Continuing on April’s month-long cartoon blog posts for Talkin’ Pictures, we’re going to look at the biggest of them all. Of course, that studio is no other than Disney. While the other studios got into the cartoon game, but had a cartoon budget on a much smaller scale than their feature live-action releases, Disney’s primary focus was cartoons and it showed. Disney also produced the most successful cartoons of the classic studio era as every single moviegoer was familiar with Disney’s charm and magic. Studio politics was big at the time, and even though during Disney’s heyday had the cartoons released through RKO, many studios didn’t shy away from mentioning Disney and his cartoon king Mickey Mouse like they shied away from mentioning non-studio contract stars in their films. For instance, in Lady Killer (1933), a Warner Bros. comedic programmer starring James Cagney, two tough-looking men see an advertisement for an Edward G. Robinson movie but ask Cagney if Mickey Mouse is playing instead. When Cagney delivers the bad news, the tough men grow upset and whine “What! No Mickey Mouse!” They don’t mention Bosko who was the Warner Bros. cartoon star at the time, they reference Mickey Mouse. Same goes for Paramount’s The Princess Comes Across (1936) which contains a funny moment where reporters ask Carole Lombard (a phony posing as a princess) if she has a favorite film actor. She responds affirmatively in a faux-European accent leading the reporters to ask her to be more specific by telling them his name. This leads Lombard to answer “His name is Mickey Mousey.” Again, she doesn’t mention Popeye the Sailor, she mentions Mickey Mouse. No cartoon star was bigger than Mickey and every single cartoon studio wanted to create a character just as popular as the happy-go-lucky mouse. Disney himself said “It all started with a mouse.” Sure, Mickey Mouse was the prime example of a cartoon star, but it didn’t start with a mouse, it started with a rabbit. (If you want to see my opinion on feature-length Disney movies click here)
Disney started out creating and producing cartoons in the vein of Fleischer’s “Out of the Inkwell” series by having a girl named Alice interact with cartoon characters. They were also created by Disney’s three most important collaborators at the time: Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, and Rudolf Ising. Many other studios during the silent film era mixed live-action with cartoons, so it wasn’t entirely original and Alice’s cartoon cat friend even looked identical to the most popular cartoon star at the time, Felix the Cat. It wasn’t until Disney focused solely on animation that he would find his true calling. Walt Disney and his animators created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who was a character in the vein of Felix the Cat and a precursor to what would become Mickey Mouse. As far as silent film cartoons go, Oswald’s are some of the best since they show a sense of innovation while also holding what made Felix’s cartoons work so well. Oswald had emotions and characteristics, plus rather well-done animation. Just look at Oh, What a Knight (1928) and compare it to what the other cartoons at the time looked like.
Oswald premiered in 1927 with the cartoon Trolley Troubles. In this cartoon, Oswald appears Mickey-esque but also true to a style that could be classified as all rabbit. Oswald is more likely to show anger and frustration compared to the always smiling Mickey Mouse. The cartoon also relied on the visual as well as Oswald’s reactions that are a sort-of more angered everyman compared to just a straight-up everyman like what Mickey Mouse would become. When his trolley moves out of control, Oswald removes his foot from his limbs and rubs it for luck. These types of creative visuals would take Oswald and Disney to a brief new height.
It is often conjectured that had Disney owned the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, he would have been the 1930s cartoon star being placed in Mickey Mouse’s shoes. Early Oswald is rather similar to early Mickey Mouse as Mickey’s nice-guy personality wasn’t really ramped up until he started to speak and Oswald’s popularity was truly rising during his time with Disney. It is always hard to state if something could have become popular, but it is not wrong to assume Oswald could have been Mickey Mouse and this was even the basis for a Wii video game entitled Epic Mickey which featured the return of Oswald to Disney less than a century later. It was a creative idea and the popular video game has resurrected Oswald from obscurity. Everything went against Oswald and Disney’s favor when production distributor Charles Mintz pushed Disney out after the creative head dared to ask for a raise leaving Disney abandoned by his animation friends and colleagues (all except for his loyal friend Ub Iwerks). Oswald would move to Universal who ended up screwing over Mintz like he did to Disney (karma hurts), but we’ll get to Oswald’s fate another time. This left Disney and Iwerks without their popular character and without a home studio.
