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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1935

Continuing in our series here, I’ll be covering the ten cartoons I consider to be the best of 1935. At this point, cartoons are veering away from the surrealistic rubberhose style of the early ‘30s and moving towards the sort of charming fairy tales that Disney had popularized with his Silly Symphonies series, leading to a great many cute cartoons along the lines of the year’s Academy Award winner Three Orphan Kittens.

But that doesn’t mean all of the weirdness has been removed from the animation world, and this list features some oddballs from studios like Ub Iwerks and Van Beuren, along with a slew of Disney titles, of course. The most notable new character to debut in 1935 is a certain stuttering pig from Warner Bros., who appeared with a great many other funny animal characters in Friz Freleng’s I Haven’t Got a Hat.

Anyway, on with the list:

BALLOONLAND
Directed by Ub Iwerks; Ub Iwerks

Many of Ub Iwerks’ ComiColor shorts feature intriguingly strange ideas, but none have proven to be as compelling or enduring as a world populated by balloons. This charming and also slightly disturbing cartoon tells the tale of a balloon boy and balloon girl who run afoul of the Pincushion Man, a gangly blue creature (voiced by the great Billy Bletcher) whose sole purpose in life is to pop balloons.

The short is overloaded with creative ideas and funny gags (the baby alarm, the two leads letting a little air out to get through a narrow doorway) and the film has a compelling oddness that even extends to Carl Stalling’s memorable score. Disembodied balloon heads float up to the sky with smiles plastered on their faces and balloon people float all over each other in the background as rounded parodies of Hollywood entertainers mug for the audience. When the people of Balloon Land need to fend off the Pincushion Man, they simply blow up more soldiers who are born with smiles on their faces, ready to fight. It’s all a bit unnerving but also fascinating.

The film’s creative visual style really sells the idea, with it wonky, rounded backgrounds and dabs of color serving as details on the buildings. There are even faces drawn on the balloon trees for no reason other than the fact that the artists needed to offload some excess creativity. Many cartoons produced in two-strip color (or “Cinecolor” in this case) tried to hide their limited palettes by applying color subtly, but this film starkly contrasts its blues and reds and it’s hard to imagine the short maintaining its off-kilter charm with a full rainbow of colors. But lest you think the short’s visual appeal is tied strictly to its design, the balloon concept really allowed the animators to let loose and squash and stretch the characters to their hearts’ content, and the bouncy energy of the characters on the screen is extremely appealing to watch.

The cartoon is hardly a work of perfection; the main characters are as generic as they could be, and the boy has particularly uninspired voicework that almost sounds like a parody of Bosko-style line readings. I’m also not sure what tree sap and wiffle-balls (I think?) have to do with balloons, and the film doesn’t really have much of an ending after the Pincushion Man falls to his death. But some of these imperfections add to the film’s appeal, with its blank leading characters serving as a stepping stone into its very odd universe, giving the film a sense of pervading strangeness. Balloon Land may not be a flawless masterpiece, but it is a masterpiece all the same.

THE BAND CONCERT
Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Walt Disney

This film was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon produced in color (the Silly Symphonies had been in color since 1932, but the mouse was popular enough to endure in black and white for several more years), and it’s clear that the animators had something special in mind. The idea of Mickey conducting an orchestra was not a new one, having been lifted from the 1930 short The Barnyard Concert, but in adapting the simple premise to the Disney’s current mastery of the art form, Wilfred Jackson and his animators crafted what might be the best short film the studio ever released.

This cartoon really has it all. It is both highbrow in its meticulous synchronization to Rossini’s William Tell Overture and lowbrow in its accumulation of silly visual gags. It has big slapstick jokes (Horace Horsecollar whacking Goofy with a mallet to swat a fly), comedy that arises from nuance (Mickey continually having to pull up his sleeves), character-based comedy (Donald repeatedly annoying Mickey with his fife-playing), etc. The film shows the incredible sophistication of the Disney animators at this point, including some jaw-dropping effects animation like a tornado sucking up a house, but also doesn’t forget some older animation tricks like squiggly lines emitting from the bee to depict anger and nonsensical gags like a group of benches coming alive to run away from a storm. Donald even repeatedly plays Turkey in the Straw, a song used in Mickey’s first released short, Steamboat Willie (probably a coincidence, but it seems fitting).

