Director: George Pal
Release Date: March 27, 1942
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Sky Princess © George Pal‘Sky Princess’ tells the tale of a prince rescuing a princess from a witch, who holds her in a castle in the sky.

In the beginning the story is told by a voice over. But all too soon the prince arrives, serenading his love with a violin. The love between the two destroys the witch’s power, and a great deal of the cartoon is devoted to the couple dancing in the castle in the sky. This sequence reflects the MGM musicals of the era, and excels in lighting and staging. Yet, as nothing really is happening, it’s also a bit boring. In the end we watch the couple sail away on the prince’s sky ship.

‘Sky Princess’ is a lovely cartoon, full of pretty colors, and a feast for the eye. The score makes great use of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Flower Waltz. What the short lacks in story, it covers with its beautiful looks and dreamlike atmosphere.

‘Sky Princess’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Puppetoon Movie’

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Director: George Pal
Release Date: December 26, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Rhythm in the Ranks © George PalIn ‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ the action already starts during the opening titles, when we watch a package unwrap itself. The package reveals to contain a battalion of toy soldiers, who quickly come to life.

Our hero is ‘Little Jim’, a toy soldier who has to carry a large cannon. When he meets a skating girl in Dutch costume, he forgets the cannon. He gets punished, having to paint the barracks, which he does with invisibility paint, anticipating the Donald Duck short ‘The Vanishing Private‘ (1942), which uses the same story idea.

Both the vanishing paint and the cannon come in handy, when an evil army invades the countryside, although it remains pretty unclear how our hero conquers the foreign troops. Nevertheless, in the end he’s decorated and earns a kiss from the Dutch girl.

‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ is a charming, but uneven cartoon that suffers from an erratic story. The models, colors and staging, on the other hand, are top notch, as always in Pal’s works. The trickery used to make things becoming invisible is very well done.

The evil army of mindless robots, which invade the toy countryside reflect the war era. Yet, Pal’s film never becomes really topical, sticking to the fairy tale world of wonder. ‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ makes great use of two Raymond Scott compositions: ‘Toy Trumpet’ for the marching soldiers, and ‘Powerhouse’ to accompany the evil army.

‘Rhythm in the Ranks’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Puppetoon Movie’

Director: George Pal
Release Date: June 27, 1941
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Hoola Boola © George PalJim Darcy, the main protagonist in ‘Hoola Boola’, must be the most relaxed castaway in animated history.

In the opening scene we watch him sailing on a series of rafts from his stranded ship, relaxing in his chair, and listening to the radio. Almost immediately he hits an island, where his house builds itself. Soon he meets a native woman called Sarong-Sarong, and the two fall in love instantly. Then a canoe full of cannibals appear, capturing Jim. However, with help of some magic Sarong-Sarong rescues our hero, reuniting the two lovers.

‘Hoola Boola’ is a wonderful example of George Pal’s art, if not among his best films. One can marvel at the lovely decors, the bright colors, the cinematic staging and clever lighting. Yet, the facial expressions of the sailor and Sarong-Sarong are poor and primitive, and, of course, the story is drenched in cliches, with its castaway-meets-noble savage-and-cannibals story. Even Sarong-Sarong’s rescue is a cliche, with the black cannibals fleeing in terror, all too easily. On the other hand, Sarong-Sarong manages to summon five goblins out of nowhere to chase the cannibals away. I’d be scared of them, too…

‘Hoola Boola’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘The Puppetoon Movie’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 17, 1942
Stars: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

kickin' the conga 'round © max fleischerIn the early 1940s America was taken by a conga craze, as is exemplified by cartoons like ‘Woody Woodpecker‘ (1941), ‘Mickey’s Birthday Party’ (1942) and ‘Juke Box Jamboree‘ (1942).Popeye’s contribution to this dance craze is ‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’.

In this wartime cartoon both Popeye and Bluto are sailors ready to go the shore in some Latin American country. There Popeye has a sweetheart called ‘Olivra Oyla’ (Olive Oyl, of course, but tanned, and speaking with a fake Spanish accent). Bluto fancies her, too, and at the shore a feud ensures, with Bluto and Popeye performing magic tricks, outsmarting each other.

Popeye’s tricks are strikingly violent, but Bluto has his revenge: at the conga club it appears that Popeye can’t dance, while Bluto can, so he dances the conga with Olivra, leaving Popeye sulking at the table. Fortunately, spinach gives him the conga spirit, and soon Popeye takes over, and even clobbers Bluto to a conga beat. The animation on this short is strikingly zany, and perfectly matched to the typical conga beat.

‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ marks Bluto’s return after an eighteen months absence since ‘Fightin’ Pals‘ (1940). This short also marks his first portrayal as a navy sailor. Like Popeye, who first appeared in this uniform in ‘The Mighty Navy’, navy white would remain his new uniform for the rest of his theatrical career. With Bluto’s return, the Popeye cartoons would more and more follow the triangular relationship between Popeye, Olive and Bluto, diverting less and less to other story ideas.

Watch ‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 102
To the previous Popeye film: Nix on Hypnotricks
To the next Popeye film: Blunder Below

‘Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 19, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Nix on hypnotricks © max fleischer‘Nix on Hypnotricks’ starts with some Eastern hypnotist called Prof. I. Stare, who needs a human victim.

He chooses one randomly, with the use of a phone book. This random victim happens to be Olive Oyl, who he manages to hypnotize through the phone, ordering her to come to him. This turns her into a mindless zombie walking to his office. This passage leads to more or less a remake of ‘A Dream Walking’ (1934), with Olive Oyl walking on great heights, and Popeye going at great lengths in saving her. This sequence is no less than hilarious, with gags rolling in plenty. At one point we even watch the both walking absentmindedly on top of a building in construction. Spinach turns Popeye into a Superman, with S-logo and cape, in a tribute to his new fellow cartoon star (at the time of the film’s release, the Fleischers had released two Superman cartoons). However, to save Olive from the spell, Popeye has to slap her. Unfortunately, Olive immediately punishes him for doing so…

‘Nix on Hypnotricks’ is a genuine gag cartoon and shows the Fleischer studio in top form. Who would have thought the two brothers would be out of business within half a year?

Watch ‘Nix on Hypnotricks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 101
To the previous Popeye film: The Mighty Navy
To the next Popeye film: Kickin’ the Conga ‘Round

‘Nix on Hypnotricks’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 14, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

the mighty navy © max fleischerIn ‘The Mighty Navy’ Popeye follows Porky Pig (‘Meet John Doughboy‘) and Barney Bear (‘The Rookie Bear’) and joins the army.

As a sailor, he naturally chooses the navy. Thus, at the start of the cartoon, we find him on a training ship. However, being a navy sailor turns out to be quite different, and most of the humor comes from Popeye’s inapt ways of being a navy sailor. “Do I wants to be a sailor? I AM a sailor! I’m Popeye the sailor! I was born a sailor“, Popeye exclaims at one point. But despite his lifelong experience, Popeye’s ways of hoisting an anchor, aiming the guns and flying a dive bomber in no way convince his superior, so he’s sent to the kitchen to peel onions. Yet, when the training ship is under attack, Popeye saves the day.

‘The Mighty Navy’ was released only thirteen days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and thus the enemy is neither named nor seen in this cartoon. The enemy’s fleet flag bears ‘The Enemy (Name Your Own)’, and when Popeye disposes of its fleet, no victim can be seen. This in sharp contrast to the post-Pearl Harbor Popeye cartoons by the Famous studios: now the Japanese were clearly identified, and racial stereotypes roamed wildly. None of that in this cartoon, making it much more fun to watch.

