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Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date: December 9, 1932
Stars: Tom and Jerry
In this short Jerry has a magic pencil with which he can draw things in mid-air, which immediately come to life. This leads to some surreal gags with a lot of metamorphosis being involved. It’s for example fascinating to watch a saxophone change into a duck.
Unfortunately, as soon as Jerry has drawn three melodrama figures, the short turns to their antics. Nevertheless, the finale is mesmerizing: a complete train disappears into nothing, and Jerry breaks through the paper to make the heroin return to his pencil before Tom can kiss her. Gags like these, breaking the 4th wall, were extremely rare in 1932, making ‘Pencil Mania’ pretty unique. At any rate it’s very enjoyable to watch, even though the train is the only well-drawn thing in the entire short. One can only guess what more able hands could have made out of a story idea like this.
Eight years later Terrytoons would use the same idea in the Gandy Goose cartoon ‘The Magic Pencil’ (1940). No doubt the Terry animators had seen ‘Pencil Mania’, because not only do the two cartoon share a melodrama sequence, the magic also starts with the same gag: that of the Jerry/Gandy Goose drawing an egg, which falls on Tom’s/Sourpuss’s head. Moreover, both Jerry and Gandy Goose turn a door into a car, and like Jerry, Gandy makes the heroin flow back into his pencil.
‘Pencil Mania’ features three songs: Rudy Wiedoeft’s Saxophobia (1919), the 1923 hit ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’, and ‘You’ve Got Me in the Palm of Your Hand’.
Watch ‘Pencil Mania’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Pencil Mania’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’
Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date: January 13, 1933
‘Silvery Moon’ starts with the song ‘Moonlight bay’ and the two young cats from ‘The Wild Goose Chase‘ (1932) in a canoe on a moonlit lake. Suddenly, the moon invites them over, producing a giant staircase. Once the two have arrived on the moon, a fairy opens a gate, revealing a dreamlike candy land.
The dreamlike atmosphere is enhanced by scenes that change while the two kittens stay in place. In Candyland the two frolic around, and eat all what’s around until they’re sick. Then they’re hunted by a bottle of castor oil and a spoon, until they fall off the moon, next to their own canoe.
‘Silvery Moon’ was one of the last Aesop’s Fables, and one of the best. Sure, the designs and animation are still poor (some of the animation is reused from ‘Toy Time‘), and the film’s subject may be a little childish, it’s a surprisingly inspired cartoon, showing wonderful events with a natural charm. It’s a pity that ‘Silvery Moon’ is in black-and-white, for its dreamlike atmosphere would make perfect subject for color, which in 1933 still was brand new, anyhow (Disney’s first technicolor cartoon, ‘Flowers and Trees‘ had only been released half a year earlier).
Indeed, the cartoon’s content and atmosphere look forward to several color cartoons of the Hayes code era, most notably the Fleischer cartoon ‘Somewhere in Dreamland‘ (1936), which also features two children visiting a candy world. This makes ‘Silvery Moon’ probably the most forward-looking cartoon the Van Beuren studio ever produced, and it certainly has aged much better than most of the cartoons the studio produced in the early 1930’s.
Watch ‘Silvery Moon’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Silvery Moon’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 5, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Despite being released after six cartoons featuring Bimbo in his final design, ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ features Bimbo with his old, less memorable look. Bimbo plays the part of Jack. He is prompted to plant some magic beans, after a giant in the sky has dropped a cigar on him. The beans soon sprout into a giant beanstalk, which takes Bimbo to the clouds. There he discovers Betty Boop, who’s the giant’s prisoner, making pea soup for him. Bimbo ties the giant and flees with Betty on the magic hen, which changes into a car when hitting the road. But an obnoxious mouse releases the giant who follows them using cars as roller-skates.
‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is a very enjoyable, but weird and highly surreal version of the classic tale. It was the last Talkartoon to feature Betty Boop with dog ears. In all her subsequent films she would be fully human.
The short features ‘Sweepin’ The Clouds Away’ as its theme song, which had been a huge hit for Maurice Chevalier in 1930. Two years later Disney would visit similar grounds in ‘Giantland‘, which is, as you may expect, way less surreal, but much better animated.
Watch ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Directors: John Foster & Harry Bailey
Release Date: March 5, 1932
‘Fly Frolic’ quite shamelessly puts its inspiration from films like Fleischer’s ‘Wise Flies‘ (1930) and Disney’s ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ (1931), visiting exactly the same theme of the spider and the fly.
