Summertime

rabbitgroundhogDespite the title, this animated short is more about winter going into spring than summertime. I suppose the title could still work if you view it in the sense that “summertime” begins when the clocks are put forward an hour in March, but that seems to be a thing that we do here in Britain, whereas this cartoon is American. In Britain we call the clocks going forward an hour the start of British Summer Time, but in America that is known as Daylight Saving Time.

The cartoon was also originally released in the first month of summer, June 1935 to be precise, meaning it is nearly 80 years old. It was part of the ComiColor  series from the studio of Ub Iwerks. His name might not be familiar, but he is a very important figure in the history of animation. He is considered to be responsible for the setting a lot of standards and the styles for cartoons. Iwerks worked closely with Walt Disney early on in his career, and co-created some of the most famous Disney figures, Mickey Mouse for one.  Iwerks did almost the entire animation for many of the early classics, including Steamboat Willie. To cut a long story short, eventually he and Disney fell out, from Iwerks point of view because he felt that he was doing a lot of work while getting very little credit for it, so he left. He would return to work with Disney again some years later, but inbetween his times at Disney he set up his own cartoon studio.

Summertime begins with Old Man Winter, here shown as a scrawny, twisted blue monster who is jagged as if covered in icicles, and has a long white beard. He walks around spreading ice and snow and has a “Mwahahahaha” villainous laugh . This wasn’t the first ComiColor cartoon that this character appeared in, that was a cartoon from the previous year titled Jack Frost. Despite the fact that Jack Frost is often depicted in much the same way Old Man Winter is depicted in these cartoons, the title wasn’t referring to him. In that cartoon the Jack Frost character was a benevolent imp-like creature who signaled the coming of autumn by painting the leaves on trees and pumpkins autumnal colours with an easel, and warned the animals to prepare to hide from Old Man Winter.

In Summertime, Old Man Winter is scared off by the heat of an angry red sun with arms and a face. Then we see a snowman melt, which is fairly grim as the snowman’s smile turns into a sadface as he melts and a funeral march is playing. But after the snowman is melted it turns out that the snow was covering Pan the faun god who was sleeping underneath. Pan wakes up, begins playing his flute and the ice and snow is replaced by birdsong and flowers. Interestingly, in Jack Frost they did a similar joke in reverse with Old Man Winter turning a scarecrow into a snowman.

Summertime then shows a sequence of the plants and animals celebrating spring. Daisies uproot themselves from the ground and start dancing, using their petals as skirts. A huge tortoise is sleeping and is oblivious to the fact that two smaller tortoises are using his stomach to play naughts and crosses on. Then we see a group of centaurs playing polo, with some jokes being that they are like men riding horses, such as when a ball hits the horse end of one, it bolts and the man end is trying to control it. All the centaurs look identical apart from one who apparently is a caricature of vaudeville actor Will Rogers, who was known to play polo as a hobby.

Silhouettes of trees transform into silhouettes of dancing women and back into trees again. This part of the cartoon, along with the title card, was used in the video for Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’

An Easter Bunny-like white rabbit appears as a postman delivering letters to the animals. His last letter is to a groundhog, telling him spring has begun, which he is happy about. But then Old Man Winter turns up again, and makes a shadow puppet of the groundhog which looks larger and more ratlike, and it comes alive and chases the groundhog back into his home. This is a reference to the tradition of Groundhog Day, which I’m not overly familiar with apart from the 1993 Bill Murray film, but apparently the idea is that when a groundhog emerges from its hibernation, if it sees its shadow it will retreat back to its burrow, which is meant to signal that winter weather is going to last longer. It’s actually quite clever making that part of the plot in this cartoon, as it begins Old Man Winter trying to restart his reign of terror.

Old Man Winter spreads more winter weather, and Pan gets the centaurs with white rabbits riding on them to fight him off, pelting him with snowballs. This doesn’t have much effect, in fact Old Man Winter laughs at them and then freezes them. Pan decides to ask some fireflies for help. The fireflies literally become fire and chase after Old Man Winter, who melts away, and some flowers including a lily (often a cartoon sign of death!) grow in the spot he has melted in.

Then the cartoon ends with Pan standing on a mushroom playing his panpipes and the centaurs with rabbits riding on them dance around him in a circle.

There is a bit of a Greek mythology influence on this cartoon with Pan and the centaurs. It’s possibly unintentional but the tree women are similar to the myth of Daphne transforming into a laurel tree. The cartoon doesn’t appear to take any cues from the springtime myth of Persephone and Hades, but that was adapted by Disney in 1934 as The Goddess of Spring.

Summertime has a lot of nice imagery, though the animation is a little wonky and sketchy. It’s clear they didn’t have the same kind of budget that Disney shorts had. The sun is probably the worst thing about it for me, it doesn’t look much like a sun at all, more like an angry bubblegum ball. It is a bit of a nitpick, but aesthetically the cartoon is probably not as nice to look at as it should be given that it’s about the coming of spring.

Old Man Winter is a pretty good cartoon short villain though. The cartoon is a bit of a mishmash of different styles. As well as Greek mythology influence and that the white rabbits are very like Easter bunnies, there is more recent folklore is in there too such as Old Man Winter and Groundhog Day. There are various different animation styles too, with the animals being very much of the cute cartoon animal type, and the silhouette scene being quite different from the rest of the cartoon, as both the trees and the women they turn into look more realistic in style. But surprisingly, it all fits together reasonably well. Perhaps this is because it does have a plot of sorts, the beginning of Spring and trying to fight of Winter, so it isn’t just a bunch of random stuff happening.

Summertime made enough of an impact on me that I recognised the clips straight away when I saw them in Lana Del Rey’s ‘Video Games’ music video, despite the fact that at that point I hadn’t seen the cartoon for over a decade. It has it’s flaws, mainly the quality of the animation, and I suspect that was mostly due to how much money they had. But that aside, it’s quite good, I think in it’s own way it hasn’t aged as badly as a lot of 1930s cartoon shorts have.  The creative ideas were certainly there.

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