If this "what if?" piece, Dr. Toon ponders what it would be like if the vintage kings of cartoons were revived.
Specialists in human biology have recently estimated that the upper limit of our life spans is 118 years (assuming ideal conditions and no intervening circumstances). This impressive span represents one of the longest in the animal kingdom and by all indices; more people are reaching the century mark than ever. In the world of American animation there have been some notable records for longevity as well. This month we will take a look at some of our longest-lived characters and where they stand in the Methuselah derby. Some of the names might surprise you.
Estimating the longevity of an animated character is not without certain difficulties: the two most problematic are continuity and audience recognition. If an animated character is revived after, say, 40 years by some capricious director, can it be reasonably argued that said character has really been around in excess of 40 years? What about the intervening span in which every animator that ever worked on the character has gone to that great Inkwell in the Sky? What about the generation or two of youngsters that have no familiarity with the character and are literally seeing it for the first time? If Bobby Bumps, Old DocYak or reappeared today, could they be considered elder statesmen amongst animated characters?
I would think not. In order for animated characters to be considered for longevity records, it would be imperative that two conditions are met and these are what I believe they should be: One, characters must have been animated in one medium or another (including advertising, cinema, television, or independently) on a more or less continuous basis. No more than 30 years or one generation should pass in which a given character does not appear in animated form. Two, the characters must have sufficient recognition among casual audiences who can readily identify the character from past ads, shorts or films. It's a fair bet that animation historians such as Michael Barrier, John Canemaker or Jerry Beck could recognize the aforementioned Colonel Heeza Liar were he to suddenly be revived; I doubt that the average customer standing in line at the local Starbucks could. However, if that same java junkie was shown a picture of the Pink Panther, Yogi Bear or Felix the Cat, the recognition factor would be near perfect. Popularity is, in many cases, synergistic with longevity.
To put things into perspective, the characters considered in this column are indeed exceptional examples of longevity. When one considers that animation itself is roughly 110 years old, then a 55-year-old character has been around for half of that time. Thirty years is a generous amount of time to allow a character to make a comeback; that's nearly one-third of animation's history. For example, an episode of Tiny Toon Adventures that aired on Nov. 2, 1990 featured the long-forgotten Warner character Honey, best remembered as the girlfriend of Bosko, the studio's first "star." Honey first appeared in 1930, bit the dust in 1933 and disappeared for 57 years between appearances. This obscure and long-dormant character cannot be said to possess a "life span" of sixty years.
The oldest and most famous continuing cartoon character produced in America is Felix the Cat. The feline first appeared in 1919 (although he was not yet named Felix) at Pat Sullivan Studio, and, under the direction of animation legend Otto Messmer, continued on through 1930. After the demise of Sullivan and his studio the character rights to Felix were obtained by the Van Beuren Studio in 1936. Burt Gillett was appointed to direct new theatrical shorts starring the mercurial cat but managed to turn out only three desultory color cartoons.
In 1958 Joe Oriolo (best known as the creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost) obtained the rights to Felix and brought the character to television. This redesigned version of Felix starred in 260 fondly remembered cartoons from 1959-60, and Oriolo's son produced a full-length movie featuring the popular cat in 1985. Ten years later, Felix resurfaced at Film Roman in a new cable TV series. The animators went back to Messmer's rougher, earlier design for the cat and presented surrealistic scenarios that harkened back to Felix' seminal days. The series ended in 1997, but the record is indisputable: Four resurrections, hundreds of cartoons, and 85 years of production for one of the most iconic characters ever created. Felix is truly the grand old cat of the animation community.
Disney's longest-running characters have been saved from exclusion by appearing in bumpers, animated segments of live-action TV shows and periodic revivals. The senior representative amongst them, however, is not Mickey Mouse. The peripatetic patriarch of Disney is Peg-Leg Pete (a.k.a. Bootleg Pete, Putrid Pete, Black Pete and today, simply Pete). This cantankerous villain is famous for facing off against Mickey and Goofy but long before that Pete crossed swords with Julius the Cat and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The first identifiable version of Pete appeared in Alice Solves the Puzzle, one of Walt Disney's Alice Comedies. The year: 1925. At 79 years old, Pete leads the geriatric parade at the House of Mouse.
Mickey is only too glad to concede the title to Pete; The Mick still owns an enviable longevity record of 76 years, as does the ageless Minnie. This makes them the longest-lived pair of mice in the business. Their closest competitors, still being animated within the past 20 years, are somewhat younger: Give a nod to Jerry Mouse (64 years old) and Mighty Mouse (age 62), both closing in on eligibility for social security. In case you may be wondering who trails Felix in the world of cats, Thomas Cat is the same age as his favorite antagonist (see Jerry Mouse). Warner's all-purpose "putty tat" Sylvester coasts the sands of time at 59 years old, and cereal pitch-cat Tony the Tiger is 52 this year. Snagglepuss has been exiting stage right for 45 years. Top Cat is still a youngster at 43 but tops the Pink Panther, who has been slinking through toons for 40 years.
It's a dog's world, some have said, and none have trodden it longer than Disney's Pluto, who is 74 (or 518 in dog years). Goofy, at 71, is in the same cohort. The eponymous bulldog finally known as Spike was a staple at MGM; he was animated for several revivals of series featuring "classic" characters and at age 62 is senior over his better-known colleague Droopy by one year. Scooby-Doo, at 35, is a junior partner by comparison, especially when one notes that Huckleberry Hound just turned 46. Over at Warner Bros., the cuddly codger known as Porky Pig holds the record for years on this mortal coil as he is now 69 years old. Next in line at that hallowed stable of toons is Daffy Duck, still looking young and vain at 67. Bugs Bunny, as we all know, is a stylish 64.
Birds gotta fly. Donald Duck may not, but he has been waddling along for 70 years. Woody Woodpecker, who avoided exclusion by dint of a brief revival, is 64. The too-cute canary called Tweety Pie is a widdle old birdie by most standards at age 62, and his Warner cousin, the Road Runner, is 55. A horse is a horse and Horace Horecollar barely beat out the minimum requirements for continuity; he's alive and well on House of Mouse and is 75. Quick Draw McGraw is no pony at 45. For those who like their zoology a bit more diverse, Clarabelle Cow is a young 76. Yogi Bear turned 46 recently, Alvin Chipmunk and his brethren are also 46, and animation's sole Tasmanian Devil is now half a century old. Everybody needs a hero, and Superman has celebrated 63 years of animated glory. Batman? A spring chicken at 36, and so is everybody's favorite web-slinger, Spider-Man, at 35.
We now come to our acknowledgment of animation's longest continuing, human characters. It would be assumed that Betty Boop would be the queen of animated longevity but sadly, there was an enormous gap between La Boop's last theatrical short in 1939 and her next go-round in 1985, a period of 46 years. Worse still, plans to star Betty in a new series in the 1990s fell through, and she is not being animated at all at this time. Betty can take consolation in knowing that she remains one of the most prodigious licensing properties ever created and that she has never truly been out of the public eye. Had the grand dame of cartoons made the list she would have topped it at 74 years of age. The title passes instead to other stars of the Fleischer studio who ironically made their first appearances in a Betty Boop cartoon.
Popeye the Sailor, Olive Oyl and Bluto all came to life in the 1933 cartoon Popeye the Sailor and the trio is collectively 71 years old. If they are not revived by 2008 through a new series, commercials or films, the mantle will likely pass to one Elmer Fudd, who can be reliably traced back to his incarnation as Egghead in 1937 (A 1938 cartoon actually presents Egghead as "Elmer Fudd" for the first time, even if the definitive version of Elmer appeared in 1940). That makes Mr. Fudd a vewwy venewable 67 years old. Mister Magoo will also need a revival soon (the live-action disaster, of course, does not count), but he's still sitting pretty at 55. Fred Flintstone is in the prime of life at 44, and his space-age counterpart George Jetson is 42. Is Jonny Quest really 40? If elves count as humanoids then Snap, Crackle and Pop are 42 years old, and close kin Lucky Leprechaun is about the same age. So is the genial Cap'n Crunch. If one adds dead people to the list, Casper the Friendly Ghost turns 60 next year.
There's no telling which toons today, if any, will challenge the 30-, 40- or 50-year and beyond mark; many good toons have had very short runs of late. If Scooby-Doo and his gang continue at their present level of popularity, they're a pretty good bet to break the half-century mark, having only 15 years to go. The Simpsons, counting their origins as bumpers, are now 17 years old and should make at least a second decade. The still-popular Rugrats are 13 and still growing on the strength of two films and a new series. SpongeBob SquarePants could go the distance if creator Steve Hillenburg is so inclined, and at this point the Powerpuff Girls could seemingly fly on forever. I suppose we'll find out if we just stay tuned.
This compendium of the longest-lived toons (I suppose I missed a few; I'm sure you'll let me know) may consider toons in terms of years, but it is comforting to remember that our favorite animated characters are, in fact, immortal. Unlike our families, friends, relatives, pets and ultimately ourselves, a cartoon can be reanimated at any time after it's apparent death. All it takes is a solid idea, a dedicated team, a good director, and an appreciative audience. Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi proved this point with their acclaimed revival of Mighty Mouse who was, in truth, a boring character well on his way to extinction after the demise of Terrytoons. Some of the luminaries listed in this month's column will undoubtedly go on to celebrate a centennial anniversary, and on that hallowed date they will be just as beloved as they were a century before. Here's to long life!
Dr. Toon (48) thanks the staff at Animation World Network for the honor of contributing, with this column, to their great magazine for five years. I also thank you, my esteemed and cherished readership, for keeping this column going. I look forward to sharing my thoughts with you over another happy year.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.