American cartooning began well before 1937, the year Walt Disney’s full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs debuted to astonished audiences. In fact, American animation started as an offshoot of vaudeville, and moved into the theater to provide a pre-show diversion for other films. Characters that proved popular received orders for more cartoons, and the dawn of the cartoon serial and educational cartoon shorts expanded the field of American cartooning into the Cold War era.
Long before the 1980s tied children’s cartoons to product placement, the American cartoon short was where innovation was unveiled and storytelling met entertainment. Here is a special short list of 12 essential American cartoons.
1. "Gertie the Dinosaur" (1914)
When animation was still “moving pictures” on the vaudeville circuit, many shorts were gimmicks or tricks using simple animation to create the illusion of movement. Gertie the Dinosaur by Winsor McCay was the first animated short to be centered around a character that the performer would interact with—in this case a Brontosaur (or, what we now know as an Apatasaurus) named Gertie. McCay would perform in front of a large screen seemingly interacting with Gertie and eventually stepping behind the screen to ride Gertie off stage.
2. "Out Of The Inkwell" Series (1918-1929)
Max and David Fleischer of Fleischer studios gave America some of its best animation techniques. The Out Of The Inkwell series starring KoKo the clown was the first series of cartoons to mix live action and animation. Not only would Max draw KoKo into existence at the beginning of the shorts but, later in the series, KoKo’s smooth actions were some of the first state-side uses of rotoscoping—shooting a live actor to trace his motions later.
3. Disney’s "Skeleton Dance" (1929)
Painstakingly animated by Ub Iwerks and directed by Walt Disney, Skeleton Dance was the first of the Silly Symphonies series that used musical backing tracks to provide narratives to animated shorts. Up until the Silly Symphonies, American animated films added sound and music through a process called "post-sync" where all the audio was added after the film was finished. Skeleton Dance was the first short to animate to a custom soundtrack rather than let the drawings dictate the storytelling.
4. Betty Boop and Cab Calloway in "Minnie The Moocher" (1932)
Betty Boop was one of the most popular characters of the black and white era. Real-life big band leader and vocalist Cab Calloway’s star was rising at the same time, and the two paired in this cautionary tale that is essentially a music video for Cab Calloway’s song that had been recorded a year before. Calloway himself provided the voice and moves of the Walrus that scares Betty Boop back into her abusive family’s household.
5. Max Fleischer's "Superman" Series (1941)
Paramount Pictures paid Fleischer Studios to make a series of eight animated shorts starring Superman. Popular opinion is that Fleischer didn’t want to work on the project, so he quoted a then ridiculous $100,000 per short (about four times what a Popeye cartoon would cost). For one reason or another, Paramount agreed to the fee, and Fleischer put all the money on screen with a distinct, realistic style and some great action rotoscoping.
6. "Der Fuehrer's Face" (1942)
Originally and hilariously titled “Donald Duck in Nazi Land,” this Disney cartoon features Donald Duck as a reluctant Nazi who gets worked almost to death in a munitions factory—only to wake up from his horrible dream an American citizen. “Der Fuehrer’s Face” is one of the few American propaganda cartoons that still holds up as a technical and social achievement. Disney finally released it on home video in 2004.
7. Tex Avery's "Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943)
The first fractured fairy tale from a medium that would later become famous for Fractured Fairy Tales, animator Tex Avery’s take on Little Red Riding Hood as a nightclub singer influenced everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit to The Mask. Undoubtedly of its time, the look of the short and the techniques used would go on to influence American cartooning into the 60s.
8. "What’s Opera Doc?" (1957)
Disney’s Silly Symphonies were a precursor to Chuck Jones and his Merrie Melodies, but Jones got the last laugh with "What’s Opera Doc?" Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd sing their way through the impeccably designed sets and a loose parody of Wagner operas like "Der Ring des Nibelungen" and "Tannhäuser." Most importantly, it brought those operas to Looney Tunes and, in doing so, became one of the most beloved American cartoons ever.
9. Disney’s "Highways of the Future" (1958)
This short was part of Disneyland TV’s “Magic Highway USA” episode and is a prime example of one of the new uses of animation at that time: selling a concept. As Disney was scheming over his theme park, he also had grand views of a highway-dominated future. Some of the inventions have come to pass (like dashboard displays), but others never will thanks to the computer age. Pre-dating The Jetsons by several years, Disney gave the public its first look at a highway-centric future.
10. "Bambi Meets Godzilla" (1969)
This less-than-two-minute short is considered more of a reel for creator Marv Newland. It spends most of its running time crediting Newland before its punchline—and what a punchline. Newland has held occasional jobs in mainstream animation, like directing a few episodes of the stop motion sitcom “The PJs,” but mostly makes his own art shorts like 2009’s "Postalolio," where every frame of the short was sent through the U.S. Postal Service system.
11. "Luxo Jr." (1986)
Everyone might be familiar with Luxo Jr. from the Pixar title cards before their shorts and movies, but the little lamp that plays with the ball was a 2-minute short that featured the first shadowmaps to produce lighting effects (instead of shadows being hand drawn). It was also the first short to use RenderMan, a program that pioneered the now-industry standard method of breaking up large render jobs.
12. Batman: The Animated Series - "Heart of Ice" (1992)
Though not technically groundbreaking, Batman: The Animated Series took a large step in reclaiming cartoon shorts from the Saturday morning cartoon ghetto. All the backgrounds for the show were painted on black paper instead of white paper, and the Art Deco style would become tied to the character’s animated life as time went on. But most notably for the storytelling of the medium, this Paul Dini story took a half-baked Mr. Freeze character and gave him an emotional hook that is considered canon to this day.
For 12-12-12, we’ll be posting twenty-four '12 lists' throughout the day. Check back 12 minutes after every hour for the latest installment, or see them all here.