Friday, December 08, 2006

Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies

Beginning in the 1930s, feature films were often preceded by obligatory cartoon shorts, showcasing a rapidly-developing film technique. While working on the development of Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney also experimented with an ambitious, innovative series of animations with ground-breaking features called Silly Symphonies - a series of 75 shorts that lasted until 1939, and won a total of seven Academy Awards.

The first of Disney's Silly Symphonies was The Skeleton Dance (1929), released on August 22, 1929, a night-time graveyard dance of skeletons. Other Silly Symphonies cartoons followed in the same year:

  • El Terrible Toreador, September 7, 1929
  • Springtime, October 24, 1929
  • Hell's Bells, October 30, 1929
  • The Merry Dwarfs, December 16, 1929

The first animation in full three-color Technicolor was the 29th of Disney's short Silly Symphonies: Flowers and Trees (1932) with anthropomorphic characters - it produced Disney's first Academy Award, the first of Walt's 32 personal Academy Awards. The popular, influential Depression-Era fable The Three Little Pigs (1933) was released in 1933 with its optimistic hit theme song: "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" (based upon the tune of Happy Birthday). Innovations continued to be created in the short creative animations, The Band Concert (1935), Music Land (1935) and The Old Mill (1937) - the latter being the first to use the multi-plane camera to provide an illusion of depth. The following list summarizes all of Disney's 'Oscar'-winning Silly Symphonies:

  1. Flowers and Trees (1931/2)
  2. The Three Little Pigs (1932/3)
  3. The Tortoise and the Hare (1934)
  4. Three Orphan Kittens (1935)
  5. The Country Cousin (1936)
  6. The Old Mill (1937)
  7. The Ugly Duckling (1939)
Fleischer Studios' Two Feature Films

Two feature-length animations with whimsical characters and advanced animation techniques by the Fleischers deserve mention, although the Fleischers are better-remembered for their shorts than for their only two features:

(1) Gulliver's Travels (1939), an animated musical adaptation of Jonathan Swift's 1726 classic literary satire about war. The Fleischers, who were in direct competition with Disney, released this inferior attempt - it was the second American feature-length animated film ever, following (and patterned) after Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). (See below) The film was a two-time Academy Awards nominee: for Victor Young's Best Original Score, and for Best Song: Faithful Forever.

(2) the expensive, Technicolored Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941), advertised as the screen's first full-length musical comedy cartoon. (It was originally named after Frank Capra's earlier feature Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and also given an alternate title: Hoppity Goes to Town.) Due to the film's financial failure, it was the last cartoon feature that Max and Dave released.

As a final footnote, Fleischer Studios, after restructuring as Famous Studios by Paramount, also produced cartoons based on Harvey Comics characters, including over two dozen Little Lulu (Moppet) cartoons in the 40s, and over 50 Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoons that stretched into the 1950s (Casper made his debut in Izzy Sparber's cartoon short The Friendly Ghost (1945)).
The Fleischer Brothers: Inventors, Cartoon Makers

At the same time, serious rivals to Disney's animation production came from the Fleischers (Max, Dave, Joe, and Lou). They were already making technical innovations that would revolutionize the art of animation. In 1917, Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope to streamline the frame-by-frame copying process - it was a device used to overlay drawings on live-action film. The Fleischers were also pioneering the use of 3-D animation landscapes, and produced the hour-long Einstein's Theory of Relativity (1923). They also made the first cartoon with a soundtrack - Song Car-Tune (1924-7) with sing-along cartoons.

[Little-known fact: Max Fleischer was the father of Richard Fleischer, the director of Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), Fantastic Voyage (1966), Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Soylent Green (1973).]

KoKo the Clown

One of the Fleischers' first successful ventures occurred in 1919 with the premiere of the part live-action/part animation Out of the Inkwell series of shorts, featuring the animated KoKo the Clown character in a live-action world - one of the first animated characters.

From 1929-1932, their Talkartoons for Paramount starred a mouse-like character named Bimbo - who was soon relegated to a minor companion co-star with the Fleischer's next racy cartoon star.

Betty Boop

Max Fleischer was responsible for the provocative, adult-oriented, cartoon Betty Boop vamp-character, who always wore a strapless, thigh-high gown (and visible garter) and was based on flapper icon Clara Bow's 'It' Girl and Mae West. A prototype of the squeaky- and baby-voiced cartoon queen (voiced for most of the 30s by Mae Questel) was introduced in a Bimbo Talkartoon entitled Dizzy Dishes (1930) - with her appearing as a long-eared puppy dog! In the early cartoon Betty Co-Ed (1931), she was called Betty, and in a pre-Code Bimbo cartoon entitled Silly Scandals (1931) (the title spoofed Disney's Silly Symphonies), she was named Betty Boop for the first time (she sings You're Driving Me Crazy while her dress top keeps falling down). However, in Stopping the Show (1932), she appeared under her own credits banner for the first time (she had previously appeared only in Talkartoons and Screen Songs).

Betty Boop's voice was actually modeled on the voice of another actress, Helen Kane, who created a sensation on Broadway in 1928 with a "boop-oop-a-doop" rendition of the hit song I Wanna Be Loved by You. The cartoon character with a high baby voice and spit curls then appeared in a series of short cartoons and became the top Fleischer star, in Minnie the Moocher (1932), the risque Boop-Oop-A-Doop (1932), Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle (1932), the five-minute Snow White (1933) (with an appearance by Cab Calloway) - the first animated film based upon the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale, Betty Boop's Rise to Fame (1934), in her sole color cartoon Poor Cinderella (1934) - the Fleischer's first color cartoon with Betty sporting red hair, and the Oscar-nominated Riding the Rails (1938). She displayed a bit of breast and performed a sexy hula in the pre-code Betty Boop's Rise To Fame (1934). Unfortunately, the cute, titillating 'boop-oop-a-doop' Betty was destined to be censored with the advent of the enforceable, conservative and puritanical Hays Production Code in 1934. Drastic changes to her character after 1934 led to her demise by 1939, with her last cartoon, Yip Yip Yippy (1939). [During the 30s, Mae Questel recorded On the Good Ship Lollipop -- in Betty Boop's voice-- which sold more than 2 million copies.


The Fleischers also obtained the rights to the tough, one-eyed, spinach-loving sailor Popeye with over-sized arms (who was introduced in January 1929 in creator Elzie C. Segar's "Thimble Theatre" newspaper comic strip published in the New York Journal for King Features Syndicate since 1919). Popeye became so popular in the comic strip that it was renamed "Thimble Theatre, Starring Popeye." Popeye first appeared on film alongside established cartoon-star Betty Boop in July, 1933 in Fleischers' Betty Boop cartoon titled Popeye the Sailor (1933), in which they dance the hula. Popeye's voice was provided by William Costello (better known as Red Pepper Sam) from 1933-35.

[After Costello was dismissed, Jack Mercer, who began his career as an artist at the cartoon studio, provided Popeye's voice and ad-libbed mutterings for the Fleischers until 1957, and various voices for the two Fleischer feature-length animations - see below.]

The same year in September, the first official Popeye cartoon, I Yam What I Yam was released - the first in a long series of animated shorts. Popeye's first Technicolor cartoon was the two-reel special release Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), noted for its experimental multi-plane 3-D backgrounds, and for being the first Fleischer cartoon to be nominated for an Academy Award - Best Short Subject - Cartoon. The cartoon character became well-known for his theme song (excerpt below):
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man
I'm strong to the finich
'Cause I eats me spinach
I'm Popeye the Sailor Man...
The voices of Olive Oyl, Popeye's whiny girlfriend, and Sweet Pea were provided by Mae Questel. The character Wimpy provided the name for an unpopular type of British hamburger. By 1938, Popeye had replaced Mickey Mouse as the most popular cartoon character in America. Paramount's Famous Studios continued the series beginning in 1942, and Popeye's movie career lasted until 1957. Robert Altman directed the live-action film flop, Popeye (1980), starring Robin Williams as Popeye, Shelley Duvall as Olive Oyl, and Ray Walston as Pappy, Popeye's father.

Dave and Max Fleischer, in an agreement with Paramount and DC Comics, also produced a series of seventeen Superman cartoons in the early 1940s. The first Superman short, Superman (1941), premiered in 1941, introduced the terms "faster than a speeding bullet" and "Look, up in the sky!". The most famous of the series was the second entry, The Mechanical Monsters (1941) with the super-hero battling giant flying robots - and marking a redesigned Lois Lane and the first time Superman would change into his costume in a phonebooth. Also notable was The Bulleteers (1942).

The Fleischers were responsible for the first ten Superman cartoons (up through Japoteurs (1942)), with the remaining shorts produced by Paramount's Famous Studios during 1942-43. [The recognizable theme song for the series was incorporated into John Williams' score for Superman: The Movie (1978), and the cartoons were referenced in The Iron Giant (1999).]