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Three Disney Cartoons from 1937 November 19, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Before the year 2017 comes to a close, let us take the time to observe the 80th anniversary of three particular cartoons that Walt Disney produced.

One is “The Clock Cleaners,” a nice cartoon from 1937 starring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.  The title obviously tells us what the occupation is of the three protagonists.  The cartoon consists of the three involved in various perilous circumstances, often with slapstick results.  Especially funny is seeing Goofy getting clobbered by a mechanical mini-Statue of Liberty because he was between it and the bell the automaton was supposed to ring instead.  Classic.

There are two very inventive aspects to this cartoon.  One is the postering match Donald finds himself in with a large quill spring that has become undone and seems to have assumed a mind of its own.  This animated spring seems to be able to speak at one point.  The sounds it emits sound like speech, but very much processed through electric instruments.  This was no small feat of sound effects given that the recording industry was still decades away from synthesized sound.

The other inventive aspect to this cartoon is the feeling of height.  The three characters are all high aloft, washing the face and other parts of a clock at looks like Big Ben adorned with mechanized characters in statue form timed to strike a huge bell at given intervals.  It is not an animated film for the acrophobic.  Let’s us not get started on the lack of safety harnesses that would be prevalent at such a job site today.  Regardless, that Disney was able to achieve this sensation in audiences in that era of animation is nothing short of remarkable.

Just as remarkable is Disney’s Silly Symphony cartoon “The Old Mill”, released this month (November) in 1937.  By this time, Mickey and Donald were quickly growing in popularity, and as such, Walt Disney was not emphasizing the Silly Symphonies like he did earlier in that decade.  This one is typical of the later Silly Symphonies in that he used it to test advanced animation techniques.  It shows, and it delivers.

There is no dialogue at all in this animation.  Rather, it is a tone poem, using the music from the song “One Day When We Were Young” from the operetta “The Gypsy Baron” by Johann Strauss II.  What we see are a community of animals, living in and around an old abandoned mill.  We the audience are to observe how these animals deal with rapidly deteriorating conditions during a harsh summer thunderstorm.

The cartoon starts out on a pleasant note, with a summer sunset in the background as we are introduced to the animals living in the abandoned mill.  We see a pair of bluebirds at the bottom level with the mother of the two tending to a nest.  Further up we see a pair of doves, then an owl, a group of mice, and in the rafters, a colony of bats, who instinctively know that it’s time to wake up and leave for their nightly flight.

Outside, with the sun having completely set, we are treated to frogs in the nearby pond finding each other and building up to a serenade, supported by crickets in the nearby field.  All that ends once a stiff wind descends.  The frogs, instantly sensing the coming storm, quit the ribbiting and hop under a giant lily pad together to hunker down and ride out the storm.

Back inside the mill, the strong winds are about to wreak havoc on the inhabitants therein.  A single, deteriorated rope is all that holds back the entire mechanism from engaging.  The force of the wind becomes too much, the rope breaks, and the poor mother bird is in for a horrific ride going around repeatedly on a large gear wheel.  All that saves her from sudden death is that a gear tooth on the massive gear driving said wheel is missing.  Further up, we see the owl dealing with the movement of shafts, and later, with increased leaks in the roof as more shingles are blown off.  The doves and mice are left to ride out the storm together.

Soon, though, the violence of the storm is too much for the old, abandoned mill.  The denouement is reached when a lightning bolt causes a mill fan blade to break, causing things to come to a sudden halt.  At the same time, collateral damage causes the whole structure to sag, creating a “new normal” for the animal inhabitants.  But at least the mechanical workings and resultant havoc have ceased, and the audience feels a sense of relief in the process.  The storm eventually passes, as do the clouds.  At dawn, the bats return to their rafter domicile, and the bluebird parents bring more worms to their nest, as the eggs have now hatched.  It’s a new day.

