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.