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Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 November 19, 1932
Rating:★★★
Review:

Babes in the Woods © Walt Disney‘Babes in the woods’ is a free adaptation of the fairy tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’.

In Disney’s version the two lost children encounter some merry dwarfs before they meet the witch. The witch takes them for a ride on her flying broom to her gingerbread house.

Once inside the witch’s abode the cartoon takes a nightmarish turn. in the dark and gloomy inside the witch reveals she turns little children in newts, rats, spiders and bats. We watch the with turn a cat into stone, which immediately falls down and brakes. Then she turns the boy into a spider. When she wants to turn the girl into a rat, she’s interrupted by the dwarfs, who have come to the rescue. While she’s fleeing for the squadrons of gnomes firing arrows at her, the girl discovers a potion to turn the spider and all other animals present in the witches house into children again. In the end the witch is turned into stone by falling into her own potion.

This re-telling of Grimm’s classic tale introduces some story ideas that made it into ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ five years later: there’s a scary forest with trees looking like monsters and there are of course the witch and the dwarfs. Indeed, concept artist Albert Hurter was responsible for most of the looks of both this Silly Symphony as one of the chief designers for Disney’s first feature.

The storytelling is economical, with a lot happening in the mere seven minutes. As soon as the witch enters the scene, the action is relentless. The pretty scary scene inside the Witch’s house is particularly gripping. The short also contains a small dance routine, reminiscent of, but a great improvement on ‘The Merry Dwarfs‘ from 1929. The children’s designs of this particular film became stock designs in most studios in the rest of the 1930’s, in which more and more films would take a childish character, anyway.

With ‘Babes in the Woods’ embarked on a series of Silly Symphonies that were adaptations of familiar fairy tales and fables. Other examples are ‘Three Little Pigs‘ and ‘The Pied Piper‘ from 1933, ‘The Grasshopper and the Ants‘ from 1934 and ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’ from 1935.

‘Babes in the Woods’ is a stunning tour-de-force for 1932, but four days before its release Disney had started its first in-house art class, hosted by Don Graham. With these twice-weekly art classes Disney’s animators got better and better, and all subsequent Disney films clearly show that, with the Silly Symphonies in particular showing an enormous growth during the rest of the 1930’s.

One trivial remark: Hansel and Gretel are wearing traditional costumes typical for some Dutch fishing-villages. However, the landscape looks anything but Dutch (in fact, it looks pretty Mid-European). Talking about being lost!

Watch ‘Babes in the Woods’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 32
To the previous Silly Symphony: Bugs in Love
To the next Silly Symphony: Santa’s Workshop

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

The sourpuss gnome, animated by Tom Palmer, can be regarded as one of the first animated figures with a character of his own. In his autobiography Pinto Colvig claims that credits should go to Palmer “for being the first to put actual living mannerisms and human-like expressions into film cartoons”, based on Colvig’s own interpretation of the character.

The scenes with Santa are 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: 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).

In his autobiography Pinto Colvig reveals that all the chirps, whistles, warbles and tweets in this cartoon are made by two women, Esther Campbell and Marion Darlington.

‘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: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: October 6, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Still from 'Morning Noon and Night' featuring Betty Boop unwillingly dancing with some catsRubinoff and his orchestra play the score for this cartoon about a bunch of cats (‘the tom kat social club’) who threaten Betty Boop’s yard full of birds. This orchestra, led by the Russian violinist David Rubinoff, played sweet pseudo-classical music, and this sets the tone for the short.

Based on Franz von Suppé’s overture ‘Ein Morgen, ein Mittag und ein Abend in Wien’ (1844), ‘Morning Noon and Night’ is a very sweet cartoon. It opens with some typical Fleischer gags, like a sun with a hangover, but the overall mood is rather corny and lacking humor. The short is very Silly Symphony-like, and particularly reminiscent of Walt Disney’s ‘Birds in Spring‘ from earlier that year. Both feature a fledgling running away, and encountering a threat.

The cartoon’s finale is a battle scene in which all birds come to the rescue, most notably a boxing rooster. Battle scenes like this could be seen in e.g. the 1932 Silly Symphonies ‘Bugs in Love‘, ‘King Neptune‘, and ‘Babes in the Woods‘. Although ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ doesn’t come near any of these Disney cartoons in quality, it shows that the Disney style was invading the Fleischer studio, and that the brothers were getting more ambitious. This ambition would lead to the launch of the Color Classics in 1934.

Betty is more cute than sexy in this cartoon. The difference in mood between this cartoon and that of ‘I Heard‘ is enormous, although that cartoon was released only one month earlier. The reinforced Hays code would only be installed in the summer of 1934, but ‘Morning, Noon and Night’ shows that already by 1933 its morals had become more and more present in the American film industry’s output.

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

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 21
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: I Heard
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Hallowe’en Party

‘Morning Noon and Night’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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’

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