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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: March 31, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Hysterical High Spots in American History © Walter Lantz‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is one of the first cartoons reflecting the peace time conscription that had been initiated on September 26, 1940, when Europe and Asia already were at war, but the United States were not: the short is supposedly brought to you by draftee number 1-58. But then he’s swept away from the screen by his sergeant, who, in his turn, is looking for draftee number 1-9-2.

However, these soldiers don’t return to the screen, and the rest of the cartoon is filled with spot gags on American history, dwelling on e.g. Columbus, Thanksgiving, the war of independence, Lincoln’s Gettyburg address and the opening of the Panama canal.

The “story” of ‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is by Ben Hardaway, and he clearly had brought the humor of Tex Avery’s spot gag cartoons to the Walter Lantz studio (see also ‘Fair Today‘ from one month earlier). Spot gag cartoons like this were rarely very funny, but the gags are surprisingly inspired in this cartoon, with the Capistrano mission gag giving the lowdown of a complete cartoon: Robert McKimson’s ‘Swallow the Leader‘ from 1949.

‘Hysterical High Spots in American History’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: May 24, 1941
Stars: a.o. Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Johnny Weismuller, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Harpo Marx, Bing Crosby, Leopold Stokowski, James Stewart, Sonja Henie, Boris Karloff, the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Peter Lorre, Henry Fonda, Buster Keaton, Jerry Colonna, Clark Gable, Groucho Marx
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Hollywood Steps Out © Warner Bros.Caricatures of Hollywood stars have been featured in many animated cartoons since ‘Felix goes Hollywood’ (1923).

With cartoons like ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933), ‘Soda Squirt‘ (1933), ‘Mickey’s Polo Team’ (1936). ‘The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos’ (1937) and ‘Mother Goes to Hollywood’ (1938) the caricatures even became the main attraction of the cartoon. This trend reached its climax in Tex Avery’s ‘Hollywood Steps Out’, as this is a spot gag cartoon on nothing but Hollywood stars. After this short Hollywood stars kept popping up in cartoons, but not in such abundance as in this short.

In ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ we watch the stars of the silver screen going out at the Ciro’s nightclub, which had opened in 1940. The gags are actually rather lame, but it’s a sheer joy to see all these caricatures of late 1930s Hollywood stars, some still famous, others forgotten. Among the more familiar names are Cary Grant, Greta Garbo, Edward G. Robinson, Johnny Weismuller (as Tarzan), James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Harpo Marx, Bing Crosby, Leopold Stokowski, James Stewart, Sonja Henie, Boris Karloff (as Frankenstein), the Three Stooges, Oliver Hardy, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Peter Lorre, Henry Fonda, Buster Keaton and Jerry Colonna.

Also featured are Henry Binder and Leon Schlesinger, the animators’ bosses. The cartoon contains some rotoscoped dance movements, including a rather sexy bubble dance, and a running gag about Clark Gable following a girl who turns out to be Groucho Marx.

The caricatures in ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ were based on drawings by Ben Shankman, whose work was first used by Friz Freleng in ‘Malibu Beach Party’ (1940), and who clearly is a worthy successor of Joe Grant (e.g. ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier’) and T. Hee (e.g. ‘Mother Goes to Hollywood’). All Shankman’s caricatures in ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ are pretty good to excellent. Moreover, most of them are well-animated, with the animation of James Stewart as a particular highlight. Like the otherwise very different ‘Old Glory‘ (1939) this short shows that by the turn of the decade the Warner Bros. animators could handle the human figure very well.

The voices, too, are very well done. In ‘The 100 Greatest Looney Tunes Cartoons’ Keith Scott reveals they were all done by one Kent Rogers, who was not yet 18 when ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ was released. Rogers also voiced e.g. Willoughby, Beaky Buzzard, and ‘Henery Hawk’. Unfortunately, he died in World War II in 1944, cutting short a career that might have become as illustrious as Mae Questel’s or Mel Blanc’s. In a way ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ stands out as his greatest work.

