Short of the Month: The Sinking of the Lusitania (dir. Winsor McCay, 1918)

Animation pioneer Winsor McCay was a man of many talents. Before 1920, McCay would work as an illustrator, comic book creator, political cartoonist, vaudevillian, and filmmaker. It is as a filmmaker that he is most remembered today, particularly for his 1915 short Gertie the Dinosaur. However, his ambitions went beyond what most thought possible for animation as an art form. Considering we still live in an era where the mainstream sees animation as little more than an electric babysitter, the scope of those ambitions remains impressive.

In 1915, McCay was enraged by the fate of the Lusitania, an English commercial liner torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Almost 1,200 people died in the disaster, including American civilians. The sinking would not catapult the US into the Great War, but it did establish angry feelings towards Imperial Germany and would be a major contributing factor when the country did enter the conflict in 1917. In the meantime, the event inspired McCay to create a harrowing work that would allow people to see the ship’s final moments.

The Sinking of the Lusitania is McCay’s masterpiece and representative of a road long untaken by the American animation industry at large. To this day, mainstream American animation is associated with two genres: fantasy (usually for children) or comedy (usually for children or frat boys). The Sinking of the Lusitania is neither. McCay set out to recreate the infamous sinking in an expressive but realistic style, essentially creating an animated documentary.

The film was a labor of love for McCay. He funded it himself and worked on it in his free time for a period of twenty-two months. While the film never made a profit for its creator, it was heavily admired by both audiences and animation professionals at the time.

Early cartoons tend to be pigeonholed as visually simplistic, but this is certainly not the case for The Sinking of the Lusitania. Here, the sheer amount of detail is staggering. Just look at the virtuosity of the shot in which the first torpedo speeds through the water, fish ducking out of its path—or look at the long shot of the sinking ship and the tiny figures of individual human beings jumping from the vessel. These are scenes that would have been either impossible or difficult to achieve in a live-action movie during that time.

Just compare this film to the 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle The Little American, which features a thinly disguised depiction of the Lusitania’s sinking. The animated film is far more chilling and dynamic.

The sinking scene starts at 16:40.

McCay never shies away from the horror of the sinking. The short’s most striking moments feature the victims of the attack trying to keep their heads above the waves, their miserable faces resembling skulls. Most heart-wrenching of all is the shot of a mother thrusting her baby above the water, desperately trying to ensure its survival before they are both pulled down.

Propaganda is perhaps the more appropriate descriptor for this film than documentary. Released during the war itself, The Sinking of the Lusitania brims with outrage against Imperial Germany, reflecting popular sentiment during this time. Anti-German feelings grew to a lethal fever pitch once the country entered the war in 1917, unfortunately extending even to German-American communities.  The “Huns” were depicted as freedom-hating, baby-killing monsters who needed to be stopped at all costs. The final intertitle is chilling in its echoing of this national fervor: “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

An ad for the film in The Moving Picture Weekly

In recent years, some elements of the film’s depiction of the sinking have been debunked. Most significantly, it was revealed in 1982 that the ship was carrying military ammunition. Of course, that does not make the loss of innocent life any less tragic. As animation historian John Canemaker observed, even if these facts had been known in 1915, they likely would not have had much impact on the emotions surging throughout the US at the time.

Removed from the fear-soaked, enraged environment in which it was conceived, The Sinking of the Lusitania remains compelling, its combination of gorgeous animation with raw emotions elevating it from mere historical curio to disturbing work of art. Canemaker once said the film’s dramatic power was not equaled in American animation for many years. I would have to agree.

Sources:

Winsor McCay by John Canemaker

Short of the Month: Snow-White (dir. Dave Fleischer, 1933)

As always, I recommend watching Snow-White before continuing on to the article:

While pre-code cartoons tended to be a wild bunch in general both due to the permissiveness of the era and the exhilaration that came with new sound technologies, few were stranger than what came out of Fleischer Studios. Disney’s biggest competitor at the time, the typical Fleischer Studios product tended to be more hard-edged, provocative, and unapologetically strange than anything from the House of Mouse. Case in point: their Betty Boop series.

Betty Boop is about as pure a pre-code creation as they come. She was a bonafide cartoon sex symbol, and her design’s juxtaposition of the cute and the alluring contributed to her popularity. The cartoons in which she appeared certainly catered more to the grown-ups than the kiddies. Snow-White is a great example, with its jazzy music, non-sequitur comedy, and macabre imagery.

As in the original fairy tale, Betty is the fairest in the land and therefore targeted for death by a jealous step-mother. Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog weep as they prepare to dispatch her, but they take pity instead and Betty manages to escape, only to fall into an icy river. She re-emerges in an ice block (a stand-in for the glass coffin), which is taken by seven dwarfs into a “Mystery Cave.” And that’s about all there is of the original story, unless I forgot about a random musical number or the queen transforming into a dragon.

Snow-White is less of a conventional story than it is a bizarre dream. Every frame boasts some kind of gag or surreal flourish as characters morph into new forms. The whimsically ghoulish backgrounds in the “Mystery Cave” alone are something to examine on repeat viewings, from skeletons playing poker to monsters grinning from framed photos on the wall.

The early Fleischer cartoons were notable for featuring some of the top jazz talent of the 1930s. Snow-White boasts the legendary Cab Calloway performing the “St. James Infirmary Blues” through Koko the Clown. Calloway not only provided Koko’s singing voice, but also his smooth dance moves via rotoscoping technology. The result is the highlight of the short, an eerie mini-music video in which Koko morphs into a crooning, moonwalking ghost as he tails Betty’s impromptu funeral procession.

Intriguingly, the number is not a 100% non-sequitur when you consider the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Koko is following Betty in her frozen coffin, while “St. James Infirmary Blues” starts with the singer visiting the corpse of his lover in a hospital before musing on his own eventual death.

Somehow, this somber song suits this otherwise high-spirited short perfectly. Between the winter time setting, monochrome visuals, and the continued presence of death (threatened, assumed, or otherwise) throughout the seven-minute runtime, I even dare to say Snow-White is borderline cartoon noir, only it’s so playful that it keeps any true moodiness at bay. Even among the strange Fleischer canon, Snow-White stands out and deserves its place as a classic of animation.

Sources:

Animation Anecdotes #150″ – Cartoon Research

BFI Film Classics: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Eric Smoodin

St. James Infirmary (1928)”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

For my hundredth post on this blog, I wanted to do something special. Therefore I have decided to talk about a movie of great personal importance to me, a movie that shaped my adolescence and the way I view the world: Hayao Miyazaki’s 1984 epic, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. I saw it on my crappy school-issued laptop in December of 2008 when I was fifteen years old and never forgot it. For years, it was my number one favorite movie and it remains in my personal top ten to this day. The film covers many of the themes I’m attracted to: the nature of violence, the nature of evil in mankind, and the possibility of hope in what appears to be a hopeless world doomed to destruction.

