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Director: Ted Esbaugh
Release Date: 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The Wizard of Oz © Ted EsbaughTed Esbaugh was one of the very few American animators operating independently during the 1930s.

With ‘The Wizard of Oz’ Esbaugh could make use of Technicolor’s three-way process, if only outside the U.S., as Walt Disney had the exclusive rights to its use in the States themselves.

With this film Esbaugh was the first to bring Frank L. Baum’s famous fantasy to the film screen in full color. Like the latter, much more familiar live action version from 1939, Esbaugh paints the Kansas opening in sepia tones, and unleashes full color only in the land of Oz.

Lasting only eight minutes, the film’s plot is simple, and only superficially taken from the book: when Dorothy plays with Toto, a tornado takes her to Oz, where she lands on the scarecrow. Together they walk through the forest, where they encounter the tin man. The quartet (the lion is nowhere to be found) walk into the emerald city, where they’re taken to the wizard of Oz.

In Esbaugh’s version, the wizard of Oz is a real wizard, and he performs some tricks for our heroes, e.g. eight dolls dancing in a Busby Berkeley ballet-like fashion, and an egg growing into gigantic proportions, threatening our heroes, until it explodes, revealing a tiny chicken.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ boasts music by Carl Stalling, who’s in top form here, while the colorful images splash from the scene, and the animation can compete with contemporary cartoons by Warner Bros. and Disney in quality. However, the short’s story is hardly gripping, and although enjoyable, more forgettable than one would expect.

Because of Disney’s deal with Technicolor, Esbaugh’s film was never seen in the United States, and only shown in Canada and the UK, and it never received the fame it could have had otherwise.

Watch ‘The Wizard of Oz’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Wizard of Oz’ is available on the Blu-Ray/DVD-set ‘Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’

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 he test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

This scene is 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: Oskar Fischinger
Release Date:
 December 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Kreise © Oskar Fischinger‘Kreise’ is most probably the first full color film made in Europe.

Made with ‘Gaspar Color’ it certainly makes clever use of color’s new possibilities. ‘Gaspar Color’ required too much exposure time for live action, but for Fischinger’s animations it was perfect.

Color certainly added a great deal to Fischinger’s films. ‘Kreise’, for example, literally explodes with color. As its title implies, the film is composed of circles, only, which move and grow in various ways on an instrumental excerpt from Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser.

The film ends with a slogan: “Alle Kreise erfasst Tolirag” (Tolirag reaches all circles [of society]), revealing that this totally abstract film is actually a commercial for an advertising agency. This was Fischinger’s trick to get the film past the Nazi censors, who in 1933 had come to power, and who were strongly opposed to abstract art.

Later the film also advertised other companies, like the Dutch Van Houten chocolate company. The film clearly shows that Walt Disney was not the only one who knew how to deal with color, but one wonders whether Tolirag (or Van Houten for that matter) did get a lot of new customers out of it.

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

‘Kreise’ is available on the DVD ‘Oskar Fischinger: Ten Films’

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date:
 August 16, 1930
Stars: Flip the Frog
Rating: ★★
Review:

Fiddlesticks © Ub IwerksIn January 1930 Pat Powers, Walt Disney’s distributor, hired away Disney’s star animator, Ub Iwerks, the man who had created Mickey Mouse.

Iwerks was to set up his own studio, with animators quickly hired with help of a newspaper ad. ‘Fiddlesticks’ was his pilot film, launching Iwerks’s own new star, Flip the Frog. According to David Gerstein in ‘Animation Art’ the origin of Flip can be found in the Silly Symphony, ‘Night’, which features a dancing frog. Apparently, Iwerks wanted to make a star out of this frog, but this idea was vetoed by Walt Disney. Now, with his own studio, he could launch Flip the Frog as his sole new star, which the likable if bland amphibian remained until 1933.

Surprisingly enough, ‘Fiddlesticks’, was made in Technicolor, making it the first sound cartoon in color, predating Walt Disney’s first color cartoon, ‘Flowers and Trees‘, by two years. A milestone, one would say, if Walter Lantz had not already made a Technicolor cartoon sequence for the feature ‘The King of Jazz’, released in April. Moreover, in 1930 Technicolor was still a two-color system, only showing greens and reds, and Iwerks fails to do anything with the colors, which are less impressive than the later full color technicolor, anyway. Indeed, the following Flip the Frog cartoons were all in black-and-white.

Not only does ‘Fiddlesticks’ fail as a color cartoon, it is also disappointingly boring. The animation is good, and there’s a lot of rhythmical movement, perfectly synchronized to the soundtrack, but the cartoon is devoid of any story, and low on gags. The main body of the cartoon features a concert performance with Flip dancing and playing the piano, while a rather Mickey Mouse-like mouse plays the violin. The duet reuses some gags from earlier Mickey Mouse cartoons, like ‘The Jazz Fool‘ (1929) and ‘Just Mickey‘ (1930).

Unfortunately, ‘Fiddlesticks’ shows the problems of many Flip the Frog cartoons to follow: the animation is fine and the atmosphere is joyful, but  the cartoons are surprisingly low on gags and the stories never really come off, mainly due to sloppy timing and the absence of a build-up.

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

This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 1
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: Puddle Pranks

‘Fiddlesticks’ is available on the DVD ‘Cartoons That Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 1’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: September 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Still from 'King Neptune' featuring several mermaids on a rock

King Neptune is a merry sea giant, who gets angry when a bunch of horny pirates capture one of his topless(!) art deco mermaids. This leads to a war at sea, complete with an aircraft carrier whale and sea creature dive bombers.

‘King Neptune’ introduces a new concept to the Silly Symphonies, that of operetta. No longer the characters act silently to music, now they actually sing in operatic fashion. In the mid-thirties operetta was very popular in Hollywood, and in 1933 the operetta format would spread through the series, and it even shortly invaded Mickey Mouse films, like ‘The Mad Doctor‘, ‘Ye Olden Days‘ and ‘The Mail Pilot‘ (all 1933).

This trend led to curious mini-musicals, like ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ (both 1933). The style reached its apex with ‘The Goddess of Spring’ (1934), in which the singing in all its seriousness became downright ridiculous. The operetta style survived into 1935, after which it disappeared from the Disney cartoons. However, Walt Disney’s first feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), clearly uses the operetta-style, probably because it already had been conceived at the end of 1933.

King Neptune is kind of a stock character. In many ways he’s just Old King Cole from ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931) in an updated form – rather awkwardly still wearing gloves. This character would resurface as Santa in the next Silly Symphony ‘Santa’s Workshop‘ (1932), as Noah in ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), and as King Midas in ‘The Golden Touch’ (1935).

The pirates and mermaids are nowhere near realism, yet they’re designed and animated much better than the hunters in ‘The Fox Hunt‘ (1931), showing that Disney was making fast strides to realistic human designs already at this stage .

‘King Neptune’ is only the second Silly Symphony in color, yet unlike the first, ‘Flowers and Trees‘, it was made with color in mind from the start, and it shows. What a lush, elaborate, colorful and stunningly beautiful short this is! The cartoon simply bursts with color. Nevertheless, at several points the artists were still struggling with the new language of color. For example, one fighting scene on deck is almost rendered in reds only, in another scene the turtles have almost the same color as their background rock, failing to stand out. However, two color Silly Symphonies later, in ‘Santa’s Workshop‘, these problems appeared to have been solved, for that cartoon juxtaposes the most vibrant colors in all its scenes.

Apart from the use of color, ‘King Neptune’ is astounding because of its astonishingly elaborate animation. It’s packed with special effects, and complex and beautiful animation. The opening shots alone, in which King Neptune introduces himself, contain excessive, complex cycles of bubbles and fish. But the short’s highlight is the epic battle, which contains scenes of unprecedented complexity.

More impressive Silly Symphonies were soon to follow, but ‘King Neptune’ itself already is no less than a masterpiece. All previous Silly Symphonies literally pale compared to this one, let alone contemporary cartoons of other studios.

Watch ‘King Neptune’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 30
To the previous Silly Symphony: Flowers and Trees
To the next Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love

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: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: July 13, 1935
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Garden © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Garden’ is Mickey’s second color cartoon (after ‘The Band Concert‘).

It’s also Pluto’s first: he passes the transition into color fluently, getting his typical orange color we’re all familiar with now.

Mickey and Pluto are in the garden trying to kill a number of insects eating Mickey’s crop. When Mickey accidentally sprays himself with bug poison he starts to hallucinate (the transition to the dreamworld is particularly psychedelic: everything, including the background becomes unsteady and wobbly). He dreams that all plants and bugs have grown. This leads to some imaginative scenes. The bugs are not very lifelike, though. The animators even make a weird mistake by giving a particularly evil-looking beetle eight legs instead of six.

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 76
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Kangaroo
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Fire Brigade

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: July 30, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Flowers and Trees © Walt Disney‘Flower and Trees’ was the first film (animated or not) in full technicolor and it’s therefore a milestone of cinema.

Nevertheless, it feels like a transitional film. The colors make it stunningly modern compared to the earlier Silly Symphony entries, but some of the designs still firmly belong to the black-and-white era. The designs of the flowers and the caterpillars, for instance, go all the way back to the third Silly Symphony, ‘Springtime‘ from 1929.

The birds, on the other hand, have lost their cartoony designs they still had in ‘The Bird Store‘ from six months earlier, and the villain tree is probably the most elaborate character to have hit the animated screen thus far.

For contemporary audiences, the film may seem rather silly and a bit old fashioned, but its storytelling is very economical. It contains some original visual gags (flowers brushing their teeth, a pine portrayed as a hen) and fine drama, when the rejected mean old trees sets the wood on fire. The colors are not only used as a novelty, but add to the drama, as do musical quotes from Franz Schubert’s “Erlkönig” and Gioachino Rossini’s overture to William Tell.

Technicolor was a great advancement for the Silly Symphony series. The colors created way more atmosphere and allowed for more complex designs. Because of color, the Silly Symphonies would propel animated art forward like they never did before, making Walt Disney the undisputed leader in the field.

This leadership was greatly aided by the exclusive contract Disney concluded with the Technicolor company, giving him the exclusive rights to use the new technique for animated films for three years. So, when other studios had to stick to black and white, or were obliged to use far less convincing two-color techniques, Walt Disney made the most beautiful and literally most colorful cartoons of the 1930s.

‘Flowers and Trees’ enthralled  the critics so much at the time, they installed a special Academy Award for best animated short films, with ‘Flowers and Trees’ naturally being its first winner. During the 1930s Disney would win every Oscar in this category.

Watch ‘Flowers and Trees’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 29
To the previous Silly Symphony: Just Dogs
To the next Silly Symphony: King Neptune

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: February 23, 1935
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Band Concert © Walt DisneyAlmost three years after ‘Flowers and Trees’ Mickey finally made the step to color, and it’s probably because of this that ‘The Band Concert’ has such a Silly Symphony-like feel to it.

In 1935 the concept of a concert cartoon was already an old one (Mickey’s first was the ‘Barnyard Concert’ from 1930), but it finds the peak of perfection in this one.

Likewise, the use of Gioachino Rossini’s ‘overture Wilhelm Tell’ and ‘Turkey in the Straw’ in cartoons was far from new, but who would have thought that the two tunes would fit together so perfectly? The overture is played inside-out culminating in the storm sequence which brings forth a tornado. That’s how it feels, Mickey is not only conducting the storm music but even the real storm itself!

Notwithstanding the cartoon being a Mickey Mouse showcase, it’s Donald Duck who is stealing the show, like he did in the two previous Mickey Mouse cartoons he appeared in: ‘Orphan’s Benefit‘ and ‘The Dognapper‘. Being the only character in the cartoon born in color, Donald makes the transition from black-and-white to color naturally. Mickey and the other characters, on the other hand, still have a strong black-and-white feeling in their design and are less fitting in the bright world of color.

During Mickey’s concert, Donald produces an unending supply of flutes out of nothing, playing ‘Turkey in the Straw’ right through Rossini’s music (this ability of bringing forth material from out of nowhere was a capability that Donald would soon lose, but it would become a trademark of Bugs Bunny several years later). It’s a bitter irony that it’s this tune, ‘Turkey in the Straw’, which signals Mickey’s demise, because it was the same tune that made Mickey a star in the first place.

Nevertheless, ‘The Band Concert’ is without doubt Mickey’s best concert cartoon, arguably his best cartoon since ‘Steamboat Willie‘ and certainly one of the most perfect animated cartoons ever made.

Watch ‘The Band Concert’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 73
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Man Friday
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Service Station

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 17, 1936
Rating:

Review:

Somewhere in Dreamland © Max FleischerMax Fleischer’s first full color cartoon is in the same vein as Disney’s ‘Lullaby Land‘ (1933) and Walter Lantz’s ‘Candy Land’ (1934), depicting little children’s wonderful dreams.

‘Somewhere in Dreamland’ deals with two very poor children who dream that they are in dreamland which is full of candy and toys. Fleischer’s 3D-technique is used with stunning results, and the cartoon must have struck a chord with the audience during the Great Depression era, in which poverty was an all too familiar thing. Indeed, as children the Fleischer Brothers themselves had known hunger like depicted in the film, when their father ran out of business. Unfortunately, the cartoon is remarkably unfunny and sickeningly sweet, following similar sugary outings in Disney’s Silly Symphonies series, like ‘Funny Little Bunnies‘ (1934) and ‘The Robber Kitten‘ (1935).

Unlike those films, however, ‘Somewhere in Dreamland’ suffers from primitive designs. The children’s mother looks like a relative of Olive Oyl, while the little children are drawn in typical thirties kids style resembling Hänsel and Gretel from Disney’s ‘Babes in the Woods‘ from four years earlier. The result is that none of the characters seem to fit within the elaborate 3D-sets.

Watch ‘Somewhere in Dreamland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 19, 1933
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

Lullabye Land © Walt DisneyIn ‘Lullaby Land’ a baby is lulled to sleep by his mother, singing ‘rock-a-bye baby’. The song takes the baby and his stuffed dog to Lullaby Land, a wonderfully surreal land made of plaids, rattles etc.

There the baby encounters a parade of baby objects, and a forbidden garden, full of sharp things, like knives and scissors. Despite the warnings of the female choir in the soundtrack, the baby enters. He destroys all watches from a watch tree with a hammer, and plays with matches. The smoke evokes three bogey men, which scare the baby away. Finally, the baby meets the Sandman, who puts the baby asleep to the tune of Johannes Brahms’s lullaby.

With cartoons like ‘Lullaby Land’ Disney set new standards for animation that are still thrilling today. Don’t get me wrong, the cartoon is rather patronizing and sugary cute, especially through the soundtrack. But this is compensated by wonderful surrealistic images, beautiful artwork and superb animation. And, hey, this way of warning against sharp things and matches just may work with small children.

Lullaby Land itself is a highly original fantasy world, and especially its first images are stunningly beautiful. The dance of the bogey men contains some striking use of color that anticipates similar surreal images in ‘Dumbo’ (1941). Moreover, it is the first example of totally unrealistic color use in animated cartoons, and therefore a milestone.

Unfortunately, the cartoon also marks a trend of childishness creeping into the animation world, not only at Disney’s, but at all other studios, as well. For example, ‘Lullaby Land’ is the first of a whole series of Silly Symphonies obsessed with little babies, and their bare behinds in particular, with ‘Wynken, Blynken and Nod‘ from 1938 being the last example.

Anyway, ‘Lullaby Land’ left all competitors far behind. Later, both Walter Lantz (‘Candy Land’, 1934) and Max Fleischer (‘Somewhere in Dreamland‘, 1936) tried to copy the concept with far less convincing results.

Watch ‘Lullaby Land’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 38
To the previous Silly Symphony: Old King Cole
To the next Silly Symphony: The Pied Piper

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