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cic2008-02-05.jpgRecently I attended a performance of Frank Conniff and Jerry Beck’s Cartoon Dump stage show, featuring screenings of atrocious cartoons from 1950s and 1960s television, and then watched more of the same sort on the Worst Cartoons Ever! DVD, which Beck hosts (see “Comics in Context” #209: “Down in the Dump”). That set me wondering how I would react to seeing other cartoons from my childhood. As an adult I’ve watched Warner Brothers and Popeye theatrical cartoons. which are available on DVD, and seen Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons on Boomerang. But what about the more obscure cartoons that don’t get shown on television anymore, that I have not seen since I was in grade school? I decided to start hunting them down on YouTube and other Internet video sites.

One of the first that I located was “Master Cylinder, King of the Moon” (1959), an episode of producer Joseph Oriolo’s Felix the Cat cartoon series. Herein Felix and his friend Poindexter, the genius nephew of Felix’s archfoe, the Professor, journey into a jungle environment beneath the surface of the moon, where they first encounter the villainous Master Cylinder. I remembered the Master Cylinder as being a sinister alien robot, which proved not quite true. It turns out that he’s a cyborg: indeed, he’s a former student of the Professor, who accidentally destroyed his body in an explosion, and his brain was transplanted into this cylindrical robot form. That’s rather a ghastly concept to inflict upon child viewers, but the cartoon doesn’t play the revelation for horror. Something else I didn’t remember was that the Master Cylinder is also a rather goofy villain. His eyes appear in what is essentially a thin television screen, and he keeps losing the vertical hold. Moreover, despite all of the Master Cylinder’s blustering threats, he is defeated quite easily, when his robot body is simply unplugged from a nearby electrical outlet while he is busily ranting away.

As you can see, this cartoon is an adventure story with some clever comedy elements. In another example, the Professor, piloting a spaceship to the moon to rescue his nephew, sights an alien hitchhiker in space and puts up a sign reading “No Passengers.”

As for Felix, he speaks in a falsetto voice and seems blandly nice; he’s given to laughing and his trademark line is “Righty-O.” In short, he’s boring, and it’s lucky that the presence of characters like the bad-tempered Professor, the cheerfully brilliant Poindexter, and the monomaniacal Master Cylinder compensate for his lack of personality. Watching this cartoon I realized that this version of Felix is really a watered-down Mickey Mouse with pointy ears.

I was in grade school when I saw Oriolo’s color Felix cartoons, but, before that, among the very first cartoons I recall seeing on television were from the original, silent Felix the Cat series of the 1930s, which are credited to their producer Pat Sullivan but were actually the work of the brilliant early animator Otto Messmer (1892-1983). Since they are now in the public domain, you can find plenty of these cartoons on the Net, and their Felix is far more interesting than the talking late 1950s version: he’s got a mean streak.

Take, for example, Felix Revolts (1923). This early animated cartoon demonstrates that its makers thought of it as an outgrowth of newspaper comic strips: dialogue for Felix and other characters appears on-screen in rectangles that are equivalent to word balloons. Felix looks much more like a real cat in this cartoon, and is frequently shown walking on all fours. Nevertheless, even in this early cartoon, Felix also engages in his characteristic walk, pacing back and forth on his hind legs, his front paws clasped behind his back, wearing a grimly thoughtful expression. After Winsor McCay’s Gertie the Dinosaur, Felix was the first great star of animated cartoons, and like Gertie, he vividly registered personality on-screen.

In this cartoon Felix undergoes a series of humiliations at the hands of humans. First shown foraging for food in a barrel, Felix swipes a fish from a fish market, only to be beaten up by the owner. Later, another man cruelly feeds Felix red hot mustard, causing the cat to spin about like a propeller: he has to drink an entire small pond to relieve the agony. Subsequently, Felix passes by the town hall, where he hears the town officials declare that “Cats are useless” and plan to “starve “ the cats “out of town.” Like later cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Felix has been pushed to the brink and now unleashes comic vengeance on his oppressors.

Felix summons the town’s other cats, a horde mostly consisting of Felix lookalikes and delivers a rabble-rousing speech. “We’ve had a dirty deal long enough!” Felix declares, “So let’s make life miserable for them!”

That night Felix keeps the whole town awake by leading a chorus of felines in coordinated yowling. Yes, it’s another example of the image of the conductor that I’ve found in so many classic animated cartoons, as well as a forebear of later cartoons about noisy cats “singing” at night, like Friz Freleng’s Back Alley Oproar (1948). Felix’s initial move may have been counterproductive though: the angry townspeople shout things like “Kill those cats!”

But Felix is far from finished. Next he takes personal revenge on the fish market owner by using worms as bait to lure the store’s fish, who come back to life (if indeed they were dead) and dive off a pier. Felix laughs triumphantly, but, unlike the laughing of his late 1950s TV counterpart, this is laughter with an edge of aggressiveness.

Finally, holding a white flag of truce, Felix meets with a bunch of mice–or are they rats? “The town is yours,” he tells them, adding, “We’re all on strike.” Yes, this is a cartoon about the importance of unions. (It’s also an inspired variation on the fable of the Pied Piper.) This is the perfect cartoon for sympathizers with the current Writers Guild of America strike.

According to the cartoon, the “ruthless rats run rampant” through town. We see rats chasing a policeman, a visual symbol of the rule of law disintegrating into chaos. So perhaps Messmer is signaling that the cats’ strike is not wholly a good thing.

The strike ultimately forces the town officials to surrender to the cats’ demands. The mayor presents Felix with a document guaranteeing that cats will be treated with “courtesy” and afforded access to kitchens and garbage cans. Amazingly, Felix Revolts concludes with Felix and his fellow cats victoriously raising clenched fists into the air, a traditional signifier of radical politics and revolution.

A few years later, Felix has evolved into the more familiar, round-headed figure walking on his hind legs in Felix Trifles with Time (1925). This cartoon also opens with Felix scrounging for food, this time in a garbage can. This cartoon likewise emphasizes humans’ cruelty to cats: one man throws him off the roof of a building, resulting in an amazing overhead shot of Felix plunging towards the ground, reminiscent of Wile E. Coyote’s later vertiginous falls. Upon landing, Felix, as a typical silent cartoon character, is unharmed, and even temporarily detaches one of his legs to examine it for injury. But he is angry.

This time, rather than attempting to change the system, Felix escapes from it. Felix encounters the allegorical figure of Father Time, an elderly, bearded man carrying a clock, persuades him to send him back to “a better age” for a day, and thus Felix ends up in prehistoric times. In sending Felix into outer space, the Oriolo series was true to the original silent series, which likewise placed Felix in fantastic settings.

But Felix discovers that prehistoric times are far worse than his own period. Felix discovers a gigantic dinosaur bone, the answer to his hunger, only to be chased away by a doglike dinosaur.

Worse, Felix encounters a Stone Age tailor, who beckons to him. Here Messmer gives us a close-up of Felix looking sadly wary and vulnerable. For a long moment Felix is no longer the combative trickster but the pathetic perennial victim of man’s cruelty: no wonder Felix won audiences’ hearts. Felix’s fears prove justified. The tailor strips him of his fur, and his caveman customer walks out in a new black fur coat. You might expect the typical gag of the hairless animal shown wearing underwear. But no, instead Felix, except for his intact head, has become a living skeleton! This is the sort of grotesque gag you are far less likely to see after the silent era, with its characters whose bodies easily come apart and reassemble. Luckily for Felix, the tailor’s customer soon goes skinny-dipping at a nearby beach, and Felix reclaims his fur.

But Felix is still not out of trouble, as he is next menaced by an elephant as colossal as those in the Lord of the Rings movies. Luckily, it is now that Father Time returns Felix to his own time. The cartoon ends with Felix back in the garbage can from the beginning, happily finding a tiny bone to eat. “No more Stone Age for me,” says Felix in a title card; “Give me the garbage.” If Felix Revolts advocated revolutionary change, Felix Trifles with Time takes the opposite position, preaching satisfaction with what you have, even if it amounts to “garbage.”

At the end of the silent movie era comes a little masterpiece for Felix: Comicalamities (1928), an exercise in animated metafiction. Not only is Felix very much aware in this cartoon that he is a cartoon character, but he even participates in the creation of the cartoon.

Comicalamities opens with a live action artist’s hand (or, rather, an animated photograph of one) drawing Felix, just the way that Koko the Clown first appears in the Out of the Inkwell cartoons. Felix acknowledges the audience by bowing to us, but then characteristically gets angry when he realizes that the artist failed to draw his tail, and shouts at him. in response, the artist draws Felix’s tail; in effect, Felix has started “directing” the cartoon he is in. Felix breaks into a happy smile until he notices that the black areas of his body haven’t been filled in with ink. Again Felix angrily calls to the off-screen artist, but this time receives no response. The cat walks off the blank background of this scene into the next scene, set on a city street, where he employs a “bootblack” to color in his fur, as if he were polishing shoes.

Subsequently, Felix encounters a female cat sitting on a park bench, her hands covering her face as she weeps. When she removes her hands, Felix is visibly revolted on seeing how ugly she is. But then he turns sympathetic again, and beckons to the off-screen artist, who hands Felix an eraser. Felix then uses the (photograph of a) real eraser to obliterate the female cat’s face. The artist next hands Felix a (photograph of a) pen, which Felix uses to redraw the girl cat’s face to look considerably prettier. So now Felix has become a cartoonist himself, altering reality within his cartoon world.

Felix then uses a mirror, the traditional symbol of vanity, to show the female cat what she now looks like: this proves to be a mistake. Earlier in the cartoon Felix turned a small fir tree into an umbrella. This is a standard gag in the series by which one object is used as a similar-looking but different one. Similarly, Felix finds an enormous lily and turns it into a dress for the girl cat.

But now she starts making demands: she wants jewelry. Felix goes to the edge of the sea and beckons to the off-screen artist, who creates a line of ink with his on; Felix then climbs down the line into the sea. There he finds an oyster bed, consisting of oysters in actual beds, a gag that will recur in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951). Tickling the “baby” oysters, Felix finds one whose teeth’ are actually pearls and steaks them. Then we see the oysters’ mother, who has a human body but an enormous oyster shell for a head. The detached head goes after Felix, who encounters other sea monsters as well. Felix gestures upward for help, as if beseeching aid from God; in response, the animator pours ink into the ocean, turning it pitch black, and Felix escapes back to land under cover of darkness.

Felix gives the pearls to the female cat, but now she wants a fur coat. So Felix finds himself in the Arctic, where he sights a rather friendly-looking bear, wrestles with him, but gets overpowered. The screen begins doing an “iris out,” with the aperture closing around Felix, as if his defeat marked the end of the cartoon. But Felix hasn’t given up “directing” his own cartoon, and holds onto the closing iris with both hands (like Daffy Duck in a similar situation in Chuck Jones’s 1951 Duck Amuck), shouting (silently) to the cartoonist. The hand of the cartoonist, as if it were the giant hand of God, picks up the bear, who falls out of his fur (but not, thankfully, in skeletal form), and then presents the fur to Felix, who returns to the female cat.

Wrapped in her new fur coat, the female cat snubs her benefactor Felix. Enraged after all the effort he went to, Felix does something I’ve never seen Koko do. As if everything on screen were a single drawing, Felix tears off the part containing the female cat and rips it into shreds! It’s a startlingly misogynistic ending that one would never see in a contemporary cartoon intended for kids. Moreover, although Comicalamities, like the Inkwell shorts, openly acknowledges it is an animated cartoon, this climactic act by Felix shatters the illusion of the on-screen “reality” more shockingly than any other animated film I know. More than any other silent cartoon I’m aware of, Comicalamities dramatizes the paradox of animated films of that period: they invite the audience to suspend disbelief in the reality of the characters on-screen, while simultaneously flaunting the artificiality and unreality of the animation medium.

You see, I told you back in column 200 that I would eventually get around to the silent Felix the Cat cartoons, and I keep my word to my readership!

What other silent cartoon classics could I find on the Internet? Several examples of the work of animation’s–and comics’–first great master, Winsor McCay, are available on YouTube, including the celebrated Gertie the Dinosaur and the animated documentary The Sinking of the Lusitania. I chose to watch one of McCay’s animated versions of his Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend comic strip, Bug Vaudeville (1921). While a rather torpid man sleeps in a lovely wooden glade, he dreams of himself watching and applauding, with youthful enthusiasm, a circus with giant insects as performers; there are bug acrobats, bugs who engage in a boxing match, and even a butterfly standing atop a giant beetle, like a bareback rider on a circus horse. We see the dreamer in silhouette, sitting in a row of seats in the foreground, as if he were seated in front of us in a vaudeville–or movie–theater. The final act on the “bug vaudeville” bill is an immense spider, who, instead on remaining on-stage, swings out over the seats and attacking the dreamer, who, of course, wakes up.