Apart from a celebration of Hollywood stars, ‘Hollywood Steps Out’ is also a testimony of the conga craze that took over the United States in the early forties: the irresistible conga beat sounds in the opening sequence and during the dance scene. Other examples of cartoons prominently featuring conga music are ‘Mickey’s Birthday Party’ (1942), ‘Juke Box Jamboree‘ (1942) and ‘Springtime for Pluto‘ (1944).

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

‘Hollywood Steps Out’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’ and the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Two’

 

Director: Alfred L. Werker
Release Date: June 20, 1941
Stars: Robert Benchley, Clarence Nash, Florence Gill, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Donald Duck, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Reluctant Dragon © Walt DisneyAfter three stunning feature films, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was a much, much more modest affair.

The movie must have come as a letdown to contemporary audiences, and many considered it a cheater, as little more than half the film is animated. Indeed, it’s not even included in Disney’s official list of theatrical features, and has only been released on DVD in the limited edition ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ series.

This is a pity, for despite its modest ambitions, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ remains an entertaining feature, especially its animated sequences. The film was made in a not so prosperous time for the Walt Disney studio: both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, mainly due to World War II, which had broken off the complete European market, and its necessary revenues. As a consequence, the number of theatrical shorts was reduced, ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was shelved, and two smaller features were planned: ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ and ‘Dumbo’.

Especially, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was conceived as a low-budget production in order to get a quick return on investment. Trying to capitalize on Disney’s popularity, the film is a virtual tour through the Burbank studio, to which the company had moved in the end of 1939. Apart from the orchestra sequences in ‘Fantasia’ this was Walt Disney’s first foray into live action since the silent Alice comedies, and he hired a live action director, Alfred L. Werker to shoot the live action scenes. As Leonard Maltin points out in his introduction to the film, the film had been storyboarded like any other animated film, thus Werker can be regarded as the first live action director to have worked with storyboards. Filming in live action was far cheaper than shooting animation, and thus greatly reduced the costs of the feature. Unfortunately, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ didn’t earn the studio enough money to cover the film’s costs. Nevertheless, the film pointed Walt Disney to the future, in which the company ventured more and more into live action film making.

Apart from Werker, several actors were hired to play various studio employees, and the film tour is more fiction than fact. The tour thus is hardly documentary, even though it does show the real studio lot. This became painfully clear when the film was released on June 20, 1941. At the time the studio experienced a severe strike, revealing that the company was not such a happy place, after all…

The film starts with Robert Benchley’s wife (Nana Bryant) suggesting to the popular humorist that he should suggest to Walt Disney to make a picture out of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1898). Benchley reluctantly agrees, and is more or less forced to drive to the Disney studio, where his wife leaves him on his own, taking the car to go shopping.

Benchley soon starts to wander through the studio on his own, visiting an art class (hoping to see a nude model), and the sound studio, where he witnesses Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) and Florence Gill (Clara Cluck) performing a duet from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ (1847).

Benchley continues his wanderings through the sound effect department, and the camera department. At this point the film suddenly changes into color, even to Benchley’s own surprise, who immediately starts checking the colors of his own suit, as if he had really been black and white all before.

Benchley’s tour continues through the color department, the story room, the animation department, and finally, the screening room where he finally meets Walt, and joins in the screening, only to find out that it’s the screening of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, the very story he had wanted to sell…

The color department sequence is set to an instrumental version of ‘Hi-Ho’ and looks like a ballet of paint colors, and not at all as anything real. When Benchley continues to the story room he passes several statues of Disney characters, including Captain Hook, Tinkerbell and Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’, a film that would only go into production ten years later! One can also notice both a little statue and a drawing of two Siamese cats who would not be seen on the animated screen until ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956).

At the animation department Benchley meets real animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson (we can watch the latter one panting like his creation Pluto). There Benchley admires some ‘paintings’ of Donald Duck in the style of old masters. The paintings were actually drawings in crayon, done by animators John Dunn, Phil Klein, and Ray Patin.

In one way we could consider the whole tour as a long introduction to the twelve minute animated version of the tale, and as such the film harks all the way back to Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo‘ (1912) and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914), which also featured long live action footage showing how the film was made, before showing the end result.

However, none of the animation on ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself is shown before the last part: instead we watch unique animation on the train Casey Jones jr. from ‘Dumbo’, Donald Duck from the upcoming short ‘Old MacDonald Duck‘, and unique animation of Bambi (this film also being in production) being scared of Benchley.

The film only features three completely animated sequences: ‘Baby Weems’, the Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ and ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. All three are excellent and forward-looking, and make the film a must watch for every animation lover:

Baby Weems © Walt DisneyBaby Weems
‘Baby Weems’ is no less than a milestone of animation: the segment is told in story boards only, with little movement and added special effects. Conceived by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, the short features drawings by John Miller, whose more angular style looks forward to the more stylized cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, one can say that the concept of Animatics is born here. The story in itself is a delight: Baby Weems is an exceptional prodigy, whose fame goes all over the world. Unfortunately, his parents don’t get to see him. However, the film shows the black side of fame, and as soon as Weems loses his extraordinary abilities, he’s soon forgotten by everyone, except his happy parents, who can finally start to raise him…

How to Ride a Horse © Walt DisneyHow to Ride a Horse
The Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ strangely enough only exists within this film, yet it’s presented as a regular short. The segment plays an important part in the evolution of Goofy: it’s the first of all ‘how to’ cartoons, it’s Goofy’s first venture into sports, and it’s the first to use blueprint-like schematic drawings and the ridiculous use of the “slow motion camera”. Most probably the series had been inspired by Robert Benchley himself, as he had done a ‘How to…’ series of short films, too, from 1935 to 1939. The short uses surprisingly spare monochrome backgrounds, with only few details in pastel. These graphic backgrounds are absolutely forward-looking.

The Reluctant Dragon from the movie of the same name © Walt DisneyThe Reluctant Dragon
‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself, too, looks forward to the 1950s: the character designs are more streamlined than before, and the backgrounds are simplified and rounded, never trying to evoke any sense of realism. Sir Giles is the most convincingly animated human character thus far. He certainly is cartoony, but he’s also a real human, with visible joints, muscles, and five fingers instead of the normal four. The dragon itself is animated elegantly, moving with a deftness that defies its size and weight. Voiced by Barnett Parker (and not Ed Wynn, as I thought) – the dragon sounds pretty gay, perhaps to make it the opposite of the masculine fighting machine it is supposed to be. The dragon even shows a Tex Averyan double take, suddenly producing five separate heads when he hears that his invite Sir Giles is a dragon killer.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ can be regarded as the first of the package features, which would dominate the Disney output the rest of the 1940s, and like all its successors it suffers from its disjointed and scrambled character. The film certainly is not a perfect film: the live action parts remain a strange mix of education and self-promotion, and in many respects the film is rescued by its animated sequences, which are all three excellent. Yet, the picture is certainly worth a watch, and deserves to be more seen than it is now.

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

 

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ is available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: July 19, 1941
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Midnight Snack © MGMFollowing the success of ‘Puss Gets the Boot‘ it would take quite a while before the cat and mouse duo were given their own series. But one and a half year later ‘The Midnight Snack’ was released: Tom & Jerry’s very first official cartoon.

The duo was re-christened ‘Tom and Jerry’, which may have sounded right, as there had been a human cartoon duo before with that name (1931-1933). The looks of the cat and mouse were altered, too: Tom now has his characteristic black nose and thick black eyebrows, which make his facial expressions much stronger. Nevertheless, his features are still very complex. Jerry’s designs have remained the same, but he’s now animated much more consistently, rendering him less pudding-like.

The story of ‘The Midnight Snack’ feels like a variation on ‘Puss Gets the Boot’. Tom catches Jerry stealing cheese from the fridge, only to make a buffet out of the fridge himself. When Mammy awakes, Tom frames Jerry, but in the end it’s he who gets punished by the angry maid. The cartoon violence is still rather mild in this cartoon, the most conspicuous gag being Jerry pricking the trapped Tom with a large carving fork.

Composer Scott Bradley juxtaposes separate themes for the cat and the mouse against each other in a rather complex continuous cartoon score. Bradley used this composition method in the duo’s first cartoons to a great effect. Later, the frantic cartoon action called for more disjointed and less integrated musical scores.

