Friday, July 10, 2009

"Elmer Elephant"

Elmer Elephant is a very effective but simple story. When the story begins, we see Elmer skipping along on his way to Tillie Tiger's birthday party. His timing is a bit off; he arrives just at the moment that Tillie has asked Joey Hippo to blow out the candles on her cake for her, and with his tremendous blow sends the entire frosting of the cake right onto the face of the newly-arrived Elmer.

It's fairly easy to see that Elmer is one of Tillie's favorites as she cleans off his face for him and then goes all gushy over his gift; a simple bouquet of flowers. Possibly it's a bit of jealousy from the other attendees (including one bear cub who bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain cartoon mouse) but when Tillie goes up to her jungle penthouse (to do what, we're not told) the other party goers decide to taunt Elmer about his trunk with a variety of disguises, including the ultimate insult of one monkey making a caricature of Elmer out of his rear end and tail!

Without Tillie to defend him. Elmer wanders off dejected, trying to find some way to disguise his trunk. But then he comes across Joe Giraffe, with an extremely long neck. He points out to Elmer that he's not the only animal in the jungle who might look a little silly, and points out a group of pelicans who give their best Jimmy Durante impression. Elmer begins to feel a little better, but suddenly there is an alarm! Somehow, Tillie's birthday party is going up in flames!

Elmer and Joe head off to the fire with the pelicans in tow to find that all the other party-goers have been able to do is run around like chickens panicking. There is some attempt to put out the blaze by a monkey fire-brigade, but the personified flames make quick work of the fire-ladder, as they do a makeshift trampoline the other animals try to use to get Tillie down from her penthouse. The pelicans are able to bring water because of the size of their beaks; Elmer, standing atop Joe Giraffe's head has the proper height to shoot out the flames with water from his trunk. Because of their physical peculiarities, Elmer, Joe and the pelicans are able to put out the fire, rescue Tillie from her precarious perch and save the day!

Elmer Elephant was well-received by the public and some Disney artists felt that it was an important step towards the pathos that would give features such as "Dumbo" it's charm. It was a remarkable step for Disney as Elmer was able to convey a variety of emotions, even though he had not a single line of dialogue in the entire short. It was also unusual for a Silly Symphony as it retreated from the standard form of using the music in the forefront. Although it does have a couple of musical numbers, the story takes center stage. Some, however, felt that the pathos wasn't enough and it had a sense of emptiness at it's core.

One who was disappointed with the way it came out was the original storywriter, Bianca Majolie. Majolie was an anomaly at Disney; a woman in the male dominated story department. Walt approved the first idea she submitted - an original story entitled "The Romance of Baby Elephant" which went into production in mid-1935. However, as it went through the story department, more slapstick ideas were added to the original charming story. It was the brutal aspects of the slapstick that Marjolie objected to but, being the "new kid in town", her objections went unheard.

Most of her ideas for characters and narrative were retained, however, including the moral in her words "that usefulness is more important than beauty ... that things that are not decorative may be extremely useful and should be cherished for that reason."

Friday, June 26, 2009

Rage Against the Machine

Well, I'm not sure who to be ticked off at ... the Rhode Island legislature or Amazon.

The RI Legislature currently has a bill pending that would require any internet sales made in Rhode Island to be subject to Rhode Island state tax. This at a time when the legislature is just about to adjourn for the summer and bills tend to gets passed in a flurry of votes often without being read. Thus is the way of Rhode Island politics; if you want to get a controversial bill passed, submit it in June when most representatives are so anxious to go home they won't even read the darn thing and more often then not will just pass them to clear their desks.

I received an e-mail from this morning that says that if this bill passes they will have no choice but to sever ties with any affiliates in Rhode Island.

I don't make a whole lot between Amazon links and Google ads, but it does at least cover the cost of the server space and allows me to justify the sometimes inordinate amount of time I spend working on this site. But if Amazon pulls out I'll lose that justification (and being unemployed right now, I need a LOT of justification) and may have to pull down the site altogether. Or at very least let it stagnate until my server rental agreement is up

So, I'm a little ticked right now, but not exactly sure who to be ticked at.

More as the story develops.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


I will be taking a short three week break from working on the site. To the chagrin of the female population out there (or maybe the relief!) I have found the love of my life and will be getting married next Saturday and then off for a two week honeymoon.

