Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Best Animated Short - 1932/1933

And then there were two. After almost two years of writing reviews nobody reads, I've almost completed my quest of reviewing the Oscar nominated short films. (Of course, I would already be done if I didn't go onto a three month hiatus last year or switch the reviews to every two weeks, which has eroded whatever support I was getting for this blog.)

But anyways, we are near the finish. If you're paying attention that you might have noticed that the review's title included two years instead of just one. That's not a mistake. In the early years the Academy considered films from an August to July schedule, just like what the Emmys do now, and the ceremony would be held in November. Then somewhere around this time the Academy decided that was stupid and decided to extend the eligibility period from July of 1932 to the end of 1933 and then going to a January to December eligibility for 1934, and that's the way it's been since.

The most famous film from 1932 and 1933 would most likely be King Kong. The thrilling fantasy / romance captivated audiences with its breathtaking spectacle and special effects and has become a landmark classic, and the image of King Kong on the Empire State Building has become iconic. Of course, it was still a fantasy film and even back then the Academy disdained fantasy films, and when the long eligibility period ended King Kong was left without a nomination, but the special effects by Willis O'Brien still resonates in animation history.

The Best Picture nominees instead went to ten other pictures. Leading the pack with four nominations were the family saga Cavalcade, the adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, and the romantic comedy Lady for a Day. The gritty film with the awesome title I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang as well as Louisa May Alcott's Little Women received three nominations. The classic behind-the-curtain musical 42nd Street, the historical costume drama The Private Life of Henry VII, and the original State Fair (that would later be remade into a musical that won Best Original Song in 1945) received two nominations. Finally the Mae West classic She Done Him Wrong and the romantic drama Smilin' Through received just one nomination. Of those the Best Director nominations went to George Cukor (for Little Women), Frank Capra (for Lady for a Day) and Frank Lloyd (for Cavalcade). Obviously having two men named Frank nominated for Best Director wouldn't be confusing to host Will Rogers in the least bit.

There were no musical awards back then, so the only sound category was Best Sound, which went to A Farewell to Arms. A Farewell to Arms also won Best Cinematography, but lost Best Art Direction to Cavalcade. That was it for visual technicals as Best Editing didn't come until 1934. The writing Oscars went to Little Women for Best Writing, Adaptation, and the romantic drama One Way Passage won Best Writing, Original Story. In the first year of the Best Assistant Director award they awarded seven assistant directors, one from every major studio. Of those Scott Beal, Charles Dorian, Fred Fox, and William Tummel never really got beyond the assistant director position. Charles Barton and Dewey Starkey went on to work in television. Meanwhile Gordon Hollingshead went on to become a producer of short films, and won five more Oscars in the Best Short Subject category.

The acting categories both went to actors that were not present at the ceremony. Best Actor went to Charles Laughton, whose oversized portrayal of the titular character in The Private Life of King Henry VII formed the dominant image of the controversial king, at least in my mind. He is also the first British actor so honored in the American awards. Best Actress went to a young actress who was only made her film debut the year before. She was a lead actress in Little Women, but the Oscar went to her role in the small acting drama Morning Glory. She would later go on to become box office poison, get lampooned in the Oscar nominated Mother Goose Goes Hollywood, then make a comeback and go on to win three more Oscars, get named as the #1 female movie star by the American Film Institute, and live to the ripe old age of 96. Then a year after her death Cate Blanchett won an Oscar for playing her in The Aviator. I'm talking about none other than Katharine Hepburn.

When Best Director came rolling around, A Farewell to Arms was leading with two wins, but it was not in the Best Director race. Of those that were Cavalcade and Little Women had each won an Oscar, while Lady for a Day was shut out. However, director Frank Capra was hopeful that his expert directing can help the film get back into the race, so when Will Rogers said, "Come and get it, Frank," Capra went up to the stage expecting it to be him. Unfortunately the envelope said Frank Lloyd, and Capra was stunningly left empty-handed. Rogers sheepishly asked George Cukor to the stage so that the moment wouldn't be as embarrassing for Capra. Frank Lloyd had already won four years earlier and didn't need to make a speech. Capra would go on to win three more Best Director awards, while George Cukor would win one himself for My Fair Lady.

Still with Cavalcade winning the Best Director Oscar it went into a tie for most wins. Back then winning Best Director was no guarantee for Best Picture success, but in this case Cavalcade had no trouble winning Best Picture to join the frontier film Cimarron as the only other film to win three Oscars.

Meanwhile, down in the depths of the short categories there lies a film that may just as well be more well known and more beloved than any of the films that actually won Oscars. What could it be?

Building a Building
Mickey Mouse is working in his job as a construction worker helping to build the latest of the massive skyscrapers. He diligently drives the excavator, but he is distracted by a pretty mouse selling box lunches. However, his poor performance while distracted angers his foreman, Peg-Leg Pete, trying to read the blueprint. When the crew breaks for lunch, Pete sneakily steals Mickey's sandwich. Minnie helpfully offers him a free box lunch, but Pete tries to steal Minnie instead. Can they escape from Pete's clutches? There is something about construction sites that make them a popular setting for animated short films. There have been several other films that we've seen in this space that involved construction site humor, from Warner Bros.'s Rhapsody in Rivets to UPA's Trouble Indemnity to the Pink Panther's The Pink Blueprint. Building a Building is another film set within the confines of a construction site. It is a relatively early Mickey Mouse film (if you consider his 51st cartoon relatively early) and was released at the height of his popularity as a cartoon star. The film itself is actually an elaborate remake of one of Disney's old Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon titled Sky Scrappers. There are many elements of Sky Scrappers seen in Building a Building, from the first shot of the excavator to the method in which Pete steals Minnie. However, Disney was able to fit much more into Building a Building. There are numerous extra slapstick involving construction items. One recurring gag is that the blueprint Pete was trying to read constantly getting destroyed by things Mickey throws around and eventually Mickey himself. And then there's Mickey and Minnie riding the barrel portion of a wheelbarrow down a concrete chute like a boat. Plus, with the advent of sound music became a crucial part of the film, namely Minnie's Box Lunch Song, and some of the gags were timed well to the song. The animation itself is also an improvement over some of the other Mickey Mouse films at the time. While there are some looped animation sequences those are more limited. The design of the construction site set is done very well. While it is a shame that the film is a remake, but Building a Building still ranks as one of the highlights of the early Mickey Mouse films.
Where Can I Watch It?

The Merry Old Soul
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is not having a very lucky day. He is sitting in the dentist's chair getting one of his teeth pulled. However, the extraction is interrupted by an announcement over the radio that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald storms out and recruits some of the notable celebrities of the day that Old King Cole has the blues. They arrive at the castle of Old King Cole, where a jester is failing miserable at making the the old king happy. Oswald comes bouncing in with his cast of famous Hollywood stars. Can they make the king happy, and can Oswald escape the jealous clutches of the king's jester? Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has one of the most contentious histories of any cartoon character that is worth retelling. He was created by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks after ending the Alice comedies and distributed by Universal. Oswald proved to be popular, but Disney got into a contract dispute with producer Charles Mintz (later of Columbia fame) and left the studios. Mintz acquired the Oswald character, but was soon removed himself in favor of Walter Lantz, who worked directly on the Universal lot. Oswald became Lantz's first popular mascot character and would appear in well over 100 films until 1943. Tex Avery cut his teeth as an animator on early Oswald films. Despite starring in almost 200 films, Oswald received only one Oscar nomination, which was for The Merry Old Soul. It was a film similar to Disney's Mother Goose Goes Hollywood in that it is primarily a film full of celebrity caricatures. This time the celebrities are working together to sing a silly song involving Mother Goose characters, and then get into a spirited pie fight. The celebrities are the highlight of the film, but the film is also full of visual gags, some of which are great but others fall flat. The animation is quite solid, from the caricatures to the regular action. Unfortunately they did use a lot of looping animation. Still, The Merry Old Soul is a good Oswald film, and another interesting look at the celebrities from 80 years prior.
Where Can I Watch It?

