Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Best Animated Short - 1953
Well, I've officially graduated from medical school this past weekend, so that would make me officially a doctor. I suppose it's weird thinking of myself that way, along with taking on the responsibilities of such a title, but it's something I've been working towards for almost ten years so it's something that I'm quite pleased about. Now I still have about a month before I have to start orientation for residency, but I have over 20 reviews to go, so I'll still have to work on reviews while I'm in residency. Hopefully I get enough of a queue that I won't have to take any more hiatuses.
Anyways, onto 1953, a full 60 years ago and the year of George Brett's birth. It must be a bit disconcerting for Kansas City Royals fan to think that their best player, the one that led them to seven playoff berths and one World Series title, is now 60 years old. That's the same age that legendary manager John McGraw was when he died shortly after retiring from managing in 1934, and nobody was saying he's a spring chicken (especially not after a 33-year managerial career that includes 2,763 wins - second of all time.) But hey, he still displays quite a bit of vitality for a guy his age.
Anyways, the film that created the biggest buzz that year was the Christian-themed historical epic The Robe. It was significant not necessarily for its theme but that it introduced the new CinemaScope format whose 2.35 : 1 aspect ratio was almost double the old standard 1.33 : 1. It dazzled audiences and was nominated for Best Picture, but with only five nominations it trailed the Pearl Harbor romance flick From Here to Eternity (13 nominations), the Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy Roman Holiday (10 nominations), and the Western classic Shane (6 nominations) and was tied with the Shakespeare adaptation Julius Caesar. The two films also missed out on Best Director nominations, which was a much bigger deal back then than it is now, with their spots taken up by Charles Walters for the Leslie Caron carnival drama Lili and Billy Wilder for his escape classic Stalag 17.
The music awards began with Lili taking home the Best Score (Comedy/Drama) Oscar, Call Me Madam taking home Best Score (Musical), and Calamity Jane winning Best Original Song for "Secret Love" (although another nominee, Dean Martin's "That's Amore" is one whose fame lives on.) From Here to Eternity lost the award for its score but it made up for it by winning Best Sound. The Robe took home the Color Art Direction and Costume Design Oscars, but it lost the Color Cinematography award to Shane. The Black and White technical awards went to From Here to Eternity for Cinematography, Julius Caesar for Art Direction, and Roman Holiday for Costume Design. From Here to Eternity won Best Editing, while The War of the Worlds won Best Special Effects unopposed.
The writing awards went to From Here to Eternity for Best Screenplay, the 1953 version of Titanic for Best Story and Screenplay, and Roman Holiday for Best Story with the Oscar going to Ian McLellan Hunter, who wrote the screenplay, because the original storyman Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted. The Academy would change things shortly after Hunter's death and gave the Oscar to Trumblo, leaving Hunter as never having won an Oscar in the records.
The young Brandon de Wilde had captured the hearts of moviegoers for his portrayal of the young homestead boy that idolized the titular character in Shane, but he ended up losing the Oscar to a much more beloved actor in Frank Sinatra, whose gutsy performance in From Here to Eternity belied his charming persona. His co-star Donna Reed win Best Supporting Actress, but the three actors from the film nominated in the Leading categories weren't so lucky. Deborah Kerr lost to the young Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday, while both Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift lost to William Holden in Stalag 17. Despite those losses, From Here to Eternity was doing well with six wins going into the final awards. It couldn't break the record held by Gone with the Wind with eight competitive wins, but it could surely tie it. And it did just that, with Fred Zinnemann winning Best Director, and going on to win Best Picture. It was a good night for a worthy film.
There were five other worthy films in the running for the Best Animated Short category. What were they, and which would come out as the winner?
Christopher Crumpet's Playmate) is an interesting exploration of the power of imagination. Christopher turns into a chicken because he imagines himself as a chicken. This sort of transformative power of the imagination is an element that still appears in films and TV shows like Muppet Babies. The sideplot about the co-worker and the film's opening with the artist are a bit strange, but the latter sets up for a clever ending. Unfortunately, Christopher himself is an annoying little prick with his unreasonable demands. Seriously, if Christopher was my son, I'd have myself a nice chicken dinner (which is why I should never be a parent.) The animation is done in the limited format that UPA is known for, with no backgrounds and simple character design, since it is meant to be the work of the artist (which is animated differently with paper cutouts.) It is clean and quite effective. In spite of Christopher's despicable attitude, Christopher Crumpet is still a great film from the UPA studios.
Where Can I Watch It?
