Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1945

Well, we're into 1945, and that means we're into the years that I've been dreading. Now there are rules in place limiting the maximum number of nominees in the Best Animated Short category to five. There were no such rules in place in the early 1940s, so there were more than five nominees every year from 1941-1945, with as many as ten in one year. Considering it's been taking me upwards of eight hours to write a review for a five-nominee year (although most of the time is spent distracting myself on sites like Facebook and Equestria Daily), I can't fathom how long it'll take me to write these reviews. Especially since I have the equivalent of a full time job now. But we'll try to power our way through.

There was a time when the Academy had more than five and upwards of 12 nominees for Best Picture, but by 1945 they were in the second year of an experiment where they limited the Best Picture nominees to only five. The five this year were the MGM musical Anchors Aweigh , the film where Tom and Jerry made a cameo* (five nominations); The Bells of St. Mary's, the popular sequel to the Best Picture winning Going My Way (eight nominations); the gritty alcoholism film The Lost Weekend (seven nominations), the sordied family melodrama Mildred Pierce (six nominations), and the Alfred Hitchcock psych-based murder mystery Spellbound (six nominations). Of those Anchors Aweigh and Mildred Pierce missed out on Best Director nominations, which went instead to Clarence Brown for the horse-racing film National Velvet (starring a young Elizabeth Taylor), and the legendary Jean Renoir for The Southerner.

*Although nowadays I suspect most people would remember the scene for the episode of Family Guy where they used the scene having replaced Jerry with Stewie. Still, props to the show for being willing to reference a 60-year-old musical. 

The music and sound categories were still stuffed with nominees. Spellbound beat out 20 other nominees to win Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy) while Anchors Aweigh only had to beat out 11 to win Best Music (Musical). State Fair won Best Original Song for "It Might as Well Be Spring" over 13 other songs (although the super-catchy "The Three Caballeros" was left out despite the film getting a Best Music nomination.) And The Bells of St. Mary's won Best Sound over 11 other competitors. The visual technical award had a much more manageable nominee count, but they were all split. Best Color Cinematography went to Leave Her to Heaven, Best Black/White Cinematography went to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Best Color Art Direction went to Frenchman's Creek, and Best Black/White Art Direction went to Blood on the Sun. The non-superhero film Wonder Man won Best Special Effects. And National Velvet took home Best Editing. In the writing categories, The Lost Weekend took home its first award with Best Screenplay, while the film-noir The House on 92nd Street won Best Original Story, and the Swiss-German film Marie-Louise won Best Original Screenplay to become the first foreign film ever to win an Oscar.

The acting categories were also split. Best Supporting Actor went to James Dunn for his role as an optimistic alcoholic the film adaptation of the novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Anne Revere captured Best Supporting Actress for her role as Elizabeth Taylor's mother in National Velvet, beating out two actresses from Mildred Pierce and Angela Lansbury, who played her daughter in National Velvet. Mildred Pierce ended up with an Oscar for Joan Crawford, who won Best Actress playing the title character and revived her career. And Ray Milland took home Best Actor for his role as a tortured alcoholic in The Lost Weekend.

Up to that point The Lost Weekend and National Velvet were the only films to win multiple Oscars, but neither of them had more than two so there was room for one of the other films to come back. That became much less likely when Billy Wilder won his first Best Director Oscar for The Lost Weekend. Later it came around to capture Best Picture as well.

Meanwhile with seven nominations the Best Animated Short Oscar was as up in the air as any awards during the night.

