Circus Capers (1930, dir. Harry Bailey and John Foster)
When I first saw this Van Beuren cartoon a few years ago, on a $1 cartoon compilation DVD I secretly bought at the grocery store, I was completely fascinated with it. I started it over repeatedly, and I would watch my favorite parts while laughing hysterically. On first glance, this seems like a fairly generic sound extension of a Paul Terry cartoon, but on further examination, it has some of the most appealingly weird character animation I’ve ever seen. The interaction between the characters make me squirm, squirm, squirm.
To my eyes, the Aesop’s Fables cartoons became significantly weirder and more beautiful after Amedee J. van Beuren took over from Paul Terry. Some days, this era of Van Beuren is my favorite cartoon series in history. As the public couldn’t get enough of lapping up Mickey Mouse’s milk, the Aesop’s Fables became obsessed with giving us as many much mouse gags as we could possibly take. The characters in this particular cartoon are sometimes known as Milton and Rita Mouse. Van Beuren was finally sued by Disney in 1932, so the mouse characters stopped appearing, but it was in Paul Terry’s earlier 20s, pre-Mickey Aesop’s Fables that the cartoon mouse image we associate with Mickey was born. And thus began a long legacy of questionable Disney lawsuits.
“Circus Capers” is not the best Van Beuren cartoon, but it has some perfect, perfect moments that you will find if you watch it. There is lots of “filler” in this, as there is in most Aesop’s Fables, but, as usual, even the most nonjokes of jokes are oddly intoxicating and watchable. Please stick around for the ending… it is one of the best endings I have seen in anything, ever. Just picturing it in my brain right now is causing me to feel soothed and strange.
The Van Beuren cartoons are most definitely a “poor man’s Fleischer,” particularly at this point, but their unhinged floatiness sometimes goes in a direction even Fleischer didn’t. These are often mean, raunchy cartoons made by mean, raunchy men.
NOTE: If you don’t have much time, or have little interest in this cartoon, make sure you skip ahead to 6:17 to see an amazing, masterful moment. It lasts until the end.
More on Van Beuren (not much):
Monkeydoodle (1931, dir. Les Elton)
This Les Elton cartoon is one of my very favorite things of this world. The atmosphere is almost exactly what I hope to some day achieve in my own comics. The cartoon’s entire world feels like it is going to end any moment, or it already has, and things are desperate and bad. These characters are what animation and any sort of cartoon drawing can be all about. The feeling I get from them makes me feel sandy and sour and wrinkled and full of a special certain kind of nervous cartoon hope. I would not quickly dismiss this cartoon as an inept, bad attempt at an early sound cartoon gone horribly wrong. There is clearly an artistry here that cannot be ignored. It is a shame that this sort of thing dried up by the mid-30s. What would happen if actual artists continued to make cartoons? The director seems like a true cartoonist through and through, with a real, actually interesting vision to show us. It seems personal and follows a logic that is intoxicating, and it is never strictly a slave to mathematically calculated gags. I love this cartoon too much. “The Monkey Doodle Do” was a popular song of the 20s, but I like to think that the title is a reference to Elton’s obvious love of drawing… “the doodle.” I like to imagine Mr. Les Elton as a doodle boy with a steel nib in one hand and a broken bottle in the other, gingerly, tenderly licking whiskey out of glass like the devil himself while thinking exactly how to move his next animated animal woman.
The director, Les(lie) Elton, born in 1892 in Lock Haven, Philadelphia, was known in the 1910s for his newspaper sports comics. He worked as an animator at the Bray Studios in the from 1916 to 1917. From 1918 to 1920, he worked for Walter Lantz. Copley Pictures Corporation (brief early 30s distributors of Felix the Cat, most likely rereleases of the Pat Sullivan cartoons) signed a deal with Elton, under his production company “Animated Pictures Corporation,” to create a series of “Simon the Monk” cartoons, of which only this cartoon and 1935’s “The Hobo Hero” survive. It is unknown if more were ever made, although recently a 1934 cartoon entitled “King Kelly of the USA” has surfaced that seems to feature some of Elton’s ticks and trademarks. It is unconfirmed if the cartoon is truly his, but it is highly assumed.
More on Elton (complete with great photographs and examples of his drawings, comics, and cartoons):