Dr. Toon: The Last Picture Show
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