A thousand years after modern civilization was destroyed by nuclear war, humanity has dwindled down to a number of warring tribes trying to survive in a polluted environment where large insects dominate the landscape and even the air has become poisonous due to the spread of the Sea of Decay, a jungle filled with toxic plants. The Valley of the Wind is the one place immune from this pollution due to the wind which comes in from the coast. The nation is led by the bedridden King Jhil and Princess Nausicaa, a young woman fascinated by the Sea of Decay and the insects which have adapted to its conditions. She is a pacifist, believing man can coexist with nature despite the general fear of the large insects, particularly the mammoth Ohmu. However, the Valley is invaded by the militaristic Tolmekians, resulting in the killing of Nausicaa’s father and a shaking of her faith in her own ideals when she reacts to the king’s death with violence against the invaders. Held hostage by the warrior-princess Kushana, Nausicaa and her kingdom are suddenly launched into the midst of a conflict between Tolmekia and the neighboring kingdom of Pejite. The Tolmekians seek to awaken an ancient “God Warrior,” a surviving biological weapon from the apocalypse which wiped out civilization centuries ago, and destroy the Sea of Decay with it, ignoring the fact that this will draw the fatal ire of the insects within its ever-expanding borders. The Pejite nation is willing to use measures just as drastic and self-defeating to kill the Tolmekians as well as innocents for the greater good. Aided by her mentor Lord Yupa and the Pejite Prince Asbel, can Nausicaa prevent another apocalypse?

Though not a Ghibli film, Nausicaa set the bar more than any other pre-Ghibli work for the studio’s output in the years to come. Though there are a few moments of weak animation in the long shots and extreme long shots, this is a beautifully animated film, particularly during the action sequences. The design of the world and characters calls to mind the look of Isao Takahata’s 1968 fantasy Horus, Prince of the Sun, a film I discussed a bit last year; the young prince Ashitaka looks like a post-puberty Horus and Lord Yupa is a dead-ringer for the elderly blacksmith in the earlier movie. Nausicaa herself is the epitome of the Ghibli Heroine, first introduced to the world in Horus through the tragic character of Hilda, the brave and compassionate but emotionally conflicted songstress. Preceded even more closely Lana of Miyazaki’s 1978 television series Future Boy Conan and Lady Clarisse of his feature film directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro, Nausicaa resembles them in her kindness and inner strength, but is much more active in the story, as later Ghibli heroines like San, Kiki, and Chihiro will be.

Based off the massive comic of the same name Miyazaki was writing at the time (and would continue to work on until 1994), Nausicaa often comes under fire from fans of the original source for not being as “deep.” It does cut a lot from the source material, narrowing the politics of the setting to the basics for instance. However, considering that only the first two volumes of the comic were published at the time and that Miyazaki had no clue where he would ultimately go with the story and characters, I would say the film adaptation is impressive for how much it is able to stand on its own. As someone who was introduced to this story through the picture, I can assure you that you will never feel lost if you have not read the comic in advance. I have moved past the point where I feel an adaptation should be nothing more than a lifeless counterfeit copy of the original source. Changes are not only inevitable, but sometimes, they should be encouraged and embraced. The book will be there nevertheless. (And let me assure you, it is a great book, arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s crowning achievement as an artist in any medium—don’t let the length intimidate you.)

In fact, there are some things about the movie which I prefer to the manga. (Warning: spoilers from here on out.) In the source material, the death of Nausicaa’s father and Nausicaa’s murderous fit of rage-induced violence against enemy soldiers are separate events. The film combines them, making for a more emotionally charged and relatable sequence. Nausicaa kills the soldiers for their disrespect for her nation in the comic, but in the film, the killings ae spontaneous, a reaction to her grief and anger. Her own capacity for violence frightens Nausicaa—and shakes us in its ferocity. As the picture progresses, we learn the other warring nations are not exclusively motivated by greed or survival, but by a sense of injustice. Kushana wants vengeance against the insects which destroyed her limbs as a child. The Pejite people want vengeance against Tolmekia for the death of their princess and the other destruction left in their wake. There is no “bad guy” in Nausicaa, just an assortment of confused, frightened, and angry people in a dying world.

I cannot overstate how much of an impact this sequence had on me as a teenager. Idealistic to an extreme, I wanted to be Nausicaa, someone kind and compassionate, resourceful, brave, and willing to lay down her life for the greater good. A common criticism of the film has been that Nausicaa is “too perfect.” I would only agree if this one scene did not exist, for here, Nausicaa the gentle pacifist, willing to let a frightened animal bite her finger, is roused to mindless fury and a violence the audience exclusively associated with the militaristic Tolmekians. The ideal heroine suddenly reveals an uglier side, a flaw. Later on, she is shocked by her actions and confesses to Yupa, “I didn’t know I had it in me to kill.” Even the kindest souls are capable of violence. Even those with the highest ideals cannot always follow them through because, news flash, we’re all human.

Though the picture ends on a positive note (and a rather weird deus ex machina, but when that’s your film’s biggest flaw, I’m not going to complain), this single scene has major consequences and reverberates through Miyazaki’s work. One need only look at Nausicaa’s spiritual sequel, Princess Mononoke. Released three years after the Nausicaa graphic novel came to its conclusion, Mononoke often feels like a remake of the 1984 adaptation, as it also concerns a pacifist would-be savior in blue trying to stop a war between mankind and nature. However, Mononoke is much bleaker, the equivalent of Kurosawa’s tragic Ran. The gentle Ashitaka pleads for peace as Nausicaa does, but no one listens to him. The nature-loving princess is savage and despises her own humanity. Unlike Nausicaa the movie, Mononoke has no unabashedly optimistic ending that suggests man anhd nature can get along. If there is any optimism at all, it is cautious, unsure of the future, maybe even doubting that man and the natural world can ever reconcile completely. Even the ending of the Nausicaa film, for all its celebrations and hope for a better tomorrow, does not tie all the plot ends into a neat little bow. But that is what keeps these films so fascinating after all this time. Miyazaki is one of those great artists who ponders the big questions, and like Kurosawa or Kubrick, he does not supply the audience with easy answers to make you feel good when you leave the theater. It may not be the most comforting thing, but it makes the work much more interesting and endurable.

Favorite film discoveries of 2015

Umm, where did we put that microphone again?

What fun I had with movies in 2015– save for the nightmares that were the Robert Altman Popeye and Jupiter Ascending, most of it was good stuff. Here are my favorite discoveries of the previous year:

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1943)

I prefer The Red Shoes, but only by a hair, because this war time film is Powell and Pressburer’s masterpiece, full of warm humor and elegiac yearning in addition to satire. It’s also cemented my love for Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr.

Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 1996)

To date, the definitive version, despite some over the top silly moments. As someone who does not care for the Oedipal readings of the original play, this version is further made my favorite of all the movie adaptations I have perused.

Greed (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1924)

A masterpiece that more than lives up to its reputation, Greed is a must-see, even in its truncated form. Von Stroheim may have been over-indulgent, but he was a genius oif the medium. Also Zasu Pitts is damned fine in a dramatic role, as is Gibson Gowland, who should procured had more great roles after his turn as McTeague. Having read the original novel from which it is based in a college class, I am of the opinion that the movie is actually superior to the book.

Scarlet Street (dir. Fritz Lang, 1945)

To date, my favorite Lang picture. Perfectly cast and about as bleak as noir gets while still possessing a wicked sense of humor to go with the tragic story of the pathetic would-be painter Christopher Cross and his unrequited love for a sadomasochistic prostitute.

The Fatal Glass of Beer (dir. Clyde Bruckman, 1933)

Hands down, best thing W.C. Fields ever did in the short format. I have rarely ever laughed so hard when watching a comedy alone. It’s also insanely quotable: “I’ll go milk the elk.” “Ain’t a fit night out— for man NOR BEAST!”

The Vikings (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1958)

Schlock, glorious schlock! Tony Curtis in Ugg boots and tiny shorts! Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine chewing the sets and crying “ODIN!!!” And yet, there are moments of surprising beauty amidst the campy fun, like Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking color cinematography or the climactic sword fight.

The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)

How have I been alive for 22 years and not seen this movie? It’s hilarious and has tons of great music, plus one of the finest car chases ever filmed.

Pickup on South Street (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1953)

Aside from its great characters, intense score, political subtext, and being a rare example of noir that is (sort of) optimistic, this gave me a crush on Richard Widmark. Total landmark in my life, guys.

The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)

Aside from minor elements, it’s not really like Star Wars at all. With that obligatory mention out of the way, this may not be as “masterful” as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, or Ikiru, but The Hidden Fortress is a great blend of humor and humane drama. I love Mifune and the bandits, but for me, Misa Uehara steals the spotlight as the tough yet compassionate princess.

Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961)

Made after the noir cycle was pretty much dead in Hollywood, this is a brutal, bleak film. Everything feels rough and unpolished, but that’s what gives the film its power even after all this time. Its plot about a hitman doing a job during Christmas inspired my Nanowrimo novel this year too (I won for the first time!), so it has a personal significance for me too. Can I call it one of my new favorite Christmas films? I mean, it is set during Christmas!

Michael Strogoff (dir. Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)

michel-strogoff-affiche_90637_25993

A silent film epic you’ve likely not heard of. Romance! Adventure! Political intrigue! Historical setting! Humor! Everything you could ever want in a three hour movie.

Hedgehog in the Fog (dir. Yuri Norsteyn, 1975)

A lovely fable about the mysteries and beauty of the world. I don’t know why, but it arouses all kinds of emotions in me, mainly nostalgia, melancholy, and a sense of wonder.

Marie Antoinette (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)

A lot of people hate this movie, but I just think it’s the bee’s knees. In addition to the sheer eye candy of the 18th century costumes and goodies, it’s a fine exploration of the doomed queen’s isolation in a foreign court as well as the destructive decadence within Versailles itself. It’s also made me rethink my opinion of Kirsten Dunst as an actress, as she’s just fabulous in the lead.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy, 1964)

Jacques Demy is now officially one of my favorite filmmakers. This gentle musical rightfully earns its stellar reputation. The candy colors and fairy tale elements would lead one to think this is cinematic cotton candy, but I found its themes of youth, romance, and the uncertainty of the future to be poignant and true to life. Make sure you have handkerchiefs ready.

Grand Slam Opera (dir. Charles Lamont, 1936)

Hands down Buster Keaton’s best 1930s effort. The dance sequence is just too funny, Keaton’s energetic body perfectly contrasted with his face’s subtle expressiveness. Yeah, he’s named Elmer Butts again, but his character has a decent amount of competence and few are the gags that don’t hit the mark. To me, it proves that his style could have survived into the sound era, had he remained in control of his own studio, but I’m content that we have this brilliant gem and his other Educational shorts that really aren’t as horrible as reputation has implied.

The Evil Dead trilogy (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981, 1987, 1992)

Another set of movies that I’m surprised I have not seen in all my years on this planet. Army of Darkness in particular is insanely quotable. Bruce Campbell is excellent in all three of these films, showing a good amount of range and comedic power too.

The Toll Gate (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1920)

HART_450px_-_Toll_Gate__The-497x455

My long-overdue introduction to Bill Hart. His westerns were gritty and morally grey long before the days of Sergio Leone. The Toll Gate in particular centers around a fugitive bandit leader who’s a far cry from Gene Autry, only just barely redeemed by a good woman, played by the lovely and shamefully overlooked Anna Q. Nilsson.

Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1940)

A gentle, funny, and even melancholic look at the early career of Abraham Lincoln with Henry Fonda in the lead role– probably my favorite Ford picture, closely followed by How Green Was My Valley.

Love Me or Leave Me (dir. Charles Vidor, 1955)

Don’t let the Technicolor and presence of Doris Day mislead you, this musical “biopic” is a cynical and occasionally sinister melodrama of great power. Day and James Cagney have great chemistry as the ruthless singer (a character who’s really not much like the real Ruth Etting, from what I have read) and the gangster who wants to possess her body and soul. Even if you don’t like musicals, I would recommend this one.

Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981)

Wouldn’t it be great if most family entertainment had such imagination, brains, and heart behind it? At once possessing satire, slapstick, adventure, and a surprising amount of spiritual/philosophical questions, it’s a good one whether you’re 3 or 300.

Blind Husbands (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1919)

OEFM_Blind Husbands_05_GW

A mature look at marriage and infidelity, this is about the only von Stroheim film in which he doesn’t indulge his bizarre tastes, so I imagine non-fans of his work will enjoy it too.

Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963)

Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn should have had more team-ups, because they are just excellent together in this famously Hitchcockian thriller/romantic comedy. Gosh, it just makes me realize how much I adore genre mash-ups!

Le Roi de Champs-Elysses (dir. Maz Nossek, 1934)

tumblr_lvpul5wk1d1r5t4sho1_500

I finally got to watch this rare movie, a French movie Keaton made during the nadir of his alcoholic period, right after he’d been fired from MGM in 1933. It’s not perfect and has some clunky moments (Keaton himself did not think much of it in later years), but it’s more Keatonesque than most of his slicker work at MGM had been, plus we get to see Keaton’s woefully underused versatility as an actor, with him playing both the hapless hero and the ruthless gangster villain.

