Sunday, 4 March 2007

Dixieland, Red Heads With Long, Long Legs and Randy Wolves — Animation of The Golden Age.

by Edwin Hesselthwite

"Once more the final picture flashed on the screen, motionless this time, for the projector had been stopped. With something like awe the scientists gazed at the still figure from the past, while in turn the little biped stared back at them with its characteristic expression of arrogant bad temper. Millions of times in the ages to come those last few words would flash across the screen, and none could ever guess their meaning: A Walt Disney Production." - From the last page of Expedition To Earth by Arthur C. Clarke.
I first read Clarke in my early teens, and Expedition to Earth has stuck with me along with Childhoods End and Tales From The White Hart, burrowing deep into my subconscious and making a nest in my cerebellum. Science Fiction has made it's influence so deeply that when I hear a media conservationist say we need to reduce energy consumption for sound environmental reasons a voice (a voice that sounds distractingly like a butch ex-sailor who thinks Specialisation is for insects) at the back of my mind says "What? No! How are we going to colonise Mars and the outer planets if we reduce energy consumption! We need fusion."

I mention this example because Animation, an art form of the same era but with a much higher profile, has become so omnipresent in the last century that it's hard to remove it's influence from your world view. Up until I wrote this piece I spent about 10 years having forgotten cartoons. Not rejected, or disliked, just forgotten. Every day through my childhood I watched cartoons, all the time absorbing this other world, until now Salvador Dali seems less inventive for his surrealism than Chuck Jones. As such a massive presence in childhood it's easy to lose the sheer wonder that is the background to animation. I write this article to bring attention to The Golden Age of Animation, and the brief golden age we live in now... In this article I will exploit ruthlessly the copyright infringing availability of these cartoons on YouTube, Dailymotion and GoogleVideo — an availability that has a noticeable time limit. The intent with this piece is for you to watch the cartoons as you read, so the clock on this article is ticking when those cartoons get pulled one by one.

American animation is fascinating - between 1920 and 1950 a whole artform, with massive budgets writ in radiant primary colours, arose. The imagery that became common with in it was rich - the bastard child of strip cartoons (particularly Krazy Kat) and silent comedy. An era of rapid creativity occurred as the motifs and stylisation of the form was developed from scratch in the studios of Terrytoons, Warner Brothers, MGM, Paramount and Disney. The standard length was the short, 5 to 7 minutes of joyous insanity, a work of art in the time it now takes to listen to a pop song.

By the end of the forties the era was in decline, with the cartoons becoming increasingly formulaic and stories driven more by the characters than the directors or concepts (Tom and Jerry, a relatively late classic cartoon, appeared in 1940 and had one of the most inflexible formulas, Roadrunner began in '48 and, while hilarious, was stylistically rigid) and then, just as budget cuts brought the writing onto the wall, Chuck Jones took these standardised motifs and used them to produce some of the greatest triumphs of the form — What's Opera, Doc? and Duck Amuck. In those key 25 years it took America to become the worlds pre-eminent power, Hollywood was painting its fantasies on celluloid, and these dreams were both fantastical, and magnificent.

Firstly, I'll make it abundantly clear — cartoons were never written purely for children. You only need to look through Tex Avery's shorts to see a million filthy and political jokes aimed above the heads of the young, but even more basic cartoons had mixed layers. To me, the most interesting aspect is the mirror that cartoons (as such a fantastical, and caricature based, art form) held up to the era. And in this area, three issues stand out for discussion in this piece — Jazz and black culture, nationalist propaganda, and intellectual property.

It's clear to even the most passing viewer that the cartoons of the Golden Age exploited racial caricatures for gags. In my time on Dailymotion I found Eskimo, Pygmy, Japanese and German jokes with barely any effort. However, the primary target of these racial caricatures was undoubtably the black population of the US. More than a simple dismissive assault, these caricatures were the main representation of America's largest and most vocal minority in this medium. At this point, an admission - I, personally, absolutely love good Jazz. In researching this piece I became really absorbed by how these cartoons showed the interaction of Hollywood and first Dixieland, and then Swing. Jazz was the most raucous pop music in America - and in the Golden Age of Cartoons it hadn't yet been fully intellectualised by the era of Bebop. Animation was it's visual twin, an extremely new art form with the potential for chaos and arresting imagery of nothing before, yet to be tamed by feature length Disney productions and a million repetitive Pepe Le Pew gags. This was a marriage made in both heaven and hell - the visual art of the jazz age. To set the tone, I suggest you watch this short I found on Dailymotion - a minute long jazz standard, performed by the Mills Brothers, and set to animation by Tex Avery's team:

Sweet Georgia Brown - an extract from "The Isle of Pingo Pongo" (1938), which remains unavailable on the internet.

