Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1935

We are coming ever so close to the end of the line. Thankfully there's still the 2013 Oscar race to start preparing for, but the question now is what to do with this blog once I get through these last four reviews. Do I just sit around for a year and then spring into action every November when the next year's Oscar race comes into being? Do I make random posts about some other animation topics once in a while? Do I go ahead and review the Best Animated Feature nominees? That actually doesn't sound like a bad idea, but it'll take much longer than these reviews of short films whose films are short, but it still takes me hours to write them. I was toying around with posting these reviews on tumblr, but it hasn't amounted to much. We shall see.

Anyways, we're now at 1935, the year the Detroit Tigers finally won their first ever World series after four previous losses. That year also featured 12 nominees for Best Picture, the second straight year that featured this record-setting nomination total. At the top of the pack was Munity on the Bounty, the epic adaptation of revolt against the cruel Captain Blight. It received eight nominations, including three in the Best Actor category. Second in nominations was the Indian war film The Lives of a Bengal Lancer with seven, while John Ford's gritty Irish film The Informer followed with six nominees. The rest of the nominees include the 1935 adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables (four nominations), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers romantic musical Top Hat (four nominations), the wildly successful MGM musical Broadway Melody of 1936 (three nominations), the adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (three nominations), The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences, & Observation of David Copperfield the Younger (three nominations), the Katharine Hepburn romantic drama Alice Adams (two nominations), the Errol Flynn swashbuckling adventure film Captain Blood (two nominations), the Cajun musical Naughty Marietta (two nominations), and the comedy film Ruggles of Red Gap (one nomination). The Best Director nominees went to John Ford (for The Informer), Henry Hathway (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), and Frank Lloyd (for Mutiny on the Bounty).

Oscar voting was very different back in 1935. At the time the winner were announced before the actual ceremony, including who finished in the top three. And to throw a wrench into the proceedings, write-in votes were welcomed, which led to several very interesting results. For example, while The Informer won Best Music (Score), Captain Blood placed third as a write-in. Meanwhile, Dave Gould won Best Dance Direction for his work in Broadway Melody of 1936 and Folies Bergere de Paris, barely beating out Hermes Pan and his work in Top Hat. The famous song "Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 won for Best Original Song, beating out "Cheek to Cheek" from Top Hat. Meanwhile Naughty Marietta won Best Sound.  Oscar history was made in the visual technical categories as cinematography Hal Mohr became the first write-in candidate to win the Oscar for his work on A Midsummer Night's Dream, denying a win for Gregg Toland from Les Miserables, who finished second. The Dark Angel won Best Art Direction in a category with no write-in involvement. A Midsummer Night's Dream also took home Best Editing in an officially nominated category, leaving Mutiny on the Bounty still winless.

Write-in candidates were all over the writing categories as well, with G-Men finishing second in the Writing (Original Story) category and Captain Blood finishing third in Writing (Screenplay). The awards still went for regular nominees The Scoundrel and The Informer respectively, although the latter created another history when writer Dudley Nichols refused the award over union matters. The Lives of a Bengal Lancer won for Best Assistant Director. At the time there were only two acting categories. Best Actress had six nominees, with Bette Davis capturing her first Oscar as a down-on-luck actress with terrible secrets in Dangerous, denying Katharine Hepburn her second Oscar. Meanwhile Best Actor had only four nominees, including three from Mutiny on the Bounty. Can any of them help the film win its first award of the night? No, as Victor McLaglen won for his role in The Informer. In fact, none of the trio finished second as Paul Muni took the runner-up role as a write-in candidate for the crime film Black Fury.

The night had been a disaster for Mutiny on the Bounty. Despite going in with the most nominations it found itself winless by the time the final two awards came about. Its second-place finish in three awards doesn't come close to making up for actual wins, especially since The Informer has three actual wins. It soon became four when John Ford win his first Best Director award. Mutiny's Frank Lloyd didn't even place, as Michael Curtiz finished second as a write-in candidate for his work on Captain Blood. Things looked dismal at best as most people were expecting The Informer to win its fifth Oscar to tie with It Happened One Night for the most wins. That was not to be, as in a surprising move Mutiny on the Bounty was announced as the Outstanding Production, beating out The Informer. It was the third time in the first eight years of the Academy Awards that a film would make Best Picture its only win of the night. Mutiny's eight nominations were the most of any of those. The feat would never again be replicated.

Meanwhile, what sort of drama would hope to unfold in the Best Animated Short category?

The Calico Dragon
It is nighttime, and a little girl reads a story of a princess trapped in her castle by a ferocious dragon to her stuffed animals: a boy, his dog, and his loyal steed. Together they set off on an epic quest to do what brave knights couldn't and rescue the princess. As they set off the calico landscape they encounter many songs and cute calico animals, but reached the castle of the calico dragon without much of a hitch. However, the dragon is much more terrifying than they could ever imagine. Can they defeat the dragon?The 1930s were full of cartoon series with alliterative names, with Disney's Silly Symphonies, Warner Bros.'s Merries Melodies, and Fleischer's Cartoon Classics. In their early days at MGM, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising joined in on the fun with the Happy Harmonies. The Happy Harmonies weren't quite as distinguished as the works of some of the other studios, but they do get to boast an Oscar nomination with The Calico Dragon. It's one of those adorable little adventure film featuring a cast of cute little stuffed animals going on an adventure. The actual adventure aspect is rather slim. A good third of the film is spent on the stuffed dog and his misadventures with a couple of calico rabbits. The slapstick involved with the meeting is amusing enough, but it is completely unrelated from the main plotline, which is fighting the dragon. The three-headed dragon itself is not so scary, although their gasping in their song is kind of strange, but the battle with our heroes is quite exciting while maintaining a sense of humor with one of the dragon's noisemaker tongue. The design of the film itself is the film's strong suit, as the entire world is designed with colorful calico, although the colors are a bit muted due to the lack of access to the three-strip Technicolor process. The animation is also fairly fluid. The songs are nice, although it seems to suffer from many other songs of the day in that it's become hard to understand the lyrics. The Calico Dragon is by no means a masterpiece, but it's a good film that still holds up after almost 80 years.
Where Can I Watch It?

