Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1961

Yey, we have now come to the year of 1961. This is quite a significant year because it was the year that saw the release of my favorite American film: West Side Story. My history with this delightful film really began back in 1998 after I watched Titanic sweep the 1997 Oscars. It was the first Oscar ceremony that I saw from beginning to end, and instantly transformed me into an Oscar buff. I quickly memorized the list of the 70 films at the time to win Best Picture, and then set off a quest to watch all of the Best Picture winners. I decided to start on films that my parents owned, and of those West Side Story was the oldest, so it was the first I watched. At that time I had a bit of contempt towards the movie musical, finding them to be unrealistic and boring, so I wasn't quite expecting much from it. It ended up taking me two sittings to finally watch the 2 1/2 hour film, but when it was done I was struck by the stark contrast between the energetic choreography of the first half and the grave solemnity of the second half. I quickly watched it again, this time in one sitting, and it soon became my favorite film. I watched it a total of ten times by the end of 1998. It remains one of the few Best Picture winners that I saw at least five times, and the only one I saw at least ten.*

*The other Best Picture winners I saw at least five times include Casablanca, On the Waterfront, Midnight Cowboy, Annie Hall, Amadeus, Platoon, Crash, and The Hurt Locker

And of course West Side Story made a splash in the film world as well when it was first released 37 years prior. It opened to great reviews and was a box office smash, finishing second in domestic gross behind only Disney's 101 Dalmatians. And unlike Disney's animated classic, West Side Story was well represented at the Oscars, picking up 11 nominations, tying it with the Nazi court drama Judgment at Nuremberg for most nominations. The other nominees for Best Picture include Fanny, the film adaptation of a Broadway musical - that was itself based off of a non-musical French play - with all of the songs removed, the adventure epic The Guns of Navarone, and the Paul Newman billiards classic The Hustler. All but Fanny received corresponding Best Director nominations. The fifth spot went instead to Federico Fellini for La Dolce Vita.

West Side Story dominated the awards from the very beginning. It captured Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Scoring of a Musical Picture, and all three of the Color technical awards. The Hustler won Best Black and White Cinematography and Art Direction, while Best Black and White Costume Design went to La Dolce Vita. The Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Breakfast at Tiffany's won Best Scoring of a Non-Musical as well as Best Original Song for "Moon River." The Guns of Navarone won an Oscar for its Visual Effects. Ingmar Bergman's psychologic drama Through a Glass Darkly won Best Foreign Language Film, the second straight year one of his films won.

West Side Story's string of success eventually ran out. It suffered its first loss in a crowded Best Adapted Screenplay category that featured four of the five Best Picture nominees (as well as Breakfast at Tiffany's, which was nominated over Fanny). Judgment at Nuremberg ended up taking home the Oscar. Splendor in the Grass, Natalie Wood's other major film of the year, won Best Original Screenplay.

Both West Side Story and Judgment at Nuremberg as well as The Hustler had been well represented in the acting categories. Four of the five nominees for Best Supporting Actor came from those three films, with Montgomery Clift nominated for Judgment at Nuremberg as a tragic witness, George Chakiris nominated for West Side Story as the fiery Shark leader Bernardo, Jackie Gleason nominated for The Hustler as billiards champ Minnesota Fats, and George C. Scott nominated (against his will) for The Hustler as an unscrupulous manager. While the supporting roles in The Hustler had aged the best, people were drawn in to the Chakiris's raw energy in West Side Story and he won the Oscar. His West Side Story co-star Rita Moreno had a far less contentious win for Best Supporting Actress.

The leading categories were just as interesting, especially since West Side Story was nowhere to be seen in them. Star Natalie Wood did get a nomination in Best Actress, but it was for Splendor in the Grass instead. She was going against Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's and Piper Laurie in The Hustler, but in a shocker all three lost to Italian film star Sophia Loren, who became the first person to win an acting Oscar in a foreign performance when she won for Two Women. The Best Actor race was equally compelling with Paul Newman in The Hustler squaring off against Spencer Tracy and Maximilion Schell in Judgment at Nuremberg, where they played the presiding judge and lead defense attorney. In the end the relatively unknown Schell defeated film icons Newman and Tracy.

Despite its loss in the Best Adapted Screenplay category, nothing was going to stop West Side Story in its trek to winning the top awards of the night. And it did, capturing the Oscar for Best Director for co-directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and later Best Picture. It still managed to make quite a bit of history with those final two wins. It became the first film where multiple directors were nominated together for the same film. Robbins had been the visionary behind the film, but his perfectionism left the production over budget and behind schedule and he was fired. Yet his vision was visible in so much of West Side Story that he was included in the nomination alongside co-director Robert Wise, who took over the entire production with Robbins's dismissal. Similarly, the Best Picture win left West Side Story with ten Oscars, only one behind Ben-Hur for the all-time lead. In the fifty years since, Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King joined Ben-Hur with 11 Oscars, but West Side Story remains the only film to win exactly 10.

Meanwhile, five other films were perfectly happy with winning one Oscar. The problem is they were all nominated the Best Animated Short category.

America is faced with one of its worse crises in recent history. People have become obsessed with boats. They have become aquamaniacs. They have let their homes become fallow. For every aquamaniac, this dangerous transformation began the moment he laid eyes on a boat. To illustrate this point, we shall take a look at the lives of Mr. X, one of such aquamaniacs, as he makes the critical decision to buy a boat, and then has a life-changing day of fun at the ocean with his son. Disney is full of iconic mascot characters, and three stand out in particular: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. They had starred together in several classic buddy films in the 1930s, including Mickey's Trailer and Clock Cleaners. Eventually the three characters went their own separate ways. Donald had the greatest success while Mickey became more of an icon than a character. And Goofy went on to have the most unique niche. He starred in a series of mockumentaries, mostly involving sports. Later he developed the everyman persona as Disney used him to make fun of everyday life in 1950s. Aquamania combined all three of these roles of Goofy's solo career to some success, but ultimately it falls flat. The mockumentary opening is interesting as it opens up a sense of mystery. We are led to wonder just how buying a boat can lead to complete neglect of Mr X's household when it doesn't even seem like he's using it, with it being parked in his driveway and all. Unfortunately we never find out, because halfway through the film makes a complete 180 to focus completely on the water-ski race. The race was a chance for Disney to have fun toying around with cartoon physics in amusing visual gags. It's all fun and games, except that it completely ignores the mockumentary style from the first half. It's like they were building up for something that they never even bothered to deliver. I don't care how funny the water skiing gags are (not very funny in my opinion), I found the broken promise to be incredibly disappointing.
Where Can I Watch It?
Disney has been notorious for keeping their films off online video sources, but they've let this one up for three years, so hopefully it'll stay that way.

Beep Prepared
Wile E. Coyote (Hungrii flea-bagius) has gone days without eating, and he was feeling just a mite starved, but he is in luck, for he spies a Road Runner (Tid-bittius velocitus) in the distance. He prepares to spy on it, but the devious creature appears right next to him, and its "beep beep" sends the poor coyote flying off the cliff. Despite the failure, the coyote is not ready to give up. He tries a variety of methods to try to slow down the road runner, but through a variety of bad luck and poor planning the missions always end in failure. The Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner series is among of the most famous in the venerable Warner Bros. lineup. The misadventures of the unfortunate Wile E. Coyote as he tries to catch his nemesis has become ingrained in the very fabric of our pop culture, as references to the unfortunate Acme corporation and the southwest desert climate are frequently visible. There have been over a dozen of these shorts throughout the years, but Beep Prepared is the only one that ever received an Oscar nomination. I suppose I'm not one to venture a guess as to what makes this one different from the others, because they all seem the same to me. However, looking at Beep Prepared on its own, it's pretty clear why the series have become so popular. Like every other film in the series, Beep Prepared is made up of Wile E. Coyote's various attempts to nab the Road Runner. It's interesting to see not only what his next plans on, but how they go awry. Some of the plans are kind of stupid and are doomed to failure from the start, but others actually seem clever. Yet they go wrong as well either through inconsistent physics or through the Road Runner's own ingenuity, which is evident in many areas in this film. Nevertheless, the film suffers from one problem I have with the other films in the series in that I find the Road Runner to be incredibly annoying. It probably goes with one of director Chuck Jones's alleged rules for these Road Runner films that "the audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote." These films may be pure comedic genius but because the Road Runner is destined to win, I don't think I'll ever fully enjoy them.
Where Can I Watch It?

