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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.