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To read the first entry of the By The Cover series and see what this is all about, click HERE.
I’ve already discussed at length how much of an impact The Wizard of Oz has made upon the world. Well today I’m doing it again. This time I’m focusing on a big part of what made it such an iconic film – the music. Needless to say a movie that gave us such memorable tunes would ensure decades worth of covers by plenty of voices that are worth revisiting and rediscovering. So, for The Wizard of Oz’s 80th anniversary and as a part of Taking Up Room’s Wizard of Oz Blogathon, we’re taking an audio journey over the rainbow.
It’s been a while since one of these, hasn’t it? In honor of The Wizard of Oz’s 80th anniversary, here’s my look at why The Wicked Witch of the West is one of the greatest villains of all time. It expands a bit on my assessment of her from my original review of The Wizard of Oz. And it’s not the only tribute I have lined up today! Click HERE to read it!
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We all have our good years and our bad years that we can recall. For me, 2013 was not a very good year. To make a long story short, everything from February onward culminated in a deep depression that lasted through most of the fall. What helped me out of it? Well, Team Starkid released what is to date their best show, Twisted, for starters. But that same Thanksgiving weekend Twisted premiered online, I rediscovered a piece of my childhood almost untouched by time. A movie that, despite its age and subject, wore down the walls of cynicism, made me forget the troubles of the outside world for 75 minutes, and had me smiling genuinely for the first time in months.
That movie is what I’ll be reviewing today.
Babes in Toyland began life as an operetta/pantomime by Victor Herbert in 1903, and you’ll never find a straight adaptation or production of the original libretto put on today. Why?
There’s gruesome murders, convoluted schemes, love octagons, too many characters to keep track of, needlessly dark subplots, and I’m not even touching the random fantasy elements thrown in. If you want some idea of what the story is supposed to be, then by all means read Jay Davis’ Babes in Toyland retrospective (coincidentally written in 2013). Despite this, the show was tremendously popular and led to many theatrical reimaginings of magical family-friendly stories like The Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan. In the former’s case, it was those stage adaptations that paved the way for the classic 1939 movie. But because Babes in Toyland was first and foremost a musical, a film adaptation had to wait until silent pictures became talkies. And when it did come to the big screen, it took a turn that few expected.
Enter Hal Roach, famed producer of comedy vehicles for stars of the 20s and 30s such as Will Rogers, Thelma Todd, the Little Rascals, and of course, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Once movie rights for Babes in Toyland were made available, Roach saw the comic potential for Laurel and Hardy and snagged ’em. His initial treatment didn’t impress Stan Laurel much, though. Few know that Laurel took his craft very seriously and was prone to rewriting scripts to milk as many laughs from it as possible. While this might sound like the workings of a control freak prima donna, he actually knew what he was doing. This Babes in Toyland, later re-titled March of the Wooden Soldiers to differentiate it from the others, is full of entertaining comic setpieces, lines, and characters, and has a tight plot that ties them all together. It is very much Stan Laurel’s movie more than it is Hal Roach’s.
And in hindsight, we have him to thank for the grand tradition of rewriting Babes in Toyland so it’s almost nothing like the operetta and no two versions are the same. That’s something I’m also grateful for.
But perhaps the greatest contribution Laurel might have made to March of the Wooden Soldiers is how naturally he and Hardy step into the role of main character. See, the leads in all the other takes on Babes in Toyland are love interests usually named Tom and Mary, and they are so mind-numbingly boring. If Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry hooked up with Kevin Costner and Robert Pattinson, their non-existent chemistry wouldn’t be half as dull as the parade of Toms and Marys doing nothing but pining for each other. They take time away from the characters who have real personalities and make those other Babes in Toyland far less interesting or fun to watch.
March of the Wooden Soldiers, on the other hand, does something radical when it comes to naming its leads – it takes the funny side cast we want to see more of and makes them the focus while putting the traditional romantic protagonists in the background. Normally handing over the spotlight to the comic relief characters is a bad idea (COUGHMINIONSCOUGH). But when those side characters-turned-leads are played by the most iconic comedic duo of all time, well, let’s just say we’re in good hands.
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Last November we celebrated a milestone for one of Disney’s most iconic characters. Today we gather for another – Happy 85th Birthday Donald Duck!
There’s a certain irony to Donald’s popularity: in the theme parks or shows like The Mickey Mouse Club or House of Mouse, Donald is portrayed flagging behind Mickey in fame and adulation if not outright forgotten. But in the real world so many people prefer Donald over Mickey, and I can see why. Mickey’s status as the company’s mascot rarely allows him to be a mischievous rascal like in the old days. Donald on the other hand has always been the feisty fowl generations could relate to due to how much he’s put through the wringer and his resulting temper flares.
Because he’s not on as high a pedestal as The One That Started It All, he’s given more freedom of personality, and, as a result, much more to do. Donald’s worn a variety of hats throughout his five-and-fourscore-long career. This also expands beyond traditional media. You’d be hard pressed to find a Donald Duck video game that isn’t at least a little fun to play. Getting to bash things with his trademark temper tantrums is a treat, and Disney always takes full advantage of it. In fact, before Sora was created to be the protagonist for Kingdom Hearts, Tetsuya Nomura imagined Mickey as the main character, but Disney wanted it to be Donald! They’re well aware that no matter how bad the scenario, Donald can take a licking and keep on ticking, and that’s done him well these past 85 years.
So to mark the special occasion, I’m counting down my Top 21 Favorite Donald Duck Shorts. Why that many? Because I like to go eleven steps beyond.
The rules from before apply: I’m not counting segments from or complete feature films like Saludos Amigos or The Three Caballeros. Donald has to be the main focus of the entire short feature, and not just “Mickey’s name is in the title though Donald takes up 90% of the action but it’s totally a Mickey short, you guys, for reals”.
But par the course for this blog, a few Honorable Mentions first:
- Pomp and Circumstance – This highlight from Fantasia 2000 has Donald assisting Noah before the flood then reenacting An American Tail with Daisy on the ark.
- Trick or Treat – A Halloween classic where Donald falls victim to a witch’s tricks after he deprives his nephews of their treats.
- Donald and the Wheel – Two spirits of innovation try to inspire caveman Donald to invent the wheel, but it doesn’t quite stick. Meant to be educational, but the music is unbelievably catchy.
- Drip Drippy Donald/Early to Bed – These shorts featuring Donald being robbed of a good night’s rest would be hilarious if they weren’t so relatable.
- Donald’s Dilemma – The title’s a bit of a misnomer; Daisy’s the focus and there’s barely a dilemma. But it reveals a darker side to her romance and shows just how far she’d go to hold on to him.
- Orphan’s Benefit – While an ensemble piece for Mickey and Friends, it’s Donald who steals the show as usual.
- Commando Duck – Horribly blatant anti-Japanese sentiment aside, this World War Two-era short of Donald behind enemy lines has a fun chase at the climax.
- Cured Duck – Donald tries to cure his temper once and for all with an insult machine.
- Slide Donald Slide – Another one of Donald’s quarrels with Spike the Bee wins points for mirroring the World Series game playing on the radio, but winds up here because Spike is technically in the wrong this time around.
- The Wise Little Hen – The one that started it all.
- Donald’s Double Trouble – Donald hires an inexplicable doppelganger with better manners and English to win back Daisy only for it to backfire terribly.
- Donald’s Golf Game – Donald goes golfing with his nephews and their usual amount of mischief.
- Donald’s Valentine Dollar – Donald must retrieve his last dollar from all sorts of shenanigans in order to purchase a valentine for Daisy. It’s completely silent, but that repetitive piano music can get grating.
- Donald’s Camera – Donald’s attempt to shoot wildlife with a camera instead of a gun goes as well as you’d expect. Interestingly, I never knew about the original ending for years since they abruptly cut it off whenever they aired it on tv.
- Sleepytime Donald – A sleepwalking Donald takes Daisy out on a late night date, and it’s up to her to make sure he doesn’t wake up in a precarious situation.
- Mickey’s Philharmagic – Yes it’s a 3D show in the Disney parks and Mickey’s name is in the title, but don’t be fooled. Donald is the star of the show, and seeing him interact with some of the most iconic musical moments of the Disney Renaissance in stunning CGI animation for the time is astounding.
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Welcome to the premiere of By The Cover, a series where I highlight the best (and some of the worst) covers of songs from musicals I’ve reviewed before.
For our first installment, I thought I’d revisit the one that started it all and gave me the inspiration to create this, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Snow White, in addition to being the first full-length American animated feature, was the first movie to release its soundtrack to the public for their listening pleasure. If that wasn’t enough, the popularity of its songs saw many renditions by many well-known artists of the day. As time went on and Snow White was viewed as just another cartoon for the kids, the music found its way to many records aimed at young children. But it found new life in the 60s as jazz musicians took turns sampling the time-honored tunes and made them part of their repertoire. And it hasn’t stopped since. Snow White’s status as a Disney classic means there will always be some new iteration of its iconic melodies.
Let’s listen to a few of them, shall we?
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If there’s a reason why we’re able to recall the story of Snow White from memory, and why said princess is usually depicted with short hair, a cute bow and surrounded by woodland fauna, look no further than Disney. Their take on the Grimms’ fairy tale is the prime example of pop cultural osmosis. Even if you’ve never watched Disney’s Snow White, it’s easy to recognize when a piece of work is borrowing from it or spoofing it. And I can definitely see why – not only is it going eighty-plus years strong, but its influence on nearly every Disney feature to come after it is a profound one.
The real story of Disney’s Snow White begins in the early 1910’s when a young Walt Disney saw a silent film version of the Grimms’ fairytale starring Marguerite Clark. The movie stuck with him well into adulthood. One night, well after he had established himself as an animation giant the world over, Walt gathered his entire staff of animators and storymen and re-enacted the tale for them in a mesmerizing one-man show. They were enraptured, but what he told them next struck them dumb – they were going to take what he performed and turn it into a full-length film.
In Tony Goldmark’s epic(ally hilarious) retrospective of Epcot, he performs a quick sketch he summed up as “Walt Disney’s entire career in 55 seconds” where Walt presents his career-defining ideas to a myopic businessman capable of only saying “You fool, that’ll never work!”. Considering how animation is everywhere today, it’s easy to forget that an animated film was once seen as an impossible dream. The press hawked Snow White as “Disney’s Folly”, and Hollywood speculated that it would bankrupt the Mouse House. It very nearly did. Miraculously, a private showing of the half-finished feature to a banking firm impressed the investors enough to ensure its completion.
Snow White is touted as the very first animated movie – admittedly something of a lie on Disney’s behalf. Europe and Russia were experimenting with feature-length animation decades before Walt gave it a try. But consider this: most animated films predating Snow White’s conception are either sadly lost to us or barely count as such by just crossing the hour mark. With all the hard work poured into it showing in every scene, with each moment displaying a new breakthrough in the medium, Snow White might as well be the first completely animated movie after all. Hell, it’s the very first movie in the entire history of cinema that was created using STORYBOARDS. A tool used by virtually every single movie put out today. If that’s not groundbreaking enough, I don’t know what is.
But is Snow White really…but why does it…can it…
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As a lifelong Disney fan I can’t understate how much of an impact Mickey Mouse has had on me. In childhood, he was an icon and friend – instantly recognizable, a source of joy and entertainment, a hero and a role model. I know this is making me sound like one of those cheesy sponsors reading off a cue card, but when you’re talking about a mouse, expect plenty of cheese to be involved.
In the spirit of Mickey celebrating his 90th birthday, I’d like to share with you my 20 favorite shorts he starred in. Why 20? Because I couldn’t narrow it down to ten and I like to go nine steps beyond as opposed to one.
There were only two rules I set while making this list:
- Mickey is the main focus, or at the very least he must be given as much to do as the other characters he shares the cartoon with. There’s a lot of great shorts out there that has Mickey’s name in the title – Mickey’s Parrot, Mickey’s Circus, Mickey’s Birthday, Mickey and the Seal, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, etc. – or has his face in the intro that advertises it as his adventure, but upon watching you find they’re really about Donald, Goofy or Pluto or literally anyone else but him.
- Shorts only, no segments from full-length films or direct-to-video works. This means no Mickey and the Beanstalk from Fun and Fancy Free or various bits from Mickey’s Once/Twice Upon A Christmas, but sadly no Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia. I thought of excluding any short that ran over the usual length of five to seven minutes to about twenty, but that made my job even harder.
Now before we get to the countdown, here are a few Honorable Mentions:
- Mickey, Donald and Goofy in The Three Musketeers – If I were including full-length films on the list, this would be in the top five, bar none.
- The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Fantasia – It would easily take the number one spot if it didn’t overlap with the #2 rule.
- Plane Crazy – The mouse’s first appearance on the silver screen, though he wouldn’t make as quite a splash until his sound debut in Steamboat Willie a few years later
- Orphan’s Benefit – One of my favorites as a kid. It made me laugh something fierce and still does, though a large part of it has to do with Donald and Goofy’s segments, hence why it’s only an honorable mention. Also, did you know that the color one we’re mostly familiar with is actually a remake of an earlier black and white version?
- Mickey’s Delayed Date – Pluto and Mickey tussle for attention in this outing.
- Haunted House – Spooky and atmospheric. Classic Disney nightmare fuel.
- The Gorilla Mystery – Mickey plays Minnie’s white knight yet again as he goes to-to-toe with a dangerous gorilla.
- Two-Gun Mickey – An American Tail: Mickey Goes West.
- Mickey’s Surprise Party – After Minnie’s dog spoils the cookies she was making for Mickey, he saves the day with some shockingly transparent corporate sponsorship. At least I take comfort in the fact that Mickey’s favorite cookies are the same as mine.
- Hansel and Gretel – Mickey and Minnie stumble upon a treacherous witch to the ominous strains of Danse Macabre.
- Mickey’s Cabin – Mickey outwits Pete and his dimwitted cousin with a little reverse psychology when they hold him hostage in his winter cabin. Hilarity ensues.
- Croissant – Mickey’s first short in the modern style proved you can’t keep a mouse on a mission down.
- Yodelberg – Continuing with the previous short, it’s modern Mickey at its most fast-paced and stylish fun.
- Shanghaied – It’s up to Mickey to save the day and Minnie again, this time from Pete and his dastardly crew of pirates.
- Mickey’s Christmas Carol – Mickey’s first cartoon in 30 years has him slightly out of the spotlight, but still got him back in the public eye for good.
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“And now, on with the opera – Let joy be unconfined! Let there be dancing in the streets, drinking in the saloons, and necking in the parlor! Play, don.”
– Otis B. Driftwood, aka Groucho Marx opening a new opera season
Hi there, I hope everyone’s had a Happy Halloween, and I’d like to welcome back any and all newcomers who discovered this blog through Prydain On Film, which highlighted my two-part review of The Black Cauldron on their blog the same day I posted it. I’m happy to have you here.
Stick around, check out the other movie reviews I’ve done.
Be sure to read my retrospective on Gravity Falls too.
Please don’t leave.
Anyway, I’m especially excited – and more than a little daunted – for this month’s review, as I finally get to talk about some of my favorite comedians of all time, The Marx Brothers.
Julius, Leonard, Herbert and
Adolph Arthur – aka Groucho, Chico, Zeppo and Harpo – were sons of Jewish immigrants who discovered they had quite the knack for making people laugh as well as making music. Since their parents were already in the entertainment business, they had almost no trouble making a name for themselves. Groucho grew infamous for his quick biting wit, Chico for his fast-talking, womanizing and heavy faux-Italian accent, and Harpo for his childlike mischief and mute pantomiming (when not communicating through whistles and horn honks). Zeppo could be just as hilarious as his siblings onstage – for some performances he even stood in for Groucho and nobody could tell the difference – though he was often relegated to playing the straight man to his brothers’ antics. While already a hit on the vaudeville circuit and Broadway, the brothers made the leap from stage to screen with the advent of talkies and their fame quintupled overnight.
The Marxes’ unique brand of humor continues to influence comedians to this day; you can see them (especially Groucho) in the likes of Alan Alda, Lucille Ball, Judd Apatow, Bugs Bunny, Mystery Science Theater 3000, and the cast of Animaniacs. If you were to watch their films – their early ones in particular – you could say the threadbare plots were only there for them to hang jokes on. Cliché stories surrounding college football, high-class parties and traditional Hollywood romances were not safe from the brothers’ brand of anarchic humor; they poked holes in conventions of society and film, often breaking the fourth wall with the force of a sledgehammer to remind the audience how much of a farce even the most serious of scenarios really are. Their “us vs. them” antics helped America laugh through the Great Depression and World War 2, however not all of them were complete successes in their day.
After their ahead of its time war satire Duck Soup nearly bankrupted Paramount, the Brothers were cut loose from the studio and set adrift in Hollywood. Luckily they had an ardent admirer in Irving Thalberg, big shot producer at MGM, who quickly signed them on. Fortunate as this was, it didn’t come without a few changes to the Marxes which to this day angers certain die-hard fans:
First, Zeppo followed in forgotten Marx brother Gummo’s footsteps by quitting acting and reinventing himself as a successful agent, thus whittling the comic quartet down to a trio.
Second, their method of taking shots at anyone in their path was altered to karmic trickery; mess with them or their friends and only then do the gloves come off.
Third, in an effort to appeal to more women, a romance subplot would be added to their films wherein the brothers would help whatever couple was the focus hook up and achieve their dreams.
But does this warm touch and loss of one sibling mean the famous brothers have lost their edge? Will the inclusion of the opera, which was perceived as highbrow art for the upper class back then as much as it is today, serve as an excellent backdrop for the Marxes’ shenanigans or is it merely a musical distraction? And more importantly, can I actually make with the funny in this review as good as the Marxes did in their own film? Let’s find out.
(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not for profit. All images and footage used below are property of their respective companies unless stated otherwise. I do not claim ownership of this material.)
“Toto…I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
– Dorothy Gale
In the late 1800’s, Lyman Frank Baum was a family man down on his luck and out of a job. He was a bright and creative fellow but for one reason or another could never stay employed for long. Then one day, his wife convinced him to write a story based on the ones he told his children, where ordinary people are whisked to magical lands, where men made of tin come to life, where the world is ruled by wise and powerful women (Baum’s wife and her family were suffragettes, so that was a big influence). All that was missing was a name. While going through a file cabinet Baum noticed that everything was organized from A – N and O – Z. Had Baum not payed any attention to the latter, we may never have gotten the land so surreal and imaginative as Oz.
Over one hundred years later, The Wizard of Oz is still considered America’s fairy tale. France has the works of Charles Perrault, Germany has the Brothers Grimm, England has J.M. Barrie and J.K. Rowling, and America has L. Frank Baum. The original book has no less than 52 sequels (13 of which were originally penned by L. Frank Baum), and there are numerous stage, television and film adaptations, but the most beloved of them all is the 1939 musical from MGM. In terms of popularity it has all but eclipsed the book it was based on, wonderful as it is. Heck, I didn’t learn until I was older that the film was even based on a book (because what kid actually reads the opening credits of a movie, even one they’ve seen a thousand times before they learned how to read?) But I’m not here to talk about the differences between the book and the movie (except for when they’re relevant), I’m looking at the movie itself.
Like I said before, The Wizard of Oz was one of the earliest movies I remember watching. I still have the 50th anniversary VHS and to this day I can’t watch the DVD without missing the cute Downy commercial of the kids putting on their own production of Oz that played before it. It was one of the first musicals where I had the songs almost completely memorized. I played out the story with my toys, Dorothy narrowly beat out Snow White as the character I would dress up as the most for Halloween (I would wear a pair of sparkly jelly shoes for the ruby slippers, just to give you an idea of how old I am), I saw a live version with my Girl Scout troop at Madison Square Garden starring Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt and Ken Page, and like with Beauty and the Beast, I would walk around with a wicker basket and act out the movie as it played on tv. As I got older I went through the whole “it’s just a dumb kid’s movie” phase that we’ve all gone through, but thankfully that didn’t last very long and it’s earned a lasting place in my favorite films collection.
Truth be told, this is going to be a hard one to cover, not only because I love this movie to pieces and know almost everything there is to know about it, but simply because what CAN you say about The Wizard of Oz that hasn’t already been said? Even if you haven’t seen it odds are you know the story and characters thanks to countless parodies, homages and plain old-fashioned pop cultural osmosis. Being a top contender for the most quoted and recognizable movie ever made didn’t come overnight, however. When it first premiered in 1939, The Wizard of Oz was something of a financial failure due to going massively over budget as well as some infamous behind-the-scenes disasters. It picked up two Oscars for its music as well as an honorary one for Judy Garland’s performance and a nomination for Best Film, but wasn’t until a few theatrical re-releases and a national tv airing of it in the 50’s that a new generation finally saw it for the classic it was destined to be.
But why does it still resonate with us almost eighty years later? Is it worth being put on a pop culture pedestal? And what’s more, can I both analyze and have some fun with it without getting burned at the stake? Let’s take a look.