Have any of you attended a circus or live theater of some sort in which one of the performers comes down into the audience to inveigle someone to become part of the performance. If you don’t want to be picked, this can be scary. Bug Vaudeville builds upon that sort of fear. What if the wonders–and horrors–that we safely watch on the movie screen came down from the screen?

I wrote about a number of early examples of Max and Dave Fleischer’s silent Out of the Inkwell series, starring Koko the Clown, when I reviewed Warner Home Video’s Popeye Vol. 1 DVD set last year (see “Comics in Context” #190: “Pop Eye-Con”). My favorite cartoon in this series, though, is one of the last, Koko’s Earth Control (1928), starring “The Inkwell Imps,” Koko and a dog named Fitz.

According to the usual Inkwell formula, the cartoon begins with Max Fleischer (in live action) drawing Koko, who comes to animated life. Max and Koko interact, with Max acting as a dictatorial father/superego figure and Koko as a rebellious child–or the id incarnate.

Although Koko’s Earth Control begins with a live action artist’s hand (or, rather, an animated photo thereof) drawing Koko and Fitz, Max never appears on-screen. Perhaps that’s because he’s not needed. In this cartoon Fitz becomes the embodiment of id, while Koko attempts, unsuccessfully, to restrain Fitz’s rebellious impulses.

At the start of the cartoon, the animator’s hand draws Koko, in his clown outfit, and Fitz wearily trudging along the rim of a rotating Earth. If Samuel Beckett had done animated cartoons, maybe this is what he’d draw.

But the emptiness of Koko and Fitz’s existence ends when they come across the “Earth Control” building. Koko experiments with levers that control the weather or turn day into night. Meanwhile Fitz discovers a lever with a sign warning forbidding anyone to touch it, since pulling this lever will bring about the end of the world. But Fitz represents the side of ourselves that rebels against authority, that wants to do what we are forbidden to do, exactly because it is forbidden, no matter what the consequences. This lever is like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, and Fitz needs no serpent to urge him on. Despite heroic efforts, Koko cannot stop Fitz from pulling the forbidden lever.

As I have written before in this column, there is a large body of works, in comics and other media, that deals with the end of the world. Koko’s Earth Control is one of the relatively few tales of the apocalypse that is a comedy.

First the animated world around Koko and Fitz is thrown into chaos. These are literally unnatural disasters: the cartoon is making the point that the rules of reality have been overturned. Inanimate things come to life: Koko sees an erupting volcano that, before his horrified eyes, transforms into the gigantic face of a man puffing on a cigar.

Whereas in the typical Inkwell cartoon, Koko escapes into the real world to pull pranks, this time the worldwide chaos in the animated world spreads into the real one. In a shot I’ve always found amusing, two men on a sidewalk desperately hold onto each other as the ground beneath them tilts in one direction and then the other. What’s clearly actually happening is that the camera is being tilted, and I wonder if the Fleischers expected the audience to realize that, and thus were giving an ironic wink to their viewers. More startling is a shot in which Koko watches out the window as New York City skyscrapers (or cut-out photos thereof) collapse against each other.

At the end of the short, Koko and Fitz try to keep their balance on a real world table as it rocks back and forth, and finally collapse into immobile pools of ink. It’s as if they had died: ashes to ashes, and ink to ink. Maybe Beckett would have liked this ending, too.

Returning to my search for cartoons that have stick in my head since boyhood, I located Tulips Shall Grow (1942), part of George Pal’s series of Puppetoons, stop-motion animated films that employ wooden puppets. This short is set in Holland, and the lead puppet characters are the cutely named Jan and his girlfriend Janette. They both traditional native Dutch costumes, complete with wooden shoes, and perform a charming clog dance together. To complete the charming stereotypical image, Janette lives in a windmill, and there are tulips everywhere. As a small boy I thought, yes, this must be what life in the Netherlands is like.

But it wasn’t Jan and Janette I remembered from this short; it was the Screwball Army, an implacably advancing legion of literal screwballs–metal balls with screws for heads. They had a threatening, robotic way of marching, and Pal made clear to his 1940s audience what they were doing: he shoes us one of the marching Screwballs and then shows a goose waddling right behind it. Yes, the Screwballs represent a goose-stepping Nazi army, invading the Netherlands, just as the actual Germans did. But as a child I didn’t make the connection, and probably didn’t even know about the Nazis when I first saw Tulips Shall Grow. Instead I regarded the screwballs as if they were the Terminators of their day. Today, watching the short again, the Screwballs seem absurd and ominous in equal measure. When I was a child, they weren’t funny at all, but truly alarming.

I didn’t recall that the Screwballs weren’t alone; there were also enemy planes that resemble birds of prey, which drop bombs, and tanks, one of which smashes through Janette’s windmill. The tulip fields are devastated and, once the windmill is wrecked, Jan searches for Janette in vain. To my astonishment, Pal makes it seem as if she perished in the onslaught.

Next comes an even greater surprise. Pal shows the mournful Jan kneeling in prayer. Then a massive storm erupts overhead. it is as if God Himself is responding to Jan’s prayer and wreaking an Old Testament style of vengeance upon the evildoers. Lightning strikes down the warplanes. Torrential rains cause the mechanical Screwballs to rust, incapacitating them. Then comes an image I still remember after decades: one of the tanks, bearing the Screwball army flag, slowly sinks into the mud–and oblivion.

With the invading forces defeated, sunshine returns, and Jan finds Janette back at the windmill, which miraculously reconstructs itself before their eyes. They reprise their clog dance off towards the horizon, as row upon row of tulips sprouts up behind them. It’s as if the love between the hero and heroine restored fertility to the devastated land of Holland, and as if the rain that brought destruction to the Screwballs brought new life to the countryside. I may no longer find the Screwballs scary, but I appreciate Tulips Shall Grow more now than I did as a boy.

I decided to see just how good a tool the Internet is at locating obscure cartoons from my childhood. There is one that particularly haunted me in my early grade school days. I didn’t know its name, but it was about a mad musician who stole a dinosaur skeleton and kept shouting a rhymed couplet that I still remember in middle age: “The best bones of all/Go to Symphony Hall!” whereupon he launched into long, insane laughter.

One thing that the Internet quickly teaches you is that you are not alone. Googling, i discovered that others vividly recalled that cartoon’s catchphrase, although they, too, did not necessarily know its name. But finally I tracked it down, and its title proved to be as inexplicably absurd as its plot: The Case of the Screaming Bishop, released by Columbia Pictures in 1944.

What the hell could this title mean? My further research suggests that the title The Case of the Screaming Bishop parodies that of one of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, which Warners turned into a movie in 1937. However, there is no bishop, screaming or otherwise, in this cartoon, though everything else but the kitchen sink seems to be.

Watching the cartoon again after so long, I can understand why it seemed so strange to me as a child, not frightening but fascinatingly bizarre and disconcerting. Instead if the bright palette of most animated cartoons of this period, Screaming Bishop is literally dark, taking place almost entirely at night, mostly in nearly deserted streets or in rooms nearly empty of people.

Soon after the start of the cartoon, the villain appears crying “I did it!” and uttering that boast for the first time, “The best bones of all/Go to Symphony Hall” and laughing hysterically. What does he mean? “Bones” certainly sounds macabre. And who is this? His physical appearance, with a mane of hair like Bozo’s and grotesquely comic features, is at once clownlike and sinister. I first saw this cartoon years before I first learned about Batman’s foe, the Joker, but Bishop’s bad guy seems like his distant relative.

Moreover, this cartoon turns out to be a spoof on Sherlock Holmes, whose counterpart in Bishop is named Hairlock Combs. If I heard correctly, the detective’s sidekick, who acts and sounds like Nigel Bruce’s classic portrayal of Dr. Watson, is named Gotsome. (You can see them at here) When I saw this cartoon repeatedly as a child, it was years before I first knew about Holmes. Since I was unaware of the foundation for these caricatures of Holmes and Watson, their behavior must have seemed all the stranger to me.

