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Animation

THE TOP TEN CARTOONS OF 1943

We’ve now reached 1943, kind readers, one of the strongest years in animation history.

In fact, you could probably make a good argument for it being the all-time best year for cartoons, given the amount of high-quality work being produced by nearly every animation studio in America.

Certainly the creativity level at Warner Bros. was at an all-time high, and I had to leave off a ton of masterpieces in making this list (Tortoise Wins by a Hare, To Duck or Not to Duck, The Unbearable Bear, The Wise Quacking Duck, Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk, The Aristo-Cat, Wackiki Wabbit, Yankee Doodle Daffy, Tin Pan Alley Cats, Scrap Happy Daffy, Falling Hare, Daffy – the Commando, An Itch in Time and Puss n’ Booty all would’ve made fine entries on a list of this kind).

And as if all of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies weren’t enough, the studio was also producing the propaganda cartoon series Private Snafu, which featured the work of the Warner directors and animators at their peak along with strong writing from the likes of Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. The only weak link at the studio in 1943 was Norm McCabe, a top-notch animator who generally got saddled with unfunny gags in his directorial efforts. This year he produced three mediocre efforts – Confusions of a Nutzy Spy, Hop and Go and Tokio Jokio – before being assigned to the Army Air Corps Training Unit and getting replaced by Frank Tashlin.

But it wasn’t only Warner Bros. that was making great films; MGM was going strong with prime Tom & Jerry cartoons (Sufferin’ Cats, The Lonesome Mouse, Baby Puss) and hilarious work from the great Tex Avery (Who Killed Who, One Ham’s Family, What’s Buzzin’ Buzzard). Avery even introduced his most famous character at MGM, the eternally deadpan Droopy, in his film Dumb-Hounded.

Disney released four high-quality propaganda one-shots, including Chicken Little and Reason and Emotion, two excellent films that I couldn’t find room for. They also produced some great films with series characters like Donald Duck (Donald’s Tire Trouble) and Goofy (Victory Vehicles).

George Pal was still going strong, with the excellent Dr. Seuss adaptation The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, along with the wonderful music-themed The Little Broadcast and the spooky Jasper in a Jam, featuring an early performance from Peggy Lee.

And Famous Studios had perhaps its best year ever, retiring Superman in favor of Little Lulu (a likable character that debuted in ’43 with Eggs Don’t Bounce), plus a series of one-shots called Noveltoons (kicking off with the funny Avery-inspired No Mutton Fer Nuttin’). Not to mention the studio produced several high-quality Popeye cartoons, including Too Weak to Work, The Hungry Goat, Happy Birthdaze and Cartoons Ain’t Human.

Even the studios that weren’t cranking out masterpieces were often doing interesting work. Walter Lantz brought James Culhane in as a director this year, and his first handful of shorts (Pass the Biscuits Mirandy, Boogie Woogie Man and Meatless Tuesday) all show signs of the excellence he would achieve at the studio within the next few years. And over at Columbia, artists like John Hubley and Zack Schwartz were experimenting with a more stylized approach to design and movement in films like The Vitamin G-Man, Professor Small and Mr. Tall, Willoughby’s Magic Hat and The Rocky Road to Ruin.

So, basically, I skipped a ton of great stuff, but I did the best I could.

On the list you’ll find several Warner Bros. cartoons, along with a couple from Disney and MGM, plus a notable effort from Germany.

Take a look:

COAL BLACK AND DE SEBBEN DWARFS
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

Far and away the most controversial cartoon ever made, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs is a wild, outrageous all-black update on the Snow White fairy tale. The short was selected as one of the infamous Censored 11 in 1968, and as a result has not been shown on TV or officially released on any home video format since then. Despite the controversy, however, it’s considered a milestone in the art of animation and some historians rank it as the greatest animated film of all time.

First, a bit of background: the inspiration for the film came when Bob Clampett went to see a Duke Ellington jazz revue titled Jump for Joy. After the show, Clampett went backstage to talk to the musicians, and they asked him why cartoonists didn’t use black people more often. He couldn’t answer that question, and so decided to embark on a film inspired by black culture. There was a lot of buzz at the time surrounding the broadway musical Carmen Jones, an African-American update on the classic opera Carmen, so Clampett decided to create a similar all-black spin on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, giving him the opportunity to turn the groundbreaking Disney feature on its head.