In Van Beuren’s version, two flies go to the ‘Coffee Pot Cabaret’ for a night out. At one point an old spider enters, scaring the flies to death. He goes into a Cab Calloway routine, singing the bandleader’s 1931 hit ‘Kickin’ The Gong Around’, Calloway’s second song about Minnie the Moocher. Interestingly, this film was released a week before Cab Calloway himself appeared in an animation film in Fleischer’s ‘Minnie the Moocher‘.
After some scatting the spider kidnaps the female fly and takes her to his secret laboratory. At this point the film suddenly changes into a parody of the 1931 horror film ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’, with the spider changing into a handsome dandy. This doesn’t fool anyone, however, and the hero fly beats him, joined by his fellow flies.
‘Fly Frolic’ is a quite consistent film with a lot of melodrama. The designs are pretty primitive, however, and the spider changes completely from the nightclub scene to the laboratory scene, even before drinking his potion!
Watch ‘Fly Frolic’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Fly Frolic’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: October 31, 1931
Stars: Piggy, Fluffy
With Foxy gone, Harman and Ising conceived a new star, Piggy, who, like Foxy is exactly Mickey Mouse (including the trousers), but now in Pig form. As with his predecessor, the plagiarism is most visible in Piggy’s girlfriend Fluffy, who is as Minnie as Piggy is Mickey.
Piggy was even more short-lived than Foxy, lasting only two cartoons, of which this is the first. In it we watch Piggy and Fluffy visiting a theater. At a certain point Piggy hits the stage to perform ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold’, a 1873 hit song that by 1931 had become synonymous with old-fashionedness. No wonder he’s booed away. At that point three drunkards burst into the title song. Piggy gets drunk, too, and leaves the theater and his girlfriend.
Outside he provides his car with some booze, a story idea borrowed from ‘Traffic Troubles‘ (Mickey Mouse) and ‘The New Car’ (Flip the Frog) from earlier that year. Unlike the earlier two films, though, this leads to a wonderfully drunken scene, in which the whole background becomes wobbly. This is one of the most memorable scenes of all early Warner Bros. cartoons, making ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’a must-see, despite the rather mediocre scenes preceding it. Moreover, the cartoon features some particularly hot jazz music, provided by Gus Arnheim’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra.
Watch ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date: August 1, 1931
Stars: Tom and Jerry
The two transformed Waffles and Don into two new characters that became Van Beuren’s first real stars: Tom & Jerry (not to be confused with the later, much more famous cat and mouse duo). Unfortunately, Tom & Jerry are as bland as their models, sharing with the cat and dog their only character traits: in ‘Wot a Night’ Tom clearly has inherited Waffles’s fear, while Jerry remains calm. However, already after ‘Wot a Night’ these basic character traits evaporated. Yet, with their cheerful looks, the duo was more sympathetic than Waffles and Don ever were.
Tom & Jerry lasted until 1933, starring 27 cartoons, but ‘Wot a Night’ remains their finest film. It borrows a good dose of surrealism from the neighboring Max Fleischer studio, and it’s much better animated than any Van Beuren cartoon before the coming of Burt Gillett. Already in the opening scene there’s a lot of flexible animation when we watch a train coming in at a station. Moreover, there’s a great deal of rain and water effect animation not seen before at Van Beuren.
At the station Tom & Jerry are taxi drivers, picking up a couple of strange bearded men, whom they drop at a castle. Because the bearded men didn’t pay the ride, Tom & Jerry follow them inside the castle. Inside the two have a typical horror cartoon experience, similar to ‘The Haunted House‘ (Mickey Mouse, 1929) and ‘The Haunted Ship‘ (Waffles and Don, 1930). The story is not any more consistent than other Van Beuren cartoon, but there’s much to marvel at, like a cloud playing organ on the battlements of the castle, a skeleton taking a bath, while whistling, and another skeleton painting piano keys, on which it starts to play. There’s also a shot of four black skeletons singing a gospel song. The ending is extraordinary, when Tom and Jerry discover they’re nothing but skeletons under their clothes, themselves…
‘Wot a Night’ is a marvelous cartoon, one of the best of the surreal movement of the early 1930s. Unfortunately, only a few of Tom & Jerry’s lived up to the premise of their debut cartoon (‘Pencil Mania’ from 1932 arguably is the best contender). Their future cartoons were quaint at best, to downright poorly animated. It is as if ‘Wot a Night’ was given some extra effort that was not put into the subsequent cartoons.
