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Director: Dick Rickard
Release Date: November 25, 1938
Rating: ★★★½

Ferdinand the Bull © Walt DisneyThis gentle film is based on the children’s book ‘The Story of Ferdinand’ (1936) by Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson, and tells about Ferdinand, a gentle Spanish bull, who loves to sit quietly and smell the flowers.

One day “five men with funny hats” come along, in search of suitable bull for a bullfight, and because the unfortunate Ferdinand has sat on a bee, his ferocious antics make him the one. However, once inside the arena, Ferdinand refuses to fight, much to the dismay of the matador.

Ferdinand is a really peaceful, pacifistic character, and a remarkable persona in 1938, when war already was around the corner. This character must have been an inspirational one at the time, and the film won an Academy Award. The short has a friendly atmosphere, and the only really funny part is the matador trying to persuade Ferdinand to fight by making faces, a scene animated with gusto by Ward Kimball.

Yet, there’s room for some more fun, as the banderilleros and picadors are caricatures of Disney personnel, drawn by Ward Kimball. We watch Ham Luske, Jack Campbell, Fred Moore, Art Babbitt as banderilleros,  Bill Tytla as the second of the picadores (the other two are probably caricatures, too, but I don’t know of whom), and Ward Kimball himself as the moza de espada, carrying the matador’s sword.  All humans are animated very well, proof that after ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, the animators were more confident with the human body than ever.

Nevertheless, the human designs range from from very cartoony, like the Matador, to quite realistic, like the Spanish ladies, who all look like copies of Snow White. No wonder, as they were animated by Jack Campbell, who had been a key assistant to both the two units that animated the title heroine.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ was the first Disney cartoon not to be part of any series. It could have been a Silly Symphony, as in 1938 that series had not ended, yet, but apparently, the studio chose the film to be no part of that. Perhaps, because in ‘Ferdinand the Bull’, music doesn’t play an important part, belying the series’ origin. Instead, the film uses a voice over to tell the tale, being the first Disney short to do so. The voice over technique is a rather lazy narrative device, but the Disney studio adopted it whole-heartedly. And so, unfortunately, voice overs would be deployed in many non-star Disney shorts and parts of package features of the 1940s and 1950s.

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is the first of only two Disney shorts directed by Dick Rickard, the other one being ‘The Practical Pig‘ (1939). Rickard had been a story artist, working on a few Silly Symphonies and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ between 1936 and 1939. Otherwise he remains an enigmatic figure, as I cannot find any other information about him…

In December 2017 Blue Sky released their feature length adaptation of ‘Ferdinand the Bull’. I haven’t seen this film, yet, and therefore cannot compare the two films. Can you?

Watch ‘Ferdinand the Bull’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Ferdinand the Bull’ is available on the DVD set ‘Disney Rarities – Celebrated Shorts 1920s-1960s’


Director: Jack King
Release Date: April 28, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★★★½

The Hockey Champ © Walt Disney‘The Hockey Champ’ easily is one of the best Donald Duck cartoons of the 1930s.

Unlike ‘Good Scouts’ or ‘Donald’s Golf Game’, this short is fast paced, full of gags, speed lines and chase scenes, looking forward to the 1940s, the age of chase cartoons. The cartoon opens wonderfully with Donald Duck performing some impressive figure skating, and imitating Norwegian world champion and movie star Sonja Henie.

His performance is interrupted by Huey, Dewey and Louie playing ice hockey, and Donald Duck challenges the trio to a game. He indeed shows some impressive ice hockey skills, playing all by himself, in a scene recalling Max Hare playing tennis with himself in ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ (1935). This is a speedy scene for a 1939 cartoon, but when the Huey, Dewey and Louie take revenge, this speed is retained. There’s a wonderfully silly chase scene underneath the snow, with the hockey sticks acting as periscopes, and, needless to say, the haughty Donald is finally defeated by his nephews.

‘The Hockey Champ’ is an important step towards the faster cartoon style of the 1940s, and still a delight to watch, in contrast to contemporary Donald Duck cartoons, which are as beautifully made, but unfortunately less funny.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 8
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Lucky Day
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Cousin Gus

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: January 13, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★½

Donald's Lucky Day © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Lucky Day’ starts with the shadows of two gangsters making a time bomb to be delivered by a messenger boy.

The messenger boy in question is Donald Duck. Unfortunately, it’s Friday the 13th, and superstitious Donald desperately tries to avoid a ladder, a mirror and a black cat. In the end the black cat saves him by accident, hence the title.

Donald Duck is the sole star of this cartoon, but apart from his antics with the cat in the harbor, there’s little to enjoy. And because of Jack King’s slow timing, one has ample time to admire the beautiful, realistic background paintings, successfully evoking the atmosphere of a misty harbor quarter by night.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 7
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Golf Game
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Hockey Champ

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: November 4, 1938
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★

Donald's Golf Game © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Golf Game’ is the third film featuring Donald and the nephews.

Donald’s in for a game of golf, and it’s clear he only uses his nephews to be caddies, without granting them anything. Naturally, the nephews take matters in their own hand, with ‘Goofy Golf Clubs’: one changes into a net, another into an umbrella, and a third one into a boomerang. Soon Donald is stuck in a rubber band, while the three brats are playing the field.

‘Donald’s Golf Game’ is a genuine gag cartoon, but once again Jack King’s timing is ridiculously slow, spoiling otherwise fine gags. In the family’s fourth outing, ‘The Hockey Champ‘ (1939), this problem was finally over. Al Taliaferro would set the stage before the film, letting Donald Duck play golf in his daily comic strip from October 24 to November 5.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 6
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Good Scouts
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Lucky Day

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

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: July 29, 1938
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, cameos by Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow
Rating: ★★

The Fox Hunt (1938) © Walt Disney‘The Fox Hunt’ is the second entry in the Donald & Goofy mini-series. In fact, Mickey, Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabella Cluck are also present, but only shortly, and first only as shadows.

Donald gets most of the screen time, devoted to his antics with five unruly bloodhounds and a sly fox. Goofy gets only one scene, in which his horse refuses to jump. This part shows a novelty: when we watch Goofy and his horse being under water, we’re watching a new technique involving distortion glasses to make the water more convincing. This technique would become very important in the elaborate ocean scenes in Disney’s second feature film ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), for which these few seconds are only the try-out.

‘The Fox Hunt’ clearly borrows from the early Silly Symhony of the same name. The Donald and Goofy version copies the shot with the hunters being shadows in the distance, and the end gag with the skunk. The Donald and Goofy cartoons were not among Disney’s best, and ‘The Fox Hunt’, too, is only average.

‘The Fox Hunt’ was the last short directed by Ben Sharpsteen, and like Jack King, he favors an all too relaxed timing in this short, hampering the comedy. Sharpsteen had already been a sequence director for ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and for ‘Pinocchio’ he was promoted to supervising director. From now on he would work on feature films, solely, until the early 1950s, when he moved on to True-Life adventures.

Carl Barks, who was a story man at the time this short was made, revisited the fox hunting theme in his 1948 comic ‘Foxy Relations’, which is much funnier than this film.

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

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: July 8, 1938
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★★★½

Good Scouts © Walt Disney‘Good Scouts’ immediately follows ‘Donald’s Nephews‘, and is the second Donald Duck cartoon featuring Huey, Dewey and Louie. This short shows that the nephews certainly were good gag material.

In ‘Good Scouts’ the four ducks are scouts camping out in Yellowstone Park. When Donald tries to make a tent out of a bent tree, this causes a string of events, which finally leads to him ending on top of a rock on a geyser, followed by a large bear.

‘Good Scouts’ clearly establishes Donald as an unlikely and misguided authority figure. There’s no real antagonism between him and the nephews, however, and when Donald is stuck on top of the geyser the trio seriously tries to save him, only to make matters worse. ‘Good Scouts’ is a great gag cartoon, but like more Donald Duck cartoons from this period it suffers a little from Jack King’s rather relaxed timing. Nevertheless, it provided Donald Duck with his first of no less than eight Academy Award Nominations.

This film’s theme was reused in Al Taliaferro’s daily Donald Duck strip during July 18-30, 1938, shortly after the film’s release. The scout theme was, of course, revisited with gusto by Carl Barks when he made Donald’s nephews into Junior Woodchucks.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 5
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Nephews
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Golf Game

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

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: June 17, 1938
Rating: ★★★½

Polar Trappers © Walt Disney‘Polar Trappers’ is the first of six cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Goofy.

This mini-series, which lasted until 1947, is much less well-known than the trio-cartoons of the 1930s, and rightly so, for these cartoons are okay at best, and never reach the classic heights of a ‘Clock Cleaners’ (1937) or ‘Mickey’s Trailer’ (1938).

One of the problems of these shorts is that the studio never really succeeded in making comedy out of interaction between these two characters. Without the bridging Mickey, it was in fact, rather unclear why the two very different characters were actually together.

In ‘Polar Trappers’ Donald Duck and Goofy don’t share any screen time until the very end. This cartoon incongruously places them on some unknown expedition in the Antarctic. Apparently they want to catch walruses, but even Goofy has no clue why, as he sings in his opening scene.

Meanwhile Donald Duck is tired of cooking beans. He’d rather eat penguin meat, so he dresses like a penguin and tries to lure a population of penguins, much like the pied piper. This march of the penguins accounts for some beautiful shots, most notably one in which the penguins cast large shadows across the screen. The penguins’ design come straight from the Silly Symphony ‘Peculiar Penguins‘ (1934).

Donald’s evil plan is stopped by one tear of a little penguin he had sent away. This tear grows into a huge snowball, destroying the duo’s camp.

Shortly after this film’s release (August 15-27, 1938) Al Taliaferro’s Donald Duck comic strip drew inspiration from the same material, but now without Goofy.

Watch ‘Polar Trappers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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


Director: Jack King
Release Date: April 15, 1938
Rating: ★★★★½

Donald's Nephews © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Nephews’ marks the screen debut of Donald’s famous nephews, Huey, Dewey, and Louie.

Al Taliaferro had introduced them in the Donald Duck Sunday Page of October 17, 1937, and by April 1938 they had become regular stars of the Donald Duck comic strip. Their screen debut is explosive, however. Once inside the “angel nephews” initiate a game of polo on their tricycles, wrecking Donald’s house within seconds.

Luckily Donald Duck discovers a book on ‘Modern Child Training’, which gives him ideas to treat the three kids. First, Donald tries to sooth the brats by playing Pop Goes the Weasel on the piano, to no avail. Then he tries to calm them down with a nice turkey supper, still without success. In the end of the cartoon the three nephews rush off back to Aunt Dumbella, supposedly their mother, but they would return three months later, in ‘Good Scouts’. In fact, Uncle Donald clearly became their surrogate father, as Aunt Dumbella was never seen in either comic strip or animated film.

‘Donald’s Nephews’ is a wonderful cartoon: the gags come in fast and plenty, and there’s a real battles of wits going on between Donald and his nephews. There’s nothing of the slowness of Donald’s earlier cartoons. Instead, there’s a lot of speed, and some remarkable exaggeration, like Donald Duck’s hand swelling up three times its original size, and the sound effect of horses galloping when the three nephews rush to the dinner table. Highlight of ‘Donald’s Nephews’ may be the saying grace scene, which is anything but devote. Donald’s attempts to pacify his nephews come from a book, a story idea later copied in e.g. ‘Goofy’s Glider’ (1940), and the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Mouse Trouble’ (1944).

Speed, exaggeration, weird sound effects, the book idea – all these elements look forward to the zanier cartoon style of the 1940s, of which ‘Donald’s Nephews’ can be regarded as an early example.

‘Donald’s Nephews’ is an important cartoon: it clearly establishes Donald Duck as old enough to be an authority figure to the three kids. His school-going days of ‘Donald’s Better Self’ were now over. Moreover, the wrecking trio are a worthy adversary to the duck, really testing his temper. This would lead to many great cartoons, e.g. ‘Good Scouts‘, ‘Hockey Champ’ (both 1938), ‘Sea Scouts’ (1939) and ‘Mr Duck Steps Out’ (1940). Huey, Dewey, and Louie starred 23 cartoons in total, lasting until Donald Duck’s very last theatrical cartoon, ‘The Litterbug’ (1961).

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 4
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Better Self
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Good Scouts

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: March 11, 1938
Rating: ★★★

Donald's Better Self © Walt DisneyWhen ‘Donald’s Better Self’ was released, it was not yet firmly established whether Donald Duck was a boy or an adult.

This would be settled in the next cartoon, ‘Donald’s Nephews‘, with Donald clearly playing a rather unlikely role of authority figure. But in ‘Donald’s Better Self’ he’s young enough to go to an elementary school.

Throughout the cartoon, Donald is advised by both is angelic and his devilish self. The devilish self makes him skipping school and smoking a pipe, which renders Donald sick. Luckily, his angelic side comes to the rescue, mimicking a war plane, and clobbering the devilish side straight into hell.

‘Donald’s Better Self’ is animated wonderfully throughout, but as often, Jack King’s timing is terrible, wearing down the action. Worse, the tale is overtly moralistic (typical for the mid-1930s), and low on gags. The result is another mediocre entry in Donald’s fledgling series. Luckily, with the next Donald Duck cartoon, ‘Donald’s Nephews’, the studio would hit the jackpot.

Together with material from ‘Self Control‘, animation from ‘Donald’s Better Self’ was reused in the film ‘Donald’s Decision‘ (1941), a war propaganda film for the Canadian government.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 3
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Self Control
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Nephews

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: February 11, 1938
Rating: ★★

Self Control © Walt DisneyIn ‘Self Control’ Donald Duck is relaxing in a hammock in his garden, listening to the radio.

On the radio some professor advises to keep your temper, an advice Donald Duck takes wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, when he tries to rest, this becomes very difficult, as he’s hindered by a fly, a caterpillar, a chicken and an obnoxious woodpecker. The cartoon ends with Donald Duck battering the radio to pieces.

‘Self Control’ is the first Donald Duck cartoon with the Duck as the average citizen battling everyday annoyances, a role he would play with gusto during the 1940s. Unfortunately, in ‘Self Control’ his annoyances are a little too outlandish to be really familiar.

Moreover, the cartoon suffers from a terrible slowness, rendering a surprisingly boring cartoon. It seems the studio was still struggling with the character in a solo outfit. Indeed, when coupled to strong adversaries, like his nephews in ‘Donald’s Nephews‘ from two months later, the result was much more explosive. The woodpecker would return in ‘Donald’s Camera’ (1941).

Watch ‘Self Control’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 2
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Ostrich
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Better Self

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 10, 1937
Rating: ★★½

Donald's Ostrich © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Ostrich’ is the first entry in Donald Duck’s very own series.

True, Donald had already gone solo in ‘Don Donald‘ and ‘Modern Inventions‘ from earlier that year, but those two cartoons had been released within the Mickey Mouse series. With ‘Donald’s Ostrich’ Donald Duck would really be on his own, only two weeks after Pluto had made the same jump with ‘Pluto’s Quin-Puplets’. Now he was ready to become Disney’s most popular star.

Unfortunately, this first entry is not really a success. In this short Donald Duck works at a remote train station, where he encounters an ostrich in a package. The ostrich has male plumage, but is clearly female, and called Hortense. Most of the gags are about Hortense, who, as an accompanying note says, eats everything, including a harmonica, an alarm clock, a few balloons, and Donald’s radio.

The radio, especially, takes much screen time, making the ostrich behave like e.g. a boxer and a race car. This string of gags is rather tiresome, and suffers from King’s slow timing, and it’s a pity Donald gets so little screen time himself.

Donald’s next two cartoons wouldn’t be better, but with ‘Donald’s Nephews‘, the studio would hit the jackpot. Hortense meanwhile would enter Donald’s life, too, in Al Taliaferro’s daily Donald Duck comic strip in May 9, 1938, causing a string of gags until May 24, and occasionally appearing afterwards.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 1
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Self Control

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

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 May 27, 1933
Rating:★★★★★ ♕

Three Little Pigs © Walt Disney‘Three Little Pigs’ is one of the most successful, most famous and most perfect cartoons ever made. It was hugely popular when it was released, with people associating its catchy theme song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ with an optimism with which one could fight the haunting effects of the Great Depression.

Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore were the principle animators on the film. Norm Ferguson animated the wolf in his typical broad vaudeville acting style, which comes to full bloom in this film. The wolf is a great character, with his glances at the public. He’s a real villain, but somehow too sympathetic as an actor to be really threatening. Unfortunately, his design is not very consistent. Especially his eyes are unsteady and a bit wobbly. One can clearly watch the wolf’s design improving during the film, as if it was animated chronologically. And this may very well possible.

However, it’s Fred Moore’s animation that made the deepest impression on the animation field. Because of his animation on the three pigs, ‘Three Little Pigs’ is regarded as the first animated cartoon to feature so-called character animation. The three pigs form the key to character animation: although the three are drawn the same, the sensible pig behaves differently from the other two: he’s clearly a different character, not by design, but by animation. This was a great step forward in the evolution in animation, and admired by the whole animation industry.

Apart from that the pigs’ designs, by the highly influential concept artist Albert Hurter, are highly appealing. Hurter had joined Disney in June 1931, first as an animator, but soon he switched to concept art, and he had a tremendous influence on the looks of Disney’s films in the 1930s. It must have been around this time that Disney started to think of an animated feature – a daring project which would dominate the studio during 1934-1937. For this ambitious project Moore would design no less than seven similar, yet different characters, while Hurter would indulge in elaborate sets, full of little details.

The film was a success not only within the animation industry, but with the American public, as well. The audiences took the film and its catchy song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (sung by Mary Moder, Dorothy Compton and Pinto Colvig) as a sign of comfort and hope in the dark days of the Great Depression era. And even after more than eighty years, Frank Churchill’s song is still extremely catchy, even though it’s never heard in its entirety during the short. After a while the cartoon became no less than a sensation, lasting weeks in some theaters, and spawning a great deal of merchandise, like alarm clocks and jigsaw puzzles. In 1934 it won the Academy Award for best animated short film. In 1941 it was still famous enough to be changed into Disney’s first war propaganda film: ‘The Thrifty Pig‘.

