Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 19, 1932
Rating:★★★
Review:

Babes in the Woods © Walt Disney‘Babes in the woods’ is a free adaptation of the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

In Disney’s version the two lost children encounter some merry dwarfs before they meet the witch. The witch takes them for a ride on her flying broom to her gingerbread house.

Once inside the witch’s abode the cartoon takes a nightmarish turn. in the dark and gloomy inside the witch reveals she turns little children in newts, rats, spiders and bats. We watch the with turn a cat into stone, which immediately falls down and brakes. Then she turns the boy into a spider. When she wants to turn the girl into a rat, she’s interrupted by the dwarfs, who have come to the rescue. While she’s fleeing for the squadrons of gnomes firing arrows at her, the girl discovers a potion to turn the spider and all other animals present in the witches house into children again. In the end the witch is turned into stone by falling into her own potion.

This re-telling of Grimm’s classic tale introduces some story ideas that made it into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ five years later: there’s a scary forest with trees looking like monsters and there are of course the witch and the dwarfs. Indeed, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for most of the looks of both this Silly Symphony as one of the chief designers for Disney’s first feature.

The storytelling is economical, with a lot happening in the mere seven minutes. As soon as the witch enters the scene, the action is relentless. The pretty scary scene inside the Witch’s house is particularly gripping. The short also contains a small dance routine, reminiscent of, but a great improvement on ‘The Merry Dwarfs‘ from 1929. The children’s designs of this particular film became stock designs in most studios in the rest of the 1930’s, in which more and more films would take a childish character, anyway.

With ‘Babes in the Woods’ embarked on a series of Silly Symphonies that were adaptations of familiar fairy tales and fables. Other examples are ‘Three Little Pigs’ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ from 1933, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ from 1934 and ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ from 1935.

‘Babes in the Woods’ is a stunning tour-de-force for 1932, but four days before its release Disney had started its first in-house art class, hosted by Don Graham. With these twice-weekly art classes Disney’s animators got better and better, and all subsequent Disney films clearly show that, with the Silly Symphonies in particular showing an enormous growth during the rest of the 1930’s.

One trivial remark: Hansel and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes typical for some Dutch fishing-villages. However, the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European). Talking about being lost!

Watch ‘Babes in the Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 32
To the previous Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love
To the next Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 March 18, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Goofy, Pluto
Rating:★★★½
Review:

Mickey's Mellerdrammer © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ Mickey and the gang are performing a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852), a so-called ‘Tom Show’.

Surprisingly, this was not Mickey’s first take at the play, as he and his pals had performed it already in February 1932 in Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strip ‘The Orphanage Robbery’. The comic strip undoubtedly influenced the cartoon as in both the comic strip and in the cartoon Mickey plays both Topsy and Uncle Tom, while Minnie plays Little Eva, Clarabelle Cow Eliza and Horace Horsecollar the vicious plantation owner Simon Legree. Because the comic strip predates Goofy’s birth he’s not part of the play, and in the cartoon he only helps behind the scene. Goofy remains a surprisingly bland character, doing little more than laughing stupidly, proving that his guffaw still was his only defining character trait.

First we watch Mickey and the gang dress themselves, obviously in the best minstrel tradition and featuring quite a few blackface gags, including the obligate reference to Al Jolson’s ‘Mammy’. Then we watch two scenes of the play itself. The play opens merrily enough with Little Eva and Topsy dancing to ‘Dixie’, but a little later Simon Legree is about to lash Uncle Tom.

Despite the play’s serious subject matter, the cartoon is full of nonsense, especially when Mickey unleashes fifty dogs, ridiculously dressed in dogs costume. The cartoon ends, when these dogs encounter a cat and destroy everything in chasing it. This sequence makes ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ a late addition to Mickey’s destructive-finale-cartoon-series of 1931/1932. The large number of gags makes ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ quite entertaining, but of course the numerous blackface gags date the cartoon a lot, and make it an obvious product of a more openly racist era.

In Mickey’s next cartoon ‘Ye Olden Days’ the idea of him and the gang acting was taken a step further, when they were introduced as actors in that cartoon. The idea of cartoon characters performing a melodrama was later copied by Max Fleischer in ‘She Wronged him Right‘ (1934) starring Betty Boop.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 54
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Pal Pluto
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Ye Olden Days

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white Volume two’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 December 17, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Good Deed © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is the second of four Mickey Mouse Christmas cartoons (‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ from 1931 was the first, the third would only appear at the end of Mickey’s career in 1952: ‘Pluto’s Christmas Tree‘ and the fourth would herald Mickey’s return to the screen in ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol‘ from 1983).

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is a typical cartoon of the Great Depression era, which, if we look at the Hollywood output, seemed to find its lowest point in 1931-1933. Surprisingly many films from these years show people in great poverty, struggling at the bottom of society. Other examples are the Laurel and Hardy short ‘One Good Turn’ (1931), the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘What A Life’ (1932), the Cubby the Bear cartoon ‘Barking Dogs’, and the Warner Bros. musical ‘ Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933).

In the opening scene of ‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ we watch Mickey being down at the dumps: he is a poor street musician, playing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ on a double bass in the snow. He’s obviously homeless and his pants are ragged. When all the change he got turns out to be just bolts and nuts his hopes of a decent meal in a fancy restaurant are shattered.

Meanwhile a rich and spoiled brat discovers Pluto and wants him for a present. So his father sends out his servant to buy Pluto from Mickey. Mickey first refuses, stating that Pluto is his pal. But then his double bass is destroyed by a sleigh and Mickey discovers a very poor and desperate mother of numerous kittens.

In other to help the latter, he finally sells Pluto to buy numerous toys for the little kittens, which he gives them, dressed like Santa, while they’re sleeping. Meanwhile, the spoiled brat is giving Pluto, his own father and the servant a hard time. In the end, the father spanks his son and throws Pluto out of the house. The cartoon ends when Mickey and Pluto are rejoined again, sharing a roasted chicken Pluto accidentally had brought along.

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is one of Mickey’s most melodramatic cartoons, and relatively low on gags, the most of which involving the spoiled brat and his antics. It plays a familiar theme contrasting the spoiled rich, who think they can get anything with money, with the unfortunate poor, who are willing to help each other out. It’s strange to see Mickey so poor, however, as he is in this cartoon. It’s as if he had lost Minnie and his friends, as well. The most poignant scene is that of a homeless Mickey roasting a sausage on a fire with a mock Pluto made out of snow.

This cartoon contains a caricature of Jimmy Durante as a jack-in-the-box, which is probably the first of many caricatures of this 1930s comedian in animated film. One and a half year later, Mickey would meet Jimmy Durante in person in the live action movie ‘Hollywood Party’.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 50
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Klondike Kid
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Building a Building

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white Volume two’

 

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: May 18, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★
Review:

Barking Dogs © Van Beuren‘Barking Dogs’ is one of those 1930’s cartoons with a clear Great Depression theme.

The short opens with Honey worrying as she will be displaced because she didn’t pay her mortgage (a story idea anticipating Disney’s ‘Moving Day‘ by three years). Cubby comes along, and offers her to help. His help is hardly convincing, as he immediately runs off in a feeble attempt to pawn his pocket knife. Meanwhile, the evil land owner, A. Wolf, comes along to take all Honey’s furniture away, and incidentally, her house, too. Meanwhile, two metal dogs (?!) warn Cubby who returns to the scene, finding Honey crying on the doorstep. “It’s too late” she sobs, at which he replies “Nothing is too late for Cubby!”, and together they ride the two metal dogs to A. Wolf’s house. Strangely, it’s the two dogs who fight and dispose of the evil land owner, leaving Cubby as a completely idle bystander.

The complete cartoon makes little sense and is difficult to enjoy as none of the animation is interesting or any of the gags funny. But once again, Gene Rodemich’s score is delightful and on a complete different level than all other aspects of the cartoon. The two metal dogs are elegantly designed and much more appealing than Cubby and his girlfriend.

Watch ‘Barking Dogs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Barking Dogs’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: April 28, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★
Review:

Bubbles and Troubles © Van BeurenCubby the Bear’s fourth cartoon, ‘Bubbles and Troubles’, has quite a bizarre story.

The short starts when Cubby starts blowing bubbles with Honey’s soap water. He accidentally blows himself up, and takes the air immediately. He’s shot out of the air by a bunch of pirates, and he falls to the ground. While he’s unconsciousness, the mean pirates kidnap Honey and take her to their ship. The absurdity of the Van Beuren studio’s story-telling style is perfectly illustrated by a scene in which the captain grabs some money, saying ‘money’, than grabbing some more, saying ‘more money!’. When Buddy awakes, he places himself inside a bubble and takes flight to the pirate ship, where he disposes of all the pirates all too easily.

