Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1937

Well, in another week and a half I will be taking my COMLEX Step 3 exam. You'd think I'd be so busy studying that I won't have time to write these reviews, but well, I am studying, but you do have to have study breaks. The good thing about going to q 2 week reviews is that I won't have to take as many of these study breaks or something to waste my day on reviews. I mean, it's fun to do these reviews and all, but I hate how I spend an hour reviewing each film because I have to look up some interesting facts that often times don't have anything to do with the film.

Meh. I've got nothing to say about 1937. Let's just go on to the Oscars from that year.

Emile Zola was a great writer from the late 19th century, possibly one of the greatest French writers of all time. He's the author of several great pieces of literature, but his most lasting legacy is his involvement in unmasking government corruption in the Alfred Dreyfus affair, where an officer of Jewish descent was wrongly accused of selling military secrets to Germany. His bold political stance was celebrated, and it became the subject of the film The Life of Emile Zola, which received the biggest haul in Oscar nominations, with 10, including Best Picture. The other Best Picture contenders went to Frank Capra's epic fantasy about visitors stranded in the mysterious 世外桃源 of Shangri-La, Lost Horizon (seven nominations), the original version of the classic behind-the-scenes film A Star is Born (seven nominations), the screwball comedy with Cary Grant The Awful Truth (six nominations), the dramatization of the Great Chicago Fire In Old Chicago (six nominations), the adaptation of the Pearl S. Buck novel set in China The Good Earth (five nominations), the musical picture that is not about an orgy One Hundred Men and a Girl (five nominations), the Spencer Tracy adventure film Captains Courageous (four nominations), the gritty urban drama Dead End (four nominations), and the comic musical Stage Door (four nominations). The Best Director nominations went to William Dieterle (for The Life of Emile Zola), Sidney Franklin (for The Good Earth), Gregory La Cava (for Stage Door), Leo McCarey (for The Awful Truth), and William A. Wellman (for A Star is Born).

It's an impressive list of films to be sure, but inexplicably missing was the film that was not only the biggest box office hit of films released in 1937, but 76 years later still remains the most memorable film of the year. I'm talking about none other than Walt Disney's Folly Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs*. Disney has had a lot of success with his animated Silly Symphony and Mickey Mouse short films, and decided to use that success to do something that no other animation studio had done before: make a full length feature film with cel-animation*. Everybody but Disney was incredulous. The media dubbed the project "Disney's Folly" and even those close to him were dubious that it would work. Yet Disney was determined to see it through, even mortgaging his house. After three years of production, the film finally opened in December 1937 and charmed the entire country, even the critics that initially scoffed at him. It made back its budget several times, and quickly became the highest grossing sound picture, a record it held for two years. The Academy honored Walt Disney for the achievement with an honorary Oscar that included one statuette and seven small statuettes. Unfortunately, the Academy was more than happy to keep the animated films within the Best Animated Short category, and despite being a critical and financial success, Snow White was only nominated for one Oscar in Best Music (Score), which it promptly lost to One Hundred Men and a Girl. It was the beginning of a rather rocky relationship between the Academy and animated feature films.

*There were other animated feature films before Snow White, most notably Lotte Reiniger's The Adventures of Prince Achmed, but all of those films were either stop motion or cutout.

The other categories didn't really feature much surprise. Legendary choreographer Hermes Pan won the third and final Oscar for Best Dance Direction for Fred Astaire plus George and Gracie musical A Damsel in Distress for the Fun House dance number, leaving Bubsy Berkeley 0 for 3 in the category. The song "Sweet Leilani" won Best Original Song for Waikiki Wedding, while the sea-based adventure film The Hurricane won Best Sound. The Good Earth won for its Cinematography as one of three nominees, while Lost Horizon won for both Best Art Direction and Best Editing. The writing awards went to The Life of Emile Zola for Screenplay and A Star is Born for Original Story. Robert D. Webb won the very last Best Assistant Director Oscar for In Old Chicago. In the acting categories, Joseph Schildkraut won Best Supporting Actor for The Life of Emile Zola in a riveting performance as the wrongly convicted Alfred Dreyfus. Meanwhile Alice Brady won Best Supporting Actress as the role of the O'Leary matriarch in In Old Chicago. In one of the most bizarre moments in Oscar history, Brady could not make it to the ceremony so somebody came and accepted the award in behalf. Unfortunately, Brady did not send this individual and never did get her plaque. She died from cancer in 1939. Meanwhile, Best Actor went to Spencer Tracy for Captains Courageous, a role that was parodied a year later in the Oscar nominated Disney film Mother Goose Goes Hollywood. Meanwhile, Best Actress went to Luise Rainer for her role as the physically weak but strong-willed matriarch in The Good Earth, despite being a German trying to pass off as Chinese. It was still a historic win as she became the first performer to win back to back acting Oscars.

