31 October 2009

DISNEY ANIMATION: REST YOUR HEAD CLOSE TO MY HEART

In 1941, the fate of the Disney Studios rested upon a single film, for the second time in four years. The one-two punch of Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of them costing astronomical sums and both of them crashing and burning at the box office, had left the company teetering right on the edge of bankruptcy. The last-ditch effort to get some money in the studio coffers was to make an extremely cheap little circus movie based upon a story that Walt Disney had to be tricked into liking, by two story men: the great Joe Grant and the less famous but still pretty great Dick Huemer. Lucky for Walt that they managed to change his mind, for Dumbo proved to be a massive hit at a moment when the studio needed a massive hit rather desperately, grossing more than its two immediate predecessors combined on a budget smaller than any other feature-length film in the studio's history.

In the process, Dumbo also redefined what Disney animation was going to be all about. The artistic zenith achieved in Pinocchio and Fantasia would never again be equaled, nor was the attempt really even made, except in small ways in the 1990s. The lesson learned in 1940-'41 was this: ambition bombs, charm and sentiment sell. Exceptions spring to mind, of course, but for the most part, if we can suggest that there is a Dumbo-style Disney feature or a Pinocchio-style Disney feature, the overwhelming majority of them were Dumbo-style. Make no mistake, I flat-out adore Dumbo: it is in my Top 5 Disney features of all time. Much of what I adore about it is indeed the scaling-back, the simplicity of the visuals and story. I'm just observing what seems to me a trend towards warmer, family-friendly narratives and bright visuals, away from the opulent visuals and ultimately chilly tone of the two 1940 features.

Dumbo is the shortest of all Disney features (save one of the "package films"), and even so its narrative is hardly robust enough to fill 64 minutes. A little elephant is delivered by a prim stork to a circus traveling north from Florida; he becomes the subject of ridicule because of his large ears; his mother is imprisoned for trying to protect him; a mouse befriends him when no-one else will, through his increasing humiliations in the circus; one night he gets drunk and wakes up in a tree, and realises he can fly, thanks to the very same ears that have given him so much shame; fame, fortune and the sincere contrition of those who belittled him follow. Even more than the studio's actual fairy-tale adaptations, this has the tang of a fable to it. Not least because of its relative dearth of dialogue (Dumbo himself is the only non-speaking protagonist in any Disney feature) and an editing pattern which serves to divide the already slender film up into three or four-minute chunks; in essence it's a series of pantomimed vignettes, and after a while it no longer feels like a traditional drama, but something like a "stations of the cross" play. Forgive me the idiotic comparison, but I couldn't think of anything else that captured the feeling of what I was looking for - certainly, I'm not arguing that Dumbo is a Christ figure! But the movie has a "scenes from the life" feeling that pulls it out of time - ironic, considering that it was the first Disney feature with a contemporary setting.

For all that, it is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally potent of all animated movies; I might be inclined to say, of all movies, period. Dumbo himself is a horribly appealing character, with his large eyes and soft lines (courtesy of Bill Tytla, looking to get away from the villains that had defined his career to this point), the kind of protagonist that you rather ache for than sympathise with; sympathy doesn't cover the viewer's desire to shield the little elephant from all misery and wrong (which is not to say we take the place of his mother; we rather take the place of Timothy the mouse, demonstrated especially in the heartbreaking "Baby Mine" sequence, one of the sweetly saddest moments in all of cinema, when we adopt his POV watching Dumbo and Mrs. Jumbo). This is an emotionally enervating film to watch in a way that none of the previous Disney films even began to approach (Pinocchio is enervating, but in a wholly different way); yet many, many Disney films would copy it in the future. "Kill the parent" becomes almost a sick joke in Disney history, beginning with the film immediately to follow Dumbo, Bambi, but somehow not a one of those films achieves, in its bloodlust, the same emotional crush that comes from Dumbo be separated from his mother by caprice and the indifference of others, rather than death. The knowledge that a parent has died can be processed. The knowledge that a parent lies just on the other side of some iron bars, and you can't get to her, that is a much crueler thing.

Way back when, I think I suggest that Dumbo was a light movie, which is clearly not what I've just argued. What I was referring to then was both its unabashed sentimentality, complete with triumphant ending, and it's easy, simple visual style. This is second of only three Disney features with watercolor backgrounds, after Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and the effect is largely the same in both films: the world of the movie is softer and warmer, like a picture book, and it's far more inviting than the richer and more detailed oil and gouache paintings that are found everywhere else in Disney's canon. At the same time, owing I imagine more to cheapness and haste than to an actual choice on the part of Walt Disney or (less likely) supervising director Ben Sharpsteen, who also co-directed Pinocchio, the film is animated with a markedly reduced level of detail not just from the three earlier features, but even from the Silly Symphonies shorts. This could be a desperate flaw in a number of other contexts, but it works very well here: the animals and people sketched out in the smallest number of visual traits necessary (sometimes lacking even a face!) give the film a hazy, dreamy quality unique to itself; not only is like a child's book, it is somewhat like a child's illustration, solid colors and smooth surfaces all 'round. This half-formed art, I think, contributes a great deal to the film's innocence, and the wide-eyed joy it takes in its own slight story.

With one exception, and it's arguably the most famous part of the film. "Pink Elephants on Parade", directed by Norm Ferguson and animated by Hicks Lokey, Howard Swift and Frank Thomas (who would later become prominent as one of the great creators of villainous women characters, and was one of the Nine Old Men), is a nightmarish masterpiece of design and animation and music, a dizzying blast into a drunken stupor that looks nothing like actual intoxication, but when something has this much nightmarish power, it seems awfully silly to complain about something minor like that. The beyond-bold use of neon colors married to jet black backgrounds looks absolutely unlike anything else in mainstream animation in 1941 (it looks pretty un-mainstream in 2009, for that matter), to say nothing of the constant morphing of objects that seem to have no physical permanence whatever - the classic squash and stretch technique in service of a hallucination, rather than goofy physical comedy.

Visually and emotionally, Dumbo is a masterpiece. There's just one sticking point: it is the first Disney movie with really significant race problems, if you will. Fantasia had its infamous Sunflower the Black Centaur, but sanitised history has swallowed her up whole. You can't do anything to cut the crows out of Dumbo, not least because they sing the film's absolute best song, "When I See an Elephant Fly". And they are pure, unmitigated stereotypes, not necessarily the most insulting stereotypes imaginable, mind you, but stereotypes. It is possible, though shallow, to defend the crows by pointing out that they are the only characters who show any affection for Dumbo at all; and I noticed at times that the specific language of the other elephants' rejection of Dumbo takes a distinctly segregationist pitch. So a thoroughly dedicated apologist could make the argument that Dumbo is a coded pro-civil rights statement: the obviously African-American crows giving aid and comfort to the elephant because he is a metaphorical stand-in for oppressed non-white people in America. I am not going to be that apologist, because it's a flimsy argument, and the crows are unabashed stereotypes, and you can't change that. Racist representation is something that just happened in movies in the 1940s, and it's a terrible pity, but if we're to discount any film with racist overtones, we will have to throw out a great many masterpieces, and not all of them made by white American men. Am I bothered by the crows? Absolutely. Do they invalidate Dumbo? Absolutely not. Besides, as racist caricatures in the '40s go, there is a great deal of room for them to have been infinitely worse.

That was a touch heavy and strident, so let me end on a happier note by simply reiterating what I've said already: Dumbo is an extraordinarily charming little movie made from a wholly innocent perspective that was never captured so perfectly by Disney's story men or animators. It is, perhaps, the first Disney "family" film, rather than a "everybody" film - the difference is not incidental - and thus the beginning of the road that led to the complete ghettoizing of animation in Hollywood; but that's not Dumbo's fault, except that it's so good that, like Snow White before it, it couldn't help but spawn armies of imitators.

DISNEY ANIMATION: SIGHT AND SOUND

That Pinocchio was a significant commercial failure is something I can sort of get my head around, but it ultimately seems pretty hard to believe that something so beautiful and heartfelt could be so soundly ignored. I have no such difficulty believe the same thing of the other Disney feature released in 1940, of unquestionably greater personal importance to Walt Disney himself. I'm referring of course to Fantasia, the baldest expression of Walt's desire that animation be taken as seriously as any other art form, and the most technologically accomplished film he ever oversaw, with its cutting-edge stereo sound system, Fantasound; a system so advanced, in fact, that only a baker's dozen theaters ever installed it, for the film's spectacularly money-losing roadshow run in 1940 and '41. Setting aside the unimaginable amount of money that the film cost; only a madman would think that you could sell people a two-hour animated anthology film consisting of what amounts to early music videos set to eight pieces of classical music. But let us never forget that however much money we like to think of the Disney Company generating, Walt Disney was a godawful businessman. He made the movies that he wanted to see, and in this case he wanted to see a movie that is, when all is said and done, a demo reel for some of the most inventive animation in the history of the medium.

The film is meant to suggest that we are attending a concert and so in its original version (as well as the DVD release), it begins with a simple curtain rising, as we watch the members of an orchestra take their places for the impending concert. After a moment or two of this, New York music critic Deems Taylor steps up and briefly explains the concept behind this Fantasia experiment. He will return in between segments throughout the film, and I think the importance of these interstitial moments to the overall success of the whole is typically under-appreciated. Taylor is a bit hectoring at times, but in the main he is a very straightforward man who isn't trying to scare us, but simply wants to make sure we have enough information to go into each new piece. He makes Fantasia an exceedingly friendly peek into the world of classical music, a realm that most 20th and 21st Century Americans would rather avoid at all costs (though I believe that classical music was not vilified as snobby, elitist, and boring in 1940 to quite the same degree that it has been in the intervening years). What could easily have been a lesson instead becomes an exploration, with a particularly well-spoken guide to bring us along. Then the great conductor Leopold Stokowski ascends the podium in the center of the orchestra, and one of the most singular events in movie history begins.

The first segment of the film, set to Johann Sebastian Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is by far the boldest, and very nearly the most famous in the whole movie. The Disney Studios' first leap into abstract animation, it is an attempt to express in visual terms the experience of listening to music, being aware of the presence of instruments and the people playing them; and thus, though it is a rather daunting thing to look at for someone expecting a cartoon with pretty music, it is the ideal start to a film like Fantasia.

I am about to voice a heresy: I think this sequence is overrated. Very lovely in many ways, but overrated. Basically, abstraction is not something that came terribly easy to the Disney animators, and they over-thought it a little bit here (In the future, when they were working with a sort of pseudo-abstraction, a highly stylised interpretation of concrete events - there's a brilliant moment of this sort in Bambi - they would have much greater success. Of course, I cannot demonstrate that "they" refers to the same individuals, but that is the damnable thing about discussing institutional evolution). The tactile quality of the animation itself is extremely appealing, mind - I certainly don't want to suggest that the sequence isn't lovely to look at. But there's a wobbliness to it at certain moments: the attempts to animate parts of instruments flying around in the air is just silly, if you ask me. The best part of the sequence is the opening, live-action footage with stark colored lights (shot by James Wong Howe, if the IMDb is to be trusted), putting all our attention on the instruments themselves; it is not abstract as such, but it is dramatic and beautiful.

The next segment, and my personal favorite, is set to a re-ordered version of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - a far less trite choice in 1940, when the ballet had not yet received its first full U.S. performance. It is a perfect example of what Fantasia does best: following the spirit of a piece while bending its specifics out of recognition. In this case, we have ballet music; and the sequence is undoubtedly balletic, with one dance after another for several minutes. But in the hands of the animators, it becomes a tribute to nature and the gentle change of seasons, with the fairies of the ballet turned into sprites responsible for making flowers blooms, leaves turn color, and frost to form its intricate designs. Meanwhile, the foreign emissaries who present their dances are now plants and animals.

I don't suppose many people would argue if I said that this is the loveliest sequence in the movie. It also might use the widest variety of animation techniques to achieve its look out of anything in the film (Toccata and Fugue would be the other candidate). This is the painterly sequence of Fantasia, the one where the contrast of textures is the most important; particularly in the finale, "Waltz of the Flowers", in which the straightforward cel-animated fairies are set against the drybrushed backgrounds, and whatever technique they used to make the ice and the snowflakes, I have never known. Here is also the film's showiest demonstration of the technical competence of Disney animation, particularly in the Arabian dance, with gossamer fish swimming about with a fluidity and grace rarely matched before or since. And the sequence also boasts my personal favorite minute and change in the whole of animation history, the Chinese dance of the mushrooms, and I just don't give a damn if its racist (which it totally is): an absolutely perfect bit of pantomime, demonstrating exquisitely how well the animators could create personality from silence and movement.

The third sequence is the most important and most famous: Mickey Mouse in Paul Dukas's The Sorcerer's Apprentice. I say most important, because without this short, there'd have been no Fantasia at all. The story goes that Walt Disney was concerned that Mickey had been upstaged by characters like Donald Duck, Goofy, and even Pluto, and he wanted to give his star character a last moment to shine. It was to be a simple, elegant piece, a silent film save for Dukas's narratively charged music, a reminder of all that Mickey could be at his greatest.

And thanks to Walt's inveterate perfectionism, it got expensive fast.

Roy Disney, the financial brain that always had to rein in his little brother's artistic ambition, quickly realised that The Sorcerer's Apprentice could never make money as a stand-alone film. It had to be coupled with a feature. Naturally enough, the feature ended up costing proportionally as expensive as the short did, and all that Roy's good sense achieved was to piss away virtually all of the money leftover from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

At any rate, that horribly costly Mickey short is a pretty miraculous little thing - almost without question the finest Micky cartoon ever made, not only because of its ambition but because of the incredible degree of care that went into every single drawing. The use of lighting and color in this sequence is hardly subtle, but it is effective nonetheless, and more importantly, it's the first time that a Disney project used lighting and color in an entirely expressionist, non-representational manner. The animation itself is up to the very high standards the studio had set for itself in that period; the water effects in particular very nearly rival Pinocchio.

Most importantly, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is wildly charming and entertaining. Mickey wasn't one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s for no reason, and here he was made a roguish scamp again for the first time in a long while. The humorless sorcerer - modeled after Walt Disney himself - is a great character despite his limited screentime, the army of brooms is both formidable and magical, and the narrative itself is scary and funny in equal measure, and at the same moment.

Following a very cute "meeting" between Stokowski and Mickey, Fantasia gets aggressive, with Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, a work that had debuted to riots and violent hostility a mere 27 years earlier (the original roadshow version of the film gets a tiny joke in about that very controversy: when Taylor announces the title of the piece, there is a hideous crash as the chimes player knocks over his instrument).

Stravinsky was the only composer living to see his work given the Fantasia treatment, and while he was vocally critical of the significant re-ordering and cutting of his composition, he allegedly conceded that the animators got to the heart of what he "meant", even if they had to absolutely jettison his original concept. The Rite of Spring was a ballet about primitivism; and the Disney team took that notion all the way back, making a 25 minute epic about the creation of the world, the first flowering of single-celled life, and so on up to the dinosaurs.

The sequence is bold, with simple lines and strong colors to match the exceedingly challenging dissonance and clamor of the ballet. Early on, in the cosmological sequences, it has a very impressionistic feeling that becomes more and more violent as the action moves further along into Earth's history. It's perhaps fair to credit this stretch of the film as the most perfect combination of animation and music of them all: the music's stated goals are well met by the intensity of the visuals. There are, that I can name, two flaws only: the first is that it drags on a bit in the beginning. The second is that, frankly, Stravinsky is easy to dislike; I don't even know that I much care for The Rite of Spring myself. And if you conclude that the music is just too clamorous for your tastes, there's a lot of it to get through.

After an intermission, there's a strange little vignette with Taylor interviewing the film's soundtrack - a game attempt to show how motion picture sound looks on film, that doesn't really go much of anyplace. But somehow, it fits into the whole Fantasia fabric such that I couldn't imagine removing it, although I always get fidgety before it ends.

The next sequence is set to what I imagine is the most prominent piece of music in the film: Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale. It's also the sequence that has been subjected to the most criticism over the years. I will not address the well-known racial stereotypes that the Walt Disney Company has gone to such lengths to hide; a movie made in 1940 by white filmmakers is likely to have racist overtones here and there, and to get a flustered and panicky about such thing is an insult to film history.

But the plot, which takes Beethoven's vague sketch of a ride in the country interrupted by a thunderstorm, and places it in mythological Greece, is certainly damn peculiar. And for the interminable stretch where it's nothing but cupids trying to get centaurs to hook up, it's also damn boring. So the criticism has a very valid point, and it doesn't help matters that the animation here is at its most cartoonish, with certain moments of jerkiness and awkward design that are quite enough to send the sequence howling into the lowest rank among the film's passages, even without narrative hiccups.

What saves the Pastoral Symphony is, simply, color. Throughout the whole of Fantasia, Walt gave a relatively free hand to the animators to do anything they wanted at all - the only time he'd take such a generous approach to producing. That translated in this sequence to the most elaborate and imaginative color landscape found in any Disney project up to that point. I once attended a lecture given by the late Ward Kimball, one of the famous Nine Old Men of Disney animation, and a supervising animator on this sequence, and he recalled how it became sort of a game to see who could come up with the most playful and unusual use of color. He spoke of a particular background artist who had toast with boysenberry jam in his lunch box, and found that the particular reddish-blue of boysenberry was precisely what he'd been looking for; and there is a tree in this sequence the exact color of that jam. This sort of thing is found throughout the Pastoral Symphony, which isn't an experiment in using color to further plot; it's an indulgence in color for its own sake, and I wouldn't give it up for the world.

But I'll concede it was ill-chosen to follow the Beethoven with Amilcare Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours ballet from the opera La Gioconda, which like Pastoral Symphony is a highly cartoony passage, but is infinitely better at it. The narrative of the ballet is followed quite closely: dancers representing the morning are followed by dancers representing the afternoon, then dancers of the evening, and finally dancers of the night. The big difference is that all of the dancers are African megafauna: ostriches, hippos, elephants, crocodiles.

There isn't much to say about this bit, other than that it's exactly the right time in the program to have something pointlessly, exquisitely silly. Directed by T. Hee, a veteran caricaturist, and Norm Ferguson, a Pluto specialist, Dance of the Hours is a palate cleanser, and a demonstration that even pretentious music snobs don't have to take themselves seriously, and it's about as perfectly-timed as any comic animation sequence from that era.

Fantasia ends with a double shot: Modest Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain and Franz Schubert's Ave Maria. Deems Taylor nicely, if unnecessarily, points out that the two pieces are tonally and thematically opposed, but he fails to mention how very different they are visually. Night on Bald Mountain is, simply put, one of the most striking, powerful sequences in Disney's history. A plotless snapshot of a dark god from Slavic mythology holding court among witches, ghosts and demons, it is by far the grimmest thing the studio made until The Black Cauldron in 1985, arguably.

There is much to love about it, from the distortion effect that makes Chernabog's shadow look like black fire, to the blend of styles from painting to cels to what looks for all the world like unretouched pencil sketches, but the piece hinges on the devil god himself, animated by Vladimir "Bill" Tytla, my pick for the most gifted animator Disney had during their golden age: he was also responsible for Grumpy in Snow White, Stromboli in Pinocchio, and the sorcerer of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. But none of those characters hold a candle to Chernabog, perhaps the most thrillingly animated character in Disney history. A great black bulk, so massive he ceases to feel like a cartoon, Chernabog's movements are the result of study of Bela Lugosi and animator Wilfred Jackson, and a fine demonstration he is of the good to which the studio put the test footage of human models; but the heft of him, his catlike movements, and his rough, graceful fluidity, that's all in the animator's craft, pen and paper and raw skill.

The Ave Maria sequence is a strident counterpoint to the mass and intensity and thickness of Night on Bald Mountain; it is a rigorously stylised, simple piece, executed with an idiotic level of difficulty in the most elaborate multiplane set-up in Disney's history - the only really show-offy multiplane shots in Fantasia, in fact. Here's the fascination thing about this sequence: where the mulitplane camera was customarily used to suggest depth, in Ave Maria it instead suggests flatness: as the camera tracks along the length of an endless stretch of forest, the competing planes seem ever flatter, emphasising the lateral-ness of the shot, the degree to which it's not unlike a banner in an illuminated manuscript. Everything about the content of the images reinforce that: especially the people, indistinct, two-dimensional shapes with little circles of light coming out of the darkness. It is, all in all, a very bold-looking sequence, and coupled with the tremendously spiritual music, it becomes a sort of meditation on nature and peace, that breaks into transcendence in the last seconds, when the mulitplane camera finally embraces its true calling to give endless depth to a shot of the sun behind trees.

It cannot be argued other than that this is the most ambitious film of Walt Disney's career; better to ask where it ranks among the most ambitious, or at least the most crazily optimistic, films in history. And naturally for a film of such scope, it took history a long time to catch up to it. In the meantime Fantasia's epic failure left the Disney Studios on the brink of catastrophe. For my part, I think it should have been worth twice the cost: it is ribboned with flaws both impossibly minor and embarrassingly large, but it surely must count as one of the most visually stunning American movies ever made, a veritable catalogue of what makes traditional animation so inconceivably beautiful when it's being done absolutely right.

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: HOUSE OF MIRTH

After the miserable failure of House of Frankenstein, there wasn't much that the next Universal horror movie had to do besides show up to be an improvement. But House of Dracula does more than just show up. Perhaps because the filmmakers realised on some level that this was to be the final hurrah for their iconic characters (at least, in a "serious" horror film), this last gasp of the second wave of Universal monster pictures is pretty damn weird in just about every manner, and while that doesn't imply that it must also be good, at least the weirdness gives it a surprising, fresh edge that might as well pass for good by this point in the cycle.

How weird am I talking? This weird: the film opens with a bat flying onto the grounds of the stately home of Dr. Franz Edlemann (Onslow Stevens), a well-respected doctor known for his treatment of inexplicable conditions. That bat transforms into Count Dracula (John Carradine), who wakes up Dr. Edlemann to request that they have a brief consultation in the basement; and in the basement, Edlemann finds a coffin marked with the Dracula family crest. Dracula confesses that yes, he is the world-famous vampire, and he has come to Edlemann's Visaria clinic to beg that the doctor find a way to cure him of his vampirism.

No, you really just don't find that kind of opening to a horror movie every day. It's already pretty strange that Dracula presents himself like a gentleman caller; the fact that he's looking for a medical treatment for his state is almost easy to miss, given how extremely peculiar the whole scene plays out. I like it, it has a certain "we are not going to give a shit about the rules" quality. Throughout House of Dracula it's somewhat plain that Edward T. Lowe (it's impossible to believe that the same mind perpetrated both of the House of movies) was trying to amuse himself by making things as absurd as he possibly could. In the context of the rest of the film, the mere fact that neither Dracula nor Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr. of course) has any explanation for why they're not as dead as they were in the last film barely registers. It's all part of the "what the hell, if the things are going to end here we might as well end them in the most gaudy way possible" tone that makes House of Dracula so magical.

Speaking of Larry Talbot, he shows up at Edlemann's clinic looking for help, as well, but the doctor must turn him away for the moment. Thus Larry goes into town and acts like a crazy bugger, to get himself thrown in prison, and Inspector Holtz (Lionel Atwill, playing a Mitteleuropean policeman for the last time - he died after completing only two more movies) demands that Edlemann come to the station to help figure out what is wrong with this strange fellow. Neither the doctor nor his pretty secretary Miliza (Martha O'Driscoll) believe Talbot's story of lycanthropy any more than the inspector, although the fact that he changes right in the middle of Edlemann's rant about his tortured mental problems convinces everybody rather quickly.

The doctor quickly agrees to take Larry as a patient, and his conclusion after some testing consists of some fabulous bullshit medical jargon that basically means that Larry's tight skull means that he suffers from psychosomatic lycanthropy. It's amazingly campy, and I really can't imagine that it's an accident, but who can say? Edlemann has a treatment, involving the bone-softening fungus he's been developing to help treat his pretty hunchback assistant Nina (Jane Adams), but there isn't enough to fix the werewolf before tonight's full moon. So Larry tries to kill himself by diving into the sea, but all that happens is that he ends up wolfing around in the caves right at the edge of the sea. When Edlemann finds him the next morning, he also finds the bones of the unfortunate Dr. Niemann, as well as the horribly beat-up but still living body of Dr. Frankenstein's infamous monster (Glenn Strange, given even less to do than he did in House of Frankenstein, if it's possible).

Edlemann is no mad scientist, and he's not at all interested in reviving the monster; but things are about to change a bit. See, to cure Dracula, he's been giving the vampire blood transfusions, but the effect goes both ways; and every night, Edlemann goes a little bit crazy. As soon as he figures out what's happening (and as it becomes clear that Dracula is planning on devouring Miliza), he kills the Count, but the damage is done, and soon Crazy Half-Vampire Edlemann (we could probably just call him Hyde Edlemann if we want to admit that this is basically a heavily costumed rip-off) is off killing people in the countryside, with Larry getting all the blame, even though Jekyll Edlemann has cured him of his lycanthropy. In due course, Hyde Edlemann resurrects the monster, just as the Visarian villagers - get this - storm the hospital with torches and pitchforks, and things end just exactly the way the last several Frankenstein pictures have: the monster goes nuts and knocks things over and they blow up.

Notwithstanding that massively overdone ending, House of Dracula actually does a whole lot to distinguish itself. A lady hunchback heroine! Dracula trying to be a better man! A bipolar mad scientist! Bone-melting fungus! Larry Talbot spending half an hour moping about and bitching that he just can't die like he wants to! Alright, so that last one is certainly firmly in the realm of the cliché itself, but then again this film takes the rather unexpected route of actually curing poor Larry, for once and for all until the final sequel,such as it is... Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein ain't exactly in continuity, even as generous as we have to be with the definition of "continuity" in these films. Where was I? Right, the resolution of the wolf man plot is as clear a sign as anything that House of Dracula was meant to be a summing-up, and a farewell, and like I already said, it seems more than likely to me that all the weird changes to what had become a rather nicely rigid template was all part of Lowe's desire to screw around with the format, to prove that he could do something more interesting than just the usual mad scientist trying to yada yada legacy of Henry Frankenstein.

As I said, this is perhaps more interesting than good, but at the same time it does enough that's better than it strictly has to be ("has to be" defined as "just a little better than Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man", if you were wondering). For starters, Erle C. Kenton finally figured out how to direct a goddamn movie this time, or maybe it's just that George Robinson stopped listening to him and did whatever he wanted to behind the camera to make the film look halfway decent. For House of Dracula does indeed look something a good deal like a proper Universal horror movie, with much bolder shadows than Kenton's earlier films (not enough to supplant Son of Dracula as the best-looking of the later monster cycle films, but it's close). Perhaps related, and perhaps not, but the visual effects are as good here as they had been since the 1930s; Larry Talbot's wolf transformations are far more believable, and the big rubber bat looks as good as any of the big rubber bats in the series. Dracula's eventual disintegration is essentially stolen from House of Frankenstein, but that's the closest I have to a knock against the effects, given that we are talking about a 1945 B-movie.

The cast is also pretty fine: Onslow Stevens is particularly delightful as the de facto protagonist, and by far the most nuanced and compelling mad scientist since Wolf von Frankenstein all the way back in Son of Frankenstein; it shocks me that I have seen only one other film featuring this altogether prolific character actor (Them! from 1954) so I can't say if this performance is a particular stand-out or not. But it's pretty fun, and anchors the movie well. The other really exceptional actor is, believe it or not, John Carradine, who is hardly recognisable as the man who botched his way through the same role in House of Frankenstein by mugging ridiculously every chance he got. His take on Dracula in this film is infinitely subtler and more threatening, and while he hadn't a trace of the charisma that Bela Lugosi exuded without even trying in every frame of the original Dracula, I honestly think that Carradine's is the most technically accomplished performance. But you know, everyone is good, pretty much; Adams and O'Driscoll are far more dynamic than most Universal horror actresses got to be, and Ludwig Stossel and Skelton Knaggs make a fine, loopy pair as the comic relief that is much more surreal than comic. The only two clinkers, unfortunately, are the headliners: Chaney, as before, is clearly done with playing Larry Talbot, and Strange once again makes no impression as the monster, simply because the monster is in the movie for a grand total of... three minutes? Four? And half of the time at least, he's just lying there.

