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Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date: 1930-1932
In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).
‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.
Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.
The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong communistic character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.
Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.
Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.
Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 23, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
The short starts with Bimbo crashing on an island on a boat, into Betty Boop’s arms. A waterfall throws them into a spot full of singing trees, and later they’re confronted with a bunch of cannibals. Bimbo disguises himself as ‘black’ using mud, and starts singing the Hawaiian war chant. Thus he becomes the natives’ king. The cannibals perform for him, and Betty, too, who dances an extraordinarily sexy hula dance only dressed in a skirt and a flower garland. Unfortunately, the rain washes off Bimbo’s disguise and the two have to flee in a boat.
The movements of the dancing natives and Betty are rotoscoped from the Royal Samoans, rendering them very convincing and lifelike, indeed. Betty Boop’s hula dance is arguably her best scene ever. Apart from this, the cartoon is stuffed with throwaway gags showing the Fleischer’s typical brand of surrealism.
Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: August 13, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
The short’s plot harks back all the way to ‘Poor Papa’ (1928), the pilot film for the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, Mickey’s predecessor. In ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ Mickey dreams he finally marries Minnie, and is soon visited by a stork delivering a baby, and another, and another… Until the storks deliver tons of little kids. When he is awake he’s very happy to be still a bachelor.
‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ introduces the little orphan mice, who would replace the little kittens of ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue’ (1932) as a cause of complete destruction. In Mickey’s dream they ruin the house, especially with paint. In order to show Mickey’s horror scenario, the short uses some excellent and complex use of animation cycles featuring lots and lots of little kids.
It’s interesting that the orphan mice first were introduced as Mickey’s children, and only in dream form. In their next cartoon, ‘Giantland‘ (1933), they suddenly materialized into the real world. The orphan mice would stay around until 1936, starring five more cartoons, before returning one final time in ‘Pluto’s Party‘ from 1952.
The little brats also appeared in the Sunday Pages of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comic, starting on September 18. In Gottfredson’s comics the mice are reduced to two, but no less disastrous. They are introduced as Mrs. Fieldmouse’s children and are apparently Mickey’s nephews. These two would eventually be christened Morty and Ferdie, and reenter the movie screen once in ‘Mickey’s Steamroller‘ (1934).
‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ spawned at least two similar cartoons: first the Warner Bros. cartoon ‘Porky’s Romance’ (1937), and second, the Donald Duck short ‘Donald’s Diary‘ from 1954.
Watch ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’
Release Date: July 16, 1932
Stars: Flip the Frog
Once at work he accidentally starts a record player, and he and the sexy secretary start to dance to some rumba music. Later, a cat and a mouse cause havoc, leading to the secretary losing her dress, and Flip being fired.
‘The Office Boy’ is a gag-packed cartoon, the best of which is the one with a face Flip paints on a dirty window. Flip’s voice is remarkably Mickey Mouse-like in this cartoon, but most of the humor would not fit Mickey, at all, as many gags involve the sexy secretary, repeatedly revealing her underwear.
The secretary would be used again in Flip’s next cartoon, ‘Room Runners‘, which is even more erotic. The secretary is also shown chewing bubble gum, in one of the first animated depictions of this 1928 invention (another contender is the Mickey Mouse film ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ from April).
The erotic secretary seems proof that Iwerks wanted to compete with Fleischer’s sensual Betty Boop cartoons. However, it may also be an example of an increased amount of sex references employed by Hollywood in 1932 in general, for a stronger sexual content can also be noted in live action movies from the era.
This higher level of eroticism in Hollywood cinema remained extant until 1934, when the Hays code kicked in with a vengeance, and the tables were turned exactly the other way: for most of the 1930s cartoons often became ridiculously goody-goody and childish, reaching a low point around 1935/1936.
Watch ‘The Office Boy’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Office Boy’ is available on the DVD Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 2
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 13, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
The cartoon’s setting is a chess game, and it opens with two live action players playing the game. The ashes of the cigar of one of the players falls down on the black queen, revealing it to be Betty Boop, while Bimbo appears to be the white king. Then there’s a cut to a short stop motion sequence of the pieces moving across the board. Only then we really enter the chess world.
In this chess world the black king or ‘Old King Cole’ (the dirty old man of ‘Mask-a-Raid‘ from 1931) tries to force queen Betty to love him, but king Bimbo saves her from his clutches. Most of the action takes place in a castle next to the chessboard game.
