Reposted: The First Talkartoon: Noah’s Lark


I have hit a particularly bad stretch of … everything … and need to scale back my workload even more. So I’m putting my King Features Popeye rewatch on hold. In the meanwhile to preserve this posting-every-day thing that’s apparently important to me here’s a republishing of my thoughts about the first Fleischer Studios Talkartoon, Noah’s Lark. I first published these thoughts back in October 2017. What’s changed in my evaluation of this short? Who knows?


I’m feeling in a talk-about-cartoons mood so why not look to the Fleischer Studios’ Talkartoons? These were a string of 42 sound cartoons that the Fleischer Brothers made from 1929 to 1932, and it’s where Betty Boop made her debut. She’s not in this cartoon. It’s easy to suppose the Talkartoons were made in response to Disney’s Silly Symphonies series. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. This installment, for example, doesn’t have any particularly strong song component. There’s music throughout, of course. It was 1929; if you weren’t putting sound into your cartoons you were hopelessly behind the times, or you were Charles Mintz and too cheap to do sound. And I’m not even sure that’s true.

In any case Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic cites a June 1929 trade advertisement for the series. The first Silly Symphony came out in August 1929, and while every animation studio tried to copy Disney, it’d be a bit ambitious to plan the copying of something that hadn’t come out yet. Here, originally released the 25th of October, 1929, is Noah’s Lark.

So, some thoughts. First is that I think this short predates the use of animation cels. For most of the 20s the Fleischer cartoons were illustrations done on sheets of bright white paper. The advantage of this is that if you only need to move a small part of the scene — like the monkey’s arms in that scene about 1:15 into the short, or the hippopotamus singing while his chest tattoo moves at about 1:35 — you just need to draw that fragment of art and put it over the base. On many silent cartoons you can even see the tear lines of the paper.

Second: the title actually parses. I was thinking through the first half that they’d done the most obvious humorous variant on the common phrase “Noah’s Ark”. But by bringing the action to Coney Island — Wikipedia says Luna Park, but I don’t know how they can pin it down to that, given that there’s no particularly iconic rides on display — they justify calling it a lark. Good, then.

That fun old-style stretchy-squashy-playing with geometry: I like the ship’s portholes bouncing around merging together to let the elephant out. Also the … magpies? Crows? Possibly penguins? … at about 2:22 in that need three of them with bicycle pumps to unflatten their comrade.

The Suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like character enters into this cartoon at about 5:00 in. The Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It gag with the best laugh was on the carousel at about 4:50 for me.

There’s a recording of The Stars And Stripes Forever in here that I wonder if they didn’t use in the first couple Popeye cartoons as his post-Spinach action music.

Does this short have an ending? … I suppose so. The idea that the animals are out on Shore Leave does contain the implication that Shore Leave has to stop, so there’s a tolerably set-up conclusion to the short and a reason for the final scene to happen. I’ll allow it, but I’ll listen to contrary opinions.

The First Talkartoon: Noah’s Lark


I’m feeling in a talk-about-cartoons mood so why not look to the Fleischer Studios’ Talkartoons? These were a string of 42 sound cartoons that the Fleischer Brothers made from 1929 to 1932, and it’s where Betty Boop made her debut. She’s not in this cartoon. It’s easy to suppose the Talkartoons were made in response to Disney’s Silly Symphonies series. I’m not sure that’s the case, though. This installment, for example, doesn’t have any particularly strong song component. There’s music throughout, of course. It was 1929; if you weren’t putting sound into your cartoons you were hopelessly behind the times, or you were Charles Mintz and too cheap to do sound. And I’m not even sure that’s true.

In any case Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic cites a June 1929 trade advertisement for the series. The first Silly Symphony came out in August 1929, and while every animation studio tried to copy Disney, it’d be a bit ambitious to plan the copying of something that hadn’t come out yet. Here, originally released the 25th of October, 1929, is Noah’s Lark.

So, some thoughts. First is that I think this short predates the use of animation cels. For most of the 20s the Fleischer cartoons were illustrations done on sheets of bright white paper. The advantage of this is that if you only need to move a small part of the scene — like the monkey’s arms in that scene about 1:15 into the short, or the hippopotamus singing while his chest tattoo moves at about 1:35 — you just need to draw that fragment of art and put it over the base. On many silent cartoons you can even see the tear lines of the paper.

Second: the title actually parses. I was thinking through the first half that they’d done the most obvious humorous variant on the common phrase “Noah’s Ark”. But by bringing the action to Coney Island — Wikipedia says Luna Park, but I don’t know how they can pin it down to that, given that there’s no particularly iconic rides on display — they justify calling it a lark. Good, then.

That fun old-style stretchy-squashy-playing with geometry: I like the ship’s portholes bouncing around merging together to let the elephant out. Also the … magpies? Crows? Possibly penguins? … at about 2:22 in that need three of them with bicycle pumps to unflatten their comrade.

The Suspiciously Mickey Mouse-like character enters into this cartoon at about 5:00 in. The Blink-And-You’ll-Miss-It gag with the best laugh was on the carousel at about 4:50 for me.

There’s a recording of The Stars And Stripes Forever in here that I wonder if they didn’t use in the first couple Popeye cartoons as his post-Spinach action music.

Does this short have an ending? … I suppose so. The idea that the animals are out on Shore Leave does contain the implication that Shore Leave has to stop, so there’s a tolerably set-up conclusion to the short and a reason for the final scene to happen. I’ll allow it, but I’ll listen to contrary opinions.

And In The Cartoons: Ko-Ko’s Reward, Including An Amusement Park Trip


I’m still recovering from the yard sale. Don’t worry, we made enough to cover the costs of running another yard sale someday. But as long as my mind’s elsewhere here’s a cartoon to occupy it. It’s a 1929 Inkwell Imps cartoon, produced by Max and Dave Fleischer. It’s titled Ko-Ko’s Reward and as you might expect it includes a bit of head-swapping, a girl entering the cartoon world, a haunted house, and an amusement park. Because of course.

Mixing live action and animation goes back to the birth of animation. It was also much of the point of the several cartoon series featuring Koko (or Ko-Ko) the Clown. That and getting Max Fleischer on camera, because if there’s anything animation directors/producers want to do, it’s be movie stars. The structure is normally one of Max drawing Koko and maybe Fitz the dog. Then they natter a bit, and Koko escapes into the real world to make some mischief, and then he gets put back where he belongs.

That’s barely a structure, though. It’s enough to justify whatever the theme for the cartoon is and to give some reason for the cartoon to end at the eight-minute mark. The real meat is figuring some reason for Koko to interact with the real world, and for some free-form strange animation to carry on. Here it’s Max’s girl — I don’t know who played the part — getting lost inside an animated haunted house, giving Koko and Fitz reason to search for her in an amusement park. Well, these things happen.

Of course I’m fascinated by wondering what amusement park this is. I don’t know. I wonder if it might be Rye Playland, which had opened in 1928 — when the cartoon would be in production — and had the sort of kiddieland with a concentration of kid-sized rides such as the cartoon shows. But I don’t see any features that mark it as unmistakably Rye Playland, nor unmistakably not. None of the movie references I can find give information about shooting locations. I would assume they’d pick a park conveniently near the studio’s New York City location, but that could be Coney Island or Palisades Park at least as easily. Well, I don’t recognize the haunted house as anywhere I’d been.

Rube and Mandy at Coney Island


I found this short movie, about Coney Island, fascinating. It’s Rube and Mandy at Coney Island. It was released by the Edison Manufacturing Company to theaters in August 1903, although I couldn’t say just when. Probably it doesn’t matter. For the era I would expect prints just threaded their ways through theaters, appearing at any particular location goodness knows when.

I don’t blame you if you skip through the video, though. It hasn’t got much of a story. It’s really most fascinating as a view of what stuff there was to see at Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park and Luna Park in the summer of 1903. Director Edward Porter was surely trying for a comic short about smalltown hicks overwhelmed by the amusements of the big city. Well, look at the first word of the title, and the horse-pushed carriage they use to get there. But after that, up to the final scenes of Rube and Mandy failing at the High Striker and getting befuddled by hot dogs, there’s not much to mark them as particularly out of it.

I can’t tell you anything about Rube or Mandy. I can’t find information about who performed them. The title makes it sound like there should be a series of “Rube and Mandy” shorts. I could imagine a string of shorts of them going to different places, but I don’t see evidence of that. Porter’s filmography does list a Rube and Fender also from 1903, and A Rube Couple At A County Fair for 1904 at least.

Edward Porter may strike you as a faintly familiar name. He was the director for The Great Train Robbery, plus about three hundred other short subjects you never heard of. That The Great Train Robbery also came out in 1903 makes it stand out to me that almost at the same time he directed this basically storyless short.

But maybe an amusement park short, especially a live-action one, is forced to be a bit storyless. In a cartoon the characters can hurtle from one attraction to another in a way that builds the storyline. Filming real people — especially on the low budget and short filming times available — keeps each attraction in its own separate universe. Add to that a lack of dialogue or interstitial title cards, as in this short, and there’s not much way to carry a story through the scenes.

So maybe the short is best appreciated as accidental documentary. (Porter would film an openly documentary short titled Coney Island in 1905. Yes, I am aware of the difficulties in calling anything filmed a documentary.) It shows off parts of the Steeplechase Park of the time, before the 1907 fire obliterated it. Legendarily, the morning after the fire Steeplechase Park owner George Tilyou — you may know him from that grinning Tilly face — put up a sign promising the park would be rebuilt, bigger and better, and charging ten cents admission to the smoldering ruin. The park was rebuilt, and lasted until 1964. Luna Park was newly opened, replacing Sea Lion Park. Luna Park would be destroyed by fire in 1944.

I think most remarkable about the amusements is how few of them are outrageous. They would fit into a modern park almost effortlessly. Well, the Monkey House would be right out — I hate to think what was done to keep the Monkey House performers from ripping the staff’s face off — and the other animal rides would be looked at with more skepticism. But Shoot-the-Chutes are still around. Rope bridges and helter skelters are more aimed at kids these days, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be set up for adults. It’s remarkable, I think, to look at people from a hundred and twelve years ago — literally from before the Wright Brothers’ famous first airplane flew — and see the same small things as we do today.

Popeye is the King of the Mardi Gras


I want to do some more amusement park/boardwalk shorts for July. I’m not aiming exclusively at cartoons, but they do offer some great examples of amusement park action. Probably that’s because they can actually be as wildly out of control as amusement park cartoons like to present themselves as being. (Of course, a cartoon is a thoroughly controlled medium. A real actor can ad-lib a facial expression or a bit of movement that even the best cartoon can’t. Freedom and control are weirdly entwined concepts.)

The Popeye cartoon King of the Mardi Gras was released the 27th of September, 1935. Really, what is the better time to watch a cartoon with Mardi Gras in the title and its catchy recurring song than six months after Mardi Gras? Or, for that matter, to watch a cartoon that says it’s happening at Coney Island than a month after the end of summer? I’m not sure they understood calendars back then.

Anyway. It’s a black-and-white Popeye cartoon, so you know already it’s almost certainly worth the watching. Wikipedia asserts this to be the first time Popeye’s voiced by Jack Mercer. Mercer would be the default voice for Popeye until 1980. There’d be a few substitutions, mostly while Mercer was in the Army. But whether Fleischer Studios, Famous Studios, King Features Syndicate, or Hanna-Barbera, Mercer would be the default voice. Even in this first appearance he’s got the voice down. The performance doesn’t have to change much to be right.

The plot’s got a nice natural build, with Bluto and Popeye taking turns out-doing one another’s stunts. It gives Bluto maybe the best line, too, the wail of everyone who’s tried to make a living as an artist on the Internet: “Don’t anyone want to see a man choked to death — free?”

Since the cartoon dates to 1935, the Fleischers make use of some live-action backgrounds, for a wonderful three-dimensional rendering of the amusement park. It’s gorgeous. And it’s almost a touchstone for roller coaster history, too.

At about the 40-second mark there’s a view of a roller coaster with a loop. That’s a curious choice. There were no loops on roller coasters in the 1930s. There were a handful of roller coasters that did loops made before about 1910, most of them with names like “Flip Flap Railway” or “Loop the Loop”. But these weren’t terribly successful. They didn’t carry many passengers per hour, and they weren’t very good rides, by accounts. These Loop the Loops were built before the innovation of “upstop wheels”. Those are the sets of wheels that clamp roller coaster cars to the top and bottom of the tracks. That keeps the car secured tightly to the track. Without those, though, a Flip Flap car would have to stick to the track by going so fast it couldn’t possibly drop off the loop. The result is the ride has to be not much except one small, tight, neck-breaking loop. So after a few seasons of this, the rides quietly disappeared before World War I.

In the 1970s new roller coasters, mostly using steel tracks, would make loops that could be more graceful, and less painful. As a result loops have almost become the default element of a roller coaster ride after the first drop. Sometimes before.

In the climax, Bluto runs off with Olive to a ride billed as a “Thrill Ride Scenic Railway”. “Scenic Railway” is indeed an old name for roller coasters. This normally connotes a ride that’s slower and less thrilling, but that takes one past tableaus of, well, scenery. There are few of those left, especially with scenery still intact. The only one the Roller Coaster Database lists as still operating is The Great Scenic Railway in Luna Park, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. There’s another at the recently-reopened Dreamland in Margate, Kent, United Kingdom, but it’s not yet opened. That’s a real pity, as that roller coaster dates to before automatic braking. A railroad brakeman has to ride with the car and slow it at the right moment. Imagine!

At about 7:26 there’s a fun sequence on the Scenic Railway where the track rolls a bit side to side, one side of the track going higher than the other. That’s a fun ride element known as “trick track”. It was popular in the 1920s, but faded out of use after that. The only roller coaster I’m aware of that still has any is the Shivering Timbers ride at Michigan’s Adventure, in Muskegon, Michigan. I don’t see why it’s gone extinct. It’s a fun and seemingly easy way to add excitement to what would otherwise be a straight block of track.

Just before that is a moment of the roller coaster going in a bow-tie loop. I don’t know if there were any early roller coaster that did that. There are modern examples of this, such as Magnum XL-200 at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. I am curious whether the animators were building on stuff they might have ridden, or remembered hearing about, or were just imagining what might someday make a thrilling ride.

The Scenic Railway, besides its fun for an amusement park buff, is also an artistic triumph. The wooden roller coaster requires drawing a lot of track structure, in perspective, and moving quite rapidly. The Fleischers don’t skimp on that. I like to believe the work that’s gone into that makes the action funnier. But I admit I’m also amazed they didn’t build models of a railway and use pictures of that for the foreground railroad. That would have to have looked at least as impressive.

On The Loose with Thelma Todd and ZaSu Pitts


ZaSu Pitts. Not really a household name anymore, although at least a name you sometimes heard, when I was growing up. Probably it’s from the way the syllables fall together. What I wouldn’t realize until I got into old-time radio was that she was, to me, the perfect expression of a particular type of comic actor. I was surely primed for that by the imitations and impersonations of her, especially in the way Olive Oyl has always been played. Thelma Todd, I admit, I thought about less. She had a less catchy name, even if she was in some of the Marx Brothers’ best movies. And she died longer ago.

Nevertheless, they’re both solidly funny people. And Hal Roach, looking as ever for good comic pairings, tried them out together. One of the results is the short I want to show off this week, On The Loose. It was originally released the 26th of December, 1931, which seems like a strange release date to me. That’s because the short is mostly a trip to Coney Island.


The Coney Island thread is what drew my attention to this short. I’d been thinking of amusement parks and movies which feature them. The premise is that Pitts and Todd — playing themselves, or at least the Screen Versions of themselves — are stuck always being taken to Coney Island for dates and are fed up with it. This does inspire the question of whether anyone in a live-action short goes to an amusement park for fun or whether it’s all frustration and anxiety. But never mind that.

What most fascinates me here is the accidental-documentary nature of it. The rides and attractions as shown are more or less what you could really experience in Coney Island in the 30s, at least by reports, down to, yes, sitting in stands watching people come out of the funhouse and get jabbed by clowns. They were different times, is what we have to remember. And I love getting to see the rides that may not have been the biggest draws or the most famous stunts but were just normal and unremarkable and, happily, preserved on film.

Krazy Kat in: Weenie Roast


Previously in Krazy Kat cartoon adaptations:


There was never a time sound wasn’t possible for motion pictures. The earliest motion pictures in the United States were made by Thomas Edison and his staff; it would take a certain peculiar obliviousness to not think of marrying their sound recording devices to their moving-picture recording devices. But practical sound pictures, well, that’s a bigger challenge. Having the sound on a device separate from the film is an obvious practical problem: even if the picture is synchronized perfectly to start, keeping it synchronized, especially as the film breaks and has to be repaired, is hard to solve. Then, too, a moving picture can be presented to a larger crowd basically by projecting it at a screen farther away; for a record player to be heard by more people requires making it louder, which would have to wait for good amplification technology to come.

After several false starts sound pictures finally caught on in the late 1920s, and somewhat remarkably it changed cartoons as well as live-action pictures. Live-action pictures took a couple years to quite adapt to the new technology; early sound cameras were much bulkier and less mobile affairs than silent cameras were, and for several years as actors were learning to speak, cinematographers were learning how to let the camera not sit fixed at a scene. Animation had to adapt too; it’s easy enough to drop the intertitles or the word balloons that carried what dialogue couldn’t be pantomimed, but also, suddenly, cartoons could be set to music.

They’d always had music, of course, in cinema orchestras playing along, but now the animators could count on particular pieces of music and synchronize the action to that. And I think there’s a noticeable change between the late silent and the early sound cartoons: setting the action to music encourages planning out the scene ahead of time, so that the key events happen at the right moment. Silent cartoons have a tendency to flow from one event to another with a kind of dream logic; early sound cartoons are more likely to be made of individual scenes that make sense, even if the whole reel gets a bit baffling. It would take some time for the plot of the whole cartoon to be sketched out ahead of time.

And in the early days of the sound cartoon, yes, Krazy Kat got adapted to the motion pictures again. These cartoons, some 97 of them if Wikipedia is complete, were made by Charles Mintz — just as the previous run (also of 97 pictures; hm) was — for Columbia Pictures. And for this, the fourth attempt in fifteen years to bring George Herriman’s comic strip to the motion picture screen, we have … well, “Weenie Roast” here is peppy. It’s cheerful and a little weird, playful with a few bits of inexplicable cruelty. It’s built around some nice recognizable music bits and then goes riffing around the idea of things you might see at the seashore that I guess is near Coney Island or an equivalent park, to a conclusion which we might call arbitrary. Inanimate objects come to life and struggle against their own destruction. My love put it perfectly in describing this as “every 1930s cartoon”.

So it is. This is an early Mickey Mouse cartoon with an oddly-drawn Mickey. It’s a Max Fleischer Bimbo cartoon with Bimbo and Betty Boop way off-model. While the comic strip was still running as successfully as it might, a cartoon series that shared nothing but the title was as viable as anything else on the screen at the time. It’s probably nothing personal; the alliterative draw of a “Crazy Cat” seems to me likely to create a cartoon series even if there had been no comic strip.

Here by the way is another curious change that coincided with successful sound pictures, but that as far as I can tell has nothing but coincidence to do with it: the triumph of cell animation. From about 1930 hand-drawn animation would typically be done by drawing and painting characters on pieces of transparent cellophane, placed in front of backgrounds and photographed. Before then, though, the characters being animated might be drawn just on sheets of white paper, placed against white-paper backgrounds, with just as much as needed to change one frame to the next replaced. The edges of ripped paper can be noticed in these silent cartoons, looking like ghosts flickering around a character rubbing his hands. With a full cell there’s no edges to be seen. I understand why cell animation won out overall — it seems to offer great production advantages, particularly in making drawings reusable — but why it should have matched so well the introduction of sound pictures is a mystery to me. Maybe something in the new cameras suggested it.

Roscoe Arbuckle and Buster Keaton in: Coney Island


So, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. The quickest refutation of the saying there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Remembered as he is as some silent-movie-era guy who was in a scandal, it’s easy to forget he was prominent enough to produce a scandal because he was a really skilled physical comedian, someone who could just move with that dizzying flow which humanity seems to have lost since talkies came in. He was also a director, of both silent and talking pictures. My little video for today is 1917’s Coney Island, in which he stars and directs, as a man trying to get away from his wife and make time with another man’s girlfriend, though since he stole the woman away from Buster Keaton’s character. (Arbuckle and Keaton were in, if I’ve not overlooked something, eleven films together, and they just fit together so very well.) So to get the crossfire of chases straight: Arbuckle’s wife is chasing him; Arbuckle is avoiding his wife; Buster Keaton is chasing the man who stole his girl; and the man who stole his girl is chasing Arbuckle. I may have missed some chases.

Like many silent movies it’s a bit hard to just see the movie, because it serves as an accidental documentary of where the thing was filmed. Since this was filmed in and around Coney Island’s Luna Park there’s something really worth documenting in the background. Before the movie gets to the bathhouse you get good views of the Witching Waves — one of those Old Coney Island rides you never hear anyone imagining making these days, the one where cars drift along a surface that’s rolling up and down — and the Shoot The Chute, the latter including a shot that makes me wonder how they could have taken it safely. (I see a lot of references claiming it also shows the Whip — TCM’s page about the movie even includes a still of it — although in the versions I found uploaded to archive.org or YouTube I don’t see a Whip scene. It’s plausible, mind you, I just don’t see it.) I admit, given my interest in amusement parks, the movie loses something when it does get away from showing Luna Park and focuses more on the bathhouse, but it picks up with some nice raucous fighting and, ultimately, the Keystone Cops getting into the action.

The other male lead in the film, the one that isn’t Roscoe Arbuckle or Buster Keaton, is Al St John, who might have gotten his start in movies by being Arbuckle’s nephew, but who earned his career on his own merit. He’s credited with being one of the type definers for the comic sidekick character actor and made, if I’m not misreading his filmography, about three billion westerns, many of them alongside Buster Crabbe and then Lash La Rue, or for Sam Newfield (a director many Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans will remember).

I’m sorry to give short shrift to the female leads, but the movie does that too. Arbuckle’s wife is played by Agnes Neilson, who has about a dozen IMDB credits, most of them in 1917 and 1918; and the woman he pursues by Alice Mann, who has about two and a half dozen, most from 1916 to 1921. I’m afraid I can’t say much more about them.