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Director: Lotte Reiniger
Release Date: 1928
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Der scheintote Chinese © Lotte Reiniger‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is a short film by Lotte Reiniger, made in the same vein as her stunning feature film ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed’ from 1926. Unlike her feature, this isn’t a romantic film, however, but a comical one, exploiting some surprisingly dark humor.

It starts when a couple makes fun with Ping Pong, the emperor’s favorite humpback. Unfortunately he chokes on a fishbone, leaving the couple believe he’s dead. They try to get rid of him, and so does every other citizen who finds the body on his doorstep. Finally a drunk is caught and sentenced to death for the brutal murder on Ping Pong. When the innocent drunk is almost hung at the gallows, the other people get remorse, and each pleads guilty in succession. Luckily, at that moment, Ping Pong awakes.

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is an entertaining story, and Reiniger’s designs are as delicate as ever. But the animation is crude and stiff, and her timing rather tiresome. Thus the film fails short to become a timeless classic.

Watch ‘Der scheintote Chinese’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Der scheintote Chinese’ is available on the DVD ‘Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Ahmed’

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Director: Unknown
Release Date: July 9, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Tall Timber © Walt DisneyBefore the rediscovery of ‘Sleigh Bells’ in 2015 ‘Tall Timber’ was the last surviving Oswald cartoon made by Walt Disney.

It features Oswald canoeing in the wild, shooting ducks and encountering wild animals, like a moose and a family of bears.

The cartoon’s story is sloppy (although it doesn’t help that some sequences are missing), but the short shows that Disney had advanced animation already before the advent of Mickey. For example, the cartoon features some spectacular waterfall animation, and a convincing falling rock sequence.

The falling rock eventually renders Oswald flat, and in a sequence animated by Hugh Harman we watch him wandering about a little as a flat character. In an attempt to get normal again, he becomes bulbous, which accounts for some surreal, almost trippy close ups of his inflated face, animated by Ham Hamilton.

‘Tall Timber’ was released in June 1928. By that time Disney had already started anew, trying to sell the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘, to distributors.

‘Tall Timber’ was followed by two more Oswald cartoons by Disney (the recently rediscovered ‘Sleigh Bells’ and the lost ‘Hot Dog’), then by nine by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, before the series was given to Walter Lantz’s studio. Lantz by far produced the most Oswald cartoons, releasing 142 in total. The character lasted until 1938. But by then Oswald looked quite different from the version in ‘Tall Timber’…

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

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 23
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: The Fox Chase
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sleigh Bells

Director: Unknown
Release Date: June 25, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Fox Chase © Walt DisneyOswald has a relatively small part in this cartoon, with many gags going to the fox outwitting the dogs.

This Oswald cartoon is noteworthy for a trio of original sight gags: in the first Oswald winds his elongated legs back into shape, in the second the fox pulls a pond to another place, and in the third Oswald’s squeezes a log like a tube of toothpaste.

‘The Fox Chase’ is the first of three cartoons in which Disney explores the humor of fox hunting, the other two, both titled ‘The Fox Hunt’ are a Silly Symphony from 1931 and a cartoon starring Donald Duck and Goofy from 1938. Curiously, all share the end gag involving a skunk.

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

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 22
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sky Scrappers
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Tall Timber

Director: Unknown
Release Date: June 11, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Sky Scrappers © Walt DisneyWhere ‘Oh, What a Knight‘ was a forerunner of ‘Ye Olden Days‘, ‘Sky Scrappers’ is the blueprint for the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Building a Building‘ (1933).

Like the later cartoon, ‘Sky Scrappers’ opens spectacularly with a fantastic opening shot zooming out of Oswald’s excavator. Both feature Honey/Minnie bringing Oswald/Mickey lunchboxes and Pete kidnapping Honey/Minnie. Like in ‘Oh What A Knight’ Honey is shown without her pants.

The opening shot shows a lot of animation cycles, effectively suggesting a lot of working on the building. There’s also a great perspective gag with Pete punching right into the camera. However, the most remarkably animation achievement is that of Oswald pulling up a heavy barrel. The idea of weight and muscle stretch is very convincing, and stands out amidst the more formulaic animation of the rest of the cartoon.

Watch ‘Sky Scrappers’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 21
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Oh, What A Knight
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: The Fox Chase

Director: Unknown
Release Date: May 28, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Oh, What a Knight © Walt Disney‘Oh What A knight’ can be regarded as an early forerunner of the Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Ye Olden Days‘ (1933).

Both shorts feature a medieval setting and both Oswald and Mickey are minstrels courting their love in a castle. However, where in ‘Ye Olden Days’ Goofy is the unlikely villain, Oswald’s opponent is Pete, who wears an anachronistic high hat.

Oswald serenades his sweetie Honey with an equally anachronistic accordeon. Soon, Oswald and Pete duel in grand adventure film-like manner, with Oswald kissing Honey between the fights. One scene in particular has beautifully animated shadows. In the final falling scene Honey loses her pants, and is shown naked. All characters are animated very flexibly: there’s a lot of stretching, falling apart etc.

‘Oh, What a Knight’ is a very entertaining entry in the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, and shows that Disney already went for high quality before the advent of Mickey.

Watch ‘Oh, What a Knight’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 20
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Hungry Hoboes
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sky Scrappers

Director: Unknown
Release Date: April 30, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Peg Leg Pete
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Ozzie of the Mounted © Walt DisneyOswald is a mounted police officer in charge of catching Peg Leg Pete, who, in spite of his name, has two legs here.

Oswald follows Pete on a mechanical horse, but in the end they’re both chased by a bear. Oswald, however, manages to get both Pete and the bear into prison.

‘Ozzie of the Mounted’ feels rather routine, and is less remarkable than say ‘Rival Romeos‘ or ‘Oh, What a Knight‘. The chase scene fills a large part of the cartoon, but contains few clever gags. Nevertheless, the animation of Oswald swinging around on his mechanical horse’s loose spring is still fascinating to watch. It’s also interesting to point out that Oswald’s mechanical horse looks far more mechanical than his mechanical cow in ‘The Mechanical Cow‘ from seven months earlier. This shows the subtle but steady progress the Walt Disney studio was making in animation, even before it became famous for that.

Watch ‘Ozzie of the Mounted’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 18
To the previous surviving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Bright Lights
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Hungry Hoboes

Director: Unknown
Release Date: March 19, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Bright Lights © Walt DisneyAlthough broke, Oswald tries to enter a vaudeville theater where Mademoiselle Zulu performs her shimmy dancing.

After we watch some cat chorus girls dancing the can-can, Mll. Zulu, a female cat character, is shown doing her erotic shimmy dance, probably inspired by Josephine Baker. Oswald manages to enter the theater by hiding beneath a man’s shadow(!), but he is discovered. He tries to hide in a cage, which contains a fierce leopard. When the leopard breaks loose, and later a couple of lions, the whole theater is emptied.

This rather plotless, yet entertaining short contains many surreal gags and a very flexible use of body parts. Oswald’s body is deformed even more than normal, and in one scene we watch him without his pants on.

The best scene is when Oswald pantomimes his love for Mlle. Zulu. This scene is acted out very well, and this embryonic character animation is far more sophisticated than the animation surrounding it.

Watch ‘Bright Lights’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 15
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Rival Romeos
To the next surviving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Ozzie of the Mounted

Director: Unknown
Release Date: March 5, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Honey, Pete
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Rival Romeos © Walt DisneyIn this gag-packed cartoon Oswald and Pete compete over Honey, a female cat character, who was Oswald’s girlfriend in 1928.

Pete and Oswald both ride in their cars to her house in a scene looking forward to the early Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘The Barn Dance‘ from later that year. Oswald serenades her until a goat eats all his sheet music and even his banjo. Then he turns the animal into a hurdy gurdy, like Mickey would do later that year in ‘Steamboat Willie‘. When Pete arrives, he and Oswald fight over Honey, almost tearing her apart. Honey gives them the cold shoulder and leaves with a third guy into the distance. Then our rivals kick each other in remorse, like Donald Duck and Peter Pig would do six years later in ‘Wise Little Hen‘ (1934).

As you may notice, ‘Rival Romeos’ contains quite a lot of embryonic gags that Walt Disney would reuse later in other cartoons. Because of these prophetical gags ‘Rival Romeos’ is a highlight among Disney’s Oswald cartoons.

Watch ‘Rival Romeos’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 14
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Africa Before Dark
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Bright Lights

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
August 7, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Gallopin' Gaucho © Walt Disney

Although Mickey’s first cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘, couldn’t arouse any distributor, Disney made another cartoon with his new character, ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’. It was to be Mickey’s second and last silent cartoon.

If possible, he is even ruder in this short than in ‘Plane Crazy’: according to a poster in the background, he is a sought-after criminal, we watch him smoking and drinking, and dancing a stout tango with Minnie (who’s wearing a bra in this cartoon).

Nevertheless, this cartoon is also the first in which Mickey shows to be a small, but clever and courageous hero. For when Minnie is abducted by Pete (who, in his first appearance in a Mickey Mouse cartoon, has both his legs), Mickey rescues her in a heroic fight. He then earns the kiss he tried to get by force in ‘Plane Crazy’. It was of course this character trait which was greatly expanded upon in later Mickey Mouse cartoons. Mickey’s nemesis, Pete, was in fact a much older character than Mickey – he already figured in some of the Alice cartoons and he was also Oswald’s adversary. His design was initially more dog- or bearlike, but in the Mickey Mouse cartoons it was settled that Pete was some kind of big cat.

