Friday, September 18, 2009

Unforgettable Cartoons

Name the most unforgettable classic cartoon you saw in your youth! It doesn't have to be a great cartoon or necessarily a favorite, just a single cartoon that really impressed or scared or convulsed you with laughter at a young age. We asked members of our Bijou team, some industry colleagues and other fans of classic cartoons what their most unforgettable cartoon was and received some delightful and amusing responses.
Jerry Beck, animation historian, author, and cartoon producer, also publishes an endlessly fascinating daily blog called Cartoon Brew:

It's difficult to pick one... but if I think hard, I'd have to select one of the Max Fleischer Color Classics. Those cartoons haunted me for years until, as an adult, I was able to track them down and rewatch them - and found that none of them had lost their power over me; nor their ability to simultaneously entertain and freak me out.
I find all the Color Classics disturbing and dark; childhood nightmares made real: the runaway train of Play Safe, the evil miser of Little Dutch Mill, the sad ending of the otherwise delightful Dancing on the Moon, the extreme poverty of Somewhere in Dreamland - I could go on and on.

I guess one which I still can't believe is Ants in the Plants (1940). I love this cartoon dearly, though it disturbed me for decades. This is about an army of ants who declare war on an invading aardvark. No Jackie Mason imitations here. There is a great, rousing (and violent) Sammy Timburg song, "Make 'Em Yell Uncle" sung by the Queen Ant in such a high pitched voice that makes Alvin and the Chipmunks sound like Baritones - and makes it difficult to decipher the lyrics on first listen. When the ant-eater finally attacks, his snout looks like a large uncircumcised male sex organ. When the ants fight back, and attack his member with hot pepper, salt and mustard, you can feel the pain in your groin - I still cross my legs just thinking about it. Talk about unforgettable! Only the Fleischer's could make a cartoon that still kicks you in the balls 70 years after it was made.

Ray Pointer is a cartoonist, filmmaker and President of Inkwell Images:
That would be the Betty Boop cartoon, HA! HA! HA! That was the last screen appearance of KO-KO The Clown, as he came out of the inkwell and started prowling around atop Max Fleischer's desk. Finding a Hershey bar, he broke off a large corner and started eating it with glutinous gusto until his jaw started swelling up due to a toothache.

The Close-up on KO-KO's jaw revealed the little decay devils hammering away at the central nerve of the tooth. That image impressed my as a child about the dangers of eating candy and the importance of brushing your teeth.

Leslie Cabarga is a cartoonist, illustrator, Betty Boop aficionado and author of the book The Fleischer Story:

Two unforgettable cartoons stand out from my youth, the first of which is the Max Fleischer Popeye cartoon Sock-a-Bye Baby, 1934. Aside from the fact that the ambiance of the Popeye’s, with their sumptuous backgrounds always floored me, I remember best the scene where a radio crooner is singing, "You came to me from out of nowhere..." and then, to silence him, Popeye punches a loudspeaker which causes his Sock! to travel the wires straight to the crooner and make the words to the song come true.
But probably the cartoon that enchanted me most as a child, and which I was not again to see until the marvel of YouTube brought all these things back to us, was the WB Merrie Melodies cartoon I Love to Singa, 1936. I realize now as I write this that it was the music in both of the cartoons I've mentioned, that I loved as much as the cartoons themselves. This particular song, "Singa" sung by Tommy Bond, who played Butch in Little Rascals, has also a beautiful musical bridge that I loved. As a kid, I couldn't identify this musical genre that so attracted me but later, as a teenager, I found out that it was 20s-30s popular music that I now enjoy playing on the piano. So for me, the humor, art and music of the old cartoons have left an indelible impression to this day.

Bill Cassara is author of the book Edgar Kennedy: Master of the Slow Burn

Without even trying to think about it, my favorite cartoon is I Love to Singa with Owl Jolson. Great music, great fun, great voices. Billy Bletcher as the father (also the voice of the "Big Bad Wolf," Our Gang's Tommy Bond is Owl Jolson. Then there's Jack "Bunny." The illustrations are full and fluid easily beating out my second favorite; One Froggy Evening.

I couldn't pinpoint my age when I saw I Love to Singa, but it was on TV in the late 50's and early 60's. A local non-affiliated station ran a solid half-hour of these cartoons on Sunday morning. A welcome opportunity for entertainment. I was drawn to the old music themed cartoons, esp. Leon Schlesinger. Everything was black and white on TV back then, but it didn't matter.
Occasionally they would show theatrical cartoons at the local "kiddie matinee" A projected Donald Duck would draw huge applause. I grew up with an appreciation of this art form and was thrilled when people like Leonard Maltin said he liked
cartoons.

A scary cartoon? The Betty Boop one with Cab Callaway doing Minnie the Moocher. Abstract visuals and ghostly moans. I was also spooked with that cartoon with the little flies having a party and the big ugly spider came in. Can't remember the title of that one, but it made an impression on me.

Jim Engel is a cartoonist, designer, pop culture maniac and Chicago Kids' TV historian:
Friz Freleng's Slick Hare --- Bugs was always my favorite as a kid, and I loved this cartoon, even though I didn't know who Humphrey Bogart, The Marx Bros., Carmen Miranda, etc. were when I was 5 or 6... I had an intuition they were "real" people by the way they were drawn (VS Elmer Fudd), but it wasn't until I got into old movies (particularly the Marx’s & Bogie) that a bell went off for me --- "Oh! These are those guys from that BUGS BUNNY CARTOON!" After that, I loved it even more. WGN, the local Chicago powerhouse had the WB package. They ran on “Breakfast with Bugs Bunny” (which had a live host & a puppet cast including a beautiful BUGS puppet!), then “Ray Rayner & Friends.”

I know it’s not fashionable to say, but really, for me, its Freleng cartoons that most DEFINE Bugs -- Slick Hare, Rhapsody Rabbit, A Hare Grows In Brooklyn, Baseball Bugs, Racketeer Rabbit, Bugs Bunny Rides Again, Little Red Riding Rabbit, Hare Force, etc…

Ron Hall is a Bijou team member and public purveyor of public domain films at Festival Films and Café Roxy:
My pick is the 1934 Mickey Mouse cartoon The Dognapper; although as a kid I knew it only as Buzz Saw Mickey from the 3 minute 8mm home movie release. At a young age, even before “The Mickey Mouse Club” was on TV, we had our parents run it every time they broke out the home movie projector. We would watch it in slow motion and backward, and reacted with an innocence similar to the convicts watching Mickey Mouse in Sullivan’s Travels. The gags are still quite hilarious.

After Minnie’s Pekinese is dog-napped, police officers Mickey and Donald Duck, in one of his very few black and white cartoons and with the long-beak look, pursue Pegleg Pete to his saw mill lair. Our film only showed the climax in which a giant buzz saw blade gets loose, assumes a mind of its own (like stalking its victims) and chases all three characters until the saw mill is sliced into shambles. The dark laughs, the chase surreal and the danger real left a lasting impression.
Victoria Balloon is a Bijou team member and a freelance writer:
My unforgettable cartoon is one I can’t fully recall — something about a little African boy in the jungle hunting… something? There are many cartoons I recall from childhood that are heavily edited or no longer shown because networks realized certain stereotypes were no longer acceptable to audiences. But this little boy I remembered, he wasn’t one of those gags where a cigar blows up and the character is shown in blackface, or where a cymbal smacks the character’s head and he turns into a Chinaman; I remembered this boy as being… sweet, actually. Kind of timid, a little unsure… Then an image of Cindy-Lou Who from How the Grinch Stole Christmas! flashed through my mind, and that’s how I knew to search IMDB under Chuck Jones — his distinctive style comes through in everything he touches.

The little black boy’s name is Inki, and he was in a total of five cartoons from 1939 to 1950, all directed by Jones. The plots revolve around Inki as a great hunter — or at least trying to be — but his aim is always a little off and this strange mynah bird wanders by and distracts him. As in so many Warner Brother’s cartoons, the hunter is outwitted by his prey and becomes the hunted, with many ensuing gags.

Inki was as I remembered him — hair in a topknot, wearing only a short skirt, toes turned in and looking a bit uncertain. However, as an adult I viewed him with more skepticism. I mean, come on, “Inki?” Were there signs of the minstrel-show stereotypes typically used to portray blacks in the early 20th century?

Inki may be unique as Warner Brother’s only multi-cartoon black character, but his antics and gags are pretty much the same as Elmer Fudd’s. Jones’ animation style is clearly apparent; Inki’s sheepish grin in the same as Bugs Bunny’s when Bugs knows he’s gone too far. However, without a doubt Inki’s mouth hearkens back to the kind of face once used to sell watermelon.

Moreover, Inki changes over time, and he is more of a black stereotype in the later cartoons than in the earlier ones. He began with his hair done up in a brass ring, but in Inki at the Circus (1947) his hair is done up in a bone. Indeed, the most grotesque characterization in any of the cartoons is the shadow Inki supposedly casts — that of a primitive “African Wildman.” The switch to the bone may have been part of the cartoon’s gag (two stray dogs fighting over the bone in Inki’s hair) but the bone also appeared in the last cartoon, Caveman Inki (1950). Probably the cartoon I remember from childhood is Inki and the Lion (1941).
Do I think we should put these cartoons back in the after-school rotation? — Emphatically no. But they are part of our history; the mainstream acceptance of these grotesque caricatures in cartoons demonstrates with startling clarity why the Civil Rights movement needed to happen. I do think we need to make these cartoons available, in context, to demonstrate to a younger generation that America once saw these kinds of images as endearing and entertaining.

I'm a bit sad to find out that my memory was sweeter than the reality. As a child I did not recognize Inki’s stereotypes; as an adult I see the images and wonder how an artist of Jones’ caliber could put forth something like this as entertainment. Perhaps there is a small something in how as a child, I saw through the racial implications and remembered only sweetness, and how even working with grotesque stereotypes, Jones gave his characters humanity.

Alas, we are all a product of our times.
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4 comments:

Jon B said...

The most memorable cartoon from my youth... My two favorite characters which I loved to death was The Road Runner and Coyote, though which individual short I remembered the most is very difficult to recall, though most of my favorite antics and failures of the coyote involved trains. However My favorite short from my youth was definetley the Donald Duck and Chip & Dale model train short "Out of Scale". In case you haven't guessed I was very fascinated by trains.

Starlighthoneymoon said...

Well its Great to see Betty Boop, their its where she belongs ^_^

Paul Castiglia said...

Hi. I'm Paul Castiglia - I've been writing and editing comic books and pop culture articles for two decades now, mostly for and about Archie Comics. I contributed a chapter to a book of essays on Vincent Price, and I have an upcoming book and accompanying blog (http://www.scaredsillybypaulcastiglia.blogspot.com) on classic horror-comedies in the works, as well as a graphic novel about a boy who stumbles upon a defunct poverty row movie studio to find the actors they employed still live and loiter there... and are real apes, vampires, detectives, etc.!

I'm also a huge animation fan and had the opportunity to be a substitute for the great Howard Beckerman a few times teaching his "Animation History" class.

For me, the most memorable cartoon of my youth has to be the Flip the Frog cartoon "Soda Squirt." I ordered a Super 8 sound version of this film from the Blackhawk Films catalog simply on the strength of it featuring caricatures of my favorite comedy team, Laurel & Hardy, as well as my fascination with Flip who appeared in a book I owned, "The Great Movie Cartoon Parade." Not only had I never seen a Flip cartoon before, I'd never seen such an example of a decidely pre-code cartoon before. It would definitely get a PG-13 rating today. If you love the classic movie stars, they're all here - Marx Brothers, Keaton, Durante, Joe E. Brown, Mae West, etc. And there's a wicked take on Jeckyl & Hyde where a rather foppish fellow turns from dandy to dastardly when Flip, paying more attention to Mae West's ample figure than to the ingredients in the chocolate soda he's making, serves the man the crazy concoction. This is truly one that has to be seen to be believed - I'm not going to give away the wild gags in it. Very enjoyable cartoon. :)

nic kramer said...

I guess the Mickey Mouse cartoon, "Building a Building"
(1933). I believe this was the first Mickey Mouse black and white short I ever saw and I still find it charming. Lots of great gags with the mouse and a very memorable song Minnie sang about selling boxed lunches. A couple a month ago, I found a mini-snowglobe based on that short and I almost bought it.