Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Cagney Day

It's August, which means it's time again for TCM's Summer Under the Stars. To celebrate, Jill at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film are hosting a blogathon. This is my contribution for James Cagney Day (Tuesday, August 14).

As I mentioned up there in italics, it's James Cagney Day on TCM. But this isn't the Cagney Day I want to discuss. Instead, I want to talk about the original Cagney Day (at least in my heart) - Saturday, July 26, 2003, two months after I graduated from high school.

During high school, Cagney had become one of my favorite actors. I'd never seen a performer who could mix intensity and exuberance, joy and wrath like he could. I watched films like The Public Enemy, Angels with Dirty Faces, and Yankee Doodle Dandy repeatedly, and I discovered new facets of his charisma with every viewing.

Over the course of that summer, I videotaped six Cagney movies from TCM - all of them new to me - and I decided that I would watch them all in a single day. I dubbed the occasion Cagney Day, and I couldn't wait to sit around alone in my room like a dork. The six movies in question spanned thirty years (and, incidentally, three of them aired on TCM today):

Smart Money (1931), which isn't really a Cagney movie at all. It's Edward G. Robinson's show all the way, with Cagney cast as a lowly henchmen, but it was still a fine start to the day.

Footlight Parade (1933), one of Cagney's many delightful pairings with Joan Blondell, the closest thing to a female James Cagney that has ever existed.

The Roaring Twenties (1939), a movie that's kind of like Angels with Dirty Faces, but isn't as quite as good. Still a lot of fun though. I later rewatched it during my Prohibition-themed 21st-birthday party.

White Heat (1949), one of the most satisfying movie-watching experiences a person can have.

Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a Ruth Etting biopic where Cagney plays Marty "The Gimp" Snyder, a small-time gangster who's essentially the natural end point of the cocky, charming criminals he played in The Roaring Twenties and so many other 1930s movies. If those guys hadn't died, they'd have grown up to be just as sleazy, horrible, and pathetic as Snyder.

One, Two, Three (1961), Billy Wilder's fast-as-lightning comedy about Communism and Coca-Cola. Cagney didn't make a movie for twenty years after this one, and brother, what a way to say good night!

Like I mentioned, I hadn't seen any of those movies before Cagney Day, and there isn't a stinker in the bunch. Additionally, they offer a nice variety of genres. Four of them are mob movies, sure, but one of those is secretly a musical biopic, and the other two are hilarious comedies. Executed properly, Cagney Day would have been an amazing education in the career of one of our finest actors.

But Cagney Day was not executed properly. Not properly at all!

For the first four-and-a-half movies, everything went exactly as planned. I thrilled to Chester Kent's effortless dancing. I cried at Eddie Bartlett's untimely end. I swooned over Cody Jarrett's love for his mother. But then, halfway through Love Me or Leave Me, tragedy struck -

My mom decided it was time for me to go buy a car.

To be fair to her, we had looked at the car (a $1200 Ford Taurus in an off-putting forest green) a few day earlier, but still, can you believe the nerve of her? A CAR! On Cagney Day! What kind of 18-year-old boy wants to go buy a car when he could watch James Cagney emotionally manipulate Doris Day instead?!

Not this one, that's for sure!

Well, I watched the rest of Love Me or Leave Me and all of One, Two, Three the next day, but it just wasn't the same.

Thanks a whole lot, MOM!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Rains is Regent!

It's August, which means it's time again for TCM's Summer Under the Stars. To celebrate, Jill at Sittin' on a Backyard Fence and Michael at ScribeHard on Film are hosting a blogathon. I'm honored to make this contribution for Claude Rains Day (Sunday, August 5).

The first time I ever saw Claude Rains must have been in his final movie, George Stevens' The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). It's one of my grandmother's all-time favorite movies, and she insisted on watching it every year at Easter. That film has more cameos than The Muppet Movie, but as a child I didn't recognize very many of them. (Exceptions: John Wayne because everyone knows John Wayne, Angela Lansbury and Charlton Heston also thanks to my grandma, and Telly Savalas because of, well, The Muppet Movie.)

I certainly didn't know Claude Rains, but his King Herod left a huge impression on me. He appears at the very beginning of the movie, and his bizarre, fey intensity was like nothing I'd ever seen. In church I'd been taught that King Herod hated Jesus, but Rains seems more like he welcomes the challenge. He plays the role with a constant half-smile plastered on his face, as though he's excited that there's some baby out there will someday stand up to him - after all these years, he has an upstart to destroy, and he can't even wait to do it.

What I didn't realize at the time was that Herod was essentially a reprise of a character Rains had played twenty-seven years earlier in a much better film - Prince John in William Keighley and Michael Curtiz's The Adventures of Robin Hood. Like Herod, John is a petulant little man who craves power. He sees hero as a threat to his power and decides to devote all of his resources to killing that hero. And Rains plays them in a very similar manner.

In all of classic film, Prince John is the closest thing we have to the more recent tradition of Classy Actors Slumming It In Comic Book Movies. I don't mean that as insult; quite the opposite. It's not necessarily Rains's best work - and it sure isn't very subtle - but he seems to be having the time of his life.

And Rains is tremendous fun for the viewer as well. Prince John doesn't actually do very much in the movie. Mostly he just instructs his minions to do things for him. But the way Rains plays him, that never gets old for him. He's on a constant, delighted power trip, and every order is like his first.

Throughout the film, Rains displays Prince John's joy in a number of sublime moments - grinning haughtily at the archery contest, eagerly ordering his men to bring Robin Hood something to eat when Robin invades the throne, gleefully telling the arrested Robin Hood that Sir Guy's treatment of him will be "Something special, I'm sure!"

Perhaps my favorite moment of his occurs about fifteen minutes into the movie, when he explains that he's seized regency power away from his brother's appointed steward, a fellow named Longchamps. "I've kicked Longchamps out!," he exclaims. Rains's voice jumps up about a half-octave on the verb 'kicked' - Prince John's been living in his brother's shadow all of his life, and now that he's finally in power he can barely contain his excitement.

