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Directors: William Hanna & Joseph Barbera
Release Date: February 10, 1940
Stars: Tom & Jerry, Mammy Two-Shoes
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Puss gets the Boot © MGM‘Puss Gets the Boot’ marks the first of three important debut cartoons of 1940 (the other ones being ‘A Wild Hare‘ from July and ‘Knock Nock’ from November), making the year a turning point in American studio animation. From now on cartoons were to be brassier, more energetic and more violent.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ introduces that illustrious cat and mouse duo, Tom & Jerry. The cartoon was made by William Hanna and Joe Barbera under Rudolf Ising’s flag, and like ‘A Wild Hare’ only meant as a one-off cartoon. Indeed, Tom is called Jasper in this short, and Jerry remains unnamed.

Moreover, the two look quite different from their later incarnations. Not only is Tom drawn with outrageous detail, he also has a white nose and very modest eyebrows. Jerry’s physique is rather unstable, as if he were made of a sort of rather amorphous jelly.

Yet, the characters are well established, and the friendly antagonism between the two is set from the start, as is the prize-winning combination of silent comedy and high production values. Also present is the combination of cuteness and gag-rich cartoon violence that made the Tom & Jerry series unique.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ also marks the debut of Mammy Two-Shoes, a black maid character whose face we were never to see (except for a few frames in ‘Saturday Evening Puss‘ from 1950). Mammy was borrowed from Disney, who had introduced exactly such a character in ‘Three Orphan Kittens‘ (1935). For present American audiences this character is problematical, as she clearly is a stereotype of a black maid. But I, as a European kid, always thought of her as the owner of the house, never realizing the discrepancy of the enormous mansion and the maid’s modest looks. In any case Mammy lasted until 1952, starring 18 Tom & Jerry cartoons in total.

In this very first Tom & Jerry short Mammy tells Jasper (Tom) that if he breaks one more thing, he goes out. So the still unnamed Jerry takes advantage of the situation, in a series of gags that culminate in a scene in which Tom tries to hold a ridiculously high pile of plates. The short features several gags that were pretty modern at the time, like Tom drawing a fake mouse hole entrance, and Jerry poking Tom’s eyes. Indeed, the idea was strong enough to be more or less revisited in ‘Mouse Cleaning’ (1948), with even better results.

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ is a very well made cartoon. The silent comedy of the two characters is acted out perfectly and the action is timed very well. It’s still very funny, and it’s no wonder that the audiences asked for more cartoons from this cat and mouse duo. The short even was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost it to another MGM cartoon, the much more saccharine ‘The Milky Way‘.

However, Tom and Jerry would quickly become MGM’s superstars, and they would win no less than seven Academy Awards, more than any other cartoon star. Indeed, Tom and Jerry arguably were the most successful cartoon stars of the 1940s and 1950s, starring 114 cartoons, and lasting until 1958, when MGM shut its animation department down. However, even that wouldn’t be the end of the cat and mouse duo, and even in the 21st century still films are made featuring these great characters.

Watch ‘Puss Gets the Boot’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Tom & Jerry cartoon No. 1
To the next Tom & Jerry cartoon: The Midnight Snack

‘Puss Gets the Boot’ is available on the European DVD set ‘Tom and Jerry Collection’

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Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 4, 1941
Stars: Popeye
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Flies Ain't Human © Max FleischerIn ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ Popeye tries to take a nap, but he’s bothered by some flies.

Popeye manages to blow the flies out of the window, but then one has stayed behind, giving the sailor a hard time, especially after the little insect has eaten spinach.

Like most 1941 Popeye cartoons, ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is fast and gag rich. The turning around of the classic spinach story device is a great invention, and provides some excellent comedy, as Popeye becomes helpless against the surprisingly mighty little fly. In his final attempt to kill the tiny foe Popeye blows his own house to pieces, only to find multitudes of flies on his head in the end. The most delightful gag is when Popeye’s head gets stuck in a painting of a snowy landscape, and the fly takes some time to ski jump from his face into the painted snow.

The idea for the fly may have come from the bee troubling Donald Duck in ‘Window Cleaners‘ (1940). The cartoon itself at least looks forward to the cartoon ‘The Pink Tail Fly‘ (1965), in which a mosquito keeps the Pink Panther out of his sleep.

Watch ‘Flies Ain’t Human’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 94
To the previous Popeye film: Olive’s Sweepstake Ticket
To the next Popeye film: Popeye Meets Rip van Winkle

‘Flies Ain’t Human’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: February 7, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Quiet! Pleeze © Max Fleischer‘Quiet! Pleeze’ opens with Poopdeck Pappy lying with a hangover in bed.

When his son comes in to wake him, Poopdeck Pappy pretends to be ill, and Popeye goes at lengths to give his poor old dad peace and quiet, e.g. giving a crying baby across the street a bottle, and stopping workmen from blowing up a huge hill. This part is very fast, and reuses footage from various Popeye shorts, but now in a very different light. Of course, all Popeye’s actions are to no avail, as in the end he finds his dad being the life of a party.

Like ‘Problem Pappy‘, ‘Quiet! Pleeze’ is a fast and gag-rich cartoon, which belongs to Popeye’s best. It’s clear that the character of Poopdeck Pappy brought some new life into the series, giving the otherwise goody-goody Popeye something to work with.

However, it seems that with this cartoon the new formula had reached its limits, for Poopdeck Pappy’s next two cartoons, ‘Child Psykolojiky‘ and ‘Pest Pilot’ aren’t half as good.

Watch ‘Quiet! Pleeze’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 92
To the previous Popeye film: Problem Pappy
To the next Popeye film: Olive’s Sweepstake Ticket

‘Quiet! Pleeze’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 10, 1941
Stars: Popeye, Poopdeck Pappy
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Problem Pappy © Max FleischerIn ‘Problem Pappy’ story man Ted Pierce (of later Warner Bros. fame) reuses part of the story idea from ‘With Poopdeck Pappy‘: Popeye wants to wake his dad, only to find the bed empty.

When Popeye starts looking for his father, he finds his mischievous old dad juggling on a pole on top of a tall building. Popeye’s attempts to retrieve his pop account for some delightful comedy on dizzying heights. T

he film is simply stuffed with great gags and original images, like Popeye using lightning bolts as Tarzan would use lianas. The staging in this cartoon is absolutely wonderful, and the animators make great use of a shot of the staircase of the tall building. In all, ‘Problem Pappy’ is one of the all time best Popeye cartoons, and completely in tune with the faster comedy style of the chase cartoon era.

Watch ‘Problem Pappy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This Popeye film No. 91
To the previous Popeye film: Popeye Presents Eugene, the Jeep
To the next Popeye film: Quiet! Pleeze

‘Problem Pappy’ is available on the DVD set ‘Popeye the Sailor 1941-1943’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: November 14,1941
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Art of Skiing © Walt DisneyJack Kinney revolutionized the Goofy cartoon with the ‘How to Ride a Horse’ sequence in ‘The Reluctant Dragon’ from June 1941. The contrast between John McLeish’s all too sincere instructions, and Goofy’s original ways of acting them out, proved to be a highly successful one, and resulted in great comedy.

This concept was immediately put into action in the Goofy shorts, with ‘The Art of Skiing’ being the first example. This is Goofy’s first real sports cartoon, and it shows several aspects of skiing, like the slalom and the ski jump, all in Goofy’s own original fashion. The Alpine setting is enriched by yodels by Austrian alpine ski racer and professional yodeler Hannes Schroll (1909-1985), who’s also responsible for the very first Goofy yell, which is in fact a variation on his other yodels in the same short. The Goofy holler, as it came to be known, was an instant hit, and reappeared in several other Goofy cartoons, every time our beloved character made a great fall.

The Goofy holler even appeared outside the Goofy series, and can be heard in e.g. the Pluto shorts ‘Legend of Coyote Rock’ (1946) and ‘Food for Feudin’ (1950), and in the feature ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’.

‘The Art of Skiing’ also marks the first instance in which McLeish recites a poem. This story idea would be used to a great effect in ‘The Olympic Champ’ (1942). The best gags, however, involve Goofy trying to put on his trousers with his skis already attached, and Goofy trying to turn around with his skis. The endless string of predicaments story man Jack Cutting and the animators put the character in is both inventive and very funny.

Watch ‘The Art of Skiing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 4
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Baggage Buster
To the next Goofy cartoon: The Art of Self Defense

‘The Art of Skiing’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

Director: Jack Kinney
Release Date: November 22, 1940
Stars: Goofy
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Goofy's Glider © Walt DisneyIn ‘Goofy’s Glider’ our likable goof tries to reach the sky in a self-made glider plane.

We watch several attempts, highlights of which are a failed shot with a catapult, in which Goofy manages to launch himself without his plane, and the scene in which he takes the sky upside down.

The looks of ‘Goofy’s Glider’ are less gorgeous than that of Goofy’s first cartoon, ‘Goofy and Wilbur‘ (1939). Goofy’s design has become more streamlined, and the overall art is leaner, and less Silly Symphony-like. Yet, ‘Goofy’s Glider’ is a more mature cartoon than Goofy’s debut film. It’s humor is more assured, sillier, better timed, and thus funnier.

Moreover, this cartoon forms an important step in the evolution of Goofy: first, it’s the first Goofy short directed by Jack Kinney, who had made his directing debut with the Pluto short ‘Bone Trouble‘ earlier that year, and who would direct almost every Goofy cartoon until the very end of the series in 1953. Second, it introduces the ‘how to’ formula, in which Goofy tries to achieve a goal, helped by an off-screen narrator, in a series of blackout gags. And third, it introduces story man John McLeish as the off screen narrator, helping Goofy through his series of attempts, with his particularly pompous voice, which contrasted perfectly with Goofy’s antics on the screen.

The cartoon’s rather revolutionary blackout gag formula was most probably based on Tex Avery’s spot gag cartoons of the late 1930s (e.g. ‘Detouring America’ of 1939 and ‘Cross Country Detours’ of 1940). But where Avery stuck to rather unrelated gags, Kinney applied the formula to several attempts by one character to achieve one goal. Even if this idea owes something to the Donald Duck short ‘Donald’s Nephews‘ (1938), which also features a book to bridge the gags, it was a revolutionary step forward, fit for the chase cartoon era. In this respect, ‘Goofy’s Glider’ is the ancestor to the format of most chase cartoons, and that of the Tweety and Sylvester and Roadrunner series in particular. As such, it even predates Frank Tashlin’s Fox and Crow series, which is often cited as most influential in this respect. This formula, at least, was used in most of Goofy’s coming sports cartoons.

It remains a little unclear who’s Goofy’s voice in this cartoon. Pinto Colvig had left for the Fleischer studio in Miami, and the dialogue in this cartoon feels detached from the images, as if it had been recorded after the animation. In several scenes lip synch is poor, and in the first scene it’s even completely absent. Plus, several vocalizations occur when Goofy’s face cannot be seen. On the other hand, there’s clearly some new dialogue and even some singing. Some internet sources state that one George Johnson is Goofy’s voice in this cartoon, and even in ‘Goofy and Wilbur’. I find this hard to believe. If so, why did Goofy become a silent character? If Johnson did the voices in these two cartoons, he obviously did an excellent job, and would have proven to be a worthy successor of Colvig. Yet, with Goofy’s next cartoon, ‘Baggage Buster’ the character would be completely silent.

Moreover, in his memoirs Jack Kinney doesn’t mention Johnson, stating that Colvig’s leave was the cause of the silencing of the character:

“Voice-over was the only choice, because, as we saw it, the Goof couldn’t talk much, if at all. The reason for this was that Pinto Colvig, the old circus hand who had done Goofy’s patter for years, had left the studio. Consequently, all the Goof’s manic mutterings had to be lifted from the studio library of sound tracks.”

(Cited from: ‘Walt Disney and Assorted Other Characters – An unauthorized Account of the Early Years at Disney’s’ – page 123).

I therefore suspect that in both Goofy’s earliest cartoons Colvig is still responsible for the vocalizations, and somehow his parts for ‘Goofy’s Glider’ were rushed. But I must admit that I’ve no proof for this hypothesis, and I would be happy to be corrected.

Watch ‘Goofy’s Glider’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Goofy cartoon No. 2
To the previous Goofy cartoon: Goofy and Wilbur
To the next Goofy cartoon: Baggage Buster

‘Goofy’s Glider’ is available on the DVD set ‘Walt Disney Treasures: The Complete Goofy’

 

Director: Tex Avery
Release Date: April 13, 1940
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Bear's Tale © Warner Bros.‘The Bear’s Tale’ opens in Snow White-like fashion, but already the title card gets us ready for some nonsense, as we read that Papa is played by Papa Bear, Mama by Mama Bear, Baby by Baby Bear, and Goldilocks by herself…

‘The Bear’s Tale’ nonetheless seems to retell the tale of Goldilocks and the three bears, alright, until suddenly Goldilocks enters grandma’s house from ‘Red Riding Hood’…

‘The Bear’s Tale’ is Tex Avery’s third fairy tale cartoon, after ‘Little Red Walking Hood’ (1937) and ‘Cinderella Meets Fella’ (1938). It’s arguably the best of the three, elaborating on the fairy tale mix up of Walt Disney’s ‘The Big Bad Wolf‘ (1934), which also starred Little Red Riding Hood.

Particularly funny is the silly combination of narration, images and Carl Stalling’s music. Stalling responds to every part of the narration with a specific leitmotiv. This is most clear when the narrator talks about the ‘beautiful forest’, which is invariably accompanied by a forest scene with birds flying through it, and Stalling’s leitmotiv of Felix Mendelssohn’s Spring Song in the background. But all characters have their own leitmotiv, with Little Red Riding Hood’s one being a particularly saucy one, as if she were a woman of the world.

Both Red and Goldilocks are pictured as child characters, yet behave in a surprisingly adult way. For example, when the wolf rejects Goldilocks, because he had been waiting for Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks exclaims “what’s Red Riding Hood got what I haven’t got?”. There’s also a great split screen gag, which is an elaboration on the one in ‘Cross Country Detours’ of only one month earlier.

The fairy tale setting is greatly helped by great production values: the backgrounds are very evocative, and Avery’s characters now have a solidity that they never had before. Papa Bear especially is a round character of a caliber rarely seen outside Disney. It’s clear that by 1940 the Warner Bros. had fully mastered character animation. This combination of great character animation and deliberate nonsense would make their cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s so irresistible.

In ‘The Bear’s Tale’ Avery’s timing is still rather slow, and not all the gags are winners (the gag in which Papa Bear’s imitating a siren is completely superfluous, for example), but this is a very funny cartoon, nonetheless, and an early Warner Bros. classic.

Watch ‘The Bear’s Tale’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘The Bear’s Tale’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume 5’

Director: Jack King
Release Date: December 13, 1940
Stars: Donald Duck, Huey, Dewey & Louie
Rating:  ★★★★★
Review:

Fire Chief © Walt DisneyAfter co-starring in ‘Mickey’s Fire Brigade’ (1935), Donald now is a fire chief himself, helped by his nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie.

There’s no heroism involved in this cartoon, however, as the four ducks only try to extinguish a fire that Donald accidentally has put to his very own fire station.

Penned by e.g. Carl Barks, this is a genuine gag cartoon, with the gags coming in fast and plenty, and building to a ridiculous finale, in which Donald destroys the fire station, his car and his hat within seconds. The animation, too, is extraordinarily flexible, especially when Donald blows his horn. The cartoon is a delight from start to end, and must be counted among Donald’s all time best.

Barks would later return to the theme in the equally classic comic ‘Fireman Donald’ (1947), in which Donald is as inadequate as a fireman as he is in this cartoon.

Watch ‘Fire Chief’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Donald Duck cartoon No. 21
To the previous Donald Duck cartoon: Window Cleaners
To the next Donald Duck cartoon: Timber

‘Fire Chief’ is available on the DVD set ‘The Chronological Donald Volume 1’

Director: Norman McLaren
Production Date: 1938
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Love on the Wing © Norman McLarenIn the late 1930s Scottish film maker Norman McLaren made several films for the British Post, like the promotional live action films ‘Book Bargain’ (1937) about how telephone books were made, and ‘News for the Navy’ about how letters were delivered worldwide.

Much more interesting than these films, however, is the small advertisement film McLaren made for Empire Air Mail, ‘Love on the Wing’. The film is clearly strongly influenced by the surreal movement. It uses, for example, music from Jacques Ibert’s quirky ‘Divertissement’, which was by that time only eight years old, and the film’s opening images are reminiscent of works by Max Ernst and Salvador Dalí.

In ‘Love on the Wing’ McLaren’s exploits his trademark technique of drawing direct on film, and he combines these images with beautiful painted and highly surreal backgrounds, reminiscent of the otherworldly landscape paintings by Giorgio De Chirico and Yves Tanguy.

The film tells a little love story, but is wildly associative, with metamorphosis and symbolism simply exploding from the screen. The three protagonists change into letters and back again, as well in numerous other symbols of love. So much is happening in the mere four minutes, it leaves the viewer breathless.

‘Love on the Wing’ surely must be one of the most avant-garde advertisement films ever made, and the short is without doubt McLaren’s first animated masterpiece. Unfortunately, the film displeased the authorities of the post office, and they never distributed this extraordinary short.

Watch ‘Love on the Wing’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Love on the Wing’ is available on the DVD-box set ‘Norman McLaren – The Master’s Edition’

Director: Rudolf Ising
Release Date: Jul 8, 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Shuffle off to Buffalo © Warner BroEven though Harman and Ising would never surpass Walt Disney, partly because of a lack of vision, partly because of lack of budget, there’s no denying that by 1933 their films had become the best looking cartoons of the era after Disney’s.

‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ is a prime example. Based on the hit song from the Warner Bros. musical ’42nd Street’ from three months earlier, the short shows how babies are distributed all over the world. It includes a long assembly line sequence with gnomes washing, drying, powdering and feeding babies. This scene resembles a similar one in Disney’s ‘Santa’s Workshop‘ (1932) and can compete with it in its inventiveness and rhythmic action.

The title song is sung by the babies themselves, including a Maurice Chevalier one, and a Joe E. Brown one. Later an Eddie Cantor gnome recaptures the song, and also does an Ed Wynn impersonation. There’s absolutely no story, but there’s constant action, the animation is top notch throughout, and the joyous atmosphere is undeniably catchy.

‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ is a cartoon of great quality, and shows that the Disney style of animation could be copied quite successfully.

Watch ‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Shuffle off to Buffalo’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volume Six’ and the DVD-set ‘The Busby Berkeley Collection’

Directors:Ivan Ivanov-Vano & Leonid Amalrik
Release Date: 1933
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Black and White © SoyuzmultfilmOf all animated Soviet propaganda films, ‘Black & White’ certainly is one of the most powerful. The film is essentially silent, but it’s accompanied by the beautiful negro spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” sung in a deep mournful voice. 

The film is based on a poem of the same name from 1925 by Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wrote the poem during a trip to Cuba. Like the poem, the film shows American racism and the exploitation of black people. We watch them being oppressed by the white, as if they were still slaves, and kept quiet by religion. The images are strong and very stylized. Each image of the film is staged wonderfully to the best effect. A most impressive image is that of numerous blacks in prison, but the bleakest of them all is the final shot of a car passing a lawn with a black man hanging on each tree.

The overall mood of the film is absolutely depressing, especially when one realizes that for once the Soviet propagandists were not too far from the truth. Nevertheless, the Soviet solution, “Lenin”, may be a little too short-sighted, and I doubt whether this film has ever been watched by its intended audience, and if it struck any international chord at all. Who knows? At least, Cuba has been the only country in the Americas to experience a Marxist regime…

Anyhow, despite its abrupt and inapt Lenin-ending, ‘Black & White’ is one of the darkest and strongest of all animated films of the 1930s, and certainly the most interesting animation film to come from the Soviet Union in that decade.

Watch ‘Black & White’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Black & White’ is available on the DVD-set ‘Animated Soviet Propaganda’

Director: Bill Nolan
Release Date: September 18, 1933
Stars: Oswald, Honey
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Five and Dime © Walter Lantz‘Five and Dime’ is a cartoon devoted to the 1931 hit song ‘ I Found A Million Dollar Baby’.

The short opens with Oswald being caught in a rainstorm (featuring the storm music from Gioachino Rossini’s overture William Tell). He rushes into a warehouse, where he sings ‘I Found A Million Dollar Baby’ for Honey, one of the employees.

‘Five and Dime’ is one of the most Merry Melodies-like Lantz cartoons: not only is it made around one hit song, it also features caricatures of Hollywood stars as dolls. Thus we watch caricatures of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Jimmy Durante. The latter is a jack-in-the-box, just like he was in ‘Mickey’s Good Deed‘ from 1932. During the song there are numerous random gags, including one in which a goldfish swallows a complete cat. I suspect this particular gag was one by Tex Avery, who worked on this cartoon.

The finale of ‘Five and Dime’ is particularly noteworthy, as we watch Oswald and Honey march into and out of several stores to get dressed for their wedding, then in and out of a church to get married, and finally into their new home, on top of which the stork is already waiting… This sequence has great rhythm, enhanced by the joyful song, and is one of the best finales of any Walter Lantz cartoon.

Watch ‘Five and Dime’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘Five and Dime’ is available on the DVD ‘The Woody Woodpecker and Friends Classic Cartoon Collection Volume 2’

 

Director: Wilfred Jackson
Release Date:
 December 10, 1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Santa's Workshop © Walt Disney‘Santa’s Workshop’ is one of the earliest Christmas cartoons, celebrating the Santa Claus myth with glee.

If the preceding Silly Symphonies, ‘King Neptune‘ and ‘Babes in the Woods’ were impressive, ‘Santa’s Workshop’ is even more beautiful and colorful. The short’s opening scenes are more colorful than those of the earlier shorts, and this high level of use of color is maintained throughout the picture.

Like ‘King Neptune’ it’s an operetta cartoon, with the elves and Santa singing their lines in rhyme. Santa Claus himself is a variation on King Neptune, equally stout and equally merry. We watch him reading letters, accompanied by a sour gnome, who shares his voice (Pinto Colvig) with later famous sourpuss Grumpy from ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ (1937). Later Santa test dolls, including a Topsy doll exclaiming ‘Mammy’, referencing to Al Jolson.

The sourpuss gnome, animated by Tom Palmer, can be regarded as one of the first animated figures with a character of his own. In his autobiography Pinto Colvig claims that credits should go to Palmer “for being the first to put actual living mannerisms and human-like expressions into film cartoons”, based on Colvig’s own interpretation of the character.

The scenes with Santa are followed by a parade of mechanical toys into Santa’s sack, accompanied by Franz Schubert’s Military March No. 1. This sequence clearly shows how good Disney’s animation had become: the difference between living creatures and mechanical toys is unmistakable. This march a.o. features a mechanical Charlie Chaplin toy, and some stereotyped Chinese and Jewish dolls.

The racist dolls notwithstanding the complete cartoon is one of sheer delight, and must have been mind-blowing to the audiences of the time, unfamiliar with either color or this level of animation in other cartoons of the era. One can rightly say, that only in color the Silly Symphony series rightly found its purpose of pushing the limits of animation forward.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ itself was proof of the astonishing growth the studio had made in its four year existence. One of the reasons was that since 1931 Disney had sent his animators to evening classes at the Chouinard Art School. But on 15 november 1932 Chouinard art teacher Don Graham was appointed as the studio’s formal teacher, starting evening classes at the Disney studio itself.

From now on the studio could improve itself even faster, with the Silly Symphonies as its main platform for innovation, especially from 1934 onward, when Disney planned to make a feature film. By the mid-1930’s the art school cost the studio no less than $100.000 a year, but Disney now could improve the quality of his films at an amazing speed, leaving all competitors far behind.

‘Santa’s Workshop’ was one of the few Silly Symphonies to get a sequel. In 1933 the studio released ‘The Night Before Christmas’, which is  even more colorful and more refined than this cartoon.

Watch ‘ Santa’s Workshop’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Silly Symphony No. 33
To the previous Silly Symphony: Babes in the Woods
To the next Silly Symphony: Birds in the Spring

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 10, 1933
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Penthouse © Max FleischerIn ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ Bimbo and Koko have a chemical laboratory.

Across the street, on a roof terrace, Betty is having a shower, stealing their attention. This part contains a particularly sexy scene of a towel drying Betty by itself. Meanwhile, their cat starts an experiment on its own, resulting in a Frankenstein-like monster, who starts threatening Betty, walking some wires to cross the street. This scene is the highlight of this cartoon, as the movements of the monster, Koko, and Bimbo are perfectly timed to the hot big band jazz accompanying the action. In the end, Betty transforms the monster into a giant flower, dancing on the rooftop with clearly rotoscoped movements.

As one may have noticed, ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ makes little sense, and its absurdity is greatly enhanced by the many throwaway gags fired at the audience. It makes this cartoon one of the last highlights of the Fleischers’ idiosyncratic pre-code animation style.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 12
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Is My Palm Read
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Snow-White

‘Betty Boop’s Penthouse’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Berthold Bartosch
Production Date:
 1930-1932
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

L'idée © Berthold BartoschWhile the cartoon industry flourished in the United States, animation film was developed as an art form in Europe.

In the 1920s Germany had lead the way, with films by Lotte Reiniger, Walter Ruttman and Oskar Fischinger, but by the early 1930’s France had taken over, albeit almost exclusively by foreigners, with great films like ‘Le roman de Renard’ (1929-1930) by Russian animator Władysław Starewicz, ‘Une nuit sur le mont chauve‘ (1933) by his compatriot Alexandre Alexeïeff, ‘La joie de vivre’ (1934) by British artist Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, and ‘L’idée’ (1930-1932) by Austro-Hungarian animator Berthold Bartosch (1893-1968).

‘L’idée’ was based on a wordless novel of the same name by Belgian woodcut-artist Frank Masereel (1889-1972), who initially co-operated on the film, until he discovered how laborious animating really was. Masereel’s groundbreaking work has a strong expressionistic quality, which is also very present in Bartosch’s film.

Both the international character and the mood of the wordless film are greatly enhanced by the beautiful musical score by Swiss composer Arthur Honegger, who used the whooping sounds of the Ondes Martenot, an early electronic instrument invented in 1928, to great effects. According to Wikipedia, this makes Honegger’s score for ‘L’idée’ the first film music to employ and electronic instrument.

The film tells how an idea can originate and grow, despite dejection, oppression and censorship by the establishment. In practice, Bartosch’s idea has a strong socialist character, becoming an idea of the working class, and being oppressed by clear capitalistic forces. The idea itself is presented as a naked woman, symbol of innocence and purity, and she grows, accompanying the people who become victim of the oppression to the very end. The emotional highlight of the film is when she visits the very person who had invented her the night before his death sentence.

Bartosch had previously worked on Lotte Reiniger’s films, and used her cut-out technique on Frank Masereel’s stark cut-outs to a great effect. The imagery of Bartosch’s film is much more poetic, however, than Masereel’s own work, with a lot of soft-focus, and milky effects, especially on the idea itself, which Bartosch created with the help of soap. The film is also noteworthy for its great sense of depth in some scenes, which can reach a stunning level of complexity. There is for example a scene showing crowds and cars passing by a window, and another with numbers of soldiers marching. Bartosch achieved this sense of depth with a multi-plane camera of his own design, using several glass plates below each other. It’s interesting to note that his device predated Disney’s multiplane camera by five years. True, these soap- and multiplane techniques at times blur the images too much, rendering them too murky to understand what’s happening on the screen, but mostly the film is an excellent example of expressionistic storytelling, and what animation can do.

Unfortunately, the film itself suffered from censorship, delaying its release, which often only happened with an altered, less provocative intro text, and Bartosch never gained any money from it. Nevertheless, it was released in 1934, creating a sensation in Europe, with exception, of course, of Nazi Germany, where it was banned. Bartosch’s second film, ‘Saint Francis: Dreams and Nightmares’ (1933-1938), apparently an anti-war film, was destroyed by the Nazis in World War II. After that Bartosch tried to work on a third film about the Cosmos, but because of his deteriorating health work was abandoned. He devoted the rest of his life to painting. Thus ‘L’idée’ sadly remains his only surviving film, but it’s a great testimony of Bartosch’s art, and without doubt it single-handedly places him in the pantheon of great animation film makers.

Watch ‘L’idée’ yourself and tell me what you think:

‘L’idée’ is available on the Re:Voir DVD ‘Berthold Bartosch – l’idée’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: September 23, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Betty Boop's Bamboo Isle © Max FleischerThis cartoon features a soundtrack by the Hawaii band ‘The Royal Samoans’, giving the cartoon a lively Hawaii score.

The short starts with Bimbo crashing on an island on a boat, into Betty Boop’s arms. A waterfall throws them into a spot full of singing trees, and later they’re confronted with a bunch of cannibals. Bimbo disguises himself as ‘black’ using mud, and starts singing the Hawaiian war chant. Thus he becomes the natives’ king. The cannibals perform for him, and Betty, too, who dances an extraordinarily sexy hula dance only dressed in a skirt and a flower garland. Unfortunately, the rain washes off Bimbo’s disguise and the two have to flee in a boat.

The movements of the dancing natives and Betty are rotoscoped from the Royal Samoans, rendering them very convincing and lifelike, indeed. Betty Boop’s hula dance is arguably her best scene ever. Apart from this, the cartoon is stuffed with throwaway gags showing the Fleischer’s typical brand of surrealism.

Watch ‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Betty Boop cartoon No. 4
To the previous Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop , M.D.
To the next Betty Boop cartoon: Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs

‘Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Burt Gillett
Release Date:
 August 13, 1932
Stars: Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Pluto
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Mickey's Nightmare © Walt Disney‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ is not a spooky horror cartoon like ‘The Haunted House‘ or ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘. No, it’s more of a bachelor’s nightmare…

The short’s plot harks back all the way to ‘Poor Papa’ (1928), the pilot film for the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, Mickey’s predecessor. In ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ Mickey dreams he finally marries Minnie, and is soon visited by a stork delivering a baby, and another, and another… Until the storks deliver tons of little kids. When he is awake he’s very happy to be still a bachelor.

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ introduces the little orphan mice, who would replace the little kittens of ‘Mickey’s Orphans‘ (1931) and ‘Mickey’s Revue’ (1932) as a cause of complete destruction. In Mickey’s dream they ruin the house, especially with paint. In order to show Mickey’s horror scenario, the short uses some excellent and complex use of animation cycles featuring lots and lots of little kids.

It’s interesting that the orphan mice first were introduced as Mickey’s children, and only in dream form. In their next cartoon, ‘Giantland‘ (1933), they suddenly materialized into the real world. The orphan mice would stay around until 1936, starring five more cartoons, before returning one final time in ‘Pluto’s Party‘ from 1952.

The little brats also appeared in the Sunday Pages of Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse comic, starting on September 18. In Gottfredson’s comics the mice are reduced to two, but no less disastrous. They are introduced as Mrs. Fieldmouse’s children and are apparently Mickey’s nephews. These two would eventually be christened Morty and Ferdie, and reenter the movie screen once in ‘Mickey’s Steamroller‘ (1934).

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ spawned at least two similar cartoons: first the Warner Bros. cartoon ‘Porky’s Romance‘ (1937), and second, the Donald Duck short ‘Donald’s Diary‘ from 1954.

Watch ‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 44
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Mickey in Arabia
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Trader Mickey

‘Mickey’s Nightmare’ is available on the DVD ‘Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in black and white’

Director: unknown
Release Date:
 July 16, 1932
Stars: Flip the Frog
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

The Office Boy © Ub IwerksIn ‘The Office Boy’ Flips applies to be an office boy, and he’s hired on the post, after he has washed away all his competitors with a fire hose.

Once at work he accidentally starts a record player, and he and the sexy secretary start to dance to some rumba music. Later, a cat and a mouse cause havoc, leading to the secretary losing her dress, and Flip being fired.

‘The Office Boy’ is a gag-packed cartoon, the best of which is the one with a face Flip paints on a dirty window. Flip’s voice is remarkably Mickey Mouse-like in this cartoon, but most of the humor would not fit Mickey, at all, as many gags involve the sexy secretary, repeatedly revealing her underwear.

The secretary would be used again in Flip’s next cartoon, ‘Room Runners‘, which is even more erotic. The secretary is also shown chewing bubble gum, in one of the first animated depictions of this 1928 invention (another contender is the Mickey Mouse film ‘Barnyard Olympics‘ from April).

The erotic secretary seems proof that Iwerks wanted to compete with Fleischer’s sensual Betty Boop cartoons. However, it may also be an example of an increased amount of sex references employed by Hollywood in 1932 in general, for a stronger sexual content can also be noted in live action movies from the era.

This higher level of eroticism in Hollywood cinema remained extant until 1934, when the Hays code kicked in with a vengeance, and the tables were turned exactly the other way: for most of the 1930s cartoons often became ridiculously goody-goody and childish, reaching a low point around 1935/1936.

Watch ‘The Office Boy’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Flip the Frog cartoon No. 23
To the previous Flip the Frog cartoon: The Bully
To the next Flip the Frog cartoon: Room Runners

‘The Office Boy’ is available on the DVD Cartoons that Time Forgot – The Ub Iwerks Collection Vol. 2

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: April 13, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Koko the Clown
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Chess Nuts © Max Fleischer‘Chess Nuts’ is by all means one of the Fleischers’ most original Talkartoons.

The cartoon’s setting is a chess game, and it opens with two live action players playing the game. The ashes of the cigar of one of the players falls down on the black queen, revealing it to be Betty Boop, while Bimbo appears to be the white king. Then there’s a cut to a short stop motion sequence of the pieces moving across the board. Only then we really enter the chess world.

In this chess world the black king or ‘Old King Cole’ (the dirty old man of ‘Mask-a-Raid‘ from 1931) tries to force queen Betty to love him, but king Bimbo saves her from his clutches. Most of the action takes place in a castle next to the chessboard game.

There’s a strong sense of stream-of-consciousness in this short, which simply bursts with random and weird throwaway gags, up to the very last shot, in which we suddenly return to the chess players. The result is a wildly surreal film, and one of the most interesting films the Fleischers ever made. Betty Boop is the very sexy star of this cartoon. Koko, on the other hand, only plays a rather insignificant part.

Watch ‘Chess Nuts’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 37
To the previous Talkartoon: The Dancing Fool
To the next Talkartoon: A Hunting We Will Go

‘Chess Nuts’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: March 11, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Bimbo, Cab Calloway
Rating: ★★★★★
Review:

Minnie the Moocher © Max FleischerThis talkartoon is completely built around the title song, Cab Calloway’s huge 1931 hit ‘Minnie the Moocher’, which is sung by the great jazz singer himself.

In fact, the cartoon opens with a live action shot of Calloway showing some of his extraordinary dance moves in front of his orchestra. We then cut to a home setting with Betty Boop and her parents, which are apparently of German Jewish descent. Her father scorns her, his jabbering head suddenly changing into a cylinder phonograph. Betty flees crying to her room, and decides to leave home, and she rings Bimbo to come along. This sequence is accompanied by the 1929 hit song ‘Mean to Me’.

The couple flees to the countryside, which quickly becomes very scary, so they hide inside a cave, where the theme song starts. Inside the cave they encounter a walrus-shaped ghost (a rotoscoped Cab Calloway) giving an almost complete rendering of ‘Minnie the Moocher’. During the song we watch images of e.g. skeletons drinking and some prisoner ghosts getting the electric chair. In the end, the ghosts chase the couple back home to the tune of ‘Tiger Rag’.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ makes little sense, and is not as good as the later ‘Snow White’, which also stars Calloway. However, Calloway’s performance is so intoxicating, and the Fleischers’ sense of humor so mesmerizing, it remains a joy to watch the cartoon throughout.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ was the first of handful Fleischer cartoons featuring popular jazz stars, the others being ‘Snow-White‘ and ‘The Old Man of the Mountain‘ from 1933, also featuring Calloway, ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead you Rascal You‘ (1932) featuring Louis Armstrong, and ‘I Heard‘ (1933) featuring Don Redman and his Orchestra.

Watch ‘Minnie the Moocher’ yourself and tell me what you think:

This is Talkartoon No. 33
To the previous Talkartoon: The Robot
To the next Talkartoon: S.O.S.

‘Minnie the Moocher’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’

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