Mickey's Birthday Party (ending) © Walt DisneyHooray! Today it’s the day! Mickey turns ninety years young, and still counting!

Today it was ninety years ago Mickey was presented to the general audience in the Colony Theatre on Broadway, in the groundbreaking sound cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘. This short made Mickey a sensation almost over night, and during the 1930s Mickey was the biggest cartoon star of them all. Today, Mickey’s movie days are mostly over, but otherwise he’s clearly still alive and kicking.

So, take out your Mickey Mouse socks, your Mickey Mouse T-shirt, your Mickey Mouse ears, and spend this festive day watching some of Mickey’s best cartoons, like ‘Plane Crazy‘ (1928), ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ (1932), ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1933) or ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ (1935), and learn more about them in my book ‘Mickey’s Movies – The Theatrical Films of Mickey Mouse‘.

For a complete list of Mickey Mouse shorts see here.

 

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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 8, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Pest Pilot © Max FleischerIn ‘Pest Pilot’ Popeye suddenly has exchanged sailing for flying.

Apparently, Popeye owns an “air-conditioned airport”, where he works on some planes. Poopdeck Pappy drops by, begging Popeye to let him fly, which Popeye keeps refusing. When put outside, Pappy finds an idle plane, and the old man takes off immediately, flying recklessly all over the world, and crashing into Popeye’s airport again.

Surprisingly little happens in this ‘Pest Pilot’: we practically only see Pappy begging and flying. Poopdeck Pappy’s flight is mildly amusing, and in fact the short’s best gag is Popeye’s original way of making a propeller.

‘Pest Pilot’ was the last Fleischer cartoon featuring Poopdeck Pappy. Popeye’s old man would turn up in ‘Seein’ Red White ‘n Blue’ (1943), but was revived by Paramount in only eight cartoons. Poopdeck Pappy’s last three Fleischer cartoons were rather weak, but earlier ones had shown that the character certainly had comic potential, so why he was eventually shelved, we’ll never know.

Watch ‘Pest Pilot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 98
To the previous Popeye film: Child Psykolojiky
To the next Popeye film: I’ll Never Crow Again

‘Pest Pilot’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 11, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy, Swee’Pea
Rating:  ★
Review:

Child Psykolojiky © Max FleischerThis short opens with Popeye and Poopdeck Pappy playing cards (and the old man cheating a lot).

Unfortunately father and son are disturbed by a weeping Swee’Pea, and both try to nurture the baby. The two men’s methods of nurture are quite different, however, Popeye’s soft approach contrasting heavily with Poopdeck Pappy’s more outlandish methods. As soon as Popeye leaves the room, his father tests Swee’Pea’s nerves by swinging him outside the window, like a Michael Jackson avant la lettre. Next he teaches the infant how to shoot.

Despite the rather risque gags (at least to the modern viewer), ‘Child Psykolojiky’ never becomes very funny. The cartoon is hampered by its large amount of dialogue (it certainly is one of the most talkative cartoons of the era), and its moral, which throws the short back into the 1930s.

Watch ‘Child Psykolojiky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 97
To the previous Popeye film: Olive’s Boithday Presink
To the next Popeye film: Pest Pilot

‘Child Psykolojiky’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: June 13, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Olive_s Boithday Presink © Max FleischerA Russian fur seller called G. Geezil draws Popeye inside his shop, but when Popeye discovers that all his bearskins are in fact, rabbit, the man proposes Popeye shoots a bear himself.

Popeye immediately sets out to do so, and corners a bear on a cliff. But when the bear calls for his family to say goodbye, Popeye breaks his gun. Suddenly the bear takes his revenge, and Popeye is only saved by his spinach, robbing the bear of his skin in a matter of seconds, only to discover it’s a G. Geezil coat, too…

The story idea of ‘Olive’s Boithday Presink’ harks all the way back to the Talkartoon ‘A Hunting We Will Go‘ (1932), and it’s just as weak. The bear’s goodbye scene is the highlight, in its perfect silent melodramatic comedy. However, there’s little else to enjoy: the shop scene feels like it was made years before, and the final battle is over before you know it.

