Cartoon of the Day: How to Play Baseball

How to Play Baseball
Directed by Jack Kinney
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged.  I’ve been on the road a lot lately, but finally I get to be home for awhile.  Besides getting to be in my own bed, another reason to celebrate this week is that it’s the start of baseball season!  In the past I’ve mentioned how many famous cartoon characters have fought the bull…well many of them have played baseball as well.  So in honor of the annual start of the greatest of all games, let’s look at Goofy’s effort to make it to Cooperstown, “How to Play Baseball.”

There are many “how to” films in Goofy’s filmography and they are among his finest moments.  Of all the cartoon characters to play baseball, Goofy may have been best suited for it.  His slim, flexible figure lends itself well to parodying some of the awkward looking poses that baseball players put themselves into.  Just look through your stack of old baseball cards to see how odd some baseball players look when the camera captures them in action.  The Disney animators obviously drew some inspiration from real players while also allowing their creativity to run wild.

Supposedly this film was produced at the request of Samuel Goldwyn to accompany prints of “The Pride of the Yankees,” which told the story of Lou Gehrig’s battle with the disease that would bear his name.

Like in many of Goofy’s “how to” films (this was the first, by the way), all the characters in this short are a variation on Goofy. This makes the level of humor higher than we see in most of the Disney shorts. With every character capable of such extremes, the opportunities for laughs are many. There are plenty of jabs at some of the sillier aspects of our national pass time as well, but done in a way that shows a real love for the game.

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Cartoon of the Day: Hot and Cold Penguin

Hot and Cold Penguin
Directed by Alex Lovy
Available on: The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection

Here in Denver we’ve been having record-setting, bone-chilling temperatures the last few days. Our “high” yesterday was something like -4. So what better character to examine today than one of Walter Lantz’s second string characters, Chilly Willy.

In “Hot and Cold Penguin,” Chilly Willy is out to warm himself by a stove in an outpost guarded by a dog. The gags all come from his many attempts to get inside. Apart from one line from the dog, there is no other dialogue in the short.

There are some gags that work very well, but at the same time there are others where the timing just seems off. This is something I’ve noticed in several shorts out of Lantz’s studio. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to like about Woody Woodpecker, Chilly Willy and his other creations, but his films never quite reached the artistic beauty of Disney or the comic timing of Warners. Certain reactions or gestures from the dog seem to hold for too long, passing the moment of ideal humor. Ultimately it’s an enjoyable short, but Chilly Willy has had stronger outings.

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Cartoon of the Day: Daffy – The Commando

Daffy – The Commando
Directed by Friz Freleng
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6

We’ve focused a lot on war-time shorts with a message this week, but there were still shorts that were purely for entertainment. “Daffy – The Commando” is one such short. Even though it draws its inspiration from the war, there’s no agenda here other than to get the war worn audience to laugh for seven minutes.

In this short, Daffy Duck is up against a German Vulture, complete with monocle and dress uniform. He looks a lot like Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes, the fact that he has an assistant named Schultz only helps further this comparison…of course this came many year’s before the classic TV series.

These are the days of the Looney Daffy. He’s out to cause trouble…he does that to everyone. It just so happens that on this day he happened to run across a couple of Nazis. The film moves from gag to gag with a brisk pace, but my favorite bit is Daffy’s first where he uses the Nazi’s search light to put on a shadow puppet show.

One again, we have a Hitler character to finish the film. This time he is drawn in a very un-stylized way. In fact, my untrained eye would guess that the artists may have rotoscoped actual film footage of Hitler for this particular short.

Because of it’s war-time theme, this short was pulled from the TV rotation many years ago, but it’s a fun Daffy short and a great example of how the studios tried to get audiences to lighten up a bit during the war years.

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Cartoon of the Day: Reason and Emotion

Reason and Emotion
Directed by Bill Roberts
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures – On the Front Lines

Today we take a look at a very unique film from Disney’s war effort, “Reason and Emotion.” At first the film seems like a typical Disney educational film. I know I watched many of those in school on days when the teacher needed a break. The film is about how we can let our actions be controlled by our emotions (portrayed in the film as a little caveman) or we can listen to reason (a little egghead guy with glasses). The film shows us these little guys battling it out from the time we a toddlers up to adulthood.

But the film then takes a dramatic turn as it tells the audience that they need to not let their emotions run away with them during trying times. It then goes on to explain how Hitler has manipulated the emotions of the German people.

There is some brilliant animation here…well what do you expect from Disney. It’s interesting that once again the animation of a Hitler character is a real standout (see the looks at “The Ducktators” from a few days ago). Recalling actual footage of the man, I suppose there was a lot for the animators to work with. His mannerisms seem to have been tailor-made for exaggerating through animation.

This is a film that works on many levels. It grabs the audience with some solid humor and then really drives home an important message. One could probably make an argument that many of us still haven’t learned the lesson that Disney’s artists were trying to convey with this short 68 years ago.

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Cartoon of the Day: The Thrifty Pig

The Thrifty Pig
Directed by Ford Beebe
Available on: Walt Disney Treasures – On the Front Lines

We turn to the Walt Disney Studio today as we continue to look at animated films that were a part of the war effort during World War II. Today we look at the return of some of Disney’s classic characters in “The Thrifty Pig.”  This film was created for the Canadian war department even before the US entered the war. It reuses animation from the 1933 Disney classic “Three Little Pigs.” The wolf has been put in a Nazi uniform, but other than that, most of the film is identical to the original.

When you think about it, though, using “Three Little Pigs” as the basis of this film makes perfect sense. Supposedly, part of the success of the original film was that the song “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” served as an anthem of sorts to folks battling the great depression. Now, a new Big Bad Wolf was making trouble for the world, and people were being called on to be strong once again. The original film was perfect for how many people were feeling with the uncertainty of war looming.  Reusing it was an inspired choice.

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Cartoon of the Day: Censored

Directed by Frank Tashlin
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 4

Continuing with this week’s theme of World War II era animation, we must look at Warner Brothers’ big contribution to the war effort…Private Snafu. The character was created to star in a series of educational shorts for the military.  Besides the artists behind the Looney Tunes, folks like Frank Capra and Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) were involved in his creation. The films are definitely not for kids, a simple knowledge of what the acronym “SNAFU” stands for is enough to make that obvious. By the way…it’s “Situation Normal, All F*** Up.”

In this short, Snafu (who like many Warner Brothers characters is voiced by Mel Blanc) is anxious to get a letter to his sweetie Sallie Lou. Unfortunately, Snafu keeps giving away too much information about where his unit is going, so the censor keeps intercepting his messages and severely editing them. The “Loose Lips Sink Ships” concept is what the filmmakers were trying to reinforce with the young GI’s in the audience. Eventually, Snafu gets a letter out that is written in a code, but it turns out Sallie Lou has loose lips too. She blabs Snafu’s destination to her mother and before we know it the army of Japan is aware of the sneak attack. In the end, Snafu finds out this was just a dream and gets his coded letter back before it can go out and cause harm.

There is some really amazing artwork in this short. The sequence where the Japanese army prepares for the attack features some great designs, many of which pass by very quickly so be prepared to freeze frame that DVD. Of course, this sequence also features some caricatures which are not at all appropriate in our culture today.

There is some unique artistry to be found in the sequence where Sallie Lou gets Snafu’s letter as well. It also serves as a quick reminder that not all cartoons are for kids as Sallie Lou reads the letter topless, wearing her garters and little else. The animators do make sure to keep her arms strategically placed so as not to show too much, but there’s no doubt they were trying to make sure they had the soldier’s attention. It’s a unique moment that shows the deeper range of the artists who worked on these films.

The Snafu films are a great look at both animation history and the experiences of military men during World War II.

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Cartoon of the Day: The Ducktators

The Ducktators
Directed by Norm McCabe
Available on: Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 6

Many of the major animation studios got involved in promoting the war effort during World War II which created one of the most intriguing periods of animation history. I feel like taking a look at several war-time shorts this week, beginning with funny but dark film from Warner Brothers, “The Ducktators.”

Right from the opening title card, featuring an egg with a Nazi swastika on it, you know this film will have an unpleasant side.  The film concerns a “bad egg” which hatches into a duck that resembles Adolph Hitler.  He begins to create an army out of the other ducks and is eventually joined by a goose resembling Mussolini and another duck representing Hirohito.  In the end, all three are defeated by a fed up Dove of Peace.  The dove ends up keeping their heads on his wall as trophies.  The film is actually in the public domain now and many versions of it are missing this final joke not to mention the appeal to the audience to buy war bonds, though the entire film is intact on the Golden Collection Vol. 6 set.

This is a shocking film to watch.  At the time it was made, the world had no idea the full extent of Hitler’s crimes…to see him portrayed as a duck in a somewhat comedic way is tough to wrap your brain around.  The filmmakers do go for laughs, but there is no mistaking that the ultimate goal of the film was to dehumanize the enemy.

From an animation standpoint, the highlight is the animation of the Hitler duck.  The gestures and expressions the animators get out this character are as dead on an impersonation of Hitler as anyone has achieved.

Many of these war-time films have elements that can be considered quite inappropriate today, this one is no exception.  But they are important films to examine to better understand the impact the war had on all aspects of American life.


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