Reviews: Aesop's Fables from the Van Beuren Studio, Volume 1
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Aesop's Fables from the Van Beuren Studio: Volume 1

DVD Review by Pietro Shakarian
July 21, 2005

Thunderbean Animation and Steve Stanchfield have produced a handful of notable DVD compilations between 2004 and 2005. The latest release, however, is probably one of his best. Aesop's Fables from the Van Beuren Studio, Vol. 1 is an enthralling look at the early sound cartoons produced by the Van Beuren studio during the late 1920s and early 1930s. The copies used on this disc, sourced from 35mm and 16mm prints, look and sound better than the original release. Mr. Stanchfield has gone to great lengths to restore or recreate the titles these cartoons had been originally seen with. The bonus features only further enhance this extraordinary DVD. On the whole, this is one compilation that every serious collector should own.

Noah Knew His Ark

Paul Terry initiated the Fables series in 1921 under his new studio, "Fable Studios, Inc." The series became an instant success with both audiences and the contemporary media. It was not only the cartoons that they enjoyed, but also the ambiguously funny morals included at the end of each short. Under Terry, the series was produced at breakneck speed, one new cartoon released each week for eight years.

In 1928, Terry faced pressure from his superior, Amadee J. Van Beuren, to add sound to his films. Van Beuren noticed the success of The Jazz Singer released the previous year, and believed that sound would further enhance the product of Terry's cartoons. Reluctantly, Terry agreed and released the first post-synchronized cartoon, Dinner Time, to the public on September 1, 1928. Unfortunately, the film did not gain much recognition and audiences seemed to favor Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie, released two months later, instead. Terry eventually left Van Beuren and was replaced by John Foster. The studio name was also changed from "Fables Studios" to "The Van Beuren Corporation". Under Foster, the Fables series continued until its demise in 1933. All the while, Foster and his colleagues produced some of the strangest American animated cartoons of the early sound era.

Two frames from 'Happy Polo'

The first cartoon on this disc is Happy Polo (1932). The short stars Milton Mouse, an expert polo player who comes to the rescue of his girl, Rita, who has been abducted by Waffles the Cat. No director is credited for this cartoon and the style of film is much different than that of other Fables released during this time. Happy Polo is actually a sound reissue of The Polo Match, a 1929 Aesop's Fable directed by Terry. Nobody really knows why it was reissued, though some speculate that it was needed to fill Van Beuren's yearly production quota. Polo Match does surprisingly well as a sound cartoon. The combination of Frank Moser's sharp animation and Gene Rodemich's energetic score just clicks. The moral that audiences originally saw on The Polo Match was snipped from the reissue print. Fortunately, Match's original copyright description has recorded it for posterity: "Many a red lip has driven away the blues."

The Iron Man

When Foster assumed Terry's duties on the Fables series in 1929, one of the first obligations he had was to complete several unfinished Terry shorts. One of these cartoons, Summertime (1929), is included on this disc. The short features Farmer Al Falfa, a regular character in the Fables series, whose mixed drink is destroyed by a band of ruthless mice. These events result in a caper during which the farmer is chased by an angry goat! Foster also changed the style of the morals; they are now animated. The moral here is "Hair, brains, and skirts are short this season."

The third short on this disc is The Iron Man (1930), another post-Terry cartoon featuring Farmer Al Falfa, who was retired from the Fables series after Terry began to argue for the character's rights. The cartoon begins with the disgruntled farmer chasing a couple of his chickens up a tree. When the old coot climbs up on the branch, he begins to saw away. Instead of the branch falling, the tree falls, completely defying the law of gravity. Old Al manages to safely descend, suspended in mid-air. However, as soon as the farmer gracefully touches the ground, the branch comes clunking down on his head. The farmer then receives a robot, and for no particular reason, begins to dance in unison with him. Eventually, Al kicks the bucket of bolts in the rear. Then, the mechanical creature begins to swell enormously until he explodes! Overall, Iron Man is perhaps one of the oddest, non-sequitur pieces that the Van Beuren studio ever produced.

The Haunted Ship

The Haunted Ship (1930), follows next. This bizarre cartoon is the first cartoon to pair Waffles the Cat, now a nervous wreck, with the deadpan Don Dog, who later evolved into the human versions of Tom and Jerry. There was no moral here, but by this time Foster completely cut them from the series. However, he included many surreal moments, including a quartet of drunk turtles who sing "Sweet Adeline". Noah Knew His Ark (1930) is presented in a magnificent print, comparable to none other seen by this writer. It appears to be a remake of Ship Ahoy, released five months earlier. There are some gags and reused animations here – like the small skunk's boat being tied by a long rope to the ship. Still, it's an enjoyable, though slightly peculiar cartoon. A Romeo Robin (1930) uses different titles than the previous shorts on this disc. Robin also seems to center around musical numbers as opposed to knockabout gag situations as in previous cartoons. In this writer's opinion, it really is not one of the best Van Beuren shorts, but the print is nothing short of spectacular. Most copies of Robin circulating among collectors today have horrible off-synch soundtracks. The new Thunderbean print not only has perfectly synchronized sound, but also astounding picture quality.

Hot Tamale

Next up is Hot Tamale (1930) featuring Milton Mouse. The viewer will notice how times and styles changed since The Polo Match, released the previous year. While Frank Moser's style of animating is traditionally angular, Foster's style, by contrast, is more round. Even in early silent Fables, such as The Honor Man (also known as Short Vacation), Foster's style can be easily identified. Once Terry and Moser left the studio and Foster was put in charge, he began refining his style to make his characters look even rounder. Unfortunately, this fate befell Milton Mouse, whose new look (and striking resemblance to Disney's Mickey Mouse), ultimately triggered a lawsuit. Although Hot Tamale is not the best example of one of Foster's Milton-turned-Mickey cartoons, it's still a rare short and worth watching.

The cartoon that follows, Gypped in Egypt (also 1930), is considered a cult classic among both animation buffs and historians. When Waffles and Don are trapped in a barren desert and begin to hallucinate, Van Beuren's surrealism reaches its peak of utter bizarreness. Egypt has everything from a talking Sphinx to spooky specters and the print used here is the best available. The next cartoon is Makin' 'em Move (1931) – commonly seen as its Official Films reissue, In A Cartoon Studio. An interesting note about this short is that it lampoons the animation production process. Perhaps the most amusing part of it is the cartoon-within-a-cartoon that the studio of barnyard animals created!

Toy Time

The next short, The Family Shoe (1931), is less innovative. It's basically the story of the Old Woman in the Shoe badly merged with Jack and the Beanstalk. Needless to say, it does not work. This is sad because this is one of the better-animated Fables of its time. Unfortunately, Nacio Brown's "The Woman in the Shoe" is only used during the short's beginning – Rodemich might have done wonders with it. The Cat's Canary (1932) also has a "mashed together" plot. Waffles consumes a canary and finds himself unable to speak outside of the bird's chirpings. The plot quickly heads downward as Waffles and a group of other fellow felines attempt to serenade a girl cat. Waffles ends up somehow getting the bird out of his system, but in the end the canary's fellow foul all beat up on the cat.

Next comes Toy Time (1932), a much better film than the previous two, in fact, it's one of the best on the entire disc. The cartoon commences as Oscar, a mouse who lives in a toy shop, decides to go out for a good time with his girlfriend, Suzy. The music pieces on the film, "Siamesische Wachtparade" and "Siamese Patrol", run smoothly with the animation. The designs of the mice are not the Mickey-Minnie knock-offs that Foster used on Milton and Rita two years earlier, but rather they bring to mind earlier mouse designs of the silent Fables.

Fly Frolic (1932) is next. The short is just one in a series of insect cartoons produced by the Van Beuren studio – the others being The Fly Guy and Fly Hi (both 1931). This one is the best. The sinister Jekyll/Hyde spider sings Cab Calloway's "Kickin' the Gong Around", likely a Fleischer influence, in smooth animation. Frank Tashlin animated some scenes in this one. The print used on this disc, sourced from an original 35mm nitrate print, excels above all the rest in both picture and sound. The Farmerette (1932) is a less-inspired confection. A Depression-struck farm is put back on its feet by a shapely cat girl. However, she is a bit too shapely. In fact, outside of species, she appears to be an outright copy of Fleischer's Betty Boop – even Bonnie Poe, one of the original "boop-oop-a-doop" girls prior to Mae Questel provides her voice. There is also a rather lengthy farm sequence that appears to have been directly lifted from an earlier Fable cartoon, Farm Foolery (1930), right down to the film's original soundtrack. Overall, the short leaves something to be desired.

'Chinese Jinks' reuses animation from 'Laundry Blues'

Chinese Jinks (1932) features improved backgrounds and layouts. The animation seems more round and smooth in contrast to Farmette. However, this is soon interrupted by a crude sequence taken from another early Fable, Laundry Blues (1930). The cartoon's hero, a dog sailor, is reminiscent of Fleischer's 1930 design of Bimbo. However strange, Jinks is still a very pleasing cartoon.

The last cartoon this disc is Silvery Moon (1933) – usually seen as Candy Land. Especially interesting was the fact that the "Siamese Patrol" sequence from Toy Time was actually reused here! Still, Moon is a very enjoyable film to watch.

Finally, the bonus features are terrific. Mr. Stanchfield outdid himself here! There is lots of great stuff here for die-hard collectors to enjoy. Everything from the 1931 Aesop's Fables book, to an advertisement gallery to original 78 recordings by Gene Rodemich is included. There are also brief histories of the studio and the musical composers – and even a comparison of the "Siamese Patrol" sequence used in Toy Time and Silvery Moon.

All in all, Aesop's Fables is a superb compilation. There will be a handful of new releases from the fledgling Thunderbean company coming soon. In the meantime, purchase a copy of this fantastic disc and you too will be shouting "Hooray for Thunderbean!"

Aesop's Fables Closing Title
Aesop's Fables Closing Title

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