An extra amount of effort went into the production of this unique film. Clampett had his animators visit the Club Alabam, a popular jazz club in LA, so they could observe and capture the energy of the musicians. Clampett also assembled a top-shelf cast of African-American performers to provide the voices; So White was wonderfully voiced by Vivian Dandridge (sister of famous blues singer and Academy Award-nominated actress Dorothy Dandridge), while Lillian Randolph, best known for her roles in It’s a Wonderful Life as well as the Tom & Jerry cartoons, played the Mammy. Even Louis Armstrong was interested in getting involved, but because he was already booked on tour, he recommended Leo “Zoot” Watson, member of a band called The Spirits of Rhythm, for the role of Prince Chawmin’. Clampett worked closely with the performers, and invited them to the studio to show progress and ask for suggestions.

Clampett also wanted the music to be provided by an all-black band (the Eddie Beal Trio), much like the Fleischer cartoons of the early ‘30s that employed the talents of Cab Calloway and Don Redman. Producer Leon Schlesinger rejected this idea… not for racial reasons, but because the famously stingy Schlesinger didn’t want to pay for outside musical talent when Carl Stalling was already on the payroll. Nevertheless, Carl Stalling and his arranger Milt Franklyn worked with the black musicians to capture the flavor of their music (most likely racking up more money in rehearsal time than it would’ve cost to actually pay the black artists), and the Eddie Beal Trio did end up recording the outstanding trumpet solo during the scene where Prince Chawmin’ tries to kiss So White. Leo Watson, voice of Prince Chawmin’, backed them up on the drums.

As a result of all of this work, Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs is one of the most exhilarating animated films of all time. Bob Clampett and animator Rod Scribner had been experimenting with a more extreme, exaggerated style of animation in films like Eatin’ on the Cuff and A Tale of Two Kitties (called “Lichty animation”, in reference to the marvelously loose drawings of newspaper cartoonist George Lichty), but Coal Black was Clampett’s first all-out plunge into the kind of wildly energetic animation style he would become known for. These characters aren’t just rubbery, they are vibrant personifications of their own inner desires and emotions, adding up to a kind of cartoon equivalent of expressionism. When So White leaps for joy after being kissed by Dopey, she practically explodes with excitement, embodying her happiness in a way that no human actor ever could. Perhaps the peak of the film’s visual genius comes when Prince Chawmin’s coolness gives way to desperation as he tries to awaken So White with his kiss, brought to furious life by Scribner.

The characters in the film are all funny and ingeniously individualized; the animators perfectly capture Prince Chawmin’s zoot-suited swagger, and they manage to maintain So White’s pinup sexiness while still wildly distorting her design for comic effect, an incredible feat if there ever was one. The cartoon is hilariously funny, shooting humorous dialogue and visual gags at you faster than you can take in on a single viewing (check out an early reference to Citizen Kane), but more than simply being a laugh-fest, the cartoon is an incredible animated experience.

Now, it’s easy to see why the cartoon is considered offensive today – the characters are all depicted with absurdly gigantic lips, and some gags make reference to dated stereotypes, such as the dwarf that resembles character actor Stepin Fechit and the dice that serve as Prince Chawmin’s two front teeth. Still, I think it’s important to see the film not only in the context of its time, when stereotypes of this kind were common and went generally unquestioned, but also in the context of being a Warner Bros. cartoon. The irreverent treatment seen here wasn’t unique to African-Americans; all races and nationalities were exaggerated for comic effect in the Warner Bros. canon, from Mexicans in the Speedy Gonzales shorts to the French in the Pepe Le Pew cartoons.

Clampett’s films in particular thrive on outrageous, over-the-top exaggeration, and it would be hard to argue that the simpering middle-aged white men seen in films like The Wise Quacking Duck (1943) are any less stereotypical than the characters in Coal Black. Hillbillies (Holiday for Drumsticks, Hillbilly Hare) and bigoted white southerners (Dog Gone South, Southern Fried Rabbit) were also frequent targets of the WB staff. Perhaps Clampett should’ve exercised more sensitivity when dealing with African-Americans, given the injustices they faced during the 1940s, but the Looney Tunes subscribed to a nothing-is-sacred school of comedy that continues today in shows like South Park and in the standup routines of comedians like Sarah Silverman and Ricky Gervais.

In fact, comedian Whoopi Goldberg is a huge fan of the Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, and owns has a framed recreation of a cel from the film on her wall.

Ultimately, the black stereotypes seen in Coal Black are softened by the infectious good nature of the short. The film has sometimes been referred to as racist, but no hatred or contempt is detectable in the cartoon, as Clampett clearly loves the jazz scene he’s parodying (actually, the only gag here that has any venom behind it is ironically directed at the Japanese). Clampett insisted that he meant no disrespect by the film in later interviews, and he remained lifelong friends with Eddie Beal (along with his brother, who was also a musician). Vivian Dandridge even sent Bob Clampett a letter in the 1970s, thanking him for involving her in the cartoon.

Sure, it’s likely even the most embarrassingly dated race-themed cartoons of the ‘40s were made with similarly innocent intentions, but Clampett’s cartoon transcends its stereotypes in a way that many other shorts of the era do not. The film isn’t a cartoon about race, it’s a high-spirited tribute to a particular musical scene and jive-talking style, combining red-hot music, sexual humor and stunning animation to create both a compelling time capsule and a timelessly potent musical extravaganza.

We’ll probably be debating Coal Black’s offensiveness until the end of time, but the film’s artistic mastery is flat-out undeniable.

A CORNY CONCERTO
Directed by Bob Clampett; Warner Bros.

After brilliantly skewering Disney’s Snow White in the form of Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, it’s only fitting that Clampett would also take on Fantasia. This remarkable film, hosted by the venerable Elmer Fudd (“gweetings, music wovers”), showcases two separate sequences based on Johann Strauss’s most famous waltzes, Tales of the Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube. The Warner Bros. staff produced many of ingenious riffs on classical music – Rhapsody in Rivets, The Rabbit of Seville, What’s Opera Doc, to name only a few – but A Corny Concerto remains one of the funniest and most iconic.

In the Tales of the Vienna Woods bit, Porky is seen hunting Bugs Bunny, aided by his loyal dog. Porky seems like a bit of an odd choice for this segment, as he hadn’t been featured as a rabbit hunter since Bugs’ debut film Porky’s Hare Hunt in 1938, but perhaps Elmer Fudd was already occupied as the musicologist. The sequence combines lovely blue and green background paintings with slam-bang slapstick genius, crafting a gut-busting hunting comedy meticulously synchronized to the Strauss tune. In some ways, this brief sequence is many ways the perfect summation of the Bugs Bunny series; the character’s quick wit and mischievous spirit comes through crystal clear without a word of dialogue, and the gags and animation are outstanding. The scene where Porky, Bugs and the dog believe they have been shot is perfectly matched with the music and brilliantly animated by the great Rod Scribner. Not to mention that the ballerina ending is suitably ludicrous.

As for The Blue Danube, it follows the a more typical Disney-style Ugly Duckling narrative (and, indeed, Disney had taken on the fable in two separate Silly Symphonies, one in 1931 and a later remake in 1939), but the presentation of its story has little in common with the serene world the Disney cartoons evoked. Clampett uses sharp pacing and extreme slapstick gags to pepper up the familiar story, tossing in dozens of crazy gags along the edges (for instance: one of the little swans is “cheating” by using a motor). Our little black duck hero, who looks a bit like a younger Daffy, saves the day in typical fashion, but Clampett’s tongue remains in his cheek through the entire segment.

My sole complaint with this film is that it only runs six minutes. The mind boggles at what Clampett could’ve accomplished in a feature-length Fantasia burlesque. A Looney Tunes movie was never put under serious consideration in the 1940s (Leon Schlesinger was quoted as saying, “I need a feature cartoon like I need two assholes”), but if anyone was worried about a typical Looney Tunes plot sustaining a 90-minute film, a series of zany sequences set to classical music would’ve been an appealing option.

DER FUEHRER’S FACE
Directed by Jack Kinney; Walt Disney

In 1940, Charlie Chaplin crafted one of the most ingenious satires ever made with his boldly anarchic film The Great Dictator. However, I would rank Der Fuehrer’s Face right alongside it as one of the best comedic takedowns of Nazism. The film, inspired by the title song by staff writer Oliver Wallace and famously recorded by Spike Jones, is not only one of the most wonderfully irreverent cartoons produced during the wartime years, but also one of the most wildly anarchic Disney films ever released. Director Jack Kinney, most famous for his How-To Goofy cartoons, took a cue from Warner Bros. and gave his short a fast-paced, slapstick edge we don’t often associate with Disney.

One reason it remains one of the best war cartoons ever made is because it goes beyond simply making fun of the Germans or thumbing its nose at the enemy, but actually satirizes the de-humanizing process of the Nazi Party. The film shows Donald Duck attempting to maintain his sanity while living in Nazi Germany, as he works on an assembly line, screwing caps on artillery shells. The film is merciless in its satire, and also fiendishly clever. Hitler’s authoritarianism is acerbically illustrated by converting every prop and location into a swastika, including clouds, fire hydrants, etc. A similar mix of cartoonish imagination and acidic commentary is seen in the film’s treatment of Germany’s wartime rationing, as Donald sprays some Aroma De Bacon and Eggs in his mouth and saws off a piece of old bread like a log.

