Animation Trails
January 17, 2024 posted by Charles Gardner

In the Center Ring (Part 2)

LA-DEEEES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS! Presenting the second chapter of our survey of circus cartoons, continuing with the silent era, and moving into the dawn of sound. There are some absentees along the way, which we’ll discuss as far as possible, and the distinct possibilities that other unknowns may exist or have existed which have escaped this researcher’s eye. As usual, all informative comments on such titles are welcome.

Felix Wins Out (Pat Sullivan, Felix the Cat, 1/15/23 – Otto Messmer, dir.) is another early Felix I neglected to discuss last week (Jerry posted this illustration from it erroneously accompanying last week’s review of Frolics At the Circus; he’s corrected it now) – Felix finds his home town dull, but spots a circus poster on a fence, and a passing circus parade. He decides circus life is for him, and signs up to try out with the show. A clown tests him on jumps over hurdles and through a hoop, which Felix performs with ease. The clown tells him to stick with the show, and he’ll be a sure success. But good-natured Felix takes a time-out to assist a budding romance between the Human Skeleton and the Fat Lady in the sideshow – a romance on the rocks, because she can’t sit on his lap without nearly snapping him in two. Felix spots a snake charmer, inducing shimmy dances out of a snake, so uses his own removable tail to sneak under the tent cover and nab the flute. Promising to convert the fat lady into a Venus, Felix plays a lively tune for the fat lady, who begins to shimmy and shake reflexively, exerting herself so that she reduces to the same size as her boyfriend. The ringmaster approaches outside the tent, sensing mischief afoot inside, and peers in. “Ye Gods!” He’s ruined my best freak”, shouts the Ringmaster, kicking Felix out of the tent, firing him on the spot, and ordering him to leave the grounds. Felix vows, “I’ll make them take me back”. Felix spots a box of trained fleas from the flea circus, and releases them on the lion’s cage and the animal quarters. The animals flee the fleas in panic – including a camel who has the insects skiing up and down the “Alpen” slopes of his humps. Felix also sends in a cooperative mouse to frighten away the elephant. The Ringmaster arrives, and can see imminent ruination. He offers to make Felix the star attraction if he can bring the animals back. Felix produces the snake charmer flute, playing a tune that has the effect of a Pied Piper, and has the animals charging back into the tent in a matter of moments. The film ends on an endlessly repeating cycle of the animals’ return, for an iris out.

The next earliest sure bet unaccounted for on the web (not counting the possibly lost Mutt and Jeff titles previously mentioned last week) is Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fable, Good Old Circus Days (11/23/24). No plot synopsis is available. Anyone know of a copy?

Koko Trains ‘Em (Fleischer, Out of the Inkwell, 6/15/25), finds Max with a visitor – a young woman, with an adorable puppy. Max decides to use the puppy as a model for a drawing, and twice attempts to draw an outline of the pup on his drawing board. But no sooner is his outline finished, than it morphs into that of Koko, vying for Max’s attention. Frustrated, Max moves Koko’s sheet of paper to another table, and resumes drawing at his own desk. Koko continues to signal Max that he wants to do something, so Max pens in the rings and bleachers of a circus tent, then provides a small animated mutt (not Fitz) for Koko to train. Koko is provided with a whip, and comments that he thinks he’s going to like this.

Without showing the training process, the film abruptly moves to show day. A strange price list is posted outside the tent for costs of admission. While normal admission is only five cents, standing-room-only tickets are one dollar, and free passes are five dollars! Koko stands proudly in the center ring with his pup protégé, playing to a packed house. He puts the canine through his paces, first performing acrobatic leaps that sever the pup in the middle, with one half jumping over the other. A series of impressions follows, the dog portraying a bird dog (jail-bird, that is, inside a dog-catcher’s cage), a family dog with a string of pups of his own, and even Teddy Roosevelt. Things hit a snag, however, when Koko commands the pup to play dead. The dog wobbles in a display of overacting, then collapses on his back. But the dog is a method actor, and takes his role too seriously – with the result that Koko can’t get him out of playing his part, even by snapping his fingers and cracking the whip. Koko turns to a very early use of what would become a cartoon tradition – another use of a trained flea (though here, no flea circus is depicted). Releasing the insect from a small box, Koko whispers to it to see if he can revive “our star”. The insect mounts the pip’s tummy, then pulls out a small pair of garden shears, and begins cutting at the pup’s fur. The pup instantly snaps out of it, shimmying and scratching uncomfortably, and runs to one of the circus tentposts to scratch himself against its rough wooden surface. Koko begins snapping the whip again, but the line of his whip separates from the handle, and begins flipping in a circle in mid-air, out of control.

Koko pursues the whip strands, attempting to coax them to reattach to the handle, but, shaping itself into the curvature of a snake, the whip shakes its “head” no. Since the whip is playing snake, Koko responds in kind, by converting the whip handle into a flute, playing snake charmer music to subdue the whip into submission. Ultimately, the whip is reassembled, and Koko is back in command. But he becomes so obsessed with his whip cracking, he fails to notice it is disturbing remaining residents of the trained flea box he had used earlier – producing a stampede of fleas which scatters everywhere. Not only are the pup’s problems worsened, but the crowd is soon running in panic as the fleas seek out a square meal. A long shot shows the crowd abandoning the drawing paper, and jumping off the desk into Max’s wastebasket. Various other objects, both live and on other drawing sheets, also become infested. A table uses one of its legs to kick like a dog. A statue of Atlas, seated next to a barely-clothed female statue in a park fountain, passes off the globe to the girl so he can scratch himself. A live framed portrait begins to move to scratch its chin. In a charming scene only appearing in a version edited for sound without intertitles, Koko himself leaves the drawing board, climbs down the table leg, and engages in an act commanding the live puppy seen at the beginning of the film, riding the puppy bareback. But the fleas eventually become too much, causing Koko to return to the desk, and seek the safety of his inkwell, just in time for Max’s hand to insert the stopper.

More Koko’s seem to have depicted circus situations, which are not available for view. Koko at the Circus (5/1/26) is described on IMDB as follows: “Max draws a circus poster featuring Ko-Ko the Clown and Fitz the dog, but the circus owner wants them replaced with a giant. On the poster, Ko-Ko and Fitz find ways to take on their oversized rival.” Koko’s Parade (The Inkwell Imps, 10/6/28) and Koko’s Act (The Inkwell Imps, 12/15/28) leave us with no synopses.

Outdoor Indore (Pat Sullivan, Felix the Cat, 6/10/28 – Otto Messner dir,), finds Felix back at a circus setting. It is one of those films cropped of its intertitles for sound release, causing much of the startup of the story to not make much sense. It appears that the circus ringmaster and clown are down in the dumps, with the show not going on as scheduled, because the elephant has either gone missing, or possibly was repossessed. Felix, only seeing a circus and wanting to view the show, obtains a hose and hooks it up to a fire hydrant, then approaches the ringmaster, presumably offering to water the elephants for free admission. The ringmaster sadly informs him there is no elephant to water, and no show to see. Felix volunteers to try to get them a new elephant, but then ponders how he can possibly accomplish such a task. Meanwhile, a fireman has spotted the hydrant with the valve turned open, and angrily shakes his fist at Felix on the other end of the hose. He turns the water on full force, blasting the cat off the hose end and into the air – on a one-way ride to India.

Landing at his exotic destination, Felix looks about to get his bearings. He spots a native appearing to suck upon the end of a large striped straw, and decides to try it himself to get a cool drink. The striped “straw” turns out to be the tail of a tiger (why would a native be sucking on that??), who chases Felix briefly. Felix sticks his head in the ground, then positions his limbs like an old withered plant to fool the tiger, who pauses just past Felix in attempt to find out what happened to his prey. Felix emerges from the sandy soil, creeps up behind the tiger, and grabs away from his body a panel of about six tiger stripes. Felix then finds safety behind some bushes, and positions the stripes like ladder rungs, climbing them for a better view of the countryside. No elephants yet. Instead, Felix sees a snake charmer performing his act with a cobra in a basket. Getting the idea, Felix moves to a spot between two holes in the ground, removes his own tail, and begins playing it like a flute. Two cobras rise from the holes, entranced. Felix continues to play, causing the two snakes to entwine themselves together into the shape of a bicycle. Felix mounts his new conveyance, covering more ground in a hurry in search of a pachyderm. His quest finally succeeds, as he encounters a large specimen of such beast, harnessed to a giant boulder, which is ridden by an elephant keeper prodding the elephant with a pointed stick. The elephant sweats and strains under the weight of his task, barely able to move the stone.

Felix approaches the beast’s huge head, whispering to him about the desirability of circus life, with an elephant act depicted in a thought cloud projected from Felix’s head. The elephant nods that it sounds like a good idea, and without regard for or reaction by his human trainer, the elephant casts off his harnesses, and accompanies Felix to the nearest dock. A ship is about to depart, and Felix and the elephant ascend a boarding ramp, just as the ship sets course for the open sea. The captain can’t understand why his bow is high and dry above the waterline, until he spots the elephant tipping the ship in the rear by its weight. He barks commands for Felix and the elephant to get off his ship. Since they’re already out in the ocean, this could be a problem – but Felix solves it quickly as usual. He instructs the elephant to dip his trunk in the water, and take a long sip. The elephant obeys – draining the ocean dry. Now Felix and his companion have no more need for the ship, and walk the rest of the way home. At the docks, a customs agent insists on inspecting the elephant’s trunk, but passes him for admission. The ringmaster is overjoyed, and Felux becomes the elephant’s trainer, performing with the mammoth in the center ring, as Felix acrobatically balances the elephant upon his own feet, twirling him like a ball. The crowd responds with applause, and Felix and the elephant take their bows.

Hot Dogs (Disney/Universal, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, 8/20/28) nay possibly mark Disney’s earliest entry into the circus world. It was the last of his Oswald cartoons, and sadly, no footage of the film has to date surfaced. However, a brief IMDB synopsis indicates, “Oswald sneaks away from school in order to visit a circus sideshow, and is chased through the circus by the police.” Also, some storyboard drawings survive. One sequence appears to have Oswald hiding from the pursuing officer by shutting himself inside a cage. He turns to find that the cage is also occupied by a growling lion. Oswald, however, has the situation under control, reaching into his pocket, and producing a card testifying to his membership in the Lion’s Club. The lion graciously bows, opens the cage door, and permits Oswald to leave unharmed as an esteemed lodge brother. A Disney Wiki page also adds regarding the short, “Oswald takes a trip to the local carnival, where he tries to trick a hot dog vendor to get a free hot dog. But the vendor tells a police officer about the situation, and Oswald takes pursuit. Luckily, he finds a car in which he grabs onto, only to find out it’s the police car.”

Ozzie of the Circus (copyrighted 1/5/29, release date unknown) was a later Oswald, with some confusion as to whether it was released by Winkler or Lantz. Ir was released with a music and effects track to some venues. It also, sadly, may be on the “lost” list, and at least is presently unavailable, bus some information is known about its content, via a Walter Lantz Wiki page: “Oswald spends a day at the circus where he runs into a smart-aleck pup. The dog trips the barker, causes problems for the “two-headed sax player,” and ties Oswald’s tail to a strength-test indicator. After getting loose, Oswald chases the pup but soon finds himself pursued by an angry gorilla. The chase goes on and on; carrying over to the closing title, where ‘we leave them hotfooting it around the Universal universe—a dangerous triangle going around in circles!’” This may thus mark one of the earliest uses of a studio logo in a cartoon gag – another such contemporary instance being Krazy Kat’s last Paramount release, “Sleepy Holler”, in which a conk on his head from his wife’s rolling pin produces the stars, which Krazy tosses to form the Paramount logo.

Our earliest full sound title in this trail appears to be Circus Capers (Van Beuren/Pathe, Aesop’s Fables, 9/28/30 – John Foster/Harry Bailey, dir.). It begims with a tracking shot of a circus parade (which, in a recently upgraded scan on the internet, actually doesn’t look that badly framed for the big screen). It may be the first use of a shot we will see again, with a marching band fronted by a row of trombone players, whose bells and slides expand elastically whenever they hit long glissando notes. Among other marchers are a female horseback rider and a male clown – both mice with a resemblance to Mickey and Minnie, though their faces change appearance so much from shot to shot, you’d sometimes swear they are bears, despite their long tails. Other paraders include elephants with surprisingly prominent tummy navels (who we would see in repeated dance animation in some of the series’ jungle adventures), who curl their trunks into the shape of steering wheels, then glide along as if driving invisible cars. A view at the side show briefly treats us to the exotic dance of a portly pig fat lady, that really packs the crowds in to see the show. Under the main big top, a ringmaster announces the horseback rider’s act, as she leaps together with her horse from a platform at the top of the tent, stalls in velocity to perform an extreme slow-motion somersault inches above the ground, then gracefully plants a landing in the center ring. After riding around a few times to complete the act, she us greeted by the kisses of the clown backstage, before he goes on for his death-defying leopard-taming act. The clown holds his arms out in the shape of a hoop, having the big cats jump through it, then makes a tiny circle between his thumb and first finger, having the last leopard squeeze his way through, his spots being scraped off in the process. The clown merely tosses the accumulated spots onto the leopard’s back, where they resume their original positions. The ringmaster’s act consists of performing an effeminate dance with a lion, but ends with the lion kicking the ringmaster out of the arena.

The clown laughs at the sprawled ringmaster, but receives a disapproving scowl from him, shutting up the laughter in a hurry. The clown then goes on to perform a human cannonball act. The irritated ringmaster puts an extra kick into his act, by adding an extra barrel of gunpowder to the cannon’s charge. The explosion sends the clown through the tent roof, turning end-over-end like a football into the clouds. Oddly, not only does the ringmaster get his own last laugh, but the female mouse joins in his laughter – as it turns out the two have got a secret thing for each other, which they demonstrate as they retire to the ringmaster’s trailer to make hootchie-kootchie. Down from the clouds falls the clown, landing in the middle of the interior of the ringmaster’s trailer, to witness the whole sordid encounter. The clown, largely unnoticed by the lovers, sadly and slowly makes a departure from the trailer, then pauses on the midway to sing an entire chorus of the Pagliacci-style tragic ballad, “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”. To the clown’s surprise as he ends the song, the female mouse seems to have had second thoughts, and has emerged from the trailer to stand beside him. She makes coy gestures as if inviting the clown to kiss and make up. The clown slowly begins to wipe his lips, giving the impression that he is about to consent to a reconciliation – but instead of a kiss, gives the girl a loud raspberry. The girl faints cold on the spot, while the boy’s face fills the screen, giving a conspiratorial wink to the audience, then moving so close to the lens that his nose blacks out the image for the end of the film.

Circus Time (Charles Mintz/Radio Pictures, Toby the Pup, 1/25/31 – Dick Huemor/Sid Marcus, dir.) – Circulating print of this rare cartoon seems a little short on running time, and contains several shots that appear to be clipped, either from breaks in the print or from possible censorship. Nevertheless, what we have opens with a circus parade not dissimilar to the Aesop title just discussed, but with a few new and original gags. One hilarious design has a dachshund marching with his body coiled in circles, almost like a jack-in-the-box spring. The configuration makes him mildly resemble a tuba, and he lets out with a series of deep bass barks each time a mouse bites upon his tail, giving his best vocal impression of the oom-pah notes of a tuba player. Three trombonists seem to be manipulating slides as they play – but closer inspection reveals that the slides are connected to nothing at all, as each musician removes the trombone “bell” from his mouth, then commences to shake it, playing the “bells” like a troupe of Swiss tuned-bell ringers. In the side show, a bearded lady uses her whiskers to resemble a rabbi, performing a Jewish dance. A tattooed man has a female face etched on his chest, which springs to life to utter, “Boopy doopy doopa doop, boop oop a doop” – not surprising, since Huemor had cut his teeth in the animation world at Max Fleischer’s. A Siamese twin pair of cows perform an act where one smokes a cigar, while the other exhales the smoke.

In her dressing tent, Toby’s girlfriend Tessie dolls up for her horseback-riding act. A large lion – part of the show’s troupe (possibly the ringmaster) rather than escaped from a cage – calls on Tessie, but she sings a chorus of “Shoo Fly, Don’t Bother Me”, declaring her love only for Toby. Toby shows up, adding a few light socks upon the lion’s nose. Bessie performs her horseback act on a track encircling the arena, with an unusual depth-effect accomplished by panning front and rear backgrounds of arena fencing in opposite directions as the camera tracks Tessie, making the viewer feel we are traveling around the arena perimeter along with Tessie. Toby briefly performs above on trapeze, until he spots the lion grabbing Tessie and getting fresh with her. To make his descent to the ground, Toby removes his nose, blows it up like a balloon, then holds it in one hand to descend gracefully down, reattaching and deflating his nose when he lands. He engages in an extended brawl of fisticuffs with the lion, several blows knocking the lion’s dentures loose. Toby briefly dons a suit of armor for protection, but ultimately takes the brunt of a beating. When the lion is through, all we see is a freshly-dug grave, and a headstone reading “Toby”. But just as the lion is about to leave, Toby’s head pops through the loose earth of the gravesite, delivers a raspberry at the lion, and then Toby’s feet emerge, picking up the grave and headstone around his waist, as Toby turns and races off into the distance.

Clowning (Paul Terry/Educational, 4/5/31) is a “lost” Terrytoon, which probably in fact still exists at least in camera elements within the holdings of UCLA Film Archive. No synopsis or indication of starring characters is available.

The Clown (Lantz/Universal, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, 12/21/31) – Oswald and his early 30’s girlfriend (seen in several other cartoons during this period including “Mechanical Man” and “A Wet Knight”, but here notably identified by the name “Kitty”, though she does not outwardly appear to be a cat) have an act in the circus, Kitty riding a horse bareback, and Oswald also attempting to ride in the persona of a clown. Oswald’s attempt to match Kitty’s feats results in him pilling off the horse’s skin, revealing stick-figure legs and a backbone that appears to be made of sausages. Oswald replaces the skin, but not only gets it on backwards, but with Kitty struggling on the inside. When the act is through, a conversation takes place on the sidelines between Kitty and Putrid Pete the ringmaster. Pete is trying to get Kitty to sign a paper, but Oswald intervenes, claiming Pete is just trying to take over Kitty’s circus. (It is notable that for an early Lantz talkie, this episode is surprisingly dialogue-laden, and well-synchronized – a luxury for Lantz, who went through all kinds of extremes of cutting corners on synchronization in years to follow, including cutting dialogue recordings mechanically into individual syllables, and admitted post-syncing of films such as “Soft Ball Game” and “Alaska Sweepstakes”. However, there is a somewhat upsetting unevenness to recording quality, with the dialogue tracks, especially of Pete, seeming to be of abnormally high-fidelity as compared to the music and effects, resulting in a jarring ambience change every time a character speaks.) Pete swears revenge, but attends to his duties as ringmaster to see that the various acts go on. Oswald performs in an acrobatic act with a dog and elephant, then climbs into the mouth of a cannon as a human cannonball. As in Van Beuren’s episode above, Pete adds an extra kick to the cannon, removing a small firecracker from the cannon barrel, and replacing it with one five times its size. Kitty spots the substitution, and grabs hold of Oswald’s arm just as the cannon fires. The two spin around in air linked together, having the effect of a flying boomerang, and spin back toward Pete, hitting him in the face, and knocking him to the ground in front of a hyena’s cage, causing the hyena to break into a laughing jag. Oswald is next introduced in an interesting pantomime bit, involving an imaginary car (perhaps inspired by the elephant scene in “Circus Capers” discussed above). Oswald miraculously floats along in air as if in the driver’s seat, then sound effects indicate engine trouble and a motor stall. Oswald climbs out of the car, slamming an invisible car door, then turns an invisible engine crank until the motor sounds are heard again. Oswald attempts to return to the driver’s seat, but the engine stalls again just as he reaches it, Oswald cranks up the engine again, but despite cautiously creeping up on the driver’s seat, the engine again stalls on cue. Oswald opens an imaginary hood, and sound effects indicate his letting out from under the hood a cat and several kittens. Then a siren is heard. Oswald stops in his tracks before reaching the driver’s seat, and pantomimes receiving a ticket from an invisible motorcycle policeman, who exits as the sound of his siren fades. Oswald reacts to the invisible ticket’s contents, stating to the audience, “Pinched for speeding”, then faints dead away.

Action resumes with Pete, who introduces Kitty for a trapeze act, in which she grips a ring tethered to a rope and pulley hooked to the roof of the tent. She is hauled upwards into the air by a team of four mice at Pete’s command, where she performs twirls while hanging onto the ring with one hand. Meanwhile, evil Pete partially slices the end of the rope supporting her, which begins to rapidly unravel. (Odd, since Pete hasn’t gotten Kitty’s signature on the transfer papers – is he also supposed to inherit the show in the event of Kitty’s demise?) Oswald spots the treachery, and again loads himself into the cannon, adding a new firecracker charge. Oswald blasts off just as Kitty’s rope severs, Oswald catching Kitty in mid-fall, then sliding down another rope diagonally to the ground. There appears to be another brief peril waiting below, as a hippo stands at rope’s end with open mouth. Oswald and Kitty are swallowed, but quickly emerge unharmed from the hippo’s back, through a convenient escape hatch. “I’ll fix them”, declares Pete, grabbing up a board, and giving a huge caged gorilla a whack on the rear when he isn’t looking. Pete, unseen by the gorilla, ducks behind the cage wall as the ape turns around. The angered ape bends the bars of the cage and escapes, headed for Oswald and Kitty. Pete emerges, shouting triumphantly “Revenge is mine”. The ape approaches Oswald and Kitty menacingly, but then, noticing Pete, reverses direction, disappearing out of frame in Pete’s direction. “Don’t look”, Oswald warns Kitty, but Kitty does anyway, then screams. A new view shows the ape, devouring what appears to be the remnants of Pete’s ringmaster suit, and his peg leg. Kitty turns to Oswald, stating “He’s gone forever”. Oswald responds with laughter, “Yeah, look”, pointing behind her. There, hobbling in hops on one foot, is Pete, reduced to his underwear and making an embarrassing exit. Oswald and Kitty share a kiss, as the film closes.

Boop-Oop-a-Doop (Fleischer/Paramount, Talkartoons (Betty Boop), 1/16/32), is a well-known pre-code classic, formative in cementing the personality of Betty, and the reputation of the studio and series in “pushing the envelope” of what was acceptable action for a cartoon character to the limit. The film is also historically important as the introduction of the “Sweet Betty” theme song for the character, which would continue to be used as her primary theme through the end of the series run. Here, it appears with certain lyrical couplets never repeated in any other subsequent film.

Our scene opens as if we are watching Betty perform a sensuous shimmy dance. Instead, we discover as the camera pulls back that we are only looking at a flag flying over the circus grounds with Betty’s picture embroidered on it, the waving of the fabric in the breeze providing the simulated dancing moves. Inside the big top, the grand march is getting underway to open the show. A parade float features a fat lady, who is only a fake rubber balloon, which a small mouse repeatedly has to pump up with air from a bicycle pump as the balloon keeps deflating. A tall giant trips, revealing that he is really composed of four mice standing upon each other’s shoulders. A bearded lady is assisted by a small bear, who trims off the tip of her whiskers every few seconds to allow room for new growth from her chin. Koko the Clown, in his first performance in a sound cartoon, makes his appearance from a giant bottle of ink carried on the back of an elephant. Betty rides in atop a horse, to the cheers of the crowd. The show commences. First up is a high-diving hippo named Jenny. She dives off a platform into a tub of water far below. The wave caused by her impact splashes up to the platform a fish who was in the water of the tub. The fish dives off the platform back into the water, causing a wave which launches Jenny back up to the platform on which she started. Bimbo hawks peanuts to the crowd, repeatedly blocking the view of an infant who does not want to make a purchase. Then, when the infant changes his mind and decides he wants the product, Bimbo announces that he just sold out. The child’s verbal reaction is covered by a hand that seals his lips with tape reading “Censored”. (Perhaps an interesting slap in the face to censorship boards of the day who were likely to view the cartoon, many of which had little power to effectively ban the film’s content.) A lion clinging to a trapeze by his teeth has his act go fatally awry when his dentures come loose. A dog act has pooches jumping through a hoop, the last of whom is a dachshund, who emerges as a string of hot dogs o the other side of the hoop. Betty performs fearlessly as a lion tamer (no regard is paid to the fact that we just saw a humanized lion perform in the trapeze act). One of the lions sneaks around behind her while she is distracted with holding the others at bay, and a member of the audience shouts for Betty to look out. But there is no cause for alarm – the lion has merely approached to advise Betty that she dropped her handkerchief, which he hands to her, then graciously opens the door to allow her to exit the cage.

Betty finally performs on the high wire in a two-piece suit with bare midriff, singing the Helen Kane song. “Do Something”. The ringmaster stands below, rubbing his handlebar moustache in leering fashion, while an x-ray view of his heart shows a face on said internal organ, licking its lips at the “tasty” sight above. The ringmaster creeps outside, waiting around the entrance to Betty’s dressing tent. Betty emerges at the conclusion of her act, returning to her tent. As soon as she enters, the ringmaster creeps in right behind her, cornering her at her dressing table. In a scene that remains shocking today, the ringmaster vigorously rubs his hand up and down Betty’s bare leg, until she demands that he stop. “Do you like your job?” he asks. Betty nods. “Well then”, the ringmaster continues, whispering provocative propositions into her ear. “You mean…?”, responds Betty, giving the ringmaster a sock in the face. The ringmaster grabs her in a stranglehold, declaring “There’ll be no more boop-oop-a-doop out of you.” Betty escapes his grasp, and sings a decidedly suggestive song of innuendo, “Don’t Take My Boop-Oop-a-Doop Away”. Even the song’s more-direct lyrics push cartoon boundaries, as she refers to her songs perhaps being “too risque”. Koko arrives for a visit, and discovers the ringmaster’s intrusion. He marches into the tent to do battle, but repeatedly gets thrown out with a black eye. Finally, both he ad the ringmaster emerge, rolling in a street brawl. The ringmaster seizes the weakened Koko, stuffing him into a cannon, then pills the firing lever. When the smoke clears, Koko is nowhere to be seen, and the ringmaster scans the skies, assuming that Koko has been launched far, far away. Instead, Koko appears inside the muzzle of the cannon behind the ringmaster, having never emerged from the cannon at all, and bops the ringmaster out cold with a mallet. Betty appears, looking all right, but Koko buzzes a question in her ear to make sure. “No”, replies Betty, singing the response, “He couldn’t take my Boop-oop-a-doop away.” Read into this line what innuendo you will – I’m sure the creators of the film wouldn’t mind.

NEXT: Continuing with the early ‘30’s.


  • A year before Oswald’s circus debut, there was “Alice’s Circus Daze” (M. J. Winkler, Alice Comedies, 18/4/27 — Walt Disney, dir.) A crowd of funny animals enter the big top as a barker touts a hula dancer and a ukulele player, both in grass skirts. Backstage, Alice and Julius prepare for their high-wire balancing act. A well-choreographed cycle shows the three-ring circus, with trapeze artists, acrobats, clowns, elephants, and the cheering crowd all in frenetic activity. A series of circus acts follows. A hippopotamus in a tutu does some trick riding on a pony. A mouse rides a small bicycle on the back of an elephant on roller skates. A leopard tamer tries to subdue the big cats, but they keep pulling his pants down to reveal leopard-spotted underwear. A lion tamer has his head bitten off by one of his beasts; he props open the lion’s mouth with his club and pulls his head out of its stomach, but then the lions play catch with his severed head as the headless tamer frantically chases after them.

    Finally it’s time for Alice and Julius in the main event. Up on the tightrope, Julius balances a stack of eleven chairs on his nose, with Alice sitting on top of them. Julius then lights a cigar, but when he tosses the match away it sets the rope on fire and it quickly burns down to nothing. Julius falls to the ground, and one by one the chairs follow suit, leaving Alice suspended in midair. Just before the last chair falls, Julius brings in a tall ladder and rescues Alice. The ladder then collapses right on top of the ringmaster, trapping him inside his big top hat; he emerges from it in a furious rage and chases Alice and Julius out of the big top for the iris out.

  • >Paul Terry’s Aesop’s Fable, Good Old Circus Days (11/23/24)
    It is still a little known fact that copyright synopses for most Æsop’s Fables are readily available from the Library of Congress website. This one is at and reads:

    One bright day in the dim long ago, a rip roaring circus stopped for a day on the great open wide prairie. In those days it seems that everybody considered circus’s [sic] the one great sport and they all turned out. Some of them even tried to “beat” their way in. Mr. Manny Monk and his little boy sold pink lemonade to the jungle crowd. He was just about as popular as a first class bootlegger in these modern times.
    One of the feature acts is Harold Cat and Izzy Mouse who do a strong act with weights on a see-saw but somehow everything worked out wrong and one of the large weights fell right on Harold’s head and is destroyed—Harold is a sort of dumbell [sic] anyway and blames everything on poor little Izzy. He chases him up a tall ladder and into the sky a few miles, then down and off across the country. The rest of the circus wasn’t over as [?] we didn’t follow.
    There was an Indian rubber man, also a magician called Herman, that nobody had ever heard of. The whole show was going over big. The whole crowd was nearly dropping dead at all of the marvelous performers when, two innocent looking skunks walked up to the box office. They are refused tickets but they decide to see the show anyway. Well nearly everybody escaped alive in the panic. The end of it all was a dance by four elephants, directed by the skunks.
    The moral is: “Its [sic] hard to dance to what some stations broadcast thru the air.”.

    I would not rule out that moonshine was involved when those copyright synopses were written…

    • Thanks for mentioning that resource. See below.

  • A Felix the Cat cartoon with a circus setting was provided with what was perhaps the first through-composed musical score ever written for an animated cartoon. This was composed by Paul Hindemith in 1927 for a screening of the cartoon at a music festival in the German city of Baden-Baden, to be rendered on a mechanical organ. Unfortunately, when the cartoon was screened at the festival, the mechanism designed to synchronise the organ with the film projector malfunctioned and started an electrical fire, destroying the organ and the pianola roll in the process.

    Records of the festival give the title of the cartoon in German as “Felix der Kater im Zirkus” (Felix the Cat in the circus), and at this time it’s impossible to determine exactly which of several circus-themed Felix cartoons it might have been. Some sources believe it was the 1920 cartoon “The Circus”, covered here last week. However, I think it was more likely to have been “Felix Wins Out”; the presence of the snake charmer’s “magic flute” would have opened up many musical possibilities for the composer. Some of Hindemith’s lost works have resurfaced even in recent years, so I live in hope that the manuscript to his score for the Felix cartoon — a milestone in animation history — might someday come to light.

    The young woman in the opening scene of “Koko Trains ‘Em” was Max Fleischer’s daughter Ruth, later Mrs. Seymour Kneitel, who was just eighteen at the time. She appeared in a number of films in the Out of the Inkwell series.

    I think the conjoined twins in “Circus Time” are meant to be horses, not cows, as suggested by “The Old Grey Mare” on the soundtrack. Dick Huemer’s animal designs are always a little iffy, much as I love them. In any case, those characters appear to have been inspired by sisters Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were likewise joined at the pelvis and buttocks. They were a popular vaudeville act in the 1920s, and in 1931 they filed a lawsuit against their managers, so they would have been in the news at the time.

    Why would the Indian suck on a tiger’s tail in “Outdoor Indore”? Because he thinks it’s a peppermint stick!

  • There is one earlier Disney cartoon with a circus theme – Alice’s Circus Daze (4/18/27). Like most of the later Alice series, she and Julius have very little to do until the end with a daring tightrope performance. The bulk of the film is made up of some unique gags with lion taming and general clowning.

  • “Circus Capers” would’ve been many kid’s first exposure to the works of Van Beuren Studios, thanks to its inclusion on several public domain videotapes alongside the VERY few Mickey Mouse shorts that had fallen into PD beforehand. Even then, I’m pretty sure kids would’ve noticed this was NOT a Disney short and likely complained or fast-forwarded through it. Too bad, because it’s probably one of the best pre-overhaul Van Beuren shorts, showcasing the studio’s talent with off-kilter animation and bizarre gags.

    “Laugh, Clown, Laugh”, the song Mic… er, Milton Mouse sings near the end came from a 1928 film of the same name starring Lon Cheney. It’s performance here must’ve been influential to some of the Warner crew, since they would reuse it a few times over the next decade.

    • One line of lyrics was changed in the cartoon. Where Milton sings “Don’t let the world know your sorrow,” the original lyrics are “Jest in your ‘Vesti la giubba’,” referring to a famous aria (“Put on the greasepaint”) from the opera “I Pagliacci”. Many people my age will remember when “Vesti la giubba” was used in a Rice Krispies commercial in the ’70s. I don’t know why the lyric was changed; Tony Randall sang the complete original lyrics in an episode of “The Odd Couple”, where I first heard the song.

  • I enjoyed reading the descriptions of these cartoons. Also, I know I enjoy the very first Betty Boop cartoon included here. There are so many reasons why.

  • Considering their fondness for copying Mickey and Minnie, it’s ironic that Van Beuren’s demise was brought about by Disney securing RKO as his distributor.
    Just think – if VB’s studio could have kept making cartoons for just 97 more years, they could have used Mickey for free!

    • Okay, we get it about the early shorts (NOT the character itself) being PD. No need to beat a dead horse.

      • I understand what you’re saying, and agree that was in somewhat bad taste, but my biggest blunder was a typo – I meant 87 years (from 1937 to 2024), not 97. I ruined an already weak “joke”.

  • “Dinky Doodle in the Circus” (Bray Studios, 29/11/25 — Walter Lantz, dir.) has the following copyright synopsis: “The artist, Walter Lantz, portrays the role of ring master and introduces the various characters to be found at a circus. We meet the rubber man, the fat lady, the two headed boy, the hoola hoola dancer, and the mule that cannot be ridden. After introducing each and pulling various gags with the different characters, the artist attempts to ride the cartoon mule. This situation is one of the longest scenes in which cartoon and combination [with live action] is employed and the scene of the artist on the cartoon mul’e [sic] back is not only novel, but exceedingly amusing.”

  • One might not think a cartoon with a title like “Felix the Cat Trumps the Ace” (Pat Sullivan, 28/11/26 — Otto Messmer, dir.) would have anything to do with the circus. But it does! From the Library of Congress: “Felix the Cat enters a fair grounds intent upon earning a meal. When he finds that the fat lady is sad because she has no party dress, Felix remodels a circus tent to fit the need. But he is not rewarded with any food, and the frisky cat again sets out in search for it. He finds an egg but soon is engaged in a battle with the hen that laid it. The conflict entices away prospective patrons of the Ace of clowns, who pursue[s] Felix, bent on vengeance.

    “The chase takes Felix high in the air on an aerial high wire and over a roller coaster. Finally the cat shocks the clown off the high wire and bumps him down from the chutes into a gooey puddle of mud where we leave him while Felix laughs at this trumping of the Ace.”

  • The Film Daily published the following review for July 31, 1927:

    “Paramount [Theatre] Presented an innovation with Winsor McCay the cartoonist in person offering an animated cartoon called ‘McKay Cartoon Circus.’ The cartoonist with an Australian whip officiates as ringmaster as he puts the funny animals through their paces. The number was well synchronized and had lots of comedy values[.] Sigmund Krumgold substituted for [organist Jesse] Crawford at the console, and carried through a regulation Crawford offering.”

    I don’t know whether this presentation was a repurposing of McCay’s “Flip’s Circus”, discussed here last week, or contained any new animation. The Library of Congress website has no information on the “McKay [or McCay] Cartoon Circus”.

  • The Film Daily also reviewed “The Big Tent” (Aesop’s Film Fables, 22/10/27): “If photographed productions could be as funny as this, short subjects would leave features far behind for entertainment effects. We find Milt in love with Rita, circus star. Tom enters the scene and swipes the girl. To add to the excitement a lion breaks loose, and Milt finally puts both beast and villain out of business. Close-up finds Milt and Rita in a sweet clinch.”

  • Many of the 1920s circus-themed cartoons described in the posting or comments only as synopses without video reference, or by title alone, will appear in upcoming Cartoon Roots releases. There is so much more that exists and is privately held, compared with what’s readily available online, and it’s all simply awaiting good treatment!

    • Thanks for the info, Tommy! I can’t wait to experience those shorts (among many others).

  • In 1912, British photographer and stop-motion pioneer Arthur Melbourne Cooper created a five-minute film of puppet animation titled “The Wooden Athletes”. Said athletes do not compete against each other, but present a variety of circus acts: balancing, tumbling, feats of strength, and acrobatics on a tightrope. There’s even a lightning sketch artist who draws a stick-figure portrait of another puppet, who collapses in shock when viewing the result. The puppets are crudely built — their limbs bend at the shoulders and hips, but not at the elbows or knees — and like the athletes in the ancient Greek Olympic Games, they don’t wear any clothes. By the standards of Art Clokey or Willis O’Brien, the animation is very primitive. But it’s very impressive for 1912!

    The BFI National Archive has uploaded a good quality scan of the film to YouTube.

  • If you watch ‘Boop-Oop-a-Doop’ closely when we see a close-up of the ringmaster’s face, you see his handlebar moustache turn into hands and copy what he is doing.

    Will you be looking at animated movies with a circus theme like Dumbo, We’re Back! A Dinosaur’s Story and Animal Crackers (the recent animated feature, not the Marx Bros.classic).

Leave a Reply

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