The Great Locomotive Chase (dir. Francis Lyon, 1956)

uptown_poster2010ww

Though most people dismiss this film and compare it to Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, I enjoyed it very much. I would even say it is an underrated gem. It’s a tense film with solid performances, taking the same historical situation Keaton used but examining it from the Union’s perspective. Yeah, not as fun or compelling as Keaton at the peak of his powers, but few movies are to be fair.

Dragnet Girl (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)

Eclipse_Film_DragnetGirl_original

This silent gangster drama from the early days of Yasujiro Ozu’s career may not be on par with something like Tokyo Story, but it is a very good picture with great compositions (though what Ozu film doesn’t have these?) and performances. The leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka possesses both talent and beauty as the gangster’s moll desperate not to lose him to a younger, more virtuous woman.

His Birthright (dir. William Worthington, 1918)

Sessue Hayakawa shows off his comedic talents in an otherwise average film about a biracial dude who wants to get vengeance upon his white father for abandoning his Japanese mother. Still, it’s Hayakawa. The man could make even the worst script worth the time.

Shanghai Express (dir. Josef von Sternburg, 1932)

Paramount’s much-superior answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel, complete with Marlene Dietrich in extravagant outfits, gorgeous black and white cinematography, and Anna May Wong stealing the show.

The Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)

Florence La Badie died much too early. I sampled many of her films last fall and was impressed with the charm and emotion she exuded. While I like her Cinderella best, this ghostly little melodrama is a close second.

Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. Don Coscarelli, 2002)

Elvis isn’t really dead; he’s just stuck in a nursing home with a black man who thinks he’s JFK and a soul-sucking mummy. From this synopsis you’d expect an out and out comedy, but Bubba Ho-Tep is surprisingly sad in addition to being funny, often touching on the troubles of being an elderly person in a society which holds up youth above everything. The ending actually made me weep. Go figure.

The Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker, 1987)

This weird, weird curio from the 1980s has lines like, “Wolfman’s got NARDS!” It has a scene where Dracula picks up a five year old girl and screams, “Give me the amulet, you BITCH!” It’s so bizarre, it has to be seen to be believed.

Descendants (dir. Kenny Ortega, 2015)

Guess who’s got a new guilty pleasure? This movie features the Disney villains living together in an apartment, eating junk food, and yelling at the television all day. Not to mention some of the songs are catchy (save for the rap version of “Be Our Guest,” which makes Kidz Bop sound like an angelic chorus). What’s not to love, huh?

The Wild One (dir. Laslo Benedek, 1953)

I expected unbridled camp, so imagine my surprise when I found this movie kind of compelling. Yes, its “dangerous bikers” come across like goofy frat boys nowadays, but the alienation and frustration of the Brando character stood out big time. I imagine most of that came from Brando and not the lackluster script.

A Lady of Chance (dir. Ribert Z. Leonard, 1928)

A pretty cute romantic comedy about a lady thief and a gullible Southern guy. I could have done without some of the racist stereotyping in a few scenes, but Norma Shearer is in fine comedic form.

Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)

I didn’t like this one’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s novel that much and found most of the actors terrible, but it hasn’t left me since I’ve seen it. The bleakness and obsession within the story are captured well, and I’ll give it this, it’s unlike any other WH adaptation which came before it, so I’ll likely revisit it.

What were your favorite film discoveries this year?

Anti-Damsel blogathon: Hilda of Horus, Prince of the Sun (dir. Isao Takahata, 1968)

hilda 1

Much like silent film, too many people make the mistake of considering animation a genre rather than a medium, yet in the United States, that’s kind of an understandable mistake. For decades, mainstream American animation has been restricted to comedy, “adult” satire, and the family friendly, rarely permitted to wander into any other realm or demographic. In the 1960s, future Studio Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata was given a chance to direct a feature-length production for Toei, a studio which considered itself the Disney of the East with its lush animated features. They had made the first color animated feature in 1958, The White Serpent, a picture most famous for inspiring a teenaged Hayao Miyazaki to pursue a career in animation.

Takahata’s feature directorial debut was The Great Adventure of Horus, Prince of the Sun, or Horus, Prince of the Sun as it is also called. The plot involves a teenaged boy who, after his father dies, saves a fishing community from a monster fish and helps them to overcome an evil sorcerer named Grunwald. One of the major figures of the story is the more than a little troubled Hilda, a lonely young songstress with connections to Grunwald himself and her own inner demons to battle. The executives expected another safe family film with cute comic relief and musical numbers, but after a troubled three year production, the film which emerged was not what they wanted, something truly revolutionary. Freelance critic Daniel Thomas MacInnes puts the film’s impact down better than I could:

Horus, Prince of the Sun, essentially, created modern anime. It pushed animation into the realm of serious, adult, complex themes – addressing socialism, the student union movements, and the war in Vietnam, wrapped up in the guise of a thrilling adventure. The film is loaded with visual and technical innovations, aggressive camera movements that would only be copied in the age of CGI, and in the tragic heroine Hilda, the most psychologically complex character ever created for an animated film.”

It’s not a perfect film, certainly: juvenile elements such as the maudlin talking bear Coro and cutesy small child Flip drag the film down at moments, and a few big action scenes are relegated to still frames over which the camera pans, obviously a cost-cutting maneuver. But a film does not need to be perfect to be great or influential. Being that this piece is for the Anti-Damsel blogathon, I will restrict my discussion of the film to the character of Hilda.

Here's to a complex animated heroine.

Here’s to a complex animated heroine.

Oh, Hilda. When people praise the likes of Frozen for being “revolutionary” in the depiction of female characters in animation, your complexity goes to show just how low we’ve set the bar in the States. When we first encounter Hilda, she seems to be little more than a melancholy variation of Disney’s Snow White: a pretty face flanked by animal sidekicks and equipped with a lovely singing voice. We expect she and Horus will fall in love and be going steady by the time the credits run up. Yet as Horus and the villagers come to know her, we find she is not at all another princess type, but a clever deconstruction of what we might expect from an animated heroine. Hilda’s role in the narrative is not straightforward; she is alternatively heroine and villain, least of all Horus’s love object or a damsel to be rescued. She is a complex figure, tormented by survivor’s guilt, loneliness, and a crippling terror of mortality. The sinister owl and friendly squirrel following her about are not there for kid appeal and merchandizing purposes, but to make concrete the two sides of her character, her misanthropy and desire to belong.

Hilda's singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are... rusty.

Hilda’s singing makes her a popular figure in the village, but her social skills are… rusty.

