Friday, April 30, 2010

1939 Commercial Shorts

Although we have now reviewed all the theatrical shorts that Disney produced in 1939, there were two more works that came out from the studio that year. Both were produced specifically for companies, as ads to run in different places.

The first one is Mickey’s Surprise Party, produced for the Nabisco company. This short was actually done for the 1939 World’s Fair, which is interesting on its own. We all know Walt’s legendary attractions produced for the 1964 World’s Fair, but he was involved much earlier with the 1939 version.

The story of this short is that Minnie is trying to surprise Mickey by baking him some cookies. In the middle of the baking, though, Fifi gets caught up chasing a fly, and knocks popcorn over into the dough. When the cookies hit the oven, they catch fire and start popping all around the room, much to Minnie and Mickey’s dismay.

The solution is, of course, Nabisco crackers and cookies. Mickey runs out and retrieves the line of Nabisco products from the store, and all is suddenly right with the world again. It’s a funny short, especially when you consider the message – “You can’t make cookies, so buy ours!”

There’s not much of note to people watching the shorts that came before. One thing I saw was the color work was very different here than in the recent shorts. There was much more use of shading and tone to imply depth than you would see in a standard Donald Duck short, for example. Otherwise, though, it’s a fairly simple short.

The second commercial short was for Standard Oil, and was called The Standard Parade. Much like the Parade of Award Nominees short produced much earlier, it’s a simple parade of characters across the screen, all holding Standard Oil banners.

Again, not much distinguishes this, although I really enjoyed seeing the Seven Dwarfs carrying each letter of Standard, with Dopey bringing up the rear carrying two letters. The ad seems to be advertising a comic book that Standard would distribute in newspapers and with their products.

Both of these shorts are neat examples of how Disney looked for alternative sources of revenue, even back in those days. People who criticize the company for its aggressive money making posture today would be well served to look back at how Walt and his team found fun ways to make money back then.

So…on to 1940, and Pinocchio!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Officer Duck

1939 has to be known as the year of Donald Duck. The former sidekick to Mickey Mouse truly made his move to the biggest of the Disney stars in 1939, with the vast majority of the shorts made by the studio featuring Donald. The last of these is Officer Duck, which introduces Pete and Donald as adversaries.

We’ve seen Pete in shorts with Donald before, but never with the two of them matching wits. So it’s interesting to see this set up. Donald is a police officer, which lends itself immediately to great comedy. He is asked to go take in a crook, Tiny Tom, who turns out to be Pete.

What’s interesting to me is seeing the conflict set up between the two, and what would eventually become the rivalry between Donald/Scrooge and the Beagle Boys. Pete is dressed in the same striped shirt that we would eventually know as the Beagle Boys’ costume in the Disney comics and Duck Tales TV show. It seems as though this is the first step towards that ultimate end.

The short as a whole is a one note joke. Donald’s plan to take down Pete is to dress up like a baby and pretend that he was left on Pete’s doorstep. Once inside, the action involves Donald trying to slap the cuffs on and/or steal Pete’s gun. He tries a variety of tactics, with limited success.

The fun of this one is seeing Donald try to keep his cool. Though Pete often frustrates his attempts, Donald doesn’t get frustrated and angry like he normally does in these shorts. Instead, Donald keeps at it, showing persistence with good acting. It’s fun to see that from him, because it’s not normal.

That said, the majority of the short doesn’t resonate for me. It’s the same thing over and over again, and while it’s not bad, it’s also not as funny as some of the other Donald stuff we have seen so far. Donald’s not at his best, because he can’t go crazy and get angry. It’s more what you would expect from Mickey, to be honest.

The ending seems a little contrived, as Donald finally gets the cuffs on Pete and then is chased outside, only to meet up with a parade of policemen. It’s a funny gag, but resolves the conflict a little too quickly and cleanly. But hey, it’s a cartoon, not a Scorsese movie.

That’s it for 1939, except for a pair of commercial shorts featuring Mickey Mouse. We’ll get to those next, then it’s on to Pinocchio!

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Autograph Hound

It seems as though it happens once a year in the history of the Disney shorts – a caricature of Hollywood celebs has to appear. We saw Mother Goose Goes Hollywood most recently, but now, Donald Duck takes to the screen with the biggest movie stars of 1939, in The Autograph Hound.

It’s something that I think has gone unnoticed among the wide swaths of Disney fans. Most fans think of the Disney films as timeless, something that can be watched over and over again decades after their first release. While that may be true of the feature films, when it comes to the shorts, there are many efforts that are very much of the time they were made. The Autograph Hound is one of those.

While movie buffs or historians today can easily pick out who is being caricatured in this short, the average Donald Duck fan would not know it. In 1939, however, this short would have featured the absolute biggest stars in Hollywood. Greta Garbo, Mickey Rooney, Shirley Temple and many, many more are on display in this short, interacting with Donald.

Donald tries to get himself into a movie lot to get autographs, and has to contend with security trying to toss him out as well as the stars getting incensed about his request for an autograph. It’s an absolutely hilarious exercise if you recognize some of the stars. I don’t know what it would be like if you were unaware who these people are.

For example, Donald’s interactions with Mickey Rooney are very funny. There is slapstick being done with Rooney crushing an egg on Donald’s head. There’s a back and forth banter that is funny simply because Rooney is using an Irish accent and Donald is well…Donald. The two of them together is a funny combination, but if you don’t know who Mickey Rooney is, it might not be as impactful.

The same goes for later efforts in the short. Donald’s interactions with the Ritz Brothers is really funny, especially when the three of them ride off wearing his clothes! But even someone like me, who watches Turner Classic Movies all the time, had trouble recognizing who Donald was talking to.

None of this is said to malign the short, because it is extremely funny. Donald goes from set to set, celeb to celeb in a rapid fashion, hitting some fantastic comedic notes along the way. His interactions are perfect, keeping Donald in character while also taking advantage of the guest stars in the short.

The most interesting part of the short, though, is seeing the response of the actors to Donald! Once Shirley Temple recognizes him, there is a mad dash from them to get Donald’s autograph. It’s again a nod from Disney to the fact that their stars were just as big as the biggest actors. This isn’t something you would have seen before, in the early days of Mickey, but now, it’s become more commonplace. Very interesting insight into the minds of the Disney staff as they geared up for their second feature film.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Donald's Penguin

After the very different Mickey Mouse short, The Pointer, today’s subject seems like a return to form. After all, like many of the 1939 shorts, it’s a Donald Duck short, and it follows a familiar formula. Donald’s Penguin features Donald getting yet another strange person/animal sent to him, and hilarity ensues.

As you might imagine, in this case it’s a penguin that Donald receives, this time from “Admiral Byrd,” who is stationed in the Arctic. I could not find any reference to Admiral Byrd as a continuing character in the Donald mythos, but again, it’s an example of Donald building a back story and history with other duck/bird characters.

Also interesting is that the package is addressed to Donald in Hollywood, California. Just like Mickey, Donald has progressed from the farm animal that he was in The Wise Little Hen, to a suburban home owner. Not only that, but the idea of Donald living in Hollywood implies that he is a celebrity, and that the cartoon world is aware of it. It’s all very through the looking glass stuff, but interesting nonetheless.

Where this short takes a little different turn is when Donald introduces the penguin to his pet fish. It’s here that there is a darker turn to the proceedings, as the penguin decides that it’s time to eat the fish. There is a dance that goes on between Donald and the penguin as to whether or not he actually is going to eat them.

First, Donald accuses the penguin of eating the fish, even spanking the poor bird. But it turns out that he didn’t do it, and Donald is left in the embarrassing position of having punished him for no good reason. Any parent should be able to relate to that moment in the short.

Then, things turn again, as the penguin actually does eat the fish. It’s such a strange turn of events, that I didn’t expect it. You think about Disney shorts and don’t expect there to be such issues as life and death, but this one deals with it.

Donald, not to be outdone, pulls a gun on the penguin! Ultimately, he can’t shoot him, which is good, but ends up dropping the gun and nearly hitting the poor little guy anyway. The short ends with Donald and the penguin making up, but it left my head swirling.

We’ve seen this formula before, obviously, with the kangaroo, Donald’s nephews and even his Cousin Gus. But this time, rather than harmless pranks, the penguin is dealing with eating Donald’s fish, which is a natural thing to do, but still deals with life and death in a way we haven’t seen before. Donald’s reaction is to escalate the conflict with the gun, which is logical, but not all that funny.

This short wasn’t so much funny as it was mesmerizing. It was very interesting to see Donald’s reactions, especially when he was counting the fish as they kept disappearing. But the final moments of Donald pointing the gun at the penguin and the “death” of the fish were just so compelling, for a bunch of reasons. This is a must watch just for that last few minutes.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Pointer

It’s been a while since we have seen Mickey Mouse in the Disney shorts, but he returns in a big way with The Pointer, a short that sees a number of changes in our main mouse. This is a new Mickey, and it’s much closer to the Mickey we would see in cartoons today than what we might have seen in the past.

This is the first time Mickey’s design has been so close to what it is today. The main difference is the addition of pupils to Mickey’s eyes, but there is more too it. The pupils help make his face more expressive, which has been a focus of the tweaks to Mickey for a while now. There is also a great use of shading on Mickey in this short, adding much more dimension to the animation.

It’s also interesting that Mickey in this short is very much the celeb. When he is threatened by a bear, he even lets the bear know that he’s Mickey Mouse, and won’t hurt the bear. It’s a neat window into Walt, who is still providing the voice to Mickey. Rumor has it that Walt’s recording session was filmed, and his gestures were used in the scene of Mickey talking to the bear. Once can imagine Walt saying, “It’s me…Walt Disney!” to someone on the street here as well.

The artistry of this short cannot be overstated. Scenes of Mickey and Pluto walking through the woods are breathtaking. The detail of the backgrounds and the use of color to establish tone and mood are fantastic. It’s a great difference from something like Sea Scouts or The Beach Picnic, where the focus was more on Donald and his exploits. This is much closer to Snow White than a short.

The plot has Mickey trying to teach Pluto to be a quail hunting dog, to no avail. Pluto isn’t cut out for the pointing business. In fact, when he does finally get to work, he gets separated from Mickey, and when he points at the quail, he doesn’t get anywhere. Mickey is off in another part of the forest, being trailed by a bear that he mistakes for Pluto.

The cross cutting of this short between Mickey’s hunt with the bear and Pluto standing perfectly still with animals all around him is very funny. Each of these are funny gags, but both require a little extra to make them truly remarkable. The slow build of the two coming together into a final chase sequence with the bear is very well done.

It does seem now that Mickey has not been the main star that his shorts are much more of an event. Originally, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was supposed to be Mickey’s next short, but it was shelved and The Pointer came next. Regardless, this short shows a leap forward for Mickey, where his shorts are now events.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sea Scouts

Yet another Donald Duck cartoon! You’d think he was the biggest star ever, and about this time of 1939, he probably was. More to the point, it seems the animators enjoyed having a new toy to play with, unfettered from the safe, wholesome image of Mickey. With Sea Scouts, though, it really seems like they took a page from Mickey’s early days.

Let me explain. The Donald shorts have always been about Donald being confronted with an uncontrollable element or surprise situation that he tries to master, eventually becoming frustrated and angry. That’s the comedic formula, and it works really well.

In Sea Scouts, though, the subject is Donald as the captain of a boat, and the situations he gets into and the resolutions are straight out of the early black and white Mickey shorts. There’s Donald hoisted into the air by the sail of a boat, Donald being chased by a shark even going upside down at one point and Donald getting stuck in a life preserver.

When watching this short, I flashed back to those early Mickeys, when Mickey would be the leader of a gang, and then something would go horribly wrong. Things like this happened all the time, and it’s unique, for me at least, to see Donald in that kind of situation.

Helping things along here are the nephews, who play the crew on this ship. There is a great moment early on in the short when Donald asks them to drop the sail, and the sail drops right on his head. Donald looks straight at the camera and says “Sometimes they take me too literally.”

It’s laugh out loud funny, and interesting because it seems like a different kind of Donald. He’s still the angry, loudmouth duck we have seen before, but in this short, he is more of the commander of the situation moreso than we have seen before. There’s another nod to the camera when he’s trying to lift the anchor, but ends up pulling the ship underwater.

These sorts of things add a new flavor to Donald. He’s showing a different side of himself than he has in other shorts, and that’s a tribute to the animators. It’s what makes Sea Scouts so interesting. It’s not a revolutionary short by any mean. As I said before, it’s very similar to earlier Mickey shorts. But seeing Donald in this way is different, and it adds to his ability to become a long term star for the company.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Beach Picnic

We’ve seen several pairings of the Fab Five throughout their careers, but there’s usually one of two common denominators. Donald Duck or Pluto are generally present in almost every short since their introduction, with the exception of the Mickeys that followed shortly after Pluto’s debut. These two have been expected to carry much of the comedic load. We’ve only seen them together solo one time, though, in Donald and Pluto. One time, that is, until The Beach Picnic.

This short is not revolutionary or really notable for something big. It’s just a fun pairing of two of Disney’s biggest stars. It’s arguable that at this point in 1939, Donald is a bigger star than Mickey, and Pluto was on his way to becoming the same. Putting the two of them together doesn’t make much sense from a story standpoint, though.

Donald’s appeal is very much based in his anger/frustration about things around him, while Pluto is all about animal curiosity and fun. The two don’t really overlap, and they don’t in the short, either. Even though both stars are dealing with the same things, they are rarely on screen together.

The first problem to vex our heroes is an inflatable sea horse raft. Seems simple enough, right? Of course it’s not easy for Donald, who keeps falling off when he tries to mount the raft. That’s a simple gag, and it doesn’t really play out that well in my opinion.

Pluto, as is normally the case, takes over the short when dealing with the raft. Donald is relegated to standing by and laughing as Pluto tries to take on the raft. This seems like a real miss to me, because it leaves Donald out of the fun, and honestly the Pluto gags are rather simple.

Where the short really got me, though was in the use of the ants who attack the picnic that Donald has set up. By characterizing the ants as Indians, it sets up a fun sequence where the ants gather to war drums and invade the picnic. Again, we see two different responses.

Donald responds by chasing the ants off and laying out fly paper to trap them. Pluto is stalking the ants when he then gets caught up in the fly paper. Seeing Pluto try to get loose is a good bit, but it’s even better when Donald gets stuck with him. It’s Donald’s comeuppance, which comes in every short he is involved in.

The only issue I have is that Donald and Pluto are not stuck together long enough. There were more comic possibilities with that than the way things end up. Donald gets thrown off and wrapped up in the fly paper like a mummy. Granted, it’s funny, but not as good as it could have been. That’s my feeling about the whole short – it’s good, but not quite as good as it could have been.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Donald's Cousin Gus

Yesterday I mentioned that 1939 was the big year for Donald Duck becoming the huge cartoon star of the Disney studio. A large part of that is due to story man Carl Barks, who was instrumental in building the “Duckverse” that went on to be the foundation of the Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comics, the TV show “Duck Tales” and even theming in the Toontown sections of the Disney Parks.

Barks is a Disney Legend for good reason, and you see some of his handiwork on display in Donald’s Cousin Gus, which introduces Gus Goose. Gus would later go on to appearances in the Disney comics, written and drawn by Barks. We’ve seen Barks and the other animators introducing characters through notes or references in other Donald shorts, but this is an important step forward by placing a new “duck” character in the short.

Gus is a simple character, but he’s just the type of supporting character you need to build a universe. He’s mute, and only communicates by honking his tail. He is not bright, as evidenced by the opening gag of the short. He comes across Donald’s mailbox, and pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket with Donald’s name on it. But, since he has the paper upside down, Gus doesn’t think he’s at the right place until he turns the mailbox upside down as well!

Gus’ defining trait though, has to be his gluttony. Despite a note from “Aunt Fanny” telling Donald that “He don’t eat much,” Gus proceeds to devour everything in sight once entering Donald’s house. In fact, that is the only gag of the short, is that Gus is going to eat everything. It’s the variations on that theme that keep this short interesting.

The gags at the table, where Gus knits spaghetti, sucks peas off a plate through a straw and does the classic “cut the cake slice and keep the cake” gag are all good. But as usual, it’s Donald’s reactions that make this one so funny.

Donald’s solution is to feed Gus a “barking hot dog,” which I admit, is a new one on me. The dog, once consumed, keeps barking in Gus’ stomach, chasing Donald up a coat rack and ultimately out the door. It doesn’t work, though, as he just ends up back in the house through the back door, and sits in the icebox to eat.

This short is simple, but it’s part of a larger tapestry that the Donald Duck team, and one would infer, Carl Barks, are trying to weave. We’ve already had Huey, Dewey and Louie introduced, and now Gus Goose. Aunt Fanny and the boys’ mother were involved via notes. There is a plan in place here for a widening universe of characters for Donald to draw upon, and it’s kind of neat to see it unfold this way.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Hockey Champ

1939 is a big year for Donald Duck. I would argue that it is the beginning of his ascendancy to the top spot in Disney’s cartoon pantheon, and I’m sure most of you would agree with me. His shorts are the most consistent and funny efforts from the Disney studio during this period. The Hockey Champ is no exception.

This one has a just plain hilarious opening sequence, as Donald attempts to imitate skating legend Sonia Hennie. He even does his feathers up into Hennie’s signature hairdo, and spends the first couple minutes of the short circling around the frozen pond making spectacular leaps and twirls in his skates. If it doesn’t sound funny, just watch it.

The real action, though, is when Huey, Dewey and Louie show up to try and play hockey. Donald reveals that he was the hockey champion of Duck Swamp, which is an acknowledgement of the full life of the duck beyond what we’ve seen on screen. Carl Barks, the animator who would go on to produce the majority of Donald’s back story in the comics, was a contributor to the Donald shorts at this time, so I wonder if this was his influence.

Of course, this leads to Donald challenging the boys to a hockey match. At first, things go swimmingly for Donald, as he repeats his Sonia Hennie performance only this time with a stick and the puck. The parallels between the first part of the short and this middle portion are quite well done, both showing Donald as extremely capable on the ice. It’s nice as a structure for the short.

As in every Donald short, though, pride gets him in trouble. He plays the boys blindfolded, and the result is a furious dash through the snow and ice trying to catch the puck. This is where we really get to see the rapid fire gags and amazing quick animation come to life. There are points when watching the shorts that I get sucked in and quit looking at story structure or animation quality, and this is one of those times.

Donald’s nephews are such great foils for him, not just in this short, but overall. Because they combine childlike innocence with overwhelming mischief that is the perfect contrast to Donald’s bragging and prideful nature. Combine that with the frustration that makes Donald so funny, and it works beautifully.

You could say that Donald’s shorts are formulaic – Donald sees something, tries to take control of it, and gets frustrated by it – and you’d be right. But if you have a winning formula, as long as you do it well, it’s okay. Donald’s formula is done very well, and the Hockey Champ is no exception to that.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Ugly Duckling - 1939

The Silly Symphonies were originally a way for Walt and his crew to push the envelope beyond just Mickey Mouse. We saw that in the very first edition of the series, with inventive shorts such as The Skeleton Dance or Hell’s Bells. As the series draws to a close, though, the animators revisited a subject that they had done earlier – The Ugly Duckling.

The 1931 black and white version of this tale was very good, but this 1939 version is a masterpiece. The animation is as good or better than that of Snow White, and the emotions that come from just this small “duck” are amazing. This was truly a pinnacle of Disney animation.

We all know how this story goes, so there’s no need to rehash the basic plot, but it’s the details that make this one so powerful. For example, the beginning of the short features the birth of the title character, and the whole process of revealing the ugly duckling takes almost two full minutes. We see the father duck pacing back and forth, impatient for the delivery, the worried look of the mother, and the joy and elation after the eggs hatch.

Just this sequence alone is breathtaking in its manipulation of emotions. It’s the perfect set up for the next reveal, when the ugly duckling pops out of its shell. All the emotion turns on its head, as the once jubilant father becomes angry and confused. The mother goes from joy to shock, and the joy goes over to the child.

This jujitsu of emotions is amazing to watch. Even moreso when you consider what happens afterwards. The duckling continues on, happy as a clam, ignorant of the fact that he is what caused the tension between the mother and father. It’s only when the mother shoves him away that it begins to dawn on him what is going on.

That revelation is so simple and beautiful, that it’s hard for me to describe. Literally, we see the emotion wash over the duckling’s face, as it begins to sink in that he is without a family, and has been abandoned. Seeing the tears drop and the soft “plink” sound as they hit the ground is very moving.

That heartbreak is only enhanced by the duckling’s encounter with other inhabitants of the lake area. There’s a family of birds and then a wooden hunter’s decoy. You see how hard the little guy is trying to fit in, but it just isn’t working. Seeing him get his hopes up, then have them dashed again is heart breaking.

When he finally unites with the swans, it’s a thing of beauty, because it’s been earned. The feelings developed throughout the short lead to that moment and do so beautifully. This is probably the finest example of storytelling in the Silly Symphonies, and one of the most charming as well.

All images copyright Disney. All rights reserved.