By all accounts Walt Disney himself had a happy marriage. But in another of those Disney ironies, he rarely allowed his characters to have one. Enough has been written and theorized about the prevelance of one-parent families in Disney features, but they were more often than not a product of the original stories Walt was working with. There is an ongoing controversy as to whether Mickey and Minnie were married. Disney says yes, they were. Quite a few of his animators preferred to think they were not. Disney's view, as always, takes the upper hand. But in the shorts, at least, they were always seen courting and never as husband and wife.

Except in their dreams and unfortunately, dreams didn't always work out exactly as they wished. In the 1932 short "Mickey's Nightmare" Mickey dreams that he is finally getting married to Minnie. And the marriage itself seems to be okay ... until the kids start showing up. Disney seems to delight in the destructive ability of small kids in large numbers and this group is no exception. They tear apart the house using Pluto an a draught horse and tying Mickey to the floor so they can continue his wave of destruction.

Is Disney commenting on marriage or on ill behaved kids? The kids show up in a few other shorts as orphans and are just as bratty and uncontrollable. Marriage itself has little to do with it. One of my contributors wrote:

"It's interesting that this cartoon depicts marriage from Mickey's point of view and not Minnie's. In other words, we see the man's perspective and not the woman's. The storks delivering babies are used to symbolize that they are having kids. We don't see anything like Mickey and Minnie actually having kids the normal way. ... It's almost like Mickey blames Minnie for all these kids that the storks are delivering. It's not his fault that all these kids arrive; it's Minnie's fault. The idea that somehow Minnie is to blame is suggested by the scene where Mickey comes into the house and sees Minnie sitting at a huge table with all those kids. It's like Mickey has had nothing to do with it. I know that this cartoon wasn't meant as serious social commentary; it's just something I picked up on when I saw it for the first time."

Donald Duck's dream marriage doesn't fare any better. In the 1954 short "Donald's Diary" he dreams of what marriage to Daisy would be like and his dreams take a dramatic turn. Far from being the pleasant, happy "Ozzie and Harriet" type of life, he finds himself stuck with household chores, facing Daisy without her makeup, and all the other things that actualy make a well-functioning couple work together well. Did Donald expect his life to be the same? Donald usually has unrealistic expectations of things, but in this case just normal married life appears to him as such torture that he prefers the rigors of the French Foreign Legion to marriage.

That same commentator wrote:

"As a woman, I find it kind of funny that both of these cartoons portray marriage from the man's point of view, not from the woman's. There's a scene where Donald tries to sneak out of the house and Daisy grabs him by the neck and puts him in the stocks so he will do the dishes. He goes to read his paper and she takes his chair and tells him to take out the garbage. I don't know of any man alive who enjoys taking out the garbage. It's very interesting that Donald's experience of a bad marriage with Daisy involves being forced to do the housework like a slave. Who was the one who traditionally did all the housework? The wife, of course. When the man has to do the work he doesn't like it. He feels like he's being treated like a slave. But it's perfectly okay for him to expect his wife to do it. After all, housework is woman's work, isn't it? Yeah, I'm being sarcastic. This cartoon illustrates the classic double standard. Men were expected to go to work and women were expected to do housework and take care of the kids. There was a distinct division of labor."

So, unfairly or not, marriage takes a big hit in the Disney cartoon world. Should this serve as a warning for anyone (like myself) ready to put on the bonds of matrimony? Of course not, in the same way that Goofy's cartoons shouldn't be seen as instruction manuals. But it does go to show a lot of prevailing male additudes towards marriage and that things hadn't changed much from the 30's to the 50's.

Friday, May 8, 2009

"The Golden Touch"

There is a fairly bizarre backstory to the 1935 short "The Golden Touch."

Walt Disney thought his animators had lost it. They didn't know how to tell a coherent story and they didn't know how to bring his ideas to the screen. Disney hadn't personally directed a short since 1929 but he decided to take his two best animators, Fred Moore and Norm Ferguson and, by George, he was going to show him how it was done.

Their project was an adaptation of the old tale of King Midas, who loved gold so much that he is granted his wish that everything he touches would turn to gold. As delighted as he is at first, the tale takes a tragic turn when he finds that he can no longer eat since his food turns to gold; he is robbed of affection since he tries to pet his cat and it turns to gold. (In another version of the story, it is Midas's daughter that is turned into gold; perhaps a too horrible scene for the Disney artists to consider.) Eventually, he learns his lesson and the touch is removed from him, leaving him penniless, but at least now able to enjoy the pleasures of a simple hamburger "with onions!"