Watch ‘Olive’s Boithday Presink’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 96
To the previous Popeye film: Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle
To the next Popeye film: Child Psykolojiky

‘Olive’s Boithday Presink’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: May 9, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★
Review:

opeye Meetss Rip van Winkle © Max Fleischer‘Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle’ opens with Popeye passing Rip van Winkle’s home, which is emptied by some movers (one being a caricature of Chico Marx), because Van Winkle didn’t pay the rent.

Soon, Van Winkle is put outside himself, still sleeping. Popeye takes the old man home. But when he leaves the bearded fellow alone for a while, Van Winkle immediately starts sleepwalking. Incomprehensibly, the somnambulist ends with some fairy tale dwarfs bowling in the countryside. Popeye has to fight them all before he can take the old man back with him.

‘Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle’ makes very little sense, and certainly is one of the weakest Popeye cartoons ever made. The best part is when the dwarfs beat Popeye to their own size. Nevertheless, the short features some beautiful effect animation on Popeye, when he’s lit by lighting.

Watch ‘Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 95
To the previous Popeye film: Flies Ain’t Human
To the next Popeye film: Olive’s Boithday Presink

‘Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Release Date: June 20, 1941
Stars: Robert Benchley, Clarence Nash, Florence Gill, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Donald Duck, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Reluctant Dragon © Walt DisneyAfter three stunning feature films, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was a much, much more modest affair.

The movie must have come as a letdown to contemporary audiences, and many considered it a cheater, as little more than half the film is animated. Indeed, it’s not even included in Disney’s official list of theatrical features, and has only been released on DVD in the limited edition ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ series.

This is a pity, for despite its modest ambitions, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ remains an entertaining feature, especially its animated sequences. The film was made in a not so prosperous time for the Walt Disney studio: both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, mainly due to World War II, which had broken off the complete European market, and its necessary revenues. As a consequence, the number of theatrical shorts was reduced, ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was shelved, and two smaller features were planned: ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ and ‘Dumbo’.

Especially, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was conceived as a low-budget production in order to get a quick return on investment. Trying to capitalize on Disney’s popularity, the film is a virtual tour through the Burbank studio, to which the company had moved in the end of 1939. Apart from the orchestra sequences in ‘Fantasia’ this was Walt Disney’s first foray into live action since the silent Alice comedies, and he hired a live action director, Alfred L. Werker to shoot the live action scenes. As Leonard Maltin points out in his introduction to the film, the film had been storyboarded like any other animated film, thus Werker can be regarded as the first live action director to have worked with storyboards. Filming in live action was far cheaper than shooting animation, and thus greatly reduced the costs of the feature. Unfortunately, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ didn’t earn the studio enough money to cover the film’s costs. Nevertheless, the film pointed Walt Disney to the future, in which the company ventured more and more into live action film making.

Apart from Werker, several actors were hired to play various studio employees, and the film tour is more fiction than fact. The tour thus is hardly documentary, even though it does show the real studio lot. This became painfully clear when the film was released on June 20, 1941. At the time the studio experienced a severe strike, revealing that the company was not such a happy place, after all…

The film starts with Robert Benchley’s wife (Nana Bryant) suggesting to the popular humorist that he should suggest to Walt Disney to make a picture out of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1898). Benchley reluctantly agrees, and is more or less forced to drive to the Disney studio, where his wife leaves him on his own, taking the car to go shopping.

Benchley soon starts to wander through the studio on his own, visiting an art class (hoping to see a nude model), and the sound studio, where he witnesses Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) and Florence Gill (Clara Cluck) performing a duet from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ (1847).

Benchley continues his wanderings through the sound effect department, and the camera department. At this point the film suddenly changes into color, even to Benchley’s own surprise, who immediately starts checking the colors of his own suit, as if he had really been black and white all before.

Benchley’s tour continues through the color department, the story room, the animation department, and finally, the screening room where he finally meets Walt, and joins in the screening, only to find out that it’s the screening of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, the very story he had wanted to sell…

The color department sequence is set to an instrumental version of ‘Hi-Ho’ and looks like a ballet of paint colors, and not at all as anything real. When Benchley continues to the story room he passes several statues of Disney characters, including Captain Hook, Tinkerbell and Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’, a film that would only go into production ten years later! One can also notice both a little statue and a drawing of two Siamese cats who would not be seen on the animated screen until ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956).

At the animation department Benchley meets real animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson (we can watch the latter one panting like his creation Pluto). There Benchley admires some ‘paintings’ of Donald Duck in the style of old masters. The paintings were actually drawings in crayon, done by animators John Dunn, Phil Klein, and Ray Patin.

In one way we could consider the whole tour as a long introduction to the twelve minute animated version of the tale, and as such the film harks all the way back to Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo‘ (1912) and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914), which also featured long live action footage showing how the film was made, before showing the end result.

However, none of the animation on ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself is shown before the last part: instead we watch unique animation on the train Casey Jones jr. from ‘Dumbo’, Donald Duck from the upcoming short ‘Old MacDonald Duck’, and unique animation of Bambi (this film also being in production) being scared of Benchley.

The film only features three completely animated sequences: ‘Baby Weems’, the Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ and ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. All three are excellent and forward-looking, and make the film a must watch for every animation lover:

Baby Weems © Walt DisneyBaby Weems
‘Baby Weems’ is no less than a milestone of animation: the segment is told in story boards only, with little movement and added special effects. Conceived by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, the short features drawings by John Miller, whose more angular style looks forward to the more stylized cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, one can say that the concept of Animatics is born here. The story in itself is a delight: Baby Weems is an exceptional prodigy, whose fame goes all over the world. Unfortunately, his parents don’t get to see him. However, the film shows the black side of fame, and as soon as Weems loses his extraordinary abilities, he’s soon forgotten by everyone, except his happy parents, who can finally start to raise him…

How to Ride a Horse © Walt DisneyHow to Ride a Horse
The Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ strangely enough only exists within this film, yet it’s presented as a regular short. The segment plays an important part in the evolution of Goofy: it’s the first of all ‘how to’ cartoons, it’s Goofy’s first venture into sports, and it’s the first to use blueprint-like schematic drawings and the ridiculous use of the “slow motion camera”. Most probably the series had been inspired by Robert Benchley himself, as he had done a ‘How to…’ series of short films, too, from 1935 to 1939. The short uses surprisingly spare monochrome backgrounds, with only few details in pastel. These graphic backgrounds are absolutely forward-looking.

The Reluctant Dragon from the movie of the same name © Walt DisneyThe Reluctant Dragon
‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself, too, looks forward to the 1950s: the character designs are more streamlined than before, and the backgrounds are simplified and rounded, never trying to evoke any sense of realism. Sir Giles is the most convincingly animated human character thus far. He certainly is cartoony, but he’s also a real human, with visible joints, muscles, and five fingers instead of the normal four. The dragon itself is animated elegantly, moving with a deftness that defies its size and weight. Voiced by Barnett Parker (and not Ed Wynn, as I thought) – the dragon sounds pretty gay, perhaps to make it the opposite of the masculine fighting machine it is supposed to be. The dragon even shows a Tex Averyan double take, suddenly producing five separate heads when he hears that his invite Sir Giles is a dragon killer.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ can be regarded as the first of the package features, which would dominate the Disney output the rest of the 1940s, and like all its successors it suffers from its disjointed and scrambled character. The film certainly is not a perfect film: the live action parts remain a strange mix of education and self-promotion, and in many respects the film is rescued by its animated sequences, which are all three excellent. Yet, the picture is certainly worth a watch, and deserves to be more seen than it is now.

Watch ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ is available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: January 17, 1942
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Fraidy Cat © MGMThis short opens with Tom listening to ‘The Witching Hour’ on the radio, living the part of it.

Jerry mocks the scene, and decides to scare Tom himself, which he does with e.g. help of a vacuum cleaner and a white shirt. Jerry scares Tom to death, who had already been frightened by the radio program.

‘Fraidy Cat’ is less funny than the first three Tom & Jerry cartoons, but it clearly shows that Hanna and Barbera could do much more with the cat and mouse duo than ordinary chases. ‘Fraidy Cat’ also is the first Tom & Jerry cartoon to feature non-realistic gags: when Tom listens to the radio he literally gets “icy chills raised down his spine”: we watch him being covered in icicles. In the next scene he literally has is heart leaping into his throat. Later, we watch Tom’s nine lives leave him, when he is almost sucked away by Jerry’s vacuum cleaner. And finally, when Tom sneaks upon Mammy Two-Shoes, his body stretches beyond any sense of realism. These types of gags would become more and more important in the series, making the Tom & Jerry cartoons funnier and funnier.

Watch ‘Fraidy Cat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 4
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Night Before Christmas
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Dog Trouble

‘Fraidy Cat’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: December 6, 1941
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Night Before Christmas © MGMAlready in their third cartoon Tom & Jerry were given their own Christmas special.

The short starts with the narrator reciting the first two lines from the early 19th century poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’: “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse“.

Upon the last word we cut to Jerry who appears from his hole and goes exploring the Christmas setting. When Jerry mistakes Tom for a stuffed animal, a cartoon chase emerges, which is the more fun due to the Christmas setting. For example, we watch Tom inspecting a troop of wooden soldiers, and Jerry inviting Tom for a kiss under the mistletoe.

The chase ends when Jerry accidentally falls through the letter box outside in the snow. Relieved, Tom settles himself at the warm fire site, only to be plagued by remorse. Anxiously Tom rushes outside to retrieve a frozen Jerry from the snow. The cartoon ends with the broadest smile on Jerry possible.

‘The Night Before Christmas’ was only the duo’s third cartoon, but already Hanna and Barbera were able to play with the relationship between the cat and the mouse. Now they’re not only antagonists, they’re also friends, or at least ‘friendly enemies’, and their chase retains a playful attitude.

Jerry is animated outstandingly in this cartoon, and pulls several priceless faces, the last smile being a highlight among highlights. Tom’s finest moment is when he’s invited by Jerry for a kiss. The cat’s obstinate refusal turning into goodwill, followed by an embarrassed shyness is animation at its best.

Composer Scott Bradley provides a fantastically integrated score, weaving the Tom and Jerry themes with Jingle Bells to a great effect. In fact, one can listen to the score in its own right. The result is a cartoon of sheer delight, and ‘The Night Before Christmas’ easily is one of the best Christmas cartoons of all time.

Watch ‘The Night Before Christmas’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 3
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Midnight Snack
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Fraidy Cat

‘The Night Before Christmas’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: July 19, 1941
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Midnight Snack © MGMFollowing the success of ‘Puss Gets the Boot‘ it would take quite a while before the cat and mouse duo were given their own series. But one and a half year later ‘The Midnight Snack’ was released: Tom & Jerry’s very first official cartoon.

The duo was re-christened ‘Tom and Jerry’, which may have sounded right, as there had been a human cartoon duo before with that name (1931-1933). The looks of the cat and mouse were altered, too: Tom now has his characteristic black nose and thick black eyebrows, which make his facial expressions much stronger. Nevertheless, his features are still very complex. Jerry’s designs have remained the same, but he’s now animated much more consistently, rendering him less pudding-like.

The story of ‘The Midnight Snack’ feels like a variation on ‘Puss Gets the Boot’. Tom catches Jerry stealing cheese from the fridge, only to make a buffet out of the fridge himself. When Mammy awakes, Tom frames Jerry, but in the end it’s he who gets punished by the angry maid. The cartoon violence is still rather mild in this cartoon, the most conspicuous gag being Jerry pricking the trapped Tom with a large carving fork.

Composer Scott Bradley juxtaposes separate themes for the cat and the mouse against each other in a rather complex continuous cartoon score. Bradley used this composition method in the duo’s first cartoons to a great effect. Later, the frantic cartoon action called for more disjointed and less integrated musical scores.

‘The Midnight Snack’ shows the cat and mouse’s great appeal and potential. Yet, in Charles Solomon’s book ‘Enchanted Drawings – The History of Animation’ Joe Barbera reveals that ‘The Midnight Snack’ almost became the last Tom & Jerry cartoon; apparently producer Fred Quimby was opposed to make any more of them, until he got a letter from Texas asking for more of “these delightful cat-and-mouse-cartoons”.

Watch ‘The Midnight Snack’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 2
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Puss Gets the Boot
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Night Before Christmas

‘The Midnight Snack’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: February 10, 1940
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Puss gets the Boot © MGM‘Puss Gets the Boot’ marks the first of three important debut cartoons of 1940 (the other ones being ‘A Wild Hare‘ from July and ‘Knock Nock’ from November), making the year a turning point in American studio animation. From now on cartoons were to be brassier, more energetic and more violent.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ introduces that illustrious cat and mouse duo, Tom & Jerry. The cartoon was made by William Hanna and Joe Barbera under Rudolf Ising’s flag, and like ‘A Wild Hare’ only meant as a one-off cartoon. Indeed, Tom is called Jasper in this short, and Jerry remains unnamed.

Moreover, the two look quite different from their later incarnations. Not only is Tom drawn with outrageous detail, he also has a white nose and very modest eyebrows. Jerry’s physique is rather unstable, as if he were made of a sort of rather amorphous jelly.

Yet, the characters are well established, and the friendly antagonism between the two is set from the start, as is the prize-winning combination of silent comedy and high production values. Also present is the combination of cuteness and gag-rich cartoon violence that made the Tom & Jerry series unique.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ also marks the debut of Mammy Two-Shoes, a black maid character whose face we were never to see (except for a few frames in ‘Saturday Evening Puss‘ from 1950). Mammy was borrowed from Disney, who had introduced exactly such a character in ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ (1935). For present American audiences this character is problematical, as she clearly is a stereotype of a black maid. But I, as a European kid, always thought of her as the owner of the house, never realizing the discrepancy of the enormous mansion and the maid’s modest looks. In any case Mammy lasted until 1952, starring 18 Tom & Jerry cartoons in total.

In this very first Tom & Jerry short Mammy tells Jasper (Tom) that if he breaks one more thing, he goes out. So the still unnamed Jerry takes advantage of the situation, in a series of gags that culminate in a scene in which Tom tries to hold a ridiculously high pile of plates. The short features several gags that were pretty modern at the time, like Tom drawing a fake mouse hole entrance, and Jerry poking Tom’s eyes. Indeed, the idea was strong enough to be more or less revisited in ‘Mouse Cleaning’ (1948), with even better results.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ is a very well made cartoon. The silent comedy of the two characters is acted out perfectly and the action is timed very well. It’s still very funny, and it’s no wonder that the audiences asked for more cartoons from this cat and mouse duo. The short even was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost it to another MGM cartoon, the much more saccharine ‘The Milky Way‘.

However, Tom and Jerry would quickly become MGM’s superstars, and they would win no less than seven Academy Awards, more than any other cartoon star. Indeed, Tom and Jerry arguably were the most successful cartoon stars of the 1940s and 1950s, starring 114 cartoons, and lasting until 1958, when MGM shut its animation department down. However, even that wouldn’t be the end of the cat and mouse duo, and even in the 21st century still films are made featuring these great characters.

Watch ‘Puss Gets the Boot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 1
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Midnight Snack

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 11, 1941
Stars: Gabby
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Swing Cleaning © Max FleischerThe title ‘Swing Cleaning’ promises a cartoon full of big band music.

None of that. Instead, we have a Gabby cartoon, in which our read-headed hero volunteers to take control of the palace’s spring cleaning. Gabby soon meddles with everyone and everything, and manages to destroy a great deal, twice. In the end the other palace dwellers give him their tokens of gratitude, and clobber him with their brooms.

