Fairy Tale Flappers: Animated Adaptations of Little Red and Cinderella (1922–1925)

The popularity of animated films in the silent era was peaking in the early 1920s. During this time, admittedly, cartoons served a limited function: “Most of the films were short, five to ten minutes, and were produced to ‘warm-up’ audiences” (Zipes, “Enchanted” 26). Shown before the main feature, the cartoon film of the silent era was never central to the moviegoing experience. Several veteran animators later recalled that these films were “more or less considered fillers; whether they were shown or not was of no major consequence to the audience” (Bendazzi 53). Animator Dick Huemer reminisces, “I don’t think the audiences noticed them. In general, I think, they were still faintly hostile to the cartoons” (Peary 33).

Animator Bob Clampett similarly remembers that “audiences didn’t pay much attention to cartoons on the playbill” (Hoffer 27). At worst, audiences were unreceptive to cartoons, impatient for the feature film. At best, audiences had “low expectations: animation was a curiosity,” a forgettable diversion, a novelty that was losing its novelty (Bendazzi 23). Conscious of its diminishing impact on the spectator, much animation aimed to merely capture the audience’s “attention, if not necessarily its admiration” (Barrier, “Hollywood” 35). Indeed, the codes and formulas for animation in the twenties were “built very much around ways to bludgeon somebody on paper,” to surprise and delight an undiscerning public (Klein 42). 

Certainly the cartoon short film was subordinate to live-action short and feature films. In 1922, for example, less than 23% of American theatres showed cartoons on their programs, largely replaced by the more fashionable two-reel live-action comedies (Barrier, “Hollywood” 9). Animation was increasingly combined with live-action, as in the films of Walter Lantz and the Fleischer Brothers. This can be extrapolated as a “testimony to animation’s declining popularity” and an attempt to keep the form engaging to a progressively disinterested viewership (21). Audiences were also beginning to turn away from theatrical vaudeville and printed comic strips, and towards live-action comedy, with animation conventions forced to follow suit. Yet, pure animation maintained a small but devoted following, among those who appreciated the subversive potential of the medium. Though many short cartoons of this era were intended for a youth audience, they were “not just children’s stuff, and certainly not sugar-sweet... They were simply for anarchists of any age. Cartoons, for all their slapstick playing, seemed to appeal to intellect and imagination” (Leslie 30). Beneath the derivative plots and jokes was a rebellious imperative that appealed to a more sophisticated cinemagoer. Although animated films have been, from their earliest iterations, “consigned to innocent, inappropriate or accidental audiences,” such marginalisation benefited the nascent medium, allowing the simultaneous expression of “surface pleasures and hidden depths” (Wells, “Understanding” 6). Thus, for a 1920s audience, pedantic sight gags would have appealed to young or apathetic spectators in the theatre, while radical, insubordinate tendencies would have been appreciated by a perceptive segment of the viewership.

In the 1920s, producers and distributors were as antagonistic to animation as audiences. Media conglomerates, like the Hearst International Film Service, saw the animated film merely as a tool to promote syndicated comic strips. Independent exhibitors wanted animated shorts only for the sake of a “balanced program” of entertainment (Barrier, “Hollywood” 34). These exhibitors, who maintained subjective discretion over which films would be screened, began “looking in other directions for something new to keep their paying audiences laughing” (Thomas 23). As Huemer recalls, “Cartoons were... the backwater of the movie business… Distributors gave them away. They never got any reviews in the trade journals” (Hoffer 27-28). Film industry executives saw cartoons as a “cinematic afterthought,” as double-bill and feature-length comedies were proving ever more popular and lucrative (Barrier, “Hollywood” 9). The industry was undoubtedly avaricious in its profit motivation, and the budding medium of animation found itself caught “not in very scrupulous hands” (Allan 15). Giannalberto Bendazzi overtly disparages “the cartoon racket,” a not inaccurate phrase that analogises the silent-era film industry to a greed-driven criminal enterprise (Bendazzi 53). Norman M. Klein also cynically proclaims cartoons as a “tribute to the ruthlessness” of the established studio system (Klein 1). The cinema industry, in spite of decreasing interest by audiences, continued to mercilessly demand quick and cheap cartoon releases, and animation studios struggled to produce adequate product at an adequate profit. Animated fairy tale films experienced particular difficulty “finding and holding a niche” in such a competitive marketplace, as they were the most expensive and laborious to produce (Zipes, “Enchanted” 27).

