May 16, 2024 posted by Steve Stanchfield

“A Faithful Burro and an Old Sour Dough” – Uranium Blues (1956)

Don’t worry — the Terrytoon will be on in a minute, but first…

Some Thunderbean news:
Next week is the Columbus Moving Picture Show in Columbus Ohio! I’m especially looking forward to seeing old friends, maybe trading and buying some films. I’m giving a presentation on Friday about what Thunderbean does in putting together the sets, covering film cleanup, editing and more. The little Thunderbean team has been gathering and organizing as we bring more people in to help up get these things moving, and none too soon. Over the next few weeks we’re attempting to hit a few big mile markers on three projects. Since school is done here the ramping up has started! Wish us good luck!

And, now, the cartoon:

The Terrytoon kick continues for another week here with a somewhat odd cartoon: Uranium Blues (1956)

In this entry, Old Prospector Farmer Al abandons his faithful burro, trading it in for a Jeep so he can mine Uranium for Atomic Bombs. Stupidly, Farmer Al attempts to have the jeep crawl up canyons like his burro did, destroying it. The wrecked Jeep’s head conveniently ends up in front of the sad burro, letting him know old Farmer Al has been carried off by two typical Terry vultures, fresh from a gig on a Mighty Mouse cartoon. Of all course, Farmer Al is saved, even though his film career is over.

Maybe it would have been a better ending to just have him carried off by those vultures as we iris in, or maybe he could have beat up those vultures and put them on a spit, ending the film with the two friends starting drumsticks. Farmer Al does seem to have a kinship in design with Poopdeck Pappy. Why aren’t there “What Would Poopdeck Pappy Do?” bumper stickers?

I think this particular cartoon is one of the least interesting Terry cartoons in terms of overall design and direction. Having the Grand Canyon as the subject of a scope cartoon seems like a great idea (even if it’s a copycat one) but, as evidenced from even this ‘flat’ print, the backgrounds are really never exciting enough to take advantage of the splendor that could have been created. It sure isn’t the best sendoff for Farmer Al, but at least his TV show would continue to entertain the kids through the 50s.

The 1956 Terrytoons mark the end of an era in many ways. It’s the big change of guard for the studio and the very last films with the old set of characters. For Farmer Al, it’s his last cartoon. It was produced in Cinemascope – and it would be great to see a print in scope of it, but I’ve never seen one for sale in 16 or 35. This old 16mm print I have is letterboxed a bit, with black bars on the top and bottom, at least getting *slightly * closer. Many of the scope Terrytoons have an odd echo in the recording, including this one.

It’s an interesting perfume on an otherwise sort of blandish entry. I really wish they had done more with the Atomic theme, or developed the sadness of the burro a little more, or even had a more interesting death for the Jeep. But heck.


  • As always, you’ve found a very interesting Terrytoon to focus on. One wonders what an MGM version of this cartoon might have been under the direction of somebody like Hugh Harmon. I thought of this because of the song that runs through this cartoon, which I would imagine was a Terry original, not necessarily written by Paul Terry, but written for the cartoon.

    Regarding the overall soundtrack, I wonder why the echo was added, and I wonder if print material exist with the original soundtrack intact.

    • I don’t know about the flat Terrytoon shorts but some of the Cinemascope ones sound like a stereo phasing problem.

      The original Cinemascope format had thin mag tracks near the perfs of the film to allow stereo playback. But some producers (and I think Paul Terry definitely fits this bill) did not want to invest in stereo recording and mixing equipment. Terrytoons had it’s own in-house sound department but it was stuck in mono for many years.

      To appease distributors, like 20th Century Fox (which was heavily invested in Cinemascope presentations), producers could resort to a cheap, mock version of stereo by making a copy of the mix tracks and throwing one side (the left or right side) a perf off. (Usually delaying the right side.)

      It would sorta sound like stereo but should only be done to the music track and not any others.

      Later, when making flat (non Scope) versions, post production houses would get more billable hours by mixing those tracks back to mono creating that echo you hear.

      (A whole other reason for stereo phasing was when producers wanted an echo effect but didn’t have an echo chamber. Music always sounds a little better with a little reverb but not actually with an echo.)

      I visited Terrytoons as a kid during the Bill Weiss era and he proudly showed me their new stereo sound department. Yeah, I’m that old!

  • Honestly, the most surprising thing about this cartoon is how long Farmer Al Falfa lasted in the cartoon business. I never would have thought he made it to color, let alone to post-war America.

    And yet, when it comes to the old brass of Terrytoons characters, the lineup didn’t end in 1956. Dinky Duck made his swansong in 1958, Mighty Mouse flew into the sunset in 1961, and Heckle & Jeckle actually survived until 1966, a full decade after Uranium Blues.

    But that’s semantics. Really, all this is is a nice short and a decent way to cap off a career. Could it be improved? Most assuredly, but time travel isn’t a real thing yet.

  • In addition to the overdone reverberation, hearing an electric guitar on the soundtrack (of a Terrytoon!) was… odd.

  • That full-on nuclear blast at 2:04 may be the first non-metaphorical one in a theatrical animated short.

    • Woody blasts Buzz Buzzard with an H-Bomb in 1951’s Slingshot 6 7/8 although the blast is decidedly *not* nuclear (the shot of the bomb is excised in most TV prints). And Dapper Denver Dooley suffers a full-on nuclear blast, with Woody donning protective glasses, in 1958’s Half-Empty Saddles. Of all the cartoon superstars, I have the *least* trouble believing Woody has some serious skeletons in his closet.

  • I’ll admit that “Uranium Blues” has its flaws. It takes a long time to get started because the pacing is dictated by that languid Western ballad. But I think it’s noteworthy for several reasons.

    For one, it marks one of the first times, if not the very first, that an atomic blast was depicted in an entertainment cartoon, as opposed to one made for educational or propaganda purposes.

    It’s one of the first times, if not the very first, that an electric guitar was incorporated into the orchestra in a cartoon soundtrack. It’s also an early appearance of the accordion, an instrument that would later figure prominently in many of Phil Scheib’s Terrytoons scores.

    Finally, it is, as you noted, Farmer Al Falfa’s last cartoon — and it’s fitting that he should be shown tumbling through the air at its climax, just as he did in so many cartoons of the silent era.

    Burro? Borough? Well, if the burro was going to help Farmer Al mine for uranium, he would no doubt have to burrow. Then the local government agency responsible for regulating this activity would be the Borough Burro Burrow Bureau. And that joke deserves an old sour “D’oh!”

  • This seems to me to be a reuse of the plot of “Smokey Joe”, where a fire horse is replaced by a newfangled fire-engine; when it breaks down, the fire horse pulls the old fire-wagon out and saves the day.

  • Cinema greats often end their careers with a disappointment, but this isn’t bad, even if the Indians slithering like snakes is a stolen gag. Farmer Al Falfa is one of the very few silent stars to make it to sound, color, and wide screen. It reminds me a little of the last theatrical Popeye, “Spooky Swabs”; it’s got a similar “sunset” feel to it.

  • Terrytoons: coulda, woulda, shoulda.

    The very least Terry could have done for Farmer Al Falfa’s swan song was grant him some Jim Tyer footage.

  • Wonder if Terry sparred with Hal Roach over the name Al Falfa, applied to one of Our Gang after the cartoon character had been around for years. Maybe the joke was already vintage when Terry first used it.

    Don’t think any theatrical cartoon series got the equivalent of a “series finale’, but did the crew ever know they were making the Last One? Somehow I suspect if they did, you wouldn’t see any sentiment or inside gags in the product itself. If anybody saw the end coming, the focus was likely on getting it out the door and finding another job.

    Mickey Mouse’s last series short, “The Simple Things”, was a standard Pluto outing but dressed up with an original song. It ends with Mickey and Pluto fleeing a flock of hungry gulls, while the closing shot belongs to Pluto’s tormentor enjoying a bucket of bait. When the short was used in a TV episode, they placed it last and added a pretty shot of Mickey and Pluto driving back into town as the sun set — a conscious happy fadeout for the mouse, perhaps recognizing that was his big screen farewell.

  • We should give Terry credit for keeping Al Falfa continuously alive longer than anybody else was!

  • There were certainly earlier uses of mushroom cloud atomic-style explosions in animation – although it does appear that Terry may have been at the forefront of this development. As early as 1947, a mushroom explosion appears in Heckle and Jeckle’s “The Intruders”, in an updating of a gag introduced the preceding year in Gandy Goose’s “Peace Time Football”. The gag involved a cartoon-style round bomb, originally containing nested smaller and smaller bombs, until one that looks so tiny as to be harmless pops out, and is picked up by the victim. KER-BOOM! (It is actually a variant on Jerry’s nested firecrackers in Tom and Jerry’s “The Yankee Doodle Mouse”.) When “The Intruders” was produced, the nested contents were changed to a surprise box, and then a gift bone for the bulldog – containing a lit fuse – and the explosion was newly-animated as a nuclear mushroom explosion, blasting the dog to the pearly gates of Heaven as an angel – and Heckle and Jeckle as angel magpies, crashing the dog’s new gate. Virtually the same explosion animation would reappear without the nested bomb gag in the magpies’ 1949 appearance in “Hula Hula Land”, again transforming them into hula-dancing angels atop the cloud.

    Another instance, without the visual image of a mushroom explosion, included Mighty Mouse’s “The Electronic Mouse Trap” (1946), in which a small round projectile is spit by the dinosaur-like invention, prompting the narrator to warn, “Look out, Mighty Mouse! It’s an atomic bomb!” The screen is enveloped in explosion, at too close range to see if any mushroom shape develops. Mighty is blasted into a backwards spin, but merely stops in mid-air, and calmly dusts himself off with a whisk-broom. “What a mouse!”

    Jack Hannah also capitalized on the new science in 1952, with “Donald Applecore”. Donald resorts to a mix of chemicals in his crop-duster helicopter, which includes a secret ingredient – Atomic Pills. One pink pill in the spraying reservoir of the helicopter results in a mini-mushroom cloud erupting from the reservoir. The explosions which follow in the pursuit of Chip and Dale are, however, more conventionally depicted, though powerful enough to bring down whole structures. There was also a twice-used multi-layered explosion (with a unique sound effect) which Hannah may have intended to resemble a nuclear cloud, appearing in two more Chip and Dale entries – “Dragon Around” (1954), and “Up a Tree” (1955).

    There may have been others. I can’t place it off the top of my head, but did Popeye’s muscle once depict an atom bomb explosion?

    By the way, the lifted plot for “Uranium Blues” would date back earlier than “The Old Fire Horse”. The film is very much like 1937’s “Don Donald”, with an old jalopy replacing Donald’s burro to impress Daisy (then Donna) Duck.

  • Another instance where Jack Hannah went nuclear. 1952’s “Trick or Treat” featured a colorful mushroom cloud erupting as the last ingredient is deposited into the brew simmering in Witch Hazel’s cauldron. The explosion is so powerful, it transforms Donald’s nephews into multi-changing colors of light as they gaze at it in awe. Hazel observes, “Delightfully gruesome reaction!’ – directly suggesting a nuclear reaction.

  • No discussion of cartoon nukes would be complete without a mention of perhaps the most famous: the Uranium Pew-36 Explosive Space Modulator (and it’s Illudium upgrade).

    Popeye did have an atom bomb muscle, specifically in “Rocket to Mars” (1946). It’s depicted as a standard cartoon bomb (round with a fuse), but I think it’s the first cartoon to depict a nuclear weapon of any sort.

    For a studio that seemed to be perennially behind the times, Terrytoons got in on the the atomic age plotlines pretty early. Mighty Mouse takes an A-bomb to the face in “The Electronic Mouse Trap” (1946) but is apparently entirely invulnerable to nukes.

    Warner Bros. cartoon studio got in early too, with the mouse in Art Davis’ “Mouse Menace” (1946) constructing a miniature nuclear bomb, as evidenced by the crate of uranium in his mouse hole, to blow up Porky’s robot cat.

    None of these early atomic age cartoons has the bomb produce a mushroom cloud, however, so the above mentioned 1947 Heckle and Jeckle cartoon can still claim that first.

    Woody Woodpecker took the next big step in the cartoon arms race by using an H-bomb to blast Buzz Buzzard into a roast turkey in “Slingshot 6 7/8” (1951).

  • One more atomic blast was in the Popeye short ‘Robin Hoodwinked’: when Bluto (as Ye Tax Collector) spikes Popeye’s drink with ‘Ye Olde Michael Finn’ we get a miniature mushroom cloud in the mug.

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