The film reaches its zenith when a tornado strikes (cued by the storm section of the overture, naturally) and the band-members continue to play even as they are blown through the air. It’s a great example of taking a concept like a musician’s commitment to his work and pushing it to its most ludicrous extremes, but the real showcase is how intricately Jackson couples the action with the music, resulting in a truly invigorating climax. Possibly the mouse’s finest hour.

THE CALICO DRAGON
Directed by Rudolf Ising; MGM

Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising tried very hard to rival Disney with their Happy Harmonies series at MGM, but they never quite had what it took. Their Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies shorts at Warner Bros., starring cheerful characters like Bosko and Foxy, were upbeat and enjoyable, but as the Disney films became more advanced, Harman and Ising’s films got more slow and ponderous. They began to cram their films with more and more detail, leaning on the hope that audiences would be so impressed by the work put into the films that they wouldn’t expect funny gags or interesting stories, and their films started to become cutesy (Barnyard Babies), boring (Honeyland) or both (Poor Little Me).

The Calico Dragon is probably the best of the early Happy Harmonies, striking a nice balance between the frills of Harman & Ising’s MGM work and the unpretentiousness of their Warner Bros. films. The color, though necessarily limited by Disney’s arrangement with Technicolor, is nicely handled, and the designs have some of the pie-cut appeal of the early days of animation with an extra bit of detail.

The plot: a little girl has a dream about her toys attempting to vanquish a three-headed dragon made of calico. Our heroes include a Bosko-esque variation on Raggedy Andy (who wields a candy cane scepter), a polka-dotted horse with a deep voice and a little Scotty dog who has a run-in with a rag bunny. The concept is a good one, and the film gives us several fun ideas and moments of humor without getting overly saccharine (although the Shirley Temple-esque little girl is right on the edge).

The backgrounds, which create a fantasy landscape out of fabrics and bedsheets, are a key element to the cartoon’s success, as is Scott Bradley’s dreamy score. Another highlight is the way the Calico Dragon breaks the fourth wall to take the audience into its confidence and describe how fearsome it is. The dragon even threatens to eat up members of the audience, although these claims are revealed to be mostly bluff when the dragon is bested by a little dog. As a 1935 release, the cartoon isn’t nearly as advanced as fantasy shorts Disney was releasing at the time, like The Cookie Carnival and Music Land, and it generally feels more in line with earlier Silly Symphonies like Babes in the Woods (1932) and Lullaby Land (1933). But the film is very creative and a lot of fun, which is more than you can say for other shorts Harman and Ising released when they were trying to compete with Disney.

A COLOUR BOX
Directed by Len Lye

One of the pioneers of abstract animation was Len Lye, a New Zealand-born artist who began making films when he moved to London in 1926. His earliest films include Tusalva (1929), a film about the evolution of single-celled organisms, and The Peanut Vendor (1933), a stop-motion short featuring a really bizarre-looking dancing monkey. But it wasn’t until A Colour Box in 1935 that he really made a name for himself as an important figure in animation.

For A Colour Box, Lye abandoned traditional methods like cel animation and stop-motion and instead began creating animation directly on the film stock. This process, referred to as “direct animation”, is not very frequently used but creates a distinctive and exciting look. This short was the first with direct animation to be screened in front of an audience, and it tuned a lot of people in to the idea of abstract animation. The short’s influence can be seen in the work of Norman McLaren and Stan Brakhage, and in 2005, a panel of experts at the Annecy Film Festival declared A Colour Box to be one of the top ten most significant animated films ever made.

While its importance and influence are undeniable, as a piece of art I wouldn’t consider it one of Len Lye’s strongest works. The visuals are matched nicely to the lively music by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra, but the shapes and patterns simply go by too fast and shift too radically in style to really leave a lasting impression. Lye’s follow-up the next year, Rainbow Dances, is more creative, memorable and aesthetically pleasing than A Colour Box (although he had a fuller range of color to work with at that point), and this short certainly doesn’t rival Free Radicals as Lye’s animation masterpiece.

But that’s being a bit harsh to such a groundbreaking film. The short has a raw, unrestrained kind of energy that is enormously appealing, and the use of color is very eye-catching. It’s definitely a bold, personal work of art, which makes that message from the British General Post Office at the end so amusingly out-of-place. Perhaps the stability of the post office is supposed to contrast with the wild, unpredictability of the abstract animation that came before it…?

KING OF THE MARDI GRAS
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Dave Tendlar]; Max Fleischer

It’s somewhat difficult to pinpoint the standouts in the Fleischer studio’s Popeye series (the two-reelers excepted), because they maintain such a consistent level of excellence while rarely falling into formula. Obviously, formulas are built into the series (Popeye eating his spinach, Popeye and Bluto fighting over Olive), but in the 1930s at least, the Fleischer animators were always coming up with funny and original settings to put their characters in, leading to immensely enjoyable shorts like For Better or Worser (a brilliantly cynical take on marriage), Adventures of Popeye (an oddball combination of live-action and animation) and The Spinach Overture (Popeye’s foray into classical music). While any of those shorts would’ve made fine substitutions for this film, King of the Mardi Gras is notable for introducing Popeye’s best-known voice artist and also concluding with a really incredible roller-coaster climax.

This short was storyman Jack Mercer’s first crack at voicing Popeye, and although his voicework is at this point pretty similar to William Costello’s, he shows a greater likability in the role and a knack for witty mumblings (when a few carts roll over Popeye’s head, he makes a remark about heavy traffic). This film is also one of the first Popeye cartoons to use Fleischers’ Stereoptical Process, in which animation cels were shot in front of miniature sets on a rotating wheel to give the backgrounds a three-dimensional quality. You can see it used in the opening pan across the carnival, and the effect is eye-popping.

Although the title of the cartoon and Bluto’s catchy tune refer to Mardi Gras, the flavor of the short is distinctively New York, and Bluto acknowledges at one point that the setting is Coney Island. This location allows for some very funny carnival-themed gags as Popeye and Bluto continually attempt to one-up each other with whatever attention-grabbing trick they can think of.

This rivalry finally culminates in a fight for Olive Oyl on board a roller coaster, which is choreographed so skillfully, and balances its thrills and laughs so effectively, that it really puts modern-day action blockbusters to shame. The intricate renderings of the roller coaster’s twists and turns are incredible, and – as with the previous year’s masterpiece A Dream Walking – the film pulls off complicated tricks of perspective so well that you hardly even notice them. The animators even go the extra mile and have the tracks shake in one scene as the characters drive over them. Only a really great film can get you laughing while keeping you on the edge of your seat, and this one pulls it off expertly.

MUSIC LAND
Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Walt Disney

Music Land isn’t as quite as famous as The Three Little Pigs or The Old Mill, but it really ought to be, as it’s one of the finest and most inventive films the Disney studio has ever produced. The story – in which a saxophone prince from the Isle of Jazz falls in love with a violin princess from the Land of Symphony – is a wonderful little parable about overcoming differences, as well as a funny reminder that jazz music was once looked down on as vulgar and amoral by elitists.

As much as I love the imaginative settings in earlier shorts on this list like Balloon Land and The Calico Dragon, Music Land is in a different league than those films; the cartoon makes sense as both a cartoon about instruments fighting each other and a Romeo & Juliet-style story about forbidden love (you would have to strain to find much double meaning in the Iwerks or MGM cartoons), and the film never strays from its central conceit of instruments as stand-ins for things we experience in real life. In many ways, this short could be thought of as the ultimate Silly Symphony, as it wears its combination of animation and music on its sleeve and pushes that marriage about as far as it can go.

