By Harry McCracken
Reprinted from Animato #30, 1996
(2005 Editor’s Notes: The images that follow are reprinted from the 1934 Scrappy Big Little Book, a veritable treasure trove of illustrations of Scrappy and his pals. They don’t relate to the cartoons mentioned in this essay. But I like them anyway…and the book’s original owner hadn’t colored them in yet.
Thanks to Andrew Leal for helping to make this essay’s republication possible.)
In 1980, Leonard Maltin called the Van Beuren Studio the least-known of the animation studios of the 1930s-but today that dubious honor more rightly belongs to the Columbia studio.
After all, in the years since Maltin’s comment, the Van Beuren films have gone from near-total obscurity to being available nearly everywhere for a few dollars, thanks to the pervasive public-domain cartoon tapes that also feature formerly-forgotten cartoons from Fleischer, Famous Studios, and other companies.
You won’t find Columbia cartoons on those $2.98 tapes-or almost anywhere else, for that matter. The studio has apparently diligently renewed the copyrights on its animated films. preventing them from lapsing into the public domain. But aside from one botched tape of recolored Li’l Abner cartoons, the Columbia library has received no exposure on videotape or modern-era television.
That makes Scrappy, the small boy who appeared in more than 75 Columbia animated shorts from 1931 through 1941, one of the most forgotten major cartoon characters of the 1930s, along with his fellow Columbia star Krazy Kat. Produced by Charles Mintz after his studio relocated to the west coast, the Scrappy cartoons are amusing, offbeat, and thoroughly worthy of rediscovery.
Dick Huemer, who was responsible for the early Scrappy cartoons along with Sid Marcus and Art Davis, has described the informal process by which these films were produced: Each of the three artists would be completely responsible for one-third of the cartoon, devising gags and animating with without consulting much with the nher two. Maybe that’s why Scrappy, a little kid with an oversized head, never seemed to look quite the same from scene to scene or cartoon to cartoon; his voice also varied remarkably from him to film.
The disorganized approach extended to the cartoons’ cast of characters. The primary supporting player was a smaller boy, apparently Scrappy’s younger brother; Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic says he was known alternately as Oopie or Vonsey, but in the only cartoon I’ve seem in which he was identified on-screen, it was is “Poopsie.” Scrappy had a dog-a terrier named Yippy-but in some cartoons he unaccountably owns a different canine companion. The cast was rounded out by Margie, a little girl whose appears in relatively few shorts.
Scrappy was superficially one of the legion of Mickey Mouse knockoffs that populated animation in the 1930s, but he’s a much more distinctive creation than Wanrer’s Bosko or Columbia’s own Krazy Kat (who owed far more to Disney than Herriman). Unlike the incessantly cheery Mickey wannabees, Scrappy is an often sour-tempered fellow with a short fuse. Ostensibly a little boy. he also appears in such adult occupations as pet store owner, South Pole explorer, or Royal Canadian Mountie as each cartoon requires.
He regards Oopie-a much more likable character than his older brother-as a major annoyance. telling him to shut up and/or spanking him in countless scenes. He even slaps him around in Scrappy’s Boy Scouts (1936), an otherwise wholesome film apparently produced in conjunction with the Boy Scouts of America.
It’s unfair to Scrappy to single him out for his unsympathetic behavior, though. In his world, almost everyone seems to take a certain glee in wanton violence, including animals. In The Pet Shop (1932). for instance, some monkeys up Oopie from the ceiling with a length of rope, so that two fish may play tic-tac-toe on his scalp; the winner of each game gels to whack Oopie on the backside with a two~by-four.
Almost without exception, adults in Scrappy cartoons are lazy, untrustworthy types, like the jury members in The Dog Snatcher (1931) who wake up long enough to railroad Yippy into the dog pound, then fall asleep again. (That cartoon’s most memorable moment, however, comes when Scrappy rescues his pal by yanking the skin off of a guard dog and donning it as a disguise!)
The apotheosis of the Scrappy style has to be The Flop House (1932), in which our enterprising hero runs a thriving business by providing 25-cent temporary bedding for down-on-their-luck dogs, goats, and kangaroos, not to mention his own kid brother. As usual, several gags involve senseless destruction: When Oopie gargles before going to bed, he casually smashes a window for the sole purpose of spitting his used mouthwash through it. The climactic chase scene comes when Oopie discovers his bed is full of bedbugs (whom are lovingly and repulsively animated), which leads to a riot in which the vagrant animals storm out of the flop house.
Seen today, the Scrappy cartoons can be a lot of fun, but as Maltin points out in Of Mice and Magic, the structure most of these shorts is so hap-hazard that they don’t make a lasting impression. In many cases, it’s ambitious artwork rather than gags that stick in the mind: Sassy Cats (1933) opens with a striking sequence-in which a cat carouses over a series of fences-that uses three-dimensional, moving backgrounds, a rarity in animation until Disney began accomplishing similar effects with computers in the 1980s. Even more memorably, Scrappy’s Gallery (1934) has a nifty scene in which Oopie frolics through slickly animated versions of famous paintings.
Like most of the significant cartoon stars of the early and mid-1930s. Scrappy really wasn’t destined to outlive the decade. By 1936, Columbia’s cartoons began to rake on more and more of a Warner Bros.-like screwball flavor, a sty1e of humor that Scrappy was ill-suited to tackle. He became a more placid, somewhat more realistic little boy, and the cartoons lost their weird charm and slightly unnerving edge.
Like Porky Pig, who went through a similar evolution, Scrappy began hosting spot-gag cartoons, such as Scrappy’s News Flashes (1937). Eventually, in films including A Worm’s Eye View and The Millionaire Hobo (both 1939), he became a minor character in his own cartoons. (The title character in the latter film is a vagabond entertainingly voiced by Mel Blanc, who contributed to the soundtracks of many Columbia shorts of the period: Scrappy has a bit part as a messenger boy.)
A few months after Scrappy made his final appearance in The Little Theatre (1941), Frank Tashlin came to Columbia and made The Fox and the Grapes, an excellent, Warner-style cartoon that introduced the Fox and the Crow, the studio’s major characters of the 1940s. Unfortunately, the Fox and the Crow have faded as completely from public view as Scrappy has. They’d be a perfect subject for a future Curiosity Shop column-except I’ve only seen a handful of them myself.