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Directors: John Foster & George Rufle
Release Date: January 6, 1933
Stars: Tom and Jerry
The short consists mostly of unrelated gags, but the finale gives the short a nice twist, reusing a lion and an elephant from earlier gags. Also featured is a girl singing with a very Betty Boop-like voice on the tightrope. According to Tralfaz this voice was done by Margie Hines, who had previously voiced Betty Boop. In the end we watch Tom and Jerry flooding the lions, and escaping on the elephant, with the girl on their side.
As always in Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry films, the animation is terrible: part is still a relic from the silent era (it doesn’t help that some animation is recycled from cartoons from 1930), and all animation is completely devoid of weight. The designs, too, are unappealing and inconsistent. Especially the animal designs are downright poor. Tom and Jerry were anything but on a winning streak.
Watch ‘Tight Rope Tricks’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Tight Rope Tricks’ is available on the DVD ‘The Complete Animated Adventures of Van Beuren Studio’s Tom and Jerry’
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: January 16, 1932
Stars: Betty Boop, Koko, Bimbo
We watch her in a sexy performance on the slack-rope. During this performance we can see the circus-master growing with lust, and back in her dressing room he tries to harass her. Luckily, Koko saves here, so he “couldn’t take her boop-oop-a-doop away“.
This is the first short to co-star Koko and Betty. Koko had returned to the animated screen in ‘The Herring Murder Case’, and he’s clearly comfortable in the circus setting of this short. Interestingly, it’s Koko who is Betty’s lover in this cartoon, not Bimbo. Bimbo’s role is reduced to being a peanut seller in a running gag. Koko’s career in the sound era was short-lived, however, and was to end already two years later with ‘Ha! Ha! Ha!‘ (1934).
‘Boop-oop-a-doop’ is an entertaining short, full of catchy music. For example, on the slack-rope Betty sings ‘Do Something’, a song associated by the singer who inspired her character, Helen Kane, who had recorded it in 1929. The two versions are indeed surprisingly similar, and it is not hard to see why Kane, whose own career had been in a steady decline, sued the Fleischer company on May 4, 1932.
It may very well be that this cartoon alone triggered that event. It at least should have been quite some evidence for Fleischer’s piracy, but after a case of two years, judge McGoldrick saw it otherwise. It’s rather difficult to understand now how the Fleischers could have won. Not only does Betty Boop sound like Kane, her looks are also strikingly similar. Indeed, according to her animator and creator Gram Natwick she was modeled after Helen Kane when conceived for ‘Dizzy Dishes‘ (1930). However, Betty’s grotesque, and rather ugly appearance in her earliest cartoons must hardly have given that fact away. Moreover, in her following films both Betty’s voice and looks were both subject to change. Only by the time of ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ Betty really started to look like her source of inspiration…
Anyway, for a detailed account of the trial, see Trafalz’s excellent blog post on the subject.
Watch ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ is available on the French DVD Box Set ‘Betty Boop Coffret Collector’
Directors: Harry Bailey & John Foster
Release Date: September 28, 1930
Stars: Milton Mouse, Rita Mouse
The Van Beuren Studio comes nowhere near Walt Disney’s high quality standards, however, and ‘Circus Capers’ can be used as a good counter-example to show how good contemporary Mickey Mouse cartoons (e.g. ‘The Shindig‘, ‘The Chain Gang‘ and ‘The Gorilla Mystery‘) actually were.
In ‘Circus Capers’ Milton (pseudo-Mickey) is a clown, while Rita (pseudo-Minnie) is an acrobat riding a horse. An evil circus master shoots Milton away as a human cannonball, meanwhile courting an all too willing Rita. When Milton discovers this, he’s heartbroken, and sings “Laugh Clown Laugh” from the 1928 musical of the same name. However, when the circus master becomes too insistent, Rita flees from him, back to Milton, who gives her the raspberry, making her pass out.
‘Circus Capers’ is hampered by primitive, crude animation, unsteady designs, and odd staging. Its curious story is enjoyable, however, for the real Mickey and Minnie would never behave like Milton and Rita, who seem to be their cruder cousins.
Watch ‘Circus Capers’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Circus Capers’ is available on the DVD ‘Uncensored Animation from the Van Beuren Studio’
Director: Ben Sharpsteen
Release Date: August 1, 1936
Stars: Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, the Orphan Mice, the Little Seal
Most of the time goes to Donald and his trained seals. Only after six minutes Mickey joins in again, struggling with Donald on the slack-rope, while being troubled by the orphan mice.
‘Mickey’s Circus’ was the last cartoon to feature the Orphan Mice (apart from the remake of ‘Orphan’s Benefit from 1941), until their unexpected return in ‘Pluto’s party‘ from 1952. It’s also the first Disney short featuring a cute little seal. Similar seals would reappear in ‘Pluto’s Playmate’ (1941), ‘Rescue Dog‘ (1947) and ‘Mickey and the Seal‘ (1948).
Watch ‘Mickey’s Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Mickey Mouse cartoon No. 87
To the previous Mickey Mouse cartoon: Alpine Climbers
To the next Mickey Mouse cartoon: Donald and Pluto
Director: Jiří Trnka
Release Date: 1951
The film shows that Trnka was a master in this technique as well: the animation is superb: the sense of weight, muscular tensions and balance is nothing less than stunning. Moreover, the cut-outs seem to float in mid-air, casting wonderful shadows on the background.
Unfortunately, the film’s subject is not that interesting. We watch circus artists perform, among them two sea lions juggling, a girl on a horse, three trapeze acrobats and an acrobat bear balancing on a chair on a bottle on a glass. Even though some of the shown tricks are quite improbable, the only truly surrealistic act is the fish on the slack-rope.
Despite the lack of story, the film is an enjoyable watch: its visual design is beautiful and poetic, its animation fluent and convincing, and its circus atmosphere well-captured. ‘The Merry Circus’ may not be Trnka’s best film, but it’s only the high quality of some of his other films that makes this one second-rate.
Watch ‘The Merry Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Robert McKimson
Release Date: December 12, 1951
Stars: Bugs Bunny
Five years after his first Bugs Bunny cartoon, ‘Acrobatty Bunny‘ (1946), McKimson returns to the circus setting.
This time Bugs is the new acrobat partner of an egotistical star acrobat bear called Bruno. This “Slobokian bear” is not a good sport and tries to get rid of Bugs, but of course, the reverse happens.
‘Big Top Bunny’ is better than ‘Acrobatty Bunny’, but it still suffers: it’s worn down by the high amount of rather unfunny dialogue and its slow pace. Nevertheless, the cartoon builds up nicely, and its best gags come in last: first there’s a great cycling gag, then there’s a superb gag in which Bugs and Bruno compete in the most daring high diving act. This is quickly followed by the frantic finale in which Bugs disposes of the bear once and for all.
Watch ‘Big Top Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:
‘Big Top Bunny’ is available on the DVD set ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 1’
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 86
Director: Charles Nichols
Release Date: April 7, 1950
Stars: Pluto, Butch, Dinah
Pluto imagines himself to be a circus dog too, but his attempts all fail, much to the amusement of a watching Butch. When Pluto nags Butch, and the latter chases him, he accidentally and unwillingly turns into the acrobat he wanted to be, gaining Dinah’s love once more.
‘Wonder Dog’ is a wonderful cartoon, with some great comedy. Its story, by Bill Peet & Milt Banta, has a surprisingly natural flow, without becoming cliche. Like ‘Pluto’s Heart Throb‘ from earlier that year it illustrates that the trio of Pluto, Dinah and Butch could inspire some excellent comedy. Unfortunately, ‘Wonder Dog’ marks Dinah’s last screen appearance, after a mere four cartoons.
Watch ‘Wonder Dog’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Clyde Geronimi
Release Date: February 6, 1948
‘The Big Wash’ was Clyde Geronimi’s last cartoon and his only one in the Goofy series. In the years to follow he would concentrate his directing skills on feature films, with the exception of two short specials, ‘Susie, the Little Blue Coupe’ (1952) and ‘The Story of Anyburg, U.S.A.’ (1957).
‘The Big Wash’ is not really a highlight in Geronimi’s career. Like ‘Foul Hunting‘ from the previous year, it uses the original Goofy character and Pinto Colvig’s voice, and, like in the former cartoon, this results in a slow, boring and remarkably old-fashioned film. The short is cute, but terribly unfunny, especially when compared to most other Goofy cartoons or contemporary entries from other studios.
‘The Big Wash’ was the last cartoon to feature the Goofy character as it was developed in the thirties. In his next cartoon, ‘Tennis Racquet‘, Goofy was not only once again voiceless, he was also redesigned, making him more fitting to the post-war era.
Watch ‘The Big Wash’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Robert McKimson
Release date: June 29, 1946
Stars: Bugs Bunny
When a circus moves in, it disturbs Bugs Bunny’s quiet home life. When he wants to complain, he encounters a lion and the rest of the cartoon consists of his battle with this animal.
Bugs seems in less control than he normally is and their battle is not very funny. McKimson would bring Bugs back to the circus in the more successful ‘Big Top Bunny‘ (1951).
Watch ‘Acrobatty Bunny’ yourself and tell me what you think:
This is Bugs Bunny cartoon No. 38
To the previous Bugs Bunny cartoon: Hair-Raising Hare
To the next Bugs Bunny cartoon: Racketeer Rabbit
Director: Dave Fleischer
Release Date: August 26, 1942
The gorilla follows her, while Superman’s busy putting other animals back into their cages. He rescues Lois and captures the gorilla, but it remains unclear how he stops the fire that has started, too.
‘Terror in the Midway’ is one of those fortunate Superman shorts without a villain (see also ‘The Arctic Giant’ and ‘Volcano‘ from the same year). However, it also shows Fleischer’s ambivalent realism: it contains some generic Fleischer thirties children designs, which by 1942 really look old-fashioned, but there are also some rare close-ups of Lois and Superman, which add to the drama. The staging, too, is superb, with some spectacular shots.
The gorilla looks like a typical King Kong-like monster, despite the fact that its model sheet was partly based on rotoscoped movements of real gorillas. Apparently, Bambi-like naturalism was wasted on the Fleischers animators.
Unfortunately, ‘Terror on the Midway’ would be the last Superman cartoon made by the Fleischer studios, before Paramount stole their crew to form their own Famous Studios. Indeed, it was the very last film the Fleischer brothers made together, ending an era that had begun 27 years earlier.
Watch ‘Terror on the Midway’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Abe Levitow
Release Date: March 3, 1966
Stars: Tom & Jerry
This rather dull and unfunny cartoon marks the debut of animator Abe Levitow as a Tom & Jerry director. It is not a success. Levitow was an experienced director: in 1959 he had directed several Warner Brothers cartoons, and at UPA he had directed Mr. Magoo television specials, and the studio’s second feature, Gay-Purree (1962). Yet, this experience is hard to detect in ‘Jerry Go-Round’: both the designs, the timing and the animation are inferior to those in the cartoons directed by Chuck Jones himself.
Watch ‘Jerry-Go-Round’ yourself and tell me what you think:
Director: Winsor McCay
Production Date: ca. 1918-1921
This is a short and unfinished film featuring Flip performing tricks in a circus, a.o. with a large hippo-like animal called Baby. The film does not have much of a story, and is undoubtedly the weakest of McCay’s surviving films, despite the high quality of the animation.
Watch ‘Flip’s Circus’ yourself and tell me what you think: