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Director: Bill Justice
Release date: July 18, 1956
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Jack and Old Mac © Walt DisneyDirector Bill Justice had co-directed two educational shorts in 1943: ‘The Grain That Built a Hemisphere‘ and ‘The Winged Scourge‘, but ‘Jack and Old Mac’ marks his solo direction debut.

Taking the cartoon modern-style to the max, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ brings jazzy versions of two familiar addition songs: ‘The House That Jack Built’ and ‘Old MacDonald Had A Farm’.

This simple and unpretentious idea leads to one of Disney’s most daring cartoons. The first song only uses characters made out of words and throughout the picture startlingly modern backgrounds are used, which constantly change and which are totally abstract, giving no sense of space whatsoever. The animation, too, is mostly very limited, although some animation is reused from the ‘All the Cats Join In’-sequence from ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).

George Bruns’s score is strikingly modern for a Disney cartoon, using genuine bebop jazz. In comparison, Louis Prima’s dixieland jazz in ‘Jungle Book’ from eleven years later is much more old-fashioned.

In all, ‘Jack and Old Mac’ is a neglected little masterpiece, and Disney’s modest, but most daring contribution to the cartoon avant-garde.

Justice would direct four more specials: ‘A Cowboy Needs a Horse’ (1956), ‘The Truth about Mother Goose‘ (1957), ‘Noah’s Ark‘ (1959) and ‘A Symposium on Popular Songs’ (1962), all strikingly modern in design.

Watch ‘Jack and Old Mac’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Jack and Old Mac’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: January 19, 1950
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes, Meathead
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Saturday Evening Puss © MGMWhen Mammy goes out, Tom invites his friends, Meathead, the red cat and the little cat, who we hadn’t seen together since ‘Baby Puss‘ (1943).

Together they play intoxicating hot jazz, which unfortunately keeps Jerry out of sleep. After several attempts to stop them, Jerry calls Mammy who rushes home to catch the cats red-handed. Unfortunately, she likes the same music…

‘Saturday Evening Puss’ is one of the better ‘Tom and Jerry’ shorts, due to the irresistible jazz soundtrack and great comedy from all the characters. Highlights of animation are those of Mammy preparing to go out and of Jerry’s head taking different shapes to corresponding jazz sounds. Seventeen years later, the tables would be turned in Abe Levitow’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Rodent‘ (1967), which is one of the best Tom & Jerry’s by Chuck Jones’s unit.

‘Saturday Evening Puss’ is noteworthy for being the only cartoon in which Mammy’s face can be seen, if only for a split-second when she rushes towards the camera. Unfortunately, this cartoon also exists in a censored version from the 1960s featuring a white girl instead of the familiar black maid.

Watch ‘Saturday Evening Puss’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 48
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Little Quacker
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Texas Tom

Director: Bob Clampett
Release Date: January 5, 1946
Stars: Daffy Duck
Rating:
 ★★★★
Review:

Book Revue © Warner Brothers.‘Book Revue’ is the last of the book-covers-come-to life cartoons, a series started by Harman and Ising in 1932, with ‘Three’s a Crowd’.

These cartoons, in which the book titles provide the gags, were mostly plotless, relying on puns and sight gags. ‘Book Revue’ is no exception, but it has the most swinging take on the formula one can wish for.

Set in ‘ye olden book shoppe’, ‘Book Revue’ contains caricatures of some famous (white) jazzmen of the era: Harry James, Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa. There’s a scene resembling ‘The Swooner Crooner’ (1944), and foreshadowing ‘Little ‘Tinker’ (1948), in which several female characters swoon as soon as Sinatra starts singing. There’s a strong sense of sex here, as in an earlier scene involving ‘Indian strip’, affecting male characters. This places ‘Book Revue’ at the end of the World War II cartoon trends, for these allusions to sex would soon be discarded.

At a certain point Daffy Duck (jumping from a Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes magazine cover) dresses himself as Danny Kaye (with a blonde wig). He interrupts the swing music to tell about a nonsensical tale of some Russian youth and a girl called Cucaracha. In this sequence Daffy imitates the Russian accent Kaye sometimes would explore. When ‘singing’ cucaracha the background suddenly changes into a startling monochrome red.

This absurd sequence is followed by Daffy singing ‘Carolina in the Morning’. Daffy immediately exchanges the song for some superb scat singing to warn Red Riding Hood for the Wolf. These two sequences form a highlight in Daffy’s career, and a real tour de force from voice actor Mel Blanc. The ‘story’, if there is any, involves Daffy being followed by the wolf from Red Riding Hood. In line with the book-covers-come-to-life tradition several personas from book covers come to help to get rid of the villain, sending the wolf to Dante’s inferno.

The animation of Daffy is extremely flexible in this cartoon, especially when animated by Rod Scribner and Manny Gould, who really push the limits here. At one point Daffy even converts into one big eye – probably the most extreme deformation of a major cartoon star ever put to screen.

‘Book Revue’ makes no sense at all, but it is a cartoon full of sheer joy, and a crowning achievement of the book series.

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

This is Daffy Duck cartoon No. 31
To the previous Daffy Duck cartoon: Nasty Quacks
To the next Daffy Duck cartoon: Baby Bottleneck

‘Book Revue’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Two’ and on the Blu-Ray-set ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 1, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko The Clown
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'I Heard' featuring Betty in underwear and Bimbo © ParamountBetty Boop works in a tavern near a coal mine, where Koko The Clown and Bimbo are working. The latter discovers some ghosts in the mine.

This short contains an excellent swinging jazz score by Don Redman and his orchestra, who are introduced in the beginning of the picture, playing in a zany cartoon decor. The music includes adapted versions of Don Redman’s hit songs ‘How am I doing?’ (1932) and ‘I Heard’ (1931).

‘I Heard’ was the last Fleischer cartoon to feature a great jazz score. Don Redman, and his predecessors Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong, where soon replaced by Rubinoff and his orchestra playing sweet semi-classical music in ‘Morning Noon and Night‘  and ‘Parade of the Wooden Soldiers‘ (both late 1933). Even worse, the cartoon marked Bimbo’s last screen appearance. Being an animal he was no longer accepted as being Betty’s suitor in a Hays Code dominated Hollywood which shunned all eroticism and ‘unnatural sexual behavior’, including human-animal relationships.

After Bimbo, Betty would shortly date a human character named Fearless Freddie, but from 1935 on she remained a bachelor apparently with no interest in men whatsoever. In this cartoon, though, she’s still sexy, and she can briefly be seen in her underwear, after the elevator she and Bimbo had taken has crashed.

Thus, in many ways, one can regard ‘I Heard’ as the last of the classic Betty Boop cartoons. After this cartoon, the intoxicating mix of sex and surrealism was only seen once, in the compilation cartoon ‘Betty Boop’s Rise to Fame‘ (1934), a last tribute to Betty’s glory days.

Watch ‘I Heard’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 20
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: The Old Man of the Mountain
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Morning Noon and Night

‘I Heard’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 13, 1937
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Woodland Café © Walt Disney‘Woodland Café’ returns to the origin of the Silly Symphony series: music.

This enjoyable gem depicts a Harlem-like nightclub for bugs, in which blackface grasshoppers perform hot jazz, led by a Cab Calloway-like bandleader. All bugs swing to it as soon as they enter the club.

After a remarkably erotic act played by a spider and a fly the cartoon climaxes in the jazz song ‘Truckin’, recorded by both the Mills Blue Rhythm Band and Duke Ellington in 1935, and celebrating a dance style that was fashionable around ca. 1935-1938. The main feature of trucking is the shoulders which rise and fall as the dancers move towards each other while the fore finger points up and wiggles back and forth like a windshield wiper. At this point in the short even some astonishing effect animation joins in, delivering totally convincing glitter ball effects and beautiful descending fluffy flowers.

Both charming and entertaining, the whole mood of this delightful cartoon is one of sheer joy.

Watch ‘Woodland Café’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 66
To the previous Silly Symphony: More Kittens
To the next Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 5, 1935
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Music Land © Walt DisneyIn ‘Music Land’ a young violin falls in love with a young saxophone, much to the disapproval of their parents, the queen of ‘The Land of Symphony’ and the king of ‘The Isle of Jazz, respectively, whose realms are separated by the ‘Sea of Discord’.

When the young saxophone is imprisoned, the feud between the two very different nations leads to a war, in which the two young lovers are almost killed… The whole story is told through music, even the characters ‘speak’ with the sounds of the instruments they are. The complete score, by Leigh Harline, is a delight to listen to.

This reading of ‘Romeo and Juliette’ is one of the most inspired of all Silly Symphonies. The very idea of musical instruments ‘speaking’ in their own sound is brilliant. But there is much more. For example, when the saxophone prince is locked up, he’s imprisoned in a metronome and when he writes a letter to his father (a caricature of bandleader Paul Whiteman, ‘the king of jazz’) he does this in staff-notation!

The complete design of the cartoon is delightful. The backgrounds are particularly beautiful, rendering a totally convincing fantasy world, in which the cartoon develops as if it were an age-old story. The concept of a battle between classical music and jazz was a topical one in the 1930s, when jazz was still regarded by many as devilish music and a threat to ‘high culture’. Nevertheless, during the second half of the 1930s jazz gradually became a respected genre, as exemplified by Benny Goodman’s concert in Carnegie Hall in 1938.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 55
To the previous Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?
To the next Silly Symphony: Three Orphan Kittens

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