The Circus (1920)
This short from Bray Studios again mixes live action with animation (no doubt to save time and money before cel animation had been perfected) to produce a movie about a drawing that takes on a life of its own. The result is simple, but satisfying.
The movie begins with an image of an artist at his desk with a messenger standing over him. We see him draw the image of a clown, seal it in an envelope and address it to “the Operator.” The messenger brings it to a projectionist working in a booth, and he opens it to find instructions for the clown. He turns the page over and the clown comes to life, initiating the animated portion of the film. The clown draws himself a circus ring and calls for music. He creates the shape of a horse beneath a blanket, then pulls off the blanket, revealing a skinny nag. The horse eats the blanket and the clown does some stunts on his back, before the horse bucks him off and tramples him. The clown asks the horse to count out the toes on his foot, and the horse stamps on it. The horse then does a series of funny poses, and the clown announces that he will run to beat his own time of a mile in 1 and ¾ seconds, but he accidentally hits the horse with the bullet from the starter gun. The horse announces “I’m kilt” in a speech bubble and a horse with a halo emerges and floats up to horse heaven. The horse-St. Peter insists that he take off his shoes and when he tosses them down he hits the clown repeatedly. The clown throws one back up, giving St. Pete a black eye and the horse laughs, causing St. Pete to kick him back down to Earth. He re-enters the horse-body and comes back to life. He kicks the still laughing clown into an inkpot and the clown throws ink at the horse before putting the cap back on and descending.
This movie was part of a series called “Out of the Inkwell” produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The series ran from 1918 to 1926, and the protagonist would eventually become known as “Koko the Clown,” although he was nameless at the time of this film. He has a memorable look that I think today seems like a familiar image of an “old time” clown. He had first been drawn by Max Fleischer to demonstrate the success of his invention, the rotoscope, that was a method for achieving realistic movement for animated cartoons. The series became a hit, and the Fleischers went on to produce on film a month for eight years. Koko remained a staple for years after the end of the first series and continued working up to an appearance with Betty Boop in 1934, then took some time off before appearing on television in the sixties. This cartoon, which has many elements that would be familiar to children of later generations, seems fairly sophisticated, although much of the movie takes place against a blank white background. Once we get up to “horse heaven,” things get a bit more impressive, and the clown does well moving about the “real” world of the inkwell as well.
Director: Dave Fleischer
Animator: Max Fleischer
Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).