Three Little Pigs
Three little pigs set off to live on their own. One little pig built his house with hay while his brother builds his with sticks. They spend their time playing their instruments. The final little pig builds painstakingly builds his house with bricks. The two other pigs laugh at his hard working nature, but the practical pig just warns them that the house would protect him from the Big Bad Wolf. The pigs laugh, asking each other, "Who's afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" It turns out they are, as the Big Bad Wolf shows up and chases them into their houses before blowing them over. Can they get away from the wolf? The Three Little Pigs has become one of the most famous fairy tales, likely through the popularity of the numerous animated adaptations, including MGM's Blitz Wolf and Warner Bros.'s Pigs in a Polka. Yet the most popular of the adaptations may very well be this version, the legendary Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs. Disney used the Silly Symphony series to train young animators and try new animation techniques, and they made the most of it with Three Little Pigs. Three Little Pigs is celebrated today as a masterpiece in character animation. Animation was full of characters that looked and acted no different. Minnie Mouse was essentially Mickey with eyelashes and a skirt. With this film Disney successfully created three characters that looked the same (except for their differences in clothing) but can be distinguished through their actions. That is slightly overstated as Fifer and Fiddler Pigs (the first two pigs) are essentially the same, but Practical Pig (the third) is the most distinct. I'm sure this wasn't the first film that did this, but it was the most notable. Beyond the distinction in character design the film also featured many visual gags and virtually unnoticeable loop animation. However, it was not because of the animation that helped the film become a massive hit when it was first released. America was mired in the Great Depression and the general public were hungry for some semblances of hope. The New Deal was getting started in 1933, but the public also found hope in this cartoon about three little pigs that carried on in spite of grave danger. "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" in particular became a massive hit. Disney eventually made sequels to the film, and even re-edited the footage into a propaganda film early in World War II, but it is without a doubt the original that still stands as a titan in the annals of animation.
Where Can I Watch It?

So here are the nominees in the second ever Best Animated Short race. Building a Building and The Merry Old Soul were much better than I remembered, but facing off against Three Little Pigs is kind of like Spirited Away towering over the others in the 2002 Best Animated Feature race. You've got two decent black and white films starring popular mascot characters, and a color film that stands as one of the most famous and most popular films even when it was first released in 1933. I'm sure nobody at all was surprised when Three Little Pigs won. It certainly deserved it.

My rankings (by quality and preference)
Three Little Pigs > Building a Building > The Merry Old Soul


  1. Don't be so sure about no-one reading your reviews - a lack of comments doesn't necessarily translate to a lack of an audience!

    I've certainly enjoyed them, all of them, and have sought out many a new favourite after reading about them here. Bob Godfrey's "Great" is probably the best film I'd never heard of.

    On the subject of the above post... What a shame the "Best Special Effects" Oscar wasn't around back then, Willis O'Brien would've walked away with it.

    1. Well thanks for the kind words. I know that I liked watching the nominees because not only are the films great, but they are often a launching pad for other great films.

    "Beyond the distinction in character design the film also featured many visual gags and virtually unnoticeable loop animation."

    That moment for me I always found rather intresting is simply watching the wolf pretty much go naked by the very end as he loses his trousers to the constant huffing/puffing of Practical Pig's house. That alone felt like something of a typical pants dropping joke we've seen before in previous cartoons (Mickey Mouse had that happened a couple times in his early years), what makes this a little interesting is the wolf not even caring that the last shread of whatever decency or conformity was there, pretty much transforming himself into the Big Bad Wolf that he is you could say. The way it's structured, it kinda reminded me of some of those Beatrix Potter stories like Peter Rabbit or Tom Kitten, animals that should be animals but are confined to a civilized human-like existence they feel a bit uncomfortable in, in Peter's case, it was losing his jacket escaping from a farmer's garden while Tom and his feline sibs get their clothes torn up and lost before the tea party. of course it wouldn't be the last for Big Bad (later known as "Zeke" in the comics) to drop his pants for our amusement as it happens to him twice in "Three Little Wolves".