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Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date: November 11, 1932
Stars: Tom and Jerry
‘Piano Tooners’ opens with Tom and Jerry performing the 1920 hit song ‘Margie’ in their piano shop, which is simply filled with mice. We also watch them tuning pianos, with the best gag being Jerry flushing a bad note through the toilet.
Suddenly we cut to a concert hall, where one Mlle. Pflop will perform. She appears to be a fat woman, and some of the lesser refined humor in this cartoon stems from watching her getting dressed, in rather risque scenes. At the concert Mll. Pflop sings and plays the piano at the same time, until she hits a flat note. Piano tuners Tom and Jerry come to the rescue, pulling the bad key from the piano as if it were a sore tooth. Tom immediately starts playing ‘Doin’ The New Low-Down’, a song Don Redman would turn into a hit (featuring Cab Calloway and the Mills Brothers) more than a month after the release of ‘Piano Tooners’. Also featured is a maid, who is most probably a caricature, but of whom? She joins in, singing along, but it’s Mlle. Pflop who has the last note.
Like the other Tom and Jerry cartoons, ‘Piano Tooners’ is hopelessly primitive, featuring erratic designs and bad animation. However, the piano tuning gags are entertaining, and it’s hard not to enjoy the short’s weird atmosphere.
Watch ‘Piano Tooners’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Piano Tooners’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: August 7, 1931
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Pluto?
Something has happened however, for now Mickey and the gang are not performing for their own fun or at the barnyard, but they are giving a concert in a large theater. It thus predates similar concert cartoons like ‘The Band Concert (1935), Bugs Bunny’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom & Jerry’s ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947), introducing several piano and conductor gags.
This is one of those rare Disney cartoons in which the music performed can be unmistakably identified as jazz (in the earlier ‘The Jazz Fool’ this is not the case, despite the cartoon’s name). In fact, the cartoon is one great rendering of the St. Louis Blues (and not ‘Blue Rhythm’, a composition also popular in 1931, and recorded by Fletcher Henderson and Mills Blue Rhythm Band).
W.C. Handy’s classic song is first performed by Mickey on the piano, borrowing some tricks from Chico Marx. Then it is sung by Minnie, followed by some scatting by the both of them. Then Mickey and Minnie leave the stage, the curtain opens to reveal a big band, to which Mickey returns to conduct. And finally the blues is performed by Mickey on the clarinet, imitating bandleader Ted Lewis, complete with the entertainer’s typical top hat.
Minnie’s blues singing resembles contemporary female vaudeville blues singers (e.g. Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Levey and Victoria Spivey) and the pig trumpeter performs in the growling jungle style of Bubber Miley, who was a trumpeter in Duke Ellington’s band. Mickey shows to be an all round entertainer, performing as a stride pianist, a scat singer, a conductor and a clarinetist. Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow, on the other hand, are clearly a percussionist and flutist, respectively, roles they would also have in ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), the greatest of Mickey’s concert cartoons. Also featured in Mickey’s band is a dog who may or may not be Pluto, and who plays the trombone, disturbing Mickey while doing so.
Blue Rhythm is a great cartoon, from the opening scene, in which Mickey casts a huge shadow on the curtains to the grand finale in which the excited performance makes the stage collapse. This cartoon may have few gags, it is a delightful ode to music, and to jazz in particular.
Watch ‘Blue Rhythm’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Blue Rhythm’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: April 5, 1930
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar
While other studios, like Walter Lantz and the Max Fleischer drew inspiration from jazz, and while Warner Bros. could draw from an extensive music catalog, in the early sound days Walt Disney turned to (copyright-free) folk songs and classical music.
After ‘The Opry House‘ (1929) and ‘Just Mickey‘, Mickey’s concert career reaches new heights in ‘The Barnyard concert’. In this highly enjoyable cartoon Mickey conducts a barnyard orchestra in Franz von Suppé’s overture to ‘Dichter und Bauer’. There’s one throwaway gag looking all the way back to his breakthrough cartoon ‘Steamboat Willie‘ (1928),in which Mickey torments some pigs, but most of the cartoon is forward looking.
Indeed ‘The Barnyard Concert’ looks like a blueprint for ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935), in which many of the gags introduced here are improved to perfection. The cartoon features no dialogue, whatsoever, but is full of clever sight gags.
