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Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 November 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pete, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

The Klondike Kid © Walt DisneyKlondike. In a beautiful opening scene we cut to “Klondike Bar’, a rowdy bar, where Mickey is a bar pianist, playing the popular ballad ‘Frankie and Johnny’.

The bar scene is pretty complex, with a lot going on. Goofy is there, too, seemingly just to show he’s a star to stay, for he has no involvement in the plot, at all. Outside, Minnie is freezing, and Mickey takes her inside, but then Pierre (a.k.a. Pete) arrives, peg leg and all. Soon he runs off with Minnie after a short gun fighting scene. Mickey, of course, rushes out to follow him, and jumps on a sled pulled by Pluto. In a remote log cabin, a fight ensues…

In essence ‘The Klondike Kid’ is ‘Gallopin’ Gaucho‘ in Alaska. But what an execution of such an old idea! The gags are plenty and funny and build up to a fast paced finale. This short is unique for its time in its clever integration of story and gags: the gags are not bonuses, but really add to the story. Highlight must be the ridiculous fight between Mickey and Peg Leg Pete hindered by spiral springs. Mickey Mouse arguably reached the apex of his solo career with this cartoon.

Because of the strong similarities in setting and storyline ‘The Klondike Kid’ feels like a direct ancestor to Tex Avery’s two settings of the poem ‘The Shooting of Dan McGrew’: ‘Dangerous Dan McFoo’ (Warner Brothers, 1939) and ‘The Shooting of Dan McGoo‘ (MGM, 1946).

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

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 49
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Good Deed

‘The Klondike Kid’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 October 15, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★ ♕
Review:

Touchdown Mickey © Walt DisneyLike the earlier ‘Barnyard Olympics‘, ‘Touchdown Mickey’ is as fast-paced sports cartoon. It plunges right into action, when we watch Mickey getting a touchdown for his team Mickey’s Manglers, in an attempt to defeat their opponents, the Alley Cats. The Alley Cats all look like Pete sans peg leg, and they prove tough opponents to Mickey’s much more diverse team.

The sheer speed with which the countless gags are delivered is astonishing, especially when compared to contemporary cartoons from other studios, or earlier Mickeys. By 1932 the studio made better use of Mickey the little hero than ever before, and ‘Touchdown Mickey’ excellently plays on Mickey as the underdog beating the odds. This means we can immediately sympathize with him and his feeble team, drawing us into the match ourselves – as we really want him to win.

The short marks Goofy’s third screen appearance and already he is a more recognizable and more defined character than Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow would ever be. In ‘Touchdown Mickey’ he’s a radio reporter, if a rather uninformative one, and in one of the numerous gags he accidentally mistakes the head of a colleague for his microphone. Twelve years later Goofy would be playing football himself, in ‘How to Play Football’ (1944), but by then is character had gone through quite some transformations.

Interestingly, there’s another character with a characteristic laugh in this cartoon, a fat pig in the audience, who wears glasses and holds a cigar. As his design is more complex than that of all other characters, I suspect him to be a caricature, but of whom?

‘Touchdown Mickey’ was released only twelve days after the Flip the Frog cartoon ‘The Goal Rush‘, which covers exactly the same subject to less satisfying results.’Touchdown Mickey’ is great, it’s fun and absolutely among Mickey’s all time best cartoons.

Watch ‘Touchdown Mickey’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 47
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Whoopee Party
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Wayward Canary

‘Touchdown Mickey’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 May 12, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow, Pluto, Goofy
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Revue © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Revue’ is famous for introducing Goofy, whose guffaw we had heard off-stage in the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon, ‘Barnyard Olympics‘.

In this cartoon he’s an elderly person, bearded and wearing glasses. We don’t hear him speak, only his guffaw can be heard, and together with Pluto he forms the running gag of the cartoon. Although Goofy literally has the last laugh, nothing points to the direction of a star career beyond the laugh itself, and indeed, in ‘Trader Mickey‘ his guffaw was used by a cannibal king, indicating it was not an exclusive trait, yet.

Nevertheless, Goofy would return in ‘The Whoopee Party‘, redesigned, christened Dippy Dawg, and here to stay. In fact, Goofy arguably is the first cartoon character, whose voice predates the screen persona, which is completely built around the stupid laugh, and ditto voice.

Apart from Goofy’s debut, there’s enough to enjoy in ‘Mickey’s Revue’, even though it revisits two themes explored earlier in the Mickey Mouse cartoons: that of Mickey and the gang giving a performance and that of animals causing havoc. Here, the source of havoc are the small kittens from ‘The Barnyard Broadcast‘ and ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (both 1931). It was their last screen performance, for they would soon be replaced by little mice, first introduced in ‘Mickey’s Nightmare‘ (1932).

‘Mickey’s Revue’ follows the same lines as ‘The Barnyard Broadcast’, but is much better executed, cleverly intertwining the subplots of Goofy’s annoying laugh, Pluto trying to enter the stage, and the kittens interfering with Mickey’s performance. One of the gags involve a kitten caught in the hammers of Minnie’s piano, a gag looking forward to a similar one in the Tom & Jerry cartoon ‘The Cat Concerto‘ (1947). Despite it’s great comedy, ‘Mickey’s Revue’ was the last cartoon exploiting the ruin finale, as used in 1931/1932 cartoons like ‘Mickey Cuts Up‘ and ‘The Grocery Boy‘.

‘Mickey’s Revue’ is a typical ensemble cartoon, also starring Minnie, Horace Horsecollar and no less than three Clarabelle Cows. By now Horace Horsecollar had caught up with his comic personality, and had grown in personality beyond that of a stereotyped horse. Unfortunately, Horace was not developed further on the movie screen – it was left to Floyd Gottfredson  to explore Horace’s character further in his comic strip.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Revue’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 41
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Barnyard Olympics
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Musical Farmer

‘Mickey’s Revue’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 June 8, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Musical Farmer © Walt DisneyIn this film Mickey and Minnie are farmers, which makes the film a little like a remake of ‘The Plow Boy‘ (1929).

First we watch Mickey planting seeds with help from Pluto, and Minnie milking a cow. Then Mickey decides to scare Minnie by stepping inside the scarecrow. A string of gags leads to Mickey playing the bagpipes on three geese. This starts a musical number, which is almost Silly Symphony-like in its directionless musical fun at the barnyard. We watch cows, lamb, ducks, pigeons, turkeys and chickens moving and dancing to the tune of Turkey in the Straw.

But then we cut to several chickens laying multitudes of eggs, except for poor Fanny. At this point suddenly a story develops, with Fanny laying an enormous egg, which attracts a lot of attention from her fellow chickens, the other animals, and finally, Mickey. Mickey rushes to bring his camera to make a picture of it, but unfortunately, he uses too much flash light powder, and everything explodes. This final gag was also used by Floyd Gottfredson in the Mickey Mouse comic strip, published on March 13, 1932.

‘The Musical Farmer’ is one of the weaker Mickey Mouse films of 1932. Like e.g. ‘Mickey Cuts Up‘ and ‘The Grocery Boy‘ it’s uses the part-musical-number-part-frantic-finale-formula, but by mid-1932 shots of dancing animals had become a bit tiring and old-fashioned. Moreover, Fanny’s story feels a little out of place, and I suspect that part of this film was intentionally designed as a Silly Symphony, which apparently never really took off.

Watch ‘Musical Farmer’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 42
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Revue
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey in Arabia

‘Musical Farmer’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White Volume Two’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 July 9, 1932
Rating:
Review:

The Bears and the Bees © Walt Disney‘The Bears and the Bees’ follows the adventures of two little bear cubs, who encounter a large mean bear and a bee colony.

The two cubs eat the bees’ honey, but luckily it’s the old mean bear who gets all the stings, in an elaborate battle scene, comparable to those in ‘The Spider and the Fly‘ (1931) and ‘Bugs in Love‘ (1932).

The story of ‘The Bears and the Bees’ is consistent, but remarkably boring. The two little bears look like early forerunners of Mickey’s nephews Morty and Ferdy, who would make their screen debut two years later in ‘Mickey’s Steamroller‘ (1934). It’s interesting to see how the animators tried to render these two cubs partly as animals and partly as little brats. This way of animating animals halfway anthropomorphism would become a Disney specialty, leading to masterpieces like ‘Bambi‘ (1942) and ‘Lady and the Tramp‘ (1956). In this short it can be watched in its embryonic form.

Watch ‘The Bears and the Bees’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 27
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Bird Store
To the next Silly Symphony: Just Dogs

‘The Bears and the Bees’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

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: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 October 13, 1931
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Spider and the Fly © Walt DisneyAfter ‘The Cat’s out‘ of three months earlier ‘The Spider and the Fly’ is the second silly symphony focusing on a story instead of a musical routine.

In this short a mean spider lures two flies into his web by playing harp on it, recalling a similar scene in Max Fleischer’s ‘Wise Flies‘ from 1930. The female fly is captured, but the male fly summons all the other flies to help him rescue her, which they do in a long battle scene on the music of Franz von Suppé’s overture ‘Die leichte Kavalerie’ and Franz Schubert’s Erlkönig. Here we watch flies riding horseflies and using dragonflies as bombers and shoes on caterpillars as tanks. There’s also a spectacular scene in which the flies set fire to the spider’s web, with the poor female fly still in it. Ironically, the spider’s finally captured with flypaper.

‘The Spider and the Fly’ is more melodramatic than funny, but there’s a lot going on, and one doesn’t get the time to get bored. The basic story line of this cartoon would be followed in two other Silly Symphonies: ‘Bugs in Love‘ (1932) and ‘The Moth and the Flame’ (1938), also featuring insects.

Watch ‘The Spider and the Fly’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 23
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Clock Store
To the next Silly Symphony: The Fox Hunt

‘The Spider and the Fly’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 September 16, 1931
Rating: ★★
Review:

The Clock Store © Walt Disney‘The Clock Store’ was the last of the Silly Symphonies solely devoted to a dance routine.

This time, the traditional dance routine is performed by clocks and watches to Frank Churchill’s music. The cartoon ends with two alarm clocks fighting each other to pieces. Unfortunately, before this final scene there is no story, whatsoever, and by now the dance routine had become very tiresome, indeed.

Nevertheless, the short is beautifully made: the opening scene shows a lamplighter lighting the street lights to stunning effects. Furthermore, halfway the cartoon we watch two 18th century human figures dancing an elegant minuet. This short dance scene was the studio’s most realistic take on the human form, yet, and a spectacular sight for a 1931 cartoon.

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 22
To the previous Silly Symphony: Egyptian Melodies
To the next Silly Symphony: The Spider and the Fly

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

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
July 28, 1931
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Cat's Out © Walt DisneyA cat is put out. When he tries to catch a bird, he falls down and gets knocked unconscious by a wind-flower.

Enter a nightmarish sequence, in which the cat imagines his lives are fleeing him, and that he’s being attacked by giant birds, hooting owls, bats, giant spiders and hollow trees. Luckily, in the morning it all appears to have been a dream.

‘The Cat’s Out’ is not devoid of dance routines (there are two dance scenes featuring scarecrows and a bat), but it has a surprisingly clear story, unmatched by earlier Silly Symphonies. It is arguably the first Silly Symphony with such a clear story, anticipating the straightforward storytelling of ‘The Ugly Duckling‘ of the end of the same year. This makes the short one of the most interesting Silly Symphonies of 1931.

Watch ‘The Cat’s Out’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 20
To the previous Silly Symphony: The Busy Beavers
To the next Silly Symphony: Egyptian Melodies

‘The Cat’s Out’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 July 28, 1930
Rating: ★★
Review:

Midnight in a Toy Shop © Walt Disney

1930 saw a string of Silly Symphonies featuring animals performing endless dance routines. In ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’, however, the dancing is being done by toys and dolls. Not that it makes a difference…

‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ introduces the small spider, who would also be the hero of ‘Egyptian Melodies‘. To escape the freezing cold the spider enters a toy shop. First he’s afraid of everything, but when he’s playing the piano, the dolls and toys come to life, dancing to his tunes. This results in a very, very long dance routine, rendering ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ a rather dull short. However, in the first scene the spider leads the viewer into the scenery, and we as an audience, explore the toy shop with him. This story idea would be perfected in the intro of ‘Pinocchio’ (1940), of which the intro of ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ is an embryonic version.

‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ contains a strange mixture of primitive and more advanced designs and animation. It starts with some stunning effect animation of snow, and ends when a candle lights some fireworks, making the spider flee the shop.

Watch ‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 12
To the previous Silly Symphony: Arctic Antics
To the next Silly Symphony: Monkey Melodies

‘Midnight in a Toy Shop’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: More Silly Symphonies’

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 28, 1929
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating: ★★½
Review:

Mickey's Follies © Walt Disney

‘Mickey’s Follies’ is the first Mickey Mouse film with his own name in the title – a clear indication that the mouse himself now was star enough to sell his own cartoons by name only.

In ‘Mickey’s Follies’ Mickey and his friends are giving a concert on the barnyard. First we see five dancing ducks, then a rather tough ‘French Apache dance’ between a rooster and a hen, followed by a pig singing in an ugly operatic voice. This pig is probably the first character in animation history to be funny because of a typical voice.

Highlight, of course, is Mickey himself performing his own theme song, titled ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’. This theme song clearly is the raison d’être of the cartoon, and it is even announced as such. No doubt this song was introduced as part of Mickey’s merchandising – and meant to be sold as sheet music, being the first Disney song to do so. An instrumental version of ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’ would indeed become Mickey’s theme song and accompany the intro’s of many Mickey Mouse cartoons to follow. ‘Minnie’s Yoo Hoo!’ was Disney’s first hit song, and the start of a long tradition, which hasn’t ended yet, as manifested by the huge hit ‘Let It Go’ from ‘Frozen’ (2013). Disney’s attention for merchandizing made him a lot of money, and allowed him to invest more money in his cartoons than his competitors, enabling him to maintain the lead in the animation film world throughout the 1930’s.

Unfortunately, the cartoon’s focus on Mickey’s song makes it rather one-dimensional and dull. It’s an early example of a Disney song-and-dance routine cartoon, one of the first of seemingly countless such cartoons the studio produced between 1929 and 1931.

‘Mickey’s Follies’ is Disney’s second serious attempt at lip synch, after ‘The Karnival Kid’. Mickey sings much more than in the former cartoon, and the all too literal mouth movements give him many awkward facial expressions. Later the animators would learn to tone down the mouth movements, keeping Mickey’s face more consistent without losing the illusion of speech.

‘Mickey’s Follies’ marks the director’s debut of Wilfred Jackson, who had joined the Disney Studio as an assistant animator in April 1928. He was the first to replace Walt himself as a director. Jackson would have a long career at Disney’s studio: he directed his last film, ‘Lady and the Tramp’ in 1955, 26 years later. He retired in October 1961.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Follies’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 10
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Karnival Kid
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Choo-Choo

Directors: Bill Roberts, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske & Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 24, 1942
Stars: Donald Duck, Goofy, Joe Carioca
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Saludos Amigos © Walt Disney‘Saludos Amigos’ was the first result of a two-month trip to South America Walt Disney made with eighteen people from his staff, including animator Norm Ferguson and designers Mary and Lee Blair.

This trip was financed by the Coordinator of Inter-American affairs, and ‘Saludos Amigos’ feels like an advertisement for South America. It’s the first of several ‘package films’ Disney made in the 1940s, and like its followers, it is uneven. There is not much of a story, just a live action travelogue across Bolivia, Chile, Argentine, and Brazil. In between there are four cartoon sequences: Donald Duck as a tourist at Lake Titicaca, the story of Pedro the airplane, Goofy as a Gaucho and a samba sequence featuring Donald and a new character, Joe Carioca.

Donald’s antics at Lake Titicaca are only mildly funny, until its finale, the suspension bridge scene, which evokes a genuine sense of heights. Pedro the airplane is a children’s story using a narrator. It’s probably the first animation film starring a humanized vehicle, and very successful at that. Pedro is well-designed, being both a plane and a likable little boy. His story reaches an exciting climax when Pedro gets caught in a storm near Aconcagua. ‘Goofy as a gaucho’ is a nice follow-up to ‘How to ride a horse’ from ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ (1941), with Goofy acting as an Argentine gaucho. This sequence is based on the art of Argentine painter Florencio Molina Campos (1891-1959), without being as gritty. The result is both educational and funny.

However, the real highlight of the film is its finale, in which Donald meets the Brazilian parrot Joe Carioca. Both dance to a samba, following a background which is created ‘on the spot’ by a brush. This sequence is alive with creativity, seemingly introducing a new era of more stylized images and brighter colors, which would dominate the 1940s and 1950s.

Joe Carioca was such an intoxicating character, he was returned to the screen, where he would reunite with Donald in ‘The Three Caballeros‘ (1944) and ‘Melody Time‘ (1948), in still more stylized and colorful scenes.

Watch an excerpt from ‘Saludos Amigos’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: July 26, 1951
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

Alice in Wonderland © Walt DisneyOf all the classic Walt Disney features, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ had the longest and most troublesome history.

Lewis Carroll’s book had intrigued Walt Disney for years. It had inspired the Alice cartoons, if only in name, and already in 1933 the first ideas appeared to turn the literary classic into an animated feature, starring Mary Pickford as Alice – being Disney’s first feature idea ever. Unfortunately, the idea was dropped because in 1933 Paramount released their version of the classic tale.

More serious work on Alice started in 1939/1940 when illustrator David Hall made numerous, exceptionally beautiful concept drawings. After the failures of ‘Pinocchio’ (1939) and ‘Fantasia’ (1940) at the box office, these ideas were shelved, and virtually nothing of Hall’s ideas entered the final film. At one point even novelist Aldous Huxley cooperated, turning in a literary script in 1945, which the Disney studio found useless. Only in 1949 real work on the film began, resulting in Disney’s second feature of the 1950s, after the successful ‘Cinderella‘.

The final film unfortunately was poorly received when it was finally released in 1951. It performed rather badly at the box office, losing the studio almost a million dollars, practically evaporating the profits that ‘Cinderella’ had made the previous year. The film was critisized even by its own animators. Marc Davis said the film “gave us nothing to work it” and called it a “cold film”. Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston hardly mention the film in their elaborate book ‘The Illusion of Life’. In ‘The Disney Villain’ they reveal why: they felt they “had failed to find the intriguing combination of fantasy, satire and whimsy that made the original book popular”. Even Walt Disney himself denounced the film, saying it lacked heart.

However, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has aged suprisingly well. In fact, it has turned out to be one of the best adaptations of the book to the screen, its only serious rivals being Jan Švankmajer’s disturbing stop motion film from 1987, and a NBC production from 1999. Certainly not Disney’s feature from 2010, which, although visually stunning, owes very little to the original story.

The film’s most overt weakness, its episodic character (which, of course, it shares with the original book), is also its strong point: none of the Disney story cliches are apparent, and there’s a welcome lack of sentimentality to the film. In fact, the film’s low point is reached when the studio does try to squeak sentimentality into the story: in the Tulgey Wood scene, an invention of the story department and not found in the original book, Alice has enough of nonsense, wants to go home and feels lost. She sings the feature’s weakest and most forgettable song with a sobbing voice, with some fantasy birds sympathizing with her in stereotypical Disney fashion. Despite the inventive bird designs, this scene is wide of the mark.

Luckily, it is one of only two weak scenes (the other one being the flower scene, squeaked in from ‘Through the Looking Glass’) amidst the wonderful series of utter nonsense, which evoke the zany spirit of the book very well. The film is literally stuffed with great characters, most of them voiced by well-known British and American actors: the white rabbit (Bill Thompson, the voice of Droopy), the dodo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Pat O’Malley), the caterpillar (Richard Haydn), The Cheshire Cat (Disney favorite Sterling Holloway), The Mad Hatter and the Marc Hare (Ed Wynn & Jerry Colonna), the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), and the little king. Eleven year old Kathryn Belmont is a perfect Alice: pleasantly normal, and a little pedantic, just like the one in the book.

Of all Nine Old Men, the Disney animators who worked on the film, Ward Kimball in particular seems in his element, as Lewis Carroll’s work has much in common with his own zany type of humor. Kimball supervised animation on Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Mad Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat, and all characters are delightfully loony.

However, the film’s strongest point may be in its design, which is nothing like Sir John Tenniel. In contrast to his gloomy black-and-white engravings, styling artists Mary Blair, John Hench, Claude Coats and Ken Anderson present a vibrant world of colors. The stylized backgrounds are superb with their angular designs and highly original color combinations, evoking a perfect dream world. It’s these designs that give the movie unity. They are matched by the looniest animation within any Disney feature, all bringing the zany Lewis Carroll perfectly to life. Both the animation and the countless visual gags complement the textual madness of the original book. Moreover, the film is surprisingly speedy, and still enjoyable for a 21st century audience.

‘Alice in Wonderland’ may not be Disney’s best or most successful feature, it’s a very pleasant ride through a colorful world, and more of a timeless classic than anyone would have imagined in 1951.

Watch ‘Alice in Wonderland’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Directors: William Beaudine & Wilfred Jackson
Airing date: November 30, 1955
Stars: Walt Disney, Gertie the Dinosaur, Colonel Heeza Liar, Silas Bumpkin, Bobby Bumps, Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Story of Animated Drawing © Walt DisneyWalt Disney himself hosts a Disneyland television episode on the history of animation, from the humble attempts to capture movement in drawing in the caves of Lascaux to his own masterpiece ‘Fantasia’ (1940).

Disney demonstrates some early devices of animation like the thaumatrope, the phenakistoscope, the zoetrope and the praxinoscope, showing that animation in fact predates cinema. One of the highlights of the program is the complete showing of one of Charles-Émile Reynaud’s animated “films” for his own praxinoscope device. The other one is the reenactment of Winsor McCay’s vaudeville show with Gertie the Dinosaur (1914). This part alone makes the episode worthwhile watching, as McCay’s classic work becomes even stronger in its vaudeville context.

More animation from other early studios is shown, like Bray’s Colonel Heeza Liar, Raoul Barré’s Silas Bumpkin, Earl Hurd’s Bobby Bumps and Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat.

Disney also plays tribute to his old rival, Max Fleischer, by showing a Koko the Clown cartoon, accompanied by organ playing by his own cartoon composer, Oliver Wallace. The show ends with one of Walt Disney’s major achievements, the Nutcracker Suite from’Fantasia'(1940), which, unfortunately, is shown in black and white.

Watch ‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Story of Animated Drawing’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Walt Disney Studio’

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson & Hamilton Luske
Release Date: June 16, 1955
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Lady and the Tramp © Walt Disney‘Lady and the Tramp’ is a mild and friendly film based both on story ideas by Joe Grant that went as far back as 1939, and a short story by novelist Ward Greene. It tells the story of Lady, an upper class female Cocker Spaniel living around the turn of the century.

Lady’s life of luxury seems to be threatened by the coming of a baby, but it is the babysitter, aunt Sarah, who’s her real nemesis. The cat-loving old lady quickly has Lady muzzled, and it’s up to the tramp to rescue her. They spend a night out together, but in the morning, while they’re chasing chickens “together”, Lady gets caught and ends in the city dogpound. There she discovers that the tramp is quite a ladies’ man. It seems their short-lived relationship is over, but then the tramp helps her catching a rat that has sneaked into the house and into the baby’s room…

‘Lady and the Tramp’ was the first animated feature in Cinemascope. The film uses the new technique to great effects, with the action carefully laid out to the broad screen. Its backgrounds are very beautiful, and remarkably lush or, when necessary, highly dramatic. Only in the love scene they become somewhat stylized, showing a Mary Blair influence otherwise absent from the film.

The high quality animation is a delight to watch and stands out in an age of stylized and limited animation, something the 1950s more and more became to be. Like the animals in ‘Bambi‘ (1942), the dogs have a look and feel of real animals, while, at the same time, being full characters one can relate to, with a complete range of human expressions. Even the minor characters, like the dogs in the dogpound, are perfectly animated in that respect. The voices help in this dualism, often being a combination of human and dog-like sounds.

The humans, on the other hand, are hardly seen, and only the strongly caricatured ones, Aunt Sarah, Tony and Joe, have something of a character. It is telling that the most famous and probably most romantic kiss in animation history can be seen in this movie and is a kiss between two dogs. In this scene Lady and the tramp share a meal of spaghetti, accompanied by romantic music by the two Italian restaurant owners. This scene, animated by Frank Thomas, is the undisputed highlight of the film. Honorable mention goes to the very lifelike fight between the tramp and a large rat, a strongly dramatic scene animated by Wolfgang Reitherman, which can compete with the fighting scene in ‘Bambi’ in its impact.