Certainly the creativity seen here, in both its visuals and sound design, is at an all-time high. It would be impossible to name all of the wonderful gags making use of xylophones, metronomes and musical notes (even the trees and park benches in the background cleverly incorporate musical instruments), but suffice to say the writers milked the short’s concept for all it was worth. Adding to the film’s impressiveness is that it is told in pantomime; all of the dialogue is spoken with musical instruments, and these “voices” not only match with the characters’ designs but also reflect the musical style of the kingdom they belong to.

These exceptionally clever ideas provide entertainment value enough, but the Disney artists are so skillful at this point that they are able to deliver this endless parade of visual gags while still causing us to invest in the story through great animation and suspenseful cutting (particularly in the film’s exciting climax). The animation of our saxophone hero attempting to shuffle off after he has assaulted the queen is top-notch comic acting, and while the violin princess is generally abstract in design, her actions feel natural in ways that earlier female characters in the Disney shorts did not.

PLUTO’S JUDGEMENT DAY
Directed by David Hand; Walt Disney

Sending beloved cartoon characters to Hell was pretty common back in the Golden Age of Animation. Betty Boop took a trip to the underworld in 1934’s Red Hot Mamma, and Tom of Tom & Jerry fame (Heavenly Puss, 1949), Sylvester (Satan’s Waitin’, 1953) and Yosemite Sam (Devil’s Feud Cake, 1962) all shared similar rewards. Still, subjecting an innocuous character like Pluto to eternal torment is particularly harsh, which is perhaps why Pluto’s Judgment Day remains one of the most frightening and intriguing of the Disney shorts.

The film takes a risk in toeing the line between horror movie terror and dark humor, and the Disney artists are clearly unafraid of making the audience uneasy. There are some very detailed closeups of the black-hearted prosecuting attorney and his piercing yellow eyes, and some of the ideas here – sliding down a tunnel of darkness, getting snatched by a bunch of snakelike chains – are truly nightmarish. The settings are also eerily atmospheric, including a cave shaped like a cat head that swallows Pluto up with its bridge / tongue, and a forest of trees with mangled cat faces on them (this brief scene feels like a precursor to the forest sequence in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).

Even the jokes here are surprisingly ruthless. The cats who come up to testify against Pluto were all murdered by our canine hero in grisly but comical ways, one having been flattened by a steamroller, one driven crazy by his barks (the cat’s fit of insanity is one of the most gloriously insane pieces of animation in Disney history) and one drowned (his adorable nieces describe the incident and never has a cutesy choir of kitty voices sounded so ominous). Much of the humor comes from Pluto’s cruel treatment at the hands of the judge and attorney, and one particularly cynical and violent gag has Pluto swear in on a telephone book, only to have it snap his paw like a mousetrap and get whacked with a mallet by the judge when he yelps in pain. The bloodthirsty cat jury also allows for some mild satire, as they walk through a revolving door to convene about Pluto’s guilt.

The short culminates in Pluto’s sentence of being hung over a roaring fire while cats cheer for his demise. Luckily, it turns out that Pluto dreamed the whole thing and he kisses and makes up with the kitten who started him on this guilt spree, but the friendliness of the ending can only do so much to counteract the comic gruesomeness that came before.

THE SUNSHINE MAKERS
Directed by Burt Gillett & Ted Eshbaugh; Van Beuren

In 1934, Disney veteran Burt Gillett took over as head of the Van Beuren studio, and – by general consensus – he did a pretty poor job. His heavy drinking, fits of anger and strict quality standards (he fired over fifty people in only six months) made him unpopular with his employees, and today the Van Beuren shorts produced under his watch are considered the weakest the studio produced, despite the step up in production values. The earlier Van Beuren shorts were cheap but often crudely entertaining, with lots of offbeat invention. Gillett stripped away all of this appealing strangeness and wound up with a series of second-rate Disney imitations that ranged from fatally boring (Parrotville Old Folks, Molly Moo Cow and the Butterflies) to excruciatingly cutesy (A Little Birdie Told Me, The Merry Kittens). Out of the 29 cartoons produced under Gillett’s watch, The Sunshine Makers is the only one to maintain a high reputation.

This animated fable was sponsored by Borden’s and was originally intended to be an advertisement for milk (another Van Beuren cartoon released around the same time, Pastrytown Wedding, was sponsored by New York’s Cushman’s Bakery). Gillett and Eshbaugh wisely crafted the fantastic concept of bottled sunshine to metaphorically allude to Borden’s product without specifically tying the cartoon to milk, and the film plays perfectly well without any knowledge of its commercial origins. The plot concerns a colony of gnomes who harness the power of the sun in order to bottle happiness, and they use it to stave off attacks from a group of grumpy, miserable swamp-dwellers that are only happy when they’re sad.

The short is not remarkably different from many of Gillett’s other Rainbow Parade cartoons; it’s just about as hokey, if not more so, and the unsophisticated character animation / multiple animation glitches make it clear that this is not a Disney film. Still, the cartoon’s extremely simple narrative is told in such innocent, unshaded terms that it’s difficult not to be charmed by it. The simplicity of the presentation also helps to sell the concept: the way the gnomes worship the sun calls religion to mind, and if the cartoon’s presentation was more nuanced, one might fault the gnomes for forcing their sunshine ideology on the swamp-dwellers. However, the stark characterizations make it clear that these swamp-dwellers are not just a clan with a more downbeat lifestyle, but a cultish group of sycophants whose entire lives are unhealthily devoted to being spiteful and miserable. We can’t side with the swamp-dwellers because the film’s utterly black-and-white presentation doesn’t allow it.

The extreme difference between the two groups is played for laughs somewhat (the way the swamp-dwellers skip around singing “tra-la-la” when doused with the sunshine is clearly tongue-in-cheek), but there’s a sincerity in the telling of the story that makes it oddly endearing. The cartoon seems to reflect Ted Eshbaugh’s personality more than Burt Gillett’s, retaining the sense of oddball fantasy that was present in some of his earlier cartoons like The Snow Man and The Wizard of Oz. Its cheerfully unironic tone might be a turn-off to some, but The Sunshine Makers is the type of film that sticks in your memory.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE
Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Walt Disney

This film, starring the slow-witted Toby Tortoise and cocky Max Hare, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of 1934 (it was released towards the beginning of ’35 and got lumped in with the shorts of the previous year) and remains one of the most popular of the Silly Symphonies. As with earlier entries like The Three Little Pigs and The Grasshopper and the Ants, the film is a fairly straight retelling of a classic fable. It is embellished with additional gags and story ideas, to be sure, but all to the purpose of telling the story more effectively, as opposed to using the tale as a springboard for racing gags (as other studios would have done) or parodying the story (as Tex Avery and Bob Clampett would later do in films like Tortoise Beats Hare and Tortoise Wins by a Hare).

The short is primarily notable for its use of speed, which was extremely innovative for the time. Max Hare zips across the screen in a flurry of speed lines and smoke in only a few frames, an effect that we’re used to now but was a breakthrough for animators in the mid-‘30s. If you compare this film to earlier race cartoons like Bosko the Speed King and Betty Boop’s Ker-Choo, the cars “zooming” by in the earlier films look surprisingly lethargic. While The Tortoise and the Hare didn’t invent speed lines, it did show how cartoon characters could rocket across the screen in a way that live actors could not, which led the way for chase cartoons featuring the likes of Tom & Jerry and the Road Runner. This sense of speed contributes greatly to the suspense of the climax, where director Wilfred Jackson cannily cuts back and forth between the tortoise’s dependable trot and the hare’s furious desperation, even adding in a siren sound in the Max Hare shots to drive the contrast home.

The short is equally commendable in its characterizations. Max Hare looks a bit awkward in his initial scenes, but once Hamilton Luske takes over for the bulk of the rest of the film, Max is drawn with an amazing amount of confidence and energy. Every pose is striking and clearly defined, and his movements perfectly convey his total self-absorption, fitting well with his playful eyes and smile so wide that it looks like it’s going to snap. Of course, his dialogue and distinctive laugh give an equally good sense of his outgoing personality, but the animation is so strong that they are hardly necessary. ‘30s cartoons are full of cads who inevitably receive their comeuppance, but Max – with his athletic bent and flirtatious nature – is a very distinctive type of cad, and that makes his defeat much more satisfying.

One final comment: Max Hare has frequently been cited as an inspiration for Bugs Bunny; Tex Avery acknowledged his debt to the Disney character on numerous occasions, and Frank Tashlin referred to Bugs as a “steal”. This has always struck me as a bit odd, given that Max Hare only passingly resembles Bugs; both have long arms and legs that resemble a human’s, but Bugs is a scrawny rabbit, whereas Max has a bulky, puffed out physique that draws attention to his athleticism. And their faces resemble each other’s, but not remarkably as cartoon rabbits go (Bugs did have a wide grin similar to Max’s in early films like The Heckling Hare and Wabbit Twouble, but he soon lost it). The characters are also decidedly different in personality; while both are self-confident, Bugs is a cool, streetwise heckler, whereas Max is a egotistical jock, as conceited and eager to show off as a star quarterback. Max Hare is, in other words, just the kind of arrogant lout that Bugs Bunny would have taken great relish in outsmarting.

WHO KILLED COCK ROBIN?
Directed by David Hand; Walt Disney

Who Killed Cock Robin?, based on the nursery rhyme originally published in 1744, differs from other Silly Symphonies of the time in that it tackles its source material from a completely comedic standpoint. The short shares the courtroom setting of Pluto’s Judgement Day, also directed by David Hand, but Cock Robin trades in Judgement Day’s horrific atmosphere for a tone of silliness with an air of cynicism about it. In the film, a blustering owl judge attempts to find out who shot crooner Cock Robin with an arrow.

Key to the film’s humor is its operatic style. This approach was previously used in Disney shorts like The Pied Piper (1933) and The Goddess of Spring (1934), but the results had been awkward; the films couldn’t seem to commit to the style, but also never went full-force in parodying it, so they stayed in an uncomfortable middle ground. In this short, everything is clearly a joke, and so the style fits perfectly.

Although the crime in question (spoiler alert, if that’s necessary to put on a summary of a 1935 Disney cartoon) turns out to be a hoax, this short has an edgier sense of humor than one might typically expect from the studio. The film makes a joke out of Cock Robin’s supposed death (Robin emits a few final buh-buh-boos), turning the idea of a cold-blooded murder into a lighthearted farce. The short also gets a lot of comedic mileage out of the seductive Jenny Wren, a Mae West caricature who is absurdly (almost grotesquely) buxom, and shares her onscreen inspiration’s penchant for sexual innuendo. And then there’s the cupid with the Ed Wynn laugh, who is flamboyantly gay in a manner that generally died out in cartoons when the Hays Code came in.

Still, the knives really come out in this film’s depiction of the justice system, which is sharply satirical. The police birds, who are portrayed as incompetent goofs along the same lines as the Keystone Kops, arrest everyone in a nearby bar for no apparent reason, and they brutally assault suspects with their clubs even when they are rendered completely defenseless. The hulking parrot attorney is desperate to accuse anybody of anything, and the jury full of identical birds is cheerfully fickle. When Jenny Wren arrives as a witness, her curvaceousness distracts the entire court to the point where the judge offers the dismissive ruling that all the suspects be hanged, leading the jury to merrily sing, “we don’t know who is guilty, so we’re going to hang them all!” This sort of ironic cheeriness as a means for black humor was well ahead of its time, and it apparently appealed to Alfred Hitchcock, who asked for permission to use the short in his 1936 film Sabotage.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1935? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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