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.
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.
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.
William Hanna, Joseph Barbera, “Blue Cat Blues” (1956)
With dark themes of depression, substance abuse and suicide, this Tom and Jerry cartoon demonstrates that these lovable cat-and-mouse animated shorts were not targeted solely at young children. The cartoon is unusual also in that Tom and Jerry are portrayed as friends supporting each other, and not as eternal adversaries inflicting extreme sadistic violence upon each other. Jerry also narrates (in voiceover) the sequence of events that has led Tom into an existential hell, from which there is no escape except death.
Like all other roads leading to hell, Tom’s particular paved path started innocently enough: he becomes infatuated with a lovely lady cat and is completely obsessed with winning her attentions. Unfortunately he is competing with rival cat Butch who has more piles of money than he has lives to waste. If Tom buys a bouquet, Butch lays on a wreath; if Tom buys a ring with a microscopic diamond, Butch buys a rock so large that you need to wear a welder’s mask to see it; and if Tom buys a second-hand jalopy by signing away his life and those of his descendants down to the seventh generation, Butch simply runs over it with the most impossibly lengthy coupe money can buy. No matter what sacrifices Tom makes to win over the object of his love, the lady cat is easily bought off by Butch’s manipulations.
Tom descends into abysses of depression and milk abuse, and attempts suicide by falling into a stormwater drain, but faithful pal Jerry tries to rescue him and give moral support whenever he can. In the 1950s however, there were few psychological support services for depressed cats and eventually Tom ends up on a railway line. Jerry reflects on his own good fortune of having gained romantic love – until he spies his girlfriend being unfaithful to him by being hitched to a rich mouse in his coupe with a “Just Married” sign on it!
The dark and sombre tone is lightened (but not much) by slapstick humour that relies on exaggeration to induce smiles and laughs, but too much repetition of such burlesque wears thin. Sight gags such as Tom getting drunk on milk are amusing. However the march towards doom is relentlessly brisk and very little in the animation (not particularly good) or in the characters’ backgrounds and previous adventures can stave off the inevitable as the train whistle is heard in the distance. The cartoon can be seen as a slight social commentary on shallow materialism, the damage capitalist society can do to people who try to compete against those with more power and wealth, and on the class divide that ruins Tom.
Dave Fleischer, “Swing You Sinners!” (1930)
A bizarre little cartoon short, filled with the most startling surreal imagery and mobile rubber-limbed characters typical of cartoons in the late 1920s / early 1930s, and a horror morality story that doesn’t end well for its main character to boot, “Swing You Sinners!” has lasted extremely well for its age. The animation is as extreme as its creators’ imaginations, the technology available to them as animators and the mores of Western and US society in 1930, coming out of the Prohibition era, allow it to be. Starring Bimbo, the pet dog of famous 1930s US animators Max and Dave Fleischer’s creation Betty Boop, the cartoon is a commentary on a dissipated life. Bimbo has spent his days stealing chickens, evading the law and generally being disrespectful to authority … until one fateful night when a police officer chases him into a cemetery and Bimbo finds himself trapped in a place that locks itself up and swallows the key, and ghosts, spirits and demons gleefully emerge from graves and underground to torment him. Many sight gags that would have been familiar to 1930s audiences abound, including a stereotype of an evil Jewish fellow.
After being chased all over the graveyard by various ghoulies, and tripped up by gravestones that come alive and dance around him, Bimbo tries to escape them all by going into a barn, only to meet more creepy beings that try to kill him with knives and nooses. He jumps out of the barn but the building comes alive and pursues him to the ends of the Earth. Bimbo has no choice but to fall into Hell and everlasting agony.
There is very little story and the plot is synchronised with the jazz ragtime music soundtrack which features some quite disturbing lyrics. The cartoon moves at a very brisk pace with characters morphing from one grotesque thing into another at alarming speed and Bimbo forced to keep galloping for his life faster and faster. The animation becomes ever more deliciously deranged and intense with teams of spooks persecuting Bimbo in ways that might recall the pursuit of black people by hordes of Ku Klux Klan members of the period.
While there’s no hope of redemption for poor Bimbo, and his punishments are extreme, the cartoon itself is a fun ride through highly imaginative animation that throws all the rule books out the window and follows its own deviant path. It is this creativity that keeps the cartoon fresh and startling, even to those who have seen it many times.