A few years ago, I featured here the draft of my essay, ‘I Like to Sock Myself in the Face’: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism,”which updated some concepts first introduced by J. Hoberman about American comedy in the 1950s and sought to make a case that artists such as Tex Avery, Spike Jones, Basil Wolverton, and Olsen and Johnson, among others, were part of an informal “school” or “movement” which straddled media platforms. Now, the book for which this essay was written — Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil’s Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood — has been published and I am featuring this week an interview with the two editors about the collection.
For those of you who are interested in either the history of American cartoons or in live action comedy, this collection will be a rare treat, one which brings together many of the key people working in this space today, including Mark Langer, Donald Crafton, Richard Neupert, Susan Ohmer, Paul Wells, Nicholas Sammond, Philip Brophy, Rob King, Scott Curtis, and Linda Simensky. The contributions extend from considerations of the silent films of the Fleischer Brothers to the echoes of the studio era cartoons in contemporary animation practice, from discussions of racial stereotyping to the role of the musical score. Collectively, the essays both map the familiar and the less well known and contribute enormously to our understanding of how comic texts do or do not fit the logic of the classical Hollywood film as articulated by recent film scholarship. At its core, the book is making an argument that the history of live action comedy and animation are intertwined in ways more complex and more decisive than anyone had previously suggested.
In the interview which follows, the book’s two editors, Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil, chose to speak in a collective voice, offering their insights onto their goals for the project and what they’ve discovered along the way.
Let’s start with the question you use to frame your book. Is Hollywood animation a subset of the broader field of comedy or is the cartoon a particular (and distractingly popular) strand of animation practice?
CK & DG: One of the points we wanted to make in putting together this anthology involved acknowledging the hybrid status of the Hollywood cartoon: it is both an example of studio-era comedy and of animation practice. Insofar as American animation developed primarily within versions of the studio system, it became indebted to principles and practices of that system pretty much from the outset. In fact, the routinized labour involved in producing animation would seem to exemplify Fordist principles of manufacture sometimes associated with the studio system. So animation could be seen as the consummate studio product.
But the Hollywood cartoon, with a few notable exceptions, also aligned itself with comic traditions, derived from comic strips, vaudeville, and other pre-existing forms of humorous representation. In that regard, it has strong ties to other forms of comedy coming out of Hollywood at this time.
As we say at the beginning of the book’s introduction, Hollywood made efforts to define itself as a purveyor of entertainment, and nothing epitomized that moreso than the relentlessly comic cartoon. And yet there is the proviso: Hollywood cartoons often resist the pull of verisimilitude that we associate with classical period norms, and the cartoon’s indebtedness to comedy often manifests itself in an admittedly bounded tendency toward anarchy.
As someone who works in comics studies, I am well aware that both comics and animation are constrained by a tendency to imagine them as a genre rather than as medium and from an assumption that they are, as your title suggests, just “funny pictures.” What steps can or should be taken to break out of that ghetto?
CK & DG: One is to rethink the concept of genre, a move that has been undertaken productively by many different scholars in the field, Rick Altman being just one notable example. That would help us imagine the generic category of comedy more expansively, so as to see logical connections between the work of live-action comic directors and those working in animation. There are numerous points of overlap even if there are relevant medium-specific distinctions.
Another is to stop thinking about animation as a genre, period. That makes little sense, as animation is a broad type, in categorical terms, akin to documentary or experimental cinema. What links Hollywood cartoons to other animated work is the fact of animation, not any generic affiliations.
But what binds cartoons to their humorous live-action counterparts is the common aim of trying to evoke laughter from an audience: whether that makes all such films part of the same broad genre or mode is a separate matter. But at a certain level, Rabbit of Seville has more in common with A Night at the Opera than it does with Begone Dull Care, so the fact that these are FUNNY Pictures should not be undervalued
Does focusing a book on the comic aspects of animation run the risk of reinscribing the stereotypes or does it allow us a way to think past them?
CK & DG: Admitting to the inherently humorous nature of these films addresses an historical reality borne out of production decisions made at the time. Studios could have made serious animated films had they wanted to, and Disney certainly infused its features with a high degree of dramatic material (though rarely the shorts). But the cartoon as comic short remained the studio norm for decades, and even now, as Linda Simensky shows when writing about television animation in the 1990s and its indebtedness to the studio era, the vast majority of American animated film and television material is still designed to make audiences laugh.
Rather than seeing this as a stereotype, our volume seeks to understand how and why this happened. Many of the contributors take very seriously the cartoon’s impetus to make us laugh and that proves to be a valuable analytical endeavour. From Susan Ohmer’s examination of how Disney engaged in forms of audience response research in the 1940s to ensure that their cartoons maximized the production of humour through animation to Ethan de Seife’s attentiveness to Frank Tashlin’s mise-en-scene-based comedy, the essays in our volume demonstrate in quite varied ways how paying closer attention to the comedic aspects of American studio-based animation reveals a new dimension of a seemingly familiar period of classical filmmaking.
Daniel Goldmark is Associate Professor of Music at Case Western Reserve University and the author of Tunes for ‘Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon. Charlie Keil is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto and the author of Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking 1907-1913 and American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, and Practices.