Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1956

The year 1956 is pretty significant even if neither of my parents were born that year. I did have an aunt born that year, on Christmas Eve no less. It was also the year that Mickey Mantle won the Triple Crown and his first MVP award. It remained so significant to him that he even dedicated a whole book about that season. I was reading through the book as a ten year old boy when I heard the devastating news that Mantle had died from metastatic liver cancer. It was very tragic to me. I never did get to meet my childhood baseball hero, but I did get to visit his grave over 15 years later.

And finally, 1956 was the earliest year where I saw every Best Picture nominee.

The Best Picture nominees of 1956 were a pretty varied bunch. Leading the charge was Warner Bros.'s Texas epic Giant with 10 nominations, followed closely by 20th Century Fox's musical adaptation The King and I with nine nominations and United Artists's star-studded globe-trotting film Around the World in 80 Days with eight. Paramount Picture's massive Biblical epic The Ten Commandments was the biggest box office hit of the year, but only had seven nominations. Allied Artists's quiet Quaker film Friendly Persuasion  had only six. Of those five films, four of them had corresponding Best Director nominations. Only The Ten Commandments's Cecil DeMille missed out in favor of King Vidor for War and Peace.

I had watched all but Friendly Persuasion in that 1998 year when I was crazy about the Oscars, but I couldn't find Friendly Persuasion in the local library, which was where I checked out most of the films my parents didn't have. It wasn't until 10 years later when I finally got Netflix that I decided to check it out and cross it off my list.

It was a very evenly matched year, but from the beginning it seemed clear that two films would dominate. The King and I and Around the World in 80 Days won the two different Best Music categories*. Alfred Hitchock's The Man Who Knew Too Much picked up the other music award for the classic original song "Que Sera Sera." The King and I won the Best Sound Recording category. The visual technical categories were also between the two front-runners, both competing in the color categories. The King and I won Best Art Direction and Costume Design while Around the World in 80 Days won Best Cinematography. It also captured the crucial Best Editing Oscar. On the Black and White side, Somebody Up There Likes Me won Best Cinematography and Art Direction while The Solid Gold Cadillac won Best Costume Design. The Ten Commandments won Best Special Effects.

*The Oscar for Around the World in 80 Days went to Victor Young, who finally won after 20 previous losses. I'm pretty sure he holds the record for most losses before his first win, a record that Kevin O'Connell would tie or break if he ever wins an Oscar. Unfortunately, he was not around to enjoy the honor that had been denied him for so long, because he died of a stroke after the film's release but before the Oscar ceremony. Life is cruel.

1956 was the last year where there were three writing categories. The old standard Best Original and Adapted Screenplay were there, but also one for Best Motion Picture Story. I have no idea what's the difference between Original Screenplay and Motion Picture Story. I mean, one is about the story and the other is about the screenplay. You'd think there would be some overlap between the two, but there isn't. Oh well. The very last Oscar for Best Story went to nobody for The Brave One because the writer was Dalton Trumbo who was blacklisted at the time. Best Original Screenplay went to The Red Balloon, as I once said the only time a short film won a writing Oscar, but it was not nominated for Best Short Subject. Around the World in 80 Days had another crucial win with a Best Adapted Screenplay win.

1956 was the first year of a competitive Best Foreign Language Film category after years of giving worthy foreign films an honorary Oscar. I know that I've neglected talking about this category in the past, but it's worth talking about here. The very first competitive winner was the Federico Fellini tragedy La Strada.*

*La Strada was originally released in 1954. Another highly acclaimed foreign film released in 1954 was nominated for Best Black and White Art Direction and Costume Design, but it was not nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, because the country chose to submit a different film. The neglected film was Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Kon Ichikawa's The Burmese Harp was submitted in its stead. It received a nomination but lost the award.

The King and I received a boost when veteran actor Yul Brynner won the Best Actor Oscar for his role of the King of Siam. However, his co-star Deborah Kerr was not able to duplicate the success in the Best Actress category, losing to Ingrid Bergman for Anastasia. Best Supporting Actor went to Anthony Quinn for Lust of Life, while Best Supporting Actress went to Dorothy Malone for Written on the Wind. Still, with the Best Actor win The King and I went into the final categories leading with five wins over Around the World in 80 Days's four. Even though Around the World had captured the crucial award in Best Editing and Best Adapted Screenplay, The King and I could put a stake in its chances with a win in the Best Director category. Surprisingly, the Best Director Oscar went instead to George Stevens for Giant, the film that had the most nominations but lost eight of them. And then Around the World in 80 Days was announced as Best Picture.

In a sign of how diverse the competition was, the six major awards (acting categories + Best Director + Best Picture - these are the categories recorded in the World Almanac) went to six different films. It was only the second time that has ever happened, following 1952. It would be another 49 years before it would happen again in 2005, and it happened for a fourth time this past year.