The film undoubtedly was Walt Disney’s most famous and most successful short, and the first Silly Symphony to spawn sequels – due to the pressure by distributor United Artists. These sequels (‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ from 1934, ‘Three Little Wolves‘ from 1936, and ‘The Practical Pig‘ from 1939) were, of course, much less successful than the original, and are all but forgotten today. As Disney himself said “You can’t top pigs with pigs’.

The film also raised director Burt Gillett’s fame, and soon he was lured away by the ailing Van Beuren studios to repeat this immense success. However, at Van Beuren it soon became clear that ‘Three Little Pigs’ was not a success because of Burt Gillett’s genius, but because of the ambitious group effort of the Disney studio, and Gillett never managed to come near his most successful films at Disney again.

For ‘Three Little Pigs’ was a true collective effort, with Hurter, Churchill, Ferguson and Moore showing their best work thus far, but also through contributions by e.g. Art Babbitt, Dick Lundy and Jack King, who also animated some sequences, voice artist Pinto Colvig, the voice of the practical pig, and story man Ted Sears, who both contributed to the cartoon’s theme song, and Carl Stalling, who provided the practical pig’s piano-playing.

The film has easily stood the test of time: not only are the characters still appealing, its backgrounds are gorgeous, its music catchy, and its storytelling extraordinarily economical and effective, probably because may have been the first animated cartoon with a complete storyboard. The short’s joy is still infectious today. And although one will always remember the short’s cheerfulness, it contains some black humor, too: look for the portraits of dad and Uncle Tom in the wise pig’s house.

By the way, present-day viewers see an altered version of the film. The original featured a sequence in which the wolf dressed as a stereotyped Jewish door-to-door salesman. For its video release in the early 1980s this sequence was completely redrawn, to remove all Jewish references.

Watch ‘Three Little Pigs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 36
To the previous Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark
To the next Silly Symphony: Old King Cole

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 19, 1932

Babes in the Woods © Walt Disney‘Babes in the woods’ is a free adaptation of the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

In Disney’s version the two lost children encounter some merry dwarfs before they meet the witch. The witch takes them for a ride on her flying broom to her gingerbread house.

Once inside the witch’s abode the cartoon takes a nightmarish turn. in the dark and gloomy inside the witch reveals she turns little children in newts, rats, spiders and bats. We watch the with turn a cat into stone, which immediately falls down and brakes. Then she turns the boy into a spider. When she wants to turn the girl into a rat, she’s interrupted by the dwarfs, who have come to the rescue. While she’s fleeing for the squadrons of gnomes firing arrows at her, the girl discovers a potion to turn the spider and all other animals present in the witches house into children again. In the end the witch is turned into stone by falling into her own potion.

This re-telling of Grimm’s classic tale introduces some story ideas that made it into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ five years later: there’s a scary forest with trees looking like monsters and there are of course the witch and the dwarfs. Indeed, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for most of the looks of both this Silly Symphony as one of the chief designers for Disney’s first feature.

The storytelling is economical, with a lot happening in the mere seven minutes. As soon as the witch enters the scene, the action is relentless. The pretty scary scene inside the Witch’s house is particularly gripping. The short also contains a small dance routine, reminiscent of, but a great improvement on ‘The Merry Dwarfs‘ from 1929. The children’s designs of this particular film became stock designs in most studios in the rest of the 1930’s, in which more and more films would take a childish character, anyway.

With ‘Babes in the Woods’ embarked on a series of Silly Symphonies that were adaptations of familiar fairy tales and fables. Other examples are ‘Three Little Pigs‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ from 1933, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ from 1934 and ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ from 1935.

‘Babes in the Woods’ is a stunning tour-de-force for 1932, but four days before its release Disney had started its first in-house art class, hosted by Don Graham. With these twice-weekly art classes Disney’s animators got better and better, and all subsequent Disney films clearly show that, with the Silly Symphonies in particular showing an enormous growth during the rest of the 1930’s.

One trivial remark: Hansel and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes typical for some Dutch fishing-villages. However, the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European). Talking about being lost!

Watch ‘Babes in the Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 32
To the previous Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love
To the next Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 March 18, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Goofy, Pluto

Mickey's Mellerdrammer © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ Mickey and the gang are performing a stage version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ (1852), a so-called ‘Tom Show’.

Surprisingly, this was not Mickey’s first take at the play, as he and his pals had performed it already in February 1932 in Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse strip ‘The Orphanage Robbery’. The comic strip undoubtedly influenced the cartoon as in both the comic strip and in the cartoon Mickey plays both Topsy and Uncle Tom, while Minnie plays Little Eva, Clarabelle Cow Eliza and Horace Horsecollar the vicious plantation owner Simon Legree. Because the comic strip predates Goofy’s birth he’s not part of the play, and in the cartoon he only helps behind the scene. Goofy remains a surprisingly bland character, doing little more than laughing stupidly, proving that his guffaw still was his only defining character trait.

