The Golden Age of Hollywood animation

From Academic Kids

History of animation
in the United States
The Silent Era
The Golden Age
The TV Era
The Renaissance

The 1930s and 1940s

During the Great Depression of the 1930s in America, the popularity of the cinema led to a corresponding rise in popularity of animated shorts. This was the Golden Age of animation, when some of the most famous characters, such as Disney's Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros' Bugs Bunny, became popularized.

The motion picture industry had been shaken to its roots with the introduction of sound film in 1927, and two years later a similar revolution took place in the field of animation. Walt Disney took what was seen as an enormous financial gamble, and he produced the first cartoon with a fully synchronized soundtrack: Steamboat Willie, featuring the first theatrical appearance of Mickey Mouse. The cartoon was a phenomenal box-office success, drawing in crowds and sparking a meteoric rise to fame for Disney—one of several triumphs he would achieve in his career.

During the early 1930s, the world of animation seemed to be divided into two factions: Walt Disney and "everyone else." Mickey Mouse's phenomenal popularity put the animated character into the ranks of the most popular screen personalities in the world (ranking alongside Charlie Chaplin), and for a while it seemed that everything Disney touched turned to gold. Merchandising based on Disney cartoons rescued a number of companies from bankruptcy during the depths of the Depression, and Disney took advantage of this popularity to move forward with further innovations in animation. Disney is responsible for the development of the three-strip Technicolor process in motion pictures (the Technicolor company worked with Disney to perfect the process), and the first full-color theatrical cartoon was a Disney short, Flowers and Trees (1932). Disney also developed the idea of lifelike realism in animation to a degree that has rarely been surpassed since. His animation production staff, including technical innovator Ub Iwerks, developed the multiplane camera to provide additional depth and perception in animation (as opposed to the typical two-dimensional drawings used to produce animated film), while a continuing emphasis on story development and characterization resulted in yet another smash hit for Disney: Three Little Pigs (1933), which is seen as the first cartoon in which multiple characters displayed unique, individual personalities.

Disney did face a number of competitors, though none were able to topple his studio from the throne of animation until the 1940s. In terms of quality, Disney's closest competitor was Max Fleischer, the head of Fleischer Studios (which produced cartoons for Paramount Pictures). The Fleischers continued the innovation and creativity they had developed during the silent film era, and they scored successful hits with the sexy Betty Boop cartoons and the surreal Popeye the Sailor series. Popeye's popularity during the 1930s rivaled Mickey Mouse at times, and Popeye fan clubs sprang up across the country in imitation of Mickey's fan clubs. However, during the early 1930s public outcry over "immorality" in the movies reached its peak, prompting the motion picture industry to clean up the "indecency" of the movies and accept the authority of the Production Code in 1934. This form of voluntary censorship applied to cartoons as well and even Mickey Mouse was forced to clean up his act. The Fleischers were especially hard-hit with Betty Boop having to be desexualized among other changes, and for a while their cartoons seem to lose some of their zest and creativity. The Fleischers produced a number of forgettable cartoons during late 1930s when they unwisely attempted to emulate Walt Disney, though their Popeye series remained strong.

Meanwhile, former Disney animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising moved to the newly created Leon Schlesinger studio which had recently secured a contract to produce cartoons for Warner Bros.. Harman and Ising directed their own cartoons there. While they were successful on their own, the team of Harman and Ising lacked the innovative quality of Disney, and many of their cartoons suffered from a "cuteness" that failed to impact with many viewing audiences. The Warner Bros. cartoons of the early 1930s by Harman and Ising (along with the earliest directorial efforts of animator Friz Freleng) were largely forgettable, formula cartoons that did try for innovation, but strived too hard to imitate Disney.

However, in 1935, Schlesinger hired a new animation director who proceeded to revitalize the studio: Tex Avery. Avery brought a wild and wacky style of animation to the studio that would propel Warner Bros. cartoons to the top of the heap in the crowded field of animated cartoons. With Avery's influence, Warner Bros. gave birth to a new crowd of animated cartoons stars whose names are known worldwide: Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny, and many others.

Harman and Ising left Warner Bros. and moved to the MGM cartoon studio, where they were blessed with much higher budgets for their cartoons, and they produced a number of richly animated cartoons that often featured stunning animated sequences. But the Harman-Ising storytelling style still caused the MGM cartoons to suffer in quality: while they were visual feasts, the stories themselves were often unmemorable. MGM's studio remained in this state through the 1930s, even though their cartoons were often nominated for Academy Awards.

In addition to these studios, a number of other cartoon studios thrived during the 1930s; the Walter Lantz, Terrytoons and Columbia Pictures cartoon studios all turned out their own animated short films as well. But in spite of the generally entertaining quality of most of these cartoons, failed to achieve the stratospheric heights of Disney, and many of them eventually lapsed into the public domain or faded away over time.

In 1937, Walt Disney produced Snow White, the first feature-length animated movie. This was the culmination of two years of effort from the Disney studios. Disney was convinced that short cartoons would not be able to supply the necessary revenue to keep his studio profitable in the long run, and he took what was—yet again—seen as an enormous gamble. Disney's financial ruin was predicted as a result of Snow White, but his critics were proven wrong. Snow White was a worldwide box office success, and a landmark in the development of animation as a serious art form.

However, Disney was not the first animation producer to make an animated cartoon longer than the standard one reel. In 1936, Fleischer Studios produced the first of three two-reel Popeye Technicolor features: Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor (1936), Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves (1937), and Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp (1939). After the success of Snow White, Paramount asked the Fleischers to produce a feature-length animated film of their own. Although the Fleischers were doubtful that they could make a quality feature-length cartoon, they accepted the offer. The Fleischer studio relocated from New York to Miami, Florida in 1938 and there the Fleischers produced an animated version of Gulliver's Travels in 1939. A small success, it was followed by Mister Bug Goes To Town in 1941, which proved ot be a costly flop. The Flesichers were fired from their own studio, which was now completely owned by Paramount; the facility was renamed Famous Studios and moved back to New York. The Fleischer features were the only American animated features other than Disney's until the late 1950s.

Disney concentrated on the production of animated feature films, and he did not personally oversee his short cartoons in the manner that he had before. While the Disney short films remained inventive, entertaining, and always featured exquisite animation, the stories began to lag and become predictable. This left the way open for the up-and-coming Termite Terrace animators at Warner Bros. to burst forth with a plethora of outstanding, side-splittingly funny cartoons that influenced animators for generations afterwards. Warners' cartoon directors came into their own at this time, and the 1940s cartoons of Friz Freleng, Chuck Jones and Bob Clampett are legendary.

See also: Looney Tunes & Merrie Melodies filmography

Sound in animation

While much of the magic of the Golden Era was due to the visual artistry of the cartoons, an equal part was played by the vocal talents and elaborate symphonic scores that went alongside the images.

As motion pictures drew audiences away from their radio sets, it also drew the talented actors and vocal impressionists into film and animation. Mel Blanc gave voice to many of Warner Bros. most popular characters, including Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Other voices and personalities from vaudeville and the radio era contributed to the popularility of animated films in the Golden Era.

Cartoons of the era also included rich orchestral scores played by studio orchestras. Carl Stalling composed numerous cartoon soundtracks, creating original material as well as incorporating familiar classical and popular melodies.

Many of the early cartoons, particularly Disney's Silly Symphonies series, were built around classical pieces. There cartoons sometimes featured star characters, but some had simple nature themes.

See also: Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies, Silly Symphonies, Fantasia

The Wartime Era

After the success of Snow White, Disney invested heavily into three additional animated feature films, all of which have been widely acclaimed as among the greatest animated productions of all time: Pinocchio, Bambi, and Fantasia. However, none of these films were box-office hits that came anywhere near the level of Snow White. Fantasia in particular was looked down upon by literary critics and audiences, who felt that Walt was striving for something beyond his reach by trying to introduce mainstream animation to abstract art, classical music, and "elite" subjects, although later generations would hail Disney for the artist ambition of doing precisely that. To compensate for the relative failure of these projects, Disney produced a low-budget feature film (Dumbo) that brought in much-needed revenue and kept his studio afloat.

With the advent of the 1940s, two major events evoked change in the status quo of the Hollywood cartoon studios. The first was the entry of the United States into World War II, and the mobilization of all the studios (including their cartoon divisions) to produce material to bolster public confidence and encourage support for the war effort. The second was the Disney animators' strike of 1941, which severed many ties between Walt Disney and his staff, while encouraging many members of the Disney studio to leave and seek greener pastures. Some of these ex-patriates went on to form UPA, a studio which was to have a tremendous impact on the look of cartoons throughout the 1950's.

After the US's entry into World War II, most of the resources used to create animated shorts were redirected towards producing war-related material and propaganda. The major Hollywood studios contributed greatly to the war effort, and their cartoon studios pitched in as well with various contributions;. Over at the Fleischer studios, Popeye the Sailor joined the Navy and began fighting Nazis and "japs;" while the Warner Bros. studio produced a series of Private Snafu cartoons especially for viewing by enlisted soldiers.

The war was the second of two major blows to shake Walt Disney's empire...but while Disney lagged, it didn't fall. Disney contributed heartily to the war effort with a famous propaganda film entitled Victory Through Air Power, though his further feature films of the 1940s were modestly-budgeted collections of animated short films, with titles such as Make Mine Music, Fun and Fancy Free, Melody Time, and The Three Caballeros.

