Tomorrow, August 24th, is the 75th birthday of Andy Panda. How are you going to celebrate?
I am obviously kidding. No one cares about Andy Panda. He now sits in cartoon obscurity next to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Gabby Gator and Dapper Denver Dooley. Yet it is his 75th birthday and we should honor it somehow. The very first Andy Panda cartoon, aptly titled Life Begins for Andy Panda, premiered on August 24th, 1939. It was Hollywood’s greatest year, even if its cartoons may not have lived on with the vigor of its live action triumphs.
That said, three other cartoons that also premiered during the month of August 1939 offer an entertaining snapshot of this particular chapter in the Golden Age of American Animation. This was something of a transitional moment, between what cartoon historian Piotr Borowiec calls the “Disney Realism” and “High Warner” styles. That sounds high-minded and obscure, but it’s just a fancy way of explaining the shift from Disney’s talking animals that obey most of the laws of physics to Tex Avery’s talking animals that don’t. The details are a bit more complicated, which is why it’s more fun and more informative to just watch the cartoons.
First up is Donald’s Penguin, released on August 11th. Directed by Disney regular Jack King, it’s the story of Donald Duck and a newly arrived pet. The critter pops up in the mail, the package reading “From: Admiral Bird, To: Donald Duck, Hollywood, USA.” Right off the bat Donald is anthropomorphized not only as a talking mallard that receives mail, but also as a movie star. The penguin, meanwhile, is a silent and adorable bowling-ball-like creature that bops around and bats its eyes at an increasingly irate Donald. This chilled guest immediately makes his way to the duck’s pet fish, in a bowl by the windowsill. As the penguin perches above them, ready to swallow, Donald snaps into action to defend his helpless friends.
Think about this for a second. A duck is mad at its penguin for trying to eat fish. Moreover, both the penguin and the fish are the duck’s pets. This is the central silliness of Disney Realism. The animation only indulges in abstraction to represent Donald’s rage, kaleidoscopically tripling his limbs as he runs about the room. The penguin waddles in a comic way but it still fits into a pretty standard mold for how its species moves.
Next up is Billy Mouse’s Awkakade, a Terrytoon production that premiered on August 9th. It’s as explicit a parody as you could find among the cartoons of the 1930s, mocking the swimming variety show produced by Billy Rose. He had started it two years earlier at the Great Lakes Exhibition in Cleveland, but it really hit the big time at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. It starred Johnny Weismuller (Tarzan) and Esther Williams, who would conquer Hollywood in the mid-1940s as its leading actress/swimmer.
In the cartoon version, as you might guess, all of the synchronized swimmers are mice. They make circles in a bathtub, bobbing about in the water to sweet music. The brief acknowledgement of the fictional animal as a performer and celebrity in Donald’s Penguin is here taken to new heights, even including a Tarzan gag specifically referencing Weismuller. At the same time, however, some of the more complicated tricks done by the mice in the water begin to approach the abstraction and wacky rule-breaking of the Warner classics of the 1940s.
Last, but certainly not least is the greatest rabbit in American history. Hare-um Scare-um, released on August 12th, is the third appearance of Bugs Bunny and the first time he was colored in gray, rather than white. There’s an anonymous citizen who, infuriated by the rising price of meat, decides to go hunt his own rabbit. But Bugs won’t give in to him and his hound so easily, and begins to torment them in the way that we all know and love.
That said, the character is not yet perfected in this short. If anything the sly bunny comes across as a bit too zany in Hare-um Scare-um, affecting deranged mania more than intelligence. For our purposes, though, the crucial element here are his tactics. They all break down the laws of physics and, occasionally, the fourth wall. Bugs impersonates a doctor first, later a police officer. We hear a siren but do not see an actual police car. It both exists and does not exist. Reality is broken in other ways as well, a movie screen manifesting out of nowhere and a burrow turning into an elevator. This is also the first time that Bugs ever dressed in drag to seduce and confuse a pursuer, putting on an impossibly realistic female dog costume. This is the kernel of that “High Warner” lunacy, the style which would bring Hollywood animation to its peak.