Disney had learned a valuable lesson: always own the rights to an original character. When he went into producing cartoons himself, he created a new character to follow in the footsteps he could have taken Oswald. That character was, of course, Mickey Mouse. Mickey starred in the silent cartoon Plane Crazy (1928) and Disney proved to have a star the size of Garbo on his hands when Mickey made Steamboat Willie (1928). Steamboat Willie is perhaps the most famous cartoon Mickey ever starred in because not only was a star born, but it was unique for the time. It was a cartoon that had sound and the sound was synchronized like how live-action features were starting to have sound. This proved to be a success and took all cartoons in the same path The Jazz Singer (1927) took Hollywood live-action features. Looking at Steamboat Willie today one thing stands out, sound certainly was a novelty. Much of the cartoon is built around the mechanic of sound-effects and music the way many early talkies were playing with musical numbers in some stagy, stilted musicals. While most live-action musicals of the late 1920s today look dated and underwhelming, Steamboat Willie looks fluid and well-drawn. It doesn’t look stiff and scratchy the way many cartoons at the time did and sound only makes it appear even more ahead-of-its-time when looking at other cartoons from this time period.
Mickey Mouse was put over the top by Steamboat Willie and his successful streak was just beginning. He was pumping out such classic cartoons as The Opry House (1929), Mickey’s Follies (1929), and Mickey’s Choo-Choo (1929) in such a short span of time. Meanwhile, Disney and Iwerks were experimenting with another idea away from the popular mouse. They started showcasing sound cartoons through settings and ideas that could rely almost solely on visuals and music rather than character or dialogue. These would be dubbed “Silly Symphonies” and they proved to be just as successful, especially by critics. The first “Silly Symphony” was The Skeleton Dance (1929) which is eye-popping for its ahead-of-its-time animation and scare visuals, not only that but it combined sound perfectly with the images projecting on-the-screen.
Disney continued with the “Silly Symphonies” idea with cartoons featuring the seasons as a setting as well as Hell’s Bells (1929) which is similar in concept and art-design to The Skeleton Dance only this one takes place in the pits of Hell with brimstone, raging fires, and devils dancing around. These cartoons not only showed Disney’s creative force, but Ub Iwerks’ extremely impressive visual art and quickly drawn animation as he was a fast but highly competent animator. Iwerks also got on-screen directing credit for cartoons like Steamboat Willie and The Skeleton Dance leading many people to believe Iwerks was the true creative mind behind Disney’s success and Walt was just the guy running things. When the two split-up, with Iwerks going on to open-up his own independent studio, many people assumed Iwerks would rise and Disney would fall. I think you can guess which one managed to be more popular.
Even without Iwerks’ talents, Disney acquired some of the studio’s best directors and animators. The directors of this time include Wilfred Jackson and Burt Gillett. Early on, Disney directed many of the Mickey cartoons or co-directed them with Iwerks, but he managed to let his new talent take over the directing reigns. Mickey Mouse and the “Silly Symphonies” were in capable hands, as it turned out. Burt Gillett directed cartoons like The Chain Gang (1930) which is the first cartoon to feature a proto-Pluto and The Gorilla Mystery (1930) both starring Mickey Mouse. In fact, Gillett started out as the main director of Mickey as Jackson wanted to truly understand and do justice to the mouse before doing a lot of Mickey cartoons. This lead Jackson to focus mainly on the “Silly Symphonies” until he became a prime director of both Mickey and the “Silly Symphonies.” It was Jackson who directed Mickey cartoons like Mickey’s Revue (1932) and The Whoopee Party (1932). Gillett managed to also direct “Silly Symphonies” including what many consider the most acclaimed cartoon of the series, Flowers and Trees (1932).
Flowers and Trees is one of the first cartoons to showcase color (some people consider it the first color and sound cartoon ever but this landmark seems to belong to Ub Iwerks’ Fiddlesticks (1930) starring Flip the Frog which was in two-strip technicolor). It was the first color “Silly Symphony” and it set a new standard for the series to follow. Flowers and Trees is also an impressive cartoon in that the fact that it’s a landmark in color cartoons isn’t want makes it a great cartoon, it is just a great, unrivaled cartoon. It doesn’t flaunt its new color animation like many landmarks like to do, it just uses it to enhance its beautiful animation. Flowers and Trees focuses on beauty, lust, and life in a poetic way with mute characters that all move in-tune with the soundtrack. The result is an excellent cartoon and a prime example of cartoon art. It would also be the first winner of “Best Animated Short” at the Oscars with Mickey’s Orphans (1931) also nominated (and also directed by Burt Gillett).
While Gillett was making cartoon history with Flowers and Trees, Jackson was also showcasing wonderful examples from both Mickey’s canon and the “Silly Symphonies.” Jackson directed such notables as Touchdown Mickey (1932) and Santa’s Workshop (1932). It was at this time a new director showed himself on the Disney cartoon scene and he would prove to be one of Disney’s greatest directors of all-time. This man was David Hand whose first directorial cartoon was Trader Mickey (1932) and his second was Building a Building (1933). Many Mickey fans consider Building a Building to be one of the mouse’s greatest cartoons if not his starring best (it is Bianca’s favorite and Bianca is the Mickey expert between the two of us). Hand combines heart with high visual comedy to perfection in Building a Building and on just his second cartoon, he set a new standard for everyone’s favorite mouse. At this time, Hand wasn’t directing as much as Jackson and Gillett, but Hand’s work usually stood-out with Mickey’s The Mad Doctor (1933) and “Silly Symphonies’” The Flying Mouse (1934) which many fans consider to be one of the most memorable of the 1930s Disney series.
While Hand proved to be a highly successful director, Gillett and Jackson were still knocking cartoon after cartoon out of the park and at such a fast rate too. While Building a Building was nominated for an Oscar, it lost to Burt Gillett’s Three Little Pigs (1933) which is as famous as a “Silly Symphony” gets and a prime example of a cartoon every other studio tried to out-do. This same year, Jackson was directing Lullaby Land (1933) and The Pied Piper (1933) for the “Silly Symphonies” with Gillett directing Ye Olden Days (1933) which is one of the most memorable Mickey Mouse cartoons of this time. Jackson also directed The Grasshopper and the Ant (1934), The Wise Little Hen (1934) which is Donald Duck’s first cartoon appearance, and The Goddess of Spring (1934) all for the “Silly Symphonies” series. The later is a very important cartoon in that it was really the first time Disney animated people in a realistic manner that was no longer awkward and a little stilted like it had been before. Gillett’s head, meanwhile, created Mickey’s Orphans’ Benefit (1934) and The Big Bad Wolf (1934) which was a sequel to his successful Three Little Pigs.
It seemed as though you couldn’t do better than Gillett, Hand, and Jackson, but at the end of 1934 a new director appeared on the scene and the three musketeers would become four. That director was Ben Sharpsteen who would become one of Mickey’s best directors and the head man behind some of the studio’s best remembered cartoons. His first cartoon he directed for Disney was Two-Gun Mickey (1934). While Gillett, Hand, Jackson, and Sharpsteen were four of the best cartoon directors in Hollywood at this time, Disney also had many priceless animators working for him at this time who all contributed something to his projects. Disney’s cartoons had a higher budget than the rest of the studio cartoons and many of the cartoonists were perfectionists. Disney animator (and future great cartoon director) James “Shamus” Culhane said that it was normal to throw an entire day’s works away and abnormal to hold onto everything at the end of the day.
In 1935, Wilfred Jackson made two important cartoons for Disney: The Tortoise and the Hare and The Band Concert. The Tortoise and the Hare was important because it won an Oscar and inspired other studios at the time which many believe would contribute to the design of Bugs Bunny at Warner Bros. (after the title hare). The Band Concert was Mickey Mouse’s first color cartoon and one of the studio’s all-time greats (some would even argue it is the best cartoon the studio ever did or at least the best one starring Mickey). Mickey Mouse is highly animated in this cartoon with angry reactions that would put him at home in Oswald the Lucky Rabbit’s shoes. The Band Concert also is a great showcase for the supporting cast including Donald Duck and Goofy (as well as Clarabelle Cow and Horace who all Disney fans will recognize). It is also incredibly well-imagined with many great visuals and funny gags. It runs on the music mixing with the action like many old Mickey cartoons did, but it took it to an all-new high which all leads to an excellent climax with our band of characters getting stuck in a tornado as they all keep playing. It is a funny cartoon and certainly proved other studios at the time had to stand-up to even bother competing with Disney in their art as now not only were the “Silly Symphonies” in gorgeous color but so was Mickey Mouse. On top of The Tortoise and the Hare and The Band Concert, Wildred Jackson also directed another example of one of the best “Silly Symphonies” entitled Music Land (1935) which is still as delightful and creative as ever with classical and jazz music going to war with one another.
While Burt Gillett was no longer a Disney director, Hand, Jackson, and Sharpsteen proved that 1935 would continue to be a good year for Disney. Many of the studio’s best cartoons came from this year. Sharpsteen found an irresistible formula by putting Mickey, Donald, and Goofy together as a trio in Mickey’s Service Station (1936) as the three try to fix Pegleg Pete’s squeaky car. It became immediately obvious that putting the three biggest Disney stars together was a genius idea. Sharpsteen also directed the creative and visually likable The Cookie Carnival (1935) for the “Silly Symphonies.”
David Hand found success directing The Robber Kitten (1935) featuring a cute kitten that wants to be a tough robber but changes his mind when he meets one and Three Orphan Kittens (1935) about three abandoned kittens that run amuck in a family’s house which was charming enough to win over Oscar voters for “Best Animated Short” that year. Hand also directed one of the all-time great “Silly Symphonies” and one of the all-time great Pluto cartoons this year. The “Silly Symphony” was Who Killed Cock Robin? (1935) which was a retelling of the popular children’s story complete with Hollywood celebrity parodies including Bing Crosby, Mae West, Harpo Marx, and Stepin Fetchit. The Pluto cartoon was none other than Pluto’s Judgment Day (1935) which is a cartoon haunting enough to rival The Skeleton Dance and Hell’s Bells from the Iwerks days. It features Pluto imagining being put on trial by all the cats he has tormented, repenting before the cartoon is over.
The great stuff didn’t stop there. In 1936, Wilfred Jackson directed two more excellent “Silly Symphonies”: Elmer Elephant and Toby Tortoise Returns. Elmer Elephant features a cast of animals with our title character learning to find greatness in what the other animals make fun of him for: his long trunk. Toby Tortoise Returns is a sequel to Jackson’s own The Tortoise and the Hare but completely different from its predecessor. While the Three Little Pigs sequels generally follow a similar formula, tone, and idea, Toby Tortoise Returns is completely different. It is a fast-paced, zany cartoon that would be at home at Warner Bros. a few years later except for all the cameos by previous “Silly Symphonies” characters including the Mae West bird from Who Killed Cock Robin?, the robber dog from The Kitten Robber, and Elmer Elephant. Instead of another race, the cartoon puts the tortoise and the hare against one another in a boxing match with the slow tortoise still managing to one-up the cocky hare.
Jackson isn’t the only one who had a good year: David Hand directed Thru the Mirror (1936) and The Country Cousin (1936). Thru the Mirror is another one of Mickey’s best cartoons involving creative imagery and oddball ideas. In this cartoon, Mickey dreams he enters through his bedroom mirror after reading Alice Through the Looking Glass where inanimate objects can talk and Mickey can change sizes. The Country Cousin won the “Silly Symphonies” yet another Oscar with this retelling of Aesop’s famous tale of a country mouse visiting his cousin in the city. At first he is overwhelmed by all the great food he finds, but then comes to realize he is out of his element when danger enters the mix.
Ben Sharpsteen continued to put Disney’s best characters together. He made Mickey’s Circus (1936) and Donald and Pluto (1936) the same year. He also made Moving Day (1936) where Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are forced out of their house by Pete. Sharpsteen continued the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy trio in Moose Hunters (1937), Clock Cleaners (1937), Boat Builders (1937), and Mickey’s Trailer (1937). All are laugh-out-loud funny comedies with Mickey, Donald, and Goofy occupying the same setting but getting involved in a different set of errors. For instance, Clock Cleaners, one of the trio’s bests, has Mickey trying to get rid of a sleeping stork, Donald trying to fix some of the clock’s springs, and Goofy almost falling off the giant clock’s tower which is priceless. Boat Builders also contains some funny humor from Goofy when the dog thinks the boat’s figurehead is a living, breathing woman as he gets a crush on her. Mickey’s Trailer is rightfully a fan-favorite cartoon with our three unlikely heroes living in a trailer together which leads to all kinds of mayhem. As a kid, I was always jealous of their trailer (and of the funny way Goofy eats corn). Burt Gillett (who briefly returned) also directed the trio in Lonesome Ghosts (1937) where they play ghostbusters (Guess what movie this cartoon helped inspire?) and Dick Huemer directed the three in The Whalers (1938).
Many of the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy trio cartoons were the best the character-driven cartoons had to offer at the time. The other directors kept busy with the “Silly Symphonies” which continued to be critically-acclaimed and win Oscars. Wilfred Jackson’s The Old Mill (1937) won an Oscar and was another landmark in its ability to use the multiplane camera in its animation. Dick Rickard won the studio another Oscar for Ferdinand the Bull (1938) which is an adaptation of the children’s tale of a bull meant for bull fighting that likes to smell the flowers instead. The “Silly Symphonies” came to an end in 1939 with one of the series’ best cartoons and yet another Oscar-winner: The Ugly Duckling directed by Jack Cutting. The story was done as a “Silly Symphony” in 1931 by Wilfred Jackson but this time it was made with more suitable animation and gorgeous color. The short’s use of mood whiplash from heartache to a happy ending is also winning as it gets the simple story to hit all the right notes. Many people finish this cartoon with tears in their eyes and it’s easy to see why.
More directors were coming to Disney’s cartoon scene by the end of the 1930s. I’ve mentioned in the Looney Tunes blog post last week that Jack King took Warner Bros. in the wrong direction, but he made some of Donald Duck’s best solo cartoons when he moved to Disney. King proved that with a likable and great character, he was more than capable of getting across jokes and humor. Clyde Geronimi also came on as a director and aced such cartoons as The Pointer (1939) with other good ones to come including Lend a Paw (1941) which won an Oscar. Dick Lundy also entered the director’s chair and would learn a great deal of his directing craft at Disney which came in hand later when he moved to other studios where he achieved even greater success. Other great cartoons that helped close out the studio’s best decade for short-films includes Little Hiawatha (1937) by David Hand, The Brave Little Tailor (1938) by Burt Gillett (which is a favorite of mine from the studio), and Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938) by Wilfred Jackson.
The 1930s was certainly the best decade for Disney. Most other cartoon studios were well-behind them in terms of competition for most of the decade and they had all the popular cartoon stars like Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy. By the time the 1940s hit, just about every other big studio in Hollywood started to catch up with them. They no longer followed in Disney’s shadow and instead found their own voices. This meant that now Disney began to have competition, although they never truly gave-up the reigns of being the most popular cartoon studio of the time. Still, Disney started to rely on formulas as now they mostly focused on character-driven cartoons and didn’t have the artistic expression of the “Silly Symphonies” to fall back on for creativity and Oscar appeal. Many of the character-driven cartoons of the 1940s by Disney are great, but in the 1930s even a mediocre Disney cartoon was likely still leagues ahead of one of the better cartoons at any of the other studios at the time and now that was no longer the case.
At the start of the 1940s, Mickey had some stellar cartoons under his sleeve like Clyde Geronimi’s Mr. Mouse Takes a Trip (1940) which allowed the mouse to be funny. Walt Disney, however, had strict guidelines to what Mickey could and couldn’t do as he viewed the studio mascot like a son although you can hardly blame him for that after what happened to Oswald and as a result of Mickey’s extremely high popularity. Many of the 1940s Mickey cartoons have the mouse act more as a reactor to crazy shenanigans rather than taking part in them like he did in the Mickey, Donald, and Goofy cartoons in the 1930s. Even in the 1930s, Mickey would often act as the sane man to Donald or Pluto such as in Burt Gillett’s Playful Pluto (1934), which is famous for being the cartoon that makes Joel McCrea’s John L. Sullivan laugh in Sullivan’s Travels (1941), but that wasn’t his only role. Much of Playful Pluto relies on Pluto’s reactions and him getting into trouble (it was a trailblazing cartoon when it came to animating facial reactions), but Mickey still played a part in some of the humor like using Pluto as a lamp in a dark basement. Clyde Geronimi’s The Pointer (1939) doesn’t rely on just Pluto to be funny as Mickey has some very humorous reactions to a bear he at first mistakes for Pluto, but by the time the 1940s hit, Mickey became mostly a reactor. Many of Mickey’s best cartoons of the 1940s and 1950s have Mickey coming into contact with a funny animal or with Pluto, like in Jack Hannah’s Squatter’s Rights (1946) or Charles Nichols’ Mickey and the Seal (1948) which are two of the mouse’s highlights of the post-1930s shorts. Still, in Squatter’s Rights most of the humor comes from Pluto and a proto-Chip an’ Dale while in Mickey and the Seal it comes from the title seal (who is adorable) and Mickey’s oblivion to him such as accidentally taking a bath with the seal hiding in the tub.
