Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1946

We're at 1946, and what it year it was! It was the year after World War II ended, and emotions were running high throughout the entire year. It was the year the Boston Red Sox finally made it into the World Series for the first time since 1918, but saw it all fall apart around them in the final game thanks to the hustle of Enos Slaughter. It was the year that the newly formed United Nations finally came together for their first meeting. And it was the year of the greatest controversy in the Best Animated Short category, but we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves.

And yet it was also a year where GIs returning after several years of war finds that life as they knew it had ended. This sentiment was captured perfectly in the film The Best Years of Our Lives, which follows the life of three veterans as they struggle with life back home. It was a hit with audiences and wound up as being the most nominated film at the Oscars, with eight, including Best Picture. Of course, it faced serious challenge from The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France* (four nominations), It's a Wonderful Life (five nominations), The Razor's Edge (four nominations), and The Yearling (seven nominations).

*The film is more commonly known by its shortened name of Henry V.

The Best Years of Our Lives did reasonably well in the audio technical categories. It lost Best Sound to The Jolson Story, which also won Best Music (Musical), but it did win Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy). The hit tune "On the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" from MGM's The Harvey Girls won Best Original Song. It wouldn't be the last appearance of the song in an Oscar-nominated film. The split technicals were both swept by two different films, with Anna and the King of Siam winning for Black and White and The Yearling winning for Color. The David Lean fantasy Blithe Spirit won Best Special Effects, while The Best Years of Our Lives took home Best Editing. The Best Years of Our Lives also won Best Screenplay, with Best Original Screenplay going to The Seventh Veil and Best Original Story going to Perfect Strangers, known in America as Vacation from Marriage.

The Best Years of Our Lives was doing very well, and it continued its success into the acting Oscars. Harold Russell, an actual war veteran that lost both his arms in a training accident, won an Honorary Oscar for "bring hope and courage to his fellow veterans." They felt he had little chance of winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar against industry veterans such a Charles Coburn, Claude Rains, and Clifton Webb, but to everybody's surprise the non-professional actor won the Oscar as well. Best Supporting Actress went to the young Anne Baxter for The Razor's Edge. Olivia deHavilland made up for her Gone with the Wind loss by winning Best Actress for To Each His Own, while Fredric March beat out the likes of Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Stewart to win his second Best Actor Oscar for The Best Years of Our Lives.

By then the Best Picture race was a foregone conclusion. The Best Years of Our Lives had five wins while no other film had more than two, and of those films that won two only The Yearling was a Best Picture nominee. And so I'm sure nobody was surprised when William Wyler won Best Director for The Best Years of Our Lives and then later the film went on to win Best Picture for its final total of seven, just one short of the record held at the time by Gone with the Wind in 1939.

Meanwhile, the most compelling category of the night would probably have to be Best Animated Short, thanks to a controversy that raged on that still creates intrigue even today.

The Cat Concerto
Tom the Cat is ready for his big night at the concert hall. Tonight he will be performing Lizst's famous "Hungarian Rhapsody #2". His many years of of practice will finally be paying off, but little did he know that his nemesis Jerry the Mouse is living inside the grand piano, and he's none too pleased with having his slumber interrupted by the playing of the piano. The two begin trading blows, but at the same time they know that the show must go on. Can they finish the song without killing each other? Tom and Jerry's long and successful career at MGM total over 114 films, including 13 that have been nominated for Oscars. Of all those films The Cat Concerto may very well be their most famous, and according to veterans of the animation industry, their best. Part of this fame may have stemmed from the controversy that it had with a Warner Bros. film involving accusations of plagiarism, but that just overshadows the fact that The Cat Concerto is a pretty darned good film. Like many other Tom and Jerry films, The Cat Concerto is centered around slapstick and visual gags, this time mostly centered around the piano, especially with the hammer of the piano keys. There are times when the hammers take up a life of their own, spanking Jerry and whacking him like a golf ball. The mixture of slapstick and visual humor are pretty evenly matched, and the gags flow from one to another without disrupting the flow of the film, although the same can't be said about the song. Some of the gags even have elements not normally seen in Tom and Jerry films. There is one gag where Jerry replaces two keys with a mousetrap, and Tom plays around it, creating suspense for the viewers as when he'll finally hit the trap. And they also managed to fit in a reference to "On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe" from MGM's hit musical The Harvey Girls. All in all, The Cat Concerto represents the pinnacle of Hanna and Barbera's work with the Tom and Jerry series.
Where Can I Watch It?
TCM doesn't have the best embedding mechanism, but at least it should be secure from Warner Bros. trying to take it down. It's also available on the Warner Bros. Academy Award Animation Collection among other things.

John Henry and the Inky-Poo
John Henry was born on a dark and stormy night, and from the beginning it became clear that he was destined to be a railroad man. He had muscles of steel from the minute he was born, and within three weeks he was driving steel with the rest of them. But John Henry's career and the career of the rest of the steel-driving men was threatened by the arrival of the mechanical machine, the Inky-Poo, who could drive steel harder, better, faster, stronger. John Henry challenges the Inky-Poo to prove that the human body can beat any machine. John Henry and the Inky-Poo is a film from George Pal and his Puppetoons based on the legend of John Henry, a folktale that celebrated the human spirit. We've already seen an adaptation of this story in these spaces with Sam Weiss's The Legend of John Henry. John Henry and the Inky-Poo was a bit different. While The Legend of John Henry was all song and featured very stylized animation, John Henry and the Inky-Poo combined song with narration and scenes of dialogue, and was animated with stop motion using Puppetoons. In fact the last quarter of the film was a speech talking about what John Henry represented. In this way it feels as though John Henry and the Inky-Poo was meant to be less a straightforward telling of his story and more an exploration of the idea of John Henry. Of course the film also shows a little bit at how disrespectful John Henry was. He calls his mother "woman" and flat out dismisses her when she shows concern over his well being. Still, the animation with Puppetoons is good, and Pal gets creative with editing, particularly in a scene where John's co-workers talk about how the Inky-Poo does things faster and harder by splicing a shot of the machine in between each adjective. The final speech gets a bit boring because there isn't much visually to spice things up, but it brings up a good point. My sister always claims that the machine really won because it is around to keep working after the race, but the speech points out that the real victory is by what John Henry represented. That said, I don't really see how John Henry was an apt representative for mankind considering he was born a grown man with muscles of steel. Still, John Henry and the Inky-Poo is a film worth watching, especially if you're a fan of all those tall tales.
Where Can I Watch It?
It's probably going to get taken down, but here it is from Anonymous.

Musical Moments from Chopin
It's time for the weekly barnyard musical concert, and tonight the star Andy Panda is going to be performing some of the great works of the 19th century classical musician Frederic Chopin. Things were going smoothly until that mischievous Woody the Woodpecker decided that the best time to polish the piano would be in the middle of the concert. And he decided right then and there that it would be a great time to join in the concert. Still, the worse has yet to come as a fire breaks out in the middle of the concert. Can they complete the performance? So it must have been hip to have mascot characters perform classical music on the piano in 1946, what with The Cat Concerto and the similar film from a rival studio that led to one of the greatest animation controversies. Even Walter Lantz got in on the action with Musical Moments from Chopin, a part of his Musical Miniatures series. This film features his two most popular stars, Andy Panda and Woody Woodpecker, performing selections from the brilliant but short-lived 19th century composer, albeit in highly abridged forms. They play sections of "Military Polonaise Op. 40," "Fantasie Impromptu Op. 66," "Ecossaise Op. 72," "Mazurka Op 7 No. 1," and "Scherzo No. 2 Op 31." The performance itself is very straightforward with very little actual interruptions in music. So to make things interesting the film focuses on the strange ways that Woody plays the piano - never with his hands - and some of the funny antics going on in the audience. It's very reliant on visual humor, although not terribly funny. I feel sorry for the guy gets put in stocks because he was making too much noise. All he wanted was a snack. The film finally gets into slapstick territory when the partially-anthropomorphized flames come and destroy Andy and Woody's pianos. Musical Moments from Chopin could use a little bit more work in the gag side of things, but if you want a great performance of Frederic Chopin in an animated short, then this is your film.
Where Can I Watch It?

Squatter's Rights
A pair of cute little chipmunks were hibernating their way through a brutally cold winter in their home in a stove in an abandoned cabin. However, that cabin won't be abandoned much longer, for the cabin's owner and his little dog were arriving for a nice winter vacation. They have to prevent the owner from starting a fire in their beloved home, and then they get the ire from the dog, who is determined to do whatever it takes to get those pests out. Can the chipmunks chase away the uninvited guests? Or would they have to find someplace else to stay? Squatter's Rights may have been billed as a Mickey Mouse film, his first film since the end of World War II, but the real focus is between his faithful dog Pluto and the two little chipmunks who would in a year's time gain the Chip and Dale persona. At this stage in their development they had no differences in their personality and had actions more resembling actual chipmunks, but they already had their distinctive chipmunk voices. Meanwhile, Pluto reprises his sad sack role as the loyal pup whose heart is in the right place but gets unfairly blamed by Mickey and pestered by rodents. The film is a showdown between Pluto and his desire to get rid of the pests and the chipmunks who want to stay. I think the film kind of sets viewers up to cheer for the chipmunks. After all, the title refers to a term where squatters in an abandoned property can get the rights to the property, but I'm sure that many would cheer for Pluto as well, creating an interesting dynamic. Much of the film is built around slapstick and visual humor, but a lot of the gags are golden. There was a hot foot joke years before Bert Blyleven made it popular. The moments where the chipmunks imitate Mickey and Pluto are funny. My favorite was when they taunt Pluto after a scolding to the tune of "Bye Baby Bunting," but the climax where Pluto gets caught into a dangerous situation is wonderfully tense. Overall Squatter's Rights is a great film and a worthy nominee.
Where Can I Watch It?

Walky Talky Hawky
Henery Hawk confronts his father, telling him that he feels that there is something different about him, that he has a craving for something that he doesn't know. That's when his father confesses to Henery that they are a family of chicken hawks and that they are naturally inclined to eat chickens. Henery goes out in search for a chicken. He runs into a giant bird named Foghorn Leghorn who claims he's a horse, and directs him towards the Barnyard Dawg with whom Foghorn has a physical rivalry. Can Henery ever get his paws on a chicken? Henery Hawk was an established character by the time Walky Talky Hawky came out and was the main character, but the film is best known for being the debut film of one of the most popular Warner Bros. mascot characters in Foghorn Leghorn. The loud and boisterous rooster would become popular for his antics with his rival the Barnyward Dawg and for his way of speaking patterned after popular characters in radio shows including The Sheriff and Senator Claghorn. He still hasn't settled into his final persona when he appeared in Walky Talky Hawky, but he made the film memorable for his mentoring of young Henery Hawk. The film features plenty of slapstick found in both the various ways Henery tries to get at his unsuspecting victim and also in the ways that Foghorn and the Dawg get at each other. The latter antics are quick and simple, such as the Dawg putting a watermelon on Foghorn's head, while Henery's method are much more elaborate. Either way the gags are pretty funny, and even toy around with the impossible, such as Henery drawing a doorbell with a pencil and having it work. The later part of the film gets into more situational humor, but no matter what the film remains sharp and funny. And yes, there is also a reference to "On the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe." Walky Talky Hawky remains a classic in the Warner Bros. annals.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here are the five nominees. There are three that were particularly good: The Cat Concerto, Squatter's Rights, and Walky Talky Hawky. Of those The Cat Concerto stand out as the best of the lot because of the smoothness and the variety of the gags. And the Academy felt the same by awarding it the Oscar, the fourth straight Oscar for Fred Quimby and his cat and mouse team. Of course, if Warner Bros. had their way then The Cat Concerto wouldn't have even gotten nominated at all, but that's a story for a Saturday post. The Cat Concerto was the best of the bunch this year and the win was deserved.

My rankings (by quality)
The Cat Concerto > Walky Talky Hawky > Squatter's Rights > John Henry and the Inky-Poo > Musical Moments from Chopin

My rankings (by preference)
The Cat Concerto > Squatter's Rights > Walky Talky Hawky > John Henry and the Inky-Poo > Musical Moments from Chopin

1 comment:

  1. As always great post. Actually here is a better link of John Henry and the Inky Poo, though it is missing the full credits: