August 20, 2019 posted by Tommy Stathes

Clowning Around at the Cartoon Carnival

Cartoon Researchers, it’s been a busy season, and summer is almost over! Since I was reporting on the 10th anniversary of my 16mm Cartoon Carnival series here back in June, many of you received your long-awaited copy of my Cartoon Roots: Bobby Bumps and Fido Blu-ray/DVD collection. Reestablishing Bobby’s place in early animation is an honor, and yet we’re still only getting started. Some good news I can share is that I’ll be back soon to surprise readers with upcoming projects in the Cartoons On Film pipeline, some or all of which should take much less time to produce than our last couple of projects. In the meantime…

For a fun little diversion from discussing major long term projects, let’s talk about a little area of pop culture history that is quite near and dear to me: clowns and circuses! It’s quite sad to think of how many people are genuinely terrified of clowns…”more for me,” as I like to say. Nineteenth century poster design and advertising art for circuses are some of my most favorite forms of commercial art from that period, and as we know, the early animation industry that soon followed would also pay homage to this American pastime—as it would with most any other subject or notion. While practically all of the platinum and golden age studios produced one-off shorts in the clown or circus vein, we really owe it to Max and Dave Fleischer for popularizing Ko-Ko the Clown and solidifying this part of our cultural consciousness into the world of animation—initially through their Out of the Inkwell series, beginning in the late 1910s, and culminating in Ko-Ko’s sound-era sidekick adventures alongside the much more famous Betty Boop in the 1930s. A little bit of beloved Brooklyn culture, via Dave Fleischer and his Coney Island clown suit, serving as test material for the Fleischers’ rotoscope invention, would help transform animated cartoon characters from novelties or spectacles, and into legitimate cinema superstars. That’s not so ‘frightening’ now, is it?

For my final Cartoon Carnival screening of the summer, we will honor clowns and circus life with the likes of Betty Boop, Felix the Cat, Koko the Clown, Bobby Bumps, and other favorites in rare 16mm film form. There’ll even be one of those mysterious early animated Charlie Chaplin cartoons where he, too, gets into some mischief with a “Bearded Lady” and a “Noseless Goat.” We’ll have nearly two hours of early rarities and some 1930s classics, which we hope you’ll join us for! Cartoon Carnival 82: Clown Town is taking place at 7pm on Friday, 8/30/19, at 389 Melrose Street in Brooklyn, NY. Visit the Facebook event page here to read more and RSVP.

Speaking of animated Chaplin, I was so thrilled to find the film in question as a teenager that I dedicated one of my very first YouTube uploads to it; basically a low-res sampling of its opening titles shot off the wall while it was being projected. A bit of late 2000s reminiscing for you:

And while I normally don’t publish Cartoon Carnival set lists in advance, I thought I’d share one of my favorite early 1930s circus and clown cartoons, which will also be screened in 16mm at this upcoming event. This early Van Beuren short is something I grew up watching—and loving—as a toddler on one of those cheap-o public domain VHS collections, where it was actually being passed off as a Mickey Mouse cartoon. I wasn’t complaining then, and I’m still not complaining now. Anyway, what are some of *your* favorites in this genre?

For anyone who can’t make it out to this event, but who still wants to hear about more of these monthly shows, I recommend you join our group on Facebook, The Tommy Stathes Cartoon Carnival.

My crew and I are doing what we can to revive these early cartoons for new audiences, and we always appreciate having new fans and friends come along for the journey.

Additionally, anyone who would like to support our cause from afar can still do so over at Ko-fi! The monthly 16mm archive storage bill is super hefty, and virtually anyone can donate a symbolic ticket purchase to help out. I’m very grateful for the support—every bit counts.

In the meantime, see you at Cartoonland Circus with fun 16mm rarities! And be back soon for big news on some brand new Cartoon Roots releases.


  • My wife has a terrible clown phobia; she won’t watch Dumbo or go to see I Pagliacci with me. She might enjoy the Animaniacs cartoon “Clown and Out”, in which Wakko clobbers a clown repeatedly with a mallet, but I can’t even get her to watch that.

    I have a special fondness for “Felix Wins Out” (1923), as it is quite possibly the first cartoon to have been furnished with a through-composed musical score. In 1927 no less a composer than Paul Hindemith wrote a score, realised on a mechanical organ, for a special screening of this cartoon (billed under the German title “Felix der Kater im Zirkus”) at a music festival in Baden-Baden. However, the machine that had been set up to synchronise the film projector with the pianola roll malfunctioned and caught fire, destroying the roll; there was no backup copy, and Hindemith’s manuscript is presumably lost. Hindemith also composed a score or Hans Richter’s Dadaist film “Vormittagsspuk”, which uses stop-motion animated techniques, for the same festival; but this music has also been lost, although the film itself survives. Hindemith appears in several scenes, once as an animated cutout!

    • Clown and Out! “A clown will not bite me and throw me in the basement.” I liked the ending of that short.

    • Clown Chalk

    • Yikes….

  • I watched “Mickey’s Circus” on the Disney Channel when I was a kid, and it was the hardest I ever laughed in all my life. The stuff with Donald and the seals was funny, but then he and Mickey get stranded on the high wire and I just lost it. Everyone talks about how fast-paced the Warner shorts are, but some of those mid thirties Disney cartoons could give them a run for their money.
    Speaking of Warners, there’s the one-two punch of “Acrobatty Bunny” and “Big Top Bunny”, two of the best Bob McKimson Bugs Bunny cartoons. I especially love the bit on the latter when Bugs tricks Bruno the Slobovian Bear into diving 1000 feet into a block of cement “on my head, yet!”.

  • I guess that one circus-themed cartoon I dimly recall is “I LOVE A PARADE”, one of the early MERRIE MELODIES titles, although I cannot recall whether or not it features split screen images of circus performers, similar to any circus poster of the era. I know that the MGM Bosko cartoon, “CIRCUS DAZE” does capture, in its first few seconds, the excitement of a circus, with a sneaky gag if you observe carefully involving a customer receiving a hot dog from a vender. I realize that this cartoon contains some material of its time and not always for general audiences, but its overall imagery will send that afore-mentioned circus poster imagery into a tailspin. In fact, when I saw live action ads for the Barnum and Bailey Circus in my childhood on TV, I couldn’t help but recall the BOSKO cartoon from the HAPPY HARMONIES series, so I mention it in passing. My guess is that you will run “BOOP BOOP-A-DOOP” during your next cartoon carnival. I’ve always liked that cartoon, and it would run nicely alongside “I LOVE A PARADE”. Gotta love those pre-Code cartoons.

  • I also like the Andy Panda circus cartoon “The Bandmaster”, mainly because it’s one of the very few cartoons (prior to Adventure Time) that depicts my own instrument, the viola. One gag pans through the circus band to show a big fat pig playing a tiny violin, followed by a slightly smaller pig playing a viola, then a still smaller pig playing a cello, and finally a baby piglet standing on top of a stack of books and playing a double bass.

    Also, “The Bandmaster” is one of those cartoons (like “The Band Concert” and “Baton Bunny”) built around a single operatic overture, in this case Ferdinand Herold’s “Zampa” Overture — and I hasten to point out that “Ferdinand Herold’s Zampa Overture” is an anagram of “Hazard: viola nerds performed tune.”

  • While the foundation of what was Ko-Ko the Clown was in the Dave Fleischer model, the character had no name during the period referenced here. That did not happen until 1923.

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