The Nazis’ cruelty and hatred is an object of scorn in the film, but the cartoon saves its sharpest knives for the Nazis’ mindless dehumanization of its people. The sheer numbing pointlessness of Donald’s work is powerfully captured, particularly when given the added annoyance of having to heil a bunch of framed photographs of Hitler placed there for no apparent reason. Even Donald’s sham of a vacation isn’t any kind of rest, as his overlords insist on reminding him to build up his body so he can better serve the Fuehrer. The inhumanity of the whole enterprise is wittily conveyed by the fact that Donald interacts with no one in his job, and is instead ordered around by voices shouting over intercoms. The cartoon is so effective, in fact, that Donald’s eventual flipout is truly cathartic (frankly, I can’t think of any piece of Disney animation that I like better than Donald’s shivering, spewing breakdown). We’re then launched into a marvelous bit of surrealism that recalls the famous Pink Elephants sequence from Dumbo, but adds a bit of scathing social commentary into its visual imagination.

The short is a great reminder that animation can be a brilliant tool for satire, as it can cut straight to the ludicrousness of a society or institution with a freedom of imagination that all other mediums lack. The short concludes with a tomato being flung at Hitler’s face, which has nothing to do with the narrative of the film but is a perfect conclusion nonetheless. Hitler, reportedly, attempted to burn every copy of this film he could find, which was an added delight to the animators.

EDUCATION FOR DEATH
Directed by Clyde Geronimi; Walt Disney

The Disney studio released several propagandistic one-shots in 1943, including some excellent films like Chicken Little (a cynical, uncompromising satire that far surpasses the cutesy 2005 feature) and Reason and Emotion (a clever short that appears to have been the inspiration to Pixar’s upcoming film Inside Out). Good as those films are, however, Disney’s two most celebrated propaganda shorts remain Der Fuehrer’s Face and Education for Death. Both are perfectly executed films, but their tones couldn’t be more different. While Der Fuehrer’s Face was an ribald cartoon satire, Education for Death is a somber short about how little boys are brainwashed into becoming Nazi soldiers, inspired by the non-fiction book of the same name by Gregor Ziemer.

That’s not to say there isn’t any humor here: the film gives us a lengthy parody of a German retelling of Sleeping Beauty, with Hitler as the prince and Germany as the outrageously rotund princess. While not entirely politically correct, the segment contains some marvelously zany Ward Kimball animation. And even in the school sequence, the film is quick to remind you that this is a cartoon by having a caricatured painting of Hitler change expression in reaction to the boy’s answers in school. Not to mention that the narration by Art Smith has a sarcastic tone at times.

But for the most part, the film is dark and quite terrifying. In many ways it’s a shame the Disney studio didn’t tackle material like this more often, as they are so effective at it. The scene where Hans falls sick and his mother pleads with a merciless officer is masterfully directed by Geronimi, staged and lit to beautifully convey a sense of menace and fear. And then there’s the sequence in the classroom, which isn’t as visually dour but is perhaps even more unnerving. Seeing children indoctrinated into spouting inhuman hate speech, and seeing an intimidating teacher shame the one boy who still has a shred of mercy until he breaks down and adopts the Nazi worldview, is quite startling in a Disney film.

And then comes the climax, lit in bloody red, which shows us that the little boy we’ve been following has become a faceless killing machine, indistinguishable from every other goose-stepping soldier. The artless anti-intellectualism of the Nazis is shown in a hair-raising montage of destruction, as the works of Einstein, Voltaire and Milton are set ablaze and religious artifacts are replaced with weapons of destruction. The full scope of the Nazis’ cruelty was not yet known to the American people in 1943, but what they show here is disturbing enough. The film’s conclusion is almost assuredly the grimmest ending ever attached to a Disney film. No ray of sunshine here, folks, but startlingly effective filmmaking all the same.

PIGS IN A POLKA
Directed by Friz Freleng; Warner Bros.

The tale of the Three Little Pigs had already been told countless times in animation by 1943, most notably Disney’s famous 1933 Silly Symphony, but Freleng puts his own distinctive spin on the material by ingeniously matching it up to several of Brahms’ most famous Hungarian Dances. Like Freleng’s earlier masterpiece Rhapsody in Rivets (1941), there is a delirious joy in seeing slapstick Looney Tunes mayhem painstakingly synchronized to classical music, and it’s amazing how well they compliment each other.

There is very little dialogue in the cartoon, save for the wolf’s hilarious Fantasia-style preface (in which he mispronounces Brahms’ name) and the pigs introducing themselves. But lots of dialogue would’ve been superfluous because the visual gags, strong animation and sharp timing deliver the laughs all by themselves. As in Rivets and any number of other Freleng shorts, there appears to have been meticulous cooperation between the director and the composer, and Freleng is a genius at finding little actions to match up to the score (i.e. the wolf shaking a bit to cause even more of his fake talcum snow to fall). Even the iris-out delays in response to the score.

The character animation is also extremely strong: look at the way the Smart Little Pig rubs his hand all over his face and heaves a sigh of annoyance as the other two pigs dance around in front of him. It’s a brilliantly natural bit of acting, and he isn’t even the focus in the shot. The characterization of the wolf is also top-notch, containing some of the clownish incompetence that Freleng would give to Sylvester a few years down the road. The fact that cartoons with this amount of care and skill were churned out by the dozens to fulfill a theatrical expectation continues to amaze me.

PORKY PIG’S FEAT
Directed by Frank Tashlin; Warner Bros.

This hilarious comedy was Frank Tashlin’s first cartoon upon returning to Warner Bros. in 1943, after a stint as production manager at Columbia, and not only did the film usher in his greatest period as an animation director, it remains one of his finest directorial achievements. The film was also one of the last black and white shorts the studio released, although its classy handling of grayscale makes you wish they had produced more.

In the film, Daffy gambles away the money necessary to pay his hotel bill, so he and Porky attempt to sneak out of the Broken Arms Hotel. The cartoon is really a perfectly directed film on every level, from its sophisticated Art Moderne visuals to its breakneck mastery of speed and pacing. A comparison between this film and the cartoons Tashlin was making before he left WB back in 1938 (such as Little Pancho Vanilla and You’re an Education) show a stunning growth as a director; the film is zippier, funnier and looks a whole lot better. The animation in his earlier films had been pretty straightforward, but here the characters move with an eccentric, angular style unique to Tashlin; the way Daffy’s body stays in place as his arm yanks a door open suggests that Tashlin either learned a bit about stylization from Columbia colleagues like John Hubley, or they learned from him.

It’s frequently stressed that Tashlin’s ambitions to be a live-action feature film director informed his decisions as an animator, and his films make more creative use of cutting and “camera angles” than other directors. Porky Pig’s Feat is perhaps the ultimate example of this, at times feeling like a masterclass in film techniques. Tashlin finds unusual ways to display his characters, starting the story off with a point-of-view shot of Porky holding the hotel bill, only to have him lower it and reveal the manager cleaning his monocle. Then, instead of simply cutting to a straight shot of Daffy gambling his money away, we are shown only his arms through a window in an elevator; Daffy is first unveiled to the audience when he trudges out the door after his loss. Throughout the film, Tashlin continues to find creative and unusual ways of showing his characters, at one point revealing Daffy sticking his tongue out through a reflection on the manager’s monocle, and at another point showing the manager crashing down the stairs reflected in Porky and Daffy’s eyes as they look on at his distress (he passes from one character’s eyes to the next).

Tashlin subscribes to the Ernst Lubitsch school of revealing information without explicitly showing it, as seen in the way the camera tactfully pans to Porky’s wince as Daffy is slapped, only to pan back over to Daffy with an imprint of a glove on his face. Tashlin’s experimental angles are here with a vengeance (look at that upshot of Porky from the point of view of the sewer beneath him), and he makes very creative use of cutting, jumping closer and closer to Daffy’s face as he continues to give the same answer on the phone. He also knows when not to cut, and Tashlin treats us to a very long single take in a scene where Daffy and Porky attempt to escape through the elevator. Tashlin also uses his cinematic mastery to signal changes in tone, such as the the way the anarchic climax is followed by a pan up the hotel while snow is falling, fading inside for a slow reveal that Daffy and Porky are imprisoned there. And then there’s that amazing sequence where the “palooka manager” falls down an absurdly long spiral staircase. That has to be one of the greatest pans in cartoon history, as it takes us down a few flights of stairs before shifting perspective within the same shot to give us a downward look at the endless spirals.

But what’s most amazing about all of this is that you hardly notice it. All of the cinematic mastery is there to serve the comedy. And what a funny film it is – Porky and Daffy are a comedy team equal to Laurel and Hardy here (or perhaps Martin and Lewis, who Tashlin later directed in films like Artists and Models and Hollywood or Bust). Daffy’s manic personality here is nailed so well that it’s shocking this was Tashlin’s first crack at the character (he went on to direct four more Daffy films – Scrap Happy Daffy, Plane Daffy, The Stupid Cupid and Nasty Quacks – all of them masterpieces).

The writing is spectacular, balancing cartoony visual gags, slapstick violence and supremely witty dialogue, all of which remains character-specific (Daffy’s “eh fatso” monologue may be the highlight, but there’s lots to choose from). Melvin Millar is credited as writer, and his presence demonstrates what a difference a good director can make. Millar’s writing for Norm McCabe (the director that Tashlin replaced) was consistently cornball and unfunny, yet here the writing rivals the best work of Warren Foster and Michael Maltese. Whether Tashlin did much of the writing himself, or Millar was simply inspired when working with a more seasoned director is anyone’s guess, but it’s a pretty incredible turnaround. In fact, I think the final gag in this film could possibly rank as the greatest ending in the Warner Bros. canon. I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves a historic first meeting that would lead to many more great pair-ups in the future.

Also worth noting: this film marked the first time composer Carl Stalling (who contributes a great score to this film, as per usual) sampled Raymond Scott’s instrumental tune Powerhouse in an animated film. The song, which Stalling frequently invoked during factory or assembly line scenes, went on to be used in over 40 Warner Bros. films and is forever burned in the brain of every cartoon fan.

RED HOT RIDING HOOD
Directed by Tex Avery; MGM

One of the most acclaimed and influential cartoons of all time, as well as being Tex Avery’s signature film, this ribald sex comedy was a smash hit with audiences back in the 1940s, spawning a series of similar films from Avery (Swing-Shift Cinderella, Uncle Tom’s Cabana, Little Rural Riding Hood, etc.), as well as imitations from just about every other cartoon studio (Lantz’s The Greatest Man in Siam, Warner’s Bacall to Arms, Famous Studios’ Sheep Shape, Disney’s Two Chips and a Miss, etc.) The cartoon was even one of the primary inspirations behind feature films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Cool World (1992) and The Mask (1994), and is still referenced in animated series like Ren & Stimpy, Animaniacs and The Simpsons.

The film starts off as a straight retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood tale, only to have the characters protest what a hackneyed idea for a cartoon it is and demand a new spin on the material. We are then launched into a ritzy, Peter Arno-inspired city scene where a Hollywood wolf chases after a seductive nightclub performer called Red Hot Riding Hood. The cartoon is a parade of delightful gags, and Avery seems willing to go anywhere to get a laugh. Story and character are irrelevant here, as Avery doggedly pursues pure anarchic silliness; it’s the kind of cartoon where the wolf’s voice completely changes midway through the film with no explanation and it doesn’t matter in the slightest.

The animation in the film still has traces of Disney-style lushness, which would eventually disappear in favor of a visual style that hewed closely to Avery’s own drawings, seen in films like Northwest Hounded Police (1946) and King-Size Canary (1947). But here that lushness is a boon to the film, as it feels like a typical Disney fairy tale that took a wrong turn into a riotous world of cartoon physics. If the characters looked more like later Avery films, the short’s initial joke of being a straight Red Riding Hood retelling would’ve been spoiled. And it must be said that the animation here is fantastic; the wolf has some priceless expressions, from his outrageous glee upon seeing Red onstage to his disgusted sneer as the narrator rags on with the same old story, and the old grandma zooms around her apartment like a bolt of pure cartoon lightning.

And then there’s Red, beautifully animated by the great Preston Blair. Blair didn’t draw from any live-action reference when animating Red, and the result is a character that is both effectively sexy and also purely a cartoon. She is animated with the same care and sophistication as any Disney character, but she clearly belongs in an Avery cartoon. The nightclub sequence, as she performs “Daddy”, is a pure masterpiece of animation, not only for Blair’s stellar work but also for the wolf’s outsized reactions, which continue to get more over-the-top in every shot. Tex Avery is known by animators everywhere for his wild takes, and he found the perfect outlet in sequences of intense sexual arousal. Even the most rubber-faced comedians can only go so far in live-action, but a cartoon character can find endlessly creative and exceedingly bonkers methods of expressing lust. Crazy as this film gets, future Wolf & Red cartoons would push the wild takes even farther.

It’s amazing that a cartoon this sexually fired up made it past the censors at all, but there is apparently an alternate ending that the Hays Code wanted changed. The grandma was originally supposed to force the wolf into marriage, concluding in a scene where a bunch of little wolf children whoop and howl at Red in a nightclub. The censors felt that this ending implied bestiality, and a new one was animated, although ironically the new ending has run into censorship trouble on TV airings as well (characters blowing their own brains out was okay to joke about in 1943, but apparently not anymore). Whatever the ending, Red Hot Riding Hood is a hilarious, barrier-breaking work of comedy genius.

SUPER RABBIT
Directed by Chuck Jones; Warner Bros.

In this excellent Superman parody, released the year Famous Studios stopped producing Superman cartoons as a matter of fact, Bugs Bunny eats some experimental carrots and gains superhuman powers, which he uses to take down Cottontail Smith, the nefarious fiend behind the Big Texas Rabbit Drive. This film marked one of the first Jones cartoons to master Bugs Bunny’s character, and it remains one of his all-time best.

