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Serious Business: Serious Book?

Mark Kausler reviews Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America From Betty Boop to Toy Story, and has some serious problems.

Oh! My achin' eyeballs! Now, there's yet another new book on the animated cartoon, Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America From Betty Boop to Toy Story, by Stefan Kanfer and published by Scribner. I think I'll put it on the shelf next to the spate of other recent "dubious achievements" spawned by the animation boom; Enchanted Drawings, The Fifty Greatest Cartoons, Seven Minutes, Cartoon Monikers, Animating Culture and Walt Disney, The Dark Prince of Hollywood. All of these books share common problems: they are poorly researched, often paraphrased from seminal books on animation, they consistently misspell names, they mix-up film descriptions by often mis-matching titles and plots and the proper chronology of events is often disregarded. Worst of all, the books are often hatched from a premise that was not worth writing about in the first place, or paid for by big corporations as promotion devices.

The title Serious Business led me to believe the book might cover the business side of animation, history reflected through numbers, and include profit and loss statements, salary highs and lows for animators and other creative workers, and reports on profit participation by producers. I'd love to know if Leon Schlesinger or Fred Quimby got any kickbacks or percentages of their operating budgets, and how much! Instead we get a book that tries to squeeze the entire history of the animated cartoon into 235 pages, and yet falls far short of any real understanding of the medium. Being a friend of Chuck Jones, Kanfer makes sure that Chuck's favorite story about the inspiration behind Daffy Duck's voice (Leon Schlesinger's very pronounced lisp), gets printed not only on page 94, but also on the inside flap of the dust jacket. Of course Chuck has already told the story in loving detail in Chuck Amuck, and it makes an amusing anecdote, however, existing recordings of Leon's voice (Schlesinger Christmas Party Reels, l938-39, and You Ought to Be in Pictures, which Kanfer erroneously believes that Bob Clampett directed instead of Friz Freleng) indicate that if there is a lisp there, it is barely detectable. Keith Scott, linguist and voice performer whose excellent book on Jay Ward awaits publication, is my expert witness on this "lisping Leon" business. Keith has such a sensitive ear for human speech that he was able to figure out who did Screwy Squirrel's voice (Wally Maher) when no other animation scholar could crack the mystery. He too is unable to discern Leon's lisp from the existing sound recordings.

Sloppy Research

Kanfer, because of obviously sloppy research, repeats and perpetuates errors such as Leslie Cabarga's delusion about the lyrics that Louis Armstrong sings in Fleischer's I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal You. If you listen to the soundtrack, Louis clearly states: "You bought my wife a bottle of Coca-Cola, so you could play on her Victrola ." Cabarga, in his book The Fleischer Story, quotes it as: "so you could play on her vagola." Obviously this story appeals to prurient interest, but it's phony. If Kanfer had checked the cartoon, he wouldn't have repeated Cabarga's error. Kanfer loves to point out sexy gags wherever he can find them, and seems scandalized by so-called "racism" in American entertainment. Here, he belabors the obvious. The history of popular American entertainment is loaded with sexy jokes, minstrelsy and jokes at the enemy's expense during World Wars. These vintage jokes may only be fit for the memory hole, and too outrageous for today's delicate sensibilities, nevertheless they were told. They are part of American history. To cast aspersions and vilify the animated cartoons and their makers for being part of the humor of their times is short-sighted. Many of the films he talks about, such as Der Fuerher's Face and You're a Sap, Mr. Jap , have been withdrawn from distribution for years, and studios often refuse access to these titles even to researchers. It seems to me that the end result of all this finger pointing about racism will be that these cartoons will be even more mercilessly censored and locked up like some vile pornography, when the caricatures in them were seldom intended to be mean to anyone; they were created to entertain an audience.

Kanfer not only errs in quoting sloppy authors, but he fails to understand chronology. On page 194, he quotes Freleng's disgust with network television, then accuses him of being "part of the problem." You see Friz is a dreaded Capitalist. He made pro-business films for the Sloane Foundation, apparently after Warner Bros. closed their animation department. If you look at the facts, By Word of Mouse was made in 1954, eight years before Warner's closed. Kanfer quotes Norman M. Klein (dubious achiever and author of Seven Minutes ) that the sinister message here is about the "changing role of cartoons, from film toward more obviously consumer-driven television." Actually, The Sloane Foundation would put up more than just the cartoon's negative cost if their message about the American business system could be included in the story. Friz did not choose to do this; the deal was between Warner Bros. and Sloane. The statement Warners seems to be making here is "if above-the-line profits can be made, make 'em!"

When Did That Happen?

