(Note: I wrote this for Apatoons; if you don't know what that is, see www.apatoons.com)
So I'm sitting here on a plane headed to Las Vegas, pounding out an Apatoons contribution in time for Bob's deadline. (Why am I headed to Vegas? I have no choice. I've gone every year since 1991 for the Comdex computer show.) With an Apatoons deadline breathing down my back, I'm devoting the six-hour flight (and the six-hour return one) to compiling perhaps the first-ever list of:
The 100 Greatest Things About (American) Animation (In No Particular Order...)
Okay, a confession: I ripped off the idea for this from "The 162 Greatest Things About America," an article in the December issue of Esquire, which I just read. That's okay-it's hardly the first piece of this type, and they probably swiped it from somewhere else. But I've never seen the idea applied to cartoons. And I'm doing this piece for the same reason that Esquire seems to have done its piece: Right now, I'm feeling unsnarky and inclined to celebrate great examples of Americana. And what's more American than animation?
What follows is absolutely nothing like any of the lists of greatest cartoons or greatest animation directors that have appeared in Animato and elsewhere. For starters, this is a list of things-cartoons, people, moments, books, and anything else that I think is worthy of appreciation. As you'll see, this is an idiosyncratic, personal, sometimes (well, often) self-indulgent list. It's really my list of great things in animation, period, but I'd added the "(American)" in deference to those who know more about cartoons than I do.
Still, I make no apologies for the fact that this list is skewed heavily towards my own peculiar point of view. There's lots of stuff on Disney, Warners, Fleischer, and cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s, and almost nothing relating to, say, Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons or independent animation. I get to list Scrappy twice, because, well, it's my list. Yours would be different, I'm sure. That's great. (And I'd enjoy reading it in a future Apatoons-hint, hint.)
Heck, my list would be different if I put it together at a different time. But here it is as it stands in late November, 2001. Here we go:
1. The Country Wolf in Little Rural Riding Hood: "Kissed a cow!" Perfect gag, perfect execution. My father saw this cartoon for the first and only time (as far as I know) in 1972 or thereabouts, and he still quotes it. That's some sort of definition of great comedy.
2. Ko-Ko's Earth Control (1928), perhaps the most perversely grandiose product of the Fleischers' obsession with technology: Koko and Fitz use heavy machinery to determine the fate of the world. Still amazingly dreamlike.
3. Mel Blanc, obviously. As great an animation artist as anyone who ever put pencil to paper.
4. And June Foray, Paul Frees, Daws Butler, and Stan Freberg.
5. Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera spent twenty years making all those nifty Tom and Jerry cartoons before they spent another forty making all those terrible TV shows.
6. The first animated feature ever made remains one of the greatest.
7. Petunia Pig. With or without hair.
8. Tex Avery.
9. Chuck Jones.
10. And Bob Clampett, naturally.
11. Let's not forget Frank Tashlin.
12. Oh, what the heck: Friz Freleng, and Art Davis. And even Robert McKimson at his best.
13. Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties. Everything about it, from the character designs to the voices to the music. The greatest TV cartoon ever.
14. Casper, Herman and Katnip, and Little Audrey. Not the characters or the cartoons - the theme songs.
15. Eric Larson's animation of Peg in Lady and the Tramp. Amazing, underappreciated work that seems better every time I see it.
16. The fact that even though I've seen countless theatrical cartoons from the 1930s and 1940s, there are unquestionably some worthwhile ones I haven't seen yet. I hope you can say the same.
17. Jack Mercer as Popeye. Actually, Jack Mercer is Popeye, as far as I'm concerned. He brought that character to life. Which is doubly amazing given that he didn't originate the voice.
18. "Marge versus the Monorail," the best episode of The Simpsons. Writer Conan O'Brien packed more genuine wit into it than he's displayed in a decade of Late Night episodes.
19. Mike Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons. I'm not sure if it's the best book ever written about animation, but I can't think of any that's superior; I liked it so much I lugged it to Europe to re-read on the plane flights to and fro the continent.
20. Joe Adamson's Tex Avery: King of Cartoons, the first really good book (for grownups) written about animation
21. The Jungle Book, which is patchy, dated, and sometimes irritating-but still the last Disney feature with moments of real greatness, as far as I'm concerned.
22. Unless Pixar films count as Disney movies. And if quality, cleverness, and heart count, they should.
23. The Mickey Mouse watch. Hey, I'm wearing one right now.
24. Bucky. And Pepito. Who set a standard for awfulness that no contemporary TV cartoon has managed to surpass. They were great at what they did, which was being bad.
