Thursday, 31 March 2011

Dumbo

38. Dumbo (1941)
Dir: Ben Sharpsteen


Since it began making feature length animated cartoons back in the 1930s, the Walt Disney studio has created some of the most memorable and artistically remarkable films of all time. Although there have been numerous high points, critics generally cite the "golden age" of Walt Disney feature animation as the six year period between 1937 and 1942. This era takes in the groundbreaking debut feature 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' (1937), the ante-upping 'Pinocchio' (1940), the aspirational high-art excursion of 'Fantasia' (1940) and the breathtaking experiment in realistic animal animation of 'Bambi' (1942). All these films have their merits but my favourite of the five golden age Disney features is undoubtedly 'Dumbo'.

The roots of 'Dumbo' are easily detected in the early Silly Symphonies, a series of acclaimed shorts made by Disney throughout the 30s. Luxurious, colourful affairs, the Silly Symphonies were often endearingly cartoony but as the series progressed, Disney characteristically pushed the creative envelope, resulting in sumptuous artistic experiments like 'The Old Mill' (1937), a crucial stepping-stone towards the style employed in films like 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves' and 'Bambi'. The Silly Symphonies quickly gave way to the features and the cartoonish style of the early entries in the series was largely usurped by a heightened artistic sophistication. While this resulted in some of the most breathtaking films ever made, there is also an element of fun that is lost as the studios efforts get loftier. As far as I'm concerned, there's no arguing with 'Snow White...' or 'Pinocchio' but 'Fantasia' constantly wobbles between jaw-dropping beauty, nauseating kitsch and tedious excess.

The commercial failure of the very expensive 'Pinocchio' and 'Fantasia' left Disney in bad need of a hit. The admirable artistic ambition was kept alive by the continual development of 'Bambi' but, in the meantime, another Disney unit was given the go-ahead to begin working on an adaptation of a little known children's story by Helen Aberson about a big-eared elephant. In contrast with the studios previous productions, 'Dumbo' was envisioned as a simple and inexpensive project that would eschew the intricacies of 'Fantasia' et al. The result of this was the welcome return of the warm, caricatured style of the most charming Silly Symphonies, a "back to basics" approach that was welcomed by both critics and audiences alike. Less emphasis on groundbreaking artwork allowed animators to focus more closely on storytelling and character development, which instills a glorious warmth in 'Dumbo' which is less evident in the films that surround it.

The story of 'Dumbo' is incredibly simple. A baby elephant with extremely big ears is seperated from his mother when her attempts to protect him from bullies are taken for a mad rampage. Rejected by the other elephants, the baby (cruelly nicknamed Dumbo) is befriended by a mouse who helps him turn his affliction into an asset and reunite with his mother. With such a simple plotline, 'Dumbo' is perhaps inevitably one of Disney's shortest features and only just passes the hour mark. However, this feels more like an artistic decision than a neccesity because 'Dumbo' is so close to perfect that there is nothing you could add to or take away from it that would improve it in any way. The brief runtime heightens the sense that 'Dumbo' owes much to the Silly Symphonies and it comes across as a particularly beautiful, elongated entry into that series.

Although I've acknowledged several times that 'Dumbo' was a cheaper, less visually-intricate work, that does not mean it is by any means less gorgeous than its predecessors. The film is a feast of uplifting, bright colours, busy, energetic sequences and surreal experimentalism that are delivered in bitesize chunks which gel effortlessly into one glorious whole. One of the major achievements for which 'Dumbo' is celebrated is the character animation. The crowning glory in this respect is Dumbo himself, who is the only Disney protagonist who remains silent for the entirety of their starring role. Consequently, much needs to be communicated through Dumbo's expressions and actions in order to ensure he is a fully fledged character rather than just a prop. This is achieved with aplomb, so that Dumbo's initial "awwwww" inspiring appearance quickly melts into an expressive, empathetic, fully-rounded personality. Dumbo's mother is similarly silent (she speaks once and then forever holds her peace) but the relationship between her and her offspring is all the more touching and palpable for it. The famous scene in which she cradles her son in her trunk through the bars of her cage is at once more heart-rending than a million murdered Bambi-mothers or trampled Simba-fathers!

With such silent main characters, 'Dumbo' requires a strong, vocal supporting cast and it keeps the memorable characters coming in a constant stream. Timothy Mouse, who befriends 'Dumbo' and is the driving force behind moving the plot forward, is the second in a long line of Disney's little helpers which began with Jiminy Cricket. Cockier and less folksy than his predecessor, Timothy spends much of the film spouting a monologue punctuated by Dumbo's reactions. Timothy is a relentlessly positive character and his presence on screen keeps the film lively. On the flipside, the shockingly cruel pack of gossipy female elephants are a brutally negative force in the story and will be familiar to anyone who has ever been bullied just for being different. The other most memorable characters are birds whose appearances bookend the film. Sterling Holloway, a Disney legend, makes his Disney debut here as the voice of Mr. Stork, who delivers Dumbo to his mother at the beginning of the film. Holloway's unusual and instantly recognisable voice would be a magical presence in many subsequent Disney films including the roles of Kaa in 'The Jungle Book' (1967), the Cheshire Cat in 'Alice in Wonderland' (1951), Winnie the Pooh in his various appearances and a variation on his 'Dumbo' character in the classic 1951 Disney short 'Lambert, the Sheepish Lion'.

But it is the bird characters who appear at the end of 'Dumbo' who are most widely discussed. The gang of crows, who intially laugh off Timothy's assertion that Dumbo can fly and subsequently act as flying mentors to the elephant, are partially remembered so well because they are superbly energetic, funny and likeable characters. But more often than not the crows are discussed solely in the context of racism, since they are depicted as an African American musical group who speak in a stereotypical patois. Racial stereotyping was commonplace during animation's golden age but this is too often used as an excuse for some occasionally horrendous racism. However, the crows in 'Dumbo' are characters I would certainly defend. Far from resembling the big-lipped, bug-eyed grotesques that animators so often resorted to when depicting black characters, the crows are attractively rendered cartoon birds and their shtick is based heavily on the sort of musical performances and jokey interplay on recordings by African American artists of the day. This whole sequence is specifically an homage to a certain trend in 40s music and as such is a relatively respectful, even admiring segment of the film. Of course, there are legitimate complications raised by the fact that the main crow is voiced by a white actor (Cliff Edwards, the voice of Jiminy Cricket) and that he has been named Jim Crow (after the Jim Crow Laws, segregation laws enacted in Southern America). While this character name does highlight the outsider status of the crows and its crucial narrative similarity with Dumbo's enforced isolation, packaging it in the form of a jokey pun is in questionable taste. But ultimately the crows are depicted in a more postive light than the majority of characters in the film and their intervention is instrumental in encouraging Dumbo to unlock his potential.

The crows sequence at the end of the film helps 'Dumbo' pick up a real head of steam in its final reel. Much credit must be given to one of the greatest Disney songs ever, the lyrically smart and musically infectious 'When I See an Elephant Fly', a delerious show-stopper amongst a largely subtle musical selection. The wonderful music in 'Dumbo' tends to be almost incidental, occuring alongside narrative action rather than interrupting it. The marvellously upbeat 'Casey Junior' theme which accompanies appearances by the titular personified train is a strong example. Another of the most celebrated sequences in 'Dumbo', however, breaks completely from this trend and takes the film off in a weird, compellingly surreal direction. Like a film within a film, the 'Pink Elephants on Parade' segment focuses on a drunken nightmare shared by Dumbo and Timothy after they accidentally drink alcohol. Suddenly the focus shifts to stylised, multiplying, shape-shifting elephants with frighteningly hollow eyes. Often described as proto-psychedelic, the 'Pink Elephants on Parade' musical number is a prime example of how keeping things simple and inexpensive at Disney studios did not necessarily mean sacrificing innovation. The appearance of this startling and sometimes spooky passage directly before the appearance of the crows and 'When I See an Elephant Fly' makes the ending of 'Dumbo' one of the paciest and most unusual of all Disney's features.

Practically any review of 'Dumbo' you can find will mention the crows, the pink elephants and other famous moments such as the 'Baby Mine' trunk-cradling sequence or the 'Look Out for Mr. Stork' opening number but to get caught up in these numerous highlights is to sell 'Dumbo' short. Remember I stated early in this review that 'Dumbo' is virtually perfect and that is not a label I apply lightly. That means that there is no padding whatsoever and the consistency of 'Dumbo's brilliance means there are numerous sequences that usually go unmentioned. For instance, 'Dumbo' frequently uses a fiendishly clever trick of portraying its human characters as silhouettes behind circus tents. We are placed in the role of voyeurs and eaves-droppers, glimpsing the world of human circus performers from the point of view of animals kept outside. The clever use of lighting allows us to view multiple layers of the characters costumes, such as a clown's human head which is visible in silhoutte through his fake elephant-head mask. Also hidden in these sequences is an allusion to the bitter strikes that were occuring at Disney Studios at the time of 'Dumbo's creation. The clowns are depicted as caricatures of the strikers, going to "hit the big boss for a raise". Another great sequence involving the clowns is Dumbo's first performance as a newly appointed clown. Dumbo is placed in a mock burning building from which the clowns, in the garb of firemen, make various fruitless attempts to rescue him. The frantic animation captures the art of clowning impeccably and whether you find clowns amusing or not (and god knows I don't!) it's impossible not to be impressed by the accuracy and energy of this setpiece.

Of the five films that make up Disney's critical golden age, 'Dumbo' is perhaps the most influential on the style of the studio's subsequent output. Although a high level of artistry was maintained, humour and character would ultimately become more important in later productions than the perfectionist realism that peaked with 'Bambi'. By the time of his death, Walt Disney himself was emphasising the importance of entertainment, storytelling and character over anything else and, tellingly, his final achievement with this triptych as his mantra was 'The Jungle Book', another personal favourite of mine. 'Dumbo's ability to please both demanding critics and audiences craving entertainment and escapism speaks of its place as one of the great filmic works of art of the 20th century. Sandwiched between two of Disney's most ambitious and highfalutin productions, 'Dumbo' is the little cartoon that could. Every one of its 64 minutes is a delight to behold.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Let George Do It

37. Let George Do It (1940)
Dir: Marcel Varnel


The British Music Hall tradition is one which has been retrospectively devalued in many quarters. Edmund Blackadder, in the essential TV event that was 'Blackadder Goes Forth' (1989), famously dismissed it as "two men with incredibly unconvincing cockney accents, going "What's up with you then?", "What's up with me then?"" It's impossible to deny the accuracy of this brilliant parody. Musical Hall cannot help but seem utterly twee and corny by modern standards. But, as the hugely enjoyable Ealing period comedy 'Champagne Charly' (1944) illustrates, Music Hall was very much about the atmosphere and experience of being there, which explains why so many attempts to bring its stars to the screen have failed or else dated beyond comprehension.

But there are acts who stemmed from this tradition who are worthy of rediscovering. You'll find few Greatest Film lists out there that even make a passing reference to the screen work of George Formby but between 1934 and 1946 he was one of the most popular performers in Britain. The twenty films he turned out during this period feature surprisingly few really weak efforts. Ultra-light-hearted comedies with occasional musical interludes, Formby's films are generally fast-paced, innocently charming and sometimes genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Nostalgia undoubtedly plays a part in my love of Formby's work, since I grew up watching these films (I should mention at this point that I am only 28) but I also grew up watching other British institutions such as Will Hay or the Carry-On series and I now find it hard to sit through those in their entirety so Formby's films must have something special, at least where I'm concerned.

Due to the period they were made, the Formby films are significantly less smutty than, say, the Norman Wisdom films that received the baton of popularity from them. George (whose surname changes in every film but whose first name and character remains the same) is a shy, good-natured character who loves and respects women to the point of fear! So the raunchier innuendos are saved for the lyrics to his songs, designed to elicit roars of laughter from crowds of servicemen, while Formby's pursuit of women is largely chaste and confined to one specific love interest. Even his songs feel the need to censor shocking words such as 'bloomers', 'knickers' and, in one extreme case, 'belly'! The sexual politics may seem naive but, in a way, seem far less dated than the lascivious sexism of their 50s, 60s and 70s equivalents.

One of the most important factors in furthering Formby's popularity and excellence was the advent of World War 2. The rousing spirit of togetherness and defiance that characterised the Music Hall tradition was rarely more appreciated than during wartime and Formby became a crucial factor in keeping up the morale of the troops and their families back home. The arrival of the war sparked the most fertile run of brilliance in Formby's career. The run of six films he made between 1938 and 1941 (beginning with 'It's in the Air' (1938) and ending with 'Turned Out Nice Again' (1941)) constitute the Lancashire comedians best and most cinematic outings (along with 1935's superb 'No Limit'). Crucial in this leap in quality was the tightening up of plots, which largely became thrillers, often with a wartime theme. Right in the middle of this period came Formby's best and most historically significant film of all; 'Let George Do It'.

'Let George Do It' follows the adventures of George Hepplewhite, a member of travelling concert band The Dinky Doos who is accidentally mistaken for a British undercover agent and thrust into the world of espionage. Employed in a hotel as a ukelele player with a big band whose conductor is a secret Nazi, George swallows his reservations for the sake of his country and, more importantly, to impress the beautiful Mary Wilson (Phyllis Calvert). 'Let George Do It' gets to grips with the war effort like no other film Formby ever made. While he had previously battled against gruff Sergeant Majors and counterfeiters, this time George takes on the Nazis themselves.

Undoubtedly the most famous moment in 'Let George Do It' is a dream sequence in which George flies to Germany on a barrage balloon where he invades a Nazi rally and punches Hitler in the face. One can imagine the cheers of delight from wartime audiences at seeing their shy hero dishing out the knuckle sandwich all of England were longing to serve up themselves. This remarkably forceful image was potent enough to inspire the international release of the very British 'Let George Do It'. It became a huge hit in the USSR under the revised title 'Dinky Doo' but even the rebranding of the film with the on-the-nose name 'To Hell With Hitler' was not enough to break Formby in America.

This famous sequence aside, there are several more elements that make 'Let George Do It' a cut above the other Formby films. The tightening up of plot keeps the film more focused than its predecessors, which employed a more episodic structure culminating in a big set piece to finish. 'Let George Do It' feels more expansive. There's some unrelated silliness aboard a ship at the beginning of the film but after that the events of the film all feel like pieces of the same puzzle rather than stand-alone sketches. Even the superfluous sequence involving attempts to retrieve a lost camera from a bakery feels in keeping with the action-packed plot, the elevated importance of the pursued prize heightening the suspense.

Also improved upon is the supporting cast. Generally speaking, all anyone cared about in a George Formby film was George Formby, the other characters being plummily-accented cardboard cut-outs. The obligatory love interest and bully boy were usually bland pawns being stiffly moved to whatever positon the story required them to appear in. But 'Let George Do It' ups the ante. George's object of desire, Mary Wilson, is not just a simpering, sweet-natured woman who stands by and watches the action but a prominent British agent who is crucial to the plot and initiates George into his adventure. Phillis Calvert plays the role assertively and is quite the most beautiful of all the Formby heroines. Garry Marsh, meanwhile, makes an imposing villain. Having proved himself worthy of the role in a similarly menacing turn in another Formby classic, 1939's 'Trouble Brewing', Marsh's Mendez combines the homely threat of a stuffy authority figure with the rather more frightening force of a Nazi saboteur. With strong support, Formby ups his game too. Although he largely sticks to his recognised and beloved shtik, the material gives him more room to experiment. The Hitler-punching scene allows him to play the cocky hero for a change, while an extended sequence in which he appears alone and talks aloud to himself as he goes about his ablutions constitutes some of his best work.

One of the most pleasing improvements in 'Let George Do It' is the superior quality of the music. Formby's musical asides are always some of the high points of his films but there is usually a clear stand-out amongst the songs, with at least one weak effort. 'Let George Do It' features no less than four excellent songs. 'Grandad's Flannelette Nightshirt' sees Formby performing to a bar full of enthusiastic servicemen, giving us a glimpse of his well-known stints entertaining the troops. 'Oh Don't the Wind Blow Cold' is a traditionally innuendo-laden piece which occurs simultaneously alongside a great action sequence as George uses the song to distract from his escape attempts. 'Mr Wu's a Window Cleaner Now' combines elements of two of Formby's most popular songs, the very famous 'When I'm Cleaning Windows' and the stereotypical but racially benign 'Chinese Laundry Blues'. But the stand out is the show-stopping number 'Count Your Blessings and Smile', a rousing tune which is used as a theme throughout the film while also acting as a cleverly woven-in plot-point.

Once the most popular entertainer in the country, George Formby is now more commonly mocked and his act unfairly reduced to a series of catchphrases. Time-travelling sitcom 'Goodnight Sweetheart' (1993-1999) is just one example of a modern source which regularly portrayed Formby as an intollerable proposition to a modern audience. When he is defended and celebrated, there can be an unfortunate tendency to go too far the other way. The Independent, for example, admiringly described Formby as "the Lancashire Chaplin", an artist whom Formby bears no comparison with in terms of either style or quality. It is much better to appreciate Formby for exactly what he was; a unique, lovable screen presence whose films have undeniably dated in terms of content but remain extraordinarily enjoyable nonetheless. In such an ouevre, there is usually a standout example of the subject at their best and such is the case with 'Let George Do It', the ideal answer to those who too readily write off George Formby as a relic of a bygone era.