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Director: Bernard Brown
Release Date: January 27, 1934
Rating: ★★
Review:

Pettin' in the Park © Warner Bros.Mid-1933 Harman and Ising had quit with Leon Schlesinger after a dispute over money, leaving Schlesinger without a studio.

So Schlesinger quickly set up one at Sunset Boulevard, initially with help from sound engineer Bernard Brown and his friends. Brown even himself directed two cartoons during the studio’s chaotic starting months, of which ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ is the first.

Brown was no animator himself, and judging from this cartoon he was not much of a director, either: ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ just makes no sense. The first half is just an illustration of the song from the Warner Bros. musical ‘Gold Diggers from 1933’, featuring the familiar theme of a cop courting a babysitter (see also Fleischer’s ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart‘ and Van Beuren’s ‘In the Park‘ (1933). The second half suddenly reports a diving contest and a swimming race between birds. Bridging the action is a cheeky little penguin – what he does in a park no-one will ever know.

There’s a surprising lack of continuity and consistency rarely seen outside the Van Beuren studio output, and the cartoon is of an appalling low quality, especially when compared to the earlier Harman and Ising output. Even worse, few of the gags come off, and none is anything near funny.

Nevertheless, even a terrible film like ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ shows that the typical Warner Bros. animation style, developed at Harman & Ising, had not been lost. It certainly helped that Schlesinger had managed to hire away some crew from his former associates. Bob Clampett, for example, who gets his first billing as an animator here. Clampett and Jack King (hired away from Disney) are clearly trying to put some pepper into the hopeless scenes. Thus despite its story atrocities, even ‘Pettin’in the Park’ displays Warner Bros. own distinct animation style, which, in 1933 was second to Disney only in quality.

Watch ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Pettin’ in the Park’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Busby Berkeley Collection’

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Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 January 5, 1932
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Bird Store © Walt Disney‘The Bird Store’ follows earlier Mickey Mouse films and Silly Symphonies in presenting half a song-and-dance routine and half a story.

This short starts quite boringly with endless bird song routines, but after 4 minutes of this a cat enters, which leads to a small story when the cat captures a small canary and all other birds free the canary and chase the cat away to a city dog pound.

The bird designs are still pretty primitive, and much more akin to those in ‘Birds of a Feather‘ from one year earlier than to ‘Birds in the Spring‘ from one year later. Most birds are clearly drawn from fantasy, and make no sense at all. The provisional realism of the canary in ‘Mickey Steps Out‘ hardly gets any follow-up here. A small highlight form the four ‘Marx Birds’, which mark the earliest instance of Hollywood caricatures in a Disney film.

Watch ‘The Bird Store’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 26
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Ugly Duckling
To the next Silly Symphony: The Bears and the Bees

‘The Bird Store’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Directors: John Foster & Mannie Davis
Release Date:
 March 26, 1932
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Cat's Canary © Van BeurenIn ‘The Cat’s Canary’ we watch a cat swallowing a bird. Surprisingly the bird remains alive, and makes the cat produce chirping sounds.

The cat goes to a doctor, to no avail, he then joins a quartet of alley cats serenading a kitten. He joins in chirping. But when he gets hit with a cage, the bird escapes. The bird takes revenge on the cat with help from some fellow birds, including a pelican.

After watching such ambitious films by Van Beuren as ‘The Family Shoe‘, ‘Toy Time‘ and ‘Fly Frolic‘, the Aesop Fable ‘The Cat’s Canary’ feels pretty backward. The designs of the cat are highly inconsistent and primitive, looking back to the Waffles and Don films from 1930. The complete short lacks the Silly Symphony-like quality of the preceding Aesop Fables. Moreover, it’s storytelling is weak and inconsistent: there’s a complete throwaway scene, in which the cat is visited by sympathizing birds, and although the cat is the main protagonist throughout the whole film, he suddenly changes into a villain in the end.

The final scene is clearly inspired by the finale of Disney’s ‘Birds of a Feather‘ (1931), and perhaps ‘The Bird Store‘ (1932), but it adds nothing of its own.

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

‘The Cat’s Canary’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 January 23, 1931
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Birds of a Feather © Walt DisneyFollowing Van Beuren’s ‘A Romeo Robin‘ (1930) Disney devoted a whole Silly Symphony on birds.