Watch the dining scene from ‘Lady and the Tramp’ yourself and tell me what you think:

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: August 8, 1952
Rating: ★★★½
Review:

The Little House © Walt DisneyHalf a year after ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion‘, voice actor Sterling Holloway returns as a narrator for a Disney cartoon.

Here he tells the story of a little house on a hill in the country side who is soon surrounded by the city and forgotten. The house’s first neighbors are arrogant and aristocratic wooden houses, which soon burn down. The second neighbors are sloppy brick houses, which are pulled down in the end. Her third neighbors are enormous skyscrapers. When the little house thinks she’s finished, she’s moved to start anew on the countryside.

This sweet little story is based on a children’s book from 1942 by Virginia Lee Burton and uses a slightly different design to remain faithful to her original illustrations. Like ‘Lambert the Sheepish Lion’, the story is very sweet, not funny. Its main attraction are the humanized houses, excavators and such.

However, the story is well-told, thanks to story man Bill Peet. It contains heart and has a strong sense of nostalgia. In fact, conservative nostalgia has rarely been put more convincingly to the screen. The film is strongly anti-urban and anti-progress, and full of longing to the peace and quiet of a bygone era. Its message is expressed at the end of the cartoon, when Holloway tells us that “the best place to find peace and happiness is in a little house on a little hill way up in the country”.

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

‘The Little House’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities’

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Jack Kinney, Hamilton Luske
Release Date: May 27, 1948
Stars: Donald Duck, Joe Carioca, The Aracuan Bird
Rating: ★★
Review:

Melody Time © Walt DisneyMelody Time’ is a compilation film in the same vein as ‘Make Mine Music’ (1946).

It consists of seven unrelated episodes, connected by a voice over and an animated brush. The songs of these sequences are sung by popular artists, who, except for the Andrews Sisters and Roy Rogers, are all but forgotten today. Even more obviously than in ‘Make Mine Music’, these songs are clearly designed for the cartoons, instead of the other way round, like in ‘Fantasia’ (1940). In any sense ‘Melody Time’ is a far cry from that latter film, and the most interesting feature of this film is not the animation, but the film’s beautifully stylized backgrounds, especially in ‘Once upon a Wintertime‘ and ‘The Legend of Johnny Appleseed‘.

The sequences themselves are mediocre, often slow and only moderately funny at best. Luckily, Disney would soon return to real features, for ‘Melody Time’ shows that the studio’s compilation features had outstayed their welcome.

Melody Time consists of the following episodes, which I will discuss in more detail, elsewhere:

  1. Once upon a Winter Time
  2. Bumble Boogie
  3. The Legend of Johnny Appleseed
  4. Little Toot
  5. Trees
  6. Blame it on the Samba
  7. Pecos Bill

Director: Wilfred Jackson & Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: January 23, 1942
Stars: Donald Duck
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

The New Spirit © Walt DisneyWhen the United States were forced into the war themselves, the government asked Disney to make a short to make the American citizens fill in their income tax forms in time. Disney gave them his biggest star of that time, Donald Duck, to play the everyman. The government was not impressed until the taxes came rolling in after the film was screened in cinemas.

In contrast to Disney’s earlier propaganda films for the Canadian government, this film uses entirely new animation, directed by Wilfred Jackson, and produced in the ridiculously short time period of a single month.

The short opens with Donald dancing to the energetic title song, which is sung by Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket in ‘Pinocchio’ (1940). The song is played on a slightly anthropomorphised radio. The radio then asks Donald if he wants to do his part for the country and Donald is growing more and more enthusiastic, until the radio reveals he has to pay his income tax. The radio has to persuade Donald once again, who grows enthusiastic again to the strong slogan ‘Taxes to beat the axis’ (with the axis referring to the Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Japan).

The film further explains the public how to fill in a new, simplified form, using an anthropomorphized pen, bottle of ink and blotter. Like the shorts Disney made earlier for the Canadian government (e.g. ‘The Thrifty Pig‘ and ‘7 Wise Dwarfs‘), the second half (directed by Ben Sharpsteen) consists of very limited and highly propagandistic animation with grim images of factories, guns, planes, war ships and tanks, while an intense narrator repeats the intoxicating mantra of ‘taxes to beat the axis’.

