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Cartoons of the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s

Updated on April 19, 2016
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Teri Silver is a journalist as well as a commercial copy writer, editor, broadcast anchor, and Public Relations Specialist.

Popeye the Sailor Man!
Popeye the Sailor Man!

Oh, those Saturday mornings when we couldn’t wait to get out of bed and turn on the television -- it was cartoon time! But before televisions became a part of American life, cartoons were shown to audiences in movie theaters. Remember all of the cartoons you loved as a kid? Let’s take a trip back in time for a look at some great old cartoon memories!

Eadweard Muybridge's Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing; 1893. The spinning disk reflecting in a mirror shows the images moving.
Eadweard Muybridge's Phenakistoscope: A Couple Waltzing; 1893. The spinning disk reflecting in a mirror shows the images moving. | Source

Early Animation Inventions

Although optical toys can be traced back to the 17th century, many animation inventions came about in the 1800s, including the Taumatrope (1826); a spinning disc with different images on each side, suspended and pulled between two twisted strings) and the Phenakistoscope (1832); a series of still drawings on a disc moving against another disc with holes in it. The viewer saw moving figures, much like an old-fashioned “flip book.” The Zoetrope (1867) and the Praxinoscope (1878) were among other animated-picture machines that cropped up through the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1891, famed inventor Thomas Alva Edison introduced the Kinetoscope, essentially a lighted box containing photographs that spun quickly on a reel. In 1895, the Cinematograph, a sort of camera-projector, was patented by Louis and Auguste Lumiére.

Felix the Cat
Felix the Cat

Before There Was Dialogue: Silent, Music-Dubbed and Live Action Cartoons

Several short clips are credited with being “firsts” in the world of animation:

Fantasmagorie (Émile Cohl, 1908), Little Nemo (Winsor McCay, 1911), Gertie the Dinosaur (Winsor McCay, 1914), Bobby Bumps and the Stork (Earl Hurd/Bray Studios, 1916), Krazy Kat (George Herriman, 1916) and Koko the Clown (Max Fleischer, 1917).

Felix the Cat, the first character-driven series of animated cartoons, began as Feline Follies in 1919 -- becoming very popular during the 1920s. Although many were later created in color, the Felix cartoons faltered financially in the 1930s, partly because of poor economic times but also because of legal issues over ownership rights. Felix the Cat cartoons later “found their voice,” and were brought back to movie theatres in the mid 1930s. The cartoons were aired on television, starting in 1953.

Let There Be Sound

Dialogue! The year 1927 changed everything in film production -- synchronized sound was featured in movies with the first live-action “talkie” picture, The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. Because synchronized sound for motion pictures was a hit with movie-going audiences, film producers had to create voice-movies in order to stay competitive. The silent-film era was over. Sound was here to stay, and cartoon animation followed the trend.

Trolley Troubles, starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (1927)

Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse (1928)

Walt Disney Productions

Before there was a Walt Disney Productions company, there were two animators working on a series of projects. Walt Disney and his animator partner, Ub Iwerks, created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. Disney and Iwerks signed a contract to distribute Oswald through Universal Pictures, but the first cartoon, Poor Papa, was rejected because of poor quality. Disney and Iwerks then created Trolley Troubles, which became very popular.

In 1928, Disney wanted more money for the Oswald cartoons, but Universal’s Charles Mintz wanted to decrease the feature’s budget. He put Disney’s animators on contract and gave Walt Disney an “either or else” ultimatum. Because Universal Pictures, not Walt Disney, owned the Oswald series, Disney and Iwerks walked away. They finished their contractual obligations on Oswald and began creating the cartoon that would become Mickey Mouse. In May of 1928, Walt Disney Productions produced what was originally a silent short called Plane Crazy, featuring Mickey Mouse.

Steamboat Willie, also featuring Mickey Mouse and considered to be Disney’s first animated sound cartoon, was released in 1928. Plane Crazy was reintroduced in 1929. The Disney company, with a sound-synchronization process called Cinephone, produced a number of sound cartoon shorts in the 1930s, most of them featuring Mickey Mouse. Along with sound came the ability to create animation in color through a process known as Technicolor. Many colorful Disney cartoons came along in the 1930s, including the popular The Three Little Pigs in 1933.

