On The Problems Of Credit In The 19th Century New England Economy


I don’t expect a letter of gratitude from Josh Lauer, author of Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, for being the first person to take his new book of that identity out from the library, but I wouldn’t turn it down either. Anyway, what’s got me is this mention about early credit reports:

The Merchants’ Protective Union in Norwich, Connecticut employed an even more baroque scheme. In addition to eleven uppercase alphabetical ratings, from A (“considered honest but unable to pay”) to K (“is paying on bills formerly reported”), another eighteen lowercase letters were used to indicate the type of retailer to whom debts were owed, from bakers and butchers to furniture dealers and undertakers.

So, first thought. There were enough people burying folks on credit in 19th century Norwich, Connecticut, that undertakers needed to check on who was behind on their debts to other area undertakers? I suppose that’s fair. This was an era when childhood mortality was something like 1.8 children for every child born, with the average New England wife having something like 12 pregnancies every ten years and the family only propagating by kidnapping Canadians who stood a little too close to the edge of Maine. And that’s before you factor in lives lost to cholera, malaria, more cholera, yellow fever, malnutrition, extra-cholera, train derailments, factory accidents, more yellow fever, and striking factory workers being shot by Federal troops before being run over by a cholera-bearing yellow-fever train. There was a lot of undertaking to, uh, undertake.

Second. There were eighteen kinds of retailers back then? I’ve done some reading on 19th Century American commerce. Not enough to get my Masters or anything, you know, but enough to not panic if I wandered into an academic conference about the thing. But if you asked me to list what retail establishments existed in that era I would have come up with this:

  1. General store selling loose, stale crackers and/or soap or possibly grain scooped out of the same wooden barrels.
  2. Department store where women point out lengths of ribbons they wanted to buy, which were then wrapped up and delivered to their homes, without the customer ever being allowed within ten feet of an actual product.
  3. Dentist who does “painless” extractions by letting the patient suckle a while on a chilled glass pacifier soaked in whiskey and arsenic.
  4. Yes, undertaker.
  5. Shoe cobbler who’s angry at all these shenanigans.
  6. Other, less successful, general store selling tinned items, with the clerk played by Harold Lloyd.

Yes, I know Harold Lloyd is too young to have clerked at a 19th Century general store. I am talking about how the store was portrayed in the movie about how he went from humble general store clerk to becoming the love of Mildred Davis’s life. Anyway that still leaves me short of twelve different kinds of establishment that could be owed money by creditors. I know what you’re thinking: what about the drayage industry? Won’t do. Why would the Merchants’ Protective Union have anything of interest to say to them? They’re not merchants, they’re people who have the ability to haul things from one location to another. Something is clearly missing. Oh, I guess there’s “sweets vendor who sells a lick on a ring of `ice cream’ that’s a wad of cotton glued to a metal post kept in ice water so people think they tasted something for their three cents”, but that’s still eleven more kinds of merchant to go.

Anyway the book’s interesting and I hope to read it sometime.

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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.

Plus I’m Not Even Looking For An Estate Right Now


The classified in the back of the alt-weekly reads:

Tom & Jerry’s Nice Old Things Estate Sales!

Have we forgotten already the trouble with the Three Stooges Plumbing Supply Company, or Buster Keaton Home Contractors? What about the workmanship problems with the stuff from the Woody Woodpecker Trophy Shop? The typos in all those business cards from Tweetie Pie’s Printing? That terrible latte at the Tasmanian Devil Coffee Shop? The Little Tramp’s Deluxe Shoe Eatatorium? Chilly Willy’s Chilled Wills and Probate? Say, maybe they refer people to Tom & Jerry’s Estate Sales.

There’s just warning signs, that’s all I’m saying.

Harold Lloyd: Could He Save Your Life?


I’m still in an amusement park mood. But I haven’t got a good cartoon amusement park on hand. I can give a couple examples of 1960s cartoons but they’re, you know, episodes of Atom Ant or things like that. I’d thought about silent movies, although the one I most want to point out — Buster Keaton and Roscoe Arbuckle’s 1917 Coney Island I already wrote up last year. Onward I dig.

By The Sad Sea Waves, here, is a Harold Lloyd film originally released the 30th of September, 1917. It’s one of the first pictures Lloyd did in the “Glasses” character. You know, The Default Harold Lloyd character. He had been in dozens of shorts before, and even developed the Lonesome Luke character in a series of shorts. With “Glasses”, or “The Boy” as he’s often credited, he got his big hit. Here he’s still getting his character sorted out; he looks to me kind of like he’s trying to play Bill Gates. This is what happens when you’re ahead of your time.

