Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1957

We're now at 1957, which happens to be the year of my mother's birth. It's a bit mind-blowing to think that my mom is now closer to her 60th birthday than her 50th birthday, but I'm sure it's not much better for her to think that her oldest child is closer to 30. And he still watches cartoons like My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic and the film that we'll be reviewing here shortly. I guess it's just the effects of the passage of time. Why, the old Warner Bros. and Disney cartoons that I grew up watching are close to 70 years old by now. And yet they are still as timeless as they were back in the 1940s. 
Anyways, two films stood above the others in the 1957 box office. One was David Lean's World War II adventure epic The Bridge on the River Kwai. The other was the emotionally charged small town drama Peyton Place. Both of those films ended up in the running for Best Picture, alongside the Marlon Brando Japanese romance film Sayonara, and two courtroom dramas 12 Angry Men and Witness for the Prosecution. Sayonara led with 10 nominations, although Peyton Place and River Kwai were not too far behind with 9 and 8 respectively. Witness for the Prosecution had six, while 12 Angry Men had only three, but all five received corresponding Best Director nominations, a rather rare occurrence.

The 1957 Oscars were notable in that the Academy really tried to cut down on the number of categories. I have no idea why, but it may be due to the fact it was being broadcast live for the first time and the producers didn't want it to run over time. They ended up combining the three visual technical awards (Cinematography, Art Direction and Costume Design) whereas it had been separated into Black/White and Color in the past. Similarly, there were no differentiation between scoring for a musical or a non-musical for the Best Scoring category. Most of those mergers were only temporary, although there is no differentiation now.

Anyways, The Bridge on the River Kwai won the combined Best Original Score, possibly for its incorporation of the epic Colonel Bogey March. The Frank Sinatra film The Joker is Wild won Best Original Song for the song "All the Way." Sayonara took home the Best Sound award. In the visual categories, the war film The Enemy Below won Best Special Effects. The Bridge on the River Kwai took home Best Cinematography while Sayonara won Best Art Direction. Best Costume Design went to the musical comedy Les Girls. The Bridge on the River Kwai went home with the crucial Best Editing Oscar. The Best Adapted Screenplay was another critical category, as it featured four of the five Best Picture nominees (only Witness for the Prosecution was replaced by Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.) That went to The Bridge on the River Kwai, which was quite interesting as the two primary writers were blacklisted at the time. Designing Woman took home Best Original Screenplay.

Despite the crucial losses in the Editing and Screenplay categories, Sayonara was down but not out. It won Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress for comedian Red Buttons and Japanese singer/actres Miyoshi Umeki. Those wins were devastating for Peyton Place, as four of their nine nominations were in these two categories, including one for Russ Tamblyn, who would go on to play Riff in West Side Story. Umeki was the first person of Asian descent to win an acting Oscar, a remarkable departure from when the German-born Luise Rainer won Best Actress for playing a Chinese character 20 years earlier. Sessue Hayakawa could have been the second, but he lost to Buttons, along with Vittoro de Sica, the Italian director the masterpiece Bicycle Thieves. In the leading acting categories, Joanne Woodward won Best Actress for The Three Faces of Eve while Alec Guinness won Best Actor for River Kwai.

Finally comes the final two awards of the night. The Bridge on the River Kwai had done well, with five wins, but Sayonara was not too far behind with four. However, River Kwai had won the more crucial Oscars, and added another one to the ledger as director David Lean won Best Director. It went on to win Best Picture, and the near sweep was complete. (Sessue Hayakawa was its only loss.) The real loser of the night was Peyton Place, who received nine nominations but went home without a win. It tied the record held by The Little Foxes (1941) for most nominations without a win. Those two films would set the standard for Oscar futility until The Turning Point went 0 for 11 20 years later.

Four of the nominees in the Best Animated Short will go down in history for Oscar futility. Which of these would be spared from that fate?

Birds Anonymous
That bad ole puddy tat Sylvester the Cat is at it again. However, when he finally got his paws on Tweety Bird and ready to end a decade of frustrations, he is interrupted by a cat who tells him that eating the bird will start him on a road that will inevitably end terribly. However, there is still a way to kick the habit and the cat invites Sylvester to a meeting of Bird Anonymous. Sylvester goes to the meeting and hears testimonies of cat whose lives have changed and decides to change his ways, but can this new perspective last? Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the 1930s in Akron, Ohio as one of the first drug addiction support groups to treat drug addiction as an illness rather than an incurable moral failing. Its success eventually led to several other support groups. It was all the rage in the 1950s, and Warner Bros. decided to make a film parodying the phenomenon. Birds Anonymous is the result. In it birds are treated as a drug that can lead to abuse and dependence among cats. It's an interesting concept that was incorporated pretty well, although the majority of the film are gags centering around Sylvester getting tempted and the different ways his mentor cat (since named Clarence) stops him from relapsing. Tweety was mostly passive in stopping Sylvester, which is an interesting twist from most Sylvester/Tweety pairings. The gags themselves are weak, but the film's strength lie in the dialogue, from the mentor cat's monologue to some of Tweety and Sylvester's lines. It' no wonder that this is Mel Blanc's favorite film. The film has a very unique use of camera angles especially in the opening scenes, which also uses shadow and light in a way that resembles film noir. Birds Anonymous is very different from the traditional gag films that Warner Bros. does, but it is why it occupies a very unique place in the Warner Bros. film library.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. has been more active in wiping out online videos of their old cartoons. It's on eBaumsworld, but I don't know if the embed would work. Otherwise you can find it on iTunes or one of many DVD sets including Looney Tunes Golden Collections Vol. 3

One Droopy Knight
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom whose denizens were terrorized by a terrible fire-breathing dragon. Sick of being trapped inside hi own castle, the king proclaimed that the brave knight that defeats the dragon will have his beautiful daughter's hand in marriage. Only two knights were brave enough to  venture out to fight the dragon: Sir Butch-a-lot and Sir Droop-a-lot. The two take their turns fighting the dragon. Can either one of them succeed? Droopy was a popular character created by legendary animation director Tex Avery for MGM. His slow, almost lethargic pace and his flat affect were a stark contrast to the hyperactive action that was seen in most Tex Avery films. One of his early films, Northwest Hounded Police, was listed as one of the 50 best animated shorts in a poll of people in the animation industry in 1994. However, it was One Droopy Knight that got Droopy his only Oscar nomination. The film itself was very similar to that of an earlier Droopy film, Senor Droopy, only set in a medieval period instead of the setting of a Mexican bullfight. It features Droopy and another character (in this case his nemesis Butch) fighting a common enemy (in this case the dragon), who sees only Butch as a threat and sends Droopy away in hilarious ways. The gags are mostly slapstick and quite funny, and there are a few good ones between Droopy and Butch as they try to be the first person to attack the dragon. However, a few of them seem recycled from Senor Droopy, especially in the climactic scene when Droopy finally loses his temper. Voice Bill Thompson is great as both Droopy and Butch. One Droopy Knight may not be very original, but it is still quite a funny film.
Where Can I Watch It?

Tabasco Road
Pablo and Fernando are perhaps the two luckiest mice in all Mexico because they have as a friend Speedy Gonzales, the fastest mouse in all Mexico. One night after a particularly heavy night of drinking, the two of them stumble off, leaving their designated walker Speedy behind. They happen upon a hungry pussy gato  and in their drunken state wish to fight him. The gato is more than happy to devour these two easy target. However, before he can enjoy a late night snack he must deal with Speedy. I've already touched upon the controversial nature of the Speedy Gonzales cartoons, but the truth of the matter is despite the clear stereotypes being portrayed, Speedy Gonzales is still a beloved character in Mexico. And why not? Through all of the thick accents and broken Spanglish, he is still a hero to the other mice as he kicks the arses of their antagonists with his sheer speed. I don't really have problem with the portrayal of Speedy. I do find him annoying like I do Road Runner and Tweety, but it's not because of his stereotype. Most of my problems is with the portrayal of the other mice, and a lot of that stems from Tabasco Road. The drunkards Pablo and Fernando take the annoying to the next level. Yes, the gag of them hiding more beer in their sombreros is kind of funny, but I just wanted the cat to eat them and get this over with. Unfortunately Speedy is a fiercely loyal mouse, and saves them in a bunch of unfunny gags. The most ignominious gag is when he rescues a friend in 10 seconds, then breaks the fourth wall and replays the scene in 30 seconds with nothing new. Tabasco Road is clearly not one my favorite Speedy Gonzales cartoons. But I imagine it must still be popular in Mexico.
Where Can I Watch It?

