Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson

book review by Fred Patten

This profusely illustrated, thoroughly documented biography of Charles Thorson reveals him to have been such a colorful character that it seems incredible that he has not been better known in the history of the animation industry before now. Born and raised in an Icelandic immigrant community on the Canadian frontier, Thorson started his animation career with Walt Disney in 1935. He quickly established a reputation for designing exceptionally cute characters, including Elmer Elephant and Little Hiawatha for the Silly Symphonies, and most of the woodland animals in The Old Mill. Cartoon Charlie contains enough photocopies of Thorson's preliminary designs for the Seven Dwarfs and Snow White (who he wrote to his Winnipeg girlfriend was modeled upon her; a photograph of Kristin Solvadottir does bear a striking resemblance) to indicate that his influence on Disney's first feature was considerable, before he had a public falling out with Walt and left the studio.

Quite the Character
Thorson's restless career took him to virtually every animation studio between the mid-1930s and the early 1940s. His biggest claim to fame came at Warner Bros. in 1938, when he was asked to design a rabbit for a cartoon to be directed by Cal Dalton and Ben "Bugs" Hardaway's team. Thorson labeled his model sheet "Bug's Bunny." Ironically, Thorson's design was considered to look too cute and innocent for the bunny's sarcastic personality, so Bugs was redesigned; but Thorson's name stuck.

In the mid-'40s Thorson left the animation industry and tried his hand at illustrating children's books. The key event in this phase of his life is symbolic of Thorson's whole career. In the late 1940s he created a cute bear cub for Eaton's, a major Canadian department store chain that wanted an equivalent of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Thorson's cub, Punkinhead, was a hit with the public and Eaton's loved it. "At a cocktail party in [Thorson's] honor at the Fort Garry Hotel, he got into a heated argument with an unnamed Eaton's executive. Charlie was drunk and took offense at a remark that was made. He exploded into rage, knocking out the executive with one well-aimed punch." (pg. 196) Thorson was off the Punkinhead project, which could have set him up for the rest of his life.

Graphics and Research Galore
Cartoon Charlie is very attractively designed, with graphics on every page and 16 pages of color. It documents Thorson's whole life based upon his extensive correspondence and records which his family saved, including samples of his art projects. He was a friend of several famous animators and cartoonists. Walz cites a 1950 acknowledgment by Walt Kelly that one of the cutest characters in his new Pogo strip was a tribute to his drinking buddy Charlie. Walz also makes a good case for Thorson's influence in the original designs of Terry's Mighty Mouse and MGM's Droopy Dog.

But one revealing illustration may have slipped by Walz. A sample of Thorson's early art, in his Winnipeg days, is a World War I cartoon that Walz identifies merely as showing "three German officers." Not only is one of the Germans a blatant caricature of Kaiser Bill, but Thorson's cartoon is indistinguishable from the art style of W.W. Denslow's illustrations for Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even Thorson's unique crossed CT artistic signature is clearly influenced by Denslow's "Hippocampus Den" glyph. Walz states that Thorson claimed that "he never had an art lesson," but at least one of his inspirations seems obvious.

Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson, by Gene Walz (with the assistance of Dr. Stephen Thorson). Winnipeg, Canada: Great Plains Publications, 1998. 222 pages. ISBN: 0-9697-8049-4. ($29.95, same in U.S. or Canadian currency)

Cartoon Charlie: The Life and Art of Animation Pioneer Charles Thorson may be purchased in the Animation World Store.

Fred Patten has written on anime for fan and professional magazines since the late 1970s.

Note: Readers may contact any Animation World Magazine contributor by sending an e-mail to