Tuesday, April 04, 2006

TALE OF THE VIENNA WOODS (1934)

I watched about half of a film called The Great Waltz the other morning as I was getting ready for work. I have no particular interest in Johann Strauss, and while I enjoy a good many of his musical pieces (probably more than I actually realized, as I especially discovered while I was engaged in the hypnotic middle portion involving the inspirational wagon ride that led to The Tales of the Vienna Woods), I know incredibly little about the man. And I have no real compulsion to learn more about him in the future. But I did realize this instinctually: most of the film was B.S. Beautifully shot, well-acted, marvelously designed B.S., but B.S., nonetheless. Not that one should ever trust any Hollywood biography, but as I watched the film, without even knowing the basic facts of Strauss' life, I just accepted that the only thing to actually learn from the film was how wonderful hearing the music made me feel that morning, and I went to work with an extra bounce in my step.

Not so with the cartoon version of Strauss' piece. Produced in 1934 by the MGM team of Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (and directed by Harman), Tale of the Vienna Woods takes its focus off of the wonderful music, and places it more on the antics of a cute pre-Bambi fawn and a satyr statue that comes magically to life. While the antics are built around the piece and there is no dialogue at all, the music somehow is not made central enough, and becomes somewhat lost during the proceedings.

A live action hand turns the pages of a storybook to open the film, and we are then placed before a pond in the woods. A fawn admires its reflection in the surface of the pond as beautiful butterflies flit about before the image. The fawn capers playfully through the woods, and coming to a stone fence on the property of a nearby castle, leaps the fence to cavort in the yard. It comes upon a fountain with the statue of a satyr standing mid-prance amongst the waters, with his panpipes set to his mouth. Sunlight slowly rolls over the body of the satyr, and he turns to flesh, jumping down from the fountain to greet the surprised fawn. They run about through the golden afternoon, and the satyr plays a variety of tricks on the unsuspecting and trusting fawn. He turns grapes into a fine wine in the cup of a large flower, but when he offers the fawn a drink, he dumps it over the fawn's head. He offers a dandelion to the fawn, but then blows the seeds from the plant roughly into the fawn's face. But the fawn gets his own licks in, too: when the satyr swings up into a tree to taunt the fawn further, the little deer grabs the vine wrapped around its trunk and pulls the satry twistingly around and around the tree. After a chase through a waterfall, the satyr shows off rolling on a log in the pond, but the fawn dumps the satyr into the water. They are evenly matched, it seems, and a true kinship is realized.

Cue the hunting dogs, and with them, the horrid hunters. Seeing their approach, the satyr climbs aboard the fawn and grabs a bush. They place it over the fawn's body, and it looks for all the world like a four-legged tree. Of the dogs, only a lone dachshund is suspicious. He wraps his long body around the fawn's legs, sniffing all the way, but becomes distracted by his own ability to get caught up around things like this, and runs off. They next hide in a tall, dead treestump, and when another of the dogs comes sniffing around, they bonk him on the head with the branch and scare it off. The fawn shows some remorse over this action, but the satyr realizes that he needs to return to his spot before the evening comes. He does so, but the fawn gets trapped by the dogs, who were all waiting in ambush, and with the cries of help from the young deer, the satyr rushes to his friend's aid. He pulls the fawn to safety, and then rushes off desperately to make it back to the fountain. His body stiffens up increasingly as he runs, but with one mighty last leap, he makes it back on top of the fountain in time. The fawn prances back to check on his pal, and then takes off to his pond. As the music swells slightly to a gentle climax, we see the last page of the storybook reading "THE END".

While the film has some nice shots, the satyr comes off (as satyrs naturally do, I guess) as a little creepy, the character designs are not detailed enough and come off as overly cartoonish given the style with which the material is approached, and overall the short pales in comparison to similar work Disney had accomplished by that same time. This is not to discount the charms that are in the film, and it is a pleasant enough piece of underachievement.

Much like my admiration for the music of Strauss. I like it enough to enjoy it when I hear it, but not enough to actively pursue it. But, if I ever feel the need to prance satyr-like about a woodland with a young fawn, well...

Well... then they'd probably lock me away... Never mind the Strauss.

Tale of the Vienna Woods (MGM Happy Harmonies, 1934) Dir: Hugh Harman
Cel Bloc Rating: 6

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