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The Sound of Custard: Shorts, Travelogues, and Animated Cartoons - Short Subjects, Travelogues and Exploitation Films, Animation, SCENE #2, SCENE #3


Atenet of the “evening’s entertainment” concept of the movies was that the program had to be varied and diverting. Short subjects acted as a buffer, a curtain-raiser to prepare the audience for the feature that followed. Another important function of the one- or two-reel productions of the classic period was to ensure that the program as a whole would appeal to an audience diversified by age, gender, education, and general interest. Some viewers would like sports more than fashion shows, some would prefer travelogues to cartoons. Sound added to the novelty value of shorts, opened up a new world of verbal comedy, and provided filmmakers with a laboratory in which the new technology could be tested and fine-tuned.

Short Subjects

Vitaphone maintained the substantial lead it had established for its sound shorts by increasing the frequency of releases to four pictures a week in 1928. The schedule was divided into three categories. The Vitaphone Presentations, which included musical numbers of the sort found on the first Vitaphone programs, were heavy on opera, jazz, and comedy monologues. As the series name implies, these continued the virtual Broadway tradition and substituted for presentation acts. Vitaphone aggressively signed performers from the legitimate stage. Robert Ober, Irene Rich, Charles Ruggles, Daphne Pollard, Winnie Lightner, Jack Benny, Jay C. Flippen, and Karyl Norman (“The Creole Fashion Plate,” a female impersonator appearing at the Palace) were listed as the top attractions of 1928. 1

The Vitaphone Playlets were all-talking adaptations of theatrical pieces and original comedies. Generally, they were two reels long (about twenty minutes). Subjects ranged from “heavy melodrama” (for example, THE BEAST 1928) to “a fair amount of comedy” (THE NIGHT COURT 1928). 2 Vitaphone Varieties included assorted novelty series and were produced on both coasts. An advertisement emphasizes the different appeals: one promises virtual Broadway, the other the voices of Hollywood stars:

Let the diplomats parley, let the pacifists rave, but the most furious war in history wages on right under their collective nose. It’s a bloodless battle, of course, but Broadway versus Hollywood is the cinema Battle of the Century.

Vitaphone Varieties, the entertaining short subjects, offer a field of honor for the struggle. Two studios, one in Hollywood and one in Brooklyn produce the Varieties. On the Western front, we find screen favorites in the casts, while the Brooklyn studio garners the cream of Broadway “names.”

The movie veterans laugh as they talk of “screen personality” and “screen technique.” The stage folk offer “stage presence” and “speaking voice” in rebuttal. (Reproduced in Vitaphone News 2, no. 11 [Winter 1993-1994]: p. 8)

Several of these forays into “screen technique” provided an opportunity to test methods and subjects not explored in features. All-talking shorts had been tried out in late December 1927, with the one-reel MY WIFE’S GONE AWAY and the two-reel SOLOMON’S CHILDREN . Bryan Foy’s Flatbush unit seemed to encourage formal innovation. An unusual treatment of the sound track occurs in OVERTONES (1928), reviewed by Photoplay: “It’s one thing to listen in on two middle-aged women, each jealous of the other, having a tea fight. But it’s quite another to hear their respective inner-selves snarling at each other while honeyed words flow on the surface.” The critic found the   effect of the offscreen interior monologue voices confusing, demanding to know “just what IS the Vitaphone aiming at, anyway.” 3 Among 1929 experiments was HIGH WATERS , which played with the abstract notion of audiovisual counterpoint as it intercut shots of the singer Guy Robertson with footage of the recent Mississippi flood. Some of these films were nonsensical. TINY TOWN REVUE (1929) was “an aggregation of midgets who do several snappy jazz numbers.” For some reason, Film Daily thought that “women, in particular, will go for this.” 4 For many New York actors, these playlets were recognition of a job well done onstage. Spencer Tracy, fresh from a stint as a gangster in The Last Mile , appeared in THE HARD GUY (1930). For him and a few others, the one-reel drama was a stepping-stone to a film career. In CRIMES SQUARE (1931), Lil (Mary Doran) asks Marty (Pat O’Brien), “You’re comin’ back to me or you’re gonna finish that stretch you walked out on?” Her “urban” voice goes with her floozy character, consistent with the trend in feature films (like MIN AND BILL ). A cut in the middle of this sentence bridges a match-action cut from long- to medium-shot.