That's actually the best thing I can say for House of Dracula, especially compared to its immediate predecessor. The monsters in this monster rally get virtually nothing to do and are never seen in each others company, but there's enough going on around the edges that I don't care. This is a pretty easy film to watch and enjoy, and while it is nothing but a cheap B-movie that represents the shuddering final breath of a once-proud brand name, it's silly enough, fun enough, and even creative enough that it's better than just a mere diversion; it's a pretty credible attempt to wrap up the increasingly arbitrary and hidebound Universal horror films in a respectful, entertaining manner.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

30 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: HOUSE OF PAIN

I have not been able to determine much information about the box office fortunes of the Universal monster films in the 1940s, so I cannot say if Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and Son of Dracula, the studio's two franchise entries from 1943, made any particular sum of money worth mentioning. I suspect they must have, because their last horror film of 1944 - a banner year for monster movies, with two mummy films and an Invisible Man picture - was a hectic mash-up of those two movies. From Frankenstein/Wolf Man, we have the benighted notion of the monster rally, and with Son of Dracula having restored the Dracula name to the front and center of audiences' minds, the vampire count got added to the mix this time around, too. Supposedly the mummy Kharis was even going to make an appearance, in the first conception; thank God that fell through, or the result would doubtlessly be even more fragmentary and disjointed than the hopeless muddle that a mere three monsters produced. I give you, dear reader, House of Frankenstein, 71 incomprehensible minutes of the very worst Universal had to offer.

Incidentally, there's not a single person named Frankenstein anywhere in this film, although there are a couple scenes in the ruins of Ludwig Frankenstein's castle, so I guess that nearly justifies the title. But the mad scientist of importance to this film is what you might call a Frankenstein fanboy, Dr. Gustave Niemann (Boris Karloff) of Visaria. He has been imprisoned for the shocking and obscene crime of trying to marry a human head to a dog body - perhaps it was the other way around, but you get the point. He is currently in year 15 of an apparent life sentence to a castle-like asylum, only having contact with guards and his neighbor, the miserable hunchback Daniel (J. Carrol Naish). Obviously nothing good can come of putting a mad scientist and a hunchback next to each other, and during an especially nasty thunderstorm, the pair is able to make their escape when lightning puts a huge hole in the building.

The first person they meet after their jailbreak is the proprietor of a traveling horror show, Professor Lampini (George Zucco), who needs their help to get out of a spot of trouble. He offers the men a ride in thanks, and on the road shows off some of his finest specimens - including the actual skeleton of Count Dracula, a stake still in its chest. Niemann really doesn't give two shits about a fake vampire prop, and when it becomes obvious that Lampini won't take the doctor to Reigelburg to visit an old "friend", Niemann throttles the showman and takes his place.

Naturally enough, that old friend in Reigelburg is actually an old enemy - one of the three men responsible for Niemann's incarceration - and he has murder on his mind. Luckily for Niemann, Burgomeister Hussman (Sig Ruman) has a pair of young newlyweds visiting - his grandson Karl (Peter Coe) and American granddaughter-in-law Rita (Anne Gwynne) - and they're terribly excited at the thought of seeing wagon-based chamber of horrors, and taking along a fusty old grampa and his fusty old friend Inspector Arnz (the inevitable Lionel Atwill) to have fun with them. Hussman almost recognises Niemann right then and there, but he's too distracted to think about it closely; Niemann is ready to spring on the old man and kill him, and he pulls the stake out of the vampire skeleton to do just that, but then something terrifying happens. The skeleton re-grows veins and nerves and skin, and lo! Count Dracula (John Carradine, this time around) is reborn!

Niemann and Dracula cut a deal whereby the vampire will deal with Hussman and the scientist will protect him from all harm. Thus begins an intrigue, in which Dracula works his way in to the Hussman home, killing the Burgomeister while in bat form, and preparing to steal Rita away to live as his vampire bride. But Arnz and Karl figure out that something is up, and the chase Dracula, Niemann and Daniel across country, and finally Niemann concludes he must cut his losses and leave the count to his fate, which involves evaporating, clothes and all, in the first rays of the morning sun. Rita wakes up from her trance, and embraces her husband, the evil gone forever.

So ends the first part of House of Frankenstein.

I was not at all prepared the first time I saw the movie, and even now, knowing what to expect, I still found it hugely irritating. What it doesn't say on the label is that House of Frankenstein is really two separate short films, united by the framework of "Niemann wants to kill those who've wronged him", and neither one of the shorts is all that good. But first, I should probably sketch out the plot of the second half. You know what happens in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man? Same thing, only this time there's also a homicidally jealous hunchback trying to win a gypsy girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo) away from Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), who once again just wants to die, die, DIE! so that he might be free of this terrible curse &c. And once again the key to curing Larry lies in the journals of Dr. Henry Frankenstein, thus renamed from "Heinrich", which was already changed from "Henry", and the cure still involves a bizarre-ass shell game, this time involving brain-swapping instead of life-energy transference.

The most peculiar thing about House of Frankenstein is that it only had to do one thing to succeed at its massively unambitious goals, and it didn't do it. Dracula, the Frankenstein monster (a thankless role played now by Glenn Strange), and the Wolf Man all had to be onscreen together at the same time, and they aren't - even the monster and the werewolf are never really permitted to interact, since the monster is strapped down to a table until three minutes from the end, by which time Larry has "died" already. And of course, Dracula is dust long before Niemann ever stumbles into that damn ice cave where somehow, Larry (in wolf form) and the monster still live in suspended animation, having survived the flood at the end of Frankenstein Meets...

But let's go ahead and spot Curt Siodmak (who wrote the story) and Edward T. Lowe (a B-action picture vet who wrote the screenplay) that for whatever reason, they needed to scrupulously keep the monsters apart. There's still no reason for House of Frankenstein to be anywhere near this bad. The first bit, a pretty straightforward Dracula story that is doubtlessly the most complex thing the filmmakers could fit into the time they had, almost works, but it suffers massively from that needlessly compressed 30 minutes or so. There's a faintly absurd amount of incident that just keeps happening, boom-boom-boom, without any room for the story to breathe and to build up any sort of atmosphere.

It doesn't help that, in both halves of the film, the writing is so hideously clumsy, particularly the massive infodump included to clue in a viewer who might somehow have stumbled across the film without knowing what a vampire is (though I can't bitch so much about the equally clumsy exposition of the end of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man - the Frankenstein series has cherry-picked plot points from one film to another so arbitrarily that this is just about the only way we can be certain about what the situation is at the start of the middle of House of Frankenstein). It's particularly annoying in the monster/wolf man half, when too much of the movie consists, once again, of Larry Talbot swooning about and complaining that he can't die. You know who else is pretty sad to hear you can't die, Larry? Me. I'll bet I wish you'd just fucking die even more than you do.

There is one and only one point at which the screenplay achieves any kind of creative energy at all, and unfortunately it's very much the "so bad it's good" kind of creativity, but hey, any port in a storm. Niemann's plan for revenge involves moving the brains of the monster, Larry, and his last two victims around in a pattern that makes absolutely no sense at all: the film can't seem to make up its mind whether or not personal identity resides in the brain or the body, so that it's a punishment, on the one hand, to have one's own brain put in the monster, but it is also a punishment to have a lycanthropic brain put in one's own body (and the notion that lycanthropy is a brain disorder is just... unintuitive). The whole affair is a giddy mess, but at least it's enough crazy fun to keep you from wondering when the hell the monster is going start groaning and breaking things.

(Unsurprisingly, continuity is a bloody wreck, both on the Dracula side and the Frankenstein/Wolf Man side, but life's too short to worry about continuity between the Universal monster movies).

Nothing good was ever going to come out of that barbaric screenplay, but it doesn't help matters at all the House of Frankenstein was directed by Erle C. Kenton, last seen poking unimaginatively at The Ghost of Frankenstein, where he proved himself the most visually uncreative director in the whole of the Universal horror family. That film still looks better than House of Frankenstein, which makes no effort to disguise the fact that it's all taking place on soundstages, and has less of the murky shadows and gloom that makes classic Universal horror worth bothering about to begin with. The Dracula half is probably a touch better, but marred by some absolutely god-awful rubber bats and unconvincing transitions from said bats to human (the effects in Son of Dracula were so much better, I can't understand what happened). At any rate, the film is impossible dull-looking, much the least-distinguished film in all three series it belongs to.

The acting is not uniformly bad, for Karloff is fairly delightful as a mad scientist who is (by virtue of being Karloff, unnervingly erudite. Outside of him, though, nobody's all that good. The white-bread supporting characters aren't supposed to be, of course, the monsters are all fairly week this time around: Chaney was clearly just as sick of Larry Talbot as I am, Glenn Strange had about 45 seconds to make any kind of impression, and John Carradine is fairly helpless as the Count; he allegedly fought with the studio over what kind of Dracula to play (he wanted something more like the character in the novel, they wanted something more like Bela Lugosi), and in the end all he does is open his eyes really wide and glower at people from his lanky, lanky frame, while speaking in an accent that isn't exactly Carradine's voice, but isn't really European, either.

It's entirely fair to say that I hate this movie. The B-movie charms of the '40s Universal monster pictures was irregular, to say the least, but at least they're usually good from some fast, goofy fun. Whereas House of Frankenstein is just a chore to sit through. Between the sloppy writing, horrible plot construction, flat look, and above all, its relative dearth of monsters, this is pretty much the worst of all worlds: everything that plagued all but the best Universal horror films, and nothing of what made all but the worst at least semi-bearable.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

29 October 2009

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: IN WHICH NO-ONE IS EVER ACTUALLY REFERRED TO AS THE SON OF ANYBODY

Given how sequel-mad Universal studios was in the wake of 1939's Son of Frankenstein, cranking out two Frankensteins, one of which was also a Wolf Man, a whole carload of mummy pictures, and hell, even a few Invisible Man follow-ups, it seems almost absurd that it took until 1943 to finally produce a second sequel to Dracula, after the 1936 Dracula's Daughter. After all, you'd think that Dracula would be one of the biggest brand names in Universal's stables, and even if Dracula's Daughter was a rather dire money-loser, there was altogether sound logic backing up the continued adventures of everybody's favorite vampire. At any rate, when Son of Dracula (clever title) finally bowed right around Halloween, 1943, the Universal horror cycle had hit a pretty rough patch, with such awkward missteps as The Mummy's Tomb and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man standing in for actual good movies, which means that the film gets the benefit of distinctly lowered expectations; the damn surprising thing is that, while it is quite silly and suffers from one of the worst casting decisions in the 33 year history of the classic Universal horror, Son of Dracula is actually halfway decent, maybe even the best of the Dracula films. It's certainly the best Universal monster movie in the long period between The Wolf Man and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, not that we could really call that a terribly high bar to clear (unless you're one of them what likes the later mummy films, in which case... de gustibus non est disputandum).

Rather weirdly, the film hops from the indefinite Central Europe setting of the Wolf Man and Frankenstein pictures, or even the English setting of the previous Dracula vehicles, to position its action somewhere in the American Deep South, unidentified other than the presence of a sprawling old plantation on the edge of a big swamp. This is Dark Oaks, the home of the Caldwell family led by old Colonel Caldwell (George Irving), but he's going to be dead pretty soon, so let's instead take a look at his daughters, Katherine (Louise Allbritton) and Claire (Evelyn Ankers). As the movie opens, Katherine - Kay to her friends - is hosting a grand party for the Hungarian Count Alucard, who also manages to be Transylvanian (the region is indefinitely defined, but it's wholly Romanian), but either way, Kay met him on a recent European voyage. Her fiancé Frank Stanley (Robert Paige) and his friend Dr. Brewster (Frank Craven) have agreed to pick Alucard up from the train station, but he's not on the train - just his huge stack of luggage, at least one piece of which is suggestively coffin-sized, and bears his family crest written such that Brewster notices that A-L-U-C-A-R-D happens to be D-R-A-C-U-L-A backwards, which is a strange thing to notice, because the name "Dracula" has no meaning to him at this point, but I guess it was for our benefit, or some such. This happens to be the first time that this remarkably over-used card was played, by the way.

So, we now know that a vampire is waiting in the wings, and just to make sure we really REALLY get the fact that odd things are afoot, we follow Kay as she pays a visit to Madame Zimba (Adeline De Walt Reynolds), or Queen Zimba if you, like Kay, are a lover of all things paranormal and crave her mystic Hungarian insights into the future. That insight consists of the lovely thought that Kay is doomed to marry a corpse, and just as soon as Madame Zimba reveals this fact, a two-foot-wide rubber bat swoops in and kills her, of fright or bad editing, it's hard to say which.

Later that night, the party goes fairly well until Colonel Caldwell dies, setting his room on fire in the process; it's only after this tragedy cuts the evening short that the guest of honor finally presents himself, and now we get to the worst casting decision like I was talking about: Alucard, and let's just go ahead and call him Dracula to save confusion, is played by Lon Chaney, Jr. with a little pencil mustache and the god-damnedest attempt at a suave European accent that you ever did hear. I would absolutely love to hear an attempt to justify or defend this epic failure of film producing, as one sometimes hears in regards to Bela Lugosi's monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, or John Carradine as Dracula on two different occasions; it would be desperately amusing, because Chaney is inappropriate for this role in ways that I still can't get my head around, and that's sheer damn fact speaking, not opinion. But it is kind of cool that as of this film, he became the first and last person to play a werewolf, a mummy, a Frankenstein monster, and a vampire (Christopher Lee comes awfully close; but in Howling II it was his sister that was a werewolf).

Things get awfully complex awfully fast for a simple little B-movie, but in a nutshell, Kay becomes the sole owner of Dark Oaks, while Claire gets all the family fortune - a peculiar arrangement, to say the least, but it means that Kay and her new houseguest can be left totally alone all day. As this is happening, Brewster learns that there is no Hungarian family "Alucard", and in a casual conversation with Professor Lazlo (J. Edward Bromberg) of the Hungarian embassy, the doctor learns that there is an extinct line, the Dracula family, with traditional links to vampirism. But a sensible man, in America no less, isn't going to start believing in vampires at the drop of a hat.

Frank, meanwhile, is growing increasingly obsessed with the count, whatever his name may be, and he discovers that Kay and Dracula have married. His response to this news is to fire at the Hungarian, point blank, only to watch in horror as the bullets pass straight through Dracula, "killing" Kay. Here's where everything becomes totally convoluted: Frank turns himself in for murder, the cops and Brewster rather think he's insane, since Kay seems to still be very much alive, Lazlo comes to see this "Alucard" himself, and the vampire reveals himself to the the two amateur sleuths with great smarmy delight. Smarm that he would no doubt be slower to adopt if he knew that his wife was visiting Frank in prison, and revealing her true plan: she just used Dracula for the immortality, but now she wants to make Frank a vampire, and together they will destroy Dracula and live forever together.

Take away the bits that are so loopy that it's almost impossible to stand it (Dracula gets married?), and this is a rather imaginative script indeed, if also a somewhat deranged one. Most interesting to me is that this is not just a horror film, it's essentially a horror film noir, recasting Dracula as the poor sucker who gets played by the smart, shady brunette with an eye for all the angles. It was made at just exactly the earliest possible moment for me to be comfortable making that connection, but once you've made it, it's hard not to think of it in those terms.

Beyond that, the scenario is one of the oddest in the whole Universal cycle: not only because it has the feverish inspiration to bring Dracula to America, although that's certainly a nice touch. As much as one tries to figure out how this all fits the Standard Vampire Template, it just insists on veering into unexpected directions, like the scene where Dracula appears before Brewster and Lazlo, or the moment where Brewster protects a little boy who was bitten by the vampire by making little iodine crosses on the puncture wounds. Curt Siodmak did not write the script (it was by Eric Taylor, who worked on the Phantom of the Opera remake the same year), but he wrote the story treatment, and it bears all the hallmarks of his best work: take a monster that everybody has seen before, and tell a story that uses that monster in really peculiar ways. And while as much of Son of Dracula proves to be damn weird as it is successful, at least it's not more of the same, or boring, like the Frankenstein films were quickly becoming.

A huge portion of credit also belongs to the film's director, Robert Siodmak - Curt's brother, though this was the only time they ever worked together in America. If it is true that Son of Dracula is not the equal to his best films, it is nevertheless clearly the work of a director who had more ideas than your average studio hack. Working with George Robinson, quickly becoming the monster movie cinematographer of choice, Siodmak crafted a high-contrast world that cannot rightly be called Gothic or Expressionist in the manner of the better-known Universal horror classics; it is, however, quite moody and potent, without necessarily being so atmospheric as e.g. The Wolf Man. A modernist look for a younger continent, maybe. Siodmak also manages to nail the presentation of the film's visual effects, including the nifty transition of a vampire into a wisp of smoke; and hey! it's a Dracula film with actual visual effects! That's a pretty stark change from the resolutely stagey original and the paranormal-averse first sequel, right there.

I absolutely do not want to defend Son of Dracula as a lost masterpiece, or anything: the screenplay misses as often as it hits, and while there are a couple of really fine performances in Craven's Brewster and Bromberg's Lazlo, both of whom get more screentime than Dracula himself, it's hard to explain just how very deleterious Chaney's hugely goofy take on the count is to the film's total effectiveness. It's wonderful that Louise Allbritton makes such a fine undead femme fatale, because she provides the film with at least one decent villain; the gravity and sense of menace that a horror film of this sobriety requires are utterly absent every time Chaney opens his mouth and that nervous big lug voice comes out. If that single change had been made, to cast a truly threatening and seductive actor in Chaney's place, I don't wonder if Son of Dracula would have a much greater reputation as a solid B-horror film.

Reviews in this series
Dracula (Browning, 1931)
Drácula (Melford, 1931)
Dracula's Daughter (Hillyer, 1936)
Son of Dracula (Siodmak, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

DISNEY ANIMATION: BRING A LITTLE JOY TO EVERY HEART

It seems like just about every prominent fairy tale was at least briefly considered to be the follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, even before it was clear that the Disney Studios would survive that film's anticipated box office failure. Of course, when Snow White instead proved to be one of the great hits of its age, a second Disney animated feature went from being a pipe dream to a dead certain necessity, and as it turned out, their second work would not be adapted from a fairy tale at all, but from an Italian children's novel published in the 1890s, Carlo Collodi's Le avventure di Pinocchio. It is said that the studio passed on by such tales as The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty because the story men couldn't figure out what to do with them, which makes no sense given what Collodi's book gave them to work with: it's bizarrely European and incredibly nightmarish. But glad we all are that they figured out how to whip this surreal story of an animate puppet careening through one grotesque scenario after another into something much friendly and more straightforward (and I'm going to assume, as I did with Snow White, that I don't actually have to enlighten you as to the details of that story), for their Pinocchio is one of the crown jewels of American cinema, and arguably (at least, it's the argument I'd make) the most beautiful animated movie in history.

It's telling, I think, that the two most visually rich Disney features ever made both came out in 1940; it implies to me that however proud Walt was of what he and his animators had achieved with Snow White, he had concerns that the medium wasn't being taken as seriously as other visual art forms. Clearly, I cannot prove such a thing, but it remains the case that every time I watch Pinocchio, I am always struck as though for the first time by how obviously painted it is. Part of this is due to the change made from watercolor backgrounds, used in Snow White, to gouache and oil paintings (this would be the technology used on all subsequent hand-drawn Disney features, save one). The result is less soft and warm, but provides for a greater range of representation, one exploited her to the fullest.

In this film more than any other, the backgrounds contradict themselves between the illusion of depth, augmented by unquestionably the most sophisticated and lovely multiplane camera work in any Disney film, and the reality of flatness. Unlike any of the studio's other films, the backgrounds in Pinocchio reveal the texture of the paper they've been painted on, making the physical fact of the art important in a way that it rarely or never is elsewhere. Even in the character animation, brushstrokes are plainly visible in a way that is usually avoided with great care. It's seen everywhere there are soft feathering effects: most easily noted on the tufts of hair on either side of the cat Figaro's whiskers, but also on the Blue Fairy's wings and hair, and on the feather atop Pinocchio's hat. Unlike any other Disney feature, save perhaps for some of the sequences in the same year's Fantasia or a handful of the Silly Symphonies, Pinocchio feels like a moving painting, and a particularly rich painting at that.

At times, the movie almost feels like it's just showing off what technically perfect animation looks like; particularly in the Monstro chase at the end, when the whale, a collage of hashed lines that almost looks like a pencil drawing, plows through the finest water ever animated, by hand or by computer; eerily realistic movement and splashes, but the appearance of the liquid itself (it's "skin" if you will) is rather more impressionistic. Water like that could only ever exist in animation, and thank God that it does, because it is one of the most beautiful things in cinema.

There is also the character design, none of it especially realistic in the manner of Snow White, Prince Charming, or the Queen (except the Blue Fairy; and she is painted in such an experimental way as to leave realism far behind), but none of it necessarily cartoony at all. What has always impressed me most about the characters in Pinocchio, visually speaking, is their relative mass: Figaro is clearly a little bundle of fluff, Pinocchio himself is obviously much lighter than a human boy of the same size, the magnificently animated villain Stromboli is one of the most fleshy characters in any Disney film. And so forth. A great deal of attention and time went into the design and animation - the occasional stiffness and jerkiness present in Snow White is gone almost completely (there is only one moment in the whole of Pinocchio where I detect a flaw in the animation: it's when Jiminy Cricket falls into the hole in the pool table), replaced by the most fluid, accurate character movement in any hand-drawn animated film I can name.

For all its technical accomplishment and breathtaking beauty, it is nonetheless a fact that Pinocchio lost a great deal of money on its first release, and it took many years for it to achieve the classic stature given to many of Disney's films automatically; and though I don't personally understand why, I have some suspicions. For one thing, the plot of the film is unusually episodic, never a particularly good way to tell a story with any kind of graceful flow. It's also ungodly terrifying, almost capricious in its cruelty: for the sin of being innocent and trusting, Pinocchio is thrown in a cage, threatened with a huge axe, and turned into a donkey - hell, we don't even have to go so far as the plot, just the design of Pleasure Island is terrifying to look at. It's a dark film by Disney's standards, all around, and I imagine that this has done no good to its reputation with audiences.

But the counter-argument to that is Pinocchio's essential sweetness: it's there in the good characters, ranging from Pinocchio himself (one of the most guileless and appealing of all Disney heroes), to the impossible cute Figaro, and especially to Jiminy Cricket, who anchors the film and is, I think, the primary reason that Pinocchio remains much less otherworldly than many of Disney's "storybook" movies, not only because of his modernism, but because he constantly pulls the audience into the storytelling, erasing the "once upon a time" distancing effect - though it takes place in a European never-where, it also feels more immediate than any of the princess stories.

The film also boasts one of the best musical soundtracks in Disney's history: not least among the songs being "When You Wish Upon a Star", which has of course become an anthem of the Walt Disney Company itself in the years since the film's release. For that reason alone, it seems odd that the film had such a chilly reception for a large chunk of its history; many a film was advertised based on the success of its songs, and very often those songs were nowhere near as good as Leigh Harline and Ned Washington's five brilliant little compositions.

But we know better these days, right? Pinocchio has become enshrined at the top of virtually every ranking of great animated films, great films of the 1940s, et cetera, helped out no doubt by Disney's frightening ability to drum up interest for any and all of their products by the judicious application of marketing. But marketing can't conjure up artistry from thin air, and I think that has more to do with the film's eventual rescue than anything: beauty will out, and Pinocchio is as beautiful as any color film has any right to be. The fact that it's a genuinely touching coming-of-age story and playful musical comedy-adventure besides that is really just the cherry on top.

UNIVERSAL MONSTERS: FARO-LA FARO-LI!

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what desperation looks like. By 1943, the steam was mostly out of the second phase of Universal horror movies, even in their new cheaper, B-picture incarnation, and if the cycle was going to keep on going, something bold and splashy had to be done, for then as now movies made their money from a snappy advertising campaign more than because of their inherent quality. The solution, in retrospect, seems inevitable; but who can say how many harried meetings it took until some Universal executive hit upon the idea of putting two of their A-list monster into a movie together. The result was titled, with all due shamelessness, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, and that was pretty much the end of Universal's horror line as a home for even the vaguest kind of serious filmmaking until 1954.

The action takes place four years after The Wolf Man, and an indeterminate time after The Ghost of Frankenstein, but by this point we've pretty much abandoned continuity for keeps. Anyway, for about 25 of its 37 minutes FMtWF is pretty strictly a sequel to The Wolf Man only, and while it's still a pretty shoddy sequel, this is the only part of the film that works even on the level of a satisfying B-movie. In Llanwelly, Wales, a couple of hopelessly stupid grave robbers (Cyril Delevanti and Tom Stevenson) break into the Talbot family crypt one moonlit night to steal the cash allegedly hidden in the coffin of the late Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.), according to family tradition. When the open it up to take a look, they find Talbot's body in extremely good repair for a four-year-old corpse, surrounded by a small mountain of wolfbane. Even though one of the robbers has the presence of mind to recall the old rhyme about werewolves (the words have changed, to indicated the new wrinkle in the mythology, that it takes a full moon to transform the werewolf, and that is how that piece of ancient lore got invented by a screenwriter in 1943), they're both so focused on their task that they don't notice when the moonlight strike's Talbot's face, waking him up and turning him into a beast, killing them both in the time it takes to draw a breath.

Cut to Cardiff, a long way from Llanwelly, where Larry Talbot wakes to find himself in a hospital, having been treated for his bizarre wounds by the kindly Dr. Frank Mannering (Patrick Knowles), who is of course interested in this mysterious subject's history, but Talbot can't remember anything but his own name. That doesn't sit right with the impossibly aggressive Inspector Owen (Dennis Hoey), theoretically investigating what happened to Talbot but plainly more interested in accusing the victim of something - anything! And when he goes to Llanwelly and finds that Talbot died years ago, he becomes convinced that the man in Mannering's hospital is hiding something terrible. Which he is, of course, and the night that Owen is in Wales happens to have also been a night that Talbot escaped in wolf form and killed someone. Thus the next day he starts raving about lycanthropy and how he must dies before he kills again, and both the doctor and the policeman conclude that he's a raving loony who should be locked up.

Ain't no locking up a werewolf, though, and that very same night Larry escapes, traveling all the way to Germany (which couldn't be named Germany - there was a war on, you know) in the space of a single cut, having apparently spent a whole month looking for Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya), the old gypsy woman who was such a help to him four years prior. When he finally finds her, she cannot think of any way to free him from his curse, but there is someone in the nearby town of Visaria who might be able to, a certain Dr. Frankenstein.

Then, like a light-switching getting flipped, Frankenstein/Wolf Man goes dead in a heartbeat. The opening act is hardly perfect; Larry's resurrection is about as contrived as anything in a Friday the 13th picture for a start. But at least it built upon the story present in The Wolf Man in a reasonably logical manner, and Roy William Neill's direction (his only monster film; at this time, he was working on the Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone, mostly) recaptures at least some of the Gothic eeriness of its predecessor, even if it is unmistakably cheaper and the studio lighting not remotely as well-sculpted (the current film's cinematographer, George Robinson, had done a few horror films already and would do more, explaining why the film at least looks much better than The Ghost of Frankenstein).

Once the plot gets to Visaria, however, this goes from being an adequate sequel to The Wolf Man to being a terrible sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein, a film already not good enough to support a terrible sequel. It's not just that continuity is shot in the face and left for dead here - the film just becomes incredibly stupid and lazy, not just in the screenplay, a massive misstep for the usually reliable Curt Siodmak, but in every element of its execution. But let's stick with the screenplay for now. Larry arrives in the ruins of Frankenstein's manor in wolf form, hiding from the local villagers, and the next morning he snoops around and of course he finds the monster (Bela Lugosi). But can you guess where? In a subterranean ice-cave. How that makes sense on any level, let alone in reference to The Ghost of Frankenstein, is completely beyond me. At any rate, he gets the monster out, and asks it to help him find the late doctor's research papers. The only thing he finds there of any use is a photography of Elsa Frankenstein.

Long story short, Larry finagles a meeting with Elsa (Ilona Massey, who is absolutely awful), and begs her for anything he can possibly give her pertaining to her father's creation, because by now he has it firmly in mind that this will help him out; Mannering finds Larry in Visaria, and shortly thereafter finds the monster, who drifts in just long enough to disrupt the local Festival of the New Wine; and before you can say, "this isn't going anywhere at all", Mannering has concluded that he can transfer Larry's wolf life-energy into the monster's body, thus killing the wolf man and fixing the monster - a development that springs from absolutely nothing in Mannering's character besides a close-up where he looks up and whispers, "I can't destroy Dr. Frankenstein's creation". Elsa is decidedly unhappy about this change of plans, but luckily, the locals have a plan that involves blowing up the dam and drowning the whole damn lot of them.

Practically nothing that happens following Larry's transformation into a wolf on the road to Visaria makes even the least degree of sense, but the "life-essence transference" finale probably takes the cake for the stupidest kink in the plot. But even that isn't the really crushing problem with the movie; at least it has a crazy bad-movie energy to it. What wrecks Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man above all else, from a story perspective, is the miserable long slog in the middle where absolutely nothing happens except that Larry mopes about whining about how he wants to die; conveniently forgetting that he did die, and was dead for four years, and only two greedy grave-robbers are responsible for his current state. This is atrociously boring, and the film just keeps wandering for one endless minute after another waiting for the monster to finally come back.

When he does, things don't improve much. Bela Lugosi's performance got savaged when the film was new, though in recent years some people have tried to argue in his favor, pointing out that a great many of his scenes were cut, allegedly because test audiences laughed at the monster speaking with Lugosi's voice. Those cut scenes, we are told, explain how he is blind and otherwise damaged, which therefore explains his stupid, stupid walk, the arms-outstretched stumble that has somehow become linked with the character over the years. But simply knowing that Lugosi's performance was compromised by cutting does not change the fact that what's left of the performance looks absolutely silly. And even with the added footage, there would be no excusing the hammy facial expressions that Lugosi uses in virtually every shot. I'll say this much in his favor; it's easy to forget, that the creature in this movie is not the same creature from in the four previous Frankenstein films. The monster was given Ygor's brain at the end of the last film, recall, and it's actually a bit nifty to thus have the actor who played Ygor playing the Ygor-creature here.

If pressed, though, I'd have to say that the single worst part of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is not the aimless, brainless screenplay; the slack performances; the perfunctory direction that loses all sense of style once the action leaves England; it's the song. During the Festival of the New Wine, we are subjected to the profoundly annoying Song of the New Wine, in which a far-too-enthusiastic singer (Adia Kuznetzoff) leads the whole town in a romping, three-minute sequence with metaphorically suggestive lyrics including "Life is short but death is long, faro-la! faro-li!" Of all the many random musical numbers in the 1940s - and they are far more common than anyone would like or need - I can't think of another that damages the tone of the film this badly, and without even the benefit of being a half-way decent song. At least it's insane enough, in context or out of it, to give the movie some balls-ass crazy momentum when the film is at its most airless. It does not, however, do anything to keep Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man as a whole from easily snagging the title of Most Pointless Universal Monster Movie, at least for the time being.

Reviews in this series
Frankenstein (Whale, 1931)
Bride of Frankenstein (Whale, 1935)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee, 1939)
The Wolf Man (Waggner, 1941)
The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1942)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill, 1943)
House of Frankenstein (Kenton, 1944)
House of Dracula (Kenton, 1945)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton, 1948)

28 October 2009

BURNED A LOT, BUT LEARNED A LOT

There are so many reasons to hate Oscar season - the intensely patronising time of year when studios clump all of their prestige-style movie into an increasingly small number of weeks just prior to New Year's Eve - but the one that is especially annoying to me right now is the way that the distributors insist on holding onto movies that premiered way early in the year, refusing to release them at a time when they're actually still fresh and new, but rather letting them sit and gather hype along with dust, until I'm frankly tired of a movie that hasn't even been released yet.

Case in point: the first time I heard great things about An Education was nine months ago, during which time it went from being "a little movie that's actually worthy of its Sundance awards" to "a surefire contender for some Oscar nominations" all the way to "a brilliant film anchored by the great breakthrough performance of modern times". Let's call it hype backlash, but now that I've actually laid eyes on the thing, I am hugely unimpressed: with the movie itself, a standard-issue coming-of-age story done well enough and without distinction, and with Carey Mulligan in the lead role, giving the kind of perfectly good performance that allows the movie to function but not radiating off the screen like an angel from God, or any such nonsense. Perhaps if it hadn't been drummed into my head all year that she was going to blow my socks off and reveal herself to be a major new talent, I'd have been able to really desperately love her performance and the movie containing it, instead of feeling like it's a decent stab at a well-worn trope, the kind of movie that I'll probably completely forget that I ever saw by this time next year. Damn you, hype. God damn you to hell.

At any rate, the education mentioned in the title cuts two ways, one literal and one more metaphorical. In Twickenham in 1961, there's this 16-year-old girl, Jenny (Mulligan), who is studying at a high-level girls' school for her A-levels, in the hopes of getting into Oxford, a plan endorsed by her blustery, overbearing father Jack (Alfred Molina) and at least tacitly agreed to by her sharp but typically silent mother Majorie (Cara Seymour). Jenny is not terribly impressed by anything in her life, finding it all very boring and beneath a girl of her level of education and refinement. So it's like a bolt of lightning when she meets David (Peter Sarsgaard), a man of indeterminate age, but plainly a great deal older than herself, who has exactly all of the things that Jenny wants out of life: he knows art and music, he loves Paris, he enjoys every moment, doing whatever pleases him. Jenny quickly moves into the tight circle that David has with his friends Danny (Dominic Cooper) and Helen (Rosamund Pike), re-fashioning herself as quite the proto-swinging Bohemian in the process. Meanwhile, every single person in the audience has spotted David as Absolutely Bad News from his first scene, and is awaiting the moment that Jenny finally gets her other education, the one that informs her why a sensible young girl with a bright future doesn't take up with pervy thirty-something men who plainly get their money from sub-licit sources.

I've been sitting here for a while, trying to figure out why I'm not head over heels for the movie, and I'm pretty sure the reason is that it doesn't say anything in particular or do much of anything. The screenplay (adapted and fictionalised from Lynn Barber's memoir) finds writer Nick Hornby swapping his usual man-child protagonist for a snotty, precocious young woman, but its otherwise characteristic of some of his regular habits, both good and bad. So on the one hand, we have a fairly well-sketched portrait of Jenny, who chafes under authority and likes to question the status quo and enjoys nice things and will uneasily sacrifice her morals to get those things, and on the other hand, she's not a terribly interesting person. By which I mean, there's nothing inherently interesting about what happens to her and what she learns about life (which is all crammed into five minutes at the end anyway), and the nugget of the story - "a supercilious girl realises that her priorities are wrong" - is a bit shallow and obvious. Only the garish specifics of what happens make Jenny's story at all distinctive and worth the telling, and the film eschews melodrama far too eagerly to make use of that garishness.

It's also the case that the story undoes itself: the whole point from word one is obviously that Jenny must learn that loving the jet-setting life is a superficial way to be in the world, and yet Hornby certainly does make that jet-setting life seem awfully appealing, while emphasising all the many ways that life really does suck: her dad is domineering, her headmistress is racist, her teacher is lonely and depressed. The message thus comes across in a muddle: "Having fun is fun, but you'll feel better about yourself if you don't".

Not helping matters at all is director Lone Scherfig, a Danish filmmaker with ties to the Dogme movement, which is the nastiest insult I can think to throw at a person. I haven't actually seen her Dogme film, Italian for Beginners, but I have seen her follow-up Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself, and I found it to suffer from a certain blandness of execution typical of Dogme. An Education comes from much the same place: every conversation is shot the exact same way, and when in doubt, Scherfig runs screaming for the nearest medium shot she can get her hands on. It is a supremely boring movie to look at (the fact that the undistinguished cinematography by the undistinguished John de Borman won an award at Sundance is psychotic), which I guess is appropriate, given how often Jenny complains about her life being boring, but there are better ways of showcasing that.

I should probably say something nice to justify the Left-Aligned Poster of Recommendation: but you can get that from all the smitten reviews that spend two paragraphs describing how brilliant Carey Mulligan is (like I said, she does what she has to just fine, but I wasn't shocked and awed; nor would I hesitate to say that Rosamund Pike, giving a silly and tremendously sad performance as a woman who knows that she has to be dumb to keep the men in her world happy, is the actual standout in this cast). Still, this reads like a terribly negative review, so I should say something: it's a sharply-etched character study, it casually but very effectively captures the feeling of London just seconds before the Swinging Age began, and the whole cast is strong and full of faces that it's always nice to see in a movie. If I disliked it, it was only because I'm pre-emptively getting pissed off by its Best Picture nomination.

6/10

DISNEY ANIMATION: WITH A SMILE AND A SONG

There's a long way to go over the next 45 days and 72 years of movie history; and I hope you'll forgive me if I start it off with a bit of scene-setting before the review itself, even though the story I'm about to tell is extremely well-known.

Walter Elias Disney had a perfectly American life story: born to a middle class family in Chicago, raised in the rural Midwest in the kind of postcard small town that features so prominently in the most rosily conservative nostalgia for the simple days before World War I; a self-taught artist who became an animated film producer in the 1920s out of necessity almost as much as anything; a creative genius who sunk the last of his money into an animated mouse named Mickey who became the most famous movie start of the 1930s and turned his creator into the most famous name in American entertainment in the span of just a couple of years. Of course, much of what we know about him has to be decoded from the squeaky-clean official history that the company which bears his name would prefer that we all believe, but the speed and thoroughness of Disney's rise from a Midwestern kid to one of the most powerful men in Hollywood is impressive by any measure.

If Disney had one crippling flaw that haunted him throughout his career, it's that he was an atrocious businessman. Before Mickey Mouse hit, Disney had already raised and lost one studio, and managed to piss away control of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, his previous blockbuster star. It's easy to forget, since these days the Walt Disney Corporation is a vast, money-sucking force for pure evil, that Walt himself was always more interested in making things that were entertaining; though he certainly didn't avoid wealth, he tended to always sink whatever profits his most successful films made right back into another movie - it's for this reason that his studio was perpetually on the cusp of bankruptcy well into the 1950s.

The key to Disney's artistic and commercial success is that he was always first motivated to make what he personally wanted to see; thus he was passionate about everything that came out with his name on it, rarely making something just because it could be made. I bring this up more than anything because of an extremely important moment from Disney's youth, when as a 15-year-old he attended a screening of Famous Players' Snow White. The young man was deeply impressed by this fantasy, and never forgot about it for all the years that followed, and when, in the early 1930s, he had become a huge important movie mogul, he decided to make a version of the Grimm fairy tale all his own.

Adapting fairy tales into animated shorts was no big deal; the Disney animators had done so numerous times in their Silly Symphonies cartoons (the artsier cousin to Mickey's vaudeville), and there was even a Betty Boop "Snow White" made in 1933. But Disney didn't want to make a Snow White short - he wanted to tell that story, so important from his childhood, using all the powers he had at his command. He wanted to tell make it into a feature-length animated film; something that had never been done in America, or been done anywhere in the world with cel animation.

For most of the mid-'30s, everything the Disney Studios did was focused ultimately on that goal. The Silly Symphonies became a laboratory for new techniques, from Technicolor to better and better character animation, to the hugely elaborate and groundbreaking multiplane camera, which allowed backgrounds a degree of depth previously unthinkable. And all this experimentation, not to mention the laborious process of creating the feature itself, was taking its toll: all the countless piles of money that Mickey Mouse shoveled into the company's vaults was being tapped, and if this feature failed, Disney's very successful studio would vanish overnight. People in the industry began to speak of the animated feature as "Disney's Folly", predicting a bomb like no-one had ever conceived of in Hollywood.

Then in December, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered, and became one of the biggest smash hits of the Depression. Not for the last time, Disney saved himself from the jaws of his own idiocy through the simple expediency of producing a work of art; a movie simple enough that five-year-old girls the world over can sing the songs, and complex enough that no less an expert than Sergei Eisenstein declared it one of the all-time masterpieces of world cinema when he first saw it.

A perfectly fair response: Disney's Snow White is one of the few movies in history that could honestly be described as "like nothing else before it" - and despite seven decades of imitations, many of them produced by the Disney Studios itself, there are only a tiny number of films that have come anywhere close to equaling its achievement. The film's success was so complete that for literally generations, it was the only feasible model for making an animated feature in America. Its visual style froze American animation dead in its tracks, and the only thing that got mainstream animation evolving again in any but the smallest degree was the discovery by U.S. filmmakers, in the 1990s, that Japan was apparently doing some animation, too. Even the story structure was copied slavishly: when Snow White was released as a musical, it was because fully a third of the movies coming out were either musicals or had musical numbers - but it formed a wildly persistent link between musicals and animation that led to nearly every animated feature until shortly before the turn of the century, whether made by Disney or one of their competitors, taking the form of a Broadway-style musical, years and years after that genre had completely died off in live-action filmmaking.

And why not? Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs belongs to that impossibly rare company of artworks that effectively invented their medium and perfected it, all in the same breath. You could look long and hard for a cel-animated feature that makes such good use of the possibilities of the form without ever finding one (though you wouldn't have to look very far: the next two Disney features are arguably even better). The animation itself does not represent that much of a leap forward over the work the Disney animators had done preparing for it; as far as pure craft goes, Snow White isn't that much better than "The Old Mill", the painfully beautiful short from the same year that introduced the multiplane camera. In some ways, in fact, the high cost and stressful production of the film has some distinctly negative ramifications for the animation: some shots are more than a little bit jittery (revealed more then ever in the otherwise gorgeous new Blu-Ray of the film), and there are certainly points at which the animation of the human characters - the one significant advance made by this film - is stiff and unnatural. The character design itself is not always flawless, as both Snow White and the Queen both frequently look like their faces were chalked in roughly, particularly in wide shots.

These are petty, nitpicking quibbles, though, in the face of what the film gets right. The design of the film as a whole is unimpeachable, particularly the glowing watercolor backgrounds (one of only three Disney features to use watercolors, impossibly), which really do give the film the appearance of an illustrated children's storybook that was undoubtedly the goal from the very beginning. It's a fairy tale after all, and never before or since has a movie fairy tale captured so much of the visual essence of what "fairy tale" means - whether in the rich textures of the castle that opens the film, the haunting nightmare imagery of the flight through the woods (a sequence that is certainly influenced by German Expressionism, yet not indebted to it), or the warmth of the dwarfs' cottage and the surround forest.

A comparison with the 1916 Snow White is illuminating, given that for Walt Disney himself, the animated film was but a response to the original. The silent feature is a rather insipid thing, wasting much of its time in bland court scenes that have a fusty French tone rather than the medieval German setting of the Grimm story and the Disney film; and the silent also lacks any real sense of imaginative wonder, boasting visual effects that are clumsy and perfunctory even by the standard of 1916. It is pedestrian in all the ways that Disney's feature is grand and epic. The animated film, thanks to the multiplane and to the great talent of the background painters (backgrounds are frequently the best parts of Disney features, yet even so, few of them bettered Snow White), the scope of the film seems vast and deep, an endless countryside lying over the mountains and behind the trees. This is what traditional animation does best, to create another world so real and full and rich that it becomes truer than reality; this is what Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs does that makes it one of the very best films of the 1930s, and fully justifies Eisenstein's pronouncement that it was a masterpiece, and all of the millions of viewers that have loved it throughout the years.

Even beyond the simple fact of its design, Snow White is an exceptionally well-crafted film for its era. Thanks to the limitations of hand-drawn animation - that it is very desirable not to create anything extraneous, given the labor involved in each and every frame - the film does not suffer from the herky-jerky editing that plagues even the best of the best Hollywood films of the time, and the story is achieved quickly and without needless padding. In fact, Disney's urgent desire to keep the story flowing resulted in fully-animated scenes being cut out of the movie before the actual painting and photography were done, a distinction it shares with virtually no other animated feature. And because of the work that went into every image, the "cinematography" - the composition of frames, the use of lighting effects - is as carefully considered as any other movie from 1937, and this is borne out all the more by the great amount of research and work that went into studying the ways that light falls upon objects, so that it could be recreated and augmented with all the care possible. And it hardly seems necessary to mention that the freedom of animation permitted the film to have a much more fluid camera than was typical of live-action.

I could go into the story, the characters, and the music; except it seems absolutely frivolous to do so. You don't need me to tell you that "Heigh Ho" and "Someday My Prince Will Come" are great songs, any more than you need me to explain why Grumpy and Dopey are among the most memorable supporting characters from the whole decade. This is because, in his passion, Disney made certain that the film would work as a movie first, and made sure it worked as an animated movie once that was achieved. So it is with the best American animation: the viewer forgets that it's animated, because it's so entertaining (watching the film for this review, having seen it dozens of times before, I was reminded of Truffaut's comment about The Lady Vanishes, that no matter how hard he tried to pay attention to how it worked as cinema, he always got too caught up in the story and forgot that it was a movie). This was always the guiding principal behind Disney's features, much more than the studio's shorts (which were always, unashamedly, cartoons); and it is a goal that was met in every way in this first film. A beautiful movie, terrifically funny, and a tremendously evocative depiction of the myths of childhood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs continues to work today for the reason it worked in 1937: it was made with all the love and care that could be poured onto it by a team of craftsmen being led by a man who rarely again gave so much of his own passion to a single project.