With the innovation of sound cartoons in 1928, animation’s popularity skyrocketed into the Golden Age of Animation that extended into the late 1960s. In fact, the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film (1931) is one of the oldest awards implemented into the Oscars (only in its 5th year). The 40’s, 50’s and 60’s were especially prominent as iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Popeye, Tom and Jerry, Betty Boop, and Woody Woodpecker became in many ways the face of American popular culture. Moving on, much like my previous post, I will talk about the breadth of animation through cartoons and shorts, this time in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.
(Note: Again, I left links to these shorts at the beginning of each post. I hope you will watch them.)
I feel somewhat ashamed for not including this short in my previous post. To my credit, I hadn’t seen it till last night. I have been debating on whether still-motion animation should be included in these posts, but since I watched this short I can’t not include them. It was created by the famous Lotte Reiniger who pioneered silhouette animation and the first multi-plane camera for certain effects (ten years before Walt Disney). I will talk about her infamous first film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) in my feature films allotment, but for now as a sort of introduction I will discuss one of her earliest shorts Cinderella. The tale is very simple and follows the original Cinderella story we are all familiar with. The highlight of this cartoon is the stunning animation. The characters and backgrounds are seen only as black silhouettes, accomplished by back lighting articulated cardboard cut-outs, against dull blues, purples, and greys (kind of like how the sky looks right before it becomes true night). In order to fully grasp its gorgeous simplicity, it can’t be watched haphazardly. There is no sound. There is no music. However this is what makes it so beautiful. It feels and looks like the quiet calm at sunset.
Der Fuehrer’s Face Walt Disney Productions (1941)
This is a strong example of the American animated propaganda short film‘s released during World War II. Though really comical in nature, it still has deep messages that directly challenged the Axis Powers and Hitler’s “perfect” Aryan civilization. It opens with the Axis power’s main leaders Hideki Tōjō, Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Benito Mussolini, and Heinrich Himmler playing and singing a parodied version of “Horst Wessel Song” called “The Fuehrer’s face in a German band. Everything, even the trees and clouds, are shaped like the Nazi symbol singing the virtues of Naziism. As it progressed, the main character Donald Duck is forced to get ready for his work in a bomb making factory on an assembly line, with little vacation time, breaks, or sustenance. After he loses his sanity, Donald Duck has hallucinations of contorted bombs and the Nazi symbol before he awakes in the comfort of his bed as an American citizen. American cartoons weren’t exempt from the 1940’s wartime efforts. In fact, they like everything else switched to fully support war-time America during WWII. This cartoon, among others like Education for Death (1943) symbolized American patriotism and the fight against a greater evil power.
The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Looney Tunes (1945)
Directed by Robert Clampett right before he left Warner Bros., this cartoon is a tribute to the famous Dick Tracy comics, which debuted in 1931. Daffy Duck, excited over his new Dick Tracy comic from the mailman, has daydreams after being hit in the head that he is the famous Duck Twacy who, like many others, has his prized piggy bank mysteriously stolen. He finds the (not so secret) secret hideout of the thieves and defeats many different comical criminal parodies like Bat Man (an anthropomorphic baseball bat) and Pumpkinhead (a criminal with a pumpkin for a head). Once he found the piggy banks however, he awoke kissing a live pig and runs away once his daydream dispersed. This is one of my all-time favorite cartoons. I remember whenever this came on during Saturday morning cartoons when I was a child I would get so excited. I never fully realized that he really wasn’t a famous police officer until I grew older. I am often envious of children because to them there is so much magic in the world. When I was little, Hobbes was a real tiger, Santa Clause existed, and my worries were limited to the little problems of the present. There is also a raw, exciting energy, not unlike in other different mystery classics like The Maltese Falcon and other crime fighting shows, movies and comics that permeates throughout this cartoon. The difference is in the humor and the pop culture references throughout.