In ‘Bubbles and Troubles’ Cubby approaches Mickey’s character as much as apparently possible, and the short could have been a great adventure cartoon if it were better told and less loony. It’s highly recommended nevertheless, not so much to watch, but to listen to, for Gene Rodemich’s score is no less than wonderful.

Watch ‘Bubbles and Troubles’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Bubbles and Troubles’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: March 24, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Last Mail © Van BeurenThe Last Mail’ is the first Cubby the Bear cartoon to place him in a Mickey Mouse-like hero role.

It’s interesting to compare this cartoon to Mickey’s ‘The Mail Pilot‘, which was released two months later. It immediately becomes clear why Mickey has remained famous, while Cubby fell into oblivion. In all aspects Cubby’s cartoon is the lesser product: in design, in animation, and in storytelling. Nevertheless, it is one of Cubby’s most entertaining cartoons, as it features a straight-forward story, which is surprisingly consistent for the Van Beuren studio.

In ‘The Last Mail’ Cubby is a mailman riding a squirrel-led sleigh through a wintery landscape. In the village where he delivers the mail he dances with Honey to a jig. When he leaves again, Honey comes along, sneaking into Cubby’s mail bag. The two are held up by an evil raccoon, who kidnaps Honey. But Cubby saves her with help from an American Eagle.

Composer Gene Rodemich is in good shape here, weaving ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ into the dancing scene (see also Mickey’s ‘The Shindig‘ from 1930) , and using ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ in the eagle scenes. ‘The Last Mail’ is the first Cubby the Bear cartoon in which director Mannie Davis is credited on the opening titles.

Watch ‘The Last Mail’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Last Mail’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating:
Review:

Love's Labor Won © Van Beuren‘Love’s Labor Won’, Cubby the Bear’s second cartoon, is the most musical short featuring Van Beuren’s poor man’s Mickey Mouse.

The cartoon starts with Cubby riding a dachshund to his girlfriend’s house. This anonymous girl, only called Honey by Cubby, is yet another variation on Oswald’s Honey, Flip’s Honey, or Mickey’s Minnie and fails to be distinct in any sense. The two make music together. At one point Cubby takes his gloves off to play the piano four hands with them, incidentally revealing to have nails. Cubby’s and Honey’s duet causes a lot of singing and dancing by forest animals. It’s startling to watch the Van Beuren studio embracing the song-and-dance-routine so passionately in 1933, when other studios were already abandoning them. But then suddenly some kind of story resolves when the routine is disturbed by a mean old wolf. Cubby fights him, and the cartoon ends with his triumph.

Despite the joyful setting, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Love’s Labor Won’. The animation is sloppy, and Cubby is frustratingly bland, not even emulating Mickey’s persistent optimism. In this cartoon he has a ridiculous crooner voice, which would not return in subsequent cartoons.

Watch ‘Love’s Labor Won’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Love’s Labor Won’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: February 10, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Opening Night © Van BeurenIn 1933 the Van Beuren studio was struggling. Their Tom & Jerry series failed to match the successes of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse or the Fleischers’ ‘Betty Boop’, which is not really surprising, as the duo was as bland as possible, and their cartoons highly inconsistent. So, Van Beuren invited about eight of his animators to dinner and told them to come up with some new ideas. Mannie Davis sketched a new character called Cubby the Bear, and this character was to be the studio’s new star.

Being vaguely Mickey Mouse-like Cubby was a hero character, saving his girlfriend in many melodramatic situations. Unfortunately, Cubby was as bland as Tom & Jerry had been, and he did not even last two years. Many people would attribute Cubby’s misfortune to a lack of character, but this cannot be true: the character of the much more successful Betty Boop didn’t go beyond ‘sexy girl’, and even top star Mickey’s character could be summarized as ‘optimistic’. Other stars of the time, like Bosko and Flip the Frog, were as generic as possible. In fact, the first real characters to hit the animated screen were Popeye (later in 1933) and Donald Duck (1934).

