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Director: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: November 27, 1933
Rating:  ★★★
Review:

The Merry Old Soul © Walter LantzThis short opens with Oswald sitting in a dentist’s chair. The dentist knocks Oswald out to be able to pull his sore tooth.

Then the radio announces that Old King Cole has the blues. Oswald immediately runs off to warn all Hollywood entertainers, a.o. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Laurel & Hardy, Ed Wynn, but also Wallace Beery and Greta Garbo. They all hurry to the depressed king. Old King Cole looks quite similar to the same character in the Silly Symphony ‘Old King Cole‘ from four months earlier, proof of how close the rival studios followed the Disney output.

Paul Whiteman plays a tune for him, and Oswald sings a song about Mother Goose, assisted by a.o. Joe E. Brown, W.C. Fields, Al Jolson, Mae West, and a stuttering person I don’t recognize [this is Roscoe Ates – thank you Don M. Yowp  for the info]. This immediately cheers up the old king. Then Laurel & Hardy enter with a pile of pies, which soon results in a large pie throwing battle, featuring a.o. Charlie Chaplin, Jimmy Durante, Harold Lloyd, and the Marx Brothers. Meanwhile, Old King Cole’s old jester grows jealous of Oswald’s success. The jester kidnaps Oswald and takes him into a dark cellar. Soon Oswald awakes, revealing it all has been a dream…

Despite the trite dream ending, ‘The Merry Old Soul’ is a quite entertaining cartoon. The short follows a trend that really caught on in 1933 of simply stuffing cartoons with Hollywood stars. Earlier examples are the great Mickey Mouse cartoon ‘Mickey’s Gala Premier‘, and ‘Soda Squirt‘ featuring Flip the Frog. Five years later, Disney would also mix Mother Goose and Hollywood stars in ‘Mother Goose goes Hollywood’ (1938), which owes nothing to this Oswald short.

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

‘The Merry Old Soul’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’.

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Director: Bill Nolan
Release Date: September 18, 1933
Stars: Oswald, Honey
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Five and Dime © Walter Lantz‘Five and Dime’ is a cartoon devoted to the 1931 hit song ‘ I Found A Million Dollar Baby’.

The short opens with Oswald being caught in a rainstorm (featuring the storm music from Gioachino Rossini’s overture William Tell). He rushes into a warehouse, where he sings ‘I Found A Million Dollar Baby’ for Honey, one of the employees.

‘Five and Dime’ is one of the most Merry Melodies-like Lantz cartoons: not only is it made around one hit song, it also features caricatures of Hollywood stars as dolls. Thus we watch caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Jimmy Durante. The latter is a jack-in-the-box, just like he was in ‘Mickey’s Good Deed‘ from 1932. During the song there are numerous random gags, including one in which a goldfish swallows a complete cat. I suspect this particular gag was one by Tex Avery, who worked on this cartoon.

The finale of ‘Five and Dime’ is particularly noteworthy, as we watch Oswald and Honey march into and out of several stores to get dressed for their wedding, then in and out of a church to get married, and finally into their new home, on top of which the stork is already waiting… This sequence has great rhythm, enhanced by the joyful song, and is one of the best finales of any Walter Lantz cartoon.

Watch ‘Five and Dime’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Five and Dime’ is available on the DVD ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

 

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 December 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Santa's Workshop © Walt Disney‘Santa’s Workshop’ is one of the earliest Christmas cartoons, celebrating the Santa Claus myth with glee.

If the preceding Silly Symphonies, ‘King Neptune‘ and ‘Babes in the Woods’ were impressive, ‘Santa’s Workshop’ is even more beautiful and colorful. The short’s opening scenes are more colorful than those of the earlier shorts, and this high level of use of color is maintained throughout the picture.

Like ‘King Neptune’ it’s an operetta cartoon, with the elves and Santa singing their lines in rhyme. Santa Claus himself is a variation on King Neptune, equally stout and equally merry. We watch him reading letters, accompanied by a sour gnome, who shares his voice (Pinto Colvig) with later famous sourpuss Grumpy from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). Later Santa test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

The sourpuss gnome, animated by Tom Palmer, can be regarded as one of the first animated figures with a character of his own. In his autobiography Pinto Colvig claims that credits should go to Palmer “for being the first to put actual living mannerisms and human-like expressions into film cartoons”, based on Colvig’s own interpretation of the character.

The scenes with Santa are followed by a parade of mechanical toys into Santa’s sack, accompanied by Franz Schubert’s Military March No. 1. This sequence clearly shows how good Disney’s animation had become: the difference between living creatures and mechanical toys is unmistakable. This march a.o. features a mechanical Charlie Chaplin toy, and some stereotyped Chinese and Jewish dolls.

The racist dolls notwithstanding the complete cartoon is one of sheer delight, and must have been mind-blowing to the audiences of the time, unfamiliar with either color or this level of animation in other cartoons of the era. One can rightly say, that only in color the Silly Symphony series rightly found its purpose of pushing the limits of animation forward.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ itself was proof of the astonishing growth the studio had made in its four year existence. One of the reasons was that since 1931 Disney had sent his animators to evening classes at the Chouinard Art School. But on 15 november 1932 Chouinard art teacher Don Graham was appointed as the studio’s formal teacher, starting evening classes at the Disney studio itself.

From now on the studio could improve itself even faster, with the Silly Symphonies as its main platform for innovation, especially from 1934 onward, when Disney planned to make a feature film. By the mid-1930’s the art school cost the studio no less than $100.000 a year, but Disney now could improve the quality of his films at an amazing speed, leaving all competitors far behind.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ was one of the few Silly Symphonies to get a sequel. In 1933 the studio released ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which is  even more colorful and more refined than this cartoon.

Watch ‘ Santa’s Workshop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 33
To the previous Silly Symphony: Babes in the Woods
To the next Silly Symphony: Birds in the Spring

Director: Shamus Culhane
Release Date: October 4, 1944
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Barber of Seville © Walter LantzWoody Woodpecker enters a barbershop to get a ‘victory’ haircut.

When the barber appears to be gone away, Woody himself steps in, maltreating a large chief and giving an Italian construction worker ‘the works’, singing the complete aria ‘Largo el factotum’ from Gioachino Rossini’s opera ‘The Barber of Seville’.

‘Barber of Seville’ is probably inspired by the barber scene from Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ (1940), which is set to a Hungarian dance by Brahms. The cartoon in its turn probably inspired Chuck Jones, who would use the opera’s overture in ‘Rabbit of Seville‘ (1950), with even better results.

‘Barber of Seville’ was the first Woody Woodpecker directed by Shamus Culhane. Culhane was an animation veteran, who had worked at Max Fleischer, Ub Iwerks, Van Beuren, Walt Disney and Warner Bros. Culhane obviously understood the character better than his predecessor Alex Lovy did: the gags in ‘Barber of Seville’ are faster and funnier, and the story is more consistent than in most of the earlier Woody Woodpecker cartoons.

Moreover, Woody Woodpecker looks better than ever before. Layout man and color stylist Art Heinemann redesigned the character to make him less grotesque, and more appealing. Unfortunately, Culhane would direct only ten Woody Woodpecker shorts, before he left the studio to set up one of his own to make animation films for television.

Watch ‘Barber of Seville’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Leonid Amalrik & Olga Khodataeva
Release Date: 1942
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Kino-Circus © Soyuzmultfilm‘Kino-Circus’ (also called Cinema Circus) is the most inspired of the anti-fascist war propaganda cartoons made in the Soviet Union.

The short is called ‘a cartoon satire in three acts’ and features a Charlie Chaplin-like character, who introduces us to three staged satires, all featuring Adolf Hitler:

In the first, ‘Adolf the dog trainer and his pooches’, Hitler throws a bone at his three dogs, Benito Mussolini, Miklós Horthy and Ion Antonescu, the leaders of his allies Italy, Hungary and Romania, respectively.

In the second, ‘Hitler visits Napoleon’, Hitler asks Napoleon’s tomb for advice, but the deceased drags him into the tomb. It’s the most prophetic of the three, for indeed both Napoleon and Hitler were defeated in Russia.

In the third, ‘Adolf the juggler on powder kegs’, Hitler juggles with several burning torches on a pile of powder-barrels, representing the countries he has occupied. When he accidentally drops one of the torches, the barrels explode. The animation is particularly silly in this sequence and a delight to watch.

After the grim political posters from 1941, ‘Kino-Circus’ is more lighthearted. The film ridicules Hitler more than it makes him threatening. Quite surprising since in1942 Nazi Germany was still a serious threat to the Soviet Union: Leningrad suffered under a long siege, and the Soviet Union had only just begun its counter-attack.

Interestingly, both directors of ‘Kino-Circus’ later became famous for their sweet fairy tale films.

Watch ‘Kino-Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Kino-Circus’ is available on the DVD box set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

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: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: May 25, 1935
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Cookie Carnival © Walt DisneyOf all Silly Symphonies this one is particularly silly. The very idea of a cookie land is as original as it is looney.

Yet, the cartoon is literally sugary, not funny. The story, about a Charlie Chaplin-like tramp (voiced by Pinto Colvig) making a poor lonesome girl queen of the parade, is pure sentimental melodrama. Moreover, the characters speak in operetta-like recitatives and when the girl, having become queen, has to choose a king the cartoon shifts to a tiresome medley of song-and-dance-routines.

Nevertheless, the art direction of this Silly Symphony is stunning and its backgrounds lush and beautiful, making this one of the most impressive cartoons of the era. The girl is quite beautifully animated by Gram Natwick, the man who had created Betty Boop five years earlier, and who had joined Disney in 1934. After her transformation into a carnival queen, the girl doesn’t resemble a cookie at all, but she is pictured and animated as a real girl. Natwick would later be an animator on Snow White in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and it’s as if the cookie girl was Natwick’s exercise for the real thing.

Notice the contrast between the sissy Angelic Cakes and the fun-loving Devil Cakes, whose theme music is jazz (the most ‘evil’ music of the era).

Watch ‘The Cookie Carnival’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 53
To the previous Silly Symphony: Water Babies
To the next Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?

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