Feed the Kitty, Merrie Melodies (1952)
Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, it is a simple cartoon about a bulldog Marc Antony who finds a lost kitten and decides to adopt it after he is won over by its innocent charms. Though taking it in seems like a simple task, the little kitten keeps the tough bulldog on his toes as he tries to keep it hidden from his owner and from hurting itself. This cartoon is in a word adorable. What makes it so likable is how identifiable it is. The highlight of the cartoon is Marc Antony and his hilarious reactions and facial expressions, whether they show utmost terror or crushing sadness. When it comes down to it, as much as people talk about how they love explosions and violence there is nothing like watching such a tough character fall to pieces and love such a innocent, weak character, almost like a father or grandfather becoming close to a young child. (As a side note, the scene in Monsters Inc. (2001) where Sully thinks that Boo is being killed in the garbage disposal almost perfectly mirrors my favorite scene where Marc Antony thinks the kitten is being cooked in the oven and is handed a cat shaped cookie by his owner.)
The Tell Tale Heart, United Productions of America 1953
Written by Bill Scott and distributed by the UPA, this is one of the few shorts purposefully made to be dark and surrealistic in the golden age of animation. If you are unfamiliar with this story, it was originally written by Edgar Allen Poe and it depicts a madman and his plans to enact the perfect murder of an old man and his vulture eye. In the beginning, the narrator, voiced by James Mason, in an attempt to prove his sanity implores viewers to listen to his story and his reasoning behind killing the old man. In the end, he succeeds in enacting the perfect murder and coverup, however as the story progresses he is driven to confess by the incessant beating of the old man’s heart in his head. The animation and framework of this short is VERY similar to the infamous German Expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As I watched it, I was captivated by the way the animation reflected, like in Caligari, the narrator’s unstable frame of mind. Rather then seeing it from a normal perspective, the animation purposefully transports us into the the world of a madman. It is almost as if the narrator himself allowed us to see it from his perspective so that we would believe his claims. All in all, this is one of the best animated shorts I have seen, despite its dark nature and unsettling message.
When Magoo Flew, UPA 1955
Directed by Pete Burness, this short won the Academy award for animated shorts in 1955 and is one of the best shorts produced by the UPA. The infamous main character Mr. Magoo, plans to go and watch a movie but inevitably goes completely off coarse from his original objective because of his terrible eyesight. As it progresses, he goes onto a plane and takes off, still believing that he is watching a movie. Eventually he foils, without any comprehension of his actions, the plans of a bank robber and leaves the plane after it returns to the airport commenting on the good picture, but his disappointment in there not being a cartoon at the beginning. In cartoons like these, I notice that there are very stark uses of color and the backgrounds have a bold, block like style. This cartoon’s charm lies in Mr. Magoo’s oblivious nature and stubborn estrangement from his environment. I used to watch Mr. Magoo cartoons with my mother and I loved watching her laugh at his silly antics. Though I never fully appreciated its humor as a child, I look back on this cartoon and others and smile at their simplicity and fun-loving nature.
One Froggy Evening, Warner Bros. 1955
Written by Michael Maltese and directed by Chuck Jones, this is one of the most iconic cartoons ever made. It begins with a construction worker finding a box inside the cornerstone of the demolished J. C. Wilber Building which contains an extraordinary singing and dancing frog (eventually named Michigan J. Frog) with a top hate and cane. Overcome by visions of fame and fortune, he decides to shows others the frog’s amazing abilities. Over and over again his plans fall apart because the frog never performs for anyone except him. His ambitions crumble and eventually he is left alone with only the frog as a unwanted companion. Destitute, and eventually confined to a psychiatric hospital he joyfully reburies the frog at the construction site after his release, leaving the frog to be discovered years later by another worker with the buildings demolition. There is no dialogue so the story is given color and dimension through pantomime (not unlike the old Charlie Chaplin movies) and the various acts performed by the frog. This cartoon never grows old for me. Maybe it is the catchy songs the frog sings or maybe the ironic demise of the man who wanted to exploit the frog’s talent. Whatever the case, it always brings a smile to my face the moment the frog begins to sing “Hello! Ma Baby“.
