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
Where Can I Watch It?
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
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