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Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: October 23, 1941
Rating:  ★★★★
Review:

dumbo © walt disneyAlthough released before ‘Bambi’ (1942), Dumbo is essentially Disney’s fifth feature film (or sixth, if you take ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ in account).

The production on ‘Bambi’ in fact had already started in Disney’s golden age, when only the sky seemed the limit. But the disappointing box office results of costly ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ (both 1940) and the cut-off from foreign markets due to World War II completely changed the financial outlook of the Disney studio.

New projects were to be cheaper and simpler than the highly ambitious ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio’, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi’. ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, of course, was the first result of this new policy, but ‘Dumbo’, too, is a product of this new era. Luckily it was very successful at the box office, but sadly, only six weeks after its premiere World War II hit the United States itself, and suddenly the Disney studio was faced with entirely new problems…

‘Dumbo’s origin lies in a little book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl, which has been completely eclipsed by Disney’s film. The first plans were to make into a short, but Joe Grant and Dick Huemer expanded it to feature length, even if barely. Clocking a mere sixty minutes, ‘Dumbo’ is the shortest, simplest and most direct of all Disney features. Its story is extremely straightforward, and sets in after a short setting introduction. When the film climaxes, with Dumbo’s first triumphant flight, the film has only four minutes left. In no other animated film things are rounded up so quickly in the end. It’s as if Dumbo’s success is way less interesting than his sorrow. Even the loss of the ‘magic feather’ provides only a few seconds of stress. A contemporary animation film would certainly expand this story idea with more predictable results.

With this lean story, the studio perfectly managed to focus on the character of little Dumbo (or Jumbo jr., which is his real name) himself. With his over-sized ears the adorable little elephant soon becomes the laughing stock of the circus, and when he ruins an act, he’s treated as an outcast. Even worse, when his mother tries to defend him, she’s locked up in solitary confinement, which means that Dumbo is separated from his mother. The relationship of Dumbo and his mother forms the heart of the film, and their scenes together, animated by Bill Tytla, excel in charm and tenderness. Especially Dumbo’s visit to his locked up mother is an emotional highlight, and the reunion of mother and son forms a pinnacle of emotional animation. Unfortunately, the studio knew too well that this was the case, and this scene is enhanced with a sentimental song, a crying Timothy, and shots of other animals and their cubs. This tendency of overdoing sentimentality has become a major problem in American animated features ever since. All this elaboration was unnecessary, as the simple interplay between mother and son clearly is marvelous enough to steal the heart of the greatest cynic.

Surprisingly, Dumbo, despite being the main protagonist of the film, doesn’t speak. In fact he hardly makes a sound, except for a few blows and hiccups here and there. His silence is countered by the talkative little mouse Timothy, who’s introduced after twenty minutes, and who, from then on, carries the film forward. It’s Timothy who acts as the little kid’s first helper, after his mother has been taken away, it’s Timothy who manages to get Dumbo in his first act, it’s Timothy who takes Dumbo to his mother, and it’s Timothy who helps Dumbo finds his real talent. Although much smaller than Dumbo, Timothy clearly is a much more confident character, speaking with Ed Brophy’s tough New York accent, and taking on guys bigger than him. He certainly is a marvelous character, and one of the best friend characters in any animation film. Nevertheless, with his arrival the film loses some of its show-don’t-tell-quality, which it has in its first scenes. For example, the building of the circus, and the scene in which Dumbo and his mother play hide and seek are prime examples of telling a story without words or any commentary.

However, Timothy is not the only great character in the film. There’s for example a gentle stork, voiced by Sterling Holloway, in his first Disney assignment. Holloway would become Disney’s all-time favorite voice actor, lasting until the 1970s. This stork takes his duty very seriously, insisting on singing happy birthday for the newborn. Also noteworthy is Casey Junior, the train. He is Disney’s first anthropomorphized train since ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ from 1929, and only given a few short scenes, but these are delightful enough to make him one of the stars. ‘Casey Junior’ gets more footage in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. Moreover, that film reveals how he speaks.

Then, of course, there are the other elephants, all female, and acting like a bunch of narrow-minded gossiping ladies. It seems that already before the arrival of Dumbo his mother is somewhat of an outcast. She clearly fits in less well in their petty little group. Rarely an uglier bunch of vile females hit the animated screen.

Even more memorable are the five crows who find Dumbo and Timothy up in the tree. These crows are clearly stereotyped blacks, but luckily they are actually voiced by blacks, except for their leader, who is voiced by Cliff Edwards (better known as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’). And luckily they don’t show any abject stereotyped black character traits like being dumb, slow, lazy, fearful or addicted to gambling. Instead, they look like a bunch of fun-loving characters, and they help little Dumbo in the end. Animated by Ward Kimball, these crows are given a song-and-dance routine that has a wonderful jazzy air to it, even if the music hardly hasn’t.

The humans in ‘Dumbo’, on the other hand, are very anonymous. We only get to know the face of the Italian ringmaster, other characters only appear in silhouette or in greasepaint. During the circus building scene the workers are kept completely faceless, making the viewer focus on the work of the elephants, including Dumbo.

The music is very supportive to the story, and the songs hardly stop the action, if at all. Somehow the songs from Dumbo have become less classics than from ‘Snow White’ or ‘Pinocchio’. This is a pity, for composers Oliver Wallace and Frank Churchill and lyricist Ned Washington have produced a very inspired score, which matches the colorful scenes perfectly, with ‘Casey Junior’ and ‘When I See an Elephant Fly’ as major standouts.

And then, of course, there’s the pink elephant scene. This scene forms the break between Dumbo’s misery and triumph, and it’s the only scene to show real experimentalism (although one must admit that the circus building scene, with its strong angles and expressive staging is a very impressive example of cinematic expressionism). Directed by Jack Kinney, the wildest of Disney’s directors, it’s in fact the most surreal scene in studio animation since Bob Clampett’s ‘Porky in Wackyland’ (1938). Of absolute beauty is the elephant ballet, painted only in outlines. The scene knows a great deal of metamorphosis, a rare feat in Disney animation since ca. 1933. It’s a welcome return of one of the most powerful tools of animation. Some elements of the Pink Elephant scene hark all the way back to the boogie men sequence from the Silly Symphony ‘Lullaby Land’ (1933). In is turn it influenced later surreal sequences in e.g. ‘The Three Caballeros’ (1944) and ‘Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day’ (1968).

In all, ‘Dumbo’ is a charming little film, with a lot of heart. Its cuteness never gets in the way, and its leanness makes it more accessible than any other Disney feature. What ‘Dumbo’ may lack in astonishing experimentalism, is compensated by a lot of color and delightfully playful animation. It’s by all means a little gem that can easily stand the test of time.

Or can it? As the years go by, ‘Dumbo’ may become less and less acceptable. It already contains a newspaper headline gag that makes it a clear product of the war era (‘Dumbombers for home defense’). Then there are the stereotyped crows, which certainly have become more problematic since then. Add the pink elephant scene, in which Dumbo (a little kid!) in fact gets drunk. I predict a time in which this scene will not be accepted anymore by the “politic correct”. And finally, there’s the circus setting itself. With the advent of television, the circus has known a steady decline, and in the 21st century the idea itself of animals performing becomes less and less acceptable. All these factors are a real threat to the film, and if we’re unlucky it will finally receive the same fate as ‘Song of the South’ (1948), which is virtually banned from life, leaving us with the dreary photo-realistic remake, which will be released on March 29 this year.

This would be a pity, for the original ‘Dumbo’ is great entertainment, and a prime example of what great animation is all about.

Watch the original trailer for ‘Dumbo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 5, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Chef Donald © Walt Disney‘Chef Donald’ opens with Donald gluing some recipes in a book.

This sets the stage for the single premise in this cartoon: when following a recipe for waffles on the radio Donald accidentally puts in some rubber cement (glue) into his mix instead of baking powder. This leads to remarkably stubborn dough, and the rest of the cartoon is filled with Donald trying to deal with it.

‘Chef Donald’ is full of surprising gags, like an iron ironing Donald’s chef hat by accident, and a large crack splitting his complete house. The most bizarre gag is when the dough takes the air like a helicopter. The animation on Donald himself is wonderful and absolutely inspired, but because the short milks the glue-gag until the end the end result is less than satisfying.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 29
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: The Village Smithy

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

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: October 24, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Donald's Camera © Walt Disney‘Donald’s Camera’ opens with Donald reading a sign saying ‘Shoot nature with a camera instead of a gun’.

Donald immediately becomes anti-hunting, eschewing the sight of a gun and deploring the fate of some stuffed animals in a hunting shop’s window. In the next scene Donald is on his way in the forest, trying to photograph some wild animals. He fails to take a picture of a chipmunk, and is laughed at by a whole bunch of cute animals, who seem to have entered the cartoon straight from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937).

After three-and-a-half minutes Donald meets the main adversary of the cartoon, the obnoxious woodpecker from ‘Self Control‘ (1938). The angry bird doesn’t want to get photographed and gives Donald a hard time. Thus in the end, we watch Donald wandering the forest, carrying two guns and dragging a miniature canon with him in search of the pesky little bird.

‘Donald’s Camera’ is a genuine gag cartoon, and contains some very fast animation, but the short is hampered by Lundy’s gentle approach to directing. The silliest gag is when Donald puts the woodpecker into two ridiculous poses.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 28
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Old MacDonald Duck
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Chef Donald

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

Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 12, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★
Review:

Old MacDonald Duck © Walt Disney‘Old MacDonald Duck’ was the cartoon announced three months earlier in ‘The Reluctant Dragon‘. As Donald Duck explains himself in that feature in this cartoon he’s a farmer.

The short opens with a musical routine on ‘Old MacDonald had a farm’ (naturally). This almost Silly Symphony-like sequence lasts ninety seconds. Then the main body of the cartoon starts, in which Donald milks his cow Clementine, hindered by a fly. This leads to a battle between Donald and the fly, with Donald using milk squeezed from Clementine’s udders to bomb the little insect, in a rather early war analogy (predating the attack on Pearl Harbor by two months). Of course, it’s the fly who has the last laugh.

Clementine, whose theme music is, of course, ‘Oh My Darling’, is wonderfully animated. The fly is the second of a line of insects Donald had to deal with, after the bee in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The battle between duck and fly is well done, but never becomes hilarious. There’s a little too much emphasis on the fly being a small, innocent creature unnecessarily bullied by Donald. Apparently to give the otherwise obnoxious animal some sympathy, something that’s typical for all the Donald vs. insect cartoons. I guess, however, that the humor would have worked better, if the audience’s sympathy had remained with Donald himself, with the fly playing the same role as the inanimate objects did in contemporary, much better cartoons like ‘Donald’s Vacation‘ (1940) or ‘Early to Bed‘ (1941).

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 27
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Truant Officer Donald
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Camera

‘Old MacDonald Duck’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: August 1, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Truant Officer Donald © Walt Disney‘Truant Officer Donald’ opens with Huey, Dewey and Louie having fun at the lake.

Unfortunately, they’re soon caught by Donald, the truant officer, who uses quite some fisherman’s gear to catch the brats. Nevertheless, the hooky playing trio succeeds in escaping from Donald’s car, and flee into their ‘pirates’ den’. What follows is a great chase routine with Donald trying to enter the hut, and the nephews defending it in ingenious ways.

The film’s highlight is the scene in which Donald tries to smoke out his nephews. Huey, Dewey and Louie use some roast chickens to pretend that Donald has killed them. They even take the gag further by letting one of them go down dressed as an angel to punish their uncle. Donald nevertheless has the last laugh, only to discover that the school is closed for summer holidays.

‘Truant Officer Donald’ is a great gag cartoon and one of Huey, Dewey and Louie’s finest. Carl Barks, who had worked on the story for this film, would revisit the idea of Donald being a truant officer and battling his nephews, in his Donald Duck comic WDC 100 (1949), with equally funny results.

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

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 26
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Early to Bed
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Old MacDonald Duck

‘Truant Officer Donald’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: July 11, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Early to Bed © Walt DisneyDonald Duck always was at his best when having to battle everyday inanimate objects, and ‘Early to Bed’ is one of his all-time best cartoons in that genre.

In this short Donald’s sole mission is going to sleep, but impending doom becomes immediately clear when Donald repeatedly mutters how tired he is and how early he has to rise. No sooner has he laid himself to sleep, or his attempt is thwarted by his cushion, an obnoxious alarm clock, and finally, by his foldable bed.

The story men (e.g. Carl Barks and Jack Hannah) succeed wonderfully in making everyday problems like a noisy alarm clock into something larger than life, blowing up Donald’s problems to unbearable proportions. For example, Donald even swallows his alarm clock at one point, and later all the antics make Donald’s bed look like a disco light.

The animation of the duck is excellent. Even his bursts of rage are wide-ranging and never become cliche. Donald easily carries the complete cartoon. Six years later, Woody Woodpecker would go to a similar ordeal in ‘Coo-Coo Bird‘, while Donald himself had to stand another sleepless night in ‘Drip Dippy Donald’ (1948).

Watch ‘Early to Bed’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 25
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: A Good Time for a Dime
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Truant Officer Donald

‘Early to Bed’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: May 9, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★½
Review:

A Good Time for a Dime © Walt DisneyIn ‘A Good Time for a Dime’ Donald Duck enters a penny arcade.

Here he watches an erotic film called ‘the dance of the seven veils’ on a mutoscope, then he tries to retrieve items from a crane game machine (only to sneeze them all back into the machine), and he rides a toy airplane, which goes haywire, rendering him sick.

‘A Good Time for a Dime’ is Dick Lundy’s third Donald Duck cartoon as a director. The short is hampered by his poor timing and emphasis on prolonged situation gags, so typical of the mid-1930s. The scenes at the crane game machine and in the plane feel endless, with the plane scene losing all connections to reality, thus rendering it less funny. After all, Donald was at his best when experiencing every day annoyances.

The best gag of the short is that of Donald’s pupils falling down his eyes like marbles. There’s also a wonderful scene in which we watch the plane dive and soar from Donald’s own perspective, but these scenes cannot rescue this rather mediocre entry in the Donald Duck canon.

Watch ‘A Good Time for a Dime’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 24
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Golden Eggs
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Early to Bed

‘A Good Time for a Dime’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

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’

Director: Norm Ferguson
Release Date: January 24, 1941
Stars: Pluto
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Pluto's Playmate © Walt Disney‘Pluto’s Playmate’ takes place at the beach.

Here Pluto meets a playful little seal, who repeatedly steals his red rubber ball. Pluto tries to get rid of the obtrusive intruder, but when the little seal rescues him from drowning, the two finally become friends.

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ introduces a story line that would be featured in no less than eight Pluto cartoons, and which lasted until 1949. In all these shorts Pluto meets a new strange animal, which he doesn’t like at first, but which he befriends in the end. An embryonic version of this trope could even been seen in Pluto’s very first solo effort, the Silly Symphony ‘Just Dogs‘ (1932). This rather limited story concept severely hampered the series, and is responsible for the rather questionable reputation of the Pluto shorts as being more cute than funny. Luckily, not even a third from the Pluto shorts from the 1940s use it, but it’s true that only when the studio abandoned this tiresome formula, Disney could make its best Pluto shorts, which it did in the last two years of the series.

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ is one of the first Disney cartoons to feature oil backgrounds. It also features some spectacular effect animation of the sea and its surf. ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ would be the only short directed by Norm Ferguson, the animator most responsible for the dog’s character and design. Pluto’s features are very flexible in this short, especially in the scenes featuring the angry little octopus.

The friendly little seal would return in ‘Rescue Dog‘ (1947) and ‘Mickey and the Seal‘ (1948), the former being very similar to ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ in story line.

Watch ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

This is Pluto cartoon No. 4
To the previous Pluto cartoon: Pantry Pirate
To the next Pluto cartoon: Pluto Junior

‘Pluto’s Playmate’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Complete Pluto Volume One’

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: Jack Kinney
Release Date: December 26, 1941
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Art of Self Defense © Walt DisneyThe first five Goofy shorts all progressed the Goofy character, and none was like the previous one.

Goofy and Wilbur’ had made Goofy a solo star, ‘Goofy’s Glider’ introduced the pompous narrator John McLeish, ‘Baggage Buster’ rendered Goofy voiceless, and ‘How to Ride a Horse’ and ‘The Art of Skiing‘ put this all together into the archetypical sports cartoon.

Now, in ‘The Art of Self Defense’ another step was made: the duplication of Goofs. In the main body of the cartoon we still watch only one Goofy, but this is preceded by a historical overview of fighting, featuring several different goofs, even in caveman and hieroglyph form. Now Goofy could be anybody, and indeed, already in his next cartoon, ‘How to Play Baseball’ (1942) numerous Goofs flock the screen.

‘The Art of Self Defense’ is about boxing, and features Goofy being clobbered by his own shadow, and training endlessly, only to be knocked out in the ring within seconds. The very silly historical opening is the highlight of the cartoon, however, featuring great sound effects, and various depictions of time marching on. Also interesting is the boxing scene from the turn of the century, which figures very graphical quasi-etched background art.

Watch ‘The Art of Self Defense’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 5
To the previous Goofy cartoon: The Art of Skiing
To the next Goofy cartoon: How to Play Baseball

‘The Art of Self Defense’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: November 14,1941
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Art of Skiing © Walt DisneyJack Kinney revolutionized the Goofy cartoon with the ‘How to Ride a Horse’ sequence in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ from June 1941. The contrast between John McLeish’s all too sincere instructions, and Goofy’s original ways of acting them out, proved to be a highly successful one, and resulted in great comedy.

This concept was immediately put into action in the Goofy shorts, with ‘The Art of Skiing’ being the first example. This is Goofy’s first real sports cartoon, and it shows several aspects of skiing, like the slalom and the ski jump, all in Goofy’s own original fashion. The Alpine setting is enriched by yodels by Austrian alpine ski racer and professional yodeler Hannes Schroll (1909-1985), who’s also responsible for the very first Goofy yell, which is in fact a variation on his other yodels in the same short. The Goofy holler, as it came to be known, was an instant hit, and reappeared in several other Goofy cartoons, every time our beloved character made a great fall.

The Goofy holler even appeared outside the Goofy series, and can be heard in e.g. the Pluto shorts ‘Legend of Coyote Rock’ (1946) and ‘Food for Feudin’ (1950), and in the feature ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’.

‘The Art of Skiing’ also marks the first instance in which McLeish recites a poem. This story idea would be used to a great effect in ‘The Olympic Champ’ (1942). The best gags, however, involve Goofy trying to put on his trousers with his skis already attached, and Goofy trying to turn around with his skis. The endless string of predicaments story man Jack Cutting and the animators put the character in is both inventive and very funny.

Watch ‘The Art of Skiing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 4
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Baggage Buster
To the next Goofy cartoon: The Art of Self Defense

‘The Art of Skiing’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: April 18,1941
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Baggage Buster © Walt DisneyThe start of Goofy’s solo career was eventful, and all his five earliest solo cartoons can be regarded as key shorts in the evolution of the character.

‘Baggage Buster’ is a particularly transitional cartoon. The short was made after Pinto Colvig’s departure to the Max Fleischer studio in Miami, leaving Goofy voiceless. The result is that in ‘Baggage Buster’ Goofy has become a completely silent character, while by 1941 silent characters already had become a rare feat.

Of course, director Jack Kinney and his team would use this fact to their advantage in the great ‘how to’ cartoons, starting with ‘How to Ride a Horse’ sequence in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ of two months later, but in ‘Baggage Buster’ Goofy still is his 1930s self. After ‘Baggage Buster’ Kinney never reverted to this version of the character, and he was only revived in a few Mickey Mouse shorts, and in the Goofy cartoons ‘Foul Hunting’ (1947, by Jack Hannah) and ‘The Big Wash’ (1948, by Clyde Geronimi). In these two cartoons, however, Goofy speaks again, leaving ‘Baggage Buster’ being the sole cartoon in which our character remains a strange mix of the 1930s Goof and the 1940s silent character.

Like Donald had been in his first solo cartoon, ‘Donald’s Ostrich’ (1937), Goofy is a station master at some remote train station. And where Donald had to deal with an all too hungry ostrich, Goofy struggles with a magician’s trunk. The trunk knows quite some tricks, and even defies gravity, giving Goofy a hard time. The most bizarre scene is when Goofy’s body largely disappears inside the magician’s hat, leaving him walking on his arms.

The cartoon ends with the trunk producing an endless stream of animals, and soon Goofy’s little station is flocked by e.g. a lion, an armadillo, a shark, a flying squirrel, a giraffe, a crocodile, a stork (carrying a baby), a seal, an elephant, an ant eater, and even a sperm whale and a dinosaur…

As is often the case with cartoons dealing with magic, however, the humor never reaches great heights, as the magic permits an ‘anything can happen’ mantra, which spoils the fun. It’s so much funnier when cartoon magic is applied without the ‘it’s magic’ excuse.

Goofy’s looks once again are more streamlined than before, but only with ‘How to Ride a Horse’ he would reach his new appearance, which would last until he was redesigned once again, for ‘Tennis Racquet’ in 1949.

Watch ‘Baggage Buster’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 3
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Goofy’s Glider
To the next Goofy cartoon: The Art of Skiing

‘Baggage Buster’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

 

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: November 22, 1940
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Goofy's Glider © Walt DisneyIn ‘Goofy’s Glider’ our likable goof tries to reach the sky in a self-made glider plane.

We watch several attempts, highlights of which are a failed shot with a catapult, in which Goofy manages to launch himself without his plane, and the scene in which he takes the sky upside down.

The looks of ‘Goofy’s Glider’ are less gorgeous than that of Goofy’s first cartoon, ‘Goofy and Wilbur‘ (1939). Goofy’s design has become more streamlined, and the overall art is leaner, and less Silly Symphony-like. Yet, ‘Goofy’s Glider’ is a more mature cartoon than Goofy’s debut film. It’s humor is more assured, sillier, better timed, and thus funnier.

Moreover, this cartoon forms an important step in the evolution of Goofy: first, it’s the first Goofy short directed by Jack Kinney, who had made his directing debut with the Pluto short ‘Bone Trouble‘ earlier that year, and who would direct almost every Goofy cartoon until the very end of the series in 1953. Second, it introduces the ‘how to’ formula, in which Goofy tries to achieve a goal, helped by an off-screen narrator, in a series of blackout gags. And third, it introduces story man John McLeish as the off screen narrator, helping Goofy through his series of attempts, with his particularly pompous voice, which contrasted perfectly with Goofy’s antics on the screen.

The cartoon’s rather revolutionary blackout gag formula was most probably based on Tex Avery’s spot gag cartoons of the late 1930s (e.g. ‘Detouring America’ of 1939 and ‘Cross Country Detours’ of 1940). But where Avery stuck to rather unrelated gags, Kinney applied the formula to several attempts by one character to achieve one goal. Even if this idea owes something to the Donald Duck short ‘Donald’s Nephews‘ (1938), which also features a book to bridge the gags, it was a revolutionary step forward, fit for the chase cartoon era. In this respect, ‘Goofy’s Glider’ is the ancestor to the format of most chase cartoons, and that of the Tweety and Sylvester and Roadrunner series in particular. As such, it even predates Frank Tashlin’s Fox and Crow series, which is often cited as most influential in this respect. This formula, at least, was used in most of Goofy’s coming sports cartoons.

It remains a little unclear who’s Goofy’s voice in this cartoon. Pinto Colvig had left for the Fleischer studio in Miami, and the dialogue in this cartoon feels detached from the images, as if it had been recorded after the animation. In several scenes lip synch is poor, and in the first scene it’s even completely absent. Plus, several vocalizations occur when Goofy’s face cannot be seen. On the other hand, there’s clearly some new dialogue and even some singing. Some internet sources state that one George Johnson is Goofy’s voice in this cartoon, and even in ‘Goofy and Wilbur’. I find this hard to believe. If so, why did Goofy become a silent character? If Johnson did the voices in these two cartoons, he obviously did an excellent job, and would have proven to be a worthy successor of Colvig. Yet, with Goofy’s next cartoon, ‘Baggage Buster’ the character would be completely silent.

Moreover, in his memoirs Jack Kinney doesn’t mention Johnson, stating that Colvig’s leave was the cause of the silencing of the character:

“Voice-over was the only choice, because, as we saw it, the Goof couldn’t talk much, if at all. The reason for this was that Pinto Colvig, the old circus hand who had done Goofy’s patter for years, had left the studio. Consequently, all the Goof’s manic mutterings had to be lifted from the studio library of sound tracks.”

(Cited from: ‘Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters – An unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disney’s’ – page 123).

I therefore suspect that in both Goofy’s earliest cartoons Colvig is still responsible for the vocalizations, and somehow his parts for ‘Goofy’s Glider’ were rushed. But I must admit that I’ve no proof for this hypothesis, and I would be happy to be corrected.

Watch ‘Goofy’s Glider’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 2
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Goofy and Wilbur
To the next Goofy cartoon: Baggage Buster

‘Goofy’s Glider’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

 

Director: Dick Huemer
Release Date: March 17, 1939
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Goofy and Wilbur © Walt DisneyOf Mickey’s co-stars, Goofy was the last to get his own series, a fact that in a way is true to his slow character.

Goofy had appeared outside the Mickey Mouse series for the first time in ‘Polar Trappers‘ (1938), co-starring with Donald Duck, but only in 1939 he would star a cartoon on his own, in ‘Goofy and Wilbur’. This short is only the second of two cartoons directed by Dick Huemer (the other one being ‘The Whalers’ from 1938). In Don Peri’s book ‘Working with Walt’ Huemer states he wished he had stayed on shorts, but Disney put him to work on ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ and he never returned to the short medium.

In ‘Goofy and Wilbur’ Huemer mainly emphasizes the gentle side of Goofy’s character. Goofy goes fishing in a no fishing area, using a live grasshopper called Wilbur as a bait. Wilbur, whose design is halfway that of the grasshopper in ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ (1934) and that of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio‘ (1940), is clearly Goofy’s friend, and the two cooperate in a clever scheme in which Wilbur lures several surprisingly colorful fish to Goofy’s net.

The consequence of this story idea is that most of the screen time goes to the little grasshopper instead of Goofy. Only when, after six minutes, Wilbur gets swallowed by a frog we switch to Goofy, and only then his unique physique can be seen in a great chase scene. However, the cartoon’s highlight is the priceless shot in which Goofy tries to comfort himself after the loss of his friend: “I gotta cheer up! There’s lots of grasshoppers in the weeds!”, only to fall back into the saddest face possible immediately after uttering these words.

The production values of ‘Goofy and Wilbur’ are fantastic, but Huemer’s gentle humor doesn’t make the most of the character. This was left to his successor, Jack Kinney, who steered the lovable goof into a whole new direction…

Watch ‘Goofy and Wilbur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

This is the first Goofy cartoon
To the previous Goofy appearance within the Mickey Mouse series: The Whalers
To the next Goofy cartoon: Goofy’s Glider

‘Goofy and Wilbur’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 7, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Golden Eggs © Walt Disney‘Golden Eggs’ opens with Donald Duck reading in the newspapers that prices of eggs are skyrocketing.

He immediately turns to his own chicken farm to collect eggs. Strangely enough, however, he’s hindered by a rooster who’s taller than himself. Thus Donald tries deceit, and dresses as a particularly feminine chicken, seducing the rooster.

However, things go hardly as planned, and instead of collecting eggs, Donald finds himself dancing with the amorous rooster. The music is particularly inspired in these scenes, mounting to an intoxicating Cuban rhythm. In the end Donald manages to collect the eggs, but destroys them immediately…

‘Golden Eggs’ knows its moments, but is essentially a one-joke cartoon. Nevertheless, Donald’s cross-dressing method of deceit would be followed by Tom in a similar ‘Flirty Birdy’ (1945), and Bugs Bunny in many cartoons to come, starting with ‘Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips’ (1944).

