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Dr. Toon: The Last Picture Show

Dr. Toon recounts the life and death of the theatrical animated short.

Packed with gags and memorable characters, these shorts, like Tom & Jerry, were virtually the only exposure to animation.

Many years ago, probably before most of you reading this column were born, movie theaters showed more than previews before the feature film. From the mid 1900s through the early 1970s, theatergoers were presented with a delectable treat to whet their appetites before the first reel: an animated cartoon short. In fact, much of what is considered the "Golden Age" of American animation consisted of these shorts. Seven minutes long and packed with gags, color, (at least after the early 1930s) and memorable characters, these shorts were virtually the only exposure the public had to animation.

There were, of course, no DVDs, satellite TVs, Cartoon Networks, file sharing, bit torrent or anything else available (except for 16mm films that usually broke in the home projector after a few showings). Television showed some old theatrical cartoons during the first years of the 1950s, but only half of all homes contained a TV set in 1955. It's a good thing that they did: That was about the time theatrical animation began to die.

The death of the animated theatrical short was not a pretty story. Fear, unemployment, desperate attempts to latch on with advertising agencies or trying to meet the demands of burgeoning television production schedules awaited those who had spent their entire careers in the seeming safety of a movie studio's animation department. Luckier directors such as Joe Barbera and Bill Hanna were able to prosper on TV by using brutally limited forms of animation, but they were mostly the exception. The biggest losers of the bunch were theater audiences. They went from sprightly cartoons featuring their favorite stars to cheap-looking caricatures before those cartoons faded into history.

This is what the end looked like.

Terminal illness was settling in as early as 1941. One would think otherwise, since theatrical animation was in its halcyon days. In the previous year, Tom and Jerry first appeared, as did Woody Woodpecker. Bugs Bunny became a defined character for the first time. In the realm of feature films, 1940 saw the releases of Pinocchio and Fantasia. Popeye and Mickey Mouse were followed by millions, and it was in 1941 Fleischer studios launched their unforgettable Superman series. Mighty Mouse appeared during the next year. Theatrical cartoons seemed to be at the zenith of their popularity

In the Golden Age of theatrical shorts, were audiences

going to see the feature or Bugs in films like Rabbit

But something far more sinister was occurring at the same time. Starting in 1941 and continuing through animation's terminal phase in 1956, production costs for cartoons increased by 225%, according to animation historian Norman Klein. Rental profits over the same period increased by a comparatively microscopic 15%. One of the first to see the ink lines on the wall was that supreme entrepreneur Walt Disney. With the studio's finances heading in the directions of an astounding new theme park, Disney considered the cost of a theatrical short -- up to $100,000 at his studio -- and realized that a seven-minute cartoon would never recoup its costs. With all due respect to Donald, by 1955, the Disney theatrical short was a dead duck.

That same year at MGM, studio bean counters made an interesting discovery: An already existing cartoon which was reissued (or recycled in these green times) earned something like 90% of what a new cartoon earned when the shekels rolled in at the end of the day. And so, in 1955, MGM actually reissued more cartoons than their animation studio produced. This, of course, meant that MGM could coast on years of completed shorts and no longer needed an animation department.

As animation veteran and studio head Ralph Terry explained, "The cartoon never demanded a price." It was simply sold along with studio features. If, say, a Warner film made in 1955 produced a box office take of $12 million, it was impossible to say how much of that profit was attributable to Rabbit Rampage. It was even possible that more people paid to see Elmer and Bugs than the feature, but how could the studio heads really know?

Some studios hung on by cheapening the animation and cutting every corner possible, but in the end audiences noticed every cost-cutting trick. Walter Lantz was down to working on a budget of $45,000 per cartoon by 1972 and figured that it would take 10 years to recoup the production, print and distribution costs. That was the year that the amicable veteran and pioneer of American animation closed his doors.

The Lantz studio was preceded in death by Paramount Studio (1967), Terrytoons (1968) and Warner Bros. (1969). All suffered the same slow, pitiful decline in quality and sophistication. From the indirect ashes of the Warner studio rose DePatie-Freleng, who soldiered on with the phenomenally successful Pink Panther series as well as some long-forgotten offerings such as The Tiajuana Toads, Roland and Ratfink and The Ant and the Aardvark. But the same fate awaited them as well. DP-F was the final animation studio to produce an original theatrical release, Therapeutic Pink in 1977. For a very long time, it would be the last picture show.

Betty Boop merchandise is a bonanza.

What was really lost? The studio's personnel losses turned out to be television's gain, movies never really did suffer notable box office declines simply because cartoons did not precede them, and animation did not disappear from the culture, either. After all, there used to be newsreels in the theaters before movies and no one misses them today, so what made the loss of the theatrical short such a maudlin subject?

Simply this: Back in the 1930s a song titled What? No Mickey Mouse? was briefly popular; it was a lament about a local theater that was not showing a Mickey short along with the feature. Theatrical cartoons had their own lobby cards, just like the films did, and theatergoers could anticipate that night's communal treat. Animated characters were part of the theater experience, and it was theatergoers, not studio executives, that made them into beloved stars. When an animated short sprang on to the screen, it was a shared experience. Audiences sat together and laughed at their favorite animated stars, characters whose fame and recognition factor ranked alongside the Hollywood stars that also appeared on the screen that night. When Mickey Mouse and Popeye had fan clubs, kids celebrated together in movie theaters that hosted special events for club members.

Today, most cartoons are watched in households and the enjoyment of them is a compartmentalized, rather than communal, experience. Millions of people may know who Porky Pig is, but the majority of them have watched his adventures on television or through excellent DVD compilations such as the Looney Tunes Golden Collection. Much the same can now be said for most of the cartoon characters that starred before 1955. Betty Boop, for example, is a heavily merchandised property but has not been animated in decades; theater audiences have not hooted at Miss Boop-Boop-a-Doop since her flirtatious heyday. Again, if you seek Betty, you will find her on compilations that you can watch in your own living room bereft of a theatergoing community.

Our styles of communication and entertainment have led us down an increasingly lonely path. You can "friend" hundreds of people you will never see, spend endless hours as an avatar or playing computer games solo, groove on YouTube, or watch movies on demand without sitting in a theater. And you can watch the entire manifest of Fleischer Studios' Popeye the Sailor Man without ever purchasing a movie ticket. Cartoons in the theatrical era had audiences; today they have individual fans, many of whom will never meet one another (in person).

The recent Coyote Falls (in 3-D) launches the theatrical short yet again at Warner Bros.

OK, dry your eyes. The animated short is actually making a comeback. Warners first tested the waters in 1987 and 1988 with two Daffy Duck shorts. Bugs Bunny returned to the big screen in 1990 with Box Office Bunny. Pixar and Disney have done audiences a favor by releasing shorts such as Geri's Game, How to Hook Up Your Home Theater(great to see you again, Goofy!), Glago's Guest, Presto with their films. If you have been following this website, you already know that the Road Runner and his eternal nemesis the Coyote will be appearing in three 3-D theatrical shorts before the year is out. Day & Night, which appeared on the same bill as Toy Story 3, is a critical success that left audiences applauding, well, day and night.

The cinematic era of 1920-1950 cannot be recreated, but the atmosphere can be. It is wonderful that those born after 1980 can now experience the laughs and chuckles that erupt from a theater audience when animated appetizers lead the way to an evening's entertainment. The past history of animation is not simply being mined here; rather it is being revitalized for new generations to enjoy. Every major film studio producing animated movies is getting the hint, so welcome back to one of the greatest treats in theatergoing. Ah, the humble cartoon before the feature; it looks like we have yet to see the last picture show.

The theatrical animated short is dead.

Long live the animated theatrical short!

Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.