The 1940s and 1950s, however, were a golden age for two of the studio’s most popular characters: Donald Duck and Goofy. Mickey was still the face and star of the studio, but Donald and Goofy made unrivaled cartoons. Starting with Donald, his hair-trigger temper and hilarious reactions were naturally funny. He also played-off other characters very well. Jack King usually put Donald alongside his three nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie who always got the best of their uncle despite the fact that Donald always assumed he was wiser and could out-smart them. Donald was also commonly paired with Disney’s two new stars, Chip an’ Dale. Chip an’ Dale were two chipmunks that liked to pick on others and when they weren’t bothering Pluto they were annoying Donald. For example, in Jack Hannah’s Toy Tinkers (1949) Chip an’ Dale see Donald put out nuts for Christmas leading to a toy war between the two parties for the prized nuts. While Chip an’ Dale often caused hell for others, they had the right amount of charm to always keep them likable. For instance, in Toy Tinkers Dale struts around in a top hat and cane in a way that would make Fred Astaire jealous as he playfully bows to a doll and clown toy sitting on the floor. Who could disagree with such a cute character as that?
Goofy, on the other hand, was perfect for portraying the cartoon everyman capable of going crazy or getting into extreme slapstick. These cartoons could have been ideal for Mickey had Disney allowed Mickey to get slapped around like they did in the 1930s, but they proved to be the perfect formula for the lovable, dimwitted Goofy. Many of the best Goofy cartoons involve a narrator and Goofy following the steps for a “how to” instruction video which is taken to comedic extremes. For instance, Hockey Homicide (1945) directed by Jack Kinney teaches the audience about hockey, but in the most over-the-top, slapsticky way possible with many jokes about the sport itself including the two star players that keep hitting each other and having to sit in the penalty box. These cartoons often featured an all-Goofy cast, with Goofy playing every character. For instance, in Kinney’s How to Play Football (1944) Goofy plays the players, the audience, the coach, etc.
By the time the 1950s hit, Goofy was more of an everyman with cartoons that were meant to be relatable extremes of the everyday man. For example, Motor Mania (1950) is an over-the-top instructional video about road rage and No Smoking (1951) is the same sort of style, but with the urge to smoke after quitting (both are also directed by Goofy director Jack Kinney). Goofy still managed to appear in regular slapstick-styled cartoons away from this formula as well as occasional cartoons in the style of the sports shorts. For instance, How to Be a Detective (1952) directed by Kinney is like the sports videos except with one Goofy and playing on a genre rather than a sport but still with the same irresistible and laugh-out-loud funny results. These include an opening showcasing silhouettes of high crime in a city (including someone pushing another off a bridge when displaying the landscape) as well as Pete playing a policeman that keeps telling private detective Goofy to leave the job to the police even when Goofy tries to help Pete who is getting held-up by the weasel they are both trying to catch. That is just funny stuff and Goofy was the perfect protagonist to display this type of comedy.
Still, many believe Donald Duck cartoons were the highest quality the studio had to offer especially during wartime. A good reason behind this belief is likely Donald Duck being in several great war-era cartoons, including what many people believe is the best of the best, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943). In this Kinney directed cartoon, Donald Duck dreams he is a Nazi who has no rights and is forced to work in a factory for the Nazi Party and only read Mein Kampf. It is an uproariously hilarious cartoon, but it also does an excellent job showing the real horrors of the Nazi Party which is something most studio cartoons ignored. Most studio cartoons relied solely on parody when it came to Hitler and the Nazi Party as it seemed horror didn’t have a place in cartoon land, but Disney didn’t feel this way. Disney was perhaps the only cartoon studio to truly display how awful the Nazis were while being funny.
Education for Death (1943) from Clyde Geronimi is a great example of this. It contains some funny moments such as a Germanized fairy tale involving Hitler saving a drunk, overweight princess Germany from the evils of democracy. Despite this comical scene, the cartoon is also horrifying as it shows how the Hitler Youth twists the minds of innocent boys to turn them into soldiers for the Nazi Party incapable of any thoughts. Reason and Emotion (1943, Bill Roberts) is another great example of this, showcasing in a humorous way how Emotion can sometimes take a hold of Reason in the human mind (think of Inside Out (2015)) given funny examples like a man catcalling a woman and getting slapped in the face when he lets Emotion take over Reason. This is then used to explain (surprisingly very accurately) how Hitler pushes on the emotions of German citizens to get his message across even though anyone with reason can see he is evil. Once again, this cartoon uses humor to showcase the seriousness of WWII. This is also done in a much more subtle sense with Chicken Little (1943, Clyde Geronimi). Today some parents may not want their young kids watching a cartoon like this one, but it was an extremely appropriate one during wartime. The message is “you shouldn’t believe everything you hear or read” and the cartoon allows itself to go to darkly funny extremes in order to get this message across. After watching it, it is a message you certainly won’t forget thanks to the way it is presented.