There’s a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness in this short, which simply bursts with random and weird throwaway gags, up to the very last shot, in which we suddenly return to the chess players. The result is a wildly surreal film, and one of the most interesting films the Fleischers ever made. Betty Boop is the very sexy star of this cartoon. Koko, on the other hand, only plays a rather insignificant part.
Watch ‘Chess Nuts’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Chess Nuts’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 11, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Cab Calloway
In fact, the cartoon opens with a live action shot of Calloway showing some of his extraordinary dance moves in front of his orchestra. We then cut to a home setting with Betty Boop and her parents, which are apparently of German Jewish descent. Her father scorns her, his jabbering head suddenly changing into a cylinder phonograph. Betty flees crying to her room, and decides to leave home, and she rings Bimbo to come along. This sequence is accompanied by the 1929 hit song ‘Mean to Me’.
The couple flees to the countryside, which quickly becomes very scary, so they hide inside a cave, where the theme song starts. Inside the cave they encounter a walrus-shaped ghost (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) giving an almost complete rendering of ‘Minnie the Moocher’. During the song we watch images of e.g. skeletons drinking and some prisoner ghosts getting the electric chair. In the end, the ghosts chase the couple back home to the tune of ‘Tiger Rag’.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ makes little sense, and is not as good as the later ‘Snow White’, which also stars Calloway. However, Calloway’s performance is so intoxicating, and the Fleischers’ sense of humor so mesmerizing, it remains a joy to watch the cartoon throughout.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ was the first of handful Fleischer cartoons featuring popular jazz stars, the others being ‘Snow-White‘ and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain‘ from 1933, also featuring Calloway, ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead you Rascal You‘ (1932) featuring Louis Armstrong, and ‘I Heard‘ (1933) featuring Don Redman and his Orchestra.
Watch ‘Minnie the Moocher’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Talkartoon No. 33
To the previous Talkartoon: The Robot
To the next Talkartoon: S.O.S.
‘Minnie the Moocher’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: December 12, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Following Van Beuren’s ‘Red Riding Hood‘ earlier that year, the Fleischer’s did there own take on Perrault’s famous fairy tale.
In this short Betty Boop is a particularly sexy Little Red Riding Hood. Bimbo wants to accompany her on her journey, but she rejects him twice. Nevertheless he follows her secretly. He disposes of the wolf first, reaping its skin off to disguise himself as the wolf to win Betty over.
This short simply bubbles over with surrealism and strange animation cycles. The cartoon is brought as a children’s story, but rarely did a cartoon have such strong sexual content. The best part in that respect is a close-up of Betty Boop’s legs, while her garment falls off several times.
The original mix of sex and surrealism makes ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ a highlight of the pre-code era, and it certainly deserves to be seen.
Watch ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Release Date: December 21, 1931
Stars: Flip the Frog
There he encounters a skeleton who invites him to dinner of a skeleton of a roasted chicken. Later Flip dances with a female skeleton, while the deceased owner of the house plans to add flip to his skeleton collection.
‘Spooks’ is one of the best of the Flip the Frog cartoons. Featuring a much more consistent story than the earlier ‘The Cuckoo Murder Case’, the cartoon manages to provide a genuine feeling of horror, only matched by Disney’s ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1932). When confronted with the homicidal skeleton, Flip is in real peril. Moreover, outside the mansion the nightmare continues, when even Flip’s own horse has turned into some living bones.
The scenes inside the haunted house feature distorted angles, which add to the claustrophobic feel. Strangely enough the curved backgrounds can also be seen in subsequent Flip the Frog cartoons, like ‘The Milkman‘ and ‘What A Life‘, where they don’t contribute to the atmosphere, at all. In fact, they would become a unique style element in the Ub Iwerks cartoons.
The complete cartoon is well-animated, with the opening scene, in which Flip and his horse battle the elements, being particularly outstanding.
Watch ‘Spooks’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 16
To the previous Flip the Frog cartoon: Africa Squeaks
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: The Milkman
‘Spooks’ is available on the DVD ‘Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 2’
Directors: John Foster & Mannie Davis
Release Date: September 14, 1931
By 1931, Van Beuren’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ had become the studio’s answer to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, being the first studio clearly trying to copy Disney’s format (Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were only variations on the Silly Symphonies in name, being very different otherwise).
Given the studio’s animation output up to 1931, ‘The Family Shoe’ is a remarkably consistent and forward-looking product. With its consistent storytelling ‘The Family Shoe’ actually predates Walt Disney’s breakthrough short ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ by three months.