Due to the melodrama ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ contains less gags than ‘Plane Crazy’, but it’s still a wonderful and fast cartoon with ingenious gags like the scene in which Mickey uses his own tail as a tackle. ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ also set out a storyline that was to be copied a couple of times (e.g. ‘The Cactus Kid‘ (1930), ‘Mickey in Arabia‘ (1932),’ The Klondike Kid‘ (1932)), and self-consciously parodied in ‘Gallopin’ Romance’, the film shown in ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier’ (1933). ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ itself was a parody of the 1927 Douglas Fairbanks film ‘The Gaucho’.

This cartoon was de facto the first production of Disney’s new fledgling studio (‘Plane Crazy’ was made secretly when Disney was still under Mintz’s contract). Ub Iwerks, who had animated ‘Plane Crazy’ single-handedly, could now be assisted by the young assistant animators Les Clark and the recently hired Wilfred Jackson to work on ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’. Both men would have long lasting careers at the Disney studio.

Unfortunately, ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ didn’t stir the distributors any more than did ‘Plane Crazy’. Disney had to come with something original, if he would get Mickey on the screen. And with something original he came…

A few final trivial remarks

  1. Mickey has shoes in this cartoon, which he shortly looses while whistling his ostrich in one scene.
  2. Mickey’s eyes change from the goggly to the familiar ones during the same scene.
  3. The bird Mickey’s riding might very well be a Rhea, a relative of the ostrich, that lives on the pampas of Argentina, the place where the cartoon takes place.

Watch ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 2
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Plane Crazy
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Steamboat Willie

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
November 18, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Steamboat Willie © Walt Disney

In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.

Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.

And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.

Using sound creatively

Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.

‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.

However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.

The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’

Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.

Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).

Conclusion

Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.

When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.

Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 3
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
May 15, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Plane Crazy © Walt DisneyApril 1928. Disney has just returned from an ill-fated journey to New York. There he had learned that he had lost his star character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and all his crew – all hired away by his distributor, Charles Mintz.

All, save one – only his friend and star animator Ub Iwerks has remained loyal*. And while the rest of the studio is working on the last Disney-produced Oswald cartoons, Iwerks is set to work in a separate office, secretly working on a cartoon, not for Mintz, but for Disney.

Iwerks works at an astonishing speed, and he finishes the animation on the cartoon after two weeks. This is a stunning effort by all standards. But what is even more extraordinary is that the finished product, ‘Plane Crazy’, turns out to be such a fine cartoon!

‘Plane Crazy’ is more consistent than most of the preceding Oswalds. It’s fast, it’s simply packed with gags and very funny. Moreover, it’s full of visual tricks. For example, the film opens with the behind of a cow (!), walking away from the camera. Later there are some great perspective scenes with Mickey’s plane flying under a cow’s udders, and almost crashing into two cars.

The film draws inspiration from the same event as the earlier Oswald cartoon ‘The Ocean Hop‘ (1927): Charles Lindbergh’s flight from New York to Paris on May 20-21 1927, the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. A goggle-eyed Mickey Mouse (without shoes or gloves) wants to imitate ‘Lindy’ and builds a plane himself, helped by the other farm animals.

Unfortunately his plane crashes against a tree. Then Mickey transforms a car into a plane, and asks Minnie to fly along. After a breath taking take-off, the plane flies, and up in the air Mickey forces a kiss from Minnie, with disastrous results.

‘Plane Crazy’ is, of course, Mickey’s first cartoon and it hasn’t aged a bit. Yes, it’s a silent cartoon with sound added later. Yes, Mickey looks and behaves rather differently than he would do later, and yes, some of the gags are rather crude. Yet, Plane Crazy is outstanding for its fast-paced gags, its extraordinarily rubbery animation, its awesome use of perspectives and its effective pantomime character animation (its only piece of dialogue is Minnie asking “who, me?”).

The film is a testimony of Ub Iwerks’s extraordinary skill. Not only was he an incredibly fast animator, as this short shows he was also an original artist, with a distinct style and an excellent sense of comic timing.

Unfortunately, in 1928, the distributors didn’t see anything distinctive in Mickey. True, he was not too different from Oswald. Both characters were of more or less the same size (with Mickey being outrageously big for a mouse from the outset). Both characters were kinda likable, had a joyful, adventurous spirit, and were seen courting a love interest. Nevertheless, Disney produced a second cartoon with his new character, ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘.

Watch ‘Plane Crazy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 1
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho

* and, to be fair, animator Johnny Cannon, and the recently hired Les Clark (one of the future Nine Old Men – who was not even approached by Mintz), and some ink and paint girls, and the janitor.

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