Cartoons of the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s
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!
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.
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)
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.
Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse (1928)
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.
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)
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)
Thank you for accessing this piece; I hope you have found what you're looking for!
If you would like to make a comment/request below, please understand that vague memories are hard to target without a time frame (years presented), location, production company/director/vocal talent/cell artist, character name, or any other more specifically identifying feature.
Some cartoons were created by, or released through, local television stations; those animated shorts were not (necessarily) syndicated. It is possible that your local TV stations will have some information in their archives or city histories. Your hometown library and historical societies are good places to start for researching local productions.
Again, thank you so much for your interest -- keep on 'tooning!
Questions & Answers
Can you name a black and white cartoon with the refrain, "I’m happy when I’m sad?”
This was not created in black and white but there was a cartoon short released in 1935 called "The Sunshine Makers." In it, there is a sung line that says "we're happy when we're sad, we're always feeling bad ..." It was an RKO Pictures release in Technicolor. Give it a Google, the clip is online.
Do you know the name of an old cartoon, I think it was black and white, where there was a boy who was trying to shoot some birds with his rifle, and then he does shoot one and feels bad about it?
I regret that I cannot help you with this. I have published your question, though, in the hopes that someone can offer a solution (in the comment section of this piece).
In the early 60's, I remember a rather primitive black and white cartoon with mice or cats fighting and no dialogue, just music. It was on very early. Do you know what that cartoon series was?
I wish I could see the characters in your memory but it may have been a very early production of Tom and Jerry, which began in the 1940s in black & white. The two characters rarely spoke. This series was pretty violent for a kids' cartoon, by today's standards.
What was the name of the cartoon small bird in a nest that would scream loudly and scare Sylvester? It's not Tweety. I think it was red.
Within all the Sylvester & Tweety cartoons, there were a number of outside characters that made appearances. If you are able to track down the name and release date of the episode in which you saw this red bird character, and perhaps its episode number, I'll try to track down some information on the storyline. Not all characters actually had names, however.Helpful 4
My kids and I used to watch a cartoon from the 40’s or 50’s, and it had a rooster singing a song with the lyrics, “two left feet, two left feet, how can you dance with two left feet?” What is the name of this cartoon?
The only cartoon rooster I know of from that era is Warner Bros.' Foghorn Leghorn, who starred in 29 cartoon shorts from 1946 to 1963. I spot-checked a few of them, but you can Google it to read the synopsis of each story; ol' Foghorn was known to sing a line or two in some of them. If what your memory is yielding isn't from a Warner or other large studio production, perhaps your local TV station archives or librarian could help in your search.Helpful 3
© 2014 Teri Silver