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.
American cinema continues to largely dominate European theaters, although the heavy-handed tactics of the MPPDA are long in the past. The most lasting result of those days is that mainstream European animation is missing from American consciousness, with one exception as we shall see later.
Some of the most popular European series that most of us missed actually date back quite far. The Adventures of Tintin, was created by Belgian artist Georges Rami (a.k.a. Hergé), first appearing in comic strip form in 1929. These swashbuckling tales featured the titular young lad in various exciting formats; mysteries, thrillers, science-fiction, and even political events were frequent storylines. Two animated series were made, the first produced by Belvision, airing from 1958-1962. The series was translated into French (but never English), and American audiences never saw a single frame. The second series (1991-1992) was a joint effort between the French studio Ellipse and Canada’s Nelvana. It could only be seen in America, and briefly at that, if one subscribed to HBO. Not until the inconsistent and rather tepid 2011 mo-cap feature did many American filmgoers get their initial taste of Tintin.
In 1959, French cartoonist René Goscinny began a series of comic books featuring Asterix the Gaul and friends. These doughty warriors resisted the Roman Empire by means of a magic potion that could enable any Gaul to trump an army of centurions. This, of course, was done in a humorous and satirical fashion, and the series became popular enough to warrant the production of a dozen full-length animated films beginning in 1967 with Asterix the Gaul. It is safe to say that more Americans can identify The Powerpuff Girls or Penelope Pitstop than Asterix, mostly because the temperamental blond Gaul never, for the most part, made it to American theaters.
And then there’s the saga of Lucky Luke, originally a comic series produced by the Belgian artist Maurice DeBevere, better known as “Morris”. Amazingly, the series was set in the American West, where Lucky Luke was the original quick-draw king, but most Americans would be hard-pressed to identify this buckaroo. When four theatrical animated films were made beginning in 1978, only the last one, The Ballad of the Daltons, was released in the U.S. through Disney, and that on VHS. In 1983 Hanna-Barbera produced a version that ran for 26 episodes; another 26 were released in 1991. If your memory of them is dim, that’s understandable.
On the other hand, Japanese anime (originally called “Japanimation”) had little trouble making its way to American TV screens. Beginning in the 1960s shows such as the legendary AstroBoy began popping up, along with the equally iconic Speed Racer. Other fans may recall Marine Boy, Prince Planet, Kimba the White Lion, and Gigantor as early Japanese door-openers. After the stunning success of the feature-length film Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988), Japanese animation began its conquest of the American market. Beginning in 1990 American TV was flooded, with endless permutations of the tiny fighting monsters who starred in Pokemon. “Anime” took over as a more respectable (and more accurate) title than “Japanimation”. Even non-otaku know the rest of the story.
We are left to ask why this happened for Japan and not, for example, Germany. The reasons are many; the destruction of the studio block-booking system not only in America but in countries it was exported to; the collapse of censorship and production codes that weakened the MPAA (a later incarnation of the MPPDA); the decline of the Hollywood studio system and the attendant rise of modern European auteurs who began to exert their artistic influences on American cinema.
There was also, during the 1980s, an explosion in the availability of entertainment options available to world audiences. VHS tapes, multiple cable channels, and the end of NBC, ABC, and CBS hegemony over television meant that more and fresher entertainment would have to find its way into American homes. This was a vast jump from the only alternative source (UHF TV) available prior to the late 1970s. Suddenly, overseas animation looked like a great option, and no producers were as prolific as the Japanese. Since 1963, over 260 anime series have been shown on American television, and the demand for them remains insatiable. Recent sophisticated series such as Cowboy Bebop and Death Note maintained an avid following, likely the same American generation that cut their teeth on Sailor Moon during the 1990s.
The one instance where European animation was able to rival Japanese animation had its origins in 1958 when Belgian artist Pierre “Peyo” Culliford introduced a community of tiny blue homunculi to Spirou magazine. Originally named Les Schtroumpfs, the happy horde became The Smurfs when Hanna -Barbera began joint production with SEPP International S.A. in 1981. The Smurfs were a ratings and merchandising bonanza, leaving a permanent mark on American culture. It was an all-too rare breakthrough into U.S. markets.
The only other European series of note to American audiences was the cult hit Danger Mouse (no relation to the singer/songwriter/producer of the same name). This wacky Brit hit featured an eye patch-sporting white mouse who riffed on James Bond from 1981-1992. After a brief solo run in U.S. markets, the series was picked up by Nickelodeon during the network’s formative years.
Every year since 1990, European hopefuls have been screening prospective series at Cartoon Forum, held in different locations around the Continent. The next Forum will be held from September 17-20 2013, and 69 animated TV projects will be on display for investors, buyers, and acquisition personnel to peruse. Since the Forum’s inception some 500 TV series have been financed for successful participants. Projects aimed at markets from preschool to tween audiences are represented, and it’s probably a good bet that if some of them, were exposed to American markets, they would be hits. Inferior material like Assy McGee, Chop Socky Chooks, and The Brothers Grunt found buyers on American TV; shouldn’t some of the classier European products get a tryout?
In short, America and Europe got off on the wrong foot during the 1920s, and the ship has never been wholly righted. Due to a changing world, changing tastes, advancements in technology and shifting market forces, Japanese anime had a much easier time integrating itself into American markets than European animation did. Perhaps it’s finally time to rectify things.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.