Among the most successful productions were the short comedies by Mr. and Mrs. Jack Norworth. The first release was THE NAGGER (1929), “a bedtime scene between a suspicious wife, who is obsessed with curiosity about ‘that other woman,’ and a fibbing husband who is trying to grab off some sleep. The Norworths, past masters of the variety stage in this sort of comedy, put it over with a wallop. Laughs follow each other with practically no letup.” Gregory Ratoff was another favorite. In FOR SALE (1930) he demonstrated his popular shtick, a telephone monologue in which he impersonated a tenacious salesman with his humorous Yiddish accent. George Bums and Gracie Allen recreated their vaudeville routine in the short LAMBCHOPS . After their dialogue, which is spiced with many asides to the camera, they end with a song and pretend to have run out of material.

G EORGE:      That’s funny—We’re supposed to be off the screen. What’ll we do?

G RACIE:      I know a little story—I made it up.

G EORGE:      Well that’ll get us off—maybe never on again. (He asks her to whisper the story to him. She looks at the camera, says, "Pardon me, " and whispers.)

G EORGE:      That’s the story?

G RACIE:      Yeah.

G EORGE:      Well, we finally got off—Now get outa here. (They exit .)

Such films disseminated New York performances (with their distinctive mannerisms and accents) around the country.

The original Vitaphone concept remained intact. Instead of packaging shorts with Warner Bros. features, the company was building a library of varied subjects which exhibitors could rent individually to play with any program, much as they previously had done with live acts. 6 Thus, during the period of increasing uniformity of filmed entertainment, the shorts on the program were almost the last bastion of the independent owners effort to individualize his program. Not only did Vitaphone take an early commanding lead in this market, they became the artistic model for all short film production, inspiring other companies to set up shop in New York in order to tap the rich talent of Broadway, radio, and the record industry.

The Fox Movietone Entertainments are a good example. They were being turned out in New York at irregular intervals until January 1928, when they went into national distribution. These one- and two-reelers were designed specifically to compete with the Vitaphone shorts, offering “vaudeville, band concert, and operatic presentations.” The first number included material which had played at the Roxy for almost a year: Raquel Meller, Ben Bemie and his orchestra, and Chic Sale. Future releases were to be condensed screen versions of musical comedies. 7 Notable among the new numbers were the shorts filmed by Ruby Keeler and Robert Benchley. RUBY KEELER (1928) reproduced the nineteen-year-old dancer’s tap-dance routine from her vaudeville act, “a short, but good peppy number.” (In September 1928, she would marry Al Jolson.) THE TREASURER’S REPORT (1928) was Benchley’s monologue as a nervous stuttering church treasurer. His stand-up lecture on the SEX LIFE OF THE POLYP (1928) kept “loud guffaws of laughter coming from all over the theater.” The biggest hit among audiences, however, was AT THE BALL GAME (1928), a vaudeville skit by Joe Cook. “It kept the audience in a constant spasm of laughter…. It’s a natural for Movietone purposes, and Joe’s voice gets across distinctly.” THE HAPPINESS BOYS (1928) featured the popular radio group performing its theme song and other numbers. Fox also produced some serious shorts to compete with the Playlets. THE LASH (1928) was a well-received melodrama with Hal Crane, William Davidson, and Richard Tucker. The scene shows the police interrogating a son, who confesses to killing his abusive father to save his mother. “It carries a great punch, and should go well where they like their drama good and heavy,” Film Daily predicted. 10 On the other hand, the reviewer did not like THE DEATH SHIP (1928). “As a sample of how poor a talking subject can be, here it is. Look no further. It’s one of those things that makes the worst sample of the silent screen look like a good picture in comparison.” He thought that Mitchell Lewis (“his voice was never meant to be heard under the guise of an entertainment feature”) and Jason Robards were “all pretty hopeless in this speakey.” It was “directed, staged and acted as they do it out in the backwoods with the local dramatic league.”

