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Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: June 10, 1933
‘I Like Mountain Music’ is not the first of books-come-to-life cartoons, that was ‘Three’s a Crowd’ from 1932. But ‘I Like Mountain Music’ takes the concept a little further, stuffing the film with many caricatures of Hollywood stars, like Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, Edward G. Robinson, Jean Harlow, King Kong (Hollywood’s latest star), and even Benito Mussolini. Also featured is a remarkably realistic skater. I wonder who she is. It’s not likely Sonia Henie, who started her film career only in 1936.
The book-come-to-life concept was unique to Warner Bros. and was reused in many more, and more enjoyable cartoons like ‘Speaking of the Weather’ (1937), ‘Have You Got any Castles?’ (1938) and ‘Book Revue‘ (1946). This early short proves that the unique Warner Bros. style had a firm root in the Hugh-Harman era, even though it was to Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery to push it to its later heights.
Watch ‘I Like Mountain Music’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘I Like Mountain Music’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Six’
Director: Hugh Harman
Release Date: January 16, 1933
Stars: Bosko, Honey, Rudolf Ising
Bosko enters a saloon in Red Gulch, immediately starts a dance and goes on playing the piano. Meanwhile his girlfriend Honey rides a stagecoach, which is chased by three vicious bandits. This chase scene is simply stuffed with animation cycles. As Bosko is busy entertaining, it takes quite a while before Bosko rides off to rescue his sweetheart.
The complete cartoon is rich in action, but surprisingly low on gags (there’s one about a homosexual). It ends surprisingly however. Suddenly we cut back to three animators. Rudolph Ising asks “Say, how does Bosko save the girl?”, an animator replies: “I don’t know.”, and another: “Let’s go home”, leaving Bosko on his sheet of paper. This gag is pretty unconventional, but one cannot but feel a bit of laziness and disinterest in this scene, as if the animators didn’t care much for their own star themselves. Even so, Bosko would star in fourteen more Warner Brothers films, before Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising took him with them to MGM.
Watch ‘Ride Him, Bosko!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Ride Him, Bosko!’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume Six’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: October 31, 1931
Stars: Piggy, Fluffy
With Foxy gone, Harman and Ising conceived a new star, Piggy, who, like Foxy is exactly Mickey Mouse (including the trousers), but now in Pig form. As with his predecessor, the plagiarism is most visible in Piggy’s girlfriend Fluffy, who is as Minnie as Piggy is Mickey.
Piggy was even more short-lived than Foxy, lasting only two cartoons, of which this is the first. In it we watch Piggy and Fluffy visiting a theater. At a certain point Piggy hits the stage to perform ‘Silver Threads Among The Gold’, a 1873 hit song that by 1931 had become synonymous with old-fashionedness. No wonder he’s booed away. At that point three drunkards burst into the title song. Piggy gets drunk, too, and leaves the theater and his girlfriend.
Outside he provides his car with some booze, a story idea borrowed from ‘Traffic Troubles‘ (Mickey Mouse) and ‘The New Car’ (Flip the Frog) from earlier that year. Unlike the earlier two films, though, this leads to a wonderfully drunken scene, in which the whole background becomes wobbly. This is one of the most memorable scenes of all early Warner Bros. cartoons, making ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’a must-see, despite the rather mediocre scenes preceding it. Moreover, the cartoon features some particularly hot jazz music, provided by Gus Arnheim’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra.
Watch ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘You Don’t Know What You’re Doin’!’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: October 3, 1931
In this cartoon he’s a police officer, fining a hippo lady for driving too fast, and rescuing his Minnie Mouse-like girlfriend from some thugs. He does so riding a mechanical horse, a relic from the Oswald the Lucky rabbit cartoons (e.g. ‘Ozzie of the Mounted‘, 1927), on which Harman and Ising had worked previously. Strangely enough, Foxy is machine-gunned by one of the gangsters in the end. Perhaps this is why he never returned to the animated screen…
The short has a strong urban setting, uncommon in the Hollywood cartoons of the time, and it features some dazzling perspective animation, but otherwise it’s just another mediocre entry in the early Merrie Melodies canon.