Three Orphan Kittens
It is a dark and snowy night. A car drives up to an empty yard, and an evil man tosses a bag out into the snow and ice. The bag is blown away to reveal three adorable little kittens. They struggle in the wind, but to their delight they find an open window through which they can crawl through. They end up in a kitchen where they go exploring. They each find something to occupy their time, but end up making a mess. They go to other rooms including a playroom and a piano room, but end up getting caught by the house's maid who is none too pleased about the mess he has to clean up. Are the kittens doomed to be going back into the snow? Everybody loves kittens. Those adorable little precursors to cats have been winning the hearts of practically everybody they come across since the days of the Egyptians. Their curious antics with something as simple as a piece of string or a piece of light can entertain for hours. And they became the focus of Disney's Three Orphan Kittens, one of their Silly Symphonies. The film is rather lacking on the story front. It just focuses on the misadventures of our three main kitties and was mostly meant to be an experimental type film to train animators that would be working on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Still, it's a fun little film, mostly because it has those kittens. The kittens are highly non-anthropomorphic. They move like kittens, and while they don't completely capture the likeness of kittens, they come close without breaking the uncanny valley, so they're incredibly cute. The three kittens all have different colors of fur, and I always thought the black one that was their leader seemed to be a precursor to Pinocchio's Figaro, who would star in his own set of films. The animation of the kittens are very well done, and the film also seemed to be experimenting with simulation of a camera pan with animation, a technique that must have seemed tricky in 1935 due to the changing perspective of items. They had several shots with the technique creating an interesting effect. The animation is also quite complex in the player piano scene featuring most appropriately Zez Confey's "Kittens on the Keys." Three Orphan Kittens isn't going to dazzle you with a complicated plot, but it is one of the cutest films in the Disney canon. Because kittens!
Where Can I Watch It?

Who Killed Cock Robin?
Late one night a young robin named Cock Robin went to serenade his beloved, the well dressed Jenny Wren. However, the romantic night was interrupted when a mysterious figure armed with a bow and arrow fires a shot that hits poor Cock Robin in the heart, killing him. The police come in and arrest three figures: a blackbird porter, a sparrow gangster, and cuckoo cuckoo. The three are put toward trial run by an owl judge where they were interrogated by a parrot prosecutor. They all claim to know nothing. Would the real killer be found? "Who Killed Cock Robin?" was a popular nursery rhyme in England. While it doesn't seem to be very well known in America today, it was popular enough back in the 1930s to inspire this extremely ambitious Silly Symphony. It is not only a musical film that is typical of the Silly Symphonies, but it also manages to be a murder mystery, a caricature film, and a film that satirizes the court systems. The murder mystery aspect is quite shocking for the 1930s. While it's a fun little film, it still addresses the concept of death and homocide in a non-slapstick type of way. Somebody got killed, and somebody has to pay for it. I don't know how much Disney would make a film like that nowadays, but they sure had the guts to do it 78 years ago. Many of the main characters are also caricatures of famous characters back in the day. Cock Robin himself is modeled after Bing Crosby. I couldn't really tell with his design, but his song sure resembles many of Bing's early works. Mae West is not very well known now, but she was a massive star especially after She Done Him Wrong in 1933, and she became the model for Jenny Wren. The blackbird and the cuckoo were modeled after Stepin Fetchit and Harpo Marx. Finally, the film seems to be addressing the court system as the majority of the film involves the trial. The trial appears to be the farce, with the judge handing the verdict very much like in Phoenix Wright games while the jury is just there to serve as a chorus. The accused represent themselves, and there is a large amount of police brutality as the blackbird spends most of his testimony getting clubbed in the head. It's not really reflective of an actual court session but it sure makes the film entertaining. The animation is very well done even beyond the caricatures, and the voice acting is sublime. The most memorable is Billy Bletcher as the owl. He sings in such wonderful baritone that for the longest time I thought it was supplied by Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice actor with the baritone that starred in films like Rooty Toot Toot. However, Ravenscroft was only 21 and just getting started in show business when the film was released, and Bletcher's vocal qualities could be heard in speaking lines. Who Killed Cock Robin? is one of the old films that was featured in the final frantic scenes of the Oscar winning It's Tough to Be a Bird 34 years later, but beyond that it is a great film and ranks as one of the top Silly Symphonies.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here you have the three nominees. It should be pretty clear that I regard Who Killed Cock Robin? as being the best from this year. It's the one that has the most coherent story as well as its ambitious handling of sensitive subject materials and its expert caricature and that judge's voice. While I think I like Three Orphan Kittens more because it was a film I grew up with as a kid and because kittens, I don't think that it matched up with the quality of Who Killed Cock Robin?. In the end, however, the Academy also had their hearts won by the presence of the cute kittens, and awarded them the Oscar. Oh well, it's not an end of the world type win.

My rankings (by preference and quality)
Who Killed Cock Robin? > Three Orphan Kittens > The Calico Dragon

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