No, Cubby’s main problem was that he was so terribly animated. Whereas we could easily follow the emotions of say Oswald, Bimbo, Flip or Mickey, Cubby is almost expressionless in this cartoon, his wide eyes staring into nothingness most of the time, as if he weren’t alive at all. Moreover, the animators often forgot to give him a motivation. This becomes clear when one compares the opening scene of Cubby’s debut film ‘Opening Night’ to a similar one in the much older, yet much better animated Oswald cartoon ‘Bright Lights‘ (1928). In the Oswald cartoon we clearly watch Oswald being in love with Mlle. Zulu, who performs at the theater. So when we watch Oswald trying to get in, we immediately understand why. Moreover, we can watch his emotions while doing so. Not so in ‘Opening Night’: in a very similar scene Cubby is given no motivation whatsoever. Even worse, we watch him from the back, which shuts us from his emotions. Mistakes like these are all over the Cubby the Bear cartoons, and that’s the main reason why he is forgotten, while his contemporaries Mickey, Betty and to an extent even Bosko and Flip have lived on.

‘Opening Night’ was made for the occasion of the opening of the RKO Roxy theater, which opened on December 29, 1932. Like subsequent Cubby the Bear cartoons, ‘Opening Night’ is still part of the Aesop Fables series, but Cubby is introduced immediately on the title card. The cartoon starts with Santa Claus spraying some dust which forms the letters ROXY. Then we get the scene in which Cubby tries to get into the theater. When he finally manages to do so, he ends up at the conductor stand, where he conducts the orchestra in an opera scene.

There’s quite some strangeness going on in this cartoon, especially in a couple of bizarre gags featuring audience seats.  Later, during a fighting scene the Romeo-like opera character beheads(!) his opponent. Composer Gene Rodemich, as often, is Van Beuren’s only inspired employee, making a great score out of Italian opera snippets.

Watch ‘Opening Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Opening Night’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Dave Hand
Release Date:
 May 13, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Mail Pilot © Walt DisneyIn his fifth year Mickey Mouse was at the top of his game: practically every Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1933 is a winner (the sole exception arguably being ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man‘). Moreover, Mickey was still the top star himself, although with ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto‘ he would give screen time to Pluto, the beginning of a trend that would take severe turns in the rest of the 1930s, when Pluto, Donald and Goofy would all but eclipse Mickey’s career.

None of that in 1933! In that year Mickey is still in prime form, with ‘The Mail Pilot’ as a perfect example. It’s astonishing to watch the ease with which its strong story is told, and how many events the animators could squeeze into the seven minute cartoon.

In ‘The Mail Pilot’ Mickey is a mail pilot who has to carry a chest with money across the mountains. On his way he has to deal with a thunderstorm and a blizzard before he sees the sun again. The design of the anthropomorphized sun is the same as in the Silly Symphony ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ from one month earlier. Unfortunately, at the other end of the mountains he’s confronted by evil mail robber Pete, who has both his legs in this cartoon. Pete shoots Mickey’s wings and propeller to pieces, but Mickey manages to fly nonetheless, capturing the bandit on the way.

‘The Mail Pilot’ belongs to Disney’s operetta period (see also ‘The Mad Doctor‘ and ‘Ye Olden Days‘ from the same year), and all dialogue is sung. Its opening song. ‘The Mail Must Go Through’, forms the main musical theme, which composer Bert Lewis develops in classical fashion in the rest of the score to glorious effects.

‘The Mail Pilot’ has an exciting adventure plot, and it’s not surprising that it spawned a comic book story, which arguably was Mickey’s most exciting adventure thus far. The story (now also labeled ‘The Mail Pilot’ ran from February 27 (months before the release of the cartoon ) until June 10. Floyd Gottfredson greatly expanded on the cartoon’s story, substituting the mail pilot for a much more exciting pirate dirigible with a magnetic web to ensnare the mail planes. Later, some scenes of the cartoon were combined with elements from ‘Shanghaied’ (1934) in Floyd Gottfredson’s classic comic strip ‘Mickey and the Pirates’ (or ‘The Captive Castaways’, 1934).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 56
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Ye Olden Days
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Mechanical Man

‘The Mail Pilot’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 December 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Santa's Workshop © Walt Disney‘Santa’s Workshop’ is one of the earliest Christmas cartoons, celebrating the Santa Claus myth with glee.

If the preceding Silly Symphonies, ‘King Neptune‘ and ‘Babes in the Woods’ were impressive, ‘Santa’s Workshop’ is even more beautiful and colorful. The short’s opening scenes are more colorful than those of the earlier shorts, and this high level of use of color is maintained throughout the picture.

Like ‘King Neptune’ it’s an operetta cartoon, with the elves and Santa singing their lines in rhyme. Santa Claus himself is a variation on King Neptune, equally stout and equally merry. We watch him reading letters, accompanied by a sour gnome, who shares his voice (Pinto Colvig) with later famous sourpuss Grumpy from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). Later he test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

This scene is followed by a parade of mechanical toys into Santa’s sack, accompanied by Franz Schubert’s Military March No. 1. This sequence clearly shows how good Disney’s animation had become: the difference between living creatures and mechanical toys is unmistakable. This march a.o. features a mechanical Charlie Chaplin toy, and some stereotyped Chinese and Jewish dolls.

The racist dolls notwithstanding the complete cartoon is one of sheer delight, and must have been mind-blowing to the audiences of the time, unfamiliar with either color or this level of animation in other cartoons of the era. One can rightly say, that only in color the Silly Symphony series rightly found its purpose of pushing the limits of animation forward.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ itself was proof of the astonishing growth the studio had made in its four year existence. One of the reasons was that since 1931 Disney had sent his animators to evening classes at the Chouinard Art School. But on 15 november 1932 Chouinard art teacher Don Graham was appointed as the studio’s formal teacher, starting evening classes at the Disney studio itself.

From now on the studio could improve itself even faster, with the Silly Symphonies as its main platform for innovation, especially from 1934 onward, when Disney planned to make a feature film. By the mid-1930’s the art school cost the studio no less than $100.000 a year, but Disney now could improve the quality of his films at an amazing speed, leaving all competitors far behind.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ was one of the few Silly Symphonies to get a sequel. In 1933 the studio released ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which is  even more colorful and more refined than this cartoon.

Watch ‘ Santa’s Workshop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 33
To the previous Silly Symphony: Babes in the Woods
To the next Silly Symphony: Birds in the Spring

 

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 21, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Birthday Party © Max FleischerBetty’s working alone at home, singing the song ‘Hummin’ to Myself’, but then her bell rings.

She finds a package at her doorstep, which appears to be a birthday cake. It appears that her friends have organized a surprise party for her. Koko gives her a dachshund, Bimbo gives her three fish in a bowl, and Fleischer’s unnamed stock baby gives her a piano.

In the third scene we watch Betty and her visitors eating at a long table in the garden. All goes well, until two visitors start arguing about a fish, and the complete party ends in a fight. This part includes a remarkably scene of Bimbo changing himself into a machine gun, shooting peas. While the party gets totally out of hand, Betty sails off with a statue of George Washington (don’t try to understand this).

‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ is an enjoyable cartoon, if not among Betty’s best. The flapper girl has her finest moment during the opening scenes,  and the best gag may the unpacking of the piano.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 14
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s May Party

‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Stars: Arthur Jarrett, Betty Boop
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Popular Melodies © Max Fleischer‘Popular Melodies’ is a Screen Song devoted to singer Arthur Jarrett, a crooner who is all but forgotten today. Surprisingly enough, the so-called popular tunes he sings aren’t well-known either, except for Betty’s theme song with which the cartoon ends.

The animation part of this cartoon features a painter who tries to paint with a number of noisy children playing around. When his painting is ruined by one of the brats, he decides to drive to the countryside, but the children join them. There he paints a walking tree and a moving rock, which transforms into singer Arthur Jarrett. Jarrett sings a three songs. During the second song he draws a picture of Betty, who joins him in her own theme song.

Then we cut back to the painter and the children. Oddly, the song is not continued, only its instrumental music. This scene is remarkably because of its animation of figures in white on black, unseen since Emile Cohl’s films. These figures soon flee the painter’s canvas, resulting in a rather scary finale, with the spooky shapes walking and dancing through the countryside. Stange enough, the cartoon ends with a devil wishing the children “pleasant dreams, and good night”. Because of this finale ‘Popular Melodies’ is one of the most interesting of all Screen Songs, even if its star and his first two songs are utterly forgettable. It was also the last of six Screen Songs to feature Betty Boop.

Watch ‘Popular Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Popular Melodies’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Penthouse © Max FleischerIn ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ Bimbo and Koko have a chemical laboratory.

Across the street, on a roof terrace, Betty is having a shower, stealing their attention. This part contains a particularly sexy scene of a towel drying Betty by itself. Meanwhile, their cat starts an experiment on its own, resulting in a Frankenstein-like monster, who starts threatening Betty, walking some wires to cross the street. This scene is the highlight of this cartoon, as the movements of the monster, Koko, and Bimbo are perfectly timed to the hot big band jazz accompanying the action. In the end, Betty transforms the monster into a giant flower, dancing on the rooftop with clearly rotoscoped movements.

As one may have noticed, ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ makes little sense, and its absurdity is greatly enhanced by the many throwaway gags fired at the audience. It makes this cartoon one of the last highlights of the Fleischers’ idiosyncratic pre-code animation style.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 12
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Is My Palm Read
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White

‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 17, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Is My Palm Read © Max FleischerIn ‘Is My Palm Read’ Bimbo is a fortune-teller, assisted by Koko the Clown.

Betty drops by to see her future told. Bimbo first sees in his crystal ball Betty as a naked baby, and second as being shipwrecked and washed ashore an island. There she sings ‘All by myself’, only to attract a bunch of evil ghosts. Luckily, he Bimbo himself is there to rescue her, but as soon as he has revealed himself, the ghosts appear out of the crystal ball to chase the duo once again (Koko is completely forgotten at this stage).

‘Is My Palm Read’ is one of the Betty Boop cartoons strongly exploiting her erotic character. For example, when Betty enters the room, Bimbo and Koko use special lighting to see her legs right through her elegant dress. On the island we see Betty undressing and catch her briefly in her underwear, although she remains scantily clothed in a sexy tropical costume throughout the island scenes. The result is an erotic and surrealistic cartoon, which doesn’t make much sense, but which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘Is My Palm Read’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 11
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Penthouse

‘Is My Palm Read’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 16, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Betty Boop's Ker-Choo © Max FleischerBetty, Bimbo and Koko are joining a car race. Betty Boop is late, because she has a cold, and when she arrives she sings a song about it. In the end she wins the car race by sneezing.

Although ‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ belongs to Betty Boop’s golden era, it’s unfortunately one of Betty’s more boring cartoons. In fact, the best gags are the silly ones with which the cartoon starts. Because she wears a driver’s costume, Betty is also less sexy than usual, and somehow it seems this cartoon that points to the design used one year later, when Betty Boop fell victim of the stricter Hays code.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 9
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Museum
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions

‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Directors: Frank Sherman & George Stallings
Release Date:
 March 31, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Puzzled Pals © Van Beuren‘Puzzled Pals’ opens with a stork trying to deliver his baby, but finding every home hostile to him.

The bird finally manages to drop the baby at Tom & Jerry’s doorstep. They take the baby in, but he turns out to be a tough brat, kicking everybody’s face in, and being a complete nuisance, while Tom and Jerry try to solve a jig-saw puzzle. At one point the brat gets hold of a giant vacuum cleaner, sucking almost everything in the house, including the clothes on Jerry’s tattoo, until Tom saves the day. In the end the stork incomprehensibly returns and takes the baby away.

Vacuum cleaners were still a luxury in the 1930’s, and this cartoon may contain the first animated gags on this domestic device.

Watch ‘Puzzled Pals’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Puzzled Pals’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date:
 March 31, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★
Review:

Happy Hoboes © Van BeurenTom and Jerry are bums living in a slum. When they have to leave, they ride a train as hoboes, with their home and all.

When it starts snowing (in a scene which has to be seen to be believed) the train gets lost and ends in a wood, where a lumberjack is fed on roast chicken by a stereotyped Chinese cook with rather original cooking methods.

Apart from Gene Rodemich’s excellent musical score, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Happy Hoboes’, with its silent era animation, stream-of-consciousness-like string of events, and lack of gags. However, the snowing scene, in which two clouds transform into two winged women having a cushion fight, is so curious and so original, it’s definitely worth watching, even if the rest of the cartoon is not.

Watch ‘Happy Hoboes’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Happy Hoboes’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date:
 January 6, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★
Review:

Tight Rope Tricks © Van BeurenTight Rope Tricks’ is a pretty plotless film in which Tom and Jerry visit a circus. They even perform themselves, dressed as acrobats.

The short consists mostly of unrelated gags, but the finale gives the short a nice twist, reusing a lion and an elephant from earlier gags. Also featured is a girl singing with a very Betty Boop-like voice on the tightrope. According to Tralfaz this voice was done by Margie Hines, who had previously voiced Betty Boop. In the end we watch Tom and Jerry flooding the lions, and escaping on the elephant, with the girl on their side.

As always in Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry films, the animation is terrible: part is still a relic from the silent era (it doesn’t help that some animation is recycled from cartoons from 1930), and all animation is completely devoid of weight. The designs, too, are unappealing and inconsistent. Especially the animal designs are downright poor. Tom and Jerry were anything but on a winning streak.

Watch ‘Tight Rope Tricks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Tight Rope Tricks’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’

Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date:
 March 2, 1933
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, King Kong
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

King Kong © Universal‘King Kong’ is, of course, a live action movie, but I follow Andrew Osmond in including the film in the animation canon, as it is the first live action movie to feature an animated star – indeed Kong gets star billing in the opening credits, after the live action actors. The feature is also arguably the first live action movie in which animation is used not incidentally, but extensively, to the point of dominating several scenes.

‘King Kong’ is the father of all monster movies, and much of animator Willis O’Brien’s animation can be regarded as spectacular special effects, but in his portrayal of Kong himself O’Brien has put a surprisingly amount of character. Especially Kong’s death scene is astonishing. There’s real tragedy and sadness in Kong’s eyes and in his last caresses of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, the first of all scream queens). This is no mere feat, as character animation was still unheard of at the time – even Walt Disney was not that far – and it would take stop motion artists several years to reach a similar sense of emotional depth.

Most of the film, however, is not as much about emotion as well as thrills. The film’s main focus is to thrill the audience, and as soon as Ann Darrow is kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island, it does so relentlessly. The complete island is one big threat to the hapless crew that tries to regain Ann from the giant ape. But also to Ann and Kong themselves, for Kong has to rescue his human love interest no less than three times: from a large Tyrannosaurus rex, from a Plesiosaurus, which moves remarkably comfortably on land like a snake, and from a Pteranodon. This results in three fights, in which O’Brien can show off his skills. Especially the first fight is magnificent. It’s surprisingly lengthy, and it has a real sense of effort, with both forceful animals fighting for their lives. O’Brien also animates a surprisingly lifelike Stegosaurus, and a sauropod that strangely enough has gone carnivorous. And, of course, the girl, some other people, and the planes, at times, when in interaction with Kong.

Obviously not all the 1933 special effects have stood the test of time, but the trick photography is surprisingly good, and at times live action and animation blend into each other seamlessly. Some scenes are no less than astounding in this respect, even after all these years: a good example is a scene depicting Kong handling a tree trunk on which several crew members are clung. One really does believe the animated figure handles the tree trunk, which is filmed in live action. O’Brien has managed to bring a great sense of weight into Kong’s actions.

Another wonderful example of great blending of animation and live action is Kong peeling off Ann Darrow’s dress. This scene is a little erotic, and deepens Kong’s simple and playful character. Of course, O’Brien was not solely responsible for Kong’s portrayal. At times we see close-ups of Kong’s face, which is a giant non-animated model, and some scenes feature a large, mechanical hand. Nevertheless, most of Kong’s appeal is due to O’Brien’s animation. And the big ape has appeal! Indeed, the film is so iconic that Kong is still pretty famous today.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the movie have aged well. For example, the natives, all portrayed by black people, are pretty backward, and even worse is Charlie, the Chinese cook, who is as cliche as possible, and who even cannot talk right. But the film succeeds in being a real thrill ride, and Fay Wray manages to squeeze more feelings in her one-dimensional role than one would expect. The other actors are less interesting, and pale when compared to O’Brien’s classic creation.

The film’s last 18 minutes take place in New York, and these scenes really make the film into the ancestor of all monster movies, with Kong wandering the streets, causing havoc, and crushing a subway car. However, Kong’s final scene on top of the Empire State Building changes the monster into an utterly tragic figure. Even Mark Steiner’s score, which follows the action closely, adds to the feeling, turning into sadder themes when Kong nears his end. The sole scene elevates the film above most of its successors. And it’s this particular scene, in which Kong battles the aeroplanes on top of the Empire State Building, that provides the movie’s most iconic picture.

Watch an excerpt from ‘King Kong’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date:
 1930-1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

L'idée © Berthold BartoschWhile the cartoon industry flourished in the United States, animation film was developed as an art form in Europe.

In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).

‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.

Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.

The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong communistic character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.

Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.

Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’

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