First we watch Mickey and the gang dress themselves, obviously in the best minstrel tradition and featuring quite a few blackface gags, including the obligate reference to Al Jolson’s ‘Mammy’. Then we watch two scenes of the play itself. The play opens merrily enough with Little Eva and Topsy dancing to ‘Dixie’, but a little later Simon Legree is about to lash Uncle Tom.

Despite the play’s serious subject matter, the cartoon is full of nonsense, especially when Mickey unleashes fifty dogs, ridiculously dressed in dogs costume. The cartoon ends, when these dogs encounter a cat and destroy everything in chasing it. This sequence makes ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ a late addition to Mickey’s destructive-finale-cartoon-series of 1931/1932. The large number of gags makes ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ quite entertaining, but of course the numerous blackface gags date the cartoon a lot, and make it an obvious product of a more openly racist era.

In Mickey’s next cartoon ‘Ye Olden Days’ the idea of him and the gang acting was taken a step further, when they were introduced as actors in that cartoon. The idea of cartoon characters performing a melodrama was later copied by Max Fleischer in ‘She Wronged him Right‘ (1934) starring Betty Boop.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Mellerdrammer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 54
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Pal Pluto
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Ye Olden Days

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white Volume two’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 December 17, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★

Mickey's Good Deed © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is the second of four Mickey Mouse Christmas cartoons (‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ from 1931 was the first, the third would only appear at the end of Mickey’s career in 1952: ‘Pluto’s Christmas Tree‘ and the fourth would herald Mickey’s return to the screen in ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol‘ from 1983).

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is a typical cartoon of the Great Depression era, which, if we look at the Hollywood output, seemed to find its lowest point in 1931-1933. Surprisingly many films from these years show people in great poverty, struggling at the bottom of society. Other examples are the Laurel and Hardy short ‘One Good Turn’ (1931), the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘What A Life’ (1932), the Cubby the Bear cartoon ‘Barking Dogs’, and the Warner Bros. musical ‘ Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933).

In the opening scene of ‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ we watch Mickey being down at the dumps: he is a poor street musician, playing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ on a double bass in the snow. He’s obviously homeless and his pants are ragged. When all the change he got turns out to be just bolts and nuts his hopes of a decent meal in a fancy restaurant are shattered.

Meanwhile a rich and spoiled brat discovers Pluto and wants him for a present. So his father sends out his servant to buy Pluto from Mickey. Mickey first refuses, stating that Pluto is his pal. But then his double bass is destroyed by a sleigh and Mickey discovers a very poor and desperate mother of numerous kittens.

In other to help the latter, he finally sells Pluto to buy numerous toys for the little kittens, which he gives them, dressed like Santa, while they’re sleeping. Meanwhile, the spoiled brat is giving Pluto, his own father and the servant a hard time. In the end, the father spanks his son and throws Pluto out of the house. The cartoon ends when Mickey and Pluto are rejoined again, sharing a roasted chicken Pluto accidentally had brought along.

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is one of Mickey’s most melodramatic cartoons, and relatively low on gags, the most of which involving the spoiled brat and his antics. It plays a familiar theme contrasting the spoiled rich, who think they can get anything with money, with the unfortunate poor, who are willing to help each other out. It’s strange to see Mickey so poor, however, as he is in this cartoon. It’s as if he had lost Minnie and his friends, as well. The most poignant scene is that of a homeless Mickey roasting a sausage on a fire with a mock Pluto made out of snow.

This cartoon contains a caricature of Jimmy Durante as a jack-in-the-box, which is probably the first of many caricatures of this 1930s comedian in animated film. One and a half year later, Mickey would meet Jimmy Durante in person in the live action movie ‘Hollywood Party’.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 50
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Klondike Kid
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Building a Building

‘Mickey’s Good Deed’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white Volume two’


Director: Dave Hand
Release Date:
 May 13, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★

The Mail Pilot © Walt DisneyIn his fifth year Mickey Mouse was at the top of his game: practically every Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1933 is a winner (the sole exception arguably being ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man‘). Moreover, Mickey was still the top star himself, although with ‘Mickey’s Pal Pluto‘ he would give screen time to Pluto, the beginning of a trend that would take severe turns in the rest of the 1930s, when Pluto, Donald and Goofy would all but eclipse Mickey’s career.

None of that in 1933! In that year Mickey is still in prime form, with ‘The Mail Pilot’ as a perfect example. It’s astonishing to watch the ease with which its strong story is told, and how many events the animators could squeeze into the seven minute cartoon.

In ‘The Mail Pilot’ Mickey is a mail pilot who has to carry a chest with money across the mountains. On his way he has to deal with a thunderstorm and a blizzard before he sees the sun again. The design of the anthropomorphized sun is the same as in the Silly Symphony ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ from one month earlier. Unfortunately, at the other end of the mountains he’s confronted by evil mail robber Pete, who has both his legs in this cartoon. Pete shoots Mickey’s wings and propeller to pieces, but Mickey manages to fly nonetheless, capturing the bandit on the way.

‘The Mail Pilot’ belongs to Disney’s operetta period (see also ‘The Mad Doctor‘ and ‘Ye Olden Days‘ from the same year), and all dialogue is sung. Its opening song. ‘The Mail Must Go Through’, forms the main musical theme, which composer Bert Lewis develops in classical fashion in the rest of the score to glorious effects.

‘The Mail Pilot’ has an exciting adventure plot, and it’s not surprising that it spawned a comic book story, which arguably was Mickey’s most exciting adventure thus far. The story (now also labeled ‘The Mail Pilot’ ran from February 27 (months before the release of the cartoon ) until June 10. Floyd Gottfredson greatly expanded on the cartoon’s story, substituting the mail pilot for a much more exciting pirate dirigible with a magnetic web to ensnare the mail planes. Later, some scenes of the cartoon were combined with elements from ‘Shanghaied’ (1934) in Floyd Gottfredson’s classic comic strip ‘Mickey and the Pirates’ (or ‘The Captive Castaways’, 1934).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 56
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Ye Olden Days
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Mechanical Man

‘The Mail Pilot’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 December 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★

Santa's Workshop © Walt Disney‘Santa’s Workshop’ is one of the earliest Christmas cartoons, celebrating the Santa Claus myth with glee.

If the preceding Silly Symphonies, ‘King Neptune‘ and ‘Babes in the Woods’ were impressive, ‘Santa’s Workshop’ is even more beautiful and colorful. The short’s opening scenes are more colorful than those of the earlier shorts, and this high level of use of color is maintained throughout the picture.

Like ‘King Neptune’ it’s an operetta cartoon, with the elves and Santa singing their lines in rhyme. Santa Claus himself is a variation on King Neptune, equally stout and equally merry. We watch him reading letters, accompanied by a sour gnome, who shares his voice (Pinto Colvig) with later famous sourpuss Grumpy from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). Later Santa test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

The sourpuss gnome, animated by Tom Palmer, can be regarded as one of the first animated figures with a character of his own. In his autobiography Pinto Colvig claims that credits should go to Palmer “for being the first to put actual living mannerisms and human-like expressions into film cartoons”, based on Colvig’s own interpretation of the character.

The scenes with Santa are followed by a parade of mechanical toys into Santa’s sack, accompanied by Franz Schubert’s Military March No. 1. This sequence clearly shows how good Disney’s animation had become: the difference between living creatures and mechanical toys is unmistakable. This march a.o. features a mechanical Charlie Chaplin toy, and some stereotyped Chinese and Jewish dolls.

The racist dolls notwithstanding the complete cartoon is one of sheer delight, and must have been mind-blowing to the audiences of the time, unfamiliar with either color or this level of animation in other cartoons of the era. One can rightly say, that only in color the Silly Symphony series rightly found its purpose of pushing the limits of animation forward.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ itself was proof of the astonishing growth the studio had made in its four year existence. One of the reasons was that since 1931 Disney had sent his animators to evening classes at the Chouinard Art School. But on 15 november 1932 Chouinard art teacher Don Graham was appointed as the studio’s formal teacher, starting evening classes at the Disney studio itself.

From now on the studio could improve itself even faster, with the Silly Symphonies as its main platform for innovation, especially from 1934 onward, when Disney planned to make a feature film. By the mid-1930’s the art school cost the studio no less than $100.000 a year, but Disney now could improve the quality of his films at an amazing speed, leaving all competitors far behind.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ was one of the few Silly Symphonies to get a sequel. In 1933 the studio released ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which is  even more colorful and more refined than this cartoon.

Watch ‘ Santa’s Workshop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 33
To the previous Silly Symphony: Babes in the Woods
To the next Silly Symphony: Birds in the Spring

Director: Joe Grant?
Release Date:
 November 18, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Wallace Beery, Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, Helen Hayes, Fredric March, Marie Dressler
Rating: ★★★★

Parade of the Award Nominees © Walt Disney‘Parade of the Award Nominees’ was especially made for the fifth Academy Awards gala night of November 18, 1932 to introduce the nominees for best actors and actresses.

