Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1940

Well, we're in the year of 1940. It's not quite as memorable as 1941, but it's got its moments. One significant moment was the suicide of Willard Hershberger. Hershberger was a catcher with the Cincinnati Reds. You'd think that somebody that's played baseball at the major leagues would be set for life, but you'd be dead wrong. There is nothing more mentally stressful than a career in professional sports. Think about it, you spend essentially your whole life dedicating yourself to a sport, where you dominated at virtually every level. Then you get thrust into a work environment where all of a sudden your best may not be good enough, and even if it is and you do get to the majors, you'd have to maintain your level of performance lest somebody else takes your job. And you don't have anything to fall back on. Those that are not on solid ground mentally usually do something drastic once their careers end.

History is littered with players that decided to end their lives: Catcher Marty Bergen killed himself and his family in 1900. Popular young star Win Mercer drank gas to end his life. A pitcher named Pea Ridge Day slit his throat after an unsuccessful operation on his pitching arm. And Christy Mathewson's brother Nicholas shot himself in the head from the stresses of trying to maintain his studies while playing professional ball. It's a brutal track record.

And Willard Hershberger's suicide is one of the more famous ones. He was a star athlete in high school who played alongside future Hall of Famer Arky Vaughan and future president Richard Nixon. However, underneath the golden boy record lies a sinister history of mental disorder. His father had been depressed and killed himself with a shotgun, with young Willard finding the body. This event will stay with him for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Willard was good enough to get signed by the Yankees as a catcher, where he hit well in the minors, but found his path to the majors blocked by star catcher Bill Dickey. He was eventually traded to the Reds once the Yankees found him too old, where he made his debut as a backup catcher to Ernie Lombardi, who would deal with issues of depression of his own, in 1938. He played well in his role and helped the team to the 1939 World Series, where they were swept by the Reds. However, teammate noted some erratic behavior, talking about death and suicide.

He continued in his role as backup in 1940, but then Lombardi got hurt in July and Hershberger was thrust into the starting role. He had difficulty adjusting and his hitting soon struggled, sending his batting average from a high of .378 to .309. Moreover, the team was starting to lose, and while they had a comfortable lead, Hershberger was taking the losses hard, especially after he felt he let the team down with not only his offense but his defense and play-calling. After a crushing double-header loss to the lowly Boston Bees, Hershberger confided with manager Bill McKechnie that he wanted to kill himself. McKechnie tried to console the young man and soon Willard was feeling better. The next day, however, he excused himself from the ballpark where they continued the series against the Bees. While his teammates were beating up on the Bees with Lombardi returning to the lineup, Hershberger used his roommate's razor to slit his jugular veins. He was the first active player to commit suicide in the middle of the season. His teammates were devastated, but they resolved to play for Willard, and they did, winning the pennant and the World Series. In tribute to their teammate they "retired" his number 5, although they re-issued it a few years later and kept issuing it until Johnny Bench came and retired it for good. Still, his dark legacy is still there for baseball fans to find as long as they choose to go looking for it.

Anyways, I don't know what made me post about something this dark as an opener. Let's go onto the Oscars.

Alfred Hitchcock is one of the most famous directors, best known for his suspenseful films. He got his start in England where he was extremely successful with films like The 39 Steps and The Lady Vanishes. He signed a contract with David O. Selznick to make films in Hollywood, and his first films was Rebecca, a film based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier. The film was extremely popular, and received 11 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, alongside Hitchcock's second Hollywood picture Foreign Correspondent, which received six. No other film received more than seven. The other Best Picture nominees were The Grapes of Wrath (seven nominations), The Letter (seven nominations), The Long Voyage Home (six nominations), Our Town (six nominations), The Philadelphia Story (six nominations), The Great Dictator (five nominations), Kitty Foyle (five nominations), and All This, and Heaven Too (three nominations). The Best Director nominations went to Hitchcock (for Rebecca), George Cukor (for The Philadelphia Story), John Ford (for The Grapes of Wrath), Sam Wood (for Kitty Foyle), and William Wyler (for The Letter).

