy" antagonist, as in those shorts. Sadly, this is the thing which most dates this cartoon and the racial undertones can be uncomfortable. Not just the dialect, but the fact that she seems to be bad at her job by sweeping dirt under the rug, something Snow White reminded us not to do in 1937. It would not surprise me in the least if Figaro and Cleo was made in response to Hanna-Barbera's Tom and Jerry series. Tom and Jerry also used to feature a mammy archetype named Mammy Two-Shoes. Later Figaro shorts do away with the mammy character altogether, usually putting Figaro in the care of Minnie Mouse which seems to work better.

There are wonderful moments of feline behavior here, in which Figaro oscillates between panic and playfulness. There's some great animation when Figaro jumps on the broom and finds himself enjoying the ride as it sweeps back and forth, only to fall off. Or when the mammy points her finger at him to scold him, Figaro takes it as a game and swats at it playfully. These moments of observational animation are what defined the work of the Disney studio at its height. Figaro also has characteristics of a child, which makes him relatable. He goes quickly from playing to pouting.

I like the music a lot in this short as well. Figaro gets a bouncy little theme song that's a lot of fun to sing. Though the lyric would lose relevance in other shorts, the melody would remain as his theme music. I also like the little gospel tune the maid sings. Maybe its a racist caricature, but I still like the song, and I like to sing it when I sweep.

Tying a cat's tail to a chair is not cool. Don't do that at home, kids! Real cats are not like cartoons!

My favorite line is when she says, "You is a cat, not a catfish!" I don't know why, but it's funny to me every time.

Some of the business with the cat and mouse (cat and fish?) games also seems to ultimately lead to Lucifer in Cinderella. Figaro is a kitten and more fun than Lucifer, but some of the gags here where happenstance brings Figaro to his quarry reminded me of Lucifer chasing Gus in the tea cups and some of the other moments from that film. The studio came to be very good at doing cats.

In the end, Figaro and Cleo make up and he decides not to eat her. He gets himself almost drowned in the attempt, and when he chooses to leave her alone he is rewarded with milk. Mammy then tells him, "that's the trouble with the world today, folk won't live and let live. In this house, we'll have peace." I wonder, is this the moral of the whole cartoon? Given the time this was made, it makes me wonder if Figaro and Cleo was meant to be a wartime propaganda cartoon in the same way Chicken Little was. Is it a plea for the nations of the world to put down their arms and respect each other? In 1943, the studio was making many war-related cartoons with its stars, and the specialty ones usually had some kind of war-related theme or moral. This leaves me to wonder if Figaro and Cleo was actually designed as a parable pleading for world peace; a kind of spiritual successor to Ferdinand the Bull. If so, are we meant to take it as allegorical? Does Figaro represent Germany? He gets a good scolding and told he only gets fed when he stops misbehaving and leaves others alone. Sounds a lot like what happened at the end of World War I to me. Then again, perhaps it's not so black and white as that. Maybe it's not all-out propaganda. But there does seem to be an underlying message to the contemporary world: don't hurt others out of your selfish desires; we should all get along peacefully.

Both Figaro and Cleo would appear again in later cartoons. Figaro would go on to two more starring roles, as well as several supporting appearances with Pluto. As Figaro is generally paired with Minnie Mouse in later appearances, this first short is a bit of an outlier. But it demonstrated the character had a life outside of Pinocchio, and it reminded us all to try to live peaceably with each other.

Monday, July 6, 2015

191. How to Be a Sailor


How to Be a Sailor is unique in the Goofy "how to" canon. Very often, the "how to" shorts revolve around sporting activities. This one is more occupational. It also is one of the only Goofy cartoons to address wartime conditions, and unexpectedly becomes a propaganda piece at the end. Usually, the war cartoon stuff was left to Donald Duck or Pluto, who were in the army during the war years. There is one Goofy short, Victory Vehicles which speaks to homefront issues like the rubber shortage, though it's mostly an excuse to show silly inventions and promote the pogo stick. How to Be a Sailor is the only Disney World War II cartoon to focus on the navy rather than the army. It's also one of the few that shifts attention to the war in the Pacific. This makes sense given the time of its release. Really the only other Pacific War cartoon is Commando Duck, and that one is far more racist and makes for uncomfortable viewing today.

This cartoon opens with a trend begun in several other Goofy cartoons, that of the "subject through the ages" motif. Indeed, for much of this short it feels less like how to be a sailor and more like the history of sailing. Some might note the similarity to the "History of Aviation" sequence from 1943's Victory Through Air Power. It's very different from the other "how to" shorts as the narration really is more of a history lesson and less of an instructional as in, say, How to Ride a Horse.

You may also note the use of more limited animation in this cartoon, particularly in the more detailed ships toward the end. Note that only the flags wave and the rocking in the ocean is minimal. During the war, Disney was forced to pioneer limited animation techniques to save money and time. Many of these techniques were employed mainly in the educational, propaganda, and military training shorts.

One thing that really stands out about this cartoon for me, though, is the animation of Goofy's walk cycles in some of these moments. The entire pirate sequence is a lot of fun, and Goofy's pirate captain walk where his head remains steady and only his body shifts is delightful. I think they sometimes used similar animation for birds in other shorts like pirate parrots. Maybe the lawyers walked that way in Who Killed Cock Robin? The image is certainly familiar. But in a similar vane, I enjoy the bit with Goofy's upper body maintaining steadiness while the whole ship rocks around him. This is a fun visual.

The intent of the short would seem to be that all the advances in naval history had prepared America to defeat the Japanese. The ending is really quite unexpected, as Goofy accidentally shoots himself out of a canon, only to take down an entire Japanese fleet. Of course, we know they are Japanese not only because of the Rising Sun behind them but because the vessels are anthropomorphized Japanese caricatures. In a clever ending, Goofy speeds toward the sun on the horizon, stylized as the Rising Sun of Japan and shatters it while the score plays "Three Cheers for the Red, White and Blue". It's a stirring bit of war propaganda and while the short on the whole is a middling entry in the Goofy canon, I consider that moment one of the best Disney propaganda moments of the war.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

192. Donald's Gold Mine

SERIES: Donald Duck

Donald's working deep in a mine shaft with his cantankerous burro, when he strikes gold ore. He then gets caught up in the refining machinery.

When I was a kid, this was one of my favorite Donald cartoons. I think that had to do with the fact that so much of it is taken up with the machinery and all the crazy gags along the conveyer belt. Since I was young, I've always been a sucker for contraptions and gags that involve Rube Goldberg-style mechanics. So I think that's why this one resonates so much with me. I was always anxious to get to the part where he falls into the machine.

As usual, this cartoon opens with Donald singing a song and appropriately the choice is "My Darling Clementine" this time around. I would also like to point out this was before the song became associated with Huckleberry Hound.

Donald's co-star this time is a burro. This is not the burro's first appearance. In fact, he appeared with Donald in the second short of Donald's solo series, Don Donald. That cartoon was also the first appearance of Daisy Duck. It just missed the cut-off for this list. In that cartoon, Donald sells his trusty burro for a fancy car to impress Daisy. The burro then made another appearance with Donald in The Village Smithy, which is similar to Donald's Gold Mine, only he's a blacksmith in that one. I find the interactions with the burro to be very good in Gold Mine because Donald gets back what he dishes out. Sometimes he's helpful, sometimes he's not, and sometimes he just laughs. He's a lot like Donald, and Donald doesn't realize that. When Donald accidentally swallows all that coal, it's a win-win solution for  Donald to ask him to kick him in the butt. Also, if the design of the burro looks familiar, it's probably due to this being the early 1940s and the studio had just made Pinocchio. The design doesn't differ much from all the boys-turned-donkey in that film. A young burro would also appear in a sequence for The Three Caballeros the following year. He also shows genuine sorrow when he thinks Donald is gone. He may laugh at Donald's expense, and resent his treatment, but I think he still likes him.

This cartoon is mainly in two sections. The first half is Donald's trials with excavation, full of delightful sight gags. The best bit of business is when he gets stuck in the pickaxe. All the permutations of this struggle make for wonderful sight gags. It's the sort of business usually found in Pluto cartoons, but I think it works very well with Donald here. There are moments that I still laugh out loud sometimes.

The second half comes after Donald strikes it rich. He can't be that lucky, so he gets dumped in the ore processing, and then it's all conveyor belt gags as he runs for his life. Disney's gotten good at doing machinery by this point, having done The Old Mill, and Clock Cleaners and a few others with all those cogs and gears. They also had a bit of a run of shorts in the early 1940s with contraption sequences like this (The Practical Pig is a good example). The shots are nicely designed, and the animation cycles are good. All the close calls for Donald are fun. They were especially fun for me as a little kid. It's also a variation on a theme in Donald cartoons where he's done in by machinery. This trend began really with Modern Inventions, which is higher up the list, and continues in things like Early to Bed, where he wrestles with his mattress.

This isn't the deepest of cartoons, and if you asked most people to recall favorite Donald Duck shorts, this probably wouldn't come up. Maybe I'm a little biased because of my youthful rememberances. It's not a masterpiece by any means, but it does have some bright, amusing moments. That whole business with the pickaxe elevates it for me, as I think that's one of the sequences of wordless Disney comedy. It's a shame that for the Disney Treasures collection in which this one appears (The Chronological Donald Volume 2) they didn't remaster these early 1940s cartoons like with the first volume. The image quality is not as good as it good be.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

193. Goliath II

DIRECTOR: Wolfgang Reitherman
STORY: Bill Peet

Goliath is a massive elephant and leader of his herd, but his son, Goliath II, is an elephant the size of a mouse. Goliath II gets in a lot of trouble being so small, until he saves the herd by wrestling a mouse. After all, why should Goliath be afraid of something the same size as him?

After the expensive, artistic endeavor that was Sleeping Beauty, the Walt Disney studio was heading into the 1960s with a more modern direction. Their next feature, One Hundred and One Dalmatians, was in production and a new animation process, Xerography, was being used to ink their cells. This would eliminate the need to hand-paint all the spots on the dogs. As he often did in the early days, Walt had a short subject made to test the new process. Goliath II (read: Goliath the Second) was the first cartoon made with the new Xerox process.

As an animation test, it's successful. However, I must admit I have never been a fan of this particular cartoon. That doesn't make it bad. It's not bad. But it also never reaches for me the quality of the other Bill Peet shorts, and I'm a big fan of Bill Peet. Something about the story feels like there's not quite enough to it. It begins with a charming idea, an elephant the size of a mouse, but I don't ever care enough about the proceedings. I appreciate what Peet is going for, but somehow I come away thinking "so what?" Part of the problem may be that some of it feels like a retread of Dumbo, with an opposite focus. This time around, the elephant and mouse are enemies. But it's still ultimately about the outcast mutant elephant who is shunned until his deformity brings him notoriety.

Let's talk about Bill Peet. He was a story man in this era, and one of the best they had. He worked on some of the very best short subjects the studio ever made (they're higher up on the list). He had a wonderful sensibility for clear but whimsical stories. He also wrote the screenplay for The Sword in the Stone, the first Disney feature to have a one, something often attributed to Beauty and the Beast. After his time at the Disney studio, Peet would go on to write and illustrate a number of picture books for children. Goliath II has a children's book sort of feel. I just don't think it's on par with some of his other work. In keeping with some of the other Peet stories, it is narrated by Sterling Holloway, which is nice.

This is also the era of Wolfgang Reitherman. "Wooly" Reitherman would go on to direct much of the animated content throughout the 1960s and '70s. I think he directed every feature from The Sword in the Stone through The Rescuers. Goliath II is a perfect opportunity to talk about Reitherman because it features something that's a hallmark of his work: recycled animation. Reitherman felt that it paid homage to the talents that came before and had no qualms about it. I understand the sentiment, and agree to a point, but unfortunately he could go overboard at times. Robin Hood is criticized for relying too heavily on animation reuse at times, and this short does fall into the same trap. Watching this short, it's easy to spot just how much content appeared in prior works.

Maybe that's another reason this one doesn't grab me so much; what content there is has recycled elements. Then again, if you're a Disney fan, you might enjoy watching it to try and catch all these little moments. There are bits from Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland, Dumbo, and Peter Pan. It makes sense to re-use the croc design from Pan, and I think the use of animation here is successful and works in context of the story. However, there are other moments that don't work and the worst culprit for me is the "Baby Mine" shot lifted from Dumbo. Here, Goliath and his mother bond with their trunks but it makes no sense in context given Goliath's size. For the sake of re-used animation, our main character is suddenly very much out of scale. The notion of an elephant who is so small is a difficult mental image to maintain and when the film breaks that scale it's unsettling.

I would be remiss if I did not mention that among all these recycled elements are moments that originate in this short. You probably thought the marching elephant stuff with the traffic jams and all comes from The Jungle Book, but those moments originate in this short. You can also see shades of the Col. Hathi family relationship in this story. Because this short is lesser-known to some, many won't recognize the parts of The Jungle Book that actually have a genesis here. Some of the jungle musical motifs in this short seem to recur or get further developed in The Jungle Book as well.

If I mention a Disney tiger named Rajah, your mind immediately goes to Princess Jasmine's pet in Aladdin, doesn't it? Well, there was a Rajah over 30 years before that, and he appears here. The Rajah design is very similar to the design on the lion that cropped up throughout the mid-1950s in Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons. It's also a very Bill Peet kind of design. Echoes of the design can also be seen in the wolf in Sword in the Stone.

It's funny what a different world we live in today. You'd never see a child spanked onscreen like that now!

The rough xeroxed black outline for the characters doesn't mix well against the backgrounds for me. It works very well in the rough, modern world of One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but the studio didn't always know how to blend that look against the different backgrounds. The gorgeous backgrounds of The Jungle Book always seem to clash with them to me. In this case, the jungle backgrounds are a very stylized, angular look with a kind of airbrushed stencil design. It's interesting, but as everything is in blocks of color with nary an outline in sight, the character outlines don't quite seem a part of the world they way they do in other cartoons. Then again, maybe that was the intent. The backgrounds are more painterly. They actually remind me of children's book illustrations of that period. The color palette and design feels a lot like a storybook to me. But while I think some of it looks interesting, I personally never quite embrace the aesthetic. It's also very very green throughout, and that sameness of environment makes it harder for me to get into the story.

I know I've said very little about the story, but honestly there isn't much to tell. Goliath is small, so he falls in holes or is chased by predators. Then a mouse attacks, but he stands up to the mouse, the wrestle and ultimately Goliath runs him off. The way the mouse taunts Goliath reminded me of the clowns and children taunting Dumbo. It also seems like they love having elephants call each other "clumsy ox," as it happens again in this cartoon.

The story is cute with a sweet cartoon idea, even if it falls a little flat for me. There is a lot of recycled animation, but also original moments that would soon find themselves recycled in other projects. For being the first film to prove the success of the Xerox process it deserves a place in Disney history. It was also good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Cartoon Short Subject. And for better or worse, there is no mistaking that this is the work of Bill Peet and Wolfgang Reitherman. Obviously other artists worked on it, but the stylistic stamp of their authorship is pretty clear. These two Disney legends would go on to make other wonderful films; an earlier film like this, though I'm not the biggest fan, still stands out as an amusing Disney curiosity.

Monday, June 1, 2015

194. The Big Bad Wolf

SERIES: Silly Symphony

The Three Little Pigs return to find they share a common enemy with Little Red Riding Hood: the Big Bad Wolf.

The Three Little Pigs was a surprise success for Walt Disney. More than any Silly Symphony that came before, it was extraordinarily popular with a theme song that spread like wildfire. And much like today, the public began clamoring for a follow-up. Theater owners who saw the draw of the first short began to demand "more pigs". Walt had no interest in sequels. He didn't want to repeat his past successes, he wanted to move forward and try new things. He didn't see the Three Little Pigs as repeat characters like Mickey Mouse; it was a telling of the fairy tale, the story was told, the end. However, Walt did bow to the whim of the people, and the company ultimately made three more shorts featuring the Three Little Pigs (the Pigs also made cameo appearances in a few others). The final one, "The Practical Pig", was released as the first and only short in the Three Little Pigs own series (today it's generally lumped in with the Silly Symphonies like the others). The first of the Pig sequels, "The Big Bad Wolf", ultimately proves that Walt was correct and that sequels are rarely as good as the original.

Perhaps Walt's reluctance to go forward with a sequel explains the story for this short, which is not really about the Pigs at all. Instead, it's mostly an attempt to tell "Little Red Riding Hood" in the Silly Symphony tradition. Since a Big Bad Wolf features in both stories, it is clever to use the character already introduced. The short ends up being a slightly uncomfortable marriage of stories between Red Riding Hood and the Pig that never quite pays off. Audiences who came wanting more pigs were probably a bit disappointed. One wonders whether a straight, swine-less Red Riding Hood short might have worked better. Yet, I appreciate Disney's attempt to please audiences while doing something different, and while it's not the best of the Pigs shorts, it has fun moments. It works better if taken more as a Red Riding Hood short than as a true sequel. The "Practical Pig" is once again the moral compass, making explicit the lesson to avoid shortcuts. But somehow I think involving the Pigs takes away from Little Red. Interestingly, by bringing a new character into the world of the Pigs, Disney ends up slowly building a kind of fairy tale world where all these characters live. The later Silly Symphonies would exploit this a little further, as characters would sometimes turn up in other shorts. Eventually, the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series cross-pollinated characters (Donald Duck began in a Silly Symphony before jumping over to Mickey cartoons, and Pluto starred in a Silly Symphony before getting his own series). Those who think Marvel's "cinematic universe" is unprecedented should pay more attention to what studios were doing in the 1930s.

I love the design on Little Red Riding Hood. She resembles a living Kewpie doll, which I'm sure was part of the intent. Take a look at her hands and how teeny tiny her fingers are! They've really played up her sort of infantile innocence with design choices like that. I also like the way she skips.

