Wednesday, April 19, 2006

The Song of the Birds (1935)

The Song of the Birds (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1935) 
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: Roland Crandall; Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

My friends know well my opinion on guns. I am normally fine with them as long as they are not around me. If one is in the room, I leave the room. It is that simple. I am not anti-gun; I am anti-people around or with guns. Give them to a bunch of creatures that have no opposable thumbs and a solid lack of evil intentions, and they end up being, ohhhhhhhh... still only about 84% safe.

I have many dear friends that regularly go to target practice at gun ranges, and my own mother owns a gun (she and my stepfather are shop owners, and rest assured, she does know how to use it). My father has owned guns throughout his life, though he hasn't hunted since I was relatively young, and I'm not even sure if he even owns his rifle anymore, since my stepmother hates them. I have also seen my dear old Granny shoot at gophers in her yard from the side door of her house in Wisconsin. My father even took me to a rifle range once, and it was the first time that I have shot a gun (it was a pistol). It was enough to keep me away from using them for most of my life. Of course, there was the time my buddy Matt shot a hole in the roof of the trailer that Wayne, Tony and I were renting, because he didn't realize Wayne's pistol was loaded. Luckily, I only heard the shot -- I was on the other end of the trailer -- but, case in point. Just keep them far from me. Oh... and there was that time at my first bachelor party... but I digress.

The Song of the Birds is a no-holds-barred, heartrending, tearjerking, manipulative weep-fest, and the first such film in the Max Fleischer Cartoon Classics series. More would come, as soon as two films later, but this is the Fleischers' first stab in this series at ripping your heart out so it can hold it while you stare back it as it pumps and pumps while you slip into unconsciousness and ultimately death. While the film is well done, its intentions don't really succeed, because there is still a certain disconnect emotionally due to the unbelievability of the story. Besides, this is an area that Disney would perfect, and the Fleischers were merely playing catch-up. The only way that the film can work as a heartbreaker is if you go into the film expecting Popeye/Boop-style Fleischer wackiness and are totally taken by surprise by the seriousness of the film. And such a surprise can't really happen because the film strikes that too self-serious tone from the opening notes of the title music onward.

A flock of birds are merrily zipping about in formation at the film's start, but the action concentrates on a mother and father bird who are celebrating the arrival of the newest baby in their family. They are teaching him the bird basics, up to and including learning to fly for the first time. He takes to it like a bird, which is good, because that is what he happens to be. Eventually confident with his newfound skills, he flies off on his own, soon coming to rest on the windowsill of the house nearby.

Inside the house is a rambunctious little thug with a pellet gun. Apparently left on his own, he has turned the entire household into his personal shooting gallery, taking out pendulums, pots, pans, plates, and lamps alike. He is a crack shot with the damnable thing, but he is bored with his surroundings, and decides to take the weapon outside. He sees a bird's nest, with two unopened eggs remaining in it, sitting up in a tree. He takes careful aim and then knocks it out of the tree. Luckily for the eggs, the birds who own the nest not only catch it in mid-air, but they also catch their pair of would-be hatchlings. Like a young Jeffrey Dahmer or that creepy kid living next to you that just stares weirdly as you get in your car each morning, the boy does not recognize he has done anything wrong; in fact, he has turned his attention to the little bird on his windowsill.

The bird takes off, oblivious to the boy, who again takes careful aim. As the baby bird alights upon a nearby branch, the little thug fires off a shot at the poor thing. The shot hits the branch, severing it from the tree, and the baby bird takes to the air, flying about in panicked circles. Their is a slow dissolve to a POV shot of the boy aiming his gun in alignment with the circles the bird is making, and then the camera cuts back to the bird, just before he is hit by the resulting shot from the gun. The bird falls at the boy's feet, and though he is delighted with his kill at first, he suddenly takes on an air of deep regret. He looks about shamefully for witnesses to his crime, and then starts to tiptoe back to the house, eventually breaking into a run. The parent birds fly down and see their baby laying prostrate on the ground. They try to revive him with a worm, which crawls off, and then almost drown him with mouthfuls of water. But it is to no avail. They fear he is dead.

And so does the boy. He goes to bed that night with unbelievable guilt hanging over his head, and he is restless beyond words. The parent birds have finally given up trying to revive their child, and they start to sing a mournful dirge, in the course of which all of the birds in the skies fly down and join the chorus. The boy crawls out of bed and watches the dire concert, crying and fretting. One bird flies to a patch of grass nearby and digs a small grave to place the baby inside, and the parents lay their young on a leaf to transport him. They pick the leaf up and fly it over to the grave, with all of the birds still singing mournfully throughout the procession. The boy can't stand it any longer and kneels at his bedside and prays harder than he has done in his young life.

Suddenly, rain starts pouring from the skies, and a few random drops seem to do what pouring half a fountain of water down its throat couldn't: it revives the baby bird. (It makes no sense at all except for that of pure coincidence.) The birds are overjoyed, and begin singing and dancing in circles around the baby and its parents. They flit through the air in triumph, and the boy runs out to celebrate with them. He carries his rifle out, too, and snaps in twain over his knee to prove that he has learned his lesson. He also brought a box of birdseed, and he draws the birds to him by throwing it all about the ground. The baby bird forgives him by sitting on his arm and sharing a piece of birdseed which the boy holds in his mouth. The bird, in turn, feeds the boy, and the boy pretends to enjoy the meal, winking at the audience to close the film.

The film would work pretty well on the easily impressionable, I guess; I see it as the second weakest Color Classic at this point (after An Elephant Never Forgets) in the still (at that time) nascent series. This is mainly due to a reduction in the use of the three-dimensional backgrounds for which this series, until this point, seemed perfectly fit. Their use in this film is not as showy as the previous films, and The Song of the Birds almost seems like simply normal animation most of the time -- to its detriment. Still, it is reasonably moving, though I personally like the Little Audrey version better. That's right: Famous Studios, which is what the Fleischer house eventually became, would remake this film in 1949 as Song of the Birds, wisely dropping the “The,” which is an article that can be a real drag on artistic success. Seymour Kneitel, who animated this film and possibly served as one of its actual directors, ran the show on that version, as well. It is actually a slightly darker vision, and post-Bambi, it works a sliver better than this one.

Snapping all guns in half isn't the answer, of course. Or is it? This film is not going to sway anyone from their use, unless they are six years old or thereabouts. Here's the thing about guns: If you use them for good, they can be useful tools; if you use them for evil, they can be murderous weapons. Guns are only as good as the people who brandish them. But they sure make the evil part a hell of a lot easier to achieve...



And in case you haven't seen it...

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