Old Cartoons: Adventures in Surrealism

31 Aug

I was in Barnes & Noble last Monday checking out the cheap DVD section and found something called “200 Classic Cartoons” for $4.99 with 4 discs worth of old cartoons. (The distributor is Mill Creek.) There were enough titles on it that I didn’t have that I either wanted to own or was curious enough about to make it worth $4.99 despite what would surely be a preponderance of poor quality prints and transfers.

Disc 3 is the only one I’ve gone through in depth because it has the most “unaffililated” cartoons, meaning ones that weren’t part of a regular series or featured a regular character. (For instance, Disc 1 is all Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons.) And quite a treasure trove it is, with lots of titles from the 1930s and ’40s from Fleischer, Van Beuren, and Paramount/Famous Studios. Now, I happen to have good, legit copies of a lot of the Fleischer cartoons (Betty Boop, Popeye, Color Classics), so the real finds for me are the Van Beurens and Paramounts, which are harder to find in good copies.

I haven’t immersed myself in old cartoons in many years, so I was struck by the sheer number of cartoons on this set that I was unfamiliar with and how different they looked from anything I’d seen before. There were lots of color cartoons from the 1930s done in the old two-color process, Cinecolor, during a period when Disney had an exclusive license for 3-strip Technicolor, barring other cartoon studios from using the process. So many of these cartoons reflect a very bizarre imagination and are filled with imagery that seemed perfectly normal to animators and audiences at the time, but is downright surreal today.

Here are notes on some of the titles from Van Beuren, a studio that lasted from 1928 to 1936:

“It’s a Greek Life” (1936) is set in an ancient mythological landscape of gods, centaurs and winged horses (four years before Disney’s FANTASIA), yet everyone speaks in a stereotypical Italian accent!

“The Picnic Panic” (1935) opens with a live-action introduction, possibly the first 1930s cartoon I’ve seen with live-action scenes filmed in color. Three kids in a house enter the kitchen and engage in conversation with talking cartoon coffee and teapots. The old coffeepot then goes into a cartoon tale of a kitchen set having a picnic of its own that gets interrupted by a hungry cow.

“Spinning Mice” is also 1935, also in color, and also has a live-action intro. This time a girl’s dollhouse is invaded by her little brother who lets a cage of rats out into the dollhouse and she doesn’t seem to mind much. One of the rats is running around in circles and turns into a cartoon “spinning mouse” who engages in conversation with the kids and relates a cartoon story about an old wizard who comes up with a formula for turning ugliness into beauty and uses it on a cage full of spinning mice, but something goes wrong and they all turn into devilish imps:

“Circus Capers” (1930) is in b&w and features a pair of circus performers who look an awful lot like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, so much in fact that Disney eventually sued Van Beuren over it. Here, they’re a helluva lot more passionate with each other than Mickey and Minnie ever were. In fact, in keeping with the pre-code climate of the times, Minnie is even more brazen with the Ringmaster, leading poor Mickey to sing “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (and altering his character design significantly in the process):

The Mickey Mouse lookalike returns as Little Red Riding Hood in “Red Riding Hood” (1931), in which Grandma takes center stage after drinking down doctor-prescribed “jazz tonic” and is soon stepping out with the wolf which quite amuses Red Riding Hood:

“In the Museum,” aka “Toby the Pup in the Museum” (1930), shares the aforementioned Greek theme as statues in a museum come to life and start to dance to the music Toby (and the soundtrack) is playing:

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“Scotty Finds a Home” (1935) is about a cat who wants to bring a stray dog home but his mother won’t let him until the dog confronts a freeloading hobo (also a dog) who won’t leave the cats’ home:

Why some animals behaved like humans and others like actual animals in these old cartoons has always been a mystery to many cartoon fans.

“Cupid Gets His Man” (1936) offers a unique take on the Cupid motif, with an army of Cupids decked out like Canadian Mounties who wage war on a recalcitrant pair of neighbors in order to get them matched up. The fact that the neighbors are caricatures of W.C. Fields and Edna May Oliver is icing on the cake:

The two actors were both in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933) and DAVID COPPERFIELD (1935), although I don’t recall them sharing any scenes together in either film.

One of the real finds on this disc was the Paramount Noveltoon, “The Enchanted Square” (1947), a charming and lovely ten-minute Raggedy Ann cartoon in which the doll is given to a blind New York City girl and then comes to life to guide her into a fantasy world where she can see.

 

Apparently there’s a restored copy of this film on a new cartoon DVD from Thunderbean, an independent distributor dedicated to restoring classic cartoons:

Technicolor Dreams and Black and White Nightmares

In fact, Thunderbean has also released a DVD filled with other Paramount Noveltoons in Technicolor, including “Suddenly It’s Spring” (1944), another Raggedy Ann cartoon, and a leprechaun-themed cartoon called “The Wee Men” (1947) that was directed by Bill Tytla, a key Disney animator renowned for his work on SNOW WHITE, PINOCCHIO, FANTASIA, and DUMBO. Here’s the Amazon link to that release:

Noveltoons: Original Classics

Inspired by this 200 Classic Cartoons box set, I dug out some of my old VHS editions of vintage cartoons, many of which I bought when my daughter was a child and were among the first cartoons she was exposed to. A lot of these were made by Ub Iwerks, who started out with Disney and, after a few years on his own, returned to the Disney stable where he stayed the rest of his career.

I also took my daughter to programs of old cartoons at the old Thalia theater when she was aged 2 to 4. One cartoon we saw back then, “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” with Oswald Rabbit, has never, to my knowledge, come out on VHS or DVD, nor is it on YouTube, as far as I can determine. It’s from the Walter Lantz studio, which has released some of its vintage cartoons on DVD, including two Woody Woodpecker collections, which both include some older b&w Lantz cartoons, including some Oswald Rabbits. But it’s only scratching the surface of the Lantz archive.

One of the hidden gems in the first collection is “King Klunk” (1933), a parody of KING KONG.

I reviewed it on IMDB:

IMDB review of King Klunk

I have one of the Van Beuren sets put out on VHS by Kino as part of the “Cartoons That Time Forgot” series, “The Odd and the Outrageous,” which includes such masterpieces as “In a Cartoon Studio” (aka Making ’Em Move), a fanciful look at how animation is done, and “Opening Night,” in which Cubby Bear crashes opening night at a new theater (the Roxy) presenting an opera.

To be honest, none of the Van Beuren or Ub Iwerks cartoons were nearly as funny or imaginative as the Warner Bros. cartoons or the Fleischer Betty Boops of the time, but they’re so filled with loopy imagery and unrestrained projections from the id, in terms of bodily functions, sex, violence, and death, not to mention racial and ethnic caricatures, that it’s hard not to be totally enthralled and, at times, stunned. Here are some shots from Iwerks’ Flip the Frog cartoon, “The Office Boy”:

Which is also on YouTube:

One thing I should point out is the importance of music in these cartoons. Musical performance is often a big part of the action and the soundtracks were, by and large, recorded for the cartoon by a studio band. There’s a lot of good jazz in these shorts, a topic that deserves its own entry. Just listen to the piano playing in this “Tom & Jerry” cartoon, “Piano Tooners,” found on YouTube:

Van Beuren’s Tom & Jerry, which predated MGM’s cat-and-mouse duo by nine years, were a Mutt-and-Jeff style comic pair.

Speaking of which, the actual Mutt and Jeff, comic strip characters adapted to very early animated cartoons, are featured in this box set in a color sound short called “Westward Whoa.” IMDB lists the year as 1926, which seems unlikely to me, since cartoons weren’t being produced in color and sound that far back. But I can’t find any other reference to the cartoon. IMDB does list it as a “sound reissue,” so the soundtrack could have been added later, but I’m curious about the color. Were there other color silent cartoons?

I grew up watching a lot of these cartoons on TV when I was quite young. There was a steady diet of vintage black-and-white cartoons back then and there are snippets of memories of cartoon scenes I’ve never been able to identify. I wonder how baby boomer minds were affected by such a steady exposure to these cartoons when we were so young and impressionable. And then I exposed them to my daughter when she was young, thanks to the availability of so many of these cartoons in cheap VHS editions, something new at the time, and to my taking her to those Thalia programs, although never in the same quantity that I was exposed to.

Even before my daughter was born, I was avidly attending programs of old cartoons at the Museum of Modern Art, the Thalia and various other revival theaters and film societies during the 1970s and ’80s. I remember seeing Chuck Jones and Walter Lantz introducing their cartoons at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1970s and even animation pioneer John Randolph Bray (1879-1978) when he made a (silent) appearance at a program of his shorts at MOMA.

There are still lots of cartoons from the 1930s and ’40s that are not available on home video. Where are all the Terrytoons, for instance? Some Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle cartoons have turned up, but not a lot. I remember seeing tons of Terrytoons that didn’t have regular characters in them on TV when I was a child. One that I was able to identify is “Robinson Crusoe’s Broadcast,” a b&w cartoon from 1938 in which the diminutive Crusoe tells his story on a radio broadcast at a nightclub. When the end of his narrative finds him boiling in a pot for a tribe of cannibals, Crusoe is interrupted by a tall, gangling nightclub waiter who asks, “And what did you do THEN, Mr. Crusoe?” upon which Crusoe turns the waiter around, kicks him square in the butt to send him flying out of the place while providing the conclusive answer: “They ATE me!”

I remember a scene from a cartoon I have been unable to identify that I’m guessing came from Walter Lantz. It featured a group of animal characters and cannibals (stereotypical native caricatures) that somehow wound up in live-action footage, with a turtle riding a football down a river into a waterfall and the cannibals screaming and running from live-action auto traffic. From the cars I remember, I’m guessing it was the early 1930s.

Columbia Pictures used to release a series of cartoons called “Color Rhapsodies” (in line with Disney’s Silly Symphonies, Fleischer’s Color Classics, and Van Beuren’s Rainbow Parade). One that I used to see at cartoon festivals was Ub Iwerks’ “The Merry Mannequins” (1939), which featured a pair of mannequins getting married in a department store after hours, with all of the other departments helping out. It had the most gorgeous art deco backgrounds I’ve ever seen on film. Again, not available on home video or on YouTube. Kit Parker Films distributes it on film prints but as far as I know it’s never come out in any other format.

Inspired by all this activity, I found some copies of MGM’s color Bosko cartoons on YouTube, including the Depression-era classic, “Hey-Hey Fever,” in which Bosko incites a bunch of hungry nursery rhyme characters to plant some crops and feed the populace. Bosko had been Warner Bros.’ first regular cartoon character and when his creators, Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, left Warners for MGM, where they got to work in color on their “Happy Harmonies” series, they took their character with them and the cartoons were very different.

I’d love to see legit, restored copies of so many of these cartoons, but I wonder what it would take to get it to happen. It sure doesn’t seem like there’s enough of a market to justify the expense. If only there was an animation channel on cable that was devoted to old cartoons, the way, say, Encore’s Western Channel is devoted to westerns, including old b&w B-westerns and 1950s western TV series. The Cartoon Network used to include old cartoons as part of its mission, but that’s all changed. Most of the Cartoon Network’s current programming consists of new animation, most of which is much too grating for my tastes and very crudely executed.

But it would be great to have a channel devoted to vintage theatrical cartoons. There are certainly enough of them made from the 1920s to the early ’70s to fill up a cable schedule for quite a few years. And they don’t all have to be American. There are tons of vintage theatrical cartoons from Europe, Japan, and Russia to keep viewers happy, not to mention TV series. How about that TinTin series from Belgium and France made in 1957? Or France’s first animated feature, JEANNOT L’INTREPIDE (1950, and released in English as JOHNNY THE GIANT KILLER)?

How about Lev Atamanov’s “The Golden Antelope” (1954) from Russia?

And there are many others like it, including “The Fisherman and the Goldfish”:

Now I gotta get back to that box set. There must be more buried treasure in there. Look what’s on Disc 3 alone:

DISC 3 Contains cartoons with various characters including Baby Huey, Hunky & Spunky, Mighty Mouse, Woody Woodpecker, Raggedy Ann, Heckle & Jeckle, and more! # Other – 53 episodes:All’s Fair At The Fair, Along Came A Duck, Ants In The Plants, Boy Meets Dog, A Car-Tune Portrait, Circus Capers, The Cob Web Hotel, Comin’ Round The Mountain , Crazytown, Cupid Gets His Man, The Enchanted Square, The Fresh Vegetable Mystery, The Golden State, Goofy Goat Antics, Hawaiian Birds, Hector’s Hectic Life, In The Museum, It’s a Greeks Life, Jingles , Les Escargots, Little Brown Jug, Little Hawk, The Little Stranger, Marriage Wows, Music Academy, A Mutt In The Rut, Nursery Scandal, Once Upon A Time, Palm Court Orchestra, Pantry Panic, Parrotville Old Folks, Parrotville Post Office, Peeping Penguins, Picnic Panic, Play Safe, Professor YaYa’s Memoirs, Quack-A-Doodle-Doo, The Queen of Hearts, Red Riding Hood, Scotty Finds a Home, Snow Foolin’, The Snow Man, Spinning Mice, The Story of Time, Sultan Pepper , The Sunshine Makers, The Talking Magpies, Time For Love, Vacuum Cleaner, Westward Whoa, Winter Draws On, Wolf! Wolf!, You Can’t Shoe a Horsefly

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One Response to “Old Cartoons: Adventures in Surrealism”

  1. Victoria September 27, 2014 at 9:27 AM #

    I’m so glad I found this, I’ve been looking for the Raggedy Ann cartoon for years, I had a sort of vague recollection of it from when I was a little girl, I’m only 14 but momma had some really old Cartoon Network cd’s and I was obsessed with them, cartoons were so much better back then

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