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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1942

Of course you know, this means war! Yes, 1942 launches us into the war years for American animation, and each and every studio did its part to keep morale high. Several animated films were specifically commissioned by the government as propaganda, including Disney’s The New Spirit, where Donald Duck learns the importance of paying his income tax, and Warner Bros.’s Any Bonds Today, where Bugs Bunny sings an Irving Berlin tune to encourage audiences to buy war bonds and stamps.

But even in general release films, WWII was a major presence.

Characters like Donald Duck (Donald Gets Drafted), Pluto (The Army Mascot), Gandy Goose (Night Life in the Army) and Woody Woodpecker (Ace in the Hole) were all drafted into the army, while Barney Bear (Barney Bear’s Victory Garden), Andy Panda (Air Raid Warden) and Nancy (Doin’ Their Bit) supported the troops from the home front. Superman fought for the U.S. in films like Japoteurs and Eleventh Hour, Popeye took on the Japanese in You’re a Sap, Mr. Jap and Scrap the Japs and Porky busted an undercover Nazi in Confusions of a Nutzy Spy.

Cartoons like Walter Lantz’s Pigeon Patrol, Columbia’s Wolf Chases Pig and Warner Bros.’s The Draft Horse invented new characters to enthusiastically join up in the army, while other cartoons skewered Hitler himself, such as Warner Bros.’s The Ducktators, Columbia’s Song of Victory and MGM’s The Blitz Wolf. Even films that didn’t focus on the war often had a wartime topicality; A Tale of Two Kitties ends with a blackout reference. Ding Dog Daddy stars a canine who falls in love with a dog statue, only to find it taken away as scrap metal. And Crazy Cruise features a cameo from Bugs Bunny, whose ears turn into a V for Victory as he tells the audience, “thumbs up, doc, thumbs up.”

1942 also involved a few goodbyes. The Max Fleischer studio, Disney’s greatest rival in the 1930s, finally closed its doors this year. Also, Walt Disney decided to retire his most famous character, Mickey Mouse, because his mild personality was out of step with the brazen attitude of the era. And Bambi marked Disney’s final full-length animated feature of the 1940s (the cost of making such films was too great now that foreign markets were cut off). Disney did continue to produce “package features” throughout the ‘40s, starting with Saludos Amigos in 1942. The film was made to capitalize on the United States’ Good Neighbor Policy with South America, as the government wanted to counteract any ties Latin America had with the Nazis. Disney didn’t make another fully-animated feature with one overriding story until Cinderella in 1950.

But 1942 also launched a new studio, Paramount’s Famous Studios in New York (which took over the Popeye and Superman series from Fleischer), and the year saw the debut of several new characters, including Mighty Mouse at Terrytoons (then called Super Mouse) and Tweety, Beaky the Buzzard and Henery Hawk at Warner Bros. Moreover, with Tex Avery hired as a director at MGM, Bob Clampett trying out the “Lichty animation” that would be the hallmark of his style and Chuck Jones discovering comedy in The Draft Horse and The Dover Boys, this year sees the beginning of the greatest era in animation history. On the list you’ll find shorts from Warner Bros., Disney and MGM, as well as one from the newly created Famous Studios and a couple from George Pal.

Take a look:

THE BLITZ WOLF
Directed by Tex Avery; MGM

Tex Avery broke new ground while he was at Warner Bros., not only creating the studio’s most beloved characters (Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck) but also stomping all over Disney’s refined approach to animation with his boldly anarchic and smart-alecky sense of humor. However, he was still refining his skills as a director in his Warner days, and it was when he arrived at MGM that his work reached its creative height.

The Blitz Wolf was his first film at the studio, and it’s an explosive debut. Avery was hired as a replacement for Hugh Harman, and their styles couldn’t have been more different (even Hanna & Barbera’s Tom and Jerry cartoons look like a walk in the park compared to this). The film is a hysterical send-up of Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs from 1933 (Avery enlists Pinto Colvig to reprise his voice as the smart little pig), but that’s just a lead-in to a truly brutal parody of Adolf Hitler. His approach to Der Fuehrer is so acidic, in fact, that it reportedly made producer Fred Quimby a bit nervous (Quimby apparently said to Avery, “after all, we don’t know who’s going to win the war”).

The film kicks off with the disclaimer, “the wolf in this photoplay is NOT fictitious. Any similarity between this Wolf and that @#$!! jerk Hitler is purely intentional”. Avery then proceeds to skewer Adolf in every manner possible, having him sign documents with the subtitle “colossal stinker”, ride a tank labeled “Der Fewer (Der Better)”, get hit with a tomato from the audience, daintily hold up the skirt of his tank to walk over the mud, ride a P-U airship and finally get blown to Hell. But Avery even extends this beyond just a parody of Hitler, making the very concept of war look ridiculous (one of my favorite jokes is the Good Humor ice cream truck driving through all of the tanks and explosions). Another joke pans across a very long cannon for about half a minute before revealing the sign, “long darn thing, isn’t it?” In Avery’s universe, nothing is sacred.

Avery’s films were always wild, but this cartoon is so sharply timed and jam-packed with gags that it leaves his Warner Bros. films in the dust. Perhaps even more crucially, much of the shorts’ humor comes from the drawings and animation. After losing his craziest animators like Bob Clampett and Irv Spence, the animation in his Warner films took a turn for the worse. Robert McKimson became his head animator, and while his work was always solid and expertly drawn, it was too measured and literal to match Avery’s humor much of the time. The move to a new studio seemingly reinvigorated Avery’s visual sensibilities, and he was aided by excellent animators like Preston Blair, Ray Abrams and Ed Love, as well as being re-teamed with the masterful Irv Spence. As Avery continued at MGM, his films got even funnier-looking to the point where cartoons like King-Size Canary and Slap-Happy Lion strongly reflected Avery’s own hilarious drawing style. Still, The Blitz Wolf remains one of Avery’s most outrageous creations.

THE BOWLING ALLEY CAT
Directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera; MGM

While earlier Tom & Jerry cartoons like Puss Gets the Boot (1940) and The Night Before Christmas (1941) were charming films with admirably lush animation, The Bowling Alley Cat is one of the first to really nail the sharp humor that the series would be known for. While perhaps not as celebrated as later entries like The Cat Concerto (1947) and Mouse Cleaning (1948), this really is a perfect cartoon; it’s a strong character-based comedy, with the slapstick chops to deliver big laughs. The animation is beautiful (and funny), the timing is excellent and the cartoon thoroughly takes advantage of its setting, mining all of the possible comedy potential of a bowling alley before clocking in at seven minutes.

Knowing how fond of cutting corners Hanna & Barbera became in their days as TV producers, it’s interesting to see all of the little frills added to this film just to give it a bit more visual sophistication (the reflections in the floor in particular). Hanna and Barbera also understand, at least at this early point in their careers, how to use subtleties to enrich the comedy. Moments like Tom backing into a spittoon and Jerry shrugging a bit when Tom blows him out of a bowling ball aren’t strictly necessary to the gags, but they give the characters an inner life that makes the jokes funnier. And little moments of character, like Jerry smoothing out a tuft on Tom’s tail as a desperate goodwill gesture, are often as funny as the big violent gags, like Tom dropping a bowling ball on his foot (then again, it’s hard to get funnier than Tom dropping a bowling ball on his foot).

As I mentioned before, the cartoon is exceptionally resourceful in choreographing the action to milk its bowling alley setting for all its worth. Visual gags abound, cleverly transforming a clump of cigarette ashes into a volcano and a series of balls rolling down the ball-eject lane into a train roaring down the tracks. Still, for all of the film’s inventiveness, there is one element of the cartoon that really influenced future entries, and that is Tom’s distinctive scream, provided by Bill Hanna himself. The Tom & Jerry scream has become such a staple of the series that it is now as legendary and recognizable as the Wilhelm Scream and the Goofy Holler. It’s perhaps not yet as recognizable as Edvard Munch’s The Scream… but if you were to match that painting up with a sound, the Tom & Jerry scream would be as good as any.

BUGS BUNNY GETS THE BOID
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

There are plenty of great Looney Tunes characters who I wish had appeared in more cartoons – Charlie Dog, Hubie & Bertie, the Goofy Gophers, Pete Puma, the Three Bears, Spike & Chester, etc. – and Beaky the Buzzard is very high on that list. This slow-witted and terminally bashful bird of prey was patterned after Edgar Bergen’s puppet character Mortimer Snerd, and he was even referred to at the studio as the Snerd Bird. Still, he took on a life of his own as one of Warner Bros.’ most memorable minor characters.

After Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid, Beaky appeared in only one more cartoon, titled The Bashful Buzzard, with creator Bob Clampett (who left the studio shortly after) and original voice artist Kent Rogers (who tragically died in a plane crash in 1944 when he was only 20 years old). Warner Bros. went on to make two more films with the character – Friz Freleng’s The Lion’s Busy (1950) and Robert McKimson’s Strife with Father (1950) – but without Clampett and Rogers it just wasn’t the same buzzard.

The contrast of Beaky’s bashful personality and his position as a viscous hunter is the source of much of the comedy (“I’m a-stalkin’ a victim…” – Beaky). His name is Killer in this film, and while that name doesn’t look as good as “Beaky the Buzzard” on merchandise, it is gloriously inappropriate for the character in all the best ways (Clampett was always great at coming up with these sorts of titles – the goofy dog in Porky’s Party was absurdly named Black Fury). And just as funny as Beaky is his overbearing Italian mother, voiced by Sara Berner, who can’t understand why her son is such a flop.

The film also shows remarkable confidence in its presentation of Bugs Bunny. Bugs, let’s remember, only made his official debut two years earlier in A Wild Hare. Here Clampett teams him with a show-stealing antagonist yet still keeps the rabbit as funny and charming as ever. He has Bugs impersonate an air-traffic controller as Beaky sputters out of the sky, pretend to be a woman caught in the shower when Beaky reaches down into his hole (“you naughty, naughty boy”) and randomly pop out of nowhere to bob Beaky’s adam’s apple up and down, providing an opportunity for one of Treg Brown’s strangest sound effects.

Bugs has the zany unpredictability of characters like Woody Woodpecker and the early Daffy Duck, but with a nonchalant wit about him that makes it clear he knows exactly what he’s doing. Look at how his facial expressions and posture all add to his personality: as Beaky attempts to remember what it was he was looking for, Bugs feigns interest in a manner that drips with sarcasm. Clampett isn’t afraid to throw Bugs for a loop, either, and there’s a great scene where Bugs crashes through the ground beneath a skeleton and he briefly believes that he’s dead. He panics, but stops for a moment to ask the audience, “gruesome, isn’t it?” And that’s Bugs for you – even at his lowest ebb, he can’t resist a gag.

THE DOVER BOYS
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

The full title of this landmark short is The Dover Boys at Pimento University (or The Rivals at Roquefort Hall), an overlong bit of pomposity that beautifully matches the irreverent tone of the film. Created as a parody of creaky turn-of-the-century boys fiction (most obviously The Rover Boys), the film surpasses Disney’s The Nifty Nineties from the previous year as animation’s ultimate gay ‘90s spoof. But that’s selling it way short, as The Dover Boys is arguably the most influential animated film of the entire decade, as well as serving as a breakthrough for director Chuck Jones. That’s a lot of notoriety to cram into a proudly silly cartoon like this one, but the accolades are well-deserved.

The Dover Boys was immensely innovative due to its stylized approach to movement. A new process was developed for this cartoon called “smear animation”, where the characters shoot from pose to pose, with only one or two frames between. Those in-between frames bizarrely elongate the characters so that they literally smear across the screen to get to a new posture. Smears have remained a common tool in the animator’s arsenal since The Dover Boys’ release (the Cartoon Network series Johnny Bravo uses a ton), but more than that, the film showed that cartoon characters could move in ways that owed nothing to the naturalistic style the Disney studio had perfected. This discovery led the way to the boom of stylized animation in the early 1950s, spearheaded by John Hubley at UPA, who credited The Dover Boys as one of his primary inspirations. Bobe Cannon, who was an animator on this film, was also a key figure at UPA, directing such milestones as Gerald McBoing-Boing and Christopher Crumpet.

The entire cartoon is full of visual innovations that seem common today but were startling for the time. The characters are unusually abstracted and flat, with the titular Tom, Dick and Larry designed to totally embody their stereotypes as rugged athlete, studious intellectual and fun-loving fat kid (the designs were drawn by John McLeish, who provided the spot-on narration in the film). Their mutual love interest, Dora Standpipe, stiffly glides down the stairs in a manner that suggests a figure in a Victorian clock rather than a real person. Only the villainous Dan Backslide – coward, bully, cad and thief – looks like a figure who might inhabit a typical Looney Tune (he was designed as a caricature of animator Ken Harris). Of course, there is a comic purpose to all of this stylization, and that is to highlight the stodgy artificiality of the stories the cartoon is taking off on. The film looks like an archaic photograph of your great grandfather come to life.

Out of all of the animation directors working in 1942, Chuck Jones was probably the most open to experimentation, and he allowed his layout man John McGrew and background painter Eugene Fleury to go in some wild directions. In the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, backgrounds in animated films were often beautifully painted but steeped in real-life observation. In earlier Jones films like Conrad the Sailor, Hold the Lion Please! and Fox Pop, McGrew and Fleury started to show a modern art influence, giving Jones’ shorts a bold look that had no precedent at Warner Bros. or anywhere else. The backgrounds in The Dover Boys aren’t as eye-popping and flat as later films like The Aristo-Cat and Wackiki Wabbit, but they are daringly stark and simple. Clouds are unrealistically rounded, mountains are absurdly jagged and trees and lawns are painted with an airbrush that suggests a hazy and deeply ironic sense of nostalgia. This bold look may have earned Jones and his crew points in the animation community, but not in the front office, and producer Leon Schlesinger didn’t want to see any more films like it.

Even so, the cartoon marked a breakthrough in Chuck Jones’ career. He had spent his first four years as a director crafting sentimental, Disney-flavored shorts featuring the likes of Sniffles the Mouse and the Two Curious Puppies. In 1942, Jones directed an excellent film about an ultra-patriotic horse entitled The Draft Horse where he demonstrated an untapped potential for broad slapstick. But The Dover Boys was his first big step into anarchic, irreverent comedy of the type that could rival peers like Tex Avery and Bob Clampett. From this point on, Jones found his voice as a director and he began what might be called the greatest winning streak in animation history, resulting in some of the funniest films ever released.

And it’s the laughs that are The Dover Boys’ greatest legacy. It’s instructive that many studios attempted to imitate this short (Columbia’s The Rocky Road to Ruin is about as close as you can get without accusations of plagiarism), and while many of its follow-ups have arresting visuals, none were able to balance the experimental style and the side-splitting humor as well as the Jones film. Gags come fast and furious, and the short is gleefully willing to go anywhere for a laugh. Dan Backslide is an amazing character, sporting a purple trench coat that would make the Joker’s mouth water and screaming all of his dialogue (my favorite line: “I’LL STEAL IT… NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW!”). Tedd Pierce’s writing is top-shelf (a saloon becomes “a tavern of unsavory repute”), and the film shows amusing contempt for school pride, traditional gender roles (Dora Standpipe beats Dan Backslide to a pulp while calling the Dover Boys for help) and extreme moral uprightness. Even the Boy Scouts get the razz here. Long live good old P.U.

HORTON HATCHES THE EGG
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

Dr. Seuss’s books may appear simple on first glance, but they are notoriously difficult to adapt. Feature films like How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) and The Cat in the Hat (2003) lost all of the charm of Seuss’s scratchy drawings in the conversion to live-action, and their awkward blend of pop culture-based comedy and mawkish sentimentality had little in common with the works that inspired them. Blue Sky’s computer-animated adaptation of Horton Hears a Who (2008) was a typically clichéd CGI family comedy, and Illumination’s The Lorax (2012) lost all of the whimsical wisdom of the book in a flood of hyperactive comedy and on-the-nose moralizing that the good doctor would have never approved of.

Interestingly, some of the very few artists to successfully bring Seuss’s imagination to the screen have been directors who cut their teeth at the Warner Bros. studio. Seuss wrote many very funny entries in Warner’s Private Snafu series during World War II, and Chuck Jones later directed the beloved 1966 TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas. And then there’s Horton Hatches the Egg, a film that reflects Bob Clampett’s personality as much as Dr. Seuss’s, but still manages to succeed.

The Warner Bros. cartoons frequently parodied movies, radio programs and classic fairy tales, but Horton is one of the few to be directly based on a preexisting property (the only other example I can think of is Chuck Jones’ 1940 cartoon The Mighty Hunters, based on Jimmy Swinnerton’s comic strip Canyon Kiddies). The book was published in 1940, and it was only Seuss’s fifth attempt at a picture book (following his rare, adult-themed The Seven Lady Godivas). The story features Horton the Elephant (voiced in the short by Kent Rogers), who is convinced by a bird named Mayzie (voiced by Sara Berner) to sit on her egg while she goes on vacation. Horton gives in, and Mayzie takes advantage of his Good Samaritanism by letting him do all of the work of tending to her child.

The film is chock-full of Warnerisms; you’ve got Hollywood parodies (there’s a fish who looks like Peter Lorre, and Mayzie impersonates Katharine Hepburn while whooping it up on vacation), slapstick comedy (the scene where Horton tries to hold in his sneeze is physical comedy at its finest), visual puns (Mayzie has literal bags under her eyes) and a certain off-color sense of humor; when Mayzie tries to convince Horton to take over her nest, she sucks in her fat in order to amplify her breasts. In another scene, the narrator describes the hunters aiming a gun right at Horton’s heart, when they clearly have it aimed at his rear end. Plus, the aforementioned Peter Lorre fish declares upon witnessing Horton in a tree that he’s seen everything, causing him to blow his brains out.

But unlike other Seuss adaptations, Clampett doesn’t allow these preoccupations to interfere with the story, and the tone of the original remains intact. He adds in funny gags and bits of comic business to justify the adaptation, but he does nothing to diminish the book’s off-kilter charm (it helps that Dr. Seuss and Clampett’s styles of humor, while somewhat different from each other, are still compatibly surreal). Considering that Seuss wasn’t particularly well-known until he published The Cat in the Hat and How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1957, it’s interesting to see how meticulously the Warner staff attempted to capture Seuss’s colorfully loopy style in the backgrounds and, to some extent, the character designs (many of the forest animals who laugh at Horton have the Seussian hallmark of U-shaped pupils). Animators who wish to adapt Seuss in the future ought to learn from Clampett’s intelligent and inspired approach… and live-action directors ought to take inspiration from the underrated 1953 musical The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T., but that’s a story for another time.

ME MUSICAL NEPHEWS
Directed by Seymour Kneitel [Uncredited: Tom Johnson]; Famous Studios

The Famous Studios cartoons get a bad rap in the animation community, particularly in regards to Popeye. While Max Fleischer’s films with the sailor man are frequently cited as highlights of the golden age of animation, Famous Studios is usually credited with destroying the character. And that has some truth to it. Famous never mastered Popeye the way the Fleischers did in the 1930s, and the studio pretty quickly settled into formulaic, fill-in-the-blanks writing, occasionally saved by spirited animation from the likes of Tom Johnson, John Gentilella and Jim Tyer. By the 1950s, even the animators were swallowed up into the black hole of mediocrity, and late-period entries like Tots of Fun (1952) and Toreadorable (1953) are borderline unwatchable]

Still, the studio had some inspiration in the early days, and the first few Popeyes Famous produced are actually a marked improvement on the Fleischers’ last batch of cartoons with the character. Animation fans who refuse to watch any Popeye film that doesn’t have the famous ship door opening (which the Fleischers retired in the late ‘30s, just about when the series stopped being funny) might be surprised at how enjoyable some of the Famous shorts are before the series converted to color in late 1943. Too Weak to Work (1943) is a delightful comedy with lots of crazy drawings that suggest the hand of director Jim Tyer. The Hungry Goat (1943) is an appealingly off-kilter attempt to stick Popeye in a Tex Avery-style chase cartoon. Happy Birthdaze (1943) is a very effective comedy of frustration, with an amusingly dark conclusion. And Cartoons Ain’t Human (1943) is a very entertaining meta-film where Popeye attempts to become an animator.

But Me Musical Nephews is perhaps Famous Studios’ best cartoon with the character. In it, Popeye attempts to sleep while his nephews Pip-eye, Pup-eye, Poop-eye and Peep-eye make music in their bedroom. The short is so brilliantly timed to the musical score that it suggests the work of Friz Freleng. The hilarious sound effects and Spike Jones-inspired music are ingeniously married to the frenetic Kids in a Shoe.

The whole cartoon is funny, from Popeye’s fairy tale mashup (“once upon a time, there was a big red hooding ride who sat on a muffet and said, ‘oh, grandma, what big feet you got’”) to the nephews praying for all of their mild acquaintances (even Bluto). But the cartoon reaches its zenith when Popeye attempts to catch his nephews in the act, and they suddenly hop back into bed right before he bursts in through the window, floorboards, bookshelf, etc. The ending is particularly strange, as Popeye jumps outside of the iris-out to get some rest, only to turn into a raving lunatic when he can still hear the music. Say what you will about Famous Studios, but they cranked out a few winners and this is one of ‘em.

MR. STRAUSS TAKES A WALK
Directed by George Pal; Puppetoons

This cartoon examination of the creative process is a real winner in terms of both concept and execution. The short stars composer Johann Strauss, who takes a walk through the forest and finds inspiration in the creatures scampering around, leading to his creation of Tales from the Vienna Woods. While Bob Clampett’s A Corny Concerto (1943) is the film that animation fans will inevitably associate with that piece, this short also makes stellar use of the famous waltz.

The stop-motion animation here is thoroughly charming, particularly the characterization of Strauss himself, who is entertaining enough to sustain the picture entirely through his movements. He glowers and twitches his mustache in thought as he formulates the notes in his head, he bobs back and forth like a seesaw as he gleefully plays the violin and he skates around the forest in bliss as the piece starts to come together. He has the zany energy of a character from a Warner Bros. cartoon, bizarrely elongating his neck to look at a bird on his shoulder and – in a standout scene – playing both parts in a romantic scene for virtually no reason at all.

The animals’ movements are nicely matched to the music, from the squirrels scampering down trees to woodpeckers pecking for bugs. The film is so full of funny gags and ideas it would be pointless to list them all. Better to simply watch the film and drink in the mood it creates. For all of its silliness, this is a painstaking work of art.

SYMPHONY HOUR
Directed by Riley Thomson; Walt Disney

It goes without saying that the Disney studio produced an incredible amount of classic animated shorts, from groundbreaking films like Steamboat Willie (1928), The Three Little Pigs (1933) and The Old Mill (1937) to masterful high-concept cartoons like Music Land (1935) and Pluto’s Judgment Day (1935). Mickey Mouse starred in many thoroughly charming films like The Band Concert (1935), Thru the Mirror (1936) and The Brave Little Tailor (1938), and Mickey-Donald-Goofy collaborations like Clock Cleaners (1937), Lonesome Ghosts (1937) and Mickey’s Trailer (1938) are comedy masterpieces. Der Feuhrer’s Face (1943) is one of the greatest satires ever made, Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) is an incredible example of stylized animation at its finest and Duck Pimples (1945) is a gloriously strange little short that doesn’t get enough attention.

However, if I were to name my all-time favorite Disney cartoon, I might have to go with Symphony Hour. There’s nothing groundbreaking or innovative about it, and other Disney shorts are more impressive, but it’s a very funny and thoroughly charming film that combines a great idea, fantastic character animation and a killer soundtrack to create something truly special. It’s a wilder, more offbeat update on The Band Concert, and while the earlier film is more stunning, this one is just as much fun in its own way. In the film, Mickey conducts an orchestra of Disney characters in performing Light Calvary Orchestra by Franz Von Suppe. Sponsor Sylvester Macaroni (Peg-Leg Pete) is delighted by their rehearsal and agrees to broadcast them on his radio program. However, Goofy accidentally destroys all of the instruments just before they go on the air (who gave Goofy ALL of the instruments?), and they wind up performing a wacky Spike Jones-inspired rendition of the Von Suppe piece using what remains of the trumpets, drums, xylophones, etc.

It’s a tour de force of inventive animation matched with funny sounds, full of wonderful moments like the cuckoo bird that pops out of Goofy’s saxophone and the donkey sound that emits from Donald’s mangled accordion. But what makes the sequence truly brilliant is the character animation. Les Clark masterfully animates the earlier scenes of Mickey confidently conducting his orchestra during the rehearsal, but it’s the relatively unknown Marvin Woodward who steals the show, giving Mickey a thoroughly relatable desperation as he conducts this trainwreck of a performance. The cuts back and forth from Mickey looking disheveled and world-weary to Macaroni exploding in fury are painfully funny, particularly as Macaroni’s rage becomes more ridiculously outsized with every shot (Ed Love animates the character throughout the entire short, and his work is appealingly loose and highly expressive). To make matters worse, Donald (animated by Bernie Wolf) keeps attempting to leave the orchestra and find work elsewhere, finally leading Mickey to make him stay by threatening him at gunpoint. It’s a hilariously shocking moment, but it’s particularly funny because we understand the panicked frustration that led Mickey to it. Similarly, when it turns out the audience loved the performance and Mickey falls into a blissful daze, we feel the same sense of relief because we went through it with him.

This film marked the final appearance of minor characters Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow and Clara Cluck (at least until later “revival” shorts like Get a Horse!), but perhaps even more notably, this was Mickey Mouse’s final film before being retired during the war. When he started popping up again in 1946, he was cast as a blandly cheerful suburbanite in a handful of forgettable Pluto cartoons. So, in many ways, Symphony Hour ought to be considered the mouse’s grand finale. And it’s not a bad way to go out… staring off into space, soaking in all the applause. After starring in so many groundbreaking films throughout the 1930s, I think he earned it.

A TALE OF TWO KITTIES
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

Very few beloved cartoon characters were initially launched as stars. Porky Pig was just one of many child characters in I Haven’t Got a Hat, and both Daffy and Bugs made their debuts as foils for Porky. Betty Boop was originally a supporting player to Bimbo, Foghorn Leghorn was a supporting player for Henery Hawk and Woody Woodpecker was a supporting player for Andy Panda. A Tale of Two Kitties was created as a parody of the popular comedy team of Abbott and Costello, but it’s clear that the little bird named Tweety is the show-stealer from the minute he declares, “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!”

That’s not to say that the Abbott and Costello parodies – two felines referred to as Babbitt and Catstello – are anything less than dead-on. Their schtick is so strong here (with Catstello hilariously going back and forth from outrageous self-confidence to depressive insecurity), that I’d venture to say this short is better than any of the live-action films they starred in. Their hilarious interplay, voiced by Mel Blanc and writer Tedd Pierce, is perfectly matched by fantastic animation, including some marvelously distorted work by Rod Scribner. Clampett and Scribner were aiming for a new kind of looseness in animation, inspired by newspaper cartoonist George Lichty, and this short marks one of the earliest examples of their experimentation (this style would soon dominate Clampett’s cartoons, starting with his 1943 masterpiece Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs). You can see it here in scenes like Tweety eating a worm out of an apple and Babbitt begging Catstello to speak to him after he gets crushed by a giant anvil.