When Gotsome arrives at Combs’s Baker Street home to tell him about the theft of the dinosaur skeleton, he finds the flat seemingly deserted, and yet he hears Combs’s voice. Finally, Combs’ head emerges from a lamp (presumably parodying Holmes’s mastery of disguise). Combs warns Gotsome that they are being watched, and the “camera” searches Combs’ darkened flat, showing all manner of things with staring eyes: a stuffed bird, a fish mounted on a wall, a Chinese lion statue, a bear rug, a moose head. Finally, there is a portrait of a man from a previous century, and as we watch, the mad villain knocks him out and usurps his place.

Later, Combs answers his front door and the villain is there and hands Combs a telegram reading, of course, “The best bones of all/Go to Symphony Hall.” The villain then literally fades away into nothingness. Combs looks for him and we see a huge target on his back. Arms reach out from behind a wall, holding a bow, and fire an arrow. Gotsome cries out a warning, we see the arrow hit the target, and then see Combs standing to one side, admiring the shot. Now imagine that you are a second grader trying to make sense out of this. One deduction you might reach is that in the world of this cartoon, potential death and madness lurk everywhere.

Disguised as a pantomime horse, Combs and Gotsome visit the scene of the crime, the Museum of Unnatural History. (I’ve been to London’s real Natural History Museum, and the exterior in this cartoon bears no resemblance to the real thing, but the old-fashioned exhibit cases shown within are dead on.) There Combs and Gotsome (removing their disguise) decide to reconstruct the crime by building a imitation dinosaur skeleton, at full scale, out of a pile of scraps of wood. (The real skeleton resembles the Diplodocus skeleton in the entrance hall of London’s real Natural History Museum, but this may be mere coincidence.) Somehow lifting the enormous fake skeleton, they rush with it towards the door, which is way too small, and the skeleton smashes into bits with a sound like that of a bowling ball hitting tenpins. Somehow Combs and Gotsome do not find this discouraging, hurriedly rebuild the fake dinosaur, and try to take it out through a window, which is even smaller. The bowling ball sounds again. Gleeful in his obsessiveness, Combs has them rebuild the fake dinosaur again, and this time proves to be the charm. He still hasn’t figured out how the villain got the real dinosaur skeleton out of the museum. but he has discovered that, when struck, the “bones” of the fake skeleton sound like the keys of a xylophone (which he pronounces “sillyphone”). Eureka!

And so the scene shifts to a concert at London’s “Symphony Hall” (which probably should be the Royal Albert Hall, but never mind) where we find the villain, identified as Professor Streptokowsky (a combination of Leopold Stokowski and a strep throat?) onstage playing “the world’s largest xylophone”–the real dinosaur skeleton. Combs and Gotsome rush in with a bobby, who puts Streptokowsky under arrest.

Back at Baker Street, Gotsome asks Combs how he solved the mystery. “Elementary, my dear Gotsome,” Combs replies, removing his mask to reveal the face of Streptokowsky’s face who reiterates, “The best bones of all/Go to Symphony Hall!” That’s the end, which never failed to leave my grade school self in a state of befuddlement. It’s as if law and logic have been supplanted by absurdity, anarchy, and–since the villain is a musician–art.

This is still the strangest theatrical cartoon from the Hollywood studio era that I’ve ever seen. Even the most surreal Tex Avery and Bob Clampett cartoons follow their own sort of logic. But now, as in my childhood, I admire this cartoon’s sheer imaginativeness and its absolute commitment to the idea that anything goes, as long as it’s funny. It is a monument to utter comedic absurdity.

But, as Daffy Duck asks at the end of Duck Amuck, who is responsible for this? Screaming Bishop was written by John McLeish, who also, it seems, performed the voice of Combs, and was directed by Howard Swift, about whom I knew nothing–until I took my Google search still further.

