Monday, 3 May 2010

Lyrical versifiers and witless extravagance: British critics on American animation from the thirties to the sixties

If you want to look at the history of the animation scene in the UK, then it's useful to take a step away from British animation and look at how foreign animation has been received in the country. With this post I'll be examining coverage of American animation in The Times from 1934 to 1961.

Positive evaluation of Disney's cartoons can be seen in a column titled "Disney Films: Six New Cartoons" printed in the 8 November 1938 issue of The Times:
The six short pieces privately shown at the Cambridge Theatre yesterday afternoon give collectively a useful indication of Mr. Walt Disney's range... In Donald's Lucky Day, the hero, as a messenger-boy carrying a parcel that contains a bomb, is not in his best form, in spite of a brilliant dancing interlude with a black cat on a pavement, and one might be disposed to wonder whether this particular vein was not becoming exhausted if Donald's Golf Game, with clubs that turn into a net to catch the ball or into a parachute to swirl the player into the air, were not there to bring Donald into his own again. But Mr. Disney is always least successful where his humour is plain slapstick, and increasingly good as he moves nearer and nearer to pure fantasy.
Clearly, the critic took Disney shorts very seriously, treating them as films worthy of in-depth discussion. Less positive, but no less analytical, was the Times review of Song of the South (12 December 1946) that criticised the characterisation: "Brer Rabbit... has that stridency and violence which now seem an integral part of Mr. Disney's fancy. Brer Fox is in the same coarsening tradition."

Times reviews of Walt Disney's cartoons were often written from the same stance as this - praising its artistry, showing disdain for its "stridency and violence". The paper's glowing review of Snow White (14 January 1938) takes pains to explain that the story has not been overly modernised ("The Brothers Grimm, who must often deplore the treatment their fairy tales receive in pantomime, would have had their word of praise... The Grimm tradition has been followed faithfully, with no concessions to modernity"); similarly, the review of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (23 March 1961) praises the fact that "those streaks of vulgarity and cruelty which so often marred [the Disney approach] are here, to all intents and purposes, non-existent". Walt Disney's obituary (16 December 1966), meanwhile, acknowledges objections to the addition of an "all-talking, all-American Gopher" to his Winnie the Pooh adaptations.

Both sides of the coin can also be seen in the paper's coverage of the Silly Symphony short Who Killed Cock Robin? In August 24 1934 a report read "A DISNEY MELODRAMA: The next Silly Symphony to be made by Mr. Walt Disney will be entitled Who Killed Cock Robin? This will be the first melodrama to be made by Mr. Disney." The September 17 1935 issue, meanwhile, grumbles in an editorial on children's entertainment that Disney "has lately turned his attention to satirizing American murder trials, a subject which, though the victim's name be Cock Robin, is not of topical or imaginative interest in British nurseries". The paper first treats the short as a melodrama, as opposed to frivolous comedy (clearly the result of crossed wires, as the cartoon was very much a frivolous comedy) and then objects to its American setting.

A 30 June 1936 editorial titled "Mice and Men: Mr. Disney's Films" sticks out by defending Disney's lowbrow taste. The author states that that
His fairies are the creatures of the kitchen calender... His jokes are the jokes of Broadway: the under-clothes, the mother-in-law and the banana-skin. The comic strip seems always the sheet-anchor of his policy. This jolly vulgarizing of the animal kingdom, cheerfully endued with a sense of humour which it does not possess, is of course satisfying up to a point.
But goes on to conclude that
The aesthete must relinquish his ideals when he visits the pantomime; the philosopher would be wrong to seek wisdom in the Punch and Judy show, and to tax Mickey with failing to cultivate his imagination perhaps recalls too much the pedagogue.
Most interesting of all, however, is a column in the 8 April 1953 issue, titled "Film Cartoons: Recovery After Decline" and attributed to "our film critic". It's a lot harsher, seeing Donald Duck as nothing more than the fall of the medium. Walt Disney, argues the author, was at one point split between two camps:
There were once two Disneys, the humorist who amused himself with Mickey and, incidentally, made a most brilliant use of the new invention of sound, and the lyrical versifier - poet is putting it too high - who created the entirely successful Flowers and Trees.
The column goes on to criticise the "lunatic distortions" and "exaggerated raucousness" of Donald Duck ("as far removed from the adventures of Mickey as the dubious prettiness of Fantasia was from the flowing, graceful lines of the Silly Symphonies"). But its strongest objections are reserved not for Disney's output, but for that of Warner Brothers:
It is possible to see Donald Duck as a heroic rebel, a last-ditch individualist, or to argue that he represented the frustrated fury felt by the common man as the thirties drew to their catastrophic close, but, whatever the motive for his peculiar behaviour, it had a disastrous effect on the cartoon. From the pleasant exaggerations of an inventive humour, the cartoon descended to the depths inhabited by such creatures as "Bugs" Bunny and "Tweetie-Pie", where all is a chaos of insensate physical disaster, and the point and essence of fantasy are lost in wild and witless extravagance.
The author goes on to point to the French film Joy de Vivre and the cartoons of UPA as a light at the end of the tunnel. (We are also told that "a form of three-dimensional cartoons is promised").

With the Looney Tunes shorts regarded by many in the animation community as the crown jewels of the medium, it's an eye-opener to find a contemporary critic treating them as animation's nadir. How widespread was this opinion? Were American critics making the same arguments?

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