Category Archives: Animation

Fantasy Project: Disney on Criterion, 1937-1950

DC_00_montage
Every now and then I like to indulge in “What if?” scenarios, as in “What if the folks at Criterion approached me to design the covers for a series exploring the Disney studio’s earliest feature films?” Hey, it might happen.

What I’d do are the ten hypothetical “Disney on Criterion” releases seen here. The 1937-50 period was a crucial time for the Disney studios. Despite the arrival of World War II and a turbulent studio employees’ strike, Disney produced lots of stuff during that time – some classics, others not no much, all of it risky in some way (try saying that about today’s Disney). The idea of this era done in expertly annotated, lavish Criterion Collection sets makes the animation geek in me drool. Although Walt Disney and the other participants in these films are long gone, there’s enough archival material around to provide for added commentaries, supplementary shorts and interviews. Of course, minor films like The Reluctant Dragon and Victory through Air Power would be included as extras, as well.

This project came about while I was attempting to watch these films, in chronological order. When it came to 1946’s Song of the South, however, I hit a roadblock – Disney hasn’t reissued that one in the U.S. for nearly 30 years (and counting). The attempt to get a decent copy through illegal means proved fruitless, as well. Obviously, a lovingly crafted Criterion disc putting this controversial film in its proper context would be ideal – and I’m sure millions of Disney fans would eagerly snatch it up – but Disney would prefer to keep it locked in the vaults indefinitely.

I just want kids to appreciate these movies as culturally important, as opposed to tinsel-dusted product to be trotted out every seven years.

DC_01_SnowWhite
DC_02_Pinocchio
DC_03_Fantasia
DC_04_Dumbo
DC_05_Bambi
DC_06_Saludos
DC_07_MakeMineMusic
DC_08_SongOfTheSouth
DC_09_SDTMH_Ichabod
DC_10_Cinderella

A Few Weird Cartoons

Trade advertisement for Walt Disney Studios' "The Story of Menstruation," 1959.

Trade advertisement for Walt Disney Productions’ “The Story of Menstruation,” 1959.

Out of all the zillions of things we watch on television every night, the vintage animated short is our constant, our go-to, the bedrock of our home video collection. Besides turning to our DVDs (the Looney Tunes Golden Collections get constant play), we’ve been checking out a lot of stuff though streaming and the internet. In particular, a great Roku channel called Pub-D Hub sports a lot of terrific, obscure vintage shorts which went into the public domain. While they carry the usual stuff like Popeye and Betty Boop easily found on YouTube and other places, you kind of have to dig deeper to find the truly strange, forgotten cartoons. Like, perhaps, the following three films:

The Story of Menstruation was an educational film sponsored by Kotex and produced by the Walt Disney studio in 1946. Yep, that’s right, Disney had a hand in helping young girls understand what’s happening with their bodies down there. Sanitized and ultra-campy as it may appear, the film conveys this delicate information in a startlingly simple and effective way. Not surprisingly, it was shown in schools for decades. Personally, I loved the elegant narration by Gloria Blondell (Joan’s sister) and the big-headed, footless vintage ’40s design on the cartoon girls in the middle of the film. A good, concise history of this film is included in the book Who’s Afraid of Song of the South? And Other Forbidden Disney Stories by animation historian Jim Korkis.

1945’s Cap’n Cub, a strident, surreal bit of wartime propaganda from independent producer Ted Eshbaugh, does its best to combine cuteness with gross stereotypes and startling violence. Eshbaugh is considered one of the overlooked figures in the world of vintage animation. By the time Cap’n Cub came out, he’d been kicking around in some capacity for some time, mostly in the area of advertising and industrial films. His best-known work is probably 1935’s The Sunshine Makers, an intricate Silly Symphonies-esque production done for the Borden milk company.

Finally, a visual “Pow!” of a film – the short, surreal Russian feature Chipollino! Although Pub-D Hub’s version had no subtitles, we sort of understood that this film was about a boy with an onion head (the title character) who lives in a kingdom full of vegetable-shaped people under the rule of a cruel Tomato King. Chipollino saves the day by freeing the kingdom’s prisoners and casting the king and his bodyguards out into the ocean. For a film that came out in 1972, the character design and fluid animation harkens back to Disney’s Technicolor output from the 1930s. Very out-of-step with the times, and fascinating to watch.

Czech Western Parody: A Brief Guide

Jiri Trnka – The Song of the Prairie (Arie Prerie) (1948)

I’m coming up with some interesting stuff to share at 4 Color Cowboy. The Song of the Prairie, a 1948 Western operetta parody from Czech animator Jiri Trnka, is one of them. A charmingly stylized tale of a cowboy serenading a lovely maiden while the black-hatted villain wreaks havoc, this stop-motion short film is similar in style to the George Pal Puppetoons. The 20-minute film isn’t available on DVD, but it can be viewed here. Even digitized on a computer screen, the animation and character designs amaze.

Although obscure in the U.S., Song of the Prairie is apparently a cherished classic in its homeland (similar, I imagine, to what we feel about the Rankin-Bass animated TV specials). The song warbled by the cowboy in this film became so popular, in fact, that it was reprised in another Czech Western parody, the 1964 live action musical Limonádový Joe aneb Konská Opera, a.k.a. Lemonade Joe. This film has its own adherents, especially considering that its broad, subversive take on Western clichés came along a decade before Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. At 4 Color Cowboy, I assembled a bunch of poster designs that show how Lemonade Joe was sold throughout Europe and in the U.S. Based on the fun, cartoony images on those posters alone, I’d so love to seek this one out.

From Burbank To Washington D.C.

Amid Amidi of Cartoon Brew recently posted on the vintage 1956 short 90 Day Wondering, one of three shorts that Chuck Jones and the talented folks at Warner Bros. did for the U.S. government. Jones certainly didn’t slag off on these rarely screened shorts. Meant to encouraging Army vets to stay enlisted, this one has the same appealing quality and craftsmanship as the theatrical W.B. shorts. Some of fanciful background art that Maurice Noble created here is beautifully done.

Flickr Friday: Beany & Cecil Book

Every time we go thrifting, I head straight for the books. Mostly I come across the same junk as always, but occasionally I will come across a battered old kiddie book with cool illustrations. Bob Clampett’s Beany: Cecil Captured for the Zoo, published by Whitman in 1954, was a good recent find (and only 49 cents, too!). Although it had its share of wear and tear, the pages were complete and surprisingly free of food stains, crayon marks or other childhood detritus. These little “Tell-a-Tell” books were fairly popular over a long period of time (I remember them in the mid-’70s). As with the Beany & Cecil, they often used popular animated cartoon characters — and yet the illustrations had that standard “Whitman” look.

Along with the front and back cover, some of my favorite pages from Bob Clampett’s Beany: Cecil Captured for the Zoo got uploaded to the flickr photostream:

Shazzan and Stupidstitious

The ’60s Hanna Barbera cartoons have a certain hypnotic quality, don’t they? This came to mind while watching a highlight reel from Shazzan (1967). This was a show about a teen boy and girl who find magic rings that, when joined, conjure up a giant genie who takes them back to the days of the Arabian Nights. Since I picked Warner Archive‘s complete series DVD from the DVD Talk pool, I thought I’d get acquainted. Looks real trippy:

Speaking of animation on DVD… The Stupidstitious Cat (1946) is one of twenty vintage ’40s-50s Paramount cartoons included on an intriguing recent set from cartoon distributor Thunderbean called Noveltoons Original Classics. As soon as I stop feeling poor, I’m gonna get this!