My love affair with animation began where it did for so many cartoon-lovers of my age: the theatrical shorts of Warner Bros., Walt Disney, the Fleischer brothers, MGM and UPA. During this golden age of Hollywood animation, thousands of little masterpieces were created by dozens of directors with the expectation that they would be shown as supporting featurettes in cinemas and then largely forgotten. Fortunately, these cartoons found a new home on television, often as timeslot fillers for 10 minute gaps before news broadcasts, and as such they seeped into the consciousness of millions of children and their equally-transfixed parents. While many of the characters remain recognisable today, the cartoons themselves have gradually disappeared from television and found another home on DVD and Blu-ray where collectors like myself can own and cherish them forever.
As part of my ongoing quest to convince people to appreciate these films for the works of genius that they are, I have compiled a top 100 list of my favourite shorts from animation’s golden age. In the final part, I’ll be counting down the cream of the crop, from 25 to 1 and hopefully bringing back a few memories in the process.
25. PORKY IN WACKYLAND
Bob Clampett’s famous black and white classic Porky in Wackyland is a glorious glimpse into the mad mind of Clampett allowed to run riot. His trademark energy and ability to stuff a cartoon full to the brim with content are both apparent from the outset as a newsboy invades the cartoon’s credits to inform us that Porky Pig is attempting to capture the last Dodo bird. Porky tracks the bird to Wackyland and from the moment his plane begins to tiptoe across the border of Wackyland all bets are off! We are treated to a feast of bizarre, logic-defying gags as we are introduced to the inhabitants of Wackyland through a long panning shot which contains literally dozens of jokes. These wild, quickfire gags give way to the main plot after a couple of minutes and so begins one of the greatest cartoon chases of all time as Porky tries in vain to capture the nutty Dodo who constantly defies logic in order to evade and humiliate him. Porky in Wackyland is an extremely influential and exceptionally bonkers cartoon that will appeal to anyone with a love of the surreal and the anarchic. It was later pointlessly remade in colour by Friz Freleng as Dough for the Dodo, a watered-down take on the original which lacked the essential ingredient: Clampett himself.
24. THE DOVER BOYS AT PIMENTO UNIVERSITY
Chuck Jones’s The Dover Boys at Pimento University is out and out one of the funniest cartoons ever made. From a cracking and atypical script by Tedd Pierce which satirises the melodramatic boy’s books of the early 20th century, Jones seizes the opportunity to create something different. Much to the studio’s dismay, Jones opted to experiment with a stylised and minimal design. The characters look very different from your average Warner Bros. characters and they snap from pose to pose extremely quickly, making for an exceedingly pacey film. The Dover Boys are three students from Pimento University who pride themselves on being extremely wholesome despite sharing a fiancé between the three of them. This fiancé, Dora, is one of the most remarkable things in the whole short. Her first appearance, in which she imitates a cuckoo clock and then charges down the stairs without even moving her legs, epitomises the quirky style of The Dover Boys and is an early indication of just how wonderfully well this unusual approach works. She is also a great example of a subversion of the damsel in distress stereotype, assuming that role while clearly indicating she can take care of herself better than any man ever could.
The cartoon, however, really belongs to the villain, the green-faced Dan Backslide. Beautifully designed and animated, he gets all the best lines, many of which are made all the funnier by one of Mel Blanc’s finest ever voice characterizations. Throw in a bizarre and disturbingly arbitrary running gag, a great narration by John McLeish and a handful of hilarious gags and peculiar animation techniques and you have one of the classic shorts in animation history. The Dover Boys is a lesser discussed cartoon in comparison to the more well known shorts in the Chuck Jones canon but for those who have seen it, it remains an unforgettable and extraordinarily important film that has a far-reaching influence, not least on those wonderful cartoons made by UPA.
23. RABBIT FIRE
The first entry in Chuck Jones’s celebrated hunting trilogy, Rabbit Fire opens with the familiar declaration “Be vewy, vewy quiet, I’m hunting wabbits”. So begins the famous battle between Bugs and Daffy over whether its Rabbit Season or Duck Season. While the following cartoon Rabbit Seasoning boasts a better script on paper, Rabbit Fire is probably more gut-bustingly hilarious. Jones’s direction is typically impeccable, which proves most crucial in the early scenes in which Bugs tricks Daffy into admitting it’s Duck Season by changing his argumentative “DUCK SEASON” TO “WABBIT SEASON”, thereby coaxing Daffy into also changing and setting himself up for a beak-altering shooting. It’s an old gag given new life by Jones’s fast pacing and Mel Blanc’s hysterical voice characterization (“DUCK SEASON, FIRE!!!”). Blanc excels himself here, especially in a jaw-dropping scene in which he voices Daffy attempting to imitate Bugs and vice versa. It’s a flawless example of why Blanc is such an irreplaceable actor. The ultimately anti-hunting subtext of the hunting trilogy is clear in Elmer’s revelatory confession “I’m a vegetarian, I just hunt for the sport of it”. It makes it all the more satisfying, then, when it is Elmer who gets a comeuppance at the climax rather than Daffy.
22. BAD LUCK BLACKIE
A kitten being bullied by a vicious bulldog is offered assistance by a streetwise black cat who can bring bad luck to anyone simply by crossing their path. When thinking of the hilarious MGM cartoons of Tex Avery, Bad Luck Blackie is perhaps the first to come to mind by virtue of its ingenious premise and how much laughter Avery squeezes out of this relatively simple starting point. The idea of having a tortured small character being able to summon a larger character at will had been explored previously, notably in the excellent Tom and Jerry cartoon The Bodyguard, to which Bad Luck Blackie owes an undoubted debt. But, as was often the case, Avery perfected the formula by adding an extra twist, in this case the bad luck superstition which metes out evermore unlikely and excessive punishments. Avery has a keen awareness that, to capitalise on the premise, the gags must escalate, and they do, with the climactic scenes having to pull back in order to make room for the sheer size of the falling objects. Not only among the funniest cartoons ever made, Bad Luck Blackie is among the funniest films of all time in any medium.
While the Betty Boop series was quietly dying, Fleischer studios other major series was flourishing. With the success of the colour specials, the Popeye series was growing more ambitious and cinematic all the time. This is clear in Goonland, one of the greatest Popeye cartoons and one of the greatest Flesicher cartoons of all. Goonland marks the film debut of Popeye’s father Poopdeck Pappy and also the only theatrical appearance of the Goons, a strange and frightening race of creatures. Both these characters, as with most of the characters in the Fleischer Popeyes, were original creations of E.C. Segar whose comic strip Thimble Theatre originally introduced Popeye. The Goons were especially influential, not only inspiring Spike Milligan’s seminal radio comedy of the same name but also in introducing the word ‘Goon’ to the English language.
Goonland itself is a masterpiece beyond its animated firsts. Popeye’s adventures here seem to cinematically exceed the short running time. The story is beautifully told, with Jack Mercer’s brilliant mutterings as both Popeye and Pappy surpassing his other always brilliant performances. The Goons are wonderfully brought to life, especially in a scene where Popeye mimics their Neanderthal movements. It’s a surprise that these vivid characters never came back in a theatrical cartoon, although the comic strip creation Alice the Goon was memorably used as Olive Oyl’s fellow army cadet in a series of TV shorts for The All New Popeye Hour. Goonland is also fondly remembered for its memorable climax in which Popeye and Pappy are saved from the Goons when the film itself breaks, causing their enemies to fall off the screen, before a live action hand repairs the celluloid with a safety pin. It’s a wonderful little flourish from a studio that were especially adept at combining animation and live action from the earliest days of the medium’s inception.
20. GERALD MCBOING-BOING
Gerald McBoing-Boing is a classic cartoon based on a Dr. Seuss story and told in verse. The title character is a little boy who speaks in noises instead of words. With its blank beige backdrops and storybook-style character designs, Gerald McBoing-Boing saw UPA proudly flaunting their purposefully rudimentary approach and it proves that, far from diminishing effects, the UPA house style can work wonders. Just watch the atmospheric scene where Gerald tries to board a train. A well deserved winner of the Best Animated Short Oscar, Gerald McBoing-Boing remains not only the best-loved of all UPA shorts but also one of the best-loved and most critically acclaimed short animations of all time.
19. YANKEE DOODLE DAFFY
Yankee Doodle Daffy is the greatest cartoon Friz Freleng ever directed. As a Daffy Duck fanatic, I was bound to adore this film since it is basically a seven minute showcase for Daffy’s wild energy. It’s a fine script but it hinges on the execution, meaning the real stars of Yankee Doodle Daffy are director Freleng and voice artist Mel Blanc. The premise is simple; Daffy approaches talent agent Porky Pig with a new act but rather than let the act demonstrate his talents, Daffy insists on emulating everything he promises his client will deliver. This results in a sensational series of song and dance routines in which Daffy pursues a reluctant Porky, who is trying to get away on holiday. Finally, Porky agrees to see Daffy’s client, resulting in one of my favourite climactic punchlines of all time.
Friz Freleng is often considered a lesser director with many viewing his cartoons as formulaic and dull. While he arguably lacks the monumental talents of a Jones, an Avery or a Clampett, Freleng is too frequently underestimated. In Yankee Doodle Daffy he really shows his potential, beautifully directing a frantically paced script without any missed opportunities. The short just pulsates with energy and Mel Blanc’s vocal tour de force is up there with some of his finest performances. In a list largely populated by his colleagues’ work, Friz Freleng’s Yankee Doodle Daffy more than holds its own against the competition in my very favourite Warner Bros. cartoons of all time.
18. DER FUEHRER’S FACE
One of the most remarkable propagandist cartoons ever made, Der Fuehrer’s Face casts Donald Duck as a Nazi(!), albeit a reluctant one, bullied by his Hitler worshipping superiors into constantly manning a production line churning out gun-shells. The unbelievably bold choice of actually casting Donald in the role of a Nazi in order to make fun of the enemy still amazes viewers today, although because of its wartime content the short is rarely seen by those who do not seek it out. Oliver Wallace’s theme tune, which became a raspberry-blowing hit for Spike Jones and His City Slickers before the cartoon was even released, plays a major part in the short, uniting the two styles of cartoon that made up all of that year’s Oscar nominees, namely wartime propaganda and musical comic relief. Of those shorts, Der Fuehrer’s Face clearly was, and still is, the most devastatingly powerful in its savagely satirical approach to humour which ought to silence any ill-informed critic who writes off Disney as nothing but honey-dripping sweetness and light. In Donald, Disney finally had a hit character whose personality allowed them to make films of such visceral humour.
17. RABBIT OF SEVILLE
Chuck Jones’s Rabbit of Seville lives in the shadow of his other, more famous musical masterpiece What’s Opera Doc, which also stars Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd. Nevertheless, Rabbit of Seville is still a very famous and acclaimed cartoon, despite the misleadingly half-hearted non-pun of the title! Executed with typical skill, Rabbit of Seville relies heavily on the genius direction of Chuck Jones as he flawlessly choreographs the animation of Bugs and Elmer’s confrontation with the music from The Barber of Seville. Bugs memorably creates his own lyrics in an early scene that culminates in a truly horrific gag with a carelessly brandished razor! After the early lyric based scenes, not another word is spoken until Bugs’ cocky, one word denouement. Instead, the action focuses in on the marriage between the music and the animation, all of which is superbly realised. The best moment is the increasingly frantic chase scene towards the end in which Elmer and Bugs continually turn the tables on each other with bigger and bigger weapons. Rabbit of Seville has rightfully passed into legend as a masterpiece and is fondly remembered by even those who have little interest in animation history. I’m sure most kids of my generation (when Warner cartoons were still being regularly shown on TV), if asked to sing a lyric from The Barber of Seville, would reply with “Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop, let me shave your crop”!
16. BRAVE LITTLE TAILOR
Brave Little Tailor is one of the all-time classic Mickey Mouse cartoons. Based on the Grimm Fairy Tale, it sees Mickey pitted against a giant who is terrorising a town. The set up, in which Mickey’s achievement of killing seven flies with one blow is completely misinterpreted by the desperate townsfolk, is superb and the battle with the giant is inspired. This is Disney at its best, concisely packing lots of plot into seven minutes without sacrificing any of the studios trademark touches. Casting Mickey as the lead in this tale was a masterstroke. Mickey seemed to be a character that writers struggled to find material for, particularly in all-out comedy shorts. But as the hero of David and Goliath stories like this one, in which the adventure is as important as the laughs, he was the perfect lead.
15. THE OLD MILL
One of the very last Silly Symphonies, Disney’s The Old Mill is also one of the most beautiful pieces of animation of all time. By this stage, with their first full length feature in the pipeline, the studio had begun primarily using the Silly Symphonies as a testing ground for animation techniques. Far from harming the series, this actually resulted in the cartoons becoming even more breathtaking. The lack of narrative here is refreshing and all but unnoticeable amidst the groundbreaking examples of realistic animal behaviour and weather effects. This also marked Disney’s first use of the multiplane camera. All these elements were important in making Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the classic it is but in developing the techniques Disney created another, shorter classic first. The Old Mill still looks astonishing today and was clearly a crucial stepping stone in Disney’s growing sophistication.
14. SCREWBALL SQUIRREL
Of all the attempts to create an animated star character, Tex Avery’s Screwy Squirrel was probably one of the least likely to succeed. In this cruel sociopathic squirrel, Avery created one of the Hollywood cartoon’s most hateful protagonists. In doing so he also turned the Hollywood cartoon on its head and launched a character whose cult status was destined to be celebrated by a select few in decades to come. I am one of those few. Like Bruce Springsteen pressured into writing ‘Dancing in the Dark’, Tex Avery was under pressure from MGM to give them a star character. Avery resented this interference and ultimately claimed to detest Screwy Squirrel. This is understandable given what the rascally rodent must have represented to him. And yet, in his subversive compliance with MGM’s wishes Avery created one of his greatest and most underrated cartoons. Screwball Squirrel is a masterpiece in which Avery infuses the standard chase film with lots of unexpected embellishments. The first and most famous of these is the opening, in which the film appears to be a Disney-esque semi-realistic picture starring a cloyingly cute squirrel named Sammy. Baulking at the very thought of this, Screwy proceeds to take Sammy behind a tree and beat the snot out of him. Many other studios had taken good-natured pot-shots at Disney but this one goes for the jugular, effectively egging on audiences to celebrate their narrow escape from Disney treacle in favour of the violent hilarity to come.
From this fantastic opening Screwball Squirrel just gets better and better. Each joke seems designed to wrong-foot someone, with one sequence in which the film seems to stick being designed specifically to annoy projectionists. With his annoying laugh and unmotivated anarchy, Screwy is an unsettling presence and his ability to seemingly do anything, from conjuring a streetcar out of thin air to lifting up the corner of the frame to peep at the next scene, makes him even more disturbing. The ending, in which Avery piles on three unexpected moments back to back, does justice to this enigmatically wonderful cartoon. Screwy Squirrel would go on to star in just four more cartoons before Avery, in keeping with the series brutal nature, killed him off in the final cartoon of the series Lonesome Lenny.
13. RABBIT SEASONING
Chuck Jones’s Rabbit Seasoning, the second in the much beloved hunting trilogy, is often considered to be the best of the three. While I find it almost impossible to choose between this trio of fantastic cartoons, I would have to concede that Rabbit Seasoning is the most finely honed script. Here, the emphasis is placed on language as Bugs and Daffy run through a series of complex dialogues in the grand tradition of Abbot and Costello’s ‘Who’s on next’ routine. As a long term Daffy fan, I have always been delighted by the hunting trilogy because it is consistently Daffy who gets all the best lines (the famous “Pronoun trouble” being one of the all time classics) and does most of the work. Bugs plays the role of cool manipulator while Elmer, as always, is the befuddled dupe. Part of what makes the hunting trilogy so much fun is that Daffy and Elmer pose so little threat to Bugs that he is basically just kicking back and having some easy laughs. Elmer falls into every trap that is laid for him but it is poor old Daffy who comes off worst, being shot in the face again and again, his beak ending up in more and more ridiculous positions. It all builds to the inevitable climactic declaration “You’re despicable”. As intricate an example of Chuck Jones’s impeccable timing as you’ll come across, Rabbit Seasoning is a true classic.
12. THE SKELETON DANCE
Disney’s Silly Symphonys are a phenomenally important series of animated shorts in which music is prominently used alongside synchronised images. Walt used the series to experiment with and develop the art of animation, leading to some of the most beautiful moments in the medium’s history, as well as many series which imitated the song based slogan from other cartoon studios, such as Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Happy Harmonies. The first Silly Symphony is still one of the very best. Animated by the legendary Ub Iwerks, The Skeleton Dance goes one step further than the previous year’s Steamboat Willie, flawlessly synchronising sound and music with a full, mesmerising and charming dance routine. Many cartoons of this era chose a morbid or ghoulish theme, often being set in graveyards, castles and haunted houses, but The Skeleton Dance offsets its graveyard setting with a joyous sense of fun which makes the ghoulishness all the more delicious. Another classic landmark from a studio that was building up a head of steam and quickly surpassing the achievements of the animation pioneers who inspired it.
11. THE CAT CONCERTO
Friz Freleng’s Rhapsody Rabbit is a good cartoon that will forever live in the shadow of MGM’s Oscar winning Tom and Jerry short The Cat Concerto. Released the same year and strikingly similar right down to using the same piece of music (Liszt’s second Hungarian Rhapsody), Rhapsody Rabbit and The Cat Concerto caused a battle between Warner Bros. and MGM in which each studio accused the other of plagiarism. Although it was never resolved with any certainty, it seems far more likely that The Cat Concerto came first. The idea of Tom’s concert being sabotaged by Jerry from inside his piano seems perfectly natural but Bugs vs. a completely new mouse character in the same situation reeks of theft! Whatever the true case, The Cat Concerto is clearly the superior cartoon and makes Rhapsody Rabbit seem like a cheap imitation by comparison. I do enjoy Rhapsody Rabbit but more often than not it just makes me yearn to be watching The Cat Concerto. The Cat Concerto itself is a masterpiece of animation and probably the most acclaimed of the masterful Tom and Jerry series, winning the duo their fourth Academy Award. Beautifully marrying music with image, perfect comedy timing with high-culture accompaniment, it’s testament to the continued ambition of Hanna and Barbera for their star players and stands as one of the greatest cartoons of Hollywood animation’s Golden Age.
10. KING-SIZE CANARY
Tex Avery’s King-Size Canary is considered one of the greatest cartoons ever made and one of Avery’s crowning glories. The plot is simple: a chase between a cat, mouse, canary and dog plays out but with each of them drinking from a bottle of Jumbo-Gro plant formula and ballooning in size. What starts as a household battle spreads across the city, then the country and finally the whole globe. The final image is both hilarious and inevitable. King-Size Canary is the perfect example of Avery’s knack for taking a gag to its logical extreme, and here he does that across the course of an entire cartoon, while obviously slotting in many other gags along the way. King-Sized Canary has even been seen as an allegory for the escalating Cold War, although it is enough to appreciate it as one of the most finely crafted cartoon masterpieces of the 40s.
9. FEED THE KITTY
Chuck Jones’s Feed the Kitty is one of the undisputed classics of animation. It runs the gamut of moods from sweet to horrifying, hilarious to tear-jerking. The short made such an impression on director Joe Dante that he regularly pays tribute to it in his full length features. Starring a soft-hearted bulldog named Marc Anthony and a doe-eyed kitten named Pussyfoot, Feed the Kitty forsakes the usual anarchic mayhem of Warner Bros. cartoons for a disarmingly heartwarming tale of one dog’s adoration for a cat. Jones knows better than to revisit the Disney-esque cuteness of his dull early work and neatly sidesteps this by mixing the sweetness with plenty of laughs and an extremely dark sequence in which Marc Anthony thinks Pussyfoot has been chopped up and baked to death! Feed the Kitty subverts the usual setup for cartoons in which a big character causes chaos while trying to catch and eat a little character by making the motive for the chaotic antics the big character’s desire to protect the little character. Marc Anthony goes to extreme lengths to hide Pussyfoot’s presence from the owner he is sure will eject the kitten from the house. In doing so, Marc Anthony undoubtedly steals the cartoon. Cute and accurately kitten-like as Pussyfoot is, he is basically a prop. Marc Anthony, on the other hand, became world famous for his performance in this cartoon by virtue of his plethora of amazing facial expressions.
Much has been made of the facial expressions Jones coaxes out of his characters and Feed the Kitty is the prime example of his genius with a reaction. Marc Anthony snaps instantaneously from ferocious to confused to adoring to desperate to stern to relieved etc. The saggy, bloodshot look of total devastation that he adopts when he believes Pussyfoot has been killed is the most jaw-dropping element of Feed the Kitty. It is so heart-wrenchingly accurate in its depiction of a soul who has lost all hope that it is simultaneously unbearably sad and hilarious in its extremity. It’s unlike any expression you’ve seen in a cartoon before and writer Mike Maltese pushes this grim gag one step further when he has Marc Anthony take the freshly baked effigy of his beloved pet and place it lovingly on his back. Of course, this deeply sad material is also very, very funny because the audience is in on the joke and knows that Pussyfoot is OK and we are rewarded with a happy ending. The cartoon ends on a quiet note instead of the usual crash of an anvil or straight to camera wisecrack, further highlighting what an unusual piece of work Feed the Kitty is. Jones used Marc Anthony and Pussyfoot in several other shorts but never to such incredible effect as in this classic treasure of a film.
8. WHAT’S OPERA DOC?
What’s Opera, Doc? is undoubtedly one of the high points in animation history. An ingenious double parody of both Wagner’s Ring Cycle and the standard Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd cartoon as epitomized by Tex Avery’s A Wild Hare, it’s instantly apparent from the opening moments that What’s Opera, Doc? is an extraordinarily beautiful cartoon. What also becomes quickly apparent is that What’s Opera, Doc? is far less crammed with traditional Warner Bros. gags than the average short. The luscious look and stunning vocal work and music is far more important than gags here and so, instead of joke after joke, we get lengthy operatic routines including the longest and most emotionally charged drag act Bugs has ever done.
It’s all still very funny but What’s Opera, Doc? has so much more to offer. Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan (as Bugs and Elmer respectively) give the performances of their careers, summoning up genuine emotion from their astonishing work. The pair had been working on Bugs and Elmer cartoons for years by this point and had the characters and their relationship down to a tee but they exert themselves even harder here and the result is an explosive chemistry that provides What’s Opera, Doc? with its emotional core. This is key in making the jaw-droppingly tragic ending even more effective as we see the murdered Bugs lying vulnerable beneath a weeping flower. The glorious final wisecrack alleviates some of the sadness but not so much that it spoils the mood. You come away from watching ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ with a real sense of melancholy alongside the invigorating swell of having seen something truly brilliant.
7. MOUSE TROUBLE
Mouse Trouble is my favourite of the many, many masterful Tom & Jerry cartoons. It has an incredibly simple premise in which Tom buys a book to get advice on how to catch Jerry. The result, however, is the most devastatingly funny and unbelievably violent cartoon of the whole series. Most of the Tom and Jerry Oscar winners had some kind of special theme or quirk to mark them out as unusual and Oscar-worthy. Yankee Doodle Mouse had its wartime theme, The Two Mouseketeers and Johann Mouse their high-culture reference points, The Little Orphan its Thanksgiving setting and The Cat Concerto its impeccable musical timing. But Mouse Trouble seemingly won the Oscar just for being the flat-out funniest cartoon of the year, which is as it should be.
Mouse Trouble unfolds in the mould of a spot-gag cartoon but with a more cohesive structure that pulls the whole thing together as more than just a series of jokes. Notable sequences include a scene in which Jerry receives a surprise package which contains Tom, and before opening it he makes triply sure it is safe by inserting several knitting needles and then sawing it in half. Although we don’t see Tom’s reactions (we hear some though), this is one of the most painful scenes of cartoon violence ever drawn, as we feel the knitting needles bend and resist but eventually squish their way in. Also notable is a scene where, having been assured a cornered mouse never fights, a battered and bruised Tom emerges and mournfully intones ‘DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT’. This gag, a reference to a radio show catchphrase of the time, has taken on a life beyond its dated reference point, and remains a disturbingly odd childhood memory for many children of my generation.
If Mouse Trouble occasionally resorts to the odd predictable joke, it always puts a twist on it. In one scene Tom accidentally blasts the hair off his scalp. In any other cartoon the hair would have been back in the next scene but, in one of Mouse Trouble’s most brilliant conceits, Tom wears a bright orange wig for the rest of the runtime. This continuity is extended to another joke in which Tom swallows a talking female-mouse doll and spends the rest of the cartoon intermittently hiccupping and spouting the high-pitched catchphrase ‘Come up and see me sometime’. Mouse Trouble’s final blow is the logical conclusion to such an unforgivingly violent cartoon, as Tom’s final attempt to catch Jerry actually kills him. The final image is of Tom ascending to Heaven, still wearing his wig and hiccupping his catchphrase. To me, Mouse Trouble is the quintessential Tom & Jerry cartoon and I can think of few higher compliments I could bestow upon it.
6. THE GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY
One of the great classics of animation, Bob Clampett’s The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is one of the best cartoons ever made and the perfect starting point for anyone interested in Clampett’s work. Daffy Duck eagerly awaits the arrival of his new Dick Tracy comic but while reading it he accidentally knocks himself out and dreams that he is Duck Twacy, investigating the theft of his piggy bank. Working from a terrific script by Warren Foster, Clampett injects his trademark wild energy and bizarre execution of gags to make The Great Piggy Bank Robbery spellbindingly energetic and unforgettably eerie. The moment when Daffy finds himself face to face with a roomful of oddball villains is a tour de force with astonishing moment after astonishing moment. It culminates in the breathtaking scene in which Daffy machine guns them all to death and they topple towards the camera one by one into a big pile. There are plenty of other incredible moments to look out for, including Daffy being rubbed out, tracking footprints across the ceiling and separating up his own body parts to escape from a huddle of bad guys. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery is almost as much of a one-duck show as Chuck Jones’s Duck Amuck, allowing Daffy to do all the talking as he tracks down and eludes the criminals. Mel Blanc does a wonderful job as Daffy babbles away to the audience.
Although its credited director is Dave Fleischer, Snow-White is widely acknowledged as the masterwork of animator Roland Crandall, who was allowed to animate this jaw-dropping short in its entirety as a reward for his loyal service to Fleischer Studios. Handed this golden opportunity, Crandall excelled himself, creating not only the best Betty Boop cartoon but the best Fleischer cartoon and one of the greatest animated shorts of all time. As the second in the trilogy of Betty Boop cartoons made in collaboration with Cab Calloway, who provides this cartoon’s exceptional musical interlude with his brilliant ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, Snow-White easily distiguishes itself as by far the greatest of those three wonderful shorts. The plot is not much to speak of, starting as a straight retelling of the Snow White story up until the point where the huntsman (or huntsmen in this case, portrayed as they are by Koko and Bimbo) take Snow White into the woods to kill her. At this point Snow-White breaks its leash and takes things in its own direction, with a burst of surreal shapeshifting action and the coolest musical moment in a cartoon ever, as Koko sings and dances to Calloway’s music. It’s extraordinarily imaginative even for a Fleischer short and the fact that Crandall animated it all himself lends Snow-White a consistent focus to counterbalance its anarchic goings-on. A landmark that still hasn’t quite found the acclaim it deserves, Snow-White is undoubtedly one of the greatest animated shorts in this list.
4. THE BAND CONCERT
Mickey Mouse had kept audiences laughing consistently for seven years without having to make the change from black and white to colour. But when that inevitable shift finally came, it happened with a suitably monumental cartoon. The Band Concert is not only Mickey’s greatest cartoon but is recognised as one of the great masterpieces of animation. It packs so much into its nine minutes that it feels almost like a twenty minute special, even as the priceless antics simultaneously make it fly by like a three minute trailer. The premise is simple: Mickey, as conductor, attempts to guide his band through a public performance of ‘The William Tell Overture’. However, there are numerous distractions including a bee, a tornado and a scene-stealing duck!
From this modest premise comes an animation epic. Both hilarious and beautiful, The Band Concert weaves together its threads expertly, thanks to the deft touch of director Wilfred Jackson. At this early stage in his career, Donald Duck was clearly meant for stardom and he upstages his co-stars with a mixture of his trademark impish sense of humour and explosive temper. The music in The Band Concert is ingeniously used throughout, complementing and mirroring the on-screen action (the tornado arrives during the ‘Storm’ segment of the overture). Donald’s attempts to hijack the performance into a rendition of ‘Turkey in the Straw’ draws on the similarities in the two musical pieces to seamlessly shift from one to the other repeatedly. The whole plot and each individual element is so perfectly worked out and executed that the film never hits a bum note even as Mickey struggles to get his band to hit the right ones. The Band Concert is undoubtedly one of the greatest animated films ever made, of whatever length. Steamboat Willie may still be Mickey’s most iconic short but The Band Concert is undoubtedly his greatest.
3. POPEYE THE SAILOR MEETS SINBAD THE SAILOR
The first of three full colour Popeye specials, which ran at three times the length of an average cartoon and received top billing in several cinemas, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is one of the greatest animated shorts of all time. The Popeye shorts were often packed with adventure but the extra running time coupled with the wonderful Technicolor (not to mention the prominent use of the Fleischer 3D Tabletop technique) allowed the Fleischers to create something truly epic, exciting, engaging, beautiful and, of course, funny. Always adept at creating weird and wonderful worlds, the island on which this short takes place is one of the Fleischers’ greatest and most atmospheric creations. As well as exciting action and great comedy (Wimpy has a superb running gag in which he pursues a duck with a meat grinder throughout the whole picture), Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor also features a memorable song in which the self-aggrandising Sindbad declares himself to be ‘the most remarkable, extraordinary fellow’ and which I can still remember singing with my brothers as a child. One of my favourite cartoons of all time, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor is a monumental classic and makes one wonder why the Fleischers never embarked on a full-length Popeye feature.
2. ONE FROGGY EVENING
What is there to say about Chuck Jones’s One Froggy Evening that hasn’t been said already, not just one of the greatest cartoons ever made but one of the best things to ever happen anywhere ever! One Froggy Evening is often called “the Citizen Kane of animated shorts”. That level of artistic worth is not an exaggeration. Everything, absolutely everything, is perfect about One Froggy Evening. For one, the timing is astonishing. Jones tells the story (from a uniquely brilliant script by Michael Maltese, the author of many of the greatest cartoon scripts of all time) completely silent apart from the singing of the frog, who bursts into song at precisely the most hilarious moments possible. Aside from being side-splittingly funny, One Froggy Evening also works on a deeper level as a profound parable about greed. Presented with this wondrous singing frog, the demolition worker’s immediate and only impulse is to use it to make money. To his ever-growing frustration, the frog will only sing in his presence. Despite his obsession with money, the demolition worker is extremely sympathetic and the audience shares in his pain even as they howl with laughter at his misfortune. The cartoon ends with another poor sap about to make the same mistakes, showing that no matter how much we progress as a society, greed is a constant in human beings.
Aside from all this, there’s the wonderful animation and the glorious soundtrack. From the moment the frog leaps out of the box, his back foot slipping a couple of times, he is one of the great animated creations. His ability to snap from spellbindingly charismatic showman to the most uninspiring and ordinary croaker you’ve ever seen is both hilarious and impeccably achieved. The demolition worker, meanwhile, goes through a wonderful range of Chuck Jones’s trademark expressions. The music is great throughout, with a virtuoso performance from singer Bill Roberts who sings a range of classic Tin Pan Alley songs, a snatch of opera and, best of all, a cracking original composition by Chuck Jones and Michael Maltese themselves. Called ‘The Michigan Rag’, the song is not only the best and catchiest in the whole cartoon, it also provided a name for the frog character when, overwhelmed by the popularity of the film and inundated with requests for the character’s name, Jones dubbed him Michigan J. Frog. Despite this popularity, Jones wisely refused to use Michigan in any other cartoons, ensuring One Froggy Evening remains a true one-off and one of the greatest strokes of genius animation has ever seen.
1. DUCK AMUCK
Where to begin with Duck Amuck? I guess I should begin by stating that not only is Daffy Duck my favourite cartoon character of all time but that I genuinely consider him to be one of the greatest comedians of all time, alive, dead or animated. No matter which animator was drawing him, scriptwriter was writing for him or director was directing him, Daffy always elicits a positive reaction from me whether the cartoon in question is decent or not. In the case of Duck Amuck, “decent” is the understatement of the century! It’s a miraculous achievement which I never tire of seeing.
In Duck Amuck, Daffy battles with an unseen animator who deconstructs the film around him. Pencils, brushes and erasers intrude on Daffy’s world, changing the scenery and even the appearance of Daffy himself and Jones also introduces jokes involving sound, colour and camera positions. It’s an incredible premise which expands on earlier experiments with similar concepts like the Fleischer Brother’s ‘Out of the Inkwell’ series. The best part for Daffy fans like myself is that Duck Amuck (until its final few seconds) is an entirely one-personality cartoon. It hinges on Daffy’s beautifully scripted monologue which makes the most of the characters distinctive turn of phrase and manic energy. Only Daffy could pull off a solo cartoon like this (as confirmed by Rabbit Rampage, an unsuccessful attempt to remake Duck Amuck with Bugs Bunny in the central role). There’s plenty to please fans of most Daffy personas here. Although the greedy and selfish side of the little black duck is absent (making him all the more likable and therefore rendering the cartoon even more deliciously sadistic), his prominent ego is apparent from the opening frame and the manic energy of his early incarnation is quickly drawn upon as he becomes more and more frantic about the crumbling of his world. It’s a true tour de force. I don’t think I have ever come across anyone who has a bad word to say about Duck Amuck. It is quite simply one of the most perfect cartoons ever made, perhaps the most perfect. It’s confirmation, if any was needed, of the genius of Chuck Jones and the comedic superiority of Daffy Duck over any of his animated associates.