Made Free, Or Of Mummies and Men
by Marcia Anthony-Meadows
Film historians are constantly finding buried treasure in hall closets,
salt mines and other out of the way places, but these films are rapidly
deteriorating. One of the latest discoveries was uncovered in a Belgian
nunnery and marks what is believed to be the entire animation output
(still in existence) of the D.I. Arbeit Studios. The recent re-release
of these on the web, at least to an intimate group of film buffs, is
a pirate's treasure of golden era animation and deserves a wider audience.
An enthusiastic audience is rediscovering these classics, but often
has no background to appreciate their historical context.
Arbeit Studios, founded by Duncan "Ignoble" Arbeit, and often
just called Arbeit since the man and the studio were inseparable, began
in 1926 at a crowded dinner table. It was rumored Arbeit lost the challenge
of coming up with the most repulsive sexual scenario involving President
Taft. (The winner, Arbeit's best chum C. Frederick O'Toole, reportedly
said something involving Arbeit's mother, marionettes, six pounds of
goose feathers, a partially skinned pig and brown gravy, not red eye,
which made it so gross.) As punishment for his lame attempt -- it merely
involved a walking cane -- he was forced to start a film studio to amuse
his friends. This is what the leisure class did back in the day, it
seems. The first output was not animation, but a documentary short entitled
"Why Harold Will Never Marry" and featured footage of the
Pasadena Princess Beauty Contest. Response was positive, especially
for the director's cut, which featured friend Harold Edwards talking
two of the contestants into doing their Clara Bow imitations. Harold
starred as the USC football team. It was a hit on the stag film circuit.
While Arbeit never gave up making stag films until his death, and the
studio's subsequent failure, in 1956, he did develop a love of animation.
Always a frustrated scribbler, along with O'Toole and Edwards (the now-married
Harold), Arbeit and friends turned the bulk of their attention to the
new art form. O'Toole created a plethora of monsters that never took
off while Arbeit and Edwards assisted with storylines. In all, 41 cartoons
starring their three stars were created. The Belgian nunnery yielded
37 shorts; the others are presumed lost.
Mimsie the Manic Mummy is the character that received the most attention
from Arbeit Studios. In her we see the frantic energy of a Tex Avery
or Bob Clampett character. Mimsie breaks the mummy stereotype; she is
full of life, vibrant. Her gauzy arms and legs don't flow, but jump.
She is, as the kids used to say, a spaz. In "Mum's the Word,"
her first talkie and the sixth of her 19 cartoons, we hear Mimsie's
voice and it matches her hyperactivity. She is squeaky and speedy.
Mimsie often finds herself in absurd situations, not difficult to believe
given the writing of Arbeit, Edwards and O'Toole. Only a few featured
her in what one might imagine a plausible (or predictable) mummy plot:
rescuing people in Egypt from killer sphinxes, moving pyramids or various
plagues. No, Mimsie was an annoyer of the Establishment, often donning
a flapper dress over her wrappings, getting drunk in speakeasies (the
only time she slowed down), threatening to get a job, setting records
for the first female mummy to do whatever. In short, she was an animated
rich girl, much like the ones Edwards had supposedly stopped trying
The Mimsie shorts were quiet successes, showing mostly in private country
clubs for the young rich kids who wanted to stick it to Daddy while
drinking his bootlegged bounty. One country club attendee owned a network
of radio stations and thus a corresponding radio show (Manic with
Mimsie) aired for a brief time, featuring the voices of the cartoon
players May Venture and Chaz Ellington II. Both would go onto long careers
Ellington played bit parts in the Mimsie cartoons, but made his mark
as the voice of Carruthers the Carousing Cadaver, who appeared in nine
cartoons. Carruthers played on the growing interest (and fears) with
medicine and science following World War II. "Abracadaver"
features Carruthers on a typical rampage: he is violent, drunk and bitter.
He doesn't want to be a cadaver. He wants to be alive; if not alive,
he wants to be buried like a good Christian. To deal with his anger,
he walks the hospital over and over, begging for help and stabbing anyone
who won't listen to his pontifications about medical experimentation.
"Abracadaver" is the last of the series, featuring a magician
who finds the solution to Carruthers' problem. Previous foils such as
Adolf Hitler, Charles Lindbergh, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Woodrow Wilson
could not find a satisfactory resolution for Carruther's dilemma, but
made for some madcap romps in the meantime. These were not a highly
popular series, due to its moralizing tone, but Ellington's vocal work
was still praised. He considered offers from MGM and Warner Brothers,
but they wanted him to work far too hard and, frankly, he didn't need
How these sometimes perverse, usually risque, cartoons made their way
into a Belgian nunnery's broom closet is perhaps more interesting than
the cartoons themselves. The exact story has multiple variations, but
the gist is that O'Toole visited Belgium on holiday and persuaded a
young nun, as was his way, to store the films as an off-site back-up.
When O'Toole told the story, there would have been more to it, something
involving a velvet nun's habit, a magnum of champagne, six pounds of
goose feathers and a zombie named Zarathustra. That's what makes these
cartoons so timeless.