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‘Sleepy Time Down South’ is a Screen Song featuring the Boswell Sisters, the most famous close harmony trio of its time, but later eclipsed by the similar Andrews Sisters.
The animated part of the short tells about a cat, who’s in the fire brigade, and who with his fellow firemen rushes to a burning house. This part contains nice cartoon versions of the three sisters singing help. When they get rescued they throw down the piano first, which falls apart, but which the three sisters reassemble in an instant. Cut to the live action Boswell Sisters, with lead singer Connee Boswell starting the title song ‘When It’s Sleepy Time Down South’, which had been a hit for Louis Armstrong in 1931. In the end the animation returns, and the three sisters lend their voices to three flames following the cat.
Because of the sisters’ subtle harmonies the song is very hard to sing along, so one wonders whether the cartoon was a success in the theaters. Yet, the combination of the Fleischer’s imaginative images and the Boswell Sisters’ intoxicating performance makes ‘Sleepy Time South’ a joy to watch.
Watch ‘Sleepy Time Down South’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Sleepy Time Down South’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: May 14, 1932
The short features a mouse entering a musical instrument shop at night. The music starts when the mouse accidentally starts the title song on a gramophone. This invites several other mice to join in. After four minutes of musical frolicking a mean cat appears who gets one mouse cornered, prompting the rodent to sing the title track. The other mice, however, come to the rescue and together they get rid of the cat.
The story of ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is very similar to that of contemporary Disney shorts ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ or ‘The Bird Store‘, but the short’s premise is most akin to the Van Beuren short ‘Toy Time‘ from four months earlier. ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is much more sophisticated than the Van Beuren short, though. The animation, by Friz Freleng and Tom McKimson, is excellent throughout, and second only to the Disney studio itself.
The mice are Mickey Mouse but in size, only, and the musical routine involves a French Apache dance, as can also be found in ‘Mickey’s Follies‘ (1929) and the later ‘Woodland Cafe‘ (1937). Harman & Ising’s mimicking paid off, as ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ was among the three very first animated shorts to get an Academy Award nomination. Yet, it’s no surprise it lost to Walt Disney’s landmark cartoon ‘Flowers and Trees‘.
Watch ‘It’s Got Me Again!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘It’s Got Me Again!’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’ and the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: January 5, 1932
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:
‘The Bird Store’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’
Directors: John Foster & Mannie Davis
Release Date: March 26, 1932
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.
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’
Directors: John Foster & Harry Bailey
Release Date: January 27, 1932
The cartoon features two mice, Oscar and his girlfriend, who resemble Mickey and Minnie less than Van Beuren’s ill-fated stars Milton and Rita had done (see e.g. ‘Circus Capers‘ and ‘The Office Boy‘).
In fact, the two are portrayed as real mice, having fun in the toy shop at night. This premise comes directly from the Silly Symphony ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop‘, but the Van Beuren studio adds some drama, when a cat appears, and the two mice battle him with help of several toys. Strangely enough the cartoon doesn’t end at that point, but also features a scene in which Oscar serenades his girlfriend on the piano. Only then he earns his sweetheart’s kiss.
Like ‘The Family Shoe‘ (1931), ‘Toy Time’ is highly ambitious. For example, it features a splendid score by Gene Rodemich, and elaborate and quite beautifully painted backgrounds. Unfortunately, the animation is still pretty awkward, and the designs of the two mice primitive and bland. Nevertheless, it shows that the Van Beuren Studio was trying very hard.
Four months later, Warner Bros. would cover similar grounds in ‘It’s Got Me Again!‘, but with much more satisfying results.
Watch ‘Toy Time’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Toy Time’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 16, 1931
First we watch him dating his girls through the telephone, then he goes through a bunch of photographs and chooses to visits hot Lulu Belle. When he tries to sneak out, Lulu Belle hits him with the couch. Enter the Screen Song, which is accompanied with images of e.g. a naked woman in a bath(!) and a picture of Betty Boop, who otherwise does not appear in this cartoon.
Only the first scene features lip-synch, and the scene with Lulu Belle also features an excerpt from the 1929 hit song ‘What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man’, popularized by Annette Hanshaw and Ruth Etting. This excerpt is much more interesting than the 1910 vaudeville title song. The last chorus features some nice interplay between the words and the animated characters, typical for the Screen Songs of this era.
Watch ‘Any Little Girl That’s A Nice Little Girl’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Any Little Girl That’s A Nice Little Girl’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: July 28, 1931
Enter a nightmarish sequence, in which the cat imagines his lives are fleeing him, and that he’s being attacked by giant birds, hooting owls, bats, giant spiders and hollow trees. Luckily, in the morning it all appears to have been a dream.
‘The Cat’s Out’ is not devoid of dance routines (there are two dance scenes featuring scarecrows and a bat), but it has a surprisingly clear story, unmatched by earlier Silly Symphonies. It is arguably the first Silly Symphony with such a clear story, anticipating the straightforward storytelling of ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ of the end of the same year. This makes the short one of the most interesting Silly Symphonies of 1931.
Watch ‘The Cat’s Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Cat’s Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’
Director: Priit Pärn
Release Date: 1984
It shows the filmmaker’s idiosyncratic style and unique surrealism, without the dark side, often present in his other films. The film is filled with child-like wonder, and a happy atmosphere, enhanced by the joyful reggae music by composer Olav Ehala.
The film opens with a room in which a very stressed out cat lives. The cat is in a constant need to check his alarm clock, which is on a shelf too high for him. When he finally reaches the clock, he discovers he can’t read it without his glasses, so he has to find them first, etc. Pärn shows this pointless ritual in several variations over and over again, following the cat running around in his room.
At one point, however, the alarm clock breaks, and time stands still. At this point of the film the cat finds himself in a fantastic world where everything can happen. This part is extremely rich in visual tricks, which go all the way back to Émile Cohl’s ‘Fantasmagorie’ (1908). Nothing is what it seems, and metamorphosis runs freely. Unfortunately, in the end, time is restored, and the cat has to face his former stressful life once again.
‘Time Out’ certainly shows Priit Pärn’s mastery, and excellent timing. His fantasy is extraordinary, and the film shows the power of animation like few other films do. It’s also a reminder that we should snap out of the daily routine, and let our mind wander, and be really creative. When one takes time, everything may be possible!
Watch ‘Time Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Frank Tashlin
Release Date: December 11, 1943
Rudolph, the cat who ate the bird (!), pretends the poor fellow has flown out of the window, so his mistress orders another one, which turns out to be considerably harder to catch.
The main body of ‘Puss ‘n Booty’ consists of blackout gags that anticipate the Tweety and Sylvester cartoons by four years.
This short was Warner Bros.’ last cartoon in black and white. Nevertheless, its broad use of blacks, greys and white and the startling camera angles (Frank Tashlin’s trademark) make it as modern as any other cartoon of the era.
Watch ‘Puss ‘n Booty’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Release Date: 1971
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
The film it is Švankmajer’s surrealistic masterpiece on the loss of childhood, depicted by several episodes, which are separated by a box of bricks, a labyrinth and a black cat crushing the box of bricks.
During the episodes we are treated on extremely surrealistic images of very active inanimate objects in a child’s room. First we watch a boy’s suit growing a forest in his room, defying both time and authority (symbolized by the portrait in the room). Then we watch large cannibalistic dolls grinding, ironing and eating little dolls, a china baby in a cradle destroying two tin armies, a pocket knife performing acrobatic tricks until it makes an ill-fated fall and stabs itself, and finally, schoolbooks producing paper boats and planes, which fly out of the window, while the father’s portrait produces pictures of beautiful women.
This last episode shows the child’s changing interests. In the end the labyrinth is solved, the cat – the only living thing in the entire film – is caged, and the boy’s suit is replaced by an adult one. The boy is free from his parent, but the days of imagination are over, the fantasy is gone.
For this film Švankmajer makes excellent use of 19th century imagery (sailor suit, vintage dolls and toys) to create a completely unique world. It’s the film maker’s most typical film, partly expanding on ideas explored in ‘Historia Naturae, Suita‘ (1967), and showing his fascination with fantasy, cruelty and decay, which roam freely in the child’s self-contained room. The rather morbid behavior of the everyday objects is quite unsettling and it shows how a child’s fantasy can be both imaginative and cruel.
‘Jabberwocky’ is without doubt one of Švankmajer’s most powerful films. He would only top it eleven years later, with ‘Dimensions of a Dialogue‘ (1982). Švankmajer would explore the imagination of children further in the moving ‘Down to the Cellar‘ (1983), and in his unique adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work ‘Alice‘ (1987).
Watch ‘Jabberwocky’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Jabberwocky’ is available on the DVD ‘Jan Svankmajer – The Complete Short Films’
Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date:May 5, 1951
The little insect infects a cat who then starts to play gin rummy for penalties with an over-confident bulldog. The bulldog wins several times, and the cat has to pay the elaborate and rather zany, yet painful penalties. In the end, however, he plays against the bug, and wins, making the bug pay a penalty.
Apart from the original and pretty funny penalties, this is a mediocre cartoon, which lacks stars or even appealing characters.
Watch ‘Early to Bet’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Early to Bet’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’
Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date: October 14, 1949
This cartoon contains of several blackout gags, and, unusual for a Robert McKimson cartoon, practically no dialogue. Actually, the cartoon is reminiscent of the silent blackout gag comedy of the Road Runner series, which were introduced only one month earlier. ‘Swallow The Leader’ may be atypical for McKimson, it’s well-directed,with the gags coming in fast and well-timed.
The mission featured does really exists and is indeed famous for its nesting swallows. The cat is a typical McKimson design, and very reminiscent of the Supreem Cat in ‘Paying the Piper’ from earlier that year. Typically, he wears a collar, which makes him look like a forerunner of the standard Hanna-Barbera television studio design.
Director: Art Davis
Release Date: August 14, 1948
Art Davis is one of the unsung heroes of Warner Brothers animation. His unit existed for only three years, but in this short time period he released many fine cartoons, with a distinct and recognizable style.
‘Dough Ray Me-Ow’ is one of his best cartoons, and a rather macabre one, too. This short features a cat, called Heathcliff, who is even too dumb to breathe. Heathcliff, without knowing it, inherits an enormous sum of money. When his ‘pal’ Louie, a cynical parrot, discovers that if Heathcliff dies, this fortune will come to him, he tries to kill Louie in great, funny gags. Surprisingly, in the end he even succeeds, but when he tells the dying Heathcliff his secret, the cat’s nine lives simply refuse to go to heaven!
Apart from the main story, the cartoon contains a small running gag in which we see Heatcliff cracking nuts in ridiculously elaborate ways, always involving his own head.
‘Dough Ray Me-Ow’ features watercolor backgrounds, very unusual for Warner Brothers at the time.
Watch an excerpt from ‘Dough Ray Me-ow’ yourself and tell me what you think: