Saturday, 5 October 2019

MGM's Non-Cartoon Animation Short

When you dig around the byways of animation history, occasionally you run into some puzzling things. One is a story published in the Baltimore Sun of January 10, 1937.
New Type Short Film To Be Produced In Technicolor And Will Feature Color Images Produced By Sound Waves
A UNIQUE type of short subject, featuring color images created by sound waves, is to be introduced this season.
Though the method by which the shorts are made is shrouded in secrecy, they will be in technicolor and will include the use of miniature comedy characters.
Oscar Fishinger, inventor of the novel technique, will create the subjects and Leon Schlesinger will produce them.
The first subjects will be experimental in character and, if they meet with the anticipated response, will take a prominent place in the array short of subjects.
The new productions, it was stated, are definitely not cartoon comedies.
"It is something entirely new to the short subject field," stated Jack Chertok, head of the short subjects department, "and will be presented in one-reel length.
The first will be ready for showing early next year."
What’s odd is Jack Chertok was the head of short subjects at MGM. Leon Schlesinger released his shorts through Warner Bros. How could they be connected?

Leon’s deal with Warners wasn’t exclusive. The Hollywood Reporter of November 19, 1936 announced:
An unusual short will be made by MGM that brings together Leon Schlesinger, Warners cartoon producer, and Oscar Fishinger, imported by Paramount from Austria, to produce a short in Technicolor featuring color images tied in with music.
Fishinger, inventor of the process, was employed by Paramount to produce his unique color-music footage for "The Big Broadcast of 1937," but the studio could find no place in the picture for the footage. The inventor has now left Paramount. Schlesinger's arrangement as producer for MGM on this short does not effect [sic] his Warner status.
The short will be in the nature of an experiment, with more to follow if it is successful. Jack Chertok will supervise production.
The agreement was very brief. Film Daily of November 24, 1936 reported “Leon Schlesinger has been released from his contract with MGM to produce a series of color-musical cartoons using a new process of Oscar Fishinger. Schlesinger's release came at his own request.” Could this have been the deal the Baltimore Sun was reporting on, just a little bit late? Papers back then sometimes withheld feature stories for months.

More research will have to be done about that. In the meantime, the story leaves another question—were Oskar Fischinger’s animated shorts ever released?

Fischinger may be known to animation fans for his work on Walt Disney’s Fantasia more than anything else. He had been involved in experimental animation in Germany in the early ‘20s before coming to the U.S.

His first stop was Paramount. Here’s a 1936 story.
Hollywood News and Gossip

NEA Service Staff Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD, June 15.—One of these months when you go to the movies and are brought face-to-screen with visual music in color and in agitated futuristic forms don’t scoff audibly. It’s art. And don’t say you weren’t warned either.
The sole impresario of this new art form is a man named Oscar Fischinger, who just now is hidden away in a laboratory on the Paramount lot.
He toils there in happy obscurity, and the only persons who know anything about him are a couple of executives, some painters acquainted with his work in Europe. and a few highbrow musicians such as Leopold Stokowski.
Fischinger doesn’t speak English and so is spared from spending all his time explaining just what it is he’s trying to do.
The simplest explanation is that he makes designs which move on the screen in accompaniment to music. The designs don’t look like anything you ever saw outside a kaleidoscope although they are not so stylized nor always geometric.
There are dots and lines, circles, and columns, blocks and balls, streaks and wings of light that swoop, swirl, dance, quiver, diminish, grow, and glow all over the screen.
Fischinger may “see” a heavy drum beat as an orange sphere shooting down a purple tunnel, or the music of many violins as a battalion of yellow lines converging into a crescendo of red rings.
Crazy, but Nice
Sounds crazy? Maybe it is. But it also is pleasant to watch. The artist says his shifting color patterns are abstractions.
Hollywood will find a better term because it knows that American lay critics of the arts have a private suspicion that all abstractionists, together with surrealists, cubists, and futurists are only a couple of jumps way from the boobyhatch.
You can kid the public by hanging in a snooty art gallery a mad jumble of blatant blobs and labelling it “Nude Playing Badminton” or “Eggbeater No. 7,” or anything you like. But you can’t kid the public in a movie theatre.
Indeed the first time one of Fischinger’s shorts was shown in a movie theatre there was a free-for-all fight. That was in Paris in 1921. Some customers thought it was swell; others were outraged.
Form of Ballet
But that was before the days of talkies and color. Now he has put them all together so that music has color, sound, form, and movement. You can best liken it to a ballet.
In fact, some of his sequences immediately suggest dancing figures on a stage. But the forms do tricks that Nijinsky, Pavlova, and Fred Astaire never dreamed of.
A lot of European art critics have raved immoderately over Fischinger’s visualizations of music. He has received prizes at the International Film Expositions in Venice. Academics of art exhibit his stuff to students.
The public likes his work. I saw a review from a Holland newspaper which devoted nearly two columns to one of his shorts. At the end were two paragraphs about the premiere, on the same program, of Grace Moore’s latest picture.
Started With Shakespeare
Fischinger was a young engineer in Munich when he began monkeying with abstract motion pictures. His first one was made to illustrate a lecture he gave about Shakespeare. The audience thought he was pixillated.
But his fame grew and he moved to Berlin and established a laboratory. Now he’s in America to stay. What he’s working on today is a special sequence that will be part of “The Big Broadcast.” After that he’ll make shorts as he did in Europe.
He works mostly from printed scores, without bothering to hear them played. Squints at the notes and figures how they ought to be represented on the screen. He draws and colors key designs, and four girl assistants do the rest. Actual production is exactly like the process of animating cartoons; thousands of paintings must be made and photographed one at a time.
Blue in Red
Through an interpreter I asked Fischinger how he’d score “Rhapsody in Blue.” He said he’d probably do it mostly in red.
In a story the following month, George Shaffer of the Chicago Tribune Press Service described the visualisation of the music: “little geometric figures move in graceful unison. Sometimes they undulate, sometimes they advance or retreat, move right or left. For staccato notes, the little figures explode. For minors they sway. On long sustained notes a group of the figures slide down a long tunnel. Fishinger’s novelty is hard to describe, but is pleasing to the eye.”

