February 8, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
Disney, Iwerks, and Fleischer in the 1930s

These notes accompany the Disney, Iwerks, and Fleischer in the 1930s program on February 9, 10, and 11 in Theater 3.

Last June we presented a brief survey of early animation in both America and Europe. On the continent, with the emergence of figures like Walter Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger in Germany and (with the coming of sound) Len Lye in Britain, abstraction became the predominant form. Lotte Reiniger continued her silhouettes, eventually landing also in Britain. Ladislas Starevitch spent the first decade of the sound era working on the puppet feature Le Roman de Renard in France.

America, as always, was different. In part, this was because almost all animation was the product of studios inextricably linked to the commercial film industry and its exhibition venues. The studios created by Walt Disney (1901–1966) and Max Fleischer (1889–1972) continued to grow and flourish, each in its own way. Disney was based in Los Angeles and reflected the “wholesome” mid-American values of Uncle Walt’s Kansas City roots. Fleischer’s New York product was more sophisticated and cosmopolitan, Max being a transplanted Viennese Jew. Disney’s characters tended to be anthropomorphic creatures gifted with human speech and attire. Fleischer’s stars tended to be more-or-less human, although I must confess I would cross to the other side of the street if I ever saw Betty Boop or Popeye coming toward me.

I have another confession: I tend to be ambivalent about animation, even though some of my best friends are animators. (I also have a close friend whose escape from reality is so compulsive that he is addicted to everything from the homoerotic Johnny Quest to the post-pornographic Family Guy.) No other film form is so intrinsically creative, in that the image is brought into being by the artist without intervening props like actors. At the same time, this seems to limit the film’s power to emotionally engage the spectator, a crucial measure for me of the success of the work. No animated Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Gish, or John Wayne could ever reach the level of feeling attained—under proper direction—by these flesh and blood figures. I admire contemporary works like Wall-E and Avatar, but the feelings they undeniably evoke are somehow of a lesser order as a result of the barriers erected by their artificiality.

Although we have defined auteurs as directors, the level of control exercised by Disney and Fleischer as studio heads supervising the complexities of animation dominated and personalized the studio product in ways that a Louis B. Mayer or Darryl F. Zanuck must have envied. Although a nod must be given to the actual creators of the individual cartoons, ultimately one must speak of Disney or Fleischer films, consistent in their style and philosophy. Broadly speaking, there was an innocence in Disney’s view of the world, while Fleischer projected an underlying kinkiness. Although the films were shown to all audiences, one can’t escape the feeling that Disney saw his audience as children while Fleischer’s target was more knowing adults, attuned to Betty Boop’s seductiveness and Popeye’s sub voce murmurings.

Disney’s most famous and enduring star was, of course, Mickey Mouse. (Disney Epic Mickey, a 15-hour video game, was recently released by the studio.) The squeaky little rodent (originally using Walt’s voice) was essentially the brainchild of Ub Iwerks (1901–1971). Iwerks and Disney met as teenagers in Kansas City and partnered, off and on, for the rest of their lives. Disney had summoned Iwerks to Hollywood shortly after his own arrival there. They partly briefly in 1930, and not totally without recriminations, which enabled Iwerks to work independently on a number of films, including his Flip the Frog series. Judging by the three Iwerks films in this program, his sensibility was less restrained than Disney’s, if not quite reaching Fleischer’s level of subversiveness. In any case, he and Walt reconciled, and Ub became a special effects innovator on Disney films and, ultimately, on Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds.