This blog post will cover many of the shorts and cartoons that I remember and recognize for their influence from the 10’s, 20’s and 30’s. This includes shorts from Silly Symphonies (1929-1939) and Merrie Melodies (1931-1969), the two most influential cartoon series of that time. Again, if there are any that you think should be listed here, tell me about them and I will watch them and tell you what I think.
(Note: I have left links at the beginning of every post so you can see each of the film’s/sequences I discuss. Seeing, in this case, is believing. I encourage you to watch any you are curious about, if not all of them you haven’t seen.)
Animation in the 20’s and 30’s:
Gertie the Dinosaur, John McKay 1914
An American cartoonist and animator of the early 1900’s, John Mckay created this short as a sort of interactive vaudeville act between him and his animated dinosaur Gertie. In it, he asks Gertie to do subsequent acts like lifting up her feet and taking him for a ride on her back. Clearly though, Gertie had a mind of her own and sometimes ignored him and danced, ate or would get distracted by other prehistoric creatures. I had not seen this short until last night, but it caught my attention from the beginning because of its bright, enchanting feeling. John Mckay was one of the first animators, besides American James Stuart Blackton and French Émile Cohl, and he used Gertie the Dinosaur to show that his previous film How a Mosquito Operates made in 1912 wasn’t a trace of characters from photographs. It is simple and pales in comparison to things we see nowadays through computer animation. However, this short was groundbreaking because it was the first film to use animation techniques such as keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, the Mutoscope action viewer, and animation loops. He drew thousands of frames and timed his own breathing to the sequence to give it a more life-like quality. It is also memorable because it influenced, along with his other works, famous animators like the Fleischer brothers, Otto Messmer, Paul Terry, and Walt Disney.
Steam Boat Willie, Silly Symphonies 1928
This is the first popular short credited to Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks and featured the first significant appearance of Mickey Mouse and his girlfriend Minnie Mouse. It starts with the infamous scene with Mickey whistling by the Helm of the Steamship and progresses into a series of gags involving animals and music. It was the first cartoon to use synchronized sound and to have a distinguished soundtrack, the most famous tunes being “Steamboat Bill” composed by Arthur Collins, which Mickey whistles in the beginning, and “Turkey in the Straw“, a famous American folk song rooted in the early 19th century. It received a very positive response from most critics and audiences because it was viewed as something new and exciting. It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that Walt Disney was inspired to make this short after watching The Jazz Singer (1927), the first film to use audible dialogue and sound. The end of the 1920’s marked the beginning of the sound era in film, so Willie’s popularity was almost primarily credited to its sound and music. Though not my favorite cartoon made by Walt Disney, I do acknowledge its influence and breadth and enjoy some of the humor.
The Skeleton Dance, Silly Symphony’s 1929
I became acquainted with this short several years ago while reading a textbook on the history of animation. Also produced and directed by Walt Disney, it depicts a more modern danse macabre of four skeletons in a graveyard dancing the “Ring a Ring O’Roses” and using each other as comical mediums for the music, even turning one of the skeletons into a xylophone. Originally, the danse macabre was created in medieval times to remind people of their frail earthly existance and would portray laborers, children, popes and even kings becoming subject to death, dispelling the myth that powerful figures like kings and popes aren’t subject to mortal limitations. (Other examples of the danse macabre include the ending of The Seventh Seal (1957)directed by Ingmar Bergman) It isn’t scary by any means, but it still has that same Halloween-ish feel consistent in The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993). This is my favorite short produced by Walt Disney for several reasons. First, I love the music and the way it is used to exemplify the movements of the skeletons, especially at the beginning. Second, I love the short 3-6 second sequence where the skeleton seems to jump towards the audience and the “camera” goes all the way through its rib cage to its feet. Lastly, I love its homage to classic Medieval symbolism and classical music.
Flowers and Trees, Silly Symphonies 1932
Made in the transition from black and white cartoons to colored, Flowers and Trees was used by Walt Disney to promote the new full-color three-strip Technicolor process. It opened with a forest waking up, washing and greeting one another on a bright summer day. A young male tree woos a young female tree through music created with a harp made from vines and a still curved tree and fights off an old grey hollow tree that attempts to take his love and maliciously burn everyone. This is a classic example of the old cartoons that depict a young couple, who possibly just met, fighting off an evil adversary and marrying at the end. What is interesting is the social dynamics of the young couple. As the young man woos the young woman he attempts to get a kiss, but she demurely avoids him even though she is obviously interested. Once he proves himself or the adversary is gone they marry and he finally receives his kiss from his lady. This short was the first to win the Academy Award for Animated Short Subjects and was a commercial and critical success. It set the groundwork for other animators to use the new colored system, though they weren’t able to stop using the inferior two-color system until 1935 because of their contract with technicolor.
Balloon Land, ComiColor Cartoons 1935
I hadn’t planned on talking about this short, but after watching a second time I decided it is important to discuss certain elements in its plot and animation. Unbeknownst to many, its director Ub Iwerks was the co-creator of Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and partnered with Walt Disney on early animation projects like The Skeleton Man and Steamboat Willie. This short depicts a happy world made entirely from balloons, alive and stationary, who lived in fear of the pincushion man who lived in the forest beyond the wall. Two young balloon children, a boy and a girl, left to find the evil pincushion man at the boy’s insistence and soon find more than what they bargained for. After the villain followed the children into the city, the police branched together and defeated the pincushion man, sending him over the clouds midst cheering and music. One of the things I like the most about this short was the pincushion man. His laugh is so magnetic and evil and sets the tone for the story very well. I also like how the children have to live with the consequences of their actions and were active in trying to expel the pincushion man from the city. Above all, this cartoon has the upbeat bright sense of adventure that emanates from so many early cartoons. We shouldn’t forget that these shorts were people’s dreams and imaginations come to life, when film was still in its earliest stages and it carried a sort of new magic that hadn’t been seen before.
Music Land, Silly Smphonies 1935
Written by Pinto Colvig, who provided the original voice for Goofy, and produced by Walt Disney this Silly Symphony was written in response to the growing tensions between jazz and classical music. Centered around the Isle of Jazz and the Land of Symphony, separated by the sea of discord, the prince, a spry alto-saxophone, and the princess , a demure violin, meet after growing bored at their different parties. After finding her daughter flirting with the foreigner, the queen of Symphony, a grumpy cello, had the guards lock up the prince, which brings animosity from the usually laid back king of Jazz. Each fire upon the other until the young prince and princess are caught drowning in the sea, while trying to stop the fighting, and eventually a Bridge of Harmony was built between the two kingdoms and the king and queen and prince and princess married. The tensions shown in this short reflect the obvious discord that had grown between jazz and classical music and also provided a sort of middle ground, showing that they were equal to each in value and could live peaceably. The animation showcased bright, colorful visuals and is fun to watch though all the characters only speak as their personified musical instruments.
I Love to Singa, Merrie Melodies 1936
A light tribute to the previously mentioned movie The Jazz Singer, this short was one of the first popular cartoons directed by Tex Avery, credited for creating the well-known characters of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Droopy, Screwy Squirrel, and developing Porky Pig. The story revolves around a promising jazz singing owlet, born into a more traditional classical family, who force him to sing the more acceptable traditional folk song “Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes” instead of his favorite song “I Love to Singa”. Eventually, he is recognized for his talent and wins a contest hosted by a radio with the support of his family who finally allowed him to embrace his gift for jazz singing. I have loved this short for a long time and remember it from my early childhood for its music and non-violent humor. Perhaps it is because I understand the owlet’s hatred for “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes”, a song I had more interest learning the history for instead of actually singing it. This short incorporates the tri-color technicolor system developed by Walt Disney Studios and is regarded by many as one of Avery’s masterpieces.
Clock Cleaners, Walt Disney Productions (1937)
This is another short that I only watched recently and really enjoyed. Like in previous cartoons, Mickey, Donald and Goofy work together on cleaning a clock tower. Of course it isn’t as easy as it seems it should be because from the beginning all of them run into different problems. Whether it is Mickey dealing with a sleepy stork nested on one of the gears, Donald losing to a feisty coil, or Goofy trying to clean the inside of a bell whilst the metal caricatures banged it at the hour it seemed as though the clock tower had a mind to play tricks on the popular trio, just like the ship in Boat Builders (1938). I appreciated that Mickey was no longer malicious/ mean spirited like he was in previous cartoons like Steamboat Willie. Also, I love the character designs especially for Mickey, who looks more endearing then he did in previous cartoons and more likable then in later ones (he doesn’t look so stocky to me). Another part that I really enjoy is the scene with Goofy singing“Asleep in the Deep” while bobbing inside the bell. It is fascinating to see how much animation progressed after only eight years. The stylized techniques implemented in this short as well as in The Old Mill (1937) set the groundwork for his first masterpiece Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).
Have You Got Any Castles, Merrie Melodies 1938
Though not as famous at its successor Book Revue, this short shows different characters from various famous books through song and dance. There isn’t any initial plot, rather it is used as a way to showcase the popular music and culture of the day. The reason I decided to add this cartoon instead of the more popular Book Revue is because it is the one I remember the most. Curiously out of the hundreds of cartoons that I have watched from the 1930’s this is one of my favorites. Perhaps it is because of the many references to books, actors, actresses, and songs or maybe I just have a soft spot for old bookstores. The idea of a book store coming to life after midnight has such wonderful appeal to me. It is such an exciting mixture of so many cultural elements and I never get tired of watching it. I think animators had a lot of fun comically presenting popular singers and actors in these shorts. They were sort of like the newspaper cartoon artists, who no one can really argue against, because there is some element of truth in what they are portraying.
Other classics you should Look in to: The Cookie Carnival, Silly Symphonies (1935), Porky in Wackyland, Merrie Melodies (1938), The Band Concert, Silly Symphonies (1935), The Old Mill, Silly Symphonies (1937), Ferdinand the Bull, Walt Disney studios (1938), Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, Paramount Pictures (1936), Brave Little Tailor, Walt Disney Studios (1938), Little Nemo, Winsor Mckay (1911), Boat Builders, Walt Disney Productions (1938)