When he comes to the propagandist climax, the sentence “to beat to earth the evil destroyer of freedom and piece”, we watch a horrifying towering monster-like machine depicting the Nazi aggressor. This mechanical monster is defeated and makes place for a patriotic end shot with clouds resembling the American flag, tanks and guns rolling and planes flying accompanied by a heroic hymn, while the narrator tells us that “this is our fight”.

It’s important to note that the film goes at lengths to dehumanize the enemy. The average tax payer was not to help to kill people, but to destroy “the enemy”, in this case a vague mechanical monster. Succeeding propaganda films often eschewed the idea that making war is killing people, with the propaganda feature ‘Victory through Air Power’ (1943) being the prime example.

In case of “The New Spirit”, propaganda rarely was so obvious, but it works: after watching the picture I had its slogan in my head for days. Indeed, the film was so successful, that it got a follow-up the next year: ‘The Spirit of ’43‘.

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

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: June 17, 1933
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse
Rating:
Review:

Still from 'Mickey's Mechanical Man' featuring a gorilla boxing a robotMickey has build a robot to fight a gorilla in a boxing match, which is called “the battle of the century: machine vs. beast”.

Mickey’s robot has one disadvantage: he runs wild when he hears Minnie’s car horn. Luckily, this fact helps him in the end: when he’s clobbered by the gorilla (on the tune of Franz Liszt’s second Hungarian rhapsody), he seems almost lost. But then Minnie fetches her car horn, revitalizing the robot. From that point he actually cheats, using multiple boxing gloves, a hammer and hits below the belt.

Despite its clear story and high quality animation, ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man’ is a very weak short, and a low point in the otherwise outstanding Mickey Mouse year of 1933. The cartoon is surprisingly low on gags and it’s difficult to sympathize with the robot character, as it’s mechanical after all, while the gorilla is a living being. Moreover, Mickey’s motives remain unclear and we’re not invited to care about the match.

The cartoon most interesting feat. are the robot’s jerky movements, which are clearly mechanical and based on wind-up toys, but which become rather frantic and ridiculously elaborate when the robot goes wild. Nevertheless, there are some traces of Stan Laurel’s boxing moves from ‘Any Old Port’ (1932).

‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man’ is reminiscent of the Fleischer Studio’s equally weak ‘The Robot‘ (1932). Both films were inspired by rather hysterical stories about robots taking over jobs, which circulated in the early 1930s, and which struck a chord in an era of vast unemployment.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Mechanical Man’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 57
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: The Mail Pilot
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey’s Gala Premier

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date: September 16, 1933
Rating: ★★★★
Review:

Still from 'The Pied Piper' featuring the pied piper and some rats

‘The Pied Piper’ is a vivid re-telling of the original fairy tale in operetta fashion.

Thus ‘The Pied Pier’, together with ‘King Neptune‘ (1932) and ‘Father Noah’s Ark‘ (1933), belongs to the operetta- like Silly Symphonies. In its score, composed by Leigh Harline, practically all dialogue is sung, making ‘The Pied Piper’ an animated mini-opera.

Its human designs are way more detailed and anatomically correct than in ‘King Neptune’ or ‘Father Noah’s Ark’, making these two films looking old-fashioned, already. Disney was advancing towards the later realism of ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937) with a lightning speed…

Unfortunately, at the same time, a sugary approach is unleashed, as well. For example, the rats are not drown, but caught in an imaginary cheese. Likewise, the children, who are depicted as virtual slaves in Hamelin, do not just disappear, but they’re lured into ‘Joyland’, where even the crippled get cured. So, in the end, practically no harm is done to anyone.

And so, like the contemporary ‘Lullaby Land‘, ‘The Pied Piper’ is a strange mixture of ever advancing animation and rather infantile material. A great deal of the remaining Silly Symphonies would share this mixture, and even Disney’s first features, like ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ and ‘Bambi‘ (1942) are not immune to it.

The children designs used here would pop up in numerous sugary cartoons from the 1930s, including those from other studios. And, unfortunately, there would be a lot of them…

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

This is Silly Symphony No. 39
To the previous Silly Symphony: Lullaby Land
To the next Silly Symphony: The Night before Christmas

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