Tuesday, March 31, 2009
The story is actually quite simple. Alice and Julius are riding along on the back of a turtle (???), when they see a pie laid out in the top floor window of a nearby building. Julius speeds up the turtle by getting off to push, then gets to the top floor by standing on the turtle’s head while Alice cranks his tail to extend the turtle’s neck.
That’s just the beginning of the great gags. When the hippo who baked the pie sees the gang stealing it, she yells “Help! Polize!” and the police officer forms out of the incorrectly spelled “Polize.” He begins chasing Alice, Julius and the turtle, with Julius still seated atop the extended neck, and Alice opens the turtle’s shell to hide inside.
What follows is a cavalcade of gags during an elaborate chase sequence. The officer shoots at the gang, separating the turtle’s neck from it’s head where Julius is perched, so Julius reaches down with his tail and yanks more neck out from the turtle’s shell. Julius grabs one of the smoke rings from the gunshot and throws it back at the cop, who then proceeds to use his gun and the smoke ring as a unicycle to catch up more quickly. Julius turns the turtle into a boat, turning it over on its back and pulling off its arms to use as oars. The cop follows to land where Julius and the gang run into a tree with a hole in it, then pull the bark down like a window shade.
It gets hard to catch all the gags, as they come fast and furious during the chase sequence, barely giving the viewer a chance to breathe. This is similar to what I saw in the Ub Iwerks documentary, The Hand Behind the Mouse, of how Ub would pack his later cartoons with such rapid fire gags. You have to figure that Ub played a heavy part in this short.
The cop eventually catches the gang, by posing as a free lunch wagon, and drives them off to jail. Even there, there are more great gags. Julius and Alice are breaking rocks and a supervisor comes over to yell at them for moving slowly. While he yells at Alice, Julius notices that he’s pounding a nearby stump with his hand, so Julius places the rocks there and lets the yeller pound them. The turtle breaks a rock and reveals a pool ball, so he pulls off his tail and begins playing pool.
The inevitable escape comes when Julius uses his tail as a crane to lift his prison ball, then convinces an ostrich to peck off the chain and extend its neck so he can get over the wall.
After that, Julius again grabs a smoke ring from one of the guards’ gunshots, and uses it to float down the wall. But a cactus at the bottom convinces him to start flapping his arms to get back up. So, Julius begins flying, and picks up Alice to fly away as the short ends.
In all the shorts so far, there has not been one as packed with gags as this one. Every few seconds, there is another inventive gag, using words as a prop, or making use of effects like smoke rings or other crazy options. This has to be the funniest of the Alice Comedies yet, so we’ll see if the quality continues.
Monday, March 30, 2009
It’s a predictable cartoon to say the least, with a familiar set up to anyone who has watched cartoons over the last few decades. Pete, the boxing champ, has set up camp in a local gym, and is offering $50 to anyone who can stay in the ring with him for five minutes. Of course, the money is intriguing to the seemingly always broke Julius and Alice, and Alice encourages Julius to take his shot at the champ.
A reluctant Julius waits outside in line as Pete dispatches his own shadow, a pipsqueak mouse (foreshadowing Mickey?), a turtle and a giant hippo in short order. Julius, of course, is none too pleased with this parade of animals being dragged out, and turns to run, but gets dragged into the room with Pete by a giant hook, like a vaudeville act.
Of course, Pete roughs him up for a while, causing horrible sounds to emanate from the room. Alice takes a second to peek through the keyhole and sees Pete using poor Julius as a pogo stick.
Eventually, though, Julius gets the upper hand, as Pete pastes him up against the wall, then Julius ducks as Pete punches through the wall. Pete gets stuck, and Julius goes to work, working over Pete’s tail and rear end with a frenzy.
The final confrontation happens in a very cool way, with both fighters being highlighted in shadow only, struggling to reach a nearby bottle. One hits the other over the head with the bottle, and cheers emerge from the room.
At first, Alice begins weeping, because she assumes that Pete has won, but it turns out that Julius was the one who hit Pete, resulting in a crowd lifting him on their shoulders and praising him as the new champ. Alice faints dead away as the short ends.
As you can see, this is definitely something that Mickey and Minnie could be involved in rather than Julius or Alice. It’s also interesting to see the contrast in approach from something like this to how Warner Bros. would approach this with Bugs Bunny, where Bugs would constantly have the upper hand on the champ, as opposed to Julius’ scared, reactionary stance. It highlights some of the difference of the Disney characters – more being buffeted by outside forces and struggling to be in control. All in all, an entertaining short, but one that I think I will reference again as we move forward.
Friday, March 27, 2009
It’s an interesting concept, as the short opens with Alice, Julius and a new version of Pete (some sort of bear/dog creature) competing in a derby. But it’s a new kind of derby. The first half of the race is in cars, and the second half is run on horses. Very unique idea, kind of like a lazy biathlon.
The gun sounds and Alice and Pete take off, but Julius’ car takes off the wrong direction, as he panics and tries to get it headed the right way. Pete changes the “Detour” sign, sending a frantic Julius down the wrong path, eventually chasing him up a cliff, where there is a good sequence of the car trying to pull itself up.
Meanwhile, Alice and Pete reach the horses and take off into the lead. When Julius catches up, he mounts a horse nearby, which is a mechanical one. This is the first of many mechanical animals that will appear in the Alice and Oswald cartoons, so it’s interesting to see it here.
The mechanical horse gives Julius all sorts of problems, running sideways, up, down and even backwards. When the horse starts running backwards, Julius simply swaps the head and tail, making his backwards horse face forwards.
Eventually, Alice and Pete’s horses jump a fence, with Alice getting stuck on the other side with a bucking horse, while Pete sails towards the finish. We cut to Julius and see a few gags there, like the rear legs falling off. Julius uses his question mark over his head to pluck a balloon to elevate the horse’s rear and keep going.
The climax comes when the bucking horse tosses Alice right into Pete, and she rides his horse over the finish line to the victory. Pete sails back into Julius and they glare at each other for a few brief moments before we see the crowd cheering Alice at the end.
It’s a simple short, to be sure, but the narrative element of the race helps to unify the story, providing this short with better storytelling than the last few. As usual, Julius carries the action, providing the bulk of the gags and the momentum to the cartoon. When Alice is on screen, things tend to slow down. This was eventually the decision that led Disney to quit making the Alice comedies, but that would not be until the end of 1926. In the meantime, they used all the studio’s resources to get these films out as quickly as possible, to the tune of at least one per month. Perhaps that is the reason for the inconsistency from film to film.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
The recent shorts were mostly animated, not bothering to have a live action framing sequence, and not making any excuses for why Alice would be in an animated world. This time, though, it’s back to the original formula.
Alice and friends are in a cabin labeled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” producing a short play, and the first couple of minutes of the film take place there. We see the cast getting ready, and then see Alice and a young boy acting out a scene in the “snow.”
The snow is being dumped from above, and when the crew guy gets distracted from dropping snow, the director charges up at him, startling him into dropping the snow. Yep, down goes the solid snow, dropping right on Alice’s head.
This, of course, triggers the animation, where Alice and Julius are playing in the snow. They build a snowman, throw snowballs, and dance around in a circle, in a rather uninspired bit of animation. The fun begins when a bear in a top hat skates by, and Julius inadvertently hits him with a snowball.
The bear chases Alice and Julius into a log cabin. Julius stays outside to confront the bear while Alice disappears. The bear makes various threats, and Julius promises to make him “eat those words,” and in fact does so in a rather inventive gag, literally cramming the animated letters down the bear’s throat.
This doesn’t stop the bear, however, as he sends his dogs after Julius and Alice. Julius responds by picking up the log cabin and running away, sliding down a snowbanked hill, then into an ice flow river. This leads to another great gag, where Julius uses the question mark floating above his head to float on top of the house. Alice emerges (in an animated form) and the two plunge over a waterfall, just as live action Alice starts flailing about.
You can see, this is very similar to the early films. There is a live action framing sequence with a nonsensical animated short that really has no end. It’s quite a departure from the gag heavy, animation laden shorts that have been dominant during the first part of Margie Gay’s run as Alice.
You wonder why this return to basics approach took over. I would assume it’s because of a rush to get the cartoons out, but I’m not sure. Something to ponder…
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears, for I owe you all a great apology. In my travels this week (I've been up down, all around since Monday), I have been posting under the assumption that Dawn O'Day was portraying Alice. In truth, I have been inaccurate.
The second Alice was not Dawn O'Day. Oh no! It was in fact, Margie Gay. Gay portrayed Alice in Alice Solves the Puzzle, the first film without Virginia Davis. At the time, Walt and the crew were trying out some new actresses, to see who would fit the best. But they had no time for more formal auditions, since they had to get the cartoons out.
Margie Gay in Alice Solves the Puzzle
So, the following short, Alice's Egg Plant, saw Dawn O'Day's one and only appearance as Alice. The rest of the Alice shorts since Alice Solves the Puzzle were actually Margie Gay's work. So, I unfairly maligned Dawn O'Day in Tuesday's Alice Loses Out review.
My apologies to both actresses, and to you, the reader. I will make sure I have a little more time to research before posting as we move forward. Later today, we'll roll out with another review, this time of the Margie Gay starring Alice
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
That’s probably too harsh a verdict on Alice Loses Out, but to be honest, it’s just not that entertaining. Not to say that it doesn’t have fun parts and neat gags, but it is nowhere near as entertaining as some of the latter Virginia Davis shorts. You really get the sense here that Walt and his crew were looking to produce as many of these shorts as they could, without really tending to the quality as they had in years past.
Why do I feel that way? There is just a charm missing from this short. To begin, it opens with a title card explaining the cast, something that has not been present in the other shorts. While I’m sure it was helpful to some at the time, it just seems to rob the short of some well needed exposition.
As it is, the short opens with Ima Hawg, a garbage magnate that is traveling the road with his chauffeur. We are treated to a minute or so of the car on the bumpy road, but there’s no real payoff to that segment. There are some fun gags with the chauffeur, but that’s it.
The real plot begins when we see Alice and Julius are running a hotel, and not doing so well. They are cleaning when we first see them, and Alice leaves Julius in charge of the cleaning, while she runs off. Julius, of course, does not take to this.
He manages to improvise, slipping and sliding around, even getting his head stuck in a bucket while the rest of him goes free. Quite a strange bit, that’s a little disconcerting rather than funny.
Of course, Ima Hawg arrives to check in, and immediately asks for a barber and a manicurist to come visit. Desperate for customers, Alice sends Julius to be the barber/manicurist. He does a credible job as a barber, twirling the hog’s tail and giving him a quick shave, but the manicurist is another story.
Julius is forced to dress up as another person, but soon makes a mistake, and Ima Hawg goes nuts, rampaging against both he and Alice. They flee into the elevator, which flies up through the roof and out into the air, ultimately crash landing in front of the hotel, right on the hog.
That’s it, folks. There are no real inventive sequences, no crazy chases, and no real reason given why we should dislike the hog. The whole short seems, well, short, as it has no real exposition and suffers from a lack of storytelling. The whole thing is just flat, which is very odd for these Alice shorts. Even the ones that are bad seem to strive for more, but this one is very pedestrian. Hopefully the rest of the Dawn O’Day shorts will show some improvement.
Monday, March 23, 2009
What do I mean? Well, this short opens with our friend Julius the cat coming up on the egg farm, and seeing no hens in the laying house, trying to roust the hens from their dormitory to produce more eggs.
Julius spends the next few minutes of the film wandering the line, inspecting the eggs, cracking his tail as a whip, and generally harassing the hens. If you’ve been reading along, this is quite a departure from the previous mode of the Alice films. Think back to Alice and the Dog Catcher, where Alice skips out on piano lessons to go fishing, or Alice Gets in Dutch where the teacher is mercilessly mocked. All of a sudden, we’ve gone from mocking authority figures to turning the hero of the short into one. What’s changed?
Well, for starters, Walt Disney, rather than a young kid struggling to make his way in the world, is now a businessman, and one of the main proprietors of a studio. No longer is he the pal of the animators and just another of the boys, making films to avoid other jobs. He’s now the head man. That brings a whole new view into perspective.
But wait, it gets even more interesting. We see that Alice has an order for 5,000 eggs, and she calls her friend, Julius to fill the order. YES! Finally, Julius is named on screen! I’ve been waiting! Sorry, but it drove me nuts that everyone calls him Julius, but he had not been named in the actual shorts.
However, unbeknownst to Alice and Julius, a new hen has shown up. This new hen is from Moscow, and incites Alice’s hens to strike. Very interesting, right?
Here we are in 1925, years ahead of the cold war and the red scare, but in this cartoon, communism is the bad guy, and the capitalist trying to make a buck from the workers (the hens) is the hero. See any parallels with Walt trying to get his animators to work faster or harder? It’s possible.
Alice and Julius are distraught, not knowing how they will finish the order, until Alice sees two roosters fighting. An idea is sparked, and they set up a prize fight, with the price of admission being one egg. Soon, they have collected their 5,000 eggs, just in time to drive off into the sunset. Unfortunately, just as they drive off, the eggs splatter off the back as we fade to black.
