A LOOK AT THE HISTORY OF AMERICAN ANIMATION
by Abby Goldsmith
CalArts term paper | May 1999
The post-WWII era in the United States
saw a fresh burst of animated
films which attempted to both break into new styles and energize old methods. The studios competing against
at the time included Lantz Studios
working under MGM
and the newly founded U.P.A.
, or United Productions of America. Over the next few decades,
similar themes and characters abounded as studios rivaled each other.
From the beginning, Lantz Studios
outlasted every studio except
although the company was not above imitating the animation giant. Disney
had Silly Symphonies
had Swing Symphonies
and Donald Duck
so Lantz Studios
and other such talking animals, yet the only character created by
managed to survive the years was Woody Woodpecker
. Woody was conceived in 1940, based
on an actual woodpecker, four years after Lantz Studios
quit working at
and began his own company. Woody’s design was crafted by Ben Hardaway
, a disillusioned
refugee from Warner Brothers
Distraught, delirious, even dangerous, the very first Woody
exhibited brutal features, feverish eyes, and two pendulous
teeth in his beak. (Bendazzi
Over time, the woodpecker’s design and attitude softened, yet in the beginning he
embodied the frenetic milieu typical of the early 1940’s in America. (Bendazzi, 87).
The Barber of Seville
was an example of the character’s early demeanor, featuring Woody
savagely shaving an Italian man while singing the title opera song at the same time. It
was directed in 1944 by Shamus Culhane
whose animation credits also include Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs
’s feature Gulliver’s Travels.
later produced a similar film starring
, twisting their classic "wabbit hunting" story into a
The Barber of Seville
opera, performed at the Hollywood Bowl, where Bugs ends up
dressed in a barber costume and shaving his already bald opponent.
owed its animated creativity in the
1940’s and 50’s to Tex Avery
a director who favored the surreal and spontaneous. Rather than utilize stereotypes, he would take
the commonplace and twist it, combine it, or generally play with it. With the
exception of Droopy the dog
Avery’s characters were short-lived, yet memorable.
A favorite was a voluptuous redhead, animated by Preston Blair
, whose mere presence
would excite a wolf character to the point of absurdity. (Bendazzi
, 137). In 1949,
she starred in Little Rural Red Riding Hood
, inflaming the country wolf’s lust while
his wealthy city wolf cousin unsuccessfully tries to calm him down. Yet when the
city wolf drives his overexcited cousin back to his cabin, he falls in love with an
inbred looking version of the redhead, named Rural Riding Hood. This was an example
of Avery’s sense of irony.
An Avery character may skid off the edge of a film frame,
or go to the movies and find a character he just left in
another scene saying hello to him [from the screen]. (Maltin
Another cartoon which used a famous opera song was
directed in 1952 by Tex Avery
. Anthropomorphic dogs were the main characters,
and the film featured the innovative literal treatment characteristic of its director. The premise begins when
a bulldog opera star rejects a prospective employee, and the latter takes revenge by
usurping the conductor’s place and using his magic wand to affect the unsuspecting star.
Thus, the opera singer is forced to perform all sorts of worldly dances, wearing costumes
other than his tuxedo. He switches from The Barber of Seville
to country folk singing
to Chinese chanting to hula dancing, with no warning of what will come next. At one
point, a string appears in the lower left corner of the screen, apparently due to a
damaged reel- until the singer simply plucks it away.
Operatic cartoon characters abounded, and Disney
jumped on the
bandwagon with Willie, the Operatic Whale
one of the ten short films from Make Mine Music
A Donald Duck short
also carried the theme, which must have been tempting given the character’s
trademark rasp. When Donald is accidentally hit on the head by a flower pot, he
suddenly gains a melodious voice and as a result, fame and fortune as an opera singer
follow. He also ends up ignoring Daisy as though she never existed, until she takes
the drastic measure of hitting him over the head again, restoring his old voice and personality.
Competing with American contemporaries, George Pal
by specializing in puppetry rather than in hand-drawn animation. The Hungarian-born artist ran a Dutch
animation company until he moved to Los Angeles, where he directed Tubby the Tuba
Unlike the violent material of the time, Tubby was a gentle character in a gentle film,
with music as the theme and a moral at the end. Driven by narration, the tuba had a very
tangible personality, and Pal later went on to win five Oscars
for special effects.
Characters were often imitated by competing studios, as shown by the
similarities between Mickey Mouse
, Mighty Mouse
Tom and Jerry
, and the echoing
from Warner Brothers
The one company which broke free from these repetitive
styles and characters was United Productions of America (U.P.A.
), which grew under the
guidance of some of the most talented animators in the country.
Founded in 1944, U.P.A.
focused primarily on educational
and political material, until Stephen Bosustow
took control in 1946. One of the company’s first
non-educational or political films was Robin Hoodlum
which was rejected by Columbia Pictures due to the
unique style and content. Despite this fact, Robin Hoodlum
was nominated for an Academy
Award, and was the inspiration for Disney
’s later animated feature Robin Hood
used the fox and crow characters from Robin Hoodlum
in its 1949 film
The Magic Fluke
; a more serious take on the opera theme.
The setting of The Magic Fluke
and gritty, with black patterned backgrounds and muted, heavy colors. (Maltin
The characters are presented as struggling musicians, and the crow’s narration comes
across as somber and depressing. When the animal band is offered a big time contract,
the fox takes all the credit for himself, leaving the crow cold and bankrupt.
Interestingly, the fox is never given any cliché evil features or attitudes; he simply
ignores the crow and smiles graciously at the audience, both in and outside the film.
Much like the Donald Duck short, fame and fortune destroys the friendship until the
crow reasserts himself by interrupting the fox’s one-man-band gig.
faded within a few decades, it left behind an
unmistakably distinctive style--and one star who has survived the test of time, Mister Magoo
Gerald McBoing Boing
Gerald McBoing Boing
of a comic spirit which broke with the tradition of the pie-in-
the-face and breakneck chases. ...To cinema they were what
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts
was to comic strips in the same
period, the expression of a restless, somewhat neurotic
premiered in 1951,
directed by Oscar
winner Bobe Cannon
Unable to speak like a normal child, Gerald is able to produce perfect sound effects, and eventually
meets with success working for a radio show. This kind of humor involved making light of
ordinary situations, and portrays recognizable humans rather than anthropomorphic animals
or the same reworked characters. U.P.A.
were more elegant and less violent than contemporary
material, and the flat stylistic design and limited animation also differed from Disney
and the rest of the competition. In fact, the comedy aspect of U.P.A.
would swing from
dry to mature to nonexistent at times. The first taste America had of an animated horror
movie came from U.P.A.
in 1953, as an adaptation of
Edgar Allan Poe
The Telltale Heart
Directed by Ted Parmelee
, the backgrounds were dark and twisted, and the narrating voice
Other notable U.P.A.
include Rooty Toot Toot
A Unicorn in the Garden
All three exhibit a sophisticated
humor which does not rely on violence or visual gags. Directed by Bill Hurtz
A Unicorn in the Garden
is based on a tale by novelist James Thurber
about a man whose life is changed when he sees the
impossible. The film begins by showing his unhappy marriage (the husband has to fix his
own breakfast, a rare thing in the 1950’s), and his wife is obviously a lazy nag. Then
he looks out the window to see a unicorn grazing the roses in the yard. To his delight,
it chomps a rose right out his hand, and he runs upstairs to tell his wife, who jumps to
the conclusion that he is insane and calls a psychiatrist. Her hysterical manner,
combined with the preposterous story, land her in a straightjacket. The doctor then asks
the husband if he really did see a unicorn. Rather than look a gift horse in the mouth,
the man frees himself from his wife with a simple “No.” Such a story could not have been
as well done in live action, because the flat style of the mythical unicorn fit very
naturally with the rest of the film’s setting, making it seem a perfectly plausible event.
Details were minimal, but the acting kept it alive.
The lack of visual details, two dimensional characters, patterned backgrounds, and
overlapping color and lines became the U.P.A.
trademark look, a style recognizable today
even after the studio’s eventual disintegration. The characters created by many of
these studios are still very much alive in today’s animation, and the humor of Tex Avery
, Bobe Cannon
and their animators can still be appreciated years later.
- Bendazzi, Giannalberto, Cartoons: one hundred years of cinema animation,
John Libbey & Company, Ltd, Indiana University Press,1994.
- Canemaker, John, ed., Storytelling in Animation: an anthology,
American Film Institute, Los Angeles, CA, 1988.
- Culhane, Shamus, Talking Animals and Other People,
St. Martin’s Press, NY, NY, 1986.
- Furniss, Maureen, Art in Motion: animation aesthetics,
John Libbey & Company, Ltd, Sydney, 1998.
- Maltin, Leonard, Of Mice and Magic: a history of American animated cartoons,
revised ed., New American Library, NY, NY, 1987.