12/5/1936 (according to the unreliable IMDb, and most other Internet sources)
A crappy-quality 1990s colorized version of this cartoon can be seen HERE, as part of a collection on archive.org. Thanks to reader "clark" for spotting this version. Due to WB's recent pogroms of their classic cartoons from YouTube, it's newly hard to see many of these early pieces.
This brings up an unavoidable pre-essay thought. It seems ridiculous to me that so many corporate copyright holders (a) have no interest in preserving or making available their archives and (b) strive so hard to keep people from seeing their holdings. This goes for the major music moguls, all movie studios, and book publishers. They seem stubbornly resistant to the fact that there IS interest in this stuff, and that, if they made even the feeblest attempt to offer it publicly, it would be greeted with positive response, which would, in turn, make the greedy gits look good (or as close to good as they might ever appear).
It seems to me that a win-win situation for these monoliths is to let this stuff stay up on YouTube, etc., in the belief that it will create a new market for these vintage pieces. If/when a legal, official version is commercially released, they'd have every right to crack down on poachers. If they only want to hoard these gems, and keep people from seeing them, then they're going to look like selfish, arrogant jerks.
End of soapbox sermon. Now, on with the show...
Note the name of Carl W. Stalling on the credits above. His succession to the role of musical director for the Schlesinger cartoons was a major step towards greatness for this studio. Norman Spencer, to be fair, was a decent m.d. for the WB cartoons. His scores have a sense of musicianship, wit and playfulness.
Stalling, even in 1936, operated on a higher plane than any other animation m.d. (and, arguably, was on par with the best live-action music men in Hollywood). His precision, sensitivity to the directors' personalities--particularly to their sense of comic timing--and his open ear to a vast songbook of popular, folk, jazz and world music pieces, gave the Schlesinger cartoons a powerful edge and brought them one step closer to their golden age.
Avery's previous cartoon, Porky the Rainmaker, played with the device of an off-screen narrator. Our hero obviously felt this motif was worth further exploration. This time, the omniscient narrator (beautifully voiced by Earle Hodgins) extensively interacts with the events and characters.
While the cartoon itself is slight, though full of characterization, Smithy's main claim to fame is its intrusive/intrinsic narrator. At cartoon's start, Hodgins recites the familiar sing-song lines of the poem, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 96 years before this cartoon was made.
As Hodgins narrates, the individual elements of the poem fall in place, from the sky. The spreading chestnut tree...
The village smithy...
The smithy is a lovely example of Avery's rounded, deco-ish cartoon art style.
Hodgins continues... "the village smithy stands."
"I said, 'stands.' Stand up, you lug..."
"The smith, a mighty man is he, with large and sinewy hands..."
"...and the muscles on his brawny arms are as strong as iron bands..."
"No, NO! 'Strong as iron bands!"
"And now, the blacksmith shop..."
"And children coming home from school look in at the open door..."
"They love to see the flaming forge..."
"and hear the bellows roar."
The extras are by now getting into their parts a bit too much. Hodgins shoos them away. They leave resentfully. The taller fellow with the hat angrily kicks an old tin can towards the screen. All murmur in dissent as they stomp off-camera.
This was one of Avery's true gifts as a humorist. He could do something outrageous, almost avant-garde, and grease it up just enough that it can pass through the viewer's consciousness, and get them to accept some mighty wild notions, before they even realize what's happened.
Back to our poem proper...
"Week in, week out, from morn 'til night, you can hear his bellows blow..."
"Listen, chief, take it easy. We got plenty of time... this cartoon ain't half over yet!"
This brave outburst causes Big Lug to lose his prime position in The Village Smithy. Hodgins immediately introduces "our hero," as the camera pans towards Porky Pig. Porky gets a triumphant flourish of brass as he acknowledges the acclaim.
the blacksmith shop...
And, oh, yes, the horse. "Where did we put that horse..." Porky and Big Lug search fruitlessly around their immediate whereabouts, as if the animal is under that magazine, or that half-barrel....
Big Lug gently, thoughtfully removes the horse from its harness...
and leads him over to an ersatz shoe store, complete with a Brannock device.
|"Size six an' seven eighths!"|
No description is needed for the events of this sequence, which are Jones' show all the way (with expert timing on Avery's behalf).
(chirp, chirp, chirp...)
Well, the first one's pretty mild, but it does establish that Lug and horse are at a dangerous pace.
Big Lug reflects on the situation...
|what a buggy ride!"|
Here, Avery makes a big deal of showing us the insane sequence we've just seen in reverse. Big Lug gets to recite his "buggy ride" comment backwards, and we get the payoff to the business with the ditch-digger.
|"Am I missing something?"|
|"Tell me how all dis happened!"|
best behavior not to be.The Disney influence, by 1936, demanded that a short cartoon be more civilized. Although Disney’s shorts avoided strong narratives (to put it politely), they tried, via cartoons such as Mickey's Trailer and Moving Day, to cater to the strictures of their highly popular but limited characters, while attempting to make lively cartoons. In those two instances, they mostly succeeded, but they had to do it the hard way.
The Disney cartoons' complex set-pieces, with many moving parts, didn't always congeal, as in Hawaiian Holiday or Clock Cleaners. Avery showed a way chaos and characterization could be wed, with more modest tools. In 1936, he was still ahead of the curve. Cute trumped clever. This would be Avery's call to arms for the remainder of his time at the Schlesinger studio.
Smithy is as deterministically plotless as the average mid-1930s Mickey Mouse cartoon. Because it has spent its first three minutes rewarding our intelligence--our ability to absorb its constant, willful smashing of the fourth wall--we react more forgivingly and charitably to the formless slapstick that ends this film.
Though lacking in significant narrative events, Smithy shows Avery's embrace of character quirks, and that he was ready to knock all cartoon conventions on their collective ear, while inventing new ones on the fly. That he has Carl Stalling to support and enhance his exciting new ideas brings him one significant step closer to perfecting his early style of animated comedy.
Musical Note: After the 15th viewing of this cartoon, as I worked on this essay, I noticed another curious link to the Fleischer cartoons. Stalling uses a piece of music that recurs in the rare and remarkable 1931 "Bimbo" cartoon The Ace of Spades. That theme can be heard in the opening credits of the Fleischer cartoon, and in a few spots in Smithy's score, including the "That's All Folks" sign-off. There's no significance otherwise... I'm curious to know more about this charming piece of music, which may be called "I'm Wild About The Sunny South."
The study of classic cartoons also offers an education in American music and 20th century history. There is much to be mined from these animated films, above and beyond their obvious charms.
NEXT: Milk And Money
Thanks to Thad Komorowski for providing me with a copy of this genuinely hard-to-see cartoon, and to Keith Scott for his help in identifying the voice talent therein!
* Yes, nit-pickers, I know this wasn't Carl Stalling's first WB cartoon score, but it was his first for Avery. Thus the "introducing" in the title...