Merging the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe with the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk, the film anticipates Mickey’s ‘Giantland’ (1933) by two years, and the cute and childish cartoons of the Hays code era by three years. Also, the opening scenes, with hundreds of brats running around and causing mischief predate similar scenes in Walt Disney’s ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (December 1931) and ‘Mickey Nightmare’ (1932).
The cartoon retells the story of Jack and the beanstalk quite faithfully, and the cartoon may be a little low on gags. Yet, there are some typical Van Beuren throwaways present, like the bean planting itself, and the ending, in which the golden eggs transform the old lady into a classy aristocrat overnight.
Van Beuren is often described as merely an also-run studio, but this short shows that at least in 1931 it was more ambitious and more capable than one would expect.
Watch ‘The Family Shoe’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Family Shoe’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Oskar Fischinger
Release Date: December 1933
Made with ‘Gaspar Color’ it certainly makes clever use of color’s new possibilities. ‘Gaspar Color’ required too much exposure time for live action, but for Fischinger’s animations it was perfect.
Color certainly added a great deal to Fischinger’s films. ‘Kreise’, for example, literally explodes with color. As its title implies, the film is composed of circles, only, which move and grow in various ways on an instrumental excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.
The film ends with a slogan: “Alle Kreise erfasst Tolirag” (Tolirag reaches all circles [of society]), revealing that this totally abstract film is actually a commercial for an advertising agency. This was Fischinger’s trick to get the film past the Nazi censors, who in 1933 had come to power, and who were strongly opposed to abstract art.
Later the film also advertised other companies, like the Dutch Van Houten chocolate company. The film clearly shows that Walt Disney was not the only one who knew how to deal with color, but one wonders whether Tolirag (or Van Houten for that matter) did get a lot of new customers out of it.
Watch an excerpt from ‘Kreise’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Kreise’ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’
Director: Oskar Fischinger
Production Date: 1930
Made with charcoal on paper, the result looks like a filmed sketch by Wassily Kandinsky. The only recognizable shape is an eye, which reoccurs a few times.
The twirling shapes are elegantly drawn, their movements match the jolly music perfectly, and there’s a feeling of gaiety that transcends the film’s abstraction.
In 1931 Oskar Fischinger’s friend Paul Hindemith and some of his students made new scores for this film, but unfortunately they were all lost in World War II.
Watch ‘Studie nr. 6’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Studie nr. 6′ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: August 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Pluto?
Something has happened however, for now Mickey and the gang are not performing for their own fun or at the barnyard, but they are giving a concert in a large theater. It thus predates similar concert cartoons like ‘The Band Concert (1935), Bugs Bunny’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom & Jerry’s ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947), introducing several piano and conductor gags.
This is one of those rare Disney cartoons in which the music performed can be unmistakably identified as jazz (in the earlier ‘The Jazz Fool’ this is not the case, despite the cartoon’s name). In fact, the cartoon is one great rendering of the St. Louis Blues (and not ‘Blue Rhythm’, a composition also popular in 1931, and recorded by Fletcher Henderson and Mills Blue Rhythm Band).
W.C. Handy’s classic song is first performed by Mickey on the piano, borrowing some tricks from Chico Marx. Then it is sung by Minnie, followed by some scatting by the both of them. Then Mickey and Minnie leave the stage, the curtain opens to reveal a big band, to which Mickey returns to conduct. And finally the blues is performed by Mickey on the clarinet, imitating bandleader Ted Lewis, complete with the entertainer’s typical top hat.
Minnie’s blues singing resembles contemporary female vaudeville blues singers (e.g. Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Levey and Victoria Spivey) and the pig trumpeter performs in the growling jungle style of Bubber Miley, who was a trumpeter in Duke Ellington’s band. Mickey shows to be an all round entertainer, performing as a stride pianist, a scat singer, a conductor and a clarinetist. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, on the other hand, are clearly a percussionist and flutist, respectively, roles they would also have in ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), the greatest of Mickey’s concert cartoons. Also featured in Mickey’s band is a dog who may or may not be Pluto, and who plays the trombone, disturbing Mickey while doing so.
Blue Rhythm is a great cartoon, from the opening scene, in which Mickey casts a huge shadow on the curtains to the grand finale in which the excited performance makes the stage collapse. This cartoon may have few gags, it is a delightful ode to music, and to jazz in particular.
Watch ‘Blue Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Blue Rhythm’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: June 20, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar
Together with Horace Horsecollar he rather pitifully tries to extinguish the fire. But he saves the day when he rescues Minnie from the flames.
