Thursday, March 11, 2010

Disney Dullness (& Warners Weakness)

Well, today I've decided to do a little op-ed piece. Okay, it's an incendiary rant. Hey, I promised ill-informed opinion in my very first post so, finally, here 'tis! Enjoy?

Reading here and there on the internet lately I've noticed the pendulum of opinion swinging mightilly back to those old workhorse studios for which already too much has been written: Warner Bros and Disney. The morbid seriousness with which the cartoons of these studios is dissected has well past the point of engaging (or constructive) discussion and so, all other avenues having been discussed or, perhaps, understanding of the subject unclear, that old chesnut (repeated for decades and taught in animation schools as gospel) is again trotted out: Disney & Warner Bros equal sophistication while all others represent primitivism. And I don't see an end in sight for this outlook either as kids who grew up with warm & fuzzy memories of 'Feival Goes West' or 'Rock-a-Doodle' look in depth to see that those films were based, clumsilly perhaps, right out of the Disney textbook. Thus: Disney textbook equals warm & fuzzy memory. The same is probably true also of Warner Brothers' cartoons. These have enjoyed syndication longer than the cartoons of any other studio in history. We all grew up watching Chuck Jones.

Much of the trouble may be based from Shamus Culhane's autobiography: 'Talking Animals & Other People'. There is no doubt that his book is an invaluable resource and really the only extensive first person memoir of the 'golden age of animation' . However, Shamus Culhane was not all that interested in animated cartoons. He preferred fine art and took great pains in his book to emphasize so. His experience in animation is depicted as mostly an unhappy affair and, horrible working conditions aside (if we are to believe him unquestioningly), he probably would have lived a happier life as a painter, sculptor, engraver or what have you. Disney, and it's aspiration to European-ize it's cartoons into something which wasn't a cartoon at all but fine art worthy of the academy (an aspiration never quite achieved BTW) was the closest thing he ever encountered to what he should have been doing in the first place. Cartoons were not his thing.

For a book that pretty much trashes everything Fleischer Studios ever did, Culhane seemed to have no problem using the characters on the cover.

Admittedly, this blog is biased toward certain studios but I am surprised by the continual flouncing those cartoons receive on such a regular basis from other sights. In showing my love for these studios I try not to do so at the expense of cartoon series I don't like. Invariably, however, I find myself reacting, knee-jerk, to the stuff that's written elsewhere. It's all my opinion of course but at least I have the sense to say so and am doing so right now!

I'm not immune either. The Disney/Warner history has so saturated the discussion of animation history in general that the aims of those studios are generally regarded as the aims of animated cartoons in general. The only kind of beautiful is Disney beautiful. The only kind of funny is Warners funny. Other studios are only relevant in what key personnel ultimately ended up at those two studios. Thus Mintz is only relevant for employing Emery Hawkins and Art Davis. Fleischer only relevant for employing Grim Natwick. And so forth. That the work of these men might be to fufill a different need or style than Disney or Warners (even in trying to imitate Disney each studio had a unique aesthetic approach) this is usually regarded as 'rough work' -a lead in to the main act - or second class work. Even the artists themselves, probably still scrabbling for work at the end of their careers, weren't likely to praise a vanished studio incapable of providing work over an existing one that could. This is a fact I rarely hear discussed. But, to get to my point, I often find myself conversationally justifying a lesser known studio's cartoons by way of the familiar names of Warner or Disney artists. Obviously, I am a masochist.

It's not that I totally dislike Disney and Warners' cartoons. Like any other studio of the 30's they had their standouts. My problem is with comparing a Fleischer cartoon from the early 30's with a Bugs Bunny cartoon from the mid-40's. Over a decade later the style of animated cartoons had changed, became much more formalized. At Disney animators tortured themselves to recreate, drawing by drawing, exactly what Laurel & Hardy did naturally and more effectively - in a fraction of the time! Just watch 'Mother Goose Goes Hollywood' (a late 3o's Silly Symphony) if you don't believe me. Damn that looks painful! According to Culhane it was part of the animator's training to copy, frame-by-frame, the films of the silent movie comics. So the goal of the 40's, at least at Disney (and strangely at odds with it's desire for academic legitimacy), seems to have been to create Buster Keaton!

Ow, that looks as difficult as it probably was - a big distraction.

I don't mean to knock the cartoons of the 40's. Terrytoons, for example, didn't hit their stride until the 40's while Famous Studios were able to merge the fluid dimensionality (and lyricism) of the earlier Fleischer style with a more conventional comic style. Walter Lantz studios were able to 'up the ante' on Bugs by creating the truly malevolent Woody Woodpecker. As everyone knows Disney was solidly in the feature business by the 40's. I can see what all the fuss is about. They were great at what they did and totally unique to Disney. Of course no cartoon studio was more financially successful or popular in the 40's than Disney and this, no doubt, is where the Disney superiority legend begins. Disney understood better than any other studio chief, that the way to bring in business was to promise that his cartoons would be nothing but wholesome - not a word which would describe the cartoons of any other studio at the time.

To get an idea how different the ambition of the Fleischer Studio, as described by Max Fleisher, here is an excerpted letter Culhane included in his book:

"During the span of years from 1914, I have made efforts to retain the "cartoony" effect. That is, I did not welcome the trend of the industry to go "arty". It was, and still is, my opinion that a cartoon should represent, in simple form, the cartoonist's mental expression. In other words the "animated oil painting" has taken the place of the flashiness and delightfulness of the simple cartoon.

In my opinion, the industry must pull back. Pull away from the tendencies toward realism. It must stay in it's own backyard of "The Cartoonist's Cartoon." The cartoon must be a portrayal of the expression of the true cartoonist, in simple, unhampered cartoon style. The true cartoon is a great art in it's own right. It does not need the assistance or support of "Artiness." In fact, it is actually hampered by it."

For it's time, Max's words were seen by Culhane as lacking in vision but I don't see it that way. For me, these are the words of a person who understands the medium he is working in.

Warners is a little different to assess. The popularity of those cartoons derives cumulatively over decades of easily accessible syndication packages on television. If the North Pole had a television station it probably ran 'One Froggy Evening'. The truth, however, is that Warners had the heaviest output of any cartoon studio of the 40's - in some cases two to one over the next nearest competitor. They were a volume business much more than, for instance, what Terrytoons has alleged to be. As a result they had to crank the stuff out fast ... and it often shows. It is not surprising that the limited animation techniques (and BG style) of early television animation would have been pioneered here. The frequency of repeated gags, verbatim story lines and re-use animation match, if not rival, any of Terry's cost cutting measures. A studio with that kind of schedule, statistically speaking, cannot help but produce a greater number of duds. That they were able to meet their schedule at all, at the quality they were able to achieve, is quite remarkable but as I said: a lot of duds. To me, Warner cartoons have always felt most to reflect the factory circumstances under which they were created. Terrytoon artists may have been miserable but it doesn't register on the screen.


The human mind is a funny thing though. It likes a clear linear historical narrative and much of how animation history has been written has been retro-fitted to what came later and that will be known to the reader. Perhaps in future histories we will read of how Disney & Warners were merely a ramp up to the creation of 'The Simpsons'!

So, what is it about 1930's cartoons that makes them great? Personally, I admire their flexibility (figuratively and literally) in suspending logic, their bountiful inventiveness (both mechanically and thematically), their musical Joi de vivre, their unquenchable optimism and their tendency to greater risks than cartoons of later eras. They could be expertly drafted (sometimes astonishingly so) but humble. They were capable of lyricism even when the subject matter may have been ugly, crass or banal. They extolled regular life amongst the poor yet were supreme fantasies. They had heart too - a feeling that we are getting a glimpse of the person behind the pencil and that, in my opinion, is what great art is all about. And, of course, they were funny.


Dane said...

