The cinematic celebration of 1933 – “Hollywood’s naughtiest, bawdiest year!” – continues at New York City’s Film Forum on Monday, February 25 with Cartoon Cut-ups of 1933, a collection of rare animated shorts released by RKO, Columbia, MGM, Warner Bros., and Universal before enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code began in 1934. The selections include work from some of the most seminal figures in early filmed animation: Walter Lantz; Leon Schlesinger; Ub Iwerks; Charles Mintz; Pat Powers; Amedee van Beuren; Hugh Harman; Rudolf Ising; and William Nolan.
While they were created for an adult audience, these cartoons rarely feature the salaciousness for which Pre-Code films are best known today. They do include the broad ethnic and gender stereotyping that was common to comedy of the era, and an inordinate amount of caricatured cameos of celebrities and newsmakers. In that sense, these shorts offer a snapshot of the zeitgeist that you might not get from individual feature films released that year.
Cartoons were an important part of the movie-going experience from the 1920s through the ‘60s, usually preceding a feature (or double feature), along with newsreels, comedy short subjects, adventure serials, travelogues and other forms of one- and two-reel content. Bugs and Daffy, Tom and Jerry, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, Superman, Woody Woodpecker, Mighty Mouse, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Mr. Magoo and their respective supporting cast members all got their start on cinema screens during the first generation of sound filmmaking, before moving to the new medium of television – initially in broadcasts of theatrically released cartoons and later (in some cases), in newly produced content.
But despite the ubiquity of digital media, there remains a lost generation of animated stars from the late silent and early Talkie era who are forgotten today and, due to their lack of copyright protection, will likely remain so. When was the last time you watched a Cubby Bear cartoon? How about Scrappy, or Willie Whopper or the Little King? Without a rights holder to finance proper restoration and release, many extant cartoons remain unavailable, or viewable only in sub-par versions.
Where have you gone, Flip the Frog? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
The Cartoon Cut-ups program I previewed on February 11 at Film Forum featured a dozen animated shorts curated by collector Greg Ford, many in 50+ year-old, 16 mm prints from home movie distributors like Blackhawk and Official Films. All were presented in glorious black and white – the standard production model for most animated shorts throughout the 1930s. And most were in surprisingly good shape.
Many of the characters in these shorts were unfamiliar to me, with one notable exception: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Co-created by Walt Disney and animator Ub Iwerks, Oswald made his debut in Trolley Troubles, a 1927 short distributed by Universal, which controlled the copyright to the character. After a contract dispute forced a parting of the ways between Walt Disney and producer Charles Mintz in 1928, Disney lost all claim to Oswald, whose animated exploits continued for another decade and a half at Universal. In 2006, the Walt Disney Company welcomed the wandering hare back into their corporate hutch when they “traded” the contract of Monday Night Football announcer Al Michaels to NBC Universal for Oswald and the rights to the 26 original, Disney-produced Oswald shorts. This may be the only time in sports history that a human was traded for a cartoon character, although I’m sure the Mets may have tried it at least once.
The Film Forum program kicked off with two shorts Ub Iwerks produced for Pat Powers’ Celebrity Productions after Iwerks split from Disney. The first, SODA SQUIRT, stars Flip the Frog in the last of his 38 cartoons, all released by MGM between 1930 and 1933. In this installment, Flip opens up a soda fountain and stages a red carpet premiere, featuring appearances by a gallery of Hollywood luminaries: Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy; Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton (co-stars of MGM’s WHAT NO BEER, also released in 1933); Lionel Barrymore as Rasputin (from MGM’s 1932 feature RASPUTIN AND THE EMPRESS), the Marx Bros. (weeks before the release of DUCK SOUP, their final film for Paramount before signing with MGM), Mae West (also a Paramount contractee), and Joe E. Brown (under contract to Warner Bros./First National). In the cartoon’s only slightly suggestive moment, Flip’s ice cream cone melts all over his hand when Mae West coos at him. Later, Flip serves an effeminate male customer a concoction featuring tacks and DDT, and the man transforms into Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde (from Paramount’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, a 1931 release). “Hyde” proceeds to destroy Flip’s joint, until our hero squirts him with “Eau de Pansy” and he reverts to his mincing, stereotypical self. Congratulations Mr. Iwerks, for ending Flip the Frog’s movie career with a gay joke.
CAVE MAN, the second Iwerks short in the Cut-Ups program, features Willie Whopper, a chubby little moppet with a propensity for spinning tall tales. And speaking of tall tales, CAVE MAN was released on July 6, 1934, five days after Code enforcement officially began. So, not only is it not a 1933 film, it’s not even (technically) Pre-Code – though it does end with Willie winning the love of a young damsel by clubbing her over the noggin. Another highlight of this film is a hot soundtrack by Bennie Moten and his band, featuring a young Count Basie on piano.
SITTIN’ ON A BACKYARD FENCE is the only Warner Bros. cartoon in the program, a Merrie Melodies release based upon Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal’s song from Busby Berkeley’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933). I’ve always found the number (which features Ruby Keeler tap dancing in a cat suit) to be one of the most delightful oddities in Berkeley’s bizarre canon, so it was a particular treat to see this inventive animated version. The action takes place on the titular Fence, with a duplicitous female kitten manipulating two clueless toms into fighting over her. There are some fun visual gags, with dancing union suits on the clothesline and a feline band playing junkyard instruments. Plus, we get some alternate arrangements of the song, including lyrics not heard in FOOTLIGHT PARADE.
FIVE AND DIME, another cartoon based upon a popular song, features a very Mickey Mouse-y Oswald the Rabbit singing the Harry Warren hit, I Found A Million Dollar Baby (in a Five and Ten Cent Store), backed by a chorus of toys. Cameos include Laurel and Hardy (again), Jimmy Durante (again) as a jack-in-the-box, and a Charlie Chaplin wind-up doll with an affinity for underage females. Talk about art imitating life. The short ends with Oswald marrying the girl he picks up in the 5&10, and impregnating her, which is kind of Pre-Code-y.
Next up was SILVERY MOON (re-titled CANDY TOWN for home movie distribution) from New York-based Van Beuren Studios. This stylish RKO release opens with a Betty Boop knock-off singing On Moonlight Bay, as her boyfriend woos her in a canoe. They climb a staircase to the moon, which they enter through a gigantic mouth, and find the streets lined with ice cream, candy, and cake. This may explain why the moon looks somewhat puffy, and has skin that appears to be pockmarked from acne. After gorging on sweets to the point of nausea the young lovers are chased by an anthropomorphic bottle of castor oil and a spoon, until they fall off the moon and back into their boat. This short may have been a parable about pre-Depression excess, New Deal hopefulness, or just the result of somebody at Van Beuren smoking a lot of reefer. Supposedly, animators from Fleischer Studios (home of Betty Boop) sometimes moonlighted at Van Beuren. It’s a wonder nobody got sued or fired for this obvious rip-off of Fleischer’s most enduring character.
WEDDING BELLS is a Charles Mintz-produced short for Columbia Pictures featuring Krazy Kat, a character created by animator George Herriman for a comic strip in William Randolph Hearst’s New York Evening Journal. With big eyes and floppy ears, Mintz’s Krazy bore more of a resemblance to Mickey Mouse (and Oswald) than to the strip character or to the silent version produced by Hearst’s International Film Service in 1916 and 1917. On the political correctness front, look out for the Daffodil made to resemble a “pickaninny.”
HAPPY HOBOES is an installment in Van Beuren’s Tom and Jerry series (not that Tom and Jerry), produced between 1931 and 1933 for RKO. Jerry is short, Tom is tall and their careers apparently vary from film to film. Here, they’re hobos (or hoboes, if you’re Dan Quayle) living in a HooverVille down by the train tracks. Highlights include a snowstorm caused by two angels having a pillow fight, and a racially insensitive portrayal of a Chinese cook. Interesting fact: a young Joe Barbera worked on this series and would go on to create the far more famous Tom and Jerry series at MGM with his partner, Bill Hanna.
Otto Soglow’s The Little King is another example of a series that never took off for Van Beuren, despite its success first as a strip in The New Yorker and then in the papers of Hearst’s King Features Syndicate. In CHRISTMAS NIGHT (originally released as PALS on December 22, 1933), the lonely Little King watches forlornly as a happy family brings home a Christmas tree and decorates it. The King finds two bums loitering outside a department store and, in the spirit of the Holiday, brings them home to his castle. There the three men strip down and take a bath together while the queen sleeps, which probably didn’t get the laughs in 1933 that it might today. At the end, Santa shows up with toys for the Little King, which is odd because he appears to be a grown man. Interesting point: one of the vagrants has an NRA tattoo on his chest, which stands not for the National Rifle Association but rather for FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Act, a key component of the New Deal
Van Beuren Studios began life as Aesop’s Fable Studio in 1920, a partnership between producer Amedee J. Van Beuren and animator Paul Terry. In 1929, Terry left to form Terrytoons (where he later produced Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle shorts for 20th Century Fox) and Van Beuren took over as head of the renamed company. OPENING NIGHT is the first of Van Beuren’s Cubby Bear shorts, which were still marketed as part of the Aesop’s Fable series. In this adventure, our favorite bear can’t get into the Roxy Theater on Opening Night (the famed New York City movie palace actually opened in 1927, so I guess this short is a flashback). With his big eyes, short pants and mischievous countenance, Cubby bears (pun intended) a striking resemblance to Mickey Mouse, and Oswald, and Krazy Kat. It seems that every studio had their own version of this madcap character at that time, not unlike the numerous Chaplin imitators that churned out comedy shorts during the Silent Era.
In CUBBY’S WORLD FLIGHT directed by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (veterans first of Disney and then Warner Bros., where they helped start the Looney Tunes series), our singing hero is an aviator about to embark on a round-the-world journey. The Four Marx Bros (again) and Charles Lindbergh give him a big send-off at the airport, but things don’t go according to plan. Cubby crashes and his propeller burrows through the Earth, taking him first to Hell and then to China, which I’m pretty sure is geographically impossible. Later he’s serenaded by a singing Hitler and Napoleon (doing a Maurice Chevalier imitation, complete with straw hat). Cubby ends his journey hanging from one of the spires on the Statue of Liberty’s hat, as King Kong dances in the distance on the Empire State Building. (The Cubby shorts were distributed by RKO, Kong’s home studio.)
Cartoon Cut-ups concludes with two shorts featuring the impish Scrappy, his brother Oopy, girlfriend Margy and dog Yippy. Created by Fleischer veteran Dick Huemer and produced by Charles Mintz, the highly visual, often absurd Scrappy shorts were in production for nearly a decade at Columbia.
Set at the 1933 Chicago Worlds Fair, THE WORD’S AFFAIR (get it?) features some hilarious visual gags, including an agriculture demo that grows hair on a bald man’s head. Newly elected president Franklin Delano Roosevelt shows up, as do Albert Einstein, Ghandi and the ubiquitous Jimmy Durante. But my favorite SCRAPPY short, and perhaps my favorite of the entire program, was SCRAPPY’s PARTY. Our hero throws a wild, jazzy shindig for his birthday and invites old favorites the Marx Bros., Laurel and Hardy and Jimmy Durante, plus Marie Dressler, Will Rogers, Babe Ruth, Al Capone (who can’t come because he’s in prison), Ghandi (who rides in on roller skates), Garbo, and Marie Dressler. It’s fun to see the animated Dressler interacting with the brothers, and to fantasize about what she might have done with the “Margaret Dumont role” in a Marx Bros. feature.
A number of shorts featuring these characters are available in public domain versions on You Tube, and some have been released on DVD. The Ub Iwerks DVD sets are recommended, and are also available streaming from Amazon on Demand.
Cartoon Cut-Ups of 1933 plays Monday, February 25 at Film Forum