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Funny Pictures

Funny Pictures: Animation and Comedy in Studio-Era Hollywood

Daniel Goldmark
Charlie Keil
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Funny Pictures
    Book Description:

    This collection of essays explores the link between comedy and animation in studio-era cartoons, from filmdom's earliest days through the twentieth century. Written by a who's who of animation authorities,Funny Picturesoffers a stimulating range of views on why animation became associated with comedy so early and so indelibly, and illustrates how animation and humor came together at a pivotal stage in the development of the motion picture industry. To examine some of the central assumptions about comedy and cartoons and to explore the key factors that promoted their fusion, the book analyzes many of the key filmic texts from the studio years that exemplify animated comedy.Funny Picturesalso looks ahead to show how this vital American entertainment tradition still thrives today in works ranging fromThe Simpsonsto the output of Pixar.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95012-2
    Subjects: Performing Arts

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: What Makes These Pictures So Funny?
    (pp. 1-12)
    Charlie Keil and Daniel Goldmark

    In Preston Sturges’sSullivan’s Travels(1941) John Sullivan, a movie director traversing the United States in an attempt to define the soul of America, finds himself wrongly imprisoned and part of a chain gang. Invited with the other prisoners to attend a screening at an African American church in a southern bayou, Sully discovers what really speaks to the human condition when he notes the spontaneous and heartfelt peals of laughter generated by the film chosen to amuse black parishioner and white jailbird alike. The film in question? A Disney cartoon.¹

    In asserting that Hollywood entertainment finds its purest expression...


    • 1 The Chaplin Effect: Ghosts in the Machine and Animated Gags
      (pp. 15-28)
      Paul Wells

      In 1931 C. A. Lejeune noted the plethora of criticism on Chaplin and bemoaned the difficulty of finding anything new to say about him:

      So much criticism, and so much good criticism, has been written during the last ten years on the work of Chaplin, that it is hard to-day to offer any portrait of him that has not already been sketched by another hand. . . . It is impossible to catalogue the good stuff that has been written about Chaplin—for this little clown seems to bring out, by his very shuffle on to the screen, the most...

    • 2 Polyphony and Heterogeneity in Early Fleischer Films: Comic Strips, Vaudeville, and the New York Style
      (pp. 29-50)
      Mark Langer

      Most examinations of the early films of Max and Dave Fleischer portray them as failed narratives, despite their considerable virtues in other areas. Leonard Maltin has characterized the Fleischer cartoons as examples of “raw, peasant humor . . . that relied more on technical ingenuity and comical invention than artistic expertise. There was no storyboard, just a general idea of what the picture was about.”¹ Bob Baker’s criticism was based on his feeling that the Fleischer “films give the impression sometimes of having been made up as they went along, from cel to cel. The plots frequently take off in...

    • 3 The Heir Apparent
      (pp. 51-66)
      J. B. Kaufman

      In the summer of 1933 the Walt Disney studio released a new Mickey Mouse cartoon short:Mickey’s Gala Premier [sic]. In this cartoon all Hollywood, in the form of movie-star caricatures, turns out for the opening of Mickey Mouse’s latest picture. The film-within-the-film (a western bearing a loose resemblance to the 1930 Mickey shortThe Cactus Kid, but augmented with a host of new gags) rolls ’em in the aisles: stars ranging from Douglas Fairbanks to Boris Karloff, from the Barrymore family to Mae West, are reduced to helpless convulsions of laughter by Mickey’s antics. Among the star caricatures on...


    • 4 Infectious Laughter: Cartoons’ Cure for the Depression
      (pp. 69-92)
      Donald Crafton

      It is axiomatic that cartoons from the studio period were made to make us laugh. Big belly laughs. Speaking as someone who attended the local “show” almost weekly for most of the 1950s, after the big producers had been forced to divest themselves of their theaters, but before economic pressures, changes in audienceship, and competing entertainments put the industry in its downward spiral, I can attest to the producers’ and exhibitors’ success in the jocularity department. We kids laughed like crazy at cartoons. But so did grownups. Movie audiences seem to have been much more exuberant then; if it was...

    • 5 “We’re Happy When We’re Sad”: Comedy, Gags, and 1930s Cartoon Narration
      (pp. 93-108)
      Richard Neupert

      As this timely volume demonstrates, animated cinema has been undertheorized, particularly in the realm of humor and narrative. Some theorists and critics have concentrated their interest in the American commercial animated cartoon around the binary opposition between loose gag structures and more linear, developed narratives. One of the most extreme positions was taken by Brian Henderson, who dared ask, “Is there such a thing as a cartoon narrative?” He reduces cartoon series such as Tom and Jerry or the Roadrunner to repetitious chains of similar situations and patterns with arbitrary endings patched on. According to Henderson’s scenario, the chain of...

    • 6 Laughter by Numbers: The Science of Comedy at the Walt Disney Studio
      (pp. 109-126)
      Susan Ohmer

      Most of us treasure cartoons for their ability to defy what is considered normal behavior. Roadrunners beep beep, rabbits sing opera, and ducks travel to Mars. Even animated films that don’t center on recognizable characters may play with spatial and temporal logic in ways that challenge our usual patterns of thought. Though many cartoons seem to live by their own rules, the ones produced in Hollywood during the studio era circulated within a system that expected the pleasure they produced to yield concrete profits. Whether they operated as independents, like the Fleischers and Disney, or functioned as the offbeat wing...


    • 7 “Who Dat Say Who Dat?”: Racial Masquerade, Humor, and the Rise of American Animation
      (pp. 129-152)
      Nicholas Sammond

      When it comes to cartoons, Sigmund Freud’s description of humor as the invocation of affect and its diversion speaks well to the existential horror we call the gag. Especially in the short subjects that fairly defined American animation until 1937, and still thereafter provided its bread and butter, life is an eternal cavalcade of pain. Bodies twist, stretch, explode, melt; they are crushed by anvils, pianos, giant mallets, whole buildings; they are sliced and diced by razors and knives . . . and through it all we laugh. Why is it that, faced with such horrific violence and fierce torment,...

    • 8 “I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism”
      (pp. 153-174)
      Henry Jenkins

      Published inArtforumin 1982, J. Hoberman’s “Vulgar Modernism” represented a benchmark in critical discussions of “popular art.” Hoberman constructed the case for the formal innovation and artistic importance of a range of popular artists who were seemingly locked out of the canon on the basis of their low cultural status, even as their work continued to influence a broad range of modern and postmodern artists.¹ Hoberman described “vulgar modernism” as “the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself. By this I mean a popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its...

    • 9 Auralis Sexualis: How Cartoons Conduct Paraphilia
      (pp. 175-188)
      Philip Brophy

      If cartoons were flesh, pornography would have to be reinvented. Pornography uses the body—its aura, its texture, its materiality, its morphology—to choreograph physical possibilities imagined through the dormant state of the inert (repressed) corpus. In this sense pornography animates the body into heightened states of arousal, erection, and expulsion. It actualizes all that can be desired of the body. Cartoons similarly employ the body to explode with latent libidinal energy, choreographing physical impossibilities imagined through the actual state of the innate (expressed) corpus. Yet cartoons perform this function all the while refuting the body’s fleshiness. Indeed, the hypergraphic...


    • 10 The Art of Diddling: Slapstick, Science, and Antimodernism in the Films of Charley Bowers
      (pp. 191-210)
      Rob King

      A little more than seventy years ago, in 1937, the French surrealist André Breton jotted down a crib sheet for a new history of film comedy, inspired by a screening of Charley Bowers’s sound shortIt’s a Bird(1930). A comedy about one man’s discovery of a “metal-eating bird,” the film prompted Breton to a fresh conception of slapstick’s role in the history of film. To the extent that cinema was a medium of extremes, Breton averred, its encounter with slapstick had been inevitable and primary: “The first comedies of Mack Sennett, certain films of Chaplin, the unforgettable Fatty and...

    • 11 Tex Avery’s Prison House of Animation, or Humor and Boredom in Studio Cartoons
      (pp. 211-227)
      Scott Curtis

      There is a thin line between comedy and tedium. Anybody who has seen several Tex Avery cartoons in a row is probably very familiar with this boundary. The film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote, “To be sure, if you see as few as half a dozen Averys at a stretch, you’re likely to notice repetitions of gags and certain recurring obsessions . . . and as many as a dozen together is an experience promoting migraines and nervous exhaustion.”¹ The Avery scholar Floriane Place-Verghnes agrees: “Seeing that these cartoons should be entertaining, it may seem paradoxical to say that watching...

    • 12 Tish-Tash in Cartoonland
      (pp. 228-254)
      Ethan de Seife

      If the name “Frank Tashlin” is recognized today, it is generally for the reason that the trajectory of Tashlin’s filmmaking career is characterized by a couple of unusual swerves. Once a print cartoonist, Tashlin parlayed his drafting skill into a career as an animator and then as a director of animation; once a director of animation, Tashlin parlayed his gag-writing and shot-composition skills into a career as a director of live-action, feature-length films. It is this latter, midcareer turn on which rests whatever Tashlin’s reputation as anauteurmay be: inasmuch as he is known, it is as the director...


    • 13 Sounds Funny / Funny Sounds: Theorizing Cartoon Music
      (pp. 257-271)
      Daniel Goldmark

      Discussing the various means of showing speed in a cartoon, Kristin Thompson describes a device in which Daffy, inConrad the Sailor(1942), moves so quickly that when he stops suddenly, several Daffys are used to show his movement across the frame, catching up to him, one at a time, as the director, Chuck Jones, makes explicit his means of suggesting speed.¹ Music’s understood place in cartoons, as with most film music, precludes it from commenting on its own subjectivity; it in fact remains one of the few constants in the animated universe typically immune to any character’s machinations yet...

    • 14 The Revival of the Studio-Era Cartoon in the 1990s
      (pp. 272-292)
      Linda Simensky

      In the history of the animation business there are two eras that stand out in terms of quality of animation and volume of production. The first is the Golden Age of Cartoons, which came out of the studio system in Hollywood; the second is the era that came on the heels of (and perhaps contributed to) cable television’s ascendancy to mass popularity. Not surprisingly, the Golden Age of Cartoons turned out to be the main influence on the most successful television cartoons of the 1990s. Here I will examine how the theatrical cartoons made in the 1940s and early 1950s...

    (pp. 293-310)
  11. List of Contributors
    (pp. 311-314)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 315-331)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 332-332)