We see this conflict most clearly in Hilda’s relationship with the village. The simplicity of the community’s members grates upon her. Though the people have lost family members to the monstrous fish Horus slays in the first act, Hilda knows none of them can comprehend or understand her own tremendous loss: that of her entire village. As the village gets ready to celebrate a wedding between two sweethearts, Hilda is unable to join in the celebration. When the village women gently tease her for her lack of domestic skills, Hilda flies into a rage and condemns their communal merrymaking. So scarred by loss and death, Hilda can no longer tolerate joy, for how can anyone remain joyful in a world where everything is doomed to end with death, to become nothing but “ashes”?

Hilda’s girlish exterior cannot fully belie this internal torment. We are told her singing is her sole joy in life, but even this is infected with the character’s pain. Her musical numbers do not focus on optimism, romantic longing, or disappointment as a Disney heroine’s would, but despair and alienation. When her squirrel pal says her songs are “a little sad,” it’s an understatement. When she sings, “Perched high upon a narrow branch, a bird is always singing, a bird always alone, a bird always alone,” she may as well be describing her own situation. Here’s one of her darker songs, which features senseless violence, ill-will toward others, and a violent God who seems apathetic to suffering:

In the past, in the past,
the good God rose and said
“Good night to you all,
my kind children”

In the past, in the past,
an otter said
“Pity my God, remove the
claws of the brown bears.”
“Good night my dear otters, the
brown bears do not have any more claws.”

In the past, in the past,
a small animal said
“Pity my God, the otters devour all the fish”
“Good night my dear children,
I threw the otters in the fire”

Once upon a time,
the Lord God stood and said:
“Sleep well, everyone
all of my dear children”

Hilda's isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

Hilda’s isolation is juxtaposed with the communal joy of the villagers.

It is fascinating to compare Hilda’s lonely, sad songs with the musical numbers of the villagers. The melodies, lyrics, and movement of the villagers emphasize community, joy, and life. During the wedding feast, we see the community members hand-in-hand, singing and dancing through the streets before the camera pans over to Hilda, standing solitary and utterly separated from the action.

Hilda’s loss and trauma consume her whole being and make bleak her worldview, rendering her unable to fully love others or embrace life. Her bonding with one of the village children and conflicted feelings toward Horus are a few chinks in her armor, brief flashes of humanity in a character who seeks to eradicate all that is human about herself. The villain Grunwald coaxes Hilda into accepting life as his “sister,” thus making her immortal and isolated, as well as automatically making her Horus’s enemy. The trailers for the film pose the question of Hilda’s identity: is she a human being or a demon?

Hilda saving the milding irritating comic relief, but it's the thought that counts.

Hilda saving the mildly irritating comic relief, but it’s the thought that counts.

In the end, Hilda’s humanity wins over all. Coming across Coro and Flip dying in the blizzard, she relinquishes her immortality by placing the medallion around Coro’s neck, allowing the duo to be transported back to safety. In the most haunting moment of the movie, standing alone, she allows the snowy winds to pummel her until she finally collapses, surrendering herself to death. However, she awakes in a springtime landscape, astonished. Hilda has undergone what anime historian Mike Toole deems a “transformative moment” after a long period of doubt, can finally embrace her own humanity, and thus finally join with community along with Horus.

Embracing humanity... well, technically a squirrel here.

Embracing humanity… well, technically a squirrel here.

The famed Ghibli Heroine finds its earliest incarnation in Hilda, and yet, arguably few of her spiritual successors have matched her in complexity. The closest is Miyazaki’s San from Princess Mononoke, who struggles between her sense of belonging with the forest gods and human identity. Certainly no female figure in mainstream theatrical American animation has yet to do so, at least none that I have encountered (I won’t say anything regarding television animation, as I rarely watch TV). Now just as then, Hilda remains a unique and fascinating figure in animation history.

hilda 11

The Classic Movie History Blogathon: Feature films of Disney’s Golden Age (1937-1942)

900_snow_white_blu-ray_14 This is part of the second annual Film History Project blogathon run by the wonderful Fritzi of Movies Silently, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen, and Ruth of Silver Screenings.

It is generally agreed that there were two golden ages for feature Disney animation: the original Disney Golden Age which lasted from 1937 to 1942 and the Disney Renaissance which stretched from 1989 to 1999 (though some people will argue it started with the animation/live action hybrid noir Who Framed Roger Rabbit in 1987). While a great deal of my generation looks on the Renaissance period with fondness (and I do too, with the exception of Pocahontas and Fantasia 2000), I have always had a greater fascination with the early Disney features and the inventive short films which paved the way for them.

The five feature films of the original Disney Golden Age are a diverse bunch: a traditional fairy tale, a dark morality play based off a nightmarish children’s novel, a bold experiment in music and animation, a simple fable set in the modern day, and a coming-of-age story set in the natural world. Yet in spite of these differences, there is a shared set of characteristics between these five pictures, characteristics which set them apart from the rest of the studio’s productions. I’ve compiled a small list examining these characteristics and hope you’ll have a new appreciation for the films, as I continue to every time I watch them.

Pure ambition

Fantasia-disneyscreencaps_com-4524 Following in the footsteps of the Mickey Mouse shorts which experimented with early sound technology and the visual splendor of the Silly Symphonies, the early Disney films strove to do more than just entertain the audience: the pushed the boundaries of the animated medium itself. Everyone knows how much of a gamble Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was back in the 1930s. Despite what the Disney studio and many a trivia book tell you, it was not the first feature-length animated film. Heck, it wasn’t even the second or the third or even the fourth and so on, but it was the first to be such a massive international success. Though the arguably shrill tones of Snow White’s voice and some of the character animation on the realistic human figures have aged, the film’s simplicity and genuineness set it apart to this day. In terms of visuals and story, Pinocchio and Bambi are quite similar, focusing on the coming-of-age of their titular characters while offering audiences some of the most gorgeous character and effects animation ever conceived.

1002004007770521_1

Considering it was made on the cheap after the double whammy of Pinocchio and Fantasia’s failure to catch fire at the box office, Dumbo is sometimes viewed as “thin and unsatisfying” by critics such as Steven D. Greydanus of Decent Films. Animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston controversially snubbed the film in their book on the studio’s animation philosophy, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, barely mentioning it while dedicating pages to lesser efforts such as Robin Hood and The Sword in the Stone. It is true that Dumbo does not attempt to innovate in the same way Fantasia or Bambi do, having more in common with Silly Symphonies like Elmer Elephant and the Technicolor remake of The Ugly Duckling. But that is where the greatness lies. This is an extension of the studio’s short format work, examining the world and problems of the main character. The stakes are not on an epic scale, but they are no less affecting. Few are the people who have never been an outsider; the universality of Dumbo’s plight and the simple, but powerful way it is told are what draws fans like Pixar’s John Lasseter or the late critic Gene Siskel to the film. This simplicity is a rare thing, especially in modern Disney fare where extra plot details and twists are thrown into the mix, the writers hoping to impress us with their occasionally clever subversions. Not that this is always bad, but the simplicity of Dumbo is a refreshing quality, at least for this filmgoer.

Fantasia was the biggest risk of them all and one which did not initially pay off. Road show prices and its experimental nature gave it a chilly reception from the general public, many of whom complained the film wasn’t suitable for their children what with those flirtatious centaurs and Chernabog’s demonic orgy. Critical response was mixed: some loved the film, but others (usually connoisseurs of classical music) loathed it with a passion. Critic Pauline Kael in particular referred to the film distastefully and admitted to walking out in the middle of the screening, calling it “kitsch.” Igor Stravinsky, whose Rite of Spring was featured in the movie, despised how it was re-arranged and cut.

Looking at the film now, it does have flaws, but it seems almost petty to disregard such visual sumptuousness as “kitsch” or a “failure.” Fantasia reminds me of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance in a number of ways: not everything gels perfectly, but it seems a miracle it was made at all. Today’s Disney has not the drive or courage to make a film as bold as the original Fantasia; just compare Fantasia 2000, a much less ambitious and adult work, one that doesn’t want to break any mold at all. I find that to be true of most of the studio’s modern work in general, which displays similar ambition only in “fits and starts” as critic Tim Brayton puts it.

Ruthless presentation of evil in the world

snowwhite3 Anime expert Susan Napier claimed Disney was part of what she deemed “a cinema of reassurance.” I would not say these early efforts entirely fit such a description 100 percent. If there’s anything “reassuring” about these films, then it’s the idea that you can survive the evil present in the world and somehow find happiness.

One thing often pointed out is how these features are often filled to the brim with what TV Tropes would call “nightmare fuel.” There’s a kind of ruthlessness to the worlds of the early Disney features. Despite their catchy musical numbers, cute sidekicks, and doses of humor, danger and evil are never far in the background, conniving to swallow the heroes and heroines whole. The Queen wants to rip out Snow White’s heart as vengeance for the crime of being more beautiful than her, and when that plan fails, she tries to get her buried alive instead. Pinocchio is threatened with exploitation, death, and even the loss of his very identity during the infamous Pleasure Island episode. Fantasia has Mickey Mouse nearly drown due to his own hubris and the demonic god Chernabog conjure up a satanic orgy. The colorful world of Dumbo is peppered with social cruelty: Dumbo, essentially a young child, is mocked and humiliated in addition to be separated from the only figure in his life who loves him. And everyone knows how Bambi’s mother is taken from him, but there is also the continual threat of Man looming over all the animals in that forest, leading to an almost apocalyptic forest fire.

Animation instructor and critic Mark Mayerson has pointed out that the time period in which these films were made has a great deal to do with this sense of uncertainty and danger. During the Great Depression, people struggled economically and the common worldview was hardly a sunny one. Go back as far as Hollywood’s pre-code era, coincidentally aligned with the early years of the Depression, and in those films you can see a certain cynicism, a sense that the world is ruthless and that you have to struggle to make ends meet. The Disney studio itself was faced with a great deal of uncertainty about its future around the late 1930s and 1940s, being on the verge of bankruptcy more than once due to the lavishness of productions which did not always break even at the box office. And let’s not forget the world in the late 1930s, with the shadow of another global conflict quickly coming into fruition.

Passive but persevering protagonists

Walt-Disney-Screencaps-Pinocchio-walt-disney-characters-35455439-4362-3240 The passiveness of the protagonists has often been noted, usually criticized. Though Snow White’s reactionary nature is often examined by feminist critics, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi are similarly more reactive than proactive; good never triumphs over evil so much as evades being destroyed or consumed by it. The church bells might banish Chernabog for another day, but it is clear he will return the next night. None of the villains in Pinocchio are stopped in any way and will continue to exploit and hurt the unwary. The Queen/Witch in Snow White is killed, but not due to any effort of the dwarfs whom she would have crushed with a boulder; the way that lightning comes down at her feet, it feels as though a higher power were intervening. About the only exception to this passivity is Bambi fighting his rival for the doe Faline. Compare this to later protagonists like Aladdin, Mulan, or Wreck-It-Ralph, who overcome their trials in a more active manner.

Personally, the passivity of these characters makes them seem more like everyman types to me. Like the earlier Mickey Mouse, the influence of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character is apparent in all of these characters, a “little fellow” who overcomes all adversity. And you could even there is an autobiographical element on display: after all, isn’t Walt Disney himself often mythologized as being an everyman who was knocked around by unfeeling producers like Charles Mintz during most of the 1920s, coming to success only due to never giving up?

Conclusion

bambi-1942--02 In the years since, Disney has become associated with safe formulaic blandness, which these early films were certainly not. Were it not for their existence, I’m not sure I would even call myself a Disney fan at all.

“Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic” by J.B. Kaufman

I just finished this gem of a book yesterday evening. J.B. Kaufman should be a familiar name for most of us who like reading up on Disney history; he co-authored the definitive book on the Disney studio’s silent era work and his big, beautiful volume on the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs won great acclaim. On the commentary track for the Blu-ray release of Disney’s second feature Pinocchio, Kaufman announced he had a book on that film in the works as well, which had left me in great anticipation for Pinocchio: The Making of the Disney Epic for about three to four years now.

For fans of the film and the pre-WWII years at the Disney studio, this book is a must-have. Like the earlier tome on Snow White, it’s filled with concept art, stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs, as well as information on the original Collodi novel, and its presence in 19th/20th century popular culture and in the early cinema. The production is described in great detail, particularly the way the filmmakers achieved those marvelous effects and character animation (both of which have rarely been equaled in animation, even to this day), and every scene in the film is analyzed extensively.

To top it all off is an essay from film historian Russell Merritt, which discusses the way the Disney Pinocchio approaches themes of the presence of evil in the world, the painful transformation from youth into adulthood, and spiritual redemption. He even notes an element of melancholy in the otherwise happy finale, one which I have never seen others mention in their analysis. One reviewer on Amazon thought the whole essay was “tedious,” but I found it enlightening and enjoyable. Then again, I’m studying film and literature in graduate school, so your mileage will definitely vary there.

In any case, a great book about a great film.