The true beauty of this animated short is in the details.  Walt Disney used his multiplane camera to the utmost, creating an incredibly realistic sense of depth.  One of the first things we the audience see at the beginning of the cartoon is a spider web, with all its strands realistically shimmering in the twilight.  The textured details of the exterior of the mill are also works of art.  One can practically feel the texture of the aged timber, inside and out, battered by the elements and the wooden shingles that are torn off the roof during the height of the storm.  The mill’s dithering reflection on the pond is also worth much merit, and even the glow in the eyes of the nocturnal animals lend all the more touches of realism that Disney strove so hard to achieve.

Moreover, the musical effects are incredibly inventive.  The use of wind passing through old, decaying shrubbery and bending stalks to convey expressive sounds from woodwinds showed impressive musical creativity.  That was but one element of timing used to produce certain dramatic and emotional effects.  It was beyond fitting and proper that the U.S. Library of Congress selected this film for preservation in the National Film Registry, finding it “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Can’t it be all of the above?

The third cartoon worth exploring is  “Lonesome Ghosts”.  Ostensibly a Mickey Mouse cartoon, in reality it also features Donald and Goofy.  It is arguably the most famous cartoon from 1937, and deservedly so.  The three this time are teamed up as Ajax Ghost Exterminators.  Not exactly in a booming business, they enthusiastically embrace the hire to drive out four ghosts who hang out in a decrepit, abandoned mansion.  Little do these “exterminators” know that they were “hired” by the ghosts themselves.

Indeed, the ghosts in question are plain bored.  Having chased the living far away from the house already, they want to lure these supposed exterminators into the haunted house for their own personal amusement.  Once Mickey, Donald, and Goofy arrive, these ghosts pull off a number of pranks on them.  Slapstick and hilarity inevitably ensue.

One innovative aspect of this cartoon is the portrayal of ghosts.  Instead of the traditional portrayal of ghosts as spooky, ethereal spirits, these four are portrayed with many anthropomorphic qualities, albeit in cartoon, caricature form (all the better for the humor of the cartoon).  Complete with very human vices and habits (e.g., cigar-smoking, idly playing cards, improper grammar), all of them engage in fashion satire by wearing derby hats, something that had fallen out of favor for roughly 15 years by that time.  The irony comes with their last, biggest prank on the humorously beleaguered trio.  This prank culminates in them crashing into a wall of the basement, causing them first to be covered in molasses, then immediately thereafter by flour.  The immediate visual effect – abetted by the heroes’ struggle to free themselves from the mess – causes the unsuspecting poltergeists to recoil in horror at the impression that they have stumbled upon real ghosts.  Without delay, and with deliciously ironic horror, they find the quickest route out of the dilapidated house, crashing through everything in their path like bulls through a china shop.  They even crash through windows in the desperate haste to flee.  The last thing we see of these poltergeist pranksters is their footprints in the snow, made in real time.  Mickey, Donald, and Goofy thus savor the moment of switching from being the victims of their pranks to being able to live up to the title of their occupations.

Another innovative aspect of this animated short is the subtle, cultural references in the ghosts’ pranks.  Their mid-story march includes waving pajamas on a cane as if it were a flag, while the remaining three march behind playing drum and fife, to the strains of the popular Revolutionary War melody “The Girl I Left Behind Me” in an atonal, minor key.  Anybody with a grasp American history would quickly appreciate the satire therein.  Immediately, the ghosts follow up with a mocking dance line that hints at that of a turn-of-the-century minstrel show.  Goofy’s mirror scene with one of the ghosts wonderfully echos the Marx Brothers scene from “Duck Soup” (1933) that clearly inspired this series of gags.

Perhaps the biggest irony of all is the cartoon’s release date.  The theme of the cartoon is perfect for Halloween, yet it was released in theaters on Christmas Eve of 1937, just three days after the general release of Disney’s legendary, ground-breaking, and otherwise pioneering “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”.  The year 1937 would thus prove to be a very fecund one indeed for Walt Disney.

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Chuck Berry, Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Founding Father-Poet, Dies at 90 March 26, 2017

Posted by intellectualgridiron in History, Pop Culture.
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Chuck_Berry_1958

Chuck Berry in his most iconic publicity photo.  Notice the traditional, shawl-lapel tuxedo, which was an implicit appeal to mainstream audiences.

Chuck Berry died at his home in St. Louis on March 18, 2017.  He was 90 years old.  Given that the musical genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll is over 60 years old by now, it comes as little surprise that most of its “founding fathers” are now dead.  Some died when the music was still young (e.g., Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.), others later on from old age (Berry), or any types of cancers or other ailments (Gene Vincent, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins), or drugs/pills (Elvis).

Only a few notable rock founders remain; Little Richard (84), Fats Domino (89), and, inexplicably, Jerry Lee Lewis (81).

But Chuck Berry’s passing is particularly notable since his musical legacy is arguably, outside of Elvis, the farthest-reaching of any of Rock’s Founders, both literally as well as figuratively.

Take the obvious example of “Johnny B. Goode”.  As we speak, it hurtles through the cosmos, cut into golden records affixed to both the Voyagers I and II spacecraft.  Should some intelligent, extraterrestrial beings find these probes thousands of years from now, they shall hear it as a prime example of music produced by the people of Earth.  Let that sink in for a moment.

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An authentic duplicate of the gold-plated records that were launched along with the two Voyager spacecraft in 1977 and continue to silently sail beyond our solar system.  Among the diversity of music on this disc is Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”.  (C) photo by author at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va., Nov., 2014.

But back down to Earth, the song’s energy and mood take on a spirit of their own.  It has been used in countless movie soundtracks for one.  Its opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in the history of the electric guitar, and grabs the listener with its first few opening notes on Berry’s Gibson ES-350T, never to let go.  Though recorded in 1958, even almost 60 years later, it still has the incredible ability to both raise the energy and lighten the mood of a room, no matter how lively the scene may currently be.  Personal experience has demonstrated this on a number of occasions.  Feeling lethargic during the morning commute to work?  Call up Johnny B. Goode on your mp3 library in your car:  that record will rev you up to take on the day without fail.

Guitarists both professional and amateur the world over have picked up their cherished instrument out of inspiration for that record’s famous opening riff, many having spent months trying to learn to imitate it.  But if all that does not demonstrate the distance and depth Chuck Berry’s musical legacy, consider the aforementioned space travel note.

Like many artists, Berry himself was not example well-adjusted, either during his youth or adult life.  Despite growing up in a middle-class family in St. Louis, he had a serious run-in with the law before graduating from high school.  During his Senior year, he was arrested and for armed robbery and for stealing a car at gunpoint, and sent to reformatory near Jefferson City, Mo., in 1944, and was released on his 21st birthday in 1947.

He married in 1948 and worked jobs ranging from janitor of the apartment where he resided to factory worker at auto plants in St. Louis in order to support his wife and young family.  At one point, he even trained as a beautician, which might explain his distinctive hairstyle on stage and in publicity photos.

Speaking of the stage, however, he did have a life-long interest in music, and even gave his first public performance as a high school student in 1941.  By the early 1950s, he started working with local bands to supplement his income, formulating his own style by borrowing heavily from the riffs of T-Bone Walker, further honed by guitar lessons from his friend Ira Harris.  By early 1953, he was performing with Johnnie Johnson’s trio.  That collaboration would prove fruitful for both, for it was Johnson who would be the reliable pianist behind Berry’s many legendary tracks after his own band became yesterday’s news.  Indeed, his piano playing seemed to perfectly complement Berry’s guitar on “Johnny B. Goode”.

The irony in Berry’s successful formula is that it took an opposite approach to the one Elvis Presley used for his own success.  Sam Phillips, the founder and owner of legendary Sun Records, realized that Elvis had the potential for huge commercial success by being a white person who could imitate the singing mannerisms of black artists.  Berry came up with a different recipe.  He covered Country-Western songs – along with the requisite R&B tunes – to the vocal stylings of Nat King Cole, backed up with the musical stylings of Muddy Waters.  Translation:  instead of a white guy covering R&B tunes, he was a black guy covering [white] Country-Western tunes, with mainstream vocal styling and enough R&B musical backing to give the music an edge, and in so doing brought in a much wider, more affluent audience than he would have by simply sticking to the blues.  His calculated showmanship was also a key ingredient in his success, as he frequently wore a tuxedo during live performances in order to appeal to the aforementioned mainstream audiences.

Perhaps the best example of Berry’s use of Country-Western came about after he actually first met Waters when he traveled to Chicago in May of 1955.  At Waters’ behest, Berry contacted Leonard Chess (founder and owner of Chess Records), demonstrating to the rising executive what he could produce for him.  What grabbed Chess’ attention was Berry’s adaptation of a fiddle tune called “Ida Red”, which was recorded by Country Swing bandleader Bob Wills* in 1938.  Berry recorded this Rock adaptation of Ida Red under a new title, “Maybelline” on May 21, 1955.  The song soon sold over a million copies, and became one of the key records that gave fuel to the explosion of Rock n’ Roll that very same year.

The same year (’55) yielded other great records by Chuck Berry, including “Thirty Days”.  In both cases, one thing that stands out is his guitar.  His Gibson ES-350 model was his signature instrument in the same way that Buddy Holly would come to “own” the Fender Stratocaster.  The ES-350 (“E.S.” standing for “electro-Spanish”, incidentally) had the sublime combination of the traditional, mellow tones of a hollow-body archtop guitar, but with a hard edge to make things very interesting.  Berry quickly learned to use this potent combo to amazing effect, as his first hits alone clearly show.

The following year (1956) would prove just as fruitful, especially with his hard-charging hit “Roll Over Beethoven”.  Also added to that year’s successful mix was “Too Much Monkey Business” and “You Can’t Catch Me,” the latter of which he also performed in the movie “Rock, Rock, Rock” that same year.

The very soundtrack from 1957 cannot be complete without both “Rock and Roll Music” and “School Days,” while 1958 proved, arguably, to be Berry’s most fecund vintage.  Not only did ’58 produce the legendary “Johnny B. Goode,” but also “Sweet Little Sixteen” – the song that became the inspiration for the Beach Boys’ huge hit “Surfin’ USA” the following decade – but also “Carol”, “Reelin’ and Rockin’”, “Around and Around”, “Sweet Little Rock and Roller”, and “Run, Rudolph, Run”.  One can easily be forgiven for mistaking the last number with “Little Queenie,” which charted the following year:  both of which share an identical melody.

The year 1959 proved just as energetic, though, as he recorded “Little Queenie (as already mentioned),” “Memphis,” “Let It Rock” “Almost Grown,” and “Back in the USA”, the latter two having been augmented by the vocal backup of The Moonglows, who were Chess Records stablemates.

“Let It Rock”, although a brief track at 1:47, also merits special notice as he successfully emulates the sound of a train with his guitar.  Little Richard proved that the Holy Grail of Rock was the “freight-train” effect in music.  Richard achieved this with the combination of percussion and piano syncopations, sometimes with saxophones mixed in, too.  Berry’s unique contribution was, as already mentioned, via guitar.

Even by 1960, when the genre had already evolved itself into something less energetic, Berry was still producing songs of comparatively exceptional energy such as “Bye, Bye Johnny” (an obvious follow-up to Johnny B. Goode).

Only in 1961 did his career take a temporary turn for the worse when his mal-adjustments caught up with him yet again.  This time he was arrested and eventually convicted for violating the Mann Act (transportation of underage women across state lines for immoral purposes).

Released after serving a year and a half in prison, he immediately returned to recording and quickly produced more hits, including “Nadine” and “No Particular Place To Go,” (the melody borrows heavily from “School Days”) and “You Never Can Tell”, all of which clearly the recalled the energy and excitement of the previous decade when rock was fresh.  This, at a time, when what passed for “rock” had become comparatively boring and listless.  Even in the early 1960s, both Chuck Berry and Little Richard were keeping the flame alive long after their still-active contemporaries had sold out.  The only thing about him that did seem to evolve was his choice of guitar.  Instead of his blond-finished ES-350, he seemed to increasingly favor a red ES-335 instead.

Perhaps the grandest irony of Chuck Berry’s career was that he did not have a “Number One” hit on the Pop charts (though several topped the charts, or came close to doing so on the R&B charts).  Johnny B. Goode peaked on the Pop charts at No. 8; Sweet Little Sixteen actually surpassed it, peaking at No. 2.  Not until 1972 did Berry finally have a record that achieved Number One status on the Pop charts with the rude novelty song “My Ding-a-Ling,” the lyrics of which would put Sterling Archer’s famed reaction-expression of “phrasing” into overdrive!

Berry’s music from the ’50s and early ‘60s also causes us to reconsider Rock music’s ancestral origins.  Many historians quickly point out Rock’s base ingredients of both R&B (sometimes outright Blues itself) and Country-Western, and those key ingredients are clearly evident across the board.  But the third key ingredient of Big Band-Swing is often overlooked entirely.  A careful study of Chuck Berry’s own interviews verifies this as a key ingredient to the genre he helped, ironically, create.

A 1987 LA Times article revealed Berry in that year reminiscing not of his early hits or those of his contemporaries, but of Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” (1938) and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” (1939).  “The Big Band Era was my era,” he candidly clarified.  “People say, where did you get your style from.  I did the Big Band Era on guitar.  That’s the best way I could explain it.”  He even continued, “”Rock ‘n’ roll accepted me and paid me, even though I loved the big bands . . . I went that way because I wanted a home of my own. I had a family. I had to raise them. Let’s don’t leave out the economics. No way.”  Indeed, in that same interview, he was even more candidly frank in saying that he would have been even happier crooning Nat King Cole-style songs instead of rock.  Let us take a moment to pause and consider that as our collective jaw drops to the floor in amazement.

But perhaps we ought not to be so surprised.  In his ‘Rockumentary’ film “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”, also from 1987, he attempted to croon, during a rehearsal session in his home, to traditional American Pop Standards “I’m Through With Love” and “A Cottage For Sale.”

Yet another clue, though, shows up in a live gig he did at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958.

Notice the jazzy approach he takes toward the live rendition of this hit record from the previous year.

To put things in yet another perspective, one could make the case that Berry did not sing Rock music insomuch as he sang folk music set to Rock ‘n’ Roll.  Johnny B. Goode, for example, became a hero of legend as the protagonist in Berry’s immortal record.  In the case of “No Money Down,” the lyrics describe the dream of every new car buyer to this day.  “School Days” articulate the day-to-day experience of kids in junior high and high school like no other song ever, and they still ring just as truly today, 60 years later.  “Too Much Monkey Business” describes/pokes fun at the struggles of most 20-something men as they make adjustments to adulthood and the responsibilities thereof.  “Back in the USA” speaks the heart of every patriotic American who is grateful to return to their beloved native land after travelling abroad.  Even “You Never Can Tell” speaks to the hopes and the potential of young newlyweds as they just start off on their own.

Chuck Berry’s music packed a punch still that resonates strongly today, more than sixty years after this first recording sessions were put to tape.  His guitar riffs are the stuff of legend, and everybody guitar player, professional and amateur alike, owes some degree of debt to him for their own inspiration.  But ironically, Chuck Berry’s greatest staying power might be on account of his own lyrics, which made him the poet of Rock’s Founding Fathers, and who has now joined most of his fellow contemporaries in a higher plane of existence.

*According to the late Waylon Jennings, “Bob Wills is still the king (of country)!”