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The Animated Circus

Dumbo clown act

Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were the only Disney animated films to use watercolor backgrounds

Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were the only Disney animated films to use watercolor backgrounds

Dumbo Trivia

Timothy Q. Mouse encouraged Dumbo. “Lots of people with big ears are famous!” Audiences remembered Clark Gable.

In the original novel, a robin was written as the role played by Timothy Mouse. Animators picked a mouse because elephants are terrified of mice.

Timothy’s drunken laugh was borrowed from a Mickey Mouse voice over scene. Timothy coughs with black crows whiffing Jim Crow’s cigar. Again a Mickey Mouse voice over was provided for him.

Working clowns in Dumbo want to confront their boss for a salary hike. It’s a joke about an animators’ strike that took place during production.

Dumbo watercolor background


Dumbo was a flying hit


For years, animators enjoyed rendering human acrobats and wild animal performers from the three ring circus. Disney excelled in the full featured animated film Dumbo. A cute little elephant excited Disney fans. Disney also included the circus in an animated short starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck (Mickey’s Circus). Circus characters appear from early years of animation.

Dumbo (1941)

Circus elephants mocked Dumbo’s big ears. Animators enjoyed making him up as a clown freak. Dumbo dived down hundreds of feet to escape a burning fire. Dumbo and Timothy Q. Mouse’s fortunes changed; they accidentally became intoxicated by sipping water mixed with booze (a clown had tossed a bottle into the bucket). The two pals awakened later on a high tree branch. It dawned on Timothy that the elephant used his big ears to fly. Dumbo became a circus hero and Timothy became his manager. Circus freak is a popular theme explored in many circus films.

Dumbo, a colorful musical only runs 64 minutes. Animators applied traditional technique of holding “cells (or frames).” Frank Churchill and Ned Washington composed major musical numbers. Dumbo is the only Disney title character who is mute like Dopey from Snow white and the Seven Dwarfs. Both films had the distinction of using watercolor painted back grounds. Dumbo is the first full length animated feature continually released on videocassette and DVD. It was the first time an American setting appeared in a Disney animated feature film. Dumbo was an inexpensive production for the studios but earned more money than two 1940 full length animated features combined: Pinocchio and Fantasia. Walt Disney claimed Dumbo was his favorite animated feature.

Milton and Rita or Mickey and Minnie?


Mickey and Minnie doppelgängers

Van Beuren Studios created handmade animated films. Aesop Fables Circus Capers (1930) stirred up controversy. Milton and Rita mouse resemble Disney’s popular Mickey and Minnie mouse. The resemblance bothered Walt Disney and he successfully sued the studio, forbidding them to use their famous mouse couple likeness in 1932. In spite of the infraction, Circus Capers is a delightful big top celebration, opening with a marching band leading a circus parade with dancing elephants, giraffes, and other animals. A barker introduces a fat lady at the sideshow. A mob of people enter the big top. The Mickey twin is dressed in a clown outfit. His arms pantomime a hoop for spotted leopards to leap through. Minnie’s twin performs acrobatic stunts on a horse. A ringmaster plays wild animal trainer with a lion and dances with him. The Mickey twin is blasted from a cannon and heartbroken Rita messed around with the ringmaster in the trailer cabin. The mouse clown sings “Laugh Clown, Laugh.” The song was adapted from a popular opera entitled “I Pagliacci” (Ted Fiorito/Samuel M. Lewis/ Joseph Young).

Koko co-starred with Betty Boop


Animators love human cannonball


Max Fleischer early animation

Koko the Clown

Max Fleischer invented the rotoscope, an animation tool that enabled animators to create life-like movement from tracing human poses and gestures that he patented in 1914. The Inkwell series (1919) ran five years and starred Koko the Clown and Fitz the dog. Yes, one of the earliest animated characters was a circus clown. Fleischer’s brother Dave dressed up in a clown costume and his gestures were photographed. 2,500 drawings gave birth to Koko the Clown. Koko was a silent animated character star but co-starred in Betty Boop’s (1933) Snow White; he sang “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Cab Calloway vocalized it. The revolutionary audio recording enabled Koko the Clown to transition into sound, but he’s remembered as a silent comedian. Koko performed circus tricks and comical looking activities. Fleischer loved to create visual illusions with Koko.