‘The Fire fighters’ is the first Mickey Mouse cartoons since ‘The Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ to tell a straightforward story. The cartoon is simply packed with gags, which lead to an exciting finale, showing Mickey’s heroic character.
Among Mickey’s team mates is a primitive Horace Horsecollar who is only half anthropomorphized. ‘The Fire Fighters’ is also notable for its use of animals as objects (an ostrich as a pole, a cat as a siren), while objects are very much alive, indeed, most notably the ladder, which is shown sleeping in bed.
The cartoon makes clever use of animation cycles, especially in the scenes depicting the burning building. Some of the gags are quite unique, like Mickey milking a fire hydrant and a ladder that climbs itself down, a gag that has to be seen to be believed.
In all, ‘The Fire Fighters’ is one of the best of the early Mickey Mouse cartoons, and certainly Mickey’s best short of 1930.
Mickey would fighting fire again five years later in the equally inspired ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ (1935).
Watch ‘The Fire Fighters’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Fire Fighters’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: ‘Mickey Mouse in black and white’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: March 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Peg Leg Pete
In 1931 Mickey’s cartoons slowly but surely got better. ‘Traffic Troubles’ in particular is a gem, arguably being Mickey’s first great gag cartoon since his first cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘ (1928).
In this film Mickey is a cab driver driving an anthropomorphized car, resembling Flip the Frog’s car in ‘The Cuckoo Murder Case’ from five months earlier. His first customer is a fat pig, but he loses his passenger on a road, full of potholes and bumps. Mickey’s horror and surprise when he realizes his customer is gone, is priceless.
Mickey’s second customer is Minnie. When they get a flat tire, Peg Leg Pete makes an odd cameo as ‘Dr. Pep’ who revives Mickey’s car with some kind of potion, with disastrous results. This part leads to a great end scene in which Mickey’s car ends on a cow, rides through a barn, and crashes into a silo.
‘Traffic Troubles’ is a genuine gag cartoon without any songs or dances, but with fast action, plenty of gags building to a grand finale, and spectacular and flexible animation. It also contains a very funny scene in which a police officer asks Mickey many questions while silencing him at the same time. In short, ‘Traffic Trouble’ is arguably the best Mickey Mouse film from 1931, and Mickey’s first really great cartoon since ‘Steamboat Willie‘. But by now the Disney studio was making faster and faster strides, and Mickey’s best cartoons were still to come.
Watch ‘Traffic Troubles’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Traffic Troubles’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume Two’
Release Date: June 11, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
Like the later cartoon, ‘Sky Scrappers’ opens spectacularly with a fantastic opening shot zooming out of Oswald’s excavator. Both feature Honey/Minnie bringing Oswald/Mickey lunchboxes and Pete kidnapping Honey/Minnie. Like in ‘Oh What A Knight’ Honey is shown without her pants.
The opening shot shows a lot of animation cycles, effectively suggesting a lot of working on the building. There’s also a great perspective gag with Pete punching right into the camera. However, the most remarkably animation achievement is that of Oswald pulling up a heavy barrel. The idea of weight and muscle stretch is very convincing, and stands out amidst the more formulaic animation of the rest of the cartoon.
Watch ‘Sky Scrappers’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1987
It’s also one of his most difficult, and its message is at times hard to decipher. Pärn doesn’t tell straightforward stories, and much remains unexplained. Most importantly, it’s one of the few films showing insight in Eastern European life under the communist oppression. Its atmosphere is gloomy, its graphic style crude and scratchy, its humor dark, and its surrealism disturbing.
In ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ we follow four people, two men and two women, who struggle in their daily life. The first, Anna, strongly feels she’s an outcast in the society. She’s not really part of the system, and misses out on its benefits, as exemplified by her search for rare apples. The second, Georg, imagines himself a playboy, but reality is harder. In pursuit of a suit, with which he can fulfill his playboy dreams he has to go through a grind of corruption. Everyone wants something rare in exchange for offered service. Berta has lost her face as soon she became a mother. She only regains it when she finds the attention of a man. And finally, Eduard shrinks when he needs a paper signed from a very high official. Luckily he gets help from a female friend…
Also starring in these stories is an anonymous artist, who is constantly followed by a flock of crows or dragged around by two state officials. A clearer statement of oppression is hard to find in any Soviet film.
