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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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America’s Greatest Music: I’ve Got Beginners Luck October 30, 2013

Posted by intellectualgridiron in Pop Culture.
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When deciding on a particular tune to highlight for a blog entry, that decision becomes a particularly keen challenge when trying to decide among tunes that Fred Astaire broke to the public.  After all, the tunes that broke out thanks to Fred Astaire’s rendition of them on the silver screen make up a list of upper-echelon legends within the already-hallowed Great American Songbook itself.  One such ditty is the George and Ira Gershwin classic “I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck.”  Pretty much anything the Gershwin Brothers wrote together was solid gold — some a greater degree of karats than others to be sure — and while this might be, say, 16 karat gold compared to the full 24 karats of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” or even “Shall We Dance,” it’s a classic among classics nonetheless.

Moreover, can one think of a better tune that encapsulates the lucky feeling that a fellow experiences when happening on that special lady for the first time?  Or vice-versa, for that matter?  The shame of things is such that, as great as the song as it is, it has been under-performed by recording luminaries over the years, particularly when compared to other Great American Songbook favorites.  Ella Fitzgerald did a version of it in 1959, and that is the only non-Astaire example of performance than comes to mind for this particular tune, and more the pity.

Nevertheless, the lyrics have that perfect eloquence that match with other Tin Pan Alley legends, as Fred Astaire himself demonstrated in the great 1937 musical “Shall We Dance.”  “…There never was such a smile or such eyes of blue!”  Enough said!

America’s Greatest Music, entry 08-06-13 August 6, 2013

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Yes, no doubt many readers are thinking that of all the outstanding Benny Goodman records that the King of Swing cut in his prime years, I chose “Thanks for the Memory” as the first to highlight on my blog.  Suffice it to say, I have my [undisclosed] reasons.  Adding further irony to the situation is that Goodman’s take on the tune is not considered its definitive version — Bob Hope is commonly thought to ‘own’ the song, along with Shirley Ross.  The two did render, perhaps, the definitive version of the song, and is no doubt closest to the original intent of the songwriters and of the storyline.

What is interesting is the contrast in tones that the two renditions set.  Whereas Hope and Ross version strike a very poignant chord of a long-time couple now splitting up, and they reminisce together right before going their separate ways, the Goodman version is far more upbeat.  Withholding the later verses about the lamentation of what has come to an end, Martha Tilton’s vocal talent instead concentrates on the fond memory of good times of two apparent travel companions.  All this is to say nothing of the contrast in key and tempo.  The Hope and Ross version has a strong tinge of melancholy and poignancy throughout the song, making you feel it, and feel for the soon-to-be-ex-couple.  All well and good, but that is far from Goodman’s style; thus, the song — recorded on Dec. 2, 1937 — is arranged in typical “businessman’s bounce” fashion, as only the King could deliver.

Moreover, this version does a better job of celebrating those ultra-special moments with very special people.

To all those with whom I’ve had special moments over the years — particularly this past weekend — thanks, for the memory.