Friday, December 15, 2006

The First Full-Length Animated Film

The earliest animated films that most people remember seeing are the later, more sophisticated Disney feature films that contain exquisite detail, flowing movements, gorgeous and rich color, enchanting characters, lovely musical songs and tunes, and stories drawn with magical or mythological plots. The first, full-length animated film was Disney's classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) released on December 21, 1937, which took four years to make and cost $1.5 million dollars. It was 1938's top moneymaker at $8 million.

It was financed due in part to the success of Disney's earlier animated short, The Three Little Pigs (1933). Although dubbed "Disney's Folly" during the three-four year production of the musical animation, Disney realized that he had to expand and alter the format of cartoons. He used a multi-plane camera, first utilized in his animated, Oscar-winning Silly Symphonies short, The Old Mill (1937) to create an illusion of depth. His version of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tale was the second of its kind - the first was a five-minute Snow White (1933) starring Betty Boop (with an appearance by Cab Calloway). Disney's risk-taking paid off when the film became a financial and critical success.

[It must be noted that another little-known but pioneering, feature-length animated film was released more than a decade earlier by German film-maker and avante-garde artist Lotte Reiniger, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), based on the stories from the Arabian Nights. Reiniger's achievement is often brushed aside, due to the fact that the animations were silhouetted, used paper cut-outs, and they were done in Germany. And the rarely-seen prints that exist have lost much of their original quality. However, the film was very innovative -- it used multi-plane camera techniques and experimented with wax and sand on the film stock.]
Tom and Jerry

In their first full teaming together, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera at MGM created the cat and mouse Tom and Jerry series (clearly influenced by the frenetic action in Tex Avery's work at Warners), comic adventures about Tom - a gray mangy cat, and Jerry - a wisely innocent mouse. When the cartoon series was first introduced in 1940 with the 9 minute Oscar-nominated Puss Gets the Boot (1940), Tom was called 'Jasper' and the mouse had no name.

Over 100 cartoons from 1940 to 1958 featured the two cartoon characters, and Hanna and Barbera were able to break Disney's Oscar monopoly for award-winning cartoons. They won more Academy Awards than any other cartoon series in history, except for Disney's Silly Symphonies. They won Oscars for Best Short Subject: Cartoon for the following animated cartoons:
  • Yankee Doodle Mouse (1943)
  • Mouse Trouble (1944)
  • Quiet, Please! (1945)
  • The Cat Concerto (1946)
  • The Little Orphan (1948)
  • The Two Mouseketeers (1951)
  • Johann Mouse (1952)
In the last film Johann Mouse (1952), Jerry - the mouse, can't resist waltzing when he hears music from the master of the house, Viennese composer Johann Strauss. Tom, also a resident in the household of the Maestro, takes piano lessons to keep Jerry dancing and entranced - so that he can snatch him. One of their most famous cartoons was Mouse in Manhattan (1945) that featured a score by Scott Bradley (made up mostly of Louis Alter's "Manhattan Serenade" later used in The Godfather (1972) and Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's "Broadway Rhythm") and Jerry's adventures in the big city. [Hanna-Barbera were also responsible for animated TV cartoon shows including Ruff 'n' Ready, Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, The Flintstones and Top Cat.]

Later, in a few famous sequences, Jerry the mouse danced with Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945) - the first instance of the combination of live action and animation in a feature film. Tom and Jerry also performed an underwater fantasy dance with Esther Williams in Dangerous When Wet (1953). Famed animator Chuck Jones was assigned to produce new episodes for Tom and Jerry cartoons in the 70s at MGM - but they had lost their spunk and spirit by that time - and were ultimately unsuccessful.
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Walter Lantz Studios:

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Woody Woodpecker, and Chilly Willy

Walter Lantz (1900-1994), an early animator, and Charles Mintz (representing Universal and boss Carl Laemmle), took over the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt Disney in 1928. The resemblance of Oswald to its biggest competitor, Mickey Mouse, was striking. Lantz made a series of black-and-white cartoons from 1929 to 1935, featuring the rubber-limbed, long-eared rabbit, including these early titles: Ozzie of the Circus (1929), Stage Stunt (1929), Stripes and Stars (1929), Wicked West (1929), Nuts and Bolts (1929), Ice Man's Luck (1929), Junegle Jingles (1929), Weary Willies (1929), Saucy Sausages (1929), Race Riot (1929), Oil's Well (1929), Permanent Wave (1929), Cold Turkey (1929), Amature Nite (1929), Snow Use (1929), Hurdy Gurdy (1929), and Nutty Notes (1929). Mickey Rooney was the first to do the character's voice. Lantz was noted for also making the first-ever Technicolor cartoon - the opening animated sequence to the live-action The King of Jazz (1930).

Another of Lantz' legendary creations was red-headed, blue-bodied, long-beaked, trouble-making Woody Woodpecker, with his distinctive laugh ("Ha-Ha-Ha-HA-Ha" by Mel Blanc) and voice (by Mel Blanc for the first four cartoons, and then by Ben "Bugs" Hardaway until 1948, and thereafter by Lantz' own wife Grace Stafford). Woody first appeared in the cartoon Knock, Knock (1940) distributed by Universal Studios, in which he bedeviled another Lantz character Andy Panda. The next year, the popular Woody became a starring character in The Cracked Nut (1941), and began to replace the waning Oswald the Rabbit.

Over the next three decades, Lantz made about 200 six-minute Woody cartoons. Woody's appearance was somewhat softened in The Barber of Seville (1944), but he still maintained his aggressive and slightly sadistic personality. A long-time adversary of Woody's, Wally Walrus, was introduced in The Beach Nut (1944), the same year. In 1948, the novelty tune, The Woody Woodpecker Song (written by George Tibble, Ramey Idriess and Danny Kaye) was released on record and became the #1 hit song (sung by Kay Kyser). The song was put into the latest cartoon, Wet Blanket Policy (1948) (with another new co-star arch-nemesis Buzz Buzzard) and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song (it lost to Buttons and Bows in The Paleface (1948)). Young boys copied Woody's haircut, and fan clubs developed across the country. In the late 50s, The Woody Woodpecker Show first appeared on ABC-TV, and led to further shows and syndication.

A less popular but distinctive Lantz cartoon character was Chilly Willy - a penguin, who first appeared in 1953 in a cartoon titled appropriately, Chilly Willy (1953). Chilly's popularity soared when animator Tex Avery joined the Lantz Studio the following year and directed Chilly's second and third cartoons: I'm Cold (1954) and Academy Award-nominated The Legend of Rock-a-bye Point (1955) for Best Short Subject Cartoon (it lost to Speedy Gonzales (1935), a Warner Bros.' Merrie Melodies cartoon). As with Woody, Chilly Willy cartoons appeared all the way until 1972 - the last year of production.
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