Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Best Animated Short - 1939
Ah, 1939, the last year of the Depressing '30s. It is the year that Germany invaded Poland, thereby turning what had previously been a messy conflict going on in China into a true World War. It was the year a young kid named Ted Williams burst onto the scene fresh from the beaches of San Diego and led the league in RBIs while blasting 31 home runs, but not even he can help the Red Sox topple the Yankees, who went on to win their fourth straight pennant en route to their fourth straight World Series title over Willard Hershberger's Reds.
But for most people, 1939 is the pinnacle of Hollywood moviemaking. Oh, there have been several other great years. 1994 was a particularly good year (Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption), and so were 1951 (A Streetcar Named Desire, The African Queen), 1959 (Ben-Hur, North By Northwest, Some Like It Hot), 1969 (Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), 1974 (Chinatown, The Godfather Part II), 1976 (Rocky, Network, Taxi Driver), but for most film fanatics 1939 was tops.
And why not? When the first AFI 100 Years...100 Movies list was unveiled in 1998, five of the films were from 1939. The number shrunk to three in the repeat in 2007, but that still doesn't diminish the luster of the sheer quality of the films from the year. Chief of the films from this year is the sweeping Civil War and Reconstruction epic Gone With the Wind. Despite its four hour running length, it won the hearts of moviegoers and is still the highest grossing film adjusted for inflation. There was also the magical musical The Wizard of Oz. While it was not the first Technicolor film that I grew up believing it was, it's still a wonderful little adventure about the power of friendship and the the concept of home. The third film on both AFI lists was the Frank Capra's black and white Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, about an idealistic young senator and his heroic stand against the corrupt political machine. You know, typical Capra stuff, but it made a star out of Jimmy Stewart.
All three films wound up with nominations for Best Picture, with Gone With the Wind leading the way with 13 nominations and Mr. Smith following up with 11 nods. The Wizard of Oz was a bit further behind with only six nominations to its name. The other Best Picture nominations went to the haunting adaptation of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (eight nominations), the touching Goodbye, Mr. Chips (seven nominations), the Western ensemble Stagecoach (seven nominations), the romantic Love Affair (six nominations), the romantic comedy Ninotchka where Garbo laughs (four nominations), the gritty adaptation of Of Mice and Men (four nominations), and the dramatic Bette Davis vehicle Dark Victory (three nominations). Of those the Best Director nominations went to Frank Capra for Mr. Smith, Victor Fleming for Gone With the Wind, John Ford for Stagecoach, Sam Wood for Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and William Wyler for Wuthering Heights.
The Wizard of Oz started off well, as it won Oscars for Best Music (Original Score) and Best Original Song for "Over the Rainbow," a song that MGM executives almost left on the cutting room floor. It beat out the song "Faithful Forever" from the Fleischer animated film Gulliver's Travels. Meanwhile, the Best Music (Scoring) award went to Stagecoach. Best Sound was a surprise as it went to the romance film When Tomorrow Comes. In the visual technical categories, only Cinematography was split into Black and White and Color, with Gregg Toland winning Black/White for Wuthering Heights and Gone With the Wind winning for Color. The latter film also won for Best Art Direction and Best Editing. Best Special Effects went instead to the romance drama set in India The Rains Came. Best Writing (Screenplay) went to Sidney Howard for Gone With the Wind, who had died shortly before the film's release in a farming accident, making him the first individual to win a posthumous Oscar. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington won the other writing Oscar for Original Story.
1939 was an especially good year for actor Thomas Mitchell. He played a major part in Gone With the Wind as Scarlett O'Hara's father Gerald. He had a minor part in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and several more films, but he will probably remember his role in Stagecoach because it won him an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Meanwhile Best Supporting Actress was the source of a lot of intrigue, as it features two actresses from Gone With the Wind: Olivia de Havilland, who played the suffering Melanie, and Hattie McDaniel, who played the fiery Mammy. The latter nomination was historical, as it was the first nomination for an African American in any category and an impressive achievement in the era of fierce racial segregation. Even more impressive was when she actually went on to win the Oscar and accepted the award before going back to sit in her segregated table. Best Actress went to McDaniel's Gone With the Wind co-star Vivien Leigh. Meanwhile, Best Actor featured a list that included Leigh's real-life husband Laurence Olivier for Wuthering Heights, Jimmy Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Clark Gable for Gone With the Wind, Mickey Rooney for the musical film Babes in Arms, and British actor Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips. In a stunning turn of events, the Oscar actually went to Donat.
Still, there was no doubt where the top awards were going. The Wizard of Oz and Stagecoach had won two Oscars, but that did not compare to Gone With the Wind, which had won a record six competitive Oscars, plus an honorary Oscars for art director William Cameron Menzies for his use of color and a technical Oscar for R.D. Musgrave. Therefore there was no surprise when Fleming took home Best Director and the film won Best Picture to cap its impressive haul at eight Oscars and to cap a historical year in the movies.
So history was being made in the live action side of things. Could the same be said about the animated shorts from that year? It was the first year that saw four nominations. Were any of them any good?
The Isle of Pingo Pongo, about a fictional island in the Pacific. While the film is banned now, it had enough popularity to warrant another film, this time about a country that hits closer to home, the United States of America. Of course, the presence of a parody of the fictitious persons disclaimer in the beginning is a sign of the inanity that is about to happen, and inanity is what you get. The film is earnest enough, with fairly specific locales, but each is paired with a visual gag or an unexpected situational gag. For example, the Indian snake dance is a dance with actual snakes. And a mosquito in the Everglades reacts to getting slapped with a loud "Ouch." The entire film is filled with these quirky jokes. Unfortunately, I don't find them to be pretty funny, and many of them are quite lame. The animation is very high in quality, and Robert C. Brien is great as the calm and collected narrator. Still, it isn't among the apex of Tex Avery's films, and there could have been better films to be the first film nominated after Leon Schlesinger ended his boycott of submitting films to the Academy Awards.
Where Can I Watch It?
Warner Bros. has been pretty active in removing their films, even films that were not included on the Warner Bros. Academy Award Animation Collection like this one, but it's still available in poor condition on DailyMotion.
Peace on Earth
Good Will to Men, the 1955 film from Hanna and Barbera about the destruction of man. As I mentioned then, that was actually a remake of this earlier film by ex-Disney animator Hugh Harman of Harman and Ising fame. It was a rather bold film, to use a medium that at the time had primarily been used for comedy and entertainment to express a serious message. When the film was made it had been just 20 years since Armistace ended the Great War and war was beginning to break out again in Asia and Europe. It could have been just a way to spout isolationist propaganda, but the film instead addresses the human tendency to wage war. It even provides an example by saying wars can break out over something as small as being vegetarian or meat-eaters. It's the sort of cynicism seem in modern cartoons today like South Park, but Parker and Stone would probably take it to the next level by showing wars breaking out between the small forest animals of Peaceville, but I digress. Peace on Earth shows some shocking images of war and climaxes in a showdown between the last two men, whose features were obscured by horrendous gas masks. While the legends of this film being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize may not be true, and the breakout of World War II shortly after this film's release muddles the film's message, it is still a powerful film over 70 years after its initial release.
Where Can I Watch It?
Mickey's Surprise Party. However, the true star of The Pointer is Mickey's loyal and underappreciated mutt Pluto. His expressive emotions in spite of his fully non-anthropomorphized design are what drives the film, both when he playfully chases after quails and stand motionless pointing at the quails. Meanwhile Mickey once again plays the role of the dense, non-understanding owner that he did in Squatter's Rights and Mickey and the Seal. Seriously, he spends almost a whole minute throwing every insult he can think of at Pluto, then spends the rest of the film physically tormenting a bear thinking it's his loyal dog. Naturally, I feel that the story for The Pointer is fairly weak, and the jokes aren't much better. It's not all bad, though. It does have some lush backgrounds that capture the feel of the great outdoors, and Walt Disney is decent in voicing Mickey, although his character is quite unlikeable. Still, The Pointer probably won't go down as one of the top Mickey Mouse shorts.
Where Can I Watch It?
Silly Symphonies. That film kept the outsider theme but changed virtually everything else about the story. The ugly duckling was an actual duckling in a family of chickens. Eight years later, when Disney was getting retired the Silly Symphonies, he took another crack at the "Ugly Duckling" story, this time sticking much closer to Anderson's original story. The film also featured much more realistic animation of the animals, and even simulating their speech using quacks and honks. It's got the typical scenes of the ugly duckling getting rejected by a couple of families and a giant wooden duck that he meets (really a lure), and with the almost-anthropomorphic expressions you get to feel the poor thing's plight. Of course, what really struck me about the film, other than the sound design, was that it actually dared to show a father accusing his wife of infidelity followed by a split-up captured on screen. Yeah, it's only non-anthropomorphic ducks, but it's still rather shocking. Ugly Duckling was an excellent adaptation of the Anderson fairy tale, and a great way for the Silly Symphonies to go out with a splash.
Where Can I Watch It?
Well, here are the four films nominated for the Oscar. It was a fairly good bunch, but in reality two films stood up above the rest. Ugly Duckling was a great adaptation of a classic fairy tale, while Peace on Earth was a bold look at the destructive nature of man and a call for peace. Of the two, I would probably say Peace on Earth is better. It had a much more powerful message, one that resonates even today, and the production values were up there with the best Disney had to offer. Furthermore, its visions of war were much more shocking than the breakup featured in Ugly Duckling. However, the Best Animated Short category might has well have been called the Best Disney Short Film category, as Ugly Duckling helped Walt Disney win his eighth consecutive Oscar in this one category. It wasn't the worst win in the 1930s, but the Academy really missed out on a chance to honor something special.
My rankings (by quality and preference)
Peace on Earth > Ugly Duckling > The Pointer > Detouring America