Search

BEFORE MICKEY: THE ANIMATED FILM, 1898-1928


For such a "classic" book, I was gravely frustrated. I have never read a cartoon book that was a chore to finish.

Well, first the book is overwhelmingly leaned toward foreign silent animation. Now, it would sound nationalistic to say that American cartoons were the dominant one in this era, but notice that every Philistine knows Felix the Cat, not Stromlinien. There's a reason. This is not to damn European animation, but in the old days it was the U.S. animation business that dominated everything (nowadays, Japan is the great country of animation). Anyway, German and truckloads of French animation being the big focus is inappropriate and just the author's obsession and bias.

The author worships Emile Cohl tremendously, and this bias leads to virtually everyone else getting the boot. Bray, Disney, Lantz, Terry, and so on get squeezed in a few short chapters.

Donald's Francophilia gets the better of him, sometimes: he claims that Winsor McCay stole stuff from a French movie called La Repas de Bebé, which seems like a stretch. I doubt highly he was watching French stuff.

His focus on silent cartoons shows that he only cares about them, so his opinions on the sound stuff come through with odd sayings, like his accusation that the Dinky Doodles are better than sound Lantz films.

Donald's anti-Disney viewpoint is irritating. You can tell from his tone that he is convinced that Walt is overrated. Oddly, he actually believes that Charles Mintz created Oswald. Presumably, he knows nothing about Charles Mintz. The reason for all this might be because he lists Richard Schickel's The Disney Version as a source, a book notorious for its hateful rhetroric. Tellingly, in the Felix chapter, the epigraph is an Otto Messmer quote: "To me a mouse is repulsive thing." 

His Felix chapter suddenly delves into pseudo-intellectual nonsense in an otherwise straightfoward book, talking about him as a "insurrectionist" and "outsider", and observations like "Felix's allegory of self-creation is emblematic of the animator's creation of the cat out of the elemental materials of ink and paper." Dude, they're just cartoons!

What keeps this from an F is that it isn't worthless, with many interviews conducted with Otto Messmer, Friz Freleng, Shamus Culhane, and others (sadly, Dick Huemer had passed away before Donald could get to him). But otherwise a big letdown.

D


3 comments:

  1. If a book about a subject you're interested in is a chore to read, it's the author's fault. This is a problem with many academic writers, whose work comes across like a textbook that covers the material that's going to be on the exam and no more. If a book like this is to grab general readers, it has to tell a story, and the people under discussion have to emerge as distinct and engaging personalities.

    "...in the old days it was the U.S. animation business that dominated everything...." After WWI, yes, but prior to that it was actually France that had the world's biggest film industry, including animation. The Bray-Hurd process for cel animation did a lot to standardise the medium, but that was only patented in 1914, and there was a lot of animation history before then. Emile Cohl is a very important figure, and I'm not surprised that Crafton spent a lot of time on him. It seems to me that this aspect of the book is just being thorough, not some inappropriate and unbecoming Francophilia (and I'm part French myself, so watch your step s'il vous plait).

    Out of curiosity, how much space does Crafton devote in his book to Quirino Cristiani of Argentina? Is there a chapter about him, a couple of paragraphs, mentioned in passing? How many index citations?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anything non-Europe on U.S. is not acknowledged, so this Animating Argentine gets no mention.

      His French obsession, like I said, comes through his assertions that people like McCay watched French movies or studied Cohl is highly unlikely. The author's favoritism for Cohl-and muffled dislike of Disney-is distracting. The book was straightfowardly written until that Felix chapter, which was dabbling in poor boy's metaphysics.

      What I meant about "the old days" is that the significant advancement in character animation and belivability in the impossible were made in the States.

      You're part French? Scots-Irish here, laddie!

      Delete
    2. Well, it appears that Crafton wasn't nearly as thorough as I had hoped. Quirino Cristiani was Argentina's first animation director. He's important because he made the first two animated feature films, as well as the first animated feature with sound, anywhere in the world. He's also notable because his primary focus was political satire, something you don't often get in animation. This ties in with the political situation in Argentina at the time (WWI and after), which is an interesting story in itself. Most of Cristiani's films, including all three features, were destroyed in warehouse fires, and none of them were ever shown outside Argentina, so he had little impact on the art. But he's still a very interesting figure in animation history. Walt Disney made a point of meeting with Cristiani during his goodwill tour of South America in 1941.

      So I'm guessing that Crafton doesn't have anything to say about Japanese silent cartoons either, since the cutoff date given in the title is 1928, and silent film in Japan (both live-action and animated) persisted much later than that. Japanese films were typically accompanied by a live narrator called a benshi, who would not only read the title cards but also improvise dialogue for all the characters, provide commentary and sound effects, etc. Benshi were so popular that Japanese filmmakers were in no hurry to adopt recorded sound. Since Japan has the world's biggest animation industry today, it's rather negligent of Crafton to gloss over its beginnings.

      By the way, before Quirino Cristiani made his first animated film, the only animation he had ever seen was by Cohl. But McCay had a big impact elsewhere, for example on Sweden's first animator Victor Bergdahl.

      There are some very good articles by Milton Knight and Fred Patten about the early silent animated films of various countries on Jerry Beck's Cartoon Research site.

      Delete

Stay clean!

Dedicated to Winsor, for starting it; to Walt, for refining it; and to Tex, for expanding it.