Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1944

Aah! It's July 31, which means that not only is it the 23rd anniversary of Nolan Ryan's 300th win, but it's also the first anniversary of my epic drive from Texas to Virginia, my first of six marathon drives of at least 12 hours with no more than one hour break in the middle at one time. I've never come close to driving that long before so my memories of that night and day is pretty well implanted in my mind. It's hard to believe that a year has passed since then. You can enjoy my live blog of the drive.

Anyways, back to where we were. It was 1944 and war was raging in the east and in the west. So many young men in the prime of their lives were being sent to Europe and Africa and Asia to die in the name of freedom. On June 6, 1944, the Allied nations landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the reclamation of western Europe from Germany. Despite the loss of over 12,000 troops - that's 12,000 young men who would forever lose conscious even as time stretches on for a googleplex years - it was still a successful landing that eventually lead to the end of the war.

Meanwhile, while young men were out their losing their lives while fighting for the Allied way, citizens in the United States were still able to enjoy forms of entertainment, including baseball and film.

American citizens found solace in the warm voice of Harry Lillis Crosby, better known by his nickname of "Bing." He was the top singer of the 1930s and 1940s, and this success followed him into an illustrious film career. He was a top box office draw, whether it was starring with Bob Hope in the Road to films or in his many musicals like Holiday Inn and White Christmas. In 1944 he had perhaps his greatest success. That year he made Going My Way, where he played a priest whose liberal ways frustrate the elder pastor. The film was a hit, and when Oscar nominations were announced it had 10 nominations, tied with the Woody Wilson biopic Wilson for tops. The rest went to the Billy Wilder epic Double Indemnity (seven nominations), Gaslight (seven nominations), and Since You Went Away (eight nominations). Of those Since You Went Away and Gaslight went without Best Director nominations, which went instead to Alfred Hitchcock for Lifeboat and Otto Preminger for the film noir Laura.

Once again the Academy had no limits for nominees in some of the technical awards. Cover Girl beat out 13 other films to win Best Music (Musical) while Going My Way won Best Original Song for "Swinging on a Star" over 11 other songs. However, Since You Went Away had the most significant win as it beat out 19 other nominees to win Best Music (Comedy/Drama). Wilson won Best Sound over 10 other films. In the visual technicals, Wilson won Best Color Cinematography in a field of six while Laura had to beat out nine others to win the Black and White category. Wilson also won Best Color Art Direction over six other films while Gaslight won the Black/White category in a field of eight. The thrilling war film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo won Best Special Effects in a field of seven, while Wilson won Best Editing in a traditional five-nominee category. Wilson won a writing Oscar with its win in Best Original Screenplay, while Going My Way won the other two: Best Screenplay and Best Original Story.

The acting categories in 1944 had a very unique, once-in-a-lifetime milestone. Back in the day voters for nominations could cast their ballots for an actor in either the leading or supporting category. Usually the distinction is pretty clear, but that wasn't always the case. Take Barry Fitzgerald. His role as the conservative Father Fitzgibbon in Going My Way was very popular, but people were divided as to whether it was leading or supporting. When the ballots were totaled it turned out he had enough votes to be nominated for both! The Academy was quite surprised but decided not to rescind one of Fitzgerald's nomination, but they changed the rules to prevent this from happening again. Fitzgerald must have been thankful that he was not disqualified, as he went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Ethel Barrymore won Best Supporting Actress for None But the Lonely Heart. Ingrid Bergman won Best Actress for her stirring role in Gaslight. And Barry Fitzgerald can make history by capturing both leading and supporting categories for the same performance, but his bid was denied by his co-star Bing Crosby.

Going into the final two awards of the night there were two films that were on top. Going My Way and Wilson had both won five Oscars. They also happened to be the top two highest grossing films of the year. Wilson cleaned up most of the visual technical categories, while Going My Way did well in the acting and writing categories. Which one would come out on top? In the end the Academy decided to go with the musical, as they awarded Leo McCarey the Best Director crown, and then Going My Way took Best Picture, bringing its total to seven, the most since Gone with the Wind won eight five years earlier.

