Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1943

It's August 7. On this day nine years ago Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs worked through a gritty start just long enough to go five innings and have his team take the lead against the San Francisco Giants. The Cubs would score a few more insurance runs and the Cubs ended up with an 8-4 win, the 300th victory of his career. Of course Maddux wasn't the only pitcher to record his 300th win in the week between August 4-11. On August 11, 1961, Warren Spahn wound up on top in a gritty 2-1 battle against the Cubs thanks to an 8th-inning home run by Gino Cimoli. On August 4, 1985, Tom Seaver won his 300th game in New York, but wearing the uniform of the Chicago White Sox when he defeated the Yankees 4-1 on Phil Rizzuto Day. And on August 5, 2007, Tom Glavine became the second Tom to win 300 when he topped the Cubs 8-3. A grand total of four pitchers can celebrate the anniversaries of their milestone win on the week of August 4-11. No other week-long period can boast that many.

And what does that have to do with the Academy Awards? Nothing whatsoever!

Casablanca is one of the most beloved American films of all time. The tragic love story combined perfectly with the brutal wartime setting and the snappy, quotable dialogue to be a classic 70 years after its release. Of course its chaotic production contributed to its continued appeal. The film was picked up in January 1942 and after a hectic, over-budget shooting schedule that was filmed chronically because the script wasn't finished was pushed to release in November 1942 to coincide the beginning of the invasion of North Africa before its official Los Angeles release in January 1943 to qualify for the 1943 Oscars. It was a modest box office success, making back the production costs. And yet over a year later it was selected as one of ten Best Picture nominees in the last year with ten nominees before 2009. With eight nominations it trailed only The Song of Bernadette (12 nominations) and For Whom the Bell Tolls (nine nominations). The other nominees were (in descending order of nominations): Madame Curie (seven), The More the Merrier (six), The Human Comedy (five), Watch on the Rhine (four), Heaven Can Wait* (three), In Which We Serve (two), and The Ox-Bow Incident, the last film to have Best Picture be its only nomination. The Best Director nominations went to Casablanca, The Human Comedy, The Song of Bernadette, Heaven Can Wait, and The More the Merrier.

*It is not at all related to the Warren Beatty film of the same title nominated for Best Picture 35 years later. That film is more closely related to another Best Picture nominated film from two years earlier, Here Comes Mr. Jordan.

In the music categories, Casablanca was one of the 16 nominees for Best Music (Comedy/Drama), which also included Disney's animated documentary Victory Through Air Power, but they lost that to The Song of Bernadette. The other music and sound categories went to This is the Army for Best Music (Musical), "You'll Never Know" from Hello Frisco, Hello for Best Original Song, and Jean Renoir's This Land is Mine for Best Sound. Casablanca also lost its two visual technical Oscars, losing Best Editing to Howard Hawks's Air Force and B/W Cinematography to The Song of Bernadette, which also won B/W Art Direction. The Color categories were swept by the remake of Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains, who had also starred in Casablanca as Captain Renault. Best Special Effects went to the submarine film Crash Dive. Casablanca finally won an Oscar when the screenplay that wasn't finished until near the end of production won Best Screenplay. The Human Comedy won Best Original Story while the romantic comedy Princess O'Rourke won Best Original Screenplay.

Casablanca had two nominations in the acting categories. Claude Rains was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Captain Renault, while Humphrey Bogart was nominated Best Actor. Female lead Ingrid Bergman was also nominated, but for her role in For Whom the Bell Tolls. For Whom the Bell Tolls led things off with a win for Katina Paxinou for Best Supporting Actress. And then Rains must watch as Charles Coburn won Best Supporting Actor for the romantic comedy The More the Merrier. Jennifer Jones won Best Actress for her role as the titular character in The Song of Bernadette. And Bogie ended up losing to Paul Lukas for Watch on the Rhine.

When the final two categories came about Casablanca had only one win, well behind The Song of Bernadette's four wins. No other Best Picture nominees had more than two wins. It wouldn't have been at all surprising for it to capture the final two categories to cap off a dominant night. But similar to 1972, this was still a time when the Academy still recognized greatness when they saw it. Michael Curtiz took home the Best Director Oscar, and Casablanca won Best Picture as well, becoming one of the few no-doubt classics that actually won the Best Picture Oscar. It also joined Crash as the only Best Picture winners to win despite getting a release the year earlier, albeit not in Los Angeles. I suppose feature films are held to a much less rigorous standard than documentaries like Young Americans, or perhaps Young Americans was released in Los Angeles too early.

The concept of getting released too early doesn't really apply to the animated shorts, which were frequently released after they compete for the Oscars. Six films were in competition for this year's prize. Which one will take home the gold?

500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins
Bartholomew Cubbins was a regular peasant boy that lived in the Kingdom of Didd. He didn't have any major ambitions in life other than to go through it without offending anybody. However one day all that would change one day. King Derwin, the ruler of Didd, decided to take a ride to town to visit his subjects, who would all remove their hats out of respect. But one subject didn't have his hat off: young Bartholomew Cubbins. It seems every time he took off a hat a new one would appear. An angry King Derwin arrests poor Bartholomew and threatens him with the death penalty. Will Bartholomew ever be able to take off all his hats and save his life? Our look at the early career of Theodore "Dr. Seuss" Geisel continues. Last week we explored his first book, And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. The success of the first book after a difficult publication history led him to continue writing, and a year later he came out with the story of Bartholomew Cubbins and his 500 hats. The book was different from most of Seuss's books in that it was written in prose instead of verse, but contained all of the imaginative elements that is a hallmark of Seuss. The book was so popular that George Pal adapted the book with his Puppetoons, a year before And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. The resulting short film made a few small changes, getting rid of a few minor characters including the King's spoiled brat of a nephew, but for the most part the general plot point was left intact. And that's a good thing since 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is one of Seuss's classics. The film replaced Seuss's distinctive illustration style with that of the Puppetoons style, but Pal managed to spice things up by making each hat different, whereas it was all the same hat in the original story until the final 50. It may not have made for as powerful of a climax as in the story, and they don't actually show all 500 hats, but the tremendous variety is impressive. There are a lot of other visual humor. Overall 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is a great adaptation of a great story from Dr. Seuss.
Where Can I Watch It?
Yeah, good luck with that. I had to get it from Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research garage sale, which doesn't even offer Puppetoons anymore. Instead you'd have to wait for the Puppetoons Movie blu-ray release to come out, where it'll be available as a special feature.

The Dizzy Acrobat
One day Woody the Woodpecker decided to take a trip to visit the circus. He was having fun catching in all of the sights and having a great time, but there were some that didn't appreciate having him around, namely a ticket taker that kept kicking him out of the big top. The ticket taker tried to put Woody to work around the circus, but Woody resists and thus began a major chase scene that would take them into the big top and in the middle of the attraction. Can Woody show the ticket taker who's boss? As I had mentioned in an earlier entry, Woody the Woodpecker made his debut in 1940, and by 1943 the screwy bird had become the most popular mascot character in the Walter Lantz lineup, which also included such luminaries as Andy Panda and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And in 1943 he became the first Walter Lantz mascot character to receive an Oscar nomination for The Dizzy Acrobat. The Dizzy Acrobat is made up mostly of crazy slapstick and one-liners. Beyond the chase scene with the ticket taker, there are scenes of Woody walking past dangerous obstacles while obliviously singing the "Animal Fair" song, and also him getting into mischief with a thieving lion. It's all in good fun, but at the same time it feels much more subdued than some of the really screwball films like Knock Knock and Wet Blanket Policy. The slapstick isn't very funny and the pacing seems kind of uneven. It's probably not a good thing that the funniest thing about this film is the ticket taker going "When I get through with you, any similarity between you and a woodpecker will be purely coincidental." I didn't even realize until later that the disclaimer was in use back in 1943. Not all of The Dizzy Acrobat is terrible. The animation is quite good and match up with the works of likes of Warner Bros. and MGM, but it's just another bland outing.
Where Can I Watch It?

Greetings Bait
A man goes fishing early one morning and brings along his loyal worm who has a close and not entirely coincidental resemblance to comedian Jerry Colonna. Jerry the Worm is the best in the business at baiting fishes, and today he uses various methods to trick the fishes into getting caught. However, he might have met his match this day in the guise of an equally sneaky crab. The crab chases him hoping to make Jerry his next meal. Can Jerry defend his honor in a fight to the death? The name of Jerry Colonna may not be well remembered today, but back in the 1940s and 1950s he was one of the funniest men on the radio. He became a star on Bob Hope's radio show, and entertained listeners with his crazy antics, all while maintaining an epic mustache. He also took his talents to the voice-over industry, plying his trade with Disney in roles such as the March Hare in Alice in Wonderland and being the narrator of the "Casey at the Bat" segment of Make Mine Music. While Disney got the most of his talents, he became a popular subject of caricature in films of Warner Bros in films like Greetings Bait. The connection is apparent from the title alone, which is a play on one of Colonna's popular catchphrases, "Greetings Gates." Half of the film is dedicated to the worm's antics in capturing the fishes, which are rather clever but ultimately nothing special. The film really gets good about halfway through when the worm gets caught up with the crab. The film makes use of the crab's stalk eyes, including a memorable scene where the eyes surround the worm and cuts to a split screen view from the crab's point of view, so that the worm runs towards one eye and away from the other and vice versa. It's a clever shot and one that is a testament to Warner Bros.'s creativity. The ending is also quite delightful. Greetings Bait is an interesting film that really pays tribute to a classic comedian.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. and their desire to have everybody buy the Academy Awards Animation Collection DVD set strikes again as most of the existing videos have been removed, even though Greetings Bait wasn't included. Here's one that still exists, but it'll probably be removed too before long. So yeah, you're pretty much out of luck once it does. Or you can buy it off iTunes.

Imagination is a quality that really adds a lot to the spice of life. The act of make believe can turn any little story into something epic. When a little girl comes home one rainy day and finds one of her rag dolls in terrible shape, she comes up with an epic story of how it happened. The two young lovers were happily dancing, but they caught the attention of a greedy rich roly-poly toy. He captures the female rag doll and drives away in his car. The male rag doll does this by disguising himself as his lover. They make a successful getaway, but the female rag doll get seriously injured when they get into a car accident. Can she be saved? Imagination is a Color Rhapsody by Columbia Pictures. It has a rather simple message, that imagination is something worth trying. It's a good lesson for adults, although I don't know why it's being emphasized in a cartoon. Perhaps Columbia believed that the children from back then were jaded. Anyways, while the film's message is imagination, most of the film is a rather standard adventure film about a rag doll and his rescue of his kidnapped girlfriend. While the rag dolls seem to be original creations for the film, it's hard not to think of the classic characters Raggedy Ann and Andy, who starred in a Fleischer short film from 1941. Imagination doesn't have quite the depth of emotions of the Fleischer film, and the last part of the film seems lifted from Fleischer's classic, but it's a decent film in its own right. The animation is quite good for Columbia standards, and there is quite a lot of humor in the film. The scene of the male doll cross-dressing and physically assaulting his nemesis is alone worth the price of admission. And the idea of trying imagination still holds true today.
Where Can I Watch It?

