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THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1938

We’re already up to 1938 in our top ten series here, and there is once again a cornucopia of great cartoons to choose from. ‘

The Disney studio, fresh off of the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was still turning out top-quality Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Silly Symphonies shorts, even while working simultaneously on Pinocchio and Fantasia (both released in 1940).

And the Fleischer Studio relocated to Florida to begin work on their first animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels, which would be released in 1939.

New characters created in 1938 include Terrytoons’ Gandy Goose (first appearing in The Gandy Goose) and Disney’s Huey, Dewey & Louie (first appearing in Donald’s Nephews). MGM also brought Rudolph Dirks’ Captain and the Kids to the screen for a short-lived attempt at a series.

But the most notable debut was a certain wascally wabbit named Bugs Bunny, who first appeared in Ben Hardaway’s Porky’s Hare Hunt. However, Bugs was more or less unrecognizable at this point, being portrayed as an out-of-control lunatic rather than a quick-thinking heckler, and it wasn’t until Tex Avery’s 1940 cartoon A Wild Hare that Bugs became the character audiences known and love.

Speaking of Warner Bros., the studio lost Friz Freleng to MGM and Frank Tashlin to Disney, although Freleng would return in 1940 and Tashlin would return in 1943. A

s a result, Chuck Jones was promoted to the director’s chair, making his debut with The Night Watchman. His early years a director were mostly focused on cute Disney imitations, and it took until 1942 for him to come into his own and begin an incredible creative streak that lasted for about fifteen years and resulted in some of the greatest cartoons ever made.

In this list, we have quite a bit of Disney and Warner Bros., as well as an entry from the Fleischer Studio, a George Pal Puppetoon and an abstract short from the UK. Take a look:

THE BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR
Directed by Bill Roberts; Walt Disney

One of the most lavish animated short subjects ever made, this could be the quintessential Disney film; it’s a cartoon comedy starring Mickey Mouse, but also a charming and imaginative fairy tale adaptation of the kind that Disney became associated with in his feature films.

The story is based on the Grimms’ fairy tale The Valiant Little Tailor, which had already been loosely adapted to animation in Ub Iwerks’ enjoyable 1934 effort The Valiant Tailor. The Brave Little Tailor was Disney’s first stab at the story, although Mickey had already faced off against a giant in the 1933 film Giant Land and would do so again in the Mickey and the Beanstalk segment of the 1947 feature Fun and Fancy Free.

The short casts Mickey as a tailor who swats seven flies at once using two flyswatters. He brags that he “killed seven with one blow” just at the unfortunate moment that the townspeople are panicking over what to do about a giant terrorizing their kingdom. The king then sends Mickey off to slay the giant, promising him the hand of the fair Princess Minnie in return for his bravery.

The film was heavily advertised at the time (the Mickey Mouse newspaper comic devoted a series of Sunday strips to the making of the short), and the publicity was well-deserved, as the film has the ambition and scope of a full-length feature despite its nine minute running time. The effects animation is dazzling, from the trees and houses that crumble under the giant’s feet to the thoroughly convincing shots of water pouring down the giant’s gullet as Mickey attempts to stay afloat.

Some sequences here – such as the pan across an amusement park with tons of different moving parts and the stunning moment where the giant falls down and the entire background bounces in reaction to the impact – look extremely difficult to pull off, and the series of quick cuts showing the townspeople reacting to Mickey’s outrageous claim is so cinematically impressive that it looks like it came out of a Frank Tashlin cartoon.

The character animation is equally outstanding. Mickey is at the height of his likability here, thanks largely to the work of animator Fred Moore; in fact, you could argue that this is the best Mickey ever looked (he was redesigned the following year for the film The Pointer). There is one stellar sequence where Mickey describes his “heroic battle” to the king, and the way his initial nervousness transforms into braggadocio showmanship is both specific to Mickey’s character and perfectly clear even with the sound off.