Animators themselves felt pressured by exacting demands from distributors. Industrialised animation techniques became necessary to increase efficiency and reduce expenses, with the quality of cartoons impacted detrimentally. Animation historian Donald Crafton suggests charitably, “Although criticized for being repetitive and formulaic, the animated film of the... twenties was in fact consolidating its content to meet the demands of mass production” (Crafton 259). Less charitably, John Grant argues that most animators of this era were only “concerned with churning out productions of mind-numbing mediocrity that were just good enough” to appease distributors (Grant 178). In fairness to animators, cartoons were produced at a “frantic pace for distributors who did not understand, or did not care about, the details of workmanship” or the creative expression of the individual artist (Bendazzi 23). The artists equally were under no pretenses, with Huemer conceding, “You certainly in those days couldn’t call it an art form... since the most important thing was how much footage could be ground out every week” (Maltin 14). In this highly pressurised market, few animators could risk “anything more than what was commercially acceptable” and when an animator “found a gimmick that was successful, they hung onto it tenaciously” (Thomas 22). Loftier ambitions for the fledgling medium were suppressed, with some animators feeling that “by 1923 just about everything had been done that was possible” (23). Unfortunately, the newly- industrialised animation system was not inspiring competition among animators and studios, any more than it inspired demanding consumers.

The situation for European animators during these years was similarly dire. The short animated film was less common in Europe, as there had never been a “widespread ‘ritual’ of showing cartoons before a feature film as in the United States” (Zipes, “Enchanted” 79). With limited screen time available, animators struggled to compete with American imports for the attention of distributors and audiences. Undeniably, this disparity was exacerbated by the First World War, as European production of animated shorts slowed and then stopped altogether. Local exhibitors turned to American cartoons to fill the gap, further fuelled by a misguided belief that Continental audiences preferred these foreign animated films to home-grown ones. After the war, the European industry continued its decline, and many animators “found themselves without a market, facing stiff competition” from overseas (Crafton 218). These animators experienced “a mixture of bitterness, frustration and envy. For all their expenditure of energy and resources, their efforts were scarcely appreciated in their own countries” (217). Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff exemplifies the dominance of American animation in Europe. The series proved the “futility of trying to compete with the Americans on a film-for-film basis... By 1920, Mutt and Jeff and all their American relatives were an accepted fact” of European screen life (222).

Most domestic animation in the U.K., France, Germany and Italy, was produced strictly for advertising or propaganda purposes. Puppet and shadow animation, however, was able to secure a niche in European cinemas. With a longstanding tradition in these theatrical forms,audiences responded enthusiastically, perhaps more sympathetic to “established codes of their own culture” than to modern American cartoon tropes (257). Still, like their American counterparts, European animators often had to confront the biases of exhibitors. Lotte Reiniger, for instance, “always had to struggle against the distributors’ objection, that this silhouette work was art and therefore not suitable for the masses” (Reiniger 28). Her films were relegated to the realm of the avant-garde, alongside experimental filmmakers like Oskar Fischinger, Fernand Léger, Viking Eggeling and Ladislas Starewich. If American animators had long abandoned any pretensions to fine art practises, ironically, European animators fought to demonstrate that their work had appeal to a broader audience. Additionally, animators in Europe were slower to adopt new animation technologies, a hesitation that reduced the suitability of their films for export. The use of transparent cels, for example, remained an uncommon practice in Europe until the early 1930s. Even though celluloid was readily available, découpage and three-dimensional models remained the standard. Crafton conjectures, “Postwar material shortages only partly explain the situation. The little evidence available suggests that alternative methods were employed as much out of choice as out of necessity” (Crafton 255). It appears that European animators consciously eschewed the competitive advantages of industrialised methods and materials, in favour of more venerable traditions and techniques.

