Classic Cartoons and Classical Music

I’m relatively certain that I would have had little to no exposure to classical music without having watched copious amounts of cartoons. Those of us fortunate to have grown up during the 1970s will undoubtedly have feasted our eyes on a steady diet of viewing after-school and Saturday morning cartoons. In these days of having to fiddle with rabbit-eared antennas to gain clear reception of only a handful of channels available over the (gasp!) airwaves, the animated fare was made up of mostly 1940’s-era Warner Bros., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and the occasional Walt Disney shorts. As we entered the early 1980s, there was a new means to see animation at home, in the form of the videocassette recorder. The occasional trip to see a Disney re-relases at the movies and the ever-present television set were my windows to the world of classical music. Having grown up in a working-class household, there wasn’t a dearth of exposure to things classical. Here are a few of the pieces of animation that musically impacted my young life.

FANTASIA
My mother took me to the 1977 re-release of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940), when I was only 5 years old. I have a very vivid recollection of the gorgeous, color-saturated ballerina hippopotami and Chinese mushrooms dancing around to the strange, yet beautiful-sounding music. What I remember best is being inspired by the interaction between the luminous silhouetted forms of Mickey Mouse and Leopold Stokowski to whip the straw out of my soda to conduct along with the maestro—much to the chagrin of both my mother—and the theatre-goers within the splash zone. As an added bonus, I received the LP record of Fantasia, so that I could go back into my room and re-imagine the magic I had just experienced.

PETER AND THE WOLF
The next recollection I have of classical music making an impact on me was in 1983, when we got our first top-loading VHS videocassette recorder. My folks went over to the local Wherehouse store to rent a few videos for my sister and I. In the stack of Strawberry Shortcake, He-Man, and Felix the Cat tapes, the diamond in the rough was the Walt Disney “Storybook Classics” which contained the 1946 “Peter and the Wolf” short, based upon the Sergei Prokofiev work of the same name, (originally a segment of the feature-length film, “Make Mine Music,” but was deemed good enough to be included as a short before the ’46 Fantasia re-release). The short begins with an explanation of how each character is thematically represented by an instrument, or group of instruments (honestly, how else do you communicate the concept of the “leitmotif” to children?). I was engrossed in the story of cherubic, red-nosed Peter’s desire to disobey his Grandfather’s wishes and head out into the Russian winter to hunt the wolf—armed only with his self-determination—and a cork-tipped toy pop rifle. Peter, represented musically by bouncy strings, sneaks out of the house, even after having received his grandfather’s bassoon-laden warnings about the dangers of hunting the wolf. Along his path to locate his lupine prey, Peter comes across a small, fluttering bird (flute), a lumbering duck (oboe), and a nimble cat (clarinet)—all three of which learn that Peter is on his way to dispatch the menacing wolf, and decide to become members of his intrepid hunting party. After following a snowy path to find their prey, they accidentally back up into none other than the wolf (3 horns). The wolf gives chase, seemingly catches (and eats) the duck, and runs the remaining three up a tree. The wolf climbs the tree and seemingly traps Peter and the cat on a branch, as the bird escapes to find help. The bird locates a group of adult hunters, and alerts them to the fact that Peter is being endangered by the wolf. By the time they arrive to save Peter, they find his hat and pop rifle in the snow—thinking the worst has happened—yet look up to see that Peter and company have saved the day. The wolf is hogtied to a branch, and the hunters parade their young hero back into the village, with the spoils of his hunt still hogtied, but to a spit. Peter is welcomed back into the village as the conquering hero—with traditional Russian dancing to celebrate his derring-do.

THE CAT CONCERTO
Evidently, 1946 was a watershed year for the infusion of classical music in cartoons, as also evidenced by the Academy Award winner (Best Short Subject: Cartoons), M-G-M’s Tom & Jerry short, “The Cat Concerto.” The cartoon begins with a dapper, tuxedoed Tom walking onto a stage with a grand piano at its center. He takes his seat at the piano, and begins a very austere rendition of “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2″ by Franz Liszt. Jerry, who is nestled down for an evening’s rest on top of a few the piano hammers (with adorable mouse-sized clothing on a line above him), gets a surprise awakening when his makeshift bedroom starts moving around. Jerry pops onto the ledge above the keys, and he begins to mock Tom by faux conducting at him. This enrages Tom, as he proceeds to thump Jerry back into the belly of the grand piano’s wires. Jerry continues to torment Tom by running under the keys, shutting the cover onto Tom’s fingers, replacing a few keys with a mousetrap (via a door with a Doric arch [why do all cartoon mice have these?]), and working the hammers from the inside—changing the music into a boogie-woogie rendition of “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe.” Tom finally gets a bit of revenge by placing Jerry into the piano bench, but Jerry works the mechanics of the seat to raise and lower Tom onto the piano with a slam. Tom then throws Jerry back into the piano, where Jerry breaks off two hammers and completes the Rhapsody, leaving Tom spent and collapsed face-down at the keys. Jerry exits the piano in a tuxedo to the rapturous applause of the concertgoers.

