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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1937

Alright, friends, now we dive into the ten best cartoons released in 1937. This year was a big one in animation largely due to the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Disney’s groundbreaking animated feature film that proved to the world that animated characters could not only maintain an audience’s interest for 83 minutes, but emotionally involve them as well.

The number of innovations involved in the creation of Snow White are endless, but it isn’t necessary to know what they are to enjoy the movie, which is as creative and charming a fantasy as any committed to the screen.

It’s amazing to think that the Disney studio was churning out a regular schedule of short films during production of the movie, much less that they were releasing some of the finest animated shorts ever made, but they were, and three of them appear on this list. You’ll also see quite a bit from Warner Bros., a studio that really came into its own this year. There’s also a couple of Fleischer classics, and even one from Charles Mintz.

Take a look at this list, and enjoy some brilliant films from one of animation’s most important years:

CLOCK CLEANERS
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen; Walt Disney

Of all the shorts featuring Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy as a comedy team, Clock Cleaners might be the best. It features the three characters at their strongest, and it builds up to a thrilling and funny climax that is reminiscent of the Max Fleischer classic A Dream Walking (1934).

The short, which opens with a stunning shot of Mickey washing the face of a giant clock while standing on one of its hands, features the three Disney stars tidying things up inside a giant machine. Mickey attempts to rid himself of a troublesome stork, Donald gets in a fight with the mainspring and Goofy attempts to wash the inside of a bell while mechanical statues repeatedly show up to ring it. At this point, the Disney artists no longer need to rely on big gags, as the nuances of the characters are enough to generate laughs.

And the biggest laughs come during the climax, when Goofy is knocked into a dreamlike stupor and starts wandering around the clock tower, nearly fall to his death in a fantastically choreographed sequence.

The Disney cartoons are sometimes dismissed as stuffy and pretentious by cartoon fans who prefer the grittier, off-kilter humor of the Fleischer Studio and the sharp, wised-up comedy of the Warner Bros. cartoons. While I agree that the Disney approach is softer than the big belly laughs provided by Fleischer and Warner, to dismiss it as ineffective is to ignore the studio’s strengths at character-based slapstick.

I think it’s instructive to compare the climax of this film to similar sequences in the Fleischer short A Dream Walking and the Chuck Jones cartoon Homeless Hare (1950). The execution in the Fleischer short is highly mechanical, with Olive Oyl tramping through a construction site like clockwork. The sequence in Homeless Hare is both faster and looser, placing more emphasis on Bugs’ twitchy expressions and Rube Goldbergian luck as opposed to methodological precision. In Clock Cleaners, on the other hand, the sequence is more like a comic ballet, and Goofy’s drunken stumbling (brilliantly animated by Woolie Reitherman) has a certain gracefulness to it. His movements are extremely loose, and the contrast of his dizzy, shiftless ambling with his precarious position generates the comedy.

The Disney animators approach the material in a different way than Jones and the Fleischer artists, and as a result they produce a comic sequence that is both highly funny, extremely impressive and distinctive to the studio. In my book, Goofy’s near-death experience ranks with the finest thrill comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton.

Note: In the original print, Donald says to the mainspring, “Oh yeah? Says you!” In recent years, viewers have incorrectly assumed Donald is dropping the F-bomb, and this mistake eventually prompted Disney to redub the film for TV airings, which is unfortunately the version that is linked below. Out of the all of the scathing words that have emitted from Donald’s beak, censoring “says you” seems like a pretty poor choice.

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

Many people know Popeye primarily by the films produced by Famous Studios in the ‘40s and ‘50s. These films featured some good ideas and great animation early in the studio’s output (Me Musical Nephews and The Hungry Goat are two top-notch examples), but quickly settled into formulaic mediocrity.

By the late ‘40s, the same things tended to happen in each Popeye short, and it was simply a matter of plugging the characters and story elements into different settings; in Wotta Knight, Popeye has to save Olive from Bluto in the middle ages, in Safari So Good, Popeye has to save Olive from Bluto in the jungle, in Popeye Meets Hercules, Popeye has to save Olive from Bluto in Ancient Greece, etc.

This is frustrating largely because the Fleischer Popeyes of the 1930s were so consistently imaginative. Plots could be as diverse as Popeye and Bluto competing to make a baby stop crying (I Like Babies and Infinks), Bluto stealing Popeye’s spinach and replacing it with weeds (The Twisker Pitcher) and Popeye taking Olive Oyl’s grandma out for New Year’s Eve (Let’s Celebrake). Even the shorts with the standard setup of Popeye rescuing Olive from Bluto are full of offbeat, original gags and lots of funny twists and turns.

Hospitaliky, one of the funniest entries of a very funny series, beautifully turns the Popeye formula on its head. Popeye and Bluto are determined to be admitted into a hospital so they can be around the gorgeous nurse Olive Oyl, so they attempt to hurt themselves in various ways to gain entrance. The Popeye cartoons typically thrive on comic violence, but this film gains its laughs by avoiding any violence; Popeye and Bluto’s attempts to injure themselves get progressively more ludicrous and potentially fatal, and all are inevitably botched at the last minute by cruel fate. The film builds comic frustration through a series of what should be good fortune, creating an almost sadistic desire in the audience to see some pain inflicted.

The short is full of great ideas, and the ad libs from Jack Mercer, Gus Wickie and Mae Questel have never been better. Popeye’s fake nervous breakdown towards the beginning is a terrific comic performance, and the climax cleverly reverses another Popeye formula for a hilariously bittersweet conclusion.

THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL
Directed by Arthur Davis & Sid Marcus; Charles Mintz

The Charles Mintz / Screen Gems studio may be the least popular studio in animation’s golden age, and for generally good reason. Although Dick Huemer crafted some fantastic shorts featuring Toby the Pup and Scrappy in the early ‘30s, and Frank Tashlin’s leadership resulted in a brief burst of inspiration in the early ‘40s, the bulk of the studio’s product was forgettable. In 1937, the Scrappy and Krazy Kat series had mostly lost their luster, and the Color Rhapsodies were cheerful but bland, like Swing Monkey Swing and Let’s Go, to cite two typically uninspired entries.

That a standout cartoon like this would’ve emerged in such an environment is surprising, but Arthur Davis and Sid Marcus went the extra mile on this one. Based on the story by Hans Christian Anderson, this film about a little girl who sells matches out in the snow tells its story with heart and sincerity. The backgrounds and color are all unusually excellent, the music is dreamy and sad and there are some eye-catching animation tricks, such as the moving perspective in the scene where the girl enters the dream world and a POV shot as the girl goes up and down on a swing-set.

The short is most notable for its uncompromising ending, which is taken directly from the Hans Christian Anderson story. The little girl, after being laughed at and ignored by the people celebrating in the streets, attempts to keep herself warm with her matches and eventually dies out in the snow.

For a conclusion, her spirit is carried off to heaven by an angel. This tragic ending was unprecedented in Hollywood animation at this point (Fleischer’s similarly-themed Somewhere in Dreamland from 1936 concludes with the children waking up to a big meal), but Davis and Marcus refuse to pull any punches and the short is much stronger for it.

Truth be told, the film is more of a worthy attempt than a flawless masterpiece. As with many cartoons of the ‘30s that attempt to pull at the heartstrings (Fleischer’s Time for Love, MGM’s The Lost Chick), the short at times feels schmaltzy and overly precious. The animation here was primarily done by Emery Hawkins, who went on to do some of the funniest and most energetic animation of all time at Walter Lantz and Warner Bros. (where he did some of his best work under Match Girl director Arthur Davis).

However, none of the animation in this film is anywhere close to Disney’s level of quality, and the people in the city and the laughing baby angels look awkward and unnatural. Even our red-cheeked lead character comes off more like a moving baby doll than a living, breathing person.

That being said, the film’s virtues outweigh its shortcomings. The film’s sudden shift from a dreamy paradise to a terrible nightmare where everything comes crashing down still packs a punch, and the shots of the girl inching towards the candle and drawing her final breath just as it goes out are extremely suspenseful and effective. This story has been adapted successfully into animation several times in the last few decades – most notably the late Michael Sporn’s TV movie in 1990 and the 2006 Disney short by Roger Allers – but this 1937 short still retains a lot of power.