Tweety, who Clampett admitted was inspired by Red Skelton’s Mean Widdle Kid character, looks a bit different from later incarnations. He has droopier jowls, and is pink instead of yellow (the censors eventually decided that Tweety looked too naked, and he was given yellow feathers in his third cartoon, A Gruesome Twosome). But even more striking than his design is his unrestrained sadism. While Friz Freleng’s later Tweety & Sylvester cartoons suggest that Tweety’s naïveté is something of a put-on, he’s still portrayed as a cute and somewhat innocent macguffin for Sylvester. In Clampett’s films, the joke is the contrast of Tweety’s cutesy baby-speak and his fiercely violent attacks on his opponents.

Here, Tweety mauls Catstello with clubs, explosives, guns, etc., and seems to get a cruel enjoyment out of heckling him, casually eating birdseed while Catstello is flattened by an anvil and, in a wonderfully merciless scene, plays “piddies” by pulling each of Catstello’s toes off of a wire, sending him plummeting to the ground. Certainly Freleng directed some excellent cartoons with Tweety, but the character was far more vibrant and hilarious in Clampett’s hands and it’s a shame Freleng never quite captured the bird’s original fire.

Best joke: When Catstello climbs up a ladder to access Tweety’s nest, Babbitt yells at him, “give me the bird!” Catstello remarks to the audience, “if the Hays Office would only allow it, I’d give him the bird alright.” This is an uncommonly direct reference to the Production Code, which made sure movies released in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s followed strict moral guidelines. It’s pretty surprising that the Hays Office didn’t cut this joke, which references an obscenity and thumbs its nose at the censors in the process, but there it is.

TULIPS SHALL GROW
Directed by George Pal; Puppetoons

This stop-motion short tells the story of two Dutch sweethearts whose happy lives are brought to ruin when an army of mechanical soldiers called the Screwballs invade the land and destroy everything in it. The film was made as an allegory for the Nazis’ conquest of Holland, and it remains George Pal’s greatest achievement, as well as being one of the best cartoons of the wartime years. The short was nominated for an Academy Award and was later selected for preservation by the National Film Registry.

This being a Puppetoon, the film is overloaded with delightful visuals. The elastic animation of the characters is as appealing as ever, and the film is extremely creative in its use of props (I love how unapologetically flat the flowers are) and color styling (the colors change dramatically to reflect mood, something that UPA would gain a lot of notoriety for in the 1950s). And the film reaches its visual zenith in the climax, where all of the machine men and their tanks rust, crumble and sink into mud. The destruction is quite inventively conceived and mesmerizing to watch.

But fantastic animation is to be expected from George Pal; what makes this short rise above his many other wonderful films is the strength of the story, and this film is a masterful example of the use of comedy to convey somber themes. The Screwballs are depicted with bolts for heads, goose-stepping in a goofy parody of robotic precision, while tanks are dropped from the sky through the aid of umbrellas. It’s a whimsical and imaginative take on the Nazis, exposing the absurdity of their mission as only a cartoonist could. Pal reduces the Nazis to unthinking, unfeeling robots (“machine men with machine minds”, as Chaplin put it in The Great Dictator), programmed for deranged and utterly pointless destruction. Pal had used some of these ideas in the previous year’s short Rhythm in the Ranks, but here he gives them a satiric purpose and it makes all the difference.

In another film, the Screwballs’ defeat via a rainstorm might be a disappointing deus ex machina, but not here. The short isn’t a jingoistic adventure about overthrowing an adversary; it’s a wise parable about how the Nazis’ hatred and destruction is unnatural and cannot survive. The confident pronouncement written in text at the film’s conclusion is enough to bring tears to your eyes. The idea that life will go on and humanity will ultimately prevail must’ve been deeply reassuring to the theater-going public in 1942.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1942? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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