Animation Trails
November 16, 2022 posted by Charles Gardner

We, Robots! (Part 3) – Unfinished Business

Never let it be said that this author leaves a task unfinished – given time. Several seasons ago, I produced two chapters in a survey of cartoons featuring robots (the previous articles can be found deep down in back issues on this site). The project was taken up only to 1940, then detoured-from to provide a series of articles for the Halloween season. It’s high time to return to the subject, and see the advances of mechanization provided in animation following the passing of the craze of technocracy, and into the war years.

Donald’s Dog Laundry (Disney/RKO, Donald Duck, 4/5/40 – Jack King, dir.)- Not truly a cartoon about robots (in that the device does not walk, nor has per se a mechanical brain), but worth an honorable mention for its mass array of mechanical hands and gadgets to accomplish the simple but frustrating task of giving a dog a bath. (In all fairness, I might have also included some past Disney contraptions that were equally as elaborate, such as Practical Pig’s wolf-punishing devices in “Three Little Wolves” (1936) and “The Practical Pig” (1939).)

The first and primary problem in the use of the device, however, is getting the subject dog in the vicinity of the subject bathtub which forms the base of the device. Donald chooses as his “first customer” Pluto for the device’s initial demonstration. But Pluto will have nothing of it, and retreats to his doghouse, turning his tail up at Donald’s beckonings and demands. Donald’s device, however, comes equipped with two lures to attract those who “want to be obstinate” – a rubber whistling dog bone, and an overly life-like hand puppet of a pussy cat. The bone proves of little use when it gets stuck between two rocks while Donald tries to reel it in on an attached line, allowing Pluto to catch up with and almost swallow the toy. The cat, however, proves irresistible, as Donald, in a masterful exhibition of puppetry, makes the cat appear to have leaped into the tub, taunting Pluto to chase him inside it. The cat splashes a spray of soapy suds onto Pluto’s fur, momentarily making the mutt look like he has received a poodle cut. But Pluto’s sinuses are upset by the soap, and he inhales heavily, in preparation for a sneeze, just as Donald emerges from hiding behind the tub in an attempt to grab him. KER-CHOO! Donald is blasted backwards into the tub by the force of the sneeze, while Pluto is forced backwards in the opposite direction, bumping into and activating the power switch for Donald’s invention. The mechanical device goes into full operation in short order. Robotic arms alternate slashes at Donald with a scrub brush and grooming brush, while other gloved mechanical hands grasp Donald by the arms, allowing the brushes to scrub inside his bill as if cleaning non-existent teeth. Donald is pushed bodily into the tub’s soapy suds, then rises as his rear end is lifted by more mechanical hands grasping him from the ankles, allowing the brushes to briskly lather his rear end. A shower head douses the duck in a spray of cold water to get the lather off, as more hands lift Donald onto a folding table, applying clamps to his wrists. More hands apply a towel to Donald’s torso, drying him off, and then flipping him over, while a dispenser of flea powder is dispersed over Donald’s tail. A final set of hands places Donald upside down on a clothesline, a clothespin affixed to his tail, then spins the clothesline away from the invention, to make room for the next customer. As Donald hangs helplessly from the line, his speech emitting bubbles from the leftover soap, his reaction is uncharacteristically upbeat and without a trace of his usual temper tantrums, despite his ordeal. “Well. I’ll be dog-goned”, he proclaims, “absolutely perfect!”

Knock Knock (1940)

Woody Woodpecker’s debut, in an Andy Panda cartoon entitled Knock Knock (Lantz/Universal, 9/25/40 – Walter Lantz, dir.), features what may have to be classified as a robot of sorts – a sort of mechanical decoy, which has a little more under its hood in action than would be suggested by mere springs and machinery. Papa Panda, in his efforts to catch Woody to prevent him from drilling his roof full of holes, employs a mechanical robot formed like a curvaceous and alluring female pigeon, but labeled on her back, “Time Bomb”. Activating the device, the pigeon begins strutting her stuff in a sauntering walk, throwing around her curves for all the world to see. Woody, busy playing fragments of pecked roof shingles like castanets, is immediately attracted, and sidles up to the robot bird, removing his topknot feathers in the manner of tipping his hat to a fair lady, and flashing a lapel button reading “Oh You Kid”. The robot is equally responsive, nuzzling in close and planting a kiss on Woody’s cheek. Woody reacts in a flurry of hormonal energy, zipping through the trunks of multiple trees like a jet-propelled rocket, to leave them looking like hunks of wooden Swiss cheese, them severing in two the shafts of an entire line of telephone poles. He returns to the decoy to plant a firm kiss on the pigeon’s bill, just as the explosives inside go off. In a rather unorthodox aftermath, Woody seems largely unphased physically by the explosion, but bemoans the disappearance of his love with wails of “Betrayed! Betrayed!”

The Mechanical Monsters (Fleischer/Paramount, Superman, 11/21/41 – Dave Fleischer, dir., Steve Muffati/George Germanetti, anim., Isadore Sparber/Seymour Kneitel, story) – Perhaps one of the most iconic robot cartoons of all time, which despite its flaws, tends to make a lasting impression. The action opens with the smashing of glass heard over an as-yet blank screen. As we begin to see an image, the view is of a barred plate-glass window of a national bank, with both bars and glass burst though, leaving a gaping hole. Precisely what has occurred inside as to entry of any vault is left an unseen mystery, but a few short seconds later, an ominous shadow is viewed on the pavement outside the bank’s main entrance – in some respects resembling a plane – in others, something more fearful, almost like a bat, with wings that appear fragmented and sectional. This mystery omen soars down the street and around a corner with a loud mechanical whirr, and disappears. The scene dissolves to a hidden lair, where the hands of an as-yet unseen villain adjust dials upon a control panel consisting of twenty separate remote devices, the active lights relaying signals on control number 5. On the opposite side of the lair, a thick steel door pivots downward into the floor, to admit the same shadow seen previously, which circles inside a large central room that serves as a hangar. A few more adjustments of the controls, and the shadow pivots and settles to earth in upright position, revealing first its feet, then its ominous upper torso. It is a flying robot, consisting of tubular arms and legs, a large central chest roughly the shape of an elongated inverted pyramid, a propeller apparatus rotating around its neck which folds back into the body, and multiple wing panels extending from front and back of both arms, also retractable when not in use. The head unit has devices that resemble a pair of eyes, though no discernable mouth, plus antennae through which it receives its radio signals with energetic bolts of electricity visible. This creation settles before a large steel vault with open lid, retracts its propeller and wings, then opens a hatch in the back side of its chest, leaning backwards. Out from the cavity of its chest pours a fortune in greenbacks, neatly into the vault. We finally see our mad scientist – a classic villain face of the oily type, with long thin moustache, who could pass for the human Oil Can Harry if this was a Terrytoon. A few more twists of the dials, and the robot closes its now-empty hatch, and proceeds in a lumbering walk to its place among 19 other robots of like make, coming to rest against a wall as its power is shut down for the evening.

The Daily Planet’s front page boasts headline of “Mysterious Mechanical Monster Loots Bank.” Nearly as prominent is a second story, about the opening of a “House of Jewels” exhibit including 50 million dollars of rare gems. Rather than seeming an outright invitation to the villain, the story continues with notice that all precautions have been taken to guard against the monster. Clark Kent is sent to cover the opening, but Lois shows up anyway (to get the woman’s side of the story). Right on cue, a cry comes from one of the armed guards outside, “The Mechanical Monster!” Continuity comically goes out the window here, in a glaring series of animation errors, as robot number 5 appears again and stalks its way toward the exhibit hall – then inexplicably changes number to robot 13 halfway through the sequence! (This may be the key to the villain’s ultimate downfall – who in their right mind would send unlucky number 13 on such a crucial mission?) Machine gun fire bounces off the metal man’s chest just as it would with Superman, and the behemoth stomps right past the legion of cops into the hall. Lois pulls Clark away to keep him from being trampled, and Clark, in order to keep his identity a secret, goes along with her insistence. The giant helps itself to the priceless gems, loading its rear compartment with them, while Clark makes a quick phone call to the Planet to phone a preliminary story in. Lois, meanwhile, with her usual knack for getting into trouble, creeps behind the monster, and climbs into the open back panel, intent on hitching a ride with the jewels to wherever their destination may be. As the monster flies away, Clark emerges, unable to find Lois. Putting two and two together, “This looks like a job for Superman.” In another iconic moment, Superman for the first time makes his quick costume change inside the phone booth, then flies into the skies in search of the monster. Catching sight of it, Superman, for the only time in his theatrical animation career, changes the color of the irises of his eyes to a metallic gray, employing his X-ray vision to gaze inside the chest cavity of the monster, where he spots Lois riding with the jewels, as he expected. Superman lands on the back of the robot, and tries to pry the back panel open. At the villain’s lair, an emergency light flashes in red upon the robot control panel, reading “Interference”. A quick twist of the dial, and the robot performs a barrel-roll, tossing Superman overboard for an unexpected fall onto some high-voltage wires strung below. What the villain does not realize, however, is that Superman has already loosened the latch on the robot’s panel, so that, when the robot flies upside down, its haul of jewels falls out along with Superman. Lois too is almost lost, but hangs on desperately to the back panel, so that, when the robot rights itself, she is able to get back inside before the panel closes. The robot returns to base, but when it stands over the vault to make its deposit, drops only a nosy reporter, and no glittering gems. “The jewels! What have you done with the jewels?”, snarls the villain. “You’ll read about it in tomorrow’s paper”, quips defiant Lois. But the villain has his ways to induce loquacity.

Meanwhile, Superman is disentangling himself from the sparking electrical wires he has downed in the fall. Heaven only knows how he is able to locate the lair after the monster’s departure (maybe he just uses x-ray vision on every building in the city), but somehow he makes his way. The villain meanwhile sets up a death trap for Lois. Below his control room is a large steel foundry in which he fashions his robots. A cauldron of molten steel bubbles below a platform on which Lois is placed, bound and gagged. The villain insists he’ll make her change her mind about not talking, as he pulls a lever, causing the platform to descend toward the molten metal, step by step. (If he wants her to talk, them for heaven’s sake, why the gag?) Suddenly, a pounding on the outer door of the lair hastens the villain back to the control room, as Superman bursts in through three feet of solid steel. Time to pit the whole army of metal men into action. Twenty controls are activated, and twenty robots spring to life on command. In two columns of ten apiece, they advance on Superman from opposite directions. An added piece of weaponry is also activated, as each robot begins shooting flame-throwers from their head units, converging the spray of flame onto Superman. Amidst the wall of fire, the robots smash pounding blows upon our hero from every direction. But of course, the might of a Kryptonian is a match to any mechanical device contrived by a mere mortal, and Superman battles back, knocking away one robot after another, picking up others bodily to throw like stones at advancing others, and basically reducing the metal troops to something fitting for the next scrap metal drive. A final robot-toss smashes the control panel, putting the machinery permanently out of commission. The villain retreats to the foundry, and threatens the rope by which Lois hangs perilously close to the cauldron. When Superman continues to advance, the rope is cut – but Superman swoops in with blinding speed, catching the platform just short of immersion. Not through yet, the villain makes one last attempt at the Man of Steel, by tipping the cauldron over toward he and Lois. Spreading wide his cape, Superman shields himself and Lois from the fiery flow, splashing it to either side while he and Lois remain high and dry. Just a simple matter now of picking up Lois and the villain, heading back to town where a comfortable jail cell awaits the villain, and somehow rounding up all the fallen gems. Lois gets her story, and owes it all to Superman, as Clark Kent gives the audience a knowing nod.

This cartoon’s legacy would follow it into the next century, when a film tributing 40’s and 50’s style sci-fi, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004), would feature amoing many mechanical marvels an attack by a convincing-looking CGI-rendering of a robot matching exactly the design of the Fleischer robots except for numbering. While some viewers unexposed to the original may have missed the reference, the surprise cameo brought instant recognition to anyone who has seen the cartoon – and was practically an impetus for spontaneous applause from any self-respecting DC universe fan.

Wild Honey (or How To Get Along Without a Ration Book) (MGM, Barney Bear, 11/7/42 – Rudolf Ising, dir.) – A methodically-directed Barney episode, lovely in animation, but slow in development and short on plot. Barney is out in the woods, loaded “for bear” with pails, buckets, and protective facial netting, in search of fresh honey to avoid using up precious wartime ration points for such scarce commodities as sugar. Using a book of the cartoon’s title, Barney first locates a bee (with use of a modified radio set with old-fashioned gramophone horn to resemble an oversize flower blossom), then follows the bee to its honey tree, just oozing with the golden nectar. The tree, however, is also oozing with swarming bees, who angrily stand guard with their stingers poised at the ready. Barney hastily retreats behind a tree, and follows the book’s next piece of advice – lure the bees away. For this, he employs a “Mechanical Queen Bee” – a wind-ip robotic wonder which not only flies, but poses in provocative fashion before the swarm, then leads them away from the tree, as the leader of a mid-air conga dance line, the worker bees following her in bouncy single-file over the horizon. The tree is left unprotected, and Barney begins filling pails to help himself. Unfortunately, the one thing this miracle robot could use is a better directional guidance system – as she crashes headfirst into the trunk of a tree. She instantly bursts apart at the seams, lying on the ground as nothing but a random collection of gears, screws, and springs.

The bees stare for a moment in shocked puzzlement, then cast a suspicious glance back in the direction of their tree, sensing the chicanery of their previous bear visitor. Barney hears a low and distant drone, as a black cloud begins to form on the horizon, growing ever nearer. A double-take reveals the cloud halfway home, its shape now denoting the respective bodies of the returning swarm. Barney consults his book for appropriate advice, receiving only one suggestion: “If the bees return, SCRAM!” Gathering the few pails he has managed to fill, Barney shifts into a high-gear run. The bees have an edge in their aerial speed, converting their formation into the shape of a giant bomber, marked “Bee-19″. Out of the “plane’s” cargo bay drop what appear to be bombs, but are actually tightly-formed clusters of bees, all stingers pointing downward. Each bomb finds its mark on Barney’s back. The remaining bees aloft reform into the shape of a giant bow and arrow, firing off an arrow shot that gets Barney squarely in the rear, lifting him off his feet, and dunking him into the lake. A remaining few bees carry aloft Barney’s book, dropping it upon the bear’s head, to land in the water next to the battered bear’s welt-filled face, open to its last pages. The book’s illustration shows a sugar ration stamp book, and reads, “Next time, use your ration book – You won’t get stung.”

Frankenstein’s Cat (Terrytoons/Fox, Super Mouse, 11/27/42 – Mannie Davis, dir.) – In actuality, Chuck Jones may arguably be the first to have envisioned the Frankenstein monster as a mechanical man rather than one constructed of decomposing flesh. His design of the creature in Sniffles and the Bookworm (1939) suggests this, being sculpted and blocky in facial features, and mechanically rigid in movement. However, no other clues to a robotic concept are clearly given. Mannie Davis’s cat, however, leaves nothing to question as to its origins in a machine shop rather than in a graveyard. Among its features are a removable head, a segmented tail that appears to be constructed of steel balls strung together like beads, and a hollow oil drum that serves as a torso. Its absorptions of lightning bolts leave its entire frame briefly glowing with heat and energy. The narrator refers to this creation as a “fiend of darkness” that “haunts this place”, the mechanical feline residing in the turrets of an old, bat filled castle. A small bird is accidentally blown from its home by a strong cross-wind, and winds up perched on a gargoyle extending from the castle wall. The cat spots it over the turret railing, and makes a lunge for it, missing and instead falling to the ground. Grunting in anger, the monster punishes itself for its miscalculation by utilizing a mechanical self-kicking device, yanking a rope to cause a boot to deliver swift kicks to his rear (a device later revived by the Professor in several television Felix the Cat cartoons). The cat rampages into the neighboring animal community in search of the bird. (An interesting side gag has him encounter a small pond, where he sees his reflection in the water. Not only does he react in horrified shock at the sight, but his reflection separately reacts at the sight of him In the same way.) The cat knocks down a row of bird houses, stopping at the last one to peer in. Seeing what he wants, he aims a fingertip at the house and shoots a bolt of electricity, burning away the house’s outer walls to reveal the little bird in a bathtub. The bird quickly flies to take refuge in the stump of an old tree, inhabited by a family of mice. The monster reaches inside, but the mice place in his hand their miniature cast-iron stove, piping hot. YEOW! The cat shakes off his burning paw, as the bird makes another location change to hide inside the broken shells of some eggs in a nest of a tree above. The cat spots the move, its mouth salivating profusely, and the bird is quickly captured. The cat returns to the castle, closing a drawbridge behind him, while angry mouse and bird villagers form a torch-carrying mob, shouting for release of the bird.

The mob attempts to lay siege to the castle, swimming the moat and scaling the high castle walls. The cat drops large slabs of rock at the mice below, but repeatedly misses. However, his electric finger still proves a formidable force, zapping each mouse as it reacres the turret rail, to send each would-be rescuer helplessly tumbling back into the cold waters of the moat below. Out scene changes to the interior of a “Super Market”. (This being only the second “Super Mouse” cartoon in release, this scene change relates us back to the character’s origin story in “The Mouse of Tomorrow”, in which an average, mild-mannered mouse is converted into the super-powered rodent of steel by consuming and/or utilizing the various “Super” products in the Super Market.) Inside the market, a telephone sits on a counter, where our hero (as a normal mouse) listens intently as a call comes in regarding the monster’s rampage, stating “Help is needed.” Our hero immediately dives into a large wedge of super Limburger cheese, devouring a circular path through it, and emerging out the side in costume as Super Mouse. He flies into the receiver of the phone, travels inside the phone wire to a pole outside the store, then emerges from the transformer to fly to the castle. The mouse bursts through the drawbridge door of the castle, demolishing it in one blow. He boxes with a flight of bats, knocking them all out of his way, then produces a small sword from nowhere, to face-off against the cat, who also oddly chooses not to use his electrical powers, but to match Super with the instant production of a sword of his own, for a swashbuckling duel up a flight of spiral stairs. The cat retreats backwards into a stone room as Super follows, taking the action out of camera view, as the sounds of unseen battle subside. We dissolve into the room, where Super has in short order tied the cat into a chair, and is acting like a police detective, attempting to give the cat the “third degree”. In a voice never to be heard again in the series (the character’s familiar operatic tenor voice having not yet been established), Super demands, in a squeaky, Brooklyn-flavored accent, “What did ya do with da boid?” The cat won’t talk (not surprising, as he hasn’t been able to utter an intelligible word throughout the cartoon). So Super turns his x-ray vision upon the cat’s oil-drum body. Inside its hollow exterior, he spots the bird, swallowed whole and alive, and saying its prayers for someone to save it. With the secret revealed, the cat struggles with extra strength, breaking its bonds to get free. It races to a turret window, where it finds four bats. Grabbing two of them with his front paws, and hopping on the backs of the two others, the cat flies out the window under bat-power. Super pursues, getting in a few blows on the cat’s torso in attempt to shake him off his steeds. When this doesn’t work, Super makes a wide curve in front of the cat’s path, turning in attempt to meet him head-in. The cat enlists a final hidden secret weapon – the ability to breathe flame. Super socks at the flames much as Superman had socked at the mad-scientist’s ray in his premiere at Fleischer studios, getting in close enough to the cat to sock his head right off his body. Super then pulls on the cat’s beaded tail, as if held together by an elastic band, letting it snap back against the cat’s body to dislodge the grip on the bats, sending the torso into a fall toward the ground after its head. In mid-fall, the bird is able to exit out the hole where the cat’s neck formerly attached, escaping to freedom. Cat head and cat torso crash to the ground, the torso searching around blindly until it can locate the head, then reassembling itself. But the cat knows when it’s licked, and simply exits over the horizon, presumably never to be seen again. Super catches the baby bird, and returns it to its mother, receiving a hero’s ovation from the villagers for the fade out.

Willoughby’s Magic Hat (Columbia/Screen Gems, 4/30/43 – Bob Wickersham, dir.) – We’ve dealt with this odd, offbeat and clever cartoon once before, so we’ll provide a shortened “recap”. Willoughby Wren, a little bulb-nosed human who otherwise would amount to nothing in particular, has stumbled upon the power of the gods, in the form of a cap woven centuries ago by Delilah out of the sheared hair of Samson. The hat has provided amazing power to several past champions, but track of it has been lost over time – until it shows up by pure accident in a second-hand hat shop. Willoughby become its purchaser – but just can’t seem to put two and two together as to why he is suddenly able to accomplish astounding feats. The doorknob of the shop crumbles in his hand, and the door flies off the hinges. Leaning on a telephone pole results in cracking the pole in two, taking down three others connected to it. As long as such things are happening, why not put them to good use? Willoughby responds to a scream for help in a darkened alley. There, an attractive young blonde is caught in a stranglehold by another mechanical-style Frankenstein’s monster. Willoughby taps the monster on the leg, and assumes fighting pose, inviting the monster to “put ‘em up.” The monster gestures to the woman as if to inquire, “Someone you know?”, in response to which she just shrugs her shoulders in non-recognition – then the strangling commences again. Willoughby persists, but fails to note that his cap has fallen off. The monster turns his stranglehold on Willoughby, uses the weakling’s head like an axe to knock holes into the walls and pavement, then hurls Willoughby onto the climbing step of a telephone pole. Fortunately, he also tosses the hat after him, which lands on Willoughby’s head, returning his strength and fighting will.

When Willoughby returns to the crime scene, the culprit and victim are gone – but tell-tale screams direct his attention to a high railroad trestle, where the monster is seen tying the damsel to the tracks. With a powerful leap, Willoughby is jet-propelled up to the trestle, and begins working on the ropes. His boy scout training isn’t what it should be, and in a blur of activity, the girl is somehow set free, while Willoughby is left securely tied to the tracks! The monster meanwhile is tying the girl back to the tracks a few yards away. A frantic and creative sequence results in Willoughby attempting to save both himself and the damsel by keeping at bay two oncoming locomotives converging upon them from opposite directions, all with the alternating forces of pushes from Willoughby’s fingertips. Willoughby and the girl dive between the ties of the trestle, just as the locomotives collide, then lands safely in the valley below. There, they meet the monster again. With cap secured firmly on head, another finger push from Willoughby sends the monster slamming into a brick wall, disassembling him into component parts. But the parts are somehow programed to self-regenerate, and reform into a monster tank, firing at Willoughby with a barrage of shells. With one hand, Willoughby blocks off the impact of shell after shell, finally reaching the tank for another finger blow upon its chassis. In a tremendous explosion, the tank is disintegrated to shrapnel, and does not reform. Willoughby plants a sign on the heap reading, “Salvage for Victory”, then returns to the arms of the sweet young heroine, where he is covered with kisses for a happy fade out.

My Boy, Johnny (Terrytoons/Fox, 5/12/44 – Eddie Donnelly, dir.), has received one previous visit in a prior trail. It is a hopeful and visually-creative view into a world of the future once the boys in khaki come marching home. Among the returning G.I.’s is one of the first to be called to duty, Gandy Goose. He and family visit a futuristic model home open for inspection. Upon entering, mechanical hands rise from panels in the floor to take Gandy’s hat, and dust him off with a whish broom while spinning him upon a turntable. One of Gandy’s goslings pushes a panel of additional buttons on a control panel to give Daddy the “works”. The floor slides Gandy to a medicine cabinet, where more mechanical hands automatically brush his teeth. He is zipped off to a bathroom, with a creative mechanism placing Gandy upon a large rectangular platform with drain holes. The panel suddenly sinks 3 feet, depositing Gandy in a tub of water automatically filled as the floor panel descends. A painted swan on a wall mural turns out to be a built-in shower, streaming a flow of water from its beak. The floor panel rises as suddenly as it sank, with the water draining out through its holes, while two more mechanical hands rise from each side and towel Gandy off vigorously, Gandy is spiraled back to the spot where he entered the home, reoutfitted in his hat by the hands, and a lit cigar is placed into his bill, before the floor slides him outside and dumps him on the doorstep. Gandy’s a bit shaken, but comfortable with his smoke, smiling a satisfied smile to the camera.

Censored (Warner, Private Snafu, July, 1944 – Frank Tashlin, dir.) – Though it remains undetermined whether the apparatus used in this film are robotic and automatic in their actions, or are controlled by an unseen human hand from inside the censor’s office, the use of more cartoon-gloved hands on metallic rods or telephone extenders suggests robotic influence, allowing for at least an honorable mention. Snafu is about to be shipped out, and can tell from the issued equipment, shots for tropical diseases, etc. that his destination is the South Seas. He seeks to get a letter out to his girlfriend before reaching the ship, but is aware of the problem posed by the camp censor to getting the letter’s content through unaltered. In commando-style tactics, he conceals himself in a barrel up to the door of the censor’s office, stuffs the letter under his army helmet, and tries to creep past the door to a mailbox near the main gate. He stops in his tracks as he spots the beam of an electric eye flashing a ray of light across his path. Ducking as low as he can to the ground, Snafu gets his head and helmet under the beam – but his large rear end is just tall enough to break the light beam regardless of his efforts. An alarm bell sounds, and a spotlight flashes down upon him. Snafu makes a break to run back to his barracks, but four iron gates sprout up from the ground around him, forming a metal cage. As the signature musical theme for anything mechanical at Warner Brothers plays (Raymond Scott’s “Powerhouse”), a large magnet fastened to a metal rod emerges from the censor’s door, lifting Snafu by the helmet to reveal the letter resting on his brow. Another rod with a gloved hand emerges to grab the letter, taking it inside the office, while a telephone-extender with a hook takes hold of Snafu by the collar, and steers him over to a wall sign, reading “Watch what you write.” Snafu is returned to the censor’s door and dropped on the ground, as the gloved hand emerges from the office again, returning the letter to Snafu – automatically chopped to punch out of its text practically every word except an occasional “a” ot “the”.

Snafu next finds himself aboard a train. He completes another letter, then hails the nearest passer-by out the train window. “Mail this for me”, Snafu calls, tossing the envelope out the window, folded into the shape of a paper airplane. Before the paper aircraft can sail pass the train’s caboose, another robotic arm emerges from a small compartment on the caboose’s roof (also with sign reading “Censor”). This arm has at its end a butterfly net, with which it scoops up the letter in mid air, pulling it inside the compartment. Within moments, the paper airplane is winging its way again, but inside the train, sailing back through the cars to reach Snafu. As Snafu unfolds it, the letter emerges – chopped into a string of paper dolls (accompanied by the instrumental notes of the Mills Brothers’ recent hit, “Paper Doll”, on the soundtrack).

While no further robotic help is employed by the censor, even at sea, Snafu cannot get the letter through by carrier pigeon, due to a large hawk stationed in the ship’s crow’s nest, who acts as “Assistant Censor.” Only a wish with Technical Fairy First Class appears to have the letter finally on its way, though the fairy comments that he’ll probably hate himself in the morning. Snafu settles down for a restful nap, wondering what his girl will think when she receives the message. We dissolve to his girl on the phone (the letter covering the sensitive spots of her obviously topless form), bragging about her Snafu on a mission to Bingo Bango Island, but telling everyone to keep it hush hush. Of course, everyone spreads the word to everyone else – with the same advice to keep it hush hush. Before you know it, Imperial Japanese Command is radioing the news of impending attack, and massive reinforcements convert the otherwise peaceful island into a fortress bristling with cannon, underground bunkers, ships and soldiers galore, all in convincing camouflage. Snafu and his regiment walk right into the trap, entering the harbor of the island with thought that they’ve caught the enemy with their pants down. Who’s caught who? – as the entrance to the harbor is sealed off behind them, and Snafu finds himself nose to nose with a circle of cannon, all of which fire at once to obliterate the scene. The blast awakens Snafu from his dream about his girl – and he frantically panics that he’s got to get the letter back. Technical Fairy again appears, having never mailed it anyway, anticipating that Snafu would see the light. Snafu takes his own scissor to the letter, chopping it as severely as the many times before, stating “Like I always say, every man his own censor.” Technical Fairy looks through the Swiss-cheese left of the letter’s contents, and closes with the curtain line, “Very good – on the hole!”

We’ll “gear” up for more mechanical adventures, next time.


  • Frankenstein’s cat isn’t the only self-flagellating villain in the Terrytoons corpus. Another cartoon — I don’t recall offhand which one — has an antagonist who pulls a similar lever to get himself kicked, not by a boot, but by a life-size mechanical mule! But it’s more of a marionette than a robot.

    Pluto had bad luck with robots. At some point in the late ’30s, Disney began work on a cartoon called “Pluto’s Robot Twin”. Mickey Mouse, who had previously dabbled in robotics in “Mickey’s Mechanical Man”, invents a robot dog as a companion for Pluto; but it turns on its creator, as so often happens, and it’s up to Pluto to save the day. Some finished design drawings of the robot dog still exist and were sold at auction several years ago, but the cartoon was never completed.

    Willoughby’s girlfriend reminds me of Sally Swing. Maybe she followed Dave Fleischer to Columbia.

    • The kicking mechanical mule appears in “Birdland” (1935). There may be others as well.

  • “Shop Look & Listen” (Warner Bros./Schlesinger, Blabbermouse, 21/12/40 — I. Freleng, dir.) has a couple of robot gags worth mentioning here. A W. C. Fields mouse is leading little Blabbermouse and some other mice on a tour of a department store after hours. At one point he demonstrates a “new super deluxe one hundred percent automatic poker table” — a card table with four pairs of robotic arms situated along its edge. After one pair of arms deals the cards, another picks up its hand and spreads it out to reveal three aces and the three of clubs. Very slowly, it discards the trey and begins to pull out a fourth ace concealed in the cuff on its left wrist. Suddenly the pair of robot arms on the opposite side of the table draws a revolver and fires it at the cheating robot, disintegrating it into a mass of broken gears and springs.

    “Only goes to prove you can’t cheat an honest man,” comments the tour guide. “From the picture of the same name. Plug!” The W. C. Fields comedy “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man” was released a year earlier, but it’s strange that a Warner Bros. cartoon would so shamelessly plug a Universal film.

    Later, the guide shows off the robots in the store’s gift-wrapping department. By this time he, like the rest of us, has had enough of Blabbermouse’s non-stop stream of annoying prattle, so he hands the little pest over to the gift-wrapping robots. They bind him up with paper and ribbon, and when he sticks his head through the wrapping paper to protest they put a sticker over his mouth: “Do not open until Xmas”!

  • The Fleischer’s invented the action cartoon.Popeye and Superman trump anything TV has produced. Oh, how I would love to see a feature length Superman film looking and moving the way The Fleischers did in the 1940’s

  • One could build a subcategory of fembots and feminine decoys. Besides Woody susceptible males include Bugs Bunny (“Hair-Raising Hare” and “Grey Hounded Hare”), Wile E. Coyote (“Operation Rabbit”), Goofy (sort of robotic ladies, in “Clock Cleaners” and “Baggage Busters”), Jerry (“The Mouse from HUNGER”), Mr. Jinks (an early Kellogg’s commercial), and various ducks.

    The Noveltoon “The Bored CooCoo” flips it when a mechanical but sentient bird escapes from his clock and ventures into the real world. He falls in love with a real bird and they somehow raise a family.

  • Have you forgotten “Hollywood Capers”, a Looney Tune from 10-19-1935 featuring Beans. It also features a Frankenstein-like mechanical man, that eats movie cameras and spits out the film. This certainly pre-dates Chuck Jones’ “Sniffles and the Bookworm” by 4 years!

    • I think it was covered in a previous trail. I could be wrong, though.


    “Farewell, My Beloved Lupin” is another Fleischer tribute. 🙂

  • So great to see this fine assortment, as usual, complete with links to each!

  • A year after Woody, Daffy Duck went one step further by inexplicably having hybrid duck-robot children with a mechanical decoy in “A Coy Decoy” (6/7/1941).

  • “The Golfers” (Lantz/Universal, 11/1/37 — Walter Lantz, dir.) are monkeys Meany, Miny, and Moe, who are doing poorly on the golf course when they see a demonstration of a “Golf Robot”: essentially a mechanised golf cart operated by a kilted Aberdeen terrier, but with robotic arms that emerge from a panel to tee up the ball, hit it with a club, remove obstacles, etc. Moe decides that the Golf Robot is just the thing for him, and with its help he is soon beating his fellow simians. Meany tries to even the score by literally throwing a monkey wrench into the works. Suddenly the Golf Robot runs amok. It grabs Meany with one robotic arm and gives him a hotfoot with another; then it sprays Miny with shaving cream and shaves off all his body hair with a straight razor. Finally it turns on Moe, pummeling him with golf clubs until it explodes. But even then, the disarticulated fragments of the Golf Robot continue to chase the monkeys around the links. In the end, all bruised and bandaged, Meany, Miny and Moe turn their attention to a new book: “How to Play Checkers”!

  • How is Knock Knock robot-related?

  • I was just researching some newspapers and found something about Bill and Joe doing something called “Rivets”, “the first robot” in “animated one-reelers”. What is this?

    • It’s nothing.

      It’s nothing that was ever produced as far as I know. It’s one of dozens of publicity blurbs MGM sent out to small town newspapers like the Toledo Observer that may (or may not) have been a fleeting thought by Bill & Joe… but Quimby had them committed to Tom & Jerry at that point – and I can’t recall a robot gag in any of the cartoons produced during that period.

      • Thanks, Jerry! And hey, do you know anything about Republic Pictures producing cartoons?

        • Yes I do. I know all about it. But this thread isn’t the place to discuss that. PM me if you have a question – or found another clipping about it.

  • Here are my Top Ten robot cartoons that were never made but should have been:

    Robot Hood
    Little Robot Riding Hood
    Cops and Robots
    Robotson Crusoe
    Ro-meo and Juli-bot
    Robot Rodeo
    The Mechanical Cannibal
    Rudolph the Red-Nosed Robot

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