During and after the war there was a major decrease in Mickey Mouse cartoons with much more focus on Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto, and Chip an’ Dale. Even Figaro the cat from Pinocchio (1940) was popular enough to get a string of short films (albeit in a much different setting and tone from the movie he came from). Stand-out cartoons from later-day classic Disney include Plutopia (1951, Charles Nichols) which features Mickey, but mostly as a plot point. Mickey leaves Pluto outside during the night leading Pluto to have to spend the night, leashed and muzzled, next to a cat he fought with who milks the situation for all its worth. Most of the cartoon takes place in Pluto’s dream of a world where the same annoying cat is his servant who must be punished when he does something wrong and the cat actually likes it that way. It is a highly funny and creative cartoon, but Mickey is hardly in it. Many Pluto cartoons of the time didn’t even feature Mickey at all unless the plot required him. Happy-go-lucky characters were seen as a thing of the past as all other studios were abandoning this type of character in their shorts as well, not just Disney. Still, Mickey remained popular and the face of Disney even if his best cartoons were largely behind him.
Many great later-day classic Disney cartoons were one-shots or “specials” featuring one-time characters. Think “Silly Symphonies” with a more modern and/or pop-artsy style to them. Cartoons like Lambert the Sheepish Lion (1952, Jack Hannah), Pigs Is Pigs (1954, Jack Kinney), Paul Bunyan (1958, Les Clark) and Goliath II (1960, Wolfgang Reitherman) were cartoons about certain characters and plots designed for a one-cartoon set-up. All four cartoons were nominated for Oscars as the studio was still commonly subjected to nominations and occasional wins. They also had two successful musical shorts like Melody (1953) and Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom (1953) both directed by Ward Kimball and Charles Nichols. They both feature a classroom of birds, led by an owl teacher, learning about the music in the past and present. Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom is a rare later-day classic Disney cartoon to win an Oscar.
Character-driven cartoons were still largely popular. Chip an’ Dale had Two Chips and a Miss (1952) where they even get to sing (it is actually better sounding than it would seem on paper). Goofy was still in instructional videos like How to Dance (1953) and everyman videos like Aquamania (1961). Donald was also still getting himself into trouble in such cartoons as Rugged Bear (1953) and No Hunting (1955) which were both nominated for Oscars. These characters still were making cartoons and were still generally popular, but they were making less and less as Walt Disney had other things to focus on rather than just shorts. Still, the short animated film was what set-up Disney for success, but all of our favorite Disney regulars were dropped as less and less cartoons were being made. In the 1960s, there was usually one or two Disney shorts a year usually starring Winnie the Pooh or Scrooge McDuck which were wonderful new characters. Still, a big part of what Disney used to be was now gone. Excellent cartoons like Mickey Mouse’s take on A Christmas Carol (1983) and The Prince and the Pauper (1990) indicate that a comeback was in-order, but it was never meant to be.
Most studios had ups and downs when it came to short cartoons, but Disney never really did. It is always better to go out successful than clinging to what was there, and in that case Disney probably left the short cartoon game at the right time. Their cartoons weren’t necessarily getting worse, but it was clear their best days were behind them although they still released mostly winners. Still, by the time Disney stopped making regular short films, they moved on to cheaper feature-length animation which brought the studio through a creative drought in the eyes of many. Disney’s short films never went through the quality roller-coaster of their feature-length movies. Disney was also one of the big Oscar champs of classic cartoons which became less and less frequent as the years went by and other studios were impressing audiences and critics alike with cartoons. Today, Disney is known for more than just animation. It may seem weird for a studio that was built solely around animation, which was a big part of why they were so superior to most of the other studios when it came to making cartoons, but almost everything Disney has invested into as paid off handsomely. Their park does great business and the move to live-action helped the studio’s financial woes in the 1950s and continue to top the box office charts to this day. Disney is the biggest studio in the world and it got there by starting out with winning ideas, creative minds, and a great cartoon star. It may not have all started with a mouse, but he is largely to thank for making the studio what it is today.