What’s Opera Doc?, Merrie Melodies 1957
Directed by Chuck Jones, this short like One Froggy Evening is one of the iconic highlights in the history of animated shorts. It plays homage to the famous 17-hour long opera sequence “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (or “The Ring of the Nibelung”) created by composer Richard Wagner at the end of the 19th century. It opens with a mighty figure creating terrible lightning storms and zooms in to reveal Elmer Fudd playing the role Siegfried. True to his nature, he has plans to hunt rabbits and excitedly comes across Bugs Bunny’s hole. After thrusting his spear into the hole, Bugs Bunny goads him into demonstrating the power of his spear and magic helmet and flees in fear. After the chase begins Elmer Fudd halts at the sight of a beautiful maiden, Bugs Bunny disguised as Brünnhilde, riding down astride a giant, plush horse with skinny legs. Truly smitten Elmer Fudd playfully tries to win her heart, which Bugs Bunny obviously exploits. Eventually Elmer Fudd realizes he has been tricked and in his fury kills Bugs Bunny after he destroys the mountain with his mighty storms. Once he sees Bugs Bunny’s dead body tragically draped over a large stone, he is overcome with grief and carries the body up to Valhalla. The cartoon ends with Bugs Bunny comically raising his head and stating “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”.
This is my all time favorite Looney Tunes cartoon. I love the musical dialogue that adheres to the original opera, the hilarious “love” scene between the disguised Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, and most importantly the debut of the fat horse carrying Bugs Bunny down the hill. This cartoon is a masterpiece of comedy and animation and a must-see for all.
Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, Walt Disney Productions 1959
Directed by Ward Kimball and Charles A. Nicholes, this is an educational Adventures in Music animated short created by Disney which demonstrates the history of music by showcasing the four basic types of instruments: brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion. It begins in a classroom of different birds about to be taught about the history of musical instruments and at the start of an upbeat swinging songs proceeds to tell their story. Starting with an out of tune caveman playing the most basic version of the instruments, the short shows how it evolved through time and its place in modern day music. With its two-dimensional flat quality it brilliantly in only ten minutes tells about the history of each of these types of instruments through vibrant colors and music. It has a wonderfully lively feel to it and makes what most kids would find boring into something fun and exciting. This is also one of the few Disney shorts that I feel was made to benefit the audience without depending on public opinion, fads and sales. I also like how it accepts new musical styles like jazz, latin and old country. Music truly is shown to come in all shapes and sizes.
Directed by Friz Freleng and Hawley Pratt, this is the debut of Blake Edwards‘ Pink Panther, complete with the incredibly catchy “Pink Panther Theme“ written by Henry Mancini . The short is fairly simple as a painter (later named the “Little Man”) and the Pink Panther compete with one another, one painting the house blue and the other pink. Eventually, the painter inadvertently paints the entire house and its surroundings pink, to his horror, and the Pink Panther happily buys the house and moves in. When I think of the Pink Panther I always think of my mother, who had grown up watching the old Pink Panther cartoons, and its music. It doesn’t have any dialogue so, like old silent films and shorts, it leans on the music and the dramatic actions of its characters. The animation, like in When Magoo Flew, is bold and simple and doesn’t have very complex colors or styles. Its brilliance lays in the comedic play between the characters and unassuming plot. Unfortunately, as cartoons like the Pink Panther became popular, animated shorts lost their popularity as a new age of TV shows and animated movies took over. It was at this point that animation turned from an artistic venture to a medium of children’s entertainment.
–Rabbit of Seville, Looney Tunes (1950), How The Grinch Stole Christmas, Chuck Jones (1966), Hair Raising Hare, Looney Tunes 1946, Book Revue, Merrie Melodies (1942), Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, Merrie Melodies (1942), Duck Amuck, Looney Tunes 1950, Education for Death, Walt Disney Productions 1943, Rhapsody in Rivets Merrie Melodies (1946).