Saturday 23 July 2016

RKO's New Star

Felix the Cat couldn’t beat a mouse.

The rodent he was dealing with wasn’t an ordinary one. It was Mickey Mouse.

The year was 1936. RKO was releasing cartoons featuring Felix, who had been off the screen for several years thanks to the death of a) silent films and b) the man credited with creating him, Pat Sullivan. In the intervening period, Disney rose to reign over the theatrical animated world thanks to a) Mickey, b) Flowers and Trees, a Technicolor milestone and c) The Three Little Pigs, arguably the most popular cartoon to that point.

Mickey had jumped from Columbia to United Artists, but Walt Disney was looking for a better deal for his cartoons. In the meantime, RKO had been releasing cartoons by the Van Beuren studio, of which it was a part owner. Van Beuren was in a state of turmoil, with characters and staff coming and going, exacerbated in 1934 when the director of the aforementioned pigs cartoon, Burt Gillett, was hired and put in charge. Gillett’s cartoons looked like night and day compared to the fun, quirky and not always well drawn Van Beuren shorts of 1930, but it wasn’t enough. RKO decided it wanted the world’s most famous cartoon character.

Daily Variety reported, in part, on March 3, 1936:
Radio Captures Disney

Disney cartoons will release via RKO exchanges for 1936-37 season. Producer pulls away from United Artists when he fulfills present commitment of five cartoons on current program.
Papers were signed late last night, after negotiations covering month. Leo Spitz, president of RKO, M . H. Aylesworth, chairman of board, and Ned Depinet, president of RKO Distributing Corp., sat in for releasing company, Walt and Roy Disney taking care of their end with attorney Gunther Lessing.
Releasing All Product
Agreement provides for RKO to release all Disney product, including Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphony cartoon shorts. Producer has been working on feature cartoon, 'Snow White,' expects to have it ready for spring release.
Understood main reason Disney jumped away from United Artists was his not getting owner-partnership share when Alexander Korda was taken in last fall. Another reason was unsettled affairs of U A with various executive changes, Disney figuring RKO deal, which gives him guaranteed negative cost on every subject produced, is safer than U A release without negative advances and does not require as much operating capital.
Here are some trade ads heralding the Mouse’s impending arrival.

But what of the Van Beuren cartoons? Weekly Variety reported on March 11th:
Disney Ousts Van B.?
Conflict in type of shorts product may result in RKO's dropping of Rainbow Parade cartoons, produced by Van Beuren Corp. next season. Addition of Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies gives the company a surplus of animated cartoons. RKO claims it is not definitely set on any change thus far. Van Beuren series includes Felix the Cat, Toonerville Trolley, etc.
Other Van Reuren product which includes five other series of short features, probably will remain set unless RKO decides two-reelers are not profitable in face of influx of dual programs.
But drop Van Beuren it did. The studio was closed by June. The last Van Beuren cartoon released was Toonerville Picnic, directed by Gillett, on October 2nd. RKO’s first Disney cartoon wasn’t released until September 21, 1937—Hawaiian Holiday. A couple of months later, the studio released The Old Mill, which won an Oscar. And Disney had acquired a new director, and from Van Beuren no less. Burt Gillett had toddled home.


  1. I thought "Toonerville Picnic" was the last Van Beuren release.

  2. Jonathan, you're correct. My information came from Boxoffice magazine issues of 1936. They don't mention the short at all.
    I've gone through Motion Picture Herald, which has it listed in the short film section that year.