Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Opry House

Next up in our cavalcade of Mickey magic is The Opry House, a short that I really have mixed feelings about. It’s entertaining for sure, but it’s also somewhat repetitive, and it doesn’t feature any real standout sequences.

The short follows a very simple story – in a makeshift building, Mickey is putting on a vaudeville show for a variety of farm animals. The short opens with him outside sweeping up as the guests come in, and he even helps a large customer get in by pricking him with a pin to deflate him. The show inside consists of Mickey doing a Middle Eastern number as a snake charmer and belly dancer, then a piano playing sequence where the piano plays back.

One thing you notice right off the bat is that this is a short that was designed for sound. From the very beginning, there are no musical notes flying in the air, and when Mickey starts whistling Yankee Doodle Dandy, he is really doing it on the soundtrack. It’s even more evident inside, when the music plays and Mickey is doing his belly dance.

It’s also interesting to see another vaudeville show. It’s really a running theme, all the way back to Alice’s Wild West, when Alice put on a vaudeville style show in her backyard. There was a similar set up in Bright Lights, the Oswald short, which was in a bit more upscale setting. We’ll see this again in the Mickeys once we get to color. It’s rather obvious that Walt had a flair for showbiz.

Even moreso, Walt has shown a preference for making barnyard animals into an orchestra. The orchestra in this short is made up of animals, but it also features acts like a pig yanking on a cat’s tail to make some of the music. Again, this is a recurring theme. Even in the Laugh-O-Grams, Julius did this with some of the animals, and we saw it again in the Alice Comedies and Steamboat Willie.

It’s obvious that there’s a barnyard humor theme throughout the early Mickey Mouse shorts. What’s strange is that there was not such a theme in the Oswald series. Oswald’s cartoons took place in the big city, on the plains of war, or on a mountain trolley. But so far in the Mickey shorts, we’ve seen Plane Crazy, The Barn Dance and The Opry House take place in a barnyard setting. Why the change?

I’m not sure what the answer is, really. It’s obvious that Walt and his animators were influenced by their backgrounds, but that didn’t affect what they did in the Oswald shorts as much as it has seemed to in the Mickeys. I have not seen many of the upcoming shorts, but as Walt’s success grew in 1929, the year The Opry House was released, he hired more New York animators. I’ll be watching to see if the barnyard ethos changes as that happens.

The Opry House is a good short, like I said, but there are some repetitive sequences. The piano sequence, with Mickey playing and the piano fighting back, goes on far too long. When Mickey’s playing, it’s not nearly as visually interesting as it is when the piano starts kicking him away and playing itself. The musical sequences are a problem in these early Mickeys, because they derail any chance at a story the shorts have.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Barn Dance

The last of the 1928 Mickey Mouse films is The Barn Dance, which is a strange little short. However, it may give us a better insight into Walt and the animators than some of the earlier shorts.

At its core, The Barn Dance is simply an extension of Rival Romeos, the Oswald cartoon. Mickey and Pete show up at Minnie’s house, looking to take her to the dance. After some waffling, Minnie ends up with Mickey, and they go to the barn dance. In the barn, Mickey has some trouble dancing, constantly stepping on Minnie’s feet, so Pete cuts in. Mickey tries to come back, popping a balloon in his pants to keep his feet up, but after Pete pops the balloon, Mickey ends the short alone.

The story is simple enough, but there are some great gags. When Mickey’s constantly stepping on Minnie’s feet, his feet grow larger and larger. The comedy of seeing the oblivious Mickey and the increasingly dismayed Minnie is classic.

The score is actually very repetitive in this short, where as it was varied in The Gallopin’ Gaucho and Steamboat Willie. Most of that is due to the music being played at the barn for the dance, but it’s not that varied even in the first portion of the film. The voices of the characters, which have been poor in the previous shorts, are done better here. Mostly, the characters just have musical cues or light squeaks that are not as distracting as they were in the earlier shorts.

What really stands out to me from this short, though, is what it reveals about the men who made it. One key sequence to me is right at the beginning. Mickey pulls up to Minnie’s house in a horse and buggy, followed shortly by Pete in an early model automobile. When Minnie comes out, she chooses Pete first, but the car falters. Then, she goes over to Mickey and the horse and buggy.

It’s an obvious commentary on the value of old-fashioned ways of doing things, and it’s very interesting, considering what had happened before. Remember Walt selling his car to finance the second recording session for Steamboat Willie? Think he might have held a little resentment towards cars later in 1928? Just a thought, but it’s something to consider.

The actual barn dance itself is another reflection of the animators. Having come from the Midwest themselves, you would think that most of them had been to one of these dances. Their audience in New York or Los Angeles probably had not. So, the animators were able to bring some of their background to a whole new audience, making it feel fresh and new. The Disney animators definitely grounded Mickey in barnyard humor in his early shorts, so it will be interesting to watch the settings change as we go along.

The Barn Dance is good, but not outstanding. There are no real standout pieces of animation, and it just doesn’t stand out to me among all the shorts I’ve seen. However, the quality is still much higher than the Alice Comedies, and on par with many of the Oswalds.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Adding Sound to Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho

I thought it would be interesting to go back to Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho to see what, if anything, sound added to the experience. Or, if they were better off as silent cartoons. As everything, the answer was mixed.

Let’s start with Plane Crazy. There are definitely sequences in this short that are out of place in a sound cartoon. One that leaps to mind is the “Crash” and “Bang” sound effects that pop up on screen after Mickey crashes his plane.

As is the norm in these shorts, the character voices are out of place. Until full voiced characters came along, the squeaks and grunts don’t really add much to the short. It’s worse when one character talks and the other doesn’t. Mickey sets up his new plane, then motions to Minnie to come with him, making flying motions with his arms. Then, Minnie answers “Who, me?” It’s an odd moment when you’ve watched the short silently. Why would Mickey make the flying motions?

On the other hand, the opening barnyard sequence definitely benefits from the sound. The various animals making sounds relating to their construction projects are funny, especially the pig grunting whenever it hits its own hand with a hammer. The drumroll during the plane spiraling towards the earth is also a great compliment to the short.

The Gallopin’ Gaucho, however, seems to have much improvement with sound. Carl Stalling did the music, just as he did for many of the Looney Tunes cartoons after he left Disney, and it shows. The music used here, such as the Spanish theme in the cantina or the villain theme when Pete is riding away, is very familiar to anyone who has watched a lot of cartoons.

The Spanish theme in the cantina is probably the best piece of music in the short. It reminds me a great deal of the Zorro TV show theme song. I wonder if they drew from this for that, or if it was a common Mexican song? Don’t know for sure.

Another place the music stands out is when the drunken ostrich stumbles out of the cantina to help Mickey. The wobbly bird is brought into the picture with a wobbly, silly soundtrack, and it complements the action perfectly.

The voices in this one are kept to a minimum, which is good. Mickey squeaks here and there, and Pete has a big belly laugh, but there are no attempts at full voice over.

I’d have to say that overall, sound definitely was an improvement for The Gallopin’ Gaucho, but maybe not so much for Plane Crazy. Plane Crazy was such a tour de force of silent animation by Ub Iwerks that it really did not need sound to make it stand out. However, it makes perfect sense that Walt went ahead and added it after the success of Steamboat Willie.

The question remains, though, whether Mickey was successful because of sound or because of the cartoons. Having seen the first three Mickeys, I have to say I think it was the character himself that was the key. There’s something about Mickey that makes him just a bit more appealing than Oswald. It could be the design, or the mannerisms, but I loved Oswald, I just like Mickey a little more. The sound probably got people’s attention, but it was the character that kept them in the theatre.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Finally! Steamboat Willie

Finally, after nearly five months of working on it, we have come to the first “official” Mickey Mouse cartoon – Steamboat Willie. Sure, others were animated first, but the public got their first glimpse at the future icon in Steamboat Willie. So, we’ve all seen it a few times before, I’m sure, but how does it stack up after having viewed all that came before?

Not too bad, but not too good would be my first assessment. Steamboat Willie, oddly enough, is much more derivative than the first two Mickeys, borrowing several gags from the Oswalds and even the Alice Comedies. The animation is good, although not as inventive as some of the sights we saw in Plane Crazy or in some of the Oswald shorts.

So, is it the sound that made Steamboat Willie so popular? It certainly doesn’t hurt. The sound effects are key to the timing and comedy of the film, although the character’s voices are pretty terrible. The squeaks and grunts are frankly annoying, and probably would have been better served with musical cues instead.

It’s not the story, either. This is definitely the weakest story so far in the Mickey shorts, with Mickey serving as a first mate on a steamboat, captained by Pete, and all of the action stems from there. He picks up Minnie, a musical interlude takes up most of the short, and Pete finally implores him to get back to work towards the end.

No, the thing that makes Steamboat Willie work is the real every man sense the viewer gets from Mickey in this film. You’ll recall, that’s at odds with the intent that Ub Iwerks had for the new character. Ub wanted Mickey to be a dashing hero, as seen in The Gallopin’ Gaucho. But the Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie is not that. In fact, he’s much like Oswald, trying to enjoy himself but being harassed by Pete as he does.

In this short, though, Mickey shows his human side, trying to please Minnie after a goat eats her music, by cranking its tail and turning the goat into a record player. Sure, it’s a gag straight out of Rival Romeos, the Oswald short, but it gives a little glimpse into Mickey’s personality.

I’ve gathered from comments here and in other places that the musical interludes would become a crutch in the early Mickey films, and it’s easy to see how that would happen. In this film, Mickey turns all the animals into instruments, including swinging a cat around by its tail and picking up a pig and playing its teats like an accordion. Both of these are scenes that had been cut from the film, but they are intact on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD.

Strangely enough, I feel like this is the weakest of the first three Mickey films. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. But the animation, storytelling and characters are not as strong. However, Steamboat Willie will always hold a warm place in my heart as the first Mickey film.

It still holds sway, though, over young kids. My son watched it with me a few days ago, and has been asking me to see it again every day since. My daughter loves it as well. They both saw some of the Oswalds and the other two Mickey films reviewed so far, but they keep coming back to Steamboat Willie. Maybe this was the beginning of the Disney magic we all keep hearing about.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Mickey III - The Search For Sound

As I have mentioned, I watched the first two Mickey shorts, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, with the sound turned down, since they were animated without sound and then had the music and effects added later. With Steamboat Willie, though, it’s a bit of a different story.

Walt was having trouble finding a distributor for his new series, even with the fine work that Ub Iwerks was doing with the character of Mickey. Remember, this is 1928, and even though the Depression had not yet begun, times were still a little lean. Walt knew he needed a different hook to make this new character work.

About midway through the production of the film, Walt and his remaining company, Roy, Ub, Les Clark, Johnny Cannon and Wilfred Jackson, set up a screening room with a sheet, and they went behind the screen to play music and add sound effects. The reaction from their audience, mostly family and friends, was outstanding. Ub was known to say later that nothing else in his life equaled that thrill.

Looking to find a way to synchronize sound to his cartoons, Walt had to reach out and try to find different means of making sound work. Others had included sound in cartoons in the past, but none had synchronized the sound to the action on the screen. Walt found someone willing to work with him in Pat Powers, a New York businessman. Powers wanted his new Cinephone process to become the standard in sound, so he agreed to work with Walt in exchange for having his name and the Cinephone name on the title card.

On the way to New York, Walt stopped off in Kansas City, and met with his friend Carl Stalling. Walt convinced his old organist friend to write a score for Steamboat Willie, and left Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho with him while he headed to New York.

Carl Stalling

The first recording session in New York was a disaster, as the conductor could not synchronize the orchestra by sight alone. Broke and unable to fathom giving up on his new venture, Walt asked Roy to sell his Moon Roadster, and send the money to New York to finance a second session. This time, the animators were able to insert a small flashing dot in the corner of the print, synchronized to the beats of the score. It worked perfectly, and the synchronized sound cartoon was born.

Walt booked the cartoon into the Colony Theatre in New York, still without a distributor. The audience reaction sealed the deal. People immediately fell in love with Mickey, and a star was born. But how is it, with the benefit of having seen everything that came before? Stay tuned.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Gallopin' Gaucho

The second Mickey short animated was The Gallopin’ Gaucho, a nice little adventure showing what Ub had really intended for Mickey. At the time, the animator extraordinaire thought of Mickey as Douglas Fairbanks, the popular actor of the time. He was not the every man that Oswald was supposed to have been, but instead, Mickey was more of the adventuresome type, who took what he wanted, found adventure and followed his own path.

That’s very evident in this short, which shows a completely different side of Mickey than the symbol of family entertainment he would become. In this short, Mickey is a wanted man, who swings into a cantina and show off his toughness by smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer, and dancing the tango with Minnie.

The story follows a familiar tune to anyone who watched the Oswalds – after Mickey wins Minnie over, Pete (at least I think that’s who it is) shows up and kidnaps her. Mickey goes after them, then manages to best Pete in a swordfight before escaping with Minnie.

There are not as many changes in the animation in this short as there were in Plane Crazy, but here are still some interesting things to note. In the beginning, Mickey rides in on an ostrich, and comes back to it during the chase sequence. The ostrich provides a very good example of rubber hose animation, where the limbs of the characters flop about like a rubber hose, in an entertaining manner.

There’s also some great personality animation here, as you can see the derring-do in Mickey’s eyes when he swings into the cantina, the fire as he dances with Minnie, and the anger when he discovers his ostrich is drunk and not as useful as he might hope in the chase after Pete.

The actions of Mickey, though, are what really stand out. A Mickey that smokes, drinks beer, picks up women in a cantina and swordfights without fear is quite different than the image that most people carry around in their heads. It really typifies the difference in what the intention was for this new character and what he ultimately became.

Eventually, it would be Walt’s “watering down” of Mickey that drove Ub Iwerks away from the studio. Ub felt that he should be able to experiment with Mickey, while Walt was trying to find the best fit for his audience. It was a creative struggle that would define Walt to some degree. But that’s a story for later on.
(Update - 5/20 - Please read the comments, as David corrects me on this. It was Ub who wanted Mickey as the everyman and Walt who was looking for the adventurer. This does make more sense when you look at the next few Mickey shorts. My understanding that it was the other way around seems to have come from a passage in The Hand Behind the Mouse that I must have misinterpreted. So, read the comments and I'll address this in a future post.)

The Gallopin’ Gaucho is also an example of the cohesive storytelling that developed in the Oswalds. Just like Plane Crazy, there is a simple plot – Mickey the gaucho finds Minnie, Pete takes her and a chase ensues – but that plot is the framework around which many gags are constructed.

Next up, the one the really started it all for Mickey – Steamboat Willie.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Plane Crazy

Alright, so we know that Walt and his remaining crew had to work in secrecy to create the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, Plane Crazy. For the most part, while the rest of the studio finished the remaining Oswalds, Ub Iwerks worked behind closed doors creating the debut of the Disney Studio’s newest character. It is, without a doubt, one of the most amazing animation achievements I have ever seen.

Not to say that Plane Crazy is perfect, but when watching it, you are drawn into the characters, their situation, and what is going on in Mickey’s head, which is truly amazing considering that most of the short was done by one man. Even the title card acknowledges it, listing the short as “A Walt Disney Comic – by Ub Iwerks.” That singling out of one man as the key animator is something that you would not expect from Disney, but it was vital here.

This time around, I watched Plane Crazy with the sound down, so that I could see it the way it was originally animated, without a soundtrack. I will revisit it again with the soundtrack to see the differences, but I think I can honestly say that the entertainment value could not increase.

The story is simple – Mickey Mouse admires Charles Lindbergh, and decides to get in his own plane and take a flight. The animals of the barnyard try to help him out by creating a plane, but that one doesn’t get off the ground. He creates a second plane out of a beat up car, and manages to get Minnie up in the air with him. Of course, as in any good Disney story, something goes horribly wrong, and the plane comes crashing to the ground.

The real thing to marvel at here, though, is not just that this short was done almost entirely by one man, but that there are no shortcuts. The backgrounds are more detailed than the Oswalds, the characters have more fluid motion, and the point of view changes frequently.

Take the sequence where Minnie is in the plane alone, flying behind a cow, and the POV is from behind her, as it shifts from side to side as an example. Then there’s the sequence when the plane begins to crash, and the POV is looking straight down at the ground, which circles around and around as the plane comes down. It’s simply amazing.

No review of Mickey’s first appearance would be complete without talking about the character design. He is obviously different from the current rounded, smiling mouse we know as the corporate symbol. Mickey in Plane Crazy is a spindly limbed mouse with a fat oval body and circular head. It’s a very different idea from the design of Oswald or even Julius, who each had thick limbs and a rounded feel.

Mickey here is also more of the adventurer and the mischievous soul than he would become later. While up in the plane, he forces a kiss on Minnie, which prompts her to jump out of the plane. What’s great is that simply by looking at him, you can see the mischief in his thoughts, which is more of the great personality animation that Disney is famous for. All in all, an extremely successful debut short for Walt Disney’s most popular character.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Creating Mickey

There are many stories about the creation of Mickey Mouse, but only one that the Disney company wants you to believe. There’s been a big effort over the years to give Walt all the credit for Mickey. It’s understandable, of course, since the company bears his name. You would imagine that he created the most successful character in the company’s history.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s review the beginning of the story, before we get to the disputed part. With a successful series of Oswald cartoons under his belt, Walt ventured forth to New York to meet with his distributor Charles Mintz, the husband of his Alice distributor, Margaret Winkler. According to the official version, Walt had no idea what would happen.

What happened was that Mintz informed Walt that he had signed away all the animators except Ub Iwerks, and was taking Oswald in house. Walt no longer owned his hallmark character, and rather than Mintz offering him a new contract, Walt would have the choice of a job with Mintz or leaving empty handed and keeping only his brother, Ub and a couple others (including an up and comer named Les Clark) as the remainder of his studio.

Until a few years ago, Disney stuck with the story that it was Walt, on the train ride back from New York to Los Angeles, who came up with the initial sketches for Mickey. The truth, as currently acknowledged by the company, is not so simple. Walt definitely decided to come up with a new character, rather than stick with Mintz, but he didn’t create Mickey from whole cloth on that ride.

As the story goes in the book and film The Hand Behind the Mouse, Walt returned home in the spring of 1928 with a few more Oswald cartoons to complete, but still needing to spend his time creating a new character to keep the studio running. Walt set Ub to work on new designs for a trademark character. After reviewing various animals, like dogs and cats, they ultimately settled on a mouse.

Even there, the story is a little fuzzy. In Walt Disney’s Missouri, the authors imply that Mickey likely came to be out of Walt’s love for a mouse he kept in his office back in Kansas City. Another story says that Walt had a pet mouse on his farm, and Hugh Harman had drawn sketches of mice around a picture of Walt in 1925, prompting Ub’s work in 1928.

Whatever the truth really is, we may never know. Walt himself tended to perpetuate the myth about creating Mickey on the train ride. Throughout his life, Walt preferred to give the press the story, rather than the truth, not just in this instance, but in many others as well. It wasn’t a case of lying, just a consummate storyteller choosing to give people the best story possible.

Everyone agrees on one fact, though, and that’s that Walt’s wife, Lillian, was the one who came up with the name. Walt had chosen to call him Mortimer, but Lilly rejected that out of hand, and came up with Mickey instead.

It’s a longer discussion to talk about why Mickey became so successful – was it sound, his actions, his character, the animation by Ub, the merchandising – but we can all agree that we’re glad it happened.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Legacy of Oswald

So, with all the Oswalds finished, what have we learned so far about the Disney Studio? Nothing life changing, but there are some interesting things to note.

First of all, there is definitely a sophistication and design to the storytelling in the Oswald shorts that was mostly lacking in the Alice Comedies. Shorts like Sky Scrappers or Rival Romeos have a clear beginning, middle and end, with a quick and easy to follow plot. There may be gags throughout, but they serve the purpose of the story, and are not entirely superfluous.

In later years, many at the studio would remark that “story is king.” I think you’ve started to see that develop in the Oswald shorts. During the early Mickeys that I have seen, the storytelling is not as good, which is interesting to note. That’s something I’ll keep an eye on as we begin the black and white Mickeys.

Second, character design, after the first few Oswalds, took leaps and bounds in this series. Julius and friends in the Alice shorts were good characters, but mostly either derivative of Felix the Cat (Julius) or copies of previous works of Walt’s (the Laugh-O-Grams). Only in the Oswald series do you see original characters being designed and created by the studio. Oswald and Sadie are both great designs, and the various iterations of Pete are leaps and bounds better than in the Alice shorts. Ub Iwerks, is primarily to thank for this, I would imagine, but certainly the other animators carried the design through, which allows for a great consistency in these shorts.

Finally, and probably most important – Oswald is a character, not just a tool for gags. This is hugely important to me. The Disney animation style is designed around personality animation, which is making the audience forget that these are drawings and imbuing the characters with real thoughts, feelings and emotions. Every once and a while you got a glimpse of that with Julius, but Oswald truly makes that premise real.

When Oswald is wooing Sadie, he is not just exuding heart symbols from his body, but you see the emotion on his face, in his posture and his actions. When Pete is clobbering Oswald, you see Sadie’s emotions as she fears for her sweetheart. That’s the true genius of Disney, and what makes their animation stand out to me. Certainly, it’s not at the level it will get to with the features, but the foundation is being laid in these Oswald cartoons.

So, the Oswalds pave the way for the Mickeys, and the real expansion of the Disney Studio. Today, Oswald is finally back home at Disney, after years of being at Universal. For those who don’t know the story, after a successful run of shorts with Charles Mintz, the distributor of Oswald, Walt ventured to New York to do a new contract. Only then did he discover that all the animators, except Ub, had defected and signed contracts with Mintz, so Walt no longer owned Oswald or his creators.

For a while Oswald cartoons were produced by Universal, and eventually the product was handed over to animation giant Walter Lantz. And, only a few years ago, when Universal, now owning NBC, wanted a new announcer for Sunday Night Football, they traded Disney/ABC the rights to Oswald for the contract of Al Michaels, in my favorite trade ever.

As for Walt, next for him was Mickey Mouse, his most popular creation. But that is a story for another time.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Tall Timber

The last of the Oswald shorts still available for me today is Tall Timber, which again features Oswald in a solo role. It’s a very interesting cartoon visually, and has some great gags, but there’s no connective tissue to the story, merely a succession of gags. It’s really a throwback to the Alice series in that way, and somewhat of a deviation from the previous Oswald subjects.

The story, such as it is, just features Oswald on a journey through the wilderness, first off in a canoe. There are some great close-up shots of Oswald as he paddles along the river, offering a different perspective from the normal sideways shots.

Of course, not everything goes according to plan, and soon Oswald is carried over the falls, going through all sorts of contortions and gags to try and avoid the rocks and sink his boat. Nothing especially stands out, and the sequence seems to drag on just a bit.

At the bottom of the falls, a duck menaces Oswald, causing him to shoot a hole in his boat by accident. The duck manages to get Oswald to sink the boat, but the resourceful rabbit grabs on to a moose that carries him to shore.

That does not mean safety, though, as Oswald soon is falling over forward, down a steep mountain face, with a boulder on his tail. He does his best to avoid it, but to no avail.

The boulder smashes Oswald up against a tree, which leads to the most interesting sequence of the film. In a close up, Oswald tries to stretch himself back out, which causes all sorts of distortions into the lens of the camera. It’s almost a fisheye effect, but it was done with animation. It’s a great visual, and some inventive animation.

Oswald manages to get squished back to a round shape, and rolls down a hill into a couple of baby bears. The small bears smack him around and pull him back into his normal shape. Oswald chases them, only to run right into the mother bear.

What follows is very familiar from the Alice Comedies – the bear chases Oswald into a cave, sound effects animation pop out from the cave, the bear leaves in its undergarments, and out comes Oswald in a new bear skin coat. It’s a familiar scene, but something about Oswald doing it makes it a bit funnier than when Julius did it.

So that’s the last of the Oswalds. There were several that were missing from the Disney Treasures DVD, but I don’t have access to them, and I’m not sure how many of them survive. But what does exist gives us a good idea of what was going on at the Studio at the time. Tomorrow, I’ll post about the legacy of Oswald, and we’ll transition into the Mickey Mouse shorts soon.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Fox Chase

Well, just after I noticed a formula developing in the Oswalds, The Fox Chase bucks the formula, with a short featuring only Oswald, and none of his supporting cast. It’s a short one in length, clocking in just under five minutes, but packs some interesting action in with Oswald and his horse especially.

As you can probably tell from the title, the whole idea is that Oswald is involved in a good old fashioned fox chase, where he and his cohorts ride a horse and follow some dogs in chase of a fox. As frequently happens in these shorts, Oswald gets left at the start line as the gun goes off, trying to get his horse to follow the pack.

