The idea that cartoons are created only for children is a pretty common one. However you may find that this preconception is a lot farther away from reality than you would think. Disney became the king of cartoon- land, and in doing so turn animation into an integral part of the film industry, with his philosophy dominating the market until the end of the century. But animation- not even in Walt Disney original intentions- was never intended only for kids. We must not forget that Disney was more interested in reflecting the morals of his times than in understanding children’s mind. Disney himself, just before he passed away, said that it was never an art point, it was always a business. When the box office showed a profit on a film, it also meant the people agreed with the film; the public votes with it’s money- that is what all is about and it was always!
Then, everything started with Disney?
Yes and no. It may be best to just start from the beginning….
In the early 20th century, the world was inside a social and economic transition into the industrial age. The modern Hollywood was born during this “America’s formative period”, between the late 19th and the early 20th centuries when an agrarian society of small producers was transformed into an urban society dominated by industrial corporations. And, out west in a little place called Hollywood, was a good microcosm of that process.
At the beginning of 20th century, Hollywood was miles and miles of orange plantations. One day, D. W. Griffith passed through there and thought that it was a perfect place for shooting, full of wonderful opened landscapes, peaceful people, and sun. He also fond that it was far from the long arm of the Edison Trust and the Motion Picture Patents Company. It was 1910 when he shot “In Old California” the very first film shot in Hollywood. Three years later, Cecil B. Demille arrived in California and made “The Squaw Man”, and the rush to shoot film in Hollywood was on.
Around the turn of the century, the largest production company was French Pathé. By the end of World War I, the world had been turned on it’s ear; Hollywood was about to become the new power in a new era, and it had no barriers in front of it. Like a volcanic explosion, the development of the film industry was a phenomenon that seemed to have own life, and was unstoppable.
In 1909, the Selig Polyscope Company established the first permanent studio in the Los Angeles area. In 1910, the “Star System” had its very first American name: Florence Lawrence, also known as the “Biograph Girl.” Barely a year later, Mary Pickford became the first million dollar contract, as “America’s Sweetheart”. By 1920 Hollywood had become “Hollywood” and the actual nature of the blood in the veins of the town was already crystal clear: money. Nobody could imagine how big it was going to be, how capable of influencing the public opinion and the individuals the existences of the Star System was going to be.
“The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918
In the “teen” decade, animation was still looking to find it’s way. In 1911, cartoonist Winsor McCay made “Little Nemo”, a remarkably successful animated film. Four years later McCay put color in the film, by hand, frame by frame. Gertie the Dinosaur saw the light the year of the First World War, 1914. This same year, John Bray opened his studios and made animation series, “Colonel Heeza Liar”, possibly, if not the very first recurring cartoon character ever created.
In 1915, Max Fleischer, who was then Art Editor for Popular Science Magazine, invented the rotoscope. Bray, who was already making his animation series, was intrigued by Fleischer’s invention.
He decided put Max’s brother in a clown suit. Bray hired Max with the idea to make a series about “Koko,” a clown who pops out of the inkwell; thus the famous “Out of the Inkwell” series was born. But with the arrival of the war, the series was put on hold after just one short. Bray instead decided to send Max and Jack Eventual, a brilliant mechanical draftsman, to Ft. Sill, Oklahoma where they made some first training films for the US Army. Koko, the clown, had to wait for better times.
After the break, Max came back to New York and finally started to make “Out of the Inkwell” for Bray Studios. The success of McCay’s “Little Nemo” probably was an inspiration for “Out of the Inkwell” series, which, in turn, was an inspiration for Disney’s “Alice Comedies” series.
Meanwhile, McCay continued his hard work, and, always looking for innovations, made “The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918. It was a live-action film with integrated animation scenes that re-creating the never-photographed 1915 sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania. At twelve minutes in length, it has been called the longest work of animation at the time of its release. The film is the earliest surviving animated documentary and contains severe, dramatic work of animation. It is also a work of propaganda, maybe the first one in animation. It affected in deeply the public opinion about the war and the role what United States must play in it.
The Decline and Rise of Cartoon Series
By the 1920’s, animation was no longer a cinematic novelty. During the 20’s less than 23% of theaters carried animated short, the demand wasn’t high for them. “Felix the Cat” and “Out of the Inkwell” were the only series of real importance of that period, and even they were starting to lose steam by the closing of the decade. However, “Felix the Cat”, which came right from comic strips, had been able to develop merchandising about himself.
Koko the Clown, the protagonist of the “Out of the Inkwell” series by Fleischer Studios, was, without any doubt, a successful series, but far away from the real life films capacity to produce money. Cartoons were slower and complicated to produce than real films and the results were good for entertainment and laugh but anything else. Cartoons were not for children, but they neither could produce the deep emotions than audiences experimented with real actions films.
“Felix the Cat,” created by Pat Sullivan and Otto Messmer, saw the light in 1919 with “Feline Follies,” from Paramount Pictures. It will be a hugely successful throughout the 1920s. The world must wait until 1922 for Disney to develop the Laugh-O-gram series, and another two years before he decided to move to the Hollywood land of gold. The Disney’s did not give any thought about distinctions of any age- they were just trying to make good and popular stories. But to the public at large, there were films… and there was cartoons. And, sometimes, cartoons in films or real life stars in cartoons.
Within the film industry itself, a new entity called Star System developed. This powerful system grew as it gained the capacity to make money and move masses. By 1920, First National Pictures was one of the largest film companies. It had opened a studio in Burbank in 1917 and brought in a newcomer named Charlie Chaplin. His contract called for nine pictures, and he became the first actor to sign a million-dollar deal. Next year, the company signed a new millionaire contract with Mary Pickford. The next big star was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was lured in 1918 by the first multi-year, multi-million dollar deal to make six feature films within three years with Paramount. Keep in mind that one million dollars in 1920 had not the same value than now. Life smiled on Hollywood, and nothing and nobody seemed able to stop it.
Animation was on its way, but as background to the live-action films. Everything looked to be smooth, perfect and millionaire for Hollywood business. But, there is always a “but”…
We hope you have enjoyed Cartoons for Children, Part 1, by our new contributing writer Pepa Llausas. Pepa comes to us from Spain, by way of Paris… and we welcome her! Stay tuned for Part Two of Pepas’ look at the History of animation, and how cartoons are not just kids entertainment next week!