Friday, June 19, 2009

The Merry Dwarfs

Okay, I know why the dwarfs in this short are merry – they are all drunk! Seriously, The Merry Dwarfs is one long ode to the joy of beer. If I drank like the dwarfs here, I’d be pretty darn happy all the time.

That aside, the rest of the short is entertaining, but mostly unremarkable. It opens with a nice scene, that features a great deal of depth, showing the dwarf village, with the dwarfs engaged in some dancing and working all at the same time. It’s interesting because it shows the cast in full before then zeroing in for some slice of life pieces.

The small vignettes showing the various dwarf craftsmen and workers was my favorite part of the short. We start with a street sweeper, who ends up using his beard as a broom, then over to a shoemaker (cliché, isn’t it) and finally a trio of blacksmiths. All the little pictures of life in the dwarf world are good, because it does what I think animation can do best – give us an entry into a world that we can’t see anywhere else.

After that beginning segment, though, the short evolves into another all dancing short, with the patented Ub Iwerks’ silly dancing scenes. First, though, everyone has to stop for some beer, then they dance. A whole parade leads the beer into a field where four dwarfs get to drink, then start dancing.

The four drop down to two, and they go through several different iterations, including using a leaf as a skirt, pulling their hats down over their entire bodies and a few more. The most inventive piece comes at the end, after the two dwarfs fall into a barrel of beer. As they continues dancing after getting out of the barrel, the entire background starts swaying in waves, and the dwarfs stay on the ground dancing. That experimental look alone makes this short notable.

Another interesting thing is that the design of the dwarfs is very similar to the first iteration of Mickey. The small circle stomach and then rubber hoses leading off the body make the dwarfs look like Mickey with a beard. It’s the beards that are the fun features of the dwarfs, as they use them much like Julius or Oswald would use their tails. The beards are brooms, instruments, a second pair of legs or whatever the scene requires.

It is very interesting though to contrast the themes and flow of the Silly Symphonies to the Mickey Mouse cartoons. In the Silly Symphonies, the action is always centered around the music, but it features more adult themes, like hell, drinking, skeletons and the like. There’s also a bit more experimentation in the Silly Symphonies. The Mickeys, while mostly following the same formula of being built around the music, follow a more innocent tone, with Mickey interacting with the animals to provide entertainment or make friends. It’s an interesting contrast. When I can tell you what that helps me deduce about Walt and his mindset in 1929, I’ll let you know.


  1. That's very true about animated films giving us access to worlds that couldn't exist in real life. In fact, this seems to be the first time in a Disney cartoon that we enter a world inspired by picture storybooks with details like pumpkin and mushroom houses. Disney had covered Fairytales in the Laugh-O-Grams, of course, but they never seemed like a storybook world come to life, as is starting to happen here.

    The details and logic of this world are of the kind that has inspired illustrators and animators for generations. A world that is similar to our own, but with certain differences to suit its inhabitants. Therefore, the people of this world still need blacksmiths, but their 'horses' are actually insects. In a film like 'Finding Nemo' the underwater world has houses, schools, and traffic, but it all works in a fanciful way that fits the aquatic life. I think this kind of thing is coming together for the first time in a Disney cartoon here. There are also touches to make the world more believable like the lighting effects in the blacksmith scene.

    I do wonder if the reissue version (as found on the DVD) fades to black just a few frames too early. I really like the wonky iris out of the drunken ending and wonder if everything crashed together a little more as the last beats of music suggest (maybe just a more sudden appearance by the end card to suit the cymbal crash, rather than that gentle fade from black)

  2. Any fan of the loopy Iwerks /Disney style of cartoon mayhem dancing and goofy parading around will find a lot to cheer in this fun, cheeky short.
    Once again a silly gayness is visited upon briefly when all of a sudden a male dwarf uses a leaf as a skirt and immediately becomes a female impersonator with his partner, another male dwarf with a long beard, gladly assuming the male's role to his friend's sudden female personality shift. It takes about the same amount of time to watch on screen as it takes to read this paragraph.
    Just another goofy, silly FUN moment from Walt and Ub and their team.
    How lucky we are to be able to reference these shorts on dvd as we read about them---when I was a kid obtaining a rare 16mm print of this early Disney/Iwerks Silly Symphony was really cause for celebration.
    We are spoiled---and very lucky--- to have nearly every Disney sound short within easy reach.
    I keep going back to this period of early Disney/Iwerks sound shorts for cartoon inspiration of the highest order---this brief period was over all too quickly yet caused a revolution in the entertainment world and forever put Disney on the map.
    Plus , as I recall, Disney had great luck with goofy dancing and singing dwarfs just a years later when they helped support his first feature---they even got co-billing in the title with their leading lady!
    Merry Dwarfs indeed!


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