Despite Disney's belief that he was going to show his staff how to produce a quality cartoon, the short was a dismal failure, both at the box-office and among the Disney staff as well. There were many theories floated as to why it failed to succeed. For some, the characters themselves weren't defined well enough. The character of Midas isn't given any background upon which to contrast his sudden love of gold. There are no other characters to play him off against and he comes off as almost completely unsympathetic. (Watch the short ... there seems to be no other citizens of his entire kingdom ... except the cat.) Goldie, the magical creature who gives him his magical gift is also given no raison d'etre for showing up, although I suppose the same could be said of the Blue Fairy from Pinnochio. In all, the audience isn't given much of a reason to care about Midas, either one way or the other. We no more rejoice when he's given his golden touch, nor feel any real relief when it's taken back from him.

So, in the long run, this was one of Disney's few artistic failures; a minor blip in an otherwise stellar career. But it grated at him,and his staff knew it. It was said that after this, the best way to get Disney's goat was to mention "The Golden Touch."

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Out of Scale"

It's been reported at times that Walt Disney had a lifelong fascination with railroading. This is probably not true; even though Disney used the rails as his usual method of continental transporaton in the early years, it was most likely because trains were the only realistic means of coast-to-coast transportation rather than Disney's passion or preference. Railroading doesn't even show up as a major theme in Disney's short cartoons until Mickey goes on vacation in the 1940 short "Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip" and then later in 1950's "The Brave Engineer." If anything, Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball were the real train buffs in the Disney studio.

Regardless, sometime in the 50's, Disney found a real passion in railroading, one of his many passing fancies, going so far as to built a small scale railroad in his backyard which he can be seen riding and showing off to friends in some photographs of the era. This backyard railroad is obviously the inpsiration for the 1953 short "Out of Scale."

Donald has his own backyard train set and is anal about measuring everything, making sure everthing matches the scale he has setup. When the tree that Chip 'n' Dale live in proves to be too big, he finds he has to get rid of it, leaving the two chipmunks to find other living arrangements. Luckily, the village that Donald has set up as part of his train set proves to be exactly the right size for them. Or, to Donald's view, that they are the right size for it.

For a while things go swimmingly, Donald even providing food for them thinking they're such a cute addition to the village. But, he just can't resist having a bit of fun, using heat lamps to simulate summer and soap flakes to simulate winter. Eventually Chip 'n' Dale get tired of this and decide to head back to their old digs, hijacking Donald's train in the process with their old tree as cargo. Happily, the two decide that it's a giant sequoia, showing that it fits to scale in Donald's world anyway. The ending irony is that the only thing that is out of scale in Donald's world is Donald himself.

I like this short for a few different reason. Many visitors who have been reading here for a while know that I don't really care for Donald Duck too much. But it's nice to see shorts (like this, and the later short with Spike the Bee "Let's Stick Together") where Donald's antagonists didn't so much get the upper hand, but were able to come to a mutually beneficial solution to their problems.

Monday, March 30, 2009

She Blinded Me ... WITH SCIENCE!

First of all, I should apologize for not having updated in quite a while. School work and the redesign of the site as part of my classwork has kept me pretty busy lately. Everytime I think I've got the site nailed down with a new interface and look, I find something else that I want to do with it. But I think I've got the new deisgn pretty well finished and hopefully I can soon start the laborious prospect of changing the entire site over to the new style. It's a big project because I'd like to finish up the project of making sure that every short that is available on DVD has screenshots shown for them and that takes some time to do.

Isn't technology wonderful?

I was thinking about that during a visit to the Boston Museum of Science last week; the way science has enriched our lives and made them easier (in some ways ... in some ways much more complex.) Walt Disney himself embraced technology and was always looking for new ways to do things, even going so far as to invent the multiplane camera to give his films a three dimensional aspect. Ub Iwerks was also instrumental in perfecting a number of cinematic processes for Disney animation and live-action throughout the years.

But it's also one of the ironies of Disney that while he embraced technology, his characters always seemed to have a difficult time with it. In "Mickey's Mechanical Man" Mickey builds a boxing robot which goes completely haywire and refuses to work unless a car horn is played nearby. Goofy's "One-Man-Band" in "Mickey's Amateurs" gets the better of him as he's unable to control it. And much later in the MouseWorks shorts "Mickey's New Car" and "Mickey's Mechanical House" Mickey is presented with a new version of his old car and house which he is unable to deal with and in the end returns to his older, more "organic" versions.

But during my "Museum of Science" tour I was reminded of Donald Duck's tour of the Museum of Modern Marvels in "Modern Inventions." Here is well-intentioned science gone amuck. Donald is bested at every turn by contraptions that, well, you can't exactly say that they perform badly or go haywire. But their performance seems to take over Donald's life rather than enhance it.

The flip side of this is presented by another studio, Fleischer Studio's 1938 short "All's Fair at the Fair." Inspired by the 1933 Chicago World's Fair otherwise known as the "Century of Progress International Exposition" it showed Elmer and Mirandy, two country folk, being impressed by technology that worked well enough to get them ready for a big dance. It's a charming film, and it's sad that Disney, while in real life pursuing technological advances, never let his characters enjoy the benefits of science. But in a larger sense, that's probably what made them more organic and down to earth.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Symphony Hour" (1942)

I keep meaning to post about "Symphony Hour" but for some reason never got around to it. I should have, because it's probably the second best short that Disney ever did. (Did I give it #2 in my 10 best list? I can't recall.) It returns to a familiar theme that Disney seemed to mirror in his own life; the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. What philosophers like to call the reconcilliation of opposites. In Hegelian Dialectic; thesis and antithesis finding it's resolution in synthesis.

Too deep? Yeah, possibly. But we'll get back to that.

Here Mickey, as in "The Band Concert" is the leader of his band of musicians. But in this case, instead of being a neighborhood band, it's a full symphony orchestra. And instead of Donald Duck being the rascally antagonist, here he's a full fledged member of the band as the percussionist. Pete makes an appearance, out of character, as Sylvester Macaroni; patron of the arts and the big money behind Mickey and his orchestra's big debut.

The rehearsal goes well but as one might expect, nothing in a Disney cartoon can go well for long. (There are notable exceptions to this in a few of the Silly Symphonies.) Goofy is in charge of making sure the instruments get to the stage on time and having missed the elevator they all go plummeting to the bottom of the elevator shaft and are promptly squashed.

What happens next is worthy of Spike Jones, although Jones (as far as I know) had nothing to contribute to this short. The orchestra valiantly plays on with their damaged instruments giving the orchestral music more of a jazz feeling than the lush classicism of the original. Jones once said that one of the more difficult things about his music was that you couldn't just use any car horn, it had to be a certain note of car horn or else it woudn't have fit with the music. Here, the spotlight is more on the Disney musicians who make every misplaced note sound like it was written that way.

One of the most surprising parts of the short, though, shows Mickey playing completely out of character (as least for what I feel Disney himself had in mind for him.) Donald, completely disgusted with the way the music is being played and his own difficulties in getting his instruments to work, packs up and tries to leave. Mickey heads him off at the pass and actually pulls a gun on him forcing him back to work. It's a great surprise and one that works well, especially considering the bland non-entity that Mickey would soon become. It makes one wonder what might have happened if the artists had been allowed a little more freedom to develop Mickey's personality in this way.

(It's also amusing to note that the way the music is being played that makes Donald want to leave is exactly what he would have wanted to hear it back in "The Band Concert.")

The sacred and the profane. Classical and jazz. Pete is distraught in his listening box seeing his reputation as a patron of the arts, and the money for his newest find slip out of his grasp. But he's instantly cheered when he hears the cheers of the audience. And here is where we see the reconcilliation of opposites that I alluded to earlier. Where both classical and jazz could co-exist in the same sphere; a theme that finds it's purest and most obvious revelation in the 1935 Silly Symphony "Music Land." But also in the ending of "Fantasia" where the demonic "Night on Bald Mountain" is paired with the sacredness of "Ave Maria." And to a lesser extent in the anthology films of the 1940's where classical pieces like "Peter and the Wolf" were paired with pieces by Benny Goodman.

Lastly, one aspect that rarely gets mentioned when talking about cartoons is the editing. Watch the editing in the opening sequences as the orchestra is playing and the camera shifts from instrument to instrument. The sequence begins with a reflection of Mickey in one of the brass instruments, goes from player to player, finally revealing Mickey on his podium. The editing glides from one scene to the next as the music flows; contrast this with the ending where the music is more chaotic and the editing is sharper and less liquid. It's a wonderful sequence and really shows what good editing and scene planning can do for the effect of a short.