It’s not for nothing that a good many film fans consider 1939 to be one of the greatest years in the history of American film, considering all of the brilliant movies to emerge that year–among them such iconic pictures as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. But aside from the many memorable features that premiered that year, it’s important to note that 1939 was also a fantastic year for animation, giving us the Fleischer Brothers’ first feature-length film, Gulliver’s Travels, and any number of entertaining and endearingly popular cartoon shorts.
One of my favorites from 1939 (and one that just happens to fit beautifully with this month’s theme of Hollywood caricature in cartoons) is a Donald Duck short called The Autograph Hound, released on September 1st of that year. The cartoon was one of the most expensive shorts that the Disney studio had produced up to that time; according to Michael Barrier’s book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age (1999), the negative costs associated with The Autograph Hound exceeded $110,000, far surpassing its already generous (by industry standards, at least) budget.
This somewhat-meta cartoon features Donald–one of the most popular animated stars in the world–as just another fan hungry to collect autographs of those beautiful stars of the screen. But in the end, it’s he who becomes hounded for his John Hancock, as Hollywood’s finest crowd around to snag his signature. The cameos fly fast and furious in this one, from the obvious (Clark Gable and those ears, Greta Garbo’s patrician profile, Sonja Henie) to the not-so-obvious-unless-you’re-a-classic-film-fan (Hugh Herbert, Henry Armetta, Martha Raye). Compared to T. Hee’s seemingly mean-spirited caricatures in Warner Bros. cartoons of the time period such as The Coo-Coo Nut Grove (see last week’s Saturday Morning Cartoons post at True Classics), the Disney caricatures are somewhat gentler in nature, and generally prone to less exaggeration.
Donald, who always works best opposite an antagonist, here matches wits with a gruff and determined studio cop and some of the wackiest (and biggest) stars on the lot. It all culminates in a frenzied montage of stars, depicted in a series of brief, sometimes overlaid shots that moves so quickly that it can be easy to miss some of the figures that are being caricatured: there are glimpses of Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Joan Crawford, and Charles Boyer, among a dozen others, all clamoring for Donald’s signature and burying him underneath a pile of their own autograph books.
One of the highlights of the cartoon is Donald’s encounter with a cheeky Mickey Rooney, who raises Donald’s ire with a series of pranks (playing off Rooney’s onscreen persona as a sometimes mischievous teen). And his interaction with pint-sized Shirley Temple (depicted as several years younger than her actual age at the time) is utterly adorable, as she is–somewhat fittingly–the only star who actually recognizes Donald at first. Watching these two particular scenes now, so soon after both of those legendary stars passed away earlier this year, is admittedly bittersweet–especially considering that, of all the stars caricatured in this cartoon, Temple and Rooney were the only two who were still living.
In many ways, the year 1939 marked the end of an era, at least in regard to animation. With it came the final Betty Boop-billed theatrical cartoon, Yip Yip Yippy (though, interestingly enough, Betty herself didn’t even appear in the short) and Disney’s final entry in the Silly Symphonies series. And while some of the old guard–Daffy Duck and Porky Pig at Warner Bros., Mickey and Donald and Goofy at Disney, the Fleischers’ Popeye–would remain as popular as ever, the dawn of the 1940s would bring with it a series of creative, fresh figures who would become icons in their own rights. Indeed, the first year of the new decade brought the auspicious debuts of Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker, and the redesigned Bugs Bunny, characters who largely would come to define 1940s animation as a whole. 1940 also marked a transition in feature animation, with the phenomenal one-two punch of Disney’s Pinocchio and Fantasia presenting a purely poetic artistry that only improved upon the strengths of the studio’s own groundbreaking feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The 1930s may have brought theatrical animation solidly into the mainstream spotlight, but the 1940s promised to give us some of the best cartoons the world had ever–or, arguably, would ever–see.
Note: a great source of information about the more than one hundred and fifty cartoon shorts released in 1939 is Ted Watts’ blog Cartoons of 1939, which explores every animated theatrical release from that year in detail.