Claude Rains had tremendous range - befuddled father Adam Lemp in Four Daughters couldn't be farther removed from the unsettling Dr. Jack Griffin in The Invisible Man - but many of his best roles were charming, cultured rogues. That's true of Louis Renault in Casablanca, it's true of Alex Sebastian in Notorious, and it's certainly true of Prince John in his own mind. He isn't charming at all, of course, but you can always tell that he so badly wants to be.

Animated Short of the Day: "She and Her Cat" (Makoto Shinkai, 1999)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

I'm pleased to announce the first-ever guest writer here at Zeppo Marxism. Today's short was suggested by Noel Kirkpatrick. Noel is a very active TV writer who has co-founded two terrific websites - Monsters of Television and This Was Television. He was also one of the very first friends I ever made on Twitter, and you can follow him here.

Since Noel knows far more about this film (and about anime in general) than I do, I asked him to share some thoughts on "She and Her Cat." Even though I once failed him by abandoning Cowboy Bebop after eight episodes, he graciously agreed.  I just watched the cartoon for the first time yesterday, so I'll offer my reactions following his comments.


She and Her Cat is Makoto Shinkai’s first film, a brief short about, well, a woman and her male cat, Chobi. The story is told entirely from Chobi’s perspective and traces a brief portion of his life with the nameless She (and a brief dalliance with an eager young kitten named Mimi).

The short, sold by Shinkai at cons and through the mail in 1999, is...gently animated, more a series of still lifes edited together than anything else. While this may strike some as crude or even typical of anime and its use of limited animation techniques, it fits the film’s perspective from that of a cat, for whom days blend together save for changes in the season, and fits the film’s elegiac tone.

The stillness of She and Her Cat helps convey the routineness and smallness of She’s life in her tiny apartment, with Chobi being the one bright spot (consider that we rarely see She outside compared to Chobi exploring during the summer) in her world by the end after a disastrous but unknown phone call (“This world, I think we like it.”)

She and Her Cat sets the tone for Shinkai’s future films, Voices of a Distant Star, The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 5 Centimeters Per Second, and Children Who Chase Lost Voices. Shinkai is obsessed with the struggle to maintain, re-establish, or move past lost connections (he loves phones of all types), and we see the kernels of that theme here in She and Her Cat.

You likely haven’t heard of Makoto Shinkai, and that’s perfectly okay. Unlike Hayao Miyazaki or even Satoshi Kon, Shinkai hasn’t broken through into the American cinematic scene, be it at your megaplex or your local arthouse (if you even have one). But I hope you enjoy this short from one of anime’s upcoming talents and voices.

Thanks, Noel!

As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of an anime fan in general, by which I mostly mean that I don't have much interest in anything outside of Studio Ghibli. It's a bias that I'm trying to overcome, and watching films like this lovely little gem will help me achieve that goal.
Right away, I was intrigued by the calm, measured quality of the narrator's voice (performed by Shinkai himself, if my online research can be trusted). Given the title and the brief running time, I should have assumed that it was the cat, but it didn't even occur to me. I gasped out loud at that reveal, and here's why: Shinkai's dialogue - and his delivery - very effectively portray the relationship between the two characters as a loving, adult partnership between equals. 

When it turns out that he's actually her pet, the reversal of expectations is made even more shocking by Chobi's abstract design. It's almost unthinkable that such complex thoughts could be contained in such a simple, crudely-rendered figure.

The details that Chobi notices about She are exquisitely drawn, revealing the extent to which his world revolves around her. In a way, those sequences reminded me of Pixar's Toy Story. She, like Andy, seems to have no idea that she's being worshipped by her housemate. But Chobi notices everything she does. Even when he's with Mimi, She is his entire world. And her heartbreak becomes his moment of greatest triumph when she turns to him for comfort. It's sad and realistic and peculiarly beautiful.

So Shinkai's other movies are a lot like this, huh? I should get on those.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "The Bear That Wasn't" (Chuck Jones, 1967)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

If you're reading a blog post about short cartoons, you almost certainly know who Chuck Jones is. He directed dozens of the funniest and most famous Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, not to mention a couple of very well-regarded Dr. Seuss adaptations.

It's also quite likely that you know who Frank Tashlin is. He too was an animation director at Warner Brothers, for two separate stints in the late 1930s and early 1940s. After he left he moved into live-action, where he had a long and successful career directing films starring the likes of Tony Randall, Jerry Lewis, and Bob Hope.
The two were co-workers at Warner Brothers for years, where they were both heading their own units. They both made a whole bunch of hilarious cartoons with Daffy Duck in them. But "The Bear That Wasn't" is the only time the two of them ever collaborated in the production of a film. It was made at MGM in 1967, twenty-three years after Tashlin left WB to begin his live-action career.

And it really was a true collaboration. The short is adapted from Tashlin's 1946 children's book of the same name, and it follows the book's story almost exactly. If a viewer didn't know better, he or she could easily mistake Paul Frees' narration for a segment from Reading Rainbow. This is a good thing, because it means that the cartoon retains the book's sharp satire of those who lets others to define their identity.

But the visual style is pure Jones - it hardly resembles the book. Jones's figures grew most distinct over the course of his career. By 1967, they had become instantly recognizable. One look at the bear and you know instantly that this is from the same man who, just the previous year, had reshaped Dr. Seuss's Grinch in his own image.

Jones is aided immensely by his frequent production designer Maurice Noble, whose backgrounds are so striking that he receives a co-director credit on the cartoon. I've always been especially impressed with the way that Noble makes the corporation settings seem just as vast as the outdoor ones. This really seems like a place where the bear could get lost and never escape.

The cartoon is also hilarious, albeit in a very different way from the fast-and-frantic cartoons the two gentlemen had made at WB. This is a very low-key, almost wistful cartoon, with most of the laughs coming from details (the image of a cigarette hanging out of the bear's mouth) or the repetition of the phrase "You are not a bear. You are a silly man who needs a shave and wears a fur coat," which gets funnier to me every single time it's said. It's a far cry from "Duck Amuck" or "Porky Pig's Feat."

"The Bear That Wasn't" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, both of which are a lot prettier than this YouTube video.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Love's Labor Lost" (Vernon Stallings, 1920)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

Admission time: I've never quite understood the appeal of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, which knowledgeable people often list among the greatest comic strips of all time. Oh, I respect it. I recognize that Herriman was a tremendous artist with a great talent for laying out an adventure across an entire page. And I appreciate how sexually ambiguous it was allowed to be, something that wouldn't have flown in newspaper strips just a couple of decades later.

But I don't actually enjoy it. In college, I read the entire 1946 hardcover collection (with introduction by E. E. Cummings!). It felt like homework, I didn't laugh, and it mostly just left me puzzled.

My initial explanation for why I didn't like it was that maybe the strip's unique dialect just hasn't aged well. Every strip has an awful lot of clipped words that need to be sounded out. But I love E. C. Segar's Popeye and Walt Kelly's Pogo, and none of the characters in those strips talk like any human being ever has or ever will. So I disregarded that theory.

I made peace with my dislike of the strip, deciding that I'm just a whippersnapper who can't appreciate great things from the days when cartoonists drew for a living instead of Xeroxing a bunch of talking heads. Whatever the reason, I always felt like I missed out on Krazy Kat, and that made me sad.

And then I saw "Love's Labor Lost," which has a gag where Ignatz Mouse hits Krazy over the head with a mandolin and then strolls away, playing and singing joyfully. I guess the dialogue might have been my problem after all, because this cartoon doesn't have any. And it's hilarious.

Actually, Krazy himself makes little more than a cameo in this cartoon. He has scenes totaling almost exactly one minute of the three-and-a-half minute running time, and the strip's other regular character, Ignatz's oppressor Offissa Pup, is nowhere to be found. The focus is on a completely different love triangle, with Ignatz and an elephant vying for a hippo's affections.

Perhaps the single most interesting element, for me, is the way it foreshadows a cartoon icon of the following decade. Popeye didn't make his comic strip debut until 1929 - or his first film until 1933 - but the elephant's story here almost plays like a Popeye spoof. After drinking the entire barrel of "Beevo" (what a great name!), he gains super-strength and even flexes his forearms. Then he heads off to defeat the bully who stole his girl.

But, see, it's funny because the bully is a tiny mouse and he's a big giant elephant. And also, when he goes back to get his revenge, he straight-up kills Ignatz (or so it seems in the moment). I know that "Bully steals girl from little guy" wasn't invented for Popeye or even Charles Atlas, but it feels so specific here. Both of those elements play exactly like subversions of the Popeye formula.

And then Krazy's tears of sadness cause a flower to grow, and that flower sprouts Ignatz Mouse, and that mouse throws a brick at Krazy's head.

That's seriously so wonderful that it makes me want to go read three hundred pages of the Krazy Kat comic strip.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Baby Bottleneck" (Bob Clampett, 1946)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

So far, I've held off on featuring a Bob Clampett cartoon in this series. Not because it's hard to choose just one, although that's certainly true. Mostly I just don't know if I have anything original to say about his work. He was one of the most talented and most idiosyncratic directors ever to work for a major studio, but everyone already knows that about him.

In any case, I'm going to try my best. It's always a pleasure to watch the work he did at Warner Bros. in the 1930s and 1940s. "Baby Bottleneck" is one of my favorite films he ever made, and I chose it for today's post because it offers such a perfect example of his style.

More than any of his contemporaries at WB (Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Frank Tashlin, or even Tex Avery), Clampett never seemed overly concerned with staying on-model. They have a certain amount of consistency - the lead character is always recognizable as being Daffy Duck, but he stretches and squashes into a vast array of entertaining shapes.

We see this from the very first shot of Daffy. He is, simply, talking on the phone, but his face mutates with every word. This adds so much energy to what would otherwise only be a series of jokes about now-dead celebrities and news stories. The character isn't even doing anything physical, but Clampett still makes sure that the action is being driven by the animation.

(I'm no huge fan of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi - who I think mostly imitates Clampett's outrageousness with none of his wit or storytelling ability - but he wrote a couple of great blog posts about the animation of this cartoon.)

Later, Daffy's hat changes size and shape depending on who's animating him, (I want to believe that this is a reference to Groucho's shifting costumes in the climax of Duck Soup, but I've seen no evidence that that's actually the case), his tail end bounces around like a super ball, and his leg accidentally gets stretched to twenty feet for a while. All of these effects contribute to the cartoon's feeling of utter chaos - nothing going right at the stork factory, including the stability of Daffy's body.

But what makes "Baby Bottleneck" a true masterpiece is how well-organized it is as a story, despite seeming like random silliness for most of its runtime. It spends its first two minutes pretending to be a spot-gag cartoon about all of the different ways babies can be delivered, and all of the hilarious ways that baby animals can be sent to the wrong parents. 

After meeting Daffy and Porky, we transition into another sequence of gags, this time the conveyor belt changing-table (accompanied by Raymond Scott's "Powerhouse," a staple of Carl Stalling's Looney Tunes music). Third, Clampett lets Porky and Daffy run around for a while as they each attempt to trick the other into sitting on an egg.

Finally, in the cartoon's last ninety seconds, he works backward through all three set-pieces, drawing the various threads together into a satisfying conclusion. Porky and Daffy end up on the conveyor belt, where they're stuffed into a single diaper and then delivered to a gorilla. In that final shot, Clampett reveals that every previous sequence served to set up that last joke. But it's so funny and ridiculous that the viewer doesn't even notice unless they're watching for the fourth or fifth or seventy-third time.