Seven was also the number of nominees there were in the Best Animated Short category. Which of them would go on to take it all? Let's see what they are first.

And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street
Young Marco walks to school. Along the way he thinks about what his father told him, which is to "keep your eyelids up and see what you can see." However along the way he sees nothing more than a horse pulling a broken down wagon on Mulberry Street. He finds this sight much too bland to be a good story, so he decides to spice things up by turning the horse into a zebra and the wagon into a chariot. He begins adding and making things to the story until he's got a story that can't be beat. But will his father believe it? Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel is arguably the most beloved author of children's books in American history. His clever way with words and his appealing illustrations made him very popular over his career that spanned over 50 years. However, before The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who and Green Eggs and Ham and The Lorax and Gerald McBoing!Boing!, Seuss began his career modestly enough with a cute little picture book titled And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street. The book hit the bookshelves in 1937, and the simple little tale about a young boy and his elaborate story soon became a hit. One of the readers was an animation director named George Pal, and he set out to adapt the story for the screen using his Puppetoons. He had already adapted another Dr. Seuss story the year before, and adapting Mulberry Street must have been a cinch in comparison. The film remains loyal to the original story by essentially using the book's text as a script and setting the sights to Puppetoons. The item have the distinct Puppetoons look rather than the familiar illustration style of Dr. Seuss, but it still adds something to see the puppets in motion. Of course, having to stretch out a 770-word story into a seven-minute film would lead to rather slow pacing, but it's fun enough. The film also does well cutting between the Puppetoon animation and live action footage of the young narrator, played by 40s child star Gary Gray. And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street is a good adaptation of the first story of a great American author.
Where Can I Watch It?
I couldn't ever find it online and had to get it from Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research Garage Sale. Of course, he doesn't seem to be offering any Puppetoons anymore, probably because it's going to be released as a special feature on the new Puppetoons Movie blu-ray set along with several other hard to find Puppetoon films.

Dog, Cat, and Canary
Flop the Cat is having a rough time. He is hungry, but can't seem to find any food. His efforts at catching mice, birds, and little rodents end in utter failure, and to top it off the failed prey retaliate in an often painful way. However, Flop sees a happy little canary perched in a cage. There's no way that thing can escape! Unfortunately, the cage was being guarded by a giant sleeping dog. Flop decides to get at the canary using silence as an ally. However, he isn't always successful, but can be get his hands on the meal? Screen Gems is one of the most forgotten studios in the Golden Age of Studio Animation. Jerry Beck called it "the little studio that couldn't." Even Terrytoons, the lowest budget studio managed to outshine Screen Gems thanks to the presence of popular mascot characters Heckle & Jeckle and Mighty Mouse. All Screen Gems had were Scrappy, who folded in 1941, and Fox and the Crow, which had much more success under the direction of UPA and DC Comics. Screen Gems tried their hand at creating new mascot characters but it generally ended in failure. At least one of those mascot characters received an Oscar nomination. Flippy the Canary is a happy go lucky canary that is stalked by Flop the Cat. Thankfully, he is protected by the loyal Sam the Dog. The cat and bird concept predates Sylvester and Tweety by two years, and even throws in a third character. So why is it Warner Bros.'s duo is celebrated today while Flippy and Flop are forgotten? Well, Dog, Cat, and Canary*, their first film, hints at why. The film is actually well done, with a lot of visual and situational gags that are actually quite funny. However, they don't quite reach the absurd comedic heights of Termite Terrace. And the animation, while decent, doesn't quite have the fluidity of the work of Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones. The characters are non-anthropomorphized and don't have the personality of Warner Bros.' mascot characters, and Flop is presented as a somewhat sympathetic character, which makes his inevitable defeat less enjoyable than that of the over-the-top Sylvester. If you don't compare it to Warner Bros. films, Dog, Cat, and Canary is actually a rather enjoyable film, but it invariably pales in comparison to the masters.

*Also known as Sweet Tweets, as it is listed in the opening credits, but the Academy lists the film as as Dog, Cat, and Canary, so that will be how I'll list it.

Where Can I Watch It?

Fish Fry
Andy Panda is taking a nice walk on a beautiful day when he stops to go window shopping at a pet store. He sees a red fish that takes a liking to him, and then decides to buy it for 10 cents. He walks his new friend go walking home when a hungry little alley cat spots the fish. The cat decides to try to capture and eat the fish, who is in a fishbowl perched on Andy's head. He successfully gets the fish, but the fish escapes and thus begins a war of wills between the two. Who will emerge victorious in the conflict? Andy Panda was the first major mascot character created by Walter Lantz* and he enjoyed considerable popularity for a couple of years, but by the early 1940s his fame was supplanted by the pesky little woodpecker that pestered him in Knock Knock. By 1944 his appearances had shrunk and he played a mostly supporting role in his own films in many of them, possibly because of his emerging reputation as a goody two shoes (a quality that led to the reduced appearances of another popular mascot character: Mickey Mouse.) Fish Fry is a perfect example. While the film is introduced as an Andy Panda Cartune, Andy spends almost half the film stuck in a cement mixer. The real meat of the film is the battle between the cat that wants a meal and the fish that just wants to live. Of course, there won't exactly be anything particularly wrong with that if Fish Fry was good, but it doesn't exactly quite reach that level. It's not that Fish Fry is a bad film, but it is incredibly uneven. The film is composed mostly of slapstick, and there are some great ones. I especially like the one where the fish feigns concern for the cat whose finger she just bit, pulls out a first aid kit from which she takes a set of false teeth and bites the cat again. But for every hilarious gag there are several that are just lame. At least the film has decent voice work by character actor Lionel Stander, the original Buzz Buzzard, as the cat. Still, Fish Fry won't go down as one of the best Walter Lantz film.

*It is true that Walter Lantz produced the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts during his height of popularity in the 1930s, but Oswald was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

Where Can I Watch It? 

How to Play Football
Football is an American classic. The rough and tumble derivation of rugby is a sport best played between two opposing colleges, and what better way of showing off the beauty of the game than watching an actual game full of testosterone-laden men pummeling each other into submission. On this day Taxidermy Tech is playing a road game in the home of their bitter rivals the Anthropology A&M. Taxidermy takes an early lead but lets it evaporate. Can they come back, especially after their best player Swivel-Head Smith gets hurt? Goofy was the third of the great Disney mascot characters that starred with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in classic buddy films of the 1930s like Mickey's Trailer, Clock Cleaners, and Lonesome Ghosts. He eventually made a few solo films but by then his voice actor Pinto Colvig had left Disney*. Forced to do without his voice, the studio eventually came to a brilliant solution: put Goofy in mockumentaries about popular sports. This would become Goofy's major niche before settling into his role as a domesticated everyman in films such as Aquamania. These "How to" mockumentaries are full of different varieties of gags, and they all feature a narrator so that they won't miss the departure of Colvig. How to Play Football is perhaps the best of these films. It is chock full of these comedic elements from beginning to end. Every shot is full of some sort of jokes designed to make people laugh, and they range from slapstick to visual gags to situational gags and finally irony. Heck they can even create a joke using audio, as in one scene the narrator explains the rules of football, but is drowned out by the crowd so you can't understand anything. More typical jokes are ones where the narrator says a line that is taken literally, such as having players run into a wall of players when the narrator says "Taxidermy runs into a stone wall." The film also features a staple of some of the later "How to" mockumentaries, in that Goofy becomes a species rather than a particular character, so everybody is a variation of Goofy. At any rate, How to Play Football is a hilarious film and certainly one of the funniest in the Disney series.

*Colvig eventually returned to Disney as a freelance voice actor where he is free to develop the character of Bozo the Clown and play roles such as the Country Wolf  in Tex Avery's Little Rural Riding Hood. He (perhaps deliberately) used the Goofy voice, I always got a kick of hearing the Goofy voice saying "Bring out the babe."

Where Can I Watch It?

Mouse Trouble
The day has finally arrived! The long awaited package is finally here, and Tom the cat excitedly opens it up to reveal: a book! Yes, the latest copy of "How to Catch a Mouse" is here, and Tom can finally rid himself of his annoying arch-nemesis Jerry the Mouse. He follows the various instructions presented in the book hoping to finally get the best Jerry, but every single time Jerry still continues to get the upper edge. Will there ever be a trick in the book that turn out to be successful? Or is he going to have to resort to a last approach? By 1944 Tom and Jerry was a successful franchise with MGM, having gained popularity with fans and the Academy, receiving one Oscar in three nominations. Also by then it has become quite established that no matter what happens there's no way that Tom is ever going to have the upper hand. And then Mouse Trouble arrives to show just how highly the odds are stacked against him. It's a fairly simple gag-based film where Tom tries different strategies to get at Jerry, but those always end in failure because of poor planning, getting outwit by Jerry, or just because the fates are against him. For example, at one point Tom smashes Jerry with the hard-cover book, but when he opens it up again instead of a mess of blood and guts Jerry is just fine. Now that I think of it, it's very similar to the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoons like Beep Prepared, although it predates those films by five years, and the gags are much simpler and funnier. Or maybe it's just because I like Jerry more than Road Runner. Anyways, the gags in Mouse Trouble are quite funny. They're mostly slapstick with occasional visual humor, but they're pretty funny. Highlights include Tom saying "Don't you believe it" after getting his butt kicked by Jerry, and his hiccuping after eating a talking mouse doll. Mouse Trouble is certainly a funny entry in the Tom and Jerry series. 
Where Can I Watch It?

My Boy Johnny
The war overseas finally appears to coming to a close after three long years, and the people are finally looking forward to welcoming home their soldiers, the so-called "Johnnys." As they parachute down from their airplanes their families welcome them home eagerly. However, after they've dedicated their lives to fight for our freedom for so long they cannot settle into their former lives. They must be treated like the heroes they are with the newest appliances and technology. Yes, this is certainly an era of change and innovation. In 1944 the war was still raging over in Europe and Asia, but by then it seem like the Allied was finally starting to gain an advantage with impressive victories in conflicts such as the Battle of Midway and the North African Campaign. Back in the home front studios continued to churn out propaganda films designed to improve morale, and Terrytoons decided to take a bold step by making a film about the return of American GIs following the end of the war. After all, there's nothing better to raise the mood than having viewers look to the future. And looking toward the future is certainly the predominant theme in My Boy Johnny. While there are a few scenes of animal veterans returning home (by parachuting out of an airplane no less), the majority of the film is spent looking at modern or future technology: new assembly lines making new appliances with greatest of ease, new features in homes to make you lazier, and new methods of construction and transportation. Much of the new inventions are quite fantastical and resemble the types of robots in the Donald Duck short Modern Inventions, or the take-copter in Doraemon. The film also addresses the idea of giving benefits such as jobs to the GIs which was eventually put into law with the GI Bill, but it doesn't spend that much time on it. The ideas presented in the the film are certainly creative but it certainly feels very uneven, switching from modern day returning GI scenes to really futuristic scenes, and combining both animal veterans with soldier veterans. And though it's not the main focus, the gags aren't very funny. At least the music, which takes the "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" song with new lyrics, is well done.
Where Can I Watch It?
This was another film that's not available online that I had to get from the Cartoon Research Garage Sale. Thankfully it's still being offered. 

Swooner Crooner
Porky Pig is the manager of the Flockheed Egg Factory, where chickens churn out eggs to the tune of Powerhouse. He prides himself in exceeding his quota, which is used to ship to the Allied nations around the world. However, the productivity is threatened one day when a crooning rooster shows up, and all of the chickens wind up having passed out on the ground. An angry Porky decides to look for another singing rooster that can make his hens lay more eggs. Can he succeed in his quest? Porky Pig is the first major star for Warner Bros. Since his debut in I Haven't Got a Hat the jovial stuttering pig became a staple in Warner Bros. cartoons even after getting pushed to a more supporting role in favor of stars like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck,* but Porky has what Daffy doesn't have, which is an Oscar nomination, which he got for Swooner Crooner. But of course, even in his Oscar nominated film Porky had been pushed mostly to the periphery. The stars of this particular short are the roosters that caricature the singing style and appearances of famous singers. The two that take up most of the film's focus are roosters parodying Frank Sinatra (I never understood his rooster's portrayal as being a beanpole as wide as the microphone stand, but I don't know enough about Sinatra to know about his body composition in 1944) and Bing Crosby. The roosters sing their song, which are the slow paced love ballads associated with the crooners. Since there isn't too much excitement with singing roosters, the film is thus mostly composed of visual gags of the chickens swooning in hilarious ways. Of course the film also has a scene where other roosters audition, allowing them to caricature other famous singers, including Nelson Eddy (whom I never heard of and only know through Wikipedia), Al Jolson (in politically incorrect blackface), Jimmy Durante (singing the Oscar winning "Lullaby of Broadway"), and Cab Calloway. The mostly audio format of the film is a stark departure to the normal largely slapstick antics of Warner Bros., which still exists in the factory scene in the film's first two minutes. And to be honest, I actually prefer this part of the film because the songs bore me, but Swooner Crooner is still a very unique film in the Warner Bros. canon.

*Like Andy Panda and Mickey Mouse, I think this shift could have possibly been because he was too honest and genial and too much of a goody two shoes, although he did have this popular scene which was made as part of a blooper reel, much like the famous naughty episode of Rainbow (not Dash).

Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. sure like taking it down. So I'm trying to embed from a Romanian site. If it doesn't work, you can always watch it on, or actually, you know, buy it legally.

Well, here are the seven nominees, one for every of the major studio in the Golden Age except for Famous Studios (and who cares about them anyways?) And yet even then only the films from the three biggest studios stand out: Disney's How to Play Football, MGM's Mouse Trouble, and Warner Bros.'s Swooner Crooner. The Warner entry is very different from not only the other nominees but also other films from the studios, but it still doesn't quite match up to the other two more traditional gag-filled films. How to Play Football is a rip roaring laugh a minute film, but it doesn't quite match the deep sense of futility that Mouse Trouble projects. Or maybe because I'm just biased because Mouse Trouble was one of my favorite films growing up before I saw How to Play Football. But I'm not alone in making the choice as the Academy agreed as well, handing the cat and mouse duo their second straight Oscar.

My rankings (by quality)
Mouse Trouble > How to Play Football > Swooner Crooner > And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street > Dog, Cat, and Canary > My Boy Johnny > Fish Fry

My rankings (by preference)
Mouse Trouble > How to Play Football > Swooner Crooner > Dog, Cat, and Canary > And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street > My Boy Johnny > Fish Fry


    Of course the cruddy U.M.& M. TV reissue titles apparently couldn't fit all that on one screen the way the screenhot shows it!

    "Good luck trying to find it. I couldn't ever find it online and had to get it from Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research Garage Sale. Of course, he doesn't seem to be offering any Puppetoons anymore."

    I'm sure Arnold Leibovit got to him first on that one! He was the producer of "The Puppetoon Movie" back in the 1980's and appears to have rights to the namesake and the films at present.

    Screen Gems always had that problem of not being too unique or doing something that wasn't copying other studios or creating definite, lasting characters outside the Fox and The Crow cartoons they're best known for.

