The Last Laugh 

Chronicling the Hollywood cartoon

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
Courtesy Hanna-Barbera
THE HOLLYWOOD CARTOON REPRESENTS A uniquely American contribution to film and comedy. Mickey Mouse capering in his Sorcerer's Apprentice robes, Bugs Bunny crunching a carrot, Donald Duck throwing a tantrum and Wile E. Coyote smashing into a cliff are familiar to audiences throughout the world, and they represent America to more people than the bald eagle.

Over the last decade, the success of Disney features and the popularity of prime-time cartoons, led by The Simpsons, have catapulted interest in animation to an even higher level: Top animators have become celebrities. In previous decades, however, animators worked in anonymity. It was during this time -- the dark days of the '70s and early '80s, when "animation" meant Saturday-morning cartoons and the occasional Disney feature --- that Michael Barrier interviewed every studio artist he could find. In three decades of research, he spoke to more than 200 cartoon-industry veterans. His history has been called "the Godot of animation books," because people have waited so long for it to appear.

Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age has finally been published, and while it's comprehensive in many ways, animation fans can only wish Barrier had used the enormous amount of information he compiled more effectively, and produced a more entertaining and appealing book. Barrier is fascinated by the minutiae of the drawn animation process, and at times loses the forest not for the trees, but for the individual pine needles. He reports which animators drew which scenes in various cartoons, notes the amount of footage Warner Bros. animators were expected to produce each week and names the artists who drew the character layouts for several Tex Avery shorts. But he fails to explain what made Felix the Cat so popular with audiences all over the world during the '20s, or why Mickey Mouse became even more popular during the '30s.

The artists at Disney, Fleischer, Warner Bros., MGM and the other studios created a new kind of film comedy that was funny in unique ways. Despite his obvious love for the studio animation process, Barrier doesn't have much feeling for that humor. Take, for example, Avery's Bad Luck Blackie (1949). It builds from a simple premise: A nasty bulldog torments a kitten until a black cat shows up. The cat gives the kitten a whistle; each time it's blown, the cat appears and crosses the bulldog's path, causing an increasingly heavy object to clobber the bully. Director Chuck Jones calls Blackie "one of the most perfect cartoons ever made"; Barrier dismisses it, saying, "It runs down in its second half."

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Barrier criticizes Bill Tytla's animation of Tchernobog at the end of the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence of Fantasia (when the black god strains against the irresistible power of the dawn), claiming that it "suffers from a faint but perceptible stop-motion quality. Each movement, each drawing, is a shade too discrete." Lovers of Fantasia might wonder if Barrier watched the same film.

Finally, Hollywood Cartoons' lack of visuals is a major -- and surprising --- shortcoming. It contains only 50 illustrations, none of them in color. Examples of the artists' work are needed to supplement the text and remind readers of special moments in their favorite films: Bugs Bunny appearing as Brünnhilde in What's Opera, Doc, Mickey Mouse tap-dancing with a deck of cards in Thru the Mirror, KoKo the clown's eerie, metamorphic performance of "The St. James Infirmary Blues" in the Betty Boop Snow-White. A handful of black-and-white stills might be acceptable in a book from a small printer, but readers have a right to expect a more appealing presentation from Oxford University Press. And fans of animation -- which includes almost everyone under 60 in America -- have a right to a better book.

ALTHOUGH ISSUED BY A SMALLER PUBLISHER AND aimed primarily at an academic audience, Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, an anthology, contains fascinating material about the Warner Bros. cartoons and their creators. Linda Simensky traces the merchandising of the Looney Tunes characters -- which has grown into a multibillion-dollar industry -- and notes how the personalities of the characters have been softened to make them more appealing as products. Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam played on the same basketball team in Space Jam; Sylvester no longer tries to eat Tweety, and Granny has stopped belting him with her umbrella -- they solve mysteries together on TV. Later in the book, Bill Mikulak examines the legal battles between the studio and fans who create art and fiction on the Web involving their favorite characters, but he declines to examine the psychological quirks that lead to erotic fantasies involving Minerva Mink and other cartoon animals.

These intriguing essays, however, are balanced against others that are filled with academic buzzwords (metonymy, iconography, paradigm, etc.). In a discussion of Bugs' penchant for drag -- he's appeared as a lady hunter, a Southern belle, the Empress Josephine and a Spanish "senyorit-tar" -- editor Kevin Sandler states, "The Bugs Bunny character can be seen, then, to support a heterosexual, patriarchal discourse that portrays a 'woman's' role in only two ways: either as love object or as asexual subject for masculine-recognized characters like Bugs Bunny." Never ask a Ph.D., "What's up, Doc?"

For most Americans, cartoons have meant Saturday morning: a special time consecrated to sugary cereal and hours of Schoolhouse Rock, The Archies and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! These shows retain a nostalgic charm for the adults who watched them, a yearning that Timothy and Kevin Burke tap into in Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture.

The Burke brothers set the tone for their spirited defense of kiddie cartoons when they declare, "A lot of Saturday morning was crap. But it's our crap." They demonstrate that critics often dismissed Saturday-morning TV out of hand or based complaints on incomplete or flawed research -- or on thinly concealed political agendas. The Burkes sometimes get carried away, but their we-grew-up-on-it-and-we-like-it stance brings a welcome new voice to the increasingly strident debate over children's programming.

Many of the shows the Burkes celebrate were created by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. Michael Mallory's lavish Hanna-Barbera Cartoons offers a sketchy history of their careers and the studio they founded. The synopses of every episode of such favorites as The Flintstones, Scooby-Doo and Jonny Quest will delight fans, but Mallory omits such important developments as the sale of the studio to Ted Turner. Most of the illustrations are limited-edition cels rather than original artwork, and the book seems to have been designed to showcase this lucrative merchandise.

Even more than live-action filmmaking, animation blurs the distinctions between art form and popular entertainment. More books on the subject have been written in the past 25 years than in the previous 65. The classics -- John Canemaker's Raggedy Ann and Andy, Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, and Chuck Jones' Chuck Amuck -- combine scholarship, analysis and an awareness of the artistic potential of the medium with a sense of the hilarity cartoons can produce on the screen. The newest books on the scene all have something to offer the animation fan, but they're far from the best work in the field.

READING THE RABBIT: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation | Edited by KEVIN S. SANDLER | Rutgers University Press
288 pages | $49 hardcover, $19 paperback

HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS: American Animation in Its Golden Age | By MICHAEL BARRIER | Oxford University Press | 648 pages | $40 hardcover

SATURDAY MORNING FEVER: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture | By TIMOTHY BURKE & KEVIN BURKE | St. Martin's Griffin | 247 pages | $18 paperback

HANNA-BARBERA CARTOONS By MICHAEL MALLORY | Hugh Lauter Levin Associates | 240 pages | $75 hardcover

  • Chronicling the Hollywood cartoon

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