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Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age

[This page is devoted to comments on my book Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. Click here to go to the most recent posting.]

From Joshua Wilson: I have just completed reading your book, and it was a great experience. The narrative flow was never lost despite the complexity of the interweaving stories you told. I particularly commend your organization of the chapters. I attempted recently to read a biography on Orson Welles that was of comparable length to Hollywood Cartoons, but I could not get far into it, because the author could not distinguish between necessary details he should include and others he should have omitted (or relegated to notes) in order to tell a compelling story. Your book, however, was engaging on nearly every page, and well paced in the balance between strict history and film criticism. You must have had fine editors also.

I did not notice if you allowed any films to escape at least one acerbic criticism. I wonder if there is any film, short or feature-length, which you enjoy without reservations? It seemed that the implicit premise of all your critiques was that “character animation” is the highest goal of animated filmmaking. I don’t think that this viewpoint gives enough room to the idea of making just plain funny films. It seems that that was the goal of most of the Warner shorts, especially, and I think that (late thirties through mid-fifties) they scored pretty well on that account most of the time. To me, a seven-minute film can bear a lot of negative aesthetic baggage if it can provide even one good hearty laugh. The scholarly tone of the book probably masks the enjoyment you have in cartoons a bit; although I somehow don’t imagine the author of Hollywood Cartoons laughing at Solid Serenade, I’m sure that you must love cartoons generally, or you wouldn’t have devoted such an amazing effort towards this study of them. But that paradox of writing a serious work about such funny business must be nothing new for you to think about, I’m sure.

It seemed that your notes referred to quite a lot of court documents. Was that your legal training coming into play in your research methods, or does the cartoon industry just churn up a lot of litigation?

Speaking of the notes, it would have been helpful to have body-text/page-number ranges at the top of each page of notes, for ease of flipping to specific notes. Also, the notes section was headed by “Notes to Chapter 1,” while the text body was headed by the chapter title, “Beginnings, 1911-1930.” When you reach about chapter 5 or so, you forget what number it is, since the page you are reading has no reference to the chapter number, but only the title, so when you go to the back to read a note, you have to look up the chapter number again first. I’m sure you had nothing to do with these minor issues, but in a future book you might want to tell your publisher to attend to these things for ease of use.

My initial impression was that the picture selection was a bit eccentric, but upon further reflection I see that your choices were probably very judicious, and you did include a lot of rare photos. I guess I just would have loved to see more pictures, maybe one from every film that was unfamiliar to me! The “flip-books” more than made up for any concerns about more pictures I had, however. That was an inspired inclusion in your book, although in the hardback edition, the binding process makes it hard to flip them at a constant speed.

As I suggested earlier, I think you sometimes set too high a standard for the criticism of short, humorous films. In other words, I think you must examine the films on their own terms: are they funny? Of course, this is too vague and subjective a question on its own, and your work is to be commended for its high degree of objectivity in the criticism. However, I think occasionally the forest can be missed for the trees. As you pointed out in your discussion of Tex Avery, many of the films had no other purpose than to make folks laugh. Of course, if the cartoons put on any pretense, then they are ripe for deflation, but many of the films you discuss (or omit) don’t have that much egotism. I think, for example, that you give Friz Freleng short shrift, mainly by overemphasizing the “dull and literal” animation. For one thing, it must surely count for something the respect which Freleng had among other directors, including Jones. For every dissection of the “stock poses,” therefore, I think it would be fair to give credit to his expert timing, and musical sensibility in films that still make me laugh every time I see them, like High Diving Hare.

I could say more, but I won’t weary you, if you have read this far. All I will say is, thank you again. You have enriched me with your work, and your research is obviously irreplaceably valuable. Keep publishing those treasures from your research, especially on your website, I check every day or so for updates!

MB replies: I'm glad you enjoyed the book and that you're enjoying this site.

If there's any "acerbic" criticism in my book directed toward Dumbo, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Duck Amuck, The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, King-Size Canary, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Three Little Pigs, Fresh Airedale, the Fleischers' Snow-White, Little Rural Riding Hood, Rooty Toot Toot, or any of dozens of other cartoons I could name, I certainly don't know what it is.

I think being funny, and only funny, is a perfectly acceptable aim, and I love any number of cartoons that were conceived in exactly those terms, the aforementioned King-Size Canary and Little Rural Riding Hood among them. I like High Diving Hare, too. But the cartoons I value most are more than just funny, they're funny in particularly satisfying and illuminating ways. I love Chuck Jones's best Road-Runner cartoons, for instance, not because the gags are so great—even though a lot of them are—but because the Coyote is their victim, and Jones uses each gag as an opportunity to let us peer into the Coyote's soul and see ourselves mirrored there. That's a dimension I find consistently lacking in Friz Freleng's cartoons, even the best ones.

