Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1958

Greetings from tropical Taiwan! (Well, I'm actually still in sunny Texas as I'm writing this, but let's just play pretend.) It's great to be back here for the first time since 2007. It doesn't feel that long ago but a lot have happened in the six intervening years. I applied for, got accepted into, and now completed my medical school education. I saw probably 75% of the Best Animated Short nominees, and started this blog. And I became a massive unabashed brony. Yessir, it's been an interesting six years.

And now that I'm here in Taiwan I've been envisioning a whole host of interesting activities: to go and actually do some sightseeing which I've never really done before. I've never even been to the Taroko National Park! To go and watch the lovely Rachel Liang Wen Yin perform more than once. To see a baseball game and hopefully get an autograph from the enigmatic Manny Ramirez. And to attend a Taiwan brony meetup. It's all very ambitious, but I'll probably end up wasting my days away surfing the internet or spending all my time making these blasted blog posts. (Which is why I'm trying to extend my queue now while I'm still in Texas.) We'll see how it goes.

We're now at the year 1958. The film I associate most with that year is Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo. The film was revolutionary for not only the romance-infused storyline that was a departure from Hitchcock's other work, but also for being the first film to make a memorable use of the dolly zoom, better known as the Vertigo Effect (although it didn't seem to really become big until Steven Spielberg used it in Jaws.) My favorite part of the film is still the Scottie's Nightmare sequence. The special effects, especially the changing of the color palette, may seem dated by now, but it still packs quite a thrill when combined with Bernard Herrmann's magnificent score. There's also a beautifully designed animated shot from artist John Ferren.

Unfortunately, while Vertigo is regarded as a masterpiece today, even displacing Citizen Kane in the most recent Sight and Sound critics poll, it opened to mostly mixed reviews. And when the Oscar nominations came around, Vertigo picked up nominations for only Best Art Direction and Best Sound. The Best Picture nominations went instead to the Rosalind Russell comedy/drama Auntie Mame (6 nominations), the Elizabeth Taylor/Paul Newman domestic drama Cat on  Hot Tin Roof (6 nominations), the Sidney Poitier/Tony Curtis prison break flick The Defiant Ones (9 nominations), the French stage play turned musical Gigi (9 nominations)*, and the hotel drama Separate Tables (7 nominations). Of those five only Auntie Mame and Separate Tables failed to get Best Director nominations, with those two slots going instead to Mark Robson (The Inn of Sixth Happiness, the film's only nomination) and Robert Wise (I Want to Live!)

*It's like the opposite of 1961's Fanny, which was originally a musical on stage but was converted to a regular old drama on screen.

Gigi stormed out of the gate early on, winning Best Score (Musical) and Best Original Song for the titular song (because when you convert a stage play into a musical all the songs would be original.) The live action adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea captured Best Score (Dramatic or Comedy). The musical South Pacific took home Best Sound, beating out Vertigo.

In 1958 the Academy was in the second year of an experimental phase merging the visual technical categories (Cinematography, Art Direction, and Costume Design). A year earlier all three were merged, but they separated Cinematography again for 1958, leaving the other two merged. They would go back to separate awards a year later. The merger wouldn't happen again until 1967. At any rate, Gigi wound up sweeping those three awards, with The Defiant Ones capturing Black and White Cinematography. Gigi also won Best Editing, and George Pal's tom thumb won Best Special Effects. Gigi's success continued into the Screenplay category, when it won Best Adapted Screenplay. The Defiant Ones took home Best Original Screenplay.

With Gigi winning all of its nominations, I'm sure it must have been a relief to viewers and producers of other films that it didn't receive a single acting nomination. Other films would finally be given a chance to win. Wendy Hiller and David Niven won Best Supporting Actress and Best Actor respectively for Separate Tables. Burl Ives had a memorable appearance as Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but he was nominated instead for the Western epic The Big Country, which he won. And Susan Hayward won the Best Actress Oscar for her gripping portrayal of real life executed murderer Barbara Graham in I Want to Live!

But in the end there was no stopping Gigi. Vicente Minnelli captured Best Director for Gigi, making up for his earlier loss for An American in Paris. This was the film's eighth award, which tied it with Gone With the Wind, From Here to Eternity, and On the Waterfront for the most competitive wins by a film. But while the other films needed Best Picture to get to eight wins, Gigi had gotten those eight wins before Best Picture. So when it won Best Picture Gigi had set itself apart as being the winningest film in Oscar history. And then they watched the record fall a year later when Ben-Hur won 11.

And in the midst of all the excitement, there were the three nominees hoping to tie the record for most wins by an animated short film.

Knighty Knight Bugs
Once upon a time, a medieval kingdom has fallen upon hard times after  the fearsome Black Knight has stolen the kingdom's prized possession, the Singing Sword. The King has asked his Knights of the Round Table to defeat the fiend and rescue their treasure, but they are all terrified of the knight's fire breathing dragon. The court fool comes in laughing at their predicament, saying "only a fool would go after the Singing Sword." The King takes his advice to heart, and now the fool must risk his life to retrieve the treasure. Knighty Knight Bugs is a Looney Tunes film starring Bugs Bunny as the court fool and Yosemite Sam as the Black Knight. Thanks to the Academy policy of requiring films be submitted before they can be considered, this is the first Bugs Bunny film to be nominated since Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt back in 1941. I have no idea of the politics as to why classics such as the Hunting Trilogy or What's Opera, Doc were not submitted, or maybe they were submitted and the Academy was just too enamored with Tom and Jerry to give a darn. Anyways, Knighty Knight Bugs is not at the level of those Chuck Jones masterpieces, but it's still very funny. The film is mostly made up of slapstick comedy, centered around the antics of Yosemite Sam as he tries to infiltrate his own castle (in a brilliant case of role reversal.) The quality of the slapstick is excellent as many of the visual gags are hilarious. There are a couple good verbal jokes early on as well. I especially like the names of the Knights of the Round Table, such as Sir Osis of Liver (who is seen drinking what is presumed to be alcohol out of a goblet.) I do find myself feeling sorry for the dragon, who is portrayed as being a goofy fellow that is bullied by his owner. The ending also feels a bit weak, but it doesn't detract much from what is otherwise a very funny short.
Where Can I Watch It?

Paul Bunyan
The old loggers still tell of the legend of the greatest lumberjack of them all: Paul Bunyan. Paul first appeared as a giant baby in a logging town one night. The entire town decided to raise him, and he quickly grew up to be big and strong. He could fall a tree in one swing, but the the towns that rose up in the land he cleared quickly became too small for him. He headed west, where he met a massive blue ox he named Babe. Together they changed the landscape of America. However, technology came and threatens to put Paul's way of life out to pasture. Folklores are a big part of any civilization, and Paul Bunyan is one of the most famous tall tales in American folklore. Of course, it's also probably my least favorite. The idea of a literal giant coming and doing things like restructuring the landscape just seems too far-fetched for me. Plus, the fact that he kill trees for a living is none too appealing either. Still, I quite enjoyed Disney's adaptation of the legend. After an opening introducing the subject of folklores, the film plays out as a sort of a mock documentary, interviewing characters that were involved in Paul's life, a fellow from the town that raised him and some other loggers. Paul is portrayed as a likeable, honest, and hard-working chap. Yes, the achievements are still unbelievable, but by the time the man vs. machine showdown at the end of the film comes around you find yourself rooting for the guy. Of course the fact they made the salesperson so despicable makes it easier, although it kind of mars the ending. The animation is more simple than what Disney had done in the years prior, but it's still decent. The music is decent, and the "Hey Paul" song that is interspersed throughout the film is very catchy. The voice acting is well done, and the choice of Thurl Ravenscroft and his famous deep baritone voice to play Paul Bunyan is an especially inspired one. The film still doesn't change my mind about the legend itself, but it is a good film.
Where Can I Watch It?
Watch it here in one video but with horribly unsynched sound, or click here and here to watch a lower quality version with synched sound and split into two videos.

