BOOK REVIEW by CHRIS MICH: ANIMATING CULTURE – HOLLYWOOD CARTOONS FROM THE SOUND ERA by ERIC SMOODIN
A MINOR SPOILER BOOK REVIEW:
|Photo (and paper artwork) by Chris Mich|
When it comes to selecting books for the Summer Classic Film Reading Challenge, I’m not picky. After all, half the books I read and reviewed were gifted to me by Peter Fey, Digging Star Wars guest writer of our American Graffiti (1973) entry. He gave them to me. I read them. I wrote about them. The other half of this year’s books came from stops along the Jersey Shore including the books American Silent Film (1978), Bobby Darin (2004), and now Animating Culture (1993).
The exception is that while I purchased American Silent Film and Bobby Darin, I picked up Eric Snoodin’s Animating Culture textbook in the “Little Free Library” inside Munchies & Memories in Ocean City, NJ.
Wait! Textbook? Yes. Sort of. More like: “required reading” for a film theory class.
Of course, I didn’t realize that when I picked up the book with Donald Duck on the cover. But as I thumbed through it on the boardwalk, I realized my final read this summer would be more academic than film fandom. But do not let that stop you from picking up Smoodin’s book for he did one heckuva job bringing remarkable insight into American animation. In today’s age when many conservative critics are claiming Disney is failing financially due to liberal themes in its content (just Google “Disney Woke” to see the whole “Go Woke, Go Broke” argument), it seems Smoodin found something in Disney lore that may add some educated thought to the conversation.
Smoodin’s book came out in 1993 and takes on the first 50 years of American animation and all its challenges with censorship, labor laws, the unlikely pairing of live action and animation [see Phil Congleton's Digging Star Wars write-up on Alice's Wonderland (1923)], and government interference – both warranted and uninvited. Smoodin doesn’t target Disney alone. With the ease of switching panels on a Viewmaster, Smoodin shifts his focus on concerns with Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes (How can a male pig not wearing pants kiss a female pig that’s fully clothed?) to Betty Boop’s dress (it grows longer over the years) to fully-funded American military “training videos” of Private Snafu getting dysentery – penned by Dr. Seuss himself, Theodor Geisel (You read that right: the guy who wrote about a Cat in a Hat also wrote multiple cartoons about a character whose name means: Situation Normal All F***ed Up).
But here we are in 2023 with the Disney 100 celebration underway. Just look at it.
After you wipe away the tears and all the other “feels” – I suggest you read Smoodin’s book.
The next time you tire of hearing about modern-day Disney’s “agenda” – I suggest you read Smoodin’s book.
In short, I suggest you read Smoodin’s book.
To see multiple points of view on the works of early Walt Disney, Smoodin explores reviews, copyright filings, government paperwork, periodicals of the era, fan mail, hate mail, and every other scrap of paper, film, and microfilm he could get his hands on from the first half of the 20th Century. What did he learn? Based on his research, Smoodin posits that Walt Disney was always interested in agenda.
Not only did he elevate animation to art, but Walt Disney also elevated the artist to someone who could make money. Many people prior to Disney’s success had the notion that artists must starve. Disney actively broke that image by forcing his way into publication after publication about how great a boss he is, how great his company is, and how great he is. Disney also educated the populous on the fact that one man can’t do it all. Film is a collaborative medium that includes animated films. Walt had no qualms about making American war effort propaganda films and shorts. He got heavily involved in foreign diplomacy and even approached the F.B.I. about public-facing educational entertainment about the Bureau. He soon found out the bear trap he stepped in when the F.B.I. turned on him, his creative staff, and projects both in the pipeline and in theaters.
Snoodin’s text culminates with the creation and reaction to Disney’s propaganda short, The New Spirit (1942) – which has Donald Duck being a good American supporting the war effort by paying his taxes with the new tax forms.
Snoodin combed through all the saved written responses from the public to this particular cartoon. While there were a few positive letters of reinforcement, most letters criticized the film calling it “hate-producing propaganda”, “venom”, and “degenerated”. “Has official Washington gone mad?” wrote one citizen, complaining that the government paid Disney $80,000 to make a film saying the average taxpayer needs to pay for weapons.
Ironically (or maybe well-timed), The New Spirit came out the same year the federal government adopted the American Flag Code that prohibits the use of the stars and stripes in advertising. It seems, as implied by Snoodin’s text, Disney found another loophole and manipulated the system to promote his choice cause.
Snoodin concludes that while executives, politicians, and government employees can make movies and art, they cannot make audiences love the creation or the creator. As Snoodin writes:
“At least during the 1940s, Walt Disney as an unproblematic national icon of artistic benevolence, as the popular journals created him, or as a symbol of patriotic consensus, as the Treasury hoped to construct him, simply did not exist for the general public.”
Strong words about a man who would go on to build a hundred-year-old entertainment empire with millions of fans worldwide. And that is the beauty of Snoodin’s book: whether you are a Disney fan or not, the read is fascinating and supported by tons of research. It’s legit and captivating.
|Photo by Chris Mich|
This post is my final official entry in the 2023 Summer Classic Film Reading Challenge. Special thanks to Out of the Past blogger Raquel Stecher for hosting the challenge and giving our blog a shout-out now and then. To join us in this summer fun endeavor, visit Raquel’s blog for more details.