CARTOONS FOR CHILDREN, OR MAYBE NOT. I PART, THE BEGINNINGS.
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The idea that cartoons were born for children is pretty common. However, as far away from the reality. Since Disney became the king of the land, turning animation part of the film industry, his philosophy had been dominating the market until the end of the century. But, animation, not even in Walt Disney intentions, was never only for kids. We must not forget that Disney is more interested in being wearing with the moral of the times than in understanding the child’s mind. For more painful it could be, Disney himself, barely before to die, said that it was never an artistic point, it was always a business, and while the box office worker that meant the people wanted it because that is what all is about and it was always!
Then, everything started with Disney?
Yes and not. Better start from the beginning.
In the early 20th century EEUU was inside of a thick and speed industrialization process. The modern America was born during the so-called “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, a little place called Hollywood was a good example of that. At the beginning of the 20th century, Hollywood was anything else than an orange plantation. One day, “D. W.” Griffith passed for there and thought that it was a perfect place for shooting, full of wonderful opened landscapes, peaceful people, and sun. It was 1910 when he shot “In Old California” the very first film ever filming in Hollywood. Three years later, C.C. B. Demille arrived to shoot “The Squaw Man”, the very first production filming.
The largest production company, at late 19th and early 20th centuries, was the French Pathe, until the I World War arrival. It was in 1914. Four years later, 1918 the world had changed and Hollywood was about to become a new power in a new era without any barrier in front of it. Like a volcanic explosion, the development of the new industry was a phenomenon that seemed to have own life, and this was unstoppable.
In 1909, the Selig Polyscope Company established the first permanent studio in the Los Angeles area. In 1910, the “Star System” knew his very first American name: Florence Lawrence, the “Biograph Girl.” Barely later, Mary Pickford became the first million dollar contract, the “America’s Sweetheart”. Long before 1920 Hollywood already was Hollywood and the actual nature of the blood in his veins was as well 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.
In that decade animation was still looking for his way. In 1911, Mc Cay had made “Little Nemo” that was a remarkable success, to the point that four years later Mc Cay decided to put colour in the film, and he did it 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 hired Max with the idea to make a series about a clown, “Koko,” going out of the inkwell; the thought of the famous “Out of the Inkwell” series was born. But with the arrival of the war, Bray 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 “Koko, out of the inkwell” for Bray Studios. The success of “Little Nemo” probably was an inspiration for “Out of the Inkwell” series, which, in turn, was an inspiration for Disney’s “Alice Comedies” series.
It is remarkable the work by Mc Cay, who, always looking for innovations, made “The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918. It was a real action film, with the first integrated animation scenes, about re-creating the never photographed 1915 sinking of the British liner RMS Lusitania. At twelve minutes it has been called the longest work of animation at the time of its release. The film is the earliest surviving animated documentary and severe, dramatic work of animation. It is a work of propaganda, maybe the first one in animation. It affected in deeply the public opinion about the war and the role what EEUU must play in it.
“The Sinking of the Lusitania” in 1918
Until 1928, the animation was a vanishing novelty. During the 20’s less than 23% of theatres carried animated short, the demand wasn’t high for them. “Felix the Cat” and “Out of the Inkwell” were the only series of importance of that period, and even they were starting to lose steam by the closing of the decade. However, “Felix the Cat”, who 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,” Paramount Pictures. It will be a hugely successful throughout the 1920s. The world must wait until 1922 for Disney opened Laugh O Grams first studios, and two years more, 1923 for he decided to move to the Hollywood land of gold. And nobody, not creators, no distributors, not the audience, had any thought about the necessity of any calcification for films or advises about the contents. There were no distinctions of any age. There were films and cartoons. And, sometimes, cartoons in films or real life stars in cartoons.
During the 10’s, Hollywood went from being a good place for oranges to become the world capital of cinema. It would be not a geographic location in a map anymore; it had converted in the Emerald City of Oz, the place where the Star lived and everything was possible, the capital of glamour, hedonism, and fun. And, of course, eccentricity, dreams, and money. At the end of the decade, Hollywood was a truly gold mine which a clear reason for existing, make money. You could make whatever you wanted, but, the principle was clear, whatever you want if it means money. That is what it’s all about…
The called Star System was surprised but itself, and his powerful capacity to make money and move masses. At the end of the decade, First National Pictures was one of the largest film companies. It opened a studio in Burbank in 1917 and signed a contract with Charlie Chaplin, it was a nine picture deal, becoming the first actor with a million-dollar deal. Next year, the company signed a new millionaire contract with Mary Pickford. But, no one was better to pay than Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was lured in 1918 by the first multiplier, multi-million dollar a year deal to make six feature films within three years with Paramount. And, remember, one million dollars in 1920 had not the same value than now. Life smiled to Hollywood, and nothing and nobody seemed able to stop it.
Animation was in his way, but that was a bit slower than real action films. Everything looked to be smooth, perfect and millionaire for Hollywood business. But, there is always a “but”.
PART II THE HAPPY 20’S