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SERIOUS BUSINESS: The Art and Commerce of Animation in America. From Betty Boop to Toy Story.\o7 By Stefan Kanfer\f7 .\o7 Scribner: 256 pp., $27.50\f7

May 04, 1997|CHARLES SOLOMON | Charles Solomon is the author of "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation" and, most recently, "The Disney That Never Was" (Hyperion, 1995)

For most of its 90-year history, American animation has been treated as the unloved stepchild of film and graphic arts. Although Hollywood cartoons have had an enormous impact on popular culture throughout the world, they have been the subject of surprisingly little serious criticism. Stefan Kanfer, an editor at Time magazine, has compiled a history, "Serious Business," that focuses on the social implications of Hollywood animation. The results are, regrettably, considerably less than they could or should be.

The most serious weakness of "Serious Business" is the lack of original research. As many of the key artists in the history of animation are dead, Kanfer has to rely on previous histories for quotes. Sometimes the references are cited, sometimes not. He also borrows heavily from the descriptions and comments in John Canemaker's "Felix: The Twisted Tale of the World's Most Famous Cat," Leonard Maltin's "Of Mice and Magic" and my own "Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation," as well as Leonard Mosley's error-ridden "Disney's World" and Marc Eliot's controversial "Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince."

The borrowing sometimes gets a little too close for comfort. In his account of the horrors Felix the Cat animator Otto Messmer experienced during World War I, Kanfer writes: "During one battle, he and a buddy had a conversation in the trenches, then he looked away for a moment; he turned back to see the soldier silenced forever with a bullet through his head. Later a German sniper, shot from a tree, showed Messmer pictures of his wife and children just before he died." His version is noticeably similar to Canemaker's, who wrote: "He recalled speaking with a buddy in the trenches one moment, then turning to discover a bullet hole had pierced the man's head. Then there was a German sniper shot out of a tree, who conversed with Messmer in German as he lay dying. The man showed the American soldiers pictures of his wife and children, and offered them candy and cigarettes."

Kanfer pays little attention to the technical history of animation. His statement that "pictures became active" only with the invention of the zoetrope in 1834 is iffy at best, as there were several earlier devices that produced moving images, and the zoetrope failed to attract much attention until the 1860s. And he makes only passing mention of the introduction of color and the multi-plane camera.

His real interest lies in the generally unflattering depictions of ethnic minorities in animation--a skeleton in the medium's closet since the appearance of "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" (1907), generally regarded as the first animated film. Cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton turns the words "coon" and "Cohen" into ugly caricatures of an African American and a Jew. Most animation books tactfully omit the decades of dubious imagery, and Kanfer deserves credit for addressing this important topic. But his ideas seem odd rather than insightful.

Some film historians maintain that the stereotypical black title character of "Sammy Johnsin," an early comic strip and animated series, may have influenced the design of Felix the Cat. Pat Sullivan drew the strip, and his studio produced the "Sammy" and "Felix" shorts. Felix was so popular during the '20s that numerous characters were patterned after him, including Oswald Rabbit, Bosko and Mickey Mouse. If it could be proved that Mickey Mouse began as an African American caricature, the history of both animation and American popular culture would have to be radically revised, but the link, which Kanfer tries to make, is tentative at best. Charlie Chaplin was a much more important influence on Felix and, near the end of his life, Messmer, who designed Felix and directed all of the cartoons, told Canemaker that he made the cat solid black because "it saves making a lot of outlines and solid black moves better." (Figures drawn in outline tended to jerk and strobe at the 18-frames-per-second projection speed of silent film.)

While the debate continues, it's difficult to accept Kanfer's assertion that Felix was "black in more than the literal sense. Audiences saw a dark, big-eyed, half-primitive figure, clever and improvisatory in the tradition of Br'er Fox." African Americans are portrayed in silent comedies as childish simpletons who steal chickens, raid watermelon patches and get scared by ghosts. Felix is resourceful, imaginative and invariably a winner; he never engages in these stereotypical pursuits. Significantly, he has a white girlfriend-cat: If Felix were supposed to be a caricature of an African American, this suggestion of miscegenation would never have been permitted in the '20s. As recently as 1960, ABC objected to a "Fractured Fairy Tale" about a cat falling in love with a chicken because it might be construed as a reference to the still-taboo topic of interracial marriage.

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