Before and After Mickey: An Interview with Donald Crafton (Part One)

When I was in graduate school, I was lucky enough to be a teaching assistant to Donald Crafton. At the time, Crafton had recently published two important books on the history of animation — Before Mickey (which explored the role of the cartoon in silent cinema) and Emil Cohl, Caricature, and Film, which dealt with one of the great animation pioneers from Europe. Taken together, the two books made a significant contribution to opening up the space of animation as a major field for scholarly research.

Now, several decades later, Crafton has released a new book, Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making. As the book’s title suggests, Crafton’s latest project expands the time line of his earlier work, allowing us to understand more fully how he might apply his analytic approach to think about sound era animation, especially the works of Walt Disney, but also a range of his contemporaries. Second, as the title suggests, Crafton’s focus here is on what performance studies approaches might tell us about the study of animation and vice-versa. The result is contemporary genre criticism at its very best — drawing on a broad corpus of works, combining history and analysis in imaginative ways, providing new ways to look at films we thought we knew well, and in the process, rejiggering the cannon to focus our attention on people and projects that have largely faded from view. As always, the writing is a pleasure to read and there is a sense here of someone bringing a career’s worth of classroom insights into a form which can be shared with a larger public. I know because I had a chance to take Crafton’s seminar in animation at the University of Wisconsin back in the day and came away with an appreciation of the work involved in plowing through multitudes of animated shorts and features to develop a deep appreciation of how the form evolved over time.

In this interview, Crafton offers us a guided tour of a diverse range of examples of classic studio-era animated works, helping us to see the core differences in how they think about the animation process — especially the construction of character and the figuration of the cartoon body. Along the way, he offers us some insights into the ideological work that cartoons have performed and the ways contemporary popular culture, including games and comics, still lives under “the shadow of a mouse.” Enjoy!

Your earlier work Before Mickey recounted the first few decades of animation, while The Shadow of a Mouse takes us into the 1930s. What do you see as the major transitions (beyond the obvious one, sound) that take place in animation between these two periods?

 

The big change was in the performativity of 1920s and 1930s cartoons. I mean that just about everyone at the time understood that the basic concept of the films as performances was changing. Unlike in mainstream cinema, which accommodated the transition to sound over the thirties’ early years and settled back into a modified “classical Hollywood” style, American animated cinema became transformed fundamentally. The earlier cartoons tended to incorporate characters that pre-existed in comic strips, like Krazy Kat, or that were simulacra of comics characters, like Farmer Al Falfa and Felix the Cat. I call these performances figurative because the characters are formulaic, caricatures, refer to characters outside the films, or behave as conventional stock characters. The films consisted of interchangeable gags—what you call “accordion” structures in What Made Pistachios Nuts?, Henry.

In the 1930s, though, this freewheeling approach began giving way to more complex cinema structures in which character depth, gags, pictorial space, and emotional engagement were unified. There was a classicism analogous to what had developed in mainstream non-animated filmmaking in the late ‘teens. This was something new in cartooning.

 

Studio animators often spoke of the “personality” of animated characters. What did they mean by that term and what strategies did they use to give drawn figures “personalities”

 

“Personality animation”  was a phrase that emerged mainly from Disney’s shop. I think the term embodied animation captures better what the animators were aiming for. The embodied character has distinctive features of expression and patterns of idiosyncratic movement—“personality”—but also develops individuality over the course of multiple film appearances through repetition and variation. He or she can think and act spontaneously, that is, have their own agency aside from the animator’s influence.

A good example is Popeye. He was imported from the comics too (“The Thimble Theatre”), and the cartoons had plenty of anarchistic gags, and his early performances were highly figurative. Eventually, however, Popeye came to have a complex character built around making the right ethical decision to change the outcome of the plot. Audiences came to learn of his quirks, idiosyncratic behaviors and surprising attitudes—like his dislike of children, but his paternal affection for baby Swee’Pea. But they also started appreciating his moral authority and the degree to which his lower-class “swab” character was capable of sophisticated ideas. Not to mention his fistic prowess. So his personality is just one aspect of the character’s role in the stories. Not that these Popeye stories were always coherent; sometimes the narratives were pretty choppy.

Comparing a relatively fully embodied Popeye performance from the mid-to-late 1930s to figurative Ko-Ko the clown from the mid-1920s says it all about the evolution of personality outside Disney. Betty Boop’s performances, in 1930-33, were transitional, as in Betty Boop’s Bamboo Isle, from 1932, which is chockfull of eye-popping, show-stopping effects, but still tells a story—although it’s a simple and rather perfunctory one. All three examples, I hardly need to mention, come from the same studio: the Fleischer brothers.

Historian Mark Langer has proposed that there was a geographical distinction between the two attitudes toward performativity (without using the word). He sees a more figurative New York Style in contrast to the embodiment trending West Coast Style. He characterized the filmmakers in the big NYC studios (Fleischer, Sullivan, Terry, Van Beuren) who worked mainly in a high-contrast black-and-white comic-strip style as continuing their graphic media connections to comics and popular illustration. The movement in such films was rubbery and gag-filled (redolent of the animators’ love affair with vaudeville). These films also were surreal and fantastic.

Disney, once they settled in L.A. (the Silver Lake area specifically), exemplified the West Coast style, which evolved into the embodied performance approach. Although his roots were in Kansas City, not New York, he and his partner Ub Iwerks had begun drawing in this comics style in their 1920s silents and early sound films. But Disney wanted product differentiation and so began emphasizing storytelling, character development, and less “cartoony” constructions. The pictorial space of his films became more rational, often observing proper Renaissance perspective, lighting, and color for creating convincing depth. This was necessary to support a character-based approach to performance.

These beings in the Silly Symphonies, let’s say the ones in Father Noah’s Ark, moved more gravitationally and less rubbery. Sometimes, as with the dancing porkers in The Three Little Pigs, they moved with choreographic grace.

Most important, the Disney studio tried to transform the older style characters from caricatures and comic types (often inspired by minstrels) to individuals with uniqueness and psychological depth. There might have been some surreal fantasy, but it was kept in check within the story.

 

The most influential force on the emerging West Coast style was the Russian acting theorist Konstantin Stanislavsky, whose ideas about how the stage actor must “inhabit” the fictional body to bring life to it was a model for Disney animators as well as for other “live-action” film directors in the 1930s. Eventually these ideas would give rise to “The Method.” If you ask me, the 1950s Method acting of Dean, Brando, Monroe etc. is kind of cartoony. But that’s another blog.

 

After the talkies came in, there had to be a new attitude towards sound, as you say. Early 30s animation for commercial reasons had to be anchored in music performance. Hence the references to “tunes,” “symphonies,” “melodies” etc. in the 1930s series titles were tie‑ins with the music publishing industry. We should think of these films as intermedial because often they were structured around and animated to a pre-existing track, usually the instrumental version of a public domain melody in the case of Disney, or of a currently popular song in the cases of Fleischer and the Schlesinger studio (Warner Bros.). So the structure of the music interacted with the gags to create a new sensation.

 

These are the major transformations, to give a long answer to your short question, but all the different aspects boil down to changes in the underlying performances presented on screen. As for Disney, there was never any doubt about his motives: he wanted his films to be like Hollywood shorts and then features so he could rent them for more revenue, and he felt that cartoons had to have the look and feel of a big studio production if they were to compete.

 

A specialist in film history and visual culture, Donald Crafton earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, his master’s degree from the University of Iowa, and a master’s and doctorate from Yale University. He was the founding director of the Yale Film Study Center, and served as director of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Crafton chaired the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at Notre Dame from 1997 to 2002 and 2008-2010, and the Department of Music from 2004-2007.

Crafton’s research interests are in film history and visual culture. His most recent publications are Shadow of a Mouse: Performance, Belief, and World-Making in Animation (2013) and The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931 (California, 1999). He was named Academy Film Scholar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2000 and was the recipient of an NEH Fellowship for 2003-04. The World Festival of Animation presented him in 2004 with an award for his contributions to animation theory. He received the University of Notre Dame’s Presidential Award in 2007.