Tag Archives: 1930s cartoons

Dec. 24 – Silly Symphony – “The Night Before Christmas”

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Originally released December 9, 1933.

We have reached a day of great, holiday, release – Christmas Eve. And what better way to mark the occasion than with a holiday short titled The Night Before Christmas. A lot of cartoons have made use of this title, but today’s subject is the Silly Symphony short that falls under that heading. It felt right to tackle this one in the wake of the Merrie Melodies short we looked at a few days ago. Those two brands are forever linked by their similar titles and the competition that existed at the time between the Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros. Studios, a competition that still exists today.

The Silly Symphony collection was essentially Walt Disney Production’s play area. The Mickey Mouse shorts the studio was famous for were more straight-forward, while the Silly Symphony shorts could be just as narratively tight or could be more experimental in nature. In some respects, the shorts were a testing ground for techniques the studio would employ for its feature-length theatrical productions, like the multi-plane camera used in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Technicolor debuted here as well before making the jump to Mickey Mouse and even the studio’s greatest creation, Donald Duck, debuted in a Silly Symphony short (I may be a touch biased there). The shorts could be funny, whimsical, scary, whatever they needed to be. And sure, a bunch of them did just end up being characters largely dancing to some music, but there was also some great stuff in there.

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Note the top, in case you forgot who the real star is.

This short, The Night Before Christmas, is the 1933 sequel to the 1932 short Santa’s Workshop. In that cartoon, we watched Santa and his elves prepare for Christmas at the North Pole and it ends with the big guy saying “goodbye” to his loyal workers and heading off to deliver the presents. Well, this one is going to show us Santa on his journey that night through at least one house. This one was directed by Wilfred Jackson with Dick Huemer getting the credit for the animation. And as you would expect, it’s an adaptation of the famous poem A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clark Moore. And since this is a 1933 short, it’s in Technicolor unlike the Merrie Melodies short we looked at earlier.

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The cozy confines for today’s short.

Like so many cartoons, this one also begins with a rendition of “Silent Night” as the title card is shown. Lest we forget who the real star is, this is credited as Mickey Mouse presents…, in case you had no idea what Walt Disney Productions was famous for. After the title card is removed the cartoon begins. A narrator is singing the poem from which this short takes its name. Leigh Harline is credited with the music on this short, but I do not know who the vocalist is that’s singing the song. The visuals show us a cozy home covered with snow. Everything is quiet, as the poem demands, and the home’s children are snug in a rather large bed – all 8 of them.

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That was a close one, boys.

The vocals end with the sound of sleigh bells as we see Santa flying high overhead with his team of eight not-so-tiny reindeer out in front single-file. They barely fit onto the roof of the house, which is maybe why Santa’s reindeer are often in a two-across formation, but the lead reindeer is able to keep from sliding off and Santa seems ignorant to the near miss. He climbs out of the sleigh and makes his way down the chimney. He’s a fairly large Santa and certainly a round one. He has a permanent smile affixed to his face and he is prone to frequent bouts of laughter. He’s not exactly the quiet kind of Santa.

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Fire just loves Santa’s ass.

When he emerges from the chimney he’s all covered in soot, but doesn’t seem to mind. Somewhat surprising for a 1930’s short, his sootiness isn’t in the form of a blackface gag which is nice to see. He shakes the soot off and seems to notice the hot coals in the fireplace, a near miss for Santa’s rump. When he turns his back on the hot coals they grow into tall flames which reach out and caress Santa on the bum. He jumps and spins around waving a finger at the fire. He then laughs and the flames go out making me wonder if he has this sort of playful relationship with all of the fireplaces he’ll visit this evening.

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There’s something familiar about that toy in front, and something odd about that sheep one.

Santa then gets to work. He first pulls out a modest tree from his sack which isn’t quite as tall as he is. He opens it like an umbrella and places it on the floor. He then pulls out a toy bugle and uses it to summon the toys to work. A marching band comprised of toy clowns emerge first from the sack as they lead the rest of the toys which soon includes dolls and even a toy Mickey Mouse riding on a scooter. The animation with Mickey repeats several times almost as if they wanted to make sure everyone noticed the rather hard to miss cameo. One toy squeezing a sheep is a bit curious looking. I don’t want to say it’s definitely blackface, but it’s close.

The toys then begin decorating the tree which includes some lit candles (there must have been countless Christmas tree related fires over the years). My favorite gag, if you can call it that, would be the team of toy soldiers firing ornaments out of a toy canon at the tree. A plane flies around leaving a trail of garland on the tree while toy firemen coat the tree with artificial snow.

