Sometimes when I’m writing about vampire cinema, I run into odd areas of research. Here’s one of the questions I’ve turned up: what was the first animated cartoon to feature a vampire?
Well, I ran my mind across a lifetime’s worth of cartoon-watching, and the earliest vampire-themed animation that I could think of was the 1963 Bugs Bunny short Transylvania 6-5000. Digging further I found an earlier animated vampire in the 1933 cartoon Mickey’s Gala Premier, where Lugosi’s Dracula, Karloff’s Frankenstein and Fredric March’s Mr. Hyde get seven-second cameos alongside various other Hollywood stars. However, I haven’t been able to find a cartoon predating Transylvania 6-5000 that makes a vampire one of its main characters.
This left me with another question: why did it take so long for animators to get around to spoofing vampires?
Now, Transylvania 6-5000 was made in the sixties. This was the decade of The Munsters, Famous Monsters of Filmland and Bobby Pickett singing the Monster Mash. The classic movie monsters, vampires amongst them, were having a renaissance that included becoming the subject of parodies and children’s entertainment. It’s not surprising that there was a rise in vampire-themed cartoons – including Bugs Bunny’s encounter with Count Bloodcount – during this period. But given that Bela Lugosi-like vampires are now stock characters in cartoons, it seems curious that cartoons had little interest in them when the Lugosi films were actually being made.
For comparison, let’s look at the monster movies that were getting parodied by animators prior to the sixties. Off the top of my head I can think of multiple vintage cartoons riffing on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: along with the aforementioned Mickey Mouse cameo, the two-faced doctor met Flip the Frog in Soda Squirt (1933), Willie Whopper in Hell’s Fire (1934), Bugs Bunny in Hyde or Hare (1955) and Tweety Pie in Hyde and Go Tweet (1960). As for other classic monsters, Tex Avery’s Hollywood Steps Out (1941) has a cameo from Karloff’s Frankenstein amongst its various tinseltown caricatures.
And then we have the 1938 Merrie Melody Have You Got Any Castles?, which is particularly telling evidence of which monsters were on the minds of animators during this period. One scene has characters stepping out of horror novels, and the chosen figures are Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, the Phantom of the Opera, and Fu Manchu. Had the cartoon been made in the sixties, Dracula would likely have been present; but in 1938 he didn’t warrant inclusion.
So, why did vampires take so long to catch on as a topic for cartoons? Well, I imagine it’s because, for a while, they simply lacked obvious comedy potential. It’s not hard to see why Jekyll and Hyde became recurring figures in cartoons: the image of an innocuous character turning into something monstrous is fertile ground for comedy. Vampires were a different matter. I suspect that censorship would have made jokes about blood-drinking or heart-staking troublesome, and beyond that there isn’t much else you can do with a cartoon vampire. Note that, in Transylvania 6-5000, most of the gags derive from Count Bloodcount turning into a bat at inconvenient moments – so, we’re back to transformation-based humour, like in the Dr. Jekyll cartoons.
But over time, as the conventions of vampire films became better-known amongst the public, cartoonists found more to play with. Vampires brought with them an entire aesthetic – castles, coffins and so forth – that provided ample material for cartoon comedy. We ended up with decades’ worth of animated vampires in the likes of Count Duckula, Mona the Vampire, Hotel Transylvania and so forth. A vampire hall of fame, yeah.
As a final aside, I couldn’t help but notice that three of the cartoons mentioned above – Mickey’s Gala Premier, Soda Squirt and Hell’s Fire – feature not only Mr. Hyde but also Rasputin, as played by Lionel Barrymore in the film Rasputin and the Empress. Now that vampires are stock characters in children’s cartoons it seems strange to look back on an era in which Rasputin was a more popular subject amongst animators than Dracula, but there we go.