Note: The sad ending of the film is often cut when shown on TV. The version below includes the deleted segment, albeit in lower quality. (The title card, which features 1940s characters like the Fox and the Crow, is also altered from the original print.)

LITTLE RED WALKING HOOD
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

Tex Avery had been challenging Disney-style realism ever since he arrived at Warner Bros., so it was only natural that he would get around to taking a fairy tale of the type that Disney might adapt and completely ripping it to shreds.

Avery would later be inextricably linked to this fable for his outrageous and legendary 1943 short Red Hot Riding Hood (and its brilliant 1949 follow-up Little Rural Riding Hood), but this was his first crack at a fairy tale parody. And while it isn’t as extreme or confident as the aforementioned titles from the ‘40s, it was an important stepping stone for Avery and it remains a very funny film.

The short includes some nice fairy tale touches, like the storybook opening and the colored pencil backgrounds, but the film doesn’t really attempt to tell its story, and is instead content to repeatedly interrupt / question it, going on numerous absurd tangents along the way. The Katharine Hepburn-esque Red Riding Hood has some hilarious dialogue as she asks the girls in the audience if they have to deal with what she goes through, and she interrupts the action at one point to ask, “rather childish and a bit silly, don’t you think?”

Equally funny is the chase scene between the wolf and the grandmother that gets interrupted by a phone call (the wolf politely waits while granny has a long conversation with her grocer, finally protesting, “AW, COME ON, GRANDMA!”).

This short was groundbreaking for Avery in a variety of ways; it features his first Hollywood Wolf character of the type that would appear in numerous MGM shorts, and although Avery doesn’t really use lust to generate humor here as he does in Red Hot Riding Hood, it’s worth noting that the wolf is seemingly trying to pick Red up rather than eat her. The red-nosed Elmer Fudd precursor (sometimes credited as Egghead, although referred to in Warner press materials as Egghead’s cousin) is a deadpan, fourth-dimensional cipher who has no place in the story and pops up in unexpected places throughout the film, much like Droopy, who Avery would create in 1943. I

n fact, the film’s ending gag, where the wolf finally asks who the heck the guy is and he responds that he’s the hero, bashing the wolf on the head with a mallet, was repeated in the 1945 Droopy cartoon Wild and Woolfy. Still, perhaps the most important innovation is the gag involving silhouettes of audience members attempting to find their seats. This sort of meta-humor had never been attempted in film before, and Avery would return to this concept again and again, finding new and inventive ways to push it even further.

Avery’s distinctive and extremely funny drawing style wouldn’t dominate the look of his films until he moved to MGM, and as a result much of the animation in this short is dull and straightforward. A welcome exception to this is the animation of Irv Spence, whose joyously cartoony and kinetic drawing style adds an extra level of humor to every scene he tackles (his work appears intermittently throughout the film, most notably the entire ending sequence). Spence provided Avery with animation that was as funny as the jokes he was coming up with, no small feat considering Avery was going in comic directions the cartoon world had never seen. This film is a great example of his early achievements.

LONESOME GHOSTS
Directed by Burt Gillett; Walt Disney

This wonderful cartoon, another “trio” short featuring Mickey, Donald and Goofy, puts the characters in a more fantastic setting than usual. In the short, a group of bored ghosts ring up the Ajax Ghost Exterminators company so they can have someone to haunt. Our three Disney heroes arrive and, as usual, split off and encounter their own troubles.

Goofy gets a hilarious mirror routine that recalls a classic sequence in the Marx Brothers film Duck Soup, but for the most part Mickey, Donald and Goofy’s segments aren’t as clearly defined by different activities as they are in other trio shorts; the ghosts tend to heckle the characters in similar ways. These segments feel individualized anyway because of the characters’ reactions to them. Mickey attempts to stay calm and maintain control, Donald gets outraged by the ghostly antics and Goofy attempts to outsmart his oppressors, to no avail (leading to the classic Goofy line, “I’m brave, but I’m careful”).

This short features the Disney studio at its very best, combining cartoony slapstick with imaginative fantasy in a way that would never be possible in a live-action film (the blending of scares and jokes is so effective that it puts movies like Ghostbusters to shame). The short features exceptionally strong character animation (check out Mickey’s cautious look as he realizes there’s no one in the house, and each of Goofy’s movements perfectly conveys his idiocy before he even does anything), combined with a lot of really stellar effects animation as ghosts transform into frothy oceans and our three heroes get covered in molasses and flour.

This was Burt Gillett’s first cartoon back at Disney after heading up the Van Beuren studio from 1934 to 1936. His return was short-lived (he moved to the Walter Lantz studio in 1938), but it really is amazing to see the contrast between even the best of his syrupy Rainbow Parades at Van Beuren and the perfect execution of this film. Gillett’s talents were perhaps not well suited to running the show, but at Disney, he really shined.

POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS ALI BABA’S FORTY THIEVES
Directed by Dave Fleischer [Uncredited: Willard Bowsky]; Max Fleischer

This full-color, two-reel extravaganza was a sequel of sorts to Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor, and as incredible as that film was, Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves is possibly even better. The film is a delightful adventure full of stunning visuals, great humor and top-notch character work. Far from becoming tiresome after 17 minutes, one only wishes that the Fleischers were able to go on longer and make an entire Popeye feature.

In the film, Bluto plays the role of Abu Hassan (not Ali Baba, despite the title), a nefarious bandit who leads a gang of thieves in plundering a town in Arabia. Popeye, Olive and Wimpy hear of this attack and head over to Arabia to stop Abu and his minions. The short sets Popeye in an epic adventure setting, but maintains the humor of the black-and-white entries, working up to a battle that succeeds as both an exciting climax and a hilarious comedy sequence.

The use of Fleischers’ stereoptical process (2-D characters walking across 3-D sets) is extraordinary. Early scenes in the desert show a rare use of the process in the foreground, and the Fleischers even incorporate some props into the sets, including some skulls in the sand, a traffic light in the middle of the desert and, at the end of the film, a moving cart full of treasure. Plus, the opening titles feature an incredible shot of the opening lifting on a cave model, which is truly eye-popping.

The fact that the crew went to such lengths to create model sets when audiences would have been happy to accept simple flat backgrounds says a lot about the studio’s work ethic. And that level of inventiveness is all over this film; the story is quite strong on its own, but the animators work in dozens of hilarious and creative visual gags and differentiate each character through movement.

Added onto all of that you have great music by Sammy Timberg and hilarious ad libs by the voice cast (there are too many gems here to list, although one of my favorites is Popeye pulling Bluto’s long underwear out and saying, “Abu Hasn’t got ‘em anymore”). Every aspect of this cartoon is both incredibly skillful and a lot of fun. Audiences in 1937 must’ve been thrilled.

PORKY’S DUCK HUNT
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

Introducing one of the greatest animated characters of all time should be enough of an achievement for any cartoon, but Porky’s Duck Hunt is far more than just the first film to feature Daffy Duck. It was also the first cartoon to really nail the type of humor that was popping up in Avery’s films of 1936 and early 1937, and as such it remains one of the most important cartoons in animation history.

Tex Avery had been pushing towards sharper comedy with the self-referentiality of The Village Smithy, the breakneck speed of Milk and Money and the determined silliness of Porky the Wrestler (in one celebrated sequence, a wrestler begins puffing like a locomotive and Avery keeps going farther and farther with the metaphor). But Porky’s Duck Hunt is the first film that truly captured the Looney Tunes spirit, establishing the studio as one that would thumb its nose as Disney-flavored cuteness and realism in favor of wild, screwball comedy with a self-aware, smart-alecky edge.

In Porky’s Duck Hunt, all the elements are in place: Mel Blanc, after voicing a drunkard in Avery’s Picador Porky, blessedly takes over the role of Porky from Joe Dougherty for the first time here, giving the character a humor and likability that he lacked before. Porky’s design has also been perfected for this film, trading in his beach ball shape for a leaner body that allows for more comic possibilities (Bob Clampett would further improve Porky’s design when he began directing later in 1937).

Carl Stalling is also really coming into his own as the studio musician, giving the short’s soundtrack a bombastic energy. He also musically accents the characters’ blinks and footsteps and cleverly plugs appropriate songs into the score (when a cross-eyed hunter attempt to shoot a duck, Stalling chimes in with “I Only Have Eyes For You”).

Most of all, though, Avery’s comedy skills really shine through here. This wasn’t the first film to use hunting as a premise (Warner Bros.’s Bosko’s Fox Hunt, Disney’s The Duck Hunt and Walter Lantz’s The Quail Hunt are just a few examples), but the classic cartoon stereotype of a befuddled hunter being heckled by crazy cartoon animals more or less begins with this film. In fact, our entire conception of cartoons as six-minute laugh fests full of absurd jokes and slapstick humor can be traced back to this short (as opposed to the soft character comedy of the Disney shorts and the surreal, stream-of-consciousness humor of the Fleischers).

Avery invites us into a universe where an army of hunters can appear out of nowhere to fire at Porky when he blows a duck call, a cross-eyed hunter brandishing a cross-eyed gun can shoot down two airplanes when aiming for a duck and a sign can helpfully appear to inform us “this is an electric eel, folks” in case the visual wasn’t clear enough.

There’s also a hilarious shot of ducks doing acrobatics outside of Porky’s window once he’s given up on the hunting, a funny recurring joke about an upstairs neighbor and one sequence involving a bunch of drunken fish singing “Moonlight Bay” that shows a lot of bravery on Avery’s part; he pursues this goofy idea well past the point where some audiences might be turned off by the pointlessness of it. Avery also includes his most striking attack on the fourth wall thus far when Porky questions a crazy duck’s actions by protesting, “hey, that wasn’t in the script!”

The duck that led to this outburst is none other than Daffy, who responds, “don’t let it worry ya’, skipper, I’m just a crazy, darn-fool duck”. Daffy winds up popping in and out of the short, and although he isn’t the star and he looks identical to many of the other ducks featured here, he still manages to steal the show. His proudly insane personality was another breakthrough for Avery, as characters in earlier cartoons had been dumb (á la Goofy) but never completely off-the-wall.

Bob Clampett’s animation of Daffy madly skipping across the lake is key to his characterization, and a first step towards the kind of wacky, heavily distorted animation that directors like Avery and Clampett would spearhead. The crew must’ve known they had a winner here, as they have Daffy return to scramble around and whoop it up across the “that’s all, folks” closing card.

It’s a fitting ending to one of the true game changers in film history.

PORKY’S ROMANCE
Directed by Frank Tashlin; Warner Bros.

Porky’s Romance was released shortly before the innovation of Porky’s Duck Hunt, and as a result it’s still of a piece with the earlier style of the Warner Bros. shorts. Joe Dougherty is still doing Porky’s voice and while the film shows traces of the sarcastic humor Avery brought with him to the studio, it isn’t an all-out gagfest like later Looney Tunes would be.

That being said, it’s a marvelously directed little film with some fantastic touches that show a true master is at the helm. In the short, Petunia Pig turns down Porky’s marriage proposal and he attempts to end it all by hanging himself. When his attempt fails and a tree branch falls on his head, he has a dream about the hellish reality of being married to Petunia.

Tashlin always brought a lot of style and elegance to his films, and both the architecture and rounded designs of the characters here have an Art Moderne flair, matching the classiness of ritzy musicals of the era like The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat. Director Ernst Lubitsch is probably the closest live-action equivalent to Tashlin’s approach in his blend of high style and low humor, as well as his ability to convey information without describing it or showing it outright; many shots here, particularly the silhouette of Porky and Petunia in the honeymoon hotel, have flashes of Lubitsch (and that may not be a coincidence, as Tashlin was a self-professed Lubitsch fan, even paying homage to a musical sequence in Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo in his Jerry Lewis-Dean Martin comedy Hollywood or Bust).

Tashlin pulls off a lot of effective filmmaking techniques here – there are a lot of great pans and the transition from Porky getting klunked on the head to a hazy vision of wedding bells is very nice – but probably the most impressive trick is the fast-paced series of cuts when Petunia realizes Porky has a box of chocolates and she darts after him. Tashlin zips through ten cuts in only 172 frames, but the action is always clear. This type of rapid-fire cutting was hinted at in Tashlin’s 1936 short Porky in the Northwoods, but no other director was doing anything similar to this in 1937. Even when the camera remains perfectly still – as in the scene where Fluffnums the dog keeps growling at Porky when he reaches for a chocolate, or the sequence where Porky has to iron, cook and clean all at once – Tashlin shows off his directorial chops with his mastery of comic timing.

This isn’t empty spectacle, either, and Tashlin uses these tools to better tell his cynical little fable about how marriage is a nightmare. Porky is on the verge of blandness here, but he makes an appealing everyman, arousing some sympathy when he gets shot down and admirably holding his own in some funny comedy bits. There’s also a fun musical sequence set to the hokey but upbeat number “I Wanna Woo”, and the way the female chorus switches from cheerful to somber after Petunia rejects Porky’s proposal is quite effective.

Still, perhaps the greatest testament to Tashlin’s skill as a director is how hateful he can make Petunia’s little dog Fluffnums (even his panting is despicable). When Porky runs back over to kick the stupid dog at the end of the film, all you can do is cheer.

Not to mention that this film marked the debut of Petunia Pig, following the iron-clad rule that all 1930s cartoon stars needed girlfriends. Petunia appeared in five cartoons in the late ‘30s, but never took off beyond that, perhaps because Tashlin characterized her in her maiden voyage as a heartless shrew. Still, she gets a dramatic introduction before the cartoon, announced as Leon Schlesinger’s new Looney Tunes star, and she hilariously stumbles over a speech for her public. After botching the presentation, she winds up screaming Prof. Tommy Mack’s catchphrase from the radio program Community Sing, “EXCITED? WHO’S EXCITED? I’M NOT EXCITED!!”

Well, she was funny while she lasted.

THE OLD MILL
Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Walt Disney

The pinnacle of the Silly Symphonies series and one of the greatest films about nature ever made, this short was originally intended as a test for Disney’s multiplane camera, invented by Bill Garity and Ub Iwerks. The multiplane built on Max Fleischer’s success with his stereoptical process, but instead of using three-dimensional sets, layers of cels were positioned at different distances from each other in order to create a sense of depth. This short was the multiplane’s test run before it was put to even more extensive use in Disney’s feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

The film doesn’t have much of a plot, or leading characters, and instead is a portrait of a bunch of animals living in and around an old mill when a storm hits and threatens their existence. The film is a mood piece more than anything else, and its balance of tone (first serene and peaceful, then light and comedic, finally transitioning to frightening and suspenseful) is handled with the skill of the very finest storytellers. The score by Leigh Harline is one of the best and most powerful ever composed for a cartoon, using elements from Johann Strauss’s One Day When We Were Young from The Gypsy Baron.

In fact, everything about this cartoon is breathtaking. The multiplane camera gives the visuals a greater sophistication, but the background paintings by themselves are beautiful. The movements of the animals show how intensely the Disney animators studied their subjects, but their designs maintain enough caricature that they fit comfortably as animated creatures, unlike the stiff, literal attempts to capture real animals in films like Martin Rosen’s Watership Down (1978). Characters like the indignant owl and the cautious frog are fully alive on the screen, with no dialogue or obvious acting gimmicks necessary. Director Wilfred Jackson was always a fan of cartoony impossibilities, and he works one in as the frog’s pupils circle all the way around within his cranium, but the short doesn’t allow big gags to interfere with the naturalistic tone of the short.

The film’s innovations and beauty haven’t gone unnoticed, and the film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of 1937 (beating out Charles Mintz’s The Little Match Girl and Fleischer’s Educated Fish, a pretty undistinguished entry in the Color Classics series). It later appeared at #14 in Jerry Beck’s book The 50 Greatest Cartoons, voted by over a thousand animation professionals. Also, director Hayao Miyazaki has cited it as his favorite Disney film, and its easy to see The Old Mill’s influence in his work.

SHE WAS AN ACROBAT’S DAUGHTER
Directed by Friz Freleng; Warner Bros.

For the better part of the ‘40s and ‘50s, there wasn’t any meaningful difference between the Looney Tunes and the Merrie Melodies. In the mid-‘30s, however, the Looney Tunes were black-and-white shorts that featured Schlesinger’s starring characters (Buddy, Beans, Porky), while the Merrie Melodies were one-shots in full color, each one plugging a different song in the Warner Bros. library. Around 1936, Tex Avery started pushing the comedy content of the Looney Tunes, but even he was more subdued in directing Merrie Melodies, leading to surprisingly tame entries like Don’t Look Now (1936) and Ain’t We Got Fun (1937).

Friz Freleng was the first to pick up on Avery’s ribald humor in the Looney Tunes and bring it to the more respectable world of the full-color Merrie Melodies.

Now, Freleng doesn’t tend to get as much credit from cartoon fans as directors like Avery, Freleng and Tashlin, largely due to his more straightforward style. Despite being a primary figure at the studio from the early ‘30s up to the mid-‘60s, he wasn’t much of a trailblazer, and he tended to adapt to the studio’s dominant style; when the Disney films were all the rage, he directed cute musical fables. When Avery and Clampett brought zany humor to the animation world, his cartoons got wackier and funnier. And in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when Chuck Jones started producing violent blackout gags of the Road Runner type, Freleng did so as well.

But that shouldn’t take anything away from Freleng’s accomplishments as a director, and over the course of his career, he directed many of the studio’s funniest films. While many other directors tried to follow Avery’s example and failed miserably, as Hugh Harman did with The Lonesome Stranger and Abdul the Bulbul Ameer, Freleng instantly got it and She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter is a hilarious and cathartic screwball farce that bravely takes its place among the studio’s silliest efforts at the time.

The short is a parody of the moviegoing experience of the 1930s, similar to earlier Warner cartoons like Bosko’s Picture Show (1933) and Buddy’s Theatre (1935), but this cartoon careens past both in terms of fast-paced gags and edgy humor. Highlights include a Goofy-Tone News report by Dole Promise (parody of Lowell Thomas) who can’t even read his own name, some Nitwit News from Who Dehr (parody of Lew Lehr) who makes corny puns about a mad dog virus causing the elite members of the city of Boondoggle to behave like canines, a running gag featuring a fat hippo who can’t find his seat, a screamingly funny bit featuring a little duck who keeps asking his dad annoying questions (“Why did the man say that, daddy? Does he like her, daddy?”) and a brilliantly animated sequence where a man attempting to find a good seat keeps getting a distorted view of the screen (look closely for an early visual parody of Adolf Hitler).

Freleng gets away with murder here, ruthlessly taking the air out of Warner Bros.’ own recent hit film The Petrified Forest (1936) with an extended parody entitled The Petrified Florist, which features devastatingly funny caricatures of Leslie Howard and Bette Davis (Freleng also works in a dig at a rival studio, portraying the MGM lion crowing like a rooster). And, in perhaps the film’s funniest bit, Freleng even seems to mock the idea of the Merrie Melodies series itself, with Stickoutski at the Fertilizer popping out of nowhere to lead the audience in singing “She Was an Acrobat’s Daughter”.

Before this film, the featured songs were always treated with a degree of respect, but not here, as the boneheaded theater patrons sing along to lyrics projected on the screen (featuring some hilarious Milt Gross-inspired drawings of the grotesquely muscular titular character) and even sing along when the wrong card appears on the screen.

This laugh-a-minute cartoon seemingly served as an inspiration for highly funny films like Tex Avery’s Hamateur Night (1939) and Bob Clampett’s The Film Fan (1940). In fact, nearly a decade later, Clampett reused much of this footage for his short Bacall to Arms (1946). Please do not spit on the floor.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1937? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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