In October 2012, Turner Classic Movies hosted an evening of rare, classic animation, most of which had not been seen on network television in decades, if ever. Two years later, TCM is once again turning the spotlight on animation in an event they’ve dubbed “Back to the Drawing Board,” showcasing 28 shorts as well as four feature-length films for a full ten hours of cartoony goodness. And it promises to be a good night, for according to animation historian Jerry Beck (who co-hosted the TCM event in 2012), all but one of the cartoons being shown this time around are TCM premieres.
Here now is our guide to what you’ll be seeing during TCM’s animated fest:
TCM Classic Animation Event 8PM EST: THE CARTOONS OF WINSOR MCCAY, co-hosted by John Canemaker (author of Winsor McCay: His Life and Art, 2005)
Winsor McCay is the animation pioneer to beat all animation pioneers. The talented artist made his name on the funny pages before he ever considered producing animated films; his comic strips Dream of the Rarebit Fiend and Little Nemo in Slumberland were immensely popular, and would eventually provide source material for several of his animated productions. Canemaker will help introduce ten McCay shorts, including several rarities:
Little Nemo (1911): A series of whimsical (and colorful!) vignettes starring characters from McCay’s comic strip of the same name.
How a Mosquito Operates (1912): Based on a 1909 strip in the Rarebit Fiend series, this cartoon–one of the first to delve into the idea of character animation–follows the exploits of a greedy mosquito going about his usual business.
Gertie the Dinosaur (1914): This greatly influential short is largely considered to be an early hallmark of personality animation. McCay presented this cartoon as part of a vaudeville act and even inserted himself “into” Gertie’s world, interacting with her and running her through a series of tricks. Voted #6 on the Jerry Beck-curated list of the greatest cartoons of all time (the oldest cartoon to appear on that list), Gertie is a veritable legend.
The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918): This propagandistic short recreates the final voyage of the doomed vessel in a revolutionary hybrid form of animation and documentary.
Bug Vaudeville (1921): Another cartoon inspired by the Rarebit strips (and the first in a series of three Rarebits that would be released by McCay that year), this short depicts a man’s vivid dreams of a bug-headlined show.
The Pet (1921): The second Rarebit short from 1921, this gem centers around a pet that grows and grows and grows some more (and seems to serve as some inspiration for Tex Avery’s 1947 cartoon King-Size Canary).
The Flying House (1921): The third and final Rarebit adaptation also marks McCay’s final completed animated short. Though it is credited to McCay’s son, Robert, there’s little doubt that McCay himself had a hand in this fanciful creation, in which a man and his wife seek to escape their debts by retrofitting their house as a flying machine.
The Centaurs (1921): This cartoon only exists as an abbreviated fragment, but it boasts some impressively detailed animation–enough to leave us wondering what might have been had McCay completed his work on it.
Gertie on Tour (1921): A sequel to Gertie’s monumentally successful first outing was unfortunately never completed. The animation that remains is whimsical and appealing, as Gertie encounters a giant toad, plays with a streetcar like a toy, and shakes her moneymaker in a crowd of other dinosaurs.
Flip’s Circus (1921): Another incomplete cartoon, this short stars Flip, the clown from the Little Nemo strip, and a Gertie-esque hippo-type creature.
For more information about the McCay block of programming, check out David Kalat’s preview of the schedule at TCM.
TCM Classic Animation Event 9:45PM EST: THE 100TH ANNIVERSARY OF BRAY STUDIOS, co-hosted by Thomas Stathes, proprietor of The Bray Animation Project)
John Randolph Bray has quite the reputation. The man who has been referred to as the “Henry Ford of animation” was instrumental in forming the production model that still serves as the basis for the industry today; still, for all his undeniably important contributions to the growth of animation as a cinematic form, Bray also demonstrated a famously litigious nature (he was almost Thomas Edison-like in his attempts to corner patents for the animation process) and a sometimes heavy-handed rule of the animation studio that bore his name. The result is a series of conflicting portraits of Bray, ranging from the reverent to the disdainful, depending upon the source. Stathes will help put Bray’s contributions to the field into context, introducing ten films from his extensive personal collection:
The Artist’s Dream (1913): Bray’s first production, this mixture of live-action and animation depicts the sad (and, let’s face it, kind of morbidly hilarious) fate of a hungry dachshund who eats one too many wieners. That’s not a euphemism. But it is a delightful bit of animation, very much inspired by the work of Winsor McCay (though Bray denied any influence).
Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York (1916): This short, directed by Paul Terry, features Terry’s character Al Falfa, who runs into trouble in the big city. Al appeared in eleven Bray-distributed cartoons before Terry left the studio to head his own outfit; he eventually brought Al with him when he co-founded Fables Studios with Amadee J. Van Beuren (whose cartoons will be highlighted in the next block).