As much as I enjoy some of Avery's and Freleng's cartoons, I always enjoy them in exactly the same way. I enjoy the best Jones and Clampett cartoons in a different way each time I see them. There's simply more there.

You're right—I had nothing to say about how the publisher keyed the notes to the body text. I think your complaints are valid.

Illustrations are a thorny problem for a lot of authors these days. Even though the Supreme Court has finally gotten around to defining "fair use" in a way that grants considerable latitude to scholarly publications in particular, publishers seem to have grown more rather than less cautious in recent years. As a result, authors sometimes have to shell out large sums for permissions they don't really need; and that's assuming they can get the permissions in the first place. Those are among the reasons that there are only fifty illustrations in my book, and that those illustrations are weighted toward publicity stills and public-domain material.

On the legal records: There really aren't all that many of them, but in many instances, they're the most reliable sources we have about the day-to-day life of the cartoon studios. They document facts that simply weren't documented otherwise. Thanks to my legal training, I'm comfortable working with such records, but that's not the main reason I've used them heavily.

I can't remember if I've ever laughed out loud at Solid Serenade (as I certainly do when I watch another Tom and Jerry cartoon, Tee for Two, and Tom rises screaming from the water with a mouth full of bees), but I'm sure I at least smiled broadly.

[Posted December 25, 2004]

From Ali Matar: I'm a British animator. Having heard your commentaries on the Looney Tunes DVDs and after reading all your essays and commentary on the web site, I bought and read your book Hollywood Cartoons. It's a great book and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I agree with much of what you say about many things and disagree with a few. I mostly appreciate the fact that you value the medium enough to criticize even the sacred cows in your pursuit of the ultimate expression of animation. As a practising animator, I cannot say a bad word about the nine old men (except Reitherman as a director). I can't criticize them until I have reached their plateau. I probably never will. But I completely understand your meaning about "literal" cartoon acting. I began to see it in almost everything after reading your book and essays. But having animated literally myself, I have one defence for such animation. It makes a hard job easier to do. That sounds really stupid, I know. But animating can be a real brain drain sometimes. Resorting to stock actions and clichéd gestures can save time and sometimes it is appropriate.

I am quite sure that you can't have a whole feature in which the physical acting is constantly amplifying the character's emotions. That kind of overt expressiveness needs to come in short bursts or it will lose its full impact. In the movie The Bad and the Beautiful Kirk Douglas complains to the great director that the scene he is shooting lacks imagination. The director replies that he could shoot every scene in the movie like a thrilling climax but then he would end up with a movie full of climaxes; a bad movie. Sometimes you need spaces of virtually little in between the juicy bits, in features at least. Otherwise the feature will be the kind of exhausting experience everyone assumed "Walt's Folly" would be. I can never sit through too much Clampett; it's exhausting.

You cite certain Bill Tytla scenes (Grumpy's emotional transformations, Dumbo and his mother) as exemplary (they are), but they are pantomimic scenes; played out in actions and facial expressions. Dialogue scenes have less potential for such acting. You think (or at least you agree with W. C. Fields) that Tytla's Stromboli moves too much. I always attributed this fact to his being an Italian. Mediterraneans (and Arabs like me) often wave and gesticulate wildly when they speak. Perhaps Tytla based his animation on mannerisms he studied on the East Coast or even during his European sojourn? Just a thought.

I'm sure you will agree that today's cartoon characters all "act" the same and wave their arms around a lot. Sometimes, even in films from Pixar (the standard candle of CG animation) you see such acting. You say that in CG animation the animators are anonymous. I tend to agree. But I see that as an advantage. It can be disconcerting when a character goes off-model in drawn animation. I remember as a teenager how I was annoyed at how badly drawn Aladdin was in some scenes. What I do find disturbing about CG animation is that the characters are now seemingly anonymous, different only in look (or species) but not in mannerism and movement. This is something I will be conscious of in my work henceforth.

MB replies: I think the question Ali raises here is a basic one in animation, and I tried to address it in my short-lived online debate with John Kricfalusi in 2004 The question is, how do you keep characters "alive" on the screen in quiet passages, the ones between those thrilling climaxes? That question doesn't have much relevance when the cartoon is a short one like a Bob Clampett Looney Tune—seven minutes of a thrilling Clampett climax is not too much—but it's one that occurs inevitably when a feature is involved. Some people, like John K., would say the hell with it, keep everything at a fever pitch for 90 minutes, but I don't think that's a solution most of us find acceptable, for the reasons that Ali suggests. Relaxing into literal animation may seem like the best answer, but I don't think so. It seems to me that if an animator has a firm grip on a character, his understanding of that character will express itself in the quieter moments as well as the more active ones. What might otherwise be literal animation of that character will be just as individual as the more obvious acting. As to how the animator acquires the understanding of that character ... well, I have vowed not to ride my casting-by-character hobbyhorse for a while, since so many people seem not to get what I'm saying (or maybe don't want to get it), but I think such casting is one answer.

What is most certainly not the answer is to make the more active animation—the animation in which the characters more obviously "act"—just as formulaic and undifferentiated as the animation in quieter passages. As Ali says, we're seeing a lot of just that kind of thing, even in Pixar's films. I think CGI filmmakers' preoccupation with surface fidelity has been deadly here.

As for Tytla, I don't think there's the slightest doubt but that he drew upon his life as a New Yorker and the son of immigrants—and his own earthy personality—when he was animating Stromboli.

[Posted April 20, 2006]

From Daniel Hegarty: Congratulations on ten years of Hollywood Cartoons. It is a work you should be proud of. The other animation books just can't compete with Hollywood Cartoons in terms of illuminating the people who made the great animated films, their relationships with one another, the conditions that they worked in and shaped their films, and ultimately what makes many of the cartoons from Disney, Warner Bros., and MGM (and to a lesser extent early Fleischer) great, and what makes most of the work of other studios not so great by comparison. I was impressed by was your description of the Tom and Jerry cartoons as, to paraphrase, a Terrytoon core with a Harman-Ising shell.  Your observations on the flaws of Bill Tytla's Tchernobog animation are also thought-provoking (although I'm not sure I entirely agree). When you describe work that truly impressed you (like Bill Tytla's Grumpy and Dumbo animation, and Chuck Jones's Road Runner cartoons, for example) it shows that you are really passionate about great animation, you don't heap praise on "golden age" animation out of nostalgia. Some people might be surprised that you spend relatively little time on Lantz or Terrytoons in the book, but to spend too much time discussing those studios would in a sense diminish the importance of the great cartoons.

Your book, I think, should have gotten the mainstream to think about classic cartoons in a serious way, as  a popular art, the same as silent comedies and even comic books, but unfortunately it didn't. The fault doesn't lie in your abilities as a writer; I don't think anybody could make a better case for the artistic relevance of animation than you did. It's disappointing that your book was only a modest success, but I have a feeling that those who have read your book have a much greater appreciation for animation than most.

MB replies: I can't help but wish that Hollywood Cartoons reached more of that "mainstream" that Dan mentions, since I wrote the book for such readers—that is, people who want to know more about the sources of their enjoyment in cartoons, but who don't have axes to grind, as hardcore cartoon fans and academics so often do. The book did reach a fair number of mainstream readers who understood what I was up to, just not as many as I hoped. There is, I'm afraid, a powerful bias among reviewers and readers against authors who specialize in subjects like animated cartoons and comic books; there's an assumption that neither author nor subject matter need be taken altogether seriously. I wrote about such bias almost six years ago, in one of my first postings on this site, and I don't think much has changed since then. For a book like Hollywood Cartoons to overcome such bias would have required an extraordinary combination of favorable elements—a sympathetic and enthusiastic publisher, reviews in important outlets that were not just highly positive but also well timed, media attention from people whose opinions mattered. Given that none of those elements were present, or were ever likely to be, I have every reason to be grateful that the book has done as well as it has. And since it's still in print, there's always the chance that lightning will strike. Oprah, are you listening?

[Posted March 9, 2009]

From Nicholas Pozega: I got your Hollywood Cartoons book and I’ve read through a lot of it. I loved it! It completely changed how I look at cartoons now! I remember I used to think similar to you—until I got brainwashed by The Illusion of Life and I deluded myself to buying into Disney and Pixar’s formulas. I also corrected some of the errors (I have the the first edition of the trade paperback) via pen. I initially avoided the book due to Mr. John Kricfalusi (who I am also a big fan of) dismissing it as “nothing but opinions,” but after visiting your site enough times, I finally went by my gut and decided to buy the book. Didn’t regret it one bit. I want to check out your other books, but I am currently facing money problems, so that’ll have to wait.

Btw, there is one tiny error—when you mention the Disney version of Satan from “Night On Bald Mountain,” referred to by the company now as “Chernabog”, you inexplicably put a lower case t in front of it. Why did you do this, and will you correct it in further printings of the book?

And as well written and researched as your book is, I can’t help but be skeptical of your writing off the character of Betty Boop as nothing more than a “travesty.” It’s clear that she is meant to a caricature of the typical flapper girl of the time period (using Helen Kane—or Kene, I can’t remember how it’s spelled—as the base for her character) meant to be hip, full of pep and youth—not unlike Bob Clampett’s lively interpretation of Porky Pig, with his adorable double bounce step that we see in Polar Pals and Ali Baba Bound. Betty was just a cute girl looking for a good time and good at heart—a pretty simple character, but very appealing. And look at the superb animation Grim Natwick did of her in her initial appearances—lots of custom expressions, undoubtedly lifted from observation of a real girl (maybe from Mae Questel? Just speculating—they did record live sessions of her voice acting, as I saw from one documentary about Betty Boop). Combine the cartoon flapper girl with the voice talents of Ms. Mae Questel, and you had a perfect match. If anything, I would say Betty wasn’t a travesty so much as she was never fully realized as a character, which I think is what you were going for—but that’s okay with me, since the Fleischers were merely concerned with getting laughs than building on characterization, which really wasn’t their upper tier, as evidenced by their mediocre feature films.

If anything, the “travesty” would be the Hays Office-ified version of Betty, which wiped her clean and turned her into a bland, Minnie Mouse-esque female character. Compare her to the animated girl Grim animated for Disney later on, who was a total cardboard cut-out in contrast—at least in contrast to the more colorful characters surrounding her. Don’t take that the wrong way though—Snow White’s cute, but once you look past her one note altruistic nature, she really doesn’t have any character. She’s just a core to build the film around.

By the way, one thing I’m surprised you didn’t mention (not to my knowledge) was the sole scene of Snow White’s animation where Grim didn’t use rotoscope and and just animated her out of his head—it’s the scene where she runs down the stairs to check the pot. The drawing actually had life in it! Grim seemed to be able to control the drawing without any melting or jittering, and Grim even got some appeal into her eyes—I remember Richard Williams mentioned this scene in his book The Animator’s Survival Kit. On that note, I remember John K mentioning in an offhand comment about the Fleischer Superman shorts that at least one animator was able to control Lois Lane's form without the typical melting and jittering of that series human animation, but I don’t exactly know which parts he’s talking about. Any help will be appreciated.

Oh, and one more thing—are you a fan of E.C. Segar’s Popeye comics? I love the cartoons, but I’ve read the first compilation and I love it! Such rich, colorful characters! Great to study characterization from, if you ask me.

MB replies: There's no single correct way to spell the name of the demon in "Night on Bald Mountain" (or "Bare Mountain," since we're talking about legitimate alternatives). At the time I wrote Hollywood Cartoons, Tchernobog (with an upper-case T, not lower case), struck me as the preferable spelling, analogous to the spelling of other Russian names (Tchaikovsky, Tcherepnin), but I have no quarrel with "Chernabog" (the spelling in Dave Smith's Disney A to Z), or, for that matter, "Chernobog," which is the spelling in the 1940 Deems Taylor Fantasia book and in John Culhane's Disney-authorized 1983 book on the film.

When I use the word "travesty" to describe Betty Boop, I'm not criticizing the character, I'm using the word in a very specific literary sense: she's an extravagant caricature of femininity, a burlesque of what a lot of men think they want in a woman. That's why she's a charming, funny character.

That Snow White scene (Sequence 5B, Scene 1) is credited to Jack Campbell, not Grim Natwick, in my copy of the "final draft" and in the copy posted by Hans Perk.

I'm a great admirer of Segar's Popeye, and I look forward eagerly to each year's installment of the complete Popeye from Fantagraphics Books.

[Posted June 23, 2011]

From Thad Komorowski: Just a note that I've recently reread your Disney chapters in Hollywood Cartoons, and I generally agree with almost everything you say critically. I also have a deeper admiration for Bill Tytla because of your prose. I've come to the conclusion that he did not have much use for caricature. Rather, he was far more observational in his nuances – that is, instilling his characters with soul without using distortion for purely exaggeration's sake because he's such a keen observer of what made people tick that he doesn't need to. Even in as vacuous a film as Saludos Amigos, compare Tytla's animation of José Carioca to Fred Moore's. Both are great, but in Tytla's introduction of the character, there is a profound sense that José is one of those overly-friendly Latinos unaware that he's invading the white guy's (Donald's) personal bubble that Tytla probably saw in New York on a regular basis. Not as overt as the dancing/drinking of Moore, just very subtle and natural. I don't sense anything in the same league from any other artist on that film, even the ones who went on the trip. It's no wonder John K. has no use for an animator of that stature. It's vindication that character animation doesn't need to scream its feelings.

[Posted September 17, 2012]