Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948)
Director: Max Fleischer
Prod.: Jam Handy Organization
Cel Bloc Rating: 5/9

It's not Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's fault that he isn't Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Well, what I mean is it's not this innocent, Max Fleischer-directed, animated short from 1948's fault that it isn't the stop-motion television special created by Rankin-Bass in 1964. Barring the occasional heckling from someone who is just sooooooo post-post-post-post-everything they have to kick such universally beloved things to the wall, the 1964 special is justifiably considered to be a Christmas classic. I would be lying if I said that simple hour of holiday silliness wasn't one of the most formative ingredients in the way that I have approached all art and entertainment since I first laid eyes upon it.

And yet, fun as the stop-motion version is, it's really a dramatic expansion (and often outright reconfiguration) of the original story written by Robert May for Montgomery Ward in 1939. For a closer look at the real story, look no further than the 1948 version, where Rudolph is just some punk kid reindeer abused by the neighbor kids who gets accidentally discovered by Santa one exceedingly foggy Christmas Eve night. Since headlights aren't in Santa's magical bag of tricks (and yet, he and his elven slaves can create electric train sets, racing cars and robotic toys), it's lucky he wanders into Rudolph's home to fill the little whippersnapper's stocking and gets blinded by the glow from Rudolph's abnormal -- nay! -- mutated schnoz.

Since Jam Handy released oodles of promotional films for Chevrolet and other big companies [click here and here for my reviews of their pair of Cinderella car commercials], I half expected Santa's sleigh to actually start shifting about and have panels slide and wheels maneuver into place, and then suddenly the right jolly old elf would be riding about in some sort of coach car. Instead, the film is merely there to entertain, and seemingly to promote the newly written -- but not yet famous at the time -- song version of Rudolph by Johnny Marks, May's brother-in-law. The next year, Gene Autry would reluctantly record it, and as these things go, the rest is history: one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. [The Autry version would later be edited into the credits of this already released cartoon; the version I am reviewing does not include Autry's voice, but rather a choral arrangement of the tune.]

The animation is decent enough -- comparable to what was passing for quality at Famous Studios or Terrytoons at that time -- but the sound quality for the voices is abysmal, with the taunting reindeer sounding like they were recorded down the hall from Rudolph, their voices echoing harsher than their empty threats. I doubt the effect is stylistic, because such things just were not done. I should state here and now that the sight of reindeer walking about on their hind legs is just a tad creepy in my mind, and furthermore, even the male deer seems feminine within this aspect. In fact, they almost seem nude, like they lost their pants. Rudolph's mother, on the other hand, seems to be the only deer that dresses in actual human clothes, greeting her downtrodden son at the door in a smart housedress. (Is it just me, or is Rudolph's mom kind of a RILF? I think it is just me...) Unlike the cave in the Rankin-Bass version, Rudolph actually lives in a home with furniture, and he hangs a stocking on the end of his bed, imaging a boatload of toys and goodies that will be left overnight by Santa, the way in which all human children dream too. But then his conflict over the teasing he receives from his constantly shining nose gets the better of him, and he cries himself to sleep.

The next section introduces Santa, and he is a magnificent rotund figure indeed (if not a bit flouncy in his gestures). Sadly, whoever is doing the voice for the great man seems to not be aware of just how jolly Santa is supposed to be, and comes off sounding completely blasé about the whole project. Any exclamation points in his lines seem to have been replaced by stifled yawns. (He does a much better job with his speech at the end, but it's no excuse for an overall lackluster performance, especially for someone who should as loud and boisterous as Santa.) Claus encounters endless interruptions of his route -- crashing into trees and roofs, and almost getting done away with by a plane, which he and his reindeer negotiate by prancing across the wings. Santa finds Rudolph just in time, and the scarlet-schnozzed one leaves a note behind, beginning it "Deer Mommy and Daddy..."

Rudolph, naturally, saves the day, taking Santa all the way to Bunnyville (who knew all the rabbits in the world lived in one town?) and then the film concludes with Rudolph being honored before the entire population of his reindeer hometown with an elaborate ceremony in the town's stadium. His former taunters have been turned to admirers (though I like to believe that most of them are actually evil deer bullies who are jealous of his newfound fame and are plotting to spoil his reputation). Rudolph is named "Commander-in-Chief" of all the reindeer, and he blushes, causing his fur to equal his nose in intensity. He wishes us "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night", as the final lines of the song run out, and the film closes.

It's so hard to imagine a time when this wasn't an already established part of the culture. We accept holiday folklore as having always been around, and it is surprising to learn that these traditions, in the form we know them, aren't really all that ancient. We just accept Santa's antiquity as a child, and as far as we can surmise, Rudolph has always been there with him. I saw this film long after the Rankin-Bass, and I was offended by how boring it seemed against a film filled with a singing snowman, misfit toys of a dozen varieties, a flying lion king, and an abominable snowman who gets his teeth yanked by an amateur elf dentist and places stars on top of Christmas trees. Even though it was first aired just after my birth, I accepted the '64 film as gospel from the time that I first saw it when I could understand it. That was, and still is, tradition to me (in fact, I am watching it right after I conclude writing this).

But I then think of those that preceded the arrival of both myself and that film, and how perhaps they looked to this simple animation as its own sort of tradition, and even perhaps as new and hip as the later one must have seemed at first glance. It bore a popular song of that day (by the same songwriter as the later film), and animated to the standard of its time. If I had grown up seeing this one instead every year of my childhood, perhaps I would hold far more nostalgia for it.

As it stands though, I don't. It's cute, but this Rudolph's nose simply doesn't shine bright enough for me.

In case you haven't seen it,
this about the highest quality version that you will find on the internet:

Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Man Who Had to Sing About "The Man Who Had to Sing"

[This post was originally placed on my main blogsite, The Cinema 4 Pylon, on February 2, 2007. For some reason I neglected to place it on here, so until I get a new review on here, this bit of mystery will have to suffice...]

When I first got the "series of tubes" (Ted Stevens, bless your technological acumen!) hooked up in April of 2005, just after I moved to Anaheim, before I even thought of starting up a blog, or even multiple blogs, I had a mission. Inspired by a small, obscure animated short that I had not seen for over a quarter century, but whose presence in my brain had stuck with me that entire time, I made my way to IMDB to start researching the film's whereabouts. Not only did the film appear to not have been released on DVD or VHS, at least in the English-speaking world as presented on the "BUY" section of the website, but the entry for this film didn't even have the minimum number of votes required (a mere 5) to qualify to have a rating on the site (it still doesn't, which seems to speak to its current obscurity). And because this lonely little film titled The Man Who Had to Sing, which seemed to me still like the scraggly, unloved Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown special, didn't have any user comments either, I felt compelled to leave this brief note regarding my past involvement with the film:

"I remember seeing this film back in the late 70's on PBS when I was a teenager, and just beginning to turn into an animation nut. The show was "The International Festival of Animation", hosted by Jean Marsh, and while there were a great many wonderful cartoons presented on the series, this is the one that stuck with my brother and I. The lead character's endlessly repeated singsong refrain of "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah!" super-glued itself to my brain, and I still sing it all the time over 25 years later, though I have not seen hide nor hair of the film since that show went off the air. Unfortunately, I did not own a VCR until 1980, and never thought to tape it when I did get one. Hopefully, Spike and Mike or some similar group will collect some of these wonderful old films and let them find a new audience. Perhaps it wouldn't hold up in a fresher viewing, but it was a very sad, quirky but poignantly beautiful gem, at least, as I recall it.."

That was it. I titled the comment, "Sometimes You Just Have to Let It Out...", but to this day, I am unsure of whether I was merely referring to the character in the film or to myself, too. I also left a couple of other comments following this one for other likewise obscure and fondly remembered trifles of my youth, but my real hope with this particular one was to locate others who not only shared my love for this film, but to also track down a copy, by any means necessary.

Time passed, and I never received a reply. And more time passed... nothing. It seemed, apart from my brothers, that I was alone in my "Yeah-yeah-yeahing". And then, Wednesday night, I received an email from someone who was conducting a Google search for The Man Who Had to Sing. Nearly two years later, they ended up on my comment at IMDB, and they were then nice enough to contact me. The email as follows...

Hello - I went googling for this Yugoslavian Animation short tonight and found your comment on IMDB. I had such a similar experience that I had to write.

I also saw it with my brother who was a good deal older than me (now deceased). He used to watch the same PBS show late at night and I would get home from a night out and find him sitting there with a smile on his face watching this show. I had never seen stuff like this before and I found it really interesting, especially the Slavic stuff. And one night I saw "The Man Who Had To Sing" and we laughed ourselves silly... I also could not get that song out of my head and now years later at 53 I still remember the whacky, oblivious way that the guy went through life singing that same refrain over and over. Like you said, "... glued to my brain".

I wonder... did you ever get to see it again?

Well, thanks for listening. Just had to write. "Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah!"

I was elated that there was someone besides my brother and myself that had not just seen this in their youth, but had also become inflicted with the "yeah-yeah" madness. But it also served to remind me that my quest was far from over, and that I needed to start anew my search for this film. Unfortunately, Google offers little in the way of an immediate solution, but it did list a few potential bright spots:

  • A website for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon lists the film in its rentable video library thusly:

    Media Type: Audio (Cassette(s))
    Audience Level: JHA
    A little guy (Charlie Brown type) goes through life with a song to sing ("Ya , ya, ya-ya") that nobody wants to hear. As a child he gets deserted by his parents, beaten up by other children, kicked out of school, and tagged
    Subjects: Growth & Development; Faith Enrichment; Self-Esteem; Life
    Running Time:10

    Mass Media Ministries

  • A website for the Ruth Dudley Resource Center, which also seems to be a religious library, offers this description:

    The Man Who Had to Sing
    A hilarious portrayal of the life of a luckless Charlie Brown-type, a real loser who had only one thing to offer -- a song for which the world had no need. 10 minutes. 1989. JH - A.

  • And best of all, the San Bernardino Valley College website offers up a list of their library films (which consists of the usual mix of public domain titles, industrial films and obscure art flicks). It gives more of the real deal on the film:

    The Man Who Had to Sing
    Year : 1971Type : FilmsColorization : colorLength : 10 min.
    This film is an animated cradle to grave fable - funny, quirky, and sad. A little guy goes through life with a song to sing that nobody wants to hear. As a child he gets deserted by his parents, beaten up by other children, kicked out of school. As a man he has a hard time with the army, with religion, with a wife who soon takes her leave of him, with psychiatrists who declare him hopeless, and with society in general. But he hangs in there, until an outraged public silences him in his grave. Or, is he silenced? The caricature becomes a clue to many problems of human interrelations and individual integrity.

I find it amusing that the Archdiocese's subject description notes "faith enhancement", when I believe that "The Man" finds just as little comfort in church as he does in the rest of his life, and is summarily dismissed from the environs when he takes up his Tourette's-like burst of inappropriately loud and off-key singing. Whatever people take from the film (and it has been so long since I have seen it, so that practically anything could be within the film and I would have forgotten much of it), I am glad that it is around in some form.

I can't rent from the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon because they limit their rentals to the borders of the state, unless you give them a good reason which they will study "case by case". I don't know whether my lack of religion will either hurt or help my case. This same problem might apply with the Ruth Dudley catalog. And I am pretty sure that one must be a student of the San Bernardino Valley College to rent from it, and even if I could, it would be hard to convince Jen that we need to make the trip to S.B. just to rent a 10-minute long obscure Yuogslavian cartoon with a guy who just blurts out nonsense lyrics at every given opportunity.

She would say that she already has someone like that around for real. Why would she need a cartoon for that?

Yeah-yeah, yeah-yeah-yeah...

The Man Who Had to Sing [Covjek koji je morao pjevati] (1970)
Directed by Milan Blazekovic
Cinema 4 Rating (Distantly Remembering How Much I Loved It): 8

Sunday, April 15, 2007

In Which Everything Is Revealed to Be Nothing But Laziness On the Author's Part... Mostly...

Oi! What's that moving about in the corner? Could it be...? It is!

It's been months since the Cinema 4: Cel Bloc has betrayed any signs of life, and now, apparently the time is ripe for a return, albeit in a greatly reduced fashion. Though I am not picking up the cartoon-reviewing trail yet (though I would like to sooner than later), I wanted to pop in here briefly and perform a pair of rather important tasks.

I first want to state that while most of my actual friends -- none of them real cartoon buffs, mind you -- tend to not post on here (they save that for my other main blog, The Cinema 4 Pylon), I have received a good number of comments over the past year or so, and all from people that I have never met or even heard of before (except for a notable pair of rather well-known animation archivists -- well-known in animation circles, that is). Even a couple weeks ago, I found recent comments for posts that I wrote 7 months ago, which is part of what I love about the blog experience. And, except for a couple of dicey exchanges, the response to my essays -- not reviews, for the most part -- have been overwhelmingly positive. I have met some very nice people through these comments, and I thank them for taking part in this journey. The main trend that I have noticed whilst doing this, however, is that most of these people (not counting the animation nuts) are just people looking up a particular favorite cartoon and running smack into my blogpost regarding said cartoon. While this was not the purpose of writing these posts, it is a welcome side effect. I am first pleased that people found and read what I wrote; I am then pleased greatly that these people saw fit to respond to me, either positively or negatively.

I am not here to set the world on fire. Some days, I wouldn't mind if the entire planet, at least the human portions of it, did burst into flames, but on my personal end of things, that is not the objective blog-wise. I am merely doing this as an outlet to write. That some of you are able to obtain needed information from my random scribblings makes me most happy indeed; that some of you feel I am doing it well is merely a bonus. I am not a historian, nor do I wish to be (nothing against historians -- Jen's mother is one). I just love cartoons, and like the movies I write about on the Pylon, I am not reviewing movies because I want you to know my opinion about them. My opinion, like anybody's after all, doesn't really matter. My opinion may be voiced in whatever I am writing, but what I really want you to garner from my writing is my passion for the simple act of watching cartoons and movies. And also my anger when they are done incompetently, especially by those who have the potential and resources to do them well. Or my joy when they are done in an purposefully incompetent manner but are still excellent. Or when they are done... (Oh, you know... it's a slippery slope, this criticism thing... so many angles to consider...)

Right now, I am pissing off people who are animation nuts just because I am referring to animation as a whole as "cartoons", just as it has become politically correct to say "graphic novels" instead of "comics". Ultimately, to me, the battle between "cartoon" and "animated film" is the same as the battle between "film" and "movie". I understand that you can divide them into different categories, one more arty than the other to please the aesthetes, but in the end, it is all semantics, and I just don't give a fuck.

And this is why I stopped writing on the Cel Bloc for a while: the animation nuts. I must state, they did not do anything to me -- in fact, except for Stephen at the Animation Archive, those few who have run across this blog have been very kind and polite overall -- this is merely an observation from a sideline observer of their antics. I frequent many of their sites, and by and large these places, even when they purport to be as such, are not for the casual consumer of animation. The enthusiasts who run them tend to be, and I say this with tough love, "exclusivists". They might give you a glimpse into the world that breeds their passion -- but don't get too close, mister! You are not one of them. You might think you like Bugs Bunny cartoons, but if you are not an animator, then you couldn't possibly truly understand them. Even if you have seen What's Opera, Doc?, let's say, a thousand times since childhood, if you are not a member of their animation fraternity, within whatever invisible permutations that surround their exclusive little clique, then what you have to say really doesn't matter. At least, that's the impression I get from their comment lists and boards. Because I don't play these silly games, I have never engaged them in this; it is only what I have gathered from spying on numerous sites.

One site that I visit several times a week is Cartoon Brew, run by animation historians Jerry Beck and Amid Amidi. It is probably more immediately accessible than most of these places of which I am speaking, but even though I love it as a source of news and information, it is also part of the problem: running roughshod over films that haven't been released yet, praising to the heavens other films that are miles from coming into view, and then often paying a strange obeisance to certain artifacts of the past of dubious distinction or merit. (Nostalgia causes us to do strange, strange things...) So, it was with pleasure that I ran across an item on the Brew earlier this week where they were kind enough to tell their loyal readers of a Cartoon Brew spoof on the often amazing parody site SomethingAwful.com (home of the nauseatingly great Horrors of Porn series). Because Mr. Beck is a good sport, he is big enough to admit just how dead-on the skewering actually is -- and it smokes -- oh, does it ever! (Please make sure to get all the way to the second page and check out the "John K." commentary. I'm sure Mr. K won't like it... it was written by a writer, after all; it couldn't actually be funny...)

So, by all means, check it out...