Gijs Grob with his book Mickey's MoviesMy own copies of my book ‘Mickey’s Movies – The Theatrical Films of Mickey Mouse‘, recently published by Theme Park Press, have arrived this week! I’m very happy to be see the book in reality.

Meanwhile esteemed Disney historian Didier Ghez has written the first review on my book on his Disney History Blog. Ghez writes:

“I just received my personal copy of Mickey’s Movies by Gijs Grob. I absolutely love this book. Gijs discusses all of Mickey’s shorts and his insights are absolutely fascinating.

To be read in small installments. A “must have” for Mickey enthusiasts.”

You can buy the book on Amazon. There is both a paperback and a Kindle edition. I hope you’ll enjoy it! And if you’ve already grabbed a copy: 1) thanks! and 2) I’d love it if you could review the book on Amazon.

 

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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 22, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Stealin' Ain't Honest © Max Fleischer‘Stealin’ Ain’t Honest’ opens with Popeye and Olive sailing to Olive’s ‘secret gold mine’ on a small island. Bluto is after the gold, too, and soon a fight develops inside the mine.

‘Stealin’ Ain’t Honest’ is a cartoon of delightful nonsense. For example, Olive’s secret gold mine is advertised with arrows on the sea surface, and by a giant neon billboard. The fight itself produces all kinds of gold products from the mine, including coins, and a golden boxing glove. Bluto is a genuine villain in this cartoon and not a mere rival. Unfortunately, his design is very inconsistent, unlike that of Popeye and Olive.

Watch ‘Stealin’ Ain’t Honest’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Stealin’ Ain’t Honest’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Alex Lovy
Release Date: April 22, 1940
Stars: Andy Panda
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

100 Pygmies and Andy Panda © WaIn Andy Panda’s third film the little brat receives a package from a turtle postman, which is a clear caricature of a black man.

The package contains a magic wand, and Andy immediately uses it on the delivery boy and on his dad. Meanwhile, the pygmy witch doctor consults his magic mask, as if he were Snow White’s stepmother. The mask tells him Andy Panda now has more magic than he has. The witch doctor battles with Andy, but he loses. Then he summons countless pygmies, and soon Andy ‘s overwhelmed. Unfortunately, the witch doctor uses the wrong magic wand, and he and his pygmies are immediately transferred to some busy American town: we watch the pygmies fleeing in terror from cars and such in black-and-white live action footage. This last gag is the single entertaining one in an otherwise very tiresome film that hasn’t aged well, and not only because of the racial stereotypes it exploits.

Watch ‘100 Pygmies and Andy Panda’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘100 Pygmies and Andy Panda’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

Directors: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: February 7, 1940
Rating:  ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Pinocchio © Walt Disney‘Pinocchio’ was Walt Disney’s long awaited successor to his hugely successfully first animated feature ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Its release was beaten by Max Fleischer’s ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, making ‘Pinocchio’ the third animated feature made in the United States.

In many ways ‘Pinocchio’ is a much darker affair than both earlier films. In fact, in many ways the feature is Disney’s darkest film, not only due to its deep oil canvases, but also because none of its villains are punished.

The film starts merrily enough, though, and the first 26 minutes take place in the cozy home of gentle woodcarver Geppetto, where his countless original cuckoo clocks, based on drawings by Albert Hurter, provide a lovely background. But as soon as Pinocchio leaves his house troubles start, and his predicaments go from bad to worse. And perhaps Geppetto might have known. I’ve always thought it strange to let the boy go to school on his own on his very first day of existence…

The dark atmosphere the film of course shares with the original book by Carlo Collodi from 1882, with which it also shares its episodic character. But Disney made the character entirely his own. Pinocchio’s design is cute and childlike, not the gaunt wooden puppet of many earlier illustrations of the book. This child-like design was developed by Milt Kahl, and surpassed an earlier, less appealing design by Fred Moore. This incidentally marked the start of the latter animator’s demise. Where Collodi’s Pinocchio was an obnoxious rascal, made out of some stubborn wood, Disney’s Pinocchio is a tabula rasa, an innocent child not yet corrupted by society. Indeed, the fairy’s task, to let his conscience be his guide, is seriously tested once Pinocchio enters the real world.

Pinocchio’s conscience is personified by Jiminy Cricket, a Disney invention based on a minor character from the book, which in the original all too soon is smacked against the wall. Jiminy Cricket is spared that fate, however, and in many ways is even made the main protagonist of the film. This little insect, developed and predominantly animated by Ward Kimball, is far less recognizable as an insect than the grasshopper had been in ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ (1934). Jiminy looks more like a tiny man, with his antenna looking more like two hairs. This design would resurface in that of Bootle Beetle, introduced in 1947.

It’s Jiminy Cricket who sings the famous opening tune, ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, which leads us to the little cricket himself, who introduces us to the story, as he opens the book for us, and we literally hop with him to Geppetto’s toy shop. He’s voiced by Cliff Edwards, who in the 1920s enjoyed a famous career as ‘Ukelele Ike’, but whose career since then had been in a steady decline. ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ alone ensured him eternal fame, and the lovely tune would become Walt Disney’s signature tune from then on. Edwards gave the little insect cheerful lines, and rather modern remarks that makes us connect to the otherwise otherworldly story. Jiminy Cricket also shows a rather mundane interest in dames. He’s not only clearly impressed by the blue fairy, who indeed looks like a glamorous Hollywood girl, but also in the French can can dancing puppets who share the stage with Pinocchio in Stromboli’s theater. Jiminy Cricket surely is a lovable character, and it’s hardly surprising that he was reused again in ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ to bridge that film’s two stories, even though he seems quite out of place there.

Apart from Jiminy, the film is stuffed with great characters, most notably the cute kitten Figaro and his female goldfish companion, Cleo, also two Disney originals. Cleo is the direct ancestor of the sexy fish in the Arabian Dance of the Nutcracker Suite-sequence in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). They, too, would return to the screen in a short called ‘Figaro and Cleo’ (1943), after which Figaro was coupled to Pluto to star three more cartoons. ‘Pinocchio’ remained unique in this spawning of shorts, with ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) being the first Disney feature to do the same.

The villains, too, are delightful. The first rogues Pinocchio encounters are the petty criminals Honest John the fox and Gideon the cat. Norm Ferguson and John Lounsberry animate the duo with gusto, and the interplay between fox and cat is full of delightful classic vaudeville routines. More evil than those is the explosive puppeteer Stromboli, whose temper matches his name, taken after the Italian volcano. Stromboli is animated by Bill Tytla, and in a way he’s a variation on Grumpy in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Like Art Babbit’s Geppetto, he’s halfway cartoon and realism, showing the animator’s grown confidence with the human form, and like Ferguson’s Fox and Cat, his moves are broad and theatrical, and they have a charming quality despite the menace.

Not so with the fourth criminal, the sinister coachman. His menace is downplayed, except from one frightening outburst, making him all the scarier. The coachman takes Pinocchio to pleasure island, where things turn very dark indeed. In many ways the pleasure island episode forms the abyss of an already pretty dark film. On the ride to the isle Pinocchio immediately befriends Lampwick, delightfully animated by Fred Moore, who may be naughty, but who remains sympathetic throughout. His metamorphosis into a donkey is therefore a moment of genuine horror, and like the one metamorphosis scene in Snow White absolutely the scariest moment in the entire movie.

Pinocchio manages to escape Pleasure Island, and even manages to return home, only to find it empty, and even covered by cobwebs, as if he had been gone for months. This is very incongruous, as he had only been away for two days… Anyway, in a rather deus ex machina-like scene a dove delivers our heroes a letter stating that while looking for Pinocchio Geppetto has been swallowed by a whale. This weak story device is luckily easily forgotten, for this leads to the first moment in which Pinocchio takes matters in his own hand, bravely jumping into the sea without any reluctance. The subsequent sea scenes form the second incongruity in the film: we watch Pinocchio wander with ease on the sea floor, but his sea adventures end with his drowning…

At sea, Pinocchio meets his final adversary, that tour-the-force of villainy, Monstro. In the original book the puppet got swallowed by a shark, but the Disney studio made it into a very large whale. Like the whale in the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Whalers’ (1938), which by all means looks like a study for this film, Monstro is a strange combination of a sperm whale and a finback, blown up to really gargantuan proportions. This leviathan is able to devour complete ships and shoals of tuna. It’s admirable that the film manages to feature both such a tiny character as Jiminy and this giant whale. Monstro absolutely dominates every scene in which he’s in, and his moves, by Woollie Reitherman, are a stunning effort of animation of force and weight, greatly helped by a multitude of effects animation. In any case Monstro’s chase of our heroes accounts for a stunning finale, crowning the already breathtaking film.

The abundance of effect animation give ‘Pinocchio’ a stunning look anyhow. For example, all characters are airbrushed with lovely shadings, the blue fairy is strangely translucent, and there are great water effects during Pinocchio’s walk on the sea floor. All these extras give the film an extra luxuriant look, only matched by the Silly Symphony ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ (1939) and by ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

The staging, too, is often no less than stunning. Especially Pinocchio’s village are given two extraordinary bird eye’s view pan shots, based on designs by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren: the first starts with doves flying from a bell tower, which leads us to an elaborate shot through the village, showing it to be full of life. The second follows Honest John and Gideon leading Pinocchio to a career in the theater, on the delightful tune of Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee. Jiminy Cricket’s small size also accounts for some very original settings, like the detailed billiard table. All these settings were painted in rich oil canvases, which replaced the lighter water color backgrounds of ‘Snow White’.

Apart from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ and ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’, the film features two other delightful songs, all composed by Leigh Harline and Ned Washington: ‘Give A Little Whistle’, and ‘I’ve Got No Strings’. However, when events turn dark, the songs disappear from the screen.

When compared to ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Pinocchio’ is easily the better film. Unfortunately, like ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ ‘Pinocchio’ suffered from an unfavorable comparison to ‘Snow White’ and from the cut of the European market due to World War II. Thus the film was far less successful at the box office than hoped. ‘Pinocchio’ had cost the studio 2,6 million dollars, and by the spring of 1940 the studio was no less than $4,5 million in debt. This prompted the Disney brothers to go to the stock market. This was a successful move, and allowed the Disney studio to complete and distribute ‘Fantasia’. However, it also marked the end of an era, and when ‘Fantasia’ too, proved to be a financial disappointment, it was clear that Disney’s golden days were over. In that respect, ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ form the crowning achievements of a stunning career that had begun so humbly with ‘Plane Crazy’ twelve years before.

Watch ‘Pinocchio’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 8, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Females is Fickle © Max FleischerIn ‘Females is Fickle’ we watch Popeye being actually on a ship, doing some chores in his own, unusual way.

Then Olive comes along to show him her trained pet goldfish. Unfortunately, the goldfish falls into the sea, and Popeye has to dive after it to rescue Olive’s precious pet. This leads to a long chase scene under water, which also features a very strange amorphous animal, which has Goofy’s guffaw (so likely voiced by Pinto Colvig, who was at Fleischer at the time). This ghost-like creature apparently is supposed to be a jellyfish.

‘Females is Fickle’ is a pure gag cartoon and great fun. Popeye’s and Olive’s designs are more extreme than usual, and the animation on them is wilder than before. There are some extreme perspectives and takes on both characters, which give these characters a more modern look. Yet, these new designs would not become a new standard.

Watch ‘Females Is Fickle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Females Is Fickle’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 3, 1939
Stars: Popeye, Swee’Pea
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Never Sock a Baby © Max FleischerThis cartoon opens with Popeye softly spanking Swee’Pea, and sending him to bed without supper.

While Popeye struggles with his conscience (which materializes into his angelic and devilish side), Lil’ Swee’Pea leaves home, and almost immediately enters a hazardous, mountainous terrain. When Popeye’s angelic side has won, Popeye enters Swee’Pea’s room, only to find him gone. It’s now up to our hero to rescue Swee’Pea from grave dangers…

‘Never Sock a Baby’ is a morality tale, all too typical for the late 1930s, in which Popeye teaches us that it’s not right to spank a child. However, what a delightful morality cartoon this is! Despite the trite dream ending, the cartoon is full of wild and zany animation, plenty of gags and suiting music. Priceless is the scene in which Popeye reaches for his spinach only to find the can empty. The music score follows with a hilariously deflated version of the spinach theme. ‘Never Sock a Baby’ shows that by the end of the decade the goody-goody cartoon style of the mid-1930’s was at its end.

Watch ‘Never Sock a Baby’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Never Sock a Baby’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 22, 1939
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Gulliver's Travels © Max Fleischer

Following the huge success of Walt Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ other Hollywood animation studios considered the making of an animated feature themselves. In the end, only the Fleischer studio really attempted it, persuaded by their distributor, Paramount.

In fact, the Fleischers’ plans for a feature film dated back to as early as 1934, and the three Popeye two-reelers (‘Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor’, ‘Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves’ and ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp‘) can be regarded as exercises in the longer format. Nevertheless, it was the enormous success of Disney’s first feature that prompted Paramount to demand a Christmas feature from the Fleischer animation studio.

To achieve this, the Fleischers moved to a completely new studio in Miami, Florida, and hired a lot of new personnel, including Snow White veterans like animators Grim Natwick, Al Eugster and Shamus Culhane. This huge undertaking resulted in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, becoming America’s second animated feature, beating Disney’s second feature, ‘Pinocchio‘, by more than a month.

As often, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ only depicts the first part from Swift’s famous book: Gulliver’s visit to the island of Lilliput. Indeed, the film seems to take considerable inspiration from the Soviet adaptation ‘The New Gulliver’ (1934), which looks surprisingly similar. Nevertheless, the story deviates mostly from Swift’s book, focusing on two kings who quarrel over a song to be played at their children’s wedding, instead. This quarrel and the discovery of Gulliver by a night watchman called Gabby completely take up the first part of the film. In fact, Gulliver only awakes halfway the feature!

Only after Gulliver’s rise the film gains some momentum, being otherwise surprisingly slow. For example, the scene in which the civilians find Gulliver and tie him up lasts no less than a quarter of an hour, one-fifth of the complete film. Luckily, in the second half there’s some suspense, when three spies conspire to kill Gulliver with his own gun, and Gulliver tries to reconcile the two estranged kingdoms.

Unfortunately, Gulliver and the wedding couple, Princess Glory and Prince David, never become real characters. Glory and David are clearly based on Snow White and Prince Charming, and they are even blander than the originals. Their semi-realistic designs are devoid of character, and only after 70 minutes they utter a little dialogue. One just doesn’t care about them. Gulliver, on the other hand, looks good – especially the coloring and shading on him is very well done, with the night banquet scene as a particular highlight. Yet, his realistic design and hi slow, rotoscoped movements don’t blend well with the cartoony inhabitants of Lilliput. And he, too, is surprisingly devoid of character.

In fact, only three protagonists have clear characters: king Little, king Bombo, and the omnipresent Gabby, who must be regarded as the film’s star, even though he fails as a comic relief, and lacks a story of his own. Indeed, the film’s best comical scene doesn’t feature Gabby, but goes to the three spies trying to think of a plan to kill Gulliver. This is great silent comedy, unmatched by the rest of the film.

Together with ‘Pinocchio’ ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ can be regarded as the epitome of 1930s aesthetics. The feature is very well made, with beautiful background art, very much influenced by that of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, beautiful coloring and shading, and spectacular effect animation, especially in the storm scene with which the film opens. The animation belongs to the best ever produced at the Fleischer studio, and certainly is the most Disney-like. Yet, at the same time the animation fails to reach the heights of the Walt Disney studio, and at times is over-excessive, for example in the scene in which King Bombo remembers his friendship with King Little. The songs, too, are pleasant, but nothing more than that. Most catchy is ‘It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day’, a clear attempt to give the film its own ‘Whistle While You Work’. More impressive than the songs, however, is the lush score by Victor Young.

In all, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is a beautiful film, but a slow one, and with a story that fails to catch the audience. Indeed, ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ doesn’t stand the comparison to its model, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, and it was only a small success upon release. What certainly didn’t help was that World War II had broken out in Europe, depleting the film of a huge foreign market. These problems of course also troubled Disney’s own ‘Pinocchio’, released in February 1940.

Despite the film’s modest profits, the Fleischers decided to make another feature to keep their enormous organisation at work (resulting in the 1941 release ‘Mr. Bug goes to Town’). This economically unhealthy path would eventually lead to their downfall.

Watch ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is available on the Thunderbean Blu-Ray/DVD set ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’. All other copies are considerably inferior to this one and should be avoided.

Director: Hugh Harman
Release Date: December 9, 1939
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Peace on Earth © MGM‘Peace on Earth’ is a Christmas cartoon, but a highly unusual one.

With ‘Peace on Earth’ Hugh Harman daringly combines the world of cute animals to gloomy and surprisingly realistic images of war and devastation (which, incidentally have more in common with World War I than with World War II).

It’s Christmas time, and the short opens with scenes of a village of squirrels, whose houses are made of helmets. Grandpa squirrel tells his two grandchildren what men were, for they have disappeared from the Earth. His tale is one of war (oddly between meat-eaters and vegetarians) and extermination. This section contains the grimmest war images ever put into an animated cartoon. In Harman’s world cute animals shall inherit the earth, but the film’s message is clear. Released when World War II had been going on for three months, this message came none too soon. Unfortunately, much, much worse was still to come…

‘Peace on Earth’ is a surprisingly daring film for its time, with its clear pacifistic message and dark war imagery – no ordinary feat for a Hollywood cartoon! For today’s standards the animal scenes may be too saccharine, the staging too melodramatic, and the message too obvious, but the war images and the atmosphere of doom make ‘Peace on Earth’ a film that still impresses today. The short was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award.

Watch ‘Peace on Earth’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Peace on Earth’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Award-Nominated Animation: Cinema Favorites’

Director: Alex Lovy
Release Date: November 20, 1939
Stars: Peterkin
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Scrambled Eggs © Walter Lantz‘Scrambled Eggs’ stars a misschievous young satyr, called Peterkin.

After Lil’ Eightball (see ‘A Haunting We Will Go‘) and Andy Panda (‘Life Begins for Andy Panda‘) Peterkin was the third character Walter Lantz introduced with a color cartoon during the fall of 1939. Peterkin, however, only lasted this one cartoon.

Peterkin was conceived by Elaine Pogány, wife of the great Hungarian illustrator Willy Pogány, who did the backgrounds for this cartoon. These backgrounds are the short’s most striking feat, for they are ludicrously detailed, and while beautiful, way out of tune with Lantz’s cartoony characters, who don’t read well against the intricate background drawings.

Made at the very end of the 1930s, ‘Scrambled Eggs’ is a strange mix between the childish cute style of the mid-1930s and the more adult, urban style of the 1940s. Peterkin himself is drawn all too cute, with a matching voice and story. He changes several birds’ eggs for fun, but on hatching the dazzled parents abandon their strange children: the men go spend their time at the club, while the women go to their mothers, leaving Peterkin solely in charge of the hungry chicks. When he confesses his crime to the parents, the birds make him do all the laundry, which cost him work well into the night. This moralistic story contrasts wildly with some of the voices and animation of the birds, which are definitely contemporary and urban, aiming at adult audiences. This strange mix doesn’t work well, and as Peterkin is far from an engaging character, the cartoon is unfortunately a failure, despite some splendid animation, and of course, the elaborate background paintings.

Watch ‘Scrambled Eggs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Scrambled Eggs’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: May 11, 1940
Stars: Sniffles
Rating:
Review:

Takes a Trip © Warner Bros.In ‘Sniffles Takes a Trip’ Sniffles goes on a holiday to the country meadows for some peace and quietness.

The short opens with Sniffles walking the rails and singing a tune in his all too childish voice. When he arrives at the meadows, he tries to get some rest in his hammock, but is hindered by a woodpecker. In his next attempt, he hangs his hammock between the legs of a crane, who quickly walks into a pond. Sniffles’s last trial is at night, when he gets so scared, he rushes back to the city.

‘Sniffles Takes a Trip’ is the Sniffles’s fourth film, and in this cartoon the little mouse is even cuter than before. The cartoon is genuinely Disney-like in character: it’s beautifully animated, its backgrounds are lush and artful, and the humor is mild and devoid of conflict.

Unfortunately, the short is also utterly boring, being even much less entertaining than Sniffles’s earlier films. The woodpecker scene mimics a similar one in the Donald Duck cartoon ‘Self Control‘ (1938), another example of the huge Disney influence on Chuck Jones’s earliest efforts as a director.

Watch ‘Sniffles Takes a Trip’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sniffles Takes a Trip’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’ and the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: December 2, 1939
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sniffles and the Bookworm © Warner Bros.‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ opens with Sniffles taking refuge in a bookshop to escape the winter cold.

Inside Sniffles encounters the bookworm, who’s scared of the little mouse, and asks two book characters, the pied piper and a viking, for help. This first act is acted out completely silently, and is very, very Silly Symphony-like. Its uninteresting comedy is greatly helped by Carl Stalling’s score, who makes excellent use of music from Franz Schubert’s Moment musical no. 3.

When Sniffles turns out to be small, the pied piper suddenly starts playing the clarinet, with Sniffles joining in. Thus starts the second part, in which Sniffles, the bookworm and several nursery rhyme characters play and sing some peppy swing tune. Unfortunately, a particularly angular version of Frankenstein’s monster awakes, too, and soon spoils the fun. This second act is hardly more interesting than the first, but the swing music is nice.

With ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’, the third cartoon starring Sniffles, Chuck Jones gives his own twist on his precursor Frank Tashlin’s books-come-to-life series (e.g. ‘Have You Got any Castles?‘ and ‘You’re an Education‘ from 1938). Despite the paper-thin story about Sniffles and the bookworm itself it’s all there: book characters coming to life at night, characters performing some jazz music, and a threat which ends the fun – this all done with the highest production values possible at Leon Schlesinger’s studio at the time.

It’s hard to call the bookworm a classic character (after all, Sniffles himself isn’t really interesting). Yet, the bookworm would return in two other Sniffles cartoons: ‘The Egg Collector’ (1940) and ‘Toy Trouble’ (1941).

Watch ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: September 2, 1939
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Little Brother Rat © Warner Bros.‘Little Brother Rat’ is the second cartoon featuring that cute little mouse Sniffles.

In this short Sniffles has to perform tasks at a party. The cartoon opens with Sniffles plucking a whisker from a cat. His second task is stealing an owl’s egg. The egg soon hatches into a little, far from life-like baby owl. The owl appears to be a precursor of the Minah-Bird, Jones’s famous dimension-defying bird, or even Droopy in ‘Northwest Hounded Police‘, as it is as capable of being in unexpected places.

‘Little Brother Rat’ is far from funny, but the night scenes are very beautiful, and Carl Stalling’s score is excellent.

Watch ‘Little Brother Rat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Little Brother Rat’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: May 20, 1939
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Naughty But Mice © Warner Bros.‘Naughty But Mice’ introduces Chuck Jones’s very first regular cartoon star, the infamous mouse Sniffles.

Sniffles’ first appearance immediately explains his name, for he has a cold, and visits a drug store for medicine. He finds one with a lot of alcohol, and is drunk almost immediately. Then follows a rather curious scene in which Sniffles talks and even sings with a humanized electric razor, in an all too slow scene. After this strange scene the second act starts, in which Sniffles is threatened by a cat, and rescued by the razor.

Like many of Jones’s earliest cartoons, ‘Naughty But Mice’ is a clear attempt to emulate Walt Disney. Sniffles even vaguely resembles the country mouse from ‘The Country Cousin‘ (1936), which also gets drunk. The result is a slow and cute cartoon. The short is saved, however, by gorgeous art deco-inspired background paintings and by Carl Stalling’s beautiful score.

Sniffles is far from an interesting character, and out of league with Daffy or even Porky. Nevertheless, the little mouse would star ten more cartoons, lasting even until 1946.

Watch ‘Naughty But Mice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Naughty But Mice’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 15, 1940
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Ants in the Plants © Max Fleischer‘With ‘Ants in the Plants’ the Fleischers more or less made their own version of Disney’s ‘Bugs in Love‘ (1932), now featuring ants.

After a rather spectacular forest intro we watch ant society, with a school, a restaurant etc. Then the queen ant sings a song telling her soldiers that their main enemy is the ant eater. The villain then immediately enters the scene, and despite his rather funny appearance, he proves to be a considerable foe.

Like ‘Bugs in Love’ (and several other Silly Symphonies) war breaks out to stop the intruder. ‘Ants in the Pants’ may be no classic, the short still belongs to the more enjoyable Color Classics. The cloying morale of contemporary Color Classics is lacking, and the classic war story, if far from original, works once again. During this scene there are some clever sight gags, with the ants combining a corncob and a magnifying glass to use those as a machine gun as a particular highlight.

Watch ‘Ants in the Plants’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ants in the Plants’ is available on the DVD set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 2, 1940
Rating:  ★
Review:

Little Lambkins © Max FleischerIn 1939 the Fleischers seemed obsessed with spoiled children. ‘Small Fry‘ saw a disobedient little fish, in ‘Barnyard Brat‘ the little donkey Spunky showed his worst side, and in ‘Little Lambkins’ a red-haired baby tortures his parents.

The film opens with his mother putting Little Lambkins down in a garden to play. Soon, the baby calls out to his friends, a squirrel and a raccoon, and together they steal and eat a complete melon. But then it turns out to be moving day, and the unwilling baby is taken to a modern flat in the city, with more than modern equipment. The baby immediately starts sabotaging this high technology, so the fridge sets fire, the stove produces water fountains, etc. Convinced the house has gone crazy, his parents then immediately move back to their old house, where the brat can rejoin his forest friends again.

Considering how much Max Fleischer loved technology, this ridiculously conservative cartoon is completely out of tune. The fear of technology going haywire is the opposite of the joyful Grampy cartoons (1935-1937), in which technology formed the solution to all problems.

There’s very little to enjoy in ‘Little Lambkins’, although the kitchen scene is played out well, with strange images following each other in fast succession. Unfortunately, the makers forgot to make the short funny, and in the end ‘Little Lambkins’ is but another annoying entry in the ill-conceived ‘Color Classics’ series.

Watch ‘Little Lambkins’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘Little Lambkins’ is available on the DVD set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: June 30, 1939
Stars: Hunky & Spunky
Rating:  ★
Review:

Barnyard Brat © Max Fleischer‘Barnyard Brat’ is the third of seven cartoons featuring Hunky and Spunky, arguably the worst comic duo ever put to the animated screen.

In ‘Barnyard Brat’ little burro Spunky is no less than a spoiled brat, who goes into tantrums and who bullies the other barnyard animals. These animals take revenge, however, and give the little brat a severe punishment. At that point Spunky’s mother comes to the rescue, but as Spunky remains as ungovernable as ever, she gives him a spanking. In the end it seems that Spunky has learned his lesson, but he has one final trick on his sleeve…

It may be clear that like ‘Small Fry‘ and the other Hunky and Spunky cartoons ‘Barnyard Brat’ belongs to the childish and cloying cartoons that had swamped the second half of the 1930s. By 1939 these were more and more replaced by gag cartoons. None of that, in ‘Barnyard Brat’, although there’s one mildly amusing gag of two ducks running away while stuck together in a pipe.

Besides the cloying story, the animation is rather poor. Spunky looks as if he’s seriously misshapen, and there’s some thinking animation on Hunky that’s anything but convincing, and cannot match that of Pluto in ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934). Since that cartoon was already five years old by 1939, this only shows the Fleischers’ incompetence to catch up with the Disney style, and one wishes they never even tried this, for the Disney style would never become their strength. Besides, Warner Bros. and Walter Lantz were already showing that this copycat behavior wasn’t necessary for success.

Watch ‘Barnyard Brat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Barnyard Brat’ is available on the DVD set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 21, 1939
Rating:  ★
Review:

Small Fry © Max FleischerIn ‘Small Fry’ we meet again Tommy, the little fish who likes to play hooky from ‘Educated Fish‘ (1937).

In the one-and-a-half years separating these two cartoons Tommy hasn’t learned a thing, and he can be found in the pool hall, where he wants to join the ‘Big Fry Club’. The big guys send him into a scary cave, however, and scare the shit out of the little fish. The cave scene is the most interesting part of the film, with its nice, rather nightmarish visuals.

‘Small Fry’ is based on the swing tune of the same name, penned by Frank Loesser and Hoagy Camichael, which in 1938 had been recorded by e.g. Adrian Rollini, Hot Lips Page and Al Bowlly. In the cartoon the song is sung twice: by Tommy’s mother and by a voice over during the cave scene.

Unfortunately, the Fleischers add nothing interesting to the song, making ‘Small Fry’ another tiresome entry in the all too often cloying Color Classics series.

Watch ‘Small Fry’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Small Fry’ is available on the DVD set ‘Somewhere in Dreamland – Max Fleischer’s Color Classics: The Definitive Collection’

Director: Alex Lovy
Release Date: September 9, 1939
Stars: Andy Panda
Rating:  ★
Review:

Life Begins for Andy Panda © Walter LantzAs Lil’ Eightball failed to become Walter Lantz’s next star, Lantz came up with a new one for his second full color cartoon. It was an animal never used before: a panda.

‘Life Begins for Andy Panda’ literally starts with his birth, in a scene remarkably anticipating a very similar one in ‘Bambi‘ (1942). Soon we skip six months and watch Andy as a young brat, ignoring his father’s lessons, and leaving the forest, where his father is captured by a tribe of stereotype pygmies. The forest animals come to help, but it’s the skunk who scares the natives all away.

‘Life Begins for Andy Panda’ is a very bad start for Andy Panda’s career: the film just makes no sense. To start, Lovy seems to be at loss at what this film actually is: a 1930s morality tale, or a 1940s gag short. Moreover, his timing is terribly slow, the designs are often mediocre (especially Andy’s parents are badly designed), and the animation is erratic and over-excessive. Finally, this cartoon world, in which pygmies, kangaroos and pandas are all living together next to a Utah-like landscape, defies believability. The cartoon’s best feature is a short swing track during the chase scene.

Despite its shortcomings, ‘Life Begins for Andy Panda’ apparently was a hit, and Andy Panda would continue to outwit his dad for years to come.

