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Directors: Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Release Date:
 March 2, 1933
Stars: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, King Kong
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

King Kong © Universal‘King Kong’ is, of course, a live action movie, but I follow Andrew Osmond in including the film in the animation canon, as it is the first live action movie to feature an animated star – indeed Kong gets star billing in the opening credits, after the live action actors. The feature is also arguably the first live action movie in which animation is used not incidentally, but extensively, to the point of dominating several scenes.

‘King Kong’ is the father of all monster movies, and much of animator Willis O’Brien’s animation can be regarded as spectacular special effects, but in his portrayal of Kong himself O’Brien has put a surprisingly amount of character. Especially Kong’s death scene is astonishing. There’s real tragedy and sadness in Kong’s eyes and in his last caresses of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray, the first of all scream queens). This is no mere feat, as character animation was still unheard of at the time – even Walt Disney was not that far – and it would take stop motion artists several years to reach a similar sense of emotional depth.

Most of the film, however, is not as much about emotion as well as thrills. The film’s main focus is to thrill the audience, and as soon as Ann Darrow is kidnapped by the natives of Skull Island, it does so relentlessly. The complete island is one big threat to the hapless crew that tries to regain Ann from the giant ape. But also to Ann and Kong themselves, for Kong has to rescue his human love interest no less than three times: from a large Tyrannosaurus rex, from a Plesiosaurus, which moves remarkably comfortably on land like a snake, and from a Pteranodon. This results in three fights, in which O’Brien can show off his skills. Especially the first fight is magnificent. It’s surprisingly lengthy, and it has a real sense of effort, with both forceful animals fighting for their lives. O’Brien also animates a surprisingly lifelike Stegosaurus, and a sauropod that strangely enough has gone carnivorous. And, of course, the girl, some other people, and the planes, at times, when in interaction with Kong.

Obviously not all the 1933 special effects have stood the test of time, but the trick photography is surprisingly good, and at times live action and animation blend into each other seamlessly. Some scenes are no less than astounding in this respect, even after all these years: a good example is a scene depicting Kong handling a tree trunk on which several crew members are clung. One really does believe the animated figure handles the tree trunk, which is filmed in live action. O’Brien has managed to bring a great sense of weight into Kong’s actions.

Another wonderful example of great blending of animation and live action is Kong peeling off Ann Darrow’s dress. This scene is a little erotic, and deepens Kong’s simple and playful character. Of course, O’Brien was not solely responsible for Kong’s portrayal. At times we see close-ups of Kong’s face, which is a giant non-animated model, and some scenes feature a large, mechanical hand. Nevertheless, most of Kong’s appeal is due to O’Brien’s animation. And the big ape has appeal! Indeed, the film is so iconic that Kong is still pretty famous today.

Unfortunately, not all aspects of the movie have aged well. For example, the natives, all portrayed by black people, are pretty backward, and even worse is Charlie, the Chinese cook, who is as cliche as possible, and who even cannot talk right. But the film succeeds in being a real thrill ride, and Fay Wray manages to squeeze more feelings in her one-dimensional role than one would expect. The other actors are less interesting, and pale when compared to O’Brien’s classic creation.

The film’s last 18 minutes take place in New York, and these scenes really make the film into the ancestor of all monster movies, with Kong wandering the streets, causing havoc, and crushing a subway car. However, Kong’s final scene on top of the Empire State Building changes the monster into an utterly tragic figure. Even Mark Steiner’s score, which follows the action closely, adds to the feeling, turning into sadder themes when Kong nears his end. The sole scene elevates the film above most of its successors. And it’s this particular scene, in which Kong battles the aeroplanes on top of the Empire State Building, that provides the movie’s most iconic picture.

Watch an excerpt from ‘King Kong’ yourself and tell me what you think:

 

 

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date:
 June 20, 1936
Stars:
 Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Pete
Rating:
  ★★★½
Review:

Moving Day © Walt DisneyBecause Mickey, Donald and Goofy can’t pay the rent, evil sheriff Pete will sell their furniture. The boys decide to move before that’s going to happen…

‘Moving Day’ is the this third of the classic trio cartoons featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy. In this entry Mickey is hardly visible. Most of the cartoon is taken by his co-stars in two all too elaborate sequences: one featuring Goofy in a surreal struggle with a piano with a will of its own, and another featuring Donald’s trouble with a plunger and a fishbowl.

Despite the great animation, one gets the feeling that in this cartoon the artists were too much obsessed with character and less with gags, making this cartoon a bit slow and tiresome, when compared to the previous trio outings ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ and ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade‘ from 1935. Luckily, in later trio shorts like ‘Moose Hunters’ or ‘Hawaiian Holiday’, the fast pace was found again.

‘Moving Day’ is the first cartoon to feature Pete in color. It was also the last of only three cartoons in which Art Babbitt animated Goofy. After he had done so much for the character in ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ and ‘On Ice‘, one can say that in ‘Moving Day’ he went a little too far in milking the goof’s scenes. Anyhow, Babbitt went over to feature films, but after these three shorts Goofy’s character was established well enough for others to take over with equally inspired results.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 85
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Rival
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Alpine Climbers

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 29, 1934
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating:
Review:

Mickey Plays Papa © Walt DisneyMickey Plays Papa’ reuses the concept of Mickey receiving orphans from ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ from 1931. But this time he has to deal with only one orphan mouse, called Elmer.

The film is particularly noteworthy for its scary opening: while Mickey’s reading a scary novel titled “the cry in the night” in bed, someone’s laying the orphan on his doorstep, whose cries startle Mickey and Pluto. When Mickey and Pluto discover that these cries are caused by a cute little baby, they both try to comfort him. These attempts include a nice Charlie Chaplin imitation by Mickey. This cartoon also contains a gag in which Mickey’s being attacked by numerous kitchen tools, which was copied in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?‘ (1988).

But most importantly, the cartoon contains long character-based solo sequences, like Mickey’s trouble with a rubber nipple and Pluto’s antics with a toy bunny and a fishbowl. This type of elongated solo scenes, alternating between the two characters, appear for the first time in this cartoon, but unfortunately they’re not very funny here. Nevertheless, they would become a dominant style element of the Mickey Mouse cartoons of the rest of the 1930s, especially in the Mickey, Donald and Goofy trio outings, luckily often with way more hilarious results.

‘Mickey Plays Papa’ ends when Mickey’s released from the rubber nipple and he finally succeeds in making the baby laugh, by doing a Jimmy Durante imitation with his elongated nose. It would be the last cartoon directed by Burt Gillett before he left Disney in March 1934 for the Van Beuren Studios, only to return in 1937 to direct two other cartoons, the excellent ‘Lonesome Ghosts’ (1937) and ‘The Moth and the Flame’ (1938).

Watch ‘Mickey Plays Papa’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 69
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Orphan’s Benefit
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Dognapper

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: March 3, 1934
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Playful Pluto © Walt DisneyPlayful Pluto consists of several loose gags around Mickey and Pluto in a garden. It contains Mickey’s first encounter with a little whirlwind, which he manages better than his second one in ‘The Little Whirlwind’ from 1941.

But ‘Playful Pluto’ is most notable for the now famous flypaper sequence,  in which Pluto gets caught in flypaper. This is an important scene in animation history, because it’s the first time Pluto is seen as a thinking character. Not only that, it is arguably the first believable animation of thought processes. This illusion of thought is achieved solely by pantomime animation.

The flypaper scene elevated its animator, Norm Ferguson, to the eternal hall of animation fame and it showed how laughs could originate in character animation alone. This sequence not only raised the standards of animation of Pluto, but of character animation in general. As to celebrate its success, this scene was reshot in color for the Donald Duck short ‘Beach Picnic’ (1939).

At the same time, this cartoon shows how character-based gags could slow down the pace. This was an unfortunate side-effect, for this high pace had been painstakingly achieved in the Mickey Mouse cartoons during the previous years.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 65
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Camping Out
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gulliver Mickey

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: September 14, 1914
Stars: Gertie the Dinosaur
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

original drawing from 'Gertie the Dinosaur' featuring Gertie and a small mammoth‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ was Winsor McCay’s third animation film, and it certainly is his most famous one, still capable of entertaining new audiences.

The film follows a same story idea similar to that of ‘Little Nemo‘: during a visit to a natural history museum Winsor McCay bets the famous comic strip artist George McManus that he can make a dinosaur move. After these long nine minutes of slow live action introduction, we finally see McCay’s creation: Gertie the dinosaur.

McCay’s dinosaur appears to be a girl dinosaur. She behaves like a trained animal: she listens to what McCay is telling her, she eats a whole tree, she bows to the camera, she lifts her feet, she’s being startled by a small mammoth, which she throws into te lake, she dances, and she lifts McCay himself on to her back.

The captions in between replace dialogue, which must have been part of a vaudeville act with Winsor McCay talking to Gertie and she listening to him. This vaudeville show, with which McCay toured, has been recreated in the Disneyland special ‘The Story of Animated Drawing‘, which aired on November 30, 1955, and which is available on the DVD set ‘Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’. At the 2014 Annie Awards Ceremony Bill Farmer also reenacted McCay’s vaudeville performance (included below). The reenactment makes the experience of the original film much more vivid, and watching this version is highly recommended.

The short is impressive because of its fine animation and command of perspective, but what it really makes a milestone of animation is that Gertie the Dinosaur is the first animated cartoon character with personality. She’s not just any dinosaur, she’s a female dinosaur, behaving half like a trained animal, half like a small spoiled child. Watching the interaction between her and (the off-screen) McCay is impressive, but it’s also delightful and fun. ‘Gertie the Dinosaur’ had a huge impact at the time, and inspired a whole generation of animation film pioneers (e.g. Paul Terry, Frank Moser, Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer and the Fleischer Brothers). The film truly is an all time classic, and enjoyable to this very day.

‘Gertie The Dinosaur’ was followed by the unfinished and much less successful film ‘Gertie on Tour‘, of which McCay completed only two scenes.

Watch ‘Gertie The Dinosaur’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Here’s the original vaudeville show reenacted by Bill Farmer at the 41st Annie Awards Ceremony (2014):

This is Winsor McCay’s third film
To Winsor McCay’s second film: How a Mosquito Operates
To Winsor McCay’s fourth film: The Sinking of the Lusitania

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 24, 1936
Stars: Betty Boop, Pudgy
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'We Did It' featuring a little black kittenWhen Betty is gone three kittens cause havoc in Betty’s house. Pudgy gets the blame until the kittens plead guilty.

The three kittens are doubtless inspired by the Walt Disney’s Academy Award-winning cartoon ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ from 1935, from which it borrows a milk bottle gag. ‘We Did It’ is not half as elaborate as the Disney cartoon. Nevertheless, it shows the Fleischer’s growth in character animation through pantomime. Pudgy, like Pluto, is by design fit for character animation.

Unfortunately, the Fleischer Studio was very inconsistent and this cartoon was followed by many in which character animation is practically absent. And even in ‘We Did It’ the result of this technique is only mildly amusing and hardly impressing.

Watch ‘We Did It’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 49
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop and Little Jimmy
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: A Song a Day

‘We Did It’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 31, 1936
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Country Cousin © Walt DisneyA very beautifully executed rendering of the classic tale, ‘The Country Cousin’ is a gem among the Silly Symphonies.

Its story is lean and economical, its characterization highly effective and its silent acting superb. Particularly noteworthy is the drunken performance of the Country Cousin, animated by Art Babbitt, which belongs to the highlights of animation.

Everyone who wants to know what ‘character animation’ is all about, should go and watch this cartoon. One cannot find a better example of it: the two mice look similar, but are very different in their behavior, attitude, and personality. Moreover, their personalities are played completely in mime, without any help from characteristic voices.

Besides this, ‘The Country Cousin’ contains some very realistic animation of people’s feet walking on the sidewalk. Indeed, the human realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) was not far away anymore.

Thirteen years later, Tex Avery would explore the theme of ‘The Country Cousin’ once again, albeit quite differently and way more ridiculously, in his hilarious short ‘Little Rural Riding Hood’ (1949).

Watch ‘The Country Cousin’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 63
To the previous Silly Symphony: Three Blind Mouseketeers
To the next Silly Symphony: Mother Pluto

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: August 3, 1935
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Fire Brigade © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ is the second of the classic trio cartoons featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy, and the first of its kind in color.

When one compares this cartoon to the similar ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, one can see what stunning progress the Disney studio had made in a mere five years: the backgrounds, the camera angles, the character animation, the effect animation: everything has improved considerably.

What’s more, its gags are faster, more clever and better constructed, and they build up to a wonderful finale. Among the numerous brilliant ideas are a burning title card, water splashing against ‘the camera’ and a bathing Clarabelle Cow who is not amused when saved by our heroes.

This cartoon is both Goofy’s first color appearance as the last time he’s seen in the design he got in ‘The Whoopee Party’ about three years before. In this film he’s got a particularly goofy cuckoo theme song, while some of the anthropomorphized flames play ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ from ‘Three Little Pigs’ on the piano.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 77
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Garden
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Pluto’s Judgement Day

Director: David Hand
Release Date:
July 14, 1934
Rating:
★★½
Review:

The Flying Mouse © Walt Disney‘The Flying Mouse’ is a musical short about a little mouse who wants to fly like the birds.

A blue fairy grants him that wish, giving him bat-like wings, but he soon discovers that these don’t bring him any luck: he is not allowed to join the xenophobic birds, not recognized by his relatives and called ‘a nothing’ by a group of crooked bats. Luckily, the same fairy releases him from his wings and in the end we see our little hero running to his mother in the sunset light.

This cartoon is one of many silly symphonies that seem to aim directly at kids and that are rather moralistic. This seems to be a strong trend in 1934 and it gradually led Disney away from carefree humor towards sugary sanctimony.

This cartoon is quite humorless, yet beautifully drawn. The blue fairy is a good try at the human figure (if not near the humans in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), let alone the blue fairy in ‘Pinocchio’, 1940), and the mice, designed by Albert Hurter, are drawn much more realistically than Mickey. Moreover, ‘The Flying Mouse’ is another stunning example of character animation: our main hero acts out his feelings mostly in pantomime. Nevertheless, we can feel his joy, his embarrassment, his fear and his grief. It’s this combination of ambitious designs and great character animation that makes Silly Symphonies like these stand out among the cartoons of the thirties.

Indeed, it was this particular cartoon that prompted Frank Thomas to try to become an animator at Disney’s. Thomas joined Disney on September 24, 1934, only a few months after this cartoon. He would stay with the studio until 1978, becoming one of Walt’s ‘Nine Old Men’. He is especially famous for his emotional animation, e.g. the dwarfs’ grief in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’, Pinocchio trapped in the birdcage in ‘Pinocchio’,  the romantic diner in ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956), and Baloo trying to tell Mowgli he cannot stay in the jungle in ‘Jungle Book’ (1967).

And it was ‘The Flying Mouse’, which showed him the way…

Watch ‘The Flying Mouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:


This is Silly Symphony No. 46
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Wise Little Hen
To the next Silly Symphony: Peculiar Penguins

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: January 2, 1931
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mickey visits Minnie who has organized a surprise party for his birthday.

Mickey gets a piano for a present and he and Minnie perform a duet on two pianos, singing the 1928 hit ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby’, popularized by e.g. Annette Hanshaw and Louis Armstrong. When Mickey and Minnie dance themselves to the 1917 classic Darktown Strutters’ Ball, their music-stools take over their playing (as did Mickey’s stool in ‘Mickey’s Follies’ from 1929). The cartoon ends with Mickey playing variations on the 12th Street Rag on a stubborn marimba.

This cartoon is actually one long joyful play-and-dance-routine, but its beginning is quite remarkable: when Mickey and Minnie bashfully ask each other whether they’re fine, this may probably be the first funny dialogue in Disney history. At least, it’s a wonderful example of character animation, elegantly establishing the relationship between the two.

Mickey would celebrate his birthday again in ‘Mickey’s Birthday Party’ (1942), which only superficially resembles this earlier short.

Watch ‘The Birthday Party’ yourself and tell me what you think:


This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 25
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Pioneer Days
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Traffic Troubles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
April 16, 1932
Stars: Pluto
Rating:
★★★★
Review:

Just Dogs © Walt Disney‘Just Dogs’ opens with a dog pound, with several dogs howling to the tune of Vernon Dalhart’s 1924 hit ‘The Prisoner’s Song’.

Then a little black dog escapes, and helps Pluto and several other dogs escaping, too. Once outside the little dog repeatedly tries to gain Pluto’s sympathy, to no avail. Not even when it shares a large bone with Pluto. When an annoying little Pekingese warns the other dogs of the bone, trouble starts, but the little dog saves the day with the help of legion of fleas, while Pluto remains busy with an alarm clock. Only then he gains Pluto’s much wanted sympathy.

‘Just Dogs’ is not a particularly funny or beautiful short and its star, Pluto, is most of the time quite unsympathetic, but it does show the advancements in animation Disney was making at the time: we’re not watching ‘just dogs’, we’re watching several recognizable types of dogs, among them a very lifelike St. Bernard.

By now, the Disney animators didn’t need to stick to stereotyped ducks, pigs, cows, horses, or in this case, dogs, but were able to draw and animate real dogs, who looked like dogs, moved like dogs and behaved like dogs. This kind of naturalism is quite unprecedented in earlier films. ‘Just Dogs’ is still a mixed bag: some of the designs are still very primitive, especially during the escape scene, but there are some striking new designs here, not in the least, the small, optimistic black dog, who ‘s the real hero of the short.

The two main protagonists, Pluto and his clever comrade, are two distinct characters, which behave and move differently, a great advancement in character animation. Disney would develop both naturalism and character animation into perfection in the coming seven years.

Two years later the little dog would reappear as Pluto’s rival Terry in Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comics.

Watch ‘Just Dogs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 28
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Bears and the BeesThe Bears and the Bees
To the next Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees

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