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: August 2, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Swee’Pea
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Doing Impossikible Stunts © Max Fleischer‘Doing impossikible Stunts’ is a cheater, a.k.a. a compilation cartoon. Yet within this genre, this short is a nicely told one.

In this cartoon Popeye heads for ‘Mystery Pictures, Inc.’ , to apply as a stunt man. He has brought with him some footage of his stunt work. Little Swee’Pea follows him, and at one time swaps Popeye’s footage for his own, gaining the job.

Popeye’s films are excerpts from ‘I never Changes My Altitude’ (1937), ‘I Wanna be a Lifeguard’ (1936) and ‘Bridge Ahoy’ (1936), and Swee’Pea’s is from ‘Lost and Foundry’ (1937).

The film company’s slogan, ‘If it’s a good picture, it’s a mystery’ echoes a similar gag involving Wonder pictures, in ‘Daffy Duck in Hollywood‘ (1938).

Watch ‘Doing impossikible Stunts’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Doing impossikible Stunts’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 12, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Bluto
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Fightin Pals © Max Fleischer‘Fightin Pals’ is a cartoon devoted to the love-hate relationship between Popeye and Bluto. 

The short opens with Dr. Bluto boarding a ship for an African Expedition. Popeye and Bluto show their own tough way of saying goodbye, but as soon as Bluto has left, Popeye starts pining for his rival. Thus, when he hears on the radio Bluto has been lost, he himself sails straight into dark Africa to look for his lost pal. Soon, Popeye is in a bad state himself, and when he finally discovers Bluto, who is pampered by some beautiful natives, it’s Bluto who has to revive him by giving the poor sailor spinach. As soon as Popeye is on his feet, the two immediately resume their happy quarrel again.

‘Fightin Pals’ is a beautiful cartoon on friendship. Jack Mercer’s mumbling is particularly inspired in this cartoon. The short also shows a brief World War II reference: when Popeye sails passes Europe he encounters some violent fighting there.

After ‘Fightin Pals’ it looks as if Bluto stayed in Africa, for he was not seen in any Popeye cartoon for almost two years. He returned to the screen in ‘Olive Oyl and Water Don’t Mix’ (1942), this time to stay.

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

‘Fightin Pals’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: June 20, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Bluto, Olive Oyl, Little Swee’Pea
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Nurse-Mates © Max Fleischer‘Nurse-Mates’ opens with Bluto and Popeye both visiting Olive to invite her to the movies.

Olive agrees, but first has to go to the beauty parlor, leaving the two rivals to take care of little Swee’Pea. This leads to several gags showing the two men’s original ways to bathe, feed, and dress the baby, while competing each other.

In this cartoon Bluto is no villain, only Popeye’s rival, and he gets ample screen time to show his parental instincts. Moreover, there’s no spinach involved, and Bluto’s and Popeye’s rivalry is almost playful, when compared to other entries. This more harmonious relationship between the two would be explored further in the next Popeye cartoon, ‘Fightin’ Pals’.

Watch ‘Nurse-Mates’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Nurse-Mates’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: June 22, 1940
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

The Milky Way © MGM1940 is arguably a turning year in the history of animation. This year marked the end of Disney’s domination, as the studio’s innovative Silly Symphonies series had stopped, while Disney’s ambitious, but expensive feature productions ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost the studio dear money. These features plunged Disney brothers into huge debts, and forced them to go to the stock markets.

As to emphasize Disney’s loss, 1940 was also the first year in which a non-Disney cartoon won an Academy Award. In fact, in this year not a single Disney cartoon was even nominated. Moreover, among the nominations were two shorts that marked the strong debuts of characters that heralded a new era: Tom & Jerry in ‘Puss and Boots’ and Bugs Bunny in ‘A Wild Hare‘. These characters would dominate the 1940s, over Disney’s Mickey, Donald, Pluto and Goofy.

Yet, it was MGM’s ‘The Milky Way’, which won the Academy Award. To be frank, ‘The Milky Way’ is still firmly rooted in Disney-like 1930’s animation: it’s a Silly Symphony but in name, it features a saccharine song, and it borrows heavily from Disney’s ‘Wynken, Blynken, and Nod‘ (1939). Both cartoons feature three babies exploring the night sky. Such copycat behavior was all too typical for the Harman & Ising studio.

In ‘The Milky Way’ the main protagonists are the three kittens from the nursery rhyme. As they’ve lost their mittens, they aren’t denied pie, but a meal of milk, and sent off to bed without supper. With the help of balloons, the trio sails to the Milky Way, which turns out to be a Cockaigne of milk, with e.g. milk geysers and milk gas stations. However, the geyser milk gives one of the kittens a tremor belly, and soon the trio fall down back to earth.

‘The Milky Way’ is cute, lush and excels in high production values, even though it can’t compete with the stunning ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’. The short is also sugary and rather boring. The best part is the depiction of the fantasy world of the Milky Way. But the attention easily goes to the beautiful background art and to Scott Bradley’s excellent score. The designs of the kittens look forward to those of kittens in the Tom & Jerry series.

Watch ‘The Milky Way’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Milky Way’ is available on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners’

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: March 28, 1941
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat © Walter Lantz‘Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat’ opens with scenes from ‘Lazy Town’, a place in the South full of lazy negroes, whose depiction is the epitome of racist stereotyping: everyone is asleep, doing things ridiculously slowly or with a minimum of effort. Oh! Those lazy Southern blacks!

Then a steamer stops, and a sexy, light-skinned woman steps out, immediately reviving the male population. She starts the title song, and all the villagers join in.

‘Scrub Me Mama With a Boogie Beat’ is rather tiresome to watch. The boogie-woogie song itself never really comes off, and is less swinging as it could be. But more importantly, the images accompanying the song are hardly funny, as most of the ‘humor’ comes from those ha-ha silly blacks doing things on the musical beat. As none of these gags work today, the short becomes surprisingly empty.

In fact, together with the Van Beuren cartoon ‘Plane Dumb‘ (1932) ‘Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat’ is a likely candidate of being the most offensive racist cartoon around. Only the singing girl is given some dignity, but her race remains unclear, and she could as well be white.

Some of the animation on this girl was reused on the Andrews Sisters in the equally racist, yet less offensive, and much more entertaining ‘The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B‘ from six months later.

‘Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat’ was one of the first cartoons to evoke serious issues because of its racism, as upon its re-release in 1948, it was heavily criticized by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). With help from the more powerful Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), the NAACP managed to make Universal withdraw the cartoon in February 1949. After this incident black stereotypes virtually vanished from the animated screen, except for the occasional cannibal here and there.

Watch ‘Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Scrub Me Mama with a Boogie Beat’ is available on the DVD ‘Lantz Studio Treasures Starring Oswald’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: August 28, 1939
Stars: Lil’ Eightball
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Silly Superstition © Walter Lantz‘Silly Superstition’ is the second of three cartoon starring Lil’ Eightball, a heavy caricatured black boy with a deep southern voice (by Mel Blanc).

In ‘Silly Superstition’ Lil’ Eightball’s mama warns him that it’s Friday the 13th, and that he shouldn’t walk under a ladder or let a black cat cross his path. Lil’ Eightball dismisses these warnings as superstition, doing deliberately these things. The ladder walk rather unlikely makes a complete building collapse, while the black cat immediately introduces an escaped lion. Luckily, Lil’ Eightball’s puppy dog saves the day, chasing the lion back to the zoo.

‘Silly Superstition’ is pretty hard to watch today. The animation in this short is very uneven, being sometimes strikingly modern, yet at other times disappointingly old-fashioned. But more importantly, Lil’ Eightball is too severe a stereotype to enjoy. The boy looks particularly goofy in this cartoon, having a balloon head, a ridiculously small body and over-sized, rather clownish shoes, emphasizing his stupidity. Most of the ‘humor’ of the cartoon stems from the fact that despite his uneducated background, Lil’ Eightball manages to use big words.

As Christopher P. Lehman notices in ‘The Colored Cartoon’ it’s a sad fact that Lil’ Eightbal starts atypically self-assured and brave, but ends up as a stereotypical fearful negro boy. This ‘morale’ is dubious to say the least. Luckily, contemporary reviewers weren’t impressed either, and Lil’ Eightball vanished from the screen after only three cartoons.

Watch a colorized version of ‘Silly Superstition’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Silly Superstition’ is available on the DVD ‘Lantz Studio Treasures Starring Oswald’

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: July 27, 1940
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

A Wild Hare © Warner Bros.‘A Wild Hare’ marks the birth of one of the biggest cartoon stars of all time, Bugs Bunny.

The short had been preceded by four other Warner Bros. cartoons about hunting and rabbits, ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt‘ (1938), ‘Prest-O Chang-O‘ (1939). ‘Hare-Um Scare-Um‘ (1939) and ‘Elmer’s Candid Camera‘ (1940), which all contributed to the formation of the character.

Yet, it’s the character, design and voice the rabbit got in ‘A Wild Hare’ that made the rodent into the Bugs Bunny we all know now, even though he still looks a little different. Nevertheless, the difference between Tex Avery’s Bugs and his predecessors is less marked than sometimes advertised: Jones’s rabbit in ‘Elmer’s Candid Camera’ already was a calm character, and both the rabbits in ‘Porky’s Hare Hunt’ and in ‘Elmer’s Candid Camera’ had performed fake death scenes. Moreover, even in the first half of ‘A Wild Hare’ the rabbit still seems a bit loony, like his predecessors.

Still, the rabbit has become a lot cooler: in his first appearance (which surprisingly only occurs after two and a half minutes!) he calmly addresses his hunter with the first occurrence of that famous line ‘What’s up, doc?‘. And in the second half he kisses Elmer Fudd a few times (another Bugs Bunny trademark) and deliberately invites Elmer to shoot him, only to act out a superb death scene, animated to perfection by Robert McKimson.

Likewise, Elmer Fudd gets his definite design in this cartoon, and it’s here he utters his trademark opening words ‘Be vewy vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits‘ for the first time. He still has the red nose he had inherited from his predecessor Egghead, but that would soon go, too.

Priceless is the ‘guess who’ scene, in which Elmer guesses several beautiful Hollywood actresses as likely candidates (“Hedy Lamarr? Carole Lombard? Rosemary Lane? Olivia de Havilland?“), before deciding upon ‘that screwy rabbit’. The complete cartoon forms the template for many Bugs Bunny cartoons to come, up to such a late short like ‘What’s Opera, Doc?‘ (1957).

The cartoon itself at least was a success, and nominated for an Academy Award (which it lost to MGM’s ‘The Milky Way‘), and it prompted other cartoon directors to use the character, too. Five months later, Chuck Jones was the first, with ‘Elmer’s Pet Rabbit’. Thus this rabbit had to get a name. And in an era in which virtually all cartoon stars had alliterated names, he was christened Bugs Bunny. In fact, this name that already appeared on a model sheet for ‘Hare-Um Scare-um’ as ‘Bugs’ Bunny’, after director Bugs Hardaway, who had directed that particular cartoon. ‘Elmer’s Pet Rabbit’ has a separate title card to introduce this rabbit and his red-hot name.

With ‘A Wild Hare’ the Leon Schlesinger studio turned a new page. Together with MGM’s ‘Puss Gets The Boot’, Tom & Jerry’s debut film, which had been released five months earlier, the short somehow heralds the wilder and more mature days of the 1940s. And although Elmer and Bugs don’t chase each other in ‘A Wild Hare’, the cartoon helped to shape the format of the chase cartoon, with the comedy played out well with just the two characters, in a clear antagonistic relationship. Now the fun could really begin…

Watch ‘A Wild Hare’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 1
To the last proto-Bugs Bunny cartoon: Elmer’s Candid Camera
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Elmer’s Pet Rabbit

‘A Wild Hare’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’ and on the DVD ‘Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Academy Award-Nominated Animation: Cinema Favorites’

Director: Riley Thomson
Release Date: July 19, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Pluto
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Put-Put Troubles © Walt DisneyIn 1940, the Donald Duck series really hit the stride, becoming a series of pure gag cartoons, with few real failures until the end.

By now, Donald had shed his childish feathers, and had become more or less a representative of the American average citizen, coping with familiar troubles, like in this case, a failing outboard motor.

In ‘Put-Put Troubles’ Donald and Pluto go for a boat trip on a lake. Pluto encounters a frog and gets stuck in a spring, while Donald has troubles with starting the outboard motor. The motor itself is excellently animated, behaving rather outrageously, and at one time even functioning as a can opener, destroying Donald’s boat within seconds.

This is arguably the first cartoon in which Donald has to battle with a well-known inanimate object. Donald was at its best when having to deal with common household objects, and this cartoon is a prime example. True, Donald had to deal with inanimate objects before, e.g. strange machines in ‘Modern Inventions‘ (1937) and a giant spring in ‘Clock Cleaners’ (1938), but these were hardly familiar things to the average viewer, while Donald’s struggle with the outboard motor is recognizable to many, adding to its comedy. Even better examples were to come (e.g. the folding chair from ‘Donald’s Vacation’ (1940), the folding bed from ‘Early to Bed’ (1941) and the leaking tap in ‘Drip Dippy Donald’ from 1948).

In contrast, Pluto’s antics with the spring are less inspired, and the cartoon’s exciting finale comes all too suddenly to an end.

‘Put-Put Troubles’ was the first Disney short directed by the unsung hero Riley Thomson, who would only direct seven shorts between 1940 and 1942, all of them hilarious. Thomson had started animating for Warner Bros. in 1935, but already in 1936 he exchanged Warner Bros. for Walt Disney. After his direction career, Thomson became a story man for the Goofy series, then moved on to comics. He spent the final days of his career at Walter Lantz, as a layout artist for the Woody Woodpecker show.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 18
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Mr. Duck Steps Out
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Vacation

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: June 7, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

Mr. Duck Steps Out © Walt Disney‘Mr. Duck Steps Out’ opens with Donald Duck preparing to visit his love interest, Daisy Duck.

To Donald’s dismay, his nephews want to go too, and the kid trio seriously hampers his courting efforts. Even sending them off to get some ice cream doesn’t help. Nevertheless, when Huey, Dewey and Louie make Donald swallow a popping corn, Donald’s dance moves become so hot, he quickly wins Daisy over. Thus, in the end, the exhausted duck is smothered in kisses.

‘Mr. Duck Steps Out’ is a clear cartoon of the swing era, and we watch all ducks trucking and doing the lindy hop to the swinging music. The Disney composers weren’t capable of making real jazz, however, and the music remains rather tame when compared to the big bands of the era. It’s a pity, because the animation on Donald and Daisy dancing, and on the nephews are playing the music is marvelous, and certainly hotter than the music accompanying it.

‘Mr. Duck Steps Out’ is noteworthy for marking the debut of Donald’s long lasting girlfriend, Daisy Duck, Donald’s second love interest after Donna Duck had disappeared into the distance on her unicycle in ‘Don Donald‘ (1937). On the screen, Daisy remained a minor character, only appearing in ten more Donald Duck cartoons. However, she would become a regular in Al Taliaferro’s daily strip, making her debut on 4 November 1940, first as Donald’s new neighbor. Later, Carl Barks, too, made regular use of this character. In both comic strips Daisy’s appearance remained largely the same as in this cartoon.

Watch ‘Mr. Duck Steps Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 17
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Dog Laundry
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Put-Put Troubles

‘Mr. Duck Steps Out’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: May 17, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Billposters © Walt Disney‘Billposters’ is the third of six cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Goofy, and arguably the best in the series.

In this short Donald and Goofy are fanatical billposters, literally smothering the countryside with advertisements for canned soup. In the introduction we watch them reaching a barn, while whistling and humming ‘Whistle While You Work’ from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937).

What follows are only two routines: Goofy’s problems with a windmill, and Donald’s problems with a hungry billy goat. These separate routines are a continuation of the trio cartoon formula, now only minus Mickey. The string of gags is impressive, as one gag flows naturally into another, building to the strong finale, in which the two separate story lines combine. Especially Goofy’s antics belong to the best in his career. Nevertheless, Geronimi’s all too relaxed timing hampers the picture, and make the gags less funny than they could have been, making ‘Billposters’ fall short of becoming a real classic.

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

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: April 5, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Pluto
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Donald's Dog Laundry © Walt DisneyIn ‘Donald’s Dog Laundry’ Donald Duck has built a rather Rube Goldberg-like dog washing machine.

Donald decides that the unwilling Pluto is to be his first customer in bath, and tries to get him in bath, first with the use of a whistling rubber bone, and then with an all too lifelike cat hand-puppet. Of course, it’s the duck himself who takes the plunge, yet the cartoon ends with Donald cheering because his apparatus works.

‘Donald’s Dog Laundry’ is full of the mild and long character animation routines so typical of the Mickey Mouse cartoons of the second half of the 1930s. Where in later Warner Bros. or MGM cartoons the rubber bone and hand-puppet would have been only two of several attempts, in this short the two devices are milked at length. Especially, Pluto, probably animated by Norm Ferguson, gets ample screen-time, to a rather tiring effect.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 16
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: The Riveter
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Mr. Duck Steps Out

‘Donald’s Dog Laundry’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: March 15, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Pete
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

The Riveter © Walt Disney‘The Riveter’ starts with Pete firing a pig from the building site and setting up a sign with ‘Riveter wanted’.

At that point Donald Duck walks by, and he immediately volunteers. Unfortunately, he is hardly suited for the job, having to work on the top of a tall skyscraper, and he’s soon a nervous wreck, only bothering Pete.

Pete had been introduced as Donald Duck’s adversary in ‘Officer Duck‘ from 1939, but he was still a criminal then. In ‘The Riveter’ Pete was cast as an authority figure, able to command Donald, a trend which had already started as far back as ‘Moving Day‘ (1936), in which Pete played the sheriff. The two characters suited each other well, and Pete’s authority was maintained in all subsequent Donald Duck-Pete-cartoons, save the last one, ‘Trombone Trouble’ from 1944.

In the Donald Duck series Pete appeared to be a softer, more ‘human’ character than in the former Mickey Mouse films. Even though he was Donald’s bully, he hardly was the villain he used to be. For example. in ‘The Riveter’ he gives Donald a job, even if he has clear doubts about Donald’s abilities. Moreover, it takes some time before Pete loses his temper, and at that time one can hardly blame him. Unfortunately, Pete was more or less sacked after’Trombone Trouble’, and he only had a short come-back in two shorts in 1953.

‘The Riveter’ is an inspired cartoon, with wonderful and inventive gags, with as a highlight Donald Duck drilling a dopey painter from tall to flat, without the character even blinking. Donald also revives Goofy’s dizzy walk from ‘Clock Cleaners’ (1937), and his ride up the elevator is a wonderful exaggeration of Mickey’s similar ride in ‘Building a Building‘ (1933), stretching Donald’s body to the max. The short ends with a long chase scene, typical of the new era, which ends with Donald covering Pete with quick-drying plaster, turning the hapless foreman into a Greek fountain.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 15
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Officer Duck
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Dog Laundry

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

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: June 7, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye and Peep-eye
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Wimmen is a Myskery © Max Fleischer‘Wimmen is a Myskery’ opens with Popeye proposing to Olive.

Olive tells our favorite sailor that she’ll answer him next morning. That night Olive dreams of her married life. Popeye is nowhere to be seen, but she sure has a hard time with their childeren: Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye and Peep-eye, who after taking spinach give her a good spanking.

‘Wimmen is a Myskery’ is one of those cartoons in which cartoon characters dream of marriage, with unfavorable results. In this respect, Olive follows Mickey Mouse in ‘Mickey’s Nightmare‘ (1932), and Porky Pig in ‘Porky’s Romance‘ (1937). Like Mickey Olive’s main fear is numerous disobedient children, and indeed, Popeye’s offspring have none of his gentle character. No wonder Olive turns Popeye down in the morning….

Nevertheless, Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye and Peep-eye would materialize in the real world as Popeye’s nephews in ‘Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye an’ Peep-eye’ (1942), just like the little mice from ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ had done in ‘Giantland‘ (1933). Obviously, Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye and Peep-eye have more in common with Donald’s nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, introduced in ‘Donald’s Nephews‘ (1938), and no doubt are inspired by them.

Watch ‘Wimmen is a Myskery’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Wimmen is a Myskery’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 12, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

Me Feelins Is Hurt © Max FleischerThis short opens with Popeye reading a letter in which Olive tells him she leaves him for real men in the West.

Undaunted, Popeye sails right into the prairie town, where he challenges the ‘real man’, cowboy Bluto. Bluto makes Popeye taming a wild mustang, in a delightful sequence.

When Popeye succeeds, however, he soon gets strangled by a rattlesnake. Time for spinach! Popeye clobbers the snake into purses, hand bags and a rattle, and soon knocks Bluto and all of his men unconscious, restoring Olive’s love for him.

‘Me Feelins Is Hurt’ is a nice, if rather average Popeye cartoon. Popeye’s sailing to the prairie town, a rather Tex Averyan sequence, is the highlight of the cartoon.

Watch ‘Me Feelins Is Hurt’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Me Feelins Is Hurt’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

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.

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