The Big Bad Wolf had several disguises in his first appearance, and this trend carries into the other shorts as well. This one introduces a new element: a tendency to now dress in feminine costumes. It's worth remembering this is years before Bugs Bunny. Having him try to seduce Red Riding Hood in the woods not as himself but in drag as "Goldilocks the Fairy Queen" is a fun it of added silliness. And even though it doesn't really go anywhere (as his disguise fails fairly quickly), the business of him flitting about from the trees and singing is delightfully goofy. I consider this short far inferior to the original, but this sequence always makes me laugh. Perhaps this disguise also helps sell the idea of him disguised as Grandma later: he has a penchant for drag disguises!

The middle of the short, which plays the Red Riding Hood exchange without porcine interference, is the highlight. The Big Bad Wolf is a fun character in the way he riffs on a well-known story. He even breaks the fourth wall at one point. I always laugh when she asks how he feels and he says, "Terrible!" in his wolf voice. Many Disney cartoons of this period feature a Jimmy Durante joke. He was a popular star of the time, known for his big nose. You may recognize him as the narrator of Frosty the Snowman. This short has perhaps the best Durante joke in the entire Disney canon, as the Wolf slips in an impression after the "what a big nose you've got!"


This cartoon follows a more sanitized version of the story. The Red Riding Hood tale is one that gets less and less grim with each generation. The earliest versions feature not only Grandma but also Little Red getting eaten by the wolf. No salvation or happy ending, just a cautionary tale about traveling through the woods. Later versions introduce a hunter who kills the wolf and frees Grandma from inside him. The Grimm version takes this one step further by not killing the wolf, but filling its belly with rocks after rescuing Grandma. More recent versions have done away with the eating altogether, and the Wolf just hides Granny in a closet or cupboard due to his haste. This is the version used by Disney. On one hand, it's sad that the story has gotten so far away from its roots, where the central incidents remain but the themes about safety do not. Still, Disney is making a cartoon for laughs not for education, and still managed to throw the lesson in there. It was smart to use the Practical Pig in the huntsman role, as he already has a history of defeating the Wolf. Just as in the first cartoon, a fireplace plays a crucial role. This time, the Pig fills the Wolf's pants with popcorn and hot coals. The popping of the corn perhaps recalls subliminally the shot of a hunter's gun. Also, I can't help wondering if the hot coals are a nod to the rocks in the belly from the Grimm version. Disney often has fun with popcorn in its cartoons. I think this may be the first time.

The final moment of the cartoon, in which the Pigs sing, "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? He's a great big sissy!" feels unearned to me in a way, and more a way to reference the prior short. He was a very real threat, and ending on "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" again is odd. Though I wonder how we are supposed to take the "great big sissy" line. Could this be the reason for the flouncy Fairy Queen garb? Is Disney insinuating a homosexual element to the word "sissy"?

I can't say I don't enjoy The Big Bad Wolf, as there are certainly moments that make me laugh. But it has nowhere near the energy or invention of The Three Little Pigs or even of later Pig shorts. As a cartoon seemingly trying to serve two masters, it's amusing but nothing more. However, it's an interesting experiment from the Disney company, testing the potential of sequels and how far they could bend their series. But it's more noteworthy for being the first Disney sequel than for being exceptionally innovative or funny.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The list so far... and what's coming soon!

200. Three For Breakfast
199. The Shindig
198. The Chain Gang
197. Out on a Limb
196. Two Chips and a Miss
195. Donald Applecore
194. The Big Bad Wolf
193. Goliath II
192. Donald's Gold Mine
191. How to Be a Sailor
190. Figaro and Cleo

 what are the top 189? All will be revealed in time...

195. Donald Applecore

SERIES: Donald Duck
DIRECTOR: Jack Hannah
STORY: Bill Berg, Nick George

Donald Duck has an apple orchard, but soon finds his fruit is getting devoured by Chip 'n' Dale, who are living in one of his trees. His attempts to evict them quickly escalate to poison and finally "atomic pills", but in the end Chip 'n' Dale survive and Donald blows himself to China.

"Donald Applecore" is one of those shorts that a lot of people seem to have fond memories of from their childhood. And I am one of those people. Perhaps this is partially due to it appearing on one of those VHS collections that Disney put out in the 1980s. It's fun, and the colors are bright. People also seem to most remember the "applecore" game, even though many have know idea what it is or what it means. If you don't believe me, go to Google and type in "what does applecore mean?" or something like that. As it turns out, it's a child's game that perhaps people knew better in the 1950s. Perhaps it's also a regional thing, as many of us never played it. But the essence of it is as follows:
        A person eats an apple, then holds up the core and says "applecore"
        Others respond with "Baltimore" (or sometimes other rhyming words or phrases)
        "Who's your friend?"
        And then the core is thrown at the identified "friend".
Basically, it's like a knock-knock joke with a prank thrown in, similar to a "Hertz donut" or "interrupting starfish" (do I have to explain "interrupting starfish"? Tell me in the comments!).
This short is actually not the first instance of the "applecore/Baltimore" rhyme. In the Johnny Appleseed sequence of Melody Time, the call and response "Applecore! Baltimore!" is chanted in the middle of the party scene.

The "applecore" game is a nice bit of business for this cartoon. It's totally in keeping with Dale's character as it is being defined, bringing out his playful side. It's a fun way for the chipmunks to stall Donald and provides a good running gag. And after all, running gags are hallmarks of classic cartoons. The game also seems to lend meaning to the title, which may also be a pun on Johnny Appleseed.

Something else I noticed when I watched this cartoon again is that it contains a very rare sight: it is one of the few times Donald Duck wears pants. When he's on the beach he wears swim trunks sometimes, but this is the only time I can remember seeing him wear full-length trousers. Even in "Old MacDonald Duck" he doesn't wear pants. Thus, his overalls in this short, if not a first, make for a very rare sight and an interesting image. He almost looks out of character in pants!

I love when little moments of animation can pop in some way. In this one, I am always amused by Donald's tip-toe walk behind Dale. How does a duck tip-toe? The animation cleverly figures it out by having him walk with his feet sort of sideways. And there's character to it as well. I find the "sneaky walk" charmingly amusing, and the moment where they walk up the tree is just perfect cartoon logic. This short has several great creative uses of cartoon logic which I will explore a little later.

Something I appreciate a lot about this particular cartoon is the color design, with the use of primary colors. The apples are focal points to the story, so they are painted with a red that pops. Donald contrasts in blue (the overalls make him more blue than usual), and the greens and yellows in the trees are nice. Donald's plane is a slightly orange red color, which also pops against the blue sky. I almost wonder if we could consider the use of red as indicative of Donald's property (meaning both the plane and the apples), but this is probably reading too much into it. Regardless, when I watch this one in comparison to other Donald, Chip and Dale cartoons of the period, the colors pop in a way that seems a bit unique to this short. The simplicity I think helps the short rest on the strength of its gags, as it really is a gag-driven cartoon, with a story that at times relies on the ridiculous more than some other cartoons of this period. So the art style presents it a bit more matter-of-factly, and I think that helps sell it.

In a similar vane, I find the tree design very interesting. The treetops are pretty stylized when compared to everything else, being basically just painted circles with some leaf squiggles defining their shape. Their uniformity helps sell Donald as the conscientious farmer (these are his crop and not wild trees). It's worth noting that Disney cartoons rarely get this stylized in this period. They don't start getting fully stylized and "outside the lines" until the early 1960s, when the modern look was used for One Hundred and One Dalmatians. That makes this cartoon unique in that the background art is ever so slightly hinting that way with the treetops ten years before the company would embrace that style.

The perspective animation with the apples rolling out of the silo right at camera is very nicely done. I'll try to point out things like this when we get to older cartoons and this type of thing is new and experimental. But even in this one, it shows the animators at the top of their craft who've got it down to a science. Shots like that make the moment more dynamic and thus make the cartoon more engaging.

There are aspects of this short that feel inspired by Warner Bros. It has more "cartoony" elements and sight gags than some others. I love that the silo has a flip-top. But nothing seems more "out there" than the climax with the "atomic pills". First, check out the assortment of poisons Donald has at his disposal. Besides pesticides, lye and arsenic, he's got "essence of TNT", which is pretty funny. He also has "atomic juice" and "atomic dust" apart from the "atomic pills". Just where does he get this stuff? And what could he possibly use it for on an orchard? That doesn't matter; the cartoon is about escalation and somehow in "cartoon logic" it makes perfect sense. Then we get to the funniest business, when the "atomic pill" is swallowed by his chicken, who then lays a ticking egg bomb (as you do). This is such a wonderfully outlandish cartoon idea, and yet in cartoon terms it makes a kind of sense. It's a beautifully timed gag with a payoff that ends the short with a bang. I love the little moments of Donald's thought process as he muses the wonder and terror of a ticking egg.

On the matter of the "atomic" attack, it's well worth remembering the time in which this cartoon was made. We had just entered the atomic age. After the bombing of Japan, we were engaged in a Cold War with Russia and developing better atomic weaponry. America at the time was engaged in combat in Korea. Many viewed Truman's bombing of the Japanese as ending World War II. The finality or threat of the "nuclear option" was probably quite prominent in their minds. Today, I doubt we'd ever have casual cartoon plotting with atomic power like this (complete with a little mushroom cloud when he drops it into his plane!). Yet for the time, I can see how it makes total sense for frustrated Donald to "go nuclear" on his enemies (Truman would be so proud). In shorts of the 1940s, Donald's anger often led him to pointing shotguns at his enemies. Full-on bombing with atomic power is a natural progression to his extremity. We might also view the ending from the perspective that Donald's bombing does not end up harming his targets, but only threatens or destroys his own property (his silo, his chickens), and ultimately he his hoisted by his own petard. Thus, while the "nuclear option" is very much of the time, we might view the cartoon as subversively reminding us of the danger to ourselves that we risk with such a weapon. All of this of course is subtext or critical examination after the fact, as the main concern is to be funny, which this cartoon is. But this is the only time I can recall a Disney short using atomic power in such a way.

Finally, we must come to the other element of the ending that is very much of its time, and that's the Chinese stereotype voice. For the final gag, Donald literally blows himself to China (through a hole in the earth). And so we hear from the hole an outlandish "ah so" voice that also plays the "applecore" game with Donald. It's a fun way to bring the joke around one last time, and playing on the old joke of going straight through the earth and coming out in China is a good one. I don't think we need to consider this moment particularly racist, and it's certainly not malicious in intent, though the depiction can be uncomfortable to modern sensibilities. And yet, because we never see the other party, it's possible that contemporary young audiences won't even get that it's a racial joke. To be honest, when I was a child and I first saw this cartoon, I never ever thought it was a Chinese voice. I had no idea who it was or why it sounded funny, but I figured maybe it was because of the echo down at the bottom of the deep hole. For all I knew, Donald was talking to some Mole Man or something. At the time, I didn't have context for blatant vaudevillian Asian stereotyping. Looking back on it now I think, "oh of course! He came out in China!" Because it's an audio gag rather than a visual one, I think it works okay out of context. Even if kids don't understand exactly what happened there, the recognition of the running gag still makes it work.

Sure, it would be easy for some extremists to write this one off as an example of racist cartoons that promote nuclear weapons or some such, but that would be to entirely miss the point. While this isn't the strongest cartoon from an animation standpoint, isn't particularly groundbreaking, and is fairly simple, it is that simplicity which gives it charm. The extremity and silliness of the "atomic pill" gag is unique and enjoyable, as well as the running applecore joke. Somehow, this cartoon manages to distinguish itself apart from the many similar shorts of Donald vs chipmunks. If nothing else, it's led whole generations to fondly remember "applecore, Baltimore" and seek out the origin. And perhaps the fact that it lingers in the memory like that is the best that can be said for any cartoon.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

196. Two Chips and a Miss

SERIES: Chip 'n' Dale
DIRECTOR: Jack Hannah
STORY: Nick George, Bill Berg

Chip and Dale each sneak out for a night on the town with Clarice, unaware that she has invited both of them. They arrive at the Acorn Club where she is performing, only to find they are rivals for her affections. Eventually, this leads to each of them warring for her attention on a different instrument accompanying her performance, until the three of them settle into performing a song together.