Stallings stayed at Van Beuren until 1935, when he joined Walt Disney to work on the stories of the studio’s animated features. Rufle’s career is more unclear: he seemed to have left Van Beuren in 1933, but only pops up at Famous Studios in 1948. He animated until his death, working on several television series in the 1960’s and 1970’s. But what did he do between 1933 and 1948? I haven’t got a clue…
Watch ‘Wot A Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Wot A Night’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 16, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Koko, Bimbo
We watch her in a sexy performance on the slack-rope. During this performance we can see the circus-master growing with lust, and back in her dressing room he tries to harass her. Luckily, Koko saves here, so he “couldn’t take her boop-oop-a-doop away“.
This is the first short to co-star Koko and Betty. Koko had returned to the animated screen in ‘The Herring Murder Case’, and he’s clearly comfortable in the circus setting of this short. Interestingly, it’s Koko who is Betty’s lover in this cartoon, not Bimbo. Bimbo’s role is reduced to being a peanut seller in a running gag. Koko’s career in the sound era was short-lived, however, and was to end already two years later with ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!‘ (1934).
‘Boop-oop-a-doop’ is an entertaining short, full of catchy music. For example, on the slack-rope Betty sings ‘Do Something’, a song associated by the singer who inspired her character, Helen Kane, who had recorded it in 1929. The two versions are indeed surprisingly similar, and it is not hard to see why Kane, whose own career had been in a steady decline, sued the Fleischer company on May 4, 1932.
It may very well be that this cartoon alone triggered that event. It at least should have been quite some evidence for Fleischer’s piracy, but after a case of two years, judge McGoldrick saw it otherwise. It’s rather difficult to understand now how the Fleischers could have won. Not only does Betty Boop sound like Kane, her looks are also strikingly similar. Indeed, according to her animator and creator Gram Natwick she was modeled after Helen Kane when conceived for ‘Dizzy Dishes‘ (1930). However, Betty’s grotesque, and rather ugly appearance in her earliest cartoons must hardly have given that fact away. Moreover, in her following films both Betty’s voice and looks were both subject to change. Only by the time of ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ Betty really started to look like her source of inspiration…
Anyway, for a detailed account of the trial, see Trafalz’s excellent blog post on the subject.
Watch ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: December 16, 1930
With his double pipe, Pan makes all animals and plants, yes, even trees and clouds move and dance. The latter cause a fire with their lightning, but Pan lures the flames away to the lake, as if he were the pied piper.
Like ‘Springtime‘ (1929) ‘Playful Pan’ can be regarded as a forerunner of Disney’s groundbreaking cartoon ‘Flowers and Trees‘ (1932). The short is especially interesting for the introduction of the anthropomorphized flames, so typical of cartoons about fire. ‘Playful Pan’ is more entertaining than earlier Silly Symphonies, because half way the dance routine gives way to some kind of story, in which fire threatens the forest. This fire sequence is actually rather exciting. The fire itself is well animated, and the flames form a real threat: they do kill a humanized tree, and make all the animals flee.
The story formula of ‘Playful Pan’, in which the second half has some kind of story, was explored in many more Silly Symphonies from 1931 (e.g. ‘Birds of a Feather‘, ‘The China Plate‘. ‘The Busy Beavers‘). One had to wait until ‘The Ugly Duckling‘, from the end of that year, to watch a Silly Symphony to feature a concise story from start to end.
Watch ‘Playful Pan’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Playful Pan’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’
Release Date: May 28, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
‘Oh What A knight’ can be regarded as an early forerunner of the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Ye Olden Days‘ (1933).
Both shorts feature a medieval setting and both Oswald and Mickey are minstrels courting their love in a castle. However, where in ‘Ye Olden Days’ Goofy is the unlikely villain, Oswald’s opponent is Pete, who wears an anachronistic high hat.
Oswald serenades his sweetie Honey with an equally anachronistic accordeon. Soon, Oswald and Pete duel in grand adventure film-like manner, with Oswald kissing Honey between the fights. One scene in particular has beautifully animated shadows. In the final falling scene Honey loses her pants, and is shown naked. All characters are animated very flexibly: there’s a lot of stretching, falling apart etc.
‘Oh, What a Knight’ is a very entertaining entry in the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, and shows that Disney already went for high quality before the advent of Mickey.
Watch ‘Oh, What a Knight’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 20
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Hungry Hoboes
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sky Scrappers
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1988
Švankmajer’s films in the communist years preceding the velvet revolution of 1989 show a lighter tone than his earlier films. It’s like one can breath some of the thawing atmosphere in Czechoslovakia during the Perestroika years.