The short follows the half-story formula introduced in ‘Playful Pan‘ with the first part consisting of more rhythmical movement to music than real dancing. The film starts with quite uninspired and tiresome gags about several birds moving randomly to music (opening with swans and a peacock moving to Jacques Offenbach’s barcarolle), but after 5’10 these give way to a small story about a baby chick who is taken away by an eagle but saved by a group of small birds.

The birds are drawn cartoony and not at all naturalistic. But such naturalism eventually would occur in Disney’s films, within only a couple of years, with ‘Birds in the Spring‘ being the prime example. It’s interesting to compare these two cartoons, which are only two years apart. The comparison makes ‘Birds of a Feather’ look primitive and dated, but even this cartoon knows one complex scene, in which the flock of small birds attacks the eagle. In this scene the movement of the circling birds  is animated beautifully and quite convincingly, as well.

Watch ‘Birds of a Feather’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 16
To the previous Silly Symphony: Playful Pan
To the next Silly Symphony: Mother Goose Melodies

‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies’

Directors: Mannie Davis & John Foster
Release Date: June 22, 1930
Rating: ★★★
Review:

A Romeo Robin © Van Beuren‘A Romeo Robin’ is a rather disjointed Silly Symphony-like cartoon, predating Disney’s Silly Symphony ‘Birds of a Feather’ (1931) by half a year.

Like the latter cartoon, its subject is birds. The short opens with birds whistling, and one yodeling. Then we cut to two birds dancing, while metamorphosing to their deaths in a bizarre scene that should be seen to be believed.

After this mind-blowing scene we’re introduced to an evil one-eyed cat who’s after the birds, and later to a bird who catches a worm to offer to his girlfriend. Together they go for a trip in a plane. When the plane falls down, the evil cat accidentally swallows the plane instead of its inhabitants.

‘A Romeo Robin’ looks like a crude parody of a Silly Symphony. It’s remarkable that at one point some story sets in, even if that remains rather pointless. But then again, around this time even the Silly Symphonies themselves made little sense.

Watch ‘A Romeo Robin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘A Romeo Robin’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

s.Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date: June 20 1947
Stars: Donald Duck, The Aracuan Bird
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Clown of the Jungle © Walt Disney‘Clown of the Jungle’ reintroduces the Aracuan bird from ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944), now hindering Donald’s attempts to photograph birds.

The Aracuan bird is a surreal character, defying all laws of nature. For example, it can cycle in mid-air, duplicate itself and draw a door on a rock, and enter it. These abilities are very rare for a Disney character, and there’s no doubt that the Aracuan bird was inspired by the more absurd humor from the Warner Bros. and Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons.

Director Jack Hannah handles this type of humor remarkably well, delivering the gags in a fast pace and with an excellent timing, making ‘Clown of the Jungle’ not only the most surreal, but also one of the wildest and funniest Disney cartoons from the postwar era.

Being such a wonderful character, The Aracuan bird would return once more the following year, in the sequence ‘Blame it on the Samba‘ from ‘Melody Time‘ (1948). Unfortunately, the character remained alone in its zaniness within the Disney canon, and other Disney postwar cartoons remained much more conventional.

Watch ‘Clown of the Jungle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 62
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Sleepy Time Donald
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Donald’s Dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: November 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'The Wayward Canary' featuring two canaries and a charicature of Douglas FairbanksThe Wayward Canary’ follows the same story line as ‘The Barnyard Broadcast‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue‘ (1932). Like in these films, a song-and-dance routine is interrupted by numerous animals causing havoc.

This time, Mickey gives Minnie a canary for a present. It appears to have numerous offspring. These little birds escape and fly all over the house. Before they’re all caught, the complete house is wrecked.

Among the numerous gags there’s a surreal one when Pluto and a cat run through a wringer, which renders them flat. By 1932 such extreme body deformities had become extremely rare in Disney cartoons, and soon they would vanish altogether, as they were not in tune with Disney’s search for the ‘plausible impossible’. It was up to Tex Avery at Warner Brothers to revive gags like these in the late 1930s.

Among Minnie’s household there is a lighter with a swastika on it [update: see animation historian David Gerstein’s comment below for an explanation]. She also has signed portraits of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Together with Charlie Chaplin and D.W. Griffith, these two actors were the co-founders of United Artists, the company Disney had joined in 1932.

These portraits are the first caricatures of real people in a Mickey Mouse film. Although Mickey and Minnie were only slowly shedding their barnyard background, these signed portraits are not too surprising accessories, considering Mickey’s enormous popularity in the early 1930s. Moreover, they suggest that Mickey and Minnie, although being cartoon characters, live in the real world, among other Hollywood stars. This concept would be developed further in the next year, in the superb ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘.

Watch ‘The Wayward Canary’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 48
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Touchdown Mickey
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Klondike Kid

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: October 6, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Morning Noon and Night' featuring Betty Boop unwillingly dancing with some catsRubinoff and his orchestra play the score for this cartoon about a bunch of cats (‘the tom kat social club’) who threaten Betty Boop’s yard full of birds. This orchestra, led by the Russian violinist David Rubinoff, played sweet pseudo-classical music, and this sets the tone for the short.

Based on Franz von Suppé’s overture ‘Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien’ (1844), ‘Morning Noon and Night’ is a very sweet cartoon. It opens with some typical Fleischer gags, like a sun with a hangover, but the overall mood is rather corny and lacking humor. The short is very Silly Symphony-like, and particularly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s ‘Birds in Spring‘ from earlier that year. Both feature a fledgling running away, and encountering a threat.

The cartoon’s finale is a battle scene in which all birds come to the rescue, most notably a boxing rooster. Battle scenes like this could be seen in e.g. the 1932 Silly Symphonies ‘Bugs in Love‘, ‘King Neptune‘, and ‘Babes in the Woods‘. Although ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ doesn’t come near any of these Disney cartoons in quality, it shows that the Disney style was invading the Fleischer studio, and that the brothers were getting more ambitious. This ambition would lead to the launch of the Color Classics in 1934.

Betty is more cute than sexy in this cartoon. The difference in mood between this cartoon and that of ‘I Heard‘ is enormous, although that cartoon was released only one month earlier. The reinforced Hays code would only be installed in the summer of 1934, but ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ shows that already by 1933 its morals had become more and more present in the American film industry’s output.

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

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 21
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: I Heard
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Hallowe’en Party

‘Morning Noon and Night’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Norm Ferguson
Release Date: December 21, 1944
Stars: Donald Duck, Joe Carioca, Panchito, The Aracuan Bird
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Three Caballeros © Walt DisneyDonald stars in his first and only very own feature film.

In the opening scene he receives a large package full of presents. When he opens these presents, they lead him to the mild story of Pablo the cold-blooded penguin (narrated by the melancholy voice of Disney-favorite Sterling Holloway), and to the childish story of ‘Gauchito and his flying donkey Burrito’, before it reintroduces Joe Carioca from ‘Saludos Amigos‘ (1942). Joe takes Donald to Baía, where they dance the samba with Aurora Miranda, nicely blending animation with live action, something that occurs throughout the picture.

Another package introduces the Mexican rooster Panchito. Together the trio sings the intoxicating theme song, wonderfully animated by Ward Kimball, who regarded the scene as his best work. Panchito takes Donald and Joe on a magic serape ride over Mexico, visiting Mexico City, Veracruz en Acapulco Beach, where Donald plays blind man’s buff with a bunch of girls in bathing suits. Actually, Donald keeps hunting girls like a hungry wolf throughout the picture.

‘The Three Caballeros’ was the second of two ‘Good neighbor policy’ features, focusing on South America, and the second of six compilation features Disney made until returning to real features with ‘Cinderella‘ in 1950. When compared to ‘Saludos Amigos’, ‘The Three Caballeros’ is brighter, bolder and more nonsensical. It is noteworthy for its bold color design and for its beautiful color book artwork by Mary Blair, which in its modernity looks forward to the 1950s (especially in the opening titles, during the train ride and in the Mexican Christmas episode).

It is most interesting however, because of its zany surrealism, which invades many scenes with associative images, where metamorphosis and abstraction run haywire, not even sparing Donald himself. In this respect ‘The Three Caballeros’ is the boldest feature Disney ever made.

However, its lack of story, its strong touristic content, its outdated live action imagery, its sentimental songs and the two childish stories at the beginning of the feature all harm the picture. Thus watching the movie feels like being on a colorful journey full of beautiful images that nevertheless turns out to be unsatisfactory in the end.

Watch the title song from ‘The Three Caballeros’ below:

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