‘The Midnight Snack’ shows the cat and mouse’s great appeal and potential. Yet, in Charles Solomon’s book ‘Enchanted Drawings – The History of Animation’ Joe Barbera reveals that ‘The Midnight Snack’ almost became the last Tom & Jerry cartoon; apparently producer Fred Quimby was opposed to make any more of them, until he got a letter from Texas asking for more of “these delightful cat-and-mouse-cartoons”.

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

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 2
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Puss Gets the Boot
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Night Before Christmas

‘The Midnight Snack’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: June 28, 1940
Stars: Pluto, Butch
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Bone Trouble © Walt DisneyPluto’s solo career had a slow start: after his first own cartoon, ‘Pluto’s Quin-puplets’ our favorite mutt had to wait three more years for a second cartoon.

Compared to this first, cute cartoon, ‘Bone Trouble’ is an altogether different short: it’s a real exponent of the chase cartoon era: when Pluto steals a bone from vicious neighbor dog Butch, a chase soon follows into a surprisingly empty carnival. Most of the gags originate in Pluto’s adventures in a hall of mirrors. This is a wonderful place, having mirrors that are able to reflect Pluto as an alligator, a camel, an ape, a kangaroo and a seal.

Unlike many of the later Pluto shorts, ‘Bone Trouble’ is a genuine gag cartoon, greatly helped by the carnival atmosphere, and an excellent musical score. The short introduces Butch the bulldog. Butch was not the first vicious bulldog on the animated screen (for example, there’s one in the Betty Boop cartoon ‘You’re Not Built That Way’ from 1936), but he is the prototype of all subsequent animated bulldogs, most notably Spike, who made his debut in the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Dog Trouble’ (1942). Why in cartoons Bulldogs were always portrayed as bullies, we’ll never know, as real bulldogs look hardly like their cartoon counterparts.

‘Bone Trouble’ is also noteworthy for being the cartoon in which Jack Kinney’s makes his direction debut. Kinney became the studio’s best gag director, which he showed in the Goofy series, which in 1940 became his own. Kinney directed only one other Pluto cartoon: ‘Cold Storage‘ from 1951, which is even better than ‘Bone Trouble’.

Butch, meanwhile, would return in five other Pluto cartoons, ‘T-Bone for Two‘ (1942), ‘Canine Casanova’ (1945), ‘Pluto’s Kid Brother‘ (1946), ‘Pluto’s Purchase’ (1948) and ‘Pluto’s Heart Throb‘ (1950).

Watch ‘Bone trouble’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Pluto cartoon No. 2
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Pluto’s Quin-Puplets
To the next Pluto cartoon: Pantry Pirate

‘Bone Trouble’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Complete Pluto Volume One’

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: December 7, 1940
Stars: Willoughby
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Of Fox and Hounds © Warner Bros.‘Of Fox and Hounds’ introduces Willoughby, that dumb dog that was the first of many cartoon parodies on Lon Chaney jr.’s portrayal of Lennie Small in the movie ‘Of Mice and Men’ (1939).

In this cartoon he’s a rather fat hunting dog too dumb to recognize a fox when he sees one. Worse, the fox makes him fall for the same gag twice, in an extraordinarily long gag, which Avery plays out full. The fox is a clear variation on the wise guy type Avery introduced with Bugs Bunny in ‘A Wild Hare‘ four months earlier, without adding anything new, and he was never seen again. Willoughby, on the other hand, would encounter the hare himself in his next cartoon, ‘The Heckling Hare’, and another variation on this character type in ‘The Crackpot Quail’ (both 1941). In all, he would star in seven cartoons, the last one being Friz Freleng’s ‘Hare Force’ (1944).

In his next cartoon Willoughby would become less fat, but not smarter. Luckily not, for his all too late insights, which he shares with the audience, absolutely form the character’s main attraction. At MGM Avery would more or less return to the character in ‘Lonesome Lenny’ (1946). Willoughby’s “Which way did he go, George? Which way did he go?” would become a catch phrase, and was also used by Lenny in that latter cartoon.

‘Of Fox and Hounds’ features high production values. It opens with a very realistic image of a hunter, followed by a beautiful shot of horses and hounds silhouetted against the morning sun. The cartoon also features remarkable oil paintings that provide great realistic backgrounds in the best academic tradition, which make all the nonsense staged in front of it more believable.

Unfortunately, the cartoon is a little too slow to be an all time winner. Avery clearly was still experimenting with timing, and in this cartoon in particular he juxtaposes slow scenes to lightning fast action, especially in the parts featuring the bear. ‘Of Fox and Hounds’ may be no classic, it’s an important entry in the evolution of Tex Avery’s films, the Warner Bros. style, and the chase cartoon in general.

Watch ‘Of Fox and Hounds’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Of Fox and Hounds’ is available on the French DVD set ‘Tex Avery’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: August 9, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Donald's Vacation © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Vacation’ is a delightful entry in the Donald Duck series. The cartoon opens idyllically enough, with Donald humming and strumming his ukelele, while canoeing through a beautiful landscape – the bacground artwork in this scene is absolutely stunning.

When a waterfall accidentally lands him on the perfect spot, his canoe turns out to be an inventive marvel, outdoing Mickey’s trailer in the cartoon of the same name (1938): not only can the canoe change into a tent instantly, it’s also capable of storing endless supplies.

But before Donald can relax, he first has to battle a collapsible vacation chair. Like the outboard motor in the previous cartoon ‘Put-put Troubles‘, the chair provides excellent comedy, showing that Donald was at his best when struggling with everyday objects.

When he finally comes to rest, a multitude of chipmunks, antecedents of Chip ‘n Dale, steal all his food. This leads to an encounter with a bear, which elaborates on the comedy of the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Pointer’ (1939), adding countless new and original gags, like the bear stripping a tree from its bark, and Donald cutting holes into some waterfalls.

‘Donald’s Vacation’ is a gag cartoon throughout, but in this finale the gags come fast and plenty, and lead to an excellent closing, in which Donald flees into the distance, only a couple of minutes after his unfortunate camping adventure had started.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 19
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Put-Put Troubles
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Window Cleaners

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

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 15, 1940
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

With Poopdeck Pappy © Max FleischerAfter his reintroduction in ‘My Pop, My Pop‘ Poopdeck Pappy immediately returns in ‘With Poopdeck Pappy’.

In this cartoon Poopdeck Pappy behaves as Popeye’s disobedient child: Popeye repeatedly tries to put him to sleep, but he sneaks out time and time again to have some fun in a nightclub downtown.

The antagonism between father and son is wonderful, and leads to lots of silly gags. With this cartoon Popeye certainly entered the chase cartoon era, as also exemplified with his next cartoon, ‘Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep‘. Like the Jeep, Poopdeck Pappy has almost magical powers to escape Popeye’s bedroom. More importantly, Poopdeck Pappy defies Popeye’s 1930s morality: in the end, it’s he who wins, leaving Popeye roped in his very own bed.

Throughout the picture, the comedy is well-timed and greatly enhanced by the inspired score, which makes excellent use of ‘Go To Sleep, My Baby’ during the bed scenes – apparently a new favorite song of composer Sammy Timberg, as it also appears in the Hunky & Spunky cartoon ‘Vitamin Hay‘ from three months earlier, and in the next Popeye cartoon, ‘Popeye presents Eugene, the Jeep’.

With this cartoon Poopdeck Pappy proved to be a worthy addition to the Popeye cartoon cast. So he would be full of mischief again in his next cartoons ‘Problem Pappy‘, ‘Quiet! Pleeze‘, ‘Child Psykolojiky‘ and ‘Pest Pilot‘ (all from 1941).

Watch ‘With Poopdeck Pappy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 89
To the previous Popeye film: My Pop, My Pop
To the next Popeye film: Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep

‘With Poopdeck Pappy’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 20, 1940
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Popeye Meets William Tell © Max FleischerWithout any explanation Popeye walks through a medieval setting, where he meets William Tell.

When William Tell refuses to bow for the governor, Popeye volunteers to act as his son, so he can shoot an apple from his head. But Tell misses, and Popeye collapses. But when Tell is about to be beheaded, Popeye comes to the rescue, with help of spinach.

