The unusual and often funny cartoons in "Films From the Animation Preservation Project," screening tonight as part of the ninth Festival of Preservation of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, offer a welcome antidote to the seen-everything-on-video summer doldrums. Made between 1916 and 1942, these rare shorts cover a wide array of styles and subjects.
In "Koko's Earth Control" (1928), one the cleverest entries in the "Out of the Inkwell" series, the artists at the Fleischer studio combined animation, live action and still photographs with surprising sophistication to depict a comic vision of the end of the world (that no doubt cost less than a day's catering on "Armageddon").
"Koko's Earth Control" and several other shorts showcase "rubber hose animation," a style developed in the early 1920s. The artists transformed their characters' bodies into lumps of putty and their limbs into sections of flexible pipe that could be stretched, twisted or bounced for comic effect. Normally inanimate objects grow limbs and faces for gags. When Bimbo lights a Bunsen burner in "Betty Boop's Penthouse" (1933), the flame becomes a little figure who strikes a match, lights a cigar and settles down in comfort. This appealing, loose-limbed style of cartooning was replaced by solid, carefully drawn animation of the Disney studio during the 1930s, but it retains an ingenuous charm.
A few of the films have historical associations. In Walter Lantz's "Confidence" (1933), Oswald Rabbit takes on the Depression--depicted as an evil specter--with a little help from a caricature of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Quick injections of "confidence" stop the run on the local bank, and soon everyone is happily singing and dancing. The hero and heroine of the Winkler studio's "Circus Time" (1930) are copied from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, who had debuted to success two years earlier--only the ears have been changed.
But much of Mickey's charm came from the well-constructed stories, the area where most of these films are weakest. "Circus Time" is little more than a string of random gags. The artists at the Pat Powers studio were clearly trying to equal Disney's "Silly Symphonies" in "The Brave Tin Soldier" (1934). But the film lacks the assured storytelling and polished animation that made the Disney shorts so memorable. Even the innocent charm of "The Sky Princess" (1942), a George Pal Puppetoon, can't hide its lack of plot and character development.
Among the rarest works are two short films by Tony Sarg, an early master of silhouette animation, a technique that involves the manipulation of underlit paper cutouts. A troop of acrobats entertains Old King Cole with extravagant stunts in a commercial for the 1926 Christmas Seal campaign. In "Baron Bragg and the Devilish Dragon" (1922), a Don Quixote-esque knight drinks too much, then tries to fool his wife with tales of his heroic adventures. The graceful animation of the cutout figures plays nicely against the silliness of the story.
"Baron Bragg" also reveals how badly the surviving animated films need preservation. Several sequences are marred by splotches from the only surviving nitrate print, which was all the archivists had to work with: A few more years of neglect and this gem would have been lost forever.
"Films From the Animation Preservation Project" screens at 7:30 p.m. in the James Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall at UCLA. General admission: $6; students and seniors: $4. Program information: (310) 206-FILM.