Animated Personalities Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts

Animated Personalities Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts
by David McGowan

University of Texas Press, Austin, 2019
326 pp., 45 b/w photos, paper $34.95
ISBN: 978-1-4773-1744-0

Reviewed by
Kathryn Adams
January 2020

“By looking at stardom as a concept in relation to animated characters, it strengthens our understanding of the idea of stardom within cinema studies.” (Amy M. Davis, University of Hull). It might come as a surprise to some that cartoon characters are not considered stars in their own right in quite the same way as their live-action human counterparts. “Is this possible?” I hear you exclaim. Well, yes, it is. Fortunately, David McGowan, author and professor of animation history at the Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia, is redressing this injustice in his book Animated Personalities: Cartoon Characters and Stardom in American Theatrical Shorts. Focusing on iconic cartoon characters such as Felix the Cat, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Betty Boop, Bugs Bunny and others—both from the silent movie era and studio-era Hollywood—McGowan delivers an in-depth, concise and convincing line of reasoning as to why animated characters should be considered star quality, whilst providing exceptional discourse on various aspects of cinematic history.

The concept of what constitutes a star—human and animated—is dissected and scrutinized by McGowan in Animated Personalities. We learn in his introduction that scholarly literature on the topic of animated stardom is hard to come by because animation itself is viewed as a secondary art form in the world of cinema. The author references a quote from Tom Gunning’s book, Moving Away, to reiterate that “…again and again, film theorists have made broad proclamations about the nature of cinema, and then quickly added, ‘excluding, of course, animation’” (p. 3).

This lack of material on the subject makes McGowan’s research all the more valuable, and explains why his book has been described as “ground-breaking” and “destined to be a classic in the field of animation studies” (Amy M. Davis).

Among the extensive list of works cited by McGowan are two by Richard Dyer—Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, and A Star Is Born and the Construction of Authenticity. Dyer, who is “one of the first, and still one of the most influential, proponents of star studies” (p. 3), states that to qualify as a star, the subject not only has to be a human being, they must also be able to substantiate the “existence of a private life” away from their screen persona. He also posits that “authenticity is…a quality necessary to the star phenomenon to make it work…” (p. 3). These are the kind of claims that would normally mean lights out for animated characters to ever have a chance of being heralded as stars, but McGowan’s debate and negotiation through this terrain is admirable, astute and abounding, and leaves no doubt that cartoon characters should be regarded as stars in their own right.

The book is divided into three sections: Stages of Theatrical Stardom, Conceptualizing Theatrical Animated Stardom, and Post-Theatrical Stardom. Drawing on an impressive body of archival research, the chapters take us through a precise history of the careers of animated characters—from the rise of the “recurring protagonist” through to their crossover into television, and finally touching on contemporary animation. Much like human stars, animated characters have made an impact on audiences worldwide. They have entertained and amassed fans; been marketed, manipulated by studios; involved in legal actions, scandals and censorship issues; and used to endorse products, often blurring the line between their screen personas and their ‘real’ selves. In 1923, Felix the Cat was used in advertisements for Chevrolet. This signified wealth and accomplishment and, “…showed him keeping pace with live-action stars, with surprisingly little mediation of self-reflexive “winking” at the audience to admit that he was, ultimately, a cartoon character” (p. 49).

The government also took an interest in the power of cartoon characters to reach audiences. During wartime, cartoon characters not only entertained troops and appeared in training films, they were also used to promulgate propaganda. In a bid to encourage Americans to pay their taxes during World War II, the US Treasury engaged the help of Donald Duck in a movie called The New Spirit, to influence people to do their bit for the war effort. An estimated 26 million people saw this film and “one in three said it raised their willingness to pay taxes” (p.97). In 1942, while James Stewart promoted Air Force enlistment in his live-action short film, Winning Your Wings, Bugs Bunny was engaged as ‘himself’ to sell war bonds in his short film, Any Bonds Today? And for his contribution to the Marine Corps recruiting campaign, Bugs Bunny was made an honorary sergeant and later promoted to master sergeant of the Marine Corps. “…Bugs appears to have a more extensive documentation of wartime duty than many human actors” (p. 111).

The content regulation laws that were introduced in the late 1920s to combat the raunchier side of our animated protagonists are also of interest as they shaped the characters into their future selves. Who knew that Mickey Mouse was once a boisterous flirt who displayed a “degree of sexual aggressiveness towards Minnie” in his earlier films? Betty Boop, the sexy Jazz Age flapper had to tone down her image and the way she dressed for more innocent audiences once the regulations were enforced. In the chapter titled, Stars and Scandal in the 1930s, it is revealed that Popeye, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Betty Boop and others were depicted in pornographic, palm-sized comic books known as Tijuana bibles. Even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs found themselves drawn into compromising situations.

Outside of academia and the unquestionable influence this book will have on students of animation and film studies, there is plenty of fascinating material for anyone interested in cartoons and animation in general, regardless of any definitive views on star status. The intricacies of the studio system are explored; the problems surrounding production and copyright claims, inside information about the artists who created the characters (who of course would not exist without them), and amusing anecdotes about animators and their characters breaking the fourth wall. As Woody Woodpecker once cheekily said to animator Walter Lantz, “Who made who? If it weren’t for me, you’d be selling pencils instead of drawing with them” (p. 227).

While even the author himself, in his acknowledgements, thanks his wife for her “…lack of shame when introducing me to people as someone who researches cartoons for a living” (p. ix), this is no lightweight topic. This is a bold and powerful exposé on a subject matter that has had an enormous impact on our society extending way beyond the bounds of entertainment.

And in the words of a famous star, “That’s all folks!”