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.