Rebecca was one of 17 films nominated for Best Music (Original Score), but ended up losing to Disney's classic Pinocchio, which also won Best Original Song for "When You Wish Upon a Star." Best Music (Score) went to Tin Pan Alley. Another musical, Strike Up the Band, won Best Sound. Black and White films still dominated the visual technical awards, with Rebecca winning its first Oscar for B/W Cinematography against nine other films, while it was one of 12 films to lose Best B/W Art Direction to the Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Meanwhile, The Thief of Baghdad only had to beat five other films to win Best Color Cinematography and only three other films to win Best Color Art Direction. It also won Best Special Effects. Best Editing went to North West Mounted Police, the Cecil B. DeMille film that lent its name to the Droopy classic Northwest Hounded Police. In the writing categories, The Philadelphia Story won Best Writing (Screenplay), The Great McGinty won Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for director Preston Sturges's only Oscar, and Arise, My Love won Best Writing (Original Story).

For the acting categories, Best Supporting Actor went to Walter Brennan, who won for The Westener to set a record with his third acting Oscar, all in the Supporting Actor category. Jane Darwell won Best Supporting Actress for her emotional role as Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, beating out the chilling Judith Anderson for Rebecca. James Stewart won a loaded Best Actor ballot that included Charlie Chaplin (for The Great Dictator), Henry Fonda (for The Grapes of Wrath), and Laurence Olivier (for Rebecca) in his role in The Philadelphia Story. Many felt that this was more of a consolation prize for losing the year earlier for his more classic role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. And Ginger Rogers finally broke out of her role as being Fred Astaire's love interest to win Best Actress for Kitty Foyle, beating out Katherine Hepburn (for The Philadelphia Story), Bette Davis (for The Letter), and Joan Fontaine (for Rebecca).

At this point, the leader in wins was The Thief of Baghdad with three Oscars, but it was only nominated for technical Oscars and didn't have much of a chance in the final awards. Of the Best Picture nominees The Philadelphia Story had two wins, in the screenplay and acting categories. If it can just win Best Director then it would have the top prize sewn up, a just reward for turning Katherine Hepburn from box office poison to a star again. However, the Academy put a dint in its plans by giving Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Would the Academy give it to the film that has the screenplay award and an acting Oscar? Or the film with the directing award and an acting Oscar? And they went with...neither of them! They gave Best Picture to the film with the most nominations, but whose only other win was for Black and White Cinematography! But Rebecca overcame its loss in the screenplay category, three acting categories, and Best Director to win Best Picture. This sort of thing doesn't happen anymore. The Greatest Show on Earth is the only other Best Picture winner with only two wins since Rebecca, but at least it won a screenplay Oscar.

Still, that is not exactly the most shocking thing about the Oscars that year. The most shocking thing was that there were three nominees for Best Animated Short, and a Disney film wasn't one of them! After eight straight years winning the category, their streak ends in a shocking way. This was so surprising it was even addressed in one of my modules in the History of Animation course! What three films were nominated in its stead?

The Milky Way
Three little kittens lost their mittens when they went outside to play, and when they tried to do the right thing by telling their mother about their transgression they were called naughty and sent to bed without their nightly milk. The little kittens were none too happy about this, but one of the kittens looked outside at the night sky and saw the Milky Way. Surely there would be plenty of milk up there. So they tied balloons to a basket and sailed off to the Milky Way. They make it and it is indeed a milk wonderland, but is it too good to be true? The Milky Way is a film by Rudolf Ising, the former Disney collaborator in both Kansas City and California. The film is based loosely on the old nursery rhyme about the three little kittens who lost their mittens and couldn't get any pie, one of the greatest punishments ever incurred. In the film their punishment was changed to getting no milk, because the plot really serves as more of a framing device for what is more of an imaginative tale of three little kittens that go on an adventure in the land of milk and cheese. The film manages to include a whole lot of gags centered around milk, even adding some things that aren't related to milk but have the word milk in the name, such as using milkweed to spray milk and milk of magnesia. Yes, there isn't much in this film as far as substance goes. but it's still an enjoyable little film anyways. The kittens are adorable little buggers, and the music is great as well, even if some of the lyrics are kind of hard to understand. The best part of the film may well be the kitten's journey where they pass by a couple of astronomical landmarks portrayed in different ways, such as comets being like trains or shooting stars being artillery from an eternal battle going up on Mars. The Milky Way isn't going to challenge anybody intellectually, but it's still a fun little film to cheer somebody up when they've had a bad day.
Where Can I Watch It?

