Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1949

I love my grandma. At 91 she has been through so much, from the Sino-Japanese War to the Chinese Civil War and eventual exile to Taiwan, but she is still sharp and optimistic. I enjoy listening to her stories about growing up in China in the 1920s and 1930s, about her mischievous adventures with her older brother*, and the embarrassing story involving my dad and aunts. Of course, she also had some difficult stories, such as stories involving Japanese brutality or the difficult times in the post-war Shanghai. One of the most haunting stories was how she was at the bedside of my great-grandmother when she passed away. In my sheltered existence it's hard to imagine how difficult it must have been. My grandma was only 27. She had just fled to Taiwan, and now she was watching her mother-in-law-to-be die in front of her eyes. The moment is still sharp in her memory, especially since she recently observed that two of her children had lived to be 60, which was how old my great-grandmother was at her passing.

*Most of her tales were involved middle brother, four years her senior. She also had an eldest brother that was nine years older. She usually held him in higher regard because he was so much older and more mature than her. I am nine years older than my youngest sister. I wonder what sort of stories she will tell her grandchildren when she is 91. How I am obsessed with a cartoon pony? How much of a baseball fan I was? Gosh, what would people think about animation like My Little Pony in 2085? And how many 300 game winners would there be by then? Sometimes I wish to have a time machine like in Doraemon to figure out the answers to these questions.

Gee...that's some heavy stuff. Why am I telling you all this? Because that happened in 1949. Yeah...let's move on to the Oscars.

Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is one of the seminal works in American literature. The cautionary tale of the corrupting force of politics was lauded and won a Pulitzer Prize. It was made into a film in 1949 that gained critical and commercial success. It received seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, alongside Battleground (six nominations), The Heiress (eight nominations), A Letter to Three Wives (three nominations), and Twelve O'Clock High (four nominations). All but the latter were nominated for Best Director, with Twelve O'Clock High's spot taken by Sir Carol Reed for The Fallen Idol.

When Oscar night came The Heiress took home the Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy) Oscar. Best Music (Musical) went to On the Town and the wintertime standard "Baby It's Cold Outside" won Best Original Song for Neptune's Daughter. Twelve O'Clock High won Best Sound Recording. The Heiress continued its winning ways into the visual technicals, winning for Black and White Costume Design and Art Direction. Battleground won the Cinematography award, though. The Color awards went to She Wore a Yellow Ribbon for Cinematography, Little Women for Art Direction, and Adventures of Don Juan for Costume Design. Best Editing went to the boxing film Champion, and the original Mighty Joe Young won Best Special Effects. For the writing awards, Battleground won Best Story and Screenplay. A Letter to Three Wives won Best Screenplay. And The Stratton Story, the inspirational story of pitcher Monty Stratton and his recovery from a hunting accident that required amputation of his leg, won Best Story. It was the last time any baseball film had won an Oscar.

Up to that point All the King's Men hadn't had any success. It was nominated for two technical awards but lost both of them. Yet all was not lost since most of its nominations were in the acting categories. And that turned out to be where their luck started to turn. Mercedes McCambridge took home Best Supporting Actress for her role as the gruff campaign assistant. Deuteragonist John Ireland lost Best Supporting Actor to Dean Jagger for Twelve O'Clock High, but Broderick Crawford took home Best Actor as the central character of Willie Stark. Meanwhile, Olivia de Havilland won Best Actress for haunting role in The Heiress. It was her second Oscar, and the fourth of the night for The Heiress. No other film had won more than two. But then Joseph L. Mankiewicz won Best Director for A Letter to Three Wives, and that made the Best Picture race a real mess. The Heiress still led in wins. A Letter to Three Wives may have been nominated only three times, but it's won two of the nominations and could cap off a three for three night. But then the actors branch is the biggest in the Academy, and All the King's Men did have those two acting wins. And there were still Battleground and Twelve O'Clock High.

In the end Best Picture went to All the King's Men. Actors still rule.

Of course the thrilling Best Picture race couldn't match up to the controversy that was found in the Best Animated Short category. What could the controversy have been about? Let's check out the nominees first.

For Scent-imental Reasons
It is a beautiful morning in Paris. People are getting ready to start the day. However, the monsieur that owns the perfume store walks into his store with a rude surprise. A skunk they call LePew has broken into his shop and is now having his way with the store' wares. A call to the police turned out empty. Feeling hopeless, the owner comes across a wild pussy cat. With no other choice, he tosses her in, hoping that she'd take care of the fiend. However, LePew falls in love with the kitty, believing her to be another skunk. Can the cat escape from his naueating presence? Pepe LePew is without a doubt my sister's most hated Warner Bros. character. She despises his vanity and his lack of sensitivity for others. If she can have her way then Pepe LePew would become sensitive to the pain that he causes others, have his mouth sewn shut, and forced to die a slow and painful death. I don't hate the guy as much as she does, but I do find that his antics get annoying. With that said, however, I do think that For Scent-imental Reasons has some redeeming value even if it is his debut film. I like Chuck Jones's interpretation of French culture in the Pepe LePew films, especially how they add the word "le" to as many words as they can. The physical reaction to the characters at their sight of LePew is funny as well. The best part of this film is the scene where LePew is trying to speak to his lover hiding in the sound-proof room. The film is cut in a way where the dialogue is done with only sound effects. It's funny to see LePew freak out without sound. And then there's the controversial suicide scene where LePew puts a gun to the head. Suicide is no joke and as a result that scene often gets cut, but I find it hilarious. Probably because I don't really care for the character. I know my sister would say she hoped the cat didn't rush out the way she did. Then they can be rid of the guy forever. The Pepe LePew formula does get old quickly, but at small doses it still remains somewhat amusing, like in For Scent-imental Reasons.
Where Can I Watch It?
Here it is, courtesy of the official Looney Tunes channel operated by Warner Bros. so you know it won't get taken down, unless of course they decide to become arseholes again.

Hatch Up Your Troubles
It's a beautiful spring morning. A mama woodpecker is knitting a sweater for her hatchling that is about to hatch. She goes off to lunch, but then the egg begins to move. It rolls out of the nest, into Jerry's house, and underneath him as he was sleeping. He notices the egg right when the baby bird hatches. The baby bird instinctively begins pecking through everything that is wood looking for insects to eat. Jerry is unable to live with the pest and returns the baby bird to the nest. However, the baby bird thinks that Jerry is it mother. What is it to do, especially after it runs into Tom? As if you couldn't tell, Hatch Up Your Troubles is a film in the Tom and Jerry series. The hook in this film is the introduction of the baby woodpecker. I suppose it's not that unique. The series had introduced a companion for Jerry in the past in Nibbles, the little baby mouse whose voracious appetite caused Jerry some problems, but turns out to save the day when Jerry gets in trouble. The premise is pretty much the same. The baby woodpecker is troublesome for Jerry in its constant desire to peck things. The destructive nature of the woodpecker's pecks are exaggerated much in the same way that termites are portrayed in animation, but it's a good way for some visual and situational gags. The woodpecker actually does more to help Jerry by destroying everything wooden that Tom throw at them, and it's interesting to see how the woodpecker helps. The climax is when the woodpecker has to do a complicated math problem using just his sight. It's highly unrealistic considering the woodpecker is less than ten years old, but that's the way cartoons work. Hatch Up Your Troubles isn't the most original work, but it's got its merits. And when has originality been Tom and Jerry's strong suit?
Where Can I Watch It?

The Magic Fluke
Lips Fox and Crawford Crow were performers at various supper clubs, with Lips serving as conductors and Crawford playing the music as a one man band. One night Lips Fox got a message that he was hired to be the new conductor of the symphony orchestra. He went on, leaving poor Crawford behind. One night Crawford himself at the hall where the symphony was performing. However, Lips didn't have a baton. Wanting to help his old friend, Crawford took a baton he found in a neighboring theater. Little did he know the baton was a magic wand in a magic act. What antics would ensue? The Fox and Crow are mostly forgotten now, but back in the 1940s they were the premiere mascot characters of Columbia Studios. They were created by former Warner Bros. animation director Frank Taschlin when he was working with Screen Gems. Screen Gems eventually shut down, so Columbia signed a contract with another up and coming studio to produce three new Fox and Crow films. The Magic Fluke was the second of these films. The premise of the film involving a magic wand wreaking havoc on a musical performance is very similar to that of what Tex Avery did for MGM in Musical Maestro. The Magic Fluke may not have had the frantic comedic timing of Avery's work, but it does have several excellent visual gags. And the use of familiar "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" that was featured in so many cartoons is an added bonus. Of course the magic wand sequence only takes up two minutes in a six minute film. The rest of focuses on Crawford's despair at having been abandoned by Lips. The exploration of the conflict between his friend's betrayal at his continued loyalty is what makes the film really interesting. The animation is a little bit more limited but stylistic than what was the norm at the time, with background characters appearing like caricatures. But that's not a surprise considering the studio that won the Fox and Crow contract was none other than John Hubley's United Productions of America (UPA).
Where Can I Watch It?
There's no DVD rip from the Jolly Frolics DVD set online yet, so here's a lower quality version from Cartoon Network.

Toy Tinkers
It's a beautiful Christmas eve, and the chipmunks Chip and Dale were spending it hibernating in a log. However, they were woken up by a loud thumping noise. It turned out to be Donald Duck chopping down a small evergreen tree. They follow him to his cabin, where they see a massive pile of nuts and candy. They sneak in to take the nuts for their food pile, but then they were caught by Donald, is not too happy at their thieving ways. He captures them but they eventually escape, and soon all out war breaks out. Who will end up victorious? Donald Duck is one of the most popular Disney characters. His mischievous nature and his short fuse made for some comedy gold, which explains why he's been in more theatrical shorts than any other Disney characters. He has the ability to lose his temper at any little thing, but in order to expedite the process Disney came up with other characters to help him along his way. The most popular are perhaps the chipmunk duo of Chip and Dale. Their nut gathering ways and general adorableness made them a constant thorn in Donald's side. Toy Tinkers is perhaps their best collaboration. The Christmas setting allows for some excellent gags involving toys, from using toy trucks and trains to transport nuts to the crazy sequence with Dale marching down with his top hat and cane. That part was weird but strangely delightful. There were other great moments from Donald's Santa trick turning the two against each other, and the entire war sequence. Toy Tinkers has enough gags and madcap action to cover two films, and that's what makes it such a good film.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, these are the four official nominees from 1949. They're all very interesting films, but for me the two that stand out are The Magic Fluke and Toy Tinkers. The Magic Fluke has the entire subplot involving Crawford's internal conflict that makes it interesting, and Toy Tinkers is just an all and all delight. I think I'm going to have to go with Toy Tinkers just because it's something that I grew up on. But the Academy went with For Scent-imental Reasons, which isn't a bad choice. It just irks my sister that Pepe LePew is an Oscar winner. Oh well.

And the controversy that surrounded this year's Oscar race? Well, it isn't involving what was nominated, but what was NOT nominated. You'll have to stay tuned for the post that is coming up on Saturday.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
Toy Tinkers > The Magic Fluke > For Scent-imental Reasons > Hatch Up Your Troubles 

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