The Nellie series of cartoons were not only short-lived, reaching a total of six film releases in 1938-39, but are also interesting in that two of the six are conceptually spinoffs from the canon, if one can really even call it that. The four canon films share a premise: the scoundrel Rudolf Ratbone wants Nellie’s hand in marriage so he tries to force her consent.
In the spirit of mocking 1890s melodramas, these films from the Lantz studio generally show Nellie toying with Ratbone, as if she does it for fun, to give her dimwitted hero Dan the opportunity to defend her honor. Each time she is put in harm’s way—strapped to a log in a sawmill or tied to railroad tracks—but it seems unconvincing that she is not in control of the situation, playing these two men against each other.
In the inaugural film, Nellie the Sewing Machine Girl, she foretells the audience, “He has come to marry me, but I will never marry him.” Within seconds, Ratbone threatens to foreclose her Pappy’s home. Then, as she inches closer to death-by-sawblade in the climax, Dauntless Dan rushes to the mill to save her.
Nellie, having gotten him to fight for her, then swoons for Dan. She passionately wraps him up with a kiss. Dan declares, “I love you. And I do mean you.” Yes, a most peculiar statement, but he seemingly does mean her. He’s an earnest and well-meaning idiot, a bit light on his feet, barrel-chested with skinny legs.
It’s a lot of fun to watch the elastic contortions that the Lantz animators apply to Dan’s actions and movements. His manliness is replaced with cartoonish vigor and solicitude. There is no response that does not warrant Dan striking some vivacious and wholehearted pose. He is a pure cartoon, stirred to extremes.
So, it’s disappointing when Dan does not appear in the second in the series, Nellie the Indian Chief’s Daughter, making it the first among the two that are technically spinoffs or riffs on the main storyline. In this cartoon, Nellie is now the daughter of Chief Rain-In-the-Puss and is set upon by Ratbone as a leering frontiersman, costumed like Davy Crockett instead of a black-caped villain.
Whereas the earlier film had a ragtime piano score, this one goes for a jazzy Big Band sound, so Dan is replaced with a Native American bandleader named Benny Goodskin who has a masculine build and runs around with his clarinet. It all comes off disjointed, and it’s remarkable that so many liberties were taken altering the Nellie love-triangle and its “Gay Nineties” setting considering that the series was only just beginning.
Nellie again seems in charge even while she is tied up. When Benny is crumpled and beaten after confronting Ratbone, she plays his clarinet to invigorate him. This leads to a musical denouement and the couple embracing while Rudolf scurries off. It’s an artifact of exactly that moment in 1938 when the Benny Goodman Orchestra was at its peak popularity.
Both of these films employed an “Oswald Rabbit Presents” title card, so they are often listed as Oswalds in filmographies, even though he never appears. By the third Nellie cartoon, The One-Armed Bandit, it is clear that Lantz has anointed this a stand-alone series. It was soon to be billed as “A Walter Lantz Mello-Drama.”
The One-Armed Bandit is the first Nellie film with a credited director, Alex Lovy, and it’s the one in which Dauntless Dan gets the lasting character design that carries into the next three cartoons. Like Sewing Machine Girl, it involves Ratbone trying to jeopardize Pappy’s mortgage, this time by stoking his gambling addiction to a certain nickel slot machine. Nicknamed “one-armed bandits,” these actually first became popular in the 1890s.
Lovy would also direct the last two films, Nellie of the Circus and The Bird on Nellie’s Hat, making him the director of record who defined the series and guided it capably to its end. If he also made the first one, then he made all four cartoons that depicted the Nellie-Dan-Ratbone triangle.
And so, let me now explain the wondrous oddity of The Birth of a Toothpick. In late 1938, the director Burt Gillett came over to Lantz from the Disney studio. After the huge success of his landmark Three Little Pigs (1933), Gillett had been a rising star for Disney. He parlayed that momentum not into enduring fame, but instead into a big-time job running the Van Beuren studios.
The stress of managing an animation staff provoked some troubling behavior, with ample speculation that mental health was an underlying cause of his increasingly erratic moods and outbursts. Eventually he was released from employment, but Disney took him back until Walter Lantz then offered an attractive contract of his own—giving him the leeway to create and direct his own cartoons—in 1938.
Since Lantz needed a new hit series, the hiring of Gillett made sense. He arrived with the prestige of having been an accomplished Disney director, and he came over with the expectations and demands for quality that he told Walter would translate to box-office success. That never happened, and he spent the better part of a year developing a series around a character Li’l Eightball that was too expensive to sustain.
Yet, when he was newly arrived at Universal, it was apparently Lovy’s version of Dauntless Dan that intrigued Gillett. He riffed on this material to make his first Lantz studio cartoon. From a pragmatic standpoint, it was a good move because the designs for the series were set and the animators were experienced drawing the character, although Gillett gave Dan a lumberjack outfit and a stronger chin.
The One-Armed Bandit, directed by Lovy, was also notable for the voice artist who joined the series. Mel Blanc performs Dan with a Scandinavian accent, a presumption that the well-meaning character is from Minnesota or some North-Central timber state. The accent seems perfectly fitting and comical.
In Gillett’s hands, the series’ premise is recast through a filter of delusion and absurdity. Gillett dispenses with Nellie and Ratbone, relying instead on Dan’s infatuation with an tree he has named Sylvia. Dan is a hero on a fool’s crusade. He is filled with self-absorption, admiring his reflection in a pond while declaring “You can’t turn Sylvia into toothpicks!”
He has an idealized notion of love that he projects onto this tree, but the true object of his love is Dan himself. If Lovy was hinting at this, Gillett puts it right out in the open and mocks his narcissism. It is therefore gleefully ridiculous when Dan chases after a train to rescue the timbered remains of his beloved tree.
The climax? Who needs to strap Nellie to a sawmill log when the heroine herself has become the log! The Birth of a Toothpick, released in 1939, is unlike anything else made during this period at Lantz. It might be offbeat, but the commitment to its joke is played full-throttle for laughs.
When Burt Gillett left animation a year later, he vanished from the cartoon business for good. As the director of two Academy Award-winning animated shorts, he will always have a place in both Disney lore and in film history, but arguably he also deserves some recognition for giving birth to this obscure and remarkable little toothpick.