Watch ‘One More Time’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘One More Time’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: September 5, 1931
The film is practically a remake of Oswald’s first cartoon, ‘Trolley Troubles’ (1927), on which Harman and Ising had worked themselves: Foxy rides a trolley, inviting his very, very Minnie Mouse-like girlfriend along. Like in the former Oswald film, the ride ends with Foxy losing control of the trolley, which leads to some spectacular perspective animation. Unlike the earlier film, however, ‘Smile, Darn ya, Smile!’ ends rather cornily, when it’s revealed it was all a dream.
The title song is sung several times during the cartoon, e.g. by four hobos. It was revived more than fifty years later in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?‘ (1988), when Eddie Valiant enters Toontown.
Watch ‘Smile, Darn Ya, Smile’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Smile, Darn Ya, Smile’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Directors: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Release Date: October 1930
‘Congo Jazz’, Bosko’s second official cartoon, is Harman and Ising’s answer to Disney’s ‘Jungle Rhythm‘ (1929).
Like Disney’s cartoon, it hasn’t aged very well. The cartoon opens with Bosko wearing a pith helmet and exploring a supposedly African jungle. When confronted by a tiger (a species not endemic to Africa), Bosko immediately loses the pith helmet.
He appeases the tiger with music, and then kicks it over a cliff. Then he has to sooth a large ape, which he does by giving it some chewing gum. Together they play some plucking string music with their gums, while a few monkeys dance. Soon, other animals join in, e.g. a kangaroo, another rather un-African animal. Bosko directs all the animals into an upbeat tune.
The cartoon is low on gags and feels endless, especially during the musical part. The most extraordinary scene is that of a palm tree shimmying to Bosko’s music as if it were a woman. The animation of Bosko is still very rooted in the Oswald-era: Bosko’s body is very flexible, and almost mechanical.
Watch ‘Congo Jazz’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Congo Jazz’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’
Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: August, 1931
Unlike the Looney Tunes, the Merrie Melodies would be one-off cartoons, each one promoting a different song from the Warner Bros. song catalog. Indeed, the Merrie Melodies should at least feature one complete chorus of a Warner Bros.-owned tune. This rule continued until the end of the 1930s, and rather hampered the series, for the obligate song sequence would often stop the action of the cartoon.
‘Lady Play Your Mandolin’ is the very first of the Merrie Melodies. It features the title song, which is sung twice during the cartoon. Without explanation, the cartoon features a Mexican cafe setting, which is visited by the hero, Foxy, who was to be Warner Bros.’ answer to Mickey Mouse.
Although not as blatant an imitation as Van Beuren’s Milton Mouse (see ‘Circus Capers‘ and ‘The Office Boy‘), Foxy clearly is Mickey Mouse but with pointed ears and a fluffy tail. Indeed, when watching this cartoon my girlfriend thought it was an early forerunner of Mickey. Foxy never came near Mickey’s popularity, however, and was abandoned after a mere three cartoons.
‘Lady Play Your Mandolin’ is the character’s great testimony. The film is completely plotless, but simply bursts with joy. The short features a lot of flexible animation and everyone moves to Frank Marsales’s peppy music (played by Abe Lyman’s Brunswick Recording Orchestra), including the tables, the cacti, the trees and the cafe itself. There are plenty of gags all around, the most extraordinary one being Foxy’s drunken horse playing its own head as a trombone.
Foxy also started a long Warner Bros. tradition of Al Jolson imitations, when singing the main melody, while his girlfriend (Minnie Mouse but with pointed ears) boop-oop-a-doops. None of the cartoon makes any sense, but its sheer joy makes watching it a highly entertaining experience.
Watch ‘Lady, Play Your Mandolin’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Lady, Play Your Mandolin’ is available on the DVD ‘Little Caesar’
Director: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Release Date: April 19, 1930
Stars: Bosko, Honey
Harman & Ising’s pilot ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid‘ lead to a succesful contract with Leon Schlesinger, and in April 1930, the young studio could release their first film for Warner Bros.: ‘Sinkin’ in the Bathtub’.
‘Sinkin’ in the Bathtub’ is the very first of the Looney Tunes, Harman and Ising’s first of three series which name was an all too obvious variation on Walt Disney’s successful Silly Symphonies. In 1931 they would launch the Merrie Melodies, and in 1934, when at MGM, the Happy Harmonies.
Schlesinger had sold the series to Warner Bros. with the prospect of selling their sheet music, and music would be an important part of both the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies until the end of the 1930s. Apart from the title song, one can hear ‘Forever Blowing Bubbles’ when Honey turns her bath tub into Bosko’s saxophone, making him blowing bubbles with his instrument.
Animated by Friz Freleng, ‘Sinkin’ in the Bathtub’ features Bosko, the star of ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’, and Warner Bros.’ sole star from 1930 to 1933. Bosko invites his girlfriend Honey for a ride in his anthropomorphized car (which he finds on the toilet(!)). On their journey they experience problems with a cow and a steep hill. The ride ends in a pool.
The cartoon is well-animated and cheerful, but surprisingly boring at the same time, even though it lacks the endless song-and-dance-routines of contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons. Bosko and his girl behave like Oswald and his girlfriend, and are only different in design, being clearly black stereotypes. They are totally devoid of any personality. In fact, Bosko would never develop one, and eventually it became even unclear what Bosko actually was, as exemplified by the following anecdote from Jack Zander, quoted by Leonard Maltin in ‘Of Mice and Magic’ (page 225):
One Day a porter at the studio said to young animator Jack Zander, “I want to ask you something about that character you’ve got. I know Mickey Mouse, and Krazy Kat, and Oswald the Rabbit… but Bosko the what?”
Watch ‘Sinkin’ in the Bathtub’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Sinkin’ in the Bathtub’ is available on the DVD ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Three’ and on the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’
Directors: Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising
Production Date: May 1929
Stars: Bosko, Rudolf Ising
In 1928 Charles Mintz had hired away virtually Walt Disney’s complete staff and main cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These animators now came to work for a studio, set up by George and Margaret Winkler to produce more Oswald cartoons. However, ca. one year later Universal, who owned Oswald, broke with the Winklers, gave Oswald to Walter Lantz, and left the former Disney animators out of work.
Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising now tried to set up a studio of their own, and following the overnight success of ‘Steamboat Willie‘, they knew they had to come up with a character fit for sound. This new star was Bosko, a little negro, who, in his first appearance, had a remarkably low voice, provided by animator Max Maxwell. Bosko is introduced in ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’, Harman and Ising’s pilot film, made to sell their new studio.
The film starts with Rudolf Ising drawing Bosko and talking with him. Then Bosko performs a little dance, imitates a stereotypical Jew, and plays the piano. He then starts to sing ‘Sonny Boy’, but unfortunately with an awful voice, which prompts Ising to put the cartoon character back into the pen and the ink pot. But Bosko returns from the inkwell to say the very first version of that famous Warner Bros. line: “So long folks!“.
Bosko is not really an endearing character and the film is a little bit slow, yet it’s easy to see why this pilot film sold: the interplay between the animator and the cartoon character, although by 1929 far from new, still looks fresh, and the dialogue adds a new dimension to the trick. This dialogue is way more sophisticated than anything made at Disney at the time. Bosko jabbers along, with a lot of lip-synchronization, which is not always perfect, but mesmerizing, nonetheless. Mickey would go lip-synch only two months later, in ‘The Karnival Kid‘, but even then his facial expressions were to be less natural than Bosko’s in this little short. Thus ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is an absolute milestone in animation history, and a rare film in which Harman and Ising were in fact ahead of their former employer.
The animation on Bosko, on the other hand, looks very, very Disney-like and is almost an exact copy of Ub Iwerks’s animation style. This would become a Harman-Ising trademark: combining sophistication with copycatting. This unfortunately would often prevent their films from being entirely new or original.
Anyhow, ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ raised the interest of Leon Schlesinger, a newcomer in the animation field, who sold the idea of a new cartoon series to Warner Bros., with the argument that the animated shorts could be used to promote Warner Bros. songs. Thus, the famous Warner Bros. animation studio was born!
Watch ‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Bosko the Talk-ink Kid’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’ and the Blu-Ray ‘Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 2’
Release Date: July 9, 1928
Stars: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
It features Oswald canoeing in the wild, shooting ducks and encountering wild animals, like a moose and a family of bears.
The cartoon’s story is sloppy (although it doesn’t help that some sequences are missing), but the short shows that Disney had advanced animation already before the advent of Mickey. For example, the cartoon features some spectacular waterfall animation, and a convincing falling rock sequence.
The falling rock eventually renders Oswald flat, and in a sequence animated by Hugh Harman we watch him wandering about a little as a flat character. In an attempt to get normal again, he becomes bulbous, which accounts for some surreal, almost trippy close ups of his inflated face, animated by Ham Hamilton.
‘Tall Timber’ was released in June 1928. By that time Disney had already started anew, trying to sell the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, ‘Plane Crazy‘, to distributors.
‘Tall Timber’ was followed by two more Oswald cartoons by Disney (the recently rediscovered ‘Sleigh Bells’ and the lost ‘Hot Dog’), then by nine by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, before the series was given to Walter Lantz’s studio. Lantz by far produced the most Oswald cartoons, releasing 142 in total. The character lasted until 1938. But by then Oswald looked quite different from the version in ‘Tall Timber’…
Watch ‘Tall Timber’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon No. 23
To the previous Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: The Fox Chase
To the next Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon: Sleigh Bells
Director: Walt Disney
Production Date: 1923
Stars: Virginia Davis (Alice), Walt Disney, Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Ub Iwerks, Carman Maxwell
The title card of this pilot reads: “Scenario and direction by Walt Disney. Photography by Ubbe Iwerks and Rudolf Ising. Technical direction by Hugh Harman and Carman Maxwell.”
Alice (the four year old Virginia Davis) drops by the studio and tells Walt Disney she likes to watch him drawing some funnies. Walt Disney lacks his familiar mustache in this sequence, but he is already the kind entertainer of children here, and he takes her to a sheet of paper on where a cat chases a dog out of a dog house. The rest of the studio is also populated by animators (Iwerks, Harman, Ising and Maxwell all appear in this cartoon) and toons alike. The whole crew ‘s watching a boxing match between a dog and a cat, for example.
That night Alice dreams she arrives in cartoonland by train. She’s welcomed by animals and she performs a little dance for them. Unfortunately four lions break out of Cartoonland Zoo and they chase her into a tree, into a cave, into a rabbit hole and finally, to a cliff. She falls off the cliff, and then she awakes.
This cartoon is very entertaining. The idea of a girl in a cartoon (the inverse of the idea of Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell, a series that was around for eight years by then) works wonderfully, and the cartoon is lively. It already contains lots of music and dance, and a very rubbery animated train, besides the normal stiff animation you find in most cartoons of the twenties. The animation of the train looks forward to the flexible animation style that would later make Ub Iwerks and Walt Disney famous.
Luckily, Disney was able to sell the Alice series, starting his Hollywood career. His fledgling studio released 56 Alice Comedies in the next four years, until the series was replaced by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. The series was quite successful, allowing Disney to expand and to improve. In that sense, ‘Alice’s Wonderland’ lay the foundation of the Disney imperium.
Watch ‘Alice’s Wonderland’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Alice’s Wonderland’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’