Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ranking the Oscar Nominated Shorts: 1932-1941

Has it really been almost five months since the last time I posted one of these? Yes, after switching to the q 2 weeks posting schedule, I've had almost as much time pass as when I took the month and a half hiatus between 1972-1981 and 1962-1971. But I guess I just wanted to savor it, because this will be the last time I do one of these things until 2022, if this blog hadn't become abandoned like my other blogs. But you know how this works. I take the films between 1932 and 1941 that I reviewed over the past four months and rank them by how much I enjoy them. Simple as pie. Mmm...I like pie.

40. Truant Officer Donald (1941)
I like Donald Duck films, but this one was marred by sadistic jokes that just aren't funny.

39. Detouring America (1939)
One of Tex Avery's specialties with Warner Bros. was mock travelogues. This wasn't very funny.

38. Mickey's Orphans (1932)
Mickey's misadventure with kittens feature detailed animation, but those nasty kittens are annoying.

37. The Pointer (1939)
The brilliant animation with luscious backgrounds and a new design for Mickey is marred by a poor story.

36. It's Got Me Again (1932)
One of the earliest Looney Tunes certainly has its moments, but feels uneven. Plus, spousal abuse, really?

35. The Merry Old Soul (1933)
There are some brilliant caricatures in this Oswald cartoon, but I can't figure out what they're singing about.

34. Jolly Little Elves (1934)
Walter Lantz Studios breaks into color animation with some nice gags, but also with that awful Dunking Song.

33. The Rookie Bear (1941)
There are some nice little jokes in this film about Barney Bear getting drafted, but it also feels slight at the end.

32. Hiawatha's Rabbit Hunt (1941)
There are great gags in this early Bugs Bunny film, but also major timing issues. Bonus: Hiawatha sounds like Ed.

31. Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company 'B' (1941)
The Andrews Sisters' hit is adapted into this film by Walter Lantz. It starts out promising but devolves into lame gags.

30. The Old Mill Pond (1936)
Some great caricatures of great African American entertainers of the 1930s present, but ultimately the film feels uneven.

29. Holiday Land (1934)
There are some interesting visual gags in this Scrappy cartoon, but ultimately I just identify with the song about Sleepyheads.

28. The Calico Dragon (1935)
The art direction in this film is fabulous, with calico landscapes, but the storyline is muddled with unrelated gag scenes involving rabbits.

27. The Country Cousin (1936)
The gags in this film based off of Aesop's fables are kind of meh, but there's something funny watching a drunk mouse shushing everything.

26. Ugly Duckling (1939)
The Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale gets a proper Silly Symphony treatment, with a touching story and accusations of infidelity among ducks.

25. Hunky and Spunky (1938)
This pair of burros by the Flieschers are somewhat unappealing mascots, but they do have a touching bond together, along with a terrific theme song. 

24. The Milky Way (1940)
The first non-Disney film to win the Oscar certainly has its moments, such a great music, but the primary focus of gags involving milk are rather mundane.

23: How War Came (1941)
This documentary short about the global conflict that would become World War II has some bland animation but otherwise has some good though simplified history.

22. Educated Fish (1937)
I can't really say that this Fleischer film about a rebellious fish at school is anything special, but I find it appealing for some reason. Must be the visual gags.

21. Superman (1941)
The famous superhero goes from the comic books to the big screen in this thrilling adventure cartoon that feels years ahead of its time with its gripping action sequences.

20. Flowers and Trees (1932)
There have been efforts to bring color to animation beforehand, but Disney shows of the true power of three-strip technicolor with a film that's still entertaining to watch.

19. Peace on Earth (1939)
Peace on Earth goes down as one of the most powerful anti-war films with its unflinching look at human warfare as told by cute, cuddly animals. It's still quite haunting even today.

18. Rhythm in the Ranks (1941)
George Pal gets his first Oscar nomination with this interesting film set in a war setting. It doesn't have the power of his masterpiece Tulips Shall Grow, but it does have a risque gag at the end.

17. Three Orphan Kittens (1935)
Three playful kittens go on an adventure in a wealthy house. What else is there to say? The animators at Disney sure captured the adorableness of the kittens, an improvement over Mickey's Orphans.

16. Building a Building (1933)
This early Mickey Mouse cartoon may have been a remake of an earlier Oswald film, but it's jam packed with a lot of clever gags. Then again, you can't go wrong with jokes involving construction sites.

15. Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935)
This surprisingly dark Silly Symphony manages to caricature many of the great entertainers of those days while presenting a musical whodunit. Billy Bletcher's wonderful baritone as the owl judge makes the film.

14. The Little Match Girl (1937)
Columbia's Color Rhapsody has been quite forgotten over the years, but even they can come up with a masterpiece. Parts of this film based on the Anderson fairy tale kind of drags, but the power is undeniable. Too bad the little girl is kind of ugly.

13. Puss Gets the Boot (1940)
Cat and mouse tales were quite commonplace even back in the 1930s, but the young duo of Hanna and Barbera made this film stand out with solid character animation of the main characters and backing up with a fun premise. The rest became history.

12. The Tortoise and the Hare (1934)
The Tortoise and the Hare may be one of Aesop's most famous fables, thanks in part to this brilliant Silly Symphony. Sure, much of the film features Max Hare making himself look good, but there's enough visual gags and dazzling animation to make it memorable.

11. Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938)
Caricatures of entertainers were all the rage back in the 1930s and early 1940s, but this one stands out with its brilliant integration of pop culture references and storylines involving Mother Goose tales. Most of the celebrities are forgotten now, but who can forget Kate Hepburn as Little Bo Peep?

10. The Night Before Christmas (1941)
Tom and Jerry had become MGM animation's biggest hit only a year after their debut. Their third collaboration features some interesting gags involving toys underneath a Christmas tree. The gags themselves are decent, but what really sets this film apart is its emotional ending espousing the message of friendship. Some have complained the ending is too cheesy, but I think it's very touching and appropriate for a film based around Christmas. 

9. Good Scouts (1938)
Donald's nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie made their debuts as incorrigible brats in 1937, but by the time Good Scouts came around, they became quite resourceful and helpful, even if they were a bit green. This is partially thanks to the story direction of Carl Barks, who crafted a whole world involving the Ducks. The film itself is very funny. The boys' inexperience combined with Donald's incompetence makes for a very entertaining viewing experience.

8. Lend a Paw (1941)
Pluto often gets a raw deal, being a non-anthropomorphic animal in a world full of anthropomorphic ones. Even this film, which may be his crowning achievement, is credited as a Mickey Mouse film and is actually a remake of an earlier film, Mickey's Pal Pluto. Still, the mortality tale is still a blast to watch even today, with Pluto's jealousy embodying itself as a devil with a Brooklyn accent and the playful antics of the cute little kitten being the highlights.

7. Rhapsody in Rivets (1941)
The most famous use of Franz Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2" may be in The Cat Concerto and Rhapsody Rabbit for reasons covered in the last rankings, but there have been plenty of uses before, with Warner Bros,'s Rhapsody in Rivets being one of the best. The song is integrated with a construction theme. The gags themselves are varied and hilarious and all perfectly timed with the music. There are a few that don't quite work, but it proves once again that you can't go wrong with construction sites.

6. A Wild Hare (1940)
Bugs Bunny is one of the most famous cartoon characters in the history of animation, and while there were a few cartoons involving a rascally rabbit character earlier, Bugs as we know him today made his debut with a bang in A Wild Hare. While the prey outwitting the hunter theme was probably old hat even in 1940, A Wild Hare excels under the careful direction of Tex Avery and his frantic sense of humor. Many of Bugs' characteristics became defined, from his nonchalance to his propensity for kissing Elmer. It's still a fun watch even today.

5. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936)
It was 1936 and Fleischer wanted to bring animation to a new level, so they created a set of two-reel animated films starring Popeye, their most famous mascot character. This first one is also the best, pitting Popeye against the world-famous Sinbad the Sailor, looking surprisingly like his nemesis Bluto. There are times when the film drags thanks to its long running time, but the hard-hitting action more than makes up for the lulls. The technique putting the characters against real-life backgrounds are also used to great effect. Plus Sinbad the Sailor's song is just wonderful.

4. The Old Mill (1937)
When I was young I used to watch a lot of Disney cartoons on tape, and I'd get annoyed when The Old Mill came on, because I found the film to be quite dull. How misguided I was. The Old Mill is not just a technological marvel for debuting the multi-plane camera, but it's also a well animated film putting cute little wild animals in peril. The use of character animation and lighting to depict the joys and the fears of the characters in the ferocious storm is quite awe inspiring, and there are just enough visual gags to keep the film highly entertaining. It is one of the triumphs of the Silly Symphonies.

3. Brave Little Tailor (1938)
Mickey Mouse was Disney's first stars, but by 1938 he had become marginalized. His number of films had dwindled, and even in his films he shared the screen with co-stars like Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. Yet he had one great hurrah with the Brave Little Tailor. It was a playful adaptation of the famous Brothers Grimm fairy tale. There are plenty of visual gags as well as thrilling action sequences that happen before the fateful showdown with the giant. Of course the scene when Mickey does face the giant is one of the best in his career. It's got enough tension and gags for two Mickey Mouse films. Brave Little Tailor is definitely Mickey at his best.

2. Three Little Pigs (1933)
It was 1933 and America was deep within the Great Depression. I'm sure the last thing the troubled workers wanted was to go to the movies, but there was this one film that gave them hope for a better future, a Silly Symphony based on the classic fairy tale "The Three Little Pigs." At least that's the tale that I've heard regards to why Three Little Pigs remains one of Disney's most famous films. For me, personally, Three Little Pigs remains great for its playful feel throughout. The Big Bad Wolf doesn't just go up and blow the houses down, but he tries to outsmart them with such memorable lines as "I'm the Fuller Brush Man. I work me way through college." The advances in character animation and the catchiness of "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" are just icing on the cake for this masterpiece.

1. Ferdinand the Bull (1938)
"Ferdinand the Bull" was a picture book by Munroe Leaf and Robert Lawson about a pacifist bull who is thrust into a situation of violence. It was decent enough, as far as picture books go. Then Disney came and adapted it into an animated short film and it became a work of art. The film captures the spirit of the original story by using the original text with minor modifications. However, with its conversion to film the story became much more alive. The animation is full of wonderful visual gags that were not in the original story, the highlights being the goofy caricatures of Disney animators as well as the crazy antics of the exasperated matador. That part always made me laugh when I was younger and still does today. The narration by radio personality Don Wilson is also spot on, reaching the perfect balance between serenity and emotion. All of these elements made Ferdinand the Bull a great classic in the Disney canon, and my favorite Oscar nominated short film from 1932-1941!

Highest ranked non-winner: Brave Little Tailor (3)*
Lowest ranked winner: The Country Cousin (27)
Number of winners in the top 10: Four (Ferdinand the Bull, Three Little Pigs, The Old Mill, Lend a Paw)
Average rank of the ten winners: 14.1
Number of favorites in a year outside the top 10: Four [The Tortoise and the Hare (12), Who Killed Cock Robin? (15), Peace on Earth (19), Flowers and Trees (20)]
The four films that were not my favorite in a year in the top 10: Brave Little Tailor (3), Lend a Paw (8), Good Scouts (9), The Night Before Christmas (10)
Highest average ranking in a year: 1938 (9.8)
Lowest average ranking in a year: 1931-1932 (31.333)

*This is the fourth time that a non-winner placed in the top three, but still ranked behind the film that beat it for the Oscar.

The top 10 from 1932-1941

Other decades:

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