Two post-apocalyptic cartoons for Christmas.

Two fascinating cartoons, one produced just as World War II was getting started, and the other at the height of the Cold War. Both of them take place in a post-apocalyptic future, and both concern animals who discuss among themselves the reasons for humankind’s extinction — and the combination of cute cartoony critters with darkly realistic battle scenes is quite interesting.

First up, Peace on Earth (1939), directed by Hugh Harman for MGM. (It was nominated for an Oscar, and lost to Disney’s Ugly Duckling.) I like how the animal telling the story doesn’t seem to notice that he might have a stake in the battle between vegetarians and meat-eaters:

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Second, Good Will to Men (1955), directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera for MGM. (It was nominated for an Oscar, and lost to Warner Brothers’ Speedy Gonzales.) Note how the prospect of humans shooting each other to death, one by one, has been replaced by all-out thermonuclear war. Note, too, how this film is a bit more explicit about the identity of that book in the church — as befits a film made in the 1950s.

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

It’s a destructive, sacrilegious life.

Last month, I linked to an essay which argued that Henry F. Potter was actually not the villain of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), but its “unsung hero”. Now Patrick Deneen at the What I Saw in America blog argues that the ostensibly heroic George Bailey may be better than Potter, but he still represents a kind of evil in his own right:

Yet, if there is a dark side of America, the film quite ably captures that aspect as well – and contrary to popular belief, it is found not solely in Mr. Potter. One sees a dark side represented by George Bailey himself: the optimist, the adventurer, the builder, the man who deeply hates the town that gives him sustenance, who craves nothing else but to get out of Bedford Falls and remake the world. Given its long-standing reputation as a nostalgic look at small-town life in the pre-war period, it is almost shocking to suggest that the film is one of the most potent, if unconscious critiques ever made of the American dream that was so often hatched in this small-town setting. For George Bailey, in fact, destroys the town that saves him in the end. . . .

However, if George’s grandiose designs, first to become an explorer, and later to build new modern cities, are thwarted due to bad fortune, he does not cease to be ambitious, and does not abandon the dream of transforming America, even if his field of design is narrowed. Rather, his ambitions are channeled into the only available avenue that life and his position now offer: he creates not airfields nor skyscrapers nor modern cities, but remakes Bedford Falls itself. His efforts are portrayed as nothing less than noble: he creates “Bailey Park,” a modern subdivision of single-family houses, thus allowing hundreds of citizens of Bedford Falls to escape the greedy and malignant clutches of Mr. Potter, who gouges these families in the inferior rental slums of “Pottersville.” George’s efforts are portrayed as altogether praiseworthy, and it is right to side with him against the brutal and heartless greed of Potter. However, such sympathies serve also to obscure the nature of Bailey’s activities, and their ultimate consequences. In particular, it is worth observing the nature of “Bailey Park,” not merely by contrast to “Pottersville” – in comparison to which it is clearly superior – but also in contrast to downtown Bedford Falls, where it may not compare as favorably by some estimations. . . .

The patio – successor to the front porch – embodies as many implicit assumptions about how life is to be led as the porch. Thomas notes the move from urban centers into suburban enclaves in the years following World War II led to the creation of “bedroom communities” in which one did not know one’s neighbors and where frequent turn-over made such stable community relationships unlikely, where privacy and safety were dual concerns leading to the creation of the “patio” space behind the house, most often at the expense of a porch in the front. As Thomas contrasts the two, “the patio is an extension of the house, but far less public than the porch. It was easy to greet a stranger from the porch but exceedingly difficult to do so from the backyard patio…. The old cliché says, ‘A man’s home is his castle. If this be true, the nineteenth-century porch was a drawbridge across which many passed in their daily lives. The modern patio is in many ways a closed courtyard that suggests that the king and his family are tired of the world and seek only the companionship for their immediate family or peers.”

Bailey Park is not simply a community that will grow to have a similar form of life and communal interaction as Bedford Falls; instead, George Bailey’s grand social experiment in progressive living represents a fundamental break from the way of life in Bedford Falls, from a stable and interactive community to a more nuclear and private collection of households who will find in Bailey Park shelter but little else in common.

We also learn something far more sinister about Bailey Park toward the end of the film. . . .

George confirms a horrific suspicion: Bailey Park has been built atop the old cemetery. Not only does George raze the trees, but he commits an act of unspeakable sacrilege. He obliterates a sacred symbol of Bedford Fall’s connection with the past, the grave markers of the town’s ancestors. George Bailey’s vision of a modern America eliminates his links with his forebears, covers up the evidence of death, supplies people instead with private retreats of secluded isolation, and all at the expense of an intimate community, in life and in death. . . .

The rest of the essay is pretty good, too. Check it out. (Hat tip to Rod Dreher at the Crunchy Con blog.)

“Hasta la vista, baby Jesus.”

This MADtv sketch from December 1996 isn’t as funny as it could be, but I have always said that The Terminator (1984) is like a sci-fi version of the Nativity story that foregrounds the apocalyptic elements, the slaughter of the innocents, and so on — so I can’t exactly ignore this video, either. Besides, I like the fact that Jesus gives at least a slightly better answer than John Connor ever did when the Terminator asks why it is wrong to kill.

YouTube Preview Image
Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

(Hat tip to Skippy R. at The Wittenburg Blog.)

Thomas Lawrence’s war.

The following scene from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — depicting a conversation between General Allenby (Jack Hawkins), Mister Dryden (Claude Rains) and Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle) — came to mind while watching Charlie Wilson’s War last week:

DRYDEN: Are you really going to give them artillery, sir?

BRIGHTON: I was wondering that, sir. Might be deuced difficult to get it back again.

DRYDEN: Give them artillery and you’ve made them independent.

ALLENBY: Then I can’t give them artillery, can I?

DRYDEN: For you to say, sir.

ALLENBY: No it’s not. I’ve got orders to obey, thank God. Not like that poor devil. He’s riding the whirlwind.

DRYDEN: Let’s hope we’re not.

What’s interesting is how the earlier film allows you to think that this attitude (that there are limits to how much aid a military superpower should give to the natives who help it, lest the natives turn that aid back against the superpower that gave it to them) is somewhat condescending or paternalistic, whereas the new film is arguably somewhat sympathetic to this attitude.

Disney cartoons, aspect ratios, bad transfers.

David Bordwell posted an interesting item recently on the various aspect ratios used by Jean-Luc Godard, and the difficulties that arise when projectionists and DVD producers try to crop them or mask them to fit standard screens. I am glad I am not a Godard buff, and so I do not have to grind my teeth every time a poorly framed DVD of one of his films comes out — but I feel a similar frustration whenever I see a new ‘Walt Disney Treasures‘ set.

I griped about this here and here when More Silly Symphonies: 1929 – 1938 came out last year, and the frustration continues with two new sets that came out earlier this month. I have only watched about half of The Chronological Donald Volume Three: 1947 – 1950 so far, but I can’t help thinking that at least some of these cartoons seem a little … pinched. Examples abound, but two screen captures from Drip Drippy Donald (1948), in which Donald Duck turns his head when the phone rings, will suffice for now:

Now, I suppose it is possible that the animators always intended for Donald’s face to be cut off like that by the edge of the frame, but somehow I doubt it.

Then there is The Adventures of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a collection of extremely rare silent cartoons that were produced by Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks for Universal Studios shortly before they created Mickey Mouse for themselves. Granted, some allowances have to be made, since many of these cartoons have been lost altogether, and some of the surviving films are in pretty bad condition. But one look at frames like this and you just know that the people who transferred these images to DVD were either deliberately or sloppily cutting off part of the picture:

Note the word cut off at the top, and the way the hand-drawn frame is almost cut off to the right. Incidentally, this image is a terrific early example of Disney’s obsession with rear-end humour, something I first noticed several years ago while watching Pinocchio (1940; my comments), Melody Time (1948; my comments) and other early Disney films.

Anyway, the Oswald cartoons, like all the other Disney cartoons, are handled fairly inconsistently: some of them are “windowboxed”, which means they are set within a black frame which may or may not be cropping part of the image; some of them fill the screen but you suspect the edges have been cropped just the same; and some of them have black bars only along the sides or along the top and bottom, and again, you suspect that at least some of the time the DVD producers have cropped part of the picture.

Here are two examples — from Trolley Troubles (1927) and Sky Scrappers (1928) — where some sort of picture loss would seem to be indicated by the fact that the words used to signify sound in these silent cartoons are cut off at the edge of the frame:

Matters are just as bad, and possibly even worse, when you turn to the even older Disney-Iwerks cartoons that are included on this set as bonus features. Note how terribly off-centre the opening iris shot in Alice’s Balloon Race (1926) is:

That last frame is where the iris stops; for the rest of the shot, two corners of the image on the DVD are obscured and two corners are not. And then note how the band member on the far left of the following shot is cut off by the edge of the frame:

But what really takes the cake is this bit from the end of Bright Lights (1928), where the DVD dissolves — in mid-shot! — from a fairly clean print to a fairly beat-up print:

Now, I have no problem with the dissolve itself; if the clean print comes to an end after this point and the only surviving copy of the remaining footage is from a beat-up print, then you have to work with what you’ve got. But note how the beat-up print is “windowboxed”, and in a way that clearly crops part of the picture; and note how the lion’s foot is now pushed right to the edge of the black frame, where before it would have had a little more breathing room.

This sort of thing turns up all the time on these sets, and it really shouldn’t have to. One of this disc’s bonus features is a scene from Sagebrush Sadie (1928) that now exists only in the form of the original pencil sketches that were done for the film. The pencil sketches are stacked on a light table and animated just as they are — and as you can see from the screen capture below, we get to see the entire sketches, right to the edge of the page and beyond.

Now why can’t they do something similar for the actual films, and show us the complete image, exactly as it is on the filmstrip?

The Water Horse — the review’s up!

My review of The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep is now up at CT Movies.