Trees and Jamaica Daddy
Hamilton Ham is a shape-shifter that can assume the identity of anybody he pleases, and he is teaming up with a little girl named Hattie to bring a new level to entertainment. Today Hattie is going to take you into her backyard as she shows you the significance of trees while tormenting her cat with a toy bird. Meanwhile Ham is going to the tropical island of Jamaica as he sings about the importance of family tree and the task of every man to perpetuate it by having babies. The United Productions of America (UPA) were one of the biggest animation studios in the early 1950s. They revolutionized the animation industry with their use of limited animation and mature storylines. They dominated the Best Animated Short category early in the decade, but by 1957 the fortunes at UPA were dropping. Many of their visionaries were blacklisted, including the great John Hubley. In desperation they came up with the idea for the Ham and Hattie series, which features two 3-minute musical shorts. Trees and Jamaica Daddy were their first, and it was good enough to get an Oscar nomination. "Trees" is cute enough with some nice backgrounds, but the animation is so limited they seem more like cutout animation. The same pose could be held for seconds at a time. "Jamaica Daddy" is better in the design aspects (probably because it was done by a young animator named Jim Murakami.) However, its use of ethnic stereotypes is so strong that it makes Speedy Gonzales seem tame in comparison. Yet I can't help but find the films somewhat appealing because of the music. Both songs, Jamaica Daddy in particular, are incredibly catchy. You'll have it stuck in your head for a while. Nevertheless, Trees and Jamaica Daddy and the other Ham and Hattie films were not sufficiently memorable to keep UPA in the business of theatrical animation.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Truth About Mother Goose
If you're a child growing up in an English-speaking country, chances are you've know a few of the Mother Goose rhymes. What you might not know is that many of those rhymes are based on historical fact. Sit back and relax as you listen to an unnamed narrator (or Ludwig von Drake if you watched "Wonderful World of Color") tell the story behind three of Mother Goose's rhymes: "Little Jack Horner," "Mary Mary Quite Contrary", and "London Bridge is Falling Down." The Mother Goose nursery rhymes have been a major part of European and American culture for hundreds of years. In 1938 Disney took a few nursery rhymes and cast them with stars that were big in the 1930s. The film, titled Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, was extremely popular and was extremely popular and was nominated for Best Animated Short. Nineteen years later Disney was making more edutainment films, and they revisited the Mother Goose rhymes in a way that was more educational. They presented the legends behind three rhymes with known historical backgrounds in a way that is educational but simple. The corresponding action is quite fitting and frequently throws in a few slapstick moments, especially in the "Little Jack Horner" sequence. The "Mary Mary Quite Contrary" sequence is the most atmospheric of the sequences. It is based on the turbulent life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and uses frequently portrays characters in silhouette to give a dark atmosphere. I remember being creeped out the first time I saw the film when I was 13. The final sequence takes a leisurely look at life on the London Bridge. It has room for some slapstick, mostly at the expense of a hapless painter living on the bridge. However, it takes up half the film's running time and drags, especially at a 45-second jousting scene that is most notable for having the animation reused in The Sword in the Stone. Still, The Truth About Mother Goose is a decent piece of edutainment, although it does have a scene make me wish they told the tale behind "Hey Diddle Diddle."
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, there you go, the five nominees from the year my mother was born. Of these five two of them stand out. Birds Anonymous was an interesting parody of the AA craze, and also a clever twist on the Sylvester and Tweety formula. The Truth About Mother Goose is a well produced film that is both educational and entertaining. I personally prefer The Truth About Mother Goose, but I'd have to admit that as far as quality goes Birds Anonymous was more inventive in both its thematic and visual style. And the Academy must have agreed, because Birds Anonymous won the Oscar. Edward Selzer, being the head of the animation division, received the Oscar, his fourth. The Oscar for this eventually went to Mel Blanc after Selzer's death.

My rankings (by quality)
Birds Anonymous > The Truth About Mother Goose > One Droopy Knight > Trees and Jamaica Daddy > Tabasco Road

My rankings (by preference)
The Truth About Mother Goose > One Droopy Knight > Trees and Jamaica Daddy > Birds Anonymous > Tabasco Road

1 comment:

    It's true to argue this was not UPA's finest by this point in time, they would finish up the end of the 50's with a release of the feature film "1001 Arabian Nights" before Stephen Bosustow sold the studio to Henry G. Saperstein, who ushered in an era comprised of cheap TV episodes of Dick Tracy and Magoo, along with the aquisition of numerous Japanese monster flicks for US release from Toho.

    The "Mary Mary Quite Contrary" sequence is the most atmospheric of the sequences. It is based on the turbulent life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and uses frequently portrays characters in silhouette to give a dark atmosphere. I remember being creeped out the first time I saw the film when I was 13."

    I saw this when I half your age then (courtesy of the Disney Channel program "Donald Duck Presents"). It was certainly a downer to hear how this rhyme came about and the tragedy that befallen the queen here. Kinda ruins your enjoyment of these rhymes knowing the truth behind 'em like "Ring Around The Rosey" referencing the plague during the middle ages. It's a real eye-opener.

    "However, it takes up half the film's running time and drags, especially at a 45-second jousting scene that is most notable for having the animation reused in The Sword in the Stone."

    I was more amused to find out the rebuilt bridge that was in London at the time of this film would eventually be taken down for a newer bridge over the Thames while every brick of the former bridge was picked up and shipped over tot he US where the rebuilt bridge ended up in a resort town in Arizona. At least someone had money to blow that time!