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Director: Mannie Davis
Release Date: February 10, 1933
Stars: Cubby the Bear
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Opening Night © Van BeurenIn 1933 the Van Beuren studio was struggling. Their Tom & Jerry series failed to match the successes of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse or the Fleischers’ ‘Betty Boop’, which is not really surprising, as the duo was as bland as possible, and their cartoons highly inconsistent. So, Van Beuren invited about eight of his animators to dinner and told them to come up with some new ideas. Mannie Davis sketched a new character called Cubby the Bear, and this character was to be the studio’s new star.

Being vaguely Mickey Mouse-like Cubby was a hero character, saving his girlfriend in many melodramatic situations. Unfortunately, Cubby was as bland as Tom & Jerry had been, and he did not even last two years. Many people would attribute Cubby’s misfortune to a lack of character, but this cannot be true: the character of the much more successful Betty Boop didn’t go beyond ‘sexy girl’, and even top star Mickey’s character could be summarized as ‘optimistic’. Other stars of the time, like Bosko and Flip the Frog, were as generic as possible. In fact, the first real characters to hit the animated screen were Popeye (later in 1933) and Donald Duck (1934).

No, Cubby’s main problem was that he was so terribly animated. Whereas we could easily follow the emotions of say Oswald, Bimbo, Flip or Mickey, Cubby is almost expressionless in this cartoon, his wide eyes staring into nothingness most of the time, as if he weren’t alive at all. Moreover, the animators often forgot to give him a motivation. This becomes clear when one compares the opening scene of Cubby’s debut film ‘Opening Night’ to a similar one in the much older, yet much better animated Oswald cartoon ‘Bright Lights‘ (1928). In the Oswald cartoon we clearly watch Oswald being in love with Mlle. Zulu, who performs at the theater. So when we watch Oswald trying to get in, we immediately understand why. Moreover, we can watch his emotions while doing so. Not so in ‘Opening Night’: in a very similar scene Cubby is given no motivation whatsoever. Even worse, we watch him from the back, which shuts us from his emotions. Mistakes like these are all over the Cubby the Bear cartoons, and that’s the main reason why he is forgotten, while his contemporaries Mickey, Betty and to an extent even Bosko and Flip have lived on.

‘Opening Night’ was made for the occasion of the opening of the RKO Roxy theater, which opened on December 29, 1932. Like subsequent Cubby the Bear cartoons, ‘Opening Night’ is still part of the Aesop Fables series, but Cubby is introduced immediately on the title card. The cartoon starts with Santa Claus spraying some dust which forms the letters ROXY. Then we get the scene in which Cubby tries to get into the theater. When he finally manages to do so, he ends up at the conductor stand, where he conducts the orchestra in an opera scene.

There’s quite some strangeness going on in this cartoon, especially in a couple of bizarre gags featuring audience seats.  Later, during a fighting scene the Romeo-like opera character beheads(!) his opponent. Composer Gene Rodemich, as often, is Van Beuren’s only inspired employee, making a great score out of Italian opera snippets.

Watch ‘Opening Night’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Opening Night’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Adventures of Cubby Bear’ and the Blu-Ray ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Cubby Bear’

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