Don Crafton won’t be insulted if you call his research “Mickey Mouse.” But more accurately it’s “Mickey Mouse and beyond.”
The chairman of Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television and Theatre is analyzing animated films from the 1930s, when the Disney studio achieved dominance in the industry. The resulting book, funded by a grant from the Motion Picture Academy, is expected to be titled In the Shadow of the Mouse, a reference to Disney’s most famous character and the position of competing studios.
In the 1930s the chief task for Disney’s competitors was to differentiate their product, says the Notre Dame professor, who has written two previous books on the early history of animation. Warner Brothers, he argues, made the strategic decision to develop characters that were the antithesis of Mickey Mouse: among them the bizarrely insane Daffy Duck and the debonair, wisecracking Bugs Bunny. Some studios, on the other hand, tried ribald humor.
“MGM created a short-lived character named Flip the Frog, who quickly got in trouble with censors because of double entendres and compromising situations.”
Despite the cute animal characters, the audience for cartoons in the ‘30s was primarily adult, Crafton says. "The studios didn’t want to exclude children, but they were mainly aiming at the parents," he says. “Many Disney films, for instance, carried moral lessons for parents, models of parenting.”
Cartoons of the ’30s, like all cultural artifacts, reflect the times, the Notre Dame professor observes. They deal, sometimes in not-so-subtle ways, with the two main events of the decade: the rise of fascism in Germany and Italy and the Great Depression. As early as 1937 Warner Brothers cartoons began poking fun at Hitler with goose-stepping characters. A famous ’30s Disney cartoon called Father Noah features animals pitching in to build the ark in assembly-line fashion.
“The subtext is ‘If we all pull together, we can make it through the Depression,’” Crafton says.
John Monczunski is an associate editor of this magazine.