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Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date: August 26, 1932
‘Nursery Scandal’ is Van Beuren’s direct answer to Walt Disney’s successful Silly Symphony ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931), if a rather dingy one.
It’s night and the moon personally awakes some gnomes, who in turn awake Mother Goose. Mother Goose courts a scarecrow, much to the chagrin of the goose and the other nursery rhyme characters. At one point four gnomes start to sing nursery rhymes in a swinging close harmony style, leading to a long song-and-dance sequence in which we watch several nursery rhyme characters dancing, much like ‘Mother Goose Melodies’, but way jazzier. Composer Gene Rodemich is in excellent form in this cartoon, providing a highly enjoyable score. Notice the seemingly naked and very human fairy on top of the nursery rhyme book somewhere in the middle of the cartoon.
Watch ‘Nursery Scandal’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Nursery Scandal’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’
Directors: John Foster & Mannie Davis
Release Date: September 14, 1931
By 1931, Van Beuren’s ‘Aesop’s Fables’ had become the studio’s answer to Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies, being the first studio clearly trying to copy Disney’s format (Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were only variations on the Silly Symphonies in name, being very different otherwise).
Given the studio’s animation output up to 1931, ‘The Family Shoe’ is a remarkably consistent and forward-looking product. With its consistent storytelling ‘The Family Shoe’ actually predates Walt Disney’s breakthrough short ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ by three months.
Merging the nursery rhyme of the old woman who lived in a shoe with the fairy tale of Jack and the beanstalk, the film anticipates Mickey’s ‘Giantland’ (1933) by two years, and the cute and childish cartoons of the Hays code era by three years. Also, the opening scenes, with hundreds of brats running around and causing mischief predate similar scenes in Walt Disney’s ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (December 1931) and ‘Mickey Nightmare’ (1932).
The cartoon retells the story of Jack and the beanstalk quite faithfully, and the cartoon may be a little low on gags. Yet, there are some typical Van Beuren throwaways present, like the bean planting itself, and the ending, in which the golden eggs transform the old lady into a classy aristocrat overnight.
Van Beuren is often described as merely an also-run studio, but this short shows that at least in 1931 it was more ambitious and more capable than one would expect.
Watch ‘The Family Shoe’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘The Family Shoe’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date: April 11, 1931
The cartoon easily outdoes all its contemporaries. The cartoon is extremely rich for its time, introducing us to countless characters, with only a few being stock models (the spider, some mice and some pigs). Some of the scenes are quite elaborate, like the finale, in which the book collapses and we watch all nursery rhyme figures dancing to the joyous music.
But the opening scene, which takes its time to introduce Old king Cole, is the most remarkable: it’s one long parade scene, looping the background, but otherwise remaining fresh by introducing new nursery rhyme characters all the time. Indeed, Walt Disney reused this device (and a lot of its animation) in the color cartoon ‘Parade of the Award Nominees‘ (1932), a special short for the fifth Academy Award ceremony, and in ‘The Standard Parade’ (1939), a commercial for Standard Oil.
Moreover, for the first time since ‘El Terrible Toreador‘ (1929) the studio takes its chances at the human form again. And although King Cole and his nursery rhyme friends are no ‘Snow White’, they’re a great deal more convincing than the humans in the earlier cartoon. The designs are more elaborate, and there’s much more sense of weight.
‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is also the very first Silly Symphony to feature singing characters, anticipating the operetta cartoons of 1932-1935. The short simply bursts with ideas, and is a cartoon of sheer joy. On the other hand, it’s just that: by taking the ‘song-and-dance routine’-concept to the max, this cartoon offers singing and dancing only. There is no story, there are no gags, and the short features a lot of repetitive animation. This makes ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ strangely awesome and a little boring at the same time. Nevertheless, the cartoon was so successful, Disney would revisit its theme two times, in the Silly Symphonies ‘Old King Cole‘ (1933) and ‘Mother Goose goes Hollywood’ (1938).
Watch ‘Mother Goose Melodies’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Mother Goose Melodies’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Silly Symphonies’
Director: Walter Lantz
Release Date: April 13, 1942
Mother Goose on the Loose’ stands in a long tradition of nursery rhyme cartoons, from the Felix the cat cartoon ‘Felix in Fairyland’ (1923) via the Silly Symphony ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ (1931) and ‘Mother Goose Land’ starring Betty Boop (1933), to Disney’s ‘Mother Goose Goes to Hollywood’ (1938) featuring caricatures of Hollywood stars.
Unfortunately, ‘Mother Goose on the Loose’ is weaker than any of these, hampered by a slow timing, corny gags and an obnoxious voice over. Even a jazzy tune, setting in after five boring minutes, cannot rescue the cartoon. Its only attraction is its obsession with dames, which are literally all over the cartoon. This makes ‘Mother Goose on the Loose’ a typical cartoon of the World War II era.
Director: David Hand
Release Date: July 29, 1933
Old King Cole throws an annual party at his castle, which ends at midnight.
One can regard ‘Old King Cole’ as a remake of ‘Mother Goose Melodies‘ from 1931. Both cartoons feature nursery rhyme characters singing and dancing. Although King Cole himself still has the same design he had in the earlier cartoon, the complete short shows an enormous progress in animation, which is elaborate and fluent throughout.
In ‘Old King Cole’ the long song-and-dance routine is executed much more complexly than in the earlier short. Indeed, at times it is even reminiscent of the musicals of the era. It belongs to the operetta-Silly Symphonies of the mid-1930s, with all characters singing their lines. It features several original arrangements of classic nursery rhymes, with the sequence of the nine little Indians leading to a stunning finale, with all characters dancing to an Ellingtonian jungle rhythm.
But then Hickory, Dickory and Dock spoil the fun, telling the audience it’s midnight, and all nursery rhyme characters flee back to their books. King Cole himself has the last shot, singing goodnight to the audience.
‘Old King Cole’ contains no story whatsoever, but the film’s sheer joy, its complex designs and its bright colors make this cartoon yet another highlight within the Silly Symphony series.
Watch ‘Old King Cole’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Silly Symphony No. 37
To the previous Silly Symphony: Three Little Pigs
To the next Silly Symphony: Lullaby Land