Animation historian Jerry Beck penned a 1994 book titled The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected By 1,000 Animation Professionals . We probably don’t need to tell you what the tome entails, but we can tell you that thanks to Mubi, we’ve uncovered the list of animated shorts in Beck’s book online. Almost all of the films are under 30 minutes long, were made in North America, and were released before 1960 (minus a handful). We’ve combed through Beck’s best-of list and highlighted a few gems past the break. A jazz icon, Edgar Allan Poe, and a famous Japanese monster all make an appearance. Grab your cereal bowl, fake like it’s Saturday morning, and tell us what cartoon greats win you over in the comments below.
What’s Opera, Doc? (1957) #1
Many of the films on Beck’s list were produced for Warner Bros.’s Looney Tunes and directed by animation legend Chuck Jones — including the number one pick of the bunch, What’s Opera, Doc?. The six-minute short (give or take a few) is part of Warner’s Merrie Melodies series, which started in 1931 and became a musical, cartoon extravaganza featuring the hits of the day. Opera was probably Jones’ greatest work and many consider it to be the best thing Warner Bros. ever released. It’s easy to see why when you witness how Jones skillfully parodied the ponderous, epic stylings of Richard Wagner — featuring Bugs Bunny in drag (Valkyrie Brünnhilde!) and all the forlorn Elmer Fudd you can stand. In case you’re still not sure which cartoon we’re talking about, one thing may ring a bell: “Kill the Wabbit!”
Red Hot Riding Hood (1943) #7
Iconic animator Tex Avery made cartoons adults could appreciate and children adored. If he were alive today, he might have lent a hand to productions like DreamWorks’ Shrek, but probably would have been thrilled to work on something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Red Hot Riding Hood is one of his most beloved animations, featuring a pin up-style Red (who performs a memorable, sexy musical number), a zoot suit-wearing wolf, and a horny grandma looking for love. The short faced censorship attacks early on due to its lusty overtones. The original ending apparently featured grandma getting hitched to the wolf (they even have children) — which implied some kind of weird bestiality storyline according to censors. We’re not sure if the final version is any less iffy, though, as it features the wolf shooting himself in the head during the nightclub scene.
Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969) #38
If there were a hall of fame for student films, animator Marv Newland’s 1969 film would definitely be near the top of the list. The two-minute long animation stars Disney’s Bambi — or at least Newland’s hand-drawn version of the young deer — grazing quietly. Eventually the monstrous Godzilla comes along and puts an end to the serene scenario. The scene only takes moments to play out, as most of Newland’s film features an extra long, humorous credits sequence. Apparently, the animator drew the work in a room he rented from Adriana Caselotti (the voice of Disney’s Snow White). Perhaps some of Snow’s darkness rubbed off on him.
Minnie the Moocher (1932) #20
Lovable flapper-esque cutie Betty Boop lives at home with her overbearing, German parents. She doesn’t want to eat daddy’s Hasenpfeffer, feels like nobody understands her, and eventually runs away with her dog Bimbo to a dark cave. There, dead things come to life and sing Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher.” What more do you need? Cab Calloway — who would probably laugh in the face of song “Moves Like Jagger” (you’ll see what we mean once you watch his smooth moves in the video’s intro) — made his first film appearance ever in the animation.
The Tell-Tale Heart (1953) #24
One of our favorite animations on Beck’s list is Ted Parmelee’s adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. English actor James Mason (Lolita, North by Northwest) narrates the dark tale about a murderer who slowly goes mad believing he can hear his victim through the floorboards. The innovative, stunning, and surreal animation won the first cartoon X-rating and was reportedly intended as a 3D film. (Yes, the 1950s also went through a dreaded 3D phase.)
Felix in Hollywood (1923) #50
Felix the Cat co-creator Otto Messmer created the first cartoon featuring caricatures of Hollywood stars with his 1923 film — except the celebs Messmer poked fun at weren’t Kim Kardashian types. Instead, the animator parodied classic, much-loved actors like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks in his short, silent Felix film that finds the cat heading to Tinseltown.
The Cat Concerto (1946) #42
Another famous cat made Blank’s list. Tom — the surly, unlucky feline — famous for his comically violent charades with mouse Jerry stars in Hanna Barbera cartoon The Cat Concerto. The Academy Award-winning short features Tom at a fancypants piano recital coping with troublemaking mouse Jerry who eventually upstages the kitty. If you love watching these two try to beat the hell out of each other, then the classy Cat Concerto will surely win you over.
Gerald McBoing-Boing (1951) #9
United Productions of America and director Robert Cannon dug into the library of Dr. Seuss for a story about a boy who could only speak in cartoon-riffic sound effects. The studio felt that the animation genre had seen enough Disney knockoffs and wanted to explore other artistic styles. The project ended up being their first big success.
The Skeleton Dance (1929) #18
Part playful, part creepy, Disney’s Skeleton Dance was a “gag” idea that almost never was. Composer Carl Stalling shared his story about the famous animation’s evolution in a 1971 interview:
“[Stalling]: The Skeleton Dance goes way back to my kid days. When I was eight or ten years old, I saw an ad in The American Boy magazine of a dancing skeleton, and I got my dad to give me a quarter so I could send for it. It turned out to be a pasteboard cut-out of a loose-jointed skeleton, slung over a six-foot cord under the arm pits. It would ‘dance’ when kids pulled and jerked at each end of the string.
[Interviewer]: So the idea for The Skeleton Dance was really yours. And the story, too?
[Stalling]: If you call it a story. We’d all get together on gags, in what they called a gag meeting.
[Interviewer]: What did Walt say when you brought up the idea for The Skeleton Dance? Did he like it right away?
[Stalling]: He was interested right away. After two or three of the Mickeys had been completed and were being run in theaters, Walt talked with me on getting started on the musical series that I had in mind. He thought I meant illustrated songs, but I didn’t have that in mind at all. When I told him that I was thinking of inanimate figures, like skeletons, trees, flowers, etc., coming to life and dancing and doing other animated actions fitted to music more or less in a humorous and rhythmic mood, he became very much interested. I gave him the idea of using the four seasons, and he made a cartoon on each one of those. I scored one of them [Springtime (1930)] before I left.
For a name or title for the series, I suggested not using the word ‘music’ or ‘musical,’ as it sounded too commonplace, but to use the word ‘Symphony’ together with a humorous word. At the next gag meeting, I don’t know who suggested it, but Walt asked me: ‘Carl, how would Silly Symphony sound to you?’ I said, ‘Perfect!’ Then I suggested the first subject, The Skeleton Dance, because ever since I was a kid I had wanted to see real skeletons dancing and had always enjoyed seeing skeleton-dancing acts in vaudeville. As kids, we all like spooky pictures and stories, I think. That’s how the Silly Symphonies got started. Of course, everyone knows that if it had not been for Walt Disney then in all probability there would never have been a Mickey Mouse. This makes me wonder sometimes, would there ever have been a Silly Symphony or who would have suggested The Skeleton Dance—if?”
The Unicorn in the Garden (1953) #48
One man’s soul-crushing wife tries to have him committed after he tells her that he saw a unicorn in their garden. Once the men in white coats arrive, things take a turn in his favor in William Hurtz’s amusing 1953 fable. The short is based on a story by cartoonist and New Yorker regular James Thurber — originally intended as a feature based on the writer’s work, to be titled Men, Women and Dogs. (Thurber loved his pet poodles.)