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14 October 1929 (USA)  »

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Oh! You Beautiful Doll
Music by Nat Ayer
Lyrics by A. Seymour Brown
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The two peanut-vendors
29 November 2015 | by (France) – See all my reviews

Since IMDb does not identify the 1933 Len Lye film except by it alternate title (Experimental Film(, it is perhaps convenient to review these two films (that of Lye and that produced by the Fleischers) together here.

But first let us deal with the usual patronising note that people have got into the bad habit of using when talking about earlier films - "even for 1933". What is the "even" doing there? The late 1920s and the 1930s were something of a golden age of animation, witnessing inter alia, three superb full-length animated features Lotte Reiniger's Die Abenteuer des Prinzen Achmed (1926), Ladilas Starevitch's Le Roman de Renart (1930/1937) and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), each in quite different genres of animation and each, in my own view at least, unsurpassed of its kind to this day.

This is however precisely the juncture when the field of animation will begin to narrow. In the US, thanks to the factory-style procedures initiated by the like of Earl Hurd and John Randolph Bray, drawn animation was already becoming a form of mass-production, something with which other forms of animation (Reiniger's silhouette animation or Starevitch's figure or puppet-animation), which often involved years of painstaking work, could not possibly compete. (For further discussion of this see my review of Berthold Bartosch's superb 1932 animated short L'Idée). What is more, the US industry, by installing the "cartoon" as part of their typical film programme, were in the process of establishing a monopoly not only of production but also of distribution.

As a result, it is true, the general run of US cartoons at this period, despite the nostalgic appeal they may have for USians, are of very poor quality. Max Fleischer is something of an exception. His "Out of the Inkwell" series, which have a very particular manner of combining drawn animation and live-action, have a real quality to them and would themselves influence Disney for a while in his "Alice cartoons". As time went on, however, even these were though to requite too much expense of time and energy and Fleischer, increasingly a producer rather than an artist, moved with a certain sad inevitability towards a style much closer to that of Disney or rather to the more down-market style of US animation because the more up-market style used for the Disney features was quite simply beyond the means of the smaller studios. Despite Betty Boop and Popeye, which kept him in business for a further decade, Fleischer cartoons never recovered the real distinctive quality thy had had in the days of Koko the Clown and Paramount, who had assumed control, would dispense with his services altogether before the end of the forties.

These "screen songs", music videos of a kind, produced to capitalise on the advent of "sound", largely remembered today for the invention of the "bouncing ball" karaoke system, are perfectly watchable but nothing very special. This is in fact one of the better ones.

The work of Len Lye, a New Zealander living in England, is a totally different thing altogether. Lye was basically a proponent of abstract film (one of the rare proponents outside Germany) and his first film, Tusalava (1929) had been a rather fascinating abstract design based on Australian aboriginal art and legend concerning the Witchetty Grub, the high-protein caterpillar that is a staple part of the traditional aboriginal diet. The "primitive" element in this four-minute film is entirely intentional and the monkey is not intended to look cute (and does indeed have a rather sinister, even threatening aspect). Like the Fleischer film, it is a music video (the monkey dancing the rumba to a Cuban hit-song of 1931)and was intended by Lye to be an idea for a whole series of such films. The attempt to fuse the avant-garde with the popular was perhaps an error in taste and was certainly an error in judgement. As the other reviewer's remarks make clear, no US audience (accustomed only to the "lifelike" and the "cute" in their cartoons) could possibly have had any understanding of the effects he was trying to achieve. Lye did however go on to make many more interesting short films.

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