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Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: September 16, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Pied Piper' featuring the pied piper and some rats

‘The Pied Piper’ is a vivid re-telling of the original fairy tale in operetta fashion.

Thus ‘The Pied Pier’, together with ‘King Neptune‘ (1932) and ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), belongs to the operetta- like Silly Symphonies. In its score, composed by Leigh Harline, practically all dialogue is sung, making ‘The Pied Piper’ an animated mini-opera.

Its human designs are way more detailed and anatomically correct than in ‘King Neptune’ or ‘Father Noah’s Ark’, making these two films looking old-fashioned, already. Disney was advancing towards the later realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) with a lightning speed…

Unfortunately, at the same time, a sugary approach is unleashed, as well. For example, the rats are not drown, but caught in an imaginary cheese. Likewise, the children, who are depicted as virtual slaves in Hamelin, do not just disappear, but they’re lured into ‘Joyland’, where even the crippled get cured. So, in the end, practically no harm is done to anyone.

And so, like the contemporary ‘Lullaby Land‘, ‘The Pied Piper’ is a strange mixture of ever advancing animation and rather infantile material. A great deal of the remaining Silly Symphonies would share this mixture, and even Disney’s first features, like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Bambi‘ (1942) are not immune to it.

The children designs used here would pop up in numerous sugary cartoons from the 1930s, including those from other studios. And, unfortunately, there would be a lot of them…

Watch ‘The Pied Piper’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 39
To the previous Silly Symphony: Lullaby Land
To the next Silly Symphony: The Night before Christmas

Director: David Hand
Release Date: July 29, 1933
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Old King Cole' featuring a castle in a book

Old King Cole throws an annual party at his castle, which ends at midnight.

One can regard ‘Old King Cole’ as a remake of ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ from 1931. Both cartoons feature nursery rhyme characters singing and dancing. Although King Cole himself still has the same design he had in the earlier cartoon, the complete short shows an enormous progress in animation, which is elaborate and fluent throughout.

In ‘Old King Cole’ the long song-and-dance routine is executed much more complexly than in the earlier short. Indeed, at times it is even reminiscent of the musicals of the era. It belongs to the operetta-Silly Symphonies of the mid-1930s, with all characters singing their lines. It features several original arrangements of classic nursery rhymes, with the sequence of the nine little Indians leading to a stunning finale, with all characters dancing to an Ellingtonian jungle rhythm.

But then Hickory, Dickory and Dock spoil the fun, telling the audience it’s midnight, and all nursery rhyme characters flee back to their books. King Cole himself has the last shot, singing goodnight to the audience.

‘Old King Cole’ contains no story whatsoever, but the film’s sheer joy, its complex designs and its bright colors make this cartoon yet another highlight within the Silly Symphony series.

Watch ‘Old King Cole’ yourself and tell me what you think:


This is Silly Symphony No. 37
To the previous Silly Symphony: Three Little Pigs
To the next Silly Symphony: Lullaby Land

Director: David Hand
Release Date: March 11, 1933
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Birds in the Spring' featuring a bird listening to its eggs

‘Birds in the Spring’ is a Silly Symphony about a mischievous little bird who encounters a.o. a rattlesnake and some angry bees.

This short can be regarded a study in realism, using birds. The realistic birds portrayed here are a far cry from the primitive and cartoony designs of ‘Birds of a Feather‘ from 1931. They fit perfectly in the equally realistic and elaborate backgrounds. The difference between the two shorts shows the enormous and unbelievable growth the Disney studio had made in a mere two years. The snake and the bugs in this cartoon, on the other hand, are not half as good, and fail to evoke any feeling of realism. A cousin of the badly designed snake would appear, however, in ‘Mickey’s Garden‘ (1935).

In his autobiography Pinto Colvig reveals that all the chirps, whistles, warbles and tweets in this cartoon are made by two women, Esther Campbell and Marion Darlington.

‘Birds in the Spring’ may have inspired ‘Morning Noon and Night‘ (released October 1933), the first of several Silly Symphony-like cartoons produced by the rival Fleischer studio.

Watch ‘Birds in the Spring’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 34
To the previous Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop
To the next Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Still from 'King Neptune' featuring several mermaids on a rock

King Neptune is a merry sea giant, who gets angry when a bunch of horny pirates capture one of his topless(!) art deco mermaids. This leads to a war at sea, complete with an aircraft carrier whale and sea creature dive bombers.

‘King Neptune’ introduces a new concept to the Silly Symphonies, that of operetta. No longer the characters act silently to music, now they actually sing in operatic fashion. In the mid-thirties operetta was very popular in Hollywood, and in 1933 the operetta format would spread through the series, and it even shortly invaded Mickey Mouse films, like ‘The Mad Doctor‘, ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Mail Pilot‘ (all 1933).

This trend led to curious mini-musicals, like ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ (both 1933). The style reached its apex with ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934), in which the singing in all its seriousness became downright ridiculous. The operetta style survived into 1935, after which it disappeared from the Disney cartoons. However, Walt Disney’s first feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), clearly uses the operetta-style, probably because it already had been conceived at the end of 1933.

King Neptune is kind of a stock character. In many ways he’s just Old King Cole from ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931) in an updated form – rather awkwardly still wearing gloves. This character would resurface as Santa in the next Silly Symphony ‘Santa’s Workshop‘ (1932), as Noah in ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), and as King Midas in ‘The Golden Touch’ (1935).

The pirates and mermaids are nowhere near realism, yet they’re designed and animated much better than the hunters in ‘The Fox Hunt‘ (1931), showing that Disney was making fast strides to realistic human designs already at this stage .

‘King Neptune’ is only the second Silly Symphony in color, yet unlike the first, ‘Flowers and Trees‘, it was made with color in mind from the start, and it shows. What a lush, elaborate, colorful and stunningly beautiful short this is! The cartoon simply bursts with color. Nevertheless, at several points the artists were still struggling with the new language of color. For example, one fighting scene on deck is almost rendered in reds only, in another scene the turtles have almost the same color as their background rock, failing to stand out. However, two color Silly Symphonies later, in ‘Santa’s Workshop‘, these problems appeared to have been solved, for that cartoon juxtaposes the most vibrant colors in all its scenes.

Apart from the use of color, ‘King Neptune’ is astounding because of its astonishingly elaborate animation. It’s packed with special effects, and complex and beautiful animation. The opening shots alone, in which King Neptune introduces himself, contain excessive, complex cycles of bubbles and fish. But the short’s highlight is the epic battle, which contains scenes of unprecedented complexity.

More impressive Silly Symphonies were soon to follow, but ‘King Neptune’ itself already is no less than a masterpiece. All previous Silly Symphonies literally pale compared to this one, let alone contemporary cartoons of other studios.

Watch ‘King Neptune’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 30
To the previous Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees
To the next Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: June 26, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Arctic Antics' featuring sea lionsIn ‘Arctic Antics’ the song-and-dance-routine, typical of the early Silly Symphonies, is carried out by polar bears, sea lions, penguins (whose habitat actually is the Antarctic), and a walrus. The latter is reused from the Mickey Mouse short ‘Wild Waves‘ from 1929.

‘Arctic Antics’ was the last cartoon Ub Iwerks directed before he left the studio to set up one of his own. It features a rather Mickey Mouse-like polar bear, but the most interesting aspect of this cartoon is the end, in which the marching penguins disappear behind an iceberg. This gives a novelty effect of depth. This search of effects of depth would eventually lead to the invention of the multiplane camera, seven years later.

Penguins were revisited five years later, in ‘Peculiar Penguins‘ (1935). By then they had lost the out-of-place bellybuttons they got in this cartoon.

Watch ‘Arctic Antics’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 11
To the previous Silly Symphony: Frolicking Fish
To the next Silly Symphony: Midnight in a Toy Shop

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: May 23, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Frolicking Fish' featuring three fish dancingFrolicking fish indeed. Even oysters, starfish and a lobster join in the dance routines, oh so typical of early Silly Symphonies. Nevertheless, this cartoon ends with some kind of story, when an evil octopus follows a small fish, who gets rid of the villain by dropping an anchor on him.

There’s not much to enjoy in ‘Frolicking Fish’ despite its merry premise. However, like ‘Autumn‘ this cartoon contains early and to many rivaling studios undoubtedly ‘unnecessary’ effect animation, this time loads and loads of bubbles.

It has entered animation history, however, by featuring the first example of  ‘overlapping action’ in animation. Overlapping action acknowledges that different (body) parts move with different speeds. So one part can already start moving, before another comes to an end, and animation cycles can overlap each other in imperfect ways. This opposed to the then normal type of animation, which was based on poses, which led to straightforward animation cycles. This new type of animation was developed by animator Norm Ferguson, who had been hired by Disney in August 1929. It was a milestone at that time, a piece of animation marveled at by Ferguson’s colleagues, including Walt Disney himself. It led to the development of full animation, which would slowly replace the ‘rubber hose animation’ of the early thirties.

Overlapping Action can be seen in the three fish dancing at 2:07. Compare it to the stiff stop-and-go movements of the fish musicians following this scene, and the difference may become clear.

From ‘Frolicking Fish’ on Norm Ferguson would become one of Disney’s greatest and most influential animators of the 1930s, and he was responsible for another breakthrough piece of animation: ‘Playful Pluto‘ (1934), the first convincing piece of animation of a character thinking. He was a great influence on future Nine Old Man John Lounsberry, whom he trained as an assistant animator. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s star diminished in the 1940s, and by the 1950s his style had become old-fashioned…

Watch ‘Frolicking Fish’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 10
To the previous Silly Symphony: Night
To the next Silly Symphony: Arctic Antics

‘Frolicking Fish’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: April 18, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Still from 'Night' featuring a moth near a candle‘Night’ is a typical ‘mood piece’ Silly Symphony, comparable with the season mini-series (Springtime, Summer, Autumn, and Winter). This time it’s night and we watch owls, moths, fireflies, mosquitoes and frogs moving to music.

As usual in the early Silly Symphonies, there’s practically no plot, but only a dance routine, and a rather dull one, too. Nevertheless, the short manages to evoke more ‘mood’ than the other early entries.

Especially the opening scene looks beautiful with its rippling reflection of the moon in the water, predating similar scenes in ‘Water Babies‘ (1935) and ‘The Old Mill‘ (1937). Indeed, ‘Night’ can be seen as an early forerunner of the latter cartoon, and it is interesting to compare them, and awe at the tremendous strides the Disney studio had made in the mere seven years between the two shorts.

According to David Gerstein in ‘Animation Art’ the dancing frog is the embryonic form of Flip the Frog, Ub Iwerks’s own star after he had left Disney January 1930. Apparently, Iwerks wanted to make a new star out of this frog, but this idea was turned down by Walt Disney. Indeed, this frog gets quite some screen time (the last three minutes of the cartoon), and has a girlfriend, who is a clear forerunner of Flip’s sweetheart in Flip’s second cartoon, ‘Puddle Pranks‘.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 9
To the previous Silly Symphony: Cannibal Capers
To the next Silly Symphony: Frolicking Fish

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: March 15, 1930
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Cannibal Capers' featuring a cannibal using skulls as castanets‘Cannibal Capers’ is a typical early dance routine Silly Symphony. This time we watch dancing cannibals, followed by the antics of one poor cannibal chased by a lion.

The caricatures of the ‘primitive’ blacks are backward and quite extreme in this cartoon: the cannibals have such huge lips, they almost look like ducks(!). Nevertheless, the cartoon is less offensive than a later film like ‘Mickey’s Man Friday‘ (1935), because the cannibals at least look sympathetic (despite the skulls that lie everywhere), and are not compared to apes, like in the latter cartoon.

It also fairs better than the Betty Boop cartoon ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Fead You Rascal You‘ (1932), which also features cannibals, but here they’re linked to musicians of Louis Armstrong’s orchestra, making a direct connection between the racist caricatures and real Afro-Americans.

Cannibals were staple characters of cartoons from the thirties, but the caricatures managed to stay well into the fifties, being featured in shorts such as ‘His Mouse Friday‘ (Tom & Jerry, 1951), ‘Spare The Rod’ (Donald Duck, 1954) and ‘Boyhood Daze’ (Merrie Melodies, 1957).

‘Cannibal Capers’ is noteworthy, because it contains the only animation by Floyd Gottfredson that hit the screen: that of the lion running out of the jungle and of a cannibal beating the drum. Around the time this cartoon was released, Gottfredson was asked to take over the Mickey Mouse comic strip (then still written by Walt Disney himself), something he would do until 1975.

Watch ‘Cannibal Capers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 8
To the previous Silly Symphony: Autumn
To the next Silly Symphony: Night

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: February 15, 1930
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Autumn' featuring a freezing skunkAutumn is the third entry in the season series, and it shows a small improvement in story development on the first two entries, Springtime and Summer. This time we don’t see animals just dancing, but collecting food for the winter in rhythmical fashion on Carl Stalling’s music.

We watch squirrels, crows, a skunk, a porcupine and some beavers collecting food (Disney would return to the latter species one year later in ‘The Busy Beavers‘). Then a cold winter wind make the ducks fly south and the other animals seek for shelter. At that point the cartoon suddenly ends.

Besides the tiny story element, notice the numerous falling leaves and elaborate reflections in the water, proof of Disney’s efforts to use ‘superfluous’ animation to give the cartoons more atmosphere and quality.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 7
To the previous Silly Symphony: Summer
To the next Silly Symphony: Cannibal Capers

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: January 4, 1930
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Summer' featuring a spider surrounded by four flies‘Summer’ is the second Silly Symphony in the season mini-series. ‘The merry bugs’ would have been a better title, because the short only focuses on insects (and one spider).

Like the other early Silly Symphonies, there’s only one long sequence of unrelated dance scenes, there’s no story whatsoever, and a lot of the animation is repetitive. This makes ‘Summer’ rather tiresome to watch. It’s undoubtedly the weakest entry of the four seasons, and one of the weakest of all Silly Symphonies. Like ‘Springtime‘ and ‘Autumn‘ it was directed by Ub Iwerks, and somehow, it shows the animator’s lesser ambitions.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 6
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Merry Dwarfs
To the next Silly Symphony: Autumn

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: October 4, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Springtime' featuring a tree washing itself in the rain‘Springtime’, the third entry in the Silly Symphony series, is also the first of four Silly Symphonies devoted to the seasons.

Animated by Ub Iwerks, Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson, it sets the tone for many Silly Symphonies to come: the atmosphere is fairy-tale-like, there is no story whatsoever, but only one long dance routine. One had to wait two years, until ‘The Ugly Duckling‘, to watch a Silly Symphony escaping this rather limited format.

In this particular short we watch flowers dancing to Edvard Grieg’s ‘Morning’ from ‘Peer Gynt’. The flowers are very similar to the ones in ‘Flowers and Trees‘ from 1932. There are also several dancing animals: bugs, a caterpillar, crows, grasshoppers, frogs, a spider and a heron. The latter three dance to Amilcare Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the hours’, which would be reused in the much more famous ‘Fantasia’ (1940). Besides the dancing there’s a remarkable portion of devouring: the crow eats the caterpillar, the heron eats the four frogs. The most extraordinary scene is the short rain storm scene, in which we watch a tree bathing in the rain.

However, one other scene particularly deserves our attention: in it we watch a rippled reflection of a dancing frog in the water, an early and interesting attempt of realism. Many of these attempts were soon to follow, and the Silly Symphonies became Disney’s laboratories for experimentation towards better animation.

In ‘One Hundred and One Dalmatians‘ (1961) ‘Springtime’ is shown on television during a scene at the old De Vil mansion: we can watch the dancing flowers and frogs, and the short’s score provides the background music for a large part of the scene.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 3
To the previous Silly Symphony: El Terrible Toreador
To the next Silly Symphony: Hell’s Bells

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: September 7, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'El Terrible Toreador'featuring the bull and the toreador‘El Terrible Toreador’ is the second entry of the Silly Symphonies. It has been far lesser known than the first, ‘The Skeleton Dance‘, which is no surprise, because it contains none of the ingredients which made ‘The Skeleton Dance’ a classic: there’s no interesting mood, no spectacular animation, and there are hardly any funny gags.

