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Directors: Harry Bailey, John Foster, Frank Moser & Jerry Shields
Release Date:
 June 2, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Polo Match © Van Beuren.jpgLong before ‘Mickey’s Polo Team’ (1936) or Walt Disney took on playing polo himself, the Van Beuren studio visited the game in the silent short ‘Polo Match’.

The cartoon stars a couple of mice, with the hero being indistinguishable from the others. The mouse plays a polo game with the others on mechanical horses, and most of the gags (even the final one) stem from the horses falling apart. Meanwhile the hero’s sweetheart is harassed and later kidnapped by a mean old cat. Our hero pursuits the cat and saves his sweetheart.

The cartoon is pretty fast and full of action, but none of the gags are interesting enough to keep the viewer’s attention. Nevertheless, the short was re-released in 1932 as ‘Happy Polo’, with an added soundtrack.

It’s pretty likely that the inspiration for the mechanical horses stems from the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Ozzie of the Mounted‘ (1928) in which Oswald rides a mechanical horse himself. In any case, mechanical horses were clearly much easier to animate than real ones, and one was reused in ‘Hot Tamale’ (1930).

Watch ‘Polo Match’ (or ‘Happy Polo’) yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Polo Match/Happy Polo’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Harry Bailey
Release Date: December 1, 1929
Stars: Milton Mouse, Rita Mouse
Rating:
Review:

Close Call © Van Beuren‘Close Call’ is one of Van Beuren’s earliest sound cartoons, and it shows. Its visual language is still from the silent era, including the use of words on the screen.

The short unashamedly features two clear ripoffs of Walt Disney’s Mickey and Minnie Mouse. We watch them frolicking in a field, when a large cat kidnaps “Minnie” and takes her to a sawmill. “Mickey” comes to the rescue, only to be tied up by the cat to a sawmill, in a classic scene. As luckily as incomprehensibly the North West Mounted Police rides off to rescue the loving couple. They kill the cat (!), and the two mice are married.

The animation on ‘Close Call’ is terribly primitive, and there’s a lot of squeaking, but apart from the final “I do”‘s, there’s no dialogue. Moreover, there’s more drama to the short than humor, making it a tiring watch. The Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters (which off-screen apparently were christened Milton and Rita) would return in several of Van Beuren’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ cartoons, e.g. ‘Circus Capers‘ and ‘The Office Boy‘ from 1930.

Watch ‘Close Call’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Close Call’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: John Foster
Release Date:
 October 11, 1929
Stars: Farmer Al Falfa
Rating:
Review:

Summer Time © Van BeurenOf all American animation studios from the 1930s the Van Beuren Studio must be the least known.

This is no small wonder, for it was not only short-lived, lasting nine years, it was also the weakest studio of the lot, never reaching the heights of Max Fleischer or Walt Disney, and with only a few great cartoons in its entire catalog.

Thanks to Steve Stanchfield and his Thunderbean company, however, quite a sample of this studio’s output has been made available on DVD, so everybody can enjoy them (and incidentally making the Columbia/Screen Gem studio the least known studio – as its films remain utterly unavailable).

Before 1928 Van Beuren’s cartoons were made by Paul Terry, but in November 1928 the success of Disney’s ‘Steamboat Willie‘ prompted Amadee J. Van Beuren to announce that his studio would make the switch to sound, too. This led to a clash with Terry, who left mid-1929, leaving most of the staff and the studio’s main character, the bland Farmer Al Falfa, until Paul Terry reclaimed him in 1930.

The Van Beuren studio was more or less forced into the area of sound, and its crew totally unprepared, lacking experience. Indeed, ‘Summer Time’, Van Beuren’s 16th sound cartoon, is a strange blend of silent film and sound film: words and sound expressions are still visible on the screen, and while there’s music, there’s no rhythmical movement. Moreover, both design and animation are still firmly rooted in the 1920’s and there’s practically no plot, only three unrelated scenes.

The most interesting aspect of this film is Gene Rodemich’s music score, which still sounds fresh. In fact, Rodemich’s scores turned out to be the only constant quality within Van Beuren’s output, being among the best of all 1930s cartoon scores.

The three scenes of ‘Summer Time’ are 1) a frog and a monkey playing some music, waking up an angry owl. 2) A mouse playing in a fat woman’s shadow, attracting other mice, and scaring the woman away, and 3) Farmer Al Falfa being hot and making himself a drink. This story contains a weird scene in which the sun zooms into the camera to visit farmer Al Falfa at his own doorstep. This is the only interesting piece of animation in the entire film.

The cartoon ends with a moral, like many Aesop’s Fable cartoons before it. However, this practice was soon abandoned in 1930.

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

‘Summer Time’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 November 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating:
Review:

Jungle Rhythm © Walt Disney‘Jungle Rhythm’ opens with Mickey playing the harmonica while riding an elephant, the design of which is still rooted in the silent era.

Mickey shoots a vulture, but misses and is soon threatened by a bear and a lion. Luckily at that moment a monkey and a parrot start playing a tune on his harmonica, and a long dance routine can begin…

First we watch Mickey dancing with the lion and the bear, then two monkeys. Then Mickey plays the saxophone with two ostriches dancing. Mickey plays the whiskers of a little leopard like a harp, while a lion dances the hula, and he even returns to ‘Turkey in the Straw’, the tune that made him famous in his first sound cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928). After playing’Yankee Doodle’ on five tigers, a number of apes and a lion, the crowd applauds, and the cartoon ends.

‘Jungle Rhythms’ is easily one of the most boring entries among the early Mickey Mouse shorts: there’s no plot, no dialogue, no song, and the dance routines resemble the worst in contemporary Silly Symphonies. In fact, to me, ‘Jungle Rhythm’, together with ‘When The Cat’s Away‘ and ‘The Castaway‘ (1931), forms the worst trio of all Mickey Mouse cartoons. Luckily, weak cartoons like these remained a rarity within the series.

Watch ‘Jungle Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 13
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Jazz Fool
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Haunted House

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 October 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Horse Horsecollar
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Jazz Fool © Walt Disney‘The Jazz Fool’ opens with Mickey playing the organ on a tilt car, which says ‘Mickey’s Big Road Show’, followed by a crowd of animals.

When settled down, Mickey produces a piano out of nowhere, and performs a mildly jazzy stride tune on it. We also watch Horace Horsecollar without his usual yoke performing some drumming to Mickey’s organ tune.

This is Mickey’s second piano concerto cartoon (after ‘The Opry House‘ from seven months earlier), and thus contains some new gags involving piano playing. Mickey severely mistreats the instrument, even spanking it, so, unsurprisingly, the piano takes revenge in the end. The music can hardly be called jazz, however, even though it contains some nice stride piano. It would take two years before Mickey would turn to real jazz, in ‘Blue Rhythm‘ (1931).

As one may have noticed ‘The Jazz Fool’ is one of those early plotless Mickey Mouse shorts. However, there’s plenty of action, and Mickey’s piano performance is still entertaining today. Nevertheless, Mickey would turn to the violin in his next concert cartoon ‘Just Mickey‘ (1930).

Watch ‘The Jazz Fool’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 12
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Choo-Choo
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Jungle Rhythm

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 October 1, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Mickey's Choo-Choo © Walt DisneyIn ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ Mickey drives an outrageously flexible anthropomorphized locomotive, which is an early ancestor of Casey Junior from ‘Dumbo’ (1941).

He sings ‘I’m working on the railroad‘ and even plays the spaghetti he’s eating, treating it like a harp. Minnie comes along, playing the violin. At this point the cartoon harks back to Mickey’s success cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928), with Mickey playing music on some ducks and a dog.

After this sequence, Minnie rides Mickey’s train to the tune of Yankee Doodle, but on a very steep hill the wagon gets loose and falls backwards with Minnie on it. This sequence contains some wonderful rollercoaster-like perspective gags, reminiscent of the early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Trolley Troubles’ (1927).

‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ is remarkably fast and full of action. Moreover, it’s the first Disney cartoon to feature real dialogue. However, there’s hardly any plot and Mickey’s and Minnie’s designs are extraordinarily inconsistent, ranging from very sophisticated (with an extra facial line) to downright poor. The result is unfortunately only an average entry in the Mickey Mouse canon.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Choo-Choo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 11
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Follies
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Jazz Fool

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
 December 1, 1929
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Merry Dwarfs © Walt DisneyAmong the earliest 24 Silly Symphonies there’s a remarkable lot of dancing, as the novelty of movement to synchronized sound formed the basis of the series’ initial existence.

‘The Merry Dwarfs’ is characteristic of these earliest Silly Symphonies. It opens with dwarfs working to the music of Giuseppe Verdi’s anvil chorus from ‘Il trovatore’. Soon we watch them drinking beer (quite remarkable for a cartoon made in the age of abolition) before the long dance sequence kicks in.

This tiresome dance sequence first involves four dwarfs, then two. True, the gags follow each other remarkably naturally, but the dance remains rather dull anyhow until the very end. The cartoon’s sole highlight is in the end, when the two dwarfs fall into a barrel of beer, and their drunkenness makes everything, including the background, wobbly.

There is very little to enjoy in ‘The Merry Dwarfs’, but as it involves dwarfs, it is nice to watch it together with ‘Babes in the Woods’ (1932) and ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and gasp at the enormous strides the Disney studio had taken in a mere eight years.

Watch ‘The Merry Dwarfs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 5
To the previous Silly Symphony: Hell’s Bells
To the next Silly Symphony: Summer

‘The Merry Dwarfs’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date:
 November 11, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Hell's Bells © Walt DisneyWith its fourth Silly Symphony, ‘Hells Bells’, the Disney studio returned to the macabre that inspired the series’ very first entry.

Set in hell itself, it starts with a fire, bats and a spider swooping into the camera, and images of the three-headed dog Cerberus and some dragons. The main part however is devoted to a large devil, surrounded by numerous smaller ones playing music and dancing to it.

This section involves endless animation cycles. Luckily, there’s one great shot with a devil casting a huge shadow (looking forward to a similar, if much more elaborate scene in ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934). There’s also a great gag involving a crooked devil, and a weird one in which we watch devils milking a dragon-cow(?!). Despite its evil scenery, the whole atmosphere is remarkably merry.

‘Hells Bells’ is most noteworthy for its last part, in which the dance routine makes place for a tiny story, in which the large devil demands a smaller one to offer itself as dog food to Cerberus. The little devil refuses and flees, and finally manages to kick the large one into the fires of hell. Over the coming years, stories like these would overtake the song and dance routines of the Silly Symphonies, finally replacing them altogether.

Watch ‘Hell’s Bells’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 4
To the previous Silly Symphony: Springtime
To the next Silly Symphony: The Merry Dwarfs

Directors: Max Fleischer & F. Lyle Goldman
Production Date:
June 21, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Finding his Voice © Max FleischerWell, here’s a real treat: an educational/promotional film directed by Max Fleischer & F. Lyle Goldman to explain sound film, right from the era in which this new feat. was introduced.

The film starts with a sound film role changing into a cartoon figure. The sound film takes a silent film to a professor, who explains how sound film works. The film is most interesting, for it clearly shows the tremendous amount of changes that had to be made to make sound film work.

For example, in live action films the camera was now placed inside a box to prevent the primitive sound recording microphone from catching up the sound of the camera itself. And theaters, too, had to invest in the change. The screen had to be porous to let the sound through produced by giant loudspeakers behind the screen.

The designs and animation of this little film is still firmly rooted in the 1920s, and the animation is remarkably stiff, especially when compared to contemporary Disney cartoons. And although the characters talk a lot, lip synchronization is only suggested, but not really there. In fact, Fleischer would mostly neglect lip synchronization way until the end of the 1930s, only using it minimally. The voice over, too, is a little bit dull and hesitating in explaining the processes, but in the end this film is too unique a document of its time not to enjoy.

Watch ‘Finding his Voice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Finding his Voice’ is available on the DVD ‘Cultoons! Rare, Lost and Strange Cartoons! Volume 2: Animated Education’ and on the DVD box set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Directors: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Production Date:
May 1929
Stars: Bosko, Rudolf Ising
Rating:
★★★
Review:

Bosko the Talk-ink Kid © Warner Bros.In 1928 Charles Mintz had hired away virtually Walt Disney’s complete staff and main cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These animators now came to work for a studio, set up by George and Margaret Winkler to produce more Oswald cartoons. However, ca. one year later Universal, who owned Oswald, broke with the Winklers, gave Oswald to Walter Lantz, and left the former Disney animators out of work. 

Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising now tried to set up a studio of their own, and following the overnight success of ‘Steamboat Willie‘, they knew they had to come up with a character fit for sound. This new star was Bosko, a little negro, who, in his first appearance, had a remarkably low voice, provided by animator Max Maxwell. Bosko is introduced in ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’, Harman and Ising’s pilot film, made to sell their new studio.

The film starts with Rudolf Ising drawing Bosko and talking with him. Then Bosko performs a little dance, imitates a stereotypical Jew, and plays the piano. He then starts to sing ‘Sonny Boy’, but unfortunately with an awful voice, which prompts Ising to put the cartoon character back into the pen and the ink pot. But Bosko returns from the inkwell to say the very first version of that famous Warner Bros. line: “So long folks!“.

Bosko is not really an endearing character and the film is a little bit slow, yet it’s easy to see why this pilot film sold: the interplay between the animator and the cartoon character, although by 1929 far from new, still looks fresh, and the dialogue adds a new dimension to the trick. This dialogue is way more sophisticated than anything made at Disney at the time. Bosko jabbers along, with a lot of lip-synchronization, which is not always perfect, but mesmerizing, nonetheless. Mickey would go lip-synch only two months later, in ‘The Karnival Kid‘, but even then his facial expressions were to be less natural than Bosko’s in this little short. Thus ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is an absolute milestone in animation history, and a rare film in which Harman and Ising were in fact ahead of their former employer.

The animation on Bosko, on the other hand, looks very, very Disney-like and is almost an exact copy of Ub Iwerks’s animation style. This would become a Harman-Ising trademark: combining sophistication with copycatting. This unfortunately would often prevent their films from being entirely new or original.

Anyhow, ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ raised the interest of Leon Schlesinger, a newcomer in the animation field, who sold the idea of a new cartoon series to Warner Bros., with the argument that the animated shorts could be used to promote Warner Bros. songs. Thus, the famous Warner Bros. animation studio was born!

Watch ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’ and the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 28, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mickey's Follies © Walt Disney

‘Mickey’s Follies’ is the first Mickey Mouse film with his own name in the title – a clear indication that the mouse himself now was star enough to sell his own cartoons by name only.

In ‘Mickey’s Follies’ Mickey and his friends are giving a concert on the barnyard. First we see five dancing ducks, then a rather tough ‘French Apache dance’ between a rooster and a hen, followed by a pig singing in an ugly operatic voice. This pig is probably the first character in animation history to be funny because of a typical voice.

Highlight, of course, is Mickey himself performing his own theme song, titled ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’. This theme song clearly is the raison d’être of the cartoon, and it is even announced as such. No doubt this song was introduced as part of Mickey’s merchandising – and meant to be sold as sheet music, being the first Disney song to do so. An instrumental version of ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’ would indeed become Mickey’s theme song and accompany the intro’s of many Mickey Mouse cartoons to follow. ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’ was Disney’s first hit song, and the start of a long tradition, which hasn’t ended yet, as manifested by the huge hit ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen’ (2013). Disney’s attention for merchandizing made him a lot of money, and allowed him to invest more money in his cartoons than his competitors, enabling him to maintain the lead in the animation film world throughout the 1930’s.

Unfortunately, the cartoon’s focus on Mickey’s song makes it rather one-dimensional and dull. It’s an early example of a Disney song-and-dance routine cartoon, one of the first of seemingly countless such cartoons the studio produced between 1929 and 1931.

‘Mickey’s Follies’ is Disney’s second serious attempt at lip synch, after ‘The Karnival Kid’. Mickey sings much more than in the former cartoon, and the all too literal mouth movements give him many awkward facial expressions. Later the animators would learn to tone down the mouth movements, keeping Mickey’s face more consistent without losing the illusion of speech.

‘Mickey’s Follies’ marks the director’s debut of Wilfred Jackson, who had joined the Disney Studio as an assistant animator in April 1928. He was the first to replace Walt himself as a director. Jackson would have a long career at Disney’s studio: he directed his last film, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ in 1955, 26 years later. He retired in October 1961.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 10
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Karnival Kid
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Choo-Choo

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: July 31, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Karnival Kid © Walt Disney‘The Karnival Kid’ forms an important step in the use of sound in an animated cartoon.

We had already watched and heard Minnie singing “lalala” in ‘The Plow Boy’, and in ‘The Barnyard Battle’ a sergeant spoke a few words. But in ‘The Karnival Kid’ there’s suddenly a lot of singing: Pete sings, Mickey sings, and the complete second half of the cartoon is devoted to song.

‘The Karnival Kid’ shows that lip synchronization was far more difficult to master than synchronized sound itself. The animation of the mouth to form syllables was a totally new feat, and initially it was done all too literally. This leads to awkward facial expressions at times, with especially Mickey’s face distorting into a multitude of mouth gestures. This would be even worse in Mickey’s next cartoon, ‘Mickey’s Follies’.

At the same time, a lot of the characters’ action remains typical silent pantomime. For example, when Mickey offers Minnie a hot dog for free, this is acted out in complete silence.

‘The Karnival Kid’ is a wonderfully witty film. Mickey works as a hot dog seller at the fair, where Minnie is a shimmy dancer. The film is split in two parts: in the first Mickey sells living(!) hot dogs and gives one to Minnie. When the unlucky weenie is not very cooperative, Mickey spanks him! These hot dog gags are reused from the Oswald short ‘All Wet‘ (1927), but they still feel fresh, due to the added sound. Now we can hear the hot dogs barking and yelping. And so, after ‘The Karnival Kid’ these hot dog gags were reused a second time by Ub Iwerks in the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘Circus’ (1932).

The second part is introduced by a title card ‘later that night’, which melts before the scene starts. Here Mickey offers Minnie a serenade with the help of two cats who sing ‘Sweet Adeline’. The cartoon ends when Mickey is hit by a bed(!) which Pete has thrown at him.

As you may have noticed, ‘The Karnival Kid’ has very little story. It’s enjoyable because of the carnival atmosphere, the large number of gags, and the intoxicating singing.

Watch ‘The Karnival Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 9
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Battle

To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Follies

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: December 21, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Still from 'Wild Waves' featuring Minnie kissing MickeyIn his fifteenth cartoon Mickey is a lifeguard and he saves a nearly drowning Minnie.

To comfort his sweetheart Mickey does some playing and dancing. Some animals (pinguins, sea lions, pelicans and a singing walrus) join in. This is a particularly dull sequence, Minnie cheers up, calls Mickey ‘my hero’ and kisses him. Iris out.

In this short, there’s a story at least the first half of the cartoon, making it slightly better than most of the early Mickey Mouse entries. The cartoon starts with some nice scatting by Mickey. Unfortunately, the fledgling lip-synch still accounts for some strange facial expressions on our hero. The drowning and saving part is the most interesting sequence, and contains some nice water animation, as well Mickey defying gravity by swimming through air.

‘Wild Waves’ was the first short directed by Burt Gillett. Gillett had joined Disney in April 1929. He would become the principal Mickey Mouse director of 1930 and 1931, and in 1933 he would gain fame with ‘Three Little Pigs’. His career at Disney’s would last until 1934, when he left for the ill-fated Van Beuren Studio.

‘Wild Waves’ also was the last Walt Disney short to feature music by Carl Stalling. When Ub Iwerks left Disney in January 1930, Stalling soon followed, believing the studio had no future without this master animator. For his last film Stalling not only provided the score, but also the singing for Mickey and the Walrus. The singing walrus would be reused half a year later, in the Silly Symphony ‘Arctic Antics‘, while the dancing sea lions returned in ‘The Castaway‘ (1931).

Watch ‘Wild Waves’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 15
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Haunted House
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Just Mickey

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: December 2, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'The Haunted House' featuring Mickey startled by skeletons‘The Haunted House’ is Mickey’s first horror cartoon.

In this short he hides from a rain storm in a house, which appears to be haunted by skeletons. A cloaked skeleton orders Mickey to play on a harmonium, while all the skeletons dance.

This sequence reuses some footage of four skeletons dancing from ‘The Skeleton Dance‘. Unfortunately, the new animation on dancing and playing skeletons is hardly as good, and the dancing sequence feels more primitive than ‘The Skeleton Dance’. However, the opening shot is beautiful, with the house flexing in the wind. There’s also some good animation on the cloaked skeleton, and a beautifully lit scene when Mickey strikes a match.

Mickey’s role in this short is very limited, and his only function seems to be being the carrier of the audience’s fear. Indeed, he looks repeatedly into the camera for sympathy, dragging us into the haunted house with him.

The early scenes of this cartoon manage to evoke a genuine feel of horror, but in the end this short resembles the boring song-and-dance-routines of both the early Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony series too much to be a stand out.

Mickey would return to the horror genre in ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘ (1930) and ‘The Mad Doctor‘ (1933), with much better results.

Watch ‘The Haunted House’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 14
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Jungle Rhythm
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Wild Waves

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.

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: Walt Disney
Release Date: April 25, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Barnyard Battle © Walt DisneyMickey joins a barnyard army of mice (many of which are Mickey look-a-likes) against an invading army of cats.

We see him naked while he’s treated rather badly by a very rude officer. Mickey’s body is extraordinarily mechanical in this scene: the officer is able to stretch his neck and tongue endlessly, and can even take out Mickey’s heart.