Great post. I love old cartoons dearly yet the criticism and "community" behind them always leaves me cold and confused. Cartoons from the 30s are obviously far more interesting than those of any decade, and they are always so violently neglected. It's nice to see this voiced. I try to find animation blogs that have quality content and yours is one of the few.

EOCostello said...

Note up front: I happen to be mostly a Warner Bros. partisan.

All that aside, I think you have to compare like against like. It's not particularly fair to compare, say, a 1944 Warner Bros. cartoon with a 1934 van Beuren cartoon. (A point I think you make.) Technology and sophistication advanced enormously in that period of time. Even comparing Disney cartoons from 1928 and 1933 is instructive.

One point I think you overlooked was that for most of the 1940s, Warner Bros. had four units (Jones, Freleng, Avery-Clampett-Davis, Clampett-McCabe-Tashlin-McKimson). While WB had more production, keep in mind that most other studios were producing their output from two units, perhaps three. The work-burden was probably equal to other units, and I take the position (which you are invited to dispute) that WB had a combination of superb music, voice work and editing/sound effects that hardly any other studio could match.

All that said, I wrote an article for Apatoons some time ago on the van Beuren cartoons; I attempted to watch as much of their output as I could. Some misfires, to be sure, but I'm fond of "Pots and Pans," for example.

I am very much a fan of the 1930s Popeye cartoons and pre-Code Fleischer; less so the post-Code Betty Boops. The Colour Classics are a mixed bag, but it's hard not to grin ear-to-ear at "Dancing on the Moon."

While I'll watch them, I've never fully warmed to either Lantz output or Terrytoons. Something about the timing and writing seems off. "Post-War Inventions" infuriated me, because it was a terrific premise that was a misfire.

I'd also point out, by the way, that MGM cartoons (H-B/Avery) probably received as much distribution as the WB package, and in my opinion, so did the Popeye cartoons. I don't think syndication is a primary driver of why WB cartoons lasted as long as they did in the popular mind.

Bob Flynn said...

Man oh man...outstanding post! I will defend cartoonyness to the day I die. So you're preaching to the choir. But great summary of what makes 1930s cartoons so great—and I love the quotes you pulled from Fleischer.

I have to say, I'm a bit of a sucker for early Disney as well—Goofy and Mickey were drawn super solid when they first hit the seen. And while the gags were more wholesome than Fleischer, they were still remarkably visual by today's standards.

A bunch of people have been talking about the march towards realism, lately. The way cartoons survive in the 21st century is to do the exact opposite.

Sherm said...

Thank you for such a sparkling post! I LOVE the way you describe 30s cartoons here: the "bountiful inventiveness, musical Joi de vivre, unquenchable optimism" part). You REALLY nailed it -- I'm glad you're able to express it more clearly than I ever could ^_^

For the last few months I've fallen in love with cartoons all over again from watching Van Beuren Tom and Jerry cartoons, Flip the Frog, Fleischer Screen Songs and early 30s Terrytoons. They are a lifeline to pure cartoon joy.

boblipton said...

Some very nice points. I grew up with the Termite Terrace cartoons and rank the best of their stuff very highly, but I also enjoy '20s Felixes, van Beuren's Tom & Jerry, Iwerks' Willie Whopper, the Pre-Code Fleischers and a bunch of Lantz. But arguing that my issues with Scrappy invalidates your point would be ridiculous.

I think that each studio had its strengths and weaknesses and when they did what they did best, each was unbeatable.

However, I think that while arguing this point here is valid, arguing it as a general statement is a waste of time. You have a very knowledgeable bunch here, but how many people have the time to spare to gain an appreciation of Dick Huemer's Scrappy?


Annotated Margins said...

I'll take Fleischer over Warners any day. I did, though, like Disney's Snow White and Pinnochio. But, it's always a Fleischer that I study when I need brush up for my panel cartoons.

Thad said...

Personally I think that Fleischer was far and ahead of everybody in the business from around 1929 to 1935 in terms of funny movement and entertainment. Everything that wasn't pioneered at Disney's was pioneered there. I think the best of those cartoons hold up to the best of anybody's. Same with Messmer's Felix.

