Some of my feelings may stem from the fact that so many of my family’s birthdays fall in the extended holiday season (mine comes right after X-mas). I absolutely love hunting down the perfect gift for my family and friends.
Here is a little present for fans of animated shorts. Enjoy!
- Christmas Comes But Once a Year from 1936.
- Peace on Earth from 1939.
- Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas from 1941.
- Santa’s Surprise from 1947.
- and Hector’s Hectic Life from 1948.
Christmas Comes But Once a Year
First up is a nine minute animated short from December 4, 1936, titled Christmas Comes But Once a Year. This short was produced by Fleischer Studios and released by Paramount Pictures as part of its Color Classics series. The Color Classics animated shorts were Paramount’s attempt to compete with Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies shorts.
Christmas Comes But Once a Year is a notable cartoon for several reasons. First off, it stars a character named Grampy. Professor Grampy “appeared in nine of the later Betty Boop cartoons in the mid-1930s”. “Grampy is an ever-cheerful and energetic senior citizen with a bald head and a white beard. His primary activities include singing, dancing, and building Rube Goldberg-esque devices out of ordinary household items”.
Even though Grampy appears in Betty Boop cartoons there is some question about his exact relationship to Betty. Sometimes he is shown living in an apartment one floor above Betty’s, sometimes he is shown living in a separate house. Also, everyone calls him “Grampy”, not just Betty, so it’s unknown whether he is actually Betty’s own “Grampy” or just a friend with that nickname.
Christmas Comes But Once a Year is the only animated short in which Grampy ever appeared other than the nine Betty Boop shorts. Also, this is the only time that Grampy was ever seen in color – the nine Betty Boop shorts he was in were all in black and white.
The beginning and ending of Christmas Comes But Once a Year was also filmed using a special process called the Stereoptical Camera. In this process “three-dimensional sets were created so that animation cels could be placed in a realistic background allowing the characters to move about on an actual miniature stage”. The main body of the animated short is filmed in a more conventional manner but the Stereoptical Camera technique is very noticeable in the opening scenes at the very beginning of the outside of the orphanage and the scenes at the very end of Grampy’s special Christmas tree. It creates a very interesting and different effect.
Christmas Comes But Once a Year takes place on Christmas Day. The little orphans at an orphanage wake up and happily begin to sing and play with their presents. But their presents all quickly fall apart and the little orphans are left devastated and crying inconsolably. Grampy is driving around in his motorized sled and singing (the same song as the orphans):
Christmas comes but once a year.
Now it’s here, now it’s here
Bringing lots of joy and cheer.
Tra la la la la!
You and me and he and she
And we are glad because
Why because because because
There is a Santa Claus!
Christmas comes but once a year.
Now it’s here, now it’s here
Bringing lots of joy and cheer
Tra la la la la!
Grampy hears the sounds of the orphans crying and stops to investigate: “What’s the matter in here, I wonder? Looks like a pretty gloomy Christmas for those poor kids. What can I do? Let me think…”
Will Grampy be able to turn the orphans’ gloomy Christmas into a happy Christmas?
Grampy sets to work making new presents for the orphans. Some of his inventions are quite clever. He decorates the orphanage and dresses himself as Santa Claus. Grampy also makes an unique Christmas tree that is very inventive and that part of the ending is filmed in the Stereoptical Camera. These scenes, like the opening scenes, looks very interesting and noticeably different from the rest of the cartoon.
The orphans themselves all look exactly alike except for different hair color with the exception of one little baby orphan who looks different from all the others. The look-alike orphans all have a distinct look that reminds me of the typical woebegone waif seen in dozens of silent movies.
The audio quality of the animated short is very good. The visual quality is also good. There is some blurriness in places and some of the colors have faded but overall the short is pretty bright and cheerful looking. The story zips along quickly and the title tune is very catchy. Fans of animated shorts of all ages should enjoy Grampy’s exploits and may very well have a new favorite Christmas tune.
The Internet Archive does have three versions of Christmas Comes But Once a Year. One version has an American Sign Language interpreter. There are a few scenes cut out of the ASL version:
- There is no opening song.
- The children do not yell “Merry Christmas” or sing the song.
- The baby does not sing.
- Grampy does not sing the song or talk.
- There is no final song.
- Basically the Christmas Comes But Once a Year song is entirely cut out.
Peace on Earth
Our next animated short is not the usual Holiday fun-filled romp. Oh, it is cute and funny but there is a very serious message about the effects of war in this animated short from December 9, 1939 that runs eight minutes and twenty-seven seconds.
Peace on Earth was directed by Hugh Harman for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The story is set during a winter holiday celebrated by small animals. The animals (squirrels, rabbits, chipmunks) wear clothes and live in a pretty little village. Many of the houses are made from soldiers’ helmets. Grandpa Squirrel comes to visit his family.
The two baby squirrels ask their grandfather who the “men” are in the holiday song everyone is singing. Grandpa then tells them about the “orneriest, cussedest, dag-nab tribe of varmints” he ever saw. And the never ending wars of men that finally ended with all men dead.
Certainly a very serious message. But our animated short, Peace on Earth, is not overly sad or depressing. The scenes of warfare (very much a World War I setting) and of faceless marching soldiers and guns and tanks are sandwiched between scenes of the adorable little creatures who inherited the Earth. The little animals have built a quaint little village and have loving families and have apparently learned the lessons featured in the book they found in a ruined church (an implied Bible).
MGM realized that Peace on Earth was much more than just a fun cartoon and gave it special promotional treatment. “In a darkly ironic note,” several of the short’s animators were World War I veterans and had experienced warfare of the sort depicted in Peace on Earth yet, in just a few more years, they would be turning their talents from making an anti-war film to making “wartime propaganda cartoons” during World War II.
Peace on Earth was remade in CinemaScope in 1955. The remake was titled Good Will to Men and showed more modern and destructive forms of warfare. Both the original, Peace on Earth (1939), and the remake, Good Will to Men (1955), were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Short Subjects in 1939 and in 1955. Peace on Earth was the first ever MGM cartoon to be nominated for an Academy Award. It was also the first animated short to receive a medal from Parents’ Magazine. And, in 1994, professional animators voted Peace on Earth number 40 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons.
Peace on Earth is a beautiful little film. The color palette for the little creatures is clear and bright. The color palette for the wars of man is drab and blurry. The two little baby squirrels are absolutely adorable while the soldiers in gas masks are faceless, scary-looking, inhuman monsters. The audio is clear and excellent. Peace on Earth also features the music to the Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” but with new and original lyrics written just for the animated short.
Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas
Our third animated short in another MGM cartoon, this time from 1941. Tom and Jerry is an animated series that was created in 1940 by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The series “centers on a rivalry between its two main characters, Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse”. The series features silly fights and slapstick comedy.
Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas was the third Tom and Jerry short to be released to theaters. It was released to theaters on December 6, 1941, just one day before the Japanese attack on the USA naval fleet at Pearl Harbor. This short film is the last Tom and Jerry adventure before the USA entered World War II. Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas, like Peace on Earth (1939) before it, was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Short Subject in 1941.
This animated short features Jerry Mouse having a grand old time playing with the toys under a Christmas tree. But the little mouse mistakes a sleeping Tom Cat for a stuffed toy and bounces on him and wakes him up. Tom is not very happy about it and chases Jerry around the house.
Will Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse be able to put aside their differences and have a happy Christmas?
The Tom and Jerry series was the highest grossing cartoon series by the 1960s. But the series is also “infamous for some of the most violent cartoon gags ever devised in theatrical animation”.
Fortunately, our Holiday cartoon is nowhere near as violent as some of the worse in the series. Yes, Tom gets bounced on, electrified when he grabs a Christmas light socket, punched with a boxing glove, and kicked in the rear. And, yes, Jerry gets chased around, knocked off a toy train, and frozen solid in the cold and snow outside. But, really, this is pretty mild compared to what the twosome get up to in some of their other adventures. And the main message of the animated short is about finding harmony, and maybe even friendship, during the Holidays.
I actually remember watching this particular short film many times as I was growing up. The audio and visual quality of the Internet Archive version is every bit as clear and sharp as when I was a kid. Tom and Jerry was one of my favorite cartoon series and I think Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas is one of their best adventures.
Our fourth animated short is a Noveltoon from Famous Studios that premiered on December 5, 1947.
Santa’s Surprise is about seven children from around the world who sneak a ride on Santa’s sleigh back to his home in the North Pole. Once the exhausted Santa has fallen asleep, the children decide to do something nice for Santa and clean his messy home and workshop.
Santa’s Surprise features a young girl character named Little Audrey. Audrey’s first cartoon appearance was in Santa’s Surprise but her character is actually derived from “a fictional character in folklore” who was often the butt of jokes (often dirty jokes). Paramount created Little Audrey after they decided not to renew the license on another, earlier, girl character named Little Lulu. Little Audrey went on to star in a series of Paramount Pictures’ Famous Studios animated shorts from 1947 to 1958.
In Santa’s Surprise, Little Audrey is the leader of the children who stow away to Santa’s home. The other six children are all very stereotyped representations. Little Audrey, herself, seems to be from New York City. All the other children feature very stereotyped, and often racist, clothes or features. The Russian boy sports a large fur hat, the Dutch boy wears wooden shoes. The Hawaiian girl wears a grass skirt and a lei, the Spanish girl wears a veil over her hair. The Japanese boy has extremely tilted eyes, and the African-American boy’s face is drawn in black-face. All are representations that were common at the time but can be disturbing to modern fans of animated shorts.
However, all the children cooperate and work together equally. The children all undertake various jobs to clean up Santa’s messy domain. The Dutch boy repeatedly gets into trouble for making noise. First his wooden shoes are too loud (Audrey fixes that by tying pillows to his shoes) but he also bumps into things, knocks things over, and breaks dishes.
The Internet Archive has two versions of Santa’s Surprise. One version is the original cartoon. The second version includes an American Sign Language interpreter. Both versions are very bright and colorful with clear audio. But there are a few scenes cut out of the Sign Language version including:
- Santa’s song as he delivers the toys
- The children planning what to do for Santa
- The song the children sing as they clean
- The African-American boy shining Santa’s shoes
- In fact, all speaking and singing is deleted from the ASL version.
The deleted scenes do not distract from the ASL version although the songs are rather cute especially Santa’s song. There is one funny mistake at the very end of Santa’s Surprise. The little calendar that the children leave for Santa shows December as having only 30 days not the actual 31.
Hector’s Hectic Life
Next up is a six minute long animated short titled Hector’s Hectic Life. This short was produced by Famous Studios (renamed Paramount Cartoon Studios in 1956) and released by Paramount on November 19, 1948.
I actually remember watching this animated short many times when I was growing up. In this short, Hector the dog lives an easy life. His only problem is that he is very messy and the Swedish housekeeper is tired of his messes. The housekeeper threatens to throw him out in the cold if he makes one more mess.
Of course, right then there is a knock at the door. Hector looks out to see a basket on the stoop. Hector thinks it is a Christmas present for him from Santa Claus. But inside the basket are three adorable little puppies – they all look just like Hector.
The sweet puppies are very rambunctious and very eager to explore and play. Before Hector realizes what’s happening he has one mess after another to clean up. Will Hector be able to keep his happy home or will the three little puppies cause one mess too many?
Even though the title of this short is Hector’s Hectic Life, Hector does not seem to really be the dog’s name. When the housekeeper calls him by name, she uses the name “Princie”. And, at one point, when Hector / Princie is day dreaming about getting a present from Santa Claus, the name on the present’s tag is “Princie”. I’ve no idea why the dog’s name was changed. Maybe it should be “Prince Hector”?
There is a very funny dream sequence after Hector takes drastic action concerning the puppies. In his dream, a tiny Hector-angel scolds Hector and a tiny red Hector-devil supports his decision. The too sweet voice of the angel and the broad slang of the devil are hilarious:
Angel-Hector scolds Hector / Princie, “For shame! Your soul to the devil you have sold, by throwing those puppies out into the cold!” But devil-Hector protests, “Dog gone if that ain’t chinzy! Aww, don’t be a shnook, angel puss. Come down off da clouds. Why should he lose his happy home for them dopes, see?” But angel-Hector is determined and punches devil-Hector away, “No! Those innocent babes, into the cold you’ve driven. Go! Bring them back and all will be forgiven.”
The audio quality of Hector’s Hectic Life is excellent and so is the visual quality. The colors are bright and vivid. Hector is a cute, if somewhat dopey looking, dog and the three little puppies are absolutely adorable, especially when they are defending Hector / Princie. This is a completely delightful little holiday cartoon.
Of course the very best thing about both of these animated shorts is that they are FREE in the Public Domain.
The Internet Archive has three versions of Christmas Comes But Once a Year. Watch the first version of Christmas Comes But Once a Year, the most popular of the three versions although the colors are more subdued and blurry. The colors in this version are much more vivid. There’s also has a third version of Christmas Comes But Once a Year that includes American Sign Language segments.
The Internet Archive has only one version of Peace on Earth.
The Internet Archive also has only one version of Tom and Jerry: The Night Before Christmas.
The Internet Archive has two versions of Santa’s Surprise. Watch original version of Santa’s Surprise. This version has no deleted scenes and includes all talking and singing. To watch the American Sign Language version of Santa’s Surprise. This version has music but no singing or talking and has several scenes deleted.
The Internet Archive only has one version of Hector’s Hectic Life.