Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ten Strange & Scandalous Pre-Hays Code Cartoons

The Hays Code was initially created in 1930 and began being enforced four years later. The code was meant to help reduce the amount of violence, sex and other 'anti-social' behavior onscreen. It was adopted due to conservative concerns about film content and controversy surrounding several off-screen scandals involving Hollywood stars.

However, many artists and filmmakers felt heavily restricted by the Code's rules which stated that films could not show such actions as: illegal drug trafficking, onscreen nudity or sex, profanity, 'white slavery', and ridicule of the clergy. Additionally, any crime shown on the screen had to be punished and couples could not be depicted sleeping in the same bed together. (Due to competition from other studios and changing social norms, the Code was eventually replaced by the film rating system we have today in 1968. While certainly not perfect, the MPAA's use of ratings does not rely on censorship, and thus allows more artistic freedom.)

A photo taken by A.L. Schafer that symbolically protests the Hays Code. It depicts several elements banned by the Code.

As a result, filmmaking in Hollywood changed drastically. Theatrical cartoons were not exempt. Despite that old animated shorts are often considered to be 'wholesome' / 'safe for the entire family,' many Pre-Code cartoons contained quite a few bizarre and sometimes unsettling scenes. If you don't believe it, then prepare to be enlightened by the ten shorts below.

10. Hell's Fire (Ub Iwerks, 1934)

Ub Iwerks was one of the most influential animators of his day. He worked for Disney for several years, and co-created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and later Mickey Mouse, who launched the studio to fame. Unfortunately, Iwerks had a falling out with Disney and left the company in 1930. For a few years, he managed to run his own cartoon studio, but lost financial backing in 1936 and eventually returned to Disney in 1940.

The cartoon above was produced when Iwerks had his own studio at MGM. It stars Willie Whooper, a rotund boy who told tall tales about his outlandish adventures. Willie Whooper replaced Iwerk's earlier effort, Flip the Frog. While most of his cartoons are pretty tame compared to others on this list, "Hell's Fire" was actually refused a certificate by the British Censor for the release in the UK in 1934. The cartoon was heavily cut, with many scenes depicting the devil, a drunk, and references to the prohibition censored. (Reissued, censored prints commonly have been renamed "Masquerade Holiday" or "Vulcan Entertains.") The cartoon was originally filmed in Cinecolor, but it is unknown if a full, uncut color print survives. (For some reason Youtube won't let me embed the Cinecolor version, you can watch it here.)

9. Wot a Night (Van Beuren, 1931)

Long before the famous cat and mouse duo where created by Hannah Barbara, two other characters named Tom and Jerry existed. Tom and Jerry's low budget cartoons were undeniably odd. The two bumbling men were heavily based on the comic strip characters, Mutt and Jeff, and seem to have been created in order to replace Van Beuren's earlier duo Waffles the Cat and Don the Dog. Similar to the cartoons of the Fleischer Brothers, Tom and Jerry's series frequently dabbled into the surreal and macabre. The two often found themselves in bizarre situations while working a variety of odd jobs. Other times they just simply stumbled into trouble. In either case, Tom, the taller of the two, was always the less rational of the two and easily scared, whereas Jerry was usually the calmer and more sensible one.

"Wot a Night" was the first cartoon in the Tom and Jerry series and is perhaps the most famous. In this short, Tom and Jerry are taxi drivers who take two strange, identical to a castle during a stormy night. The men vanish without paying. Tom and Jerry are left stranded at the castle full of ghosts and skeletons, only to discover that, by the end of the cartoon, they have skeletal bones under their shirts! Other notable shorts in the series include "A Swiss Trick" (1931), where Tom and Jerry gorge on swiss cheese and become cheese themselves, the racially insensitive "Plane Dumb" (1932) and the horror parody "Magic Mummy"(1933).

8. Monkey Doodle (Les Elton, 1931)

Unlike the other animators mentioned here, Les Elton worked as an independent, experimental cartoonist. After working for years as newspaper illustrator, Elton was hired as an animator at Bray Studios in the 1910s and later worked worked for Universal between 1918-1920. Eventually, Elton managed to produce sound cartoons of his own, Monkey Doodle and, later, The Hobo Hero (1935).

