Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1952

Ah, we have arrived at 1952. Apologies to everybody that was born in 1952 (including my aunt who would probably never read this blog entry), but 1952 just feels like an undistinguished year to me. Other than the birth year of my aunt I really can't think of anything significant from this year. Yeah, 1951 has the dual debuts of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, the Shot Heard Around the World, and an epic lineup of Best Picture nominees. 1953 saw the birth of George Brett, Mickey Mantle's legendary 565-foot home run (that probably didn't go 565 feet), and the fifth consecutive World Series win by the Yankees. And what did 1952 have? The birth of my aunt, which is much more of a personal thing.

Perhaps it's due to the fact that the films of 1952 were rather undistinguished. There is only one film that really stands out today, and that was the delightful Gene Kelly musical Singin' in the Rain. But Singin' in the Rain was only a modest hit at the box office, and scored only two Oscar nominations. The Gary Cooper Western melodrama High Noon is also highly regarded today, but it did even worse at the box office and was highly criticized for its supposed allegory on the Hollywood blacklisting.

Rather, the biggest film of the year was legendary director Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth. The film delighted viewers with its footage of actual circus acts, its vivid visual palette, and the numerous star cameos. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for DeMille, his first after years of being a silent film director and a memorable cameo in Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd. Interestingly enough, High Noon was one of the three films with the most nominations, with seven. The other two were the earlier Moulin Rouge and the John Wayne Scottish epic The Quiet Man. The adaptation of the historical novel Ivanhoe took the last Best Picture spot as one of its three nominations. It was the only Best Picture nominee to miss out on Best Director, with its spot going instead to Joseph L. Mankiewicz for 5 Fingers.

One of Singin' in the Rain's two nominations were in the Best Score (Musical) category, but it lost that to the biographical film With a Song in My Heart. High Noon proved to be popular with the Academy, winning Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy) and for Best Original Song. Best Sound went to the British film Breaking the Sound Barrier. Moulin Rouge took home Color Costume Design and Art Direction, but it was not nominated in the Color Cinematography category, which went instead to The Quiet Man. Meanwhile, the Black and White categories were swept by the film about filmmaking The Bad and the Beautiful. High Noon was not nominated in any of the categories, but it did capture the Best Editing Oscar. Best Special Effects went to Plymouth Adventure unopposed. The Bad and the Beautiful continued its hot streak by winning Best Screenplay, beating out High Noon. The Greatest Show on Earth won Best Story, and the heist comedy The Lavender Hill Mob won Best Story and Screenplay.

So it was a relatively close race, with only one film getting four wins to this point, and that film wasn't even nominated for Best Picture. This even distribution of wins is never more obvious than in the acting categories and the final two awards. Anthony Quinn won Best Supporting Actor for his role as the brother to Marlon Brando's Emiliano Zapata in Viva Zapata!. Meanwhile, Gloria Grahame won Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Bad and the Beautiful, beating out Jean Hagen in Singin' in the Rain's other nominee. Shirley Booth won Best Actress for reprising the role she originated on Broadway in Come Back, Little Sheba. And Gary Cooper managed to capture his second Best Actor award for his role in High Noon. That win gave High Noon four wins to the night, second only to The Bad and the Beautiful. No other film has more than two, but its Best Picture hopes took a hit when John Ford won his fourth Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man. And to the surprise of all, Best Picture went not to High Noon and The Quiet Man, but for Cecil B. DeMille's circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth.

The Greatest Show on Earth won Best Picture as one of its only two wins, the fewest wins for a Best Picture winner since Rebecca also won with only two wins 12 years earlier. No Best Picture winner had that few wins in the 60 years since. Not only was The Bad and the Beautiful the biggest winner of the night in total wins, it became the first film to win five Oscars without a Best Picture nomination. Similarly, the top 6 award (acting awards + Best Director + Best Picture) all went to different films, the first of four times that's ever happened (including this year.) Nowadays people regard The Greatest Show on Earth as one of the worst Best Picture winners, due to its bloated and incoherent story and the fact it beat out a more deserving film in High Noon.

So Best Picture was sort of a bust. Would a similar fate await the winner of Best Animated Short?

Johann Mouse
The great Austrian composer Johann Strauss has a mouse living in his Vienna house. Unlike most other varmints, little Johann doesn't spend his time eating the food in the pantries. Instead, he'd enjoy Strauss's lovely music, waltzing to it. However, one person that does not welcome Johann's presence is Johann's cat, who would try and fail to capture the mouse. One day the master went away on a trip, leaving the cat unable to try to capture little Johann. The cat decides to learn to play the waltz to lure little Johann out. Would his plan succeed? MGM's Tom and Jerry cartoons remains one of the most successful and popular cartoon series out there, with numerous Oscar nominations, and legions of fans even over 70 years after their debut. Yet the franchise has come under some criticisms in recent years for its formulaic nature. It's true that many of the cartoons are strongly reliant on visual gags and slapstick, but most of the gags are quite funny, and many of the most successful has some sort of twist that make it worthwhile. Johann Mouse is one of these films that departs from the formula. The entire film is presented as a storybook complete with "Winnie the Pooh" style flipping pages and an unseen narrator. Furthermore, the film has a lesser reliance on the visual humor. Sure, there is a montage of Tom's failed attempts to catch Jerry with disastrous results, but it lasted only ten short seconds. The film instead uses situational humor to drive the story, such as Tom learning how to play the waltz and the news spreading to the emperor. This is a welcomed change from the rest of the Tom and Jerry films, and is still quite funny. The How to Play the Waltz in Six Easy Lessons joke is a riot. And it's good to see Tom and Jerry working together in the last part of the film, something that rarely happens in the Hanna Barbera Tom and Jerry shorts. The animation quality is fairly standard, but the choreography for Jerry's dancing is nice, and the dancing isn't even limited to Jerry. The narration by voice actor Hans Conreid is nice, but the real treat is the music by the real Johann Strauss. Johann Mouse certainly ranks as the most unique of the Hanna Barbera Tom and Jerry films.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. has the rights to those old MGM cartoons, and they've been pretty diligent in keeping the old Tom and Jerry films off YouTube. This video on DailyMotion has lasted for a while, but we'll see how much longer it can last.

Little Johnny Jet
John is an old B-29 warplane trying to find a civilian job, but remains unsuccessful since all of the jobs have been taken up by jets, even his old army job. Things are not all looking down for the couple. His wife Mary is expecting. However, the robo-stork decides to play a cruel trick on the couple (or get with the times) and brings in a supersonic jet, much to John's chagrin. Frustrated with all the jets, John decides to enter into a global flight contest to win a government contract. Yet shortly after the race began John loses his propeller. Thankfully his son is on board. Can he save his old dad's life? While Hanna and Barbera were making the ultra-popular Tom and Jerry films, one of their colleagues at MGM was making animated magic of his own. Tex Avery joined MGM from Warner Bros. in 1942 and proceeded to direct some of the most critically acclaimed animated short films that push the boundaries on the limits of animated humor and the Production Code. However, while Avery's films like Red Hot Riding Hood and Bad Luck Blackie are well remembered today, he never did get much recognition from the Academy. After his first film at MGM was nominated, he had to wait another ten years before a second one of his MGM films was nominated, but it wasn't even one of Avery's best. The film is interesting for presenting domesticated airplanes and kind of addresses the difficulty of old technology to adjust, but it lacks the frenzied pacing that has defined most of the great Tex Avery films. There was an interesting joke playing off of the quote from General Douglas MacArthur's retirement address, but it wasn't until nearly the end of the film that Avery's visual humor comes through, but those gags weren't really that funny. In the end Little Johnny Jet wasn't even the best Tex Avery film from 1952. Magical Maestro, the first MGM animated film inducted into the National Film Registry, also came out that year.
Where Can I Watch It?

"In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines...The smallest one was Madeline." So began the tale of Madeline, the little French girl that has captured the hearts of millions around the world. She was adventurous and brave in spite of her size, and she enjoyed everything she did, much to her headmistress Miss Clavel's chagrin. However, one day she was acting not right. What could it be and could she be saved in time? And can her friends deal with her absence? Madeline was a picture book written by the European-born American author Ludwig Bemelmans back in 1939. It proved to be exceedingly popular for its vivid imagery that was present in the illustrations and for the characterization of the titular character. Over the next 70 years it has spawned numerous sequels, several animated adaptations, and even a live action feature film. The first adaptation came 46 years before the feature film and even a year before the first sequel and was by the legendary UPA Studios. It's actually a rather straightforward adaptation. They made a few cuts (if my memory is correct), but kept most of the story intact. The film is thus mostly animating the original Bemelmans illustrations. That's not to say it's bad. The animation kept the feel of the original illustration in both character and background, and that gave it more details than in most UPA film. They make up for it by limited the motion, although in this case it's not really a good thing. Plus they didn't really add anything. There's no visual humor or anything else snuck into the film. Yeah, some of the later media went overboard with the additions, but this just doesn't feel any different from the original. Perhaps that's what UPA was going for, but considering the book is much easier to find than this film it's not really worth it. The narration by Gladys Holland is good, but it also doesn't separate it much from just having somebody read the original. Madeline is significant in that it does what Weston Woods did decades later, which is good because there was no other adaptation of the Madeline story at the time, but it also doesn't add much spice to the tale. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to personal preference.
Where Can I Watch It?
The quality is kind of bad, but you know you can always get a better one from the Jolly Frolics DVD.

Pink and Blue Blues
The near-sighted Mr. Magoo was having a heck of a time trying to watch the blasted television when he is interrupted by a call from his neighbors. They want him to come over and babysit for their toddler Homer. All he has to do is feed the child, bathe him, and put him to bed. However, his neighbors also has a pet dog and he spends most of the night getting the two mixed up. To make things even worse there's a cat burglar on the loose and he's trying to rob the house. Can he successfully complete the task at hand? We've seen Mr. Magoo films in the past with the Oscar winning When Magoo Flew and Magoo's Puddle Jumper. Those films were light on the slapstick and visual gags and more geared towards commentary type humor. Pink and Blue Blues is a film that has more of the visual and situational humor that had been present in his first appearance three years earlier in The Ragtime Bear. And Pink and Blue Blues is pretty successful in its presentation. A lot of the humor comes from Mr. Magoo getting young Homer confused with the dog who is trying to catch the burglar, and vice versa. The sight of Magoo carrying the dog in a bundle is very cute and quite a laugh. Of course, the film wouldn't be as funny if the film was limited to that, but thankfully there's a lot of other funny gags involving Magoo's mixups. For example, he sees a fish in a fishbowl and thinks he's watching Esther Williams on television. And there's a little bit of the Benny Hill type chase slapstick near the end of the film. The animation is more detailed than most UPA films although nothing really worth writing about, and Jim Backus is terrific as the voice of Mr. Magoo. Overall Pink and Blue Blues is a fun little madcap adventure that really shows the potential of Mr. Magoo films for comedy.
Where Can I Watch It?
This is actually a pain to find. I couldn't find it online and in the end had to get an old out of print Mr. Magoo VHS tape to find it. (The link doesn't go to the same tape I got, but it's got it. There is a version online, but it's dubbed. I'll embed it, but it's dubbed.

The Romance of Transportation in Canada
Modern day Canada (or as modern day as you can get with a film made in 1952) is a hotbed of methods of transportation. Planes, trains, and automobiles, you name it. However, the romance of transportation in Canada stretches back for decades, since even before the white settlers first landed onto the country. In this documentary we learn the evolution of transportation in the great nation of Canada from the use of canoes in waterways to the rise of railways. What sort of new methods of transport could be expected  in the future? The National Film Board of Canada has become one of the most well respected animation studios in the world. They have been making their marks in animation since the 1940s. However, their first nomination in the animation category did not come until The Romance of Transportation in Canada, an animated documentary about pretty much what the title of film says: transportation in Canada. And it actually does a pretty good job at presenting the information. It's true that the material is a bit simple, but it doesn't have to be to be a good documentary. We've seen what happens when somebody animates a thesis, and believe me it isn't pretty. The information that is presented seems pretty accurate. Unfortunately, it's also pretty dry, so the filmmakers filled the film with visual gags and ironic statements. For example, at one point the narrator talked about how stagecoaches can transport passengers in "relative comfort" and the film shows the passenger getting tossed around. Furthermore, there is a prologue and epilogue featuring a pilot running out of fuel, parachuting out, and landing on a traffic cop. These gags does spice things up a bit, but unfortunately it's not very funny, so the film is still dry, but at least it's better than something unfunny that isn't even educational. The animation in Canadian films have been on the forefront, but that's not the case in this film. The animation kind of has a UPA feel with relatively simple character design and backgrounds and rather limited animation. The narration by Guy Glover is dry and probably contributes to the film being that way, but the jazzy score by Eldon Rathburn is quite good. Overall The Romance of Transportation in Canada is a decent effort at making an edutainment film, but there isn't quite enough entertainment to put it at the ranks of, say, Donald in Mathmagic Land.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, these are the five nominees. Is the winner something that people would want to take back? There is one person that thinks so. The Academy continued their love affair with Tom and Jerry and presented Johann Mouse with the Oscar. Almost sixty years later, animation historian and Cartoon Brew editor Amid Amidi wrote an editorial on the six most unforgivable animation Oscar moments and included this 1952 win on the list. His reasoning is that while the executives at MGM and Academy went gaga over Tom and Jerry, they've crapped all over Tex Avery. I'll give them that, since 7 wins in 13 nominations and 0 wins in 2 nominations are a bit extreme. Still, the fact is that they submitted/nominated the wrong Tex Avery film. Little Johnny Jet is okay, but Johann Mouse is still the best of the films for its new and quiet successful perspective on an age old formula. If Magical Maestro was nominated it would have been a different tale, because that film contains all of the breakneck visual and situational gags that Tex Avery is known for (plus the best hair gag), but it wasn't so I feel Johann Mouse is a deserving winner. Is it unforgivable that the Academy and MGM have denied the due that Tex Avery films should have gotten? Definitely. Is it unforgivable for Johann Mouse to win given the lineup that the Academy was given? I don't think so.

But in the end none of this would matter, because all of the Oscar glory would have gone to Fred Quimby anyways. Now that is the most unforgivable thing of all.

My rankings (by quality)
Johann Mouse > Pink and Blue Blues > The Romance of Transportation in Canada > Madeline > Little Johnny Jet

My rankings (by preference)
Johann Mouse > Pink and Blue Blues > Little Johnny Jet > Madeline > The Romance of Transportation in Canada 

Well, that's another ten reviews finished, which means I'll be posting a list of the nominated shorts of 1952-1961 ranked by preference. That will go up next Wednesday, one because I'm a lazy bum, and two because there will be a Saturday post this coming Saturday, and I'd rather not have two posts on the same day (although there may be a day where that would be unavoidable.) The 1951 review will go up two weeks from now.


    "The narration by voice actor Hans Conreid is nice, but the real treat is the music by the real Johann Strauss."

    As played by Jakob Gimpel. Apparently before Johann Mouse he would do the piano for the WB short "Rhaposdy Rabbit", though left uncredited for it.