Compared to ‘Two for the Zoo‘ ‘Swing Cleaning’ is a much better cartoon, with its focus on Gabby’s destructive meddling. However, the short loses some screen time to unrelated gags, and one doesn’t feel for either Gabby or the other palace dwellers. In the end. Swing Cleaning’ remains a mediocre cartoon, still much rooted in the sugary 1930s era, and feeling dated when compared to contemporary cartoons from other studios.

Watch ‘Swing Cleaning’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Swing Cleaning’ is available on the Thunderbean DVD/Blu-Ray ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 21, 1941
Stars: Gabby
Rating:
Review:

Two for the Zoo © Max FleischerIn a search for more lasting characters, the Fleischer studio gave Gabby, the omnipresent watchman from ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1940) his own series.

In 1940 and 1941 the studio made eight Gabby cartoons. Unfortunately, the series was not a success. The problem lies with the character itself. Even in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Gabby is hardly funny, and in ‘Two for the Zoo’, his fourth solo film, he only demonstrates that he was the most talkative character of his era, which is hardly an advertisement.

In this rather tiresome cartoon Gabby meets a porter who transports a ‘rubberneck Kango’ to the zoo inside a large crate. For unclear reasons Gabby volunteers to take the animal itself, taking a small fantasy creature out of the box, which looks like a kangaroo with a trunk and giraffe-like horns. What Gabby doesn’t realize is that he has only taken the cub, and that the mother Kango is still inside the crate. She soon follows the two, putting her cub inside her pouch. This leads to quite some confusion, and only in the end Gabby discovers that there were actually two animals all along.

Unfortunately, none of Gabby’s antics are remotely funny, and the gags are greatly hampered by Gabby’s constant jabbering. The best part is when the large Kango has the hiccups, and Gabby balances on a ladder on her head.

Watch ‘Two for the Zoo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Two for the Zoo’ is available on the Thunderbean DVD/Blu-Ray ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’

Director: Norm Ferguson
Release Date: January 24, 1941
Stars: Pluto
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Pluto's Playmate © Walt Disney‘Pluto’s Playmate’ takes place at the beach.

Here Pluto meets a playful little seal, who repeatedly steals his red rubber ball. Pluto tries to get rid of the obtrusive intruder, but when the little seal rescues him from drowning, the two finally become friends.

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ introduces a story line that would be featured in no less than eight Pluto cartoons, and which lasted until 1949. In all these shorts Pluto meets a new strange animal, which he doesn’t like at first, but which he befriends in the end. An embryonic version of this trope could even been seen in Pluto’s very first solo effort, the Silly Symphony ‘Just Dogs‘ (1932). This rather limited story concept severely hampered the series, and is responsible for the rather questionable reputation of the Pluto shorts as being more cute than funny. Luckily, not even a third from the Pluto shorts from the 1940s use it, but it’s true that only when the studio abandoned this tiresome formula, Disney could make its best Pluto shorts, which it did in the last two years of the series.

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ is one of the first Disney cartoons to feature oil backgrounds. It also features some spectacular effect animation of the sea and its surf. ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ would be the only short directed by Norm Ferguson, the animator most responsible for the dog’s character and design. Pluto’s features are very flexible in this short, especially in the scenes featuring the angry little octopus.

The friendly little seal would return in ‘Rescue Dog‘ (1947) and ‘Mickey and the Seal‘ (1948), the former being very similar to ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ in story line.

Watch ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

This is Pluto cartoon No. 4
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Pantry Pirate
To the next Pluto cartoon: Pluto Junior

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Complete Pluto Volume One’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: June 28, 1940
Stars: Pluto, Butch
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Bone Trouble © Walt DisneyPluto’s solo career had a slow start: after his first own cartoon, ‘Pluto’s Quin-puplets’ our favorite mutt had to wait three more years for a second cartoon.

Compared to this first, cute cartoon, ‘Bone Trouble’ is an altogether different short: it’s a real exponent of the chase cartoon era: when Pluto steals a bone from vicious neighbor dog Butch, a chase soon follows into a surprisingly empty carnival. Most of the gags originate in Pluto’s adventures in a hall of mirrors. This is a wonderful place, having mirrors that are able to reflect Pluto as an alligator, a camel, an ape, a kangaroo and a seal.

