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Hollywood Animation: The Golden Age

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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 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 lifeline 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. 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 Warner Bros. studio and produced 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 animators Friz Freleng and Chuck Jones) were largely forgettable, formula cartoons that did try for innovation, but strived too hard to imitate Disney.

However, in 1935 the head of the Warner Bros. animation studio, Leon Schlesinger, hired a new animation director who proceeded to revitalize the studio: Tex Avery. Avery brought a wild, surreal style of animation to Warner Bros. that turned its cartoon studio around and set it on the road that would propel Warner Bros. 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 1935, Fleischer Studios produced a two-reel cartoon of Raggedy Ann and Andy[?], and while this was not a huge success, it led the Fleischers to produce three two-reel Popeye cartoons: Popeye meets Sindbad the Sailor, Popeye meets Ali Baba and his Forty Thieves, and Aladdin. 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 produced an animated version of Gulliver's Travels in 1938. This was followed by Mister Bug Goes To Town[?] in 1939. But these were the only animated feature films made in Hollywood, 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 and Bob Clampett are legendary.

The Wartime Era

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. 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 Pal[?] 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. Pal went on to produce several live-action special effects-laden feature films.

Historic Cartoons of the Golden Age

(and many, many more)

Hollywood Animation: The Silent Period[?]
Hollywood Animation: The Golden Age
Hollywood Animation: The TV Era
Hollywood Animation: The Renaissance

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