At this point in the ceremony, four films have won two Oscars: The Good Earth, In Old Chicago, The Life of Emile Zola, and Lost Horizon. The Best Director Oscar is pretty crucial as two of those two-win films were nominated for Best Director, and A Star is Born had one win and an Honorary Oscar for it's color cinematography. And to most people's surprise Leo McCarey came out and won the Best Director award for The Awful Truth. Now the Best Picture award can go any direction. It could go to one of the two-win films nominated for Best Director, one of the two-win films that missed out on Best Director, The Awful Truth which won Best Director, or one of the other Best Picture nominees that had one or no wins. And the final award goes to: the film with the most nominations! That's right, The Life of Emile Zola took home the big award of the night. The film's legacy is still up in the air. On one hand it won a spot in the prestigious National Film Preservation Board. On the other hand, it often ranks near the top of lists of the Worst Best Picture Winners. It's probably ultimately ranks somewhere in between, but nowadays it's largely forgotten, remembered only as the film that won Best Picture in the year of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Would such a fate rest upon the winner of Best Animated Short?

Educated Fish
It's a beautiful morning under the sea, and all of the little fishes are getting ready to go to school, because education is important for any fish. However, there is one fish that is none too happy about being stuck in school, the incorrigible Tommy Cod. He chooses not to pay attention to the lesson at hand and play tricks on his classmates and his teacher instead. For his efforts he gets thrown into time out, but he manages to swim out and play hooky as he is unsupervised, but he soon learns the importance of importance of the day's lesson. Is it too late for young Tommy? The idea of fishes going to school because they swim in schools sure seems to be a pretty old cliche, and it forms the basis of this Color Classic from the legendary Fleischer Studios. The film is called Educated Fish, but a more appropriate name should be The Education of Tommy Cod, as the film is about little Tommy and how he learned that sometimes what you learn in school can be much more important than you think. The actual school scenes take up barely half of the seven and a half minute short and portrays Tommy as a rambunctious and apathetic youngster. The rest of the film is his life-changing experience. You'd think that with three minutes of screen time Tommy would go through numerous challenges stemming from his lack of education, but it's really only one. He spends a minute flirting with a Mae West-like worm before getting caught on the fish hook, then spends another minute and a half fighting the fisherman. The sequence feels a lot like fighting with the big fish in the fishing hole in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. And while the film has a happy ending, you really have to wonder how much Tommy did learn considering Tommy is back to his hooky-playing ways two years later in Small Fry. Fleischer Studios has been known for their progressive animation, and this is the film's strong suit. The character animation is quite good, and they included a lot of interesting little visual humor. I like seeing Tommy's dance around to the song in school while wearing his grumpy expression. The voice acting is also decent. Educated Fish is a decent little film, but unfortunately the film's story just seems a bit too slight for it to be a masterpiece.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Little Match Girl
It is New Year's, as a wild and possibly inebriated young lady likes to remind us, and the throngs of people are wildly celebrating the fact that they are one year closer to their death. In the midst of all of the happy people there is a small little girl with cherubic eyes trying to sell her matchsticks, but the cheering crowd seems more interested in teasing her than buying her ware. Freezing in the cold night, she decides to use her own matchsticks to keep warm. The matchsticks remind her of a better life, and she is transported to a dream land with angels. Is it too good to be true? As we have mentioned in the past, Columbia's legacy in animation is best known for their collaboration with the ground-breaking UPA studios, as their Color Rhapsody years under Charles Mintz Studios and Screen Gems have been marked by a struggle for survival. Yet the Color Rhapsodies were not a complete failure. They came up the memorable Fox and Crow characters, which served as launching pads for UPA. And they came up with this gem of a film, based on the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. We've already seen the Disney version in our blog, the one that ranked as my second favorite nominee from 2002-2011. The Columbia version came almost 70 years earlier and featured a little more deviation from the Anderson film, but it's still a gem of a film. The main departure is the addition of the almost psychedelic dream world sequence where the little girl goes to a land of angels and dolls and happiness where a choir sings something unintelligible. It's a well animated scene whose feelings of warm joy is a good contrast to the coldness of the weather and the celebrating crowd in the opening scene. However, the sequence also gets kind of boring. Maybe I'm not very sentimental and can't handle that kind of mushiness, but it lasts for well over three minutes. Yet just as it gets too cloyingly sweet, the film sends the little match girl a harsh dose of reality as the paradise collapses around her. The sequence is shocking in its starkness, although that was a little bit tempered by the use of repeat animation, but the sight of the little girl's doll falling apart limb by limb in the wind is shocking, and the scene of the girl reaching out towards a melting candle is very powerful. My sister says that she didn't like the film because the dream sequence was too boring and the match girl was too ugly. I'll concede that the character animation of the film really isn't up to sniff, but The Little Match Girl is still a very powerful film, one that I'm sure touched many Americans going through the Great Depression for the time, and it is without a doubt the masterpiece film among the Color Rhapsodies.
Where Can I Watch It?
This version cuts out the shockingly dark ending, because we all know Hollywood loves a happy ending. The uploader then adds the cut ending at the end. It's a disruptive way of watching it, but then again it's in much better condition than the other complete version that has the sound of the 16mm projector playing in the background the entire time.

The Old Mill
An old abandoned windmill from the early days of the industrial revolution sits unused and decaying next to a pond, but it is far from useless. The old building had become a home for several wild animals, from bats that live in the ceiling to a family of bluebirds that live in an old wooden cogwheel. One evening the animals go about their regular life, not knowing the excitement that the night would bring to them. A group of bullfrogs sit around singing a melody, but they are interrupted by a storm that will threaten their lives and homes. Can the mill survive the night? The Old Mill is one of the classics in Disney short animation. Today it is best known for being the first film to use Disney's multiplane camera. Animators have always been trying to get a sense of depth in their films, as early as Reiniger in Prince Achmed. Fleischer Studios came out with the stereoptic camera which allowed photography of cels in front of a 3D model. Disney engineer Bill Garity developed the multiplane camera for use in their feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the studio decided to test it out with the film The Old Mill. The effects were pleasing to Disney, and they went on to use the multiplane camera for the next 50 years. As somebody born almost 50 years after The Old Mill, I've come to take the depth of the backgrounds for granted as it was used it most Disney animated films that came later. Growing up, my sister and I used to find the film boring, because it lacked the slapstick gags that we were accustomed to in our animated films. However, looking back I see that while it was lacking in the humor department, that was perhaps one of its charm. Here was a rare Disney film that did not feature any anthropomorphized characters at all, but you still connected with them. The scene with the female bluebird and the water wheel is one of the most thrilling in any Disney short film not because of the element of suspense in its execution, but also because you were worried whether or not the bluebird with her three little eggs would be okay. I think this is ability to create believable non-anthropomorphic characters is a testament to the animation department, just as the special effects departments deserve props for their work in the storm scene. All that combine to create one of the greatest Silly Symphony films in Disney history, and one that I'm sure convinced Disney of the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, there are the three films, the last time in the 1930s with only three nominees. Of these three Educated Fish is the one that is just glad to just be there. It doesn't quite match up to the strength of the other two. The Little Match Girl was a highly emotional film that was a great adaptation of the classic Anderson short story, while The Old Mill was a highly poetic film that ushered in a revolutionary piece of animation technology. As great as it was, The Little Match Girl falls short due to the tediousness of the dream world sequence. And the Academy agreed, and gave the Oscar to The Old Mill. It could be seen as a consolation award for the Academy completely giving Snow White the shaft in its competitive categories, but that would be unfair to the artistry of The Old Mill. I mean, it was even parodied in The Simpsons*

*In the same episode that featured Randy Johnson's cameo, no less.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
The Old Mill > The Little Match Girl > Educated Fish


  1. It could be seen as a consolation award for the Academy completely giving Snow White the shaft in its competitive categories, but that would be unfair to the artistry of The Old Mill. I mean, it was even parodied in The Simpsons*

    Now if only "The Old Mill" had Raymond Scott to do the music too. :-P

  2. There is once a man by the last name of Daniel Thomas Dorsch, whose last name means cod. Look at the last two names, and it is like Tommy Cod! Daniel Dorsch died very unexpectedly.