Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Fantasia

In various interviews over the years, George Lucas, a filmmaker who will eventually have dealings with the studio under consideration in this column, has mentioned his apparently life-long desire to make experimental, avant-garde films. As recently as the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, Lucas told Stephen Colbert that he’d be focusing on experimental filmmaking now that the burden of running the Star Wars Cash Printing Machine® had been passed to the House of Mouse.

Assuming he’s actually making these movies (and that’s a pretty big “if”…he’s been talking about it for several decades now), don’t expect to see them any time soon. He claims he’ll only be showing them to his friends. Frankly, that kind of makes sense. After all, who would expect the creator of one of the most populist entertainments of all time to make an experimental, art-house film and release it to a wide audience?

And yet, in 1940, that is exactly what Walt Disney did when he released Fantasia, his most ambitious feature to date and arguably the riskiest project the studio has released to this day. Where Snow White and Pinocchio aimed to showcase animation’s potential as a storytelling medium, Fantasia wanted nothing less than to elevate the form to the realm of pure art. This wasn’t just another cartoon. This was an event. This was something new.

It didn’t start off that way. Disney’s original plan was simply to create a deluxe Silly Symphony to help boost the flagging popularity of his signature star, Mickey Mouse. He acquired the rights to Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and set to work adapting the story as a starring vehicle for Mickey. By chance, Walt happened to meet Leopold Stokowski, the famous conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, right around the same time and told him about the short. Stokowski liked both the music and Disney and agreed to conduct the piece.

As Walt continued to get more excited by the possibilities of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the budget kept going up. Going over-budget seemed to be a recurring theme for Disney in these days. But unlike the feature-length Snow White or Pinocchio, it quickly became apparent that there was no way a short film like this would be able to recoup its costs at the box office. So it was decided to make The Sorcerer’s Apprentice one segment of a longer concert feature (imaginatively titled The Concert Feature at the time). Disney and Stokowski contacted music critic and radio personality Deems Taylor, who would end up providing on-screen commentary throughout the film, to help the Disney story department with the music selection.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice remains the one thing everyone remembers from Fantasia. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (and I’d wager that it’s probably the least-seen of the movies widely considered to be top-tier Disney Classics), you’ve probably seen this one segment. Disney wisely put Mickey front-and-center in most of the advertising materials and the Sorcerer Mickey look has been widely merchandized. And it is a terrific piece of animation. The music is wonderful, the animation is lovely and Mickey is his usual fun and friendly self. It’s also kind of scary, especially for little kids. The Sorcerer himself is an imposing figure and the sight of Mickey axe-murdering a sentient broomstick is pretty intense, even in shadow. But it’s just one small part of Fantasia and it takes some patience to get there.

The movie’s first segment, Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, is either startlingly bold or mind-numbingly boring, depending on your perspective. As an animation fan, it’s a stunning display of abstract visuals and state-of-the-art effects work. But if you’re a kid or even a more casual movie fan, it’s a bit of a litmus test for how you’ll respond to the rest of the movie. If nothing else, Disney sequenced Fantasia brilliantly. You’ll know within the first ten minutes if this movie’s going to be your jam or not.

The next segment is slightly less abstract as Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite is brought to life with flittering fairies, dancing mushrooms and flowers, and cascading leaves. Again, it’s impossible not to be impressed by the artistry on display in this sequence. But you can admire the craft and still be left finding this all a little dull. It’s lovely to look at but not much more. The last time I saw Fantasia theatrically, one impatient little girl spent much of the sequence asking her mom, “When’s Mickey coming?”

Mickey does finally show up next, only to be followed by another lengthy, ambitiously abstract piece, this one set to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Again, this is a stunning piece of animation depicting nothing less than the dawn of life on Earth up to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But the rhythm of the sequence is very different from what most people expected from animation, especially at that time. Most animated shorts and features had a predictable gag structure: loosely connected vignettes with set-ups and punchlines. The Rite of Spring has none of that. It simply flows along at its own pace, making big leaps here and there before settling back into its languid groove.

Most of the highlights of Fantasia are found in its second act. Following an intermission and a fun “Meet the Soundtrack” vignette, we find ourselves in the mythological world of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. This is done in a more traditionally cartoonish style and it’s cute, if not particularly memorable.

(I should add that this is also one of our earliest examples of Disney’s long line of revisionist history. In the late 1960s, a few shots depicting stereotypical black female centaurs were removed. You can find images of them online if you’d like. I’m somewhat torn on the subject in this case. On the one hand, I think art should reflect the time in which it was made and shouldn’t be altered after the fact. But on the other, I think most modern audiences would be completely thrown out of the movie if these racially exaggerated characters suddenly popped up out of nowhere. So I do think the studio made the right call here. Disney’s complicated history with race will definitely come up again in this column.)

Fantasia saved its best segments for last, starting with Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. If there’s a major criticism that can be leveled at Fantasia it’s that most of the segments feel exceedingly self-serious. Even Mickey Mouse feels like he’s straining for artistic credibility at times. Coming toward the program’s end, Dance of the Hours, directed by Disney veterans Norm Ferguson and T. Hee, feels almost like a parody of the rest of the film. A slapstick ballet performed by ostriches, hippos, elephants and alligators, Dance of the Hours is genuinely inspired.

Finally, we come to the grand finale: a proto-mash-up of Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and Schubert’s Ave Maria. Night on Bald Mountain is a masterpiece of animation: intense, stark and unforgettable. In the late 1960s, a new generation discovered Fantasia for…let’s say, completely different reasons than Walt Disney had intended. What’s surprising is that the Disney studio made no effort to discourage that audience. Instead, they leaned into it with a new psychedelic ad campaign that emphasized Bald Mountain‘s demonic Chernabog over Mickey Mouse.

Fantasia debuted in November of 1940 and played around the country roadshow-style utilizing an early stereophonic sound system called Fantasound. Critically, it was a resounding success. Film critics hailed it as a significant milestone, not just in animation but in cinema in general. The Academy couldn’t figure out how to squeeze it into one of their usual categories, so they gave it two Honorary Oscars.

Audiences packed houses for months but even with the more expensive roadshow admission prices, Fantasia didn’t turn a profit. Part of the problem was the expense of installing the new Fantasound system into theatres. As World War II broke out, plans for a European release were cancelled and the Fantasound equipment was given over to the war effort.

Not everyone was impressed by Fantasia. Classical music critics took issue with everything from the music selection to Stokowski’s arrangements to the very idea of the film itself. The only living composer whose work was represented in the film was Igor Stravinsky and he absolutely hated it.

Despite these setbacks, Walt remained proud of what he’d accomplished. He envisioned Fantasia as an evolving program that could be refreshed every few years with new segments added and old ones taken out. He kept the story department busy developing potential new segments for months. But when the US formally entered World War II, Walt was forced to drop his ambitious plans for future Fantasias. More than 50 years later, a new Fantasia program would finally arrive in theatres. But we’ll get to that later.

In the end, Fantasia is a movie that you can’t help but admire even if it remains a difficult movie to truly love. It’s an audacious experiment and a dazzling showcase for some of the finest animation the medium would ever produce. But it’s also an anthology film, which means that as a movie, it’s only as strong as its weakest segment. Sure, Fantasia can be a little boring, a little saccharine, even a little cornball. But in this case, it’s the effort and intent behind the film that matters more than the movie itself. I may not love Fantasia. But I do love that Fantasia exists.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pinocchio

After the phenomenal success of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, a dream project that had taken years to bring to the screen, Walt Disney wasn’t entirely sure what to do for an encore. Snow White had been a meticulous demonstration of the capabilities of feature-length animation. For his next trick, Walt knew he had to push the envelope even further.