And it even concludes with another reference that's incomprehensible to most modern ears. But I will admit that as a kid I found it pretty neat that the gorilla was calling me for help.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Western Spaghetti" (Pes, 2008)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

At just 1 minute and 42 seconds, "Western Spaghetti" is the shortest film I've featured so far in this series. But it packs an astonishing number of great sight gags into that brief running time. Marvel as typical household items stand in for typical household foods! Thrill to the stop-motion so meticulous it kind of looks like live-action!

(Admittedly, the presence of the director's actual hands in many shots helps that second illusion.)

Pes (actual name Adam Pesapane) is one of my favorite animators working today. In theory, his style is simple. He always tells tiny (really tiny - this is one of his longest films) stories using stop-motion and found items. However, his films offer endlessly inventive variations on that theme. In each one, there are always small joys to be found.

I could discuss some of my favorites from this cartoon - the squished tomatoes, say, or the transition from hard to cooked pasta - but doing so would only subtract from the illusion.

So instead I'll offer a document that subtracts from the illusion in a much more illuminating way. Pes himself wrote this article from Make magazine detailing the process that went into the creation of the short (link downloads a folder which contains a PDF of the article.)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Volcano" (Dave Fleischer, 1942)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

If you're a DC Comics fan, chances are you've seen at least one of the nine Superman shorts that Fleischer Studios produced in 1941-1942 (not counting the additional eight made by Famous Studios thereafter). That series offered the first-ever big-screen adaptation of a comic-book hero. It features Bud Collyer's definitely vocal take on the character of Superman. It's available on home video releases of both high and low quality. It's cited as inspiration on the 1990s Batman: The Animated Series and its many follow-ups. It's one of the foundational documents of Superheroes in Other Media.

While the series as a whole is accepted as popular and influential, its individual installments are rarely given much attention. Conventional wisdom holds that if you've seen one, you've seen all of them. On the surface, it's easy to see why. Those first nine follow an extremely - absurdly - strict formula:

1) Opening narration: "Up in the Sky! It's a Bird! . . ."
2) Introduction of the villain or threat
3) Daily Planet editor Perry White assigns Lois Lane and/or Clark to cover the story.
4) The two reporters arrive at the scene separately or together.
5) Lois gets very close to the threat and is captured/endangered.
6) Clark changes into Superman and flies to her rescue.
7) He also defeats/destroys the threat in general.
8) Finally - and this is key, because it's the most charming thing - Lois and Clark exchange some sort of banter about the day's events.

Indeed, all of those elements are evident in this cartoon, the eighth entry in the series. But today I want to talk about the things that are going on between those elements - the ideas that are specific to this cartoon.

1) First of all, I want to highlight the gorgeous animation of the lava. Like many Fleischer cartoons, these made heavy use of rotoscoping. I imagine that technique was employed here, but however it was done, the flow of the lava has a naturalistic look and feel. I love the way it seeps slowly and methodically over the backgrounds.

2) This is the only Fleischer Superman cartoon in which the hero battles a completely natural disaster. There are no mad scientists, no giant robots, no magnetic telescopes drawing comets towards Earth. Just a super-strong fellow from space redirecting the flow of some lava like a champ.

3) The action is unusually tense. In this eight-minute cartoon, the volcano doesn't blow for over a minute and a half after Lois and Clark arrive on the scene. In that time, we are treated to three separate shots of the steaming volcano (plus a steamship for added foreshadowing). When the mountain finally does blow, the eruption initially occurs off-screen before Fleischer cuts to the lava bubbling over the top of the crater. It's just lovely.

4) Of all of the films, this one has my favorite take on the Lois/Clark dynamic. In many of them, Superman goes to the scene independently of Lois. In others, Clark makes an excuse for himself to go change. Here, Lois steals Clark's press pass, playing an active role in preventing him from getting access to the volcano. Her competitive streak comes up in several of the cartoons, but this is the only where she's actually willing to cheat to get ahead of him. I love her when she's like that.

The formula made the Fleischer Superman cartoons iconic, but the variations and details make them actually fun to watch. And this is one of the most fun.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Slim Pickings" (Anthony Lucas, 1999)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter. 

Today we're going to look at our second food-related cartoon in the last three days (that should show you were my mind is at.) Snork, the hero of "Slim Pickings," has an entirely different problem than the one encountered by the overstuffed Piggy Hamhock. He can't find a thing to eat in his entire house, and his stomach is literally twisting up with hunger.

The first film released by Australian director Anthony Lucas's company 3-D Films, "Slim Pickings" was animated entirely by Lucas himself. The wordless film gives him an chance to display the talent that would later get him an Oscar nomination for his 2005 short "The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello" - stark, unfiltered displays of emotion.

"Slim Pickings" features some of the most expressive stop-motion I've seen. During his early hunger pains, Snork's agony is conveyed through exaggerated facial and bodily poses. When he finds a can labeled "One Old Pea," that expression briefly switches to utter delight, only to return to sorrow in an instant (it's just one old pea, after all).

The heft of stop-motion gives these scenes more emotion than they would have in either cel or CG animation. This film is only 4 1/2 minutes long, but we watch Snork experience joy, terror, sadness, satisfaction, longing, hesitation, and regret. It's a simple story about a guy trying to find something to eat, but when it ends I always feel like I've watched him live his entire life.

Much of the material is played for laughs, but the film becomes truly impressive when it turns to tragedy. This is a two-character piece, and Snork's pet tomato plant is just as well-acted as he is. We're anxious along with the plant as it tries to point out the fruit that it just produced, and we feel (heck, sometimes I weep) for it when Snork makes his final, horrible decision about what to eat.

"Slim Pickings" is available for purchase on Spike & Mike's Classic Festival of Animation, a grab-bag DVD that features a handful of actual classics, some entertaining oddities, a few stinkers, and a variety of interesting supplemental materials (less so for this film than some of the others). While I can't call it one of the best animation anthologies out there, it's well worth the five dollars it currently costs on Amazon. Certainly it's more nourishing than One Old Pea.

And look how happy Snork is about that!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Pigs is Pigs" (Jack Kinney, 1954)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter. 

Yesterday we looked at Friz Freleng's 1937 terror comedy "Pigs is Pigs." Seventeen years later, the Walt Disney company released a cartoon with the same title. The two have nothing in common - not even the definition of the word "pig" - but the newer cartoon is just as entertaining as the older one. It's a charming, breezy little fable, and it looks beautiful.

In fact, this cartoon has a much longer history than the WB film. It's based on a short story from 1905 by Ellis Parker Butler, which had previously been adapted into a pair of silent films (in 1910 and 1914). The cartoon cuts out the original tale's quasi-racism (there, Postmaster Flannery assumes that "Guinea" is the pigs' home country, so he has to charge more money than he would for good old familiar Irish pigs), but it retains the rest of the quirky, clever story.

That story - wrapped in folksy rhymes and UPA-style absract character designs - is a not-quite-biting satire about the hazards of following the letter of the law. After Postmaster Flannery receives a package containing two guinea pigs, he get into an argument with the intended recipient over whether the animals are "pigs" (which are shipped for 48 cents) or "pets" (44 cents). When the fellow refuses to pay, Flannery is stuck with a population of rodents that multiplies exponentially.

The guinea pigs themselves are the focus of many of the cartoon's best gags. I'm especially fond of the gag towards the end where a couple gives birth to four babies in mid-air. Less expected, but just as hilarious, are the synchronized movements of the various members of bureaucracy, all moving together in perfect harmony.

In addition, listen for the stellar voice cast. In addition to Bill "Droopy" Thompson as Postmaster Flannery, you'll also hear the narration of a young Gary "Laugh-In" Owens (UPDATE: Reader and voice-artist expert Andrew Leal tells me the narrator is actually William "The Odd Couple" Woodson) and the unmistakable bass of Thurl "Tony the Tiger" Ravenscroft as one of the singers.

I don't have as much to say about this cartoon as I have some in the past, because so much of the fun of it comes from the execution. But I want to add one final note - the version here is slightly out of sync, but I think it still plays okay. The jokes are mostly visual.

A restored, synced-up version is available on the Walt Disney Treasures: Disney Rarities DVD set, which is one of the best entries in that series (certainly one of the most varied in its content), and is still in print and reasonably cheap.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Pigs is Pigs" (Friz Freleng, 1937)

Animated Short of the Day is an ongoing series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

"Pigs is Pigs" is notable for two reasons - First, it marks the final appearance of the short-lived Merrie Melodies star Piggy Hamhock. In 1931, Freleng had introduced Piggy, an ink-black character in the Mickey Mouse/Felix the Cat vein. He starred in two shorts (the jazz farce "You Don't Know What You're Doin'!" and "Hittin' the Trail for Hallelujah Land," one of the infamous Censored Eleven) before being dropped.

In 1936, Freleng brought back Piggy, who now had a last name. Rather than a free-spirited, alcohol-swigging adult, this Piggy is a little kid who lives with his parents and his many sibling. He's pink-skinned, obese, and obsessed with eating. It really is a completely different character, but it's easy to see why Freleng reused the first name - "Piggy Hamhock" is truly delightful to say or hear.

Once again, Piggy only got to star in two shorts - "At Your Service Madame" and today's feature. Porky was on the rise at the time, and Merrie Melodies certainly didn't need two pig stars. So this cartoon is Piggy's final bow.

But brother, what a way to go out!

The other reason "Pigs is Pigs" is notable is that it's one of director Friz Freleng's first non-musical cartoons. I don't know for sure that it's his very first, but most of his cartoons throughout the early 30s featured the characters breaking out into song at some point (He would continue that thread throughout his career, but never to quite the same degree.)

This cartoon is still a comedy, but the entire second half - set in the home of a mad scientist played by deep-voiced Disney veteran Billy Bletcher - has a pervasive feeling of foreboding. It's this section that the cartoon is best remembered for, with the mad scientist force-feeding Piggy in a darker version of the food machine from Chaplin's Modern Times (released the year before). It would also be reflected later in films like A Clockwork Orange and Se7en.

Those comparisons might be a bit extreme, but I think they're valid. Nothing in the film is scary, exactly - because it's too light-hearted for that - but it puts the viewer inside Piggy's mind during an experience that he clearly isn't enjoying. In addition to the content itself, everything about the sequence is just a little bit off. It has so many dream-like touches - the pie filling around Piggy's face disappears magically when he moves on to a new dish, he doesn't gain any weight until he becomes instantly obese at the end, and most of all, the strange way that the scientist says "Have some nice pies, cakes, ice cream and pickles!" (Pickles!)

And it pays off wonderfully in the final moment. That ending! Not only is it a hilarious gag, it rings completely true. I think it's exactly how I would have acted in that situation as a kid.

Speaking of which, the whole cartoon hits me pretty close to home. As an overweight child I adored this cartoon, focusing as it does on the inner life of a fat kid who eats as often as possible, and thinks about food the rest of the time. I wasn't quite as much of a glutton as Piggy (not that anyone could be, outside of a cartoon), but I definitely spent much of my time wondering when I would next be able to eat.

The first half of the cartoon captures that feeling better than just about anything else I've seen. The scene featured in the screenshot above - where Piggy ties together the spaghetti from everyone's plate so he can eat it - is a masterpiece of extending a gag for maximum effect.

"Pigs is Pigs" is only one of two excellent cartoons by that title. Come back tomorrow for the other one.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Vinni Puh" (Fyodor Khitruk, 1969)

Animated Short of the Day is a series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

Look at this picture. Can you name these animals?

The title of this post is probably a dead giveaway, but that's our old friends Pooh and Piglet! Between 1969 and 1972, animator Fyodor Khitruk directed three Winnie-the-Pooh cartoons in his native Russia. Today we're going to look at the first one (which I'm calling by its Russian name for the purposes of reducing confusion.)

I first saw "Vinni Puh" in college in 2005 or so - one of my earliest YouTube discoveries. It was an important moment in my development as an animation fan, because it forced me to consider how different approaches can alter material. Before I saw this cartoon, I knew the names of various animation directors (mostly WB guys like Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett), but I'd never really considered what they actually brought to the table.