According to animator/director Eric Goldberg’s DVD commentary (found on the Warner Bros. disc “Academy Awards Animation Collection: 15 Winners”), “The Cat Concerto” was made at the same time as WB’s short, “Rhapsody Rabbit”—which features Bugs Bunny playing the exact same Liszt piece. Both studios utilized the same film lab, Technicolor, who allegedly delivered M-G-M’s short to Warner’s and vice-versa. According to this story, Bill Hanna and Joseph Barbera screened the Bugs short, and worked at a breakneck pace to finish their Tom & Jerry to ensure it was done in time for MPAA consideration screenings. As the shorts were screened in alphabetical order, “The Cat Concerto” was seen first, and became 1946’s Oscar darling.

christmas

Peace on Earth, holiday cartoon from way back..

I can’t recall the first time I have seen this cartoon, but I was young.  It was very frightening to me.  The message of the cartoon got through to my young mind; that some wars just do not make any sense.  Why go to war if it will end in destruction for all?

This Christmas,
remember this and seek to bring
Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men.

johnny-cool

Johnny Cool on DVD

Johnny Cool is a 1963 thriller directed by William Asher that stars Henry Silva and Elizabeth Montgomery. The movie is about a mob war, which is cool (Johnny Cool?), and the film is action packed, but before you watch it keep in mind that this is 1963 action. So manage your expectations before watching. While the date should curtails your action expectations, it should also get you excited for some 60s vibe.

Looks good huh? It is very underrated, with a great cast and a well developed story that really has some peaks (and some valleys). I do not want to give anything away, but while I enjoyed much of the film, I did not love the ending.

This is a movie that is ripe for a remake (with a new ending).

I caught it on DVD a few years ago on TCM and made a note to check it out on DVD so that I could show it to other people. The film became available a few weeks ago and I have since watched it with other cinema fans and they were all impressed and surprised that they had never heard of Johnny Cool before. One thing is certain, you will never watch Bewitched the same way again.

If the trailer tickled your buying bone, why not pick up Johnny Cool on Amazon tonight.

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Down Three Dark Streets on DVD

Down Three Dark Streets was a 1954 documentary-style film noir. It was directed by Arnold Laven with a screenplay written by Gordon and Mildred Gordon, based on their novel Case File FBI. In the film FBI agent John Ripley investigates three cases his murdered partner was working on, hoping to find the killer. The film’s climax takes place around the famous Hollywood Sign in LA.

The film has just been released by MGM as part of their Limited Edition Collection and is an interesting relic of the era as you can see from this trailer.

I had never seen Down Three Dark Streets before this release and I am glad I picked it up. The film has an experimental feel to it, especially in the way that the killer is revealed and the direction. It is also from the tail end of the Film Noir genre and the people behind the film are fully aware of the conventions of the genre, which makes it almost a watchable textbook.

So give it a look. The film is currently available online at Amazon.

Curse of the Faceless Man on DVD

Curse of the Faceless Man is a B-movie gem that has just been re-released on DVD as part of MGM’s Limited Edition Collection (I have no idea what that means). While I might not understand the collection, I am very happy with this release. I recorded this movie late one night when I was in High School and I insisted that my friends watch it with me more than a dozen times afterwards. It got to the point that when we were just hanging around doing other stuff, Curse of the Faceless Man would be on in the background. Mind you, this is not a “good” movie, but it is a great film to poke fun at and sometimes manages to surprise you (especially if you watch it 18 dozen times).

The plot is “simple”. While excavating Pompeii, a stone-encrusted body is found with a bronze medallion bearing a strange Etruscan inscription. Carlo Fiorillo, Italian archaeologist and swell guy, speculates that this stoney body may still hold some life, but medical researcher Paul Mallon scoffs at the idea. Who do you suppose is right? Well we find out soon enough when people left alone with the “faceless man” keep dying of crushed skulls. Wonderful stuff…

Looks pretty amazing huh? Well it is (in a terrible way). So if you are looking for a fun Saturday morning film to watch with your friends and family, pick up Curse of the Faceless Man on DVD. It is late 1950s throwaway cinema at its finest and is guaranteed (by no one) to delight viewers for years to come.

Curse Of The Faceless Man on DVD [@] Amazon

Celebrate 85 Years of MGM Films Digitally

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In celebration of the MGM 85th Anniversary starting this week WB and MGM have combined their catalogs to present 100 iconic movies that were originally produced by MGM via TV through cable On Demand and on iTunes, PlayStation 3, Amazon On Demand via Digital Download services. They are all classics, so join Warner Bros. Digital Distribution and MGM in celebrating the 85 legendary years of MGM filmmaking that has produced such timeless classics as The Wizard of OZ, Singin In The Rain Gone With The Wind, and beloved favorites Poltergeist, North By Northwest, and 2001 Space Odyssey.

This special VOD and Digital offering temporarily reunites the legendary library, bringing together the best of the Warner-owned MGM titles and the best of the MGM-owned MGM titles.

For more info, drop by the MGM 85 webpage and then search for you favorite films at the MGM digital section of Amazon.