In spring of 1937, about 8 months before the premiere of Snow White, Walt bought the rights to Felix Salten’s novel Bambi, A Life In The Woods, intending it to be the studio’s second animated feature. A few months later, animator Norm Ferguson brought in a copy of the Italian children’s book The Adventures Of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi. Walt immediately saw its possibilities and put Pinocchio in line to become Movie #3.

But by 1938, the team had run into trouble with Bambi. The challenge of animating realistic deer had proven to be more difficult than anticipated. So Walt switched things up and moved Pinocchio to the head of the line.

In many ways, Disney simply stuck with what worked about Snow White. Both are based on classic works of children’s literature. Indeed, both films start with the literal opening of a book, a bit of cinematic shorthand for “based on a classic story” that the studio and countless other filmmakers still use to this day.

But there are some key differences in the source material. Snow White was based on the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. Their version dated back about a century or so and different variations of the Snow White story had been around before the Grimms codified it. Pinocchio was based on an Italian novel that had originally been serialized in a children’s magazine beginning in 1881. Those stories were collected in 1883 and first translated into English in 1892. With astounding speed, it became one of the most translated and beloved children’s books of all time. So even though Pinocchio may have seemed like a tale as old as time (to borrow a phrase from a much later Disney fairy tale), it had really only been around for about 50 years.

The episodic nature of Collodi’s book leant itself to Disney’s gag-focused style of storytelling. But some of the darker elements of the book would need to be cut or changed to suit Walt’s taste.

Over the years, I’ve heard people say that Pinocchio is their favorite Disney movie. I’ve also known people who absolutely hated it as a child. More often than not, both of these groups cite the exact same reason for either loving or hating it: it’s too scary. Well, it’s nothing compared to Collodi’s book. In the original, Pinocchio is a horrible little brat and compulsive liar who immediately starts kicking Geppetto the second the old woodcarver finishes giving him feet. The book does have a talking cricket who tries to give Pinocchio some advice but the puppet kills it with a hammer. Talk about a grim fairy tale.

Disney’s first order of business was to make Pinocchio himself more likable. He softened and humanized the design of the character considerably. It’s a testament to the animators’ talent that you can even tell the difference when Pinocchio does eventually turn into a real boy. Apart from his exposed wooden arms and legs, his dominant feature is his head, with its expressive face and floppy shock of black hair. It’s very easy to forget that Pinocchio is a puppet.

Another key to that illusion is the casting of young Dickie Jones as the voice of Pinocchio. Jones would have been around 11 or 12 when he recorded the part, which I believe would have made this one of the first times an actual child provided the voice of an animated child. (There might be others…don’t @ me about this.) The other main juvenile role, the ill-fated Lampwick, was voiced by Frankie Darro, who was 10 years older than Dickie Jones.

Disney’s other brilliant idea was promoting the dead cricket to co-star status. Jiminy Cricket (voiced by popular singer/actor Cliff Edwards) became the prototype for a long line of Disney supporting characters voiced by celebrities. He starts the movie singing “When You Wish Upon A Star,” then breaks the fourth wall and comments on it (“Pretty, huh?”). He’s quick with a snappy comeback or an aside and speaks a modern American dialect. It is not a big leap to get from Jiminy Cricket to Robin Williams’ Genie in Aladdin.

Jiminy Cricket also became one of the few characters introduced in a feature that became a full-fledged, stand-alone star in his own right. Sure, Disney is happy to keep their characters active through little cameos and appearances in comics, games and merchandising. But Jiminy Cricket was able to join the Disney pantheon alongside such icons as Mickey, Donald and Goofy. His cheery, home-spun demeanor made him an ideal host for educational films and TV specials throughout the 1950s and 60s.

Dickie Jones and Cliff Edwards make a terrific pair as Pinocchio and Jiminy. Together, they provide a real feeling of innocence and optimism, which certainly helps the movie stay warm and inviting even when things get dark. And let’s face it, Pinocchio gets pretty darn dark even with Collodi’s sharpest edges filed down.

It’s clear from the get-go that characters like Honest John (a.k.a. J. Worthington Foulfellow), Gideon and the puppet-master Stromboli are up to no good. But it isn’t clear just how bad things are going to get until Stromboli tosses Pinocchio into a birdcage as Geppetto braves a torrential rainstorm to track him down. It’s right around the time the Blue Fairy demonstrates that lying causes Pinocchio’s nose to grow (something that only happens once in the movie, despite how indelible that image has become) that the movie really crosses over into nightmare territory.

Pinocchio’s next stop is Pleasure Island, where the sinister Coachman rounds up disobedient little boys, offers them every hedonistic delight a prepubescent mind could imagine, then sells them into slavery once they’ve made literal jackasses of themselves. This sequence alone is probably responsible for countless bad dreams. Pleasure Island itself is like a cross between Atlantic City, Coney Island and Thunderdome: one of the “attractions” is just a big tent where everybody beats each other up. And Lampwick’s transformation into a donkey is genuinely disturbing. A lot of it happens in shadow but you actually see his hands transform into hooves. No other movie, animated or live action, would come close to an effect like that for decades.

But I think one of the biggest reasons that the Pleasure Island sequence had such a big impact on kids is that it remains unresolved. Lampwick and the rest of the kids are not rescued. Jiminy Cricket and Pinocchio consider themselves lucky to escape with their own lives. Of all the little details in Pinocchio that I think would be changed if Disney made this movie today (including all the smoking, drinking and the weird sexual tension between the obviously underage Pinocchio and the various female puppets during the “I’ve Got No Strings” number), this is one that stands out the most. Today’s play-it-safe filmmaking by committee would demand that Jiminy and Pinocchio go back to rescue those kids. It’d probably derail the rest of the movie but they’d still try to shoehorn it in somehow.

All of this brings us to Monstro the whale. If Pleasure Island didn’t give you nightmares as a kid, Monstro probably did. Monstro lives up to his name. He looks completely unlike any other character in the Disney canon. He looks less like a character and more like a background painting come to life. Monstro is a force of nature that dominates the screen. And the final showdown with Monstro offers some of the most stunning effects animation ever produced, every frame of which was produced by hand. It’s simply breathtaking.

To this day, Pinocchio remains a high-water mark for hand-drawn animation. Every single frame is rich with extraordinary detail, whether it’s Geppetto’s workshop, Pleasure Island or the belly of the whale. And the Disney animators took everything they learned from Snow White and kicked it to the next level. The characters are a fluid, seamless blend of realistic humans (ironically, the Blue Fairy is the most realistic character in the film), slightly caricatured figures (Geppetto, Stromboli and the Coachman), anthropomorphized animals (Jiminy Cricket and Honest John), regular animals (Cleo, Figaro and Monstro), and puppets, both living and otherwise. Somehow, this odd mix works. You never question why a fox and a cat are walking around, dressed in people-clothes and making shady deals with humans. The animators give each character weight and personality that establishes their place in this fantastic world.

Pinocchio would also make history as the first animated feature to win competitive Academy Awards, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song. These days, Disney wins one or both of those categories more often than not but back then, it was very much the exception, not the rule. “When You Wish Upon A Star” was an instant classic that soon became the official theme of Walt Disney Studios. Today you hear it every time you watch a Disney movie.

Creatively, Pinocchio was a home run, at least as good if not better than Snow White. Financially, it was another story. Pinocchio had cost twice as much as Snow White but it didn’t come close to matching its spectacular box office success. At least part of this was due to the fact that European and Asian markets were closed off thanks to the outbreak of World War II. But even taking that into account, Pinocchio was a huge disappointment for both the studio and for Walt Disney personally.

Today, of course, Pinocchio is widely regarded as a masterpiece. Some even consider it to be Disney’s crowning achievement. I don’t know if I’d go quite that far. It’d be kind of depressing to think that it’s all downhill from here when I’m only two columns in to this project. But Pinocchio has more than earned its reputation as one of the finest animated features of all time. It’s funny, touching, scary, dazzling to look at and impossible to forget.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs

In 1937, Walt Disney had something to prove.

He’d arrived in Hollywood from Kansas City in 1923. A cartoonist with aspirations of becoming a live-action movie director, he began to make a name for himself with the Alice Comedies, a series of hybrid short films that combined live-action and animation, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of the earliest recurring characters to have his own distinct personality.

Oswald had been created for producer Charles Mintz, who distributed the cartoons through Universal. In 1928, Disney tried to up his fee for the cartoons but Mintz refused, offering less money and reminding Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald. If Disney didn’t accept the terms, Mintz would just find somebody else who would. Disney walked away from Oswald, created Mickey Mouse and made history.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. There would be a lot of trial and error, more unfavorable business deals, and key collaborators would both enter and leave Walt’s life (perhaps most notably, Walt’s long-time friend and partner Ub Iwerks, who left in 1930). Still, by most any yardstick, Disney was a huge success by 1937. Mickey Mouse was recognized around the world, the Silly Symphonies series was a smash hit, and Walt had already won 6 Academy Awards (out of an eventual 22, still the most ever won by an individual). He was 36 years old. And yet, he still had something to prove.

Disney wanted to break out of the short subject rut and into feature filmmaking with an adaptation of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White. Outside of the studio, literally no one thought this was a good idea. Even inside the studio, folks were skeptical. Walt’s brother, Roy, and wife, Lillian, both tried to talk him out of it. Throughout Hollywood, the project was referred to as “Disney’s Folly”. Walt thought he could make it for around $250,000. It ended up costing close to $1.5 million and he’d have to mortgage his house to help finance it. It took around three years to make and when it finally premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937, it changed everything.

It’s impossible to imagine today just how revolutionary Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs must have been to audiences at the time. Today, most people consider it to be a genteel, rather old-fashioned picture, a relic from Hollywood’s golden age. But no one had ever told a complex story with a beginning, middle and end in animation before. Up until then, animated cartoons were only designed to hold the attention for about 8 minutes with a series of gags and maybe a quick song or two. There were even those who doubted that people could physically take a feature-length animated cartoon. All the bright colors would probably lead to eyestrain and headaches.

Most of all, animated cartoons up to this point were only intended to provoke one of two simple emotions: happy or sad. Sure, people loved characters like Mickey and Minnie Mouse but they weren’t emotionally invested in them. You didn’t hope that they’d find a true and lasting love and you certainly never worried that one of them might actually die.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs did all that. It told a familiar story in a way that made it seem brand new. It seamlessly integrated the exaggerated animation style of the dwarfs with some of the most realistic human characters the medium had yet seen. It introduced no less than 8 original songs, most of which went on to become instantly recognizable standards including “Heigh-Ho”, “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come”. And, as far as I know, it did all this without causing a single migraine or seizure.

It’s clear from the opening titles that Walt Disney had put everything on the line with this production. A personalized title card early on reads, “My sincere appreciation to the members of my staff whose loyalty and creative endeavor made possible this production.” That sounds as much like a goodbye as a hello, as though Walt was resigned to the possibility of failure and was saying, “Well, boys…we gave it our best shot. Thanks for trying.”

As it turned out, everyone else also sincerely appreciated their creative endeavors. Even today, it’s impossible not to respect the artistry behind Snow White, even if you find elements of it dated. The stunning backgrounds, the fluid movement of the characters, the design elements, everything comes together to create a lush spectacle that’s simply beautiful to look at.

Disney’s success with short subjects translated surprisingly well to creating Snow White‘s story structure. As with the shorts, the story was broken down into a series of interconnected gags, with the distinct personalities of the Seven Dwarfs serving as the driving force behind many of them. But gags are sprinkled throughout the film. If the movie had been a flop, Disney could easily have excised the “Whistle While You Work” sequence and released it as a stand-alone Silly Symphony.

The vocal performances are also key to selling the story. The dwarfs’ design gets you halfway there but it’s the voices of Pinto Colvig, Roy Atwell, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan and others who bring them to life. Lucille La Verne had been an actress for over fifty years when she voiced the evil Queen, both in her vain, “fairest-of-them-all” form and as the apple-poisoning old hag. Both voices are terrifying and intimidating in their own unique ways. La Verne retired from acting after Snow White, perhaps realizing she’d already achieved immortality.

The most divisive voice these days is Adriana Caselotti as Snow White herself. Her high-pitched, tremulous voice has been parodied for generations at this point. But it’s frankly perfect for the character. It’s nowhere near as one-note as those parodies might have you remembering. And the character is meant to be as pure and innocent as the driven snow, after all. If Caselotti’s voice has since come to sound like a cliché, that’s because it works.

In later years, Disney would become a bit overprotective of Snow White’s voice. Jack Benny famously wanted to hire Caselotti for his radio show but Walt refused, not wanting anything to ruin the mystique of that perfect voice. Caselotti probably lost quite a bit of work over the years thanks to Walt. Still, she never seemed to hold a grudge, at least not publicly, and became the first female voice actor to be named a Disney Legend in 1994. Even so, from today’s perspective at least, it does seem like Walt was a bit of a dick about it.

The public went wild for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. For a little while, it was the highest-grossing film of all time (at least until Gone With The Wind came along). The movie landed Walt and the dwarfs on the cover of Time magazine. At the Oscars, Shirley Temple presented Walt with an honorary Academy Award and seven mini-Oscars, recognizing the film as “a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field”.

The movie’s music also earned a nomination for Best Scoring. This was at the 10th Oscars and, like many categories in the ceremony’s early years, they were still trying to figure this one out. At the time, the nomination went to the head of the studio’s music department and pretty much every studio was guaranteed a nomination for whatever movie they chose to submit. Snow White, and everything else that year, lost to the Deanna Durbin musical One Hundred Men And A Girl. Its “score” consisted of two original songs and a whole bunch of classical music. Realizing that it wasn’t entirely fair to make people compete with the likes of Mozart and Wagner, the Academy changed the category’s rules in time for the next ceremony.

Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs changed movies forever. It paved the way for every single animated feature film that would follow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that audiences could be made to care just as deeply about a series of drawings as they did about flesh-and-blood characters. The Disney Era had begun.

VERDICT: Disney Plus

Introducing Disney±

In the history of Hollywood, there has never been another studio quite like Disney. It’s a studio with an identity, a brand name recognized around the world. Sure, Universal had their monsters and MGM had musicals but they never focused on them to the exclusion of everything else. Even when Disney branched into live-action production, it was a very specific kind of family-friendly live-action production. Even after his death, Walt Disney’s name was featured more prominently than even the studio’s biggest stars.

It’s this immediately recognizable identity that has allowed Disney to prosper in areas like theme parks, merchandising and now, streaming services. Since launching in November, Disney+ has signed up more than 28 million subscribers. More than half of those are in households with kids under 10. As social distancing takes hold, I would expect those numbers to go up in the weeks to come.

Like everyone else under the sun with access to pop culture, I grew up with Disney. But my Disney in the 70s and 80s was a slightly tarnished studio still trying to find its way after the death of its founder. Walt died in December of 1966, three years before I was born. So even though I could enter The Wonderful World Of Disney every Sunday night on NBC, Walt himself wasn’t around to serve as my host. The studio was still releasing plenty of movies but none of them really captivated me or any of my friends. The Apple Dumpling Gang just couldn’t compete with Luke, Han and Leia.

But despite the fact that Disney was on the struggle bus for my entire childhood, it still commanded respect. Disneyland and Walt Disney World remained the dream vacation destinations for just about every kid I knew. The regular re-releases of their animated classics were treated like events and served as a vivid reminder of the studio’s potential for greatness. And my family and I dutifully went to see each new animated feature as it came out with a feeling of anticipation. Maybe this’ll be the one that puts them back on top. It’s like we were cheering them on, rooting for them to succeed.

Disney is a long way away from being the underdog anymore. Today, they’re the most powerful and successful studio in Hollywood. So I thought it might be fun to take a look back and try to figure out how they got here. That’s the purpose of this new column which I’m calling (what else?) Disney Plus-Or-Minus (or Disney± if you prefer the stylized look…and thanks to my old pal Bill Hunt for his help with the snazzy graphic).

Every week, I’ll be prying open the Disney Vault and examining both its treasures and its trash. We’ll begin at the beginning with 1937’s Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and proceed chronologically from there. I’ll only be looking at theatrical features released under the main Disney umbrella, nothing made-for-TV or direct-to-video, no Marvel or Lucasfilm or any other labels or subsidiaries. I will be including Pixar, since their history is inextricably combined with Disney at this point. Right now, I’m not planning on including anything from Touchstone or Hollywood Pictures, although I might revisit that choice when the time comes. There are certainly Touchstone films that Disney would like to reclaim for itself, so we’ll see.

I’m going to do my best to make this as comprehensive as possible but I’m resigned to the fact that I may not be able to track down every last movie on the list. Disney’s track record is actually better than most studios when it comes to releasing deep catalog titles on home video. But if they don’t want you to see something, they really don’t want you to see it. Despite their initial boasts, Disney+ was never going to provide access to every single item in their library. So I’ll do my best but if the only way I can find something is by paying hundreds of dollars for an out-of-print DVD, I’m gonna have to skip it.

Also, since Walt Disney was no stranger to the Academy Awards, some of these columns will also count toward my other on-going project, An Honor To Be Nominated. I hope you’ll join me on this journey through the Magic Kingdom as we rediscover classic favorites, uncover forgotten obscurities and try to make sense of this thing called Disney. It promises to be a fun, if bumpy, ride.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Nine

THE CONTENDER: Nine (2009)

Number of Nominations: 4 – Actress in a Supporting Role (Penélope Cruz); Costume Design (Colleen Atwood); Art Direction (John Myhre, Gordon Sim); Original Song (“Take It All”, music & lyrics by Maury Yeston)

Number of Wins: 0

Hollywood and Broadway used to enjoy a much more symbiotic relationship than they do today. The Broadway stage was a reliable source of material for moviemakers. In return, Hollywood made Broadway look like the highest peak a young up-and-coming actor, singer or dancer could aspire to. Hell, the second movie (and the first sound picture) to win Best Picture was The Broadway Melody, about a pair of sisters fresh off the vaudeville circuit trying to make it big on the Great White Way.

Some of the most beloved movies of all time are based on Broadway musicals: My Fair Lady, The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, the list goes on and on. One thing these movies all have in common: they all appeared in theatres not too long after their stage debuts. My Fair Lady won the 1957 Tony for Best Musical. The movie came out in 1964. The Sound Of Music came out five years after winning its Tony.

But the movie-going public’s appetite for big, splashy musicals all but died in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Broadway adaptations continued to pop up now and then (The Wiz, Annie, A Chorus Line) but they rarely returned on their investment (Grease being one of the few exceptions).

So pretty much any popular, Tony-winning musical that had the misfortune to debut in the 1980s was resigned to sit on the sidelines. Evita had to wait 16 years before it was made into a film. The Phantom Of The Opera took 18. And Cats…well, we all know what happened to Cats.

Nine premiered on Broadway in 1982 and it was kind of a big deal. It helped launch Raul Julia (already a big Broadway star) into a film career, won multiple Tony Awards and was nominated for a Grammy. 21 years later, a revival of the show also won a bunch of Tonys. But it wasn’t until six years after that when the movie version was finally released to an indifferent public who had most likely forgotten all about the show. It probably didn’t help matters that just a few months earlier, a completely unrelated animated film called 9 had been released (and that one had come out just a few months after District 9…nines were everywhere in 2009).

Based on the classic by Federico Fellini (who was reportedly cool with giving over the stage rights to his film as long as his name and the movie’s actual title were kept far, far away from it), Nine follows cinema maestro Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he preps for his latest film, Italia. Principal photography is scheduled to begin in just 10 days but Guido doesn’t have a script. Panicked, Guido flees a press conference and attempts to hole up in a spa away from Rome, summoning his mistress (Penélope Cruz) and stashing her in a much seedier hotel close to the train station…just in case.

Naturally, “just in case” becomes a reality as the entire film crew follows Guido in an effort to get him to focus on the project. But the script remains elusive as Guido’s mind slides into a fantasia of all the women in his life, including his wife (Marion Cotillard), his leading lady (Nicole Kidman), his costume designer/confidante (Judi Dench), an American reporter (Kate Hudson), a prostitute from his childhood (Fergie) and his late mother (Sophia Loren).

The impressive lineup of talent doesn’t stop in front of the camera. The screenplay was written by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella (this ended up being his last film credit). The director was Rob Marshall, who had made an impressive transition from Broadway to film with the Oscar-winning Chicago just a few years earlier. On paper, everything about this movie seems like a home run. So why is it so totally inert?

A big part of the problem here is the character of Guido, both as written and as played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Guido is a brooding, narcissistic, control freak who gets away with his bad behavior because he’s a genius. Day-Lewis has the brooding control freak side of the character down pat but we don’t get to see even a glimpse of the genius or any other redeeming quality to suggest why we should care about this guy.

He also never seems particularly comfortable with the singing and dancing that comes along with starring in a musical. He only has a couple of numbers and he’s a fine singer. But songs in musicals are all about taking what a character is feeling inside and making it physical through music and movement. Day-Lewis is such an internal actor anyway, you feel him bristling at being made to externalize his emotions. It isn’t his strong suit.

Fortunately, the ladies do most of the heavy lifting in the music department while Day-Lewis looks on, usually bathed in a spotlight and smoking a cigarette. They’re all perfectly fine, although I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly inspired. Marion Cotillard has the most to do as Guido’s ignored wife and gets two numbers, including one of the three new songs written for the film. “My Husband Makes Movies” is sort of an insipid introduction to the character but she fares better with the new song, “Take It All”. Nicole Kidman and Sophia Loren are barely in the movie long enough to register, while Kate Hudson pops in for an energetic but stupid new tune, “Cinema Italiano”. As for Judi Dench…she’d go on to appear in Cats, so we’ll cut her some slack for this one.

But when you have a cast like this, somebody’s bound to get an Oscar nomination and this time, Penélope Cruz’s name was pulled out of the hat. Her performance is…fine. No better or worse than anyone else in the cast. She gives 100% to her sexy performance of “A Call From The Vatican” and her role allows for a bit more range than Cotillard’s did, so I assume that’s why she got the nod. But honestly, this is one of those nominations that feels like the Academy selected just by throwing a dart at a poster of the movie.

The best song in the movie and the one sequence that feels authentically Fellini-esque belongs to Fergie, the only person here who has never been nominated for an Oscar. “Be Italian” is clearly the show-stopper, so thank God they gave it to somebody who could sing the hell out of it. But during the black-and-white flashback sequences, Fergie is the one person in the cast who looks like she belongs in a Fellini film. She’s sexy, earthy, uninhibited and playful in a way nobody else pulls off. It’s the one sequence in the film that really comes to life.

It’s hard to argue against Nine‘s art direction and costume design nominations. If nothing else, the movie looks spectacular. It lost in both categories (to Avatar and The Young Victoria, respectively) but production designer John Myhre, set decorator Gordon Sim, and costume designer Colleen Atwood have all won Oscars before (and since, in the Atwood’s case), so don’t feel too badly for them.

2009 was the first year the Academy upped the number of Best Picture nominees to 10. You’d think that with more slots available, a movie with Nine‘s pedigree would be a shoo-in for the big prize. But Nine was unable to muscle past the likes of The Blind Side and A Serious Man, much less eventual winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Nine tied with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek for the most number of nominations without getting a Best Picture nod. Difference is that Star Trek actually won one (that’d be Best Makeup).

Today, Nine is a footnote in the careers of those involved with the movie. Perhaps the greatest legacy of the play is that it was one of the first big Broadway shows based on a movie. These days, when everything from The Lion King to Beetlejuice to Evil Dead to Monty Python And The Holy Grail has been adapted for the musical theatre, it feels almost risky to base a show on a 1960s Italian art film. And who knows…maybe if Nine had made the transition back to cinema back in the 80s, maybe it would have been something fresh instead of the reheated pasta it became.

Nine is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Twelve Monkeys

THE CONTENDER: Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Number of Nominations: 2 – Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Pitt); Costume Design (Julie Weiss)

Number of Wins: 0

Not too long ago, I sat down to finally watch Terry Gilliam’s long, long delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. As I did, I was confronted with the sad but very real possibility that I was watching his last film. Gilliam has rarely had an easy time getting his movies made but the road to Don Quixote had been especially arduous. It had been preceded by the barely-released The Zero Theorem; The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus, which had to be completely rethought after star Heath Ledger died in the middle of production; and the even-more-barely-released Tideland, which found the former Python making the publicity rounds while toting a cardboard sign reading, “Studio-less film maker. Family to support. Will direct for food.” How much does he have to put up with before he finally says enough is enough?

It wasn’t always this way. Gilliam’s 1981 breakthrough, Time Bandits, was a bona fide smash hit. It was the 10th highest-grossing movie of the year in America and remains a delightful, endlessly rewatchable classic. His troubles began with his next film, Brazil, which became embroiled in a notorious struggle for final cut between Gilliam and Universal Pictures (specifically then-chairman Sid Sheinberg). Gilliam won that battle and the film is now rightly regarded as a masterpiece but it didn’t exactly demolish box office records.

Then came The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, a fantasy epic that went wildly over-budget and completely tanked at the box office. Most directors never recover from a debacle like that (see also: Cimino, Michael). But Gilliam was determined to shake his reputation as an irresponsible, out-of-control auteur. He rebounded and back-to-back made the two biggest hits of his career: The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys.

An Academy Award-winning film in its own right, The Fisher King will be a subject for another day. So let’s contemplate the unlikely success of Twelve Monkeys. First off, it’s a remake of (or, as the credits have it, “inspired by”) a 28-minute French art film told almost entirely in still images, Chris Marker’s La Jetée. It’s a dystopian science fiction nightmare about a violent criminal (Bruce Willis as James Cole) who is “volunteered” to travel back in time to gather information about a virus that wipes out most of humanity in 1996. His job isn’t to prevent the virus from being released. We’re told repeatedly that ship has sailed. The world is dead. The best Cole can do is assist the scientists in their search for a cure.

Cole’s first journey to the past sends him back too far, arriving in 1990 where he finds himself committed to a mental hospital under the care of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He’s befriended by fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who rants and raves about corporate America and consumer culture. Cole is snatched back to his own time, then accidentally sent to a battlefield in World War I before finally ending up in 1996, just before the virus is due to be released. The scientists believe a group of radical environmentalists called The Army of the Twelve Monkeys is responsible and it turns out that Jeffrey Goines is the leader of the group. But all this back and forth is taking a heavy toll on Cole. He’s doubting his own sanity and is plagued by a recurring childhood memory of seeing a man shot by police in an airport.

In a nutshell, Twelve Monkeys is a dark, dark film. It’s all about madness and death, it takes place in run-down sanatoriums and on the decaying streets of Philadelphia in the grayest of winters, and ends by promising a future that’s about to get a whole lot worse. Nevertheless, it was a sizable hit and earned a pair of Academy Award nominations.

One of those nominations went to costume designer Julie Weiss (she’d be nominated again a few years later for her work on Julie Taymor’s Frida). As far as I’m concerned, Gilliam’s films should routinely be nominated for both production and costume design. There simply aren’t any other movies that look like his. Weiss’ work here is fantastic and not just the futuristic containment suits. Even the contemporary scenes bear a mark of individuality. The various mental patients and homeless people Cole encounters all look weathered and beaten down by life. Of course, these aren’t exactly the kind of fashion statements that win Oscars.

The film’s other nomination went to young up-and-comer Brad Pitt. It was his first nomination and he’d go on to win in the same category just this year for Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. It’s not quite fair to say that this was the first time Pitt had shown he was more than just a pretty face. He’d been proving himself as an actor for awhile by now in movies like A River Runs Through It and Legends Of The Fall. He’d also grunged himself up for movies like Kalifornia and True Romance. So we already knew he wasn’t exactly vain. We also knew that he was willing to go into some pretty dark territory. His other big hit of 1995 was Se7en. Brad Pitt was not spending the year spreading sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.

But up until now, Pitt’s screen persona had been very laconic, almost bordering on sleepy from time to time. He was charming and extremely good-looking but his energy was very low-key. Twelve Monkeys was the opposite of all that. For the first time, here was Brad Pitt literally bouncing off the walls, firing off dialogue like a machine gun and grinning like a lunatic. We’d never seen this Brad Pitt before and, honestly, we haven’t seen too much of him since. His performance is absolutely over-the-top but in the best way. Personally, I’d love to see Crazy Brad show up again someday.

Bruce Willis (perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not) has never been nominated for an Academy Award. Did he deserve one here? Possibly. Willis certainly doesn’t disappear into the part of James Cole. He’s not that kind of actor. But he anchors this film in some important ways. The consistency of the character’s through-line is what prevents all the time travel mind games from becoming confusing, even as Cole thinks he’s going insane himself. And Willis has at least one genuinely lovely, touching moment when Cole hears music again for the first time in lord knows how long. Willis really sells that scene. The expression of pure happiness on his face speaks volumes about what he’s endured.

You would think that after the back-to-back success of The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys that Terry Gilliam would have had an easier time of it. You would be wrong. His next film, the appropriately gonzo Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, divided critics and struggled at the box office. After that, Gilliam spent a lot of time on movies that never got made, including a go at adapting Watchmen and the first of several attempts at The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Gilliam was even J.K. Rowling’s first choice to direct Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone before cooler heads prevailed, Gilliam deciding he didn’t want the headaches of a big tentpole film and Warner Bros. deciding they didn’t want the headaches of dealing with Gilliam.

If Terry Gilliam’s directorial career is indeed winding down, Twelve Monkeys will stand as his last big hit. In 2015, SyFy launched a 12 Monkeys TV series that credits Chris Marker and screenwriters David and Janet Peoples but pointedly not Terry Gilliam. People now seem to believe that the movies Gilliam made that were successful succeeded in spite of him, not because of him. If so, that’s a real shame. Terry Gilliam remains a singularly talented filmmaker with a vision all his own. His legacy will outlast any virus.

Twelve Monkeys is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video.

Tribulation Is Here

Hey, I have a website! Almost forgot about that.

Hello again, Electric Theatregoers. My apologies for the long absence between posts. And I apologize also for returning with a blatant piece of self-promotion. But the long absence is partially explained by what I’m promoting, so I hope that helps.

Most of you who have found your way to the Electric Theatre probably know me from my work over at Bill Hunt’s The Digital Bits. But my reviews and what-not are really just a small part of my writing output. Over the last couple of years, I have dipped my toes into the new/old world of audio drama with Tribulation.

We started Tribulation as a podcast back in 2017. The first season picked up a bit of a cult following and some great reviews in the podcasting community, enough to attract the attention of Audible. They picked us up for a second season and, this past October, Tribulation was reborn as an Audible Original!

Audible put a lot of faith in our little show, going so far as to cast Josh Charles in the role of Magus. You may know Josh from his roles on Sports Night, The Good Wife and/or Netflix’s continuation of the Wet Hot American Summer franchise, absolutely none of which will prepare you for his performance here as a demented cult leader who thrives on pain and suffering. The entire cast (including Lauren Revard, Eric Goins, Tom Clark, Janet Metzger, Trevor Goble, Kate Kovach, and Hannah Pniewski) is first-rate. Acting for audio is a unique challenge and I’m in awe of their talents.

Tribulation is available now exclusively on Audible. If you’re already a member, you can use one of your monthly credits to check it out. If you’re not, they’ve got a free 30-day trial. I hope you’ll give it a listen and, if you enjoy it, please consider leaving us a review. These things really do help a lot.

Anyway, that’s the end of my sales pitch. The Electric Theatre will be back sooner rather than later with the usual mix of whatever it is we do here.

Your pal,
Jahnke

An Honor To Be Nominated: À Nous La Liberté

THE CONTENDER: À Nous La Liberté (1931)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Art Direction (Lazare Meerson)

Number of Wins: Zéro

In the last column, I discussed how focusing only on the top categories of Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film does a disservice to the complete history of foreign films at the Academy Awards. Many, many excellent international productions have competed in nearly every category. As near as I can tell, only the Visual Effects category has never nominated a foreign language film. Sure, the UK, Australia and New Zealand have been represented but it seems kind of weird that there’s never been anything nominated from Asia or non-English-speaking Europe.

At any rate, the topic got me to wondering: what was the very first foreign-language film nominated for an Academy Award? Turns out, it was a lot earlier than you may have thought. At just the 5th Academy Awards, René Clair’s influential social satire À Nous La Liberté became the answer to a future trivia question when it became one of three films nominated for Best Art Direction. It would be over a decade before a foreign-language film would actually win anything but it was a start.

Clair had been a journalist and film critic whose first two short films, The Crazy Ray and Entr’acte, firmly established him as a key member of the French avant-garde. Over the course of the 1920s, he became one of the most highly regarded silent filmmakers with films like An Italian Straw Hat. Clair was initially resistant to the arrival of sound but it didn’t take him long to master it, becoming one of the most innovative directors of the early sound era.

À Nous La Liberté was his third sound film and, in many ways, it remains his best work. Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy star as Émile and Louis, cellmates in a French prison. They plot an escape but only Louis makes it to freedom. Once back in society, Louis takes a job selling phonograph records on the street. He’s successful at it and over time, the street corner job turns into a storefront, which in turn grows into a factory, replicating phonographs using the same assembly line techniques Louis learned in prison.

Years later, Émile, now released from prison, is arrested for loitering. Through his jail cell, he hears the singing of a young woman, Jeanne (Rolla France). He’s immediately smitten and, after managing to escape the cell, he follows her back to Louis’ factory, where she works. Émile ends up in the employment line, stuck with another assembly line job that he didn’t really want. His disruptions land him in hot water and end up reuniting him with his now rich and powerful old cellmate. At first, Louis assumes Émile has turned up to blackmail him by exposing his secret past. But it doesn’t take long for him to be reminded of his old friend’s inherently good nature and Émile is welcomed back like a brother.

The two friends pick up where they left off, singing their old prison song, “À Nous La Liberté” (literally, “Freedom For Us”). Louis promises to help Émile win Jeanne’s heart by helping out financially but Émile eventually decides to let her go after realizing she truly loves another. Meanwhile, Louis has attracted the attention of another ex-prisoner and this one has less-than-honorable intentions, threatening to blow the whistle on him.

There are any number of elements in À Nous La Liberté that could be singled out for praise, starting with the performances of both Marchand and Cordy. Movies with this kind of structure don’t often work. Clair starts with both characters, then drops Marchand entirely to focus exclusively on Cordy. Eventually, Marchand comes back in and we forget about Cordy for awhile. Finally, after a long time apart, the two characters are brought back together. For this to work, we have to be invested in both Marchand and Cordy equally. This is harder to pull off than it seems and works here thanks to the two actors’ magnetic screen presence and chemistry that establishes their friendship within seconds.

À Nous La Liberté also became the source of controversy a few years after its release when the French studio Tobis accused Charles Chaplin of plagiarizing Clair’s work in his own Modern Times. It’s hard to deny the similarities between the two but we’ll never really know for sure if it was an influence. The suit was eventually settled out-of-court and Chaplin always maintained that he’d never even seen the picture. For his part, Clair wanted nothing to do with the lawsuit, professing his own admiration for Chaplin and saying he’d be honored even if Chaplin had ripped him off.

Whether you’re Team Chaplin or Team Clair, the French director was definitely ahead of the curve when it came to sound. Chaplin was one of the last holdouts of the silent era and he managed to produce some of his best work after everyone else had switched to talkies. But Clair overcame whatever reservations he had about the technology early on and pioneered innovative use of music, sound design and dialogue, blending them into a seamless tapestry of sound. Keep in mind, the Academy didn’t even have music categories at this time and the award for Sound Recording was given to the entire department of the studio, not to individuals for work on specific films. Hollywood would spend another year or two trying to catch up to Clair.

Instead, the Academy chose to honor Lazare Meerson with a nomination for Best Art Decoration. Again, it’s hard to complain about this choice. Meerson’s sets, particularly in the prison and factory sequences, are truly spectacular, all streamlined angles and curves. There were only three nominees in the category and À Nous La Liberté ended up losing to a Grand Hotel-style comedy-drama called Transatlantic. I couldn’t tell you if it was robbed or not. Transatlantic is a tough movie to track down, having never been released on video in any format. It’s my understanding that it’s received some kind of restoration, so I hope it’ll become easier to see at some point because it sounds genuinely interesting. Any movie that beat À Nous La Liberté for Art Direction has to interesting to look at, if nothing else.

René Clair only made a couple more pictures in France. Then, like most European filmmakers during World War II, he traveled to the UK and America, making English-language features like The Ghost Goes West and I Married A Witch. Clair returned to France as soon as the war was over and continued making films, some of which were well-received. But eventually, Clair would run headlong into the French New Wave. His style seemed quite old-fashioned compared to the work of young auteurs like Godard and Truffaut. He retired from filmmaking in 1965 and concentrated on writing until his death in 1981. But even today, audiences continue to discover and appreciate Clair’s innovative, ahead-of-their-time masterpieces from the 1930s.

À Nous La Liberté is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection and is currently available for streaming on The Criterion Channel.

An Honor To Be Nominated: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared

THE CONTENDER: The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared (2013)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Makeup and Hairstyling (Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr)

Number of Wins: 0

Accepted wisdom has it that foreign language films historically have a difficult time at the Oscars. The rules for eligibility in the Best Foreign Language Film category (which is evidently going to be redubbed Best International Feature Film as of next year) are admittedly labyrinthine and strange; with countries submitting entries for consideration like it’s the Eurovision Song Contest. If a film is not an “official entry” from a country, it’s often out of luck. Even if they are official, they can still be disqualified or withdrawn for a wide range of reasons, from language to distribution to politics.

But this fails to take into account the huge number of foreign films that have been nominated in other categories. Granted, only a handful has competed for Best Picture. But there have been dozens of documentaries, several animated films, and a long line of actors and actresses recognized in their categories. The complete list of nominated writers and directors reads like a who’s who of international cinema masters. And if you look at the technical categories, foreign films are extremely well-represented in Costume Design, Cinematography, and Art Direction.

Makeup is one of the few categories where international films are arguably under-represented, although they have been catching up in recent years. The number of foreign language films nominated in the category has almost doubled in the last decade alone. Recently, Sweden has been on a bit of a streak, racking up its most recent nomination just this past winter for Border. The country’s first nod in the category came in 2016 with the marquee-busting comedy The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared.

Directed by Felix Herngren and based on the novel by Jonas Jonasson, The 100-Year-Old-Etc chronicles the adventures of Allan Karlsson (played by popular Swedish comedian Robert Gustafsson). On the day of his 100th birthday, he decides he’s had enough of the retirement home where he’s been forcibly placed and…well, you can probably figure it out. He buys a bus ticket for as far as his pocket change will take him, which turns out to be not far at all, a defunct train station in the middle of nowhere. But before he can get on the bus, a skinhead biker, frustrated that he can’t squeeze his oversized suitcase into the cramped restroom with him, demands that Allan hold on to it for a minute and not let go. That’s exactly what Allan does. He just gets on the bus, too.

Reaching the end of the line, Allan is befriended by Julius (Iwar Wiklander), an older man who’s facing the likelihood of being put into a retirement home himself soon. Meanwhile, the skinhead turns out to be a courier for a British crime boss (Alan Ford, who you may recognize from Snatch) and the suitcase contains millions in cash. Thus begins a journey across the Swedish countryside with the skinheads trying to track down the suitcase and a bored policeman (Ralph Carlsson) trying (not very hard) to track down the hundred-year-old man.

Layered on top all of this, we have Allan recounting his life story in flashback, a distinctly Forrest Gump-like journey that finds Allan discovering his one true passion in life: explosives. His love for blowing stuff up first lands him in a mental hospital. But upon his release, he’s able to put it to use, first in Spain alongside the revolutionaries against Franco, then as part of the Manhattan Project, and eventually in a Russian gulag, where he’s imprisoned alongside Herbert Einstein, Albert’s idiot brother. After an escape, Allan ends up working as a spy for both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War, feeding both sides useless information.

So what we have here is essentially a mash-up of Forrest Gump and an absurdist crime comedy. Think Coen Brothers Lite. Perhaps surprisingly, the present-day antics work a lot better than the flashback romp through history. There’s a simple reason for this. The characters in this half are a whole lot more compelling than the various historical caricatures Allan encounters. Apart from Herbert Einstein, who is admittedly funny, Allan encounters Franco, Stalin, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, Truman, Gorbachev, and Reagan; all played indifferently by actors who sound nothing like their counterparts. If this were a Hollywood movie, these would be opportunities for scene-stealing cameos. In European cinema, they’re awkward moments best glossed over as quickly as possible.

But the characters in the present-day story are a lot of fun. Allan and Julius’ little group grows to include Benny (David Wiberg), a stammering, middle-aged graduate student who is perpetually a few credits shy of completing whatever degree he’s working on at the moment. We also meet Gunilla (Mia Skäringer), a young woman who lives on her own with Sonja, a liberated circus elephant. (Oh, did I not mention there was an elephant involved? There is.) Gunilla’s ex-boyfriend also happens to be the brother of one of the skinheads, in case you’d forgotten about them. Spending time with these characters is so pleasant and breezy that you almost come to resent Allan’s past intruding on the story.

The Oscar-nominated makeup is pretty good but I don’t think I’d deem it Oscar-worthy. Gustafsson’s old-age makeup is clearly the showcase piece and it’s fine, though not up to the heights hit by Dick Smith earlier in films like The Exorcist. As for the historical figures, some like Einstein and Stalin are perfectly acceptable, while others like Reagan are downright dodgy. Makeup artists Love Larson and Eva Von Bahr would do better work on their second Oscar-nominated film, A Man Called Ove, the following year.

The Makeup category has taken a hit in recent years, as advances in digital technology have blurred the lines between makeup and visual effects. The category used to be dominated by science fiction, fantasy and horror films. These days, the Academy is more likely to be impressed by historical transformations and old-age makeup than by monsters and aliens. Most of the innovative work in that area is now a marriage between digital effects and practical makeup artists and, unfortunately, the Academy doesn’t seem to know quite how to address that yet.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is now the third highest grossing Swedish film of all time, behind only the original versions of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire (the Swedes do seem to like long titles, don’t they?). In fact, a sequel was recently released called (deep breath) The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out On The Bill And Disappeared. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and a glance at its IMDb page suggests that the filmmakers decided to double down on the structure of the first one, with flashbacks to Allan’s eventful life intercut with a quirky road trip to find a Russian soda recipe. Feels like the very definition of pushing your luck to me but who knows? Maybe it’s just kooky enough to work.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital from Music Box Films.

An Honor To Be Nominated: Cain And Mabel

THE CONTENDER: Cain And Mabel (1936)

Number of Nominations: 1 – Best Dance Direction (Bobby Connolly for “1000 Love Songs”)

Number of Wins: 0

When I expanded the parameters of this column to include any movie that had been nominated for any Academy Award, it was out of a desire to explore the fringes of Oscar history. There have been a lot of pictures nominated for a single award like Best Original Song or Best Make-Up whose achievement has been forgotten, sometimes rightly, sometimes not.

The Oscars’ early years are chockfull of curios like that. The biggest reason for this is simply that it took them a number of years to figure this shit out. The number of nominees in any given category could vary wildly, from as few as three to a dozen or more. At the 17th Academy Awards, 20 (!) movies were nominated for Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. This was just a few years after several technical categories (including Cinematography) were split in half between Color and Black-and-White. That tradition lasted well into the 1960s, resulting in a whole lot of weirdly bloated categories.

And then there’s the case of the Categories That Time Forgot, defunct categories that were introduced, hung around for a year or three, then vanished. The very first ceremony had several that were immediately dropped, including Comedy Direction and Artistic Quality of Production. For a number of years, the Academy handed out special Juvenile Awards to outstanding child actors like Shirley Temple and Judy Garland. But those were non-competitive awards and only given out intermittently.

All of which brings us to today’s subject: the obscure musical comedy Cain And Mabel which racked up a single Academy Award nomination in the long-gone Best Dance Direction category. Even by Oscar standards, this was a weird one. It was given out only three times, from 1935 to 1937. And unlike most other categories which recognize the overall quality of the production, nominees for Best Dance Direction were honored for a specific dance sequence within a film. This is how you could end up with Merian C. Cooper’s adventure movie She competing against the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic Top Hat.

Cain And Mabel was directed by Lloyd Bacon, a man who knew his way around the dance floor thanks to his work on such musicals as 42nd Street and Footlight Parade. Marion Davies stars as Mabel O’Dare, a waitress at a busy New York cafeteria. She takes pity on suicidal ex-reporter Aloysius K. Reilly (Roscoe Karns, whose rat-a-tat delivery is immediately recognizable from classics like It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday), giving him a breakfast that was being sent back to the kitchen. After her altruism gets her fired, Reilly vows to make things right. Realizing that his propensity for making up phony stories made him a lousy reporter but would serve him well as a publicity agent, he takes the seemingly talentless Mabel on as his first client.

Reilly marches Mabel into the office of theatrical producer Jake Sherman, claiming they’re old friends and promising to get her an audition. But Reilly stops the first person who walks out the door, assuming he must be Sherman. It’s actually Broadway star Ronny Cauldwell (Robert Paige, then going under the name David Carlyle). For a laugh, Ronny pretends to be Sherman and says he’ll give Mabel a shot at the lead role if she comes to rehearsal the next day.

Mabel and Reilly show up at the appointed time and place where the real Sherman (Walter Catlett) is understandably confused. Fortunately for Mabel, she shows up just as Sherman’s temperamental star Toddy (Pert Kelton) throws a tantrum and threatens to quit (perhaps because her producer stopped rehearsal dead for a good five minutes to banter with some rando off the street). Feeling bad about the trick he played, Ronny convinces Sherman to give Mabel a shot. Of course he does and of course she gets the lead. Why not? It’s not like he has a stage full of chorus girls directly in front of him who would probably kill for an opportunity like this.

The untested Mabel works day and night to prepare for her Broadway debut. It’s the “night” part that brings prizefighter Larry Cain (Clark Gable) into her life. He has the hotel room directly beneath hers and her hoofing practice is preventing him from getting much-needed rest the night before a big fight. Why Mabel is practicing in a hotel and not, say, at the theatre or a rehearsal space is not clear, nor is it understandable why the management of the hotel sides with her over the comfort of literally every other guest but whatever. Mabel’s show goes on, Cain loses his fight, and the two go their separate ways, happy to be out of each other’s life.

Some time later (Weeks? Months? A year? Who knows?), Cain has fought his way to the top but receipts are down. It seems nobody really cares about Larry Cain. Mabel’s having the same problem. People think her show’s OK but don’t have any real investment in her. So Reilly concocts a plan to sell the press on a phony romance between the two, giving them both a much-needed public persona. Both are reluctant at first, hardly a surprise considering they can’t stand the sight of each other, but agree to the arrangement once they realize how many other jobs depend on them. I don’t want to go into spoiler alert territory but if you don’t think Cain and Mabel end up falling in love for real, please let me know how you enjoy your first movie after you see it.

Cain And Mabel is one of those zippy Hollywood confections that has no agenda other than to make you smile for 90 minutes. By that measure, it’s fairly successful. The script, credited to Laird Doyle and H.C. Witwer, is fast-paced and quippy. The story is ludicrous but it manages to work in themes like economic insecurity and the easily-manipulated media that are still relevant today.

Clark Gable was one of the biggest stars in the country, if not the world, at this time and every ounce of his considerable charm and charisma is on display. He has a relaxed, easy chemistry with the other members of his team, Allen Jenkins as corner man Dodo and William Collier Sr. as trainer Pops Walters. And it’s always a pleasure to see Roscoe Karns in action. He could read the want ads and make them sound hilarious.

But the real surprise here is Marion Davies, an actress who is too often given short shrift by movie fans today, most of whom I’d argue haven’t seen a single one of her films. Her career was overshadowed by her relationship with publisher William Randolph Hearst and his behind-the-scenes role in her career. Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures was behind many of Davies’ films, including this one, which explains how such a trifling entertainment could boast such an extravagant budget. Today, too many people assume that the character of talentless singer Susan Alexander in Orson Welles’ Hearst-inspired Citizen Kane is an accurate depiction of Davies’ abilities. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Davies is a gifted comedic actress, more than holding her own against Gable and Karns. She’s tough, funny, sharp and even acquits herself reasonably well in the musical numbers. She’s no Ginger Rogers but she doesn’t need to be. Dance director Bobby Connolly finds other uses for her physicality that don’t require elaborate movements.

About that Oscar-nominated Dance Direction: Cain And Mabel is one of those “musicals” where the production numbers are part of the show within the show. There are two of them and both could be lifted out in their entirety without hurting either the narrative of the film or the integrity of the musical numbers. They’re that superfluous. Davies is involved in both but a couple of ringers are brought in to make her look good, vaudeville entertainer Sammy White and featured dancer Charles Teske. Both of them do their routines and vanish, never to be seen again.

Connolly’s nomination was for the second number, “1000 Love Songs”. The song itself by Harry Warren and Al Dubin is pretty unbearable, performed by Paige in a quavering falsetto. But the production surrounding it is jaw-dropping. Hearst supposedly paid upwards of $100,000 to have the roof of Warner Bros.’ Stage 7 raised 35 feet to accommodate the sets, which included a movable floor over a pool of water and enormous archways and sculptures. The sequence includes ethereal chorus girls suspended in midair, dozens more dancing everywhere you look, and elaborate costumes that render Davies completely immobile. In other words, it’s a number that would be impossible to stage in the Broadway theatre where it’s supposedly being performed.

The non-Oscar-nominated number, “Coney Island”, is even weirder. Sammy White does the song and dance around Davies, describing how they met and fell in love during a trip to Coney Island. Then, the set revolves, revealing a giant carousel. White and Davies proceed to promenade into the Wax Museum, where various historical figures come to life, including Napoleon, Julius Caesar and…um, Popeye. So if you thought Robin Williams was the first actor to play a live-action Popeye, guess again.

(If you’re wondering what the hell Popeye’s doing here, as I was…E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theatre featuring Popeye ran in the New York Journal and was syndicated by King Features Syndicate, both of which were owned at the time by, you guessed it, William Randolph Hearst. So there you go. Corporate synergy was alive and well even in 1936.)

In the end, Connolly lost the Oscar to The Great Ziegfeld, which also won Best Picture. He probably never stood much of a chance. Cain And Mabel had been a box-office flop and his competition included Swing Time, one of the very best Astaire-Rogers pictures. Connolly never did win an Oscar. The Best Dance Direction category was already a thing of the past by the time his best-known movie, a little thing called The Wizard Of Oz, was released. Marion Davies only made one more picture after this one before she retired to Hearst’s San Simeon estate. It would be decades before critics and audiences would begin to reappraise her work, a process that is still ongoing. As for Clark Gable, he grew his mustache back and continued to do pretty well for himself.

The Best Dance Direction category was a short-lived experiment. Even when musicals were at the height of their popularity, the Academy never really knew how to recognize achievements in choreography, opting instead to give honorary awards to people like Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins. But, for a few years anyway, at least they could say they tried.

Cain And Mabel is available on DVD and Digital from the Warner Archive Collection.