A medium of entertainment which has spanned well over a century has nearly disappeared from the fabric of modern society. It was influential throughout cultures internationally, became a sort of land of childhood dreams long before the existence of Disneyland, and was a marketable framework for many a product in advertising and merchandising. It was splashy, gaudy, and eye-catching, drew in massive crowds, and attained not-entirely undeserved recognition by the phrase “the Greatest Show on Earth”. It was – – THE CIRCUS.
Controversy reigns today over whether these amalgamation of glitter and sawdust were harbors for practices of animal cruelty. Indeed, some themes of this nature might be seen as interwoven into the storyline as early as the original Dumbo in 1941. Be that as it may, the fact remains that, for many portions of the human population, particularly those not living within close proximity of municipalities housing zoos, these shows were the first exposure most of us had to any members of the animal kingdom besides domestic dogs, cats, and possibly farm livestock. And, unlike most zoos of the day, whose animal enclosures tended to resemble small jail cells in which animals seldom had the freedom to exercise or move about in any significant manner, the big top was a chance to see animals in action, displaying their powers and unique abilities in ways in which no zoo animal would be likely to be seen. Children and adults alike became aware of the majesty of the elephant, the big cats, the comic lumbering of dancing bears, and many other unique species they would never encounter in everyday life. Indeed, it may be speculated that if many of the animal rights activists of today had not been exposed to these creatures by way of such shows in their youth, they may never have developed an interest in and a caring for the welfare of such animals in the first place. The closure of many circus troupes at their hands may thus prove counterproductive in future generations, depriving the youth of today of firsthand knowledge of animals in their childhood except from TV images, leading to potential decreasing numbers within such activists’ membership ranks. Perhaps a better solution would have been to maintain circuses in operation under compromised humane methods, rather than decreeing that all animal participants in such shows be removed from captivity entirely.
The love for and popularity of animals from such shows was not overlooked by the animation industry, nor by other enterprisers targeting a youthful audience. Nabisco, for example, would spend over a century exploiting the medium with the marketing of the animal cracker, trademarked as “Barnum’s Animals”. To the present, the notion of clowns entertaining at children’s birthday parties has become a frequent (and sometimes dreaded) tradition, though it may very well come to pass that clowns may no longer be seen by children at all except at such celebrations. And animation found its stock-in-trade by populating its films increasingly with funny animals instead of the humans who inhabited many early series. It is unknown whether any instances of reflections of circus life exist in animation prior to 1916 (any information of such nature is welcome here), but our trail will begin at said point in time, as animal and circus animation both began to come into their own.
What may be one of the earliest entries on our suvject is actually one of the most disappointing. Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse At the Circus (International Film Services, 3/17/16 – director unknown) contains no traditional circus action whatsoever – possibly as the animators lacked sufficient skill to commit to their announced subject matter, All we see of the circus grounds us the ticket booth and tent exterior, the bleachers, and a ladies’ dressing room. Perhaps the only insight into the characters’ personalities is the first scene, in which Krazy purchases a ticket and a half, presumably paying with the latter for Ignatz’s entrance, yet Ignatz does not feel comfortable in passing respectably before the ticket taker, and chooses to enter the circus in his usual fashion – by sneaking in under a tent flap. Inside, an inexplicable conversation takes place between Krazy and a tough dog (not Offica Pup), who is wandering around the tent looking for “tasty mice”, while Ignatz cowers behind Krazy. Why would a dog want to eat mice? When the dog leaves, Krazy asks why mice are such cowards. Ignatz denies being one, and proves it by marching into a ladies’ dressing room, and scaring a girl (we presume a trapeze artist) up onto a chair. Krazy claims that’s nothing, and Ignatz challenges Krazy to do the same. Krazy trues, also without explanation hollering “Spoof” instead of “Boo”, and all she gets for her troubles is a smack with a broom. The film abruptly ends after only 3 minutes. It sometimes feels along the way that there is more action in watching the dialogue balloons fill with words that we see in character animation – not a good sign for the success of a cartoon.
Bobby Bumps at the Circus (Bray Studios, 11/11/16 – Earl Hurd, dir.), is considerably more satisfying. A full-length cartoon, it finds Bobby and his dog Fido outside the circus grounds. An animal trainer offers Bobby a ticket to the show if he will water his elephant (perhaps the first use in animation of this recurrent trope). Bobby and Fido labor at the water pump, filling two large buckets to carry to the mammoth pachyderm. The beast sips each pail up with his trunk in one slurp, forcing Bobby to go back for more. After a second load, the elephant still looks unsatisfied, and Bobby, now starting to huff and puff, is wondering if the creature isn’t more of a camel. Unbeknownst to Bobby, as he busies himself in his third trip to the pump, the animal trainer pulls a fast one, and behind his back, leads the elephant into the tent, then appears back at the original spot, leading a second elephant. The water disappears in a twinkling again, but Fido begins to be suspicious, smelling at the elephant’s feet. He and Booby return to the pump a fourth time, Bobby sitting to rest while Fido stands on the pump handle to do the laborious pumping. The trainer pulls the switcheroo again, leading out a third elephant, and Fido gets wise, tipping off Bobby that’s he’s been switching elephants on him. Bobby deliberately topples the water pails at the trainer’s feet, then runs. The trainer tries to pursue, but the angered elephant grabs him, holding him back to take out his frustrations on the trainer.Bobby runs home, trying to get his father’s help to rectify his being gypped out of a day’s work. His father is heavily engrossed in financial worries, bending over a ledger book on his desk, with several more volumes stacked by his side. Pop says he can’t do anything until he balances these books. When Pop steps away from the desk a moment, he returns to find that Bobby and Fido are claiming to have solved his problem – they have “balanced” his books by stacking them one atop another, balanced on Bobby’s feet, with Fido weight-lifting them between volumes. The books topple, and angry Pop chases Bobby and Fido back to the circus grounds. Bobby and Fido take cover, ducking under the circus tent. Pop trues to follow, but is the one spotted by a roustabout, who begins smacking Pop with a board on the rear end while Pop is only halfway under the canvas. Bobby laughs from his seat in the bleachers, enjoying the show Pop is putting on more than the one in the arena. A bareback-riding act is introduced, and Bobby and Fido, without so much as a moment’s hesitation, barge in in the rider’s place, and perform the act themselves, dancing and cavorting together atop the horse’s back. The ringmaster is impressed, and after the performance wows the crowd, takes Bobby and Fido aside in his circus wagon, and offers the two a position at $6,000 a week (a tidy sum for such a day). He gives them their first payment in an envelope in advance. But the hand of Bobby’s dad reaches in the wagon window, grabbing Bobby away, and dragging him back home. Though it seems Bobby will never receive the job, Fido, after debating the temptation by means of what may possibly be animation’s first appearance of a shoulder angel and devil, grabs up the pay envelope in his mouth, and races home with it. Bobby is about to receive a spanking over his father’s knee, when Fido drops the envelope at father’s feet from the window. Bobby escapes the tanning, as father picks up the envelope, closing the episode with the realization that the money will just about balance the books.
The Circus (Mutt and Jeff, 1917) – A very loose aggregation of sequences which almost plays more like a spot gag reel than a narrative, in a print that unfortunately is in atrocious state of nitrate deterioration in the second half, some scenes barely watchable. It begins with the boys repeating Bobby Bumps’ task of watering the elephants to get free admission. They at least have the benefit of a hose and some genuine plumbing from a pressure pipe. But the elephant’s thirst is too great to merely satisfy by filling a pail, so Jeff hooks up the hose nozzle directly to the elephant’s trunk, then has Mutt turn on the water full force (a gag that would be remembered by Woody Woodpecker several decades later). The elephant inflates like a water balloon, then Jeff disconnects the nozzle. The water suddenly rushes back out the elephant’s trunk in a flood, drenching the boys, and returning the elephant to normal size. Mutt wrings water out of his coattails, while Jeff empties another load of it out of his hat. The two decide to resort to entry by the old slipping-under-the-tent method, but Jeff picks the wrong tent, emerging with an embarrassed blush, as he informs Mutt that it’s the ladies’ dressing tent. Mutt is not in the least dissuaded by this information, and dives under the tent for a close-up look. He only receives a sock in the eye for his troubles. In a poor and cheap attempt to save the price of a background, the scene cuts to an intertitle, reading “Butting in again”, then seems to cut back to the same tent shot we just left, making us think the boys are again peering into the dressing room. Yet, it is supposed to be a different tent this time, and the boys are abruptly thrown backwards through the canvas wall, as they find themselves face to face with a hippopotamus. By another quick intertitle, we are suddenly thrust into a new setting, announcing that Mutt has taken a job as sparring partner to a boxing kangaroo. The boxing sequence is largely obliterated by huge bubbles of nitrate deterioration – yet seems overly prolonged even in what we don’t see. Mutt eventually gets the worst of the bout, and again is thrown out of the tent. The ringmaster, however, doesn’t think he did badly, and offers him an easier assignment for the next act. We now find that Jeff has also taken a job as lion tamer, and the “ferocious lion” is sent into the ring with him – Mutt, in costume. Jeff begins brandishing a gun and whip, and is amazed when he hears the lion telling him to take it easy with the gun. Jeff musters his courage to open the lion’s mouth to look inside, and discovers Mutt. He is so surprised that for a moment he falls into the jaws of the costume head, struggling for a few seconds in attempt to get free. When Jeff regains his footing on ground, he starts to take full advantage of the situation at the expense of his friend, cracking the whip, and ordering the lion to stand on its ears. “What?” replies Mutt. Jeff repeats the command forcibly, and disgusted Mutt throws off the costume head, declaring, “This has gone far enough.” As Mutt applies a stranglehold on Jeff, the two suddenly realize they have blown their cover to the audience. “Fakers!” “Throw them out!”, yell members of the crowd. Mutt and Jeff are buried by a rain of popcorn sacks, candy wrappers, and anything that’s throwable, for the barely-visible deteriorated fade out.
Several other Mutt and Jeff episodes with possible circus connections appear to be, at least for the moment, missing in action. “The Side Show” (1918) and “The Lion Tamers” (1919) seem likely candidates. “Mutt the Mutt Trainer” (1919) may possibly feature a dog act. “Dead Eye Jeff” (Mutt and Jeff, 11/20), is reputed to feature Mutt as a lion tamer. And 1921’s “Watering the Elephants” may, for all we know, attempt to repeat the opening sequence of “The Circus”.
Charley At the Circus (Pat Sullivan, Charley Chaplin, circa 1918-1919 – Otto Messmer, dir.). is unavailable for review on the internet except for a title card and a first shot not featuring Charley, where the background draws itself in to reveal a poster for Bunkum’s Circus. No other information appears available, though I am under the impression that some review of these little-known animation shorts has been previously published. Anyone with such data or plot synopsis is invited to contribute. It would be particularly interesting if any ideas from this film were used or modified from in Chaplin’s subsequent live silent feature, The Circus.
Someone you’d expect to know his way around circuses was Koko the Clown. Oddly, he seems to have spent very little time onscreen associated with such performances. But there were a few, the first of which appears to be The Circus (Fleischer/Bray Studios, Out of the Inkwell, 5/6/20). Max hasn’t been able to meet his schedule to produce a film for today’s showing, so he merely draws a picture of Koko on a sheet of paper, then puts the sheet in an envelope for delivery by messenger to a projectionist operator, marked personal. Instructions are also included in the envelope, advising the projectionist to keep a bottle of ink handy for Koko. Without so much as feeding the drawing into the projector for others to see, the camera merely zooms in on the drawing, and Koko springs to life to entertain. Existing print of the film is fixed up for sound, complete with a dialogue script, so it is hard to tell how closely the dialogue matches original intertitles or speech balloons. Koko announces that he will put on a circus act, and calls for a spotlight in the form of an iris in. On the blank background, he draws a circus ring, then a square within the ring resembling a piece of canvas laid on the ground. He utters a few magic words, and from beneath the canvas appears a bony old horse (the sound version refers to him as “Napoleon”). Napoleon throws off the canvas horse blanket, briefly covering Koko underneath it, and gives Koko a horse laugh (the horse’s dentures falling out in the process). Napoleon removes the blanket from Koko, swallowing it, then Koko mounts up. A protruding backbone seems to get in Koko’s way, so the clown merely shifts the horse’s bone upwards into his neck. The horse takes off for a trot around the ring, but slips out from under Koko, who falls to the sawdust, and is trampled once or twice by the horse going round. Koko regains his position atop the horse, and adequately performs a few leaps and poses upon the horse’s back. The ride abruptly ends when the horse stops, bouncing Koko to the ground again. Koko asks the horse to perform a demonstration of counting, asking how many toes he has on his left foot. The horse accurately counts off five stomps with his hooves, then increases the number to six, by stomping his own hoof directly onto Koko’s foot. Koko asks the horse to do impressions of a dead gladiator, the statue of the thinker, and Madame X (the latter portrayed by the horse performing a handstand upon his front legs, his extended limbs forming into the shape of a large X). Finally, Koko declares that Napoleon will attempt to break his own speed record in a race around the ring. Koko produces a starting pistol, but fails to take care in what direction it is aiming. The shot, consisting of an oversized blunderbuss ball, bounces off Napoleon’s head. The horse begins to totter, and with his tail dusts off the spot where he is about to fall. “I’m kilt”, says the horse in a speech balloon, which thankfully the sound version chose not to remove. The horse’s spirit leaves his body, and rises to the stable gate of horse heaven. An old bearded horse at the gate tells Napoleon he can’t come in with his shoes on, so Napoleon starts pulling them off one by one, tossing them off the heavenly cloud back down to earth, where at least one conks Koko. Angry Koko tosses one of the horseshoes back up into the sky, where it hits the horse gatekeeper, giving him a black eye. Napoleon doubles up in a horselaugh, angering the gatekeeper even more. The gatekeeper turns in reverse, to deliver a swift kick to Napoleon with his rear hooves, announcing that he’s sending the wise guy right back where he came from. Napoleon’s spirit falls back to earth, rejoining with his body. Napoleon in turn decides to send Koko back to where he came from, and kicks the clown off the drawing paper, and into the waiting inkwell which the projectionist has graciously provided per instruction. Koko has the last say, obliterating the horse from the drawing paper with a splat of ink from the well, then using a telephone extender to grab the stopper of the inkwell, and pull it in upon himself for the fade out.
The Circus (aka “Felix Frolics at the Circus”) (Pat Sullivan, Felix the Cat, 9/26/20 – Otto Messmer, dir.) – A quite well-preserved entry in the series. A very early, barely recognizable Felix (still in his original “Feline Follies” design), is the pet of an elephant trainer. The elephant, manacled by the leg inside the circus tent, is pestered by a mouse, and becomes sufficiently afraid to break its bonds, emerge at full gallop out of the tent, and race for the hills. The trainer weeps, knowing it’s that mouse again who was the cause. Felix volunteers to take care of the problem. Felix peers into the tent, but the mouse tosses a watering pail onto Felix’s head. A typical cartoon chase ensues, including up the tent pole and round and around atop the big top’s canvas. The chase leads to telephone wires extending out into the countryside. The mouse perches atop a pole, then cuts the wire leading to the pole, causing Felix to fall to the ground. Felix arranges a sort of circus act to seal the mouse’s doom. Disappearing for a moment off into the scenery, Felix returns, having somewhere found a large bird resembling a pelican. Felix positions the bird on one side of the pole, while on the other side he sets a small board across a rock as a fulcrum. Felix then climbs the pole on which the mouse is standing, while carrying under his arm another large rock. The mouse jumps from the pole, landing on one side of Felix’s teeter-board. Felix throws his rock on the other end of the board, launching the mouse into the air, in an arc that neatly ends with a descent into the pelican’s gullet. Felix happily returns to his master, announcing that he’s settled the rodent’s hash. But the trainer asks, for the love of Pete, what happened to the elephant? Felix returns to the countryside in search of the beast. We finally get a few visual gags that denote that the cat we have been watching is indeed Felix, as a question mark appears over Felix’s head, on which Felix stands to get an elevated view of the countryside. Spotting nothing, he decides to make a sound like a mouse to see if he can flush the elephant out of hiding. He makes a squeak – and a hollow tree right beside him begins to tremble. An odd spiraling line appears in air from Felix’s head, denoting his confusion. Felix grabs one end of the line, yanking it down to convert it into a coil of rope, one end of which he ties into a lasso, then tosses into a hole in the hollow tree. Though the tree is narrow and the hole small, out of it Felix hauls the full-grown elephant. (Watch for an animation error at the end of the shot, as the tree for no reason slightly trembles, even after the elephant is already out of it.) Felix steers the elephant back in the direction of the circus, then rides atop its trunk, instructing the elephant in the manner of a chauffeur, “Home, James.”
Flip’s Circus (circa 1921) is a strange and unfinished short by pioneering animator Windsor McKay, creator of the “Little Nemo” cartoon strip, from which the character Flip appears in this film. The source of this title is a surviving work print from McKay’s own personal holdings, with both intertitles and comments to the film editors communicated on the screen by means of a hand-held chalk slate. Flip begins the film performing a balancing act with his top hat, but eventually falls on his face. He does a brief dance for the unseen audience, then a curtain rises behind him, to introduce out of his menagerie his “Baby” – a hoofed creature that looks coincidentally like a compact model of Gertie the Dinosaur (which appears to be identified in one scene as a “wiffenpoof”). The creature wastes no time in swallowing Flip’s hat, but is made to return it upon command. An interruption takes place as a black chauffeur character named Bookoo appears in front of the performers in his car. The argument between Flip and Bookoo is broken up by the creature chomping on the hood of the car, then swallowing most of the engine. Flip has the creature rear up on its hind legs for a dance, then walk over his prone body. Flip doesn’t seem to like it as the beast stomps right across his fat belly, and Flip rises to take his whip to the beast. The beast responds by calmly swallowing Flip whole, then, as vibrations within the beast reflect Flip struggling inside, the beast spits Flip back out onto the ground, seeming to bring an abrupt close to the story. The remainder of the film appears to consist of retakes of earlier shots, several with badly-positioned camera backlighting that reflects light noticeably from the animation cels.
The First Circus (Tony Sarg’s Almanac, 1921, Tony Sarg, dir.) is a fascinating marvel of stop-motion silhouette/puppet animation. The short is actually two films in one, the first half having no connection with the subject matter of the latter half (the former being devoted to a study of evolution of man from apes). The second half begins with a silhouette of a circus parade as presented when P.T. Barnum began his traveling shows. However, an intertitle reflects that Barnum was small potatoes when compared to the Stonehenge Circus, 30,009 years ago. The scene opens upon an arena amid the pillars of Stonehenge, where a few spectators watch from a ledge, while a cave man stands astride the back of a huge dinosaur, giving it commands by prodding it with a stick. The dinosaur raises its head close to the audience, sticking out a long tongue nearly to their noses, and one caveman in the audience has to defend himself by poking back at the dino with a spear. The caveman astride the dinosaur throws away his stick, then begins a series of acrobatic leaps, bouncing from the dino’s head to the tip of his tail, performing somersaults upon the flicking tail tip, being thrown up in the air, then landing straddled between the dinosaur’s head and tail, as the two footings part to place the performer into a split, finally landing back atop the dinosaur’s back, to receive the applause of the crowd. The rider dismounts, disappearing from the shot momentarily, as someone in the audience keeps the dinosaur occupied by tossing it a pineapple to eat. Then, a lovely lady carrying a parasol appears. The dinosaur positions its tail as a ramp to allow the girl to mount. As the girl climbs to the top of the dinosaur’s head, the original caveman reappears, poking his stick at something else to command it to obey. The second creature is a long snake, which rises to entwine itself between the dinosaur’s neck and tail, creating a tightrope. The girl performs a graceful tightrope walk, balancing on one foot, jumping, performing splits, and seating herself on the rope, as the crowd cheers. The film ends in a bit of chaos, as the snake vibrates its body, then unloops itself from the dinosaur’s neck, causing the lady to fall onto the dinosaur’s back. Meanwhile, the dinosaur appears to be devouring one of the audience members, as the film abruptly fades out.
The Circus (Paul Terry, Aesop’s Fables, 10/28/23) may possibly exist only in an incomplete print with ending missing. Various animals, including a family of cats and a nest of freshly-hatching chicks, react to the “ra-ta-ta” of a circus parade entering town. A brief shot shows a nicely-drawn aerial POV inside the big top, of the three-ring affair and the crowd cheering. Mother hen pulls the old fast one at the circus entrance, huddling all of her chicks under her feathers, then buying only one ticket for herself as she sneaks them in. Another gang of cats gain entry by having one of their own with the longest tail extend it to the roof seam of the circus tent, then fold it in the shape of a staircase for the other cats to climb in. The long-tailed cat is then himself dragged inside by the others, his tail compressing like a telephoe extender. Outside the tent, a passing cat with a bindle stick notices a hot dog stand not doing any business, with its owner sound asleep at the griddle. Cautiously, the cat creeps close to nab one of the hot dogs laying out in the open. What he does not realize is that, in one of the earliest uses of what became a trope itself, the hot “dogs” are alive, and acting as watchdogs. They begin to bark fiercely at the cat, then leap off the griddle, pursuing the cat down the road, and even taking some chomps on the cat’s tail.
A circle of the dogs chase the cat up a tree and hold him at bay, until Farmer Al Falfa, in one of his shortest cameos, appears in a dog catcher’s wagon, causing the hot dogs to scamper away with Al Falfa in pursuit. The cat returns to the circus grounds, and meets up with a mouse who is also penniless, but wants to see the show. The mouse convinces the cat to try along with himself to sneak under the tent – not knowing there is a constable guarding the elephants waiting just inside. The two get knocked back out through the canvas wall by the cop’s baton, then are pursued by him. Cornered between tents, the two become the target of the officer’s sense of “fun”, as the cop fires several shots at their feet with his guns to make them dance. Then the cop laughs, and offers peace terms to the boys, with the old proposal to let them in for nothing if they water an elephant. The boys have use of a plumbing faucet, but only appear to have Dixie cups to carry the water in. After several trips back and forth to the thirsty beast, they can see this method is getting nowhere. One of them spots a fire hydrant on the corner with attached hose. The mouse repeats Mutt and Jeff’s idea of hooking the hose to the elephant’s trunk (yes, Paul Terry was already stealing material from other studios this early). As the elephant begins to bloat, the cat, stationed at the hydrant, is distracted by a seductive female cat carrying an unlit cigarette in a long holder. She coyly asks the smitten cat for a light, which he provides, then the girl cat, predicting many vamps of the day, playfully blows a wisp of smoke into the male cat’s face. The mouse meanwhile is witnessing the elephant not only inflated to a huge ball, but beginning to spring leaks from his sides. “Turn it off”, the mouse repeatedly hollers to the cat, but the enamored cat seems to pay no attention. It is here where the film abruptly breaks, so we may never know if Terry at least came up with a new payoff for Mutt and Jeff’s old gag. (I wonder what an exploded elephant looks like?)
NEXT WEEK: More from Koko and Felix, and then into sound.