Reason and Emotion
We human beings are driven by the elements of reason and emotion. The ability to think and feel controls our every action. Emotion was the dominant force in our lives, leading to impulsive and potentially harmful acts. However, reason arrived to bring stability to our lives. Reason keeps our actions in check, but there are times when emotion takes over and we get ourselves in trouble. This can strike both men and women alike. However, there are those out there that wish to appeal solely to our emotions, and these men are the most dangerous. The idea of the subconscious psyche has been a major part of the study of psychology since the days of Sigmund Freud, who came up with this model. The instinctual id and the uptight superego battle for supremacy in our minds with the ego as a realistic mediator. This became the setting for one of the most interesting film from the Walt Disney Studios. The film renames the id and the superego as emotion and reason, and cuts out the ego middleman, but the basic idea still exists. The id just wants to do what is exciting while the superego tries to remain on a straitlaced path. The first half of the film shows how the two interact in the mind of a baby, an adult male, and an adult female. This sequence is quite interesting, although it really does paint too simple of a picture of the psyche. Then again, considering emotion is portrayed as a caveman while reason is portrayed as a boring accountant type I don't think realism is what Disney was going for with Reason and Emotion. In fact, their true motive becomes quite evident in the second half. It shows how a man gets caught up in the emotional news from the front and is ready to have emotion take full control. Then it looks at how the Nazi soldier, under the spell of Hitler's charisma, becomes dominated by emotion. Yes, Reason and Emotion is a propaganda film, one of many that Disney made during World War II. At least it does so in a very interesting way. The presence of the reason and emotion characters make the film quite interesting, especially with their interaction in the mind of the Nazi soldier, although their faux-German accents sound faux-Asian at times. And the scene of having the war rumors comparing war rumors to animal noises is also well done. Reason and Emotion may be quite a transparent film, but it is a good effort by Disney.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Yankee Doodle Mouse
While the brave American GIs were fighting the war against the Axis, another war was going on in a much less exotic location, your basement, that is no less violent than the one going on in Europe and the Pacific. That's right, the battle between cat and mouse is raging on. What the mouse lacks in physical strength he makes up for it in ingenuity and superior weaponry. But is that going to be enough to defeat the cat, who has gathered weapons of his own? In 1943, World War II was raging on and many studios were making films to rally the people back home and improve morale. Pretty soon even William Hanna and Joe Barbera, got in on the action with their popular Tom and Jerry films. No, they didn't have Tom and Jerry fighting the Nazis or the Japs, which is what Disney and Warner Bros. did with their mascot characters, or what MGM's own Tex Avery did a year earlier with his Oscar nominated Blitz Wolf. Instead they just restaged a small scale battle in a cellar pitting Jerry against Tom. And instead of the usual physical slapstick, the two duke it out with weapons and vehicles made out of everyday household items. Eggs and corks have become grenades while a cheese grater and egg cartons have become a jeep and an airplane. But the weapon of choice for the two are fireworks. Yes, they can blow each other up and look fabulous doing it. While the war theme using household goods is good, the slapstick seems to be quite typical for Tom and Jerry. There are some nifty highlights, such as Tom and Jerry getting into a physical form of the old Warner Bros. back and forth gag. Still, it is a propaganda film in a way, and by leaving the Nazis and Japs out of it The Yankee Doodle Mouse holds up even after the end of the war.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here are the six nominees, representative of every studio except for Terrytoons and Famous Studios. Once again the three biggest studios have come out with the best work, although the distance between them and the lesser studios have never been smaller. 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins is quite a solid work from Puppetoons, and Imagination isn't that bad. Still, the films of Warner Bros., MGM, and Disney win out in the end. Reason and Emotion has the highest production values, but the blatant propaganda nature feels very dated 70 years later. The Yankee Doodle Mouse manages to fit in patriotism with the slapstick, but still feels very much like a normal Tom and Jerry film. Greetings Bait may win out in the end, because the shots from the crab's vantage point and the ending are just too classic. Still, the Academy chose to give the Oscar to The Yankee Doodle Mouse, marking the first win for the cat and mouse duo. It is far from being the last.

My rankings (by quality)
Greetings Bait > The Yankee Doodle Mouse > Reason and Emotion > 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins > Imagination > The Dizzy Acrobat

My rankings (by preference)
Reason and Emotion > 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins > Imagination > Greetings Bait > The Yankee Doodle Mouse > The Dizzy Acrobat

1 comment:

  1. As a kid, the earliest I seen of "Reason and Emotion" came from clips they would play on The Disney Channel during some show, I see in the 60's part of the film was used in an episode of the popular Disney TV anthology program that had Ludwig Von Drake narrating it, though most of the Hitler footage and references to WWII were removed otherwise.