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Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: December 2, 1939
Stars: Sniffles
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Sniffles and the Bookworm © Warner Bros.‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ opens with Sniffles taking refuge in a bookshop to escape the winter cold.

Inside Sniffles encounters the bookworm, who’s scared of the little mouse, and asks two book characters, the pied piper and a viking, for help. This first act is acted out completely silently, and is very, very Silly Symphony-like. Its uninteresting comedy is greatly helped by Carl Stalling’s score, who makes excellent use of music from Franz Schubert’s Moment musical no. 3.

When Sniffles turns out to be small, the pied piper suddenly starts playing the clarinet, with Sniffles joining in. Thus starts the second part, in which Sniffles, the bookworm and several nursery rhyme characters play and sing some peppy swing tune. Unfortunately, a particularly angular version of Frankenstein’s monster awakes, too, and soon spoils the fun. This second act is hardly more interesting than the first, but the swing music is nice.

With ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’, the third cartoon starring Sniffles, Chuck Jones gives his own twist on his precursor Frank Tashlin’s books-come-to-life series (e.g. ‘Have You Got any Castles?‘ and ‘You’re an Education‘ from 1938). Despite the paper-thin story about Sniffles and the bookworm itself it’s all there: book characters coming to life at night, characters performing some jazz music, and a threat which ends the fun – this all done with the highest production values possible at Leon Schlesinger’s studio at the time.

It’s hard to call the bookworm a classic character (after all, Sniffles himself isn’t really interesting). Yet, the bookworm would return in two other Sniffles cartoons: ‘The Egg Collector‘ (1940) and ‘Toy Trouble‘ (1941).

Watch ‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Sniffles and the Bookworm’ is available on the Blu-Ray set ‘Looney Tunes Mouse Chronicles: The Chuck Jones Collection’

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Director: Elmer Perkins
Release Date: October 5, 1938
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

‘Hollywood Bowl’ merges two genres that had become quite popular by the late 1930s: the concert cartoon and the Hollywood caricature cartoon. The result is pretty uneven, but nonetheless, ‘Hollywood Bowl’ is one of the most original cartoons to sprout from the Walter Lantz studio.

The short opens with a gala night at the Hollywood Bowl, with several famous stars in the crowd, e.g. Edward G. Robinson, Hugh Herbert, Greta Garbo, Groucho Marx, Clark Cable, Charles Laughton, Ned Sparks, Bing Crosby, W.C. Fields, and Charlie.

Leopold Stokowski is the conductor, conducting Franz Schubert’s unfinished symphony with the help of a few gloves. This leads to a great and very imaginative scene, in which we watch ghostly images of the gloves playing instruments on a black screen, and Stokowski casting a huge shadow on the bowl, which changes into a greyhound, which changes into a swallow. At that point this poetic part cuts back to the Hollywood caricatures.

As Schubert has left the symphony unfinished (quite literally), it’s up to the stars to finish it, Hollywood style, which means that radio star Ben Bernie starts conducting a swinging tune, with help of Fats Waller, Rudy Vallee, Benny Goodman, Fred Astaire, Jack Benny and Cab Calloway. This part reuses a lot of animation, and is a not too convincing end to the cartoon.

‘Hollywood Bowl’ is a very interesting entry in Walter Lantz’s oeuvre, but it’s harmed by a lack of story, rather bad voice imitations and at times sloppy animation. Nevertheless, the Schubert sequence is no less than marvelous, and the cartoon’s opening is greatly helped by Frank Churchill’s inspired score, which is simply packed with countless classical tunes. Notice that some of the backgrounds use photographic material, a very rare feat in classic cartoons.

Watch ‘Hollywood Bowl’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Hollywood Bowl’ is available on the DVD-set ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection’

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: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 13, 1942
Stars: Popeye
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Blunder Below © Max FleischerPopeye had joined the navy before the United States entered the war, in ‘The Mighty Navy’ (November 1941), so in ‘Blunder Below’ he’s ready to fight the enemy, the first major cartoon star to do so on the movie screen.

In the first part of this cartoon Popeye tries to be a normal sailor, among Superman-like sailors, trying to learn gunning. He is no talent, however, blundering away and almost shooting down the captain by accident.

But when a submarine approaches, Popeye shows his real worth: he beats the submarine single-handedly, saving the battle cruiser. It’s this great combination of clumsiness and superhuman powers which make Popeye such an appealing character.

The approaching submarine is accompanied by the music of Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig, indicating a German origin. However, it soon turns out to be Japanese. The submarine is anthropomorphic itself and completely dehumanized, as if it were not manned by people at all. When in August 1942 Popeye changed hands from the Fleischers to Paramount, this would radically change…

Watch ‘Blunder Below’ yourself and tell me what you think:

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