I keep doing this, y’know. This is like when I reviewed the Universal Dracula and Frankenstein, and just assumed that because they were both horror movies made in the thirties by the same studio they must be roughly equivalent in quality.
Not so, dear reader. Not so.
Now, The Batman, the first big screen outing of the caped crusader, was not a good film. Even looking past its use of yellowface and a stance on the internment of Japanese Americans that could charitably be called “a bit unwoke”, it was very much a movie serial of its time: cheap, poorly paced and of interest to the modern viewer mostly as a curiosity. But hot damn, compared to its sequel it is a masterpiece.
Take it from me, the gap in quality between The Batman (1943) and Batman and Robin (1949) is on par with that between The Batman (2022) and Batman and Robin (1997).
So much so, that I genuinely needed to resort to watching the Rifftrax version to even make it through the damn thing.
Hello everyone, and welcome to a new series here on Unshaved Mouse where I review every Batman movie except for the ones thatI’vealreadyreviewed. Well, most of them. I mean, some of them. Look, the character’s been featured in over eighty films at this point and I have a life, allegedly. But let’s kick this off with a thematically appropriate question. Riddle me this! What is the first superhero movie?
Well, not to get all Bill Clinton on ya, but that really depends on your definition of “movie”, “superhero”, “first” and “the”. You can argue, and many do, that the superhero genre has always been with us. That Superman and Batman are just the latest iterations of characters like Enkidu, Herakles, Thor and Cúchulainn. At the opposite end of that maximalist take is the concept that the first superhero was Superman, because he was the first to embody three fundamental elements; a secret identity, superhuman powers and a comic book origin. And between these two poles there are characters that are kinda liminal, sort of superheroes and sort of not. Characters like Zorro and The Shadow. Pulp heroes? Superheroes? It’s not entirely clear. I know one guy who claimed that the first true superhero was Baroness Orczy’s 1905 creation the Scarlet Pimpernel. And since that guy was frickin’ Stan Lee. Yup. Good enough for Mouse.
If so, that would make the now-lost 1917 silent film The Scarlet Pimpernel the first superhero movie.
So, (if you’re willing to stretch your definitions), the superhero movie genre is over a century old, and even pre-dates superhero comics. And yet, if you ask the average person what the first superhero movie is, what do you think they’ll say? 1978’s Superman? The 1966 Batman? Why has around half of the genre’s history been essentially memory holed?
Well, part of the problem is that most superhero cinema prior to the 1950s came in the form of serials. Serials were essentially the precursors to TV shows. A cinema would screen a new episode every week. Each episode was typically between 10 and 30 minutes long, low-budget and would end with a cliff-hanger to get you back in next week. In the forties, many famous superheroes were adapted to the form, including Captain Marvel, Captain America, Superman and, of course, Batman.
The second reason why this era of superhero cinema is so obscure is that they were all mostly terrible.
Okay, let me walk that back a little. They are products of their time. Because of the nature of the format, serial plots tends to cycle in place for around ten episodes before abruptly sprinting to the climax. This makes them, as you might imagine, not exactly bingeable.
And yet, I feel like Colombia’s 1943 picture The Batman should have a bigger pop culture presence. It’s the first Batman film, after all. And it was influential, in its way. It created several hugely important parts of Batman’s mythos. And the sixties series was arguably more an adaptation of this serial than the actual comic it claimed to be based on. And yet, if fans even know about it it’s usually “that weird old Batman movie that’s super racist”. And you know what? That’s unfair.
It’s not just racist. It’s also very boring.
And look, I’m just going to say this up front. I’m not doing my usual scene by scene analysis on this one. Why?
BECAUSE THIS BEAST IS THREE AND A HALF GODDAMN HOURS LONG
I find it terrifying to consider that, ten or even five years ago, I would have had absolutely no hesitation in writing this post. I mean, of course if I’m doing a retrospective on WW2 animation shorts I’d look at Nazi animation. Why wouldn’t I? The Nazis were, after all, kinda involved in the Second World War, right?
But that would have been in a simpler time when it seemed obvious that, whatever else we might disagree on, we were all more or less on the same “Nazis are bad” page (it’s a good page, nice font, excellent paper quality, highly recommended). But then…
Well, it’s been a year. That it has.
So yes, I did honestly consider scrapping this portion of the series but ultimately I decided against it. One of the goals of the Mouse Goes to War series is to inform and I’ve always believed that knowledge is not dangerous, only ignorance. And today’s short is a fascinating demonstration as to how fascist themes and messages can be worked into seemingly benign texts.
Just in case that becomes a useful skill at some point in the future.
Since starting this blog I’ve reviewed just north of 150 animated films. I’ve been an avid fan of animation from literally before I could talk. I have watched thousands upon thousands of hours of animation in my lifetime.
Nimbus Libéré (“Nimbus Released”) is the worst cartoon I’ve ever seen and it’s not even close. If Foodfight!was a perfect 0, Nimbus Libéré is a minus googol. In every technical area, animation, sound, writing, it’s abysmal. In style, it is repellent. In intent, it is pure evil.
English language sources on the cartoon’s origins are thin on the ground and to be honest, I can’t even say for certain whether it was first screened in 1943 or 1944 (going by the subject matter, I’d guess early to mid ’44). Although credited to “Cal”, it was the work of Raymond Jeannin, a young French animator in his twenties whose two surviving works are Libéré and La Nuit Enchanté(“The Enchanted Night”).
La Nuit Enchanté is a fairly terrible mish-mash of awful animation and swiped character designs (Jeannin’s moderate talent in aping other people’s designs were probably what got him roped into doing Nimbus). But it’s not fascist. I mean, there are some deeply uncomfortable racist stereotypes but, if I’m honest, nothing noticeably worse than what Warners was doing at the time and we don’t go around calling Tex Avery and Chuck Jones Nazis.
Momotarō the Peach Boy is a popular Japanese folk character who’s been round since the Edo period. Story goes, childless couple see a peach floating down the river, they open it up and inside is a baby who’s been gifted to them by Heaven. The boy grows older, goes on a quest, meets a monkey, dog and pheasant and they all team up to kick the asses of some local demons. It’s a really cool little fable, equal parts Moses, Superman, Wizard of Oz, you can definitely see why it’s remained so popular down through the centuries. And then, World War 2 had to come along and ruin everything.
Figuratively and literally.
American cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were hugely popular in Japan in the years leading up to the war, so the Imperial Regime wanted their own cartoon mascot. Momotarō was an obvious choice what with his cute, boyish appearance and cast of animal sidekicks. This led to series of films starring the character directed by Mitsuyo Seo who would go on to be one of the guiding lights of the animé industry after the war. The first of these films was the short Momotarō no Umiwashi (“Momotarō’s Sea Eagles.”) I say “short”, but at 38 minutes that’s really taking the piss. Oh well, at least they didn’t stick it in front of a Pixar movie and make everyone watch it all the way through.
Country of Origin: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics
First Screened: 1941 (Exact date unclear)
All of the shorts we’ve looked at in this series thus far have been propaganda to a greater or lesser extent. But they weren’t just propaganda. American audiences liked their propaganda leavened with comedy or drama or catchy tunes about farting in Hitler’s face. The Russians though? They took their propaganda straight while growling at the bartender to leave the bottle.
The blunt, hammer-blow-to-the-noggin nature of Soviet propaganda is right there in the name of today’s short Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.
So a little background. Jackboots is one the earliest productions of Soyuzmultfilm, the pre-eminent home of Russian animation and screen puppeteering. The studio is still going to this day but its heyday was during the Soviet era where they produced beautiful and beloved animated classics like the Winnie-the Pooh trilogy and Hedgehog in the Fog.
What’s the Russian for “smurges”?
Now keep in mind, I don’t read Russian, so all my information is coming second hand from places like Wikipedia which claims, for instance, that after the fall of the Soviet Union Soyuzmultfilm’s facilities were sold to the Russian Orthodox Church and then promptly burned to the ground by Cossacks who believed that their puppets were animated with the blood of Christian children. And, while anything on the internet originating from Russia should normally be treated as purest truth from the beardy lips of God Himself, I find that a bit hard to swallow.
I mean c’mon, the blood of Christian children hasn’t been used to animate puppets since the late forties.
Anyway, that was all in the future. Although originally based in Moscow, Soyuzmultfilm was evacuated to Samarkand when the Germans invaded and were put to work creating propaganda for the war effort. And one of those films was Fascist Jackboots Shall Not Trample Our Motherland.
After the ugliness and race-baiting of theDucktators, what say we finish our look at American propaganda shorts with something with a little bit of class, by God! Reason and Emotion is a personal favourite of mine, not just because it’s a gorgeous cartoon (although it is) but because it’s that rarest of things, a piece of propaganda that actually appeals to your better nature. Propaganda shorts of this era came in many flavours. Some just plonked existing characters into war-specific settings with little commentary and had them do their thing. Some mocked and belittled the Axis powers to boost morale. And some were designed with an educational thrust to inform the public about a specific topic. In fact, even after the war had ended Disney continued making educational shorts on all kinds of subjects.
Oh yes. This is a real goddamn thing.
Reason and Emotion is, ironically enough, a propaganda short warning of the dangers of propaganda. It effectively and engagingly illustrates how propaganda works on the mind and how demagogues use emotion to suppress reason. For this reason, I almost hesitate to call it propaganda. “Anti-propaganda” might be a better term. The short was released in 1943 to great acclaim and was even nominated for an Academy Award, although it lost to the Tom and Jerry short Yankee Doodle Mouse, the first and last time the Academy ever got something wrong.
I hate to say “They Wuz Robbed” but they totally wuz.
Hey guys, sorry for the missed update. Still up to my furry little armpits in other writing at the moment so I’m afraid the Snow White review is gonna have to be pushed back until next Thursday. By recompense, here is the next of the WW2 propaganda short reviews. Enjoy!
Studio: Warner Bros
Country of Origin: United States
First Screened: August 1, 1942
As I mentioned in my last series of short reviews, you can break down the history of the Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies shorts into four eras roughly corresponding to the nineteen thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. Call them the Poor Man’s Disney, Wiseass Disney, Apex and Nadir eras, respectively. WW2 broke out in the middle of the Wiseass Disney era, where the studio had successfully reinvented itself as the sarcastic, irreverent joker to those squares in Burbank with their high falutin’ ideals of animation being art. While Disney were getting Deems Taylor to introduce abstract animation to the strains of Bach, Warner Bros were slouched in the corner smokin’ ceegars and yellin’ “Ah, yer muddah wears lederhosen!”. The Warner Bros shorts of this era are acclaimed by many fans as the greatest of the series but, with respect, those fans are liars and fools and once grown, their children shall change their names out of shame.
“Mouse, what did we agree?”
“Sigh. No telling people that their children will change their names out of shame just because they disagree with me on the respective merits of different eras of animated shorts in the Warner Bros filmography.”
“You lasted ONE DAY.”
Okay, that’s harsh. There are many fantastic cartoons from this era but, honestly, the shorts from the fifties (including but not limited to What’s Opera Doc, One Froggy Evening and the Hunter Trilogy) leave them in the dirt.
The shorts of the forties had a lot going for them, namely some of the finest animators, directors and voice talent to ever work in the medium, but compared to the later fifties shorts they’re sorely lacking in one thing.
To be blunt, there’s a nastiness to a lot of the Warner Bros shorts of this era, and not just because of the racism (although, jeez louise, it’s like they thought there was an Olympics for racism and they had their heart set on winning gold for their country). Propaganda is dirty business, but some cartoon studios came out a lot cleaner than others, if you catch my drift.
Of all the major American cartoon studios, Warners seemed to succumb to their worst instincts the easiest. Disney, Fleischer et al certainly produced cartoons in this era that make for uncomfortable viewing but Warner’s took it to another level. For a good example, let’s take a look at the Ducktators.
Hi guys! We are now halfway there to getting Mauricio safely out of Venzuela and, as promised, here is the second of the war era animated short reviews. Because you’re all superheroes, and because I thought it might be particularly cathartic right now to watch some Nazis get punched in the face, today we’re looking at one of the Superman shorts from the 1940s. Enjoy, and please consider donating if you haven’t already.
Studio: Famous Studios
Country of Origin: United States
First Screened: March 26, 1943
Recently, the internet came down with a case of the vapours when it was announced by the BBC that the next Doctor would be played by Jodie Whittaker, who has lady bits.
Jolly good, quite right, good idea, quite right, jolly good and not before time. Now, when it comes to Who I haven’t really had skin in the game since Ecclestone left but I’m sure she’ll kill in the part. There have been bad Who writers, bad Who directors and even bad Who seasonsbut they have never cast a bad actor in the lead role (no, not even him) and I doubt very much they’ve started here. But Whittaker’s casting does raise some interesting questions. How will people in the past react to a character whose main defining trait is showing up out of nowhere and bossing everyone around when it’s a woman doing the bossing? How will, say, the Puritans react to this trouser wearing lady with a mysterious blue box and what can only be described as a magic wand? Will every episode of Doctor Who consist of angry peasants trying to ascertain if Jodie Whitaker weighs as much as a duck? It’ll be interesting to see how they handle it.
Of course, the status of women in society has swung wildly upwards and downwards over the millennia depending on the era and society in question. Progress is not a hill, but a rollercoaster. Consider Lois Lane, who, as the perennial love interest of one of the most famous pop-culture icons of the last century has had an unbroken presence in various media for almost eight decades now, and so represents a useful yardstick for the portrayal and status of women in American culture. In the Silver Age, this was Lois Lane.
The fifties saw Lois’ role as a daring and accomplished journalist minimised to almost nothing so that she could engage in an unending spiteful love rivalry with Lana Lang over who could dupe Superman into marrying her first. It was a terrible time to be a woman in America, and it was a terrible time to be Lois Lane.
Contrast this with a decade earlier, where we find Lois Lane wasting bitches with an uzi.
“Take that ya rat bastards! When you get to hell, tell em Lois sent ya!”
World War 2 brought huge advances both for women and minorities because America had to either make the most use of every available person regardless of race or gender or risk total defeat to the forces of fascism and America was all “Ugh, fine.” You see this in the Fleischer (later Famous) studios Superman shorts with their depiction of Lois Lane, still one of the finest interpretations of the character three quarters of a century later. And possibly the character’s finest hour is today’s short, Jungle Drums.
We’re two days into our fundraiser to get Mauricio the fruck out of Veneuzuela and we’re already one third funded! So, to say thanks, I’m publishing the first of the War Era Short reviews which I was originally going to put up in September. I’ll publish another when we get to €500 and a third when we’re fully funded. And if you haven’t contributed already, please consider doing so. And if money’s tight, please help spread the word by sharing the GoFundMe page. Actually, do that anyway.
Both Mauricio and I could not be more grateful,
Studio: Walt Disney Productions
Country of Origin: United States
First Screened: January 1st, 1943
Ugh. Ugh! A review of World War 2 shorts that includes Der Fuehrer’s Face. How obvious. How predictable. How vulgar. How basic.
But there’s really no way you can’t talk about this, one of the most controversial of all American animated shorts made during the war years (and hoo boy is that up against some stiff competition!). So let’s state three things straight up front.
1) Yes, this is the cartoon where Donald Duck yells “Heil Hitler!” 33 times (also known as “a full Bannon”.)
2) Notwithstanding that, it’s a really, really good short.
3) Actually, in context, it’s probably less offensive than pretty much any other short we’ll be reviewing as part of this series.
When I announced this series, I posted this image of a saber wielding Donald leading a battalion of cartoon critters into battle against the forces of the Third Reich.
There were no survivors.
Some of you very astutely spotted something rather weird with this picture: How prominent Donald is, how de-emphasised Mickey is (he is driving a tank waaaaaaaaay in the background in case you missed him) and how “not there” Goofy is.
It suddenly struck me that I’d never seen a Disney short from the war years that featured either Mickey or Goofy, while I’d seen plenty that featured Donald as well as Huey, Dewey and Louie. So why were the ducks so heavily featured? I resolved to find the answer and embarked on an epic quest across the internet. I consulted Wikipedia. I consulted Quora. God help me and forgive me my sins, I consulted Reddit. And after all that research, do you want to know what I found?
Frustrating and unsatisfying as it might be, from what I can gather the answer to the question “Why did Disney use Donald Duck so heavily in their propaganda and not Mickey and Goofy” the answer appears to be “’Cos they…just…did.” I can offer a few theories, though. At this point in history Donald Duck was cresting in popularity whereas Mickey was already yesterday’s news so his reduced role could simply be a reflection of the fact that he just wasn’t drawing the crowds any more. Goofy was still very much a star, though, which makes his absence quite baffling. The only clue as to why this might be is that Pinto Colvig, Goofy’s voice actor, and Walt had fallen out by this point. Goofy had thus been transitioned into the “How to…” series of cartoons where Goofy doesn’t speak and instead follows the instructions of a suave narrator. These cartoons were very popular so Disney may have simply decided to use the ducks for their propaganda shorts rather than tampering with a formula that was working by sending Goofy into the army.