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Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 January 5, 1932
Rating: ★★★
Review:

The Bird Store © Walt Disney‘The Bird Store’ follows earlier Mickey Mouse films and Silly Symphonies in presenting half a song-and-dance routine and half a story.

This short starts quite boringly with endless bird song routines, but after 4 minutes of this a cat enters, which leads to a small story when the cat captures a small canary and all other birds free the canary and chase the cat away to a city dog pound.

The bird designs are still pretty primitive, and much more akin to those in ‘Birds of a Feather‘ from one year earlier than to ‘Birds in the Spring‘ from one year later. Most birds are clearly drawn from fantasy, and make no sense at all. The provisional realism of the canary in ‘Mickey Steps Out‘ hardly gets any follow-up here. A small highlight form the four ‘Marx Birds’, which mark the earliest instance of Hollywood caricatures in a Disney film.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 26
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Ugly Duckling
To the next Silly Symphony: The Bears and the Bees

‘The Bird Store’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: David Hand
Release Date: March 11, 1933
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Birds in the Spring' featuring a bird listening to its eggs

‘Birds in the Spring’ is a Silly Symphony about a mischievous little bird who encounters a.o. a rattlesnake and some angry bees.

This short can be regarded a study in realism, using birds. The realistic birds portrayed here are a far cry from the primitive and cartoony designs of ‘Birds of a Feather‘ from 1931. They fit perfectly in the equally realistic and elaborate backgrounds. The difference between the two shorts shows the enormous and unbelievable growth the Disney studio had made in a mere two years. The snake and the bugs in this cartoon, on the other hand, are not half as good, and fail to evoke any feeling of realism. A cousin of the badly designed snake would appear, however, in ‘Mickey’s Garden‘ (1935).

‘Birds in the Spring’ may have inspired ‘Morning Noon and Night‘ (released October 1933), the first of several Silly Symphony-like cartoons produced by the rival Fleischer studio.

Watch ‘Birds in the Spring’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 34
To the previous Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop
To the next Silly Symphony: Father Noah’s Ark

Director: Ub Iwerks
Release Date: October 4, 1929
Rating: ★★★
Review:

Still from 'Springtime' featuring a tree washing itself in the rain‘Springtime’, the third entry in the Silly Symphony series, is also the first of four Silly Symphonies devoted to the seasons.

Animated by Ub Iwerks, Les Clark and Wilfred Jackson, it sets the tone for many Silly Symphonies to come: the atmosphere is fairy-tale-like, there is no story whatsoever, but only one long dance routine. One had to wait two years, until ‘The Ugly Duckling‘, to watch a Silly Symphony escaping this rather limited format.

In this particular short we watch flowers dancing to Edvard Grieg’s ‘Morning’ from ‘Peer Gynt’. The flowers are very similar to the ones in ‘Flowers and Trees‘ from 1932. There are also several dancing animals: bugs, a caterpillar, crows, grasshoppers, frogs, a spider and a heron. The latter three dance to Amilcare Ponchielli’s ‘Dance of the hours’, which would be reused in the much more famous ‘Fantasia’ (1940). Besides the dancing there’s a remarkable portion of devouring: the crow eats the caterpillar, the heron eats the four frogs. The most extraordinary scene is the short rain storm scene, in which we watch a tree bathing in the rain.

However, one other scene particularly deserves our attention: in it we watch a rippled reflection of a dancing frog in the water, an early and interesting attempt of realism. Many of these attempts were soon to follow, and the Silly Symphonies became Disney’s laboratories for experimentation towards better animation.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 3
To the previous Silly Symphony: El Terrible Toreador
To the next Silly Symphony: Hell’s Bells

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date: July 1918
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Still from 'The Sinking of the Lusitania' featuring people abandoning the capsizing steamerMcCay’s fourth venture into animation is even more curious than the preceding three (‘Little Nemo‘, ‘How A Mosquito Operates‘ and ‘Gertie the Dinosaur‘). It’s an almost real time report of the sinking of the passenger steamer The Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915.

The actions are explained by title cards, and the action is rather slow, but the highly realistic animation scenes contain very believable images of water, smoke, a torpedo moving through water, and people trying to get off the ship. This startling realism is hampered by the clear propagandistic message against Germany, ending with the bold sentence “And they tell us not to hate the Hun!“.

Despite its slow action, ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ is an astonishing film, which may be both the first animated propaganda film and the first animated documentary. It’s totally unique in its drama, and, despite its propaganda, an all time masterpiece of animation.

Watch ‘The Sinking of the Lusitania’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Winsor McCay’s fourth film
To Winsor McCay’s third film: Gertie The Dinosaur
To Winsor McCay’s fifth, unfinished film: The Centaurs

Director: Winsor McCay
Release Date:1911
Stars: Little Nemo, Flip, The Imp
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'Little Nemo' featuring Flip‘Little Nemo’ was master comic artist Winsor McCay’s first animation film. It’s also one of the first drawn animation films ever made. However, unlike most pioneer animators, McCay already displays a tremendous control of form and material.

Star of the film is his world-famous comic hero Little Nemo, the little boy who always dreamed to be in Slumberland, only to awake abruptly at the end of each comic. He’s joined by Flip, the Imp, the princess and the doctor from the same comic. Nevertheless, they’re not the stars of the narrative, because that is their creator, Winsor McCay himself.

‘Little Nemo’ is a film with two clear sections:

the first half is filmed in live action and tells in three scenes about Winsor McCay’s plan to make moving drawings. In the first scene he proposes his idea to make 4,000 drawings in only one month. This only makes his friends laugh at him. In the second scene he orders three barrels of ink and two enormous packages of drawing paper, and in the third scene he can be seen in his drawing room, between huge piles of drawings and a primitive flipbook-like apparatus to preview his film. A young man, who has come to dust the place makes the piles of drawings fall.

In all, these scenes are slow, hardly funny and look as from an era long passed. But when the result is shown, one’s opinion changes completely…

The actual animation itself, completely hand-colored, is as startling and fresh as it was almost a hundred years ago. After an infectious “watch me move!” we see Little Nemo, Flip and the imp move in 3d, Nemo and the imp being build from blocks and lines respectively, Flip and the imp stretching like mirror images, Nemo drawing the princess himself, Nemo and the princess riding a dragon that disappears into the distance, and Flip and the imp crashing with a car, landing on the doctor.

It may not make any sense, but the mastery of form, perspective and movement is astonishing. After McCay no one would surpass this high quality of animation, until Walt Disney’s innovative strive to realism in the late thirties.

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

This is Winsor McCay’s first film
To Winsor McCay’s second film: How a Mosquito Operates

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 3, 1934
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Poor Cinderella © Paramount‘Poor Cinderella’ is the first of Fleischer’s Color Classics series, a series meant to compete with Walt Disney’s ‘Silly Symphonies’.

It features Fleischer’s proven star Betty Boop in her only appearance in color, and it’s undoubtedly her most elaborate cartoon.

Although filmed in the two-color technique of Cinecolor, which only uses reds and blues, its designs are lush and colorful. Nevertheless, ‘Poor Cinderella’ remained the only Color Classic in Cinecolor. The seven subsequent entries were filmed in 2-color Technicolor, using reds and greens, until Disney’s monopoly of 3-color Technicolor expired in 1936. The first full color Color Classic was ‘Somewhere in Dreamland‘ from January that year.

Apart from color, ‘Poor Cinderella’ boasts some stunning backgrounds, using Fleischer’s unique 3D-technique for the first time. In this technique 3D sets are used as a background to the animated cells to mesmerizing effects. Until the invention of the multiplane camera, which made his debut in ‘The Old Mill‘ in 1937, Fleischer’s 3D technique remained unchallenged in its wonderful creation of depth.

The story is quite faithful to the original fairy tale, albeit with some typical Fleischer touches. For instance, when the Fairy Godmother gets Betty into a wonderful outfit, the latter is seen in her underwear, something that would never happen to Disney’s Cinderella.

Oddly, Betty is red-haired and blue-eyed in this cartoon; probably to make her fit in better with the designs of those same colors. The changes between the scenes are creative and original. The Fairy Godmother is closer to human design than anything in previous Fleischer cartoons. The horses are drawn very realistically, as well, surpassing comparable designs at the Disney studio, although they do not move correctly.

‘Poor Cinderella’ was clearly made with the intention to compete with Disney, and remarkably, it does challenge that studio. Nevertheless, the Fleischer studio had difficulties to be on par with the ever advancing Disney studio, which pushed the limits of animation in almost every Silly Symphony it released, leaving the promise of ‘Poor Cinderella’ unfulfilled.

Watch ‘Poor Cinderella’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Poor Cinderella’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: October 14, 1938
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Farmyard Symphony © Walt Disney‘Farmyard Symphony’ is the only Silly Symphony directed by Donald Duck director Jack King.

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: November 5, 1937
Rating: ★★★★½
Review:

The Old Mill © Walt Disney‘The Old Mill’ is a milestone in effect animation.

From the first scene on special effects seem to be the sole raison d’être of the film. The cartoon is literally stuffed with them: dew on a cobweb, ripples in the water, light beams, fireflies, wind, rain and a thunderstorm.

Disney’s famous multiplane camera, with which the feeling of depth could be realized, makes its debut here. Together these effects create an astonishing level of realism, necessary for the upcoming first animated feature, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. In ‘The Old Mill’ even the animal characters are more or less realistic, a rare feat in Disney cartoons until then.

All this realism leads to awe-inspiring images, based on concept art by Danish illustrator Gustaf Tenggren, who had joined the studio in 1936. Unfortunately, the images do not lead to much of a story. The film is more of a series of moods from dusk to dawn. Despite its clever pacing, reaching a climax in the thunderstorm sequence, ‘The Old Mill’ is an overly romantic depiction of nature, and less enjoyable as a cartoon than as a showcase of Disney animation.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 68
To the previous Silly Symphony: Little Hiawatha
To the next Silly Symphony: Moth and the Flame

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: October 31, 1936
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Country Cousin © Walt DisneyA very beautifully executed rendering of the classic tale, ‘The Country Cousin’ is a gem among the Silly Symphonies.

Its story is lean and economical, its characterization highly effective and its silent acting superb. Particularly noteworthy is the drunken performance of the Country Cousin, animated by Art Babbitt, which belongs to the highlights of animation.

Everyone who wants to know what ‘character animation’ is all about, should go and watch this cartoon. One cannot find a better example of it: the two mice look similar, but are very different in their behavior, attitude, and personality. Moreover, their personalities are played completely in mime, without any help from characteristic voices.

Besides this, ‘The Country Cousin’ contains some very realistic animation of people’s feet walking on the sidewalk. Indeed, the human realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) was not far away anymore.

Thirteen years later, Tex Avery would explore the theme of ‘The Country Cousin’ once again, albeit quite differently and way more ridiculously, in his hilarious short ‘Little Rural Riding Hood’ (1949).

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 63
To the previous Silly Symphony: Three Blind Mouseketeers
To the next Silly Symphony: Mother Pluto

Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: April 26, 1947
Stars: Tom & Jerry
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Cat Concerto © MGMIn ‘The Cat Concerto’ Tom unexpectedly appears to be a star pianist, playing Franz Liszt’s second rhapsody in concert, and doing it with enjoyable flair.

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:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 29
To the previous Tom & Jerry cartoon: Part Time Pal
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Mouse

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
June 9, 1934
Stars:
Donald Duck
Rating:
★★★★
Review:

The Wise Little Hen © Walt Disney‘The Wise Little Hen’ is a simple and quite moralistic Silly Symphony carried by a mediocre, yet all too memorable song. I guess it might have fallen into oblivion, were it not for Donald Duck.

In his first appearance Donald Duck is a real sailor, living on a boat and dancing the hornpipe. He’s a strong voice character from the start. When he joyfully shouts ‘oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!’ we all know it’s him, even though his looks are different.

Indeed, like Goofy’s voice, Donald Duck’s voice anticipated the character. When Walt Disney heard Clarence Nash use this particular voice, he really wanted something to do with it. According to animator Bill Cottrell, cited in ‘They Drew As They Pleased’, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for the duck’s looks. He gave Donald his trademark sailor suit, which he maintained to the present day.

Besides his typical voice and suit, Donald Duck displays two of his typical character traits: egotism and his tendency to trick others. However, he does not yet display his short temper: when ultimately foiled by the hen he’s not breaking down in anger, but joins Peter Pig in remorseful self-chastisement (a gag reused from an early Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon called ‘Rival Romeos‘, 1928). But Donald would show his temper, in his next cartoon: ‘Orphan’s Benefit‘.

Besides Donald Duck this cartoon is interesting for an appetizing and startlingly realistic animation shot of butter melting on hot corn.

Watch ‘The Wise Little Hen’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 45
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Big Bad Wolf
To the next Silly Symphony: The Flying Mouse

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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