Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: July 7, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★
Review:

Indian Whoopee © Van BeurenIn ‘Indian Whoopee’ Cubby reads about Captain John Smith and Pocahontas before falling asleep.

Our hero soon dreams he’s John Smith himself, camping in the woods. He’s soon discovered by an Indian, however, and threatened by the whole tribe, including a pretty funny gay one. After a chase scene, Cubby is captured and about to be executed, despite the pleas of the little Pocahontas girl. Then, of course, he awakes.

‘Indian Whoopee’ is pretty boring, especially the chase scene is surprisingly low on gags, and lasts way too long. The best gag may be the little Fleischer-like gag of tent pegs pulling Cubby’s tent down, when he almost snores it away.

Watch ‘Indian Whoopee’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Indian Whoopee’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’, the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray/DVD ‘ Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

Director: ?
Release Date: May 20, 1933
Stars: Scrappy, Oopy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Technoracket © ColumbiaPenned by Sid Marcus and animated by Art Davis, ‘Technoracket’ is one of those cartoons inspired by rumors of robots taking over, like Fleischer’s ‘The Robot‘ from 1932, and ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man‘ from one month later.

Unlike those boxing-themed cartoons ‘Technoracket’ is surprisingly prophetical. In this cartoon Scrappy has a farm, in which Oopy does all the work, with help of the farm animals. But when Scrappy reads about the new age of technocracy he fires all animals, switching to robots, instead. Because it’s a cartoon, even the cows and chickens become robots, with the cows producing bottles of milk instantly. There’s also a scene in which a robots plants bolts to grow plants of canned tomatoes.

At one stage, however, Oopy sneaks into Scrappy’s house and destroys his controls, making the robots go wild. This leads to some nightmarish scenes. There’s for example a robot which devours a pig to spit out hams, another robot brutalizes a mechanical chicken forcing it to produce numerous eggs. Soon the robots create havoc in Scrappy’s home, and he himself removes the controls, which explode in the backyard, destroying all robots.

‘Technoracket’ illustrates the 1930’s fear of work replacement by robots very well. Nevertheless, its predictions have somewhat become true, albeit in a less cartoony fashion, as farms are all but mechanized factories, today…

Director: Ted Esbaugh
Release Date: 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Wizard of Oz © Ted EsbaughTed Esbaugh was one of the very few American animators operating independently during the 1930s.

With ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Esbaugh could make use of Technicolor’s three-way process, if only outside the U.S., as Walt Disney had the exclusive rights to its use in the States themselves.

With this film Esbaugh was the first to bring Frank L. Baum’s famous fantasy to the film screen in full color. Like the latter, much more familiar live action version from 1939, Esbaugh paints the Kansas opening in sepia tones, and unleashes full color only in the land of Oz.

Lasting only eight minutes, the film’s plot is simple, and only superficially taken from the book: when Dorothy plays with Toto, a tornado takes her to Oz, where she lands on the scarecrow. Together they walk through the forest, where they encounter the tin man. The quartet (the lion is nowhere to be found) walk into the emerald city, where they’re taken to the wizard of Oz.

In Esbaugh’s version, the wizard of Oz is a real wizard, and he performs some tricks for our heroes, e.g. eight dolls dancing in a Busby Berkeley ballet-like fashion, and an egg growing into gigantic proportions, threatening our heroes, until it explodes, revealing a tiny chicken.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ boasts music by Carl Stalling, who’s in top form here, while the colorful images splash from the scene, and the animation can compete with contemporary cartoons by Warner Bros. and Disney in quality. However, the short’s story is hardly gripping, and although enjoyable, more forgettable than one would expect.

Because of Disney’s deal with Technicolor, Esbaugh’s film was never seen in the United States, and only shown in Canada and the UK, and it never received the fame it could have had otherwise.

Watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is available on the Blu-Ray/DVD-set ‘Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

Directors: John Foster & George Stallings
Release Date: February 7, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Magic Mummy © Van Beuren‘The Magic Mummy’ is one of those typical nightmarish cartoons of the early 1930s.

It opens happily enough, when Tom and Jerry, as policemen, listen to the police radio, which broadcasts two rather gay officers singing and playing the piano. The merry song is soon interrupted, however, when a mummy has been stolen from the museum. Tom and Jerry soon discover the thief and follow him into the graveyard and into a grave. There the thief, a magician, unwinds the mummy, revealing it to be a woman who he orders to sing and to perform for a skeleton audience. She does so with a Betty Boop-like voice, which starts a jazzy score. In the end Jerry runs off with the mummy’s coffin, only to discover it contains Tom inside.

‘The Magic Mummy’ is one of the more enjoyable of the Tom and Jerry cartoons in its delightful lack of pretense, its rather surreal images, and joyful atmosphere.

Watch ‘The Magic Mummy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 20
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Tight Rope Tricks
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Happy Hoboes

‘The Magic Mummy’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’ and the Blu-Ray/DVD-set ‘Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

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’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: May 18, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★
Review:

Barking Dogs © Van Beuren‘Barking Dogs’ is one of those 1930’s cartoons with a clear Great Depression theme.

The short opens with Honey worrying as she will be displaced because she didn’t pay her mortgage (a story idea anticipating Disney’s ‘Moving Day‘ by three years). Cubby comes along, and offers her to help. His help is hardly convincing, as he immediately runs off in a feeble attempt to pawn his pocket knife. Meanwhile, the evil land owner, A. Wolf, comes along to take all Honey’s furniture away, and incidentally, her house, too. Meanwhile, two metal dogs (?!) warn Cubby who returns to the scene, finding Honey crying on the doorstep. “It’s too late” she sobs, at which he replies “Nothing is too late for Cubby!”, and together they ride the two metal dogs to A. Wolf’s house. Strangely, it’s the two dogs who fight and dispose of the evil land owner, leaving Cubby as a completely idle bystander.

The complete cartoon makes little sense and is difficult to enjoy as none of the animation is interesting or any of the gags funny. But once again, Gene Rodemich’s score is delightful and on a complete different level than all other aspects of the cartoon. The two metal dogs are elegantly designed and much more appealing than Cubby and his girlfriend.

Watch ‘Barking Dogs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Barking Dogs’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: April 28, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★
Review:

Bubbles and Troubles © Van BeurenCubby the Bear’s fourth cartoon, ‘Bubbles and Troubles’, has quite a bizarre story.

The short starts when Cubby starts blowing bubbles with Honey’s soap water. He accidentally blows himself up, and takes the air immediately. He’s shot out of the air by a bunch of pirates, and he falls to the ground. While he’s unconsciousness, the mean pirates kidnap Honey and take her to their ship. The absurdity of the Van Beuren studio’s story-telling style is perfectly illustrated by a scene in which the captain grabs some money, saying ‘money’, than grabbing some more, saying ‘more money!’. When Buddy awakes, he places himself inside a bubble and takes flight to the pirate ship, where he disposes of all the pirates all too easily.

In ‘Bubbles and Troubles’ Cubby approaches Mickey’s character as much as apparently possible, and the short could have been a great adventure cartoon if it were better told and less loony. It’s highly recommended nevertheless, not so much to watch, but to listen to, for Gene Rodemich’s score is no less than wonderful.

Watch ‘Bubbles and Troubles’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Bubbles and Troubles’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: March 24, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Last Mail © Van BeurenThe Last Mail’ is the first Cubby the Bear cartoon to place him in a Mickey Mouse-like hero role.

It’s interesting to compare this cartoon to Mickey’s ‘The Mail Pilot‘, which was released two months later. It immediately becomes clear why Mickey has remained famous, while Cubby fell into oblivion. In all aspects Cubby’s cartoon is the lesser product: in design, in animation, and in storytelling. Nevertheless, it is one of Cubby’s most entertaining cartoons, as it features a straight-forward story, which is surprisingly consistent for the Van Beuren studio.

In ‘The Last Mail’ Cubby is a mailman riding a squirrel-led sleigh through a wintery landscape. In the village where he delivers the mail he dances with Honey to a jig. When he leaves again, Honey comes along, sneaking into Cubby’s mail bag. The two are held up by an evil raccoon, who kidnaps Honey. But Cubby saves her with help from an American Eagle.

Composer Gene Rodemich is in good shape here, weaving ‘Pop Goes the Weasel’ into the dancing scene (see also Mickey’s ‘The Shindig‘ from 1930) , and using ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’ in the eagle scenes. ‘The Last Mail’ is the first Cubby the Bear cartoon in which director Mannie Davis is credited on the opening titles.

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

‘The Last Mail’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear, Honey
Rating:
Review:

Love's Labor Won © Van Beuren‘Love’s Labor Won’, Cubby the Bear’s second cartoon, is the most musical short featuring Van Beuren’s poor man’s Mickey Mouse.

The cartoon starts with Cubby riding a dachshund to his girlfriend’s house. This anonymous girl, only called Honey by Cubby, is yet another variation on Oswald’s Honey, Flip’s Honey, or Mickey’s Minnie and fails to be distinct in any sense. The two make music together. At one point Cubby takes his gloves off to play the piano four hands with them, incidentally revealing to have nails. Cubby’s and Honey’s duet causes a lot of singing and dancing by forest animals. It’s startling to watch the Van Beuren studio embracing the song-and-dance-routine so passionately in 1933, when other studios were already abandoning them. But then suddenly some kind of story resolves when the routine is disturbed by a mean old wolf. Cubby fights him, and the cartoon ends with his triumph.

Despite the joyful setting, there’s little to enjoy in ‘Love’s Labor Won’. The animation is sloppy, and Cubby is frustratingly bland, not even emulating Mickey’s persistent optimism. In this cartoon he has a ridiculous crooner voice, which would not return in subsequent cartoons.

Watch ‘Love’s Labor Won’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Love’s Labor Won’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: February 10, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Opening Night © Van BeurenIn 1933 the Van Beuren studio was struggling. Their Tom & Jerry series failed to match the successes of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse or the Fleischers’ ‘Betty Boop’, which is not really surprising, as the duo was as bland as possible, and their cartoons highly inconsistent. So, Van Beuren invited about eight of his animators to dinner and told them to come up with some new ideas. Mannie Davis sketched a new character called Cubby the Bear, and this character was to be the studio’s new star.

Being vaguely Mickey Mouse-like Cubby was a hero character, saving his girlfriend in many melodramatic situations. Unfortunately, Cubby was as bland as Tom & Jerry had been, and he did not even last two years. Many people would attribute Cubby’s misfortune to a lack of character, but this cannot be true: the character of the much more successful Betty Boop didn’t go beyond ‘sexy girl’, and even top star Mickey’s character could be summarized as ‘optimistic’. Other stars of the time, like Bosko and Flip the Frog, were as generic as possible. In fact, the first real characters to hit the animated screen were Popeye (later in 1933) and Donald Duck (1934).

No, Cubby’s main problem was that he was so terribly animated. Whereas we could easily follow the emotions of say Oswald, Bimbo, Flip or Mickey, Cubby is almost expressionless in this cartoon, his wide eyes staring into nothingness most of the time, as if he weren’t alive at all. Moreover, the animators often forgot to give him a motivation. This becomes clear when one compares the opening scene of Cubby’s debut film ‘Opening Night’ to a similar one in the much older, yet much better animated Oswald cartoon ‘Bright Lights‘ (1928). In the Oswald cartoon we clearly watch Oswald being in love with Mlle. Zulu, who performs at the theater. So when we watch Oswald trying to get in, we immediately understand why. Moreover, we can watch his emotions while doing so. Not so in ‘Opening Night’: in a very similar scene Cubby is given no motivation whatsoever. Even worse, we watch him from the back, which shuts us from his emotions. Mistakes like these are all over the Cubby the Bear cartoons, and that’s the main reason why he is forgotten, while his contemporaries Mickey, Betty and to an extent even Bosko and Flip have lived on.

‘Opening Night’ was made for the occasion of the opening of the RKO Roxy theater, which opened on December 29, 1932. Like subsequent Cubby the Bear cartoons, ‘Opening Night’ is still part of the Aesop Fables series, but Cubby is introduced immediately on the title card. The cartoon starts with Santa Claus spraying some dust which forms the letters ROXY. Then we get the scene in which Cubby tries to get into the theater. When he finally manages to do so, he ends up at the conductor stand, where he conducts the orchestra in an opera scene.

There’s quite some strangeness going on in this cartoon, especially in a couple of bizarre gags featuring audience seats.  Later, during a fighting scene the Romeo-like opera character beheads(!) his opponent. Composer Gene Rodemich, as often, is Van Beuren’s only inspired employee, making a great score out of Italian opera snippets.

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

‘Opening Night’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 21, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Birthday Party © Max FleischerBetty’s working alone at home, singing the song ‘Hummin’ to Myself’, but then her bell rings.

She finds a package at her doorstep, which appears to be a birthday cake. It appears that her friends have organized a surprise party for her. Koko gives her a dachshund, Bimbo gives her three fish in a bowl, and Fleischer’s unnamed stock baby gives her a piano.

In the third scene we watch Betty and her visitors eating at a long table in the garden. All goes well, until two visitors start arguing about a fish, and the complete party ends in a fight. This part includes a remarkably scene of Bimbo changing himself into a machine gun, shooting peas. While the party gets totally out of hand, Betty sails off with a statue of George Washington (don’t try to understand this).

‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ is an enjoyable cartoon, if not among Betty’s best. The flapper girl has her finest moment during the opening scenes,  and the best gag may the unpacking of the piano.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 14
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s May Party

‘Betty Boop’s Birthday Party’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 7, 1933
Stars: Arthur Jarrett, Betty Boop
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Popular Melodies © Max Fleischer‘Popular Melodies’ is a Screen Song devoted to singer Arthur Jarrett, a crooner who is all but forgotten today. Surprisingly enough, the so-called popular tunes he sings aren’t well-known either, except for Betty’s theme song with which the cartoon ends.

The animation part of this cartoon features a painter who tries to paint with a number of noisy children playing around. When his painting is ruined by one of the brats, he decides to drive to the countryside, but the children join them. There he paints a walking tree and a moving rock, which transforms into singer Arthur Jarrett. Jarrett sings a three songs. During the second song he draws a picture of Betty, who joins him in her own theme song.

Then we cut back to the painter and the children. Oddly, the song is not continued, only its instrumental music. This scene is remarkably because of its animation of figures in white on black, unseen since Emile Cohl’s films. These figures soon flee the painter’s canvas, resulting in a rather scary finale, with the spooky shapes walking and dancing through the countryside. Stange enough, the cartoon ends with a devil wishing the children “pleasant dreams, and good night”. Because of this finale ‘Popular Melodies’ is one of the most interesting of all Screen Songs, even if its star and his first two songs are utterly forgettable. It was also the last of six Screen Songs to feature Betty Boop.

Watch ‘Popular Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Popular Melodies’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Penthouse © Max FleischerIn ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ Bimbo and Koko have a chemical laboratory.

Across the street, on a roof terrace, Betty is having a shower, stealing their attention. This part contains a particularly sexy scene of a towel drying Betty by itself. Meanwhile, their cat starts an experiment on its own, resulting in a Frankenstein-like monster, who starts threatening Betty, walking some wires to cross the street. This scene is the highlight of this cartoon, as the movements of the monster, Koko, and Bimbo are perfectly timed to the hot big band jazz accompanying the action. In the end, Betty transforms the monster into a giant flower, dancing on the rooftop with clearly rotoscoped movements.

As one may have noticed, ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ makes little sense, and its absurdity is greatly enhanced by the many throwaway gags fired at the audience. It makes this cartoon one of the last highlights of the Fleischers’ idiosyncratic pre-code animation style.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 12
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Is My Palm Read
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White

‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 17, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Is My Palm Read © Max FleischerIn ‘Is My Palm Read’ Bimbo is a fortune-teller, assisted by Koko the Clown.

Betty drops by to see her future told. Bimbo first sees in his crystal ball Betty as a naked baby, and second as being shipwrecked and washed ashore an island. There she sings ‘All by myself’, only to attract a bunch of evil ghosts. Luckily, he Bimbo himself is there to rescue her, but as soon as he has revealed himself, the ghosts appear out of the crystal ball to chase the duo once again (Koko is completely forgotten at this stage).

‘Is My Palm Read’ is one of the Betty Boop cartoons strongly exploiting her erotic character. For example, when Betty enters the room, Bimbo and Koko use special lighting to see her legs right through her elegant dress. On the island we see Betty undressing and catch her briefly in her underwear, although she remains scantily clothed in a sexy tropical costume throughout the island scenes. The result is an erotic and surrealistic cartoon, which doesn’t make much sense, but which is over before you know it.

Watch ‘Is My Palm Read’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 11
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Penthouse

‘Is My Palm Read’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

 

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 16, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Betty Boop's Ker-Choo © Max FleischerBetty, Bimbo and Koko are joining a car race. Betty Boop is late, because she has a cold, and when she arrives she sings a song about it. In the end she wins the car race by sneezing.

Although ‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ belongs to Betty Boop’s golden era, it’s unfortunately one of Betty’s more boring cartoons. In fact, the best gags are the silly ones with which the cartoon starts. Because she wears a driver’s costume, Betty is also less sexy than usual, and somehow it seems this cartoon that points to the design used one year later, when Betty Boop fell victim of the stricter Hays code.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 9
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Museum
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Crazy Inventions

‘Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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