‘Virile games’ is a typical example. Although the film contains some very graphic violence, the film remains a rather cartoony atmosphere, and its end is rather tongue-in-cheek.
In ‘Virile Games’ we follow a mustached man watching a football match on the television. It’s a very weird soccer match, however: all players have the spectator’s face, and scoring happens by killing the opponents. These killings occur in the most bizar ways, all deforming the opponent’s head till the player drops dead. One opponent for example is killed with cake forms, another by toy train….
In the second half the football match moves to the spectator’s own home, and the killing continues with the man’s own kitchen tools. However, tied to his screen, the man keeps watching the television set, not noticing that the violence occurs just around him.
In this film Švankmajer blends live action, stop motion, rather Terry Gilliam-like cut-out animation and pixillation with the stunning self-assurance of a mature film maker. Especially the clay-animation is top-notch. Like Georges Schwizgebel’s ‘Hors-jeu‘ (1977) the film directly couples soccer to violence, a clear indication of the author’s worries about growing football hooliganism. Apart from that, the film shows the maker’s trademark ingredients, like his obsession with food.
Watch ‘Virile Games’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Virile Games’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’
Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: August 1988
After ‘Luxo Jr.‘ ‘Tin Toy’ is the most important of the early Pixar shorts.
Not only did it win an Academy Award, being the first computer animated film to do so, it was also the source of inspiration to the first computer animated feature length film, ‘Toy Story’ (1995). Like ‘Toy Story’ it explores the idea of toys being alive.
The short focuses on a little tin one man band toy, who encounters a monstrous baby, much to its dismay. The baby, indeed, looks terribly ugly. It’s an early attempt at the human form, and although it’s animated surprisingly well, it’s not really a success. Being a giant monster in the eyes of the toy, however, the ugly design does succeed. So, although ‘Tin Toy’ demonstrates it was maybe a little too early for the human form, its brave attempt showed the way for much more to come.
Apart from that, it’s a splendid little story, much more elaborate than Pixar’s earlier two films, and perfect in its execution. An excellent example is the scene in which the tin toy flees under the couch, only to discover numerous other toys hiding in fear. This scene is a masterstroke, as it perfectly explains how toys get hidden away far under couches and beds, like they somehow do in real life.
In the short time span the tin toy goes from emotions of hopeful anticipation to dismay and fear, turning into surprise, pity and finally proud stubborness. These emotions are completely convincing and prove that computer animation was perfectly able to tell a moving story. Now the company’s fulfilling of their dream of an animated feature would not be far away anymore.
Watch ‘Tin Toy’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: November 30, 1987
With ‘Red’s Dream’, made for computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, Pixar pushed the envelope once more, after its success with ‘Luxo jr.‘ the year before.
‘Red’s Dream’ is very impressive in its moody and rainy night time setting. But once again, it is able to tell an emotional story about a lonely and forgotten unicycle, which stands forgotten in the corner of a bike shop, where he dreams of performing in the circus.
The dream sequence, featuring a vaguely realistic clown, is the weakest part of the film. The clown is well animated, but looks terribly unreal and is a little scary in its ugliness. The unicycle Red, on the other hand, is a character one can identify with.
Unlike ‘Luxo Jr.’ from one year earlier, animator John Lasseter allows some unrealistic distortions on the unicycle in order to make its emotions work. However, he keeps those to a minimum, keeping Red a believable unicycle. The film’s power lies in the effect that in the last scene one is so involved with Red’s emotions, one tends to forget the stunning computer graphics that are at play to show us the shop at night.
Watch ‘Red’s Dream’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1983
After his not all too successful adaptation of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher‘ (1980), Czech film maker Jan Švankmajer returns to Edgar Allen Poe with ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’, with much better results.
In ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ Švankmajer tries to visualize Edgar Allen Poe’s most sensory and scariest story, ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. He succeeds masterfully, merging the viewer with the protagonist, and retaining the horror of the discoveries of the torture chamber.
The story is told very straightforward, in black and white, without dialogue, voice over or music, giving it a raw and uncanny sense of realism. Švankmajer rejects Poe’s deus ex machina, however, but takes the story to a better, if more depressing conclusion.
‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is essentially a live action movie, and contains little animation. However, in its disturbing take on Poe it is one of Švankmajer’s masterpieces, and definitely deserves to be better known.