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Santa pretty much thinks anything he does is hilarious.

While the toys take care of what is apparently their job, Santa starts filling stockings. Some are a bit shabby looking, but all have a little note in them detailing what the kid wants for Christmas. One stocking is actually a diaper, which Santa puts a doll in. Another appears to be three socks stitched together which is the perfect size for a baseball bat, which forces a laugh out of Santa. When he comes to one with a hole in the toe, he improvises by first sticking an umbrella in it upside down and then dumps a bunch of toys into it laughing all the while.

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That’s a mighty fine tree there, toys.

Horns sound to apparently announce that the tree has been decorated. All that is left is for a toy zeppelin to fly to the top with the star-shaped tree topper. Once it’s placed where it belongs a small cheer goes up and the clown band starts playing “Jingle Bells.” The other toys dance merrily while Santa gets in on the act via a toy piano. If you’re thinking this must be noisy as hell, then you would be right. Soon, the kids perk up due to all of the commotion, and a patch on the comforter even flips open to reveal a ninth kid had been sleeping underneath it. The kids race to the top of the stairs for a look, with our ninth kid apparently the focal point as he’s the straggler and the seat of his pajamas is unbuttoned revealing his naked bottom. As the kids look on, it’s this little guy who tries to hold back a sneeze, and fails, alerting Santa down below.

Santa hastily orders the toys back to their places. They all head for their spot under the tree with some toys returning to their packaging. As the kids descend the stairs, Santa squeezes himself into the fireplace with his empty sack, places a finger beside his nose, and vanishes up the chimney.

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And we almost made it to the end…

The kids then attack the tree as they all reach for the toys that stand out most to them. Our little straggler, who is apparently named Junior, is the only one who apparently noticed a disturbance by the fire place and he heads for that first. Looking up the chimney, a blast of soot falls on his face and there we have it – a blackface gag (sigh). Our attention is soon directed to an unopened present under the tree addressed to Junior and he heads over and opens it. Inside is a little, black, Scottish Terrier which licks the soot off of his face. All of the kids then run to the window when they hear the sound of sleigh bells and they watch as Santa and his team of reindeer fly off into the creepiest looking moon I’ve ever seen. It has an unpleasant grin, and this is basically the same shot that ended the previous short, Santa’s Workshop. The vocalist from earlier returns as well to sing the final stanza of the poem with the short ending on the now famous line “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

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Having an adorable puppy erase the blackface is probably the best outcome we could have asked for.

The Night Before Christmas is a fairly tame piece of animation, that one instance of blackface excluded. It has a simple premise and follows the Silly Symphony formula of showing a bunch of characters acting out a mundane process, but with a touch of fantasy. There’s no spoken dialogue in this one, aside from the narration of the poem, as Santa just laughs a bunch and never actually says a word to the reindeer or the toys. He doesn’t even get to belt out that closing line. The kids also don’t really say anything, they just cheer or make a noise of surprise or delight. I like that they never actually see Santa until they get to the window, as even from atop the stairs they couldn’t see anything since the room Santa was in is blocked by a door.

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I expected an ending in which Santa flies in front of the moon. What I did not expect was for that moon to wear a maniacal grin.

What this short does have some fun with is merely the process Santa goes through at each house. It’s a bit surprising to see so many toys bestowed upon these children since this was released during The Great Depression. I suppose we get some sense of that via the shabby stockings and the fact that all of the kids share a single bed. Santa bringing the tree and decorating seems to be a relic of the old days. I know my dad’s family never decorated their tree, that was Santa’s job, though I think they at least put it up first. I think some families did decorate it together on Christmas Eve before going to bed, as I’m sure some probably do that now. I think for many homes though the customary thing to do now is to get a tree and then decorate it as soon as possible. The only matter up for debate is how soon is too soon. I like getting as much visual enjoyment as possible from a tree so I’m more of the sooner the better camp. However, I have my limits. My neighbors literally put their tree (an artificial one) up the weekend after Halloween which is something I thought only happened in Bob’s Burgers. If you want my advice, even though it’s pretty useless advice coming on Christmas Eve, I say cut down your own tree if you can that way you can put it up in early December and it will still be relatively fresh come the end of the month. Those lot trees are often cut in October which is why they often don’t last very long. And if you do have a tree, don’t put lit candles on it or leave it plugged in when you’re not home or asleep. Lets avoid those Christmas tree fires, everyone.