Unfortunately, at this stage the animators still had problems with Mickey’s eyes: in one close-up in particular they are placed awkwardly in Mickey’s face.
Watch ‘The Barnyard Concert’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Barnyard Concert’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume Two’
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: October 15, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Horse Horsecollar
When settled down, Mickey produces a piano out of nowhere, and performs a mildly jazzy stride tune on it. We also watch Horace Horsecollar without his usual yoke performing some drumming to Mickey’s organ tune.
This is Mickey’s second piano concerto cartoon (after ‘The Opry House‘ from seven months earlier), and thus contains some new gags involving piano playing. Mickey severely mistreats the instrument, even spanking it, so, unsurprisingly, the piano takes revenge in the end. The music can hardly be called jazz, however, even though it contains some nice stride piano. It would take two years before Mickey would turn to real jazz, in ‘Blue Rhythm‘ (1931).
As one may have noticed ‘The Jazz Fool’ is one of those early plotless Mickey Mouse shorts. However, there’s plenty of action, and Mickey’s piano performance is still entertaining today. Nevertheless, Mickey would turn to the violin in his next concert cartoon ‘Just Mickey‘ (1930).
Watch ‘The Jazz Fool’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Dick Lundy
Release Date: June 16, 1947
Stars: Wally Walrus
In this one Wally Walrus stars in his very own cartoon as a conductor conducting an extraordinarily sleepy orchestra in a concert hall. The main gag involves a horsefly, which looks like a miniature horse with wings.
‘Overture to William Tell’ is better than the erratic ‘Musical Moments from Chopin‘, the first of the Musical Miniatures. But still it’s only moderately inspired, and pales when compared to that other concert cartoon using the same music by Gioacchino Rossini, ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935).
Watch ‘Overture to William Tell’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: September 16, 1950
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Only a year after Chuck Jones’ Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Long-Haired Hare‘ the Hollywood Bowl is visited by cartoon characters again in ‘Tom and Jerry in The Hollywood Bowl’.
This short is Tom & Jerry’s second concert cartoon (the first being ‘The Cat Concerto‘ from 1947). This time Tom is a conductor, conducting an orchestra of cats in Johann Strauss Jr.’s overture to ‘Die Fledermaus’. Jerry wants to conduct, too, but Tom doesn’t allow him. This leads to a battle between the two with a great finale in which Jerry makes the complete orchestra disappear, so Tom has to play all the instruments himself. Jerry, who conducts him shares the applause with an exhausted Tom, before the cat vanishes into a hole, too.
During the complete cartoon the feud between the two conductors is perfectly timed to the music. ‘Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl’ is not as good as ‘The Cat Concerto’, but still very funny. Its only drawback are the designs on Tom and Jerry, which both look poorer than usual, looking forward to the leaner designs of their later cartoons.
Watch ‘Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 52
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Safety Second
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Framed Cat
Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: June 25, 1949
Stars: Bugs Bunny
The singer is heavily disturbed by Bugs’s performance and without arguing destroys our hero’s banjo, his harp and his tuba. Only then Bugs is prompted into war, which he reserves for the opera singer’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl.
What follows are great blackout gags featuring a string of opera tunes, with Bugs as ‘Leopold’ as a major highlight. This impersonation is an obvious reference to star conductor Leopold Stokowski, famous for conducting ‘Fantasia’ (1940). Bugs destroys the conductor’s baton, to direct with his hands only, like Stokowski does. From now on he controls the singer almost like a puppeteer. Bugs finally destroys his opponent by making him sing a ridiculously long high note, which tears the complete bowl down.
With cartoons like ‘Long-Haired Hare’ director Chuck Jones really came into his own: it shows Jones’ attitude to Bugs Bunny, who, in Jones’s cartoons, is only a misschief when provoked. Giovanni Jones is one of Bugs Bunny’s particularly large adversaries, following The Crusher (‘Rabbit Punch‘, 1948), and the warehouse manager in ‘Hare Conditioned‘ (1945).
‘Long-Haired Hare’ also shows Jones’ love for high culture, like opera. For instance, we can clearly detect a painting by Roussau le douanier decorating the opera singer’s villa. Jones’s love for opera would lead to two of his most famous and best cartoons, ‘The Rabbit of Seville‘ (1950) and ‘What’s Opera, doc?‘ (1958), which also feature Bugs Bunny.