‘The Mighty Navy’ seems to be a tribute cartoon to the navy. Apart from Popeye, all sailors look like Superman, and the navy itself isn’t ridiculed at all. Instead, the cartoon looks like a celebration of the navy’s choice to make Popeye the official insignia for its own bomber squad. In the insignia, which is presented to the character himself at the end of the cartoon, Popeye looks like his older self, but in ‘The Mighty Navy’ Popeye’s clothes have changed into navy white. I don’t think that this was meant to be a permanent change of dress. Indeed, in Popeye’s next cartoon, ‘Nix on Hypnotricks’ Popeye wears his old clothes again. Yet, in most of his following cartoons, he would be dressed in navy white, and it’s in this dress he would be seen the rest of his theatrical career.

Watch ‘The Mighty Navy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 100
To the previous Popeye film: I’ll Never Crow Again
To the next Popeye film: Nix on Hypnotricks

‘The Mighty Navy’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 19, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

i'll never crow again © max fleidscherIn ‘I’ll Never Crow Again’ Olive’s garden is invaded by some cheeky crows.

Olive phones Popeye to chase the crows away. Popeye’s attempts include placing a scarecrow, and pretending to be a scarecrow himself. All his attempts fail, however, much to hilarity of Olive. In the end, Popeye gets so angry at Olive, he turns her into a scarecrow, which surprisingly works in chasing the crows away.

The crows are over-sized and they are able to talk. The pesky animals turn Popeye into the straight man, and with that some of the comedy is lost. Also, to watch an angry Popeye laying hands on Olive is quite out of character, and this gag doesn’t really work either.

In his introduction shot we watch Popeye cutting his toenails, something we hadn’t seen a cartoon character doing since Betty Boop in ‘Bimbo’s Express‘ (1931). The theme song of this cartoon is ‘It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day’ from ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1939), which is sung by both Olive Oyl and Popeye in the opening scenes.

Watch ‘I’ll Never Crow Again’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 99
To the previous Popeye film: Pest Pilot
To the next Popeye film: The Mighty Navy

‘I’ll Never Crow Again’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

Watch the original trailer for ‘Dumbo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: February 9, 1942
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

hollywood matador © walter lantz‘Hollywood Matador’ is Woody Woodpecker’s contribution to the bullfight cartoon, a trope that comes back to the animated screen from time to time, from the early Silly Symphony ‘El Terrible Toreador‘ (1929) to the late Pink Panther short ‘Toro Pink’ (1979).

Woody Woodpecker is introduced as matador without any back story. His opponent is ‘Oxnar the Terribull’, who ends sadly as ‘fresh bull burgers’, in a gag that echoes a similar one in the Popeye short ‘I Eats My Spinach‘ (1933).

‘Hollywood Matador’ is the least inspired of the early Woody Woodpecker films, but Darrell Calker’s music is spiced with Spanish flavor, and there’s a great gag in which Woody Woodpecker directs a huge crowd with an applause sign, making it applaud and stop applauding without pause. Tex Avery reused this gag to great effects in his own, vastly superior bullfight cartoon ‘Señor Droopy‘ (1949).

Watch ‘Hollywood Matador’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hollywood Matador’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

 

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: November 24, 1941
Stars: Woody Woodpecker
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

what's cookin' © walter lantzThis short opens with a groundhog warning for a terrific cold wave and urging all birds to go South at once.

All birds (drawn in cute 1930s fashion) leave the forest at once to take off to Miami. Not Woody Woodpecker, who takes another swim, only to discover that his summer scene changes into harsh winter within a second. Later a whirlwind deprives him of all his food, and Woody is left hungry and miserable. At that point an equally hungry cat drops by, and both characters try to eat each other, in what must be the grimmest and most violent cartoon of the sound era thus far.

