John Ritter, transformed into a cartoon mouse for the “Robocat” animated sequence of 1992‘s Stay Tuned, briefly breathes a sigh of relief, hoping to cheat the devil, as he remarks, “At least we’re safe here. No one ever dies in cartoons – – – Right??” Wrong, John.
Toon deaths have become rather commonplace at the hands of Walt Disney and others. Many a good Disney villain has met his or her maker since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and even earlier in the prototypical Babes In the Woods (Silly Symphony, 1932). Other animators such as Paul Terry were liberally killing off baddies such as spiders (in, for example, The Fly’s Bride (1929)), even earlier.
Toons have further had a long history of reaching the hereafter. Sometimes for real (as in the tragic death scene from Columbia’s The Little Match Girl (Charles Mintz/Columbia, Color Rhapsody, 11/5/37) – sometimes only in dreams – or nightmares.
This article will attempt to chronicle animation’s departures to a higher (or often lower) plane, exploring themes of reward or retribution to the animated mind. (Wow! I’m starting to sound like Rod Serling.) Live action frequently dabbled in similar themes – sometimes with nearly as vivid imagination – such as the outrageous Goin’ To Heaven On a Mule sequence from Warner’s Wonder Bar (1934), or MGM’s short The Devil’s Cabaret (1930). But animation made vivid trips into the imagination much more affordable – and on rare occasions seemed to spark a whole studio into wild flights of fantasy, where everyone’s nightmares got a chance to shine. (I do not include here the many appearances of “shoulder angels/devils”, which presumably originate from facets of one’s own conscience – this will be covered someday in a future article.)
The earliest “Afterlife” cartoon I’ve encountered to date appears to be Mutt and Jeff’s When Hell Freezes Over (1926), presently existing on the internet in two incomplete alternate edits – one original, the other color redrawn. My descriptive attempts to piece the two together for the complete story. Mutt and Jeff shiver in an apartment laden with icicles, trying to “share” one blanket between two twin beds. First one grabs the blanket, then the other. The battle develops into a literal tug of war, with Jeff winning. He plays hide and seek around the beds as Mutt tries to strangle him, then, in an early “toony” moment, five Jeff heads pop out from the various places he’s been hiding simultaneously.
Mutt gives up, and demands to know why it’s so cold in here. Jeff replies that they ran out of coal a week ago. Mutt insists they go out to look for firewood before they freeze to death. Outside, they encounter a strange cloaked figure who appears to be crying, and pointing downward to them as the source of his trouble. They think he’s crazy, but the figure opens his robes, to reveal a devil, who seizes the two and disappears with them in a puff of smoke. The three fall deep into the earth through a subterranean tunnel. They arrive in the center of a cavern – in which only one small fire pit is burning. The devil says “This is the last flame in hell. If you let it go out…you’re in BIG TROUBLE!!” The plight of other devils is observed. Several stand to one side shivering. Another wears mittens – even one on his pointed tail.
A third has to snap a frozen icicle off the underside of his nose. Mutt (for reasons unknown for lack of a surviving intertitle), decides to have a look around, leaving Jeff to tend the flame. Mutt has a bizarre encounter with a nude “soul” sitting in a frying pan atop a small stove – but shivering in the cold as there is no flame inside. Mutt obligingly strikes a match, placing it inside the stove. The frying pan begins to steam and sizzle. But the soul seems cheerily happy to be warm at last. Mutt slides the pan back and forth on the stove to apply even heat, and even adds a pinch of salt to the mix, then tips his hat and goes on his way, leaving the soul to enjoy his new sauna. Meanwhile, the flame Jeff’s tending begins to develop feet, and runs out of the pit. Jeff gives chase, catching the flame in his hat, then sits upon it. But the heat from inside burns a small charred area into the seat of his pants. The flame escapes and is caught again in the hat. Jeff almost sits down on it again, but catches himself, instead just waving a finger at the hat as if to say, “Naughty Naughty”. But the flame just burns a hole clear through the hat this time. Jeff (with no regard for third degree burns), grabs the flame with his bare hands and gives it a spanking. The flame still runs away, diving down a small hole.
Jeff reaches deep into it, and pulls and tugs something out. But instead of the flame, it’s a devil’s tail. The angered devil pursues Jeff with pitchfork into a box canyon. Cornered, Jeff pulls the old “What’s that?” ploy to get the devil to look back over his shoulder. Jeff grabs his tail and physically yanks it off, then, chalking up the pointed barb like a pool cue, he gives the devil a poke with it, sending him racing out of frame. Jeff doubles up in laughter, letting the tail fall to the ground – but the tail grows another devil attached to it! Meanwhile, Mutt (who’s been absent for a good long while) is accosted by two imps, who grab him, flatten him out on his belly, and ride him as a toboggan. Mutt careens down a hill into the box canyon, where Jeff is now seen wearing the devil tail, giving him a horse laugh. Mutt tackles Jeff, and start pounding him. The scene dissolves back to their freezing bedroom, where Mutt is really beating up on a feather pillow, while Jeff is still hogging the blanket. Jeff again gives Mutt the horse laugh, but Mutt finally delivers two real blows to Jeff’s head. Each blow sprouts a bump, resembling devil’s horns, while Jeff’s dazed eyes spin in opposite directions, for the iris out.
Hell’s Bells (Disney/Columbia, Silly Symphony, 11/21/29 – Ub Iwerks, dir.) – Fresh off the success of his masterpiece, “The Skeleton Dance”, Ub Iweerks takes us on another lesser- known musical venture into the macabre. A wall of flames takes us from the title to a cavern in the underworld and a central pit of flame. A hooded specter walks through. Bats fly by. A spider descends, and swings back and forth, seeming to swallow the camera lens. A dragon descends into the pit. We next meet Iwerks’ “model one” hellhound – with three heads – the better to bite for fleas with. A serpent devours a bat – then sprouts his wings to fly away. We enter Satan’s royal chamber, where his imps are giving a concert (including instruments such as a bass fiddle made from a human rib cage and hip bones). They parade and cavort to the tune of Gounod’s “Funeral March for a Marionette” (which TV fans will remember as the old theme for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents”), climaxing their dance with one imp crashing into a jagged wall of rock, and coming up looking like something painted by Pablo Picasso. Satan rings a bell for his dinner. A pair of imps proceed to milk a dragon, producing a large pot of flaming milk. Satan downs it in one gulp, then blows smoke out of his ears.
Realizing his hound is hungry too, Satan picks up one of the two imps and carelessly tosses him to the hound. One head opens its mouth to let him fall in, the second head does the swallowing, and the third smacks its lips. Satan is about to give the dog a second course, but the other imp dodges his grip, and makes a run for it. With underscore of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”, Satan chases the imp to the edge of a cliff. The little imp hides on a ledge over the side, then climbs back up a small crack so he is behind Satan peering down – and gives him a good swift kick! Satan falls, but clings to a lower ledge. Flames from the pit below reach up like hands to grab his tail, pulling down the pants of his devil “suit” to spank his rear end, then amass to seize the devil from the ledge and pull him into the wall of flames below, which again envelops the camera, subsiding to reveal the “The End” card. A truly bizarre and forgotten gem, which probably got no television play whatsoever, unless very recently on some Disney channel.
Golf Nuts (Terrytoons/Educational, 12/14/30) -An odd early entry in the series, never included in the Farmer Alfalfa TV package. In its short running time of about five minutes, it’s actually like three stories in one. The first third of the film extolls the virtues of mouse miniature golf (actually using a copyrighted song in its score instead of the usual Phillip Scheib noodling, Irving Berlin’s “Everybody’s Doing It Now”). As our “hero” mouse plays a course including wash on clotheslines, elephant’s trunks, and pigs’ belly buttons, it is apparent he isn’t much of a scorekeeper, as he clandestinely changes his “175′ to a “65″. Suddenly the film shifts gears altogether, as an errant shot crashes through the window of a Chinese laundry. A Chinese cat pursues him, and he jumps into a little flivver and proceeds on a new “course” of reckless driving, with a string of motorcycle cops in pursuit. (This segment is also set to a copyrighted tune, having no apparent association with the action in question: Billy Murray and Aileen Stanley’s “Maggie (Yes Ma’am)”). Mouse circles a block in one direction, while the cops double back in the opposite direction, resulting in a head on collision, catapulting the mouse to lay motionless on a rooftop – deceased. Part three of the film commences with the mouse’s soul emerging with wings and halo from his mortal remains.
The background suddenly changes to clouds and sky, as our hero floats upward past a golden stair with a long row of other mouse angels. Suddenly things get stranger, as the remainder of the mouse’s companions on his trip upward no longer have skin – but are human skeletons. Two blow a trumpet fanfare, ushering in a floating elevator without a shaft. The mouse rides inside, a bit unnerved by his dancing bony companions. An invisible (excepting for costume and a disembodied mouth with megaphone) elevator operator announces stops on various floors, as if a department store, including, for no apparent reason, dancing ladies’ underwear and toys on respective cloud floors. They finally reach top floor, where the mouse meets St. Peter (who looks suspiciously like Farmer Alfalfa) at a judge’s bench. He asks the mouse only one question: “What’s your score?” The mouse shows him his doctored score card. “Liar!”, shouts Peter, and hits the mouse on the head with his gavel, releasing a trap door under the mouse. The mouse plummets down a long tunnel lined with skulls on either side, then in perspective through many layers of clouds, coming to land in the middle of hell, encircled by a ring of pitchfork-wielding imps and two large devils. The devils carry golf clubs, and respectively bat the mouse around like a golf ball for a few strokes, but the mouse finally ducks, gives one of the devils a “raspberry”, and races into the depths of the nearest subterranean cavern, with a string of imps in pursuit, for the iris out. (The only currently available print of this film is from France, with replaced French main and end titles. As a little treat, I’m including here my own recreation of the original Educational Pictures titling – hope you enjoy.)
Swing You Sinners (Fleischer/Paramount, Talkartoon (Bimbo), 12/24/30 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Ted Sears/Willard Bowsky, anim.) – This film has to be seen to be believed. Undoubtedly the most surreal of a considerable string of surreal Fleischer epics, the general game plan for this cartoon must have been to send a corporate memo to every animator in the studio, saying only “Animate your worst nightmare” – then find the loosest of excuses to string the results all together. A bare-bones (no pun intended) plotline introduces the film, as Bimbo (in the early tall design also used in “Dizzy Dishes”) attempts to steal a chicken – but grabs the hand of an officer of the law instead. Seeing in his mind’s eye only images of the rock pile and electric chair, Bimbo hides out in a graveyard. (I mean really, Bimbo – does anything good ever come of a toon hiding in a graveyard?) The gate morphs into solid mortar and stone, and the keyhole “swallows” its own key. Everything everywhere begins coming to life (or is it afterlife), including graves, gravestones, haunted trees and ghosts galore (with one skeleton noting a vacancy in a nearby grave and placing a “For Rent” sign on it). Every one of these spooks is intent on persecuting the “sinner” in their midst, announcing his “time has come”. (No credits for voices are known, but choral work seems to be provided by a genuine Negro massed choir, with several soloists having notable dialect accents). The perimeter walls of the graveyard close in on Bimbo from all sides, shrinking around him until Bimbo is almost strangled. He seeks refuge in a barn, but is further intimidated by haunted chickens, haystacks, and ever more ghosts (including a barber ghost with razor, who offers him a “permanent shave”).
Bimbo’s so scared, two transparent “souls” of himself, in photographic negative outlines, separate from his body, leaving him literally “beside himself” until he pulls himself together. He escapes the barn, only to have the barn itself come to life and chase after him. Two more specters ask “Where you want your body sent?” “Body? Hmphhh! There Ain’t gonna be NO body!” The remainder of the film has Bimbo pursued by an endless stream of visual nightmares and falling into Hades, where he floats helplessly amidst whirling knives, monster heads trying to bite him, and finally a giant floating skull coming right at us that not only swallows Bimbo but envelops the camera. The animated ending is apparently lost, thanks to U.M.& M. TV’s contractual commitment to remove Paramount’s name from the cartoon – thus, the integration of the Paramount logo into the final scene was abruptly disposed of in favor of a plain black U.M. & M. “The End” card. The current print cuts so abruptly, the skull never fully reaches the camera, and is considerably jarring to the eye. I again present with this post my own recreation of main and end titles, with several frames of the skull newly reanimated so it can reach the camera, and interpolation of a floating Paramount logo borrowed from a live-action picture of a few years earlier. Heaven knows if its entirely accurate (prove me wrong by finding an original print), but its certainly a massive visual step up from being left “hanging in mid-air” by U.M.& M.’s edit.
Hide and Seek (Fleischer, Talkartoon, 5/26/32 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Roland Crandall, anim.) – A weird little film, even for Fleischer, looking nothing at all like contemporary Fleischer releases for 1932. For one thing, its credits fail to give Bimbo a star billing – even though he’s present all through the picture. Perhaps this is because he appears in his old all-white form (resembling his predecessor Fitz from the Koko the Clown cartoons) as he did in early entries such as “Hot Dog” (1930) and “Silly Scandals” (1931), and without any sign of Betty Boop, who was already fully developed by “Silly Scandals” – suggesting that this cartoon was held back from the 1930 season, and Fleischer probably felt the audiences would no longer recognize the character as Bimbo. Instead of Boop, a nameless tall, thin, lanky female, bearing practically no resemblance to Betty, appears, and is preyed upon by “I. Grabber, Kidnapper”, who happens to drop his business card, address and all, at the feet of traffic cop Bimbo. Bimbo fashions a link of three sausage into the wheels and body of a motorcycle, and chases Grabber up a mountainside and onto a volcanic peak. The center of the crater descends like an elevator to a landing with sign reading “Hell’s Kitchen”.
The giant clawed hand of the devil (who in this picture resembles a cow) drags them all inside. He drops Bimbo and the girl into an icebox for a later meal, while Grabber and the goat he was using for transportation sizzle as pies in an oven. Bimbo’s motorcycle (which has developed a face and personality) attempts to come to the rescue. Unable to pull the icebox door open, the scooter just drives right through it, picking up Bimbo and the girl. Nearby, a dragon plays a round of miniature golf at the 19th hole. The motorcycle goes past the dragon, up a ramp for the golf balls, and into the hole. The sign on he hole at closer inspection points downward, and in fine print reads, “China – 4000 miles”. After a lengthy and spiraling fall, the couple and their scooter fall out of the hole and upwards into the branches of a palm tree. The camera turns the background upside down to reveal they’re in China, and the tree deposits them back to earth in front of the door of a Chinese temple. The scooter knocks on the temple door, and a little Chinaman comes out. Bimbo, ready for anything, hands the man a sheet of paper written in Chinese. Obligingly, the man begins the questions, “Do you take this man…Do you take this woman?” The girl answers, “Chop suey.” Bimbo answers, “CHOW MEIN!” Bimbo extends his policeman’s hat over both of their heads, and they kiss under the hat, the hat spinning wildly as the scene irises out.
The Air Race (Ub Iwerks, Unissued, Willie Whopper, 1933) and “Spite Flight” (Ub Iwerks, MGM, Willie Whopper, 10/14/33), both share an identical gag (retreaded from the unissued pilot film for the series into the subsequent issued episode). Although nobody dies, an air race soars to heights so high that it intercepts St. Peter on a cloud, thumbing for a ride. When a plane passes by Peter without picking him up, Peter does something decidedly pre-code, changing the gesture of his hand from protruded thumb to a protruded middle index finger! Need I say more?
Southern Exposure (Columbia/Charles Mintz, Krazy Kat, 1/25/34 – Ben Harrison and Manny Gould, dir.) – A retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, with Krazy and his Kitty girlfriend hardly getting into the action until the second half. Kitty appears to be playing the part of Little Eva this time, as an upset of their ice floe by Simon Legree sends them up in the air and crashing down – leaving Kitty motionless on the ground. Two human angels descend from the skies, installing robe, halo, and wings on Kitty and singing “All God’s Children Got Wings”. They fly her to the pearly gates, where St. Peter briefly looks up her record and lets her enter through a turnstile. Meanwhile, Krazy, back on Earth, is determined to join her.
Grabbing an old nightgown from a clothesline, a donut and a stick for a halo, and sticking a live chicken inside the nightgown’s shoulders so that its wings protrude, Krazy uses the chicken’s wings to fly up to heaven (but chickens don’t fly, so how does this work?). He sings his own chorus of the song to sneak past St. Peter, who scratches his head and tries to look him up in the book. Krazy tries to partake of heavenly life, pulling a roast chicken off a tree that also grows hams, sausages, and money – but St. Peter catches on, gives chase, and before Krazy can even exchange a kiss with Kitty, throws him out a back gate. He is bid a final farewell by an angel version of Mae West (I thought she always said in her movies, “I’m No Angel”), who tells him “Why don’t you come up sometime? Any time.” Then Krazy falls from the cloud, tumbling down toward Earth. The background dissolves – and we find that Krazy and Kitty are really seated in a theater balcony box, watching a performance of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Relieved, Krazy gives Kitty his traditional “The End” kiss.
Red Hot Mamma (Fleischer/Paramount, Betty Boop, 2/2/34 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Willard Bowsky/Dave Tendlar, anim.) – In a direct lift of the setup from “When Hell Freezes Over”, Boop shivers on a cold winter night, even taking the chickens inside her home to keep them from freezing. She builds a large fire in the fireplace, and stokes it well – maybe a bit too well. While she curls up on a carpet in front of the flames, the heat of the fire begins to have an effect on items in the room. The mantelpiece candlesticks melt. The chickens, perched on a rod, faint and start rolling around on the rod, transforming into barbecue chickens on a rotisserie. A portrait of an Eskimo with igloo melts the igloo and ice away, leaving the Eskimo to strip to his undies. Suddenly the fireplace dissolves to the mouth of a cave to the underworld, and a transparent Betty, in her dreams, stand up and wanders inside. An obligatory gag is twice repeated of Betty’s curvaceous figure being seen in silhouette through her nightgown when walking past flames. Betty observes the induction of newly-arrived incoming imps into hell, as each “soul” falls down a chute, where waiting imps cause it to land inside a devil costume which is then zipped up. They are ushered into an initiation hall, and several imps approach with what appears to be a fire engine. However, when they pull out a hose to douse the hall, it doesn’t shoot water – but acts as a flame-thrower instead, setting the building and the inductees afire (they seem to like it, as they shout, “Yeaaaa!”). Betty gives out with a musical rendition of Gene Kardos’s “Hells Bells”, including needle drops from such record (see James Parten’s article “Max Fleischer and Novelty Records”, on Needle Drop Notes page, this website), with various flames and imps dancing, burning up their tails, and one devil eating an ice-cream cone made of flame balls. Finally, a group of devils approach Betty, attempting to flirt and make passes at her. Betty greets them with a “cold shoulder” – a literal ice block in such place – which freezes several of the devils in their tracks. A crown-wearing king devil tries his turn – only to be met by an icicle-laden “icy stare”, which also freezes him to solid ice. A long shot reveals the entirety of Hades freezing over, as the remaining imps run for cover. Betty snaps her fingers at them all, having put them in their place. But the cavern floor caves in under her, sending her plummeting down a tunnel, as the background dissolves to land her back where she started on the living room carpet – but the fire has gone completely out, and there is now ice and snow in its opening. Rather than get mixed up in all that again, Betty runs for her bed, tosses up the covers, dives in – and from nowhere over a dozen blankets pile on top of her, She sticks her head out long enough to give us her signature “Boop Boop a Doop”, and disappears back in bed.
Hell’s Fire (Ub Iwerks/MGM, Willie Whopper (Cinecolor), 2/17/34). Two visits to Hell in the same month? But this one marks animation’s first color visit to the underworld. In another of Whopper’s creative “tall tales”, he and his dog explore the world’s most dangerous volcano. But the smoke from its peak comes from a less-than intimidating source – Satan is merely settling back on his throne, smoking a pipe. Willie tosses a large rock into the crater to see how deep it is – and clunks Satan on the head. Satan sends two “hands” of flame out of the crater to drag in the intruders. But Whopper and his dog soon make friends with the pitchforked monarch, when the pup “kisses his boo boo” to make it all better. Satan invites them to attend a royal gala, with guest list including Napoleon, Nero, Anthony and Cleopatra, Simon Legree, Nero, a belching Rasputin, and Dr, Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, among others (one character with a blue beard seems to be dressed in Arab attire – if anyone knows who he is, please let me know). But they are only the exalted guests. The real center of attention is the persecution of the most undesirable of them all – Old Man Prohibition (repeal of which had taken place shortly before this cartoon). Satan, in musical verse, announces as his torture that Prohibition be filled up with “bootleg rye”. A group of small imps pursue Prohibition, capturing him, and force-feed him such beverage through a funnel.
Willie and his pup, who seem to be well enjoying this spectacle, have a brief encounter meanwhile with a redesigned version of Iwerks’s hellhound from “Hell’s Bells”, who repeats the gag of the three-headed swallow, this time ending with a burp instead of a smack of lips by head three. Prohibition begins feeling the effects of the liquor, and hallucinates pink elephants, dragons, and other transparent critters. Frightened, he starts to run away. “Stop him!” commands the devil. Willie and his pup volunteer, and give chase. They pursue Prohibition into a door marked “Boiler Room – Keep Out”. Inside, one of Satan’s imps mans a coal chute, opening a trap door periodically to let small doses of coal into hell’s main boiler. Willie and Prohibition don’t watch where they’re going – crashing into the apparatus and knocking the door off the coal chute. An endless stream of coal pours into the boiler, raising a thermometer’s measurements of its heat to the top line – “WOW!” A huge explosion causes an eruption of the volcano. Willie, pup, and Prohibition are all blasted out of hell, landing in the nest of a large eagle nearby. The eagle rises out of the nest, assuming the standard pose for the then-prominent “National Relief Act” logo appearing on many films of the day, then grabs up in his talons the three visitors. He flies Prohibition over the volcano crater, and drops him back in, the crater morphing into a mouth, which swallows him, burps, then excuses itself by saying “Pardon me.” As for Willie and pup, the eagle merely flies them off to safety, as they wave goodbye to the camera.
The Brave Tin Soldier (Ub Iwerks, Comicolor, 4/7/34) – This reworking of the Hans Christian Andersen classic does follow the story with the soldier and ballerina dying at the end (here, shot by firing squad into a fireplace, where they melt together into a single heart). But there, it departs from the maudlin. The souls of the lovers travel up the chimney as whiffs of smoke, and arrive in “Toy Heaven”. There, a toy St. Peter with wheels instead of feet greets them, and the two lovers solidify from the smoke – but the newly reformed body of the soldier now by a miracle reshapes and regains his lost leg that broke off at the beginning of the cartoon. The couple are admitted through St. Peter’s gate, and dance happily inside for an upbeat ending, with a final touch of St. Peter putting a toy cat out for the night as he locks up the pearly gates. (A noteworthy observation: This last scene in the Blackhawk print currently circulating suffers from substantial nitrate deterioration, not only infiltrating picture but hitting the soundtrack too, and the print ends with no music over the “The End” castle shot. Many years ago, as a student at UCLA, I viewed the 35mm of what was probably this same print under the supervision of an archive curator on a movieola. As it reached the ending of this sequence, the film started to run off the sprocket wheels. The curator shut the machine down, and unthreaded the film to see what was the cause.
The footage of the castle “The End” card had apparently developed a “jellied” consistency to the emulsion on at least one side of the two-strip film (I believe it was the blue strip) – so that one emulsion was literally peeling off in strips, stuck to emulsion on the other side of the film from the previous wind around the core. It was a heart-wrenching sight to witness, and the curator was left scratching his head as to how to get the hopeless mess back into the can. At the time, Blackhawk (the owners of the print) had only processed the film for 8mm and 16mm reduction prints, and the video edition had not yet been made. I can only presume they went back to this same print for the video issue, after the damage was done, accounting for the loss of sound for the end card (the visual appears to have been edited on from another title in the series). “Thunderbean Thursday” article of June 27, 2019 indicates his current notes on this title show four nitrate prints available with no negatives. I hope the other three prints aren’t missing their endings, too, and also hope he’s careful if he has to use the one I viewed so many years ago. Castle Films issued this title briefly, in a rare issue in black-and-white 16mm only – may I suggest if all else fails that he attempt to locate one as a possible last resort source of the missing music?)
Lots more “devilish” activity to document next week. Till them keep your tridents pointy and at the ready.