The Nellie series lasted for only six cartoons before it faced the competition of other more promising Lantz characters, especially Andy Panda and the emerging Swing Symphonies jazz-themed lineup. However, I still rank one of those six, The Birth of a Toothpick, as one of the best Lantz cartoons of the late 1930s, so it struck me with a bit more interest to find there may have been a seventh episode that never got made.
Based on surviving archival materials, it would have been titled Up in the Clouds and would have gotten a 1939 release. It follows a plotline that had been used before—a flashback to Nellie and Dan as kids, where Nellie shows off her budding acrobatic talents and Dan blushes and reveals his feelings for her. Then it cuts to them as young adults.
The villain Rudolf Ratbone moves in like a predator and makes promises to Nellie, but only if she signs a contract. Throughout the series, some variant of this remained the overriding threat, often a foreclosure on her Pappy’s mortgage to force her hand in marriage. One early script proposal, written by Dick Marion, suggests that “As Ratbone gives a sales talk, he talks so fast that Nell cannot understand.”
What is different about this cartoon compared to others in the series is that Nellie’s contract will lock her into servitude as a circus performer, not as Ratbone’s betrothed. When her well-intentioned but dimwitted hero Dauntless Dan tries to intervene, Ratbone stuffs him in a barrel and kicks him down a steep hill.
These cartoons were meant to satirize old-timey melodramas about moral rectitude and personal virtue. So when Dan and Rudolf square off at the finale, as they inevitably always do, it is an allegoric battle of Good vs. Evil. In the hands of Lantz and his animators, though, the virtuous hero is just about as dumb as dirt and obliging as a boy scout.
Years later, when Dan catches up to the fair maiden, he confronts Ratbone. There are some props invoked at this point that seem more carnivalesque than circus-like, but it makes for an epic showdown that warrants the Up in the Clouds title. After a quarrel under the Big Top, they run outside and a chase ensues among some amusement park rides.
There must have been a directive from Lantz, Alex Lovy or the two credited storymen to answer this question: “What can you suggest for getting Dan Up on the Balloon?” At least I imagine this was the case because that’s the question typed at the top of a page submitted by Fred Brunish of the background department.
Brunish provides his answer, a type-written premise for a gag: “Danny gets out of tent and rents ride on the 20th century Buck Rogers Rocket Ship which spins around several times to get up to speed. He loosens it from center pole and heads up after the balloon. When he reaches it, he sees Ratbone attempting to kiss Nellie.”
Dick Marion had a different suggestion, involving the use of a carnival “Bell Ringer” that a strongman hits with a sledgehammer to fire Dan up into the sky. A formal script with dialogue also had proposed a cannon to achieve this, and there are gag sketches that offer variants of these, but the central idea was that Dan in a rocket would face off against Rudolf in a balloon.
The Brunish memo suggests that the Buck Rogers rocket would have a ray-gun to allow Dan to aim it and “destroy the gas bag with a loud explosion,” which would have likely brought to mind the fiery 1937 Hindenburg disaster, notwithstanding the fact that based on sketches this was meant to be a hot-air balloon, not a hydrogen gas vessel.
In a sequence proposed by Fred Rice, both Dan and Ratbone are hypnotized by a circus snake charmer: “1. Both can be so entranced by music that that they slow the fight up into a ‘paddy paw’ affair—slow motion. 2. The snake charmer can be Benny Goodman who starts a Hindu tune but ends up playing Tiger Rag with both Dan and Rudolf dancing.”
Rice used vibrant colors to show a clenched fist moving right up to the villain’s chin, about to sock him. A proposal like this may have just been some filler leading up to the climax, the fight in the clouds that was lending this cartoon its name. In any case, this Goodman gag was very close to something that had already been used prominently in Nellie the Indian Chief’s Daughter.
Rice then offered another gag as a soaring action ending: “Dan gets Rudolf ‘the rat’ tangled up in the balloon ropes like a wrestler in the ring, then proceeds to pluck the different ropes, giving a harp effect and at the same time giving Rudolf a helluva shaking up.” Instead of evoking Goodman, it was more like Harpo getting the musical finish.
“After the song is over, Dan grabs Nellie and does a ‘Flying Bat’ slide to the terra firma with Rudolf’s cloak, but as he jumps from the balloon he pulls the rip cord to the gas and Rudy goes thru space in rocket ship effect as the gas is escaping.” Rice drew a fun sketch of the accelerating balloon going past a smiling moon.
Or, there is this version from the Brunish story memo: “Meantime Danny maneuvers his rocket ship into position for catching Nellie. He opens hatch at top of top of rocket ship and Nellie lands safely. Everything points to a happy ending and Danny once more sails the ship which we see head through a cloud bank marked Tunnel of Love. From there the ship is seen sailing into space with a huge moon in the background.”
The staff at Lantz was clearly taking some liberties with the sort of 1890s-inspired parody of moralism that was a founding conceit of this series. The artists were veering toward science fiction — and calling attention to the popular Buck Rogers serial adventures, also distributed by Universal — yet it might have been better to stylistically reference a Jules Verne rocket to keep this within Victorian times. In any case, it is this Rocket Age ending that remains the greatest loss when Up in the Clouds was not animated and left unproduced.
Or was it made? That might still be a point of conjecture, though there is plenty of evidence it was. The Lantz production numbers include abandoned projects, such as two others from 1939, a Li’l Eightball cartoon and The Cuckoo and the Cricket, which were both shelved. However, there is no record of an unfinished Nellie cartoon.
The probable answer is that it was made, though for reasons we don’t know it was cut down in scope and became Nellie of the Circus. It is easy to speculate why this happened. First, the late switch to its carnival setting was a reach. Second, the story would have grown beyond the allotted seven minutes. And third, if there needed to be a cut, the lavish and action-packed rocket finale was the prudent thing to remove and stay under budget.
In retrospect, it is hard to be aware of this and not wish that the Buck Rogers finale, above all other parts of the cartoon, had remained in the picture. A cartoon like Harman-Ising’s Little Buck Cheeser from 1937 is such a visual spectacle—a bright red rocket ship weaving jet trails through outer space—that one imagines what a treasure it would be to find a late-30s science fiction cartoon from Lantz, even if for only one minute before iris-out.
As we come back down to earth from what-could-have-been, it is evident that the early story structure of Up in the Clouds matches Lantz Production #971, Nellie of the Circus. In this cartoon, there is a flashback to 1870 showing the precocious Nellie as a baby acrobat in her crib, years before she swings on the trapeze. Then it flashes ahead to when Ratbone discovers her. The narrator says he is “a ruthless talent scout from the great big city” who promptly signs her to a circus contract.
Among his fast-talking lines is “I’ll make a million dollars for you even before you can say Jake Robinson,” who was the featherweight boxing champ in 1939. He turned pro the following year and went on to be called Sugar Ray Robinson, marking this as surely one of his earliest references in movies.
In Nellie of the Circus, Dauntless Dan spends years crisscrossing every corner of the globe “in search of his lost love,” exactly as he was to have done in Up in the Clouds. When he finally comes back to America, after searching ocean floors and distant continents, he is such a dunce that he nearly walks past a giant billboard for “Nell, Queen of the Air, Trapeze Artist.”
The narrator nudges him to notice, and when Dan finally rushes to the circus to challenge Ratbone, the film is spent for time, leaving a one-note finish to a clumsy amount of narrative build-up. I’m not sure if this cartoon could have been saved, but heading up into the clouds on a rocket ship would have been a nice way to end on a high note.