As further evidence of Kanfer's disregard for chronology, on page 115, he states that "Daffy Duck was the studio's (Leon Schlesinger) answer to Woody Woodpecker." This simple sentence shows a regrettable lack of understanding. Daffy made his debut in Porky's Duck Hunt (1937), which Kanfer thinks (page 116) is Bugs Bunny's first cartoon. Woody didn't appear until 1940 in Knock-Knock. "Daffy was Leon's answer to Woody," sounds like some more of that "retroactive plagiarism" that Chuck Jones likes to talk about. Woody is more of an echo of the Crazy Rabbit that appeared in Ben Hardaway's Porky's Hare Hunt and Hare-um Scare-um. When Ben moved over to Lantz in 1940, he took the notion of a crazy character with the 'Ha-Ha-Ha-Haaaa-Ha!' laugh and made it a woodpecker instead of a rabbit. Mel Blanc supplied the laugh for both characters. To further damage his credibility, on page 117, Kanfer thinks that Bugs says "What's Up, Doc?" in Porky's Hare Hunt and that Avery directed it! He is also under the impression that the line "Of course you realize this means war!" became part of Bugs Bunny's vocabulary in later years, when in fact Ben Hardaway's Crazy Rabbit used the line in his first picture, Porky's Hare Hunt (1938)!

Let's see, what other Deviltry seems to affect Kanfer's book? Page 154: Art Babbitt's name was supposedly "expunged from the credits of Snow White and all the other films he had worked on, as well as any related printed materials..." Well, at last check, Art's name (spelled correctly, which Kanfer can't seem to do) is still on the credits of Snow White, and his name is still on all the studio lists that name all of the animators on Disney cartoons. So, Walt's "order" must have been ignored. On page 189, he seems to think that Hanna-Barbera's system of "planned animation" used a dialog system that "ignored" consonants! A mouth system with only vowel sounds would have the character speaking with its mouth open all the time. The Hanna-Barbera mouth drawings might have been redundant, but they did include both opened and closed positions! On page 143, Kanfer has Dave Fleischer directing Slay It With Flowers at Paramount. Dave Fleischer produced Slay It With Flowers in l944, at Columbia's Screen Gems cartoon studio, after the Fleischer Bros. studio was closed by Paramount. Bob Wickersham directed it for him. Kanfer also implies that Dave Fleischer continued to direct Popeye and Superman shorts during his involvement with Fox and Crow. Kanfer seems unaware of the history of Columbia's cartoon studio which was founded by Charles Mintz in 1929. It gets no mention at all until Frank Tashlin takes it over and that isn't until page 131.

Then there's the "revisionist" spelling of proper names such as "Seamus" instead of Shamus Culhane, Bob "McKimpson" instead of McKimson, and Eddie "Seltzer" instead of... Well, you get the idea.

The Looking Glass is Dirty

Kanfer summarizes his book this way: " To watch these funny actually to peer into a distorted looking glass that catches the light and gives back pictures of ourselves." Yet, when cartoonists really do give us a distorted picture of ourselves, Kanfer is uncomfortable. The book's tone smacks more of The National Enquirer than The Saturday Review. Kanfer incessantly quotes from Walt Disney, The Dark Prince of Hollywood, as if it was all true, instead of a collection of everybody's favorite `Horrible Stories About Walt,' many of which are hearsay and unsubstantiated. He finds creeping capitalists and racists and makers of mediocrity behind every tree, but he reveals very little about the artists who created the films this book is supposedly about. He mainly quotes Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng; almost nobody else gets to speak. Because of his close alliance with Chuck Jones, history gets a lot of Jones-friendly interpretation. To dismiss Hanna and Barbera's entire Tom and Jerry series as "mediocrity," seems to serve Jones very well. After all, the failure of Chuck's version of Tom and Jerry is justified, the characters he had to work with were never that good. He makes sure that Chuck gets full credit for Hell Bent For Election and The Dover Boys. John Hubley and Bobe Cannon are never mentioned. Chuck also gets the credit for the dubious achievement of creating the market for "re-drawn and painted cels" in the 1970's. This "market" was really developed jointly by Disney, Lantz, Hanna and Barbera, Friz Freleng, Shamus Culhane and Chuck Jones as a way of cashing in on the animation art boom that occurred in the 1980's.

Chuck doesn't like animation historians very much. In his new book he likens them to "hemstitchers." If great historians of the animated cartoon like Mike Barrier, Leonard Maltin, Jerry Beck, John Canemaker, Keith Scott, Milton Gray and Will Friedwald are hemstitchers, then they have sewn beautiful garments that flatter their subjects. Kanfer and his ilk mainly sew smothering patchwork blankets that cover their subject without revealing it.

Serious Business: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America from Betty Boop to Toy Story. by Stefan Kanfer. New York: Scribner, 1997.256 pages, illustrated. Trade paperback, $27.95; ISBN: 0-684-80079-9.

Mark Kausler is an animator who has been working in the industry for 25 years. He is currently working at Walt Disney Feature Animation on Fantasia 2000.