Thursday, December 17, 2015

It's A Very Special Cel Bloc Xmas: Broken Toys (1935)

Broken Toys (A Walt Disney Silly Symphony, 1935 )
Dir.: Ben Sharpsteen
Cel Bloc Rating: 7/9

I've been seeing a few people online saying that Pixar and Disney should not make the planned fourth film in the massively successful Toy Story franchise. Of course, many of the same sort of people thought the third film should not be made either, and Toy Story 3 only went on to become one the highest-grossing films of all time with nearly unanimous critical acclaim. Beyond box office and reviews, it was also nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Sound Editing, as well as winning outright the Oscars for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song. Pretty good for the third film in a franchise.

As always, I wait for a trailer (but mainly to see if I remain excited to see the actual film), and I withhold judgment for the film to be released to theatres. The online culture of judging first before everyone else does and long before a film or TV show has even come out grew old for me before it even started, and I feel that the only way to move forward is to ignore that culture as best I can and stick to my personal code of ethics where cinema is concerned.

We look to Pixar for originality and innovation above what other animation studios can bring, and when the results are disappointing to many (Cars doesn't do it for me at all, though I love the version in the theme parks), it hits most harder than just another film from DreamWorks or Blue Sky (as examples). And with Toy Story really being the feature film linchpin for the whole Pixar operation, I can understand that there might be a feeling of "just leave well enough alone" for many out there. On a personal level, I can see the argument that the third installment rather summed up the story nicely; the toys have moved on to other homes, with younger children who can make the toys happy again. (Just don't tell it to my toy collection... I don't want any little creeps playing with my stuff.) End of story. Move on to another franchise. Yes, I know a sequel to Finding Nemo is on the way in June 2016, but how about A Bug's Life 2? Surely that is a universe with plenty of room to expand.

But stories with toys coming to life were not a new thing in animation when Toy Story rolled around... not by a long shot. You could almost say that Toy Story itself was already the umpteenth installment of a tale that has been around since early in animation history. Practically every major (and minor) studio had some variation of gags built around common items around the home "coming to life" and dancing and playing before the camera. These could be fruits and vegetables, books, kitchen utensils, and of course, the subject of our discussion, toys.

Toys were the natural for "coming to life" cartoons, because you not only had a wide variety of playthings with which to adapt to your environment, but you could also easily replicate a lot of human actions by adding in a decent amount of dolls and toy soldiers as the main characters, and far easier than pots and pans. I reviewed one such film recently -- Warner Bros.' The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives (1933) -- and the dolls in Santa Claus' "shanty", actually his workshop, were used to good but rather generic effect as they danced, sang, and even tried to put out a fire. But there was little in the way of characterization outside of their normal appearance and the actions of which they were called upon to perform. This was mostly the standard of this slim genre; like any toy in reality, they only seem to come to life when we play with them, and otherwise, they don't do anything at all but sit on a shelf or a box. The toys in most of these films, often charming but lacking full characterization, are only alive for the moment, and they usually don't register with us long after we have stopped watching the cartoon. 

The Toy Story films went to the next level with the "toys coming to life" genre by making us genuinely care and be concerned with the ultimate fates of its plaything characters. They were actual "characters", with dimension and, for lack of a better term, soul. Perhaps the most ingenious part of how Pixar achieved this was in the careful use of product placement. This might have seemed crassly commercial in another lesser film, but in Toy Story and its sequels, while the lead roles were filled by original characters created by Pixar, the sidekick roles were taken up by key figures from the childhoods of several generations of prospective audience members: Barbie, green plastic army men, Slinky Dog, Mr. Potato Head, Etch-a-Sketch, Barrel of Monkeys, and the list goes on at length.

The brand-named, and thus more merchandisable, toys in Toy Story were a natural by-product of a twentieth century that grew to be ever more capitalistic, and therefore, more commercialized. The simple toys of yesteryear had been left in the dust by ever more complex and innovative devices and constructs. One can almost imagine a prequel to the Toy Story films involving the simpler toys of the past, as they discover they have been discarded for the newer, hipper toys of a generation that grows up without knowing of the innocence that has been lost.

And that film somewhat exists, and by pure coincidence, that film came from Walt Disney in 1935, almost exactly 60 years before the first Toy Story came out. It is not necessarily the same film, but it does represent a pretty glossy take on the "toys coming to life" genre, especially when compared to others of its period. The toys also commit to an epic journey (for things their size) to make sure they are played with again, which roughly correlates to the concerns expressed by many of the characters in the Toy Story films. 

Broken Toys, directed (or as Disney would put it, "supervised") by Ben Sharpsteen, was the 58th film in Disney's Silly Symphonies line, and the hallmarks of that series (in 1935) are in clear evidence: bright colors, happy but sweetly manipulative music, and a tendency to the somewhat sappy extremes of emotion, tugging on one's heartstrings at every necessary turn. But this is also what gives Broken Toys more heft than the usual cartoon of this genre, and grants the still sketchily portrayed characters an extra coating of personality from the norm.

Broken Toys starts out with a closeup of a sign reading "No Dumping," so of course, the next thing we see is a wheelbarrow (being pushed by unseen hands) dumping a load of refuse into a shallow pit below the edge of a hill. Out of the refuse tumbles a small doll in the form of a navy sailor. He is cute and smiling, with freckles on his cheeks, and a neat blue suit and cap. He also also has a left leg that pops off at the knee when he lands, and is probably the reason for his arrival in the dump in the first place. When he brushes himself off and reattaches his lower leg, the sailor takes a good look at his new surroundings and says, "Boy, what a dump to end up in!"

Near the sailor, a jack-in-the-box pops up, and he bears the unmistakable countenance of Ned Sparks, a popular character actor of the 1920s and 1930s (Warner Bros. used him many times in their celebrity cameo cartoons), scowling constantly and seemingly at odds with the world in general. "You'll get used to it!" he growls in his gruff though exceedingly monotone voice. "I did!" Ned pops back into his box with a slam of its door.

Off to the side is another doll sitting on a cracked water pitcher. She looks like a dead-on representation of another popular screen star, Zasu Pitts, and when she speaks, her worried, wavering voice is also close to the real thing. "Oh, dear!" she exclaims, waving her hands. "Everyone loved us when we were new!" The Ned-in-the-Box pops back out to yell dryly in her direction, "But nobody wants us now! We're through!" He pops back in again.

"Yeah?" says the sailor doll in a chipper voice. "I know a place where we'd be welcome!" This catches the attention of every thrown-away toy in the dump. Ducking out of their hiding places, we see a gingham elephant, a roly-poly policeman (from underneath a copy of the Police Gazette naturally), a Dutch girl in wooden shoes, and a porcelain china doll (inside a teapot). "Winter's coming!" the sailor goes on. "It's gonna snow!" A blonde doll that is missing her eyes is laying inside a lampshade next to a dog who moves (in real life) through the use of a bulb attached to his collar. When the sailor yells, "Pick yourself up!" she sits up. "C'mon!" the sailor continues. "Let's go!"

A puppet in the form of popular black character actor Stepin Fetchit pulls himself out of the hat where he has been reclining by a string atop his head. The impression he gives is one of laziness and confusion, which would not be out of line with the type of character Fetchit himself was called upon to play in a Hollywood where such racist portrayals of non-white characters was readily accepted and barely commented upon. A mammy doll, itself based on another black stereotype, that of the fat and jolly houseservant, pops up out of a boot, and from out of a broken beer stein, we see a roly-poly doll in the shape (and with the voice) of W.C. Fields, cigar, cane, and all. "Yes, yes, my little fellow. Yes!" the Fields doll mutters, and he reaches up with his can to hook onto a strap hanging down from an unseen item. He pulls himself over to the ground gracefully, and says in a rhyme, "Let's not stand about and mope, when in our lives, there's always hope!" (Which is something the real Bill Fields would probably never have attested to in his life.) As he detaches himself from the strap, the girdle to which the strap belonged falls down over to cover Fields entirely, and he pops out through the stitching to add, "I hope!"

The blonde doll says, "With eyes, I'd be as good as new!" and the sailor responds, "We'll get a pair of eyes for you!" The Fetchit doll pulls up his foot by a string and says, "Ah's just need to fix mah feet!" and the Mammy doll adds, "And I just need a brand new seat!" She turns around where her skirt has been worn through to her undies, and she slaps her rear. The Zasu doll, skinny as a rail, remarks, "If I had more sawdust, I'd be fine!" and the jolly policeman doll, who is as rotund as the Fields doll, responds, "Should I have too much, you can have some of mine!" He laughs merrily, and the Zasu doll exclaims, "Oh! A transfusion!"

The sailor continues to mobilize the broken toys with his can-do spirit. "Now you're talkin'! Show a little spunk! C'mon now, we're not beaten! We'll get out of this dump!" As we see another string puppet and a toy soldier with a severed head struggle to stand up and pull themselves together, the sailor starts to sing...

"If you keep right on repeatin',
We're gonna get, we're gonna get,
We're gonna get out of the dump!"

The little sailor doll dances the hornpipe briefly, and closes with a reprise of "We're gonna get out of the dump!" The other characters start singing the phrase while attempting to get up and motivate themselves. The blinded baby doll stands on her feet and uses the dog as a seeing-eye pet, hanging onto his bulb for guidance. The mammy doll sings the chorus but adds some scat singing to it while dancing about the dump. The Fetchit puppet jumps onto a washboard and does a nifty dance routine (using his strings) before collapsing face-first into the hat he uses for lounging. The sailor helps the decapitated toy soldier to his feet, replacing his head, and urging him onward.

The toy soldier marches to a box containing many other toy soldiers and wakes them to attention. A parade of marching band soldiers commences, though many of them are missing arms or legs, with the bass drum soldier missing the entire bottom half of his body, so he just rolls over and over along the ground around his drum as they march. The sailor has set up an assembly line using discarded, overturned roller skates and playing cards, sliding the soldiers down along from skate to skate so they can be outfitted with replacement limbs. The Ned-in-the-Box pops out scarily at one point to jab a pencil into a soldier's missing leg socket, whereupon he gets up and walks stiffly... though walk he does. Two nurse dolls using Crayolas for makeup giggle at the soldier as one nurse doll marks up the other's face in the wrong way.

The Fetchit puppet has taken to giving himself a shine with some shoe polish and then slaps his head with a towel in the way you would a boot. The gingham elephant gives himself a scrub with some toothpaste and a toothbrush before using his trunk to hose himself clean. The Fields doll pulls the stamp off of an old letter and runs it through some water resting in a spoon. "Here you are, my little chocolate drop!" he mutters, and we see the mammy doll bending over so that Fields can reapply the stamp to her worn bottom. He slaps the stamp to her rear to secure it, and she turns around and pushes him playfully away, as is she were embarrassed. "Eh, wrong number!" mumbles the Fields doll (though I am pretty certain they must have something going on the side).

The fat policeman roly-poly is undergoing surgery, as the sailor sits atop a toy steam shovel and pulls sawdust from out of the policeman's exceedingly large stomach, which has had the stitching opened for the operation. When the steam shovel reaches into his stomach, the policeman, who is sitting in one end of a scale, is tickled by the shovel's movements and laughs maniacally, thrusting his arms and legs about in every direction. The steam shovel grabs a load of sawdust from the policeman and moves the load over to the ultra-thin Zasu doll, who sits shyly up in the air on the other end of the scale. The shovel dumps the sawdust down Zasu's dress and she giggles, "Oh, it tickles!" When the operation is completed after another load of sawdust, the policeman ties up his now much looser fabric with a big knot, and then tucks it under his uniform, patting his less round stomach contentedly. Zasu examines her now rather zaftig figure, and strikes a Mae West pose. "Oh!" she says in the direction of the policeman, "I'll come up and see ya sometime!"

A while later, snow is falling down lightly on the dump, and the film takes on a light sense that it may be heading toward a Christmas ending. We see a sign reading "Hospital Zone QUIET" and the sailor pushes a roller skate with the blind doll laying on it. They pass two soldiers, including the one with a new pencil leg, as the sailor pushes the doll inside a wooden basin that has been turned on its side. A flashlight has been secured in a hole in the roof of the structure, and it shines down on a table where they have transferred the blind doll for surgery. With all of the other fixed and reinvigorated toys looking on from outside the "hospital," with some of the main toys sitting up in a basket along the wall as if in a medical theatre, the blind doll sits up and runs her hands over the sailor's face. "This is so kind of you," she says in appreciation.

"What color do you want?" asks the sailor, "Brown or blue?" The doll's answer is fairly obvious, as she is a blonde. "Oh! Bah-lue!" she replies excitedly. One of the soldiers clips a pair of buttons off of an old shoe, and a nurse doll catches them on a tray and brings them to the table. The W.C. Fields doll is busy trying to put a thread through the eye of a needle, and given that they appear much larger to him than it would for a normal sized being, he is having a terrible time of it. After poking himself in the eye with the thread, he sneezes violently, and the thread accidentally goes through the needle. The sailor, wearing a cloth over his face as a mask, washes his arms in a basin, and then a nurse pulls an entire human-sized glove over his body to serve as a surgeon's gown. She ties two of the fingers behind his back to secure it, while another nurse pulls a pair of baby bottle nipples over his hands to use as gloves (or mittens, really).

A shower head has been attached to a tube and then a red rubber glove and in turn to a seltzer bottle to act as an oxygen pump for a being that doesn't require it, and the shower head is held over the blind doll's face. The Fetchit puppet performs the duty of pumping the seltzer bottle, causing the red glove to pulsate, as steam rises from the doll's face when the shower head is applied. The sailor begins the operation, and tension fills the room even more. He begins stitching the buttons in place, but everything stops when the Fetchit puppet falls asleep on the job, and has to be woken by the Fields doll to start pumping the bottle again. He pumps faster and faster, causing the red glove to snap its fingers until the operation is completed. The blonde doll wakes up to find she can see again, thanks to a new pair of big, blue, button eyes. When the doll looks at the sailor at first, her vision sees triple, but the figures finally come together as one. "Oooh!" she squeals, "And you're so handsome too!" She kisses him, and the sailor's face turns beet red.

Trumpet fanfare is heard and the toys march together out of the dump in triumph. With the North Star shining brightly over the nearby town -- itself another sign of where this is heading -- the toys head down over the snowy hills to find a new home. They reach a gate and after the sailor and blonde doll kiss once more, they walk through one of the openings on the gate. The gingham elephant acts as a sled dog, pulling the Fields doll and the Fetchit puppet along on a pair of toothbrushes employed as skis. The rest of the once-broken toys climb through the gate, but when the elephant and Fields go through, the Fetchit puppet catches his head on the bar of the gate and swings about and crashes into the snow. The Fields doll comes back and pulls him along with his cane. "C'mon, mah Ethiopian!" he says in the trademarked Fields manner, and they disappear. To the strains of Silent Night, with the snow falling all around, the camera pulls back to reveal that the gate belongs to a local orphanage. A Christmas wreath hangs below a welcome sign. The toys have found a new home. Iris out.

Apart from comparisons to Toy Story, there are parallels that can be made from Broken Toys to another classic piece of animation: the 1964 Rankin-Bass made for television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Certainly, there is a Christmas theme, but the broken toys do remind me of the Land of Misfit Toys, who seek redemption by each finding a child to love them. Yes, the Misfit Toys are mutants of a variety, either poorly designed by uncaring toy manufacturers or just simply assembly line rejects. But broken the Misfit Toys are all the same, chiefly psychologically, and their road to recovery is exactly that of the broken toys in this short film. If you want to find love and happiness, stop moping around thinking the world has passed you by, and do something about it.

I'm not sure how I feel about how Christmas sneaks up on the viewer in Broken Toys. I am fine with the way the film closes -- it is certainly lovely and effective -- but going back to when the sailor is first tossed in the dump at the beginning of the cartoon, they kept the timeframe far too subtle. We see green grass at first, but only in returning to that scene again did I notice a single tree tucked far into the background that is barren of leaves. And I also had to look again at the skies, which I thought were blue at first, but now seem to be rather overcast and gloomy. The only moment where there is a real sense that time has passed at all is when the film cuts to the scene of the doll's operation, and that is where we first see snow coming down, and also the first time we see nighttime may be approaching. If all of this happened in just a single day -- and I suspect that's what is meant to be portrayed -- Disney could have helped matters by having just a single, clearly placed orange or brown leave on the ground, or have it blown across the screen at some point.

But that hardly matters. Broken Toys is a quiet and gentle film, which I would say is perfectly suited for audiences as long as you are prepared to explain the racial stereotypes built into the Stepin Fetchit and Mammy doll characters. This may take it out of the realm of the acceptable for many people. I too find it unacceptable as a reasonable human being in 2015, but am looking at these films with history clearly in my sights, a feat that some people either can't manage or don't care a whit for at all. As an adult, I can handle our ugly past and learn to deal with it, but I don't have children (thankfully) to whom I have to devise explanations. Of course, you more than likely would have to explain W.C. Fields, Ned Sparks, and Zasu Pitts to your kids as well. And that too I will leave to your own defenses, though maybe tying them to a chair in front of Turner Classic Movies for a month might be a good start. I wish it had been around when I was a kid so my parents could have done that to me. (And they probably would have benefited greatly from it too.)

Cable television, toys... they all seem to get better and more advanced as time passes. But are they? Are the toys of today -- those in the Toy Story world -- any better than the simpler pleasures of the ones in Broken Toys, sixty years before? Is it all just wrapped up in brand names? Is the blonde doll regifted with "sight" in Broken Toys any worse a plaything than today's Barbie dolls? Some might say she required more imagination, but I could see the argument going the other way. And then approaching the scenario by involving feminism in it adds so many more layers to either side. Teddy bears went from simple stuffed animals to creepy Teddy Ruxpin robots in the 1980s, but then Beanie Babies made stuffed animals a thing again (though mostly with suburban moms with disposable income), even with technology all around us to create something that did anything but sit on a shelf.

I don't think the old popular toys have ever gone away; they just come back to us in a new form from time to time. And there will always be somebody out there waving the flag for simple pleasures like jump ropes, hopscotch, Frisbees, and hula hoops, no matter how much time passes. It might be adults playing with the toys that the more jaded kids of today are now ignoring, but the toys will still get played with, or at least put on display lovingly. They will always find a home somewhere.



And in case you haven't seen it:

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