In honor of the Academy Awards this coming Sunday, we offer a refreshing ode to Oscar films past — and in an undervalued category. Best Animated Short, or “Short Subject, Cartoons” as it was known until 1970, was first introduced for the 5th Academy Awards, in 1932, and that’s exactly where we’re going to spend some time. Here are the three nominees for that category; embedded, ranked and appreciated. There’s also a bonus discovery down at the end, but first we’ll take a look back at the shorts.
3. “Mickey’s Orphans” (Walt Disney Productions)
This Christmas-themed short is not only a classic on its own merit, but it is a great example of the most common techniques used back in the ’30s for the format. One of the first things you notice is the integration of cartoon and music, the way every image moves with the rhythm of the soundtrack. “Silent Night” matches exactly with Mickey’s placing of ornaments on the tree, the rushing of the wind, and Pluto’s snoring. The entire seven minutes can be seen as a rhythmically exact progression of animation, music and sound effects that link the two. It’s a series of moments or jokes, tableaux of the little kittens joyfully running about Mickey and Minnie’s home, causing a ruckus.
Its only flaw is that the story itself doesn’t seem to contain much more than just that; kittens arrive, they cause problems and hilarity ensues. It’s a well-executed example of a standard Mickey Cartoon, but isn’t much more than that. (Also, can someone explain how Mickey’s bag of presents ends up containing a whole bunch of hand saws?)
Watch the short and see the other two nominees after the jump.
2. “It’s Got Me Again!” (Leon Schlesinger Productions)
In an odd reversal, this “Merrie Melodies” short takes the “many tiny kittens harass big mice” synopsis of “Mickey’s Orphans” and turns it upside down to “many tiny mice are harassed by big cat.” Of course, having a lot of identical figures doing exactly the same thing makes animation a lot simpler, and this is still early in the development of the genre. It is however still notable that these two films bear such remarkable similarities. As I see it, what sets the only non-Disney nominee that year apart from Mickey and Minnie’s Christmas romp lies in two places: the story, and the musical integration.
Simply put, “It’s Got Me Again” has a better plot arc than “Mickey’s Orphans.” The introduction of the cat, and the ensuing danger brought about upon the poor little mice creates a dramatic tension that drives the second half of the film. It’s not just rhythmic shenanigans. Secondly, the Merrie Melody takes quite a bit of creative inspiration from the Irving Caesar/Bernice Petkere song which plays during the film. The animators took that musical connection and ran with it, offering not only the musical integration of its Disney competitor but also turning the mice into (somewhat accidental) musicians. They play flutes, drums, and even an enormous sousaphone. It’s cute, funny, and it works.
Its one obvious weakness seems to be the awkward couple of pop culture references. The Apache Dance and the Al Jolson “Mammy” bit (which is the only extended verbal moment in the short) fall flat, especially the latter, which also highlights the unfortunate but clear influence of Mickey Mouse and his voice. Interesting that animated film still grapples with that problem today.
1. “Flowers and Trees” (Walt Disney Productions)
If you’re wondering why I’m holding seven-minute animated shorts to such a high standard, critiquing these films for their plot arcs and narrative, it’s because the third nominee (and winner of the Oscar) really does raise the bar. “Flowers and Trees” is a fantastic piece of animation, and a worthy classic of the form. There isn’t a simple narrative skeleton onto which the animators can add visual gags, but rather actual characters and a quickly moving plot. By the 2:00 mark there’s already a love story presented, and sympathy for the trees has been artfully created. We have a villain, who is sufficiently scary for an animated tree, and every little detail falls into place.
A whole natural world is created with everyone from the flowers to the birds taking an active role, as a garland, warning bells or a siren. The musical integration is also fantastic, taking the individual connection between musical moment and visual image and applying it to the whole arc of the film. The audience wakes up with the birds, trees and flowers at the opening, aided by the cellos and violins of the studio orchestra. Everything is alive and has a musical presence, from the tree harp to the birdlike bushes and jumping flames.
And it’s all beautiful. The Technicolor works brilliantly, and every detail fits with the larger whimsical aesthetic. “Flowers and Trees” ran away with the prize, and deservedly so. It was the first of Walt Disney’s 22 Oscars, or at least his first competitive victory – that same year he was awarded an Honorary Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse.
Bonus! For the 1932 Oscar ceremony Walt Disney Productions also put together this short animated film, in which the six nominees for Best Actor and Actress (Fredric March, Helen Hayes, Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, all in character) parade down a flowery carpet. It was the first time Mickey was drawn in color; see if you can spot the difference between his appearance here and the iconic image he’d pick up shortly after.
Wouldn’t it be great if Disney still made cartoons like this every year for the Oscar nominees? Picture a parade with an armless James Franco, Natalie Portman in costume, etc.