In the next scene another officer shouts “company, forward march!”, making him the first character in a Disney cartoon that actually speaks. Up to this moment characters would only utter single syllable sounds and laughs. Only Minnie could express two syllables with her yoo-hoo, but that was it.

In spite of this step forward, ‘The Barnyard Battle’ remains, in effect, a silent cartoon. The way the inspecting officer asks Mickey to stick out his tongue is a perfect example. The highlight of silent acting, however, is given to Mickey, who, when confronted with a large and mean cat, gives a performance that matches Charlie Chaplin.

Mickey’s size is rather inconsistent in this cartoon. His never as small as in ‘When the Cat’s Away‘, but in some scenes he’s clearly much smaller than usual. The battle has more allusions to the American civil war than to World War I, making it a little more comfortable. Mickey finally defeats the cats by clobbering them with a hammer to Verdi’s anvil chorus from ‘Il Trovatore’. This is probably the first animated scene in which something totally unmusical is done musically. A great cartoon idea, which would be greatly expanded in many cartoons to come.

Watch ‘The Barnyard Battle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 7
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: When the Cat’s Away
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Plow Boy

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 9, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Plow Boy © Walt DisneyIn this weak cartoon (Mickey’s seventh) Mickey and Minnie are farmers.

The most remarkable thing about this cartoon is that it marks the debut of Horace Horsecollar. One might say, it marks the debut of Clarabelle Cow, as well, but the early Mickey Mouse cartoons contain a little too many non-distinct cows to state that clearly, because this cow is not different from the others.

This cartoon is particularly important in the development of Minnie: she now has lost the bra-like circles on her body and she’s singing for the first time. Notice how the animation of the tongue is completely convincing. Although Minnie’s only singing “lalalala” (something she would do in many cartoons to follow), this is an important step in the animation of speech. This was something I guess Disney was eager to master. Indeed, in the next cartoon, ‘The Karnival Kid‘, there’s suddenly a lot of talking and singing.

‘The Plow Boy’ contains a scene where the background moves the wrong way making the cow walk backwards.

Watch ‘The Plow Boy’ yourself and tell me what you think:


This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 8
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: 
The Barnyard Battle
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Karnival Kid

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: May 3, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating:
Review:

When The Cat's Away © Walt DisneyAwkwardly, in this sixth Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey and Minnie are portraited as real mice.

They are joined by several look-a-likes in a house party, while the owner, a drunk cat, is gone hunting. There’s still some silent comedy (and no dialogue), but there’s no real story, only an extended musical number. Therefore this cartoon can be regarded as the first of many ‘song-and-dance-routine’-cartoons that would dominate the early 1930s. It even predates the Silly Symphony series, which initial sole raison d’être seems to be song-and-dance-routines.

These cartoons no doubt delighted the audiences at the time. However, I regret their coming, because both story and surreal humor had to give way to the rise of them. ‘When the Cat’s Away’ is a prime example: despite some clever gags, it is easily the dullest of the earliest Mickey Mouse cartoons.

After ‘When the Cat’s Away’ Mickey would never been portrayed as a real mouse again. Like in his first five cartoons, he would just be a boy in the shape of a mouse. The idea of Mickey being a mouse would become negligible compared to the cartoon star he was. Mickey was seen as an actor, not as an animal. This would eventually lead to the awkward situation of Mickey dealing with ‘real’ and very different looking mice in ‘The Worm Turns‘ (1937).

Watch ‘When The Cat’s Away’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 6
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Opry House
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barnyard Battle

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: March 28, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Opry House © Walt DisneyUnlike its predecessor, ‘The Barn Dance‘, ‘The Opry House’ relies heavily on sound and music.

Mickey is the sole performer in a local theater where he dances and plays music. He even dresses up as a female belly dancer, dancing the hoochie coochie dance.

With its many musical gags, this cartoon is the first step in the development of the ‘concert cartoon’. An orchestra plays George Bizet’s Carmen way out of tune, and Mickey performs the Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt on the piano. This sequence is particularly important for two reasons: first, Mickey here gains his famous gloves, and second, this is the first time that Liszt’s famous work is featured in an animated cartoon. It would remain a cartoon classic and many years later, Bugs Bunny would perform the same piece on the piano in ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom and Jerry in ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947). Already in this cartoon, Liszt’s piece is the source of several musical gags, as Mickey plays the piano in the most original ways, even clobbering it with his fists, until his stool kicks him.

Watch ‘The Opry House’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 5
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: When The Cat’s Away

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