Both cartoons and comedy shorts have a relationship to the Hollywood studio system which is different from the feature films which have dominated film studies. What do we learn about the logic of the studio system by recentering our focus on this level?
CK & DG: To a certain degree, these shorts operated on the margins of the studio system. The units set up to produce them even occupied a separate space within the studios, physically reinforcing their marginality. In many ways, like the B-film, shorts were the poor step-child of the studio family, less highly regarded than the A-level feature, but a indispensable part of the distribution mix.
Even if the studios didn’t value the work of the animators to the degree that they might have, the studios did provide an outlet for these animators to ply their craft and the sheer volume of cartoons produced during this period is quite impressive.
Looking more closely at these marginal products of the studio system reminds us that it wasn’t only about stars and valued literary properties; the studios were responsible for turning out a varied array of products for mass consumption and both diversity and reliability had equal weight in the industry’s calculations. If we consider the role of
works such as cartoons within the broad aims of the studio system, it allows us to see that system as the complicated, hierarchical, sometimes ungainly method of operating that it was. It also helps to reveal some of the ways in which the studios did resemble factories, because turning out animated works relied on so much repetitive labour. Scott Curtis’s consideration of boredom in the work of Tex Avery is an incisive look at how that repetitious labour finds itself replicated on a formal level.
The essays here certainly cover the canon of American animation, including the Fleischer Brothers, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Tex Avery, and Frank Tashlin. What new insights do we gain about these familiar figures as a result of the comparative approach this book adopts?
CK & DG: The most obvious insight is amplified context. Focusing on the studio period means that we don’t isolate particular figures as aberrational geniuses. But when exceptional work was produced, we can still understand its relationship to the traditions and tendencies evident throughout the period. Directors like Tashlin and Avery were distinctive, but as various of the contributors point out, they were beholden to broader tendencies enshrined within the system and influenced by comic conventions passed down from other comic forms. By focussing on the basic common element of animated humour, one can begin to see th continuities linking these figures to a larger representational system, to widely-held cultural values, and to a pre-existing industrial context.
At the same time, your contributors also bring new discoveries into the mix. What films and filmmakers should we be paying more attention to as a result of this new scholarship?
CK & DG: Well, we hope that readers will take their cue from Rob King’s eye-opening chapter on Charley Bowers and pay more attention to this largely forgotten hybrid figure. More generally, the volume’s tacit message is that much of animated work from this period remains underexplored. Again, there are so many films being made during this time that to watch even a fraction of the output requires a lot of time. Representative works of interest are highlighted in the volume, by authors such as Richard Neupert and Donald Crafton, just to take two examples of contributors who focus on largely unheralded cartoons from the 1930s.
But the same could be said of almost any decade within this period: there is a lot to see and a lot to discover. And the work on sound, primarily represented (in very different ways) by Philip Brophy and by Daniel, reminds us that we shouldn’t ignore the sonic dimension of these funny pictures.
All that said, this anthology can only scratch at the surface; our main aim was to come at the vast amount of material from a key perspective that had largely been overlooked–that all of these films were made with an aim to get audiences laughing.
The formal structure of the gag is a shared concern of scholars working on comedy and animation. What can we learn by exploring this issue across these two domains?
CK & DG: One of the more interesting aspects of the gag from an analytical perspective is the constructed nature of it. And yet, as familiar as the gag may seem to a viewer, it must still be produced with an eye to conveying a spirit of spontaneity, else the responsive laughter will be diminished.
For both live-action and animated films, a lot of preparatory labour goes into the mounting and execution of the gag. In live-action, practice makes perfect, whereas in animation, it’s all achieved in the process of drawing. Yet the result is so similar. The gags often play to the spatio-temporal strengths of the cinematic universes created by film comedy, the seeming defiance of gravity, the manipulation of objects, the emphatic, almost parodic violence of the pratfall.
Because the intent–to elicit laughter–runs across both live-action and animated comedy, gags are surprisingly similar in both forms, even if the means differ substantially. As might be predicted, animated gags don’t have to go to the lengths of live-action to impress us, as it’s all ultimately on the page and almost anything is possible.
As many of your contributors suggest, comedy and animation both draw on earlier forms of popular amusement, such as vaudeville and the comic strip. How does this book contribute to our understanding of this larger history of popular culture?
CK & DG: By stressing the comic conventions that underlie so much of what comes out of Hollywood, live entertainment and the print media, our anthology tries to draw through lines that suggest productive intermedial cross-fertilization. Popular culture is always a product of diverse and not always completely compatible factors. This was true early on, as evidenced by Mark Langer’s demonstration of the debt that the Fleischer Brothers owed to vaudeville and the comic strip. Similarly, J.B. Kaufman shows how silent live-action comedy exercised an influence on early sound-era animation. And both Paul Wells’ article and your own remind us not to forget that popular comic forms also intersect with modernist tendencies in intriguing ways.
Dealing with these genres, your authors necessarily have to confront the history of stereotyping, especially racial and ethnic stereotypes, in American humor. What new insights do we gain?
CK & DG: Nic Sammond’s work on racial masquerade and early American animation is a game-changer, in our opinion. He asks the hard question: how do we reconcile our ready laughter with the fact that many of these cartoons are irredeemably racist? Rather than simply condemning these works, he tries to understand the roots of their racist humour and why they still strike us as funny. There are no simple answers available, but the questions demand asking. And as we say in our Introduction, this is equally true of much of the uncomfortable laughter that these cartoons often engender as they trade in stereotypes, demean women or adopt ideologically reprehensible positions. But by so insistently focussing their energies on being funny, they draw our attention to why we laugh in the first place.
What has been the lasting legacy of the early cartoon shorts on contemporary forms of animation?
CK: The studio-era cartoons have become a part of our shared cultural heritage and especially in this ‘age of allusion,’ their importance to present-day animators cannot be ignored, because it is constantly on display. The technology of animation may be changing at a head-spinning rate, but its basic impulse–to keep audiences laughing–remains pretty much the same. So these earlier works will never cease to be a source of inspiration for animators nor of delight for viewers. Our anthology is a reminder that the pleasures of studio-era animation, as palpable as they are, demand careful consideration, as surely as do our often visceral reactions to those pleasures. We designed Funny Pictures to supply that consideration while never denying the satisfaction of the belly laugh. We didn’t want to lose sight of the indelible fact that cartoons are funny–while still providing room for reflection.
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.