Already a dwindling rarity by the time of your hoary historian’s youth, animated cartoon shorts were a fixture of movie theatres for decades, flourishing from the 1920s into the 1950s until animation production started skewing cheaper, quicker and more TV-centric.
While proliferating cut-rate animation may have helped kill off theatrical cartoons, TV reruns of theatrical shorts also helped secure lucrative afterlives for animated cartoon stars from producers such as Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny and the rest of Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies gang) and Walt Disney (Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and so on).
Partly because of the money in TV (and later in home video as well), the various corporate owners of these old theatrical cartoons often renewed their copyrights—but some have slipped through the cracks. This month we’re looking at notable public domain cartoon shorts, with an emphasis on spooky stuff as Halloween draws nigh.
Dozens of early Warner Brothers shorts have fallen into the public domain, including The Haunted Mouse (1941): a hungry cat wanders into an old ghost town where a spectral mouse torments him for kicks. Atmospheric hijinks with a dark twist ending, this basic but fun short marked the debut of writer Michael Maltese, whose many later credits included eerie oddball classics like The Wearing of the Grin and Water, Water Every Hare.
One of the superstars of public domain animation is Superman. A multimedia goldmine since his 1938 debut in Action Comics #1, Superman has starred in countless comics, movies, TV shows and more over the decades, most of it firmly under copyright—but not the theatrical animated shorts produced by Fleischer Studios (and its successor Famous Studios) in 1941-1943.
These 17 Superman shorts are simplistic in terms of story and characterization, and often culturally outdated (the Famous-produced Japoteurs, Eleventh Hour and Jungle Drums are indefensibly racist). As eye candy, Fleischer’s lavishly budgeted, beautifully crafted Superman shorts are some of the best-looking, most dynamic action cartoons ever made, most of them still quite watchable, including Halloween-friendly entries Terror on the Midway and The Mummy Strikes.
The series’ retro-futuristic art deco design sensibility and its unique blend of flamboyant spectacle and shadowy chiaroscuro was a huge influence on later action animation, such as Warner’s 1990s classic Batman: the Animated Series and its assorted spinoffs; and having slipped into the public domain decades ago, the Fleischer Superman shorts are a staple of indie cartoon compilations (Bosko Video’s package being among the best).
Walt Disney has long fought to keep its aging film library’s rights locked up, even lobbying successfully to water down US public domain laws, but a few Disney shorts have stumbled into the public domain over time. One of the best is a Mickey Mouse short, The Mad Doctor (1933), in which the titular evil scientist kidnaps Mickey’s dog Pluto and plots to convert him into a hybrid canine-chicken abomination.
Spooky, funny and technically elaborate, with its richly detailed castle lair and its sadistic villain’s pre-Harryhausen army of reanimated skeletons, The Mad Doctor is a perceptive funhouse mirror reflection of 1930s horror movies and might be Mickey’s scariest short, which is probably part of how it ended up in the public domain. While it’s fairly tame by modern standards, The Mad Doctor was dark enough to be banned from UK and German theatres, and was later long buried by Disney—though the short has recently enjoyed a renaissance of sorts as source material for the Epic Mickey video games.