Unpredictable as Weather (Part 8)
We resume our survey of animated weather disasters in 1935, beginning with a landmark film well-remembered by classic animation afficionados. If you’re one of such persons, it’ll be an old friend. If you’re one of the uninitiated, you’re in for a treat, and a milestone lesson in animation history. Also included this week are numerous samples of the one-shots of Fleischer, Warner Brothers, and MGM, another forgotten visit with Buddy, and a wrap-up with Betty Boop, and Oswald the Rabbit (in color!).
The Band Concert (Disney/United Artists, Mickey Mouse, 2/23/35 – Wilfred Jackson, dir.) – What can be said of this renowned classic that hasn’t been said before? Mickey bursts onto the screen in his official Technicolor debut (although having already appeared in a brief scene of a special reel seen only by attendees at the Academy Awards, “Parade of the Award Nominees”, wearing green pants, yet). Leopold Stokowski’s favorite cartoon, and the conversation point that got him talking with Disney over the concept of a “Concert Feature” that would become Fantasia. While Wilfred Jackson receives unbilled director credit, studio records appear to depict everybody who was anybody as working on the film. While borrowing liberally its finale climax from Max Fleischer’s “Tree Saps’, it produced musical innovation as being the first cartoon to build its entire storyline around all movements of the William Tell Overture (though it would take liberties in their order, juggling the themes around so as to use the storm for its finale instead of middle. (Later Disney Animator Dick Lundy, upon parting ways with Disney, would rectify the placement of these themes in his own “Overture to William Tell” for Walter Lantz.) Of note is the fact that Fleischer was again ahead of Disney in adapting all movements of an extended musical work into a cartoon, having done so with Rubinoff’s orchestra in 1933 with Betty Boop’s “Morning, Noon, and Night”.
Only Minnie and Pluto are absent from this premiere, the rest of the extended Disney cast members aiding and abetting Mickey as members of his orchestra in a park concert, with the exception of Donald Duck, who is a vendor of hot dogs, lemonade, and ice cream from a rolling cart, but seems to carry a larger supply of brass flutes within his wagon than of food, using them in repeated efforts to barge in on Mickey’s performance with his own rendition of “Turkey in the Straw” – a tune definitely considered non-concert worthy. Fun gags abound as Mickey and his gang repeatedly try to deprive Donald of his flutes, a trombonist catching Donald in the arm of the trombone and shaking him until dozens of flutes fall out of his uniform onto the stage. Clarabelle and Goofy show the first signs of romantic interest between them, exchanging bows to each other while playing, and running their fingering across each other’s instruments (clarinet and flute) during the performance. Perhaps jealousy thus drives Horace Horsecollar to bash Goofy over the head with a mallet, while maintaining appearances in feigned pursuit of a stubborn bee. The climax builds as Mickey turns the page on his master copy of the score, to the movement marked “The Storm”. The arrangement is so complicated in notation, the music sheets are augmented by several pasted-on fold out attachments, extending the notes clear off the page. (We’d like to see even Stokowski figure out how to read such a composition!) As the first notes of the part begin, the skies in respective backgrounds note a marked darkening of tones, permeated with increasing blends of gray in the otherwise white clouds. Winds also appear to rise across the stage, as Goofy and Horace labor over their energetic clarinet and percussion parts. Suddenly, from the horizon’s edge, as in Fleischer’s previous film, a furious “twister” of Oz-ian proportion looms into the scene, and systematically swallows up everything lying in its path, including detailed unraveling of a whole farmhouse before our eyes. As it begins to suck in the bricks of the wall surrounding the city park, the crowd in attendance takes notice, and scampers in all directions for any place out of the twister’s reach. In classic 30’s style, even the park’s benches and chairs take the hint, developing life-forces of their own, and also running for the hills.
Donald, late on the uptake, stands confused as the wooden seating apparatus rush by him. He then spots the twister’s funnel-cone bearing down upon him. Squawking and running at top speed, Donald scurries up a large tree as the only available point of shelter. This proves only a mixed blessing, as the tree’s roots prove too strong for the twister to uproot, but its trunk not strong enough to resist the whirling forces of the wind – resulting in Donald imprisoned in the tree limbs like he was baked into the dough of a well-twisted pretzel. Now, the twister exerts its full force upon Mickey’s bandstand. The mouse and his orchestra are so dedicated to the music and their performance, they refuse to go into panic, or even to acknowledge the twister’s presence, resolute in seeing the performance through, come hell or high water (a quality which Stokowski seemed to appreciate in his critique of the film). Without worrying about the platform, the twister sucks the entire orchestra, their instruments and equipment, up into the air and high into the spiraling clouds. None of the performers nor Mickey allow this to make them miss a beat. Mickey continues to conduct vigorously, though the winds convey him through the gates, over the welcome mat, and through the doorway of the wall-less remains of a destroyed home, including a trip over and around the furnishings of an entire living room, and out the back door. A pig is forced to hit a few sour notes on trumpet, when the points of a picket fence are blown under his rear end. Clarabelle struggles with her flute fingering, as an umbrella is blown through and out one end of her flute. Just when it seems the band will continue its rise to the heavens forever, Mickey abruptly realizes the finale notes of the score are approaching, and raises his baton in a stationary position to denote a halt in the music. Everything pauses – including the storm itself, frozen in position by the sheer will of Mickey’s conducting. With a new downbeat, Mickey suddenly reverses the direction of the winds, beginning his band on a downward spiral to return them to the ground. A series of comic mishaps befalls each of the orchestra members upon their re-entry, and landing amidst the branches of a large tree below. Goofy gets mixed up with a baby’s high-chair, trapped within it on a limb as he continues to follow the sheet music which lands before him. A pig is systematically stripped of his uniform by one branch after another of the tree, finally landing in a barrel at the base of the tree to cover his nudity. Mickey is the only one to land unscathed upon the ground, still standing on his soap-box podium, to conduct the final notes of his band, stacked in the tree almost like a human pyramid, with Horace the last to land and provide the final crash of his cymbals in the process. Mickey turns to take a bow, completely oblivious to the fact of what has happened to his audience. All that is left to have heard his final notes is the lonely applause of Donald Duck, now free from the pretzel-tree, and still armed with one last flute. Stubborn to the end, he resumes the strains of “Turkey in the Straw”, receiving shouts of “Boo”, and “Get outta here” from the band members, who toss instrument after instrument at him. The film ends with Donald being covered by the bell of the inverted tuba, with Donald’s hands and flute extending out of the tuba mouthpiece, blowing a last tremolo coda for the iris out.
The Song of the Birds (Fleischer/Paramount, Color Classic (2-strip), 2/27/35 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Seymour Kneitel/Roland Crandall, anim.) – A memorable sentimental short, which oddly showcases simultaneously both the sophistication and the shortcomings of Fleischer animation. A simple tale, about the meeting of a young boy, in receipt of a BB gun as a new toy, and a helpless baby bird just learning to fly. The tragic result is inevitable, as the bird is carelessly shot from the sky, ad lies motionless on the pavement. The primary faults of the cartoon are in the animation and voicing of the boy. While we are fully aware of what thoughts and emotions the writers are attempting to convey through the boy (surprise, and sudden guilt when the baby bird falls, attempt to dodge responsibility, and remorse as he weeps at his bedside), the artists are not yet up to the task of putting these feelings over visually, and produce odd twisted faces, expressions that change too suddenly, and a quite feeble attempt at mixing laughter and tears, all making the overall effect of the boy’s performance overly cherubic and unbelievable. Even Mae Questel falters in her performance, not yet quite sure of what sounds to produce to accompany the erratically-drawn mood swings in post-sync. (She would, however, get the chance to redeem herself years later, when the better-planned Little Audrey remake of the film was produced in 1950.) Where the film succeeds, however, is in its music, avian animation, and special effects. The turntable camera is used to full advantage to allow entire flocks of birds to dimensionally travel from tree to tree. The birds convey a range of emotion far more convincingly than the boy, and tug at the heartstrings as they maintain a vigil over the fallen bird for hours, trying to revive it, than sadly resign themselves to the realization that they have lost him. Perhaps most haunting of all is the ceremony of a full bird funeral, accompanied by a memorable minor-key chant composed by Sammy Timberg that probably produced teardrops in the theaters from both young ad young at heart. (Not only would Famous Studios try to maintain this emotional highlight in the Audrey remake, but Fleischer himself would attempt to make lightning strike twice by including another funeral in the later Color Classic. The Playful Polar Bears (1938), where, unfortunately, it seems out of place as there is no general lesson to be learned from it by the audience, and it feels overplayed to the point of being maudlin.)
The birds take the fallen fledgling and place him on a leaf to serve as a coffin, transporting him to a newly-dug open grave for burial. In his bedroom, the boy kneels beside his bed, and utters silent prayer for the bird’s salvation. In answer to same, a light rainstorm begins in the darkened skies outside. The mourners and the baby bird become mildly drenched in the downpour, but continue to complete the burial. However, just in the nick of time, water splashes upon the face and feathers of the baby bird – and he opens his eyes. The BB has not penetrated, but merely knocked him unconscious. Mother and father bird embrace the son they thought was lost, weeping with joy. The boy tries the same reaction from his window, but, as mentioned, is animated dreadfully in the process, in one of the worst shots of the film. The flock dances around the happy family, as the sun breaks through the clouds. They proceed back to the birds’ home tree, with a bright rainbow in the background, which is beautifully photographed, seeming to demonstrate all the expected natural colors despite what should have been the limitations of 2-strip Technicolor. (We are quite fortunate that this is one of a small number of Fleischer’s color films that has been found in collectors’ hands in a pristine 35mm source, so that we are able to see the photographic results undiluted.) The boy makes amends by breaking his gun into harmless pieces, and spreading bird seed for the entire flock, and especially the baby bird. It is finally notable that, as far from perfect as this film was, its ability to convey an emotional message despite its shortcomings was a rare and forward step in te development of dramatic animation, which of course was also being perfected and refined simultaneously by Disney, to culminate in the funeral scenes of Snow White. To fully appreciate how rare and difficult emotional sincerity in presenting such situations was to achieve, simply view a competing product of Columbia a few years later, “A Boy, a Gun, and Birds” (1940) – a film so cloying and confused in presentation, it refuses to make an emotional commitment to its subject, and loses itself in engrafting sight gags onto scenes where they seem out of place, then stoops to direct preachment by the characters to the audience in its final scene! To reverse an old quote, for animators, “Comedy is easy. Drama is hard.”
Buddy’s Adventures (Warner, Looney Tunes (Buddy), 3/5/35 – Ben Hardaway, dir.) – Scenario for this film almost feels like it should have come from Famous Studios – your star travels to a strange themed-land and deals with the quirks of the local community. Here, Buddy and Cookie, considerably “modernized” in design from when we last saw them, travel in a hot air balloon, destination uncertain (Buddy makes an off-the-cuff remark to Cookie that in a few minutes, they’ll be on Mars). A thunderstorm appears on cue to spoil their plans. Lightning flashes by their gondola, and Buddy, not instantly recognizing where the sound of the thunderclap came from, comments, “Must’ve been something I ate.” They drift into the face of a cloud, who blows them backwards. Another larger cloud, with both head and hand formations, flicks his finger against the base of the balloon gondola, sending it spinning like a pinwheel around and around the gas bag. Then, assuming the poses of a pugilist, the cloud engages in a workout regimen, utilizing the balloon as a punching bag. The bout becomes two-fisted as the first cloud and second take turns socking the baloon across the sky. A cheap special effect depicts the balloon in a dizzying whirl through use of rotating distortion lens. Then, a frightening sight appears, as an elongated cloud assumes the shape of a striking snake, its mouth shooting out lightning bolts instead of a forked tongue, The bolts use their serrated edges to saw away the ropes supporting the gondola. Buddy and Cookie fall, but their gondola slides down the face of an alpine-style mountain slope, then rolls along on the life preservers hanging on either side of the basket as if they were wheels. They have come to a strange land, as the anchor dragging behind their basket trips up what appears to be a prehistoric dodo bird. They roll across a drawbridge and into the strange community of Sourtown – a land whose welcome sign declares the laws, “No laughing. No singing. No dancing. No jazz music.” These laws are obviously in enforcement, as, currently serving time for their violation in the community stocks, are both Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Buddy and Cookie observe a meeting of “Ye Pessimists’ Club”, where several medieval types imbibe from barrels of vinegar and sour lemon juice, and talk-recite in dour tones a ditty entitled “Life Is Just a Bowl of Lemons” (parody title on a well-known pop hit, “Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries”). Despite having read the town laws, Buddy and Cookie try to demonstrate to the club how a song should be handled, breaking into a jazzy song and dance number. They are immediately arrested by the local constable, who takes them to the palace of King Sourpan. Said King us a white-whiskered old coot who wears a lemon juicer for a crown, fresh squeezing his own doses of the raw stuff to quench his thirst. Buddy and Cookie are dragged before him, and sentenced by the King to a turn on a mechanical spanking device, operated by a burly guard with a hand crank. But, as in many a 30’s cartoon, music cures all, as Buddy bravely produces a harmonica, and plays hide and seek with the King while playing, until the rhythm of his music gets the King toe-tapping, along with the palace guards, and the whole community outside the window. The King trips and becomes caught in the spanking machine, while Buddy and Cookie wind up on the throne, hailed by the kingdom as their new rulers, for the iris out.
The Lost Chick (Harman-Ising/MGM, Happy Harmonies (2-strip) – 3/8/35 – Hugh Harman, dir.) – A simple and sentimental tale, recently restored in a print that includes certificate seal before titles, and does colors and focus justice. (Prior prints had been very soft on focus, blurring names written on eggshells in a mother hen’s nest in the opening sequence.) An egg with handwritten name “Eggbert” upon its shell slips out of a mother hen’s nest and rolls into the woods. (Animation is quite meticulous to rotate the letters in near perfection throughout the sequence.) Two squirrels, foraging for winter food, mistake the mysterious shelled object for a nut – large enough to last all winter. Disposing of their basket and meager findings so far, they roll the egg back to their home. The members of the squirrel community can’t make heads or tails of their behavior, and think they’re squirrely. Their grandpa cautions them he’s never seen a nut like that before, and that they should be out gathering real food. A trio of other squirrels taunt our heroes with a sarcastic song, “We Told You So”. Our two squirrels nevertheless take the egg into their parlor, and place it near their fireplace for munching later. The heat from the fire produces a tapping inside the shell, and out pops Eggbert – a chick. The taunts of the other squirrels are repeated, with advice to toss the intruder out quick.
But the two squirrels think he’s cute, and offer him feed from a bag of uncooked popcorn. The chick unwisely decides to warm his tail by the fire, and becomes a living jumping bean as the popcorn pops inside him. Meanwhile, back at the nest, mother hen finally discovers one egg is missing, and runs out in search for it. She happens upon the squirrels’ doorway, just as they are holding the chick upside down to shake out the last kernels of popcorn. Mama assumes the worst, and grabs her chick, shooing away the meddlesome squirrels whom she believes abducted her hatchling. Now, as if in ironic punishment for their good deed, winter suddenly sets in – with the squirrels left with an empty larder. They strike out into the woods against an icy blast of snow, desperately hoping there is some food left to find to fend off starvation. Meanwhile, in their comfortable roost, the baby chick paces nervously at the window, looking out at the driving snow, and informs Mama that the two squirrels were his friends, and now they’ll be cold and hungry. Mama finally listens, and, donning boots and scarf, makes an exit out into the cold that brings to mind the studio’s previous scene of Bosko braving the blizzard in “Big Man From the North”. In the woods, the weakened squirrels discover the half-buried overturned basket they had thrown away while collecting nuts, but any nuts fallen from it are buried somewhere in the snow. The squirrels cannot hold out long enough to dig for them, and collapse helplessly just inches from the basket. Mother hen arrives in the nick of time (despite a stiff wind that turns her feathers inside out, revealing red flannel underwear worn underneath), discovers the squirrels, and heroically carries them back to her home. Thawed out by a tub of hot water, the squirrels are finally seen in the lap of mother hen at home, the chick pouring further hot water into the pail to warm mother’s feet. The squirrels are promised a new home with the chickens “forever and ever”, and finally receive their reward for their kindness, as we iris out.
Those Beautiful Dames (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 4/6/35 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) – An excuse for a return of Freleng’s little girl character who previously visited dreamland in the early color entry, “Beauty and the Beast”, and a further excuse to showcase the title song of Dick Powell’s/Busby Berkeley’s recent screen success, “Dames”. Instead of a pampered candy glutton in her own deluxe nursery, the little girl is recast as an orphan waif, enduring a lonely winter in a ramshackle hovel where even the pot-bellied stove has icicles hanging on the inside (a drop from which snuffs out the only remnant of flame within). The girl kills time staring longingly into a toy shop window, though having nothing to purchase them with, then trudges back to her shack in the snow. Icy winds cause her to pause in her steps several times, shuddering from the cold. On the third blast, the girl’s panties are blown and billow out about one foot beyond her bared posterior, and a shovelful of chilling snow falls from a roof, dropping right into the seat of her underwear. “Oooh!”, she squeals, as the elastic waist of her undergarments snaps back in place, hitting her with cold where she can feel it the most. That night, as she falls asleep without food or a fire, a Christmas miracle occurs – though current prints provide no explanation for it. A sudden jump cut after a fade out depicts toys from the toy shop sneaking up to the girl’s door, on a mission of good will to improve her living status. (Does anyone possess knowledge of what appears to have been cut out in the final edits of this film prior to this shot? As the film was never re-released in the Blue Ribbon program, the cut seems to have been from the original theatrical release, and likely was mandated by some censor. What were the forbidden gags?) The toys perform a complete makeover of the shack, and also spread a banquet for the little girl (though they do nothing about her ragged wardrobe except to place a golden crown on her head). The remainder of the film consists of their show for the girl as she awakens, and a feast of ice cream and cake all around. (Why a cold dessert in the winter?) Perhaps the best animation in the film is of a pair of concertina-bellows clowns who expand and contract to play the title tune in a rhythmic dance, smoothly executed and with matching shadows resulting from a flashlight serving as a spotlight. The film ends with a gag pulled on the little girl, as a special dish of Jello surprises her when a jack in the box pops out.
The Picnic Panic (Van Buren/RKO, Rainbow Parade (Toddle Tales) , 5/3/35 – Burt Gillett/Tom Palmer, dir.) – Storm action in this one is not animated, but appears in a live-action wraparound, as three children are unable to go out for a picnic because it is raining heavily outside their window. They hear a melody from the kitchen, and investigate, to find an animated coffee pot and two whistling tea kettles entertaining on the stove, performing a memorable tune composed by Win Sharples, “Rhythm of the Rain”. To cheer the kids up, Mr. Coffee Pot and his teapot wife relate the story of one of their picnics, with their family of crockery children. They battle the intrusive interference of a hungry and meddlesome cow (Molly Moo Cow, in her debut appearance), providing most of the action of the picture. This short is today most remembered for being the acknowledged inspiration for the principal character designs for the well-regarded “Cuphead” animated video game and subsequent animated series, with the coffee pot providing a near-direct model for Elder Kettle in the series.
No! No! A Thousand Times No!! (Fleischer/Paramount, Betty Boop, 5/24/35 – Dave Fleischer, dir. (anim. credits unknown)) – One of a number of Betty “stage mellodrammers”, featuring the love triangle of Betty, Fearless Fred, and Phillip the Fiend. Here, Phillip plays aviator, casting a dark cloud over Betty’s romance by descending in a hot-air balloon (suspended from a pulley rope in the theater’s rafters), to imperil Fred (leaving him tied to a tree, encircled in flames), and to abduct Betty into the skies. Fred uses the tree as a catapult to launch himself skyward, doing battle with the villain atop the balloon. A thunderstorm is simulated throughout the fight sequence, with lightning produced by a jagged bar of metal mounted upon a telephone extender, the metal bar heated in the rafters to a glowing white-hot. Rain is produced by another stagehand, who stands on a platform above the stage with a washtub of water and two dogs – dipping the dogs repeatedly into the water, and letting them shake themselves dry, ejecting the water from their fur as raindrops down upon the stage. Fred and Betty are as usual triumphant in this fun farce, and the villain spends the curtain calls wrapped up in the folding and unfolding curtains as our hero and heroine take their bows.
Springtime Serenade (Lantz/Universal, Cartune Classic, 5/27/35) – A rare appearance of Oswald Rabbit in two-strip Technicolor. Also rare in that it features him married to a Mrs. Oswald, who is a rabbit rather than Ortensia the cat or the unnamed female dog from “Five and Dime”. Oswald had probably not had a rabbit spouse since the days of Disney’s pilot for the series, “Poor Papa”. He and the Mrs. are the proprietors of a summer resort, closed for the winter months, and awaiting the change in the weather to begin spring cleaning to open for business. The snow-covered countryside transforms (by way of simple cross-dissolves) from icy white to earth tones of brown and green as the snow melts away. A snowman melts to reveal it was only a blanket of snow covering an inflated scarecrow, rotund in shape because a flock of crows has been huddled inside the scarecrow’s coat for protection against the weather. They exit the suit in a mass, reducing the scarecrow to normal beanpole skinniness. Two lumps of snow on a log thaw to reveal two tortoise shells, and a male and female tortoise emerge from and step out of their shells to dance and frolic in skimpy underwear. A family of squirrels emerges from a tree, skipping along merrily. However, the smallest one stops outside the door of Professor Groundhog, Weather Prophet, pausing to knock on his door, and alert him that Spring is here. The elderly groundhog, who speaks in Germanic accent, listens to the news through an ear horn – but draws a different conclusion when he turns around, and sees his shadow cast on a wall. “When I see my shadow, it means six more weeks of cold weather. Beware!”, he cautions. Oswald and the Mrs. are in the process of updating a sign outside their resort to announce their commencement of spring cleaning mode, but the groundhog repeats his foreboding warning to them also.
Oswald and the wife laugh, ignoring the over-caution of the groundhog as mere bunk, and commence the cleanup, with various gags involving sweeping dust under the rugs, beating carpets, etc., while others from the local community begin their own forms of spring cleanup, including a mother pig who puts her three piglets through the wash cycle of a washing machine as if it was a merry-go-round ride, getting them squeaky-clean – only to have the piglets immediately jump into a mud puddle, requiring the cleanup to start all over again. Eventually, Oswald changes the sign outside to read, “Open for Business”, to the cheers of the animal community, while the groundhog remains sole holdout, again repeating his warning. Right on cue, the skies darken forebodingly. The animals begin to scurry as an icy blast hits the countryside, and within moments (and through another cross-dissolve), Oswald’s front yard is again blanketed in snow. The crows dive back inside the coat of the scarecrow, as the snow again converts its outsides into the image of a snowman. One crow is late in returning, and has to enter the internal sanctuary by means of the snowman opening its mouth to let him inside. The turtles race back to return to their warm shells before they freeze in their skimpy outfits. The male turtle, however, acts a little too boldly, diving into the same shell as the female, only to receive a slap across the face and be ejected, the girl making gestures to him as if to say “naughty naughty”. The male turtle blushes red before returning to his own shell. The pigs dart with other animals into a barn, but Mother pig misses her cue, crashing into the barn door just as it is closing, and is knocked out cold. No one can drag her inside because of her weight, and she is only saved from the cold by one of her piglets tying her curly tail around the hook of a rope fastened to a block and tackle above, through which the animals lift her into the hay loft of the barn. Last inside are the squirrels, racing back to their home. The littlest one hears Professor Groundhog laughing at him, and hears the weather forecaster gloating, “I told you so.” Junior squirrel reacts to this before returning to his house, by throwing a snowball right in the groundhog’s face. The groundhog turns to audience, closing with the observation, “What fools these peoples be.”