Watch ‘Life Begins for Andy Panda’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Life Begins for Andy Panda’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 4, 1939
Stars: Lil’ Eightball
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

A Haunting We Will Go © Walter LantzAfter the closing down of the Van Beuren studio, and a short return to the Walt Disney studios we find Burt Gillett directing at the Walter Lantz studios. In 1939-1940 Gillett directed seven cartoons for Lantz, of which ‘A Haunting We Will Go’ is the fourth.

‘A Haunting We Will Go’ was Lantz’ first cartoon in full Technicolor, and it excels in high production values, making it a kind of strange mix between a Silly Symphony (Gillett’s specialty) and Warner Bros.-like nonsense.

The short stars a black boy called Lil’ Eightball, whom Gillett had introduced in July in ‘Stubborn Mule’, but who would disappear from the screen after this cartoon, after starring only three cartoons. This is not a pity, as Lil’ Eightball is a clear black stereotype. Despite being a boy, he has a deep Southern voice, provided by Mel Blanc (when he stutters in the end, his voice is practically that of Porky Pig), and part of the humor stems from the boy using extraordinarily difficult words, while remaining the stereotyped ignorant and fearful negro figure.

Lil’ Eightball is visited by a baby ghost, but he doesn’t believe in ghosts. So the baby ghost drags him to his poppa in a haunted house, where several ghosts give Lil’ Eightball “the works”. Gillett had also directed the Mickey Mouse short ‘Lonesome Ghosts’ (1937), and the ghosts in ‘A Haunting We Will Go’ are exact copies from those in the Disney cartoon, with their red noses and bowler hats. The haunting scene is the highlight of the cartoon, featuring great surreal gags, and some extraordinarily flexible animation, unmatched at the time. The best scene arguably is the one in which a room shrinks to Lil’ Eightball’s size.

Watch ‘A Haunting We Will Go’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Haunting We Will Go’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: October 10, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Pete
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Officer Duck © Walt Disney‘Officer Duck’ is the first of nine cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Pete.

Pete, who in this short is called Tiny Tom and who has a golden tooth, had been a great adversary to the courageous Mickey Mouse, and he also was a strong opponent to Donald Duck. However, he was dropped after 1944, as Donald Duck director Jack Hannah preferred smaller adversaries, making Donald Duck more of a straight man to bees, bugs and chipmunks.

In ‘Officer Duck’ Donald is a policeman ordered to arrest Tiny Tom (ergo Pete). He does so by pretending to be a baby, bringing out Pete’s previously unknown soft side. Apart from being rather unlikely, the comedy also suffers from milking this one idea – in a 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon the baby trick would have been only one of several schemes.

Watch ‘Officer Duck’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 14
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: The Autograph Hound
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Riveter

‘Officer Duck’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 1, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Mickey Rooney, Sonja Heni, The Ritz Brothers, Shirley Temple
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

The Autograph Hound © Walt Disney‘The Autograph Hound’ is an update of the idea of the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘Movie Mad‘ (1931): Donald Duck tries to enter a Hollywood studio, to meet some stars, but is hindered by a guard.

The caricature of Hollywood stars of course form the highlight of the cartoon, and like the ones in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933), they were all done by Joe Grant. Donald especially has to deal with an obnoxious Mickey Rooney, the rather bland Sonja Henie (whom Donald had imitated in ‘The Hockey Champ‘), the forgotten Ritz Brothers and a lovely Shirley Temple.

During the final scene we also see Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Charlie, Stepin Fetchit, Joe E. Brown, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx and several others, all wanting to have Donald’s autograph.

Donald’s extraordinary fame in this cartoon seems to be a case of wishful thinking by the Disney Studio, but chances are that by 1939 Donald Duck had become the biggest animated star around. Mickey Mouse, the greatest cartoon star of the 1930s, was seen less and less on the screen, while Pluto and Goofy only came into their own during the 1940s. Fleischer’s Betty Boop had retired in July 1939, and even Popeye’s popularity may have waned after Segar’s death and the Fleischer’s move to Florida. Warner Bros.’ Porky Pig never became a huge star, and Daffy had still to reach his peak, while other potential rivals, like Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry or Woody Woodpecker only entered the scene in 1940.

Donald wears his blue cap for the first time in this cartoon, replacing his original white one. The blue cap was to stay till the present day.

Watch ‘The Autograph Hound’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 13
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Penguin
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Officer Duck

‘The Autograph Hound’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

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