Disney Feature-Length Animation

In the 1930s, Walt Disney Studios also began creating feature-length animation; releasing Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. During the next decade, Walt Disney produced Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942). After the end of World War II, Disney released Song of the South (1946) -- this film combined live-action with animation. The Disney version of the classic Cinderella came out in 1950, followed by Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959).

Looney Melodies and Merrie Tunes. No, Wait, It’s …

Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. In the beginning, Warner Bros. Studios, with Bosko as the main character in this animated short, released Sinkin’ in the Bathtub (1930). (Bosko, created by Leon Schlesinger Productions, was drawn as a human-animal type character with minstrel-like features). Bosko would star in 39 Looney Tunes (also spelled as Looney Toons) segments. When the creators of Bosko left the company, Warner Bros. hired animator Isadore “Friz” Freleng -- the man later credited for bringing that “wascally wabbit” Bugs Bunny to life. From 1931 through 1969, Merrie Melodies (featuring Bugs and his friends) included musical soundtracks to better promote the cartoons. Along with Bugs Bunny, Warner Bros. cartoons within the “Golden Age of Animation” featured the characters of Porky Pig, the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote, Daffy Duck, Pepé Le Pew, Elmer Fudd, Tweety Bird and Sylvester, Yosemite Sam, Foghorn Leghorn and many other favorites.

Pantry Panic starring Woody Woodpecker (1941)

Walter Lantz Cartoons

Walter Lantz Productions created a few popular characters but perhaps none so much as Woody Woodpecker, which was introduced in Andy Panda’s cartoon called Knock Knock.

Several artists recorded Woody Woodpecker’s voice tracks, including: Mel Blanc (speaking: 1940 - 1941; trademark laugh: 1940 - 1949; "Guess Who" line: 1940 - 1972); Ben Hardaway (speaking: 1941 - 1949); Danny Webb (speaking 1941 - 1942); Kent Rogers (speaking: 1942 - 1944) and Grace Stafford (Also Known As Mrs. Walter Lantz) (speaking: 1950 - 1972, 1990).

Chilly Willy (penguin) and Homer Chicken are also among the popular cartoon characters created by Walter Lantz productions.

In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree: Screen Song (1929)

Inkwell Studios/Fleischer Studios/Famous Studios

Founded in 1921 as Inkwell Studios, brothers Max and Dave Fleischer renamed the company Fleischer Studios before introducing what is considered by some historians to be the first synchronized-sound cartoon in the late 1920s; a short animated feature called My Old Kentucky Home. The company also produced a series of silent-era shorts including Out of the Inkwell, which featured Max Fleischer’s invention called the Rotoscope (a device which projected film through an easel and glass plane drawing board). The film projection image was traced on paper with new drawings that advanced with the film’s frames. During the 1920s, the Fleischer brothers developed a series of short animations called Car-Tunes, using the Bouncing Ball to lead theater audiences in sing-alongs. During the 1930 and 1940s, Fleischer Studios is credited with bringing Betty Boop, Popeye the Sailor, Superman and Koko the Clown to movie houses’ big screens.

Other Saturday Morning (live action) Favorites

  • The Banana Splits (Hanna-Barbera, 1968)
  • The Bugaloos (Krofft, 1970)
  • Gumby and Pokey (Clokey Productions, 1953)
  • H.R. PufnStuf (Krofft, 1969)
  • Here Come the Double Deckers (Booth/Jones, 1971)
  • Land of the Lost (Krofft, 1974)
  • Lidsville (Krofft, 1971)
  • Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (Krofft, 1973)

Heckle and Jeckle: The Intruders (1947)

More Great Old Cartoons of the 1930s, 1940s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

  • Alvin and the Chipmunks (Bagdasarian/Format Films, 1961)
  • Aqua Man (Filmation, 1968)
  • The Archie Show (Filmation, 1968)
  • Astro Boy (Tezuka, 1952)
  • Casper the Friendly Ghost (Reit-Oriolo/Famous Studios, 1939)
  • Deputy Dawg (Terrytoons, 1962)
  • Droopy (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943)
  • Fat Albert (Cosby/Filmation, 1972)
  • The Fantastic Four (Hanna-Barbera, 1967)
  • The Flintstones (Hanna-Barbera, 1960)
  • Flip the Frog (Celebrity Pictures/Metro Goldwyn-Mayer, 1930)
  • George of the Jungle (Ward/Scott, 1967)
  • Gulliver’s Travels (Fleischer Studios/Paramount, 1939)
  • Heckle and Jeckle (Terrytoons/20th Century Fox, 1946)
  • Huckleberry Hound (Hanna-Barbera, 1957)
  • The Jetsons (Hanna-Barbera, 1962)
  • Magilla Gorilla (Hanna-Barbera, 1963)
  • Mighty Mouse (Terrytoons,1942)
  • MotorMouse & AutoCat (Hanna-Barbera, 1970)
  • Mr. Magoo (United Productions of America, 1949)
  • Quick Draw McGraw and Baba Looey (Hanna-Barbera, 1959)
  • The Pink Panther (DFE Films, 1964)
  • Rocky & Bullwinkle and Friends (Ward/Anderson/Scott, 1959)
  • Roger Ramjet (Pantomime Pictures, 1965)
  • Ruff & Reddy (Hanna-Barbera, 1957)
  • Snagglepuss (Hanna-Barbera, 1959)
  • Scooby Doo (Hanna-Barbera, 1969)
  • Space Ghost (Hanna-Barbera, 1966)
  • Speed Racer (Trans-Lux, 1967)
  • Super President (DePatie-Freleng, 1967)
  • Tennessee Tuxedo & Chumley (Total Television/Leonardo Television Productions, 1963)
  • Tom and Jerry (Hanna-Barbera/MGM, 1940)
  • Top Cat (Hanna-Barbera, 1961)
  • Underdog (Biggers/Stover/Harris/Covington, 1964)
  • Yogi Bear and Boo Boo (Hanna-Barbera, 1958)

© 2014 Teri Silver

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    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 7 days ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi, Sue, thank you for your comment. I cannot accommodate this memory but perhaps one of our readers has seen this cartoon?

    • profile image

      Sue 10 days ago

      I am trying to find an old cartoon that had characters that were like fireballs, but animated as if human. I don't know how old but I watched as kid in late 60s and early 70s, thinking it just had music, no voices, and these Fire characters were unique to me... not sure if originally in color or not.

    • profile image

      Ellis 4 weeks ago

      Do you have any information about a black and white cartoon featuring two wristwatches? One is a Doctor's watch and the other is an Acrobat's watch. I would have seen the airing of this in the mid 60's on, but I am uncertain of the creator of the dating of the cartoon.

    • profile image

      Matt from Ohio. 3 months ago

      I'm now 50. The majority of my Saturday tv watching was in the 1970s. The depth and variety (literally) back then was amazing as I think about it. Race cars, sleuths, a variety of live action shows. Superheroes. You name it. Martial arts. People who flew in bird clothes. Some prescient shows about future technologies. A little bit of everything. Someone who went from being a kid to an adult and back again.

    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 4 months ago from The Buckeye State

      I can't think of it at the moment, but I have a memory of something like that too, and now it's "buzzing" around in my head. Readers, can you help us out here?

    • profile image

      gottaloveme 4 months ago

      I got a picture in my head of an old cartoon character who has flies in and out of his mouth when he speaks. Does anyone have a recollection of this? Can you help me get this out of my head?

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      christy2741 6 months ago

      Awesome article! Lots of good information I never knew. Thanks for sharing!

    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 9 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi JD... I did some checking but could not come up with anything under that character name. Records kept on many old shows are kind of scarce (and many shows were locally produced). I suggest you contact the station(s) you heard or watched the shows on (if they are still in business). They may have something in their archived files.

    • profile image

      TeriSilver 9 months ago

      Hi, JD, I've done some searching but nothing is coming up, sorry. If it was locally produced, you might want to ask the station you saw it on, there may be something in their archives. (But local stations are hit or miss as to whether they've archived everything in those earlier eras, and many have undergone management and location changes, too).

    • profile image

      JD 9 months ago

      Hi Teri, about 1955, there was a cartoon shop either on radio or tv, where one of the characters was always calling the older character "Cap'n Fatty". Any ideas?

    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 10 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi, Chris, I wrote a long post with some info, but the post did not publish -- I cannot recreate it. I do not know if the info is what you're looking for, or can help in any way, but, unfortunately, there was nothing specific as to what you've described here. You might want to research Schlesinger; Leon Schlesinger studios eventually became Warner Bros, later, in the early '30s. There is also an animated page on a Berkley (edu) library website. Good luck in your search!

      t

    • profile image

      TeriSilver 10 months ago

      Hi, Chris, although I can't say what you're looking for is in the following link (I didn't have a chance to look through it) but I found this page from the Berkeley library to be interesting in the amounts of information it has on animated films and shorts.

      www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/embedtest.html.

      Also, this page: http://www.esnarf.com/4420k.htm (do the pieces you have look like this?) Perhaps the page owner has more info on them, *you can find the link to the left of the page at the bottom). It seems, though, that these pieces would have been manufactured later than the 1920s.

      I can't say if there is a connection but Leon Schlesinger (Leon Schlesinger Studios -- it became the beginning of Warner Bros. in the early 1930s) may be a starting point for your research.

      t

    • profile image

      Chris 10 months ago

      Teri, I have a question you might be able to help with. I recently purchased a series of small scrolls that include Tarzan, Little Red Riding Hood, and other popular stories. They were produced by Schelsinger NY in the 20s but no one know what they are. They are about 6 inches long and unroll to reveal the cartoon. Any ideas? Thanks!

    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 14 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Hi, Ed, I cannot say that I know exactly which show you mean but there was a piece called “Space Patrol” produced in the early 1950s (through around 1955) that focused on “future solar system security in the year 3000 A.D.” The story line centered around a planet called Terra. In this live action program, the Space Patrol, with Commander Buzz Cory and his crew, fight against space criminals that somehow threaten the solar system. This program was originally produced at about 15 minutes long, and aired in the Los Angeles market on a local station until ABC picked it up in syndication (from 1950-1955). After it went into to syndication, it probably did show in the Chicago area. I think there were about 800 episodes; my guess is viewers saw a lot of “good vs evil” in outer space-land. Ring a bell?

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      Ed 14 months ago

      Does anybody know the name of a cartoon show about good space people battling bad space people. It was on Chicago TV during the late fifties. There may have been a character named Black or Dark something. he may have had a hood.

    • TeriSilver profile image
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      Teri Silver 14 months ago from The Buckeye State

      Carlos, that rings a bell for me, too. Heckle and Jeckle always had those mischievous grins.

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      mike 15 months ago

      Hi does anyone know of a character cartoon that was kinda bad memory forgive me, he had like a black mask not zorro but he was a devilish guy hiding in the shadows little with a top hat.

    • profile image

      Teri Silver 15 months ago

      I have a vague "it strikes a note" feeling I've seen what you're talking about, but it would have been many, many years ago. I could not find anything that it could be from, but I'm wondering if this clip was part of an educational program that was produced for classroom use. Sorry I could not be of any help. t

    • profile image

      Momofthree 15 months ago

      I am trying to find a cartoon that I saw as a kid that was probably made in the 1940s- it was in color about the industrial progress in the US. I just remember it had a narrator and he talked about the development of super highways and the cartoon showed the highways being poured like batter. Anyone else remember this and where I can find it?

    • sparksfiend profile image

      sparksfiend 21 months ago

      Let's not forget the shot-lived Scooby Doo rip-off, The Funky Phantom.

    • Milkcananime profile image

      Max Wong 2 years ago from Singapore

      God I miss Popeye The Sailorman!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i love all of them, too bad, can't see these cartoons anymore, these are far better than now

    • TeriSilver profile image
      Author

      Teri Silver 3 years ago from The Buckeye State

      Thank YOU! I am always pleased when "Kids" like you read and enjoy these little flashes of history. You can find a lot of these great old cartoons online. Remember, though, times have changed since they were produced so don't be surprised if some seem truly outdated, based on what people's attitudes were at the time. Social conscience was very different. Thanks again, keep on "tuning!"

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      Poppy Reid 3 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      Great article! I was born in 1993 so I don't recognise most of these, but I remember watching the Looney Tunes cartoons, Popeye and Tom and Jerry as a kid on the Boomerang channel! Thank you for that interesting journey through time :)