Friday, April 21, 2006

Somewhere in Dreamland (1936)

Somewhere in Dreamland (A Max Fleischer Color Classic, 1936) 
Dir.: Dave Fleischer
Animators: Roland Crandall; Seymour Kneitel
Cel Bloc Rating: 6/9

Just how cute is too cute? Just how schmaltzy is too schmaltzy? These questions were apparently never considered when Fleischer Studios were cobbling together their ode to Depression-era depression, Somewhere In Dreamland in 1936. 

Rife with enough opening sadness to make you slit your wrists about four minutes into it, Dreamland features two cutesy-wootsy, hardscrabble waifs (with piercingly eerie beads for black eyes) who fall into a slumber and encounter a magical land far removed from the harsh realm in which they barely get by with their doting but worried mother. How hardscrabble are they? The boy walks around the snowy streets of their burg completely barefoot (and never seems to notice it), and when they go to bed at night, the blankets that they pull up in a meticulously neat fashion are moth-eaten collections of wayward strings, with all of the inner panels long eaten away.

The boy and girl drag a cart through the streets of the town collecting stray pieces of wood (presumably for their stove), and as they make their pathetic way, they attract the notice of first a toymaker, then a grocer, and finally, a baker. When the kids reach the bakery, the boy and girl stare with drooling mouths into the window at a massive collection of cupcakes, muffins and other baked deliciousness, but reality smacks the kids across their brains when they realize that their dreaming is all for naught.

Meanwhile, the baker has run inside his shop to prepare a gentle surprise for the children: two gorgeous looking cupcakes, but the children have disappeared long before the baker steps back out of his shop, having gone around the corner with their cart to return home. The three men confer on the matter, and one of them claims to know where the children live. If you are thinking an evil cabal that plans to cook the children in a pie, then you are in the wrong cartoon.

Meanwhile, the kids greet their mother at home, and their home is the very definition of the word "ramshackle". (Cinematically, possibly the only place more sorry-looking could be Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard's "home" in Modern Times, but that home has Paulette living in it, so how sorry-looking could it actually be?) Their mother, who looks like a far more sedate and prematurely aged Olive Oyl, does her best to feed her children what little food she can proffer: 2 mugs of hot milk and a small loaf of bread that is as hard as granite. The mother has to use all her strength to snap the bread in twain.

The girl solves this problem by smartly dunking her bread in her milk, and the boy follows suit; he complicates matters when he declares, "But I'm still hungry, mama!" The woman begins to weep openly, and the boy manages to console her by saying, "Ah, that's alright! I was only foolin'!" Mom kisses the kids off to bed, and after they change into their nightgowns and pull up those tattered blankets I mentioned previously, the little boy starts to sing the title song in an almost possessed manner with incredibly broad, descriptive hand motions:

"I'll see you somewhere in dreamland
Somewhere in dreamland tonight!
Over a bridge made of moonbeams
We'll find our clouds are silver-lined!"

The little girl takes over the second verse, and her brother rejoins her on the closing line:

"Each little star is a castle
Shining a welcome so bright!
Dreams will come true
For me and you
Somewhere in dreamland tonight!"

Once the kids fall asleep, their blankets dissipate, and their dream-selves float up and away to the pillowed gates of the land of their impoverishment-influenced dreams. When they arrive, and as the title song is now repeated by first female and then male voices, the kids immediately run to a tree on which they find new clothes to replace their tattered nightgowns. The kids change behind two giant hatboxes, and then skip along the cookie-laden pathways to a field full of lilies, underneath which grow magical ice cream cones. The kids pick the flavors they like best, and one of the lilies tips over to pour chocolate or butterscotch sauce over the frozen treasure.

Licking their dream-cones happily, the kids skip joyously past giant cakes, cookies, and other treats, and then pass a sign proclaiming a "Syrup River" as they come to an arch made of ribbon candy. One of the kids says, "Ain't we got fun?" as they climb aboard the animal cracker horses that surround a chocolate merry-go-round. As the kids twirl about, instead of grabbing the traditional golden ring, they grab a doughnut. While the sister only takes one, the brother grabs a handful of them in a flurry of greediness!

They run off munching and stuffing their faces, but the next sight makes them drop their sugary booty in awe: a popcorn field, where the cornstalks shoot the corn high into the air until it comes down like rain, and buttercups are employed as reservoirs of golden butter into which each popped kernel is dipped. After feasting to their hearts’ content, the kids skip along past a great number of toys, and they each pick out their favorite items with which to play. Their arms loaded with swag, they finally chance upon a tree with pillows hanging from its branches, and a pair of beds so comfortable-looking, the kids can't help themselves but to bounce high upon the mattresses. They eventually fall back to sleep, and then they are awakened by their mother come the morning.

The kids get out of bed, and at first, are disappointed when it turns out their dual dream was just that: a dream. But from their beds, they can see the kitchen table, and after rubbing their eyes, they find that their dismal abode (apart from their bedrooms) has been transformed overnight into a cornucopia of food and toys. A large turkey rests upon the table, streamers hang from the ceiling, and there are dolls, airplanes, hobby horses, and other toys scattered all around the room. "For us?", the kids twice ask the three kind merchants, who were hiding on the other side of the wall. "For you!", they twice concur. The kids dive right into plates of delicious ice cream, but then the boy pokes himself in the butt with his fork to make sure it is all not still a dream. He is delighted to find out that he feels a sharp pain, and the kids squeal with delight as they continue to gorge themselves on cupcakes and ice cream. Dissolve to the Paramount logo to end the cartoon.

The Fleischer Brothers briefly tuck the three-dimensional tricks into their backpocket for the first half of this one, with the opening four minutes pretty much portrayed in straight 2D animation, perhaps to add more grimness and focus to the despair of the children's world, meant to reflect reality (though it is still far from it). But, once the kids are floating into their fantasies, the guys snap the special effects hankie back at the film, sharply delineating their sugary dreamland with idealized versions of all manner of desserts, fairy castles, amusement rides, and toys. Especially memorable is the conjunction of ultra-dimensional animation in the chocolate cake merry-go-round scene, certainly the most remarkable bit of animation in the film. It is telling of the film that there is not enough of this world, such is the saccharine success of the vision, and like the kids in the film, we are left wanting more.

I know that the movies were a major source of psychological relief during the Great Depression, and many of them were apt to show such conditions, and then have the characters reach some sort of turning point by which their lives would become better; this film certainly offers no divergence from this “moxie buildin’” mold. Films featuring grand acts of paternalistic altruism by those better off, such as the empathetic shop owners in this film, may have been produced in that age, but just as likely were films showing far more successful businessmen as cruel and selfish individuals. But none of that in the Color Classics series. As sad as the Fleischers want to make you feel, they also have a need to leave the audience cheerful by film's end. So, no matter the amount of pathos ladled on like so much gravy, the audience is still going to come out with a warm feeling in their stomach... and only the slightest case of heartburn.

Just like the kids in this film, we all gotta dream, and no matter the candy-coated fantasia that we travel to in our sleep, sometimes when we wake up, the world actually is just a little bit better than before.

You'd better poke yourself with that fork, kiddo, because obviously, you are still somewhere in dreamland...


And in case you haven't seen it:

[This article was updated with new photos and edited on 12/12/2015.]


Anonymous said...

very good synopsis. i watched it as i kid and i'm still a little haunted by the kids. the song is predictable, but catchy. and it's still in my head after all these years (okay, i'm only 21 and i saw it when i was about five, so not THAT long). i loved the blog, very cool and creative. very informative, too.

it's interesting to see films of the depression era now that involve starvation since america has an overwieght problem. maybe kids today wouldn't understand why the children in the film are hungry...or am i being too general and cynical? :)

good job.

mad_rubicante (just a visitor)

Anonymous said...

by the way, "Merkin-Wearing Gherkin" would be a great washboard band, i'll bet. it'd be hard to chant in a crowd, though.


Anonymous said...

A very nice review.

Anonymous said...

I have this cartoon on a video tape called "Santa's Christmas Collection." The tape also contains the cartoons "Santa's Surprise," "Ginger Nutt's Christmas Circus," and "Snow Foolin'"

Anonymous said...

nice review!

though i think part of the lyrics goes..
"each little star is a castle"

Rik Tod Johnson said...

Thank you all for the nice comments over the past year or so on this review. And I must agree with the part about the lyrics. I, too, believe it is "Each little star is a castle", and I shall change it in the text accordingly.

Thank you, Anonymous, whichever one you are!

Anonymous said...

omg! I loved this movie as a kid and i still enjoi watching it on raing days...the best part was the field of candies/popcorn and the animal cracker marry-go-round =)

Anonymous said...

this cartoon actually depresses me. i watched this when i was 5 too( im 19 now) and even then , i found it really sad. it kills me every time the boy pipes up that he's still hungry and the mom's face just crumbles...

Anonymous said...

wow. i remember watching this when i was small, like maybe around 7 (i'm 15 now). I didn't know this was about the depression. It always made me sad though. i still have this on tape somewhere in my basement.

Anonymous said...

I discovered this cartoon when my son was about 3. He will turn 20 soon. Some say schmaltzy but I thought it hailed back to a time before the ME generation when kids didnt feel the world owed them something

Anonymous said...

what a beautifully written blog. i truly loved reading it...

Unknown said...

Love the story, song and music. Wish I could get the sound track.