Unlike many of the later Pluto shorts, ‘Bone Trouble’ is a genuine gag cartoon, greatly helped by the carnival atmosphere, and an excellent musical score. The short introduces Butch the bulldog. Butch was not the first vicious bulldog on the animated screen (for example, there’s one in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘You’re Not Built That Way’ from 1936), but he is the prototype of all subsequent animated bulldogs, most notably Spike, who made his debut in the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Dog Trouble’ (1942). Why in cartoons Bulldogs were always portrayed as bullies, we’ll never know, as real bulldogs look hardly like their cartoon counterparts.

‘Bone Trouble’ is also noteworthy for being the cartoon in which Jack Kinney’s makes his direction debut. Kinney became the studio’s best gag director, which he showed in the Goofy series, which in 1940 became his own. Kinney directed only one other Pluto cartoon: ‘Cold Storage‘ from 1951, which is even better than ‘Bone Trouble’.

Butch, meanwhile, would return in five other Pluto cartoons, ‘T-Bone for Two‘ (1942), ‘Canine Casanova’ (1945), ‘Pluto’s Kid Brother‘ (1946), ‘Pluto’s Purchase’ (1948) and ‘Pluto’s Heart Throb‘ (1950).

Watch ‘Bone trouble’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Pluto cartoon No. 2
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Pluto’s Quin-Puplets
To the next Pluto cartoon: Pantry Pirate

‘Bone Trouble’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Complete Pluto Volume One’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: November 1, 1941
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Porky's Pooch © Warner Bros.In ‘Porky’s Pooch’ a dog tells his Scottish terrier friend how he managed to get a master.

This dog is a clear forerunner of Chuck Jones’s Charlie Dog, who would make his debut six years later in ‘Little Orphan Airedale’ (1947). Like Charlie Dog, this dog, called Rover, is an orphan, forcefully trying to make Porky Pig his master. Rover speaks in a similar way as Charlie, and even introduces the Charlie Dog lines “You ain’t got a dog, and I ain’t got a master’ and ‘and I’m affectionate, too’.

The dog also does a Carmen Miranda impression, most probably the first in an animated film, as the Brazilian actress had become famous only one year earlier, with ‘Down Argentine Way’ (1940). The short is also noteworthy for the use of real photographs as backgrounds, against which the characters read surprisingly well.

Watch ‘Porky’s Pooch’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 93
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Robinson Crusoe, jr.
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Midnight Matinee

‘Porky’s Pooch’ is available on the DVD sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: May 10, 1941
Rating: ★★
Review:

Farm Frolics © Warner Bros.‘Farm Frolics’ was the second Merrie Melodie directed by Bob Clampett.

In this cartoon Clampett follows Tex Avery with his own spot gag cartoon, this time on farm life, making it strangely similar to the Walter Lantz cartoon ‘Fair Today‘ from only three months earlier.

The Warner Bros.’ spot gag cartoons rarely belonged to the best of their repertoire, and ‘Farm Frolics’, too, is hardly funny. Even the running gag of this forgettable cartoon is trite, and fails to provide a welcome finale. Nevertheless, the animation is very fine. For example, there’s some surprisingly realistic animation on a horse. Thus even this weak short shows that by 1941 the Warner Bros. animators could do almost everything.

Watch ‘Farm Frolics’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Farm Frolics’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: October 12, 1940
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Prehistoric Porky © Warner Bros.In ‘Prehistoric Porky’ Porky Pig follows the footsteps of Daffy Duck, who had started a prehistoric cartoon in ‘Daffy Duck and the Dinosaur‘.