In the end, the four people succeed in their aim, and together they go to a park, where they form a life tableau of Edouard’s Manet’s painting ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe‘ (1863) which lends its name to the film’s title. This hopeful statement of beauty, freedom and art is as quickly dismantled, however, and the final shot is for the artist, whose arm is smacked by a steam roller…
Like few other films ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ shows what life is like in an oppressed state, where food is scarce, where bureaucracy and corruption run freely, and where the role you play is more important than your personal preferences. Even though the Glasnost was in full flight in 1987, it’s a wonder such a dark accusation was possible in the Soviet Union, of which Estonia was then still part.
Watch ‘Breakfast on the Grass’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1989
Together with ‘The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia’ (1990), ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is Švankmajer’s last classic animated short film before he embarked on a career of directing features, which featured less and less animation.
‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is on the same level of virtuosity as ‘Dimensions of Dialogue‘ (1982): its stop motion animation, by star animator Bedřich Glaser, and its sound design, by Ivo Špalj, are both no less than perfect. However, it’s much lighter of tone than the earlier film. In this short film Švankmajer and Bedřich Glaser use a particularly cartoony type of animation. For example, the entry of the genitalia is a hilarious highlight.
Nevertheless, even this film has a darker side: when the man is complete, he completely fills the room, which is way too small for him. We hear him breathing heavily, and can assume he his in great pain in his cramped position. The cartoon ends with this claustrophobic image before darkness enters again. So, somehow, even this enjoyable film tells something about the human condition, how during our lifetimes we can develop ourselves only to end in the eternal dark again…
Because of its unity of space and time, and because of its unique inner logic, ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is one of the best told animated shorts ever. It shows Švankmajer’s mastery. In that respect it’s unfortunate that in the 1990s he moved on to live action films.
Watch ‘Darkness Light Darkness’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Darkness Light Darkness’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’ and on the DVD ‘Alice’
Director: Mark Baker
Release Date: 1988
First we watch the inhabitants of the hill farm themselves: simple farmers, who know the dangers and hardships of nature, and who treat their livestock without romanticism (as exemplified by the farmer’s wife killing chicken without ado).
At one point the hill farm is visited by tourists, who are completely alienated from nature. One of them faints at the sight of the farmer’s wife killing a chicken. When confronted by nature’s dangers (as embodied by a gigantic bear-like beast) they don’t recognize the danger at all. To them nature is something to visit, something to make snapshots from. The third party is a group of huntsmen, who (try to) kill everything in sight, including even the farmer’s bees.
The whole film takes place at a leisurely speed, without dialogue. Mark Baker’s visual style is simple, but very effective. His angular designs and graphic backgrounds are beautiful, and his animation has a unique timing, which is as comical as it is to the point. The narration is very open, leaving the interpretation to the viewer. The end result is one of the most beautiful animation films of the 1980’s.
Watch ‘The Hill Farm’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Hill Farm’ is available on the DVD Box Set ‘Annecy – Le coffret du 50e Anniversaire’
Director: John Lasseter
Release Date: March 17, 1989
The result is ‘Knick Knack’, in which boundaries are pushed much less clearly, but which demonstrates like no other short that Pixar animation is rooted deeply in an animation tradition.
‘Knick Knack’ features toy souvenirs, focusing on a snowman trying to escape the prison of his snow globe to join some sunny souvenirs. Harking back to the Warner Bros. cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s, ‘Knick Knack’ is self-consciously cartoony. For example, the snowman is able to produce various tools out of nowhere. Moreover, his actions are driven by a sexual desire, induced by the rather grotesque female souvenir from Miami*. These traits are typical of classic cartoon characters, like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.
Unlike these, however, the snowman is a silent character, and his fanatism is more reminiscent of the equally silent Coyote in Chuck Jones’s Roadrunner cartoons. Like the Coyote, the snowman is conscious of the camera, and shares his emotions directly with us, the audience.
‘Knick Knack’ only clocks 3 minutes, but its gag story is perfectly executed in this short time to a wonderful finale. The result is a very entertaining and funny cartoon, with an excellently matching soundtrack by Bobby McFerrin.
However, it was to be the last short Pixar would make in eight years. After its release, the company suffered some changes: it ditched its hardware department, making the studio department suddenly the core of the business. Now the studio could focus on its first feature length film, ‘Toy Story’…
Watch ‘Knick Knack’ yourself and tell me what you think:
* Upon the film’s rerelease as a short for ‘Finding Nemo’ (2003) the Miami souvenir and the mermaid were redesigned, losing their bulbous boobs. With this step they became less obviously stereotyped objects of male desire, making the snowman’s actions less overtly sex-driven. Unfortunately, with this removal the film lost a little of its bite.