Animation Trails
September 25, 2019 posted by Charles Gardner

The INVISIBLE Article (Part 1)

We’re getting into the “spirit” of the Halloween season. The time for costumes of ghouls. monsters – and bad caricatures of political candidates. But there’s one member of the classic movie monsters’ roster who’s never had a convincing Halloween costume modeled after him – for obvious reasons. That is H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”. Yet, what he lacks in third-dimensional product merchandising has been largely made up over the years by the successes he has found in the two-dimensional film world – particularly in animation, where direct nods as well as “inspired by” tributes have abounded for many years.

Invisibility is a subject which could have instant appeal to an animator – for one thing, as a potential work saver. Imagine the “line mileage” saved when you don’t even have to draw your featured character! Just animate the props he encounters. Of course, this may be easier said than done. To make an invisibility sequence effective requires a certain degree of skill in both pantomime and three dimensional geometry, to convincingly “move” still life items to make them appear to be manipulated by a “little man who wasn’t there”. Perhaps for this reason, the idea didn’t run entirely rampant at lower-end animation mills, and was instead often saved for prestigious studios and productions with animators who knew what they were doing.

While invisibility in general became a frequent stock-in-trade of cartoons involving supernatural beings such as ghosts, fairies, gremlins, leprechauns, etc. (Including countless instances as a regular feature of the Casper the Friendly Ghost series from Paramount in the 40’s and 50’s), this article will refine focus to instances where creatures or objects of more stable stock than ectoplasm find ways and means of hiding from the eyes of the world, whether by weird science, everyday household items, or pure dumb luck.

Among the most technically prestigious in animation’s early days was Max Fleischer, with his inventive “Out of the Inkwell” series featuring himself interacting with the animated world of Koko the Clown. While the usual massive losses of silent titles may mask any definitive locating of silent origins for the subject genre of this article, the Koko series provides two notable entries where disappearances are the order of the day.

Invisible Ink (Fleischer, Out of the Inkwell, 12/3/21), is one of those early episodes featuring rotoscoping of Dave Fleischer in a clown suit as our starring character. But the effects in this one are technically state-of-the-art for the day. Max’s ink supply appears to be hardening up, with his pen points getting stuck in the bottle. Actually, it’s Koko inside playing tug of war with the pen tips. Koko finally comes out on the drawing board, but an irritated Max draws him a door, with letters overhead reading, “Exit. This Means You.” Koko dallies, but obliges – then keeps reappearing, on the backside of drawn lines on the paper, and even through the paper itself (which heals its own hole behind him). Max decides to play a prank on Koko, filling up his pen from a bottle of invisible ink. He draws in various gymnasium equipment for Koko to work out on – but bicycle, chinning bar, and rings disappear as Koko tries to use them. Max ribs Koko, asking, “Where’s your bicycle?” Koko proves it’s right there, by mounting it in its invisible state and riding it all around the room (a well coordinated piece of rotoscoping, replacing the outlines of the bicycle with a moving “shadow” on the background to give the convincing illusion of Koko riding on thin air). Much of the remainder of the film meanders off the subject (but entertainingly so), involving a hide and seek game of “follow the line”, first played by Max on Koko, then reversed by Koko on Max in the real world, leaving Max climbing fences and scaling building walls while Koko fills the animation studio with drawing duplicates of himself to challenge Max to find him if he can. Max’s head literally spins in circles when he sees the room full of Kokos, but he soon solves the problem by throwing various bottles at the drawings, causing the real Koko to duck. Max literally swallows Koko in one shot, but Koko finally makes his escape by jumping in the bottle of invisible ink, swimming in circles inside until he disappears entirely from view.


Mutt and Jeff intervene between the Fleischer outings, with Invisible Revenge (Bud Fischer/Charles Bowers) (1925), perhaps the first cartoon to approach invisibility from the angle of a wacky scientist. Jeff applies for a job in the want ads for a chemist=s assistant. The scientist is dabbling in a new invention – an invisibility formula, but with results that wear off quickly. Currently, he=s testing it on microbes, and perplexes a couple under the microscope by making Mama and baby microbe disappear before Papa microbe=s eyes. The chemist asks Jeff for a bigger specimen. Jeff carries in a Taxi driver=s horse! AToo big@, says the chemist, and asks for a dog or cat. Jeff spends a good deal of time rounding up a cat from the alleys – and gets a dog in the bargain when a stray starts chasing the cat=s tail protruding out of Jeff=s coat. The chemist sprays an eyedropper of solution on each critter – and only their respective collar and neck ribbon are left to chase each other around the room.

Jeff gets his pay, and counts it outside the chemist=s door. Mutt happens along, and seeing Jeff loaded with dough, hijacks the money wad with his cane, handing Jeff back a single dollar. Then, he rolls Jeff into a ball and Aputts@ him away with a golf shot from his cane, and departs. Jeff swears revenge, as the word AIdea@ appears over his head. He renters the laboratory and grabs a beaker of the formula. Finding a stereotypical black man to assist him, Jeff offers him a dollar if he=ll do what he instructs. Jeff apparently lives with or in close proximity to Mutt, and takes his partner-in-crime home, where he applies an eyedropper of the formula to him. Once invisible, the black man starts removing all his clothes – except his shoes – and begins a hot dance in the shoes in Jeff=s living room. Mutt passes the open door, and his eyes bug out at the seemingly haunted shoes – but despite Mutt=s reactions, Jeff claims he sees nothing. Jeff produces a fiddle and pretends to study a music lesson – playing spirited numbers such as the AHighland Fling@ to accompany the frenzied toe tapping. Mutt races for the telephone and calls an asylum about needing a possible room reservation, as a cutaway view of his skull reveals gears and wheels inside his head spinning at a furious pace. Back in the living room, the near-naked black man re-materializes, and gets his pay – but Mutt spots him with Jeff, and the jig is up. The black man grabs his clothes and exits post haste, while Jeff hides behind a folding dressing barrier. Mutt takes off his coat, preparing to give Jeff a pounding – giving Jeff just long enough to apply a dose of the formula to himself, and remove his clothes. Mutt removes the barrier, only to find Jeff’s clothes in a heap – but with another pair of haunted shoes, which give Mutt a series of swift kicks in the rear. Then, Jeff lowers the boom on Mutt, by invisibly lifting and crashing down on him every piece of furniture in the place. Mutt sees stars, which form the words, THE END.

Fade Away (9/1/26) was produced in the heyday of Koko’s popularity, now drawn freehand and accompanied by his dog Fitz. This time, Max has a new weapon – perhaps difficult to find a supply of in the real world. He produces a small bottle, labeled, “Fade Out Powder – Use in small quantities only”, and spikes his inkwell with it. Koko and Fitz fortunately are not drawn in same, already being on the drawing board and cavorting in a bathtub. Max produces a sure-fire lure for Koko – a gorgeous girl, with a fancy touring car. Koko eagerly introduces himself, and attempts to accompany the young lady in the auto – but she disappears before Koko can even step into the vehicle – then the whole car disappears. Max draws a sack of gold – which also vanishes while Koko and Fitz are just beginning to enjoy letting the coins run through their fingers. Then Max draws a doorway, with overhead sign reading “Fade Away Land”. Not waiting for his victims to decide if they’re brave enough to venture in, Max pushes Koko and Fitz through the door with his finger, then erases the door from the backside, leaving Koko and Fitz with no means of escape on their side. Fitz starts chasing a cat – who disappears in mid-chase. Koko catches Fitz with a net, but it disappears too. Koko chases Fitz through a building. Fitz escapes out a window, then the window disappears – but Koko gets out anyway through a cellar door. Fitz and Koko dive in a lake – but the water disappears, leaving fish sailing in mid-air. Fitz jumps in a hot-air balloon and drops the sandbag. Koko jumps in as it takes off – but the passenger basket disappears, and then the balloon.

The two fall to earth and land on a giant slide in a carnival midway – but, in a wonderfully-timed shot, the details of the slide begin disappearing right behind our heroes, vanishing as fast as the slide can carry them. They finally escape out of a chute off the drawing board into the real world, where they discover the bottle of Max’s powder. As usual, turnabout is fair play. Grabbing a handful of powder, Koko flings it at Max’s pen – and the pen disappears right out of his hand. Max tries to hide, first behind a coat rack, then a chair – but more handfuls of powder cause both objects to disappear entirely. Max tries to retaliate by throwing a firecracker, but Koko merely douses it with powder so it disappears before it explodes. Then, he spritzes powder on Max’s suit – obliterating Max’s coat and vest. Koko’s still not through having fun. He and Fitz climb out the window with the powder bottle, and spot a child below playing with a small balloon. Koko and Fitz commandeer the balloon, while Max attempts to follow in an old Ford. Dropping liberal doses of powder, Koko and Fitz cause the disappearance of buildings, water towers, trains, trolley cars, and even a battleship! They also make a direct hit on Max’s jalopy, leaving him sitting in the street. In a bizarre ending sequence, Max enters another auto – which somehow self-morphs into a giant inkwell – big enough for Max to stand in. Max produces a slingshot and scores a hit on the balloon, causing Koko and Fitz to fall into the inkwell with him. Then a giant stopper appears from nowhere, and all three of them are sealed in the bottle for the evening!

With the eventual “fade” in popularity of the surreal world of Koko which came with the dawn of sound (temporarily suspending Koko’s production schedule, then resulting in his reintroduction relegated to third supporting player in numerous Betty Boop films), the fascination with disappearing objects also seemed to wane – for the moment. However, Universal Pictures was busy developing its new niche as the monster capitol of the world – and successfully acquired the rights to produce Wells’s The Invisible Man with splendid portrayal by Claude Rains and skillful directing by veteran James Whale in 1933. Box office was impressive, and iImpact of the film was long-lasting, eventually spawning numerous sequels. However (especially since the principal character was killed off in movie 1), it took awhile to come up with ideas for the subsequent follow-ups. This delay provides the inspiration for a strange episode from the pen of Bob Clampett, Porky’s Movie Mystery, discussed below. The feature further provided a renewed interest in the animation industry for the concept of invisibility – now with focus centering more upon characters themselves, rather than just props, becoming invisible.

Porky’s Poppa (Warner, Looney Tunes, Porky Pig, 1/15/38 – Robert Clampett, dir.), previously reviewed in my article Toons Abhor a Vacuum (Part 1), this website, featured a gag where a mechanical cow produces vanishing cream (a product from the cosmetics counter designed to disappear upon use – its inventors never envisioned that animators would take things too literally and infer it could also make its users disappear), and applies it to a live cow’s hay to make her milk disappear. It may have been the first cartoon to use the vanishing cream prop as a gimmick to achieve invisibility. Oddly enough, six days later, Paul Terry comes up with the same idea!

Bugs Beetle and His Orchestra (Terrytoons/Educational, 1/21/38 – John Foster, dir.), may perhaps mark animation’s earliest use of the cream to make actual characters invisible. There was certainly insufficient turnaround time for Terry to have “borrowed” the idea after seeing Clampett’s product premiere. Was vanishing cream such a hot item that year that it was generally in the consciousness of the public? Or could Terry possibly have had some “spies” on the opposite coast who somehow leaked advance word of Clampett’s work? As with the number of bites needed to reach the center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know.

Bugs Beetle leads a hot swing band in an insect night club, “The Big Apple” (of course, the real thing, stem and all). A nearby spider listens to the broadcast on the radio, and hearing the word “Bugs”, is drawn to tune in his receiver (which is a combination radio and television) to get a picture of the helpless-looking insect dancers (though one feisty fly is not-so-helpless, and delivers the spider a sock right through the TV screen). Spider invades the club. The fly previously seen and his girl run outside and pass a partially used container of vanishing cream in a junkyard. Spreading some on himself, the fly (with an audible “ping”) becomes invisible. Yet, inexplicably, he develops the power to appear and disappear at will. The spider catches up and attempts a lunge at the fly – but he disappears from reach and reappears behind him for a kick. Criticizing his own inefficiency (“I must be getting old”), the spider continues the chase back into the nightclub. There, an unusual part of the decor includes a pair of crossed dueling swords mounted on a wall. Spider and fly take one apiece, and the duel is on, with the fly of course periodically disappearing and entering “touché”s in the spider’s rear end. The duel progresses outside again, where fellow flies join the battle, producing their own swords from nowhere and also dipping themselves in the vanishing cream. Now, the spider faces an invisible sword army, swooping around like so many mosquito stingers. Knowing he’s licked, he beats a retreat to his home tree stump, but not before getting several swords stuck in his rear. As if his hind end hadn’t suffered enough abuse, the spider punishes himself in the last scene with a mechanical self-kicking machine (you’ve seen contraptions like this before, if you remember the Professor frequently punishing himself in first-season episodes of Joe Oriolo’s television edition of “Felix the Cat”). About as loose as animation writing can get – an odd place to find a then innovative concept idea, even if inexpertly handled.

Porky’s Movie Mystery (Warner, Looney Tunes, Porky Pig, 3/11/39 – Robert Clampett, dir.), currently ranks as one of the most politically-incorrect Porkys (next to his appearance in blackface as Cab Howlaway in Porky at the Crocadero), though the film got a good deal of airplay when the redrawn color-traced package of Porky titles first went into syndication. The reason – Porky plays the entire film (except the credits) in the guise of a Japanese detective – Mr. Motto (a direct parody of the “Mr. Moto” detective series produced concurrently at 20th Century Fox, starring non-Asiatic Peter Lorre). The cause for Porky’s sleuthing – reports of a “phantom” on the loose in the Hollywood movie studios.

A disclaimer card precedes the film, announcing, “Any resemblance this picture has to the original story from which it was stolen is purely accidental.” Police broadcasts send squadcars searching the Warner Brothers lot for the phantom’s whereabouts. Even though Warners is expressly referenced as the film’s locale, the police give third degree questioning to movie monster Frankenstein (obviously a veteran of a rival studio!) But the cloaked figure of the phantom continues to skulk. He disappears into a dressing room, the door of which reveals a clue to his identity – reading “The Invisible Man”. (What, another Universal veteran doing a Warner Bros. loan-out?) Removing his cloak to reveal an invisible torso (and also to eat an apple which reassembles inside his invisible stomach), the phantom (voiced by Billy Bletcher) complains that “They star me in one picture – then drop me! Why, I’ll crack every camera, wreck every reel, smash every set, scare every star out of Hollywood!” A live action scene of a riot (with French-looking mounted soldiers, yet), accompanies headlines stating that an aroused public demands Mr. Motto. A second headline apologetically states, “Sorry, Motto on Vacation.”

Motto (Porky) is located on a tropical island, basking under a palm tree and reading up on a book of Ju Jitsu. He answers a telephone ring by cracking open a coconut, using one half of it as earpiece and the other half as speaker. Hearing he’s needed at home, he revs up an outboard motor attached to the island itself, and sails the whole atoll home. Greeted by the police chief with outstretched hand, Mr. Motto reflexively resorts to his Ju Jitsu, flinging the chief flat against the floor. “So Sorry”, apologizes Motto. He gets right to work, looking for clues with a magnifying glass – at least, it seems like one, but Porky sticks his head right through the frame for closer examination, revealing there’s no glass at all. One of the real mysteries of the film occurs here – Porky comes up behind a film director in his chair. The director never gets to utter a word, and suddenly we abruptly cut to another skulking walk of the phantom. What was cut in the continuity here? All known prints (including the “Porky Pig 101″ DVD set) have this edit, so we must assume something didn’t pass the censors – but no one seems to have written up about the missing content. Was something the director said or did risque, or suggestively gay, perhaps? Or was there another piece of live action reference footage originally here that some star took exception to using? Please add your comments below if you have any information. Anyway, the phantom, surprised by Motto, removes his cloak to become invisible again, and hides in plain sight before a movie poster of “Lotta Dimples in Great Guns”, embellishing the girl’s feminine figure with his own villain’s hat, Mickey Mouse gloves, and clodhopper shoes. As Porky passes, the phantom gives Motto a good swift kick. Then, the phantom picks up an axe, slashes at Porky, and chases him into a blind corner. Porky pulls out his Ju Jitsu book for a quick refresher course, then seizes the phantom’s axe hand before he can deliver a blow. Porky whirls the phantom around with his judo moves (managing in mid fight to emerge from the swirls long enough to set the axe to one side), and flattens the phantom to the ground. Mr. Motto is not only a great detective and fighter, but must also be a good scientist, as he produces a large flit gun normally used for insecticides, but now labeled, “Anti-Invisible Juice”. Spraying such stuff all over the invisible body of the phantom, a fully-dressed human materializes. His secret identity: studio comedian Hugh Herbert in caricature (see nearly any Busby Berkeley musical, particularly “Dames”(1934), and later the inspiration for the run-on dialogue of Dayton Allen in the last screen voicing of Terrytoons’ Silly Sidney series).

Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (Fleischer/Paramount, Popeye Color Feature (2 Reel Special), 4/7/39 – Dave Fleischer, dir.), the last of Popeye’s original multi-reel Technicolor spectaculars, gives us a short sequence of invisibility, as the nameless villain’s final wish during his sword battle with Popeye over the lamp. He becomes a difficult target to duel, as he disappears (apparently both from view and from substance) every time Popeye gets close enough to make contact with him. But Popeye outmaneuvers him, causing him to lunge too far, and fall helplessly out of the tower where he was dueling into a river. In an unexplained bit of legerdemain (presumably to mercifully save him from drowning), the genie, without even the use of a wish, transforms the villain upon hitting the water into a fish – also neutralizing him as a threat to the pop-eyed sailor.

