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Treasure Trove of Silent American Movies Found in Amsterdam

Sunday, March 30th, 2014

A group of extremely rare American silent films has been found at the EYE Museum in Amsterdam.

As Susan King reports in The Los Angeles Times, “Long-missing comedy shorts such as 1927’s Mickey’s Circus, featuring a 6-year-old Mickey Rooney in his first starring role, 1917’s Neptune’s Naughty Daughter; 1925’s Fifty Million Years Ago, an animated introduction to the theory of evolution; and a 1924 industrial short, The Last Word in Chickens, are among the American silent films recently found at the EYE Filmmusem in Amsterdam. EYE and the San Francisco-based National Film Preservation Foundation have partnered to repatriate and preserve these films — the majority either don’t exist in the U.S. or only in inferior prints.

The announcement was to be made Sunday in Amsterdam at EYE Museum with a public screening of the first film saved from the project Koko’s Queen [see image above], a 1926  Out of the Inkwell cartoon, which had been available in the U.S. only in substandard video copies. Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, said EYE came to them after learning of NFPF’s partnership four years ago with the New Zealand Film Archive, which repatriated nitrate prints of nearly 200 silent U.S. films, including a missing 1927 John Ford comedy, Upstream. The following year, the NFPF and the New Zealand archive also identified the 30-minute portion of the 1923 British film The White Shadow, which is considered to be the earliest feature film in which Alfred Hitchcock had a credit.

‘We had so much on our plate,’ said Melville. ‘We took responsibility for funding the preservation of a good number of the 176 films. We didn’t want to bite off more than we could chew. There are a lot of resources involved in bringing the films back and preserving them. Most of this work is funded through grants.’ With support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF last year sent researcher Leslie Lewis to Amsterdam, where she spent two months examining more than 200,000 feet of highly combustible 35mm nitrate film. A veritable Sherlock Holmes of celluloid, Lewis also was one of two nitrate experts dispatched to identify the films in the New Zealand Archive.”

You can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

wheelerwinstondixon.com

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

I’ve moved my website to wheelerwinstondixon.com – follow me there!

Take a look at the image above, and you’ll see how it works.

The new website is much cleaner, has more information, and works more smoothly.

At the top left, there’s an “about” tab, where you can also download my complete cv as a pdf; next to that there are two tabs covering the 32 books that I’ve written, with the covers on display as clickable links that go directly to information on each title; next to that is a tab that goes to some 30 online articles of mine that are available out of the nearly 100 that I have written over the years; then comes a link to the Frame by Frame videos that I’ve made, with a clickable link to a carousel playlist that starts automatically and takes you through more than 70 titles; then a tab for this blog; then a tab for my film work — I have a show coming up in New York this Spring, 2014 — and finally a contact page, where you can e-mail me if you wish to.

This is where you will find me from now on; the old website is dead, so let’s move on into the future.

600 Legally Free Movies Online: Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns and More

Monday, December 30th, 2013

Any of these films sound interesting? Here are just a few titles you can see right now, for free, entirely legally. Just click here, or on the image above, to access the full list.

Where to watch free movies online? Let’s get you started. We have listed here 600 quality films that you can watch online. The collection is divided into the following categories: Comedy & Drama; Film Noir, Horror & Hitchcock; Westerns & John Wayne; Silent Films; Documentaries, and Animation.

A Farewell to Arms – Free – Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes star in film based on famous novel by Ernest Hemingway. (1932)
A Matter of Life and Death – Free – Romantic fantasy film created by the British writing-directing-producing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and set in England during the Second World War. It stars David Niven, Roger Livesey, Kim Hunter, Marius Goring and Raymond Massey. (1946)
A Star is Born – Free – Janet Gaynor portrays Esther Blodgett, a starry-eyed small town girl dreams of making it in Hollywood. (1937)
Adventures of Robinson Crusoe – Free – The classic novel by Daniel Defoe gets adapted by the great Luis Buñuel. (1954)
Alexander Nevsky – Free – A historical drama film directed by the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein. (1938)
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge – Free – French short film directed by Robert Enrico; a hit at the Cannes Film Festival and the Academy Awards. (1962)
Andrei Rublev – Free – Andrei Tarkovsky’s film charting life of the great icon painter. Click CC for subtitles. Part 2 here. (1966)
Angel on My Shoulder – Free – A gangster comedy starring Claude Rains and Paul Muni. (1946)
As You Like It – Free – It’s Laurence Olivier’s earliest Shakespeare performance on film. (1936)
Becky Sharp – Free – The first feature film to use three-strip Technicolor film, or, put differently, the first real color film. (1935).
Bottle Rocket – Free – Wes Anderson’s first short film, which became the basis for his first feature film by the same name. (1992)
Breaking the Code – Free – A biography of the English mathematician Alan Turing, who was one of the inventors of the digital computer and one of the key figures in the breaking of the Enigma code. Stars Derek Jacobi. (1996)
Cannibal! The Musical – Free – Black comedy by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the makers of South Park. (1993)
Captain Kidd – Free – Charles Laughton and John Carradine star in film with drama on the high seas (1945).
Castello Cavalcanti – Free – Wes Anderson’s short film takes place in a hamlet tucked away somewhere in Italy. Features Jason Schwartzman, star of Anderson’s 1998 breakout Rushmore. (2013)
Charade – Free – Starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Part romance, comedy and thriller, this public domain film has been called “the best Hitchcock movie that Hitchcock never made. (1963)
Chimes at Midnight - Free – Directed by Orson Welles, the film focuses on Shakespeare’s recurring character Sir John Falstaff and his relationship with another character Prince Hal. (1966)
Cold Sweat – Free – Charles Bronson, Liv Ullman, James Mason, and Jill Ireland star in this action packed movie about a ruthless drug runner who holds a man’s family hostage. (1970)
Cyrano De Bergerac – Free – Michael Gordon’s film based on the classic French tale. (1950)
Darwin – Free – 53-minute exploration of the life and work of Charles Darwin by Peter Greenaway. (1993)
Diary – Free – Short film by Tim Hetherington (director of Restrepo) that reflects on his ten years of war reporting. (2010)
Doodlebug – Free – One of Christopher Nolan’s early short films. Made in 1997, released in 2003.
Dreams That Money Can Buy – Free – A surrealist film by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger & Hans Richter. (1947)
Duet for Cannibals – Free – A tale of emotional cannibalism by Susan Sontag. A pair of psychological & sexual cannibals come close to devouring a younger couple. (1969)
Eat, Sleep & Kiss – Free – Three silent anti-films by Andy Warhol. (1963-1964)
Evidence – Free – From the maker of Koyaanisqatsi, a short film about kids watching cartoons (1995).
Fear and Desire – Free – An uncut print of Stanley Kubrick’s “lost” early film. (1953)
Five Minutes to Live – Free – Amazing bank heist movie stars Johnny Cash, Vic Tayback, Ron Howard, and Merle Travis. (1961)
Flamenco at 5:15 – Free – Oscar-winning short film about a flamenco dance class given to senior students. (1983)
and many more.

Check them all out here!

Low Budget Films Dominate Summer Box Office

Saturday, July 20th, 2013

Just look at this chart; the smaller budgeted films are winning; audiences are rejecting big budget bloat.

As Steven Zeitchik and Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times observe, “Summer moviegoing is usually about the stars, the spectacle and the sizzle. But in a trend that’s mystifying Hollywood, this summer’s box office is being driven by films with modest ambitions, including relatively inexpensive comedies, lower budget animation and horror pictures. Call it the summer of the B-movie. Like the quickie flicks the studios used to crank out for the back end of double features, these new hits —The Purge, The Heat, Grown Ups 2, Despicable Me 2 and, as of this weekend, The Conjuring among them — are drumming up business while bigger-budgeted offerings such as The Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim struggle to sell tickets.

It’s these smaller films that have helped summer box-office receipts climb by 14% over last year, defying the conventional wisdom that summer is the time when audiences mainly want to see movies that are big, loud and laden with costly special effects. Several factors may be behind the turnabout, according to Hollywood analysts, including studios doing a better job of serving niche audiences and consumers experiencing blockbuster fatigue. ‘Everything looked watered down and the studios were left trying to distinguish their movies,’ said Ted Mundorff, chief executive of Landmark Theatres.

This weekend the trend seems to be hitting its apex. R.I.P.D., a supernatural science fiction comedy starring household names Ryan Reynolds and Jeff Bridges that cost at least $130 million to make, is projected to take in less than $15 million at the box office. Meanwhile, The Conjuring, a paranormal-themed film made for the horror faithful at one-seventh the budget, is expected to collect as much as $35 million.”

None of this surprises me; when I look at my own viewing, the unexpected hits are the ones I’ve been seeing, and blogging about, and the other films strike me as boring and unimaginative. When you have too much money, you take fewer creative risks because too much is at stake. Too many people become involved, and you just keep throwing money at the film until it’s finished, as with The Lone Ranger, even if the entire project has gone off the rails.

When you have $4 million, as with The Purge – I heard $3 million, actually – you have to use your creativity and improvise on the spot, because you don’t have the time or the money – you have to get it and move on. All the money in the world, and all the empty spectacle in the world, can’t make up for original ideas, craft, passion, and energy, which usually comes from having less to fall back on.

The studios need to rethink their strategy, which is a throwback to the 1950s, when television threatened theater attendance. 20th Century Fox decreed that all future films would be made in CinemaScope, Warner Bros. rushed House of Wax into theaters in 3-D, and Cinerama was born. It worked for a few years, and then burned out. And after the fall, what was the Academy Award winner for Best Film of 1955? Marty, a small little film that could just as easily have worked on television, but audiences wanted to see it, so they went out to theaters in droves, making the modest little film a hit.

Marty even won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. But Hollywood still thinks bigger is always better, and that bombastic CGI effects will always stun audiences into submission, but that strategy is beginning to play to diminishing returns: the “wow” or dazzle factor has worn off. People are getting tired of destruction. The studios always want to cash in on the past, as if by simply remaking a hit film, the same thing will work in the future. Sometimes it will, as with the Bond franchise, but sometimes it doesn’t — and a little bit of creative energy is more than welcomed by both audiences and critics. I hope it’s the start of a trend.

You can read the rest of their excellent piece by clicking here, or on the image above.

Flip The Frog

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

Flip the Frog was one of the most original cartoon characters of the 1930s.

Ub Iwerks, the creator of Flip the Frog, started with Walt Disney and animated the first several Mickey Mouse cartoons; then he split off on his own and created Flip the Frog, one of the most memorable of all 1930s cartoon characters. When Flip failed to catch on with the public — he was simply too far ahead of his time — Iwerks eventually rejoined the Disney organization, doing special effects work on Disney animated features and cartoons, and also creating the special effects for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

In addition, Iwerks pioneered the use of the Xerox process to transfer line drawings on paper to clear plastic cels for animation, thus eliminating the “inking” process in classical animation; the results can be seen in such films as One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961). Iwerks won two Academy Awards for his work.

As Steve Hulett wrote, “Ub Iwerks was Walt’s strong right arm in the 1920s. He was a designer and work-horse animator on the early Disney shorts, considered so valuable that he was a 20% owner of the studio. But the 20% ownership ended when Iwerks departed Walt Disney Productions after a falling out with the majority owner. Bankrolled by movie mogul Pat Powers, Iwerks developed the frog character above, but within a few years flamed out as an animation kingpin and returned to Disney’s.” It’s too bad. Flip is, to my mind at least, much more interesting, and more varied, than Mickey Mouse.

Here’s Flip in Spooks, from 1932

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Here’s an absolutely hilarious instant cartoon about an “aspiring” novelist.

I usually don’t post on these things, but this one really nails it; the complete absence of any thought or preparation on the part of the would-be novelist in this short cartoon is truly staggering. It’s also somewhat shocking that this kind of “I can do anything I set my mind to” approach to writing a book or a novel is so prevalent; sadly, the cartoon’s depiction of this sort of unjustified blind optimism isn’t all that far off the mark. Kudos to David Kazzie, the creator of this sharp and pointed video, which has much more truth to it than one might immediately think.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short, clever video.

Tex Avery on DVD

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

The French are always ahead of us, it seems, when it comes to the cinema, not only in their own films, but also in preserving and presenting classic films of all kinds.

A few posts back, I video blogged on the birth of the auteur theory, the invention of André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma, the then-revolutionary idea that the director — who’d have thought? — was the primary creative force behind the creation of a film. Now it’s a commonplace concept; once, it was absolutely groundbreaking.

The French have also been in the forefront of preserving the films of the past, as witness the tireless and pioneering work of Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, who was among the first to save Hollywood films from destruction when the studios short-sightedly no longer thought they had any commercial value — before television, DVD, steaming video and the like — and they were the first to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, certain key directors were worth extensive study, as one discovered the themes and obsessions that circulated throughout all their work.

This extends to cartoons, as well, and once again, it’s the French who are in the forefront with an extensive set of DVDs covering the work of one the greatest animators who ever lived — a contemporary of Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, and the rest of the Termite Terrace gang — the one, the only Tex Avery. Avery was one of the originators of the animated cartoon in the United States, and as Gary Morris notes, “[Avery] steered the Warner Bros. house style away from Disney-esque sentimentality and made cartoons that appealed equally to adults, who appreciated Avery’s speed, sarcasm, and irony, and to kids, who liked the nonstop action. Disney’s ‘cute and cuddly’ creatures, under Avery’s guidance, were transformed into unflappable wits like Bugs Bunny, endearing buffoons like Porky Pig, or dazzling crazies like Daffy Duck.

Even the classic fairy tale, a market that Disney had cornered, was appropriated by Avery, who made innocent heroines like Red Riding Hood into sexy jazz babies, more than a match for any Wolf. Avery also endeared himself to intellectuals by constantly breaking through the artifice of the cartoon, having characters leap out of the end credits, loudly object to the plot of the cartoon they were starring in, or speak directly to the audience.”

Avery did all that and more at Warner Brothers, but he arguably did his best work when he moved to MGM, where his anarchic vision found full flower in such brilliantly warped shorts as Blitz Wolf (1942), The Early Bird Dood It! (1942), Dumb-Hounded (1943), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Who Killed Who? (1943), the utterly twisted What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard? (1943), Screwball Squirrel (1944), The Shooting of Dan McGoo (1945), Jerky Turkey (1945), Swing Shift Cinderella (1945), Wild and Woolfy (1945), Lonesome Lenny (1946) and many, many others.

But amazingly, there isn’t a collection of Avery’s work available on DVD in the United States. Some of his cartoons featuring his signature character Droopy are available in a domestic DVD, but if you want a larger selection of Avery’s best work, well, you’ll have to go to Amazon in France, where you’ll find a superb collection of Avery’s best work available in four separate volumes, as well as two collections of DVDs.

Though some have criticized the transfers here, I am not one of them. They are sharp, clean, and almost perfect. The DVDs are, after all, official Warner Brothers releases, and they feature many of Avery’s best MGM shorts, and also — as extras — some of his earlier work for Warners. The cartoons come with optional French subtitles, but these can easily be clicked off so as not to interfere with one’s viewing pleasure; in addition, they’re also viewable in a dubbed French version, in which both the dialogue and the voice characterizations are lovingly detailed and surprisingly accurate.

Avery’s brilliant cartoons obviously aren’t going to be released on DVD in the US anytime soon, though I have no idea why. If anyone cries out for a DVD box set of their best work, it’s Avery, so don’t hesitate — before the DVDs are gone, get them now, and enjoy the work of one of the most obstinately individualistic auteurs the medium has ever known.

Yes, these are Region 2 DVDs, but if you don’t have a Region 2 player by this point, why not?

When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA

Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Adam Abraham’s book on the rise and fall of UPA, the pioneering “limited animation” studio that dominated more adventurous cartoon production in the 1950s and 60s, is both a cautionary tale, and a celebration of the people who founded UPA, mostly as a response to the rigid cookie-cutter approach espoused by the Disney studios. UPA’s founders, Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow set up shop as an alternative way of making cartoons, and soon had a hit with the nearsighted Mr. Magoo, and Gerald Mc Boing Boing, creating cartoons that pleased both the public and the critics.

As Fred Patten notes in his review of the book in Animation World Network, “Abraham’s history of United Productions of America covers much more than that studio alone.  In his picture of how UPA grew out of the Disney strike of 1941, he describes the Disney studio of 1938-1941 in considerable detail and the 1941 strike in great detail [. . .] Most of the animators (or animation artists of varying technical ranks) who joined the strikers were among Disney’s younger artists, who had a modern art education.  The wrap-up of the strike required Disney to rehire the strikers, but they were made to feel unwelcome or soon re-fired.  By the end of 1941 there were hundreds of young animators looking for new jobs.  Abraham argues persuasively that this was both why the Disney studio lost its willingness to experiment with new art styles after the early 1940s, and why there were so many animators interested in modern art at other studios during the 1940s.”

Abraham is an excellent writer, and he also created the book’s inviting design, which is lavishly illustrated with behind-the-scenes photographs, drawings, and animation cels, and he doesn’t stint on limning the darker side of the UPA story; how many of the animators who worked there came to untimely ends, how Disney’s continued hostility to the studio (particularly when it began picking up Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Subject) also took a toll, and how the changing marketplace forced UPA to cut the running time of their cartoons to the bone, and eventually move exclusively to television.

I’ve never really been a Mr. Magoo fan — it seems like a one joke premise that quickly wears thin — but Abraham’s book is really more about the studio itself, and its artistic and historic impact, than its most famous character. Behind UPA’s creation was the search for personal and creative freedom, and as Disney himself noted of the rise of UPA, “once a man’s tasted freedom, he will never be content to be a slave.” Working for Disney was doing what the boss wanted, and nothing else; at UPA, a whole new style was forged, which would prove, in the long run, to be a harbinger of the future of animation.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sample of UPA’s work.

Zachary Schwartz, David Hilberman, and Stephen Bosustow, the founders of UPA, at work in the studio.

Draftee Daffy (1945) by Robert Clampett and Rod Scribner

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

Daffy Duck tries to evade the draft in Draftee Daffy.

It’s World War II, and everyone is signing up; everyone, that is, except Daffy Duck, who espouses patriotism in the opening moments of Draftee Daffy, but once summoned by the Draft Board, changes his tune to “it had to be me.” Brilliantly animated by Rod Scribner, and directed by Robert Clampett, Draftee Daffy is an insidiously subversive commentary on mid 1940s social values, which finds Daffy trying every means possible to kill “the little man from the draft board” who keeps attempting to deliver Daffy’s induction notice.

When I spoke with animator John Kricfalusi — the creator of Ren and Stimpy — years ago for an interview, we bonded immediately over our shared admiration for Clampett and Scribner as an “unbeatable team” when it came to classical Hollywood studio animation; the plastic possibilities of the medium are clearly pushed to their limits in this 7 minute cartoon.

Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell wrote a great essay on Clampett’s work, which you can see by clicking here, which deconstructs this classic Warner Bros. cartoon in detail, along with other examples of Clampett’s contribution to the history of animation. I’m struck by the freedom of imagination that this cartoon, and other Clampett/Scribner collaborations, demonstrate — an anarchic vision that seems to be almost complete absent from the hyperrealist motion capture 3-D style now in vogue in the Pixar films and related projects.

For myself, this is a much more interesting and freewheeling approach the possibilities of the medium; see what you think by clicking on the image above.

Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936)

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see Coo-Coo Nut Grove (1936).

Here’s a classic Warner Bros. cartoon from 1936 which has long been a favorite of mine; not so much for the humor, but for the parade of Hollywood caricatures that populate the film. The person who originally posted this on YouTube helpfully provided this list of the stars depicted in the cartoon, many of which will probably be unrecognizable to contemporary viewers. Here it is:

“At 0:53 – Ben Bernie; 1:11 – Walter Winchell; 1:29 – Hugh Herbert; 1:34 – WC Fields & Katharine Hepburn ;1:45 – Ned Sparks; 1:50 – Johnny Weissmuller & Lupe Velez; 2:04 – John Barrymore; 2:18 – Harpo Marx; 2:50 – George Arliss & Mae West dancing; 3:10 – Laurel and Hardy; 3:22 – Edna Mae Oliver; 3:33 – Clark Gable; 3:41 – Gary Cooper; 4:01 – The Dionne Quintuplets; 4:51 – Groucho and Harpo Marx; 5:00 – Helen Morgan, a famous torch singer of the period; 5:18 – Wallace Beery; 5:59 – Edward G. Robinson & George Raft.” Directed by Isidore “Friz” Freling, with animation by Robert McKimson and Sandy Walker, and music arranged and conducted by Carl Stalling.

It’s a sweet reminder of a Hollywood long since past.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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