Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1959

Well, we have made it into the 1950s, the decade of my parents' birth. Of course, we still have two more decades to get through before we'll finally be caught up (and I'll be sitting around twiddling my thumbs thinking of stuff to post.) More importantly, however, is that the weekend after this post goes up I'll be going back to Taiwan for the first time since 2007. That was so long ago that I was still new to all of this Best Animated Short stuff. It's pretty exciting, but that doesn't mean I'll have to start on another hiatus. For one thing I'm writing this in March so there will be time to build up some queue. Anyways I can always work on more entries while I'm there, but I'll be more tempted to soak up the atmosphere, try to visit with Taiwan bronies, and hopefully see Rachel Liang Wen Yin perform. Yeah, it should be good times. That is unless I fail the PE again and then everything will go to heck.

But, we are at 1959. If you ask most film historians today what the most significant film of 1959 was, and you'd probably get several different answers, but I suspect that they'd include the cross-dressing Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot, Alfred Hitchcock's cross-country chase film North By Northwest, or Francois Truffault's gritty juvenile delinquent drama The 400 Blows. But if you ask the audiences and the Academy back in 1959 and there is one clear answer: Ben-Hur. The majestic epic based on the best-selling Christian novel by General Lew Wallace was by far the highest grossing film of the year, even though it was as a remake of a silent film from 1925 that many historians still claim was superior. And the Academy ate it up as well, nominating it in 12 categories, including Best Picture.

The other Best Picture nominations went to the James Stewart trial drama Anatomy of a Murder (7 nominations), the biographical film The Diary of Anne Frank (8 nominations), the Audrey Hepburn nursing film The Nun's Story (8 nominations), and the complex British love triangle Room at the Top (6 nominations). The other three memorable films had varying levels of success. Some Like It Hot was the most successful, picking up 7 nominations,including Best Director, when Wilder took the spot of Anatomy of a Murder. Jack Lemmon also won a Best Actor nomination, but it missed out on Best Picture, possibly because the gender bending theme rubbed voters the wrong way. North By Northwest was only nominated for three awards: Color Cinematography, Editing, and Original Screenplay. The 400 Blows was also nominated for Original Screenplay, a rarity for a foreign film, but it was not submitted by the French government for the Best Foreign Language Film. They submitted Black Orpheus instead, which wasn't a bad choice, as it took home the Oscar.

Anyways, as we learned from this year, 12 nominations does not necessarily mean a sweep, but form the beginning it sure seemed that it won't be happening to Ben-Hur. It won the two sound categories where it was nominated: Best Sound Mixing and Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy Picture). Porgy and Bess won for Best Music (Musical Picture) while Frank Sinatra's A Hole in the Head won Best Original Song for the uplifting tune "High Hopes." Then Ben-Hur went on to sweep the color technical awards, Best Special Effects, and Best Editing. The Diary of Anne Frank won Best Black and White Cinematography and Art Direction while Some Like it Hot won Best Black and White Costume Design.

Ben-Hur's momentum was slowed a little bit when it lost to Room at the Top for Best Adapted Screenplay, with the Rock Hudson/Doris Day romantic comedy Pillow Talk winning Best Original Screenplay. It was only a temporary setback as it stormed ahead to win Best Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith and Best Actor for Charlton Heston. Shelley Winters won Best Supporting Actress for The Diary of Anne Frank while French actress Simone Signoret made history by becoming the first French person to win an acting Oscar for her role in Room at the Top. By the time the last two awards rolled around, Ben-Hur had nine wins, tying it with Gigi for most Oscars won by a film. Any hopes for the films to remain tied and some other film coming to win the award evaporated when William Wyler won his third directing Oscar for Ben-Hur. And then it took home Best Picture to extend the record to 11 wins.

It was an impressive feat, and one that seemed even more so when considering the films that fell short. West Side Story had 11 nominations two years later and was on its way to a sweep, but it lost Best Adapted Screenplay to Judgment at Nuremberg and ended up with only 10. Other films had impressive win totals with at least 11 nomination but fell short. My Fair Lady wound up with 8 wins (in 12 nominations), as did Gandhi (in 11 nominations) and Amadeus (also with 11 nominations, but two were in the same category so there needed to be a tie.) Dances with Wolves, Schindler's List, and The English Patient all had had 12 nominations, but they all stumbled in acting categories and the former two ended with 7 wins and the latter with 9. Forrest Gump had 13 nominations, but the Academy decided that it would be a year of parity and it walked away with only 6 wins. Titanic became an international phenomenon in late 1997, and later it became the first film since All About Eve in 1950 with 14 nominations. It too stumbled in the acting categories and lost Best Makeup to Men in Black, but it won the rest of the technical and sound categories to finally tie Ben-Hur's awe-inspiring record. Six years later, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King went 11 for 11 to become the third film to reach 11 wins. No film to date has ever won 12.

