The Mad Hatter: an insubstantial story in a detailed cartoon universe

Sid Marcus, “The Mad Hatter” (1940)

Mocking the faddish nature of women’s fashions, this animated short can be surprisingly critical of the nature of everyday work in capitalist society, the slave routine it forces on people, and how some people can end up quite deranged as a result. A secretary called Maisie jumps out of bed when her alarm clock rings and races through her morning routine of shower, brushing her teeth, getting dressed and made-up for work, and gobbling her breakfast literally on the fly. She runs after the bus so hard, she actually manages to catch up with it; the catch though is that as soon as she reaches it, she and the bus have both arrived at the bus stop where she would normally get off! Hitting her desk in reception at the precise time of 8:30 am when work starts, she immediately does start to work: she hauls out a box of candy to chomp on and a soapy novel to read while waiting for customers!

Nine hours later, having been finally released from work, Maisie goes to a hat shop to try on various hats: she likes one particular piece and the shop assistant places an order for it. The order goes to the hat factory where various milliner employees, straitjacketed and caged, loll about waiting for their orders! One fellow, eyes rolling about and tongue drooling, is given Maisie’s order and he turns out a veritable mountain of fruit that would have done the then popular Brazilian singer-actress Carmen Miranda proud. The order is delivered to the shop and Maisie promptly buys the hat.

There are many gags poking fun at Maisie and women’s fashion choices generally, and at a particular fashion-related industry that exploits human whim by hiring mentally deranged people to come up with original ideas for making hats. Such gags hark back to times when milliners and their employees really did suffer mental derangement from having to breathe mercury fumes from the solution used to turn animal fur into felt, used as the raw material for hats.

The plot is otherwise insubstantial and the main value of this short is to demonstrate the astonishing details in the animated backgrounds and the gags packed into seven minutes. While characters themselves are not drawn very well, the objects and furnishings in Maisie’s house look surprisingly three-dimensional and accurate. Joke after joke rolls out continuously; even the neighbour’s cat is drawn into a joke that sends up human vanity and intelligence. Animators who only know how to use digital animation databases in creating characters and backgrounds should watch short animated films like “The Mad Hatter” to see how a cartoon can compensate for shallow characters and an equally shallow story by creating a detailed and layered world where the action takes place.

The Last Knit: dealing with a personal inner hell of addiction and compulsion

Laura Neuvonen, “The Last Knit” (2005)

Technically this digital animated short is well done but the very simple plot of a woman addicted to knitting a long, long scarf that ends up pulling her over a cliff doesn’t really justify the effort put into the cartoon. The short’s theme on addiction and on how individuals risk their lives and health to satisfy that hunger or need that can never be satisfied become obvious early on. The problem though is that once the theme and the sole character are established, the plot seems at a loss as to what to do with the woman so it keeps digging around in its own groove, the woman knitting and knitting and knitting until the wool runs out so she has to use her hair … all while the scarf grows longer and longer, runs over the cliff’s edge and threatens to pull her into a literal as well as existential void. Come to think of it, all this repetition might be part of the theme of addiction as well … the film is just as addicted to keeping the woman on a one-track journey to her own hell.

Just when you think all is lost for the character, she manages to break her addiction to knitting, only to fall for another … Unfortunately the film does not supply any more information about how the woman came to be addicted to knitting in the first place and whether that addiction replaced still another compulsion. Viewers aren’t likely to feel much connection with or sympathy for the character. The cliff-side setting is attractive and important for the plot but again we learn nothing about why the woman must be there in the first place. The whole scene looks set up for a suicide and perhaps as the short comes to a close and the woman shows signs of developing another uncontrollable obsession, the prospect of suicide as a release from a personal inner hell becomes a possibility.

At the time of its release, the film was popular in film festivals around the world but its theme and the implications of that theme, along with the shortcomings of the plot and the character design, seem to have made sure that the film would be forgotten.

All’s Fair at the Fair: a utopian view of materialism, seductive advertising, over-consumption and futuristic trends

Dave Fleischer, “All’s Fair at the Fair” (1938)

Best known for their Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, US animators Max and Dave Fleischer occasionally made animated shorts with biting wit and satire. “All’s Fair at the Fair” is a rare piece made in colour (and fairly soft colours at that) about an elderly couple, Elmer and Mirandy, from the sticks who drive into the city in their horse-drawn cart to visit a “World Fair”. Regular city folks either whiz past Elmer and Mirandy in their souped-up cars or arrive by train at the fair packed in sardine-tin carriages. Elmer and Mirandy leave their horse and carriage to the tender mercies of a car-parking valet (who uses a crane with a giant magnet to dump the horse and carriage into a junkyard) and explore the various beguiling offerings. They watch a machine pump out houses almost in the manner of a 3D-printing machine. They drink orange juice made from an orange grown in double-quick time by another machine, prefiguring GM food and food production. The couple are attended and groomed by various robots on separate assembly lines for men and women: they are groomed, shaven, powdered and literally reshaped (in Mirandy’s case, in a suspicious-looking Iron Maiden contraption) so that when they meet again, looking half their ages, they barely recognise each other. (I must have missed some tiny part of the cartoon where robots injected the couple with blood and plasma drawn from babies and young children, and used liposuction to suck out the fat and flab from the couple’s bodies.) They are taught the latest dances by robot dancing-teacher guides. At every step of the way, the couple pay a dime to use the services offered. Cars come out of vending machines and woollen clothes straight from the sheep can be made up faster than the incredulous couple can sneeze.

The look of the film is soft with pastel colours and buildings in curvy Metropolis-inspired Art Deco style. Details are emphasised as well as the general appearance, as you’d expect in a simple and uncomplicated plot where the main characters are physically transformed and rejuvenated. The futuristic contraptions and their products and services turn out to be surprisingly prescient. Capitalism reigns throughout the film in the form of mechanical hands begging for money and in vending machines that can spew out the most impossible goodies. Fortunately Elmer and Mirandy seem to have brought plenty of cash to splurge on being pampered and buying things they don’t really need.

I’m sure in a period in which the world was just coming out of a global depression, and farmers were still very poor, this cartoon about the seductive blandishments of materialism aimed at goggle-eyed innocents, unaware that they are being exploited, and the over-consumption that results, must have left quite a few 1930s audiences red-faced in recognition that they also fell for similar brainwashing from mass advertising.

The Land Beyond the Sunset: a very moving and thoughtful film on achieving happiness and peace

Harold M Shaw, “The Land Beyond the Sunset” (1912)

Made in 1912 – the same year in which the Titanic set sail for its fateful meeting with the Iceberg – this short, seemingly simple live-action film is still a very moving and thoughtful drama. Young Joe is a poor newsboy who lives in a city slum neighbourhood with his alcoholic and abusive grandmother. One day he gets the opportunity to join a picnic for underprivileged children organised by middle-class women working for a charity, the Fresh Air Fund. The picnic organisers take Joe and other poor children to the countryside near the sea where they play and make friends, and eat nutritious picnic food. One of the organisers then proceeds to tell the children a fairy-tale about a boy being harassed by a witch. Some fairies rescue the boy and put him in a boat. The boy and the fairies then sail away to a fantasy place known only as the Land Beyond the Sunset. Thrilled and inspired by the story, Joe contrives to stay behind when the adults take the children back to the city and their slum communities; he goes wandering along the beach and spies an empty boat resting on the shore. An idea comes into his head at this point and he makes a choice that will undoubtedly affect the rest of his life forever …

For its age, the film still looks astonishingly clear, with none of the blur and the markings one might expect on old films. Title cards are few but viewers can follow the narrative easily: the story is straightforward but also relies on viewers’ imaginations to piece together the different scenes into the intended narrative. The end scenes are breathtaking and instill awed feelings at the natural world; however much humans may dominate and control Nature, the scale of Nature itself, especially of the seas and oceans, is still far beyond human understanding and domination. The boy can be seen to be partaking of the bounty of Nature by seizing an opportunity and opening himself up to all possibilities; yet the scenes can be interpreted differently and more negatively, by suggesting that the boy is deluded and does not realise he is going into an early death. After all, in some countries’ mythologies, the land beyond where the sun sets is often the land of the dead.

The very open-ended vagueness of the film’s climax and ending may astound and horrify viewers, but it also plays a large part in the film’s thoughtful and melancholy character. A boy from a dreary, unfulfilling and oppressive background is given a choice between two very different worlds and the decision he makes is momentous. How brave or foolhardy would we be, if we too came from a background of poverty and abuse, and we also were faced with the same choice? The heart-breaking story is told without sentiment, and this ensures the film’s continuing attraction for viewers more than 100 years later.

The film was originally made to promote the Fresh Air Fund, a charity founded to help underprivileged city children and improve their health by taking them on short breaks to the country so they could breathe fresh air and enjoy sunshine. The charity may have long gone but the film survives and has taken a life of its own.

The Beautiful Leukanida: early animated fable of love, jealousy, war and annihilation in an insect universe

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Beautiful Leukanida / Prekrasnaya Lyukanida” (1912)

In a long career spanning some 55 years in stop-motion puppet animation, Russian-Polish animator Wladyslaw Starewicz produced a fair few stand-out films. “The Beautiful Leukanida” is a very early example of Starewicz’s style and vision: trained in entomology, Starewicz was already familiar with preparing dried insects for study so using a ready-made if unusual cast to appear in his dramas and act out little fables of human foibles must have seemed the next logical step. The story here is one straight out of a Romantic fairy-tale universe, as re-enacted by beetles: two beetles duel over a noble lady beetle, the winner claiming her as his own and taking her back to his castle, the stag beetle loser swearing revenge and doing all he can to get her regardless of her feelings and opinions. The duel escalates into outright warfare between two kingdoms climaxing in an explosion that ultimately resolves nothing and kills everyone. Starewicz seems to have had quite a dark sense of humour.

The animation is very well done, the insects moving as bipeds but otherwise acting and moving in ways we might expect insects to move and to hold heavy swords in their claws (rather clumsily, as it turns out). The backgrounds and sets are minimal in style but quaint enough for stories of insect derring-do. Viewers may find one scene in which the noble lady beetle and her lover being fanned by attendants bearing huge feathery fans especially endearing. The messenger bearing a letter from the rival is given a kick and forced to return to his master in abject ignominy.

No matter how eccentric and Ruritanian the beetles’ universe is, with two rivals duelling for a lady’s favour, and their armies fighting desperately, ultimately the rival kingdoms are subject to the whims of the Cosmic Joker – in their case, Starewicz himself – who sees fit to destroy both kingdoms, all for nothing more than jealousy over a lady. Human wars have often been fought over even more trivial and / or less worthy causes. Ultimately there will be no winners. Had Starewicz known of the destruction that was later to come in a few years, no doubt he would have been horrified at his own prescience.

“The Beautiful Leukanida” appears to be one of the earliest stop-motion animation films by Starewicz still in existence, and is worth watching mainly to see the high technical standard the animator had already achieved early in his career. The plot intentionally resembles a fairy-tale in its setting and in the way it develops, yet in its climax and resolution it becomes a modern, even prophetic warning of the dangers of human, all-too-human rivalries and jealousies.

The Mascot: a puppet dog’s mission of self-sacrifice results in an amazing masterpiece of stop-motion animation

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Mascot / F├ętiche Mascotte ” (1933)

An amazing and brilliant short work of stop-motion animation, “The Mascot” is one of several masterpieces made by Russian-Polish animator over a long period from 1909 to 1965, the year of his death. Starewicz began his career in Kaunas, then a part of Russian Poland, before moving to Moscow in 1911 and working there until 1918. After the Bolshevik Revolution in November 2017, Starewicz fled to Yalta in Crimea, and moved to Paris in 1920 where he spent the rest of his life making stop-motion animated films, short and feature-length, his career spanning the silent-film period and films with sound.

This brief 25-minute film was intended to be the first film in a series featuring a dog puppet called Duffy. Riffing on themes of self-sacrifice and the search for goodness in an uncertain and chaotic world, the film follows Duffy on an odyssey that takes him quite literally through hell. Duffy comes to life when a woman toy-maker, caring for an invalid daughter, weeps and a teardrop falls onto his body. He contrives to hop into bed with the child and manages to hear that she wants an orange, before the toy-maker mother packs him into a box along with several other toys and they are all put into the back of a car to be taken to a toy-shop. The other toys, which include a ballerina, a clown and a thuggish tramp already living in a sort of menage a trois at the toy-maker’s apartment, see their chance to escape and bolt through a hole the thug tramp makes in the box leading to a gap in the car’s boot. Only Duffy decides to remain in the car. The toys tumble out into the street with various results: the ballerina ends up in the gutter and the clown no sooner hits the dirt than he is decapitated by another car. Ouch!

Later sold to a car owner who hangs him from his rear-view mirror, Duffy falls out of the car through an unexpected accident. He seizes the opportunity to obtain an orange for the little invalid girl and then tries to retrace his journey back to the toy-maker but not before falling in with a devil character who holds a grand and grotesque party with many guests, several of whom are the toys who had escaped from the car. The thug character treats his ballerina amour roughly and violently, and even stabs his devil host. Duffy loses the orange a few times before he is able to escape with it from the party. The other toys chase him down the road but Duffy is saved in the nick of time by the toy-maker’s army of toy soldiers. He is able to fulfill his mission but his reward and joy turn out to be all too brief in an unexpected plot twist that must have appealed to Starewicz’s dark sense of humour but is likely to upset children and those who have already warmed to Duffy’s bravery and persistence.

The animation is excellent: the various characters move smoothly and well, and their faces are very expressive, even if they can’t talk much. The toys move in the way viewers might expect them to move, that is to say, stiffly at times, though Duffy is able to run bipedally on his hind-legs and kick his orange like a football when the need arises! Clever editing and fast-paced backgrounds make the chase scene thrilling and tense, with the toys racing from left to right on the screen before the soldiers push them right to left. The nightmarish party, straight out of Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Devil and Margarita”, scenes of death and gory violence, and Duffy’s continued suffering even in the midst of triumph and joy rule this film out as a children’s film.

The narrative does linger too long in the second half of the film which is dominated by the devil’s party. One might have thought that negotiating his way through Paris car and foot traffic would be sufficient hard work for Duffy but no, Starewicz decided to add a most incongruous mediaeval fantasy plot twist. Perhaps at this point Starewicz was a bit too carried away by what he could do with his puppet characters; the gags in this part of the film can be distasteful for some viewers, and Duffy’s skin and orange are saved by a deus ex machina device. The subplot involving the ballerina, the clown and the thug is resolved, but tragically. On the plus side, the film is not at all sentimental in its portrayal of Duffy’s journey and mission.

The film deserves to be better known for its technological advances and the potential it demonstrates in the genre of stop-motion animation at the time of its making.

The Cameraman’s Revenge: the camera as a mirror of human behaviour as performed by insect puppets

Wladyslaw Starewicz, “The Cameraman’s Revenge” (1912)

A deftly crafted and delightful animation short, this silent film comments on human foibles as performed by realistic insect puppets and on the role of cinema as a mirror of human behaviour and society, as a voyeur and as a purveyor of information and news. Mr and Mrs Beetle’s marriage has been stale for some time and both husband and wife are carrying on affairs with others. Mr Beetle has been seeing an exotic dragonfly dancer most nights and Mrs Beetle has been chummy with a grasshopper artist. The exotic dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend, who happens to be a cinematographer, vows revenge on his adulterous partner by secretly filming the dancer’s trysts with Mr Beetle.

Mr Beetle comes home early one evening and finds his wife and her lover in flagrante delicto. He clobbers the missus with the lover’s painting and the grasshopper narrowly escapes being squashed dead by escaping through the fireplace and up the chimney and running off after a fight. Later feeling remorseful, Mr Beetle takes Mrs Beetle to see an outdoor movie. None other than the dragonfly dancer’s boyfriend is screening the film and he inserts film of Mr Beetle’s secret meetings with the dancer into the movie. Incensed at her husband’s hypocrisy and disloyalty, Mrs Beetle starts whacking hubby with her umbrella and he falls through the movie screen. He and the cinematographer get involved in a fight and the movie projector bursts into the flames. The last we see of the Beetles is in prison, where they vow to be faithful to each other.

In 10 short minutes, we have a complete and somewhat complicated little story of unfaithfulness, secret affairs, anger, revenge, hypocrisy and violence culminating in remorse and reconciliation. Sometimes people don’t appreciate what they have until they nearly lose it through their own selfishness and stupidity. The detail with which the insects are depicted as they perform human actions – they do them in the way we’d expect insects to, if they could walk on two feet – and the intricate miniature surroundings draw viewers into their little world. The stop-motion animation is obviously a labour of love, care and devoted attention. Colour is used in the film to suggest particular moods and perhaps to signify a darker, more complex change in the narrative.

Already at such an early stage in the development of the cinema and animation, director Starewicz uses the device of a film within a film to reflect back to characters (and the audience as well) their own actions, which may lead to an intensification of the plot or effect profound and long-lasting changes in the characters’ behaviours. The ambition behind the film and the energy invested in it are immense.

This zany little romantic comedy flick is far better than much animated product being produced with digital tools these days, and is highly recommended viewing.

Feline Follies: the folly of falling hard in love with no regard for consequences in a dark suicidal cartoon

Otto Messmer, “Feline Follies” (1919)

By no means a great cartoon or even a mildly interesting one, this animated short is notable mainly for the first appearance of the cat character later to be known as Felix the Cat. The plot is very sketchy and its message basically warns viewers of the consequences of being swept away by romantic love. An ordinary looking black cat, Tom (the prototype of Felix) falls heavily for Miss Kitty White, to the point of deserting his mouse-catching duties for his love. While Tom spends nights serenading his paramour and go-karting with her using musical notes born from his guitar that he then plucks out of the air, the mice live it up in his human mistress’s house smashing plates and gobbling up all the food. As a result, the woman boots him out of house and home. Dejected, Tom runs off to his love, only to discover she is the mother of a huge brood of mini-Tom kittens. What Tom does next will literally take viewers’ breaths away; at the very least his action qualifies this cartoon as not suitable for very young viewers.

The look of this animated short is very stylish in a minimalist comic-strip way, with enough interesting black-and-white background images to suggest a tidy semi-rural neighbourhood and an interesting use of distance perspective. There are enough sight gags to keep viewers interested: Tom being blamed for the mess the mice create, Tom turning his tunes into go-karts so he and his girlfriend can go racing, and Tom discovering that he is the father of a horde of little Toms. Title cards help move the plot and the action along.

Technically this is a decent little film (with a dark suicidal ending) that demonstrates what animators were capable of in the early years of film animation, with high aesthetic values being possible to achieve even in those early days.

The Little Pest: beaten up, walloped, drowned – what’s a pesky baby brother to do?

Dick Huemer, “The Little Pest” (1931)

Chiefly remarkable for its depiction of sibling-on-sibling violence, this short cartoon stars the boy Scrappy, who would go on to be a main character of several other short cartoons by US animator Dick Huemer. The style of animation is typical of cartoons of its time (late 1920s / early 1930s) with characters having rubbery arms and legs and capable of actions far beyond their real-life equivalents.

Scrappy and his pet dog decide to go on a fishing trip, and baby brother Oopie wants to tag along as well. Despite Scrappy’s reactions – which include smacking him and throwing him as far as possible, with the dog’s eager co-operation – Oopie manages to play a few tricks on Scrappy and the pooch, and (incredibly) arrives first at the lake to start fishing. The fish play a trick on the brothers by tying their fishing lines together underwater and Scrappy ends up hauling Oopie through the water and back onto dry land. Incensed at Oopie’s constant interruption, Scrappy hurls the bub into the water where he drowns. Suddenly realising he might end up on death row for killing the bub, Scrappy rescues Oopie and revives him – only for the brat to say he wants a drink of water! The next thing Scrappy does to Oopie doesn’t bear thinking about as the end credits soon start to roll.

It’s definitely not a cartoon to show children in case they get any strange ideas about how to treat their younger brothers and sisters. The tone is very sadistic and not a little creepy though it is funny to watch Oopie being walloped again and again and coming back for more punishment. Apart from this, there isn’t much else about the cartoon, its plot and characters that makes it stand out from other cartoons of its time.

Balloon Land: a fantasy fairy land where life is fragile, death is close by and a serial killer is on the rampage

Ub Iwerks, “Balloon Land” (1935)

For sure this cartoon with the Hansel-and-Gretel morality fairy-tale plot is weird and dark, and its theme of the fragility of life and the randomness with which life is given and can be taken away by violence can be very disturbing, even for adult viewers. In Balloon Land, everything – even the trees and rocks, and the figures of famous 1930s comedians Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin – is made of balloons. An inventor creates a balloon boy and a balloon girl, and gives them life by pumping air into them. He warns them that they are mere air and can be easily destroyed if they go into the forest and meet the dreaded Pincushion Man, who will pop them dead with his dreaded pins. The boy laughs at the warning and drags the girl into the forest (a sexual intercourse metaphor) where, lo and behold, they come across Pincushion Man (voiced by Billy Bletcher, who did work for Walt Disney) who has been eavesdropping on the boy boasting about how all the tales about Pincushion man are baloney. The villain chases the children and they run back into Balloon Land where they sound the town alarm by pulling all the bottles out of the mouths of babes!

When Pincushion Man convinces the village idiot to allow him to enter Balloon Land (and kills the poor fellow as well – in these old, unself-consciously racist cartoons, the black guy is always the first to die), he goes on a murderous rampage across town killing balloon people with his huge phallic pin. The balloon boy and girl call on the army to mobilise and soldiers roll out their weapons of goop-filled catapults to stop the villain dead in his tracks. The army eventually covers Pincushion Man in tree sap goop, the whole ball rolls off a cliff and Pincushion Man disappears, perhaps forever.

As might be expected of a land where everyone and everything is made of balloons, the look of the film is colourful and rubbery-wet, and balloon animals make squidgy sounds. (That’s bound to get some rubber enthusiasts more than a little excited.) Sight gags involving balloon elasticity and the tendency of balloons to fly in circles when popped abound. Inventive plot twists ensure that the film never goes stale but remains fresh and vibrant. Bletcher does an excellent job in giving gleefully malevolent life to Pincushion Man through his voice. The desperate battle that Balloon Land fights to get rid of Pincushion Man, if its citizens are to survive, gives the cartoon an edgy quality.

The film does carry a conservative message that young people should obey their elders and not challenge what they say or otherwise transgress social conventions. The balloon children learn this lesson the hard way but make amends for the trouble they cause by raising the alarm so that Balloon Land can mobilise its defences quickly. The other lesson they will learn is that life is fragile and precious, and death is never far away and could take them at any time.