The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots (dir. Kimio Yabuki, 1969)

pussboots9

While Toei Doga is not a household name amongst most filmgoers, they were an important part of the history of Japanese animation, most notably a training ground for Studio Ghibli founders and internationally acclaimed filmmakers Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki. Toei produced the first color feature length animated movie in Japan, The Legend of the White Serpent, and from then on, strove to distinguish itself as the Disney of the East with similarly lavish features throughout the remainder of the 1950s and into the early 1970s. While Takahata’s revolutionary directorial debut Horus, Prince of the Sun is considered the crowning achievement of Toei’s golden age, my personal favorite is its immediate successor, The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots. Certainly a palate-cleanser after the gritty darkness and hellish three-year production of Horus, Puss ‘n Boots is a light-hearted adventure with a great heaping of slapstick and romance. It would go on to be considered a classic in its home country, a pinnacle of animated comedy.

Swashbuckling feline in boots Pero (Susumu Ishikawa) has been condemned to death by an all-cat council for sparing the life of a rodent, but before the sentence can be carried out, he manages to escape in true Errol Flynn-fashion. Pursued by a trio of feline assassins, Pero comes across Pierre (Toshiko Fujita), a young human boy whose cruel brothers have cast him out of his home. The two outcasts strike up a friendship, traveling to a nearby kingdom where the sovereign is looking to marry off his beautiful daughter, Princess Rose (Rumi Sakakibara). Pierre is smitten at first sight, but his peasant status renders him ineligible for Rose’s hand. Pero, wanting his new friend to be happy, starts to cook up a matchmaking scheme.

Meanwhile, the princess is not happy with her potential suitors, all of whom are rather foppish and foolish. Matters get worse when the last suitor appears in a demonic whirlwind: it’s the devil himself, Lucifer, the lovelorn prince of darkness (Asao Koike). When jewels and power do not sway Rose, Lucifer threatens to level her kingdom should she not agree to be his bride in three days. Luckily for Rose and Pierre, Pero has come up with a plan to make both happy: he passes Pierre off as a duke and swears to the king that not only is Pierre an eligible suitor, but he’s also going to stop Lucifer. Of course, the road to love and victory is not entirely smooth, what with Pierre’s discomfort with the elaborate lie, especially as he and Rose fall harder for each other every passing moment, and the aforementioned assassin trio after Pero at every turn.

pussboots8

There is a great deal of Disney influence in several of the 1950s/1960s Toei films, and Puss n’ Boots is no exception. The watercolor illustration style of the backgrounds, musical numbers, and plethora of animal side characters are quite reminiscent of the early Disney features such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, one of the cat assassins is more than reminiscent of Dopey with his floppy sleeves and position as the runt of the group, and the first stage of the climax, where Lucifer uses his powers to transform into different animals, brings to mind the celebrated wizards duel in Disney’s Sword in the Stone.

And yet, even though there is a great deal of Disney in this film, Puss n’ Boots, in addition to the other Toei films of the period, exhibit a charm that is all their own. Puss ‘n Boots is at its heart a zany comedy, filled to the brim with chases and slapstick in the vein of Chuck Jones; later Disney comedies such as Aladdin and The Emperor’s New Groove are a lot like Puss ‘n Boots with their fast paces and goofy moments. The highlight of the picture is its dizzying castle chase climax, an explosion of hilarity and tension with lots of Looney Tunes and even a little Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. A young Hayao Miyazaki was one of the key animators in this sequence; the similarity of this climax to the clock tower chase at the end of Miyazaki’s 1979 feature debut Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro makes one wonder if he had Puss ‘n Boots at the back of his mind ten years later.

pussboots2

As you can expect from the title, Pero is the star of the show. Clever, witty, mischievous, and resourceful, in addition to having an adorable design, he would go on to become the mascot of Toei and feature in two sequels, though from what I have read, neither one was as successful commercially or artistically as the original. Nevertheless, Pero is a fun character, the true hero of the film.

The other highlight of the film is its villain. Lucifer is a great example of comic villainy, very much in the tradition of Pegleg Pete or Bluto: he can be quite funny when he’s mooning after Rose or whining like a petulant child, but the film never makes you forget his innate evil, especially toward the end. And then, there’s Pierre and Rose, the young lovers around whom much of the plot centers, and while they may be the least interesting members of the cast, they could have been much blander. Pierre in particular reminds me a little of Buster Keaton, with his sleepy eyes and the way he bursts into wild action for the sake of the girl he loves. And I would be lying if I claimed I did not enjoy some of the romantic interludes: Rose’s balcony ballad about her lost happiness is the finest song in the picture and Pierre’s confession of his peasant status to Rose in the garden is sweet, but kept from sinking into mawkishness by Pero’s conducting a choir of singing mice, providing a diegetic soundtrack for the lovers.

pussboots17

How I wish the Toei features were more well-known by animation fans in the States! If any of their films were a gateway drug into this period of Japanese animation, then Puss ‘n Boots would be an excellent candidate, along with the more serious Horus. The Wonderful World of Puss ‘n Boots was given a good DVD release courtesy of Discotek Media, complete with the vintage English dub as a bonus. Unfortunately, it has since gone out of print; however, I snagged a used copy for about thirty bucks last summer. A little pricey for a disc with next to no bonus material, but well worth the investment. While you’re at it, pick up the new DVD release of Horus, Prince of the Sun, which does happen to come with a wealth of insightful bonus features—we need to encourage more Toei releases out of Discotek!

Anyways, since there seems to be so few images of this film on the internet, enjoy some screenshots:

pussboots10

pussboots13

pussboots16

pussboots3

pussboots20

Shorts blogathon: Oh, What a Knight (1928) and Ye Olden Days (1933)

heavy

This post is part of the Shorts Blogathon, hosted by the queen of all things silent film related, Fritzi Kramer. Check out her Movies Silently website to dig into other bite-sized goodness!

Ever since Disney reacquired the rights to the character back in 2006, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has made a quasi-comeback, at least in the world of video games and critical limelight. When most think Disney history, they begin their examination with Mickey Mouse’s debut in the late 1920s, but by the time Walt Disney and his collaborator Ub Iwerks came up with the character, they had already had years of experience in animation behind them, dating back to the early 1920s with the  Laugh-O-Gram series. The two found moderate success with their Alice Comedies, which featured a cute live-action girl in an animated world; however, it wasn’t until the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit that Disney would taste major success. I won’t go into how the character was taken from Disney or how he lost every animator on his team save for Iwerks to their producer, Charles Mintz; God knows, other folks online and off have explained it better.

One thing which fascinates me about Oswald the Lucky Rabbit is how distinct he is from his successor, Mickey Mouse. While there are obvious design similarities, the characters are quite different. Examining these contrasts is especially delicious when you take into account how many of the early Mickey Mouse shorts are just remakes of Oswald’s Disney material, some more obviously than others. Plane Crazy shares the premise of The Ocean Hop; the same applies to All Wet and Wild Waves. The Oscar-winning Building a Building is a close remake of Sky Scrappers. I could go on all day about the differences in characterization and gags in all of them, but for now, let’s focus on one rich example: the difference between Oswald’s Oh, What a Knight and its remake, Ye Olden Days.

[Quick note: Oswald’s feline love interest never had a stable name; back in the 1920s/1930s, it was usually given as Sadie or Kitty, but ever since the Epic Mickey video game series, she has been rechristened Ortensia. I will refer to her by her modern name just for simplicity’s sake.]

Both shorts share the same general plot: Oswald/Mickey is a wandering minstrel who falls in love with fair damsel Ortensia/Minnie, who is being held prisoner by her father. The story ends with a gag-filled sword fight and the young lovers living happily ever after. Aside from one or two shared gags, this is where the comparisons end.

img278

As mentioned previously, Oswald and Mickey are distinct characters, though both have a touch of the silent cinema swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks in them. The most oft-mentioned difference is their approaches to romance. Oswald is a rather amorous character, having two love interests in Ortensia and the rabbit Fanny during his Disney run; the Epic Mickey games subtly highlight this trait with the existence of Oswald and Ortensia’s 400 plus bunny children. Oh, What a Knight makes this quality a huge source for gags. Oswald and Ortensia are unable to keep their lips off of one another, with steam emitting from every kiss and Oswald returning to get more sugar in mid-sword fight. In contrast, Mickey is much more boyish in his romantic interactions with Minnie (save for his infamous behavior in Plane Crazy), saving the smooches for the end of the short, in this case, discreetly behind a fan.

Eat your heart out Valentino!

Eat your heart out Valentino!

The way the romantic scenes play out in general are quite different; both shorts share a piece of business, but pull it off with different tones. The basic business is that the girl blows a kiss from the balcony, the boy reacts, and then defies physics to reach the balcony. In Oh, What a Knight, this romantic gesture is a gag: Ortensia kisses the air, puts the kiss in her fist, and winds her arm like a pitcher on the field before throwing the kiss to Oswald, where it smacks him on the lips and sends him reeling. This amuses Oswald’s donkey; Oswald tells him to shut it, then ties a rope to the donkey’s tail and somehow throws it to the balcony edge. The donkey wags his tail and Oswald rides up the rope as though it were an escalator.

Less steamy, to be sure...

Less steamy, to be sure…

Ye Olden Days paints this moment with a sense of whimsy and emotional sincerity. Minnie kisses a flower and tosses it down the Mickey, who’s standing on a tree branch. Overwhelmed by the gesture, he leaps from the branch and practically glides up to the window. Less funny and certainly less complicated than the aforementioned business of the Oswald short, but better in keeping with the tone Ye Olden Days is going for: it wants to be more than just eight minutes of laughs by incorporating more feeling and drama into the mix. Not that Oh, What a Knight’s lack of ambition makes it inferior; remember, these are two shorts that, while sharing the same theme and general story framework, want to achieve wildly different ends.

On another note, Oswald is also much more confrontational than Mickey. He’s perfectly content to settle things with his fists, whereas the more good-natured Mickey is more laidback and usually tries to solve issues with his wits. This is displayed in the climactic scenes of both cartoons: while Oswald has a few tricks up his furry sleeves, it’s Mickey who predominantly makes use of ways to outwit his enemy without engaging him head on with a weapon.

The Oswald cartoon is above all else concerned with stringing one gag after another than story or character, and it packs all of this comic business within a tight structure. In the essential book on silent era animation, Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928, Donald Crafton breaks down the “classical” structure of the Disney Oswald cartoon: the introduction, a comic episode, a romantic interlude, the confrontation with the villain, and then the climax and conclusion (294). Knight follows this structure exactly.

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Introduction: Oswald established as wandering minstrel with donkey sidekick

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Comic episode: The donkey and the alligator; Oswald’s attempts to serenade Ortensia

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Romantic interlude: Oswald and Ortensia flirting and kissing on the balcony

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at swordfight

Confrontation: Pete appears and initiates at sword fight

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

Climax/conclusion: Oswald defeats Pete, frees Ortensia, and then the two of them jump out of the tower after being menaced by a lion, luckily floating down to safety thanks to Ortensia’s parachute-like skirt

This is all there is to the plot. The majority of the run time focuses on all the silly things Oswald does while dueling Pete in the tower. Aside from Oswald, none of the other characters are given much personality at all.

An unlikely villain

An unlikely villain

By 1933, the Disney studio’s ambitions had extended beyond the realm of gags; there was more of an effort to tell stories and focus on character. Ye Olden Days is essentially a mini-musical with a plot that’s a little more intricate than just “good guy beats bad guy and saves the girl.” For one thing, there’s a larger cast: we have Mickey as the underdog hero, Minnie as the damsel in distress, Pete as the king, Clarabelle as Minnie’s handmaiden, and Goofy as the villainous suitor for Minnie’s hand (in 1933, he was christened “Dippy Dawg,” but I’ll keep things simple and just call him Goofy). Though it’s surreal to see Goofy as an antagonist, and even more so as a romantic rival for Minnie of all people (or… mice, I guess), all of these cartoon stars are ‘cast’ perfectly in their roles.

7

The Mickey version takes the bare-bones narrative of the original cartoon and amps up the stakes by fleshing out the story. The father-king doesn’t just stand in the way of the central romance; he’s both comic and threatening, almost having poor Mickey guillotined before Minnie begs for his life (let’s just ignore the fact that the guillotine wasn’t even invented until the eighteenth century). The drama is much higher; by introducing a princely rival and putting his life at stake, Mickey is more of an underdog than Oswald was in his short. This aspect of the character is what made him so appealing to the Depression era audience; it’s also what makes the Mickey cartoons of the early 1930s so much more interesting than the majority of the character’s later ventures, where his good nature was not paired with suitable scenarios which brought out this underdog quality.

One other obvious difference between the two shorts is the musical aspect of the Mickey cartoon, pretty obvious given this is a sound film and musicals were popular in the early 1930s. While not as catchy as the numbers in Building a Building, which is the best Mickey “musical” short in my opinion, the songs are nice and move the plot along swiftly.

But lest we forget, there is one thing that those Disney folks never lost sight of in the transition from silence to sound, from rabbit to mouse: butt-related humor forever.

But seriously.....

But seriously…..

... you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

… you could make a drinking game based off of butt-focused humor in Disney films circa 1927-1953.

For all their differences in characterization and storytelling concerns, the Oswald and Mickey series are great fun and feature a good deal of the Disney staff experimenting with the medium. It’s easy to just view all of it as a playground for ideas and concepts to be put to “better” use in the studio’s famous feature films, but that’s ignoring the art of the short film, of the freewheeling animated short films of Hollywood’s classical period. So, if you haven’t already, sit back and enjoy some classic Disney goodness courtesy of YouTube.