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Director: Alfred L. Werker
Release Date: June 20, 1941
Stars: Robert Benchley, Clarence Nash, Florence Gill, Ward Kimball, Fred Moore, Norm Ferguson, Donald Duck, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Reluctant Dragon © Walt DisneyAfter three stunning feature films, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, ‘Pinocchio‘ and ‘Fantasia’, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was a much, much more modest affair.

The movie must have come as a letdown to contemporary audiences, and many considered it a cheater, as little more than half the film is animated. Indeed, it’s not even included in Disney’s official list of theatrical features, and has only been released on DVD in the limited edition ‘Walt Disney Treasures’ series.

This is a pity, for despite its modest ambitions, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ remains an entertaining feature, especially its animated sequences. The film was made in a not so prosperous time for the Walt Disney studio: both ‘Pinocchio’ and ‘Fantasia’ had lost money, mainly due to World War II, which had broken off the complete European market, and its necessary revenues. As a consequence, the number of theatrical shorts was reduced, ‘Alice in Wonderland‘ was shelved, and two smaller features were planned: ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ and ‘Dumbo’.

Especially, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ was conceived as a low-budget production in order to get a quick return on investment. Trying to capitalize on Disney’s popularity, the film is a virtual tour through the Burbank studio, to which the company had moved in the end of 1939. Apart from the orchestra sequences in ‘Fantasia’ this was Walt Disney’s first foray into live action since the silent Alice comedies, and he hired a live action director, Alfred L. Werker to shoot the live action scenes. As Leonard Maltin points out in his introduction to the film, the film had been storyboarded like any other animated film, thus Werker can be regarded as the first live action director to have worked with storyboards. Filming in live action was far cheaper than shooting animation, and thus greatly reduced the costs of the feature. Unfortunately, ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ didn’t earn the studio enough money to cover the film’s costs. Nevertheless, the film pointed Walt Disney to the future, in which the company ventured more and more into live action film making.

Apart from Werker, several actors were hired to play various studio employees, and the film tour is more fiction than fact. The tour thus is hardly documentary, even though it does show the real studio lot. This became painfully clear when the film was released on June 20, 1941. At the time the studio experienced a severe strike, revealing that the company was not such a happy place, after all…

The film starts with Robert Benchley’s wife (Nana Bryant) suggesting to the popular humorist that he should suggest to Walt Disney to make a picture out of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1898). Benchley reluctantly agrees, and is more or less forced to drive to the Disney studio, where his wife leaves him on his own, taking the car to go shopping.

Benchley soon starts to wander through the studio on his own, visiting an art class (hoping to see a nude model), and the sound studio, where he witnesses Clarence Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) and Florence Gill (Clara Cluck) performing a duet from Friedrich von Flotow’s opera ‘Martha’ (1847).

Benchley continues his wanderings through the sound effect department, and the camera department. At this point the film suddenly changes into color, even to Benchley’s own surprise, who immediately starts checking the colors of his own suit, as if he had really been black and white all before.

Benchley’s tour continues through the color department, the story room, the animation department, and finally, the screening room where he finally meets Walt, and joins in the screening, only to find out that it’s the screening of ‘The Reluctant Dragon’, the very story he had wanted to sell…

The color department sequence is set to an instrumental version of ‘Hi-Ho’ and looks like a ballet of paint colors, and not at all as anything real. When Benchley continues to the story room he passes several statues of Disney characters, including Captain Hook, Tinkerbell and Wendy from ‘Peter Pan’, a film that would only go into production ten years later! One can also notice both a little statue and a drawing of two Siamese cats who would not be seen on the animated screen until ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956).

At the animation department Benchley meets real animators Ward Kimball, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson (we can watch the latter one panting like his creation Pluto). There Benchley admires some ‘paintings’ of Donald Duck in the style of old masters. The paintings were actually drawings in crayon, done by animators John Dunn, Phil Klein, and Ray Patin.

In one way we could consider the whole tour as a long introduction to the twelve minute animated version of the tale, and as such the film harks all the way back to Winsor McCay’s ‘Little Nemo‘ (1912) and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘ (1914), which also featured long live action footage showing how the film was made, before showing the end result.

However, none of the animation on ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself is shown before the last part: instead we watch unique animation on the train Casey Jones jr. from ‘Dumbo’, Donald Duck from the upcoming short ‘Old MacDonald Duck‘, and unique animation of Bambi (this film also being in production) being scared of Benchley.

The film only features three completely animated sequences: ‘Baby Weems’, the Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ and ‘The Reluctant Dragon’. All three are excellent and forward-looking, and make the film a must watch for every animation lover:

Baby Weems © Walt DisneyBaby Weems
‘Baby Weems’ is no less than a milestone of animation: the segment is told in story boards only, with little movement and added special effects. Conceived by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, the short features drawings by John Miller, whose more angular style looks forward to the more stylized cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, one can say that the concept of Animatics is born here. The story in itself is a delight: Baby Weems is an exceptional prodigy, whose fame goes all over the world. Unfortunately, his parents don’t get to see him. However, the film shows the black side of fame, and as soon as Weems loses his extraordinary abilities, he’s soon forgotten by everyone, except his happy parents, who can finally start to raise him…

How to Ride a Horse © Walt DisneyHow to Ride a Horse
The Goofy short ‘How to Ride a Horse’ strangely enough only exists within this film, yet it’s presented as a regular short. The segment plays an important part in the evolution of Goofy: it’s the first of all ‘how to’ cartoons, it’s Goofy’s first venture into sports, and it’s the first to use blueprint-like schematic drawings and the ridiculous use of the “slow motion camera”. Most probably the series had been inspired by Robert Benchley himself, as he had done a ‘How to…’ series of short films, too, from 1935 to 1939. The short uses surprisingly spare monochrome backgrounds, with only few details in pastel. These graphic backgrounds are absolutely forward-looking.

The Reluctant Dragon from the movie of the same name © Walt DisneyThe Reluctant Dragon
‘The Reluctant Dragon’ itself, too, looks forward to the 1950s: the character designs are more streamlined than before, and the backgrounds are simplified and rounded, never trying to evoke any sense of realism. Sir Giles is the most convincingly animated human character thus far. He certainly is cartoony, but he’s also a real human, with visible joints, muscles, and five fingers instead of the normal four. The dragon itself is animated elegantly, moving with a deftness that defies its size and weight. Voiced by Barnett Parker (and not Ed Wynn, as I thought) – the dragon sounds pretty gay, perhaps to make it the opposite of the masculine fighting machine it is supposed to be. The dragon even shows a Tex Averyan double take, suddenly producing five separate heads when he hears that his invite Sir Giles is a dragon killer.

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ can be regarded as the first of the package features, which would dominate the Disney output the rest of the 1940s, and like all its successors it suffers from its disjointed and scrambled character. The film certainly is not a perfect film: the live action parts remain a strange mix of education and self-promotion, and in many respects the film is rescued by its animated sequences, which are all three excellent. Yet, the picture is certainly worth a watch, and deserves to be more seen than it is now.

Watch ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

‘The Reluctant Dragon’ is available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

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Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: December 6, 1941
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Night Before Christmas © MGMAlready in their third cartoon Tom & Jerry were given their own Christmas special.

The short starts with the narrator reciting the first two lines from the early 19th century poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’: “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse“.

Upon the last word we cut to Jerry who appears from his hole and goes exploring the Christmas setting. When Jerry mistakes Tom for a stuffed animal, a cartoon chase emerges, which is the more fun due to the Christmas setting. For example, we watch Tom inspecting a troop of wooden soldiers, and Jerry inviting Tom for a kiss under the mistletoe.

The chase ends when Jerry accidentally falls through the letter box outside in the snow. Relieved, Tom settles himself at the warm fire site, only to be plagued by remorse. Anxiously Tom rushes outside to retrieve a frozen Jerry from the snow. The cartoon ends with the broadest smile on Jerry possible.

‘The Night Before Christmas’ was only the duo’s third cartoon, but already Hanna and Barbera were able to play with the relationship between the cat and the mouse. Now they’re not only antagonists, they’re also friends, or at least ‘friendly enemies’, and their chase retains a playful attitude.

Jerry is animated outstandingly in this cartoon, and pulls several priceless faces, the last smile being a highlight among highlights. Tom’s finest moment is when he’s invited by Jerry for a kiss. The cat’s obstinate refusal turning into goodwill, followed by an embarrassed shyness is animation at its best.

Composer Scott Bradley provides a fantastically integrated score, weaving the Tom and Jerry themes with Jingle Bells to a great effect. In fact, one can listen to the score in its own right. The result is a cartoon of sheer delight, and ‘The Night Before Christmas’ easily is one of the best Christmas cartoons of all time.

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

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 3
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Midnight Snack
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Fraidy Cat

‘The Night Before Christmas’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: July 19, 1941
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Midnight Snack © MGMFollowing the success of ‘Puss Gets the Boot‘ it would take quite a while before the cat and mouse duo were given their own series. But one and a half year later ‘The Midnight Snack’ was released: Tom & Jerry’s very first official cartoon.

The duo was re-christened ‘Tom and Jerry’, which may have sounded right, as there had been a human cartoon duo before with that name (1931-1933). The looks of the cat and mouse were altered, too: Tom now has his characteristic black nose and thick black eyebrows, which make his facial expressions much stronger. Nevertheless, his features are still very complex. Jerry’s designs have remained the same, but he’s now animated much more consistently, rendering him less pudding-like.

The story of ‘The Midnight Snack’ feels like a variation on ‘Puss Gets the Boot’. Tom catches Jerry stealing cheese from the fridge, only to make a buffet out of the fridge himself. When Mammy awakes, Tom frames Jerry, but in the end it’s he who gets punished by the angry maid. The cartoon violence is still rather mild in this cartoon, the most conspicuous gag being Jerry pricking the trapped Tom with a large carving fork.

Composer Scott Bradley juxtaposes separate themes for the cat and the mouse against each other in a rather complex continuous cartoon score. Bradley used this composition method in the duo’s first cartoons to a great effect. Later, the frantic cartoon action called for more disjointed and less integrated musical scores.

‘The Midnight Snack’ shows the cat and mouse’s great appeal and potential. Yet, in Charles Solomon’s book ‘Enchanted Drawings – The History of Animation’ Joe Barbera reveals that ‘The Midnight Snack’ almost became the last Tom & Jerry cartoon; apparently producer Fred Quimby was opposed to make any more of them, until he got a letter from Texas asking for more of “these delightful cat-and-mouse-cartoons”.

Watch ‘The Midnight Snack’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 2
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Puss Gets the Boot
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Night Before Christmas

‘The Midnight Snack’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 11, 1941
Stars: Gabby
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Swing Cleaning © Max FleischerThe title ‘Swing Cleaning’ promises a cartoon full of big band music.

None of that. Instead, we have a Gabby cartoon, in which our read-headed hero volunteers to take control of the palace’s spring cleaning. Gabby soon meddles with everyone and everything, and manages to destroy a great deal, twice. In the end the other palace dwellers give him their tokens of gratitude, and clobber him with their brooms.

Compared to ‘Two for the Zoo‘ ‘Swing Cleaning’ is a much better cartoon, with its focus on Gabby’s destructive meddling. However, the short loses some screen time to unrelated gags, and one doesn’t feel for either Gabby or the other palace dwellers. In the end. Swing Cleaning’ remains a mediocre cartoon, still much rooted in the sugary 1930s era, and feeling dated when compared to contemporary cartoons from other studios.

Watch ‘Swing Cleaning’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Swing Cleaning’ is available on the Thunderbean DVD/Blu-Ray ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 21, 1941
Stars: Gabby
Rating:
Review:

Two for the Zoo © Max FleischerIn a search for more lasting characters, the Fleischer studio gave Gabby, the omnipresent watchman from ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ (1940) his own series.

In 1940 and 1941 the studio made eight Gabby cartoons. Unfortunately, the series was not a success. The problem lies with the character itself. Even in ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ Gabby is hardly funny, and in ‘Two for the Zoo’, his fourth solo film, he only demonstrates that he was the most talkative character of his era, which is hardly an advertisement.

In this rather tiresome cartoon Gabby meets a porter who transports a ‘rubberneck Kango’ to the zoo inside a large crate. For unclear reasons Gabby volunteers to take the animal itself, taking a small fantasy creature out of the box, which looks like a kangaroo with a trunk and giraffe-like horns. What Gabby doesn’t realize is that he has only taken the cub, and that the mother Kango is still inside the crate. She soon follows the two, putting her cub inside her pouch. This leads to quite some confusion, and only in the end Gabby discovers that there were actually two animals all along.

Unfortunately, none of Gabby’s antics are remotely funny, and the gags are greatly hampered by Gabby’s constant jabbering. The best part is when the large Kango has the hiccups, and Gabby balances on a ladder on her head.

Watch ‘Two for the Zoo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Two for the Zoo’ is available on the Thunderbean DVD/Blu-Ray ‘Fleischer Classics featuring Gulliver’s Travels’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: November 1, 1941
Stars: Porky Pig
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Porky's Pooch © Warner Bros.In ‘Porky’s Pooch’ a dog tells his Scottish terrier friend how he managed to get a master.

This dog is a clear forerunner of Chuck Jones’s Charlie Dog, who would make his debut six years later in ‘Little Orphan Airedale’ (1947). Like Charlie Dog, this dog, called Rover, is an orphan, forcefully trying to make Porky Pig his master. Rover speaks in a similar way as Charlie, and even introduces the Charlie Dog lines “You ain’t got a dog, and I ain’t got a master’ and ‘and I’m affectionate, too’.

The dog also does a Carmen Miranda impression, most probably the first in an animated film, as the Brazilian actress had become famous only one year earlier, with ‘Down Argentine Way’ (1940). The short is also noteworthy for the use of real photographs as backgrounds, against which the characters read surprisingly well.

Watch ‘Porky’s Pooch’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Porky Pig cartoon no. 93
To the previous Porky Pig cartoon: Robinson Crusoe, jr.
To the next Porky Pig cartoon: Porky’s Midnight Matinee

‘Porky’s Pooch’ is available on the DVD sets ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’ and ‘Porky Pig 101’

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: May 10, 1941
Rating: ★★
Review:

Farm Frolics © Warner Bros.‘Farm Frolics’ was the second Merrie Melodie directed by Bob Clampett.

In this cartoon Clampett follows Tex Avery with his own spot gag cartoon, this time on farm life, making it strangely similar to the Walter Lantz cartoon ‘Fair Today‘ from only three months earlier.

The Warner Bros.’ spot gag cartoons rarely belonged to the best of their repertoire, and ‘Farm Frolics’, too, is hardly funny. Even the running gag of this forgettable cartoon is trite, and fails to provide a welcome finale. Nevertheless, the animation is very fine. For example, there’s some surprisingly realistic animation on a horse. Thus even this weak short shows that by 1941 the Warner Bros. animators could do almost everything.

Watch ‘Farm Frolics’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Farm Frolics’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’

Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: February 24, 1941
Rating:  ★★
Review:

Fair Today © Walter Lantz‘Fair Today’ is a spot gag cartoon on a county fair.

The short uses a voice over in the tradition of Tex Avery’s Warner Bros. Spot gag cartoons, e.g. ‘Circus Today’ (1940), ‘Holiday Highlights’ (1940) and ‘Aviation Vacation‘ (1941). Indeed, three months later the Warner Bros. studio itself came with a similar cartoon called ‘Farm Frolics‘. The Warner Bros. connection is further enhanced by the presence of Mel Blanc as voice artist, and a ‘story’ by Warner Bros.-alumnus Ben Hardaway.

The Warner Bros.-influx does not lead to a funny cartoon, however. Even Avery’s spot gag cartoons were more than often rather tiresome, and Lantz’s ‘Fair Today’ is more miss than hit. The gags flow in at a high speed, but let’s face it: most of them are very corny, to say the least, and they include some very bad puns. The obligate running gag is give to an old lady in search of her little boy. The best gag is when the narrator says “let’s skip over to … ‘ and the camera hops accordingly through the scene.

Watch ‘Fair Today’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Fair Today’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 4, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Flies Ain't Human © Max FleischerIn ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ Popeye tries to take a nap, but he’s bothered by some flies.

Popeye manages to blow the flies out of the window, but then one has stayed behind, giving the sailor a hard time, especially after the little insect has eaten spinach.

Like most 1941 Popeye cartoons, ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is fast and gag rich. The turning around of the classic spinach story device is a great invention, and provides some excellent comedy, as Popeye becomes helpless against the surprisingly mighty little fly. In his final attempt to kill the tiny foe Popeye blows his own house to pieces, only to find multitudes of flies on his head in the end. The most delightful gag is when Popeye’s head gets stuck in a painting of a snowy landscape, and the fly takes some time to ski jump from his face into the painted snow.

The idea for the fly may have come from the bee troubling Donald Duck in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The cartoon itself at least looks forward to the cartoon ‘The Pink Tail Fly‘ (1965), in which a mosquito keeps the Pink Panther out of his sleep.

Watch ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 94
To the previous Popeye film: Olive’s Sweepstake Ticket
To the next Popeye film: Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle

‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 7, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Quiet! Pleeze © Max Fleischer‘Quiet! Pleeze’ opens with Poopdeck Pappy lying with a hangover in bed.

When his son comes in to wake him, Poopdeck Pappy pretends to be ill, and Popeye goes at lengths to give his poor old dad peace and quiet, e.g. giving a crying baby across the street a bottle, and stopping workmen from blowing up a huge hill. This part is very fast, and reuses footage from various Popeye shorts, but now in a very different light. Of course, all Popeye’s actions are to no avail, as in the end he finds his dad being the life of a party.

Like ‘Problem Pappy‘, ‘Quiet! Pleeze’ is a fast and gag-rich cartoon, which belongs to Popeye’s best. It’s clear that the character of Poopdeck Pappy brought some new life into the series, giving the otherwise goody-goody Popeye something to work with.

However, it seems that with this cartoon the new formula had reached its limits, for Poopdeck Pappy’s next two cartoons, ‘Child Psykolojiky‘ and ‘Pest Pilot‘ aren’t half as good.

Watch ‘Quiet! Pleeze’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 92
To the previous Popeye film: Problem Pappy
To the next Popeye film: Olive’s Sweepstake Ticket

‘Quiet! Pleeze’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 10, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Problem Pappy © Max FleischerIn ‘Problem Pappy’ story man Ted Pierce (of later Warner Bros. fame) reuses part of the story idea from ‘With Poopdeck Pappy‘: Popeye wants to wake his dad, only to find the bed empty.

When Popeye starts looking for his father, he finds his mischievous old dad juggling on a pole on top of a tall building. Popeye’s attempts to retrieve his pop account for some delightful comedy on dizzying heights. T

he film is simply stuffed with great gags and original images, like Popeye using lightning bolts as Tarzan would use lianas. The staging in this cartoon is absolutely wonderful, and the animators make great use of a shot of the staircase of the tall building. In all, ‘Problem Pappy’ is one of the all time best Popeye cartoons, and completely in tune with the faster comedy style of the chase cartoon era.

Watch ‘Problem Pappy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 91
To the previous Popeye film: Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep
To the next Popeye film: Quiet! Pleeze

‘Problem Pappy’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: April 26, 1941
Rating:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Trial of Mr. Wolf © Warner Bros.‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ stands in a great tradition of fairy tale spoofs, which go all the way back to 1931, with cartoons like Van Beuren’s ‘Red Riding Hood‘ and Max Fleischer’s ‘Dizzy Red Riding Hood‘.

More recent inspirations must have been Disney’s ‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ (1934), and especially Tex Avery’s ‘Cinderella Meets Fella‘ (1938) and ‘The Bear’s Tale‘ (1940).

‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ tops all these cartoons, however, and can be regarded as Warner Bros.’ first mature film: the short fuses Tex Avery’s silliness with Michael Maltese’s inspired story writing, and above all, Friz Freleng’s excellent timing, which at this stage was much better than Avery’s. The result is an outrageously funny cartoon, unlike everything seen before (yes, I’m including ‘A Wild Hare‘ in this!).

The short opens with a court scene, in which the wolf tells his side of the story about Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf portrays himself as an innocent boy from Sunday school, being a hapless victim of a double-crossing Red Riding Hood, and her extremely homicidal grandma, who is only after the wolf’s fur.

Red Riding Hood is a fantastic caricature of Katherine Hepburn, and never has the fairy tale character been so portrayed so vile on the animated screen. But all the characters have an assured, modern, and rubbery design – there’s no trace of the primitivism left that haunted much of Warner Bros.’ earlier output. But moreover, the gags come in fast and plenty, like they never did before. Highlight is the scene in which the wolf opens several doors, only to find grandma behind it, heavier armed every time (by the last door she has mounted a tank). This type of scene would recur in several other cartoons.

The door scene is done very fast, as are all other gags in the cartoon, with the ending being a particular standout: the wolf exclaims that if what he has told weren’t the truth, then he hopes to get run over by a streetcar. And immediately, the vehicle kicks in, taking just a few frames. Such quick timing tops everything Avery had done before, and would be hugely influential, arguably even to Avery himself.

Nevertheless, ‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ owes a lot to Avery, with its numerous throwaway gags, like the skunk jury member, and puns, like Red Riding Hood literally having guilt written all over her face. No doubt this cartoon was a great inspiration to the other directors at Warner Bros., who all sped their cartoons up during 1941 and 1942, even Chuck Jones, who had made the slowest cartoons of the lot thus far. The Schlesinger studio could now enter its classic era.

Watch ‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Trial of Mr. Wolf’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: April 12, 1941
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★
Review:

Toy Trouble © Warner Bros.‘Toy Trouble’ marks the return of Sniffles’s friend the bookworm, from ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ (1939) and ‘The Egg Collector’ (1940).

This time the two friends snoop around in the toy collection of a department store. All goes well until the duo encounters a cat.

Like Sniffles himself, the bookworm is more cute than funny, and like most Sniffles cartoons this short suffers from a terrible slowness. The result is a rather tiresome watch. Nevertheless, it contains a nice scene in which Sniffles hides in a row of Porky Pig dolls, predating a similar scene in the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘The Night Before Christmas’ by eight months. There’s also a mechanical duck, which accounts for some gags that look all the way forward to the elaborate gags of Chuck Jones’s Roadrunner and Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Watch ‘Toy Trouble’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Toy Trouble’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: February 1, 1941
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Sniffles Bells the Cat © Warner Bros.In the seventh of twelve Sniffles cartoons Sniffles suddenly has a number of lookalikes, who are as annoying as the title character himself.

In the opening scene we watch them all fleeing from a cat. When Sniffles wishes out loud that the cat should have a bell, the others immediately put him on the job.

Like other Sniffles cartoons, ‘Sniffles Bells the Cat’ is slow and pretty unfunny. Yet the chase scenes show some beautiful background art, emphasizing the vastness of the house for a little mouse like Sniffles. Moreover, Carl Stalling’s music is extraordinarily beautiful in this cartoon.

However, the cartoon is most important in the development of Jones’s mature style. Like in ‘Bedtime for Sniffles’ Jones excels in giving the cute little character a surprisingly broad range of emotions, especially when Sniffles realizes he has to tie the bell to the cat himself. This scene is the undisputed highlight of the cartoon and shows that even at this early stage Jones knew hardly an equal in handling facial expressions. The cat, too, is animated delightfully when he performs the old shell game with considerable deftness. These two scenes contain the seeds of more to come, and make the cartoon one of Sniffles’s best, despite its slugged pace.

Watch ‘Sniffles Bells the Cat’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sniffles Bells the Cat’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

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