Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Evaluating Disney: 1947

Walt Disney was at a low point this year. In a funk, he seemed to all outward appearances to no longer care. It seemed he had no direction in mind. After the bad reception of Song of the South and the continuing inability to make another animated feature like Snow White, he wasn't sure what to do next. He knew he wanted to regain the critical acceptance he'd had in the 1930s, but didn't know how to get it. Perhaps he just didn't know what people wanted to see anymore. He'd won a lot of Oscars over the years, especially special and technical Oscars, but they didn't translate into public interest.

Although this lack of confidence and lack of enthusiasm was manifesting itself, the basic sentiment was nothing new. Strained from overwork, Walt had actually had a nervous breakdown at the end of 1931. But he'd gotten better and the short films had soared. Mickey Mouse was so overwhelmingly successful that Walt felt confident enough to take the gamble on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and it had paid off tremendously. But the failures of Fantasia and Pinocchio, projects so close to his heart, had ground him down. In 1941, Walt had told his family that he planned to retire by the end of the year and hand over the company to a successor. That never happened, mostly because he felt it was important to steer the studio through the years of war films. By the end of the war, the European markets could be regained, and Walt was excited about the promise of combination features and new avenues. But after Song of the South, Walt became disenchanted by the cost, and the audience's constant rejection just hurt too much. It seems strange to consider now that Fantasia, Pinoochio, and Bambi were box office failures, but they were.

Walt had, perhaps, doomed himself to failure by spending so much money on projects. Even the shorts were expensive, over three times more expensive than what other studios were spending. Though the Walt Disney Studios had begun releasing films in 1928, none of those films turned a profit for Disney until 1933's Three Little Pigs. Disney had made all of his money on merchandising and publishing. And now here he was, with so many film ideas fallen by the wayside, and the rights to other stories--Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Sword in the Stone, and a Ward Greene story about a mutt and a cocker spaniel; plus, he was negotiating with P.L. Travers over the film rights to Mary Poppins as well as attempting to develop the Felix Salten novel The Hound of Florence as a live action feature--with no idea how to proceed with any of them. Things were grim. Things were so grim that, to recover losses and continute to operate, Walt and his brother Roy briefly considered merging with their distributor, RKO.

Incidentally, Walt had stepped down as president of Walt Disney Productions in 1945; Roy had replaced him. Walt was becoming more and more distant from his company, and especially the people who worked for him. He would never get over the strike. When people began seeing communists everywhere, Walt equated that with the labor strike and some of the people involved, perhaps particularly Art Babbitt. Babbitt had been one of the leaders of the walkout, and immediately after the strike ended, Walt fired Babbitt, who went to work elsewhere. Perhaps as an act of defiance, Babbitt reapplied to work at the studio in late 1945. Walt refused to rehire him, even though the National Labor Relations Board ordered him to. The case went before the Supreme Court and Babbitt won; he then quit the studio a month later, and Walt ordered his credits removed from the films he'd worked on. Disney was already distrustful in 1944 when he had co-founded the Motion Picture Alliance for the Promotion of American Ideals and become their vice president. That same year, Walt himself had written to Senator Robert R. Reynolds and urged him to increase the presence and involvement of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood. In 1947, Walt was one of 39 people subpeonaed to testify before HUAC about the supposed communist influence in Hollywood; he gladly did what he considered his patriotic duty.

That was the only government involvement Walt had this year; there were no more government films, no more commercial films, and nothing left for Inter-American Affairs. For the most part, the shorts continued on with little to no involvement from the man himself. The cartoons released this year could, if one were being uncharitable, be seen mainly as attempted moneymakers for the studio while Walt tried to gain a new sense of direction.

2/12: Pluto's House Warming
Pluto. That cute little turtle from Canine Patrol is back, and that's really the highlight here. Pluto gets a wonderful new dog house (on the beach), but the turtle tries to take it over. Then Butch comes along and kicks out Pluto, so the turtle saves him. It's the same plot of most of the Pluto cartoons--Pluto gets in a fight with a cute little animal, then the animal saves him and they become friends--and it's starting to wear. But this one is exceptionally cute, with some good character animation (Butch in repose was hysterical).

3/21: Rescue Dog
Pluto. There's that cute animal formula again. This time the animal is Salty the Seal and Pluto is a rescue dog in Alaska or something. There is some genuinely anxious stuff when Pluto nearly drowns, but otherwise, it's merely workmanlike.

4/18: Straight Shooters
Donald Duck. Jack King directed this short, one of the better with Donald for the year. The Donald Duck cartoons, in my opinion, never really recovered from Carl Barks leaving the story team and heading into the Disney comic books. In this short, Donald is a carny who cheats his nephews, so they take revenge. There's a weird, kind of icky sequence where the nephews disguise themselves as a woman to cheat a lustful Donald out of some candy. Straight shooters indeed. Still a pretty funny cartoon. Also, the Donald Duck cartoons now have an actual theme song.

