Dr. Toon: Across the Pond
During the 1920’s the United States held an awesome hegemony over world cinema. In 1921, two-thirds of films shown around the world originated in American studios, and grosses of $100 million annually flowed back into Hollywood bank accounts. It wasn’t difficult to do; the continent was ravaged and depleted by war, and filmmaking resources that equaled America’s were sadly lacking. European cineastes were also challenged by President Warren G. Harding’s aggressive Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover. Hoover believed that part of America’s foreign policy was to export the country’s culture, ideals, and values across the sea. With this in mind, Hoover appointed one Clarence Jackson North as “Motion Picture Specialist” to the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. In the end, it proved to be an act of war.
North quickly began establishing offices in countries that were beginning to chafe under the avalanche of American cinematic imports. These were little more than information-gathering posts keeping an eye on the political climate and the activities of European film studios. England, France, and Germany were special areas of study. In 1922 Hoover established the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), under the supervision of Postmaster General Will H. Hays (he of the famous Production Code). Hays, like Hoover, believed in America as a template for the world, but he also focused on the vast profits being made overseas. Twenty-three of the top movie studios in America flocked to this new consortium. Among its powerful luminaries were the ruthless Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor, D.W. Griffith, and Lewis Selznick. Their mission: keep America first in all things cinematic.
By the mid-Twenties, America was exporting five hundred films per year into Europe. As American films began driving indigenous films out of the theaters, the MPPDA thwarted diplomatic efforts and operated far more like a cartel than a business operation. To make things more difficult for European film producers, America exported its “block booking” practices to the Continent. Germany fought back by imposing quotas in 1924; France followed suit the next year. 1928 saw seven countries attempt to impose quotas on U. S. films. Boycotts were proposed. The defenders were defeated by one factor they could not control; the public’s unquenchable demand for American feature films.
Some of the casualties were animated. In 1924 British illustrator George E. Studdy translated his popular comic strip character Bonzo Dog into an animated character. New Era Films Ltd. produced twenty-six Bonzo shorts between 1924 and 1926, each one popular in England (King George V and Queen Mary were major fans), but unheard of in America. Not only was Bonzo unable to get a showing in the states, the MPPDA ensured that he was crowded out of Europe by Felix the Cat, America’s top animated star at the time. Thus began the long history of European animation ignored by American fans, largely because the MPPDA guaranteed that it would be.