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Animation from Van Beuren Studios

In the early days of sound, there were a number of studios and independent producers making cartoon shorts for an eager audience. The leaders in the field included Disney Studio in Los Angeles and Fleischer Studios in New York, but a number of others busily produced more to meet the demand of exhibitors. Van Beuren Studio was one of the smaller producers of the era. They were also located in New York; in fact, they were set up in a building on Broadway directly across the street from Fleischer Studios. Van Beuren produced cartoons for distribution by RKO and for a few years in the early 1930s their output nearly rivaled that of Disney and Fleischer, although the talent that came through the door was never fully realized on the screen.

The studio evolved from Fables Pictures, which started making "Aesop's Fables" cartoons in 1921; they were backed by the Keith-Albee vaudeville concern (which later became part of RKO). Future Terrytoons head Paul Terry owned 10 percent of the company. In 1928 Keith-Albee sold out to Amadee J. Van Beuren, a businessman who had experience producing live-action shorts and wanted to add animated cartoons to his program. The studio changed names to reflect the new ownership and also switched to all-sound production. Terry left the studio in 1929 and John Foster took over as animation director. RKO Radio Pictures continued to release the films.

In his book Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin writes, "Making the transition to sound was a formidable task for the small Van Beuren staff, because it involved more than mere synchronization. It meant developing a whole new approach to the creation of a cartoon. This did not come easily to the silent-film veterans, who continued to practice such obsolete techniques as animating the words 'HA HA' alongside a character's mouth when he laughed."

The Fly's Bride (1929)

The Fly's Bride was produced in 1929, one year following Van Beuren's edict that all cartoons would be produced in sound. The RCA Photophone System is the credited process, and Carl Edouarde is credited with "synchronization." The film continues the long-running silent series of Aesop's Fables ("sugar coated pills of wisdom" as the end titles remarked) that the studio turned out. This entry displays the lively brand of "rubber hose" animation that was common in the early sound era. The story opens as a swarm of white shoe-clad flies cavort in a kitchen (gags include a soft-shoe number danced over spilled salt and a cop fly directing traffic around a piece of flypaper). The story shifts outside as a fly calls his gal on the phone. Here some rare lip-synch is attempted during the dialogue; Van Beuren usually avoided dialogue in the years to come in favor of songs to help the story along.

A Swiss Trick (1931)

A Swiss Trick (1931) was an entry in the Van Beuren series that first attempted to establish recurring cartoon stars for the studio: Tom and Jerry. The characters were not cat-and-mouse adversaries but rather a Mutt-and-Jeff style duo developed by New York animators George Stallings and George Rufle. This particular entry has our heroes stranded on a snow-covered Swiss mountaintop after the train they are traveling in makes like a rocket and zooms away. They encounter a billy goat, a bear, and a troupe of Swiss yodelers and musicians. There is plenty of dancing and rubber-hose animation, followed by a supremely surreal gag (also typical of the era): after eating cheese wedges, Tom and Jerry sprout Swiss cheese-type holes and are chased by a group of mice. The shots in this gag illuminate some of the loose (i.e. sometimes sloppy) working methods at Van Beuren; specifically, the animators clearly weren't on the same page. In one shot, a group of realistic naked mice run toward Tom and Jerry on all fours, while in the following shot the same mice follow them out of a cabin standing upright and wearing Mickey Mouse-style gloves and shoes! Although several Tom and Jerry cartoons were made, the characters never showed much personality and did not catch on with the moviegoing public.

Silvery Moon (1933)

Van Beuren continued their "Aesop's Fables" series into the early '30s (though by 1931 they had dropped the "moral" appearing at the end of the tale). In Silvery Moon (1931), a Betty Boop-inspired cat is being rowed in a canoe on Moonlight Bay by her suitor. The pair are invited by Mr. Moon to ascend a magical stairway and enter the Moon's mouth. Inside the Moon they find a variety of giant sweet treats to eat, and play musical instruments made of peppermint. They get sick from the sweet treats and are chased by Old Man Castor Oil and his friend the spoon. Music plays an important role in Silvery Moon, as it does in the entire Van Beuren output. Dialogue was always kept to a minimum in the story--songs and visuals carried almost every cartoon.

Rough on Rats (1933)

Rough on Rats (1933) is another in the "Aesop's Fables" series; it features a group of kittens loose in a grocery store after closing time. They have to deal with a huge, realistic rat who looks as if he slinked in from a different cartoon. Some of the violence that the cute kitties inflict on their rat nemesis is brutal and wince-inducing; these are the sorts of intense "gags" that mark certain Van Beuren cartoons as must-see cult viewing among animation aficionados.

A Little Bird Told Me (1934)

In response to the cartoons being turned out by competing studios, by 1934 Van Beuren was attempting to move beyond the standard black-and-white two-reeler. His first step was to bring Burt Gillett into the studio. Gillett must have seemed like a solid investment because he had directed what was the most successful cartoon short ever made up to that time, Disney's The Three Little Pigs (1933). Gillett's first project was the short-lived "Toodle Tales" series, which was also the last group of black-and-white cartoons released by Van Beuren. Numbering only three, these shorts presented morals like the Aesop's Fables, but were bookended by live-action stories featuring children's antics. (Fleischer Studios had been mixing live-action and animation for years). Unfortunately, the child actors appearing in these shorts are some of the most cloying and unappealing kids ever committed to film. A Little Bird Told Me (1934) is considered the best of the bunch; it melds the live-action story of a bad boy who eats jam out of the jar with his bare hands and group of animated birds who operate the Birdville Daily Bugle newspaper. Correspondent Walter "Finchell" write a photo expose of the jam jar caper in a neat blending of live-action and animation.

The Wizard of Oz (1933)

Produced independently by Ted Eshbaugh, this animated version of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz (1933) is a real curiosity. Six years prior to the lavish MGM live-action musical, this cartoon short introduced the idea of opening with Dorothy on her Kansas farm in sepia, and switching to Technicolor for the scenes in Oz. However, the cartoon was not theatrically released in the U.S. at the time due to conflicts with the Technicolor Corporation; Disney had just signed a 3-year exclusive deal to produce his "Silly Symphonies" series in 3-color Technicolor. Shortly after producing The Wizard of Oz, Eshbaugh joined up with Burt Gillett and Van Beuren to produce the "Rainbow Parade" series which, as the name implies, was produced in Technicolor (specifically, in 2-color Technicolor at first because of the arrangement with Disney).

The Sunshine Makers (1935)

There were over a dozen cartoons produced in Van Beuren's "Rainbow Parade" series. Clearly, the studio lavished a lot of time and money on these efforts--they are as lush and detailed as Disney's premier "Silly Symphonies" produced during the same period. The Sunshine Makers (1935), directed by Ted Eshbaugh and Burt Gillett, is justly the most famous of series---the music is jaunty, the designs are terrific, the animation is top-notch, and most importantly, the story is unforgettable and carries enough of a dark and creepy edge to leave a huge impression on children and provide a "cultish" appeal to adult animation aficionados. The synopsis is simple: a troupe of orange clad, elfin figures work at literally bottling sunshine while a neighboring village of Gloomy Gusses (dressed in black and blue, of course) mope around and eventually attack the Sunshine Makers. The "tra-la-la" song-and-dance that the unwilling gloomy villagers break into (when hit by a bottle of sunshine) must count as one of the most surreal moments in any 1930s cartoon (and that's saying something!)

Pastrytown Wedding (1934)

Pastrytown Wedding (1934), directed by Ted Eshbaugh and Burt Gillett, is a more typical entry in the "Rainbow Parade" series. The title tells the tale as the denizens of Pastrytown are established through a series of tuneful gags and climaxes as a giant cake is prepared for the big event. (One easily imagines that if the cartoon had been made by the Fleischers, the giant cake would have been a three-dimensional construct that slowly spins during the fadeout!) Pastrytown Wedding demonstrates the weakness of many of the Van Beuren color cartoons--the stories are too simple and the lack of dialogue renders the characters interchangeable and unmemorable.

The end of the Van Beuren Studios came swiftly and for a very good reason. RKO Radio Pictures, their distribution partner, struck a new distribution deal with Walt Disney Studio in 1936 after Disney left United Artists. Nabbing the most popular and prestigious cartoons in the nation meant that RKO had no use for the Van Beuren output, and since they did not find another distributor, Van Beuren closed the studio. The Van Beuren cartoons proved to have more life in them for the next couple of decades--they were commonly reissued in 16mm (and often given new titles) in the 1940s for school and home use, following which they were distributed to television in the early 1950s. By the 1960s, however, they had fallen into obscurity and it is only in recent years that good prints of these overlooked cartoons have been assembled on home video for a wider audience of classic movie fans and cartoon completists.

by John M. Miller

Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Leonard Maltin, 1987, Plume.
Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Charles Solomon, 1994, Wings Books.

Click Here to learn more about co-host Steve Stanchfield.



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