A Year in Shorts Day 340: "Lend a Paw"
The Great Oscar Baiter Farewell Tour continues folks, with today’s entry in our Year in Shorts being the last time we’ll be covering a short starring a beloved Disney icon. Beloved by all except me, that is. Yes folks, Lend a Paw will be our final Pluto short, and I for one am glad to be rid of him. So glad that it almost makes up for the fact that this film somehow won an Oscar!
Released in 1941 and directed by Clyde Geromini, Lend a Paw is technically an installment in the Mickey Mouse series of shorts, although I think it's pretty clear that Pluto's the star here. Look at the poster! All we see of Mickey is his hand! Hell, Pluto gets billed above the title! Why exactly Disney felt like it was a good idea to heavily advertise this as a Pluto short is beyond me. Presumably Pluto was very popular at the time, which is just one of those inexplicable things about film history that I'll never understand. Pluto's just a dog! He barks and chases small animals and waits for Mickey to feed him. He doesn't even commit extreme acts of violence like Tom and Jerry! He's just a regular dog! Who wants to watch a cartoon about a regular doing doing regular dog things? That's what we have real dogs for! Imagine a Donald Duck short in which Donald spent the entire runtime swimming on a pond, eating bread and trying to impress Daisy with his corkscrew-shaped penis! No one wants to see that, but that'd certainly be more interesting than your average Pluto short. Although come to think of it, "Donald Duck's Corkscrew-Shaped Penis" would be a pretty good band name, not to mention a good phrase to include in your blog to attract some unusual traffic.
Well, I digress. Imagine that, me, getting distracted. Lend a Paw is, among other things, a remake of the 1933 short Mickey's Pal Pluto, proving that Disney has been recycling its old shit with new technology long before the 21st century. It is also a short dedicated to the Tailwaggers Foundation, a Los Angeles-based organization which takes care of sick and injured animals, so that's nice at least. It also ties into the plot of the short, which sees Pluto rescuing a kitten from being drowned in a sack in a river (which is a weirdly popular gag from cartoons at the time), with the kitten following Pluto home and stealing Pluto's thunder with Mickey. The kitten, it must be noted, is not Figaro, in spite of what the poster will try to tell you. I can't say I blame Disney for trying to use Figaro's star power to put butts in seats, but it's rather shameless nonetheless. Still, I should have known better than to be fooled. Figaro was in Pinocchio, for God's sake, he's not going to debase himself by appearing in a Pluto short. I mean, sure, Mickey was in Fantasia, but that Mouse will appear in anything as long as you pay him. He's gotta support his cheese habit somehow.
Geez, I seem to be straying off topic a lot today. Anyway, the plot really kicks into high gear when Pluto decides he needs to get rid of the kitten, presumably because he's aware that the cat is an infinitely more appealing character than he is. I feel that, in the interest of fairness, I should state that this short has a couple of things going for it which I kind of like. There is, for instance, the way they show Pluto's decision-making process. Because he is a non-verbal character with a not particularly expressive face, Pluto is not a character who lends himself well to introspection. That's not so much a criticism as it is just a function of his character; he's not going to be playing Hamlet any time soon is all. Most Pluto shorts we've covered have worked around this by keeping the plots of his shorts simple and giving him a pretty narrow emotional range to deal with. But since Pluto in this short has to undergo a real character arc, that wouldn't cut it. So instead, the makers behind this short went to an old cartoon standby- the shoulder angel/devil dynamic! (Do dogs have shoulders? Should we call them something else?) This is one of the oldest cartoon gags in the book, and for good reason- it's hilarious. Even in a short like this, it's pretty solid. Sure, neither of the characters are funny, and their presence does mean we have to look at Pluto's stupid ugly face three times more than we ought to, but still. It's a reliable bit that's always fun to see.
I also have to admit that there's a bit with Bianca the goldfish (notably not played by Cleo; once again, the stars of Pinocchio couldn't be bothered with this sort of thing) makes me smile. Not the setup itself, mind you. It's pretty labored and not very funny; I'd call it a Tom and Jerry ripoff, but those two were still working out their formula so we'll let it slide. Still, there's a pretty solid laugh in this scene, when Mickey, observing the chaos around him- a goldfish bowl on the floor, a discombobulated kitten, and Pluto wearing a lampshade like a headdress (minor kudos to the short for not making the racist joke one would expect from a short in this time period)- does what any normal person would do; he asks the goldfish what happened! It's a pretty stupid joke, I admit, but there's a certain brilliance to it too. After all, cartoon conventions usually make place fish on a level of sentience below mammals or birds; no one ever really seems offended when Sylvester decides to snack on a salmon after all. So having Bianca prove to be capable of ratting out Pluto is an effective way of pulling the rug out from under us. It's not much, but it got a chuckle out of me.
Finally there's the climax of the short, which sees Pluto putting himself into mortal danger to rescue the kitten from a well. (Damn Mickey, couldn't spring for indoor plumbing?) Anyway, like everything in this short, it's not particularly funny, but it does advance the idea that we might finally be rid of Pluto, which is more than enough for me. How much any of this is original to this short or was from Mickey's Pal Pluto I couldn't say (I haven't seen it and you can't ask me to watch two Pluto shorts in one day, at least not without getting paid), but still. Combined with the quality animation and the presence of a cute cat, all of these elements combine to produce an above average Pluto short. Which, as you are no doubt aware, really isn't saying much. But we should take life's little victories as they come, and the fact that I found Lend a Paw fairly enjoyable is certainly nothing to sniff at.
Granted, I didn't like it nearly as much as the Academy, who saw fit to award the damn thing with an Oscar. And sure, the field for Best Animated Short at the 14th Academy Awards wasn't the best in Oscar history, but there were some clear standouts which definitely deserved the award more. If I had to wager a guess as to what put Lend a Paw ahead of the pack (aside from the obvious Disney influence, of course), I guess I'd say the Academy decided to award the film with a message. Yes, even in those days, it didn't matter how good your film was unless there was a Serious Topic it addressed! Although I guess as far as message films go, a cartoon promoting kindness to animals isn't the worst. And neither is Lend a Paw the worst Pluto short! It feels strange, closing out our coverage of Pluto on such a positive note. But I suppose that's not a bad note to go out on. Will we be able to say the same when we say goodbye to Sylvester and Tweety? Tune in tomorrow to find out!
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