August 16, 2007

Bottles (1936)

In 1929, Walt Disney Productions began to produce one of the most influential series of short films of all time, "Silly Symphonies". Unlike Disney's other famous series of shorts ("Mickey Mouse"), the "Silly Symphonies" shorts wasn't about the company's famous recurring characters, but were more about experimenting with new techniques and styles of animation. This approach made "Silly Symphonies" very popular, and soon other animation teams began to follow that approach, like Warner Bros' "Merrie Melodies". Among the best of the shorts influenced by "Silly Symphonies" was definitely "Happy Harmonies", a series of musical short films created by former WB employees, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, which was distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Produced in Technicolor, "Happy Harmonies" showed a technical proficiency at times as good as the shorts by Warner and Disney, and 1936's "Bottles" is a good example of this.

The story of "Bottles" is pretty simple: During a dark stormy night, a Druggist is working late making what seems to be a new kind of poison, as the bottle has its top shaped as a skull. The druggist falls asleep, and at this moment, the Bottle of poison comes alive, using a potion to shrink the druggist to the size of a bottle. The druggist awakes, shocked after being magically miniaturized, but his shock becomes marvel as he discovers the secret world of his bottles, who by night come alive and begin to sing. Baby bottles crying in harmony, dancing Scotch whiskey, and two bottles of salt water who dance like sailors are just some of the many bottles who participate in the dancing and the singing with the druggist. However, not everything is fun and party, as the deadly bottle of poison has a secret plan for the druggist, and recruits the witch-hazel and the Spirits of Ammonia for his evil scheme.

Like most of the "Happy Harmonies", the movie was written and produced by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, with the music and the songs written by their regular collaborator at MGM, Scott Bradley. As usual in their cartoons, the movie is based on the concept of inanimate things coming to life, in surreal experiences where the inanimate things sing, dance and behave as real persons. Anyways, inn "Bottles" they show a lot more of imagination and wit in the creation of the characters, as while at times the link between the bottle and their persona is pretty obvious, there are a couple where the connection between them is a very creative and unexpected one. The comedy is done in lighthearted fun, although the plot about the Poison bottle has a nice touch of the horror as it's filled with a good dose of suspense. Finally, Bradley's songs are fantastic, and some of the best in an MGM cartoon.

Produced in wonderful Technicolor, "Bottles" is a beautifully looking cartoon that makes excellent use of the variety of colors that the Technicolor process allowed director Hugh Harman to use. Harman brings Bradley's song come alive in remarkably well designed musical numbers where the highly detailed bottles (resembling popular brands of those years) act like singers and dancers in the film's choreographs. The visual look of the movie retains the same style that Harman and Ising had been developed since their years at Warner Brothers, with very fluid and dynamic animation and, as written above, carefully designed characters. Also, given the horror elements of the story, the directors add a nice touch of Gothic atmosphere to the movie that works perfectly within the film, with the serious looking "monster bottles" making good contrast with the "good" bottles.

While there's a lot to praise in "Bottles", it also carries with what was the bane of the musical "Happy Harmonies" films done without Bosko, their signature character: the plots were pretty much the same. So, even when "Bottles" does include some of the cleverest character design of all the "Happy Harmonies" films, when one has seen a film from this series, the rest will invariably look like repetitive. However, if one can get past these flaw, "Bottles" is a very rewarding cartoon, as it manages to play on the many stereotypes of the culture of 1930s without being insulting or disrespectful in any way (as some other short films from those years were). Showing a remarkable use of the Technicolor process, "Bottles" is all about good fun, good music, and of course, a few scares.



Peter Slattery said...

Gorgeous. They sure don't make 'em like that any more!

St. Quisby said...

That is fabulous! We used to watch this as little kids in the 50's. My sister and I partcularly remembered the "spirits of ammonia" song, after all these years. After exhaustive research, she found your website. Thanks so much for posting this!

J Luis Rivera said...

Glad to be of help!

Michele said...

Thanks so much! I'm doing a paper on Harman-Ising animation and it's great that people get this stuff online for everyone to see. :)