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Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: October 10, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Pete
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Officer Duck © Walt Disney‘Officer Duck’ is the first of nine cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Pete.

Pete, who in this short is called Tiny Tom and who has a golden tooth, had been a great adversary to the courageous Mickey Mouse, and he also was a strong opponent to Donald Duck. However, he was dropped after 1944, as Donald Duck director Jack Hannah preferred smaller adversaries, making Donald Duck more of a straight man to bees, bugs and chipmunks.

In ‘Officer Duck’ Donald is a policeman ordered to arrest Tiny Tom (ergo Pete). He does so by pretending to be a baby, bringing out Pete’s previously unknown soft side. Apart from being rather unlikely, the comedy also suffers from milking this one idea – in a 1940s Warner Bros. cartoon the baby trick would have been only one of several schemes.

Watch ‘Officer Duck’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 14
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: The Autograph Hound
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Riveter

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

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Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 1, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Mickey Rooney, Sonja Heni, The Ritz Brothers, Shirley Temple
Rating:  ★★★★½
Review:

The Autograph Hound © Walt Disney‘The Autograph Hound’ is an update of the idea of the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘Movie Mad‘ (1931): Donald Duck tries to enter a Hollywood studio, to meet some stars, but is hindered by a guard.

The caricature of Hollywood stars of course form the highlight of the cartoon, and like the ones in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘ (1933), they were all done by Joe Grant. Donald especially has to deal with an obnoxious Mickey Rooney, the rather bland Sonja Henie (whom Donald had imitated in ‘The Hockey Champ‘), the forgotten Ritz Brothers and a lovely Shirley Temple.

During the final scene we also see Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Charlie, Stepin Fetchit, Joe E. Brown, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho Marx and several others, all wanting to have Donald’s autograph.

Donald’s extraordinary fame in this cartoon seems to be a case of wishful thinking by the Disney Studio, but chances are that by 1939 Donald Duck had become the biggest animated star around. Mickey Mouse, the greatest cartoon star of the 1930s, was seen less and less on the screen, while Pluto and Goofy only came into their own during the 1940s. Fleischer’s Betty Boop had retired in July 1939, and even Popeye’s popularity may have waned after Segar’s death and the Fleischer’s move to Florida. Warner Bros.’ Porky Pig never became a huge star, and Daffy had still to reach his peak, while other potential rivals, like Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry or Woody Woodpecker only entered the scene in 1940.

Donald wears his blue cap for the first time in this cartoon, replacing his original white one. The blue cap was to stay till the present day.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 13
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Penguin
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Officer Duck

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: August 11, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating:
Review:

Donald's Penguin © Walt DisneyIn ‘Donald’s Penguin’ Donald Duck receives a present from one Admiral Bird, South Pole.

The package appears to contain a female penguin, whom Donald calls Tootsie. In ‘Donald’s Penguin’ Donald’s behavior is quite different than from the earlier ‘Polar Trappers‘ (1938), in which he tried to kill several penguins in order to eat them. True, even in this gentle cartoon he threatens to blast the penguin away with a shotgun, but mostly the short shows Donald’s soft side. This doesn’t lead to great comedy, and mostly ‘Donald’s Penguin’ seems to be the Donald Duck counterpart of the later, but equally dull Pluto-befriends-an-animal series (e.g. ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ from 1941 and ‘Canine Patrol‘ from 1945). Nonetheless, ‘Donald’s Penguin’ is a rare Disney cartoon in which creatures are killed, as Donald’s three goldfish all end in the penguin’s stomach.

‘Donald’s Penguin’ was the last cartoon in which Donald Duck wears a white cap. In his next short, ‘The Autograph Hound’ it was replaced by a blue one, probably for greater contrast.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 12
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Sea Scouts
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Autograph Hound

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

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: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: June 9, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Pluto
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Beach Picnic © Walt Disney‘Beach Picnic’ was the first short directed by Clyde Geronimi.

