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Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: March 27, 1948
Stars: Elmer Fudd, Sylvester
Sylvester turns out to be a rather talented alley cat. His performance is quite infectious, and includes the famous Largo al factotum aria from Rossini’s ‘Il barbiero di Seviglia’, Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody (which he performs by stamping with heavy boots on the staircase), “You Never Know Where You’re Goin’ Till You Get There” and “Moonlight Bay”.
At last, Elmer tries to blow Sylvester to smithereens, but they are both killed, and on his way to heaven, Elmer is disturbed by Sylvester’s nine lives singing the Sextet from Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’.
‘Back Alley Oproar’ is one of director Friz Freleng’s cartoons in which he spreads his own love for music. He does so in a very entertaining way.
The cartoon was the first of only four Elmer Fudd-Sylvester pairings. Only Freleng coupled these two characters, although they did co-star in Chuck Jones’ ensemble film ‘The Scarlet Pumpernickel‘ (1950).
Watch an excerpt from ‘Back Alley Oproar’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack King
Release Date: October 14, 1938
Unfortunately, the cartoon just doesn’t deliver what it seems to offer. Literally stuffed with classical music themes (from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Wagner’s Tannhäuser), it’s mainly filled with animals just doing things.
One can detect two weak story lines: one about a piglet looking for food and the other about a rooster falling in love with a slender white chick. The latter story leads to the most symphony-like part of the cartoon in which all animals join the rooster and the chicken in their duet from Verdi’s La Traviata.
This remains one of the less interesting entries in the Silly Symphonies series, despite its sometimes stunning and convincingly realistic animal designs. It is very likely that these have influenced the animal designs of ‘Animal Farm’ from 1954, which also features scenes of singing animals. Especially the pigs look very similar.
Watch ‘Farmyard Symphony’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 71
To the previous Silly Symphony: Wynken, Blynken and Nod
To the next Silly Symphony: Merbabies
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 13, 1937
This enjoyable gem depicts a Harlem-like nightclub for bugs, in which blackfaced grasshoppers perform hot jazz, led by a Cab Calloway-like bandleader. All bugs swing to it as soon as they enter the club.
After a remarkably erotic act played by a spider and a fly the cartoon climaxes in the jazz song ‘everybody’s truckin”’, penned by Fats Waller and celebrating a dance style that was fashionable around ca. 1935-1938. The main feature of truckin’ is the shoulders which rise and fall as the dancers move towards each other while the fore finger points up and wiggles back and forth like a windshield wiper. At this point in the short even some astonishing effect animation joins in, delivering totally convincing glitter ball effects and beautiful descending fluffy flowers.
Both charming and entertaining, the whole mood of this delightful cartoon is one of sheer joy.
Watch ‘Woodland Café’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 66
To the previous Silly Symphony: More Kittens
To the next Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 5, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In ‘Music Land’ a young violin falls in love with a young saxophone, much to the disapproval of their parents, the queen of ‘The Land of Symphony’ and the king of ‘The Isle of Jazz, respectively, whose realms are separated by the ‘Sea of Discord’.
When the young saxophone is imprisoned, the feud between the two very different nations leads to a war, in which the two young lovers are almost killed… The whole story is told through music, even the characters ‘speak’ with the sounds of the instruments they are.
This reading of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ is one of the most inspired of all Silly Symphonies. The very idea of musical instruments ‘speaking’ in their own sound is brilliant. But there is much more. For example, when the saxophone prince is locked up, he’s imprisoned in a metronome and when he writes a letter to his father (a caricature of bandleader Paul Whiteman, ‘the king of jazz’) he does this in staff-notation!
The complete design of the cartoon is delightful. The backgrounds are particularly beautiful, rendering a totally convincing fantasy world, in which the cartoon develops as if it were an age-old story. The concept of a battle between classical music and jazz was a topical one in the nineteen thirties, when jazz was still regarded by many as devilish music and a threat to ‘high culture’.
Watch ‘Music Land’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 55
To the previous Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Orphan Kittens
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: September 17, 1932
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Goofy, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
After three years of musical cartoons, consistent story lines where reintroduced to the Mickey cartoons with a remarkable success in 1932 (good examples are ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ and ‘Touchdown Mickey’). In this era the musical cartoon ‘The Whoopee Party’ with its total lack of story seems to be quite old-fashioned.
The short contains numerous elements that were used many times earlier: a public dancing, Minnie singing behind the piano and alive inanimate objects (although the latter feature was more common practice in the Fleischer and Iwerks cartoons of that time). Nevertheless, the sheer fun with which everything is executed, makes this cartoon a delight to watch.
‘The Whoopee Party’ marks Goofy’s second appearance after his debut in ‘Mickey’s Revue’ earlier that year. In ‘The Whoopee Party’ Goofy (or Dippy Dawg, as he was still known at that time) gets the looks he would maintain until Art Babbitt redesigned him for ‘On Ice’ (1935). He’s more than just a silly laugh now, but he’s still more weird than likeable. Goofy’s character would remain rather vague until 1935. Only with ‘Mickey’s Service Station’, he would become the likeable Goof we know today.
‘The Whoopee Party’ contains some nice effect animation of confetti and flying feathers. It also reuses some animation of Clarabelle Cow dancing and mooing from ‘The Shindig‘ (1930).
Watch ‘The Whoopee Party’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 46
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Trader Mickey
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Touchdown Mickey
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: April 26, 1947
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Unfortunately his playing awakes Jerry, who sleeps inside the grand piano. This leads to a hilarious chase in and around the piano, while the playing of the music continues.
‘The Cat Concerto’ almost looks like a remake of Friz Freleng’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ from 1946. However, it shares only two gags with the earlier film, that of the mouse suddenly interjecting a boogie-woogie theme and the final gag in which the mouse steals the show. The main difference between the two films is The Cat Concerto’s higher sense of realism and its integrated story, in which every gag follows from the one preceding it in almost continuous action.
‘Rhapsody Rabbit’, in contrast, is more absurd and contains more totally unrelated black-out gags. In the end, ‘The Cat Concerto’ is the better cartoon, for its great characterization, its outstanding animation, its perfect timing. Indeed, it won an Academy Award, and together with ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935) it can be considered the best concert cartoon of all time.
Watch ‘The Cat Concerto’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: July 29, 1928
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Sound boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it caused also a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon.
In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.
Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio several years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 26th film, ‘Traffic Trouble’ from 1931, is arguably the first).
Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number (in which the sounds are mostly made by torturing animals) is both fresh and catching.
When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.
Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think: