Category Archives: Celluloid

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.

The Ever-Shifting Consensus

Persona (Ingmar Bergman, #24)

“So many films, so little time… ” Recently, I discovered The 1,000 Greatest Films. Coupled with our access to the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, this is a potentially dangerous thing. A carefully curated database of critically lauded cinema, this annually updated project comes from the laudable efforts of the website They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?. The films’ rankings are determined from 1,900-plus “Best Of” lists from critics, filmmakers, and scholars. Being aware that taste in anything is entirely subjective, you can arguably approach a project like this with a grain of salt – what it tells me is that film experts overwhelmingly prefer their themes heavy, their running times lengthy, their languages non-English, and their directors auteurist. Despite all that, it’s stimulated me to go back to the biggies (in the top 100) to review as many as I can.

While a good half of the films in the TSPDT top 100 I’d already seen (in several instances, much too long ago), it also contained a number of bona fide classic Classics which got an overdue first viewing. Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (#24) was as jaw-dropping as I’d always heard, an unforgettable and beautifully performed work of art. By my definition, the truly great films are ones that linger in your thoughts for days and weeks afterward. Persona fits that description, as does Robert Bresson’s devastating religious allegory Au Hasard Balthazar (#35). Bresson took a deceptively simple story – about a donkey who passes through several owners – and made it into a carefully constructed, dry yet oddly touching statement on humankind’s innate cruelty. We also streamed the proto-realist 1934 comedy L’Atalante from Jean Vigo, the acclaimed French auteur who died at a young age. Quite a charming little film, although its ranking at #17 seems awfully high. Hulu lacked Jean Renoir’s stately pacifist statement Grand Illusion (#39), although I managed to snag a copy of the out-of-print DVD from the local library. That was another heartfelt, stunningly constructed masterpiece, although it loses a bit once the main characters leave the prisoner-of-war camp. Andrei Tarkovsky’s non-linear, deliberately obtuse Mirrors (#26) seems more like what you’d expect from a list like this. While it didn’t wow me like the others, I admired Tarkovsky’s impeccable craftsmanship – his attention to detail shows in the nuanced performances and the gorgeous photography. I’m currently halfway through Federico Fellini’s excellent La Strada (Giulietta Masina must be the greatest silent comedienne never to appear in a silent movie). Once that is finished, I will have seen seventy of the top 100 – what a joyful learning experience.

By the way, I’ve also started logging my movie viewing habits at Letterboxd, a site that allows film fans to catalog and compare their viewing habits. It’s fun. C’mon and join me!

Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, #39)

Mirrors (Andrei Tarkovsky, #26)

Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, #35)

The Drew Struzan Effect

Boris Karloff as the Mummy, 2012.

Being a person who avidly looks forward to any and all documentaries on artists and illustrators, the DVD release Drew: The Man Behind the Poster came as a welcome sight. Erik Sharkey’s flawed but very interesting 2012 doc acquaints us with the iconic ’80s movie artist Drew Struzan. If you see that name and think “Drew who?,” perhaps a list of his most memorable posters will ring a bell – Star Wars. Back to the Future. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. The Muppet Movie. The Goonies. The Thing. Blade Runner. Police Academy!

While Drew: The Man Behind the Poster tends to get too superficial at times, it’s a worthwhile and admiring portrait. Director Erik P. Sharkey got an impressive array of Hollywood types to sing Struzan’s praises, including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Harrison Ford, Michael J. Fox, Guillermo Del Toro, Thomas Jane, and Frank Darabont. The film opens with a documentary cliché that I particularly loathe – the endless montage of people fawning over the subject – a sequence which would undoubtedly make the laid-back Struzan cringe. The following 90 minutes, however, establish Struzan as an unassuming regular-guy with an extraordinary gift for rendering movie stars with the right balance of painterly expression and fairy dust.

Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was made from the point of view of a movie fan wanting to dig deeper into the guy behind moviedom’s most iconic posters – from an artist’s perspective, it’s something of a letdown. The best sequences have Struzan discussing his start in the funky ’70s L.A. art scene, including his early album covers for Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper and others. Another good sequence has Struzan and Charles White III gabbing about their collaboration on the famous Star Wars retro-look poster (I also loved the part with Struzan and an obviously grateful Lucas together, perusing the Star Wars art). One amazing thing that comes across is how prolific he was, often re-doing completed artwork from scratch without breaking a sweat (the adding of Mary Steenburgen to the Back to the Future Part III poster is the standout in that regard). As is befitting a film that climaxes at San Diego Comic Con, however, you have to wade through a lot of puffery to get to the meat. This blog post by illustrator Jed Alexander explains that frustration pretty well, along with providing some primo examples of work from Struzan and his contemporaries.

While The Man Behind the Poster never strays far from being a simple celebration of Drew and his art, there is a little bitterness around the edges. The subtext of this movie is basically “Why did they stop making posters like Drew’s?” Sadly, even in the case of an über-talented artist like Struzan, Hollywood has moved on from using illustrators (by and large) for marketing their stuff. After all, it’s easier for a studio to exert control over a Photoshopped montage of movie star heads floating in the sky. If that turn of events affected the mellow Struzan, it doesn’t show as he’s seen in the film having a comfortable semi-retirement – painting his own subjects and enjoying quality time with his family.

For this write-up, a review copy of Drew: The Man Behind the Poster was supplied by the folks at Kino Lorber. You can buy a copy of this DVD at Kino’s site, or at Amazon.com.

Blade Runner re-release poster art, 2003.

Adventures in Babysitting poster detail, 1987.

Ladyhawke limited-release poster art, 1985.

Sahara poster art detail, 1983.

Sketch for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade poster concept, 1989.

Hellboy special edition art, 2004.

The Goonies poster art detail, 1985.

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.

Flick Clique: October 28 – November 3

A Cat in Paris (2010). Along with the Mambo-era romance Chico & Rita, this charming French production was the other surprise nominee for Best Animated Feature for this year’s Academy Awards. Like Chico, the story is a little too slight to be considered a truly great film, but it does have some impressive, beautifully colored imagery to recommend it (and hopefully alert Hollywood to the fact that not all successful animated films have to adhere to that Pixar/DreamWorks template). A Cat in Paris follows a Parisian cat (but of course), who comes to the aid of Zoe, the lonely, traumatized little girl who takes care of him. The independent kitty also belongs to an athletic, kindly petty thief in the city, and together they help nab the criminal who’s planning the heist of an ancient artifact – the same man pursued by Zoe’s mom, a police detective (he also murdered Zoe’s dad). Like I said, not much of a story to hang on to, and yet the visuals – computer aided and yet more warm and vivid, like a living story book – are dazzling enough to make it a winner. I enjoyed this one more than Chico & Rita, yet Christopher preferred the latter.

Harakiri (1919) and The Wandering Shadow (1920). Two films from Kino’s forthcoming Fritz Lang: The Early Works DVD collection. Though not without their archival value, these torrid dramas are very typical of that early silent period (stodgy, inert). Neither of them give any indications of the studied, visually resplendent directing style that Lang would later be known for, but they have a few positive points. Harakiri is a Japan-set update on Madame Butterfly with exotic (over the top, actually) production design; The Wandering Shadow counters a confusing story with lovely photography of the German Alps. At DVD Talk, I will shortly be posting a full review of these (plus the third film in the set, 1921’s Four Around the Woman).
Pulse (2006). This was our annual “scary” movie pick for us to watch in the back room while the trick-or-treaters ignored our house. I dunno why, but we always strike out this time of the year – and this soggy techno-thriller was no exception. This was a remake of a Japanese scary flick (bad sign #1) about a group of college students who are shocked to find chat messages and visions of their friend (who had recently committed suicide) on their computers and cell phones. Soon they are drawn into a terrifying cyber-world in which ghostly figures corrupt their souls and eventually transform them into chalky black dust, sucking their souls into the ether and creating a nationwide epidemic. Too dull to be frightening. Much of the film’s visuals were blatantly ripped off from the opening credits of Se7en, and the scares came out too contrived and too often to be truly effective. The cast (headed by Kristen Bell and Ian Somerhalder) contributes decent-enough performances. The single most annoying thing about Pulse: every shot has that dingy-blue post-production effect that seems to have gripped most recent scary-flicks.


DVD Talk reviews:
Disasters Deconstructed: A History of Architectural Disasters (1996-2011) – Recommended