I've always found it hard to warm up to a lot of Disney simply because most of it is a chore to watch. Outside of the 1930s, I find few of them to be standouts. I've found my opinion places me in the minority.

What fascinates me about Warners more than any other studio is the auteur status the directors had there, and how shockingly great they all could be. One man's film is like that because of the one man. That's not really a feeling I get from the other studios. And do you honestly think the Warner cartoons are even more repetitious and "assemblyine" than Terry's? That's a rather bold statement to make. Terry's people couldn't time comedy to save their life. Reuse of animation and stories verbatim? Well neither is untrue, but not to the excess you are implying.

I think the Fleischer cartoons' appreciation has been fine over the years and don't get where this sense of 'victimdom' comes from. Leonard Maltin, whose book is where most opinions seem to stem from, was very kind to them in his book. Shamus Culhane makes some solid points about the studio's weaknesses too, and I thought he was largely complementary to a lot of the talent, particularly Willard Bowsky, the only real 'auteur' out of that studio. Let's not make this a pity party out of nothing.

The Disney cartoons largely get their recognition because their achievements made in everything but entertainment is some of the most important to animation's history. There seems to be mythology about the entertainment factor.

The Warner cartoons get their attention because they really are that good. I don't know if anyone thinks of Warners as the only funny studio, but arguing their reputation as the funniest is an argument most won't find convincing.

I love this blog because it covers lots of ground and history that others don't. I'm sure if you told any cartoonmaker that their work would be watched 70 years later they would ask you for a swig of your scotch. One film got remembered more than the other because it was better. No crazy mystery or conspiracy.

K. Nacht said...

or rather, Hear, Hear!

:: smo :: said...

i often wonder what would have happened if people looked more to these cartoons instead of disney's.

there is a lot of fantastic stuff going on with these, and to look at them only as a stepping stone is to gloss over a lot of amazing imaginative and creative work. sure these were early cartoons, and they didn't have all the kinks worked out, but under the budgetary and temporal restraints before the "rules" of the 9 old men, these things were amazing! i do love clampett and avery cartoons, but they're a different kind of wacky than these. avery probably being closer to these than any other. but i think these new york studios were truly making the cartoonist's cartoons where if you weren't paying attention to the drawings you might miss something really funny and weird.

as an animator, i feel like we lose a lot by trying to emulate disney so much and not fleischer. though a cartoon today with the same sensibilities as the 30's new york cartoons might have a bigger impact because it would really throw people for a loop for breaking those conventions!

Anonymous said...

Great article! :)
yeah i agree the cartoons from the 30s did more intresting things and didnt over do certian things

dont get me wrong i like certian things up to date

but some things now lack something
and disney now has just became annoying they are full of teen stars now becuse disney sacked most of their animators or something. seems times change

but at least all them old cartoons can always be rewatched on dvds & VHS videos.

Thad said...

I don't have a copy by my side. What I do remember is him saying that Bowsky's films worked well, or at least better than the other Fleischer shorts did.

"I began to see the potential of animation for all kinds of artists, not just cartoonists. Some day, fine art would have it's place in this medium." I really don't see anything wrong with that statement.

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

Some good comments! I knew I'd be poking a hornet's nest - and that grab from 'Gorilla of my Dreams' probably cinched the deal! Just to repeat: I don't hate the cartoons of WB & Disney. I really like some of them but I find the unquestioned reverence in which all of them are held, regardless of quality, a little stultifying - hence my rant. Hey, it's my brain folks ... welcome to it!

Thad: Would you call 'cheap jack Iago' (pg.207) a compliment? Artisically Culhane writes Bowsky "couldn't draw well enough to compete with the West Coast films' (pg.47) and (along with Seymour Kneitel) "In a kind of blind arrogance, they would admit that Disney animation was different but they stubbornly refused to concede it was better" (pg.61). Also on page 61: "I began to see the potential of animation for all kinds of artists, not just cartoonists. Some day, fine art would have it's place in this medium". Man, the guy must have really liked suffering.

