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When The Bunny Speaks, I Listen

Animator Howard Beckerman explains why, "Cartoon characters are the only personalities you can trust."

If Bugs Bunny states, in a television commercial, that a product is worth having, I believe him. Does this surprise you? You say that he is a trickster rabbit with a Brooklyn accent, streetwise and unpredictable and shouldn't be relied upon for value judgments. Well, hold on there! Would you rather trust live actors who spout whatever stuff is written for them, people who get paid handsomely to extoll a product this week and another the next ?

Duck Amuck by Chuck Jones 1953. © 1953 Warner Bros.

Bugs, or Daffy, Donald or Goofy are more honest. For one thing, they are always who they are, thanks to the foresight of their creators. We recognize and admire cartoon characters because they are so definitely in character. Bugs Bunny is Bugs Bunny and Bart Simpson is Bart Simpson. In the movie Braveheart, Mel Gibson plays the historical character William Wallace and in other films he plays fictitious personalities. Mel Gibson works hard to make us believe that he is all of those people. In actuality he is none of them. Bugs Bunny is always Bugs Bunny. A cartoon character's personality is all that he has. He has no blood, no bone, no home, no spouse, no child and no bank account. When the commercial is finished, he doesn't dash off to a posh Beverly Hills retreat. Contrary to the image of ToonTown, portrayed in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where cartoon characters supposedly reside in their offhours, these celluloid beings exist only for the screen. They have only one thing to give-- themselves.

You say, "See, that proves that they're not real!" Not so. Collectors today are falling all over themselves paying handsome prices for animation cels. To gallerygoers, cels from animation films are the real thing. When they head home clutching the shiny likenesses of Mickey, Pluto or Woody, they know that they have obtained the actual elements of a classic cartoon. You can't take Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson home. I don't suggest that you try it, I don't think Meryl Streep or Arnold Shwarzenegger would tolerate being hung on the wall of your den. A Matter of Trust Cartoon characters are the only personalities you can trust. Compare Bugs Bunny, with all his artful ways, to politicians (Nixon: "I am not a crook"), athletes ( O.J. Simpson), corporations ("cigarettes are not addictive"), or even your next door neighbor ("I'll return your lawnmower as soon as I'm finished using it"). Characters exist solely to entertain us, not to take anything from us, nor to deceive us. They give us joy and laughter, and they present a mirror for us to see ourselves. Granted, all characters are not capable of this.

Some lack the solid attributes of Bugs, Donald or Popeye, each of whom sprang from the persistance and perspiration of cartoonists and animators seeking a means of expressing human foibles. Each of the popular cartoon personalities that we take seriously--and we do--have been imbued with solid, recognizable traits. I don't trust Roger Rabbit, or the Smurfs, or Strawberry Shortcake, or any character that was conceived by a cold, logical committee. I'm sure you could compile your own list of cartoon beings that lack the attributes of strength, certainty and believabillity. The characters that I know to be true are those that derive from human experience. I trust in characters that grew over the years, not those that are created fullblown with a ready group of sidekicks and groaning shelves of licensed toys and wash cloths.

Grown From Native Soil

Bugs, Donald, Pluto, Goofy, Betty and Daffy began as incidental characters in cartoons. They developed slowly and learned to be who they are. They were grown from the native soil of studios clustered in New York and Hollywood, from places called Broadway and Termite Terrace. In today's movie environment, they are better known and more easily recognized than most contemporary live actors. Study any current nonanimated feature, and you'll see how the obstacles placed in the way of flesh and blood actors keep them from easy recognition. Every scene is either a special effects extravaganza overshadowing any human presence, or is a compilation of quick cuts from the uniform face of one hero to the bland visage of another, coming so fast that the viewer is left wondering who's who. It was not always so.

Though current movies thrive on fast cuts and other editing techniques borrowed from anxious television advertising and frenetic music videos, films from earlier decades gloried in showing off the stars. The cameras of the 1920s, 30s and 40s expended long, leisurely moments exploring actor's faces. The camera loved them, and so did the audiences, enraptured by the shadow of a feminine cheekbone or the dynamic thrust of a manly chin. This delight in the stars was what brought people to the movies. Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Vivien Leigh, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Charles Laughton, Errol Flynn, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Clark Gable, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, among others, were shown to perfection on the screen. The filmed stories might have seemed to be about Robin Hood, Captain Bligh or Scarlet O'Hara, but they were actually about the actors, whose smooth flesh and twinkling eyes were projected lovingly, three stories high.Movie personalities of those more relaxed times didn't--wouldn't--contend with the short bursts of screen time, rarely more than 10 seconds in any shot, that is the hallmark of today's moviemaking. Even Bugs, Mickey, Donald and Daffy could not compete with Greta, Ingrid, Errol and Humphrey. But, that has all changed, now it is the brightly hued faces of cartoon characters that audiences adore. Does anyone wear a Tshirt with the likenesses of Mel Gibson, Tom Cruise or Clint Eastwood? It's doubtful, but Mel, Tom and Clint may be wearing Disney decorated jockey shorts at this very moment.

Popeye the Sailor Man (1933) © King Features.

The Burden of Stardom

Still, it is not easy for cartoon personalities to carry the burden of stardom. Mickey Mouse, for instance, has experienced numerous changes and shadings of character. Starting in 1928, as a rowdy, ratty hieroglyphic, pulling pig's tails to elicit sounds, the roles that followed had him as hero, swain, defender of democracy and respectable middle class citizen. By the late 30s, Mickey was berating his dog Pluto for doing the thoughtless acts that he himself freely performed in his earlier years. Today's Mickey is more corporate symbol then screen presence. Over the years, the front office has had his eyes redesigned more than once, and his tail has been toyed with constantly. It's been removed, replaced and removed again. In an attempt to give him an added depth, Mickey has been cast in roles in featurettes based on stories by Dickens and Twain, but these appearances were overshadowed by the stronger personalities of Donald and Goofy.

Another character that has lost touch with audiences and who has long been in retirement, is Mr. Magoo, the wonderful little man from UPA. Magoo was a "real" character in a sea of anthropomorphic standups and his popularity brought a refreshing appreciation for the depictions of humans in cartoons, but today he is barely remembered. Live comedy stars like Buster Keaton experienced the same callous disregard in their careers, though Keaton, in his last years, was able to make a brief comeback. This might happen to Magoo, but his subtle Quixotelike humor may be too intellectual for audiences seeking the accepted stupidities of Beavis and Butt-Head.

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Felix the Cat from Joe Oriolo's TV series. © Felix the Cat Productions. Felix the Cat, the Otto Messmer/Pat Sullivan version.

Probably the greatest cartoon character of all, Felix The Cat, is one of the earliest, and one who is dragged out periodically. Felix in the 1920s was the personification of cartoon heroes. His basic, bouncy, black and white shape was the first to elicit a personality. Felix pondered and made decisions. He knew how to turn a drawn palm tree into a banjo or unscrew his tail for use as a telescope. Felix was the first character to reveal creative intelligence, traits rarely championed in his various reappearances on television. The problem for Felix, Mickey and Magoo is that they are products of their respective times, and because their times are no more, reincarnations/updated versions are doomed to failure. Attempts at updating cartoon heroes is as fruitless as Steve Martin's recreation of Phil Silver's classic Sgt. Bilko character. No amount of technological icing can supplant the magnificent lowtech originals. Felix, for instance, belongs in blackandwhite and silence. Giving him a voice is as unsatisfying as putting Nikes on Michelangelo's David. Mr. Magoo reflects the wit and subtlety of the stylized 1950s. If he returned to function in today's violent movie atmosphere, minus his walking stick, but toting a Uzi instead, he might wonder why he was clutching a fly swatter.

Still, no matter what their problems, cartoon characters are the most honest and trustworthy on the lot. They speak from the heart. A "What's up Doc" or a "You're despicable!" from one of them, comes to us from the depths of a cartoon soul. I believe that these figures, these cherished images, no matter what their foibles and strange habits are among the finest of people. Their presence is reassuring and comforting in a world of uncertainty. Their strength as personalities rises above the crass commercialization that they are subjected to. The likenesses of cartoon characters are on everything we own, but no amount of studio hype can get us to truly love them. We love them, not for their press releases but for who they are. It has been said that the connection that binds audience and star is a mysterious one and can't be dissected. I disagree. I see no mystery in the notion that we respond positively to the lack of pretension, the native cleverness and the strong survival instincts of a Bugs Bunny or a Bart Simpson. More to the point, we love cartoon people because they are like us, and characters that most reflect our own feelings are the ones to whom we give our undying trust. It is no more than the simple recognition between beings, them and us, of things we have in common. So, when the Bunny speaks, I listen.

Howard Beckerman is an animator, storyman and director, who began his career in 1949 working for TerryToons and Paramount with such cartoon characters as Mighty Mouse, Heckle and Jeckle, Popeye and Casper the Friendly Ghost. He worked for UPA and for many years wrote and animated television commercials, educational and corporate films. His articles on animation have appeared in numerous magazines and currently teaches at The Parsons School of Design and The School of Visual Arts in New York. He is presently completing a book on animation history and technique.

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