Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Best Animated Short - 1931/1932

Happy New Year, everypony! Hope it's a good one.

Let's kick off 2014 with my 81st - and final - least until the Oscar nominations are announced on January 16, and there's a new set of five films to review*. After that I'll be doing my darndest to attend one of the showings of the nominated shorts and reviewing those. But for now, this marks the end of the reviews that have dominated my life for a whole 22 months.

*My predictions have somewhat changed since I posted about the shortlist almost two months ago. I talked to Steve Segal, the professor of my History of Animation course a year ago. He had attended one of the screenings and had only raves about The Missing Scarf, which certainly looked interested but the design seemed a bit too new for the old-fashioned Academy. However, he described the film as being surprisingly deep, and as we saw from A Morning Stroll two years ago, new fangled technology has never stopped a film from being nominated. So perhaps we will see The Missing Scarf. I've added it to the predictions, replacing Hollow Land. Of course, almost everybody over at Gold Derby is predicting a nomination for Room on the Broom. It may be populist enough to grab a nomination. Eh oh well.

It's interesting that with the newest Best Animated Short race coming up, we are looking back at the first year with the new short categories. In 1932 the Academy Awards were in their fifth year. That year they decided to spice things up. For one thing they changed up the number of nominations for every category. Previously the acting and directing categories had five nominations, but this time it was whittled down to three. However, they made up for it by expanding the Best Picture lineup from five to eight. Half of the nominees received multiple nominations: the inspirational medical film Arrowsmith (four nominations), the heart-rendering boxing weepie The Champ (four nominations), the gritty urban romance Bad Girl (three nominations), and the tense railroad film Shanghai Express (three nominations). The other four had just one nomination, in the Best Picture category: the Edward G. Robinson tabloid drama Five Star Final, the MGM star-laden character drama Grand Hotel, the musical romantic comedy One Hour With You, and the other musical romantic comedy The Smiling Lieutenant. Left without a nomination with the Boris Karloff monster classic Frankenstein. The three Best Director nominations went to Frank Borzage (Bad Girl), Josef von Sternberg (Shanghai Express) and King Vidor (The Champ).

Back in 1931/1932, Best Sound Recording went not to films, but to studios. Paramount Publix Studio Sound Department won that Oscar. The visual and writing technicals went to individual films, with Shanghai Express winning for Best Cinematography, and the ship comedy Transatlantic winning Best Art Direction. The writing Oscars went to The Champ for an original story and Bad Girl for adaptation. Helen Hayes, the first lady of the American theater, proved to be a lady of the silver screen as well when she won Best Actress for The Sin of Madelon Claudet. The first "tie" in Oscar history happened that year when it was revealed that Wallace Beery and Frederic March were tied for their roles in The Champ and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde respectively. However, it was later revealed that March had received one more vote, but under the rules of the day candidates that finished within three votes would be declared a tie. It's amazing that no other ties had occurred until 1949 when So Much for So Little tied with A Chance to Live in Best Documentary Short.

At the time The Champ had two wins, which seemed to have been an advantage, but Vidor lost Best Director to Frank Borzage for Bad Girl. It still had a shot at the Best Picture award, but there was a record four films with only a single nomination that year, and any one of them can come up to take the prize. And one of them did, when Grand Hotel, the box office smash with the all-star cast, took home Best Picture. It was a nifty win, as it marked the first time that a film with only one nomination for Best Picture won as well. Of course, it was only the fifth year of the Oscars, and there was hope that it would happen again. However, as categories expanded the number of films with only one nomination for Best Picture dried up, and it hasn't happened again. Of course, there hadn't been a film with its sole nomination being Best Picture since The Ox-Bow Incident in 1943, the year before they shrank the Best Picture lineup to only five. The Best Picture lineup increased again in 2009, but there hadn't been another film with only one nomination in Best Picture. So it seems like Grand Hotel would be on its own for a long, long time.

The other major change was the addition of three new categories. The Academy decided that they should do more than award feature films. Short films were all the rage, and three categories to award short films were added. There were two categories to honor live action short films: comedy and novelty*. The novelty category was won by Wrestling Swordfish, while the comedy category was won by the Laurel and Hardy classic The Music Box.

*I'm not entirely sure what they meant by novelty.

And then they dedicated one category to cartoons, which entertained children before films. It was a beginning of an 81-year history between the Academy and animation. What were the first three films honored with a nomination?

Flowers and Trees
It is a beautiful morning in the forest, and (most) of the living things wake up to the sound of bird calls, from the mushrooms to the flowers to (some) of the trees. A friendly male tree wakes up and wakes up his companion, a beautiful female tree. Meanwhile a nasty old tree wakes up. The male tree begins to serenade the female tree. The two are clearly in love, but the female tree plays hard to get, but in the midst of her dance the gnarly old tree grabs her. He is easily defeated by the male tree, and in his rage he decides to burn down the forest. Can they save the forest? As we have seen before, the "Silly Symphonies" was a set of films produced by Walt Disney that did not feature their popular mascot characters and was instead a platform for them to try new techniques in animation and filmmaking and also happen to be entertaining. The first Silly Symphony, The Skeleton Dance, was revolutionary in its sound design, where the sound was created alongside the film instead of getting dubbed later. And three years later, Flowers and Trees took the art of animation to a whole different level. It was the first film made in the three-strip Technicolor process. Unlike what the fans of The Wizard of Oz would have you believe, the technology to make color films have been present since Georges Meliels hand-colored his films in the 1900s. The Technicolor technology was created in 1917, with the first surviving film being The Toll of the Sea starring Anna May Wong in 1922. Studios made color films with these early technology in the 1920s, but they had lacked a full-color process, as early processes used only red and green. In the early 1930s a three-color process was formed, but the Great Depression hit, and many studios were unwilling to try the technology. Technicolor finally found a taker for the three-strip process in Walter Elias Disney, who was in the process of making a new Silly Symphony titled Flowers and Trees. They scrapped the existing footage and began to make Flowers and Trees again using the new technology.

The resultant film was nothing short of a masterpiece. The colors of the old print I've been watching appears somewhat faded and muted, but is still much more vibrant than the color footage present for The Toll of the Sea. The animation was also very well done. The tree characters were a success in character animation. Their designs show them with distinctive anthropomorphized motion while retaining their tree appearance. The old tree may have been the antagonist, but his design may have been the best, with crooked old limbs and well designed facial expressions. The characters moved with a fluidity rarely seen in films of the time, which is quite important as the first half the film seems to play out like a dance with the characters' sashaying motion. Even the fight seems to be highly choreographed. It was well designed and certainly adds an artistic feel to the film. The film eventually evolves into physical humor once the fire starts, but overall the film is entertaining even 81 years after its initial release with romance, humor, and action. It was a masterpiece in 1932, and it's still one even today.
Where Can I Watch It?

It's Got Me Again!
It is a three in the morning, and one mouse decides to sneak out of the mousehole in the music store where he lives. He sneaks out amidst all of the instruments, and seeing that the coast is clear, he turns on a record player and calls of his fellow mice to come out and play. The mice all have fun with the instruments, as they sing to the song "It's Got Me Again." However, the song turned out to be a real problem as a stray cat comes sneaking in and traps one of the mice. Can he free himself from the cat's clutches? It seems only fitting that a film from Warner Bros. Cartoons is among the first set of nominations, as Warner Bros. together with Disney form two of the most successful cartoon studios in the Golden Age of Studio Cartoons. Interestingly enough, the men behind the founding of the Warner Bros. were none other than Disney's old Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising. The duo had been part of Charles Minkler's studios that made Oswald films, but then they left to form their own studio. They pitched a new character named Bosko to Leon Schlesinger at Warner Bros, and they were signed to release films for Warner Bros, which started with Sinkin' in the Bathtub in 1930 under the Looney Tunes label featuring a young animator named Isidore "Friz" Freleng. A second musical series were formed a year later with the introduction of Merrie Melodies featuring songs from Warner Bros. films, and it is under this label that saw the release of It's Got Me Again!.

The film itself is was centered around music, which is not too surprising considering it was set in a music store.  It plays out as a series of gags and scenarios, the majority of which are related to music and sound, most of which involved musical instruments or songs. For example, in one scene a mouse goes riding on a record playing the title song (written by Irving Caesar). He gets flung out and lands on a series of musical instruments. The musical gags are well done, although there was one worth mentioning that seemed out of place. It features two mice acting out a scenario involving an abusive husband and his tragic wife. The male mouse assaults the female, while she either cowers in fear or begs for forgiveness. Meanwhile their actions lead to music from the piano. It is a disturbing from the fact that this sort of relationship is all too common in today's society, and Warner Bros. found it fit to include it in a cartoon. It's just as emotionally jarring as the famous "Father, Dear Father" scene in Disney's The Nifty Nineties from 1941, which deals with the damaging social effects of alcoholism. Anyways, the animation in the film is decent, although the film does suffer from the use of looped animation and poor character design. The mice seem almost like Mickey Mouse ripoffs. Still, the use of sound is very well done. The music is lively, and the sound effects are great as well. It's Got Me Again! may not be in the same league as some of the Warner Bros. masterpieces overlooked by the Academy, but it is still a decent film.
Where Can I Watch It?