Then I saw "Vinni Puh," which is a lot like visiting your parents in their new house. It's completely different from what I know, but everything about it feels familiar.
Like the first half of Disney's "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree," (directed by Wolfgang Reitherman) "Vinni Puh" is an adaptation of the first chapter of A. A. Milne's book Winnie-the-Pooh (delightfully entitled "In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees and the Stories Begin"). Unlike that short, its character designs don't hew to E.H. Shepard's illustrations at all.

Disney put Pooh in a red shirt, but other than that he's basically the same yellow bear that Shepard designed. Khitruk's Puh is an entirely different (stuffed) animal - dark brown body with even darker ears, nose, and limbs. He's also much fatter than Shepard's or Disney's Pooh. Those versions have round bellies - this one essentially is a round belly, clomping along through the Hundred Acre Wood on tiny feet that disconnect from his body when he walks.

Piglet - the only other character featured in this cartoon - is also radically altered, with a bulbous head, tiny neck, and equally round torso forming an hourglass figure. He wears what appear to be checkered blue swimming trunks, and one of his ears hangs lower than the other.

They also both have different body language than they do in the Disney cartoons, but their movements convey all of the same characteristics. Pooh's signature paw-to-head thinking pose is replaced by a simple blink of deep concentration, and his happy-go-lucky nature is conveyed by swinging his arms jauntily as he walks.

That low-hanging ear of Piglet's twitches when he walks. This effect - combined with the bouncy way he moves - communicates the character's nervous energy just as well as his excited scurry in the Disney cartoons. Despite all of the visual changes, the two characters are still recognizably Winnie the Pooh and his pal Piglet.

All of that said, "Vinni Puh" is faster and (in many ways) funnier than "Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree." When Pooh decides to roll around in the mud, he dives in head-first, arching high into the air before sinking completely into the mud pit and finally reemerging in full Rain Cloud Mode. Stylized, exaggerated movements such as that give the film a quickness that's markedly different from Disney's more wistful version.

I wouldn't say that I prefer this film to the, as they say, Disney version. That short and its follow-ups have a permanent residence in my heart for as long as I'm alive. Mostly I'm just glad that both takes exist - that Winnie-the-Pooh is a character strong enough to be interpreted multiple ways and come through with his hungry, quizzical head held high.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Plastic Man in Puddle Trouble" (Andy Suriano, 2006)

Animated Short of the Day is a series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, email me or contact me on Twitter.

For the most part, this series will focus on cartoons that were released theatrically. In many cases, TV episodes don't stand alone as well as theatrical shorts do. I love Phineas and Ferb a lot, for example, but the show follows such a strict formula that it's hard to select one episode as a stand-out. Other shows do individual episodes very well, but including them would completely altar the tone of this series. I could easily write about a dozen different Hey Arnold! or Gargoyles episodes, but those shows bear so little resemblance to what we think of as "animated shorts" that such a post would require far more set-up and explanation than I have planned for this series.

But today I'm going to make an exception. Kind of.

"Plastic Man in Puddle Trouble" was commissioned by Cartoon Network in 2006 and never aired on TV, so its status as a "TV episode" is debatable. It was released online later that year, where it became a big hit among the nerds.

Whether one considers it to be a TV show or not, one thing that's clear is that it's very much in the spirit of Looney Tunes, its corporate sibling. The animation is loose and free (a stark contrast from the stiff 1970s Ruby-Spears series), with Suriano wisely pitting his hero against a villain just as pliable as himself - water-based criminal The Human Puddle, created just for this cartoon. The visual gags make good use of Plastic Man's powers, and there are plenty of solid verbal jokes as well (particularly a punny montage of other foes Plastic Man has defeated).

The designs and storyboards were done by Stephen DeStefano, a long-time comics artist who drew one of my all-time favorite Captain Marvel stories, among many other wonderful things. He doesn't stray too far from the original Jack Cole design (below). Instead he keeps what had been working for decades, simply streamlining the design to allow for more fluid animation.

Plastic Man is voiced by Tom Kenny, best known by his alias Tom "Spongebob" Kenny. His version of the character was so well-received that he went on to reprise the role in several episodes of Cartoon Network's Batman: The Brave and the Bold.

Even more recently, the team behind this cartoon has reunited to make several more Plastic Man shorts for that same network's DC Nation block. I haven't seen those shorts yet (I'm really hoping a DVD release of all of the DC Nation cartoons so I don't have to click around online for them), but if they're as much fun as this cartoon, that's good news indeed.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "The Three Little Pups" (Tex Avery, 1953)

Animated Short of the Day is a series showcasing short cartoons from every possible genre, era, and format. For an archive of the films previously featured, click here. To suggest cartoons for future installments, leave a comment or contact me on Twitter.

Tex Avery directed only seventeen Droopy cartoons, but the series went through a number of variations during that brief time. The first few entries followed a formula in which the little sadsack outsmarts the howlin' wolf from Red Hot Riding Hood. Later cartoons paired Droopy (voiced by Bill Thompson, a familiar voice actor who played several recurring roles on radio's Fibber McGee and Molly) with Spike, a large scheming bruiser of a dog. 

With "Three Little Pups," Avery returned to using a wolf as an antagonist. But this clearly isn't the same wolf. Rather than a would-be ladies' man from the city, the wolf is now a simpleton from the South. Frank Graham's slick characterization is replaced by Daws Butler, using the same laid-back drawl he later employed as Huckleberry Hound.

In this cartoon, Avery introduced another changes to the series formula. First among them is the treatment of Droopy himself. Here he's joined by his two identical brothers Loopy and Snoopy. Droopy is recognizably the same character - he's clearly the smartest of the three - but he isn't quites as unflappable as in previous cartoons. While lecturing his brothers, he seems quite worried about the wolf's approach. His characterization would change even more in future cartoons, but this feels like the first step.

