THUNDERBEAN THURSDAY
February 1, 2024 posted by Steve Stanchfield

Historical Moments In the Depression – Told by Cartoons

One of the things I really love about animation history is that, sometimes, an event or a time period can be understood from the perspective of those living it by the the cartoons those people made. The Great Depression’s effects can really be studied in the popular entertainment at the time in Radio Shows, live action films, books and other popular entertainment. Sometimes cartoons have the most visceral imagery related to events of the time. I thought it might be fun to do a quick focus on a few films from the Great Depression and a few things to consider about them.

The Beer Parade (1933)

Never has a cartoon been so focused on a singular moment in history. This particular Scrappy cartoon is only about Beer, and the consumption of beer as a form of happiness. Rollin Kirby, a political cartoonist, had invented a character called ‘Mr. Dry’ that appeared in a series of political cartoons through the 20s into the early 30s. It’s clear he’s the inspiration for the antagonist of the happy elves in this cartoon— and the ‘Prohibition’ character later in Hell’s Fire (1934) by the Iwerks Studio.

You can really see the longing for prohibition’s end, perhaps never better detailed in any film as much as this one. This particular cartoon was never in the Samba TV package, making it nearly impossible to see for many years.


The Old Mill (1937)

Disney’s classic animated film works on several levels; the overall narrative focuses on various animals trying to survive a thunderstorm in a rotting mill. The less considered narrative is that of people’s survival through the Great Depression, all coping with the crisis in different ways. This message wasn’t lost on many of the people that saw the film then, and the message of solidarity though the storm, together. I think it’s one of the loveliest animated films ever made, and really the first Disney short that isn’t really a cartoon any more, but rather an animated short that really defines where the studio is going during this period.


Let’s Go (1937)

I’ve written about this cartoon a handful of times over the years. Here is the cartoon research article from 2017.

The plot here is the ‘Grasshopper and the Bees’, or something like that. In this tale, a poor grasshopper manages to play his fiddle in the productive and happy land of Bees. This catches the attention of the Queen Bee, and, with some prompting, he tales the sad tale of the depression taking everything away. This sad song is enough to send the Bees into full help mode, bombarding the land of grasshoppers with magic honey bombs, reviving the grasshopper economy. The attack of the bees to help the grasshoppers by dropping bombs is disturbing when you think about it, as is the barely camouflaged reference to race throughout and a devastated ghetto right next to the finely manicured land of Bees. It’s fascinating in some ways. Did all the bees somehow never notice it before?

I’ve love to hear about some of your favorite films about events during the depression.

Have a great week everyone!

24 Comments

  • I can’t really go along with your interpretation of “The Old Mill” as a “narrative… of people’s survival through the Great Depression,” because it depicts a world in which the relics of human civilisation lie in ruins and nature has taken over. A masterpiece nonetheless, no question about it.

    I like the Betty Boop cartoons “Betty Boop for President” and “When My Ship Comes In”, which show that we can conquer any problem if we tackle it with a little creativity, humour and spunk — and a catchy song doesn’t hurt, either.

    I also like Depression-era cartoons that depict historic personages of the time, for example former New York governor and U.S. presidential candidate Al Smith in the Terrytoons “Robin Hood” and “Hypnotic Eyes”, both from 1933. But an even better example from that year is Van Beuren’s (or Harman-Ising’s) “Cubby’s World Flight”. When Cubby flies over Germany, he is serenaded by Hindenburg, Goebbels, and Hitler — and they’re drinking beer! Earlier in the cartoon, Cubby receives a send-off from none other than Charles Lindbergh, here a far cry from the tousled, grinning hero who inspired Mickey Mouse in “Plane Crazy” five years earlier. The Lindbergh of 1933 is a stooped, haggard figure; by this time the investigation of his infant son’s kidnapping and murder had been going on for over a year with no resolution yet in sight.

    “The Beer Parade” reminds me of a couple of Disney Silly Symphonies: “The Merry Dwarfs” (1929) and “Babes in the Woods” (1932), both of which feature a community of elves cheerfully brewing beer despite the Volstead Act still being on the books.

  • “Betty Boop’s Ups and Downs”- A cartoons that exaggerates that not only the U.S. was going through the Depression, but literally the whole world was to the point it was being sold to auction by the universe.

  • Some of my favorite Depression era cartoons include:
    (Not in any particular order)

    MIckey’s Good Deed
    Mickey’s Orphans
    Mickey’s Nightmare
    The Chain Gang
    Moving Day
    Donald’s Better Self
    Donald’s Lucky Day
    Somewhere in Dreamland
    Christmas Comes But Once a Year
    The Cookie Carnival
    Broken Toys
    Rhapsody in Blue (from Fantasia 2000)
    Grampy’s Indoor Outing
    Confidence
    The Sunshine Makers
    Pantry Panic
    The Three Little Pigs
    The Grasshopper and the Ants
    Bars and Stripes Forever
    Poor Cinderella
    Lost and Foundry
    Cops is Always Right

    While not always dealing directly with the Depression, most of these contain the theme of making the best of a bad situation or improvising with the materials at hand. And though not cartoons and therefore outside the scope of this discussion, many of the films of Shirley Temple offer hope in the face of the dark days of the Depression and could be nicely paired with some of these cartoons.

  • you forgot somewhere In dreamland!

  • Fascinating stuff, thanks, Steve!

    The influence of WWII on cartoons — both in subject matter and individual gags — has been plumbed pretty thoroughly — how many kids of the 1960s learned phrases like “Lights Out!’ and “Is This Trip Really Necessary?” before ever learning their context — but this is a lesser known subject.

    If anyone still needs proof that classic cartoons weren’t aimed exclusively at children, “The Beer Parade” should settle that argument once and for all.

    As for “Let’s Go!” I get more of a class distinction between the bees and the grasshoppers, rather than a racial one. It’s a reminder that not everyone was hurt by the Depression, and its message that those prospering had an obligation to help those in need – and that, with a little help, those hurting could again become happy, productive members of society – that certainly is very New Deal (not to mention Biblical!).

    The lovely color palette of “Let’s Go!” is also a reminder that even the “lesser” cartoon of the classic era look better than most of what’s turned out today.

    As for “The Old Mill,” well, that’s been analyzed and lauded to death. Suffice to say, I admire it more than I enjoy it. It’s a beautiful piece of work and technically dazzling, as well as at the cutting edge of the technology for the time, but it’s never been my particuar cup of tea. Too earnest, maybe?

    (Anyway, as I always say, I am not an animator or an historian, just a fan, so take my opinons for what they’re worth.)

  • Nice list above. I will add-
    “The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives”

  • Possibly the definitive Depression cartoon is Walter Lantz’ “Confidence.” All the animation legends who got their start in the industry at the time have acknowledged how privileged they were to have been able to make a living in those days being involved with the incredible evolution of the animated cartoon between 1930 and 1940 (even the three-year difference between Disney’s “Goddess of Spring” and “Snow White” is awe-inspiring). Of course it wasn’t all magical, as the Fleischer strike showed, and some studios (Ub Iwerks, Van Beuren) didn’t survive. But their product did. Certainly long-gone animation artists would be surprised and gratified that we remember them and celebrate their work 90 years later.

  • One of my depression era faves is the Oswald cartoon called “Confidence”. Seeing a singing and dancing FDR is really great!

  • That’s the best Scrappy cartoon I’ve ever seen.

    But for all the truckloads of beer I’ve consumed over the years, I don’t recall being quite so emotionally involved as those characters were.

    I’ll havta think about it over an IPA.

    • It honestly must be really good beer. They even have a beer flag that seems to be their official flag.

  • Columbia had a nice line of depression era cartoons. Krazy Kat’s LAMBS WILL GAMBOL and PROSPERITY BLUES both give an insight into the effects of the initial crash and what the depression became in cities. As the country began to boom again, Sid Marcus and Art Davis made their masterpiece THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL, a view into poverty and depression at its saddest

  • Cartoon happiness over beer in particular at this time no doubt relates to FDR’s signing of the Cullen–Harrison Act in March 1933 which legalized 3.2% beer – previous to that the maximum legal alcohol content was 0.5%. Prohibition itself didn’t end until December that year.

    Another 1933 cartoon reference is in the Merrie Melody “I Like Mountain Music” when a Senatorial figure from Congressional Magazine waves a beer-brimming mug around, yelling “Whoopee!”

    • …with, just a few seconds before, Will Rogers looking at a worn-out 1929 Magazine of Wall Street, and making a comment with a little cash register.

  • I would add Columbia’s “Gifts from the Air” to the list.

  • W.C. Fields must have enjoyed THE BEER PARADE – if he saw it, and I suspect he did! I think Dick Heumer’s name is mis-spelled on the title card. That may be a valuable print of the cartoon, Steve! If it was never printed up for Samba Pictures for TV distribution, there might not be too many prints out there – let alone a restored one!

    Shouldn’t “Mr. Dry” have a “blue” nose, rather than a RED one? A “blue nose” – if I remember the old slang correctly, was somebody who SEEMED to be utterly “moral,” but who probably was not, when the curtains were closed. A guy with a RED nose, would signify to me, somebody like the above mentioned W.C. Fields, who drank enough to turn his nose bulbous and red veined.

    I believe there is a shot in MICKEY’S TRAILER where what we think is a beautiful sky is actually a collapsable “blind” blocking out the city dump in front of the trailer. Plenty of references to a grimy New York city in Fleischer cartoons – particularly the POPEYE ones – until the move to Florida where we start to see palm trees and sunny landscapes!

    SHIRLEY TEMPLE musicals ignored the Depression. Movies like MY MAN GODFREY did not. Hal Roach’s LITTLE RASCALS, LAUREL AND HARDY comedies, etc. certainly were influenced by it and depicted it as a reality.

    Prohibition was a complete and utter failure – the “Do-Gooders” got their way and for awhile, it was hard for those who had cravings for alcohol to get some, but Organized Crime stepped in and became a BIG BUSINESS because of it. There are a lot of things that we should have learned from the Great Depression, but we seem to be repeating the same kind of mistakes with Big Government, Big Corporations, Big Pharmacy that seem to do more harm than good!

    • “Big Gouverment, Big Corporations, Big Pharmacy that seem to do more harm than good”

      Like what? Keeping you from getting sick?

      Doubt a “small” would do that….

  • Steve, I notice nobody’s mentioned one you worked on restoring recently, Flip the Frog’s “What a Life!” – another classic montage of imagery about the down-and-out on the street, and even the backlash effect of doing a good feed for another, only to place yourself in a worse fix. Flip’s “The Milkman” also has a degree of life-on-the-streets feeling, with the unexpected imagery of a waif who lives in a trash can (decades before Top Cat or Oscar the Grouch). As for Prohibition, though they were too early to really anticipate the repeal of the law, a couple of interesting envelope-pushing films that certainly pulled no punches in suggesting that keeping on drinking was the right thing to do would include Krazy Kat’s “Farm Relief”, and Haman-Ising’s “Lady, Play Your Mandolin”, both of which are practically non-stop drinking fests, the latter even promoting going South of the Border to get the desired booze. Perhaps we also shouldn’t forget Harman-Ising’s “You Don’t Know What You’re Doin”” with its unique and memorable visual exhibition of the effect of the DT’s after imbibing bootleg hooch – which, despite strange and weird consequences, still leaves the drinkers hollering “Whoopee!” at the closing iris. There are also some good aftermath cartoons from Tom and Jerry, such as “A Spanish Twist”, where the boys abandon Spain and row all the way back to the States the minute they hear of Prohibition’s repeal, and “Doughnuts”, where booze-laden pastry rings become the hit of the baker’s convention, even beating out beer and pretzels.

  • How sobering to consider that the best version we have on video of “The Beer Parade” is a Super 8mm video tape made at a screening at the AFI with some big fat heads in the way. Why can’t Sony release their Columbia cartoons to Blu-Ray?

  • PROBABLY because they know they won’t make a ton of money from it after they get the restoration work done – sad to say!
    There also could be the factor of “music rights” too. But that may change in a few years?

    • I didn’t know that the video came from an AFI screening. I just assumed that this was a screening at some collector’s home – like Steve’s? Who has the print and can it be restored properly?

      • The “shakey-cam” video of THE BEER PARADE came from me – I shot that off the screen at an Asifa Hollywood screening in 2005 – at the AFI. A screening I set up of several (at the time) recent restorations of Scrappy cartoons for, what we called, a “Scrappy Fest”! Sony/Columbia had restored all (or most of their cartoons in 1999 for a TV series I worked on called TOTALLY TOONED IN. I somewhat knew that screening these would be a rare occasion, so I took the liberty of shooting most of the prints we screened off the screen. Best I could do under the circumstances. Harry McCracken wrote about that screening on his Scrappyland blog – here: https://www.scrappyland.com/blog/hollywood/

        Who has the print? Columbia Pictures – that was a newly struck answer print on safety film. Can it be restored properly? It was! But it needs to be digitally remastered. The 35mm answer print looks great – don’t let my shake-cam fool you!

        • I made that 35 of BEER PARADE and several others while at Sony. As it was never released to TV–because it depicted children serving alcohol–it had the original main titles. During my stint at Home Entertainment, I tried to get the cartoons out on DVD–they’d already been preserved–but they could not have cared less and actively blocked my every attempt to do so, even sub-licensing them out to another company.

  • Thanks, Jerry! I have seen very few SCRAPPY cartoons without the “Samba Pictures” titles. Most of the one’s I’ve seen are well-worn 16mm TV prints that film collectors have found. Good to know that copy of THE BEER PARADE is in good condition, thanks!

  • Mickey’s Good Deed is a masterpiece of pathos. Rarely a short cartoon where I cared so much.

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