'Fantasia,' 'Snow White,' Betty Boop, Popeye and the first golden age of animation

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'Fantasia,' 'Snow White,' Betty Boop, Popeye and the first golden age of animation
Wild Minds: The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation by Reid Mitenbuler. Illustrated. 411 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $28.

by Jennifer Szalai

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- By the time Walt Disney’s “Fantasia” premiered at Manhattan’s Broadway Theater on Nov. 13, 1940, what had started out as an animated short to revive Mickey Mouse’s flagging career had become a feature-length extravaganza. Images in the movie channeled evolutionary theory and abstract art, depicting roaring dinosaurs, vibrating shapes and dancing brooms. Everything was set to classical music and blasted over the new Fantasound system, whose volume could apparently reach 165 decibels — enough, The New Yorker reported at the time, to “kill many elderly members of the audience, knock the others cold and deafen the survivors for life.” The magazine continued, “Don’t worry about it, though. You’re safe with Walt Disney.”

The combination perfectly encapsulated what Disney Studios was becoming: a determined wielder of awesome power, leavened by Disney’s assurances that he was a really nice guy. (This happened to mirror the self-image of the country at large, which assiduously coupled its impending dominance on the world stage with repeated avowals of benign intentions.) According to “Wild Minds,” Reid Mitenbuler’s lively history of the first half-century of animation, “Fantasia” marked a turning point in American culture, an attempt to reconcile the refinement of artistic ambition with the demands of mass consumption. To work on the project, Disney had tapped conductor Leopold Stokowski, who was so proudly pretentious that the studio’s cartoonists wanted to call the movie “Highbrowski by Stokowski.”

The story of Disney Studios is a central strand in Mitenbuler’s narrative; Disney became the formidable force that the other animation studios would look toward, compete with and rail against. Max Fleischer, whose studio was responsible for the likes of Popeye and Betty Boop, groused that Disney’s “Snow White,” released in 1937, was “too arty.” (It was also maybe too scary; Dr. Benjamin Spock would later say that Radio City Music Hall had to reupholster its seats after screening “Snow White” because terrified children had wet them.) The wife of one of the Fleischer brothers, though, said they had better watch out: “Disney is doing art, and you guys are still slapping characters on the butt with sticks!”

But what if those slapped butts were part of what had made animation so revolutionary in the first place? Mitenbuler suggests as much, beginning “Wild Minds” with the early days of animation, in the first decades of the 20th century, when the technology of moving pictures was still in its infancy. Like the movie business in general, the field of animation contained few barriers to entry, and a number of Jewish immigrants shut out from other careers found they could make a decent living working for a studio or opening up their own. Even Disney, who grew up in the Midwest, was an outsider without any connections.

The work created in those early decades was often gleefully contemptuous of anything that aspired to good taste. Until the movie studios started self-censoring in the early ’30s in a bid to avoid government regulation, animators typically followed only one rule to the letter: Anything goes. Later, when the studios started making propaganda and training films for the U.S. military during World War II, the animators were momentarily encouraged to cater once again to the raunchy sensibilities of young American men, doing whatever was necessary to grab their attention and get them to fight.

In his prologue, Mitenbuler suggests the story he’s about to tell will go from rude to rarefied, but one of the most fascinating things about the history he recounts is that animation, like so much of American culture, continually scrambled all sorts of categories and expectations. The arc of “Wild Minds” is appropriately weird, full of high-flown aspirations and zany anecdotes. One of the earliest animated cartoons was by Winsor McCay, a newspaper “artist-reporter” who in 1911 created an animated short based on his popular comic strip “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” which was partly inspired by Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams.” This mining of highbrow cultural artifacts was pretty common; in addition to Disney’s cheerful disfigurements of dark European fairy tales, the Fleischer brothers got their start with a film featuring an animated Teddy Roosevelt enacting a plot from “The Canterbury Tales.”

McCay toured the vaudeville circuit with his films, and his hopes for the future of the medium were artistically ambitious, even if he turned pessimistic — not to mention startlingly prescient. A few months before his death in 1934, as the age of television was dawning, McCay told an interviewer, “I envision the day when 100,000 men and women will be turning out animated comic strips to be televised over the networks under the sponsorships of breakfast foods’ manufacturers for the entertainment of the nation’s youngsters.”

The cartoons discussed in “Wild Minds” often contained misogyny and racism that veered from casual to grotesque; after all, a “wild mind” could also be a sexist and bigoted one. And then there were the systemic prejudices that structured the entire industry. Mitenbuler recounts the story of one Warner Bros. animator who said that jazz musicians asked him why cartoons so often revolved around white people. The animator went on to direct a jazz-soundtracked parody that he wanted to call “So White and the Seven Dwarfs,” later settling for a title — with a derogatory use of dialect — that wouldn’t be confused with Disney’s original.

The very existence of the film in 1943 was transgressive, initially generating an enthusiastic response from Black audiences, but it still trafficked in crude stereotypes, eliciting a protest letter from the NAACP. Warner Bros. also refused to hire an all-Black band to record the score because it already had its own (white) composer under contract; the Black musicians agreed to help the composer anyway, Mitenbuler says, apparently for free.

In the decades that followed “Fantasia,” while Disney Studios continued to make animated films, Disney himself started turning his attention toward ideas he had for an amusement park in Anaheim, California, that would open in 1955. He insisted his films weren’t intended for children, making a point of using adult audiences for previews.

Still, Disney couldn’t shield the animation industry as a whole from the inexorable forces of television, where the real money to be made was in catering to kids. The madcap romp of “Wild Minds” ends with Disney’s death in 1966, when McCay’s dire prognostication about selling breakfast cereal to “the nation’s youngsters” had finally come to pass. “That same year,” Mitenbuler writes, “all three of the major television networks fully converted their Saturday morning programming to cartoons.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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