However, after all of the talk about impressive win totals, there are categories where films are glad to win just one. Those are the Short categories, and that includes the category that really has our interest: Best Animated Short.

Mexicali Shmoes
Everybody's favorite fastest mouse in all of Mexico, Speedy Gonzales, is at it again! This time he is facing off against Jose and Manuel, two gatos whose specialty is singing out of tune. Unable to handle the terrible music, Speedy comes and taunts the two pussycats. Manuel tries to catch the mouse, but to no avail. Jose tells him that in order to catch Speedy they must use their brains instead of brawn. The two try different strategies to get Speedy. Can their brilliant ideas succeed in what others have failed in the past? I had mentioned the Latino stereotype that Warner Bros. had used in their Speedy Gonzales films in reviewing The Pied Piper of Guadalupe. Mexicali Shmoes is another one of these types of films, ones filled to be brim with offensive stereotypes. That said, Mexicali Shmoes is actually one of the funnier Speedy Gonzales cartoons. For one thing it was good to have the victims be two rather anonymous cats whose previous appearances were as crows. The two are rather dim, sing terribly, and just about as offensive as Speedy. So you don't really care that they'll get the stuffing beat out of them by the annoying Speedy Gonzales. And they have a pretty good rapport with each other, but not afraid to turn on the other if it's for their benefit, kind of like Sylvester and Sam in Mouse and Garden. Most of the gags of the cats think they're outsmarting the mouse, only to get outsmarted themselves. I suppose it's better than the normal chase gags but it's nothing new. However, there are two jokes that stand out. In one Jose is dragged off while trying to catch Speedy with a fishing pole. What happens after that is pretty funny. And the ending is good too, although it is frequently edited out because it involves a gun, like in many other golden age Warner Bros. films. Overall, Mexicali Shmoes is pretty offensive, but it could have been worse.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, an embeddable version has been removed, but it's still available on 

It is late at night, but not everybody is asleep. Two boys in particular, Marky and Hampy, are awake and ready to go on an epic adventure. Their goal of the night is to find and capture the elusive Moonbird. They sneak out of the house bringing with them a shovel, a cage, and a bag of candy to use to as bait lure the bird. They go out to where they think the bird would appear and dig a hole. They finish digging the hole pass the time by eating candy and singing songs. Will they ever catch the bird? John and Faith Hubley are names that have become quite familiar on this blog by now, and we'll be seeing a lot more of John. He was a former Disney animator who eventually left the company during the strike of 1941 and ended up at UPA, where he was one of the animators that spearheaded the push towards limited animation. He left UPA when he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but managed to start an independent animation company, where he made commercials, most famously for Maypo. He later switched to short films, including Moonbird. In Moonbird he and his wife Faith recorded their young children going on an imaginary adventure one night before bed. They later took the recording and set it to animation, much like what they would do later with daughters Emily and Georgia in Windy Day. The kids are extremely charming, having been recorded candidly, even if Hampy (real name Ray) is kind of annoying. They have a sort of natural innocence from being children, the way they try to adhere to the plan but end up getting distracted by things like candy and songs. They bicker some, but ultimately stick together like family. The animation, done by a guy named Ed Smith and Warner Bros/UPA alumni Robert "Bobe" Cannon, introduces a style that will come to define the Hubley's later films. It was a very fluid style where the characters are somewhat translucent thanks to some double exposure. It's like the next level of the sparse style of UPA's classics but it works well here, even if there were some repeated action and some instances where characters just disappear. I don't know if that was deliberate or something from the poor quality of the print. The film also seems to drag for its 10 minute running time. Nevertheless, Moonbird is an interesting film that will come to define the Hubleys' style in the next 18 years.
Where Can I Watch It?