Donald's Crime
Donald is looking forward to his date with Daisy, but then he makes the stunning realization that he has no money. How is he going to give her a good time without any money? But his eyes settle on his nephews' piggy bank. They've been saving up for a while and surely has enough to answer his problems. He struggles with his conscience but ultimately decides to steal from the bank. He and Daisy do have a great time, but that night he begins to feel guilty about his crime. His subconscious doesn't help. Can he atone for his crime? Donald Duck is Disney's biggest star in the cinemas in the 1940s. While he is usually plays the role of a straight man that gets annoyed by smaller and cuter animals, they also use him for some more different and daring works such as Der Fuehrer's Face in 1942. Donald's Crime is one of these more unusual films. It is a highly surreal film that parodies the film noir genre that was so prevalent in the 1940s. It follows the noir formula very well, tracking the crime from the factors that led to his decision to commit it to the punishment that it leads. There is even the use of a voice-over like in several other noir films. This one represents Donald's subconscious, goading him to take the money and then berating him once the money was spent. Due to its noirish nature, Donald's Crime enters into a realm of psychology that very few Disney films had ventured, and it really pays off as the film is very engaging. Film noir is a very visual genre, and Donald's Crime also follows that formula, especially in the middle section where Donald was trying to run from the guilt. There is effective use of light and shadow and different camera angles. I especially like the scene of Donald going up the stairs that vary in height, and where Donald rips off wanted posters only to see the reward increase until the zeros run out of the poster. The backgrounds are great as well, some of them kind of resembling the twisted architecture found in The Tell-Tale Heart, another highly psychological film. Of course the visual treats aren't just limited to the middle section, as the film also uses animation to illustrate Donald's nervousness and guilt after the crime was committed. It's a shame that the narrator was never credited, because his street-wise accent really added a lot to the film. Donald's Crime is truly a unique film that stands as one of the best in the Donald Duck series, because it tried something different and really knocked it out of the park.
Where Can I Watch It?

Gypsy Life
A band of nomadic gypsy mice travel down a country road singing about their happy existence. They continue their merry ways after they settle down for the night, entertaining each other with music and dance, but they are spotted by a hungry cat-like bat. He rushes to tell the other cat-bats, and fly out to get their dinner. The mice flee upon seeing the cat bats and get away, but the female dancer mice is trapped by one of them. She tells them that someone will come to save the day, and he appears almost as if on cue. But is he too late? As I mentioned in the review for Sidney's Family Tree, Terrytoons are the bargain basement studio during the Golden Age of Studio Animation. They often operate with the smallest budgets and have the lowest production values, but they still manage to stay afloat with the presence of many popular mascot characters like Heckle and Jeckle and Gandy Goose. The most famous of the Terrytoons mascots is Mighty Mouse. He started out as a parody of Superman and saves the day for mice and other little animals on the screen and in the comics. I first heard about Mighty Mouse through Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures, which played after Muppet Babies on CBS. Gypsy Life was the first older Mighty Mouse cartoon I ever saw. You can tell from the beginning that the animation quality isn't quite as good as any of the other studios' work. Characters march around with weird poses and the gypsy lady that was supposed to be hot and sexy looks weird instead with disproportionate limbs. Mighty Mouse doesn't make an appearance until near the end of the film. The rest of film is filled with dance scenes and visual humor, mostly involving the gypsy mice marching down the road. Still, it's not a total bust. The dialogue is done completely in opera style, since opera was pretty big in the 1940s, and even though the lyrics are cheesy the singing and music are not that bad. Still Gypsy Life has a long way to go before matching up to the cartoons of other bigger studios.
Where Can I Watch It?

Jasper and the Beanstalk
Jasper the little black boy went out walking one day playing his mouth harp when he was interrupted by a scrarecrow who was wanting to trade for that harp for black magic beans like in Jackson and the Beanstalk. Jasper rushed home and planted the beans and that night a beanstalk grew that went clear to the sky, carrying Jasper's bed along with it. Jasper wakes up in a strange new world. He goes looking for the magic harp but is told it belongs to the giant. He finds the harp but can he help her escape before the giant wakes up? One thing about the cartoons from the Golden Age of Studio Animation is that mascot characters are key. Every studio had characters that made constant appearances in cartoons. Disney had Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse while Warner Bros. had Bugs and Daffy. Even George Pal's Puppetoons, the stop motion animation studio, had its own mascot character: Jasper. Unfortunately, Jasper was a kind-hearted but gullible black boy in a world African American stereotypes, which was controversial then and downright politically incorrect now. Which was quite sad since word was Pal really admired African American culture, which was evident in the care he took in making John Henry and the Inky-Poo. And it's still quite rare for an African American lead in a cartoon, much less close to 70 years ago*. Anyways, Jasper and the Beanstalk is a pretty straightforward retelling of the old Jack and the Beanstalk fairy tale with Jasper taking up the Jack character, although he still keeps his Jasper identity. Other than the setting there really isn't anything super special about the story, except that the part of the harp was played by the popular musician Peggy Lee, best known (by me) for her role in Lady and the Tramp. Her performance is decent although the copy I saw was taken from an old print making her song hard to understand. The animation is solid like in all Puppetoon films. Still there really isn't anything notable about Jasper and the Beanstalk other than for featuring a mascot character who could never make it today.

*Although Harman and Ising's Bosko was originally designed as a black caricature. This characterization was later removed so you can't really see it in films like Bosko's Picture Show.

Where Can I Watch It? 
It's in terrible condition, but it's not surprising considering the non-PC nature of the film.

Life with Feathers
A male lovebird was having a rough time. His wife Sweetie Puss is mad at him for some unknown reason and he got thrown out of the house. According to him, lovebirds cannot live without love, so he decided to end it all. After going through different methods of suicide, he finally decides on the old fashioned method of getting eaten. He comes across a black and white cat digging through trash cans for supper, but the cat is suspicious of the bird's eagerness to get eaten. Can the bird convince the cat to accomplish his goal? Life with Feathers is best known today for being the debut film of one of their most popular characters, for the black and white cat would later be given the name Sylvester and became a star for his films with Tweety Bird. However, while his films with Tweety Bird involves his failed attempts to catch the bird, this film turns the concept on its head and features Sylvester trying unsuccessfully to keep the bird from rushing into his mouth, believing the bird to be poisonous. It's certainly a unique concept, one that is fresh considering the rather formulaic nature of some of Sylvester's later films. However, the gags themselves seem rather similar as the bird uses some nifty bending of reality, clever disguises and even outright violence to get into Sylvester's mouth. The timing of the gags can be pretty strange. In one memorable gag the bird writes a letter, delivers it, and waits for a package. The package is delivered and the bird opens it, revealing a mallet that the bird uses to whack Sylvester's foot, then rushes in while Sylvester yelps in pain. The gag takes 20 seconds and while the entire buildup of suspense is nice the payoff seems miniscule making the entire thing seem excessive. Still, the originality of the concepts Life with Feathers makes it a very interesting film especially compared to the rather formulaic nature of some of the later Sylvester cartoons.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Poet & Peasant
Andy Panda has been the conductor for the Hollywood Washbowl Orchestra for a long time, but he is making his final appearance for the farmyard music troupe. His farewell performance will be the overture for Franz von Suppe's opera "The Poet and Peasant." And things were going awry from the start when a frog decided to make its nest underneath Andy's wig. And things don't get any better for the poor conductor, with fighting amongst the orchestra and in the audience. Can he get through his final performance successfully? Animating to pieces of classical music was a fairly common thing in animated short films. 1946 alone saw three prominent films fitting this description, including Walter Lantz's Musical Moments from Chopin from his Musical Miniatures series. That series was launched a year earlier with The Poet and Peasant, where the musical selection is the overture from an opera by a little known Austrian composer. However, while Franz von Suppe's name is largely forgotten now, some of his work such as the overtures to the Light Calvary and Poet and Peasant live on, even if it is in cartoons*. Like many other works of this nature such as Musical Moments from Chopin, The Poet & Peasant relies heavily on visual humor while the performance itself is more straightforward. There are a few musical deviations that Musical Moments from Chopin didn't have, such as moments where the band breaks out in another song when Andy Panda gets his clothes caught on a loose nail. The actual visual humor is pretty varied as well. There are moments showing off the creative way the band plays their instruments using everyday items from the barns. There are also scenes of interruptions to the conducting even though the band plays on, either from a cat after bluebirds or a fox chasing after a duck. Some of the gags feel recycled, although there are a few that still remain quite funny, although it is probably because it involves outright violence that you rarely see in kids cartoons nowadays. The quality of the animation is a bit weaker than some of the major studios, but the timing to the music is pretty good. The Poet & Peasant is good for what it is, a chance to relive some great works of classical music with some decent jokes.

*The former figures most prominently in Disney's Symphony Hour.

Where Can I Watch It?
Unfortunately, the only copies available online are obnoxious dubs, apparently because Walter Lantz films are still incredibly popular in those countries. Here's the best quality copy, even though it's been dubbed in Russian. If you really want to watch it in English you can get it from the Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection: Vol. 2 alongside other hard to find Walter Lantz films.

Quiet Please!
Spike the bulldog is ready for a nice and relaxing nap, but the problem is he lives with Tom the housecat who is creating a ruckus as he goes about his goal of killing his nemesis Jerry the mouse. Spike grabs Tom and begs him to keep it down, threatening bodily harm if he doesn't comply. Tom knows what Spike can do, and is not ready to get him worked up. Jerry uses this opportunity to torment Tom, trying to get him to wake Spike up. Tom realizes that he had some knock out drops to use on Spike. Having lost a piece of leverage, can Jerry survive? Quiet Please! is a film in the ultra-successful and in some ways it is one of the best. For one thing the addition of Spike the bulldog and his quest to get a good nap in creates an interesting dynamic where the advantage goes from Tom to Jerry and back to Tom (although an advantage by Tom really isn't an advantage considering all of the times he screws it up.) Yes, this sort of shifting advantage has been done before, but Hanna and Barbera backed it up with some terrific gags. Each time there is a shift in power the gags become slightly different. Having Jerry being able to threaten Tom with waking up Spike makes for some funny situations, and the sight of Tom physically tormenting Spike after knocking him out is funny as well. Unfortunately the gag of Jerry threatening to toss something loud had been done in Puss Gets the Boot, their first film together, but the slapstick in this film is fast and furious, going from one joke to the next, almost giving the feel of a Tex Avery film. Billy Bletcher, best known for being Pete in the Disney films, lends his voice to Spike, while Tom has some rare speaking lines that are quite funny. I especially enjoy his interpretation of Brahm's Lullaby. Quiet Please! certainly ranks as one of the funniest Tom and Jerry films ever made.
Where Can I Watch It?

Rippling Romance
And we finally come to it, the one film that will threaten to derail my quest to watch all of the nominated films. There are seven films that I am missing, but we at least know that a copy exists somewhere for six of them. However, Rippling Romance is that one exception. It was a film made by Screen Gems, who was an animation studio owned by Charles Mintz before becoming a distributor of feature films, and they made films for Columbia before Columbia contracted with UPA. They made films involving George Herriman's Krazy Kat and another mascot character Scrappy, and originated the characters of the Fox and Crow. However, their primary films were one-shots called Color Rhapsodies, which frequently put animation to music (original, not classical.) They had a couple of Oscar nominations, but for the most part they still struggled to compete with the likes of Disney and Warner Bros. and MGM. Rippling Romance came near the end of the run of Color Rhapsodies before Screen Gems replaced by UPA. You'd think that Columbia would save the film for posterity after the Oscar nomination, but it didn't happen. I suppose it's because by then with as many nomination spots as studios there were enough so that every major studio got nominated* and a nomination didn't seem very special anymore. At any rate, copies were misplaced and by the time historians like Jerry Beck came knocking, there were no more existing prints in the Columbia vaults, and the film is considered lost, which is a terrifying prospect for a film. However, that doesn't mean that there really are no more prints available. Why, back in 2009 a user named Thad** posted on a thread on the now-defunct Golden Age Cartoons message board about the 1945 Oscar nominated films, saying "I saw it months ago. Really unremarkable cartoon with girl bugs getting ready to see their boyfriends on shore leave. I don't know if this was an attempt by the studio to coincide with any of Columbia's romantic pictures, but it still adds up to zero." Unfortunately, that was his last post in the thread and he never posted how he saw it. So now we're left with nothing.

*Only Famous Studios was left out in 1945, but it never did receive a nomination after the takeover of Fleischer Studios by Paramount that led to the studio's creation.

**Now that I think of it, "Thad" could be Thad Komorowski, the animation historian that wrote the great post about the Cat Concerto and Rippling Romance controversy that I referenced on Saturday. I'll have to get in contact with him and ask him. Stay tuned.

Where Can I Watch It?
If you know you can win Animation Historian of the year...or something.

So of the seven nominees I've seen six of them. It still took me a while, but oh well. As I mentioned most of the major studios got nominations this year, and naturally the ones from the big guns were the three that stood out: Disney's Donald Crime, Warner Bros.'s Life with Feathers, and MGM's Quiet Please! I'm sure the other three were just glad to be there. Anyways, while Life with Feathers and Quiet Please! had some great gags, Donald's Crime stood out for me because of its successful parodying of the film noir genre that combined visual panache with a deep psychological profile of one of the greatest cartoon characters. The fact that it was one of my favorites as I was growing up is only an added bonus. Alas, the Academy had a hard-on for Tom and Jerry at the time and awarded them their third straight Oscar. While it's true that Walt Disney really won too many Oscars, it would have been nice for a film as great as Donald's Crime to be rewarded.

My ranking (by quality)
Donald's Crime > Quiet Please! > Life with Feathers > Jasper and the Beanstalk > The Poet & Peasant > Gypsy Life

My ranking (by preference)
Donald's Crime > Quiet Please! > Life with Feathers > Gypsy Life > The Poet & Peasant > Jasper and the Beanstalk

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