The universe is weirdly holistic, isn’t it? I mainly knew of the writer/filmmaker Andrew T. Smith through Summer Winos, a blog he co-runs with Bob Fischer where they review episodes of classic Britcom Last of the Summer Wine. It’s an excellent blog that discusses the episodes in-depth, features interviews with some of the show’s surviving cast and crew, and even got turned into a stage show and expanded book in the last few years.
And then, while browsing around the blog’s Twitter account, I found it promoting a documentary directed and edited by Smith on the history of silent animation called Cartoon Carnival. I’ve read up on a decent bit of the early years of animation, including Peter Lord & Brian Sibley’s Cracking Animation, Donald Crafton’s Before Mickey, and the first volume of Animation: A World History by the late Giannalberto Bendazzi, so seeing this guy I knew mainly for Summer Wine also having made a documentary on animation was a pleasant surprise.
I stumbled across it on the Sky Arts channel one afternoon, so I ended up watching it, and now I’m going to attempt an old-fashioned review discussing it. I want to give the project more spotlight as I enjoyed it a good deal, and it’ll give me something I can confidently write about. As Pat Benatar once sang, let’s get down to it.
Cartoon Carnival is a documentary that lasts 85 minutes and gives a fairly solid rundown of American animation from the 1900s to the late 1920s, starting with the basic concepts that resulted in animation and film such as the “persistence of vision” illusion, and going all the way to the first sound cartoons that heralded the end of the silent era. There’s also segments discussing the very early history of stop-motion animation, and how silent animation has lived on to the modern day through collectors and local screenings such as the Cartoon Carnival for which the documentary is named, hosted by film collector Tommy José Stathes.
It’s a well-researched documentary, with plenty of people interviewed to provide context, anecdotes and insights on the early days of the medium. As well as interviewing Stathes, we also hear from animation historians such as John Canemaker, Howard Beckerman, Jerry Beck and Thad Komorowski, along with the likes of Aardman’s Peter Lord, cartoonist Mark Newgarden, and producer/director J.J. Sedelmaier.
Much of what’s discussed lines up with what I’ve read over the years, and there’s plenty I hadn’t heard before but fits right in (which is due to my own lack of knowledge in those areas). Before Mickey briefly discusses various ways that animators tried to deal with creating backgrounds that didn’t need to be redrawn, and the idea of placing background layers over the character drawings is very much in that same realm of “understandable concept but sounds like a pain to implement”.
There’s also plenty of time given towards showing clips of the many cartoons discussed, letting them speak for themselves and giving a nice interlude between the usual discussions and interviews. Seeing the various shorts that featured animated characters interacting with live-action backgrounds or actors was a treat, and the Felix the Cat clips in particular had me laughing and grinning like an idiot. I really need to see those.
Overall, I’d say that the documentary mostly works very well as a piece that can be of interest for cartoon enthusiasts, your average viewer, and everyone else in between. That also applies to the presentation; Smith employs a colouring filter for the live-action segments that causes them to resemble the 2-color subtractive Technicolor often seen in the 1930s, where anything not in black and white is shown in shades of green and red. It’s a visually memorable way of presenting things in a way that ties back to older cartoons (though it must’ve made the whole thing weird to watch if you have some form of colour blindness).
CORRECTION: I originally wrote that 2-color subtractice Technicolor was invented after the era discussed in the documentary, but the director Andrew T. Smith pointed out to me that the first feature film to utilize it, “The Toll of the Sea” was released in 1922. You learn something new every day.
There’s also some neat edits or original animations used to demonstrate certain concepts, like displaying how in-betweens work or showing how various short films were rediscovered around the world. One area I’m not so fond of is the music. Most of it is royalty-free stock music downloaded from Kevin Macleod’s website, as he specializes in creating music that people can freely use in their works without paying royalties. This has resulted in his music appearing in countless films and particularly YouTube videos, and that unfortunately affects how I perceive this film. While the music is appropriately used (particularly for the segments where they play alongside Winsor Mccay’s short films), I’m too familiar with some of these pieces and I get pulled out of the experience because I keep getting reminded of goofy cat video compilations or generic YouTube reviews. It’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just something that happens.
Earlier on, I said the Cartoon Carnival “mostly” works very well, and that’s because there are a couple of weird spots that pulled me out of it. The structure flows quite smoothly between its various subjects: the dawn of animation, the earliest known films from the likes of J. Stuart Blackton and Émile Cohl, the burgeoning New York cartoon industry kickstarted by J.R. Bray, showcases of Paul Terry/Walter Lantz/Max Fleischer, the combination of animation and live-action, cartoon’s first big star with Felix the Cat, and the build-up to Walt Disney’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey Mouse.
Except that in the middle of all that, the documentary introduces a segment on stop-motion animation. I do think it’s good to discuss the early days of American stop-motion cartoons, as I ended up learning about plenty of shorts I’d never heard of, but I think it interrupts the flow a bit too much that it feels random when we go right back to discussing traditional animation. There’s definitely a place to discuss early stop-motion cartoons, and I think that the topic deserves its own documentary rather than as a brief segment here.
Another brief bit of weirdness is that at the very end of one of the segments, a few seconds is shown of 1929’s Bosko, the Talk-Ink Kid along with a pair of on-screen captions discussing how Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising (who had been mentioned minutes before, working at Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams) went to Warner Brothers and created the first Looney Tunes character. It feels very slapdash compared to the rest of the documentary, which doesn’t do anything like this.
I think this is because the documentary’s focus on silent era animation made it impossible to really discuss the likes of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, which famously began as a visually interesting way for Warner Brothers to promote their back catalogue of music. I can’t help but get the impression that Smith felt he had to bring up Warner Brothers because of their lasting impact on animation in later years, but couldn’t reconcile the fact that the era he was tackling had nothing to do with them.
Before I sign off, I wanted to reflect on something that maybe wasn’t intended, but I ended up feeling. It’s discussed that J.R. Bray, having shown his cartoon Dream of an Artist to Charles Pathé and being contracted to make one cartoon of similar quality every two months, essentially had to industrialize the process of animation in order to get shorts out. He and Earl Hurd developed and patented many processes to efficiently making cartoons, and they (along with Margaret Bray) essentially forced other animators through these patents into joining up with them or being sued.
I’d often read about Winsor Mccay’s own disillusionment with where animation had gone in just a few years, something that is also discussed here with him lamenting how animation had been turned into “a craft” – a business, or a trade. But it was while watching this documentary that it finally dawned on me how animation went from being perceived as a medium of experimentation and expression, to just another way to make money. Make patents, make loads of cartoons, no matter how garbage or unsustainable it may be.
That, combined with the dismissive attitude towards these old cartoons that sometimes had their nitrate copies dumped into the sea(!), got to me. Yes, I’m aware that these are byproducts of living in a capitalist economic system where personal and professional success is defined by making truly stupid amounts of money, and these byproducts affect animation as a medium just as much now as it did back then. But it still stings, maybe in a way that wasn’t intended because the documentary only observes these facts in a detached manner.
It’s a bit of a bummer to end the article on, I admit. Though I do think that it does speak to the overall quality of this documentary, as it got me thinking about this and other aspects of the early days of the medium in ways I’d never previously considered. Whether in the specifics of its history, discovering certain cartoons, or hearing what people have to say about them, there’s plenty to learn here. If you have the time and you’re able to watch Cartoon Carnival, I’d happily recommend you give it a bash.
Special thanks to Nobaddy for providing feedback on the article.
Screenshots obtained from the documentary’s page on Century 21 Films, where you can also buy it on DVD and Blu-Ray: https://century21films.bigcartel.com/product/cartoon-carnival-dvd and https://century21films.bigcartel.com/product/cartoon-carnival-bluray
FrDougal9000 writes for hardcoregaming101.net as Apollo Chungus. When he isn’t writing about video games, he is cultivating his love of animation that’s only increased over the last few years as he’s explored the wide, weird and wonderful world of the medium.