It would be facile to comment on modern opinions of these sorts of stereotypes, when the mildest racial depiction can cause an international firestorm. However good the music is, and however much work they put into the animation, that piece is still shocking. It's therefore understandable that in the late 60's, at the height of the civil rights era, the directors of the Warner Brothers archive decided to remove the worst caricatures from re-circulation, in a move called The Censored Eleven - I'll return to the richest of these. Beyond these, too many to mention of the cartoons of the period were full of mild black gags, the classic being the exploding cigar that precedes a charred character acting out black caricatures. But crying racism would be to get the wrong end of the stick, these cartoons show a real passion for jazz music. My personal favourite example of jazz in a cartoon is this Tex Avery directed Droopy short, anyone with a knowledge of Avery's personality should know Jazz would be his thing, in this case the racial caricature is relatively mild.

Dixieland Droopy (1954) - The tune this piece is written around is Tiger Rag, a Dixieland classic of heavily debated authorship (among others The Original Dixieland Jazz Band and Jelly Roll Morton claimed credit for it)

Of The Censored Eleven there are 2 that stand out both for their extreme racial caricatures and for the quality of the jazz and animation - Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves and Tin Pan Alley Cats (I haven't embedded these because the available versions are sadly extremely poor, I recommend you go over and take a look). Both of these were directed by Bob Clampett and Coal Black is regularly listed amongst the best cartoons of the era. We see here some really horrendous black caricatures, accompanying some fantastic jazz music (the best music is the final kiss scene, which was scored by Eddie Beals and His Orchestra) and extraordinarily clever animation - the sheer pace of this cartoon leaves even Avery behind. Not only had the black musicians consented to this depiction, Duke Ellington himself had discussed the idea for the story with Clampett before production began. What is clear is that Avery and Clampett were passionate about this music, and that the end results of their work should be taken in that spirit. These jokes were so abundant, that they were acceptable to major Black figures.

"If you want a midget to look like a baby, don't put a cigar in his mouth." - Chuck Jones lecturing on cartoon technique

Apart from the race angle, the other side of these cartoons that's worth looking at politically is their role in wartime propaganda. These two issues aren't divorced - the propaganda often went hand in hand with racial stereotyping of the Axis powers. I've already posted Avery's classic wartime piece Blitz Wolf, which I can watch countless times without tiring of it, but this is very much the tip of the iceberg. Probably the best example, and the one I most want you to see, is Disney's major wartime offering, a virtually humour free piece of infotainment, showing Disney's Fantasia era fondness for presenting cartoons as serious art:

Magnificent, isn't it? The animation is gorgeous (as one expects of a Disney production, this is far more expensive than the Warner Brothers stable could afford), but with the increased budget and subject matter Disney have embraced their tendency to speak like the voice of the nation's father — a perfect approach for a piece designed to induce fear of the enemy — and this allows them to hide some terrible factual errors. Please take notice of the blatant strawmaning (where does the Sleeping Beauty story come from again?) and hideous anti-German stereotypes. This rivals Triumph of the Will, The Battleship Potemkin and Red Dawn as perfect cinematic propaganda. It's taken me a while to show a Disney short, hasn't it? I'll get back to the reason for this later in the article.

All the major studio's were to some degree involved in anti-Axis propaganda. Warner Brothers produced a couple of reasonably straight Looney Tunes stories where Bugs's and Daffy's foils were the Germans and the Japanese: Herr vs Hare (where Bugs takes on Goebells), Daffy - The Commando (a similar piece with Daffy replacing Bugs), Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips (the funniest of the set, where Bugs takes on a Japanese soldier), along with a series called Private Snafu made purely for infotainment for the troops. MGM launched Tex Avery's career at the studio with the aforementioned Blitz Wolf, and Paramount's Popeye joined the Navy in Spinach Fer Britain. The most notable of the set, to me, is another Bob Clampett production — where the Looney Tunes series were becoming depressingly standardised by this point, Clampett produced a wonder in WB's Merry Melodies range of one off cartoons with Adolf himself as the star:

Russian Rhapsody (1944)

Animation as used here really lends itself to blatant propaganda in a way that traditional film does not. The pace of imagery that Clampett and Avery held themselves to allows them to take the theatre audience on a ride that they would have more trouble accepting if delivered slower. Further, while characterisation in cartoons is relatively difficult (hence the need for all these stock characters) it lends itself perfectly to the caricature, allowing the animators to really enjoy themselves with their rendering of Hitler, shown here gesticulating, spitting and grimacing with real gusto. If you compare Russian Rhapsody with Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, the more biting parody is clear.

From the '40's onwards this capacity for using animation as propaganda was not at all lost. The two classic examples being the American Duck And Cover infomercial and the British produced (and highly Disney derivative) Animal Farm feature (1954) - now established to have been funded covertly by the CIA as anti-soviet agitprop.

"I definitely feel it was a communist group trying to take over my artists and they did take them over" - Walt Disney testifying on the '41 artists strike to the House Un-American Activities Committe (HUAC) in the US Senate

The above forms the result of a brief research project into a particular angle of 20th century culture. As mentioned at the beginning of the article the main source of information for this project has been Daily Motion, YouTube and Google Video. While writing this I was in the fortunate position of being able to search through these resources to find massive numbers of these animated shorts. Cartoons are perfect for these websites because they are short, numerous and complete works. Also, due to the nature of colour shading the low quality common on these websites doesn't make them unwatchable — it goes without saying that these are in complete violation of copyright and therefore completely illegal.

