Friday, November 28, 2008

Making History

With the historic election of Barack Obama, the Bijou Blog has been inspired to focus on selected short subjects and feature films that reflect cinemas' slant on American history. This week, we welcome back guest contributor and Bijou Friend Laughing Gravy (aka Cliff Weimer). whose entertaining and informative In the Balcony is the hellzapoppin of classic movie Websites. Today, Cliff talks about Hollywood films associated with WWII ~~~

Music, Cartoons, Serials - And Oh Yeah, War!
By Clifford Weimer

December 7th traditionally marks America's entry into WWII, and September 1, 2009 will mark the 70th anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, usually pegged as the beginning of the Second World War. Hollywood's output during the war years is most fondly remembered for its stoic homefront dramas like Mrs. Miniver and its stirring courage-under-fire stories like Action in the North Atlantic, but the undercards of the theatrical programs down at your local neighborhood Bijou offered a variety of fascinating newsreels, cartoons, short subjects, and serials to ensure that the homefront patrons waiting for their men to come home had an ample supply of entertainment (and popcorn) while they waited for their loved ones in the armed forces to return. (My father, incidentally, a WWII veteran, found most wartime features to be hilariously ridiculous; I never saw him laugh as hard at any non-Marx Bros. movie as he did at the 1942 supposedly realistic war drama The Navy Comes Through.)

Recently, an impressive array of these short subjects has become available on DVD and offers something for all tastes for movie fans. Here's a brief lineup of some of our favorites. Before we begin, it's important to mention that several of these films feature racist stereotypes that are, well, "unfortunate" (the kindest thing you can say about them). The films were a product of their times, and must be viewed in that context. The children in this household have sometimes been appalled by such material, but they also recognize and understand where we've been and how far we've come and this has led to enlightening family discussions.

Two recent animation releases stand out, both from Warner Bros. Since 2003, each fall Warners has given us a new 4-disc set called Looney Tunes: Golden Collection and this year's sixth volume ($44.99) offers as one of the discs a collection called Patriotic Pals, 18 animated shorts with wartime themes. Your cartoon favorites roam the world to frustrate the enemy, from the trenches of France (Bosko the Doughboy, 1931) to the Black Forest (Herr Meets Hare, 1945, with Bugs Bunny coming face to face with Der Fuhrer). Some of the more entertaining shorts offer wildly imaginative views of the Axis leaders; The Ducktators (1942) gives us Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini as malicious mallards, and Fifth Column Mouse (1943) is a genuinely frightening parable with mice attempting to appease a fascist cat, and the anti-Nazi jokes abound when Daffy Duck tangles with a "mess of Messerschmidts" in Daffy-The Commando.

Also new from Warners is a third collection of chronological Popeye cartoons in Popeye the Sailor: Volume 3 ($24.99). This set covers 32 shorts released from 1941 through 1943 and marks the end of the reign of Max Fleischer; Paramount Pictures seized his animation house in 1942 and renamed it Famous Studios. Several WWII cartoons, unseen for many years because of their racist content, are included. Titles like Scrap the Japs and You're a Sap, Mr. Jap (1942) tell you all you need to know; other cartoons include Seein' Red, White 'n' Blue, A Jolly Good Furlough, and Ration for the Duration.

Warner spends a lot of time and effort restoring the cartoons, and the sound and picture quality of these 70 year old films remains impressive.

Silliness abounds in Sony's latest chronological Three Stooges Collections: Volumes 3 ($16.99) and Volume 4 ($19.99). Together they cover the years 1940-1945, and feature plenty of hilarious Hun-inspired hijinx. Moe Howard considered the Stooges wartime shorts his favorites, and he gets a chance to parody Hitler himself for the first time onscreen, even before Chaplin, in You Nazty Spy! (1940) and in I'll Never Heil Again (1941). The Stooges capture a Nazi warship in Back from the Front (1943) and Japanese saboteurs in The Yoke's On Me. The Brothers Howard and friend Larry Fine, as Jews, no doubt took special glee in lampooning Hitler and his real-life gang of stooges.

For a prime collection of outstanding WWII entertaining shorts and features, look no further than the just-released boxed set Warner Bros. and the Homefront ($33.99). This three-disc set offers three of the best-loved "all star" films of War period. This is the Army was the biggest box-office hit of 1943, a 2-hours-plus Technicolor spectacular starring 350 actual members of the Armed Services plus Irving Berlin, Kate Smith, Ronald Reagan, and Joe Louis. Thank Your Lucky Stars is a once-in-a-lifetime pairing of stars so big the last names will suffice: Davis, Bogart, Cantor, de Havilland, Garfield, Flynn, and many, many more. The Hollywood Canteen was a charitable organization founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield as a spot where GIs could hobnob with cinema elite before being shipped out; Hollywood Canteen stars both of the founders, plus the Andrews Sisters, Jack Benny, Roy Rogers & Trigger, Peter Lorre, and dozens of others, truly "more stars than there are in heaven!"

Spread across the three discs in this set are a variety of outstanding WWII-themed cartoons and apropos short subjects, including Porky Pig in Confusions of a Nutzy Spy (1943); Food and Magic (1943), with a stage magician demonstrating food conservation to Victory Gardeners; a pair of very funny animated Hollywood parodies, Stage Door Cartoon and Hollywood Canine Canteen (both 1944); the stirring short I Am an American (1944); and a variety of vintage newsreels. Several hours worth of WWII entertainment at its finest - in a box!

Thunderbean Animation also continues to impress with their collections of obscure and outrageous animated antics, and not to be overlooked is a set called Cartoons for Victory! ($14.95).

This disc is unique because it offers not only American cartoons, but animated shorts created by our enemies for propaganda purposes. Nimbus Libéré (1944) is a film from Vichy France that shows Popeye, Mickey Mouse, and other U.S. cartoon stars gleefully bombing the French! Bugs Bunny joins Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd in a Bugs Bunny Bond Rally, and Warner Bros.-produced Army training films starring Private Snafu are another highlight of the set, as is four rare and thought-to-be-lost Mr. Hook Navy Training films. Although only four were made, the Hook cartoons featuring seaman Hook were to the Navy what Snafu was to the Army and were created simply to remind servicemen to buy and hold war bonds. The series was created by Hank Ketchum, who would go on to give the world Dennis the Menace, and were saved from extinction by distinguished Army newsreel cameraman Norman Hatch.

Although Thunderbean specializes in animation, they also distributed Back the Attack ($17.99), nearly three full hours of live-action WWII propaganda shorts. Much more a collection of historical educational films, newsreel-type footage, and oddities, than a set of shorts designed for entertainment, there's still laughs to be found in Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk, which features footage of Der Fuhrer and his troops illustrating Silly Walks courtesy of editing tricks (with music by the "Gestapo Hep-Cats").

Next: Fighting the Axis Week by Week: The Serials of WWII!


Here are two short entertaining films from Cliff's enlightening commentary. One is the colorful Take Heed Mr. Tojo (1943), produced by Walter Lantz for the US Bureau of Aeronautics, and the other is Bugs Bunny Bond Rally (1943). Enjoy!

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