Saturday, 31 October 2015

Two Landmark Silly Symphonies

So much has been written about Walt Disney’s cartoons, there’s no point in me analysing them. Instead, let me post a couple of full-page trade ads for two of Disney’s three landmark cartoons before his studio made “The Three Little Pigs” in 1933. The first was “Steamboat Willie,” where Disney took a lead character and turned into a musician and cavorting dancer. The synchronised noises as Mickey played animals as musical instruments was more than enough to captivate 1928 audiences, especially compared with the crudely-drawn generic mice of an Aesop Fables cartoon.

We skip past that to look at a cartoon from the following year that, thanks to the internet, has probably been seen more these days than it did when it came out in 1929.

Spake Variety on July 17, 1929:
Animated Cartoon
5 Mins.
Roxy, New York

Title tells the story, but not the number of laughs included in this sounded cartoon short. The number is high.
Peak is reached when one skeleton plays the spine of another in xylophone fashion, using a pair of thigh bones as hammers. Perfectly timed xylo accompaniment completes the effect.
The skeletons hoof and frolic. One throws his skull at a hooting owl and knocks the latter's feathers off. Four bones brothers do a unison routine that's a howl.
To set the finish, a rooster crows at the dawn. The skeletons, through for the night, dive into a nearby grave, pulling the lid down after them. Along comes a pair of feet, somehow left behind. They kick on the slab and a bony arm reaches out to pull them in. All takes place in a graveyard.
Don't bring your children.
“The Skeleton Dance” wasn’t much different in the basic concept than a Mickey cartoon. Lots of music. Lots of cavorting. A little humour. No plot. It’s still fun to watch today, but it was captivating in 1929. Soon other studios, especially Van Beuren, populated their cartoon shorts with dancing and singing skeletons.

The early Mickey cartoons followed a loose format of musicality in the first half, with Mickey rescuing Minnie in the second. The Harman-Ising cartoons at Warner Bros. followed the same format (as did Merrie Melodies until some guy named Tex Avery showed up) and you can see it at other studios. “Flowers and Trees” in 1932 wasn’t much different—flora and friends battled flames in the second half—but what made it different was the full spectrum of hues, thanks to the studio’s inaugural use of three-strip Technicolor. The cartoon still has some charm, despite its comparatively languid pace (it wouldn’t be unfair to credit Avery with picking up the overall speed of cartoons in the ‘40s).

If you’re an animation fan, even if you’re not partial to Disney, you’ve seen “The Skeleton Dance” before. But it’s always worth watching again.

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