Unlike the other early Silly Symphonies, ‘El Terrible Toreador’ is more silly than symphony-like. That is: it’s more of a ‘story’ consisting of silly gags than the song-and-dance-routine typical of the Silly Symphonies up to 1931.

The cartoon consists of two parts: in the first part we watch a Spanish canteen, where a large officer and a toreador are  fighting for the love of a waitress. In the second part, the toreador is fighting and dancing with a bull in the arena. Surprisingly, the story of the first part is hardly developed here: the cartoon ends when the toreador has pulled the bull inside out, thus ending the fight.

‘El Terrible Toreador’ is notable for being Disney’s first attempt at the human form since the early 1920s. However, the humans are a far cry from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ from (only) eight years later. In this early cartoon the human characters are extraordinarily flexible and they do not move lifelike at all (I noticed I thought of them as bugs some of the time).

The most interesting feature of this short is Carl Stalling’s score. His music already bears his signature and contains many citations from ‘Carmen’ by Georges Bizet.

Watch ‘El Terrible Toreador’  yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 2
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Skeleton Dance
To the next Silly Symphony: Springtime

Director: Jack King
Release Date: October 14, 1938
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Farmyard Symphony © Walt Disney‘Farmyard Symphony’ is the only Silly Symphony directed by Donald Duck director Jack King.

Unfortunately, the cartoon just doesn’t deliver what it seems to offer. Literally stuffed with classical music themes (from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Wagner’s Tannhäuser), it’s mainly filled with animals just doing things.

One can detect two weak story lines: one about a piglet looking for food and the other about a rooster falling in love with a slender white chick. The latter story leads to the most symphony-like part of the cartoon in which all animals join the rooster and the chicken in their duet from Verdi’s La Traviata.

This remains one of the less interesting entries in the Silly Symphonies series, despite its sometimes stunning and convincingly realistic animal designs. It is very likely that these have influenced the animal designs of ‘Animal Farm‘ from 1954, which also features scenes of singing animals. Especially the pigs look very similar.

Watch ‘Farmyard Symphony’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 71
To the previous Silly Symphony: Wynken, Blynken and Nod
To the next Silly Symphony: Merbabies

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: November 5, 1937
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Old Mill © Walt Disney‘The Old Mill’ is a milestone in effect animation.

From the first scene on special effects seem to be the sole raison d’être of the film. The cartoon is literally stuffed with them: dew on a cobweb, ripples in the water, light beams, fireflies, wind, rain and a thunderstorm.

Disney’s famous multiplane camera, with which the feeling of depth could be realized, makes its debut here. Together these effects create an astonishing level of realism, necessary for the upcoming first animated feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. In ‘The Old Mill’ even the animal characters are more or less realistic, a rare feat in Disney cartoons until then.

All this realism leads to awe-inspiring images, based on concept art by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, who had joined the studio in 1936. Unfortunately, the images do not lead to much of a story. The film is more of a series of moods from dusk to dawn. Despite its clever pacing, reaching a climax in the thunderstorm sequence, ‘The Old Mill’ is an overly romantic depiction of nature, and less enjoyable as a cartoon than as a showcase of Disney animation.

Watch ‘The Old Mill’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 68
To the previous Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
To the next Silly Symphony: Moth and the Flame

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 13, 1937
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Woodland Café © Walt Disney‘Woodland Café’ returns to the origin of the Silly Symphony series: music.

This enjoyable gem depicts a Harlem-like nightclub for bugs, in which blackface grasshoppers perform hot jazz, led by a Cab Calloway-like bandleader. All bugs swing to it as soon as they enter the club.

After a remarkably erotic act played by a spider and a fly the cartoon climaxes in the jazz song ‘Truckin’, recorded by both the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Duke Ellington in 1935, and celebrating a dance style that was fashionable around ca. 1935-1938. The main feature of trucking is the shoulders which rise and fall as the dancers move towards each other while the fore finger points up and wiggles back and forth like a windshield wiper. At this point in the short even some astonishing effect animation joins in, delivering totally convincing glitter ball effects and beautiful descending fluffy flowers.

Both charming and entertaining, the whole mood of this delightful cartoon is one of sheer joy.

Watch ‘Woodland Café’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 66
To the previous Silly Symphony: More Kittens
To the next Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha

Director: Dick Rickard
Release Date: February 24, 1939
Stars: The Three Little Pigs
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Practical Pig © Walt Disney ‘The Practical Pig’ was the fourth and last of the ‘Three Little Pigs’ cartoons*. It’s also arguably the least inspired one of the four.

Again, the two pigs flout the practical pig’s warnings. Again, the wolf dresses up (this time as a mermaid, and, surprisingly, it works), and again, his three little brats try to bake the two pigs alive. The complete cartoon feels routine, it’s as even the animators had lost the interest in the trio, and the result is a rather tiresome watch. The only new idea comes in the very end of the cartoon, when the rather goody-goody practical pig is punished by his own lie detector.

It’s no wonder that the three little pigs were dropped after this cartoon. Of course, the Silly Symphony series were about to stop, but the pigs had had their time, anyway.

Nevertheless, in 1963, they were revived for a special animated sequence for the Mexican live action feature ‘Cri Cri el grillo cantor’, which can be seen on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xSkbZArXSXI.

Watch ‘The Practical Pig’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 74
To the previous Silly Symphony: Mother Goose Goes Hollywood
To the next Silly Symphony: The Ugly Duckling

* Not counting ‘The Thrifty Pig’, which was a propaganda film made for the Canadian government and which used the opening music of this cartoon.

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 28, 1936
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Elmer Elephant © Walt Disney‘Elmer Elephant’ is a beautiful cartoon. It’s full of cute animals, but despite its cuteness it never becomes cloying. Based on an idea by story artist Bianca Majolie, its storyline is very straightforward and really heartfelt, like the best of Disney’s works.

Elmer visits the birthday party of one of his jungle friends, the extremely cute girl tiger Tilly. He appears to be her favorite guest, but all the other animals (including some non-tropical foxes) mock him because of his trunk, singing “your nose is like a rubber hose”. Moreover they bully and taunt him and send him away.

Unhappy, Elmer wanders through the jungle, but then he encounters even stranger-looking animals: an old giraffe and three Jimmy Durante-like pelicans, who comfort him a little. Then, suddenly, there’s a fire in Tillie’s tree hut. Elmer comes to the rescue, and with help of his nose and of his new odd friends he saves Tillie from the anthropomorphized flames. Thus being the hero of the day he wins Tillie’s love, displayed by a kiss.

Elmer Elephant has the looks of a storybook. It’s beautifully animated, with lots of shadows, and it has well-designed characters. Especially the hippo, who has an absurdly low voice, is a wonderful character. It’s both surprising and a shame that no other cartoon has been made with these cute characters in their beautiful jungle forest,  although Elmer and Tilly have a cameo appearance in ‘Toby Tortoise Returns‘.

Of course, the idea of a kind elephant being mocked for a handicap would later return in ‘Dumbo’ (1941), making ‘Elmer Elephant’ its immediate predecessor.

Watch ‘Elmer Elephant’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 59
To the previous Silly Symphony: Broken Toys
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Little Wolves

Director: David Hand
Release Date: June 29, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Who Killed Cock Robin? © Walt Disney‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ is a musical mystery very loosely based on the nursery rhyme of the same name. Its source material notwithstanding, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ is the most adult Silly Symphony ever made.

True to the Silly symphony concept, all characters either sing or speak in rhyme to Frank Churchill’s music (with Jenny Wren’s sensual blues as a highlight), but in a bare seven minutes the cartoon manages to mock both the law, racialism and gay people, while displaying an unusual eroticism through Jenny Wren, who is a very fine caricature of famous Hollywood actress Mae West, a tour de force by Joe Grant (design) and Hamilton Luske (animation).

These features are especially striking when one bears in mind that the Hays Code was already active in 1935. Due to his self-censorship of the movie industry sex and violence were banned from the movies. To illustrate its effect: due to this code an erotic cartoon character like Betty Boop had to be tuned down and was turned into a goody-goody and quite a bland character. Yet, ‘Who Killed Cock Robin’ displays its satire and eroticism in full glory.

When Cock Robin has been shot by a mysterious shadow, the Keystone Cop-like police randomly arrests some bystanders: a tough-looking guy, a black bird (in those days blacks were easily arrested just because of their color) and a cuckoo who resembles Harpo Marx. They’re treated very roughly, being knocked by the cops almost all the time. And when Jenny exclaims that justice should be done, the judge simply orders to hang all verdicts even though nobody knows who’s guilty!

It’s Cupid, an obvious caricature of a homosexual, who prevents this cruel sentence. Cock Robin appears to be alive, and finally he and Jenny Wren reunite in a hot kiss. Thus ends one of the most spectacular cartoons of the 1930s.

Watch ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 54
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Cookie Carnival
To the next Silly Symphony: Music Land

Director: David Hand
Release Date: April 18, 1936
Stars: The Three Little Pigs
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Three Little Wolves © Walt Disney‘Three Little Wolves’ follows ‘The Big Bad Wolf”, being the third cartoon in the ‘Three Little Pigs’ series.

Penned by Joe Grant & Bill Cottrell, it introduces the Wolf’s three sons, who anticipate Huey, Dewey and Louie (who would make their cinema debut two years later, in ‘Donald’s Nephews‘). They even speak in a similar way. The wolf, on the other hand, suddenly has an inexplicable German accent.

In this cartoon he dresses up ridiculously again, this time as Bo-Beep, but he does manage to lure two of the little pigs to his house. When he closes the door, the pigs turn red and say ‘why, Bo-Beep!’, as if they’re being seduced. Of course, the wise pig comes to the rescue, this time using an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, called the ‘wolf pacifier’.

The three little wolves would return in the last ‘three little pigs’-cartoon, ‘The Practical Pig’ (1939), but in the subsequent comic strip only one would remain, and he eventually would befriend the pigs, contrary to his lookalikes in this cartoon, who are even more aggressive than their father.

The end-shot of this cartoon was later reused in the propaganda film ‘Food will win the War‘ (1942).

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 60
To the previous Silly Symphony: Elmer Elephant
To the next Silly Symphony: Toby Tortoise Returns

Director: Graham Heid
Release Date: May 27, 1938
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Wynken, Blynken and Nod © Walt Disney‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ is one of the last, and certainly one of the most spectacular Silly Symphonies ever made.

There is hardly any story: at the start of the cartoon we hear the poem being sung by a sugary soprano, then we watch Wynken, Blynken and Nod sailing the Milky Way and fishing ‘starfish’ and being at the mercy of some clouds.

The three babies are very alike, with Nod being the ‘Dopey’ of the three, and the humor is mild. But, boy, the looks of this cartoon! Like two other Silly Symphonies obsessed with babies and their bare behinds (‘Lullaby Land’ from 1933 and ‘Water Babies’ from 1935), ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ is a showcase of Disney Animation. The cartoon features extraordinarily beautiful backgrounds, and literally bursts with effect animation, rendering astonishingly beautiful stars, comets, clouds and lightnings. The fantasy is enhanced by a wonderful score, which makes clever use of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. All this gives one the feeling of watching a mini-Fantasia.

Certainly, no animated cartoon would ever show such lushness again. As such, in a sense ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ forms the end and culmination of an era, which had started in the end of 1933, in which the Disney studio combined ever growing ambitions with childish and sugary material.

‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ was the only cartoon directed by Graham Heid. Remarkably little is known about this artist, who also contributed to ‘Pinocchio‘, ‘Fantasia’ and ‘Bambi‘. In fact, I can only find a birth date (November 14, 1909). This is rather surprising, for one can have worse seven minutes of fame than this delightful short. Luckily, animation historians Jerry Beck & Michael Barrier help us out on the Cartoon Research F.A.Q. page.

One trivial remark: ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ is based on the 1889 published poem ‘Dutch Lullaby’ by Eugene Field. Indeed, the words Wynken and Blynken seem to suggest some Dutch origin, but there are no such verbs in the Dutch language, which would translate ‘to wink’ and ‘to blink’ as ‘knipogen’ and ‘knipperen’, respectively.

Watch ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 70
To the previous Silly Symphony: Moth and the Flame
To the next Silly Symphony: Farmyard Symphony

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