Books: Happy? No, Grumpy...

Hollywood Cartoons: American animation in its golden age by Michael Barrier Oxford University Press, pounds 25, 648pp; We need to know the cartoon giants - but spare us the catalogue of dwarves.
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The Independent Culture
Michael Barrier's Hollywood Cartoons is vastly informative, densely researched, as exhaustive as any single volume on the subject could be and, much as it pains me to pan so patent a labour of love, impossible to recommend. No one conversant with the history of Hollywood animation will take issue with Barrier's dating of its golden age as the half-century between 1911 and 1966, or between Felix the Cat and One Hundred and One Dalmatians.

Those were the years during which the "big film" was invariably preceded by a cartoon short; the halcyon years of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, the Roadrunner, Mr Magoo and their enduring like; the years, too, of such forlorn duds as Flip the Frog, Willie Whopper and Bosko the Talkink (sic) Kid. They were also the years of what remain even now the only feature-length cartoons that verge on greatness, the fabulous Disney quartet of Snow White, Pinocchio, Dumbo and Bambi.

A cluster of genuine artists toiled in the apparently ungrateful vineyards of animation. Not so much Walt Disney, whose natural talent, like Diaghilev's, was for detecting and exploiting talent in others, as Winsor McCay, the deviser of Gertie the Dinosaur, the very first cartoon star (it's a weird coincidence that Gertie, who belonged to the medium's Stone Age, should be a dinosaur, as though McCay were consciously parodying the course of biological evolution); the Fleischers, Max and Dave, who created the lubricious Betty Boop, the first cartoon character ever to run afoul of the censors; and, of course, Tex Avery, the master of demented self-referentiality. In one Avery cartoon, a hair, supposedly caught on the projector lens, flutters at the top of the screen until one of the characters, as exasperated we are, yanks it off.

Then, again, there were others less gifted and now justly forgotten (except by Barrier), like the couple formed in the early 1930s by Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising who, perhaps prompted by the fortuitous pun ("Harmanising") of their surnames, collaborated on a long series of glutinous musical extravaganzas.

It was, as it happens, while reading the section on Harman and Ising that I began to feel ill-at-ease with Barrier's book. Although, if memory serves, that punning logo is visible on the credits of all their cartoons, he never once mentions the fact, presumably expecting the joke to dawn on the reader unaided. He names one animator, Gregory La Cava, without troubling to point out, even en passant, that this was the same La Cava who became infinitely better-known as a director of screwball comedies, most famously My Man Godfrey. Nor does he identify another cartoonist, Frank Tashlin, as a subsequent mainstream filmmaker, even though Tashlin was responsible for introducing the rubbery, indefinitely extensible elasticity of animation into live-action slapstick.

It's almost as though Barrier is so fixated on his own specialised field he has no time for the wider Hollywood context, not to mention that of the world at large, which barely gets a look-in. Like all buffs, he has his own agenda, forging connections in his head which don't necessarily make it to the page. He writes at tedious length on the profoundly mediocre Harman-Ising shorts - and owns to their mediocrity - but dismisses the Fleischers in a few measly paragraphs, even though several of the Betty Boops are outright masterpieces and ditsy little Betty herself now something of a cult figure.

Similarly, the very first Technicolor cartoon, surely an event, is referred to as though it were just another nine-minute squib off the conveyor belt. Bizarrely, if Barrier appears to have seen every cartoon ever made in Hollywood, he shows scant enthusiasm for any of them, even finding nits to pick in the early Disney features.

What finally renders his book all but unreadable is the fact that its subtitle is to be taken absolutely literally. Barrier's is a study not of cartoons per se, or cartoon characterisation and design, but of animation, and he never addresses the basic paradox of such an approach: to wit, how do you write about movement?

To underline some formal or stylistic idiosyncrasy in the work of a poet or novelist, a literary critic simply quotes from the original text; a musicologist, too, may have recourse to either brief or extended quotes to illuminate a musical concept; an art historian uses illustrations. But when Barrier expends two pedantic pages on the animation (and I mean exclusively the animation) of Pluto's entanglement with flypaper in an obscure Disney short, the exegesis, however pertinent, is pointless. How can we possibly grasp what he's talking about? Even if we have seen the short and remembered it (but who, save Barrier, remembers cartoons?), we can't possibly hope to follow his argument by sole virtue of memory.

A lot of learning can also be a dangerous thing, and Barrier's standards seem grotesquely lofty for so charmingly trivial a medium. Like Moliere's misanthrope vis-a-vis humanity, he loves cartoons so much he's forgotten how to enjoy them. Or, for that matter, how to animate them for others.

Gilbert Adair's novel "A Closed Book" is published next month by Faber