Then, the horse gives him no end of grief as he tries to mount it and get going. He even goes so far as to use a ladder to mount the horse, but the horse moves. Oswald, thinking he has the problem licked, ties the ladder to the horse’s tail, but the horse instead takes off, leaving Oswald clinging to the ladder and being dragged along.

Meanwhile, we get to peek in on the fox and the pack of dogs chasing him. There’s some pretty funny stuff as all the dogs try to hone in on the fox. Several of them knock over a big black dog, then use his stomach as a trampoline to vault over a wall. A dachshund of course snakes his way over the wall, and a small dog has to scale the wall like a mountain.

Oswald, of course, is still trying to make things work with his horse, but he gets separated from the horse. The ladder starts galloping with Oswald on top, trying to catch the horse. They catch up, but only enough for Oswald to get one foot on the horse, stretching himself between the two.

The dogs manage to chase the fox around a tree, tying the dachshund in knots and sending the fox careening past Oswald in the opposite direction. This knocks Oswald’s poor horse backwards and upside down, a situation that Oswald has to try and fix while still chasing the horse.

The final scene comes as two of the dogs trap the fox in a log, where the fox attacks them with a club. Oswald catches up and has a great idea, to roll the log up like a toothpaste tube, forcing the fox out. He does so, but instead of the fox, out pops a skunk! Well, at least it looks like a skunk, because after Oswald and the dogs run away, we see the skunk lift its stripe to reveal the fox.

This short is a great, quick little piece of fun. It does deviate from the formula of having Oswald compete with Pete for Sadie’s affections, but in a good way. There are no real standout gags or animation here, but it’s a simple, serviceable cartoon that is still entertaining. That’s not to discount it, because part of learning how to be a studio is how to keep churning out films while maintaining some kind of quality. That is something that the Disney Studio has learned in 1927-1928 with the Oswald shorts.
All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Sky Scrappers

There is definitely a formula developing among the Oswald cartoons that continues in Sky Scrappers. The basic idea is that Oswald meets and woos Sadie, Pete tries to interrupt, and Oswald saves the day. It’s a formula that would serve Walt well, as he revisited it in the Mickey days with Mickey and Minnie, but it seems to have originated here.

Sky Scrappers is not as entertaining as Oh What A Knight, but it is still a funny short. The basics are easy – Oswald and friends are construction workers, building a sky scraper in a major city area.

There are some neat gags in the beginning, such as Oswald getting wet and wringing himself out, the break whistle’s “Toot” floating over the workers, as well as a few others. The action truly begins, though, when Sadie shows up peddling box lunches. It’s rather obvious that she has only come by to see Oswald, though, as she sells him the lunch and then gazes adoringly at him as he eats.

The two begin kissing, which Pete observes from above. He lowers down a hook, which, in the exact same gag we will see later in 1928 in Steamboat Willie, the hook picks up Sadie’s skirt and hooks into her underwear to raise her up. Pete grabs her, but she turns up her nose at him.

Oswald tries to scamper up a rope to save Sadie, but Pete disconnects the rope, causing Oswald to fall onto a board that launches some bricks into the air on top of him. Ever persistent, Oswald finds another route, tying himself to one end of a rope and pulling the other end through a pulley, making his way up.

Of course, a fight ensues, with Pete menacing the smaller Oswald. There’s a great sequence here where they end up on a girder, dangling over the street. After a few rounds, the camera position switches to straight on looking at Pete, who punches at Oswald…

…then the camera blacks out and the action goes to straight on looking at Oswald falling back from the punch. It’s a very neat trick, although probably not too difficult to do. It just shows the Disney animators attempting to stretch their boundaries a bit and make things more interesting.

Oswald manages to duck one of Pete’s blows, and sends him careening toward the ground. He then picks up Sadie and manages to get a happy ending after all, as they smooch on the girder.

Like I said, Sky Scrappers isn’t nearly the short that Oh What A Knight was, but that’s not to say that it is not good. The consistent quality of the Oswalds in all perspectives – design, humor, storytelling, animation – is a striking departure from the Alice Comedies. There is a “house style” developing here that was not present before. So far, that’s my big take away from the Oswald shorts.
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