"Two Chips and a Miss" is the most unique short in the Chip and Dale canon and, along with "The Lone Chipmunks", most responsible for inspiring Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers in the 1980s. This is the second cartoon of their starring solo series after sharing numerous shorts with Donald Duck and Pluto. The first solo effort, "Chicken in the Rough", is typical Chip and Dale fare, and nothing much to write home about. It's not bad, but in my estimation not worthy of this list. However, their sophomore effort is a very interesting experiment as it features nuances of setting and character that don't feature in any of their other appearances of this period.

This is the first and, I believe, only cartoon that puts them in an urban setting. They are no longer animals living in Donald's backyard tree. They are Jiminy Cricket-type sophisticates who sleep in matchbox beds and wear clothing. Was this an attempt at spreading Jiminy's features to other characters? (He would appear again regularly on The Mickey Mouse Club in a few years.) Or perhaps it's a continuation of the success of the mice in Cinderella which had premiered a couple years before. Whatever the reason, this is one of the only cartoons until the Rescue Rangers series to put the chipmunks in clothes. They would dress up a couple of times with Donald, notably in "Out of Scale," but they always begins these shorts as naked animals and the clothes are humorous "add-ons". In this short, clothing is part of their everyday life. I like the decor of their treetop apartment, with the leaf-blinds and such. The invention with which the artists populate the chipmunks' world with familar things made from smaller objects is really well done. The night club tables are fungi, the bass guitar is a pencil and box, etc.

The plot seems to riff on popular screwball comedy tropes of the '40s, with the boys rivals for the affections of the same girl, and a focus on swinging night life. I admit I always giggle a little at Chip's internal monologue commenting on his reflection: "You gay dog, you!" Doubtful today this statement would signal him a ladies' man.

"Two Chips and a Miss" is the first short in which we are meant to fully understand the chipmunks' speech. Usually, it's a lot of sped-up, seemingly unintelligible chattering. Sometimes you can understand pieces of it, but apart from catchphrases like "Well, whaddya know!" the words they say are secondary to the physical comedy. The Disney studio tries a different approach in this short, for while it has physical comedy moments, it also requires the boys and Clarice have speaking roles. We are meant to see them as fully anthropomorphic characters here, and not rodent pests as in other shorts. They would revert to something a bit between their old voices and this short for many of their later appearances, though they would have intelligible dialogue in some appearances on Disney's TV program in the late 1950s.

A primary reason for having more understandable voice pitch here is the focus on Clarice's song, "My Destiny." This is the first and only appearance of Clarice as a love interest for Chip and Dale. When you hear her sing her song in her little chipmunk voice, it is well worth remembering that this is a full six years before Ross Bagdasarian, Jr. created Alvin and the Chipmunks. Watching this short, I realized that Disney had invented singing chipmunks first! A part of me wonders if Bagdasarian made his high-pitched singing trio "Chipmunks" because of Chip n' Dale.

The cartoon feels familiar in utilizing gags that are recognizable from other works of the period. The brief mirroring gag owes a debt to the Marx Brothers, while the Acorn Club section carries heavy Tex Avery connotations. The boys fawning over the shapely singer Clarice feels like an answer to "Red Hot Riding Hood", particularly in the moment where they briefly take on wolf form. In Disney terms, the short also ends on a note very reminiscent of early Mickey Mouse, where a problem goes away through the power of music. This becomes a very musical cartoon, which in this period of Disney animation was kind of a throwback to the way they used to do it. Chip and Dale playing away reminds me of Mickey and Minnie in similar situations. I like the culmination in warring instruments and differing musical styles. The moment when Clarice picks up tempo to match Chip's playing is nice. This scene almost seems to prefigure the Donald/Daffy piano war in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The little bits of slapstick rivalry between Chip and Dale are fun as far as they go, though they don't go very far. The characters are a bit more subdued from how we've seen them in other shorts; we've gone from The Three Stooges to Martin and Lewis. We've never seen the two fight against each other for a girl before. Indeed, they generally have the same goal in their cartoons. This time, by making them rivals for Clarice's affections, the Disney artists are expanding the kinds of stories these characters can tell. While we don't see this sort of thing again in the 1950s, it definitely seems to have planted seeds for the rivalry over Gadget Hackwrench on the TV series. Clarice is a real two-timer! She invites both of them secretly on the same night! What is she expecting? Did she just want butts in the seats (the club seems empty)? I get the feeling she likes Chip more; his note had more "kisses", and she seemed to respond more to his playing. She just likes being wanted. She's kind of a hussy, with her wink to the audience at the end, showing she's just playing them. Remember when two boys could accidentally kiss like that at the end of a cartoon and it was funny for what it was with no other connotations? Or when popular songs could refer to one's lover as "Little Girl" and it wasn't creepy? I miss the innocence of those days.

Chip 'n' Dale would follow this short with "The Lone Chipmunks", in which the two unwittingly help to catch a bank robber in the Old West. For this, they are made honorary deputies. I consider this the inspiration for their crime-fighting Rescue Rangers. Taken together, both of these shorts lay the groundwork for that popular television series and represent an attempt at stretching the characters beyond being simple antagonists. While "Two Chips and a Miss" never fully exploits or resolves the love triangle story, and remains a rather slight and moderately amusing cartoon on its own, its novelty in the Chip 'n' Dale oeuvre makes it a bit more than the sum of its parts. Its weaknesses keep it low on this list, but the defining unique characteristics make it something of a favorite of mine, if only because it's charmingly different.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

197. Out on a Limb

SERIES: Donald Duck
DIRECTOR: Jack Hannah
STORY: Bill Berg, Nick George

Once again we have Donald teamed up with Chip and Dale. There will be a lot of Chip and Dale shorts in the bottom 100, since many are worth watching, but few are true time-tested stand-outs. Donald Duck spent most of the late 1940s and 1950s paired with bees, Bootle Beetles, or Chip and Dale. Many of these are directed by Jack Hannah.

The story this time is typical Chip and Dale fare. Donald has come to do a little surgery on his tree, which just happens to be where Chip and Dale are residing. Donald decides to be mischievous and taunt the chipmunks for awhile with various trimming tools until the chipmunks fight back.

What I like about this one is that the story isn't born of a misunderstanding. This time around, Donald's just being a bit of a jerk because he gets off on pranking other people. This was always an element of the character, going back to some of his earlier shorts. It's been said a key to his character is that he can dish it out, but he can't take it. This short is a prime example of that philosophy and it's nice to see it's still alive in the '50s. Even in the later cartoons, when they really get Donald's character, it just works. Donald is not bad-natured or mean outright, but he does enjoy a bit of schadenfreude from time to time. It's worth pointing out that while he enjoys teasing the chipmunks, he doesn't want to hurt them, and indeed he even helps Dale from falling at one point. And it's all right because the tables usually turn on him by the end. Here, Chip and Dale aren't being pests, like in "Three For Breakfast" where they steal his food; he just wants to mess with them. You can also see the difference in character; when Donald causes Dale pain, he walks away and says, "That's funny," but when Dale causes Chip pain, his first words are, "Gosh, I'm sorry." Chip has elements of Donald's temper in this one, but maintains his friendship with Dale. In a way, the two chipmunks are split elements of Donald's psyche, especially in this one; Dale is the good-natured fun part that causes slapstick fun, Chip is the thinking one who is easily frustrated. But both exist harmoniously, while Donald is often at the whims of his temper. This short is also another step in helping to define who Chip and Dale are as individuals.

One element I don't always get to discuss in these posts is the background art. I wanted to highlight it here, because I really love the simple but artful way the backgrounds are handled in this cartoon. to suggest being up in a tree, the backgrounds are varying shades of green, with leaf patterns layered. The colors are soft and blend into each other like airbrush or watercolor. It's effective, and really quite lovely in its own way, perfectly capturing the setting but never pulling focus from the characters.

Later, when the story shifts to the "hunt" to kill the "monster", the backgrounds become bluer and a little foreboding to match the mood. The limbs become denser and more shadowed. It's very effective.

There's a bit of clever design with Donald's shears, as they ever so slightly evoke the head of a bird.
This is then carried on with Donald's "behavior" of it. Consider that the animators have to animate the notion of Donald animating an object, and all with very minor things that give the illusion of life. This is the craft of animation at its finest: to make something appear alive. We don't even question it in the context of the cartoon, but consider how just a few curved blades and a well-placed screw add up to a perfect design element for this gag. It's all about convincing Chip and Dale that it really is something alive, and it works. I've come to really love moments in Disney cartoons where inanimate objects are allowed to have the appearance of their own agency.

As you'd expect, the short eventually becomes a chase. While it doesn't last very long, the little chase in the treetop is energetic and fun in the way the layout has limbs that twist here and there. Donald finally taking a lawn mower to the leaves in frustration is a clever idea with very cartoony execution, as his speed is such that he can travel over empty space between branches as if none exists. He even gives the chipmunks a close-call haircut. Something about it seemed odd-looking to me until I realized why: Donald has shaved their ears off! But they don't seem to be hurt by it, and it is a visual gag that I'm sure probably wouldn't work well otherwise, the way their ears are placed. I don't think we're meant to truly consider their mutilation.

My main criticism of "Out on a Limb" is the geography and continuity of the limbs themselves. The very first thing Donald does is chop the limb in front of Chip and Dale's door. So after that whenever they go in and out, they have to somehow hop on other branches to get in, and this means branches will suddenly appear or disappear as they are needed. This bit of discontinuity is unfortunate in an otherwise nicely-conceived cartoon.

On an unrelated note, I want to give a thank you to anyone who is reading this and/or is interested in the list. I'm sorry that it's been a long time since I updated. I plan in the future to post a list of upcoming shorts so you can get a better sense of the countdown. We're only in the early stages; the best ones are yet to come!

Saturday, January 31, 2015

198. The Chain Gang

SERIES: Mickey Mouse
FIRST APPEARANCE OF: Pluto (sort of)

Mickey and the gang are in jail working on a chain gang (for no known reason) with Pete as their guard. Mickey uses music to lift everyone's spirits, but somehow this turns into a prison riot and an escape attempt. Mickey makes it out, but is chased by bloodhounds until landing safely back in prison.

I'm going to be honest here: I'm not a big fan of this one. I think most of the best things about it are done just as well if not better in other shorts. However, this short is of historical significance as it's the impetus for the creation of an important character: Pluto.

Most Disney reference material will cite this as the first appearance of Pluto. He is generally considered to be one of the two dogs that chase Mickey. But I don't consider either of these dogs to actually be Pluto. Their design doesn't match Pluto at all, even in his earliest form, nor are they named. But it is clear that their appearance inspired the creation of Pluto as we would come to know him. Pluto would make his first official appearance as himself two shorts from this in "The Picnic", and then he was Minnie's dog. But immediately after that, he became Mickey's and quickly developed into the canine companion that we've come to love. Whether or not Pluto technically appears in "The Chain Gang", the influence of those dogs to the creation of Pluto makes this short of great importance. Pluto allowed for greater stories to be told with Mickey, and a further development of his character.

The rest of this short is still mildly amusing. If you pay attention, it actually has more in common with the growing formula for the new Silly Symphony series than Mickey Mouse. Most Silly Symphonies of this era spend time using characters to riff on well-known musical themes (as the animals do here), and ultimately end in a chase scene. It seems as if the Disney studios were testing out what elements worked best for Mickey and what ones worked best for their new series.

Not that it's out of character for Mickey at all. Indeed, much of Mickey's appeal for the five years or so is how he uses music to spread goodwill in bad situations. After all, that's one of the primary themes of "Steamboat Willie". It's used to great effect here. We never know why Mickey is in jail, but while he's there, he can bring joy. Notice that everyone in the gang is morose until we get to the end of the line and Mickey is singing and smiling. Even when Pete tells him to shut up, his frown is short-lived. You'll notice also that Mickey responds, "Yes, Ma'am" to Pete. At the time, this was becoming something of a catchphrase for Mickey. I don't know why, but I always find it funny.