Sidney's Family Tree
Sidney the elephant is sitting around in the jungle moaning about how sick he is while snacking on a lollipop. He looks around and sees a mama hippo and her darling little boy. He is reminded of the cruel fate that he is without a mother. He goes around looking for some animal to adopt him. He eventually finds a female monkey that is willing to do so. However, her husband is not to thrilled by the decision to adopt an elephant. He plots to get rid of Sidney by taking him on a long and arduous journey. Would Sidney ever win the love of his new father? Terrytoons was a small scale animation studio in the Golden Age of Studio Animation. It struggled to compete against the likes of Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM despite small budgets, although their Mighty Mouse reached a certain level of recognition. In the late 1950s, Gene Deitch (of Munro fame) came on board and introduced a new character: Sidney the Elephant, a neurotic 44-year old elephant who still acts like a child (possibly from being separated from a herd during his formative years) The character proved reasonably popular, and he was brought back for a second go in Sidney's Family Tree. The film is none too deep, making up of mostly visual gags involving the different ways Sidney makes his new father's life miserable. The gags themselves are not very memorable, but I still find the find the film to be quite funny. Voice actor Lionel G. Wilson does the voice of every character, and his portrayal of Sidney and the Papa Monkey are a laugh. Plus the animation is extremely simple, especially in the background, but the characters' expressions are very funny as well. Sidney's Family Tree is by no means a classic, but it's still a fun little romp through the jungle.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here we go. There are only three nominees this year, something that happens a few times in the 1950s. Of these three, Knighty Knight Bugs is probably the best. It is not a film that rests on the upper echelons of the Warner Bros. canon, but it is still a delightfully funny film with great visual gags. That just goes to show you the how great Warner Bros. was in their heyday, and how off base the Academy/Edward Selzer was in their nomination/submissions*. The Academy agreed with this sentiment, and they awarded Bugs (well, actually producer John W. Burton) with the Oscar. This landmark win was eventually parodied over 30 year later in an episode of Tiny Toons Adventures called "Who Bopped Bugs Bunny?" where Bugs is kidnapped by a bitter old cartoon rival, a clear parody of Sidney.

*If anybody has the full story as far as why the Warner Bros. classics were not nominated I'd love to hear them. I've heard the stories of Edward Selzer, but I can't imagine how he'd let so many great films never get their chance at going for the Oscar.

Also, the Academy has kindly put the win online for us. Unfortunately, they don't show clips from the nominated films. (Best Live Action Short also thrown in as a bonus, featuring animator and director James Algar.)

My rankings (by quality)
Knighty Knight Bugs > Paul Bunyan > Sidney's Family Tree

My rankings (by preference)
Knighty Knight Bugs > Sidney's Family Tree > Paul Bunyan

1 comment:

  1. "Greetings from tropical Taiwan! (Well, I'm actually still in sunny Texas as I'm writing this, but let's just play pretend.)"
    Whatever, you're there, have fun!

    The bit with Sam and the sneezing dragon would later be the premise behind two characters in a later TV series that Friz Freleng and producer David DePatie produced in 1969 as "Here Comes The Grump".

    For Gene Deitch's tenure at Terrytoons, it's kind of a shame this one got nominated instead of a few more notable shorts during that period that deserve a good watch like "Flebus" (story by Ernest Pintoff) or "The Juggler of Our Lady (story by R. O. Blechman). Deitch was trying to bring about a very UPA-ish renaissance to a studio that was known as the "Woolworth's of Animation" for it's cheaper budgets and cranked-out cartoons (while providing some unique characters like Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle). This period, mostly lasting form 1956 to '59 is some of the more interesting in the studio's history, which after ousting Deitch went on to produce Deputy Dawg, Mighty Heroes and other cartoons for TV in the 60's before it's closure in '67.