Nelly's Folly
In the wild, unexplored jungles of Africa there exists a most peculiar creature, a giraffe named Nelly that can not only vocalize human language, but also has the vocal range to sing pretty much any tune imaginable. She was discovered by an explorer making an expedition in Africa, who immediately signed her to a contract. Nelly started out singing for commercials, but almost immediately became a sensation. However, her fame has not kept her from being lonely, and her solution will threaten her entire career. Celebrities are a timeless part of our popular culture. The identities of these greatest stars may change with the passing of the times, but it doesn't matter if it's 1913 or 2013, there will always be those unfortunate souls whose every action are gobbled up by the anonymous little people. With Nelly's Folly Chuck Jones departs from the visual gags that is seen in many of his works to satirize the fickleness of stardom by following the rise and fall of a most unexpected celebrity: a singing giraffe. This is nothing like the "Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met" segment of Disney's Make Mine Music, about a whale who dreams of stardom. Nelly actually achieves stardom, and unfortunately all of the luggage that comes with it. The film does a great job tracking Nelly's progress, from her unexpected discovery to the rapid progression of her fame, and then from the development of a scandal and the cost it had on her career. Despite the fact that she is an unbelievable character, Nelly becomes a believable celebrity because it's similar to many that we see about in the tabloids. Another part that makes it so believable is from the great storytelling. It plays out as like a mockumentary, putting extra emphasis on her discovery and the scandal. The animation is decent a mix of detailed animation with some of the techniques used in limited animation such as using colors and shadows to establish emotions. Veteran voice actress Gloria Wood is also great as the titular character. Nelly's Folly certainly bucks the trend of some of the more established Warner Bros. cartoons, but it's the sort of daring film that has come to exemplify the work of Chuck Jones.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Pied Piper of Guadalupe
Sylvester the Cat has a problem. He is tasked with trying to keep the streets of Mexico free from mice, but they still run him ragged. After chasing them fails, he comes across a storybook about the Pied Piper. After spending his life savings on flute lessons and a ridiculous costume, he tries the Pied Piper routine on the mice, and it has great success, as the mice become transfixed to the spell of the music. However, he overlooks the fastest mouse in all of Mexico, the great Speedy Gonzales. In case you haven't noticed but we have gotten to the Golden Age of Studio Shorts, which ran from the 1930s to the early 1960s. Perhaps it's just the time period that they were big, but one unfortunate aspect of these studio shorts is that they will often rely on established stereotypes for humor. Every studio was guilty of this, and had already seen the dark side of this with the Chinese stereotype in Disney's A Symposium on Popular Songs, not to mention blackface and Jap stereotypes that were big in the 1940s. For Warner Bros. their go-to stereotype was Speedy Gonzales. With it they had plenty of ways to poke fun at the way of life for Mexicans to go along with the chase formula that they did so well. And for some reason Academy ate it up. They nominated four of the Speedy Gonzales films, and awarded one of them with the Oscar. The Pied Piper of Guadalupe was one of the less offensive ones. It didn't have the lazy mice or lazy cats that really seems to anger viewers today, and the Pied Piper routine was kind of funny. Still, the majority of the film is formulaic, with Speedy getting the best of Sylvester with his blistering speed and cunning ingenuity. Some of the visual gags are probably funny, but I don't like the mice at all, so my sympathies lie with Sylvester. This was probably hilarious back in the day but it certainly hasn't aged very well.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. has been more vigilant in keeping this film off YouTube, probably because of these negative racial stereotypes. It is still on a Romanian video site. The embed does not work, so that's all you'll have. Live with it.

Surogat (The Substitute)
A short, stocky, triangular man has arrived at the beach, ready for a day of fun. After testing the water and finding it to his liking, he takes several polygonal items from the trunk of his car, as well as an air pump. He uses it to pump up everything from a beach ball to the tables to a fishing pole and the fish he will catch with it. Feeling refreshed with a full stomach, he pumps up a possible companion, but the one that gets his liking rejects his advances. Will he ever find a way to win her love? Surogat is an inventive film by Dusan Vukotic of Zagreb Films, the man behind the allegorical film Igra. It is a fairly straightforward film of a man's eventful trip to the beach, in a world where everything can be blown up like an air mattress. This simple little fact makes this particular beach trip a unique one. The majority of the film is made up of various ways that the characters use this particular quirk to their advantage. The main character uses a blown up shark to scare the blow-up girl of his dreams to try to win her love. Later in the film a character commits suicide by removing the cover of his pump nozzle. It's very inventive the way Vukotic stuck to it, especially in the clever ending. The rest of the film are visual nods to the distinctive style of the film that makes extensive use of polygons. For example, characters will express their love for another by contorting their body to form a heart shape. It's terrific usage of the limited animation medium. The backgrounds are on the bland side, but appear to be paint on canvas which adds to the visual style. The film was made in what was then Yugoslavia, but thankfully there is no dialogue. It does have strong music that complement the film's action, good use of sound effects, and the main character hums a little ditty that will stay in your head for a while. Surogat may not have the big budget of American productions, but it more than makes up for it with some terrific visual storytelling.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, these are the five nominees. Only one will go down as being an Oscar winner. In my opinion it should go to one of the two films that stands out from the others: Surogat and Nelly's Folly. They both excel in the realm of storytelling. I find Surogat to be just a little bit better in its visual design, which puts it over the top for me. Apparently it did for the Academy as well, as they awarded it the Oscar, making it the first foreign production to win the Oscar for Best Animated Short. It came only a year after the first foreign nominee, which as we'll find out has been lost in the sands of time. But that's a story for another time, like next week. For now let us celebrate the nominees of 1961.

My rankings (by quality)
Surogat > Nelly's Folly > Beep Prepared > Aquamania > The Pied Piper of Guadalupe

My rankings (by preference)
Surogat > Nelly's Folly > Beep Prepared > The Pied Piper of Guadalupe > Aquamania


  1. Interesting enough, Surogat was a huge influence on the "Worker and Parasite" gag from The Simpsons (which is also my favourite ever joke on the show).

    You said it, Krusty, but Surogat is still a pretty inventive short. Though I would have picked Nelly's Folly for the win.

    I also agree with you on Speedy Gonzales. I'm a huge fan of the Looney Tunes, but I just don't find him particularly funny. Though he's apparently so big in Mexico that when Warner Brothers removed his cartoons from the air for fears of being offensive, the public was actually so upset, that they started running the cartoons again.

    "We are led to wonder just how buying a boat can lead to complete neglect of Mr X's household when it doesn't even seem like he's using it, with it being parked in his driveway and all. Unfortunately we never find out, because halfway through the film makes a complete 180 to focus completely on the water-ski race."
    After watching the film, I kinda assume winning the race allowed him to be that lazy with his life (oops, I spoiled the cartoon)!

    It does appear to break from the mockumentary they set up with the narrator and all during that second half, not even a proper closure in my opinion the way we simply iris out like it didn't matter.

    "It probably goes with one of director Chuck Jones's alleged rules for these Road Runner films that "the audience's sympathy must remain with the Coyote." These films may be pure comedic genius but because the Road Runner is destined to win, I don't think I'll ever fully enjoy them."

    No doubt that is true of every one of these cartoons.

    At least Speedy Gonzales is nothing like "Slow Poke Rodriquez" that is a far badder stereotype of Mexicans as "lazy", and yet, people in Latino community liked Speedy as a role model, go figure!

    At least someone here recalls the "Worker & Parasite" joke well, too often people get that lumped in with Gene Deitch's work on the Tom & Jerry cartoons around this period. Arguably Yugoslavia was in a better place than the rest of Eastern Europe if only because they weren't under the grip of the Soviet Union. Plus they could watch stuff from the west such as those films from the UPA studios that inspired the look of the "Zagreb School of Animated Films".

    Dusan Vukotic surely deserved that Oscar, also a first for a non-American studio itself (though Munro was produced in Czechoslovakia anyway, but I'll talk about that later). He would go on to do more films, though I noticed his later involvement had him doing character designs for a Croatian-Canadian co-production called "The Little Flying Bears". I suppose there's worse ways to end your career on than that. Sometime before "Ersatz", Vukotic made this cute little film involving a brainy girl teasing a dopey boy with a rocket ride to the moon in "Cow on the Moon". The characters have a very Dexter's Lab look to them.