Koko co-starred with Betty Boop in “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” (1932). Betty Boop is a wild animal trainer working with lions. She also sings “Boop-Oop-A-Doop” while walking on the high wire. Youtube lists the cartoon as banned. A ringmaster gets too sexually aggressive with Betty. Censors probably didn’t like it. Koko the Clown tries to stop the ringmaster but keeps getting thrown out on his rear. The ringmaster tries to shoot Koko out cannon ball style. After the smoke clears, the ringmaster is surprised to see Koko come out of the dark hole and hit him with a big mallet. Koko kisses Betty on the cheek.

Heartbroken Popeye sulks over Olive Oil


The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze

Fleischer Studios presented Popeye the Sailor Man.The Man on the Flying Trapeze was the 8th Popeye cartoon (1934), and featured the circus song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze.” The animated trapeze artist was modeled after Jules Leotard, a circus performer who inspired the famous song, first published in 1867. Music was composed by Gaston Lyle and lyrics were written by British singer, George Leybourne. Alfred Lee arranged the number. The cast sing it throughout the cartoon. Olive Oil’s mother starts it off, followed by kids marveling over the trapeze artist’s billboard. Popeye sings his popular “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” song at the opening. Popeye competes for Olive Oil’s affections. She runs off and joins the circus with a popular trapeze artist. As usual a can of spinach saves the day.

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Circus Comes to Clown (1947) is a Paramount/ Famous Studios cartoon. They included “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” for the bouncing ball sing along series. It was the 6th “screen song.” The studio had made 38 of them. The cartoon opens with a marvelous circus parade inside the tent and includes several gags. Human characters are mixed with animal characters. The highlight is a male trapeze (wolf) artist flirting with a girl (white lamb) in the audience. A jealous girl (black lamb) kills him with a loaded rifle; the trapeze star ascends to heaven.

The International Museum of Cartoon Art

Mickey Mouse ringmaster role


Colorful animated circus shorts

Mickey Mouse plays ringmaster in “Mickey’s Circus” (1936). Donald Duck leads performing seals into the ring and carries a basket full of fish to reward them for balancing beach balls and performing musical horns. A sea otter annoys Donald by continually stealing fish. Mickey’s orphans (not Donald’s nephews: Huey, Dewey, and Louie) are little devils. Donald and Mickey somehow get stuck in cannon. The orphans blast them high up in the air and they land on a high wire. Mickey’s forced to perform a high wire act. Donald rides a bicycle on it. But the nasty orphans have other ideas; they pour oil to make the wire more slippery and finally charge electricity through it. Mickey and Donald land in a little pool of water.

Animators loved to use the cannon ball trick. Baby Huey, a character created by Harvey Comics, was a staple animated character for Famous Studios (they took over Fleischer studios). Clown on the Farm (1952) involves Huey, a fox, and little ducklings in a circus story. Baby Huey, an over-sized duckling (voiced by Sid Raymond), lets his enthusiasm get out of control and wrecks the duckling’s circus set-up. A fox wants to eat Baby Huey and fools him to get into a cannon but it backfires. The giant duckling wises up and forces the fox to perform as a juggler. Head-down, the fox’s two hands churn the unicycle wheel. Baby Huey plays ringmaster. The fox attempts to trick Baby Huey into putting his head in a lion’s mouth (his own mouth). The huge duckling steals the fox’s teeth.

Ginger Nutt’s Christmas Circus was a (1949) David Hand Production. The British cartoon studio is entitled GB Animation (Gaumont-British). Ginger is a chipper squirrel who starred in four Animaland cartoons. Hazel is his sweetheart. It’s a busy cartoon. “Ginger is the Ringmaster and Hazel mans the box office. Chirpy plays in the brass-band, and Cooky Cuckoo is a One-Bird-Band on his own. Dusty Mole and Loopy Hare pretend to be Santa, whilst Kobber and Kate kookaburra clown around. Chester Cat attempts to walk the tightrope, Oscar puts his head in big Zimmy Lion's mouth, Digger and Dinkum Platypus perform nifty juggling and Corny (crow) is all set to be a living cannonball.”

Tom and Jerry animated short


Tom and Jerry circus cartoons

William Hanna and Joseph Barbara directed Tom and Jerry cartoons at Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer Cartoon Studio. The series is considered comedy violence. Tom, a house tomcat, tries to beat up Jerry, a little mouse. Tom and Jerry tied Walt Disney’s “Silly Symphonies” for Best Short Subject and received 7 Academy Awards. Jerry and the Lion is the 50thTom and Jerry Technicolor cartoon, a one reel animated short about a Lion who runs away from the circus. The tomcat learns about it on the radio and puts on a safari hat and gets a rifle. Jerry helps the lion escape in a boat; the big cat returns to the jungle. The circus is warned to take better care of their animals. A lion makes its only appearance in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Chuck Jones produced Tom and Jerry cartoons for MGM from 1963-1967.

Jones produced and directed Jerry-Go-Round, a 1966 Tom and Jerry Metrocolor cartoon. Tom and Jerry are at the circus big top. The tomcat is after Jerry as usual, but an elephant gives Jerry a whistle as a reward for removing a tack stuck on his painful foot. Jerry blows the whistle; the elephant hears it and sits on Tom, flattening him.

Woody drives a circus caretaker crazy


Walter Lantz produced Woody Woodpecker

Walter Lantz produced Woody Woodpecker cartoon shorts for Universal Pictures. The DizzyAcrobat is the 8th cartoon of the series released in 1943. Woody was vocalized by Ben Hardaway. Woody enters the circus singing “Animal Fair,” a kid’s favorite. A caretaker won’t allow Woody admittance unless he waters the elephants, but the red headed bird makes a big mess by attaching the elephant’s trunk to a water spout. The caretaker chases Woody throughout the circus. Several obstacles are in his way: trapeze, tightrope, perch pole, lion cage, and a bicycle. Woody swings on the trapeze and is accompanied by Johann Strauss II’s “Blue Danube Waltz.” The circus background paintings are exquisite!

Bugs Bunny vs Nero the Lion


Warner Brother's animated shorts

Edward Selzer produced Bugs Bunny cartoon shorts for Warner Brothers Studios. AcrobattyBunny is a Looney Tune cartoon (1946). Mel Blanc vocalized Bugs Bunny who squares off with Nero the Lion. A lion’s cage was set over Bug’s rabbit hole. The crazy rabbit makes Nero chase him around the circus. Bugs disguises himself as a clown and fools Nero into entering the human cannonball.

An earlier Bugs Bunny’ circus theme cartoon was produced by Warner's for Merrie Melodies in 1951. Big Top Bunny was a Technicolor cartoon. Bugs visits Colonel Korny’s Worlds Famous Circus and he matches wits with Bruno the “Slobokian Acrobatic Bear.” Bruno doesn’t want Bugs for a working partner and pushes him around. Bugs sets up psychological revenge. They challenge each other to climb the highest distance. Bugs lets Bruno win. The bear dives into solid cement. Bugs hits a springboard with a thousand pound weight and it launches Bruno soaring into a big top obstacle course.

Warner Brothers Pictures distributed Merrie Melodies, Loony-Tune style cartoons produced by Eddie Selzer. Tweety’s Circus is a 7 minute 1955 Technicolor cartoon. Sylvester the tuxedo cat is vocalized by the famous Mel Blanc. Sylvester tries to grab Tweety the canary bird from his cage at the circus. A caged lion, King of Beasts, protects Tweety. An elephant uses his trunk to throw the cat down on the ground. Sylvester thought the trunk was a water hose. Tweety makes Sylvester walk the high wire and tells the elephant to drink all the water below to ensure the cat has a hard landing. Animation loved developing stories in which powerful protectors defended the meek and bullied.

Bozo the Clown and Larry Harmon


TV clown personality adapted into cartoon series

Alan W. Livingston created the colorful character of Bozo the Clown for Capital Records. Larry Harmon bought the rights to use Bozo in 1956 and popularized the character for television live audience shows and cartoons. He formed Larry Harmon Pictures Corporation and made animated films of “Bozo, Popeye, Mr. Magoo, Dick Tracy, and Laurel and Hardy.”

Bozo the Clown (The World’s Most Famous Clown) started its animation series in 1959. Larry Harmon’s voice acted out Bozo’s character. He also provided the voice for Bozo’s sidekick, Butchy Boy, who appeared in a ringmasters uniform. Jayark Films created 20 five minute Bozo cartoons in 1958 and produced 136 Bozo cartoons from 1959-1962. Bozo promised zany situations with popular guests stars, whether it was Wacko Wolf taking the clown up in an airplane he didn’t know how to fly or his battles with Slippery Bly (Peter Lorrie caricature) who always tried to rob Bozo of precious valuables, a flying carpet, for instance. Harmon distinguished Bozo with a trademark laugh.

Archie's trapeze rescue

Reggie clutches Archie's feet while rescuing Jughead and Hot Dog

Reggie clutches Archie's feet while rescuing Jughead and Hot Dog

Archie Comics adapted into cartoon series

The Archies Saturday morning animated series was produced by Norm Prescott and Lou Schiemer. It was adapted from Bob Montana's Archie Comics, created in 1941. Hal Sutherland was the director. Filmation distributed the series. CBS televised it in 1968. Only 17 half hour shows were produced. Each show contained two 11 minute animated shorts. The Archie Show was the first Saturday morning cartoon to include a laugh track. Archie is joined by his friends from Riverdale High School, Betty and Veronica, Jughead, Reggie, and their pet dog, Hot Dog. The Archies were like an animated The Monkees (rock band) and sang a theme song. Songwriter Don Kirshner organized the musical production.

The Circus starred the male cast. Archie, Reggie, and Jughead attend the circus looking for part time jobs. Reggie is enthusiastic about a sign that reads, WANTED: CIRCUS ACTS. Reggie encourages Archie to join the circus as trapeze artists. Archie is reluctant because he doesn’t have training. Reggie tells him they can perform their school gym exercise.

Reggie finds a lion fur outfit and puts it on Hot Dog. Jughead practices a wild animal routine, harmless fun until the real lion shows up. Reggie gets nervous about heights; he and Archie climb a high ladder. Archie and Reggie swing down to save Jughead and Hot dog. The lion chases the boys around and messes up their act. The cartoon includes a human cannonball act. The lion shoots Reggie out of a cannon. Later, the boys get a part time job bathing elephants.

Snoopy falls for a poodle


Snoopy the beagle nicknamed Hugo the Great

CBS television network first aired Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown, October 24, 1980. The 20th primetime television special starred Snoopy. Other Peanut characters created by Charles Schultz added background support. The black and white beagle hears a musical circus kaliope and checks out a traveling circus train. He sees a performing poodle, Fifi, and it's love at first sight.

Lovesick Snoopy hangs around Fifi and works for her act. The dog trainer, Polly, communicates with the colonel, a head circus man, who wants Snoopy trained. Charlie Brown is troubled Snoopy has not returned home. He witnesses Snoopy leave town with the traveling Circus.

Snoopy becomes Hugo the Great. He is trained to ride a unicycle and balance it on the highwire. He also becomes a trapeze artist with Fifi as his partner.

Everything is great until the colonel tells Polly to paint Snoopy with pink food coloring.

Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown won an Emmy Award (1981) for Outstanding Animated Program.

Ben the bear excited about two clowns


Ben & Bella teach children how to read

Ben (bear) & Bella (hippo) are colorful characters targeted for 3-7 year old children. Fish Blowing Bubbles produced the animated series from 2003-2005 to help children learn how to read. Ben & Bella were animated in-house, cartoon-shaded, and 3 dimensional.

Ben the Clown is a circus story. Ben & Bella are marveling over circus clowns, their red bulb noses, big feet, and their juggling ball and spinning dish tricks. The ringmaster is horrified one of the clowns is ill. Bella blows a magic bubble that turns Ben into a clown and he takes the sick clown’s place.

Ray Harryhausen interview

Yogi the bear clown disguise


Full length circus animation

RKO produced Mighty Joe Young in 1949. The movie featured live actors, but the gigantic gorilla was animated from a three dimensional model. A young girl raises a baby gorilla in an African jungle and names him Mighty Joe Young. A New York stage show producer is amazed at the size and strength of the gorilla. He offers Joe’s owner a contract. She accepts, travels to New York and performs “Beautiful Dreamer” on the piano, taming the gorilla. Mighty Joe lifts her up on a big round disc. Three prankster men shatter their dream. They intoxicate Joe in his cell, where he is depressed. He goes berserk and severely damages the nightclub. He also frees lions that were exhibited behind a glass case. Policemen want to kill him.

Willis H. O’Brien was credited for special-effects but Ray Harryhausen completed 85%-90% of his first career stop-motion animation and fulfilled O’Brien’s designs and storyboards. Frustration makes Mighty Joe Young hit the ground with his powerful fist. Ray Harryhausen thought about the idea from a scene from the original King Kong (1933). Pete Peterson earned his first stop-motion animating job and left the grip. The New York nightclub was designed from the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles.

Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear was the first theatrical feature for Hanna Barbara's animated productions and distributed by Columbia Pictures (1964). The musical score and songs were written by Ray Gilbert, Doug Goodwin, and Marty Paich. Daws Butler vocalized Yogi Bear. Don Messick provided voice overs for Ranger John Smith and Boo Boo Bear. Mel Blanc provided voice overs for Conductor Bear and Grifter Chizzling.

The animated feature followed the adventures of Yogi Bear in Jellystone National Park from his popular 30 minute Yogi Bear Show. Yogi awakens from winter hibernation in spring and is at war with Ranger Smith over stealing picnic basket' food. Yogi is upset about the ranger’s strict guidelines and wants the “Don’t Feed the Bears” signs torn down. The ranger refuses and plans on sending Yogi to San Diego Zoo. But Yogi doesn’t leave. Another bear secretly takes his place. Yogi terrorizes the park by stealing picnic baskets, nicknamed “the Brown Phantom.” But love becomes a stronger motive for Yogi than food. Cindy the Bear deliberately misbehaves because she wants Ranger Smith to send her to be with Yogi in San Diego. But the Ranger sends her to the St. Louis Zoo.

Boo-Boo discovers that Yogi didn’t leave the park and tells him about Cindy. Yogi and Boo-Boo plan an escape and rescue her. Cindy’s cage falls out of the train and she is abducted by The Chizzling Circus. A dog chases Cindy up a telephone pole and makes her walk the line. Grifter Chizzling makes Cindy walk the tightrope in his circus. He is a corrupt circus owner and will do anything to make money, locking up Cindy in a cage, for instance. There are bright circus highlights. Yogi disguises himself as a bear to save Cindy. Yogi, Cindy, and Boo-Boo, escape in a clown car that makes exploding sounds and falls apart. Yogi and Boo-Boo perform a parade musical number on their way to the circus.

Cindy the bear is a remake from Acrobatty Yogi, an animated short from the Yogi Bear Show (1961). She was colored blue, a circus performer, and not as warm and romantic as the movie version.

Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted (2012) is a computer animated comedy produced by DreamWorks Animation. Theaters released it as a stereoscopic 3D movie. Artists look at 2D storyboards and envision characters into a “CG (computer graphic) environment.” Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller) and his friends vacation away from the zoo and join Circus Zaragoza in France. They are being followed by Animal Control Captain: Chantel DuBois. The zoo animals pretend they are circus animal performers.

Open Season 3 (2010) is a computer animation comedy. Kirk Bodyfelt produced it for Sony Pictures Animation and Reel FX Creative Studios. It is old Warner Brothers’ style animation: They rendered simple characterization by using exaggerated shapes and squash and stretch technique. But backgrounds are detailed, numerous layers for computer animation.

Open Season 3 (2010) uses a “Prince and Pauper” theme (Mark Twain). Boog, a grizzly bear, and his friends take a vacation trip and runs into a Russian travelling circus called the “Maslova Family Circus. Doug, a performing bear, is tired of performing and wants Boog to take his place. Boog falls in love with Ursa, a grizzly bear tightrope artist, juggler and dancer. She thinks he’s Doug. Doug deceives Boog's friends in the forest. Once the deception is discovered, Boogs friends take Boog back from the Russian circus. Doug resumes his role as circus performer. Ursa joins Boog and lives in the forest. The production did an outstanding job illustrating circus animals and background.

Big Top Scooby-Doo (2012) was produced by Spike Brandt for Warner Brothers Animation. Scooby-Doo and his friends visit Atlantic City but get involved with the strange Brancusi Circus. Werewolves are stealing jewelry from a museum and stealing from the circus. Fred learns trapeze. Velma reluctantly plays human cannonball. Daphne rides a motorcycle through circus loops and the globe; she also plays a clown. Shaggy and Scooby play clowns. Scooby wears a coned hat, balances his feet on a big ball, juggles pins, and balances spinning dishes.

Traveling circus surrounds Ben the lion


Art sketches of circus animals and acrobats

Scooby and his pals play circus performers



The circus provides wonderful inspiration for animated art and showcases animated animals. It’s amazing how many animators couldn't resist the human cannonball trick. Black and white circus animated shorts were part of early technological advancement. Early Walter Lantz's The Dizzy Acrobat and Disney’s Dumbo, reveal marvelous colorful background variety. Present day animators accomplished impressive circus art themselves. Circus animation endured through classic innovation, controversial censorship, copyright infringement and was a model for modern computer graphic technology.

Animated film reference (Life is a Circus, Charlie Brown)

Boog the bear impersonates Doug the grizzly



Nithya Venkat from Dubai on January 15, 2018:

An interesting and informative post, enjoyed reading. Who can resist the circus, I for one enjoyed watching circus shows. The animators have sure brought the circus acts alive.

Gilbert Arevalo (author) from Hacienda Heights, California on January 31, 2017:

Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it.