Popeye (along with Olive), tries invisibility himself in Ghosks Is the Bunk (Fleischer/Paramount, 6/14/39 – Dave Fleischer, dir., William Henning, Abner Matthews, anim.), a genuine Halloween episode. Olive reads ghost stories by a fireplace to Popeye and Bluto. Bluto observes that Popeye is starting to take the stories to heart (when he leaps under a sofa upon hearing the shutters blown open by the wind), and gets an idea for a prank on his companions. He excuses himself for the evening (Bluto: Good night. Popeye: Good riddance!), and exits down the road. But he is next seen with a box of various devices and a tool kit entering an old abandoned Hotel further down the road. A phone call is received at Olive=s house, and Popeye declares someone is calling for help at the old hotel. He and Olive arrive, but the front door seems locked.

As Popeye rears back to charge at it, the door self-opens, causing Popeye to crash into the hotels front desk. Olive enters, and the door self-bolts from outside behind her. A quavering but familiarly basso voice welcomes them and asks them to sign the register, which book turns under seemingly invisible power, opens, and floats a pen out to invite Popeye to sign. Bluto is in the rafters, controlling the whole thing with puppet strings. (Amazing strings, these, as they are enough to first support the objects’ weight, yet can be snapped off the props with one vertical tug without upsetting the book and pen.) Bluto next produces an invisible bellboy (gloves, shoes and hat, again on marionette strings), who walks up the grand staircase. Popeye and Olive try to follow, but the stairs turn into a down escalator, then flatten out to form a slide, dumping Popeye and Olive back to the ground floor. Uproarious laughter is heard from behind the stairs, and an out of control Bluto conveniently gives away his position. To make matter more convenient, Popeye discovers in the hotel a can of a marvelous invention – Invisible Paint. One coat, and the wearer disappears. Popeye mutters a few typical ad libs as he applies the paintbrush to himself. (As he paints his hand: Ya gotta hand it to me. Painting his limbs: Farewell to arms!) Painting Olive too, the two spook Bluto, pulling his hat down over his head, reprising the staircase gag, and Popeye eventually giving Bluto an invisible going-over with the help of his spinach-powered sock, sending Bluto fleeing. A third convenient happenstance has a can of paint remover near the hotel exit. Popeye uses it to materialize again, but feels a bump behind him, and responds reflexively with another sock. Suddenly realizing what he might have done, he pours some paint remover where he punched – and reveals a battered Olive – but not battered enough to stop her from chasing and beating up on him all the way home.

The film was one of those late Florida efforts of Fleischer’s that seemed forced, with too many convenient writing holes to effect plausibility, and fell far short of being a classic. It may have marked animation’s first use of invisible paint. But since when was Bluto a chemist? Since he never makes use of the stuff himself, was the paint just something left behind in the old hotel? Who made it? This flock of unanswered questions plagues the viewer and leaves the cartoon disturbing and unsatisfying. (Invisible paint would reappear in film a few years later, as discussed below, but under the more plausible circumstances of being developed for Army or Navy use.)

Popeye would have one more crack at it in 1954, in the Technicolor partial remake, A Fright To the Finish (8/27/54 – Seymour Knietel, dir.). The premise is made much more typical and plausible, with Bluto moving his ghosting tricks into Olive’s house rather than needing an old hotel. Puppet strings remain attached to the objects they move, and do not conveniently snap away at will. And no unexplained invisible paint – Popeye instead falls back on the old standby of a jar of vanishing cream in Olive’s boudoir. The film has a nice, characteristically modern look and feel, and is good entertainment. While still a stretch of the imagination in a few sequences, everything feels more within the realm of artistic license, and this one, while still not an all-time holiday classic, makes a respectable entry in a bow to the fright-film season.

Little Blabbermouse, Warner, Merrie Melodies. 7/6/40 – I. (Friz) Freleng, dir.) – presents a mouse-guided tour of a department store by W.C. Fieldmouse (voiced by Bill Thompson of Droopy fame, in his W.C. Fields impression then currently in use on the Fibber McGee and Molly radio program for the character of Horatio Boomer). The only relevance of this cartoon to this article is a spot gag of a column of vanishing cream bottles, each of which periodically disappears and reappears again.

As previously chronicled on this website in a “Radio Roundup” article by Devon Baxter, the question “Who’s Yehoodi?” became a catch-phrase in the 1940’s for comedian Jerry Colonna on the Bob Hope show, originally referring to guest violinist Yehudi Menuhin, but later developed into general reference to any “little man who wasn’t there”. The gag gets a visualization in Tex Avery’s Hollywood Steps Out (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 5/24/41). In the posh surroundings of Ciro’s night club. Hollywood stars are entertained by Sally Strand (caricature of Sally Rand) and her bubble dance. Leering from one table is a patron getting a close-up view through binoculars, who turns out to be Jerry Colonna. Next to him sits another patron who is totally invisible, excepting a collar and bow tie floating in mid-air, and a duplicate pair of binoculars floating in air at eye level. Colonna points to him, identifying him to the audience as “Yehoodi!”

With the coming of hostilities in WWII, a new and more practical interest in invisibility, of sorts, developed from the needs of the armed forces – how to make the weapons of war, and even troops, as inconspicuous to the enemy as possible. While WWI had also given rise to similar concerns, the art of camouflage seems to rise in importance to a major consciousness during the 40’s, and spawned a number of interesting sidesteps into the overactive imaginations of animators, who, true to form, took the principles of camouflage to a maximum fanciful extreme.

A George Pal Puppetoon from Paramount, and a Donald Duck from Disney, perhaps stand as the cornerstone tributes to the wartime camouflage corps. These two films appear to spearhead the use of a purely cartoon-based invention to aid in the war effort – the miracle substance, invisible paint!