The cartoon masterfully pokes fun at the Paramount Superman films, supplying a point-for-point burlesque of the films’ iconic opening. The short is full of zany gags, such as a long tube that spells out “eat at Joe’s”, Bugs jumping into a telephone booth and emerging as Little Bo Peep and a hilariously offbeat gag involving a horse in the sky. But the real humor comes from combining Bugs’ wiseguy personality with the conventions of the superhero genre. Perhaps the film’s funniest scene involves Bugs playing a game of basketball with himself using a cannonball (he manages pretty well without the aid of any other Looney Tunes characters or Michael Jordan), finally converting Smith and his horse into Bugs Bunny cheerleaders. Bugs is drawn with incredible appeal in the film, and he is absolutely bubbling over with personality. The blustery Cottontail Smith also make for an amusing foil, serving as something of a precursor to Yosemite Sam.

Just about every cartoon series has done a superhero parody, always sure to poke gentle fun at the genre, but Chuck Jones perhaps intended his film as a critique of the entire concept. In a later interview with Michael Barrier, Jones described why he felt superhero cartoons were more harmful to children than the type of slapstick seen in the Looney Tunes shorts, “After all, what was Hitler? That’s the super idea. This person who goes out on his never-ending fight against evil, is he some kind of god? Where does he get the right, outside the law, to protect other people? It implies that he knows what is right and wrong, and God knows, that’s the worst thing a child could suppose, that right and wrong are implicit.” This falls in line with Jones’ typical characterization of Bugs as a guy who generally minds his own business, only going on attack mode when personally provoked.

And perhaps that’s the point of the cartoon. Bugs is pretty ambivalent upon finding out that he gained superhuman abilities (his reaction: “well, ain’t that cozy?”) and although he decides to try his powers out on Cottontail Smith, he hardly seems to need them. Bugs heckles Smith and his horse with his keen wit, playing around with them rather than pretending to fight for a noble cause. The arbitrariness of these powers is highlighted when Bugs drops the carrots and suddenly Cottontail Smith and his horse are decked out in bulging muscles and skintight super suits. In the final scene, Bugs dresses in a Marine uniform and dismisses his rivals’ superheroics, remarking that he can’t play with them anymore, as he has important work to do. He then marches toward “Berlin, Tokyo and points East” while singing The Marines Hymn. By closing the film with Bugs abandoning superheroics to go off and fight a bunch of tyrants who believe themselves to be supermen, Jones’ cynicism toward the Superman idea comes into focus.

Trivia: The U.S. Marine Corps were so delighted by the finale to this film that they actually decided to officially induct Bugs Bunny into the force as a private, even going so far as to create dogtags for him. At the end of the war, Bugs was discharged as a Master Sergeant.

WEATHER-BEATEN MELODY / SCHERZO – VERWITTERTE MELODIE
Directed by Hans Fischerkoesen

All classic cartoon buffs are familiar with American WWII propaganda films like MGM’s The Blitz Wolf (1942), Disney’s Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) and Warner Bros.’s Herr Meets Hare (1944), but they might draw a blank when asked what kind of cartoons were being produced in Nazi Germany. Perhaps that’s because, despite Hitler and Goebbels’ great hopes to build a German animation studio that could compete with Disney, most of the animation produced under the Nazis doesn’t hold up very well.

There were plenty of talented animators in Germany during the 1930s, but most of the great ones either got the heck out of there as the Nazis took over. The king of stop-motion, George Pal, left Germany in the early ‘30s (a wise choice, given his Jewish heritage). He eventually emigrated to the United States, where he directed the classic anti-Nazi cartoon Tulips Shall Grow (1942). Berthold Bartosch, the great animator behind The Idea (1932), left Germany for Paris in the early 1930s, although a pacifist film he was working on there, entitled Saint Francis, was tragically destroyed by invading Nazis. Lotte Reiniger, the wonderful silhouette animator who directed the very first animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed, directed a few films in Germany during the Nazi regime (including The Stolen Heart, a thinly veiled anti-Nazi parable) before attempting to flee with her husband Carl Koch to either France or England during a supposed vacation. And abstract animator Oskar Fischinger’s work was deemed “degenerate art” by the Nazis, leading him to escape to Hollywood in 1936.

Joseph Goebbels, who predicted that Snow White would be a huge bomb and then later trashed the film as ruining a pure German fable with Hollywood kitsch, attempted to start up his own animation studio, entitled Deutsche Ziechenfilm G.m.b.H. The studio had ambitious plans, but they only managed to release one 18-minute film, Frank Leberecht’s Poor Hansi / Armer Hansi (1942), about a bird that attempts to escape from its cage, only to find life was better before (in other words, the German version of Hugh Harman’s 1934 short The Discontented Canary). Another notable Nazi film is Hans Held’s The Troublemaker / Der Storenfried, an unpleasant 13-minute propaganda short about a bunch of forest animals who band together to take down a fox, animated in a stiff, expressionless style. (And if you think that’s bad, check out the Nazi film from Vichy France, Nimbus Libere, which shows American cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Popeye mercilessly dropping bombs on innocent Frenchmen!) The Diehl Brothers managed to make some enjoyably quirky stop-motion films, such as Max und Moritz (1941), but they hardly stack up to the work George Pal was doing at the same time.

The only really great animation director in Germany was Hans Fischerkoesen, who directed three animated films that still hold up – Der Schneemann (The Snowman), Das dumme Ganslein (The Silly Goose)… and this film, about a bee that discovers a phonograph abandoned in the grass and begins to play it with her stinger. Of course, in many respects the film looks quite primitive by the standards of American animation in the 1940s – the characters aren’t overly expressive and the movements are extremely even – but the film is amazingly impressive given the different circumstances it was produced under and it retains a considerable dose of charm. The short is fun and playful, recalling the early Silly Symphonies in which woodland creatures cavorted in time to upbeat soundtracks, although Fischerkoesen maintains focus on the phonograph and his likable bee star. The film employs a combination of Disney’s multiplane camera and the Fleischers’ stereo-optical process to create the eye-popping three-dimensional effects in the cartoon, which genuinely look like they were produced by computers. The great soundtrack and pleasing visuals add up to make a splendid and unusual animated short.

It’s such a serene and peaceful film that it’s hard to see anything subversive about it, but the cartoon asserts its anti-Nazi stance is a variety of ways. The most obvious is the use of jazz music, a genre explicitly denounced by the Nazi party. The film’s light-hearted innocence masks a darker story suggested by the abandoned phonograph, the implication being that the owners of this phonograph were arrested (or worse) during some kind of picnic or outing. A broken garter belt nearby the phonograph also suggests sexual promiscuity may have been a factor in the interruption. Moreover, the cartoon celebrates freedom, individuality and unobstructed nature, all foreign concepts to the Nazis.

The fact that Fischerkoesen was allowed to make films despite his anti-Nazi slant is something of a miracle. Karl Neumann, head of Deutsche Ziechenfilm, approached Fischerkoesen about joining their studio to produce Nazi propaganda, but Fischerkoesen refused. Neumann then went to Goebbels, hoping he would order Fischerkoesen to join, but Goebbels turned him down, recording in his diary, “as long as a new film production is in its infancy it is good if there is competition”. The competition thing never panned out, but Fischerkoesen was allowed to animate a handful of classics and that’s what matters.

YANKEE DOODLE MOUSE
Directed by William Hanna & Joseph Barbera; MGM

After Tex Avery’s arrival at MGM in 1942, Hanna and Barbera really had to step up their game and increase the pace and gag content of their films. Suddenly the Tom & Jerry cartoons lost their Harman-Ising cuteness, and the characters were free to beat each other senseless to their hearts’ desires. One of the best examples of Hanna and Barbera’s newfound edge is Yankee Doodle Mouse, an outstanding wartime cartoon that marks one of the cat and mouse’s finest appearances. This film even won Tom and Jerry their first in a long line of Academy Awards, although that’s hardly notable given how haphazard the Academy always was in handing out the animated short subject award.

Unlike Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and other more versatile characters, taking Tom and Jerry outside of their typical suburban setting might’ve been detrimental to their appeal. Hanna and Barbera were wise to involve their cat and mouse team in the war effort by having them create their own warfare in the basement. The use of household items as objects of war is clever (Jerry uses a mousetrap as a catapult and a bra as a parachute), and many of the gags are truly painful in the best Tom & Jerry fashion (Tom getting his rear end scraped with that cheese grader, for instance). Battle is certainly the theme here, but with no added characters or gimmicks, this film could conceivably be considered the ultimate Tom & Jerry cartoon (although it would have a few rivals for that title, admittedly).

As far as the animation goes, this is as good as Tom and Jerry ever looked, with really outstanding animation from start to finish by legends like Irv Spence, Pete Burness, Ken Muse, George Gordon and Jack Zander. Even the effects animation is impressive, particularly the sparking fireworks that chase after Jerry. And the climax is particularly fun, as Tom is sent up into the sky on a rocket that explodes into a giant flag, while Jerry proudly salutes senseless violence. Three cheers for Jerry, America’s greatest hero.

Any comments or suggestions for this post? What are your favorite cartoons of 1943? Let me know in the comments below.

 

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