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Mid-Century Modern Animation, Volume 1

Thunderbean // Unrated // August 2, 2014
List Price: $15.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted September 6, 2014 | E-mail the Author
The Shorts:

Have you ever seen Mickey Mouse (with some help from Pluto) hawking cars? How about a national TV commercial that features a strip tease? Or an educational short created for the American Petroleum Institute that touts the advantages of... capitalism? You'll find all of these, and much, much, more in Mid-Century Modern Animation Vol. 1 released by Thunderbean Animation. This is a disc chocked full of wonderful (and sometimes oddly bizarre) animation including theatrical shorts, industrial cartoons, commercials and even a TV pilot, most of which are examples of modern-design, an art style that was mainly used in the 50s. A treasure trove of rare and entertaining films, this should be sought out by any fan of animation.

Though you may not be familiar with the term "modern-design" (also known as mid-century modern), you've certainly seen examples of this art style. It was fairly ubiquitous in the 50's featured in everything from architecture (the Main Terminal at Dulles Airport in Washington DC) and furniture (the Eames Lounge Chair) to advertising and even cereal boxes. It was also popular in animation. Following the time when Walt Disney's realistic animated feature films dominated the animation world in the 40's and before the dreaded limited animation took over to fill TV air time in the sixties, there was a time when a lot of studios were creating cartoons that were stylized yet not exclusive. The general public could embrace these odd-looking cartoons because, well, they were cartoons. Modern-design was a sort of animated minimalism, where backgrounds were a single color and lines were often straight with sharp angles (think of Mars as depicted in the Warner Brothers Marvin the Martian cartoons. It's a very interesting style visually, and it is well suited to both madcap comedy and the business of selling a product.

This collection features a pretty amazing array of modern-design cartoons that range from the rare to the 'I had no idea that this existed.' There's something for every taste too: theatrically released shorts, interesting industrial and educational films (which are actually really good, no matter who dry it may sound), commercials featuring well-known characters, and even some stylized intermission reels shown at drive-ins touting their snack bar.

It's hard to pick the highlights of the disc since there's so much good stuff, but one of my favorites is a short produced by the American Petroleum Institute entitled Destination Earth. It takes place on Mars, where the first Martian to go to Earth (specifically, the USA) has recently returned and their ruler, the tyrant Ogg, has the hapless spaceman give a speech to the masses. He tells of a wonderful product, oil, which is incredibly useful. It's a standard educational reel until the end where he starts discussing how oil is discovered. Anyone who wants to risk it can invest in an oil well! He touts the advantages of capitalism, and as soon as he does the populace of Mars starts investing in their own oil wells, and business to support the new industry, and not even Emperor Ogg can stop them. It's a delightful film, and curious in the fact that an oil producers association would feel the need to promote capitalism in the US.

The Academy Award nominated (Animated Short Subject) film The Magic Fluke, a UPA Fox and Crow cartoon is also included. It's easy to see why this was up for an Oscar. Funny and well done, it's a joy and one of only three Fox and Crow shorts that UPA did.

Another cool item is a collection of Weatherman spots. Created by Soundac (the same company that made Colonel Bleep) these are very short weather reports. An animated weatherman, basically a triangle with arms and legs and a weather vane on top of his head, gives a two adjective weather report in a few second. Things like "here's the latest weather report: fair and warm." What makes these so cool, aside from the very catchy jingle that's stuck in my head as I type this, is that they make a quick, visual joke about each weather condition. For one when the voice-over say "overcast" a dark cloud covers up the sun. The Weatherman pokes his umbrella into the cloud and makes a hole, allowing the sun to drop a yellow, sun-like ball on a string through the opening as the voiceover says "and warmer." They made these little gags for many weather conditions. Imagine having to come up with a visual representation for "fair and cooler." The guys as Soundac did. On top of that the very simple (and therefore inexpensive) animation is wonderfully minimal. With a few movements they make tell a 'story' and make the weather entertaining. A real great find.

Disney animated some commercials in the 50s and several are in this collection including a spot with Mickey Mouse and Pluto selling cars for Nash. Other Disney characters appear in car commercials too. I can't imagine how much Ford would have to lay out to have Pinocchio and Jiminy Cricket appear in a commercial today, but it's surely a lot more than Disney charged to have the pair advertise the Hudson Hornet back in the 50's.

There's lot more to discover on this disc. From the unsold pilot to a kid's cartoon, Planet Patrol, to a Tex Avery commercial for Kool-aid, to neat drive-in theater fillers this is a treasure chest full of wonders for animation buffs.

The DVD:


These shorts vary in age and condition, and there is quite a range. Some of the films that were rarely seen even back in the day (such as the Weatherman animated weather reports) look very good and are clean and crisp. Destination Earth and UPA's Big Time are immaculate. On the other end of the spectrum are the snack bar ads for drive-in theaters that were run through a projector day after day for years and years. These tend to be worn, faded, and scratchy. In general the shorts look fine with a bit of fading and some print damage here and there, but nothing that ruins the presentation.


There are a couple of nice bonuses included on this disc. First up is a segment from the work print used to create the Popeye cartoon Crystal Brawl. It's a nice example of Famous Studios utilizing a modern-design animation style. There are also two commentary tracks, both by historian and designer Dave Kirwan. The first is to the Weatherman spots, and what little is known about these charming spots is related. It's quite fun to listen to the commentator as it's clear that he really enjoys these short TV news fillers as much as I do. The other commentary track is to the Shamus Colhune Showreel. The history of the animator is given as well as some amusing stories about his career in advertising. Well worth listening to.

Final Thoughts:

If you enjoyed the UPA: Jolly Frolics Collection that was released a while ago, this collection is a must-buy. Filled with some great animation, there's surely something for every viewer. I highly recommend picking up a copy.
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Highly Recommended

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