The story of ‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ is not really remarkable, but the cartoon is full of silly gags and anachronisms. None of it makes sense, and there’s a sense of anarchy present reminiscent of the Marx Brothers films.

The cartoon is a rather oddball entry within the Popeye series, with the designs of the other characters being more reminiscent of the inhabitants of Lilliput of ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1939) than of the other characters in the Popeye universe. The short is definitely worth a watch, as it displays the large amount of creativity the Fleischer studio put into this series.

Watch ‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 87
To the previous Popeye film: Puttin on the Act
To the next Popeye film: My Pop, My Pop

‘Popeye Meets William Tell’ 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:

This Popeye film No. 78
To the previous Popeye film: Females Is Fickle
To the next Popeye film: Me Feelins Is Hurt

‘Stealin’ Ain’t Honest’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

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:

This Popeye film No. 77
To the previous Popeye film: Shakespearian Spinach
To the next Popeye film: Stealin’ Ain’t Honest

‘Females Is Fickle’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Hugh Harman
Release Date: December 9, 1939
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Peace on Earth © MGM‘Peace on Earth’ is a Christmas cartoon, but a highly unusual one.

With ‘Peace on Earth’ Hugh Harman daringly combines the world of cute animals to gloomy and surprisingly realistic images of war and devastation (which, incidentally have more in common with World War I than with World War II).

It’s Christmas time, and the short opens with scenes of a village of squirrels, whose houses are made of helmets. Grandpa squirrel tells his two grandchildren what men were, for they have disappeared from the Earth. His tale is one of war (oddly between meat-eaters and vegetarians) and extermination. This section contains the grimmest war images ever put into an animated cartoon. In Harman’s world cute animals shall inherit the earth, but the film’s message is clear. Released when World War II had been going on for three months, this message came none too soon. Unfortunately, much, much worse was still to come…

‘Peace on Earth’ is a surprisingly daring film for its time, with its clear pacifistic message and dark war imagery – no ordinary feat for a Hollywood cartoon! For today’s standards the animal scenes may be too saccharine, the staging too melodramatic, and the message too obvious, but the war images and the atmosphere of doom make ‘Peace on Earth’ a film that still impresses today. The short was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award.

Watch ‘Peace on Earth’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: June 30, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Sea Scouts © Walt DisneyIn ‘Sea Scouts’ Donald Duck pretends to be an admiral, commanding his inept nephews on a sailing trip.

All too soon, however, their trip turns into disaster, and when the mast breaks loose, Donald seems destined to end in the jaws of a ferocious shark. The shark is exactly the same design as the one in ‘Peculiar penguins‘ (1934), including the strange green coloring.

‘With ‘Sea Scouts’ Dick Lundy joined Jack King and Clyde Geronimi as a director of Donald Duck. Lundy would direct nine Donald Duck cartoons before leaving Disney for Walter Lantz in October 1943. Like Geronimi, Lundy had a rather gentle style and only one of his Donald Duck shorts is a real classic: ‘Donald’s Tire Trouble‘ from 1943.

‘Sea Scouts’ is a genuine gag cartoon, and it’s admirable to watch how several events lead to complete disaster. Moreover, Donald Duck’s obsession with his own hat is a nice ingredient in the turn of events. However, Lundy’s direction lacks the necessary bite, and the cartoon falls short in reaching the heights it could have with a better timing.

Watch ‘Sea Scouts’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 11
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Beach Picnic
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Penguin

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

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 31, 1939
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

So Does an Automobile © Max FleischerIn ‘So Does an Automobile’ Betty Boop owns a car hospital for ill anthropomorphized cars.

Although this cartoon features a musical number, it mainly consists of inspired spot gags, making this short the only Betty Boop entry in the spot gag genre. And, in true gag cartoon fashion, this cartoon saves its best gag for last.

For a Betty Boop cartoon from the second half of the 1930s, ‘So Does an Automobile’ has a surprisingly silly atmosphere, which harks partly back to the early 1930’s, Betty Boop’s heydays. The number of gags and the silly atmosphere arguably make the short one of the best Betty Boop cartoons of the second half of the 1930’s, right behind ‘Betty Boop and Grampy’ (1935) and ‘Pudgy Picks A Fight‘ (1937). Unfortunately, ‘So Does an Automobile’ was to be Betty Boop’s last great cartoon, as her series stopped four months later.

