Ark Shadows

Are thirties cartoons strange because the sensibilities attracted to motion picture cartooning at that time were inherently odd people, or because the years have aged the films in unexpected ways, or because the medium was still in its relative infancy and so rampant experimentation predominated, or something else, or some combination of all three.

At the Fleischer Bros studio, we seem to have a peculiar worldview that’s beautiful to watch (as long as they stayed with shorts: GULLIVER’S TRAVELS and HOPPITY GOES TO TOWN exhibit a very different manner), whereas the lesser studios, it seems to me, often produced work that’s bizarre but doesn’t seem to WORK.

Witness Terrytoons’ jug-band rendition of the deluge, purportedly as Aesop’s Fable according to some title cards, while others (the film has been released with various hot-spliced main titles over the decades since its manufacture) don’t bother with this band-aid alibi and leave the blasphemy to stand on its own merits.

I don’t think the Old Testament mentions anything about a mouse playing a toenail xylophone, so the picture gets off to a flagrantly apocryphal start. Noah’s modern dress overalls suggest this is an updating of the apocalypse, something like TAKE SHELTER.

Then we get a plotless stretch of musical farm animals which is disturbing in a classic early thirties way, especially the la-la-la cow who ought to be rendered into sirloin ASAP to preserve sanity. So things are already a bit upsetting before the single black storm cloud starts a storm that engulfs the entire planet. The giraffe with windows in his neck, and down his right leg, is an unwelcome invention also. Co-star him with the Frankenstein monster from VAN HELSING, the only other character I can think of with windows in him, so I can avoid both at the same time.


Mouse seems to be riding a toy horse, it has puppet-like joints on its legs and is too small to be a real horse, but then it gets struck by lightning and becomes a skeleton. What. And then it gets chopped in half but keeps running, like Baron Munchausen’s steed. (Terry Gilliam had to leave this passage from the novel unfilmed, due to budget problems on THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN: “I cut the thing that made me want to do the movie in the first place.”)

Various equally appalling gags show more exotic animals boarding the ark two by two. Toons of this vintage often have a nice/scary quality of BLACK GLOW, where the ink-lines are somehow underexposed or badly duped, resulting in an antimatter aura of darkness bleeding from the dark figures. This one is kind of washed out, but the lightning bolts are interesting: they’re so over-exposed they just look like some kind of print damage or error, blinding fluctuations in the brightness.

But the ending is the thing that makes this one worthwhile. You should really watch it before reading further, but I do want to write it down so I can see the words in cold black and white. So stop reading now and watch at least the last minute of the toon if you haven’t already, then come back and read on after this happy image ~

YES. Like the freed prisoners of Bunuel’s THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL, the happy menagerie give thanks to the Lord for their deliverance — and He strikes them down again, for no reason. Noah ends up with a frozen lightning bolt through the seat of his dungarees, as it rains cats and dogs (more than two by two, them critters breeds FAST). In a cartoon, God is a capricious, cruel, infinitely destructive demiurge, like Bugs Bunny tormenting Daffy Duck in DUCK AMUCK with nightmarish metamorphoses in a cel-painted Beckettian torture-show. The cartoonist hits on the perfect metaphor: if there were a God, this is the kind of guy He would have to be, randomly dishing out surreal punishments before returning us to the darkness of the inkwell.

And the Lord sayeth, “Ain’t I a stinker?”

8 Responses to “Ark Shadows”

  1. Thanks for this! I still maintain that Duck Amck is a cracking comic monologue.

  2. revelator60 Says:

    “Noah” in this case is Farmer Al Falfa, Paul Terry’s first major character, which explains the modern day setting and muffles the blasphemy (God’s cruelty makes more sense if you know he’s not the “real” Noah).
    Terrytoons was the bargain basement of 1930s animation studios, and the stiff and cheap animation on display shows why, though I’m glad a few good gags managed to emerge from this one.

  3. Jesslyn Cleary Says:

    The soundtrack music for the deluge is heavily quoted from Wagner’s opera Gotterdammerung (Twilight of the Gods/end of the world), which is sort of apt, I guess!

  4. bensondonald Says:

    Some more Al Falfa. First, a semi-naturalistic silent:

    Next, probably the raciest Al Falfa ever:

    Terrytoons was the bargain basement throughout its history, despite a hit character in Mighty Mouse and a few late blossomings from such talents as Gene Deitch, Ralph Baskshi and Jules Feiffer (some after Terry sold the whole company to CBS). Here and there you’d see nifty gags pop up and moments of wild animation, but these tended to be in spite of Paul Terry rather than because.

    The title card on “Noah’s Outing” indicates this was a television print. Terry and others that didn’t actually sell their film libraries put together half-hour shows for syndication or network Saturday mornings; the usual routine was to produce an opening title sequence and replace theatrical credits on shorts with a single title card (even Disney did it to his cartoons on “Mickey Mouse Club”).

    The jumps in music suggest some censor cuts (there’s one when the lost umbrella reveals two dogs necking); although I wouldn’t rule out trims to make all the toons the exact same length.

  5. revelator60 Says:

    Just to add to Benson’s excellent comment, “Farmer Al Falfa Sees New York” has been released on the excellent Blu-Ray “Cartoon Roots: The Bray Studios – Animation Pioneers.”

  6. Wow, Ape Girl is pretty saucy! There’s some actual decent drawing in both those toons.

    Simon, excellent stuff, and thanks for the Tony Zhou link also.

    Gandy Goose is a great example of surrealism by people who don’t know how to do surrealism.

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