Video File

December 11, 2012
 

A Classic Animated Christmas

Peace On Earth (MGM, 1939)

On Christmas Eve, in a post-apocalyptic world, two squirrel children ask their grandfather what men are. He describes the “flat-footed people” and their penchant for violence, leading to his story of how humanity destroyed itself by war, as lavishly illustrated, dark-hued scenes of armed conflict (including a soldier shot and killed, and his body slowly sinking into the pond he had waded in to). After the last human dies, the animals take instruction from the Bible (“looks like a mighty good book of rules,” the owl says, “but I guess them men didn’t pay much attention to it”)—“Thou shalt not kill,” and “Ye shall rebuild the old wastes.” Thus inspired, the animals re-purpose the detritus of war—armaments and clothing—to serve as homes for their families.

Remade in 1955 as Good Will to Men, this was the first MGM cartoon to be nominated for an Academy Award and was the first short subject to receive a Parents Magazine Medal. It is also the only cartoon ever nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Recognizing its value, MGM gave the cartoon special promotional treatment, but in a 1973 interview, director Hugh Harman said the studio “tried to stop me from making it–it was too serious. We shouldn’t have made it as a one-reeler; we should have made it about three to five reels.”

 

The Insects’ Christmas (1913)

Produced by the Russian Khanzhonkov Company and directed by Władysław Starewicz (who later changed his name to Ladislas Starevich after joining a group of Russian emigres in France, where he formed a film company that set up shop in the ruins of Georges Méliès’ old studio), a pioneer of stop-motion filmmaking.

During his time as director of a natural history museum in Lithuania, Starewicz began making live-action nature documentaries. Apparently he turned to stop-motion while trying to film a battle between stag beetles who kept falling asleep under the stage lights; using dead beetles, wire, and wax, he engineered the scene he was looking for. Most of his fascinating films are under 15 minutes long, and are technically astonishing even by today’s standards. Little if any wires are seen in extremely complex scenes mixing such things as dozens of intricate, simultaneously moving puppets with blowing leaves, rhythmically beating lights, rippling water, and rear-projected real people. Starewicz began making 3-D stop motion animated films (puppet films, as he called them) in 1910 and continued creating them until his death. His films, although emotionally aimed at children, often feature grotesque characters and situations—not what we would consider acceptable children’s fare today, but every bit in keeping with the tradition, if you will, at the time of populating children’s tales with frighteningly human villains and often violent scenes, a la Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

In an article published in World Film News, London, October 1936, Marie Seton appraised Starevitch’s work to that time, writing in part:

Twenty-five years ago Starevitch left the National History Museum at Kovno in order to go to Moscow and direct films. Since 1911 he has made over forty pictures ranging in length from 375 metres to 2500 metres.He directed the first Russian film, La Cigale et la Fourmi, to be shown abroad. It was presented in 1913 at the Gaumont Palace in Paris. This film was followed by a series of pictures based on the Russian classics in which most of the leading Russian actors appeared. But the longer Starevitch worked in the cinema, the less he liked directing actors, for they never did what he wanted them to do. This led him to experiment with marionettes.

Władysław Starewicz

It was not until he went to Paris after the 1917 Revolution that Starevitch finally resolved to specialize in puppet films. Several times since then he has endeavored to combine actors and puppets in the same picture, as, for example, in The Dragon’s Eyes and Queen of the Butterflies. But generally the actors have been children who fitted into Starevitch’s fantastic world of animals and insects like Alice into Carroll’s Wonderland. In some of his early films, Starevitch also mixed the real world with the artificial, using real flowers and living birds in scenes with doll figures. He has also made a certain use of tricks borrowed from the American cinema. Because of his studies in natural history and ethnology, Starevitch is continually giving his stories a scientific background. He has made many semi-scientific pictures of animal life, as well as a number of films in which he has adapted the customs of primitive peoples and utilized their decorative work. Underlying all his work is a scientific element.

Every one of Starevitch’s marionettes has been made by himself, and he is his own scenic designer as well as cameraman. He uses the most varied material for his puppets. The more important ones have chamois leather faces, but their bodies may be made from all kinds of odd bits and pieces, twigs, wire, straw or cork. The change of expression is achieved by moving the stuffed features, particularly the leather around the eyes.

Starevitch’s best known work in England is The Mascot, a bizarre film shown some years ago at the Marble Arch Pavilion. His most famous film abroad is The Voice of the Nightingale, which was awarded the Hugo Riesenfeld medal in America for being the most novel short film of the year of 1925. But probably his most important picture is his early sound film, Renard the Fox, made in 1930 and shown at the Sorbonne. In this film Starevitch makes a brilliant satiric use of animals.

Whether he is doing so consciously or not, Starevitch is in the nature of a twentieth century Aesop who is using the cinema in order to relate fables which are designed for a grown-up audience. Judging from Disney’s success, urban life has not destroyed people’s love of the fantastic when it is visualized, even if they say they no longer believe in fairy-tales. Because animals in themselves are like preliminary sketches of man who are subject to none of the inhibitions which chafe mankind, animal puppets or drawn figures convey human eccentricities much more freely than any human representation.

Starevitch’s work is on the whole too curious and bizarre in style ever to become generally popular, and judging from the subject of the most recent film, The Creation of the World, it is only likely to appeal to a special audience.

 

Frosty the Snowman (1953)

This was the very first animated take on the classic holiday tune “Frosty the Snowman,” pre-dating the beloved Rankin-Bass TV special of the same name (and expanded story line) by 15 years. Featuring a remixed version of the original song, this short aired regularly on Chicago’s WGN-TV. It was broadcast on the station for many Christmases thereafter. Several sources list its first air date as being in 1953, but imdb.com has it making its debut in 1954. It was produced by United Productions of America (UPA), the company best known for the multitude of Gerald McBoing-Boing and Mr. Magoo cartoons it produced from the 1950s into the 1970s, and for doing the animated titles for several of Rod Serling’s classic Twilight Zone episodes in the ‘60s. According to Wikipedia, WGN-TV broadcasts this “Frosty” every year as part of its children’s programming retrospective, along with a pair of other Christmas cartoon classics, “Suzy Snowflake” and “Hardrock, Coco and Joe.” The three cartoons are also a tradition on WJAC-TV in Johnstown, PA, which not only broadcasts the cartoons on their station, but also posts them on their website. The Hi-Lo’s-like vocal group singing the Walter “Jack” Rollins-Steve Nelson Yuletide evergreen has never been identified.

 

Suzy Snowflake (1951)

This classic of stop-motion animation was animated by Wah Ming Chang, who went on to design props and costumes for Star Trek, including the tricorders and communicators.

 

Hardrock, Coco and Joe—The Three Little Dwarfs (1951)

It was originally created by Centaur Productions utilizing the stop-motion talents of artist Wah Ming Chang, who also worked on “Suzy Snowflake.”

According to the narrative song, Hardrock drives Santa’s sleigh, and Coco navigates with maps. Santa “has no need for Joe/ but takes him ’cause he loves him so.” (However, in the Bozo the Clown special “A Bozo Christmas,” Coco states that Joe, who was unable to go with them that year due to illness, was in charge of crisis management.) Part of the charm of this primitively made cartoon is that Joe, the smallest of the three and very boyish-looking, has a deep bass voice.

The “Hardrock, Coco and Joe” song was written by Stuart Hamblen, one of the first singing cowboys in film career dating from 1926 that saw him cast alongside John Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry in early horse operas. He’s far better known now as a country and Christian songwriter, whose catalogue includes Rosemary Clooney’s hit “This Ole House” and the Christian standard, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do),” which has been recorded by Elvis Presley, among others. In 1965 Dean Martin had a memorable hit with Hamblen’s “(Remember Me) I’m the One Who Loves You.” A reformed alcoholic, Hamblen ran as the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President of the United States in 1952.