The idea of characters trying to each other was revisited later by other film makers, e.g. Chuck Jones in ‘Wackiki Wabbit‘, Tex Avery in ‘What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard’ (both 1943), and James Culhane in ‘Fair Weather Friends’ (1946), which also stars Woody Woodpecker. Woody Woodpecker’s search for food would become a recurring theme in his films, e.g. ‘Ski for Two’ (1944), ‘Chew-Chew Baby’ (1945) and ‘Banquet Busters’ (1948).

Watch ‘What’s Cookin’?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘What’s Cookin’?’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’ and on the Thunderbean DVD ‘Lantz Studio Treasures Starring Oswald’

Director: Norman McCabe
Release Date: October 11, 1941
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

robinson crusoe, jr. © warner bros.When Tex Avery left Warner Bros., Bob Clampett took over his animation unit. To fill in Clampett’s gap, Norman McCabe was promoted to director.

McCabe had joined the Harman-Ising studio in 1932 as an inbetweener. By 1941 he had become Bob Clampett’s star animator. He had even co-directed two cartoons with Bob Clampett, ‘Timid Toreador’ (1940) and ‘Porky’s Snooze Reel’ (1941).

As a solo director McCabe only made eleven Looney Tunes, all in black and white. And thus, McCabe sadly remains the least known Warner Bros. director from the classic era. This is a pity, because ‘Robinson Crusoe jr.’ , McCabe’s first cartoon, shows that he had fully absorbed his former master’s style, and that he could deliver a fast and funny film.

In ‘Robinson Crusoe, jr.’ Porky Pig plays the starring part. As soon as he’s stranded on the island, he’s awaited by Friday, who carries a sign saying ‘Welcome, Robinson Crusoe’ and who says to Porky in a Southern accent: “Hello Boss, What kept yuh?“. Later we watch Friday singing ‘The Java Jive’, which had been a huge hit for the Ink Spots in 1940.

Most of the cartoon consists of silly spot gags, and is quite entertaining, even if quite a lot of the humor is time-bound. The short ends when Porky encounters a tribe of cannibals, and flees with Friday on a motor boat he has carved out of a log within seconds.

Note that the character Friday is one of those standard representations of the black servant of the period, with his Southern accent. Nevertheless, in this film Friday is neither dumb, nor lazy, fearful, superstitious or overtly dependent on his white benefactor, all character traits normally given to black characters in cartoons. Neither is he given the horrible ape-like mannerisms found in ‘Mickey’s Man Friday‘ (1935). With his huge lips, Friday may be a heavy caricature, he still is one of the more enlightened black representations of the era. The cannibals, on the other hand, are the standard cliche racist fare.

Watch ‘Robinson Crusoe, jr.’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 92
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Notes to You
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Pooch

‘Robinson Crusoe, jr.’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Porky Pig 101’ and on the Thunderbean DVD ‘Uncensored Animation 2: Cannibals!’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: December 6, 1941
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

rhapsody in rivets © warner bros.‘Rhapsody in Rivets’ without doubt is one of Friz Freleng’s finest films. The very idea of turning a building site into a symphony orchestra with the foreman as a conductor is marvelous.

The execution, too, is superb. Using Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody, Freleng presents a string of clever sight gags, perfectly timed to the music. When the foreman enters the stage, an audience applauds. The foreman uses his blueprint as sheet music. We watch a cement mixer mixing as if it were a cocktail shaker, and a brick layer frantically building a wall to the fast music. While performing, the workers really do build a skyscraper (with some twists and turns), until a Droopy-like dog destroys it all.

Liszt’s composition had been a staple since the advent of sound in cartoons. For example it had been used in the Mickey Mouse cartoons ‘The Opry House‘ (1929) and ‘The Mechanical Man‘ (1933) and the Betty Boop cartoon ‘Betty in Blunderland‘ (1934). But Freleng was the first to devote an entire cartoon to the composition. With this move Freleng made his own mini-Fantasia. The short uses no dialogue, whatsoever, and is a prime example of Freleng’s famous musical timing. In 1942 the film was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. Freleng would return to Liszt’s rhapsody several times, most notably in ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946) and ‘Back Alley Uproar‘ (1948).

