As promised, one of those little amusements while I am away – and I’ll now admit that I’m at Walt Disney World, as chance would have it, but please don’t hold that against me.
Anyway, following the fairly unexpected popularity of my Disneython last autumn, I thought that maybe I could justify posting this, probably the single best paper I ever produced as an undergraduate student (and one of the very last, for what it’s worth). It was written for an absolutely wonderful class on the history of animation taught by the great Scott Curtis, who I think I’ve given his due elsewhere for being the single most influential person in my development as film scholar, but it never hurts to reiterate it.
Modesty forbids me from sharing the grade and attached comment he gave to this paper, though it was quite enthusiastic, although now of course all I can see are the logical flaws and stilted language; it also amuses me to no end that it took me (as I recall) three days to write a 1531-word paper, in these later days when I’ve found myself capable of cranking out far better essays on the same general topic, that were regularly more than twice as long, one per day for 45 days, and do it without making a demonstrable factual error in the first goddamn paragraph.
Anyway, without further ado, from May, 2004: History of Animation, Paper #3, by Timothy Brayton. I have made no editorial changes whatsoever.
In 1922, Walt Disney and a small group of other animators produced a series of six cartoons under the series name Laugh-O-grams. These films were made under extremely impoverished conditions, and were never released.
In 1927, Walt Disney (no longer doing any animation work himself) led the production of the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series of films, for Winkler Productions and Universal Pictures. These films, though not reaching the blockbuster status of Pat Sullivan’s Felix the Cat, or the Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell, were among the more successful animated shorts of that decade.*
The limitations of the early series of films were forced by circumstance, not by stylistic choice. Thus, in some way, it is to be expected that as Disney gained economic stability, his films would change from the limited animation of his earliest films. The style he would ultimately evolve, however, was not borne out of artistic concern, but out of pragmatism; as will be hereafter demonstrated, the differences between his earliest and latest silent films can be seen as an attempt to mimic the dominant successful styles of the day, and thereby make his films more lucrative. This paper will investigate one aspect of his filmmaking found in countless other styles then and now, anthropomorphism, and show how his development in this area was driven by the desire to produce a marketable style.
The fifth of the six Laugh-O-grams, “Puss in Boots” was completed in October 1922. Its main character is a nameless female cat, and a perfect specimen of anthropomorphism; she stands on extremely human hind legs, and walks, talks and gestures like the humans in the film. Seen as an example of pure character design, the cat is rather successful. She is drawn with rounded lines, which suggest an anatomical structure missing from the contemporaneous Felix. In fact, despite her specie, she looks very little like Felix (this will be an important fact once we arrive at Oswald). Importantly, her color scheme is markedly different (white stomach, hands and face, rather than just a white mouth and eyes), and her body shape is much more elliptical – she is proportioned as a human, not as a series of tubes.
The character design is a double-edged sword; for the animation of movement in this film does not match the naturalism found in the characters, and this disconnect tends to make the cat less appealing and more unsettling. Actions are rigid and unbending; the “squash-and-stretch” technique had not been invented yet, and so the softness of form that we associate with that style is necessarily absent from this film. Characters move in segments: as the cat walks, her elbows and legs locked firmly into position, and her limbs simply pivot on her body (which, I hasten to add, is itself unmoving. While her arms and legs swing back and forth, her head and abdomen do not move whatsoever). This derives in part from the means by which the animation was achieved; Disney would draw model sheets, which the animators simply traced over.† Explicable or not, the stiffness with which the characters move, and especially the unblinking, ever-smiling face which we see only in profile or straight on, tend to distract from the effect of the anthropomorphized animal, and instead the character becomes vaguely grotesque.
Five years later, in October 1927, the fifth Oswald vehicle, “The Mechanical Cow,” premiered. Disney’s debt to Felix is overwhelmingly obvious, as he himself was well aware:‡ a totally black figure with only a white face, one of the most common designs of the era, and one that began with Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer. There are virtually no similarities between this rabbit and Disney’s 1922 cat; Oswald is much less angular, both in design and animation. He is comprised entirely of round shapes and soft lines, an effect primarily indebted to the “squash-and-stretch” and “rubber-hose” styles that had come into existence during the intervening five years. Oswald is simply a pile of ovals and circles, which certainly reduces the fidelity with which he is representative of the human form; but by eliminating the well-defined body shape of the cat, Disney achieves a fluidity of movement absent in the earlier cartoon. When the cat walks, the woodenness of the action calls attention to the sharp angles and lines of that character. When Oswald moves, conversely, he is nearly amorphous; there is no consistency in his proportions (he does not stretch, so much as he elongates his arms to reach objects; his legs seemingly lengthen and shorten as he walks). Moreover, his movements are organic: when he turns off an alarm clock, he doesn’t just smash it with a pivoting arm, as the Laugh-O-Gram cat might, he incorporates his entire body into the action, with his arms, torso, face and ears all flexing and stretching as he reaches over. He is a totally flexible character, certainly less representational than the earlier figure, but far more appealing. This appeal is inherent in the softness of the character – we react to the mutability or “squishy” quality of the design.
I would argue that this appeal is one of the two reasons that Disney chose this character model. The other reason, of course, is the overarching specter of Felix, the most successful cartoon character of the pre-Mickey era. Disney had already used this character type, in crafting Julius the cat from the Alice Comedies, and he would use it again in designing his mouse, just as nearly every American animation producer tried to make a Felix clone during the twenties. Mere plagiarism is not the only reason, however; the elements that made Felix himself popular were also behind the successes of Oswald and Mickey, whether Disney consciously pursued them or not. As I suggested before, flexible characters are more appealing than rigid characters. This is artistic, on one level: sharp lines and stiff movement call attention to the drawn-ness of the image, and thus it is harder to sympathize with such animation. But it is also more primal than that: flexible, soft characters appear to possess more tactility; that is to say that they are invested with more physicality. When such a character performs actions that distend and distort their body, although this underscores the degree to which they are unreal, it also calls attention to the “fact” of their body. It is easier to believe that a character who extends his arms to twice their normal length possesses a physical form, than to believe this of a character whose actions are totally rigid because, paradoxically, it forces us to imagine that there is an arm to which this stretching can be done.
This is intimately tied in with merchandising, and this is where I believe that Disney truly saw the desirability of the Felix-model. Famously, Felix was the first animated character with an extensive series of marketing tie-ins, and the same is true of Mickey Mouse to an inconceivably higher degree. In this sense, Mary Pickford merchandise, for example, would be absurd, as Pickford does not call attention to the fact of her physical body. But Felix, who insists on a physicality that he does not possess, is validated by the presence of these items, which are suggested by his stress on his physicality. Plush toys are perhaps the ultimate expression of this representation: they are the embodiment of the cartoon character in his own form (as opposed to his image on another product), and that form is made such that it possesses the same mutability that the cartoon character expresses in his films – one can play “squash-and-stretch” with a plush Felix, but not with a porcelain Felix statue (this is perhaps why Mickey Mouse dolls are the most iconic of all of the hundreds of Mickey Mouse tie-ins that have been marketed). Whether or not he was making the choice deliberately, I believe that Disney was at least subliminally aware of this concept when he embraced the Felix model. If this was his goal, he succeeded – Oswald the Lucky Rabbit became the first Disney-created character to be made into a tie-in, in August 1927.
Merchandising marketability is of course not the only reason why Disney might desire to create an appealing character – there is of course the more central issue of making a character appealing enough that audiences will wish to pay to see him, thus creating a demand for his producer to continue producing his cartoons. The principle is the same, however, in that a soft, round shape is more pleasing to the eye than a sharp hard shape. Whereas the cat in the Laugh-O-Gram was a grotesque, Oswald is much more charming and cute. These are not perhaps the most scholarly of terms, but they effectively suggest the reactions an audience has to the character. Anthropomorphic characters on the Felix/Oswald/Mickey model are appealing, essentially, because they take a familiar shape, and make it cute through its alienation from the model we know. This is counter-intuitive, but it holds: we react positively to seeing a recognizable – but not too recognizable! – human shape suffering absurd indignities. And, as the seventy-five year Disney hegemony has proven, we are more than willing to pay to see such absurdity.
*Russell Merritt & J.B. Kaufman, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney, Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993; pp. 124ff. All references to dates and events are taken from this volume.
†ibid, p. 45.
‡ibid, p. 63ff.