    "All Screen Gems had were Scrappy, who folded in 1941."

    It should be noted Screen Gems basically started after the death of Charles Mintz (though Columbia Pictures owned the cartoons anyway), or at least that's how I see it, as he ran the studio inthe 30's when Scrappy (and to a lesser extent Krazy Kat) were their star characters. 1940 would see a new crop of people coming into the studio like Frank Tashlin who directed the first Fox & Crow cartoon "The Fox and the Grapes").

    "*Also known as Sweet Tweets, as it is listed in the opening credits, but the Academy lists the film as as Dog, Cat, and Canary, so that will be how I'll list it.

    Wouldn't be surprised if that was a re-release title such as the screengrab shows above. Many Screen Gems cartoon would see later theatrical re-releases often under the title "A Columbia Favorite" which featured a generic title card with assorted characters dotting it and the title of the cartoon simply placed in the middle. No production credits or MPAA registration codes or anything. It was pretty low (like the "Blue Ribbon" Merrie Melodies Warner Bros. would reissue).

    Still, Fish Fry won't go down as one of the best Walter Lantz film.

    It still has it's fans who appreciate what Shamus Culhane brought to the table at Lantz's. He briefly worked for the studio during the mid 40's and directed many zany cartoons for the studio like the Woody Woodpecker short "The Barber of Seville". More noted shorts to check out include "The Greatest Man in Siam" and "Abou Ben Boogie".

    "*It is true that Walter Lantz produced the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts during his height of popularity in the 1930s, but Oswald was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks."

    It certainly is, though this was after Charles Mintz lost the rights to Oswald to Universal that Lantz began working on these with partner Bill Nolan. origianlly Oswald was Disney's baby until Mintz found a loophole to screw him out of the deal of ownership so Walt walked out with a few of his guys left and created Mickey Mouse in 1928. I'm sure there's plenty of stuff written online on the matter.

    "They're mostly slapstick with occasional visual humor, but they're pretty funny. Highlights include Tom saying "Don't you believe it" after getting his butt kicked by Jerry, and his hiccuping after eating a talking mouse doll."

    My favorite is the bit of Jerry stabbing Tom with all sorts of sharp objects inside a box or something, then peaks inside it to see what he did and then pulls out a sign saying "Is there a doctor in the house?" It's pretty evident they were seeing what Tex Avery was doing in his cartoons and merely followed suit.

    "The film also addresses the idea of giving benefits such as jobs to the GIs which was eventually put into law with the GI Bill, but it doesn't spend that much time on it."

    Seems like the only films that did that were mostly shown to those in the military anyway, here's one such cartoon.

    "At least the music, which takes the "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" song with new lyrics, is well done."

    Terrytoons wasn't the only studio to use the tune, another New Yorker outfit around town, Famous Studios, also did a "Noveltoon" around it a year later with "When G.I. Johnny Comes Home". Just follow the bouncing ball!

    "The two that take up most of the film's focus are roosters parodying Frank Sinatra (I never understood his rooster's portrayal as being a beanpole as wide as the microphone stand, but I don't know enough about Sinatra to know about his body composition in 1944) and Bing Crosby."

    You'd be surprised how many caricatures of Frank Sinatra back then did that. I suppose some people viewed him as appearing rather thin and weak and that's what did it, nothing like the Frank past the 1960's that pretty much was the opposite of that. Bob Clampett went pretty far when he depicted Sinatra as being rolled out in a wheelchair by a in "Book Revue".

    Someone in a forum post had this to say on the matter...
    "Sinatra, in his teen idol days, was very, very slender. That kind of slender used to be called "sickly" then. He looked kind of like he was going to fall over any minute from hunger."

    So I suppose that explains it. By that definition, most celebrities these days are 'sickly'. :-P

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  4. Nostalgia Critic watches How To Play Football during the halftime show every Super Bowl