Watch ‘Golden Eggs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 23
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Timber
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: A Good Time for a Dime

‘Golden Eggs’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: January 10, 1941
Stars: Donald Duck, Pete
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

Timber © Walt DisneyAlmost a year after ‘The Riveter’ Pete returns as Donald Duck’s adversary. This time he’s called Pierre and speaks with a pseudo-french accent.

When hobo Donald steals his food, Pete forces the feeble duck to work at his logging site. Donald easily is the worst lumberjack ever, and what follows are several antics with axes and saws, to the expense of Pete himself.

However, the film only gains momentum when Pete follows a fleeing Donald on a reckless lorry race. This is a stunning finale, with the gags coming in fast and plenty. In the end Donald disposes of Pete/Pierre with help of a railroad switch, and the end we watch him walking the rails again into the sunset.

This cartoon doubtless inspired Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comic ‘Mystery at Hidden River’, which run from October 6, 1941 to January 17, 1942. In this story Pete is also a lumberjack called Pierre, but Mickey surely knows better. Incidentally, this is the first time Mickey is confronted with Pete sans peg leg in the comic strip, even though on the animated screen Pete had lost his peg leg already in ‘Moving Day‘ from 1936.

Watch ‘Timber’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 22
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Fire Chief
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Golden Eggs

‘Fire Chief’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Riley Thomson
Release Date: 1940
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating:  ★★★½
Review:

The Volunteer Worker © Walt Disney‘The Volunteer Worker’ is a short commercial in which Donald tries to collect for charity, to no avail.

Every citizen shows him the door. When he sits down at the dumps, a construction worker helps him out, giving him a first donation and delivering the film’s message that charity helps.

This construction worker is an elaborate human character, and very well animated. The complete film excels in high production values, possessing a great montage, showing Donald’s though time, and beautiful lighting.

Watch ‘The Volunteer Worker’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Volunteer Worker’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 13, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey & Louie
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Fire Chief © Walt DisneyAfter co-starring in ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ (1935), Donald now is a fire chief himself, helped by his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.

There’s no heroism involved in this cartoon, however, as the four ducks only try to extinguish a fire that Donald accidentally has put to his very own fire station.

Penned by e.g. Carl Barks, this is a genuine gag cartoon, with the gags coming in fast and plenty, and building to a ridiculous finale, in which Donald destroys the fire station, his car and his hat within seconds. The animation, too, is extraordinarily flexible, especially when Donald blows his horn. The cartoon is a delight from start to end, and must be counted among Donald’s all time best.

Barks would later return to the theme in the equally classic comic ‘Fireman Donald’ (1947), in which Donald is as inadequate as a fireman as he is in this cartoon.

Watch ‘Fire Chief’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 21
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Window Cleaners
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Timber

‘Fire Chief’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: September 20, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Pluto
Rating:  ★★½
Review:

Window Cleaners © Walt DisneyWindow Cleaners is the fifth of six cartoons co-starring Donald Duck and Pluto. Unlike the other films starring the duo, this is pretty much Donald’s film, with Pluto sleeping most of the time.

Donald has a job cleaning windows on a ridiculously high building and using the lazy mutt as his helper. This accounts for some spectacular background art emphasizing the dizzying heights Donald is working on.

The film is less gag rich than its contemporaries, however, being split into two long and distinct routines: in the first Donald tries to wake Pluto, to no avail. Highlight of this part is his attempt to yell into the drainpipe. This scene accounts for some spectacular body deformations on our beloved duck.

In the second routine Donald bullies a bee, which takes revenge immediately. This bee is the direct ancestor of the bee Jack Hannah introduced in ‘Inferior Decorator’ (1948) and one can say that all Hannah’s bee films follow the routine from this particular cartoon.

Watch ‘Window Cleaners’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 20
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Vacation
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Fire Chief

‘Window Cleaners’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

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