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Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 May 27, 1933
Rating:★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Three Little Pigs © Walt Disney‘Three Little Pigs’ is one of the most successful, most famous and most perfect cartoons ever made. It was hugely popular when it was released, with people associating its catchy theme song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ with an optimism with which one could fight the haunting effects of the Great Depression.

Norm Ferguson and Fred Moore were the principle animators on the film. Norm Ferguson animated the wolf in his typical broad vaudeville acting style, which comes to full bloom in this film. The wolf is a great character, with his glances at the public. He’s a real villain, but somehow too sympathetic as an actor to be really threatening. Unfortunately, his design is not very consistent. Especially his eyes are unsteady and a bit wobbly. One can clearly watch the wolf’s design improving during the film, as if it was animated chronologically. And this may very well possible.

However, it’s Fred Moore’s animation that made the deepest impression on the animation field. Because of his animation on the three pigs, ‘Three Little Pigs’ is regarded as the first animated cartoon to feature so-called character animation. The three pigs form the key to character animation: although the three are drawn the same, the sensible pig behaves differently from the other two: he’s clearly a different character, not by design, but by animation. This was a great step forward in the evolution in animation, and admired by the whole animation industry.

Apart from that the pigs’ designs, by the highly influential concept artist Albert Hurter, are highly appealing. Hurter had joined Disney in June 1931, first as an animator, but soon he switched to concept art, and he had a tremendous influence on the looks of Disney’s films in the 1930s. It must have been around this time that Disney started to think of an animated feature – a daring project which would dominate the studio during 1934-1937. For this ambitious project Moore would design no less than seven similar, yet different characters, while Hurter would indulge in elaborate sets, full of little details.

The film was a success not only within the animation industry, but with the American public, as well. The audiences took the film and its catchy song ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf’ (sung by Mary Moder, Dorothy Compton and Pinto Colvig) as a sign of comfort and hope in the dark days of the Great Depression era. And even after more than eighty years, Frank Churchill’s song is still extremely catchy, even though it’s never heard in its entirety during the short. After a while the cartoon became no less than a sensation, lasting weeks in some theaters, and spawning a great deal of merchandise, like alarm clocks and jigsaw puzzles. In 1934 it won the Academy Award for best animated short film. In 1941 it was still famous enough to be changed into Disney’s first war propaganda film: ‘The Thrifty Pig‘.

The film undoubtedly was Walt Disney’s most famous and most successful short, and the first Silly Symphony to spawn sequels – due to the pressure by distributor United Artists. These sequels (‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ from 1934, ‘Three Little Wolves‘ from 1936, and ‘The Practical Pig‘ from 1939) were, of course, much less successful than the original, and are all but forgotten today. As Disney himself said “You can’t top pigs with pigs’.

The film also raised director Burt Gillett’s fame, and soon he was lured away by the ailing Van Beuren studios to repeat this immense success. However, at Van Beuren it soon became clear that ‘Three Little Pigs’ was not a success because of Burt Gillett’s genius, but because of the ambitious group effort of the Disney studio, and Gillett never managed to come near his most successful films at Disney again.

For ‘Three Little Pigs’ was a true collective effort, with Hurter, Churchill, Ferguson and Moore showing their best work thus far, but also through contributions by e.g. Art Babbitt, Dick Lundy and Jack King, who also animated some sequences, voice artist Pinto Colvig, the voice of the practical pig, and story man Ted Sears, who both contributed to the cartoon’s theme song, and Carl Stalling, who provided the practical pig’s piano-playing.

The film has easily stood the test of time: not only are the characters still appealing, its backgrounds are gorgeous, its music catchy, and its storytelling extraordinarily economical and effective, probably because may have been the first animated cartoon with a complete storyboard. The short’s joy is still infectious today. And although one will always remember the short’s cheerfulness, it contains some black humor, too: look for the portraits of dad and Uncle Tom in the wise pig’s house.

By the way, present-day viewers see an altered version of the film. The original featured a sequence in which the wolf dressed as a stereotyped Jewish door-to-door salesman. For its video release in the early 1980s this sequence was completely redrawn, to remove all Jewish references.

Watch ‘Three Little Pigs’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 36
To the previous Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark
To the next Silly Symphony: Old King Cole

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 he test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

This scene is 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: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: May 27, 1931
Stars: Oswald the Rabbit
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Bandmaster © Walter LantzIn ‘The Bandmaster’ Oswald is the leader of a three-piece brass band.

This idea is dropped after three minutes, however, and after that there’s some kind of story with Oswald trying to comfort a crying hippo baby with music. This part features dancing flowers, rag dolls, and musical notes. The latter dance to the song ‘Happy Feet’, a huge hit for Paul Whiteman in 1930. The cartoon ends with the mother hippo hitting Oswald hard, and the baby hippo laughing.

Several animators worked on ‘The bandmaster’ who would later become famous in the field, like Clyde Geronimi, Tex Avery and Pinto Colvig. Could it be possible that the baby hippo’s laugh was provided by Tex Avery himself?

The cartoon contains some lovely flexible animation in a style also fashioned at Walt Disney and Warner Bros. The cartoon doesn’t make any sense, however, and the gags pop in almost randomly. Thus the Walter Lantz cartoon falls short in matching the quality of those other studios.

Watch ‘The Bandmaster’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Bandmaster’ is available on the Blu-Ray ‘Technicolor Dreams and Black & White Nightmares’ and the DVD ‘Lantz Studio Treasures Starring Oswald’

Director: Walter Lantz or Bill Nolan
Release Date: July 14, 1930
Stars: Oswald the Rabbit, Kitty
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Spooks © Walter Lantz‘Spooks’ is a nice early Oswald cartoon from the Walter Lantz studio.

It takes place in a theater where Oswald performs. It features a mysterious phantom who helps Oswald’s girlfriend Kitty to become a great singer by putting a record player in her dress. This leads to an absurd performance. The phantom fancies Kitty, but she prefers Oswald, who has to rescue her from the phantom’s clutches. This part of the film has horror overtones, commonplace in the early 1930s. The film ends with a rather lame gag.

‘Spooks’ features some very Mickey Mouse-like mice. Its animation, by Bill Nolan, Clyde Geronimi and Pinto Colvig is fair, and the story enjoyable, even if it’s rather inconsistent.

Watch ‘Spooks’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske & Bill Roberts
Release Date: September 27, 1947
Stars: Jiminy Cricket, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, Edgar Bergen, Luana Patton
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Fun and Fancy Free © Walt DisneyFun and Fancy Free’ was the fourth of six package features Disney released in the 1940s.

It consists of two unrelated stories, which were both originally conceived as feature films in 1940/1941. The two stories, ‘Bongo’ and ‘Mickey and the Beanstalk’ are loosely linked by Jiminy Cricket, who sings the happy-go-lucky theme song.

He plays a record to a sad doll and a gloomy bear which features Dinah Shore telling the story of Bongo in rhyme and song. This cute, if unassuming and forgettable little film (after a story by Sinclair Lewis) tells about Bongo the circus bear, who breaks free from the circus, falls in love with a cute female bear called Lulubelle, and combats a large brutal bear called Lumpjack.

Immediately after this story has ended, we follow Jiminy Cricket to a live action setting: a private party with a little girl (Luana Patton), Edgar Bergen and his two ventriloquist sidekicks, the cynical Charlie and the dumb, but gentle Mortimer.

Bergen tells a version of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’, starring ‘famished farmers’ Mickey, Donald and Goofy in their last classic trio outing. This part had a long genesis, the early drafts of this film go back to 1940. Apparently Pinto Colvig had returned to the Disney studio, because Goofy has his voice back after having been silenced for eight years. Pinto Colvig would do Goofy’s voice in two subsequent shorts, ‘Foul Hunting‘ (1947) and ‘The Big Wash‘ (1948), before leaving again, leaving Goofy voiceless, once more. This sequence is also the last theatrical film in which Walt Disney does Mickey’s voice. Halfway the production Jimmy MacDonald took over.

This second episode of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is a delight, if a little bit slow. Its humor derives mostly from Charlie’s sarcastic interruptions. Nevertheless, the animation of the growing beanstalk and of Willie the giant is stunning.

Willie would be the last giant Mickey defeated, after having done with giants in ‘Giantland‘ (1933) and ‘Brave Little Tailor’ (1938). Unlike the other giants, Willie is an instantly likeable character, and he was revived as the ghost of Christmas Present in ‘Mickey’s Christmas Carol‘ (1983).

‘Fun and Fancy Free’ is a lighthearted film. Like Disney’s other package features, it is not too bad, but it is certainly not among the ranks of masterpieces.

Watch the opening scene of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Jack Hannah
Release Date:
 October 31, 1947
Stars: Goofy
Rating:
 ★★
Review:

Foul Hunting © Walt DisneyIn ‘Foul Hunting’ Goofy is hunting ducks, which all resemble Sonja from ‘Peter and the Wolf’ in ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).

‘Foul Hunting’ is Jack Hannah’s third Goofy cartoon, and it is very different from his first two (‘A Knight for a Day‘ and ‘Double Dribble‘ from 1946)This cartoon returns to the original Goofy character, arguably unseen since ‘Baggage Buster’ from 1941. More surprisingly, Goofy suddenly has his voice back – apparently, Pinto Colvig had returned to Disney.

Unfortunately, it’s this voice that slows down the action, making the cartoon less funny than the voiceless entries and giving it a painfully old-fashioned appearance. After five years of cartoons with multiple Goofies, this return to the ‘real’ Goofy feels like a retrogression. Pinto Colvig would be Goofy’s voice again in the equally unfunny ‘The Big Wash‘ (1948).

Watch ‘Foul Hunting’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 20
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Double Dribble
To the next Goofy cartoon: They’re Off

Director: Chuck Jones
Release Date: February 14, 1942
Stars: Conrad Cat, Daffy Duck
Rating:
 ★★½
Review:

Conrad the Sailor © Warner Brothers‘Conrad the Sailor’ is the third and last cartoon featuring the early Chuck Jones character Conrad Cat, who also starred ‘Porky’s Cafe’ and ‘The Bird Came C.O.D.’, all from early 1942.

Conrad’s most distinctive trait was his voice, provided by Pinto Colvig, who also voiced Goofy. Indeed, Conrad’s and Goofy’s voices are very similar. However, in ‘Conrad the Sailor’ his voice is rarely heard, as most of the comedy is silent.

In ‘Conrad the Sailor’ Conrad Cat works as a sailor on a battle cruiser (a setting reflecting the war time), where he is nagged by Daffy Duck. Their chase is stopped several times by a small captain who pops up at unexpected moments, a type of gag typical for early Chuck Jones cartoons (see e.g. ‘Inki and the Minah bird’ from 1941 and ‘The Dover Boys‘ from 1942).

‘Conrad the Sailor’ is not a very funny cartoon: neither Conrad nor Daffy behave sympathetically, and the origin of their conflict remains unknown. The Daffy-Conrad-encounters appear to be nothing more than a string of unrelated events. Moreover, Jones’s pacing is still rather slow at times, wearing the comedy down. Conrad’s personality is rather undefined, and after this cartoon he was shelved.

Notwithstanding its weaknesses, the cartoon is noteworthy for its remarkably stylized and surprisingly angled backgrounds, courtesy of lay-out artist John McGrew, who collaborated with Jones on a number of cartoons, before joining the navy himself in 1942. The backgrounds in these cartoons are often the real highlight of the short, and look all the way forward to UPA’s cartoon modern style of the early fifties. McGrew would push the limits even further in ‘The Aristo-Cat‘ (1943).

