No other category of short-subject filmmaking enjoyed greater popularity in the sound era than animation, which, by the mid-1930s, had risen to become the favored genre of shorts among general audiences. In part, this reflects the abilities of animation studios to make the most of sound’s technological novelty. Walt Disney’s early experiments with sound-image relations in its sound-era debut Steamboat Willie (1928) ushered in the coordinates of a new comic world of musically timed action (“mickey mousing”) that quickly set an industry standard. Composer Carl Stalling – who had arranged Steamboat Willie’s score – furthered these experiments in his subsequent work for Warner Bros.’ Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes series, which weaved music ever more densely into the structure of cartoon humor. In short, synchronized sound was the magic carpet that swept the animation industry into its glorious years.
Also in the cartoon’s favor, though, was its flexibility in weathering the era’s changing exhibition practices: standardized at just a single reel, cartoons were less commonly abandoned from double bills than were their two-reel slapstick cousins. Not coincidentally, then, animation’s sound-era success was the direct inverse of live-action slapstick’s slow deterioration. The very qualities of absurdist action that had once characterized the American slapstick tradition were now more easily taken over by cartoons. Animation directors at Warner Bros. like Frank Tashlin and Chuck Jones meanwhile pillaged the bounty of silent-era slapstick in creating a similarly clown-centered comedic style in their Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig shorts.
The most popular cartoons of the day were Max Fleischer’s Popeye (Paramount), Van Beuren’s Aesop’s Fables (RKO), Leon Schlesinger’s Looney Tunes and Merries Melodies, and, towering above them all, Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series (Columbia/United Artists/RKO). The animation industry ended the decade by proving its ability to cross over into features with the box-office successes of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the Fleischer Studios’ Gulliver’s Travels (1939).