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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 22, 1931
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
The short features ca. no story and consists of a string of unrelated throwaway gags. The animation, too, is at times completely random. For example, there’s some totally unnecessary and incomprehensible flexible animation on Bimbo’s van in the opening scene. This total lack of direction hampers ‘Bimbo’s Express’, and it fails to fulfil any promise.
The cartoon’s most stunning scene is that of Betty Boop cutting her toenails. But even more striking is Sammy Timberg’s music, which is loosely jointed from numerous familiar tunes, and which anticipates Carl Stalling’s techniques by several years.
This cartoon is billed ‘Bimbo & Betty’, indicating Betty’s rising star. In the next cartoon, ‘Minding the Baby‘, it would be ‘Betty Boop and Bimbo’, and in ‘Mask-A-Raid‘, it’s already “Betty Boop in ‘Mask-A-Raid’ with Bimbo’…
Watch ‘Bimbo’s Express’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Bimbo’s Express’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
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: Abe Levitow
Release date: April 7, 1967
Stars: Tom & Jerry
The story, by Bob Ogle, is inspired, if not anything new (it’s in fact the reverse of the classic Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘Saturday Evening Puss‘ from 1950): when Tom goes to sleep, Jerry rises to play drums with his hep-cat mice friends in the nightclub ‘Le Cellar Smoqué’.
This, of course, keeps Tom awake, and he desperately tries to get rid of the mice, only to succeed in bothering a large bulldog living in the same apartment block.
Unlike the other Tom & Jerry’s by Chuck Jones’s unit, this short has a lively jazzy score penned by a remarkably inspired Carl Brandt. In short, everything seems to come together for once in this cartoon, making this one of the best of the Chuck Jones Tom & Jerry’s.
Watch ‘Rock ‘n’ Rodent’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Osvaldo Cavandoli
Release Date: 1991
Stars: La Linea
We watch La Linea dressed like an 18th century composer playing Mozart’s K545 sonata on the grand piano. Meanwhile he encounters several animals and people.
Unfortunately, the cartoon is slow, repetitive and rather unfunny. La Linea’s irresistible voice is hardly heard and this cartoon lacks the brazen humor of the earlier entries. And it completely pales when compared to classic piano concerto cartoons like ‘Rhapsody Rabbit‘ (1946) or ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947).
‘Trazom, A.W.’ is available on the DVD ‘La Linea 3’
Director: Lev Atamanov
Release Date: 1951
The film tells about a flute player, whose music is so vivid, it can bring a drawing of a stork to life. An evil mandarin captures the bird, demanding it to perform for him. But the stork will only dance to the flute player’s music, and when it hears this music, it flies away through the window.
This film, which uses song, seems to celebrate music and freedom and appears to be a pamphlet against oppression, which is remarkable for a film made under Stalin’s rule. The animation in this short is very good, with beautifully animated humans. The result is one of the more enjoyable Soviet films of the era.
Watch ‘The Yellow Stork’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: March 21, 1953
Stars: Tom & Jerry
The mouse (Jerry) only comes out to waltz when the master plays, so when he’s out of town, the cat (Tom) learns to play waltzes to make the mouse waltz. This novelty leads to the two performing for the Austrian emperor.
‘Johann Mouse’ is a cute little fairy tale, told by a quasi-German voice over. However, the cartoon is hampered by all too economic animation. Especially Jerry’s design has become very streamlined and rather stiff in this cartoon, making his dance movements less impressive than in earlier entries.
Watch ‘Johann Mouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Jerry and Jumbo
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: That’s My Pup
Director: Friz Freleng
Release Date: March 27, 1948
Stars: Elmer Fudd, Sylvester
Sylvester turns out to be a rather talented alley cat. His performance is quite infectious, and includes the famous Largo al factotum aria from Rossini’s ‘Il barbiero di Seviglia’, Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody (which he performs by stamping with heavy boots on the staircase), “You Never Know Where You’re Goin’ Till You Get There” and “Moonlight Bay”.