And lest you think the Disney animators reserved their acting skills only for their starring character, the animation of the king is equally good (the way he slumps in relief after Mickey tells his story is startlingly real). Not to mention Bill Tytla’s terrific animation of the giant, which has the same power and weight of some of his later triumphs like Stromboli from Pinocchio and Chernobog from Fantasia.

All of these fantastic visuals are put to the service of a simple, well-told narrative. Writers of current animated films would do well to study the economy of this film’s story, as well as the way it builds sympathy and rooting interest for its starring character and wrings laughs from the story and characters. This is animated storytelling at its best.

DAFFY DUCK IN HOLLYWOOD
Directed by Tex Avery; Warner Bros.

By 1938, Tex Avery was breaking down and reconstructing what was possible in film with his trademark smart-alecky humor, so it’s only fitting that one of his best early films is an anarchic attack on Hollywood itself. In the short, producer I.M. Stupendous from Wonder Pictures (“if it’s a good picture, it’s a wonder”) demands to receive a finished film by the end of the day from German director Von Hamburger (a pig with a speech impediment that could rival Porky’s).

Unfortunately, Daffy Duck bursts on the set to spoil everything.

This is only Daffy’s fifth cartoon, but he is already a force of nature. He honks the director’s nose, whistles loudly into the mic, hooks the lights up to the water pipe and puts bullets in the film camera. His screwball energy is so great that it can’t be confined to the film’s narrative, and he frequently makes asides to the audience (he even uses cigar smoke to spell out the words “Warner Bros.”, adding, “just givin’ my bosses a plug! I’ve got an option comin’ up”).

In addition to the trademark fourth wall breaking, Avery is sure to include some flat-out impossible jokes (Daffy popping out of a dinner plate after Avery has just shown us there’s a turkey dinner inside) and a zany ending where Von Hamburger is shown to be as crazy as Daffy (similar to the ending he used in his previous Daffy short Daffy Duck and Egghead). Avery also gets some jabs in at the pretensions of Hollywood, including some gags featuring the director’s sycophantic circle of yes men and the hilariously sincere romantic drama Von Hamburger is shooting (these two brilliantly voiced lovebirds would reappear in Avery’s 1939 cartoon Hamateur Night).

Unusually, however, the highlight of the film is not animated, but is instead a “splice” film put together by Daffy Duck, who switches it out with the film that Von Hamburger shot. This slapdash “movie”, which uses live-action clips from Warner Bros. films like the 1938 Michael Curtiz drama Gold is Where You Find It (the opening scene), the 1933 Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933 (the legionnaires trudging through the rain), the Delores del Rio costume drama Madame Du Barry (the jitterbug scene) and the 1935 Joe E. Brown vehicle Bright Lights (the chorus girls sequence), is ingratiatingly silly and delightfully irreverent.

The serious look of the clips, coupled with Mel Blanc voices, Carl Stalling music and Tex Avery humor makes for an offbeat and hilarious combination. Avery would later create a series of shorts for Paramount called Speaking of Animals which added animated lip movements to live-action footage, but the conceit is funnier here, largely due to the context; playing this mish-mash of unrelated gags in front of a nervous director and a glowering producer (whose expression is spot-on) really generates the comedy, and the producer’s eventual reaction to the film is the perfect conclusion to the sequence (perhaps a bit predictable now that similar endings have been used in various other cartoons, but the gag still registers).

Avery would go on inserting live-action into his films, resulting in memorable moments from Who Killed Who? (1943), Senor Droopy (1949) and TV of Tomorrow (1953). In fact, Avery’s comic manipulation of film clips predates later experiments like Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Joe Dante’s The Movie Orgy (1968) and Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982).

FERDINAND THE BULL
Directed by Dick Rickard; Walt Disney

This film, based on the book written by Munro Leaf and illustrated by Robert Lawson, was an unusual case of standalone Disney special, as opposed to a Mickey Mouse cartoon or a Silly Symphony.

The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short of 1938, and while it may not warrant that title when measured against fellow nominees The Brave Little Tailor and Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (to say nothing of Bob Clampett’s Porky in Wackyland, which was completely snubbed by the Academy in favor of a passable Donald Duck short Good Scouts and a shrug-worthy Comicolor short Hunky and Spunky), it is a wonderful, charming short that displays the Disney studio at its best.

The story features a bull named Ferdinand who would rather smell flowers than butt heads with other bulls. One day, when five men from Madrid go in search of a bull to compete in a bull fight, Ferdinand sits on a bee and starts madly running across the field. They select Ferdinand due to his brute energy, but when he gets in the ring, he starts sniffing some flowers that were thrown at the matador and refuses to fight.

The original story was considered to be a pacifist statement, and as such Mahatma Gandhi named it his favorite book. On the flip side, it was banned in Spain (which was on the verge of Civil War) and Adolf Hitler reportedly attempted to burn every copy he could find. But the book’s message of peace wasn’t softened a whit for Disney’s film, and the short seems to razz the idea of both bullfights and war in general; the matador is infuriated that the bull refuses to fight him, and then breaks down and cries like a baby because he isn’t able to show off his cape and sword.

Films and stories from the early half of the 20th century are sometimes dismissed by modern-day hipsters for their heteronormativity (if I may use a pretentious eight-syllable buzzword), and yet here we have a film celebrating a bull’s decision to smell flowers all day rather than compete in bullfights like bulls are “supposed” to do. (This isn’t an isolated case, either; in the Disney feature The Reluctant Dragon, the titular dragon would rather recite poetry than battle with knights.)

The Disney animators pull off this fine story with ease. The film tells its tale with sincerity, but also lots of humor (the mother cow reacts in annoyance to one of the narrator’s comments, showing signs of Tex Avery’s influence seeping into the Disney studio). The backgrounds are beautiful and period-specific, and the animation is predictably marvelous. Milt Kahl does some fine work on Ferdinand himself, and Jack Campbell’s animation of the attractive women in the stands shows how far the studio had come from the stilted female characters in films like The Flying Mouse (1934) and The Goddess of Spring (1934).

The real star here, though, is Ward Kimball, whose hilarious and rubbery animation of the matador is fantastic (a highlight being the scene where he makes ugly faces to scare Ferdinand into fighting). He also gets to animate a scene featuring caricatures of the Disney staff, including Bill Tytla, Fred Moore, Art Babbit, Hamilton Luske, Jack Campbell and Kimball himself.

Even the matador is said to be a caricature of Walt Disney. Perhaps…

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

In this terrific cartoon, Popeye sails off to Goon Island to find his long-lost father, but when he gets there, he finds that his dad isn’t as happy to see him as he might’ve hoped. Although this is a one-reel, black-and-white short, it is a more worthy follow-up to Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) and Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937) than the good but somewhat disappointing Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939), which trades in the strange gags and stereoptical backgrounds of its predecessors in favor of a more straightforward approach.

Goonland probably bears a closer resemblance to the original E.C. Segar strip than any other Popeye cartoon.

It sets Popeye off on an exotic adventure in a foreign location (leaving Olive Oyl and Bluto behind), and it brings the Goons to the screen (who first appeared in the comic strip in 1933) along with Poopdeck Pappy (who first appeared in the strip in 1936). Even some of the dialogue here – such as Poopdeck Pappy’s dismissive response to seeing Popeye, “I don’t like relatives” – was taken directly from the strip. (Coincidentally, and somewhat depressingly, it was also the first Popeye cartoon released after E.C. Segar’s death on October 13, 1938).

The story works beautifully, giving the animators a great springboard for sight gags and voice artist Jack Mercer ample opportunity for funny ad libs (one of the best being “hair today, goon tomorrow”). Popeye’s reconciliation with his father is played as a joke somewhat, but his disappointment after being rejected still has a certain poignancy. The climax is also effective and exciting, concluding with one jaw-dropping gag where Popeye and Pappy put up such a terrific fight that they rip the film itself, knocking the goons out of the picture entirely!

For a series that hadn’t broken the fourth wall much before, this is a genuine showstopper.

Shortly after making this cartoon, the Fleischer Studio relocated from New York to Florida. The studio wasn’t the same after that, and the Popeye series never quite regained its momentum (losing Mae Questel as Olive and Gus Wickie as Bluto didn’t help).

There are still some enjoyable Popeye cartoons on the horizon, but if you wanted to think of 1938 as the end of the Popeye series, Goonland makes a fitting final bow.

LOVE ON THE WING
Directed by Norman McLaren

Norman McLaren is best known for some of his later experimental shorts like Begone Dull Care (1949), Neighbours (1952) and Blinkity Blank (1955), so it’s interesting to go back and look at early films like this when he was settling into his style.

Love on the Wing was McLaren’s first crack at “direct animation”, a process where the animator draws directly onto the film, which was pioneered by Len Lye in his abstract film A Colour Box (1935). Also similar to Lye’s film, this short was produced by the Greater Post Office Film Unit, and as a result contains an post office advertisement at the end.

Unlike Lye’s films, though, McLaren at least makes some attempt to incorporate the post office into the film’s content. The short has a very loose story of a man and woman sending letters to each other (the film rather unhelpfully informs us at the beginning that “the players” consist of the hero, the heroine and the villain). The story (if it can be called that) is nicely set to the tune of Jacques Ibert’s Divertissement (1928).

The film is animated with squiggly stick figures that are constantly morphing into envelopes, eyes, horses, etc., all set in front of atmospheric, surrealist paintings that look something Salvador Dali might’ve painted. As for the figures themselves, their chalk-white simplicity resembles nothing so much as Emile Cohl’s early experiments with animation such as Fantasmagorie (1908).

Simple as the drawings are, however, the transformations are inventive and the animation has a kind of restless energy that is mesmerizing.

While it isn’t always clear what the metamorphoses are supposed to represent, there is a sense that McLaren’s ideas lead directly into each other and aren’t simply arbitrary transformations. Some of these double meanings may have come across too clearly, actually, as the film was banned in the UK for its “Freudian” imagery. The objection may have come from a sequence where two envelopes appear to be consummating their love, or perhaps a scene where a horse seemingly excretes on a torn letter.

Whatever the case, this was McLaren’s final film for the GPO, and he subsequently relocated to New York City in 1939 and then to Canada in 1941 to produce films for the National Film Board, where he would go on to create his best-known work.

MICKEY’S TRAILER
Directed by Ben Sharpsteen; Walt Disney

Given their success rate in the 1930s and early ‘40s, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy really ought to be considered one of the greatest comedy teams ever on film.

The Disney animators invested each character with distinctive personality quirks, and the writers were brilliant at giving the characters appropriate hang-ups to create hilarious and memorable comic set pieces. Mickey’s Trailer differs from some of the other Mickey-Goofy-Donald trio films like Moving Day, Clock Cleaners and Lonesome Ghosts in that it doesn’t really split the characters off individually, but it builds to such a riotously funny climax that it scores as one of the trio’s finest shorts.

In the film, Goofy is supposed to be pulling a trailer with his car, but it comes unlatched without his knowledge, sending Mickey and Donald on a death ride down a mountain. One of the film’s strengths is the way it gives you a real sense of these characters’ lives on the road. This is cartoon fantasy, to be sure, treating Depression-era poverty in light comic fashion, but the short gives you a sense of the day-to-day activities the characters go through in their trailer (grabbing milk from a passing cow, drawing water from a nearby waterfall) and it effectively draws you in to the point where you feel like you’re in the same boat.

The short has an almost Rube Goldbergian sense of comic invention, emphasized in the opening scene where the trailer and its surroundings fold in on itself and the push-button sequence where technology sends Donald through his morning routine of brushing his teeth and taking a bath. The film also has the usual attention to character, as well as a somewhat cynical streak that one might not associate with the studio (the way the picturesque landscape reveals to be hiding a city dump is a pretty harsh visual gag, and there’s a great moment when Donald rudely scares off a bunch of cute Disney birds on his window). The breakfast scene, where Goofy keeps trying unsuccessfully to get a bite to eat, adds another great comedy sequence to the studio’s ever-growing lineup.

