Years of Creation 1937-1940

I’m amazed how many things that I would have thought were of very long duration, or which crystallized over a long period of time, actually were created in a brief period of about four years. These include not only seminal characters, but also classes of characters and entertainment.

First big feature-length cartoon – There were other cases of feature-length cartoons in Germany and South America, but Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937 was the first all-color feature length cartoon , and it was a major event. It was followed by Pinocchio and Fantasia (both 1940), again ground-breaking for various reasons. 1937 also saw the first use of the Multiplane camera in the short The Old Mill before it was used in the feature films, giving an improved three dimensionality to the cartoons. Again, there were similar devices used in other cartoons, but the Disney multiplane would see much greater and broader use than the other systems.

Comic Book Superheros – Yes, there was The Phantom slightly earlier, and other heroes with incredible powers earlier, but 1938 saw the introduction of Superman, 1939 saw Batman and the Human Torch and Namor the Submariner. There were lots of other, lesser heroes (who endured) introduced at the same time – The Sandman, Hawkman, Green Lantern, etc. Captain America got a slightly later start, in 1941, but I’m not lengthening the time period just for him. The point is, you had a series of not only iconic, long-lasting characters, but the whole idea and milieu of super-heroes all coming together in that brief period.

Big Budget Color Movies – Yeah, there were big movies and color movies before, but, besides the above-mentioned Snow White and the Sven Dwarfs, you also had The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind, both 1939. Both game-changers.

Warner Brother cartoon characters – Warner Brothers had its big characters before – most famously Porky Pig (1935), but their other creatures – Foxy, Beans (Porky’s original “teammate” – “Porky and Beans”), Bosko the Talk-Ink Kid – really didn’t catch on, nd weren’t much of a match for Disney’s stable of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, The Goof 9later “Goofy”), and others. Then lightning struck in rapid succession , giving them first Daffy Duck (1937) and then Bugs Bunny (1938-1940. He took time to develop).

Abbott and Costello – They’d been a team since 1935, but first appeared on radio in 1938, then in film in 1940. They weren’t headliners in their first feature, and the studio still wasn’t sure about them in Hold that Ghost, but they quickly took over and became major money-makers for Universal, and continued until the mid-1950s

The Dead End Kids/Bowery Boys – and lots of other names in between. It’s hard to believe they started out in a serious drama, Sidney Kingsley’s Dead End in 1935. This got turned into a serious film with Humphrey Bogart in 1937. The original kids, from the stage play, were a hot property and made a series of semiserious films with the likes of Jimmy Cagney and John Garfield. Then various combinations of them made films with carious studios under names like East Side Kids, Little Tough Guys, and finally The Bowery Boys. Through these some or all of the original bunch stayed together, – Leo Gorcey, Huntz Hall, Gabriel Dell, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Bernard Punsley. I grew up watching The Bowery Boys on Metromedia channel 5 out of New York City. I think Huntz Hall is the only one who continued on to the series end with poverty-row producer Monogram in 1957 (by which time I had been born).

Guitarist and inventor Les Paul built “The Log,” the prototype for his solid-body electric guitar design, in 1940.

You’re a historian, yeah @CalMeacham ? Any personal theories as to why this is?

I’m an amateur historian. Take any of my suggestions with a grain of salt.

Although the long-held view was that the Depression was ended by the start of WWII, more recently there developed the idea that the world was pulling out of it by the late 1930s. Ironically, the buildup of armies just before the War might have been a big factor in this. Here’s the relevant section in the Wikipedia entry on The Great Depression:

Even before this there had been things to try to get people excited and spending money (and which activated creative juices). The Chicago Centenniel Exposition of 1933 was an audacious thing to try to organize during the Depression. The Great Lakes Expo of 1937 coincides with the start of the period I marked.
So I suspect that by then things were beginning to loosen up. There were ideas around that hadn’t found an outlet earlier that could now find backing and an audience. Disney could get money to finance a full-blown feature film. A couple of years later Paramount sprang for Fleischer Studios to move its cartoon unit to Florida, where they brought out the competing Gulliver’s Travels.

When Merian C. Cooper wanted to make She in 1934 it was going to be in full color. The studio axed that at the last minute, and the film was made in black and white. But by 1939 MGM felt that they could finance Technicolor feature films like Wizard of Oz and the extremely long and complex Gone with the Wind.

There were cartoons throughout the 1930s, so I don’t know why Warner Brothers’ creative burst came in The Period. But I notice that Disney Studios had an exclusivity deal with Technicolor (Walt was involved in helping foster so-called “three-strip technicolor”) that ended in 1936. Until then other cartoons had to be in black and white or in things like Cinecolor (which gave you green and orange and combinations thereof). Disney had yellows and reds and real blues – until 1936. After that, the Fleischer Studios (Popeye, Gulliver’s Travels) and Warner Brothers (Porky, Daffy, Bugs etc.) could make cartoons in color. That might have contributed to that particular outburst.

A few others I hadn’t mentioned – Fleischer made its two-reel color Popeye cartoons in that period. It was shortly after my self-imposed range that their second feature came out, Mr. Bug Goes to Town in 1941. They also made several series of cartoons in that period that are mostly forgotten today – the Gabby cartoons (based on a character in Gulliver’s Travels) and the Stone Age cartoons (whose modern-technology-using-prehistoric-animals gags Hanna Barbera strip-mined for The Flintstones) Fleischer also took advantage of the newly-developed Comic Book Heroes to launch a new type of cartoon – the Superhero action cartoon, which wasn’t a series of goofy gags, but a short adventure with more realistic-looking characters. The cartoons and the comic books promoted and influenced each other.

I’m not sure about the rise of those particular movie characters, but it might be because with the easing of the Depression people had more money and more interest in going to the movies (and the wherewithal to do it).

Disney really was quite an innovator. The entertainment world really was lucky that he was able to sell his ideas so well.

Some films were just unlucky to be released at the wrong time. “Goodbye Mr Chips” was also released in 1939, and nominated for seven Academy Awards (it won one - Robert Donat for Best Actor). Five if the remaining six awards were won by “Gone with the Wind”.

One of my favorites of all time.

Tangentially, that period coincided with the innovative concept of the US Government paying people to just to create art and entertainment as part of the Works Progress Administration.