First Thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels (1939)

*All reviews contain spoilers*
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My, my, MY…

For this week’s First Thoughts, we’re going back almost eighty years to America’s second-ever feature-length animated film, the 1939 version of Gulliver’s Travels. This one has become rather obscure in the many decades since its premiere at the dawn of WWII, but the year it was released in is renowned as one of the greatest in Hollywood’s history.

Among this film’s contemporaries were such classics as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach and Goodbye, Mr Chips, to name just a few, and all of these received nominations at the twelfth Academy Awards in February 1940 (the same ceremony where Hattie McDaniel famously won Best Actress), where they were joined by Gulliver’s Travels with its two music-related nominations. (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had had just one nomination for its score at the tenth ceremony, but was then given an honorary award at the eleventh).

Produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave, Gulliver’s Travels was Fleischer Studios’ first feature-length film, but it was neither the first nor the last adaptation of Jonathan Swift’s beloved work. Earlier versions included a 1902 Georges Méliès work called Gulliver’s Travels Among the Lilliputians and the Giants, the Spanish Gulliver en el país de los gigantes from 1903, an Austrian version from 1924 and even a Soviet stop-motion effort called The New Gulliver from 1935.

We’ve also had at least five more versions since this one, in 1960 (with effects by Ray Harryhausen), 1965 (Japanese), 1977 (starring Richard Harris), 2003 (Hindi) and most recently in 2010, where Jack Black was the title character. The Fleischer film was only the second animated feature film made by an American studio following Disney’s Snow White two years earlier, and the story was loosely based on the first part of Swift’s eighteenth-century novel involving Lilliput and Blefuscu, focusing here on two miniature kingdoms in 1699 who go to war over a wedding song before they find the shipwrecked explorer Gulliver.

Reading up on this one, the first thing you’ll notice is that the production – like the final result – bears a strong resemblance to Disney’s Snow White. Max Fleischer even had the idea of creating an animated feature as early as 1934 (the same year Snow White went into production), but distributor Paramount wouldn’t hear of it at the time as they were having financial troubles and didn’t want to take the risk. Only in 1937, when the success of Disney’s feature proved beyond any doubt that there was money in animation, did Paramount change their tune – and how. Now, not only did they want the Fleischer’s film to go ahead, but they wanted it by Christmas of 1939, just two years from then. The pressure was on.

In early drafts of the story written in New York, the lead was going to be played by Fleischer’s popular character Pop-Eye the Sailor. However, that idea wound up being dropped once the Californians Cal Howard, Tedd Pierce and Edward Seward joined the team. Yet more troublesome than any plot or casting details was the intense, eighteen-month schedule that the filmmakers were working to, made worse by the fact that the studio was then in the process of relocating to Miami in Florida. Although Snow White’s production had also lasted about eighteen months, it enjoyed an extensive pre-production phase beforehand, taking about three years in total to reach the screen – Gulliver’s Travels would have to be completed with a third less time.

To help them meet this tall order, the Fleischer Studios’ staff was drastically expanded from about two hundred people to around seven or eight hundred, with animation training classes hastily set up at their new base in Miami to prepare the new workers for the task. More experienced artists like Nelson Demorest, Joe D’Igalo, and former Fleischer Animators Grim Natwick, Al Eugster, and Shamus Culhane were brought in to supervise the youngbloods, with the latter being drafted back into the fold from Disney where he’d been working.

The studio itself also had to nearly triple in size to accommodate so many new personnel; the new site chosen by Max in Miami was a 32,000 square foot complex, taking advantage of the city’s tax exemptions for film studios. The choice of locale was also partly down to the fact that unionization hadn’t yet taken hold in Florida the way it had in California – much like Disney would a few years later, the Fleischer Studios endured a five-month strike in May of 1937, shortly before Gulliver’s Travels went into production. (This last part sounds rather shady, doesn’t it? Why not just treat the artists fairly instead of hustling them off to some place where the laws are laxer?)

Gulliver hauling the ships

At times, the pressure to deliver the film on time took its toll on the team, with everybody having to put in a lot of overtime to get it done. That’s a familiar story even to modern-day animators, but I can only imagine how much worse it must have been in the thirties at a time when big studios like Paramount had so much power. Executive meddling – it’s downright inescapable, apparently! Even then, the filmmakers’ best efforts weren’t always enough for them to meet all their deadlines and Paramount considered cancelling the film outright. The Technicolor lab was also put under strain with the number of last-minute revisions and delays, which were made worse by Miami’s remote location. With so much drama going on behind the scenes, it’s a wonder that the film ever made its delivery date at all.

As was the usual practice at the time, each individual sequence of the film had its own director. These men included Seymour Kneitel, Willard Bowsky, Tom Palmer, Grim Natwick, William Henning, Roland Crandall, Thomas Johnson, Robert Leffingwell, Frank Kelling, Winfield Hoskins, and Orestes Calpini, who introduced several “west coast” techniques to try to bring greater life to the animation. Pencil tests were then unheard of in New York studios, but while some animators struggled to adapt to this new way of doing things, they soon embraced the changes for the increased efficiency they allowed. With time so tight, though, a few “shortcuts” had to be taken here and there, so the animation of Gulliver, Glory and David was done via rotoscoping, a rather stilted method which has since fallen out of favour (although to be fair, it was also employed on Snow White). For Gulliver in particular, live-action reference footage was shot of his voice actor, Sam Parker, to aid the animators in their work.

That brings me to our cast, most of whom will be entirely unknown to modern audiences (kind of a sad thought, isn’t it?). In addition to Parker as Gulliver, we also have the wonderful Pinto Colvig – a Disney stalwart – as Gabby, easily one of the most famous names here. One of the most versatile performers is Jack Mercer, who is in multiple roles as King Little, Twinkletoes, Sneak, Snoop and Snitch, while the bombastic King Bombo is played with relish by Tedd Pierce. For the comparatively minor roles of the prince and princess, David and Glory, we have a whole gaggle of people; there’s Cal Howard and Lanny Ross as David’s speaking and singing voices, respectively, and Livonia Warren and Jessica Dragonette for Glory’s speech and song (Dragonette is the best surname I’ve ever seen). Unfortunately, all four of them are rather wasted, particularly Howard and Warren, as these two characters are given very little to do.

On the music side, we have a collection of pretty, if rather sentimental little songs written by a total of five different songwriters (rather surprising, given how simple they all are). They are as follows: All’s Well, Faithful/Forever, It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day, Bluebirds in the Moonlight (Silly Idea), I Hear a Dream (Come Home Again) and We’re All Together Now. All but one of these songs were the work of Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger, with the former writing and the latter composing, with the exception being It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day from the trio of Sammy Timberg, Al Neiburg and Winston Sharples. These songs are accompanied by a score from Victor Young, who earned the film one of its two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score – the other was for Robin and Rainger’s Faithful/Forever combo which sparks off the war in the story, but perhaps inevitably, both awards went to the critical darling The Wizard of Oz. Still, It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day became a recurring theme in Fleischer and Famous Studios cartoon scores later on.

I didn’t really know what to expect of this one going into it (now in the public domain, I was able to find a good copy uploaded to YouTube). My impression was that it was basically a cash-grabbing rip-off of a better Disney film – the first of many, I might add – but now that I’ve seen it, I don’t think that’s entirely true. It certainly does borrow a lot from Snow White, and I mean a lot; from the opening credits with the storybook narration to the awkwardly-rotoscoped prince and princess, the dwarf-like Gabby and the treacly singing, Gulliver’s Travels has Disney’s basic aesthetic from the time running through its very core. Yet despite this, and despite the tremendous rush of its production, I felt a genuine warmth coming through in the work on display; it’s far from perfect, but I honestly had a very pleasant time watching it.

Gulliver standing over Lilliput

The animation is perhaps the weakest aspect, which is unsurprising given the tight deadline it was forced to comply with. Every character is either a heavily-rotoscoped cardboard cut-out so unnerving that they often slip into the Uncanny Valley (especially Gulliver… brrr), or a noodle-armed slapstick-prone caricature more typically seen in animated shorts of the day. The dwarfs in Snow White may have been cartoonish, but they were more realistically-proportioned than the likes of King Bombo or the three Lilliputian spies; the Disney animators demonstrated a better understanding of basic principles like squash and stretch and applied them to great advantage for a more cinematic work, whereas the Fleischer staff (many of whom were, as I said, new recruits) were still operating on the base level of shorts and the film thus feels rather “small” compared to Snow White.

However, I will say that some of the cinematography rivalled Snow White’s at times; there are some wide shots of Lilliput and Gulliver walking or being carried through it which genuinely impressed me, given their age, making clever use of angles and lighting for an almost surreal effect at times.

When it comes to the characters, it’s easy to see where Fleischer Studios’ expertise lay. The comic, cartoony characters like Gabby and the two kings are handled with infinitely more confidence than Gulliver himself, and certainly more so than the utterly dull prince and princess. Gabby is my favourite character because he’s such a scene stealer, bursting in at inappropriate moments and getting increasingly frustrated as he tries to tell the oblivious king, “There’s a giant on the beach!” I remember reading about how the animators of Snow White ended up deciding to make Dopey silent because they simply couldn’t find a voice to suit him, but after watching Gabby, I don’t know how they could have overlooked Pinto Colvig (who was already in the film as both Grumpy and Sleepy), because he does a terrific job making Gabby stand out from the crowd here.

I also loved the two wacky kings, who are hilarious in their exaggerated politeness to one another at the start and have distinct personalities that make them hugely entertaining to watch. Princess Glory was a bit of a weak link in the cast, though, the only female role – she generally sings rather than speaks and is portrayed as “delicate little flower”, only there to serve as the object of David’s affections. And to be fair, he is equally boring.

As for the title character, I couldn’t quite decide what to make of him. He’s creepily animated but gentle by nature, and seemed to function best as a prop; I loved the gags involving the Lilliputians using the unconscious Gulliver’s own finger to hold a knot in place while they tie him up, or when they buff his nails like shoe-shiners and comb his hair with rakes, it was all wonderfully inventive and made me chuckle. Plot-wise, he helps to resolve the dispute about the wedding songs by mushing them both together, after which he leaves – it seems that once the physically gaggery of his size was exhausted, there was nothing else to be done with him.

To summarise, while I did like some of the film’s visuals and greatly enjoyed the comic characters, I was just as disappointed as I thought I’d be in the songs, the romantic leads and much of the animation. I have no doubt that this could have been much stronger had the studio been given more time, but the work they were able to achieve in eighteen months is certainly impressive enough in its own right, even if it doesn’t hold a candle to Snow White. The thing is, although it is a bit of a Disney rip-off, I genuinely enjoyed it and spent much of the time with a huge, cheesy grin on my face – it’s just so sentimental and adorable, and it feels like the animators had fun making it, even if they were probably half-crazy with stress at the time.

Against all the odds, the film was completed on time and made its debut on December 18th, 1939 at the Sheridan Theatre in Miami Beach due to the convenient location. It then had a trade-showing premiere in New York City two days later, followed by its national release by Paramount on the 22nd. With public appetite for animated films now high in the wake of Snow White, Gulliver’s Travels was met with eager audiences and became a box office success, even if critics had mixed feelings on it.

Walt Disney saw it, undoubtedly checking out the competition, and apparently made this catty comment: “We can do better than that with our second-string animators.” He may have said that, but he was still worried enough to push back the release of his own film, Pinocchio, to the following February, so as to avoid direct competition.

Although the film had gone over budget, Paramount still managed to make a profit of around a million dollars domestically (and this at the tail-end of the Depression), even with the film limited to just fifty theatres in its original Christmas run. Thanks to this success, they ordered a second film from Fleischer Studios, which would become the 1941 Christmas release Mr. Bug Goes to Town. However, Paramount still held Fleischer Studios to a $350,000 penalty for going over budget despite the strong performance, a rather spiteful move on their part which began a series of financial troubles for the Fleischers as they entered the 1940s.

Eventually, the Fleischer Studios were fully absorbed into Paramount and their film library was sold to television in 1955. From then on, Gulliver’s Travels became a local television station holiday film that would be shown often around Thanksgiving and Christmas, while also enjoying occasional theatrical re-releases for Saturday matinee children’s programmes well into the mid-1960s. At work the other day, I discovered that a slightly older colleague of mine had grown up watching it, which surprised me as I hadn’t realised modern audiences were still familiar with it.

It was fascinating for me to take a peek into this long-ago era of animation and see what the rare non-Disney output of the day was like. As it turned out, it was still very Disney-esqe, but that doesn’t take away from what an accomplishment a project like this was in the 1930s. Decades and decades before the likes of Don Bluth, Pixar and eventually DreamWorks and Illumination came along to challenge Disney’s stranglehold on theatrical animation, the Fleischer Brothers boldly went where no studio had gone before and dared to challenge Walt at the very dawn of his Golden Age. The resulting film might not quite have managed to become a classic, but the fact that it has survived the ravages of time at all is some testament to its quality; there certainly aren’t many other animated films from that long ago still with us. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve provided a link below and would recommend it if you’re in the mood for some sweet, goofy fun – it may not challenge your mind, but Gulliver’s Travels is sure to warm your heart on a cold winter night.

Thank you so much for joining me, and I’ll see you again soon for a First Thoughts look at Hayao Miyazaki’s debut feature, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro. I’ll also have a review of Ralph Breaks the Internet going up soon, too, so stay tuned, and stay animated!

By Source, Fair use, – credit for poster
By Fleischer Studios –, Public Domain, – credit for Gulliver standing over Lilliput
By Fleischer Studios –, Public Domain, – credit for Gulliver hauling ships – Wiki page – IMDB profile – Full upload of the film; it’s been in place for a few years now and the film is in the public domain, so hopefully it won’t be taken down!

7 Replies to “First Thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels (1939)”

  1. Nah…I have seen it and I think its biggest weakness is not the animation (though that one has problems too), it is pacing and characters. I always kind of dinged Snow White for the overly long scene in which the dwarves sneak into the house and the completely filler scene with the washing, but that is nothing compared to how long it takes this movie just to bring the message “there is a giant at the beach” to the king. It is basically filler with a few story beats between and those are not even good, because the supposed main character is flat and the love story is even flatter. And this song…urgh….

    It’s certainly interesting in a “oh, well, it’s old and they tried” way, but Walt Disney was right scoffing about this movie. It is not just under Walt Disney Quality, it is also below the quality of the other animated movies from this time period which survived.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have some fond memories of watching this movie on tv around Thanksgiving (along with Laurel and Hardy’s March of the Wooden Soldiers, another perennial favorite), usually with my dad. After they stopped airing it, I eventually forgot about it until I found some clips on YouTube. Yes the animation doesn’t compare to Disney’s high standards, yes it’s clearly borrowing heavily from Snow White, and yes as a big Popeye fan I’ll always wonder what it would have been like to have him as the star, but there’s few films out there that warm my heart with simple, innocent nostalgia. Again, I associate this movie with my dad. He grew up with it (his favorite characters were the spies) and one of my fondest memories is the last time we watched it together in the aftermath of the 2011 hurricane. Our neighborhood had no power for a week and we would (sparingly) use my mom’s laptop if we wanted to watch a movie. One of them was a dvd copy of Gulliver’s Travels we rented through Netflix. After the rest of our family went to bed, we watched it together just him and me, though we both fell asleep partway through. When I woke up a couple of hours later, the power had finally returned and all the lights were back on.

    To put it simply, I am overdue for another viewing. Thanks for reminding me!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How lovely, I’m so glad to have awakened some nice memories for you. I have similar feelings about The Iron Giant; it always reminds me of my grandma because I’ve watched it with her many times. Little memories like that add so much poignancy to these films.

      Enjoy your re-watch!

      Liked by 1 person

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