MGM rivaled Warners as a supplier of shorts, but rather than investing in extensive in-house productions, the studio distributed films by independent producers. The Broadway musical and radio impresarios Gus Edwards and Major Bowes signed in October 1928. Hal Roach was the most important independent producer of shorts at MGM. He heralded the renovation of his studio for sound by announcing, “The custard pie of two-reel films has been celebrated in song and story, but no one off the lot has yet been permitted to enjoy the thrill caused by sound of the impact of such a piece of pastry with a convenient physiognomy.” At first Roach’s “Our Gang” shorts were released with music tracks only, for instance, THE SPANKING AGE (1928). Like many producers, Roach embraced music and effects but had initial doubts about dialogue. Talking, he felt, slowed the action, which retarded the number of gags, which meant fewer laughs. “Every comedy we ship is clicked for sixty laughs,” he assured his public. “Otherwise we don’t ship.” SMALL TALK (1929), the first “Our Gang” all-talkie, was a three-reel hit. “To hear Wheezer and Mary Ann Jackson talk is cunning beyond words,” Film Daily gushed. Soon Laurel and Hardy led Roach’s repertory in convincing audiences that their idiosyncratic vocal humor was every bit as funny as their physical slapstick had been. Charles Barr, writing about THE PERFECT DAY (1929), observed, “It shows them adjusting easily: in a positive way, using sound effects and dialogue wittily; in a negative way, not being inhibited by it. One needs to make no sharp separation between their silent and sound shorts.”

W. C. Fields, while appearing in Ballyhoo , an Oscar Hammerstein II musical, stopped by the Radio-Victor Gramercy Studios to make his first talking short, THE GOLF   SPECIALIST (1930). Again, sound was shown to be an asset to those comedians who had practiced verbal humor. Fields’s distinctive voice established his enduring character, and the timing of his gags was perfect. The trades loved it: “A Knockout … Despite the length of the picture [twenty-four minutes], it maintains such a consistently amusing tempo that no audience is likely to tire of it, unless it’s from too much laughing.”

Paramount, like Warners and Fox, used the short-subject format to test new film forms.THE SONG OF THE BUILDER (1928) was an unusual “experimental” short film, described as a “noise symphony.” “As the words of [Edgar Guest’s] poem are thrown on the screen, they are heard audibly from the disc record. The construction sounds familiar in skyscraper work are heard distinctly and realistically.”

Mack Sennett (releasing through Pathé, then through Educational Pictures) signed with RCA Photophone in August 1928 and built his own soundstage. Sennett’s first all-talkie, THE LION’S ROAR , was released on 27 November, the first in Edueational’s lineup of sound shorts. It contained a variety of sounds: “instrumental, vocal, and in animal noises the range jumps from a bird’s chirp to a lion’s roar.”

Short subjects gave a tremendous boost to independent producers. The indies stood to benefit from exhibitors’ desire to cut presentation and orchestra overhead while offering their customers a well-rounded package. In fact, several small studios outpaced the majors with their conversion to sound. Educational Pictures Exchange, the leading producer of shorts and novelties, signed an exclusive contract with Vocafilm in January 1928. This sound-on-disc system imitated Vitaphone’s presentation format and promised to bring name acts to small theaters everywhere. 20 E. W. Hammons, president of Educational, observed that “one needs see a comedy properly synchronized with sound but once to realize what a startling increase in audience appeal is accomplished when voices and sound effects are added to the antics of the comedy stars.” Appropriately, its slogan was “The Spice of the Program.” Vocafilm was a failure acoustically, and Educational soon switched to RCA Photophone.

In late June 1928, Christie Studios (releasing through Paramount) committed to synchronization with ERPI. Tiffany-Stahl contracted with RCA in July to post-synchronize color shorts in the Tiffany-Tone series. The independent producer Ethelyn Gibson claimed to have made the first sound serial, FIVE CARDS (1928). For the small companies, start-up cost was minimal for capital expense and employee training. Laboratories would advance loans in anticipation of later work orders. Having smaller management bureaucracies, many of the indies were capable of acting more swiftly than large companies. And perhaps because they tended to deal directly with states’ rights distributors and independent exhibitors, they were a bit closer to the pulse of the public. Consequently, the silent short subject disappeared much faster than the silent feature. By 1929 talking shorts were going over like a “house afire.”

One way in which the short subject differentiated itself from the feature was by adopting a satirical tone toward the main part of the program. Numerous parodies of Hollywood hits appeared. Perhaps the most indicative series was the Dogville Comedies, directed by Zion Myers and Jules White and distributed by MGM in 1929-1931. 24 Their HOT DOG , a one-reel nightclub story, had a cast of fifty dogs. “Language is placed in the mouths of these animals that is perfectly suited to their every action.” THE DOGWAY MELODY was a send-up of MGM’s hit musical and contains a hilarious rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain” performed by harmonizing and dancing pooches.

Travelogues and Exploitation Films

In the public commentary about the films of the late twenties, the theme of transporting the subject into the viewer’s geographical space (as though beamed by radio) is a consistent motif. Sound contributed to this illusion of facilitating an uncanny presence. The travel film, part ethnographic documentary, part titillating attraction, had been an important component of cinema since its beginning. Producers quickly adapted it to take advantage of sound’s transportive function.

Commentators and reviewers invariably mentioned the enhanced impression of imaginary presence and “realism” that sound afforded. The overt purpose of these films was to capture the ambience of exotic lands, and sound helped complete the illusion. These films traditionally were shorts, but the episodes could be strung together to create feature-length releases. The travel film still had vestigial ties to the lecturer format. Sometimes the sound track of music and effects would supplement a live lecture, but quickly its recorded narration incorporated the live speakers function. Martin Johnson and his wife Osa Johnson had been outfitting cinematographic explorations since the teens and had toured with movies that combined education with exploitation. Their safari film SIMBA , THE KING OF THE BEASTS; A SAGA OF THE AFRICAN VELDT debuted on Broadway in January 1928 to great acclaim. A union musician played ordinary phonograph records backstage. This system was later christened Dulcetone and traveled with the film on its road-show tour of 150 cities before opening nationally on Christmas Day 1928. The action purported to show the Lumbwa tribes defenses against a marauding pride of lions, but there were shots of various African beasts interspersed, as well as scenes of the Johnsons at work (he cranking the camera, she poised with a protective shotgun). There were also two shorts on the program, one a compilation drawn from the Johnsons’ films of the previous fifteen years, the other a “Movielustration” described as “an animated song reel, synchronizing singing of the special song dedicated to the picture.” The film and shorts were edited by Terry Ramsaye. A CROSS THE WORLD WITH MR. AND MRS . MARTIN JOHNSON (1930) had a music-synchronized track. A talking prologue showed Osa Johnson entertaining guests in her parlor. The upper-class setting is a foil to the “ferocious-looking head-hunters in the South Seas.”

AFRICA SPEAKS (1930), photographed by Paul Hoefler and recorded by Walter Futter, was originally entitled UBANGI . It preserved the old-fashioned separation of the sound from the picture by advertising itself as “an exciting feature … accompanied by a Movietone lecture.” Hoefler claimed that all the animal sounds were authentic, recorded on his own homemade equipment in the jungle, but it does not take a close listening to ascertain that the sound is all post-dubbed. Unlike the Johnsons’ work, which has some anthropological interest, this film is fully in the exploitation mode. The hunters come upon some lions and send a bearer for rifles. “Before the dusky individual can get to the weapons one of the lions pounces on him and it is explained … that it was then too late to help the native.” There are many shots of naked Africans. The Pygmies are romanticized as people of the forest and “not related to the Negro.” Film Daily thought there was box-office appeal in the filmed safari: “As they pursue their route they meet up with strange-appearing tribes, including pygmies and duck-billed women who are distinctly a femme novelty.”


During the sound rush of 1928, there was a four-way race between Amedée J. Van Beuren, Walt Disney, Charles Mintz, and the Fleischer Studio to get the first synchronized cartoons on the screen.

When Joseph Kennedy reorganized KAO in May 1928, he spun off the unit that produced the “Aesop’s Fables” cartoon series, directed by Paul Terry. It was purchased by Van Beuren, who announced on 18 August in Moving Picture World that all his cartoons would be available with RCA Photophone sound. Paul Terry’s DINNER TIME (1928), which had been completed as a silent, was the first one. Despite cartoonist Terry’s avowed lack of interest in sound, the Van Beuren “Fables” were popular. The reason is suggested in a review of STAGE STRUCK (1928), with Farmer Al Falfa: “The sound effects are good comedy effects, and make the popular cartoon subject more entertaining than ever. Here is one place sound belongs without any arguments. No matter how poor the effects may be, the kids will always interpret it as part of the comedy and kidding.” In other words, because the audience was assumed to be uncritical children, quality was unimportant.

On 19 August, Film Daily reported that George Winkler had arrived in New York to confer with his brother-in-law and business partner Charles B. Mintz about a series of sound cartoons using a new character. “By golly, even cartoons are going to talk,” commented Kann. “Wonder what a cartoon voice will sound like?” Mintz was operating an animation studio in New York producing “Oswald the Rabbit” for Universal, a silent series created by Walt Disney the year before. Recently Mintz had hired the originators staff and squeezed Disney out of the operation.

Reading this front-page announcement, Disney probably felt that Mintz was once again about to preempt his new plan, a sound cartoon series starring a new character named Mickey Mouse. He arrived in New York two weeks later and met with the Film Daily publisher, Jack Alicoate, to find out about recording studios. He followed up by trying to meet William Fox, who refused to see him. RCA was willing to synchronize his films at the Gramercy studio, but Disney was appalled at the expense, run up by ASCAP music license fees. Disney saw DINNER TIME at the Mark Strand, where it had opened on 1 September, and was not impressed. 31 He wrote back to his brother Roy Disney and his business partner, the animator Ub Iwerks:

Frankly speaking, the sound situation is still a big mystery to most of them yet. None of them is positive how it is all going to turn out. But I have come to this definite conclusion: sound effects and talking pictures are more than a mere novelty. They are here to stay and in time will develop into a wonderful thing. The ones that get in on the ground floor are the ones that will more likely profit by its future development. That is providing they work for quality and not quantity and quick money. Also, I am fully convinced that the sound on film is the only logical thing for the future. (Walt Disney to Roy Disney and Ub Iwerks, 14 September 1928, folder F66, John Canemaker Collection, Fales Library, New York University)

He finally recorded his synchronized score (Carl Stalling’s arrangement of royalty-free public domain tunes), sound effects, and limited vocals (a squawking parrot, which he performed himself) on the Powers Cinephone system. The film was STEAMBOAT WILLIE (1928).

Unlike his competitors, who understood sound for their cartoons as an embellishment to the silent film (just as most live-action producers did), Disney planned his films with motion, composition, and character centered on sound properties. 32 The archival story sketches for STEAMBOAT WILLIE show the importance of acoustic preplanning:


Close up of Mickey in cabin of wheel’house, keeping time to last two measures of verse of “steamboat Bill.” With gesture he starts whistleing the chorus in perfect time to music… his body keeping time with every other beat while his shoulders and foot keep time with each beat. At the end of every two measures he twirls wheel which makes a ratchet sound as it spins. He takes in breath at proper time according to music. When he finishes last measure he reaches up and pulls on whistle cord above his head. (Use FIFE to imitate his whistle)


Close up of top of wheel’house with three whistles, one is tall and skinny, center one is medium size, and the last one is short and squatty. When the cord on the first one is pulled down the whistle stem squats down and then shoots up and steam with various notes mixed in shoots out. “TOOT” then the center one goes, Too-De-Loo-Doo——The last one is asleep and doesn’t make any sound. The other two whistles register surprise… the center one gives it a punch and wakes it up. Then it goes “Dum-Dum” in base tone. (“Supplementary Material,” Mickey Mouse: The Black-and-White Years , laserdisc collection, Walt Disney Home Video, original spelling and punctuation)

During recording, an inked “bouncing ball” on the edge of the film stock helped the conductor keep the beat when the film was shown with the projector’s aperture plate removed. Disney applied for and was granted (in 1933) a patent for this process. 33 But the hard part was for an independent cartoon producer to find a distribution outlet.

While Disney was calling on uncooperative distributors in October 1928, the Fleischers reentered the sound cartoon business. Max and Dave Fleischer, always technically curious, had synchronized a dozen or so “Song Car-Tunes” between 1924 and 1926, using De Forest Phonofilm. However, the technical limitations of that system, as well as its marketing and distribution problems, prevented any widespread success. Nevertheless, when the 1928 industry conversion to sound began, the Fleischer singalongs clearly were a precedent for animators. THE SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK (1928) was the first in Paramount’s “Inkwell Imps” sound series. These releases provided even more incentive for Disney.

In November, Cinephone announced that sound tracks for the first four of a twentysix-film series of cartoons by Walt Disney were being prepared: STEAMBOAT WILLIE , GALLOPINGAUCHO, THE BARN DANCE , and PLANE CRAZY . Pat Powers used his connections to secure a two-week Broadway run for the first of the films. The screening of STEAMBOAT WILLIE made headlines in the trade press—but not because of its later historical significance as Mickey Mouse’s debut. Rather, Powers openly dared ERPI to enforce the interchangeability clause. The unlicensed Powers Cinephone recording was projected on the Colony Theatre’s Western Electric sound system, and “no attempt… [was] made to prevent showing of the picture.” Kann editorialized: “A Cinephone subject with music and sound effects is being reproduced over Western Electric equipment at the Colony, right here in New York. No interference, no trouble and two days have gone by. We make bold to assert there will be none.” While the issue of compatibility was being fought out in smaller venues across the country, STEAMBOAT WILLIE was the first non-ERPI, non-RCA film shown on Broadway. So in addition to its aesthetic contribution to the history of animation, Disney’s film should also be recognized as an event in the exhibition history of the talkies because it was a successful challenge to Western Electrics legal resistance to “interchangeability.”

