Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1936

Hooray! My COMLEX 3 is over and I can finally relax and enjoy myself at Nightmare Nights Dallas this weekend! How did it go, you ask? Well how should I know? I'm writing this three weeks early so I won't have to waste much more time studying. Oh the joys of getting a nice long queue.

Anyways, now that we're in the 1930s it's kind of weird to go back and see just how different things were, especially in the game of baseball. In 1936 there were only 11 300-game winners. 30-win seasons and .400 seasons were uncommon but not impossible. The first Hall of Fame voting was held as the BBWAA elected Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Babe Ruth (just one year removed from his last game), the late Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson. And a 17-year-old high school kid named Bob Feller is able to make it to the big leagues and strike out his age, even if it was against the hapless Philadelphia Athletics. Yes, things sure were different back in 1936. And yet the animated short films remain as timeless now as they were back in 1936. Some of them were, at least.

The most famous film from 1936 is perhaps Charlie Chaplin's classic Modern Times, one of the last silent film made in Hollywood that wasn't a homage to the craft, and the last film starring his Little Tramp character. It was a box office and critical success, but the Academy thumbed its nose at it because it's a silent film almost 10 years after The Jazz Singer. The Academy chose to nominate these films for Best Picture instead: the costume adventure epic Anthony Adverse (seven nominations), the intellectual romantic drama Dodsworth (seven nominations), the grand musical biopic The Great Ziegfeld (seven nominations), the romantic drama set during the 1906 earthquakes in San Francisco (six nominations), the Frank Capra screwball comedy-drama Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (five nominations), the adaptation of Shakespeare's tragic Romeo and Juliet (four nominations), the biopic film The Story of Louis Pasteur (four nominations), the musical comedy Three Smart Girls (three nominations), the adaptations of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (two nominations), and the Jean Harlow screwball comedy Libeled Lady, which received only one nomination, but it was one more than Modern Times was able to get. The Best Director nominations went to Frank Capra (for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Gregory La Cava (for My Man Godfrey, a rare film in the era of >10 Best Picture nominees with a Director nomination but no Best Picture nomination), Robert Z. Leonard (for The Great Ziegfeld), W.S. Van Dyke (for San Francisco), and William Wyler (for Dodsworth).

The awards started out with Anthony Adverse winning the Best Music, Score award, while The Great Ziegfeld won for Best Dance Direction for its awe-inspiring A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody number. Best Original Song went to "The Way You Look Tonight" from Swing Time, and San Francisco won for Best Sound. In the visual technical categories, Dodsworth took home Best Art Direction, while Anthony Adverse won both Best Cinematography and Best Editing. The Story of Louis Pasteur took home both Writing awards for Screenplay and Original Story. The adventurous war film The Charge of the Light Brigade took home the Best Assistant Director Oscar.

The acting categories for 1936 featured a monumental change. Previously there were only acting categories for lead actors and actresses, but then it was decided that many actors do great jobs in supporting roles. Of course, they were just given a plaque because, after all, they were only supporting characters. The very first award for Best Supporting Actor went to character actor Walter Brennan for his role as a beleaguered father of the romantic interest in the Howard Hawks drama Come and Get It. It would not be his last win in this category. Meanwhile, the first Best Supporting Actress Oscar went to Gale Sondergaard in her film debut in Anthony Adverse. The more traditional leading categories went to Paul Muni for his performance as the heroic titular role in The Story of Louis Pasteur, while Luis Rainer won her first Oscar in her role as the first wife in The Great Ziegfeld.

To that point, Anthony Adverse was in the lead with four awards while The Story of Louis Pasteur had three, but neither of the films had a role in the Best Director race. That gave The Great Ziegfeld, with two wins, as well as Dodsworth and San Francisco with one win each a chance to get back in the race. To the surprise of some, Frank Capra took home his second of three wins for Best Director for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a film that had no other wins. Now things were getting hairy. Could Mr. Deeds ride its Best Director victory to a Best Picture win? Could one of the other Best Director nominees get over the loss in that category to the big prize? Could big winners Anthony Adverse or The Story of Louis Pasteur overcome their lack of representation in the Best Director race to win Best Picture? Could Libeled Lady, a film with no other chance to compete, charm its way to win Best Picture? It was a suspenseful moment, one that finally ended when The Great Ziegfeld was announced as Best Picture. Yes, the over-stuffed three-hour biopic rode its one impressive dance sequence and lots and lots of stairs to win Best Picture, an honor that Charlie Chaplin and Modern Times never did get a chance to compete.

What sort of ups and downs would the Best Animated Short race feature?

The Country Cousin
Abner Countrymouse is a simple country mouse living in the rural town of Podunk. One day he gets a telegram from his sophisticated cousin Monty Citymouse to move in with him in the big city. Abner makes his way to the city and visits with Monty. Monty takes Abner out into the main house where he shows him the overwhelmingly big feast at their disposal. But despite the overwhelmingly big feast, things aren't quite as good as they seem, especially as his country ways are at odds with his city life. Can he get adjusted? "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse" is one of Aesop's more well-known fable. The original fable emphasized the lesson that it is better to have little with the guarantee safety than a lot with danger. Of course, it seems that the idea of a country folk going to the big city is what really endears about the tale, as it has formed the basis of a Chinese children's song and the Tex Avery zany classic Little Rural Riding Hood. Disney's adaptation as part of the Silly Symphony series is more of a straightforward adaptation of the tale. It is a largely slapstick tale that plays off the idea that Abner really doesn't have a clue at the position that mice has within a city. Most of the gags focus on him making a lot of noise only to get shushed by his more cautious cousin, who is used to living in fear because he doesn't have the security of Jerry Mouse. The rest of the gags are centered around food, such as Abner fighting a reflection of himself in Jello or getting his umbrella caught in a piece of toast. It's somewhat amusing, but doesn't have the comedic timing of Hanna and Barbera in films such as The Little Orphan. The Country Cousin really doesn't get funny until it features Abner getting drunk off a glass of champagne. His turning the tables and shushing everybody from Monty to the cat that he just kicked is the funniest part of the film. The film does have some brilliant character animation to highlight the difference between Abner's ignorant attitude and Monty's learned caution. And the music is very good, including the snippet of music that played with Dale's surreal scene with the dolls in Toy Tinkers. Still, while The Country Cousin is an amusing and adequate adaptation of the classic Aesop fable, but it doesn't really have the lasting quality that put it near the top of the Silly Symphony lineup.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Old Mill Pond
It is nighttime on the pond next to the old mill, but instead of getting quiet, things are just starting to heat up. A frog preacher begins with a sermon to get the crowd fired up at what is about to come, because it's worth staying for. A frog bandleader leads his band in an impressive performance. A singer performs in front of a line of jungle-like dancers. A pianist plays alongside a tap dancer. A vocal quartet comes and serenades us with their song. With all of the quality performances, how would the night end? The 1930s were an incredibly segregated era with African Americans pushed to "separate but equal" lifestyles. And even in the world of entertainment they are frequently caricatured with "blackface" performances by people like Al Jolson in The Wedding Singer. Even then, many actual African Americans have managed to overcome this to become stars themselves. People like Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters and Fats Waller made their names known to audiences then with their talent and showbiz flair. And Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman over at MGM decided to pay tribute to these performers in one of their "Happy Harmonies,"  the MGM answer to Disney's Silly Symphonies. Sure everybody is caricatured and portrayed as frogs, but it feels more like an honest tribute to the work of those trailblazing entertainers than an effort to push stereotypes. Yeah, the film's opening preaching performance does feel a bit stereotypical, but otherwise he film's caricatures of men like Calloway, Waller, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson are pretty spot on, and they have nice and mostly original songs to sing. Of course, the film also includes a scene with a play off Stepin Fetchit, the one African American entertainer who gained success for playing to stereotype, but he is still equally a part of their legacy. Harman and Ising were especially proud of the work and had pushed the film hard. While the legacies of these great entertainers have appeared to dim from the politically correctness movement apparently pushing everything from the segregated era out of public consciousness, the lasting legacies of these great men are memorialized in memories and in films such as The Old Mill Pond.
Where Can I Watch It?

Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor
On an island on the back of a whale there lives a sailor so hardy and hale. He is Sindbad the Sailor, the most remarkable, extraordinary fellow. He has in his collections some of the most impressive creatures from his seven voyages, but one day he sees a passing boat captained by one Popeye the Sailor. Sindbad is upset at Popeye's song, and sends his Rokh to sink Popeye's ship and capture Olive. Popeye and Wimpy make it safely to Sindbad's island, but what sort of dangers would await them there? Popeye the Sailor was initially an incidental character in E.C. Segar's comic strip Thimble Theater, but quickly took over to become the most famous character. In 1932 King Features signed a contract with Fleischer Studios to make a series of animated films based on the character, and he quickly became their most popular character. In the mid-1930s, Fleischer decided to make a trio two-reel animated films, twice the length of a regular animated cartoon at the time, and they opted to make the films all centered around Popeye. These films would also be the first Technicolor Popeye film after Disney's exclusive contract with the company ended. Their first film Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor would turn out to be a masterpiece. The film casts Popeye's nemesis Bluto as Sindbad the Sailor, a hero to the Middle East  but a villain in this film. The film actually begins with a focus on Sindbad as he sings a highly catchy song about his greatness. As a two-reel film, the film does suffer from some pacing problems. Popeye doesn't even make an appearance until four and a half minutes in, the moment when most films would be half over, and there are a couple of gags that are repeated multiple times. And a subplot involving Wimpy and a duck goes unresolved. Still, the film remains compelling the entire way through. Fleischer's attention to visual detail and some of Jack Mercer's seemingly ad lib musings keeps things interesting even in some of the more slower parts. The use of the stereoptical camera to film the animation before live action backgrounds make for some terrific effects. While the remaining two-reel Popeye films Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp prove to be more ambitious, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor remains the one most remembered today as being far ahead of its time.
Where Can I Watch It?
The film is in public domain so it shouldn't be hard, but here's one in pretty good condition.

Well, these are the three nominees from 1936. While The Country Cousin was an amusing adaptation of one of Aesop's fables and The Old Mill Pond is a visually and aurally stunning tribute to African American entertainers of the 1930s, they really don't stand a chance against Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. The film was not only the most ambitious film, but they made the most of it with a film that quite thrilling from start to finish. Alas, either because the Academy was so in love with everything Disney as far as animated films go, or they thought they were voting on the Ub Iwerks Comicolor film Sinbad the Sailor*, but at any rate they went with The Country Cousin for the Oscar win. The Country Cousin was a good little film, but nowhere better than Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. I still say it's the worst Oscar win in this category from the 1930s.

*Seriously, the official Academy Award search page lists the nominee as Sinbad the Sailor, which kind of lends credence to this story.

My rankings (by quality)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor > The Old Mill Pond > The Country Cousin

My rankings (by preference)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor > The Country Cousin > The Old Mill Pond

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