When I was just a little guy in Burgundy Jammies, I watched all the Disney shorts I could get my hands on. When I got a little older, I started reading up on the history of the medium, and I was frustrated to find out that most of what I read, like The Art of Walt Disney by Christopher Finch and Of Mice and Magic by Leonard Maltin, more or less forgot all about the shorts once the features started rolling around. Even Maltin, who devotes whole chapters to contemporary also-rans like Terrytoons and Screen Gems, barely has more than a page of material on Mickey and Donald’s post-Snow White antics.
And that’s a shame, because the Disney shorts from this period are about as good as anything they or any other studio has ever done. They combine the lessons in craft Disney learned in getting ready for feature-length prime time with the lessons in comedic anarchy that their competitors at Warner Brothers were forcing them to keep up with. If you want to see Disney-quality animation fused with Looney Tunes-style slapstick…well, you’re probably better off with Tom and Jerry and the other contemporary MGM cartoons. But these Disney shorts are a close second!
Overall, Warner Brothers made the best animated films of the medium’s Golden Age, but Leon Schlessinger’s budget-conscious operations never had the resources to give them the best animation. Disney’s cartoons may not be as sharp and funny as Warners’, but the animation is something to behold. Even the best Looney Tunes cheat, only redrawing the parts of the frame they absolutely couldn’t get away with leaving stationary, and limiting the characters’ range of motion so they can get away with redrawing even less. And that’s not even getting into lesser animation, which now, with Flash and other digital technology, often uses a single drawing of a character over an entire series with only minor changes to give it the illusion of life.
Disney’s shorts are as far from that as you can get. Donald Duck and Goofy’s range of motion is unlimited. Daffy Duck may jump up and his eyes might even pop out of his head if he’s shocked. In Timber, Donald Duck’s whole body contorts in surprise, his legs and butt bending all the way over his head, his hat flying off and spinning. Sometimes the animators seem to be going out of their way to make their job more difficult, moving the two-dimensional characters in three-dimensional perspective, dressing them in accessories that each move in different directions in response to their movement. The ribbon on Donald’s hat and the flap on his shirt jump up and down ahead of him; so do Goofy’s ears and vest. The same goes for minor characters: in The Nifty Nineties, Minnie Mouse wears a padded bottom and a hat with a stuffed bird that both follow her movements in complex detail that pays off hilariously. In Golden Eggs, each feather on a rooster’s tail and each bump on its comb move individually.
They all move realistically, but the Looney Tunes-style exaggeration demands even more movement than the more realistic feature animation would. Even though these are simplified cartoon designs, they’re still packed with detail as their flesh and clothes fold with their every movement. It’s a very different kind of spectacle from more purely cartoony animation on the one hand and more purely realistic on the other, watching objects squash and stretch like liquid while still remaining solid, with the heft and physicality of real objects. Just look at A Good Time for a Dime, where Donald rides on a flight simulator that bounces up and down in the air while still maintaining the weight of real metal. A kangaroo falls out of a magician’s handkerchief in Baggage Buster, squashed into half its height as it falls on the ground and stretching to twice its height as it bounces back.
The Goofy “How-to” cartoons from this year offer some instructive advice on how to watch these shorts. The narrator demonstrates how “only the magic of the slow motion camera” can allow us to see the grace of whatever sport Goofy is demonstrating and then slows Goofy down so we can see just how little grace he has. You really need to slow these cartoons down to see the millions of little movements packed into every frame.
Of course, the technology to do that didn’t exist in 1941. The only real reason to put all this blood, sweat, and tears into all these little drawings was art for art’s sake. That makes more sense when you see The Reluctant Dragon, which a lot of these cartoons were created for. In it, The New Yorker’s Robert Benchley tours the Disney Studio, and we can see it’s less like a conventional studio and more like an ongoing art school.
The Reluctant Dragon is a strange little movie. I want to call it a documentary, but even by the loosest, Flahertiest definition, it isn’t. Not only is over half of it taken up by cartoons, and not only is the other half almost all scripted — it wasn’t even filmed on the real Disney studio, but a recreation of it inside a different studio! (The one real location, the multiplane camera, was only filmed there because it was too enormous to move anywhere else.) But it’s still a lot of fun to see the Disney studio at work, even if it’s just a simulation. And it’s full of examples of them refusing to take the easy way around anything. For instance, the “preview” scenes from the upcoming Dumbo and Bambi are all-new animation created just for the film.
Walt Disney had wanted to create a new Mickey Mouse short for The Reluctant Dragon, but his financial backers weren’t interested. As strange as it seems now, when the little guy’s such a huge cash cow that Disney has changed the course of copyright law so they can continue profiting from him, Mickey Mouse was bad for business in 1941. The real money was in Donald Duck and Goofy. Goofy could endure everything the gagmen threw at him without it ever ruining is mood. Donald, meanwhile let everything ruin his mood. Mickey, sitting somewhere in the middle, was a harder sell.
But Disney was still doing good work with Mickey, and they updated him to keep in line with the push-pull from their own technical advancements on one side and the influence of Looney Tunes on the other. Disney had already given their star his most radical makeover a few years earlier to prepare him for his starring role in Fantasia. His face was changed from plain white to human-skin-colored and, depending on how you want to look at it, the whites of his eyes were either shrunk or made visible.
For this year’s The Little Whirlwind, star animator Ward Kimball redesigned Mickey yet again. He knew which way the wind was blowing, and he was less interested in making Mickey cuter than making him funnier, changing the mouse from a pudgy baby to a lanky teen. The animators had described Mickey’s earliest cartoons as “rubber hose” style, and Kimball took that style further while updating him to reflect the studio’s new studies of realistic anatomy. Mickey’s limbs and torso were turned into skinny little noodles, perfect for Looney Tunes-style slapstick, and contrasting with the big, chunky head, hands, and feet they improbably supported. Mickey’s nose even looked more like a clown’s big red honker.
Kimball made Mickey both cartoonier and more realistic, turning those big, round bowling ball ears into something closer to an actual mouse’s. Now that the animators’ increasing skill allowed Mickey to move in 3D space, he needed a design that could do so believably (even if the animators still cheated a little: Mickey’s ears sometimes move right through the middle of his hat as he turns).
The updates pay off in Mickey’s outings this year. Fitting for Disney’s animation focus, the way Mickey moves in The Little Whirlwind is much funnier than the broad strokes of what he’s doing, and he ends up proving he can be funnier than that upstart bird who was stealing his thunder. It’s a very Donald Duck-ish plot, with Mickey trying to keep a miniature living tornado from destroying Minnie’s garden. The whirlwind itself is another animation showcase, textured with complex, transparent watercolor effects, bouncing with cartoon energy, and full of personality even without a face or even limbs to express it with.
With everything it’s learned, the Disney studio’s shot-for-shot remake of Orphan’s Benefit from seven years earlier feels like a victory lap. In the original, the flap on Donald’s shirt stuck limply to his back — in the remake, it bounces along like a living thing. The original features an acrobatic dance with Goofy and two other characters named Horace Horsecollar and Clarabelle Cow. Even though the scene involved the other characters spinning Clarabelle around over their heads, the original Orphan’s Benefit looks downright limited in comparison to the remake, cheating the animation by turning Clarabelle into a whir of pen-line rings. The remake lets you know they drew every frame as she goes around, and the animators show off by giving Goofy and Horace longer gloves that billow with every move they make.
Of course, craft isn’t the same as laughs. As great as these cartoons are, it’s easy to see why history chose to push Disney’s shorts to one side in favor of Warner Brothers’ — the Looney Tunes are just plain funnier. Then again, they’re also funnier than just about every other movie. A lot of that comes down to pacing — Looney Tunes cartoons pack in gag after gag at dizzying speed, while the Disneys tend to go down a primrose path of exploring all the details of each one, slowing the action down to a crawl when it should come fast and furious. A Good Time for a Dime seems like like it would provide endless opportunities for comic mayhem by setting Donald loose in an old-time arcade. Instead, it stretches three gag setpieces over six minutes. But sometimes, the craft melds with the Looney Tunes-style excess to make it even more hilarious. It’s funnier to watch Mickey rush in from offscreen with a whole Home Depot’s worth of garden tools or Donald stalk a woodpecker with the contents of an entire arsenal when we can see each one of them moving in detail. The same goes for the avalanche of fitness gear that buries Goofy in The Art of Self Defense.
And other times, Disney plays its more staid style to its advantage to make the occasional outbursts of extreme violence that much more shockingly hilarious. Chef Donald follows the duck as he destroys his house trying to follow a radio recipe after accidentally pouring a bottle of glue (archaically but evocatively labeled “rubber cement”) into his batter. After six minutes of house-destroying but relatively slow-paced antics, he zips off to the radio studio to give the host an offscreen beatdown so savage it somehow destroys his radio! Disney’s attempts to keep up with the (Chuck) Joneses would continue bearing fruit as the decade went on, like with the following year’s anarchic masterpiece Symphony Hour. But whatever else they are, these shorts are a feast for the eyes, and a much more nourishing one than Donald whipped up.