Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky wonders when Disney plans to release "The Story of Menstruation" on DVD.
"These were desperate times, especially for a mouse, for we were a downtrodden race."—Amos (Sterling Halloway), "Ben and Me" (1953)
Walt Disney used to say that "it all started with a mouse." He lied. It all started with a four-year-old girl. Her name was Virginia Davis, and she played Alice (along with several other little girls) in 56 cartoons. Walt borrowed the idea from Max Fleischer and Winsor McCay: treat animation as a fantasy world that intersects with reality.
The cartoons earned him enough scratch to start his own studio, and Walt settled in to a long and fruitful career. But Walt never forgot those adventurous, experimental days. And sometimes, he would wander down where his short cartoons were made, gather his storytellers and artists around, and say, "Boys, I have an idea…"
I want to begin with a cartoon that almost goes unnoticed on this latest entry in the Walt Disney Treasures series. Most of the promotional material for this disc highlights the silent Alice cartoons, Walt's biggest hit machine prior to the creation of that ubiquitous mouse. Other viewers might notice the experimental shorts that appear on Disc Two, like the stop motion "Noah's Ark" or the mockumentary cartoons. But the piece that stands out to me the most, the one that makes Disney Rarities worth the purchase price, is "In the Bag."
I loved—no, I relished this cartoon as a kid. Knowing it was in this set made me salivate. The first time I showed it to my daughter a few days ago, she demanded three straight showings (and wanted more), falling down in hysterics at what she called "the butt dance."
"In the Bag" was the second of only two cartoons starring Humphrey the Bear, who also met up with Donald Duck in that star's own series. It was one of Disney's few forays into Cinemascope for short cartoons. Its premise is endearingly simple: Ranger Woodlore is so disgusted by the trash tourists are leaving in his park that he tries to dupe the bear population into cleaning it up for him. That's it. But those bears…They are blessed with sublimely dim expressions, their tongues always dangling hungrily. They grunt and fuss and behave like no other animals in the Disney menagerie. They are stupid. So stupid as to transcend all sensibility and cross into utter hilarity. Ranger Woodlore taps out a jazz number ("First you stick a rag/Put it in the bag BOMP BOMP"), and the bears cut a rug, slapping their butts together as they clean the trash. The song sticks in your head for years. Your last thoughts when you die will be that song. And you will chuckle your final breath away.
But "In the Bag" (and Humphrey's other solo effort, "Hooked Bear") are only two cartoons on this wide-ranging, two-disc collection. Unlike the "complete so-and-so" sets, the selections on a set like Disney Rarities will be, by their nature, subjective. What constitutes a "rarity"? The Alice shorts genuinely are rare—I've never seen more than a few seconds from them prior to this disc. But the criterion for the rest of the disc seems to be that the cartoons are one-shots that didn't fit into any series like the Silly Symphonies. That being said, there are still a few notable "rarities" that did not make it here (will we ever see "The Story of Menstruation" on DVD, Leonard Maltin?), and a couple of cartoons (the Humphrey the Bear or the "Adventures in Music" shorts) that are not strictly one-shots.
In a way, the program tells us much about the evolution of short cartoons at the Disney studio. There were 56 Alice shorts, which is a remarkable number for a solo character (even Mickey was often second-fiddle to other characters in his allegedly solo efforts). The early years of Disney in Hollywood saw the domination of franchise characters and marketable series (the Silly Symphonies) that enclosed experimentation within technological necessity (that is, Walt allowed experiments in the Symphonies when he could parlay their technical innovations, like Technicolor or the multiplane camera, into another area).
Disney Rarities begins (after Leonard Maltin's obligatory introduction) with seven Alice shorts. Without his trademark uncle mustache, Walt almost looks like a boy himself in the first cartoon, "Alice's Wonderland" (1923). And he positions himself as the lead animator here. Sure, Walt could draw well, but not fast enough to keep up with the two-to-three week turnaround time the animators needed to crank out an Alice short. This first short was made in Kansas City, and that rural, unpolished aspect (animators working out of what looks like a spare room in someone's back office) is miles away from the bustling Hollywood magic factory we will see later in The Reluctant Dragon (included in an earlier Walt Disney Treasures release, Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio).
Stylistically, the animation is flat and simple, lacking the "squash and stretch" later so closely associated with the Disney house style. The best thing about these cartoons is the precocious Alice, who is a natural ham. Where Fleischer's cartoons always had a naughty sense of humor (even before Betty Boop), Walt's sentimentalism dominates his work. It is surprising how asea Walt would later be with the real Alice in Wonderland, when here he clearly so loves throwing this little girl into crazy situations and watching her react. Alice even overwhelms the animation (which you would think would be the center of attention).
The Alice cartoons are surprisingly long, though full of invention. The pilot, "Alice's Wonderland" runs twelve and a half minutes (the standard short cartoon in later years would run about eight minutes). In "Alice's Wild West Show" (1924), Alice plays storyteller for a bunch of local little rascals. Over the course of four years, Alice (played by several actresses after Virginia Davis left) got into so many adventures that creative strain began to show. According to Maltin in Of Mice and Magic (which is more informative than his DVD introductions), the pace of turning out these shorts left little room for the animators to experiment or refine their craft.
Arguably, Walt never forgot this lesson. In later years, he would leave the door open for his artists to stretch creatively in between the steady output of conventional, marketable characters like Mickey and Donald. But even the one-shots followed certain formula plots at times. For example, there was the plucky outsider who calls attention to some human foible with his endearing oddness. In "Ferdinand the Bull" (1938), we meet a soft-hearted bovine who likes "to smell the flowers" instead of engaging in manly bullfighting, which may be some sort of euphemism if you are inclined to read that sort of thing into Disney cartoons. Other oddball characters include "Morris the Midget Moose" (1950) and "Lambert the Sheepish Lion" (1952). You can guess what these are about. Even as late as 1960, the outsider tale was still a fixture. "Goliath II" features an undersized elephant, although viewers will more likely be surprised at how similar the cartoon's art design is to The Jungle Book six years later—some of the animation even looks like it was recycled for that later feature.
The other standard for one-shots: voice-over narration to keep the story in focus without the usual anchor of a familiar character. Ferdinand's narrator (radio stalwart Don Wilson) is reassuringly baritone. Other shorts, like "The Pelican and the Snipe" (1944), would often employ voices like Sterling Halloway, who, while likeably cuddly as Pooh, often sounds like he just wandered into the recording booth and is surprised by what he is watching on screen. Indeed, "Pelican" makes it clear that many of these shorts are overnarrated and would have probably worked better as pantomime. The narration is often used as a shortcut. Does Halloway have to tell us that Monte the Pelican is a somnambulist? We can see it ourselves. This parable about vigilance (set in South America probably as a leftover from Walt's trip at the U.S. government's request) is well animated, but the narration saps it of humor and renders it heavy-handed.
More successful is "Chicken Little" (1943). Included in the Treasures release On the Front Lines as well, this cartoon actually has a point, unlike the noisy CG spectacle recently released. War panic is the point, and while specifically aimed at WWII audiences worried about foreign subversion, the message still holds up in this age of manipulated military intelligence. The result is one of Disney's more cynical and morbid efforts.
By the 1950s, Walt was back in the feature game after being roughed up financially during the war. But feature animation and package films (collections of shorts linked by some live action conceit, like Melody Time and Song of the South) gobbled up the budget previously used for shorts. Still, there was still room for a wild short cartoon every now and then. In "The Brave Engineer" (1950), Jerry Colonna lends energy to the tale of Casey Jones with a breathless stream of bad jokes. This short and "Paul Bunyan" (1958) turn up on Disney's underrated American Legends compilation from a couple of years ago. Speaking of which, why isn't that great "John Henry" short here? It deserves a wider audience.
Disney's penchant for vanilla social satire is showcased in "The Little House" (1952). This is a cloyingly sentimental validation of small town Americana mostly notable for being one of the few cartoons art-directed by the brilliant Mary Blair. (Although I only learned this from John Canemaker's recent book on Blair; Maltin never mentions it.) Sterling Halloway's treacle-soaked voice works hard to repudiate progress and celebrate the wonders of suburbia.
But Disney was about to get hit hard by the competition. Disney had set the pace in the industry with its devotion to "squash and stretch" and meticulous detail. But in 1951, UPA hit the jackpot with the clean, stripped down look of "Gerald McBoing Boing." UPA's abstracted, jazz-soaked style took over at all the major studios. Some (Warners, for instance) adopted easily, as their work was already simple in style to account for lower budgets. But at Disney, where lush art previously dominated, the stripped-down UPA style looked radically different, and Disney animators took this as a cue to break every other rule while they were at it. If "The Little House" was a sign of Walt trying to hold the line against progress (the house standing as a metaphor for Disney's now old-fashioned squash and stretch), 1953 saw Walt finally caving to the new hotness. The two "Adventures in Music" shorts ("Melody" and "Toot Whistle Plunk and Boom," which was released in Cinemascope) are flatter, more angular, and more visibly trying to be hip. But "Adventures in Music" also ushered in an awkward trend in these later Disney cartoons: an effort to sell didactic material not driven by narrative.
"Adventures in Music" work because Ward Kimball imbues them with relentless energy that avoids the solemnity of most educational cartoons—and he makes the most of shrinking budgets. He gets that the key to making these underdrawn sequences work is sheer speed. The backgrounds burst with nervous color. The gags border on the psychedelic, with the glee of a wild child turning out a room full of crazy pictures.
But there were still more traditionally animated shorts in the pipeline. Jack Kinney's "Football Then and Now" (1953) is a wry satire in the spirit of the Goofy sports mockumentaries. And there were still the painfully earnest tales, like "Ben and Me" (1953), a lush Hamilton Luske piece about Amos, the brainy mouse behind Benjamin Franklin's inventions. Endearing and industrious, Amos is full of the qualities that Walt admired in his rodents.
By the mid-1950s, Walt was so distracted by television and Disneyland that he allowed wildly unconventional cartoons to slip out of the studio. Of course, there were still traditional shorts being made, but without a real market for shorts, Disney animators felt increasingly out of the loop. Maybe they started to go a bit crazy. What else would explain a cartoon like "Pigs Is Pigs" (1954), a rhyming goof about a rules-obsessed stationmaster overwhelmed by fecund guinea pigs?
This was the era of "Hooked Bear" and "In the Bag" (both 1956), the Humphrey the Bear masterpieces. "The Social Lion" (1954) turned in a mild satire of contemporary urban life played in mock documentary form. Indeed, the mock documentary seemed to be a preferred mode for Disney animators by this period. "The Story of Anyburg USA" (1957) is a painfully earnest critique of the automobile, with Hans Conried chewing scenery as a vindictive prosecutor. Following up on the "musical history" theme of the "Adventures in Music" series, Disney turned out "The Truth About Mother Goose," (1957) which intersperses musical numbers with historical facts. There was still room sometimes for a straight-up musical short in the "Silly Symphonies" mode: "Jack and Old Mac" (1956) plays hot jazz versions of "The House That Jack Built" and "Old MacDonald" to highly stylized line drawings on eye-popping abstract backgrounds.
Some of the experimental shorts sound more interesting in concept than they actually succeed in execution. "A Cowboy Needs a Horse" (1956) is an overlong pantomime of every western movie cliché as seen through the eyes of a child (and that last phrase should tell you how drippy this gets). "Noah's Ark" (1959) is a long and fairly reverent tale done in stop motion with household items like yarn and sporks. The results look more like a Rankin-Bass holiday special than a Disney project.
One missed opportunity for the Disney studio team was a consistent series on American folklore. "Paul Bunyan" (1958) would have been a good start. The cartoon's flat art design is offset by lively characterizations and energetic foreshortening to make the figures pop out of the screen. But the folklore theme would not be picked up again in the theatrical shorts until three years later with "The Saga of Windwagon Smith" (although admittedly this isn't an authentic tall tale).
By the end of the 1950s, there was no market for short films, except where they could be put to use filling out another program. Disney had turned his attention to television, where shorts had an easier time, since you could squeeze them easily between commercials. So all the best short animation (think of the crazy Mars and Beyond stuff on the Tomorrowland Treasures set) ended up in Walt's TV show.
The final stage of the evolution of the Disney mockumentary is Ludwig Von Drake and his pompous pedagogy. Witness his color television debut for Walt's Wonderful World of Color in 1961. (Actually, you'll have to take my word for it, since it isn't available on DVD yet.) Von Drake (voiced by Paul Frees) taunts viewers who still own monochromatic sets with his tongue-twisting "Spectrum Song." A year later, the pedantic duck makes his theatrical debut with "A Symposium of Popular Songs," a tour through half a century of music with skillful pastiches by the Sherman Brothers (and more stop-motion segments like "Noah's Ark"). But this final cartoon in the set really marks the end of the short cartoon at Disney (apart from a few stragglers over the years). Von Drake is very much a television creation: talky, comfortable indoors, not suited to action scenes. It might have been the influence of television, where Walt felt the need to play teacher to his audience. Or maybe it was the didacticism of the wartime training films that the studio cranked out at the government's behest. But the comedy of Ludwig Von Drake is based on words rather than the actions of Disney's relatively inarticulate cartoon stars of the past (Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto).
Perhaps because it is such a disparate collection of material, Disney Rarities disappoints as much as it surprises. For example, the silent Alice cartoons are interesting from a historical perspective, but they are decidedly immature compared to later work. Some of the more didactic cartoons of the 1950s do not hold up well to repeat viewings. But as a chronicle of the Disney Studio's evolution, Disney Rarities is often fascinating.
Unfortunately, the set itself is deeply flawed in a number of ways. There has been some serious criticism among Disneyphiles about this latest wave of Walt Disney Treasures, specifically that Disney did not do a decent job (or maybe any job at all) of remastering these shorts. There is merit to this accusation. Some of the shorts ("The Brave Engineer" and the stop-motion material stand out) are visibly dirty and faded.
Overall, the extras seem thinner on this set than I would have hoped, given the variety of different styles and stories included here. Many of the odder shorts could use some context or historical background from Maltin. And where are some of the conspicuously missing one-shots like "Scrooge McDuck and Money," "It's Tough To Be a Bird," or "John Henry"? Why repeat "Chicken Little" when it was included in On the Front Lines along with other wartime one-shots?
The first disc in this set is devoted to celebrating Walt's early (pre-Mickey) career, with Maltin hosting a historical featurette on the Laugh-O-Grams and Disney Brothers Studio days. He also interviews Virginia Davis, who in spite of referring to Maltin as "Walt," is quite spry and full of stories. Disc Two jumps right to the end of the short cartoon era. The Sherman Brothers are always a welcome addition to any assortment of DVD extras, but was Richard Sherman the only guest available to provide commentary on this set (for "A Symposium of Popular Songs")? Disney throws in a gallery of art from only seven of the shorts in the collection and a PSA for your neighborhood Community Chest (insert your own Monopoly joke here) starring Pluto.
Kids will probably not get many of the shorts on this set (the silent Alice episodes, the historical references in the mockumentaries, the more radical experimental shorts). But they might enjoy the "Ferdinand"-type outsider stories. And who can't enjoy the dumbfounded expressions of Humphrey the Bear, forever trying to get his paws around a simple meal. Adults will find the more experimental stuff often intrigues more than entertains. All this makes Disney Rarities a solid if underwhelming addition to the Walt Disney Treasures collection. The technical flaws suggest that this was not considered by the studio as either authoritative or exhaustive. Maybe with Roy Disney back on board (his signature is tagged onto this year's Treasures sets almost as a last-minute addition), the Walt Disney Treasures can be whipped back into shape. Then they will really be treasures.
Disney is ordered to perform community service directed toward better restoration efforts and more consistent production quality in future Walt Disney Treasures sets. And find that Humphrey the Bear guy and put him back to work immediately.
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