In spite of what can only be described as a “chilly climate” for cartoons, the fairy tale cartoon flourished in the early 1920s, in Europe (footnote 1) and North America (Barrier, “Hollywood” 37). The fairy tale was attractive to European animators like Lotte Reiniger and Anson Dyer, and American directors like Walt Disney, Bud Fisher and Walter Lantz. Several factors contributed to this fascination. On a purely economic level, fairy tales were out of copyright, and so could be adapted freely. Fairy tales also brought a degree of respectability to animation, often maligned as a crude art form. Further, such tales provided an easily recognisable narrative framework for the more or less wordless world of silent animation. Animated fairy tales could also capitalise on the successes of live-action fairy tale adaptations, which proliferated in the first two decades of the twentieth-century. Most significantly, the fairy tale found apt expression in the emerging medium of animation. Fairy tales and cartoons share a “strange blend of innocence and malevolence” (Klein 252). The “surreal narrative dynamics and thematic complexities” of fairy tales suit the “open vocabulary” of animation (Wells, “Animation: Genre’’ 63). That is, the fantastical inherent in the fairy tale attains an especially fruitful synergy with the artificiality inherent in the cartoon. The most successful of the early fairy tale animations held a “fretful” balance between the deliberate “moral storytelling” of the fairy tale and the improvised “anarchy” of the cartoon (Klein 52). Ultimately, animators appropriated the fairy tale to show that cartoons could be more than ‘chasers’ to amuse audiences, that cartoons could be an “artistic means to explore the deeper meanings of fairy tales” (Zipes, “Enchanted” 82).

Two case studies, of animated adaptations of the Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella narratives by Charles Perrault and The Brothers Grimm, illustrate the trials and triumphs of 1920s fairy tale cartoons not only in establishing an audience, but also in emancipating the creative potential of this emergent cinematic art from its commercial and technological constraints.

The first case study examines three silent-era cartoon adaptations of Charles Perrault’s Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1697) and The Brothers Grimm’s Rotkäppchen (1812), by directors Walt Disney, Anson Dyer and Walter Lantz. The second examines four silent-era cartoon adaptations of Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon (1697) and The Brothers Grimm’s Aschenputtel (1812), by directors Lotte Reiniger, Walt Disney, Bud Fisher and Walter Lantz.

To read these case studies, please visit: https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/pubnum/1517806.html

 

Footnotes

1. Fairy tales also inspired Japanese animators in the early 1920s, including Seitaro Kitayama, Jun-Ichi Kouchi, Yasuji Murata, Noburu Ofuji and Sanae Yamamoto. Unfortunately, the Great Kantō earthquake on September 1, 1923 destroyed all existing prints of these paper silhouette films (Lent 55).

 

Illustrations

Little Red Riding Hood (dir. Walt Disney, Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc., U.S., 1922)

Cinderella (dir. Walt Disney, Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc., U.S., 1922)

Cinderella (dir. Walter Lantz, J.R. Bray Studios, U.S., 1925)

A Kick for Cinderella (dir. Bud Fisher, Bud Fisher Film Corporation, U.S., 1925)

Aschenputtel (dir. Lotte Reiniger, Institut für Kulturforschung, D.E., 1922)

Little Red Riding Hood (dir. Walter Lantz, J.R. Bray Studios, U.S., 1925)

 

Bibliography

Allan, Robin. Walt Disney & Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney. John Libbey and Company, Ltd., 1999.

Barrier, Michael. Hollywood Cartoons: American Animation in Its Golden Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Bendazzi, Giannalberto. Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation. London: John Libbey Publishing, 1994.

Crafton, Donald. Before Mickey: The Animated Film 1898-1928. London: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Grant, John. Masters of Animation. London: BT Batsford, 2001.

Hoffer, Tom W. “From Comic Strips to Animation: Some Perspective on Winsor McCay.” Journal of the University Film Association 28:2. University of Illinois Press, 1976: 23-32. 15 August 2011. 

Klein, Norman M. Seven Minutes: The Life and Death of the American Animated Cartoon. London: Verso, 1993.

Lent, John A. Animation in Asia and the Pacific. Eastleigh: John Libbey Publishing, 2001.

Leslie, Esther. Hollywood Theory: Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant-Garde. London: Verso, 2002.

Maltin, Leonard. Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons. New York: New American Library, 1987.

Peary, Danny and Perry, Gerald, eds. The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1980.

Reiniger, Lotte. Shadow Theatres and Shadow Films. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1970.

Thomas, Frank and Johnston, Ollie. The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation. Burbank: Walt Disney Productions, 1981.

Wells, Paul. Animation: Genre and Authorship. London: Wallflower Press, 2002.

Wells, Paul. Understanding Animation. London: Routledge, 1998.

Zipes, Jack. The Enchanted Screen. London: Routledge, 2011.

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