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In today’s post, I will select my picks for the ten greatest animated shorts of 1934.

This was the year that the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, was strictly enforced, effectively excising the sexual innuendos and “barnyard humor” of early talkie cartoons.

But due to Disney’s clean-cut influence, cartoon studios were already starting to veer away from such material, attempting instead to capture the charming fantasy of Disney’s Silly Symphonies series.

Case in point: almost every studio in Hollywood started producing a series of musical one-shots in color in 1934, including the Color Classics at Max Fleischer, the Cartune Classics at Walter Lantz, the Rainbow Parades at Van Beuren, the Color Rhapsodies at Charles Mintz and the Happy Harmonies at the newly-formed MGM studio. Not to mention Ub Iwerks’ ComiColor series (which began at the tail-end of 1933) and Warner Bros.’s Merrie Melodies (which began back in 1931, but started producing color cartoons in 1934). Anyway, this list includes some big advancements in the medium, a little bit of stop-motion animation and also some appearances by fairly recent characters like Donald Duck and Popeye the Sailor.

Take a look:

Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Seymour Kneitel]; Max Fleischer

Popeye the Sailor, who first appeared in E.C. Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929, was brought to the screen by Max Fleischer in 1933, co-starring with Betty Boop in the appropriately titled Popeye the Sailor. As the Boop series started to peter out due to the restrictions of the Hays Code, Popeye served as a great new character for the Fleischer animators to target their energies, and the combination of crazy visual gags, ad-libbed mutterings by the voice actors and over-the-top cartoon violence made for one of the funniest and most popular animated series of the 1930s. By 1938, polls stated that Popeye had even eclipsed Mickey Mouse as the nation’s favorite cartoon character.

The series really started to hit its stride in 1935, when storyman Jack Mercer took over for William Costello as Popeye’s voice, but A Dream Walking is as good as any film to feature the gruff sailor due to its funny setup, razor-sharp timing and truly stunning animation. The plot, which has been recreated in countless other cartoons (Disney’s Clock Cleaners, Warner Bros.’s Homeless Hare, MGM’s Tot Watchers, etc.) features Olive Oyl sleepwalking on a construction site, narrowly missing death as Popeye and Bluto frantically chase after her.

The visuals in the short are nothing short of astonishing. Of course, the animation of the characters is typically funny and inventive (Popeye and Bluto both have some amusing walk cycles in the film, and the violent gags are appropriately brutal). Also, the backgrounds perfectly convey the urban grittiness of Popeye’s apartment building as well as the intricate geometry of the construction site. But the Fleischers go a step farther and include several scenes of characters moving through animated perspective, which is notoriously difficult; in one sequence, Olive steps on a moving elevator and the camera moves along with it from a down shot. Another scene features Popeye swinging from beam to beam as the camera moves along with him. To add an extra headache for the animators, the pan increases in speed as Popeye hops from one beam to the next.

In order to pull off gags like Olive walking from one beam and just barely stepping onto the next one, everything had to be measured and timed out perfectly so that both Olive and the beam are in the right place at the right moment while still looking natural. Another gag, which occurs at a point in the film when all three characters are sleepwalking, features Popeye, Bluto and Olive all trudging methodically on different paths, only to just narrowly avoid bumping into each other as they all pass by. It’s a funny moment, but it had to be meticulously planned out so that each character was positioned correctly to just miss the others. The mathematical precision going on in this film really put the Fleischers’ mechanical bent to great use.

This is all sounds very technical, of course, but one of the film’s strengths is that these amazing animation feats are going on in the background while the funny stuff is happening in front of them. The short doesn’t call attention to its visual marvels, and simply uses them as tools to further the jokes. And the jokes are just as impressive as the animation: the Fleischers adeptness at creating comedically dangerous circumstances for Olive to wander into rivals the thrill comedies of silent masters like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Popeye and Bluto’s intense rivalry is really milked for comic effect here (perhaps the best example being Popeye and Bluto pushing past each other in the apartment doorway, finally causing it to break off entirely), and the characters are quite funny and strongly identified, even at this early point in the series (hamburger fanatic J. Wellington Wimpy has an amusing cameo as the construction site’s night watchman). It’s amazing to think that all this incredible effort went into the making of cartoons that were meant to be enjoyed for a few weeks in front of a movie and then instantly forgotten. Certainly someone plowing away at the beams and girders in this short must’ve kept themselves motivated by suspecting people would be admiring their work 80 years later…?

Directed by David Hand; Disney

This charming short tells the story of a mouse who wishes to fly, and has his wish granted when he saves a fairy from certain death. However, he finds that his wings aren’t as great as he imagined, and the film serves as a little parable about being yourself.

With the breakthrough of The Three Little Pigs the previous year, The Flying Mouse shows the Disney artists further developing their skills and producing a film that is not only a well-told fairy tale, but one that has some emotional resonance. This was the first of the Silly Symphonies to use extensive pre-recorded dialogue, and Fred Moore’s animation of the mouse speaking reflects the inflections of the voice acting, giving the character a sense of believability that allows us to care what happens to him. It’s hard not to sympathize with the poor mouse when his attempts to fashion his own wings out of leaves are dashed, and the audience is right there with him in his initial joy at finally being able to fly.

One example of the artists’ growing skill is the character design of the mice, which is much more realistic than earlier Disney animals (Mickey Mouse, for instance) but still maintains the appeal of animated characters. Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising were making stabs at realism in MGM shorts like A Tale of the Vienna Woods (1934) and The Lost Chick (1935) but their attempts were frequently awkward and stiff, not quite successful as cartoon abstractions or believable animals. The mice and bats featured here, however, are drawn skillfully and confidently, and show signs of the progress that would eventually lead to Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). The human fairy in this film, who feels like a precursor to the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (1940), isn’t quite as successful as the animals, and she has the unnaturally rubbery look that plagued the heroine of another 1934 Silly Symphony, The Goddess of Spring. Still, she works fairly well in the context of the short, and the human designs in this film and Goddess of Spring were necessary stepping stones towards the more natural humanized characters seen in Silly Symphonies like The Cookie Carnival (1935) and eventually Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

It isn’t just the character designs and animation that are worthy of praise, though. The score, by Frank Churchill and Bert Lewis, really adds to the emotion in the film, and the original songs “I Would Like to Be a Bird” and “You’re Nothing But a Nothing” fit the story well and are catchy to boot. Not to mention that the use of color in the film is really masterful. Walt Disney only added color to his arsenal two years earlier with Flowers and Trees, but here we see him using color as a tool to convey mood, with the bright pastels of the earlier portions of the film giving way to the dark palette used as the mouse wanders into the cave and things start to go sour, finally culminating in the warm, inviting colors coming from the mouse’s pumpkin house when he finds his way back home. Color that matches the mood of the story seems like a no-brainer now, but this short was released very early on in the game when audiences were excited to see any films with bright, vibrant colors. Not to mention that the effects animation is terrific, particularly the butterfly’s stunning transformation into the fairy. The sophistication seen in this film is a great example of why Disney was considered the king of animation in his day.

Directed by Ub Iwerks; Ub Iwerks

Compared with the fables and fairy tales Disney was producing in 1934, Jack Frost looks a little threadbare. Iwerks wasn’t much for developing strong characters or creating subtle, nuanced acting, and this film just doesn’t feel quite as sophisticated as The Flying Mouse and The Grasshopper and the Ants. Still, even when Iwerks was seemingly trying to emulate Disney’s Silly Symphonies with his own ComiColor shorts, his films have an eccentric edge that the Disney shorts lack.

Case in point: in The Bremen Town Musicians (1935), a criminal is flung into the sky and eaten by the moon. In Tom Thumb (1936), little Tom is swallowed by a goat and spends a large portion of the short on the goat’s tongue. And in Humpty Dumpty (1935), Humpty Jr.’s sweet-tempered girlfriend Easter Egg gets hard-boiled, turning her into a Mae West approximation.

Jack Frost has this general sense of oddness about it, but it’s a magical little film and is quite charming in its own way. The story concerns the elfin Jack Frost, who warns the woodland animals that Old Man Winter is on his way. Little Billy Bear isn’t afraid, though, as he repeatedly reminds us in song (“I don’t have to worry, I don’t have to care…”) and he foolishly runs away from home just as winter is on its way. The short is somewhat juvenile, but very creative, particularly in its depiction of Frost himself and his weather-making methods. He’s quite handy with his brush, painting a castle of ice on the little bear’s window, splashing faces onto pumpkins and turning icicles into candy canes; he even makes rainbows by riding around on his palette.

Carl Stalling composed the music for this cartoon, and although it doesn’t bear much resemblance to his bombastic Looney Tunes soundtracks, it’s a delightful score that always compliments the action. The music box sound he achieves as Jack Frost paints the window is wonderful, and in the bit where the animals all look up at Jack in succession, Stalling adds little accents to go along with their movements that anticipate his careful attention to the onscreen action in his Warner Bros. work. Both the music and the visual imagination reach a high point in the sequence with the pumpkins and the Cab Calloway-esque scarecrow who dances around and scats as some kind of warning to Billy Bear about the eventual arrival of Old Man Winter. It’s a weird, Halloweeny moment in a short that feels more like Christmas, but that’s more of that signature Ub Iwerks strangeness I was mentioning earlier.

Trivia: Although the careers of Jack Frost and Billy Bear began and ended with this short, the villainous Old Man Winter returned in the 1935 Iwerks short Summertime, which somewhat bafflingly shows the transition from winter to spring and actually has nothing to do with summertime.

Directed by Anthony Gross & Hector Hoppin

This plotless French short, which follows two women who prance around an urban cityscape, was the work of English painter Anthony Gross and American artist Hector Hoppin, both of whom were staying in France when they decided to join together to create the production company Animat in 1932. Although Hoppin contributed to the film as an artist and financier, the short was really the brainchild of Gross, who had designed costumes and sets for ballet and wanted to create a short that married dance and animation. The blend, referred to as “cine-ballet” in promotional materials, was a great success and La joie de vivre remains Gross and Hoppin’s most celebrated work.

The short’s striking visuals are depicted in an Art Deco style, with highly stylized figures and lots of angular buildings and wires. The characters look more like fashion designs than cartoons, and the film involves some pretty bold visual experimentation, such as the sparse and at times abstract backgrounds, and the way the women are depicted through light and shadow rather than line when they take their clothes off. These free-flowing visuals fit well with the film’s joyous, careless spirit. Real-life troubles never enter into this film, and even when the girls start recklessly pulling cranks in the train station, it isn’t alarming because this film’s world would never allow for a train crash (the trains stop, scrunch up like caterpillars and fly around each other). Even the film’s only hint of a conflict, the girls running away in fear from the dashing man on a bicycle, is immediately cleared up when he provides them with the missing shoe.

I’m certainly not the first to point out that the film’s carefree experimentation seems to anticipate the French New Wave films of the 1960s, particularly the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Still, the simplistic and almost geometric designs coupled with the dreamy, at times off-putting score by Tibor Harsanyi reminds me a bit of the Van Beuren cartoons based off of Otto Soglow characters, particularly the Sentinel Louie shorts A.M. to P.M. (1933) and A Dizzy Day (1933). Perhaps it’s insulting to compare what is so obviously high art with lowbrow slapstick cartoons from a studio like Van Beuren, but I think both effectively convey a mood and personality through the use of simplified forms and sprawling, directionless narratives.

Whether you think the film is similar to A Dizzy Day or you think I’m just crazy is entirely your call, but it’s hard to deny that La joie de vivre is a work of real beauty that demonstrates the scope of animation’s possibilities.

Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz

In this marvelous stop-motion film, a toy dog overhears a young girl asking for an orange, which her mother cannot afford. When the dog is packed up in some boxes to be sold, the dog abandons ship and finds an orange for the little girl. However, in his attempts to get home, he winds up at the Devil’s Ball, where he meets a variety of grotesque characters in his journey through Hell.

Starewicz, a Russian animator who worked primarily in France, was one of the truly great innovators of stop-motion animation, creating some of the earliest examples of the medium as far back as 1910. He frequently used dead bugs in his animation, manipulating their limbs with wire, and he created such groundbreaking films as Lacanus Cervus (1910), the first puppet animation with a real narrative, and The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), a classic story of insect infidelity. By the time of The Mascot, Starewicz had developed beyond dead bugs and was now manipulating sophisticated and highly expressive puppets.

What can you say about a film like this? Well, it’s long (over 25 minutes) and it doesn’t make any sense, but you don’t hear me complaining. The short’s plot feels like a precursor to Toy Story, but its creepy, offbeat charms make it feel more like a spiritual ancestor to Jan Svankmajer, Henry Selick and the Quay Brothers (perhaps its closest equivalent is Jiri Barta’s 2009 film Toys in the Attic). The puppets are all wonderfully appealing, and the stunning range of facial expressions on our dog hero is so impressive that he almost resembles some bizarre 1930s version of computer animation. But a computer could never recreate the quirky, hand-crafted feel of this film, which is key to its appeal.

Creative ideas are so plentiful here that it would be pointless to try and list them off (the floating papers that turn into humanized creatures and the balloon that loses its air as it plays the trumpet are just the tip of the iceberg), so I would recommend simply watching the film and letting its creativity wash over you.

And grab an orange to eat as you watch.

Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney

There’s nothing very special in the plot or basic setup of this cartoon, and at first glance, one might consider it more slight than most: in the film, Mickey attempts to do some yard work, but Pluto’s various shenanigans cause a water leak and a hole in the screen door, allowing flies to get in, among other things. Still, despite the somewhat routine nature of the story, the film is a very funny one, with a standout sequence that is one of the true treasures of golden age animation.

There’s a lot to like about the cartoon. The visuals are consistently good, with some very nice silhouettes of Mickey and Pluto adjusting the water meter in the cellar. There are also several funny comedy sequences, including Pluto’s battle with the water hose and Pluto swallowing a flashlight. Mickey and Pluto’s relationship is typically charming, with an exchange (“I can’t be mad at ya”) that would eventually be repurposed in one of Mickey’s best cartoons, The Pointer (1939). There’s also a bit with a tiny tornado that feels like a precursor to the 1941 Mickey short The Little Whirlwind.

What makes Playful Pluto one of the most significant shorts in the history of animation is the sequence where Pluto gets stuck on a sheet of fly paper. He tries with all his might to remove it, but it always ends up stuck to some other part of his body, and Pluto grows increasingly more frustrated. The scene is the very definition of a great comedy sequence; the gags, provided by storyman Webb Smith, milk every possible variation out of the limited setup, and they lead into each other in a way that makes sense and never feels strained. The sequence also takes advantage of the medium of animation, twisting Pluto’s body up in ways that are believable in a cartoon world but wouldn’t be possible for a live-action comedian.

But it’s Norm Ferguson’s animation of Pluto as he performs these great gags that really rocked the boat at the Disney studio. Ferguson, known at the studio for his extremely rough, sketchy drawing style, doesn’t just create believable movement in this scene, he really gets inside his character’s head in a way that no other animator had before. Pluto’s thought processes as he tries to work around his situation are conveyed perfectly by his facial expressions and body movements, and as a result, Pluto is as believably alive in the scene as any live-action actor. Walt Disney had been striving for animated characters with real life and personality since the early ‘30s, and following this film, Disney attempted to give the same inner life to all of his characters that Pluto has here.

Also worth noting: director Preston Sturges chose the flypaper sequence to be shown in his 1941 comedy masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels. In the film, movie director John L. Sullivan (played by Joel McCrea) sees a bunch of prisoners roaring with laughter at the cartoon, and it encourages him to pursue comedy instead of pretentious “message” movies, making for the most poignant and affecting moment in the entire film.

Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney

In the late 20s and early ‘30s, Mickey Mouse was less a character and more a vehicle for gags, and as a result he frequently indulged in less-than-admirable behavior. Steamboat Willie features him inflicting pain on animals in order to create music, and in Plane Crazy, he attempts to get fresh with Minnie in an airplane and threateningly speeds up when she denies him. However, as Mickey became more popular and developed into a more genial, likable personality, it became more difficult for the story men to mine comedy out of the character, putting more emphasis on supporting players like Pluto and eventually Goofy. But funny as both characters were, they were generally innocents, and it was Donald Duck in 1934 who really added the necessary spice to the Disney formula.

The irascible duck first appeared in the Silly Symphony short The Wise Little Hen (1934), where he, along one-shot character Peter Pig, refused to help a mother hen harvest her corn. At a point when many cartoon stars had somewhat simple or indistinct voices, Donald was a departure in that his appeal was initially defined by his voice, provided by Clarence Nash. Still, the voice isn’t the only element of Donald’s personality, and although The Wise Little Hen introduced Donald’s voice, name and character design (sailor suit and all), his character in the film isn’t significantly different from his co-star Peter.

It was really his follow-up appearance, Orphan’s Benefit, that established him as a character with a childish ego and an easily aroused temper. The film features Mickey Mouse putting on a stage performance for a truckload of identical mouse orphans, with a vaudeville format similar to earlier shorts like Mickey’s Revue (1932). Mickey accompanies Clara Cluck (in her debut appearance) on the piano as she sings a solo, and Horace Horsecollar, Clarabelle Cow and Goofy perform an ill-fated dance routine, which climaxes in Clarabelle losing her clothes and Goofy being creamed with a mallet (as all good dance routines should). However, the real show-stealer is Donald, who arrogantly recites some nursery rhymes, and then becomes increasingly frustrated by the hecklers in the audience.

Dick Lundy primarily animated the character here, and he gave Donald his signature fighting stance, as well as the blueprint for many of his later expressions and mannerisms. The film has a handful of amusing cartoony gags (Clara Cluck hitting the high note as a result of getting pelted by a slingshot, Goofy’s body getting twisted up as he catches the spinning Clarabelle in mid-air), but almost all of the laughs come from Donald’s reactions to the abuse he suffers, a significant step forward in developing truly funny characters as opposed to just funny gags. And although Donald’s schtick would improve in later films, he’s already quite funny, as he taps his foot impatiently before reciting Little Boy Blue and then glowers at his audience, practically daring them to interrupt him. His fury is ridiculously outsized, but also identifiable, as the orphans here are real menaces. These terrible orphans would return to torture Donald in films like Orphans’ Picnic (1936) and Mickey’s Circus (1936), as well as the shot-for-shot remake, Orphan’s Benefit, in 1941.

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

1934 might as well be discussed as the year the Betty Boop series ended, despite the fact that the character continued to appear in films until 1939. With the enforcement of the Hays Code, censor Joseph Breen came down on the Betty Boop cartoons for their sexual innuendo and off-kilter humor, even condemning Betty’s hip movements in the opening titles as being “suggestive of immorality”. It isn’t known exactly what demands Breen made on the series, but immediately after the adoption of the code, Betty’s skirt was lengthened, the racy humor stopped and any suggestion that Betty was interested in men, or men were interested in her, was put to rest. More crucially, though, the surreal humor of the early entries was abandoned in favor of cutesy Disney imitations, and Betty’s oddball co-stars like Bimbo and Ko-Ko were retired in favor of her adorable pet dog Pudgy.

Unfair as the code was, it’s difficult to imagine that Breen demanded all of the energy and imagination be removed from the series; it’s possible that the Hays Code simply hurried along a trend that was already starting. The Betty Boop cartoons released shortly before the code was enforced show her interacting with human co-stars rather than the usual gang of anthropomorphic animals (She Wronged Him Right, Betty Boop’s Trial) and the Fleischers could only avoid Disney’s dominant influence on the industry for so long (at about the same time the Hays Code was put into effect, the Fleischers launched the Color Classics, a series of Silly Symphonies knock-offs with very little of the signature Fleischer weirdness). Moreover, it seems likely that with the sexual element removed from the Betty Boop series, the animators simply stopped trying, and the studio decided to shift its efforts into the relatively new Popeye series. Betty was eventually reduced to a bland supporting player in her own series, with the occasional bright spots in her filmography due to guest stars like Prof. Grampy and Wiffle Piffle rather than Betty herself.

Red Hot Mamma is one of the last bursts of creative freedom before the Hays Code stepped in, and although it shows signs of the softening of the series by framing its fantasy sequence in the context of a dream, it’s still an appropriately dark and strange film with a bit of sensuality tossed in for good measure. In the short, Betty attempts to heat up her house by starting a fire, but it works too well and she has a dream about visiting Hell and making merry with all of the demons.

The film is loaded with funny gags, such as a bunch of demon firemen using a dragon like a hose to shoot fire at a house, and a painting of an eskimo tossing his fur coat off when the house starts to heat up (why does Betty have a painting of an eskimo on her wall? Who knows?). But the film’s best quality is the blend of its macabre setting and generally cheerful nature. Betty isn’t the least bit frightened as she wanders into the doorway to the underworld (marvelously painted with dozens of grotesque demon heads), and she takes the new setting as an excuse to launch into a jazzy performance of “Hell’s Bells”. She isn’t even fazed when Satan himself and a score of other demons come over to flirt with her, and she ends up freezing Hell over by giving them all the cold shoulder. Better than taking them up on the offer, I suppose, but Joseph Breen probably wouldn’t have approved of the entire situation. It’s a great cartoon, nonetheless.

One more comment: you may notice that the song “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking”, which was introduced by Art Jarrett in the musical comedy Sitting Pretty (1933), plays on the soundtrack here, just as it did in the appropriately titled Fleischer short A Dream Walking, which is also on this list. Another comparison is the gag where the fire behind Betty causes her nightgown to become see-through, which also happens to Olive Oyl in the Popeye short. This is exactly the type of gag that would become obsolete in the Betty cartoons once the code stepped in, but A Dream Walking was actually released after the code was enforced. Is it possible – horror of horrors – that Joseph Breen didn’t find Olive Oyl attractive enough to censor?

Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Seymour Kneitel]; Max Fleischer

As in the comics, the animated Popeye was pretty ruthless in his early days; in Blow Me Down (1933), he punches a Mexican’s teeth out for grinning at him, and he makes mincemeat of a bunch of forest animals in Wild Elephinks (1933). He softened up a bit as the series progressed, gaining a more good-humored personality (thanks in large part to Jack Mercer’s likable voice-acting) and more reasonable motivation for his epic displays of violence (although he maintained a rough edge and wouldn’t soften detrimentally until Famous Studios took over the series in the ‘40s and ‘50s).

Sock-a-Bye Baby, in which our favorite sailor man tries to avoid waking a sleeping baby, features Popeye at his most brutal. He attacks and even seemingly murders dozens of people just for making noise while the baby is sleeping, knocking down a construction site with tons of workers, crushing a bunch of cars in a traffic jam, sinking an ocean liner with his bare hands and even sending Harpo Marx to his reward. This all sounds a bit dark, but the film is so silly that it is impossible to take any of the outrageous violence seriously, and that is the key to its brilliance. It takes a simple premise – don’t wake the baby – and has the leading character go to the most fanatical extremes to follow through on it.