Noah's Ark
In the early days of the Earth, there was a lot of sin, but there was one man that was virtuous. His name was Noah, and one day he was visited by a great voice in a cloud. He was informed that there would be rain to wash away all of the wickedness in the world, but that Noah would be given the important task of building an ark with specific dimensions and was given a week to do so. And this would begin a musical adventure that would completely change the world. Can they survive the 40 days of rain? The Genesis tale of Noah's Ark is one of the most famous tales found in the Bible. It was adapted several times throughout the years, and Disney themselves adapted it in one of their Silly Symphonies, Father Noah's Ark, in 1933. Almost 30 years later they tried another adaptation, one that was less gag-based and using a style of stop motion animation that Disney animators would be using later in A Symposium of Popular Songs. Music was the focus of this film. There are four songs by songwriter Mel Leven, and even the dialogue is spoken in rhyme. The songs themselves are well written, but ultimately not very memorable. The best of the bunch was probably one where Mrs. Hippo berates Noah for bringing up her playboy husband by comparing mention of his name with bringing up "chowder to a clam" and so on. Unfortunately the appearance of the scene seems contrived and the film kind of drags at this time. The stop motion animation, on the other hand, is great. The human puppets are well designed (although Noah's songs are kind of ugly), but the real treat is with the animals models, which were made using regular household items like thimbles, bottles, and pipe cleaners etc. The brilliantly designed credits sequence show the sort of creativity that went into the animals. There has been better telling of Noah's story, but this version is heavy on the eye candy.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Violinist
Harry was a musician who loved playing lovely melodies on his violin. He loved playing violin solos for people he meet on the street. The problem is that he was not very good at the violin, and nobody wants to hear him play. One day a street worker tells him that he doesn't play with feeling. After practicing to no avail, Harry decides to study with the great violinist Andreas Fillinger. Fillinger's advice for feeling with feeling is to suffer. So Harry went and suffered, but is that what made him happy? The idea about being true to oneself is a theme that is used frequently in fiction, and this film by Ernest Pintoff is another one. This time it is done in the context of art, playing off the cliche of the suffering artist. The story itself is pretty standard, following the formula of most of the other "discovering who you really are" films. The film tries to set itself apart by very tongue and cheek about the entire thing, but it suffered from lazy writing. Some of the Fillinger's lines about suffering were kind of funny, but most of the dialogue was painfully simple. The comedic timing of the film was poor as well. The film featured a talking dog named Felix that hung around Harry. Felix could have been one to offer sage advice, but he ends up just echoing what other people say and does contradictory things. The animation is pretty typical for most limited animation films around that day, with simple character design and sparse backgrounds. It is worth noting that one of the animators who also did design on the film was a young man named Jim Murakami. The narration is done by Carl Reiner, who does a decent job considering the material. The violin music, credited to Pintoff, is probably the best part of the film. It may not have the feelings of say a Joshua Bell, but it's decent music. Too bad it's surrounded by not-so-very-good comedy.
Where Can I Watch It?
Unfortunately the only copy I was able to find has Italian subtitles.

Well, this was one of those unusual years with only four nominees. The only less common nominee count were the six and seven nominees that they had in the WWII years. (Those would be fun reviews to do.) Of these four Moonbird and Noah's Ark stood out, and Moonbird was the better one. It was fairly different than what most viewers were used to, and in a good way. And this wasn't lost to Academy voters, as they awarded Moonbird with the Oscar. It would be John Hubley's first Oscar, but it won't be the last.

My rankings (by quality)
Moonbird > Noah's Ark > Mexicali Shmoes > The Violinist

My rankings (by preference)
Mexicali Shmoes > Moonbird > Noah's Ark > The Violinist

1 comment:

    "Mexicali Shmoes is another one of these types of films, ones filled to be brim with offensive stereotypes."

    And it's only going to get worse from here on in, so just to remind you! I suppose the only good point is that they do use animals over humans in cartoons like this. Chuck Jones though once discussed that in his first book "Chuck Amuck", by stating how they found it difficult to use humans in the first place as they tend to deal with stereotyping them via caricatures. Looking back at the Looney Tunes in general, one can't help but come to that realization, but the use of animals and giving them those human stereotypes like with Speedy or Pepe Le Pew and others, while I suppose softening the blow a bit, also probably doesn't help in the long run, yet the audiences of the 1950's weren't going to send nasty letters to Warner's anytime soon over being offended by the antics of the "Fastest Mouse in All Mexico" on the big screen for 7 minutes tops.

    "He left UPA when he was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but managed to start an independent animation company, where he made commercials, most famously for Maypo."

    I think he even used his son "Marky" for the role there!

    "He later switched to short films, including Moonbird."

    A fellow I know had informed me what really happened during that time is that he would do commercials for the first six months of the year, and the last half, devote himself to these films with his wife Faith Hubley, so he didn't quite give it up entirely.

    "The kids are extremely charming, having been recorded candidly, even if Hampy (real name Ray) is kind of annoying."

    At least he sounds a lot better voicing Adam in "Dig"!

    Aside from the YouTube video provided, I got a clean and colorful copy on 16mm myself!

    "Too bad it's surrounded by not-so-very-good comedy."

    Pintoff's next film wouldn't fare much better other than be an experiment in animating a recorded interview.