25. Robin Hood Daffy: More specifically, the animation of Daffy and Porky having a hysterical laughing fit. Was this Ben Washam's work?
26. Just about anything Fred Moore ever drew, really. What a natural.
27. The nightclub scene in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, with Jessica Rabbit's song and Betty Boop's big comeback. The most memorable, well-executed part of a film that really hasn't aged very well.
28. Speaking of Betty Boop: Grim Natwick's 100th birthday party. The fact that he had it, the astounding guest list, his warm and funny speech...everything except for the fact that Charles Solomon made him stop talking, as if he was boring the folks in the audience. More than a decade later, I'm still sorry that I didn't travel 3,000 miles to be there. At least I have a copy on video.
29. Any Mighty Mouse cartoon where they sing opera. And no Mighty Mouse cartoon where they don't.
30. The animated opening titles of Jay Ward and Bill Scott's Fractured Flickers.
31. The animation industry's contributions to print cartooning-Walt Kelly, Gus Arriola, Hank Ketcham, Eldon Dedini, Virgil Partch...
32. Eh, What's Opera, Doc?
33. Almost any cartoon starring Mickey, Donald, and Goofy, but especially Lonesome Ghosts and Clock Cleaners.
34. King-Size Canary. Jay Cocks famously said that Chuck Jones' One Froggy Evening came as close as any cartoon ever has to perfection; Canary is the one cartoon I know that's a plausible counterargument to that verdict.
35. A Bear for Punishment. If it's not on your list of favorite Chuck Jones cartoons, it should be.
36. Floppy, the dog hand puppet who hosted cartoon shows on Des Moines TV for something like thirty years. His deadpan wit brightened many a trip to Iowa when I was a kid. I felt genuine grief I felt when I arrived in Des Moines one year, looking forward to seeing him, only to be told by my aunt that Duane. Floppy's puppeteer, had just dropped dead of a heart attack. (And no, I'm not embarrassed by the fact that I was in college at the time. Well, maybe a little bit.)
37. My vintage Floppy Saver's Club bank. To paraphrase Jean Shepherd, it's the greatest present my sister has ever given me. Or ever will.
38. Pinocchio-the whole damn thing.
39. And more specifically, that tavern scene where the Coachman scares the bejeesus out of Foulfellow and Giddy. Shamus Culhane animated this, I think-and it's my favorite scene in any cartoon feature.
40. Not every Betty Boop cartoon, but a pretty high percentage of them. Even when they're not so great, they're hard to dislike.
41. Let us now praise famous animation fanzines of the 1970s: Without Funnyworld and Mindrot, there might not have been an animation fandom.
42. The Great Piggy Bank Robbery.
43. The wonderful, and in some ways eerie, fact that a lot of Warner Bros. cartoons show absolutely no signs of age. Live-action movies and TV shows of the period are antiques. Even comic books and strips are period pieces. But the Warner cartoons speak to contemporary audiences better than most new stuff does.
44. Maybe I've overloading this list with Warner stuff, but I think that Mel Blanc and Arthur Q. Bryan's performances in What's Opera, Doc? represent the highpoint of the art of cartoon voice acting.
45. Ted Eshbaugh, animation's mystery man and father of Gabby Goat, Cap'n Cub and other enigmas.
46. The Three Caballeros-OK, not the entire movie, but we all know that Ward Kimball's animation of the title song is great. And the live action/animation stuff with Aurora Miranda is Disney at it's most entertainingly weird.
47. The VCR, which made it possible for most cartoon fans to build a library of animation at a reasonable price.
48. Roget Ramjet and his men, fighting for our freedom.
49. Pardon me for being self-indulgent here, but I'm really glad I got to meet Chuck Jones, Bob Clampett, Maurice Noble, Shamus Culhane, Carl Barks, June Foray, Mel Blanc, Bob Givens, Pete Alvarado, Myron Waldman, a third of the Nine Old Men, and other folks whose work will continue to make the world a little brighter long after all of us are gone.
50. Andy Panda in Apple Andy. The greatest cartoon ever made about the perils of stealing fresh fruit.
51. John K., when all is said and done.
52. The Silly Symphony cartoon Woodland Café, the best jazz cartoon ever made by someone whose name wasn't Max, Dave, or Shamus.
53. On the subject of Silly Symphonies: The Three Little Pigs, if only for the reason that I've read so many interviews with distinguished animation artists in which they credit that film with inspiring them to get into the business.
