Saturday, 31 December 2016

Praise For Silent Cartoons

Cartoons are better than live action films? That’s what Creighton Peet posited in The New Republic in 1929.

Peet blamed the sorry state of live action films—and we’re talking silent films—on the dictates of the Hays Office where right must triumph in the end and irreverence of any kind was forbidden. On the other hand, Peet appreciated the inventiveness of cartoons where question marks that sprouted above heads could be used as props, and trees with huge grins could grow fruit, pick it and eat it. Felix the Cat comes in for special praise.

In some ways, Peet’s article was already out of date by the time it was published. Sound had come in and it changed the narrative and focus of both live action and animated films. Within a few years, Popeye would never grab a question mark and use it as a hook. Walt Disney got hung up on “the illusion of life.” Felix himself disappeared, as did the studio where he worked. And while cartoons were subject to censorial review, the situation was nothing like it became in the TV age, where studios and networks were shamed and pressured to protect stupid children from themselves by eliminating anything that could possibly be duplicated in real life (a character hitting another with a hammer, for example).

Snippets of Peet’s article have been reprinted in Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic and Norman Klein’s 7 Minutes. I can’t find a copy of The New Republic containing it, but here’s a version reprinted in the Baltimore Sun of August 19, 1929. Whether it’s complete, I don’t know.

The Cartoon Comedy
A Spirited And Spritely Defence Of Screen Dramas Involving The Remarkable Adventures Of Felix Cat

(By Creighton Peet, in the New Republic)
When it comes to “pure cinema,” “visual flow,” “graphic representation,” “the freedom of the cinematic medium,” and all the other things learned foreign cinema enthusiasts talk about, nothing that Jannings or Lubitsch or Murnau or Greta Garbo or Rin Tin Tin can do has more of a roll of celluloid’s chance in hell beside Felix Cat and the other animated cartoons. . . .
Unhampered by any such classical limitations as dramatic unities, or even such customary necessities as the laws of gravity, common sense and possibility, the animated drawing is the only artistic medium ever discovered which is really “free.” And this in spite of the fact that it is only an eight-minute tid-bit thrown in at the end of an epic love drama while the audience is being changed. . . .
Careening wildly through three dimensions of space—or even four or five, for all I know—skating on the furthest edge of plausibility, the little black cartoon cat is undismayed by any of the facts of life which might worry a more substantial feline of fur and claws. Gayly, impertinently, he chins himself on the vacant air, hoisting himself into a world of innumerable and elastic dimensions and limitless possibilities, in which every tree and stone has not only a potential life but a complete set of emotions. . . .
To give you a better notion of the freedom with which the cartoon characters slip from one element to another, it may be to the point to sketch a few of these feline scenarios.
For instance, playing in a football game, the little cat finds himself about to be overtaken by a horde of immense animals; he pulls of his ears, sticks them on his tail as the blades of a propeller and soars away to a triumphant touchdown . . . .
In one of Oswald’s fluid dramas, he appears as a very, very love-sick cat. His lady, however, will have none of him and so his little heart swells up to the bursting point, standing out from his chest like a balloon. At last it does break, falling in a shower of little pieces at his feet. Is this the end of Oswald? Certainly not! Philosophically gathering up the scraps, he opens up a little door in his chest, drops the pieces back in place and all is well again. . . .
The ordinary film is now unusually an adventure in propriety, if such a thing is possible. You, the audience, know—and with what tedious certainty--that the familiar and much published “stars,” make and female—the press agent so made he them—will survive at the end, and they will be rich and that they will be united in lawful wedlock. You even know that Virtue will triumph, that Motherhood, Religion and the Government will triumph. You further know that the Irish, the Jews, the Baptists, the British, the French, the Christian Scientists, the Mexicans, the Osteopaths, the Chinese and all other groups capable of supporting press agents who will send out severe letters will be represented in a sweet and noble light. The result of all this is a pretty stiff and formal genuflection in the direction of Mohammed Will Hays’ minaret.
Yes, the cartoon comedy seems to be the only pungent, impertinent and sudden thing that ever reaches the average screen, and the little black cat, bouncing about in his fantastic cosmos, one of the few sparks of vitality in a world of insistent proprieties.

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