Watch ‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: April 21, 1945
Stars: Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam
His introduction music is Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig, and train robbery is his profession. However, on the train he encounters Bugs, who gives the short-tempered bandit a hard time.
The cartoon contains a shot of an über-cool Bugs rolling a cigarette, a gag repeated and improved on in ‘Bugs Bunny Rides Again‘ (1948). The short also contains live action footage in the ‘club bar’ wagon. The gun drawing scene is a highlight, as is Yosemite Sam’s death scene, which bugs invokes with ketchup. The cartoon ends brilliantly with a tongue-in-cheek cliffhanger.
According to Freleng he needed a stronger adversary to Bugs than Elmer Fudd ever was, and Yosemite Sam perfectly fitted the job. He was a delightful opponent to Bugs Bunny, and he became Friz Freleng’s favorite bad guy, lasting until 1964, and starring 31 cartoons in total, nearly all with Bugs Bunny. Perhaps Freleng was so fond of the character because he was partly based on Freleng himself.
In any case, he soon took Sam out of his Western origin, making him a.o. a pirate (‘Buccaneer Bunny‘, 1948), a foreign soldier (‘Bunker Hill Bunny‘, 1950) and a sheik (‘Sahara Hare’, 1955). Free from his Western origins Yosemite Sam could be Bugs Bunny in every country and every period of time, and in this respect he anticipates the Little Guy, the Pink Panther’s adversary, who also sprouted from Friz Freleng’s imagination.
Watch ‘Hare Trigger’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 32
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Unruly Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Hare Conditioned
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: July 3, 1942
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl, Li’l Swee’Pea
Olive has brought li’l Swee’Pea with her. The baby wants to have a battleship en climbs aboard the cruiser. Popeye has a hard time catching him again.
The result is a cartoon of great comedy and excellent timing. The action includes a musical number in which Popeye is clobbered by a canon. Like in the previous Popeye cartoon, ‘Many Tanks’, Popeye’s design switches between old and new.
Watch ‘Baby wants a Bottleship’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Directors: Nathan Greno & Byron Howard
Release Date: November 24, 2010
Despite the modern techniques with which it has been made, ‘Entangled’ really looks back, even more than the hand-drawn ‘Princess and the Frog’ from one year earlier. First, it’s a musical in the vain of ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1989) and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ (1991), and indeed the songs are by same composer, Alan Menken. Second, it’s based on a classic fairy-tale (Rapunzel), placing it in a tradition looking all the way back to ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) and ‘Cinderella‘ (1950). And third, there’s even an animal sidekick, the chameleon Pascal, something we hadn’t seen since ‘Mulan’ (1998).
Like in all these films the main protagonist is a young female yearning for love. With Ariel from ‘The Little Mermaid’, Rapunzel is the most overtly adolescent of the lot. She displays many behaviors of teenagers: not only is she torn apart between loyalty to her ‘mother’ and the longing for freedom, she also displays the naive and intoxicating excitement typical of her age. It seems like ‘Tangled’ was clearly marketed for this age group.
However, the studio changed the film’s name from ‘Rapunzel’ to ‘Tangled’ to attract other people than teenage girls, and rightly so, for the film has more to offer. However, it’s not necessarily to be found in the male protagonist, Flynn Rider. Flynn is a somewhat cliche overconfident macho, who discovers his softer side, and he is more of interest to young girls than to young men, who may have difficulties relating to him. In fact, I dare say they will more relate to Rapunzel herself.
No, it’s found in a well-told story, in which both the evil witch and Rapunzel’s hair gain new dimensions. Apart from its magical power, it is amazing what Rapunzel can do with her hair. It clearly defines her as a strong, independent and creative character: not submissive and to be won, but active, and with a will of her own.
The story knows plenty of fun, action and romance, but also allows for some deep emotional moments. For example, there is a short scene in which we see Rapunzel’s grieving father, and his emotion is played so well, it breaks your heart. Alan Menken’s songs aren’t the greatest, and can sometimes be missed, but the ‘I have a dream’ sequence in the tavern is acted out with so much bravado, it’s a great fun to watch.
I doubt whether ‘Tangled’ will become a modern classic like e.g. Pixar’s ‘Wall-E’ (2008), ‘Up’ (2009) or Disney’s later ‘Frozen’ (2013), but it seriously showed that the Disney studio still was able to make good animated features, even computer animated ones. That alone was a relief after a series of seriously bad (‘Chicken Little’, 2005), forgettable (‘Meet the Robinsons’, 2007) and average (‘Bolt’, 2008) films.
Watch the trailer for ‘Tangled’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: January 22, 1951
Stars: Woody Woodpecker, Buzz Buzzard
Only when Lantz and Universal came to terms again in 1950 Lantz could restart again, with a strongly reduced staff. For example, there was no story department, so the first new cartoon in two years, ‘Puny Express’, was based on storyboards Bugs Hardaway and Heck Allen had left behind in 1948. Worse, Woody Woodpecker was left voiceless.
Lantz himself picked up directing, something he hadn’t done in nine years. The studio owner directed eleven cartoons before Don Patterson took over in 1952. All these cartoons feature Woody Woodpecker; Andy Panda was not revived. Woody himself was redesigned, his looks made simplier and more appealing. It’s this new cute design which remains the best known to viewers today.
Woody’s voicelessness turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In contrast to the dialogue-driven cartoons of rival studios the 1951/1952 Woody Woodpecker shorts feature excellent silent comedy and situation gags, competing with the best of the Pink Panther, who would enter the scene only in 1964.
‘Puny Express’ is a western in which Woody volunteers to deliver the mail, despite the fact that Buzz Buzzard has killed no less than 125 mailmen. What follows is a gag-rich wild chase, full of fast and flexible animation. The humor is overtly Tex Averyan: at one point Woody’s little horse gets a flat hoof, and the cartoon cites the empty road gag from Tex Avery’s own western ‘Wild and Woolfy‘ from 1945.
The cartoon’s only weakness is its music by Clarence Wheeler, which is surprisingly out of tune with the short’s zany character, evoking a mellower 1930s feel.
Watch ‘Puny Express’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: September 21, 1951
Stars: Pluto, Milton
The short couples Pluto to Milton, the zany cat who had been introduced in ‘Puss-Cafe‘ the previous year, only to star in three cartoons.
‘Cold Turkey’ opens with some live action footage on a television set featuring a wrestling match. Pluto and Milton sleep right through it, only to awake at an add for hot turkey. The pair first tries to get the turkey out of the television set, then try to find it in the kitchen. When they discover one in the fridge, the companionship turns into rivalry.
‘Cold Turkey’ is less funny than either ‘Puss-Cafe’ or ‘Plutopia‘, the other two cartoons featuring Milton, but it’s still an enjoyable short. The best part may be the pedal bin scene. It’s sad to see the Pluto series ending when its makers had finally made it into a funny one, with its last eleven cartoons being among the best of the entire series.
Watch ‘Cold Turkey’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Pluto’s 43rd and last cartoon
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Plutopia
Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: July 21, 1950
Stars: Pluto, Bent-Tail & Bent-Tail junior
In ‘Sheep Dog‘ (1949) they’d tried to steal sheep; this time the hungry duo is after the chickens. Pluto is only the straight man in a cartoon, which is devoted to the delightful interplay between father and son.
Although not as classic as ‘The Legend of Coyote Rock’, ‘Pests of the West’ is a funny cartoon. The short is packed with gags, some being quite Tex Averyan, like the son hanging in mid air until his father knocks him down. However, its highlight is the great scene in which Pluto and Bent-Tail fight for a chicken. The wonderful and jazzy soundtrack enhances all the fun. It was composed by Paul Smith, who had been an arranger for Disney since the late 1930s, and would become a noteworthy composer on the studio’s True-Life Adventures.
Watch ‘Pests of the West’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: August 27, 1948
Stars: Woody Woodpecker, Buzz Buzzard
‘Wet Blanket Policy’ uses exactly the same idea as Dick Lundy’s last Donald Duck short, ‘Flying Jalopy‘ (1943).
The cartoon even uses the same adversary in Buzz Buzzard, a swindler who makes Woody sign an insurance contract that will give Buzz a $10,000 when Woody dies (in the original Donald Duck cartoon the character was called Ben Buzzard).This leads to a fast and very murderous chase sequence full of nonsense.
Penned by Warner Bros. alumnus Ben Hardaway and Heck Allen, who had collaborated with Tex Avery at MGM, ‘Wet Blanket Policy’ is one of Woody’s wildest cartoons. Unfortunately, it’s also the first in which Woody’s proportions start to waver. At one point he’s particularly tiny. This unsteady sizing of Woody would become a particular problem of the cartoons of the 1950s. Buzz Buzzard, however, proved to be a strong adversary for Woody, and became Woody’s antagonist in many of the following Woody Woodpecker cartoons.
Watch ‘Wet Blanket Policy’ yourself and tell me what you think: