Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1938

To me, 1938 is one of those years like 1952 that really doesn't stand out. It really felt more of the same in baseball, as the Yankees won their third straight World Series title. Meanwhile Walt Disney won his seventh straight Oscar in the Best Animated Short category. And the films of 1938 were overshadowed by the Hollywood masterpieces that debuted in 1939. Still, if you look closer there are some things about 1938 that stands out.

The film from 1938 that is probably remembered today is Errol Flynn's Technicolor masterpiece The Adventures of Robin Hood. It dazzled audiences with its swashbuckling adventure and splashy Technicolor. And it received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, alongside Frank Capra's You Can't Take It With You (leading the pack with seven nominations), Alexander's Ragtime Band (six nominations), Spencer Tracy's Boys Town (five nominations), Michael Curtiz's Four Daughters (five nominations), Bette Davis's Jezebel (five nominations), King Vidor's The Citadel (four nominations), George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (four nominations), Victor Fleming's Test Pilot (three nominations), and Jean Renoir's Le Grande Illusion (one nomination).

While Grand Illusion was at the bottom of the pack with only one nod, it is the perhaps most significant film in the lineup, not only because it is now recognized as the best film of the group, but also because it broke through as the first foreign language film to be nominated for Best Picture. Alas, it really didn't have much of a chance in the Hollywood-centric Academy. The Best Director category featured four directors for five films, as Curtiz received nominations for both Four Daughters and Angels with Dirty Faces. Not only was the latter film one of only two films to receive a Best Director nomination without a Best Picture nomination in the years with >5 Best Picture nominees, but it was also the last time anybody was nominated twice in the Best Directory category until Steven Soderbergh repeated the feat 62 years later. The other nominations went to Frank Capra (You Can't Take It With You), Norman Taurog (Boys Town), and King Vidor (The Citadel).

The awards started with The Adventures of Robin Hood taking home the Best Music (Original Score) Oscar, while Alexander's Ragtime Band won the corresponding award for Scoring. Best Original Song eventually went to "Thanks for the Memory" for The Big Broadcast of 1938, the song that eventually became one of Bob Hope's most famous songs. The Western romantic comedy The Cowboy and the Lady won the Best Sound recording. Since there were very few Technicolor films, there were only one award for Cinematography and Art Direction, with the former going to The Great Waltz, the film based loosely on the life of Johann Strauss, and The Adventures of Robin Hood winning the latter. Robin Hood also won for Best Editing. In the writing categories, George Bernard Shaw became an Oscar winner when Pygmalion, the film based on his play, received the Best Writing (Screenplay) Oscar. Boys Town won the Best Writing (Original Story) category.

In the acting categories, character actor Walter Brennan won his second straight Best Supporting Actor for the western romance Kentucky as a vindictive old man. Best Supporting Actress went to Fay Bainter, who won for her role as Bette Davis's wise old aunt in Jezebel. Davis later won her second Best Actress title for that role in Jezebel. Meanwhile, Spencer Tracy also became a second-time Oscar winner, winning Best Actor for his inspirational role in Boys Town. Brennan would be only one in the group to go on to win a third Oscar, which he did in 1940 for The Westerner. Tracy would get six more nominations and Davis would get eight more. Together they went 0 for 14 for the rest of their careers.

Up to that point, The Adventure of Robin Hood was in the lead with three wins. Its lack of representation in the Best Director category may be damaging. Two other Best Picture nominees had won two Oscars: Jezebel and Boys Town, the latter of which had a nomination for Best Director. You Can't Take It With You was the leading film in nominees, but has gone 0 for 5. It wouldn't stay that way for long, as Frank Capra proved he was still a darling with the Academy, as he won his second Oscar for You Can't Take It With You. It was a blow to Boys Town, but it can still overcome it for the win. Meanwhile Grand Illusion hadn't even had a chance to compete yet. It could yet pull off the feat of Grand Hotel from six years earlier, which won Best Picture despite no other nominations. Frank Capra put an end to that, as You Can't Take It With You became the first film since Mutiny on the Bounty in 1935 to win Best Picture despite zero wins before the Best Director award. No film would ever duplicate that feat.

1938 was also a historic year in the Best Animated Short category. After six straight years of only three nominees, it was the first year where the nominees were expanded to five. How do the five stack up?

Brave Little Tailor
A monstrous giant is terrorizing the citizens of a small kingdom. The king has put out a reward for the capture of the giant. While the entire city is buzzing about the giant, a little tailor is trying to sew a shirt, but is getting terrorized by seven flies. He manages to kill all seven in one hit, and excitedly brags about his achievement, but his giant-crazed neighbors takes it to mean seven giants. He is brought before the king who tasks him to kill the giant, but he was thinking of flies all the time. Can he catch and defeat the giant? The Valiant Little Tailor is one of the more famous fairy tales of the German Brothers Grimm. It was about a tailor who winds up face to face with a giant but manages to defeat him in a battle of wits. There are other tasks he had to do, but Disney liked the story enough to make it the basis of one of the most popular early Mickey Mouse shorts. It was a rather simplified version of the tale, focusing more of the tailor's confrontation with the giant rather than his outsmarting the king in the original by virtue of the limitations of the nine-minute running time. It is still a rather enjoyable short. Half of the film is dedicated to the build-up of Mickey being sent to the perform dangerous task thanks to his tendency to brag about his accomplishments. This part is enjoyable enough, but the real highlight of the film is when Mickey actually meets the giants. I've always marveled at the how the film portrayed the giant doing rather mundane thing on a larger scale, eating pumpkins like how they were nuts and using an oven as a lighter. The final defeat of the giant seems anti-climactic, but still manages to be a satisfactory conclusion. Despite the pacing issues, Brave Little Tailor is still a highly enjoyable film and certainly one of the top Mickey Mouse films. And the last thing I have to say about this is that I've always wondered how a canine-looking king can have a mouse as a daughter, unless the princess was adopted.
Where Can I Watch It?

Ferdinand the Bull
Once upon a time in sunny Spain, there was a little bull, and his name was Ferdinand. All the other little bulls he lived with would run and jump and butt their heads together, but not Ferdinand. He had his favorite spot out in the pasture under a cork tree, and he would sit quietly in the shade all day and smell the flowers. Eventually the years passed and Ferdinand grew into the biggest bull on the pasture, but he still preferred to just smell the flowers. One day the men for the bullfights came to pick a bull, Ferdinand wanted to just sit and smell flowers, but he accidentally sat on a bee and went on a tear. He was picked to go to Madrid. How will poor Ferdinand do in the bullfights? The Story of Ferdinand the Bull is without a doubt the most famous story by children's book author Munro Leaf. The story of the pacifist bull that preferred smelling flowers to fighting became popular worldwide, and gained even more fame when it was banned in Spain and Germany for being a subversive book for promoting peace. However, one fan of the work was Walt Disney, who released an adaptation as a standalone film, although it is frequently considered to be part of the Silly Symphonies series. The film was a very close adaptation of the original, taking most of the book's original text as the narration for the film. With not much to add to the plot, the film really takes a leap by expanding on the book's illustrations, provided by Caldecott and Newbery award winner Robert Lawson*. The film featured detailed illustrations of some of Spain's landmarks featured in the books as backgrounds. It featured some expanded animation of the bulls fighting and Ferdinand's mother reacting to being called a cow. Yet the film's highlight was the parade of bullfighters. Animator Ward Kimball had to come up with banderillos and picadore and he decided to use it to make caricatures of some Disney animators. It was rumored that the matador himself was a caricature of Disney himself, although Kimball has denied these rumors. He probably had to do so because the matador was the source of some of the most amusing character animation in the film. Still, while this is Ferdinand the Bull's most famous feature, the rest of the film was a highly effective and entertaining adaptation of one of the greatest children's story.

*Lawson also wrote the original book Ben and Me that was eventually adapted to the Oscar nominated film, also by Disney.

Where Can I Watch It?

Good Scouts
It is a beautiful day, and Donald Duck is leading his three nephews on a scouting trip to Yellowstone National Park. They find a good place to set up camp, and Donald sends his nephews to get prepared. However, he doesn't like the job they do, and attempts to show them how to do things, but things don't quite go the way he plans. He pretends to get hurt by pouring ketchup on himself. His nephews wrap him up like a mummy, and a blinded Donald falls into a honey jar before running into a bear. Can he escape this predicament? We've seen Huey, Dewey, and Louie in this space before (most notably with Truant Officer Donald), but it's worth talking about them here, because Good Scouts is focused primarily on Donald's relationship with his nephews. They debuted in the Donald Duck comic strip while a short film starring them was in the works. The resulting short film, Donald's Nephews portrayed them as rambunctious little brats. Part of the film's story crew included a relatively young story man named Carl Barks. Barks eventually became the story director for Good Scouts, the boys' second appearance. And under Barks they saw their characters evolve into the way they would be portrayed in the Donald Duck comics by Barks and the DuckTales TV series that is largely based on the comics. They were no longer as incorrigible as they were, but have become more resourceful and helpful, even if they were limited by inexperience. The same lack of experience applies to Donald, although he is too proud to admit it, and that is most readily apparent in Good Scouts. Good Scouts is based around slapstick, and while the nephews were the source of some of the humor, most of it were centered around Donald and the trouble he gets into with his incompetence. The slapstick gags themselves are pretty funny, although I've always thought the visual humor of watching Donald stumbling around after getting bound to be even funnier. Still, Good Scouts is most significant for the way it advanced the character of Huey, Dewey, and Louie and elaborated their relationship with their uncle.
Where Can I Watch It?

Hunky and Spunky
Keep-a-goin', keep-a-goin'. You're headed for the place you love the best. Keep-a-goin', keep-a-goin'. To the hills of Colorado in the west. Hunky and Spunky are a mother and daughter pair of donkeys living in the western United States, and they are wandering for a place to call home. Spunky often gets herself in trouble, but good thing she has his mother to help her out. However, this one day Spunky gets in much more trouble than ever when a tired old prospector uses Spunky as his pack mule. With Hunky taking a nap, can she still help her daughter out? The Fleischer Company were one of the pre-eminent animation companies in the 1930s, and like all animation companies they have their own set of mascot characters. Most of them are well remembered today, from Betty Boop to Popeye tp Superman, but beyond that they have two of the unlikeliest characters ever in Hunky and Spunky. For one thing they're donkeys and they make them look like donkeys, complete with speech where they speak English in a donkey-like braying sound. However, the cartoons do have their appeal. I grew up watching a tape of Fleischer cartoon classics that had both Snubbed by a Snob and You Can't Shoe a Horsefly and I enjoyed the antagonist bull's silly nonsense song in the former and the fly's super-catchy song in the latter. Moreover, most of the films really emphasize the family connection between mother and daughter, and nowhere is that more evident than in the original film. Some of the most stirring moments in the film are when Hunky helps Spunky out not by doing everything for her but by teaching her how to do everything and having Spunky do it herself, unless the task seems too much for Spunky to handle. It is this sort of effective parenting that most people strive for but never reach. Unfortunately while it is effective parenting, it doesn't quite make for very compelling storytelling. The final showdown is rather anti-climactic, and as a lazy bum myself I do feel kind of sorry for the prospector. And as virtuous the characters of Hunky and Spunky are, they are still kind of unappealing. Still, Hunky and Spunky is an interesting part of the Fleischer canon and always worth watching.
Where Can I Watch It?

Mother Goose Goes Hollywood
You've probably heard of the Mother Goose nursery rhymes, but perhaps never like this. Prepare to be entertained as numerous characters who only coincidentally look and sound like famous movie stars in some of their famous film roles act out various nursery rhymes from Mother Goose's collections. Watch as some people that happen to look like Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy go at it as Simple Simon and the pieman. And would a Little Bo Peep that resembles Katharine Hepburn ever find her sheep? Celebrities are big stuff that appears all over the news today, but this isn't anything new. There were huge celebrities even in the 1930s and 1940s, and they were frequently caricatured in cartoons from the animation studios. For example, Warner Bros. had Hollywood Steps Out while Walter Lantz Studios had...well, we'll discuss that later. Meanwhile, the kings of Hollywood caricature in the 1930s were Disney, who spoofed celebrities in films like Mickey's Gala Premier*, Mickey's Polo Team, and The Autograph Hound. Yet Mother Goose Goes Hollywood may be the best of them all, mostly because the creativity at which these celebrities are portrayed. They aren't just popping up out of nowhere just to make an appearance, but to fulfill a specific goal, in this case to reenact many famous nursery rhymes in their most famous roles. For example, three characters from sea-based films in Charles Loughton as Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty and Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew in Captains Courageous appear as the three men in the tub in Rub-a-Dub-Dub. Of course, they also have Greta Garbo from Grand Hotel and Edward G. Robinson in See Saw Margaret Daw, which frankly I've never heard of. That's also the case with many of these celebrities. One interesting thing about these films is to get a chance to see which celebrities were big 75 years ago. Yeah, there are some easily recognizable faces, including comedy stars such as Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers, but also some legitimate stars like Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn**. And yet more than half of the stars are unrecognizable by me. I'd have to go to the film's Wikipedia page to find out who exactly they are spoofing. I suppose this sort of thing shows the ephemeral nature of celebrity. Mother Goose Goes Hollywood therefore becomes an interesting time capsule, and still a darned entertaining film.

*That film is probably best known today for being the last broadcast on BBC before it shut down for World War II, and the first film

**Interestingly enough, this was made in the middle of Katharine Hepburn's "box office poison" stage, but they still chose to give her a role in this film as the bridging character. Or maybe her status then gave her the rather goofy role. Naturally she went on to become a star again, win three more Oscars, become named the number one female movie star by AFI, and lived to the age of 96, 65 years after the release of Mother Goose Goes Hollywood.

Where Can I Watch It?
Apologies for the annoying Italian subtitles.

So, it's the first year with five nominees. And if you might notice four of them were from Disney, the most from any studio in a year. This might have been because Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros. was allegedly boycotting the Oscars and not submitting his films, but it could also be just because the Academy loved Disney in this category (but nowhere else) and it's this sort of favoritism towards Disney that led Schlesinger to boycott the Oscars. Needless to say, with the rise of independent animators nowadays this record is as unbreakable as Cy Young's 511 career wins or Old Hoss Radbourn's 59 wins in 1884. Anyways, all of the films were good, but two in particular stand out. Brave Little Tailor is an action packed, highly entertaining, and funny Mickey Mouse cartoon while Ferdinand the Bull is a terrific and rather serene adaptation of a beloved children's story. The top 50 animated shorts poll by Jerry Beck placed Brave Little Tailor on the top 50 while Ferdinand the Bull was just an also-ran. However, I think Brave Little Tailor's pacing issue, while not a big deal, puts it just behind Ferdinand. Or it may be me trying to justify my choice because I really love the Ferdinand the Bull film. Anyways, the Academy did so as well and gave the Oscar to Ferdinand. But it most likely would have all gone to Disney anyways.

My rankings (by quality)
Ferdinand the Bull > Brave Little Tailor > Mother Goose Goes Hollywood > Good Scouts > Hunky and Spunky

My rankings (by preference)
Ferdinand the Bull > Brave Little Tailor > Good Scouts > Mother Goose Goes Hollywood > Hunky and Spunky

1 comment:

  1. Reminded of a school library that had a copy of Ferdinand I recall picking out once, remembering it well from the cartoon I saw before!