I have to say, the sudden shift in tone from Alice and Julius being the anti-authoritarian trouble makers to the overlords of a factory is jarring. But you have to imagine that Walt himself was going through a similar conversion. It is interesting to note though, that almost twenty years later, Walt would experience a strike of his own, and would insist that it was spurred by communist agitators. Did that idea blossom here? All in all, I think Alice’s Egg Plant is an essential window into the Disney Studio of 1925.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
The short opens with Alice struggling to solve a crossword puzzle. But wait, this is not the Alice we know and love!
Yep, it’s the debut of Dawn O’Day as Alice, replacing Virginia Davis. Even hardcore fans like myself probably have never seen pictures of O’Day in the Alice shorts, as most of us have only seen Alice’s Wonderland or the films that Disney released on their Disney Rarities DVD. Virginia Davis is such a part of the fabric of the Disney lore, that it’s hard to realize that there was more than one Alice.
So, as Alice continues, she cannot solve the last word on the puzzle. The still unnamed Julius shows up and tells her to blow off the puzzle and take a swim with him. It’s at this point I noticed something interesting. As in past films, the camera pans out, and Alice switches from the live action O’Day to an animated character.
However, what was interesting to me here, is how much Dawn O’Day looks like an animated character already. Virginia Davis had her curls and various bouncing dresses and moved her arms in varying directions, so when the animation took over it looked stiff and unrealistic. Dawn O’Day, on the other hand, has her hair in a short bob that doesn’t move, her dress is straight up and down smock, or a bathing suit in this instance, and her movements are very limited. For some reason, this struck me while watching the animated sequence.
While Julius and Alice are playing off the diving board, we are introduced to a major figure in Disney cartoon history – Bootleg Pete. The card here tells us that Pete is a collector of rare crossword puzzles, but for Disney historians, he’s much more. Pete is currently seen today on Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, but he’s been a thorn in Mickey’s side for decades, as Pete, Pegleg Pete and other incarnations.
Here, he’s a water skiing bear, who gets a rude reception when he chases after Alice to get her puzzle. Pete chases her up a lighthouse tower, and Julius has to bounce up to save the day.
There are some cute gags in this short, and it’s clear that Walt and his animators were moving now to almost all animation, minimizing the contribution of the live action Alice. But they are starting to build a repertory of characters. Julius has been around, but the dog from the Laugh-O-Grams shows up here again, as he has intermittently since Ub came on board. Pete’s appearance is the first of many. It will be interesting to track the development of these characters as we move forward.
Overall, Alice Solves the Puzzle is entertaining, but it’s not as gag packed or well done as some of the last Virginia Davis shorts. Oddly enough, you kind of miss her when she’s gone, and that’s no slight on Dawn O’Day. But the curly haired moppet is my mind’s eye picture of Alice, so not having her there is a little disconcerting. But, onward and upward, with more to come tomorrow.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Animation can offer absurdist humor, like moments in this short when animals lose limbs, bodies and faces only to reconnect and resume their lives. Animation can show character development through what the cartoons do that a live actor would never do. I’ll give you an example.
In this short, the film opens with Julius (no, they still have not put his name on the screen) chasing a rabbit. It’s a rabbit that could be similar to the later Oswald, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, after some predictable chasing, Julius grabs the rabbit’s hind legs that are sticking out of its hole, pulling the rabbit in two.
It’s a cute gag, followed by a better one. After the rabbit reconnects, she starts telling Julius a sob story about how there are a bunch of rabbit babies down in the hole that will be crying for their mama if Julius eats her. Meanwhile, two rabbits pop out of a nearby hole and start playing violin music. Of course, once Julius lets the rabbit go, she snickers and laughs at his naivete.
Could you do this in live action? Sure, but it would be patently ridiculous, and you would have to acknowledge it as such. In the course of a cartoon, though, it’s expected, and even foreshadows interaction you’ll see in later films with Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd from Warner Bros.
This short is really two in one, though, as it also features Alice going after a bunch of bears with her shotgun. It’s amazing how much of an afterthought Alice is in the film, but not when you consider the circumstances. See, this is Virginia Davis’ last film as Alice, due to the aggressive cost cutting of Margaret Winkler and the renegotiated contract with Disney. Winkler’s main condition of doing 18 more Alice films was to cut costs, and Disney, not wanting to cut the animation, decided to get a cheaper Alice.
As such, Virginia Davis delivers her last Alice performance here, and it’s more of the same from the last few films. Lots of standing around waving her arms. The real star of the second half of the film is the bear band, playing music and having a big party. Could this have been a forerunner to the Country Bear Jamboree? Huh?
Bottom line, Alice shoots at the bear, knocking its arms, legs and head off in a funny bit, but the bear ends up chasing Alice and Julius. They dive into a barrel for cover, and the bear knocks a beehive into the barrel, which then rolls into the river.
The quality here is very good, as it seems the less we see of Alice, the better the films get. Julius has become the main draw, and his bits are inspired, such as the interaction with the rabbit and climbing a tower of water to get to her. You can definitely see the comedic timing that would show up later in the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck films.
Tomorrow, a new Alice joins the cast. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
This film starts off with Alice and her cat friend (he’s not Julius until they’ve named him in the films!) seeing a billboard advertising a bullfight with a big cash prize. The funniest part to me is the “Bring Your Own Bull” at the bottom of the sign. That’s a different BYOB than I’m used to, I don’t know about you.
Deciding that they can defeat a bull, Alice and the cat find a nearby run down steer, manage to scoot him over to the arena, and enter the bull fight. Animals from all over town show up to see the fight, with some really clever gags, like an elephant using his trunk to lift the spectators into the bleachers being labeled “Elevator” and a cat with lots of children using a see saw to catapult the kids into the arena.
Inside, Alice and friend are reveling in how easy their victory will be, when an evil cat overhears. You can tell he’s evil because he has a handlebar mustache. Of course, he’s evil! The soon to be named Terrible Tom convinces a bull from a nearby billboard to come and switch places with Alice’s bull, in a clever bit.
The problem comes when Tom starts fighting Alice’s broken down bull, and accidentally swings the steer into a cactus. His rear end full of thorns from the cactus, the bull cleans Tom’s clock, to the delight of the crowd.
Meanwhile, Alice is faced down with the billboard bull, which is a frightening proposition. She does what any self-respecting youngster would, and runs like crazy. Eventually, the chase leads the bull into the pen, where the cat defeats the bull and runs back out dressed up in the bull’s skin.
Alice handily defeats the faux-bull, and is celebrating her victory when a dog wanders onto the arena floor. The dog drags the skin off, leaving Alice and her cat alone. The crowd starts throwing things and chanting “Fake” as we fade to black.
This one is jam packed full of fun, with gags happening almost every second. There are visual gags like the bull being coaxed off the billboard and Tom’s tail turning into an exclamation point, but there are also some great subtle gags like the cat’s tail turning into a hand to scratch his head while he’s thinking. This short shows the Disney animators working hard to amp up the entertainment value. It’s one of the first ones I have watched that was not hard to get through. If this short shows how the rest of the silents will be, then I’m looking forward to them.
Monday, March 16, 2009
Among the last of the first batch of films is Alice Cans the Cannibals, released early in January of 1925. The films features Alice and Julius (everyone calls him this, but I have yet to see him called Julius in the films) driving their car into an ocean by mistake, and ending up on an island of cannibals.
The film is very fun, which can’t be said about every other Alice film. This one really makes use of animation, as you see Walt and his staff losing interest in the live action aspect, no longer bothering with a framing sequence in the last few films. Honestly, Alice is mainly window dressing in this film, with Julius carrying the action.
It begins with Julius driving the car over a cliff, and he and Alice stranded at sea. They manage to hook up a neat contraption with a fish on a leash driving them, in a bit of clever animation.
After that, a storm strikes, with scenes reminiscent of Alice’s Day at Sea. The dark waves batter the car throughout, with amazing rain effects, and even at some point a platoon of monkeys falling from the sky. Not sure why, but it is a nice bit of animation with some cool effects.
Ending up the next morning in the ocean near an island, Julius leads their escape from a group of swordfish by hoisting a “balloon tire” over his head and Alice grabs his tail as they float to the island. Almost immediately, they run into the cannibals, who begin chasing them.
That part is to be expected, as most of these films involve Alice and/or Julius being chased, but this one makes better use of the background. Alice and Julius run up a cliff, climbing up the spears that the cannibals threw as if they were a ladder. Then, as the cannibals close in, Alice manages to throw a spear with a rope through the nose rings of the cannibals, with the spear landing in a hippo’s rear end. The hippo drags the cannibals away, giving our heroes a happy ending.
This is one of the shorts where you can really see improvement in the storytelling and animation. Instead of relying on the same tired gags over and over, there is real invention here. The storm sequence, the modified chases and the balloon tire are all new ideas, and they are executed well. If Walt used this as an example of what his studio could do when renegotiating with Winkler, he would have been in great shape.