Still, the out-of-control ride across a mountain, in which the trailer narrowly avoids falling over ledges and smashing into a train, is what makes this film stand out as a classic.

The sequence is choreographed to perfection, sparking up the same kind of delirious joy as the classic thrill comedies of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, even despite our awareness that these “stunts” are entirely fake. The film establishes believability through its winning characterizations of Mickey and Donald, and then builds comedy and suspense as it sends them through a hell ride that no human actor could withstand. There’s a wonderful moment where Donald starts praying as the trailer heads for a train. When our heroes just barely escape death, Donald relaxes for a moment before realizing they are going to crash into the train’s other end, causing him to instantly zip back into his praying position.

If anyone knows how to mine comedy out of stress, it’s the Disney animators.

MOTHER GOOSE GOES HOLLYWOOD
Directed by Wilfred Jackson; Walt Disney

It’s interesting to see how quickly Tex Avery’s influence spread across animation studios in the late 1930s.

Suddenly the Fleischers were breaking the fourth wall in cartoons like Goonland (1938) and A Date to Skate (1938), and screwball characters like Terrytoons’ Gandy Goose and MGM’s Count Screwloose were scoring their own series. Not to mention that just about every cartoon studio was rushing out their own zany takes on classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, such as Terrytoons’ The Glass Slipper (1938), Walter Lantz’s The Sleeping Princess (1939) and Columbia’s Mother Goose in Swingtime (1939).

Disney, being the most prestigious animation studio of the time, was perhaps the most resistant to Avery’s brand of humor, although it did trickle through in the films Disney released in 1937 (the use of a narrator in Little Hiawatha, the iris-out gag in Mickey’s Amateurs, etc.). However, Mother Goose Goes Hollywood was Disney’s first all-out surrender to the wild, irreverent humor of the Warner Bros. studio, and it remains one of the most virulently comedic films that Disney has ever released.

This Silly Symphony short is a celebrity caricature cartoon, a “genre” Disney had already covered in films like Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933) and Mickey’s Polo Team (1936). But this cartoon takes a more violently satirical spin on the material, using the caricatures to poke fun at both Hollywood and traditional nursery rhymes (it’s interesting that Shrek was hailed by critics as an unprecedented mockery of Disney-style fairy tales when the Disney studio itself had been viscously parodying such stories over sixty years earlier). The tone is set immediately when Mother Goose roars like the MGM lion, while a banner reading “ertznay to ouyay” is displayed underneath (a Pig Latin response to MGM’s mantra “Ars Gratia Artis”).

The celebrities, marvelously caricatured by T. Hee, include Katharine Hepburn (as Little Bo Peep), Hugh Hubert (as Old King Cole), the Marx Brothers (as the Fiddlers Three), Charles Laughton, Spencer Tracy & Freddie Bartholomew (as the Three Men in a Tub), Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy (as Simple Simon and the pieman), W.C. Fields (as Humpty Dumpty), Eddie Cantor (as Little Jack Horner), Wallace Beery (as Little Boy Blue) and Greta Garbo (as Margery Daw), not to mention appearances by Ned Sparks, Joe Penner, Charlie McCarthy, Edward G. Robinson, Fred Astaire, Zasu Pitts, Edna Mae Oliver, Mae West, George Arliss, Clark Gable, Martha Raye, Joe E. Brown and even Donald Duck in a cameo appearance. There’s also the Four and Twenty Blackbirds bit, featuring caricatures of black performers like Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Stephen Fechit, which probably makes this short the closest thing the Disney studio has to one of Warner Bros.’s Censored 11 (well, maybe along with 1930’s Cannibal Capers and 1933’s Mickey’s Mellerdrammer). Still, every performer in the film is caricatured in the most extreme way possible, so the black stereotypes don’t feel particularly pointed.

