The Golden Age of Animation is regarded as perhaps the most striking and unique period of the genre. It has always spiked my interest, however, only after considering it as a theme for my leaving certificate history project did I realize how little I knew regarding the topic.
Questions like “how exactly did it came to be?” and “is there a key moment that marked the beginning of this era?” assaulted my mind, and questions like those provided me with the necessary guidance when analysing my sources and conducting my research. I attempted so to focus on the aspects I believe the reader would find most relevant and interesting.
To answer the first question: Before “The Golden Age” came to be, the 1900’s- early 1920’s were known as “The Silent Age of Animation”. Up to this point animated productions were generally made at a relative low cost and were mostly viewed as a novelty. Due to this, animation in the United States would not achieve true mainstream status until the late 1920s, which was marked by the recent introduction of groundbreaking sound technology, as well as the introduction of many recognizable, mascot characters that the audience could form an attachment to.
Although it wasn’t technically the first major cartoon to ever feature sound, character dialogue, and a musical score, “Steamboat Willie”, the famed black and white cartoon featuring the whistling Mickey Mouse steering a boat, was indeed the first one to reach iconic heights of fame in 1928. (In fact, another animated short which featured all those characteristics had been released approximately a month before Steamboat Wilie, its title was “Dinner Time”. However, it lacked the appeal and believability of the latter film due to it being post-synchronized. This meant that the sound was synchronized after the animation had been completed, making the characters feel out of place.)
This short propelled Mickey Mouse to popularity and ended up marking the moment he rose to stardom. And although the character debuted months prior to “Steamboat Willie”, in a test screening of the short “Plane Crazy,” the prior is generally credited as his debut as it was the first to be widely distributed. Mickey Mouse would then go on to become one of the most recognizable pop culture icons of all time. The popularity of Mickey Mouse, as well as the success and technical merit of “Steamboat Willie,” started what is known as the Golden Age of Animation. And thus many other characters such as Tom And Jerry, Popeye, Betty Boop and The Looney Tunes were born.
Animation had a significant impact on the culture of America throughout the Golden Age, especially during wartime America. Because of the success of animated shorts and features during the 1930’s, animation was no longer viewed as something for kids, but something that can be influential to people of all ages. During World War II, the American government sought to use animation to garner support for the war effort. One of the more notable shorts was “Scrap Happy Daffy,” which featured Daffy Duck as the guard of an American scrap pile against the invading Nazis. This short was used to encourage people to donate scrap metal, which was used to create tanks, ships, planes and weapons, and is a fine example of animation transitioning from a younger, innocent in nature audience ,to a propagandist adult world of politics and subliminal messages . Popular techniques of these cartoos were: A bandwagon appeal, trying to persuade the reader to do, think, or buy something because it is popular or because “everyone” is doing it .An emotional appeal, which tries to persuade the reader by using words that appeal to the reader’s emotions instead of to logic or reason. Using a famous person to endorse a product or idea (for instance, the celebrity endorsement). And stereotyping.
Curiously, amidst my research I found that the beloved popular cartoonist and story teller Dr. Seuss was in fact a colossal figure in terms of propaganda during WW2, working in an animation department of the U.S. Army, where he drew more than 400 political cartoons He published many political cartoons against Hitler and Mussolini, as well as Americans who were against American involvement in the war. His cartoon, titled “Waiting for the Signal From Homewas described by Donald Dewey as “particularly tasteless”, and historian Richard Minear, in “Dr. Seuss Goes to War” (1999), criticised Dr Seuss’s wartime cartoons and suggested that “racism was an ingredient in much if not all American wartime thinking about Japan.”, a statement that can be linked with the previous paragraph which states stereotyping as a common device employed by propaganda cartoons.
From looking at the contrast between the early Disney animated productions and their younger, yet more mature propagandist siblings, another question formed in my mind, regarding the paralells and perpendiculars of the different cartoons from the time. “How much can they vary?”
The biggest difference in presentation would come from the comparison of the Disney produced shorts, and the Warner Bros. produced shorts. While the Disney produced shorts were generally, but not always, light-hearted and innocent in nature, the Warner Bros. shorts typically provided a satirical and humorous view on American society, as well as a bigger emphasis on slapstick. A majority of the shorts that enjoyed great success during this era of animation often offered a unique, sometimes mocking, viewpoint on American culture.
While analysing different animated shorts I also found myself pondering on the artstyle, which felt very unique and singular and very strikingly captivating in its aesthetics. I decided that since it was such an important feature of the Golden Age of Animation it was due its own research (which I might add was very difficult to perform due to lack of credible sources and being such a subjective matter), but ultimately I was able to pinpoint this artstyle as “Inkblot Cartoon Style”
Most prevalent in The Silent and Golden Age of Animation. Most historians refer to this as Rubber Hose Animation because characters’ arms, legs and essentially everything else are usually animated as if they were made of rubber tubing and without elbows or knees. In many cartoons in the very late Twenties and early and mid-Thirties, where music was given a bigger role in animation, not only does everyone dance to the background music, everything else, like the furniture present, dances to it as well. The style sometimes falls into a certain twisted nightmare territory because of the its tendency towards surrealism, personally it is one of the aspects which attracts me the most.
Interestingly, while performing research on the style, I discovered a handful of interesting facts such as an unwritten rule of Rubber Hose Animation, which dictated that the characters’ hands should always be white, otherwise movement would be too hard to capture on screen. And the fact That Mickey Mouse was only given four fingers because Walt Disney felt that five would look disproportional on such a small body
As evidenced by the continued success of animation in modern times, the Golden Age of Animation solidified its place in history as culturally relevant to what was happening in America from the late 1920s to the late 1960s. People began to view animation as a more mature and respected form of entertainment, as well as something that could be influential and persuasive. This era was key in the establishing of Walt Disney Studios as an animation powerhouse.
Many of the characters that were introduced during this time are still popular in American culture, having been reinvented countless times to fit the sensibilities of a modern America. Animation is a powerful, important, and wide-reaching form of entertainment that shows no signs of slowing down.