This is only Popeye’s seventh cartoon, and so there are several differences to later entries in the series. Many of the surreal gags here, such as Popeye’s ear turning into a phonograph and violins coming alive to play themselves, are more typical of the early Betty Boop shorts than the Popeye series (for the record, the Popeyes were always cartoonishly unrealistic, but lacked the dreamlike transformations of the earlier Fleischer films). Also, Swee’Pea had not yet been introduced into the animated films, and so the child here is just a generic Fleischer baby (Swee’Pea had already appeared in Segar’s strip, though, having been found on Popeye’s doorstep in 1933). And William Costello (a.k.a. Red Pepper Sam) is still handling Popeye’s voice at this point. He gives one of his very best performances in this film thanks to a highly amusing lullaby, where he switches from yodeling in his natural voice to croaking in Popeye’s signature gravelly baritone as he did on many of his records.

But that musical sequence is far from the only highlight this short has to offer. The cartoon is full of terrific gags that escalate in strangeness as the film progresses, finally getting to the point where Popeye is able to punch a crooner over the radio airwaves (he gets knocked out while singing “You Came to Me From Out of Nowhere”). The short marks one of the sailor’s earliest classics, but there are many more to come.

Directed by George Stallings; Van Beuren

This Little King cartoon, in which the king covets another sultan’s harem, contains enough bizarre gags and off-color content to make it a strong candidate as the best entry in the series. As with a few other cartoons on this list, Sultan Pepper serves as a last gasp of freedom before the Hays Code eliminated all traces of sex from the screen world, and it’s an enjoyably crazy cartoon released before the Van Beuren studio lost much of its personality. At about the same time the code was put into effect, Disney animator Burt Gillett was put in charge of Van Beuren, whitewashing the appealing strangeness out of the studio’s output but lacking the Disney studio’s innovation and charm. The result was the painfully bland Rainbow Parade cartoons, as well as failed series like Parrotville and Molly Moo-Cow. Shoddy as they often were, the earlier Van Beuren shorts were a lot more fun.

In regards to the racy content, Sultan Pepper is perhaps not quite as sexually-charged as Ub Iwerks’ The Office Boy (1932) or Room Runners (1932) – possibly because the Van Beuren artists were always grossly incompetent at drawing attractive women – but libido is still the main subject of the short: the Little King’s desires / frustrations are pretty clear here, particularly in the final moments of the cartoon when he eagerly jumps into the bed with the harem (after a lot of action under the covers, he finds that he’s in bed with the sultan!). Another big joke is made of the sultan entering his bed chamber with the harem, only to take the top bunk, which almost serves as a meta-joke for the Hays Code’s eventual rule that married couples must sleep in separate beds. Other little innuendos abound, from the dog retrieving the panties of a harem girl to the Little King slapping a girl for whispering an inappropriate remark (in a gag lifted directly from Soglow’s work for The New Yorker). Even more startling than the sexual innuendo is one gag where the sultan shoots one of his wives because thirteen at the dinner table is bad luck! Yikes!

Still, beyond the shock value, the clever little visual gags are the backbone of the short, such as the elephant’s trunk serving as an escalator and the sultan stealing the keyhole off of his door so the Little King can’t peek in. Some of the offhand inventiveness here, such as the arm that steals the sultan’s watch and the way the Little King strokes his nose with his beard, brings the Fleischer studio to mind, and there are several gags that show a grasp at comedy that suggests the Van Beuren animators were developing beyond simply tossing random jokes at a concept and hoping something would work (the way the Sultan puts out the cat, then the milk and then the king is executed perfectly). It’s a shame the animators couldn’t build on their best qualities – weird ideas and offbeat humor – and instead were subjected to cranking out half-hearted Disney approximations. Van Beuren will never be considered one of the truly great animation studios, but it’s hard to dislike a place that would produce anything as sick and weird as Sultan Pepper.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1934? Let me know in the comments below.

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