Paramount decided to pass on Fischinger’s abstract film ideas and that took him to Metro. He managed to get some films made. Variety reported on February 16, 1938:
Oskar Fischinger, German technician at Metro, is the entire production staff—producer, artist, effects man, cameraman and cutter—on a screen oddity titled ‘Optical Poem,’ in which surrealism runs amok. One-spooler features color movement against a dark background, using circles, squares, arrows, etc. Creator insists colored symbols play on the human emotions in the same manner as music.
The Manchester Guardian of March 24, 1938 explained the film was “an abstract visual accompaniment to Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody.’ It is in colour and took six months to make...It will be interesting, all the same, to see whether Hollywood has managed to introduce any popular element into this most esoteric branch of the cinema.”

An Optical Poem was released to theatres on March 5, 1938. It was part of an umbrella series of released called “Miniatures.”

Someone who got a chance to view the short was, of all people, Ed Sullivan. This was back when he was a syndicated New York gossip columnist, long before his TV variety show days. He had a sojourn in Hollywood and wrote on March 30, 1938:
At M-G-M your reporter sees a short that will most certainly with a special academy award. . . . Oskar Fischinger, who conceived it, convinced Short Producer Jack Chertok that music could be expressed in tones of color. . . . As the second Hungarian Rhapsody plays, curved and straight lines of color appear on the screen and gloves of blue, brown, orange, and scarlet engage in minuets of motion. . . . This sort of thing finds Hollywood at its cultural best.
Harland Rankin, manager of the Plaza Theatre in Tilbury, Ontario told the Motion Picture Herald it was “One of finest musical interpretations ever shown. The audience gave it a nice hand.” MGM made it available in the mid-‘40s for schools to rent.

This film was apparently his solitary short for Metro. The Los Angeles Times reported on February 18, 1940 that Composition in Blue, from Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor Suite and Divertissement of Mozart had been held over but it had been made by Fischinger in Germany.

After Fantasia, he continued with his experiments. His Motion Painting No 1 won the Grand Prize at the 1948 Brussels Film Festival. His artwork was the subject of exhibits. Fischinger died of a heart attack in Los Angeles on February 1, 1967 at the age of 66.

Fischinger’s official web site is still active and you can learn more there about his interesting career.

You can watch An Optical Poem, complete with MGM titles, below.


  1. Without the soundtrack it's rather pointless

  2. A lovely little film to be sure, but I just don't see mainstream audiences sitting still for this - in 1938 or 2019. Hope no one got trampled in the stampede to the snack bar.

  3. This also coincided just about with the time that Friz Freleng made his sojourn over to MGM for his star-crossed time at their animation studio. Never have seen anything about Friz seeing this short, but he did become Hollywood's undisputed champion of animated interpretations of Liszt in the years following this (and the Fleischers had beaten Fischinger by a few months to the head of the list (Liszt?) for using his rhapsodies as the basis for whole animation shorts with 1937's "A Car-Tune Portrat").