Puss Gets the Boot
Jasper the Cat has a pretty good life, with a comfortable home, good food and a nameless mouse that he could torment. Yes, things were good for Jasper, but all that was about to change. While he was trying to chase the mouse, he ran into a column with a houseplant, breaking it. His family's Mammy threatens him with getting thrown out of the house if he breaks one more soon, and soon the mouse became some sort of a jinx, and would use the threat of breaking wine glasses as leverage. What can Jasper do to get back at the mouse? MGM's animation division wasn't doing so hot back in 1939. Sure, they had an Oscar nominated team in Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising, but their series of cartoons based on the comic strip Captain and the Kids were a total failure, and they were looking to be as irrelevant as Columbia. In desperation, the upper levels paired storyman Joe Barbera with director William Hanna, and all they can come up with is a cartoon involving a cat and a mouse, being the oldest type of gag there is. Fred Quimby was getting ready to prepare his resume for a new job, but then Hanna and Barbera came out with Puss Gets the Boot. The film is still a film about a cat and a mouse, but introduced an interesting dynamic where different characters have the advantage at different time. Jasper starts out by tormenting the mouse, but then the mouse gains the upper hand. The shift means audiences don't know what will happen next. The gags were funny, even if the pacing is a bit slow. The characters were anthropomorphized to a small degree for audiences to relate with them, and the music that often uses the tune of "Three Blind Mice" keeps things interesting even while little is happening. Despite an initially icy reception, Puss Gets the Boot turned out to be a huge hit and was nominated for an Oscar. Quimby quickly commissioned a series for the cat and mouse, who were now dubbed Tom and Jerry. The rest, as they say, is history.
Where Can I Watch It?

A Wild Hare
Elmer Fudd, a hunter with a speech impediment, is trying to bag himself a wabbit to add to his personal collection. He tiptoes quietly through the woods and comes across a wabbit hole. He uses a carrot to lure the wabbit out and comes in contact with the wabbit. He tries to dig into the hole when some annoying guy munching on a carrot starts asking him questions. Elmer suspects the guy is a wabbit, who basically confirms it by screaming in his ears. Elmer tries to outsmart the wabbit, but finds that this particularly wabbit is much tougher customer than he expected. Can he ever catch that wabbit? A Wild Hare is remembered today as being the first appearance of Bugs Bunny, the greatest of the Warner Bros. mascot character and according to the TV Guide the greatest cartoon character in history. While it's true that A Wild Hare introduced the Bugs persona, with his carrot-munching (reportedly based off of Clark Gable in It Happened One Night), New York accent, and the "What's Up, Doc?" catchphrase, there have been wisecracking rabbits in earlier films starting with Porky's Hare Hunt in 1938. The rabbit character would evolve in his later appearances until A Wild Hare, which takes the Elmer vs. rabbit showdown from the rabbit's previous appearance in Elmer's Candid Camera with the hunting scenario from the rabbit's first appearance. While the film lacks the frantic zaniness of some of Avery's later films with MGM, it's still hilarious, even if some of the gags seemed lifted from Candid Camera. The unexpectedness of some of Bugs's antics, such as his kisses and exaggerated screams, combined with some of Elmer's obliviousness really leads to a lot of laughs. And Bugs's nonchalant "What's up, doc?" was the favorite joke of audiences of 1940. His calmness in the face of somebody that really wants to kill him really made him a compelling character for audiences, and coolness that would be an important part of Bugs's eventual rise to the pinnacle of the animation world. While A Wild Hare is remembered today for its historical value of finalizing the persona of one of animation's most legendary characters, it's still a blisteringly funny film today, over 70 years after its debut.
Where Can I Watch It?

While The Milky Way was a cute and enjoyable little film with some adorable animation and nice music, that's pretty much all it is as it lacks the quality of the other two competitors. Puss Gets the Boot and A Wild Hare have excellent gags, and their status in the animation world have gone up in the years to come due to the historical value for being the debut films of some of animation's most enduring characters. Of those I feel that A Wild Hare happens to be the funnier of the two, thereby making it better accomplish its goals of entertaining the audiences. And what happens? The Academy was charmed by the cute little kittens and awarded the Oscar to The Milky Way, thus making it the first film not made by Disney to win the Oscar. This was especially rewarding to Rudolf Ising, who shared the Oscar with Fred Quimby. He can lay claim to be the first person to break the long streak in this category by his old pal, Walt Disney.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
A Wild Hare > Puss Gets the Boot > The Milky Way

No comments:

Post a Comment