Growing Pains

by Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman

"Who'd pay to see a drawing of a fairy princess when they can watch Joan Crawford's boobs for the same price at the box office?"
Comment attributed to Louis B. Meyer on the making of Disney's Snow White

Snow White was no Jessica Rabbit! © 1937 The Walt Disney Co. All Right Reserved.

Louis B. Meyer was, of course, wrong. Plenty of people paid to see that fairy princess and still purchase the video today. However, in other respects the great mogul was quite prophetic; animation has never quite caught up with its live-action counterpart as adult entertainment. This does not imply that animation featuring mature themes and situations has been a failure, or that such animation cannot equitably compete with live-action films. The truth is, adult animation has tended to travel an uneven road of hits and misses, and this inconsistent record relates as much to cultural perceptions of animation as entertainment than to the animated works themselves. The medium started out as a rigidly defined commodity and tended to remain as such even when other forms of cinema experimented with new and diverse forms of presentation. When American films began to break one taboo after another in the early 1960s the transition was not as sudden as it seemed; there had been at least a decade of subtle preparation prior to this shift in content. Animation was ill-prepared, almost by definition, to follow suit and the culture in general was unprepared to deal with animation on adult terms. Only recently has this situation begun to change and the rules are still being worked out. This month, we examine what has kept animation apart from other adult entertainment, and how it may eventually gain full acceptance.

Animation in America was an economic endeavor long before it was an artistic one. One notable exception was Winsor McKay but by the end of his career he was haranguing a new generation of animators who had come to his testimonial dinner. McKay accused his admirers of making a business of the medium, but this was America, and entertainment wasbusiness. While animators such as Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger and others in Europe were producing abstract animation for the sake of art, their American counterparts were crudely animating comic strips in order to guarantee greater circulation of newspapers. Argentina's Quireno Cristiani produced the world's first known feature-length animated film, El Apóstol,in 1917 as a political statement; no animation studio in America would have conceived such a project -- it wouldn't sell. This situation constituted the first major impediment to adult animation; there were few opportunities to experiment and push existing boundaries. It is worth noting that the Fleischer studio, one of the few innovators besides Otto Mesmer, was one of the earliest to explore adult themes, as we shall see.

Winsor McCay draws Gertie in the filmed opening to his animation classic.

Early American cartoons were built on gags largely derived from vaudeville. It may be true that these silly, crude and repetitive gags were the result of low budgets and rushed production schedules but they marked animation as comic entertainment, and there animation would stay for decades. While live cinema branched out into romances, dramas, westerns and other genres, the cartoon never transcended its roots in comedy and the comic strip. There was no foundation, in other words, for the sophistication needed to produce adult animation at a future time. The second significant barrier to adult animation can be summed up in one name: Walter Elias Disney. After Disney became a major economic and artistic power on the strength of Mickey Mouse he protected his investment by placing the once-randy rodent under strict moral control. Walt claimed that parents wrote the studio in anger every time Mickey misbehaved, but he was astute enough a businessman to ensure quickly that Minnie's bloomers now stayed out of sight and Mickey's gloved paws were kept to himself. Since this stance was congruent with Disney's general disdain of sexuality, a consistent stance between marketability and propriety was easily established. Unfortunately, this relegated animation to the realm of family children's fare for decades, since every other studio was attempting to emulate Disney.

Max and Dave Fleischer did attempt to go another route beginning in 1930 when a sexy canine singer gradually evolved into Betty Boop. "La Boop" starred in some of the most adult cartoons ever produced in America; if the animation did not make this clear, the plotlines of her cartoons certainly did, along with soundtracks steeped in hot or smoky jazz -- an aural signifier of sex. Betty's world was a deceptively sophisticated place where erotic allure and surrealism intertwined in a fever dream; just the sort of earthy soil in which the seeds of mature animation might take root. However, Max, Dave and Betty ran afoul of adult animation's most baleful bane: censorship.

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