The words knickerbocker, pneumatic, kinetoscope, and monocle all bring to mind a certain decade long ago—the 1890s, when bicycles had huge front wheels and real men had waxed moustaches. To the eight young men working as the Lantz studio’s in-betweeners in 1939, the end of the Victorian era was as distant to them as Atari joysticks seem today.
Yet they did their best providing the in-between frames for an animated series from Walter Lantz that spoofed the sappy melodramas of that bygone time. These starred the character Nellie, with titles like Nellie the Sewing Machine Girl (1938) and The Bird on Nellie’s Hat (1939). They were similar in theme to Chuck Jones’ later The Dover Boys (1942), although filmed in black and white.
Lantz was experimenting with new characters to replace Oswald Rabbit. This Cartune melodrama was just one among several irons-in-the-fire that he hoped would become the next hit series for Universal. After a significant restructuring, the marketing for the studio was all about seeming new. “The New Universal Presents” was the preferred line above the title on its movie posters in 1939.
As it turned out, what panned out for Universal in the late 30s wasn’t always so new. With the release of the box-office hit, Son of Frankenstein, they were dipping back into the same well of monster movies that had brought them success before. And really, has there ever been a more potent gathering of Victorian faces than the three stars of this film? Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Bela Lugosi—all distinguished for their Old World countenances.
The Lantz animation staff enjoyed seeing the famous actors on the studio lot. Son of Frankenstein was in production just as the Nellie series was starting up and all eyes were on Stage 28 and its monstrous collection of talent. The studio was counting on Basil, Boris, and Bela to deliver. It only made sense for Lantz to invoke Rathbone, with a nod also to Rudolf Valentino, in naming his rakish new cartoon villain: Rudolf Ratbone.
The rivals for Nellie’s attention were the dastardly Rudolf and her wholesome hero, Dauntless Dan. Like The Dover Boys, the series starred the voice talent of Mel Blanc and it lampooned the moral rectitude of the 1890s, a time when entertainment was served up like spoonfuls of castor oil or a preacher’s sermon.
Lantz was born in 1899—though he told everyone 1900, a secret that he corrected only much later in life—so he may have had more affinity for this line of humor than the boys he kept in the “Black Hole,” the windowless room where the animators’ stacks of drawings were sent to be completed. The staff here was young and boisterous, mostly teens pulling entry-level wages.
They were bottom-rung among the animation team, but that didn’t keep these kids from offering their own gags to the series. Lantz hired them on the strength of their art samples, and several of the in-betweeners went on to have distinguished careers elsewhere. In my last blog, I discussed how Hank Ketcham achieved great fame after his short stint here.
Among those who turned in Nellie gag submissions that survive to this day are Ketcham, Fred Rice, Dick Marion, Ralph Berg, Lowell Elliot, and Dick Kinney. In fact, Berg was bold enough to write “$5.00 please,” suggesting that Lantz gave bonus money to artists whose gags he accepted. That would have been a generous amount of extra compensation in 1938.
A lasting benefit of the bonus pay was that it incentivized the artists to sign their names to everything they drew, giving a precise archival record of their work, unlike sketches from other periods at the studio. A sequence from Berg shows the villainous Ratbone approaching a nickel on the ground, but when he snatches it up, it is only a shining little puddle of liquid. For this faux-nickel gag, he wanted five bucks please.
Rudolf Ratbone is a stereotypical bad guy, mustachioed with a top hat and black cape. Guys like this are an enduring trope from the nineteenth century, cemented into pop culture after their constant appearances in Silent Movies. Yes, these creeps and baddies are noticeably sinister from the moment they first skulk across a flickering screen.
They leer at women and tie them to railroad tracks. The 1890s stand as a decade that lasted for what seemed like thirty years, maybe longer, judging from so many American silent films that kept the dated formula alive—a virtuous hero rescuing a “damsel in distress” from a scoundrel with a Kaiser moustache and a flowing black coat. It remains the single greatest fashion decade for Evil.
This quickly grew into a mainstay of Hollywood’s movie-machinery, as melodramas and serialized adventures required more and more Bad Guys. Cartoons also became dependent on the formula, having the advantage of mocking and subverting the convention for laughs. The spin that worked quite well was to make the well-meaning hero a dimwit.
This was the case with Dauntless Dan, the Lantz studio’s hopeless lunkhead who was less formidable than Nellie herself at dealing with Ratbone. Dan looked like a boy wonder, an All-American in a sensible suit, yet evidently without a wink of brainpower. Could he smell a rat? Not a chance! But he had the virginal good cheer of an Eagle Scout. There were six Nellie cartoons released between 1938-39:
•Nellie the Sewing Machine Girl (1938)
•Nellie the Indian Chief’s Daughter (1938)
•The One Armed Bandit (1939)
•The Birth of a Toothpick (1939)
•Nellie of the Circus (1939)
•The Bird on Nellie’s Hat (1939)
I’ll be discussing these cartoons more in upcoming posts. But for anyone who enjoys the satire and style of The Dover Boys, I recommend the Nellie series, especially my favorite among them, The Birth of a Toothpick, which is just as entertaining as Chuck Jones’ own droll and understated take on this faraway decade, the 1890s, when cinema would have us believe that men like Ratbone swished their capes.