The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show is a humorous cartoon of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s that pokes fun at the overdone short films of the silent era. By exaggerating the already prominent characteristics of the “good guys” and the “bad guys” in cartoon versions of classic silent film conflicts like “women tied to the railroad tracks,” Rocky and Bullwinkle vignettes satirize the campy films of the early 1900’s.
Snipely Whiplash, the ever-elusive villain of the Dudley Do-Right mini-series in Rocky and Bullwinkle, is always dressed in hat and topcoat while sporting a dastardly moustache that over identifies him as a bad guy. The women in the cartoons are always helpless, and the hero arrives to save her in the nick of time. The audience knows she will be saved, and the cartoon manages to recreate the iconic conflict while shortening the entire “women tied to the railroad” conflict to a few seconds. Because viewers are so familiar with the conflict, the cartoon doesn’t have to show an oncoming train to build suspense, the train is assumed within the conventions of the melodrama.
Silent era films rely on body movement and dramatic physical altercations to keep their audience entertained. They utilize slapstick humor, doing their best to create comedy with sound. Fortunately for Rocky and Bullwinkle, their cartoons could utilize more satirical humor through the use of narration and dialogue, while mimicking the physical humor of silent films with ridiculous set ups, such as when Bullwinkle walks off the cliff. Dudley Do-Right is constructed to resemble the average silent film hero who saves the damsel in distress or defeats the bad guys in a completely unrealistic or nonsensical way.
Both the cartoons and the silent films resemble stage plays in the way the actors portray their characters. Because plays are seen from audience seated far away, actors cater to their audience by using large gestures and body movements to create action and interest. Without sound and with only basic film technology, silent film stars overacted to keep their films engaging. Cartoons also utilized this melodramatic style for comedic effect in shows such as Rocky and Bullwinkle.