Book Review – “Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood”

Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood. Eds. Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. 344 pages.

******************************************************************

For most people in the United States, the animated cartoon has been unquestionably and inseparably associated with comedy. Until the recent wave of popularity of Japanese anime, in fact, the animation format has seemingly been overwhelmingly inclined towards the comedic. Although the study of American cartoons has been increasingly popular over the last two decades, much of the recent scholarship has focused on the major characters, animators, and studios associated with the American cartoon from the days of early cinema until now. Daniel Goldmark and Charlie Keil’s collection of essays, Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood, focuses instead on one of the most fundamental questions about the Hollywood cartoon: why are cartoons funny? Underlying the work as a whole is an attempt to establish that Hollywood live-action comedy and animation comedy are not two separate traditions, but rather part and parcel of the same Hollywood phenomenon; treating animation and Hollywood comedy as two separate traditions for so long, this work argues, has hidden the “productive dialectic”(6) between the genres.

Organized roughly chronologically, the essays in Funny Pictures examine the complex and mutually informing relationship between comedy and animation that has existed from the silent era to modern times. Although the authors all take a unique approach to the examination of cartoon comedy, several larger themes emerge in the book. For many, an understanding of the relationship between live-action comedy and animation comedy can be traced back to vaudeville and early cinema. Mark Langer’s essay, for example, on the Fleischer studio looks at the ways newspaper comic strips, vaudeville, and the urban milieu of early 20th century New York helped to develop a “polyphonic and heterogeneous” tradition of animation, whereas Paul Wells looks at the ways that Charlie Chaplin’s comedic pacing and physicality helped to inform the development of early cartoons. One particularly fascinating essay by Nicholas Sammond explores the influence of blackface minstrelsy and racist caricatures in American humor from the vaudeville stage to the most iconic cartoon characters of today (including Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse); in tracing this lineage, Sammond asks not only why these caricatures came to be an integral part of Hollywood comedy, but also questions the politics of “who is laughing, and how” (149).

For other authors included in this collection, the relationship between live-action and animated comedy is best seen through the endeavours of noteworthy figures who bridged the gap between the two forms. Rob King explores the relationship between the films of comedian Charlie Bowers and the fascination with mechanization, slapstick, and surrealism within animation practices, while J.B. Kaufman’s essay makes a convincing argument for Mickey Mouse being the logical “heir” to the comedy tradition established by such popular silent comedians as Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton.  Ethan de Siefe and Scott Curtis, on the other hand, look at the role of comedy auteurs Frank Tashlin and Tex Avery, respectively, in shaping and being shaped by changes in film comedy. De Siefe’s essay is especially interesting, as it not only examines the influence that these individual authors had on animation, but also works to problematize the story of live comedy’s one-way influence on animated comedy.

The issue of the pleasure derived from cartoon comedy is another thread that extends throughout the book. Although the question of why we have enjoyed humorous cartoon for so long is a question that pervades each essay, this topic is most explicitly dealt with in essays like those of Donald Crafton and Richard Neupert, both of whom interrogate the development of the Hollywood cartoon style during the Great Depression. Philip Brophy, on the other hand, takes a completely different track in examining the role of paraphilia in the pleasure that is derived from the way cartoon bodies are depicted and (mis)treated. As engaging as ever, Henry Jenkins’ essay on vulgar modernism looks at the use of the popular, ironic…reflexive artistic style introduced by J. Hoberman to tease out the interplay between live-action and cartoon “to produce laughter as opposed to shock and displeasure” (154). In looking at the many articulations between film comedy, animation comedy, early theatre, and U.S. history, each of these essays, and the number of others that I have no space to mention in this review, makes a compelling argument for looking at the history of comedy in other ways.

In a collection of very strong and interesting essays, a few stood out as being out of place in this book. One in particular was Linda Simensky’s piece on the legacy of classical Hollywood animation as it continues in the work and production practices of modern cable networks. Although it gave very interesting insights into the way that cartoons like Ren and Stimpy or The Simpsons were influenced by studio animators such as Bob Clampett and Bobe Cannon, the essay felt a little disjointed and the argument was too narrow to make it a satisfying conclusion to such a rich collection of material on animation comedy.

Overall, however, Funny Pictures is well worth a read. This will be an important text for anyone interested in animation, comedy, or even film in general. Each essay not only explores relatively unmapped territories in uncovering the relationship between animation and comedy, but also raises enough additional questions to act as a springboard for several books on the subject (Ethan de Siefe’s essay, in fact, has recently been released as a much more comprehensive book on the work of Frank Tashlin). Both highly readable and absorbing, this book makes a critical intervention into the realm of animation and comedy studies, and one can only hope that this is the beginning of a much more extensive look by scholars into the ways animation both influences and is influenced by Hollywood comedy.