Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America (From Betty Boop to Toy Story)

Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America (From Betty Boop to Toy Story)

by Stefan Kanfer
     
 

Acclaimed critic and historian Stefan Kanfer follows the ascent of America's most beloved and successful original art form from vaudeville sideshow to global industry, in the process holding up a mirror to the passing parade of cartoons, a mirror in which their captured reflections leave an indelible record of the changing nature of American tastes, values, and dreams… See more details below

Overview

Acclaimed critic and historian Stefan Kanfer follows the ascent of America's most beloved and successful original art form from vaudeville sideshow to global industry, in the process holding up a mirror to the passing parade of cartoons, a mirror in which their captured reflections leave an indelible record of the changing nature of American tastes, values, and dreams. Art and commerce combine and collide again and again in Stefan Kanfer's history, with results that range from predictably dismaying to hilarious. Take Daffy Duck's signature voice: If Warner Bros. producer Leon Schlesinger hadn't been such a tightfisted employer, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and the rest of his legendary animation team might never have created the thputtering duck to lampoon the boss's speech impairment. (Fearing Schlesinger's reaction, the animators wrote out their resignations before his initial screening, only to watch the oblivious Schlesinger leap to his feet and exclaim, "Jeethus Christh, that's a funny voithe! Where'd you get that voithe?"). Small victories, uneasy stalemates, and defeats enough to make a cynic weep all have their hour in the story of an industry whose fortunes have swung between wild expansion and profound depression. To know the cartoons America has loved is to know America: the Jazz Age's infatuation with Betty Boop's shimmy; F.D.R.'s public embrace of Disney's The Three Little Pigs and its smash theme song "Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf" during the Great Depression; the adoption during World War II of brash, indomitable Bugs Bunny as an unofficial symbol of the American GI; an unself-conscious consumer culture's infatuation with an endless string of household-appliance jokes on The Flintstones; and the counterculture's attraction to the gritty and sexually explicit exploits of Ralph Bakshi's Fritz the Cat. In the end, though, the history of animation is the story of its geniuses. Serious Business disperses the clouds created by decades of received wisdom.

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Editorial Reviews

Milo Miles

Although it's sketchy at the start and rushed at the end, Stefan Kanfer's exploration of the tangled profits, social mores and popular art behind animated film triumphs with the same qualities essential to the best cartoons: guts and vitality. He knows that previous surveys of the field have been snobbishly indifferent to commerce, too protective of the subject or just dry and picture-dependent.

Like an animator who knows where the high points of the action are, Kanfer zooms in on acute images and insights. He notes that the first true animated American short concluded with the words "Coon" and "Cohen" turning into ugly caricatures. The first cartoon superstar, Felix the Cat, collapsed after the 1920s, Kanfer argues, partly because his slapstick appeal was so much like a silent film comedian's. A particularly smart aside notes that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? pulled animation out of a long slump largely due to the brilliant reaction work of a human actor, Bob Hoskins. Serious Business, however, does not try to overthrow the law of cartoon history, which is that there have been three epochs: Before Walt, During Walt and After Walt. I know of no better miniature portrait of Disney the relentless, mercurial, reactionary, anti-Semitic, genius storyteller than Kanfer's.

Like every other animator, Disney knew that cartoons began as a kind of technological magic trick shortly after the turn of the century. Pioneer Winsor McKay, with his forever-unequaled technical flair, was able to make art of the gimmick. After the arrival of sound, only Disney created first-rate entertainment with heart. But when it comes to lust for vengeance on perceived enemies and betrayers, or poisoned politics, Nixon had nothing on Disney. Kanfer quotes him as calling this "the century of the Communist cutthroat, the fag and the whore." But as Disney became preoccupied with model trains and theme parks, his studio's cartoon work sputtered for 20 years before his death in 1966.

Television had long taken over by this point, and Serious Business explains with fine clarity how the new medium demanded quicker production time, simpler drawing and a much more pinched morality (which had been on the rise since Betty Boop last swiveled her boop-oop-a-doop across the big screen). The droll, punning wit of Jay Ward's Rocky and Bullwinkle was a gleaming exception in TV's dust heap of reruns, kid-product pimps and Hanna-Barbera crap sitcoms.

Serious Business closes on a high note of hefty profits and brighter days ahead. The Simpsons, a descendent of Rocky and Bullwinkle, rides high in the prime-time ratings, and Beavis and Butt-head extend the morons-and-mayhem format of the earliest cartoons. Kanfer seems unjustifiably optimistic that the revitalized Disney will go from triumph to triumph. Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame are running on a lot lower octane than Beauty and the Beast or even The Lion King.

Serious Business itself could use a stronger pictorial element; the book is too small to fully showcase the illustrations. Kanfer's deft prose is miles ahead of the usual academic/fanboy mumble of most animation books, but the editing is oddly sloppy at times. In a quote, animator Bob Clampett refers to one of his characters as Dishonest John and a sentence later Kanfer calls him Honest John. With a bit more scope and detail as well as another swipe of polish, Serious Business could have been a masterstroke -- a "What's Opera, Doc?" instead of a merely delightful "Corny Concerto." -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
How American cartoons reflect American culture and vice versa is the subject of an entertaining and informative study by former Time staffer Kanfer. Although the sections on recent cartoon history (covering slick studio fare like Toy Story as well as MTV stars Beavis and Butt-head) are less colorful than the history of the early years, Kanfer's tone is steady throughout. From the beginning, animated shorts utilized painful stereotypes: the first real animated motion picture, Humorous Phases of a Funny Face, ends as "[t]he words Coon and Cohen become caricatures of an African American and a Jew." This tradition continued as animators struggled to find a more appropriate application for their art, with many of them switching from human subjects to animals or objects in order to spotlight special effects. Kanfer gives brief, helpful background on Walt Disney and weighs how the early efforts of Mickey Mouse's creator differed from the popular cartoons of the day, including Disney's predilection for rural farm settings while most others set their work in cities. Disney was no stranger to the use of damaging racial and ethnic caricatures, however. In "The Three Little Pigs" the wolf wore rabbinical dress and spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent. The births of many popular characters provide amusing anecdotes: Daffy Duck, for example, was given his characteristic sputtering voice as a dig at a Warner Brothers executive who conducted impromptu inspections of the animators' workplace and suffered from a terrible speech impediment, and Chuck Jones credited some of Mark Twain's writing with providing the inspiration for Wile E. Coyote. Even though Kanfer's story slows a little at the end, it is thoroughly engaging throughout. (Apr.)
Library Journal
As an art form, animation is magically irresistible; as a reflection of broader American popular culture, it is amazingly on target. A former Time magazine editor, Kanfer here shows how the people, politics, prejudices, trends, and technologies of various eras have been so aptly reflected in each set of frames. From its tedious hand-drawn beginnings, to the advent of Disney, to such modern features as Watership Down and Toy Story, the reader is treated to solid history. But Kanfer also provides savvy commentary on a variety of factors that influenced the final product and elicited the public's eternal fascination. As a result, the antics of old and new characters alike from Bugs Bunny to Beavis and Butthead take on a whole new meaning. The author knows his subject and revels in it, thereby rewarding the reader with many fresh discoveries. While Kanfer's humbly stated intention is to augment previous writings on the subject, his work should certainly join the ranks of important literature in the field. Highly recommended for both students of this art form and cartoon enthusiasts.Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, N.J.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780684800790
Publisher:
Macmillan Publishing Company, Incorporated
Publication date:
04/07/1997
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
6.42(w) x 9.65(h) x 1.00(d)

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