However, there was another piece of Oscar history being made this year, one that happening inside the Best Animated Short category. It would be something that may never happen again.

Gerald McBoing!Boing! on Planet Moo
One day, Gerald McBoing!Boing! the noise making boy was out making new friends (because friendship is magic) when all of a sudden an unidentified flying object came flying down and abducted poor Gerald. The flying saucer turned out to be from Planet Moo, an English-speaking planet-nation under some dire financial straits. The King of Moo plans to appeal to Earth to restart the economy through tourism. However, the King had to sell his crown to finance the return trip, and there's the problem that the two countries don't speak the same language. Gerald McBoing!Boing! is one of the two most popular mascot characters from the United Productions of America (UPA) Studios. He was based off of a short story by Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel, and his debut film in 1950 put the studios on the map in a huge way. Gerald's unique characteristic is his ability to faithfully reproduce sound effects instead of talking. The success of the first film led to a television show and three more theatrical shorts. Planet Moo is the last of these and has the most drastic departure. For one thing it abandons the Seussian rhyme scheme of the previous films. Next, Gerald is a secondary character at best, as it focuses primarily on the troubles of the King of Moo and his loyal second in command Murdock. Planet Moo has come under a lot of criticism from animation historians for these reasons. I personally think that while it doesn't break new grounds or come close to matching up with the original Gerald McBoing!Boing!, Planet Moo is a decent film in itself. The story touches upon some surprisingly deep topics such as the importance of communication, especially in the realm of international relationship and the reliance of tangible goods on a title. Yes, there are discrepancies, especially in the Planet Moo's plans. Seriously, why kidnap Gerald in the first place if you don't have enough fuel for two trips? And considering the film establishes that Earth knows about the existence of Planet Moo but don't have the technology to get there, Planet Moo would probably be waiting forever. Oh well. Planet Moo would never go down as one of UPA's best, but it is a better film than what most people give them credit for.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Jaywalker
Milton Muffet is a rather average individual with an unusual way of life. He is addicted to the act of jaywalking. He was once a salaryman, but once he discovered the thrill of being a bad pedestrian he decided to make jaywalking his entire life. However, he quickly found out that to be a successful jaywalker one must have the utmost confidence in his own abilities, even if the cops and the judge tries to keep him down. He shares some of his jaywalking tips just in case you want to be a professional jaywalker too. The Jaywalker is one of UPA's later films. It plays out as a sort of mockumentary of the life of a thrill-seeking individual whose source of thrills is something that is quite common to the people of the 1950s and even today: the act of walking across the street. Unfortunately it doesn't attempt to get into the psychology of thrill-seekers, which would actually be a compelling study. Instead, the psychologist is portrayed as somebody that regurgitates the obvious solution without getting to the heart of the problem. The film instead plays out as something more similar to Rembrandt Films's How to Avoid Friendship and Self Defense...for Cowards, and you know how well those turned out. It also doesn't help that Milton Muffet, the one-shot character created for this short, is absolutely annoying. He does exude confidence, which is his catchphrase, but his mannerisms from his confidence makes him arrogant and unlikeable. He's also got an annoyingly nasal voice. If there's anything redeemable about this film it's the design. I didn't really notice it when I watched it the first time on a VHS transfer, but it became very obvious when watching it in the crisp and clear image on the Jolly Frolics DVD. The entire film is done against a black background, and that can lead to many shots where the headlights of cars is expressed as just circles. Milton's excitement after discovering the thrill of jaywalking is also expressed through a Jackson Pollock-like image shaking under a camera. Unfortunately, the film's visual panache can't quite overcome my dislike of the Milton Muffet character.
Where Can I Watch It?
It is on YouTube, but it's the low quality version. I do highly recommend getting the Jolly Frolics DVD so you can watch it in much better quality and appreciate the film's design.

Magoo's Puddle Jumper
The severely near-sighted Mr. Magoo is out to buy a new car, but his nephew Waldo is not too pleased at the choice of an old Baker electric vehicle. Magoo takes it onto the road with Waldo in the backseat, but his terrible driving skills eventually led him to be followed by a traffic cop. However, Magoo is able to get away by taking the puddle jumper into a real puddle: the sea. What sort of misadventures would Magoo and Waldo experience when they think they're just driving in the rain? Mr. Magoo is the other major mascot character from UPA, and one that remains popular today even if Walt Disney tried to destroy his legacy with their ill-fated live action adaptation starring the late Leslie Nielsen. Magoo is an old eccentric millionaire who is too blind to see anything and too proud to admit that he has a problem, and gets into all sorts of misadventures through that combination. He starred in numerous theatrical cartoons between 1949-1959, and had many television appearances, including the famous Mr. Magoo' Christmas Carol. I first watched Mr. Magoo cartoons in one of my trips to Taiwan in 1995, but I must not have watched this one, because this one is not very funny at all. Oh, it follows the Mr. Magoo formula. Magoo drives into the sea and mistakes sea creatures for things you see on the road. It's just not very funny, mostly due to the fact that it doesn't set itself up for a lot of slapstick like in other Magoo shorts I've seen. Instead Magoo is just sitting in his car with Waldo commenting on things like new car design or the condition of a mansion named after Magoo's voice actor. This sort of comedy works, which is why Mystery Science Theater 3000 is so popular, but not in this case, mostly because Magoo's commentary isn't that funny. And even though Waldo is usually portrayed as being dim-witted, you'd think he'd be able to tell that they're in the sea. There is nothing really special about the design or the voice acting. Clearly Magoo's Puddle Jumper is not really the peak of the Mr. Magoo films.
Where Can I Watch It?

So we have three nominees, all of them having been made by the legendary UPA studios. This is still the only time where all three nominees are from the same studio, and considering many of the nominees nowadays are independent or foreign productions, it's safe to say that this is something that will never be duplicated. Unfortunately, none of these three films rank as among the best in the UPA library. I'd say Gerald McBoing!Boing! on Planet Moo is the best of the bunch, being a satirical look at international relations, but it's got a lot of detractors from being such a departure from the other Gerald McBoing!Boing! films. The Jaywalker has good design but an annoying anti-hero. And Magoo's Puddle Jumper is just mediocre. The Academy enjoyed it enough and awarded it the Oscar, but I'd still say that it is one of the worst films to have won the Oscar. But in this relatively weak year of nominees you don't really have much alternatives. Now, it may be a different story if the Academy chose to nominate Disney's In the Bag, Warner Bros.'s Barbary Coast Bunny or MGM's Blue Cat Blues.

My rankings (by quality)
Gerald McBoing!Boing! on Planet Moo > The Jaywalker > Magoo's Puddle Jumper

My rankings (by preference)
Gerald McBoing!Boing! on Planet Moo > Magoo's Puddle Jumper > The Jaywalker


  1. It's an all UPA THREE-FOR-ALL here!

    It's nice seeing copies these days in their original aspect ratio, in the past, I once saw it on a tape that had to compress the entire screen to fit in a 4:3 ratio (basically this is leaving the film "unSCOPED" if you were, still better than pan & scan I suppose, but it was tough getting use to skinnier people).

    "One day, Gerald McBoing!Boing! the noise making boy was out making new friends (because friendship is magic)"

    Not too bad when your titular hero can be classifed as "special" by today's standards (still thinking about Derpy and Hasbro's loss there). It's nice to know you enjoyed it for what the message the story conveys certainly, as I saw from it as well. Obviously it wasn't going to be the same as before (the fact that it's in a wider aspect ratio also gives it away).

    "Seriously, why kidnap Gerald in the first place if you don't have enough fuel for two trips? And considering the film establishes that Earth knows about the existence of Planet Moo but don't have the technology to get there, Planet Moo would probably be waiting forever"

    The things I don't think about while watching cartoons, but yeah, that is something to think about. I suppose given the way the cartoon ends, the Earth might not in that big of a hurry to get there anytime sooner.

    One thing that does still exists in this film as in the others if the way Gerald and the other Earthlings are presented in that approach where their skin color appears to reflect the general scheme in the background, such as in how it shifts from scene to scene to match said background. Even though the backgrounds here are probably the most busiest with it's details, especially outer space with what I jokingly refer to as a bored Geometry student's notebook effort. Earlier McBoing Boing cartoons wouldn't be this detailed so be prepared for that!

    "The film instead plays out as something more similar to Rembrandt Films's How to Avoid Friendship and Self Defense...for Cowards, and you know how well those turned out."

    In other words, going for comedy without room for critical analysis or thinking amongst the viewers. Something the NFB would do well in films like "The Drag".

    I also dig the use of black in this short, but can also see how annoying this character is. Besides being the only short he's in, at least going by it's conclusion, it's nice to know we'll never see anymore of his Jaywalking in the mortal realm!

    "Mr. Magoo is the other major mascot character from UPA, and one that remains popular today even if Walt Disney tried to destroy his legacy with their ill-fated live action adaptation starring the late Leslie Nielsen."
    There were plenty of factions that conspired to soil the name of Magoo forever, such as "Kung Fu Magoo". The less said about that one, the better!

    "Clearly Magoo's Puddle Jumper is not really the peak of the Mr. Magoo films."

    You also wonder why it won the Oscar at all? The earlier "When Magoo Flew" still holds my interest well, but I'll have to wait for your critique on that one! It seems like 1956 wasn't a good year for the shorts that time, if only they had let a couple more in the nominations.

  2. By the way, here's Stephen Bosustow haming it up on stage!