'Wild Minds' Traces The Origins Of Animation — From Blackton And McCay To Disney
Everything I needed to know for Junior High School I learned from cartoons.
Twice a day, before and after school, my local TV station delivered three Warner Brothers Looney Tunes shorts. There, Bugs Bunny gave me master classes in the Brooklyn-accented snark and wise-cracking I aspired to. While my teachers might not have appreciated what I was learning, those dazzling 10-minute comedy masterpieces were also my introduction to what happens at the intersection of animation and excellence.
While my 12-year-old self came for the antics of Bugs, Daffy Duck and the rest, even then I could sense that something else, something very adult, was happening in those cartoons. That's why I've remained a fan of the form, finding as much to enjoy in new seasons of Rick and Morty as in the timeless achievement of Disney's Fantasia. It is also the reason for my delight with Wild Minds, the new history of animation by Reid Mitenbuler.
Superficially, Wild Minds:The Artists and Rivalries That Inspired the Golden Age of Animation is about the origins of Mickey Mouse, Popeye the Sailor and Bugs Bunny cartoons. But Mitenbuler's real target is a quintessentially American story of daring ambition, personal re-invention and the eternal tug-of-war of between art and business.
Animation occupies a particular place in the history of motion pictures. At the dawn of the 20th century, the technology emerged for running a chain of still photographs together to create the illusion of motion. While this new medium of "movies" was startling enough to the public, a handful of visionaries and inventors saw that pictures of the real world were just the beginning. Humans had been imagining the impossible for thousands of years through stories and myth populated by flying dragons, magical elves and talking animals. By chaining together drawings of these, rather than just photographs, such dreams of the imagination could finally be given life.
Mitenbuler spends the first quarter of the book tracking the history of these pioneers. James Stuart Blackton, a newspaper cartoonist, created the first animated film Humorous Phases of Funny Faces using nothing more than a blackboard, chalk, an eraser and a camera. Another newspaper cartoonist, Winsor McCay knew Blackton and quickly saw animation's deeper potential. Looking for an artistic challenge, McCay decided to create a film based on his own highly popular comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland. Churning out 4,000 drawings for just a few minutes of animation, McCay's film Little Nemo was shown in to mesmerized audiences in 1911. The work was so beautiful that decades later Chuck Jones, who created many of my Bugs Bunny favorites, would tell an interviewer: "It was as though the first creature to emerge from the primeval slime was Albert Einstein and the second was an amoeba, because after McCay's animation it took his followers nearly 20 years to figure out how he did it."
McCay, with his masterpieces Gertie the Dinosaur and later The Sinking of the Lusitania, had indeed set the bar for artistic excellence very high. But art was not all that was at stake in these early years of animation.
Once the owners of movie houses and production companies recognized that audiences liked cartoons, the race was on to produce as many of them as fast as possible. As animation companies began to multiply (mostly around New York City even as California became the home to live-action movie studios), fierce competition and bottom-line pressure made working conditions hell. The early studios were basically artistic sweatshops built to churn out drawing after drawing in cramped, roach-infested offices.
Mitenbuler peppers the stories of these hard-scrabble years with well-drawn characters like Essie Fleisher, whom he describes as the 5 ft. 3 in., hot-tempered, broken-nosed wife of Max Fleischer. Max was in the midst of building an animation house that would eventually produce the fantastically popular Popeye the Sailor cartoons. But when we first meet Max, his attempts get a business started are flailing. Expecting Essie to explode at the news of his latest failure, Max and his brothers are stunned when she hands them $150. This was money she'd saved from her intense gambling habit. "This is for your crazy idea" she tells them and walks off, Mitenbuler recounts.
But not every budding animator headed to New York. Mitenbuler focuses the middle of his story on Walter Elias Disney and his magnificent genius. It's not Disney's talent as an animator that matters for this story. He was just OK as an artist. Instead, it's Disney's capacities as a storyteller with an ability to organize the skills of others that brought animation to higher levels of both artistic and commercial success. The arc of Walt's journey from the son of an unsuccessful midwestern businessman to the final, cosmic scale success of his California-based empire that represents one of the strongest narrative lines in Mitenbuler's book.
But as a devotee of the great Bugs Bunny, my favorite part of Wild Minds was the story of Warner Brothers Studio. The animation house began in 1929 with, as Mitenbuler writes, "no great artistic vision." Instead, its founder Leon Schlesinger had a more singular goal "Disney can make the chicken salad, I wanna make the chicken s--t." Schlesinger just wanted to make money. Ironically Schlesinger's disinterest in animation itself contributed to the greatness of his studio's product. The artists, musicians and directors held Schlesinger in as low regard as he held them and from that emerged the subversive style that Bugs and company would become so famous for. As Mitenbuler writes:
"Whereas the Disney animators worshipped their boss, those at Warner Bros. constantly poked fun at theirs, creating an atmosphere of rebellion that quickly became part of the studio's DNA. In the end, this turned out to their benefit, giving the animators a sharp edge that would define their style. 'I've always felt that it was a vital factor to have people you fight against,' animator and director Chuck Jones [one of Warner Bros most talented directors] recalled of the antagonistic relationship with his boss."
Mitenbuler ends the book at the beginning of the 1960s as many of his heroes are growing old or dying and their cherished medium is being transformed into filler for Saturday morning TV. While animation would rise again to find its place in our own era of the long-running Simpsons and the glorious works of Hayao Miyazaki, Mitenbuler's book is a gem for anyone wanting to understand animation's origin story.
That's all folks!
Adam Frank is an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester and author of Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. You can find more from Adam here: @adamfrank4.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.