The level of comedy, however, is very much in line with the earlier cartoons. In the film's standout sequence, Droopy holds up a variety of items to hit the wolf as he bounces up and down. This is Avery working at the peak of his powers, offering one stellar gag after another.

A few other thoughts:

- The wolf's line "If this don’t work, I'll go into television!" offers a major signpost of the early 1950s. Many animators were moving to TV during this era, including Avery's old WB contemporary Bob Clampett, who was making the puppet show Time of Beany.
- Charles Schulz's Peanuts had begun three years earlier, but it was still a relatively-unsung comic strip. It's likely that Avery used the name "Snoopy" without being aware of Charlie Brown's dog. 

- The DVD version of this cartoon (and some others on the set) suffers from problems caused by a digital noise reduction process. Intended to clean up dirt on the image, it also erased parts of the animation itself, notably outlines. It can be quite off-putting, but I'd still recommend that DVD set. The cartoons are well worth owning.

 - One of the animators here was Michael Lah, who directed the  last seven (unmemorable) Droopy cartoons after Avery stepped down from the series.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Your Face" (Bill Plympton, 1987)

I imagine I'll feature Bill Plympton's works a number of times in this series, so I'll start out today with one of his best known. Plympton has had a varied and interesting career. In addition to his shorts, Plympton has directed five feature films, doing most or all of the animation by himself. He's also the only person so far to create music videos for both Kanye West and "Weird" Al Yankovic.

"Your Face" consists mostly of a single stationary shot of a man's face while he sings a lovely, haunting song (true fact: I convinced my wife to let me put it our wedding dance.) The song was written and sung by Maureen McElheron. The music was slowed down to sound like a man's voice, ostensibly because Plympton, by his own admission, "was too cheap to hire a male singer." He's selling himself and McElheron short, though. The effect gives the cartoon a bizarre quality that it wouldn't have with a more standard voice.

(For those interested, here's a version of the song sped up 40%. It isn't McElheron's original track, but it's a likely approximation of what it might have sounded like. Big thanks to Guillermo Gomez for modifying that track for me!)

Aside from the music, most of the delight of "Your Face" comes from watching Plympton experiment with all of the ways he can alter this image. For two and a half minutes, things happen to the face. It multiplies, stretches and squashes, it gets crushed, it gets turned inside out, and it's broken down into blocks. It's a three-minute class on animation techniques, and it's also hilarious.

Your Face - Bill Plympton [1987] from SlimGus on Vimeo.

One final note - I didn't mention this yesterday, but I'd really appreciate any suggestions for future shorts. Send me an email or contact me on Twitter.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Animated Short of the Day: "Old Mother Hubbard" (Ub Iwerks, 1935)

For the past few days, I've been posting one animated short per day on Facebook and Twitter. I decided it would be a better idea to post them here at the old blog for easier access. The goal of this project is simple - introduce people to animated shorts they might not have seen before. Some of them shorts featured will be well-known, others will be more obscure. There's about a trillion animated shorts online - shorts really are ideal for online viewing - and most people don't think to seek them out.

(Previously featured were the 1973 E.B. White adaptation "The Family That Dwelt Apart" directed by Yvon Mallette and Chuck Jones's hilarious Sherlock Holmes parody "Deduce, You Say" from 1956.)

Today's entry is "Old Mother Hubbard" made by Ub Iwerks in 1935.

Iwerks is best known for his collaborations with Walt Disney, especially his work on the Silly Symphonies series. He left the studio in 1930, feeling overworked and under-credited. (His grand-daughter Leslie has created an excellent documentary about his life and work entitled The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story. It's on the Disney Treasures: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit DVD, and also currently on Daily Motion in five parts.)

He would eventually return in 1940, but today we're going to look at something from his between-Disney years. During that time, he released the "ComiColor cartoons," which contained a bunch of these weird cartoons based on nursery rhymes. "Old Mother Hubbard" is one of my favorites. There's an old mother, and a dog, and a cupboard, but it mostly just uses the rhyme as a jumping off point for a bizarre story.

I especially like the sequence in the middle where the king sings about his poor health. Look at all that pain on his face!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Talking Pictures

As you may have noticed, I've updated this blog exactly once in the past 3 1/2 years. I've decided it's time to do something about that. I watch a lot of movies, so I'm going to try to write a short post on each of them, starting with the Seven Chances piece below. If nothing else, it will help me actually improve as a writer. I feel like I've stayed on pretty much the same level since high school.

We'll see how that goes.

Seven Chances (1925)

The IMDb trivia page for Buster Keaton's Seven Chances tells me that, "Keaton later called it his least favorite feature and tried to keep film historian Raymond Rohauer from restoring the only known copy of the movie." I cringed when I read that. I suppose he maybe felt that way because it was based on a play rather being an original idea, but he was being ridiculous - Seven Chances isn't perfect, but it made me laugh a whole lot. If it had been destroyed, it would have been a pretty terrible loss for comedy fans.

The plot is both ridiculous and overly familiar. Keaton's grandfather dies and leaves him $7 million in his will, provided Keaton is married by 7:00 PM on his 27th birthday - the same day, of course, that he receives the news. After a misunderstanding that makes him think his long-time sweetheart Mary (Ruth Dwyer) won't marry him, he frantically tries to find someone - anyone - who will marry him. Meanwhile, his business partner gets an article printed in the afternoon, which leads to the film's most famous image - dozens (hundreds?) of women chasing Keaton down the street, hoping to become his wife and get a piece of the fortune.

You don't get any points for figuring out how it ends. But the ending isn't really the point. The gags are, and most of them hit their marks, especially during the second and third acts. But before we get there, we have to watch Keaton's failed attempt to propose to Mary. It's a standard-issue misunderstanding of my least-favorite type ("the whole plot could have been avoided if people would just communicate with each other"), and it doesn't have many inventive comic bits to raise it above the level.

