COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #18 THE CHINA PLATE (1931)

Aside from some unfortunate character stereotyping, The China Plate is a remarkable cartoon. Consider the source material: in the late 1700s, a story was developed to market a particular pattern on a china plate. Even though the plate was created in England, the design was based on a Chinese style, and thus the story (also created in England) was about Chinese characters. The ‘Willow Pattern’ legend had been told many times and many ways for almost a century and half before the team at Disney tried their hand at it. As a story that might have been familiar to audiences in 1931, there was no dialogue needed, and Frank Churchill’s brilliant score almost tells the story by itself. Disney’s embellishments to the story: a cormorant fishing sequence and a chase with a dragon, for example, only add to the fun and wonder of this mostly forgotten short.

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

chinaplatefb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #19 THE BUSY BEAVERS (1931)

One of my favorite things about cartoons from the ’30s is how they often present an extremely complicated method of achieving something simple. The first 5 minutes of The Busy Beavers shows a group of beavers building a dam in a way that would boggle the mind of any architect but delight contemporary audiences. It’s no surprise that the same year this short was released, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added the term “Rube Goldberg”. Frank Churchill’s score – filled with pop music references – perfectly matches the action, which turns from light and playful to ominous and dramatic as a storm spectacularly threatens the beavers’ dam. A team of over a dozen animators, working under the able direction of Wilfred Jackson, turned out another winner for Disney.

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

busybeaversfb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #20 THE CAT’S OUT (1931)

Like Egyptian Melodies, The Cat’s Out (also known as The Cat’s Nightmare) is a series of humorous and clever vignettes, perfectly synchronized to a fantastic score, composed and compiled by the great Frank Churchill. In this short, the hero/victim is a cat, put out for the night, who chases a bird and falls off a roof. He hits the ground and is knocked out (perhaps that’s what’s meant by the title?). In his nightmare, he encounters a giant version of the bird, owls, bats, spiders, and, in what might be the most clever gag of the short, a pair of hollow trees.

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

catsoutfb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #21 EGYPTIAN MELODIES (1931)

I prefer this short to The Spider and the Fly because I like spiders, and the main character of this cartoon is a likable arachnid. Like the spider in the later short, he also plays his web like a harp, but here, rather than using it to seduce his prey, he seems to be playing to entertain himself. He then immediately breaks the forth wall as he beckons us, the viewers, to accompany him on a visit into an Egyptian tomb. There’s not much plot to Egyptian Melodies, but that doesn’t mean it’s not breathtaking. The corridor scene anticipated first-person shooter video games by more than 40 years, and the 2D/3D experimentation rendering the art on the wall was a breakthrough. (By the way, the attached image shows our hero parodying Al Jolson, by getting down on two (out of 4) knees and singing “Mummy!”).

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

egyptianfb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #22 THE CLOCK STORE (1931)

One of the best of the early Silly Symphonies, The Clock Store is a tour de force of animation technique, beginning with the opening shot of a lamplighter walking down the street and illuminating the screen, and continuing through the rest of the short, featuring vignettes of anthropomorphic figures in the clock store. It’s not unlike The China Shop (3 years later, also directed by Wilfred Jackson) in that the gags escalate until the the short descends into violent comical chaos, but the animation breakthroughs in this short, particularly the minuet scene, are still breathtaking today.

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

clockstorefb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #23 THE SPIDER AND THE FLY (1931)

Since we’re counting backwards, the plot of The Spider and The Fly will probably remind you of Bugs In Love (or even The Clock Store). In this short, it’s the villainous Spider who has grabbed the lovely Fly from her beau. Before he can eat her, an army of houseflies (some riding the backs of horseflies) come to her aid, and dispose of the spider in (ironically) flypaper. Disney has always done a good job with animating spiders (wait until we get to Egyptian Melodies in 2 days!), and this short is no exception. Clever gags abound in the battle scenes, and the music supplies a functional backdrop to the action.

Don’t forget to visit The Silly Symphony Collection page for details on the massive vinyl box set.

spiderflyfb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #24 THE FOX HUNT (1931)

The Fox Hunt is an odd cartoon for me. On one hand, it’s a funny, gag-filled short that mocks the upper-class “gentlemen” on the fox hunt – and of course, the fox gets away. On the other hand, it’s about a fox hunt. Thinking back, my entire knowledge of fox hunts came from cartoons, especially this one and the Donald & Goofy short made later in the decade. Perhaps looking at it through the viewpoint of the 21st century does it an injustice. As always, the animation is top-notch and Frank Churchill’s score is memorable.

And don’t forget to check here for updates on The Silly Symphony Collection!

foxhuntfb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #25 THE UGLY DUCKLING (1931)

This short is an oddity for a couple of reasons. Firstly, while there were a few Silly Symphonies to merit sequels (Three Little Pigs, Water Babies, Three Orphan Kittens, The Tortoise and the Hare…), there’s only one that got a remake: The Ugly Duckling. And since we’re counting backwards, today’s short is the original. The other reason that this short is odd is that while the remake follows the spirit of the Hans Christian Anderson story, this version does not. In the original Anderson story, a cygnet is born into a family of ducks – he’s a “ugly duckling” because he’s not a duckling at all. In this short, the main character is indeed a duckling, born into a family of chickens. But I guess “the ugly chick” didn’t carry the right message, even in 1931.

And if you haven’t already seen it – the mini-documentary for the Silly Symphony project that inspired this countdown hit the web today. You can check it out here.

uglyducking1fb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #26 THE BIRD STORE (1932)

Another pared down short that really emphasizes the soundtrack. The Bird Store spends most of its first 5 minutes introducing one kind of bird after another, with their birdsong playing an integral part of the score. The progression from songbirds to more surreal birds with elaborate calls (and sound effects) is a joy to watch. Eventually, there’s some action – a cat gets into the shop and is dispatched by the birds operating in concert – but the beauty of this cartoon is the interaction between the clever animation and Frank Churchill’s score.

Click here for more on The Silly Symphony Collection

birdstorefb

COUNTDOWN TO THE SILLY SYMPHONY COLLECTION – #27 THE BEARS AND THE BEES (1932)

There’s a moment about halfway into The Bears and The Bees that perfectly summarizes the entire raison d’être of the Silly Symphonies series, which modern viewers may take for granted. The short is a simple one: two cute bear cubs (who bear more than a passing resemblance to Mickey Mouse) are playing, and looking for good things to eat. When they find a berry bush, an older bear takes it from them and chases them off. Then they find a hollow tree where bees have built a hive and start to gorge on honey. The bees are alerted to their trespass, and by the time they return to defend their hive, the older bear is now in place for his ultimate comeuppance. As the short starts, Frank Churchill’s melody plays a typically lovely background to the action on screen. But a couple of minutes in, when the bees realize that their hive is threatened, they rise from the flowers and their humming buzz joins the soundtrack. The melody is now coming from the onscreen characters. When the Silly Symphony series started just three years earlier, Carl Stalling’s idea was to merge the action with the music. For contemporary audiences, these shorts weren’t just an entertainment, they were a revelation.

bearsandbeesfb

1 2 3 6