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: May 25, 1935
Rating: ★★½
Review:

The Cookie Carnival © Walt DisneyOf all Silly Symphonies this one is particularly silly. The very idea of a cookie land is as original as it is looney.

Yet, the cartoon is literally sugary, not funny. The story, about a Charlie Chaplin-like tramp (voiced by Pinto Colvig) making a poor lonesome girl queen of the parade, is pure sentimental melodrama. Moreover, the characters speak in operetta-like recitatives and when the girl, having become queen, has to choose a king the cartoon shifts to a tiresome medley of song-and-dance-routines.

Nevertheless, the art direction of this Silly Symphony is stunning and its backgrounds lush and beautiful, making this one of the most impressive cartoons of the era. The girl is quite beautifully animated by Gram Natwick, the man who had created Betty Boop five years earlier, and who had joined Disney in 1934. After her transformation into a carnival queen, the girl doesn’t resemble a cookie at all, but she is pictured and animated as a real girl. Natwick would later be an animator on Snow White in ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937), and it’s as if the cookie girl was Natwick’s exercise for the real thing.

Notice the contrast between the sissy Angelic Cakes and the fun-loving Devil Cakes, whose theme music is jazz (the most ‘evil’ music of the era).

Watch ‘The Cookie Carnival’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 53
To the previous Silly Symphony: Water Babies
To the next Silly Symphony: Who Killed Cock Robin?

Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: September 28, 1935
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

On Ice © Walt DisneyOn Ice is the first of Disney’s ‘ensemble cartoons’.

Everyone is in it: Mickey, Minnie (in her color debut), Donald, Goofy, Pluto and even, albeit very briefly, Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. ‘On Ice’ introduces two story ideas that would be used again much later: Pluto’s problems on ice in ‘Bambi’ (1942) and the idea of skating near a waterfall in the ‘Once upon a Wintertime’ sequence of ‘Melody Time’ (1948), although this latter idea first appears in the Popeye cartoon ‘Season’s Greetinks!’ from 1933.

Apart from this, ‘On Ice’ has been very important in the development of Goofy. He’s been completely restyled, has more body to his looks and a much more distinct personality. All these important improvements on the character are attributed to Art Babbitt, one of the greatest animators of all time. Goofy sings ‘The world owes me a living’ from ‘The grasshopper and the ants’ (1934). The song naturally becomes his theme song. No wonder, for the grasshopper and Goofy share the same voice: that of Pinto Colvig. Also of note is Goofy’s original fishing style, using chew to catch fish.

Watch ‘On Ice’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 79
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Pluto’s Judgement Day
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Polo Team

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: February 10
, 1934
Rating:
★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Grasshopper and the Ants © Walt Disney‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ is easily one of the best Silly Symphonies: it has a catchy song, great use of color and beautiful effect animation. Notice, for instance, the realism of the leaves blowing away during the autumn scene. One can even recognize which trees they’re from!

The grasshopper, too, is a wonderfully designed character, based on concept art by the great Albert Hurter. In contrast, the design of the ants looks a little primitive, still belonging to the black and white era. But, by now, the Disney staff has fully mastered the idea of character animation. This is best shown in the final dance scene: even in a crowd of lookalikes one easily recognizes the joyful ant the Grasshopper had tempted earlier.

Note that morality notwithstanding, the grasshopper is allowed to do what he does best: singing and playing. An encouragement to view art as an important contribution to society. Even so, the way the queen finally invites him is a real cliff-hanger.

This cartoon’s theme song, ‘the world owes me a living’ was composed by Leigh Harline, who would also compose the catchy songs of ‘Pinocchio’. the grasshopper’s catchy song would become Goofy’s theme song. No wonder, for he and the Grasshopper share the same voice, by Pinto Colvig.

Watch ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 42
To the previous Silly Symphony: The China Shop
To the next Silly Symphony: Funny Little Bunnies

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