Bobby Bumps’ Dog Gets the Flea-enza (1919): Directed by Bray’s partner Earl Hurd, with whom Bray worked to create the cel animation process–the standard for the industry for decades to come. The mischievous young Bobby was not an entirely new creation–he was based, in part, on a character Hurd had created for another comic strip earlier in the decade. The Bobby Bumps shorts were the first to be wholly created using Bray and Hurd’s patented cel process. The series was popular from the start, and remained one of Bray Production’s biggest draws from his debut until 1919, when Hurd left Bray’s employ. Afterwards, Hurd animated only a couple of Bobby’s adventures each year (for other distributors) before the series came to a close in 1925.
How Animated Cartoons Are Made (1919): Originally part of a newsreel presentation, this documentary functions as a sort of “behind the scenes” featurette on the creation of animated shorts, albeit one that glosses over precise details of the mechanics behind the process.
The Tale of a Wag (1920): Based on Walter Hoban’s popular newspaper strip Jerry on the Job, and animated in part by Walter Lantz (who would go on to create Woody Woodpecker in 1940), this short casts the comically-minuscule Jerry as a would-be exterminator.
The Best Mouse Loses (1920): An entry in the Krazy Kat series, which was itself based on the long-running, gorgeous, and delightfully cuckoo comic strip by George Herriman. In this one, Ignatz Mouse schemes to throw a fight, but Krazy Kat inadvertently thwarts his plans while trying to help. This short was directed by Vernon Stallings, who after getting his start at Bray Studios went on to work for both Van Beuren and Disney (where he did story development for such films as Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi in the early 1940s).
A Fitting Gift (1920): This is the oldest surviving cartoon in the short-lived Judge Rummy series, which ran from 1920-1922. In it, Rummy’s intent to buy his wife a girdle for her birthday goes awry when he becomes too bashful to actually purchase the thing. This one is noteworthy for some hilarious and somewhat suggestive gags.
The Circus (1920): A creation of the Fleischer brothers, Max and Dave. In 1914, Max invented the rotoscope, which allows an artist to trace over live-action footage to create realistic-looking animated movement. Dave would don a clown costume, and Max would trace over his movements to produce the antics of a character they eventually christened “Koko the Clown.” This gave rise to a series of animated vignettes called Out of the Inkwell, which depicted the adventures of Koko and his companion, a dog named Fitz. The Inkwell cartoons were initially distributed through Bray Productions, and were included regularly in Bray’s newsreel features for Paramount. A year after producing the Koko-starring Circus for Bray, the Fleischers formed their own studios, and they produced more than sixty additional animated Inkwell shorts between 1921 and 1926. In subsequent years, the Fleischers introduced iconic animated characters such as Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, and Superman, as well as an animated adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels (which will air later in the evening on TCM).
Colonel Heeza Liar, Detective (1923): The first series released under the new Bray Productions banner was Colonel Heeza Liar, who initially debuted in the 1913 cartoon Colonel Heeza Liar in Africa. The Heeza Liar shorts are notable for being the first animated series starring a recurring character, the titular big-game hunter/boastful Teddy Roosevelt caricature. The first cartoon was intended to be a parody of Paul J. Rainey’s African Hunt, a hugely popular 1912 documentary-type film that followed the titular hunter on safari, as he spent time with some native tribes and slaughtered more than his fair share of exotic creatures. The Colonel character had been retired in 1917, but was brought back five years later; Detective marks his third “new” appearance.
Dinky Doodle Lost and Found (1926): Dinky Doodle was created by Walter Lantz, who appears in the series as himself, interacting with his animated creations. The series only lasted for two years; Dinky and his dog, Weakheart, were created toward the end of the Colonel Heeza Liar series, and theirs was one of the last series to be released by Bray before the studio stopped all animation production in the late 1920s.
For more information about these films, read Stathes’ excellent and detailed breakdown of the schedule at Cartoon Research.
TCM Classic Animation Event 11PM EST: ANIMATION FROM THE VAN BEUREN STUDIOS, co-hosted by Steve Stanchfield, professor, animator, historian, and co-owner of Thunderbean Animation)
Amadee J. Van Beuren initially entered the animation field through a partnership with Paul Terry; as mentioned before, the two founded Fables Studios in 1921, and produced a series of cartoons based on Aesop’s familiar fables. The series was immensely popular, and groundbreaking, too: Fables’ Dinner Time (1928) was the first synchronized sound cartoon to be released (almost two months before Disney’s Steamboat Willie), though it was an ultimately unsuccessful experiment. The following year, Terry left to form his own outfit, Terrytoons, and the newly rechristened Van Beuren Studios continued producing cartoons until 1936. Stanchfield will present eight cartoons from Van Beuren’s post-Terry production run.
The Fly’s Bride (1929): This entry in the Aesop’s Sound Fables series is a relatively simple cartoon starring a group of various bugs having various adventures. The cartoon was co-directed by John Foster, who had worked with Terry on Dinner Time; he took over as head of the animation department at Van Beuren when Terry left, and in 1932, he moved on to work for Terry once more at Terrytoons.
A Swiss Trick (1931): The fifth cartoon in a series starring the studio’s “Tom and Jerry,” a human comedy team that predates MGM’s cat-and-mouse duo of the same name by a decade. The series only lasted for two years, as it never really caught on with the public. Joseph Barbera, the creator of that other Tom and Jerry pairing, actually worked on this series, and remained employed by Van Beuren until the studio closed.
Silvery Moon (1933): Also known in some circles as Candy Town, this cartoon is another edition of Aesop’s Sound Fables. Centered around the 1912 song “Moonlight Bay,” the cartoon features a couple of cats who enjoy a world of sweet things on the surface of the friendly moon. But since this is an Aesop, there’s a lesson lurking in the form of a bottle of castor oil. This cartoon was co-directed by Mannie Davis, who had worked with the Fleischers in the early 1920s; after nearly a decade at Fables/Van Beuren, he made the move to Terrytoons, where he spent the remainder of his career.
Rough on Rats (1933): After more than seven hundred cartoons released over the course of sixteen years, the Aesop series came to an end with this entry. Rough on Rats starts out innocently enough, with various adorable kitty hijinks, but it takes a seriously dark turn. Seriously.
A Little Bird Told Me (1934): A combination of live-action and animation, this cartoon is the third and final entry in a short series called Burt Gillett’s Toddle Tales. Gillett had joined Van Beuren in the wake of his success directing the Oscar-winning Disney short Three Little Pigs (1933), and would remain with the studio until it closed in 1936. During his tenure, Gillett gained a difficult reputation due to his hard stance against unionization.
The Wizard of Oz (1933): A delightful adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s book. The cartoon was initially produced with a black-and-white opening in the Kansas scenes, which morphed to glorious Technicolor in Oz–a device later borrowed by the seminal 1939 feature film version of the story. However, due to licensing issues with Technicolor (which had signed an exclusive deal with Disney for the three-strip color process), the film was reverted to sole black-and-white. Thankfully, it has since been restored to its original fully-colorized brilliance. Directed by the great Ted Eshbaugh, with a score crafted by Carl W. Stalling (later of Warner Bros. fame).
Pastrytown Wedding (1934): Interestingly, Stanchfield notes that the print TCM will be using of this cartoon was originally derived from director Eshbaugh’s personal archive. This is one of two cartoons that were sponsored; as in, they were essentially ads in animated form. Pastrytown Wedding was created for a New York bakery, and was later edited for theatrical release. It was produced in Cinecolor, and marked the first entry in a new series of color cartoons headed by Burt Gillett called Rainbow Parade.
The Sunshine Makers (1935): The second of the “sponsored” cartoons, also directed by Eshbaugh, this one was produced for the dairy company Borden’s. Sunshine Makers is one of those cartoons that is just ripe for interpretation: is it just a happy fantasy, or a dark tale of dangerous conformity? Whatever your thoughts on the deeper meaning of the cartoon (or not), Sunshine Makers is simply lovely to look at, with some fantastically-detailed animation.
For more information about the Van Beuren block, see Stanchfield’s “liner notes” entry at Cartoon Research.
TCM Classic Animation Event 12:15AM EST: THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED (LOTTE REINIGER, 1927)
Produced in 1926, Prince Achmed, an Arabian Nights-influenced German fairy tale, is the earliest surviving animated feature-length film. Predating Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by more than a decade, Lotte Reiniger’s beautiful masterpiece remains a stunning piece of cinema, marked by creative visual storytelling and expressive animation, and boasting hand-tinted frames in glorious, full-blown color.
In crafting the film, Reiniger’s goal was to make her animation seem less static than that of other contemporary animators; she sought to build an animated world of depth and beauty, a lively film that transcended the limits of the two-dimensional screen. But the technology needed to do so had not yet been invented. So Reiniger took it upon herself to invent it. The result was something she christened a “Tricktisch,” an early version of the multiplane camera (a design that would be perfected by Disney animator Ub Iwerks a few years later, ultimately allowing Disney to lay claim to the patent for the device). The device essentially allowed for a greater sense of depth, creating a sort of three-dimensional effect in the animation. This filming process allowed the backgrounds to appear more prevalent, not oppressively flat as in other animated scenes; the characters were part of their environment, as opposed to merely moving across a static landscape. Reiniger’s efforts in this respect were aided greatly through her collaboration with another German director, Walter Ruttman, who crafted the lush, sometimes abstracted backdrops for the film, further enhancing that all-important impression of depth.
But it is in the animation of the characters where the true effectiveness of Reiniger’s style shines through, for these faceless fairy-tale creatures are nonetheless rife with kinetic energy, bounding across the screen dynamically. The characters stand starkly against the hand-tinted color backgrounds, their mysterious faces sometimes lit by the whiteness of an eyeball but otherwise largely featureless. And yet, for all the generalized nature of their silhouetted figures, the characters are skillfully and gorgeously animated to convey emotion, telling an unparalleled tale of passion and verve in shadowed flickers on the screen.
TCM Classic Animation Event 1:30AM EST: GULLIVER’S TRAVELS (DAVE FLEISCHER, 1939)
Gulliver’s Travels may be more noteworthy for the drama behind the scenes of its production than for its own artistic merits. Max Fleischer had long sought to secure funding from his distributor, Paramount, to create a feature-length animated film. But it was not until the groundbreaking success of Disney’s Snow White that studio head Adolph Zukor agreed to give Fleischer free reign to complete his dream project: an animated film based on Jonathan Swift’s 1726 novel (but only the first part–the most famous part, featuring the tale of Gulliver’s encounter with the tiny Lilliputians). The catch? Fleischer’s film would have to be ready in time to be released at Christmas in 1939, and, more importantly, he would have to sign over the Fleischer Studios’ assets to Paramount in order to secure the loan–a move that eventually came back to haunt Max.
Paramount built a new animation studio for the Fleischers in Miami, and in 1938, they left New York and took up residence in Florida to complete the work on Gulliver’s Travels. Dave directed the film, while Max served as producer–their typical business arrangement. In order to complete the film by Paramount’s imposed deadline, Fleischer Studios welcomed an influx of new artistic talent, and poached animators from Disney and other animation studios. The new team faced many issues, not the least of which was rivalry between different factions of animators within the studio, creating an air of discord throughout the film’s production. Still, despite these issues, Gulliver’s Travels was indeed completed on time and released by Paramount on Christmas Day, 1939. Though it was successful at the box office, however, it did not reach the same heights as its Disney-produced predecessor, and it did not quite recoup the costs of its production. The Fleischer studio had to swallow the loss, and after the disappointing release of the Fleischers’ second animated feature, Mr. Bug Goes to Town, in 1941, Paramount called in its loans and dismissed the Fleischer brothers from their own studio.
TCM Classic Animation Event 3:00AM EST: MAGIC BOY (AKIRA DAIKUBARA, 1959)
The first anime feature to be filmed in widescreen, Akira Daikubara’s Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke, known in America as Magic Boy, is the story of a boy named Sasuke, who must learn the mystical arts in order to save his sister from an evil demon. The movie was the second film to be produced by Toei Animation, a company that continues releasing animated films and television series to this day.
Though Magic Boy premiered in the United States in 1961 (with dubbed English dialogue and Japanese-language songs), it was not a major moneymaker for US distributor MGM. But its lovely animation and engaging story make for an entertaining film, one that undoubtedly influenced the work of future anime directors such as Hayao Miyazaki (who, incidentally, began his long and storied career in animation at Toei three years after this film’s release).
TCM Classic Animation Event 4:30AM EST: THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH (CHUCK JONES, 1969)
After his long-time contract with Warner Bros. was terminated in 1962, animator/director Chuck Jones formed his own animation studio, Sib Tower 12 Productions, and rehired his old WB unit (which has been disbanded after Jones was fired). The studio was contracted to create new cartoons for the Tom and Jerry series for MGM; two years later, Jones’ studio was purchased outright by MGM and renamed MGM Animation/Visual Arts. Jones produced nearly three dozen Tom and Jerry shorts throughout the 1960s, and also created the Oscar-winning short The Dot and the Line: A Romance in Lower Mathematics in 1965 as well as MGM’s final animated short, 1967’s The Bear That Wasn’t, and the studio’s final animated feature, the 1970 adaptation of Norton Juster’s classic children’s book The Phantom Tollbooth.
For his part, Juster despised the film version of Tollbooth, which made a number of changes to his original allegorical story of a young boy who discovers a magical world inside the titular item. But the movie was well-received by critics, and audiences enjoyed Milo (Butch Patrick, of The Munsters fame) and his adventures. The film deftly mixes live-action and animation, and the voice cast is top-notch, including Mel Blanc, June Foray, Hans Conried, and Daws Butler.