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.

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