Registering the Registry 2021: Flowers & Trees (1932)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! This week, it’s time for the Library of Congress to scratch Disney’s back after going without a Disney animated feature for the first time in ages last year, with the first of two works by the studio! The first cartoon in three-strip Technicolor and a long-celebrated highlight of their Silly Symphony series, it’s Flowers & Trees! Limber up and dance on down to learn more!
Let’s set the stage for this one good ’n’ proper, shall we? S’early 1932, and Walt Disney’s doing pretty well for himself. He’s some three years removed from Steamboat Willie, the Mickey Mouse cartoons are consistently the most popular short subject releases of the month, and the Silly Symphony line of cartoons started in ’29 are making respectable bank as well. Competition only exists to a negligible degree: the Fleischers at Paramount have yet to license Popeye or pair Betty Boop with Cab Calloway, the Harman-Ising team at Warner Bros are turning out toons of pretty dire quality compared to what Chuck Jones and Tex Avery will bring in future decades, Ub Iwerks isn’t doing too hot at MGM after bouncing from Disney’s company, and Walter Lantz’s Universal-bound attempts at spinning gold out of stolen Disney creation Oswald the Lucky Rabbit are falling flat. Van Beuren’s paltry efforts, Charles Mintz’s Screen Gems, Terrytoons? May as well not exist at this stage, they’re so little threat to the early Mouse dominance. Course, even a man with as shockingly little business sense as ol’ Walter Elias must know standing still and resting on your laurels is the quickest path to death in any competitive industry — the entire cartoon business almost stagnated into obsolescence before he and his saw the revolution coming and worked out good synchronized sound tech for animated shorts before anyone else. A constant stream of Mickey romps and funny characters dancing to the beat of licensed songs won’t do forever. If the Walt Disney Company is to survive and keep expanding, they need a new cutting edge going forward.
Enter Herbert Kalmus, owner and founder of Technicolor SA. As we’ve previously discussed with the first live-action feature to boast the classic three-strip process — achieved not by tinting frames after capture or adding color through the projection process, but using a prismatic beam splitter while filming to expose three separate film reels to specific wavelengths of light and cause their specially treated chemicals to fade according with the CMY color model, producing a combined one-reel final image superior in fidelity to real life over any prior method — Technicolor’s strides towards this breakthrough technology took the better part of fifteen years’ experimentation with various two-strip models. Thus, by the time they had a viable product ready for bargaining and distribution, the American film industry had fallen hard down the Great Depression same as everyone else. The majority of studios producing live-action films considered base survival more important than topping the arrival of sound film with another medium-reshaping technical revolution, and near anyone else with a cartoon division looked on the endeavor as a side business, something cheap and easy and simple compared to the headaches of live studio production, however little this aligned with the reality of actually MAKING cartoons. Walt Disney, though, he only did cartoons, and he was looking for a way to ensure a leg-up on his competitors, AND a distributor switch from Columbia to United Artists ensured higher, plenty comfortable budgets to spend on big ticket risks like this. In no time Disney and Kalmus entered into a three-year exclusivity contract, forcing all competitors to stick with inferior two-strip color film processes from either Technicolor or a competitor, or just chug on in black and white as always. No possible losing under these conditions!
…so, also naturally, good Uncle Walt did his damndest to ensure the thing would fail. It just isn’t a major Disney signal to the rest of the industry that he’s about to change the game without him making stupid business decisions and nearly sinking his company in the process — hello there Snow White, Fantasia, Cinderella, Disneyland, Disney TV acquisitions, and Sleeping Beauty. Namely, Walt opted not to commission a new cartoon in Technicolor, but instead chose a Silly Symphony short already deep in production, pegged it as ideal for color film, and ordered the whole thing scrapped and restarted with the Technicolor cameras in mind. This massively ballooned the budget to the point of straining the studio’s yearly earnings, putting them so deep in debt only elevation to the single biggest smash animated hit in years could save them from bankruptcy. Because Walt Disney apparently liked to challenge God from atop high places in the middle of thunderstorms and somehow walked away unscathed every single time, Flowers & Trees therefore proved the biggest animated hit of 1932, earning critical acclaim, audience adoration, and the inaugural Academy Award for Best Cartoon Short Subject (now Best Animated Short Film). Turns out painting moving pictures with a palette reasonably comparable to real life when everyone’s still in grayscale earns you loads’ve moolah, whodathunkit.
(Testament to Mickey Mouse’s popularity: Walt ordered the entire Silly Symphony line converted into color overnight after Flowers & Trees, while he opted to let his son remain in black and white until the exclusivity contract ran out, reasoning Mickey would remain unchallenged in all this time regardless the color of the films… and it turned out he was right.)
‘Fore we get to the cartoon itself, gotta let one more item play on the newsreel, just like in the ol’ theater days: our director today is one Burt Gillett, among Disney’s earliest hires and an interesting figure in his own right. Originally a newspaperman turned gun-for-hire at animation studios across the 1920s, Gillett came aboard the studio in 1929 when the massive success of Steamboat Willie made expansion beyond Disney, Ub Iwerks, Les Clark, and and Wilfred Jackson financially feasible, and though he started as an animator under Disney’s direction for most of the year, the final month saw him take his first directing job with the Mickey Mouse short Wild Waves. The next few years found Gillett in ascendency at the company, becoming the main director of Mickey cartoons while Iwerks and later Jackson took main duties on the Silly Symphonies. Gillett himself helmed a small number of the Symphonies, however, and it was here he made his greatest successes out of 48 directing jobs for the studio, releasing both Flowers & Trees and The Three Little Pigs to high profits, public delight, and Academy Awards. Such accomplishments resulted in him departing Disney entirely in 1934 to head the animation department at the Van Beuren Corporation, a now largely-forgotten player in the 30s animation scene — forgotten in part thanks to Gillett. Outside the Disney corporate structure, Gillett’s constantly fluctuating emotional state (supposedly brought on by heavy drinking and rumored bipolar disorder) gave rise to a combative environment, one in which he failed to provide employees clear direction on his vision during cartoon production, engendered hostile relations by hiring buddies from Disney and lecturing previous hires on the superiority of his old studio’s craft, and constantly harassing and firing anyone he remotely suspected as involved in unionization efforts. Measurable improvements to the quality of the studio’s output despite all this didn’t matter much when existing problems with unoriginality and lacking mass appeal were left unaddressed. Everything ended in the studio’s 1936 failure as distributor RKO dropped them in favor of an exclusive deal with Disney. Although he’d briefly return to the House of Mouse late in the decade (resulting in fan favorite short Lonesome Ghosts among others), Gillett left the animation business entirely by 1940. Not the happiest tale, but as I say, interesting and worth a telling.
Still, most of this is future talk relative to our current position. Let’s hunker down to look at Flowers & Trees in depth, shall we? From the jump, it’s easy to understand why this little romp of anthropomorphized flora and fauna going about morning routines and romance until an old withering tree interrupts proceeds with swordfighting and flame was seen as such a major leap forward on release. Previous additive and subtractive methods of producing color film alike often lacked a core color necessary for representing a full rage, most often blue, rendering outdoor sequences fairly unnatural or heavily compromised, skies and waters approximated with weird green or gray shades. Technicolor’s new cameras meant you could now reproduce all the colors of the rainbow with particular vibrancy and match them to the appropriate subjects, making a pastoral setting such as this immediately appealing. Right away you’ve not only clear sky blue in the background near constantly, but a wide variety of healthy greens and browns in both backdrops and central tree characters, complimented by splashes of light oranges and yellows on the mushrooms, flowers, and caterpillar characters. Strong red and orange tones actually stay out of the picture until the fire starts, at which point animate flames with little feet dart around their raging shapeless brethren to dominate the screen while leaving all other colors to coexist as an overwhelmed group in the background. Pure red is wholly absent outside a few small splashes on some briefly glimpsed vulture necks, even failing to appear on the oddly-ordered rainbow at the end, which makes a funny tidbit when you remember the most famous Technicolor showcase involved turning book Dorothy’s silver slippers ruby for the movie. Begrudge not the absence of one famous shade, though, for the range and interaction of colors here represent the first time anyone in its day saw a believable, and moreover charming watercolor and celluloid approximation of nature in vibrant motion in the moviehouse, and that ain’t nothin’.
With regards to those elements which would come across much the same regardless color — characters, animation quality, story — Flowers & Trees marks an notable half-step between the Silly Symphonies’ initial intent as demonstrations of sound synch tech with simple looping dances and the later internal reframing as a test kitchen for concepts and techniques Disney would synthesize into Snow White. The structure starts with the sort of thing you’d expect from the early days, the sun dawning and funny little plant creatures going about their routines. Mushrooms exercise by flexing their caps up and down their stalks, stick-bodied flowers frolic and scrub their “teeth” in a puddle, a bug showers beneath a non-sentient lily. Trees who serve as our protagonists take a central role, yet stick to the usual routines: a male-coded tree with a choppy leafcut strings out a harp on a nonmoving comrade, prompting his pom-pomed lady companion to sway and twirl and a matronly shrub to conduct her bird choir. Romance and conflict enter the scene at the same time, though, as the flowers bring the lover trees into closer contact and encourage a playful game of keep-away, while a gnarled tree from a dead grove with a lizard for his tongue tries to swipe the lady tree for himself, first ineffectually missing, then actively dragging her away. A quick and humiliating branchy swordfight later, the gnarled tree turns to spite, sparking a fire capable of chewing through him easily as anyone else and shifting the short into a mode of panic with mild tones of mischief, an evolution capped by the local birds grouping into a heroic flying formation and puncturing the clouds to unleash salving rain.
In function, I’m inclined to call this more a shift between types of whimsical dance and activity than a fully-fledged cinematic story like the next year’s Three Little Pigs or latter-period works like The Golden Touch or The Ugly Duckling. Flowers & Trees is marked by the same trend you can observe in many of Gillett’s surrounding works for the studio (previous B&W Symphony Just Dogs featuring Pluto’s first solo outing, following and final B&W Symphony Bugs in Love, first produced-entirely-in-color Symphony King Neptune, and even contemporary Mickey romp Mickeys Nightmare), one of largely ineffectual protagonists. The male-coded tree may get a sparring match with his gnarled foe around halfway through, but once the fire sparks both he and his lady love are trapped in one spot, flailing against the flames to no avail. Gillett and his animators shift their focus towards the other forest inhabitants’ reaction to the blaze, which does balm any complaints about the main trees losing focus by reminding us Disney produced some of the industry’s strongest animated gags at the day. There’s good stuff like a pine tree who morphs into the profile of a mother hen and scuttles along keeping her baby pines beneath her “skirts,” bellflowers turning into binoculars before ringing out alarm, sunflowers acting as spinning sprinklers, a tree leaping out of his bark pants as they burn to ash before hopping into a convenient new pair in the lake, and (my personal favorite) the caterpillar comprised of little ball shapes gradually separating as he puts on speed until his head doubles back to shove the rest of his body along even faster. Still, as with Pluto hiding from an alarm clock, the lover bug getting stuck in an eye dropper, Neptune tangled in chains, and Mickey being entirely helpless before a throng of his imagined progeny, the lover trees are entirely out of focus as we watch the forest spring into collective action, and only snap back for a mock wedding ceremony after the evil tree’s actions lead to his convenient and unmourned destruction.
This does raise some unexpected questions about the place of singular protagonists vs larger collectives as driving narrative forces in a visual medium, whether truisms about artforms like literature or still painting really are better at conveying agency for the throngs in their multitudes or whether movies truly are best off letting individualistic forces dominate and drive. Rather than get lost on philosophizing the point, though, I’ll be practical and merely say this Silly Symphony and its surrounding contemporaries play as transitional works in what we can now identify as the road to Disney’s real endgame of animation as an equal narrative medium to live-action. There’s a throughline of intent to give the romance priority, and action taken in retaliation against its unshakable bond triggers a shift in pallet, tone, and focus, without letting the initially designated protagonist or love interest take any proactive part in solving the fire. The shape of Pinocchios and Bambis to come is there without the particulars of refinement or a complete breakaway from dancing and gagwork as central concerns. Y’ask me, King Neptune does it better by reversing the formula, bringing the antagonism in early and initially letting the hordes of cartoon creatures do the fighting to no real avail before the title character frees himself and effortlessly demolishes his quarry, even if I maintain the uninterrupted pure blues and greens of nautical environments don’t demonstrate the benefits of Technicolor half so well as the blended color choices here.
Now, if you’ll excuse some animation geekery before we get to wrapping our affairs today, there are a few tidbits I want to get out in unsorted, unproductive order. If it weren’t obvious from the Sleeping Beauty and Shrek reviews, my brain tends to produce more thoughts and observations about animation than can reasonably fit in a conventional essay structure!
- Nobody on the animation team seems to have possessed the slightest idea or agreement on how to make the trees walk, as sometimes they slide around with amorphous globs for feet, sometimes there’s detail work to show their roots breaking from and reentering the ground, and sometimes they’ve completely normal feet, with no consistency.
- The attention to detail when the lady tree powders herself with a daffodil and her reflection in the pool has softer linework and colors is very nice.
- Our evil tree shifts his design throughout according to his menace, starting with harder shadows at his borders and little sharp fangs before his defeat transforms him into lighter tones and buckteeth, and the moment when the animate flames leap upon his back finds him completely cartoony and nonthreatening, even comically pitiable.
- I ADORE the confluence of the gnarled tree engineering his own downfall by using a weapon just as likely to consume him as anyone else, and the last little hotfoot taking shelter under a leaf until his flame burns through the underside and releases the water pooled above, extinguishing him.
- No matter how many times old school Disney used the idea of an owl’s neck extending and balding as his body comically inflates and deflates with each hoot, I never grow tired or find it any less amusing.
- Someone please tell me if I’m crazy seeing this: the sunflowers are designed with big round eyes, all-black faces, and overlarge white lips, and they spend a not inconsiderable amount of the short dancing as accessories to the trees and providing service by arranging themselves into a bouquet. If there IS anything to it, it’s the most benign example I’ve ever seen, but I’ve watched a good deal of early Disney cartoons, and it dawns on me the flowers are drawn with a fair deal of similarity to other characters who are 100% meant as animated blackface. Am I off the mark on this? Sound off in the comments.
All round, Flowers & Trees likely deserved its contemporary big wins with audiences and critics alike. The simple addition of color really does give it a leg up over earlier Silly Symphonies from the year, some of which feel like the animators and background artists are yearning for the extra level of detail afforded by tones outside the grayscale, and it certainly flies heads and shoulders over the competition the Academy chose. I will always maintain there were only other nominees that year to make the first Best Cartoon a competitive category rather than an honorary award, because Mickey’s Orphans is a fun if typical “make a bunch of little guys cause mayhem while a big guy stops them hurting themselves” runaround, and It’s Got Me Again from Harman-Ising at Warner Bros. is an outright Silly Symphony clone with imperfect Mickey duplicates dancing in limited number and motion before an extremely distressing cat comes along to provide inadequate menace. There’s even something special about it if you go forward in time a few years to 1935, when Gillett was at Van Beuren with plenty ex-Disney animators under his employ and full freedom to use further-advanced Technicolor to his heart’s content: a short like Molly Moo-Cow & the Indians is already heavily limited in modern appeal thanks to its racial stereotypes, and bungles further with a generic protagonist, slow gags, an uncertain story structure, and a far duller, less delineated use of color.
For myself I prefer King Neptune as a short — give me whirlybird octopi and Neptune wrecking pirates with his trident any day! Flowers & Trees got across the line first, though, and won the acclaim in its day, and rightfully so. We can and should despise Walt Disney with all our hearts for the way he mistreated his employees, his union-busting, his years of falsely identifying people he didn’t like as communists, and the empire of art-killing corporate scumbaggery he left as a legacy… but darn it, when he was at his peak, scanning the horizon for new opportunity and selecting talent who could wring it out into the finest form possible, he really did have a rare gift in his mind. Call his existence a mixed blessing. Nonstop reshaping a quintessentially 20th century medium, heirs and successors who’d rather nobody but them succeed in said medium come the 21st.
Everyone loves a good cartoon, or leastways everyone worth engaging in conversation! What’d you lot think this week? Any observations about Flowers & Trees or the numerous other cartoons mentioned this week? Thoughts on Disney’s influence over the American animation market? Hash it out in the comments, and keep your eyes peeled for the next installment? We’re skipping over the 40s to hit 1951, where Alfred Hitchcock adapted Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel of murder, guilt, and homoeroticism for the screen, and began his incredibly prosperous collaboration with cinematographer Robert Burks. Starring Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, and Robert Walker in the final completed role before his death, it’s Strangers on a Train, which you can find through all the usual digital distributors to rent or own. Catch you two weeks hence!