If you want to check out this short this year then it would be rather helpful to have the collection of Silly Symphony shorts, More Silly Symphonies, which was released in 2006 as part of the Walt Disney Treasures line. It’s since gone out of print, and as of this writing it wasn’t on Disney+ and if you’re reading that then it wasn’t added before this went up, which is a shame, but that blackface gag could be to blame. There’s still hope though as Disney is not very protective of these shorts so if you just punch it into your preferred search engine you’ll probably find it no problem. And if you can’t, maybe that too is a bit of a good thing as it likely means Disney is prepping this for a future release on Disney+ or via some other method. We’re still waiting on an HD release of all of the classic shorts, so come on Disney, what are you waiting for? Needless to say, have a Merry Christmas Eve and hopefully you can find some time to check back tomorrow for the final entry in this year’s edition of The Christmas Spot.


Dec. 19 – The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives

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Original release date January 7, 1933

Every year I do this I am reminded at how surprising it is that so few Christmas themed Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts exist. Disney put out several memorable ones over the years featuring their characters, but Warner Bros. mostly stayed away. Bugs Bunny would eventually get a Christmas television special in the 70s, but that was well past the age of the cartoon short.

That’s not to say Warner didn’t produce any Christmas cartoons under their two most popular banners, just that most didn’t feature the company’s most recognizable faces. The first of which, The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives, contained no recognizable faces even though this was during the heyday for Bosko. The Rudolf Ising directed short was the first Merrie Melodies cartoon released in 1933, missing the Christmas holiday by a couple of weeks. Even though the Merrie Melodies line of shorts is often distinguished from Looney Tunes due to the presence of color (that wouldn’t come until 1934), this is a black and white film that’s fallen into the public domain.

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Possibly the nicest piece of animation in the short.

The short is a Depression-era cartoon, hence the name The Shanty Where Santy Claus lives. It’s not a particularly well known short as it wasn’t shown on television much given that it’s associated with a holiday and thus confined to a short window for release. Since it’s from 1933, it also doesn’t look particularly great compared with the more popular Warner cartoons and, as I already mentioned, it’s devoid of the characters the studio is known for. Despite that though, it did receive some play on Cartoon Network during the 1990s, but sometimes with alterations. I honestly can’t recall if I ever saw this one on the channel. I used to love falling asleep to the Christmas Eve programming on Cartoon Network which ran all night and mostly consisted of winter or Christmas themed cartoons. I could usually bank on seeing Peace on Earth at that time and only that time. This cartoon was probably shown as well, but I don’t remember it specifically. When viewing it now, it has an air of familiarity to it, but that could just be my imagination.

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Our downtrodden protagonist.

The cartoon begins with bells ringing and they are gorgeously animated. It then heads for ground level where the animation is less gorgeous and is accompanied by “Silent Night,” something that will become a trope in Christmas specials to come. A disheveled looking kid is drearily stomping through the snow with a floppy hat and his hands stuffed into his pockets. His exaggerated feet practically look like snowshoes. He hears singing coming from a church, but declines to enter. He perks up momentarily when he hears another commotion. Racing over to a window he looks in on a bunch of kids dancing around a Christmas tree. He then turns to the camera with a sad face as the wind howls.

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Listen kids, normally it’s not okay to run off with an old guy promising toys.

The boy gets caught in the gust which tosses him into the side of his shanty. The snow falls off the roof and buries him momentarily. He pulls himself up and heads inside. It’s a one-room shack with hardly anything inside, including parents. He’s rather down, even weeping, until he hears something outside. Sleigh bells herald the arrival of Santa Claus who comes bursting in singing the short’s signature song. Santa offers to take the boy with him to his shanty where toys and wonderful things await. The kid is more than eager to take old Saint Nick up on his offer and the two head outside. Santa puts the boy on the back of his sleigh before climbing in himself. He orders the reindeer to “giddy-up” and as they take off the boy tumbles from the back of the sleigh. Malnutrition has apparently not affected the boy’s speed or conditioning as he races after the sleigh and essentially outruns the reindeer to get back into Santa’s arms. This time the old man is smart enough to put the kid in the sleigh proper and the two take off into the sky.

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You are correct if you assumed Santa flew past that moon before landing in front of his shop. Maybe the first ever animated shot of Santa in front of a moon?

Santa and his team of two reindeer (the Depression even impacted Santa) make it to Santa’s shanty. And it’s hardly a shanty. The two head inside and the kid’s eyes widen to see all of the toys waiting to be delivered to new homes. Some of them are a bit…iffy looking, but we pan back to the kid pretty quickly who’s looking quite happy. He heads in further and starts playing with a kangaroo toy. When he squeezes a ball on the end of a tube it makes the little joey pop out of the pouch. Cute.

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Well, this just went wrong very fast.

The boy then turns his attention to a musical toy and….oh no, here’s our reminder this is a cartoon from the 1930s. A toy of jazz musicians is displayed and they basically all look like they’re pulled from a minstrel show. We then see a baby doll crying out for it’s Mama before tumbling off the shelf into a box of soot. It then emerges, in blackface, crying for its “Mammy” who then shows up to retrieve the toy. And we’re not done! A rag doll starts dancing as the short’s song returns with two other dolls that also look like blackface dolls. She then ditches the pair to watch on the side cheering them on with some maracas.

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Oh my god, it just got worse!

More toys are spotlighted including a doll that tries to blow up a balloon. She sucks in the air and turns into a woman of generous proportions who begins to sing “Shine on Harvest Moon” in what is undoubtedly a caricature of singer Kate Smith. There’s also a toy soldier on a baby bank. When the register pops open it’s, get this, full of babies. A teddy bear is shown playing a trombone and a jack-in-the-box beside it pops out and it’s thankfully not racist. The trombone keeps hitting it into a drum which is mildly amusing.

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Make it stop!

We then end up at the Christmas tree which has a lit candle on it. One of the toys knocks it over and soon the tree catches on fire (and you thought those giant bulbs from the 40s and 50s were a fire hazard) forcing the fire brigade into action. The toy fire brigade, that is. A fire engine races over and tries to put out the flames, but it is just a toy. We then see the boy again, the supposed main character who has apparently just been watching this whole thing and is possibly willing to let the racist toys burn, who decides he should take some action. A hose is conveniently at his feet and hooked up to a sink. He inserts the other end into some bagpipes which are just laying on the floor and runs over to the tree. He squeezes the bagpipes spraying water out of the various pipes which douse the flames. The toys cheer triumphantly and the short comes to an abrupt end.

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Kid, maybe you should just let this place burn.

I suppose when I saw this cartoon was in the public domain I should have expected some racism. Cartoonists, for whatever reason, loved these blackface gags in the 20s and 30s and really seemed to like the black figures seen here. Maybe it’s a benign reason, since these cartoons are in black and white it was an easy gag to get over, but it is what it is. When Cartoon Network aired this one it eventually edited out those parts, though I think at one point in time they were left in. Considering the short is a little over 7 minutes with that stuff intact, it must have been incredibly short without it. If you watch a lot of old cartoons, there’s nothing in here you haven’t seen before. I don’t think those images would keep this from being released as part of a collection of Warner cartoons, but it sure would earn it a disclaimer.

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Well, the fire’s out and…it’s over? Okay then.

Visually, this is an old cartoon and it shows. The backgrounds aren’t very detailed and certainly pale in comparison to what Disney was doing at the time. The characters have noodle-like limbs and their mouth movements are a bit odd. There are some twin characters that were probably just doubles of the film cells or possibly traces from one image to another as they move in perfect unison. The kid main character also doesn’t look particularly good, but a lot of effort was put into Santa who has a nice, jolly, demeanor.

As a Christmas toon, this is essentially a piece of wish fulfillment. A poor kid is not going to get to enjoy Christmas like the more well-off children will, so Santa shows up to whisk him away. It probably wasn’t something a poor kid needed to see as it would have felt patronizing. Santa is also barely in it as he just shows up to take the kid and then basically disappears once we get to his work shop. I kept waiting for him to come in and put out the fire (or destroy those racist toys), but he must have left to go find some other poor kid. There’s a lot of public domain Christmas music at play though, and the one original song works well enough.

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He’s certainly not as charismatic as Porky.

The Shanty Where Santy Claus Lives is a public domain cartoon that is quite easy to come by. Just typing the name into a search engine should produce plenty of results, or you can even just go straight to YouTube. There are various public domain Christmas VHS and DVDs that include it, and Warner even featured it on a laser disc release of shorts back in the day, but I doubt you want to go that route. Because it’s free, the quality can vary. Some claim to be upscaled to HD, but they get a blurry, smear, effect as a result. Some are very gray in appearance and there’s even some that are practically yellow. Still, you don’t have to look too hard to find one with nice enough contrast levels. I don’t really recommend it, but it is only 7 minutes so it’s not exactly much of a time commitment. It’s a shame the few gags present are mostly racist humor. The only memorable non racist gag was the baby bank, which wasn’t particularly funny either. As the first Christmas-themed Merrie Melodies short, it at least has some historical significance. Just beware of the racist stuff.


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