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Director: Frank Moser
Release Date: 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Family Album © Audio Productions‘Family Album’ is a commercial by Charles W. Barrell for the Western Electric Company, glorifying the telephone, and its ‘offspring’: other inventions that are derived from telephone technology, including the microphone and the speaker.

The film reuses the character Talkie from Fleischer’s earlier film ‘Finding his voice‘ (1929), but its star is an anthropomorphized telephone, talking about his family. Although quite educational, the film is less interesting than Fleischer’s film. The animation, by veterans Paul Terry and Frank Moser, is rather poor and limited. There’s no rubbery animation whatsoever, and the designs are still in 1920s style.

‘Family Album’ is available on the DVD ‘Cultoons! Rare, Lost and Strange Cartoons! Volume 2: Animated Education’

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Director: John Foster
Release Date:
 October 11, 1929
Stars: Farmer Al Falfa
Rating:
Review:

Summer Time © Van BeurenOf all American animation studios from the 1930s the Van Beuren Studio must be the least known.

This is no small wonder, for it was not only short-lived, lasting nine years, it was also the weakest studio of the lot, never reaching the heights of Max Fleischer or Walt Disney, and with only a few great cartoons in its entire catalog.

Thanks to Steve Stanchfield and his Thunderbean company, however, quite a sample of this studio’s output has been made available on DVD, so everybody can enjoy them (and incidentally making the Columbia/Screen Gem studio the least known studio – as its films remain utterly unavailable).

Before 1928 Van Beuren’s cartoons were made by Paul Terry, but in November 1928 the success of Disney’s ‘Steamboat Willie‘ prompted Amadee J. Van Beuren to announce that his studio would make the switch to sound, too. This led to a clash with Terry, who left mid-1929, leaving most of the staff and the studio’s main character, the bland Farmer Al Falfa, until Paul Terry reclaimed him in 1930.

The Van Beuren studio was more or less forced into the area of sound, and its crew totally unprepared, lacking experience. Indeed, ‘Summer Time’, Van Beuren’s 16th sound cartoon, is a strange blend of silent film and sound film: words and sound expressions are still visible on the screen, and while there’s music, there’s no rhythmical movement. Moreover, both design and animation are still firmly rooted in the 1920’s and there’s practically no plot, only three unrelated scenes.

The most interesting aspect of this film is Gene Rodemich’s music score, which still sounds fresh. In fact, Rodemich’s scores turned out to be the only constant quality within Van Beuren’s output, being among the best of all 1930s cartoon scores.

The three scenes of ‘Summer Time’ are 1) a frog and a monkey playing some music, waking up an angry owl. 2) A mouse playing in a fat woman’s shadow, attracting other mice, and scaring the woman away, and 3) Farmer Al Falfa being hot and making himself a drink. This story contains a weird scene in which the sun zooms into the camera to visit farmer Al Falfa at his own doorstep. This is the only interesting piece of animation in the entire film.

The cartoon ends with a moral, like many Aesop’s Fable cartoons before it. However, this practice was soon abandoned in 1930.

Watch ‘Summer Time’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Summer Time’ is available on the DVD ‘Aesop’s Fables – Cartoon Classics from the Van Beuren Studio’

Director: Frank Moser
Release Date: 1919
Stars: Bud and Susie
Rating:
Review:

Still from 'Down the Mississippi' featuring Bud, Susie and their cat on a raft pulled by an alligator‘Down the Mississippi’ is a cartoon created by Frank Moser, who would later co-found Terrytoons with Paul Terry.

Like, Ub Iwerks, Moser is known as a very fast animator. However, unlike Iwerks, Moser wasn’t either innovative or funny. It may be unfair to use such an early cartoon as ‘Down the Mississippi’ as an example, but the ‘Bud and Susie’ series was Moser’s own creation, so it could have been inspired. This is not the case.

In ‘Down the Mississippi’ Bud, Susie and their cat read ‘Huckleberry Finn’. When the sandman puts them to sleep, they dream they’re on the Mississippi. The cat catches an electric eel and Bud a crocodile. They camp at the river bank, where they’re eaten by a bear(?, the animal isn’t very distinguished). The animation is crude and the animal design typical of the twenties. Nothing is particularly outstanding in this cartoon, which isn’t funny either.

Watch ‘Down the Mississippi’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Walt Disney
Release Date:
November 18, 1928
Stars:
Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Steamboat Willie © Walt Disney

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).

Conclusion

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:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 3
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Gallopin’ Gaucho
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Barn Dance

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