Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1948

Aah! Residency has begun! I'm now experiencing the joys of working a full time job for the first time in my life! Now I'm not sure if I'll ever have time to finish up these last 17 reviews! And whatever you do don't go to a teaching hospital for the next few months. In reality I'm writing this a week before orientation starts, so I've got a little bit more time to churn out some more  reviews, but I'm not looking forward to losing all my free time...for the rest of my life. But hey, that's what I was getting myself into when I chose this profession so might as well suck it up and go in there with drive and ambition! It's what Rainbow Dash would do!

So when the nominees for the 1948 Oscars announced, the one film that stood head over heels above the others was Johnny Belinda, with 12 nominations. Only two other films had more than half that amount, Laurence Olivier's Hamlet and Joan of Arc with Ingrid Bergman, both with seven. However, the latter film wasn't even in the running for Best Picture. The other Best Picture nominations went to the psychiatric film The Snake Pit (six nominations), the ballet classic The Red Shoes (five nominations), and the gold-digging classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Of those five only The Red Shoes went without a Best Director nomination, with it going instead to Fred Zinnemann for The Search.

Having a high nomination count would be helpful for winning plenty of Oscars, but it's not necessarily a guarantee. Johnny Belinda found out the hard way. For sound technical Oscars it had nominations in both Best Music (Dramatic/Comedy) and Best Sound, but it lost those to The Red Shoes and The Snake Pit respectively. Easter Parade won Best Music (Musical), and Best Original Song went to...well...we'll talk about that on Saturday. Then it lost Black and White Cinematography and Art Direction to The Naked City and Hamlet respectively. Hamlet also won the Black/White award for a new category that debuted that year: Best Costume Design. The Color award for Best Costume Design went to Joan of Arc, which also won Best Color Cinematography. The Red Shoes won for Color Art Direction. Johnny Belinda had a nomination in Best Editing, but The Naked City won that as well. Portrait of Jennie won Best Special Effects. The writing categories were condensed into two awards in 1948 this year, allowing both adaptations and original screenplays to duke it out in a Best Screenplay category. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre ended at the top of that award, while The Search won Best Story.

Johnny Belinda was 0 for 6 so far, but it still had four of its remaining six nominations in the acting categories, including one in each category. However, Best Supporting Actor went to Walter Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a film directed by his son John. And Best Supporting Actress went to Claire Trevor for her heartbreaking performance as a mobster's girlfriend for Key Largo. Things seemed almost lost, but Johnny Belinda finally had a win in Best Actress by Jane Wyman, the former Mrs. Ronald Reagen, for her role as a deaf-mute. Meanwhile, Laurence Olivier won Best Actor for his complex portrayal of the titular character in Hamlet. As the director of the film it marked the only time an actor directed himself to an acting Oscar.

Going into the final two categories Hamlet was in the lead with three wins, while several other films were tied with two, including The Red Shoes, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The latter broke that second place tie when John Huston took home Best Director. So now things become interesting. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre had the fewest nomination among Best Picture nominees, but it's now tied for the lead in wins, with its wins being pretty big: Screenplay, Supporting Actor, and Director. Alas, that was not enough to overcome its lack of nominations, as Hamlet was announced as Best Picture of the year. As a British film, was the first foreign production to win take home the top award. Meanwhile Johnny Belinda, with one win in its 12 nominations, serves as a cautionary tale that nominations may not mean everything for a film.

Of course none of the Best Animated Short nominees had to worry about that. They each had only one nomination.

The Little Orphan
Jerry was having a nice quiet Thanksgiving night at home snacking on a piece of cheese when he hears his doorbell. It turns out to be Nibbles, the little orphan that Jerry agreed to have over for Thanksgiving. Nibbles is "always hungry," but Jerry is low on food, so he decides to risk it and attack the mouth-watering spread in the big house. Unfortunately, Tom the cat notices them in the action. Can they thwart his efforts to catch them and have the best Thanksgiving ever? We've seen Nibbles before, and this is his first appearance in an Oscar nominated film. Oh, he's made appearances before. His first appearance was in the comics where he was known as Tuffy. A few years later he made an official appearance in the film The Milky Waif, a film that is most notable for having a large chunk cut out for a blackface gag. The beginning of The Little Orphan is quite similar to the debut film in that Nibbles is introduced by a knock in the night, Jerry is out of food, and he initially lets Nibbles get at Tom's milk. Then Nibbles discovers the spread and that's when the film deviates from The Milky Waif and gets good. Food based gags involving mice has been done before, most notably in Disney's The Country Cousin and also in some later Tom and Jerry films like The Two Mouseketeers. However, of all those films I've seen I feel like The Little Orphan did it the best. The gags are mostly visual gags and slapstick, typical of most Tom and Jerry film, but they work. It's funny watching Jerry get hit by a candle that Nibbles nibbled. Plus Jerry and Nibbles are cute wearing their Pilgrim hats. Things get better after Tom gets involved wearing an Indian headdress and all-out war breaks out, with the combatants fitting the Thanksgiving theme. And being Thanksgiving it has a nice resolution leading to a great ending. The Little Orphan doesn't win points for originality, but it scores well in its execution.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. is usually pretty active in removing Tom and Jerry films. This version has been around for over a year so I hope it'll stay around for a little bit more.

Mickey and the Seal
Mickey Mouse is having a nice visit at the zoo. He goes to visit the Seal Park where he sees all of the seals barking on the rock. He gets their attention and then breaks all regulation by feeding the animals. One little seal in particular stands out with its playful tricks. It steals all the fishes from the other seals, and when Mickey runs out of fish it goes and hides in Mickey's basket. It follows him home and incurs the wrath of Pluto. However, Mickey doesn't believe him and throws Pluto out. Mickey settle down for a nice bath, not knowing about the unexpected guest. Mickey Mouse may be the instantly recognizable mascot of the Walt Disney Corporation, but by the late 1940s his status as a film star was pretty dim. Most of the studio's films were featured on the hot-headed Donald. Still, he had some little gems, like this one. Mickey and the Seal remains one of the more popular Mickey Mouse films. At the very least it's one of the films that is played continuously at Disney World, and still gets aired on television albeit in an abridged form. And why not? The seal character is pretty cute, even if he's really a sea lion*. I suppose highlight of the film involves his invading Mickey's bath and giving Mickey a hard time. It's cute visual humor, but that takes up only a small portion of the film, and I find the seal's antics to get annoying after a while. The rest mostly involve Pluto getting angry at the seal like he did in the seal's earlier appearance in Pluto's Playmate, and Mickey getting angry at Pluto for trying to warn him about the seal. Pluto's spot-on impression of the seal is funnier to me than the seal in the bath sequence. As such I don't find Mickey and the Seal to be among the best Disney works, but I can't argue with its popularity. As annoying as I find the seal, it's still pretty cute, and you can't beat cute.

*This is something I learned when I went to the oceanic park in Taiwan. Sea lions are the animals with the long strong front flippers that can do tricks and stuff. Meanwhile true seals have much flatter front flippers and can't walk around as easily. They're all part of the family Pinnipedia so they're all related in a way. Still, I wonder how much this film contributed to these sea lions being known as seals.

Where Can I Watch It?

Mouse Wreckers
Hubie and Bertie are two homeless mice that are trying to find a new place to live. They come across a nice looking house that is unfortunately already occupied by a cat named Claude that is apparently an award-winning mouser. Rather than try to find a new house, they decide that the best way to go about doing things is to try to scare Claude away from the house by messing with his head. So they go about physically and psychologically tormenting poor Claude sight unseen. Will their plan work, or Claude catch on to their scheme? Hubie and Bertie may not be as famous as Bugs or Daffy or Sylvester and Tweety, but they are a major part of the Warner Bros. canon. They were created by Chuck Jones, and their specialty is using mind games and hidden physical attacks to psych out their unsuspecting victim so that they can get their way. Mouse Wreckers is a good example of their modus operandi: physical attacks and a coup de grace once the victim is all nice and nervous. The gags are quite exaggerated. Clubbing poor Claude in the head is just the first and most simple method of torture. Then they do stuff like introduce an occupied dog house through the chimney and nailing everything on the floor to the roof and vice versa to create the upside-down room illusion. These outlandish tricks are part of the humor, as well as Claude's reaction to the mysterious attacks, such as drinking nerve tonic and reading Freud's Psychology of Dreams. The result is a pretty unique cartoon. Still, I find Hubie and Bertie to be annoying. They have their distinct personalities with the devious but aggressive Hubie and the dim-witted Bertie, but these personalities don't play much of a role in the film. And when it does it's mostly annoying. For example, Hubie slaps Bertie around for being a stupid idiot. That sort of interaction makes me wonder why Bertie sticks around with the abusive Hubie, other than the fact he's a stupid idiot. My dislike of these characters kind of mars this clever cartoon, but it's still worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?

Robin Hoodlum
Robin Hood is making things pretty miserable for Prince John, robbing from the rich and giving it to the poor. When yet another Sheriff of Nottingham resigns Prince John gives the title to Sir Guy of Wise, but on the condition that he capture Robin Hood within a week. So Sir Guy goes to challenge Robin Hood when the latter was trying to hunt the king's deer. However, Robin escapes when for tea time. Sir Guy tries another strategy: an archery contest, knowing Robin can't resist the challenge. Will the plan work? As I mentioned in my last review, Columbia signed a contract with the United Productions of America Studios to make three new films of their popular mascot characters Fox and Crow. The films were a smashing success, with The Magic Fluke getting an Oscar nomination. That wasn't the only one, as their first film Robin Hoodlum also had the same honor. It was a simple retelling of the Robin Hood story with Fauntleroy Fox as Robin Hood and Crawford Crow as Sir Guy. The film was filled to the brim with verbal and visual gags, many of which are quite funny. Robin Hood is portrayed as being a kind of clumsy buffoon, tripping over himself and lucking into bullseyes at the archery competition. The song he sings about his stealing strategy is hilarious, especially the line "I never give a thing to the middle class." Meanwhile, Crawford Crow as Sir Guy is street-smart and spends plenty of time making unfair bargains with Prince John, portrayed as a pig. As funny as the gags are they could have been funnier but the film seems like it has pretty poor comedic timing. Gags are just thrown out there randomly and very few of them have great build-up, although one that does has a distinct Raiders of the Lost Ark feel to it. The animation is more complex than what would come to define UPA, but still much simpler than the competition. Still, Robin Hoodlum is an amusing little film that would lay the groundwork for UPA's greatest successes in the 1950s.
Where Can I Watch It?

Tea for Two Hundred
Donald Duck is out enjoying a nice little camping trip as far from civilization as possible, but little did he realize that even out in the wilderness there are things that are little beings around him, namely ants. A group of ants come walking by Donald's picnic carrying beans and other stuff they've foraged. Donald shows off his sadistic side by tormenting a small ant in particular. However his plan eventually comes to haunt him when the ant discover the goodies that Donald has brought. They throw him off a cliff and begin stealing his picnic. Can Donald get them back? Picnics are a wonderful thing, but picnickers must always be wary of ants. As such ants at a picnic have been a common theme in cartoons. At the very least it's the focal point in this amusing Donald Duck short. The film can be split up into two halves. In the first half Donald torments a little ant, piling on a mountain of items including a thermos and a coffee cup. Then he sets trap for the ant to conquer. In the second half the ants get at the food, and are mostly full of gags of giving food somewhat anthropomorphic properties using the ants. For example Donald lines up football style against a bunch of food, which is pretty amusing. And then there's the nudity gag that I always remembered for being in the intro to the show Donald Duck Presents. The ants themselves are portrayed as African natives complete with the ringed necks and nonsense language. That allows them to add a couple of caricatures of famous African American stars, including the controversial Stepin Fetchit. Tea for Two Hundred is an interesting film in the ants-at-a-picnic genre.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, those are the five nominations. Mouse Wreckers is interesting for its use of psychological mind games and Robin Hoodlum has the funny gags. Tea for Two Hundred has Donald Duck getting angry at stuff he caused and Mickey and the Seal is, well, cute. But for me The Little Orphan still has to be at the top of the pack. Perhaps I'm a little bit biased, but as formulaic as it is it still works, and I still get more of a laugh out of it than the other four. Apparently the Academy agreed because it took home the Oscar.

My rankings (by quality)
The Little Orphan > Mouse Wreckers > Robin Hoodlum > Tea for Two Hundred > Mickey and the Seal

My rankings (by preference)
The Little Orphan > Robin Hoodlum > Tea for Two Hundred > Mouse Wreckers > Mickey and the Seal

1 comment:

  1. "And then there's the nudity gag that I always remembered for being in the intro to the show Donald Duck Presents.

    Even a Disney Channel ID used it!

    Of course I think more of "Mickey & The Seal" for the one or two moments you could actually see Mickey's 'southern exposure' as if the animator didn't feel like giving him boxers or a longer robe to wear!

    Apparently this scene was animated by Fred Moore during a time he was drunk, which apparently makes it all the more interesting to watch!