It turns out that Howard Swift directed another cartoon that I saw over and over again in my early grade school years: Kickapoo Juice (1944), from Columbia’s short-lived attempt to adapt Al Capp’s Li’l Abner comic strip into animation. Abner and his leading lady Daisy Mae only appear briefly in a framing sequence for this cartoon. Its real stars are Abner’s mother, the feisty Mammy Yokum, and two of the strip’s supporting characters: the ironically named Hairless Joe, a shaggy hillbilly, and Lonesome Polecat, a politically incorrect caricature of a Native American, who specialize in brewing their literally explosive “Kickapoo Joy Juice.” Here is further evidence that Hollywood theatrical cartoons were aimed at adults as well as children. Not only is this cartoon center on alcohol, but Hairless Joe and Lonesome Polecat spend a good part of it sampling their own wares. Believing that they’re setting a bad example to Abner, the apparently super-strong Mammy attempts to steal the colossal vat of Kickapoo Juice. This leads to sequences with either Mammy or HJ and LP running back and forth, carrying the enormous vat. Yep, it’s just like Combs and Gotsome carrying their wooden dinosaur skeleton mock-up. The animation auteurists among us here can find a gag that serves as Swift’s directorial signature.

Kickapoo Juice has the same propulsive energy as Screaming Bishop, but it doesn’t plunge into utter, reality-shattering nonsense the way that Bishop does.

To me the most remarkable thing about Kickapoo Juice is its subject. Most of the audience for its original theatrical run may have been adults. But when Kickapoo Juice was part of a package of Columbia animated shorts sold to television, its new audience was small children like myself. And this is a cartoon that memorably shows two of its lead characters joyously getting drunk! Recently a DVD collection of early Sesame Street episodes was designated for adults only, because some of its humor is no longer considered fit for children: for example, allegedly, the Cookie Monster’s obsession with cookies is now regarded as an inducement to childhood obesity. Is it even imaginable that Nickelodeon or PBS or Cartoon Network (before 11 PM) would run a cartoon about two backwoods brewmasters getting bombed?

And yet I survived seeing Kickapoo Juice over and over in my early grade school years, though, of course, back then I probably had no idea what alcohol was. Next week I’ll look at still more cartoons from my early memories.

-Copyright 2008 Peter Sanderson


One Response to “Comics in Context #212: Finally Felix”

  1. Scott Says:

    Believe it or not: many of the same thoughts have crossed my mind regarding the Puppetoons. It seems like they were re-issued(?) under the name “Madcap Models” when I saw them on TV in the ’50’s. Tubby the Tuba? Little Jim Dandy? John Henry and the something. Two Seuss: 500 hats and Mulberry St. One w. a miniature ginger-bread house/barometer, w. a girl who can only come out when it’s “Fair” and a guy only when “Foul”. I remembered the “Tulips” one, though not the title. I remember, or thought I remembered, another Puppetoon with the Nazi-esque Screwball Army, but in this one, they are defeated by a statue of a famous composer that comes to life - couldn’t have told you who. So, inspired by my luck with so quickly finding your website, I googled “Screwball Army” and almost instantly found the title that matched my memory: “Bravo, Mr. Strauss”.
    What started all of tis for me: “The best bones of all go to Symphony Hall!” It’s crossed my mind at times, too. I saw that cartoon so many times that, much like you, I imagine, many of the basic moments are burned in my memory. How gratifying to find your thoughts on this… If I told anyone else they would think I was crazy. And then to see it again on YouTube!!!!!
    BUT: I also dimly recall other “Phantasy” cartoons from Columbia: Scrappy and Krazy Kat (oddly, not the one with Ignatz). I can still hum their intro themes. Willoughby Wren? But I also too dimly remember other surreal Phantasy cartoons. Wish I could see them again, too.
    One more ear (eye?)-bender: Warner Bros. ’40’s cartoon: Bugs Bunny pops up out of the ground in the Black Forest; Hermann Goering in lederhosen, blunderbus hunting “Rabbitte!” mit dachshund = Elmer Fudd. Obligatory chase includes Ur-Bugs/Brunhilde moment later used in “What’s Opera, Doc?”. But I’ve been mildly obsessed with the punch-line of this cartoon, where both Hitler and Goering yell “Himmel!” with fright and exit after looking in the catch bag for Bugs and finding him dressed as Stalin, in uniform, with a big pipe. Stalin/Bugs line is something about “short tobacco”… What the hell? I guess it was topical, for adults, but when I’ve run it (admittedly can’t remember the actual line) by people who were adults during World War II, they draw a blank. Any thoughts?

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