EOCostello: Fleischer's had more than three units (or 'groups' as they were called there) particularly from the mid-30's onward. There were six major groups: Kneitel's, Bowsky's, Waldman's, Tendlar's, Crandall's & Tom Johnson's. In the late 30's other groups formed from these existing groups or from animators drifting back from the coast. As I am told as many as eight groups were going during the production of Gulliver & Mr. Bug to meet the shorts quota

J.V. (AKA "White Pongo") said...

"I began to see the potential of animation for all kinds of artists, not just cartoonists. Some day, fine art would have it's place in this medium."

Not wrong so much as sad as it applies to Culhane. I haven't read the book cover to cover in a while either but my recollection is there is a searching quality to his book. A regret, for instance, at dismissing Picasso at an early age and chafing at the bit to find ever deeper artistic meaning. He craved the kind of 'cutting edge' that I'm not sure animation ever really gave to him. He found what he could from it (and we got some amazing Woody Woodpeckers as a result) but I think a more traditional, clearly defined academic matriculation (in painting, sculpture, etc.) ending with a professorship would have been a happier fit. Animation paid though and the guy had an extended family to support so the reality of his situation certainly must have influenced his decision.

Frank M. Young said...

I have come to really dislike Culhane's book for the negative picture he paints of the Fleischer Studios. It's a pity, as it is possibly the only historical account anyone who worked there wrote about the place.

His account of the making of the greatest animated cartoon ever, "Swing You Sinners," is frustratingly off-handed. It's as if no one GOT what a remarkable, psychedelic, mind-blowing piece of work they were creating.

Of course, part of the beauty of the pre-1935 Fleischer cartoons is the lack of self-awareness. Those cartoons come straight from impulse, instinct and the subconscious. Thank goodness they exist!

Culhane is wrong, wrong, wrong about the Fleischers--and about his adoration of The Disney Way. I like a few early Disney talkies. If all Disney cartoons were as wacked-out as "The Karnival Kid" or "The Barn Dance," I'd have much more affection for the studio as a whole.

I love Culhane's Walter Lantz cartoons, despite the bad writing that went into them. Culhane was a talented film-maker, and his Lantz cartoons have moments of real greatness.

I agree with Thad: the virtues of the Warner Brothers cartoons is that each director was so able to express themselves, and leave such a strong stylistic mark on every cartoon they made.

I love pre-code 1930s cartoons more than most of the '40s and '50s material, but great cartoons continued to be made throughout the span of theatrical animation.

The pre-code cartoons are an entirely different beast from the '40s and '50s stuff. At their best, they are all equally valid and imaginative and alive.

Thanks for the many great '30s cartoons you post here. Please keep up the great work. I appreciated what you had to say in this post!

paul etcheverry said...

Note up front: I love 1920's and early 1930's cartoons, including many posted on this site, as much or more than the artistic high water marks of late 1930's Disney and mid-1940's Warner Brothers.

Shamus Culhane's analysis totally makes sense from the standpoint of a draftsman and animator who had no interest in or enthusiasm for film humor per se - as opposed to, for example, Tex Avery, Chuck Jones, Frank Tashlin, Bob Clampett or Jack Kinney, comedy geeks all. That said, it's amazing that the cartoons Culhane directed Lantz are funny as they are, and that he made fun and original cartoons later for Paramount. He was a fine animator, talented director and good writer who didn't like cartoons and no doubt would have loved to have played the violin in a string quartet for a living (while painting and drawing on the side).

I personally decided a long time ago to take a good look at a lot of the stuff everybody says sucks. IMO, there are diamonds in the rough amongst all kinds of ragged B-studio output. . . from film noir and wacko two-reel comedies to cartoons by the studios everybody hates.

There's room for letter-perfect symphony orchestras, precision big bands and inspired garage rockers in the scheme of things.