Gulliver's Travels (1939)
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In December 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first feature-length animated film to open in theaters. Almost exactly two years later came the second, Gulliver's Travels (1939). But in contrast to the Walt Disney classic, this new film was the work of pioneering animators Max and Dave Fleischer, whose innovative company had been responsible for Betty Boop and Popeye, among other iconic cartoon characters of the 1920s and '30s. In fact, this movie was originally planned as a vehicle for Popeye to "play" Gulliver.
Gulliver's Travels is based on just the first part of Jonathan Swift's classic novel, a section entitled "A Voyage to Lilliput," in which Gulliver washes ashore in a kingdom whose inhabitants are so small that Gulliver appears as a giant. Swift's tale was written as a sociological satire, and the Fleischer brothers disagreed at first over how much of that flavor would inhabit their screen version. Max Fleischer envisioned retaining the strong satirical themes, while Dave Fleischer wanted something lighter, simpler and more musical. In the end they compromised on a colorful spectacle that nonetheless does preserve some satire. In any event, the look and feel of the animation was distinctly theirs. As the Motion Picture Herald's review said, "The Fleischer style, well known for many years to a great public, is readily identifiable. The usual grotesqueness is present in all of the characters, with the exception of the Giant and the Prince and Princess. One might expect Popeye to peek around the corner at any moment."
The film's production schedule was very challenging. Paramount (the Fleischers' parent company and distributor) was so eager to challenge Disney with an animated feature that it poured money and resources into the movie in order to meet a Christmas 1939 release date. (The film opened a day after Gone with the Wind.) Fleischer Studios had been based in New York, but union strife in that city compelled Paramount to pay for a new Fleischer studio in Miami, Fla. The studio also paid for hundreds of extra animation artists to work on the project, in both Miami and Hollywood. The schedule was so rushed (18 months from conception to release) that 400 Miami art students were even hired to help out -- following a crash course in animation. The final negative cost was about $1.5 million.
The critical reception was overall positive. Variety deemed the film "an excellent job of animation, audience interest and all around showmanship... enjoyable as much for the elders as the youngsters." But The New York Times disagreed, calling it "a fairy tale for children almost exclusively," and criticizing it for lacking the depth, subtlety, and freshness of the Disney films.
Nonetheless, Gulliver's Travels was a big enough commercial hit that Paramount ordered a second animated feature from the Fleischers, Mr. Bug Goes to Town (1941). As for awards, it was the film's music that drew attention from the Motion Picture Academy. Victor Young received an Oscar® nomination for Best Original Score, and songwriters Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin collected a nomination for Best Original Song, for "Faithful Forever." This was one of 22 Oscar® nominations that Victor Young would receive over the course of his career. He won the award just once -- posthumously -- for Around the World in Eighty Days (1956).
Robin and Rainger had recently won their first Oscars®, for the classic song "Thanks for the Memories," in The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938). The talented composer Rainger would die in a plane crash in 1942, while lyricist Robin would carry on a successful career over a life that lasted until his death in 1984. Robin accrued a total of ten Oscar® nominations but never won the award again.
Singer Lanny Ross provides the singing voice of Prince David in Gulliver's Travels. It's the only animated voice Ross ever did.
Producer: Max Fleischer
Director: Dave Fleischer
Screenplay: Dan Gordon, Cal Howard, Ted Pierce, I. Sparber, Edmond Seward (screenplay); Edmond Seward (story adaptation); Jonathan Swift (based on immortal tale)
Cinematography: Charles Schettler
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Jessica Dragonette (Princess Glory, singing voice), Lanny Ross (Prince David, singing voice), Pinto Colvig (Gabby, voice, uncredited), Jack Mercer (King Little, voice, uncredited), Sam Parker (Gulliver, voice, uncredited).
by Jeremy Arnold