Watch ‘So Does an Automobile’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 80
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: My Friend the Monkey
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Musical Mountaineers

‘So Does an Automobile’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 7, 1939
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp © Max Fleischer‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ is the last of three Popeye two-reelers in Technicolor.

Like ‘Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor’ (1936) and ‘Popeye the Sailor meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves’ (1937) the short has a clear 1001 Arabian Nights setting. In fact, it’s a rather faithful retelling of the classic fairy tale, until Spinach comes along. Unlike the earlier two-reelers ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ doesn’t either feature Fleischer’s table-top technique, Wimpy or Bluto, with an anonymous villain taking Bluto’s place.

The film is introduced as being a script Olive is writing for ‘Surprise Pictures’, and, of course, she herself stars as the princess. It’s the first scene in which we can hear Margie Hines as Olive Oyl’s voice. Hines had replaced Mae Questel, who didn’t make the move to Miami together with the rest of the Fleischer studio. Margie Hines would remain Olive’s voice until the end of 1943, after which Mae Questel picked it up again.

‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ is wonderfully made. Its background art is no less than gorgeous, and some of the animation is outstanding, for example that on Popeye’s horse. The final battle is a delight, when Popeye uses cans of spinach as his own magic against the magic of the lamp, now in the villain’s hands.

The film contains a novelty: in the cave scene and in the scene in which Popeye parades the streets as a prince, he suddenly has eyes with pupils, foreshadowing his design of the Paramount studio years.

Watch ‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 69
To the previous Popeye film: Customers Wanted
To the next Popeye film: Leave Well Enough Alone

‘Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp’ is available on the DVD Set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 27, 1939
Stars: Popeye, Bluto, Wimpy
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

Customers Wanted © Max FleischerIn 1937 the Fleischer Studio suffered a severe strike. In 1938 they moved their studios to Miami, Florida to break up union activity, and because of the state’s more favorable financial climate.

The new studio opened in October 1938, and devoted a lot of its resources to the Fleischer’s first feature film, ‘Gulliver’, which was released at the end of 1939.

The move to Florida had several consequences for the Popeye series: as the studio’s top animators now worked on ‘Gulliver’, the series was laid in hands of some lesser men, and this shows in many 1939 Popeye cartoons. More importantly, there were some voice changes: Mae Questel and Gus Wickie (Bluto’s voice) had stayed behind in New York, so Olive’s voice was taken over by Margie Hines, who would do her voice until the end of 1943. Bluto’s voice was now done by Pinto Colvig, whom the Fleischers had hired away from Disney. Jack Mercer, Popeye’s voice, got along very well with Margie Hines – in fact the two were married on March 8, 1939.

The move may have had a particular impact on ‘Customers Wanted’, for this cartoon is a ‘cheater’: it only partially features new material, some scenes are reused from two earlier Popeye cartoons, albeit in the most natural way.

‘In ‘Customers Wanted’ Popeye and Bluto as competing arcade owners at a Coney Island-like amusement park. They’re both out of customers, and dive on Wimpy, when he seems interested.

The competing entrepreneurs are so eager to show Wimpy their films on their mutoscopes, they don’t even charge him money. The mutoscope films are excerpts from ‘Let’s Get Movin” (1936) and ‘The Twisker Pitcher’ (1937). Soon, however, Bluto’s and Popeye’s competition turns into a fight, and it’s Wimpy who cashes in by advertising their row as ‘the fight of the century”.

‘Customers Wanted’ is an early compilation cartoon, but a very entertaining one. Bluto’s and Popeye’s tricks to lure Wimpy away from the competition are delightful, and so are the voices. The amusement park itself is beautifully designed, and is reminiscent of the futuristic fair of ‘All’s Fair at the Fair‘ (1938).