5/9: Sleepy Time Donald
Donald Duck. Another Jack King. Donald sleepwalks over to Daisy's house, and since she's fearful of waking him, they go out on a late night date. There's a hilarious sequence in the zoo; Donald tries to give Daisy a ring, but it lands on the finger of a flattered chimpanzee. At this point, it really seems like the Donald Duck cartoons especially are showing some influence from the growing success of Warner's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies series. I can't find anything saying that there was, but the cartoons with Donald seem to show it.

5/30: Figaro and Frankie
Figaro. And this cartoon, actually, is a bit like a Looney Tunes short. Figaro wants to eat Minnie's bird Frankie, a canary (great design), and the bird flies away. After some torment, Figaro saves Frankie from Butch. It's cute, but Figaro isn't quite interesting enough to sustain a series. He didn't appear in a ton of shorts; as for his series, this is the last of three cartoons.

6/20: Clown of the Jungle
Donald Duck. When I first saw this short (which is actually quite hilarious), my first thought was that Jack Hannah had seen Porky in Wackyland. The Aracuan bird is an excellent foil for the easily-frustrated Donald, just as the DoDo was for Porky Pig. The Aracuan is another Three Caballeros character who--much like Jose Carioca and Panchito Pisolero--I would've liked to see return more often. Few of the Donald Duck cartoons were this wild and this full of energy. Too bad. I have noticed, by the way, that the animators are giving Donald more foils now, such as the Aracuan or other animals or the Bootle Beetle or, later this year, Chip an' Dale. Pinto Colvig does the Aracuan's catchy little song.

7/11: Donald's Dilemma
Donald Duck. Really, it's Daisy's dilemma that makes up this dark short. Donald gets hit in the head with a flower pot, resulting in his voice suddenly becoming beautiful. He dumps Daisy and becomes a singing star (singing "When You Wish Upon a Star," funnily enough), and Daisy pines to get him back, finally injuring him again so he'll go back to normal. It's not really a surprise to see Daisy acting selfishly and meanly. Daisy's voice is oddly creepy.

8/1: Crazy with the Heat
Donald and Goofy. I remember this from when I was a kid. I thought it was funnier then. Donald and Goofy are driving in the desert when their car breaks down. They hallucinate a soda shoppe and a mad Arab who tries to kill them. It just seems kind of familiar and weirdly arbitrary. There's nothing invested in this cartoon.

8/22: Bootle Beetle
Donald Duck. A rare traveling beetle tells a younger friend to beware the bug collector. Then we see Donald trying to catch the Bootle Beetle as a youngster. It's a cute cartoon; I like the ending especially, with an elderly Donald still trying to catch the beetle. Art Babbitt worked on this cartoon. I'm not sure where, but the older beetle especially reminds me of his work.

9/12: Wide Open Spaces
Donald Duck. This is one of the funnier cartoons of the year, with Donald attempting to find a place to sleep in the woods. Of course, given Donald's history with making things work, it's obvious how it'll go. I find it interesting that, at some point in the last few years, the general setting of the shorts has become less rural. I see the city and the wilderness more often. There's some great gags in here involving Donald's blow-up mattress.

This year's feature was not only a package, but a package basically cobbled together from some leftover parts. Some of it seems to consciously try and recall earlier Disney efforts in a weird attempt to ingratiate itself with the audience. For example, the film opens with Jiminy Cricket singing the title song, "Fun and Fancy Free," which was originally written (with the title "I'm a Happy-Go-Lucky Fellow") for Pinocchio. Jiminy hosts the film, introducing the first half, Bongo.

Bongo was originally pushed by Walt as a feature idea. Based on a 1930 story by Sinclair Lewis, he saw the story of a circus bear as a natural successor to Dumbo, perhaps even featuring some of the same characters. Joe Grant and Dick Huemer, the same story men who had, ironically, practically forced Dumbo on Walt, refused to work on Bongo. They felt it was simply too slight, too shallow to work as a feature. The story was about a circus bear who escapes from the train, then meets a girl bear and falls in love, and fights a massive wild bear for her paw. The story department came up with other characters, including Chimpy, Bongo's valet, who didn't make it into the film. Jack Kinney stopped directing Goofy cartoons and was assigned to Bongo, which seems an odd choice until you see it. It's basically a short padded like mad. Dinah Shore narrates Bongo, which certainly helps, because her voice, speaking or singing, is just heavenly. In fact, it's kind of easy to get lost in her voice and kind of ignore the cartoon. It's cute, but it's far too long for the little bit of material it really is. A seven-minute short would be one thing. At a half hour, it's pushing things. But there are some good animation flourishes, and Bongo has a nice design.

After Bongo, Jiminy head across the street to mingle with live action, at a party with Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. The little girl at the party is Luana Patten, the little girl from Song of the South (she would also appear in Disney's So Dear to My Heart with her South co-star Bobby Driscoll; Walt was building himself a repertory company). Personally, I don't much care for Edgar Bergen, and that casts a bit of a pall over the second half of the film.

Edgar tells the children the story of Mickey and the Beanstalk, which is actually all of the completed animation for The Legend of Happy Valley, the Mickey/Donald/Goofy movie that was begun in 1940 and shelved in 1941. Based on what's offered here, it would've been much nicer to see the finished movie. There are some great animated sequences, like the growth of the beanstalk and Goofy getting caught on a giant plate of Jell-O, real tours-de-force that show the animators at an artful high. Billy Gilbert, who had done the voice of Sneezy in Snow White, plays Willie the Giant. And the golden harp sure looks like a Fred Moore girl to me. There was a sequence storyboarded featuring Minnie Mouse, but it was never animated. The voices were recorded in 1940, so Walt Disney once again does the voice of Mickey.

What really mars Mickey and the Beanstalk for me, though, is the narration. It's just intrusive, and the "humor" of Charlie McCarthy's snide remarks detracts from the overall experience. On television, the narration was replaced with narration by Professor Ludwig Von Drake; on video, that was replaced by Sterling Holloway. I'd have loved for it to not have any, except in the very beginning. It's one of many losses that this film was never finished.

Overall, Fun and Fancy Free is an odd picture, pairing Jiminy Cricket, combination work, an unfinished feature, and a short that doesn't quite come off. It seems bizarre to put them all together, and the end result is pleasant but not a great achievement.

Animation Credits:
Production supervisor: Ben Sharpsteen
Director: William Morgan
Animation directors: Jack Kinney, Bill Roberts, Hamilton Luske
Directing animators: Ward Kimball, Les Clark, John Lounsbery, Fred Moore, Wolfgang Reitherman
Animators: Hugh Fraser, Phil Duncan, Judge Whitaker, Art Babbitt, John Sibley, Marc Davis, Harvey Toombs, Hal King, Ken O’Brien, Jack Campbell

10/3: Mickey's Delayed Date
Mickey Mouse. This is another Mickey short that's really a de facto Pluto cartoon, with Mickey rushing to get dressed for a date with Minnie and Pluto trying to help him. It's alright, but no great shakes. I still don't like the new Mickey Mouse voice. Also, Mickey seems to have been redesigned into something more angular and kind of flat. I wonder if there's a UPA influence here? Minnie Mouse never seemed to be a popular character, either, and Mickey and Minnie would not share the screen together again until 1983. This cartoon contains a sequence that heavily recalls the Silly Symphony (which won an Oscar) The Country Cousin; it seems to almost be copied from it.

10/31: Foul Hunting
Goofy. This is, surprisingly, not a "How To" short, and Goofy is the same Goofy he used to be. It's refreshing to see him again, as he really is a lovable character. In this short, directed by Jack Hannah, he goes duck hunting only to be outsmarted at every turn. There's a great ending, too. This is one of the shorts this year that literally made me laugh out loud.

11/14: Mail Dog
Pluto. Again, Pluto (as a mail carrier in the Arctic) gets pissed off at something small and cute (Flutter Foot the Rabbit), but they wind up friends after a chase. It's getting old.

11/28: Chip an' Dale
Donald Duck. You know, when I was a kid, I couldn't stand Chip an' Dale. They were cruel, mean, and annoying. Now, after making my way to 1947 and seeing every Disney short, they're actually quite refreshing. They're not only a great foil for Donald, they also have actual personalities. They're bratty, fun, and quite like how Mickey and Donald used to be. For my money, this Oscar-winning cartoon is Disney's best in 1947.

12/26: Pluto's Blue Note
Pluto. This is probably one of my favorite Pluto cartoons. It's uncharacteristic of the hound; like in Springtime for Pluto, he just wants to frolic with the animals instead of hurting them. His "singing" voice is so bad, however, that no one wants to let him join in. He ends up using a record player to pretend to sing "You Belong to My Heart" (a song from The Three Caballeros), and all the female dogs (including Minnie's Pomeranian Fifi and Dinah the Dachsund) go crazy for it. Great character animation on Pluto in this short.

Although it doesn't relate directly to the animation, it is worth pointing out that in December, Carl Barks did the story "Christmas on Bear Mountain" for Donald Duck Comics, which was the first appearance of one of Disney's most beloved characters (with a huge following), Uncle Scrooge McDuck.

1947 was not a terrific year in terms of quality or finance; in the next year, Walt Disney Productions would begin losing money. But there were a few developments which would eventually cause fortunes to turn around. In the first place, Walt had visited Alaska with an eye to making a documentary. And in the second, the animators had decided that it was time to take a gamble on finally making another full-length animated feature. Picking up some ideas that had been kicking around the studio for some time, experimental storyboarding had begun on Cinderella.


MC said...

To me, the Warner bros. Pussyfoot cartoons are the definitive little voiceless black cat cartoons.

SamuraiFrog said...

Good call; fewer people seem to remember those, but they're hilarious.