Set rather extravagantly ‘one billion, trillion years b.c. (a long time ago)’ the short opens beautifully with several moving silhouettes of dinosaurs. Soon we cut to caveman Porky, who has a pet Brontosaur (erroneously with visible ears) called ‘Rover’. Porky reads in ‘Expire – the magazine for cavemen’, and discovers that his own bearskin is outdated. So he goes out to hunt for one. Unfortunately, he encounters a vicious sabertooth tiger…

Like almost all films set in the prehistory, ‘Prehistoric Porky’ cheerfully mixes all kinds of prehistoric periods together. Unfortunately, the short is rather low on gags, and has a trite ending. Moreover, most dinosaurs look like fantasy dragons, instead of the real thing. Yet, the sabertooth tiger is well animated, and it’s interesting to see Porky in a quasi-urban caveman setting, making the cartoon one of the forerunners of ‘The Flintstones’.

Watch ‘Prehistoric Porky’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 78
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Calling Dr. Porky
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: The Sour Puss

‘Prehistoric Porky’ is available on the DVD sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

 

The Birthday Party © Walt DisneyIn two weeks Mickey Mouse will be ninety years young!

On November 18, it will be ninety years ago Mickey made his public debut in ‘Steamboat Willie‘, creating an enormous success and changing the course of animation forever. Today Mickey is as alive as ever, even if his heydays (ca. 1928-1935) lay way behind him. In those days Mickey without doubt was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and most of his films stem from this era. What would be better than spend some time watching a few of Mickey’s best films? Why not take a look at for example ‘Traffic Troubles‘, ‘Touchdown Mickey‘, ‘The Klondike Kid‘, ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ or ‘The Band Concert‘. For a complete list of Mickey Mouse shorts see here.

Later Mickey settled done more, and on the silver screen he was eventually eclipsed by the likes of Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny and Tom & Jerry. Mickey retired from cinema in 1953, but today he’s still all over the place, e.g. in comic strips, on television, in merchandise, and as a host in Disney parks.

Read all about Mickey’s exciting cinematic career in my book ‘Mickey’s Movies – The Theatrical Films of Mickey Mouse‘.

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: February 24, 1941
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Fair Today © Walter Lantz‘Fair Today’ is a spot gag cartoon on a county fair.

The short uses a voice over in the tradition of Tex Avery’s Warner Bros. Spot gag cartoons, e.g. ‘Circus Today’ (1940), ‘Holiday Highlights’ (1940) and ‘Aviation Vacation’ (1941). Indeed, three months later the Warner Bros. studio itself came with a similar cartoon called ‘Farm Frolics‘. The Warner Bros. connection is further enhanced by the presence of Mel Blanc as voice artist, and a ‘story’ by Warner Bros.-alumnus Ben Hardaway.

The Warner Bros.-influx does not lead to a funny cartoon, however. Even Avery’s spot gag cartoons were more than often rather tiresome, and Lantz’s ‘Fair Today’ is more miss than hit. The gags flow in at a high speed, but let’s face it: most of them are very corny, to say the least, and they include some very bad puns. The obligate running gag is give to an old lady in search of her little boy. The best gag is when the narrator says “let’s skip over to … ‘ and the camera hops accordingly through the scene.

Watch ‘Fair Today’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Fair Today’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 4, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Flies Ain't Human © Max FleischerIn ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ Popeye tries to take a nap, but he’s bothered by some flies.

Popeye manages to blow the flies out of the window, but then one has stayed behind, giving the sailor a hard time, especially after the little insect has eaten spinach.

Like most 1941 Popeye cartoons, ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is fast and gag rich. The turning around of the classic spinach story device is a great invention, and provides some excellent comedy, as Popeye becomes helpless against the surprisingly mighty little fly. In his final attempt to kill the tiny foe Popeye blows his own house to pieces, only to find multitudes of flies on his head in the end. The most delightful gag is when Popeye’s head gets stuck in a painting of a snowy landscape, and the fly takes some time to ski jump from his face into the painted snow.

The idea for the fly may have come from the bee troubling Donald Duck in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The cartoon itself at least looks forward to the cartoon ‘The Pink Tail Fly‘ (1965), in which a mosquito keeps the Pink Panther out of his sleep.

Watch ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 94
To the previous Popeye film: Olive’s Sweepstake Ticket
To the next Popeye film: Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle

‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

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