Watch ‘Customers Wanted’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 68
To the previous Popeye film: Cops Is always Right
To the next Popeye film: Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp

‘Customers Wanted’ is available on the DVD Set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: May 6, 1939
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Thugs with Dirty Mugs © Warner Bros.The title ‘Thugs with Dirty Mugs’ is a parody of the 1938 Warner Bros. gangster picture ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, and the short is indeed a gangster picture itself.

Starring ‘Edward G. Robesome’ as Killer Diller, the cartoon tells the story of a notorious bank robber, mostly by newspaper headlines.

However, much more than a story, ‘Thugs with Dirty Mugs’ is a genuine gag cartoon. Its arguably the first Tex Avery film to show his mature style from start to end. It’s simply packed with the director’s unique gag style: cars can contract like harmonicas, a safe can become a caravan or a radio, and a bank can turn into a slot machine. Meanwhile the police can cross a split screen, and cigars and guns can hang in mid-air only to be picked up again. And finally, the crooks are betrayed by a man in the audience, who has seen the picture twice. With this film Tex Avery definitely proved to be a unique voice in the cartoon world, and his influence can hardly be overstated.

The pin gag was reused by Bob Clampett in ‘The Great Piggy Bank Robbery’ (1946).

Watch ‘Thugs with Dirty Mugs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Thugs with Dirty Mugs’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: November 18, 1938
Stars: Popeye, Olive Oyl
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

A Date to Skate © Max FleischerPopeye invites Olive into a roller skating hall.

The unwilling Olive is no roller skate talent, however, and after some antics inside the hall, she accidentally skates outside and into the streets. It’s up to Popeye to rescue her. Unfortunately, he has forgotten his spinach, but luckily somebody in the audience can give him a can. This particular gag is rare but undeniable influence of the new Warner Bros. cartoon style on the Fleischer cartoons. The rest of the cartoon retains Fleischer’s unique and charming style.

‘A Date to Skate’ is in no way a classic, but it’s enjoyable from start to end, and gains particular speed when Olive is lost on the streets. There’s a great scene in which she manages to skate inside a department store, and another one in which she and Popeye make a long descend – a scene that seems to make use of a ridiculously long background painting, even though some parts are clearly reused.

Watch ‘A Date to Skate’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 66
To the previous Popeye film: Goonland
To the next Popeye film: Cops Is always Right

‘A Date to Skate’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Popeye the Sailor Volume Two’

Directors: Cal Howard & Cal Dalton
Release Date: June 11, 1938
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Katnip Kollege © Warner Bros.At Katnip Kollege, all cool hep cats attend the swingology class. They all sure can swing, except bespectacled Johnny, who has no rhythm at all.

Johnny has to stay in the dunce’s corner, and at night he’s still there, while all other cats are having fun outside. But wait! Suddenly the clock gives Johnny the ‘rhythm bug’ and he rushes to the others to sing that swinging is ‘as easy as rollin’ off a log’ to his surprised girlfriend Claudia Kitty Brite. He also breaks into a hot trumpet solo, Roy Eldridge-style, which earns him kisses from his sweetheart.

‘Katnip Kollege’ is the second of only three films directed by the duo consisting of story man Cal Howard and animator Cal Dalton. The two Cals replaced Friz Freleng when he was lured away by MGM. After these three cartoons their unit was merged with that of Ben Hardaway, until Freleng returned from an all too short stint at the competing studio in 1940. In their films Howard, Hardaway and Dalton displayed not too much talent as directors, and although they produced some fun shorts, their cartoons are inferior to contemporary cartoons by Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, and Frank Tashlin.

‘Katnip Kollege’ is a clear example of their unsure style: the cartoon is low on gags, and the animation is erratic, with a lot of superfluous movement. At times it’s unclear whether the characters’ actions are supposed to be funny. Moreover, the school backgrounds feature incongruous over-sized tins, cans and clothes pins, as if the cat characters are supposed to be as tiny as bugs.

On the other hand, the swing music is genuinely intoxicating, the cartoon simply bursts with color, and the atmosphere is one of sheer joy, resulting in a really enjoyable cartoon. The cartoon easily beats ‘The Swing School‘ by the Fleischer studio, which was released only two weeks earlier, but which covers remarkably similar grounds.

Watch ‘Katnip Kollege’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Katnip Kollege’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2’

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