Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1951

So sad that my post earlier this week about Rainbow Dash being awesome got more than four times the views than any of my other posts. That's what I get for posting it on Reddit. Maybe I should do it for my reviews. Hmm...

Anyways, here we are now at the year 1951. That year is significant because it featured the debuts of two of baseball's biggest and brightest stars: Willie Mays, and my favorite player growing up Mickey Mantle. Both of them were highly touted rookies, although they both struggled a little bit out of the gate. Mays famously went hitless in his first three games before blasting a home run off of Warren Spahn. He recovered to hit .274/.356/.472 and won the Rookie of the Year award. Mantle's story is even more famous. He was completely lost at the plate (although still hitting .260/.341/.423 but with 52 strikeouts in an era where strikeouts were shameful) so he was sent down to AAA Kansas City, where he continued to stink it up and threatened to quit. Then his father, dying of cancer, drove up from Oklahoma to bring his disgraceful son back home where he can hide in shame in the mines for the rest of his life. The incident was a slap in the face for Mantle, and he strove to continue on. He made it back to the majors and put up respectable numbers, although the Rookie of the Year award went to his teammate Gil McDougald. Then the two spent the next 15 years terrorizing pitchers, putting up legendary feats that would solidify their places in baseball history.

This sort of dual debuts of players that would become superstars are quite rare. There's been a couple of cases where both winners of the Rookie of the Year ended up in the Hall of Fame*, but except for Tom Seaver none of those Hall of Famers really feel like they're in the upper echelons of baseball history. It wasn't until 50 years later that baseball finally had two big stars burst onto the scene at the same time. Albert Pujols overcame his status as a 13th-round draft pick to blast 37 home runs and 130 RBIs, while Ichiro Suzuki came over from Japan to lead the American League in hits and stolen bases while helping his team win a record-tying 116 games. Those two continued to become the biggest stars in baseball until they started breaking down around two years ago. And last year had two very intriguing Rookie of the Year winners: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. We'll see how they'll be remembered 62 years from now. But for now Mantle and Mays are the standard bearers.

*1956: Luis Aparicio and Frank Robinson
1967: Tom Seaver and Rod Carew
1977: Eddie Murray and Andre Dawson

And then there are the Oscars. The Christian epic Quo Vadis was by far the most popular film of the year at the box office, and was awarded with a spot in the Best Picture lineup, although its 8 nominations trailed that of A Streetcar Named Desire (12 nominations, including one in every acting category) and A Place in the Sun (9 nominations) and tied with the musical An American in Paris. Meanwhile, way in the distance with only two nominations was Decision Before Dawn, the last Best Picture nominated film with two nominations until Four Weddings and a Funeral 43 years later. Neither Quo Vadis nor Decision Before Dawn received Best Director nominations, with the spots going instead to William Wyler for Detective Story and John Huston for The African Queen.

Things continued to go downhill for Quo Vadis. It lost the Best Score (Dramatic/Comedy) award to A Place in the Sun, while An American in Paris captured it for Best Score (Musical). The utterly random "In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening" won Best Original Song for Here Comes the Groom while the biographical film The Great Caruso won Best Sound. An American in Paris swept the Color technical awards, while A Place in the Sun almost did the same in the Black and White side, losing only Art Direction to A Streetcar Named Desire. It did win Best Editing, defeating Decision Before Dawn in its only other nomination. The sci-fi film When Worlds Collide won Best Special Effects unopposed. An American in Paris and A Place in the Sun won the Best Writing (Story and Screenplay) and Best Writing (Screenplay) awards respectively, while the Best Story award went to the atomic bomb thriller Seven Days to Noon.

So far Quo Vadis was 0 for 5, but it had two nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, so there was some hope that it wouldn't go home empty handed. Alas, the Oscar went to the late Karl Malden for A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact it went on to win Best Supporting Actress for Kim Hunter and Best Actress for Vivien Leigh. It seemed poised to win an Oscar for the dynamic young star Marlon Brando to become the first film to win all four acting categories. Alas, the Academy saw fit to award the single greatest movie star of all time (according to the AFI), Humphrey Bogart, with his role in The African Queen.

So while the box office hit Quo Vadis was well out of it, this was a real race with three of the films that the AFI would name as among the 100 best. A Streetcar Named Desire had four wins after doing some major damage in the acting categories, while A Place in the Sun and An American in Paris had five each. It all came down to the Best Director category. And when George Steven won for A Place in the Sun it seemed like the race was all but over. The American tragedy had won Best Director and Best Editing, and it featured a young and handsome Montgomery Clift alongside the fiery hot Elizabeth Taylor. Then to the surprise of all An American in Paris was announced as Best Picture. I suppose it may not have been that much of a surprise. An American in Paris was as uplifting and visual as A Place in the Sun was down and depressing. Sure I found it the most boring Best Picture winner ever, but it's got its legions of fans, just like the three films that were nominated for Best Animated Short.

Lambert the Sheepish Lion
One spring night a flock of sheep was visited by a stork who was there to deliver the latest batch of spring lamb. The new lambs rush to find their new mothers, but there was one ewe with the most unusual offspring, for in the bundle there was a lion cub named Lambert mixed up in with the crowd. It soon became clear that Lambert was different, and so he became the butt of the other lambs' jokes. He takes it with a grin, even as he grew up. However, one night a hungry wolf happens upon the sheep crowd, and it is up to the sheepish Lambert to to save the day. Does he have it in him? I first heard, well, read about Lambert in a children's magazine in Taiwan (I miss Taiwan) that featured a comic adaptation of the story. Unfortunately it ended on a cliffhanger right when the wolf appeared. It wasn't until I saw the film that I realized it was based off of a Disney film. And it wasn't until I started following the Best Animated Short category that I realized it was based off of an Oscar-nominated Disney film. But here it is. I thought it was an adorable little film the first time I saw it, and it still is. The lambs are animated with a joyful bounce that makes me feel guilty for liking lamb chops. And little Lambert is even cuter as he does things like cuddle with his new mommy and head butt his new brothers. The song they sing is catchy but quite pleasant. The narration by Sterling Holloway gives it a homely feel, not to mention the excellent voicework by June Foray as the other sheep. However, beneath all of that saccharine sweetness is a surprisingly deep story about accepting those that are different and believing in yourself. Bullying is a tragic part of today's society, and it was present in this film as he is bullied mercilessly for not being a sheep. While Lambert has a happy ending there are those out there that are driven to suicide because of incessant buillying. It's a major issue that must be dealt with, but unfortunately it may never be eradicated. Still perhaps Lambert can be revived in schools for its anti-bullying and accepting message. Not bad for a cute film from Disney.
Where Can I Watch It?

Rooty Toot Toot
"Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts. What a couple in love, oh love. As the story goes true to each other, just as true as the stars above. He was a man, but he done wrong. Johnny stepped out on Frankie, though they were sworn they'd wed. A rooty toot toot, and Johnny wound up dead." Now the question was whether or not Frankie did the shooting. The testimonies of the bartender of the bar where the shooting occur and the woman that Johnny was with painted a dark picture for Frankie. However, she had Honest John as her defense attorney. Can she be proven not guilty? Even though the first time I heard of "Frankie and Johnny" was in trailers for the 1991 film starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer, it was in actuality a popular song from the turn of the 20th century. There are several variations, but most of it involved Frankie shooting Johnny just because he done her wrong. It later became the basis of one of John Hubley's greatest films, Rooty Toot Toot. This film focuses on the trial aspect of Frankie's sordid tale, one that was usually given very little mention in the various versions of the song. It follows the tendencies of most courtroom dramas, focused on testimonies on the events that occurred. In that way it kind of has a Rashomon feel to it. What makes Rooty Toot Toot such a fascinating film is its combination of music and art. The entire trial is set to music, with the judge beating the gavel in tempo and the people in the court mostly singing their testimonies. Furthermore, the film has plenty of the simple animation style that has come to define both UPA and Hubley in his independent films. The character design are all done in a very exaggerated fashion to highlight their characterization. For example the sultry Nelly Bly has limbs that fold in on itself to exude a feel of sexiness. Similarly, the layout and the color scheme are all done in a way that establishes the mood. Joyous rapture is presented as red. Nelly Bly's cool sexiness is presented in blue. While Frankie's purity is displayed as white. And more importantly for me, I like how even though we all know that Frankie is borderline and she did it, she is presented as being a quite likable character that you want to see her get away with it. At least that's the case for me. No matter what, Rooty Toot Toot is a highly-charged and very entertaining musical short that counts as one of UPA's best.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Two Mouseketeers
Jerry and Nibbles are two of the mouse king's mouseketeers, and they wander around the streets of Paris looking for crime to fight. Until they get hungry, after which they go looking for feasts to plunder. And they find one in a hall somewhere, one that Tom is instructed to guard at all costs, with threat of execution being the result if he fails. Nevertheless two get at the lavish banquet, but they attract the attention of Tom, who is none too happy with their presence. Can he fight them off, or is he going to lose his life? By 1951 Tom and Jerry were among the most popular characters in animated short films. Still, there was still room for them to add to their popularity, which occurred with the release of The Two Mouseketeers. With this film their vicious battle was taken from the suburban setting to 17th or 18th century France. Instead of fighting with modern weaponry they battle with epees. And instead of going mostly speechless, young Nibbles gained the ability to speak French. Unfortunately, those are just about the main highlights of The Two Mouseketeers. The rest of the film is standard Tom and Jerry fare, focused on slapstick and visual gags, most of them centered around food. The lack of any originality is forgivable, but the gags just aren't funny. They mostly center around food getting destroyed in non-funny ways, such as Jerry wading through a dish of what looks like mashed potato and Tom making a kebob and eating it. Furthermore, much of the film features Tom and Jerry battling with their swords, which was probably exciting and exotic for those audiences from 1951 but kind of boring in 2013. And the ending is just blah. Still, the French-speaking Nibbles won the hearts of viewers everywhere and The Two Mouseketeers became a smashing success, leading to four more films in the Tom and Jerry mouseketeer series, including the far superior Touche, Pussy Cat three years later.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's been harder to find good copies of Tom and Jerry films since Warner Bros. acquired the license, since they're pretty active in removing copies from YouTube. Here's the film on DailyMotion, but in case it gets removed you can find it on several DVD collections, including the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection.

Well, those were the three nominees. I'm sure it's pretty clear which of the three I didn't care for, but I'm sure you can also tell from the title screen at the beginning which film went on to win the Oscar. Yes, French-speaking Nibbles charmed even the Oscar voters and they showered him with Tom and Jerry's sixth Oscar win. Almost 60 years later it was named as one of the Unforgivable Animation Oscar Moments by Amid Amidi. While I disagreed with his choice for including the 1952 Oscars two weeks ago, I'm inclined to agree with him this time. Why award an unfunny, mostly unoriginal film when Rooty Toot Toot was superior in its story and storytelling? Heck, even Lambert the Sheepish Lion had a better story that was presented better. But nope, French-speaking Nibbles tops all. If he had appeared the year before against Gerald McBoingBoing, one of the most influential films of all time, I'm sure he would have won.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
Rooty Toot Toot > Lambert the Sheepish Lion > The Two Mouseketeers


    "I first heard, well, read about Lambert in a children's magazine in Taiwan (I miss Taiwan)"

    Well you know, if it isn't made in China, then it has to be either Taiwan or Hong Kong (this is a joke really, but is something we Americans had to become accustomed to).

    "Still perhaps Lambert can be revived in schools for its anti-bullying and accepting message. Not bad for a cute film from Disney."

    I do recall watching a filmstrip version of this in school myself. Looking back, I think the thing I liked in the film is that Lambert's original destination was "South Africa" and not simply "Africa" as is always the case in these shows that lump all of the African continent as one single country or entity. It's nice to be a little specific once in a while.

    This was one of John Hubley's defining moments at UPA. Everything he wanted to do came down with this film and sadly it would be one of his last there as he was eventually blacklisted from Hollywood during the Red Scare tactics of the era, later to emerge in the indie world of film and TV commercials.

    Weird really thinking they managed to churn out several more of the same premise here (of course there's also 1958's "Robin Hoodwinked" with Nibbles speaking with a British accent). Seemed like by the 1950's there was a lot more secondary characters showing up in these shorts just so they could have that one voice to contend with or further the plot along (be it Nibbles in this film, that duckling in another or a housewife once they got rid of "Mammy Two-Shoes").

  2. Excellent as always, but one small correction:

    "With only two nominations was Decision Before Dawn, the last Best Picture nominated film in the 5-nominee era with only two nominations."

    Actually Four Weddings and a Funeral holds that distinction.

    1. And I had to watch a VCD of that years back I picked up once.