54. Something by Will Vinton from back when he made wonderful independent films, not okay ads. Maybe The Great Cognito. No, The Adventures of Mark Twain.
55. Essential reference works: Jerry and Will's Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies and E.O. Costello's Warner Bros. Companion.
56. One word: Dumbo.
57. Tom and Jerry in The Zoot Cat. No American 100-Greatest list would be complete without something relating to zoot suits.
58. I don't mean to sound Pollyanna-ish, but the fact that the Lantz cartoons are so unavailable in this country means we have something to look forward to: They've got to return to TV or come out on DVD eventually.
59. Can I expand this list to "100 Greatest Things Involving Someone Born in North America" long enough to mention Richard Williams' titles for Casino Royale, What's New Pussycat, and, especially, The Charge of the Light Brigade?
60. The fact that John Lasseter is one of the greatest directors in animation history-and that he's a reasonably young sprat who should be making features for decades to come.
61. Otto Messmer and Felix the Cat. The two of them made a great team.
62. The end of Snow White. And the beginning. And the middle….
63. Cab Calloway, maybe the most important figure in cartoon history who didn't know he was an important figure. (I read his autobiography in junior high school and was shocked to find no mention whatsoever of his Fleischer work.)
64. How can you hate an artform in which a bookkeeper at Terrytoons (Norm Ferguson) went on to invent real character animation at Disney?
65. Duck season! Rabbit season! Duck season!
66. The Ub Iwerks cartoon Pincushion Man-especially the silent, 8mm Castle Films version.
67. The feeling you get when you're watching a humdrum theatrical or TV cartoon and suddenly realize that it's segued into animation by Jim Tyer.
68. Marv Newland's Sing Beast Sing, with animation by Mark Kausler.
69. Not to harp on the joys of Snow White, but did you know that you can buy an excellent copy of the whole thing along with multiple documentaries on its making, scads of original art, the cut sequences, vintage promotional materials, and an episode of the 1930s Mickey Mouse radio show for under $20? One of the great bargains in animation history. Even though that DVD set also includes a video of Barbra Streisand singing "Some Day My Prince Will Come."
70. The Bullwinkle statue-especially the fact that it's still there, quietly presiding over a Sunset Strip that's changed so much since Jay Ward's day. (Just to make sure, I make a pilgrimage almost every time I'm in LA.)
71. Mary Blair's inspirational artwork for Disney cartoons. Others have written more eloquently than I can of the fact that relatively little of her work was ever closely followed on screen...in part because her flat style (everything looks like it's in two-and-a-half-dimensions) didn't particularly lend itself to animation, at least of the classic Disney variety. But her art's sense of color and style is enjoyable all by itself. It inspires me.
72. Two books about great animation written by three great animators: Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston's Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life and Shamus Culhane's Talking Animals and Other People. Both indispensable reads, for entirely different reasons.
73. The fact that Chuck Jones, as a director, started off rather slow and kept getting better for more than a decade-a comforting fact for late bloomers everywhere.
74. Two wonderful works of animated minimalism: Gene Deitch's Tom Terrific and Jay Ward and Alex Anderson's Crusader Rabbit. Both of which remain entertaining despite production values that make Rocky and His Friends look like Sleeping Beauty.
75. The first Merrie Melody, Lady Play Your Mandolin. No, I'm not saying it's a great cartoon. Actually, it's a primitive clone of a Mickey Mouse short (complete with Foxy, who was simply Mickey with square ears and a bushy tail). But I love its music, energy, and good cheer-I get a pick-me-up whenever I see it. So sue me.
76. Tex Avery's The Magical Maestro, an unusual cartoon in that it owes its success as much to a highly imaginative concept as to the execution thereof. (Not that the execution is anything to sneeze at.)
77. The essential online presences of a bunch of Apatooners-honorary, former, and otherwise: Dave Mackey's DaveMackey.com, Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research, Mark Evanier's POV Online, Amid Amidi's Animation Blast, and multiple sites run by Emru Townsend.
78. A splendid Boston independent movie theater of the 1970s and 1980s: Off the Wall, where I saw scads of vintage cartoons for the first time. It's here to represent all the latter-day theaters that have shown cartoons on the big (or even medium-sized) screen.
79. The Fleischer Superman cartoons. An amazing departure for animation of the time. And, if you ask me, both the best superhero cartoons ever made and just about the best rendition of Superman, Clark Kent, and Lois Lane in any medium.
80. While I'm thinking about the Fleischers: Their set-back 3D backgrounds are the greatest gimmick in animation history.
81. Hans Conreid, whether he was voicing Captain Hook, Snidely Whiplash, Uncle Waldo, or anyone else. That voice just radiated intelligence and wit.
82. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, whose balloons are (for me) some of the most satisfying three-dimensional renditions of animated characters that have ever been, Those immense, bulbous, airborne creatures are like figments from a pleasant dream. See the new Life "magabook" America's Parade for a nicely-done tribute to the parade, complete with terrific vintage photos of a lot of balloons I'd never seen-a 1930s Mickey Felix, Mighty Mouse, Popeye, and others.
83. The opening credits to The Bugs Bunny Show with Bugs and Daffy singing "On With the Show" or "This is It" or whatever it's called-before they were traced, cut up, reworked, and otherwise bastardized.
84. Bob Clampett's Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs. Obvious, right? Not for me. For years, the stereotypes left me so uneasy that I couldn't really enjoy this cartoon. They still make me squirm. But I've come to look beyond them to see the film's incredible imagination and exaggeration.
85. Gerald McBoing Boing, a character whom I sure hope is never revived in any form. (I can sort of envision a terrible big-budget live-action film about the character, especially with the Dr. Seuss connection…please don't let Ron Howard see this...it might give him ideas.)
86. Don Graham, the art teacher who clearly had a huge impact on Disney animation in the 1930s. Even now, the bits and pieces of his teachings that I've read make for absorbing reading.
87. Two animated films based on comic strips that were actually animated by the strips' creators: Winsor McCay's Little Nemo and Walt Kelly's We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us. Both are experiments, not fully-realized masterpieces. But it's still tremendously exciting to see strip characters look and move exactly as their artists intended-something that doesn't happen in garden-variety adaptations.
88. Scrappy's Flop House, in which the immortal Scrappy and Oopy cheerfully run a seedy hotel for down-on-their-luck animals. Who knew that the 1930s cartoon world had an underbelly? (Fun fact: I recently had a nice e-mail exchange with Dick Huemer's son, who says that Dick didn't think much of Scrappy.)
89. Okay, two Scrappy cartoons: Let's Ring Doorbells, a film about small boys annoying the hell out their neighbors by ringing doorbells and running away. It's treated as an unspeakable crime, and I can't quite tell if that's for comedic effect or whether that really was considered an outrage in those more innocent times.
90. The music of Carl Stalling (naturally) and Scott Bradley (so when will someone release a CD of his excellent scores?).
91. All those companies that released 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8 home movies of old cartoons,especially Castle Films. And here's to Chilly Willy, who I stubbornly maintain was a nonentity on the big screen and a huge superstar of the home-movie world.
92. David Hall's inspirational paintings for Disney's Alice in Wonderland, as reprinted in several books (most recently in John Canemaker's Before the Animation Begins). Absolutely none of what Hall envisioned ended up in the Disney movie-and that's our loss. I'm a Wonderland purist who thinks that nobody other than John Tenniel should ever draw Wonderland, but I make an exception for Hall, who made that world his own.
93. French author Patrick Brion, whose books on Tex Avery and Tom and Jerry are the most visually sumptuous cartoon books I know of. Why can't Americans come up with tomes that splendiferous?
94. Hunter Mickey Mouse to a wild bear in The Pointer (1939): "I'm Mickey Mouse…You've heard of me...I hope…" It's Mickey at his most real, and Disney animation at its most charming, in all the right ways.
95. Ted Turner's wonderful cartoon channel-Superstation WTBS in the mid-1980s. For months after I got my first VCR, I spent hours taping uncut Warner, MGM, Fleischer, and, yes, Terry cartoons off the station's endless array of cartoon programs; other than during my tour of duty as the world's worst paperboy, it was the only time in my life that I regularly got up at 6:30….
96. The unforgettable animation of Rod Scribner.
97. One Froggy Evening. I mentioned that my father saw Little Rural Riding Hood once and never forgot it; he's seen One Froggy Evening countless times...because everyone else in the family had a standing request to rouse him out of bed whenever it appeared on SatAM TV.
98. Roughly half of Fantasia, although the exact half I like seems to vary each time I see the movie. Would you laugh at me if I confessed that I usually get choked up during "Ave Maria" at the end?
99. The World Wide Web and Macromedia's Flash; together, they let any animator produce fairly ambitious cartoons for a song, then distribute them around the world for a few pennies more. Not that any true Flash masterpieces have appeared yet, but the potential is huge.
100. Why, Apatoons, of course.