The Warner Bros. studio, meanwhile, hit its stride and saw a surge in popularity that would propel its animation studio through the next fifteen to twenty years. These years are seen as the time when Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett reached the peak of their creativity. In particular, Clampett brought the six-minute animated cartoon to a level of wild surrealism that has rarely been equalled, directing such mini-masterpieces as Porky in Wackyland, Tortoise Wins By A Hare, The Big Snooze, Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, and The Old Grey Hare. In 1946, a dispute with the studio led Clampett to leave Warner Bros. and strike out on his own. He worked as one of the pioneers of children's programming in the newly-born field of television, where he created the popular Time for Beany television show.

See also: Censored Eleven

Meanwhile, after a decade of trying to topple Disney from its throne, the MGM studio was suddenly blessed with a stroke of good fortune...actually, two strokes. Resident MGM animators Will Hanna and Joe Barbera scored a hit with their short film Puss Gets The Boot, which was nominated for an Oscar, and they then set themselves to producing a long-running series of Tom and Jerry cartoons that won accolades for MGM, as well as a string of Academy Awards that was unmatched by any other studio save Disney. Meanwhile, Tex Avery left Warner Bros. after a dispute with Leon Schleisinger, and he came to MGM and revitalized their cartoon studio with the same spark that had infused the Warner animators. Between the Tom and Jerry series and Tex Avery's wild, surreal masterpieces of his MGM days (including a saucy, sexy Red Riding Hood series that set new standards for "adult" entertainment in cartoons), MGM was finally able to compete with Disney (and now Warner Bros.) in the field of animated cartoons.

The winds of change also blew in the direction of the Fleischer studios, though the results were not as beneficial and inspiring as the events at MGM. While the Fleischers brought Popeye into the Navy and contributed to the war effort, they also began a series of spectacular Superman cartoons (the first of which was nominated for an Oscar) that have become legendary in themselves. However, in the early 1940s, Paramount Pictures suddenly expelled the Fleischers from their position at the head of the cartoon studio. In a move that remains controversial to the present day (though it has not been heavily examined by film historians), Paramount took over the Fleischer studio and brought it under the fold of their own studio, renaming it Famous Studios and continuing the work that the Fleischers began. The departure of the Fleischers had an immediate effect on the studio: while the Paramount cartoons of the war years continued to be entertaining and popular, a decline in story quality began that would become more and more evident as the decade came to a close.

However, all of this activty among the major studios caused them to turn a blind eye to still another development taking place. A former Disney animator named John Hubley had left Walt's nest during the animator's strike, and he founded a newer, smaller animation studio in order to pursue his own vision: trying out newer, more abstract and experimental styles of animation. After scoring a box-office hit with a short entitled Hell Bent For Election (which was directed by Warners veteran Chuck Jones), this small studio -- UPA -- found a home for itself at Columbia Pictures. From there, the UPA animators began producing a series of cartoons that immediately stood out among the crowded field of mirror-image, copycat cartoons of the other studios. The success of UPA's Mister Magoo series made all of the other studios sit up and take notice, and when the UPA short Gerald McBoing-Boing won the Oscar, the effect on Hollywood was immediate and electrifying. The UPA style was markedly different from everything else being seen on movie screens, and audiences responded to the change that UPA offered from the repetition of cat-mouse battles and cartoony violence.

After the war, the invention of television and its growing popularity also led to a decline in moviegoing, and together these events mark the end of the Golden Age.

Stop Motion and Special Effects

For a great part of the history of Hollywood animation, the production of animated films was an exclusive industry that did not branch off very often into other areas. The various animation studios worked almost exclusively on producing animated cartoons and animated titles for movies. Only occasionally was animation used for other aspects of the movie industry. The low-budget Superman serials of the 1940s used animated sequences of Superman flying and performing super-powered feats were used in the place of live-action special effects, but this was not a common practice.

The exclusivity of animation also resulted in the birth of a sister industry that was used almost exclusively for motion picture special effects: stop-motion animation. In spite of their similarities, the two genres of stop-motion and hand-drawn animation rarely came together during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Stop-motion animation made a name for itself with the 1933 box-office hit King Kong, where animator Willis O'Brien defined many of the major stop motion techniques used for the next 50 years. The success of King Kong led to a number of other early special effects films, including Mighty Joe Young, which was also animated by O'Brien and helped to start the careers of a several animators, including Ray Harryhausen, who came into his own in the 1950s.

George Pál was the only stop-motion animator to produce a series of stop-motion animated cartoons for theatrical release, the Puppetoon series for Paramount, some of which were animated by Ray Harryhausen. Pál went on to produce several live-action special effects-laden feature films.

Historic Cartoons of the Golden Age

(and many, many more)

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