In 1950, the Hollywood Bowl would be visited by cartoon characters again, when Tom & Jerry both tried to conduct in ‘Tom and Jerry in the Hollywood Bowl‘.
Watch ‘Long-Haired Hare’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 61
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Bowery Bugs
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Knights Must Fall
Director: Gene Deitch
Release Date: December 1962
Stars: Tom & Jerry
This is a sad irony, because Tom & Jerry are also responsible for one of the all time best: ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947).
‘Carmen get it’ was the last of the Gene Deitch Tom & Jerries, a poor and unfunny series of cartoons, which during their short existence never came even near the quality of the original ones by Hanna and Barbera. Gene Deitch had outlasted its welcome within one year and moved over to produce cartoons for Paramount, directing a.o. Popeye and Krazy Cat cartoons.
Tom & Jerry were already revived once again the next year, by Chuck Jones, whose Tom & Jerry cartoons were to be a great improvement on Gene Deitch’s ones, albeit nowhere near the classic Hanna-Barbera cartoons…
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: February 23, 1935
Stars: Clarabelle Cow, Donald Duck, Horace Horsecollar, Mickey Mouse
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Almost 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 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
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: April 26, 1947
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Unfortunately his playing awakes Jerry, who sleeps inside the grand piano. This leads to a hilarious chase in and around the piano, while the playing of the music continues.
‘The Cat Concerto’ almost looks like a remake of Friz Freleng’s ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ from 1946. However, it shares only two gags with the earlier film: that of the mouse suddenly interjecting a boogie-woogie theme and the final gag in which the mouse steals the show. The main difference between the two films is The Cat Concerto’s higher sense of realism and its integrated story, in which every gag follows from the one preceding it in almost continuous action.
‘Rhapsody Rabbit’, in contrast, is more absurd and contains more totally unrelated black-out gags. In the end, ‘The Cat Concerto’ is the better cartoon, because of its great characterization, its outstanding animation, its perfect timing. Indeed, it won an Academy Award, and together with ‘The Band Concert‘ (1935) it can be considered the best concert cartoon of all time.
Nevertheless, there seems to be something fishy about ‘The Cat Concerto’, when compared with ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’. For more on the controversy about these two all too similar cartoons, see Thad Komorowski’s excellent blogpost on the issue.
Watch ‘The Cat Concerto’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: November 11, 1946
Stars: Bugs Bunny
In ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’ it is played out full. The cartoon consists of spot gags and it has a small story about Bugs having problems with a mouse. This story element is not well-developed and dropped halfway the cartoon, only to return at the end.
The idea of a battle between the pianist and a mouse was perfected by Hanna & Barbera only five months later in their Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘The Cat Concerto‘, which has exactly the same subject, and which uses exactly the same music by Liszt. Unlike Freleng however, the duo swept the Oscar… There seems to be something fishy about this fact, which is analyzed in detail by Thad Komorowski in his excellent blogpost on the issue.
Compared to the latter cartoon, ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’ is less consistent, but more absurd. The gag in which the mouse makes Bugs play an infectious boogie-woogie may be the highlight of the film.
Watch ‘Rhapsody Rabbit’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 41
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: The Big Snooze
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Rabbit Transit
Director: Walt Disney
Release Date: March 28, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse
Unlike its predecessor, ‘The Barn Dance‘, ‘The Opry House’ relies heavily on sound and music.
Mickey is the sole performer in a local theater where he dances and plays music. He even dresses up as a female belly dancer, dancing the hoochie coochie dance.
With its many musical gags, this cartoon is the first step in the development of the ‘concert cartoon’. An orchestra plays George Bizet’s Carmen way out of tune, and Mickey performs the Hungarian Rhapsody by Franz Liszt on the piano. This sequence is particularly important for two reasons: first, Mickey here gains his famous gloves, and second, this is the first time that Liszt’s famous work is featured in an animated cartoon. It would remain a cartoon classic and many years later, Bugs Bunny would perform the same piece on the piano in ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946), and Tom and Jerry in ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947). Already in this cartoon, Liszt’s piece is the source of several musical gags, as Mickey plays the piano in the most original ways, even clobbering it with his fists, until his stool kicks him.
Watch ‘The Opry House’ yourself and tell me what you think: