Animation History
February 6, 2024 posted by Jerry Beck

The Five Best Columbia/Screen Gems Cartoons of the 1940s

Are there five?

Yeah – After much thought, I decided there are indeed five Columbia Screen Gems films produced during the 1940s, after the passing of Charles Mintz; during the tumultuous wartime era, that are decent shorts that somewhat stand the test of time.

Because as they were generally unavailable for view, or review – or any critical study – for many decades, the Columbia Screen Gems shorts had a better reputation than the more easily accessible Terrytoons and Famous Studios product which were – in comparison to Disney, Warner Bros and MGM – judged to be inferior entertainments.

But that reputation – bolstered by the fact such names as Frank Tashlin, John Hubley, Dave Fleischer, and even Bob Clampett, who walked in and out the studio doors – was over blown. Now that more of the films are available to see (thank you MeTV), its true colors have emerged.

Personally, I feel there is a lot to like in the Columbia cartoon library. The animation is solid. Character designs are a lot of fun. The stories occasionally take big risks. But there is something missing. I think its a point of view – a P.O.V. – that even when a strong creator like Tashlin or Hubley took the reins there, maybe it was the budgets, maybe it was the crew, but something did not click.

Charles Mintz passed away in December 1939, by which time his studio was owned lock, stock and paint-barrel by Columbia Pictures. After that, no one at the parent company had any idea what to do – they just knew they needed to continue supplying cartoon shorts to theaters. Mintz left them without any “star” characters as Scrappy and Krazy Kat were now past their “sale date”.

Hiring Frank Tashlin was a wise move… and he gave them something they sorely needed: two headliners, The Fox and Crow. So let’s start there. Here is my list in chronologic order. These are cartoons you can show non-cartoon buffs and not be embarrassed. Please feel free to defend your own choices in the comments below.

THE FOX AND THE GRAPES (1941) Directed By Frank Tashlin

This is as close as any other studio ever got trying to do a “Warner Bros. Cartoon”. Of course this has Tashlin at the helm and he knocks it out of the park – with a film that reinvents the spot-gag cartoon (Jones has said this film inspired the format of the Road Runner Coyote shorts). In addition to Tashlin, we have Mel Blanc creating two new vocal characterizations – giving this film a little more enthusiasm than his previous roles at Screen Gems.


SONG OF VICTORY (1942)

The only film that has both Frank Tashlin and Dave Fleischer in the credits. Obviously a transitional picture for the outgoing Tash and the incoming Dave. Far from the best wartime animated analogy out there – (McCabe’s The Ducktators nails the same basic idea) it does have some effective moments… now if we could only see it restored.


WILLOUGHBY’S MAGIC HAT (1943)

A bizarre little classic. Even though they produced a sequel or two, the character went no where – didn’t even make the comic books. This first one (there were three; one sequel in black and white, another in color), directed by Bob Wickersham, features that nifty pre-UPA experimental art direction that John Hubley and Zack Schwartz were pushing. I can’t imagine what audiences in 1943 thought of these Columbia Phantasy cartoons – but eighty years later they look rather daring.


POLAR PLAYMATES (1946)

This one is a surprise. A beautiful little short – filled with appealing characters (designed by Charles Thorson) in a cute little story – ably directed by Howard Swift. And the characters DID make it to the comic books – “Polar Playmates” appeared in the first issue of DC’s Real Screen Funnies (1945) and were a regular back up feature for (I think) the first 40 issues. This film makes me wonder what could have been at Screen Gems, if only…


FLORA (1948)

Another one that works. And its somewhat original – for once, I doesn’t feel like a Warner cartoon, or Lantz, or any other studio. It’s its own thing. And its about a male contemplating suicide over an unrequited love. Wonderfully narrated by Gerald Mohr (whom you might recall as the narrator of Baby Weems (1941), or Reed Richards in Hanna Barbara’s Fantastic Four (1967) – the Scorpion in Republic’s The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), or radio’s The Whistler, I could go on).

Honorable mentions (in no particular order): Tollbridge Troubles, Woodman Spare That Tree, Way Down Yonder In The Corn, Tito’s Guitar, The Disillusioned Bluebird, He Can’t Make It Stick, The Vitamin G Man, Professor Small and Mister Tall.

31 Comments

  • Those are all very good cartoons. What I like best about “Song of Victory” is that, unlike other wartime “V for Victory” cartoons, its musical score utilises material from all four movements of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, rather than just the first four notes.

    The only cartoon I would add to your list is “The Rocky Road to Ruin” (1943), something of a precursor to “The Dover Boys” in setting, story and style, and with just as many laughs.

    I remember Gerald Mohr best for guest-starring on “Lost in Space” as a devilish alien who had a thing for Judy. Well, who wouldn’t?

    • Oops, my mistake, “The Dover Boys” came first. Should’ve checked.

    • Gerald Mohr was in several Columbia movies, among them “Gilda” and “Funny Girl.” He also played a psychiatrist in an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

  • I’d add to the honorable mentions two Flippy’s with unique ideas never touched on by Tweety and Sylvester – “Big House Blues” and “Silent Tweetment” – and two Katz-Binder Color Rhapsodes which, despite slight continuity errors in the visuals, deliver solid, laugh-filled plots worthy of Warner or Lantz (which they remind me of, respectively) – “Up ‘n; Atom”, and “Swiss Tease”.

  • The first sequel to Willoughby’s Magic Hat – Magic Strength – was in black and white. Only the last cartoon in the series – Carnival Courage – was in colour. Both of the sequels reused the ancient Greek style introduction explaining the origin of the magical cap from the original. The first entry is definitely the strongest (no pun intended), and has the most interesting layouts and artwork, although the story is truly bizarre (the damsel in distress scenario comes out of nowhere). John McLeish/Ployardt’s narration is a bit too flamboyant and overwritten, it’s striking how much more effectively he was used at Warner Bros. and Disney than in his work for Columbia (similar to Mel Blanc except in the first Fox and the Crow short).

    Speaking of McLeish, the very strange Sherlock Holmes spoof The Case of the Screaming Bishop is another entry I’d add to Jerry’s list of honorable mentions, if I were being generous. McLeish wrote and performed all the voices, and it doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it’s at least going for something a bit different than typical 1940s Hollywood cartoon fare.

    Up n’ Atom is another one of the better shorts from the period where Columbia produced nothing but Warner Bros. knock offs (it’s obviously indebted to Bob Clampett’s The Hep Cat), but it’s still definitely lacks the comedic sensibilities of Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, etc.

  • I’d add RED RIDING HOOD RIDES AGAIN (Sid Marcus, 1941). Lots of wartime references and Billy Bletcher voicing the Big Bad Wolf. It reminds me of a Tex Avery cartoon.

  • Here’s a couple more shorts i’d include in that list of honorable mentions:

    The Herring Murder Mystery (1943)
    The Way of All Pests (1941)
    Grape Nutty (1949)
    Imagination (1943)
    Dog Cat and Canary (1945)

  • There are three I would consider:

    (1) Concerto in B Flat Minor (Tashlin, 1942). In spite of one gag being a total lift from H.M. Bateman, this largely silent cartoon is very effective and uses the music well.
    (2) The Herring Murder Mystery (Roman, 1943). I’ve always enjoyed the liberal spoof of “Information, Please” in this cartoon, but there are some other interesting gags (like the soundtrack gag), and some good voice work. Pity the musical question gag is butchered by the bad print going about.
    (3) The Great Cheese Mystery (Davis, 1941). Tashlin, who wrote this, would to a certain extent revisit this in “A Tale of Two Mice” in 1944/5 for WB, but this version has some nice Blanc voice work, and some crisp gags.

    • Good call on the The Great Cheese Mystery, one of the few Columbia cartoons that’s on par with WB (no surprise given Tashlin’s involvement). Wolf Chases Pigs is also one of the better shorts in the Fables series.

      Surprised that anyone has nominated Imagination, an awful, saccharine film inexplicably nominated for an Oscar.

  • I would add “Boston Beanie” (Sid Marcus, 1947) to the list of enjoyable Screen Gems cartoons not mentioned above. It’s another Katz-Binder cartoon with the Sylvester lookalike and a clever story. Also “The Wild And Woozy West” (Tashlin, et al, 1942), which is as close to Tex Avery as Columbia ever got. But the only masterpieces that I consider that the studios ever made were “Little Match Girl” (not from the ’40s), “Fox and Grapes,” and “Flora.”

    I don’t know why something is missing in Columbia cartoons, making them fall into the second tier along with Terrytoons and Famous (and, in my opinion, Lantz). Perhaps it was budgets. Perhaps it was working conditions; why would pros like Hubley, Tashlin, and Dave Fleischer leave so soon after joining?

  • God help me, I have a deep-rooted attachment for Coo-Coo Bird Dog–There’s something irresistible about its pure, unadulterated dumbness.

  • Of course there are also the Li’l Abner cartoons (featuring the title character with spaghetti legs, and Mammy Yokum tooting her corncob pipe like a certain sailor Dave Fleischer had worked with), which are fascinating in that they’re not better. Pretty sloppy work for what was clearly meant to be a prestige series. Restoring them to their full Technicolor glory would make a lot of difference, but probably not enough.

    It’s unfortunate the Columbia cartoons are the most frequently overlooked as studio cartoons go. Even if too many of the ’30s entries seem like Fleischer cartoons gone wrong and the ’40s ones seem like Warner Bros. cartoons gone wrong, there are enough worthwhile titles so that the body of work itself doesn’t deserve to be forgotten altogether. One wonders how involved Columbia boss Harry Cohn was with the animation unit; clearly the heavy turnover at this time indicates a hostile environment created by the management. Which is odd because Columbia was known for giving directors more creative freedom than other studios, but then none of the studio heads seemed to regard cartoons very highly.

  • I find the 40s Columbia cartoons very enjoyable, despite the criticism that they often get. (Glad that MeTV has been showing them in rotation.)

    Ever since I saw Cockatoos For Two, after reading about it on Thad’s blog, I’ve quoted the line “finding a new taste sensation” whenever discussing cooking.

  • An absolute favorite in my house : “Mad Hatter” (1940) directed by Sid Marcus, with its strange Al-Capp-satire flavor and its even stranger glossy looks. Starred by Maisie the Girl.

  • I, too, am quite fond of Professor Small and Mr. Tall. The UPA precursors tend to be the most interesting of the 1940s Columbia shorts. Something to be said about how those went somewhere (eventually), while Dave Fleischer’s lackluster Li’l Abners were so forgotten that they’re not even fully extant in public. A few of them are still in B&W and the publically-known Totally Tooned In copies of shorts that are in their original color have cuts for time. Jerry: any chance there were full restorations of all five shorts while TTI was in production?

    • Yes – All the cartoons on Totally Tooned In were, at the time (pre-digital), were preserved and restored (photo chemically) completely from the negatives. The versions presented on TTI were manipulated (i.e. edits, music, titles, etc) for THAT series only.

      • Excellent news! Despite my opinions on the Li’l Abners, I do hope they–and so many Columbia shorts that could use a little love–end up getting rereleased somehow. I’m not expecting Sony to hawk 4K discs with this library, but it seems like MeTV doesn’t mind airing it (as long as there’s no trouble with Al Capp’s estate…).

  • Zack Schwartz spoke of WILLOUGHBY WREN to me. He asked if I could find him a copy. Took a while. I got really good copies for both of us. He said it was hailed as a breakthrough in modern design tho the designs were inspired by the periods in which the story is set. He said it was the beginning of the UPA style.

  • “Willoughby’s Magic Hat is one I saw very young, and stuck in my head for life. Even as a kid I found the style to be quite off, and the robot monster’s ability to reassemble itself after being broken apart was real nightmare fuel (that was decades before The Terminator!)
    Seeing it again I got a chuckle at the moment Willoughby bursts in heroically, and the monster and damsel-in-distress exchange “who’s that?? – I dunno” looks.

  • I’d add “King Midas Junior,” “Cinderella Goes To A Party” and the ultra-wacky “Mother Hubba Hubba Hubbard,” which includes a scene (starting at 0:55) that emulates the animation style of Rod Scribner. Tough for me not to love a studio that employed the likes of Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett, Sid Marcus, Art Davis, Manny Gould, John Hubley, Cal Howard and Dave Fleischer – and actually made a radio spoof cartoon featuring a caricature of Oscar Levant.

    • I agree about “King Midas Junior” which Tashlin may have overseen before he was unfortunately let go. It’s a shame a complete copy has not been found.

      I also like to mention “The Schooner the Better” which was Screen Gem’s final black and white short (and a decent way to go out on). I like the twist ending and found it strange that the antagonist looks an awfully lot like Lantz’ Buzz Buzzard (who wouldn’t debut till the following year).

    • I have a suspicious feeling that Manny Gould lent some of his animation for this and a few others. Makes sense since Clampett was said to been brought in for some time.

  • Anyone mention Lucky Pigs (1939), or The Carpenters (1941) yet? Okay, Lucky Pigs and The Carpenters. I saved both of these cartoons on their respective “Totally Tooned In” episodes (along with every “Fox & Crow”) on my DVR many years ago. The latter short is available on Jerry’s YouTube channel.

  • I don’t remember Columbia Screen Gems cartoons ever having a stellar reputation, especially after reading “Of Mice and Magic”. When they finally became available my expectations were low and maybe that helped. I was surprised by how many I enjoyed. They are experimental, often missing the mark, but always daring to be different, which makes them more fun than an awful lot of routine product coming from most other studios. I guess I can run down a list that comes to mind;

    Wolf Chases Pigs
    Polly Wants a Doctor
    Up n’ Atom
    Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree
    The Herring Murder Mystery
    Woodman Spare that Tree
    Phony Baloney
    The Schooner the Better (I swear I saw Buzz Buzzard meet Chilly Willy.)
    Big House Blues
    (and some others that have been mentioned)

  • I really like the offbeat nature of the Screen Gems cartoons. Some of them are pure nonsense but that’s what makes them fun. As for favorites, It’s pretty easy to pick a few out.

    The Fox and The Grapes
    Up n’ Atom
    Simple Siren
    Professor Small and Mr. Tall
    Mad Hatter

  • One thing that occurred to me after posting my last comment: does anyone else suspect that Ross Bagdassarian borrowed Professor Small for Clyde Crashcup? Same needle nose with brush mustache underneath, same know-it-all attitude, but Professor Small doesn’t have Crashcup’s Richard Haydn-esque voice, and Mr. Tall is more proactive than Crashcup’s silent sidekick Leonardo.

    • Others have speculated that, but Don M. Yowp has written in his Tralfaz blog that Clyde Crashcup was a caricature of Stephen Bosustow. The former UPA people who founded Format Films were poking fun at their old boss.

      • Really? Clyde Crashcup looks nothing like Stephen Bosustow.

        • Well, Bosustow had a moustache and bushy hair, so it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me. I’m only passing along what I read on the Tralfaz blog (“Painting With Crashcup”, 28 October 2022). Unfortunately (and uncharacteristically), Yowp does not cite any source for that information.

  • Up n’ Atom, The Baby and the Bulldog

  • For that i meant “Hubbard”, “Cockatoos for Two” and “Snap Happy Traps”. They all have a few scenes that fit Gould’s style.

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