Things start to pick up once we reach the "seven chances" of the title, which are the seven girls at a country club that Keaton's business partner happens to know. Keaton proposes to all of them and then to every other woman he sees (including a young, brunette Jean Arthur!). This allows for every possible rejection gag Keaton can think, and it's marvelous. Particular standouts include a well-timed bit where he proposes to one girl on his way up the stairs and another on the way down, and an argument/near-proposal with a hatcheck girl (played by Rosalind Byrne in a performance so funny I made a point of looking up her name).

The final act - with the gold-diggers pursuing Keaton through the streets of town - manages to sustain that momentum. Keaton loved staging long chase sequences (see, for example, at least 70% of The General), and he always knew how to keep them from getting boring. In the case, he accomplishes that by switching focus midway through. To avoid the women, Keaton runs down a hill and finds himself dodging an avalanche of rocks instead. Mike D'Angelo of The AV Club discusses that sequence in more detail here, so I'll just say that I was genuinely terrified for Keaton's life and leave it at that.

Seven Chances is only the fourth Buster Keaton movie I've seen (after The General, Go West, and Sherlock Jr.), so I'm not going to pretend that I know where it falls among his larger body of work. But it's very funny, and definitely worth the 56 minutes you'll spend watching it.

Other thoughts:
  • The title is more or less irrelevant. He doesn't have seven chances - he has "number of women that happen to be in the area" chances.
  • I really liked the way the opening sequence tracks the passage of time - by showing how much Keaton's dog has grown since the last time he tried to profess his love to Mary.
  • In the "How did people think like that 87 years ago?!" department, there's a gag where Keaton walks up behind a woman, sees that she's black, and walks away without saying anything. It's not that I'm surprised by casual racism in a movie from the 1920s, but it's completely foreign to me that "Of course he can't propose to her! She has a different skin color than he does!" could constitute a funny joke.
  • As long as I'm documenting the movie's racism, Mary's mother also has a servant/employee that is clearly a white man in black face. It's . . . unpleasant.
  • The joke where Keaton accidentally proposes to a drag queen lands much, much more successfully.
  • For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, the chase sequence reminded me a lot of Monty Python's The Life of Brian. I guess it's the fact that Keaton can't marry all of these women any more than Brian could serve as a savior to all of his followers.
  • I'll probably be watching most of the Buster Keaton movies on Netflix Instant over the next few months (including College, The Navigator, Steamboat Bill Jr., and Our Hospitality.) I also might try to rewatch Sherlock Jr., which was the first silent movie I ever saw. I tape-recorded an early-morning airing on AMC in about 1999, and it blew my 9th-grade mind.
  • Man, remember those days, when AMC was commercial-free and showed things older than Twister?
  • I am a cranky old man.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Matthau/Lemmon Bowl

Last year, my wife and I established a new tradition of watching a bunch of movie comedies on Super Bowl Sunday, and this year we continued that tradition. Last year, it was just a hodgepodge of (all excellent) stuff from the 30s-40s, but this year we had a more coherent theme - 4 Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon movies, three of which I'd never seen before.

The Fortune Cookie was I had seen, and it's still great. One of Billy Wilder's most underrated movies. Walter Matthau won his only Oscar for it, which I think is all kinds of delightful. It's a very comedic performance - not at all typical Oscar bait, certainly not in the year that A Man For All Seasons won Best Picture - so it's nice that the Academy could recognize how stellar it is.

The Odd Couple is easily one of the weirdest experiences I've ever had watching a movie. I love the sitcom a lot - I own the first two seasons on DVD, and I've been meaning to buy the others - so it was strange to see the film after all these years. And on the same set as the first season of the TV show, I think. (Does anyone know if that's accurate? It sure looked the same to me.) That said, the character Lemmon's playing isn't quite the same one Tony Randall played. He's newly divorced, so he's a lot sadder and more conflicted. Still, not bad if you like Neil Simon. I do, most of the time. And it's always nice to see the Pigeon Sisters!

In a strange way, the movie The Odd Couple reminded me of most was Buffy the Vampire Slayer - I have an enormous amount of affection for the TV show, and I viewed it as something of a not-quite-in-continuity origin story.

Billy Wilder's The Front Page from 1974 isn't as good as Howard Hawks's His Girl Friday (based on the same play by Ben Hecht, but in a vacuum it's pretty terrific. It moves like lightning, the performances are all strong, and it has a wonderful period flavor. The update of the script mostly involved adding a lot of profanity, which was par for the course in 1974, I guess. I didn't think it was too distracting, in any case. My wife has never seen His Girl Friday, and she thought Front Page was "such a great movie," and I had to agree. I'd always dismissed it, but that was silly of me. It's definitely worth watching if you're a fan of either Hecht or Wilder.

Also, it features maybe the funniest epilogue text I've ever seen. Every single character's fate is revealed in a different, funny joke. And it has both Austin Pendleton and Charles Durning in it, five years before The Muppet Movie! You can't beat that!

Finally, the best word I can think of to describe Grumpy Old Men is "cute." It's probably the worst of these four, but I enjoyed it. It helped to watch it right after those others, because the age on Matthau & Lemmon's faces really jumped out at me. They're supposed to have a history going back decades, and I believed it more because I'd just watched them age 27 years in an afternoon. I've never seen any of the three movies they did together after this one, but I imagine that "It's Jack Lemmon & Walter Matthau together! But they're old!" was probably fun exactly once.

A nice touch for us Northerners: Lemmon's character has a "Legalize Lutefisk" magnet on his fridge.

One thing I noticed that all four of those movies have in common - they're billed pretty much equally, but Jack Lemmon is always the actual lead. His characters drive the story and show actual growth, while Matthau is always the colorful support. Even The Odd Couple is the story of Felix learning to be okay with his divorce. Oscar's growth consists entirely of learning to be okay with picking cigarette butts up off the carpet.

I'm not complaining - that Matthau character would get awfully tiresome in a lead role, whereas he's used very well in all four of these movies - but it seems like no one ever really talks about that dynamic between the two of them, so I thought it was worth noting.