The short is based on the opening parade of ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931), and reuses quite some animation from the original Silly Symphony, but this time it features Mickey, Minnie and Pluto, all in their color debut, predating their official color debuts in ‘The Band Concert‘, ‘On Ice‘ and ‘Mickey’s Garden‘ respectively by three years. Thus, their color designs are a bit different: Mickey wears green shorts instead of red ones, and Pluto is a sort of grey-ish, instead of orange-brown.

Following Mickey, Minnie and some characters from the original ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ we watch the following Hollywood stars parade: Wallace Beery as ‘The Champ’, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt (both starring ‘The Guardsman’), Helen Hayes (‘The Sin of Madelon Claudet’), Fredric March (‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’), transforming while walking, and finally Marie Dressler (‘Emma’).

The caricatures were based on designs by Joe Grant, who, at that time, was still working as a newspaper caricutarist. Grant was only hired later, for ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘, which premiered eight months later, and which features many more caricatures of Hollywood stars. Incidentally, Fredric March, Wallace Beery and Helen Hayes won the Oscars.

Apart from this film, Disney was very present at this gala night: he was nominated for Best Sound Recording, he won the Oscar for the new category ‘Best Animated Short Film’ with his full-color debut ‘Flowers and Trees‘, and he got an honorary award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, with which Hollywood acknowledged the little mouse’s extraordinary fame. This was Disney’s first triumphant presence at the Academy Awards, but many successes would follow, as Walt Disney would receive no less than 26 Academy Awards during his career…

Watch ‘Parade of the Award Nominees’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Parade of the Award Nominees’ is available on the DVD ‘Mickey Mouse in Living Color’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 November 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

The Klondike Kid © Walt DisneyKlondike. In a beautiful opening scene we cut to “Klondike Bar’, a rowdy bar, where Mickey is a bar pianist, playing the popular ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’.

The bar scene is pretty complex, with a lot going on. Goofy is there, too, seemingly just to show he’s a star to stay, for he has no involvement in the plot, at all. Outside, Minnie is freezing, and Mickey takes her inside, but then Pierre (a.k.a. Pete) arrives, peg leg and all. Soon he runs off with Minnie after a short gun fighting scene. Mickey, of course, rushes out to follow him, and jumps on a sled pulled by Pluto. In a remote log cabin, a fight ensues…

In essence ‘The Klondike Kid’ is ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ in Alaska. But what an execution of such an old idea! The gags are plenty and funny and build up to a fast paced finale. This short is unique for its time in its clever integration of story and gags: the gags are not bonuses, but really add to the story. Highlight must be the ridiculous fight between Mickey and Peg Leg Pete hindered by spiral springs. Mickey Mouse arguably reached the apex of his solo career with this cartoon.

Because of the strong similarities in setting and storyline ‘The Klondike Kid’ feels like a direct ancestor to Tex Avery’s two settings of the poem ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’: ‘Dangerous Dan McFoo’ (Warner Brothers, 1939) and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGoo‘ (MGM, 1946).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 49
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Good Deed

‘The Klondike Kid’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 October 15, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕

Touchdown Mickey © Walt DisneyLike the earlier ‘Barnyard Olympics‘, ‘Touchdown Mickey’ is as fast-paced sports cartoon. It plunges right into action, when we watch Mickey getting a touchdown for his team Mickey’s Manglers, in an attempt to defeat their opponents, the Alley Cats. The Alley Cats all look like Pete sans peg leg, and they prove tough opponents to Mickey’s much more diverse team.

The sheer speed with which the countless gags are delivered is astonishing, especially when compared to contemporary cartoons from other studios, or earlier Mickeys. By 1932 the studio made better use of Mickey the little hero than ever before, and ‘Touchdown Mickey’ excellently plays on Mickey as the underdog beating the odds. This means we can immediately sympathize with him and his feeble team, drawing us into the match ourselves – as we really want him to win.

The short marks Goofy’s third screen appearance and already he is a more recognizable and more defined character than Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow would ever be. In ‘Touchdown Mickey’ he’s a radio reporter, if a rather uninformative one, and in one of the numerous gags he accidentally mistakes the head of a colleague for his microphone. Twelve years later Goofy would be playing football himself, in ‘How to Play Football’ (1944), but by then is character had gone through quite some transformations.

Interestingly, there’s another character with a characteristic laugh in this cartoon, a fat pig in the audience, who wears glasses and holds a cigar. As his design is more complex than that of all other characters, I suspect him to be a caricature, but of whom?

‘Touchdown Mickey’ was released only twelve days after the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘The Goal Rush‘, which covers exactly the same subject to less satisfying results.’Touchdown Mickey’ is great, it’s fun and absolutely among Mickey’s all time best cartoons.

Watch ‘Touchdown Mickey’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 47
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Whoopee Party
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary

‘Touchdown Mickey’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

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