    Incidentally, though you'll talk about Madeline later in this boot, the narrator of that short, Gladys Holland, in an audio commentary on the "Jolly Frolics Collection" mentioned she was originaly picked to do the narration for Johann Mouse but they went with COnried instead. I suppose it was a good choice in the end though I wouldn't mind hearing her attempt an Austrian accent the way she would tell the tale of Madeline with a French one. Both Conried and Holland would do voices for another UPA cartoon "The Emperor's New Clothes" though she was left uncredited on that short.

    "In the end Little Johnny Jet wasn't even the best Tex Avery film from 1952."

    The premise of this film is also very similar to another film Tex has in '52 called "One Cab's Family". Though that one was about a son defying a father's warning about being a hot rod.

    "The first adaptation came 46 years before the feature film and even a year before the first sequel and was by the legendary UPA Studios."

    Not to mentiona period in the 1960's when Gene Deitch took a crack at animating a feature film featuring two other Madeline tales called "Alice of Wonderland in Paris" (those were "Madeline and the Gypsies" and "Madeline and the Bad Hat").

    "Perhaps that's what UPA was going for, but considering the book is much easier to find than this film it's not really worth it."

    Sad to hear you say that. I remember when the film use to show up a number of times on the cable channel Nickelodeon 30 years ago as part of it's "Pinwheel" series. I hardly ever saw the book much as a kid but I recall the short vividly in how they consolidated the action the way the characters go through a scene trasition as if they had to run into place while the backgrounds dissolve into the next. It was a rather a unique idea in getting across what probably took several pages in the book to convey in a short time frame of a scene.

    "Madeline is significant in that it does what Weston Woods did decades later, which is good because there was no other adaptation of the Madeline story at the time, but it also doesn't add much spice to the tale. Whether that's a good thing or not is up to personal preference.

    I talked about Gene Deitch earlier, he attempted adapting several kids books to animation while working for William Snyder's Rembrandt Films in NY before movie on to Morton Schindel's Weston Woods. A feature was released in the 60's I mentioned above involve the familiar character of Alice going to Paris because of her love of the Madeline stories, though much of the film had to share time to other stories such as Eve Titus' "Anatole", Crockett Johnson's "The Frowning Prince" and James Thurber's "Many Moons". I suppose though Deitch's handling of Madeline was no different from what UPA did before and doesn't quite stray from the beaten path as the later TV/movie adaptations would do.

    Although you link to one video on YouTube, someone did bother to rip it off the Jolly Frolics disc and put it up too (if anything, we don't have to bother with that clumsy "Columbia Favorite" re-release end credit bit anymore).

    "Overall Pink and Blue Blues is a fun little madcap adventure that really shows the potential of Mr. Magoo films for comedy."

    It did. The earlier Magoo's tend to be this way I suppose.

    One important note to make about this film is that is was one of, or the first film to be animated on cels for the NFB. Prior to this, the National Film Board did not believe it could do cel aniamtion on par with what was available in the US simply because of the cost involved. They previously had the Walt Disney Studios produce several wartime films like "The Thrifty Pig" or "All Together" that were merely recycled animation from previous Disney shorts tied into a message about exchanging your money for savings certificates. The NFB's early days of animation, pioneered by the likes of Norman McLaren, often involved making very simple, limited pieces often done with or without a camera, using any method availalbe like drawing direclty on the film itself, moving paper cut-outs and such.

    The Romance of Transportation changed all that, and you can probably thank UPA for giving the NFB the go-ahead to pursue such endeavors further. Making animated documentaries would be a common thing for the NFB in the years that followed, such as on a series of 1-minute vignettes produced in the late 70's.

    This would also be the first foreign-animated film to be nominated in the category I believe. Before this point, expect mostly Hollywood with some efforts out of the East Coast.

    "But in the end none of this would matter, because all of the Oscar glory would have gone to Fred Quimby anyways. Now that is the most unforgivable thing of all."

    They're all stuck-up producers anyway! 6 down, 2 more decades to go!