Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1960

Well, it's about time for me to finally finish yet another decade, which means the first year of the decade due to our retrograde progression. It's hard to believe that it's been close to seven months since we departed the 1970s, but that's what happens when you take a three-month hiatus. Yeah, I'm never going to live that down, but when you spend that time traveling the country and perusing My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic material then it doesn't really feel that long. Or maybe it's just time perception, the nifty phenomenon that the not-nominated The Eagleman Stag addressed.

At any rate, we are at 1960. The biggest films that year were two classics by two legendary directors, Stanley Kubrick's three-hour epic Spartacus and Alfred Hitchcock's horror masterpiece Psycho. As is typical of the Academy, they awarded these two films with plenty of nominations (Spartacus had six while Psycho had four), but kept those out of contention for the Best Picture award. The Best Picture nominations went instead to Billy Wilder's romantic comedy The Apartment (which led the way with 10 nominations), the John Wayne Western epic The Alamo (7 nominations), the adaptation of the D.H. Lawrence novel Sons and Lovers (7 nominations), the evangelistic drama Elmer Gantry (5 nominations), and the Australian outback tale The Sundowners (5 nominations).

Of those five only The Apartment, Sons and Lovers, and The Sundowners received Best Director nominations. The other two went to Hitchcock for Psycho and American-born Jules Dassin for the Greek film Never on Sunday, which received five nominations but not Best Foreign Language Film because Greece did not submit a film for consideration that year. The Ingmar Bergman classic The Virgin Spring, the film that inspired West Craven to make The Last House on the Left, ended up winning Best Foreign Language Film. Never on Sunday did win Best Original Song for the song of the same title, becoming the first foreign song to win the award. The other music award went to the Franz Liszt biographical film Song Without End (Musical Picture) and the 3.5-hour epic Exodus (Dramatic/Comedy Picture). The Alamo won Best Sound to close out the sound awards.

For the split technical awards, Sparatcus had no problem sweeping the three color categories. The black and white categories were more divided. The Apartment took home Best Art Direction. Sons and Lovers won Best Cinematography, and the Bob Hope/Lucille Ball romantic comedy The Facts of Life won Best Costume Design. The Apartment took home Best Editing, and George Pal's adaptation of H.G. Wells's The Time Machine won Best Special Effects. Once again, we'll be seeing a lot of George Pal soon. In the screenplay categories, The Apartment won Best Original Screenplay in a competition that included no other Best Picture nominees. (It did have Never on Sunday, The Facts of Life, and the French/Japanese film Hiroshima, mon amour starring Emmanuelle Riva.) Meanwhile the more contentious Best Adapted Screenplay category went to Elmer Gantry.

The acting categories were pretty contentious in 1960. Much of the controversy was in the Best Supporting Actor category. Chill Wills was nominated for his role in The Alamo, and began a massive publicity campaign that alienated even his own cast. In the end the award went to Peter Ustinov for his portrayal of slave trader Batatius in Spartacus. There were not as much controversy for Best Supporting Actress, where Shirley Jones won for Elmer Gantry, beating out four other actresses including Janet Leigh for Psycho. BUtterfield 8 was one of Elizabeth Taylor's least favorite of her films, partially due to the backlash after co-star Eddie Fisher's decision to leave his wife Debbie Reynolds for Taylor. Yet despite (or maybe because) of the news, Taylor was nominated for the fourth straight time in the Best Actress category. And even more surprisingly, she won, defeating the likes of Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment) and Deborah Kerr (The Sundowners). Best Actor was more straightforward, as Burt Lancaster won for his role as the titular character for Elmer Gantry.

As the ceremony went into its last two awards, Spartacus was in the lead with four wins, but it was not represented in Best Director and Best Picture. Of the Best Picture nominees, The Apartment and Elmer Gantry were in the led with three wins. However, Elmer Gantry's lack of a nomination for Best Director really appears to hurt, especially after Billy Wilder won Best Director for The Apartment. It's true that 52 years later Argo was able to pull off a Best Picture win despite a lack of a Best Director nomination, but  The Apartment ended any hope of that happening when it claimed the title of Best Picture of 1960, Oscar-wise.

Yet in the midst of all the chaos and confusion, another race was heating up, competition-wise, in the category of Best Animated Short.

Goliath II
Life is pretty good for the elephant Goliath. He was the largest elephant in the jungle, and has the respect of all of the elephants in his herd. However, there is one source of embarrassment for him. His son Goliath II has a genetic condition that makes him no larger than a flower. Not only does Goliath II end up getting lost in the massive jungle, but he and his loving mother must to deal with predators like the pathetic tiger Rajah, who made Goliath II his life goal. After one incident he ends up a disgrace. Can he ever find his way back in good graces? Goliath II is one of the 15-minute short films that Disney made in the late 1950s and early 1960s that are quite unfortunately often overlooked. Yet Goliath II is an important milestone film in the Disney canon because it was the film by Disney that used Xerox to bring the art from paper to celluloid. I'm no expert on the production of animation, but I presume that this would reduce production costs while being the cause of the rougher look to their animation from 101 Dalmatians, the first feature film to use the Xerox process, all the way through the 1970s. The rough lines are sometimes visible in Goliath II, but it doesn't detract much from the experience. More alarming is the fact that it makes it easier for animators reuse animations from earlier works a la Robin Hood. There are shots in Goliath II with element that were clearly taken from films like Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. That may be kind of distracting, but doesn't really take way from the experience. Goliath II is at its core a standard coming of age tale, and it tells the story well. The film does meander at times, especially in a scene where Goliath II's mother goes looking for her missing son, but it's still entertaining. The voice acting in the film can get kind of grating, but Paul Frees shines in his role as an antagonistic mouse with a New York accent. Goliath II doesn't break any major grounds other than in the production side of things, but it is still an enjoyable romp, and what more do you want from an animated film?
Where Can I Watch It?

High Note
An orchestra is ready to perform a rendition of Johan Strauss's Blue Danube. They are not the only ones that need to get ready. The musical notes also need time to prepare the sheet music. Led by a middle C, the notes prepare everything from the five line staff to the treble cleff signs. After preparations are ready, the notes all get in line, but one of the notes is MIA. They find the note in a nearby musical composition "Little Brown Jug." His drunken antics threaten to disrupt the composition. Can they keep him in check? High Note is a Looney Tunes film by Chuck Jones. It is essentially a series of gags centered around the signs and symbols found on sheet music. How somebody came up with an idea for this is beyond me, but it does help to explain why Warner Bros. was at the forefront of comedy in the golden age of studio animation. The film features two types of gags. The first half is focused on creating the sheet music and features creative ways of making symbols like the treble cleff sign or the sharp symbol. The second half is when the drunken note wreaks havoc, with more random gags like sitting on a whole note as if it was an egg and hatching a gaggle of baby notes. The baby notes are cute, but I prefer the jokes in the first half over the second. The second drunken note gags are admittedly more creative, but they feel far too random and disjointed. The first half jokes are much simpler, but they feel more clever. The inebriated note also ends up being annoying. I suppose he is supposed to come across as like a jerk, but it's probably not good to have a jerk being the focus on the film. And the ending falls flat. Still, the second half does have some more dynamic shot construction, with angles that you'd never expect from something supposedly set in a flat sheet of paper. Still, in spite of its annoying main character, High Note is a decent addition to the Looney Tunes lineup.
Where Can I Watch It?

Mouse and Garden
Sylvester and his good friend Sam are staying at a dock house and trying to get something to eat from the trash so they won't have to go to bed hungry. Sam talks about the strength of their friendship, but all that goes out the window when Sylvester finds a mouse. Sam finds out about the mouse, and after some fights, the two decide to save the mouse for breakfast by keeping him in a jug suspended off a dock. The two buddies spend the rest of the trying to catch the other getting the mouse. After years of making standard chase cartoons, Warner Bros. began experimenting with ways to make the idea more original in the late 1950s. Mouse and Garden was one of these films with a different take of classic formula. In this film the prey is a mostly nondescript mouse that was apprehended quite easily, while most of the action is centered around Sylvester and Sam. It is a welcome approach, and not just because it's different. I've always been bothered by these chase films because I frequently find the prey to be annoying, leading me to root for the predator, who always loses. Making the film a battle between the two predators is good for me because I don't have any particular inherent dislike of either Sylvester or Sam. It can also be seen as a cynical parable of the fragility of friendship in the presence of a common desire. It's a cautionary tale that's been done before, although not frequently in the realm of animated short films. That said, even though the dynamic of the film is different, much of the gags are standard Warner Bros. fare. There are still a lot of dynamite in the mouth type jokes. And there really aren't a lot of them. Each encounter between Sylvester and Sam lasts longer than what one may expect, and the film is over before you know it. At least it was something different while it lasted.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well the embeddable version got removed. Thankfully it's still on Not embeddable but still there.
Munro is a regular four year old little boy living in an ordinary American community. Like other little boys his age, he likes playing with his ball and hates washing his face. However, Munro is about to have a most extraordinary adventure. He gets drafted into the army. Like a good little boy Munro goes for his physical, hoping somebody would notice that he was only four. Yet he passed his physical with flying colors and ended up in basic training, where things get worse for poor Munro. Will they ever notice that he is only four? The absurdity of bureaucracy is an issue that had been satirized numerous times. One common theme is to have people believe what is listed on a document over their own eyes. One stirring example was in Joseph Heller's 1961 classic Catch-22, where the hapless Doc Daneeka was assumed by everybody to be dead after a flight where he was said to have been on crashed, even though he was not on the plane and was interacting with characters after the incident. This sort of blind reliance to bureaucratic processes, especially in the military, was addressed a few years earlier by cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer in his short story Munro. Later he worked with Gene Deitch and the newly formed Rembrandt Films for an adaptation of the story. Having never read the story I can't comment on how faithful the adaptation was, but the film itself is the type of satire that would reach an audience. Munro's naivete and innocence is contrasted wonderfully with the blind ignorance of people of authority in his exasperating situation. In one memorable scene Munro goes to see various officers only to have them all tell him, in different terms, to shut up and get back in line. The film is full of the biting wit that one would come to expect from satires, and it keeps the film entertaining as well as shocking. The animation fully embraces the limited animation movement of UPA with almost non-existant backgrounds, although the background colors convey Munro's mood quite well. The narration is handled deftly by veteran actor Howard Morris, providing the sort of empathy for Munro's situation. However, the real star is Gene Deitch's three-year-old son Seth as the titular character. He lend the sort of authentic desperation for Munro's character, even if most of the lines are merely "I'm only four!" Munro is a terrific film and a great piece of satire.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Place in the Sun (O Misto na Slunci)
From 1932 through 1959, the first 28 years of the Best Animated Short category, all of the nominated films had something in common: they were made in North American countries. Most of them were films made in animation studios, although there were a few independent films, and one film from Canada (The Romance of Transportation in Canada, from 1952). But they were all North American. However, all that was about to change in 1960. Two of the nominees were produced in films outside of North America. One was Munro, which was animated in Czechoslovakia, but it was really meant for American audiences. It's kind of like how much of the animation for The Simpsons was animated in Korea. The other was different. O Misto na Slunci  was made by a Czecholovakian animator, Frantisek Vystrcil, and meant for a Czechoslovakian audience. However, the film about two men fighting over a place in the sun won over audiences around the world, and became the first European film nominated for the Best Animated Short Oscar. This would open the way for other European films to step up, including Yugoslavia's Surogat, Igra, and Tup Tup, France's Hypothese Beta, and Italy's La Gazza Ladra, Pulcinella, and Dedalo etc. Fans of the film include legendary Russian animator Yuri Norstein, the director of Tale of Tales and Hedgehog in the Fog. He included the film in his ballot for the Laputa Top 150 Japanese and World Animation poll in 2003, one topped by Norstein's own Tale of Tales. Alas, fifty years later the film has become almost impossible to find. It is not available in any American sites, and the Annecy 50th anniversary DVD that had The Further Adventures of Uncle Sam Part Two, even though it won an award at Annecy. I found somethings that suggest the film is available on various Czech sites, but my inability to read Czech is really cramping my ability to pursue this lead. So this will probably continue to be part of the Missing Seven for a long time to come.
Where Can I Watch It?
I wish I knew. If anybody here can read and speak Czech (which is pretty unlikely because my hiatus probably cost me whatever readership I had built up, so the only readers are my sisters which I know don't speak Czech) and can help me get a copy, I'd very much appreciate it. 

Well, there you go, the five films nominated for the Oscar. Unfortunately, one of the films was one I haven't seen. If it's the masterpiece everybody say it is then there might be a race, but of the four I've seen Munro stands out as the best. It may not have the most eye-catching animation, but it wins out through the strength of the story and the quality of the satire. It's not to say that the others are bad, but they don't stand up to Munro. Perhaps O Misto na Slunci could be that challenger, but we'll never know.

My rankings (by quality)
Munro > High Note > Goliath II > Mouse and Garden

My rankings (by preference)
Munro > Mouse and Garden > Goliath II > High Note

1 comment:

  1. MUNRO
    Although not credited in the main film itself, here is a list of everyone involved in Munro that simply didn't get mentioned due to their "outside involvment".

    Director, and creator of the project: Gene Deitch
    Author of the story, dialog, and storyboard: Jules Feiffer
    Primary production studio: Gene Deitch Associates, Inc. NewYork
    Production Manager: Ken Drake
    Layout artist: Al Kouzel
    Voice actors: Howard Morris
    Seth Deitch
    Marie Deitch
    Jules Feiffer
    Animation & post-production studio: Bratři v triku, Prague
    Director: Gene Deitch
    Production Manager: Zdenka Najmanová
    Animation Director: Václav Bedřich
    Animators: Zdenek Smetana
    Mirek Kačena
    Milan Klikar
    Jindřich Barta
    Věra Kudrnová
    Background Painter: Bohumil Šiška
    Music composer and conductor: Štěpán Koníček
    Recording Engineer: Karel Jakeš
    Sound effects: Gene Deitch
    Tony Schwartz
    Sound mixer: František Černý
    Camera Operator: Zdenka Hajdová
    Film Editor: Zdenka Navratilová
    Financial backer: William L. Snyder

    This brings up a rather important thing I probably alluded to before, but I might as well get off my chest about this being rather also around the time the first "runaway production" happened to American animation. It wasn't quite as rampant as it would be in later years, but was something studios were aiming at as TV budgets and datelines started to get in the way. In 1960, you had several things like this going on like MGM getting Rembrandt to produce Tom & Jerry cartoons for them (all done over in Prague), while down in Mexico, a studio was set up to handle Jay Ward's Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoons and later Total TV's "Tennessee Tuxedo" and "Underdog". You also had King Features Syndicate, now in the TV biz, farming out Popeye cartoons to several studios globally. At the same time, you had the partnership of Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass who would produce TV shows and specials utilizing talent out of Canada, Japan and beyond.

    I'm just rambling here looking back at the last paragraph, but I wanted to state it anyway and move on!