Both cartoons are very strange and remain cult classics among animation enthusiasts, but Monkey Doodle is more well known, perhaps due to its detailed art style and memorable visuals. The plot revolves around Simon the Monk who rides around on his pet/friend dog as he explores around the jungle. Simon and his dog eventually wind up at a party full of other monkeys, but are chased off by a tiger. The short is full of sight gags, such as Simon filling his tired dog with gas in order to get him moving. The sound starts to cut out several times towards the end of the cartoon. It was apparently censored at one point due to a scene involving Simon flirting with a female monkey with exposed breasts.

Unfortunately, little detail is known about Les Elton's life. It is likely that Monkey Doodle and The Hobo Hero where the only cartoons he created. He appears to have retired from animating and cartooning in 1941. However, his step-son, Robert Bentley, went on to work for several major studios including Warner Bros. and Hannah Barbara.

7. The Office Boy (Van Beuren, 1930)

Another weird, awkwardly paced Van Beuren cartoon? Well, it shouldn't be surprising. This one is particularly notorious because it actually prompted a lawsuit! After seeing the cartoon, Walt Disney was disgusted by it due to the two main characters looking exactly like Mickey and Minnie Mouse, except for the fact that they were more crudely drawn. (The Van Beuren mice are apparently named Milton and Mary.)

In "The Office Boy," wannabe Mickey does chores for his boss and keeps unwanted guests out of his office. Mickey, err.. Martin, constantly flirts with the girl mouse typist while the boss plays in his office. Nothing really exciting happens in this cartoon, except towards the end…when Mary and the boss see each other in private, only to be disrupted by his wife. The cartoon must have been mildly successful, because Van Beuren actually managed to make several other cartoons with the plagiarized mice, including "Circus Capers"(1930) and "Hot Tamale" (1930).

6. Woos Whoope (Pat Sullivan, 1930) 

Felix the Cat is one of the oldest cartoon characters in existence. Today's audiences may be more familiar with the cat through merchandizing or his kid friendly 1950s TV cartoon. (The property also made some news recently when Dreamworks purchased it from Don Oriolo.) Unlike their more recent counterparts, the theatrical Felix shorts where aimed at an older audience. The cartoons, as with many of their day, where often politically incorrect and frequently referenced behavior popular in the Roaring Twenties (i.e. the Prohibition, heavy drinking, fraternity pranks). Never the less, the cartoons were extremely popular in their day. Felix's popularity was only eclipsed with the debut of Mickey Mouse in "Steamboat Willie" (1928), due to the series's difficulty with transitioning to sound.

"Woos Whoopee" is one of the few post-silent Felix cartoons that remains will known among animation enthusiasts and to the public. In this short, Felix spends his evening partying and drinking at night club. When he finally leaves to go home, the cat is so drunk that he begins to hallucinate. Buildings begin to dance. A lamp post becomes a dragon and Felix is chased by a menagerie of animals and a police man. All the while, Felix's wife grows increasingly impatient as she waits for him at home. After watching watching this cartoon, you will probably begin to question your sanity.

5. Feline Follies (Pat Sullivan, 1919) 

The very first Felix the Cat cartoon, "Feline Follies" is a bit unusual. Since it is a pilot episode, the characters are quite different looking then their later incarnations. Felix is called "Master Tom" and is a 'regular' house cat, not the bipedal funny animal character he would later become. Felix spends his day keeping mice out his owner's house. He often runs off to flirt with his love interest, Miss Kitty White. This eventually results in Felix ('Tom'?) being kicked out of his home when the mice end up damaging the house when he is away.

While it is not as crazy as the previous cartoon on this list, "Feline Follies" is notable for its dark twist ending. After Felix becomes homeless he returns to Miss Kitty, only to discover she has given birth to a large litter of kittens. Distraught, Felix walks over to a gas pipe and puts it in his mouth. Wow. How exactly was this supposed to be funny again?

4. Alice's Mysterious Mystery (Disney, 1926) 

Disney has long prided itself in its ability to make commercially successful, high quality animation appropriate for all ages. While Disney never made anything quite as 'edgy' as some of the other studios listed here, the company has made some surprisingly dark films in the past. Even their early theatrical cartoons could sometimes be slightly scary, although were usually still fairly comedic (such as  The Skeleton Dance [1929], Hells Bells [1929] and The Mad Doctor [1933]).

"Alice's Mysterious Mystery" is an exception. Although this silent short starts out like other cartoons in Disney's Alice Comedies series, it gets increasingly darker as it progresses. The live-action Alice and her cat pal, Julius (a Felix expy), are investigating the disappearance of the neighborhood's dogs. It turns out that several of the dogs stolen from the school have been taken by Pete the Bear and his mouse lackey, who dress in Ku Klux Klan disguises while carrying out their dirty work. Eventually, Alice and Julius manage to track down Pete's hideout…and discover that Pete has been operating a sausage factory. One of the villains drags a puppy into a death chamber and comes out with a long string of sausages. Of course Alice saves the day in the end, but that doesn't make this cartoon any less shocking.

3. Three Little Kittens (Van Beuren, 1933)

Unlike the other Van Beuren cartoons listed here, this one is surprisingly well animated. (By the early 1930s, somebody at the studio must have realized that they needed to improve in order to compete with the likes of Disney and the Fleisher Brothers.) It is, however, the most deceptive cartoon ever created. It starts out innocently enough. Three adorable little kittens play in a grocery store with their mama. Their mom runs off after being scared by a jug of falling milk. The kittens squeal in delight as they balance on weighing scales and jump on a cash register. They climb on cans and get momentarily stuck in fly paper. The theme of the cartoon cheerfully sings, "Three little kittens. Happy and gay. Meow, meow, meow." It's sugar coated to almost a sickening degree.

This continues for about three and a half minutes. Then one of the kittens spots a tail sticking out of a mouse hole. Mistaking the tail for its toy mouse, the black kitten pulls at it. A huge rat pops out and takes the kitten over to a buzz saw! The kitten's siblings manage to free him just before he is cut in half. All three of the kittens then begin to viscously attack the rat. They throw food and cans at him, using the items they played with earlier. They continue until the rat collapses in exhaustion. But they don't stop then. The kittens strangle him with a noose, drop him on the flypaper and squish him with a boot on screen. And then… the cartoon ends with the kittens dancing to the cute song as though nothing happened!

2. Barnacle Bill the Sailor (Fleischer Bros, 1930)

This list would not be complete without acknowledging the Fleisher Brothers. The New York based studio was everything Disney was not. Disney was 'clean'. The Fleishers were 'dirty'. Disney was interested in realism. The Fleshiers were most at home in abstraction. Both created memorable characters during Hollywood's early years, but they had very different ways of marketing themselves. The Fleisher Bro's most famous creation from the early 1930s was Betty Boop. The ditzy flapper girl actually started out as a dog and was introduced as Bimbo's (the studio's then current star) girlfriend in Dizzy Dishes (1930).

"Barnacle Bill the Sailor" marks Betty' second appearance and she still retains her canine-like appearance. Named after the bawdy song of the same name (warning: lyrics are NSFW), this short is easily one of the most risqué of these early cartoons alongside "The Bum Bandit" and "Dizzy Red Riding Hood" (both 1931). The plot concerns Bimbo (Barnacle Bill) whose ship has just landed at a port. Bimbo ducks his duty and ventures into town. He waits impatiently to be let in Betty's house. Bimbo brags about his toughness and lack of morals while giving Betty the eye. This excites Betty and she lets him in. Bimbo and Betty then close the blinds of their windows. The neighbors outside gossip. Bimbo eventually leaves the tearful Betty, telling her that, "I got me a girl in every port. I court them all, but marry none."  However, he is confronted by his angry captain after he exists Betty's house.

1. Swing You Sinners (Fleischer Bros, 1930)

 Back in the day, long before parents complained about their kid's rap or rock n' roll music, their was concern over the content in jazz music (largely due to the association with it playing in speakeasies and interracial mixing). This was of no concern to the Fleshier Bros. They embraced the musical movement head on, inviting the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong to perform in their cartoons. "Swing You Sinners" was one of their first cartoons to feature a jazz score. It also featured a morbid storyline to boot.

Instead of hanging out with Betty Boop, Bimbo gets in trouble with a policeman for stealing a chicken. Fearing time in prison and the electric chair, Bimbo runs away. He winds up in a spooky, old graveyard and is confronted by a gang of ghosts and demons. They chide him not only for robbing the henhouse, but also for shooting craps and chasing girls. They tell Bimbo, "His time has come." The frightened dog attempts to hide in a barn. However, it is only a matter of time before he is chased to very gates of hell itself…And to think, all this was just for over a chicken!

"Swing You Sinners" has thus gained a lot of recognition (and some notoriety) due to its content. It frequently baffles whoever stumbles across it on the internet and was successful enough to gain the 'honor' of being copied by Van Beuren's "Panicky Pup" (1933). For those who enjoyed this short, I also recommend the similarly strange and jazzy "Mysterious Mose" (1930) and "Bimbo's Initiation" (1931).