Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men

Every once in a while, independent forces come together to create a perfect storm of meaning.  That's why this week I'm featuring two classic shorts from the MGM cartoon studio.  The first is "Peace on Earth" from 1939, directed by Hugh Harman.  The themes of the end of mankind, anti-violence, and the joy of Christmas feel all too relevant right now in the wake of the tragic events in Connecticut and supposedly imminent Mayan apocalypse.  

You won't see me sing the praises of Hugh Harman or his partner Rudolph Ising very often.  Even though their careers spanned the length of the Golden Age of Animation, the majority of their work is little more than a pale imitation of what Disney was producing at the same time.  It was all cutesy stuff with little humor unless you count the over-the-top innocence of it all.  In 1939 however, Harman created "Peace on Earth," an inspired short recounting the self-destruction of mankind told against the backdrop of the Christmas season.  While some of the scenes come off as silly and typically Harman-esque, others are nothing short of chilling.  The deaths of the last two men on Earth was shocking in 1939 and still sends a chill up my spine to watch. 

In 1955, Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera (creators of Tom & Jerry, The Flintstones, and countless other classic characters) remade "Peace on Earth" and tilted it "Good Will to Men."  The new version featured modernized violence that incorporated Cold War fears and the increased arsenal of World War II.  The grander scope creates a much stronger short than the original for modern audiences, even if the ending is a little religious by today's standards.  The climax of nuclear annihilation however does not impact me as much as seeing the last man drown in a mixture of mud and his own blood.  

Both shorts were widely praised and were nominated for Academy Awards in their respective years.  The bittersweet message of both shorts reminds us to be mindful of ourselves and each other, especially in times when the almost comical juxtaposition of seasonal joy and unimaginable cruelty make us question who we are and what we are to become.

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