Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1964

Well, it's kind of hard to believe but with the exception of this year's batch of nominees, the last time I wrote one of these reviews was back in November. And then came the extensive interviews and the nightmarish reality of having to retake the COMLEX PE examination. But now the re-exmination is a thing of the past. While the nightmares won't be over for at least another 6-10 weeks until the scores are reported, I suppose it won't do any good to dwell on those accursed seven hours back on February 15. It's now out of my control. So all I can do now is try not to think about it (since if I do it will fill me with worry and dread even though I think I did better...but was it enough?) and go back to these reviews. At the very least I should finish this particular review, one whose introduction I wrote before taking the PE exam the first time!

We have now arrived at the year 1964. This was right in the middle of the resurgent period for the musical genre. This was evident in the box office, where two of the three top grossing films in My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins were musicals. The former was the film adaptation of the famous Lerner & Loewe Broadway play while the latter was the film adaptation by Disney of the book series by P.L. Travers. And when the Oscar nominations were announced, the same two films were among the three most nominated films. Mary Poppins may have lost the box office race, but picked up 13 nominations to My Fair Lady's 12. The historic epic Becket also received 12 nominations. The final two Best Picture nominations went to Zorba the Greek and Stanley Kubrick's apocalyptic black comedy Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Goldfinger was the third of the highest grossing films, but only picked up one nomination, that for Best Sound Effects.

When Oscar night came around, both of the films did well in the aural categories. Mary Poppins won for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (for "Chim Chim Cher-ee") while My Fair Lady won Best Score (Adaptation or Treatment) and Best Sound. Goldfinger beat out the auto racing film The Lively Set for Best Sound Effects, winning one of only two Oscars for the James Bond franchise (the other being Thunderball, which won Best Visual Effects the next year.) However, it is in the visual categories that My Fair Lady began to separate from the pack. Mary Poppins won Best Visual Effects for its matte work and the juxtaposition of live actors with animation, but My Fair Lady won the three Color categories (Cinematography, Costume Design, and Art Direction). However, Mary Poppins won Best Editing to stay in the race. Zorba the Greek won Best Black and White Cinematography and Art Direction. It was not nominated for Costume Design, which went to The Night of the Iguana instead.

The Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar was very compelling, because it was one of the few times where all of the nominees matched the Best Picture nominees. Of course that meant Best Original Screenplay was full of more...interesting...nominees, including the Beatles rock film A Hard Day's Night, the French spy spoof That Man from Rio, the Italian The Organizer, and a race relations movie titled One Potato, Two Potato. In the end, the Oscar went to the Cary Grant film Father Goose. And on the Adapted side, Becket turned out with its first victory of the night. It may have lost in the visual and aural categories, but with a strong showing in acting categories it had the chance to come back.

Alas, it was not to be. Sir John Gielgud lost Best Supporting Actor to Peter Ustinov, who won his second Oscar for his role in the caper film Topkapi. And both Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole lost Best Leading Actor to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady to squash Becket's hopes even further. Burton would pass away 20 years later after going 0 for 7 at the Oscars, but O'Toole broke his record by going 0 for 8. Lila Kedrova quietly won the third Oscar for Zorba the Greek when she won in Best Supporting Actress.

Of course, the Best Actress race was the subject of some intrigue. Julie Andrews had originated the role of Eliza Doolittle in the stage version of My Fair Lady. Yet she had no film experience, so when it came time to cast the film, Warner Bros. head Jack Warner felt that Andrews did not have the star power to star in the film. Mega-star Audrey Hepburn was cast instead. This allowed Andrews to accept the offer to star in Mary Poppins, a role that Walt Disney had wanted her to play for years. In the end, My Fair Lady grossed more at the box office, possibly due to Hepburn's involvement. Yet when the Oscar nominations were announced, Andrews was nominated for Best Actress but not Hepburn. It was a bit of a surprise, although many speculated that it was due to the fact that replacing Andrews was not a popular decision, and that Eliza Doolittle's singing in the film was dubbed by super-dubber Marni Nixon. And Andrews had the last laugh when she won Oscar.

Yet that did not lead to any derailment in the Best Picture race. The Best Director category also matched with the Best Picture lineup, and when George Cukor won the race was just about over. And not surprisingly, My Fair Lady was announced as Best Picture. It became the first film since On the Waterfront in 1954 to win exactly eight awards, although films won nine, ten, and eleven in the ten-year interim. Even though Walt's pet project had failed to win Best Picture, Mary Poppins marked the best performance by any one film from the Disney Studios. While Disney mopped up in the short categories, none of the studios' live action features made much of a mark at the Oscars. And Mary Poppins's 5 wins and 13 nominations were never matched by another film from Disney's studios, although many films distributed by Disney went on to have great success.

One of Mary Poppins's five wins had been in the Best Original Score category. One of the films that lost was The Pink Panther, whose score by Henry Mancini has become part of pop culture. While that was the film's only nomination, this isn't the only representation of the Pink Panther at the Oscars this year.

Christmas Cracker
Come one, come all! The NFB Jester is here to show you three holiday-related stories. Let your heart be warmed by two musical children as they perform a spirited duet of everybody's favorite winter classic Jingle Bell. Are they just in a Christmas spirit? Or would the performance be something more meaningful? Cower in terror as a group of automated tin toys are terrorized by a toy alligator. Can the toys bring the fiend to justice? And finally watch in awe as a man takes a trip into the heavens to find the right star to top his Christmas tree. Will his mission end in success? Or failure? Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays in our culture, and what better subject is there for one of the more interesting films by the National Film Board of Canada. It is a three-films-in-one collaboration between some of NFB's greatest animators with all three films having something to do with Christmas, with transition scenes involving an annoying jester. The title itself is a reference to a Christmas toy of sorts in Britain in Canada similar to noisemakers. In some locations crackers contain trinkets, which I suppose this film is kind of like. Each individual segment is delightful but nothing more than that. The first film features two kids dancing to Jingle Bells on a snowy night. That's about it. It is animated with paper cutouts much like early episodes of South Park, and is incredibly cute. The second film is perhaps the best in terms of animation. It is a mix of pixilation and actual filmed footage of automatic tin toys. It features good use of close-ups shots of the toys to progress the story and serve as reaction shots of sorts, but the story is kind of flimsy. The third story has the most story, but still not enough to fill its running time of close to five minutes. It does have interesting use of sound, as different stars are paired with different, mostly annoying, pieces of music. The animation is fairly limited as is customary at the time, although it does feature a cutout of an elaborate contraption that is clearly out of place in a Monty Python-esque way. Finally the credits and transition scenes feature the jester animated in pixilation. It runs with a scratchy type of music that is similar to the music in Norman McLaren (who worked on the film)'s masterpiece Neighbors, which was made by scratching the audio bars in the film, but the music in these Christmas Cracker credits/transition scenes has more of a musical quality. Overall Christmas Cracker is enjoyable but ultimately light entertainment, similar to what I imagine Christmas crackers to be like.
Where Can I Watch It?

How to Avoid Friendship
Got annoying people hounding you all the time, wanting to be your friend? Is all of this camaraderie getting in the way of your schizoid lifestyle? Well fear no more, because Rembrandt Films and the Independent League of Loners (ILL) are going to show you just what you can do to avoid friendship. They will teach you how to recognize the different form of people that want to drown you in friendship, and the various methods to get rid of them so you can proceed into your friendless life. Friendship is one of the pillars of our lives, and it is a frequent theme in modern entertainment. It is the ideal that drives not only My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but virtually all other shows that I watched while younger: The New Aventures of Winnie the Pooh, Garfield & Friends, Pokemon, and of course that one hit show known simply as Friends. The friendship theme has become so ubiquitous that it's lampooned quite frequently, with Tia's friendship speeches being a fairly effective punch line in Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series. Of course almost 45 years before LittleKuriboh, Rembrandt Films* did another film lampooning the excessive presence of friendship. This tongue and cheek documentary was directed by Gene Deitch and narrated by Arthur Treacher**, the same fellow whose name graces the fast food seafood chain. The short begins innocently enough, with a long monologue on the excessive friendliness in modern society, showing an awkward, small-statured man being surrounded by big, burly, talkative men in a bar-like setting. The man is rescued by an unseen man (possibly the narrator?) and welcomed into the ILL organization, which is pretty funny considering the satirical nature of the film. Unfortunately that may be the last thing funny about the film. The rest of the film is about scaring off different archetypes of overly friendly folks using mostly unrealistic and unfunny methods. The lack of realism isn't much of an issue as much as the fact that most of these methods are downright stupid, to the point where it's not very funny. The animation is quite typical of animation around that time with limited character design and even more limited backgrounds, but it does have a nice use of color. The portrayal of the friendly types as being like bullies is a nice touch, even if it borrowed from a previous Rembrandt mock self-help film Self Defense...for Cowards. How to Avoid Friendship is an interesting piece of satire, but if this is what films decrying friendships are like, I'll take Friendship is Magic any day.

*Rembrandt Films is largely forgotten today, which is interesting because they are still quite active in producing animation (mostly in Europe which may explain the lack of recognition stateside) and distributing films, including much of the works of Zagreb Films. Of course, they were a pretty dominant force back in the 1960s, making films for America and Europe from Czechoslovakia. They had a run of Oscar nominations in the early 1960s, so this isn't the last time we'll be seeing from Rembrandt Films, not even in this particular review.

**I only knew of Treacher due to the restaurant and wasn't until I saw this film that I realized he was an actor. And then I found out that I had seen him before, as Constable Jones in none other than Mary Poppins.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well dang. It doesn't seem like this film is online anywhere. I suppose that's what had happened to me when I tried looking for it back in 2007, but it is on the "Rembrandt Films Greatest Hits" DVD along with two of the other Oscar nominated shorts from the studio. Of course, the other two are available online.

Nudnik #2
Yaramaz Nudnik is a sad sack character of unknown species living in a condemned building in the middle of New York. He wakes up one morning and after fiddling around with his couch bed, he decides to bake something for breakfast. However, thanks to a combination his incompetence and bad luck, his morning becomes an adventure, dealing with a broken sink and excessive yeast. Can anything go right for Nudnik? Nudnik is a Yiddish word meaning an annoying or boring person. When Rembrandt Films (yes, them again) wanted to create a mascot character, they created a rather generic character and named him Nudnik, a character whose defining trait is that he can't do anything right. First, a note about the film's title, specifically why it doesn't match the title screen. The official listing for the film on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences website is as Nudnik #2, but the only thing I found on Nudnik #2 was a 30-second gag from the Best of Rembrandt Films DVD, where Nudnik tried planting flowers but winds up growing miniature versions of himself. It turns out those were just gags from a 1990s revival The Nudnik Show. For the longest time IMDb had the original name, but one day it changed the title to Here's Nudnik, which was different from Nudnik #2 but easier to find. Whether or not it's the same film that was nominated is not 100% certain, but for lack of a better choice this is the film I'll review. Anyways, as I mentioned earlier, Nudnik was a character that can't seem to do anything right. Everybody has a day where nothing seems to go right. For Nudnik, that day is every day. Half of that is due to his impetuous nature where he doesn't think through his actions. Half of it is just plain bad luck. In a way Nudnik is a bit of a misnomer, because while nudnik means a boring person, Nudnik's life is anything but a bore. Here's Nudnik is built around gags that make his morning miserable, and it's quite amusing to find just what's going to happen to our hero next. Sure, it's probably bad to laugh at somebody else's misfortune, but it shows that the film is effective. Especially if you happen to find Nudnik annoying, which would mean he really does live up to his name.
Where Can I Watch It?
Here it is on DailyMotion, courtesy of Charles Brubaker, possibly Brony and somebody evidently responsible for my first (and to date only) shout-out on Cartoon Brew

The Pink Phink
The Pink Panther walking down a hall where he comes across a small white man painting the walls blue. The Pink Panther tries the blue paint (literally) but finds it terrible, replacing it with a pink paint that is more to his liking. The Little Man is horrified by the appearance of the new paint. His day only gets worse from there as everything he paints blue eventually gets replaced by pink. His frustrations increase to the point where he declares all-out war when he finally discovers the culprit. Can the Pink Panther get out of this mess? I've already reviewed a Pink Panther short here earlier when I reviewed The Pink Blueprint from 1966, but I think it's worth getting into the history of the character, since it has been over three months since that review appeared. When the comedy film The Pink Panther was in production in 1963, the Mirisch Company contracted Termite Terrace alum Friz Freleng and his production company to create an animated sequence for the opening credits starring a real pink panther. The film was a big hit, and Freleng's studios eventually went on to make a series of theatrical cartoons starring the pink panther character, getting the first film out by the end of the year. And The Pink Phink is that film. The majority of the film is made up of gags involving the Pink Panther's comic foil the Little Man (a caricature of Friz Freleng) trying to paint a house in a blue color with the Pink Panther frustrating his efforts at every turn. Most of the gags are visual and are well planned, although they don't have quite the same amount of variety as The Pink Blueprint. Then again, how many visual gags can you do with only paint? The animation has the mark of the more limited animation that has come to define the 1960s, but it was quite fluid, and has a unique sense of shot design that came from Freleng's long history in filmmaking. The film is wordless and is carried by the soundtrack, which is largely a remix of Henry Mancini's legendary Pink Panther theme. The Pink Phink doesn't quite match up to the films that Freleng did with Warner Bros., but it was still an impressive spinoff, one that launched a character that remains popular after almost 50 years, 120 theatrical shorts and numerous television specials.
Where Can I Watch It?

I found this year's batch of nominees to be quite underwhelming, which may explain why I ended up on that two-month hiatus. I had some free time during this accursed three month period but I wound up embracing my inner brony instead of writing reviews for these four films. Not to mention that the process now takes hours. Hopefully now that this painful debacle is out of the way the other reviews will come much easier, even if it is going back to the old five-nominee format.

Anyways, out of these four films it's pretty clear the best is The Pink Phink. I was underwhelmed when I saw it for the first time back in 2005 or 2006, but it stands out as the best after considering all of the other nominees. And the Academy agreed, finally giving Friz Freleng his long-deserved Oscar.

My rankings (by quality)
The Pink Phink > Christmas Cracker > Nudnik #2 > How to Avoid Friendship

My rankings (by preference)
The Pink Phink > Nudnik #2 > Christmas Cracker > How to Avoid Friendship


    It's interesting to point out the three segments were produced by separate people. I think the last one involving a spaceship was done by Gerald Potterton, who would revisit this story/concept when he made the 1985 TV special "George and the Christmas Star".

    Gerald Potterton made some unique films for the NFB during his time there in the 60's including the following...

    Rembrandt Films was a NY-based operation that either released films from foriegn countries or colloaborated on films with those countries I think if that's the proper procedure I'm thinking about. Gene Deitch was sent to Prague where many films like this one were produced at state-owned operation called "Studio Bratři v triku". This studio would also work on a few American-released cartoons such as Tom & Jerry and Popeye though neither the studio or artists involved hardly got any credit at all. Of course it was a different time then. I'll probably talk more about Deitch and this studio in other posts.

    "I only knew of Treacher due to the restaurant and wasn't until I saw this film that I realized he was an actor."

    I'm sure some younger people would make the mistake given his name used for a "fish & Chips" establishment.

    NUDNIK #2
    I'm sure the title to this cartoon was meant to be a pun of a similarly-title "Public #1" and using the "2" as a joke here. Why it was changed to "Here's Nudnik", I dunno. One of the jokes in this cartoon that Deitch wrote in was previously used in another cartoon he made 5-6 years before over at Terrytoons called "The Flamboyent Arms", featuring a character created there called Clint Clobber. This gag was the water pouring onto a canopy overlooking the entranceway that eventually falls through a rip in the canvas.

  2. Remembrant Films also distributed Animated Century