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.

Friday, January 2, 2015

200. Three For Breakfast

DIRECTOR: Jack Hannah
STORY: Nick George

Donald has made himself a tall stack of pancakes for breakfast when Chip and Dale sneak into his kitchen and begin stealing them one by one. A brief war ensues as Donald tries to rid his home of the pests. In the process, some rubber cement spills on the gridle, making a very stretchy “pancake.” Donald uses it to prank the chipmunks, but things turn on him in the end.

Chip n’ Dale had appeared in a few shorts prior to this one. This is their second pairing with Donald Duck, and it’s a nice evolution of their characters as well as their relationship with Donald as antagonists, which would last throughout the rest of the 1940s and into the 1950s. The personalities of each chipmunk is becoming more clear here, with Chip the more talkative leader and Dale obviously the dimwitted one. Perhaps the company saw Dale as a way to recreate the fun of Dopey in the shorts, as Dale is often the lovable quiet one. Dale also gains his distinguishing red nose here (it had appeared in the title card for “Chip an’ Dale”, but not in the actual cartoon).

Many, many Donald Duck cartoons open with him humming or singing a song of some sort. Here, he first appears singing “Mammy’s Little Baby Loves Shortening Bread”, which had been sung by Willie the Whale a couple years earlier in the feature Make Mine Music. I love what Oliver Wallace does with it in the music score of the cartoon, as he continues the melody and bends it to the mood of the chipmunk peeking in the window. The music in this short stood out to me. It was not intrusive, but clever and serving the gags well, right down to the “Asian” sound of the gag at the end. 

There are a few fun moments with the chipmunks interacting with the items on Donald’s kitchen table. These recall prior Silly Symphonies, particularly “The Country Cousin” and “Three Little Kittens”. Perhaps there’s even a dash of “Mickey and the Beanstalk”. Seeing small characters manipulating giant silver is always funny, I guess. But there is also a wonderful little moment when Dale spills the salt, and he stops to throw some over his shoulder. Little touches like that really add charm to the proceedings. There’s an added comic absurdity to human superstitions being mimicked by chipmunks, particularly as he should have no knowledge of such things. 

I love the animation of the pancakes on the end of the fork, being pulled to the chipmunks. They are drawn in such a way as to appear to be walking. This is something that can only work in cartoons, and Disney (particularly in this period), does a lot with making inanimate objects suddenly have “life” in moments like this. 

Apparently Donald hasn’t learned his lesson from “Chef Donald” to keep the lid on his rubber cement and keep it out of the kitchen. But where that cartoon played at Donald’s expense, Donald is here using the accident to his advantage. In a way, it recalls the prior cartoon and now Donald has knowledge from it that he can use. But of course, the tables turn on him again in the end. I like the brief “floor plan” shots of Donald stretching the “pancake” all throughout his house. There are several other nice layout choices throughout, like when Dale is backing into the fork. Remember that every time there’s a different “shot” in a cartoon, each is carefully planned out ahead of time and sometimes an entirely new background needs to be painted just for that one gag. The amount of work that goes into something like this, particularly in the age when everything was done by hand, astounds me sometimes.

There is a bit of a strange moment when Donald finally falls off the roof. He screams with the well-known Goofy scream “Aaaa -hoo-hoo-hooey!” In Disney cartoons this was becoming as ubiquitous as the Wilhelm Scream in movies is today. But it still feels strangely incongruous coming out of Donald’s mouth, and I think it was a mistake. 

The final visual gag is not perhaps “politically correct” today, but it’s worth noting and remembering that in this instance the joke is not on Asian people, but on Donald. The humor comes from how silly Donald looks, not how silly Asian people look. Dale is mocking Donald and the fact he looks like a stereotype; he is just having a joke on people. Chip and Dale don’t work that way; they mock what’s right in front of them. It may rub some modern viewers the wrong way, but I suggest you just laugh and let it go.  There are other shorts with far more obvious racism than this one.

This isn’t the best Chip and Dale short, but it serves as a solid interaction with Donald Duck. Usually these shorts are about Donald invading their property and them fighting back, but this one plays the reverse of that. It’s also easier to forgive this one as it was released before the Donald vs. Chipmunks thing had been overdone. I think it works well enough and the sight of the walking pancake always amuses me.