Watch ‘Rhapsody in Rivets’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: June 7, 1941
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

hiawatha's rabbit hunt © warner bros.This cartoon opens with the voice of Bugs Bunny reciting the first lines of Longfellow’s famous poem ‘The Song of Hiawatha’, while we watch the Indian paddling through a beautiful scenery.

Bugs soon discovers that Hiawatha is hunting rabbits. Luckily, in Freleng’s cartoon the Indian is one of those nit-witted characters based on Lon Chaney jr.’s portrayal of Lennie Small in ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939), so popular at Warner Bros. (see also ‘Of Fox and Hounds’). In the end the mighty warrior leaves the scene empty-handed, while Bugs recites some last lines from the poem. Nevertheless, it’s the hunter who has the last laugh…

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ marks Friz Freleng’s first try at Warner Bros.’ new star. He understands the character very well: his Bugs Bunny is both self-assured and capable of making mistakes. In one scene Bugs wants to take one of his graceful dives into a hole, only to land hard on the ground besides it. There’s a priceless scene in which Bugs enters Hiawatha’s cooking pot as if he were taking a hot bath. This is by all means already classic Bugs Bunny material. The looks of the rabbit, on the other hand, are highly unstable, and at times Bugs looks more like his predecessor from ‘Elmer’s Candid Camera‘ (1940) than himself.

In his book ‘Chuck Amuck’ Chuck Jones writes that he feels that “[Freleng], too, went wide of the mark in understanding Bugs’s persona. Not as wide as I did and Tex did, but ’twas enough, ‘twould serve“. I don’t quite agree. Tex Avery indeed is way more off in ‘Tortoise Beats Hare‘. Freleng’s Bugs is not really defined, yet, but he’s well underway.

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’, being Bugs Bunny’s only fourth cartoon, proved once again that this was a character to stay. Nevertheless, in this cartoon Freleng’s unit is at his best in the animation of Bugs’s adversary, Hiawatha. The moves of this dumb and clumsy character are very well-timed and matched with equally funny music by Carl Stalling. The cartoon also boasts some gorgeous background art, which add to the poetic atmosphere, despite all the delightful nonsense.

Watch ‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 4
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Tortoise Beats Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: The Heckling Hare

‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Award-Nominated Animation: Cinema Favorites’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: May 9, 1942
Rating: ★★½
Review:

the draft horse © warner bros.In 1942 Chuck Jones found his own voice as a director. Gone were the Disneyesque characters and settings. Instead, Jones put forward his own recognizable character designs, a very original animation approach based on strong poses, and an unprecedented emphasis on facial expressions.

Gone, too, were the cute, childish subjects, now replaced by wild, mature and gag rich stories. Suddenly Jones became one of the most recognizable directors in the field, equaled only by Bob Clampett. The most obvious example of this change is ‘The Dover Boys‘ from September 1942, but the new style is already very present in the Conrad Cat cartoons from January/February (‘The Bird Came C.O.D.’, ‘Conrad the Sailor‘ and ‘Porky’s Cafe’ ).

‘The Draft Horse’, from May, is also a nice example of Jones’s new self-assurance. The short features a plow horse who, after reading a billboard saying ‘Horses wanted for US Army’ plows all the way to the next army training camp to get himself enlisted. His race is depicted marvelously: we don’t see the horse himself, but we watch several images of the countryside wrecked by his plow, accompanied by a frantic rendering of Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell overture.

Besides an example of Jones’s new style, ‘The Draft Horse’ was also the first Warner Bros. cartoon penned by Tedd Pierce, after his return from his move to the Max Fleischer studios. Highlight of the cartoon is the horse acting out a complete war scene for the eyes of a bewildered colonel. This scene, animated by Ken Harris, can match the much praised scene from ‘Brave Little Tailor’ (1938, animated by Frank Thomas), in which Mickey Mouse tells his story of how he beat seven [flies] in one blow. In this scene the horse looks like a forerunner of Charlie Dog, who does an equally hilarious performance in ‘Often an Orphan‘ (1949).

Unfortunately, the rest of the cartoon doesn’t live up to the high standards set here. Tedd Pierce’s story is too loosely jointed to engage the viewer, falling back on spot gags. Soon the horse ends in a war exercise, and he flees home with equal speed. In the end we watch him knitting V-sweaters as part of the ‘Bundles for Blue Jackets’ program, in which local ladies knitted sweaters for navy men.

‘The Draft Horse’ mocks the over-zealous response after the United States had entered World War II. At the same time, it shows that every citizen can do his part, even when he is not in the army itself. The horse is designed interestingly, remaining halfway anthropomorphization. For example, he retains his hoofs, and remains on all fours half of the time.

Watch ‘The Draft Horse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Draft Horse’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: October 25, 1941
Rating:
Review:

rookie revue © warner bros.

Like Bob Clampett’s earlier ‘Meet John Doughboy‘ Friz Freleng’s ‘Rookie Revue’ is a spot gag cartoon on the army, which grew by the minute due to the draft that had been installed since October 1940.

Note that both cartoons predate the attack on Pearl Harbor, showing that the US armed forces were growing even before the United States were being attacked. The premise of ‘Rookie Revue’ is that we “join the army for a day and get a glimpse of military life”. None of the spot gags are remotely funny, however, making ‘Rookie Revue’ very, very tiresome, and only interesting as a period piece. Nevertheless, animation lovers will appreciate the caricatures of Tex Avery, Henry Binder and Ray Katz in the mess.

Watch ‘Rookie Revue’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Rookie Revue’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: July 5, 1941
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★½
Review:

meet john doughboy © warner bros.On September 26 1940 the Selective Training and Service Act came into effect. This was the first peace time conscription in the history of the United States.

By 1941 the draft was in full effect, as is reflected by cartoons like ‘Hysterical Highspots in American History‘, ‘Meet John Doughboy’, ‘Rookie Revue’ and ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B‘. Of the real draftee cartoons ‘Meet John Doughboy’ is probably the first. The short stars Porky Pig, who can boast to be the first major cartoon star to join the army. In November Porky was followed by Barney Bear (‘The Rookie Bear’) and Popeye (‘The Mighty Navy’), while other stars only joined the war effort after the attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.

Unfortunately, ‘Meet John Doughboy’ is not about Porky’s tribulations as a draftee. Instead Porky introduces a movie newsreel “chock full of military secrets, so if there are any Fifth Columnists in the audience, please leave the theater right now.”. This is immediately the best gag of the short, which is a rather trite spot gag cartoon.

‘Meet John Doughboy’ is mostly of historical interest. The film features some stark images of weaponry, in beautiful black and white contrasts. The cartoon even depicts a possible invasion by air, luckily easily dispelled by the Statue of Liberty with some use of inspect spray. Otherwise, it remains a rather uninteresting spot gag cartoon. Three months later, Friz Freleng made a color cartoon covering similar grounds in the even less funnier ‘Rookie Revue‘.

Watch ‘Meet John Doughboy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 88
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Prize Pony
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: We, the Animals, Squeak

‘Meet John Doughboy’ is available on the DVD-sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: January 18, 1941
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Fighting 69 1-2th © Warner Bros.‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ opens with peaceful scenes of a picnic in a forest. Soon a red ant and a black ant argue about an olive. When the red ant smothers the black ant with it, he exclaims, Groucho Marx style: ‘Of course you know this means war!’.

Soon the picnic cloth is encircled by trenches, with several ants trying to obtain the food on it, until a lady comes to clear it all away. When only a cake is left behind, the generals try to make peace, which is thwarted by a discussion on how to cut the cake.

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is a rather somber war film, in the tradition of e.g. ‘Bosko the Doughboy’ (1931), ‘There’s Something about a Soldier’ (1934), ‘What Price Porky’ (1938), and ‘Ants in the Plants‘ (1940) and arguably the last to show war as it looked like in World War I. Eleven months later war would come to the US itself, changing the looks of war cartoons forever.

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is not really funny, but it boasts beautiful oil backgrounds, Silly Symphony-like production values like careful shading, and Freleng’s trademark musical timing. There’s even a ‘hold the onions’ gag, when several ants build a hamburger.

Watch ‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Fighting 69 1/2th’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 5, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Chef Donald © Walt Disney‘Chef Donald’ opens with Donald gluing some recipes in a book.

This sets the stage for the single premise in this cartoon: when following a recipe for waffles on the radio Donald accidentally puts in some rubber cement (glue) into his mix instead of baking powder. This leads to remarkably stubborn dough, and the rest of the cartoon is filled with Donald trying to deal with it.

‘Chef Donald’ is full of surprising gags, like an iron ironing Donald’s chef hat by accident, and a large crack splitting his complete house. The most bizarre gag is when the dough takes the air like a helicopter. The animation on Donald himself is wonderful and absolutely inspired, but because the short milks the glue-gag until the end the end result is less than satisfying.

Watch ‘Chef Donald’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 29
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Village Smithy

‘Chef Donald’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: October 24, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Donald's Camera © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Camera’ opens with Donald reading a sign saying ‘Shoot nature with a camera instead of a gun’.

Donald immediately becomes anti-hunting, eschewing the sight of a gun and deploring the fate of some stuffed animals in a hunting shop’s window. In the next scene Donald is on his way in the forest, trying to photograph some wild animals. He fails to take a picture of a chipmunk, and is laughed at by a whole bunch of cute animals, who seem to have entered the cartoon straight from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937).

After three-and-a-half minutes Donald meets the main adversary of the cartoon, the obnoxious woodpecker from ‘Self Control‘ (1938). The angry bird doesn’t want to get photographed and gives Donald a hard time. Thus in the end, we watch Donald wandering the forest, carrying two guns and dragging a miniature canon with him in search of the pesky little bird.

‘Donald’s Camera’ is a genuine gag cartoon, and contains some very fast animation, but the short is hampered by Lundy’s gentle approach to directing. The silliest gag is when Donald puts the woodpecker into two ridiculous poses.

Watch ‘Donald’s Camera’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 28
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Old MacDonald Duck
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Chef Donald

‘Donald’s Camera’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 12, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Old MacDonald Duck © Walt Disney‘Old MacDonald Duck’ was the cartoon announced three months earlier in ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘. As Donald Duck explains himself in that feature in this cartoon he’s a farmer.

The short opens with a musical routine on ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ (naturally). This almost Silly Symphony-like sequence lasts ninety seconds. Then the main body of the cartoon starts, in which Donald milks his cow Clementine, hindered by a fly. This leads to a battle between Donald and the fly, with Donald using milk squeezed from Clementine’s udders to bomb the little insect, in a rather early war analogy (predating the attack on Pearl Harbor by two months). Of course, it’s the fly who has the last laugh.

Clementine, whose theme music is, of course, ‘Oh My Darling’, is wonderfully animated. The fly is the second of a line of insects Donald had to deal with, after the bee in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The battle between duck and fly is well done, but never becomes hilarious. There’s a little too much emphasis on the fly being a small, innocent creature unnecessarily bullied by Donald. Apparently to give the otherwise obnoxious animal some sympathy, something that’s typical for all the Donald vs. insect cartoons. I guess, however, that the humor would have worked better, if the audience’s sympathy had remained with Donald himself, with the fly playing the same role as the inanimate objects did in contemporary, much better cartoons like ‘Donald’s Vacation‘ (1940) or ‘Early to Bed‘ (1941).

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 27
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Truant Officer Donald
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera

‘Old MacDonald Duck’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

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