June 12, 2014 posted by

F.D.R., the Depression – and a few New Deal Cartoons

NRA-logoWhen enough times goes by, history can seem more like mythology, with the artifacts left behind being the only things left to ‘prove’ things really happened. Time takes with it the first hand experiences and memories. With those first hand experiences now becoming extinct for the golden era of animation, the artifacts, interviews and memories of stories told to the next generation serve as the closest associations to history.

I always found the topical references in old cartoons to be interesting, and always wanted to find out more about these references to the past. My grandparents made great comments when I would show them cartoons from World War 2 especially, leaving me excited to find out more.

The Great Depression is this week brief topic – here’s a few things to put things in persecutive a little, and some ‘New Deal’ related cartoons.

FDR offers a New Deal:

..and FDR’s first Fireside Chat. Roosevelt had the idea of talking semi- informally directly to the American people each week through a radio program. This first fireside chat gives you a pretty good idea of the tone he set in these weekly chats. I’m sure the newer generations never understood the reference in ‘Dumbo’ : “I heard a fireside ‘chat’!”

Here’s a great film clip with FDR giving a fireside chat about unemployment, shown as part of a Universal newsreel:

Hollywood was asked to help out in the recovery effort as part of the National Recovery Administration’s effort to inspire confidence in the American public. Jimmy Durante presents the message with gusto in this little short:

This brings us to cartoons of course. My favorite ‘New Deal’ cartoon is Marching Along (1933). Here it is from Thunderbean’s Little King cartoon set. It was a silent print, with the soundtrack from a not as good picture quality
sound print. I’ve recently discovered where the original negative is of this film, and hope to transfer it soon!

Perhaps the most famous of the ‘New Deal’ related cartoons is the Oswald short Confidence (1933). It’s one of the few post-Disney Oswalds that has been ‘officially’ released on DVD (available on Woody Woodpecker and Friends, volume 1, from Universal DVD)


..and here’s a short clip from the recently released A Conversation with Walter and Gracie Lantz DVD

Chris Buchman asks Walter about Roosevelt walking:

While it wasn’t a complete secret that the Roosevelt was disabled, it became rare to see photographs of the president wheelchair-bound. Here is an interesting article from Time about this subject.

….and to wrap things up, here’s Let’s Go (1937), a Columbia Color Rhapsody, another favorite of mine. It seems that all it takes is some magic honey to cure everything. The real question is, if they are so prosperous and well meaning and it is so easy to fix things, why didn’t the bees help out sooner??! There is more that just a simple message of helping those in need here; they seem to be declaring all out war on poverty, bombing the city. The Sunshine Makers seems to have a similar idea, though they don’t want it in that cartoon…


  • I missed sending the link for the first fireside chat- here it is:

  • Thanks for this blog post! I’m particularly delighted to know about the “I heard a fireside ‘chat’” reference in Dumbo, as I’m one of those newer generations who didn’t have a clue.

  • Lantz: “I never had any comment about any of my cartoons.”
    Aside from the NAACP, perhaps.

  • Walter Lantz’s ‘Confidence’ predates the better-known Kaufman and Hart play “I’d Rather Be Right” wherein the character FDR sings and dances. George M. Cohan played FDR on Broadway in the role, reprised by James Cagney in the later WB feature ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’ Nothing much was said at the time about FDR’s dancing ability; it seems glaringly peculiar today in light of what we know about the reality of his physical condition, a well-guarded secret at the time. Here’s a ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ clip, featuring the brief ‘For the Record’ number (with a WWII propaganda lyric tacked onto the end), showcasing FDR’s terpsichorean display:

    • Nothing much was said at the time about FDR’s dancing ability; it seems glaringly peculiar today in light of what we know about the reality of his physical condition, a well-guarded secret at the time.

      Sometimes technicalities get in the way of good writing I say!

  • I saw the NRA logo on the Marx Bros. film “Duck Soup” and the Popeye cartoon “I Eats My Spinach”.

    • i vaguely recall a columbia krazy kat cartoon in which the nra logo appears. i think the logo was formed by characters marching/dancing in a busby berkley style.

    • The Krazy Kat cartoon you are thinking of is KATNIPS OF 1940 (1934). There is a wonderful musical nimber edited out of the Samba TV negative, in which Krazy and Kitty salute 3/2 beer and the NRA eagle in a Berkeley-like formation dance number.

    • much thanks, Mark!

  • That is one busty Queen Bee.

    Thanks Steve, another Columbia short new to me. That studio really does need presence on home video.

    Thunderbean Thursday usually means great animated rarities, but this week Durante just KILLED!

    • “Let’s Go” is a mixed message. Disney’s “Grasshopper and the Ants” was very focused on the work ethic. This starts out the same way — Industrious bees and pathetic grasshoppers, the latter dropping their relief coin or whatever it is into slot machines and getting back into line for more relief. Then we see the hungry family, seemingly waiting for father to bring home the relief. I thought there was going to be a different political point coming, like the grasshoppers proving unworthy of bee charity (think of the duck and the pig in “Wise Little Hen”).

      Instead, the magic honey suddenly fills them with gleeful energy and they start farming, cleaning and building. All they needed was “Confidence” get up and go to work. But the honey also brings them free money and gold eggs, AND the slot machines start paying off. Gamblers can gamble again! Hooray!

      One final oddity: These are evidently insects living in a properly scaled world, with giant flowers, human trash repurposed as buildings, etc. But they raise and evidently eat little tiny chickens.

  • I find it fascinating the impact of the depression and New Deal on early cartoons. Grist for the mill, undoubtedly, but there ALMOST seems to be the whiff of social conscience here. Other notable cartoons on the subject include Mintz’s PROSPERITY BLUES, LAMBS WILL GAMBOL and THE GLOOM CHASERS (the only cartoon I know of to tackle the subject of the dust bowl) and Van Bueren’s HAPPY HOBOES and PALS. Though the depression permeates all of Fleischer’s early cartoons I can’t think of any which address the subject in such a direct, almost editorial, fashion. Am I forgetting something?

    • Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs (1932) is one of the key Fleishcher cartoons to address the Depression. Everything’s for sale, including the planet Earth! The planet Saturn, dressed as a Jewish peddler, pulls gravity out of the “oith” to see what happins!

  • There was a Columbia Krazy Kat — maybe I’m conflating a couple of them — that was also full of message.

    One has Krazy as a broker, unleashing a bunch of dancing bulls with bags of cash. They’re flattened a bunch of bears in a football-style brawl. Then (or was this a separate cartoon?) Krazy peddles apples on the street. At one point a prosperous-looking pig walks up — and turns out to be a miserably scrawny pig behind a cutout, who leans forward and inhales the apple Krazy is holding.

    A dog turns up singing “Smile, Darn You, Smile” while slapping cutout smiles on everybody. Two guys in white coats haul him away mid-song, but Krazy has taken over the song and the mission. After a brief setback — a sad old St. Bernard whose jowls seem too heavy to smile — Krazy cheers up America and the depression is over. Always wanted to know what happened to the loony dog who actually started it all.

    Scrappy never embraced symbolism, but in one he did operate a bug-infested flophouse.

    • The first Krazy Kat you are thinking of is LAMBS WILL GAMBLE (1931), with the dancing bulls and bears, and Krazy selling apples is from PROSPERITY BLUES (1932).

  • “Let’s Go” is an outstanding cartoon. Imaginative gags, extravagant animation, and terrific songs. An amazing achievement from a cartoon studio with a second-rate reputation; shows what audiences took for granted back then!

  • By the way, though he’s a little hard to spot, the “exterminator” in the Durante clip is Moe Howard of the Three Stooges!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *