EDITOR’S NOTE: Once again Mark Kausler has pulled out a set of early silent Paul Terry Aesop Fables cartoons from his collection of Commonwealth Home Movie prints. I also convinced him to jot down a few notes on each. This time we have five cartoons that span the 1920s. So, sit back and enjoy! Thanks, Mark! – Jerry Beck
DO WOMEN PAY? 11-11-1923
An authentic cartoon melodrama and one of the best Fables, Do Women Pay? starts at the Hell Hole Tavern where an evil cat named “Hard Boiled Jack” presides over the dance hall, entirely jammed with waltzing cats. Jack “has no conscience” and shoots cats in the back, leaving their bodies all over the street. Jack’s character is clearly established as a murdering fiend and foreshadows his grisly end.
The mouse hero rides along the street on his high-wheeler bicycle and dreams of his lady mouse. In a very funny scene animated by “Vet” Anderson, the mouse runs over the hands of two dogs and mashes them flat. Vet accents the dog’s plight with his lively sparks, dashes and question marks.
These mice are precursors of Mickey and Minnie, as the hero mouse waits outside of the lady mouse’s house for her to “put her face on”, literally. The business of Minnie hauling in her underwear in The Barn Dance (Walt Disney, 1928) while Mickey waits outside for her, has a Fables feel to it.
The mouse picks up his lady and walks by the tavern, spotted by Hard Boiled Jack. He walks behind them with large menacing hands animated smoothly by Frank Moser. Moser’s acting skills are displayed as Jack keeps glancing back over his shoulder.
The mouse hero anticipates Mighty Mouse’s powers, as he is thrown off a waterfall by Jack and rides a fish back up the falls, is shot many times by Jack with a revolver but just shakes the bullets off harmlessly and proves he’s strong enough to completely capsize Jack’s escape train, tracks and all right into a lake.
The hero mouse hitches a ride on an air mail-carrying duck and flies in pursuit of Jack and his lady fair. Jack has the girl mouse secured in a valise and swims to his shack with it. He enters the shack and goes through a couple of rooms, locking the door and swallowing the keys each time, anticipating the convict wolf’s actions in Dumb Hounded (Tex Avery 1943).
The girl mouse is let loose from the valise and Jack pours her a drink, which she throws in his face, declaring a la “East Lynne” (1861 novel by Ellen Wood): “I’d rather be a toad and feed on the foul vapors of a dungeon cell, than be– what you would have me be.” Jack then proceeds to chase her in and out of mouseholes and cracks in the floor boards in a funny and well animated Moser cycle. The hero mouse jumps off the mail-carrying duck and parachutes down to Jack’s Shack. He enters through the chimney to a pot bellied stove and busts through it just as Jack is closing in on the girl mouse with his menacing claws ready to grab her. Declaring that Jack “has drunk his last glass of likker”, hero mouse shoots Jack right through his black heart, inky blood seeps out in close-up as Jack flops to the floor. The mice embrace as the moral fades in: “The Corner Saloon Should Go”. (This cartoon was made during Prohibition.)
This is a very loose satire of familiar well-worn dramatic tropes intended for an adult audience, Terry spared no blood or ink on this one.
IF NOAH LIVED TODAY 4-22-1924
Paul Terry must have loved the Old Testament tale of Noah’s Ark. He made two previous Fables about the old sailor: “Troubles On the Ark” (1923) and “Amateur Night On The Ark” (1923).
If Noah Lived Today “updates” the action to 1924 with a broadcast from radio station P.D.Q. warning that the barometer indicates “flood”. The bulls look on in amazement at the news, in a scene animated possibly by “Vet” Anderson, who had a way with the heavies.
Terry liked to mix dinosaurs with the mammals as they all run to a cave to avoid getting wet. They emerge from the cave riding the dirigible “Shenandoah”, with the skunks riding their own tiny blimp tied to the rear. Terry also loved to use skunks and their smell to humiliate Farmer Al–and the quarantined skunks joke became part of standard cartoon humor.
The Shenandoah was a real dirigible, the first one built by the U.S. Navy. She was 690 feet long and inflated by helium gas. She was modeled on German dirigibles that used very light weight metal for the framework. They were alright on a calm day over water, but not so great in a big storm over land. On Sept. 3rd, 1925, the Shenandoah was caught in a storm over Ohio and tipped over vertically like the cartoon dirigible does. The Shenandoah broke in two pieces at 6000 feet and crashed to the ground, killing fourteen people. This happened about a year after “If Noah Lived Today” was made. Was Terry clairvoyant?
If Noah Lived Today and the other Noah cartoons that Terry made anticipate “Noah Knew His Ark” (Van Beuren 1930), The Phantom Rocket (Van Beuren 1933) and “Father Noah’s Ark” (Walt Disney 1933), the quarantined skunks joke even pops up in the Disney.
MORE MICE THAN BRAINS 11-21-1925
Farmer Al’s house is over-run with Terry mice as the critters carry stolen trays of food through the room doing a very early version of the “Van Beuren Hop” as they give a little jump up and float through the air, then drop down quickly into a walking action. Terry’s mice were an influence on Walt Disney’s Alice comedies such as “Alice the Whaler” (1927) and variations on the mice pop in the Oswald cartoons.
The mice really run wild over Al’s farm, even holding up the hen at gun point to steal her eggs, which they throw at Farmer Al. Henry the cat walks confidently up to Farmer Al and says “I’ll Get Rid Of Them”. Henry and one of the mice grab a grinding wheel that the rodents were using as a diving board, and wander through Terryland, asking for scissors, farm tools and knives to sharpen. Street vendors and pushcart sellers were an everyday presence in early 20th century city life. Scissors grinders as they were called, wandered through the streets calling out: “Scissors, knives and axes sharpened, very reasonable!” The little foot powered honing machine with the big pumice grinding wheel was dragged along either strapped to the grinder’s back or to a cart. Knives and scissors were not made of stainless steel in those days and needed to be sharpened frequently.
In a wonderful scene animated by Frank Moser, Harry and the Mouse encounter a peg-legged pup with a dull knife. When Henry can’t sharpen the knife to Peg-Leg’s satisfaction, the pup slaps Henry around quite violently. Henry responds by cutting off the dog’s wooden leg and running away from the crippled canine.
Meanwhile Farmer Al gets more overwhelmed by the mice every second. He tries to sweep them out of his house in what strikes me as the funniest scene in the cartoon as he sweeps the mice out the front door, only to have them loop around and enter the front window in an endless cycle. Henry the Cat returns and he and Farmer Al have an argument over money and spar around in a good Frank Moser scene. The mice come out to watch the big fight and chase Henry away, much to the Farmer’s delight. Henry leads them into the lake, where the Farmer assumes they are drowned. Al’s lively laughing scene is also by Frank Moser.
Al laughs and laughs as he slowly approaches his sink to get a drink. His extended laughing business and throwing kisses to the “Home, Sweet Home” sign, then grabbing his cup, telegraphs the audience to look at the faucet. Al turns it on and the mice pop out of the faucet, fresh from the lake. The dumbfounded farmer heads for the horizon in utter defeat.
THE JUNK MAN 12-25-1927
This cartoon anticipates pictures like “Any Rags” (Fleischer 1932) and the action built around magnetism and magnets, like “Donald and Pluto” (1936), “Ol Rockin’ Chair Tom” (Hanna and Barbera 1948) and “Woodpecker In the Rough” (Walter Lantz 1952) among many others.
Henry and his pal the Mouse help Farmer Al collect junk by singing in the streets below tenement windows–the renters throw their iron, steel, birdcages and old underwear at the off-key choristers creating a rich harvest of cast-offs.
A tenant throws a powerful magnet to the street and it immediately starts attracting all the scrap metal junk. It even pulls Farmer Al’s false teeth right out of his head and attracts a steamroller that mashes Al to a pancake. Henry and the Mouse are fishing and use the magnet to attract a swordfish. They drag the swordfish on shore, and it starts to chase them across Terryland. The swordfish chases them up a power pole and the swordfish and Farmer Al saw it down. It crashes to the ground and the characters all exit the frame to the “endless road” where Henry tosses the magnet at Farmer Al and the swordfish. Farmer Al and the fish apparently fight over the magnet stirring up a lot of dust as Henry skates smoothly along the road and the mouse frantically works his legs. The moral really SHOULD be: “ Only cartoon Swordfish can breathe Oxygen through their gills!”
HIGH STAKES 1-25-1928
The fascination with mechanical devices including robots that perform useful tasks, stems from the theories of William Henry Smyth in 1919 who invented the word “technocracy” meaning “the rule of the people made more effective through the aid of scientists and engineers”. Terry seems to draw inspiration from the Technocracy movement and cartoons like the Oswald comedy “The Mechanical Cow” released 10-3-1927, three months before High Stakes.
Henry the Cat plays with a mechanical mouse who frightens a mechanical elephant, owned by a little monkey. The scene where Henry and his mechanical mouse enter the frame to scare the mechanical elephant is made more entertaining by the Cat imitating the robotic way the mouse is walking. You almost miss this great bit of animated business if you are just looking at the elephant. Mechanical animals with jointed limbs were also cheaper to animate, and the cel system accommodated separate arms, legs, wings, trunks and heads. These body parts look less mechanical when they are parts of a machine.
After chasing after the mechanical mouse, Farmer Al encounters a sleeping lion at the base of a tree and gets into a big fight with the jungle cat animated primitively by Jerry Shields.
Terry uses a prohibition gag at the top of the lion’s tree as Farmer Al offers a drink of pocket hootch to a buzzard. As the Farmer and the Buzzard get smashed, they giggle. Jerry Shields puts it over, crudely, by animating sparks radiating from their shoulders.
Farmer Al is feeling high and aggressive as he climbs back down the tree, punching the lion in the snout and chasing the Gambling Ostrich, mechanical mouse and frightened lion down the Terryland “endless road” in cycle animation for a rip snortin’ finish!