We at Little Man, What Now? have never been great friends of copyright law. The libertarians amongst us view it as a dubious form of protectionism, a type that has been suspiciously creeping ever since the Bern Convention of 1886 made information the property of its originator (and estate) up until 50 years after the author's death (or 50 years from date of broadcast for corporate content). However, over the past 20 years there have been a number of events that have made this law particularly important when it comes to the history of animation.

Due to a pattern of corporate takeovers in the 80's the MGM film Library ended up the property of Ted Turner's media group. Then, in the mid 90's Turner's group merged with Time Warner, after their acquisition of Hanna-Barbera. The result of this series of corporate shenanigans is that the virtually the entire body of Golden Age Cartoons is now the property of Time Warner, Disney and Paramount (who are left with Terrytoons's Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle). Warner give us Cartoon Network and Boomerang, Paramount gives us Nickleodeon and Disney — well Disney have been capitalising on their intellectual property since Disneyland opened its doors in 1955. As massive brands, they are all understandably more interested in projecting their brand values than in protecting and disseminating one of the most culturally important archives of the 20th century.

In the early 90's in the process of trade harmonisations the EU put through a copyright directive, under pressure from heavy lobbying from the media companies listed above, they extended copyright within the union to 70 years after author death and 50 years after broadcast for corporate properties. The United States responded to this in 1997 by putting through a copyright act (often referred to as the Mickey Mouse Protection Act due to the direct financial impact this had on the Disney Corporation) that extended their copyright beyond the Berne agreement to 70 years for authorial properties, and 90 years after broadcast for corporate properties.

We are now in a situation where these properties, of which the authors are mostly long dead, are going to remain outside the public domain for at least 11, and mostly closer to 30 years. The companies, while all making minor efforts towards maintaining their archive, understandably have less interest in utilising these more political pieces and have no financial incentive to publicise them. The classic example is that not a single DVD of just Tex Avery shorts is available — they have no great interest in the adult market. So, as the masters degrade there is the risk of this glorious media being lost.

YouTube, DailyMotion and Google Video are heroes for this, because at the moment so many of these cartoons are available. This is changing, in the (admittedly long) period it has taken me to write this article, YouTube have pulled a significant number of Disney and Warner Brothers shorts. This is why there is so little Disney in this post, and from past experience they are not likely to show any of this material. To protect this resource, I'm tempted to suggest that we all download copies of Coal Black from Google Video so that it is out there however racist it may be. It would be a great thing to know that these classics are sitting on numerous hard disks across the globe, not just degrading in celluloid.

So I end this piece with a list of animation's crown jewels, some of the best cartoons ever that you can currently watch online:

One Froggy Evening - Listed as second best short movie ever on IMDB.
What's Opera, Doc? - Chuck Jones's masterpiece, Bugs and Elmer do Opera.
Duck Amuck - Jones again, Daffy meets his maker.
Red Hot Riding Hood - Avery's masterpiece, sent up in every movie from The Mask to Roger Rabbit.

That's All Folks!
(sorry, I couldn't resist)


Charles Pooter said...

A fascinating, well-researched article.

Adam said...

Excellent post. As an animation student, I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Thanks!

Perhaps you should toss in a link to MGM's 1939 animation "Peace on Earth"? (Hugh Harman.....cartoon was nominated for a nobel peace prize):

Ann O'Dyne said...

greetings from Victoria, Australia Prof. Hesselthwaite.
Thank you for that post and I intend to read it again.
After browsing allover LMWN? and noticing in the 'Books we are reading now' that James Ellroy is listed, I was inspired to comment that I have had supper with him and he was very agreeable to me.
This commends him, on account of me being Absolutely Nobody of Nowhere.
So I idly clicked on the animation post to leave my brag, only to find your immediate reference to the genius of George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Ignatz Mouse and Officer Pup. the existential toon.
which brings me to The RoadRunner and The Coyote: my daughter who spent 18 years loathing the name I gave her, did a complete 180 of attitude after HRH Chuck Jonescomplimented her on it while signing his book as she purchased it.

now back for a second helping of Randy Wolves ...

Ann O'Dyne said...

I was a very impressionable 7 years old when television broadcasting began in Australia and the stations dished us up all those (cheaply bulk-purchased) old movies that Ted Turner now owns.
Barbara Stanwyk B movies and Richard Widmark films noir, Marx and Johnson Bros. Hope & Crosby.
All had a lasting effect on me.

The degree of musical high-sophistication employed by Hollywood animators travelled very far away straight into the mind of this child of very UNsophistcated parents, and formed the basis of my cultural frame of reference.

Only very dim people would think that cartoons are rubbish.

Charles Pooter said...

Dear Ann O'Dyne:

Nice to have you here. Edwin has popped off to Greece for a few days, but I'm sure he'll reply to your comments on his return!