At last, Elmer tries to blow Sylvester to smithereens, but they are both killed, and on his way to heaven, Elmer is disturbed by Sylvester’s nine lives singing the Sextet from Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’.
‘Back Alley Oproar’ is one of director Friz Freleng’s cartoons in which he spreads his own love for music. He does so in a very entertaining way.
The cartoon was the first of only four Elmer Fudd-Sylvester pairings. Only Freleng coupled these two characters, although they did co-star in Chuck Jones’ ensemble film ‘The Scarlet Pumpernickel‘ (1950).
Watch an excerpt from ‘Back Alley Oproar’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Jack King
Release Date: October 14, 1938
Unfortunately, the cartoon just doesn’t deliver what it seems to offer. Literally stuffed with classical music themes (from Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to Wagner’s Tannhäuser), it’s mainly filled with animals just doing things.
One can detect two weak story lines: one about a piglet looking for food and the other about a rooster falling in love with a slender white chick. The latter story leads to the most symphony-like part of the cartoon in which all animals join the rooster and the chicken in their duet from Verdi’s La Traviata.
This remains one of the less interesting entries in the Silly Symphonies series, despite its sometimes stunning and convincingly realistic animal designs. It is very likely that these have influenced the animal designs of ‘Animal Farm‘ from 1954, which also features scenes of singing animals. Especially the pigs look very similar.
Watch ‘Farmyard Symphony’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 71
To the previous Silly Symphony: Wynken, Blynken and Nod
To the next Silly Symphony: Merbabies
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: March 13, 1937
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: ★★★★★ ♕
In ‘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:
Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: September 17, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Clarabelle Cow, Horace Horsecollar
After three years of musical cartoons, consistent story lines where reintroduced to the Mickey cartoons with a remarkable success in 1932 (good examples are ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ and ‘Touchdown Mickey’). In this era the musical cartoon ‘The Whoopee Party’ with its total lack of story seems to be quite old-fashioned.
The short contains numerous elements that were used many times earlier: a public dancing, Minnie singing behind the piano and alive inanimate objects (although the latter feature was much more common practice in the Fleischer and Iwerks cartoons of that time – yet no other Disney cartoon celebrates the secret dancing life of inanimate objects as much as ‘The Whoopee Party’ does). The short also contains some nice effect animation of confetti and flying feathers. Despite being anything but new, the sheer fun with which everything is executed, makes this cartoon a delight to watch.
‘The Whoopee Party’ marks Goofy’s second appearance after his debut in ‘Mickey’s Revue‘ earlier that year. It’s in this cartoon he gets the looks he would maintain until Art Babbitt redesigned him for ‘On Ice’ (1935). He’s more than just a silly laugh now; he now has a rudimentary character of being some kind of silly person, and we hear him speak for the first time. Clearly, he now is one of the gang, making sandwiches with Horace and Mickey, and showing to be a character here to stay. Yet, he’s still more weird than likable – and when he made his debut as ‘Dippy Dawg’ in Floyd Gottfredson’s comic strip in January, 1933, he’s introduced as a pest. In fact, Goofy’s character would remain rather vague until 1935. Only with ‘Mickey’s Service Station’ from that year he would become the likable Goof we know today.
It may be interesting to note that Goofy arguably is the first cartoon character built on a funny voice. His success is proof that, although a unique voice is not necessary (Tom and Jerry for instance could do perfectly without one), it certainly helps to build a character. This must have been an inspiration to later voice-based characters like Donald Duck, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck.
Ironically, Goofy himself would eventually lose his voice in the early forties when voice artist Pinto Colvig left Disney for Fleischer.
Watch ‘The Whoopee Party’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 46
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Trader Mickey
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Touchdown Mickey
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: Walt Disney
Release Date: November 18, 1928
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
In 1928 Walt Disney was at a low point in his career. He had refused to work for Charles Mintz at lower wages, he had lost most of his staff to Mintz, and he had no distributor for his new cartoon star, Mickey Mouse.
