Silly Symphonies

film 45 of 61

Three Orphan Kittens

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jul 6, 2015

The art in these things is often really superb, with their beautiful colours and textures and all. That’s what first strikes you in this one. Some snowstorm at the beginning! It reminds me of very how labour-intensive these things are, and how even the most innocuous or inadequate of productions requires so much back-breaking. That fact applies in another sense to this particular film.

Three Orphan Kittens is a very interesting case. It won an Academy Award for best short/cartoon, back in 1935. But in 2006 or so, when Disney released its 2nd dvd collection of Silly Symphonies, it was relegated to the “in the vault” section, which is where they put the problematical ones. Give the Corporation credit: they make each of the films available for the completist or the burgeoning scholar, and also acknowledge that and even exactly where their own productions, from which they still hope to profit, have fallen short. Good for them! At the same time it’s important not to allow rich, multiple films to be remembered only for their errors.

And what are we getting at here? The ethnic caricature of the slatternly black maid, or at least her slatternly black ankles, is a real jawdropper. So straightforward, so unapologetic. So enthusiastic! Structurally speaking, or as far as gags go, the singlemindedness with which they present or come back to this one is actually pretty good. Also there’s a “Mammy!” here that actually works very well. Still, definitely, extremely—problematical!

We started with an impressive snowstorm, but these kitten kids are just as menaced when they come in from the cold, since culture is in its own way as dangerous as nature. Their comic struggles with all of these domestic accoutrements are pretty well essayed, and there’s some particularly nice stuff with that saltshaker. Good on the piano too, with music being effectively integrated. Technically speaking, there are some fabulous camera movements here, with the dynamic and the geometrical coming together really nicely.

Back to theme: kids make messes, adults get wrathful as a result, and another, more economically well-favoured adult—this is typical In-His-Steps/Sparrows Protestant discourse on class and poverty and such—intervenes on behalf of the unfortunate. The nice little girl at the end is as much as a caricature, in her own way as annoying, as the black woman at the beginning.