by Howard Beckerman
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
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.
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.
the Cat from Joe Oriolo's TV series
© Felix the Cat Productions
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
Felix the Cat,
the Otto Messmer/Pat Sullivan version.
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.
© Universal Cartoon Studios
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.