Geronimi was born in Italy in 1901, and worked for Hearst, Bray and Walter Lantz before joining Walt Disney in 1931. He was promoted to director in 1938, and he directed 21 shorts, featuring Donald, Goofy, Mickey and Pluto before moving on to feature films in 1943.

Geronimi had a gentle directing style, more fit for charm than for comedy, and best suited for Mickey and Pluto. ‘Beach Picnic’ is a typical example. It opens with Donald Duck singing the 1914 hit song ‘By the Beautiful Sea’, and in fact he looks like a bather from that era.

But most of the screen time goes to Pluto, not Donald, and our favorite cartoon dog stars in two long situation comedy sequences. First with Donald’s inflatable horse (which Donald calls Seabiscuit after the champion race horse of the era), then with flypaper. This latter sequence is for a great deal a straight copy of Norm Ferguson’s flypaper scene in ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934). The animation is exactly the same, only redrawn in color.

Another gag features Pluto becoming inflated and flying through the air. This gag is undoubtedly the best of the entire film, and it was repeated by Hanna and Barbera in the Tom & Jerry short ‘Salt Water Tabby‘ (1947). Donald meanwhile has to deal with Indian-like ants, something he would have to do again in ‘Tea for Two Hundred’ (1948).

‘Beach Picnic’ is a slow, and only moderately funny cartoon, and it shows that Donald needed some stronger adversaries to make the comedy work than the gentle Pluto.

‘Beach Picnic’ is part of a transitional phase for Pluto. Even though Pluto’s own series had been launched in 1937, with ‘Pluto’s Quin-Puplets’, the series only really took of in 1940. In the meantime Pluto co-starred with Donald in four films, of which ‘Beach Picnic’ is the first (although the two had already shared screen time in ‘Donald and Pluto‘ from 1936).

Watch ‘Beach Picnic’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 10
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Cousin Gus
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Sea Scouts

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: May 19, 1939
Stars: Donald Duck, Cousin Gus
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Donald's Cousin Gus © Walt DisneyIn the rare occasion that Donald’s relatives visited our hero, this quickly turned into disaster: in ‘Donald’s Nephews‘ (1938) the nephews managed to wreck Donald’s house within seconds, in ‘Donald’s Cousin Gus’ Gus makes Donald’s food disappear almost instantly.

Cousin Gus had first appeared in Al Taliaferro’s daily comic strip, from May 9 to 24, 1938, and from November 7 to 19, and the May comics clearly inspired this cartoon. He was less obnoxious during the November run, letting Donald Duck visit him at the farm. Both in the comic strip as in the film Cousin Gus is a silent character- in the short the only sound he makes is a honk when he squeezes his own behind.

Gus is introduced as being rather dumb, but his ways of eating are ingenious, eating corn-on-the-cob like a typewriter, knitting a sock out of spaghetti, eating a ridiculously large sandwich like a pack of cards, and peas by playing an Indian tune while sucking them in one by one. Soon Donald is left without any food and no wonder he tries to get rid of his gluttonous relative. He does so with a ‘barking hot dog’, a bizarre gadget that must only exist in the cartoon world.

‘Donald’s Cousin Gus’ is a genuine gag cartoon, almost fit for more modern times, if it were quicker paced. The cartoon is entertaining, but never reaches classic status. More cartoons with cousin Gus were conceived, but they never materialized, and this cartoon remained Gus’s only screen appearance. However, he would embark on a comic career as Grandma Duck’s lazy farmhand.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon no. 9
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: The Hockey Champ
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Beach Picnic

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

 

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

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
Review:

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
Review:

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: The 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: ★★
Review:

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: ★★
Review:

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
Review:

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
Review:

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
Review:

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‘, ‘The 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: ★★★
Review:

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: ★★
Review:

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
Review:

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:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

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
Rating:★★★
Review:

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
Rating:★★★½
Review:

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’

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