Although he did not beat Terry or Fleischer to sound, Disney must have had some satisfaction in knowing that he had scooped his enemy and former employer Charles Mintz. The same day that STEAMBOAT WILLIE opened, 18 November, Mintz announced that Universal’s “Oswald” series would henceforth continue with full sound and music effects. The first, HEN FRUIT , was not released by Universal until 4 February 1929. Disney had the last word—or the last squeak.

For most of the 1920s, Pat Sullivan’s “Felix the Cat” was the leading cartoon series. But when the distributor, Educational, demanded sound versions for the 1929-1930 season, Sullivan refused to comply. Overnight the thriving studio disbanded. In October, Sullivan sold twelve cartoons to Copley Pictures, which made synchronized versions on disc and film. Some of these might have been new films animated by the original designer of Felix, Otto Messmer. Some had been previously released. John Canemaker describes these post-synchronized sound tracks as “sloppy, rarely matching the action on the screen.” 39

Meanwhile, in 1929, Disney’s GALLOPINGAUCHO and THE BARN DANCE were basking in extended runs at the Strand. In March the animation studio became the first one to have its own on-premises sound system. Pat Powers’s engineer William Garity traveled to Los Angeles to install the Cinephone recording apparatus and to act as the staffs technical adviser. 40 Disney was still looking for distributors for his “Mickey Mouse” cartoons and “the first print of a new series of novelty sound cartoons.” This was animator Ub Iwerks’s masterpiece, THE SKELETON DANCE (1929), the initial installment of the “Silly Symphonies.” The film was a grotesquely witty escapade in a graveyard synchronized, beat for beat, to Grieg’s “March of the Dwarves.” But Disney, now a producer with a desirable product, was able to dictate his own terms. He attempted to distribute the “Mickey” series himself by states’ rights, advertising unsold territories in May. The “Silly Symphonies” were available separately.

THE SKELETON DANCE became the most successful cartoon of its time. Its long runs matched those of prominent studio features: four weeks at the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles, a long engagement at the Fox in San Francisco, and an unprecedented rebooking at the Roxy. 42 Critics who had studiously ignored Disney (idolizing “Felix”) hailed the film for its imagery and its meticulous application of sound. (It was also Disney’s first venture into the world of highbrow music.) The Film Daily reviewer wrote, “Here is one of the most novel cartoon subjects ever shown on a screen.” After this rapture, Kann himself took the unusual step of arranging a private screening to see “why all the ravings.” He found that “even frozen faces will crack under its infectious fun.” 43 Based on the film’s extraordinary popularity, Columbia Pictures in August acquired the distribution rights for all of the “Silly Symphonies” in the United States and Canada. However, “Mickey Mouse,” billed as “A Walt Disney Comic by ‘Ub’ Iwerks recorded on Powers Cinephone,” continued to be handled by Disney through independent exchanges. In July 1929, Disney cartoons were in lights on the marquees of five Broadway houses.

Disney’s competitors now were hustling to catch up with him, committing outright plagiarism of Mickey and Minnie in the case of Paul Terry’s WOODEN MONEY (1929). This was a “Fable” in which “Milton Mouse and his sweetie” subject Farmer Al Falfa to a “mice nightmare.” Reviewers felt that there was “nothing much new in this cartoon.” The third released “Mickey,” PLANE CRAZY , by contrast, was greeted as “a volume of laughs that are by no means confined to the juveniles.”

Back in his New York studio, Mintz produced twenty-six “Krazy Kat” cartoons to compete with “Oswald” and “Mickey.” Coincidentally the films of Disney’s rival were also distributed by Columbia. Among the numerous shoestring operations that started releasing sound animation was Kolortone Productions, formed by Leo Britton and George Jeffrey. They were especially ambitious and announced six all-talking cartoons made in Brewster Color.

Walter Lantz, an animator and gagman, moved to Universal City to supervise “Oswald,” the series that Disney had lost to Winkler and Mintz, who were then fired by Universal. The “Oswald” cartoons were released with synchronization and some dialogue. 48 The highest-profile animation event of 1930 was the premiere of Lantz’s Technicolor prologue for Universal’s THE KING OF JAZZ . The cartoon, animated by Bill Nolan, is a spoof of SIMBA . Paul Whiteman is big-game hunting for the king of beasts. A monkey hits him with a coconut, raising a bump which turns into his “crown.” There are Disneyesque sound gags, as when Paul’s bullets play a xylophone tune on the lion’s teeth. Lantz attempted to use a “visual metronome” to guide the bandleader Paul Whiteman in the recording session. The “King of Jazz,” however, eschewed Lantz’s gimmick and performed ad lib—getting the beat just right.

Max and Dave Fleischer continued to release (or possibly re-release) the follow-thebouncing-ball “Song Car-Tunes” on a states’ rights basis through the distributor Alfred Weiss. These included OLD BLACK JOE (1929) and MY OLD KENTUCKY HOME (1929), silent films furnished with scores by Paul Edouarde. Meanwhile, Fleischer began releasing two series of eighteen “Paramount Screen Songs” and eight “Talkartoons” in June. DAISY BELLS (1929) was hailed: “In the days of B.S.—before sound—Max Fleischer’s song cartoons always provided diversion. Now that the ear hears while the eye sees, the entertainment qualities of this series is [sic] considerably enhanced.” The sound tracks were popular songs copied from 78-rpm records purchased at the local music store. The animators would listen to the song, then devise effects which would coincide with the drumbeats, caesurae, and so forth, on the record. Leslie Cabarga writes that THE ACE OF SPADES (1931) was pre-synchronized in this way. “The entire soundtrack, including dialogue, came from a black vaudeville record.” Max Fleischer felt that his technique was original enough to deserve a patent.

Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising were two of Disney’s animators who had defected from the studio when he lost the “Oswald” series. Sometime in 1929 they produced their own three-minute sample reel called BOSKO THE TALK-INK KID . Unlike other cartoons of the period—including Disney’s—this one contained animated characters speaking dialogue, however crudely. They had no better luck than Disney in finding a national distributor until they met Leon Schlesinger. He operated a company, called Pacific Art and Title (still in business), which supplied title cards for silent films—a business seemingly with very poor prospects in 1929! One of Schlesinger’s contracts was with Warner Bros. (It is rumored that Schlesinger was one of the backers of THE JAZZ SINGER .) He and Jack Warner agreed that the “Bosko” series had potential because it would exploit Page 396  the resources of Warners’ three newly acquired music publishing companies. In January 1930, Schlesinger, Harman, and Ising signed a contract in which the cartoonists agreed to produce a 600-700-foot sound motion picture by April, and Schlesinger agreed to distribute it.

George Quigley, in charge of Vitaphone Varieties, announced the new series of “Looney Tunes,” the name inspired by the “Silly Symphonies.” The cartoons appeared in the context of other Vitaphone novelties, such as Robert L. Ripley’s “Believe It or Not.” Each “Looney Tune” was supposed to be based on a Warner musical property. The first, SINKIN’ IN THE BATHTUB (1930), with music by Frank Marsales, was animated by Isadore “Friz” Freleng. The plot satirizes Lightner’s “Singin’ in the Bathtub” from THE SHOW OF SHOWS . The protagonists Bosko and Honey look rather like Mickey and Minnie’s cousins. Their caricatural features and costumes identify them as African-American types.

The antics of this comic pair are presented with a burlesque background of popular tunes from Vitaphone feature picture successes—songs that have already become national hits through the showing of the productions, through radio broadcasting and the sale of sheet music, phonograph records and piano rolls. Film patrons are prepared to welcome these animated parodies of these songs with open arms. (Film Daily , 20 April 1930, p. 1)

Bosko and Honey’s antics, accompanied by the incessant beat of Warners songs, makes each cartoon a mini-musical. The revue was becoming passé in features, but it lived on in “Looney Tunes” for a decade. In 1931 Schlesinger signed Harman-Ising to make a second series, the “Merrie Melodies,” and initiated the classic period of Warner Bros. animation.

When Walt Disney met with Pat Powers in 1930 to renegotiate his Cinephone contract, he was stunned to hear that Powers had already lured away his partner and top animator, Iwerks, to create his own series. Suspicious of Powers’s accounting practices, Disney broke away and, benefiting from Frank Capra’s recommendation to Harry Cohn, received a one-year contract to deliver thirty “Mickey Mouse” cartoons to Columbia. At first the agreement was only for certain territories, but Columbia took over world rights in March. The contract was crucial, for as Gomery has observed, the “Disney [organization] needed a base on which to build its innovation of sound; it needed distribution agreements with powerful studio patrons… to fully exploit marketing leverage. Without these corporate sponsors to distribute its products around the world, the Disney company surely would have gone the way of any number of now-long-forgotten, marginal, Hollywood companies.” Disney and his characters rise to stardom were phenomenal in the early thirties. “Mickey Mouse is probably the latest screen star to break into the big bulb class. His name is now adorning electric lights on marquees throughout the country,” reported Film Daily . A Columbia ad described Mickey as the “Darling of two continents. Lindy, Prince of Wales and Don Juan rolled into one.” 58 Meanwhile, Iwerks’s “Flip the Frog” began at MGM in 1931, but the frog could never emerge from the mouse’s shadow.

Among the innovations Walt Disney was pondering were color—inspired by Lantz’s KING OF JAZZ prologue—and widescreen. “I believe that the inclusion of color in cartoon comedies offers great possibilities for pictorial effects, but would add very little so far as comedy is concerned,” Disney wrote.

There are many problems in sound yet to be worked out, and I should like to see this angle perfected before considering color. After all, in a cartoon comedy it is laughs and personality that count. Color alone will not sustain public interest unless the cartoon itself is exceptionally clever and unique—a good, clever black and white cartoon should hold its own for some time to come. As for the wide screen, its possibilities and advantages are unlimited for the feature picture, but as yet, I can see no special advantage for its use in the production of cartoon comedies. (Film Daily , 6 April 1930, p. 17)

Disney would sign an exclusive contract with Technicolor for its three-color process in 1932—and would make widescreen cartoons in CinemaScope twenty years later.

At the Fleischer studio, the sound people were still trying to arrive at a satisfactory process for synching the “Talkartoons.” The practice of using commercial recordings was stopped because of rights problems and the insistence of the musicians’ union. Instead, Disney’s “bouncing ball” was modified by Lou Fleischer into a contraption called a Beater. He made a sprocketed-cam punching machine which perforated holes in the film representing the beat. The conductor used the projected bouncing light to maintain tempo. 60 A review of the “Talkartoon” THE BUM BANDIT (1931) shows that the pressure to achieve an integrated aesthetic was strong, even in animation: “The idea, art work and synchronization are excellent. However, inclusion of considerable dialogue, with a corresponding decrease in action, detracts somewhat from the effectiveness of this type of short.” 61 In 1931 the studio leased an additional floor at 1600 Broadway, ostensibly to expand the “research department… which carries on experiments with the Fleischer method for synthetic sound.”

Film Daily conducted an extensive poll of exhibitors in 1930, asking the question, “What type of short feature in sound do you consider most popular and most important to your program?” The results showed that shorts were prized as audience-pleasers. Comedies ruled, with 341 votes, followed by newsreels, with 107. Significantly, animation, primarily through the influence of Disney’s sound films, had risen substantially above its throw-away status in the silent period. Cartoons received 87 votes, taking third place and handily beating musicals (47), novelties (39), color subjects (19), sketches (12), and dance films (5). 63

The mediocre showing of musicals, sketches, and dance subjects in 1930 reflects the live-action anti-musical trend. It also suggests that animation was taking over some of the musical’s function. The poll clearly shows that audiences’ preferences were moving away from the short subject as a recorded spectacle toward an appreciation of it as a selfcontained mini-movie, with sound used, as in the feature, to combine with the image, not to slow down the story or to be the main draw. As feature films grew longer with the coming of sound, the contrast between the short subject and the multi-reel parts of the program became more distinctive. Some shorts took over functions banished from features, such as experimental foregrounding of sound effects and virtual Broadway-style canned performances. Novelty and travel genres were alternatives to Hollywood features. And like the newsreel, sound preserved (or synthesized) the acoustic dimension   to generate an aura of veracity. Of all the short film forms, however, none was transformed by sound more than the cartoon. The syncopation of rhythmic motion with an assertive beat, the humorous sound effects, and the funny voices created a new comic world and the possibility for any number of charming, wacky, drawling, squeaky, lisping, or stuttering characters.

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