I said in my first column that the earliest animated cartoon that I can remember seeing was Disney’s Pinocchio, on its first rerelease in October 1945, just before my fifth birthday. My mother, who was 100 years old last September, says that I’m wrong; she took me as a babe in arms to see Bambi with her. I will take her word for it. Bambi was released in August 1942; I was just over 1 ½ years old. I really do not remember it at all.
Even though Pinocchio was the earliest animated theatrical feature that I can remember, there were plenty of other funny animals from my fifth birthday until I entered my adolescence, theatrically and in the comics. Theatrically, there were all the cartoon shorts with the Disney stars; MGM’s Tom & Jerry and Droopy Dog; the Warner Bros. funny animals; Terrytoons’ Mighty Mouse and Heckle & Jeckle and Gandy Goose & Sourpuss and Little Roquefort & Percy; Famous’ Herman & Katnip; and Lantz’s Woody Woodpecker and Chilly Willy. I was vaguely aware that other funny animals that I was familiar with in the comic books such as Baby Huey and the Fox & the Crow were supposedly based on popular theatrical cartoon characters, but I do not remember ever seeing them on the big screen.
The newspaper comic strips and comic books offered lots more. I dimly remember Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck fighting Nazi spies and involved with Home Front themes, but most of my memories are of post-war stories. Other comic book funny animals such as Super Rabbit fought the Nazis, too. I read plenty of superhero comics during my preadolescence – Captain Marvel, Superman (I remember what a thrill it was when Superboy #1 appeared) and Batman, the Justice Society of America in All-Star Comics – but my favorites were the funny animal titles: Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories, the Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck one-shots; Dell’s Animal Comics where I first read the works of Walt Kelly, and other licensed characters who appeared in more adventurous plots than in their theatrical cartoons, or weren’t in theatrical cartoons at all (by that time), like Andy Panda & Charlie Chicken, and Oswald Rabbit.
My favorites of the other funny animal comic books were most of the DC titles – Animal Antics, Funny Stuff, the later Comic Cavalcade issues, Real Screen Comics with the Fox & the Crow, and especially anything written & drawn by Sheldon Mayer. My earliest comic-book hero, who I wanted to grow up to be just like, when I was five or six years old, was Mayer’s Amster the Hamster, a short con-man who could talk ANYbody (usually bigger characters) into ANYthing! As a five- or six-year-old surrounded by big adults, I thought that this would be a wonderful talent to possess. I later learned that Amster the Hamster was a funny-animal version of W. C. Fields. But all of Mayer’s funny animals were hilariously funny with snappy dialogue: Doodles Duck and his bratty nephew Lemuel, Dizzy Dog, Buttons Bunny, Gus Goose, McSnertle the Turtle, Bo Bunny & Skinny Fox (who were a funny-animal Abbot & Costello), the Three Mousketeers, even the one-shot characters like Ferenc the Fencing Ferret. (I did not know it at the time, but Mayer also wrote but did not draw many of DC’s superhero stories.)
Decades later, when I was writing a special funny-animal theme issue of Amazing Heroes (#129, November 1987), I was thrilled to get the chance to personally interview Sheldon Mayer about his funny animals. I asked which of them had been his favorite? “None of ‘em! I thought the whole idea of funny animals is stupid! They would’ve been better as funny humans like Henry Aldrich or Jerry Lewis, or kids like the Our Gang bunch. Unless the plot required them to be tiny fantasy people, when you could make ‘em human-looking elves or pixies. But DC wanted funny animals and assigned me to draw some, so I did.” Oh.
In addition to DC’s comic books and Dell’s (or Western Printing’s) Disney titles, my favorite funny-animal comics were ACG’s now-forgotten Giggle Comics and Ha Ha Comics. Giggle starred Superkatt, an ordinary housecat who impersonated a costumed hero in his owner’s baby’s bonnet and diaper. Ha Ha featured Robespierre, a black alley cat who was always getting into trouble with his yellow brawny but impulsive pal Tiger. Aside from those series, with Superkatt signed by Dan Gordon and Robespierre by Ken Hultgren, Giggle and Ha Ha were filled with funny but interchangeable funny animal short stories by Gordon and Hultgren, and by Jack Bradbury and Don “Arr” Christiansen and Jim Tyer and others. I found out years later that they were all part of a workshop of moonlighting or ex-animation artists organized by Gordon to provide funny animal comics for publishers without their own in-house artists. Gordon had been with the Fleischer Studio (he has a writer credit on some of Fleischer’s Superman cartoons), and quit when Paramount closed Fleischer’s studio in Miami and moved the animators back to New York. Hultgren’s regular job was with Disney; he was most famous for designing the Id monster that Disney’s Joshua Medor animated for the s-f movie Forbidden Planet.
Nobody seems to know how or why, but there was a single Superkatt animated cartoon; the May 1947 Columbia Phantasy Cartoon Leave Us Chase It. It was definitely based on the Giggle comic book series: a cat is inspired by reading the comic book stories to don a baby bonnet & diaper. A generic housecat-chases-mouse story follows, showing none of the imagination of Gordon’s comic-book series. The cartoon’s story is credited to Cal Howard, who was one of Dan Gordon’s crew of moonlighting animation studio personnel. Maybe Howard pushed the cartoon to try to get an animated series for his pal Gordon’s character. Who knows?
My family got its first television set just in time for the premiere of the first animated TV cartoon, Crusader Rabbit, on KNBH in Los Angeles on August 1, 1950. I was 9 ¾ years old, and I was mesmerized. I watched the five-minute episodes so religiously that I can still sing the adv’t jingle from the dog food commercials regularly shown during it:
Feed him Dr. Ross Dog Food; do him a favor.
It’s got more beef, and it’s got more flavor.
It’s got more flavor ‘cause it tastes the way it should;
Dr. Ross Dog Food is doggone good!
Fido knows best … ARF!
Fido knows best … ARF!
I wonder if the animated TV commercial was also made by Alex Anderson’s & Jay Ward’s Television Arts Productions?
I liked Crusader Rabbit (the original TAP 1949-51 black-&-white series; I was in college by the time the Cartoon Spots 1957-59 color series was broadcast) so much that when I began to get a reputation for writing articles about Japanese animation, I took some time out to research an article about Crusader Rabbit. (“2 ½ Carrots Tall, Television’s First Animated Cartoon Star. Pt. 1, The Story Behind Crusader Rabbit”, the history of the two series’ production, in Comics Scene #6, November 1982; and “2 ½ Carrots Tall, Television’s First Animated Cartoon Star. Pt. 2, The Stories of Crusader Rabbit”, plot synopses of all the serials, in Comics Scene #7, January 1983.) It was a joy to talk face-to-face or in telephone interviews with most of the voice actors and production people who had made both series. (Jay Ward declined to be interviewed, though.) Everybody loved Alex Anderson and Jay Ward; everybody shut up or had nothing printable to say about Shull Bonsall, who produced the color series; who had the foulest mouth of all and boasted about how he had screwed people. Jerry Fairbanks, the producer who took TAP’s animation & sound tracks and produced them into films for TV broadcasting, was almost 80 years old and said, “That long ago … I just don’t remember much. But I still have my scrapbooks, and you can look through them.” A GOLD MINE! I sure hope that Fairbanks’ scrapbooks went to some archive upon his death instead of being thrown out.
Fairbanks had the original memos, correspondence, and press clippings for everything: Anderson’s & Ward’s business trips from San Francisco to NBC in New York in 1948 to try to sell their proposed three-segment The Comic Strips of Television series; NBC’s liking only the Crusader Rabbit segment (another segment that NBC turned down was Dudley Do-Right, which Ward used later in Rocky and His Friends), but being willing to buy it only if they had Jerry Fairbanks in Los Angeles produce it (NBC and Fairbanks had a sweetheart arrangement); Fairbanks’ efforts all during 1949 to sell Crusader Rabbit, which consisted mostly of exaggerated press releases that implied the whole series of 130 five-minute episodes (65 episodes were added later) was ready for broadcast, while TAP was still churning out the cels and voice dubbings (one fascinating detail was that Fairbanks tried to make the limited animation sound like a cutting-edge new technological advance: “new Teletoon animation process delivers the quality of theatrical animation at a fraction of the cost” (I wonder if anyone in Canada’s and France’s TV industries knows of this prior use of “Teletoon”?); Bob Ganon, who worked on both the black-&-white and the color series, told me, “We just called it ‘cheap animation’; decide for yourself whether this is ‘the quality of theatrical animation’.”); Jay Ward’s business trips from TAP in San Francisco to Fairbanks in L.A. to coordinate the production (Ward’s full, legal name was J Troplong Ward) …
Well, I am running overlength for this column, and I have wandered off-topic which was supposed to be that while some of my favorite funny animals of my youth were in animated cartoons, many were not. It would have been great to see theatrical cartoons of Sheldon Mayer’s characters, of Robespierre, of Superkatt as Dan Gordon had written him, of Fauntleroy Fox & Crawford Crow (yes, I know that they originated in Columbia’s theatrical animated shorts, but I only encountered them in Real Screen Comics), of Dunbar Dodo & Fenimore Frog; of Nutsy Squirrel; of Walt Kelly’s Pogo Possum while the stories were still tremendously witty but still innocent children’s comics, before they turned into adult social satire.
Is it too late? One of the greatest of the he-oughta-be-animated comic book characters of the 1950s was Disney’s Scrooge McDuck, who was finally animated in Disney’s TV cartoons in the late 1980s. Disney seems poised to do new things with 1927’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to keep him alive. The rights to Superkatt et al. are presumably available cheap … if it’s not in the public domain by now.