I like that all the different characters get different moments of dancing or musicality during the cartoon. They have individual personalities. The highlight for me is that tough-guy dog (who I don't think appears in other shorts) and the way that he dances. He has this great little moment of just sort of dancing muscly, and then this shifts to a dainty sort of dance with his ball and chain, accompanied by frivolous music and tweeting birds. It's a cute juxtaposition, and one of the few times I genuinely laugh during this cartoon.

It's interesting to see what different eras found acceptable. There is a lot of gunplay and bullet humor in this cartoon during the jailbreak sequence. Considering Disney actually edited a segment out of one of their movies for home video because it involved gunplay, it's amazing to see what they did back then. They would probably not make cartoons where characters comically get shot in the butt today, at least not in the same way. But at the time, it was just another in a series of sight gags.

There are some clever gags involving Mickey's ball and chain. I like how he uses it to escape. His chain actually breaks, and then Mickey goes back for the ball and carries it with him! That's cute. I enjoy little moments like that.

"The Chain Gang" has some historical significance and so I felt wrong about not including it. And there are moments that I find fun. But I do also feel like there's something lacking in it. I don't find it as funny as other Mickey shorts of the period. The musical moments aren't as solid, and the story is weak. The prison break comes out of nowhere just to have a climax. These are things I forgive in the early Silly Symphonies, but somehow this cartoon feels like it's not quite serving Mickey as well as it could. It's certainly a fine way to use the character, but I don't know that the situation is fully justified. Mickey is an everyman; is this short designed to speak to Americans on chain gangs? I guess I prefer my Mickey a little more domestic or a little more fanciful. This scenario never completely worked for me. It's an interesting development to have prison guards who are all clones of Pete (the real Pete is the one with the peg leg); they would use this tactic in other shorts; for example, as an entire football team. "The Chain Gang" is a notable cartoon, though certainly not among my true favorites. As a matter of taste, I prefer "The Shindig", but this one has a bit more plot even if it feels plotless at times. It's a curious stepping-stone for Mickey and for where the company was going at the time.

Friday, January 9, 2015

199. The Shindig

SERIES: Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse, Minnie, and the rest of the gang head out to the local barn dance for an evening of fun. Mickey and Minnie provide the music and everyone cuts a rug.

Many of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons fall into one of three categories.
1) Mickey solves some problem or makes light of a bad situation through music and dance
2) There is a performance of some kind, featuring Mickey
3) There's a dance or a party
"The Shindig" falls into this third category. The basic framework of everyone at the local barn dance goes all the way back to "The Barn Dance", the first new Mickey short after "Steamboat Willie". Among these types of shorts, "The Shindig" is one of my favorites. Each has its own little flavor, but I find this one to be particularly fun. It's definitely light on story (even the gags contained within aren't much), but it is an amusing distraction, and I think has a kind of joy that surpasses some other similar shorts.

Note the earliest version of the "Mickey in the sunburst" opening. That was introduced in 1930 with the short "Just Mickey". This is the earliest appearance of it in this countdown.

Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow appear here, having debuted several shorts earlier. I love the gag that the bell pull at Clarabelle's house is her tail. Notice that when Clarabelle is introduced, she is in bed reading a book called Three Weeks, which she hides under her mattress. The book was a work of erotic fiction that was first published several decades earlier and was likely back in the public eye due to a movie adaptation in 1924. Basically, it was the Fifty Shades of Grey of it's day, and audiences would likely have gotten a laugh out of it. I also think it's great to see more adult jokes like that in early shorts to remind people that Disney made these for a wide audience, and not just as "kid stuff".

When we get to the dance, the first song played is "Turkey in the Straw". This seems appropriate, as it was the centerpiece of Mickey's first sound cartoon, "Steamboat Willie". This is followed with one of my favorite bits in this cartoon, "Pop Goes the Weasel". Mickey's signature playfulness in instrumentation is on display here, as he pops paper bags, bangs buckets, and plays Minnie's tail. Mickey has a little bit of a naughty schoolboy in him as he snaps Minnie's underwear on the chorus! I love that he tries it again and she slaps him, singing, "Don't you do that!" That bit of business allows for a touch of character interaction beyond just the singing and dancing, and it's also pretty funny. Other shorts have some similar exchanges, but that's my favorite one. Learn your lesson kids: if you go around snapping girls' underwear, expect to get slapped.

It's important to remember that we are still early in the success of Mickey and Walt Disney. The bread and butter of these cartoons was the sound integration, which is why so many of them focus on musicality. As they went on, we got more dialogue as well. This cartoon is all about music and dance.  It is fun to trace the development of dance animation through Disney cartoons. The dances often depict not only changes in animation style, but changes in popular dance of the time. Clarabelle does a little slide dance that you see in other Disney cartoons of the period. I'll try to comment on interesting milestones in the Disney evolution of dance throughout this countdown.

You'll notice that besides mice, horses and cows, most of the extras in these shorts tend to be dogs and pigs. The "rubber hose" animation style is wonderfully exploited as Mickey dances with a dachsund lady whose serpentine body snakes about as they move. I'm always amused by the way pigs are designed in these early cartoons; usually the fatter the better. Pig design is another way to track Disney's animation style into the more sophisticated "realism" of the 1930s. "Three Little Pigs" is a far cry from these rotund dancing things, and it premiered just three years later. Mickey's dance with the pig lady is amusing. They loved doing fat jokes back then, but the rotund characters always seem jovial and not offended in any way. There's perhaps something subtextual about Mickey's character being so good-natured. He dances with characters of all shapes and sizes, from his own mouse girlfrend, to a cow, to a long skinny dog, to a big fat pig. And each time, all parties seem to enjoy themselves (save Minnie when he presses his advantage). The cartoon, in its simplicity, offers a world of enjoyment for everyone regardless of shape or size. All characters join in the fun. Mickey Mouse, even in his rougher state, was an ambassador of the transforming, healing, and uniting power of song and dance.