Oscar Animation: A Huff and a Puff (1933)

7 Jun

During the build-up to the Oscars back in February I posted a look back at the Best Animated Short category’s very first appearance at the Academy Awards on Spout. It was a lot of fun and you should read it (though it seems Disney has yanked two of the videos). So here’s the project: every Thursday I’ll round up the animated nominees that are available to watch online and re-evaluate the race. Watch along, and we’ll see the Academy’s taste change drastically from an obsession with Disney cartoons to the inevitable fascination with Pixar and Aardman.

To kick things off, here are the nominees from the 6th Academy Awards. As was the case the year before, two out of the three films so honored came right out of Disney Studios. Clearly head over heels, the Academy gave Walt this particular award every year from an entire decade. The lone non-Disney film up for the 1933 award was Universal’s The Merry Old Soul, facing off against the one-two punch of a Silly Symphony and a Mickey cartoon. On paper, it seems absurd: 8 years of a single studio dominating the award is a bit much. Yet just as Flowers and Trees really was far and away the best film in 1932, the second batch of animated nominees is further proof that Walt Disney not only pioneered American animation but produced some of the best cartoons ever to grace the silver screen.

The Merry Old Soul, directed by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan

I feel kinda bad for Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was Disney’s first successful creation and now no one remembers anything about him. As far as fictional characters go, that’s mildly tragic. Yet that’s what happens when you end up in the Walter Lantz stable of cartoon animals (Andy Panda, anyone?). Walt sold Oswald to Universal in 1928, shortly before creating Mickey Mouse. Lantz did get a good 23 years out of the rabbit, but the cartoons never quite took off the way Mickey and friends would. Now he’s just a hare stuck in the annals of animation history, occasionally revived by Disney (who reacquired the rights in 2006) for merchandise and video games.

That being said, The Merry Old Soul doesn’t exactly make the case for a re-infatuation with Oswald. When he was a Disney product he never spoke, much in the same vein as early Mickey cartoons. Lantz’s studio got rid of much of that wordless magic, replacing it in this particular case with some irritating techniques that still bother us eight decades later. The plot of the cartoon is simple enough: Oswald is having a tooth pulled, when suddenly the radio alerts him that “Old King Cole has the blues!” He hops into his car and gathers all of Hollywood’s celebrities to go cheer up the roly-poly monarch. They each get a cameo, and after 8 minutes it finally ends.

Now, the animation is not bad even if the gags are a bit cheap. I just cannot understand why some cartoons insist on being so “current” with their humor. Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox have the same problem today. Why do the Chipmunks need to cover Lady Gaga? Why couldn’t The Merry Old Soul focus on Oswald and his personality, instead of just using him as a way to put Mae West, the Marx Brothers, Chaplin and Garbo on the screen? Now, there are better Oswald cartoons. This just isn’t one of them, I suppose further proving the eternal starstruck lameness of the Academy Awards.

Building a Building, directed by David Hand

To add insult to injury, the first of the two Disney nominees of the year is a remake of a 1928 Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoon, a Walt production called Sky Scrappers. Yet while Building a Building has effectively the same construction site love triangle plot as its predecessor, the technical difference between the two cartoons is pretty extraordinary. In just five years, Disney’s animators leaped forth from their early almost rudimentary work to the complex and richly kinetic tableaux of the 1930s. Under the direction of David Hand, Walt’s right-hand man for much of the decade, Building a Building is a particularly bravura example.

Taking a cue from Harold Lloyd, Hand has Mickey leaping across the rapidly ascending skeleton of a skyscraper to escape the jealous Stinky Pete. The whole construction site dances about, a living panorama of metal and machine. There isn’t a second of slack, in spite of the bare-bones plot: Minnie arrives with lunch, Mickey catches her eye, Pete intervenes and the chase begins. Yet with the entire setting acting as a character, every last drill bit keeps us entertained. Also, you’re going to have Minnie’s “Box Lunch” jingle stuck in your head for the rest of the day.

Three Little Pigsdirected by Burt Gillett

Far and away, however, the best of the lot is Three Little Pigs. One of the most successful cartoons of all time, this Disney production remains the definitive cinematic telling of the fairy tale. Its popularity emboldened the studio to continue innovating, leading to more experimental work and building up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. It can probably even be considered the first major classic produced by Walt’ and his team. Frank Churchill’s original song, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” was a hit single. Everyone remembers this cartoon.

Why is it so beloved? To quote Chuck Jones, “That was the first time that anybody ever brought characters to life [in an animated cartoon]. They were three characters who looked alike and acted differently.” Previous Silly Symphonies were more like mood pieces, experiments in animation that moved from moment to moment without much plot. Character based cartoons, like the Oswald and Mickey series, developed their heroes to some extent but didn’t quite break the formula. Three Little Pigs, on the other hand, is a feat of seamless storytelling. Each pig introduces himself in song, plays an instrument appropriate to his personality, and easily fits into his role opposite the Big Bad Wolf. The music is so effectively orchestrated that it doesn’t feel redundant, despite the constant repetition of the main theme (in contrast to The Merry Old Soul, which is just irritating).

I could go on and on, really. Everything about the cartoon is cleverly thought-out and arranged, down to the hilarious portrait of “Father” (a string of sausage links) in Practical Pig’s brick house. But don’t listen to me, just watch it.

So, that’s round one. The pigs are a clear victor, wouldn’t you say? Next week will feature two Christmas cartoons and another rabbit, in the first year the category wasn’t entirely dominated by Walt. He did still win, of course.

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