The storyline’s a straightforward one. Glasses dons a lifeguard suit to better his chances with some of the women on the beach, and has to keep up the scam. Venice Beach and its amusement pier linger in the far background, just visible but secondary to being on the beach. I suppose if we start from the premise he’s pretending to be a lifeguard there’s not a way to get onto the pier for very long. But I was excited when things got onto the trolley and I wondered if they’d get a few stunts in before the end of the short. No luck; it’s just a little too short.

Yes, I noticed that appearance of cabana number 23. Supposedly the early 20th century saw 23 as the most inherently funny number, per Christopher Miller’s American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide To The Formerly Funny. Our more mature audiences of today give that role to 17 and, for more nerdy audiences, 42.

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.

When Rabbits And Flappers Perform Dentistry


Remakes have always been with us. Famously, the only version of The Wizard of Oz anyone cares about is at least the fifth filmed version of L Frank Baum’s classic, and nowhere near the last. The only version of The Maltese Falcon anyone watches is the third made between 1929 and 1939. Partly that’s because a good idea is worth doing again, certainly at least until it’s done well. Partly that’s because movies are kind of disposable. Oh, a movie will last as long as the film, or the file, lasts, and you can experience it as long as it lasts. But as a commercial prospect, a movie comes into being, is watched a while, and then is forgotten. A remake gives it a new season in the popular culture. Cartoons get remade a lot, probably because the same reasons that make it sensible to remake a movie apply even more to cartoon shorts.

I wanted to write about the Betty Boop short Ha! Ha! Ha, released the 2nd of March, 1934, because it’s listed as the last theatrical appearance of Koko the Clown. Koko was, at least in a few shorts, Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, although he was more often just a friend of hers. And he was the star of the Fleischer’s cartoons from the 1920s, including many of their oddest features. He was also star of a 1960s string of Out Of The Inkwell cartoons.

Ha! Ha! Ha! gets described as a remake of the 1924 Koko the Clown short The Cure. I think that’s overstating things. There are some pieces the shorts have in common. The framing is that of the Out Of The Inkwell cartoons: producer Max Fleischer draws a character out of the inkwell, and the cartoon characters interact a bit with the real world. Then they try extracting a tooth and eventually cartoon laughing-gas escapes into the real world, to produce some amazing and disturbing real-world animation. But I don’t think that’s enough to call one a remake of the other.

The Betty Boop cartoon is the more professional of the two, I must admit. It’s better drawn and the story holds together better. The line of action from the cartoon paper, to the office, to the city makes more sense. And it’s remarkably funny considering the last quarter of the short is just one joke — something new encounters laughing gas, and starts laughing — repeated over and over.

But The Cure might be better. Some of this is that I’m charmed by how the short features a rabbit as Koko’s partner. But I also like the way the story doesn’t quite hang together. It’s got a more dreamlike, loopy quality, and more of an improvised feel. And while the Betty Boop version has some magnificent images as laughing gas escapes to the world — the gravestones, particularly, are the sort of image that will last in the mind — I think the earlier version has better jokes all around. And the interactions between the live action and the animated figures are more ambitious and thus more fun.

Betty Boop: So who’s this Freddy character anyway?


Last week’s Betty Boop cartoon, Betty Boop’s Life Guard, raised the musical question of “Where’s Freddy?” They put the question in a song that lasted only about two minutes on-screen but which can last in the head for as much as eight years straight. Sorry about that. But at least as good a question is “Who’s this Freddy person again, exactly?”

Freddy, or Fearless Fred, is Betty Boop’s second boyfriend, for a half-dozen cartoons in 1934 and 1935. It’s repeatedly claimed he was created because under the enforced Production Code Betty Boop couldn’t be dating Bimbo — a dog — once she was finally established as human. I suspect that’s not a complete answer, though. If the Fleischers just wanted Betty Boop to pair up with a human, why not Koko the Clown? He was unmistakably human, and had been on screen for fifteen years, and even canoodled a bit with Betty now and then. Or why not humanize Bimbo? Why add a new character?

My suspicion is that Freddy reflects the discovery of personality. Cartoon characters didn’t lack personality before the early 1930s, but they did tend to be less distinct. Bimbo is faintly pleasant, kind of playful, a little mischievous, easily intimidated: what you’d get from a talented high school theater class producing their very own Little Tramp sketch. You see almost the same personality as Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, as Bosko and then Foxy over at Warner Brothers. The biggest difference is in how much the characters seem like blackface jokes.