While Christopher Crumpet's Playmate is regularly available online, the original is strangely missing. You will have to get it from the Jolly Frolics DVD collection.
From A to Z-Z-Z-Z
Where Can I Watch It?
Hooked Bear and In the Bag, he cut his teeth starring in films opposite Donald Duck (although he is credited a making an appearance with Goofy in Hold That Pose when he looked and acted little like his future self.) Rugged Bear is one of those films. It is primarily a gag-based film with most of the gags centered around the various misfortunes that Humphrey must suffer through as he pretends to be Donald's rug. For example, a spark from the fireplace lands on his hip and begin to burn. The gags are mostly a mixture of slapstick and visual humor, but they are quite funny. Although you do start to feel sorry for poor Humphrey, since most of the laughs are at his expense, and since many of the things that happen to him would kill an ordinary bear. The ending is a hoot as well. The character animation is typical Disney, although the background has the strange perspectives that is typical of their later theatrical shorts. Rugged Bear isn't exactly the deepest of films, but it is hilarious, and helped establish Humphrey as a star. Unfortunately Disney's theatrical short animation days were coming to a close, and he didn't have much time to enjoy top billing. Still he'll always have those two films, and this nomination.
*The other six are a who's who of Disney characters: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, Chip n' Dale...and Figaro, the adorable little kitten in Pinocchio.
Where Can I Watch It?
The Tell-Tale Heart
Where Can I Watch It?
The film is part of the Jolly Frolics DVD collection, and in there you can really see the brilliant design in the way it was meant to be seen. Unfortunately, the ones that are online were not taken from the DVD and don't have that sharpness of the image, but it'll do.
Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom
Disney Sing-a-Long videos before. And if you have, chances are you were wondering where exactly the character of the Owl Professor came from. Well, Professor Owl and his ragtag gang of students had appeared in two films from 1953 titled the "Adventure in Music" series: Melody and Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom. Both films fit in with the edutainment genre. Melody introduces the concept of melody and was Disney's first foray into 3D. This particular film introduces the different types of musical instruments and is Disney's first film in full Cinemascope. Extreme aspect ratio aside, the film does a great job in introducing the core types of musical instruments - horns, woodwind, strings, and percussion - and how they evolved. Unfortunately only the "toot" section has any actual didactic explanation. The rest explains the concepts more through visuals, which are filled with a lot of visual humor. In one memorable sequence the evolution of stringed instruments is tracked from the ancient Greek time until today, and in almost all of the examples the strings snap with disastrous results. The film is also noteworthy for using a more limited style of animation than what Disney was known for doing in the 1930s and 1940s. While it doesn't get to the bare bones level of UPA films, it does feature more monochroem backgrounds and coarse character designs. There are a few stereotypes that look ugly today (showing Chinese people as ugly Mandarins doing barbaric things with katakana sound effects is not cool), but that's a product of the times. The animation works because the film is more of an auditory experience anyways. Bill Thompson is great as Professor Owl, and the film is full of wonderful musical compositions. Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom is a great film that was informative and showed that Disney could evolve with the times.
Where Can I Watch It?
So, these are the five nominees, and I'd have to say they're all very good. I'd even go as far as to say that even of the worst ones are better than any of the nominated films that came in the rest of the decade*. Rugged Bear is my favorite because not only was it a film I saw numerous times as a child, but also because it is the only nominee with humor as a focus and it succeed very well. Yet I must admit that with its lack of depth it doesn't quite match up with the two films that stand out: The Tell-Tale Heart and Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom. The former is a thrilling example of animation being used for something other than child's entertainment, a struggle that is still being played out today. The latter is a film that is both entertaining and educational. I'd have to say that I feel The Tell-Tale Heart is better with its great use of animation for atmosphere. And while the film was touted by Life magazine as the "leading candidate for the cartoon Oscar" (I didn't think Life magazine would care about this category), the Academy decided to go with Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom, possibly due to its use of Cinemascope. It's a shame that two much inferior UPA film would win the Oscar in the next three years, but you really can't go wrong with any of these films.
*Not to mention 1953 also had some great films that somehow didn't get nominated: Duck Amuck, Duck Dodgers in the 24 1/2th Century, Duck Rabbit Duck, and The Unicorn in the Garden. 1953 has to be in the discussion for the best year in animated shorts!
My rankings (by quality)
The Tell-Tale Heart > Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom > Christopher Crumpet > From A to Z-Z-Z-Z > Rugged Bear
My rankings (by preference)
Rugged Bear > The Tell-Tale Heart > Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom > Christopher Crumpet > From A to Z-Z-Z-Z