Mickey's Orphans
It is a cold, winter Christmas Eve night, and a hunched figure wades her way through the snow and ice. She stops in front of a house belonging to Mickey and Minnie, who are enjoying the coziness by playing the piano and decorating a Christmas tree. The figure carries with her a basket and leaves it on the doorstep before ringing the bell and walking away. Pluto brings in the basket, which turns out to be a litter of kittens. They tear through the house, making a mess of things with their mischievous ways. Can Mickey and Minnie ever get the critters under control? Well, it's also fitting that the first batch of nominated films also includes a film from Mickey Mouse, one of the most recognizable cartoon characters in history. Mickey's history is well documented. While working with Charles Mintz, Disney asked colleague and friend Ub Iwerks to create several characters. The one that appealed to Disney was a mouse, who he originally wanted to name Mortimer, but was later changed to Mickey. After leaving Mintz studios and his rights to his creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney took with him Mickey Mouse. Disney and Iwerks created two films starring the new character alongside his girlfriend Minnie. They had much greater success with their third film, Steamboat Willie. Not only did the film have witty animation, but it also had a dynamic soundtrack that was synched to the action, the first cartoon film to do so. Steamboat Willie was a massive hit, and Disney was well on his way with his own studio.

Mickey Mouse was Disney's greatest star, and their attention was divided between making Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse films. By the time Mickey's Orphans came out in December of 1931 (just in time for Christmas), it was already the 36th film starring Mickey Mouse. By then Mickey had begun to shed his image as a mischievous little rogue with a transition to a goody two shoes. Instead the mischief and humor in this film is supplied by the titular orphans, the group of orphan kittens. The majority of the film is centered around the chaos they cause around the house, which begins as playful mischief, but later devolves into outright destruction, although Mickey giving presents involving hammers and saws certainly doesn't help. Seriously, it's insane how Mickey thinks it's a good idea, but soon he sees his furniture and fine china get destroyed, while the kittens even go into physical assault. Mickey and Minnie do their best to keep their spirits up, but it's obvious from the start it's a losing battle. The gags themselves are well done, as there is plenty of action on the screen to show the kittens' destructive nature. However, your enjoyment of the film probably centers around how much you like the kittens. I personally think they're little pricks, but that's just me. The animation has a lot of looping, but it's probably worth it considering the volume of activity in the shots. There could be up to eight different antics going on at one time. Plus the film has the popular image of Mickey going around as Santa. Mickey's Orphans is an entertaining enough film, even if it may not rank as among his classics.
Where Can I Watch It?

Well, here are the nominees from the first year of the category. It's three fine films from two legendary studios, but in this case one film stands out. It's probably not too hard to tell which one: Flowers and Trees, which was revolutionary not only for its introduction of the three-strip Technicolor but also for its terrific character animation. Naturally, it became the first winner.

My rankings (by quality)
Flowers and Trees > Mickey's Orphans > It's Got Me Again!

My rankings (by preference)
Flowers and Trees > It's Got Me Again! > Mickey's Orphans 

Meanwhile, the category continued for another 80 years. 334 more films were nominated in those 80 years (soon to be 339 in 81 years). Some of the films were masterpieces. Others were not quite as good. There have been some classics that were left out. Some of the films are literally impossible to find. But they all present a good look into animation history, and can serve as a great stepping stone to explore the subject even further. I hope I did that for those rare readers.

Where do we go from here? Well, two weeks from now I would be posting my rankings of the films from 1931/1932 - 1941 by preference. Then a day after that would be the announcement of the Oscar nominees. I'll be watching the nominated films somehow, reviewing them, and then attempting one of my most ambitious project yet, subjectively ranking all the nominated films (I've seen) by quality. After that, who knows? Maybe getting a 16mm projector so I can go down to Miami to watch Hypothese Beta and The Shepherd.

1 comment:

  1. Is that as in ranking ALL of the nominated films you've seen? From every year? Looking forward to that one, definitely!