Soon, though, cartoon characters with personality started taking over. Betty Boop was a forerunner. Goofy appears in 1932; Popeye and his cast in 1933. Donald Duck would appear in 1934. They’re characters of a different order from Bimbo or even Koko. I believe that Fearless Freddy was an attempt to give Betty Boop, and the studio, a credible male lead who has character. And to support this I’d like to show the first cartoon with Fearless Freddy, She Wronged Him Right, which debuted the 5th of January, 1934.

His introductory cartoon is a theatrical performance. Fearless Freddy, Betty Boop, and Heeza Rat play out some versions of themselves. Two of his other appearances, Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No!, his final appearance, would use the same framing device. The plot is the grand Spoof Victorian Melodrama of the sort we all thought was done to perfection by Dudley Do-Right. Perhaps it was; but the Spoof Victorian Melodrama was also being done very well in the 1930s, and in the silent movie era, and for that matter by the Victorians themselves.

At some point you have to wonder if the Victorian Melodrama was ever played straight. You wonder more once you learn that silent movie melodrama villains never tied women to railroad tracks. If you see one, it’s from a spoof. This cartoon is part of a curious genre that seems to exist only as a parody. There’s something weird here.

But you can see why a figure like Bimbo just won’t cut it for a Spoof Victorian Melodrama, and why even Koko wouldn’t do. The role has to be cast by someone who looks the part even as he looks ridiculous. Fearless Fred, helplessly dragged behind a horse, can make the best of his plight by declaring “I think I’ll go this way” and make sense. If Bimbo made the same declaration it would sound like the cartoon was nervous about nobody saying anything for too long.

The stage-set framing adds some weirdness to the look of the cartoon. Sets slide in and out, and people walk on the sets within a fixed proscenium. It’s more fun to watch than it probably would have been without the stage convention. Betty Boop’s Prize Show and No! No! A Thousand Times No! have even more fun with using stage mechanics to suggest complicated lines of motion and that’s a fun, dizzying, hypnotic illusion.

Outside his roles as a stage character Fearless Fred would play a lifeguard, a soldier (against an army of giant mosquitoes), and a traffic cop. They’re not far off the Spoof Victorian Melodrama hero-role and he’s affably not-quite-ept in them all. While he’s not as strong a character as (say) Wimpy, or even Gabby (from the Fleischer’s Gulliver’s Travels and some spinoff cartoons), he’s a good step forward. He doesn’t steal a scene from Betty Boop, but it’s at least thinkable that he might.

Century of Slapstick #77: Chaplin’s “The Tramp”


I’m embarrassed to have missed the exact centennial of this. Well, it’s a year full of exciting centennials. Fortunately vaudeville and comedy-history enthusiast Trav SD noticed the day. So, please, a tiny bit late, appreciate the anniversary of the debut of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp.

Krazy Kat in Love’s Labor Lost


George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, as I mentioned last week, was a strange and somewhat exotic comic strip that’s been highly regarded but never really popular. In 1916 and 1917 William Randolph Hearst’s International Film Service made somewhere around 26 very short cartoons, for inclusion in news reels, that probably satisfied the requirement for “cartoon starring characters that look like this comic strip” at least.

The weird thing is this wasn’t the only attempt to animate Krazy Kat. In 1920 and 1921 ten cartoons were made in the series by Bray Productions. That studio was founded 1914 by John Randolph Bray, and while the studio might be fairly described as forgotten it was a pretty solid nexus for cartoons and comic strips and some miscellaneous other features. Max and Dave Fleischer made their first Koko the Clown cartoons at the Bray studios; Paul Terry, later of Terry Toons, made his first Farmer Al Falfa cartoons there; Walter Lantz directed the Dinky Doodle series (you may remember Dinky vaguely from a mention in Who Framed Roger Rabbit) as well as some others; and Jamison “Jam” Handy — renowned for slightly odd educational/informational/advertising short subjects, often celebrated on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and for competing in the 1904 and 1924 Olympic Games — formed the Chicago-Detroit branch of the Bray studios. And, what the heck, Carl Anderson, later of fascinatingly odd comic strip Henry fame, was one of the studio’s first directors.

Sad to say I can only find one of the Bray Studios Krazy Kat cartoons online. This one, “Love’s Labor Lost,” was released at the end of January 1920, and I can only see the original comic strip from this cartoon if I squint really hard. Krazy barely figures into the story; it’s much more about Ignatz terrorizing an elephant in the hopes of wooing a lady hippopotamus.

The most interesting scene, I think, is one where the elephant goes off and drinks a barrel of Beevo — a riff on Anheuser-Busch’s Prohibition-era near-beer, Bevo the Beverage — and gains muscles in what sure looks like a precursor to the spinach-eating sequence in Fleischer Brothers Popeye cartoons.

Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse at the Circus


George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. You might have heard of it; it’s one of the most highly-regarded comic strips of the 20th century. There’s occasional references to it in comics to this day; it’s the thing a comic strip you like is referring to if it suddenly drops in a panel of Painted Desert geography and a rolling building labelled “JAIL” and one character throwing a brick at the other. I like it, but if you’ve read it and don’t like it, I can’t say your tastes are bad. The comic strip is weird, even for 1915-era humor, and the writing exotic and elliptical, the characters just strange. Its most accessible jokes are old minstrel show routines.

The core of the strip is: Krazy loves Ignatz, and takes the bricks he throws at the Kat’s head as a sign of love. Officer Pupp takes the bricks as violent battery of someone he dearly wishes to protect and throws Ignatz in jail when he can. Krazy seems to understand this as Pupp and Ignatz playing. Take that mix, stir in supporting cast and some modernist wryness — at times the characters go through that apparently as all agree that’s what they’re there to do, so why not enjoy the ritual? — and you have something legendary.

It was never a popular comic strip; it survived for the three decades it did largely because the syndicate boss, William Randolph Hearst, was a fan. There’s a curious echo to this in our day: Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead is another practically alien, intruder on the comics page, brought there because William Randolph Hearst III liked it. That’s also a comic strip I like, but that I can’t fault you for finding too obscure and weird and fond of nonsense to actually be enjoyed.

But Krazy Kat was a comic strip in the 1910s, and therefore, it became a cartoon. Actually, it became multiple series of cartoons, which gives us a neat chance to look at how a comic strip that barely makes sense in its original medium could be translated.

The first adaptations were done by the International Film Service, the animation wing of Hearst’s International News Service. They did adaptations of all the King Features Syndicate comics they could think of, although the project collapsed as a result of debts Hearst’s news service ran up during the World War. The cartoons were very short — Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice And Magic says they were limited to a third of a reel in length, to better fit in the newsreel package — and, well, At The Circus here gives something of the flavor.

There’s none of the tension between Krazy and Ignatz that gave the strip (only a couple years old when the cartoon was made, although prototypes to it had been appearing for years in George Herriman’s other comic strips) dramatic flow. The gorgeous Arizona backgrounds that are the most striking element of the original comic strip are absent. For that matter, even the circus in the title isn’t really part of the cartoon. I sympathize with the animators for not knowing what to do with the original comic, given the constraints of time and language — the original comic depends a lot on densely written wordplay — but was this the best they could do?

Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, Buster Keaton in: The Garage


And now, let me close out what’s become an Arbuckle-and-Keaton month of videos with The Garage, the last of their collaborations. This one, from 1920, is set in a small-town gas station-slash-fire station, which I guess will happen in your smaller towns, especially on-screen. From that starting point it’s able naturally to combine jokes about demolishing cars in the process of cleaning them with jokes about things being on fire.

The TCM article on this movie claims that Keaton cited it as his favorite collaboration with Arbuckle. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. The film may be a string of gags loosely bound by some connective plot tissue but they’re good gags, timed well and paced well together.

Buster Keaton, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Al St John Made History


Last week after posting the Arbuckle-Keaton film Coney Island, I got a tweet from Erika Scream, a fan of old movies, Sherlock Holmes, Michael Jackson, and presumably other things.

Scream has put together a four-minute sequence of stunts done by Keaton, Arbuckle, and Al St John, set to Michael Jackson’s “History”, and dedicated it to “the best silent movie actors”. The standard of “best” is a pretty high one, but it’s fair to say Keaton is on pretty much anyone’s short list of best silent movie actors (and absolutely best silent movie comic actors), and Arbuckle is a strong contender.

Scream puts together a case by cutting some of the astounding action scenes. I admit I’m a bit torn on this. The physical stunts of silent comedy-era films is their most obviously appealing feature: they’re amazing and they have that soundness which comes from knowing that, while there may have been padding and the stuff that shatters may have been designed to shatter, it was still the actual actors actually doing this, with a stunning minimum of camera tricks or visual effects. But these jokes were also done as part of a storyline, something with, in the best films, a natural flow and rhythm and a point within the context of the films and a greatest-stunts feature like this naturally loses that. (It also loses the intertitles, and those are often strikingly witty.) On the other hand, it does get to the punch lines without all the setup, which I admit could often take unnecessarily long, given how the language of cinema’s developed and taught people how to watch movies.

Overall, I enjoyed the video, and I’d expect you to as well.

Happy Hooligan: A Trip To The Moon


So, back in the first third of the 20th century, the cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper created a comic strip featuring a hobo named Happy Hooligan. I admit knowing the name mostly because it was one of those archaic references occasionally passed down from my father or old cartoons or the like. (The character’s way too old for my father to have read in the papers, although he did reappear in the short-lived Sam’s Strip by Mort Walker and Jerry Dumas.) Like many comic strips it got adapted into a cartoon, and this A Trip To The Moon is an example of the set. It’s only half a reel, as I make it out, and I think the ending a disappointment, but it’s got that engaging oddness I appreciate silent cartoons for.

I’m not certain who produced the short; the Big Cartoon Database claims it was animated for the International Film Service by Walter Lantz, later of Woody Woodpecker fame, and that seems plausible enough. Don Markstein’s Toonopedia says the various shorts were produced by “at least” three different studios.

Paul Terry cartoons: Dinner Time


It’s hard to make an easier mistake, in writing about history, than to proclaim anything as the first time anything was done. When you look closely at anything interesting or intricate you realize that it becomes difficult to say what, exactly, are the defining traits of the interesting happening, and you realize there’s almost always a prior case that’s at least as strong a candidate for “the first”.

This is why I bring up the Paul Terry Aesop’s Fables-series cartoon Dinner Time, released to theaters in September and October 1928, which comes in comfortably ahead of Steamboat Willie. This is an important point, as Dinner Time is unmistakably a full sound cartoon, and properly, predates the cartoon everyone thinks of as the first. It’s easy to see why Steamboat Willie so overwhelmed Dinner Time; while Dinner Time is mature in some ways — particularly, it’s staged much more as a sound picture, without written-out words or floating music notes or other holdovers of silent cartoons — it’s not as fun a cartoon as Steamboat Willie, and of course Disney would be a somewhat more significant corporate entity than the Fables Pictures, Inc, company proved to be.

It’s recorded in RCA Photophone, one of the four systems of synchronized-sound recording developed in the 1920s, and one that would be used through to the rise of stereo sound recording. It isn’t the first sound cartoon either: even if we limit the discussion to commercially released films, the Fleischer brothers made a series of Song Car-Tunes from 1924 to 1926 using the DeForest Phonofilm recording system, and I don’t doubt the search for “a” first would lead us into a fascinatingly complicated world of early technology.

(The Aesop’s Fables series itself started out as a set of animated stories with morals included, although either the versions I’ve found lost the moral or by this point in the series Terry had given up on the gimmick.)

George Melies: An Up-To-Date Conjuror


I forget how long it’s been since I brought the lovely films of Georges Méliès up here, and it would take whole minutes to check earlier videos and find out. Here, though, I offer his 1899 short, An Up-To-Date Conjurer. It’s a short film, barely a minute long, as the date almost implies. It’s almost plotless, too, another thing you might expect from the date alone (A Trip To The Moon was three years in its future), but that just means the action is all the camera-tricks and sight gags that define this style of silent movie. It’s just a minute of magic tricks, and a fun one at that.

Felix the Cat: Astronomeous


I guess that I’m in a Felix the Cat mood this month, or at least it’s easy once you see one to see others popping up in YouTube. So let me play with that. For today here’s Astronomeous (that last syllable is supposed to suggest the sound a cat makes), from 1928, and it’s an extremely early sound cartoon. That is, the sound is just awful, but, please listen with sympathy: it’s kind of amazing there’s sound at all.

As ever, though, when you mix a silent- or near-silent-era cartoon with the heavens you’re in for a strange, surreal ride. Why shouldn’t the rings of Saturn be host to a bicycle race? Why not have a hammer monster of Mars? Why not punch a shooting star that’s terrorizing the king? Add to this mix some really quite good perspective shots — it’s not all characters moving in straight lines, camera left to camera right — and it’s a pretty sound six minutes, forty seconds.

Farmer Al Falfa: Magic Boots


For today I’d like to continue the Terry Toons theme that’s been going on around these parts with the 1922 short “Magic Boots”. This is another good example of the kind of loose and improvisational style that was so common in cartoons before sound. The action starts with some mice dancing, and turns to a bunch of cats, then cats at sea, then wearer-less boots marching around, and then before you know it things have reached Saturn and the Moon and … well, despite a weak ending that as far as I can tell isn’t set up at all, there’s steadily something interesting and weird going on. Do enjoy, please.

Kiko the Kangaroo: On The Scent; and, what the heck some Georges Melies too


To continue poking the depths of Terrytoons and their not-necessarily-forgotten characters, here’s a curious 1936 entry starring Kiko the Kangaroo, On The Scent. Unfortunately the only video I can find of it is this experiment in converting a projected film to YouTube, so it’s only got the sound of the projector rattling as its audio (I admit that sound gives me a warm nostalgic feel), and I’m pretty sure the film is being run at about half the correct speed, which is just crushing to the pacing. Be sympathetic; you too might someday be a kangaroo taunted by skunks on a blimp gliding to the North Pole.

Still, it’s the only cartoon I’m aware of that’s explicitly set (at the opening) in Lakehurst, New Jersey. This seems like a weirdly specifically unnecessary detail until you remember (or learn) that Lakehurst was where the United States Navy set up its main facilities for handling airships in that roughly fifteen years between deciding that airships were an interesting idea worth exploring and concluding that the problem with airships is they keep crashing in huge, hugely public catastrophes. Doing a blimp cartoon and starting it in Lakehurst would be much like doing a space cartoon and starting the action in Cape Canaveral.

I feel the need to point out that an airship expedition to the North Pole was seriously considered in the 1920s and 1930s. I would imagine that talk of that partly inspired the cartoon, but I don’t know that. The Navy’s airship expedition never got particularly close to being launched, which is probably for the best; I can’t imagine the project not ending in tragedy.

The plot puts me in mind of Georges Méliès’s 1912 The Conquest of the Pole, his last important film before his film studio’s bankruptcy. That’s not so short a film — it’s about a half-hour long — but it’s got much of the charm of going on a fantastic voyage as A Voyage To The Moon combined with a mass of incidental extra parties and nationalist and political jokes current to a century ago. On The Scent is a lesser cartoon, sure, but it does feature the title card “Those cats made a lobster out of me!”, which is just where you expect a cartoon about a kangaroo taking an airship out of Lakehurst to go. Enjoy!

Farmer Al Falfa: Mouse’s Bride


A mouse scares off some cats by beating up his elephant-shaped scooter. A fish demands a drink of water from the annoyed Farmer Al Falfa. An ostrich or maybe a penguin (I guess a duck is plausible enough?) pops out of trap doors and walks through rooms. The Farmer berates his maid, a mouse, to get back to work cleaning. The mice take to courting. It’s all, really, a peculiar bunch of events, even though the storyline always seems to be making sense at the moment. It’s only in the aggregate you wonder, “the heck did I just watch?”

The Farmer Al Falfa series of cartoons — sometimes called “Farmer Gray”, as the YouTube link’s title does — started in 1915 for Paul Terry. Terry and Terrytoons are known for creating Mighty Mouse, and Heckle and Jeckle, and, truth be told, that’s about it. You can find some people who remember Deputy Dawg (which I watched altogether too much of in my youth) and I’ve heard good things about The Mighty Heroes but dunno about them myself. The studio never had the strongest characters or plots or gags, but, they delivered on time, and sometimes hit pretty solidly.

And a grizzly, cantankerous person isn’t a bad start for a cartoon character, and he’d have a fairly long life. Wikipedia notes he was the person being annoyed by Heckle and Jeckle in their first couple cartoons. I didn’t suspect at the time that I was watching a thirty-year-old cartoon star.

Felix the Cat Monkeys with Magic


The title for this Felix the Cat cartoon might set up some disappointment, as it turns out the title card means the verb form of “monkeys”. Ah well. It’s a cartoon that’s got a number of pretty good gags of the kind that 1920s cartoons excelled in, especially in visual tricks and in metamorphoses. It does have a rather dreamlike plot: the sense I get is the creators were trying to think of things where Felix could use a wave of the hand to do something, and if that means the viewer looks down a moment and looks back up and suddenly there’s a bear chasing Felix and then a cow turns into a car, well, that’s just the sort of world Felix lived in.