If you grew up in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, you enjoyed an era when cartoons were at their best. You either saw them at the movies (sometimes as the introduction or intermission at the Drive-In) or on Saturday mornings.
I have watched a few modern cartoons on the cartoon channel, and — let me tell ya — they don’t hold a candle to the stuff 50 or 60 years ago. The cartoons of yesteryear had far better artwork, better story lines, often promoted patriotism (especially during World War II), and were hysterically funny. In fact, many of the cartoons had humor that went right past kids but definitely connected with adults (and it was still clean!).
Here are the 10 best cartoons from long ago. I’m sure you can add a few of your favorites to this list. Find these ‘toons on DVD for sale somewhere, get them, and show them to your kids. They’ll love them!
1. Max Fleischer cartoons.
Max Fleischer (1883-1972) was one of the greatest pioneers in animation in the 20th century. He is the creator of Betty Boop, the animated version of Popeye the Sailor, Ko-Ko the Clown (from the “Out of the Inkwell” series) and the full length animated movie “Gulliver’s Travels.” He also later produced the first Superman cartoons throughout the 1940s. I remember watching his “Gulliver’s Travels” on some Sunday afternoon when I was little. His cartoons were known for their “fluidness” of motion, really cute humor, and seriousness (as in Gulliver and Superman).
Here’s a sample of some of his genius:
2. Walt Disney Studios.
When people think of the early days of animation they usually think of Walt Disney (1901-1966). When I was a kid, the greatest treat on television was Sunday nights watching “the Wonderful World of Disney.” There was Tinker Bell flying around Cinderella’s castle, and — lo and behold — there was Walt Disney himself! It got even better if they were going to show Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck cartoons. The whole hour was just magical.
It was the genius of Disney that gave us Mickey, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Chip and Dale, and all those great full-length animated movies such as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Peter Pan” (my favorite), “Cinderella,” “The Sword in the Stone” and “The Jungle Book” (my other favorite). When I was little, I noticed a difference between Disney cartoons and Saturday morning programming, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I figured it out … Disney’s artists painted so much more detail, with so many more cells per frame. That is why even the backgrounds looked so rich and deep and the characters flowed, instead of looking “choppy” and stilted.
Here are some of my favorite scenes from Disney films:
3. Bugs Bunny.
The artists and writers at Warner Brothers created Bugs Bunny and his “Looney Tunes” pals. Although I love Fleischer and Disney, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Friz Freleng (along with voiceovers from the amazing Mel Blanc) were simply the best when it comes to creating hilariously funny characters and stories.
I remember sitting in my father’s lap on Saturday morning and watching Bugs Bunny and the Roadrunner. Even years after I had seen virtually every Bugs Bunny episode (there were many that were never aired on Saturday morning), Daddy and I would still laugh until our sides ached. It really was that funny. I can still hear him laugh.
Who can forget the characters of Porky Pig, Daffy Duck (a Duck you can actually understand!), Marvin the Martian, the Tazmanian Devil, Foghorn Leghorn, Sylvester the Cat, and Tweety Bird? I think these cartoons were also my introduction to classical music with Bugs and Elmer Fudd in “The Rabbit of Seville” and “What’s Opera Doc?” Even the vocabulary of these cartoons — from Bugs’ “What’s Up Doc?” to Elmer’s silly laugh, to Tweety’s “I tawt I taw a puddy tat!” — has entered our daily vocabulary.
I noticed some time in the early 1970s that some of the more “violent” scenes from Bugs Bunny cartoons had been cut out! Why? They thought we would actually blow ourselves up or drop a piano on someone? We were not morons back then (or today); the cartoons lost a lot of their “punch” due to stupid politically correct editing.
I will say, however, that not all of the “Looney Tunes” are acceptable for young audiences (or for any audience for that matter). In my search for this article, I discovered a few videos of some pretty awful examples of racism from about 70 years ago:
Nevertheless, the vast majority of these cartoons are gems, and if you gather your kids around for a fun night of cartoons, you will treat yourself to hours of side-splitting humor:
4. Tom and Jerry.
William Hanna and Joseph Barbara created this great classic in the 1940s. Again, I can see my father and me watching “Thomas and Jefferson” as he liked to say it. Simple formula: Tom is the cat and is trying to get Jerry the mouse. He never wins; the mouse always outsmarts him. Lots of laughter guaranteed (even though we see probably the most “violent” of all scenes in animation….no one took it seriously).
5. “Jonny Quest.”
I have recently discovered that SOME of my friends have NEVER heard of “Jonny Quest!” Can you believe that? Where have they been? (I’m just teasing, you know.) So, I will now educate you on the BEST Saturday morning cartoon that was made for a more “serious-minded” bunch of kids.
This Hanna-Barbera cartoon was not supposed to be funny; it was strictly about adventure. The story centers around young Jonny Quest, his pal Hadji (a kid from India who can levitate and charm snakes), Jonny’s dad Dr. Benton Quest (who is a great scientist), and their friend Race Bannon (who looks amazingly like Vice President Pence…coincidence?).
They go on adventure after adventure, dodging robot spies, mummies, giant lizards, monsters made in a laboratory … you name it. The animation was pretty good (not Disney or Warner Brothers good), the music could be good and creepy when it needed to be, but the storylines for the early 1960s were dynamite. You can see a lot of influence of this program in movies like “The Incredibles,” “Spy Kids,” and “Bolt.” I hear they are going to make a live-action film based off the cartoon! I can’t wait!
6. “The Flintstones” and the “Jetsons.”
I put these two Hanna-Barbera cartoons together since they came out at roughly the same time (“The Flintstones” came first in 1960), and they are the same theme. A good guy (Fred Flintstone in prehistoric era and George Jetson in the space-age future) is married to a great lady (Wilma for Fred, Jane for George), and together they go through all the hassles and foibles of working 40 hours a week and putting up with life in general. Fred or George always screw up, there are a ton of funny scenes, and somehow the heroes come out on top in the end.
I loved the theme songs to both shows (everyone my age can sing the songs flawlessly … just ask them), and much from the shows has entered our culture. People still joke about the cars the Flintstones would drive (I loved how they would brake), and we all know people who can “bark” like Dino the Dinosaur or laugh like Barney or Betty Rubble.
When I was a kid I thought for sure we’d be flying around in little space ships like the Jetsons by now. Well, maybe we will soon! Anyway, get some episodes on DVD and enjoy:
7. “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
These cartoons were originally made by ABC from 1959 to 1964, but were later picked up by NBC and put into syndication. “Rocky and Bullwinkle” were shuttled around various time slots on Saturday mornings, afternoons, and even on Sundays. Along with other cartoons made by the same people (“Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties,” “Peabody’s Improbable History,” and “Fractured Fairy Tales“) this show was just pure genius.
Such shows had comedy and adventure … but they were also political and social satire, loaded with dry wit and puns. I didn’t pick up on it when I was a kid, but looking back now I can see some of the animator’s sly comments slipped in. These cartoons are gold.
8. “The Pink Panther” (1969).
The name comes from the 1963 comedy, and the music is by the great Henry Mancini. The character is a silent pink panther who is able to constantly overcome the challenges of a large pink cat living in our modern society. We were usually treated to two “Pink Panther” episodes with an “Inspector” episode (based on the character Jacques Clouseau) wedged in between. The animation was pretty basic, but the story line was always fun.
There were no political agendas, nobody was offended, and all the slapstick stuff was in good humor.
9. Famous Classic Tales (1970-1984).
You may have never heard of these cartoons produced by CBS, but I remember them well. Unfortunately, they are pretty tough to find. These 31 cartoons introduced me to the classics when I was a child. I had never heard of Mark Twain’s tale of valor in the days of King Arthur until I saw this animated show. I remember vividly watching in awe at the story of “Ivanhoe,” and later “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
If you can find these cartoons on DVD, good luck. Amazon had them at one time but is sold out, and I could not find them on Ebay. I was able to find a few snippets on YouTube:
10. “Charlie Brown.”
Last, but certainly not least, Charles Schulz‘s Christmas and Halloween classics are iconic. Who can think of Christmas specials without Linus reciting the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2? And that wonderful jazz music just floats through your brain throughout the Christmas season.
Every time I think of Linus and Charlie Brown waiting for the Great Pumpkin, I just laugh. I remember how funny it was the very first time I saw it way back when I was just a little boy in 1966. Charles Schulz and his staff of writers and musicians were geniuses who gave us classics that make us think, make us smile, and will forever be a part of our families.
So, don’t despair of finding good quality entertainment for your kids. There are still plenty of great cartoons out there that your whole family can enjoy!