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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Why Are These People Laughing?

Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are yukking it up with a balcony audience as the latest Donald Duck fades out. The movie is Brief Encounter. By 1945, Donald’s been blowing his stack for ten years, with far less by way of variation over the last five. Joel McCrea and fellow denizens of a chain gang surrender to spasms of mirth over Pluto’s collision with errant sheets of flypaper and a pair of suspenders in 1941’s Sullivan’s Travels. He’d been doing pretty much the same thing since the early thirties. Watching both these features today raises but one question in my mind --- Just what was so funny about these Disney cartoons? If they'd been watching Nasty Quacks (WB) or Red Hot Riding Hood (Avery-MGM), then yes, that laughter might make more sense, but watching Walt’s cartoons today gets not one chuckle from this jaded viewer. Was I born too late? Has our alleged greater sophistication rendered these once hilarious Donald/Mickey/Plutos impotent as laugh-getters, or is it just me? As it happens, my family took receipt of an 8mm print of that Pluto/flypaper segment when we acquired our first Bell&Howell home movie projector back in the late forties (it came gratis with the equipment). This was the first movie I ever threaded up to watch, but I didn’t laugh like Joel McCrea. This week I watched five Disney cartoons released in 1941 --- Canine Caddy (Pluto), The Nifty Nineties and Orphan’s Benefit (Mickey), and A Good Time For A Dime with Truant Officer Donald. I admired them all, but that was it. No other cartoons looked so grand, that’s for sure. When Pluto falls out of a tree, the leaves float down as a thousand individual cels patiently drawn and custom colored. I see pretty ink-and-paint girls (so described in The Reluctant Dragon) in lab coats applying that Disney magic in air-conditioned comfort, but was all this conducive to the sort of humor rival studios were getting into their 1941 cartoons? The collegiate amenities we see during our studio tour in The Reluctant Dragon bespeak comfort, but what about the comedy?

I found an exhibitor’s comment for Truant Officer Donald in an old Motion Picture Herald. He said it was terrific… reminded him of The Three Little Pigs. Maybe these shorts need a big audience, though when I’ve tried them with college students, they tend to lay flat. Droopy and Wolfy go over big, however. My problem with Disney cartoons is the monotony of them. Donald’s always getting tangled up with machinery, be it a washing machine, lawn mower, what have you. I’ve seen that duck electrocuted more times than I care to recall, but somehow it’s never as funny as when the same thing happens to Daffy over at Warners. Pluto’s forever beset with smaller animals who get the better of him. In Canine Caddy, it was a gopher. I get so tired of damned gophers trumping Pluto. It’s ritual humiliation, and since he’s the audience identification figure, I tend to feel his frustration all the more acutely. Just once I’d like to see Pluto snatch up a gopher at the end of one of these shorts, bite off the head, and enjoy the remains of the carcass before dipping his bloody paw into a finger-bowl and rejoining Mickey. Bon appetit, my man. As for the Mouse, he doesn’t even try to get laughs. The Nifty Nineties is mostly Mickey and Minnie riding around in a sputtering horseless carriage. Any shot in this cartoon would look great framed on your wall, but like Bing said to Bob in All-Star Bond Rally --- Tain’t funny, Hope, tain’t funny. I get the impression, especially after watching The Reluctant Dragon, that Disney artists were somehow timid about going after the big guffaws, as if scoring a real gag might somehow disrupt the well-oiled efficiency of that Burbank Utopia they'd so recently moved into. I don’t think Avery, Tashlin, or Clampett would have lasted long in such a conservative environment. For all of The Reluctant Dragon’s effort in making this look like a wacky and unpredictable place, I still sensed a baleful corporate policing of those pristine halls.

Would I enjoy these cartoons more if Disney hadn’t withheld them when I was growing up? There was no satellite network devoted to them then. The only place to catch these was the Sunday night World Of Color (where main titles were always removed) or reruns of The Mickey Mouse Club (ditto). Theatrical encounters were rare, if that. We might get The Yellowstone Cubs or Ben and Me with Disney features, but seldom a cartoon short. I never really saw Disney cartoons intact until I started collecting 16mm, and then they were pirated prints, or those educational service things where main titles were replaced. At least in the forties they got original RKO credits, even if the cartoons themselves were routine. Humorist Robert Benchley gets to see some of them made in The Reluctant Dragon. This feature is included in the Behind The Scenes At Walt Disney DVD. It’s a must for anyone interested in that studio’s operation and how it looked in 1941. The live action stuff is far more compelling than cojoining animated segments, but Disney had to deliver up some cartoon highlights, for that was his signature product and people still equated his name with drawings that moved. The Reluctant Dragon was regarded as something of a cheater in 1941. It’s really little more than a precursor to a typical Disneyland episode from the fifties, promoting Disney product and glorifying the magic environs of that unique studio setting. No other company would have had sufficient brass to charge admissions for what was essentially a tour of the lot. Benchley’s very presence implies a short subject, as does the animated subjects spotted throughout the 72-minute running time. He’s henpecked and nearly as reluctant as the titular dragon to keep his appointment with legendary Walt. His sour screen wife evokes Judith Anderson. Bob gets a look at comely Frances Gifford and you wonder why he’d ever go back home. Gifford’s playing a Disney staff member (were there such gorgeous women on the payroll at the time?) and she's one of a handful of pro actors drafted to simulate Disney employees. Frank Faylen is another, and live wire Alan Ladd provides spirited narration for the saga of Baby Weems. Ladd’s cast as an artist and story man, and I’d guess his own accomplished radio background got him the job here. Were it not for This Gun For Hire, we might have enjoyed Alan Ladd’s voice behind any number of subsequent True-Life adventures.

The best actor here is real-life animator Ward Kimball. He’s at all times relaxed and confident as he walks Benchley through the final stages of a Goofy cartoon and conducts a viewing of the final product on his Moviola. I don’t know how much screen exposure Kimball got in later TV programs (I assume not much, as I don’t recall seeing him), but I’d have to say there was a real missed opportunity here. He’d have made an affable host on some of those Disneyland shows about the history and technique of animation, but I guess there wasn’t sufficient room for both he and the boss. Still, it would seem that Kimball, of all the veteran artists who worked on the lot, had the clearest understanding of Walt’s character and the realities of working at Disney’s (based on interviews I’ve seen). He’d have no doubt been a fascinating guy to sit down and talk with. Quite a sensation knowing that while they were filming this idyllic depiction of life on the studio lot, strike talk was fermenting and disgruntled employees by the hundreds were preparing to walk out on Disney. That's perhaps the most dramatic subtext at work here. Were these people painting their picket signs at home even as they played happy employees for the Technicolor cameras? Walt’s own appearance is brief, but telling. He’s the distracted executive, issuing directives even as Benchley enters his screening sanctorum. Beloved Uncle Walt was still a decade away. This youthful Disney tucks a foot into his seat and regales his guest with a frankly labored cartoon segment to wrap up the show. The Reluctant Dragon we’ve waited for turns out to be an overlong latter-day Silly Symphony in which the title character is inflicted with an Ed Wynn-ish voice, a disagreeable enough prospect when it’s Wynn himself, let alone someone imitating that grating voice. The Reluctant Dragon would subsequently be cut up like so much cordwood and sent out as a variety of short subjects, making it all the more welcome as a finally intact feature on Disney’s DVD.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watching the Disney cartoons that have been released on DVD, I was struck by how maddeningly formulaic the post-1930s shorts were. At times, these things very nearly approached the same level of rubber-stamp storytelling that was the hallmark of the Famous Studios cartoons of the late '40s and 1950s. Always well made, though.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could not agree more! The only shorts I have enjoyed are the early black and white Mickeys, a handful of the colors and those amazingly weird Silly Symphonies. For laughs, I will always take a Warner or Avery everytime.

5:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only real belly-laugh Disneys, in my opinion, are the very last ones he made for theaters: the Humphrey series, directed by Jack Hannah. My wife and I went into a Disney store once for a lark, to see if there was any Humphrey merchandise alongside the Mickey and Goofy stuff. Of course there wasn't, and the manager there swore up and down that we were mistaken, Humphrey was not a Disney character.

Incidentally, watch for George Reeves in "The Reluctant Dragon"; he's the exasperated manager who chews out tour guide Buddy Pepper for misplacing Robert Benchley.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

These cartoons weren't meant to be watched one after another, so I guess Disney & Co. felt comfortable repeating formulas and plots. Too, like 1960s TV, once color was added, the quality started to go down.

I like "The Reluctant Dragon" quite a bit (except for that final, ultra-silly cartoon). The title reminds me of Disney himself at this time: a magical force of nature who, instead of using his formidable power to wipe out the competition, preferred to sit back and take the easy route. I guess "Fantasia" was more of a kick in the butt than I realized, because his stuff was never the same afterwards. (Ever see "Make Mine Music"? Nearly unwatchable.)

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never been a Disney short fan--really have seen maddeningly few--they strike me more "cute" than funny. But don't discount the effect of seeing the cartoon with an audience.

I think I mentioned the night of Stooge shorts and Avery cartoons I want to a little while back--I'm sure I wasn't the only one in the audience who'd seen everything on the bill a half-dozen times before, but they're a lot funnier in a group setting.

As John L Sullivan discovered, a things are a lot funnier after a day on a chain gang. Maybe a couple days in the box would soften you up.


10:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It used to be I was considered the odd one for saying that Disney's shorts weren't very good. Even those odd (but lavishly-produced) Harman and Ising shorts at MGM in the mid 1930s were technically superior to Disney animation. The use of color and the design was way more adventurous than the Disney muted tones and harmless moving "water balloon" creatures that filled his short cartoons.

Hell, even some of those Paul Terry Catnip and Gandy Goose shorts from the early 1940s were funnier (and weirder) than Disney shorts of the same period. What the hell was going on? All I can say is "ditto" to the comments that all the earlier posters made.

Disney feature animation is something else. DUMBO is incredible. Even saccharine stuff such as MAKE MINE MUSIC (that film is so bland and saccharine that it makes Lawrence Welk seem like the Sex Pistols in their prime) had some interesting animation and design. But the short films … OY!

1:43 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Include me in the "I don't get it" camp.

While I think we can all agree the technical aspects of the Disney cartoons were superb, I personally find the voice work (Pinto Colvig excepted), sound effects, and music annoying at best and intolerable at worst.

I've always been baffled at the popularity of the Disney characters, as in my experience the pictures were next to impossible to see during the 60s and 70s, and when you could see them, they were formulaic and repetitious to the extreme: Mickey the good-natured bourgeois, Donald getting angry at anything, and Pluto dumb as a post. The Goof was the exception, as at least there was some variety in what he'd become incompetent at trying.

But then, I don't get Chaplin either; finding him a brilliant mimic and a lousy comic. One of the most memorable film experiences of my life was sitting through a screening of "The Circus" with a packed and silent house.

1:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tashlin actually *did* work at Disney in the late 1930s/early 1940s, in between his second and third gigs at WB and before his tenure at Columbia. It's hard to say what he thought of Disney's, since his comments on animation in general seem to be fairly few and far between. Chuck Jones, for that matter, also had a brief tenure at Disney's in the early 50s, and Freleng was a bitter refugee from work there in the 1920s.

The lack of the kind of access Carl Stalling or Scott Bradley had to a music publishing arm that could add songs of snap or ginger to a cartoon, the lack of a Treg Brown to add comic punch with a sound effect, or the consistent work of a Mel Blanc also hurt.

But more than that, I think, is a lack of timing. In general, Disney cartoons seem to wander around and take their time to tell a joke. In a way, they're like Benchley, rather than the machine-gun approach of Bob Hope or Bob Clampett that caught the public's ear in the 1940s.

7:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Put me down as yet another person who admires the Disney shorts or their color and artistry but watches something else when I want to be entertained. Over the years, I've shown various Disney shorts to the Friday Night Movie gang, and they're usually received very poorly, save for a few of the early '30s ones, some of the very early color Mickey Mouses, and odd stuff like Plunk, Whistle, Toot, & Boom (or whatever that thing is called).

8:54 AM  
Blogger Thad said...

I completely agree with your assessment of THOSE particular Disney films. I think the overexposure of the films with the insibid color Mickey and those later cartoons by Jack Hannah and Charles Nichols are what cause the low opinions of Disney.

That doesn't mean that none of the Disney cartoons are funny. While a lot of them can be slow, many of the cartoons Jack Kinney directed are hilarious and extremely well-animated, even by Disney standards.


5:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I can agree with many of the comments here, I think that in large part they stem from looking at the Disney cartoons through today's eyes. We often regret the loss over time of the ability to create in certain art forms or genres. No one can make new Japanese Noh dramas any longer, or short comedies that completely capture the style and character of the Laurel and Hardys; they were, after all, the products of their particular points in time, and those times are gone forever. But we tend to overlook the fact that we also lose the ability to appreciate such things in the way they were at the time they were created. Granted, even the tastes of audiences of that time were gradually changing, and discovering and appreciating the new kinds of humor that were developing. But that's just it - it was new and more importantly, different.

It's certainly valid to find a Tex Avery cartoon of the mid-forties gut-bustingly hilarious in a way that a Donald Duck of the same period wasn't. I do, in fact. But that's not the point; they weren't trying to be. Maybe they should have been; maybe Disney was still tailoring their output to the sensibilities of ten years earlier. But other things were falling out of style as well. An average movie-goer of the mid-forties would think that a silent Chaplin short was corny and dated compared to Abbott and Costello. Today we don't criticize Laurel and Hardy because their humor isn't street-smart and edgy.

I can still appreciate what Disney was doing in the shorts at the time, and the fact that they could do it to absolute perfection. I get a lot of enjoyment from that. Not the same kind of enjoyment I get from an Avery or Clampett cartoon, maybe not even as much and certainly not for every single thing they did, but enjoyment for what it is. If other people don't, that's OK, but to criticize something for not being something it wasn't intended to be seems pointless to me.

By the way, the exasperated guard at the Traffic desk bawling out Buddy Pepper in "The Reluctant Dragon" isn't George Reeves. He's Steve Pendleton. One other place you can spot him is as a detective interviewing an old Chinese guy during the initial roundup of the usual suspects in "He Walked By Night."

12:47 PM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Ward Kimball actually hosted several episodes of the Disneyland (or whatever title they were using at the time) show. The episodes he manned were the "Tomorrowland" episodes that focused on space - and he's actually a little wooden in some of those episodes. Quite different from his interviews. You can see them on the Tomorrowland installment of the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series.
By the way, I love Disney shorts. While I don' t bust a gut a them the way I do at Tex Avery and the Looney Tunes gang, I do love their artistry, innovation, and characters ( I am a Donald fan). But I agree that a good many of them are not always laugh out loud funny. But as with comfort food, I always get a little warm feeling when I watch them. Call me a sap.
That being said, I do find the Donald vs. Chip and Dale, The Goofy "How To" Series or "Mr. X" series, and the Humphrey the bear series the funniest.

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is kind of off on a tangent, but you've put your finger on why I think the closing moments of "Sullivan's Travels" is so disturbing to me: the chain gang in the church aren't just laughing at a typically mediocre Disney short, they're laughing...maniacally! My first thought was, these people are insane. They're so desperate they'll laugh at anything. That the film ends with a montage of that maniacal laughter and Sullivan's decision to make more comedies, because they're "better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan" is either the worst cop-out or the most depressing ending I've ever seen in a film.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

My kids love the classic Disney cartoons, absolutely eat them up with a spoon, but I think us adults watch them with Warner Bros. eyes and that's why they're not funny. We're so attuned to the wiseacre worldview, to the delicacies of their personalities (Daffy Duck's slow burn, Elmer's befuddlement, etc.), that we can't watch Disney cartoons without missing that sardonicness.

10:35 AM  

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