Good Movies: The Sunshine Makers (1935)

The Sunshine Makers is a seven-and-a-half minute animated feature produced by the famous Van Beuren Studios and distributed by RKO in 1935. You can watch it all on YouTube. I’m going to do a synopsis so you can watch first, read after, or vice-versa or whatever. I’m not telling you what to do. That’s one of the lessons here. More on that later.

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The cartoon opens on a dwarf village at dawn. The smiling dwarves (and they are always smiling) rise and greet the sun. In fact, they hail the sun and sing: “Hail your majesty, Hail your majesty, Hail your majesty the Sun!” (I will not parse the facisto-monarchism here.)

sun_hail

So these are sun-worshippers? Not exactly. They never get naked and sun-bathe, for instance, (though that would have been a Real Classic Cartoon). These dwarves are sun-product manufacturers. They suck the sunlight out of the sky, bottle it, and then consume the resulting concoction. This, it seems, makes them happy and installs a permanent grin on their faces.

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So, one of the sunshine delivery dwarves is going along his merry way singing: “Sunshine! Sunshine! How I like the dear old golden…” when Zing! a top-hatted creature shoots an arrow at him. The quick witted dwarf hurls a bottle of sunshine at the dark creature who runs away, trailing light from a sunny flesh wound to his coat.

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Now we see a village of top-hatted, blue clad beings. They are singing: “We’re happy when we’re sad. We’re always feeling bad.” Right away we get the dichotomy here. Now you get to choose sides.

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The guy who has been hit by light runs into the village where everyone runs from him in terror as he flashes sunlight from his coat. They lock themselves away and shun him. Finally, the lit-up guy sheds his stained/sunned coat and buries it to hide the sunlight. Then he sounds the tocsin! The Sad guys mobilize!

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The Sad guys come running out of their houses. They load insecticide sprayers from a nasty dark swamp and charge out against the Happy dwarves. They spray bleak gases before them that darken the earth and shrivel plants.

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But the Happy dwarves fight back! They launch sunshine artillery and drop sunlight bombs on their foe, smiling all the while. When the Sad guys are hit they revert to infancy, giggling and babbling — but they are now Happy!

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Finally, the dwarf assault reaches the Sad guys’ village. Now they grab the Sad guys and dunk them in sunshine. (I will not parse the baptismal element here.)  “I don’t want to be happy!” says one heroic Blue guy, “I want to be sad!” No way, say the dwarves, and they force-feed him sunshine which lights up his gloomy innards.

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At the end of the cartoon, the Happy dwarves dance with the Blue, formerly Sad, guys who are now glowing with inner Sun. “The End. This entertainment brought to you by Borden’s” says the final credit. Borden’s? Yes, a dairy company commissioned this cartoon which shows sunlight being stored in milk bottles and delivered door-to-door like milk used to be (ask your grandmother).

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The Sunshine Makers was made by Ted Eshbaugh, an animation pioneer and the guy who first put color in cartoons. Eshbaugh had his own company, based in New York, which was apparently hired by the Van Beuren organization, the executive producers of the cartoon, to handle the Borden’s contract — at least, that’s the way I piece it together.

Ted Eshbaugh, 1932, from aModern Mechanix article

Ted Eshbaugh, 1932, from a Modern Mechanix article.

Interpretations of this film differ even among people who like it. In the IMDB reviews I see someone cheering, “Yes! Because nobody wants to be sad.” This is a Happy person response. And there is a review that says, “This is all corporate brain-washing meant to get kids to drink milk!” That is a Sad person. Then there are folks who wonder just what was in those milk bottles. Ambien, perhaps? So, ’60s fans of this film might go “Sunshine, eh?” Nudge nudge, wink wink. And other folks might think of Soma in Huxley’s Brave New World or the Mood Organ in P.K.Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (no, not BladefuckingRunner, I’ll rant about that another day). In other words, does society have the right to demand correct emotional responses from its members, or is that a soul-crushing concept? Of course, right now, children as young as three years of age are being given drugs to make them more agreeable.

from Aaron Quinn's The Sunshine Makers

from Aaron Quinn’s The Sunshine Makers. Talk about your Prozac Nation!

There’s a cartoon homage by Aaron Quinn to Ted Eshbaugh’s work, also called The Sunshine Makers that inadvertantly (I think) makes this point with smiling robotic workers going to their shift in the Sunshine Factory, emblazoned with a big smiley face logo.

But, of course,  by saying “Let people be sad if they want”, I’ve put myself into the Sad camp. People are going to say things like, “I bet you think Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful is a big crock of steaming kitsch!” And I respond, “Well, it’s not as bad as Jerry Lewis’ The Day the Clown Cried, but it comes out of the same crock, yes.” Sometimes being Happy is just Wrong. But, hey! Take whatever message you want from this marvelous cartoon.

Here’s a final word on Happy as what psychiatrists call Inappropriate Affect:

Click to make much much bigger. [ "Let's Be Happy" by Steve Stiles from Snarf #5, © Denis Kitchen, 1974]

Click to make much much bigger. [ "Let's Be Happy" by Steve Stiles from Snarf #5, © Denis Kitchen, 1974]

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