The film’s wild humor is aided by the animators, who do some career-best work here.

Director Wilfred Jackson cast the animators by character for the most part, with Bob Stokes handling Katharine Hepburn, Jack Campbell animating the see-saw match between Greta Garbo and Edward G. Robinson and Grim Natwick covering the characters in the Three Men in a Tub and Humpty Dumpty bits. I. Klein’s animation of Laurel and Hardy is good, but a bit too studied and lacking in spontaneity, while Don Patterson does very nice work in a tricky scene with tons of characters moving around on an open Mother Goose book. And Ward Kimball’s animation of Hugh Hubert and the Marx Brothers in the Old King Cole scene is energetic, free-flowing and delightfully full of squash & stretch.

Kimball also handles most of the film’s climax, which is a true masterpiece of animation. The music is high-spirited and peppy, and the animation of jazz greats like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller absolutely bursts with humor and elasticity. The scene also includes Charles Laughton unleashing my favorite line in the film, “IT’S MUTINY… but I love it!”

One bit of trivia: Katharine Hepburn pops in on the Three Men in a Tub, inquiring about her sheep, which results in the first onscreen pairing of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. The two wouldn’t star together in a film until 1942’s Woman of the Year.

PHILIPS BROADCAST OF 1938
Directed by George Pal; Puppetoons

To the extent that George Pal is well-known today, it’s mostly for his live-action science-fiction work like War of the Worlds (1953) and The Time Machine (1960). But George Pal spent the better part of his career making stop-motion animated films, and the shorts he created are some of the most exciting, inventive and breathtaking animated films crafted in the Golden Age of Animation… and that’s really saying something.

George Pal’s Puppetoons were created using hand-carved wooden puppets, but rather than simply manipulate a single puppet as they do in many stop-motion films, Pal would create a new puppet for each frame of movement. A typical Puppetoon was said to require about 9,000 individual puppets, an incredible amount of work. In the 1930s, Pal labored away on these incredible shorts in Europe, making mostly advertising films before moving to the United States in 1940 to make a Puppetoon cartoon series for Paramount, resulting in well-known films like Tulips Shall Grow (1942), Tubby the Tuba (1947) and the Jasper series.

Philips Broadcast of 1938 was one of Pal’s earlier efforts, and it is a plotless musical revue intended to advertise for Philips Radio in the Netherlands, with musical performances by Bert Ambrose and his Orchestra.

Whatever the film lacks in plot, however, it makes up for in visual wit and imagination. Pal manipulates his puppets into producing both Looney Tunes-style slapstick (as when a dancer whacks a sailor on the head with a mallet) and beautiful Busby Berkeley style choreography (the overhead shot of chorus girls against a black background). The Art Deco style is terrific, and the animation is full of wonderful visual ideas, such as a scene where a few characters turn into arrows when jumping out of a bus (you have to see it to understand).

Songs include Harbour Lights, She Wore a Little Jacket of Blue and The Rhythm’s OK in Harlem, the latter of which contains some black stereotypes similar to those seen in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (although this one goes farther, referencing tired stereotypes like shooting craps and eating watermelon).

Still, as in the Disney film, the energy is so high and the cartoon in such good spirits that it’s difficult to detect any malice or contempt in the film’s depictions of its characters.

George Pal was one of the early pioneers of stop-motion animation, and yet it some ways I don’t think he’s ever been topped. His extensive use of replacement animation gave him the opportunity to bend and distort his characters quite a bit, and the Puppetoon figures have an almost Bob Clampett-esque elasticity that you rarely see in animation of any kind, let alone stop-motion.

Far from being stiff or inexpressive, Pal’s characters are always bursting with life. It’s a bit shocking that for all of our technical accomplishments today, I can’t think of a computer-animated film that moves with so much style and energy.

PORKY IN EGYPT
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

After debuting as a director with the 1937 short Porky’s Badtime Story, Clampett continued to push his directorial capabilities farther with every film, producing outrageous classics like Porky’s Party and Porky and Daffy (either one of which would’ve made totally worthy substitutions for this film on the list).

Still, Porky in Egypt shows early Clampett at an all-time high, crafting a film that is equal parts hilarious, zany and disturbing.

Bob Clampett was interested in pushing the medium of animation in ways that even his contemporaries Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin weren’t. While Avery showed the kind of crazy gags that were possible in a cartoon world, and Tashlin gave his films a cinematic sheen that hadn’t yet been explored in animation, Clampett was interested in creating humor specifically through wildly exaggerated movement and expressive distortion. Clampett’s films are proudly cartoons in a way that no one else’s were, and his early films – full of screwball, cartoony drawing at its rawest – are probably the funniest looking films produced in the entire decade, and among the most imaginative.

The film opens with a series of oddball Egyptian gags, including one perfectly executed one about a shapely woman who reveals to be hideous when taking off the veil (the drawing of her face, matched with Mel Blanc’s delirious voicework and the absurd posing makes you laugh even if you attempt to resist) and a fire-eater who burns his tongue upon swallowing a torch (which might’ve been a predictably mediocre gag if not for the outrageous extremeness of the character’s overreaction).

But the film really gets started when Porky and his camel Humpty Bumpty are lost in the desert, and Humpty becomes delirious with the desert madness. This is one of the truly great breakdowns in animation history, as the camel starts screaming nonsense and blowing bagpipes with a cross-eyed grin on his face. Dave Weber’s hysterical voicework as Humpty clearly inspired the animators, and the camel’s performance is both cartoonishly crazy and dramatically nuanced (check out the naturalistic way he rubs his hand across his face when he admits that the heat got to him).

If they handed out Academy Awards for cartoon characters, Humpty Bumpty earned his for 1938, hands down.

PORKY IN WACKYLAND
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

Perhaps the ultimate Bob Clampett cartoon, and maybe the ultimate cartoon of any kind, this burst of dizzying, free-wheeling insanity absolutely shatters any pretense of reality or cuteness and instead plops us into a whimsical universe that feels like Salvador Dali, Milt Gross, Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss tossed into a blender (but even weirder).

The plot concerns Porky going off an expedition in Darkest Africa to find the last of the do-do birds, which is worth $4000,000,000,000 (P.S. 000,000,000). From there on out, however, Clampett flings any crazy idea that he can think of at the audience, filling his short so full of gonzo imagery, experimentally off-kilter backgrounds, wacky visual puns and so forth that seeing it once requires an instant second viewing. (As long as you’re keeping your eyes peeled, check out a precursor to Nickelodeon’s TV series Catdog.)

The animation is remarkably energetic, particularly given that Clampett was saddled with some of the more inexperienced animators at Warner Bros. Somehow he ended up producing the studio’s best-looking shorts of the 1930s (great as Avery and Tashlin were, the characters in their films aren’t animated with anywhere near this same level of infectious fun). The classy use of black-and-white is a perfect fit for Wackyland’s off-kilter and somewhat mysterious charm, and it’s hard to imagine the film working as well in color (in fact, it wouldn’t have – Friz Freleng remade the film in 1949 as Dough for the Do-Do, and it really lacks something.)

The Do-Do is a manic, directionless screwball character, even more absurd and fourth-dimensional than the early Daffy Duck. He is capable of drawing a door in mid-air (but doesn’t enter it, and instead lifts it from underneath), halting suddenly in mid-air so Porky will plow right into him, popping out from behind any object no matter how thin… he even rides in on the WB shield just so he can whack Porky with a slingshot. Whether you like the Do-Do or root for him is entirely beside the point, as you are so entertained and enthralled by his insanity that all else fades away.

The sign welcoming Porky into Wackyland declares in bold letters, “IT CAN HAPPEN HERE”. More than just a descriptor in cartoon, however, this statement might as well be taken as Bob Clampett’s manifesto. In his deranged universe, no holds are barred and anything is possible.

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