Mickey’s first two cartoons, ‘Plane Crazy‘ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘, were well-made and entertaining films, but they didn’t impress any distributor. The problem was that despite their high quality, they were not really different from other cartoons, like Disney’s former own Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series. Disney had to think of something.
And he did. Mickey’s third cartoon would have the distinction of sound. Sound was an extremely fresh cinematic feature at the time. The breakthrough feature, ‘The Jazz Singer’ had only been released in October 1927, and the first all talking picture, ‘Lights of New York’ was only released in July 1928, the month in which production on ‘Steamboat Willie’ started.
Using sound creatively
Surprisingly, ‘Steamboat Willie’ was not the first cartoon to use synchronized sound. The Fleischer studio, for example, had experimented with the technique as early as 1924, and in October 1928 Paul Terry would release ‘Dinner Time’, which also used a synchronized soundtrack. However, Fleischer’s films failed to reach complete synchronicity, and Paul Terry’s film (which can be watched here) is essentially a silent and remarkably boring cartoon, which just happens to have sound to it.
‘Steamboat Willie’ on the other hand makes perfect use of the novelty of sound. Already in the opening scene we’re treated on something no less than spectacular: we watch and hear Mickey Mouse whistling a joyful tune. After watching several silent cartoons, this sole scene still has a startling effect. But all scenes in ‘Steamboat Willie’ are there to show us the novelty of sound: we watch and hear whistles blowing, cows mooing, chickens cackling, and Minnie shouting “yoo”-hoo”. And thanks to the invention of the click track all sounds are in perfect synchronization with the moving images.
However, the real treat of ‘Steamboat Willie’ comes after 4 minutes, when a goat swallows Minnie’s sheet music and guitar. What seems a disaster turns out to be a delight, for the goat becomes musical, and Mickey and Minnie turn it into some kind of hurdy-gurdy. This gag, in fact, had already been used in the silent Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon ‘Rival Romeos‘ (released in March), but makes much more sense with the added sound. For now the goat-hurdy gurdy provides an intoxicating soundtrack for Mickey to improvise on, incidentally mostly by torturing animals. This musical number, based on ‘Turkey in the Straw’ is a sheer delight, and entertains even today.
The impact of ‘Steamboat Willie’
Needless to say ‘Steamboat Willie’ boosted both Mickey Mouse’s and Walt Disney’s career and it gave a valuable shot to the ailing animation industry. Yet, it also caused a setback, one that can already be seen in this cartoon. In ‘Steamboat Willie’, sound is the sole raison d’être of some of the shots (chickens cackling, a cow mooing). But more important, storyline has given way to an extensive musical number. While the two Mickey Mouse shorts that were made before, ‘Plane Crazy’ and ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho’, had strong, albeit simple stories, Steamboat Willie has almost none. It wasn’t necessary: simply watching Mickey Mouse dancing and playing to the music was marvelous enough for the audiences of that time.
Therefore, in the years after the success of ‘Steamboat Willie’, Disney would favor often tiring sing and dance routines above great story lines. It took the studio almost two years to bring back strong stories to its cartoons (Mickey’s 19th film, ‘The Fire Fighters’ from 1930, is arguably the first).
Nevertheless, ‘Steamboat Willie’ is a great cartoon, and a lot of fun to watch. It is still deeply rooted in the silent era: because lip synchronization had not been developed yet, the characters’ vocabulary remains rather limited. Therefore, it still uses a comic strip-like visual language to express the characters’ feelings. Yet, the musical number is both fresh and catching.
When you’ve seen Steamboat Willie, you’ll be whistling ‘Turkey in the Straw’ for days, with a smile on your face.
Watch ‘Steamboat Willie’ yourself and tell me what you think: