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Alright, here’s how this is going to work: this post is the first in a series where I will pick out the ten greatest cartoons from a given year and talk about why I think they work so well. Obviously this is just my opinion, but I’ll take historical and cultural significance into account as well as artistic merit, starting somewhat arbitrarily with the year 1930.

For context, Walt Disney’s groundbreaking Steamboat Willie – the first short to effectively synchronize animation to sound – was released two years earlier, and all of the major studios had followed its lead in producing sound cartoons. A handful of animated films were using color at this point (Ub Iwerks’ Fiddlesticks, Walter Lantz’s animated sequence in King of Jazz), but the first cartoon in full three-strip Technicolor, Disney’s Flowers and Trees, wouldn’t be released until 1932.

This list includes films from seminal studios like Disney and Max Fleischer, as well as cartoons from frequently overlooked studios like Charles Mintz and Van Beuren.

So without further ado, here’s the top ten (in alphabetical order):

Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney Studios 

It can be hard to think back to the days when Mickey Mouse was a bona fide movie star, hailed as a performer equal to Chaplin and Garbo, as opposed to a bland corporate logo.

If you need a reminder that Mickey was once a cartoon character before he was a stamp, this delightfully eerie short might serve as a tonic for all of the whitewashing the poor mouse has received.

The film – in which Minnie is abducted by a murderous gorilla and Mickey has to save her – shows the Disney staff moving away from disconnected gags and musical sequences and attempting to tell a story, and while the results are somewhat rudimentary in comparison to what Disney would be producing only a few years later, it was a step up for the time and it still entertains. Unlike the previous year’s The Haunted House (1929), there’s a sense of progression rather than just a series of macabre encounters, and the jokes are built on suspense.

In addition to the development of story, the film shows hints of the studio’s commitment to character, which would flourish as the decade progressed.

Check out Minnie’s genuinely confused expression as she tries to decipher what Mickey is babbling about over the phone, and later when the gorilla comes in and inspects the phone, his facial expressions seem to have real thought behind them. Still, the animators’ greatest triumph here is Mickey himself.

While he hasn’t yet gained the subtlety of acting he would achieve in later classics like The Brave Little Tailor (1938) and The Pointer (1939), it’s worth pointing out that most of the film’s laughs come from the characterization of Mickey as a cowardly hero, determined to save Minnie from the gorilla but jumping and shrieking at the slightest upset. Other studios of the time focused generally on absurd gags and drunken imagination; fantastic as many of the films were, the characters at the center were often indistinct.

But even in early films like this, Disney portrayed Mickey as a comic everyman a la Harold Lloyd, and as a result Mickey grew and developed where other cartoon stars faded away. Mickey’s best moment of comic acting here is his sheepish grin after his pistol fires a cuckoo bird, but his panicked fumbling remains amusing from start to finish.

Also worthy of note is Walt Disney himself, who delivers some of his best voicework here (particularly the mock-serious whispering and the repeated yelps of fear). Marcellite Garner also does fine work as Minnie, and her vocal on the 1924 Irving Berlin tune All Alone is amusing. Not to mention that the animation is excellent, particularly the close-ups of the gorilla frothing at the mouth and the evocative use of shadows, both of which are quite impressive for 1930.

One final note: in all of the excitement, no one ever bothers to explain what the gorilla actually plans to do to Minnie. Instead of eating her or crushing her, he ties her to a chair in an old abandoned house.

Whatever floats your boat, I guess…

Directed by John Foster & Mannie Davis; Van Beuren

The Van Beuren studio, along with Terrytoons, is generally considered the bottom of the barrel as far as golden age animation studios are concerned. Van Beuren’s shorts were made quickly and cheaply, and most of them don’t suggest that a great amount of thought or artistic skill went into them.

Compared to the work being produced at the Fleischer studio, which was always beautifully and artistically weird, the Van Beuren cartoons are mostly just weird. Still, the best ones are weird enough to be brilliant, and Gypped in Egypt is perhaps the strangest of all.

It features Waffles and Don – a short-lived cat and dog team who served as precursors to Van Beuren’s later Tom & Jerry – being haunted by sphinxes, hieroglyphics and skeletons as punishment for killing a camel. The short is incredibly creepy and wonky, with loopy, stilted animation, awkward dialogue spoken in amusingly inappropriate voices and numerous nonsensical twists. What are we to make of the horde of transparent camels running towards the screen, or the grey, protoplasmic outline around Waffles and Don as they fall through a tunnel of blackness? How about the skeleton elevator operator who laughs for ages at Waffles’ innocuous comment “nice ride”, or the wildly inconclusive ending, where Waffles and Don are chased through the desert by a giant sphinx with swirling, hypnotic eyes?

This is pre-code insanity in its purest form. Outside of all of the strangeness, though, these Waffles & Don shorts are surprisingly ahead of their time in terms of character development. At a point when starring characters typically didn’t have many distinctive qualities outside of a general “plucky hero” persona (Bosko, Oswald, Flip the Frog, etc.), it’s a bit shocking to find a studio like Van Beuren getting the jump on everyone else by playing Waffles as a nervous worrywart and Don as a careless, deadpan observer with childlike curiosity.

The crude animation can only do so much to reflect these characterizations, but their personalities come across anyway, particularly in one scene where Waffles regrets strangling his friend and Don does a little shrug to show that it’s okay.

It’s a nice moment in an orgy of nonsense.

Directed by Walter Lantz & Bill Nolan; Walter Lantz

Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons were of a much higher quality than most of their competition in the ‘20s, and the Winkler Oswalds have their charms, but for my money the Lantz Oswalds of the early ‘30s are the rabbit’s best work.

The surreal and eccentric humor, coupled with the highly elastic animation, make for some of the most delightfully weird entertainments of the era. Bill Nolan, the brilliant inventor of rubber hose animation, was largely responsible for the series’ merits, and The Hash Shop shows him at his most unhinged. Nolan was willing to bend, smash and stretch his characters’ bodies’ to an outlandish degree, and while animators like Bill Tytla and Rod Scribner would later use such distortion in order to illuminate character and emotion, Nolan simply did it for the sheer craziness of it.

In this film, Oswald’s arms extend at his convenience with no visible strain, he momentarily flattens into nothingness when smashed onto the ground, his head throbs dramatically and cartoonishly when he suffers a blow and he even turns into a cow at one point (no explanation necessary). The sequence involving the singing hippo is a tour de force of strange movements and drawings, with the hippo’s body mass fluctuating wildly as her neck stretches to the ceiling and her head spins around like a refugee from The Exorcist.

And the jokes are just as deranged as the visuals, with gags such as a monkey shooting spaghetti out of his ears, a hippo oiling her tongue to stop it from squeaking and Oswald opening up his stomach to answer a customer’s question, “how’s your liver today?”

Many cartoons of the early ‘30s trade off of surreal humor, but the general lack of music and use of dialogue imbue these early Lantz shorts with a special kind of bizarre; the infant commanding milk in a grown man’s voice is a masterpiece of comedy even before the gag comes to fruition. Still, Nolan saves the best for last, and the final gag – where Oswald is force-fed an entire horse, causing his body to take the horse’s shape – is the film’s funniest bit.

This kind of anything-for-a-laugh cartoon anarchy didn’t resurface in full effect until Tex Avery started directing at Warner Bros. And Avery, it should be pointed out, cut his teeth as an animator on Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons in the early ‘30s.

Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Disney

This early Silly Symphony, about a spider who sneaks into a toy shop, marked Wilfred Jackson’s directorial debut, and seemingly kick-started the trend of inanimate-objects-coming-alive-at-night cartoons, which would become a staple in the 1930s (eventually culminating in Bob Clampett’s 1946 classic Book Revue).

This charming short is one of the best in the “genre”, giving us performances from a Teddy Bear band, musical baby dolls, a dancing Topsy doll, jack-in-the-boxes that squawk to the beat and a puppet that dances on top of a gramophone. The nervous spider with the buck-toothed grin makes for an appealing lead, and casting him as the everyman exploring through the toyshop gives the cartoon a point of identification that some of the other early Silly Symphonies lack. Despite his shifting size (he ranges from being the size of a normal insect to being almost as tall as a door), the spider is a very well-animated character, and both his enthusiasm and cowardice are effectively achieved.

Few scenes in cartoons are as charming as the one animated by Tom Palmer where the spider plays a toy piano (he uses his many legs, rear end and even tongue to hit the keys). There are also some impressive visual effects that the animators pull off expertly, like the dim lighting in the toyshop and the sparks erupting from the box of firecrackers. Not to mention one of those patented various-objects-moving-at-the-same-time shots that only the Disney studio would’ve ever attempted to pull off in 1930.

The film even has a touch of lewd humor for good measure (Topsy unveils a price tag on her rear end, the spider runs around with a potty-chair around his neck, etc.). Perhaps there isn’t a whole lot going on in this film, but when everyone is having this much fun, it’s hard to care.

As for the spider, he would return in 1931’s equally enjoyable Egyptian Melodies.

Directed by Dick Huemer; Charles Mintz

Toby the Pup is perhaps the most obscure cartoon star of the 1930s.

The twelve films he appeared in haven’t been shown on television or released on any home video format and only about half of them exist today in any form. Charles Mintz produced the series under a one-year contract with RKO, while simultaneously producing Krazy Kat cartoons with Columbia, and poor Toby was likely put to rest when RKO gained half-ownership of the Van Beuren studio.

The series was helmed by Sid Marcus and Dick Huemer, two veterans from the Max Fleischer studio in New York, and the films bear a strong resemblance to the Fleischer sensibility (Toby himself is little more than a variation on Fitz, a dog designed by Huemer for Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell series).

Toby the Pup deserves to be better remembered, though, as his films are extremely creative and fun, with the gags bolstered by Dick Huemer’s appealing and confident drawing style. This one, in which Toby works as a museum janitor under a angry, vindictive lion, is pure unfettered 1930s goodness, with lots of music, lots of dancing and lots of cheerfully impossible gags.

While many of the best cartoons of the early ‘30s focused their imaginations on surreal nightmares (see Mysterious Mose and Swing You Sinners), The Museum is unfailingly lighthearted; even when a bunch of little skeletons dance around in a circle, the effect is more silly than eerie. But that doesn’t mean the film holds back on any creativity, and there is lot of cleverness in its use of famous statues and figures (the Thinker and Atlas both make amusing appearances), and body-bending visual gags (the ending, where Toby is transformed into a high striker, is a particularly good one). These gags are helped along by the rubbery animation, which gives the film a loopy, eccentric edge.

Certainly the Toby shorts are among the best-looking cartoons from the early ‘30s… not to mention being among the most charming.

Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Willard Bowsky]; Max Fleischer

If you were to pick one cartoon series that best exemplifies the pre-code era (1929-’34) and demonstrates everything that was wonderful about the early days of sound cartoons, you would have to pick the Betty Boop cartoons.

Betty’s mix of childlike innocence and winking sexuality made her one of the biggest stars of the animated screen, and her films were always peppered with wild rubberhose animation, red-hot jazz soundtracks and surreal humor with a hint of the risqué. Mysterious Mose was her third appearance, following Dizzy Dishes and Barnacle Bill, and at this point she was still appearing in the Talkartoons series playing second fiddle to Bimbo, a dog character who was notoriously inconsistent in design, voice and personality.

