I was going to do a post in defense of the Color Rhapsodies. The Columbia series began in 1934 as a response to Disney's popular Silly Symphonies as the studio's overall cartoon product (Scrappy and Krazy Kat) began to slide drastically in quality. So I sat down with the intention of finding the good in these mealy offerings. After all, even Van Bueren and Terrytoons at their most primitive had something to offer in terms of outrageous gags, demented drawing and off-the-wall story lines. I suppose I always hoped the Rhapsodies would be like a lost stack of Fleischer Color Classics - a series which I feel is superior to Disney's Silly Symphonies. Sadly (and yet again), I was confronted by a series which was, overall, pretty lousy.
1935 trade ad. Alas, a perverted king never appeared in a Color Rhapsody
However, there are some okay cartoons in the batch and even a (very) few that are pretty good. The difficulty in watching them chronologically is that for every one that has any appeal there are four or five (or more!) that are completely unwatchable. By the late 30's I think it's safe to say: poverty row thy name was Columbia.
At any rate, very selectively, there is almost a full program of watchable Rhapsodies so here is my personal list to the cartoons to watch and why.
SKELETON FROLIC (1937)
This may be the best Color Rhapsody cartoon. It certainly benefited from the beautiful transfer on the 'Lost Skeleton of Cadavra' DVD (Columbia/Tri-Star 2004). It comes from a period when the Iwerks Studio found itself in transition after the sudden cancellation of the Comicolor series. The period, which has not been very well documented, produced a series of 'Gran'-Pop Monkey' cartoons for Boots Chemists in England, a couple of semi-farmed out Warner Brothers cartoons and a number of Color Rhapsodies. This particular cartoon, a re-dux of 'Skeleton Dance' (Disney, 1929), has certain dynamism in background and animation lacking in the original. In short a wonderful companion piece. Click here to watch 'Skeleton Frolic'.
Is he doing what I think he's doing?
MIDNIGHT FROLICS (1938)
Another Iwerks' Studio film - this time a version of 'Lonesome Ghosts' (Disney, 1937). It's somewhat unfortunate that the Disney film should have had such an influence on the way ghosts were depicted in cartoons (chubby, with derby hats) but of the many cartoons which attempted a version of LG (Terrytoons did quite a few) this is my favourite. There is the choppy movement which one associates with the Color Rhapsodies but also some fine rubbery stuff too. The design is more appealing too with the ghosts stream-lined to attractive bowling pin-like shapes and the background design and color styling are effectively moody. Also, the song 'Flora Dora Girls' (what it has to do with ghosts I have no idea) is quite contagious!
Ghosts gettin' 'cozy'.
THE HORSE ON THE MERRY-GO-ROUND (1937)
This film, another of the films farmed to Iwerks, looks to me almost like it could have been one of the better Comicolor films - a series which produced some great cartoons. The quality of the animation is on par - perhaps even a little better. This particular cartoon, a carousel horse's dream of walking about the fair grounds after hours, has among it's strengths: an evocative musical score, a rich color palette and lighting superior to the Comicolors, the expressionistic design elements which distinguished Iwerks' best cartoons and some pretty inventive mechanical animation and use of the camera. By 1937 standards the film was out-dated but if it had been made three years earlier (which it could have easily been) it would probably be better known. Also of interest: Scrappy's cameo in an Iwerks film!
Scrappy makes a cameo.
MERRY MANNEQUINS (1937)
Not all of Iwerks' Rhapsodies were good. In fact, 'The Gorilla Hunt' (1939) is pretty awful. This cartoon teeters on the edge but I'm including it on my list for the pure creep-out factor. Imagine if the Twilight Zone episode 'The After Hours' was a cartoon. Nighty night kiddies!
The background and layout styling for this cartoon is pretty amazing actually.
How about now?
SWING MONKEY SWING (1937)
Anything with monkeys can't be all bad and this cartoon, although wildly inconsistent in terms of animation (check the re-use cycle of the island - holy smokes!), it is unusually fun for a Color Rhapsody. Great music!
From happy to psychotic.
THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT (1939)
Unusually full animated short about an industrious beaver who goes postal on a couple of bums (a bear and ... an ostrich?) after they trash his newly built house. Ends with the beaver forcing the bums to rebuild which they screw up anyway. Classic cartoon mixed moral.
Beaver going postal.
Okay, you've just watched four. Ready for more? Tearing your eyeballs out yet? Proceed with caution ...
GIFTS FROM THE AIR (1937)
I'm certain I'll be alone in defense of this film. Christmas cartoons from the golden age were a pretty motley bunch ('Santa's Workshop' anyone? Jam Handy 'Rudolph'?) but this is my favorite of the grisly lot. The animation is pretty choppy but I have a soft spot for depression era cartoons which reflect the depression as this one does. From today's vantage point we might laugh at the Oliver-Twist-like poverty depicted but, at that time, many children were living in shacks as shantytowns sprung up in virtually every major city in the US. This would have meant something different to audiences of the 30's then it does today. Note: play on Dec.24th only.
Decapitated heads coming to life are always good.
Get a job in animation and all this can be yours!
HOLLYWOOD PICNIC (1937)
A rough ride which is saved by some unusually good caricatures including perhaps the best rendering of Larry in a 30's cartoon.
Larry looking hurt.
Barrymore eats his peas with a knife - how uncouth! Does anybody eats peas this way? I'd always worry about stabbing myself in the eye.
George Raft is handy with his tongue.
THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL (1937)
More creepy eyes as the girl of the title cavorts with yet more cherubs (of the Christmas variety) before freezing to death. Some better than average (for the series) layout and lighting plus the bummer ending make this worthy of a look. Note: play on Dec.24 only.
She's finally dead - yay!
The bottom line with the Rhapsodies? The Iwerks cartoons I mentioned (with honorable mention to 'The Frog Pond') are great - otherwise tread carefully!