This blog could use some more content, so I came up with the idea of doing a regular series where I watch a ton of animated films and cartoons from a specific decade, create a shortlist for what I think are the essential works from that decade, and then describe what I noticed in terms of trends and standouts from the selection. We’ll start with the 30s and work our way up to the present from there [the shortlist is at the bottom of the post].
Why the 30s specifically? Even though there’s plenty of great animation from the 1910s and 20s – Lotte Reiniger’s Cinderella, Oskar Fischinger’s Seelisch Konstruktionen, Len Lye’s Tusalava, Winsor McCay’s Lusitania and his short-lived Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend series, Ladislas Starevich’s Frogland and The Cameraman’s Revenge, Walter Ruttmann’s Lichtspiel series, and the first batch of Bill Nolan Oswald cartoons – there simply isn’t enough that I’m personally excited about. By contrast, the peak years of the so-called Golden Age are packed with quality. Even the worst American cartoons of the 30s and 40s can have a shot of ingenuity in them, and the mediocre ones put almost all of modern American commercial animation to shame. It’s crazy!
Histories about the Golden Age tend to be overly teleological. Most of the time it goes like this: Walt Disney moved out west and started the first Hollywood animation studio, using his newly created Silly Symphony series to develop the foundations of traditional character animation that culminated in the “first” animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (not actually the first; Disney was beaten to the punch by Argentinian political satirist Quirino Cristiani and German cutout animator Lotte Reiniger, though Snow White was the first one animated on cels), the standard upon which all future animation is built. This reading tends to look at the various Disney shorts as linear breakthroughs in technique: The Three Little Pigs introduced realistic squash and stretch, Playful Pluto is the first example of “personality animation”, The Tortoise and the Hare has the first effective portrayal of speed in animation, The Old Mill was a testing ground for the multiplane camera, and so on. It’s not that this interpretation is incorrect – watching through the Symphonies it’s clear the studio was always building towards something bigger – but that it both demeans the best ones as being little more than tech demos and props up the ones that were tech demos as something more. The Old Mill is clearly on a different level, filmmaking-wise, than an inanity like The Three Little Pigs.
But the worst part about this official history is how it obscures the great work that was done on the East Coast. Before the rise of the Hays Code in 1934, East Coast cartoons were ahead of Disney in their inventiveness and clarity of vision. The typical East Coast cartoon from this era was a free associative trip, full of racy humor and the occasional nightmarish image, and unlike the early Disneys they haven’t aged a day. Though strictly speaking these cartoons are “comedies” in the sense that most theatrical shorts are comedies, they often double as a kind of giddy surreal horror, the ultimate in Depression era entertainment. The wide umbrella of East Coast animation includes the amateurishly-made but whimsical Van Beuren cartoons produced by John Foster, the well-made but awkwardly directed Flip the Frog series by Ub Iwerks after he broke off from Disney, the independently produced work of Ted Eshbaugh, the wonderfully cynical Scrappy and Toby the Pup cartoons directed and designed by Dick Huemer at Charles Mintz, the Oswald the Rabbit cartoons produced at Walter Lantz with animation by Bill Nolan, master of the rubber hose style and apparently a mentor to Tex Avery, and of course the kings, Fleischer Studios.
The Fleischer animators and directors were masters of the New York style. Their Talkartoons are the most rhythmic, transgressive, and all-around weird of any cartoons produced during the decade. The conflicting demands of their rigidly even timing and Dave Fleischer’s insistence on at least one gag for every shot gave the animation a peculiar quality, characters marching on a precise beat yet everything constantly morphing into different shapes. The best Talkartoon and one of the best cartoons ever made, Swing You Sinners!, shows how these elements could cohere into something greater. Bimbo, the mascot of the series, is caught trying to steal a chicken. Fleeing from the cops, he hides in a graveyard where ghosts and demons confront Bimbo with his crimes before breaking into a lively big band chorus, singing about the different ways they’re going to murder Bimbo as he desperately tries to escape, all building to a hellish climax where narrative is dispensed with completely. Later Fleischer cartoons would play with the dynamic of a sympathetic protagonist succumbing to an otherworldly power but few framed it in such moral terms, as if Bimbo was a vaudeville Don Giovanni. Seeing Bimbo ineffectually running from a horde of demonically smiling ghosts, all pulsating to the beat like a rhythm game, is the kind of thing that reminds me why animation is worthwhile.
Dave Fleischer was a 1930s Akiyuki Shinbo: he always got credit for things he didn’t direct. It was usually the first credited animator who actually directed the Fleischer cartoons. Sinners was directed by Ted Sears, future story man at Disney, but it was one of the animators, Willard Bowsky, who would do the most to further develop the style of Sinners and he ended up directing the creepiest work the studio ever produced. His “mystery cave” cartoons in the Talkartoons and spinoff Betty Boop series are essential viewing. Other Fleischer artists of note include Roland Crandall, who solo animated Hide and Seek and Snow White, the latter being the pinnacle of the mechanical Fleischer style of animation, and Grim Natwick, a versatile animator who would end up working all over the industry but whose eccentric timing in the early Fleischer cartoons stands out as my favorite work from him.
The best of the early Talkartoons and Betty Boops were easy to pick but the standouts from their later adaptation of Popeye were harder for me to decide on. The Fleischer Popeyes might be the most consistently great animated series of the 30s but each episode is usually great for the same reasons: the charmingly ugly designs, the gritty New York feel of Erich Schenk’s backgrounds, the ingenious bits of slapstick, the dynamic shot composition (a rarity in 30s animation), Jack Mercer’s ad-libbed voice acting, and the subtle deviations from the predictable “Popeye swallows a can of spinach and beats the shit out of Bluto” formula. And as much as I like this Slice of Life version of Popeye, I think the most interesting of his 30s cartoons are the ones which translate the fantastical adventure quality of Segar’s original strip into motion, namely Goonland and the first 2 two-reelers. The studio’s decision to chase after Disney with their first feature rather than make a full-length Popeye adventure has to be one of the most egregious missed opportunities in animation history.
The New York tradition felt apart with the enforcement of the Hays Code and everyone started following Disney’s lead, and not without good reason. In the early 30s, the output at the Disney studio was polished but they were essentially making the same style of cartoon as their competitors, a style that was ill-suited for cheery sentimentality. Once they evolved beyond the “music box” quality of the early Symphonies, their storytelling became increasingly refined. In the later Symphonies it’s apparent that the artists at Disney weren’t just great at creating plausible fairy-tale milieux but also at populating those worlds with effective characters and scenarios. Wilfred Jackson was the best director at balancing the aural, visual, and narrative dimensions of these films, which is probably why he’s considered the closest Disney’s own sensibility. That sensibility underlies Snow White, such that, as in Bill Tytla’s Grumpy, the character animation is inextricably linked to the larger storytelling goals of the movie.
But my favorite of the studio’s work during this era might be the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy comedy trio shorts directed by Ben Sharpsteen. I feel like these ones are underrated since they’re often compared unfavorably with the Looney Tunes from the 40s. The argument goes that the logical nature of Disney animation was incompatible with fast-paced slapstick, but that misses the point. Mickey et al may not have supernatural control over their environment like Daffy or Bugs, being able to put out various props or tricks on a dime in service of the director’s comedic timing, but they’re so completely ineffectual that that in itself becomes the draw. In Mickey’s Fire Brigade, the main conceit is that they can’t even do something as simple as pour a bucket of water on a small patch of fire without the fire coming to life and turning the tables on them. But the rational cause-and-effect structure of the gags implicates the three in their own fuck ups, which helps to make the Disneyesque personality animation seem like a natural fit with the traditional gag structure. It’s kind of like an enormously stupid ballet. That might not make for a great laugh but it is amusing and it would be terrible if all animated comedy tried to be Warner Brothers (a problem seen even as early as the late Silly Symphonies, ex: Mother Goose Goes Hollywood). Oh, and the Sharpsteen cartoons have incredible animation all around, so it’s got that going for it too.
Outside of the United States there’s less to talk about, both because overseas cartoons aren’t as easily accessible online and frankly because the rest of the world was still a step behind the US. Many foreign animation industries from this era either tried to copy the US to no avail or were still developing their own tradition. The films of Yasuji Murata and Ivan Ivanov-Vano, for example, simply don’t stack up to the best that Japanese and Russian animation would eventually have to offer. The exception seems to be France, as an Art Nouveau reverie (La Joie de vivre), a painstakingly constructed pinscreen animation by engraver and animation legend Alexandre Alexeieff (Une nuit sur le mont Chauve), a Caligari-esque cutout film with overtures of social commentary (L’Idee), and an early Paul Grimault commercial (Le Messager de la lumiere) all made the cut. Ladislas Starevich was doing stop motion in France too but I feel the added expressiveness of his models in those films came at the cost of the wry commentary of his early work. In terms of stop motion, George Pal and his Puppetoons feature a bigger jump in technique than anything previous. Pal would essentially sculpt individual dolls for each key pose in his films, leading to a kind of stop motion squash and stretch that simulated the plasticity of 2D animation, bringing sculpture into stop motion as Disney had brought traditional draftsmanship into cel. As with a number of foreign animators, Pal wound up in the US by the end of the decade.
In the independent sphere, abstract animation dominated. Oftentimes abstract animators fall into the pattern of either too literally evoking concrete phenomena (like how the Bach segment in Fantasia transparently represents the strings of the violins) or by being too repetitious and obvious in their motion (as in the primitive style of Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie diagonale). Oskar Fischinger’s best work is definitely an exception, as is the fantastic Spook Sport directed by Mary Ellen Bute and animated by Norman McLaren, but among 30s abstract animators the one to solve this problem the best was Len Lye, not so much by answering it directly but by sidestepping the entire issue. When we look at McLaren’s animation, much of it is essentially figurative even if the “figure” is a cluster of lines and shapes. On the other hand, Lye’s ‘direct animation’ takes the entire frame as its subject, so it’s hard to tell where one form begins and another ends. If the aim of the early abstract film is to reach a higher level of contemplation by stripping away all reference to the material world, then Lye’s films, despite the shoehorned advertising, are the quintessential abstract films of the decade.
I don’t have many controversial opinions to give out this time. I think the Warner Bros cartoons during these years aren’t that exciting but I don’t think anyone would defend Clampett’s, Avery’s, Tashlin’s, or Jones’s 30s output as their best anyway. The list below doesn’t contain every important or even every great animated film from the 30s, and chances are a few of these entries would be different depending on when you ask me, but there’s nothing on there whose placement I couldn’t at least defend as high quality and representative of the times. If you want to see 30s animation in all it’s glory, you could do a hell of a lot worse than the ones chosen here.
The Hash Shop (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Hells Heels (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Mysterious Mose (Willard Bowsky)
Spooks (Bill Nolan/Walter Lantz)
Swing You Sinners! (Ted Sears)
Bimbo’s Initiation (Unknown/Fleischer)
Halloween (Dick Huemer)
Sunday Clothes (Dick Huemer)
Toby the Milkman (Dick Huemer)
The Bad Genius (Dick Huemer)
Betty Boop, M.D. (Willard Bowsky)
The Flop House (Dick Huemer)
Hide and Seek (Roland Crandall)
L’Idee (Berthold Bartosch)
Minnie the Moocher (Willard Bowsky)
I Heard (Willard Bowsky)
Une nuit sur le mont Chauve (Alexandre Alexeieff)
The Old Man of the Mountain (Bernard Wolf)
Snow White (Roland Crandall)
A Dreaming Walking (Seymour Kneitel)
La Joie de vivre (Anthony Gross/Hector Hoppin)
Red Hot Mamma (Willard Bowsky)
A Colour Box (Len Lye)
For Better or Worser (Seymour Kneitel)
Kaleidoscope (Len Lye)
King of the Mardi Gras (David Tendlar)
Komposition in Blau (Oskar Fischinger)
Mickey’s Fire Brigade (Ben Sharpsteen)
Mickey’s Service Station (Ben Sharpsteen)
Music Land (Wilfred Jackson)
Three Orphan Kittens (David Hand)
Allegretto (Oskar Fischinger)
The Country Cousin (Wilfred Jackson)
The Moving Day (Ben Sharpsteen)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Willard Bowsky)
Rainbow Dance (Len Lye)
The Returned Sun (Olga Khodatayeva)
Thru the Mirror (David Hand)
Clock Cleaners (Ben Sharpsteen)
Colour Flight (Len Lye)
Lonesome Ghosts (Burt Gillett)
Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (Willard Bowsky)
The Old Mill (Wilfred Jackson)
An Optical Poem (Oskar Fischinger)
The Paneless Window Washer (Willard Bowsky)
Philips Broadcast of 1938 (George Pal)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand et al)
Trade Tattoo (Len Lye)
Cavalcade of Music (George Pal)
Cops is Always Right (Seymour Kneitel)
A Date to Skate (Willard Bowsky)
Goonland (Seymour Kneitel)
Le Messager de la lumiere (Paul Grimault)
Mickey’s Trailer (Ben Sharpsteen)
Porky in Egypt (Bob Clampett)
Porky in Wackyland (Bob Clampett)
Wynken, Blynken, and Nod (Graham Heid)
Jitterbug Follies (Milt Gross)
Spook Sport (Mary Ellen Bute/Norman McLaren)
Swinging the Lambeth Walk (Len Lye)