How can a collection of essays make Warner Bros. cartoons seem so serious? Mark Mayerson ponders the impact of academics on the new book Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation.
Reading the Rabbit is a collection of essays regarding various aspects of Warner cartoons. Most of the authors are academics, and so this collection is marked by all the shortcomings of academic prose and the academic approach.
As there are people who are not familiar with this approach, it's best that I outline it briefly. It's possible to live an informed life without ever running into words like dietetic, eponymous, metonymic, hermeneutic, hegemonic or imbrication. However, readers of this book will trip over these words regularly. This jargon is the academic's way of marking territory; a way of claiming the serious high ground from people who write for general consumption.
Then there are footnotes, the academic version of steroids; they bulk up the size and gravity of the author's ideas. Why simply state something when the words of great minds (written in completely different contexts) can be attached to the thoughts of the author? Who can fail to be impressed by a quote from Freud, Kracauer, Metz, Baudrillard or their bosom companions Friedwald and Beck?
Finally, there is the polemical nature of the articles. Academic articles are not merely information, they are arguments. Because the success of the article is measured by how persuasively the author argues the point, academic authors frequently fall prey to gross generalizations and historical distortions. That is certainly the case with Reading the Rabbit.
A Look Into The Content
Donald Crafton's article "The View from Termite Terrace: Caricature and Parody in Warner Bros. Animation" claims that the Warner attitude in caricaturing Hollywood stars was due to working conditions at the studio. In detailing the working conditions, Crafton quotes from "The Exposure Sheet," a Schlesinger in-house newsletter, and interviews with former Schlesinger employees Ben Shenkman and Martha Goldman Sigall. This information is the best material in the article. However, Crafton does not convince me of his thesis. I could argue that caricature in Disney cartoons like Mother Goose Goes Hollywood is more savage, though done at a studio that had more prestige and better working conditions. In addition, caricature and satire of Marlon Brando in Mad Magazine in the 1950's is also more savage than anything done by Warners, yet Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood were not employees of Hollywood studios and worked 3,000 miles away. The link between working conditions and Warner caricature is not as strong as Crafton implies and so his article is only half good.
Terry Lindvall and Ben Fraser write a well-balanced study of racism in Warner cartoons called "Darker Shades of Animation: African-American Images in the Warner Bros. Cartoon." Unfortunately, they hurt their case with some stereotyping of their own and a major historical slip. They refer to Chuck Jones' Inki character as a "cute burlesque of a little cannibal hunter with a big bone in the topknot of his hair." I defy anyone to point out an example of Inki eating human flesh or even hunting humans. It didn't happen. The authors have stereotyped Inki, an African boy, as a cannibal.
Later in the article, they write, "A critical difference between Warner Bros.' hepcat portrayals of race in Clampett's cartoons and the Jim Crow cartoons of Columbia's Heckle and Jeckle was this very celebration of the hot urban music of the emerging black culture." I doubt the authors have even seen a Heckle and Jeckle cartoon. For one thing, they were distributed by Fox and not Columbia. For another, the characters were magpies and not crows. In addition, the characters are not treated as black caricatures. One speaks with a New York accent and the other is British. Nothing about their movements or behavior is stereotypically black. They are no more black caricatures than Daffy Duck. Therefore, their "critical difference" is non-existent. Simplifications Gene Walz continues his excellent research into the life and work of character designer Charles Thorson. His article "Charlie Thorson and the Temporary Disneyfication of Warner Bros. Cartoons" covers Thorson's time at Warners from approximately 1938 to 1940, where Thorson contributed character designs for cartoons directed by Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, and Bugs Hardaway and Cal Dalton. Walz does a thorough job of documenting Thorson's influence on the Jones unit but the Merrie Melodies that Thorson worked on were only a part of the Warner output. Whatever Disneyfication was going on through Thorson's work was being counterbalanced by the black and white Looney Tunes of the same period. Walz statement that, "Prior to 1940 the [Warner] studio paid homage to Disney's creations or used them in a lighthearted spirit of fun. After 1940, the animators felt free to satirize Disney characters and stories, to assume a position that was, for the most part, intellectually superior to Disney's sentimentality and artfulness," is a simplification that ignores work in the 1930's by Avery, Tashlin, Clampett and Freleng. Bill Mikulak's article, "Fans versus Time Warner: Who Owns Looney Tunes?" examines legal battles between Time-Warner and fans who use the World Wide Web to post images and fiction featuring Warner characters. Unfortunately, the article veers off the track by examining work that is deemed by some to be offensive or pornographic. These works not only potentially violate copyright and trademark laws, they also potentially violate obscenity laws. This obscures the main question that needs to be examined. In a society where culture is manufactured by corporations, is it possible for individuals to comment on their own culture in any fixed medium without violating commercial law? Is Time-Warner stronger than the first amendment of the U.S. constitution? It Isn't Pretty Those interested in the history of Warner cartoons will find this volume very slight. Those interested in speculation on how Warner cartoons have affected pop culture or have been affected by it will find more of interest here, but on the whole the articles are a disappointment. Whose ironic comment is it that the cover image of Bugs Bunny is one where he has been squashed flat? One can only regret that Mike Maltese is not alive to write a Bugs Bunny cartoon where Bugs burrows into a university after making a wrong turn at Albuquerque. Now there's a confrontation between Warner cartoons and academia that would be far more enlightening. Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Bros. Animation, edited by Kevin S. Sandler. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1998. 288 pages. ISBN: 0-8135-2538-1 (U.S. $19.00 paperback). This book is available on-line in the Animation World Store. Mark Mayerson has worked in the animation business since 1976. He is currently directing episodes of Monster By Mistake, a computer animated TV series he created.
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