But that’s not to say that Betty didn’t go through many changes herself – in Mysterious Mose, Betty has dog ears (which were later traded for hoop earrings when she became a human character), a different voice (her most well-known voice artist, Mae Questel, didn’t take over until 1931’s Silly Scandals) and several key differences in appearance (she has a black nose, a bigger mouth and a smaller head than we normally associate with her).

The sexual component is already in effect, however, and Betty spends the entire cartoon in a revealing nightgown, which goes flying off of her body when she is in a state of panic (luckily, she’s covered up by some blankets). She is both afraid of and attracted to Mysterious Mose (played by Bimbo), an enigmatic figure who can do anything and appear anywhere, as described in the title song written by Walter Doyle. Setting Mose up as an ever-changing mystery man really fuels the dreamlike imagery that the Fleischer Studio did best, and the macabre atmosphere, directionless story and nonsensical gags make this one of the most artistically successful of the early Fleischer films. The visual jokes here are strange but also exceedingly clever (as when Bimbo’s shadow cuts himself off from the real Bimbo with some scissors and when Betty’s toes come alive to cling together in fear) and the drawings are extraordinary; the constant morphing is expertly handled, and the characters’ facial expressions are great (Betty has an especially wide range of expression here due to her design not yet being locked down, and Bimbo’s many weird faces as he scats are a delight).

The invention is high all throughout its six-minute runtime, and just when you think you have a handle on Bimbo’s insane omnipotence, the film turns the tables on you by having Bimbo lose control of the situation. Characters appear out of nowhere, blaring music while Bimbo appears to be taken aback, and he finally explodes into a lot of cogs and wires, revealing himself to have been a robot all along…?

You could spend a lifetime trying to analyze the meaning of all of this, but it’s perhaps best to just sit back and enjoy.

Directed by Hugh Harman & Rudolf Ising; Warner Bros.

The Harman-Ising cartoons of the early ‘30s are often dismissed as mere footnotes in the history of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and certainly they don’t contain many clues of the anarchic spirit the studio would adopt in the late 1930s.

But you don’t have to believe that Bosko is in the same league as Bugs Bunny to enjoy these early films, which are often tremendously inventive and appealing. Sinkin’ in the Bathtub was the first short the studio produced and it’s a near-perfect example of how the rubberhose animation, peppy music and visual humor all contribute to a good-natured atmosphere that is positively infectious.

The starring character here is Bosko, an African-American boy who resembles Mickey Mouse in design and personality (here he speaks in a black dialect provided by animator Carman Maxwell, but by his next appearance in Congo Jazz he would seal the Mickey comparison by adopting a falsetto voice provided by Johnny Murray).

The film is a fairly typical cartoon from the early ‘30s – Bosko and his girlfriend Honey cavort around making music until Honey gets trapped in an out-of-control car ride down a hill – but whatever the film lacks in innovation it makes up for with charm and humor. Certainly the offhand creativity on display here is quite impressive; gags like Bosko strumming the water coming from the shower like a harp and Bosko pulling up his pants by yanking a single hair on his head are wonderfully visual jokes that take full advantage of the possibilities of animation as a medium (in contrast, modern-day cartoons rely far more heavily on dialogue to generate laughs, which feels like a waste of animation’s potential).

Harman and Ising really embrace the impossible here, and we’re treated to glorious absurdities like bathtubs and automobiles coming to life, Honey prancing around on bubbles in the sky and Bosko flattening a cow so he can drive over it. Many of the gags have to do with music (in fact, Bosko and Honey are so committed to making music that they crank out a tune immediately after careening over a cliff and into a pond), and these gags are backed up nicely by Frank Marsales’ likable score (in addition to the title song, he also plugs in Tiptoe Through the Tulips and I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles at appropriate moments).

Other highlights include Bosko’s Stan Laurel-esque sobbing after a goat eats his flowers and a healthy dosage of pre-code “barnyard humor” (Bosko’s car emerges from an outhouse, Bosko’s bathtub throws around toilet paper like confetti, Bosko gets repeatedly whacked in the crotch, etc.)

There’s no doubt that the Harman-Ising films were riding Disney’s coattails to some extent (the gag where Bosko gets smashed into a bunch of little Boskos was lifted from the 1927 Disney film Bright Lights, which Harman and Ising worked on), but the quality of this film about matches what Disney was putting out in 1930 and the film is enjoyable enough to render any such objections unimportant.

Directed by Walter Lantz & Bill Nolan; Walter Lantz

For those familiar with 1930s cartoon trappings, the title Spooks might suggest a gothic mood piece full of dancing skeletons and swirling ghosts a la The Skeleton Dance and Swing You Sinners (or perhaps the 1931 Flip the Frog film also titled Spooks). This film, however, isn’t really creepy so much as it is joyously nonsensical.

In the short, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit has to save his girlfriend Kitty from a masked phantom who promises to make her a great singer. The film is obviously a takeoff of The Phantom of the Opera, but the cartoon doesn’t really mock the source material so much as use it as a launching pad for a series of strange jokes, resulting in a film so full of stream-of-consciousness non sequiters that it at times approaches Dadaism.

Certainly the film maintains an ironic distance from the story and characters: the heroine’s sadness is represented by an incoherent warbling (which results in her tongue being tied in knots) and instead of creating suspense around the film’s villain, he states flatly to no one in particular, “I’m the Phantom” (the lack of mouth movement makes the line seem even more arbitrary). This sense of irony is particularly evident in the characterization of Oswald, who is such a boob that it’s hard to resist the impression that the animators are playing up his blandness on purpose (good example: when the phantom steals Kitty away and leaves Oswald clutching her undergarments, he sticks his head inside of them and says slowly, “Kitty… where are you?”). And when he arrives to rescue Kitty, he can be seen through the door with an angry expression plastered on his face, bobbing back and forth like a metronome; Oswald isn’t a character expressing anger here so much as he is an abstract representation of anger itself.

This kind of reckless abandon is a perfect fit for the loose-limbed animation of Bill Nolan, who was always willing to warp and mutilate his characters’ bodies for the sake of a laugh. The insane animation of the hippo lady deflating into nothingness invites the kind of freeze-framing cartoon fanatics reserve for the best of Bob Clampett’s 1940s output, but all of the drawings here are wonderful, from Kitty faking her performance of Queen of the May to Oswald getting repeatedly rammed in the crotch by dragons (don’t ask).

And in case the rest of the cartoon wasn’t weird enough for you, that chicken joke at the end is really the icing on the cake. Boop-oop-a-doop, that’s Oswald!

Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Ted Sears]; Max Fleischer

Without a doubt one of the most terrifying cartoons ever made, this fever dream of surrealistic madness starts out weird and then becomes genuinely frightening before going completely bonkers by the film’s end. In the short, Bimbo attempts to rob a henhouse and is haunted by all manner of spirits for his transgressions.

Animation’s inherent lack of restraints allows for the filmmakers to push the dreamlike imagery in directions that even Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel couldn’t go in Un Chien Andalou (1929) and L’Age d’Or (1930), and the cartoon pulls no punches in delivering a full-on nightmare with a streak of black humor. It’s certainly easy to imagine Dali and Bunuel drooling over the prospect of having a stoned wall close in around the hero, or having a character get chased by a barn with windows for eyes. Shadows, trees and gravestones all come alive to inform Bimbo that his time has come, and the spooky imagery is complimented effectively by an eerie choir of voices.

Music plays a huge role in creating the film’s spine-tingling atmosphere, and the drawings get progressively wilder as the music gets jazzier (that giant chicken with the deranged eyes scatting while the background warps behind him is one of those images you can never remove from your mind). The ghouls designed for this film, with their bulging eyes and sprawling tentacles, are startlingly good even by the high standards of imagination set by cartoon-makers in the early ‘30s, and at times they resemble the inhabitants of underground comics rather than mainstream animation.

Watching it again, I was struck by how creative it is even before Bimbo enters the graveyard and things get really creepy. The way the background swirls behind Bimbo at he attempts to grab the chicken is spectacularly inventive, and the animators once again avoid the obvious by having the fight between Bimbo and the chicken represented by a giant white blob rather than the more typical cloud of smoke. Another highlight is the cop (who looks something like like Officer Pupp from George Herriman’s comic strip masterpiece Krazy Kat) blowing tuba sounds as he chases Bimbo, a device that would be recycled memorably in the 1933 classic Snow White.

By the end of the cartoon, the film no longer bothers to hold onto whatever thread of a narrative it had, and instead sends disembodied skulls and monstrous faces flying at the audience against a black background, leaving the impression that Bimbo is now fully engulfed in the darkness and will be damned forever. Macabre imagination would be a hallmark of future Fleischer classics like Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) and Minnie the Moocher (1932), but Swing You Sinners is as dark as the Fleischers would ever get.

Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Willard Bowsky]; Max Fleischer

One of the earliest Talkartoons shorts, and one of the few that doesn’t star either Bimbo or Betty Boop, this musical short from the Fleischer studio tells the tale of a spider who has some difficulties providing a meal for his family.

The first few Talkartoons (Noah’s Lark, Radio Riot) are scattershot collections of gags surrounding a general theme, animated in a crude style that still has its foot in the silent era. Wise Flies’ immediate predecessors, Hot Dog and Fire Bugs, show the studio adding some visual sophistication through the use of gray tones (made possible by animating on cels rather than paper) and also gaining some semblance of unity as films; both cartoons are still pretty haphazard, but they follow a general narrative and build up to a comedic climax (Hot Dog concludes with a musical court case, while the second half of Fire Bugs involves Bimbo and his horse trying to get a mad pianist to leave his burning house).  

Wise Flies, despite its many outrageous diversions, takes a funny idea and runs with it, and therefore gels in a way that the earlier Talkartoons do not. The film rather uniquely takes the perspective of the “villain” character, asking us to sympathize with the spider who has to return to his wife with no food rather than the flies he is attempting to kill. And although the film doesn’t star the Fleischer Studios’ house vixen Betty Boop, it displays a certain preoccupation with sex, playing on the thin line between carnivore and sexual predator. The spider is presumably trying to eat the female fly at the film’s start, but somewhere over the course of the film his intentions transition into lust.

His desires are expressed through a musical performance similar to the one at the end of Hot Dog (both are played on the ukelele and feature an effeminate but presumably male vocalist); the song in this case is the 1910 tune Some of These Days, written by Shelton Brooks and made famous by Sophie Tucker. The song hits just the right balance of being both motivated by the plot and striking out of nowhere to make it the comedic highlight of the film (the random shots of animals dancing to the song add to the appealing weirdness), but it’s only one of this cartoon’s many treasures. Crazy visual gags abound (the spider’s teeth come alive to dance, a couple of fish somehow emerge from the spider’s tears) and there are lots of amusing little incidental jokes (the spider reading the “fly paper”, the spider children doing a cheer for flies).

Credit for the film’s success is largely due to Boop creator Grim Natwick, whose eccentric style of animation permeates the film. The spider’s head-bobbing trudge home is one of the best walk cycles ever, and the spider’s immense frustration at the dinner table is punctuated brilliantly by the frenetic movements of his hat.

The cartoon is primitive in some ways, even by the standards of what the Fleischer studio was producing the next year, but there’s a lot of genius on display here.

UPDATE: Animation historian Michael Barrier informs me that, although Leonard Maltin listed Wilfred Jackson as the director of Midnight in a Toy Shop (relying on a list compiled by Dave Smith, apparently), Jackson told Barrier in an interview that he did not direct that cartoon, and his first directorial stint was on the Mickey Mouse cartoon The Castaway (1931).


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