Rhythm In the Ranks (George Pal, Paramount, Madcap Models, 12/26/41) (available fully restored as a bonus title on The Puppetoon Movie reissue Blu-Ray and DVD), is an instance where George Pal really made sure the audience got it’s money’s worth, extending a full 10 minutes in running time. Scored extensively to the strains of Raymond Scott’s composition, “The Toy Trumpet” (at a time when use of the same theme had not yet quite developed into a nearly everyday occurrence at Warner Brothers), the film’s credits begin with the unwrapping of a gift box with a complete set of toy soldiers – including a colonel and a large cannon. A lowly private, Jan, is in charge of the strenuous duty of dragging the heavy cannon to the soldiers’ camp grounds. On the way, he gets distracted by the figure of a ballerina-type skater on a frozen lake. He joins her in a romp on the ice, not noticing than the cannon has rolled past him and broken from its tow rope. When he hears assembly being called at the parade grounds, he grabs the end of the rope and begins tugging as if still dragging heavy weight – but is in fact only pulling the rope itself. “Where’s the cannon?”, asks the colonel, to which Jan can provide no answer. He is drummed out of his rank, his uniform ripped away by the colonel (causing Jan’s pants to fall), and his remaining clothing instantly converted to convict’s stripes. He is ordered to serve his time by painting the barracks, while the rest of the troops “fall out” – literally wobbling and falling upon the ground. Working from a can marked “Super Camouflage Paint – makes everything disappear”, Jan toils. Each stroke of the paint (in a fine and complicated example of stop-motion and trick photography) leaves a progressive trail, where each surface covered first half fades, then totally vanishes. In a gag that leaves one wondering how the censors didn’t notice, a puppy dog takes a slurp out of the paint can. His features begin the half-fade mode. He walks away from the can, then brightens at the sight of a tree on the far left of the frame. As he proceeds toward it, the dog vanishes from view. A few seconds later, the tree half-fades, then totally vanishes too. What exactly did the dog apply to it to accomplish this feat?

Meanwhile, a messenger on a motor scooter awakens the colonel, and delivers a bombastic singing telegram from General Nutt of the Screwball Army, over a portable broadcast microphone: “Greetings! We beg to inform you we’ve stood enough! We’re getting tired! Now we’re going to fight! We’ll smash you parasites! This is a declaration of WAR!!!” The messenger’s microphone blows up on the last note, and, resorting to his normal speaking voice, he states, “That’ll be $1.98, collect!” Over a hill march the advance troops of said army. This was the first of three appearances of the “Screwballs” – Pal’s satiric caricature of the Nazis, each character built of metal balls, washers, screws and bolts (who also appeared in the more heavily dramatic “Tulips Shall Grow” (1942) and “Bravo, Mr. Strauss” (1943 )). They are followed by tanks, whose shots knock the hats off an entire column of the soldiers, sending them scattering. The general pulls his hat down over his had for protection and also makes a run for it. Only Jan is left at the barracks, as the enemy advance is musically accompanied by archly overplayed riffs from another well-known Raymond Scott composition, “Powerhouse”. Jan completes painting a portion of the barrack walls, causing several of the enemy troops to slam right into it. Jan runs down the road, and finally locates the cannon. He pours an entire can of the invisibility paint into its barrel, and fires. Whatever it hits – be it tanks or troops – the paint turns invisible. Jan fires off volley after volley, leaving the invisible enemy in a state of chaos and confusion, as a jumbled trail of footprints and tank tread impressions litters the hill, over which the enemy retreats, for good. The next day, a parade of soldiers (now much larger than the original regiment we started with, suggesting that residents of other toy boxes have joined in the pomp and ceremony) assembles in a square. Jan stands against a wall, and it appears he is about to be put in front of a firing squad. But this is no ordinary squad. Instead of bullets, their guns fire colored paint and decorations, transforming Jan’s prisoner’s stripes back to his own uniform, replete with new braids, embroidery, and medals – and to top it off, his skating sweetheart is in attendance, and rewards him with a big kiss, causing Jan to blush a brilliant red. Jan and his girl ride off on a toy pony, as the troops stand at attention in a salute to their hero, and the camera pulls back for a final elaborate long shot, with the gift box lid falling over the proceedings to announce the end of the picture, with an added gift tag with the Paramount logo. While still showing influences of Pal’s early character styles from his European productions, this film presents a significant upgrade in sophistication of movement and storytelling style from his early efforts, and is a feast to the eye. Nominated for an academy award.

The Vanishing Private (Disney, RKO, Donald Duck, 9/25/42 – Jack King, dir.), recruits Private Donald into the camouflage corps – except that nobody bothered to provide Donald with the meaning of the word. The film opens with him painting a humongous cannon barrel in garish rainbow colors and polka dots that more closely resemble the costuming of a circus clown than anything in an army regulation manual. A shocked Sergeant Pete finally sets him straight, ordering him, “You got to paint it so ya can’t see it!’ “Oh, I didn’t know”, replies Donald. Pete sends him for some new paint. Donald encounters a building marked “Experimental Laboratory – Keep Out”. “It didn’t say positively”, quips Donald, and goes in anyway. He finds a can of paint, not reading the signage above the machine that produced it – “Test No. 9003 – Invisible Paint”. Dipping his finger in the can, it disappears – but reappears again when he wipes the paint off. Getting the idea, Donald takes the experiment with him, and works with a will to repaint the cannon – working his way up the barrel until it appears he is walking on air. For an extra thorough job, although the exterior paint has already accomplished its purpose, Donald climbs inside the cannon chamber to paint the interior too. Pete returns, and reacts in shock, thinking the cannon has been stolen – until he konks his head good on the invisible barrel. Donald pokes his head out the cannon’s invisible mouth, and says he’ll be through in a minute. Never satisfied, Pete demands he come out, and blows into the cannon mouth – causing Donald to shoot out the other end of the barrel, and become immersed in the paint can. Now totally invisible, a series of webbed footprints scatters away from the can, as Pete attempts to pursue. This paint is not only quick-drying, but waterproof, as Donald jumps in a lake, leaving a crater-like outline of himself swimming recessed in the surface of the water.

On the opposite bank, Donald runs through a patch of pink flowers. Pete catches up and clutches at flowers right and left to find Donald, scattering a handful of petals to one side – which land on Donald leaning against a tree trunk, and reveal his outline. Donald manages to brush off the petals just in time to dodge Pete’s tackle. Pete gets an idea, and, gathering up an ample supply of more petals, starts flinging them randomly around in hopes of hitting Donald again. But a general sees Pete dancing around with flowers like a queen of the May, and thinks Pete’s flipped. His suspicions are further confirmed when Pete sheepishly asks him, “Did you see a little guy that you can’t see?” To make Pete’s loss of sanity even more convincing, Donald slips a cactus plant into Pete’s pants, causing him to throw a fit. Pete eventually gets into the arsenal, emerging with an armload of hand grenades to do Donald in. Throwing grenades at will, Pete is intercepted by the general, who attempts to calm him down, insisting that there’s really no one there. But a trail of webbed footprints sneaks up behind the general. Pete sees them, and struggles with the general to give him a chance to get at the taunting Duck. But while the struggle rages, Donald pulls a sword from the general’s scabbard, and pokes it in Pete’s rear end. Pete jumps in pain, in the process flipping his remaining armload of grenades into the air – and back down on himself and the general in offscreen mass explosion. The scene dissolves to a military sanitarium ward, with Pete in a padded cell, wearing both ball and chain and a straight-jacket. How he ever got the paint off is not explained – but of all people, Donald, now visible, has been posted as Pete’s jailer. “You know I ain’t crazy”, moans Pete. “Go tell the general that I ain’t crazy.” Donald replies, “Do you think I’m crazy?”, and continues pacing his watch with a happy whistle.

Other studios would follow suit. Crazy Cruise (Warner, Merrie Melodies, 3/26/42 – Fred (“Tex”) Avery, uncredited director, with finishing animation directed by Bob Clampett), without explaining the precise means by which its stunning results are achieved, presents a “float-by” of the Navy battleship, the S.S. Yehoodi (yes, the Colonna gag was still going), which an announcer states is “a perfect example of camouflage”. All we see of the ship is a front flagpole, a row of signal flags suspended where masts should be, rows of sailors standing at attention on a deck that isn’t there, and smoke billowing from an invisible smokestack!

A Hull of a Mess (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 10/16/42, I. Sparber, dir.), features Popeye and Bluto as rival owners of shipyards, both attempting to land the same government contract for the building of battleships. Terms of the deal are whoever finishes a ship first wins the contract. The film develops a traditional contest of one-up-manship, with each sailor outdoing the other with impossible feats of construction super-speed. In the painting process, Bluto sticks to traditional concepts in a non-traditional way, dipping one brush into a can marked “camouflage paint” and with a few brisk strokes producing a paint job on a ship’s funnel exhibiting multiple shades and patches all from one can. But Popeye as usual tops him, with his own special blend of invisibility paint, with which he scales and paints his entire ship’s mast, leaving only sky and clouds visible. Popeye slides back to the deck, but in attempting an exit with his supplies, walks into the invisible mast, getting paint all over himself, so that all of him that remains visible are his shoes, hat, and pipe. By the end of the film, Bluto appears to have taken the upper hand, by exploding Popeye’s ship with a launching bottle spiked with nitro-glycerin. But before Bluto can get his own ship down the launching ramp into the water, Popeye has eaten his spinach, and not only rebuilds the first ship, but constructs a full fleet of additional battleships which he shoves one after another down the launch ramp to beat Bluto to the water and steal his thunder (and contract) entirely.

Perhaps most invisible of all is a Terrytoons entry, Camouflage (Terrytoons/Fox, Gandy Goose, 8/27/43 – Eddie Donnelly, dir.), a color title not included in the CBS broadcast schedule. Presumably one of Gandy’s many serviceman episodes with Sergeant Sourpuss, no plot synopsis nor footage appears on the internet. Three production backgrounds have surfaced from an auction list, indicating that the setting of the film is a Pacific island. This would give every indication that the enemy foe in question was the Japanese, likely accounting for CBS withholding it from broadcast. Whether Gandy’s camouflage tactics also resorted to the use of invisible paint or not remains to be seen – or does it? Anyone with any information regarding this film is heartily invited to add their comments. (By the way, take heart – the film is in all likelihood not lost – just lurking about in the bottomless pit of Terry holdings at the UCLA Film Archives, and with a little luck, might someday arise again in a future restoration festival.)

Rocket To Mars (Paramount/Famous, Popeye, 8/9/46, Bill Tytla, dir.), has recently been brilliantly restored on Popeye’s “The 1940’s, v. 2″ DVD and Blu-Ray, and is well worth the acquiring for the upgrade in quality (together with a whole reel of other masterful remasterings). But enough of the free plug. Popeye enters the world of sci-fi as Olive accidentally sits on the starter of an experimental rocket on display in a museum. (Curators everywhere, take note – never display your rockets publically carrying a full load of fuel!) The rocket blasts off through the wall of the museum – but Olive ditches the thing in the early scenes, staying Earthbound and leaving Popeye to face all the danger alone. Some girlfriend!

On Mars, Popeye is captured by a magnetic ray and brought before a red nosed, green-skinned cousin of Bluto and his army of little green men. (Oddly, Jackson Beck delivers the Martian Bluto’s voice almost in his normal street voice (with echo added), abandoning the usually more gruff and basso tones of his earthly counterpart.) Popeye is placed in chains and manacles, and demands to be let out. “Let you out? I’ll light you out!” proclaims Mars Bluto. Producing a ray gun, he shoots a white beam of light at Popeye, who appears to be disintegrated, disappearing entirely from the scene in the ray beam, leaving the manacles and chains to fall limp as if their captive has vanished. A scary scene to be showing the tiny tots. Meanwhile, Mars Bluto begins operations for a full scale invasion of Earth (with a powerfully-presented Tytla touch of indicating the “target for tonight” by plunging a dagger into a picture of Earth on a wall). The massing of the troops is also presented in powerfully-posed fashion, with space tanks, Earth-buster bombs, etc. (but always to me appeared awkward in the movement and execution – as if someone planned the sequence to have the weight and dramatic power of one of the studio’s “Superman” cartoons, but had to churn out the animation hurriedly on one-third the needed budget). But what of Popeye? The limp chains begin to move of their own power – Popeye’s not disintegrated – just invisible! (I guess resistence to space rays is a residual by-product of eating all that spinach.) From the invisible lapel of a sailor suit is pulled the famous spinach can, and its contents are swallowed down an invisible throat – restoring Popeye progressively to visible form, and allowing him to break his chains. The battle against the Martians rages, with a clever series of sequences where Popeye demolishes every weapon of war into some form or another of carnival ride attraction. The final blow smashes Mars Bluto face-first through a wall, where he unwillingly assumes the role of a baseball dodger for a pitching gallery for the Martians. Popeye heads home, having converted Mars into the foremost galactic amusement park.

The Invisible Mouse (MGM, Tom and Jerry, 9/27/47 – William Hanna/Joseph Barbera, dir.), stands as perhaps the finest cartoon to enter the invisibility genre. It begins with the usual antics. A piece of cheese tied to a long string is left outside Jerry’s mousehole – with the string pulling the cheese just out of reach every time Jerry grabs for it. Jerry follows the cheese around a corner, and finds Tom waiting with a flat iron held directly above Jerry. Tom drops the iron – but Jerry tugs Tom’s foot out from under him into the iron’s shadow, CLANGGG!! Right on his foot. Wounded tootsies or no, Tom chases Jerry up a staircase, but Jerry slides past him down the bannister. Tom jumps on too, and races down the railing toward Jerry. Odd staircase, in that the railing divides in two, allowing Jerry to escape on a side track, while Tom goes off the other railing, into the air, and smash into a cuckoo clock.

Eventually, Jerry hides out in a box marked “Chemo Set” – a junior chemistry kit with bottles and vials. After Tom passes, Jerry emerges from a bottle marked “Invisible Ink” – and is shocked to find his lower half seemingly gone. Returning to the bottle, he dips his hand in, and achieves the same effect. Well, why not – he dives in headfirst. In skilled pantomime, the camera clearly follows the path of the invisible Jerry without actually seeing a thing – walking over an ink blotter than rocks like a teeter-totter; leaving a row of teeth marks as he devours the contents of a bowl of food; extending a ruler out from a table to use as a diving board, then landing with an imprint in a soft sofa cushion; climbing under a handkerchief so we see his figure, then leaping off the edge of the sofa with the handkerchief no longer revealing his form, but instead being used as a parachute. Tom’s a sore loser, and waits at the mousehole with the same cheese-on-a-string trick re-rigged for another try. Jerry shocks him by merely eating the cheese invisibly, under Tom’s very nose! Then he drops Tom’s flat iron onto Tom’s foot again, and while Tom leaps in pain, puts Tom’s tail into an electric light socket. Tom tries to calm down with a saucer of milk – but the milk is sucked out of the saucer by invisible lips before he can touch it – then a jet of milk spit in his face. Tom looks himself over carefully in a mirror, believing he must be getting sick. He attempts to rest on a sofa cushion, but, in another clever piece of visual pantomime, invisible Jerry enters carrying a matchbook. He removes one match, placing it between Tom’s toes to set up a classic “hotfoot” – but pauses and thinks better of it. Instead, he removes the single match, replacing it with the entire remaining matchbook between Tom’s toes, then lights the book with the single match! Tom reacts with the usual panic, and finally extinguishes the hotfoot in a goldfish bowl. But sinister music is heard, as a piano behind him plays by itself. Tom looks inside the piano – and Jerry pulls out the support stick from the lid, bringing the lid down upon Tom’s head.

The tide finally starts to turn. A befuddled but recovered Tom spies a banana on a table being invisibly eaten away – but a beam of light across the table reveals a strange phenomenon. Although Jerry is invisible, he is casting a shadow against the wall! Tom puts his suspicions to the test – sneaking up behind the banana with a large book, and bringing it down with a crash where the shadow is being cast from. Upon raising the book, the mouse silhouette not only holds his head, but develops a large silhouetted lump. Grabbing an apple from a fruit bowl for a few extra calories, Jerry makes a retreat under the refrigerator, rolling out to Tom an applecore for his troubles. In the only known cartoon adaptation of one of the strategies used to track the invisible man in H. G. Wells’ classic tale, Tom cleverly employs a sack of flower to lay down a cover of artificial “snow” over the floor of the kitchen, and waits atop a chair for Jerry to make his move. Jerry emerges – leaving a trail of small footprints in the flour. Tom tries to clobber him with a frying pan – but after leaving a round imprint in the flour from the force of the impact , Tom is only met by the writing of an invisible hand in the flour nearby, writing the words, “Missed me.” Flour covered feet leave a trail of white tracks into the next room. Tom tries a grab for Jerry – but only gets his whiskers braided in Jerry’s invisible grip.

The footprints continue, as Tom grabs a curtain and intercepts Jerry’s path, bringing the curtain down to reveal a mouse-shaped bulge under the material. Tom isolates the bulge in the grip of one paw, and starts beating on the curtain with a book held in the other paw. Too bad Tom doesn’t have opposable thumbs, as the bulge of Jerry slips through his grip and out the other end of the curtain material. From the closet now emerges a driving wood from the master’s golf set, with Jerry setting the club up for a drive as he stands atop a small stool. BAM! He scores a direct hit on Tom’s rear end. The club races out the front door with Tom following – but on the porch is Tom’s old nemesis, Spike the bulldog, sleeping soundly. Jerry holds the club above Spike’s head, and whomps him so hard Spike leaves a hole in the porch flooring. Then, Jerry tosses the club into Tom’s hands. Spike of course gets the wrong idea. Setting Tom up on a flower pot as a tee, Spike engages in his own round of golf – with Tom as the ball – continuing to increase his number of strokes with Tom all the way up the boulevard. In the final scene, Jerry hits upon the perfect antidote for his invisibility. Resting on a satin pillow in invisible indentation, he positions a straw into Tom’s bowl, which he has filled with a nearby bottle of chocolate milk. As he sips, the milk fills up his body with Jerry’s traditional brown, the last things popping into view being his two ears as he drinks his fill, and smiles to the camera for the iris out.

Next week: More invisibility feats that need to be not-seen to be believed.


  • “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” — II Corinthians 4:18

    The director in “Porky’s Movie Mystery” is a caricature of Michael Curtiz, one of the top directors at Warner Bros. at the time. On the wall in the background is a poster for the film “Four Daughters”, which Curtiz had directed in 1938. He was notoriously a bad-tempered, arrogant workaholic who was used to getting his own way, so whatever Clampett’s original gag was, it was probably removed at Curtiz’s behest.

    The opening scene of “The Vanishing Private” reminds me of the episode of Gomer Pyle USMC is which Gomer is assigned to paint a truck in camouflage, but some hippies get hold of it and paint it in bright psychedelic colours. I’m surprised Pete didn’t get a deferment for his prosthetic leg.

    But you’re right, the masterpiece of the invisibility genre is “The Invisible Mouse”, not least thanks to Scott Bradley’s brilliant musical score. Note the brassy, bluesy Gershwinesque theme when Tom has the upper hand, and the merrily skipping theme in the woodwinds when Jerry foils him; the musical development captures the interplay of the characters perfectly.

    Not-see you again next week!

  • Could it be just a coincidence that “The Phantom” in Porky’s Movie Mystery and the sort-of lookalike Disney villain “The Phantom Blot” both first appeared in 1939? Hmm…

  • Another cartoon before your cutoff point that could be included is Hugh Harman’s The Lonesome Stranger (1940), which features the repeated gag of a literal “Vanishing American”.

  • I always thought “vanishing cream” was a bleaching cream like Porcelana or Jolen, which was supposed to make birthmarks, freckles, etc. “vanish.”

  • “Ghosks Is the Bunk” was the Popeye done immediately after Seymour Kneitel suffered a heart attack and was forced to take a hiatus from the studio. William Henning took over head animating/directing duties in the unit for this one and the next cartoon, “Hello, How Am I?” and both have a slightly disjointed feel from the Popeyes that the studio had put out for the previous three years.

    • I didn’t know about Seymour Kneitel’s heart attack. “Ghosks Is the Bunk” has some obvious story issues, though the animation is as high-quality as ever, but “Hello How Am I” (there’s no punctuation on the title card — it bothers me, but there it is) is one of the funniest Popeye cartoons the studio ever released. I believe it’s also the only one in which Popeye and Wimpy are rivals — not for Olive’s affections, but for her hamburgers!

  • Funny enough, with the Invisible Man lamenting only one picture was made about him in MOVIE MYSTERY, there were TWO films related to the Universal version released the following year: THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS starring Vincent Price and THE INVISIBLE WOMAN starring Virginia Bruce. I wonder if Universal saw this cartoon and decided to meet the demands of two more installments of the series?

  • The Invisible Man also shows up (alongside George from “Topper”) in Frank Tashlin’s “Have You Got Any Castles” (1938).

  • Thank you for making these lists, Mr. Gardener! It’s interesting to see how certain ideas were juggled around from studio to studio. On an unrelated note, just how in the heck did they do that water effect in old cartoons? You can even see it done on the title card of The Invisible Mouse, which is listed here. I’ve always found it cool when they would do that.

    • The underwater effect was created by placing a sheet of uneven molded glass, known as “ripple glass”, over the cels and moving it frame by frame. For the underwater scenes in Pinocchio, this was done using the multi-plane camera.

      I’m afraid all I know about ripple glass effects comes from watching “the making of” DVD extras, so if anybody with more detailed knowledge or experience can elaborate, please do!

  • “A Mad House” (Terrytoons/Educational Pictures, Puddy the Pup, 23/3/34 — Frank Moser, dir.) is possibly the first cartoon to be directly influenced by the 1933 Universal feature “The Invisible Man”. If the mad scientist is meant to be a caricature of Claude Rains, it’s a grotesquely unflattering one; but several of the memorable sequences in the film — the invisible man shedding his garments, the footprints appearing in the snow, and especially Rains’s fiendish cackle (here with a rising inflection) — are also used in the cartoon.

    An abandoned house is home to a small army of skeletons who take up half the cartoon’s running time by singing, dancing, bathing, and playing billiards before the villain even makes his appearance. Mixing a potion in his laboratory, the mad scientist feeds it to a skeleton cat, which immediately regenerates flesh and fur. A few drops of the same potion applied to the cat’s head cause it to become invisible; we see its foot prints as it walk away. The villain then proceeds to use the potion on himself and disappears forthwith; then, doffing all of his clothes except for his gloves, he grabs a butterfly net and goes out into the snow in search of a victim.

    Mean while, Puddy the Pup and his girlfriend are singing to each other while ice skating; but when the invisible man abducts the girl, Puddy’s canine instincts come to the fore, barking and chasing the unseen villain on all fours all the way back to the house. With the girl strapped to his examination table, the mad scientist uses another potion to make himself visible again, whereupon Puddy picks up a mallet that has been conveniently left lying around and conks the villain over the head with it. He frees the girl and they make their escape, and the cartoon ends as they resume their love duet on the ice.

    A very strange cartoon. I have a feeling the second half might have been rushes through production to capitalise on the popularity of “The Invisible Man”, which had been released just four months previously.

  • Most cartoon series seem to have a “pet plot” they like to reuse every now and then, and invisibility was that for Tom & Jerry, it even trascended directors! Of their three shorts about it, the first for 1947 is the best one, but I am partial to “Of Feline Bondage” from Chuck Jones, if only for that weird ending with make my brother and I laugh hard at its sheer absurdity.
    The Vanishing Duck its the lesser of the three for those garish colors and the uninspired gags, but it has at its favor that Tom wins and that is always welcomed.

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